Steve Rogers comes back to school for senior year carrying ninety pounds of muscle stuffed under his track shirt, like maybe he swallowed his twin over the summer, and true to any Ovidian metamorphosis in the high school fish bowl, he gets noticed.
All the better for Bucky, who skims through the hallways invisible, hair grown out long enough that being unrecognizable makes up for what a pain in the ass it is to keep pushing it out of his eyes. School’s been back a week and no one’s referred to the sparkler incident in the art shed last year, so it must be working. Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that it’s senior year means no one gives a shit anymore, too preoccupied with muddling through like he is in a vain attempt to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
Maybe not, though. It’s been a week and he can still hear Rogers’s name in hushed whispers every time he turns a corner. He's relieved when he reaches his locker and finds a familiar, if not friendly, face.
"Natalia," he says, just for the way she narrows her eyes, a look like passive aggression was invented just for her, made sharper by the ring of black eye makeup and red bangs framing her face.
“James.” She presses a slip of paper to his chest. “IT, AP Chem, Music labs, Shop—with Gunderson, right? He’s the one with the metal fetish?”
Bucky nods, grabbing the timetable. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t risk a third strike just for your thanks, you know.” She crosses an arm over her chest, inspecting her nails as she leans against his locker. “As easy as it is to break into the system. Because I’m fucking brilliant.”
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Yeah, Nat, you’re fucking brilliant. Now can I?”
She pitches off the locker so he can get inside, making grabby hands at the stack of vinyl leftover from his Russian power metal phase. The records were wedged under his mattress for the last two years, forgotten until Natasha mentioned in passing her fondness of music in her mother tongue, and who was Bucky to hold out on granting a friend cherished childhood memories? Someone that would bribe a friend with cherished childhood memories, that’s who.
She flips through them, business-like, while Bucky grabs his books for the next two periods. Sometimes when he talks to Natasha he walks away feeling grifted, like a mark, someone Natasha does business with, even if that business is getting drunk and throwing rocks at cars driving through the underpass.
“Cool,” she says, giving nothing away, “see you at lunch.”
“Why,” he says, then, “no. If you and Clint broke up, keep me out of it.”
“You owe me pudding. That was the deal.” She walks backwards with a look on her face that dares him to deny it, but if he did he’d probably end up worse off and even deeper in her pocket. He spares a moment for whatever pride he thought he would keep going to her for a timetable change and not Tony Stark, since they’re matched in ability to get the job done. He hadn’t factored in Natasha’s inclination to lord it over him, but at least he wouldn’t be stuck fielding smartass questions from Stark about whether the metal rods keeping his arm bones together could detect water sources.
He doesn’t really care for pudding, anyway.
High school cafeterias are their own form of corporal punishment. Bucky would rather take a nap in a supply closet, but the three cans of Red Bull he drank since first bell have worn off and it’s instinct to grab a tray and load up on whatever fresh hell the school is serving to balance out the cans of Coke. Meal of the Day turns out to be Macaroni Surprise, that would look just as appetizing served out of a dog bowl as it does the plate it’s lumped on. He doesn’t ask what the surprise is, just pockets a pudding cup, dumps a handful of shrapnel in the lunch lady’s hand, and hightails it out of there before she counts it.
Or he tries to. He’s stopped by a broad chest and deceptively endearing smile that Bucky, despite his best efforts, would recognize anywhere.
“Sorry, sorry,” Steve Rogers says, hand coming up to steady Bucky’s tray despite the way his own tilts in his other hand. The macaroni congealed as soon as it hit the plate; Bucky could turn it upside down and it would probably stay suspended, but it might make Rogers cry, considering how concerned he looks already.
Bucky can’t help the way his nerves jump at the Hall Monitor badge pinned to Rogers’s Letterman jacket, and the list of badges that follow for clubs that didn’t even exist until Steve Rogers came along.
“I paid for this,” Bucky says, too fast to sound casual. It’s not technically a lie.
Rogers furrows his brow in confusion. “That’s great.” He looks down at his own tray and rights it before anything falls. “So did I. Um, I was wondering—I was going to sit over there. Do you—” He makes a motion with his tray to indicate a table that Bucky has to turn to see. There are a lot of tables, none with Rogers’s usual gang, so Bucky gives up.
“Whatever.” He shrugs, moving to step past. It’s just that—Rogers is broad now, in a way he never used to be, and unless he moves Bucky’s going to have to push some people aside or climb over a table. He does neither, and the moment stretches on in awkward infinity.
“I meant, um.” Rogers makes the same gesture. “Do you want to join me?”
He’s wearing that same smile, the one that makes him look a little deranged when viewed up close. Bucky can feel the moment his own body tenses for impact, the way his guard slips on and his periphery narrows and widens in the same breath. Rogers’s upper lip is sweating, tugged tight to one side so long it’s starting to look pained; his shirt is stretched so tight over his chest Bucky can almost count his heart beats. Bucky could incapacitate someone inches taller and stronger than him without using his hands, though fists are more effective, especially if he’s outnumbered, though in his cursory glance around he didn’t see Wilson, or Banner, or any of the others, which means—Bucky doesn’t know what it means.
“Unless you’re already sitting with someone,” Rogers continues. “It’s just, I never see you in here so I thought—never mind. It’s Bucky, right?”
If it’s some kind of recruitment speech, it’s not going well, and Rogers seems to realize because his shoulders slump down half an inch and he stops smiling painfully. They’ve stood there long enough to get comments from the people trying to push through. It’s typical that a guy like Steve Rogers would attract attention even standing still, and just Bucky’s luck he’s caught up in it.
“Sure,” he says, when the anticipation and fractured unease in Rogers’s expression becomes too much to take, and he pushes his way through to an empty table at the back of the cafeteria, Rogers following on his heels. He takes the seat across from Bucky with a look on his face—nothing like the pained smile from a minute ago—that makes this seem like something it’s not and couldn’t be. It’s a thought that keeps Bucky on edge.
“I’m Steve, by the way.”
Bucky waits for the hand he’s supposed to shake, but it doesn’t appear. “I know,” he says.
Steve smiles again, nothing pained about it.
Afternoon rolls around and finds Bucky splayed out on the tennis court, the black of his clothes soaking in the sun like a wormhole, steeping in smoke and heat. To his right are the fields, and half a dozen classes dressed in mismatched uniforms kicking around various balls; to his left, a blank canvas. He stares at the wall, taking in the dirt and wear from years of public school budget cuts and amateur tennis playing, picturing something greater that bubbles up from the empty, vacuous space inside him. So far it’s a puffy mass of cloud-like shapes blurring together, nothing concrete, nothing usable, save for the palette he has in mind. It’ll do for now.
The bell rings somewhere in the distance while he's waiting for the picture to appear. He finishes his cigarette and leaves.
By the third time Steve asks Bucky to sit with him, Bucky’s given up expecting an angle. Despite the badges he pins proudly to his lapel, Steve still blushes at any mention of his achievements. Bucky overhears of a dozen different events coming up, all captained by Steve, from people that clap him on the shoulder but never stick around while Bucky is there.
Mostly they don’t do much. Steve eats and Bucky watches the people watching them, confusion written on their faces at the same thing Bucky’s wondering: why, of all people, Steve Rogers took an interest in him.
“I’ve been thinking about joining track,” Steve says, casual enough, and oh. Bucky grits his teeth. It starts with one straw of hay. “Do you run?”
“If something’s chasing me,” Bucky says. “Sure. I run.” He pushes his food around on the plate, hands shaky from caffeine, but his appetite is non-existent. It seems to be the answer Steve’s looking for.
“Great, you can help me train then.” He says it like it’s already settled, and Bucky’s not so used to differentiating him from the paid authority figures that govern the school that he can help bristling. Beneath that, though, he feels something else. Maybe Steve is testing him.
“If you think you can keep up.”
He doesn’t imagine the blush that creeps across Steve’s face, but he puts it down to just another thing that threatens to turn this—this lunch time acquaintanceship, whatever—into something it’s not, if Bucky lets it. Steve smiles, dangerous in ways Bucky could never be.
It’s a beautiful day, Natasha tells him with a foot on his chest. She doesn’t press down, so she must be feeling friendly. “What the fuck are you doing outside?”
Bucky shrugs and shields his eyes from the sun so he can see her towering over him. This must be what bacteria feels like in a Petrie dish. “It’s a beautiful day. I can enjoy things.” He pulls a pudding cup out of the jacket under his head and tosses it her way.
“Huh,” Natasha says, “guess there’s a poet in there somewhere, under all that tacky black clothing.” She folds herself down onto the grass beside him with careful grace. Off to the side, Clint watches them from behind his sunglasses, leaning against a wall, arms crossed over his chest in a way that emphasizes his biceps through his shirt.
“Your bodyguard is getting restless,” Bucky says with a wave Clint must take as a challenge, judging by the way he flexes his arms.
“Why was Steve Rogers asking me about you.” Natasha squints her eyes in suspicion, which on some days is as good as a hello, and on others a threat. “Is he trying to rehabilitate you for his bully committee thing. I saw you guys having lunch together, is that, like, a thing now.” Despite the way her words are technically phrased as questions, she isn’t asking.
“He thought I was dealing, wanted me to get him some juice.” Natasha levels him with a stare. “I don’t fucking know, Nat. Why don’t you interrogate him instead?”
“Oh right, because he wants something from you and you’re not getting anything out of it.”
Bucky says nothing.
“Holy shit, you’re not, are you. Steve Rogers saunters over with his big shoulders and varsity abs and you practically drop trou.” The laugh that startles out of her starts out in disbelief before it turns mocking. Her perception is a double-edged blade Bucky would gladly impale himself on if it wouldn’t bring her so much joy. He buries his face in his elbow so he doesn’t have to look at her, considers burrowing under the earth so she’ll leave. “You’re priceless, Barnes. Like one of those lab rats that keeps hitting the electric shock instead of the amphetamines.”
“I didn’t even say anything. There’s nothing going on.” It comes out pitiful, muffled against his skin.
“That’s not what everyone will think when I tell them different.”
Bucky sits up, failing not to be goaded by the edge in her voice. “Gossip and threats, really? You used to be so much better than that. Guess the crown must be slipping.”
“Don’t be an asshole. I’m trying to help. And the crown, as always, fits perfectly.”
“I don’t need your help,” Bucky snaps, and Nat rolls her eyes.
“Yeah, you do," she sighs, an approximation of sympathy. "You need the most help out of everyone in the world.” She reaches out to snag a piece of grass from his hair, flicking it away, and when she turns back all traces of mocking are gone from her expression.
“If you do anything to make him uncomfortable, I’ll ruin you.” Bucky doesn’t try to lower his voice, or make it seem like a threat. She’s far too used to playing human battleships to take him seriously if he did.
“You wouldn’t even know where to start. Face it, I’m invincible.” She’s preening so hard it gives Bucky a headache, and then an idea. He pulls her in by the back of the neck and kisses the smirk off her face, all while Clint watches from twenty feet away.
A brief moment of shock or hesitation on Natasha’s part follows, but it’s all Bucky needs to prove his point. She pushes him off, looking like she’s going to take a swing, and some part of him wishes she would. Instead, she pushes him back into the ground, swearing as she stands up.
“That could’ve just as easily ruined you, you know that?”
Bucky grins up at her, baring teeth that are just as sharp as hers. She flips him off and stalks away, focusing her tirade on Clint when he catches up to her. Bucky watches them squabble, reaches for the discarded pudding cup, and digs in. It still feels like nothing but mush in his mouth, but it tastes like victory.
In the few short weeks since Steve walked up to him in the cafeteria, Bucky’s almost grown used to surprises, at least the not-entirely-unpleasant ones involving the troupe of white-teethed athletes and future sorority pledges that revolve through Steve’s periphery on the regular. They nod at Bucky, now, as if being seen talking to Steve Rogers makes him worthy of being acknowledged. That doesn’t explain why, when he gets to his desk in English, someone’s already sitting on it.
Pepper Potts smiles up at him, so bright that somewhere overhead the sun is crying from jealousy. She’s put together in a way that makes Bucky wonder if anyone could really be like that, and what she’d look like under that makeup and hair bleach.
“Hi,” she says, and it’s almost anti-climactic. Really, there should be streamers or a sign in the sky to point out in writing the ridiculousness of the situation.
Bucky glances around for another person she could be talking to, but because he accidentally turned up on time, only half the class is seated and the rest aren’t there yet.
“Do you need something?” He’s still coming down from the blunt he half-smoked during Chem and he can’t help his creeping paranoia.
Pepper isn’t deterred by his tone. Still smiling, she nods towards the back of the class. “Come sit, Bucky.”
Against any better or sober judgement and more out of curiosity, he follows her and takes a seat. Pepper sets her books and pens out with pedantic precision, and Bucky feels like he should be offended at a molecular level.
“Are you even in this class?”
She holds up a copy of The Crucible that’s more color-coded postits than pages. He raises an eyebrow because no one takes that many notes, and, also, it doesn’t prove anything. Half the grade is reading that book. “Do you want me to show you my timetable?” she asks, a false challenge.
“Only if you want me to see it.” He drops his voice low and winks, can’t help sprawling out in his chair and smirking just for the way Pepper scoffs and pretends that she’s not into it. As cliche as it is, as is the long line of gutter-dwelling car-thieving gamblers he comes from, it’s his strength, too. A weapon he can use when people like Pepper want something from him. He can play the daddy-bait these sophomore princesses are so fond of better than he can play himself most days. He barely has to try anymore.
The thing is, he doesn’t want to. People like Pepper know the real deal when they’re looking at it. There’s no world in which he gets a hand up her shirt and comes out unscathed. Even if he did, he wouldn’t find the kind of smooth chest and dimpled abs that flash through his mind unprovoked, peach fuzz hair that sticks from the v-neck of Steve’s shirt, Atlantean shoulders fit to bear the weight of high school star athlete’s future.
There’s no point wasting anyone’s time, least of all his own, so he drops the act and opens a book.
His buzz continues throughout the rest of the period until the bell rings, and he’s all but forgotten Pepper until she catches him in the hallway.
“We’re having a soiree after the game next Friday. You should come.”
“Soiree,” Bucky repeats, rolling the word around on his tongue.
Pepper purses her lips like she can’t be sure he’s making fun of her. “A get-together. Steve can fill you in on the details. Thor—the new transfer—he’s got liquor covered, and Tony—you know Tony?”
Bucky doesn’t roll his eyes, but only just. “Is he bringing the clown?”
“The clown dropped out, unfortunately,” Pepper says, tone dry and whip-sharp. “But you’re okay to step in, right? Big shoes to fill.”
This time Bucky does roll his eyes, but by the time he’s thought of a cutting reply, Pepper’s already gone, ponytail swishing across her back with each step, the hallways parting for her.
The thing about Steve is, when he says he’s going to do something, he follows through. Which means for Bucky a five mile run at ungodly hours of the morning that has him sweating through his good jeans while Steve mocks him with each easy, calculated stride. Eventually Steve takes pity on him and they stop at a park bench, where Bucky collapses, breathing heavy and regretting so many things. It’s no consolation that Steve also looks a little out of breath, because clearly this punishment is all Bucky’s.
“So, you do a lot of cardio, then?” Steve asks.
“I never said that.” Bucky’s recovered enough that it doesn’t hurt to breathe, hunched over and eye-level with Steve’s stomach.
“Right, only when someone’s chasing you.” Steve’s tone is playfully light, and ok, if he wants to play that game where they flirt and pretend it’s something else, Bucky is down.
“If you’re offering,” he says, and Steve breathes out a laugh.
“Wouldn’t be much of a challenge, would it?”
Bucky hangs his head, letting the stray strands of hair fall into his eyes, shielding whatever naked expression is threatening to expose him. “You run,” he says, “I’ll chase.”
When he looks up, Steve meets his gaze with a grin that’s nothing short of double-dog dare.
Bucky reaches a hand up slowly until his palm meets the dead centre of Steve’s chest, where his shirt clings, still damp and dark with sweat under Bucky’s fingers. Steve tenses, but doesn’t pull back.
“Tag,” Bucky says. “You’re it.”
He barely has time to savor the swift changes in Steve’s expression before he takes off running across the grass, all gazelle legs and speed and power, a sight worth watching. Bucky gives him a ten-second head start before he launches off the bench.
Even if he’s doing the chasing for once, propelled by the need to prove himself, Bucky’s fast. Fast enough to catch the varsity captain in almost no time at all with a tap to the shoulder.
“Not bad,” Steve says, coming to a stop.
“You weren’t even trying,” Bucky says, biting back disappointment and the pout forming on his lips. “Come on, Rogers, no need to patronize me.”
Steve shrugs, looking sheepish. “Maybe I wanted you to catch me.”
For a moment, Bucky doesn’t move, blindsided by the implication in Steve’s tone, and the fleeting memory that follows, a boy no more than a child with a hard look in his eye despite his size and frailty, saying, once you start running, they’ll never let you stop. Bucky hasn’t stopped running in years. The moment breaks when Steve steps forward and lands a tap to his arm.
This time isn’t so easy; Bucky’s feet pound the grass as he runs, pushing himself harder to catch up to Steve’s measured strides. They hit the play equipment at the same time, bark crunching under their sneakers as they stare each other down across the swing set.
Bucky’s teeth hurt, breathing so heavy through his mouth, his jeans chafe in uncomfortable places and should probably be burned and put out of their misery, and the longer he stands still the more he can feel his muscles protest, but he hasn’t won yet. He still has something to prove.
It’s late enough now the sun is out and burning the dew from the grass, heating Bucky’s skin through his shirt—a goner by now, too heavy for running in late summer, covered in holes and washed so many times the band logo isn’t legible anymore. It’s nothing for Bucky to strip it off and toss it. The way Steve tracks the movement and stares like he can't help himself is worth so much more.
He's lucky no one is around to question or care about his motives because none of the excuses he tells himself could hold under duress. Bucky likes the way Steve stares. It makes him forget there are other people more deserving of Steve's attention, Steve's kindness; Bucky forgets himself, and everyone else.
Steve visibly swallows, plants his feet, mirroring Bucky's stance with his hands braced on the swing set. Bucky feints left, darts right, and pounces, tackling Steve so easily it should be embarrassing for him. But Bucky's seen Steve play, he must be used to it.
Steve goes down like a sack of flour. "Ow," he says, shocked into a smile. "Jesus, Buck. You got some fight in you."
Bucky doesn't envy how the ground must be feeling with Steve's weight on it, except in all the ways he does. "I'm not joining any football team."
Steve laughs and his entire face brightens with it. He looks made for lying on his back in the grass while the sun lights up his skin. It's all Bucky can do not to kiss him right then, his knees aching while he kneels in the damp grass, shirtless and ungraceful and made of sharp edges.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Steve says. He accepts Bucky's hands and they pull each other up unsteadily. The adrenaline has started to wear off and just like a hangover it leaves Bucky lightheaded and aching, reaching out a hand to brush Steve's elbow before he can stop himself, like he's touch-starved.
When Steve glances back at him, Bucky's mouth is too dry for excuses, and he keeps his hands to himself. If Steve minds, it doesn't show.
The paint fumes cloud Bucky's head and settle into his skin, mist and color clinging to the hair on his arms like armor. He sets down the can of black when he's finished touching up the shadows, digging through his bag for the white that he shakes absentmindedly while the shades of blue and gold and red swim in his vision.
After a few more minutes, he steps back to inspect his work, kicking empty cans out of the way before he trips over them. It’s—it’s ok. It’s no Futura, no Bald Eagle Hanging Itself With Old Glory: Patriotism that stood here for almost three weeks until the school painted over it, but it lacks the kind of subtlety Bucky was going for trying to elevate a character into a symbol. If it’s even possible to do that with a few cans of spray paint.
There’s something about the image of a naked, horned man floating on a cloud made of stars and stripes that he hopes will leave him alone for a better idea now that he’s painted it.
Behind him, someone snorts in derisive laughter. Bucky pulls his mask down and turns, bristling.
Rumlow—of fucking course it's Rumlow—saunters over with his hands shoved in his pockets, taking in the mural with undisguised scorn. "Christ, Barnes. Is this what you do in your spare time? I'd have bet money on car jacking, myself." As an afterthought he adds, "Heard your old man's outta prison."
Bucky, silent and with his best dead-eyed glare, stands his ground with a spray can in hand, rattling it slowly for effect.
“Is that supposed to be a threat?” Rumlow snorts. “Whatever. Pierce wants you in his office. He said something about you taking it so good for him?”
Even if Rumlow didn’t walk around with a sneer set permanently in place like he’s just asking to be hit, Bucky can barely restrain himself just listening to him speak. They were almost friends, once, and Bucky spares a moment of thanks that that never happened. There’s only so many times you should try with someone who ties cats tails together just to watch them fight.
“Coming from the resident jizz-rag?”
Rumlow’s lip curls in disgust, sneer turning into a sour look Bucky relishes as he shoulders his bag, and the flinch he gets by kicking an empty spray can at Rumlow is too good to resist.
Lunch must have ended while Bucky was busy. The grounds are empty and Bucky makes his way undisturbed to the other side of the school, ditching his gloves and mask along the way, pulling on his jacket to cover the paint on his arms.
Pierce is waiting for him when he gets there, leaning back in his chair with his fingers steepled as if in deep thought. Bucky hasn’t watched the news in a while, so maybe cockroaches have developed higher cognitive function.
“James,” Pierce says in greeting, and Bucky takes a seat before he can suggest it. There’s a bowl of mints on the desk that Bucky associates with the image of a priest feeding church crackers to small children.
“You asked to see me, sir?”
“How are you, James,” Pierce says in an infuriatingly placid tone, not quite a question.
“Busy,” Bucky says, blowing a loose strand of hair from his face.
“I can imagine. I’ve seen your recent class schedule this term, and admired your—extra curricular activities.” After a pause for dramatic effect, in which Bucky tries not to get lost in the pattern of his tie, Pierce continues, “Quite a talent you have. I’m surprised you didn’t sign up for Ms Carter’s class.”
“Oil painting doesn’t really interest me.”
Pierce tips back in his chair with a considering look, weighing Bucky on imaginary scales. “Contrary to popular belief, this country doesn’t despise all sources of creative artistry. The school gets funding for the arts, and the students who perform well get scholarships, entry into some of the best colleges in the country, prestige. The chance to shape the future.” He pauses his sales pitch just long enough that Bucky starts to grow restless, trapped under Pierce’s hard stare. “Are you really going to say no to all that?”
Bucky swallows. This isn’t the first time he’s heard this speech, had carrots dangled under his nose like unfathomable riches, but once it was almost enough to make him change his mind about the way things could be for him, like maybe they weren’t so final, like maybe he could do something that mattered instead of becoming another in a long list of wasted potential. Coming from Pierce, it turns his stomach. Anything worse than going after what he wants and not getting it is knowing Pierce was the reason he could.
“If it’s all the same to you, sir,” he says through gritted teeth, “I’ll pass.”
Pierce smiles, slow and cancerous. “That’s the problem, James. You don’t get to pass, because it’s not being offered. Not to you, at least. There are at least two dozen other students in this school who could make something of themselves and are actually trying, while you scribble on walls and waste everybody’s time. It wouldn’t be fair to them to take away an opportunity and give it to someone undeserving.”
Bucky barely hears him finish over the blood pounding in his ears. The realisation of what he is, just a chess piece for whatever game Pierce is playing, settles into his gut. His fingers itch and his legs ache to run.
“Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to attend all your classes. Show up and pay attention. You’re going to clean that mess off the tennis court. After detention every day this week, of course.”
Bucky squares his jaw. “And the alternative?”
“There is no alternative. You do what I say, or I’ll expel you before you get a chance to corrupt anyone else.” Pierce pushes his chair back to stand. “You know what’s funny about your timetable change? There are no forms for it, and none of the staff have any memory of doing it for you.” He pauses again. “Believe me, whoever’s doing your dirty work is going down if you do.”
“Is that it?” Bucky asks, adding, as condescendingly as possible, “Sir.”
Pierce glares. “Get out of my office,” he says, and Bucky does, taking his time, slow enough to hear the muttered, “before I do something that puts one of us in the hospital.”
Bucky closes the door behind him with a shaking hand, too roughly to be anything but petulant.
He needs to get drunk.
“It’s all bullshit, though. The education illusion, it’s just a farce. Like a circus.” Natasha takes a swig from the bottle, sloshing the liquid as she gestures up at the ceiling. They’ve had this conversation at least twice in the last three hours, and the only thing that’s changed is their combined level of sobriety. Bucky grunts in reply and snags the vodka out of her hand before she spills it all over his sheets.
Despite this, she continues, “All of this pressure and expectation just to work the same service industry job that’s going to obsolete in the next ten years, anyway. Such a waste.”
Bucky rolls a cigarette between his fingers. Something in her tone makes him grit his teeth in anger—the idea that Natasha expects her life to go that way, that she has to. They’re no better than their fathers, disparaged and ruined by the idea that they’re owed something they never got.
He takes another swig and holds the bottle up. The floor is comfier than it was an hour ago, leaning up against his piled mattresses while Natasha lies across them, his body too heavy and sluggish to turn. “Aren’t you too Russian to be this cynical?”
Natasha yawns. “It’s realism, not cynicism, adapted to the environment.”
He keeps the bottle up, but she doesn’t take it, so he sets it down beside him where it crushes a perfect circle into the carpet. It’s two-thirds gone already and he’s no where near as drunk as he needs to be, humming with restless energy, his cigarette rolled near flat.
“You sure know how to have a good time,” Bucky says, and gets a hard shove to his shoulder.
“Well, fuck me for indulging your pity party. If you wanna set fire to cars or stalk Steve Rogers, don't let me—”
Thankfully she’s interrupted by her phone and the orchestral dissonance of Janet Leigh being murdered in the shower. “Hang on, it’s Clint," she says, digging around the sheets.
Bucky tips his head back to leer. “Does your boyfriend know his ringtone is the Psycho music? Can I tell him?”
Natasha glares as she fits her phone to her ear. “No, shut up. Not you, I was talking to Bucky. How many other Buckys do you know, Clint?”
Bucky laughs and tips forward to avoid her flailing limbs. The college radio streaming from his laptop switched from metal hour to Icelandic indie acts some time ago without either of them noticing, so he looks through his music library for anything loud and angry enough to drown out Barton’s tinny voice.
His phone lands next to him and Natasha pauses her lovers' quarrel to say, “Hey, loser.” It’s open to a new message from Steve. Bucky regrets every day he befriended someone smart enough to guess all his pin codes before he’s even thought of them.
don’t suppose you know of something that gets blood out of whites? :S
Dont bother, look scool. Got a story to tell me
run in with a line backer. sam wilson takes state seriously
Guess you need to step up yur game
Bucky types slowly, mashing buttons anyway, pushing down the image of Steve hurt and bleeding but shrugging it off and the surge of feeling it brings. He can’t help typing another another text.
If he scartched up ur pretty face ill kill him
He presses send and drops back onto the carpet, closing his eyes against a rush of vertigo and dizziness. The bottle rolls empty against his stomach, and Natasha’s voice, mocking and fond and acidic in equal measure, lulls him. His phone vibrates again, but it takes a minute to check it.
might do with another training session if you think you can handle it
the running, I mean. since you almost died last time.
Bucky skims through the list of all the things Steve Rogers most definitely didn’t mean to suggest and breathes through his nose to steady himself.
Ill show u what i can hsndle
He sends his last reply before he buries his face in the carpet and it’s lights out.
Sometime in the night he ends up on the bed, pushed to one side to avoid Natasha starfishing all over him. She kicks him anyway, repeatedly, half a dozen times before he realizes it’s intentional, and then twice more when he groans and refuses to move.
“It’s like waking the dead,” she mutters, then, louder, “Bucky, company.”
He opens his eyes past the gauze wrapped around his brain and the sunlight streamed into the basement like a missile aimed directly at him, and finds Steve standing next to the stairs, too clean and out of place among the scattered pieces of junk that make up Bucky’s bedroom.
“Um, the front door was unlocked,” Steve says, glancing between the bed and the stairs.
Bucky peels his face off his pillow, using all the strength in his ruined body to look around, processing information at a glacial pace. Natasha’s sitting on the end of his bed in a towel, wet hair hanging down her back, phone pressed to her ear, and staring straight at Steve as she mutters to whoever’s on the other end. After a minute Bucky realizes she’s not speaking English, and feels marginally better that he didn’t pass out so hard he gave himself brain damage.
He turns back to Steve, swings his legs onto the floor to stand, and everything tilts violently. “Right,” he manages, “you meant today.”
“I can come back,” Steve says, “if you’re busy, or.”
“Yeah, no, s’fine.” Bucky shoots Natasha a look over his shoulder, baring his teeth at the glee she’s failing to keep out of her voice. “I need, um.”
“I brought some stuff.” Steve steps forward and holds out a backpack that can’t be nearly as heavy as it feels. “No one can run in jeans.”
“I can run in anything I want,” Bucky mutters, but he pulls out the clothes anyway, thin, cotton, lightweight, a parody of what Steve’s wearing now. He goes to take off his shirt only to find he’s not wearing one. Or wearing pants. Right, because when it’s this hot he usually doesn’t sleep in anything, but since Natasha’s slept over he kept his boxers on, like a gentleman. Which Steve can now all put together for himself because he’s standing in Bucky’s room. One day, someone’s going to laugh about this.
Bucky kicks the bed covers off and stands with another headrush he blinks away. Steve moves like he’s going to help before he steps back instead. “Are you okay, Buck? You look like you went through hell and back.”
Bucky grimaces as he pulls the clothes on—Steve’s clothes, smelling of fresh linen and lemon, too big for him despite the way all Steve’s shirts cling to his body like a second skin. “Don’t have any aspirin in here, do ya?”
Steve gives him a smile that pulls at the cut on his lip and makes him wince.
“Damn,” Bucky says, tipping Steve’s chin to inspect the bruising across his mouth. “Did Sam take a swing at you? Don’t worry, I’ll get the hit out.”
Steve shakes his head, breath ghosting over Bucky’s fingers. “Bad tackle, just split it is all.”
“If you say so.”
“And a—football to the face a couple times,” Steve says in a rush, embarrassment turning his cheeks red. “Guess I was distracted yesterday at practice.”
Bucky feels an ache in his chest, at Steve hurt, again, or—or something else he can’t reach through the haze of his hangover. “Feels swollen,” he says, pulling his hand away after a length of time that can only be described as embarrassing.
“It’s alright,” Steve says, “I alternated ice and heat right after, it’s just superficial.”
“Uh huh.” Bucky’s distracted by the way Steve’s shirt matches his eyes, wondering if it was intentional, and does he pick his shirts based on how great the pastels make him look? Or does every piece of clothing aspire to complement Steve? They’re standing so close, chests almost touching.
Natasha clears her throat, startling them both. She flicks a hair band that Bucky snatches out of the air while silently daring her to say anything. “Have a good run,” she says in a choked voice, because she’s incapable of backing down from a challenge.
“See you at school,” Bucky says pointedly, flipping her off with one hand while he steers Steve out with the other on his shoulder. He slips his shoes on at the door, feeling the summer heat as soon as they’re outside.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” Steve begins. “You didn’t answer your phone.”
Bucky ignores the lurch of his stomach and focuses on the sound of their feet hitting the sidewalk in tandem. “Nat’s just a friend. Trust me, nothing going on there.” He tries to sound casual, reassuring.
“It’s really none of my business,” Steve says, like an apology.
Bucky’s winded after only a few minutes while Steve sounds like he could keep this up all day. Bucky stops with a hand on his arm. “We’re friends, yeah?”
Steve looks at him, eyes wide and so blue. “Of course, Buck.”
“Then you don’t have to feel weird about it. Nothing’s off limits.” He quirks the corner of his mouth up and Steve relaxes. Bucky can’t help touching him, fitting a palm over Steve’s uninjured cheek like imprinting on a duckling. “Besides, you gotta have some stories of your own that’d make a nun cry, and it’s only fair, right?”
Steve flushes and laughs. The sight of it makes Bucky’s chest clench with pride, because he did that. He only gets a couple seconds to savor it before Steve shoves him lightly and takes off jogging again, and then it gets too hard for Bucky to stare and keep up at the same time.
“Never did take you for the love ‘em and leave ‘em type.”
Bucky almost misses the way Steve ducks his head like he’s embarrassed he said it, still flushed. “Suppose I should keep some secrets, then,” Bucky says. Steve keeps jogging, so he does, too.
Forty minutes and some miles later, they stop at an intersection a few blocks from both their houses. Steve stretches on the curb while Bucky is sick in a bush.
“Feel better?” Steve calls, balancing on one leg, apparently unsympathetic to a dying man.
“Could run a marathon right now.” Bucky slumps in the dirt with a groan. “Just watch me.”
Steve stands over him, sweating just enough that his skin glows with it, the veins in his arms distended like a bodybuilder’s wet dream. When he holds out his hand, Bucky waves him off.
“Ngh. Go one without me.”
“Never leave a fallen teammate behind,” Steve says. Bucky takes his hand at the same time he wraps a foot around Steve’s knee and trips him down to Bucky’s level. Steve lands in the dirt next to him, sighing, but not looking surprised.
“How about two fallen teammates?” Bucky grins.
“I should have seen that coming.” He doesn’t move to get up, though. The sun is out, turning the clouds it shines through fluffy like golden fleece, hanging low enough that Bucky could pluck them from the sky. Steve shifts and their arms brush, warmth in the contact. “So, we’ve got a game on tomorrow night.”
Bucky hums in agreement. “I heard.”
“Are you busy? I mean you don’t have to come if it’s not really your—Stark always has these parties after and Pepper asked if you wanted to come.” He sounds hesitant, nervous, but he should know by now that the list of things that Bucky would say no to if Steve asked is dwindling by the day.
“Yeah, she asked me, too.” Steve raises his eyebrows and Bucky continues, “Well, she told me about it and acted like I’d already said I was gonna show.”
“Are you gonna show?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“It can get kind of explosive with everyone there. Usually Tony gets drunk and breaks things. If you don’t want to go, it’ll give me an excuse not to—I’ll just say I’m hanging with you.”
Bucky turns to him with an idea forming, sizing him up—all two hundred pounds of muscle and clean teeth, a face so sweet it could kill a diabetic and has probably never seen a minute of debauched sin. “Maybe I should go then. See what you and all the other teen royalty get up to when no one’s looking.”
Steve shifts again, uncomfortable. “You know it’s not like that. They’re not any different from anyone else, even if Tony acts like it. That’s just Tony.”
“We’ll see,” Bucky says, relaxing further into the ground.
“Does that mean we’re going?”
“Yeah, Rogers. I wouldn’t miss a chance to drink on Stark’s dime.”
He gets another laugh out of Steve for that and any more he’s going to start carrying around a mason jar to collect them in. He wants to keep the things that Steve gives him and make them permanent, somehow, more than just the fleeting seconds and minutes and hours he's allowed before time takes them away. He feels jealous of the air that touches Steve where he isn’t, his flushed cheeks, his lips, the hairs on his knuckles. Bucky looks away, scared of Steve catching it on his face.
After a while, Steve says, “We should really get up. Hard ground is terrible for the back.”
Bucky groans to cover a fond laugh. “You should do infomercials. Most annoyingly informative guy ever. You sound like you’re about to sell me something.”
The way Steve’s biceps strain as he pushes himself up is outrageous. If that was for sale, Bucky would buy ten.
“How about a shower?” He holds out his hand again and Bucky uses it to pull himself up despite the protest of every single muscle in his body, save one.
He times his response so that he’s right in front of Steve, smirking when he says, low and heated, “If you’re offering.”
Steve doesn’t blush this time. He goes still like he's bracing himself, fingers wrapped loosely around Bucky’s wrist, eyes sinking to Bucky’s lips. Now would be a good moment, Bucky thinks, if his mouth didn’t taste like vomit, if his body wouldn’t betray him the moment he stepped into Steve’s space, if he knew for certain he could pass a kiss off as a joke given the chance Steve was uncomfortable, unwilling, without Bucky getting his heart broken in the process.
Steve still hasn’t moved. Bucky brushes his thumb over Steve’s wrist and slides his hand out of his grip. “Another time, then,” Bucky says, as neutral as he can, letting it hang in the air with Steve while he turns and leaves.
He makes it all the way home before his heartbeat slows to a normal pace and he can breathe again. With Natasha gone, he takes advantage of an empty house by stripping down and getting clean, one hand braced on the shower wall, the other on his dick, and the thought of Steve, seven blocks away, doing the same thing.
Come Friday night, the bleachers are full of noise and warm bodies, two things Bucky avoids when he can help it. Natasha sits beside him oozing disdain for Bucky's benefit and shovelling M&Ms into her mouth, but she perks up when the players run onto the field, figures in grey and white storming out to the crowd's applause.
"Where's your boy? I can't tell any of them apart."
Bucky nods in the general direction of the team. "Over there," he says, not bothering to point out that Steve is taller and broader than anyone around him and impossible to miss even with a helmet, or the Captain's patch on his jersey.
She rolls her eyes, looking about as tolerant of Bucky's feigned ignorance as he is of hers.
Below them, Tony Stark's band of loyal followers take up an entire row, with Tony in the middle, his arm slung around a girl Bucky doesn't recognize, and making enough noise between them to drown out the starting whistle.
Bucky catches sight of a few familiar faces in the huddle before they break, Wilson and Morita and Tim Dugan, and picks out a few others from the way Steve's talked about them, their playing styles, if they've earned a place in the inner circle, if they're in it for the win or if they can think beyond the game. It makes Bucky wonder what kinds of things Steve says about him, if he thinks Bucky's as trustworthy as anyone on Steve's team.
The game starts with a whistle and cheering and a collision of bodies like a war zone that even Steve gets lost in before the whistle blows again, the positions reset, and it happens all over. Bucky loses count after four, lost between how little he cares about football and how much he cares what Steve thinks of him that he turned up anyway. Bucky's so obvious he might as well be standing on the sidelines with the cheerleaders, wearing a shirt with Steve's face on it, waving one of the banners he painted before the game but chickened out of bringing at the last minute.
Steve, though. Steve is worth watching. The agility Bucky's come to expect from him when they train—not that he ever really thought of it as training so much as an excuse to be in Steve's orbit—is nothing compared to him in his element.
Steve's team scores, judging from the response from this side of the crowd, and Natasha swears loud enough to earn them both looks.
"I'm no football expert, but I'm pretty sure that's good," Bucky says.
"That's why you're not the expert," Natasha says. "I've got fifty bucks riding on our side winning by less than ten points up, and that's not gonna happen if they keep scoring."
Bucky shakes his head. "At least you didn't bet against them."
Natasha chews her candy. "Not with their track record. Dum Dum's gonna fumble the ball in the third quarter and cost us the point, and Dernier's gonna owe me a lobster dinner. You've got paint on your face, by the way."
It happens like she says, and she calls enough plays that the accurate ones outweigh her shit-talk. After a while her voice and the noise from the crowd fizzle into the background and Bucky can enjoy the game, Steve, whatever, in peace.
When it's over and the crowd disperses from the stands, Natasha disappearing between one beat and the next, Bucky makes his way down to where the team is celebrating their victory by carrying Sam Wilson on their shoulders and showering each other in Gatorade.
Steve's grinning when he walks over, backlit by floodlights and looking the picture of all American hero. "Hey," he says.
"Hey to you, too." Bucky immediately regrets opening his mouth for how fond he sounds, and steps back from the people around them.
"Did you, uh, enjoy the game?"
"Yeah, it was, um. You scored a lot. Made the other team look like chumps."
The way Steve blushes makes Bucky restless, like there's a build-up of static electricity under his skin and if he could only touch Steve he could let it all out. Instead, he takes another step back as a couple of players pass through.
Bucky motions after them. "You should, uh." His cheeks feel tight from the stripes of paint.
Steve nods, but it takes seconds for him to move or look away. "I'll meet you in the parking lot?"
He's swept up in a wave of grey and white while Bucky's throat closes over a reply, leaving Bucky alone with the last dregs of supporters. He spots Natasha under the floodlight with a helpless-looking Frenchman in a headlock.
"25-19, pay up, Frenchy." She tightens her hold until Dernier pulls the cash from his pocket. She lets him go and he stumbles away, swearing in elegantly-accented English.
"Was that really necessary?" Bucky asks. Dernier's not a bad guy so much as a born miscreant, something Natasha usually admires. Not that that's ever stopped her getting her way.
"Got me my money, didn't it." She counts the money and pockets it, sniffing. "Me and Clint are riding with you, by the way. He got a lift here, too, and I'm not calling up my sister again."
"Find your own way home. I got somewhere to be." Bucky looks for Clint but the man is a ghost, only showing up when it's most annoying.
"Yeah, the party, obviously."
"What?" Bucky whips back around and Natasha smirks. "It's invite only, no way I'm sneaking you in."
"Aw, is someone worried he'll look bad in front of his crush?"
Bucky scowls, which only makes Natasha smile wider. "Fuck off."
"You're so easy," she says with a laugh, but she's not wrong. "Clint's part of Stark's crew, and he's taking me. I don't need you to sneak me in like a prostitute, christ."
"Whatever. Steve's driving, so ask him."
He turns to leave just as Clint shows up, clad in combat boots and a sleeveless leather vest that matches Natasha's coat. Together the three of them look like they're cosplaying The Matrix.
"If anyone asks, don't tell them you know me. I've given up fighting rich kids who mistake me for stealing their money."
"Is it Lent already?" Natasha asks.
"Everyone knows everyone in this town," Clint says, and yeah, he's not helping.
They get to the parking lot at the same time as Steve, who's dressed in a button down and slacks but somehow makes it work. Because he's so terribly and annoyingly helpful, something Bucky is still adjusting to, Steve claps Clint on the back and offers him a ride before either of them ask. Bucky tries not to succumb to the feeling that everything in his life is conspiring against him, even when Natasha and Clint spend the whole ride alternating between fighting and making out in Steve's backseat.
"I'm not really great at these kind of things," Steve says apologetically. When Bucky raises his eyebrows in a silent question, Steve clarifies, "Parties. A couple people is ok, but Tony's parties are, y'know. A lot. Or, can be."
Bucky bites the inside of his cheek to stop from smiling. "Trust me, if you can captain a football team while three hundred people watch, a room full of eighteen year olds drunk on Four Loco should be a cinch. But if you wanna leave or whatever," Bucky scrubs a hand through his hair, "let me know, we can get out of there."
Steve gives him a smile that's more nervous than anything Bucky saw on him throughout the game. Bucky turns the radio up for the rest of the journey to drown out whatever Natasha and Clint are doing to the upholstery and each other.
The Stark manor is exactly how it looks in every paper and newsreel, modern, imposing, and lit up to show it off. Light and music spill out the front door to greet them as they park on the front lawn, and it soon becomes clear by the cars already there and the ones following them that there's going to be more than a roomful of people. By the time they get out of the car, Natasha's already ditched her coat and boots for heels and a dress, fluffing her hair as she marches through the front door all Jessica Rabbit swagger with Clint following appreciatively. Bucky walks in with Steve, hands shoved in his pockets to avoid the urge to touch, unsure if he's welcome to and what it would mean if he did.
There's enough people inside that they lose Natasha and Clint as soon as they get past the butler, which Bucky counts as a blessing. The less people that saw them walk in together, the less will associate Bucky and Steve with the damage inevitably done and lives inevitably ruined. The room they come to is more an entertainment room than anything else, considering the size of the television built into the wall and the pool table in the middle of the floor. The doors open to the backyard and what sounds like a pool, or a waterfall, Bucky’s not going to rule anything out when there’s a turntable in the corner, and a list of objects worth more than his entire high school education.
It’s some consolation that Steve looks just as uncomfortable, up until Tony Stark appears, holding an open bottle of sparkling wine in his hand and looking artfully dishevelled.
"If it isn't the man of the millennium himself," Tony says, arms out and palms up as if he's admiring Steve, an air that vanishes for something more suspicious when he turns to Bucky, "and the new-waver. Glad you both could make it. Take a look around, have a drink—you, oh captain my captain, have earned it."
Tony leads them to an actual bar, not a fridge or a cooler for half a dozen people to cram their six packs into, although it has both of those and a bartender who pours two beers but isn't paid to enjoy it. Bucky accepts his, needing to be so much drunker to deal with how weird the night is already. He exchanges a look with Steve, who seems about as comfortable as a priest in a whorehouse, while Tony is distracted by the DJ.
"I don't know if I should drink," Steve says, "it never ends well."
Bucky shrugs, but just because he doesn't live by Steve's rules doesn't mean he can't respect them. He skulls his own drink with his head tipped back, plants the cup on the bar, and reaches for Steve's, all while Steve stares, impressed. "Yeah, save it for the keg stand later. The trick is to open your throat," he says, joking. Steve still looks uncertain and Bucky sighs, slinging an arm around Steve's shoulders, which is not the easiest thing to do because, well. Steve is so broad. And tall. It's a thing. "You don't have to impress anyone. And if anyone gives you shit about it, I'll get Nat to break their legs."
Steve looks appropriately scandalized. "Er, don't do that. I play with most of these guys. They need their legs."
Bucky squeezes his shoulder. "You're the boss," he concedes. The house is packed by now, people spilling out into the backyard with red solo cups and bottles in their hands, and despite the constant reminders of where he is, Bucky starts to relax. Tony watches him from across the room like Bucky might be casing the joint, which adds a layer of familiarity to the situation, even if the environment is new.
"Do you want—" Steve begins, before Sam Wilson slides over, thousand watt smile leading the way, to clap Steve on the back and generally be attractive, as is the case for most of the people Steve knows. If Bucky wasn't already so gone for Steve he might be developing a type. Or maybe it's because he is so gone on Steve, and can't have Steve, that any well-muscled jock who can string a sentence together is fair game, even if they are poor imitations.
"Hell of a match. Never seen a center field so nervous when you came at him," Sam says, and predictably Steve blushes. "Looked like he was ready to lie down and give up after you got through with him."
Bucky eases away to finish Steve's beer, conscious of how his jealousy makes him tired and bored. Sam nods in his direction and Bucky raises his cup in a salute that's only half-sarcastic.
"Let's head outside, I hear Tony's got a new setup out there." Sam directs it to both of them, while Bucky looks anywhere else to avoid being included.
Steve glances over but Bucky's pretending to be interested in the girls dancing in five inch heels on the pool table. They're whipping their wet hair around and not wearing much. It's probably interesting to someone, and in this fun house of teenage ruin, drinking imported beer in Tony Stark's entertainment room, Bucky could be that someone. He could be anyone he wants, and he wants to be drunk.
Tony corners him again at the bar as Bucky's getting a refill and downing three shots of tequila, just enough to take the edge off.
"You know," he starts, and Bucky braces himself, "some people might find it suspicious how quickly you and Steve Rogers became best buds."
Bucky takes a sip of his beer, deliberately slow. "Let me guess: you're not one of them."
"I'm a betting man," Tony says, "more interesting that way. For instance, I bet it was a really funny story how it happened."
"Right," Bucky says. Typical, he finds someone that would find it funny and that person is Tony. "Well, I didn't fuck his sister or anything, if you were hoping for gossip." Bucky glances around, but Steve is already gone.
Tony smiles, mostly teeth. "You want a tour?" He's not the kind of guy that people would say no to very often, but his tone suggests he's expecting it from Bucky.
And he thought the night couldn't get any weirder.
"Sure, why not." Bucky drains his glass and follows as Tony leads him away. The people who aren't already too drunk to be oblivious watch them, and Bucky clenches his jaw, keeps his head up but his eyes averted. While Tony seems to thrive on it, making comments and catching eyes as he parts the crowd, Steve always grins and bears the attention like it's just another thing he has to deal with, along with GCSEs and the pressure of college recruitment and the job he works to help his parents pay bills, but it's not something Bucky agreed to when he started broadening his social horizons. Part of him wishes befriending Steve was a ploy instead of a fortunate accident, because at least then he could enjoy the perks and not feel as though he's using him anyway.
The house is open and spacious with too many staircases and weird insignias on every surface. It's basically a frat house. Every room Tony leads him past has a television, central air, and some kind of helper appliance-slash-robot that Tony boasts he built himself. The only one they stop in is towards the back of the house, half the size of the others and made smaller by the detritus of half-finished electronics and technical equipment, most of which Bucky doesn't have names for.
"This is my work room," Tony says, taking a seat at a desk that's half buried, "or my work-in-progress room. Check this out."
He pulls over a wire rack with a mannequin hanging on it, the least modern and electronic thing in the entire house. Attached at the shoulder is a replica of a human arm, the metal sleek and carefully crafted, plates fitted together almost seamlessly, the fingers delicate. Tony picks up a headset that's more a strip of plastic than anything and lights up when he fits it around his ears. As soon as it's on the hand flexes like it was waiting for him to breathe life into it, fingers curling, fist clenching, the whole arm moving with all the ease of something tired of unbeing.
Tony spins in his chair, silently ecstatic. He's probably throwing a parade in his head.
"It's another robot," Bucky says, tone carefully neutral to mask how impressed he is.
"Eventually. Right now it's just a prosthesis. Polymer sensors, acrylic servo mechanisms, the works."
"Wireless EEG headset. No implants?"
"All controlled by the BCI."
"Huh," Bucky says, allowing himself to be impressed.
Tony shrugs, pleased with himself. "I got the idea from you, actually. Your, uh, pet project last year that almost burned down the school? Aside from the logistical errors, not such a bad idea in itself."
Bucky crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the desk. "That wasn't a prosthesis."
"Weapon, then," Tony supplies. "Gotta tell you, Barnes, with the coat and the hair and the scowl, attempting to build a suit of armor didn't do much for your image."
"Not everyone cares that much about their image."
"That sure does explain some things."
Tony places the headset back, rummaging through the bottom drawer of his desk. "Hand me that, would you." Bucky picks through the mess of wires and spare parts cluttering every surface for a corkscrew just as Tony holds up a bottle with a flourish. "Great, that's perfect. How'd the suit catch fire? Soldering accident?" He busies himself with opening the wax seal, doing a pretty good job of pretending he doesn't care about the answer. It's how he operates; Bucky didn't need to get him alone for more than a minute to figure out Tony's deal, that he trades in information like Natasha does in secrets, that he's just as desperate for the approval of the uninformed masses as they are for his. Seventeen years old, a genius, and already famous for his father's last name. The irony that both of them carry on a legacy neither asked for isn't lost on Bucky.
"What's that now?"
"The suit was fine. I was stoned and there were these—" Bucky pauses, but Tony's watching him now, not bothering to hide his interest. "This pack of sparklers. And, for whatever fucking reason, a whole bunch of kerosene."
"Not an act of domestic terrorism, then." Tony holds out the bottle and Bucky takes it, wiping the lip with his sleeve.
"Just being fucking clumsy." Bucky swigs and holds the bottle out, but Tony doesn't reach for it.
"Keep it. There's gallons of that stuff lying around."
Bucky shrugs, because what the fuck, and gulps down a healthy mouthful that burns his throat in the sweetest way. A shout travels up from outside, followed by a clang of metal on concrete and cheering. Bucky's ease is swallowed by swift panic and he pushes himself off the desk, his thoughts back on Steve. Tony's fiddling with something and doesn't seem to notice the sound or Bucky moving towards the door.
"It's the whole earnest dork thing, isn't it," Tony says. He peers up from whatever he's doing, pins Bucky with a sobering look. Bucky doesn't move from the doorway. If this night has proved anything, it's that he's not the only one here with their mind on Steve. "Trust me, I know, it's hard to resist. He's a good guy, though, uncomplicated, but good. Shame about the suit. You should come over, if you ever want to start up a new project." He's already turned back to his work when he finishes talking, sparing Bucky the need to reply.
He makes his way downstairs more unsteadily than he did going up, passing empty bedrooms with freshly made sheets and a dozen inconspicuous corners for doing dark deeds. Outside, there's a mass of people lined up around the edge of the pool while four others square off inside it, Natasha among them, with a blonde guy twice her body weight sitting on her shoulders. Pool chicken. Seems some things are the same no matter how much money you have.
Off to the side, under the Bali hut and its unnecessarily large 3D plasma television, Steve's standing at one end of a foldout blackjack table with a handful of cups in front of him, arm raised and poised to take his shot, face creased in concentration like winning a game of Beirut is what this whole night's been leading up to. He lands it effortlessly, throwing his hands up in victory as the people around him cheer just as feverishly as they when he scored the winning touchdown, while his opponent drains her last cup. She's already landed a few shots of her own, enough that Steve's unsteady on his feet when he wanders over to where Bucky's standing.
"Easy there," Bucky says, steadying him, not proud of himself that he feels grateful he gets to. "Can't help impressing people, huh."
Steve shakes his head. "Seemed like a good idea. Not so sure now."
"Deep breaths, pal." Bucky rubs Steve's shoulders and glances around. "Let's find somewhere quiet, hey?" Steve nods, looking glassy-eyed and just shy of drunk, loose enough with a couple buttons undone and a trail of beer spilt down his undershirt. Bucky ignores the urge to suggest that Steve take it off to let it dry, because he's a good person, maybe, and he can prove it to himself by not taking advantage of Steve or fighting any of his friends when they get too close. He leads the way around the pool, where Natasha and Thor are winning chicken by attempting to drown Bruce and Clint. The pool house is easy enough to climb even with a bottle of bourbon tucked under one arm, and once he's up he offers Steve a hand.
They sit there while the party rages on below them and the night stretches in every direction, trading bitter-sharp swigs of bourbon until Steve waves it away with a cough.
"Not as bad as I thought it'd be." Steve leans back on his elbows, head tilted up to the sky. From up here, on Tony's imperial hill, the whole town lies like a blanket of lights and distant noise in front of them, but it's trivial, incomparable to the sight of Steve tipsy and relaxed.
Bucky stretches out as languidly as his jeans allow, feeling at ease for the first time tonight. The bourbon sinks into his stomach to join the rest, a warm, gluttonous pool that melts his bones. "Can't say I'm mad you dragged me out."
"Don't think I'll ever get used to crowds though." Something in Steve's tone turns dour, and when Bucky chances another look, Steve's eyes are glassy and sad.
"You won't have to. Those looks won't last forever."
Steve quirks his lips like he's trying to smile but can't quite make it. His chest falls as he breathes out, nothing short of artistry even in that. "Sometimes it feels like people only want me for what I can be to them, y'know. Not who I am. It's exhausting, Buck."
Bucky swallows around the lump in his throat that threatens to take his voice, the way it always does around Steve. "You know I don't give a shit how many touchdowns you score, right? Football just isn't my thing. And I couldn't care less about GPAs and all that clique bullshit about how who you know is what you are. School is a complete waste of time if everything you've achieved can be undone with a few letter grades. All that stuff, it doesn't make up who you are."
"Of course," Steve says, meeting his gaze, "that's why—that's the thing: you don't care about that stuff, you don't want anything from me, and you're still here." He rolls onto his side and it brings him closer, almost an invitation. Bucky is weak, and he wants; Steve is wrong, he just doesn't see it. "It makes me—I don't get it. It drives me crazy. You—"
"I don't want anything from you, Steve." Bucky's mouth turns stale with the lie. "You don't have to try to be anything around me."
"But if you did?'
"If I did what? Want something?"
Steve nods, mouth open and wet with spit. Bucky can't help the way his body reacts, leaning closer to Steve's warmth like he's suddenly freezing.
"I'm—I wouldn't ask for it."
Steve nods again, decisive, as his eyes go soft, fond, crinkling at the corners with some memory, too expressive for all the ages he hasn't lived yet. Even if all he had were his eyes, he could still sway empires, he could turn Helen mortal and plain. Bucky understands the gods, and why they envy humans, for all that he feels right now.
"Nothing's off limits, remember?"
Bucky nods, hair falling around his face. Steve reaches up to tug at one of the strands, eyes wide and so blue. Bucky doesn't move so much as fall into him at the same time Steve pushes himself up and they meet somewhere in the middle, hunger trapped behind their teeth. Bucky opens his mouth on instinct, sighing at the way Steve strokes his wrist, light strokes with trembling fingers. He seems to get the idea and Bucky grasps the back of his neck, swallowing Steve's gasp, needing more than just lips, tongue and teeth and breath, too, everything Steve has to give. By the time they break apart, Bucky feels dazed, lightheaded, and Steve, lying on his back, looks about the same, like someone knocked the breath right out of him.
Bucky should really move or say something, but his mind is too preoccupied with the thought of kissing Steve again to come up with anything that wouldn't ruin the moment.
Steve breaks the tension with a smile and a hand on Bucky's waist. "That was really nice," he says, ever the gentleman, "we should keep doing—that, if you, um."
"You think so?" It might be the hardest thing Bucky's ever done not to jump Steve right then, but he manages to restrain himself.
"Absolutely, we definitely should."
Steve pulls Bucky in this time by the collar, sucking on Bucky's lip like he's trying to singlehandedly disprove all of Bucky's assumptions about him, kissing like no inexperienced minor. Clearly he's done this before. Bucky finds himself sinking lower until he's pressed against Steve's chest, feeling firm muscle beneath the layers of clothing and warm skin beneath his palm when he slides a hand up Steve's shirt.
Steve's mouth falls open on a gasp for Bucky to push his tongue into, deepening the kiss while tension knots in his stomach, the base of his spine, his half-hard and untouched dick. He swings his leg over and plants his knee on the roof in between Steve's, all the easier to keep kissing with a hand in Steve's hair and the other skimming down his stomach to catch on his waistband.
"Bucky," Steve say, voiced strained. He takes Bucky's face in his hands, thumbing across the stripes of paint on his cheekbone.
"If it's too fast," Bucky says in a rush. He's never been this nervous just kissing anyone before, but he's only kind of drunk, and Steve would make anyone nervous, looking at them like that.
"Maybe not right here. I'm not saying no, because I want to, I really do." Steve's embarrassed smile does strange things to Bucky's chest.
"Good, 'cause I definitely do, too."
The sound of his voice carrying across the yard, over the music that ten minutes ago would have drowned him out, gives Bucky pause. Steve goes still beneath him, faced creased in confusion. A familiar laugh rings out over the techno, followed by a hushed argument that features their names.
"Goddamnit," Bucky says, hissing it through his teeth. He eases off of Steve to glance over the slope of the roof, sighing at the sight of half a dozen people crowded at one end of the pool, all staring up at him. Natasha waves. "What d'you fuckers want?" He doesn't have to raise his voice; it carries just as clearly as before.
Steve stirs beside him, shifting onto his stomach to peer over the roof. When they see him, hair ruffled from Bucky's fingers, flushed and kiss-stupid, Tony uncorks a bottle of champagne and Natasha yells, "Thirty minutes or less, I called it first," raising her arms in victory. The urge to climb down just to push her in the pool rises in a sudden wave, and passes when he catches sight of Steve burying his face in his arms.
"Oh god. Why were they—did they listen to all of that?"
"Just the dry humping," Tony calls.
"Your friends are degenerate perverts," Bucky says, loud enough for them to hear.
Steve groans and buries his agony in Bucky's shoulder. "Someone else can have them."
Bucky would blame the alcohol for the surge of fondness he feels for Steve if he didn't already feel it when he was sober, too. He presses his forehead to Steve's, breathing him in and ignoring the catcalls from below. "Fuck 'em. Let's go find somewhere with a bed."
Steve smiles up at him, one of those smiles that turns everyone else into radio static and background flashes as Bucky takes Steve's hand and leads him back into the house, avoiding high-fives, the condom Tony tries to slip into his pocket, and the champagne shower Natasha pours from her perch on Sam's shoulders, through the sweating mass of hormones made flesh on the dance floor inside and blocking the staircase until Bucky shuts the nearest bedroom door behind him and they're finally alone.
He almost collapses with relief, back hitting the door. Steve stretches out on the bed with a hand covering his eyes, shoulders shaking in silent laughter. Just watching him brings back the desire Bucky felt when they were kissing, his body still on edge and tightening as he walks closer to the bed, as if there's a pulley drawing him to Steve. The way his life has been going lately, it's not a completely ridiculous idea. He strips layers as he goes, paying close attention to Steve's expression and the way his mouth falls open as Bucky trails his coat and shirt and boots behind him. The bed dips beneath his knee as he leans on it, leaving enough room for Steve to make the next move, or shy away.
Steve wets his lips. "Is that it?"
Bucky glances down at his own body, feeling a cold trickle in his stomach. "Is what it?"
"Thought you were doing a strip tease for me." Steve bites the corner of his lip, but his smirk shows in his eyes, a challenge that sparks heat down Bucky's spine and has his hands falling to his jeans along with Steve's gaze.
Bucky pauses with his button undone and his fingers on his fly. "Your turn. Fair's fair, right?"
Steve nods on autopilot, seemingly transfixed until Bucky fists a hand in his shirt and he springs back to life, sitting up with his legs splayed around Bucky's to tug both his shirts over his head in one go. His hands tremble and his arms get stuck in his buttondown. Bucky, his own hands sweating—anticipating the chance to touch Steve for real this time, press his fingers into the divots along Steve's hips, lick along his chest and sternum, make him feel as much as Bucky does, show Steve just what he does to him—kneels on the bed to pull him free, tossing Steve's clothes aside.
This close, Bucky has to touch. His palms fit over Steve's chest, the perfect size, slipping down his sides to pull him closer until they're kissing again, frantic and sloppy, colliding like bullets on impact. The alcohol buzz has mostly worn off, replaced by a headier buzz that drowns out any thoughts beyond where Bucky should put his hands and what to do with his mouth. Steve's arms wrap around his waist to bring them even closer together, pulling Bucky into his lap with strength he's always kept in check and never seemed to take for granted. Bucky's all too happy to be pulled around, pushed onto his back with Steve's weight holding him down, Steve's tongue in his mouth, Steve's fingers on his skin.
Steve hisses when Bucky nips the thin skin of his neck, not hard enough to mark, but enough to feel. Later, when Bucky gets his mouth on places no one else gets to see, he'll give Steve marks to remember him by. For now, he bites and sucks anywhere he can, across Steve's jaw, throat, collarbones, earlobes, kisses his flushed cheeks, the bow of his lips, the hair on his knuckles, and each time gets a different response. He catalogues Steve's reactions until they bleed into each other and he's sighing into Bucky's mouth, rolling them onto their sides with his eyes open and breath coming heavy between them.
Time ceased to be relevant as soon as Bucky closed the door. They could have been making out for thirty seconds or three hours, but it's still the longest Bucky's kept his pants on for anyone, whatever that means.
"Is it alright if we don't," Steve begins, ducking his head. "Just yet, I mean. I'm still kind of drunk, is all."
Bucky lifts his shoulder in a shrug that's more casual than he means to be. Despite the desire still pooling in his gut and how they're both kind of hard just from making out, Bucky's content with whatever Steve wants. The list of things he wouldn't do has shrunk down to nothing.
"Is that okay?"
Bucky cracks a smile to relax him. "Foreplay makes the heart grow fonder."
Steve's eyes slip shut as he relaxes. The arm he strokes along Bucky's back isn't as soothing as he probably thinks it is, because Bucky's heart rate hasn't slowed. "I don't think thats how the saying goes."
"How would you know? You're drunk."
Steve falls asleep in minutes. Once again, Bucky struggles to keep pace.
Steve's still asleep when Bucky's internal panic alarm drags him back to consciousness with his pulse beating like a drum and his surroundings blurring until they make sense. He almost trips getting out of bed, tangled up in the most overpriced sheets he's ever slept on, kicking one of the bed posts in the process. Still, Steve dozes on undisturbed, curled into a question mark as if in sleep his body forgets he isn't that same ninety-pound bully magnet. It's no wonder he feels used, when the people who block his tackles and cheer his name now used to steal his milk money and throw his backpack in the dumpster. At the very least, Bucky isn't guilty of any of those crimes
He leaves Steve asleep and secure to find a bathroom and a mirror. The damage is minimal, nothing a t-shirt won't cover, but the sight of it—Steve's lip marks on his neck and fingerprints on his hips—makes his heart rate pick up for a reason unrelated to panic. As happy as his mind is with how the night turned out, his dick has other ideas. The tile is cold under his feet and jerking off in Stark's bathroom surrounded by any number of cameras disguised as objects, even to piss Tony off, lacks a certain appeal. Bucky settles for splashing cold water on his face and the promise of a nap that will turn him halfway back to human.
Only, when he comes back into the room Steve's mostly awake, hair a mess, oozing warmth into the sheets, and still very shirtless. He lifts the covers and Bucky slides in, feeling like this is where he belongs, at the same time the pressure of Steve's hand on his chest makes him want to crawl out of his skin. They must be doing things out of order: first kissing, then sleeping, then cuddling; Bucky's only had practice at the first two.
"Morning," Steve says, all beery morning breath and smelling like a home brewery, skin tacky with stale sweat, everything Bucky associates with a worthwhile hangover and drowsy morning-after sex. "You sleep okay?"
Bucky kisses him in reply, crawling into Steve's space because it's still a novelty, relishing Steve's eager response. Bucky's always been better at actions than words, more bravado than brains, and he's good at this, getting a reaction, knowing what to do when people want him, getting what he wants. The kiss turns sharp but Steve gives what he gets, dragging Bucky in by the hips until Bucky can feel how much Steve wants him, too, rubbing against his thigh.
Steve pulls back, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, sorry, it's just—morning."
"That's the point," Bucky says, kissing him again. He has to lean on his elbows to do it before Steve pulls away for good. "I wanna feel how turned on you are, wanna make you feel that good." Steve shudders out a breath against Bucky's neck that's full of nerves and probably frustration. Bucky can relate, but he saves his breath for other things. "Can I do that? Steve?" He teases his fingers along the waistband of Steve's pants, the other hand carding through his hair. His dick aches with the need for contact. He's more awed than anything that Steve can restrain himself when Bucky is begging for the chance to touch him, and maybe he'll lose it if he doesn't. "Please," he says, but stills his fingers to make Steve's decision easier.
"Yeah," Steve says, breath wet and warm in the spaces they're already too wet and warm, "yes."
Bucky eases him into it by kissing him again until Steve's embarrassment fades and all that's left is the anticipation of what's coming next. Steve's even better at kissing sober, doing most of the work while Bucky starts on his fly one-handed, flaunting his prowess, mostly for his own ego. As soon as he palms at Steve's dick, they both lose their cool.
"Fuck," Bucky says. Whatever Steve groans is lost when he mashes his face into Bucky's shoulder. Even through his plain, white, and sensible briefs he feels good, thick and heavy in Bucky's hand; he probably looks good, too, and Bucky's mouth starts to water at the thought because, shit, he probably tastes even better.
The angle doesn't really work with Bucky's wrist twisted awkwardly, and that makes his decision for him. He takes advantage of Steve's passivity to roll him onto his back and settle between his legs, bracing himself with his own hands bracketing Steve's face. Steve looks ruined already, struggling to keep up for once while Bucky is in his element, and if this is what only a palm on his dick and some all-star necking does to him, imagine what he'd look like after a weekend of this: just them and a bed and a locked door, no clothes required. Bucky kisses a trail down Steve's chest, the rounded slopes of his pecs, his sculpted stomach, the trail of golden hair under his navel, sets his teeth to the angular jut of Steve's hipbone just to hear him gasp.
He taps Steve's side, saying, "Up, lift up," and gets Steve's pants and underwear down in one go. Bucky's already gone so long without Steve's dick in his mouth that he deserves an award, probably, doesn't bother pulling Steve's pants off all the way, just enough to nose along Steve's inner thigh, just enough that it feels messy and dirty, feels right.
Steve's hands grasp at his shoulders and tighten in reflex when Bucky licks the crease of his thigh.
His voice goes strained and low, twisting Bucky's name into a curse. He's flushed all over, blood pooling so close to his skin, dick growing dark and warm with it.
"I'm going to blow you," Bucky says, "if that's alright." Steve makes a noise that could mean anything, and Bucky goes still, backs off. "Steve, if I do something you don't want me to, you have to tell me, alright? Because I want to, and. I won't know if you dont say."
Steve meets his eyes slowly, pushing up on his elbows. "You don't have to feel like—like you need to—"
"Neither do you," Bucky counters.
"It's—no one's ever—"
"Good. I wanted to be the first. So if that's settled, you might want to lie back."
Steve raises an eyebrow like he's doubting Bucky's skill or mocking his ego, but does as he's asked, stretching out again. He always looks good but right now he's a vision, because he's naked or Bucky's so turned on—and those things will probably always go together—pants around his knees and exposed for Bucky to admire unashamedly. Steve's dick, like the rest of him, doesn't disappoint, curving over his stomach, solid in Bucky's palm as he strokes, soft under his tongue as Bucky sucks at the head. The hitch in Steve's breath is all the encouragement Bucky needs to seal his mouth over the head, sliding down as his hand strokes up in counterpoint, pulling out more noises for Bucky to return to later.
Bucky was right: Steve does taste good, salty but clean like good living, filling up Bucky's mouth. Steve's hand clenches around his shoulder, hard enough to bruise, and the pain of that coupled with the growing ache in his jaw is a reminder that this is for Steve, just as much as it for Bucky—to make Steve feel so good he won't be able to jerk off without picturing this, so Bucky makes it sloppy, drips come and spit all over his hand and rubs it into Steve's skin as he jerks him, sinking lower until Steve's dick hits the back of his throat.
The reactions he gets don't disappoint either: the noises Steve makes around his own fist, the pre-come leaking onto Bucky's waiting tongue, the jerk of his hips without rhythm or finesse, his fingers pressing into Bucky's skin anywhere he can reach. Bucky loses himself in learning the shape and feel and taste of Steve, lips warmed by the heat of his blood, pressing his tongue to the slit and his thumb to the underside when Steve tenses and comes without any real warning.
Bucky swallows around a cough and a mouthful of jizz, still working his hand to make up for it, while Steve groans and goes still. Bucky sits back, wiping a hand across his mouth, licking jizz off his chin, feeling extremely pleased with himself.
"Wow," Steve says, chest heaving, dick going soft the longer Bucky stares. "That was—thanks. I mean."
Bucky shrugs, because it's never been a chore for him, and it won't be as long as Steve keeps looking at him like that after, relaxed and smiling and corrupted. Bucky is still hard enough he's nearly bursting out of his open fly, and probably would've come untouched by now just from the picture Steve presents if his jeans weren't so tight. He doesn't have to, though; Steve pulls him back up the bed and kisses him like they were never interrupted, making Bucky laugh.
"What?" Steve asks, kissing the taste of himself off Bucky's lips.
"Nothing. You keep surprising me."
"Oh. Is that a good thing?"
Bucky takes Steve's earlobe between his teeth. "Keeps me on my toes, and all that."
"You're not so easy to figure out yourself. Do you want me to—" He pauses while Bucky settles between his thighs, hissing when their hips make contact, blood pounding through his dick. "Reciprocate? It's only fair."
Bucky shakes his head, too lost in rubbing against Steve's thigh to be patient with him, or last longer than a minute with Steve's mouth on his dick. He presses his face into Steve's neck and reaches into his jeans, groaning at the contact. "No, you're good, this is good."
Despite Bucky's protests, Steve reaches down anyway and takes him in hand, kissing Bucky again as if to distract him from the heat of Steve's palm. It's been a while for Bucky, months probably, and Steve's hand is warm and steady and slick with sweat, better than all the times Bucky jerked off thinking about this moment. Heat and pressure coil in the base of his spine, and it's all he can do not to shoot his load at the first touch.
"Have you ever," Bucky says, gasped into Steve's mouth, "this, with anyone else?"
"Is it that easy to tell?" He smiles, a joke and a contradiction to how well he's undoing Bucky already. He must be naturally gifted. "Not so different from doing it to myself," he adds, and Bucky groans at the image, one he's used before to do exactly this.
"Christ, that's hot, tell me more about that."
Steve laughs, so easily embarrassed it's more part of his personality than anything. He tightens his grip but slows his pace even while Bucky thrusts into his hand. "I usually start kind of slow, like this, just getting into it, y'know."
"Skip to the end, shit, you overestimate how long this is gonna last."
Steve laughs again, a proper laugh that reverberates through his chest and into Bucky's, undoing him all over. He picks up the pace but keeps a steady rhythm, twisting his wrist, thumbing across the head of Bucky's dick, moving with Bucky's thrusts, total varsity moves. Each kiss is sloppy and uncoordinated with how Bucky is breathing but Steve keeps an unrelenting rhythm, even as his other hand drops to Bucky's waist, fingers splayed out across his back, so close to the crease of his ass. Any closer, and Steve would be able to push his fingers in. Bucky would let him.
Bucky's body tenses as he spills over Steve's fist, eyes scrunched up tight, orgasm taking up all the space in his brain. It goes on for what seems like hours, Steve patiently milking the last few drops despite the pool of come on his stomach and Bucky's added weight when holding himself up becomes too great of a task.
As firm as Steve's chest is, he's comfortable in all the right places, and Bucky can't bring himself to move. His skin is already tacky with sweat and come and it won't be any more pleasant in a few minutes, but Steve doesn't seem to mind. He strokes a jizz-free hand through Bucky's hair and lets Bucky use him as a human pillow.
Bucky pushes himself back up when he regains feeling in his limbs, dropping back beside Steve and still touching.
"So, we just had sex." Steve's still blushing despite how the rest of him has returned to his normal color.
"Yeah, Steve, so we did."
"Was that, uh, a one time thing?" His voice is full of restrained optimism. Bucky can't help messing with him.
"Didn't think we'd be having the boyfriend-girlfriend talk so soon."
"Neither of us are girls, Buck."
"Are you saying you don't want to be my girlfriend?" Bucky pins him with a stare and manages to keep his face expressionless.
Steve sighs, mouth tugging up at the corners. "I would be honored. To be your girlfriend."
"If word gets out, everyone'll want a piece of you. More than they do already," Bucky adds.
Steve's expression turns serious and his tone goes somber, placating. "Bucky, I don't want anyone else."
Bucky goes still under Steve's gaze. "Yeah, well, you're in luck, 'cause neither do I." The way his voice goes hoarse at the end has nothing to do with how Steve's dick was just in his throat.
"Good," Steve says, and kisses him like closing a deal. "I have to get home soon."
Bucky pulls away to sit on the edge of the bed, stretching. When he looks over his shoulder, Steve's staring at him, not expectant but zoning out. "We better get cleaned up then."
"Is Tony going to bed mad we messed up his bed?" Steve's so earnest it makes Bucky's chest hurt.
"Not as mad as when he sees what we're gonna do to his shower." Bucky drops his voice low and suggestive, kicking off his jeans. He pauses at the door, glancing over his shoulder, when Steve doesn't move. "You coming?"
Steve looks uncertain for all of three seconds until he's up, ushering Bucky to the bathroom, hands on his waist, made frantic by the fear of getting caught that only makes Bucky more daring.
The house is deserted when Steve drives up to it, not that Bucky expected any different. Weeks of mail subscriptions pile up in the letterbox and the door, when he tries it, is unlocked.
Steve hangs back on the bottom step, hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders hunched like he's trying not to take up too much space.
"So, I was wondering," Steve begins, while Bucky plants his feet firmly on the welcome mat, not quite daring to break the threshold in case it turns time back and they revert to how things were the last time he stepped through, before the game, before the party, before—
"Can I drive you to school on Monday?"
When Bucky catches his eye, Steve is all cool self-assurance and the Mr Popular persona he adopts in front of his cronies. Something about being back at the house his roots grew from has Bucky bristling, the dried paint peeling off every surface, the threat of someone turning up and seeing them, whatever. He has to fight the instinct to barricade himself, the urge to skip every second floorboard in case they crumble beneath him.
He doesn't do either of those things. Steve's nervous and he's fronting to cover it up, but Bucky doesn't need to compensate, not after Steve has seen him hungover and drunk and messy and clean again, wearing last night's clothes, and splattered with come. Steve looks straight up at him, sunlight catching in his hair and his eyes squinted against it like it's coming from Bucky. He's still here, and that's all that matters.
Bucky takes his hand off the doorknob and steps down towards the bottom stoop, a compromise. Steve could be within arms reach but neither of them make the first move.
Steve's smile relaxes into something more natural. "Great. That way I won't need an excuse to find you."
"You don't need an excuse to find me," Bucky says, too quickly, sounding desperate. But what else would a person sound like when they've spent the last six years consumed by someone they barely know? All this time, Bucky's one constant has been a memory of a person Steve might have been, but they neither of them were completely strangers, not when who they were was driving them to this.
"I know," Steve says, less self-assured, his persona falling by the wayside. "I just—miss you, is all. When you're not around. Sometimes even when you are, which kinda makes me feel like an idiot, since you're standing right in front of me."
Bucky's breath catches in his throat. This isn't a conversation they should be having while standing more than two feet away from each other, broad daylight, in front of a house so rundown and ugly. It's a conversation for late nights when vodka makes their tongues loose and they can devastate each other with more than words. Bucky takes another step down.
"I'm right here, though."
Steve glances away. His shoulders collapse in on themselves, mountains shifting through the years.
"Steve," Bucky says, forceful enough that he looks. The next step isn't any easier but Bucky takes it, and another, and another. "Steve," Bucky says again, reaching out first like he always does, always the one to initiate contact.
Steve takes a step forward that looks about as easy as it was for Bucky, reaches out and tangles their fingers together. "Monday?"
Bucky nods. Something claws at his chest, making breathing hard, but the touch is grounding. Steve drops his hand and within seconds is at the gate, taking his warmth and sun with him.
"It probably won’t get any easier." Bucky raises his voice loud enough to carry down the street and make Steve pause. "Leaving each other. It never gets easy for me, at least."
Steve's expression drops away, leaving him open, exposed like a raw nerve. It cuts Bucky to the bone. "Me either," Steve says. He offers one last smile before he gets back in his car while Bucky watches, stands there until long after he's gone and with him the ache in Bucky's chest. In their place comes something else, a bandage for his clawed-open ribcage, an image of Steve, twelve years old and standing his ground as oceans part before him and all the ships launched in his honor are washed away.
Bucky stands back from the wall, finally satisfied. In his dreams the mural paints itself, many times over, each time in a different style with different details, but it amounts to the same picture: a boy, almost a man, fair-haired and stationary, wearing a Letterman jacket with a number printed on the back, his shadow elongated across the length of the wall and patterned with stars and stripes.
Several hundred feet away, figures in grey and white shorts run endless circles around the track field, Steve among them. Every time he comes close his head turns in the direction of the tennis court, even as he runs, pace steady and unrelenting.
Bucky's knees ache from crouching, his hands cramping after hours of work. He pulls out his phone with paint stained fingers and sends a picture of the mural to Steve.
It feels like giving away a piece of himself.
This, too, this piece of him will fade in time, from exposure or rain or his own hands, leaving room for something else of Steve's to take its place.