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It's Just Temporary

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"Shit, shit, shit. Come on, not today," Bucky pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at the time again. 8:46am.

 He made a desperate noise. "Oh fuck me..."

The woman sitting to his left gave him a sharp look, glancing up from her copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. He gave her a look back. Seriously? Who reads smut at nine o'clock in the morning on the train in full view of everyone? Bucky turned away with a frown and leaned back in his seat. Of all the days the train could get held up. Couldn't he just get a tiny break? Just once. Not being late on the first day of a new job due to a situation beyond his control wasn't a big ask in the grand scheme of things and he wasn't an entirely bad person: He ate his greens, he was kind to animals. Okay, he had a big problem with idiots which had cost him his last two jobs, but this was going to be different - this job was the one that was going to stick, he had promised himself.

Bucky jiggled his leg; the train was still stuck somewhere under the East River which was the real burn - he only had to make it to Wall Street Station and then Stark Industries wasn't far. He'd even left early to make sure that he would have plenty of time to get there. The agency wouldn't be happy if he fucked this up. He moaned low in his throat again and the woman next to him got up and moved to another seat.

It wouldn't be so bad if Bucky knew what he wanted to do with his life but he didn't. It was all well and good people telling you to go to college, but they didn't tell you what to do when you got out, which is probably why he was twenty-seven and still working whatever temp jobs he could get and spiralling headlong into a very nice quarter-life crisis, the degree hanging on his bedroom wall a constant reminder of what he wasn't doing with his life. It wasn't like he had expected to land his dream job when he left college - he wasn't that delusional, but he'd thought maybe he'd be a little further ahead in his life than he was now, that things would have fallen into place somehow. Although now, he couldn't even remember what he had even been trying to aim for anymore. The longer it went on, the less purpose he felt he had.

"You just need some direction, James," his mother had said to him on the phone last week. Bucky had gritted his teeth and just made a noise of false agreement at the vague statement. Direction to where? To what? If he knew where he was going and what he was doing then great, problem solved. Thanks, Mom. It also didn't help that when his father decided that he wanted to speak to him, which wasn't often, he always greeted Bucky with a sarcastic "So what's the life plan this week, Jim?"

"Dude, don't sweat it," Sam had said one evening, when Bucky had drunk one too many beers and had started to panic about everything in his life that wasn't happening. "No-one gets anything done anymore until they hit at least thirty." Sam had a promising career in the government doing something for political candidates (Bucky zoned out slightly whenever Sam started to talk about his work) already so it was easy for him to say and Bucky had just nodded, swallowing down his failings to store and review for the next morning.

The train finally started to move and Bucky leaned forward again, woofing out a relieved breath but sucking it back in again when he looked at his phone. 9:05am. There was a text from Pete too.

PETER P: Good luck today! Break the stock exchange or whatever the hell it is they do at Stark Industries (Pork Bellies and Orange Juice are hot, apparently)

He wiped the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead and got up to stand by the door suddenly feeling very hot and uncomfortable in his suit, his tie feeling more like a noose. He wasn't going to make it.

I'm totally fucked, he thought.

***

He managed to battle his way out of the station and broke into a run once he hit the street, trying his best not to elbow anyone, holding his bag at his side. Stark Industries was two blocks away and Bucky gritted his teeth. Please, he thought, let me just have this one thing and I'll be good. I won't mouth off as much, I'll be less of a smart-ass...just please don't make me have to tell the agency and my parents that I lost another job before it even began...

Bucky reached the building and shuffled through the large revolving door with a glut of other people, successful people who had jobs and didn't look like they'd just stepped out of bed after having fallen asleep in the best suit they could afford; people who probably owned their own houses and had matching dinner plates and pasta makers. He hurried to the main desk, trying not to sound out of breath and desperate.

"Uh, I'm starting a new job today? I have no idea where to go...the agency told me - "

The woman at the desk smiled at him. "Your name, Sir?"

"Barnes," he said and glanced at the clock on the wall behind the desk. 9:28am. He could taste the toast he'd had for breakfast.

The woman ran her finger down a list. "Alright, Mr Barnes. I have you here; I'll just call up for you. If I can get you to fill out a visitor's pass..."

Bucky scribbled his name on the pass and the woman gave him a lanyard. "Take a seat and someone will be right with you." She gave him a bright smile.

He tried his best to smile back but decided he wouldn't want to be on the receiving end on what must look like a pained grimace. He walked over to the row of chairs closest to the desk and smoothed his hair down. The lobby was all clean lines and glass. Very minimal and a little pretentious, he couldn't help but notice. But then not much that was under the Stark brand wasn't pretentious. A security guard standing at the far end of the reception desk gave him a narrow eyed stare. Bucky tried a smile on him but the guy just glared at him harder. Well, fuck you too pal, Bucky thought and turned away.

"Barnes?" he heard someone call and turned around. A severe looking woman in a very smart and very expensive looking suit was striding towards him, her hair a shade of red that Bucky was pretty sure didn't actually exist in the spectrum of real hair. She looked pissed. Bucky tried to hold himself taller and feign some confidence.

"Yes, that's m - "

"You're almost a half hour late. You've got ten seconds to give me a plausible excuse or you're back out of that door." She looked at her watch and then back up at him.

Bucky fumbled desperately. "The train was held up. I left early...I couldn't..."

"Train from where?" she said, folding her arms and giving him a piercing look that intimidated him more than anything and he'd spent a stint in military school.

"Brooklyn," he answered weakly, already knowing for sure that he would be back out of the door in the next minute and trying to figure out what to tell the agency.

But she unfolded her arms and placed them on her hips instead. "Hmm. Okay. You get a free pass for today but only because one of our guys must have been on the same train and just got in himself. I'll tell you right now though: I don't take lateness lightly, especially on first days and especially from temps. Do you get me?"

Bucky allowed himself to feel a brief second of relief followed by more terror before nodding. "Yes...ma'am?" he tried.

The redhead gave him a look. "Follow me." She started off towards the bank of elevators across the lobby. Bucky picked up his bag and hurried after her, straightening his tie. The security guard who had given him the stink-eye was now less interested in him and more interested in the redhead.

The ride up to the 23rd floor was tense; the woman just looked straight ahead and made no attempt at small talk and Bucky just went with it, keeping his mouth shut, the tight feeling in his stomach telling him that this was already going all kinds of wrong.

They finally arrived and he followed behind her as she strode by reception, the girl behind the desk giving him an amused smirk and an approving eyebrow waggle as he passed. The office was pretty big, divided up into sectioned cubicles, everyone getting on with whatever is was they did up here, phones ringing, fax machines apparently still a thing and churning out paper. Several people said good morning to the redhead as she powered through the office, nodding and greeting them back. They eventually turned a corner, Bucky slightly out of breath from trying to keep up with her, and she ushered him into her office.

"Take a seat," she said and closed the door. Bucky sat down and brushed off the front of his jacket, waiting while she looked at a few sheets of paper in front of her.

"Okay, James Barnes? I've got that right?"

"Um, I prefer Bucky over James if that's alright, ma'am," Bucky said again.

"Fine. And seriously, enough with the ma'am. Women over forty get called ma'am and I'm far away enough from forty to be offended at being called ma'am."

Bucky panicked. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it as - "

She waved a hand at him to shut up and carried on reading. "So, what interests you about working at Stark Industries?"

Bucky hesitated and decided to go for a last ditch attempt at humour. "Well, I've always wanted to work on Wall Street. You know, greed is good?"

The redhead gave him a look. "Excuse me?"

"Um, like...Gordon Gecko. You know...the movie...Wall Street...?" he trailed off weakly. Shit. Okay, so she didn't do humour.

She snorted out a breath and carried on reading. "I can see that you've had quite a few jobs in the last six months. You want to tell me a little about that?" She didn't look up from her papers.

Bucky had been dreading something like this. "Well, most of them were very short term contracts and - "

"You worked at the Baxter Building but got dismissed for "gross misconduct against a fellow employee" which is, I think you'll agree, a pretty big thing." She looked up at him, an almost challenging look on her face.

Bucky could feel his chance slipping away again. He wasn't sure there was much point in telling her the whole story. He had been doing data entry in one of the Baxter Building's finance departments and had to watch day after day as some smug dick called Victor sleazed his way around the office, casually stroking the asses of most of the female employees, dodging complaint after complaint made against him because he was some big shot who could apparently talk his way out of anything and the words of at least six women against his counted for nothing. Bucky had finally snapped one morning after one of the other girls in his section, a really sweet kid called Susie, had started to cry to her friend, frustrated that nothing was being done. Bucky had casually followed Victor into the kitchen and, as he was leaning against the counter talking to a couple of other guys Bucky didn't know, had nonchalantly cupped Victor's crotch with one hand whilst reaching for a mug in one of the cabinets. It was a dumb idea. A really dumb idea. But Bucky wasn't known for his good ideas.

"Hey guys, how's it going?" Bucky had said cheerfully, waiting for the look of disbelief and horror on Victor's face before giving him a winning smile and a quick squeeze and then leaving the kitchen. Bucky had been gone within the hour but not before seeing, with some smugness, that word had spread (offices were weird little worlds unto themselves that he'd never really understood, not staying in any one place long enough to become a part of things) and that Victor was already a joke, unable to casually laugh off the "harmless" treatment he liked to dish out so much.

"Um, I was trying to prove a point and it wasn't seen as such." He didn't elaborate, wondering how much the agency had decided to disclose on his record.

Bucky couldn't be sure but he thought there was the briefest flicker of a smile on her face. But the lighting in here was pretty harsh and he could easily have been mistaken.

"You also worked in a bar very briefly and was fired for "unacceptable behaviour." Again, warning bells are ringing, Mr Barnes. This isn't a good pattern."

Again, Bucky sighed inwardly. The bar job had been a disaster waiting to happen. On his second shift, Bucky had stood behind the counter watching a total prick of a human being, some big guy with an obvious superiority complex, incessantly pick on a smaller guy and his date, watching as they grew more and more uncomfortable. The big guy's taunts were getting more and more lewd and things would have eventually escalated into a fight, even though the smaller guy was doing his best to try and diffuse the situation with humour, but then seeing that the big guy was out for conflict, had started to become more nervous. Bucky had pinpointed the exact moment that the big guy was going to make his move and had dumped a pitcher of beer over his head, watching the guy's look of pure surprise with satisfaction. For good measure, Bucky had tossed a bowl of peanuts into his face too, hoping that there was something to the urban myth of bar snacks and urine. There had been enough time for Bucky to smile at the guy before he had catapulted himself over the bar and punched Bucky in the face and both of them had fallen to the floor and started to beat the shit out of each other.

"I'm not sure what to...the whole bar environment probably wasn't the best place...for me..." Bucky could hear the desperation in his voice and hated himself for it.

The redhead leaned back in her chair and considered Bucky for a moment. "That just sounds like you telling me what you think I want to hear. Tell me honestly: Why were you fired from those jobs?"

Oh well, nothing to lose now, he thought. He took a deep breath. "The guy in the Baxter Building was a misogynistic sexist asshole who needed to be taken down a notch or two and the guy in the bar was a prick out looking for a fight and I tried to prevent a potentially horrible situation by being an impulsive idiot." He couldn't read the look on the redhead's face. "Should I just leave now?" Bucky asked miserably.

The redhead watched him for a moment longer then slid a stack of papers over to him. "We'll need you to sign all of these and hand them back by the end of today. Your contract runs for six months but there's a chance the role could become permanent after that. You'll have a weekly progress meeting with me and you can give me your timesheet to fax over to the agency at the end of every week. You get an hour for lunch, a half hour today because you were late - I'll let you sort out what time you go with Steve. Toilet breaks whenever you want but don't abuse that and spend twenty minutes in there texting or going on Facebook. The kitchen is for everyone, just clean up whatever you use and label any food in the refrigerator. I'll give you the number for human resources - Phil will be the guy for that - but you can come to me for anything and I'll do my best to help. Fridays are casual dress. I'm Natasha, by the way."

Bucky just stared at her.

"Did you get all of that or do I have to go through it all again?"

"Oh, yes, I got it. Thank you m - Natasha." Okay, so she was giving him a chance. Bucky took the papers from her desk and thanked whatever deity had decided to listen to his pathetic pleas.

Natasha stood up. "Right, follow me and we'll get you to work."

***

Bucky followed Natasha through the office to a cubicle in the far corner, a bunch of boxes stacked at least a couple of metres high on one of the desks. A blond guy sat at one of the computers on the other desk working his way through a pile of papers.

"Steve? This is your temp, Bucky. Bucky, this is Steve - he'll walk you through you what you'll be doing, train you on the system, show you the ropes."

The guy - Steve - turned around and stood up, holding out his hand. He was taller than Bucky by a good few inches and was one of those guys built to look good in whatever he was wearing, whether it was the very nice suit he had on or a garbage bag. Bucky was pretty sure the guy could make a garbage bag look like a red carpet outfit. He suddenly felt very shabby in his own it-fits-so-it'll-do suit and he shifted on his feet.

"Hi, good to meet you," Steve said, shaking Bucky's hand enthusiastically. Bucky shook back and smiled as best he could.

Natasha looked at her watch. "I'll send Don over to take your picture for your ID card sometime before lunch. If you need me for anything, just come to my office but I think Steve will be able to cover you for most things. Is that alright?" She looked at Steve.

"That's fine," he said and turned to Bucky with a warm smile. "We'll manage."

Natasha nodded and left without another word. Bucky didn't realise he'd let out a relieved breath until Steve laughed softly.

"Yeah, she can be pretty scary but she's actually kind of nice once you get to know her."

Bucky sat down in the office chair at his desk and ran a hand through his short brown hair. "Oh man, I thought for sure that this job had ended before it had even begun. The train was late, I made a stupid joke when I should have kept quiet..."

Steve sat down. "Well, it looks like everything worked out. I wouldn't worry too much - everybody gets nervous on their first day."

Bucky put his bag under his desk and sighed. "I've probably had more first days than most..." he muttered.

"Okay, well, I guess I'll run you through everything. It's not the most exciting job; we'll basically be processing any incoming purchase orders and invoices and then - " Steve indicated the plethora of boxes on the desk next to him, " - we just make our way through all of that. All of those files need to be logged electronically. Not fun, but it needs to be done."

Bucky nodded as Steve talked him through everything, making sure that any invoices from Shield Securities took priority over all others, how the system worked, how to log everything, but it wasn't long before the familiar gloom of dissatisfaction and failure started to settle over him. This was it, this was what he could get used to - a lifetime of internal databases, boxes of outdated files, office politics. I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life, he thought. I didn't make the most of what I had to offer and this is what I'll be doing for the rest of my life. He could already hear what his parents would tell their friends at parties: "James? Oh, he's got a job. Nothing particularly amazing but then that's what we've come to expect from him."

He swallowed and nodded as Steve mentioned something about grouping PDFs and the urge to get up, walk out and leave and just go somewhere else, anywhere, was so strong that his leg twitched.

"Um, are you okay?" Steve asked and Bucky glanced up, breaking out of his self-pitying stupor for a moment. Steve looked concerned. "You look a little...odd."

Bucky rubbed the back of his neck. "No, yeah, I'm fine. I just...it's been a stressful morning."

Steve gave him a sympathetic look. "Why don't you go and get some water or something? This can wait."

Bucky gave him a grateful nod. "Uh, where's the bathroom?"

Steve showed him and Bucky hurried off, locking himself in a cubicle and sitting on the toilet lid, taking a few deep breaths. He pulled his phone out and replied to Pete.

BUCKY: Thanks man - train was late, almost didn't make it, fine now but wondering WTF I'm doing with my life

He sat for a moment and gathered himself and then left the cubicle and splashed some cold water on his face, throwing his reflection a dirty look in the mirror. This is all your own fault, he told himself.

"Feel better?" Steve asked as Bucky sat back down.

"Yeah, thanks. Sorry - I'm not usually this flaky..."

Steve held up a hand and gave Bucky an earnest smile. "It's fine; I know new jobs can be tough."

Bucky spoke before he even had a chance to think about it. "It's more like...do you ever get the feeling that there's another you, a you that got everything right that you're running parallel to but no matter how hard you try or how fast you run, you can't catch up?" He looked up, hoping that Steve didn't think that he was a complete lunatic.

Steve blinked a couple of times. Bucky gave an embarrassed laugh. "Sorry - it's a bit early on a Monday morning to be getting into existential angst."

Steve shook his head and smiled politely. "No, it's okay." He didn't seem like a bad guy, Bucky thought.

"Okay, so you want me to just log this stuff?" Bucky indicated the stack of paper next to his computer.

"Yeah, please. See how you get on. If you need anything, just let me know." He smiled again and turned back to his own work.

Bucky pushed down the dark cloud that was starting to storm over his vision and got to work.

***

An hour and a half later, a guy with a digital camera came over to their section.

"You the new guy? I need to take your picture for your pass. Hey Steve, how's it going?"

Steve turned and gave the guy a smile. "Hey Don. Yeah, okay I guess."

Bucky stood up and Don indicated a blank patch of wall behind him. "Just stand there. Okay, ready..."

"Wait, do I need to - " Bucky began but Don took the picture and looked at it. "That's fine. I'll print up your pass and get it to you by tomorrow." He started to walk away.

"But I think I blinked - don't you want a back up?" Bucky asked, not quite prepared to settle for having a terrible photo on his pass too.

"No, it's fine," Don called over his shoulder.

Bucky made a noise and sat back down. "Great."

"I'm sure it'll turn out fine." Steve offered Bucky a dried apricot from a bag on his desk. Bucky took one.

"Yeah, I haven't been big on breaks so far so it'll be a miracle if it does." Bucky glanced around at the office. "So, does the big man himself ever come here?"

Steve leaned back. "Who, Stark? No, it was on the news a while back, I mean they told us when it happened, obviously, before it made the headlines, but he had some kind of breakdown and pretty much stays in his penthouse all the time. His wife is kind of running things for the time being."

"What happened to him?" Bucky asked.

Steve shrugged. "Nobody's entirely sure. He's always been a bit...eccentric to say the least. Some people said it was a stress-induced thing, other people think he had some kind of accident but no-one really knows for sure. It's all been kept pretty quiet."

Bucky snorted. "Maybe he's gone all Howard Hughes. You know, pissing into empty bottles and saving them, not cutting his fingernails..."

"Maybe. I kind of feel bad for his wife though. I met her once; she seemed like a good person."

"So, uh, what's it like working here?" Bucky asked.

Steve sat back in his chair. "It's okay. The people are nice. I've certainly had worse jobs. I was a security guard with Shield before I came up here. I actually worked the lobby downstairs for six months."

Bucky raised an eyebrow; he didn't seem like the security guard type - he certainly had the build for it but Bucky couldn't imagine him being particularly intimidating. "Really? Why'd you quit doing that?"

Steve shrugged. "It wasn't really me. I heard about an opening up here so I went for it and got it."

Bucky gave his chair a lazy spin. "The security guy downstairs gave me some really dirty looks when I came in this morning; you'd have thought I was smuggling in weapons or something. I guess he takes his job pretty seriously."

Steve laughed. "Clint? He's actually pretty cool. I worked with him for a while - I think he just likes to make people think he's all tough and ready to hustle out any trouble makers."

Bucky glanced behind Steve at the papers pinned to his wall; memos, health and safety junk, the usual. There were several postcards of a coastline pinned to the wall too and a calendar with, of all things, jellyfish on it.

"What's with the jellyfish?" Bucky asked, nibbling the dried apricot.

Steve looked at the calendar. "Oh, I just - it's all sea-life. I like...the sea. You know, marine biology." He gave Bucky a little smile. He had very blue eyes.

"Yeah?"

Steve nodded. "Yeah, I go up to Montauk a lot, whale watching, walking on the beach. I worked on a fishing trawler for a little while up there too."

Bucky gave an impressed chuff. "Wow, that's pretty cool. Why the hell are you here in this place if you could be doing that instead?"

Steve gave a little frown, as if no-one had asked him that before. "I don't know," he said softly. "I guess I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do."

"There seems to be a lot of that going around," Bucky said with a sigh.

Steve looked at his calendar and the postcards. "What about you? Why are you here?"

Bucky threaded his tie through his fingers. "Because temp work is the only work I can get. I have a very particular talent in that I can't hold down a job for very long."

"Why, are you some kind of troublemaker?" Steve looked at him with a little smile.

"Yeah, something like that." He told Steve about the incident at the Baxter Building and the guy at the bar.

Steve leaned back in his chair. "You might have lost those jobs, but what you did was really admirable. Stupid but admirable."

Bucky gave a surprised laugh. "Hey!"

Steve laughed with him. "I like to think I'd have done the same." He looked down and gave a little shrug. "I hope I would have, anyway."

Bucky turned back to his computer. "Well, I wouldn't recommend it. I hate to tell you this but you're currently working with the world's biggest directionless fuck-up. Enjoy." He gave a bitter little laugh and began typing again. He could feel Steve watching him for a moment before he turned back to his own work.

***

At 12:45pm, Steve got up and peered over Bucky's shoulder. "Wow, you've really got the hang of this already. Have you logged all of those?" He indicated to the stack of papers in Bucky's in-tray.

Bucky nodded. "Yup. I'm a quick learner - one skill on my résumé that I don't mind bragging about."

"Good work. I'm going to lunch; you can go whenever you want."

Bucky picked up another invoice. "I'll give it a half hour; I was late anyway."

Steve gave him a nod. "Okay. See you later."

Bucky watched as he walked off. He sat back and rubbed his neck. I could still leave, he thought to himself. I could walk out right now and no-one would give a shit. He looked up at the florescent lights and the ceiling tiles as if the confirmation he needed to do so would come from those. Everyone expects me to quit, he thought to himself, why should I disappoint them now? His phone vibrated in his pocket. He glanced around before taking it out.

PETER P: You need to get a job at my place - blow stuff up with me

BUCKY: Blow stuff up??

PETER P: We get to blow stuff up this week. I LOVE MY FUCKING JOB

BUCKY: Good for you, glad one of us does

PETER P: Wanna go for a drink later? Talk about it?

BUCKY: Thanks dude, maybe another time

PETER P: Your call. I need to go and set fire to teddy bears

BUCKY: ?!?

PETER P: :D

Bucky put his phone back in his pocket and got back to work, deciding to stay and try and make a go of it, for himself at least. The office was quiet, most people having gone out for lunch and Bucky considered going out for the half hour he had, but he doubted his resolve to come back afterwards. Better to stay here. He carried on with the logging, settling into an automatic unthinking rhythm, happy to let his mind drift and not think about anything for a while. At 1:25pm, people started to return to the office and get back to work. As much as Bucky felt he should talk to a few people, he wasn't really in the mood for small talk and hung back for a little while before picking up his bag and heading for the lunch area - a large sterile room with some tables and chairs set out, a row of vending machines against one wall. There was a blond woman reading a newspaper at one table and she looked up and gave Bucky a smile of acknowledgement before turning her attention back to her paper.

Steve was sat at a table in the far corner, his back to the room, engrossed in looking at his phone and eating an apple. Bucky hesitated for a moment and then wandered over.

"Is it okay if I sit here?"

Steve looked up and smiled. "Sure." He put his phone down and wiped his mouth.

"You don't go out for lunch?" Bucky asked pulling out his sandwich, a diet coke and a bag of chips from his bag.

"If the weather's good but I generally just come in here." Steve fiddled with his phone.

Bucky took a swig of his coke. "So, who do you hang out with here? Anyone I should avoid in particular?"

"I don't really know anyone well enough here to be honest."

Bucky gave him a look. "You've been here a while though, right?"

Steve thought for a moment. "Including when I was a security guard? Just over a year."

Bucky nodded but didn't ask him anything else, chewing his sandwich thoughtfully. A year working at one place was a long time to go without having made a least a few friends. Steve seemed nice enough, unless he was a total asshole and Bucky just didn't know it yet but he didn't think that was true. Maybe he just kept to himself.

Steve was looking at his phone again. He glanced up and gave Bucky an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I was just looking at tide times for the weekend." He put his phone in his pocket.

Bucky shrugged. "It's okay. I don't mean to pile on the questions; just looking to keep on my toes here. That way I might be able to last more than a week without mortally offending someone."

"Well, you haven't offended me. Yet."

Bucky gave a small laugh. "Yeah, we'll see how long that lasts. I think I made it to "15 days without incident" once and that was a while back."

Steve started to clear up the remnants of his lunch. "Here's hoping you make it to a month. I'm going to head back."

Bucky nodded. "I won't be long. Figure I'll make a good impression on my first day in some way. I don't think I could take another stripping down by Natasha quite so soon."

Steve stood up with a grin. "I'll vouch for you."

He turned and walked out of the lunch room, greeting the blond woman as he went and putting his apple core in the garbage can. Bucky finished up his lunch quickly and headed back to his section. Halfway there, he veered off towards the kitchen to make himself and Steve a cup of coffee. He had no idea if Steve even liked coffee but he wanted to do something to try and...fit in? Even if it was just something small. Maybe it was time to try and start to make an effort.

In the kitchen, the girl from the front desk was leaning against one of the counters eating a muffin and talking to a tall dark-haired woman. She gave him a brash smile when he walked in.

"Hey there," she said with a cocky tilt of her head.

Bucky smiled back, slightly awkwardly. "Hello." He found two plain white mugs and held them out. "Are these okay for anyone to use or do they belong to someone? I wouldn't want to get on anyone's bad side by using their "special" mug or something."

The dark-haired woman laughed. "Yeah, that shit does not go down well in this place. Those are fine. Just make sure you wash them up afterwards or you'll be in for a world of hurt." She headed out of the door and waved to the girl from reception. "See you later."

"Take it easy, Drew," the girl called and turned her attention back to Bucky as he poured out two mugs of coffee. "So, what the hell kind of a name is Bucky?"

Bucky had been steeling himself for the whole name thing, just like he did at every job he started. He didn't want to have to go through the whole nickname story because over the last couple of years, it had become less of a nickname and more of a way to distance himself from the disappointed way his parents talked about "James" and what he wasn't doing to make them proud. James was the fuck-up. There was still a tiny chance that Bucky could be someone who did something worthwhile.

Bucky frowned and stepped forward, reading the girl's ID pass hanging from her lanyard. "What the hell kind of a name is Darcy? Is your mom Jane Austen?"

Darcy laughed. "Ooh, yowch! Good one."

"How did you know my name anyway?"

Darcy snorted. "I work the front desk - it's my job to know everything about this place. You think I just answer the phone and make coffee for the big-wigs? I know everything that goes down on the 23rd floor. You're in my 'hood now, homes."

Bucky gave a sarcastic laugh as he picked up the coffee pot and began to pour. "Wow, do I have to whack someone before I'm considered one of the family?"

"Laugh all you want, but I know that you were late and got your ass reamed out by Natasha this morning. I also happen to know that your agency has you on a one-strike-and-you're-out clause too, so you need to be a good boy. I'm sure you being late today should technically have warranted a strike but I guess Natasha was won over by those puppy-dog eyes and decided to keep that one to herself."

Bucky put down the coffee pot and frowned. "If that's a joke, it's not funny."

Darcy gave him a withering look. "Like I said, I know everything that goes on around here. You get that one for free."

Bucky sighed and rubbed his face. "Shit."

Darcy chewed the last bite of her muffin and wiped her hands. "You'll be fine. You're working with Steve and he's about as un-strikeworthy as it gets."

Bucky finished pouring out the coffee. "Thanks for the heads-up," he mumbled. Now that he knew that he was on thinner ice than he thought, he was suddenly even more terrified about doing something wrong than he was five minutes ago.

Darcy headed out of the kitchen. "He likes cream and two sugars," she called before she was out of sight.

***

Steve seemed genuinely grateful when Bucky handed him his coffee. "How did you know how I take it?"

"The girl at the front desk. Darcy or whatever her name is." Bucky didn't feel as hopeful about his situation as he did before lunch and tried his best not to settle into another funk. Steve seemed to notice that something was up but didn't say anything as Bucky turned back to his work. He deliberately tried not to clock-watch for the rest of the day, keeping his head down and answering politely but in monosyllables when Steve tried to make cheerful small talk. He eventually got the message that Bucky didn't want to speak to him and carried on with his own work quietly.

At 5:20pm, ten minutes before Bucky was finished for the day, Natasha called him into her office. His stomach clenched as he walked in the door, not quite knowing why. He didn't think he'd managed to screw anything up quite yet. Maybe it was just her that made him nervous.

"So," Natasha leaned on her desk, eyeing him. "First day. How do you think you did?"

"Okay, I guess? I did a bunch of work..."

"I had a chat with Steve and he seems happy with you so I'm happy. See you tomorrow." She threw him a little smirk and a nod and started to type something on her laptop.

"Thank you," he muttered and stood back up. He considered asking Natasha about the one-strike clause but chose not to; she would have mentioned it if he was meant to know. He got back to his desk and worked for another five minutes before logging out of the system and picking up his bag.

Steve turned to him. "So, you did good for your first day. Thanks for your help."

"Don't you finish at five-thirty?"

Steve gave a little sigh and indicated to the pile of files next to him. "I need to get these logged before tomorrow. I'll stay for a little while. Take it easy, Bucky." He turned back to his computer.

"Thanks for showing me the ropes," Bucky said, feeling bad that he'd been so sullen since lunch. It wasn't Steve's fault that Bucky was constantly screwing up or on the verge of screwing up. He wanted to say something else but couldn't think of anything.

"You're welcome," Steve said without turning around.

"See you tomorrow," Bucky said and headed out of the office, not looking at Darcy as he walked by the front desk.

***

Bucky's mood sank lower on the train ride home and by the time he got back to the small two-story townhouse he shared with Sam, he was ready to call everything quits and pack up and move to Alaska or Russia or anywhere else that was remote and where he had less chance of letting anyone down just by being himself . He yanked off his tie and threw it on the armchair, kicked off his shoes into the hallway and flipped on the TV as he strode into the kitchen to microwave some tasteless frozen meal and eat it straight from the carton. After a moment, he kicked off his trousers too.

He was into the second episode of an America's Next Top Model marathon when he heard Sam's key in the front door. He fumbled for the remote and quickly switched it over onto the History Channel.

"Hey dude," Sam called and came into the living room, putting down his briefcase and taking off his jacket. He gave Bucky a look when he saw what he was watching. "Hitler's Secret Bunker? Come on, man; I already know about your guilty little secret love for ANTM. You don't have to pretend you're into any of this deep stuff; I already know you're a shallow dick."

Bucky laughed and switched it back. "Rumbled."

Sam made a pleased noise and sat down on the couch next to him. "Ooh, season six. Jade is such a bitch."

They sat in silence for a few moments watching the contestants attempt to krump in designer shoes before Sam said, "So I'm guessing by your festering silence that the new job was a bust?"

Bucky twirled the TV remote around in his hand like a baton. "No, it was fine."

"But...?" Sam prompted.

Bucky threw the remote down between them and covered his face with his hands, groaning loudly. "What am I doing, Sam? What the fuck am I doing?"

Sam gave a long sigh. "Buck, you have to pull it together. You know I love you like an annoying brother but this Charlie Brown, cloud over your head, sad sack behaviour isn't doing you any good and it's starting to piss me the hell off."

Bucky sank lower on the couch and threw his hands up. "I know, I know. I just...what am I supposed to do?"

"Okay, okay, just calm down. So what happened? Something's got you all worked up."

Bucky told Sam about the one-strike clause and the general feeling of his life slipping deeper into a confusing slop. "I mean, the job isn't anything horrendous and I'm not dissing office work but it's just...I know if I put the effort in I could do so much more for myself. I just have no idea what to do." He looked at Sam, despondent. "It's a shitty feeling."

Sam patted Bucky on the shoulder. "Okay. Well, we have to do something because I can't keep coming home and finding you on the couch, in your underwear - which is really just...keep your pants on please, for fuck's sake - acting like you've just been kicked in the balls repeatedly because it's started to get me down too."

Bucky gave Sam an apologetic glance. "I'm sorry; I know I haven't been any fun..."

Sam got up and opened his briefcase, pulling out one of his yellow legal pads and a pencil. "No, you really haven't. Pete texted me earlier too and told me that he thought you weren't doing so great." He tossed the pad and pencil into Bucky's lap. "This is what we're gonna do: You are going to make a list of all of the things you want to get out of your life, no matter how stupid you think they are and then we're going to go through the list and narrow down what you can realistically do and how to go about achieving it. Okay?"

Bucky gave Sam a despairing look. "Sam - "

Sam held up his hand and glared at Bucky. "Nope. We are doing this. I can't stand to see you wallow any more so just make the damn list. We'll go through it at the weekend."

Bucky sighed and picked up the pad and pencil. "Alright. Thank you, Sam. You don't have to do this, you know."

"I know, I'm awesome. I didn't think that when I rented out my spare room I'd be turning into some kind of life coach for a guy who can't keep his pants on for longer than five minutes when he steps through the front door. Seriously dude, please put them back on - I don't want to have to steam clean my couch because there's a chance you might accidentally teabag it."

"Too late," Bucky said and broke into a fit of laughter at the horrified look on Sam's face.

Chapter Text

Bucky woke up the next morning, not exactly feeling any better after his talk with Sam the night before, but not exactly feeling any worse either. He stared up at the ceiling after turning off his alarm and sighed. He had scrawled a few things down on the pad Sam had given him and it had kind of  helped to see what he wanted to get out of his life written down, that maybe the things he wanted for himself weren't totally unobtainable. A career he enjoyed would be nice. It didn't even have to be anything amazing, just something he could wake up to and not dread leaving the house for. A relationship would be good too; he'd been single for a while now and while he wasn't exactly going out of his way to go out on dates, he was getting kind of lonely. His last major relationship hadn't ended well - he hadn't made any contact with Bruce for months - and he was constantly refusing to let Brock set him up with any of his friends.

He finally crawled out of bed and had a shower. Sam left stupidly early first thing so Bucky usually had the house to himself. He wolfed down a quick breakfast and made sure to catch an even earlier train that morning - he did not want a repeat of yesterday's close call - and squeezed into a carriage, eventually moving so far back that he was pressed next to the window that looked through into the next compartment. The train started to move and Bucky took a deep breath and tried to think positively: Eye of the tiger, wax on wax off, Goonies never say die.

He leaned against the door and looked through to the adjacent carriage. It was as busy as this one, crammed with commuters on their way to the financial district. He noticed Steve standing about half-way down the compartment, deep in thought. He must live in Brooklyn too, Bucky thought. He watched him for a moment, wondering what he was thinking about. He seemed...kind of lost. He stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the other commuters, tall and the kind of handsome that was getting him a lot of not-so-conspicuous glances from some of the female passengers. But he also looked strangely sad and uncomfortable like he didn't quite know how to stand alongside everyone else. Bucky watched him for the entire journey, curious.

When the train finally stopped at Wall Street Station (Bucky had kept his fingers crossed the entire time they were under the East River), he made his way out, looking for Steve in the thrum of people. It wasn't until he was out on the street that he saw him walking up ahead. He hurried to catch up.

"Hey Steve," he said as he fell into step beside him.

Steve gave him a warm smile. "Oh, hey. How are you?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. Look, I just wanted to apologise for being a dick yesterday afternoon."

Steve shook his head. "You weren't a dick."

Bucky scratched his neck. "I kind of was. I wasn't in the mood to talk after lunch and I think I gave you the short end. I'm sorry. I just...I found out something about my contract and it got me a bit spooked."

Steve frowned in concern. "Nothing serious, I hope?"

Bucky told him what Darcy had mentioned in the kitchen. "I mean, it's not like I'm out looking for trouble or anything, I just seem to put my foot in it more often than not. If I lose this job then I'm just..." He couldn't seem to finish.

"Bucky, I honestly don't think you need to worry. You got right into the work yesterday and you seem like a good guy - I think you're just setting yourself up for failure when you really don't need to." The look Steve gave Bucky was so frank that it threw him a little.

"I guess so. I'm just so used to thinking the worst about myself," he smiled wryly.

"Yeah, I know that feeling," Steve said softly. Bucky looked at him but Steve quickly changed the subject. "So, you were on the same train as me - do you live in Brooklyn?"

Bucky nodded. "Yeah, born and raised." He indicated a coffee shop up ahead. "Hey, let me get you a decent coffee, just as a thank you for putting up with my terrible attitude yesterday."

"You don't have to do that."

"Well then, you can get the coffee tomorrow. I'm going to do it anyway so you may as well tell me what you like." Bucky flashed him what he had been told was a winning smile.

Steve smiled back. "I'll have a latte. Thank you."

They walked the rest of the way to Stark Industries drinking their coffee and Bucky managed to get Steve to talk a little about himself; he lived in a small one-bedroom apartment on his own, he liked to run and work out, but spent most of his weekends up in Montauk or reading.

"Not the most exciting life," Steve said and looked down at his drink.

"Join the club," Bucky laughed humourlessly. "They don't exactly tell you that this is how it's going to be when you graduate from college."

Steve chuffed out a small laugh. "Yeah."

"I might offer to do workshops in Universities; you know, tell the kids how life really is when you leave. "Three out of fifty of you will find your dream jobs, the rest of you can look forward to a life of mundanity and disappointment!" I think there's an untapped market in honest lecturing."

Steve laughed. He had a nice laugh. "I'm sure that would go down really well."

When they reached Stark Industries and made their way into the lobby, Bucky glanced nervously around for the security guard that had given him the stink eye the day before - Clint - but he wasn't there. Bucky breathed out a small sigh of relief. He didn't need to feel any more on edge than he needed to be.

When they reached the 23rd floor, Darcy gave them both a big Cheshire Cat grin from the front desk.

"Good morning Steve," she crooned cheerfully.

"Hi Darcy," he said politely.

She squinted at Bucky. "And...Chucky, was it?"

Bucky gave her a big fake smile. "Good morning...Marcy, was it?"

Darcy cackled. "You're so sassy."

"You're a real people person, you know that? I can see why they decided to have you on the front desk."

Darcy flashed him a grin. "Because I'm full of charm."

"You're definitely full of something," Bucky said and Steve threw his head back and laughed again.

"I have no idea why she doesn't like me. I only met her yesterday," Bucky grumbled as they walked through the office to their section.

"Maybe she does like you," Steve said with a little grin.

Bucky groaned. "No. No, we won't be doing any of that schoolyard shit."

Steve chuckled and took his jacket off. "Okay. I hate that crap too."

Natasha walked over as they were booting up their computers, Bucky's sounding more like a lawnmower as it powered up.

"Good morning boys. I have today's invoices for you." She placed a thick stack of papers on Steve's desk.

She turned to Bucky with a raised eyebrow. "Everything good?" He wondered why she hadn't made a big thing about him being late yesterday if his agency had him on such a fine thread; she could easily have just turned him away based on the black marks against his last two jobs but she had cut through his bullshit and had given him a chance. If he managed to make it through the entire six month contract, he would have to thank her.

Bucky gave her a smile and this time it didn't feel forced. "Yeah, I think so."

Natasha gave him a sharp nod and stalked off.

"See?" Steve said. "Maybe things aren't as bad as you thought they were yesterday."

Bucky grabbed a handful of the papers from Steve's desk. "Okay, okay. You sound just like my roommate; he's annoyingly positive too and always telling me to look on the bright side and all that junk."

"Sounds like a good guy," Steve said and gave Bucky a little smile before turning to his computer and getting to work.

Forty-five minutes later, Don came over with Bucky's printed ID card. "There you go," he said, tossing it onto Bucky's desk.

Bucky took a look at it and howled. "Oh, what the hell! I look like a crazy person." His eyes were half closed in the picture, the left more so than the right and his mouth was hanging open mid-speak. "You couldn't have spared like two seconds to take a better picture?"

He glared at Don as he started to laugh. "Oh, you look fine, New Guy."

Steve leaned over and looked at the ID card. "It's not that bad," he said but Bucky could hear him desperately trying to smother a laugh.

Bucky grabbed at Steve's ID card hanging from his lanyard and looked at his picture and then at Don's. "Yeah, great. You both look like fucking supermodels on your passes. Thanks a bunch."

Don laughed and waved his hand. "See you later," he called as he walked off.

Bucky grumbled as he replaced the visitors pass with his new ID card. Steve's shoulder's were shaking as he faced his desk. Bucky screwed up the visitor's pass and threw it in the wastepaper basket.

"Yeah, laugh it up."

"I'm sorry," Steve said turning back to him, trying to stifle another smile. "That picture is pretty amazing though." He broke into another gale of laughter and Bucky couldn't hold back his own smile anymore, shaking his head - Steve's laugh was kind of infectious.

"I guess it was to be expected. This is a metaphor for my life." Bucky held the pass up with a grimace.

***

At 10:45am, Bucky leaned back in his chair with a stretch. He turned to Steve. "Do you want a coffee?" Another drawback to office work: Any excuse to get up and break the routine was good and making coffee was the best reason to get away from the desk. Bucky knew he'd be a caffeine dependant freak by the end of this week.

Steve looked grateful. "That would be awesome. Thanks."

Bucky walked through to the kitchen. The dark-haired woman that had been talking to Darcy yesterday was mixing up a bowl of instant oatmeal and talking to the blond that Bucky had seen in the lunch room. He gave them both a smile, not wanting to interrupt their conversation and pulled out two of the blank mugs from the cupboard.

"Sorry, I realised that I didn't get your name when I saw you yesterday," the dark-haired woman said to him when they were done speaking. "I'm Jess."

Bucky shook her hand. "That's okay, it was a bit of a weird day. I'm Bucky."

The blond held out her hand. "Bucky? That's...interesting. Is it your real name or a nickname? I'm Carol."

They shook and Bucky turned back to the mugs. "It's a nickname but I prefer it over my real name."

Carol looked interested as she dunked a herbal tea bag into her mug of hot water. "Really? Your real name must be pretty bad if you prefer Bucky. I mean, not that Bucky is a bad name - " she added quickly and Jess nudged her and laughed.

"Way to go, Carol. I like Bucky. It's cute. Kind of like a dog's name," Jess said.

Bucky chuffed. "Thanks, I guess."

Carol folded her arms. "So what is your real name?"

"Sorry, can't tell you. It's classified."

Jess gave a knowing smile. "I bet Darcy knows."

Bucky groaned. "She probably does. I don't think she likes me very much so knock yourselves out."

Jess blew on her oatmeal and took a small mouthful. "So, you seem to be getting on pretty well with Steve."

Bucky gave a non-committal nod. "I guess so; I only met him yesterday. He seems nice."

Carol leaned against the counter. "Oh, Steve's a total sweetheart. He doesn't talk much to anyone though, hasn't really since he started working up here but you managed to get him laughing pretty quickly. I don't think any of us have actually heard him laugh before. He's usually so quiet that we forget he's there."

Bucky gave them both a grin. "It must be my natural charm and boyish good looks."

Jess made an amused noise. "So modest. You know, practically every woman in this place has tried asking Steve out and he turned every single one down. Very politely though - he's like a proper old-fashioned gentleman. It's hard to feel disappointed when you get rebuffed so gallantly."

"Maybe he doesn't do workplace relationships," Bucky said spooning sugar into Steve's mug and starting to feel slightly uncomfortable by the conversation. "It's kind of inappropriate I guess, not to mention awkward if things go south."

"Maybe," Jess said and she and gave Carol a look, as if to confirm something. Bucky tried not to notice - he didn't want to get into talking about Steve behind his back.

"He doesn't do any office social stuff either, like going out for drinks or karaoke with the rest of us," Carol continued.

Bucky gave a snort. "Yeah, well I don't blame him. Karaoke is pretty lame."

"Well, it was nice to meet you, Bucky," Carol said as she eased away from the counter. She stopped and gave him a considering look. "I bet your name is something like Chad or Brad. It's Chad, isn't it?"

Bucky laughed. "No, it isn't. Thank god."

Carol made a face and Jess followed her out of the kitchen, giving Bucky a little wave as she went. Bucky finished making the coffee and headed back to his desk.

"Any more invoices you want me to log?" he asked Steve as he handed him his mug.

"You finished that stack already?" Steve asked, taken aback.

Bucky nodded. "I told you - I'm a fast learner. Fast worker too. I don't make many mistakes either if you want to check through it all."

Steve gave an impressed little smile and Bucky couldn't help but feel pleased. "Okay, well I guess you can start going through those files?" He indicated the boxes behind him. "I know it looks like a lot but it's not as bad as it seems. Dig a few out and I'll show you what to do."

Bucky blew out a small breath. "The fun never ends."

***

An hour and several invoices later, Bucky was scrolling through the programs on his PC trying to find Word.

"Steve, how long have these computers been here?"

Steve looked up from the purchase orders he had been signing. "I don't know. Longer than I have. Why?"

Bucky threw up a hand. "Because this thing is running a version of Windows that might be older than I am. We are working at Stark Industries, right? Top of the field in whatever the hell it is they do and they can't even update the computers?"

Steve smirked. "Yeah, our section? Not a top priority."

Bucky gave a surprised laugh as he saw something familiar. "Whoever used this before even had Doom installed! THAT should tell you how old this fucking thing is. Holy shit, I haven't played this since I was twelve." He clicked on the icon and quickly turned down the volume when the title screen appeared.

"I wasted so many weekends and school vacations on this game and the sequels. My parents took away my computer because I played it so much. Doom shaped my childhood, I kid you not."

Steve glanced at the screen. "I've never played it."

Bucky looked at Steve like he was crazy. "You've never played Doom? Everyone has played Doom, come on."

Steve ran a hand through his hair. "I never really had any videogames. My mom couldn't afford to get me any so I just went without."

"You didn't have friends that had any consoles? I refuse to believe that you didn't even play videogames with friends." Bucky gave him an incredulous stare.

Steve looked slightly embarrassed, the back of his neck turning pink. "Didn't really have any friends to play videogames with," he said quietly.

Bucky gauged Steve's face; he looked uncomfortable so Bucky decided not to push him on it. The last thing he wanted to do was to make Steve feel bad.

"Well, you have to play it. This game is like the King of first-person shooters. There's still a chance it could change your life." He tried giving Steve his winning smile from earlier.

Steve managed a strained little grin and held up a hand. "Ah, I'm terrible at videogames. I'll pass." He turned back to his work and Bucky silently cursed himself, not enjoying the unmistakable but familiar taste of foot-in-mouth.

Good one, Barnes.

***

Bucky's stomach started to growl at 12:30pm, but Steve showed no sign of heading off to lunch and Bucky wanted to go with him, to try and apologise for earlier. He didn't want to alienate the guy he had to work with for the next six months.

At 1pm, Steve rolled his shoulders and looked around at Bucky. "Shit, I'm sorry. Were you waiting for me to tell you when to go for lunch? You can go whenever you want, please don't feel like you have to wait for me to say so. I mean, I'm technically your supervisor but I'm not...I don't want to tell you to do things..." He floundered slightly.

"No, it's okay," Bucky said quickly. "I was actually going to go with you, if that's okay? Unless you'd rather have lunch alone."

Steve blinked and smiled, and it wasn't a strained smile this time. "No, that would be cool. Are you good to go now?"

"Yes," Bucky said, jumping up and grabbing his bag. "I'm starving."

They made their way to the lunchroom; there were a couple of people in there who Bucky recognised from the office but hadn't spoken to yet. He followed Steve to the table in the corner. They sat in a not-quite awkward silence and Bucky waited until they had both eaten - Steve had some kind of healthy-looking salad - before clearing his throat.

"I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable earlier. With the whole Doom thing." Bucky turned his can of soda around and around.

Steve looked up and shook his head. "Oh, you didn't. I just...I made myself feel bad." He picked up a stray piece of lettuce off of the table and focused on it. "I don't speak to people much and I...get kind of...I never really know if I'm saying the right things?" He gave a self-deprecating little laugh. "It's easier not to talk."

Bucky's mouth quirked up into a smile. "Hey, it beats talking too much. In college, if I had channelled how much I mouthed off into my work, I probably would have done a lot better. I spent way too much time trying to get people to like me."

"What did you study in college?" Steve asked, obviously relieved to have something else to talk about.

Bucky shrugged. "I majored in English; I thought I wanted to be a writer. Not that I can do anything with my damn degree now."

Steve gave a nod. "Yeah, I majored in Economics but I didn't really enjoy it. I kind of feel like I'm floating my way through things at the moment."

Bucky made a small noise of agreement, not wanting that familiar wave of disillusionment to wash over him again.

"So what kind of stuff do you write?" Steve asked and Bucky made a face.

"Eh, I don't write so much any more. When I did, it was all terrible sci-fi stories and bad poetry. I could never work up the nerve after college to show anybody any of my stuff and I just kind of stopped."

"I wouldn't have pegged you for the poetry type," Steve said with an amused grin.

Bucky groaned. "I know. I submitted some to a few poetry journals and a bunch of short stories to sci-fi magazines once and got rejected by every single one. Did wonders for my confidence. I've kind of lost any interest I had in it." He took a gulp of his soda. "How about you? Economics to working on a fishing trawler; that's kind of a weird leap."

"I got the chance to work on the boat the summer I graduated and it just...kind of stuck. I mean, it's really hard and it can get kind of dangerous but it was probably the happiest I've ever been." Steve looked the way he had on the train that morning; sad and out of place.

"You could still do it though, right? If it made you so happy why not just go for it?"

"I guess I thought I had to have a real job. So I came back to the city." His blue eyes looked somber. 

"Regretting what you could have done and didn't is the worst feeling. I would know." Bucky huffed out a sad laugh. "And you really don't want to end up like me."

"You're not so bad," Steve said with a little smile and started to gather up his trash.

Bucky wasn't quite sure how to respond to that so he just crumpled up his soda can and dropped it in the recycling tub on his way out of the lunchroom.

***

"So, how was today?" Sam asked when Bucky got home that evening. He was sat at the small dining table with a stack of paperwork.

Bucky took his jacket off and hung it over the back of the other chair. He shrugged. "Yeah, it was okay actually."

The rest of the day had been better; Steve had cheered up some and they had talked easily as they worked and Bucky found himself liking Steve's earnestness, the way he was encouraging without sounding like he had to be. They had left the building at 5:30pm together, heading to the subway and somehow got into talking about books and discovered that they liked a lot of the same stuff. Bucky had been delighted to find out that someone else had read his favourite book.

"I didn't think anyone else had read The Mosquito Coast! You're the first person I've found that's actually read it besides me."

Steve had been amused by Bucky's bright-eyed tirade. "It's a great book. Have you read any Haruki Murakami?"

He had laughed as Bucky launched into another excited outburst, waving his hands around as they got on their train. "Are you kidding me?! Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World changed my life!" The rest of the journey passed in a blur of enthusiastic book chatter.

"Hey, I'll be on the 7:54 train in the morning if you want to, you know, travel together," Steve had said quickly as Bucky had jumped out of the carriage before the doors closed, almost missing his stop because he'd been laying into Steve for not having read any H.P Lovecraft.

"Yeah, sounds good," Bucky had called back with a wave and Steve had looked pleased.

"So there we go," Sam said with a smug grin. "Things aren't so bad."

"I'm still a mess but I spoke to a couple more people in the office and the guy I work with is pretty cool. I'm not getting all excited and thinking that this is my chosen career path though." He gave Sam a sideways glance.

"No-one said you had to; I think you just need to stop worrying about everything all the damn time and just let your life happen, stop thinking about what you haven't done." He dismissed the protesting groan that Bucky gave him. "Pete and Brock want to know if we're still up for drinks at Logan's on Friday."

Logan's was their favourite bar and meeting up with the guys on a Friday had become a kind of ritual for them. Bucky had met Sam after answering an online ad for his spare room, hitting it off with him the moment he'd stepped through the door. Sam had offered him the room after ten minutes and they had become friends as well as roommates. Sam had dragged Bucky to Logan's one Friday for beers with Pete and Brock and after an hour, it was like Bucky had known them for years.

As well as drinking every Friday night, they also met a couple of times a month to play racquetball; Bucky would have preferred a different sport but it was the only one the four of them could play without tempers flaring; Brock was a sore loser and Pete liked to antagonise and tease and Bucky and Sam always ended up playing peacekeepers when things got heated. Ultimate Frisbee had been a living nightmare and football had ended with a severely sprained ankle that Pete maintained Brock had inflicted on purpose, no matter how hard Brock protested otherwise. Despite this, they still all got on well and Bucky felt grateful that he'd lucked into Sam as a roommate.

"Totally. I think I could stand to have a few drinks by the time this week is over," Bucky said and flopped onto the couch.

***

Bucky watched as the train arrived the next morning, trying to figure out which carriage Steve would be in, something they hadn't thought of the previous day. He quickly walked down the platform and spotted him, jumping into the train car and elbowing his way over.

"Good morning," he said, narrowly missing getting smacked in the head by some guy's backpack.

Steve backed up a little. "Morning. Christ, this train gets worse every day, I swear."

They chatted for a little while and Bucky asked Steve about his weekends in Montauk, happy to listen to him talk about the whale watching he liked so much and how different humpbacks were identified by the unique markings on their tails. Steve kept a journal of the different whale sightings and their return to the various bays around the peninsula during the year. He seemed to come out of himself a little when he talked about the sea and Bucky lost himself in hearing about Finbacks and Minkes.

"Sorry," Steve said with an embarrassed smile when he realised he'd been doing all of the talking. "If I get going about it, I find it hard to stop and I babble."

Bucky held onto the hand grip above him as the train swayed. "No, it's interesting. I've never seen a whale that hasn't been on TV. Must be cool."

Steve looked far away for a moment. "It really is. No matter how bad a week I've had or how shitty I feel, I forget everything as soon as I'm out in the middle of the ocean. It's..." he stopped and flushed pink when he saw the amused look Bucky had on his face. "I sound like an idiot."

Bucky shook his head. "No, you don't. I kind of wish I had something like that. I've been such a grouchy bastard the last couple of years, I've kind of forgotten how to enjoy the little things."

"When you're in a rut it can be hard to remember what makes you happy," Steve said.

"Yeah, I guess. Sam - my roommate - said I need to stop worrying so much about what I feel like I need to get out of life and just see what happens."

"Sounds like good advice for both of us," Steve said.

They travelled in silence until they got to Wall Street Station. When they were out on the street, Steve insisted on buying coffee. When they pushed their way through the revolving door of Stark Industries and walked into the lobby, Clint gave Steve a wave from where he was leaning on the front desk. Bucky tried not to look nervous as Clint looked him up and down.

"Hey Steve. You good?"

Steve held up a hand. "Yeah, thanks. This is Bucky. He's working with me upstairs."

Clint gave Bucky a bored nod. "Yo."

They headed towards the bank of elevators and Clint called out to Steve, "Hey, say hi to Natasha for me."

"Say hi yourself," Steve called back with a smirk before the elevator doors closed.

"He likes Natasha?" Bucky asked.

Steve rolled his eyes. "There's a whole thing going way back with those two. Story for another time."

Darcy was ready with another sarcastic grin as they stepped into the office. Steve gave her a smile.

"Morning, Chuck," she said to Bucky.

"Stop calling me that. Why are you so dead set on trying to piss me off?"

"Because it's so easy," Darcy said and waved at him as he frowned and followed Steve through the office.

Carol was leaning over the wall of a cubicle trying to grab something from whoever was sat at the desk on the other side as they protested loudly. She smiled at Steve and Bucky as they walked by.

"Good morning, Steve. Hi, Chad."

Bucky threw his arms up. "What the f - can't a guy just go by a nickname and not have everyone make a big deal about it?" He made grumbling noises as he shoved his bag under his desk.

"So what is your real name?" Steve asked. "It can't be that bad."

"It's not - it's actually pretty average. I just...I'm trying to distance myself from that guy for a while. I know that must sound pretty stupid but I kind of want to be Bucky instead of...the other me. Just for a while."

Steve gave Bucky a thoughtful look. "Maybe you'll tell me another time."

Bucky gave a little sigh and turned back to his work. "Maybe," he said.

***

The rest of the week went by quickly and as much as Bucky was hesitant to admit it, he started to enjoy himself a little; the office was a comfortable place to work and there wasn't an awful lot of pressure on him and the job he had to do. He met a few more people - Jen, who had something to do with the law side of things in their department and had a loud braying laugh, a guy called Hank who seemed slightly intense (and a bit of a dick, but Bucky kept that to himself) and Maria, who worked a lot with Natasha and seemed to take everything way too seriously. Darcy kept ragging on him and Carol insisted on calling him Chad every time she saw him.

He enjoyed hanging out with Steve the most though; they met each morning on the train and spent lunch together. Bucky liked how unassuming Steve was; what you saw was what you got with him and he wasn't patronising as a supervisor. Bucky liked him because part of him needed the positive re-enforcement that Steve was keen to give; he certainly didn't get it from his family. Steve thanked him for his work every day and he actually meant it and Bucky didn't realise how much the shitty side of him needed to hear a "that's awesome" or a "great work". He started to feel validated in a way he'd never gotten from his other jobs. He was easy to talk to, interesting and funny when he wanted to be and Bucky just liked his company, plain and simple.

***

On Friday, Natasha called Bucky in for his weekly progress meeting at 4pm.

"So, how has your first week been?" She asked.

"Good, I think. I hope."

"Your output has been impressive, your attitude has been good. Steve is very pleased with your work so I'm happy to let your agency know that you'll be staying with us. Is that okay with you?" She gave him a questioning glance.

"Um, yes. That would be great. Thank you." Bucky gave her a smile.

Natasha took his timesheet and told him he could go. He huffed a small sigh of relief as he walked back to his desk. Steve looked up as he sat back down.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

Bucky grinned. "Yeah, I think so. I'll be here on Monday so I guess that's good, right?"

"It is," Steve said with a smile.

"Hey, look - thanks for being so good about everything this week. I, uh, I think I would have walked by day three if I had been working with anyone else." Bucky ran a hand through his hair, suddenly felt slightly awkward.

Steve ducked his head away and Bucky could see the blush creeping up his neck. "I didn't really do much..."

"Well I'm still here so, yeah, you did something. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Steve said softly.

They sat in silence for a moment before Bucky cleared his throat and turned back to his computer, trying to ignore the slightly strange feeling that had flared in his chest for a second. "So, what are you doing this weekend? Anything exciting?"

"Oh yeah, I'm helping my mom paint her kitchen so, you know, living the dream."

Bucky snickered. "If it makes you feel any better, I plan on doing nothing but watching trash TV and getting take out. Bud Fox I ain't."

Steve looked at him, confused. "Who's Bud Fox?"

Bucky threw his hands up. "Hasn't anyone in this place seen Wall Street?"

***

Pete and Sam were already in Logan's by the time Bucky arrived just after six. He had considered inviting Steve too but had held back at the last minute, getting off of the train and giving him a wave.

"See you Monday," Steve had called after him and Bucky realised that he wasn't actually dreading going back into the office after the weekend.

Pete held out a beer to Bucky as he sat down with a melodramatic groan. "Here you go, Working Girl. Congratulations on making it a whole week without incident!"

Bucky took a long gulp of his drink. "Thanks. I think."

Pete clapped him on the back. "Hey, it's just a temp job. You shouldn't sweat it; just see it as a means to an end."

"If I knew what The End was, then maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Anyway, it's kind of an okay job so let's just forget about my existential crisis for tonight. I'm tired of listening to my own crap."

Sam laughed and held up his beer. "I'll drink to that."

Bucky rubbed his face tiredly and sat back. " So Pete - what did you get to blow up this week and why?"

Pete's face lit up. "Oh man, it was amazing; we had to product test a bunch of new toys and not only did we get to set fire to them and blow them up in controlled explosions but we had to melt them with acid."

"When is there ever going to be a situation where a toy comes into contact with acid in real life?" Bucky asked in disbelief.

Pete just gave a big smile and slopped beer on the table. "Who am I to question this gift I've been given? If Oscorp want to pay me to drizzle acid on a plastic pony then I'm not going to say no."

Sam looked over to the door of the bar as it swung open. "There's Brock." He waved him over, sliding the other beer on the table towards the empty seat.

Brock sat down heavily, nodding a thanks to Sam and looking gratefully at his beer, still in his EMS gear. "Boys. I hope you've all had a better week than I have." He drained his beer as the others watched.

"Have you just finished your shift?" Bucky asked. Brock looked tired and as much as Bucky wanted to do something useful with his life, he could never be a paramedic. He didn't know how Brock managed it after having heard some of the stories from his various shifts. It simultaneously made Bucky feel relieved and inadequate that he was in the position he was currently in; Brock saved lives for a living and here was Bucky complaining about having a job with a danger factor of 0%.

Brock nodded and raked a hand through his hair. "Yeah, Alex just dropped me off. You guys won't believe what I had to see today. We get a call from dispatch to go to this guy's house, right? Dude answers the door doubled over in pain and naked from the waist down; he turns around and there is not one, not two, but four carrots lodged in his ass, green tops on them and everything." He covered his face with his hands.

Bucky and Pete broke into gales of hysterical laughter and Sam looked appalled.

"It was horrific," Brock said drawing his hands down his face, his eyes glazed.

"Oh dude," Pete said and put an arm across Brock's shoulders. "You do the silent work of the unappreciated."

Bucky leaned on the table. "So what happened? Did you have to take them out?"

"Oh shit, no! We just hustled him to the ER. I tell you, I'm not going to be able to eat carrots for a while without thinking of hairy ass."

Sam made a loud noise of protest as Bucky and Pete shrieked and laughed again.

"I'd give anything to see the x-rays!" Pete said. "Ooh, what's the weirdest thing you've ever seen someone put in themselves?"

"Are we really having this conversation?" Sam said with a frown. "We are all adults, right?"

Bucky gave a shrug. "I'd kind of like to know. This is the most interesting thing I've heard all week."

Sam stood up. "I'm getting another round; you can all talk about this between yourselves."

Brock thought for a moment. "I've seen some weird shit, but the one that sticks out the most - just for sheer...I want to say skill but I don't know if that's the right word - is a light bulb. A full, intact light bulb. In someone's ass."

Bucky rocked back on his chair. "Oh my god, how is that even possible?!"

Brock shook his head and held up his hands. "You'd be amazed at what some people are able to do to themselves."

"You have to get me some x-rays of this stuff, Brock. I mean it - I'll pay you good money." Pete grabbed at Brock's jacket and shook him. Brock planted a hand on Pete's face and pushed him away with a grunt.

"I'm sure Gwen would love to hear why you're suddenly so interested in looking at x-rays of people's asses," Bucky snorted, flipping a beer mat and laughing as it glanced off of Pete's shoulder.

"Dude, we've got taxidermy in our house. She'd be all over those ass x-rays."

Sam came back with another round of beers and cut Pete off as he started to tell Sam about the light bulb. "Pete, I'm serious. I do not want to know. I want to retain some innocence about the world."

"How's the new job, Buck?" Brock asked, shrugging off his EMS jacket.

Bucky huffed a breath. "It's a job."

Brock gave a laugh. "Wow, such enthusiasm."

"I just want to not fuck up one job. It's fine, kind of dull work but enjoyable dull. The guy I work with is really cool, though."

Sam raised one eyebrow. "That's the second time you've mentioned this cool guy you work with."

Bucky frowned at him. "So?"

Sam shook his head. "No reason." But Bucky caught the little smirk on his face as he drank his beer.

***

As much as Bucky would try not to, he would find himself thinking about Steve a lot over the weekend. His mind kept going back to how Steve had told him that he'd had no friends to play videogames with growing up. Bucky felt a brief sad pang in his stomach every time he thought about it. He couldn't quite believe that Steve had no friends in school; he was good-looking (Bucky had noticed - he wasn't completely made of stone), he was stupidly nice. How could someone like that not have people falling over themselves to be his friend? He thought about how Carol and Jess had mentioned that he never engaged in any of the office social activities but then Bucky had never been a big fan of that kind of thing either. He always tried to distance his work and his personal life and maybe Steve did too. There was nothing wrong with keeping yourself to yourself.

But Steve seemed to make a conscious effort to make sure he wasn't really noticed and Bucky couldn't help but wonder why. He told himself that it was just because he was curious. Not because he might be developing a tiny, tiny, crush on Steve.

Definitely not.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning, Sam told Bucky to get the yellow legal pad he had given him so they could go through his list of things he wanted out of his life. Bucky handed it over and concentrated on watching Regular Show while Sam skimmed through it and made disapproving noises.

"Buck, when I said you could write anything down, no matter how ridiculous, I meant realistic ridiculous."

"Yeah, but you never said that. You said anything."

Sam gave him a look. "What I meant," he said slowly, like he was talking to a little kid, "was something like an astronaut, because even though it's never going to happen, you could become an astronaut if you worked hard. So it's unrealistic but still possible. Not like a superhero, a spy or a luchador."

Bucky grimaced. "I could be a luchador - it's wrestling, which is totally realistic. Anyway, there are real things on there too. Stop picking on my childhood dreams." He turned his attention back to the TV.

Sam shook his head, grabbed the remote and switched off the TV. Bucky sighed and indicated for Sam to carry on.

"Okay, "own a house" - that's do-able. "Long term relationship" - totally do-able. "Career I enjoy." Now, this one is funny because the only thing you crossed out on the list is the one thing that you can do better than anything. Why scratch out "writer"?"

Bucky sighed. "Because to do that I would need talent."

"Dude, you're a good writer."

"How would you know?" Bucky asked. "I've never shown you any of my stuff."

Sam gave him a smug smile. "Yes, you have. Remember when Pete came over that time with the Peach Schnapps?"

Bucky's face dropped in horror. "Oh no, please don't tell me I showed you my writing while I was drunk on Peach Schnapps. Why were we drinking Peach Schnapps?" He groaned and grabbed a cushion, burying his face in it. "What did you read?" His voice was muffled and mortified.

Sam pulled the cushion away. "A few poems which were actually pretty good and a kind of horror sci-fi thing about a guy and who duplicates himself. Pete was totally into that. It was awesome, man. You do have talent. You just don't utilize it."

Bucky covered his face with his hands. "Nooooooo. Fucking Peach Schnapps." He knew which sci-fi story Sam was talking about; he'd written Faded Copy not long after he graduated and had actually been quite proud of it. It was only a short story but he had hoped to eventually develop it into something approaching a novel, but rejection after rejection of his work had taken care of that and he hadn't touched it since.

Sam picked up a pen and wrote WRITER at the top of the pad and underlined it several times. He held the pad up to Bucky. "Get over it. Write some stuff; you don't even have to show anyone. Just do it for yourself. Baby steps, man."

Bucky was silent for a moment. "You really thought it was good? You're not just trying to make me feel better?"

"Dude, you know I would tell you the truth; lying's not my style. Ask Pete if he remembers - he'll probably tell you the same thing."

"But you're my friends; there's part of you that has to be biased."

Sam considered for a moment. "So show someone at work. Someone who doesn't know you like we do. If they like it then great; if not, who cares?"

Bucky immediately knew who he would show - if he decided to do it - because he knew he would get a completely honest opinion. "I'll think about it."

***

BUCKY: Hey dude. I need to ask you something and I need a 100% no bullshit answer from you

PETER P: Okay. Should I be scared?

BUCKY: Did I show you one of my short stories once when I was drunk?

PETER P: Oh yeah! The peach schnapps night!

BUCKY: How am I the only one who doesn't remember that?

PETER P: You were so gone. Who knew that drink was the one to defeat you? :D

BUCKY: Anyway, did you read one of my stories?

PETER P: Yeah, totally. The guy who keeps duplicating himself. It was really good. Like REALLY good.

BUCKY: Is that you talking as a critic or you talking as my friend?

PETER P: Both. I would tell you in a heartbeat if you sucked.

BUCKY: How come you've never mentioned it since?

PETER P: You were all nervous and you made me and Sam promise not to tell anyone.

BUCKY: Yeah, that sounds like me.

PETER P: You got any more? It was a great story.

*** 

Bucky chewed over what Sam had said all weekend. He had enjoyed writing until he'd been hit with the disillusionment and self-esteem issues that had plagued him since leaving college. He actually couldn't think of anything else besides reading that he enjoyed more - he always thought he'd been a pretty decent writer; not amazing or anything but he had a particular voice and style that seemed to come easily when he got into it. What did he have to lose by giving it another go? Rejection, that's what he thought bitterly.

He spent most of Saturday watching trash TV and playing Katamari Forever and wondering what Steve was doing right now. Had he said something about house painting? Bucky tried to concentrate on the game but he kept thinking about Steve's blond hair and blue eyes and how nice he always looked in his suits. Stop thinking about Steve, Bucky tried to will himself.

Sam finally snapped and kicked him out of the house. "Dude, go get a coffee, go to the park. Please just get out of the house and stop moping."

He ended up wandering around in Barnes & Noble for a few hours, looking at all the books; so many fucking books. How was anyone meant to stand out when there was so much stuff out already? And how had all of these people been given the chance to get their books published? It didn't make him feel better about his own dreams and ambitions. Bucky got himself a hotdog on the way back to the house and thought that it was all kinds of hilarious that the only thing he was really looking forward to was going back to work on Monday. And that was only because of one particular reason and he was trying not to think too hard about it.

He silently cursed Sam for making him leave the house and think about all of this crap; this is exactly what happened when he spent too much time alone with his own thoughts.

***

Bucky's mom called him on Sunday morning while he was still in bed; he had heard Sam leave the house earlier, off to work because he was a sadist who chose to work weekends, and had just pulled the covers up over his head and gone back to sleep. He considered not picking up when he saw who it was, but he'd been avoiding talking to her for the last few weeks and he couldn't put it off any longer. He took a deep breath before he answered.

"Hi Mom," Bucky said.

"James, I feel like I haven't spoken to you in forever. How are you?"

"I'm good. Sorry I haven't called sooner; I got a new job and it's been keeping me busy." Not completely true but his mother didn't have to know that.

She immediately sounded more interested. "Where are you working?"

"I'm working at Stark Industries."

"Stark Industries!" She sounded very pleased. "Oh honey, that's wonderful. What are you doing for them?"

Bucky closed his eyes. "It's just data entry, nothing major. I'm enjoying it though."

"Well, it's all important work, isn't it?" She sounded a little less enthused than she had been and Bucky clenched his jaw. Obviously data entry wasn't something she could tell her friends about.

"How's Dad?" Bucky asked, shifting away from the subject of his disappointing career.

"Oh, he's fine. He's...out at the moment." His mother was a terrible liar; he was probably in the same room, listening with distain to all the pathetic details. Bucky tried to hold back a scornful laugh; there was no need to start a fight right now.

"Right. Tell him I said hi?"

"I will, James. Oh, I didn't tell you - Rebecca got tenure at the hospital. How wonderful is that? She and Paul are so happy!"

She continued to talk about Rebecca but Bucky wasn't listening; his heart sank. Rebecca hadn't even called him to let him know and he realised how far from important he was in his own family's lives. He had made a lot of mistakes in his past, he knew that, but he was trying. He had been trying for the last four years to make things right but that didn't seem to matter to them anymore. He could feel the sting of tears coming to his eyes but made himself hold them back.

Bucky interrupted as his mom was launching into a detailed account of the new house Rebecca and Paul were thinking about buying in Manhattan. "Look Mom, I have to go. I have some paperwork I need to do for tomorrow. I'll call you soon, okay?" He mumbled a good-bye and hung up.

He sat on his bed for a few minutes, trying to push the feeling of worthlessness away. He couldn't let this get to him. He knew he was trying. He was trying to be a better person. He finally got up and grabbed his laptop from his desk and took it downstairs.

Bucky set up his computer on the dining table and looked at it with determination.

***

It was dark when Sam got home that evening. Bucky was still hunched over his laptop in the living room without the lights on, so absorbed in what he had been doing that he hadn't noticed the daylight outside gradually fading.

Sam hesitated before he switched the light on. "Buck, please tell me that you're not watching porn so I don't get a nasty surprise when I flip this switch..."

"You wish," Bucky said and squinted when the room flooded with light. "Ah shit, my eyes."

Sam walked through to the kitchen and rummaged in the fridge. "Why were you sat here in the dark in front of your laptop?"

Bucky leaned back in his chair and stretched. "I've been writing. Since this morning."

Sam made an impressed noise and smiled when he came back into the room, handing a bottle of beer to Bucky and taking a swig from his own. "Really?"

"Yep. That story you and Pete liked so much? I went through it and I'm tidying it up some. Even started some notes on how to maybe expand it into a novel."

"Look, I don't want to take all the credit for this but: Fuck yeah, I know I'm amazing. Good for you, dude!"

Bucky laughed. "It's not...I'm still not happy with it but I've really enjoyed getting back into it. I didn't realise how much I've missed this."

Sam clapped him on the back. "It's the little things, Buck. You need to stop thinking that there's suddenly going to be this one huge thing to solve everything. Get back to doing what you love."

Bucky nodded, thinking back to the phone call with his mom. At the moment, the little things were all he really had.

***

Bucky tried to ignore the little twist his stomach gave when Steve smiled at him on the train the next morning.

"Did you have a good weekend?" Steve asked.

"It was okay," Bucky replied. "How was the house painting?"

"It was good. Got to hang out with my mom which was cool. Like the rockstar that I am."

Bucky laughed. "You're close to your mom?"

Steve nodded. "She's my only family. How about you?"

Bucky looked out of the window. "Not so much. Close, I mean."

Steve seemed to sense it was a sore subject. "Sorry to hear that," he said softly.

Bucky met his eyes briefly and had to turn away; they were too earnest and that strange twist knotted his stomach again.

"It is what it is," Bucky said with a little shrug.

***

When they stepped out of the elevator into the office, Bucky was doubled over laughing from a terrible joke Steve had attempted to make, butchering the punch-line.

"I didn't think it sounded right," Steve said with a confused frown that just made Bucky laugh even harder.

"Morning boys," Darcy said from behind the front desk. Steve gave her a wave and started off towards their section. Bucky grunted, stopping when she gave him a knowing little smile and a raised eyebrow.

"What?" he asked.

Darcy just smiled harder. "Nothing, Chuck. Nothing at all."

***

The next few weeks went by in a blur of work and routine and Bucky couldn't help but feel like he had actually found something he was good at, even if that was just data entry. He flew through his invoice processing each day, barely making any mistakes, enjoying the challenge of trying to out-do how many he could log in an hour, much to Steve's amusement, and they made a game of it. Carol and Jess still called him Chad which he'd pretty much come to accept, not budging on telling anyone his real name. He got to know a few more people in the office and found, to his surprise, that he actually liked it here and everyone seemed to like him. Natasha was pleased too and told him so in one of their weekly meetings.

"You and Steve make a great team," she had told him. "I'm very happy with your work and we'd like to keep you on for as long as we can."

His attitude improved (Sam liked to point that out on a daily basis) and he was writing again; nothing that he would be confident in showing anyone just yet but it felt really good to just be creative again. More than that, he was actually starting to feel proud of himself for sticking something out.

Steve was the best thing about working here though, but Bucky wouldn't admit that to anyone.

Darcy came over to their section one morning holding a tin of muffins, offering them one each. "I made them. They're awesome. I'm awesome."

Steve picked a blueberry one and smiled. "Thanks Darcy. Jess finally convinced you to make some more?"

"She wouldn't leave me alone."

Bucky stared into the tin. "So which one's the poisoned one?"

"No poison. Just goodness." She gave him that annoying knowing smile again, the one Bucky still hadn't been able to figure out.

He chose a cherry one. "Thank you."

Darcy left their section and headed over to Natasha's office.

Bucky laughed as he looked at Steve, cheeks bulging with muffin. "For fuck's sake, Steve. Do you think you could fit any more in your mouth?"

Steve made a sound somewhere between a giggle and a muffled "sorry" and they both dissolved into hysterical laughter.

***

Steve was out sick for a few days the following week and without him there to talk to in the office and hang out with on the train, the time crawled by. Bucky made an effort and chatted to Jess and Carol in the kitchen, even had a few conversations about hard rock and metal with Don but it wasn't quite the same. Natasha made sure that he didn't have too much slack to pick up on work-wise, getting Darcy to help with invoices from the front desk whenever she could but Bucky was bored senseless; he couldn't believe how slow it went without Steve and he suddenly wished he had his number so he could at least see how he was doing.

It was 4:30pm on Wednesday and Bucky had just finished his last stack of work. He considered playing Doom for a while but thought that he'd rather do more work so Steve wouldn't have so much to do when he got back, given that he'd been ill. Bucky also kind of wanted Steve to be impressed that he'd managed to hold his own while he was away. He wandered over to the front desk to get the rest of the work back from Darcy to finish up himself.

She grinned slyly when she saw him walk over. "To what to I owe this dubious pleasure?"

Bucky leaned on the front desk. "I can take those invoices back from you; I've finished all my work so there's no point you trying to do them when you have your own stuff to get on with."

Darcy gave him a grateful nod and handed the papers to him. "I won't argue with that."

He was about to walk away when Darcy said, "Hey Bucky, wait a sec."

He turned back and raised his eyebrows. "Wow, I think that's the first time you've used my name and...wait...I'm just checking..." he gasped and clutched his chest. "No sarcasm! I think I'm having a heart attack..." He started to slide down to the floor.

Darcy laughed. "Yeah, ha ha. Very good."

Bucky righted himself, pleased that he'd managed to get a genuine laugh from her. "Yes, Darcy?"

She scanned his face for a moment and folded her arms, leaning on her desk. "So...you and Steve."

"Uh, me and Steve what?" he asked with a small frown.

Darcy snorted. "Oh, please. As much as it pains me to say it, playing dumb really doesn't suit you."

"I honestly have no idea what you're talking about." He did but he really didn't want to be discussing this.

"Bucky," Darcy said firmly, "in all of the time Steve has been here, he's barely uttered a word to anyone that wasn't just out of politeness or necessity. He hid himself away, declined any offers to go out for drinks and stuff with the rest of us and generally looked like a sad, lonely little puppy, just y' know, more ripped. Then you come along and all of a sudden he's laughing all the time and acting like he just won the lottery or something. Come on. It doesn't need spelling out."

Bucky thought back to his second day, when Jess and Carol had pretty much said something similar. "So, he's shy. That doesn't mean anything."

Darcy huffed out a big sigh and held up her hands. "Fine. Whatever. I'll go along with this little one-man-play of denial."

"I'm not denying anything. There's nothing to deny." He held up the stack of papers he was holding. "Thanks for helping me this week. I really appreciate it."

Darcy looked at him, but for once, there was no sarcasm or sass. "You're welcome."

***

Steve was back in on Thursday and Bucky tried to ignore the feeling of utter warmth that spread through him when he saw him on the train. He thought he should really acknowledge this thing he might have for Steve but he didn't want to, suddenly panicking that by doing so he would ruin it somehow, like he ruined everything else. The last thing he wanted was to fuck all of this up; he was holding down a job and people liked him and he was determined to keep it all for as long as he could.

"Hey!" Bucky smiled and walk through the crowded carriage to Steve. He looked tired but he smiled back at Bucky like he was pleased to see him.

"Hi. I finally made it back." The train started to move and Steve put his bag on the floor between his feet.

"What was wrong? Must have been bad to knock you out for three days."

Steve made a face. "I get migraines. Not often but when I do they really hit me; I can barely leave my bed."

"Sorry dude," Bucky said. "You feel okay now, right?"

"Yeah, a little tired but okay. Is it sad that I was actually looking forward to coming back to work?"

Bucky snorted. "The coffee ain't that good."

Steve laughed softly. "It wasn't the coffee I was looking forward to." He turned and glanced quickly out of the window then and Bucky didn't want to think too hard about what that might mean.

They made small talk for the rest of the journey; baseball, books, movies. Bucky mentioned that he was writing again.

"My roommate gave me a kick up the ass and it kind of worked. I'm not expecting much from it but it feels good to be doing it for myself again."

Steve smiled and it was bright and genuine. "That's great! If you ever wanted an honest opinion, I'd be happy to give it. I mean, you probably have friends you can show but..."

"Actually, I might take you up on that. But...not yet." Bucky was gripped with that fear of rejection again. Sam or Pete he could take it from - Brock wouldn't want to read his stuff - but from Steve...he thought that rejection from him would somehow feel worse.

Steve just gave him that patient, sincere smile. "Whenever you want."

***

They had made their way over to their section in the office and barely had their jackets off before Natasha rushed over, looking more flustered than Bucky had ever seen her, even if the extent of her being flustered was only a slight flush across her cheeks. Even so, it must not happen all that often because Steve looked up at her, slightly alarmed.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"I'm so sorry to do this to you guys but Maria just found a back-log of purchase orders and invoices for Shield that somehow slipped off the grid. It's a lot and they all need to be logged before tomorrow." She threw an apologetic look to Steve. "I feel so bad for pulling this on you after you've been ill."

Steve let out a breath. "That isn't anything that can be helped. If we get started now..."

Natasha nodded. "I'll do my best and see if Darcy has enough time in her schedule to help you guys out too." She marched back over to her office.

Bucky gave Steve a worried look. "Yikes. Does this happen often?"

Steve sighed. "Sometimes. I stayed here until 11pm two evenings running the last time. I'm really hoping it's not one of those paperwork piles..."

Natasha came back a few minutes later with a huge box full of paperwork.

"Ah, shit," Steve sighed.

"I'm so sorry Steve," Natasha said as she huffed the box onto his desk. "Seems like Hank has been putting these aside for months. I'm going to have a little chat with him in a moment. If you two can pull this one out of the bag, I would appreciate it a lot."

Bucky pulled out a stack of papers. "We'll get it done."

Natasha smiled at him, a genuine smile and not just one of her smirks. "Do me proud, boys." She stormed off towards Hank's desk.

Bucky waved a wad of invoices at Steve. "Okay, it's 9:15am. I bet we can get this done by 5:30pm."

Steve looked pained. "I wouldn't be so sure."

Bucky slapped him on the back. "Come on, Steve. PMA! PMA!"

Steve finally laughed and gave Bucky a smile that made his stomach flip. He tried to ignore it. "Okay, let's do it."

They slogged their way through the box all morning, both sitting in silence for the most part, determined to get the job finished before 5:30pm. Bucky was on his way to breaking his hourly record when Steve groaned from his desk. Bucky rolled his shoulders and turned around.

"Steve? That didn't sound like a positive noise." he said.

Steve slumped in his chair, running his hand through his hair. "It's 1:15pm and we're not even half-way through."

Bucky propelled himself over to Steve's desk on his chair and took another handful of invoices. "Well, I'm having my lunch right here and then getting back to it. Go and have a break."

"Bucky, you can't not have a lunch break - "

Bucky waved a dismissive hand at him. "It's my choice. I'm going to help you finish this if it kills me."

Steve threw him an amused smile. "Why are you so dead set on getting this done?"

Bucky was quiet for a moment as he thought. "Maybe I just need to feel like I've achieved something." He also knew it was because he wanted to impress him. There was something about Steve that made Bucky want to do more for himself. He quickly looked away and back at his computer.

"You go and have lunch. I'll be okay here."

Steve picked up his bag. "I'm only going for fifteen minutes and mainly because my eyes are getting screwed from staring at my screen." He held up a hand when Bucky started to protest. "As your supervisor, I get to choose how long I have lunch for."

Bucky gave a laugh. "Oh, so you're pulling rank now?"

Steve smiled down at him as he walked by. "Only when I have to."

Bucky ate his own lunch at his desk as he worked and Steve came back fifteen minutes later with two coffees. Bucky smiled a thanks.

At 3:35pm, Darcy came over with a stack of papers. "This was about as much as I could do for you. Sorry it couldn't be more."

Steve gave her a grateful smile. "That's awesome, Darcy. Thank you."

"You're very welcome." As she turned to walk off, she gave Bucky a look which he pointedly ignored.

***

Bucky didn't think he'd worked so hard in his life; even in college he hadn't put this much effort in. He sat back in his chair at 5:27pm and winced at the dull ache in his shoulders. He shifted in his chair over to the box on Steve's desk and groaned in disappointment when he saw how many invoices were still left.

"I was so sure we would get this done," Bucky said, disheartened, and gave the box an annoyed shove.

Steve crossed his hands behind his head and sighed. "Yeah, I was hoping so too. Well, I'm going to stay until they're finished. You did great today, Bucky. I can't thank you enough for how hard you've worked."

There was that warm flare across his chest again. Shit, Bucky thought, I can't just leave him to do all of this on his own. It took him all of two seconds to make up his mind. He grabbed another stack of papers from the box. "If you're staying, I'm staying. I'll be fucked if I'm leaving this unfinished."

Steve frowned. "Oh hey, no. You're only contracted until 5:30pm. You won't get paid for any extra hours you put in."

Bucky shrugged. "So? It's been a while since I did a good deed. I'll feel like a total asshole if I just go home now and leave you here to do all of this, especially after you've been out sick."

Steve shook his head. "Bucky, as your supervisor I really don't - "

Bucky looked at his phone. "Oh, would you look at that," he showed Steve the time which read 5:32pm. "I guess I'm off the clock which means that you're technically not my supervisor anymore, which means I can do what I want." He gave Steve a big shit-eating grin. "I think I'll stay."

"I don't think that's how it works," Steve said, folding his arms, but Bucky could see him trying to hold back a smile.

"Okay, well if Natasha says it's fine, will you let me stay and help? Then it's out of your hands completely."

Steve sighed and held up his hands in resignation. "Okay, but if she says no then you have to go. Deal?"

Bucky stood up. "Deal." He hurried to Natasha's office, slightly embarrassed with himself for wanting to do this so badly. Natasha was putting on her jacket and looked up as Bucky tapped on her open door.

"Bucky, what can I do for you?" She put her laptop into her designer bag and rested a hand on her desk.

"Me and Steve still haven't finished with those invoices yet. Is it okay if I stay and help him until they're done?"

"You're only contracted until 5:30pm so I'm afraid I can't offer you overtime..."

Bucky shrugged. "I know, but I kind of want to finish this."

Natasha gave him a look that could either have been icy or impressed; he found it hard to decipher any of her facial expressions. He shifted on his feet nervously.

"Alright," she said finally. "I'll make sure I mention this to your agency. It shows good initiative and I get the feeling you could do with a few extra points against your name."

"I...thank you," Bucky said, slightly taken aback. "I appreciate that." Again, he wanted to ask her why she was so set on giving him chances he didn't think he deserved. But maybe she got the impression that Bucky felt that way and wanted to give him those chances so he could prove himself. It was a little scary; he immediately felt like he would fuck it all up the moment anyone treated him with anything approaching respect.

Natasha picked up her bag and walked to the door, turning off the light. "I'll make sure you and Steve get some kind of bonus for this - it wasn't your mess to clean up."

"I'll let Steve know," Bucky said. "Have a good evening."

Natasha gave him a nod. "You too." She walked off towards the elevators and Bucky watched as the office started to empty of people.

"She said it was fine," Bucky said with a smug smile when he got back to his desk. "Guess I'm staying."

Steve shook his head but grinned at Bucky appreciatively. "Thank you. You really didn't have to."

"I know but I see this as a personal challenge now. You think we could get it done by 7pm?"

Steve let out a tired breath. "I'd like to think so but we could be looking at closer to 8pm. Would you be okay staying that long?"

Bucky pounded a fist down on his desk. "However long it takes."

Steve laughed and nodded. "Alright."

Bucky picked up an invoice. "Okay, let's fuck this shit up."

***

Bucky finally threw the last invoice down on his desk. "And we are finished."

Steve groaned and slumped over his desk, head on his arms. "What time is it?" His voice was muffled.

Bucky flexed his right hand, trying to get rid of the shooting pain in his wrist. "7:45pm. You were right."

Steve raised his head. "It says a lot about my life that I can predict how long a pile of invoices will take to process."

Bucky laughed. "Surely that's a valid life skill. God, I'm starving."

Steve switched off his computer and stood up, grunting as his back clicked. "There's a bar a couple of blocks away that does a really good burger. My treat, as a thank you for staying. I'd have been here until about 11:30pm otherwise."

"Sounds good," Bucky said and put on his jacket. "See, for all of your protesting it was better that I stayed, admit it."

Steve rolled his eyes and gave Bucky a lop-sided grin. "Yes, fine. It was better that you stayed."

Bucky fist-pumped the air as they headed over to the elevators. "TEAMWORK!" His voice echoed around the empty office and Steve laughed again - it was a nice sound.

In the elevator Steve turned to Bucky, face earnest. "Really though, thank you for staying," he said quietly. His blue eyes were so sincere that Bucky had to glance away.

"You're very welcome," Bucky said with a smile, but his hands tightened around the strap of his messenger bag.

The night clerk on the desk said goodbye to them as they left and Bucky took a huge gulp of the fresh night air once they were outside. "Oh man, that tastes good," he said. "I hate office air."

Steve led them down the block to the bar which was busy but not too crowded and they grabbed a table near the back. Steve ordered the food and Bucky got two pitchers of beer. They ate in companionable silence, both too hungry to attempt conversation for the time being.

Bucky swallowed the last of his burger. "That was really good. Thanks." He tipped his glass of beer towards Steve in a tired toast.

Steve indicated to Bucky's plate. "Can I have your pickle?"

Bucky slid his plate over towards him. "Knock yourself out; I hate the fucking things."

Steve crunched on the pickle and sat back in his chair. Bucky loosened his tie and sat back himself, tired but feeling good. He let himself enjoy the sensation of having accomplished something. He couldn't help but think about his parents and how they wouldn't find this all that impressive but tried to push the thought away.

Bucky watched as Steve drained his glass of beer and leaned on the table. "You know, this is the longest I've held a job in..." He thought for a moment. "Wow, a year and a half."

Steve grinned. "I guess breaking up bar brawls and humiliating sexists isn't something you can really add to the résumé."

Bucky snorted. "If I could list all of the stupid things I've done in my many jobs, I'd have a hell of a résumé. Although I excel in being a professional fuck-up but that's not something I can really bring to the table at interviews."

Steve fiddled with his glass. "What makes you such a fuck-up?"

"Huh?"

"You called yourself a fuck-up before. I was just wondering why you're so keen to label yourself as one."

Bucky stared down at the table and rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how much detail he wanted to go into. He never spoke about this stuff, not even with Sam. But holding it all in had never done him any good.

"When I was fifteen, I fell in with the wrong crowd at school. Got into a lot of...let's just say "bad things". Caused my family a lot of grief for a long time. Got sent to military school. They still haven't really let it go, no matter what I do now to try and make it up to them. My sister's a doctor and she can do no wrong, never has. Studied hard, never got into trouble. Not like me. Screwing things up just seems to have stuck. I can kind of talk to my mom now but my dad...things never really got right again between us. I wanted to make them proud but I sucked at college and now, I just...I don't know. They're always so disappointed with me and anything I do. I'll never be able to do anything to...to make them..." he trailed off, suddenly feeling like an idiot for telling Steve something he'd never told anyone else. But when he glanced up at Steve, expecting to see him looking uncomfortable, he just looked sorry.

"Everyone makes mistakes," Steve said softly. "Especially when they're young."

Bucky laughed, a harsh humourless bark. "I made a lot of mistakes. Over and over. On purpose. There's a lot of stuff I can never take back, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, this is all really heavy. I didn't mean to offload on you."

Steve shrugged. "I don't mind. I'm a good listener."

"Well, I'm a great talker; my mouth is one of the things that gets me into trouble so often." Bucky smiled ruefully. "I'm really good at saying stupid things at the worse possible moment. It's like a nervous tic or something."

"You said something on your first day that really struck me," Steve said, looking down at the dregs of beer in his glass.

Bucky groaned. "Really? This should be good..."

Steve shook his head. "No, it kind of made an impression on me; you asked me if I ever felt like there was another you, a you that got everything right that you're running parallel to but no matter how fast you run, you can't catch up. It's not the kind of thing I've ever heard anyone say on their first day of work."

Bucky rubbed his forehead. "Yeah, that's me all over. What a dumb thing to say. "

"But it wasn't. You shouldn't feel like you should have got things right or perfect at any one point in your life. It doesn't work like that."

"Without sounding totally crazy talking about myself in third person, I kind of just hoped that by being Bucky...I would be able to put things right. James got everything wrong for such a long time, I just wanted to...I don't know, try and be a better person. The person everyone wanted James to be." Bucky shrugged helplessly.

"Your name is James?" Steve said and Bucky looked up to see him smiling.

"Shit," Bucky said with a little chuff when he realised he'd just given himself away without meaning to. "Yeah, I told you it wasn't all that exciting. James Barnes - nice to meet you, I guess." He laughed and held out his hand.

Steve shook it with a smile, "I know how that can feel. Wanting to be a different person, I mean."

"Oh yeah?"

Steve nodded and looked down at the remnants of his dinner, poking a piece of tomato with his finger. "I've...I've never liked myself very much. When I was younger I was kind of...small, skinny. I got bullied a lot. No matter how hard I tried, I never really had any friends. I was shy to begin with but with all the bullying it made me defensive and I just kind of...stopped trying. Shut myself down I guess, just did what I had to do to get through everything. And then I uh, had a growth spurt and suddenly looked a hell of a lot different and all of a sudden people noticed me."

Bucky gave a little laugh. "You must have hit puberty pretty hard because you, uh, you're kind of...stacked. I can't imagine you small and skinny."

Steve flushed red. "Yeah, I turned fifteen and then suddenly everybody wanted to be my friend." He looked down sadly at his drink. "No-one wanted to be my friend when I was small and weedy."

"It must have made things easier for you though?" Bucky asked.

Steve just shook his head and turned a slightly darker shade of red. "I don't know, it kind of...made me angry. Nobody wanted to get to know me before. Why should I let them get to know me when I looked...different? I still felt like I did before; I didn't feel confident or like a new person. I wanted to be but I just...couldn't. I didn't know how."

Bucky was starting to understand some of why Steve was so removed from things in the office. "Is that why you don't really talk to anyone at work?" Bucky asked softly.

Steve looked pained. "You noticed?"

"I spoke to Jess and Carol one time in the kitchen. They said you didn't really interact with anyone. That you just kind of just...blended in." He didn't mention what Darcy had said to him.

Steve stared down at his glass. "I just...I feel like I never really fit in anywhere. It must sound stupid...but I feel weird if people notice me. I became so good at closing myself off growing up, I kind of forgot not to do it once I was out of high school." He looked uncomfortable. "Do you know how many women in the office asked me out in my first week at Stark Industries? I'd barely spoken five words to anyone."

Bucky leaned on the table and poured them both some more beer. "Yeah, but that's kind of the point of asking someone out - to get to know them."

"I guess," Steve said, picking at the table top. "I just...I never really got over how I was treated when I was younger." Steve kept his eyes down. "When I was still in high school, before I... had my growth spurt, there was this girl in my English class, Erica Holstein. She wasn't a very nice person."

Bucky didn't say anything, just waited for Steve to continue.

"She used to get her boyfriend to beat me up for no good reason and just watch and laugh, calling me names and just saying nasty things...I couldn't understand why she'd say the things she did. She said I was nothing. That nobody gave a shit about what happened to me. That nobody wanted me because I was...nothing." When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible, face reliving the past hurt. "Do you know how that feels? To be constantly told that you're nothing?"

Bucky felt a jolt go through him and swallowed a hard lump of his own hurt. He knew how that felt. "Yes, I do..." Steve looked up. Bucky cleared his throat. "Do you know what the worst thing I ever heard my dad say about me was?" he said quietly.

Steve shook his head, waiting for Bucky to go on.

"My parents were having one of their parties that they used to throw, just for friends and clients and I was home from college for the weekend. Must have been Sophomore year. Me and my dad weren't on the best of terms but I was trying, really trying to mend...the rift between us." Bucky took a sip of beer, not quite prepared for how raw the memory still felt. "Anyway, I went outside to get some air and the French doors were open and I could hear my dad talking to one of his old business partners. The guy asked my dad how I was doing, you know, with college and just in general. And my dad, he just said "James exists." Just like that and carried on talking about his work."

Bucky could see Steve watching him but he drank the rest of his beer and sat, jaw clenched, eyes on the table for a moment. "James exists. Like I wasn't a person. Like I wasn't even his son. And that's how I've felt ever since. Like I just exist."

Steve met his eyes then and Bucky noticed again how piercing they were. "It's not a good way to live, feeling like that," Steve said, soft and sincere. "But it's hard to shake. When someone says something bad to you enough times you start to believe it."

"Yeah," Bucky said quietly.

Steve looked down at the table again. "I've never told anybody what I just told you. About myself. About...how I feel, I mean."

"For what it's worth," Bucky said slowly, "I think you're the kind of person who deserves to be noticed."

Steve was quiet for a long time. "Thank you," he finally said. "For what it's worth back, I don't think you're a fuck-up."

Bucky looked up and met Steve's eyes. "Thank you. I'm...I'm maybe actually starting to not feel like one."

***

It was Saturday evening and Sam and Bucky had just finished an epic dinner of Chinese take-out and a bunch of beers. Sam was off to Washington D.C for most of the next week on another one of his political clean-up jobs and was happily yakking away to Bucky about what it would entail, the responsibility he would have, the restaurants in D.C that he was looking forward to visiting again. Bucky tried to focus on what Sam was telling him, but his mind was elsewhere. He couldn't stop thinking about the other night in the bar, hearing Steve open up about himself, and against his better judgement, telling Steve about himself too. When they had finally left, they had exchanged phone numbers.

"Just in case one of us gets ill or something..." Bucky had said weakly, but he had hoped that wasn't the reason they were doing it. They had chatted for a while longer after their intense conversation but it had turned to small talk again. It wasn't uncomfortable by any means, but Bucky felt like something had...happened. Between them, maybe. He wasn't entirely sure; Steve seemed to be himself again and Bucky had gone home with his brain all over the place, not sure what to think.

Friday morning, he had met Steve on the train like they usually did and they had talked, like they usually did, slightly more comfortable with each other than before. But every time Bucky looked at him now, all of the little things he had been trying not to think about when he thought about Steve were slowly pulling together, like iron filings to a magnet. When they got into the office, Natasha had thanked them both for their hard work and had promised a bonus each in their next pay checks. Steve had turned to Bucky with a smile that had made Bucky want to crawl under his desk.

He had come close to inviting Steve to Logan's the night before, but had chickened out at the last minute. He had tried not to watch Steve too closely the whole time they spoke on the train journey back to Brooklyn, tried to say goodbye nonchalantly as he got off at his stop, hoping that Steve wouldn't notice that Bucky was looking at him out of the corner of his eye as he walked along the platform until the train was out of sight. Steve was just so earnest and he didn't judge him; he made Bucky feel...worthwhile. Not that Sam, Brock and Pete didn't but Steve was different. Bucky hadn't met anyone quite like him and now, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to stop thinking about Steve's blue eyes, or how soft his hair looked, or how nice his smile was, or his infectious laugh and how Bucky tried to make him laugh as often as he could just so he could hear it, or how Steve carried himself with that strange mix of self-consciousness and vulnerability that made Bucky just want to grab him and -

Bucky made a low groan and scrubbed his face, finally admitting to himself what had been building steadily for the last few weeks since he had started working at Stark Industries.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I am I boring you, Mr Barnes?" Sam gave him a look of distain, annoyed at being cut off mid-sentence.

Bucky ran his hands through his hair and grabbed a fistful, hoping the sharp pain would clear his head. It didn't. "No, I'm sorry. It's not you, it's..." He moaned again and then laughed at himself.

"Okay, you're getting creepy now..." Sam said and threw a prawn cracker at him.

Bucky slid down lower onto the couch and let out a long sigh. "That guy from work I've mentioned..."

"Steve," Sam said. Bucky had relayed some work anecdotes to Sam who had seemed happy to listen, mainly because it made such a change from listening to Bucky complain all the time.

"Yeah, Steve. I, uh, I like him." Bucky stared fixedly at the TV which wasn't even switched on.

"You've mentioned that you enjoy working with him..."

Bucky turned to Sam, a knot of frustration between his eyes. "No, I like him. As in I'm attracted to him. As in I can't stop thinking about him."

Sam didn't seem surprised. "Oh, okay. I kind of thought it was obvious from the way you keep mentioning how cool he is but I'm glad you finally caught up with yourself. So...what are you going to do about it?"

Bucky closed his eyes and rolled to the side. "Nothing."

Sam sighed loudly. "And we're off to a great start. So you're just going to sit and stew about this like you stew about everything else?"

"I can't just go up to him and tell him!"

"Why the hell not?" Sam said.

"Because...because we work together and it would be weird and...I don't know. He seems...too good for me." Bucky folded his arms.

"Maybe you should let him be the judge of that," Sam said and rolled his eyes when Bucky made a grunt of disagreement. "Do you have his number?"

Bucky nodded.

"So, call him and ask him if he wants to go for a coffee or something tomorrow."

"I can't; he's in Montauk this weekend. He goes whale watching." Bucky had been considering sending Steve a casual text the whole day, his phone all but burning a hole into his pocket but he had held back, not wanting to seem desperate or obvious.

"Okay. Well, invite him to play raquetball with us next weekend. Just don't sit on it and make it another one of your things." Sam gave him a look.

Bucky scrunched his face up. "But what if I'm barking up the wrong tree? I mean, it could get awkward if I am and we have to work together for another five months..."

"Or," Sam said, tossing the last of the container of Kung Pao Chicken onto the coffee table, "he could like you back and you'll live happily ever after."

"Hardy har har."

Sam groaned and punched Bucky in the arm. "Baby steps. Ask him to play raquetball, maybe ask him on a date, then maybe you'll end up with his junk in your mouth."

Bucky burst out laughing. "Holy fuck, Sam!"

Sam laughed back and opened another beer, passing one to Bucky.

***

Sunday was usually Bucky's main day that he set aside for his writing. He had been steadily working on Faded Copy for the last couple of weeks and it was now approaching something more along the lines of a decent short story. But for the life of him, he just couldn't concentrate today, his mind constantly on Steve. He read back the last paragraph he'd written and it didn't make any sense at all. He frowned, hit save and closed his laptop. Yeah, he wasn't going to be in any kind of productive state today, no matter how hard he tried.

He flopped onto his bed and looked at the time - 2:14pm. Great. He'd wasted the better part of the day acting like a fucking schoolboy in love. He swiped through his phone to his contacts and pulled up Steve's number. He started a text.

Hey Steve, hope you're having a great weekend

Bucky grimaced. Yeah, original and pointless. He deleted it.

Hey Steve, I was wondering if you maybe wanted to go out for a drink sometime, I really like you

Delete. 

Hey Steve, I think I want to rip all of your clothes off and do filthy things to your body. What do you say?

Bucky laughed then and was about to delete the message when his phone beeped and vibrated, scaring the shit out of him. He blinked in disbelief when he saw it was Steve. He suddenly panicked, thinking that he may have accidentally sent all three messages and double checked just to make sure. No, thank fuck. When the terror had subsided, he gingerly opened the message. There was an attachment.

STEVE: Because you told me a while back that you'd never seen a whale that wasn't on TV :)

Bucky opened the attachment; it was a breathtaking photo of a whale in full breach, clearly taken from a boat by Steve. He stared at the picture for a moment, unable to think coherently; it was beautiful. He had no idea what kind of whale it was but he was blown away; sun was dappling the sea and the white spray of the water shone around the animal as it leapt from the surface. He felt a small ember of hope flicker in his chest. Steve had taken the picture specifically for him.

BUCKY: That's unbelievable. Thank you

STEVE: You're welcome

Bucky set the photo to Steve's contact details on his phone and stared at it for the rest of the day.

 

 

Chapter Text

Monday morning whilst waiting for the train, Bucky couldn't help but be filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He liked Steve. A lot. Now that he had finally stopped trying to push any thoughts about his feelings for Steve away and just let them happen, let himself actually think about Steve in that way, he felt happy and confused and fucking terrified. It had been a while since he had been attracted to anyone like this and he wasn't entirely sure what to do with himself now. Part of him just wanted to come out and ask Steve on a date but there were still so many things making him hold back: Did Steve like guys? Is it a good idea because they work together? Would Steve even want him if the other things weren't a factor? Bucky felt like he was finally getting some semblance of stability in his life and he didn't want to upset things. He knew his contract at Stark Industries was only for six months, that there was a chance that he may or may not have a job with them after that but for the first time in a long time he felt...needed. He hadn't realised how much he wanted to feel that way.

The train approached the station and Bucky tensed up slightly. Come on, Barnes, he thought. This isn't a big thing. Steve is still Steve. He saw him in their usual carriage and took a deep breath.

Steve smiled when he saw Bucky and it was so damned sincere. He really wore his heart on his sleeve when he wasn't turning away and hoping that people wouldn't notice him and Bucky could see how he would have been bullied so mercilessly at school - he must have been an easy target. The thought made Bucky feel a pang of sadness; Steve seemed like the kind of person with a lot to give but had been gradually ground down until he was too afraid to give anything.

"Good morning," he said brightly when Bucky had squeezed through the commuters.

Bucky couldn't help but smile back, his earlier apprehension draining away. "Good morning back. How are you?"

"I'm great. Did you have a nice weekend?"

Bucky tilted his hand. "It was okay. But, um, that picture you sent me? Wow."

Steve's cheeks went pink. "I just...I was watching the whales and I thought about you saying you'd never seen one and...the timing was right."

"It was...it was beautiful. Thanks for sending it. It must have been a good day, huh?"

Steve's eyes lit up and he dug around in his jacket pocket for his phone. "It was incredible. You can never tell from trip to trip how it's going to be but this weekend was amazing...here..." He leaned close to Bucky, ducking down slightly to make up for the few inches in height between them and flipped through his phone.

Bucky tried to focus on what Steve was showing him but he could smell him this close up; a heady mix of shower gel and some kind of aftershave that was soft and spicy. It was clouding his head slightly.

"The picture I sent you was of Paikea; she's a humpback. See the marking on her tail that looks like a horse's head?" He showed Bucky a picture of a huge fluked tail on it's way down under the water. "Usually she doesn't breach as much but she must have been in a good mood yesterday." He smiled fondly and flipped to another photo of a whale breaking the surface, a puff of spray caught like a cloud above the water from the whale's blowhole. "That's Paikea's sister, Thessaly. They're never far apart; it's rare for humpbacks to stay together like this so they're kind of special."

Bucky grinned; Steve's obvious enthusiasm and love for the animals was sweet and infectious. "You sound like a proud father."

Steve laughed and gave an embarrassed shake of his head. "They're pretty amazing when you see them up close. Pai's my favourite, though. I'm glad I managed to get a good photo of her to send you." He put his phone back in his pocket.

Bucky stepped back, not certain of how much longer he could stand so close to Steve without nuzzling into his neck. "I can see why you like going up to Montauk as much as you do."

"When I worked on the fishing trawler, you'd see them all the time. I never got fed up of it." He gave Bucky a sad little smile.

Bucky wanted to say something along the lines of you should go and live in Montauk and work on the trawler again and be happy but he couldn't quite bring himself to. That would mean Steve not being here.

***

Clint the security guard no longer gave Bucky any weird looks when he walked through the main doors, obviously having finally decided that Bucky was okay. He gave them both a wave from across the lobby when they walked over to the elevators. Bucky felt that strange sense of belonging again and he must have been smiling because Steve gave him an amused look as the elevator headed up to the 23rd floor.

"What are you grinning at?"

Bucky shook his head. "I just...realised that I really like my job."

Steve's smile softened. "I'm glad to hear that."

The elevator doors opened and they walked into the office. Darcy was watching them from the front desk. "I'm starting to think that you guys are joined at the hip."

Bucky gave her a look. "We both live in Brooklyn and get on the same train."

Darcy sniggered. "And you work together and have lunch together and stay late together. You should get married." She batted her eyelashes at them.

Steve chuckled and started to walk away quickly. "What are you, twelve?"

Bucky was about to say something similar but instead looked at Darcy a beat too long. She raised a questioning eyebrow but Bucky just quickly looked away and followed Steve to their section.

They had been working for half an hour when the office's internal messenger pinged up on Bucky's computer.

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Okay, I've got your number

bucky_barnes_SIET38: What are you talking about?

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You like him! You like Steve!

Bucky quickly looked over to Steve's desk but he was absorbed in his work and humming softly to himself. Bucky turned back to his screen. There was no point in trying to throw her off.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Okay fine. Yes. I like him. What are you going to do, tell on me?

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Give me some credit. You know he likes you too

Bucky hoped that was true but he didn't want to get his hopes up.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: I don't know though, not for sure

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Bucky, he does. I can see it a mile away and I think everyone else in here can see it too

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Great

darcy_lewis_SIE264: So are you going to do something about it?

Christ, she sounded like Sam.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: What makes you think he won't make the first move?

darcy_lewis_SIE264: I'm pretty sure I saw him jump at his own reflection once. It's all on you

bucky_barnes_SIET38: I don't think it's a good idea. It could be awkward - I don't like getting involved with people at work

darcy_lewis_SIE264: That's a lame excuse

Bucky tried not to let out an exasperated sigh.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Okay fine how's this for an excuse: I'm so fucking terrified of rejection that I don't want to say anything because if you're wrong and he doesn't like me back then I don't think I could take and would probably quit this job which I really like and haven't managed to fuck up yet which is a miracle in itself for me

There was a lengthy pause before Darcy answered and Bucky thought he had maybe made a big mistake in telling her all of that.

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You're an idiot, Barnes

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Gee, thanks a bunch

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You're an idiot if you can't see that there's no way that Steve would reject you. And you're an idiot if you don't realise that the reason you haven't fucked anything up "yet" is because everyone here likes you and you're really good at your job

There was another pause and Bucky tried to process what Darcy had just typed.

darcy_lewis_SIE264: There's also a reason why none of the ladies in this place have even bothered to ask you out and you're sitting next to him

darcy_lewis_SIE264: So just ask him out FFS

Bucky couldn't help but finally smile.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: I'm going to ask him if he wants to play raquetball with me and my friends this weekend. Happy?

darcy_lewis_SIE264: It's a start - safety in numbers :P

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Give me a break

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Why are you being so nice to me all of a sudden anyway??

darcy_lewis_SIE264: I'm always nice

bucky_barnes_SIET38: No, you're always sarcastic

darcy_lewis_SIE264: If I didn't like you I wouldn't even bother being sarcastic

bucky_barnes_SIET38: You're so weird

bucky_barnes_SIET38: But thanks

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Making oblivious boys aware of their attraction to each other is what gives me purpose

***

It was Wednesday morning by the time Bucky worked up the courage to ask Steve if he wanted to join him, Sam, Brock and Pete at the weekend. He had spent most of Monday paying more attention to Steve to see if it was obvious that he liked him (thinking the whole time about how pathetic this was, that he couldn't even ask another grown man out like an adult) and he thought maybe he did - he always smiled at Bucky when they spoke and laughed openly at his jokes; whenever anyone else stopped by to join in or chat with them, he was polite but didn't engage as much. He definitely felt more comfortable around Bucky, that was for sure. He was going to take that as a good sign.

They were on the train talking and Steve turned away to sneeze. Bucky had been looking for an opening to ask him and pounced. Go go go go go!

"Hey, are you going to Montauk again this weekend?"

Steve shook his head. "No, not until next week. Why?"

Bucky tried to act as casual as he possibly could. "I play raquetball a couple of times a month with a few friends of mine. I was just...wondering if you wanted to come along on Saturday."

Steve looked surprised for a split second but then gave Bucky a little smile. "I...sure. That would be great. I haven't played for a while though so I might not be that good..."

Bucky was so relieved he could have screamed. "I wouldn't worry about that, I totally suck but it's fun. You'll like the guys I think, especially Sam."

"I look forward to it." He gave Bucky that smile again and Bucky pretended to drop his wallet and scrabbled for it so he wouldn't start blushing himself.

***

In the office an hour later, Bucky glanced quickly over at Steve to make sure he was busy and tapped then out a message on the internal messenger.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Okay I finally asked him

darcy_lewis_SIE264: And???

bucky_barnes_SIET38: I'll be playing sports with him and 3 other guys on Saturday

Bucky heard a muffled shriek from the direction of the front desk. Steve looked up from his work for a second then put his head back down.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: It's not that exciting...

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You obviously haven't embraced the petty drama that comes from working in an office

***

Sam was equally as excited when Bucky told him that evening as they both watched America's Next Top Model.

"Way to go, Buck!"

Bucky squinched up his face. "It's just raquetball. Besides, you, Brock and Pete will be there too so it's hardly a date."

Sam nudged him. "But it could lead to a date. Like a real date. Which could lead to - "

"Please don't say junk in mouth," Bucky interrupted.

Sam threw back his head and laughed. "You know me too well! But seriously, I'll be keeping my finger's crossed."

"Just...don't say anything to Pete or Brock. Pete will make it obvious that I like Steve without saying anything and Brock will just come right out and say something inappropriate." He was already starting to fret.

Sam held his hand over his heart and looked at him with mock-serious eyes. "I will not say a thing."

***

On Friday, Bucky gave Steve the address of the place where they all played on the outdoor courts in Brooklyn - even for October, it was still warm enough that they didn't have to use the indoor courts just yet - and Steve told him that he'd meet them there.

"Awesome. So around 1pm? And you're sure your friends don't mind?" Steve looked slightly anxious.

Bucky shook his head. "Of course they don't. I think they'll be eager for some new blood to play against - we all know each other's dirty tricks by now."

Saturday morning and Bucky was as nervous as hell. He had been pacing for the last hour, filled with manic energy. Sam had given up telling him to calm the fuck down.

"For someone who keeps saying that this isn't a date, you're acting like this is a date. You keep on like this and Pete and Brock are gonna know that something is up the second they see you."

Bucky swiped his hands through his hair. "I know, I know. I never even got this edgy when I started seeing Bruce and I'm not even seeing Steve."

Sam tossed Bucky his racquet. "I guess this guy must be a big deal, then?"

Bucky sat down on the arm of the couch and rested his forearms on his knees. He wanted to tell Sam that since starting at Stark Industries and meeting Steve, he had started to feel more like the person he wanted his family to believe he was before everything went wrong; that he felt like he had more purpose. That he was finally on his way to being happy with who he was as a person for the first time in years, that he was finally starting to forgive himself for all of the mistakes he had made in the past even if his family wouldn't. He wanted to tell Sam that he was starting to feel like he could finally be worth something to someone, that it was Steve who had started to help him feel that way.

But all Bucky could say was, "Yeah. I think he is."

***

Sam and Bucky were the first to arrive at the courts and Sam immediately started to warm up. Bucky took off his hoodie and sweatpants and did a few half-assed jumping jacks in his t-shirt and shorts before giving up and just swung his racquet, slicing the air like he wanted to cut something in half.

Sam started on some lunges. "If you don't warm up properly, you're going to give yourself a charley horse like you did last time and then you won't be fit for impressing your dream guy at all."

Bucky hissed at Sam as he saw Pete and Brock heading towards them, bickering. "Keep it down, okay?"

They didn't seem to have heard anything though and they all greeted each other. Pete tore off his sweatpants like he was a stripper and started to swing them around his head.

"Are you all ready to get thrashed today? I'm totally in the zone."

Brock frowned and started to stretch. "You say that every time, Parker and you haven't won a game yet."

Pete threw his sweatpants at him and Brock loudly cursed and threw them back at him hard. "It's called the power of positive thinking, Brock. The day I don't say it is the day I give up."

Brock gave him a growl and turned to Bucky. "So is this guy from your work any good? It would be nice to have a challenge for once."

Sam barked out a laugh. "Big words, Rumlow."

Bucky started on some hamstring stretches and tried to look disinterested. "I have no idea. He said he hadn't played for a while but he looks the sporty type."

Pete stopped the weird frantic arm exercises he was doing with wide eyes and nodded over at something. "Like that guy?"

They all turned to look and Bucky's mouth went dry. Steve was walking over and he looked...oh man - if Bucky managed not to pop a boner at any point during this game it would be an achievement. He was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt that didn't leave very much to the imagination in terms of Steve's body and how...well-defined he was. Bucky suddenly realised why he always looked so good in the suits he wore to the office; he had the kind of body most men would kill for. He gave Bucky a nervous wave when he saw him and Bucky gave him a wobbly wave back.

"That's your friend?" Brock asked, disbelief in his voice. "For fuck's sake, Barnes. Are you trying to make the rest of us feel totally inadequate?"

"He looks like he's got an eight-pack," Pete said.

Bucky glanced up and Sam gave him a smug smile and shook his head. Bucky forced his best smile and moved to meet Steve.

"Hey! How's it going?"

Steve gave him a tense little smile back. He glanced anxiously over to the others. "Yeah, good. I hope I'm not late..."

Bucky shook his head. "No, we all just got here. Let me introduce you," he pointed to them all in turn. "Brock, Pete and Sam. Guys, this is Steve."

They all shook hands and said hi and Steve seemed to relax a little. Bucky could barely keep his eyes off of him.

"Bucky mentioned that you used to work for Shield Securities," Pete said. "Do you know Ben Grimm?"

Steve brightened. "Yeah, Ben trained me before I went to work at Stark Industries. He's a good guy."

Pete laughed. "I went to college with Ben. He's awesome. He works at Oscorp now as head of security."

"Oh wow, good for him. I never made a particularly good security guard. Ben used to joke that I was too polite. Tell him I said hey if you see him?"

"Sure thing," Pete said and picked up his racquet.

"Okay boys, enough chit-chat," Brock said. "How are we gonna do this? We got an odd number of players here."

Sam scuffed his foot on the concrete. "How about doubles, winners stay on, odd man rotates?"

They all agreed and Sam flipped a quarter to make up the teams. Bucky was on Steve's team (he tried not to act too excited) and Brock was with Sam. Steve quickly took his sweatpants off, putting his bag with the others and Bucky willed himself not to look at Steve in his shorts for too long. This is fucking torture, he thought. Pete sat down on the sideline, ready to act as umpire. He waved his hand regally.

"Forsooth, let the games begin!"

Steve laughed and Bucky smiled. Brock already had his game-face on, waiting for Sam to serve.

The afternoon passed in a haze. It turned out that Steve was a great player, much to Brock's delight, and Bucky, not the greatest player, made up in speed what he lacked in strength and they won three games in a row. Steve was quick to laugh and his good nature seemed to rub off on everyone; Brock was less focused on winning and seemed to be enjoying the game for what it was, which was making Pete more relaxed when he played too. Bucky was having the time of his life - he collided with Steve a few times running for the ball and they dissolved into giggles and stumbled over each other; Steve touched Bucky's arm a couple of times, just a light hand on the shoulder as they waited for one of the others to serve and Bucky's body practically thrummed with exhilaration at the contact. They lost the fourth game to Brock and Pete; they were tied and Pete, in a windmill of gangly limbs, had scored the winning point. Bucky thought that Brock would be annoyed that he didn't get the point given how aggressively competitive he could be but he cheered and slapped Pete hard on the back.

"Finally! The victors are dethroned! Great shot, Parker." Brock spun his racquet in his hand a few times and grinned. "Okay, who's sitting out?"

Bucky caught his breath and held up a hand. "I will."

"Are you sure?" Steve asked.

Bucky nodded and before he could think better of it, pressed his hand to the small of Steve's back. It was warm and damp. "Yeah, you play with Sam. I need a break." He quickly lowered his hand but Steve was smiling softly at him, his hair damp and plastered to his forehead making him look boyish and innocent. Bucky swallowed and headed to his bag to get his water bottle, listening as the others started to kid around and set up for another game, letting out a long, shaky breath.

***

They finished at 5pm - later than they'd planned - sweaty and exhausted but happy and joking. Bucky had watched Steve gradually gain confidence with the others as the day went on; they all seemed to like him and although he had stuck close to Bucky for the most part, he was finally starting to let his guard down.

Brock clapped Steve on the shoulder. "Dude, you have to come play with us more often. That was awesome."

Steve gave a lop-sided smile. "I'd like that; it's been a long time since I played in a group. I had fun."

"Maybe I can convince Ben to come too and we can play triples," Pete said.

Sam frowned. "Pete, there's no such thing as triples in racquetball."

Brock and Pete said their good-byes and headed off to the subway together and Bucky pulled on his hoodie, watching as Steve wiped the back of his neck and face with his towel.

"Steve, why don't you come back to ours for a few beers? We can get a pizza on the way," Sam said suddenly. Bucky threw him a stare but Sam just smirked and gave him a shrug.

Steve nodded with a smile and looked over at Bucky, zipping up his jacket. "Sure, that sounds great. If it's okay with you...?"

"Yeah totally," Bucky said a little too quickly. "I mean, if you don't have any other plans or anything."

They headed back to Sam's house, talking easily about everything and nothing. Steve and Sam seemed to like each other a lot and Bucky was happy to walk behind them a little and let them chat, letting his eyes trail over Steve's shoulders, the way his hair was dark at the nape of his neck and got blonder towards the top of his head, how long his damn eyelashes were when he turned to look at Sam and nod at what he was saying. They were almost at the pizza place and Sam turned around to talk to Bucky, who blinked and pretended that he had been interested in looking at the window of the thrift store they had just passed by.

"I'm gonna guess you want those nasty ass little fish on the pizza?"

Steve turned and made a face. "You like anchovies? Ew."

Bucky punched him lightly on the arm. "You like pickles. Ew times two," and Steve laughed. Bucky could quite happily do whatever it took to make Steve laugh for the rest of his life.

They compromised on a large pepperoni and sausage pizza with a designated area for Bucky's anchovies that Steve and Sam wouldn't go anywhere near. When they got back to Sam's, they sat in the living room and drank beer and talked for a while. Steve was interested in Sam's career and they talked politics and then they talked about movies and music, laughing together and Bucky thought he could get used to this. Sam's phone started to ring and he excused himself and headed upstairs and Bucky and Steve were left alone for the first time all day.

Steve cleared his throat. "Thanks for inviting me today. I had a really great time. I was kind of nervous...about meeting new people...but your friends are really nice."

Bucky threw the last of his pizza crust back into the box. "I'm glad you came. It was a lot of fun. The guys really liked you."

They sat in an awkward silence for a moment and Bucky's chest felt tight. They wouldn't be sitting in an awkward silence if there wasn't anything to feel awkward about. He suddenly wished that Sam would come back because he wasn't sure what to say. He took a swallow of beer to give himself something to do.

"Oh hey," Steve said, "you still haven't shown me any of your writing."

Bucky winced. "Hmmm. Yeah. I was hoping you'd forgotten about that."

Steve sat back on the couch with a grin." Well, I'm not busy right now."

Bucky was about to make some excuse not to show him, like his laptop having exploded during the night, when Sam came back into the room with an apologetic look on his face. "Well, I have to go into the office. Political emergency."

"At 7:30pm on a Saturday night?" Bucky asked incredulously.

Sam shrugged. "Politics never sleep." But when Steve started to tidy up the pizza box and empty beer bottles on the coffee table, Sam gave Bucky a wink. Bucky scowled at him as he headed out of the living room to go up to his bedroom and grab his laptop.

"Well, don't work too hard," he all but hissed as he passed Sam. "See you tomorrow."

As Bucky was heading upstairs he heard Sam say to Steve, "It was great meeting you; I can see why Buck likes working with you so much."

Steve said something in response but Bucky was too far away and too horrified to hear what he said. He'd get Sam back for stirring things; a week sat on the couch in nothing but his boxers would be adequate retaliation. He heard the front door close a few minutes later and took his laptop back downstairs. Steve was sat on the couch wringing his hands and he smiled shyly when Bucky walked back into the room.

"Okay, now just keep in mind that this story isn't completely finished or in any state that I'm really that happy with at the moment..." He booted up his laptop and placed it at the dining table.

Steve stood up and folded his arms, hunching into himself slightly and he looked younger and less sure of himself. He seemed so much like a nervous puppy (thanks for that mental image, Darcy) wanting affection but too terrified to approach anyone for it. Bucky thought he could see the small, skinny boy that people had made fun of years ago still peering out from the 6'2 man in front of him and he wished that Steve could see himself the way that Bucky could see him right now: Handsome and sincere and just...amazing.

"You don't have to make any excuses; I'm happy to read it for what it is," Steve said.

Bucky opened the file and stepped back, indicating that Steve could sit down and read. "Well, there's no way in hell that I'm going to stay in here and watch you read it. I'll be, uh, I'll be in the kitchen."

He hurried off before Steve could say anything and busied himself doing the dishes, which consisted pretty much of washing the same three glasses and two plates over and over again. He wasn't sure how long he was standing at the sink; it felt like hours and he grew more and more anxious as each minute went by. Bucky suddenly wished he was an artist instead of a writer; at least with a drawing it was just there and it spoke for itself. Writing was like showing someone the deepest darkest part of your brain, just there on display for everyone to see and judge -

"Hey," Steve's voice from the kitchen door made Bucky jump and he almost dropped the plate he was holding. He looked up, ready to expect Steve to be nice about the whole thing because that was just the way he was but instead of the polite smile Bucky was expecting, Steve was frowning.

Bucky shifted uncomfortably. "Um, so...?"

Steve just gave Bucky a little shake of his head and Bucky's heart sank. He hated it. God, this felt so much worse than Bucky thought it would. He looked at the floor and tried to mumble something like thanks for reading it anyway.

But then Steve said with disbelief in his voice, "How are you not published?"

Bucky stared at him for a second before what Steve had said actually sunk in. "I...wait...you liked it?"

Steve shook his head again. "You're...really talented, Bucky. It's...it's really good. I can't think of any better words to use; I'm kind of blown away."

Bucky managed not to drop the plate again and put it on the drainer, overwhelmed with relief. "T-thank you."

"Have you sent it anywhere? Like to any publishers or anything?"

"No. I just wanted to do something for myself again, I guess." Bucky didn't know what to do with himself.

"You should. You really should." Steve said softly.

Bucky met his eyes then, blue and piercing, seeing right through him and not wanting to reject him and Bucky suddenly felt like he could do anything. "Maybe I will."

They stood in silence for a few minutes then Steve cleared his throat nervously and indicated over his shoulder and took a couple of small steps back. "I'd better head off."

Bucky nodded. "Yeah, sure. It's getting late..."

He walked Steve to the front door, wishing he could say what he felt. "I'll see you Monday."

Steve smiled. "Thanks again for today. It was a lot of fun." He looked at the ground. "And thanks for showing me your work. I can't believe how hard you are on yourself when you can write like that."

Bucky gave an embarrassed little shrug. "It's...it's really nothing. I'm just like everyone else who thinks that they can write better than the next person."

"You really aren't," Steve said and there was a strength in his voice that Bucky hadn't heard before. But before Bucky could think of anything to say in response to that, Steve gave him a wave and hurried off.

Bucky stood at the front door long after Steve was out of sight.

***

Monday rolled around and they were on the train together, talking about racquetball and books and avoiding talking about the very obvious attraction between them. Bucky knew why he wasn't - he was still adamant that he didn't want it to make things problematic in terms of working together (he also knew that was just an excuse - he was fucking terrified) and he thought he knew why Steve wouldn't say anything; as much as the space between them had started to grow more trusting and close, he thought that Steve still had barriers he needed to work beyond. He had wanted to leave pretty quickly on Saturday night when it was just the two of them and now that they were back in their routine of trains and work, he seemed more comfortable.

Bucky didn't blame him at all; he needed some time to try and figure out what he wanted and what to do about all of this himself. Not long after Steve had left the other night, Pete had sent him a text asking if there was something going on between them which Bucky had dismissed as just Pete being Pete and making everything into an exciting drama. But then on Sunday morning Brock had sent him a text asking if he and Steve were fucking, which had made Bucky groan, not just because of Brock being crude and to the point, but because it must have been plain for everyone to see that they liked each other. Sam hadn't asked Bucky if anything had happened after he'd left on Saturday night, instead just saying that he thought Steve was awesome and he would be an idiot if he didn't do something about the whole situation.

So they just went back to work. As long as Bucky could see Steve everyday for however long into the foreseeable future, he would figure it all out later.

Darcy was doing her best not to act excited (Bucky winced - what was the big whoop about him and his love life that made everyone who knew him so interested in what happened?) as he and Steve walked through the elevator doors.

"Good morning," she sing-songed.

Steve greeted her with a smile and as he turned away, she made big so-what-the-fuck-happened eyes at Bucky. He just smiled awkwardly and said nothing, following Steve through to their workstation. Natasha came over as they were getting started on their first batch of invoices.

"Good morning, boys. Just a heads-up; it's starting to look like we might need all of this work finished sooner than we'd anticipated." She nodded at the boxes stacked on the empty desk behind them.

Steve's brow furrowed slightly. "How soon?"

Natasha offered an apologetic shrug. "I don't know at the moment but I'll be sure to let you know as soon as I do. In the meantime, if you could factor logging those files into a bigger portion of your day I'd be very grateful." She headed back to her office.

Panic suddenly hit Bucky; did that mean his contract would be up sooner than he thought? He didn't want to think that this job could be over so quickly; he liked it here. He didn't want to lose what he'd built up and gained over the last couple of months. He jumped up and quickly followed Natasha to her office.

"Natasha? Sorry, but could I speak to you for a minute?"

She turned and nodded, ushering him in and closing the door.

"What can I do for you, Bucky?" She sat down and looked at him like she already knew what he was going to ask.

"The whole thing about the files; does that mean my contract may not run for six months?" He tried not to let the worry he was feeling seep into his voice.

Natasha rested her hands on her desk. "I'll be completely honest with you: I don't know. I can promise you that I'll let you know as soon as I find out. If it were up to me I would offer you a permanent position right now but unfortunately, it isn't." She watched him closely.

Bucky nodded. "I appreciate that, thank you. I just...I really like it here..." He was aware of how pathetic he sounded and hated himself for it.

"And we like having you here. I'm sorry, I wish I could give you more information but I'm not that much further up the food chain in this place than you are." Her eyes were soft and Bucky wanted to thank her for everything she'd done for him; if she hadn't given him a chance that first day, he didn't know where he'd be right now, but he couldn't bring himself to, not yet. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

Bucky shook his head and stood up. "No. Thanks for seeing me."

He walked back to his desk, trying not to let the feeling of dread slowly take him over. Steve looked concerned when he sat down.

"Is everything alright?" he asked, and the anxiety in Bucky twisted. The thought that he may not have a job again, that he might have to tell his parents that he had lost a job again, that the first solid thing in his life for a long time might be ripped away from under him, was awful. He didn't want to think about it and how sick it made him feel. Now that he had all of this, he didn't want to give it up.

Bucky picked up an invoice and didn't look at Steve. "I might not have this job for as long as I thought I would." He didn't want to think that he wouldn't see Steve as much if he lost this either.

"Well...is it for sure? I mean, they can't just terminate your contract before the timescale is up, can they?" Steve sounded like he didn't want this to happen as much as Bucky.

"I'm a temp, they can do what they want," Bucky said and put the invoice down and slumped in his chair, staring at his computer screen. He could see a message waiting for him. Darcy, probably. "Just when I thought - I hoped that I might have something stable..."

Steve came close to him in his own chair and tentatively put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "Hey, it hasn't happened yet. If the worst does happen and you do lose this job, I get the feeling you'll have a hell of a reference to take with you. I-I'm more than happy to be a character reference too. And you have your writing - "

"Steve, that's not anything. My writing is just me trying to be a writer and making a fucking mess of - "

"No," Steve said forcefully and Bucky looked up, surprised. "No, it isn't. You're an idiot if you don't think you're good, Bucky. There was more talent in that one story than I think I've read in most novels. If you push yourself and stick at it, you're going to go far. You don't...you won't need this place."

Bucky shook his head. "How do you do that?"

Steve looked worried. "Do what?"

Bucky finally managed a small smile. "Make me feel like I'm worth a shit?"

Steve went pink and took his hand off of Bucky's shoulder. He looked away over to the boxes of work still waiting for them.

"Because...you are." He said it so quietly that Bucky barely heard it. He wanted to say something back but Steve stood up.

"I'll go and make us both a coffee. If you need a break to clear your head, take as long as you want." He smiled but it was tight and stilted.

"Thanks," Bucky said and watched as Steve headed to the kitchen.

***

Bucky went to the bathroom and splashed his face with water and tried to think positively. Like Steve had said, nothing was for sure yet and he would have a good reference from Natasha, he was certain of that. He sighed and looked at himself in the mirror. At least Bucky had done more than James ever did; he could take that with him, at least.

Steve was still gone when Bucky got back to his desk and he opened the office messenger.

darcy_lewis_SIE264: So??? WTF happened at the weekend???

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Don't ignore me Barnes

darcy_lewis_SIE264: I can tamper with your paycheck, I totally know how to do it

darcy_lewis_SIE264: I'll tell everyone that your name is James

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Don't make me beg...

darcy_lewis_SIE264: OH FFS WHAT HAPPENED PLEASE TELL ME

Bucky tapped a message back.

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Can we talk later? Things might not be so good. Not with Steve, with my job

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Noooo. Do you want me to try and find out something? I can use my ninja skills

bucky_barnes_SIET38: No, there's no point. But thanks

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Well this all sucks

Bucky started to work on some invoices when he realised that Steve still wasn't back. He tossed the invoice he was working on aside and got up to see where he was. He walked into the kitchen and almost laughed: Carol and Jess had Steve cornered, both talking over each other and making insistent noises while Steve kept shaking his head, looking terrified and annoyed at the same time. He looked over at Bucky with big pleading eyes when he saw him in the doorway.

"Bucky! Oh good, I need to get back and help you with that thing you needed help with..."

Before Bucky could reply, Jess and Carol swooped in on him and Steve all but ran from the corner of the kitchen he had been trapped in.

"Bucky, a bunch of us are going to karaoke on Wednesday after work and you have to come with us!" Jess put her hands on her hips. "We won't take no for an answer, it'll be amazing."

"Yeah, come out with us, Bucky" Carol said, looping her arm through his and poking him. "You're one of us, you have to. It's so much fun."

"So I'm Bucky now? What happened to Chad?" he said and Carol waved her hand dismissively at him.

"It doesn't even matter if you can't sing, it's a riot," Jess said and pouted.

Bucky sighed and looked over at Steve. He was stirring a mug of coffee like he had ten seconds before the kitchen would blow up, eager to get away from the potential horror of being wheedled into singing in front of everyone. Any other time and Bucky would have cut him a break but he thought that maybe getting out with the rest of the office might do them both some good - him to take his mind off of things and Steve to get more involved with everyone. He wanted to go out with everyone but he wanted Steve to be there even more.

"I'll go if Steve goes," he said with a little grin. Steve's mouth dropped open and he glared at Bucky like he had just thrown him to the wolves.

Jess and Carol both squealed and turned on Steve again. Bucky threw him an apologetic smile.

"Come on, Steve - just this once, pleeeaaassee," Carol begged.

Jess poked him in the arm. "Yeah, if you come out with us on Wednesday we'll never bother you ever again, we promise."

Steve's shoulder's slumped and he made a desperate noise in his throat. "Okay fine, I'll go," he said.

They both cheered loudly and Carol gave Steve a hug. "At last!"

"I'll email you both the details - there's a list of all the songs you can do so make sure you choose a few. This is going to be so much fun!" Jess clapped and jumped up and down.

They both practically bounced out of the kitchen and as soon as they were gone, Steve looked at Bucky accusingly.

"Why did you do that?! Now I have to sing in front of everyone!" He grabbed at his hair with both hands.

Bucky leant against the kitchen counter. "I'm sorry; I just thought it might be cool. And it's not like you have to sing."

"I can't not sing if everyone else is going to," he said and Bucky couldn't help but laugh fondly at how serious Steve looked. "Please don't laugh; this is like my worst nightmare come true."

Bucky's face softened. "Steve, did you see how happy they were that you actually said yes? They're nice people and they just want you to be a part of things. Besides, I'll be there too; I'm not just going to leave you. Let's just go and have fun and I can forget that I might not have a job in a few weeks."

Steve took a breath and stood for a moment. "Yeah, well, I don't want to have to think about that either. Fine, fine; I'll make an ass out of myself and sing in front of everyone but I'm only doing this for you." He looked back down at the two mugs of coffee on the counter, his face full of worry.

Bucky sidled up to him and gave him a nudge. "I appreciate it. I understand how hard it must be for you to do something like this, given what you told me about school and everything. I just... thought it might give you a boost. If you really don't want to go, we don't have to go."

Steve shook his head. "No, you're right. I can't keep hiding away; it's never really done me any good and it's time I started to make an effort, I guess." He chewed the inside of his cheek for a second. "Would you really not go unless I did?"

Bucky nodded. "Well, yeah. And I really want to hear you sing." He gave Steve a little grin.

Steve gave Bucky a self-deprecating smile back. "Just promise you won't laugh?"

"I promise," Bucky said. "You're welcome to laugh at me, though."

"I wouldn't laugh at you," Steve bit his lip and looked down. "Bucky, I - "

But then Hank walked into the kitchen, giving them both a curt nod and Steve lost his nerve with whatever it was that he was going to say. He picked up both of their coffee cups and walked off back to their desks.

***

That night, Bucky lay in bed unable to sleep. He couldn't stop thinking about what he would do if he lost his job. He couldn't stop thinking about Steve. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, looking for shapes in the shadows cast by the streetlight outside and after twenty minutes, got up and switched on his laptop. He sat at his desk and wrote until the early hours of the morning.

Chapter Text

Bucky finally stopped working at around 5:20am that morning, which wasn't great as his alarm went off at 6:45am but he felt good; he was gaining more confidence with his writing again and although he wasn't quite ready to send it anywhere, he thought he could build up to it. Sam had given him the push to start writing again but it was Steve who made him feel like he could be something, that he could have more purpose. He tried to push down the foreboding feeling that his job might not be his for much longer and formulate a game plan, one that involved looking for a publisher to send his work to and kissing Steve Rogers sometime in the near future.

***

Steve was edgy all day Tuesday and Bucky knew it was because he was nervous about going out with everyone on Wednesday evening. He had a permanent tense look on his face and fidgeted a lot more than he usually did. Bucky just tried to act like he didn't notice; he didn't want to make Steve feel worse. He got an email that afternoon from Carol listing all of the songs they could sing at karaoke and he knew that Steve had received the email too because as he was scrolling down through the songs looking for a few to sing, he heard a low moan from the desk behind him. Bucky turned around and Steve had his head in his hands.

"Steve, we can still not go. I'm giving you an out here," Bucky said. He already felt bad for insisting that Steve go ahead with this, knowing that it was a big deal for him.

"No, I still want to go. Just...what the hell am I supposed to sing?"

"A song that you like? There's got to be something on there."

Steve made a worried noise in his throat. "Do you know what songs you're going to sing?"

Bucky gave him a grin. "Yep."

"Are you going to tell me what they are?"

"Nope."

Steve groaned again. "I haven't had to get up in front of people like this since the 10th grade and even then all I had to do was read an essay. What if everyone laughs at me?"

Bucky swivelled around in his chair and grabbed the back of Steve's, spinning him around so he was facing him. Steve looked surprised. "Bucky, what - "

"Your name is Steven, right?" Bucky asked.

"Yes, what does that - "

Bucky cut him off. "Do you have a middle name?"

"Grant, why?"

Bucky held up his right hand and looked Steve dead in the eyes. "Steven Grant Rogers: I, James Buchanan Barnes, do hereby promise that when we go out tomorrow, you will only have to sing one song in front of everyone and no-one is going to laugh at you."

Steve started to smile. "Bucky, come on..."

Bucky shushed him. "If anyone laughs at you, I will punch them. I am also willing to make a fool out of myself - because I'm the one who talked you into this - as punishment. This I do solemnly declare." He made some kind of weird salute and Steve burst out laughing, finally looking happier for the first time all day.

"You don't have to do that. Punch anyone, I mean. I'm more than happy for you to make a fool out of yourself, though."

Bucky smiled at him. "And I'm more than happy to do it. Look, I feel bad that this is making you worry so much, if you really want to skip it - "

Steve shook his head and looked down. "No, I want to go. You'll be there so it's worth it." He glanced up at Bucky, gauging his reaction.

All Bucky could do was smile.

***

Darcy came over with paperwork for them just after lunch and sat up on one of the desks full of boxes behind them. "So what are you two losers going to sing tomorrow?"

"I'm not telling you but it's pretty hardcore," Bucky said with a serious face, ignoring Darcy when she snorked.

"Okay, so what's hardcore to you - Meatloaf?"

Bucky scowled. "Please don't insult me."

Darcy turned to Steve and gave his chair a little kick. "What about you? I can't wait to hear you sing; I bet you have the voice of a buff angel."

"I haven't decided yet," Steve said and Darcy groaned.

"Guh, you two are crap."

"So what are you singing, Little Miss Thing?" Bucky asked.

Darcy smirked. "You'll have to wait and see; I can keep it all a big secret too. Although, I do know that Don is singing Metallica and nothing but Metallica, Jess and Carol are doing duets together and Natasha is coming too. That's not the best thing though - she invited Clint."

"The security guy?" Bucky said.

Steve turned around in his chair, eyebrows raised, a smile quirking one corner of his mouth. "She asked Clint to come?"

Darcy nodded, a big knowing smile on her face. "Yep." She leaned in towards Bucky after looking around to make sure that Natasha was in her office and kept her voice low. "Clint's been chasing after her for nearly two years now. We all think they had a fling at the office Christmas party once and he's been pining ever since. The fact that she's making a move now is very...interesting."

Bucky huffed out a breath. "Office gossip is so dumb."

Darcy made a high-pitched noise. "Ooh, get Mr Too-Good-For-Gossip. Can't wait to hear you boys sing tomorrow." She jumped off of the desk and waved at them as she headed back towards reception.

Bucky shook his head. "I'll never understand office social circles."

Steve laughed. "I didn't think I would either but I got to know Clint when I worked the lobby and it's kind of a big deal for him."

They worked in silence for a little while and Bucky's internal messenger pinged up on his computer screen.

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You do realise that you and Steve are THE hot topic of office gossip at the moment...

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Please don't start

darcy_lewis_SIE264: Everyone's wondering if you're going to make a move on him tomorrow night

bucky_barnes_SIET38: FFS, really?? Well, I can tell you now that I won't be

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You're only hurting yourself there, Bucky Bear

bucky_barnes_SIET38: DO NOT ever call me that again

***

At 4pm, Bucky went into the kitchen to make two cups of coffee, now slightly edgy himself about tomorrow night. There was no getting around the fact that he and Steve were obviously attracted to each other and everyone could see it; his friends could see it and, apparently, so could the whole fucking office. He leant against the kitchen counter and rubbed his face with his hands. He had been planning to say something to Steve tomorrow but now that everyone would be watching them, he knew he couldn't. He felt like he was in high school again; he laughed softly to himself, thinking that some things never changed - no matter how old you got, people still acted like kids when it came to liking someone. He was heading back to his desk when he saw Natasha going into her office, stony faced, with Maria and some guy he'd never seen before.

Bucky put Steve's coffee down on his desk. Steve smiled and said thanks.

"Hey, who's that going into Natasha's office?" Bucky asked and Steve stood up to take a look.

"That's Phil from Human Resources," Steve said with a little frown. "He doesn't usually -" He stopped suddenly and sat back down again.

Bucky waited for him to continue but he didn't. "He doesn't usually what?"

Steve chewed his lip. "He doesn't usually come down here unless something is up," he finished quietly. Bucky must have looked worried because Steve's face softened. "It doesn't mean anything."

Bucky gave him an unconvincing smile and got back to work but that feeling of dread surged through him again and didn't leave him for the rest of the day.

***

"Aw dude; I'm so sorry. It's not official though so just take a step back for a minute and chill," Sam said when Bucky told him the news about his job after he got home that evening; Sam had been working late on Monday so Bucky hadn't had a chance to tell him until now. He had kept a brave face on during the train journey home because he didn't want to bring Steve down but had finally cracked when he got through the front door.

Bucky shrugged off his jacket. "I don't know, I really think I may not have a job by this time next month. Shit, this sucks so hard." He sighed and shook his head. "Sorry Sam, but my pants are coming off. I'm feeling too crap." Before Sam could protest, Bucky's trousers were off and he flopped down onto the couch in his boxers, shirt and tie.

Sam frowned and rolled his eyes. "Gross, but I'll let you have it this one time." He sat down on the couch next to Bucky.

"I really thought I might have a shot at a permanent position with this job. It was going so well," Bucky closed his eyes.

"Okay, nothing has happened yet so don't go getting all negative. Even if you do lose this job, think about what you've gotten out of it: You're happier, you're writing again, you've met a really great guy..." Sam gave him a pointed look.

Bucky picked at his cuticles. "I think he does like me. I just don't know if now is the right time to do anything about it."

"Then when is? Buck, if Saturday was anything to go by, Steve is crazy about you. We could all see it; the two of you were making eyes at each other the whole day. Don't use your job as an excuse not to go after something that could be the best thing that's happened to you for a long time."

Bucky let out a breath. "I know. It's just that anything good I get doesn't seem to last for very long. I don't want to think that could happen with Steve, too."

"I get the feeling that if he had you, he wouldn't give you up without a fight," Sam said with a little smile.

Bucky managed a smile back. "I wouldn't give him up without a fight, I can tell you that right now."

***

The train was stupidly busy on Wednesday morning, more so than usual. Bucky was excited and nervous enough about that evening as it was but he spent the next thirty minutes squished up against Steve which was simultaneously the best thing in the world - Steve was solid and warm and smelled amazing - and the worst thing in the world because Steve was solid and warm and smelled amazing and it was driving Bucky crazy. Steve was looking out of the window for the most part but when Bucky glanced at him from the corner of his eye, he could see that his cheeks were tinged pink.

It was a relief when they finally got off of the train because Bucky wasn't sure how much longer he could have gone pressed up against Steve like that without getting a raging hard-on. They walked along in the fresh air down Wall Street towards their building.

"Have you decided what you're going to sing tonight?" Bucky asked Steve and was surprised when Steve nodded with an anxious little smile.

"Yeah, I emailed myself the list and looked through it last night. As soon as I saw that they had a particular song, I knew I had to sing it."

Bucky grinned. "Are you going to tell me what it is?"

Steve grinned back at him. "Only if you tell me yours."

Bucky laughed. "Okay, so I guess we're both going to keep quiet until later. I hope you're ready because I am pretty serious when it comes to the music I'm into." He made a show of cracking his knuckles.

"I can't wait," Steve said, still smiling.

***

Carol came over to them just before lunch, leaning over the partition next to Bucky's desk. "So the bar is in Tribeca; are you guys cool to split a cab with Darcy and Don? Me and Jess will head over with Natasha and Clint and the others will meet us there whenever."

"Sounds good," Bucky said. Carol walked off back to her desk and Bucky felt butterflies in his stomach. He didn't have to wonder if Steve was feeling the same.

***

At 5:30pm, Darcy came running over to their desks as they were putting on their jackets.

"Come on, come on! Faster, faster! I want to get the hell out of here and have booze and sing." She clutched Bucky's arm and shook him.

"Okay, Christ! If you stop manhandling me I can get my fucking jacket on faster and we can go." Bucky nudged her away and she went behind Steve and started to push him out of the cubicle.

"Let's go," she grabbed Bucky's arm again and dragged him along behind her. Bucky made a frustrated noise and allowed himself to be pulled through the office to the elevators. Don was waiting for them.

"You guys think you're ready for my James Hetfield?"

Darcy snorted. "Please. Anyone could sing as James Hetfield."

They started to bicker in the elevator and Bucky made a face behind Darcy's back. Steve held back a smile.

By the time they hailed a cab and got to the bar, it was past 6pm but the others were all waiting for them; Jess and Carol were already sucking down some kind of cocktails and Clint gave them a small wave as they walked in. Jen and a few other people Bucky didn't know were there too talking amongst themselves. Darcy immediately ran over to Jess and Carol and they handed her a huge blue cocktail. Everyone seemed happy and excited. Natasha walked over and gave them both a beer.

"First one's on me," she said to Bucky and Steve with a smirk.

"Thanks Natasha," Steve said and took a swig from his bottle as she walked off to talk to Jen. Clint tried to inconspicuously watch her go as Don chatted to him. Bucky took a drink himself and looked around; there was a small stage with a screen behind it and a karaoke machine set up at one end of the bar. He nodded towards it.

"There's our doom," he said, meaning it as a joke but Steve looked over and froze, making a small whining sound in his throat.

"I can't do this," he said and looked at Bucky with terror in his eyes.

Bucky held up a hand. "Steve, don't panic - "

Steve shook his head frantically. "I can't, I can't - "

Bucky set his beer down and put his hands on Steve's shoulders, looking him in the eyes. God, they were so blue. "You can, you can. Just don't look up. Just look at the screen and if you do look up, well, just look at me. Okay?"

Steve's eyes flitted across Bucky's face and he took a deep breath. "Okay."

"No-one's going to make you go first, so just have a few beers and relax. You'll be fine. If you don't want to do it, no-one's going to think any different - "

Steve shook his head again. "No, I want to. I think...I think it'll be good for me..."

Bucky smiled and realised he was still holding Steve's shoulders and he just wanted to pull him in and kiss him but there was no way he was going to do it in a crowded bar. Especially not now that everyone was expecting him to. He lowered his hands and picked up his beer again. Steve was looking at him in a way that made Bucky feel like he had drunk about six beers instead of a third of a bottle. Darcy came over then and ushered them to the stage area. The others all started to follow and Bucky heard a few people groan.

"Come on, I'm going first!" She tottered up onto the stage and switched on the karaoke machine.

Don joined Bucky and Steve at their table and Cherry Bomb by The Runaways started to blare from the speakers. Don whooped and Bucky grinned.

"Figures," he said and glanced at Steve. He was smiling and looked like he was finally starting to relax a little.

Darcy was actually really good - all manic energy and showmanship - and Bucky couldn't help but clap and cheer with the others when she finished. She took a dramatic bow and came over to their table with a smug smile.

"I'm awesome, I know. You don't have to say anything."

Jess and Carol clambered up laughing together and each picked up a microphone. They sang Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me - Jess was George Michael and Carol was Elton John - and they were both terrible but hilarious and had everyone laughing by the end of it. They dropped their mics simultaneously at the end, feedback whining from the speakers which made everyone laugh harder and ran to the bar to get more drinks.

Steve turned to Bucky when they had finished, a huge smile on his face. "That was awesome."

Don sang For Whom The Bell Tolls by Metallica and he actually did do a pretty decent James Hetfield; he looked the part, thrashing his head, his long blond hair whipping all over the place. When he finished he came over to their table still holding the microphone and handed it to Bucky.

"Your turn, Barnes," he said with a grin and Bucky took it with a sigh.

He glanced at Steve before he walked up to the stage. "You're allowed to laugh, remember?"

Steve just shook his head and smiled.

Bucky looked as serious as he could while he picked his song; he could see Darcy waiting expectantly and she shrieked when Doctor! Doctor! by The Thompson Twins started up. He saw Steve give him a what-the-fuck look and a laugh and Bucky just shrugged and smiled. Carol shouted something he couldn't quite make out and everyone laughed but it wasn't at him. Bucky just started to sing, being as overly dramatic as he could with his gestures, which got him a lot of intentional laughs. He actually wasn't a terrible singer and a few people joined in with the chorus. Every time he glanced over to their table, Steve had a huge smile on his face and was watching Bucky like he was the best thing ever. He finally finished and headed back to the table, out of breath and giggly.

"Yeah, that was totally hardcore," Darcy said laughing. "I never would have pegged you for an 80s boy."

"I do like the classics," Bucky said with a grin.

Steve leaned across and handed Bucky another beer. He was rosy-cheeked from laughing and his eyes were bright. "That was great."

Bucky chuckled. "Wait 'til you hear my next song."

Natasha went up next and sang Darling Nikki by Prince. Her singing voice was husky and sexy and Clint looked like he was about to explode.

After a minute, Steve leaned in and said to Bucky, "Is it just me or is this song kind of filthy?"

Bucky nodded. "It's about a prostitute."

Steve's eyes widened. "Oh."

Bucky couldn't help but laugh at his reaction; Steve was on his third beer and while he wasn't drunk - the beer had barely touched him the night he had come over after raquetball - he had loosened up a bit and was smiley and happy. Bucky forced himself to look away before he made himself way too obvious.

Natasha finished and everyone clapped and hooted. She put a hand on her hip. "Okay, who's next?"

Darcy stood up and started to wave her hands. "Steve! Steve's next!"

Steve stiffened in his seat and Bucky gave him an elbow. "Remember what I said."

Steve nodded and stood up, walking to the stage like he was on his way to the gallows. Bucky felt a strange anticipation building in him and hoped that Steve would be okay.

Jess and Carol, by now more than a little tipsy on cocktails, cheered him on loudly. Steve frowned in concentration as he looked for his song, holding the microphone tightly and Darcy mewled.

"God, he's so adorable." She threw Bucky a look but he just stared ahead and drank his beer.

Steve's song finally started up and Bucky's breath caught as he recognised the drum beat of the intro and the first few guitar chords. Steve had managed to pick one of Bucky's favorite songs - Now I'm A Fool by Eagles Of Death Metal - despite them not ever having mentioned liking the band to each other. His throat felt dry and he chugged more beer, coughing when it went down the wrong way. Darcy arched an eyebrow at him.

Steve was a little wobbly as he started to sing and his voice was higher than Bucky had expected. But then he started to ease into it and his voice evened out and he was just...Bucky couldn't take his eyes off of him. Steve was resolutely staring at the screen in front of him as he sang, his voice high and sweet and Bucky wanted him so badly it took everything he had not to just storm the stage right then and there and grab him.

Darcy leaned in close. "You're drooling," she said.

"Shut up," Bucky said but it came out slightly less stern than he'd hoped.

Then Steve made the mistake of looking up at everyone and his voice faltered for a second. No, no, no - don't let it get to you, Bucky thought frantically in his direction and then Steve met Bucky's eyes and his voice evened again. Bucky smiled in relief and Steve gave a little smile back as he continued to sing.

"Now I'm a fool, I feel like the whole world knows and I just can't escape it..." He was singing at Bucky and Bucky knew he had kind of planned that, had hoped that Steve would get so nervous that he'd look for him while he sang but now it was backfiring because he looked so incredible - shy and nervous and so fucking cute - and Bucky was gone for him, totally and utterly gone for him. He could feel the others watching them and his face was starting to get hot but he stared back at Steve as he sang and Steve didn't look away either.

The song finally ended and everyone cheered loud; Steve's face turned bright red and he smiled awkwardly and all but ran off of the stage, head down. He thunked heavily back in his chair and let out a shaky breath.

Darcy patted him on the back. "That was so good! I think you deserve another drink." She ruffled his hair and left for the bar, giving Bucky a sly grin as she went.

"That was amazing, Steve," Bucky said softly.

Steve looked up at him and swallowed. "Thanks." His chair had ended up closer to Bucky's somehow and Bucky was suddenly aware that their legs were touching, but he didn't move away and neither did Steve.

They sat quietly as Darcy returned with a drink for them both and watched as Clint sang a very stilted attempt at Laura by Scissor Sisters, looking at Natasha the whole time who in turn was not looking at him. Bucky couldn't help but think that this was a game they played - it was obvious they liked each other - and wondered why they were doing it. Then he felt stupid because he and Steve were doing exactly the same thing. Steve was smiling as he watched Clint and Bucky stole glances at him when he wasn't looking, the apprehension building in him of wanting to say something, especially when he noticed that Steve was stealing glances at him when he thought Bucky wasn't looking.

A few more people sang and then Darcy went back up to sing some Grace Jones. Bucky and Steve had been sat in silence for a little too long now and Bucky cleared his throat.

"Think you might want to sing something else?" Bucky asked.

Steve shook his head hard. "Oh no, no way. Once was more than enough for me."

"Now I'm A Fool is one of my favorite songs," Bucky said.

Steve gave him that look that made him feel drunk again. "Yeah?"

Bucky nodded; he wanted to say something else but he faltered again. Darcy finished up her song and shouted for Bucky to come up and sing another.

Steve grinned. "You know what you're singing?"

Bucky heaved himself up and sighed with a nod. "This is the song that'll make me look like an idiot."

Bucky went for The King of Rock 'N' Roll by Prefab Sprout because it was an awesome song and completely ridiculous and he sang all of the high-pitched parts as shrilly as he could; it had the desired effect because every time he looked over at Steve, he was laughing.

He stepped down from the stage when he was done and sat back down, slightly drunker than he thought he was. Steve was still laughing and Bucky realised that when he was with him, he forgot about everything bad in his life - how he'd screwed things up as a kid, how removed he was from his family, the jobs he'd fucked up - because Steve didn't care about all of that. He liked Bucky for who he was now, not who he'd been in the past. He also cared about the kind of person Bucky could be.

Jen got up on the stage then and started to sing Shania Twain and that's when Bucky groaned and held up his hands.

"I think I'm done. I'm going to call it a night."

Steve nodded. "I think I might call it with you."

Darcy made protesting noises when they both stood up and started to put their jackets on.

"Nooooooo, don't go yet!" She made grabby hands at Bucky and he swatted her away.

"We've done our time and I'm wiped. We'll see you tomorrow." He wanted to slip away before anyone else saw them and tried to convince them to stay.

Darcy sat back in her chair with a pout and they left the bar - Clint was singing Always by Bon Jovi. They both started to walk towards the subway, the sudden silence of being away from the noise somehow more deafening than the singing and constant din. Bucky shoved his hands in his pockets; he was feeling very sober now. Steve was clutching the strap of his messenger bag tightly and looking down at the sidewalk.

"Did you have a good time?" Bucky asked softly.

Steve just nodded and continued to stare down.

They were quiet on the train back to Brooklyn. Bucky frowned to himself and tried to work up some courage but failed miserably; Steve was sat next to him jiggling his leg nervously. It was getting closer to Bucky's stop and neither of them was making a move. Bucky raised his head and glanced at Steve, not quite prepared for the way he was looking back at him, almost expectantly. Bucky met his eyes and...

"It's...this is my stop."

Steve gave a little smile and a nod. "See you tomorrow," he said softly.

Bucky stood up and waited as the train slowed to a stop. He could punch himself in the face; why was he still hesitating? He wanted this, Steve wanted this. But the fear of rejection, of fucking everything up still hung around him like a shroud. He stepped off of the train and instead of walking off towards the exit like he usually did, he stopped on the platform and gazed back at Steve. He was still sitting, watching Bucky, his face now unreadable. The doors closed and Bucky just stood and watched as the train left.

As soon as the train was out of sight, he yowled to himself and kicked one of the benches nailed down to the platform, hurting his foot and making himself even angrier. He didn't blame Steve for not making a move but he wished he had. This was all so stupid. Bucky sat down on the bench he'd just kicked and pulled out his phone, swiping up Steve's contact details and hastily tapped out a text.

BUCKY: I wish I'd had the guts to kiss you just now

His finger hovered over the send button and he bit his lip so hard he tasted blood. He sat on the bench he'd kicked for ten minutes before he hit delete and went home.

***

Bucky was expecting things to be awkward the next morning on their way to work but Steve just greeted him brightly. He was going to do it; he was going to ask Steve out. He didn't care anymore; he had spent half the night awake thinking that Sam had been right - he had to stop making excuses and just go for it; he couldn't beat himself up forever, thinking that he was never good enough for anything or anyone.

"Good morning. How are you feeling?" Steve asked.

Bucky smiled and tried to read Steve's face but he wasn't giving anything away. "Not as bad as I thought I'd feel."

"I wonder how many people will be out with hangovers today?"

Bucky huffed a little laugh. "Yeah." He steeled himself and looked out of the window for a few seconds then turned back to Steve and blurted out, "Hey do you want - " just as Steve said, fast and with a determined look on his face, "Bucky, I was wondering if you maybe wanted - "

They both stopped and Bucky's heart tried to escape through his mouth. Steve was steadily growing pinker and clamped his mouth shut.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to...what were you going to say?" Bucky asked and looked at Steve, trying desperately not to let him see the hopefulness that was creeping into his eyes.

Steve swallowed and took a deep breath. When he spoke he sounded like he had rehearsed what he wanted to say. "Bucky, I was wondering if you maybe wanted to go to Montauk with me on Saturday. Um, whale watching." He blinked hard a couple of times and then glanced down and cleared his throat noisily.

"I'd love to," Bucky said without hesitation and Steve looked up at him, relief breaking out across his face.

"You would?"

Bucky grinned. "Yeah. That would be awesome."

Steve's smile was brighter than Bucky had ever seen it. "Great. I'm really...great." He laughed shyly and Bucky laughed with him. "You were going to say something?"

Bucky just shook his head. "Oh, it was...along the same lines but not as good."

They smiled at each other and Bucky felt like he couldn't get any happier.

***

Darcy wasn't at the front desk when they got to the office and Bucky was kind of glad; she would have been on him like a leech as soon as he walked through the door with Steve. They headed to their section, both trying not to smile too widely. Carol was leaning against Jen's partition and looked up at them as they walked by, trying to hide a smile of her own.

"Good morning, Steve. Good morning, Bucky."

"Good morning," they both said at the same time and Bucky winced inwardly.

When she thought they were out of earshot she muttered to Jen, "I fucking knew it. You owe me twenty dollars..."

There was a stack of invoices waiting on Bucky's desk and he took off his jacket. He glanced over at Steve and grinned when he saw that Steve was looking back at him, a timid smile on his face that widened when Bucky met his eyes. Bucky didn't think his heart could feel any fuller. He was going to go whale watching with Steve and maybe things were going to be okay for the first time in a long while.

He was about to sit down when Natasha walked over and when he saw the look on her face, his stomach dropped and he knew. He just knew.

"Bucky, could I speak to you in my office?" Her voice was solemn.

His shoulder's sagged and suddenly everything seemed muffled. "Sure," he heard himself say and started to walk away from his desk. He was vaguely aware of her saying something to Steve but he didn't hear what, just concentrated on trying not to let the wave of hopelessness and dread wash over him. He swallowed hard when Natasha ushered him into the seat facing her desk and closed the door behind her.

She sat down and stared at her laptop with a frown before looking up at him. "I'm so sorry," she said and her voice was soft and sincere. "We're going to have to let you go."

Bucky looked down at his hands and nodded. "Can I ask why?"

"Cut-backs, mainly. A lot of temps are losing their jobs. Your department, such as it was, is being axed."

Bucky's head shot up. "But...what about Steve?"

Natasha clasped her hands together and leaned on her desk. "He's being moved to a different department, on a different floor. There's a position open that he's qualified for. He's speaking with them now."

Bucky just nodded again, glad that Steve still had a job at least. He felt numb for the most part, even though he had known this was coming. It didn't make it hurt any less.

"How long do I have?"

Natasha was silent for a few seconds. "Tomorrow's your last day."

He felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. He thought he would at least have had a month at best, but one more day? Everything suddenly seemed very unfair. It wasn't Natasha's fault though. "Tomorrow?" he said weakly.

"I did everything I possibly could to keep you on. Believe me when I say that." He knew she was telling the truth. His chest felt tight and hot and he could feel James trying to claw his way back in; useless, fuck-up, worthless James. James who couldn't keep a job. His parents would be happy at least that he was consistent with something, that James continued to prove them right time and time again. He tried to push him away, desperate to be Bucky for as long as he could.

"Why did you give me a chance that first day?" he finally asked, trying to keep his voice steady. "I was late, my record was a piece of shit. You could have booted me straight out of the door."

Natasha looked him in the eyes. "Because you reminded me of myself. I could barely hold down a job before I worked here; I had a real attitude problem but not quite as well-meaning as yours. I didn't have any direction. But then I was given a chance and discovered that I was good at what I was asked to do. Got so good, I was given more responsibility and started to thrive. I almost did boot you out of the door that morning but you had something - a quality - and I thought maybe you needed someone to give you a chance." She smiled and it softened her whole face. "I'm not wrong very often. You're a good person, James. You're hard-working, you're dedicated. People like you. You just need to like yourself a little more. You deserve to do well."

That was more than Bucky ever thought he'd hear and he could feel himself start to choke up. He took a breath. "Thank you. You have no idea what you've done for me. You really don't."

Natasha shuffled some papers. "I'm giving you a good reference and making you a glowing report to hand to your agency. I want you to take that away with you, at least. I'm...I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you."

Bucky nodded again and stood up. "Thank you. So much." He turned and left Natasha's office not wanting to think about where he would go from here.

Steve was waiting for him back at their cubicle and he looked up at Bucky with sad eyes. Bucky just sat down and stared at his desk. "Tomorrow's my last day."

"I'm so sorry, Bucky," Steve said quietly.

Bucky ran a hand through his hair. "Don't be. It was bound to happen. It was all going too well for me and as soon as that happens, things right themselves and everything goes to shit again." He hated the self-pity in his voice but he couldn't bring himself to see the bright side of anything at the moment.

"Don't say that," Steve said softly. He seemed to be trying to say something else but just held up his hands helplessly. "Do you...do you need to go and have a break? You can take as long as you want."

Bucky nodded and stood up. "I just need a little while to try and...figure out what I need to..." He trailed off. "I'm glad you still have a job."

Steve looked downcast and shook his head. "I'm not."

Bucky felt that tightness in his chest again and backed away. "I won't be long. I'll...I'll make us a coffee on my way back."

He turned and headed for the lunch room. It was empty and he sat at the table in the corner, the one he and Steve always sat at with his back to the door. If anyone came in, he didn't want them to see how he looked right now. He pulled out his phone and texted Sam.

BUCKY: I just lost my job. Tomorrow's my last day

He rested his chin on his hand and let out a shuddery breath. It was less than a minute before he got a reply.

SAM: Shit, I'm so sorry :(

BUCKY: Yeah

***

The rest of the day passed in a dull haze and as much as Bucky tried not to let the hollowness take him over and lose the sense of purpose he had gained, it started to eat away at him again. Several people came over to see him, the news having spread, and they all seemed genuinely saddened that he was leaving. Darcy was out sick but Bucky hoped he would see her tomorrow before he left. 5:30pm finally hit and he switched off his computer and started to put his jacket on. Steve had been silent for most of the day, sensing that Bucky didn't want to talk. He put his own jacket on and rested his hand on the back of his chair.

"Do you...do you want me to hang back so you can catch the train by yourself?"

Bucky's brow knitted wretchedly. "No, no - shit, I'm sorry, Steve. I'm just...it's been a really awful day. I'm sorry that I've been such a selfish asshole. It must be hard for you too; I just got so caught up in my own - "

"It's okay, I understand," Steve said, stepping forward and hesitantly putting a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "And you're not an asshole."

Bucky managed a smile. "You're too nice, you know that?"

Steve grinned but there wasn't much humour in it. "It's been said. Come on."

They walked to the station together, both quiet, barely saying a word to each other the whole train journey. Before Bucky got off at his stop, he turned to Steve.

"I'll see you tomorrow."

Steve nodded, his blue eyes slightly desperate. "Yeah. See you tomorrow."

***

When Bucky got back to the house and let himself in, Sam was home and had a whole bunch of Chinese take-out and beer set up on the coffee table with America's Next Top Model on the TV, the sound on mute.

Bucky gave a little smile. "What's all this?"

"I thought you might need cheering up, "Sam said and came up to Bucky and clapped a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. "I'm really sorry, Buck. I know how much this job meant to you."

Bucky sighed. "Thanks Sam. I knew it was going to end, I just didn't think it would be like right now." He put down his bag and shrugged off his jacket.

Sam folded his arms. "If you want, you can take off your pants."

Bucky laughed then and shook his head. "Nah, I'm trying to act as much like a grown-up about this whole thing as I can. Is it okay if we just eat and watch ANTM?"

They ate in silence whilst watching the TV and Bucky thought again about just how lucky he'd gotten to have Sam as a friend. Had they not bonded that first day when Bucky had come over to look at his spare room, he didn't know where he'd be right now without Sam's support and encouragement.

"So," Sam said after they had finished eating. "What's the plan?"

Bucky leant back with his beer and rested his head on the back of the couch, staring up at the ceiling. "I don't know. Hopefully the agency will have something for me? I haven't really thought about it. Been too busy feeling sorry for myself."

"Well, you're a different man than you were before you started at Stark Industries, that's for sure." He held up a hand when Bucky started to protest. "Buck, you are. You've got more confidence, you're enjoying writing again. Don't let this hold you back, man."

Bucky swallowed. "I know."

"What about Steve?" Sam asked.

Bucky turned his head and gave him a little smile. "He asked me to go whale watching with him at the weekend."

Sam whooped and slopped beer on the floor when he threw his arms in the air. "Finally! We're getting somewhere! You're going to go, right?"

"It's pretty much all I have to look forward to at the moment. I really like him. I don't want tomorrow to be the last time I ever see him."

Sam grinned. "Then you have to make sure it won't be, huh?"

***

Bucky didn't sleep much that night, tossing and turning and dozing fitfully, worried about what to do next, where his life was going to head now. Part of him had hoped, really hoped, that he'd have a permanent place at Stark Industries and he was more devastated than he had let on to everyone about losing the job. He had decided not to tell his parents, not right yet; there was enough disappointment roiling within him as it was. He rolled over and glanced at his laptop, closed on his desk. Could he really make a go at writing? Was it worth pursuing? At the moment, he didn't know. All he knew was that he felt awful.

***

"Um," Steve had been chewing over something for most of the way to work on Friday morning.

Bucky had tried to be cheerful when he got on the train but it was hard; after today he would be adrift again and he had no idea what was going to happen. He'd been in this situation before but it had never felt as bad as this. He didn't like seeing Steve so out of sorts, either.

"What's up?" Bucky finally asked him and Steve frowned down at the floor of the train.

"If you...if you don't want to come to Montauk with me anymore, I'll understand," Steve said hastily.

"What are you talking about? Of course I still want to go," Bucky said.

Steve glanced up at him. "I just thought that maybe you would be feeling too bad about your job...I don't want you to feel like you have to come...out of...obligation or anything..."

Bucky gave Steve a fond smile. "Are you kidding? I can't think of anything I need more right now after everything that's happened. I might actually get to see a real whale for the first time in my life."

Steve grinned, the relief plain on his face. "I think the weather's going to be good - cold but clear - so if the sea is calmer, we've got a better chance of maybe seeing a couple. I'd hate to drag you all the way out there and not see anything."

"You know that's not the only reason I'm going, right?" Bucky said, his voice soft.

Steve was quiet for a moment then said, "I was hoping it wouldn't be."

***

Darcy ran out from behind the front desk when Steve and Bucky stepped out of the elevator. "I can't believe this! I'm out sick one fucking time and your last day is today and Steve is being moved to another floor on Monday. It's not fair!"

Bucky snorted. "Since when did you care so much about what happens to me?"

Darcy looked genuinely hurt for a split-second and Bucky felt like a dick.

"Sorry," he said.

Darcy huffed out a sigh and smirked. "You're right, I don't care about you. You're a complete asshole. In fact, you're such an asshole I may not give you the whole tin of muffins I made for you yesterday when I was ill. I had the worst hangover of my life -"

"Having a hangover doesn't count as being ill," Steve interjected.

" - of my life," Darcy continued, glaring at him, "and I slaved away over a hot oven for most of it."

"You made me muffins?" Bucky asked.

Darcy folded her arms and looked away. "Carol texted me when she found out that you weren't coming back after today. I wanted to do something nice."

Bucky felt that overwhelming sense of loss again - over a temp job, he thought bitterly - and pulled Darcy into a hug. "Thank you."

Darcy hugged him back and then let go. "I'll bring them over later. This really does suck, Barnes."

Bucky scratched his neck. "I know. You've still got Steve, though. Maybe you can figure out a way to annoy him on a different floor."

Darcy's face brightened. "Now there's a thought."

The rest of the day was strange; Bucky wanted to do as much work as he could to go out on a high note but at the same time he didn't feel like doing anything. What was the point? He chided himself for thinking that way - that was the way the old him would have thought; he wanted to do his best and prove to himself that even at the end of all this, he wouldn't give up and give in to feeling like he failed again. Just before lunch, Carol and Jess came over with a card.

"We got everyone to sign this. We all wish you could have stayed." They both looked unhappy.

He opened the card and it was made out to Chad. He laughed and read the messages from everyone, even Hank, who he'd barely said two words to. Inside was also a Barnes & Noble gift card for $100. "Wow, this is too much," Bucky said with a frown.

"It's from all of us," Jess said. "It was Steve's idea."

Bucky looked up at Steve and he was smiling. "I figured you could buy some more books as research. For your book, when you write it."

"Thank you. This is..." Bucky couldn't say anything else.

Carol leaned down and hugged him. "Good luck with everything."

Darcy came over shortly after lunch with a tin full of muffins. "There's all kinds in here. Hide them otherwise everyone will want one."

Bucky offered one to Steve and Darcy and they sat quietly eating them. Darcy gave Bucky a soft punch on the shoulder and then left without a word, heading back to the front desk.

"About tomorrow," Steve said and Bucky nodded, wiping muffin crumbs from his hands. "I know it's early, but the best train to get leaves at 6am. It'll take nearly four hours to get to Montauk and the whale watching is scheduled for 12:30pm. I figured we could get there early and take a walk on the beach or something?"

"Sounds good. I haven't been to a beach for years. Do I need any particular clothes or anything? 

"Heavy shoes if you've got them and a warm jacket; it gets kind of cold out at sea, especially this time of year. Um, that's it I guess." Steve fiddled with the pen he was holding.

Bucky bit his lip. "Look, I just wanted to say...thanks. For everything. For making me feel welcome at this job; for, I don't know, being a friend I guess. I was in a pretty shitty place when I started here and it's...while I'm still not where I want to be, you've helped. A lot." Whatever happened after today, Bucky knew one thing for certain and that was that he wanted Steve to be a part of his life.

"You're welcome," Steve said and he quickly turned away and started to work again.

***

darcy_lewis_SIE264: I'm giving you my phone number. I need to know what happens with you and Steve

bucky_barnes_SIET38: He'll still be working here, just ask him

darcy_lewis_SIE264: But he doesn't get annoyed by my sass like you do

bucky_barnes_SIET38: Fine, whatever. All joking aside, thanks Darcy

darcy_lewis_SIE264: You're a good guy, Barnes

***

Bucky texted Sam just before 5:30pm to tell him he wouldn't be going to Logan's that night. He knew the others would want to cheer him up but he couldn't really face any more well-wishing or consoling right now. He just wanted to get home and write, his negative energy now turning into a determination he didn't think he'd ever had before. He didn't want to end up floating from one temp job to another for the rest of his life and he had to do something about it. As he and Steve were heading out of the office, after Bucky had said his goodbyes to everyone, he saw Natasha leaning in the doorway of her office, watching him go. He held up a hand and gave her a nod. Thank you.

She just nodded back once and gave him a smile before disappearing back into her office.

***

PETER P: Shit dude, Sam just told us about your job. Really sorry. Do you want me to see if there's anything going at Oscorp?

BUCKY: Thanks Pete. It sucks but I can't dwell on it. Something will come up. Yeah, that would be cool, thanks

BROCK: Tough break Buck. Hope you get something soon

BUCKY: Thanks Brock

BROCK: Hey at least you're fucking that hot Steve guy though right?

BUCKY: >_< No, I'm not...

BROCK: Yeah right!

***

Bucky spent the evening making notes for Faded Copy, clearing his mind of everything that had happened the last couple of days. It was time for a fresh start; he might not have his head totally together but he had a new sense of purpose and determination and despite everything, he felt almost excited. Mostly about his date (he was calling it a date, he didn't care) with Steve tomorrow but also because maybe he could do more. This didn't have to be an ending; it could be a whole new beginning for him. He could put all those years of getting everything wrong behind him and start again. He could be who he wanted to be, he just had to give himself the chance and he was finally ready to do it. Fuck it - life is too short, he thought. He found the legal pad Sam had given him to write down what he wanted out of his life and read over everything he had written down when he had first started to work at Stark Industries. He tore out the page and screwed it up. Grabbing a pen, he started to make a new list.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky was in bed long before Sam came home. He left him a note saying that he'd most likely see him on Sunday and not to worry about him; he was looking at this situation in a whole new way.

He was up stupidly early the next morning, his stomach in knots. He put on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt and found his old hiking boots at the back of his closet. Bucky opted for his black pea-coat and a scarf and grabbed a banana to eat on his way out of the door. He stopped to get two coffees before heading to the subway to meet Steve. Although Steve lived a few stops on from Bucky, he had insisted they meet before heading to Jamaica and getting on the Long Island Rail Road. Bucky watched his breath plume as he walked; it was cold and still dark but the sky was clear and he hoped it was going to be a nice day. He hadn't been to the beach since he was thirteen and he felt like a little kid again, excited and energetic.

Steve was waiting on the platform for him wearing a grey duffel coat, jeans and walking boots. His cheeks were pink from the cold and he smiled when he saw Bucky. That was all Bucky needed to resolve himself to the fact that he would tell Steve how he felt today.

"Oh, please say that one of those is for me." He indicated gratefully to the coffee in Bucky's hand.

"No, I like to buy two for myself just in case one gets cold."

Steve rolled his eyes. "Jerk."

Bucky laughed and handed Steve his coffee. "There's vanilla in it."

Steve hummed out a pleased noise as he took a sip. "I made us sandwiches." He pointed to the backpack he was wearing.

"Shit, I didn't think to do anything like that," Bucky said. "I have money - "

Steve shook his head. "I always bring food. It was no trouble."

Bucky grinned. "I bet you were a boy scout when you were a kid."

Steve laughed as the train approached. "Yeah, but not a very good one. I couldn't build a campfire for shit."

The four hour journey to Montauk flew by; Steve seemed to be less nervous than he usually was as they sat facing each other on a table seat talking the whole way, telling each other stories from their childhoods. They talked about movies and music and Bucky was more comfortable than he'd ever been with anyone in his life; he didn't know if it was because he'd made up his mind to admit his feelings to Steve or because this trip seemed to symbolise something for him - some kind of transition in his life, maybe - but he let himself just enjoy being on a journey to somewhere he'd never been with someone he liked a lot.

The conversation somehow led to relationships and Bucky told Steve about his slightly volatile one with Bruce; how they had never agreed on anything, argued about everything and eventually parted ways, angry and frustrated. Steve had hesitated before telling Bucky about the one major relationship he'd had, not mentioning the guy by name but implying that the whole thing had been pretty one-sided on Steve's part. Given how he generally felt about himself, it had seemed to devastate him when the guy had just upped and walked out on him and he hadn't been with anyone since. Bucky had watched as Steve then tried to joke about something after telling him all that but he saw the hurt and couldn't quite believe how anyone wouldn't want this sweet, amazing guy. He thought about the new list he had made the night before and the first thing he had written down without any hesitation at all.

They had fallen into a comfortable silence at one point, both looking out of the window at the gorgeous morning sky and Bucky had started to hum. He hadn't even been aware he was doing it until Steve started to sing along softly. Bucky looked up with a smile. He had been humming Now I'm A Fool. He started to sing too and they both grinned and sang and everything was perfect.

***

Steve became an entirely different person when they got to Montauk; as soon as he stepped off of the train he was confident and lively, displaying a boyishness Bucky had never seen before.

"I thought we could head straight to the beach and eat if that's okay with you?" he asked.

"Sounds great," Bucky said and followed Steve as he led them through the Village, pointing out things of interest as they walked. Bucky nodded with enthusiasm and asked questions but his attention was all on Steve. He seemed comfortable in his own skin when he was here and it saddened Bucky to think of how little confidence he had back in New York. They reached the beach and Bucky could see why Steve loved it here so much; the sand stretched on for miles and the sea was wide and blue, catching glints from the late morning sun. They sat on the sand, not caring about the cold and ate pastrami and mustard sandwiches, laughing as a dog ran circles around it's owner, jumping into the surf to chase a Frisbee over and over. Steve handed Bucky an apple and he sat back and enjoyed how different the noises were here compared to the city; the crashing of the waves, the seagulls pin-wheeling and calling out above them and then landing to hop along the beach in search of food. He felt a strange sense of calm take him over. He was aware of eyes on him and turned to see Steve watching him with a little smile.

"We can walk along this beach to the dock," Steve said.

"Is it okay if we sit here a little while longer?" Bucky asked. "It's so nice."

Steve's smile widened. "Sure."

They sat for thirty minutes and Bucky just listened in contentment as Steve pointed out various plants, what kind of seaweed was common to the area, what species of fish you could expect to find, impressed by how much Steve knew. He talked about how as a kid - when his aunt had lived here before she died - he and his mom would come up every summer. One time he had tried to keep a few Hermit Crabs as pets and had cried his eyes out when they had all died.

"I think that's when I started to respect nature a lot more; I felt so bad that I'd unintentionally killed those poor crabs that I never took anything off of the beach again, except for a few shells or nice pebbles." Steve gave Bucky a questioning glance when he saw how Bucky was looking at him, a little smile quirking up the corner of his mouth. "What?"

Bucky shook his head and grinned. "Nothing. It's just...pretty cute. How bad you felt over a bunch of crabs."

Steve's face went red immediately and he smiled and drew circles in the sand with a finger. "Hermit Crabs are awesome. You'd feel bad too if you killed one and then found out just how amazing they are."

Bucky rested his arms on his knees. "I'm sure I would now."

Steve stood up and dusted the sand off of his jeans. He held out a hand and pulled Bucky to his feet when he took it. They walked down the beach, daring each other to get as close to the sea as they could without getting wet from the crashing surf. The waves weren't actually that big but the fear of getting their feet wet made them act like kids, shrieking and clutching at each other as the sea rolled in. Bucky was laughing harder than he had for a long time and he ran and shoved Steve playfully, shouting and sprinting off when Steve chased him, their laughter carrying along the shoreline. He wondered what anyone watching would think of two guys in their late twenties racing along the beach and trying to push each other into the sea.

Steve led them, both pink and out of breath at this point, off of the beach and they headed towards the docks where several charters and fishing boats were moored. Bucky couldn't stop smiling and nudged Steve as they walked, rewarded with a huge smile and a nudge back.

When they got to the dock, Steve rummaged in his bag and pulled out two boat tickets. Bucky immediately reached for his wallet to give Steve some money but Steve shook his head.

"No, this is on me."

"Oh hey, no. Come on. Let me pay you for my ticket," Bucky protested.

Steve just shook his head firmly. "Nope. Seeing the look on your face if we come across any whales will be payment enough."

Bucky rested his hands on his hips. "You're unbelievable."

Steve went to say something but just bit his bottom lip and indicated to a boat at the end of the dock where a few families and other couples were milling about waiting to board. "Come on."

As they stepped down the gangplank, the woman collecting the tickets greeted Steve by name and gave Bucky a pleased little smile. The boat was slightly smaller than Bucky had thought it would be but still large enough for a decent sized cabin with seats inside and a TV playing a looped DVD about whales. There was a drinks machine and Bucky grabbed them two coffees and they found a spot on the port side away from everyone else and he couldn't help but feel the exhilaration rise inside of him as they set out to sea. It would take an hour to get to the best spot, the guide's voice over the speaker system told them.

"Want to hear something dumb?" Bucky asked, one hand on the rail in front of them as the boat jostled on the waves.

Steve took a sip of his coffee, his hands wrapped around the small paper cup, managing somehow to keep his balance despite the movement of the boat. "What?"

"I've never been on a boat before."

Steve laughed. "That's not dumb. I've never been on a plane before."

Bucky leaned over the side and watched the spray below as they sped across the surface of the water. It was freezing out here on the deck but he didn't care. "I guess that means I'll have to take you somewhere on a plane for our next date." He glanced up to see Steve's reaction; they hadn't actually agreed that this was a date but it was clear that it was.

Steve looked down at his hands for a second and then met Bucky's eyes. "Sounds like a fair trade."

They both smiled shyly at each other and stood side-by-side watching the water.

***

The boat started to slow when they were completely surrounded by the ocean - the land having faded away to nothing a while back - and the guide told everyone to keep an eye out; another boat had radioed them to let them know that a whale had been spotted in the area. Bucky buzzed with anticipation; he might actually get to see a real whale right now. Steve was scanning the surface of the water, obviously knowing what he was looking for and Bucky waited patiently. The guide on the loudspeaker started to speak just as Steve pointed excitedly to a spot of water about twenty metres from the boat.

"There!" He stood close to Bucky and they caught sight of a spray of water and a large dark shape disappearing under the surface.

"Keep watching," Steve said, his hand gripping Bucky's arm. "Hopefully whoever it is will breach."

They both watched and Bucky ignored the guide's voice, too distracted by Steve pressed close to his side and the anticipation of seeing the whale break the surface. There was a collective gasp on the boat from the other passengers as a huge tail appeared and slowly disappeared again beneath the waves. Bucky's breath caught in his throat.

"That's Paikea!" Steve exclaimed excitedly and turned to Bucky, watching his face to see what he thought.

Bucky blinked, unable to believe what he'd just seen. "H-holy shit." He swallowed and glanced at Steve. "She's your favorite, right?"

Steve was beaming. "Yeah, she is."

They watched as Paikea's tail appeared a couple more times and each time Bucky couldn't help the small gasp that escaped him; it was unreal to think that an animal that big was just below them. Then there was nothing for ten minutes. The guide insisted they stay for a while, that Paikea was probably diving for food and would appear again soon to breathe.

Bucky was about to ask Steve something about what whales ate when Paikea broke the surface in a huge breach, her entire body leaping above the surface. Bucky froze and watched as she crashed down, her fins slapping the water. He was speechless; he had no fucking idea how beautiful and huge and spectacular whales really were. He didn't know what to do with himself. Steve turned to look at him.

"Oh my god," Bucky whispered.

Steve leant on the boat rail and gazed dreamily out at the water. "I know, right?" he said softly.

Bucky could feel his throat go tight and hot and suddenly everything was too much: Being out here with Steve and sharing with him the most amazing thing he'd ever seen in his life, losing his job, trying to become a better person. He thought about his family and how, even though they had known him his whole life, they had given up on him, unwilling to forgive him his past. How he was here in the middle of the ocean with a guy who had known him less than three months and who believed in him and wanted him to succeed. Who cared about him. Paikea broke the surface again and Bucky couldn't stop the tears that came - year's worth of self-loathing finally overwhelming him.

Steve turned immediately when he heard Bucky's sobs and stepped closer to him, putting an arm around his shoulder, his face soft and concerned. "Buck? It's alright."

Bucky shook his head, trying to mumble out an apology between his tears. Steve just pulled him in and held him and Bucky cried into Steve's shoulder, letting out the hurt he had kept bottled inside for so long. He could feel Steve rest a hand lightly on the back of his head, stroking his hair gently, not saying anything and just letting Bucky cry. He gripped Steve tighter.

He eventually pulled away, his sobs now just hitching breaths and was going to apologise again but Steve just shook his head, his eyes sad with understanding. He kept an arm around Bucky's shoulder as Bucky wiped his face with one hand and looped his other arm around Steve's waist. They stood together and watched as Paikea leapt from the water, while Steve rubbed his hand gently up and down Bucky's arm.

There was an enormous sense of relief in him then, like something festering and unbearable had been removed from his body. Bucky finally felt like he could leave the thing that had made him feel so bad for so long out here at sea, where it could sink to the bottom as he started a new life on the surface.

***

The boat stayed in that spot for another forty minutes and Paikea eventually started to head away, her breaching petering out to soft puffs of spray as she broke the water less and less. The boat chugged to life again and started to head back to Montauk. Bucky took a deep shuddery breath and turned to Steve.

"Thank you," he croaked out, his voice still wet with emotion. He cleared his throat. "You have no idea what..." He couldn't get the words out.

Steve gave a tiny shake of his head and put a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "I think I do."

Bucky frowned and nodded. He indicated to the cabin of the boat. "I just need to clean up."

Steve smiled and squeezed Bucky's shoulder before he let go and turned away, gazing back to the spot in the ocean where Paikea had been.

Bucky locked the door of the tiny bathroom in the boat's cabin and splashed his face with water. He looked at himself in the mirror; his eyes were red and his hair was a mess from the wind and he smoothed it down as best he could even though it would be all over the place again as soon as he stepped back onto the deck. He took a few deep breaths, steeling himself for what he had set out today to do.

Steve was still in the same spot when Bucky joined him again; a lot of the other passengers were huddled in the boat's cabin, away from the biting wind. Steve turned to him as he approached.

"Everything okay?" he asked gently. Bucky let himself look at Steve for a moment; he was crazy about the man he had met and got to know from New York but seeing how he was out here, on the ocean surrounded by the things he cherished the most, Bucky may have fallen a little bit in love with him.

Bucky nodded and smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, I think it is."

Steve smiled and Bucky stepped towards him and raised his hand, brushing it through Steve's hair which was dishevelled and stuck up every which way from the wind too. He heard Steve's breath hitch and he stiffened slightly at Bucky's touch.

"Your hair's a mess," Bucky said, trying to keep his voice even and light as Steve watched him, his blue eyes wide and nervous as they flitted between Bucky's own eyes and his lips. Bucky stilled his hand on the back of Steve's neck, his finger's trembling slightly and pulled him in. It was like that was all Steve had been waiting for and he immediately leaned in to Bucky and they kissed. Steve's lips were dry from the wind and Bucky could taste salt on them from the sea spray but he didn't care; it was the best kiss he'd ever had because he knew that Steve wanted him. Steve was gentle and hesitant at first but then he rested his hands on Bucky's waist and pulled him in closer, kissing him more insistently but with such tenderness that it made Bucky's heart feel too big. The boat hit a large swell and they jostled into each other at the wrong angle and their teeth clashed together but they just both laughed and pulled away, still holding each other, their faces close.

Steve looked happy. "I thought we would never do that."

Bucky smiled and bit his lip. "I wish I'd kissed you the other night after karaoke."

"I was hoping you would; I was too scared to make a move myself." He looked at Bucky and smiled wider. "But I'm glad we didn't because this is just...perfect." He kissed Bucky softly again. Everything about Steve just felt right and Bucky didn't care if he got everything else wrong in his life from this point on; this moment was his.

"Steve," Bucky said quietly when they pulled apart again. "I...you're amazing. You really are. I've never met anyone like you."

Steve started to shake his head in disagreement but Bucky just brushed his hand through Steve's hair again. "No, you are. You're so kind and honest and...I'm so scared that I'll disappoint you just like I've disappointed everyone else."

Steve's brow furrowed. "How could you ever disappoint me? You've been nothing but honest with me since the day we met. That's what I liked about you, from that first day you came to work in the office. Bucky, you're so much more than you think you are. I don't care what you did in the past; I wish you could forgive yourself because the person stood in front of me is genuine and talented and brave. Before I met you, I was sad and lost and too scared to make myself happy. But now, I feel like I could do anything. I want you, Bucky."

Bucky could feel himself start to choke up again and Steve just pulled him in, pressing his cheek to Bucky's and holding him tight. Bucky let himself sink into Steve's warmth and they stood together like that for a long time. Bucky thought he too might never feel lost again.

***

They were holding hands as they got off of the boat and Steve said goodbye to the woman on the dock who had taken their tickets; she had a big smile on her face as she watched them walk away. It was almost four-thirty - later than Bucky had thought - but he didn't want the day to end. He wasn't ready for the day to end.

Steve turned to him. "Do you want to get an early dinner? We'll be back in New York pretty late anyway so we might as well make the most of it."

Bucky nodded and smiled, unable to take his eyes off of Steve. He looked amazing; there was a new air of certainty about him now and Bucky was thrilled (and kind of terrified) that he had something to do with that.

"That sounds great," he said and pulled Steve to the side of the dock; the sky looked incredible - the sun was low on the horizon, a warm slash against the deepening blue of the water. They watched for a few moments and then Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve's neck and pressed their foreheads together. Steve held him back and let out a content sigh.

"I wish we could stay longer," Bucky said and brushed his lips against Steve's again. "I love it here."

Steve pulled back and took one of Bucky's hands, kissing it softly. "Maybe next time we could come up for a weekend."

Bucky grinned and they headed off towards the Village.

***

They found a small restaurant and ordered pasta, both hungrier than they had realized.

"It's the sea air," Steve said with a smile as he watched Bucky from across the small table.

Bucky smirked. "The sea air seems to do a lot of things. Got me brave enough to actually make a move on you."

They ate and talked and even though Bucky had no job to go back to on Monday and Steve faced uncertainty and upheaval in his own job, they finally had each other and Bucky didn't care about anything else. He would find another job somehow and he would work on his writing but knowing that Steve would be there this time made it all seem less daunting than it had been before.

They finished eating and paid the check and headed back towards the station. When they got on the train, they found two seats near the back of the carriage and huddled together; Bucky rested his head against Steve and watched as he took Bucky's hand and ran his finger gently over his palm in little swirls, the touch slightly ticklish but also relaxing and strangely intimate.

"Montauk's always been a special place for me," Steve said quietly. "Ever since I was a kid. No matter how bad I felt about myself I always felt like the person I wanted to be whenever I was there. My mom stopped going when my aunt died - there are too many memories for her there and she never quite figured out how to make them into happy ones. But I kept going back. I've never shared it with anyone until now." He closed his hand over Bucky's and they laced their finger's together.

Bucky swallowed hard. "I'm glad you thought I was worth sharing it with."

Steve shifted in his seat so that he was facing Bucky. "You have no idea what you're worth to me. You really don't."

Bucky had to look away from Steve's eyes for a moment; they were so honest and full of hope for him that he almost couldn't take it. As starved as he had been for someone to feel this way about him, to believe in him and think he was worth something, it scared him to want to take it all and use it to try and overwrite the years of damage just in case it wasn't enough. Bucky let Steve turn his head back to face him, his hand gentle on Bucky's jaw.

"I just...I just want you to know that you never have to hide who you are with me. You can be James or you can be Bucky or whoever you choose to be but...I just want you to be happy. You deserve to be happy."

Bucky blinked back more tears and chuffed out a little laugh. "God, I haven't cried this much since I was fifteen." He wiped his eyes. "You make me happy, Steve."

Steve had to wipe away a few tears of his own and they both laughed together.

***

They drew closer to New York and Bucky hadn't even realized that he'd fallen asleep until Steve was waking him, saying his name, his breath soft and sweet against his ear.

"Are we nearly back?" Bucky sat up and rubbed his neck.

"Yeah," Steve sounded a little wistful. "Can we see each other tomorrow?"

Bucky grinned. "You're going to have a hard time keeping me away. Now that I've got you, I'm not letting you go."

Steve's face broke into a huge smile. "Lunch at mine? I make a mean moussaka."

Bucky leaned across and kissed him, smiling when Steve let out a small happy sigh against Bucky's mouth. "Today was incredible, Steve. Thank you so much."

Steve rested his head on the back of the seat with a content smile. "Oh," he said and leaned forward to reach into his coat pocket. "I have something for you." He pulled out a spiralled seashell; it was a rich cream color that glinted with flecks of purple when it caught the light. Bucky held out his hand and took it.

Steve looked at the shell in Bucky's palm, an uncertain frown settling on his face. "This might sound a little silly but I'm pretty sure a Hermit Crab used this shell and left it behind when it found a better one. I guess...even though you lost your job, you don't have to worry because I know that something better will come along for you. I thought this could be a...I don't know...a symbol of that or something?" He huffed out an embarrassed breath. "This sounded so much better when it was in my head."

Bucky laughed and took Steve's hand. "No, I get it. That's so sweet; no-one's ever compared me to a Hermit Crab before."  

Steve groaned. "No, I didn't mean it to sound like - "

Bucky shut Steve up with a kiss. "I like it. And I totally get what you wanted to say with this. Thank you."

Steve smiled shyly and let out another small sigh. "I guess I'm a little out of practice with this kind of thing."

They finally arrived back in New York and got on the subway train heading back to Brooklyn. For the most part they stood close together holding hands. Every so often Bucky would feel Steve squeeze his hand gently. He squeezed back, the small reassuring gesture reminding him that this was really happening. He felt a small sense of loss as his stop approached.

"This is me," he said.

Steve leaned in and kissed Bucky again; he was so damn gentle. "See you tomorrow. I'll text you my address."

Bucky nodded. Part of him wanted more right now but he knew it was better to take it slow; they had time. There was no need to rush everything. He started to head to the door as the train slowed and Steve quickly grabbed his hand and yanked him back in for another kiss, slightly less gentle this time. Bucky giggled and pulled back, worried that he would get carried away and miss his stop. Steve grinned at him and leant against the handrail nearest the door.

Bucky stepped off onto the platform and looked back. Steve still had that big goofy smile on his face and he just held up a hand as the door closed. Bucky watched until the train was out of sight and he was alone on the platform. He opened his hand and looked at the shell Steve had given him. He clutched it tightly as he walked home.

***

"Well, I was going to ask how the big date went but it's pretty fucking obvious from that stupid look on your face," Sam said with a huge grin late the next morning. He was eating cereal and watching TV when Bucky walked into the living room.

He laughed softly and sat down next to him. "Um, yeah. It went really well."

"I'm guessing in a Steve's-now-my-hot-boyfriend kind of way."

"Yes. It went that kind of well."

Sam laughed and punched Bucky in the shoulder. "I'm happy for you, man! He seems like a great guy."

Bucky sighed and slouched back into the couch. "He really is, Sam. Part of me is still worried that I'm not good enough for him but...he makes me want to be good enough."

Sam put his bowl down on the table. "Buck, you've always been good enough. The only person who doesn't believe it is you. I've always believed it and Steve sure as hell does. Just let yourself accept that something good has come along and you can have it."

Bucky nodded. "I-I think I'm ready to let myself have this. As for jobs, I'll worry about all of that shit tomorrow. For now, I'm off to have lunch with my boyfriend."

Sam just grinned again. "Congrats, man. Say hi to Steve for me."

***

Bucky's stomach fluttered with nerves the closer he got to Steve's apartment and he chided himself for getting so worked up; they had spent all day yesterday together and had texted each other most of last night. But he knew it was because this was special; he had never felt this way about someone before. It wasn't like Steve would have suddenly changed his mind about him overnight but that side of Bucky, the side that thought he should never have anything good, was still there and would take a long time to eradicate. I deserve him, he thought to himself over and over.

He found Steve's building - an old brownstone - and headed in. Steve's apartment was on the third floor and he swallowed hard and knocked on the front door. When Steve answered, any trepidation he had been feeling melted away. Steve looked like he hadn't seen Bucky for a week and ushered him in. As soon as the front door was closed, Steve's arms were around him, strong and warm and he kissed Bucky like he'd been thinking of nothing else since they had parted ways at the station last night. Bucky was more than happy with that and kissed him back eagerly; Steve's lips were softer and less chapped than they had been yesterday and he tasted like blueberries and Bucky thought that he could do this forever. They finally stopped, both flushed and smiling.

"Hi," Steve said, slightly out of breath.

Bucky laughed. "Hi yourself."

"I didn't think I could miss someone so much in just over twelve hours."

"Yeah, me too." Bucky had been so distracted that he hadn't noticed the amazing aroma in the apartment. "Wow, that smells great."

Steve grinned. "I may be lacking in the self-confidence department but I can happily admit that I'm a really good cook." He stepped back and took Bucky's hand. "Come on, I'll give you the grand tour of all three rooms and then we'll eat."

Steve's apartment was small and neat; he had lots of pictures in the living room of sea-life on the walls, gorgeous canvas prints and framed photos of whales, close-ups of tide-pools and, to Bucky's amusement, a Hermit Crab in mid-scuttle. There was a framed picture of Steve and a small slender woman, arms around each other, both laughing at the camera. His mom, Bucky guessed.

Bucky looked at another photo of a whale breaching the surface; it was a gorgeous professional picture, almost every drop of water surrounding the whale defined and glistening. He recognised the markings on the fins. "Wow, who took this? It's Paikea, right?"

Steve nodded. "I took it."

"Holy shit, you're a photographer too? You've been holding out on me, Rogers."

Steve laughed. "That was a lucky shot. I have a digital SLR but I don't use it that often. That's probably the best picture I've ever managed to take."

"So modest," Bucky said as Steve led him down the hall, dodging as Steve swatted at him.

"Um, this is my room." Steve suddenly looked awkward.

Bucky peered in at the impeccably made bed, the books piled on both nightstands. "Nice," he said with a little grin and flicked Steve a sly wink.

Steve immediately blushed and Bucky laughed, taking his hand again. "Let's see how good a cook you are. Feed me."

Steve chuckled and they headed back to the living room; Steve insisted that Bucky go and sit on the couch while he got everything ready. Bucky watched him as he bustled in the small kitchen, eventually joining him with two plates of moussaka and a couple of sodas.

Steve looked on a little anxiously as Bucky took a mouthful. "Okay," he said when he swallowed. "This is amazing. I'll let you cook for me forever."

Steve laughed and they ate in silence, comfortable together, their legs touching. When they were finished, Steve put the dishes in the dishwasher and then joined Bucky back on the couch, sitting close to him and gently ran his fingers across Bucky's shoulder and up his neck, then back again.

"It's going to be weird not seeing you at work tomorrow."

Bucky hummed in agreement. "How do you feel? You're going to be on a completely different floor away from everyone."

Steve sighed. "I don't have a choice. But I'll be okay. How about you?"

Bucky shrugged and rested his head on Steve's shoulder. "I guess I'll call my agency. Hopefully something will come up."

Steve kissed the top of Bucky's head. "Just let me know if I can do anything to help."

"You're already helping." He took Steve's hand and clasped it, thinking about the seashell in his jacket pocket.

"So, do you want to watch a movie or something?" Steve asked.

Bucky pretended to think. "Nope."

"We could go out?"

"Nah," Bucky said and faced Steve, moving in to kiss him softly on his neck. God, he smelled so good.

Steve chuckled. "Um, we could stay right here and make out on my couch?"

Bucky nodded as he gently nipped Steve's skin. "I like that plan."

Steve made a small pleased noise and then said, "Wait a sec..." Bucky pulled away, worried that he'd done something wrong.

"What?"

Steve grinned. "You said you'd take me somewhere on a plane for our next date."

Bucky huffed out a relieved breath and punched Steve lightly on the arm. "We might have to reschedule that one."

Steve pulled Bucky into another infuriatingly gentle kiss. "I can wait. I'd much rather be doing this right now."

***

They spent the better part of the day on Steve's couch, kissing and getting to know each other by touch; it had been almost a year for Bucky now since he had been with anyone and he wanted to take things slow and he got the feeling that Steve did too. The kissing was good though, very good and they ran fingers through hair and discovered ticklish spots; Steve's was his sides and he squirmed and yelped out a surprised laugh when Bucky ran his hands softly over his ribs. Bucky's was his lower back and he shrieked at Steve to stop when he pinned Bucky to him with one big arm and strummed his fingertips like spiders under Bucky's shirt, laughing wickedly the whole time, the little (big) shit. They held each other close and Bucky saw the light smattering of freckles across Steve's nose and cheeks that he'd never noticed before, how long his eyelashes were.

"You have the most amazing eyes," Steve said as he traced a finger across Bucky's eyebrow and down the side of his face.

Bucky was feeling almost drunk from kissing Steve for so long and how warm he was, his heat enveloping Bucky like a blanket. "Your eyes are amazing too," he mumbled, as Steve ran his fingers gently across his neck. "They look like the sea." He winced at how dumb that sounded, the words out before he could think better of them but Steve just smiled like Bucky had read him the world's most romantic poem.

They finished off the rest of the moussaka for dinner and then kissed some more, so wrapped up in each other they didn't notice the time getting later and later. Bucky had his head buried in the crook of Steve's neck, both of them all kissed out and sleepy, pressed against each other on the couch. He reached over to the coffee table to look at his phone.

"Shit," he muttered, not wanting to move. "It's ten-thirty. How the fuck did it get so late?"

Steve's arms tightened around him. "Don't want you to leave."

Bucky huffed out a groan of agreement and raised his head, propping himself up on Steve's chest. "I don't want to either but we're grown-ups and we have work and stupid responsibilities and shit to get back to tomorrow."

Steve laughed softly. "Being a grown-up sucks." He hesitated and then looked up at Bucky, slightly nervous. "Um, you could stay over if you wanted. I mean, not to, y' know...just to...sleep..."

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "Well, I am really tired...would I have to sleep out here?"

Steve somehow managed to blush, even though they'd spent the better part of the day fumbling with each other. "We're grown-ups; I think we can sleep in the same bed."

Bucky scrambled up and dragged Steve with him. "Okay, bedtime."

Steve laughed and turned off the living room light and they headed down the hall to Steve's room. He rooted around in a drawer to find Bucky something to wear while Bucky looked at the stacks of books on Steve's nightstand. Nearly all of them were about the sea or sea-life. He looked up on the wall and there was a framed photo of Steve on a boat with four other guys, all of them holding the biggest fish Bucky had ever seen, laughing together. It must have been from when Steve worked on the fishing trawler in Montauk. He looked slightly younger and happy, truly happy. There was that light in his eyes that Bucky had seen yesterday and something twinged inside of him as he looked at the picture. Why was Steve here when he was obviously happiest out on the ocean doing what he loved? Bucky wanted to ask him but he was afraid of the answer; afraid that he wouldn't be enough to keep Steve here if he asked. He turned away from the picture quickly.

Steve handed him a black t-shirt and a pair of flannel pyjama bottoms. "I'll get you a spare toothbrush. I'll probably have to leave at around seven forty-five in the morning but don't feel like you have to rush off."

Bucky put the clothes on the bed and held Steve again. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that the last couple of days have been two of the best of my life."

Steve let out a small shuddery breath. "Mine too. I...I like you a lot, Bucky."

"I like you a lot, too." Bucky kissed Steve on the tip of his nose and Steve smiled.

"I'll get you that toothbrush."

When they finally crawled into bed, shuffling close together, Bucky could already feel himself drifting to sleep, the heat from Steve's body making him drowsy again. He nuzzled into Steve's chest.

"You're so warm," he mumbled.

He felt a rumble as Steve gave a sleepy chuckle and curled an arm around Bucky's waist. "I could get used to this."

Bucky nodded against him and was feeling the pull of unconsciousness when Steve stirred slightly.

"Buck?"

"Hmmm?"

"It's...it's been a while since I've been with anyone. Intimately, I mean."

Bucky raised his head, unable to see him in the dark. "That doesn't matter. It's been a while for me too. We can take this as slow as you want."

He could feel Steve relax against him. "Thank you."

Bucky nestled into him again. "I want to get this right. You're special, Steve."

Steve didn't say anything but his hold on Bucky tightened slightly. Bucky fell asleep feeling wanted and safe and...happy.

***

When Bucky blinked awake the next morning, Steve's side of the bed was empty. Bucky couldn't help but feel disappointed; he must have already left for work. He wished that Steve had woken him up. He rolled onto his back and was deciding what he should do today when he heard footsteps in the hall. Steve appeared in the doorway, still in his t-shirt and flannel pants with two cups of coffee. His face lit up when he saw that Bucky was awake.

"Good morning." He put the two cups down on his dresser and crawled back into bed. He kissed Bucky on the cheek.

"What time is it?" Bucky asked him.

"Nine forty-five."

Bucky frowned. "Aren't you super late for work?"

Steve was trying to hold back a smile. "I may have called in sick..."

Bucky laughed and rolled over, sliding his hand around Steve's back. "Not that I'm complaining because I think I want to wake up to you as often as I can but we're going to have to get back into real life at some point."

Steve sighed and snuggled closer. "I know. I'm just...should a grown man really be scared about starting a job in a different department?"

Bucky chuckled softly and stroked Steve's cheek. "It's okay to be scared. I know how things like this are for you."

"Are you scared? About looking for a new job?"

"Not as much as I would have been three months ago."

"How come?" Steve asked, running his hand lazily up and down Bucky's side.

Bucky stilled his hand on Steve's neck. "Because I have you now."

Steve immediately surged into Bucky for a kiss; they were both a little sour in the breath department but Bucky didn't care. He made a noise of disapproval into Steve's mouth when his phone started to ring.

"You don't have to answer it," Steve breathed between kisses.

Bucky sighed and reached across to the nightstand for it. "I should; it might be my agency." He giggled and shoved Steve away when he tried to chase Bucky's mouth with his own. He didn't recognise the number that flashed on his phone's screen.

"Hello?" Bucky said, grinning as Steve rested his head on Bucky's stomach and gazed up at him with huge puppy dog eyes and a pout.

"Hello James, it's Natasha."

Bucky raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Oh, hi Natasha." Steve cocked his head, curious.

"I'm sorry to call you out of the blue like this but I've just heard that Shield Securities have an opening they're looking to fill. Data entry, much like what you were doing here at Stark Industries. If you're interested, they can see you tomorrow morning for an interview. I hope you don't mind but I put your name forward with a personal recommendation."

Bucky quirked a smile at Steve. "Wow, yes. That would be...fantastic. Thank you." A job interview! He felt that immense sense of gratitude towards Natasha again. She was still giving him chances.

Steve smiled, picking up on the good news and climbed off of the bed. As he made his way to grab the two cups of coffee he had carried in earlier, he stubbed his toe on the corner of his dresser and let out a groan of pain. Bucky tried not to laugh as Steve made a face and clutched at his foot.

"Great," Natasha said. "They can see you at eleven. The interview is with Nick Fury. Give his name at the front desk."

"Thank you, Natasha. You...you didn't have to do this." He knew that she had maybe pulled some strings for him.

"I didn't do anything. They have a position, you need a job."

"Of course. Thanks for letting me know." He grinned again.

"You're welcome." She paused for a beat. "Tell Steve I hope he feels better soon." He could hear the smirk in her voice. Then she hung up.

Bucky fell back onto the pillow and laughed as Steve looked at him expectantly. "Natasha said she hopes you feel better soon. Oh, and I have a job interview tomorrow morning."

Steve jumped back on the bed, almost crushing Bucky beneath him. "You have an interview?" He looked ecstatic before he registered the other thing Bucky had said and his face turned from happy to horrified. "She heard me?"

Bucky giggled and wrestled Steve beneath him. "Shield Securities tomorrow morning for a data entry position and yeah, she probably guessed why you called in sick."

Steve let out a moan of embarrassment and wrapped his arms around Bucky. "Great, everyone in the old office will know in the next five minutes that we're a thing now; I think even Natasha won't be able to keep that one quiet. They can all still hound me with emails..."

"They'll only do it because they like you. Anyway, come on and congratulate me some more on my job interview." Bucky bit his lip.

Steve grinned up at him and pulled Bucky down until their mouths were barely touching. "Congratulations," he said softly and brushed their lips together.

With nothing to do for the rest of the day, they stayed in bed for a while kissing and talking and Bucky felt a weight lift from him. While he wasn't getting his hopes up, he had a feeling that the job was his; Natasha had definitely talked someone into something. When they finally crawled out of bed, Steve made them both strawberry pancakes and they watched Blue Planet. Bucky stretched out against Steve on the couch and Steve ran his finger in spirals again and again over Bucky's palm.

Steve nudged him when a Hermit Crab appeared on screen. "That's you."

Bucky poked Steve in the side but he smiled. There were worse things in life to be than a Hermit Crab.

***

DARCY: Soooooooooo, you and Steve are FINALLY an item! Took you long enough, Bucky Bear!

BUCKY: Don't call me that

DARCY: You love it. Anyway, you and Steve...

BUCKY: Yes, we're an item :)

DARCY: I'm happy for the two of you. Seriously

BUCKY: Thanks Darcy

DARCY: Speaking of couples, tell Steve that Natasha and Clint have a little thing of their own going on too even though they think that no-one knows about it

BUCKY: You live for this shit don't you?

***

Bucky got the job at Shield Securities; it was pretty much the same thing he had been doing at Stark Industries - processing invoices - but the people were nice and it was a secure position. He was relieved that he finally had a stable job and he was working harder on his writing now, showing Steve everything he produced. He was a great critic - he didn't hold back or pander to Bucky's ego but he was positive and encouraging and Bucky's confidence in his writing grew day by day. Steve himself was doing okay in his new job; he didn't love it but he complained very little, enjoying his time with Bucky almost every other waking moment. They hung out a lot with Sam, played raquetball with the others and Steve even started to come to Logan's on a Friday. Pete and Brock got him hammered on Tequila shots one night and Bucky cursed them for a week - carrying home a 6'2'' guy who weighed nearly 240 pounds had been one of the least fun things he'd ever had to do, especially when Steve had puked over his feet on the subway. Steve had apologised to him every day after that but Bucky couldn't stay mad; one look into Steve's soulful blue eyes had him laughing about the whole thing and he promised Steve that he wouldn't let him drink Tequila ever again.

Being with Steve was like nothing else; he was the kindest, most genuine person Bucky had ever known. They kept things slow, both still finding their feet but Bucky was certain that Steve was it for him. He didn't tell Steve that, he was too scared, but he knew. It was nearly two and a half months into their relationship before they slept together; they were in Montauk for a weekend, both happy and excited to be away from the city and together somewhere as a couple. It had become a special place for Bucky too: It was the place where he had first seen a whale and the place where he and Steve had admitted their feelings for each other. They spent the day at the Point and walked to the lighthouse and Bucky laughed at the stories Steve told him from the summers he had spent up here. He wished he had known Steve when he was younger; maybe his own life wouldn't have taken such a wrong turn if he had met the skinny shy boy Steve used to be. Maybe they both would have lived different lives had they grown up together.

They stumbled back to the hotel, tired but happy, intending to rest for a little while then go out and get dinner. Bucky flopped on the bed and went to turn on the TV but Steve dropped down next to him, almost bouncing Bucky onto the floor in the process and they laughed and started to fool around. But then their kissing became more frantic, their hands everywhere, suddenly unable to touch each other enough, needing more. Bucky wrestled Steve out of his shirt and Steve all but ripped Bucky out of his, both of them gasping into each other's mouths. Bucky pulled back slightly and smiled at Steve, taking in how beautiful he looked in this moment, flushed and bright eyed. Steve smiled back and kissed Bucky softly, his hands sliding down Bucky's chest to the waistband of his jeans.

Afterwards, as they lay pressed together with Steve's head buried in Bucky's neck, still breathing heavily, Bucky wanted more than anything to tell Steve that he loved him. He knew that he loved him, he had known for a while now but he was still too scared to say the words; the fear that he could still somehow screw this all up hadn't been eradicated. Instead, he kissed the top of Steve's head, brushing a hand through his damp blond hair.

"There's that sea air again," he mumbled, exhausted.

He felt the comforting rumble of Steve's laughter against him and for now, that was enough.

***

As good as things had been, Bucky wasn't surprised when disillusionment started to slip through again.

He let out a sigh as he got off of the subway and started to walk home. It hadn't been a great couple of weeks. His job at Shield Securities had settled into a mundane routine that wasn't the same as it had been at Stark Industries; Steve wasn't there for a start and although the people were nice, Bucky had no real friends in the office. While his writing was gaining momentum, the workload at Shield was so demanding that he was too beat to do anything when he got home and he just wanted to spend time with Steve. It had been four months since they had started their relationship and things were good between them, really good, but Bucky knew that Steve wasn't happy in his job either. Moving departments hadn't been good for him - there were fewer people where he was now and he was completely isolated at his workstation; he practically shut himself off whenever he was at work and barely spoke to anybody. He tried to hide how down it was making him but Bucky knew him well enough by now and he hated seeing Steve take such a step backwards with his confidence but he didn't know what to do about it; they were both in a rut at the moment.

His relationship with his family was still fractured; he hadn't thought that all the areas of his life were suddenly going to be perfect and amazing but he had wanted to try harder with his parents. Offers of meeting for dinner were met with excuse after excuse until he stopped bothering, trying not to let Steve see just how much it hurt him and how embarrassed he was that his own parents couldn't even make the effort to meet his boyfriend. Steve's mom was incredible; she took to Bucky instantly and having dinner with her for the first time, the three of them laughing and chatting animatedly over the best lasagne Bucky had ever tasted, had almost been a little too much for him. It had made him realize what he would never have with his own parents. Steve had squeezed his hand reassuringly under the table when his mom had gone to grab dessert and Bucky had looked at him wistfully; he understood.

"Your mom is amazing," he had said on the way back to Steve's.

Steve had put an arm across Bucky's shoulder and pulled him close. "She really likes you."

"I'm sorry that my parents don't want to meet you," Bucky had said quietly.

Steve had kissed him on the temple. "Don't be sorry."

The worst news had come last night: Sam was moving to Washington.

"It's a great job," Sam told him. "The kind I've been working towards since I graduated."

Bucky had smiled and hugged him, hiding the hurt as best he could. He didn't want to lose Sam. "Dude, that's awesome. I'll...I'll miss you a lot."

Sam had smiled sadly. "Same here, Buck." He took a breath and put his hands on his hips. "I won't be able to keep this house."

Bucky had known this was coming too. He nodded. "I'll figure something out."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Bucky had said with a smile. "If this had happened about eight months ago, I probably would have had a total meltdown. I'm in a better place now. You've had a lot to do with that." He had rummaged through the papers next to his laptop on the dining table and pulled out a sheet of yellow legal paper. "Remember when you made me write that stupid list about what I wanted to get out of my life? I made a new one just after I lost my job at Stark Industries."

Sam had smiled as he read the new list. "Have A Relationship With Steve Rogers, Write A Novel, Get Published, Be Happy With Who I Am." He looked up at Bucky then. "Well, I know that you've made one of these happen so far..."

"Maybe two," Bucky had shrugged. "Still working on the others."

"And you'll make them happen one day. It was only ever you holding you back."

Bucky had nodded and looked down at the carpet, blinking away tears. "I'll miss you, Sam."

They had hugged tightly again. "Next time I see you it had better be at a book signing. Anyway, I've got a couple of weeks left yet."

That had hit Bucky harder than he thought it would, knowing that Sam would be leaving. He shoved his hand into his jacket pocket and clutched the seashell Steve had given him tightly as he walked. Things had changed for him in a lot of good ways these last few months but now...now things seemed to be on the downturn again. He was more worried about Steve than anything; he had seemed so miserable the last few weeks with his career, or lack there-of, he'd joked bitterly the other evening. Bucky didn't know what to do about it; he hated that Steve was so unhappy. He walked a little faster, eager to get home and think and try to get some writing done. Sam was working late tonight and he could just zone out at his laptop.

He saw Steve sitting on the front steps of Sam's house as he approached and he couldn't help but feel slightly panicked; they weren't meeting up tonight and Steve would have called to say if he was coming over. He was looking down at his hands and picking at the quicks of his fingers, the way he did when he was particularly anxious.

"Hey," Bucky called out, trying to sound cheery.

Steve looked up and smiled, but there was something about it that made Bucky nervous. "Hey Buck."

They kissed and Bucky ushered Steve up the front steps. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" His hand was shaking slightly as he unlocked the front door.

Steve was quiet until they were inside. He leaned against the living room door, watching as Bucky took off his jacket and loosened his tie. "I need to talk to you about something."

Bucky suddenly couldn't breathe. Was Steve about to break up with him? He managed to force out an "Oh?"

"I got a call this morning from Abe, my old boss."

Bucky started to tidy the couch cushions, anything to keep his hands busy. "From when you worked on the fishing trawler?" Steve had told him a lot about Abe. His chest was feeling tighter and tighter.

Steve nodded. "One of his guys is getting married and moving to Chicago. He...he offered me a spot on the crew. In Montauk."

Bucky stopped and turned, facing Steve. His face fell. "Oh."

Steve was watching him closely, his eyes full of concern. "Bucky?"

Bucky sat down heavily, unable to believe that this was actually happening. Steve wanted to accept the job offer, he could tell. He thought of the photo in Steve's room and how happy he looked on the boat, at how unhappy he was now and he knew he had to let him go; it would be selfish of him not to. He wanted more than anything to say no, to tell Steve that he wanted him to stay here but he couldn't do that to him. Steve had a chance to be happy. "You should take it."

"Buck, I - "

Bucky clasped his hands tightly. "I don't want to be the reason that you're unhappy by making you stay here. I know how much you love Montauk and how good this job would be for you. I don't want to hold you back." God, he never thought anything could hurt so badly.

Steve's brow knitted with worry. "Buck, what are you talking about? You're not holding me back. You could never hold me back. This isn't...shit, I've screwed this up."

He strode across the living room and sat down next to Bucky, grabbing his hand and holding it tightly. "Buck, look at me. I want to take the job. But I want you more. I would never say yes to something as big as this if it meant there was a chance that you wouldn't be part of it. I...I love you."

Bucky met Steve's eyes and he was so fucking happy and relieved and...Steve loved him. "I love you too, Steve."

Steve's face broke into a huge smile. "I was hoping you'd say that."

"I've been wanting to say it for a while."

"Me too," Steve said and his smile wavered. "I want the job. I really do. I've...I've been thinking about this all day." He took a breath and looked up at Bucky, his eyes full of trepidation and hope. "Would you consider moving to Montauk with me? If I took the job?"

Bucky could only gawp at him for a moment. This isn't what he had been expecting at all. "Move to Montauk with you?"

Steve nodded, not taking his eyes off of Bucky's. "Abe has a small apartment that we could rent really cheap; he's kind of insisting on that if I said yes. You could write full-time for a few months maybe and see what happens. The pay on the trawler is pretty good, not amazing, but I have savings and I...I think we could make it work. I know we've only been seeing each other for just over four months, but..." He looked down. "I don't want to pressure you; if you say no, I'll turn down the job because there's no competition - I'll choose you every time. I just wanted to see what you thought about..." He trailed off and glanced up at Bucky again.

Bucky stood up and hurried over to where he'd put his jacket, fumbling in the pocket for his seashell. He found it and went to sit back next to Steve who was watching him, his face a jumble of anticipation and confusion. Bucky held the shell in his palm.

"When you gave this to me, you told me that I wouldn't have to worry about what would happen with my job because something better would come along for me. Something better did come along but it wasn't my job: It was you. You're the something better in my life, Steve. I don't want you to have to choose me over this job because I'll happily follow you there. I'll follow you anywhere."

Steve looked as though Bucky had just offered to live on the bottom of the ocean with him. "You'd really come with me?"

Bucky smiled and slid his arms around Steve's neck. "I want to live in Montauk with you."

Steve laughed and kissed Bucky hard. "We're really going to do this?"

"New York isn't going anywhere; if it doesn't work out we can always come back. I think...I think I want to try the writing thing. I have savings too and fuck it - we should both take a shot at doing what makes us happy, right? So let's do it." Bucky grinned.

He had to apologise to Sam the next day for the mess of clothes on the living room floor and the noise from his room that had carried on for most of the night but he figured he had a good enough reason for it.

***

Epilogue - 18 Months Later

Bucky sat on the dock and lit a cigarette; it was a bad habit that he'd picked up since moving out here but whenever Steve was out at sea for more than a week, he got anxious and smoking had become his only way to relax. Steve hated him doing it but he knew it was because Bucky worried about him; it could get dangerous out on the water and as glad as Bucky was that Steve was happy and finally doing what he loved, he still worried. He only lit up when Steve was away though. He squinted out across the sea; he could see the Erskine making it's way in and smiled to himself. He picked his notebook back up and started to write again, the seashell Steve had given him all that time ago still in his pocket.

Moving out here had been the best decision they'd ever made. The apartment they rented from Abe was a tiny one bed garage conversion but it was enough for them; Bucky had a space in the living room where he worked and they spent a lot of time out of the apartment when Steve wasn't working - jogging together on the beach, hiking and whale watching. Bucky still couldn't get over the transformation in Steve since they had left New York; he was a new man. He was confident and happy. And Bucky was happy too. The happiest he'd ever been in his life.

He had just finished the manuscript for his first book. It had been hard, really hard but he'd worked his ass off and now Faded Copy was a novel. Getting an agent interested and actually trying to see if he could get it published was another matter entirely but he had done it. He had a book. Whatever happened next, he had proved to himself that he could do it. It had taken three drafts and a lot of meltdowns but Steve had been there the whole time, pushing him through it, reading every new word Bucky had written and telling him exactly what he thought about it, even if it wasn't what Bucky had wanted to hear. He couldn't have done it without Steve. He knew that for a fact.

The novel hadn't been the only thing that Bucky had been working on; he wrote for several literary blogs that paid (not a lot but that wasn't the point) and people seemed to genuinely enjoy his views and writing style. He had written a piece on Haruki Murakami that still got hits and positive reviews which had been a huge boost for him.

The best thing that had happened though was getting one of his short stories published in a quarterly fiction journal; Steve had been away when Bucky had got the email telling him they wanted to print his story and the cigarette he'd been smoking had fallen from his mouth and almost set the carpet on fire. Steve had insisted they leave the burn mark as a reminder of Bucky's first published work. He had smacked Bucky upside the head for almost burning the damn place down though and he was forbidden from smoking in the apartment.

His family had been nonplussed about the move, resigned to the fact that he would never stick out a "real job" and was now, as his mother had wailed at him down the phone when he had told her, "shacked up with some fisherman." Given that they had never bothered to meet Steve when they lived in New York, Bucky could only imagine what kind of mental image they had of his situation. He didn't care though; he was in love and he felt like he was finally where he belonged.

Steve's mom came to visit them often; the first time she had come to Montauk had been hard for her and it hadn't been a great weekend. Steve said it had been over twelve years since his aunt had died and his mom had even set foot here and it had all been too much for her. But she loved her son and gradually, with each new visit, the pain had lessened and they had even walked to his aunts old place, now a bed and breakfast run by a family. Steve's mom - Sarah, she insisted - loved Bucky and treated him like he was family.

"You're the best thing that's ever happened to him," she had told him one day on the beach. Steve had run off to get them all a drink and Sarah and Bucky had walked slowly along the shore, arm in arm. "I haven't seen him like this since we used to come here every summer."

Bucky had looked down at the sea skimming over his bare feet. "He's always loved it here."

Sarah had squeezed his arm tightly. "Believe me, it's not the place. It's you, Bucky."

He quickly stubbed out his cigarette and threw two pieces of gum into his mouth. Steve would know he had been smoking, Bucky didn't hide it, but he didn't want to taste like an ashtray. His heart fluttered the way it always did when Steve's boat approached land and he watched with eagerness as the Erskine came into dock. Abe waved at Bucky from the stern and cocked a thumb behind him to indicate that Steve was probably just checking the lines and would be off soon. Bucky just smiled and nodded back. Abe was great; they couldn't have even done this without his kindness but he'd always liked Steve and had apparently been bugging him for a few years to come back and work for him. Much like Bucky, Steve had been the only one holding himself back.

Gabe saw Bucky and shouted hello then turned to yell behind him. "Yo, Steve! Your boy's here waiting for you!"

Bucky smiled as Steve appeared and gave him a huge grin. "I'll just be a sec."

He sat and waited and they finally all finished up. Gabe and Jim said hi to him as they headed to the diner and Jaques, Tim and Monty catcalled him from the nets, laughing as he gave them a finger each. Steve appeared on the gangplank with his duffel bag over one shoulder and headed along the dock towards him, a big smile on his face. He looked the way he always did after a long trip, with a week-old beard and looking tired as hell but content. This lifestyle suited him and Bucky found it hard now to match this Steve with the Steve from New York. His hair was even blonder these days, bleached from the sun. Bucky wasn't going to lie: Steve looked fucking hot as a fisherman.

"Hey sailor," Bucky said and grinned as Steve laughed and pulled him into a scratchy kiss.

"God, I missed you," Steve said and held Bucky tight.

Bucky nuzzled into Steve's shoulder. "Missed you too. Whoa, you smell funky."

"Yeah well, I've been on a boat for a week with six guys and a broken shower. And fish. A fuck-ton of fish."

Bucky laughed as Steve threw an arm across his shoulder and they headed off down the dock, waving good-bye to Abe.

Steve let out a relieved sigh. "Oh man, that was a hard haul. I'm so glad I have two weeks off. I feel like I could sleep for most of it."

Bucky made a disapproving noise. "Hey, I've got a long list of things I want to do to you; don't plan on getting too much sleep."

Steve sniggered and threw him a look. "Yeah, now that you mention it, being out at sea for so long sure gets a boy all hot and bothered. There's only so much I can do to myself."

Bucky couldn't help but laugh; Steve had definitely gotten a lot dirtier since moving out here. Not that he was complaining.

"How's the book?" Steve asked.

"Well, I think it's finished."

Steve looked at him, his eyes bright and excited. "For real? Last draft?"

Bucky grinned. "It's printing off as we speak. Will you read it later?"

Steve kissed him on the temple, something he did a lot that Bucky loved. "Of course I will. I'm so proud of you."

"Well, whether anyone will want to actually publish the fucking thing is another matter."

Steve stopped and put his hands on Bucky's shoulders. "Buck, you've written a book. You came here to try and make a go at writing and you're doing it. I've watched how hard you've worked. Don't take that away from yourself."

Bucky didn't think he could possibly love this guy any more but somehow he always managed to find a little bit more room inside himself. He kissed Steve softly. "I love you so much. You know that right?"

Steve smiled. "Of course I know it. I love you too, Hermit Crab." He giggled and ducked to the side when Bucky punched him on the shoulder.

"You need a shave," Bucky said, rubbing Steve's face with one hand when they started walking again.

"You need a haircut." Bucky's hair had grown out since moving here and was constantly annoying him, flopping into his eyes every two seconds when he tried to work but he knew Steve loved it like this despite his teasing and Bucky didn't rush to cut it.

They reached Bucky's crappy Toyota and he popped the trunk to let Steve throw his bag in.

"Oh, Sam says hi. We Skyped yesterday."

Steve smiled. "Awesome. How is he?"

"Really good. The job's going great. I think he misses seeing me sat on his couch in my skivvies, though."

Steve laughed and closed the trunk. They still spoke to the others; Pete and Brock had come up to visit one weekend which had been fun and Bucky had somehow become good friends with Darcy, the two of them calling each other at least once a week and texting insults the rest of the time. She was one of the only other people Bucky had shown his writing to and he had been surprised at how helpful and honest she was in her feedback. He liked her a lot and she still worked at Stark Industries, keeping him and Steve up to date with all the office gossip. Bucky didn't want to admit it but he was totally into all the drama now.

"I've got a couple of bass for dinner," Steve said as they got in the car. Steve was always bringing something back for them and Bucky was now able to gut and clean a fish in record time, even though the first time Steve had shown him how he had almost puked in his own mouth.

"Cool," Bucky started the engine and they headed off back to their apartment. It was early afternoon and the day was clear and warm. Steve chuckled at the 80s mix CD that played as they drove. Bucky grinned and cranked up the volume when Rain In The Summertime by The Alarm came on, singing to Steve loudly. Steve laughed but joined in with Bucky on the chorus. These were the moments that Bucky lived for now.

***

When they got home, the printer was still churning out pages and Bucky sat down at his desk to check his emails.

Steve took his boots off and left them outside. "I'm going to have a shave and a shower," he said and kissed Bucky on top of the head as he walked through the living room to the small hallway that led to their bedroom and bathroom.

Bucky pulled up the list of agents and publishers he had been collating for the last few months, the ones more likely to accept unsolicited manuscripts and submissions from unknown authors at the top and chewed on his thumbnail. He didn't notice Steve standing naked in the doorway until he cleared his throat loudly. He was clean shaven and had that look on his face which meant that Bucky could expect to not get anything done for the next few hours.

"When I said I was going to have a shower, that was a very subtle hint for you to get naked and come and join me."

Bucky didn't need telling twice and stood up. "Aye aye, Captain."

They showered, kissing lazily under the warm spray and eventually moved to the bedroom where they stayed for the next couple of hours, taking each other apart.

It was late afternoon when they finally stopped; Steve had his head in Bucky's lap with his eyes closed as Bucky gently raked his fingers through his hair.

"Are you glad that we did this?" Bucky asked him quietly.

Steve opened his eyes and looked up at him. "Moved here? Yeah, I am. Why? Aren't you?"

Bucky gazed down at him. "I think it was the best thing both of us ever decided to do. I'm...I'm really happy. I guess I just get...scared every once in a while, that's all. That I'm not enough for you."

Steve frowned and sat up, taking Bucky's face in his hands. "Don't ever think that. Buck, I would rather be anywhere else with you than here without you. Remember that."

Bucky nodded. As happy as he was, he still had moments of self-doubt and needed reassuring. He leaned in and kissed Steve, reminding himself that he was allowed to be happy, that they both deserved it.

Steve stretched. "How about you make us dinner and I'll start reading your book?"

Bucky nodded and smiled. "Okay."

They threw on some clothes and Bucky gathered up the huge wad of pages from the printer. It looked like so much as he held it in his hands. Steve smiled and thumbed through the pages when Bucky handed them to him.

"Wow. I kind of forget this is how it all looks when it's not on the computer."

Bucky kissed him on the cheek and headed over to the small kitchen. "Less talking, more reading."

He cooked them the sea bass Steve had bought home and didn't say another word as Steve made his way through the manuscript, reading long after it had gotten dark. He disappeared into the bedroom with it at one point and Bucky headed outside and sat on the steps leading down to the garage, smoking anxiously, breaking his own rule about only doing it when Steve was away, and looked up at the night sky. He rolled his pack of cigarettes around in his hand and decided that it was time to quit. He'd talk to Steve about it tomorrow.

It was two in the morning when Steve finally emerged from the bedroom, the book in his hands. Bucky had been playing Katamari Forever and dropped the PS3 controller as soon as he saw him. Steve didn't say a word but stepped over to Bucky's laptop and flipped it open.

"What are you doing?" Bucky asked.

Steve ushered him over and sat Bucky down in his chair. "You're going to send this to an agent right now."

"Steve, it's the middle of the night. I have a whole list of agents and publishers that I need to send it to - "

Steve just hushed him. "Buck, this book is amazing. You've worked so hard and while I know it could take a while before anything happens with it - "

"If anything happens at all..." Bucky cut in.

"When anything happens with it," Steve corrected him, "but I believe that this is what will change everything for you." He kissed Bucky softly on the mouth and Bucky suddenly believed it. Because Steve believed it.

"Just...send it to one agent right now," Steve said again with a pleading little smile. "For me."

Bucky finally laughed and pulled up the covering letter he had spent a day agonising over. "Alright, alright. I'll do it for you. Because you're so cute. And hot."

Steve rested his head on Bucky's shoulder and watched as he attached the first few chapters of the book to the email. He hesitated.

"You do it," he said to Steve. He fumbled around in his jeans pocket until he found his seashell, holding it tightly.

Steve leaned in and kissed Bucky softly again. "Here we go," he said with a smile and hit send.