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the broadest stroke of color

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Sarah Rogers always loved Steve's hands.

He remembers lazy Sunday afternoons, draped against the railing of their apartment's rickety fire escape, when his Ma would come outside with a pitcher of lemonade. It was a treat — one she would save for every other weekend — and Steve would always feel a familiar twinge of guilt whenever he'd drink his glass with a few greedy sips.

He remembers his Ma sweeping her fingers through his hair, ruffling his short-trimmed bangs across his forehead. Steve had leaned into her touches whenever he could. Too often she was working at the VA office or laid in bed with another migraine to share these quiet moments with Steve, but there were times she pulled herself from bed to spend her day with him.

He can even remember the feel of his mother's hand on his own when she would bring her touch to linger at Steve's slender fingers. She would pinch at them, measuring their width with careful inspection, before turning her head towards him.

"They're a gift," she would tell him, "so make good use of them. Always make do with what you've got."

Steve had only shook his head, turning his gaze away from his wrists, which pulled sharply underneath his skin. He'd heard what the kids thought of his hands — weak, fragile, girly — and couldn't bear to look his Ma in the eye when he lied.

"I know," he had said one afternoon. From his tone alone, Sarah had known Steve didn't believe her.

That afternoon holds one of his favorite memories, kept locked away for the nights when Steve couldn't sleep underneath the scrutiny of the 21st century.

Sarah had curled her fingers around Steve's wrists, circling them with ease under her calloused skin. She traced her thumb against the patch of hidden veins on the soft underside of his arm before pressing into the skin.

She pulled him into her side, ignoring the stiff line of his back as she rested her head on top of his. "These hands will do a lifetime's work, Steve. That's nothing to be ashamed of. Just remember," she had said, "to do the work you love."

Sarah had gone back inside shortly after with a nagging cough tugging at her lips. Steve kept outside, watching the sunset through the dusty Brooklyn air that all too often choked his own lungs and sent him inside after his mother.

Colors — muted shades of orange, yellow, and gold — clouded the sky as the sun set past the factory on the horizon. The crumbling walls of the old building had let streams of sunlight through potted bricks, and Steve had to squint when he had stared too long at the scene.

His hand was still on the railing, and Steve had dropped his eyes to take in the pale skin, trimmed nails, and bony grooves of his knuckles. His thumb tapped once, twice against the rusted rail before he turned to head back inside.

It wasn't long until he'd come back outside with a few napkins in one hand and a couple pencils in the other.

He didn’t return until he'd drawn everything his eyes could see, that his fingers could capture.

________

At some point, Steve and his art became inseparable.

It was probably around the same time that Steve started fighting, lips loose with spitfire words that ticked off bullies all across town.

It was a good thing Steve had met James Barnes when he did. Steve isn’t so stupid that he doesn’t get just how much he owes Bucky, how he might not have made it out of his back-alley brawls alive like he always did. And, like that, it wasn't just his sketches that somehow came to define everything that Steve was.

In every other way, Bucky filled out the rougher edge of Steve, bringing laughter and poorly timed pranks into his life with a toothy grin and dark coifed hair that made all the girls swoon.

Well, except for Mrs. Nixer who never once smiled at Bucky's gallant thoughts, and had even threatened to rap his knuckles raw after seeing him pass a note to Clara during History one afternoon. Steve had tried to stand up, to tell her that the note was from Steve and that Bucky was just trying to pass it along. He didn't even get his mouth open before Bucky fixed him with a look that just said don't.

Steve had waited outside of school that day, sweating through the thin cotton of his shirt, and sat against the low fence alongside the school's courtyard. His shoes bounced against the concrete when he dangled his feet, careful not to shake his sketchbook that was balanced on his knees. He twirled his pencil between his fingers and stared at the scene caught on the page.

It was a rough outline — all twisted with loose strokes that circled around one another. The scene was recent, Steve knew, but he still couldn't get a few things right. The desks lined in rows were spaced, and even Ms. Nixer's thin lips had been proportioned just so, but still.

Steve pursed his lips. Something was missing.

A voice had then come from behind him, and Steve flinched when a shadow fell over his shoulder. "Hey, punk."

Steve rolled his eyes. "Took you long enough."

"Detention was boring," Bucky answered, shouldering his schoolbag. "But I ran into Clara on the way out. She wants to go dancing this weekend, and I told her we'd be free if she brought…what's her name…Anne? From English?"

It was a story that Steve had heard before. Bucky was popular with the ladies, but everybody in the whole school knew that to get to him, they had to go through Steve first. Which meant Steve had been on more double-dates than he'd like to admit — and even worse — they'd all ended with Steve off to the side while Bucky paraded two girls under each arm.

Steve looked away. "Sounds great, Buck. You ready to go though?"

Bucky was about to nod but stopped short. Curious, Steve followed his friend's stare to his lap and froze.

He forgot to close his sketchbook.

His hands went to shut his book with a crisp snap, but Bucky's voice stopped him.

"You drew that?"

Steve nodded.

Bucky had let out a low whistle. "It's damn good, Steve. Didn't know you could do that."

Rolling his eyes, Steve shook his head. "You never asked," he answered.

Straddling the fence, Bucky laughed, and Steve felt his fingers snap to attention. Finally, he knew what was missing. Turning the sketchbook in his lap, Steve brought his pencil to the paper and began sketching.

The outline of full lips, a sharp jawline, his deep cupid's bow. Steve ignored Bucky's searching eyes as they watched him work, focusing on the strokes of his pencil as he blended shades of charcoal together to finish the scene he had tucked inside his head.

When he finished, neither said a word. They just looked at the picture, reliving class from earlier this afternoon, and Steve had wondered if Bucky felt embarrassed seeing himself as the focal point in the sketch. Leaning back in his chair, Bucky's face was frozen in time — staring wryly under Mrs. Nixer's threats of demerits while the rest of class watched on with smothered smiles.

Steve shut the sketchbook, shoving it in his bag, and hopped onto the sidewalk. "If you're done laughing at me, we can go."

Bucky snorted before grabbing onto Steve's shoulder, shaking it loosely. "I ain't laughing at you, punk. Laughing at myself, is all. I just feel pretty dumb."

"What? Is that supposed to be a new feeling for you? I thought you felt it all the time."

"Shut up," Bucky had said, shifting beside Steve to walk next to him down the sidewalk. "You're just being mean now."

"How can I not when you say stuff like that? Besides, you're the one that took Mrs. Nixer's wrath. Now that was dumb."

Bucky nodded, feet shuffling against the pavement. "True, but that's not what I'm talking about."

Steve looked up at Bucky and waited.

"What I'm feeling dumb about," Bucky continued after a moment, "is that I didn't notice you drawing like that, Steve. It's a damn shame."

A flush crawled up Steve's chest at those worlds, but Bucky kept talking.

"It's a gift, you know? What you got there? It's what's going to get you outta' here, away from the docks and factories. You'll remember me, right? When you've got a big ole' penthouse in the city with girls on each arm?"

Steve snorted with a shake of his head. Digging his hands into his pockets, Steve breathed in the chilled air that prickled at his lungs.

"Yeah, sure. Whatever you say."

________

It became a thing.

Steve drew their days, counting the weeks and months through comic strips doodled on school assignments and receipts. He had a whole folder at home tucked underneath his mattress filled with scraps of paper. From the Pier at the docks to the Cyclone on Coney Island, there were dozens of crude caricatures and scenes put to paper by Steve's creative hand.

Bucky found them hilarious, tears dotting his eyes whenever he read a particularly hilarious strip about their misadventures across Brooklyn. The laughter fell whenever Steve showed him his other works, complete with crosshatched bruises and scraped knees that were only kept upright by Bucky's firm grip.

Whenever his Ma was well enough to look them over, she would smile and rub her thin fingers against her son's that were so much like her own.

"So good, Stevie," she would tell him with glassy eyes. "You make me so proud."

He busied himself — at school, at work, at home sick from yet another cold. Steve would spend his afternoons tucked into the fire escape or keep perched at his desk as he brought people to life on paper. Their wide eyes, thick shoulders, and strong hands preoccupied his thoughts from morning to night. Some evenings, Bucky was bored enough to model for his friend. Steve could never quite capture the him right on page, but it never stopped him from trying.

The comics were his life. They told a story he couldn't put to words, so he kept them on paper where he could flesh out every color of his world.

When Bucky once asked why Steve didn't appear much in his own work, he hadn't known how to answer.

But now Steve knows. He knows why his portraits were lined with candid moments of Bucky, of Becca, of Archie, of his Ma. It all comes down to perspective and how Steve wants to use his gift.

He's just a kid from Brooklyn, but his friends? His family? They're what he's got left, and even if it's selfish under God's eyes, Steve is going to remember everything they did that made his life worth it.

That, Steve knew, he would keep tucked away in his sketchbook.

His art was meant for this.

________

When Captain America dies — long-gone under the arctic waves in an abandoned plane — the SSR tracks his belongings down to the small apartment he shared with Bucky back in Brooklyn. There were new tenants in the holed-up suite, but the landlord directed them to the basement where he had stored Steve's things.

"It woulda' felt wrong to throw his stuff away. We thought he'd come back with Barnes eventually."

The men in suits took the boxes to New Jersey and archived what they found. Steve's old clothes, now several sizes too small, and there were holes in his socks. An old photo of a young woman with blonde hair and a rounded nose that looked all too much like Steve's had been kept covered in a cloth sack. They recorded a bottle of watered cologne that Howard told them must have belonged to Sergeant Barnes.

They sifted through the belongings, tagging each piece and assigning what went where. It's when they reached the last box that they had to stop and call Director Carter in to ask for further instructions. Peggy came in later that week, fresh off a plane from France, and had everyone leave the room.

When she looked through the box, a watery smile curled at her red lips as she flipped through Steve's old sketchbooks. They were of people and places she didn't quite know, but as she rubbed her thumb against the yellowed papers, Peggy knew that these must have meant something to Steve. That these relics were all that Steve had had left of his younger years before the war and before he made a choice that still clenched her heart.

After Peggy gives the agents instructions on what to do with the books, it takes almost eighty years for them to reappear.

They are eventually catalogued and displayed at an exhibit to welcome back America's first — maybe even its greatest — hero only a month after the Battle of New York.

When the Smithsonian debuts the exhibit, with ribbons cut and photos taken at the entrance, a letter makes it way to the desk of the head curator. Returned by sender, Steve Roger’s invitation comes back untouched -- yet the show goes on as planned.

It’s not until a couple weeks later when security footage captures a large man circling the exhibit, hat pushed low against his forehead to cover his face, that the curator realizes their guest of honor finally decided to show up.

She decides to leave him be. That anonymity, she knows, is what Steve must crave in a life too full, too big for himself. She hopes it’s enough.

________

It isn't until October — after SHIELD is torn to the ground and Steve leaves with Sam — that another man walks into the exhibit with his hat tipped low. He skirts close to the walls, eyes flickering from face-to-face as he makes his way through the display cases, and jaw clenching when he walks up to one that holds some of Steve's old sketches.

They are mounted on cork boards under plexiglass that's been smudged by dozens of fingerprints, all from children on field trips who are too eager to grab for things that aren't theirs.

It's a childish reaction, really, but it doesn't keep Bucky from pressing his right hand against the glass as if he could reach through the surface and take the paper between his flesh-and-blood fingers. He thinks of it, of how the glass would shatter and how he’d disable the guards when they came at him. Non-lethal force, of course, because Bucky — the person he used to be — wouldn't have snapped their necks or drove a serrated knife through their ribs. He stares at the picture for what only feels like hours, trying to piece together the memories of a life he once lived, before turning on his heel.

When he heads out of the room, Bucky walks slowly through the crowds heading past him, all moving to the Captain America's exhibit with their programs in hand or audio guides plugged into their ears.

No one notices him. There is no reason for anyone to.

And, when he gets outside, the story is the same.

He heads down the sidewalk, weaving through pedestrians, before turning down a side alley shaded by a bakery's awning.

It only takes a moment. Just like that, he’s gone again. After all, he's got someplace to be. Steve might have been his commanding officer once, but Bucky — even with all his holes — knows better than to leave Steve to his own devices.

And the HYDRA base he's planning to raid? The one in Newark that Bucky knows he's been to?

Steve is going to need backup.

________

In the months after Bucky comes back with Steve — sore and tired and dragging his feet each step of the way — his life narrows into the brownstone apartment that Steve has nestled in the Brooklyn borough, not even five blocks away from where they grew up.

He has his bad days. When he's lucky, he'll even have some good ones. But Steve counts each day as they pass, checking a list to see if his friend is improving, and the tally punches the air from his chest.

For a week straight, it's been Bucky's harsh breaths and strangled cries that have woken Steve up before his alarm could do so for him. He remembers the clipped bruise on his jaw that bloomed after he woke up Bucky their first night together, crowding over him before placing a hand on Bucky’s arm. Eyes snapping open, Bucky had thrown Steve against the wall with a uppercut that made Steve's stomach flip and vision blur before he could dodge Bucky's next throw — one that surely would have taken Steve out, because he may have a hard head, but Steve doesn't think it could stand up to a blow like that from Bucky's metal arm.

By the weekend, Bucky is on-edge. He is up before Steve, settled at the kitchen table with a cup of cold coffee sitting just in front of him, and Steve doesn't say a word as he pulls some eggs and bacon from the fridge. The silence that sits between them is only interrupted whenever Steve flips his bacon as the skillet sizzles with fatty juices. It's when Steve is scraping the eggs onto his plate that there is knock at his door, and his shoulders fall into a tense line.

From across the room, Bucky rises to his feet with empty eyes.

Steve takes a step. "I got this," he tells Bucky, and he knows how he sounds. He knows his voice leaves no room for argument, but he is still relieved when Bucky does fall back into his seat and turn away from the front door.

But then Steve sees the glint of metal trapped between the waistband of Bucky's shorts and feels his pulse throb at the sight.

It's things like that — little sights, sounds, or ticks — that make Steve painfully aware just how different things are between them. They make him feel every inch of what separates them, and Steve wonders if this isn't like Azzano. He thinks of his leap over the fire that left him scrambling to his feet, pulling Bucky alongside him as they ran out of the crumbling Hydra base, and fears that this gap? This new distance between them?

He may never get across to the other side.

But Steve won't linger on these things — not when it comes down to Bucky — so he goes to the front door and tries not to look surprised when he sees Natasha staring up at him from the landing.

He leans against the doorframe. "What do you want?"

Natasha grins, reminding Steve of a cat when her eyes narrow, and he remembers a time when that look might have made him nervous.

"What?" She tilts her chin. "Do I need a reason to come visit a friend? You know how hard it is these days to find good friends in our business."

Steve eyes the silver chain around Natasha neck, ending at the arrow that lies just above her breast. "Yeah, real hard. You must be lonely."

When she laughs, Steve finds himself smiling. It's been awhile since he's heard the sound — heard it from anyone really — and it makes his lips curl at the edges. Natasha doesn't say anymore, but she does lean forward and hold a folder out to Steve.

He raises an eyebrow and takes the thick folder from her hand, surprised by its weight. "What's this?"

She shrugs. "You tell me, Rogers. You know I've just been teasing you about the fossil thing, right? I didn't think you'd actually call the Smithsonian over it," she answers, and Steve's grin grows wider.

He turns the folder over, and sure enough, he sees the the letterhead and stamps of the Smithsonian embossed into the manilla folder. Steve's fingers itch to unwrap the string keeping the flap closed — keeping his things tucked away from the world — but he makes himself wait.

Patience, he tells himself. It's a virtue for a reason.

Natasha is still standing across from him, no doubt thinking of what might be stuffed inside the folder, and Steve fingers a salute at her before taking a step into his apartment.

"It's not a letter, Natasha, but hey. That's a good idea. I'll let you know when I hear from my lawyer."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Whatever you say, Cap. But remember we got plans with Sam next week," she says before looking pointedly at the package in his hand. "Don't let whatever that is get in the way. You know how he gets when you ditch the party."

Steve huffs. "I don't know if party is the right word for that, Natasha."

She leaves with that, heading down the landing to the stairs without a word, and Steve watches her go before closing the door behind him. When he walks back into the kitchen, folder in hand, he can't quite muffle his cry when he walks into Bucky's chest.

"Bucky!"

"What'd she want?"

Steve takes a breath. "Nothing, she just-"

"Did she tell you to bring me in?"

"No! No, she didn't. Even if she did, you know I'd never-"

Bucky's voice dips into a rough growl. "I don't know that, Steve. I don't know anything these days."

Steve bites his tongue, pressing down until he thinks he might be bleeding, but it's the best way — the only way — he knows to keep quiet when Bucky gets like this. And Steve can't blame him for this, not for these feelings.

So, Steve just blames himself, biting down on his tongue until he tastes blood and penance all at once.

Bucky still stands across from him, shoulders reared back like a wild animal, watching Steve's every move. It's then that Steve lets out a breath and gives a wide berth around his friend as he makes his way to the living room. His bare feet pad softly against the floor as he goes, almost loud enough to cover Bucky's footsteps behind him, until he takes a seat on the couch.

He drops the folder on top of the table with a thud and looks at Bucky with tired eyes.

"That's why she was here."

Bucky's eyes flicker to the folder before meeting Steve's again. "A mission?"

Steve shakes his head, gesturing towards the table. "I asked for these awhile back, just after you came in. I thought…I don't know what I thought. I figured they might help."

A moment passes before Bucky drops to the floor across from Steve, reaching for the folder with weary ease. He tears open the lip of the folder and pulls out a handful of thin, spiral-bound notebooks tarped in plastic.

Steve watches as Bucky pulls out the first book and lifts the front cover. He knows exactly when Bucky realizes what he is holding. It's hard not to when Bucky's eyes widen like they do.

Bucky's metal arm whirrs as his grip latches tighter onto the pages beneath his fingers. "Are these…"

"Some of my old sketches," Steve asks. "I used to draw — well, I still do, I guess — but you used to-"

"I know." Steve stops, and Bucky looks away before continuing. "I remember that. Some of it at least."

Lifting his feet onto the couch, Steve nods, not sure of what else to say. He know this isn't something he should push. He's been doing his best to give Bucky distance when he needs it — to leave when he decides, to eat when he can, to do what he wants — so he rests his head against the couch's arm before shutting his eyes.

If Bucky wanted to see the pictures, that was his choice. It was time Steve let that happen.

He doesn't recall falling asleep when he wakes up later that afternoon. Blinking, Steve turns towards the table and feels something squeeze his chest.

Bucky is slumped over the table with his arms splayed wide across dozens of papers. Some are still kept in their books while others have been ripped out, jagged edges running across their borders as if Bucky had ripped them without thought. His hair falls over his face just so to keep Steve from seeing Bucky's closed eyes, but he can see the rhythmic rise-and-fall of Bucky's chest as he sleeps.

Leaning forward, Steve comes to a stop when he sees the paper stuck under Bucky's chin and cranes his neck to see what's on it. When he finally figures it out, he has cover his mouth to keep from laughing.

The comic was one of his finer works, Steve remembers, and still thinks it might be one of his best pieces. The room laid out on the page sits heavily on Steve's chest, and he drinks in his old bedroom. Wrapped in his thin blankets, Steve can see a smaller version of himself nestled into the sheets — hair limp and mouth pouched with a thermometer perched between his lips.

But the best part was standing at the foot of his bed. It was there that Steve had drawn Bucky staring down at his sickly friend with an all-too familiar scowl that once had made Steve cower with fear. The look didn't have the same effect in this photo, not when Steve had transposed Bucky's head onto a hen's plump body, down to fluffy feathers and all. At the bottom of the page, next to Steve's signature and date, there was a script that ran across the bottom like a banner.

Steve's laughter began again once he could read what he had written so long ago.

The Mother Hen: Buck, Buck, Bucking Away!

It's not until he settles down that Steve notices the newer script written beneath his own, flushed darkly against the page with ink. Steve knows the handwriting, and with a breath caught in his throat, Steve realizes that Bucky wrote something on the page. It disappears halfway through where Bucky's hand sits on the page, but Steve can tell what it says even so.

You were a punk.

It's then, Steve knows, that maybe his fears are unfounded.

With such a small thing, he can feel distance disappear between them.

________

If you ask Steve, it began when one morning when Bucky laced-up his sneakers and went out with Steve for a morning run.

They'd been rounding a bend in the trail, sucking in air as they pushed themselves harder, when Bucky turned towards Steve. And, for all he could, Steve did his best to ignore the rivulets of sweat that clung to Bucky's neck before they disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt.

"Was it your ninth or tenth birthday?"

Steve looks at Bucky. "Huh?"

Just looking at Bucky, Steve could see all the different ways Bucky was testing his question before settling on, "The cushions? We used to sleep on it, but the first time was on your birthday. I can't remember which."

It's a miracle that Steve doesn't stop running right then and there. But Bucky is still keeping alongside him, waiting for an answer that Steve himself is struggling to recall.

"Yeah, we did. It drove your Ma crazy, but she was too nice to say anything of it," Steve says. “I’m glad you remember that.”

Bucky shrugs, slowing to a stop. "I didn't until I saw one of your pictures. It got me thinking, and suddenly, there it was. Now it's just bothering the hell out of me that I can't remember how it all started."

And the idea was born.

Steve spends his nights hunched over his desk rather than in bed with the lights turned off, scratching away at paper after paper, and relearns the soft grip he has to use with his pencils if he wants to bring his memories to life. He drafts panels before balling them in his hands and tossing them in the bin beside him.

Every morning, he finds he has to take the trash out.

He waits until Bucky heads to the Avengers Tower one afternoon to see Tony before he picks up his phone. It only rings twice before Sam picks up.

"I need a favor," Steve says as soon as he hears Sam on the other line.

"Everyone you know trying to kill you again, Rogers?"

Steve laughs. "Not today."

"Well, then, what can I do for you?"

"I need supplies," Steve answers.

"Like guns? Ammunition? Don't we got Stark for that?"

He takes a breath. "Art supplies. You know of anyplace that’ll work," Steve asks, and he's grateful that Sam doesn't burst into laughter immediately.

He's got the decency to wait a few seconds before breaking into peals of laughter, and Steve is desperate enough to wait for Sam to finish.

"Sure, man, whatever you need. I'm just going to need a backstory when I get there. You think you can do that for me?"

Steve nods. "I'll see what I can do."

When he comes back to his apartment early that evening, he hurries to his room and drops his bags off — all six of them — before Bucky gets back for dinner. Steve nudges the bags under the alcove of his desk, pushing them into the corner, before he walks into the kitchen with lasagna on his mind.

The dish is on the cooling rack by the time Bucky comes back, his right arm held tight against his left. Under the dim lights, Steve tries not to stare when his friend sheds his jacket and exposes his metal arm. He's not sure if he manages. The sleek metal never fails to catch his eye, but it's the red star on his arm that makes Steve's stare linger.

"How'd it go," Steve eventually asks from behind the counter.

Bucky lets out a deep sigh before taking a seat at the kitchen table. "About as well as you'd expect."

Steve doesn't expect Bucky to say anything else, so he turns to their dinner and slides a piece on each of their plates. He's about to reach for two glasses to fill when Bucky's voice comes from across the room.

"You do anything exciting today? Help little old ladies across the street? Always figured you'd be the type to go after dames your own age."

Shaking his head, Steve doesn't mention his excursion to the mall or how Sam had poked him in the ribs until he'd spilled his reasons for needing some felt markers. And he definitely didn't want to Bucky to learn of the kissing noises Sam had made the whole ride back until Steve had cuffed him upside the head when they reached a red light.

Instead, he pulls his lips into a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"No," he lies. "I don't get out much these days."

________

He finishes the first one at the crack of dawn.

Steve studies the paper, every stroke and dip, until he flips off his light and finds himself standing outside Bucky's door. The paper shakes in his grip as Steve stares at the wood, challenging it like he would have any bully back in the day. He listens carefully, straining his ears to hear if Bucky might already be awake, but nothing but the hum of the water heater reaches filters through them.

He raises a fist, ready to knock against the door, and he lets it fall not a second later.

Instead, he bends down and slides the paper underneath the crack of the door before he can change his mind.

Steve can feel his heart bouncing against his chest when he crawls into bed later, and he rolls onto his shoulders to stare at the clock ticking on his side table.

He's asleep before the hands hit twelve.

________

"…can't be right!"

Steve jerks awake, trying to untangle his legs from his blankets before he rolls onto the floor with a thump.

At the door, Bucky winces.

"That looked like it hurt," he says as Steve scrambles to his feet.

Pushing his hair back, Steve looks Bucky up and down. "What's wrong? Are you okay? Did something-"

Bucky raises a hand to shut Steve up. "It's okay. We're alright. Aliens aren't invading or whatever it is that they keep doing to piss Coulson off."

With that, Steve's shoulders unwind — and without realizing he'd picked it up at all — he lets his shield drop to the floor. "Jesus, Buck, you scared me."

"Sorry about it, but really. What did you expect," Bucky asks as he holds Steve's comic to his chest, and things start to make more sense.

Steve sits down on the edge of his bed, staring at his work. He's glad that it still looks alright now that he's had some sleep and can see the piece for all its worth. A frown pushes at his lips when he notices a few slips of his pen, but it's his first piece. He'll do better next time.

"I thought you might like it," Steve says.

"It's nice, Steve, but you can't be serious! That can't be how it happened."

Looking from the picture to Bucky, Steve nods his head and smiles when Bucky lets out a loud groan. "It's not the end of the world, Buck."

Bucky looks stricken. "Yes, it is. You and I became friends when I saved your ass from a fight, Steve, not the other way around."

The paper crinkles under Bucky's grip, and Steve can see the figures on the page wrinkle. At the center of the paper, he can makes out Bucky who's sitting on the ground of an unlit alley from years ago. An older kid is standing over him with a leery smile that still makes Steve's anger simmer. It's not until the following panels that Steve comes into the story — five-foot-nothing with a chip on his shoulder — and lands a foot straight to the bully's crotch.

It's a story everyone has always gotten wrong, even in the days when Captain America first made his way into millions of American hearts. Judging by Bucky's face, Steve knows that his friend didn't think such a thing was possible either.

Steve drops his shoulders onto the bed and bounces. "I'm sorry to break it to you, Bucky, but that's the truth. I thought you'd like to know at least. Didn't mean to make you upset," he says.

Bucky doesn't answer, but he does walk over to Steve's bed and take a place next to Steve. From the corner of his eye, Steve watches Bucky clench and unclench his jaw.

"S'not upsetting, Steve. I remember…some of it. Mainly that that Larry kid was a jerk for sucker punching me after school. It's like he'd never heard of fighting fair."

Steve nods and waits for Bucky to figure some things out. He considers what he could say — what he wants to say — before saying, "If it makes you feel any better, you got him back later that month. His hair was red for weeks when you'd finished."

Bucky blinks, breathing slowly with the beat of his chest, before a thin smile reaches his lips.

"It's a nice memory," he says before turning his head and looking at Steve. "Thanks for sharing."

Steve swallows whatever words were stuck in his throat.

This isn’t the last time this will happen, he hopes.

________

Steve starts leaving his pictures throughout the house like little gifts waiting for Bucky's attention.

He hides several in the bathroom, taped to the inside of their medicine cabinet or hung on the shower curtain, and Steve shakes his head whenever he hears Bucky's laughter echo into the hallway in the mornings. There are a few issues still slipped underneath Bucky's door during the middle of the night when Steve's excitement drives his actions and the anticipation buzzes beneath his skin. And, if Bucky spends his afternoons searching for any he's overlooked or rereading his favorite stories, Steve says nothing of it.

Bucky does the same. When Steve stumbles out of his bedroom later than usual with his nails dyed black from charcoal, Bucky looks them over without a sound. It goes like this until Bucky has binders filled with artwork, tabbed and notated in his messy scrawl that makes Steve want to look inside. He never does — won't let himself violate Bucky's space like that — but the temptation never goes away.

This goes on for months even as spring comes into bloom, and Steve leaves the apartment one morning without his running shoes stuffed inside his duffel. Instead, he leaves the bag in the kitchen with another picture laid on top of it before he heads out. The subway ride is longer than he ever remembers it being as he sits alone, staring straight ahead through people as they get on and off. It's not until he reaches his stop and gets on his way that Steve lets his feet do all his work for him. They navigate the streets slowly, only stopping when he detours to buy some flowers, and Steve looks at all the buildings he doesn't remember when he passes them by.

It isn't until he reaches a wrought iron gate that Steve finally sees something he recognizes. Tugging the gate open, Steve ignores the rusted whines it gives as he enters the cemetery. No one is out here this early, not on a Saturday, and he reads the names on each headstones he walks past.

Carols

Parker

Learman

Rogers

Steve stops at the last one, reading the names of his parents, and kneels to wipe away the weeds overrunning their plot. The bouquet of flowers rustles in the wind, so Steve sets them down at the head of the grave before running his thumb against his Ma's name.

Too young, he thinks. She died far too young. He traces her name under his fingertip as if it were braille, and he wonders what she would think of him. What she would think of all he's done and seen. He pulls his hand away to wipe at his nose.

He wonders if she'd still love his hands, still hold them between her own in prayer every Sunday mass.

But then he remembers all the blood on them, the way it drips down his wrists and stains his soul in everyway Sarah Rogers would've hated.

Steve looks down at the grass, blinking away the hot tears welling at his eyes, when he hears the crunch of boots fall behind him.

"The subway is different these days, Steve. Sorry for being late."

A laugh breaks in Steve's throat. "Hate to tell you, Buck, but you weren't invited."

"Didn't know I needed to be," Bucky answers as he steps beside Steve. He goes quiet, and Steve doesn't need to look to know that Bucky is staring at the grave. "Your mom was…was a hell of a woman, Steve. I wish I remembered more of her," he confesses, and Steve feels something in his chest sharpen as he plucks a flower from his bouquet.

He stands. "It'll come, Buck, and if not, I got enough stories to help you along."

Bucky looks at him. "Looking forward to it."

Steve shifts as he looks around the cemetery and turns a worried look at Bucky. "There's another I got to visit, but I don't know if you're up for it."

Bucky's eyes darkened, and Steve felt the pit in his stomach grow. He's glad that he doesn't need to say anymore.

When Bucky jerks his head in a nod, Steve starts down the path again, counting the graves as he went until he found himself standing in front of another set of headstones. And even Steve felt like he’d been punched when he finally sees the new one next to it, still polished, and it makes him want to scream.

The whole of the Barnes family brought together again, and for once, Steve can't help but regret every minute of it. Can't help but regret ever leaving Bucky a picture this morning of Sarah Roger's funeral and how Bucky had come to check on Steve later that afternoon. And he hates himself for having put the goddamn cemetery's name in the sketch.

They stand together at the graves for minutes, staring at everything they've known and lost, until Steve feels Bucky's hand graze against his own. It takes him a moment to realize that what Bucky wants is the flowers Steve kept from the bouquet. He lets Bucky take them from him and watch as his friend kneels in front of the plots.

George

Winifred

Rebecca

When Bucky kneels at the graves, placing the flowers on at the markers, Steve tries to look away. Distance is what he should give Bucky, especially with this. He knows in his bones how Bucky is — knows it better than himself — and can see the restrained quivers in Bucky's shoulders. He can see the quiver of his jaw because even if Bucky can't remember them yet, he knows the pang of grief.

More than anyone else, Bucky understands what it is like to lose something, to lose someone.

But Steve can't make himself leave and to let his friend kneel at these graves alone. Taking a step, Steve lowers himself to the ground just behind Bucky and slowly places an arm on his shoulder. Bucky stiffens behind him, almost enough to mask the hitch of his breath that Steve still manages to hear, before leaning into the touch.

They stay like this until the sun goes down, and when they get back to the apartment, Bucky locks himself in his room.

Steve doesn't leave out another picture for awhile after that.

________

"You need to sleep, Rogers."

Steve throws a punch. "I do."

Behind the punching bag, Sam snorts before stepping aside when one of Steve's punches isn't pulled. "Well, that's a load of crap. I'm glad I never bet on Captain America being a good liar."

Grabbing the sides of the punching bag, Steve leans forward to rest his head against it. "Sam, please, I am too-"

"Tired?"

"Exhausted to deal with this conservation right now," Steve grunts. "And, no, it's not because of my projects. It's just everything."

Sam stands next to Steve with a towel wrapped over his neck, and even still, there is sweat clinging to the collar of his shirt. He doesn't touch Steve but rather he looks through him, staring in a way that makes Steve feel far too exposed.

"You got friends, Steve," he says after a moment. "You'd do well to use them when things get like this," he continues, holding a bottle of water out to Steve who takes it willingly. The water runs in rivulets down his chin as he drains the bottle in seconds.

Sam nods before turning back to the punching bag, and Steve knows he's still got a few more sets to go before he can call it a day. He checks the tape around his wrists, lingering on the cotton gauze for a moment too long, when Sam continues.

"And Steve," he asks.

"Yeah?"

A toothy grin settles on Sam's face. "Don't think I won't tranq you if it comes to it. Banner's been making all sorts of cocktails in that lab with Stark, and I know they're just itching to take it on a test run."

Steve puts his fists up, thinking of the stack of comics in his desk drawer before an image filters through his mind of a Brooklyn basement crammed with scientists. His nose flares, breathing sharply, when he remembers the sting of penicillin they gave him before locking him away in a small, metal box.

He waits for Sam to grab the other end other end of the bag before pulling his first punch, relishing in the way his fist aches at the connection.

"Sorry," he grunts before taking another swing, "but I'm done with the lab rat routine."

Steve stays at the gym for hours, far after even Sam leaves for the day, until he finds himself climbing the flights to his apartment with shaking legs. The burn feels good — even after all that work — and it distracts him enough that he almost misses the crack of light coming from under Bucky's door.

He moves without thought, bringing his hand to knock against the door, but then he thinks of Bucky's face at the cemetery. He thinks of the way his chest shook and mouth dipped as he stared at his family's grave, and he steps away from the door.

Bucky's not been out of his room any more than needed since last Saturday, and it makes Steve wrestle with something he's known how to beat.

He's uncertain, second-guessing his every word, touch, glance. He feels like he had taken three steps forward before sliding sixty steps back, and at that thought, Steve's stomach rolls in his gut.

So, he stands and stares at the door as if he has a gift that'd allow him to see through it.

He finds he still doesn’t.

Steve may be a lot of things. He might be terrible at poker, even more so when Natasha is involved. He's also a fan of slow jazz and a staunch defender of equal rights. Hell, according to Sam, he's a bad liar. But Steve isn't a coward — not even when he was a sickly little kid in Brooklyn — so he forces himself to knock on Bucky's door.

"Hey," he calls. "You still awake?"

Steve doesn't hear anything from the other side, but that means nothing. Bucky is still so quiet these days, tiptoeing around the apartment as if mines were under his feet. He takes a breath before slowly opening the door, ready to react if Bucky's having another bad day and loses control, but that's not what he sees.

Instead, he finds Bucky propped against the wall across from him , and it doesn't take Steve long to recognize the scattered papers littering the floor around him.

Bucky doesn't look up when Steve takes a step into the room. "Come on in," he says dryly, and Steve winces.

"Sorry, Buck. I just…"

Bucky flips to another page. "It's fine. I should've answered, but you know," he says with a shake of the comic in his hand. "I was busy."

Steve swallows, staying where he is, and thinks of what to say. Talking to Bucky should be easy, more natural than breathing really, but Steve's words never sound the way he wants them to. So, when he tries to ask Bucky how his day had been, Steve isn't surprised when this comes out instead: "I'm sorry about Saturday."

Finally looking up, Bucky shakes his head. "Don't be."

"No," Steve insists, "I am. It was stupid of me — selfish. I don't know what I was thinking by dumping all that on you. You weren't-"

"Ready," Bucky interrupts, and Steve just nods.

Putting the paper in his hand down, Bucky fixes Steve with a long, tired look.

"I'm not going to fly off the handle, Steve. I thought you knew that."

"I do," Steve answers. "It's just hard with everything. I don't know what I'm doing," he confesses, as if it had been a secret to start, and waits for Bucky to say something.

From his seat, Bucky nods. "Then that makes two of us, Rogers, but tell you what," he says before picking up a different picture by his knee. Steve stares at it, trying to remember when he drew Bucky standing at the pier by the docks after getting his first tooth knocked out. He guesses it was during one of his several all-nighters.

"This," Bucky says as he waves the paper at Steve, "it helps."

Steve balks. "But it's too much right now, Buck. I'm scared that…," Steve trails off, unsure of how to put his fears to words. There are so many, it seems, that Steve isn't even sure where to begin. Bucky knows this — because he knows Steve better than anyone else — so he shakes his head before Steve can start stammering about his worries.

"We're doing good, Steve — you and I. Just give us some time, and we'll get somewhere. You're still with me," he asks, reaching forward to grab a whole sketchbook of drawings.

Steve's answer comes easily as if the words had been waiting on his tongue for a lifetime. And, in some ways, they have.

"I'm with you, Buck," he says before taking a step forward, ready to sort through his work with Bucky. "Always am."

________

Steve knew someone besides Sam would figure it out eventually. After all, half of his team consisted of super spies with absolutely no respect for privacy. Even after all these years, Steve was almost certain that his apartment was still bugged by both Natasha and Clint.

He doesn't care about the bugs Bucky has left around, stuck to corner cabinets and air vent covers. The apartment is as much Bucky's home as it is his in the end.

But Steve had never pegged Tony as the one who'd connect the dots first, forgetting the man's obnoxious IQ in favor for his tactless wit that left the team doubled in laughter or ready for a fight.

He leans towards the latter once he gets on his StarkPad and watches the chaos unfold on the screen.

WILL STEVE ROGERS RETELL HIS LEGACY IN NEW ISSUES OF CAPTAIN AMERICA?

10 REASONS WHY CAPTAIN AMERICA DRAWING HIS OWN CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS WILL BREAK THE INTERNET.

PHOTO: EXCLUSIVE SCANS OF THE NEWEST CAPTAIN AMERICA COMIC WRITTEN BY THE HERO HIMSELF!

Steve pinches his nose, and ignores the nineteenth text he's gotten in the past half hour.

From: Sam
are u going to kill Stark? let me know. I want 2 be there 4 that.

From: Sam
oh shit, is Barnes okay? he's not gone deathlok on u?

From: Sam
I am assuming you're dead if u don't answer me.

From: Unknown
If you don't answer Sam soon, I will not be held responsible for any injuries you get when we extract you :)

Steve double-checks the last one, frowning at the unknown number, before he notices the smiley face at the end. Natasha has never been subtle in signing-off her texts.

He drops them a line to let them know that, yes, he's alive. And, no, Bucky isn't freaking out. If anything, it's the opposite.

"Steve!"

Scrolling through his emails, Steve yells back, "What?"

"You're on TV!"

Steve laughs. "Like that’s a new thing."

Hurried steps patter through the hall, and Steve opens an email from Pepper that has at least six exclamation points in the subject.

"Steve, they're talking about you're art," Bucky tells him. "Why aren't you excited?"

"I didn't want everyone to see my stuff," Steve answers.

He doesn't need to look to know that Bucky's lip tip into a frown. "Why not?"

Steve looks up from his StarkPad. "Well, I really just made them for you."

Bucky's frustrated sigh breaks the silence. "You are unbelievable," he says before his hand knocks against the back of Steve's head.

Steve isn't even embarrassed when he swats Bucky's arm, whining as he goes.

"I'm being serious, Buck."

"So am I," Bucky says. "You should be more excited, Steve! This is huge! You're getting the attention you deserve."

Steve clamps his mouth shut, unwilling to say the things he knows he wants to. He doesn't want to tell Bucky that it's not the art they're interested in but rather the artist. It's been that way for decades. Who would care about Steve Rogers out of the suit when he walks the streets of Manhattan, dressed in pressed khakis and holding a messenger bag against his waist?

When he woke up, Steve would've said no one. That's not true anymore, he knows, not with his team, not with his friends, and never with Bucky.

But it doesn't change the fact that all people see when they look at his art is Captain America; Steve Rogers is barely an afterthought.

"Alright," he tells Bucky after a moment. "I'll try to see it your way."

Bucky's mouth twists like he wants to say something else, but Steve's phone pings beside him. When he looks at the ID, his breath catches when he sees the alert.

CODE: ASSEMBLE

He pushes himself to his feet, ignoring his phone as it falls to the floor, and feels a thrum of adrenaline seep into his bones at the thought of getting to beat out the anxiety pooling in his chest.

It's time to suit up.

Which is a shame, really, because he's too busy to notice the newest email pushed to his StarkPad as he tugs on his undersuit. He's reaching for his shield when he notices his tablet in Bucky's hand, listening to his friend's metal fingers tap against the screen as he types. There is a thought to ask what he's doing, what he's looking for — Steve locks his jaws and turns away.

Distance, he reminds himself. He doesn't need to hover.

Bucky is still typing when Steve heads out the door.

________

"Bucky, no."

"Steve, yes."

From the couch, Steve cracks an eye open — still tender from the last hit he took from a wayward Kree — and finds Bucky looking completely unapologetic.

Figures.

"You can't be serious," Steve says as he rolls to his side and ignores the way his muscles stretch in protest. He eyes the StarkPad still being held in Bucky's hand and damns the thing to hell for ever having existed in the first place.

"Steve," Bucky says, "you can't just let this go."

"Why's that?"

Bucky rolls his shoulders. "I won't let you."

Steve's jaw clenches. "Look, Buck, I don't think you get…whatever you’re asking me to do. I'm not an artist anymore, alright? I'm not that good."

"Jesus, Sam was right," Bucky cries, hands swinging to his side. "You are an absolute shit liar, Steve."

"What? No, I'm-"

"Art is what makes you happy, Steve. I don't remember a whole lot, but I know that much," Bucky says, looking so widely at his friend that Steve wonders how he ever built a tolerance to Bucky's doe-eyed pleads. Even after all these years — distanced by decades of ice and time and fate's tight grip — Steve looks at Bucky now with his knotted hair and stubble like he's seeing the face of God.

It's for that reason he looks away, overwhelmed by Bucky's full, red lips that are pulled into pout.

"Want to know something," Bucky asks after a second, voice inching closer to Steve as Bucky maneuvers himself next to him.

Steve nods; He'd never turn Bucky away, not like this, even when they disagreed.

"I don't I ever told you this," Bucky confesses, "because you're the kind of guy who'd never let it down. But Becca and I? We always knew you'd eventually get out of Brooklyn," he says before shaking his head. "At the time, I guess I'd never imagined it'd happen the way it did though."

There is a gleam in Steve's eye as he snorts. "Yeah, that makes two of us."

"But," Bucky continues, "we had a plan. Becca and I? She'd kept it from my folks, not that they'd look, so we lined her mattress with whatever I could scrape together. The banks, I think, weren't all that great — didn't care for 'em. We didn't want you to find out until we could afford it."

Blinking, Steve crooks his head towards Bucky. "Afford what?"

"School, you know, closer to the city. For art," Bucky shrugs, and Steve's chest suddenly feels too small when he takes his next breath.

"You wanted me to go to art school?"

Bucky nods, and Steve pushes himself onto his elbows. "Bucky, you didn't have to do that. I was fine as it was. You could've taken Ruth to a couple more pictures like you'd wanted."

"Steve-"

"I'm not worth doing that for, Buck."

Bucky shakes his head. "That's where you're wrong," he says. "Because you had more talent — no, more heart — than any kid on our block, so I wanted to help. That's not changed much," Bucky continues. "It's all I'm trying to do now."

Steve closes his eyes, dropping his head back against the couch. "So, you steal my StarkPad, snoop through my email, find the one message from Timely about reviving those godawful comics about us, and tell them that I'll do it…all because you want me to what?"

Bucky stares at his knees, one metal finger wrapping a loose denim thread around its tip. "I want the world to meet Steve Rogers, alright? There's more to you than a uniform, Steve, so don't you want to tell everyone the truth? The real, honest-to-god truth you've been telling me all these months? I'd say it's time people looked past those stars and stripes of yours," he says.

Reeling, Steve keeps quiet, staring at Bucky as if he were picture he'd never seen.

Bucky unfolds at the silence, looking down to Steve. "You don't have to if you don't want. I just thought…"

Steve waits for an answer. "Thought what?"

"This might make you happy."

Steve feels the couch by his feet ripple as Bucky stands, and he curls his toes into the space Bucky had just taken. He hadn't realized how much he'd enjoyed the warmth until it was gone. Instead, he feels that warmth trickle through his chest, wrapping a protective fist over his heart as Steve thinks about Bucky's words.

It's somewhere there that Steve remembers a similar conversation at the VA with Sam before Washington, before Hydra, before Bucky.

What makes you happy?

Steve hadn't known how to answer.

I don't know.

Steve watches Bucky as he busies himself in the kitchen, staring at a jar of peanut butter as if he's trying to figure out how it works, and realizes the answer to Sam's question has been in front of him all this time.

He rolls over, reaching for the StarkPad which Bucky left on the floor, and flicks through his inbox. Steve opens the first message and starts to read.

To: stevengrogers@mail.si.com
Subject: FF: Artist Position with Timely on C.P. Reboot

Captain Rogers,

Given the recent publicity connected with your original Captain America artwork, Timely would like to meet with you and discuss the possibility of working with you to revive one of our country's greatest comic books. We currently own the creative rights to circulate Captain America to fans across the world, but after seeing your own artistic skill, we are extending an offer for you to join our artists in creating the new Captain America

Steve's eyes flicker across the screen before dropping the tablet against his stomach, wincing at the tender skin still healing from this afternoon. "Bucky," he calls, lips cracking at the sound. From the kitchen, Steve can hear a loud crash followed by Bucky's muttered curses. His head pops into the room a moment later with a pressed scowl.

"What?"

Steve gestures at his StarkPad. "I need you to write Pepper an email, telling her to work out a contract with these guys. Make sure she tells them I have final say in the work, alright? Because that's the whole point, telling the truth about what happened back then," he continues. "Don't think these new issues aren't for you, Buck, because they are. Everyone else is just reading along."

Bucky smiles — full and wide until the corner of his lips meet his cheeks — and Steve feels like he's done something right.

"So, you'll do it," he asks, and Steve nods. From the doorway, Bucky rests against the open frame and crosses his legs. "Is this one of those moments Clint told me about? Where "I told you so" is something I can say? I've been waiting for that to happen," Bucky says.

"You're such a jerk," Steve huffs, and Bucky pulls the kitchen towel that's been draped across his shoulder into his hands. He bunches it into a ball before tossing it at Steve's face.

"Could say the same to you, punk," he answers, and Steve pulls the towel away to see Bucky heading back to the kitchen.

"Bucky," Steve calls, "what about Pepper?"

Down the hall, Bucky's voice rings through the apartment loud and clear.

"I ain't a secretary, Steve, and I sure as hell ain't your sidekick. You'd do well to remind the world of that."

Steve's shoulders shake with laughter, despite how his ribs sting, and let's his eyes shut under the thick weight of exhaustion curled into his skin. He counts his breath, not for the first time amazed by the strong, steady heartbeat in his ears, and falls asleep before Bucky calls for dinner.

________

Steve thinks he does an alright job. A superhero by day and an artist by night, Steve tangles every waking moment into his work.

He thinks it's worth it, he thinks, when he stands in front of his laptop with a box in hand. The metallic pen feels thin between his fingers, and he stares at it from the graphics tablet he's yet to open. When he does, Steve hangs his head with tipped smile before calling for Bucky.

After all, Bucky has always loved tech. It's one of the few reasons Bucky can live with his arm without ripping it from its seams, unbuckling bolts to get the thing as far away from him as possible. He tinkers with it now, under the likely un-watchful eye of Tony, and tells Steve how he's glad to know how to "shut the damn thing off" if he ever needs.

He hasn't yet. Steve isn't sure he wants to see the day that Bucky does.

But Bucky gets Steve's laptop set up, not even bothering to crack a joke at Steve's puzzled expression when starts reading the tablet's instruction manual like he was reciting some long-forgotten soliloquy to the Queen.

"Not exactly," Bucky snorts when Steve tells him this. "But I figure Captain America is the closest we got to any Queen over here."

Steve just laughs, twirling the stylus between his fingers before testing out the weight of its metal against the tablet. He watches the thin strokes carve into the white screen of his laptop, tongue edging between his lips in concentration. He feels Bucky's hand tousle his hair and chooses to ignore it.

Bucky sighs. "You got this?"

Another thicker line brushes against the screen as Steve outlines the familiar curve of Bucky's jaw on screen.

"Guess we'll see."

________

The first collection debuts six months later, and Steve is knee-deep in mud in Kiev when it hits shelves.

"Agent Bishop, so help me-"

Perched on a stool, Kate groans, shaking her head so fiercely that her ponytail whips across her face. "Steve, chill. I'm not going to blow the safehouse, alright? Go call your boyfriend, sext even. You really need to get laid."

Tugging his helmet off, Steve fights the urge to run his hand over his face. "Just don't do anything stupid while I'm gone. Five minutes top," he warns, and she nods.

"You're no fun, Steve. And we've got no wifi, plus my phone is like, dead-dead. Clint isn't even answering the comm since it's date night for him with…"

Steve climbs out the window at that, gripping the edge of the lowered roof. His fingers strain under the weight until he can hoist himself onto the roof, and he immediately gets low to the ground. Nothing is tipping him off — not even that intuition he's crafted over the years — to any snipers in the surrounding trees, but he can just imagine what Bucky would say if he got shot like this tonight. He'd never hear the end of it.

Buzz

Bringing a finger to his ear, Steve taps his comm as he saddles against the roof's edge. "You needed something?"

Background noise is all that greets Steve on the other end: tipping glasses, airy laughter, Tony's laughter echoing across the charity gala thousands of miles away to launch Steve's first issues of Captain America. He brings his hand to his chest, fingers splayed across the white-kevlar star stitched into his uniform, and traces it from point-to-point until Bucky's crackling voice filters through his ear.

"Not an emergency, Stevie, so don't get all tight over this," he says, and Steve can hear Clint chattering close to wherever they are. There's no echoing at least, Steve notices, so the air vents are out. But it's the waver in Bucky's voice that catches Steve's attention — He's not heard it in awhile.

"Bucky," Steve starts, "are you drunk?"

Bucky laughs loudly, and Steve can answer that question for himself now. Bucky doesn't laugh like that, not anymore, unless he's had enough liquor to loosen him up.

"I'm not that bad, Steve," Bucky answers. "You can stop worrying; I had whatever Clint did. You should see him though. He's got to be seeing triple after all those shots."

"Yeah, shots. Funny," Steve pans, and something in his voice prompts Bucky to panic.

"Shit, Steve, did you get shot? Jesus, what the hell — why are you talking to me then? I'm radioing Bishop you stupid, little-"

"I'm fine, Buck," Steve rushes. "And not totally behind you using Clint as a measure for your sobriety. It's not the best idea."

"Maybe, maybe not. You're just jealous, aren't you? That I can be something other than sober still?"

Steve winces, thinking back to the last time he drank in a bombed-out bar in London. "More than you know."

Bucky's breathing crosses between them, and Steve shifts. "Look, Buck, if that's all-"

"It's not," Bucky tumbles. "Just gimme' a second," he asks, and Steve hums in agreement. He listens as the background noise lessens on the line until there is nothing for Steve to hear but the small puffs of Bucky's breath. Steve opens his mouth, words ready on his lips, until a new sound reaches him. He focuses, listening as he makes out the rustling noise that he tries to place.

"You should be proud." Steve startles at Bucky's voice.

He swallows. "Of what?"

"Your comics," Bucky answers, and the rustling begins again. Closing his eyes — praying that he's not in the crosshairs of a sniper — Steve imagines Bucky secluded in some stairwell, hair combed back, with his nose buried in the pages of Steve's work. He's seen versions of it before whether on a fire escape back in old Brooklyn or under the kerosene lamp in their barracks. This one, however, is different, in the way Bucky's metal arm shines under the Tower's fluorescent lights. It's in the details as well: the crease in his forehead or the way his broad shoulders would now curl in as he reads.

"…some coming back to me," Buck says, and Steve pulls himself from his thoughts.

"That's good to hear," Steve says. "That was kind of the point."

Bucky grumbles. "I know. You've told me repeatedly. I don't think I could forget."

Something snaps in Steve's chest. "You won't," he says. "Never again."

A breath hitches on the other end, and Steve struggles to steady his own. He's never said as much before — not since Bucky moved into the apartment after turning himself over. The words had always felt too cheap whenever Steve tried to say them.

He didn't want to lie to Bucky, not again. Steve hadn't kept his friend safe before and let this happen once.

And, though Steve would be dead before it happened again, the thought lingered in the darkest corners of his mind.

Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky. So where was I when he needed me?

"I think," Bucky says after a moment, "that I forgot about Peggy shooting at you. That never made it into the museum exhibit," he jokes, and Steve ignores the hot stinging behind his eyes.

"Private Lorraine might've, um, kissed me down at base one day. Then Peggy may have saw, and I sort of acted like a jerk towards her. I'm still surprised she didn't hit me. I'd have deserved it."

Bucky snickers, fast and light at the scene, and it's then that Steve remembers it's in the issue. It's also then that he remembers what else he included.

Erskine. USO shows. Propaganda films. The flagpole at Leihigh.

Steve pales as he thinks of boot camp. He forgot about basic.

"Bucky," Steve says. "Look, have you-"

"Read about the grenade stunt you pulled," Bucky finishes, and it's the loose tone that makes Steve prickle. Bucky yelling? Screaming? Cursing the very ground beneath his feet? Steve can handle that, but this easy tone? That's when Steve knows Bucky's steaming under his skin.

"I'm sorry. I should've mentioned it."

"It's alright," Bucky says, but Steve can hear the strained edge of his words. "From what I've gathered, I probably chewed you out on this already? Back then?"

Steve shakes his head. "Can't say you did. I don't know if anyone ever told you."

"Oh good," Bucky breathes, "because that will make me hell a whole hell of a lot better when I kick your ass the next time I see you."

Steve stutters. "I don't think that's n-"

"It's totally necessary, Steve. In fact, if it weren't for Nat hovering, I'd probably be on my way over now."

"You don't know where I am, Buck. Classified, remember?"

Bucky says nothing.

Steve pinches his nose. "Right, you and JARVIS are friends. He'd know. Sorry, again."

"Anything else you want to tell me about this before I read on? You took most of the stupid between us in life from what I've seen so far," Bucky says as he flips through some more pages. "Do I gotta' put you on a leash or something?"

Shaking his head, Steve answers. "Nah, not quite. Having you around is enough to keep me straight these days."

"Well, I don't know about that," Buck says.

Steve pressed his hand against the cracked concrete beneath him, brushing over it's weathered grooves, when he throws himself to the floor. A ringing crack whistles through the air. Across from him, the roof access swings open, and Kate's head pops up. There is blood sliding down her cheek from a cut above her brow, but her eyes are hard as stares at Steve.

"We've got company," she calls before pulling an arrow from her quiver. She drops back down into the house as another bullet finds the roof. Steve grunts, reaching over his shoulder to grab his shield, and realizes that Bucky's still talking in his ear.

"…the hell is happening over there," Bucky presses, and Steve does his best not to think of the way his voice cracks over the comm.

"Looks like they caught up quicker than we thought. They were even nice enough to bring a sniper," Steve answers as he rolls along the edge of the roof's lining. Behind him, a bullet cuts clear through the crumbling brick.

He needs to move. Judging by the noise below, Steve knows that Kate's going to need backup. "I got to go, Buck. Radio silence. I'll be back soon," he says as he pulls his sidearm from its holster.

"Steve-"

"I won't do anything stupid," Steve interrupts as he dives forward, narrowly escaping the bead on his back as another bullet comes from the tree-line. He manages to pull the door open and drop into the battle-torn bedroom where Kate lets a nocked arrow fly into a Hydra agent's chest. He tightens the grip on his shield, feeling every eye in the room turn to him.

They're surrounded. Steve catches Kate's eye, and she dips her chin.

"Give 'em hell," Bucky says quietly in his ear, and Steve brings a finger to his ear.

"Always do, Bucky."

Steve makes the first move.

________

When Steve gets home two nights later, Bucky isn’t there.

The once-certain panic that would've bubbled at his disappearance is gone — because, yes, distance is a good thing — so Steve stumbles into his bedroom as he kicks his shoes off. The sheets are rumpled unlike how he'd left them before his mission, but Steve is grateful for that as he sinks into bed. He digs his head into the pillow and smells the earth-and-salt smell of Bucky's skin against the cotton.

He turns, feeling too hot and sore to sleep in his uniform, before he sits up. Steve pulls at the collar of his suit, fumbling with the hooks, when he notices the book on the floor. It takes a moment to process, but when he does, Steve slowly bends over to pick it up. He flips through the pages quickly, smiling as he goes.

It's strange, he thinks, to see his own work like this, bound and finished on glossed-paper. He stops every other issue, reading the curled notes in the margins that could only have come from Bucky's hand. It's hard to read at points from smeared ink — or even when the notes switch between english and cyrillic — but Steve looks over each blurb as he reads.

Is this true?
Archie — Red hair?
смущающий.
Tell Steve her name was Anne, not Anna. She'd be mad.

He reads each word, committing them to memory until he reaches the end. He shuts the book, ready to put it back where he found it, when a piece of paper falls from the book. It lands in his lap, and Steve hesitates.

His fingers inch towards the paper, growing more and more curious despite Steve's best attempts otherwise, until he unfolds the paper. It's one of his first sketches he gave to Bucky — not even from this century — but back in Brooklyn when all Steve had was a sketchbook and charcoal beneath his nails.

Steve's breath shudders as he traces the outlines of his work. It's of Bucky, sprawled in his cramped bed as the morning sunlight edges through the unlatched window above him. His hair is swept to the side, and Steve's heart swells as he looks over the crack between Bucky's lips. There are no lines on his forehead, pulled together under the fitful nightmares he sees, but is instead still as he sleeps.

He finds he can't remember when he drew this, and Steve wishes he could. He wants nothing more to be able to remember this moment as he watched over Bucky as he slept, his crooked spine bent over as he drew, only sneaking glances for reference when he needed. Steve looks at the sketch now and realizes how Bucky must see all of Steve's work, almost as if he's looking into a fogged mirror that will never quite show him everything he wants to see.

Steve blinks when he reaches the bottom of the page and notices the handwriting just at the corner.

Remember this.
Я его люблю.

A strangled laugh breaks from Steve's voice when he looks up the last note, feeling too big for his body as his heart beats down to his bones. There is a warmth in his chest that pushes him to his aching feet, and Steve carries the sketch with him to his desk. He pulls out a blank sheet of paper before rummaging through his desk for his pencils.

He sits there for hours, bent over his desk as he draws, and ignores the stiff fabric of his suit as he rubs against his wrists.

________

"Steve."

A hand is at his back.

"Steve," the voice calls, and Steve buries his head into his arms.

"Frmghsw."

Bucky laughs, pressing his hand between the valley of Steve's shoulders, and Steve stifles a moan at how good the touch feels. "Let's make a deal, Steve. I make breakfast, and you go take a shower. Not that I'm not glad to see you in one piece after our last talk, but well, you need a shower. There's still some blood in your hair," Bucky says.

Steve cracks an eye open, lifting his head from his desk, and leans forward just enough to make sure Bucky can't see the stack of papers beneath his arm.

"Deal," he says, and Bucky stares at him for a moment before turning back to the kitchen.

When Steve comes out later, freshly showered with a damp grey shirt stretched against his chest, Bucky is already at the table with two plates and a handful of papers in his grip. Steve says nothing as Bucky looks through the comic with a raised brow.

When he sits, Bucky flips to the third page. "What is this," he asks between bites.

Steve shrugs. "I wanted to draw something. It's relaxing."

Bucky rolls his eyes, turning to the next page, and Steve counts how many are left until Bucky reaches the end. "Steve," he says, "this is just us at breakfast. How is this interesting? Who'd want to read this?"

Pushing his food around on his plate, Steve looks away from Bucky to the table. "You would."

"That's not saying much," Bucky sighs, and flips to the next-to-last page. That's when Steve stands, hands tucked into his pockets to keep them from trembling.

Bucky doesn't even look up. "Where you going?"

Steve struggles for words. "Kitchen."

He turns the corner to the kitchen, pressing his hand against his chest as if he's searching for the star of his uniform. There is no suit on, though, to protect him for what's about to happen. Steve stands in the doorway of the kitchen, breath hissing through his lungs like it did decades ago, and he wonders if having a panic attack might distract Bucky long enough to keep him from finishing.

From the other room, Steve can hear the table legs scrape against the floor, but he hears no footsteps following. Not that that matters, Steve knows, because Bucky is too quiet for even Steve to hear these days.

Desperate, Steve turns to the fridge and opens the door just as he feels Bucky walk into the kitchen.

"Steve."

Bending to reach the milk, Steve forces a laugh. "Just one second, Buck."

"Steve."

The words somehow sound different from how they did this morning, and Steve faintly feels like throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge with the embarrassment that's knocking through his heart. He turns, holding a quart of milk in one hand, and stumbles into the fridge when he sees how close Bucky is.

Steve deflates. "You want a glass of milk?"

Bucky stares at him, eyes flickering across Steve's face, until he steps forward. His knee slots into the space between Steve's thigh, and he brings his body close. Steve sighs, resting his head against the fridge to show the tanned expanse of his neck.

"You don't got to do this, Buck."

Bucky scoffs, raising his metal arm to stroke his thumb against Steve's curved jaw. He drags his chin down, surging upwards before pressing his full lips against Steve. It's short — shorter than Steve would've liked — but Bucky pulls back with a clipped laugh and question that makes Steve grab him by the waist, kissing him greedily as if all the air Steve would ever need again could only be found in Bucky's lips.

"Is this your first kiss since before," Bucky asks..

Steve laughs. "It's the only one that's mattered."

And, scattered across the floor in the other room, Steve's comic laid jumbled under the light filtering through the windows. The morning light caught one page — messy and smudged — that showed a scene similar to that in kitchen as Steve and Bucky held each other, tasting and nipping closely. Below the picture, in Steve's messy hand, a note was clearly written in the corner.

I love you too.

________

When Steve's next collection is released, he spends the day traveling with Pepper as they jump across press junkets and interviews that made him think back fondly to his USO days — even if the tights were a bit too tight. Because the jeans Pepper had forced him into squeezed his thighs just like his old navy get-up had all those years ago.

"They're in-style," she had promised before manhandling him into the dressing room. "Beside, imagine what Bucky will think."

Steve was still imagining that as they left their final interview for the day. He'd find out soon enough. Even if they have to fight the surging crowd of paparazzi and security at the Tower today, all to celebrate his latest release and Tony's growing need to throw a party.Steve figures it will be worth it just to see the way Bucky's jaw drops when Steve walks up to him dressed like this.

He's not vain, but Steve knows what he does to Bucky. It's because it's the very thing Bucky does to him as well.

When he gets to the living quarters, parting ways with Pepper as she goes to check on Bruce in the labs, Steve tilts his head towards the ceiling. "JARVIS, where's Bucky?"

"He is in Stairwell E, Captain Rogers. Would you like me to alert him of your return?"

Steve shrugs off his leather jacket. "No, thanks. I got this."

JARVIS' reply sounds as amused as possible. "As you wish, sir."

Steve finds Bucky in the stairwell as told, leaning with a bent and braced against the wall. His shorter hair is combed to the side, letting Steve see the smile tipping at Bucky's lip, and he licks a finger when he turns the next page of Steve's book.

Steve's boot squeak when he takes a step forward. "Is it weird I've imagined you like this before?"

Looking up, Bucky grins. "I've had stranger fantasies about you than that, so no. I'd say this is normal," he says before snapping the book shut. His eyes trail across Steve's body before he speaks again.

"Turn around," Bucky says, and Steve does as asked. There is an appreciative hum behind him before Bucky slips a hand into Steve's back pocket, turning him as he goes, until he can press a kiss to Steve's throat.

"See something you like," Steve asks, tilting his neck as Bucky lingers on the soft skin there.

"Just wanted to check on something," Bucky answers after moment, lips red and hot. "And I was right."

Steve grabs Bucky's waist, drawing him closer as he back himself into the wall. "About what," he asks as Bucky's body brackets his own.

"That I'm the luckiest goddamn guy this side of anywhere to have you like I do," Bucky answers, and Steve wonders if they could convince JARVIS to shut the cameras off in the stairwell if they asked nicely enough. He doesn't risk it though — not with this — so he bends forward and brushes a kiss against Bucky's head.

"You're such a flirt," Steve teases, and Bucky's chest rumbles against his own with laughter.

"Only with you," Bucky promises, trailing his hand down Steve's side until their fingers intertwine. "And I'm only being honest."

"Well, in that case," Steve trails off..

"Thought you'd be happy to hear that."

Steve stares softly at Bucky, squeezing his hand in his own. "It does, Buck," he says. "I have been for awhile now."

There is a warm color in Bucky's eyes when he stares at Steve, and for a moment, Steve feels like the distance between them has finally disappeared, that the worst is over now. He knows it's not. Their ghosts will trail them to the ends of the earth as they fight for one another, scrambling over land and sea to keep each other in sight. Steve knows there will still be long nights kept awake by shadows on the wall, living nightmares come to steal Steve's health or Bucky's memory as they shake and claw in bed. He knows this, and yet, none of it seems to matter when Bucky's hand reaches up to brush against his jaw like he had nearly a year ago.

He stops just short of Steve's lips. "They'll be coming for us soon," he says, and Steve doesn't think about who he's talking about.

The press. Their team. Hydra. Even the whole wide world itself.

Steve shakes his head, closing the space between them, and whispers against Bucky's lips. "Let them.".

On the ground at their feet, Steve's newest book rests on the floor with the cover facing up. The hardcover is wide with color — each page illustrating Steve's life since he woke up in a century not of his own — but none of the Avengers feature on the cover. Rather, it is a silhouette of two figures walking across a line, only connected by their linked hands.

One shoulder is dotted red with a star, and across from him, the other figure's suit is stamped with a ringed white star. Behind them is a collage of Brooklyn — new and old — while Bucky's script run along the spine.

The End of The Line

________

Unsurprisingly, it's a bestseller.

Chapter Text

Steve finds himself packing no sooner than when Bucky ships out for war.

There aren't many things he calls his own. Their apartment is bare — stripped walls with broken windowsills. What Steve can't take, he's left packed and sat outside his landlord's suite on the bottom floor. With any luck, he thinks, it might still be here when he comes back.

If he even comes back. Steve is still hoping that'll be the case.

A knock comes from the door. "Steven Rogers?"

The voice is unfamiliar, but Steve can hear the clipped edge of its words. Military, by the sound of it.

"Yes," he answers.

"The car is here. Don't forget we're on a schedule," the voice answers, growing further away as Steve hears steps creak in hallway outside. The strap of his suspender loosens against his shoulder, so Steve hooks it close to his neck. There is a stretched snap as it ticks against his bony collar, and Steve winces.

He grabs his bag, checking to see if he's got what he'll need. Everything is accounted for except one thing, but Steve had known that as he packed. He didn't want to have it stuffed into the bottom of his satchel. The starch canvas falls to the bed when he drops the bag, reaching for his nightstand that Bucky never got around to fixing before shipping out. It wobbles on three uneven legs as Steve rummages through the drawers.

When he takes his hand back, there is a bundle of pencils caught between his fingers. He tucks them into his bag, nestled between two shirts, and reaches for his sketchpad caught between the case of his pillow. The journal feels heavy in his hand — heavier than he ever remembers it being — and tips the cover open.

Wide eyes greet him from the page, and Steve freezes. Bucky, he thinks. It was one of the last thing he drew of his friend, and Bucky had slept right through it. Probably didn't even know Steve had been sketching him in his sleep the other night when his lungs wouldn't let him rest.

He snaps the book shut, carefully sliding it in his bag.

Outside, a car horn blares impatiently.

It's the last time Steve sees that rickety, old nightstand. He just hadn't known that then.

________

He draws when he can at Leihigh which isn't all that much.

Pencils stowed in a loose floorboard along with a few scraps of paper, Steve will curl around his work while the camp sleeps, squinting against the pale light of the moon. What he draws there is only half-formed by the night almost as if the shadows of the barracks crawled into the picture themselves. And Steve hates that his fingers — his one and only gift — have abandoned him here when he needs them the most.

He settles for writing letters to Bucky and tossing them before they ever reach the post. They're all marred by doodles, even after Colonel Phillips caught him tracing a caricature of the stern-faced man onto one of his funnier letters. Steve is more careful after that but continues to share his work with Peggy when she stops by to check-in on the recruits.

"You write an awful lot of letters," she comments one day, staring down at Steve as he stands to attention. He jerks a nod.

"Yes, M'am," he answers.

Peggy's stare deepens, searching his face in such a way that only Bucky has before. "And who do you write them for?"

Steve hooks his jaw, unable to lie under her gaze.

"I don't know, Agent Carter. Ask me again later."

________

The first time Steve draws a portrait of himself is the last.

He's huddled into a motel in Brooklyn, not far from where they'd tested him earlier, and taps the lightbulb hung just above his cot. The bulb flickers, buzzing eerily against the dusty room that no longer pricks at Steve's lungs.

He takes a deep breath that pushes at his chest. Nothing blocks the movement — not the dust, not himself.

Steve looks at his empty glass of water, checking his angles as he traces the new planes of his face. His jaw is still sharp, but it's larger now than Steve remembers. His neck is thick across the expanse of his meaty collar. Even his hands feel different, clumsy even, as his wide fingertips stumble along the page. It's these details that Steve puts to pen, losing himself in his work.

When he's done, he stands. Bringing his sketchbook closer to the light, his vision is sharp enough now to clearly make out his work even in the dark.

The person he sees staring back at him from the paper is nothing more than a stranger.

A snap cracks in the room, and Steve looks to the floor when the pen in his hand falls down, split clean in half. Ink trails down his fingers, too dark under the dimming light, and it makes Steve think too much of the blood that had seeped from Erskine's chest.

Like a gust of wind, there is a roaring in Steve's ears when he clenches his fist at the memory. And, from above, the lightbulb finally fizzles out, blanketing Steve's hideout in darkness.

The only thing that can be heard is the thud that echoes when Steve's sketchbook is thrown at the wall.

________

When the USO posters arrive, Steve watches the girls flit about the signs, cooing at the hatch-printed pieces that'll soon be shipped across the country. From the back — easily tall enough to see over the crowd of showgirls — Steve's lips dip into a frown when he sees himself on the pages, fingering a salute towards his invisible audience.

CAP SALUTES YOU! BUY WAR BONDS TODAY.

It's all wrong, he thinks as he traces the curve of his shoulder on the posters. They got me all wrong.

What Steve won't think, not aloud, is that this poster isn't the only thing wrong with his job these days. But he'll do as he's told, acting as the soldier Senator Brandt needs, and wait for the moment he can do something more.

"Rogers! Fitting is in ten. We got some new designs to look at," a waspish voice preens behind him. "You're going to love the new tights."

Steve looks down, fingers tugging at the hem of his too-tight shirt.

He walks away, and like before, no one notices.

________

"Did you decide?"

Steve stares at Peggy, helmet rattling against his head as Howard steadies the plane over enemy territory. He blanches. "What?"

"The letters," she answers. "Did you figure out who they were for?"

Clutching the tin-toy shield in his grip, careful not to break its handle, Steve shakes his head.

"No," he lies. "Never got around to it."

Steve prays she can't see through him as he ducks his head. He'd hate for her to think him selfish.

In the end, those letters? Those drawings? They were more for himself than anyone else.

________

Steve is sitting at the edge of his cot, watching Bucky pace across the short width of his tent.

"Of all the goddamn foolish things, Steve!"

He bristles. "Don't talk like that," Steve says, and Bucky flings his hands in the air before stalking across the room. He all but throws himself down on the cot, eyeing Steve's biceps crossly.

"You can't…I just…Where do I start with this," Bucky asks, and the sound makes Steve's gut swell with good-ole'-fashion Catholic guilt. If he had a rosary, Steve thinks he would say a Hail Mary for every time Bucky stared at him like he was a stranger.

Steve knew the feeling; It happened every time he caught himself in the mirror.

"Buck," Steve says after a moment. "I know you're mad-"

"Not mad," Bucky corrects him, rubbing a hand over his mouth. "Just confused. Jesus, Steve, it feels like I barely know you."

There is a moment hung between them that Steve closes quickly, feeling his lungs struggle under the weight of his anxiety. "I'm still the same," he tells Bucky.

Bucky's eyes are hooded, and Steve can see pinprick scars trail along his friend's forearm until they disappear into his sleeve. "Give me a couple hours, Steve, and maybe I'll believe you when I wake up."

Steve can't say anything to that — even if he could, he knows nothing he'd say would help. So he lets Bucky fall asleep on his cot, covering chin-high with Steve's standard-issue blanket that itches in all the wrong places. It's a fitful sleep, Steve notes, as Bucky shifts and rolls with his dreams.

He watches for almost an hour, redirecting anyone who comes looking for Bucky from his tent, before he takes a seat on a crate. The wooden slats groan under his weight, but they hold as Steve gently takes one of his few remaining pencils and touches its tip to paper. Outside, crickets hum throughout the night, accompanied by the back-and-forth strokes of Steve's pencil as he draws.

When Bucky wakes up in the morning, there is a picture propped against cot. A tired smile pulls at his lips when he looks over the page. He ignores himself on the page and focuses on the little guy next to him whose wispy bangs fall mid-brow and looks like he's spoiling for a fight. It's the first picture he's ever gotten of Steve — an honest-to-god portrait, at least — and is relieved to see it's of the Steve he left behind in Brooklyn.

Not that they're different, Bucky reminds himself. The proof of that was in the picture. So, he folds the paper into his breast pocket and ducks under the flap of Steve's tent. Rain is spitting outside, just as usual, but the camp is vibrant and loud with a few hundred freed soldiers all rearing to see who can find the fabled Captain America first.

Bucky smirks, digging his boots into the wet mud.

They'll have to wait in line.