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Casual Encounters

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“Ooh, ‘huge rods only’!”

As far as sentences that Bucky expects to hear Natasha saying when he walks into her house, that ranks pretty low. He’s barely halfway through the door and he already can’t seem to close his mouth.

Natasha is on the couch between Sam and Steve, her face lit by the glow from her laptop. She’s got a glass of wine in one hand and she’s grinning as she scrolls through whatever she’s reading. Judging from Sam’s expression and the way Steve is curled in on himself so he’s even smaller than usual, Bucky really doesn’t want to know.

“Bucky,” Steve says, looking up at him. “Thank fuck.”

Bucky realizes, while staring at this strange little tableau of his friends and whatever huge rods they’re reading about, that he has not yet closed his mouth. Jesus. Every week, these Wednesday night get-togethers get weirder. “Hi?”

“You need a beer,” Steve says, and no one has ever been in such a rush to provide hospitality. He starts to leap up off the couch, but Natasha’s arm snaps out and holds him in place. She doesn’t spill a drop of wine.

“Hey, this one wants to suck off a stranger in the kitchen—described as ‘cinnamon and cum-scented,’ very poetic,” Natasha says. “That’s ‘come’ spelled c-u-m, by the way. I think Steve should go for this one. Sounds like a real catch, don’t you think, Sam?”

“I want no part of this,” Sam says. “Why’d you have to go and ruin cinnamon like that, Nat?”

“Frankly, I’m afraid to ask,” Bucky says. He takes the opportunity to shrug out of his coat and fold it over the back of a chair. It’s a testament to how engaged Natasha is in her reading that she doesn’t tease him about the grey wool peacoat even a little bit. Between her and Sam, there’s usually at least one “look at this male-model motherfucker” comment. But Natasha dresses like a sullen teenager when she’s not at her mysterious job, and Sam has a closet full of dad jeans, so they can’t be expected to recognize style when they see it. So what if Bucky owns a closet full of tailored outerwear? Fall and winter are a relief. He can wear long sleeves and fewer people stare at his arm.

“Natasha’s trying to set Steve up,” Sam offers. He looks glad to have an excuse to look at Bucky’s face instead of the laptop screen. “You know, Craigslist ‘casual encounters’ type of thing.”

“So she’s given up on the dating front and skipped right to the creepy shit, huh?” Natasha has been trying to set Steve up on dates for as long as Bucky can remember. For awhile, it was sort of a hobby of Bucky’s, too, but he’d given up after the eleventh disastrous double date. He told himself it was for Steve’s sake, but it was for his own sake too. It broke his heart to see all those girls who couldn’t see a good thing right in front of them. So Steve was smaller than your average guy, and deaf in one ear and asthmatic and stubborn as all hell. He was also whip-smart and dry-witted and ferociously loyal. He cared about justice and politics and doing the right thing more than any one person ought to be capable of.

He was also goddamn beautiful. And tragically strai—wait a fucking second.

“You’re looking at the men-for-men section,” Bucky says. Why that wasn’t the first thing that occurred to him, he can’t say. It was a long day at work. It’s been a long week. He’s spent so much of his life chanting ‘straight best friend, straight best friend,’ in his head and resolutely not staring at Steve’s lips and eyelashes

“What gave it away, the huge rods or the cinnamon-and-cum-scented kitchen?” Natasha says.

Steve has his eyes closed and one hand touching his forehead like he’s trying to stave off a headache.

“I think I’ll take that beer now,” Bucky says.

Steve darts off the couch before Natasha can hold him back, so they end up in the kitchen together. Bucky takes a long gulp of beer before he can look at Steve.

“You never told me,” he says. He’s not hurt, he’s not. It’s just—Steve was the first person he told. One of the only people he’s ever told, the first of a short list that includes Sam, Natasha, and the four guys he’s hooked up with. Three of those guys had been slender and blond, but who’s counting? Definitely not Steve, since Bucky never introduced any of them to him.

“Yeah,” Steve says. He frowns, makes this little moue of uncertainty, then says, “I wasn’t sure it was real. I mean, not that I’m very experienced, but so far the evidence suggests I like women a lot.”

Bucky smiles. “Me too,” he says, because he does. He’s dated dozens of them, slept with more, and had a grand old time with all of them. It just never seemed to go anywhere. More than one of them accused him of being afraid of commitment. He never argued the point. One of his exes had claimed that Bucky had already committed to someone, and it wasn’t her. He did argue with that, but she still walked out and slammed the door, so by any reasonable metric, he lost.

Steve, on the other hand, has a much shorter romantic history. One Margaret Carter, a gorgeous brunette exchange student who went back to London after her year abroad. They still keep in touch, as far as he knows. Peggy was brilliant and funny and kind and she loved Steve for exactly who he was and Bucky had desperately wanted to be happy for the two of them.

“How did you know, then?”

“I don’t know, I just did,” Bucky says. It’s an awful answer, but he’s sure as hell not telling Steve the truth. “Saw a guy or two that turned my head, I guess. I get it, though. The whole world tells you that you should like women, and you do, so you can put off thinking about the rest of it.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I guess that’s it. Sorry for not telling you. I wasn’t planning to tell Nat and Sam tonight, it just sort of—came out.”

“That is what they call it.”

“Shut up.”

They walk back out into the living room, where the streetlights are shining through the bay window and glinting off the wood floor, because Nat lives by herself in this enormous creaky old brownstone even though she travels all the time for work. She’s barely even bothered to furnish the place. She owns half of Steve’s MFA exhibition and all the paintings are just leaning up against the walls where she plans to hang them, at some unspecified future date when she’s not jetting off to some undisclosed location. Bucky lives in a roach-infested studio, but if he owned those paintings, they would be displayed and lit like they were in the goddamn Louvre.

Natasha and Sam are still on the couch laughing at the internet when Steve and Bucky sit back down. Bucky sits in the armchair where he left his coat. He always lets the three of them sit on the couch together, like keeping his distance allows him to keep his dignity somehow, like the three of them haven’t seen him screaming at everyone to hit the ground after he heard a car backfiring, or crying and shaking in the middle of the night.

“I don’t suppose either of you losers ordered a pizza while you were up,” Natasha says.

“You’re on the internet right now,” Bucky points out.

“I have to do everything around here,” she says. “Find Steve a fuckbuddy, order a pizza…”

“We feel for you,” Sam says. “If you ever need to talk to someone, you know I’m here.”

Natasha probably does have things she could talk to Sam about, but as far as Bucky knows, she doesn’t talk to anyone. Not even Sam, and Sam works down at the VA listening to people professionally. Bucky would know; it’s how they met. Really Steve met Sam first, because Sam is cultured as all hell and goes to art exhibits for fun, and then Steve put the two of them in touch. Bucky talks to someone else about his mental health now, because he’d rather have Sam as a friend and he doesn’t shit where he eats.

Steve is the one who met Natasha, too, and they all just kind of came together around him. It’s not like they’ve never tried to set him up before. It’s just never been quite like this.

“How do you feel about bondage, Steve?” Natasha says, like that’s a totally normal thing to ask someone.

Bucky expects Steve to duck his head and keep quiet, the way he always does if something—anything from a ‘you look nice today’ to a ‘you’re the most brilliant student of my career’—embarrasses him. He nearly chokes on his beer when Steve says, “I’d try it, I guess.”

“How about spanking?”

“Yeah, I guess, I mean—,”

“Jesus,” Bucky interrupts. “Is this really happening?”

“Our little Stevie is growing up and finding himself,” Natasha says. “Don’t judge.”

“How did we even get here?” Bucky says. He tries to keep his tone of voice even.

Sam looks sheepish. “I, uh, might have mentioned something.”

“A vibrator,” Natasha says. “Let’s not get shy now.”

Bucky is staring, but Sam shrugs and tilts his head to the side. “Yeah, you know, Riley and I tried this thing, and it was fucking heavenly, like I ascended to a higher plane of existence, and so I was, y’know, humble-bragging—,”

“Bragging,” Natasha interrupts.

“And I said I wish I had somebody to try it with,” Steve finally says. “It’s, y’know, been awhile. And I never really explored all that much and—,”

“And that turned into casual encounters with freaks on the internet,” Bucky says. He’s talking too loudly. He needs to calm down.

“They’re not freaks,” Natasha says, at the same time Sam says, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

“You don’t know that!” he says to Natasha. “They could be anyone. It could be a total scam. It could be worse than a scam. You could get hurt! People get kidnapped and murdered like this. Jesus fucking Christ!”

“Buck,” Steve says.

Bucky stands up and paces over to one of Natasha’s empty white walls. He forces himself to follow the length of it, into the dining room and then around the corner into the kitchen. He shouldn’t have blown up like that. Steve is a grown man. A bullheaded, reckless one who’s spent his life getting into fights with guys twice his size, but still. He gets to make his own decisions. He can suck all the huge rods in town if he wants to. It’s none of Bucky’s business.

But Christ, Steve acts like he’s fucking invincible all the time and if anything ever happened to him—

“Hey,” Steve says, and suddenly they’re alone together in the too-bright light of Natasha’s empty chrome kitchen again. “You okay?”

Bucky exhales and rubs his forehead. “Yeah, I’m,” he says. “I’m sorry about that. It’s none of my business. I shouldn’t have—I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I know,” Steve says. “I’ll be careful.”

“You have never once been careful in your entire life.” Bucky huffs out a laugh. He looks away. “Maybe I’m offended you didn’t think to ask me.” He says it like a joke, but he can’t bring himself to laugh again.

“Bucky,” Steve says, scandalized. “You’re my friend. I’m not gonna use you to experiment sexually.”

“But all those people on the internet, you’re willing to use them?”

“That’s different. They know up front that it’s just sex.”

“And maybe a little torture and murder on the side,” Bucky mutters.

“So you think I should just be a monk for the rest of my life? What the fuck do you want from me? I’m not like you, girls aren’t falling all over themselves to date me.”

Girls haven’t been falling all over themselves to date Bucky since he came back from his last tour minus one arm and plus a fuckload of nightmares, but he decides not to mention it.

“You’ll find somebody,” Bucky says. The response is almost automatic at this point. He opens his mouth to start listing all of Steve’s good qualities, but Steve holds up a hand.

“Save it. I don’t even know if I want a relationship. I don’t want to get into anything serious without having tried a few things, I guess. No-strings-attached sex sounds pretty good right now.”

And then they’re right back where they started, and Bucky’s lost a lot of arguments to Steve over the years, so he knows that look. His usual stubbornness, plus a totally understandable desire to have sex, all told it means that Steve is not going to give up on this. Bucky doesn’t stand a chance.

That’s really his only explanation for why the next thing he says is “So fuck me.”

It’s a terrible idea, even worse than spending the last fifteen years squeezing his eyes shut and thinking straight best friend, because Steve just said he didn’t want anything serious. But it might be worth it for the look on Steve’s face.

“You’re serious.”

If you’re gonna be Icarus, you might as well get as close to the sun as possible before it’s all over, right?

“Yeah, why not?” Bucky says, because now that he’s said it, he’s got to follow through. He can’t let Steve get lured into some weirdo’s sex dungeon and then killed. He’s practically a hero. “I’ve never had any complaints,” he says, and smiles at Steve in a way that feels totally unnatural. “Not about that, anyway,” he amends. “I’m not so great at the whole serious, emotionally open, mature adult relationship thing. But you don’t care about that. And I won’t murder you. What could go wrong?”

“Famous last words,” Steve says, shaking his head. “But yeah, you make a good point. I’ll think about it. Is that okay? Can you give me a day or two?”

Christ. What the hell should he say to that? “Yeah,” he manages, his throat constricted.

Steve smiles at him. It should be reassuring, but mostly it makes him think about how fucking much he loves Steve. He’s fucked six ways from Sunday, and they haven’t even started yet.

Chapter Text

Bucky spends the next eighteen hours jumping every time his phone buzzes. Every time he gets a text from someone who’s not Steve, he glances at his phone and then shoves it back into his pocket. He hasn’t made any friends at this brand-new dead-end job yet, so he’s not doing himself any favors by acting twitchy and surly. The evidence is piling up: embarking on some kind of casual sex relationship with Steve is a bad idea.

But when Steve texts him let’s do it as his morning shift is ending, Bucky smiles so wide that Marielle, the girl at the next register, looks like she might faint. He cashes out and takes his drawer to the back room and hears Josh whisper to Annelise “Is he humming?” and can’t even be bothered to stop. When he’s done counting the contents of his drawer and putting the whole thing in the safe, he clocks out and cheerfully says “Bye!” to the both of them. They stare.

Bucky unlocks his bike from the rack outside and cycles away from work. He has a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face and the wind stings his eyes, but he can’t stop smiling. Steve said yes. He said yes to an extremely restricted version of what Bucky really wants, and it’s almost certainly going to go wrong somewhere down the line the way everything else does, but yes is still better than no.

His phone buzzes against his thigh again while he’s riding. Crap. What if Steve just changed his mind? What if he meant to send that text to somebody else? Bucky tries to shove his right hand in the pocket of his jeans to pull it out and look at it. He’s got a good grip with his left hand these days, thanks to a publicity stunt by Stark Industries to give cutting-edge prosthetics to the most pathetic-yet-photogenic veterans they can find. Bucky would be mad about being used as inspiration porn by a giant corporation, but he fucking loves his new arm. He never could have afforded it otherwise. So they took a few pictures of him smiling and gripping a stress ball with his shiny new fingers. It was worth it. This arm has so much more finesse than any of his previous clunky prosthetics. Bike-riding was out of the question with those.

His flesh-and-blood right arm is currently failing to dig his phone out of his pocket. Fucking skinny jeans. Bucky’s bike wobbles a little bit, but he’s so close to getting his phone free. He twists his hand one more time, then hears a honk behind him as he swerves into traffic. Shit. He overcorrects and nearly runs down some young parents with a tank-like stroller on the sidewalk, then swerves back toward the street and crashes into some garbage cans.

Jesus fucking Christ. And he accused Steve of never being careful. This plan has already nearly killed him.

Still, before he gets up from the pile of trash bags, he finally gets a look at his phone. There are two new messages.

Maybe we could get coffee and talk about it?

You’re not working this afternoon right? I don’t have to teach until 7 tonight.

Steve works 80% time as a painting and drawing instructor—just enough for health insurance—and Tuesday and Thursday nights he runs a life-drawing session with a live model from seven to nine. Bucky has to open the bar tonight, which means getting to work at four, but it’s only two now.

now is good, he writes, not bothering to remove his bike frame from on top of his body, or his body from the sidewalk. awful hipster place in 20?

mid-century modern awful hipster place or former warehouse awful hipster place? Steve asks, and honestly it’s a testament to their friendship that he only needs that much clarification.

former warehouse has more space, Bucky writes, because he’d prefer to have this conversation as far from other patrons as possible, so they can talk without becoming Twitter’s next favorite “overheard in NYC” moment. Also, the mid-century modern place is snootier, and Bucky is literally sitting in a pile of trash at the moment. Maybe he should postpone.

See you there, Steve writes, and Bucky grins at his phone. Nope. He can’t wait. He pushes his bike off himself, stands up, and heads out.

Chapter Text

The coffee shop has poured concrete floors, high ceilings, and exposed ductwork, and like so many places in Brooklyn, it feels obscenely spacious compared to anywhere in Manhattan. It’s also obscenely loud, with every sound bouncing off every surface. Steve hasn’t arrived yet, so Bucky takes the opportunity to go into the men’s room and change. He has to wear all black for his shift at the bar tonight, so he stuffs his green polo shirt from his morning shift at the drugstore into his bag and pulls out a black button-down. He doesn’t smell too bad despite his run-in with the trash cans, but he washes his hands anyway. The Stark prosthetic is waterproof, which is a godsend. Washing his hands is a habit from constantly worrying that he’ll get Steve sick, but it’s served him well in all his jobs as a bartender, too.

He tucks his shirt into his jeans—also black—and buckles his belt. He brushes some non-existent lint off himself. He does up one more button at the top, then changes his mind and undoes it, leaving his throat slightly exposed. For good measure, he also takes down his bun, runs his hands through his hair, and redoes it more neatly.

This is ridiculous. It’s just Steve. Steve has seen him a million times, looking much better and much worse. He’s not going to be impressed.

Then again, he’s also not going to be surprised or fascinated by Bucky’s arm, which is a relief. And since Steve will be looking at all of him soon enough, what’s a few more inches of shiny forearm? Bucky rolls the sleeves of his up to his elbow and feels very bold. He almost texts Riley about it, since Riley’s been egging him on to wear a damn tank top, Barnes, show that thing off for months now, but if he texts Riley, then he’ll have to explain what caused his change of attitude. He’s not ready to do that yet.

Steve still isn’t in evidence when Bucky walks back out into the coffee shop, so Bucky orders for both of them. Steve always wants regular coffee, which is the cheapest thing on the menu anyway. He doesn’t even take sugar or milk. Bucky has no such macho compunctions, and if he’s in a damn coffee shop, he wants a damn latte.

Bucky picks a table as far away from the bar as possible, in a back corner where Steve will have a better chance of hearing him. Steve never complains about not being able to hear things, but Bucky can always tell. As it is, they’re gonna have to lean across the table and speak directly into each other’s ears, between the sound of milk being foamed, the roar of conversation, and the blaring music. But the din of the coffee shop does guarantee them some privacy.

“You know it’s hilarious that you call this the awful hipster place,” Steve says, startling Bucky so that he gets latte foam on his nose and then has to wipe it off. “Since you’re a skinny-jeans-wearing, latte-drinking—,”

“One of us is a tattooed artist with thick-framed glasses, and it ain’t me, so you can stop right there.”

Steve sits down and picks up his coffee. “I’m pretty sure it’s the absolute hallmark of hipsterdom to deny being a hipster, but we’re both under-employed, over-qualified millennials who live in Brooklyn,” he says. He smiles over the rim of his mug. There are charcoal smudges on his white t-shirt and he looks devastating as usual. “So I guess we can call it even.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m over-employed and under-qualified.”

Steve rolls his eyes. This is a long-standing discussion between them. Bucky could go back to school. Bucky could become an engineer. Bucky could get a real job with a salary and move out of his horrifying shithole of an apartment. Or Bucky could move in with Steve and his roommate Maria, who inhabit an apartment with breathable air. Bucky could generally live his life in a more wholesome and healthful way, or at least make some gesture toward thinking of himself as a person who deserves nice things. Bucky is fucking sick of hearing about it.

“Anyway,” Steve says, leaning across the table. He pushes an envelope toward Bucky.

“What’s this?” It has a little glassine window in it, showing Steve’s address. It’s from his doctor.

“I thought we should… lay some ground rules, I guess,” Steve says. “To keep things simple. If you still want to go ahead with this… arrangement.” The pause in front of ‘arrangement’ is almost unnoticeable, except that Bucky notices everything about Steve. He’s being very careful. “I’m clean. I mean, you probably knew that already, but I wanted you to know for sure.”

“Oh.” Bucky hasn’t even thought this part through. So they’re going to treat this thing like a transaction between strangers. It feels unnatural. Still, it makes a certain kind of sense. “I’m clean, too. But I’ll get tested.”

Steve just nods. He looks at the envelope in Bucky’s hands, which Bucky still hasn’t opened. “There’s also… a list. Of things I might be interested in. You could make one too.”

Bucky tries not to stare at Steve or at the envelope, which feels suddenly heavy. A list. Oh God. Steve thought about this. Steve hand-wrote a list of sex acts he wants to try. Did he have the list before or did he make it last night after Bucky offered to do this? Is the list specific to Bucky in some way? Did Steve go home last night and think about fucking me? Bucky shifts in his chair. It shouldn’t be so shocking. They’re planning to have sex now. And Bucky has thought about Steve plenty of times. But Steve thinking about him—thinking about him in enough detail to write down a goddamn list—that’s—that’s—

“Bucky?”

“Um,” he says, in total and utter control of all his faculties.

“You can read the list now and we can talk about it here, or you can take it home and think about it,” Steve says. “There’s no rush.” Bucky’s pulse directly contradicts that statement. Oh yes there is a rush. “I also thought we should maybe talk about whether we’re going to see other people while this is going on.”

“No,” Bucky says instantly. Then he backtracks: “Well, I mean—you know I haven’t really dated since I got back. Or even hooked up that often. But I guess if you’re seeing someone, or you want to be seeing someone—,”

Steve is shaking his head, thank fuck. Bucky was really not prepared to finish that sentence. “I’m not,” Steve says. “But I didn’t want to assume.”

“It’s good to talk about it,” Bucky says. Christ, how is Steve so calm and level-headed about this shit? Maybe it’s because he’s not about to suffocate under the weight of his own crush. There’s a depressing thought. Bucky takes a gulp of his latte. Come on. Say a thing. Say a normal thing. “I don’t want to tell people about this,” he blurts. Steve didn’t tell Sam and Nat last night, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. Bucky has already had enough knowing looks from the two of them, re: Steve, to last ten lifetimes. He can’t handle the thought of them knowing about this ‘arrangement.’ The combined power of their sympathy and pity will reduce him to a puddle of goo. Embarrassed, resentful goo.

“Oh,” Steve says, and he looks down at the floor. The dark sweep of his lashes against his cheeks is too goddamn beautiful for words, but Bucky can’t focus on that right now. He fucked up.

“I mean,” he says, searching for a good explanation, “I just.”

“No, it’s okay,” Steve says. “This is good. It’s good to know where we stand. It will keep things from getting messy.”

“Right,” Bucky says. “We wouldn’t want that.”

“I don’t want to screw things up between us,” Steve says. “But lots of people do this, right? Friends with benefits? How hard can it be?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. He’s still clutching the unopened envelope. He’s simultaneously so eager and so anxious that he feels like even his metal palm might start sweating. Maybe caffeine was a bad idea. They should have done this over beers. Or vodka.

“We should maybe talk about where we’re going to do this,” Steve says. He looks a little sheepish. He feels bad for hating Bucky’s apartment, which he shouldn’t, because hating it is the only logical response. But Steve has a roommate. Maria’s intimidating because she has all her shit together, and Bucky doesn’t know anyone else who has all their shit together. Nat pretends sometimes, but they all know better. Not even Sam has all his shit together. But Maria probably wouldn’t care if Steve and Bucky were—doing whatever it is that Steve wrote down on his list. Or if she did care, she would address it in the most mature and orderly of ways.

“Your place is fine with me.”

“But you said you didn’t want anyone to know.”

God. He feels like such an asshole. “It’s okay if Maria knows,” he says. “I, uh, I just don’t want to tell Nat and Sam. If that’s okay.”

Steve looks surprised by that, but he says, “Okay. I won’t tell them. They’ll probably figure it out, though.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. Nat’s absurdly observant and stealthy as shit, and Sam figures people out for a living. But maybe he can keep them off the trail for awhile, at least until he figures out some way to explain the whole thing to them. “It’s okay if other people know. It’s not like I’m ashamed to be seen with you, or something.”

Steve shoots him a hard look, and shit, that must be what he thought. Jesus. What a piece of shit thing to say to somebody. “Well,” Steve says, “I don’t think this is going to involve a lot of hand-holding or kissing or cuddling, anyway, so you don’t have to worry about PDA.”

“Steve,” Bucky says. There’s a dozen apologies on the tip of his tongue but most of them start you’re so beautiful I forget to breathe sometimes, and that doesn’t seem like the right thing to say now. Or ever. “That’s not what I meant—wait, no kissing? How do you have sex without kissing?”

He’s pretty disappointed about the cuddling, too, but he keeps that to himself.

“Apparently you don’t,” Steve says, and there’s a hint of a smile that eases the tension in Bucky’s chest. “Alright, sure. Kissing. Put it on the list.”

Bucky can’t help but feel a little offended that it wasn’t already on the list. It’s one of his few talents. But he would have known that, if he’d had the chutzpah to look inside the envelope already. He slips a finger under the edge of the flap and slides it open.

“It’s, uh,” Steve says, before Bucky even gets it all the way open. Bucky glances up. Steve’s cheeks might be a shade redder than they were before. It’s adorable, of course, but more importantly it’s a huge relief. Steve doesn’t have it all under control. “It’s pretty vanilla, for the most part. I don’t have that much experience. And I’ve never slept with a guy.”

Bucky can’t fight off a smile at the thought of being the first. “It’s not that complicated,” he says. “Your basic post-and-socket kind of connection.”

“You make it sound great.”

“It is! You’ll like it.” Then Bucky realizes, for the hundredth time, that the sex in question will be with him. That’s why Steve is looking at him so funny. “Uh. I mean. I’ve had good feedback?”

“You’re a real Don Juan.”

“Shut up,” Bucky says. But they’ve hit upon an important point. “You know, I’m not that experienced either,” he adds, thinking of the conversation at Natasha’s house last night. “I’ve never—spanked anybody, or whatever.”

Steve nods. “That’s okay. I’ve been doing some reading.”

“You read it for the articles, huh?”

Steve makes an unimpressed face, but in the end he laughs. “Alright. I’ll give you that one.”

Bucky smiles down at his hands, feeling the same warm glow he always feels when he manages to make Steve laugh. Then he notices his bare arms, and his rolled-up black shirtsleeves, and his watch that says 3:45. “Shit! I’m gonna be late to work.”

Chapter Text

A lithe, warm hand covers Bucky’s right one before he can pull away. “Hey,” says the hand’s owner. Bucky waits for the rest of the sentence, but all that happens is a fluttering of eyelashes and a little smile. The bold way she’s staring at his mouth makes her look at lot fiercer than her small hand and elfin, blond features might suggest.

She’s cute.

Where were all these girls—and guys—before tonight? He’s had a months-long dry spell, but tonight three customers have slid their tips across the counter alongside napkins with scrawled phone numbers. And then there’s Blondie.

“Sorry,” he tells her, shaking his head.

Her hand pulls back from his in short order. She sighs dramatically, and then smiles at him again. “Worth a try.” Then she shrugs, collects her beer, and pushes her way into the crowded bar.

Bucky nearly sighs “your timing is fucking awful” at the next person who tries to get his attention, but luckily he restrains himself, since it turns out to be Natasha. She’s wearing a white sheath dress that looks like it costs more than his monthly rent, which means she just came from a work function. Off the clock, Natasha dresses more like the other bar patrons, in jeans and sneakers and hoodies. She should look out of place, with her designer heels clicking against the sticky bar floor, but instead Bucky suddenly has the distinct impression that everyone else—himself included—is underdressed. It’s eerie, the way Natasha can own a room. Bucky could have sworn the bar was crowded a second ago, but here’s Natasha settling onto a newly empty barstool.

The little pile of napkins catches her attention instantly. “Look at you go.”

Bucky pulls out a bottle of her usual shitty domestic 4.2%-alcohol beer-flavored water and serves it to her with an eyeroll. “Is it the fucking full moon or something? Is all of Brooklyn in heat?”

She looks amused, but Natasha looks that way so often—like the whole world is her private joke and no one else has picked up on it yet—that Bucky ignores it. He serves a few more customers and then walks back down to her end of the bar.

“I went to a Stark Industries function tonight,” she says, sipping her beer. “There were waiters with trays full of the tiniest little tuna sashimi and the most perfect lamb chops. I drank four flutes of champagne.”

“So you’re too good for my bar,” he says. He doesn’t point out that she’s ruining the memory of that expensive champagne with awful beer. Natasha has terrible taste in beer and she never changes no matter how many times he tries to educate her. It’s gross, but sort of endearing. “What else is new.”

“My shoes make me want to murder someone and my underwear is so deeply embedded in my asscrack that it’s gonna require surgery to get it out.”

He makes a face. “You talk like that to all the bigwigs at your gala?”

“Of course not,” she says. “I was much more like your blonde friend, except people rarely say no to me.” She doesn’t sound proud. She’s reporting the facts. “You, on the other hand, have been saying no all night.” She tilts her head at the napkins.

He has to say something. Nat knows him well enough to know that he sometimes goes home with customers. Hell, she probably knows him well enough to know exactly how long it’s been since he went home with anybody. It’s a good rule of thumb to assume she knows everything. “Something came up,” he says lightly. He can’t think too hard about the details of what—or who—because it will show on his face. Even if it doesn’t show, Bucky wouldn’t put it past Natasha to read his mind. Or the contents of the envelope stuffed into his coat pocket. “Too bad none of these people were hanging around last month. What the hell is with tonight, anyway?”

“You really don’t know?”

He shakes his head.

“This is you, normally,” she says, and then lets her shoulders slump down and draws her whole face into a scowl. She tips her head forward and lets her hair fall into her face. Bucky frowns at her unflattering imitation of him, and then realizes that he’s doing exactly what she’s mocking him for. He straightens his spine and tries not to pout.

“And this is you tonight,” she says. She looks up and her eyes focus on something in the distance. Her whole posture shifts into something more open and approachable. A dreamy smile crosses her face. Then she settles back down and becomes Natasha again. The precise control she exercises over her body still amazes him.

“So spill, Barnes. What’s got you looking like such a dope?”

“I do not—,” he starts, and then gives up. She did look pretty fucking dopey just now, imitating him. “Nothing.”

“Oh yeah? So it’s not Steve’s exciting little tidbit of news?”

“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous, it’s not Steve—what, wait?”

Natasha is looking amused again. A bad sign. “He didn’t tell you? I thought you two were telepathically connected.”

“Tell me what?”

“Oh, I’m not going to tell you if he hasn’t. Maybe he’s waiting to tell you in person.”

But they saw each other in person that afternoon. Bucky stops himself before he says that out loud. “Probably,” he agrees. “Haven’t seen him in awhile.”

That’s not a lie. It’s been seven hours since he saw Steve. It’s been seven long hours of thinking about what might be on Steve’s little list while he tries not to spill beer on himself or his customers.

“Anyway,” she says. “When he does tell you, talk some sense into him.”

Because Bucky is so good at that. He’s having enough trouble talking sense into his own damn self these days, let alone Steve. Steve is a force of nature. “I don’t know what kind of superpowers you think I have.”

“Maybe you can use your cyborg arm,” she says, raising an eyebrow and smiling over the lip of her beer bottle.

Don’t blush, don’t blush, don’t—fuck. Bucky turns around to grab a rag from the back of the bar, like it’s absolutely urgent that he wipe down the counter at that instant.

If this were six months ago, he could easily have played it off like he was uncomfortable with Nat talking about his prosthetic. Hell, today’s the first day he’s really felt at ease rolling up his sleeves. But Nat is too sharp for that. She already knows his blush has nothing to do with his arm and everything to do with Steve.

“It’s not like that between us,” he mutters.

“I know, James. I’m sorry.”

He stops wiping down the bar and stares. Natasha doesn’t apologize for much.

“Anyway, I actually came here tonight—,”

“Because the service is impeccable, and the beer selection is top-notch—,”

“Because I’m going away for two weeks and I need a house-sitter,” she says, not bothering to acknowledge his interruption. “It’ll be easy. Just make sure Liho has enough food and bring in the mail. You can sleep in the second bedroom.”

“Okay,” he says, because it will be so much nicer to fool around with Steve on a real bed instead of his broken-down mattress, and this gives them two weeks where they don’t have to worry about Steve’s roommate, and Nat won’t find out, and he’ll wash the sheets thoroughly because he’s an excellent friend, and really the whole thing is perfect. Natasha gives him a long look.

“Every other time I asked, you said you didn’t need my ‘pity housing’,” she says. “And then I had to hire some random neighborhood youth to feed Liho and I never had time to run a proper background check on any of them. I swear one of them killed my spider plant.”

Natasha killed her own spider plant, just like she kills all her plants, because she travels too often to water them. But Bucky is too gracious to mention it. “Can’t a guy grow and change in peace, Natasha?”

“If it turns out you joined a cult or something, I’m gonna remember this as the moment I first suspected.”

“Shut up and give me your house keys.”

“Nice try, Barnes. I’m not leaving until Saturday.”

“So much for pity housing,” he says. “You do know what kind of condition my apartment is in, right?” He tries his best to make puppy eyes at her. It would work on Sam and Steve, but Natasha is made of sterner stuff. “Steve thinks I’m going to get some kind of infection from the mold in the walls.”

“There’s some sort of expression I’m thinking of,” she says, and he fucking hates when she gets all smug like this. Natasha loves pretending that she can’t think of the exact phrase she wants to say. “It won’t quite come to me. You know how difficult this is for me, James. I didn’t learn English until I was seven years old.” But you’d never know it to listen to her. And then, of all the insults to add to injury, she gives him a pleading look. “Idioms are so difficult. Something about nests, I think.” She looks off into the distance contemplatively and even puts the tip of her index finger to her bottom lip. “Oh no. Beds. It’s definitely about beds.”

He rolls his eyes, but still gives in and says what she wants. People rarely say to no to Natasha, after all. “You made your bed, now lie in it.”

“That’s it exactly,” she says. She’s not actually smirking at him but he has the feeling of being smirked at.

“Get out of here. We’re closed.”

“Not even close. But your shift is ending, and you should go home. Maybe to lie in your bed.” She looks so unbelievably pleased with herself that he wants to toss the wet bar rag at her. “No, really. You should rest. You work too hard, James. And maybe rest will cure you of your weird smiling thing.”

“Your concern would be easier to take seriously if you weren’t such a little shit.”

“You love it,” she says, and she’s not wrong. He’s glad Steve’s people have all been so quick to become his friends, too. He doesn’t have a sister, but he likes to think of Natasha like that sometimes. She leans across the bar to give him a one-armed hug before leaving, and he continues doing his weird smiling thing all the way through it.

Chapter Text

Bucky texts Steve the instant he gets home. He learned his lesson about biking and texting earlier today. Nat said u have news, he writes, holding his phone in one hand and leaning his bike up against the apartment door with the other. He flips the deadbolt, then divests himself of his shoes, hat, scarf, and coat as best he can while walking across his apartment toward his closet and still staring at his phone. There’s a lot of hopping and pausing involved, but he does get everything into the closet, except the envelope Steve gave him earlier. That, he holds in the same hand as his phone.

Bucky finally gives up on waiting for a reply from Steve when it comes time to undo the fly of his jeans. He sets his phone and the envelope down on the kitchen counter, then tosses his clothes into the sack of dirty laundry next to his mattress.

His apartment is so small that he’s simultaneously in his kitchen and his bedroom as soon as he opens the door, since the kitchen is just one counter and a row of cabinets along one wall of his bedroom. He has a fridge and a hot plate but no oven, not that he cooks much anyway. Across from the kitchenette is a carpeted area that is just large enough for a full-size mattress, a dresser with two drawers, and the laundry bag. There’s a lamp and a stack of books on the floor next to the mattress. Bucky tries to pull the sheets straight in the morning after he gets up, much like he tries to keep his clean clothes folded neatly in the dresser or hanging in the small closet next to the bedroom, as part of a futile effort to spruce the place up. It doesn’t work.

Naked, he walks to the bathroom to shower off the smell of beer and sweat. He detours toward the kitchen, looks at his phone again, but leaves it on the counter with the envelope. He’s waited all day. He can wait a little more. Steve’s news, whatever it is, makes him equal parts excited and anxious. Why does Nat think he needs to talk sense into Steve?

The envelope, on the other hand, intrigues him in a different way. Bucky was always one of those kids who held up every birthday present and pressed his ear to it as he shook it, who felt all the contours of the package, who slit the wrapping paper open as slowly and carefully as possible, always along its seams. Waiting for things—at least once you know you’re going to get the present—is almost as good as finally getting them. The idea of what’s on Steve’s list is almost as good as the list itself.

Bucky turns on the shower to let the water heat up. He takes the elastic out of his hair and runs his fingers through it. Nat makes fun of him sometimes for the fancy conditioner he uses, but she’s probably just jealous that her hair doesn’t smell as good as his. Bucky sticks his hand under the shower and waits.

Sure, part of him wanted to rip open that envelope at work, just like he tried to read Steve’s text while biking. But this wasn’t like with Steve’s messages. Bucky never knows what those will say. He doesn’t know what’s on the list, either, but he’s pretty sure he’ll like it.

He steps into the shower and sighs as the hot spray hits his back. He sags a little, exhausted, and rolls his neck and his shoulders. The shower stall is so small that he has to tuck his elbows toward his body every time he wants to turn, and the water pressure is nothing special, but at least it gets hot. He lathers up a loofah and starts scrubbing himself down. Showering off the residue of the bar is such sweet relief—it’s probably more satisfying than any of the offers he got tonight would have been.

Besides, he had the best possible reason to say no. A whole list of reasons waiting for him on the kitchen counter. What does Steve want? He said he’d try bondage and spanking when Nat was quizzing him yesterday, and toys had come up in conversation before that. Bucky has never been interested in the first two before, but the idea of trying them with Steve throws things into a new light. Is there anything he wouldn’t try with Steve? He shivers. He probably shouldn’t phrase it that way next time they talk. Steve did ask him to make his own list, after all.

The thought of making a list of things he wants to do with Steve is almost comical. Bucky has a whole store of fantasies in his head—he makes new entries, feverish with guilt, all the time—and yet he wouldn’t know where to start writing them down. Is Steve’s list descriptive? Does it say things like I want to kiss you everywhere?

Probably not. They’re supposed to keep this casual.

Still, Bucky can’t conceive of having any kind of sex with anybody without kissing them first. He especially can’t conceive of skipping the particular pleasure of kissing Steve. They’ve never kissed, but Bucky’s imagined it a dozen different ways. Usually it goes something like this: they’re a little drunk, maybe, just enough to feel warm and loose and uninhibited. Enough to make excuses, if they need them, but not enough not to know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. Bucky tells Steve he can stay the night instead of drunkenly stumbling home, and Steve tries to leave anyway, and they end up arguing—this part of the fantasy is deeply rooted in reality—and then something snaps. Steve crowds Bucky up against the door, alive with anger, always so much fiercer than anyone but Bucky suspects. But Bucky has been on the receiving end of so many of Steve’s don’t-tell-me-what-to-do tirades that he knows exactly what to expect.

He knows exactly what to expect this time, too. He’s done washing, but the shower is still steaming hot. His right hand drifts lower and settles around the base of his cock, already thick with desire.

It takes him by surprise in the fantasy, of course. They’re both buzzed, and angry, and even if Steve is pressed right up against him, Bucky has a long habit of pushing his distraction aside in favor of winning the argument. Steve is straight, after all, and he doesn’t suffer the same distracting disadvantage that Bucky does. He never forgets what he was going to say because he was staring at Bucky’s lips. He doesn’t waste his time thinking about kissing his way along the line of Bucky’s jaw. So Bucky can’t think about those things either. This is an argument. Steve is going to say something completely fucking boneheaded. Bucky has to be ready for it.

Steve doesn’t say anything. He pushes himself up—and the long line of friction between their bodies, the feeling of Steve rubbing up against him, that’s going to keep Bucky awake for months—and kisses Bucky on the mouth. It’s intense, aggressive even, but Bucky gives as good as he gets. He grabs Steve by the waist and holds him there, even as the press of Steve’s hips up against his makes his pulse thunder. He’s hard already, and Steve is relentless, thrusting his tongue into Bucky’s mouth and rolling his hips. Even through their clothes, Bucky can feel Steve’s hard-on. He wants to keep going, to drive forward at full-speed until they both shoot over the edge together, almost as much as he wants to slow down and do things right. God, but he would love to undress Steve slowly, with painstaking care, like they have the rest of forever all to themselves. He breaks away long enough to murmur, “Steve, Steve,” against Steve’s lips.

“Yeah?” Steve says, breathless, distracted. His blue eyes are dark under the shadow of his lashes. He’s still rubbing up against Bucky, needy and unwilling to stop. Fuck, but it’s impossible to think about anything with Steve moving like that. They’ll take it slow some other time. Bucky reaches for the fly of Steve’s jeans, and Steve mirrors his action without stilling the motion of his hips. It’s rushed and urgent and messy, too many hands in too little space. They don’t care. They’ve waited long enough. Steve draws Bucky’s cock out of his underwear and Bucky wraps his hand around both of them, gripping their cocks together. They’re both aching and dripping, and the contact feels like a miracle. Steve groans, or maybe he does. Bucky strokes both of them, and it’s slippery and tight and so fucking good, and Steve kisses his neck. His teeth graze the juncture between Bucky’s neck and his shoulder, and Bucky moans his name, and he feels Steve’s orgasm spurt warm and slick against his skin, and then they’re both coming.

In real life, in the shower, that’s all it takes. Bucky comes in his hand with as quiet a sigh as he can manage, and then lets the shower wash it off. The spray is colder now, an unpleasant sensation against his flushed skin, so he gets out quickly and towels off as best he can.

With his hair still dripping onto his shoulders, he pads into the kitchen to look at the list at last. He smiles—probably the same dopey smile that Nat was teasing him about earlier—at how little progress he’s made on his own list. At least Steve is on top of things. Steve’s list is probably more interesting than his own will be, anyway. The whole point of this is to venture further afield than he’s been. Bucky, on the other hand, fantasizes about kissing. He’s going to have to come up with something exotic to disguise how mundane his desires are. Maybe Steve’s list will inspire him.

But his phone is sitting on top of the envelope, and seeing it makes him remember that Steve has some kind of news. He checks for a reply from Steve and finds one.

I’d rather tell you in person. Is that okay?

Yeah. Tomorrow? Bucky only has to work at the drugstore tomorrow, and only from 9-5 at that. No early wake-up, no second shift, no getting home in the middle of the night. It’s practically a vacation. He’ll have enough energy to tap dance all the way home.

Can’t. Individual crit with students all day.

It’s not like Steve to avoid him. Bucky frowns. He was hoping to see Steve tomorrow. They have even more reason than usual to look forward to their next meeting, after all. But all he writes is housesitting for nat starting sat. come over sat night? Steve doesn’t respond right away, which gives Bucky’s nervous fingers a chance to add a second message: we could start on your list. He debates adding :) or ;) for a second but in the end, he doesn’t put either one. The first one comes off too excited and the second one is trying way too hard. Let Steve imagine the tone of that text on his own. It’s one of the blessings of text messages. They give everybody to ability to play it cool.

An extra day could be a blessing, too. It gives him time to get to a walk-in clinic to get tested, and time to read Steve’s list and make one of his own. Judging by tonight, it’s probably best to do that in private.

Sure, Steve writes back, entirely devoid of emoticons. Bucky instantly changes his opinion: texting is awful. What happened to the days of talking face-to-face? How is he supposed to live with that as a response? He would bike over to Steve’s place right now if it wasn’t the goddamn middle of the night.

His phone buzzes and :) pops up on the screen. Bucky relaxes, and before he can stop himself, finds himself texting back a :) of his own.

Chapter Text

Early Friday evening, after Bucky has clocked out at the drugstore, Sam texts him the most beautiful sentence in the English language: Want dinner?

Bucky grins at his phone and writes back fuck yeah before biking directly to Sam’s apartment building and taking the elevator up. It smells good even out here in the hallway.

“Why, Sergeant Barnes,” Riley says as he answers the door. He looks up at Bucky, puts one hand to his chest with his fingers delicately splayed, and inhales as though he’s shocked. Riley is broad-chested and thick-armed, so the prudish gesture looks even more ridiculous than it is—and it is ridiculous, since Bucky has heard Riley Thompson discuss eating ass in great detail without even a hint of a blush. “That is an indecent amount of shiny forearm I see. A man could get ideas.”

“A man can shove it.”

“That is what I had in mind,” Riley murmurs, but then he looks Bucky in the eye and says, “Seriously. You look good.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says, but it makes him feel a warm kind of pride. Riley has been coaxing him out of his shell, encouraging him to feel more at ease with himself, ever since they met.

Bucky had not been prepared for Riley when they first met. In his defense, it was almost impossible to be prepared for Riley. Sam had invited Bucky over for dinner “at my apartment, with my partner,” and that was all he’d said. Bucky had gone because Steve had been ecstatic at the prospect of Bucky having any kind of human contact outside himself.

In those days, just after coming back, Bucky wasn’t talking much. He wasn’t leaving his apartment much either, except to go sit silently in Steve’s little studio. It was the only thing he could stand to do. Everywhere outside the tiny, safe space of Steve’s studio, things went wrong. Bucky had panic attacks. He couldn’t sleep, or if he did sleep, he couldn’t get out of bed afterward. He didn’t eat. He got angry and punched walls. He lashed out at people, even Steve. At his worst, Bucky had said shit to Steve that would have made lesser men weep. Plenty of other people—his parents, his former friends—had already given up on Bucky at that point, and Bucky had been waiting for Steve to give up on him, too. But Steve was there for him. Steve was unshakeable.

Bucky hated everything then. Steve was his only exception, but one of the many troublesome things about Steve was that he liked other people, like Sam and Nat and Riley. That introduced a lot of goddamn complications into Bucky’s beautifully simple and bitter worldview.

Bucky had showed up at Sam’s with his hair unwashed and hanging down into his eyes. His prosthetic had been bothering him that day, so he’d left it at home and his left sleeve was empty. He should have pinned the fabric up to keep it from flapping, but he also should have showered and changed his clothes before going out in public. He was a fucking mess. He stood there like that, glaring down at the doormat outside Sam’s door, after knocking as resentfully as possible. He’d wanted to cross his arms over his chest, but that was just one of many things he couldn’t do any more, so instead he’d shoved his right hand into the pocket of his jeans.

When the door had opened, Riley was waiting behind it with his hands resting in his lap. He had given Bucky an appraising look and a brilliant smile. “Sam, darlin’,” he’d called over his shoulder, in a voice that instantly identified him as neither a Yankee nor a heterosexual. “Your gentleman caller is here.”

Bucky had not expected to be described that way. Inside the apartment, he had heard the oven timer beeping, and Sam yelling “Ignore him, James! Please come in.”

“I know I’m handsome, James, but it’s rude to stare.”

“I wasn’t—,” Bucky had said, but the problem was that he absolutely was. Riley was just sitting there, blond and Southern and strong-jawed and missing both legs below the knee, looking happy. And living with Sam Wilson. And eating Sam Wilson’s fragrant, enticing cooking. It was ridiculous to be so caught up in all these details. Sam was a vet. Bucky knew that. But Sam had come home whole—at least outwardly. Riley had come home missing limbs, just like Bucky.

But not like Bucky at all.

“It was an IED,” Riley had said, so matter-of-fact it was almost bored. “You too?”

Bucky had nodded.

“Well,” Riley had said. “That fuckin’ sucks.”

Bucky had nodded again, because what the hell else was there to say. It felt honest, coming from somebody who knew. And it was a relief to leave it at that. When Riley had rolled his chair backward and gestured for Bucky to come in, Bucky had gone without hesitating. That was how he’d found a second safe space in the world.

Later, it occurred to him that Sam and Riley had to have talked about him. They had to have planned the whole thing. Sometimes, when Bucky was feeling especially down about himself, thin-skinned and angry, the idea that people might have been trying to coddle him somehow left him raw. But other times, it felt like being taken care of. Like having friends. Sam knew that he and Riley had something in common. And Riley had later confided to Bucky, after a few shots of bourbon and even more lost rounds of seven-card stud, that he liked having another “sullen, blown-up queer” around. (“You’re not sullen,” Bucky had said, to which Riley had replied, “You’re sullen enough for the both of us.”) That was the part of the equation that didn’t make sense to him for a long time: Riley wasn’t hanging out with him out of pity. Riley liked him.

Sam and Riley had met when they were both working as pararescuemen in the 58th rescue squadron. They told Bucky the story in turns on the first night he’d been in their apartment, lounging around the living room after dinner. “Riley was—,” Sam started. “I saw him before I heard him. I walked into a room and he was standing there, all tall and broad-shouldered and tough-looking, and then—,”

“You forgot ‘stunningly beautiful’.”

“—he started talking,” Sam finished, and gestured at Riley as if his point was proven. “I had never seen somebody be that much themselves, you know? I wasn’t out at the time and it was amazing to me. Here I was worrying all the time that I was gonna give myself away somehow, and then there was Riley, out and proud. You know, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ had only just ended when we met. He was gay and he was from Louisiana. And he did not give a shit who knew. He was six-foot-four and two-hundred pounds and he was damn good at his job. Who was gonna fuck with him?” Sam had looked at Bucky instead of Riley for this part, as though he was embarrassed to say this to Riley’s face. “I don’t mean to make it sound like it wasn’t brave, because it was. It takes courage to live that way. We were surrounded by incredibly courageous people every single day, and none of them compared to him. The first time we were out in the field together, I remember thinking: of course he’s good at this. And it was knowing him that finally inspired me to come out myself.”

And you wanted to date me,” Riley said. Bucky wasn’t fooled: he was embarrassed by the praise and he was goofing off to hide it. Steve did that sometimes, if he could manage to say anything at all. Bucky had done it himself in the past, but he hadn’t had a chance lately. There wasn’t much nice that could be said about him at the moment, except maybe that considering how long it had been since his last shower, he didn’t smell quite as bad as he could have.

Sam, perceptive as he was, let it slide: “And I wanted to date you.”

“Because I’m stunningly beautiful.”

“Well, obviously,” Sam said. He smiled. “But you got nothin’ on me.”

“So it all came together just like that?” Bucky had said. They both looked pleased to have drawn him into the conversation, and he immediately regretted speaking up. Sam would probably text Steve later about how much progress Bucky was making, and even if it was true, he hated being their goddamn project.

“It took awhile,” Sam said.

“You see, Sam was intimidated by my height,” Riley said. “He was hesitant to date someone taller, so I arranged to get shorter.”

“Riley!”

“One of the pleasures of getting blown up is that you get to make jokes about it and everybody who still has all their limbs gets uncomfortable,” Riley told Bucky.

“‘One of the pleasures’,” Bucky repeated. “Because there are so many.”

“The other pleasure is that somebody tried to kill you and you fuckin’ lived,” Riley said. “That’s the ultimate fuck-you.”

Bucky hadn’t been entirely convinced that living was a pleasure when Riley had told him that, but these days he’s feeling more sure. It’s easy to feel good while drinking a beer with the two of them. Tonight Sam is making couscous to accompany a chicken and vegetable tagine that’s in the oven. Bucky doesn’t really know what a tagine is but it smells delicious and he’s never had a bad meal out of Sam’s kitchen.

“So who’s got you smiling and flashing your arm? Are they cute?”

“You do not have to answer that,” Sam tells Bucky.

“Oh yes he does,” Riley says. “You come over to our house and you eat our cooking and you repay us in gossip. We’re a boring old couple now and we need fresh young things like you to keep us entertained.”

“There’s no one,” Bucky says. He’s going to have to get better at lying. But for now he knows exactly how to get them to drop the subject. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? Maybe I’m smiling because Sam’s about to serve me food, did you think of that?”

“Listen to that. He thinks he’s real fuckin’ smooth.”

“It’s working just fine,” Sam informs Riley, who puts his hand to his chest again as though he’s affronted. Sam puts on oven mitts and pulls a ceramic pot out of the oven. When he takes off the cone-shaped top, the scents of paprika and cumin and slow-cooked chicken waft into the air. Dinner distracts Riley from the subject of Bucky’s love life, and by the time they’re all at the table, he’s telling stories about linguistic and cultural misunderstandings at the translation firm he runs.

“This fuckin’ French kid, he’s a whiz at Pashto and Dari and his written English is perfect, but that boy has the dirtiest goddamn mind. And in conversation he has trouble with ‘this’ and ‘these’—he can’t tell the difference between ‘beach’ and ‘bitch,’ either—and this week at work I told him a whole village had been ‘feasting’ and his eyes went as wide as saucers.”

It takes a second, but Bucky lets out a bark of laughter. “Well. It’s important to respect other people’s cultural traditions.”

“It sure is,” Riley says, and Sam shakes his head in silent amusement. “Then again I once accidentally told a diplomat that I was ‘aroused’ to meet him, so we’ve all made some mistakes.”

“How did he respond to that?”

“Not as badly as you might think,” Riley says, and winks. Sam rolls his eyes.

“I think I might have accidentally communicated that to more than one person,” Bucky says. “It didn’t have anything to do with language.”

They laugh, and the rest of dinner passes quickly. Bucky doesn’t spare another thought for miscommunication, sexual or otherwise, on his bike ride home. He’s too busy thinking about Steve’s list.

Chapter Text

Masturbation.

Bucky stops at item one and brings the paper closer to his face. It’s not that he can’t read it. Steve has printed the whole list in neat block lettering. It’s all very matter-of-fact. Bucky had fantasized about something more descriptive. He’s not disappointed—it is, after all, a list of things that Steve wants to do in bed with him. But some detail might be nice.

Alone, lounging with his back against the wall and his legs stretched out on his mattress, Bucky laughs. Some detail might be nice. The truth is, it doesn’t matter that Steve didn’t write him a Penthouse forum letter. Well, Steve is artsy, he probably deserves a more high-class comparison. An Anaïs Nin short story? Either way, all Steve had to do was give Bucky an itemized list and Bucky is raring to go. He’ll make up the details himself.

Maybe Steve wants to jerk him off. Maybe Steve wants them to jerk off together. Maybe Steve wants to watch.

Christ, why is that last one that gets his blood pumping? Bucky puts a hand to the front of his shorts and adjusts himself. He aims a disapproving glare southward. Calm down. We’re only on item one. But it’s a lost cause. He tries not to grip the list too tightly in his metal hand, in case Steve needs to see it again. Steve had somehow delivered the page to him in pristine condition. Did Steve jot this down like it was a grocery list? The paper doesn’t look like there was any contemplation involved at all. There are two crisp envelope folds in the page and no eraser marks.

Or maybe there was lots of contemplation. It’s all so neat and clean. This has to be draft number two, at least. And those perfect, straight folds. Those weren’t made in haste. It’s evidence of such control. And that’s how Bucky knows he’s in way too deep, because the thought of Steve carefully, deliberately creasing the paper is kind of turning him on.

Item number one might as well be an order. He pushes the hem of his white t-shirt a few inches up from his hips, then lets his fingertips ride over the newly bare skin, tracing patterns around his navel and down the trail of hair below it. His fingers skim under the waistband of his shorts. He’s ready. He could put the list down and go right now. But he’s never had the pleasure of holding a handwritten list of sex acts that Steve would like to perform with him, James Buchanan Barnes, before. He would not have believed such a list existed, if his very own metal fingers were not slightly crinkling the edge of it. And now that he has it, he’s gonna savor the hell out of it.

Oral. Can’t fault Steve there. Bucky has spent many nights guiltily wrapping his hand around his cock and imagining Steve’s pretty lips there instead, and maybe even more fantasizing about the weight and feel and taste of Steve’s cock against his tongue. He doesn’t have to feel guilty any more. That’s almost as hard to imagine as actually getting to live out all his dirty little fantasies. Steve didn’t write whether he wants to give or receive, and Bucky hopes to hell it’s because the answer is both.

Bucky lets his hand drift downward. He doesn’t touch his cock. The pads of his fingers touch the sensitive skin of his inner thighs, tracing up under the fabric of his shorts. He inches closer to his balls, which feel heavy and tight.

The next two items are fingering and anal, also without an indication of whether Steve imagines himself giving or receiving. Bucky would love to take Steve apart with his mouth and his hands and his cock. He never thought he’d have an opportunity, and the thought of Steve flushed and panting beneath him—or on top of him—makes his dick strain against the front of his shorts. But more than anything, it’s the thought of Steve fucking him that makes precome blurt out the tip of his cock.

His partners usually take him home because he’s sturdy and muscular and maybe a little bit scary, so they think he’s a mysterious hyper-masculine bad boy with a dark past or whatever, instead of just a guy who’s been through some shit and now spends most of his life anxious and grouchy and in need of a shave. So then they want him to hold them up or down or whichever way while he fucks them until their eyes roll back in their heads and they cry out. And he’s happy enough to do that. He’s good at it, and it’s satisfying, and if that’s what Steve wants, Bucky is thrilled to be the one who gets to give it to him. Bucky would fuck Steve wherever, whenever, and however Steve wanted it. But the truth is that if Steve doesn’t want to fuck him too, he’ll be a little disappointed. He loves getting fucked. People rarely offer, but he loves the tight, slick pressure of having somebody’s fingers or their cock in his ass. Nothing else offers that same, sweet release.

The thought of Steve pushing him down onto his back and then pounding into him, or bending him over and grabbing him by the hips is what finally makes Bucky shove his underwear down his thighs and touch himself. His cock is dripping pre-come, so his first stroke is nice and slick. Fuck, but he hopes Steve wants to fuck him. If people don’t offer, he never asks. He works hard to act like the person his partners want him to be. Getting fucked requires letting go, being vulnerable. He can’t do that with just anyone. It would be safe with Steve. He trusts Steve.

Bucky has spent way too much time contemplating the subject, but he’s convinced Steve will be good in bed. He’s a good listener. He’s capable of intense dedication when he wants to do something right. And he’s a competitive little shit. Personality matters more than any particular physical quality, but Steve is also goddamn gorgeous. And he’s good with his hands.

Steve has remarkably large hands for someone so small. Bucky feels guilty for thinking about them, before he remembers that he’s allowed now. Christ, it would be good to have Steve’s hand on his cock instead of his own. Bucky is stroking himself steadily now, not too fast, not too hard. He rubs his thumb over the head of his cock to catch the bead of pre-come there, then slips his hand back down to the base.

Steve’s next list item is toys, which is even more open to interpretation than any of the previous entries. Bucky has used a few vibrators, though mostly on his partners rather than himself. He could be interested in other things, too. They’ll have to talk about it when the time comes.

They’ll have to talk about the rest of the list, too, especially since the next two things are both followed question marks: Steve has written spanking? and then bondage? right below it. It’s the only sign of any hesitation.

A girl once asked Bucky to handcuff her to her headboard before he ate her out. He enjoyed himself, although the cuffs didn’t have much to do with it for him. But he wanted her to be happy. Judging from the amount of moaning and sighing and clamping her thighs around his face that she did, it worked out pretty well. If that’s what Steve wants, they can go down to the sex toy shop and buy a pair of handcuffs or whatever. That’s easy enough.

He has, on occasion, wanted to tie Steve up to keep him from making fucking terrible choices, like starting fights with people bigger than him or going out in the rain with no coat when he has a history of getting pneumonia. He doesn’t really want to spank Steve, though. He’s never really wanted to punish Steve. Those choices tend to be punishment enough in themselves. And feeling exasperated with Steve’s recklessness is not a feeling he associates with sex. It’s a sort of baseline, everyday part of being Steve’s friend. But if it would make Steve happy to have Bucky slap his ass with his hand or a crop or whatever it is that he wants, then Bucky will do that too.

If, on the other hand, Steve wanted to spank Bucky—he can hardly finish the thought before his cock nearly slips out of his grip. That would be alright. It might even be more than alright. Imagining the sting of Steve’s hand against his bare ass quickens his pulse and the motion of his hand.

The next two list items have no question marks. Steve was apparently feeling more sure of himself when he wrote praise and rimming. Who knows what he meant by the first one—what kind of praise exactly, and does he want to give it or receive it? But the second one is clear enough. There’s a good mental image. Bucky’s hand tightens its grip a little. He speeds up his rhythm. Has Steve ever rimmed anyone? Would Bucky be his first? He would be so good for Steve. He would let Steve take him apart entirely. But he would be happy to demonstrate, too. He would love to bury his face in Steve’s ass and rim Steve until he’s incoherent with bliss.

Fuck. He comes with unexpected force, all over his hand and his stomach. Bucky lies on his mattress staring up at nothing for a moment. He’s so accustomed to treating thoughts of Steve like guilty fantasies that even with the list in his hand, it’s hard to believe they’re really going to do this. Starting tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

Working at the bar is fine most of the time. Most people order beer, so that’s not complicated. Not everyone tips, and eight or nine hours of standing is a long time, and it’s noisy and crowded. But he has his own space behind the bar, and he knows what to do, and he gets along with the other servers, and he needs the money, so it’s fine.

But Saturday afternoon just before they open, the owner is there, prowling through the store room and pawing at everything behind the bar. He’s always worried his employees have been stealing from him. He doesn’t trust any of them. His concern doesn’t stop him from snapping a wet bar rag against Bucky’s ass.

Bucky is slicing a lemon at the time, and it’s only by the grace of his knife skills that he doesn’t end up thwacking the blade into his left hand. He’s not sure which implement would survive that confrontation, and he’d rather not find out right now. The boss always puts him on edge.

“Look alive,” the asshole says as he snaps the rag, probably trying to get Bucky to turn and look at him. Bucky doesn’t. He tries not to engage with him at all. If he looks, they’ll get into some kind of weird alpha male staring contest, and who knows what would happen after that. Something violent, probably. Bucky could take him, but the risks are too big. He needs this job to pay his rent. And he doesn’t hurt people any more. And the boss is almost never here.

But when he is here, he makes his presence known. He squeezes behind Bucky like the bar is too narrow for two people to pass each other, even though it’s not. He’s just taking the opportunity to rub his crotch against Bucky. He leans over Bucky’s shoulder, with his face so close that his stubble is practically bristling Bucky’s cheek.

Bucky draws his knife through the pulpy remains of the lemon again. It’s better than shuddering.

“Stressed? I could give you something to help with that.”

He’s always full of insinuations. As if rubbing his dick against Bucky’s ass is subtle. “I’m fine.”

His laugh is low and unpleasantly hot against Bucky’s ear. “When you’re done massacring that lemon, get me a beer.”

And then he’s gone and Bucky can breathe again. He doesn’t spit in the beer, because he’s the fucking champion of self-restraint. And because it will be sweeter to quit than get fired.

The bar gets busier as it gets later. Bucky takes orders and serves drinks with single-minded dedication and almost forgets who else is working that night.

And then, near the very end of Bucky’s shift, Steve comes in.

He doesn’t have Natasha’s eerie way of parting the crowd and silently intimidating someone into giving up their barstool, but he’s patient and crafty and he always manages to slip in and get a seat at the bar somehow, even on Saturday night. “Hey,” he says, and his glasses are crooked and there’s a little smear of charcoal on his forehead. He must have brushed his bangs to the side earlier. Someone must have complimented him, or maybe a beautiful woman looked at him and he didn’t know what to do. Steve, for all his bravado, flusters easily.

Bucky gets him a beer without being asked. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

He’s always happy to see Steve, but he hasn’t told Steve about his boss. Steve will be upset. He’ll start a fight or a letter-writing campaign. He’ll try to get Bucky to quit. Bucky resists the urge to look over his shoulder. Is he still here? Please let him be gone, or distracted, or dead.

Steve smiles, and it eases Bucky despite everything. “Well,” he says. “Y’know.”

Bucky does know. If not for his absolute dickhead of a boss, he would have been thinking about it for every single moment of his shift. Even still, he spent an impressive portion of the last eight hours thinking about Steve. Naked.

Bucky probably has a dumb look on his face right now, but that’s nothing. Because Steve ducks his head and brushes his bangs to the side.

“I’m glad you came,” Bucky says, because Steve has momentarily blotted out all other thoughts.

They’ve known each other longer enough that all Steve has to do is raise an eyebrow in response to that. It’s funny, and he’s glad to see Steve feeling comfortable again, but he’s seen Steve make that expression a thousand times. He’s seen Steve flustered a thousand times, too, but it’s never been directed at him. Which side of Steve will he get to see later tonight? Confident or shy? Silly or serious? He knows Steve so well, but he doesn’t know the answer. He shivers. How much longer before they can get out of here?

They can’t make any more jokes about coming or Bucky’s going to drop a glass on the floor. “Shut up. Drink your fucking beer.”

Steve looks him in the eye and wraps his lips around the rim of his beer bottle.

Jesus fucking Christ.

 Steve tips his head back and takes a long, luxurious drink.

“Did you show up here just to torment me?” Bucky says. He keeps his voice low but nothing can stop the rush of heat under his skin.

Steve shrugs one shoulder, enjoying himself far too much. “Don’t you have work to do?”

Bucky shakes his head and makes his way to the other end of the bar, where there is a group of half a dozen customers who have been waiting on him. They’re probably not going to tip him, but for a moment, he almost doesn’t care. He can still feel Steve watching him as he works. It makes him hold himself differently. He stands up straighter. He tries not to glance over his shoulder at Steve but he has to restrain himself, and it makes his muscles go taut. He becomes aware of every moment: the new angle of his back as he leans forward to hear a drink order, the stretch of his arm as he passes a beer over the bar, the closing of his hand as he accepts cash and credit cards.

He serves more customers. An hour passes, and his shift ends before he makes it back down to Steve’s end of the bar. He has consciously looked away from Steve since they separated, but he’s certain that Steve hasn’t moved. He’s still nursing the same damn beer, watching.

Bucky glances over. His suspicions are confirmed. Steve is still sitting there. He has one elbow on the bar and he’s supporting himself like that, with his hand under his chin. It’s a contemplative pose, but Steve is not gazing into the distance thinking far-off thoughts. He’s looking right at Bucky.

Bucky meets Steve’s gaze and immediately feels like he’s broken the rules of the game. But when he looks elsewhere, his gaze lands on something that jerks him out of the game completely: his boss, right behind Steve.

The truth is, Bucky tries not to look at his boss for two reasons. The first is that he’s avoiding confrontation. The second is that his boss is better-looking than he has a right to be. He’s older, but the silver in his dark hair suits him, as do the few lines around his eyes that show when he flashes his predatory smile. The stubble across his cheeks and chin draws attention to the beautifully strong lines of his jaw and his neck. He’s wearing a tight black t-shirt that shows off how lithe and muscular he is. And he’s—a goddamn asshole who’s pushing his way into Steve’s personal space.

Bucky clenches a towel in his fist.

Steve tenses up instantly. If he were a cat, all the hair on his back would be raised and his tail would be fluffed up three times its normal size. As a human, he’s nearly hissing. The asshole is leaning in and dragging the tip of his index finger along the underside of Steve’s jaw.

Steve’s eyes are bright with defiance, blue even in the darkness. He looks like he’s about to commit murder. His hand is already tightening around the offending wrist.

Bucky strides over. He’s not letting Steve go to prison alone. “Rumlow,” he says.

“Barnes.” Rumlow doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t move at all. Steve is wrenching Rumlow’s hand away, and Rumlow is acting like nothing is happening at all. Rumlow’s act must be taking some effort, because Steve is squeezing his wrist so hard his skin is blanched. “I noticed this one staring at you. Is he bothering you?”

The question makes Steve’s gaze flicker between the two of them for a moment. “No,” Bucky says. “Leave him alone.”

“Think you’ve got it backwards, which one of us is holding the other.”

Steve releases his grip. He still looks like he’d enjoy causing Rumlow some pain, but he doesn’t say anything. Rumlow rubs his wrist where Steve grabbed him, then brushes by Steve, knocking into him as he passes. He walks around the end of the bar and joins Bucky behind it. He closes in, using his height and the breadth of his chest to press against Bucky, so that he’s blocking Steve’s line of sight yet again. There’s way too much contact between his body and Bucky’s, but Bucky is trapped. Breathe. Breathe. Pitching his voice low, Rumlow says into his ear, “You let me know if you need me.”

What a disgusting sentence. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves, and Bucky is dead sure that’s why Rumlow picked them. He’s a sleazebag, but he’s careful never to say anything too incriminating. He only grabs Bucky’s ass if they’re alone together. All the rest of his touches can be put aside as accidental somehow. He wasn’t watching where he was going. It was crowded and there wasn’t enough space.

Then he pushes by, leaning into Bucky as he passes, and is gone.

Bucky shudders, then looks at Steve.

“You wanna get out of here?” Steve says. He’s giving a hard stare to Rumlow’s back at the other end of the bar. Bucky is sure that if he said ‘no, I want to stay here and kick the shit out of him,’ Steve would leap up and do it, small size and chronic illness be damned. That’s why they’re friends.

But Bucky wants to go home, so he nods.

They have better things to do, anyway.

Chapter Text

“Bucky,” Steve says as soon as the bar door closes behind them and the cold air stings their cheeks. “I need to ask you something.”

“That’s never a good way to start.”

“That guy, back there, in the bar—are you two,” Steve pauses and reformulates his question. “Who is he to you?”

Bucky scrunches up his face in disgust. “Rumlow? He’s my boss. We’ve never done anything. I don’t hate myself that much.” He glances at Steve, who is backlit by a street light, with the wind lifting his blond hair and making a halo around his head. He should be wearing a hat, the dope. “He’s not my type,” Bucky adds, with an air of finality. They could be talking about something so much better than this.

“Bucky,” Steve says, in a tone that indicates they’re not done with the topic. “Is your boss sexually harassing you?”

“Steve.”

“Answer the question.”

“I’m sorry he touched you. He’s an asshole. But I’m handling it, Steve.”

Steve gives him a long, steady look. “Okay,” he says, reluctantly. “But if you needed anything—,”

“I know,” Bucky says. Steve would be there. He always is. Bucky walks the next few blocks without saying anything. He doesn’t want to talk about Rumlow and he can’t think of anything to say that isn’t I’m really excited to let you use me for your sexual experimentation or even the comparatively more normal can’t wait to touch your dick bro. Ironically using “bro” makes it joking and friendly instead of desperate and lovelorn, right?

He’s buzzing with so much anticipation that it doesn’t even occur to him that Steve has been quiet the whole way home until they arrive at Nat’s stoop. They walk up the stairs and Bucky gets out his borrowed house key.

Liho is at the door when they walk in, but she’s disappointed to discover that neither of them is Natasha and immediately runs into the darkened house. They hang up their coats and take off their shoes and then end up standing in the entryway, unsure where to go. This is a long way from Bucky’s fantasy of Steve getting mad enough to push him up against the door and kiss him senseless. But it’s easy to make the Steve of his fantasies do what he wants—that’s the point. The real Steve is in front of him, not making eye contact. There’s only one dim little bulb lighting the entryway, so it’s hard to tell, but Steve might even be blushing.

It’s adorable. It’s also a relief. Steve has projected so much togetherness throughout this whole thing that Bucky forgets sometimes that he doesn’t have much experience. He definitely doesn’t have experience with this particular scenario, so that makes two of them.

How do you go from being friends to—fuckbuddies, or whatever it is they’re trying to be? Bucky has spent so much time imagining this moment, but it’s never been like this. There’s always a spark. It’s sudden and passionate. It leaves no time or breath for questions. Even if it starts with a joke, his fantasies get serious—reverent, confessional even—fast. This is painfully far from that. This moment, empty of action and full of possibility, has never occurred to him. He doesn’t know what to do. Steve is too close and too far. Bucky simmers with want and holds himself as still as he possibly can.

It’s a real shame there’s no covert hand signal or facial expression that means if you wanted to push me against the wall and kiss me really aggressively, I’d be down. Bucky doesn’t think he can say it out loud.

Christ. It’s Steve. He’s never been shy in front of Steve. And Steve, his inability to accept compliments aside, has never been shy around him. Whatever Bucky does in the next five seconds, if Steve doesn’t like it, fuck knows he’ll say so.

Bucky leans down and kisses Steve. It’s a slow approach. He can’t bring himself to do it fast and hard, no matter how sure he is that Steve will say no if this isn’t what wants. Bucky is too aware of how much bigger he is than Steve. Steve hates being described as delicate, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He’s small and slender, all fine angles and shallow breath. Bucky looms over him, in this body made of metal and scars that he’s used for so much violence.

Steve lets him in. He accepts the touch of Bucky’s lips against his own. At first it’s nothing more than that: the soft press of lips on lips, the faintly sweet taste of Steve’s mouth against his. Even that much contact is a wonder, a revelation. Bucky has spent so much of his life assuming he would never be allowed this far.

And then they both move, like magnets snapping together, and Steve’s body is pressed against his so tightly and forcefully that he braces his shoulders against the wall for balance. Steve’s hands, still cold from their long walk home, are cupping his face, cool fingers tracing over the shape of his cheekbones and the texture of his stubble. The kiss turns ravenous. Bucky can’t tell which of them is hungrier. Steve’s tongue pushes against his, playful and powerful. Bucky is no longer leaning down to meet Steve. Steve is leaning up into him. Bucky’s hands find Steve’s waist, curve down over his ass, and pull him up closer. Steve responds so instinctively, letting Bucky lift him and bending his knees so that he can squeeze Bucky’s hips between his thighs, that it’s impossible to believe they’ve never done this before.

Steve uses his position to rock his hips against Bucky, and the friction is so torturously good that Bucky groans into the kiss. Steve takes advantage of the moment of distraction to nip Bucky’s bottom lip and then kisses his way across Bucky’s jaw and down his neck. Steve’s teeth graze the delicate spot just below his ear, and then he latches on and sucks. There will be no way to hide that mark at work tomorrow, but all Bucky can do is clutch at Steve’s ass and squeeze. They can’t get any closer to each other, but that won’t stop him from trying. Even through the layers of clothes between their bodies, Bucky can feel how hard Steve is. His own cock is throbbing, trapped in  his goddamn skinny jeans. Fuck, but why do they still have clothes on?

Steve, the little genius, already has his hands at work undoing the buttons on Bucky’s shirt. Bucky can’t undress Steve without putting him down, and he has no interest in that. Steve is christening every newly exposed inch of his throat and collarbone with fierce kisses. He never wants it to stop. He tilts his head forward and nips at Steve’s earlobe. Steve shivers, his hands pausing in their furious work for just a moment. Pleased, Bucky drags his parted lips over the skin of Steve’s neck, and Steve lets out a shuddering breath.

Bucky has never been harder in his life. Steve finishes with his black button-down, undoing the last of the buttons and then pulling both the shirt and the white tank top underneath it untucked, and sets to work on his belt buckle. His kisses become more absent-minded and he stills his hips for a moment. It gives Bucky a chance to shift all of Steve’s weight onto his left arm, so that his right hand is free to pull up the hem of Steve’s sweater and the threadbare t-shirt beneath it and finally touch skin. Steve’s back is warm and smooth and perfect.

Then Steve’s knuckles brush the bare skin right below Bucky’s navel as he starts to undo Bucky’s fly. All of Bucky’s attention focuses on that single point of contact.

“Steve,” he murmurs, as much a prayer as it is praise. But speaking breaks the spell, and their ultimate goal comes back to him. “Upstairs.”

“Couch,” Steve says. It’s a succinct argument. The living room couch is mere feet from them. Bucky could carry Steve there and they could make out the whole time. The idea is tactically brilliant, but strategically foolhardy. That causes Bucky to pull away a few inches and look at Steve in surprise.

“Nat will murder us if she ever finds out.”

For a second, Steve’s mouth twists up devilishly, like he’s about to argue either that she won’t find out or that she won’t murder them for getting jizz on her pristine upholstery. Both claims are patently false. Then he comes to his senses and says, “Yeah, okay. Upstairs it is.”

Reluctantly, Bucky lets Steve down. He instantly misses the pressure of Steve’s hips against his. But Steve is on his feet now, grabbing Bucky by the hand and leaving no time for regrets. Bucky has to hold his jeans up with one hand as they nearly trip up the stairs together. The rush is born of eagerness, but there’s a thread of anxiety running through it, like maybe this whole thing might go up in smoke if they don’t get back to business quick enough. If they have to stop what they’re doing, they’ll have time to think about it, and who knows what might happen then.

“Third floor,” Bucky says, breathless, and when they reach the top of the stairs, Steve leads him into the guest bedroom on the right. Bucky’s duffel bag of clothes is sitting, still zipped, on the floor next to the perfectly made bed. Steve doesn’t spare it a glance. He hops onto the bed, pulls his sweater and his t-shirt over his head in a single motion, and tosses them on the floor. Bucky follows him onto the bed, shedding his shirt and undershirt as well.

It’s not the first time Bucky has seen Steve shirtless, but the spare build of his chest, lean and beautiful, still strikes Bucky speechless. Steve is flushed, his creamy skin now only a shade less pink than his nipples. The natural color stands out in contrast to the blue ink of his tattoo, an abstract geometric pattern of his own design that advances down his right shoulder and bicep in a honeycomb of hexagons, stars and arabesques. The tattoo is unfinished, and Bucky can’t resist reaching out to trace his fingers over it, wondering where it will go.

Steve has other tattoos—Kurt Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” in black typewriter print over his heart and the image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass from the album cover of “London Calling” hatched in pink, green, and grey on the left side of his lower back—but it’s the one on his arm that draws Bucky’s attention. There’s now a tiny yellow bee hovering between two of the little blue hexagons.

He recognizes the insect as a subtle allusion to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ album “The Brutalist Bricks.” He knows the album backwards and forwards, not so much from personal preference as from having spent months sitting in Steve’s studio as a portrait subject while the album played on repeat. The yellow and black is a tiny spot of color in the disintegrating mosaic pattern of the blue ink. He likes it. It feels a little like a commemoration of all the time they spent in the studio together, with Steve surviving Bucky and Bucky surviving.

Steve says he can tell if people are going to judge him right away when they look at him and see ink peaking out beneath his t-shirt sleeve. Bucky has a metal arm for that. He hasn’t felt the need to modify himself any more permanently.

Steve stares at him, but it doesn’t feel a thing like when strangers surreptitiously try to study his arm. Probably because Steve grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him down into a kiss a second later. Bucky returns the kiss with no skill whatsoever. It’s all rushed contact and lips and tongues and laughing breathlessly as he tries to jerk Steve’s jeans and boxers down his hips. Steve is trying to do the same to him. They’re not making much progress, kissing and stripping each other at the same time, but it doesn’t matter. Steve raises his hips just as Bucky lowers his, and Bucky’s boxer briefs are caught on his ass and his dick is only halfway out the goddamn elastic band of his underwear, and Steve isn’t doing much better, but that first contact between their cocks is so electric that Bucky whispers “fuck” out loud to himself involuntarily.

Steve laughs at him, the asshole.

“Can it, Rogers. Take your damn clothes off.”

Beneath him, Steve shimmies his jeans and boxers down his thighs. And sweet fucking Lord, but Steve wriggling his hips with his cock bobbing gently against his stomach might genuinely be the last thing Bucky sees before he dies. Bucky’s wide-eyed staring is interrupted by Steve reaching up and yanking his jeans and underwear down to his knees. Bucky laughs and collapses on top of him, still keeping a little weight on his elbows so as not to crush Steve completely. He rocks his hips against Steve’s, lining their hard-ons up together, feeling the catch of Steve’s cock against his as he moves.

He kisses the side of Steve’s neck, then nuzzles the same spot, drunk on sensation. “What did you mean when you wrote ‘masturbation’ on the list?” he asks. He inches his right hand into the tight space between their bodies and grabs both of their cocks. Steve’s stomach is already slick with drips from the both of them, and his hand is slippery by the time he strokes it downward.

Steve sighs happily. His eyes are closed. “Who cares what I wrote,” he says. “If you stop that I’m gonna die.”

“Well, alright then,” Bucky says. “Wouldn’t want that.”

Steve is ridiculously, tantalizing responsive, moving his hips in time with Bucky’s strokes and making the filthiest little noises. Bucky remembers, then, that Steve has never been with a guy before. He’s happy to be the first, but feels strangely guilty that he hasn’t put more thought into it. They don’t even have their clothes all the way off. The whole point of this was to expand Steve’s sexual horizons, not to rut up against each other in bed like horny teenagers.

Then again, the half-clothed, sex-hazed horny teenager thing is working out pretty fucking great right about now. Steve is kissing him again, with just as much urgency as before, and Bucky has to forcibly slow himself down before he comes.

“Hey,” he says. “You wanna use your hand for awhile?”

He feels greedy and generous at the same time, reluctant to let go of Steve’s cock but still eager to feel Steve’s hand on his. Steve nods and pushes his hand between the two of them. Bucky raises his hips to make room, then lets Steve wrap his hand around his cock while still keeping his hand on Steve.

Steve touches him experimentally, softly and almost unbearably slowly at first. Bucky still groans with it, because he’s been dreaming about Steve touching him for too long not to. “Steve,” he whines.

Steve smiles, all fake innocence. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky says. “A dick is a dick. Come on.”

Steve speeds up incrementally. Bucky tries not to give him the satisfaction of moaning and fails. It feels so fucking good. “I wanted to watch you,” Steve says, after a moment. “See what you liked.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, stunned for a second. That was exactly what he had wanted. He thinks of Steve watching him earlier tonight, in the bar, and how strange and erotic it had felt to have Steve’s gaze on him, even when he was fully clothed and in public. “We could still do that.”

Steve’s hand stops moving. “Yeah?”

“Not now, you asshole,” Bucky says. Fuck, it’s hard to make sentences in this condition. He wishes Steve hadn’t stopped. He’s so close he’s nearly vibrating with it. “If we do it now,” he pauses to breathe, “it’ll last about fifteen seconds.”

“Speak for yourself. I could do this all day.”

Just for that, Bucky takes a firmer grip on Steve’s cock and accelerates his rhythm mercilessly until Steve comes, gasping, in his hand. But he can’t hold it together with Steve’s still-warm orgasm splattered between their bodies, and it only takes another second for his own to shoot out of him. His whole body shudders with pleasure, then he sighs and relaxes, lying down on top of Steve. It’s sticky between them. He doesn’t care.

“Well,” Steve says, after a moment. “To all those people who told me I was ‘experimenting’ when I said I was bi, the results are in and they are positive.”

“Yeah? You sure? I think you’re supposed to try to reproduce your data.”

“Mmm,” Steve says. “Good point.”

“We should do it again,” Bucky says. “Next time we’ll get our clothes all the way off and everything. You wanna try something else?”

Steve smiles, and he looks happy and sated, but tired. It must be late. “Yeah, but not tonight.”

“Sure, of course,” Bucky says. “We can take it slow with the list.” That’s better, anyway. It’ll make the whole thing last longer. And it will put off the inevitable question of what’s going to happen to them when they’ve made it to the end.

“Besides,” Steve says, and his smile turns goofy. “We wouldn’t want to blow our load too soon.”

“I am embarrassed to know you right now.”

Steve pushes at his shoulder. “So get off me and let me go get cleaned up.” Bucky rolls to the side and Steve sits up, pulls his jeans off his ankles, and walks naked out of the room. Goddamn, what a view.

Steve comes back a few minutes later and starts pulling his clothes on. Bucky watches from the bed. He’s allowed to do that now, right? Steve smiles at him with his jeans halfway on, and that feels like permission and paradise all at once. But Steve is getting dressed, which is a damn shame.

“It’s almost three,” Steve says. “I should go.”

Bucky clamps his mouth shut on the word stay. Sleeping together—in a bed, that is—isn’t part of their arrangement. And he has work tomorrow. “Sure,” he says. “You okay to get home?”

Steve nods. “Let’s talk tomorrow. Maybe we can do this again soon.”

And then he’s gone, without a kiss or even a goodbye.

The whole thing wavers between illicit and unreal. On the one hand, he’s in Natasha’s apartment, lying on a rucked-up blanket that reeks of sex, and that is unmistakably real and filthy, in the best possible way. On the other hand, he’s in someone else’s home and someone else’s bed and he might as well be living someone else’s life. It’s like he won a dream vacation, emphasis on dream. 

Bucky sets his alarm for the morning and sighs.

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up and doesn’t recognize where he is, let alone what the unpleasant noise blaring next to his head is, or why there’s a small warm weight on the small of his back. Oh. It’s Nat’s cat. He’s in Nat’s guest bedroom, where he only lay down to go to sleep two goddamn hours ago. He reaches for the bedside table without lifting his head from the pillow, but only manages to knock his beeping, vibrating phone clattering to the floor. The sound makes Liho arch her back and shoot out all twenty of her wickedly sharp little claws. They stab down through all the blankets and the sheets and into Bucky. He yelps and sits up, throwing Liho off to the side.

She stands on the covers and glares at him resentfully.

“Yeah, fuck you too.”

Bucky gets out of bed, finds his phone on the floor, and turns off the alarm. By the time he stands up again, Liho is already curled up in the warm spot he just vacated, making a little nest between his pillow and the wrinkled edge of the blankets. He could swear she looks smug. Cats are such assholes.

Natasha’s shower sprays him in the face with icy water before he figures out its space-age controls, and making coffee in her kitchen requires an advanced degree, and all that’s in her fridge is a box of old spinach, two limes, and a bottle of white wine. Bucky arrives for his shift at the drugstore running on two hours of sleep, no food, and no caffeine, in the absolute foulest of moods.

The day trudges along. It’s a good thing he doesn’t earn his salary from tips here, because he wouldn’t have made a dime for the last three hours. Josh comes in at nine to start his shift and he glances at Bucky’s neck and says “congrats on that, bro,” without even a hint of irony. Bucky gives him a silent look that sends him scurrying to the back room in fear. It’s the only moment of enjoyment he’s had since he woke up.

Well. He reaches up and brushes his fingers over the hickey when no one is looking. Maybe things aren’t all bad.

He gets a break at 10AM, and he runs out to the nearest coffeeshop. Just so he won’t have to go back to the drugstore right away, he sits at an empty table by the window for a minute with his coffee and muffin. While he’s shoving the latter into his mouth with one hand, he texts Steve with the other.

hows your sunday bc mine sucks

I’m in the studio, Steve writes back. Kinda distracted.

Is that so, Steve. Is that so. Bucky smiles at his phone with both of his cheeks stuffed full of blueberry muffin. It’s a good thing Josh isn’t around to see this, since if he was, Bucky would never be able to scare him shitless again.

Bucky’s phone buzzes again and he looks down in surprise. Steve is not much for texting, not unless Bucky prompts him. Actually, can you come to the studio when your shift is over?

Bucky remembers that they have something else to discuss. Some news that Steve wanted to tell him in person. Is that why Steve is distracted? Damn. Bucky was really hoping he meant last night was distracting. Last night is the indirect cause of all of his problems today, after all.

be there after 2, he writes. Steve’s studio isn’t that far from the drugstore. Bucky can get there fast.

No need to worry, Steve assures him. Bucky wishes Steve would just fucking tell him whatever it is, but if Steve wants to talk in person, Bucky isn’t going to object to that. Maybe if the news is really good, they can celebrate. Steve’s studio is tiny and cluttered, but there’s at least two chairs in it that could probably withstand their combined weight. And failing that, Bucky’s not too proud for the floor.

Good Lord. Steve probably just wants to hang out and talk, like they have for the last twenty-odd years of their friendship.

Somehow the last four hours of his shift are even longer than the first four.

Steve’s studio is a room barely larger than a closet at the art school where he teaches. The door is unlocked when Bucky arrives, so he doesn’t bother knocking. “What’s this I hear about you having news? And why am I the last to know?”

“Oh,” Steve says. He turns to look at Bucky from his stool in front of the easel. He must be worn out, because he prefers to draw and paint standing, even though he gets fatigued easily. “I meant to tell you at the coffeeshop on Thursday but… I was trying keep the sex stuff separate from the rest of our lives. That makes sense, right?”

“News, Rogers.” Bucky walks over to the easel. There’s a head study in charcoal clipped to it right now. Leaning against the back wall are two small new studies in oil of Sam and Riley. Steve is putting together a show of portraits of veterans.

Steve sitting on the tall stool puts him at eye level with Bucky. It puts their mouths at the same level, too, but Bucky pretends not to notice. They’re keeping the sex stuff separate, after all.

“You remember awhile back when Brandt wanted me to enter that competition?”

Brandt is Steve’s art dealer. He has an aura of money and power around him that always makes Bucky uncomfortable, and he’s as smooth-talking as a politician, but he seems to be pretty good at selling Steve’s paintings, so Bucky can’t dislike him too much. Steve’s work is beautiful and deserves to be seen. And Steve deserves to be paid for it. Brandt had brought Steve’s prices up significantly, into a range that Bucky can barely imagine affording. But apparently there are people in the world who will can spend several times Bucky’s monthly take-home pay on a painting. Even though Bucky doesn’t live that lifestyle and probably never will, and he knows almost nothing about the contemporary art world, he still firmly believes that Steve’s paintings should cost more.

“This is the competition you described as ‘the Oscars of portraiture’,” Bucky says.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I didn’t really want to enter it. There’s always thousands of entries, and it’s a hassle, and it’s taking up time that I could spend painting, but Brandt thought it was a good idea.”

Bucky can easily see where this is going, but he lets Steve arrive there at his own pace.

“But I sent the work off and it turns out they selected it for the exhibition. They choose around fifty works.”

“That’s great!”

“So it’s been in the National Portrait Gallery in London for awhile, and uh. They shortlisted it for the grand prize?”

Of course they did. Bucky can’t help grinning. “That’s amazing, Steve. Congratulations! You deserve it.” Bucky pauses, wondering if their new friends-with-benefits arrangement means that hugs are now unacceptably sexual. Fuck it. He would have hugged Steve before, and he’s going to hug him now. He drags Steve into an embrace right there. It’s awkward with Steve sitting, but he doesn’t care.

“I haven’t won anything yet,” Steve mumbles into his shoulder. Bucky releases him. “There’s three paintings shortlisted.”

“It’s still great news.”

“Well,” Steve says, and that’s when Bucky remembers Nat’s request that he stop Steve from doing whatever bullshit he’s contemplating. Here it comes.

“The contest is sponsored by Roxxon Oil,” Steve says. “I want to drop out. I wish I’d never entered in the first place. I don’t want their money.”

“How much money?” Bucky says instantly.

Steve directs his gaze at the floor. “Third prize is eight thousand,” he mutters, like maybe he can stop Bucky from arguing with him if he’s quiet enough.

“And the grand prize?”

That has Steve looking right at him again. “I don’t want their blood money! Bucky. It’s Roxxon. Who is more invested in our dependence on fossil fuels that corporations that make all their profits from oil? And think of how shady they’ve been about that oil spill in the Gulf. Not to mention that our dependence on oil is responsible for most of the current clusterfuck that is U.S. foreign policy. How can I ever live with myself if I take money from them?”

“I notice you didn’t answer my question,” Bucky says, eying Steve.

Steve stops his angry gesticulating and crosses his arms over his chest. That’s almost as good as a verbal answer. It must be a lot of money. “It doesn’t matter. I have to drop out. I can’t take their money. It’s not right.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. He has no chance of winning this argument either way, but he opts to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar. This is a delicate subject, and he’s very tired, and if he’s not careful, Steve will be pissed at him instead of Roxxon Oil. “But even if the money does come from the oil industry, it’s probably a drop in the bucket to them, and a lot of money to you, right? And then you could use it for something good.” You could stop worrying so much about your insurance coverage, you fucking dope. “It’s better for the money to be in your hands than theirs, right? And just for the sake of my being informed, why don’t you tell me how much the grand prize is?”

Steve looks away. “Thirty thousand.”

What the fuck. So much for treading lightly.

Thirty thousand dollars.” Bucky pronounces every syllable at length to make up for Steve muttering the number as fast as possible. Jesus fucking Christ. That much money would make such a difference for Steve. He could give away ten thousand dollars and still do really well. Bucky restrains the urge to shake him by the shoulders.

Steve seems to know exactly what Bucky is thinking, and his anger about fossil fuel and blood money diminishes into embarrassment.  He knows how useful that money could be. It could make his life a lot easier. He’s more conflicted about this than he was letting on. Bucky can see a dull blush rising to Steve’s cheeks. “Pounds, actually.”

“What?”

“The contest takes place in London, so the prize is in pounds,” Steve says. He rubs the back of his neck. “It’s, uh, more like forty-five thousand dollars.”

“Steve!”

Steve sighs. “Can we not talk about how I’m going to sell my soul to the Roxxon corporation for forty-five thousand dollars any more? This is not actually what I wanted to see you about.”

“You don’t have to do it if it really makes you feel that bad,” Bucky says, softening. As nice as it would be for Steve to have forty-five thousand extra dollars, it’s not worth it if it’s going to make him miserable. “You’ve been doing okay without it. Hey, it’s not like you live in my shithole apartment!”

“There’s one more thing,” Steve says. He ignores Bucky’s joke. Something about his tone makes Bucky nervous. “It’s you.”

The sentence makes no sense to him. It’s you? But they’re not talking about Bucky at all. They’re talking about Steve.

“The painting,” Steve clarifies. “The one in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s you.”

“Oh.” Despite having been present in the studio for months while Steve drew a succession of charcoal studies and then painted a larger-than-life work in oil on canvas, Bucky never actually looked at any of the work. He didn’t much like looking at himself, right after he got back. Intellectually, he knows what the image must look like: he sat in a chair looking off into the distance for months, after all. He’d been wearing dog tags and no shirt. His right arm had been resting on a table. The light came from the large, north-facing window in the studio, because that was important to Steve for some reason.

Fuck knows why Steve wanted to make a painting of that. Bucky always figured it was just because he’d been awful to talk to. But whatever Steve’s reasons were, there’s a painting of Bucky in the world now, and it’s in a museum across the ocean and lots of people are looking at it. Bucky had known that other people would look at it, of course. But he’d known it in a distant, abstract way. Maybe it would go up on the walls of Brandt’s gallery in Chelsea. Maybe some patron or museum would buy it. He had hoped for that, because it would be good for Steve. It hadn’t occurred to him that the painting might receive international attention.

Still, it’s good. He had let Steve paint his picture, and the picture belongs to Steve now, and Steve can do what he wants with it. If other people like Steve’s work, so much the better. “Well. I trust you. You didn’t give me zits or crooked teeth or make me look like a one-armed freak, right?”

Steve gives him a look and his mouth twists. “That’s not exactly the word I’d use. And you look fine in the painting, I promise. You don’t have to take my word for it. I know you weren’t ready then but—,”

Bucky brushes it off with a too-cheerful smile. “Like I said, Stevie, I trust you.”

“There have been a couple articles and blog posts about it, and I have some photos I could show you—,”

“Some day, maybe,” Bucky says quietly. He’s not sure why he doesn’t want to see it. It’s probably an impressive work. Steve is a talented painter. Prize-winning, even. But that portrait is from such a raw time in his life, and even though he’s built up callouses now, he’s afraid that looking back might scrape him raw again. He’s grateful when Steve nods and puts his phone back into his pocket. “But I’m happy for you. I’m glad all your years of putting up with my sorry ass are finally paying off.”

“More like the other way around, really,” Steve says. “You should come to the ceremony with me.”

“Thought you were dropping out.”

“If I refuse the money quietly, it doesn’t do any good.”

Bucky lets out a bark of laughter and shakes his head. He can’t help it. It’s just so Steve. “So you want to fly to London just to stick it to some corporate representative at a ceremony in your honor? You are incredible.”

“Are you gonna come with me or not?”

“To London?”

“Yeah. We could do it as cheaply as possible, split a hotel room. I can spot you the cash for the flight.”

“No,” Bucky says instantly. He had talked himself into adding sex to their friendship, and that hasn’t blown up in his face yet, but they’re not gonna fuck around with money. He knows better than that. “I mean—not that I don’t want to go.” It will be pretty fucking hard to avoid looking at the painting if he does, though. And that’s not even the worst of it. If he stands in a gallery next to the portrait, people will look at him with just as much scrutiny. He can at least imagine being ready to look at the painting. But somebody has to go with Steve and make sure he doesn’t cause an international incident. “But I can’t take your money.”

Steve nods, but he looks disappointed. “I thought you’d say that.”

“When’s the ceremony?”

“April.”

Bucky can’t stand to ruin Steve’s big moment. “Okay. We have a few months. I’ll see what I can do.” There is no room in his budget for saving. Maybe if he picks up every extra shift for the next four months, he can make it work. And to think he had almost paid off his credit card… He doesn’t sigh. Steve already worries about him too much.

“If I did take the prize money, I could pay for you to go,” Steve says. “You wouldn’t even need to pay me back. I mean, hell, that money should be half yours anyway.”

“Steve. All I did was sit there. If you take that money, it should be yours.”

By the mulish set of Steve’s mouth, Bucky can tell they’re in for a long argument about that. Thankfully, they both get a text from Sam at that moment asking if they want to come over for dinner, followed by a text from Riley informing them that entry is contingent on contributions containing either alcohol or sugar, “or both, since that’s how you bisexuals are about everything else.”

Chapter Text

Sam can’t possibly need Steve’s help cutting and serving four slices of chocolate cake. That means they’re in the kitchen together because Sam is about to broach some deeply uncomfortable topic. Steve resists the urge to cross his arms over his chest, but Sam looks at the stiff way he’s holding himself and laughs anyway.

“Steve. It’s a conversation, not a firing squad.”

“About what.”

“I was thinking you could tell me,” Sam says. He deftly unboxes the cake and makes one neat radial slice through its layers. Bucky had insisted on cake and “the finest champagne nine dollars can buy,” even though Steve had ribbed him that if they did bring both alcohol and dessert, they’d just be proving Riley’s stereotypes right. Steve is partial to fruit-flavored desserts—Bucky claims his love of apple pie is due to his Fourth of July birthday—but everyone else prefers chocolate, so that’s what they brought, and that’s fine by him, too.

“I’m fine,” Steve says, and he stops holding his spine so straight because he’s telling the truth. “My work just got shortlisted for a prize and I’m eating chocolate cake and drinking champagne with friends. I’m good, Sam, really I am.”

“Okay,” Sam says. “You ever follow up on that conversation we had on Wednesday night?”

Steve blinks. Wednesday seems like such a long time ago. They would all have been at Nat’s—oh. “Sam Wilson. Are you asking me if I got laid?”

Sam smiles at him and then turns back to serving another slice of cake. “I suppose I am. And I suppose you’re entitled to tell me it’s none of my business.”

“That is my right as an American. Pretty sure that’s in the Constitution. Amendment 1A, I think? ‘No person shall be held to account for the recent whereabouts of his dick.’”

“Far be it from me to infringe on your freedom,” Sam says, and Steve feels like he dodged a bullet until Sam adds, “And Barnes, how’s he doing?”

Steve narrows his eyes, but Sam’s back is turned. He’s cheerfully putting the cake back into its box and sliding it into the fridge. “If you want to know the whereabouts of his dick, you’re gonna have to ask him yourself,” Steve says. He tries to keep his tone light but the joke falls flat. Sam doesn’t laugh. He was probably expecting Steve to say “he’s fine,” because how else do normal people answer that question? Steve shouldn’t be so suspicious. Sam is asking innocent questions. But somehow Bucky’s desire to keep their arrangement secret makes this conversation feel dangerous. Steve doesn’t want to lie to Sam, but he promised Bucky not to talk about this with their friends.

Besides, if Sam knew the truth, he’d have some hard questions. Steve’s not ready to answer those.

“I actually meant how’s he doing with the whole accidental-fame thing,” Sam says. “My first question to you aside, asking about recent sexual escapades is really more Riley’s thing. And they say Southerners have manners.” Sam shakes his head sadly.

“Oh.” Christ, Steve is terrible at this. “He’s okay, I think? I mean, I told him.”

“Has he seen the painting?”

“No. And if he doesn’t feel ready, I don’t want to push him.”

“Of course. Although it’s getting harder to avoid. You see the Arts section of the Times today?” Steve shakes his head. He had known there would be an article, but he had wanted to spend the day in the studio instead of focusing on outside distractions. Sam regards him steadily. “You should read it.”

Sam’s fingers swipe over the screen of his phone, and then he hands it to Steve.

 

 

Brooklyn Artist’s Painting of Veteran Shortlisted for Roxxon Portrait Prize

LONDON — An oil painting by Brooklyn-born artist Steve Rogers has been shortlisted for the Roxxon Portrait Prize, an annual competition sponsored by Roxxon Oil that takes place at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The painting, entitled Winter Soldier, depicts a nameless veteran seated in a chair, looking off into the distance. He is naked from the waist up, wearing dogtags. His right arm rests on a table next to him, while his left arm ends at the shoulder. The painting is imposing in size, six feet tall, but most of the canvas is dedicated to the empty space around the soldier. The white walls of the room behind him are eerily institutional, and the soldier looks isolated and lost in all that space. Light is diffused through a long window at the right edge of the canvas, and the slats of its Venetian blinds cast a faint striped shadow that slants downward on the back wall of the room, high above the soldier’s head. Many critics have remarked on the resemblance of this shadow to a washed-out, distorted image of the American flag, and the painting has caused outrage among conservative politicians, notably Rep. Winfield Coldwell (R-Ky.), who sees the work as an “attack on our troops” and has used it as an argument to cut the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rogers declined to comment, but the work is undoubtedly political. Its title is a possible reference to the post-Vietnam-War Winter Soldier Hearings or to Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary-era paper in which he writes of “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” who shrink from their duty in times of crisis. Rogers is no stranger to mixing politics and art. In a 2013 interview with New York-based arts magazine Aloft, Rogers told interviewer Maura Spitzer that he had wanted to become a war photographer, but serious health concerns prevented him from doing strenuous physical activity and kept him out of combat zones. He ended up studying painting instead, and in that same interview, he cites Jeff Wall’s 1992 photomontage of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, Dead Troops Talk, as an inspiration: “That had a real impact on me. It really held my attention for a long time. Art doesn’t have to be documentary to convey powerful, important messages about the world,” Rogers said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can contribute, not as a photographer, not as someone who documents events as they happen, but as a painter. Painting is slow. [laughs] But that’s important. I’m drawn to portraiture because I think there’s a deep connection between painter and subject that stems from all that time in the studio together, all that time in the same physical space. I’m interested in the empathy, in the human dignity, that a portrait can express.”

Spitzer praises Rogers’ style as “sensitive, both in its handling of paint and its emotional resonance.” Rogers possesses peerless technical skill among contemporary realist painters, and the man in Winter Soldier is rendered with impeccable realism in smooth brushstrokes. But Rogers uses his realism sparingly. The soldier feels real and solid, slightly slouched in his chair, but everything around him blurs. The background is loosely painted, with the walls and shadows of the room around the soldier done in wild, thick streaks of white and grey. In a recent update to Aloft’s arts blog, Spitzer describes the painting like this: “If the work weren’t so masterfully executed, its description might read like a joke: a John Singer Sargent portrait subject walks into a Rothko color field painting. The fact that we think of Rogers’s work not as an unlikely postmodern mash-up but as politically and emotionally evocative is a testament to his talents.”

It is that depth and power of feeling that has attracted the attention of the Roxxon Portrait Prize jury. Winter Soldier is a poignant piece, a haunting depiction of physical and psychological pain. That pain does not belong solely to the wounded young man in the portrait. The distance between the viewer and the subject of Winter Soldier is palpable. In the aforementioned update to Aloft’s arts blog, Spitzer speculates that the painting is as much a personal statement as a political one: “Many people have remarked on the isolation evident in the painting, the massive canvas and the lonely subject, but what strikes me most is how profoundly Rogers cares about this man. And here I am utterly failing in my chosen profession as an art critic—sorry, readers!—but I can’t say what it is exactly about the painting that conveys that yearning, and that affection. But I find it impossible to come away from Winter Soldier without an acute sense of longing. How can anyone look at this painting and not want to reach out to the man it depicts?” Spitzer goes on to mention that Rogers has refused to identify the subject of Winter Soldier by name, so it is unclear if they know each other outside their relationship as a portrait artist and his subject.

 

The rest of the Times article is about the competition, so Steve doesn’t bother with it. But Maura Spitzer’s blog post is linked, and he can’t help but click on it. She had been an excellent interviewer and they had remained friendly afterward, which was a rare treat for him. Journalists always seemed to get his art all wrong. Steve scrolls through her post, and then sees an unusually high number of comments at the bottom.

 

 

A Bowl of Caravaggi-O’s | Yesterday 1:38PM

Maura, it seems like an omission on your part not to note how very beautiful and alluring the subject of Winter Soldier is, even with all his scars. Is it really so difficult to figure out why we’re meant to view him with such tenderness?

 

 

duhhh | Yesterday 2:13PM

I see Rogers walking around Brooklyn with this guy all the time. Doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

 

 

PostRaphaelite | Yesterday 2:44PM

Can we not use every painting as a point of departure for rampant speculation about the artist’s sexuality? As far as I know, Rogers has never publicly commented on his own sexuality, and even if he had, this painting would still primarily be a powerful anti-war statement and not cheap fodder for all your undergraduate art history papers about homoerotic subtext.

 

 

deeply embarrassed anon | Yesterday 3:14PM

I’ve dedicated years of my life to writing academic papers that analyze visual culture but I might as well throw my degree away at this point because all I can think when I look at this painting is GODDAMN. Someone get that boy a hug and an orgasm, stat.

 

There are more comments, but Steve’s face is hot and he’s been holding Sam’s phone for far too long. He clicks back to the first article and hands the phone to Sam without a word.

“So,” Sam says. “That conversation we were about to have.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Alright,” Sam says, hands up. “But you know you can’t hide the entire internet from Barnes, right?”

“I’m not hiding anything from him,” Steve says, irritated. This probably qualifies as protesting too much. “It’s not like that between us. It never has been. You know that. And I said I don’t want to talk about this, so we’re not talking about it any more.”

“Okay.” Sam hands him two plates with slices of cake and picks up the other two, then nods toward the living room, where Bucky and Riley are being unusually quiet for the two of them. They’re still probably enjoying their lives more than Steve.

God fucking damn it. Sam knows. Nat’s never said anything, but Steve would bet anything that she knows. Riley has never said anything about it either, and that definitely means he knows. People on the street know. Strangers on the internet know. Is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t know that Steve Rogers is profoundly, irrevocably, desperately in love with James Buchanan Barnes?

 Sam is already in the living room, settling onto the couch next to Bucky. Who knows what they’re talking about, but Riley is saying “I’ve met boxes of rocks with more sense than you, Barnes,” and Sam is laughing. Bucky is sprawled back against the couch, and he looks very tired and maybe a little drunk, but he does crack a smile. Steve hesitates at the edge of the living room, watching. Bucky looks relaxed and happy, with his head tipped back and a few strands of dark hair slipping out of his bun to frame his face. He’s beautiful. Of course he’s beautiful. Steve would have painted him like that even if he weren’t full to the brim with useless feelings.

Bucky can do so much better than Steve.

Besides, if Bucky wanted things to be like that between them, he would have said so by now. And if he’d been waiting for the right moment, getting naked and touching dicks presented a damn good opportunity. Steve sure as hell isn’t going to say anything. He needs Bucky too much. As much as it hurts to live like this, it would hurt more to live without Bucky.

“Earth to Rogers. You gonna bring that cake over here or what?”

“I just gave you a piece! There is a piece right in front of you!”

“Sam, I’m over here trying to live the American dream of having my cake and eating it too. I’d appreciate a little more support.”

Despite himself, Steve smiles. What does he really have to complain about? Bucky might not be in love with him, but that’s nothing new. The only thing that’s really changed is that Steve is now willing to admit his own feelings to himself, and on the grand scale of things, what does that matter? He’s been ignoring his feelings for this long. What’s a few more years? Eventually Bucky will meet someone and settle down and things will get easier for Steve.

For now, they’re still friends. They’re just friends who sometimes have sex. What’s not to like about that? He should be enjoying the moment more. He got laid last night. His work got shortlisted for a prize and pissed off a Republican congressman, and now he’s eating cake and drinking champagne with friends. Sam and Riley are ridiculously, disgustingly in love, and Bucky seems happier than he’s been in months. Steve can live with that.

Chapter Text

Liho is on top of Bucky again when he wakes up on Monday morning. “Fine,” he grumbles, and stays lying on his stomach. He grabs his phone from the bedside table, more successfully today than yesterday, and texts Natasha.

you didn’t tell me ur cat was clingy

The response is immediate. What?

she keeps sleeping on top of me

Wherever Natasha is, and whatever hour it is, apparently nothing is more important than this text conversation. All Bucky knows about Natasha’s job is that her business cards say “strategy consultant,” whatever that is. She knows a lot of wealthy and powerful people, she travels a lot, and she hates talking about her work. And she makes enough money to own this gigantic house by herself.

Natasha: She’s sleeping with you?!

Bucky: ON.

Bucky: ON NOT WITH

Bucky: don’t be gross nat

Natasha ignores his last few texts and writes: I thought she was a one-woman cat. I can’t even tell you how betrayed I feel.

Bucky: don’t worry she only wants me for my body

Bucky: won’t come near me when I’m awake

Natasha: She has to maintain her coldhearted and distant cover.

There’s a pause in the texts then. Bucky contemplates getting out of bed, but he has two hours before he has to be at work and he’s so tired. And he doesn’t want to think about his soul-sucking jobs or anything related to all the money he doesn’t have. Besides, Liho is still gracing him with her presence, which Natasha seems to think is a rare gift.

How is everything? God I’m so bored here. Meetings all day every day and then I’m too jetlagged to sleep at night.

Bucky writes “good,” which is a massive oversimplification but might still be true. Then after a second he adds: ur house is too big and empty tho. feel weird here.

Natasha just writes back “yeah,” and it strikes him as unusually emotional on her part.

It would feel less empty if Natasha had bothered to furnish more of the rooms, or paint them any color other than white, or at least put something on the walls. A few scattered pieces of furniture, a mostly empty fridge, and one small cat aren’t enough to make her house feel like a home.

hey can i hang steve’s art while im here

Sure, why not? Go to town. There are tools in the room across the hall from yours.

That’s what finally motivates him to get up. Liho protests when he moves, but as soon as he’s out of bed, she moves into his recently vacated spot. She circles around next to his pillow, then settles and drops off to sleep.

“Yeah, I see how you operate,” he tells her, and she pays him no attention at all. Cats.

He walks across the hall into what he had assumed was another bedroom. It’s large enough to be a bedroom, but all it contains is a single wire shelf full of unlabeled boxes and a few more boxes and other objects scattered around the floor. The waste of space feels almost obscene.

Bucky yawns, stretches, and scans the shelf for a toolbox. He works as quickly as possible because he’s only wearing boxers and it’s cold in the room, but it takes him a good few minutes to locate a hammer, nails, picture hangers, and a level. Along the way he comes across a pile of paint swatches, brushes, rollers, trays, and half a dozen full paint cans, not to mention an entire track lighting kit still in its store packaging. Natasha really had been intending to hang Steve’s art. She must have been planning serious redecorating.

Bucky wanders back into the bedroom and picks up his phone.


It’s Friday and Steve hasn’t seen Bucky since Sunday night at Sam’s. Every time they text, Bucky is working, except for a couple of times when he replies “in the middle of something, can’t.” It’s unusual for them to go so long without seeing each other and it shakes Steve up. Did he do something wrong on Sunday? Is Bucky upset about the painting? Or… was it not good on Saturday?

Steve thought it was pretty good.

Better than good.

Great.

Fucking amazing.

Fuck. He closes his eyes and sighs.

Maria’s working late again and their apartment is deathly quiet. It’s six o’clock and the whole evening stretches out before him, a wasteland of hours. Sometimes having no plans on Friday night is the highlight of his week. Steve only likes to go out if his friends will be there, and even then, sometimes at loud bars he ends up wishing he were at home sitting on the couch with a book. But that’s a moot point if none of his friends have called or texted. Natasha is off the hook since she’s out of town, and Sam and Riley are probably doing something together, so that just leaves Bucky.

Steve has already texted him so many times this week. He feels pathetic—isn’t this ‘should I text or not’ bullshit exactly what he was trying to avoid with this arrangement? But he picks up his phone and tries again anyway.

You free tonight? We could hang out.

He considers adding we don’t have to have sex if you don’t want, but he’d rather hedge his bets on that count. He doesn’t want to bring up sex at all. Besides, it’s possible that Bucky’s avoiding him for some other reason, and if that’s true, then Steve would very much like to leave open the possibility of sex. They could cross something else off the list. Or, if he’s being honest, they could do the exact same thing they did last weekend and it would still be better than any action Steve’s seen in years.

The reply is quick but mysterious. It’s not entirely discouraging. in the middle of something, Bucky writes, but if u bring me takeout from the place with the good sesame noodles i will be eternally grateful

A second later, Bucky adds will pay u back ofc and Steve rolls his eyes, but he’s standing up and looking for his coat as he does it. Forty-five minutes later, he’s standing on Natasha’s stoop with a brown paper bag full of Chinese takeout containers. Bucky answers the door looking unusually casual, in sweatpants and a threadbare excuse for a t-shirt that stretches thin over his shoulders and chest.

Steve tries not to look any lower than that.

“Awesome, you’re the best,” Bucky says, lifting the bag out of Steve’s hands and making room for Steve to enter the living room. Steve has brought Bucky a lot of food in his life, and it has never occurred to him until now that the act almost always elicits an I love you from Bucky. Thanks, Steve, you’re amazing, I love you. Steve could probably scroll back through their recent texts and find a dozen variations on “bring me food and i will love u forever.” But not tonight.

The sight of Natasha’s living room distracts him. All the furniture has been pushed into the center and draped in drop cloth, and everything seems brighter. His paintings are no longer in sight. There’s a ladder in one corner of the room, and a paint roller sitting in a plastic tray of full of primer.

“Is this what you’ve been doing all week?”

Bucky nods. He gestures up at the ceiling. “I had to call some guys to install the track lighting. I was just gonna ask their advice over the phone and do it myself, but they insisted on coming over and doing it themselves, so that took forever. And then I needed drop cloth, and—well, I’ve been to the hardware store a lot this week.”

Steve nods. There are two long tracks on the ceiling now, each with three lights positioned in it. He’s relieved to hear that Bucky hadn’t taken up splicing together electrical wires as a hobby. It doesn’t sound like an activity that would pair well with a metal arm.

“I figured we could wait to figure out the lighting until after I get the room painted and your stuff on the walls.” Bucky grins at him. Steve blinks. “But anyway I want to eat first. We can go in the dining room. It doesn’t smell quite as much like paint in there.”

“Did Nat—authorize this?”

Bucky shrugs as he’s walking into the dining room and setting the bag of takeout on the table. He takes out the two containers and then goes into the kitchen in search of beer. “Her exact words were ‘go to town,’ so I don’t think she’s allowed to get mad.”

Steve pulls out a chair and sits down at the table and pretends not to stare at Bucky’s ass in those sweatpants. The back view is as sinful as the front view, and that’s saying something, because Bucky is pretty clearly going commando.

Steve forces himself to pay attention to the conversation. “And the electricians, you paid for that?”

“Nah. We served together. When I called them up and told them I wanted to do it myself, they told me they’d rather do it for free than hear that I ‘electrocuted my dumb ass to death’.” He huffs out a laugh. “You think they’d trust me by now, but I guess they know better.”

As Bucky sits down at the table and passes him an open bottle of beer, Steve looks at him in surprise. “There are people that you served with living in the city?”

“Yeah. Good guys.”

It’s been two years since Bucky got back and this is the first Steve has heard on the subject. “I had no idea.”

“I, uh. Haven’t really kept in touch.”

Steve nods and starts digging into his container of noodles with his chopsticks. “It’s cool that you reconnected with them. So there’s new lighting and you primed the walls. What color is it gonna be?”

Bucky is already eating about as fast as it’s possible for a human to eat, but he chews, swallows, and says, “Nat had this light greyish color and then a dark red upstairs in storage. Not sure if she meant them to go together or not, but I figure I’ll do three walls grey and one red. And then I’m gonna hang that one big vertical cityscape you painted opposite the red wall.” He pauses and shows just a hint of uncertainty. “That’ll look nice, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He glances over his shoulder into the living room. The city scene, a painting from his MFA exhibition, has some brick buildings in it, and having it opposite the red accent will bring them out. The grey will only be subtly different from the current white that’s already on the walls, but it will look good with the red. “You have a good eye.”

Bucky looks pleased and a little embarrassed by the compliment, and somehow that makes Steve want to keep going.

“You do. Before you got the bartending job and started having to wear black all the time, you always had such good color combinations. And you still look good in black, of course.”

“Yeah, I’m a real style icon,” Bucky says, gesturing with his chopsticks at his t-shirt and sweatpants.

Steve doesn’t mention his opinion of Bucky’s current outfit. It would be hard to put into words, anyway. He might be able to explain it with his hands or his lips.

Christ, Rogers. Calm down. He called you here for dinner, not to eat him alive. Steve smiles at Bucky, maybe a little too brightly, and says, “So, are we painting tonight?”

“Didn’t you spend all day in your studio?”

Steve laughs. “It’s really not the same.”

“Alright. If you want to spend your Friday night like that, I’m not gonna turn down your help. It’s what I was gonna do anyway.”

Steve clears the table and Bucky goes into the living room to turn on some music. Bucky is more eclectic than him, although that’s not hard to achieve. Steve is a man of simple musical tastes. He likes loud guitar riffs and socially conscious lyrics. Bucky, on the other hand, possesses a startlingly encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American popular music. But mostly he likes to dance. Steve is not surprised to hear a driving beat and something electronic-sounding from the other room, and after a moment he recognizes the band as Chromeo.

“She says I’m not romantic, I say she’s too dramatic, I tell her while we’re at it we can work it night by night…”

Steve goes back into the living room having stripped down to his t-shirt and left his plaid button-down and socks in the dining room and his boots by the front door. His jeans are at least a decade old and ripped to hell anyway, so he’s not worried about getting paint on them. Bucky is already rolling broad streaks of red paint down the wall of Natasha’s living room to the right of the entryway. He’s bobbing his head and moving his hips in time with the music and Steve doesn’t tease him about it because he doesn’t want to interrupt.

There are much, much worse ways to spend a Friday night.

Steve gets up on the ladder and starts cutting in the edge of the wall near the door and where it meets the ceiling. It feels so easy and mindless compared to what he does in the studio. Down below him, Bucky is alternately smiling and humming along with the music, making short work of the first coat of red paint, or maybe time is passing more quickly than Steve realized. He’s not sure how many songs have played since they started, but he’s moved the ladder at least twice. Steve relaxes. God, he’d missed Bucky this week. He didn’t even realize how much until this moment. But he’s happy now that they’re here together, not talking about anything in particular, not even doing anything very interesting.

He’s at ease with Bucky in a way that he’s not at ease with anyone else in the world. They’ve always been comfortable with each other, until recently. But here and now, with Bucky cheerfully painting W-shapes that span the wall and telling a meandering story about some customer at the bar last weekend, it’s clear Steve’s been worried for nothing all week. He doesn’t have to treat this like a new relationship with some stranger who will judge his every move. It’s just Bucky. Bucky’s not going to care if Steve texts him more than usual. They’ve spent their whole lives together.

Steve arrives at the opposite end of the wall, having neatly painted the edge between the ceiling and the wall. He climbs down off the ladder, sits cross-legged on the tarp on the floor, and starts painting the wall just above the baseboard molding.

Bucky makes his way back over to the edge of the wall where Steve is and rolls a streak of red paint right above his head. A spray of tiny red droplets end up on Steve’s face and clothes and in his hair.

“Hey! You fuckin’ jerk!” Steve splutters and takes off his glasses to wipe them on his t-shirt, but by then it’s a lost cause and he sets his glasses down before he smears any more paint on them.

“Oops,” Bucky says. As he first opens his mouth to say it, he looks genuinely surprised and sorry, but by the end of the syllable, he’s grinning. Steve gives him the squintiest of glares, and Bucky says, “Sometimes I forget those glasses aren’t just a hipster statement and that you actually can’t see for shit.”

“I can see well enough to do this.” Steve reaches up with his brush and paints a red streak across the left side of Bucky’s ass.

Bucky looks over his shoulder indignantly, and then down at Steve. “You little punk.”

Steve gives him an expectant look, but Bucky doesn’t retaliate in any way. So Steve goes back in, aiming to turn the streak on Bucky’s sweatpants into a five-pointed star. He gets as far as a sloppy A before Bucky sidles away and ruins his plan. “Is this some kind of Scarlet Letter reference? You know I never did the reading in Mr. Phillips’s class. Some asshole always talked me into cutting class because ‘school is just a system of oppression designed to make us complacent and keep us from questioning dominant power structures’.”

“Well, some asshole always talked me into cutting class for the lofty purpose of getting high and eating a lot of chicken nuggets. I didn’t have time to read Hawthorne, either.”

Bucky laughs and then frowns. “I shouldn’t have let you smoke.”

“As if you could have stopped me,” Steve says. He reaches out with the brush again but Bucky is wise to him now and dodges.

Bucky walks to the nearest paint tray and puts down his roller. He stretches, catlike, and the hem of his t-shirt lifts to reveal a few inches of skin. Steve wishes his glasses weren’t all smeared with paint, but the view is still magnificent. Bucky’s sweatpants are riding low on his hips. He’s all hard lines now, as perfect as an anatomy textbook illustration, the military having shaped his body into a weapon. Steve wonders, briefly, what it might have been like if they had done this in high school, when Bucky was just as gorgeous but softer in the middle. They would have fucked it up somehow, no doubt, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Steve would want him in any shape.

“Not bad,” Bucky says, and it takes Steve a moment to process that he’s commenting on the first coat of paint.

“For a couple of amateurs.”

Bucky smiles and swaggers back toward Steve. “What do you mean ‘amateurs’? I’m keeping these,” he says, turning to show off his ass and pointing to his paint-streaked sweatpants. “Or maybe I’ll sell ‘em to Sotheby’s and they can get auctioned off as authentic Steve Rogers work—mixed media, paint on cotton.”

“Hmm, I don’t know, I don’t think the piece is really finished,” Steve says. He stands up and stretches then walks over to Bucky, who takes a half step back as Steve approaches.

“You’d better not have a paintbrush in your hand, Rogers.”

Steve holds up his empty palms. “I’m unarmed.”

Bucky eyes him warily, but he lets Steve get close enough to settle his hands on Bucky’s hips and tuck his thumbs into the waistband of his sweats. Steve pushes the fabric down one inch, then pauses, makes a show of considering things, and pushes it down again, one more inch. Bucky is breathing as quietly as possible, but Steve see him getting hard already. God, he loves sweatpants. It’s a real shame he had to ruin this pair for the sake of art.

“Hmm,” he says, and then drags the pants all the way down Bucky’s legs, kneeling as he goes. Steve tugs at the fabric, and Bucky steps out of them. Steve tosses the pants onto a nearby drop cloth, where they land in a heap. “There,” he says. “Perfect.”

Bucky snorts, and Steve looks up at him, standing in the middle of the living room in a paint-flecked t-shirt with his erection jutting out, somehow still looking like the most beautiful thing Steve’s ever seen. He freezes when he hears Bucky laughing.

“Fuck, you are covered in paint,” Bucky says, reaching down and tilting Steve’s face up toward him. “I’m so sorry.”

“Bullshit, you are not.” Steve knocks Bucky’s hand away from his face and stands up, irritated. He’s not interested in being laughed at while he’s on his knees. Not everyone looks as good in paint-stained clothing as Bucky does. He doesn’t need it pointed out.

Steve,” Bucky says, his voice still warm with laughter. He catches Steve’s face between his hands and plants a kiss on his lips. Steve’s eyes stay wide open with surprise. “Don’t be mad. C’mon, let me make it up to you.”

Bucky has no sooner shed his own t-shirt than his hands are pulling Steve’s t-shirt over his head, and Steve raises his arms in acquiescence before he’s even aware of what he’s doing. Bucky tosses his t-shirt across the room and then runs his hands down Steve’s sides, following the slight curve of his ribcage into the dip of his waist. Steve shivers at the contact. He wishes his body could be less obvious about what he wants, but there’s no hiding it now. All it takes it one touch from Bucky and Steve’s blood rushes to his cock, splotching his naked skin pink in the process. The blush probably clashes unattractively with the paint, but it doesn’t matter. By the time Bucky gets his fly open, Steve is hard.

Steve finally intervenes, pushing his jeans down his thighs and shucking them, and then Bucky kneels on the floor in front of him wearing nothing but a grin.

“Stevie, I have two talents in this world, and this is one of them.”

Steve wants to protest that Bucky has a lot more than two talents, but then Bucky swallows his cock down to the root and he makes a choked noise of surprise. Holy fuck. “Talent” is an understatement. “Talent” doesn’t even begin to cover what is happening. Bucky is totally intent on Steve. His left hand is a cool, steadying touch against Steve’s hip, and his right hand encircles the base of Steve’s cock.

Bucky’s eyes close as he works, his lashes forming little charcoal smudges above his cheeks. Steve could look at his face forever. Every time he thinks he’s captured every last precious detail, there’s some new angle or different lighting that makes him reconsider the entire composition. Bucky is powerfully built and finely made, and it is that articulation of strength and delicacy that makes him so alluring. He leans forward, exposing the wisps of brown hair escaping his bun and curling against the nape of his neck—so fine that Steve has to squint to see them—and Steve puts a hand on the crown of his head and smooths his grip downward toward the back of Bucky’s neck. Bucky makes a muffled noise of appreciation around Steve’s cock.

If Steve’s arm was longer, he could reach further and touch the rippling musculature of Bucky’s naked back, but he’ll have to be satisfied with looking. Bucky’s already got him off-balance as it is. Steve strains not to respond to the rhythm Bucky has set, to urge him forward and faster. His lips slide slick and tight up and down Steve’s cock, working in tandem with his grip.

Steve groans with it, wishing Bucky would go faster and wishing he’d slow down so much that this would go on forever. It’s so good, it’s so good, it couldn’t possibly be any better. “Fuck, yes, just like that.”

He feels rather than sees Bucky smile.

Then Bucky’s hand is gone from the base of his cock and is instead cupping his balls, his index and middle finger reaching behind and pressing against a spot that makes Steve shudder with pleasure and clench his hand in Bucky’s hair. Bucky’s fingers stay there, rubbing in tantalizing little circles, teasing but not quite touching Steve’s hole, while he keeps his lips tight around Steve’s cock. He swallows Steve as deeply as he can, and then deeper, and Steve is hot all over, with his pulse pounding in his ears.

“Bucky,” he says. “Bucky, I’m—,”

Bucky pops Steve’s dick out of his mouth and Steve comes all over his face. The orgasm crashes through him in one massive wave. Then Bucky’s fingers are pushing against the rim of his hole and the pressure feels fucking exquisite and a second wave of pleasure breaks over him. He nearly stumbles into Bucky. It’s only Bucky’s left hand clamped around his hip that keeps him upright. When Steve comes back to himself, he blinks and then refocuses his attention on Bucky. There’s come in his eyelashes, and some sliding down the side of his nose. Steve stares at him, stunned and hazy with arousal. It takes a second for the embarrassment to kick in.

“Sorry, sorry, I was trying to warn you—,”

Bucky grins. “Told you I’d make it up to you.”

“You did that on purpose?”

“Orgasms make you dopier than usual, Rogers,” Bucky says, amused. He smiles and reaches up to brush Steve’s release out of his eyes. “I might not have gone to college, but I know what ‘Bucky, Bucky, I’m—,’ means when I’m sucking you off.”

“That is not what I sounded like.”

“That is exactly what you sounded like, and you can make fun of me all you want in return, but you have to take care of this before I fuckin’ faint.” Bucky jerks his chin downward, indicating his own cock, which is thick and flushed dark pink and dripping against his thigh. The sight nearly makes Steve weak in the knees again.

“But not here,” Bucky says. “Do you know how long I’ve been kneeling on this fucking hardwood floor?”

Steve had no sense of time while Bucky was taking him apart like that, but instead of feeling sorry for Bucky, he just feels warm. He can’t help smiling. What a good orgasm. There is still come dripping down Bucky’s face. Steve reaches down and drags his thumb across Bucky’s cheeks, first one and then the other, wiping away the mess. It’s hard to be embarrassed now that he knows it was on purpose. It’s also hard to be embarrassed now that he feels boneless with bliss.

“You are fuckin’ unbearable. I hate you.” Steve smiles wider at that. “I am suffering, Stevie, I am in deep physical, spiritual, and sexual torment, and here you are, in my hour of need, abandoning me—,”

“I’ll suck you off in the shower if you stop whining,” Steve says. Bucky smiles and stands right up at that. So much for deep physical torment. “You still have a little—,” he says, reaching up now that Bucky is standing. “It’s pretty hard to take you seriously with jizz in your eyebrows.”

Your jizz,” Bucky says. He’s practically dragging Steve up the stairs to the bathroom. “And I’ll have you know that some people find it highly erotic.”

“They must not have met you,” Steve says, cuffing Bucky on the shoulder as they jostle for space in the bathroom. The shower is big enough for two, and the rest of the room ought to be, but somehow they end up standing so close together that Steve can feel Bucky’s pulse thrum under his skin. The truth is, he hadn’t minded coming on Bucky’s face. It wasn’t something he had ever dreamed of doing, and he might have preferred the intimacy of coming in Bucky’s mouth, but the orgasm had been so good that it was hard to find fault. And now, after the fact, he’s strangely touched by how easy and unbothered Bucky is about having Steve’s mess on his face and in his hair and probably behind his ears for all they know. But it’s simpler to settle into a joking routine that only skims the surface of what’s between them.

“That’s rich coming from a guy who looks like he has chicken pox.” Bucky sticks his right hand into the spray of the shower and waits for it to warm up. His cock isn’t quite as desperately ramrod straight as it was right after Steve came, but he’s still impressively hard.

“And whose fault is that?” Steve says. “I knew you weren’t sorry, you asshole.”

“No, you don’t get to do that, we’re even now, you splooged on my face.”

“Words like ‘splooge’ and ‘jizz’ really heighten the erotic nature of the act,” Steve says dryly.

“You sucking me off like you promised would really heighten the erotic nature—,” Bucky stops talking when Steve puts a hand on his back and shoves him in the direction of the shower. He steps over the edge of the tub and into the spray without another word, and Steve follows.

Steve has never done this before, and even if he had, he doubts he’d be able to live up to the example Bucky just provided. But he still wants to do it well. Bucky would laugh if Steve said that out loud, maybe tell him he’s always been too competitive, had too much to prove. But it’s not that, not really. Steve wants Bucky trembling and panting with need. Steve wants Bucky to come so hard he has to steady himself to stay upright. Nervous energy races over his skin.

He might not be able to twist his tongue as wickedly as Bucky, but he make it good in other ways. Bucky likes kissing. He likes it when Steve takes the initiative, too. Last weekend, Steve had pushed him up against the wall and Bucky had made the filthiest little noise. Steve steps closer.

Steve will probably be finding tiny flecks of red paint on his collarbone for days, but Bucky’s face has been washed clean by the shower. Instead of come caught in his lashes, now it’s droplets of water. He looks too beautiful to be real either way. And this isn’t real, of course, but Steve can’t let that stop him now. He reaches up, curves his hand around the back of Bucky’s head, and pulls him down into a kiss. Steve still has to stretch up on his tiptoes to meet him, and he silently curses his height for the millionth time. But this isn’t about him and how nervous and inadequate he feels. This is about giving Bucky what he deserves.

Steve caresses the underside of Bucky’s erection with one hand, and Bucky lets out a grateful little sigh. Steve smiles and breaks the kiss, putting his feet flat on the shower floor again. He keeps his hand where it is, fingers loosely wrapped over Bucky’s cock, not moving. “You had a lot to say a second ago,” Steve points out.

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “You miss the sound of my voice, Stevie? It’s barely been five minutes.”

“I was thinking—,”

“Never a good idea.”

“I was thinking,” Steve repeats, bringing his left hand down from Bucky’s hair to rest atop the curve of his hip. He starts up a slow, languid stroke with his right hand, and Bucky shivers even though the shower is hot. “That I told you to make a list and you never did. And I was thinking you could tell me. Out loud. Right now.”

Bucky’s body is easy to read, but his expression isn’t.

“If you don’t want to—,” Steve says. His hand stops moving. He was expecting this to go over better.

“Christ, don’t stop,” Bucky says. “I want to.”

Steve keeps his hand still and gives Bucky an expectant look.

“Okay. Right now. Uh. I’m looking forward to having sex with you?”

“Bucky.” Steve runs his fingers up and down the curve of Bucky’s waist, following the trails of water. Then he can’t resist reaching down and gripping a nice handful of his ass. “You can do this. I’ve heard you talk dirtier than that in a crowded subway car at rush hour, right next to two little old Jewish ladies who looked just like your grandma.”

“Well, I didn’t know they were there!” Bucky protests, and then adds, in a sharply sarcastic tone, “And I’m sorry I’m having trouble thinking right now.” He gestures with both hands at Steve’s loose, unmoving grip on his cock. Steve doesn’t believe for a second that that’s the problem, but he also can’t figure out what the real problem is.

“You’re not going to say anything I won’t like,” Steve says, which is more or less true, unless Bucky blurts out somebody else’s name. Maybe that’s the issue. But Steve couldn’t really hold that against him, given the nature of their arrangement. They’re just two friends who fuck. If Bucky pretends that Steve is someone else while they do, that’s his business. “Just tell me what you want, what you like. I want to know.” He rises up to kiss Bucky again and Bucky accepts gratefully, relaxing into the kiss.

“That,” he says, when Steve stops. “I like that. And last weekend, you kissed my neck and left a little mark, and God, I liked that too.”

“Good,” Steve says, and he lets his hand glide down Bucky’s cock, starting up a slow rhythm. “Keep going.”

“Everything last weekend,” Bucky says. He pauses, and Steve pauses too. “Fuck, don’t stop, don’t stop. You kissing me, pushing me up against the wall, grinding on me—all of that was. Oh God. Oh fuck. Steve—,”

The conversation takes a turn as Steve gets on his knees and wraps his lips around Bucky’s cock. It tastes how he expected it to taste, salty and earthy and just like sex smells. What surprises him is how much he likes the feel of it in his mouth. Bucky’s cock is thick and heavy against his tongue. Steve wants to start moving, but he waits for Bucky to start talking again. Before that happens, Bucky’s right hand pushes into his hair and grips his head. It’s not a hard grip, but Steve likes the weight of Bucky’s hand.

“You look so good like that,” Bucky says. Steve is surprised by the compliment, but Bucky is talking again, so he presses forward, taking as much of Bucky’s cock into his mouth as he can. “You’re so pretty, Stevie, I want to watch you do everything. I want to open you up nice and wet with my fingers and my tongue and then let you ride me till you come.”

There we go, Steve thinks. He knew Bucky could talk dirty. It doesn’t matter that it took a few tries to get up and running, because now they’re off. He’s so distracted by the image that it’s easy to ignore the jarring use of his childhood nickname in such a filthy sentence.

“Anything you want, Stevie, I will do anything for you—,” Bucky has to catch his breath, but Steve generously continues sucking him off, because he manages to keep up a steady stream of little gasps and moans. Steve said ‘tell me what you like,’ and Bucky is pretty clearly fulfilling that demand. After all, Steve never specified that he had to use words.

“I will fuck you any way you want to be fucked, I will, even if it’s fucking upside down and backwards,” Bucky gasps out a little laugh, and Steve keeps going. His jaw is getting sore, but he has no intention of stopping. They’re playing a game, and he has to play his part. He can’t tell who’s winning—everyone, his brain supplies—but Bucky is on a fucking roll. Sucking his cock and listening to his dirty fantasies has Steve hard again, even as Bucky gets closer and closer to coming. Every stroke is slick now, and Bucky’s fingers are knotted into his hair, and the fingers of Steve’s left hand are digging into the meat of Bucky’s ass.

Bucky catches his breath again and picks up right where he left off: “Shit, I will—we will make it work. You have such a sweet, tight, perfect ass. Oh God, Steve, that feels so fucking good, God yes, do you know how many times I—mm, Steve, yes, just like that, oh fuck—I want you to fuck me, God, I want you to bend me in half and fuck me until I can’t think any more, I want—fuck—I want your cock in me, I wanna be stuffed fucking full—Steve, Steve, Steve—,”

Bucky comes in Steve’s mouth. The rush of liquid is hot and a little bitter, and Steve swallows. Bucky catches his balance, steadying himself with his left hand on Steve’s shoulder. When Steve looks up at him, his eyes are closed, but he’s smiling.

“Good?” Steve asks, playfully.

Bucky shrugs. “If you like that sort of thing.” Then he grins.

“And you called me unbearable,” Steve says, standing up.

Bucky reaches around him for a bar of soap, lathers up his hands, and then cups Steve’s face, rubbing at the spray of paint-flecks across Steve’s cheeks with his thumbs. Steve lets him work, and they don’t talk for a moment.

He had been so absorbed in the moment that by the end, he was hardly listening to a word out of Bucky’s mouth. He wishes he could rewind the scene and listen more carefully. He wants this to be good for Bucky, after all, since Bucky agreed to try this with him.

Bucky steps out the spray so that Steve can rinse his face, and then says, “You want me to take care of that?”

Steve looks down at his dick, that eternal optimist. “I think my eyes might be bigger than my stomach.”

“That’s a hell of a mixed metaphor.”

“I’m not sure I can come again yet,” he explains. “It’ll go away if I stop looking at beautiful naked men.”

Bucky makes a show of glancing to either side, like there might be someone else in the shower with them. Then he looks at Steve and shrugs. “Whatever you say, Stevie.”

They towel off and Bucky goes upstairs to get clean clothes. Steve feels unaccountably self-conscious, walking into Natasha’s living room naked and picking his jeans up off the floor. The blinds are drawn and no one is watching, but it feels like he’s about to get caught at any moment. At the sound of Bucky padding back down the stairs, Steve clutches his t-shirt to his chest instinctively. Ridiculous. He forces himself to relax and then pulls the t-shirt over his head.

“Well,” Bucky says. “Thanks for dinner.”

Steve laughs softly. “Dinner. Sure. We’ll do it again some time.”

“Yeah.”

“The room’s gonna look great when you’re done,” Steve says, retrieving his plaid shirt from the dining room and then looking for his boots next to the door. He laces his boats and pulls on his coat. “Nat’ll be thrilled when she comes home.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and he holds the door open while Steve pulls on his gloves and then steps outside. “See you later.”

“Night,” Steve says. Bucky closes the door behind him and then he’s alone on the stoop. The cold air is sharp against his skin. He shoves his hands into his pockets and keeps his head down against the wind.

The walk back to his apartment takes a long time.

Chapter Text

Steve is waiting for him on Nat’s stoop when Bucky gets home from the bar on Friday night. The sight should put a spring in his step, since they’ve barely seen each other all week, but he worked shifts at both jobs today and all he can manage to do is smile at Steve. Once they get inside, Bucky takes off all his winter gear and lies face down on Nat’s couch with a groan.

“Tired?” Steve says, sounding amused. “It looks nice in here, by the way.”

Bucky nods, but his face is pressed into a throw pillow so who knows if Steve can see. Somehow he managed to put on the last few coats of paint between his shifts this week, and then he hung Steve’s painting and spent a truly staggering amount of time trying to light it to its best advantage. Steve is right, though—it looks nice.

“I promise I’ll get up in a minute and then we can do whatever you want,” Bucky says, mostly into the pillow. “My back aches. Is this what it’s like to be old?”

“I think this is what it’s like to spend sixteen hours on your feet,” Steve says. It does sound like a lot when he puts it that way. “Here,” he says, and perches on the edge of the couch next to Bucky’s hip. He pulls the hem of Bucky’s black t-shirt from his waist up to his chest, and then Bucky obediently levers himself a few inches off the couch so that Steve can pull his shirt the rest of the way off. He collapses back down once it’s gone, letting his right arm hang down over the edge of the couch and keeping his left arm bent and tucked under the throw pillow. It’s a little cool in the house to be shirtless, but he’s too tired to care.

Steve’s hands trace over his neck and run the length of his spine. It’s a soft, exploratory touch and it draws an embarrassing noise out of Bucky. Steve’s hands are warm. Then Steve’s touch disappears, as does the point of contact between their hips. Steve must have stood up. His weight returns to the couch, but it’s not his hip next to Bucky’s. It’s his knee. Then Steve wedges his other knee between Bucky’s body and the back on the couch, and sits right down on Bucky’s ass.

It’s a testament to how tired Bucky is that he doesn’t immediately get a hard-on.

Steve leans forward and plants both hands on either side of Bucky’s neck. His thumbs massage little circles into the muscles of Bucky’s neck, then right where his shoulders meet his neck, then down his spine. It feels like heaven. Bucky mumbles something to that effect into the pillow, or maybe he just says “mmm, fuck, feels good.” Either way, Steve laughs softly.

“Is this okay?” Steve says, and Bucky realizes that Steve is touching his left shoulder, the ugly mass of scar tissue where flesh meets metal. Steve has seen it before, but Bucky hadn’t planned on Steve having this kind of close, personal contact with it tonight. It’s not the most alluring part of his body.

But it aches just as much as the rest of him, if not more. His metal arm is as light as Stark Industries could make it, but the weight of it still pulls at his shoulder on long days. And Steve is offering to lay hands on it. “Yeah,” he says, after only a second.

Steve’s fingers work carefully over the area, rubbing and soothing. He makes Bucky flinch once, but that’s all. Steve apologizes and then moves on. He massages Bucky’s other shoulder, too, using a firmer hand. He works his way all the way down Bucky’s back, to the dip in his spine, and then slides his hands back up. It’s a wonder Bucky hasn’t melted into the couch by the time Steve’s hands are resting at the juncture between his neck and his shoulders again.

“Buck,” Steve says, drawing one hand toward the knob of bone at the top of his spine, and then tracing downward. He runs his left hand along Bucky’s side from the lower edge of his ribs to the increasingly sharp curve of his hipbone. “What have you been eating lately?”

Bucky would shrug but he feels like liquid. “Dunno,” he says. “Ramen, peanut butter sandwiches, whatever Sam feeds me.”

Steve’s hand lingers, resting on the dip of Bucky’s waist. “Real healthy.”

His tone wakes Bucky just enough to say, “Are you, Steve ‘a stiff breeze could blow me away’ Rogers, trying to lecture me about eating right?”

“Oh, so you’re allowed to worry about me and I’m not allowed to worry about you?”

“I take care of myself,” Bucky says. He might not be eating kale every day, but he’s fine. And he’s not going to drop dead if he skips a meal or two. Steve, on the other hand, needs looking after. “You don’t.”

In answer to that, Steve sticks his hand between the waistband of Bucky’s jeans and his back. He slides his hand around to Bucky’s side and pulls at the fabric. Maybe his clothes have been fitting a little more loosely than usual.

“What did you eat today, huh?”

“Uh. Coffee. Cereal. A turkey sandwich. Marielle gave me a chocolate chip cookie in the break room. More coffee.” Bucky yawns. “I dunno, I didn’t have time.”

“You work too much and you don’t eat enough,” Steve says. “And you know I’ve been more careful lately.” Steve gets so involved in his work sometimes that he forgets to eat. Last summer he had fainted at a gallery opening. Bucky had caught him, and then scolded him about taking care of himself as soon as he regained consciousness, and Steve had been pissy and totally ungrateful about the whole thing. But he’d been embarrassed enough to change his habits, which was all Bucky cared about. “Besides, if you faint, I’m not so sure I can catch you.”

“Alright,” Bucky concedes. Is this conversation part of their friendship or part of their temporary arrangement? He can’t tell. He definitely scolded Steve about taking care of himself before they started trading orgasms, and Steve might have advised him on a thing or two, but Steve would never have known about Bucky losing weight if Bucky wasn’t sitting underneath him half-naked right now. “I’ll eat something.”

“Something that doesn’t come in plastic packaging. A vegetable, maybe.”

“You gonna cook it for me?” Neither of them possesses much skill in the kitchen.

“If that’s what it takes.”

Bucky huffs into the pillow. He’ll believe it when he sees it.

“I’m gonna hold you to this,” Steve says, but apparently he’s satisfied, because he returns to rubbing Bucky’s neck. There’s a lull in the conversation filled only by the sound of Bucky sighing in pleasure. After awhile, Steve’s fingers slide up into his hair. Then Steve tugs at the elastic band around Bucky’s bun and says, “Can I take this out?”

“Yeah.”

Steve frees Bucky’s hair from its bun and then gives Bucky a scalp massage so mind-meltingly pleasurable that Bucky would agree to anything Steve wanted—kale every day forever, even—if only he asked. Afterward, Steve strokes his hand through Bucky’s hair, gently finger-combing it, and Bucky sighs happily the whole time. He feels warm and loose and very, very sleepy.

The slow drag of Steve’s fingers through his hair is the last thing he remembers. Light is streaming through the slits in Natasha’s living room curtains, he’s on the couch under a blanket, and Steve is nowhere in sight. Bucky sits up, yawns, and rubs a hand over his face. His hair isn’t in his face, so he pats the back of his head and discovers a thick mat of hair. His hand slides down and feels the rest of his hair gathered into a neat tail.

“Steve?”

The wood floor is cool beneath his bare feet. He pokes his head into the dining room and into the kitchen, but Steve isn’t there, either. Bucky wanders up into the third floor bathroom, takes a piss, and then glances into the mirror afterward. Natasha has left a hand mirror on the counter next to the sink, even up here in the guest bathroom, like she might need to know what the back of her head looks like at all times. Bless her. That is exactly what Bucky needs.

The braid is a little messy from having been slept on, but it’s still intact. It’s not a normal braid. It starts much higher up the back of his head.

For a split second, he wonders if Steve might have been making fun of him, like when you pass out drunk at a party and your asshole teenage friends draw a dick on your face. Maybe Steve is teasing Bucky for being girly and having long hair. But he dismisses the thought instantly. Steve makes fun of him all the time, but he’s up front about it. He’s never said a word about Bucky’s hair, not even when Bucky first got back and started it letting it grow out. At first, Bucky let it grow because he was too depressed to leave the house and get it cut. He was also too depressed to wash it or comb it, but he’s recovered from that now. He still hasn’t gotten a haircut. He’s a different person now than he was before he served, and he wants to look different.

Bucky only ever puts his hair in a bun or a ponytail. He has a vague idea of how to braid it, but he’s never tried. He would never have guessed that Steve knew how to do anything like this, but it makes a kind of sense. Steve is good with his hands. The braid is evidence of intricate work.

Bucky puts the hand mirror back down on the counter. It’s not a joke. Steve wasn’t making fun of him. But it’s also not the kind of gesture that was ever involved in their friendship. And it doesn’t really feel sexual, either.

Shit. They were supposed to cross something else off Steve’s list last night and he fell asleep instead. That’s embarrassing. No wonder Steve left in the middle of the night. What the hell else was he supposed to do?

Bucky walks into the bedroom and pulls a sweater out of his duffel bag and pulls it on. Then he picks up his phone. He’s never had to apologize for anything like this before. But Steve is probably already at work, whether he’s in his own studio or teaching, so Bucky nixes I really did want to finger you as his first sentence and keeps it simple by texting sorry for falling asleep.

Don’t apologize. Have you eaten anything?

bossy, Bucky replies.

Don’t make me come over there., Steve replies. He’s feeling awfully chipper for somebody whose fuckbuddy fell asleep on him—or under him—last night.

fuck off, Bucky writes. He does want Steve to come over, but Natasha is coming home today, and he has no idea when she’ll get here. It will be difficult to explain things if she walks in her own front door and finds them in the guest room, or the shower, or on the couch.

Bucky had cleaned very thoroughly after he finished painting the living room. He’s going to throw the sheets in the washer, too. He has to assuage his conscience for using Natasha’s home like this.

It had been convenient, though. His heart feels heavy as he folds his clothes and repacks his duffel bag. Moving out of Natasha’s house and back into his apartment underscores how temporary this whole arrangement feels.

He makes coffee, having finally conquered Natasha’s coffee-maker just in time to move out. He eats a bowl of cereal, which probably doesn’t meet Steve’s bizarre and unreasonably high standards for food, but it’s all he’s got. Then he dawdles until the wash is done, and by the time he’s making the guest bed, he hears the front door.

“Liho,” Natasha says, sounding cuter and sweeter than she ever has toward any human being. He gives her a moment for her reunion, then comes down the stairs with his bag over his shoulder. Natasha is sitting cross-legged on the floor with her tailored black dress rucked up around her thighs and her red high heels tossed carelessly aside. Liho is circling around her, purring. Her giant black suitcase is standing just inside the door.

“Hey,” he says. “Let me get that for you.”

He drops his duffel bag on the floor and goes to haul her suitcase up the stairs for her, but before he can get there, Natasha is up off the floor and standing right in front of him. “Say hi first, like a normal person.”

“Hi?”

She rolls her eyes and then stands up on her tiptoes to wrap her arms around his neck. It takes him a minute to realize he should hug her back. “It look great in here, James,” she says, letting go. “Thanks. And thanks for taking care of Liho.”

“She didn’t need much. Glad you like it.”

“Are you really on your way out right now?”

He shrugs. “You don’t want me hanging around your house all day.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth. You working today?”

“Not till four.”

“Come out with me. I want waffles. Let me buy you brunch. Lunch. Whatever.”

Bucky hesitates, but he has no real reason to refuse. And it’s not like he has a sign hovering over him that says ‘had sex with Steve in your house while you were gone’ with a neon arrow pointing down at his head. She can’t just look at him and know that. All he has to do is keep quiet. “Okay,” he says.

“That was easier than expected,” Natasha says.

He shrugs again. “Steve is worried that I’m not eating enough. Seems like a bad idea to turn down food.” Shit. Why did he say that? He could have said literally anything else and it would have been better. Bucky resists the urge to cover his own face. Good job not talking about Steve.

Natasha laughs.

“What?” he says, probably too defensively.

“Have you not noticed Sam and Riley trying to feed you at every chance they get? It’s just funny that Steve gets all the credit for worrying, that’s all.”

“Well, he said something about it. They didn’t.”

Natasha still looks amused. “Would you have listened, if they had said something?”

“I guess we’ll never know, will we?”

They both know that’s not the case, but Natasha just shakes her head at him. She picks up her own suitcase, which is almost as big as she is, and heads for the stairs.

“Hey, I was gonna—okay.”

“Oh, and James,” she says, pausing at the first stair to glance over her shoulder. “Your hair looks nice.”

Chapter Text

It’s Friday night and all of Bucky’s friends are having a great time without him. He knows because his phone keeps buzzing against his ass while he’s pouring drinks at the bar.

When he gets a spare moment, he checks his phone and finds five messages from Steve, all of which are absurdly misspelled variations on his name.

bjkcy

bkcy

nbckk

BUCkk

buckyyyy

As he’s looking, a sixth message arrives: where r u

Guess you’re enjoying yourself, Bucky writes. Steve’s drunken use of textspeak makes him feel obligated to use capitals and punctuation again. One of them has to be the responsible adult. At work, he adds, although in theory Steve already knows that.

As fast as he can, Bucky texts Riley and Sam: what did u do to steve

Yuo kno wdam wll he startedit, Riley writes. And then adds: well himand nat

A moment later, Sam interjects: how is itthe 2 tiniest ppl here re always theones ducking shit up

Bucky smiles at his phone, then forces himself to put it away. As much as he wishes he were at Sam and Riley’s getting irresponsibly, regrettably drunk with all his friends, he’s not. He has work to do.

It’s probably for the best, anyway. If he got drunk with Steve now, they’d be all over each other, and then everyone would know, and eventually it would come out that Steve doesn’t really want him that way and things would fall apart. He has to close his eyes and put his hands on the edge of the bar for a second. He can’t think about that now. There are people waiting to order.

His shift drags on for ages. His feet don’t normally ache until he sits down after work, but tonight is an exception.

I think I’m the only one not texting you, Natasha writes. I just wanted to join the fun.

Given everyone else’s texting incapacity, Nat’s perfectly spelled texts are chilling. She hasn’t said it outright, but Bucky half-suspects she knows about him and Steve. What she’s planning to do with that knowledge—if she does know—is unclear.

Steve thinks he’s being sneaky, Natasha says, before Bucky has figured out a response. And a moment later: It’s adorable.

The best course of action is not to respond. Natasha must be a little drunk, if she thinks such an obvious gambit is going to work on him. He deserves more credit than that. Of course Steve is adorable. He’s adorable drunk and he’s adorable sober and Bucky thought that a long time before they started fucking, and besides none of that means anything because it’s just an objectively true fact about the world. The sky is blue, the Empire State building is tall, and Steve Rogers is adorable. Bucky has said as much to Natasha before, and he doesn’t need to confirm it to her now, when she is so clearly baiting him into a trap.

Anyway, I’m sure you’re busy, and I’ve got to get back to drinking Steve under the table. That poor boy doesn’t know how to back down from a challenge.

Oh no. So that’s what happened. Natasha probably didn’t even have to dare Steve. She probably teased Sam—tall, strapping, healthy, able-bodied, responsible Sam—about how she could outdrink him. Sam probably held his hands up in defeat like a normal person, because nobody fucked with Natasha like that.

Nobody except Steve.

Natasha knew that, of course. Steve would have picked up a bottle of whatever they had in front of them and chugged, even if his name had never come up. Steve could never resist a dare. And Steve heard challenges where none existed. Once, right after Bucky met Sam, he’d been in Sam’s kitchen with Steve. Sam had been chopping vegetables for salsa. He’d said “wash your hands if you touch that pepper, it’s hot,” and Steve had gotten this look about him, one where he straightened up to his full height and raised an eyebrow and maybe smiled a little. Then he’d popped a whole serrano chili into his mouth. It was like Steve had a condition that made him hear the words “bet you can’t handle that pepper, Rogers” instead of what Sam actually said. It’s a goddamn tragedy Bucky doesn’t have a video of the ensuing red-faced weeping fit. There was coughing and drooling and rolling around on the floor and Bucky had gotten to say “you brought this on yourself” twice. What a night. That was the first time after coming home that Bucky remembered laughing so hard he’d had tears in his eyes.

Natasha doesn’t send him any more texts after that, but because his friends all secretly hate him and want to make his shift as torturous as possible, his phone continues to buzz. Bucky tries to ignore the messages for as long as possible. The bar is busy and he could get fired for checking his phone too often or too publicly.  He’s lucky Rumlow is absent tonight or who knows what might have happened.

The latest text from Steve is an image. That’s all Bucky sees before he shoves his phone back into his pocket, his heart beating erratically. He catches the other bartender’s eye then nods toward the bathroom. She nods back at him and he sneaks off to check his phone in private.

It’s not a dick pic.

Not that he’d been hoping for one, exactly, since that would mean Steve was drunkenly squirreled away in Sam’s bathroom, photographing his hard-on. Bucky feels sure that would end badly, somehow.

The image that Steve sent him takes him a moment to parse. It’s a photograph of a charcoal drawing, undoubtedly one of Steve’s, but it’s one Bucky has never seen tacked up in his studio. It’s not one of Steve’s regular models for the life drawing class, either, as far as Bucky can tell. The drawing shows a male nude, lying on his stomach and seen from behind. The view is definitely centered on his ass and thighs. Bucky’s eye follows the line of the man’s spine up to his head, but the model is face down with his arms tucked under a pillow, like he’s asleep. Steve has left the upper left quadrant of the drawing unfinished. The paper is heavy with charcoal, especially in that area, and it’s hard to distinguish the dark-haired man from the shadows sometimes.

It’s a very alluring drawing. Way classier than a dick pic—not that he’d been hoping for one.

Then Bucky notices the man’s left shoulder, done in sharper lines than the rest of his body. His arm is not visible, covered as it is by the pillow, but Bucky can picture exactly what it looks like.

is this me, he writes. A useless question. Who else does Steve know with a metal arm?

Steve doesn’t respond immediately. Bucky needs to get back to work, but he lingers by the bathroom door, hoping for an answer. Has Steve been walking around with this picture in his phone for days now, waiting to send it? When did he make this drawing, exactly, and what made him decide to take a picture of it? Is Steve sitting in Sam and Riley’s living room looking at a naked drawing of Bucky on his phone?

you memorized my ass, Bucky teases, hoping to elicit another text. He can’t do anything but joke about it. He can’t think about this too hard. He’s already been in the bathroom too long. God, but the bar is stifling tonight. He should have gone out back and taken his break in the alley where it would have been cold.

Steve responds then, but instead of text, he sends another image. This one isn’t a drawing but a photo. There’s a young man, standing with his back to the camera, wearing only a pair of black briefs. His arms are bound with black rope that stands out in contrast to his pale skin. The binding is not only at his wrists. The rope loops around his arms and his back, knitted into a complicated pattern that Bucky can’t entirely follow. His brain has shorted out. The rope pattern is beautiful. That seems to be the point—there’s a flower stuck into one of the knots at the center of the man’s back.

Fuck. That’s what Steve wants to do? That’s what he meant when he wrote ‘bondage’? It’s a far cry from handcuffing one wrist to the headboard. It looks like it took a long time. It looks like it took a lot of care. Whoever tied those knots spent a long time handling the man in the picture, touching him, adjusting the rope, posing his limbs. It would be a strange, new kind of intimacy, but there’s so much trust evident in the photo. Bucky wants to text back yes yes yes. He wants to text Steve a dozen questions but he can’t seem to do anything but stare. He still doesn’t know if Steve wants to be the one binding or the one bound. They haven’t gotten that far down the list.

Bucky is really, really hoping that Steve wants to be the one tying the knots.

His face is warm. He’s in no state to walk back out into the bar. And to think he was worried about Steve hiding in the bathroom with a hard-on. Damn it.

He texts back no damn cat no damn cradle and hopes Steve will think it’s funny rather than dismissive. Bucky would really like to talk to him about this in person, preferably in private, definitely not in a bar bathroom.

Right now, he needs to forget he ever saw that image so that he can walk out of the bathroom and finish the last hour of his shift. He takes a few deep breaths and meditates for several sobering minutes on the small number in his checking account, his upcoming rent check, and the cost of flights to London. He really needs to get back to work.

Bucky considers turning off his phone entirely, but Steve is drunk and might need him, so he keeps it on.

There is a blessed forty-five minutes of radio silence. When his phone vibrates back to life, it’s not Steve. It’s his group chat with Sam and Riley.

yuo gonna comeget ur boy, Riley says.

He’s not my boy. The response is automatic at this point.

u knew exctly who imeant, Riley insists.

Bucky takes the fifth instead of responding to that. He closes a few more tabs and passes receipts to customers. He feels his phone go off again a few minutes later. He ignores it, and then it goes off twice more. The texts have all been composed with painstaking care, and all four are from Riley.

I ain’t rolling his ass home through the snow, that’s all I’m saying

Nat’s prob willing but tbqfh I’m afraid to unleash them on the world

theyll start a fight club or set brooklyn on fire or smthing

bless their hearts

Natasha is about the same size as Steve. She’s stronger than she looks. Bucky wouldn’t put it past her to drag Steve home by the ankles. And Riley makes an excellent point.

They can crash on the couch, Sam chimes in.

NO THEY CANNOT is Riley’s immediate, forceful response. All-caps drunk texting is serious business. Bucky is impressed.

we have pLANS babe

LOUD Plans

Bucky gives up on any notion of Sam being the responsible one, because all his response says is plans?!?!?! and then a string of heart-eyed emoji. They’re probably sitting right next to each other and making real-life heart-eyes, the assholes.

tmi, Bucky informs them, being as sanctimonious as he possibly can in three letters. Maybe it’s hypocritical, given what Steve was just texting him, but he feels entitled to it. All of his friends are being massively unfair to him, texting him all throughout his shift like this. Far away, Steve is probably sprawled out on their couch, just shy of nodding off, his lips and cheek still pink from drinking. And Bucky is here, in the dark, loud bar with his feet sticking to all the spilled alcohol on the floor, wiping his hands on the apron around his waist after serving his three-hundredth beer.

Alright fine I’ll come get them, Bucky says. But you owe me and I want to be paid in food.

Done, Sam replies.

When Bucky arrives at the apartment, Sam comes to the door doing a pretty good job of faking composure. He makes an open armed gesture toward the living room, where Steve and Nat are curled up on the couch together. They’re facing each other, so close that their foreheads are touching, and Nat has a hand on Steve’s shoulder. She’s talking to him in a low voice, but they break apart when Bucky gets closer.

“Hey,” he says, and Steve rewards him with the sleepiest of smiles.

“Hey.”

“James,” Natasha says, and the final s of his name lasts a bit too long, but other than that, she looks remarkably put together. She smiles at him, too, but it’s not quite as dopey as the look on Steve’s face. “Let’s go, Steve,” she says, and drags Steve off the couch with her. “Your ride’s here.”

“I’ve been charged with getting both of you home,” Bucky says.

Natasha waves a hand in the air. “It’s not that far, I’m not that drunk,” she says. “And I have pepper spray and a taser.”

“You have a taser?”

She nods, pleased with herself. “Don’t need it, though. Can take a man down with just my fists.”

Bucky has never seen any proof of that, but somehow he believes her. It feels candid rather than guarded, and he wonders again how drunk she is. “Remind me not to piss you off, then.”

She smiles even wider at that, and gives him an unexpected hug. “You’re something else, James Buchanan Barnes.” She says his full name with relish and then reaches up to ruffle his hair. He’s still wearing a hat, so she ends up patting him on the head instead. Bucky isn’t sure what has brought on this particular wave of affection, but he decides to keep that question to himself.

“Would you let us walk you home anyway?” he says. “If we see anybody threatening, you can beat them up. Steve and I would appreciate it.”

She glances between the two of them for a long moment, Bucky standing in the entry way with snow on his boots and Steve behind her looking a little woozy, and finally shrugs.

Bucky has to wait a comically long time for the two of them to gather their coats and gloves and boots. Steve is clearly feeling a little dizzy, but refusing to acknowledge it. Bucky has to repress a laugh at Natasha picking up Steve’s dropped hat and forcing it onto his head like he’s an unruly child. When Bucky does things like that, Steve shoves him away and grumbles about it.

“You never wear your hat or your scarf,” she says.

Steve, not satisfied with merely glaring balefully in her direction, reaches out and pulls her knit cap down into her eyes. She bats his hand away with her left hand and reaches out with her right, and for a second, Bucky wonders if she might demonstrate her claim on Steve. But instead of knocking him sideways and stepping on his throat, or whatever she might have done, she snakes an arm around his waist and drags him out the door, pushing her hat up out of her eyes with her other hand.

Bucky, feeling supremely unnecessary, says goodnight to Sam and Riley and follows Steve and Natasha out the door. The two of them sway a little in the street, and the sidewalks are icy so Bucky finds himself cringing in anticipation once or twice. But Steve has an arm around her shoulders now and they hold each other up quite well.

“You’re a good friend,” Steve says to Natasha in a spontaneous burst of affection. Bucky wishes he’d spent the evening with them being drunk and warm and happy instead of aching and antsy behind the bar.

“I know,” she tells him. “James, come here.”

The two of them stop and wait for him to catch up. Natasha extricates herself from Steve and wraps her arm around Bucky’s waist instead. She presses against him for a second, in a sort of half-hug, then steps back again, keeping her arm around him loosely. On his right side, Steve does the same thing. He clings a little more tightly, and a little longer, than Natasha does. Bucky throws his arm around Steve’s shoulders, and Steve lets him.

“My place first,” Natasha says.

The walk is slow, and Steve in particular is listing into his side, but Bucky doesn’t mind. It’s been a long time since he’s seen either of them this drunk, and they both seem freer and lighter for it.

“We missed you,” Natasha tells him.

“Believe me, I know,” he says. It’s a damn good thing he has unlimited texting.

“We did,” Steve says. He looks up at Bucky, the picture of innocent drunken charm, and says, “It’s too bad you were—,” Steve hiccups, “tied up—at work.”

Bucky’s face is already flushed from the cold. Steve Rogers, you little shit. Bucky is going to get him back for this. He’s going to wait until Steve is teaching, or meeting with Brandt at the gallery, and then he’s going to barrage him with inappropriate text messages. He’s going to wait until they’re together in public and he’s going to brush against Steve accidentally until Steve is dying from it. It might be February but Bucky is going to find a popsicle somewhere so he can fellate the fuck out of it right in front of Steve. Steve is going to suffer.

“Too bad,” Natasha echoes, as they arrive at her stoop. “But now you have a nice long walk to catch up, talk, whatever.” She lets go of Bucky. He doesn’t realize until she’s at the top of the stairs and unlocking her door that he and Steve are still holding each other, even though they have no real reason to. But Steve doesn’t let go, so Bucky doesn’t let go either.

“G’night!” she says cheerfully, and then shuts the door behind herself.

As soon as she’s gone, Steve is on him. He’s on tiptoe giving Bucky a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss, holding himself up with his hands on Bucky’s waist, pressing their bodies together from hips to chest. Bucky responds despite himself. Steve is warm and he tastes like whiskey and Bucky has been thinking about him for hours. Steve slips a hand under the hem of Bucky’s wool coat and gropes his ass. Then he reaches between them and cups the obvious bulge in the front of Bucky’s jeans, rolling his palm under Bucky’s balls and stroking his thumb along the length of his cock. Bucky groans. This is the second hard-on Steve has given him tonight, the handsy little drunk.

Then he remembers something unfortunate. “Steve.”

“Mmhmm.”

Being the sober responsible adult one is awful and Bucky wishes he were drunk so he didn’t have to care. He puts his hand on Steve’s before Steve can drive him completely out of his mind. “Steve, we’re on the sidewalk in front of Nat’s house, it’s the middle of the night, it’s zero degrees, and you are really fucking drunk.”

Steve keeps kissing along his jaw, and Bucky has to remove his hand to get him to pay attention. “Steve.”

Steve huffs, but he stops then. He looks down, then back up again, turning the world’s most wounded-puppy eyes on Bucky in a last-ditch attempt to get Bucky to change his mind. It almost works. Then Steve seems to give up on his own initiative, sighing and letting his shoulders down. “It is really fuckin’ cold out here,” he admits.

Relieved and disappointed, Bucky steps away but keeps hold of his hand so that he can pull Steve down the sidewalk. “Tell me about tonight,” he says, and then, only feeling a little dirty, he adds nonchalantly, “What did Nat talk to you about?”

“Her feelings, mostly.”

Bucky stops in the middle of the sidewalk and Steve runs into him. Bucky has to make sure Steve is standing steadily again before he can ask his question. He keeps his hands on Steve’s shoulders and looks straight into Steve’s and wishes he had more to say than “What?”

Steve shrugs. When he says “I don’t know,” it comes out as a single word.

“We are talking about Natasha Romanov, right?”

“I know,” Steve says, waving one hand in the air. “It didn’t make sense to me either.” Steve is dropping consonants and letting his syllables trip over themselves. He gives Bucky an adorably resigned, perplexed look. A few blond strands are sticking out from beneath the edge of his cap, and it’s so cold out that there’s fog clinging to his glasses. His eyes look huge and blue.

“Her feelings about what exactly?”

They start walking again, still holding hands. It’s icy out and Steve is drunk.

“I don’t know,” Steve says again. “Some guy. She told this really long story. They almost had a thing, I think? Or they did have a thing. But now they don’t. She has regrets, or something? She said,” and here Steve pauses, and Bucky supposes that what comes out next is an impression of Natasha, although he deduces that more from years of knowing Steve than any actual resemblance to Nat’s speaking voice, “Don’t be a fuck-up like me, Rogers. I want you to be happy. Are you happy? Are you happy, Steve?”

Then Steve shrugs.

Bucky waits a long time for the answer, not sure why his heartbeat feels so fast and shallow against his ribs. But apparently Steve is done with the story. “What did you tell her?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, and the sentence is almost entirely vowels. Then he lays his head against Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky can’t tell if Steve is answering his question or Natasha’s or both. He decides to let it go. It’s a heavy topic for a drunk Friday night, anyway. He disentangles his hand from Steve’s and wraps his arm around Steve’s shoulders instead.

“I guess I sorta assumed Nat was ace or aro or something,” Bucky says, more to himself than to Steve. Steve makes a noise that might be agreement. It might just be him being hammered. “I didn’t wanna ask if she didn’t bring it up, you know? But she never seemed interested in anybody. Plus I always figured that if she did want somebody—anybody—she could get them.”

It’s another half a block before he says anything else. “Who do you think the guy is? Do you think he feels like a giant fucking failure that he had Nat and he lost her?”

“Name was Ken or Kit or Clit or something,” Steve mumbles.

Bucky laughs. He squeezes Steve’s shoulders. “You know, I wasn’t sure before, but now I know you’re drunk.”

“Clint! It was Clint.”

Bucky wonders about this guy, and why Nat has never brought him up before, but they’ve arrived at the door to Steve’s apartment building. “Can you make it up the stairs?”

Steve nods. He digs into his coat pocket for his keys and holds them up triumphantly, like proof of his own competence. Bucky smiles at him, and then Steve pockets his keys again and says, “Kiss me.”

They don’t do this. At least, they haven’t done this. They never did it as friends and they haven’t done it as fuckbuddies and Bucky can’t tell if they would do this if Steve were sober. But Steve is standing in the glow of the streetlight and looking up at Bucky, drunk and hopeful and wholly sincere.

Bucky kisses him. His lips are cold but his tongue is hot against Bucky’s. Steve breaks the kiss only a moment later.

“Come upstairs with me,” he murmurs.

“Pretty sure that violates the terms of our agreement,” Bucky says, as lightly as he can. They never actually talked about it, but he feels sure that sober Steve would agree with him.

Drunk Steve has other ideas. Bucky catches him by the hands before he gets any further. He shakes his head and Steve pouts.

“Next time,” Bucky promises. “Right now, you have to go drink a glass of water and go to bed.”

Steve looks positively thrilled by that prospect. Bucky has never seen someone unlock a door so sullenly. But Steve gets inside his building, where at least he won’t freeze to death, and Bucky texts Maria to make sure that Steve actually does make it up the stairs. Bucky’s entire texting history with Maria is about Steve, but she hasn’t blocked his number yet. Bucky chalks that up to her fondness for Steve.

A lot of people seem to have a soft spot for him.

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up because his phone is buzzing. The ceiling above him is water-damaged and his lumpy mattress only keeps him about three inches off the floor. He didn’t hate his apartment so much before he spent two weeks housesitting for Natasha. He never should have agreed to do that. Things were fine before. He could have been content. Bucky rolls onto his back and reaches blindly for his phone.

I feel great!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh fuck I just saw our text history

I’m so sorry

Bucky stayed awake for far too long last night wondering why Steve couldn’t say “yes” to Natasha’s question about his happiness, even when he was plastered. Steve’s career is going well. He has more financial stability than he’s ever had before. He has good friends. He’s been relatively healthy recently. He got laid not too long ago and he’ll probably get laid again soon. Why wouldn’t he be happy? Is it Bucky? What would make Steve happy?

Bucky smiles at Steve’s texts despite himself.

Shit I missed your Vonnegut reference

I haven’t been that drunk in awhile

Steve stops texting for a minute, and Bucky has time to compose a reply. He hates not knowing what to say to Steve. Does Steve remember all of last night? Bucky sidesteps the issue and writes: u hear from nat?

She texted me at 8 this morning about brunch. I told her to fuck off and went back to sleep.

lol, Bucky writes. He’s glad to know that Natasha is fine, at least. Steve has given him an obvious opening, but he can’t seem to make himself write if i asked u abt brunch would u tell me 2 fuck off, even though it ought to be the easiest thing in the world.

How much longer can he keep this up? Bucky knew this was a terrible idea from the start but he thought he’d be able to stick it out longer. He was foolishly optimistic about the whole arrangement. Some day the truth is going to come out. Steve already said he wasn’t interested in a real relationship. Steve wants a fun distraction, some no-strings-attached sexual experimentation. And they haven’t even started doing anything out of the ordinary and Bucky’s throat is already about to close up with panic.

Bucky drops his phone on the floor and scrubs his hands over his face.

He’s imagined the truth coming out half a dozen different ways, and even when he engages in wild fantasy and pretends that Steve isn’t at all hurt that Bucky would keep something from him for weeks—or months, or years—even then, it still doesn’t go well. Even if by some miracle, Steve “I don’t even know if I want a relationship” Rogers says yes let’s try that too, they’re still themselves. Steve is famous and successful and doing important things with his life. Bucky is working two dead-end jobs and still trying not to wake up screaming and clutching his left arm every night, two-plus years after the fact. He has zero ambition or plan for the rest of his life.

If he and Steve gave it a try for real, Steve would look at him differently. Steve would see all the things about Bucky that he glosses over right now, when they’re just friends who sometimes have sex. Bucky can’t be anybody’s partner. It’s a good day if he can stand the inside of his own head. If Steve did want a relationship, he’d deserve somebody who had their shit together. Steve would deserve somebody who could give a relationship a real chance, somebody who could make it last.

Romantic relationships are difficult and delicate. They fall apart so easily. They disintegrate and then people stop talking to each other entirely. People lose each other.

Bucky can’t live without Steve.

Friendship is the safer option. Friendships last.

He’d gotten so good at ignoring his feelings, then he had to go and suggest this utterly boneheaded plan to Steve and now he doesn’t know where they’re going. He should never have suggested it at all.

God, the sex has been good, though.

No, he can’t think about that now. He has to extricate himself. He has to save their friendship before they fuck things up irrevocably. He’s been really busy lately. He’ll just keep working, since he needs the money anyway, and he’ll try to arrange to see Steve in the company of their friends, and that will give him time to think about this. Maybe if he gives it enough time, Steve will lose interest or find somebody else and they can go back to being friends who don’t have sex. Bucky can pine in secret. He’s had enough practice.

He doesn’t text Steve back for hours, and even then, it’s to check if his hangover is any better rather than to start a conversation about the future of their friendship.

no, Steve writes, and even in text form it sounds miserable.

drink some water

I know how to deal with a hangover. I’m not 17 any more.

u wouldnt be so grumpy if u drank some water, Bucky says, and then, because he knows exactly what Steve is referring to, he adds: that is one hell of a memory tho

Bullshit. You don’t remember that night any better than I do.

i remember the next day when we swore never to drink again

How’s that working out for you? Steve writes, and Bucky hears Steve’s bone-dry delivery in his head without even trying.

pretty well :)

Next time you’re hungover, there will be hell to pay.

Bucky leaves Steve to his private suffering then. It’s almost time for his shift at the bar to start. Presumably tonight will be less eventful than last night. Right now Bucky would give anything to go a few hours without worrying about his friendship with temporary benefits.

He almost makes it all the way through his shift, but then Natasha shows up. He slides her favorite gross beer across the bar and waits to be lectured or scolded or glared to death.

“It was sweet of you to walk us home last night,” she says, and Bucky relaxes a little. Maybe she’s just here to hang out. Maybe she’s not going to scold him. Maybe not everything in his life revolves around his questionable choices with regards to Steve Rogers. “Although, as I believe I mentioned, in my case it wasn’t necessary.”

“Don’t let Steve catch you implying it was necessary for him,” Bucky says. “And some day I’m gonna want proof that you can take a man down with just your fists.”

She raises her eyebrows, then glances at the employees-only exit of the bar, like she’s ready to fight him in the back alley right now.

“Oh no, not me,” he says, lifting his hands in pre-emptive surrender. He still has a bar rag in his right hand. “I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime, thanks.”

“You keep in awfully menacing shape for such a pacifist.”

“Nah,” he says, thinking of Steve chastising him about not eating enough. He’s leaner and more ragged now than when he was in the military. His left shoulder might not ache so much if he did keep in shape. “’S the arm. Makes me look a lot more badass than I really am.”

She smiles. “Steve showed me pictures of the two of you in middle school and high school, once.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” So maybe he sounds a little defensive. Even if he doesn’t want to sleep with Natasha, Bucky would prefer to keep the number of attractive women who have seen pictures of his younger self to zero. In fact, he’d prefer to keep the number of humans who’ve seen those pictures to zero, but it’s too late for that now. He’d been well-liked in school, despite being very dorky. He’d been cheerful and easy-going and unlike Steve, he’d never had trouble finding dates. But while puberty might have arrived on time for Bucky, he’d been a late-bloomer when it came to style and hygiene.

Bucky has to stop paying attention to Natasha for awhile to take drink orders, so it’s a long time before he gets her answer to his question.

“It’s hard to think of somebody as a terrifying badass when you’ve seen photos of their brace-face smile as they stand next to their winning science-fair project, that’s all.”

He laughs, and from halfway down the bar, he calls, “It was only honorable mention.”

“That’s not how Steve tells it.”

“Steve was too busy getting suspended for fighting to know anything about the science fair,” Bucky says, returning to stand in front of Natasha. Although Steve had kept those photos, so he must have been proud. “What were you like in school, anyway?”

“I rolled my eyes a lot more.”

“Hard to imagine.”

Natasha looks like she wants to roll her eyes at that, but she restrains herself.

“What brought all this on again? Or are you just explaining to me why you’ve never been afraid of me?” She never looked away, not even when Bucky had just come home and strangers were crossing the street to avoid him whenever he could pull his shit together enough to risk going out into the world. He might have crossed the street to avoid that version of himself: scruffy, unwashed, angry and anguished. Natasha never did. “Is that why? Because you saw one photo of me back when I was a chubby science geek with floppy hair and braces?”

“Oh, it was way more than one photo,” Natasha says, grinning evilly.

“Your point?”

“I get a lot of mileage in life from people thinking that I’m little and cute and harmless when I’m not,” she says. “You’re the opposite. You’ve spent most of the last two years stomping around and glaring at people, but deep down, you’re cuddly.” She reaches across the bar and taps his chest with her index finger. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s been nice, lately, seeing you smile and be sweet.”

“This is weird and uncomfortable and I want it to stop,” he tells her. “What have you done with Natasha?”

“I don’t know why you think I can’t talk about feelings,” she says. “I can talk about other people’s feelings all day long. You, for instance—,”

“Oh look,” he says. “A customer.”

Bucky manages to avoid her for almost half an hour, doing his actual job, but when he turns back around to look at the end of the bar, Rumlow is standing behind Natasha, resting one hand on her shoulder. Where the fuck did he come from? How long has he been in the bar? Bucky is too far away to hear any conversation, but Natasha looks like she’s about to coolly and calmly gut Rumlow with her boot heel.

Or maybe she’ll tase him. As averse to violence as Bucky is these days, he wouldn’t hate that.

Bucky feels obligated to walk back over there. Rumlow is his problem, after all. He’s the one who works in this shitty bar. As he gets there, Rumlow takes his hand off Natasha and steps away from her. Bucky has never seen him look so off-balance. It’s very satisfying.

“Barnes,” Rumlow says, and whatever hesitation he might have been feeling is quashed. Natasha might have unsettled him, but Bucky is his employee. Rumlow clearly feels more authoritative now that he can talk down to Bucky. “Is this woman a friend of yours?”

He says ‘this woman’ the way you might say ‘this poisonous spider’ and Bucky has never loved Natasha more. “She is.”

Rumlow makes a disgruntled noise, and then, wonder of wonders, he leaves. He doesn’t come behind the bar and touch Bucky. He doesn’t even give Bucky a sleazy look. He just leaves.

“There’s so much about your life that you don’t share,” Natasha says after Rumlow is gone, keeping her voice purposefully neutral.

Bucky shrugs. He doesn’t like to think about Rumlow if he doesn’t have to.

“If you ever want something done about that, just say the word,” she says. And then, casually, she adds, “I know a lot of lawyers.”

“I’m not gonna press charges,” Bucky says, keeping his voice low. “I just want to quit and move on.”

“What would you press charges for?” Natasha says, and then, “Oh, James. How long has this been going on?”

“I’m sorry he bothered you.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. I was serious, though. If you need help—,”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to make a big thing out of it.” He doesn’t know why he feels so shaken and she seems so calm. Rumlow touched her, not him. “Can I get you another beer?”

“I’m fine, James,” she says. She has her phone in her hand now and she’s idly scrolling through twitter. Bucky thinks she’s reading the news, so he almost walks away to serve more customers, and then Natasha speaks again. “Did you know juries almost never convict beautiful, wealthy young white women? Not even if they commit a violent and gruesome murder? It’s a real failure of the American criminal justice system.”

“Natasha.”

“Just a thought I had,” she says. Bucky finds Natasha’s joking eagerness to kill Rumlow for him strangely reassuring, even if it’s also disconcerting. Bucky has actually taken human lives—is he still allowed to joke about murder? Natasha looks up from her phone and catches his eye. “As if I would ever be sloppy enough to end up in a courtroom.”

He gives an uncertain smile, and she reaches across the bar and touches his hand. She doesn’t make any more jokes.

Bucky goes back to work, and Natasha stays right there, sitting at the bar and looking at her phone. When he gets a spare moment, he walks back to her.

“You know,” she says. “I think we were about to talk about something important, before we were so rudely interrupted.”

I can talk about other people’s feelings all day long. Bucky shoots her a despairing look, and she softens.

“Is it that bad?” she says. “We don’t have to talk about it if it’s that bad.”

He takes a breath and lets it out. Natasha is trying to be a supportive friend. Maybe he should let her. “I’ve had something on my mind.”

“Yeah?”

She probably already knows everything, which is good because he’d rather not tell her. Bucky decides to keep up the pretense of secrecy. It’s easier that way. “There’s this… situation. With… an acquaintance. And I think I need to make a change.”

“Wow, let it all out, why don’t you. Don’t overwhelm me with so much detail, James, I’ll never keep track of it all.”

He crosses his arms.

“That’s all I get? Fine,” she says. “Here’s what I think: whatever it is that’s on your mind, whatever it is you’ve been thinking about saying to this acquaintance, you should say it.” She takes the last gulp of her beer, then lets the bottle thunk back down on the bar. “That’s my advice. Say it.”

After a moment, he nods. Of course she would say that. “You want another beer? You’ve been nursing that shit for hours.”

She laughs. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say? Sure. Okay. Whatever. Yeah, bring me a beer.”

They don’t talk much after that. Bucky is caught up in his thoughts. Nat says goodbye after awhile, before his shift ends so he doesn’t have a chance to offer to walk her home. At least three people stiff him on the tip, but he’s too distracted to be upset.

He’s known since this morning that the right thing to do is to tell Steve they have to stop sleeping together. They can go back to being friends. It might be weird for awhile, but they’ll survive. Their friendship has lasted this long, after all.

Bucky should text Steve immediately and set something up so they can talk about this. But he looks at his phone and sees Steve’s texts from last night. He told Steve they would experiment. They really haven’t done that yet. They haven’t even come close. And nobody else has ever offered to tie him up like that. He’s not sure there is anyone else in the world that he would let tie him up like that.

Maybe just one more time? And then he’ll do the right thing.

God, you’re a fucking dirtbag, he thinks.

He texts Steve about getting together the next day as soon as his shift ends, but Steve replies that he got nothing done all Saturday and now Sunday is swamped with grading, and then it turns out they can’t get together until Tuesday after Steve’s life drawing class. Bucky feels bizarrely relieved by the delay.

Hey I was gonna buy plane tickets to London this weekend, Steve writes. How about I just get two of them? I know, I know, you’re gonna insist on paying me back. But is that okay? I’ll email you times and dates.

Shit. Bucky agreed to do this for Steve. And Steve has saved a photo of Bucky’s goddamn sophomore-year science fair all this time. Bucky wants to be there for Steve’s big moment, whether they’re fucking or whether they’re just friends. He’s been working extra shifts for weeks now to save up for this, and he’s close to being able to afford the flight and a few nights in a hotel. There’s no reason to say no.

yeah, he writes. He gets the email of possible flight itineraries a second later. He hardly looks at dates and times. The prices are high, but they’re all within reach. any of those is fine, he says.

 Okay cool. Gonna buy the one that leaves JFK at 6:55p on the 14th. See you Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bucky texts Steve from the back room of the drugstore as he’s clocking out.

pho after life drawing tonight?

There’s a great Vietnamese place not far from Steve’s class, and they’re open late. Plus, Steve told him to eat vegetables and pho has scallions and Thai basil and lime juice in it, so that almost counts.

The reply is slow, which is normal, but it says I’m kind of tired, which is not. “I’m kind of tired” from Steve Rogers is the equivalent of a screaming ambulance siren. “I’m kind of tired” means “I am on the verge of death but I am going to teach my class anyway, like a stupid reckless martyr.” Instead of texting back, Bucky grabs his coat and walks out the door.

Steve should still be in his apartment at this time of day, and indeed, when Bucky knocks on the door, Steve answers, his eyes already bright and feverish. Bucky gives him a look, which he ignores in order to go sit back down on the couch and pick up his laptop. Bucky shuts the apartment door himself.

“I assume you’re emailing your students to cancel your class tonight.”

“The model’s booked,” Steve protests. His voice is scratchy and he sounds congested.

“They can draw without you, right? Just pick a good student and tell them to set things up without you. They’ll make it for one night.”

Steve must really be feeling sick, because he only manages to keep his jaw stubbornly set for a few seconds. Then he sighs. “Fine.”

“Good,” Bucky says. He walks into the kitchen, which is separated from the living room by a counter, and starts poking through cabinets. “Get in bed.”

Steve gives him a wan smile. “Not how I imagined tonight going, but I’ll take it.”

“Absolutely not,” Bucky says, maybe a little too sharply. He turns around and points menacingly at Steve with the canister of matzo meal that he just found in the back of a cabinet. He knew it would still be here after the last time he cooked in Steve and Maria’s kitchen. “You are going to rest and drink fluids and not get any sicker.”

Bucky has seen Steve get pneumonia and would prefer not to repeat the experience. Steve would probably prefer not to get pneumonia again either, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he behaves. He would be at work right now if Bucky weren’t in his apartment.

“Bucky, it’s 6PM. Ailing ninety-five-year-olds haven’t even gone to bed yet.”

“Fine, stay on the couch,” Bucky says, waving a dismissive hand in Steve’s direction. It’s best to say it like a concession and make Steve feel like he won the argument. Bucky has never outright won an argument with Steve, but he’s gotten very good at negotiating his way to an acceptable outcome without Steve ever being the wiser. Steve probably thinks Bucky gave up on arguing because he’s busy looking for eggs in the overcrowded fridge. It’s close enough to true. Bucky needs to find bouillon or broth, too, and a carrot, and schmaltz, ideally, but for that he’ll make do with vegetable oil. Steve and Maria might have accepted the foreign incursion of a single canister of matzo meal into the back of one of their cabinets, but rendered chicken fat is a harder sell.

Bucky only knows how to cook one thing, but he makes it every time Steve gets sick. As a result, he’s gotten very good at it. The delicious curative powers of his matzo ball soup would make his great-grandmother proud, if only she were here to taste it. She’d probably be less thrilled about how Bucky’s mother married a lapsed-Catholic child of Irish-American immigrants, changed her name from Rabinovich to Barnes, stopped attending shul and then the whole family let go of all non-food-related traditions. The soup, though. The soup is good.

He combines all the ingredients and makes the matzo balls in the palm of his right hand, handling them as little as possible so that they’ll be light and fluffy. In the living room, Steve is watching something mature and horribly depressing on TV, investigative reporting about the various injustices of the world, but he’s still on the couch. That’s what matters.

Bucky leaves the soup boiling and goes to offer Steve a glass of water and an array of pain relievers, fever reducers, nasal decongestants, cough syrup, and other over-the-counter medication. Steve regards the medicine resentfully, but ultimately leans forward to pick through the boxes and bottles that Bucky has put on the coffee table in front of him. He selects the grossest and most powerful cough syrup, measures the dark red liquid into its little plastic cup, and takes it like a shot. Bucky shudders in sympathy, because even the memory of the taste makes him want to gag, but Steve is inured to the flavor. He chases it with water and then collapses back against the couch.

Bucky sits down next to Steve and Steve edges away. “You’ll get sick.”

“C’mon. Has that ever happened before?”

“Yes,” Steve says with dry certainty. “At least four times.”

“Four times out of what?” Bucky says. “Twenty? Thirty? I’ll take my chances. Somebody has to make sure you don’t do anything stupid. Like hang out on a sidewalk in the middle of the night in February when you’re likely to catch cold.”

Steve mutes the TV. “I had an excellent reason for being out on that sidewalk.”

“Some jerk who kept you out in the freezing cold.”

“He’s making it up to me.”

Bucky only half-laughs at that, a sudden draught of discomfort rippling through him. What’s going to happen to them when they stop sleeping together? This feels so easy and natural now, but it’s not how they were before. Or maybe it is how they were, and Bucky never noticed how much their teasing felt like flirting.

He walks to the kitchen to clear his head and then stays there until the soup is ready. He ladles two bowls full and then sets them down on the coffee table, sweeping the little pile of medicine boxes out of the way. Steve puts something more lighthearted on TV, a concession that Bucky hadn’t even requested, and they eat dinner on the couch, talking during the commercial breaks sometimes.

Even when Steve is sick and grouchy, he’s still Bucky’s favorite person to spend time with. The sex has been incredible and he will definitely miss it, but this part—dinner on the couch in front of the TV—is the part he can’t live without.

Steve drifts off somewhere in the middle of their third half-hour sitcom. Bucky hears him taking slow, labored breaths before he sees anything. When Bucky glances over, Steve’s head is resting against the back of the couch, tipped a little to one side, and his mouth is slack. It ought to be a totally unflattering pose, but Steve never does what he’s supposed to, even when he’s asleep.

Bucky clears their plates as quietly as he can. Then he makes sure the door to Steve’s bedroom is open, and that the covers are pulled down on his bed, because that always makes things run smoother. Bucky goes back to Steve and carefully slides his metal arm under the bend of Steve’s knees and his other arm behind Steve’s shoulders. He only dares to pick Steve up like this if Steve is solidly unconscious. If Steve wakes up in the middle, he gets indignant. Asleep, he’s utterly pliant. His head rests against Bucky’s shoulder while Bucky cradles his body in his arms. Steve weighs so little, and that surprises Bucky every time. Steve is so full of force and feeling. He should be six-two and and two hundred pounds of muscle.

But then he wouldn’t need Bucky to carry him to bed. Steve would complain that he doesn’t need that anyway, if he were awake. But Steve remains asleep for the walk between the couch and his bed. He only stirs when Bucky lays him down against the mattress.

Steve’s eyes open slowly, then close most of the way again. “Bucky?”

“Yeah, Steve.” Bucky waits for another question, but Steve makes the barest nod of acknowledgment and ends their conversation by falling back asleep. Bucky pulls the blankets over him. He intends to leave then, since there’s nothing else to do, but somehow his hand finds its way to Steve’s face. He brushes Steve’s bangs away from his eyes. Steve’s expression remains peaceful. Bucky wants to cup Steve’s face with one hand and lean down to give him a kiss on the forehead, but instead he draws his hand back and walks out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

Maria comes home while Bucky is cleaning the kitchen. He doesn’t hear her come in over the sound of the faucet, but she taps him on the shoulder. She’s still buttoned up in her suit, with the strap of her briefcase over her shoulder, and there are a few snowflakes melting in her shiny dark hair, but she already has an impressively large glass of wine in her right hand. Maria works very long hours at Stark Industries. Bucky would probably invest in some balloon-sized wine glasses too, if he had her job.

“Steve sick again?” she says softly.

Bucky nods.

“It’s so good of you to take care of him,” she says. “I know he appreciates it, and it makes me feel better to know someone is there for him. I think he’s been stressed lately, with the prize and everything, and I know you two haven’t gotten to see each other as much as usual since you’ve been—,”

Bucky can’t quite control his face then, and when he opens his mouth, she shuts hers.

“Well,” she says. “Anyway. I’m glad you’re here.”

Bucky nods. He likes Maria, even though she always seems so much more adult and responsible than anyone else he knows. Nat has money and owns property, and that should make her a grown-up by any reasonable measure, but he’ll never be able to think of her as anything but his sort-of-terrifying little sister. Maria could probably afford to live on her own, but she’s frugal and rarely home. Bucky once asked her about why she didn’t have a place to herself and she said “He waters my plants,” in a tone that suggested roommates like Steve were rarer than rubies.

“Steve said you’re going to London with him,” Maria says. “That’s really great. I’m sure it’ll be fun. I know Steve’s excited to see Peggy.”

Bucky stares at her. He doesn’t realize his left hand is wringing soapy dishwater out of the sponge until a big drop of it plops onto his foot.

Peggy. Peggy Carter. The only woman Steve has ever loved. She lives in London. Of course she lives in London. Bucky knew that. He just didn’t—he didn’t—oh God.

Bucky swallows a lump in his throat and feels a little sick himself.

Chapter Text

“Are you okay?”

Bucky nods but doesn’t say anything. Steve shuts the apartment door behind them and flips the deadbolt. It’s Saturday afternoon and Maria is out of town visiting a friend until tomorrow morning, so the lock is hardly necessary, but fiddling with it gives Steve a second to think. Between his sickness and then their conflicting schedules, it’s been more than a week since they last saw each other, to say nothing of finding time alone together. Steve has been looking forward to this afternoon for days, but Bucky looks he’s facing a life sentence. Maybe Steve shouldn’t have locked the door after all.

Steve wants to reach out and lay a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, but initiating that kind of easy physical affection has always been more Bucky’s thing than Steve’s. Steve is never quite sure he has permission. And for all Steve knows, he might be the reason Bucky’s looking so ill. It’s better to hold off on touching him. Steve keeps his hands stiffly at his sides.

“This isn’t about the photo I texted you when I was drunk, is it?” Steve says. It’s been weeks and they haven’t talked about it, but it’s been on his mind. “The, uh, bondage. Because if you don’t want to, that’s fine with me. I’m happy to do other things. Honestly, I’m sorry it came up that way. I would never want to do anything that would make you uncomfortable, I hope you know—,”

Bucky kisses him before he can finish. His lips are still cold from the outside air, but his tongue is warm against Steve’s. Steve puts his hands on Bucky’s hips and draws them closer. The kiss is a password, a key to this new, half-unexplored part of their relationship. In the dark of this uncharted territory, Steve can map Bucky’s body with his hands.

“I know,” Bucky says. “And I want to.”

Steve pauses with his hands finally, after all Bucky’s layers of winter outerwear, touching skin. He has one hand up the back of Bucky’s shirt and the other working it way under the waistband of his jeans. He can’t think of anything to say that isn’t unbearably dorky, all full of earnest gratitude and overexcitement, so he just drags Bucky even closer, then leans up and kisses him.

They lose themselves then, kissing and pressing up against one another. They’re still in their boots, dripping mud and melting snow all over the carpet. Steve forgets that until Bucky suddenly bends down and starts unknotting the laces on Steve’s, and Christ, the sight of Bucky half-kneeling in front of him makes him uncomfortably hard. Bucky’s hair is loose today, and Steve pushes his fingers through the shiny brown locks of it. He hadn’t been wearing gloves outside and his hands are like ice, but Bucky doesn’t flinch at Steve’s cold fingertips against his scalp. He finishes undoing Steve’s bootlaces and puts his left hand just below the curve of Steve’s calf as a sign that he’s done. Steve lifts one foot and then the other, and Bucky tugs off his boots.

“Only forty layers to go,” Steve jokes. He shrugs out of his coat and drops it on the floor, simultaneously wishing Bucky would stand up again to kiss him and wishing Bucky would take better advantage of the fact that he’s down on one knee right in front of Steve’s cock.

Instead, Bucky sits down and pulls off his own boots, but he glances up at Steve and says, “We could… try the rope. Today. If you want.”

There’s a little color in his cheeks. His gaze is dark, and he looks away as soon as Steve smiles at him. Bucky really wants to. He isn’t pretending for Steve’s sake. Bucky still has on his grey wool pea coat, the one that makes Nat tease him about being a male model, and it’s obscuring his lap, but Steve would bet anything that Bucky is hard just thinking about it. God, Steve can’t wait to strip him naked and lay him out like the work of art he is. There’s just one problem.

“We can’t,” Steve says. “I don’t have the rope yet. But we can do other things.”

Disappointment passes across Bucky’s face, so fast Steve almost doesn’t notice. But then Bucky says, “Yeah,” and “I’d like that,” with a little rasping catch in his already-deep voice, and Steve forgets everything else.

Bucky stands up. Even barefoot, he still looms over Steve. But all Steve has to do is reach up and curve one hand around the back of Bucky’s neck, where his skin is warm underneath the silk of his hair, and Bucky comes down to kiss him. Steve undoes Bucky’s coat with his free hand, then lets his hand drift down between Bucky’s hips. He was right. Bucky is hard. Steve cups his dick through his jeans and Bucky groans into his mouth. Fuck, but that will never not be satisfying. Steve rubs his thumb along the impressive length of Bucky’s cock. He’s seen it before now, touched it, sucked it even, but—

“I want you to fuck me,” Steve says.

Bucky makes a noise of assent against his lips. Steve backs him into the bedroom. It’s a halting process, with pauses for kissing and groping and dropping their shirts on the floor, but they make it. Steve backs Bucky all the way up against the bed, and Bucky sits down heavily, pulling Steve with him. Steve ends up in his lap, with his thighs spread, and he rolls his hips, dragging his denim-clad hard-on against Bucky’s.

Bucky trails his hands down the naked skin of Steve’s back until they meet the waistband his jeans. His hands follow the line of it, circling around to the front and making quick work of the fly. “This is how you want to do it? You on top?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and Bucky smiles at the look at his face.

“Of course you want to be in charge. I can’t believe I even had to ask.”

Steve puts both hands on Bucky’s shoulders and shoves, and Bucky falls flat against the bed willingly. “It’s not the only way I want it,” Steve says, making conversation as he slips out of Bucky’s lap and shucks his jeans and underwear. Bucky stays exactly where Steve left him, on his back with his legs hanging over the edge of the bed, regarding Steve with amusement. Steve peels Bucky’s skinny jeans down his thighs. “I want to fuck you, too,” Steve says. “But I’ve never had this before, so it tops the list.”

“Or bottoms the list.” There’s a flash of a smile, and Steve tries to roll his eyes but the effect is ruined. He’s smiling too much. Whatever it was that had Bucky looking so sad earlier, it’s clearly forgotten. Steve pads to his nightstand and pulls the bottle of lube out of the top drawer, and that sparks Bucky’s interest enough that he rolls over onto his stomach and reaches toward where Steve is standing. He covers Steve’s hand with his own. “Hope you weren’t planning on doing that yourself.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. He hadn’t been planning on doing it himself, but he also hadn’t expected Bucky to show so much interest. Bucky lifts himself up from the bed just enough to grab Steve around the waist and pull him bodily onto the bed. He tumbles headfirst over Bucky and they wrestle for a few minutes. It goes on far longer than it has to, since Bucky has the unfair advantage of eight inches of height and eighty or ninety pounds of muscle. But every time it looks like Bucky is about to pin him, Steve leaves a fierce kiss on some sensitive part of him, his teeth grazing Bucky’s neck or shoulder or hip, and then writhes out of his grip.

When Bucky finally gets a grip on him and pushes him flat on his back, they have to spend a moment looking for the lost bottle of lube. But once they find it, it’s not long before Bucky pushes a slick finger inside him, and losing has never felt so good.

“Christ,” Steve breathes, staring up at the ceiling. Why had he waited so long to try this? He’d had no idea. It feels good in a way that unlike anything else he’s tried, the tight stretch of his own muscles against the sweet pressure of Bucky’s fingers.

Bucky holds his hand still for a moment and moves up so that he’s almost laying on top of Steve. They kiss again, and having Bucky’s tongue in his mouth and Bucky’s fingers in his ass is almost enough for Steve to lose it right there. Touch my cock, he almost says. But he resists the urge. There’s more to come, and he’s always been stubborn.

“You like that, Stevie?”

“Fuck, yes.”

“God, I wanna take you apart,” Bucky says, so soft it’s almost an aside to himself. Steve kisses him for it. It’s impossible to say how much time passes after that, but Bucky is infinitely patient and seems content to ignore his own body in favor of drawing little gasps out of Steve for hours.

“How many is that?” Steve says, after awhile, and it comes out dreamy and wondering. He feels too good to care.

“Three,” Bucky says. “Too much?”

“No,” Steve says. “Could you—could you switch hands?”

Even as blissfully inattentive as he’s feeling, Steve registers the surprise on Bucky’s face. Bucky holds up his left hand, its metal palm facing Steve, and Steve nods. Bucky turns his hand around and looks at it, then gives a tiny shrug, and slides the fingers of his right hand out of Steve.

Steve feels suddenly and unpleasantly empty, but that feeling is soon replaced by something smooth and hard and cool filling him up. Bucky’s metal hand feels different, but equally good. The cool metal makes him realize how warm he is, how much heat is radiating between the two of them, all their desire made manifest. Steve wants to rub up against Bucky’s fingers, wants something thicker and deeper inside. He shifts his hips restlessly, and Bucky kisses him.

“You ready?”

“Are you?” Steve challenges, already feeling quicker and more alert. Bucky slides his fingers out of Steve, then rolls over onto his back. Steve straddles him, slicks his cock with lube even though it’s already dripping, then levers himself up and sits right down on Bucky.

Fuck, oh fuck. It feels so perfectly right. Steve has to catch his breath. Then he looks at Bucky, who is gazing at him through his lashes, his eyes half-lidded with pleasure.

“Steve,” he says, one low note resonating with feeling.

Steve plants his hands on Bucky and starts to move. He rocks his hips up and down again, slowly at first, breathing carefully. Bucky’s hand grab for his hips and then slide down to grip his thighs, and Steve keeps moving, leaning forward and cupping Bucky’s face between his hands then tangling his fingers in Bucky’s hair. Bucky moves with him, but it is Steve who sets the pace, accelerating steadily until they have to break apart their kisses to breathe.

“You feel so good,” Bucky says, and Steve can only nod in answer. Bucky feels amazing inside him, and he looks so beautiful laid out beneath Steve, broad and lovely, rippling with muscle and marked with scars.

Steve is panting but he doesn’t want to stop. They’re so close. Bucky’s hands roam all over his body, touching his face and his back and stroking through his hair and thumbing his nipples. Bucky’s right hand settles at last on Steve’s cock. He wraps his fingers gently around the shaft and slides his grip up and back down. Steve is already slippery. He’s as hard as he’s ever been.

He had no idea how good this would be. He should have stuck a finger in his ass a long time ago, then maybe he’d have known. But he can’t kid himself even in the privacy of his own head. It’s the way Bucky’s looking at him, the way Bucky’s touching him. The sex might be have been good with someone else, but it wouldn’t have been like this.

“Bucky,” Steve says, because he can’t get out any of the rest.

Bucky’s eyes are dark and his cheeks are pink and he looks about as wrecked with lust as Steve feels. “You’re beautiful,” he says, and then his hand glides up Steve’s cock one more time and that’s it for both of them. Steve feels Bucky’s orgasm pulsing inside him and then his own is splashing warm against Bucky’s stomach.

Steve dismounts as gingerly as he can, and he just manages to grab a handful of tissues from the box on his nightstand before collapsing next to Bucky in boneless happiness. He hands Bucky the tissues and then buries his face in Bucky’s hair, inhaling the smell of him.

He should say something lighthearted like that was fun or let’s do that again sometime but he doesn’t want to ruin the moment. That didn’t feel like experimental fooling around. Then again, Steve doesn’t have much experience, which is the whole point here. Maybe all of Bucky’s hookups are this emotionally charged.

Bringing up the complicated nature of their relationship definitely counts as ruining the moment, so instead Steve kisses the side of Bucky’s neck and presses against his side, throwing one arm over his chest. A moment later, Bucky brings his right arm across himself so that his hand can rest on the curve of Steve’s ribcage.

In the silence, Steve’s heart drums a quick and steady beat.

Chapter Text

Bucky lets two days drag by, working shifts at both jobs, without texting Steve. He’s a selfish coward, but God, does he want to keep Steve. But he’s been over it a thousand times, and the only way he can keep Steve is to keep him as a friend. The kind of friend that you don’t have the best sex of your life with, unfortunately. That part will suck, but he’ll learn to deal with it. Everything will be worth it if Steve and Peggy can get back together. Bucky has never seen two people more perfect for each other, and he wants them both to be happy. So he has to drop out of the picture. How hard can that be? He’ll still get to be Steve’s friend, and that’s what matters.

He’ll text Steve coffee? we need to talk just as soon as he works up the strength to pick up his phone. He can do it. It’s two sentences. His phone is in his pocket and he just has to pick it up.

Bucky slides his phone out of his pocket and checks the screen, then blinks in surprise when it says Coffee? We need to talk. Why the hell would Steve be texting him something like that?

He gives wrong change to seven customers over the next three hours, then nearly gets hit by a bus on his way to the coffee shop. By the time he gets there, his heart is beating so fast that he might as well have been mainlining espresso all day. He orders a latte for himself anyway, plus coffee for Steve. Habit is soothing.

He sits in the back of the room to wait for Steve, belatedly realizing that it’s the same table where they first discussed this arrangement. Should he move? Is this weird? Too late. Steve is already walking in. He comes to the table, sets his bag down under it and throws his coat over the chair, then goes to order something.

“I already—,” Bucky says.

“Oh. You didn’t have to.”

Bucky shrugs. Steve nods, then sits down, jostling the table a little and sloshing coffee over the side of his cup.

“So. How’ve you been?”

Bucky shrugs again. “Work, you know.”

“Right. Hey, listen, I’m gonna get to the point here,” Steve says. “I’m sorry I sent you a ‘we need to talk’ text, I know how nerve-wracking that is, but uh… we need to talk,” he laughs without sounding amused and then immediately returns to talking, “I know we’ve been doing this… sex thing, or whatever, and I was thinking we should—,”

“Stop,” Bucky says, just as Steve says “—re-evaluate.”

“Stop? You want me to stop talking? Or you want to… stop?” Steve’s eyes are awfully, unfairly blue, and Bucky can’t look at him. His dumb glasses are crooked and his stupid hair is mussed. “Oh. Yeah, I mean, that—yeah—that makes sense,” Steve says.

“What?” Bucky is forced back into staring at Steve. This conversation is moving so much faster than he intended.

Steve is smiling a little. “I was going to say that too,” he says, brightly, like it’s a hilarious coincidence.

“You were going to say we should stop?” Even though it’s what Bucky has been planning for days, it feels like a punch to the gut when Steve proposes it. He had been so prepared to extricate himself from their arrangement, to say sure, it’s fun, but let’s be realistic here. We can’t keep this up forever and the time has come. He hadn’t considered that Steve wouldn’t even need to be guided to that conclusion. Steve already wants out.

“We both knew it was always going to be temporary, right? And we were friends before, so now we can go back to being friends. It might be weird, but we can make it work.”

It’s fucking eerie having all his own arguments spoken aloud by someone else. “Yeah,” Bucky says. He sucked down half his latte while Steve was walking in, and now the last of it is cooling on the table in front of him. He doesn’t want it any more. “Of course. We’ll figure it out.”

“So… you’re cool with this? This is what you want?”

Bucky swallows around what feels like a lump of congealed latte foam in his throat and forces himself to nod. “Yeah,” he says. “And you’re okay with it?”

“Of course,” Steve says, which ought to make Bucky feel better, because the whole point here is to make Steve happy. And of course he’s happy. He’s about to jet off to London with his best friend, win a prize, and reconnect with one of the most brilliant and beautiful women alive. That is exactly how it should be. Steve deserves nothing less. “As long as we’re both fine with it, I mean. I want you to be happy.”

Bucky doesn’t know what to say to that. His happiness doesn’t fit into the solution, like a malformed puzzle piece that can’t be snapped into place no matter what. Better to leave one little gap in the final product than to screw up all the surrounding pieces by shoving the misshapen one where it isn’t meant to go.

“Sure,” Bucky says. “Of course.”

Steve nods again, laughs a little, and says, “I guess it was getting weird anyway, right?”

He looks down into his coffee, untouched except for the spilled puddle on the table. Bucky can talk a little more easily when Steve’s not looking, so with an airy laugh, he says, “Yeah. Definitely. Good thing we’re on the same page.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Same page. Glad we figured that out.”

“Sure, any time. That was easy. Got any more problems we need to solve?”

Steve laughs at his joke, and it should be a comfort, but it’s not. When Steve apologizes and says he needs to go set up for his Thursday night life drawing session, Bucky is relieved.

He waits until the coffee shop door has swung shut behind Steve to walk to the bathroom and throw up.

Chapter Text

Rumlow steps in to help pour beers and shake cocktails behind the bar. It’s busy for a Thursday, busy enough that serving customers occupies all of Bucky’s attention. And Rumlow’s, too, since he doesn’t even offer one sleazy comment. They bump into each other once, but it’s a genuine accident and it’s Bucky’s fault. Rumlow even says “sorry.”

If only that made Bucky feel even a little bit better.

Things slow down after midnight, and Rumlow catches his attention. “Hey, are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and he doesn’t even manage to convince himself.

“You sure? You look a little… well, if you want to knock off early, go ahead. Annie and I can handle the rest of the night.”

Bucky stiffens, wondering if this is some kind of trap. Is Rumlow looking for an excuse to fire him? “No,” he says.

Rumlow approaches, his expression startlingly soft. “Okay,” he says. “But take a breather. Ten minutes.”

He can’t stop working. He walks down the bar and starts gathering up empty beer glasses. He needs this. He needs to focus on something.

“James,” Rumlow says, and he’s never called Bucky that before. Bucky takes a deep breath. He can make it through ten minutes in the alley. Or five minutes. Rumlow’s not going to count. Bucky can just go outside, pace around a little, and come right back in and start working again. Then after they close down the bar, he’ll probably be so exhausted that he’ll fall right asleep when he gets home, and he won’t have to think about this afternoon at all.

“Alright,” he says. “You have a cigarette?”

Rumlow looks surprised, but he hands over a pack and a lighter without comment. Bucky gets his coat and goes out. He doesn’t smoke, but it’s far from his first cigarette, and the ritual of lighting it up and taking a drag is calming. The hot sting of the smoke in the back of his throat gives him something to think about.

He wants—well, he wants none of this to have happened, but it’s too late for that now. He wants someone to tell him it will be alright. He won’t believe it, not tonight, but it would be nice to hear it anyway. He pulls out his phone and scrolls down to Natasha’s name, and manages to type nat before he hits a block. What exactly is he going to tell her? How is he going to explain how foolish he’s been?

Bucky puts his phone away. He stands in the alley, breathing and smoking, until the back door of the bar swings open and Rumlow steps out.

Bucky straightens up, coughs slightly, and immediately hands over the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. Rumlow pockets them without a word. Bucky’s not done with his smoke yet, and he makes as if to stub out the lit end, but Rumlow waves a hand in the air.

“You have time,” he says. “The crowd has thinned out and Annie’s behind the bar.”

It’s stupid, it’s so stupid, but Rumlow being nice to him is the last drop that makes everything overflow. He holds the cigarette between his lips for a second and brushes the back of his hand across his eyes. Goddammit. He doesn’t want to do this, not here.

“Pretty fucking pathetic, I know,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. He’s only talking so that he can say something about the tears before Rumlow does.

Rumlow shrugs. “You don’t have to tell me about it,” he says. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Christ. A single, choked syllable escapes his throat, somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“Hey, hey, shh,” and then Rumlow is giving him a tentative hug and he’s just letting it happen because Steve dumped him and he didn’t even realize that could happen until it did and now Rumlow’s trying to comfort him and what the fuck is his life any more.

Rumlow rubs his hands over Bucky’s shoulders and upper arms. Normally Bucky doesn’t like people touching him, especially not his arm, but today’s not normal. It’s kind of nice, actually. The rhythm of it, the slow strokes of Rumlow’s hands over his shoulders, is helping him breathe more steadily. He drops his cigarette on the ground and steps on it, then lets his right arm hang down at his side.

Rumlow immediately steps closer, tightening the hug. Bucky would never have expected this from him. He thought for sure that Rumlow would mock him for being emotional. The kindness is a relief, but it just makes him cry more.

God, what had he been thinking? He had known it would end all along, and he had known it was a bad idea, and he had known there were other people in the world who could love and take care of Steve better than he could, and he had known it would hurt to end it, but knowing all that and feeling it are two different things. He feels scooped out, shaky and tired, like he could lie right down on the concrete and sleep forever.

Rumlow brushes Bucky’s hair out of his face, and then wipes at the tear tracks beneath his eyes. It’s more intimacy than Bucky wants, but he doesn’t say anything. Rumlow not being a dick to him is one bright spot in this awful day. In a second, he’ll step away and they’ll go back inside and clean up and then Bucky can finally go home and lie down. If he’s lucky, he’ll close his eyes and pass out instantly, but today has not been lucky so far. How much can you cry before you end up dehydrated?

Rumlow kisses him.

Bucky’s eyes open wide. Rumlow’s hands are on his face and in his hair and the kiss tastes like cigarettes. Bucky stands motionless for a long moment. This could be a distraction. He could let this happen. He wouldn’t have to think about Steve. Rumlow is beautiful, there’s no denying that. It wouldn’t be so hard to down a few drinks and go home with him, let Rumlow toss him onto the bed and fuck him as hard as he hates himself. 

Then Rumlow grabs his ass and shoves their crotches together. He’s already hard. But it’s the hand on his ass that shocks Bucky into moving. All of Rumlow’s little transgressions, all those months of unwanted gropes and inappropriate innuendoes come rushing back to him. Whatever Bucky deserves, this isn’t it.

“No,” Bucky says, leaning back to break the kiss.

“You sure?” Rumlow says. “You let it go on for a long time. I know you want this.”

Rumlow gropes Bucky’s crotch.

“I said no.” Bucky shoves at him, wanting to get away without escalating things any further, but Rumlow doesn’t budge. He’s a little taller than Bucky, and he’s always talking about how he practices some kind of mixed martial arts on the weekend, but Bucky is a trained veteran with a state-of-the-art bionic arm. There’s a reason everyone thinks he’s scary.

He grabs Rumlow by the shoulder, not caring if his metal hand is pinching the juncture between his shoulder and his neck. With his right hand, he punches up hard into Rumlow’s gut. Rumlow immediately lets go of him to wrap his arms around his middle and double over, gasping in pain.

Bucky steps away. “I quit,” he says, and strides out of the alley.

His heart doesn’t slow down until he’s all the way home and has downed a shot of vodka. It hits him, then, exhaustion edged with panic, and he lies down on his mattress fully clothed. His mind races, so he can’t sleep, but at least he’s not crying. His eyes still sting and his throat is still scratchy from earlier. Time doesn’t seem to move, but it must, because someone pounds on his door.

The walls are paper thin here, but he hasn’t been crying, so it can’t be one of his neighbors wanting him to shut up. It had better not be Rumlow. And if it’s Steve, Bucky will start crying all over again, and he’d really rather not.

It’s not Steve. Of course it’s not Steve. Why would Steve come check on him at three in the morning after Bucky insisted all afternoon that he was fine?

Bucky opens the door and finds himself staring down at Natasha. Her cheeks are red from the cold and her hands are shoved into her coat pockets. She has a knit cap on over her hair and her winter boots are pulled on over plaid pajama pants. It’s the most normal and human and messy that he’s ever seen her look.

“You didn’t answer my texts,” she says, and wraps her arms around his waist and presses her face against his chest.

“I’m fine,” he says, in case she thought he was dead, even though it’s obvious that he’s alive. Whatever emergency she thought he was having, it’s nothing that justifies her showing up here in person in the middle of the night.

“Liar,” she says, and he can’t really argue with that. She lets go of him and pushes past him into his apartment, then looks around at the peeling paint and the cracks in the ceiling and the lumpy mattress. “God, look at this place. No wonder you’re upset. Come on, let’s go cry and eat ice cream or whatever in my clean, non-toxic home. I drove here, so you won’t even have to walk in the cold.”

He starts to shake his head no, and she holds up a hand.

“It’s not pity and it’s not some kind of trap, I swear to God, James, why won’t you ever let anybody be nice to you?”

He huffs. “My boss tried, tonight.”

Natasha blinks. “One, don’t compare me to that asshole ever again—I am your friend—and two, I hope you kicked his ass.”

Bucky gives her a bleak, watery look, and she hugs him again. “It must be a really shitty day if you can’t even get any enjoyment from kicking that scumbag’s ass. You gonna come with me or what? If you can’t say yes for yourself, pretend it’s for me. I drove all the way over here at this hour, after all.”

He goes with her, in the end, because he doesn’t want to be alone. He keeps his eyes off the walls of her living room, and once they’re in the kitchen she offers him a whole list of comfort foods, but he shakes his head.

“You want to get blitzed? I have vodka.” She pulls a bottle down from a cupboard and holds it up. “Hm?” As he’s shaking his head again, she says, “Okay, what else do people do when they’re sad? I thought I had done my homework on this one. I mean, if it were me, I’d knock myself the fuck out. You wanna go to bed?”

Bucky starts to nod, and then remembers that Natasha’s guest bed is the site of some events he’d rather not relive right now.

“Okay,” she says. “There aren’t any sheets on the guest bed right now, but you can take mine and I’ll figure the rest out.”

“No, Nat, I can’t—you shouldn’t—,”

“Remember how you’re humoring me and letting me be nice to you?” she says, putting her hands on the small of his back and steering him toward the bedroom. She leaves him alone for a few minutes, and he strips off his jeans and his button-down and gets in bed. His whole body feels heavy and aching and if he thinks about it too much, he might start crying again. Instead, he focuses on how Natasha’s bed is so much firmer than his, and her sheets smell nice.

Natasha passes by her room again a few minutes later to pick up a book from the table beside her bed. She strokes a hand over his hair, then switches off the bedside lamp. “James,” she says. “Everything’s gonna be alright.”

He doesn’t believe her, but it’s nice to be told.

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up when Nat is getting ready for work the next morning, but there’s no reason to get out of bed. He lost one job and doesn’t have a shift at the other until tomorrow, and also he can’t look his lifelong best friend in the face. He rolls over, causing Liho to yowl.

“Yeah,” he says, adjusting so that she can curl up next to him. “Know how you feel.”

Natasha comes into the room—her room—and kicks off her heels. It must be evening, then, which means he stayed in bed all day. He’s hungry, but other than that, he doesn’t care.

Natasha unzips her dress and lets it drop to the floor. Bucky goes red and turns away. “Nat,” he says. “Very much awake over here.”

“Oh,” she says, unconcerned. She pulls on a t-shirt and picks a pair of jeans off the floor. “You’re alive, then. Get out of bed.”

He shrugs.

“Not a request, Barnes. That’s my bed you’re in.”

He dislodges Liho from his lap, thinking that the best thing about cats is that they will never, ever judge you for spending all day in bed. His jeans from last night are also on the floor, and unlike Natasha, he doesn’t have a closet full of other things to choose from.

“We’re going on a walk,” Natasha informs him. “Sam says that shit is good for your mental health. Don’t look at me like that. I gave you all day to wallow.”

He sighs, but ten minutes later they’re outside. It’s above freezing, so they revel in not zipping their coats up all the way and leaving their hats and gloves at home. The sun is peeking through the clouds, almost as if spring might come again some day.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Natasha says, when Bucky mentions warmer weather.

“Is this really how you want to spend your Friday evening? Wandering aimlessly around the city and making small talk about the weather with me?”

“If you have a better idea, now’s the time.”

“No, I don’t—it’s just—you don’t have to—,”

“Be your friend?” she offers, amused.

“But that’s it, though,” he says, because lying in bed all day left him ample time to think about this, and it’s been bothering him. “You swoop in like a superhero and rescue me from myself, or whatever, and meanwhile I’ve never done a goddamn thing for you.”

“You painted my living room,” Natasha says, deadpan.

“I’m not talking about living rooms, Nat,” Bucky protests. “And how did you know to come find me last night, anyway?”

“You really are avoiding your phone, huh?”

Bucky slips it out of his coat pocket and sees 9 unread text messages. Apparently he accidentally texted nat to Natasha at 12:18AM, and she followed it with five replies over the next few hours, from joking—did you somehow just butt-text me—to serious—no, really, what’s up? Where are you?. The sixth reply, at 2:29AM, says gdi Barnes now I’m worried. Coming to find you unless you text me and tell me not to.

The first of the other three texts is from Sam. He saw the first few words of it while he was working and opted to ignore it until later, but he reads the whole thing and his stomach drops: 9:27PM: hey JBB, hope you’re alright. I was just wondering if you had talked to Steve lately? He was supposed to come over tonight and he hasn’t showed. The other two texts are from Riley (10:14PM: u ok? and 2:38AM nat says shes checking on u. be ok u asshole).

“Oh,” he says, not sure what to make of Steve going missing. He wants to ask Natasha if Steve is okay, but that feels desperate somehow, and besides, she would have told him if Steve were really missing.

They walk in silence for a few blocks, and then Bucky finally figures out how to voice what’s been nagging at him. “I guess what I meant to say is… thanks,” he says. “And I’m sorry I’ve never done anything like this for you.”

“You would, if I needed it.”

He gives her a skeptical look. “Have you ever let anyone be nice to you?”

“Steve.”

Bucky stiffens. He’d been hoping for information about the mysterious Clint.

“Oh, are we not speaking his name? Sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry. She waits a moment before adding, “I didn’t really tell Steve any details until a few weeks ago when we were drunk, though, so don’t feel too left out. I’m not much for sharing.”

“Not even with Clint?”

“Funny thing about breaking up with somebody—you can’t go running to them for comfort afterward.”

She says it so matter-of-factly, but Bucky knows intimately how much that feeling hurts. He’s thought about texting Steve at least a dozen times today. “Yeah,” he says. “What happened?”

Natasha shrugs. “Hard to say, really. Some bullshit where we put each other up on pedestals and nobly sacrificed our own happiness because we both thought we weren’t good enough, I guess. We never really talked about it.”

“So it was mutual?”

“In retrospect. At the time, I felt rejected. I don’t know how he felt. The same, probably.”

“But you never tried to talk it out? You just let all this time pass without saying anything?”

“Jesus Christ, James.” She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, puts both hands on his shoulders and looks directly into his eyes. “Think about what you just said.”

Of course she should talk to Clint. They were in love two years ago and she still gets upset about him when she’s drunk. It’s not an unreasonable suggestion. Natasha keeps staring at him and—oh. He looks away. “We did talk about it, Nat. That’s the problem.”

They did the right thing. Steve had been so quick to see that they needed to stop sleeping together. It was like he’d been waiting for an opportunity. And that’s fine, because they both went into it knowing how things would end. Bucky just has to live through the next few weeks and then things will settle and he can go back to being Steve’s best friend.

“Forgive me if I remain skeptical on that point,” Natasha says. She lets go of him and they walk to the end of the block.

“We’re pretty far from your place and it’s getting dark,” Bucky says. “We should turn around. I should probably get back to my apartment anyway. Thanks for letting me stay the night.”

“James,” she says. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods.

“Do you want to go back to your apartment? Be honest.”

He thinks about his shabby little studio with its clogged plumbing and its roach infestation and can’t even manage a one-word lie. “No,” he says. “But I can’t stay with you forever, Nat. All my stuff—,”

“Yes, you can.”

“What?”

“Move in with me, James. Be my roommate. Leave your shithole apartment. Break your damn lease.”

This is at least the third time Natasha has brought this up. He’s always refused. He can’t put that strain on their friendship. He doesn’t want to subject Natasha to his occasional night terrors and flashbacks.

But they’re getting less frequent.

And Natasha has a big house with sturdy old walls.

“This is going on record as your longest hesitation in answering,” she says. “You said yourself that my house is too big and empty. Help me fix that. Besides, Liho misses you. I know you like her more than you let on. We can go get my car right now and pack up your stuff. We can throw your awful mattress to the curb.”

“I can’t afford to pay you very much rent,” he says. “I just lost one of my jobs.”

Natasha looks delighted. “You’re gonna say yes.”

“I might not always be a good roommate.”

“Just say yes, James.”

“Aren’t you supposed to get down on one knee for this?” he teases.

She shoves him playfully in the shoulder. “Shut up. It’s gonna be great and you know it. We can cook together, or you can cook because I don’t, and we can stay up too late on work nights watching awful television, and you can redecorate however, I don’t care, and I swear I’ll give you as much space as you need, and the walls are really thick so I promise I won’t complain if you have outrageously loud—,”

Something in his expression stops her.

“—farts?” she finishes.

Despite himself, he laughs. “Alright,” he says. “Let’s go get your car.”

Chapter Text

Even though it’s been hours since the conversation in the coffee shop, Steve can barely draw a line without his hand shaking. Instead, he opts to walk around the class offering critique. He likes all his students and tries very hard not to play favorites, but there’s a high school student who has been enrolled in this evening life drawing session since term started in January, and not only is she talented as hell, but he’s also pretty sure she’s here without her parents’ knowledge or permission. Steve adores her.

He has to stand next to her because he can’t see over her shoulder, which is the case with almost all his students so he should be used to it, but it stings a little more when the student in question is sixteen.

“Nice work, Kamala.”

She beams at him. “You really think so?” But then she turns back to her drawing, uncertain. “I think there’s something wonky about the thigh, there, and I can’t figure out what it is.”

“It’s the angle,” he says. He sweeps his index fingers just over the paper, not touching anything, following her line and then suggesting a new angle. He wishes his hand were steadier.

Kamala nods vigorously, and then looks at him from under her thick black bangs. “Professor Rogers,” she says quietly. “Are you okay?”

Steve swallows, looks away, then takes his glasses off and wipes the lenses with the hem of his shirt, as if that might explain the sudden welling of tears in his eyes. “Yeah, I’m,” he says, and then shakes his head. He’s managed not to cry all afternoon, but Kamala worrying about him is too much. “It’s been a shit day, actually. But I’m okay. Thanks for asking.”

“Okay,” she says. “But if you want to make a break for it, I’m totally up for creating a distraction.”

He gives her a weak smile. She really is delightful. He wishes he felt more like joking around with her.

“Or I could just tell everybody you’re sick. We had class without you a few weeks ago when you had the flu and I—I mean, we missed you a lot, but we managed. We didn’t even start one fire.”

“The definition of success,” he agrees, relieved to switch subjects. Then, as lightly as possible, as if nothing is really wrong, he adds, “But I think I’ll stay. It’s better to have something to distract me. And I like being here with you.” Kamala’s eyes widen and she looks down at the floor, and Steve wonders if he’s embarrassing her. No girls ever talked to him when he was a teenager, so teenage girls have remained a mystery even in his adult life. “I’m gonna check on the rest of the class now. Don’t start any fires.”

Kamala’s little intervention gives him the strength to make it through the remaining ninety minutes of the session. She’s a sweet kid. She even stays behind to help him clean up after the session.

“Thanks, Kamala. Are you okay to get home?”

“Of course,” she says, so fast it’s defensive. Steve doesn’t mention it. He knows a thing or two about being tougher than anyone gives you credit for. A second later, in a much quieter voice, she adds, “Are you… gonna be okay? I mean. I know you said you were. But. I just—,”

“Yeah,” he sighs, with a slow nod. And because she’s gone out of her way to be kind to him, he feels like he owes her at least a little more detail. “Don’t worry about me. It’s not like someone died. I got dumped, that’s all.”

“But who would dump you?” Kamala blurts, then slaps both hands over her mouth. He’s never seen her eyes go that round. “I’m sorry, oh no, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have—,”

“It’s okay, Kamala.” He gives her a little smile. Anything is easier than saying oh, my oldest and closest friend in answer to her question. Her indignation is cute, but misplaced. The question isn’t who would dump him, but why anyone would date him in the first place. Bucky hadn’t even wanted to try.

Kamala excuses herself as fast as she possibly can after that, and Steve turns off all the lights in the classrooms and goes into his studio. He intends to pick up his bag and leave, but somehow right after the door shuts, he finds himself sitting heavily on the floor. He puts his knees up and wraps his arms around his legs. Breathe, breathe.

He should never have let any of this happen. He could have gone on Craigslist and fucked a stranger. The sex probably wouldn’t have been as good, but at least his friendship with Bucky would be undamaged.

How on earth had he let Bucky talk him into this? That’s a stupid question. It’s not like Steve needed a lot of convincing. All Bucky needed to do was look at him in just the right way and he was gone.

Still, though. There was a reason they hadn’t tried screwing around before: Steve wanted Bucky a lot more than Bucky wanted Steve. Bucky had made that clear.

He’s pressing his face into his knees, still sitting on the rough hardwood floor of his studio, when his phone buzzes somewhere deep within his bag. It might be Bucky, though, and Steve doesn’t want to talk to him. Or anyone.

He feels simultaneously tired and defeated and yet filled with nervous energy—hurt, definitely, and anger too. He wishes he could go running without having an asthma attack. He’d settle for punching something. Or someone. He hasn’t been in an honest-to-God fistfight in years, but tonight could be the night.

The first asshole who comes to mind is Bucky’s smug fucking predator of a boss—no. Steve can’t go there. It’s Thursday night. He can go to any bar in Brooklyn and find an asshole who deserved to get punched. He doesn’t have to go to the one place he’s guaranteed to see Bucky. Bucky had already made it clear that he didn’t want Steve to intervene in that, anyway.

Too bad, though. Bucky’s boss looked like a mean motherfucker. He’d probably fuck Steve up good.

His phone buzzes again ten minutes later, more insistently and at length. Oh shit. He was supposed to be at Sam and Riley’s right now. Sam is calling him. Steve should have let him know. He groans and digs through his bag until he finds his phone. “Shit, shit, I should have texted.”

“Well, you’re alive,” Sam says. “That’s good.”

“You didn’t really think I was dead.” Logically, Sam can’t possibly know that Steve was just contemplating going out and starting a random bar fight in the hopes of punching someone and getting punched himself, but all the same, Steve hopes his voice doesn’t sound too guilty.

“Let me check the number on this ‘days since Steve Rogers last pissed off someone powerful’ board I keep in my apartment,” Sam says. “Oh look, four. I think that’s a record.”

“He’s a fundamentalist preacher, Sam, he’s not going to murder me in a back alley.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? I pulled that number out of my ass and there you are with an answer. Good Lord, Steve. What did you do this time?”

Despite everything, Steve smiles. “The usual. Insulting the troops. Corrupting the youth with my homosexual agenda.” Brandt had sent him a link to the article immediately, with the subject line no such thing as bad publicity. Steve had been tempted to call up the press and clarify that his agenda was bisexual. If Brandt was unhappy about that, Steve could say ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ right back to him. “Also, making graven images, but nobody seems to get mad about that one any more.”

“More evidence of the moral decay of this great nation,” Sam says. “None of this explains why you didn’t show.”

I’ve been secretly fucking Bucky for weeks and he dumped me, Steve thinks about saying. He guesses the end of their arrangement also means the end of Bucky’s non-disclosure clause, but he finds he doesn’t want to talk about it. He already teared up in front of Kamala. He’d rather get beat up in a back alley than cry on the phone with Sam. Sam would be so understanding and the whole thing would be fucking miserable. Steve doesn’t want anybody’s kindness. He doesn’t want any of this to have happened at all.

“Clean up after class took a long time,” Steve lies. “It slipped my mind, I guess.”

“You’re still welcome to come over if you want,” Sam says. “Neither of us works in the morning tomorrow, so we wouldn’t mind. I have all this pie over here.”

It’s not a manipulation or a trick. Sam’s not like that. Steve could just say no and give no explanation at all, and Sam would accept it. He won’t ask too many questions if Steve makes it clear that he doesn’t want to answer them. Sam is a good friend that way.

But if Steve were fine, he would go. And he wants to be fine. Why shouldn’t he be fine?

“It’s strawberry rhubarb,” Sam says. “The pie.”

“Don’t eat the whole thing before I get there,” Steve says, and hangs up. He unfolds himself from his position on the floor, only realizing then how uncomfortable it had been. He picks up his bag and heads for Sam and Riley’s.

The pie is good, because everything Sam makes is good, and Riley has yet another accidentally-offensive-translation mishap to talk about, and it’s a long time before they both turn their attention to Steve. He tries not to look like he wants to sink into the couch under their scrutiny.

All Sam says is, “You want another piece?”

Steve shakes his head. “Nah. I’m okay. Thanks, though. It’s great.”

“How’ve you been, Steve?” Riley says, and Steve is probably imagining the curious edge to his tone.

“Pretty good. The life drawing students are great this term.”

“How’s your girl?” Sam says, because Steve tells him about Kamala sometimes.

“She’s great,” Steve says. “It’s always nice when the talented ones turn out to be good people, too.”

Sam asks him about the other students in the class, because Sam has a remarkable memory for everybody that Steve tells him about. Riley gets restless and pulls out his phone, and Steve stops talking.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Riley says. “I’m just checking on Barnes.”

“Bucky?” Steve says. “Why? Did something—,” and then he shuts his mouth.

“You’d know better than we would,” Riley says, unapologetic, and Steve doesn’t miss the way Sam glares at him.

“No finesse,” Sam says to Riley, and Steve would be offended at Sam’s tacit admission that he was also working his way toward getting Steve to talk, but Riley flashes a grin.

“That’s what you love about me,” he says.

“A bull in a damn china shop,” Sam mutters, and then turns to Steve. “Look, Steve, you don’t have to tell us anything. But in the interest of honesty, we know—well, we suspect—that something happened between you and Barnes, and if you wanted to talk about, we would listen.” Sam looks pointedly at Riley when he says the word wanted, and Riley pretends not to notice.

“I don’t,” Steve says.

“That’s alright,” Sam says, and it’s so goddamn gentle that Steve nearly falls apart on the spot. What the fuck is he doing here? He wishes he were getting slammed into a brick wall and spitting up blood. Instead, he feels like shit inside and has nothing to show for it on the outside.

“Good Lord,” Riley says. “You really are planning to white-knuckle it all the way through this and not talk to anyone. Sam, where did you even find him? All those years in the Air Force and the toughest son-of-a-bitch we’ve ever met is a hundred-pound asthmatic oil painter. Will you at least have a drink, Steve? Just looking at you is making me grit my teeth in sympathy.”

Finally, something that sounds good to him. “Yeah,” he says, and Riley rolls his chair out of the living room and into the kitchen.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sam tells him, when Riley is gone. “Riley can be pushy, and I’m sorry about that. But you should know that you don’t have to tough this out alone. Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.”

Steve nods. He doesn’t have the words to answer that. A minute later, he can’t stop himself from asking, “Bucky’s okay, right?”

Sam shrugs. “When you didn’t show, I texted him about it and he didn’t answer. But he’s at work, so maybe he didn’t hear his phone. He’s probably fine. And he’s not your responsibility.”

Of course Bucky is fine. He’s not the one who got rejected. He had wanted to stop, and he got what he wanted. “How did you know?”

“About you two?”

Riley comes back then with some shot glasses and a bottle of vodka across his lap. “How did we know y’all were fucking, you mean? We didn’t—but I guess this confirms it.” Steve stares at the floor. He never wanted to keep anything from them. Bucky had been ashamed of sleeping with him from the start. That should have been his first clue, but he’d ignored it. He had wanted Bucky too much, and he’d thought he might never get another chance. Turns out he was right about that last part. “Nat suspected for weeks. That girl knows everything, I swear. She could tell me she knew nuclear launch codes and I would believe her.”

Steve takes a shot unceremoniously. It burns, so he follows it with another.

“Although if you’re asking how long we knew y’all had feelings for each other,” Riley continues. “I guess the answer to that is always.”

Steve shakes his head, and he can already feel the vodka taking effect. “We didn’t—he doesn’t—,” he starts, and then their expectant silence gets to him and he stops talking. He pours a third shot instead, but before he can drink it, Sam’s hand snakes out and grabs it.

Sam shoots it down, then smiles at Steve. “Can’t let you drink alone.”

“There are two empty shot glasses on the table,” Steve points out, but he’s still sober enough to see that Sam is trying to slow him down. He resents it, even knowing that tomorrow he’ll be thankful.

“And you didn’t fill either of them, you Yankee asshole,” Riley says. “I’d ask if you were raised in a barn but I know you’d have better manners if that were true.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but he pours vodka into all three glasses, once Sam relinquishes his.

“Thank you,” Riley says. He takes his shot and sets the glass down on the coffee table, holding his pinky out the whole time. It’s funny. Steve might laugh if he were drunker. Then Riley says, “Sam and I had a fight once.”

“Oh, once,” Sam laughs. “I think you mean ‘every other day.’”

“The big one,” Riley says.

“Oh, you wanna tell that story? Because my recollection is that it wasn’t so much a fight as you trying—unsuccessfully—to dump my ass,” Sam says. He looks at Steve. “This motherfucker tried to dump me, did you know that?”

Steve shakes his head. He hadn’t known that. He wants to point out that this story really has no relation to what happened between him and Bucky today, but he’s slow to form the words and Sam and Riley are already off again.

“I was trying to set you free,” Riley says. “To find someone better. Someone with legs.” To Steve, he says, “Can you imagine? I thought there was someone better for this asshole than me. It was a dark time.”

They tell the story so lightly, but it must have been painful. Steve hadn’t known Riley then, but he had seen how much Bucky struggled after losing his arm. Bucky had tried to push him away then, but it hadn’t worked. It feels like a long time ago. And then today, Steve had almost said—well, it doesn’t matter now. Steve takes another shot.

“Anyway,” Riley says. “Turns out we got through it, and so will y’all.”

They really don’t understand at all, and Steve doesn’t have the heart to explain it to them. There is no “y’all.” There’s just Steve and all the things he wants but can’t have. He shakes his head. “It’s not like that,” he says, and he’s painfully aware of having said that same thing to Sam so many times before. If only he had believed himself—it’s not like that between us, and it never will be—then he might not be drinking himself into a stupor right now. Steve had been so thoroughly fooled that he’d been ready to lay it all out today.

God, what a relief that he hadn’t. But what a sharp, piercing, breathless kind of pain.

Sam’s hand is on his shoulder, and then Sam’s whole arm is wrapped around him, and then he’s being dragged into an awkward, seated hug. And suddenly, like the sky splitting open and loosing a downpour, he is sobbing into Sam’s shoulder.

He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He forces himself to slow down, to take ragged gulps of air, but it still hurts. He doesn’t want me, Steve thinks, and that thought hurts more than any kick in the ribs. How can they go back to being friends, after this? How will Steve ever look Bucky in the eyes again? They can’t, he won’t, it’s all fucked up.

“Even when I had nothing,” he says, and can’t finish the sentence.

Sam’s hand is on his back, solid and warm, sliding up and down until Steve’s breathing evens out and slows to its rhythm, in and out and in and out.

Chapter Text

Almost a week passes, and Bucky lives through it somehow. He likes living with Nat, and only having one crap job instead of two, and he sees Sam and Riley a couple of times. But everything feels muted and empty without Steve.

He tries to give Steve some space, and Steve must be trying to do the same. He can’t remember the last time they went a week without even texting.

“Hey,” Nat says, passing him in the kitchen on Wednesday morning. “You know how we usually all get together on Wednesday night?”

His coffee mug is in his left hand, and it’s a wonder that it stays there all in one piece. “You want to know if I’m cool with seeing Steve,” he says. “I am. It’s fine. I don’t want to ruin everybody else’s fun, anyway. I’m sure he’ll be cool with it, so I will be, too. We can handle it. It would be good for us to see each other, probably.”

Nat perches on the counter and picks up her cereal bowl. She digs a spoon into it and says thoughtfully, “That was a lot of answers to a question that I didn’t even ask.”

“So it’s been on my mind,” he says, defensively.

“Okay,” she says. “I guess if you think you’ll be alright.”

“I will.” He hasn’t cried in—well, it doesn’t count if no one sees or hears, so no one has to know about him going through half a box of tissues at 3AM this morning—four days. He’s been doing better. The funny thing is that he really does want to see Steve. Even if Steve never wants to touch him again, Bucky still wants to be around him. That’s probably unhealthy, but he doesn’t care. He’ll take what he can get.

“Hey, I know this has probably slipped your mind, but you remember back when I told you to talk some sense into Steve about accepting the prize money?” Natasha says, before noisily crunching into a bite of cereal.

Bucky nods. “I didn’t have any luck there either.”

“It’s okay,” she says. “I have an idea.”

Then she’s putting her cereal bowl in the sink and rushing off to work without another word.

Their evening gathering starts off awkwardly. Nat and Sam and Riley are a little too talkative, a little too quick to laugh, trying to cover up for Steve and Bucky staying far apart. It gets tiresome very quickly, and maybe that was the plan all along, because Bucky catches Steve’s eye and nods his head toward the kitchen. Steve looks relieved to escape.

As soon as both of them are in the kitchen, the conversation in the living room gets noticeably quieter. “Gee,” Bucky says, as loud as he can. “I sure hope our beloved friends aren’t tryin’ to eavesdrop on this private conversation.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, equally loud. “That would be fuckin’ rude.”

Riley sighs audibly in the other room, but Nat and Sam start in on the all-important question of pizza toppings, and Bucky finally feels free to speak again. “Hey, Steve,” he says. He tries not to think about the last time he talked to Steve in Natasha’s kitchen, when they made such disastrous plans. “I’ve been thinking and I just wanted to say—,” I miss you. “I know things have been weird between us lately, and we’re still figuring shit out, but I still want to go with you. To London. Whatever else we are to each other, we’re still friends, right? I want to be there for you. I mean. If you want me there.”

Steve lets out a breath, visibly relaxing. “Yeah,” he says. “I’d like that. If that’s what you want.”

Bucky nods. “Yeah. It is. I mean. I want what you want.”

“Well, in that case, I want what you want,” Steve says, and he smiles his saddest little smile. Behind the dark frames of his glasses, his eyes are downcast. Bucky quashes the urge to kiss him until he’s smiling for real. They don’t do that any more. But they can talk to each other now. This is progress.

“I guess we should go back out there before they order a truly disgusting pizza. And if we act like we’re okay, then maybe our asshole friends will stop being so goddamn weird about everything.”

“They probably don’t deserve to be called assholes,” Steve points out. “Nat is housing and feeding you, after all.”

“Housing, maybe,” Bucky says. “Nat doesn’t feed a goddamn thing around here, not even the cat. She just makes demands. ‘James, bring me a glass of wine.’ ‘James, make me tea.’ ‘James, if you don’t eat, you’ll waste away.’ ‘James, feed Liho so she stops crying.’ Did you know I had to start cooking?”

“No,” Steve gasps, feigning horror. As a joke response, it’s one beat too late, but Bucky can’t blame him. They’re not at ease with each other, not quite. “And you’re all still alive?”

“I’m getting better,” Bucky says, and he can’t help smiling a little. “I’ve branched out from soup into other different, kinds of soup.”

“What variety.”

“Also sandwiches. And I can order at least a dozen kinds of takeout. I’m great at that.”

“Only a dozen? Are you even trying? I expect better from you, Bucky, honestly.”

Bucky cuffs him in the shoulder and Steve rubs the spot in mock pain and outrage while Bucky says, “I don’t have to take this shit from you, Rogers.”

Steve smirks at him like yes you do, and for a second, it feels like old times. But recognizing the moment ruins it, and as easily as they slipped into their habit, they slip out again. They go back out to the living room and neither of them says much for the rest of the evening.

Bucky only sees Steve occasionally for the next two weeks, as March turns into April, always in the company of their friends. There are silences, but there are good moments, too. Their old friendship feels like a coat that doesn’t quite fit any more: it smells familiar, but it’s too tight in some places and too loose in others. But they don’t have anything else to wear, so it will have to do.

April 14th arrives, and Bucky finds himself sitting with Steve in the terminal at JFK. In the carry-on at his feet is the only suit he owns. He’s had it for years, and before last week it didn’t fit all that well, but Nat had it tailored in secret, so it looks brand new. It had been too tight in the shoulders and a little short in the left arm, but now it’s perfect. She’d forced him to model it for her last night as part of a long conversation about packing and preparing for an overseas trip. She’d tried to teach him to French braid his hair, but that hadn’t worked out so well. After she’d been satisfied that the suit fit, Bucky had practically origami’d it into his suitcase, smoothing each crease with care, and she’d looked impressed. “Don’t give me that,” he told her. “You might have the budget for a closet full of Yves Saint Laurent, but I have style.” From where she was sitting on his bed, she had thrown a pillow at him, which he interpreted as her accepting defeat. 

Bucky also packed a pair of thin black leather gloves, just in case. He’ll probably get recognized at the National Portrait Gallery regardless, since Steve is a damn good painter, but it’s his arm and he decides if people get to see it or not.

It had been enough fucking trouble getting through security and getting pulled aside and patted down. Outside the secure area, Steve had been fuming, and Bucky had overheard him taking a couple of TSA agents to task—he is a decorated veteran of the United States military, how dare you treat him like this—and it had brought a smile to his face even while some stranger had been poking him in the armpit and investigating his hipbones and generally touching him in places he’d rather not be touched.

“My ass is a matter of national security,” he told Steve, afterward, and Steve had laughed but had not made any jokes in reply. Bucky probably shouldn’t have brought it up.

Bucky hasn’t been on a plane since he came home, and he doesn’t relish squeezing himself back into the seats in coach. At least he and Steve are next to a window, and Steve doesn’t take up much space.

As soon as they’re settled, Steve plugs a headphone splitter into his phone and offers it to Bucky. Having nothing better to do, and knowing that if he doesn’t listen to whatever podcast Steve is about to put on, Steve is going to recite the entire thing to him later anyway, Bucky plugs his headphones in.

Steve keeps up with more podcasts than Bucky can keep track of, since he spends a lot of time listening while he draws and paints. A lot of them are unbearably serious—Steve claims the word is “fascinating”—discussions of history and politics, but tonight Steve puts on one about science. Bucky can live with that. It’s a nice distraction from thinking about the last time he was on a plane, still reeling from his amputation, or from thinking about what’s waiting for them in London when they arrive.

“Peggy wants to take us out tomorrow night,” Steve had said, smiling. Bucky had smiled, too. He liked Peggy. Who wouldn’t like Peggy? A gorgeous, take-no-shit kind of woman, and one with the good taste to love Steve. The only mature, adult thing to do was to be happy that she and Steve were reconnecting, and Bucky’s track record as a mature adult might be a little spotty so far, but he is trying.

“What do you want to see tomorrow? We have all day to walk around,” Steve had said.

Bucky had shrugged. He hadn’t really given any thought to the matter. “Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower? The British Museum, if you want. Whatever it is people normally see.”

He refocuses his attention on the podcast, but he’s been out of it too long now and he has no idea what they’re talking about. They had been talking about wrestling but now they’re talking about Don Quixote and cognition, so he’s lost. He gives up and lets the words wash over him.

He wakes up to Steve nudging him gently. He mumbles a protest, unwilling to move, and then it all comes together: he’s been slumped over the armrest between them, dozing with his head on Steve’s shoulder. And Steve has been silently enduring it for fuck knows how long. It’s dark in the cabin and outside the plane windows. Bucky glances at the screen of Steve’s phone, but the podcast episode has changed, so he has no idea how long he’s been asleep. His cheeks heat and he sits straight up and moves as far away from Steve as he can.

Steve doesn’t seem bothered. “Gotta pee,” he says, apologetically. He unbuckles his seatbelt and brushes past Bucky on his way out.

While Steve is away, the flight attendant comes by with the drink cart. Bucky asks for coffee.

“Does your partner want anything?”

Bucky blinks, then looks from the attendant to Steve’s empty seat.

She smiles at him. “I saw, earlier. You two are so sweet together.”

“He, um—I don’t know,” Bucky says, too flustered to correct her or to order for Steve.

“No worries, I’ll get to him on my way back around,” she says, as cheerful as ever, and then pushes her cart down the aisle.

Steve comes back and Bucky leaps out of his seat to get out of the way. He briefly considers fleeing to the bathroom, but the attendant might come back and say something to Steve, and then Steve will think that Bucky is going around letting strangers think they’re together, like Bucky is still carrying a pathetic torch, which is true, but Bucky doesn’t want Steve to think about it. He sits back down.

“The attendant,” he says to Steve, in a low voice. “She thought we were, uh…”

“Oh,” Steve says. And a minute later, “Because I was letting you drool on me.”

“I was not—,” Bucky starts, but that’s not the point. “Yeah, I guess. And why were you doing that, anyway?”

“So if I fell asleep on you, you’d shove me off? Bucky Barnes, you heartless bastard.”

“I never said that.”

“Good,” Steve says, flipping up the armrest. “You want me to correct her when she comes back?”

Bucky shakes his head. “I just—didn’t want you to be surprised.”

“Bucky, there’s something I should tell you.”

There’s a sentence to make his heart drop. “Yeah?”

“You know, the painting, it’s… incited a lot of speculation. About you, and—my relationship with you,” Steve says. “A lot of people are assuming exactly what that flight attendant assumed.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t want you to be surprised, either.”

Bucky thinks about it, then shrugs. “I’m not, I guess. Or if I am, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay. I don’t care what people say. And it does make a certain kind of sense.” He can’t look directly at Steve when he says that last part, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees Steve nod.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” he adds, as if Bucky didn’t already know that about him. “And as long as you’re not gonna shove me off, we have four hours left and you owe me.”

And then Steve’s head is on his shoulder, and Steve is leaning against him, absolutely one-hundred-percent on purpose. Bucky’s eyes go wide, but luckily there’s no one to see. He stays very still, the way he would if some wild creature brushed up against him—his heart thumps against his ribs just like that, too. Quiet, he thinks, but it has no effect. Either way, fifteen minutes later, Steve is asleep.

When the flight attendant comes back around, she winks at Bucky.

Chapter Text

The bar where they meet Peggy is playing country music. Or, more specifically, there’s a band on a tiny stage at the back of the narrow room, and they’re playing country music.

It’s not what Bucky expected.

They find Peggy at a little table shoved up against the wall. She’s facing the stage instead of watching the door for them, so it takes a moment to find her, but Steve taps her on the shoulder and she stands up and embraces him. She kisses him on the cheek, then brushes past him to give Bucky a hug. After only a second of hesitation, she kisses him on the cheek, too.

“I’m so glad to see you both,” she says. “Please sit.”

Steve looks very grateful. He’ll never admit to fatigue, but they’ve been walking around the city since leaving the airport early this morning and Bucky is ready to collapse on the bar floor, so Steve must be exhausted. Bucky had stopped frequently while they walked around the city, claiming he needed to sit and rest, because that was the closest he could get to making sure Steve took care of himself.

It had been a nice day. The city was beautiful, and there was a lot to talk about, and most of the time it was just the right amount of distraction, the kind that kept him from thinking things like Steve will never kiss me again. Once or twice, it had been a little too much distraction, and he had found his hand brushing Steve’s. But there were crowds at all the tourist sites, so he could pretend someone jostled him. Other than that, they’d managed to keep the awkwardness to a minimum. It was almost like old times, two kids wandering around Brooklyn together. Bucky used to grab Steve’s hand all the time back then, either to drag him toward some incredible sight or to pull him out of a fight. But they’re not kids any more, and here on the other side of the ocean, every little touch feels charged with meaning.

Peggy and Steve strike up a conversation immediately, starting with last night’s flight and quickly veering into shared memories. Bucky lets them talk. He’s too jetlagged to focus in the loud bar, and he has a beer to occupy his attention. Besides, the music, as out of place as it is, isn’t half-bad. The singer is a slender women with light brown hair and a kind of classic old Hollywood beauty.

“You gotta work so hard to make it look easy,” she sings. She’s got a clear voice, and he wonders if her twang comes from nature or nurture.

He glances at Steve and Peggy to ask their opinion, expecting to find them deep in conversation, but instead Peggy’s attention is on the singer.

“She’s great,” Steve says, and Peggy nods.

If he’s being honest with himself, Bucky had half-expected the two of them to be making eyes at each other by now, if not outright making out. But they’re not even sitting particularly close together, and apparently all they’re talking about is the band. Peggy is on Steve’s right, his good side. It had been so long since they’d seen each other, so Bucky wanted them to be able to talk.

Maybe they needed a little space. He drains his beer. “I’m gonna get another,” he says. “Can I get you two anything?”

Steve shakes his head, but Peggy says, “Oh, stay a moment, James. The set is ending and it will get quieter. You’ve hardly said a word.”

Sure enough, the music dies down just then. He shrugs. “I’m tired.”

She gives him a little smile, and who wouldn’t go weak in the knees for a woman like that? “Understandable,” she says. “Are you looking forward to the ceremony tomorrow? How does it feel to be in the same room as your portrait?”

“Steve never drew you?”

Peggy laughs. “Never in a way that ended up in the public eye, thank God.”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Steve says. He’s aiming for feigned nonchalance, but even in the dark of the bar, Bucky can see his cheeks go a shade pinker.

“I saved them all, of course,” Peggy says. “I wouldn’t sell them for the world.”

Steve, who is now staring down into his lap, does smile a little at that.

“We did have fun together,” Peggy says, nudging Steve in the shoulder. “I’m sorry to reminisce so much, James, I know it’s gauche.”

“Oh, don’t mind me.”

“You never answered my questions,” she says. She always was sharp, Peggy Carter.

Bucky takes a deep breath, and tries to look at Peggy rather than Steve. “I’ve never actually seen it,” he says, feeling sheepish.

“Oh,” Peggy says. “I suppose I understand that. But… if you can, you should look at it. It’s really quite something. Steve has a gift.”

“Peggy,” Steve says, but Bucky nods. For all her good qualities, and there are many, the best thing about Peggy Carter is that she has always been able to see Steve.

“Promise me you’ll look at it,” Peggy says. “If you can.”

Natasha had said almost exactly the same thing before he left. Bucky nods again. “Yeah,” he says. “Promise.”

Steve smiles a little at that, too.

Someone touches Bucky’s shoulder, and he glances up to see the singer standing over him, holding a beer in one hand. She smiles at Steve and Bucky, and then positively beams at Peggy. “Hey, English.”

She’s American, but the twang is fake. That girl is a New Yorker if Bucky has ever met one.

“I’ve told you that nickname makes no sense here,” Peggy says, but a smile is playing at the corners of her lips. She pushes her chair back a few inches, until it hits the wall, and then stands up and squeezes through the space between all the chairs and tables in her way until she gets to the singer.

Peggy wraps an arm around her waist and says, “James, Steve, this is Angie.”

Then Angie turns and kisses Peggy in a way that leaves him speechless. He feels a little dirty just looking, but he can’t seem to tear himself away. When he finally does, he glances at Steve, who looks just as surprised as he does.

Peggy pulls away first. “My girlfriend,” she says, totally unnecessarily.

“I got that,” Bucky says.

Angie sticks out her hand and he and Steve both stand up to shake it. Angie pulls up a chair and makes herself at home at their tiny little table, and without any discussion, they rearrange themselves so that Angie and Peggy are sitting together. “That’s a hell of a painting you made, Steve,” Angie says, apparently dispensing with small talk. “I always wanted to paint.”

“But you can sing and play guitar,” Steve says.

Angie shrugs. “Doesn’t stop a girl from wanting things.”

“I envy you both,” Peggy says. “I haven’t got an ounce of creativity in me.”

“I dunno, Peg, I’ve seen you punch a guy, and it is a thing of beauty,” Angie says. “Plus, espionage is totally creative, don’t you ever watch TV? Oh wait, you don’t, because you’re literally out saving the world all the time, you international woman of mystery.”

“You know I sit at my desk and do paperwork all day,” Peggy demurs.

“Uh huh,” Angie says.

“Can I ask you something?” Bucky says, because despite Angie throwing off his grand plan for Steve’s future happiness with Peggy, she’s cute. And maybe, in a way, some secret part of him is relieved that Peggy is dating someone, and probably won’t start things up with Steve again. “What’s with the country music? You’re a New Yorker.”

Angie laughs. “These Brits can’t tell the difference,” she says, and Peggy rolls her eyes in silent protest. “Besides, I sing all kinds of stuff. But the country’s kinda fun. I like to remind everyone that I am an exotic novelty here. It makes beautiful women fawn over me. I’m never goin’ back.”

She wraps an arm around Peggy and pulls her close.

“So how did you two meet?” Angie says.

Bucky stands up and pastes on a smile. “I’m gonna get that beer,” he says.

He’s only halfway through reading the labels of all the beers on tap when someone touches his shoulder.

“She didn’t mean anything by it, James,” Peggy says. “She’s very forward and not always very tactful. Steve has explained the whole thing to her.”

Bucky doubts that Steve has explained ‘the whole thing’ to anyone. Steve doesn’t even know the half of it.

“And I am sorry if I upset you earlier, talking about when Steve and I were together,” Peggy says, because apparently she’s not done torturing him. “But not too sorry. I’ll always love him, at least a little.”

“But you’re not with him,” Bucky says, and then regrets speaking at all. He wants out of this conversation. But he also wants to know what Peggy knows, the secret to breaking up with Steve and living through it.

Peggy takes a breath. “Well,” she says. “He wanted to stay in New York, and I had a job offer here, and my work is very important to me, and… we made a choice. It was painful, at first, but we lived.”

“How?”

“We stayed friends, and that has been invaluable to me. He is and always will be an important part of my life. As for the immediate aftermath, I knew I would get through it, because I always do. I threw myself into my work, and then a few years later, I met Angie, and you’ve seen how that turned out,” she says. “I never worried about Steve. I knew he had someone else in his life.”

“He didn’t. And he never would have two-timed you. Steve’s not like that.”

“Of course not,” Peggy says. “But I think you know that’s not what I meant.”

Bucky steps up to the counter and orders a pint of ESB, but Peggy steps forward and adds her own order to his. She leans against the bar, bodily blocking his way back to the table.

“It isn’t my place to intervene here—,”

“Hasn’t stopped you yet,” he mutters.

“—and obviously it would be better if the two of you could draw your own conclusions, but I’ve never been much for leaving things be, and I hate to see you both looking so miserable in each other’s company. He loves you, James.”

“He doesn’t. Not the way I want him to. And it doesn’t matter, anyway. I could never be good for him like you were.”

“You’re wrong,” Peggy says. She’s not subtle like Nat, or easygoing like Sam. She never pulls her punches. “And you ought to let him make that choice for himself. Promise me you’ll talk to him.”

He picks his beer up off the bar and drinks a quarter of it without looking at her.

“I know you think I’m crossing a line, James, but I’m saying this because I care about you,” she says. “And Steve, of course. Mostly Steve. And I haven’t even begun to cross lines yet.”

Bucky gives her a look over the rim of his pint glass, and she gives back a winning smile.

“If you hurt him, I can have you put in prison for the rest of your life where no one will ever find you.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but Peggy’s expression doesn’t change. “I won’t, of course. Steve would be appalled at such an abuse of human rights, and his good opinion does mean something to me.” She sips her beer. “I would punch you in the nose, though. Crude, but effective.”

“And if he hurts me?”

“He wouldn’t. Not intentionally.”

“Right,” Bucky says, taking a drink of his beer like it’s no big deal. Hurt? Who’s hurt? Not him. “If you’re so sure about all of this, how come it’s my job to talk to him and not the other way around?”

“Oh, I’m going to talk to Steve about you as well,” she says.

“And say what?”

“That you’re in love with him. You haven’t denied it, you know,” she says. “Not once.”

“Peggy,” he says, his heart thumping against his ribs. “Don’t.”

“So we agree, then,” she says. “You’ll tell him yourself.”

And with that, Peggy pays for both of their beers and walks away.

Chapter Text

Bucky never went to college. He never studied art. He doesn’t know a goddamn thing about painting. That doesn’t stop him from having opinions. He’s looked all around, and every painting in the echoing white space of this gallery is crap except for one.

He promised Nat and Peggy that he’d look. Peggy’s across the gallery, and to everyone else it looks like she’s laughing in between sips of champagne, but every time she makes eye contact with him, he feels like a mouse that just got spotted by a hawk.

Angie only smiled when she saw him. She has her arm cheerfully slung around Peggy’s waist and together they’re tied for the second-most beautiful people in here.

The most beautiful person in the room is currently avoiding Bucky, or rather, he’s being mobbed by fans and it’s giving him a convenient excuse to avoid Bucky.

Naturally, there had been a slight mix-up at the hotel desk and they had ended up in a room with only one bed. No different from the airplane, they joked, but Bucky’s few hours of accidentally napping on Steve’s shoulder on the plane had been infinitely more comfortable and restful. Steve probably hadn’t gotten much sleep last night either, since it was the night before the ceremony and as far as Bucky knew, he had no speech prepared. And they were both jetlagged. It wouldn’t have been an easy night to fall asleep even if Bucky hadn’t been lying awake vibrating with the thought I have to tell him and imagining all the hundreds of ways it could go wrong.

It was already going wrong: they had spent all day snapping at each other, sleepless and cranky and wired on terrible coffee. Everything was expensive and the whole city was cold and wet and crowded, and they had taken it out on each other. Bucky had just barely managed a moment of civility as they were heading out of their hotel room before the ceremony. “I know you probably need some space,” he’d said softly, like maybe if he didn’t speak up, they could avoid getting into their ninety-fifth argument of the day. “But I just wanted to say—you deserve to win.”

Steve could have said you haven’t even looked at the damn thing, and he probably wanted to, but apparently he had decided to try for civility, too, because all he did was nod and murmur “Thanks.”

After the day he’s had, Bucky wants to stand next to the catering table all night and down his weight in champagne and hors d’oeuvres. But he promised Nat and Peggy, and he’s a man of his word.

So here he is, looking. He’s been standing in front of the painting for so long he might as well have it memorized, but every time he blinks, he’s looking at something new. It’s like there are two images—the one he had in his head, and the real one—and they’re superimposed on each other. Bucky sees what he thought he would see: some one-armed motherfucker slouching in a chair and staring into the distance. It’s him and it’s not him at all, and he’s not sure which thought is more jarring.

When Bucky remembers his first few months at home, he thinks of snarling fuck off, what the fuck would you know about it any time Steve offered to talk. Back then, he’d sometimes told himself that maybe if he’d come home with his arm still attached, he might have been alright. Deep down he knew that was bullshit. Losing his arm was awful in so many ways, but it wasn’t the only thing wrong with him. He had felt alternately numb and raw, like if he spent any time thinking about how shredded he was inside, he might start screaming and never stop. Like a wounded animal, he had wanted to curl in on himself until that ragged, bleeding part of himself was hidden.

The stump of his left arm was obvious to everyone. He had thought back then that maybe he could hide his other, deeper hurts. Steve had seen right through him, of course. Bucky had always known that. It was why he had never looked at the painting before. He thought he would feel exposed and ashamed.

He feels a little exposed. It’s hard not to, standing in front of a six-foot-tall painting of himself in the National Portrait Gallery. But he searches himself for shame and finds none. It’s him in the painting, alright, but it’s also not him at all. It’s like looking at a different person, a stranger, someone to whom he can offer the kind of compassion that he could never feel for himself at the time. More than anything, that welling of empathy for his past self convinces him that he has come through it. He’s okay. Things aren’t great now—he’s broke and brokenhearted—but he’s alive. All that pain he felt, it’s right there on the surface of the painting, but he has learned to live with it now.

He’s learned to look at himself.

He can see things now that he couldn’t see then. Bucky had been too consumed with his own hurt and anger, all turned inward, to understand that Steve was angry on his behalf. The starless stripes in the background of the painting drip down the wall in a mockery of the flag. But there are feelings beyond anger in the painting. Bucky doesn’t need a degree to know that. The man in Winter Soldier is far from the viewer, isolated and out of reach. Steve had wanted to talk to him and Bucky had told him to fuck off. So Steve had communicated in other ways, sitting in the studio with him for hours at a time, day after day. Just because they hadn’t talked didn’t mean Steve hadn’t had something to say.

Looking at the painting now, Bucky feels immensely grateful to Steve. Other people probably look at this painting and see that Steve cares about truth and justice and world peace. Or if they’re not interested in grand abstract ideals, they’ll see that Steve cares about treating veterans with dignity and kindness. Bucky sees all that time they spent together, all those hours that Steve sat with him, even when he was at his worst.

“So, do you think it’s worth a thousand words?”

Bucky looks to his right, startled, and sees a tall, slender redheaded woman in a skirt suit. By her accent, she’s American. Her hair is pulled back in some kind of fancy way and her jewelry is minimalist but even to his eyes, it looks expensive. She’s pretty, and she looks vaguely familiar. Maybe she’s on TV or something. She smiles at him.

Bucky is wearing the suit, but he left his glove at home. He resists the urge to put his left hand in his pocket. Whether or not she’s seen his prosthetic, the woman has to have noticed by now that Bucky looks just like the man in the portrait. His hair is in a neat bun instead of loose, but his face looks the same. The likeness in the portrait is unmistakable. Steve didn’t get nominated for a portrait prize for nothing.

“More, probably,” he says. He doesn’t really know how to answer the question, but he’s trying not to be rude. The woman has good manners, talking to him instead of gawking at his metal hand, so Bucky tries to return the favor.

She sips from the champagne flute that she’s been holding. He notices a slim bracelet around her wrist that looks like it’s all diamonds, and wonders again who she is.

“I don’t know much about the value of words,” she says. “But it’s certainly worth the prize.”

She has good taste, at least. Bucky nods. “I think so,” he says, and then gives a self-deprecating smile and shrug. “But I guess I’m biased. You probably know about art, though.”

“Yes,” she says, without a trace of self-effacing modesty. Bucky supposes you don’t end up wearing diamonds at corporate-sponsored ceremonies by underplaying your strengths. “I do apologize. I think I have you at a disadvantage, Sergeant Barnes. My name is Pepper Potts. I’m the CEO of Stark Industries.”

He blinks. So that’s who she is. One of the richest people in the world. Chief executive of the corporation that gave him his arm. No wonder she didn’t introduce herself until now—she probably gets recognized and mobbed every time she steps out in public. Feeling a little foolish, Bucky takes her outstretched hand in his. He can’t help saying, “But how do you know—,”

Steve didn’t identify Bucky in the painting. It can’t be that.

“We have a mutual friend,” Pepper freaking Potts says, and that can’t possibly be true, unless it’s Maria, since she works at Stark, but they’re not that close. “Natasha Romanoff?”

Of course. Nat and her Stark Industries galas.

“She mentioned that I might find you here. I’d like to meet Steve as well, when he’s free.”

Bucky glances across the room. Steve is still surrounded. He’s had people fawning over him since this thing started. He’s handling it better than Bucky would have suspected, but to the careful observer, his smile looks a little strained.

Bucky has to pause, and then take a deep breath that he hopes isn’t conspicuous. “Oh, we’re—you’d be better off just introducing yourself,” he says.

Pepper looks surprised, but her good manners prevent her from saying anything. They don’t prevent her gaze from straying back toward the portrait.

“It’s complicated?” he offers, feeling unbearably cliché even as he says it.

“But you’re still here,” she says, and then, realizing that they’re veering toward uncomfortably personal territory for two quasi-strangers, shakes her head and says, “I’m sorry. It’s just—I know a thing or two about complicated.”

Pepper Potts is the CEO of Stark Industries, constantly rumored to be dating the genius engineer responsible for turning the company away from its weapons manufacturing. Bucky just nods.

“I know this is indiscreet, but… Natasha said Steve was considering turning down the prize money?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and resists adding dumb fucking punk that he is.

“He shouldn’t. It’s a drop in the bucket to them. But regardless of his decision on that, I have an offer that he might find more palatable.” She pauses. Pepper Potts doesn’t seem like a woman who gets nervous, so she must be choosing her words. “I think you might be interested as well. I hope I’m not putting you in an uncomfortable situation.”

He laughs, but it’s not a happy sound. “I promise you, any awkward positions I end up in are entirely my own fault.”

Bucky expects her to blush at his word choice, as fair as she is, but she smiles a little wickedly and he decides right there that he likes her.

“Well, I’ll leave you to get into or out of whatever awkward positions you end up in, Sergeant Barnes. I need a champagne refill and then I plan to seek out your… friend.” She raises her glass to him and then turns on her heel.

Bucky watches her go, then glances at the painting again, then thinks about the way Pepper Potts, a stranger, paused before she said the word ‘friend.’

God damn it. He’s had enough of this.

He walks over to the group of adoring fans who are surrounding Steve and pushes his way to Steve’s side. He touches Steve’s elbow, and then says into his ear:  “Steve. Can we… step out for a second?”

Steve turns to him, looking concerned, all their earlier bickering forgotten. He speaks quietly. “Are you alright? I know you weren’t looking forward to this—,”

Bucky puts up a hand and shakes his head. “No, it’s not that, I just,” and then he stops talking and simply walks away from the crowd, knowing Steve will follow him out of the gallery and into the little corridor in front of the restrooms. The din of conversation is muted, and he already feels like he can breathe a little easier.

“Steve,” he says again, because it gives him a little time to search for words. He tries to run a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture, then remembers his hair is pulled back and has to drop his hand to his side. “Steve, it’s gorgeous.”

Steve smiles thinly. “Of course it’s gorgeous. It’s you.”

“Shut up. Don’t—this isn’t a joke. I’m trying to say something important. I don’t mean me, I mean—the whole thing. I’m sorry I never looked at it before—I should have. I should have trusted you.”

“Bucky, it’s okay,” Steve says, but Bucky holds up his hand again and Steve nods and stops talking, even though he looks like he still has something to say.

In the gallery, the roar of conversation dims, and that’s a relief. Bucky needs all the help he can get to get these words out.

“Thank you. For everything,” Bucky says. “You were always, always there for me, and I know it’s a cliché to say I don’t know where I’d be without you, but really—I don’t know if I’d be here at all. And I can’t believe I’ve never said anything of this before. I fucked up, Steve. I should have told you the truth a long time ago. I’m a coward, I guess.”

Steve’s gaze drifts over Bucky’s shoulder to the crowd beyond, and he says, “Bucky, I think—,”

“God damn it, Steve, will you listen to me for one second. I’m trying to tell you I’m in love with you, you fucking dope.”

Steve suddenly focuses his full attention on Bucky, and it’s all Bucky can do not to cover his face with his hands.

“What?” Steve says.

“Oh God, that was not supposed to come out like that.”

“You’re in love with me?”

Bucky gives a very small nod.

“But I’m in love with you,” Steve says, as if those two things can’t possibly both be true.

“What.”

“I was going to tell you, before you dumped me. What the hell was that, by the way?”

I dumped you?”

“Yes!” Steve snaps. “You said you wanted to stop, so we stopped. I’ve been fucking miserable for weeks!”

You’ve been miserable,” Bucky says, and he’s stunned enough that the next bit just slips out: “Steve, I’ve been a fucking disaster. I punched Rumlow. I’ve been sobbing into the pillows on Natasha’s guest bed every few nights.”

“Wait, you punched Rumlow?”

Bucky nods, and Steve gives him a smile of grim satisfaction.

“That was really not the point,” Bucky says.

“Fine, let’s pick up where we left off: what the fuck.”

“You were miserable,” Bucky says, very quietly, not quite a question. He never meant for that to happen. “I didn’t know,” he says. “I thought things would be better if we stopped, I thought I was torturing myself, being secretly in love with you even though—,”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Steve says, looking at the ceiling. Then he looks at Bucky and a grin splits his face. “We are so fucking dumb.”

“So… dumb,” Bucky repeats, the full weight of the information not yet settled in his mind.

“We could have been kissing this whole time,” Steve says, and then he surges forward and kisses Bucky with such force that Bucky steps back against the wall. Steve’s hands are on his hips, and Bucky’s hands cup Steve’s face and push into his hair and Steve is pressing up against him and kissing him and kissing him and Steve is in love with him.

“For how long?” Bucky demands, barely stopping in between kisses.

“Too long,” Steve says. “Say it again.”

“I love you,” Bucky says.

“I love you too, you fucking dope,” Steve says, and Bucky laughs against his lips, because he probably deserves that. In answer, he picks Steve up and leaves a little biting kiss high on the side of his throat, and Steve groans into his mouth and his hands make a bird’s nest of Bucky’s hair. Steve’s thighs clench around his waist and Bucky slides one hand up under his suit jacket and pulls at his shirt until he can touch skin. Steve is hot to the touch, and he’s kissing his way along Bucky’s jawline, nipping at his ear and sucking at the sensitive skin of his throat.

“And the Grand Prize goes to… Steve Rogers!”

“No fucking kidding,” Steve murmurs into Bucky’s neck.

“Steve,” Bucky says. “Steve, that’s the award ceremony.”

“Oh shit,” Steve says, dropping his feet to the floor immediately and backing away. His hair is sticking up, his collar is wrinkled, his tie is twisted, his glasses are crooked, his shirt is untucked, his lips are just-bitten pink, and his erection is entirely obvious. Bucky moves to smooth his hair down, and Steve steps away. “You probably shouldn’t touch me right now,” he says, and an even deeper blush rises to his cheeks.

“Think about baseball stats,” Bucky says, because that’s a classic. “Ooh, no, think about Roxxon Oil.”

“I take it all back. I hate you.” Steve retucks his shirt, straightens his tie, and pushes his hair down as best he can. He adjusts himself to hide his erection, takes a deep breath, and strides into the gallery.

“That’s my boy,” Bucky calls in a voice that he hopes only Steve can hear. He’s too giddy to resist the impulse. Then he puts a hand up to his mouth and stage-whispers, “Take the money!”

Steve puts one hand behind his back and gives Bucky the finger.

Bucky stands in the back of the room and tries to blend into the crowd so that no one will notice how disheveled he is. But Pepper Potts clicks across the gallery floor in her heels and takes his elbow immediately. “Complicated,” she says, and he likes her enough to smile.

“It got less complicated,” Bucky admits.

“I don’t suppose you had time to mention my name.”

He shakes his head, trying not to smile.

“I was hoping to talk to Steve before he won,” she says. They both glance at Steve, who is standing to the side of the podium, looking slightly uncomfortable, while the master of ceremonies reads a flattering little biography of him aloud into the mic. “It would have been nice to make the announcement here, assuming he agreed to the plan, of course.”

Bucky pulls out his phone and texts Steve pepper potts as fast as he can. The text actually comes out pper pts, but it’s enough to get Steve to look up and notice the two of them at the back of the room. “What exactly is this plan of yours?”

“You were part of a Stark Industries initiative to provide prosthetic limbs to veterans, right?” she says. The question is mere politeness, since she already knows the answer. Bucky raises his left hand and wiggles his fingers at her. She nods. “That was a pilot program. I’d like to expand it. Work with the VA, build a new medical center, offer physical therapy and upgrades to the tech, that kind of thing.”

Bucky can’t argue with that. “And you need Steve because?”

“I want to buy the painting, of course,” Pepper says. “The whole series of soldiers’ portraits, if he’s willing. They’re beautiful and it would be nice publicity for the project. And if we announce here that Stark Industries is prepared to dedicate a large sum to this project, it might spur Roxxon into offering up some money of their own. They need all the good publicity they can get.”

“Steve will like that,” Bucky says. It’s a much better plan than simply refusing the prize money.

“Natasha said as much.”

Bucky only nods because he’s hitting send on a text that says invite her on stage when ur done. A second later, he watches Steve read the text, shoot him a confused look, and then shove his phone back into his pocket just in time to go up on stage.

Steve clears his throat and pulls the microphone down to his height and pauses before he says anything. Bucky feels guilty for having kept him awake all night with unnecessary anxiety. Steve could have prepared a speech if not for him. Bucky could feel guilty for making Steve look flushed and disheveled at the biggest moment of his career so far, but he has no regrets on that count.

“Thank you so much,” Steve says, and he’s off to a good start. He has such a nice, resonant voice. He could read a take-out menu aloud for ten minutes and Bucky would give him a standing ovation. “I am honored to receive this prize, but the honor is not all mine. No one works alone, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped me in my career and my life—all my art teachers, my friends, my family.

“When I say that no one works alone, I mean it both figuratively and, in the case of painting portraits, absolutely literally. I was not alone when I painted Winter Soldier, and I am grateful to my subject for the countless hours we spent together in the studio. I am grateful for his patience, and I am grateful to have been allowed to look.”

Steve looks at him then, just briefly, and then he returns his gaze to the crowd. The rest of the crowd might be looking at Bucky, but he only cares about what Steve will say next.

“There has been a lot of political discussion surrounding this portrait,” Steve says. “Like most painters, I have enough ego that I don’t relish explaining my work, but it is, of course, a political statement. I won’t deny that I am happy to see a conversation starting about what kind of care and compassion we owe our veterans, and what a disgrace it is that we give them less than they deserve. That conversation only touches on one small part of what we ought to be talking about, which is the value of human life.

“Portraiture is about people. It takes the simple act of looking at another person—the basis for all compassion—and elevates it to high art. It is not easy to paint someone’s portrait because it is not easy to know another human being. Sometimes we don’t even realize how the people closest to us really feel. But while it might not be easy, it is important. The hard work of looking at other people—seeing them, knowing them, offering them the respect and kindness that they deserve—that is work worth doing.

“Thank you,” Steve says, and ducks his head a little. It’s such a funny little moment of self-deprecation after the rapturously charismatic speech, like someone flipped a switch and he stopped being Steve Rogers, Famous Artist, and went back to being Steve, the guy that Bucky used to skip Algebra II with.

The applause starts, and then Steve picks up the microphone again and says, “Oh, and if you’ll allow me a few more minutes of your time, I believe my… associate Pepper Potts has something to add.”

Next to him, Pepper takes the surprise with serene grace. She nods at Bucky, then parts the crowd to go join Steve at the podium.

“Thank you, Steve,” she says. “That was moving. I’ll be very brief: your portrait, and in fact your whole series of portraits of veterans, has inspired Stark Industries to pledge fifty million dollars toward the construction of a new medical center dedicated to fitting veterans with our state-of-the-art prosthetics.”

Pepper gives the crowd a winning smile and the applause is thunderous. Steve’s eyes go wide, but he remembers to compose himself a moment later, when Pepper is shaking his hand and saying something to him out of range of the mic.

Off to the side of the crowd, an old white man in a suit makes a sour expression and claps without enthusiasm. Bucky would bet anything it’s the CEO of Roxxon Oil.

Steve and Pepper have to answer a lot of questions after the speech, so Bucky hangs back, idly scrolling through his phone. He looks up when someone’s shoulder bumps his and finds Angie and Peggy grinning at him. Peggy offers him a glass of champagne, then clinks hers against it.

“Congratulations,” Angie says.

“Oh, I didn’t—,” Bucky says. “All I did was sit there.”

“Oh, the painting,” Angie says. “Yeah, congratulations for that too.”

Angie grins at him and then at Peggy, and the two of them jostle each other, bumping elbows and hips until finally Angie wraps an arm around Peggy. “I made dinner reservations,” Peggy says. “But I’m happy to cancel if you have other plans.”

“Plans?” Bucky says, and then rolls his eyes at their smiles. Plans meaning the hotel room that he is sharing with Steve, and the lone bed that no longer seems like such a problem. “I’m off my innuendo game, clearly.”

“Maybe it’s the jetlag,” Angie says, in a tone that is not so much helpful as it is knowing.

“Definitely,” Bucky says. “And the champagne.” And the fact that Steve jumped him outside the men’s bathroom an hour ago, but who’s counting. “But if you made reservations, we’ll come with you,” he says. “Steve and me, we have time.”

Peggy smiles at him with genuine warmth, then says, “Excellent.”

“Hey, Peggy, those reservations… do you think they could be changed to five people?” Bucky nods toward Steve and Pepper, who now look like they’ve been collaborating for years rather than two people who only just met.

“Ooh, I’ve always wanted to meet Pepper Potts,” Angie says. “I love a woman in a suit.”

“We know, darling,” Peggy says, and she already has her phone in her hand.

The crowd around Steve and Pepper is thinning, and Steve is clearly making apologies and trying to extricate himself from the conversation. Bucky can see him gesturing across the room, excusing himself because he sees someone that he really needs to talk to. Bucky smiles.

Chapter Text

Steve backs him against the hotel room door as soon as they’re inside. “We probably need to talk about some things,” he says, hips pressed against Bucky’s.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, because it’s all he gets out before Steve grabs his tie. It’s not rough. It’s deliberate. Steve doesn’t yank, he pulls. The whole movement is calculated to give Bucky time to say no or jerk his head back or push Steve away. Bucky doesn’t do any of that.

Steve pulls him down and he goes willingly. They kiss, and then Steve says, “I don’t want to talk right now.”

Bucky would express his agreement and relief—the whole hip-thrusting, tie-pulling thing didn’t mix well with serious talking—but Steve kisses him again, and that’s good enough for now.

“You could talk, though,” Steve says, and his hands and lips are everywhere, loosing Bucky’s hair from its bun and pulling at his tie and grazing the bare skin of his neck.

“Mmph,” Bucky says, cut off by another kiss. He works at Steve’s belt buckle instead and then tugs his shirt untucked. They’re still mostly dressed, but Bucky nudges Steve with his hips, hoping to direct him toward the bed.

Steve’s trousers drop to his ankles as soon as Bucky gets his fly undone, but then Steve stops in the middle of the room and Bucky bumps right into him. “Hey,” Steve says, in a much lighter tone than he’s said everything else. “You’re okay with this, right?”

Bucky laughs and guides Steve’s hand to his cock, which is straining against the front of his suit.

Steve, still keeping his hand where Bucky put it, clarifies, “No, I mean, you’re okay with me kind of… pushing you around a little bit? Telling you what to do?”

“Steve, you texted me a dirty picture of a guy in rope bondage and I jacked off to it for days,” Bucky says, because this is minor-league compared to that. But then, because Steve seems to be waiting for it, he says, “Yes, Steve. I’m okay with you pushing me around and telling me what to do and probably a lot more than that, honestly, I haven’t really done a thorough psychological self-examination here.”

“Hey,” Steve says, stroking a hand through Bucky’s hair. “It’s okay. Me neither. You think I’m not a little freaked out by how much I want that?”

“Alright, alright,” Bucky says, and it’s funny how much better it makes him feel to have Steve touching him. Steve currently has his pants around his ankles, caught on his dress shoes, which is not exactly a naturally authoritative look.

“Well, I’m glad all that rope I ordered won’t go to waste, at least,” Steve says, and it sounds like a joke but it’s also fucking heartbreaking. Bucky can imagine the package arriving in the mail and Steve feeling sick at the sight of it. His stomach drops at the thought. He’d been so twisted up about what he thought Steve wanted—not him—he’d never stopped to ask Steve what he actually wanted. Bucky had wanted to do the right thing, to set them both free from a situation that wasn’t giving either of them what they wanted, and in the process he’d hurt Steve.

And he’d spent the last few weeks moping around, thinking about how Steve had hurt him.

It really is hard work, knowing another person.

He kisses Steve deeply, cupping his head and tilting it back, because how else can he express what he’s feeling? “I’m so sorry,” he says.

“No, don’t start that yet, Buck, we’ll never make it to bed,” Steve says, with just the slightest catch in his throat. “But I’m sorry, too. We both let go too easily. Let’s make it up to each other.”

“I’m all ears.”

Bucky represses a sigh of disappointment as Steve not only removes his hand from his dick, but also bends down to pull up his own pants and belt them again.

“We don’t have any lube,” Steve says. “I’m going out to get some. You are going to stay here. When I come back, I want you naked and face down on the bed, with your hands around the bars of the headboard.”

Bucky’s eyes go round. He’s not much of a blusher, not as much as Steve, but he feels warmer just having listened to Steve’s instructions.

“And Bucky?”

Bucky looks up, suddenly aware that his attention had drifted in the last minute.

“Just because there’s no rope doesn’t mean you’re allowed to move,” Steve says. As soon as Bucky nods at him, Steve is out the door.

Steve is probably gone twenty minutes. It feels like two thousand years. It’s an effort to undress himself with his pulse quickening under his skin. He’s tempted to shed all his clothes and leave them on the floor, just to be done with it, but he didn’t even usually do that in his shithole apartment, and he’s trying to do this right. Steve gave him time. Bucky removes each piece of his clothing carefully, hanging his suit jacket in the closet and folding his pants.

Then he gets on the bed, flat on his stomach with his legs stretched out, and wraps his hands around the bars of the headboard. It’s decorative, but sturdy, made of carved wood painted white. The bedspread beneath him is floral and he has ample time to study the intricacies of its pattern while he waits for Steve.

He tries to keep as still as possible. He could so easily let go, flip over, reach down and touch himself, and Steve would never know. Or he could stay where he is and rub up against the bed a little. Steve would never know about that either, and even if he came back right in the middle of things, all Bucky would need to do was stop moving. Plausible deniability, right there.

But Steve asked him not to move.

This would be a lot easier if he wasn’t hard. Bucky knows how to lie silent and motionless in a sniper’s nest. Lying on a bed for twenty minutes should be nothing to him. But he’s harder than he’s been in weeks, leaking all over the quaint floral bedspread and absolutely dying for Steve to come back and touch him.

He nearly groans with pleasure at the sound of the door opening. But he keeps quiet. He’s waiting to hear what Steve has to say.

“Good,” Steve says, and Bucky can hear the rustle of Steve slipping out of his suit jacket. “You look good,” he reiterates, taking his damn time. Steve’s approval feels good, but his touch would feel better. Bucky lifts his head to get a glimpse of Steve, who is unbuttoning his cuffs and rolling his sleeves up to the elbow. He loosens his tie, then sits down on the bed next to Bucky.

Bucky feels very, very naked.

“You can talk,” Steve says. “Talking is encouraged. Make as much noise as you want.”

Bucky would say anything if he could think of a single word right now. He exhales, and then Steve touches the inside of his right wrist and trails his fingers down to the bend in Bucky’s arm. Bucky shivers at the contact, but quickly stops himself. No moving. He can get this right.

Steve traces a line up Bucky’s arm and just over the bare skin of his shoulder.

“You are so, so beautiful.”

Bucky anticipates Steve rubbing a hand down his back, but that touch never comes. Instead, Steve rests his hand on the back of Bucky’s neck.

With his other hand, he reaches up and begins to unknot his tie. He slides it out from under his collar and lets the silk pool in his lap. Then he unbuttons the top of his shirt to expose his throat. That tiny glimpse of nakedness looks so good on him. Bucky would love to kiss him, to drag his parted lips down Steve’s throat. But he’s not moving.

Steve picks up his tie, then lets his hand clutching the folds of it hover above Bucky’s wrist for a moment, one cool end of the silk draped against his skin. “I could tie you up,” Steve says. “I could tie your wrists to the headboard. But I don’t think you need it. I think you’re gonna hold on just because I told you to.”

Bucky is caught between wanting to be tied up and wanting to do what Steve says. But Steve has rope at home. They’ll get to that eventually.

Steve’s hand is still warm on the back of his neck.

“Yes,” Bucky says, at last.

“Good,” Steve says, and leans down and kisses the back of Bucky’s head. He drops his tie carelessly on the floor, then reaches toward his lap and casually adjusts himself through his pants.

The reminder that Steve is still fully clothed while Bucky is lying here naked—and patient, he’s been so patient—is too much. Bucky lets out a sound of frustration and mutters, “I could be doing that for you, you know.”

“I know,” Steve says, serene and smug as fuck. His hand slides from Bucky’s neck down between his shoulder blades and then all the way to the small of his back, tantalizingly close to his ass. Bucky would love to move his hips a little, lift them enough to remind Steve of what he could be touching, but he’s not supposed to move.

Then Steve finally, finally curves his palm over Bucky’s ass and grabs a nice handful.

He wants to buck up into Steve’s touch but he can’t, so he lets it out in words: “God, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“And where would that be, exactly?” Steve sounds amused.

Steve knows exactly where, so Bucky doesn’t bother answering. Steve’s thumb parts the crease of his ass, sliding down slowly, and Bucky is gripping the headboard so hard it’s going to leave marks. Then Steve finally touches his hole, gently pressing and circling the rim, and Bucky’s hips rocket off the bed.

Steve removes his hand immediately and swats Bucky’s ass.

It stings, but not much. It’s a reminder to stay still. Bucky brings his hips back down to the bed, settling back into the sticky spot that he’s made. He can still feel the ghost of Steve’s hand against his ass. He wonders if there’s a red mark. It feels good, in a strange way. It makes him wonder if there might be as much pleasure in being bad as there is in being good.

“I said no moving,” Steve says.

“Yes, sir,” Bucky says.

The “sir” is half joke, right up until the moment that Steve says, “Good,” and it lights up every pleasure center in his brain. Oh God. He wants to be good. He wants Steve to tell him that he’s good. He can already feel himself dripping onto the bedspread.

“You alright, Buck?”

“Yes,” he says instantly. “Yes, yes, Steve please…”

“Steve please what?” It’s been ages since Steve touched him. Even the sting from the playful little slap is gone. When Bucky glances up over his shoulder, he sees Steve bending over to unlace his shoes. Steve slips out of one and then the other, then begins unbuttoning his shirt with methodical slowness.

“Touch me,” Bucky says. He sounds exactly as desperate and riled-up as he feels. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Steve smiling. Steve drops his dress shirt on the floor and pulls off his t-shirt. The dark blue of his tattoo stands in contrast to his flushed skin. Bucky’s not the only one who wants it bad. “Fuck me. Please.”

Steve undoes his belt, stands up, and steps out of his pants and his underwear, and they are finally both naked. Then Steve retrieves the bottle of lube and comes back to bed.

“Yes, please,” Bucky murmurs. Not being allowed to move or let go of the headboard brings a new awareness of his body. There are so many places he’d like to be touched, and Steve’s not doing a goddamn thing about it.

“What is it that you want, again?” Steve says, enjoying himself far too much.

“I think I’ve been pretty fucking clear.”

Steve bends over so that his lips are close to Bucky’s ear. “Humor me,” he says, and one of his hands alights on Bucky’s ass, both a reminder and a promise.

“You like it when I talk,” Bucky says, but of course he already knew that from that time in Natasha’s shower. But back then he’d been afraid to let slip what he was really feeling, and today he can say whatever he wants. “You love it,” Bucky insists, because if Steve wants him to talk continuously, he’s gonna need to go into detail. “Steve Rogers and his filthy mind. Does anybody else know that about you, or is it just me?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Bucky shivers when Steve says, “Just you.”

Bucky can’t move, but he can talk freely, and he uses that to his own advantage. “God, Steve, do you know how long I’ve been lying here, waiting for you. I want to move so fucking much, Steve, God, I’ve been fantasizing about grinding against this damn mattress because that’s what you do to me.”

Steve picks up one of his legs and moves it to the side, and then does the same with the other, so that his thighs are spread. Bucky welcomes the new position, both for its own sake and for what it promises.

He hears Steve uncap the bottle of lube and sighs in relief. “Fuck, yes, please touch me, please finger me, open me up and get me nice and wet and ready. I want you to fuck me, I want you to fuck me so much. So goddamn much, I swear—,” and then Steve finally pushes a finger inside him, and Bucky keeps talking but he stops using words.

The secret to talking dirty is shamelessness. Steve is lucky that Bucky has been waiting so long for this, because he’s too desperately horny to care what he’s saying any more. Not being able to writhe underneath Steve’s touch is driving him crazy, but at least he can let it out in words.

Bucky has lost the thread of what he was talking about, but it hardly matters any more. “Steve, Steve, oh fuck, oh yes—Steve?”

Steve slid his fingers out, and their sudden absence is an ache.

Then Steve uses both hands to spread his cheeks apart, and the next thing inside Bucky is warm and wet and definitely not a finger.

That is Steve’s tongue. Steve is rimming him. Holy fuck.

It feels so unbelievably, obscenely good. Bucky doesn’t realize he hasn’t said anything in minutes until Steve stops, lifts his head, and says, “Buck?”

“Don’t stop.”

“You like it?” Steve says, uncertain.

“Fuck yes,” Bucky groans into the pillow. He almost doesn’t look up, because he’s sure Steve is about to start rimming him again, but in the end he can’t resist a glance over his shoulder. Steve is a mess, dark-eyed and wild, and he has such a pleased little smile on his face. Bucky is glad he looked.

He continues singing Steve’s praises, although it isn’t so much singing as gasping, and they aren’t so much praises as moans. He gets his point across. Steve seems to have infinite patience for lying between Bucky’s legs and taking him apart with his tongue, and Bucky could, too, if there weren’t one thing he wanted more.

“Steve, please,” he says. “Steve, I want to come with your cock in me.”

Steve withdraws, then slides his hands up Bucky’s thighs. “Alright. If you get up on your knees, can you support yourself if you keep your hands where they are?”

Bucky levers himself up and half-crawls forward, supporting himself on his elbows. “Yeah, I’ll be okay like this.”

“Good,” Steve says, and then, as usual, he takes his goddamn time. When he finally fits himself to Bucky and slides inside, it feels so right Bucky’s eyes nearly roll back in his head.

“Fuck, oh fuck, please,” he’s murmuring, and he might be saying other things, it’s hard to tell. Steve is fucking him and it feels exactly as perfect as he imagined it would, or better, since Steve is holding him by the hips and leaning over to drop kisses on his naked back.

“I love you so much,” he says, stroking his hands along Bucky’s sides. Steve is a miracle of willpower, fucking Bucky so slowly that he feels like he might die of it.

“I love you too,” Bucky says, and he means it as much as he’s ever meant anything, but that doesn’t stop it from sounding like a desperate whine. He’s sure his left hand has scraped paint off the headboard at this point. The wood underneath his grip probably looks as raw as he feels.

“You’ve been so good,” Steve says. He accelerates his rhythm, and it’s a good thing Steve is the one doing the talking now, because Bucky is so grateful he wouldn’t know what to say. “I made you stay still and wait and you stayed still and waited. And you looked so good doing it, Buck, God, you’re gorgeous. I want you to come. Can you do that for me?”

Even as Bucky is breathlessly say “yes,” Steve is reaching under him and grasping his cock. That touch is all it takes. Bucky moans Steve’s name and they both hear the sound of splintering wood as his left hand destroys the shaft of the headboard he’s been gripping. His orgasm spills out of him, splattering over Steve’s hand and his stomach and the bedspread beneath them.

Steve laughs out loud and comes a second later, and Bucky feels it hot and warm inside him. “Fuck, I fucking love you,” Steve says, half-collapsing on top of him.

“It’s a good thing you’re a rich and famous artist now, since we’re gonna have to pay for this,” Bucky says, regarding the splintered wood in his metal hand. He still hasn’t let go of the post in his right hand.

Steve laughs again. “You can move, by the way,” he says, as he pulls out.

Bucky lets go of the headboard, brushing the wood out of his hand, and then immediately flips over onto his back and pulls Steve down to him. Steve kisses his neck and nuzzles his hair.

“That was… that was really, really good.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees.

“You good here, or you want to shower?”

“Mmph,” Bucky says, in the middle of kissing Steve’s shoulder. “Let’s stay here. We missed out on like, months of post-sex cuddling.”

“Good point,” Steve says, and curls into him.

Chapter Text

“And that’s the story of how I got Pepper Potts’s private number,” Steve finishes recounting their London trip with a shrug and a look of wonder.

“You’re welcome,” Bucky adds. Bucky already interrupted the story to add commentary several times, and now Riley, sitting across the coffee table from him, has his eyebrows up to his hairline. So maybe he and Steve are sitting a little closer together since they came home from the trip. It’s not like they’re making out in public.

“Granted, the whole thing would be a lot more impressive if we didn’t all know that Nat has had Pepper Potts’s private number for years,” Sam says. Natasha merely smiles. Steve, who is on the couch right next to Sam, gives him a shove.

“I won a prize and inspired them to start a charitable foundation, you asshole,” Steve says, just as Bucky says, “We didn’t all know that about Nat, right?”

“In my own home, you treat me like this,” Sam says to Steve. He looks down at his shoulder like Steve has deeply wounded him.

“It sounds like it was a good trip,” Nat says, intervening.

Steve nods at her, and then looks around the room. Bucky tries not to ruin the moment by smiling. Steve had asked him on the plane, after pausing the podcast they were listening to and decisively dropping his earbuds into his lap.

“Are we dating?” he’d said.

“I fuckin’ hope so,” Bucky had said.

Steve had given him the most unimpressed, incredulous look for that.

Maybe they weren’t quite ready to joke about it yet. “Sorry. I meant it, though,” Bucky had said. It was considerably harder to sound funny and cool when you had to be sincere, despite all your anxieties were bubbling to the surface. “I really do hope you want to date me, despite, you know… everything.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to date you?” Steve said. “I mean, yeah, you did fuck me up there for a little while, but you’re not gonna do it again.” Steve paused and then added, “Right?”

“God no, of course not, at least not if I can help it,” Bucky said. “I was thinking more of the whole ‘you’re famous and successful and I’m barely keeping it together to hold a minimum wage cashier job’ thing. I thought maybe you and Peggy might start things up again, because why would you want me when you could have her—but then I met Angie, so that went out the window.”

Steve had stared at him after that, and Bucky couldn’t even believe he’d found the nerve to string all those words together. He had looked away, wishing his eyes were drier. Maybe it was the altitude making him emotional. It all sounded so unbearably insecure, but simultaneously reasonable. Christ, he was a wreck.

“Bucky,” Steve had said. “I want to date you, not your job. I don’t give a shit where you work.”

“You say that now, but what if we stick together and five years down the line, I’m still fuckin’ useless? I don’t want to be a burden on you.” Stop talking, he had thought, but it was too late.

“You’re not useless,” Steve had said very firmly. “And you’re not a burden. And the only reason I care about your job at all is that I want you to be happy. If you’re happy running the register, then I promise you I do not care. And just to be entirely clear on all points, I did love Peggy, but we’ve both moved on and, as it turns out, fallen in love with other people. You’re it for me, Buck.”

Steve had laid his arm next to Bucky’s on the arm rest between them and intertwined their fingers.

“So why did you let go so easily when I said ‘stop’? How come that’s all it took?”

Steve’s laugh at that point had been more of a humorless huff. “Well, I guess we both have our self-worth issues.”

“You thought I wouldn’t want to date you? But you’re—,”

“Five-four and a hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet. And chronically ill. And pretty fucking cranky most of the time.” Steve had taken a deep breath, and then added, “And not to point fingers, but you did forbid me to tell our friends we were sleeping together. I drew my own conclusions.”

“Shit, Steve. I’m an asshole. I thought Nat and Sam and Riley were gonna ask a lot of tough questions if they found out we were sleeping together but not dating,” Bucky had said. “Because I was sure they knew I was in love with you, and I was just as sure you didn’t feel the same.”

“Guess we did things the hard way.”

“For the record, you’re gorgeous, and anybody who wouldn’t date you because of your health is a shitstain who doesn’t deserve you,” Bucky had said.

“Thanks,” Steve had said quietly.

“And I got a sure-fire cure for crankiness, so I’m not worried about that.” Steve had smiled at that, but before he could make any kind of innuendo, Bucky had to add one more thing: “And you can hire a fuckin’ skywriter to tell everybody we’re dating, if you want.”

So Bucky knows exactly what Steve is going to say when he looks around Sam and Riley’s living room with that smile on his face. Steve has been waiting to say it all night.

“Also, Bucky and I are dating now.”

Natasha gasps, laying it on a little thick. Riley thunks his beer against the coffee table and whoops “Fuckin’ finally.” Sam grins and holds up his glass for a toast, and they all mirror his action.

“To pulling your head out of your goddamn ass,” Riley says.

“To figuring it out,” Sam proposes.

“I don’t appreciate the tone of this toast,” Bucky says.

“Yeah, surely we can do better than this,” Steve says.

Natasha regards them all with a little curl of a smile on her lips. “To the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist,” she says.

Riley missed that night, and Sam clearly needs a moment to make the connection, but Steve is glaring at her and it’s cute, so Bucky says “I’ll drink to that.”

*

Later that night, when Steve is falling asleep next to him in Natasha’s guest bedroom—Bucky should probably start thinking of it as his room—he murmurs, “Did you mean it, about the skywriting?”

Bucky is too sleepy to laugh out loud, but he squeezes Steve and kisses the back of his neck. “You can tell as many people as you want, however you want.”

Steve pulls Bucky’s arm tighter around his body and drops a kiss on his knuckles, and that’s all Bucky remembers before falling asleep.

*

Steve leaves for his own apartment early in the morning before Natasha is even awake. “He could have at least said good morning,” she grouses, pulling down a box of cereal from the cabinet. “I live here too, you know.”

“Next time he’ll be sure to knock on your bedroom door at the crack of dawn,” Bucky promises.

“Ugh, never mind,” she says. “It’s fine if he stays over, though, obviously. You don’t have to hide it from me or anything, just so you know.”

“I know,” he says. “Nat.”

Nat hops up to sit on the counter and eat her cereal, and she watches him cradle his warm coffee mug between his hands before saying, “Whatever it is, spit it out.”

“I was thinking,” he begins.

“Uh huh.”

“Nat,” he says. “Hush. You gotta do something for me.”

“Seems to me I already did a lot for you, Barnes,” she says, cheerfully ignoring him, grinning and crossing her legs at the ankle. She crunches into her cereal. “The words you’re looking for are ‘thank you’.”

“Thank you,” he offers, even though she was just teasing. He is grateful. “For everything. Even when you were being annoying as hell, you had a good reason for it.”

“Wow, the gratitude here is really touching.”

“Just keep in mind that what I’m about to say, I’m saying it because I care about you,” he says, and Natasha rolls her eyes. “You should call Clint.”

She stops with a spoonful of cereal halfway to her mouth and stares at him.

“What, you’re allowed to meddle in my love life and I can’t do the same?” he says. “You told me, in your own way, over and over again that I should talk to Steve. And it took me a damn long time, and it wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did.”

“Jesus, you’ve been dating him for like, thirty-six hours and now you’re full of relationship wisdom,” she says. “Are you gonna be this insufferable all the time now?”

“Nope,” he says. “Only until you call him.”

She groans, drops her spoon back into her bowl, and leans her head back until it thumps against the wood of the cabinets behind her.

“Look, maybe nothing will come of it. Maybe he’s moved on and is dating someone else now. But it’s been two years and you still think about him, and just for that, it’s worth giving it a try. At least you’ll know.”

Natasha says nothing.

He holds up his hands. “Or don’t. Okay. Whatever. I tried.”

Bucky has never seen anyone eat cereal so sullenly.

*

Weeks pass, and everything is almost great. Not working for a sleazy sexual harasser is a huge relief, as is not living in a moldy roach-infested studio apartment. He likes living with Natasha, and he really likes dating Steve.

Steve is currently sitting on top of him and giving him a massage. Bucky really, really likes dating Steve.

So it doesn’t make any sense that he sighs into his pillow out of frustration instead of pleasure.

“Bucky?”

“Fuck, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me these days.”

Steve’s hands go still, a sure sign that he’s considering his words carefully. “Buck,” he says. “I think it’s your job.”

“But work has been fine lately. I mean, boring, but at least nobody’s hitting on me, right? And they just offered me more hours. And Josh is still terrified of me, it’s the funniest shit.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, in a tone that doesn’t agree at all.

“Sure, it’s a shitty hourly job,” Bucky says. “But what else am I gonna do?”

“Anything you want?”

“Right.” Bucky has no idea what the fuck that would be.

“Hey, awhile back when we were fooling around, you told me you had two talents,” Steve says. He runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair, which definitely makes this conversation go down easier. “And while I acknowledge that you’re really great at sucking cock, it doesn’t seem like it’s a good career choice for you.”

Bucky grunts into the pillow in answer, but then Steve’s hands stop moving in his hair.

“So,” he says. “What’s the other talent?”

“Steve,” he complains.

“I can guess,” Steve says. “Basket-weaving. Origami. Parkour.”

Bucky does not want to draw out this painful process any longer. “Killing people,” he mutters. “That’s my other talent, Steve.”

“Shit, Buck,” Steve says, and he sounds wretchedly sorry to have brought it up in the first place, and now they’re gonna have to have A Talk about self-worth and other bullshit, and all Bucky wants is for Steve to keep braiding his hair.

“Makes for one hell of a resume, I know. Bucky Barnes, high-class rent boy and secret assassin.”

“Bucky, you have more than two talents. And you were an excellent sniper in the military, not some kind of mass murderer,” Steve says. “It’s a really, really important distinction.”

“Steve, I have a therapist for this shit,” Bucky says, although it’s been awhile since he’s spoken with her. She’d probably have a lot of questions about the last few months of his life. Maybe he should call her. “Can we go back to discussing my future career?”

“Okay,” Steve says. “I guess we’ve crossed sex work and assassination off the list, then.”

“Right,” Bucky says, and then Steve mercifully returns to running his fingers through Bucky’s hair.

“If you want to quit your job right now, I’ll hire you and you can come wash all the paint gunk out of my brushes every afternoon,” Steve jokes. “Anyway, you don’t have to figure it out instantly, but it’s definitely worth thinking about what you want in life.”

“What I want is life is for you to always be playing with my hair,” Bucky half-moans into the pillow, and Steve laughs and bend down to kiss the top of his head.

*

The Brandt Gallery has a multi-artist exhibition up in July and Steve has a work in it. The opening is that Friday evening, but several hours before they’re all planning to go eat inappropriate amounts of free food—Steve might be planning to look at art and schmooze with patrons, but that’s not Bucky’s job—Nat sends a message to Steve, Bucky, Riley and Sam.

It’s a link followed by an all-caps, unpunctuated text YOU SNEAKY FUCKS.

Steve writes back immediately: Spoilers, Nat.

Bucky has already seen the painting, but the link is new to him. He clicks.

 

ARTS | Aloft

 

New Work at Brandt Gallery

Maura Spitzer, Editor | 07.24.15 at 1:07PM

 

The Brandt Gallery is having an opening for a multi-artist exhibition of new work this evening at 6PM.

 

There, that was professional enough, right? Now I can gush. I am here to tell you I got a sneak peek at this show yesterday afternoon and it is fantastic. Absolutely worth your time. No one will be surprised to hear me say this, but Steve Rogers’s new work is particularly stunning.

 

The painting he contributed, a figure study entitled Bucky, differs in tone from his previous, more explicitly political work. The nude male figure in the center of the image is seated on a bed amid wrinkled sheets, facing away from the viewer. We see the broad expanse of his naked back, as well as his left shoulder, which is the beginning of a metal prosthetic arm. His head is slightly turned to the side, and the curtain of his long brown hair reveals only a little of his face. His expression is shadowed and difficult to read, but even if he is not looking directly at the viewer, he seems to know he is being observed.

 

It is not only the bedroom setting but the warm lighting that gives the image its sensuality and intimacy. Beyond the seated figure, there are two windows in the wall. The shades are drawn, but daylight slips through the cracks, suggesting that the figure has just sat up from an afternoon nap or—we were all thinking it, don’t lie—a tryst.

 

Bucky must be Rogers’s tongue-in-cheek answer to the rampant speculation—some of which took place on this very blog—about his relationship with the figure in the Roxxon-Portrait-Prize-winning painting Winter Soldier. There is no doubt that it is the same man, although he looks very different here. It is not merely the addition of a prosthetic arm. The isolation and psychological pain evident in Winter Soldier are nowhere to be seen in this image, where the figure looks coy and almost playful. That lowered gaze and barely-there smile in profile seem to say go ahead, look. There is a complicity between the observed figure and the observer here that didn’t exist in the previous image. The figure is alone in the image, but he is not lonely.

 

As usual, the painting is done in Rogers’s smooth, realist style. The figure is treated with extreme technical attention, while the brushwork in the drapery on the bed and the rest of the room is looser and bolder. Also quite usual for Rogers, while this painting might not be an anti-war statement, its unabashedly sensual treatment of a nude male subject and celebration of the gay male gaze is still likely to provoke anger from Republican politicians.

 

The rest of the blog post describes other highlights of the exhibition, but Bucky will get to see them in person tonight, as long as he’s not too busy eating free French cheese or whatever it is they serve at these kinds of events. He scrolls down to the comment section out of some impulse that he really ought to restrain.

 

A Bowl of Caravaggi-O’s | Today 1:12PM

Thank for that wonderful description of the work, Maura. I look forward to checking it out in person. And I’m sorry to be so childish, but I simply can’t resist: to everyone who said we were “making everything gay” and seeing things that weren’t there in our analyses of Winter Soldier, I’m delighted that I don’t have to say “you’re wrong” and “I told you so,” because Steve Rogers just did it for me.

 

deeply embarrassed anon | Today 1:45PM

*high-fives you*

Also, continually justifying my anon status, I’m here to say that man has an A+ backside.

 

a different but equally embarrassed anon | Today 2:02PM

I know we usually expect a higher quality of discourse in this comments section, but damn. Yes he does.

 

AlwaysIngres | Today 2:10PM

Did you guys read about his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony? Rogers said all this stuff about how grateful he was to his subject, and how he was grateful to get to look. Reading about this painting—can’t wait to see it for real—made me think about that. It’s just a really nice continuation of that idea to have the subject kind of secretly acknowledging the viewer. Also, just on a personal note, it is like such a huge relief to me to see this guy (Bucky? Are we calling him Bucky?) looking happier and healthier and maybe doing a little better. I was worried, you know?

 

PostRaphaelite } Today 2:17PM

Ugh, I knew this comments section would be a smug shitshow today. This painting sounds like such schlock, and it really undermines the powerful message Rogers sent with Winter Soldier. Comforting bullshit. If we don’t have to worry about this one guy any more, then what’s the point? Everything’s fine, right?

 

AlwaysIngres | Today 2:23PM

You’re awfully quick to judge a painting you haven’t even seen yet. And if you don’t think that showing a veteran—one who is visibly marked by his experiences, no less—recovering and finding happiness has value, then I don’t know what to tell you.

 

Bucky decides to stop there. He texts the whole group to say the internet loves my ass.

Sam writes back Steve, you realize we’re going to be listening to this shit for months now.

Steve: He’s not wrong about the internet, and the internet’s not wrong about him.

Riley: the first time internet commenters have ever shown good taste in anything tbh

ur a true friend, Bucky tells him, and steve is the greatest artist history has ever known and also the love of my life

Natasha: gross

Bucky ignores her and writes is it 6 yet i want my free wine

*

It’s Wednesday afternoon in late September and the summer heat is finally fading to something less oppressive, but everyone is still sprawled around Natasha’s living room clutching their cold drinks desperately while Bucky explains his grand plan.

“A lightbulb went on,” he says. “Literally, as in, I was sitting in this very living room thinking what the fuck should I be doing with my life, when I turned on the lights in here and realized that the last thing I did that made me feel really good, like I’d accomplished something worthwhile, was redoing this room.

“So I called my friends Jim and Gabe—the ones I served with, they installed the track lighting—and asked if they had a job for me. I don’t know that I’m really cut out to be an electrician,” Bucky holds up his left hand and waves, “but they said they’d look into taking me on, and they’d been thinking about expanding their business anyway. So I’m gonna follow whatever leads they give me and see where I end up.”

“That’s great,” Steve says, lifting his head from Bucky’s lap.

Bucky shrugs. “It’s not much of a plan, but it’s closer to what I want than running a cash register for eight hours a day, I know that.”

“Steve’s right, it’s great,” Sam says.

There’s a knock at the door, and everyone perks up. “Pizza?” Steve says hopefully, but when Natasha opens the door, there’s a slightly frazzled blond man in a purple t-shirt standing there with his hands shoved into his pockets.

“Hi,” he says, peering into the living room from where he stands on the stoop. “I’m Clint.”

A shiver runs through the room as everyone stares and then immediately tries very hard to pretend like they were not staring. Steve shoots a questioning look at Bucky, who presses his lips together to keep from grinning.

“Sorry about them,” Natasha says. “I’d say they’ve forgotten their manners, but none of them had any to begin with. That’s Sam, Riley, Steve, and Bucky. And this is my friend Clint. Please come in.”

Steve sits up from where he’s been lying lengthwise on the couch, taking up the whole thing, and settles in so close to Bucky that he’s practically in Bucky’s lap in order to make room for Clint and Natasha on the couch. Natasha notices and rolls her eyes, but it doesn’t stop her from sitting right next to Clint.

They don’t touch, but they look like they’re aching to. Bucky wonders if that’s how he and Steve used to look when they were next to each other. It’s funny to think about it now that Steve hung a naked picture of him in an art gallery and announced to the entire world that they’re together, but it was only a few months ago that they were silently longing for each other. It already feels like they’ve been together all their lives. In a way, they have.

Bucky untangles himself from Steve to walk to Nat’s kitchen in search of beer, and Steve follows him. Bucky pops the caps off two beers with his left hand and passes one to Steve. Steve wraps his lips around the rim of the bottle. It doesn’t matter that Bucky has seen him do it before, has already kissed him, has already had him a hundred different ways. It still feels new.

The first time Steve painted him, Bucky had wondered how he had the patience to spend so many hours looking at the same damn thing all the time. The second time Steve painted him, Bucky had understood. He could look at Steve for hours every day and not get tired. He could stay with Steve his whole life and still want him.

Steve holds out his beer bottle, and Bucky clinks his against it.

“You know,” Bucky says. “We never got to the end of your list.”

Steve smiles. “I don’t think we ever will.”

“Ye of little faith,” Bucky chastises.

“No, it’s not that,” Steve says. And the fancy art critics can talk about Bucky’s coy, lowered gaze all they want, but it’s Steve who’s the real master of looking away with his long lashes fanned against his cheeks. “It’s just that the list got a lot longer.”

“Yeah?” Bucky says. Steve is resting his back against the counter, and Bucky takes the opportunity to crowd up against him, pressing his hips to Steve’s. “How long?”

“Very long,” Steve says, and then his beer bottle thunks against the counter and he’s kissing Bucky, and Bucky is grasping Steve by the hips and letting his tongue slide deep into Steve’s mouth, and he only stops because Steve pulls away to murmur “Very, very, very long,” against his lips.

Bucky laughs and kisses Steve, and he hopes it goes on forever.