* * *
“I was on the mend when I fell through
The sky around was anything but blue
I found as I regained my feet, a wound across my memory
That no amount of stitches would repair
But I awoke and you were standing there.”
—The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”
* * *
Bucky knows he's fucked the second he opens his eyes.
His entire body is aching dully, his mouth tastes like he ate roadkill at some point in the night, and he can feel the migraine of a century growing in the base of his skull, but absolutely, positively, beyond any flicker of doubt, the worst thing about this moment is the guy standing over him in boxers and a gray T-shirt, looking equal parts amused and wary.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” Bucky groans, letting his eyes flutter shut and his head thump back onto the arm of the couch. Because honestly. The hangover he can deal with, but the goddamn underwear model is way too much.
“I'm sorry,” the guy says. “By all means, don't let me intrude.”
Bucky cracks one eye open. The guy is still standing there and is still disgustingly, astronomically hot. Like, probably has an eight pack under that T-shirt, could potentially lift Bucky with one pinky hot. Like, Bucky's noticing his cheekbones, and Bucky is not the type to care about cheekbones.
Yup. Definitely fucked.
He groans again, this time in resignation, propping himself up in what technically counts as an upright position and rubbing the grit out of his eyes with his right hand. The last thing he remembers clearly is a sixth shot of vodka.
“So,” Bucky says, squinting up at Hot Guy, “there's a chance I made some bad decisions last night.”
Hot Guy just raises his eyebrows and looks pointedly over to the side. Bucky follows his gaze to the living room window, which is wide open, the curtains shifting in the morning breeze.
Bucky clears his throat. “I mean, if you had a screen on there, this wouldn't have happened.”
“I'll get right on that,” says Hot Guy, “but in the meantime, there's a random stranger on my couch and I'd really like an explanation.”
“Is this 112 Sterling?”
Hot Guy frowns. “No, it's 114.”
“Well, there you go, pal,” Bucky says, waving one hand. His stomach can't seem to decide whether it wants to throw up or eat something, but he's kinda leaning toward eating. “This is a classic case of 'you live next door to my friend, I broke into the wrong place while blackout drunk.'”
“Just how often do you break into your friends' houses?” Hot Guy asks over his shoulder, heading to the tiny kitchen. He's apparently decided Bucky is not an immediate threat, which, seeing as how Bucky can barely move right now without the world tilting dangerously, is pretty accurate.
“Not often,” Bucky says absentmindedly. “And I've always got a good reason.” He glances around the room for the first time, his brain just now beginning to fully come online. Hot Guy's townhouse looks similar to Natasha's in that they're both weirdly clean, except Natasha's is also home to her asshole cat from hell, and Hot Guy has art supplies piled on the coffee table and an easel in one corner.
“You've gotta be kidding me,” Bucky mumbles to himself. God, Hot Guy would be an artist, with an actual easel and everything. Couldn't he be, like, a stunning accountant? An overcompensating car salesman?
Bucky has the sudden urge to shake his fist at the sky.
“Here,” says Hot Guy, suddenly a lot closer, and Bucky turns to see him offering a steaming mug of coffee.
He must make the stupidest, most pathetic face ever, because Hot Guy kind of snorts at him a little bit, then asks, “You want milk or sugar?”
“Nope.” He breathes in the warm coffee smell. “Oh, thank you Jesus.”
Hot Guy's mouth quirks up at the corners. “Call me Steve.”
“Original,” says Bucky, but he can barely even concentrate on anything right now. He wants to swim in a river of coffee. He wants to replace his blood with coffee. He wants to sacrifice himself to the sweet, merciful gods of espresso, plus also the gods of Aspirin and maybe some pancakes.
He notices Hot Guy's—Steve's—eyes dart to his left hand when he brings the mug to his lips, gaze catching on the inhuman metal of Bucky's prosthetic. But Steve's expression doesn't change at all, and he doesn't look apologetic or pitying when he meets Bucky's eyes. So Bucky gives him a little smile around the rim of the coffee mug and says, “Call me Bucky.”
Steve stops short on his way back to the kitchen and turns around, looking a bit incredulous. “Your parents named you Bucky?”
“Why d'you think I drink?” Bucky says mournfully, not really feeling like going into the whole full names bit right now. He doesn't get to appreciate the full effect of Steve's smile, though, because at that moment his phone starts vibrating in the pocket of his jacket, and shit, it's Natasha.
“I am a dead man,” he announces, then answers the damn phone. “Nat, I just wanna go on the record and say—”
“That you're an idiot?” she breaks in, and yeah, okay, she sounds thoroughly pissed. “You were supposed to come over last night, if you recall.”
Bucky winces. “Nat—”
“Don't call me Nat. It's tacky.”
“Look, I'm sorry,” he says, lowering his voice so Steve won't hear, even though it kind of seems like Steve is making as much noise in the kitchen as he possibly can. “I fucked up, I got it, but I'm fine and actually I sort of did come over last night. Mostly.”
“What do you mean, mostly?” she demands. “You didn't pass out in my gutter, did you? You'll block the drainage.”
“Um,” says Bucky. Until the day he dies, he will never understand how Natasha, who is eight inches and at least fifty pounds smaller than him, manages to intimidate him more than any of his superior officers in the goddamn war. “Well, I made it onto your street. Into a house, even.”
Her silence is deafening.
“I slept on your next door neighbor's couch,” Bucky says in a rush. “If it makes you feel any better, he makes great coffee.” And is hotter than the surface of the sun, he adds in his head, but Bucky will save that for a later conversation, the one where he asks Natasha why she didn't mention the fact that she lives next door to Bucky's newest sexual fantasy.
When Natasha speaks again, her voice is softer, the exact tone Bucky hates. “Just...so you're okay?”
“Christ, yes, I'm fine,” he snaps, suddenly wanting this conversation to be over. “Pretty sure I can handle a hangover.”
“Okay,” Natasha says, even though the hangover isn't the problem and they both know it. She pauses. “Are you still at Steve's?”
“Yes, and we will be talking about this,” Bucky says.
She laughs at him, because she totally knows what Bucky's mad about, the traitor. “Well, come over when you're done drooling.”
“I hate you,” he says and hangs up. He drags himself to his feet, only swaying a little bit, and stretches until he feels like a semi-functional person again. He glances over at the kitchen, where Steve is stirring scrambled eggs with the utmost concentration.
His short blond hair is a bit messy from sleep. Bucky wants to climb him like a tree.
“Want some?” Steve asks him, gesturing with the spatula.
Bucky looks at him. “Seriously?”
“Drunk stranger crashes on your couch, you offer him breakfast?” Bucky raises his eyebrows but steps into the kitchen, because he'll be damned before he misses a single second of Steve in boxer shorts. “I could be anyone. I could be a serial killer.”
“I highly doubt that,” says Steve. “You're friends with Natasha, right? From 112?” He smiles. “She's nice.”
“Nice, huh?” Bucky repeats. “Never thought I'd hear that one.” Over the years, he's heard Natasha called everything from standoffish to flat out terrifying, all of which are varying levels of true. Of course, Bucky knows that beneath it all, Natasha is a total marshmallow—and more than that, a genuinely kind person.
Other people usually don't realize it, that's all.
Steve shrugs. “Just seems like she's got good judgment. Hey, pass me the pepper, will you?”
Bucky tosses him the shaker, smirking a bit. “She does. I'm a standup citizen.”
“But,” Steve says, and turns around to look Bucky in the eye. He's a bit taller than Bucky, and their chests are only a few inches apart, and Steve's blue eyes are bright with amusement, and his mouth is full, curving upward, and holy shit, Bucky is so completely fucked. “That does not mean you can just climb into my living room at all hours of the night. This right here? This is me laying down the law.”
“No worries,” Bucky says gallantly, holding up his hands. “One time thing, you have my word.”
“Yeah?” Steve dumps the eggs onto a couple of plates and leans back against the kitchen counter.
Bucky nods solemnly. “Yeah. Next time I'll break into 116.”
Steve snorts. “God, no, come here again before you do that. Mrs. Henderson just turned eighty-nine.”
Of course he knows the exact age of his elderly neighbor. “So what, she couldn't handle the shock?”
“No,” says Steve, “She'd beat you over the head with her umbrella. Trust me, I'm the less dangerous option.”
Oh, I think we could prove you wrong, Bucky thinks almost hysterically, but he swallows the words down with a bite of scrambled eggs. Like, what the fuck. Nice one, Barnes. Real smooth.
They eat their eggs in silence, and luckily Bucky's stomach seems to be okay with food—there's a good chance he already threw up last night and just doesn't remember it, to be honest. It's happened before. But he feels okay, so he just focuses on holding the plate with his right hand and maneuvering the fork with his prosthetic fingers. Even after almost a full year, and even though his arm is one of a kind, made specifically for him by a genius engineering friend of Natasha's, it's still awkward sometimes.
When Steve looks at him, he doesn't look at the shiny metal fingers protruding from Bucky's jacket sleeve. He just meets Bucky's eyes, asks if he wants more coffee, maybe some water—“Hydrating'll help with the headache,” he says, as if he thinks this is Bucky's first hangover—and then goes back to his eggs.
It's nice, is all. Bucky isn't ashamed of his lost arm, refuses to be embarrassed or try to hide it, but that doesn't mean he likes getting stared at.
“Well, thanks,” he says as he puts his plate in the sink. “For feeding me and not calling the cops. Very appreciated.”
“No problem,” says Steve, and he actually sticks his hand out for Bucky to shake. Like they met under totally normal, respectable circumstances. “It was nice meeting you, Bucky.”
“You too, Steve,” Bucky replies, resolutely not thinking about Steve's firm handshake or his big hands or his stupid little half-grin, and then he heads next door to Natasha's, the chilly September air clearing his head, sharpening his senses.
So that's the first time.
* * *
The second time Bucky runs into Steve, it is 100% the fault of Natasha's asshole cat from hell. The cat's name is technically Kisa, because it means “kitten” in Russian and Natasha is completely uncreative, but Bucky generally calls it Satan or Devil Cat or sometimes Fuck You, You Bullshit Animal.
He's lounging around at Natasha's while she's out buying paint (whoever lived here before her had a weird and all-consuming love of lavender), trying to entertain himself. It's a winter-cold Saturday, the sky heavy with dark clouds, the air sharp with the promise of a storm.
When it actually does begin to rain, drops pattering on the roof softly and then harder, Bucky feels a rare sense of calm spread through him, loosening the tension in his chest, in his lungs.
No matter how long he stayed overseas, no matter how much he got used to the desert—he never stopped missing rain.
Bucky pads over to the front door in sock feet. All he wants to do is sit on the porch and listen to the rain and not think. And he could've, if not for the goddamn cat. Because as soon as he opens the door, the cat appears out of nowhere to slip right between his legs, dashing out onto Natasha's front walk.
Bucky stands in the doorway and briefly contemplates just telling Natasha that her cat ran away forever, sorry, there was nothing he could've done.
The cat yowls, apparently not enjoying the pouring rain, and Bucky swears under his breath in three languages. Devil Cat, seriously.
“I don't s'pose there's any way you'll just come back here?” he calls out. The cat ignores him. “Jesus, so fuckin' dumb. All right, fine.”
He takes off his socks and steps off the porch, the rain shockingly cold against his skin, and slowly approaches the cat. It hisses at him, though the effect is sort of ruined by how it looks skinny and pathetic, its long black fur dripping with rain.
“I'm makin' a formal request right now that you keep your claws to yourself,” Bucky says, inching closer. “Don't make me use the robot arm on you, you won't like that.”
Just as he reaches down to scoop it up, the cat races away from him toward the porch.
“Oh, fuck you,” Bucky tells it, turning around. “You're the worst, you know th—”
The cat is on Steve's porch.
Bucky runs his right hand through his wet hair, hating how it feels plastered to his skull, and resigns himself to always having the worst luck when it comes to any and all unfairly attractive neighbors of Natasha's.
He's just managed to wrangle the Devil Cat into his arms, both of them soaking wet and shivering, the cat shrieking its head off, when Steve's door swings open and he steps out, almost walking right into Bucky.
They stare at each other, Steve's mouth falling open a bit in surprise. Bucky notices despite himself that Steve's totally dressed like a grandpa—khakis, blue plaid shirt, scuffed brown leather jacket. And he makes it work.
“Um,” says Bucky, suddenly aware that he probably looks like a drowned rat. “Before you say anything, I'm not breaking in.”
Steve looks like he's trying to hold back a smile, and Bucky relaxes a bit. “Is that Natasha's cat?”
“No, it's Natasha's demon spawn.” Bucky shifts the cat in his arms, ignoring its disgruntled meow. “Say—you got any tricks to make the damn thing cooperate?”
“Oh, come on,” says Bucky, gesturing at Steve's everything. “That whole Samaritan McBoy Scout thing you've got going. I've only met you once and I already see it.”
Steve shakes his head, blushing a bit. Bucky doesn't think he's blushed more than once in his entire life, but Steve's just looking down at him, cheeks pink with embarrassment. “I just think it's important to be good to people, that's all.”
“Yeah, well,” Bucky says, because he has no idea how to respond to this type of earnest, “if you got any magic cat whisperer powers, now would be the time.”
“Sorry,” says Steve, shrugging one shoulder. “That cat's just an asshole.”
Bucky laughs before he can stop himself, ducking his head down. When he glances up again, Steve is just sort of looking at him, that perpetual smile playing around the edges of his mouth, his skin still a bit flushed.
“Oh, jeez, sorry,” Steve yelps, his stillness broken by concern. “You must be freezing—is Natasha home, or do you need to—?”
“Nah, I'm good.” It takes a great amount of willpower to get the words out. “I should get Satan here back inside anyway.” He gives Steve his best cocky grin, trying to seem cooler than he feels.
Steve nods. “See you around.”
“You too, man,” says Bucky, and if he silently adds Hopefully very, very soon, well—that's for him to know.
When he happens to glance out Nat's living room window a couple minutes later, he sees Steve dumping some of those reusable grocery bags into the backseat of his car before he drives away. Of course.
* * *
October rolls in, and Bucky gets a job. It's nothing at all special—just one of those bookstore slash coffee places, where all he does is stack things and learn how to make a solid macchiato. He feels somehow too old to be working this kind of job—like he was made ancient by the war—but he's only just barely twenty-four. So really, he's not too far off from all the college students there.
Still feels a bit out of place, but that's normal. And he kinda likes the bookstore. It's quiet enough to keep him calm, busy enough to keep him from thinking too much. He likes the smell of coffee and books.
Natasha visits sometimes, when she's not too busy doing the highly classified things she refuses to even tell Bucky about but definitely involve speaking Russian, possibly for some secret branch of the CIA. She orders black coffee and pesters him when there aren't any customers.
“So,” she says, one day in mid-October, scrutinizing Bucky as he spends way too much time reorganizing the YA Lit section, “you realize you could just move in, right?”
“What?” he asks.
“With me.” Natasha's playing it casual, pretending to read the back of some romance novel, but Bucky knows her way too well at this point. “You're around all the time, and I know you don't like your place. Why not just move in?”
He gives her a look. “Because I'm a grown man and I don't need a roommate.”
“I'm not saying you do, James,” she says, and Bucky makes the same face he always does at her refusal to use his nickname. “I'm just saying—it's only been ten months. And I know you're still struggling a bit, which is normal, so don't give me that face, and it's not like you'll agree to see a psychiatrist.”
“I don't need—”
“You do, and that's okay.” She meets Bucky's eyes, doing that thing where she somehow seems to know exactly what he's thinking, exactly how all of his pieces fit together. Natasha is a menace.
She sighs, rolling her eyes. “But why listen to me, right? It's not like I'm experienced with military trauma or anything.”
Bucky shoves a book into the shelf, pressing his lips together. “I don't need a psychiatrist. And I don't need to move in with you.”
A blessed pause, and then: “You'd be right next door to Steve,” she wheedles, trying to lighten the mood. “I see him all the time, you know. In the morning, when he's getting the paper? Sometimes he goes shirtless.”
“That,” Bucky says, pointing at her, “is low, Natalia.”
She cocks an eyebrow. They stand in silence for a minute, and then Bucky asks, hating himself, “Is he—I mean, d'you have any idea—?”
“Sorry, kiddo,” says Natasha. “No clue. Doesn't seem to have a girlfriend, but that doesn't mean much.”
“Dammit,” Bucky sighs.
“Somebody has a cruuuush,” Natasha sings, and then flips her red hair and leaves the store before he can even say, I don't have a crush, I just want to suck his dick.
Bucky has terrible taste in friends.
* * *
When he goes home that night, he stands in the doorway of his apartment for a long time. He's been living here ever since he got discharged, but the place is still almost completely empty—there's a mattress, a couple books that he never actually reads, a TV.
He thinks of Natasha's place, comfortable and homey despite the cat fur and her secrecy about her bedroom. And Steve's place, all sunlit and open, art supplies on the table and actual healthy food in the kitchen.
Bucky eats ramen for dinner and flops on his mattress, half-watching some program about a girl who's addicted to eating toilet paper, then finally collapses to sleep.
The nightmares wake him up three times.
* * *
“I don't know what to be for Halloween,” Natasha says around a bite of chocolate croissant, curled up on the end of the couch with the Devil Cat in her lap. They're watching Harry Potter, because Natasha likes Hermione and Bucky likes when Harry and Ron stick it to Professor Snape, and there are no guns and very few explosions.
There's a bag of leftover pastries from the bookstore, plus a pumpkin spice latte for Natasha—who fronts like she only drinks black coffee, but is totally a secret Starbucks addict—and honestly, it's a pretty good Saturday.
“Why would you be anything?” Bucky asks lazily. “Aren't we a bit old for that?”
“Kids trick-or-treat here, Bucky,” says Natasha. “You think I'm gonna let the Johnsons show me up? Or that awful Franklin woman?” She neatly polishes off her croissant. “Even Mrs. Henderson dresses up.”
“She's eighty-nine,” Bucky says. Natasha gives him a weird look. “Well, what does Mrs. Henderson go as?”
“A witch last year.” She studies the TV screen with pursed lips, watching Harry and Ron attempt to take out the mountain troll.
Bucky props his feet up on the coffee table. Natasha shoves them off with her foot, and he rolls his eyes. “Dress up like Hermione. You could wear a pointy hat.”
“No, I want to be something badass.”
“Hermione's pretty badass.”
“Her clothes aren't.”
Bucky's about to refute that—he thinks the black wizard robes are pretty cool, thanks—when someone knocks on the door. Natasha uncurls and hops up fluidly, the kind of graceful that Bucky will never master, carrying the cat in her arms because of course it adores her. Bucky focuses on the movie.
“Nat,” he calls out around half a blueberry muffin, “I wanna beat up a mountain troll.”
“It does look pretty interesting,” comes the reply, which is definitely not Natasha. Bucky cranes his neck over the back of the couch, as if he hasn't already memorized that voice, and sure enough, there stands Steve in all his glory. He's wearing sweatpants and a white T-shirt with paint stains on it, and Bucky kind of wants to die a little bit.
“Hello there,” he says, hoping the words come out smoothly. “Fancy seein' you here.”
“He's painting my walls,” Natasha says, closing the hellspawn in her bedroom and vaulting over the back of the couch. She puts her feet in Bucky's lap. He scowls at her and she just smiles brightly back.
“You gave me a ten-minute lecture on why you wanted to do that yourself,” Bucky says incredulously. “You invoked, like, the fourth wave of feminism.”
She shrugs. “Steve's an artist. I want it to be pretty.”
“I'll try my best,” says Steve. “Bathroom first, right?”
“Yup. If you need anything just start screaming.”
“Will do,” he says, and heads toward the bathroom. Bucky watches him go for as long as possible, then turns to give Natasha a death glare.
“You couldn't have warned me?” he hisses.
She blinks at him innocently. “He's just doing me a favor.”
“Why doesn't he do me any favors,” Bucky mumbles. Natasha snorts.
She gets a business call toward the end of the movie and shuts herself in her bedroom with the cat, expression serious. Bucky gets bored in about two minutes, way less invested in Harry Potter now that Steve's in close proximity. He grabs the bag of pastries off the table and wanders back toward Nat's bathroom, slipping through the door.
And nearly swallows his own tongue. Steve's bracing himself on the sink, rolling coral paint onto the wall where the mirror usually is, the muscles of his back and shoulders showing through his thin shirt. He's stretching up to reach the top of the wall, biting his lip a bit in concentration, and Bucky wants to sit in his goddamn lap and not leave until neither of them can move.
Steve looks over his shoulder and gives Bucky a small smile, because he has no idea that he is the main cause of Bucky's downspiraling sanity. “Like it?”
“Oh yeah,” Bucky says, even though he couldn't care less about the color of Natasha's bathroom. “Hey, you want food? I got some leftovers from work.”
“Sure.” Steve puts down his paint roller and turns around, leaning against the edge of the sink. Bucky is suddenly extremely aware of how small the bathroom is.
“Here ya go.” Bucky brandishes the bag and Steve reaches in, pulling out a bagel. “I owed you for the eggs 'n' coffee, anyway.”
“You didn't, but thanks,” Steve says. “Everyone has bad nights.”
“Buddy, my nights are worse than most,” Bucky says, “I have poor judgment down to a science. But I like to think I make it work.”
Steve huffs a laugh and takes a bite of his bagel. His eyes widen. “Whoa, this is good. Almost New York good.”
“You from New York?” Bucky asks.
And something slots into place in Bucky's chest, because he misses Brooklyn like a limb, literally, and Washington, D.C. isn't the same—it's not gritty enough, all white marble pillars and government buildings, nothing like the bricks and brownstones of his old home, the cracked sidewalks swelling over tree roots, the wandering, starving artists. Everyone in D.C. wears suits all the time. It's just wrong.
He gives Steve a wide, bright grin, the most honest he's been in ages. “Me too.”
Steve looks at him for a long moment. “Well hell, if I'd known that was what it took, I'd have mentioned Brooklyn a while ago.”
Bucky frowns. “Took to do what?”
“Oh, come on,” Steve says, eyes glittering. “That whole Cocky McSwagger thing you've got going. Seems like it takes some effort.”
Bucky has no idea how to react to that—part of him is reeling over Steve saying the word cocky, and part of him is ready to go on offense, to snap some retort that'll make Steve stop looking at him like this, like Bucky's done something strange but wonderful.
“Aren't you clever,” he finally drawls, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “But I generally take my bagels without a side of psychiatry, thanks.”
Steve raises his hands in surrender. “No, I didn't mean it like—I just meant, I barely know you and it's already nice to see you smile like that.”
Are you for real with this shit? Bucky wants to demand, but instead he just studies Steve's face, looking for any signs of mockery. He finds nothing but the level of earnest he's beginning to associate solely with Steve. So he relaxes, leaning back against the bathroom door, and gives a little half-shrug. “I'm dashingly handsome, what can I say.”
Steve rolls his eyes, looking almost fond—he should not look fond, this is, like, the third time they've met—and finishes off his bagel. “I should get back to work. I'm gonna try to start in on the kitchen today.”
“Aye, aye, cap'n,” Bucky says, and Steve looks like he wants to laugh for some reason, but Bucky leaves the bathroom without asking.
The paint fumes were making him lightheaded.
* * *
The next time Nat invites him over (read: shamelessly uses him for his pastry and coffee connections), he opens the door to find her sitting on her living room carpet surrounded by strips of black fabric and what is possibly the most bright yellow jogging suit he's ever seen.
Bucky waits for an explanation.
“It's my costume,” says Natasha, not looking up from where she's carefully cutting a large swatch of cloth. “I'm being The Bride from Kill Bill.”
“It's very yellow,” he observes, dropping onto the couch. Natasha holds out one hand for her pumpkin spice latte, still not breaking concentration, and he sighs and hands it over.
“I look good in yellow.” She finally glances up, smirking a bit. “I'm an autumn.”
“I got no clue what that means.”
“Well, you're a winter,” Natasha says, as if that clarifies anything.
Bucky watches her work for a while, then asks, “Doesn't The Bride have a samurai sword?”
“I'm sure I'll figure something out,” she says absentmindedly. Bucky takes that to mean, I have at least one person lined up to provide me with any and all obscure lethal weapons I may need. Natasha may be kind of a dork, but she's a terrifying dork. Bucky is forever thankful he somehow manages to stay on her good side. Which is kind of a miracle, because he's pissed off far more patient people.
He gets fidgety after about ten minutes, unable to sit still nowadays without feeling like he's on the edge of something terrible, in the eerily calm eye of a whirling storm. He gets up and stretches, almost relishing the familiar twinge of pain where his prosthetic meets his shoulder, and then a blur of movement outside the living room window catches his eye.
Bucky looks out, and there's Steve in jogging pants and a wifebeater, running down the street in perfect athletic form.
Really, seriously running, Bucky notices after a second. Not jogging, no headphones playing upbeat music, no watch to time the miles. Even from the back, Steve's entire body looks almost desperate, and he's clearly running as hard as he can, arms pumping, hands slicing the air like a sprinter.
For the first time, Bucky realizes that maybe Steve isn't such a Boy Scout after all. Because Bucky knows that run. He's run like that countless times since his discharge, as soon as he got the okay from his physical therapist, on treadmills and down streets where nobody will recognize him. He knows all too well that there's only two reasons anybody runs like that: to forget and to escape.
Bucky watches Steve disappear around the corner, a lone figure against the cold October sky, and tries not to wonder about Steve's ghosts.
* * *
“Oh, come on, James. You know you want to.”
“I don't like kids,” Bucky says. “You should know that by now.”
Natasha sighs. “I know that you say you don't like kids, but I also know that's total bullshit.”
He groans, pausing where he was flexing his metal fingers around a pair of chopsticks at Nat's coffee table. Fine motor control still comes kind of hard sometimes. “Look, I just came over here to steal your leftover candy, all right? None of that involves kids.”
“You are so ridiculous,” she informs him. “As soon as you see them in their cute little costumes, you're gonna melt and whine at me until I let you pass out the candy.”
He points at her. “That is a dirty lie.”
“Whatever.” She zips up the front of her yellow Bride costume and sheaths her (yes, authentic) samurai sword at her hip. “We'll see who's right.”
“Yeah, we will,” Bucky says. He's reluctantly wearing a black domino mask with his regular clothes. It says something about his life that helping Nat pass out Halloween candy is without a doubt the best thing he has going on.
The first kids come as soon as the sun starts to set, clamoring on the doorstep in their brightly colored costumes—Bucky counts two Batmans, a cat, the kid from Up, and a clown—and yelling for candy. Natasha smiles at them, pretending she can't tell what they're meant to be.
It's kind of disgustingly cute.
Not that Bucky will ever admit it.
It takes three more groups of kids until he swallows his pride and shuffles over to the front door, takes the candy bowl from Natasha, and steadfastly ignores her smug look.
A couple of kids show up dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles next, clearly already hyped to hell on sugar. The one dressed as Raphael darts forward to hug Bucky's legs when Bucky lets him take an extra Milky Way, yelling random nonsense about Halloween and crime fighting, and Bucky laughs and ruffles the kid's hair and then looks to the side to see Steve.
Steve is looking back at him. His porch is separated from Nat's by a railing, and he's just standing there on his stoop dressed as a fucking cowboy, what the actual fuck.
“Don't judge me,” Steve says, misinterpreting Bucky's blatant ogling of his costume. They both pass out candy to the next batch of kids, and then Steve turns back to Bucky. “My friend picked out our costumes, and I definitely shouldn't have trusted him with it.”
“It looks fine,” Bucky manages, because the only other thing he can think of is an extremely inappropriate joke about saving horses, and there are children present.
“I like your mask,” says Steve. “Very understated. Very subtle.”
“Hi, Steve,” Natasha cuts in, sounding amused, and both Bucky and Steve blink in surprise. Bucky, for one, kind of forgot she's standing right next to him.
“Natasha, hi, sorry,” Steve says, tipping his cowboy hat. “Happy Halloween, I like your costume.”
“Thanks, cowboy,” she replies, and raises her eyebrows at Bucky. He gives her a look that hopefully says, Please please please for the love of God do not say anything to embarrass me right now.
Bucky is still very much hoping to put his mouth all over Steve's body at some point in the near future.
Just then, another voice calls out from inside Steve's house: “Yo, Rogers, we good on Reese's?”
“Running low,” Steve calls back over his shoulder. A few seconds later, another one of the hottest guys Bucky's ever seen—lean and muscular, dressed in a policeman costume and a wicked smile, Jesus Christ—appears behind him, dumping a handful of Reese's Cups into Steve's bowl.
“Hey there, neighbors of Steve,” he says to Bucky and Natasha. “I'm Sam. I'm not actually a policeman, just naturally commanding.”
Bucky's stomach sinks as he notices the casual intimacy in how Sam drapes his arm across Steve's broad shoulders.
“Hey, Sam,” says Natasha, leaning around Bucky, and wow, that's totally her flirty voice. “I'm Natasha.”
Sam gives her a nod, his smile growing. “Neat sword.”
“Neat handcuffs,” she says before turning back around to pass out more candy. Bucky watches as Sam silently fist pumps the air, and something in his chest loosens slightly.
He and Steve meet eyes, their expressions mirroring the same brand of fondness for Nat and Sam. But they don't break away quick enough for it to be a normal look, and Bucky's opening his mouth to say something—he doesn't even know what—when a kid dressed as a pumpkin barrels into his legs, giggling loudly.
The four of them pass out candy for another couple hours, chatting when the stream of kids finally slows down, the moon shining huge and bright above their heads. Bucky rips open a pack of M&Ms, and Sam tosses Natasha all their yellow Starbursts when he finds out she's one of those weird people who genuinely loves them.
“Fuck the police indeed,” Natasha says under her breath. Bucky almost chokes on his M&Ms.
* * *
Bucky thinks about Steve's cowboy outfit way, way too much in the following week, especially when he's supposed to be concentrating on making overly complicated coffee, but in his defense, it was a fantastic goddamn cowboy outfit.
* * *
It starts snowing early on in November. Steve finishes painting Natasha's bathroom, bedroom, living room, and kitchen, which means Bucky no longer gets his weekly dose of Steve in sweatpants and various tight, paint-splattered T-shirts. All in all, things are pretty bleak.
“You could just go over there and ask to hang out,” Natasha says one Sunday afternoon, apropos of nothing. She flips a page in The Hunger Games.
“Got no idea what you're talking about,” says Bucky.
“Please.” She glances at him over the top of her book. “I can smell your pining.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You're like an air freshener, only louder and more annoying.”
“Smells like a Christmas tree farm in here.”
“You know, because of all the pining.”
“I get the idea,” Bucky says incredulously.
She shrugs. “Just saying.”
“I can't just go over there,” he mumbles. “He's probably busy, and also I don't care.”
Natasha actually puts her book down. “You stare at his ass every single time he's within twenty feet of you.”
Bucky looks at her, unimpressed, from his spot on the couch. “So he's got a nice ass, so what?”
“So I've got a nice ass, too, but you don't stare at me like that,” she says pointedly. “And I know you swing both ways, so don't even.”
He falls silent, unable to think of a good reply.
“Do you need an excuse to go over there?” Natasha asks, a bit more gently.
“I'm not a blushing virgin,” he snaps.
“Good for you. Prove it.”
He scowls at her for approximately twenty seconds, then gets up and heads next door. Because he's not a blushing virgin. He's a grown man, he can be charming as hell when he wants to be, and if Steve is even a tiny bit attracted to guys, Bucky is so there.
When Steve opens the door, Bucky has the strong urge to bolt. Because okay, he's gotten accustomed to the whole tight shirts thing in the past few weeks. He can handle it. But Steve is wearing the usual sweatpants, a pair of black hipster glasses, and nothing else.
Bucky regrets every single decision that led to him standing on this porch right now, confronted with six feet of shirtless Steve Rogers in glasses. This is definitely one of the top ten most devastating things that has ever happened to him, and Bucky's missing an arm.
(If he couldn't joke about it to himself, he would've gone batshit months ago.)
Goddamn you, Nat, Bucky thinks hysterically, and then pastes a lopsided grin on his face. “Hey, pal, you busy?”
“Not really,” says Steve. “Kinda blocked on my latest project, actually.”
“Beautiful, Nat's really boring today,” Bucky says. “I'm willing to trade pizza for entertainment.”
Steve cracks a smile. “C'mon in.”
* * *
“So,” Bucky says a couple hours later around a bite of meatlover's, after mercilessly destroying (now shirted) Steve at Mario Kart for the tenth time, “what's this latest project of yours?”
“Oh.” Steve puts down his controller, looking down. “It's just a portrait series.”
“Yeah. People at the hospital, the nursing home,” Steve says. “People on their deathbeds, basically.”
Bucky watches him, the lines of his mouth and jaw, how his eyelashes cast shadows on his cheekbones as the sun set outside. “Huh. I gotta admit, that's...darker than I thought it would be.”
“Not like that,” Steve says, searching for words. “I talk to them, get their stories. I dunno. I guess I'm just trying my best to capture their lifetimes, not their deaths.”
Bucky feels a soft smile spread across his lips involuntarily. Steve catches the expression, and his face softens as well.
“Do you want to see?” he asks, sounding almost shy.
“Yeah,” says Bucky, “I'd like that.”
Steve leads him upstairs, where Bucky knows there's a bedroom and a small office, just like Nat's. The office's windows are facing toward the setting sun, shafts of golden sunlight falling across the carpet and walls. A second easel, a bit smaller than the one downstairs, stands in one corner of the room.
Steve crosses over and picks up a couple canvases, propping them up on the easel and moving aside so Bucky can see. “Here.”
Bucky steps up to the easel and stares. The two paintings are of an equally withered, ancient man and woman, depicting them from the shoulders up as they recline on their pillows, but somehow Steve's made them look anything but weak. Instead, their eyes are shining, life glowing from every painted pore. Both their mouths are half-open, clearly shaped around words, their gazes somewhere far away. Lost in memory.
“Jesus, Steve,” Bucky whispers, the way people speak in hushed tones in museums, out of some innate respect for the surrounding art. “I don't know much of anything about art, but—these are amazing.”
“Thanks,” says Steve, and Bucky notices his ears are bright red with embarrassment. “They're not done, but thanks.”
“Who's she?” Bucky asks, gesturing at the painting of the old woman.
“Alzheimer's patient.” Steve's face is caught between warmth and sadness as he looks at the woman's face. “She forgets who I am about every ten minutes, but she's incredible. She was a female officer during World War II, if you can believe it.” He pauses for a long moment, then his eyes flick up to meet Bucky's, and he says kindly, “You're military, right?”
“How'd you guess,” Bucky says dryly, waving his metal fingers. But Steve doesn't stop giving him that solemn look, so he just nods. “Sergeant James Barnes, nice to meet ya.”
“If you don't mind my asking...,” Steve begins, trailing off.
“Buddy, you're one of the only people I don't mind asking,” Bucky says and is rewarded with Steve's relief. “IED under our vehicle, you know the drill.” He tamps down his memories, clenching his right hand into a fist. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
“I'm sorry, Bucky,” Steve murmurs.
Bucky shakes his head sharply. “'S fine. Anyway, thanks for showing these to me. They're really something.”
“Anytime,” says Steve, and it's clear he wants to say something else—apologize or something—but before he can, Bucky turns away and leaves the room. Steve follows after a couple seconds, and when they're back in the living room, neither mentions the past ten minutes.
* * *
November goes by quickly, a haze of work and snow and gray-white skies. Natasha mentions, one weekend, that Steve and Sam aren't going home for Thanksgiving—Steve doesn't have much in the way of family, and Sam's lives too far away to justify the travel time.
“We should do something,” she tells Bucky in the canned goods aisle, dropping a couple cans of pumpkin into her grocery cart. “I'm already making pie, we might as well share.”
“All right,” he says. Natasha blinks at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” she says. “Just usually I have to convince you to spend time with Steve. Seeing as how his existence is torture to your eternal soul. Or whatever.”
“I'm in a jolly holiday mood,” Bucky deadpans, and she laughs.
They've been staring at three different kinds of instant mashed potatoes for about five minutes when Natasha finally sighs and pulls out her phone. “I'm calling Sam.”
“Since when do you even have his number?”
She ignores him. “Hey, it's me. On a scale of Idahoan to Betty Crocker, what's the best brand of instant mashed potatoes?”
Sam's outraged squawk is so loud that Natasha actually pulls the phone away from her ear.
“Okay, jeez, you do the potatoes,” she says. “Is Steve still on turkey duty? ...Yes. Yup. Okay, thanks.” She hangs up and looks at Bucky. “We lost our potato privileges.”
* * *
When Sam lets them into Steve's place on Thanksgiving, he's wearing a floral apron and holding a gigantic metallic bowl of mashed potatoes.
“Pie me,” he says, holding out his other hand. Natasha hands over the pumpkin pie. He inspects it. “Okay, seems legit.”
“Hey,” says Natasha, “you don't trust me to make a good pie?”
He stares at her. “Absolutely not. You were gonna make instant mashed potatoes. There is zero trust here.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” she replies, rolling her eyes, but there's fondness in it. She glances at Bucky. “I offended his delicate sensibilities.”
“Shame on you,” says Bucky. “Uncultured swine.”
“I like him,” says Sam.
“Steve's my new favorite,” Natasha informs them and curls up on the couch. “Make me a meal, fellas.”
Bucky brings the cranberry sauce into the kitchen. Steve's standing at the stove, carving the turkey. He's wearing his khakis and a red sweater, all Mister Rogers' fucking Neighborhood, for Chrissakes, and Bucky seriously questions his taste in men for a second until Steve turns around, gives him a dorky salute, and says, “Happy Thanksgiving, Buck.”
Bucky sidles up beside him and nudges Steve with his elbow, smirking up at him, and tries not to think about how easy this is.
* * *
“I'm thankful for hot showers, forgiveness, and the Terminator movies,” says Sam.
“I'm thankful for new friends and how slow Sam runs,” says Steve.
Sam flicks a cranberry at him. “Screw you, Rogers.”
“Uh, Chinese food and Gordon Ramsay,” says Bucky.
“My cat,” says Natasha, and all three of them groan.
* * *
December passes slow and frigid, and Steve's so busy with his portrait series that Bucky doesn't see him at all.
* * *
On Christmas morning, Natasha gives Bucky the complete box set of The Office, because she says it's a crime against pop culture that he hasn't seen it yet, and Bucky gives Natasha the next two Hunger Games books.
They drink hot chocolate and Bucky does not think about Steve.
* * *
“Sam says we should come over, he just got back from the airport,” Natasha calls from her bedroom the day after Christmas, where she is presumably spending quality time with the hellspawn.
“That's because Sam is gone on you,” Bucky calls back, pausing the TV.
“I'm not responding to that,” she says. “C'mon, I want eggnog and you want a chance to write poetry about Steve's left earlobe.”
“Shut up,” says Bucky, but he follows her over anyway. Steve lets them in, his face lighting up as soon as he sees Bucky (who refuses to acknowledge Natasha's knowing glance) and Sam passes out glasses of eggnog, and they all lose miserably to Natasha in Mario Kart (“This is just sad, dude,” Sam comments, watching Steve drive right off Rainbow Road for probably the seventeenth time) as the snow falls outside, bringing the night along with it.
Natasha leads them out to the porch around ten—she's always loved the snow. Bucky stays out there for a while, but he hates this kind of silence. It fills his head, spreading through his chest, until he stands up and heads back inside, rubbing at his left shoulder where metal meets skin.
Bucky turns around, realizing he's standing in the kitchen doorway. Steve steps toward him, brow furrowed.
“Yeah,” Bucky croaks. “Yeah, just takin' a minute.”
“There's—,” Steve stops, and Bucky sees his throat move as he swallows. Steve is looking at him strangely, and it's dark in his kitchen except for the yellow streetlights filtering in, but Bucky would swear he sees a flush across his cheekbones.
“Steve, what,” he says, and it comes out softer than he meant it to. Something about the darkness.
“It's just—,” Steve breaks off and makes an aborted gesture, not meeting Bucky's eyes. “Well, look up.”
Bucky looks up. Neatly pinned to the door jamb, right above his head, is a sprig of dark green mistletoe. He groans. “Christ. Nat or Sam, d'you think?”
“Sam, definitely Sam,” says Steve, and he takes a step closer. His face is completely in shadow now; he's a big, tall silhouette against the glow from the streetlights and the moon from outside the windows. Bucky can almost feel the heat radiating off him, and shit, this is bad, this is the worst—he can't even remember the last time he felt so affected by someone, so drawn in, the proverbial moth to the stupid fucking flame.
He can hear his own breathing pick up, his heart beating quickly as new warmth settles deep in his belly, and just hopes Steve doesn't notice anything.
“Whatcha doin' there, big guy?” Bucky asks. His voice just barely comes out steady.
“Well, there's this tradition,” Steve says, sounding innocent as all hell even as he takes another step closer to Bucky, their chests almost brushing. Bucky has to tilt his head back a tiny bit to meet Steve's gaze, searching for his eyes in the darkness.
“Really now,” he murmurs, standing perfectly still, even though every cell in his body wants to surge forward, get his hands in Steve's hair, crush their mouths together, taste him deep—“What kinda tradition?”
“Better to just show you,” Steve says, playful and quiet. He gently places one hand on Bucky's shoulder, the only point of actual contact. “That okay?”
“Sure, sure, I'm real curious,” Bucky says senselessly, about to vibrate out of his skin because of the dark and the quiet and the warmth of Steve, and thank God, that's when Steve leans forward and down, closing those few inches between them, and presses his mouth to Bucky's.
It's soft and far sweeter than Bucky is used to—they're still only touching in two places, and Steve just kisses him close-mouthed for a few short moments before pulling away, nice and chaste.
They stand there, the tips of their noses bumping a bit when Bucky takes a breath. He realizes he still hasn't opened his eyes, doesn't even know when he shut them.
He licks his lips and hears Steve's breath catch in his throat, the tiniest sound. Fuck it. Bucky gazes up at Steve through half-lidded eyes, unable to make out any details but suddenly sure that Steve's gazing right back. “You done, pal?”
“Do you want me to be?” asks Steve.
“No,” says Bucky, “don't think I do,” and he tips his chin up just as Steve leans down again, fitting their mouths together.
Steve kisses him like he's got all the time in the world. His hand slides up the juncture of Bucky's shoulder to cup his neck, thumb resting on the curve of his jaw, pressing gently until Bucky lets his mouth fall open and tangles his fingers in the front of Steve's shirt. Steve crowds him against the door jamb, still kissing him so infuriatingly slow, like Bucky hasn't been fantasizing about this for weeks now, like he doesn't want Steve to fuck him six ways from Sunday and then six more.
But Steve doesn't give him everything. He worries at Bucky's bottom lip with his teeth and then runs his tongue over it but doesn't try to get his tongue in Bucky's mouth, doesn't let Bucky taste him, just kisses him softly again, Steve's amazing goddamn mouth moving smooth and heated against Bucky's until he's weak in the knees from something that doesn't even involve Frenching, for God's sake.
It's unbearable, unfair, and it feels so fucking good.
So Bucky gives in entirely. He wraps his arms around Steve's neck, just letting his hands dangle—somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice asks, Who'd want cold metal fingers running through their hair?—and lets Steve almost hold him upright, tilting his head back against the doorframe to bare the line of his throat. Steve makes a small noise at that, and Bucky smirks into Steve's mouth, kissing him firm and thorough, sweet as molasses. Steve's other hand rests on the small of his back, solid and steady and warm.
Nobody's ever kissed Bucky like this, like it's something to savor in and of itself and not just as a lead-in to something more. He usually gets—and gives—tongue and teeth, gasping breath, rough, roaming hands. Nothing like this. And yet somehow, this kiss with Steve, their mouths half-open and neither going further, is the single hottest thing Bucky has ever experienced.
He's hard, angling his hips away from Steve so he won't feel the swell of Bucky's dick, and is just about to break the kiss and suggest they take this upstairs, to hell with it, when he hears the front door swing open.
Steve steps back immediately and Bucky almost stumbles without Steve's hands holding him stable.
“C'mon, boys,” Natasha calls out from the living room. “This eggnog isn't gonna drink itself.”
Steve hesitates for a split second, then laughs once, quiet and rueful, just a low noise in the back of his throat, and heads out of the kitchen to join Sam and Nat.
Bucky waits until he's breathing evenly again and then follows. Natasha is still standing by the front door, waiting for him, and the light is dim but something in his face must give it away—her eyes widen almost imperceptibly as soon as she sees him.
“Not now,” Bucky says desperately. He feels strange inside his own skin, like somebody took him apart and then put him together all wrong, his chest cold where Steve's heat was just moments before.
Natasha gives him a long look, then just nods once and says, “Fine. Later.”
“Thanks,” Bucky mumbles, and follows her out into the snowy night. There is not enough eggnog in the world.
* * *
Bucky wakes up on Natasha's couch the next morning with an awful crick in his neck. He groans, dragging himself upright, only to find her sitting crosslegged at the low coffee table, a mug of tea in her hands and the Devil Cat in her lap. Watching him.
“Hey, d'you think you could be more creepy?” Bucky says, his voice rough with sleep. “I feel like you could really up your game right now. This is barely terrifyin' at all, must be so embarrassing for you.”
“James,” says Natasha, “did you kiss Steve last night?”
“Aw, Christ.” He scrubs a hand through his hair. “Can't you give me five minutes to wake up?”
She just raises her eyebrows at him, looking thoroughly unimpressed.
Bucky heaves a sigh. “Yeah, all right. Yes.”
“You kissed him?”
“There was mistletoe,” Bucky tries.
“I'm not judging you.” She places her mug of tea carefully on the tabletop and scratches the cat's ears. “I want you to be happy. And I want to make sure you're not...in over your head.”
Bucky stands up and heads to the kitchen, starting up the coffeemaker. “How 'm I in over my head?”
“Well,” says Natasha, “how do you feel about Steve?”
“Uh, I feel like he's hot and I want to fuck him,” Bucky replies. He leans against the kitchen doorframe as he waits for the coffee, but it reminds him of last night—Steve's mouth on his, Steve's big hand curled around his neck—and he quickly straightens up, clearing his throat.
Natasha is giving him a look that says, You are a complete idiot.
“What?” Bucky demands. “It's true.”
“I don't doubt that,” Natasha says dryly, “but are you sure that's the extent of it?”
“Oh right, I forgot, I also wanna marry him and magically have fifteen of his blond babies,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “Jesus, Nat, what're you on about?”
She pauses for a long moment, her face settling into something far too solemn for Bucky's liking. “James...when you came back, you were—” she breaks off, visibly steels herself, and starts again—“you were in a really dark place. Sometimes I thought I'd never be able to reach you there.”
He stares at the floor, the half-painted wall, anywhere but Natasha's face.
“I was scared,” she continues, voice pinched, and he knows exactly how much she hates admitting it. “I thought there was a good chance you'd never let yourself be okay, because I know you, jackass, and I know the crap you pile on yourself.” She takes a deep breath. “And I know a thing or two about survivor's guilt.”
“I don't—,” Bucky begins to say, but she raises one hand and he shuts up.
“No, listen. I'm talking about my feelings here, okay?” she says. “This is like pulling teeth for me. Anyway—the happiest I've ever seen you was Thanksgiving. You were almost back to how you were before, James. In one month you'd had more progress than in the ten before that. And I think part of it is Steve.”
“I barely know him,” Bucky protests.
Natasha snorts. “Please. Even if that were true, which it's not, I still see how you look whenever he walks into a room.” She taps the side of her nose. “Super secret brilliant spy, remember? Reading people is kinda in the job description. Not that you're hard to read.”
“I'm hard to read,” says Bucky, because he has no idea how else to react to any of this. “What are you saying?”
She sighs. “I'm saying, you look at Hot Neighbor Steve like he's the best thing you've ever seen. Not like you want to sleep with him and then be done with it.”
Bucky takes a long time to pour himself a cup of coffee. He even puts milk and sugar in it, stirs for ages.
Finally, he says, “I don't wanna talk about this.”
“Natalia, I don't want to talk about it.” He's suddenly angry, clenching his coffee mug with white knuckles, his metal fingers clenched in a fist. “I'm not looking for a boyfriend, I'm looking for a fuck. 'Sides, even if I wanted more, you think anyone'd wanna be with this?” He gestures at himself, jaw tight. “PTSD, the fucking arm, all this shit I got? Nobody—Steve's a stupidly good person, a fuckin' saint, don't you think he deserves—?”
Bucky stops, breathing hard, and he needs to get out of here right now or he's gonna throw up or hyperventilate or something. He slams his mug on the counter, coffee splashing, and crosses the living room, shoving his feet in his shoes.
“Bucky!” Natasha calls after him, and she never uses his nickname, but he doesn't even bother thinking about it.
“Just gotta be alone,” he snaps, halfway out the door.
“Be safe,” she says evenly, because the best thing about Natasha has always been that she steps back at times like this, lets him get his anger out, takes it in stride. “And James?”
“Steve's not a saint.” She takes a sip of tea, calm as anything. “Maybe you should ask him about it sometime.”
Bucky doesn't slam the door behind him—he's not quite that much of a teenager—but he really wants to.
* * *
He shuts himself in his apartment all day, antsy, unable to keep his thoughts from racing, ignoring his phone when Natasha calls. Then night falls at last, the sky bruising dark blue, and he can get out.
It's snowing out, piles of it beginning to pile up in the gutters, Bucky's breath making white clouds in the darkness as he walks down the street. There's a dive bar only a couple blocks from his apartment, the kind that where every surface is sticky and the air smells like sweat and beer. As soon as he walks in, he props himself up at the counter and starts with the hard stuff.
He doesn't want more than a fuck.
He can't want more than a fuck.
Wanting more than one night, a few nights, would mean that Bucky would have to let someone in. Someone other than Natasha. And he can't do that. Hell, he can't even make himself go see the therapist he knows he needs, because he can't fucking stand the idea of being that vulnerable—of someone knowing every single ugly, rotting thing beneath his surface, every bullet and explosion and scream. Especially when he's seen how easily people can just be gone forever.
Besides (and he laughs to himself sharply when he realizes this) it's such a pointless thing to think about. It's like he told Natasha—Steve deserves far better. He kissed Bucky because it was the day after Christmas and there was mistletoe and it was dark, but Jesus, why in the hell would Steve want anything more with Bucky?
He doesn't need Bucky in his life, that's for sure.
Bucky feels like a raw nerve. He finishes his whiskey in one mouthful. It burns all the way down, but at least the world is starting to go blurry around the edges.
Natasha calls again around midnight, so he shoots her a text that just says I'm fine, mostly because he knows she could very well track him down and drag him home.
She replies, You're not. And then, in an echo of her earlier words, Be safe. He doesn't reply.
Ten minutes later, his phone buzzes and the screen shows Steve's name.
Bucky waits so long that the call almost goes to voicemail before he finally picks up, his fingers clumsy from drink. “Yeah?”
“It's Steve. Are you okay?”
Bucky scowls. “Nat got t'you, huh?”
He can hear Steve's hesitation. “She said maybe I should check on you. That you might, uh, listen to me.”
Jesus Christ. “What is it with you people 'n' not listenin' when I say 'm fine?” he demands, concentrating on getting the words out clearly. There's about half a shot left in his glass, and he downs it. “I'm a goddamn adult.”
“You are,” Steve agrees, “but unfortunately for you, you tend to make very protective friends.”
“It is unfortunate,” Bucky mutters.
“One of those things you just gotta live with,” says Steve.
“Yeah, well. Tell Nat I don't need a keeper.”
“No can do, sorry.” Bucky hears some rustling in the background on Steve's end, the jingling of keys. “I don't wanna get on her bad side. Hey, is there a bar near your place?”
Bucky nods, then realizes Steve can't see him. “Yeah.”
“Cool.” An engine starts, rumbling with static in Bucky's ear. “Anyway, I gotta go, okay? Sit tight.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, not really paying attention anymore. He hangs up and slumps over the wooden counter, resting his forehead on his flesh and bone arm, the world spinning unpleasantly.
He must doze off for a few minutes, because the next thing he knows, someone's tapping on his shoulder to wake him up. He glances up, ready to tell whoever it is to fuck off.
But it's Steve who stands before him, his blond hair flecked with melting snow. Bucky stares at him, confused.
“Hi,” says Steve. “Do you want a ride home?”
“Natasha gave me your address,” Steve shrugs. “Here, come on. I've been holed up working all day, I could use a cheeseburger.”
Bucky watches the neon light of the Heineken sign above the bar play across Steve's face, the contrast of bright green on his cheekbones and then shadow beneath them, how it highlights the fullness of his mouth.
“All right,” he sighs, defeated. “Cheeseburger, sure.”
He slips off the barstool, bracing himself on Steve's arm, and then immediately lets go and walks outside by himself. Steve's car is parked right by the snowy curb, and Bucky slides into the passenger seat, the heat of the car washing over him. He brings his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around them, curling up like he used to when he was a little kid.
Steve climbs into the driver's seat and shoots him a small smile. “You ever been to Stan's Diner?”
“No,” Bucky says quietly.
“Well, your life's about to change,” says Steve, and pulls away from the curb.
* * *
Stan's Diner is one of those places made to look like it's from the fifties, all red booths and checkered floor, framed pictures of old cars and famous patrons on the walls. The glowing pink sign in the window says OPEN 24/7, FRESH PIES BAKED DAILY.
Steve leads Bucky inside and they sit down at a booth in one corner, far away from the one table full of loud, laughing teenagers getting late night milkshakes.
Bucky squints down at the menu, his head too full of cotton to really concentrate on it. He looks up at Steve when the waiter, a white-haired old man wearing one of those folded white caps, shuffles over.
“Two cheeseburgers with fries,” says Steve. “And a chocolate milkshake for me, two glasses of water for him.”
“You got it,” says the waiter and takes away their menus.
As soon as he's gone, Bucky slumps over again. He peers up at Steve, dimly aware that he's blinking dumbly but too drunk to stop. “Why'd you come get me?”
Steve looks down at his hands where they're folded on the Formica tabletop. Bucky notices in a detached sort of way that Steve's in his usual weird grandpa clothes—the khakis, the brown leather jacket and everything. The only things missing are the black glasses he wears when he's sketching.
“Such a goddamn nerd,” Bucky says under his breath.
“Nothin'. Answer my question, will ya?”
“Well,” Steve says. “I've been where you are. Still there, sometimes.”
Bucky gives him the best Yeah, right face he can muster.
“Do you know how I met Sam?” asks Steve.
“I met him at a Veterans Affairs meeting, Bucky.”
Bucky straightens up, surprise cutting through the haze of alcohol in his head. Steve meets his gaze levelly, though his mouth looks tight around the edges. “You—?”
“Captain Steve Rogers,” says Steve. “Two tours in Iraq. And the only reason I'm functional today is because of VA, Sam, and a hell of a lot of therapy.”
Silence falls between them while Bucky processes this, staring hard at the swirling patterns on the table. Finally, he says, “Y'know Nat's cat?”
“What, the demon cat?” Steve says, attempting a smile.
“That's the one.” Bucky swallows, leaning forward onto his elbows. “A couple weeks after I came home from—from the hospital, I was stayin' with Nat 'cause I didn't have my good arm yet, just this shitty one from the doctors...anyway, the damn cat was playing with this toy right by me. A ball or somethin'. And it hits the ball and it rolls toward me, and I only see it outta the corner of my eye, and I thought it was a fuckin' grenade. For a second, I thought it was a grenade. It was a fuckin' cat toy.” He takes a shaky breath. “Jumped behind the couch and ended up messin' up my bandages. Got blood on Nat's carpet.”
“Was she mad?” asks Steve.
“Nah. She got it.”
Steve's mouth quirks up at the corners. Their eyes meet for a long, still moment, until Bucky breaks away.
“The worst birthday I ever had,” Steve starts, dropping his voice and leaning in a bit closer, “was right after I got back from my second go round.”
“How's that?” Bucky asks.
Steve's half-smile turns sardonic, self-deprecating. “My birthday is the Fourth of July,” he says. “And I was so shaken up the days before it, you know what I forgot about?”
“Fireworks,” Steve answers. “I forgot what fireworks sound like.”
Bucky watches him for a long moment after that one, studying Steve's face. His eyes are downcast, a small line of unhappiness between his eyebrows. Bucky wants, quite suddenly, to make him smile for real.
The waiter comes back just then, setting red baskets of cheeseburgers and fries in front of them, a chocolate milkshake for Steve and water for Bucky. When he leaves again, Steve immediately points at one of the glasses of water and says sternly, “Drink half of that before you eat, okay? Start on the hydration early.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says, but he does it anyway. He actually moans out loud when he first sinks his teeth into the cheeseburger, eyes fluttering shut in ecstasy. “Holy shit, Rogers,” he says with his mouth full. “Jesus, this is incredible.”
“Right?” says Steve, and just like that, the heavy mood lifts. Bucky starts sobering up fast with food and water in him, and he and Steve go from making various declarations about how amazing the food is to telling stories about Nat and Sam to poking fun at each other for everything under the sun (Steve's khakis are the main weapon in Bucky's arsenal, and he wields it ruthlessly).
Around two a.m., Steve is stealing the last of Bucky's fries while Bucky polishes off the rest of Steve's milkshake, eating it with a spoon straight from the metal cup, and Bucky's telling some dumb story about a customer he had at the bookstore, and Steve throws his head back and laughs loud and bright, shoulders shaking, and Bucky's breath catches in his throat, and he thinks, Oh shit.
* * *
Steve takes him home a bit later, doesn't drive away from Bucky's building until he sees Bucky go inside. Bucky calls Natasha as soon as he shuts the door of his apartment behind him, collapsing back against it and sliding to the floor.
“James?” she answers, sounding way less groggy than she should be, but that's Natasha.
“You were right,” he says.
“Usually. About what?”
“Steve.” Bucky groans. “You're right, you were right, and it's bad, Natalia.”
“I know,” she says and sighs, her breath a rush of crackling static. “It doesn't have to be bad, though.”
“How could it not be? He's—”
“Not perfect, and neither are you,” Natasha says matter-of-factly. “You wanna know what I think?”
“I dunno, do I?”
She ignores him. “I think you need to get over yourself.” He makes a noise of protest, and she ignores him again. “No, listen to me. You are not the most broken person in the world, not even close. Even if you were, you'd still deserve good things. And so does Steve.”
Bucky doesn't say anything. When Natasha speaks again, her voice is maybe the most gentle he's ever heard it.
“You're a good thing, kiddo,” she says. “And so am I, and so is Steve, and so is Sam.”
“We're a pretty fucked up bunch, though, you gotta admit,” he says weakly.
She laughs softly. “That was always a given.”
“You've gotten pretty good at this whole feelings stuff, you know that?”
“I've been spending too much time with Sam,” she says, and Bucky hears the smile in her voice, even if she's trying to hide it. “He's...frighteningly well-adjusted.”
“Damn him for it,” says Bucky. “And—thank you.”
“Anytime,” Natasha tells him, and the fact that she really means it makes Bucky's chest feel warm. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Night, Nat.”
* * *
With Monday comes work, all the way through the afternoon of New Year's Eve, so Bucky doesn't see Natasha, Steve, or Sam at all. They make plans to the ball drop together at Natasha's, Sam promising to bring the champagne (“And when I say champagne, I mean ten dollar knockoff 'sparkling wine,'” Sam says, “because unlike some of us, I do not have a shady, top secret ninja job that lets me afford the classy shit.”)
Bucky heads to Natasha's as soon as he gets off work on New Year's Eve. She opens the door wearing a pretty black dress, her red hair pulled back in a bun, small tendrils framing her face. He feels severely outdone in his jeans and dark blue sweater, even though he'd actively tried to dress nicely.
“You look beautiful,” Bucky tells her, and she shrugs it off with a casual thanks, but he can tell she's pleased. He pretends like he's going to ruffle her hair, and she squawks, batting his hand away.
They get Chinese takeout for a late dinner and eat it at the coffee table while MasterChef plays in the background, because both Bucky and Natasha are not-so-secretly addicted to MasterChef. Bucky eats Natasha's fortune cookie and she nabs all his baby corn when he's not looking, and Bucky feels more relaxed than he has since before he first went overseas.
He doesn't just want to fuck Steve. He wants to, like, sleep with Steve, multiple times, every night in the foreseeable future, and make him laugh a lot, and see him wear those stupid glasses whenever possible.
So that's a thing.
Accepting it gives Bucky a strange sense of peace. Despite the kiss the night after Christmas, he knows deep down that Steve doesn't—could never—feel the same. He's kind to Bucky because Steve is an inherently kind person, kissed him because of mistletoe and darkness. And that's...okay.
Bucky's about to start the next episode of MasterChef, laughing at Natasha's dorky joke about egg rolls, when he hears the loud, sharp crackle of gunfire.
He's on the floor immediately, dragging Natasha down beside him, flat on the carpet, and what the fuck, they're in the most suburban part of D.C., who the hell is shooting—it happens again, staccato shots piercing his eardrums, and he can't get his breathing under control—
Bucky blinks. Natasha's face is right in front of his, intense and focused. “James, it's okay, it's just fireworks.”
He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “What?”
“Fireworks,” she repeats, and helps him sit up, hands on his shoulders. “Some people started early, that's all. We're safe.”
“Fuck,” he says, trying to get his heartbeat under control. “Sorry, I...I wasn't expecting—thought I'd be ready for 'em, but...”
“No big,” says Natasha. “Happens to the best of us.”
With that, an image hits Bucky, appearing in his mind with sudden clarity: Steve, sitting across from him in the diner, his face pinched with pain and memory.
“Nat, I gotta go for a bit,” Bucky blurts out.
She frowns. “Why?”
He flounders for a moment, caught between wanting to explain and not wanting to tell Steve's secrets, but before he can say anything, Natasha's expression clears and she nods, fighting off a smirk.
“Fine, fine,” she says. “Go for it.”
“I'll be back soon!” he says, already stumbling to his feet and racing for the door. He can just barely hear her say, “Sure you will,” as he closes the door behind him.
The night is sharp and cold, the black sky glittering with more stars than they usually get in this city, snowflakes drifting down through the dark. Bucky jumps down Nat's front steps and up Steve's, rapping his knuckles on Steve's front door.
No answer. He knocks again.
The door opens slowly to reveal Steve, wearing his typical paint-stained sweatpants, a white T-shirt, and his glasses. His face is pale, eyes wide, jaw clenched.
“Bucky?” Steve says, confused, and his voice comes out hoarse. “It's only nine, what are you...?”
“Fireworks,” Bucky says, shifting nervously. “I lost my shit even though I spent all day preparin' myself, so I thought—um, I thought maybe—”
“Yeah,” Steve breaks in. “Yeah, no, I...you never really get used to it, I guess.” He laughs in a self-deprecating way, looking away as if embarrassed, and Bucky really cannot have that right now.
“Hey, look at me, look at me,” he says. “You know what you or Sam would tell me, here? That there ain't nothin' to be ashamed of. You gonna act like you're the exception to the rule?”
Steve's mouth twists. “No, I just...”
More fireworks go off a few miles away, bursting blue and green against the sky, and they both jump a bit. Bucky claps his real hand onto Steve's shoulder and meets his gaze. “You did a good thing, Steve. So maybe it got you a bit fucked up. Not your fault.”
Steve stares at him.
“Anyway,” Bucky says awkwardly, and he is not used to being awkward, “you seem okay, so...I should go, we got Chinese and Nat's a notorious egg roll thief.” He turns away, making to step off Steve's porch.
Steve reaches out, fingertips catching against Bucky's left arm, and tugs him around by his sweater until they're facing each other again.
Bucky blinks up at him. “Steve?”
“I want—can I—?” Steve says, his eyes still round behind his glasses, like he's surprised at his own actions.
Bucky has no idea what Steve's asking for, but it's Steve, so he says, “Yeah, buddy, what,” and Steve's mouth is on his almost before he gets the last word out.
Bucky makes a cut-off noise and takes a half-step back, gaping. “Wha—”
“Shit, I'm sorry,” Steve says, blushing bright red, “I'm sorry, Bucky, I thought—,” he falters, clearly trying to think of an excuse, cheeks flaming. He scrubs one hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up a bit, glowing gold around the edges from the streetlamps, and Bucky has never wanted to kiss a person so much in his entire life.
“Steve, Jesus, you just startled me,” he says, taking a step closer. “Wasn't expecting it, that's all.”
Steve finally looks at him, his expression a mix of mortification and the smallest tinge of hope. “Yeah?”
“Of course yeah.” Bucky moves in until their chests are brushing and their mouths are just a couple inches apart. “C'mon, you know me, I'm way smoother 'n that when I'm ready.”
A slow, beautiful smile spreads across Steve's face, and Bucky knows he's already grinning like a loon. He tips his face up, nudging Steve's nose with his own, and murmurs, “You gotta know how much I want you, right?”
“When you showed up on my couch that morning,” Steve says, and Bucky can feel his breath, almost touch his lips, “it took about five minutes for me to realize I was a goner.”
“Got ya beat,” says Bucky.
“Do you now?”
“Second I opened my eyes, I knew,” he shrugs, skimming his real hand across Steve's waist, up to his chest. “I was like, shit, this nerd in the boxers is gonna be the death of me.”
Steve looks down and frowns a little.
“What?” Bucky asks. “Don't worry, you're the hottest nerd I ever met.”
Holding his gaze, Steve reaches down to hold Bucky's metal hand, bringing it up to his chest beside the other one. “You got two hands, Bucky.”
“You sure you can handle both of 'em?” Bucky jokes, but Steve just looks at him seriously.
“I am extremely sure that I want both of your hands all over me,” he says, casually taking Bucky's breath away.
“Yeah,” he says faintly, “okay, yes, we can do that. Great plan, Rogers,” and then he finally, finally leans all the way forward and catches Steve's mouth and kisses him hard.
It's different from the last time by a long shot—Steve opens his mouth immediately and Bucky does the same, licking into Steve's mouth and sucking on his tongue, biting his bottom lip, pressing his whole body into Steve and completely enjoying every single broken-off moan it brings him, right there on the fucking porch, for the neighbors and the world to see. He pushes Steve back against the door and they make out, hot and hungry, for a good five minutes, Steve's arms around Bucky's back and waist and Bucky's hands in Steve's hair—Steve takes off his glasses at some point because they're getting in the way, shoves them into the pocket of his sweatpants—and Bucky's kissing him hard and deep, mouthing along his jawline, his throat, then back up to his mouth again.
“Wait, wait, come inside,” Steve gasps against Bucky's mouth, “come inside, it's snowing—”
“Don't care,” Bucky mumbles, and kisses Steve again and again, “been waiting a long goddamn time, pal, right here is fine with me—”
“The neighbors,” Steve says, sounding pained, “Mrs. Henderson—”
“Fine,” says Bucky and pulls back, rewarded by the sight of Steve with his hair sticking up everywhere, his mouth swollen and red, his cheeks flushed pink. “But for the record, if you ever again mention your elderly neighbor while I'm tryin' to kiss you, I'm gonna be very insulted.”
“Noted,” Steve nods, and they fall through the front door together and slowly make their way up the stairs to Steve's bedroom, pausing every few moments to kiss each other senseless against the banister, the wall of the hallway, the doorframe. Finally, Steve evidently gets fed up and literally scoops Bucky up, like he weighs barely anything, carries him across the bedroom, and drops him on the bed. Bucky bounces off the mattress a little as Steve crawls over him, and when they kiss again, Bucky laughs into Steve's mouth, their teeth clicking together.
Steve breaks away and stares down at him, looking kind of amazed.
Bucky squirms a little. “What're you lookin' at?”
“You,” Steve says softly, shaking his head. “You're ridiculous, God, look at you.”
“Yeah, well, you ain't half bad yourself,” Bucky says, and then drags Steve back down into another kiss, cradling the back of Steve's head in his metal hand. They kiss more slowly, though not as slowly as under the mistletoe, and much deeper, their tongues sliding hot and good, noses bumping when they change angles, gasping into each other's mouths. Bucky reaches down and pulls at Steve's shirt. “C'mon, c'mon, too many clothes.”
“Same to you,” says Steve, and helps Bucky strip out of his sweater, tossing it onto the bedroom floor. They press together for a moment, warm and bare. Bucky kisses down Steve's neck and slides his hands all over Steve's skin, feeling the muscles of his back and stomach twitch under Bucky's touch while Steve pants into his hair and nips his ear. Then Steve's going for Bucky's zipper, and fuck yes, this is finally happening.
They scramble out of their pants and boxers ungracefully—almost falling off the bed, in Bucky's case—and laugh into each other's shoulders and mouths the whole time, stealing hard, searing kisses every few seconds until they're both naked, kneeling in the middle of the bed. Steve pulls Bucky close and slowly lowers him back onto the mattress, kissing him the whole time. Then they're fitted together, Steve's weight solid and real on top of Bucky, and he shifts his hips and their cocks slide together and Steve whimpers.
Bucky suddenly has a new life goal of making that sound come out of Steve as often as humanly possible.
They rock into each other for a few long moments, Bucky wrapping his legs around Steve, and then Steve reaches down and takes hold of him and Bucky lets his head fall sideways, moaning into Steve's neck.
“Yeah,” Steve says roughly, “yeah, I know,” and licks his own hand, jacks Bucky's cock fast and firm and so good, rolls his balls and then slowly moves his fist all the way up from the root of Bucky's cock to the tip, working it the whole time.
“Jesus fuckin' Christ, Rogers,” Bucky manages to choke out, his own hands moving across every bit of Steve he can get to, cupping his perfect ass and kissing messily and open-mouthed at his jaw, the hollow of his cheek.
Soon enough his hips are thrusting upward involuntarily, and he feels his orgasm building fast, so he spits into his right palm, reaches down between them, and takes Steve's cock in his hand. He's probably being really sloppy, but Steve definitely doesn't care—he's moaning as soon as Bucky gets his hand on him, hips stuttering down, and then Bucky's coming hard and saying Steve's name like a prayer and he feels Steve come all over his hand and stomach, warm and wet.
Steve collapses onto him, breathing fast. Bucky loves the weight of him, the solidity, and he loops both arms around Steve's back and holds him there, feeling Steve's heart beat quick against his own.
Steve presses kisses to Bucky's slack mouth, his nose, his forehead, his cheek. Bucky smiles, soft and small and with his eyes still closed.
As soon as he can talk again, he says, “I vote we don't leave bed for a week.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Steve, and rolls off him, grabbing some Kleenex from the bedside table. “Here. We should probably shower, but...”
“Nope,” says Bucky. “Remember that thing I said about not leavin' bed for a week? I meant that.”
Steve huffs a laugh as he wipes his come off Bucky's stomach. “What about food?”
“Does Stan's deliver?”
“No, but I've been a loyal customer for ages now,” says Steve.
“Right, yeah, they totally owe you at this point.” Bucky grins up at him languidly, and Steve throws away the tissues and curls up to him, one arm draped across Bucky's chest. “Great. We're set.”
Steve beams at him, bright and open. Bucky feels his own face soften, and he probably looks like a total sap, but he can't quite seem to care.
They lie there quietly for a few minutes, just breathing with each other. Bucky's halfway to dozing off when Steve says, “Hey, so...not to ruin the moment, but—”
“I like you,” says Bucky, and he thinks maybe the words don't come out quite as casual as he wanted. “I'm fucked up and I got a metric shit ton of baggage, but there it is. I like you a stupid amount. So. Deal with that, I guess.”
Steve leans over him, all wide-eyed and sincere. “Bucky, don't negate your own emotions. Your adoration of me will never be stupid.”
Bucky stares at him for a solid ten seconds until Steve's poker face breaks and he snorts, head falling back onto the pillow. Bucky rolls his eyes, fighting back a smile. “You actually had me goin' there. Adoration, Jesus Christ.”
“I like you a stupid amount too,” Steve says. “Deal with it.”
“You are such a fuckin'—a fuckin' punk, you know that?” Bucky says, twisting his neck to look Steve in the eye. “Samaritan McBoy Scout my ass, now I know the truth.”
“What kind of an insult is 'punk'?” Steve asks, raising one eyebrow. He doesn't even try to deny the other accusations, because Steve is absolutely a secret evil genius.
“The kind that fits you.”
“Well, you're a jerk.”
“Yup,” says Bucky shamelessly. “But turns out that's your type, so I'm all right with it.”
“Can't argue with that.” Steve frames Bucky's face in his hand and gazes down at him, all mussed and kiss-bruised and gorgeous. They grin at each other for a second like the idiots they are, and then Steve leans down to kiss him.
They end up missing out on watching the ball drop, but something tells Bucky that Sam and Natasha won't mind.
* * *
They aren't perfect, just like Natasha said.
Bucky isn't fixed overnight, or ever. He still gets triggered by strange, random things, he still gets nightmares, and sometimes he has the strong urge to just get drunk and forget everything for a few hours. But Steve has triggers too, and he gets it as much as another person possibly could, so on the bad nights they lie in bed and watch MasterChef with the lights on.
Bucky starts going to Sam's Veterans Affairs meetings. After that, the combined efforts of Sam and Natasha eventually convince him to see a therapist, so he goes once a week even though in the beginning he absolutely hates it. As a reward, Natasha promises to shut the Devil Cat in her bedroom every other time Bucky comes over. She mostly holds up to it.
(It helps that Sam hates the cat too, because turns out it enjoys walking on his face with its claws out when he sleeps. Natasha insists it just likes him. Sam, Bucky, and Steve all know better.)
In April, Sam finds Steve's sketchbook open to a sketch of sleeping, naked Bucky, and complains loudly and frequently until the day Bucky walks in on him and Natasha, and then they've all seen way too much of each other and nobody has any ammo anymore, except maybe Steve.
Bucky moves in with Steve in late June. For Steve's birthday, they eat pie from Stan's Diner in bed and turn up the music so loud they can't hear the fireworks outside.
That night, Steve tells Bucky old stories about growing up in Brooklyn, being small and sickly and getting into fights with guys three times his size, and Bucky tells him off for being such an idiot when Bucky wasn't around to have his back, and Steve laughs and blushes and Bucky realizes with a jolt that he loves Steve so much he can barely breathe with it.
He freaks out a bit the next day, until Natasha smacks him upside the head and tells him to get his goddamn act together.
Sam informs him that he and Steve are really gross and have been for a while now, “but in, like, a nice way. I guess.”
Even so, it takes Bucky far too long to tell Steve exactly how he feels about him, because he still has this piercing, ice cold fear that everything precious will somehow be taken away from him. But Steve is patient, more patient than Bucky thought possible, and one morning he wakes up with Steve curled around him and Steve makes this dumb, snuffling noise in his sleep and nudges his nose into Bucky's neck, and Bucky panics a little and wakes him up and says it over and over again, pressing it into Steve's sleep-warm skin, and everything may not be perfect, but it is good and solid and real, and that's enough.