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I'm Not Sick (But I'm Not Well)

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Any other day he would have forgotten about it by now – but not yesterday. For some reason he stewed on it, chewed on the memory until it was gristle between his teeth.  The man’s face was now burned in his mind, vivid and bright, a flash of white across the busy intersection of Times Square.  Bucky had barely reacted in time, slamming on his brakes and praying to any god that was listening that he didn’t get rear ended, he can’t afford tripling his insurance on his truck. 

He remembers hanging out the side of his truck, face red and waving his fist in typical New Yorker style as the man’s eyes got real wide, jaw dropping while he twisted his head to take in the bright televised billboards and glittering skyscrapers of midtown. 

Fucking tourists, Bucky had thought bitterly, falling into his seat and throwing his finger out his window at the drivers honking behind him impatiently.  He white knuckled the wheel, tentatively stepping on the gas when he saw a man dressed in all black step in front of his truck, literally strolling across one of the busiest intersections and ignoring angry drivers. He cut across lanes of traffic, stopping behind the man in white, who still stood slack-jawed on the median.  There were several SUV’s converging on the intersection, all coming to abrupt stops and blocking traffic both ways, circled around the median as dozens of men and women poured out, all wearing tactical gear and surrounding both men.  Bucky found himself gawking, uncaring that he was now holding up traffic himself.  He watched the man in black say something to the man in white, who was still panting and looking at the buildings in confusion and disbelief.  After the man in black finished speaking, he put his hands in his pockets and studied the man in white for a minute.  The other man stood still, tensed and ready to flee; Bucky thought that that was what would happen, that any minute the man in white would run, but instead he seemed to sigh in resignation, dropping his head and –

A sudden horn blaring pulls him back to the present.

Bucky should’ve let it go – and any other day he would’ve because, hell, it was just another day in New York – but something about the guy just stuck. Seeing the man in white now, sitting outside the diner across from his usual vender spot and talking to his friend Beth, it seemed too coincidental in a place like New York City.  It was like the universe was trying to tell him something, to do something.

Apparently Bucky thought that message was to get out of his food truck and give this guy a piece of his mind.

“Hey! Hey, you!” Buck shouts. There are several people sitting on the patio today, and they all turn, but Bucky keeps his eyes on his prey.  The blond man is sitting alone, doodling absentmindedly on some napkin, and only looks up last minute when he seems to realize the angry guy is talking to him.

“You,” Bucky repeats, jutting a finger out.

“Can I help you?” The guy asks, rolling his shoulders back and, fuck, this guy is big – even sitting down – but Bucky has already started and his native Brooklynite blood is boiling. This guy was going to get it. 

“Yeah! What, were you raised in a barn?” Bucky asks sharply, his voice loud and his accent thickening.  “Your Ma not teach you to look both ways before crossing the street?”

The guy’s brows pinch and his nostrils flare, “Excuse me?”

“You see that truck over there?” Buck asks, pointing his thumb back to his food truck across the street, “Well you almost got real acquainted with its bumper yesterday.  Next time you decide to go jogging in the middle of Times Square, do us all a favor, sweetheart, and look before you step out into rush hour traffic,” Bucky snarls and the guy sits back like he’s been physically hit.  Then his shoulders shake and an odd sounds come out of the man’s throat that Bucky realizes a second too late is supposed to be laughter.  It’s an ugly sound, bitter and harsh.

“You came out to what – fight me or scold me? I can’t tell which – for playing in the street?”

Is that what Bucky was saying? Technicallymaybe…Bucky backtracks, “I’m here for an apology.”

Another ugly laugh.  The guy looks exhausted, his body going tenser with each sound and his eyes darkening. “Yeah, not happening.  If you wanted an apology, you’ve approached this whole thing entirely the wrong way.”

“Oh have I?” Bucky asks, his tone has dropped unexpectedly, even to him, and comes out threateningly.  The guy stands up suddenly, and Bucky braces himself. He’s a little taller than Bucky, and a little bit broader across the chest, but the haircut and his Mama’s boy khaki’s dampen his intimidation factor. His body, though, is coiled tight, like he’s been waiting for this, itching for a fight.

Bucky growls, and before he can take a step forward or say another word, the guy is immediately on the offensive and pushes Bucky once with unexpected strength and really, really hard. Bucky tips backwards right into a passing busboy.  He recovers quickly and doesn’t fall, but the busboy with a bin full of dirty dishes loses his footing and falls forward, the crash is loud and sudden.

“Bucky! What the hell?!” Beth yells, running up to the busboy. “Tommy, you ok?”

“Fuck. Sorry ‘bout that, kid, you ok?” Bucky asks, assessing the damage.

The kid, Tommy, hisses in a breath. “I’m ok, but that guy…”

Bucky glances over his shoulder and sees the man he’d been arguing with sitting back in his seat, hunched over himself with his elbows on the table and his arms are curled protectively around his head. Bucky can see him shaking from where he’s crouched and he recognizes it immediately.

Fuck…this guy’s a vet.

Beth steps around Bucky quickly, “Sir? Sir, are you ok?”

“Beth, stay back,” Bucky warns, standing and putting himself between the petite waitress and the vet; the guy is seriously jacked and he’s definitely not thinking straight now. He sees a couple men in suits he hadn’t noticed before, they quickly move around the tables towards the man, their body language is aggressive.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Bucky chides quickly, raising a hand up, unsurprised when they stop midstride. “Stay right there,” he orders, “He’s already spooked he don’t need you roughhousing him…plus I’m pretty sure he’ll break you in half.” The men share a quick look and a nod, then one pulls out a phone, but Bucky’s attentions are back on the man in turmoil and he takes a step forward, still not quite hovering. He drops his voice into a soothing tone as he asks the guy, “Hey, pal. Hey…you ok?”

The guy doesn’t speak, just visibly wraps his arms tighter around his head and making his answer obvious.  Bucky feels his heart crack; he’s been here before himself.

“Hey, man. I’m coming closer, but I’m not gunna hurtcha, I promise.  Listen to my voice…you’re safe. You’re safe and you’re home.  You need to breathe deep breaths for me.” The guy doesn’t move, and Bucky asks quietly, pulling a chair up and sitting across from him, “Can…can you tell me where we’re at?”

No answer, so he’ll have to guess.

“Is there sand?”

A pause, then the smallest shake of the head.

“No? Ok…trees?”

Another pause, then a nod.

“All right. Well I want you to listen to my voice ok? Listen to the traffic next to us – we ain’t over there anymore. You’re in New York and you’re safe, and nobody’s gunna hurt ya, ok? I promise…Can I touch you?”

No answer, and Bucky holds his breath.  With both hands, he places his palms on each of the man’s arms down close to his elbows that rest on the table.  His touch is so light, the guy might not even be able to feel it through his jacket, but Bucky needs to ground him, and increasing gentle pressure can help do that if he does this right.

“You’re in New York, you’re safe, and nobody is going to hurt you,” Bucky says again softly, applying more pressure gently with both hands. He feels the man tense minutely, then relax.

“That’s it, that’s it. Can you speak? What’s your name, pal?”

The guy keeps his head between his arms, chin to chest, as he says, very quietly, “Steve…my name is Steve.”

“Steve. I’m Bucky. Don’t ask…boring story, parents are dumb,” Bucky chuckles as he inches closer. “Can you tell me where we are, Steve?”

A wet, shuddered breath, but Bucky doesn’t ask again.  After a minute of heavy silence and labored breathing, he hears Steve mumble, “We’re in New York?”

“Yeah, pal. We’re in New York and we’re safe. Can you say that for me?”

A nod. “We’re in New York…”

“And?”

A shaky inhale, “And we’re safe.”

“One more time for me, Steve,” Bucky prompts, his hands have started rubbing idly up and down the man’s arms, slow and hopefully comforting as the man comes back from his nightmares.

“We’re in New York. And we’re safe.” Steve repeats, his voice breaking.  Bucky’s face twists.  He wants to give the man privacy, shield him from the audience that has gathered.  He can feel the tension around them, the patrons holding their breath. Bucky hopes Steve can’t feel it too.

“Again, Steve.”

“We’re in New York, and we’re safe.” A little more confident this time, a little surer, but he’s still trembling.

“Good, good,” Bucky coos, “Keep telling me that…tell me until you’re ready to look up ok?”

Steve nods. “We’re in New York…and we’re safe.”

“We’re safe,” Bucky reassures, hands never stopping.  He feels the tension siphon out gradually as Steve does as instructed, repeating the mantra several times before he finally, shyly, raises his head and he starts to look at the crowd that’s gathered around them.

“Uh-uh…eyes on me,” Bucky instructs, and Steve eyes flit to his, red-rimmed and hollow, wet and unbelievably blue, but he looks at Bucky and gives a small, wobbly smile and suddenly everything is tipped sideways, the moment switching from anxious to intimate. Bucky swallows.

“One more time, Steve?” Bucky asks softly.

“We’re in New York, and we’re safe.”

“That’s it, pal. Hey,” Bucky greets with a warm smile, still rubbing his hands gently on Steve’s arms.

“Hi,” Steve says shakily, returning with his own timid smile.  He looks understandably embarrassed, but visibly thankful. “Thank you…I’m sorry…”

“Shh, stop. I’m sorry, I know those can be scary,” Bucky says, and Steve’s eyes go a little wide, surprised at Bucky’s words. Steve opens his mouth to say something when one of the suited men interrupts, stepping close to Steve’s side much to Bucky’s ire.

“Sir, I think it’s best we go back to HQ.”

Steve’s eyes widen further, bright blue saucers, and Bucky panics.

“I’m ok,” Steve insists. It’s a lie and Bucky knows it, he can still feel the guy trembling lightly under his hands which are still resting on Steve’s arms.

“Sir, it’s an order…”

And that makes Steve draw in a sharp, deep breath, nostrils flaring and his shoulders rolling back like he’s preparing for another fight, Jesus Christ

“I don’t take orders from—” Steve starts to say, his voice angry and clipped, before he’s interrupted again.

“Sir.” The voice comes from the other side of Steve and Bucky, another suit, and both men recognize it for the warning it is as they realize they’re surrounded by several personnel, flanked now on either side of them.  When they approach, Bucky isn’t sure what will happen as he sees Steve scowl, eyes calculating whether or not to push back, to fight anyways.  He must decide against it, thank God, because he lets out a resigned sigh.

“Ok. Ok,” Steve says, and then he’s standing and out of Bucky’s reach.  He looks down at Bucky again, eyes softening with gratitude. “Thank you, for everything.”

“Yeah, Steve. Anytime. Take care,” He says numbly, still not quite digesting what happened. Steve nods and shoves his hands in his pockets, turning and walking away, his flock of spooks surrounding him, and leaving Bucky alone in their wake.

 


 

 

Bucky isn’t quite sure why he’s surprised, but when he sees Steve approaching his truck the next afternoon, his hands fumble a little.

It’s the lunch rush; men in business suits and women with their ears connected to their phones line up along the truck and Bucky finds himself in that familiar fast pace that silences his mind.  He’s so busy (tongs, bun, ladle chili; tongs, bun, ladle chili), that he almost misses that familiar mop of blond hair and those brilliant blues.

“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says, giving a hesitant smile.

“Hey!” Bucky exclaims, passing a chili dog to the next customer. Not wanting to seem too familiar, he errs on the side of caution. “Steve, right? How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know.” Steve shrugs, side-stepping out of the way of another business suit barking an entire office’s order.

“You feelin’ any better?” Bucky asks.  He’s trying to remain casual, but he has a somewhat desperate urge to keep Steve nearby. Something about Steve had struck a visceral chord deep within Bucky, he found himself feeling protective and fond of the man he’s known for only twenty minutes.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, as good as I can be, I guess,” Steve admits weakly. A group of teenagers knock into Steve, jarring him forward, the biggest one quickly puffs up, ready to make threats, but when Steve scowls back with a nasty look, the kid quickly deflates and goes back to stand orderly in line. Bucky offers Steve an apologetic look.

“Sorry, it’s lunchtime,” Bucky says, stating the obvious.  He can multitask pretty efficiently, but he doesn’t want Steve to end up overwhelmed by rude customers.

“It’s ok…I just, uh…wanted to thank you again for yesterday and to apologize for acting like a complete ass and shoving you,” Steve explains. “It’s been a long couple of days, but I shouldn’t have lashed out.”

Bucky’s jaw drops.  “Steve, no. You…are you kidding? That was me! I was the ass!” He blurts, and he can hear patrons chortle and murmur around them, so he keeps his hands busy, and suddenly the people seem to get louder again as Steve shakes his head.

“You’re working. That’s just all I wanted to say, Bucky. Thank you,” he says again, heartfelt, before he turns away.

“Wait!” Bucky blurts, and Steve turns back. “If you don’t mind the smell, come inside! I’ve got an extra hat you’ll have to wear, but it’ll be easier to chat in here and…well, I wouldn’t mind the company,” Bucky admits.  He sees the tips of Steve’s ears turn pink, and he takes a minute to consider, but then he nods.

“Ok.”

 

 

 “Wait…Wait… I wanna see something.”

“Bucky, what--?”

“There,” Bucky says triumphantly.  He’s flipped the ‘Weiner Soldier’ ball cap he’d given Steve around, bill backwards, and Bucky cackles. “You look like such a bro.”

Steve blushes and brings a hand to rest atop the hat, “A what?”

“You know, the college frat boy types,” Bucky laughs. He drops his voice low into his best impression, “’Bro, do you lift? You look so swole right now. No homo,’” Bucky mocks, lightly punching Steve’s bicep. Steve’s eyes widen and he gets this goofy grin as he tries to flip his cap right side forward and Bucky laughs. “No! No, come on, leave it. It looks good. What? Really! Don’t look at me like that – I mean it. It makes you look less…stuffy.”

Stuffy? I’m not stuffy,” Steve sours, and Bucky can’t help but notice the small smirk of his mouth and the way his cheeks go pink again.

“Just relax, we’re selling hotdogs, not life insurance.  Untuck your shirt. God, did your grandpa dress you? Untuck your shirt and - you know what? Just lose the plaid. I ain’t losin’ business over this.” Steve is completely flummoxed as Bucky pulls his plaid button-up off and leaves Steve in his white undershirt and his pressed khakis. Bucky unzips his merchandised hoodie and hands it over. “Here - if you’re so uncomfortable.”

Steve eyes him warily, but zips up the hoodie - and nope! - Bucky won’t be able to wear that anymore. It stretches so tightly across Steve’s biceps and his chest, Bucky’s pretty sure the zipper is going to do God’s work and unzip itself. 

He looks good though – less Ma n’ Pop and more hot delivery guy. The local college girls hanging around quickly notice, and if Bucky thought Steve blushed brilliantly at his attention, the obvious forwardness of the college girls turn Steve absolutely crimson.

 


 

 

Steve starts coming to Bucky's truck every day after that and keeps him company.  Sometimes Steve helps by wiping down counters or making the chilidogs. He doesn’t handle the register or accept any cash, and Bucky prefers it that way because, frankly, he’s only known the guy a few days; regardless of what the little voice in the back of his head suggests.

Bucky loves having the company. He works so often, and almost always by himself, he doesn't have many close friends outside of his family and Sam (and maybe Mrs. Keeley, a local deli owner and his supplier who rents out her kitchen for Bucky's prep every day). Some days they talk about everything – well, Bucky does.  Steve is still reserved, but he seems eager to hear all about Bucky.  He listens intently about Bucky’s life, his ma and his sister, how he became a college drop-out after two years and joined the ARMY.  He listens as Bucky talks about his time overseas, the friends he made, and he doesn’t ask questions when Bucky talks around what led to him leaving, or why he doesn’t have so many friends anymore.

In a matter of days, Steve had somehow quickly become Bucky's favorite person.  He finds himself looking forward to when Steve comes by, and being disappointed when Steve has to leave.  It isn't attraction, at least Bucky doesn't think so, not really – not like that – but they dance along the line between friendly and flirty.  It’s a line that Bucky is all too familiar toeing. Most times it’s casual, just jokes and snarky comments, but then one of them twists it (and it isn’t always Bucky), and the tension stifles them, thick and palpable.

It’s frightening, and Bucky worries that maybe it's just him. That somehow he’d developed this profound attachment to a stranger and that, most likely, Steve is just bored and lonely after coming home from overseas. Maybe once he meets someone else, he’ll move on.  The idea causes an acrid taste to rise in his throat that is hard to swallow.

Even though most days they only talk about Bucky, or just goof around in the truck, occasionally they do talk about Steve, but it’s always brief and superficial.  Steve is a little different, surprisingly difficult, and skillfully evasive.  It’s clear that he’s struggling with something that Steve isn’t ready to talk about.  They rarely discuss anything meaningful to Steve; they don’t talk about Steve’s family, or his hometown, and they don’t talk about his time in the service or even how long he’d served.

They talk about seemingly trivial things, like how Steve doesn’t sleep anymore except for an hour or two a night, but he doesn’t mention whether or not it’s due to nightmares.  Steve will comment in passing how he can’t concentrate on anything for more than five minutes, and Bucky doesn’t point out on how he has had to pull Steve out of that thousand-yard stare, eyes drifted and mind very far away.  They don’t talk about how Steve seems to lose time, sitting still for twenty minutes before he comes back to himself, or how Steve will forget to eat and then gorge everything like he’s been starved, like maybe he hasn’t eaten since the last time Bucky asked. 

It surprises Bucky how quickly the signs present themselves in their short friendship, that even Bucky has noticed the depth of Steve’s distress. They’re all there, every day, but Steve doesn’t seem ready to acknowledge it, shrugging off Bucky’s concerns with that same wide brush of denial – “It isn’t like that, Buck, I’m fine. I’ll get over it.”

It’s easier for Steve, Bucky would guess, to pretend like everything is ok; to putz around with Bucky and do something as mindless as selling chilidogs out the back of a food truck. He wants to help, he knows how dangerous it can be to just let it lie – but he doesn’t want to pester an essential stranger, regardless of how attached he feels – so Bucky doesn’t push anything on Steve except his company. At least Steve seems to accept that willingly and Bucky tries not to linger on the fact that their conversations seem to leave him with more questions than answers. He never really learns anything about the guy, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s still easy somehow, this thing with Steve feels familiar. They get along.

Bucky takes it upon himself to help Steve adjust, and Steve seems to trust him with it, just as he seems to trust Bucky for support and guidance – a responsibility which he also takes seriously.  With Bucky leading the way, Steve looks at the city with a cautious, newfound wonder that Bucky finds himself envious of. He asks questions, usually thoughtfully, more often critically, but occasionally excitedly – like he can't contain his curiosity, and Bucky can't help but find it endearing. 


He tells himself he’s helping Steve – he must be – even if he doesn’t try to get him to talk, right? For now, Steve is his friend and he won't push for more, either platonically or romantically.  He just wants to help him, help Steve find his place again in this world, just like Sam had helped him when he came home.  He must be doing something right, because Steve still comes every day – of his own free will – and that has to account for something. 

 


 

 

Steve is helping Bucky serve customers when they show up. Two young men in their late teens, maybe early twenties, and they're holding hands and laughing. It's cute, Bucky thinks to himself, but he can feel Steve stiffen beside him. 

Bucky looks over and sees Steve staring at the boys, his eyes wide and his mouth open in disbelief.

"Steve," Bucky hisses quickly. "You're staring."

Steve quickly drops his eyes and looks down at the counter, that brilliant blush flushing up his cheeks from his neck. "Sorry."

Bucky sighs. "It’s ok. I bet it's not the first time they've been stared at for being open." 

"But that doesn't make it right," Steve finishes thoughtfully.

"But that doesn't make it right," Bucky echoes.

"So, what, they can just...hold hands and kiss in public? Aren't they worried that people will notice or...or do something?" Steve asks. His tone isn't accusing, it's innocent and curious.

Bucky tries his best not to judge Steve when he asks things like this, things Bucky believes to be common sense that seem to intrigue or confuse his new friend, like credit cards and ATMs. This, however, this was different. 

"What backwater hick-town did you grow up in that you've never seen a gay couple before, Steve?" he asks, incredulous and maybe a little too brash.  Steve bristles.

"I've seen queers before, Buck. My neighborhood was full of 'em," Steve scoffs and Bucky grabs his arm quickly, maybe a little too forcefully as his skin burns at Steve's words. 

"Don't call them that."

"What?" Steve asks, shocked. His eyes drop to Bucky's hand squeezing tight on his bicep. "What, what did I say?"

"Queers," Bucky repeats, his voice dropping low. He realizes from Steve's genuine confusion that he's not being homophobic, but ignorant, and that quells the anger in Bucky’s chest. "Don’t say it like that. When you do, it can be misunderstood, like a slur, Stevie. It can be offensive." 

Steve's eyes are wide and apologetic in immediate understanding. "But I didn't mean it like that. I just...that's what we called them back..."

"I get it," Bucky says, releasing his grip. "It's ok, Steve. Just watching out for you is all."

Steve sighs heavily and turns, stirring the chili Bucky has simmering on the stove. They're quiet for a long time, and Bucky feels awful for reprimanding Steve like he had when it was clear it was simply ignorance, not at all malicious. But the idea that Steve could be intolerant to something Bucky identified with himself burned him. Still, Bucky had secretly promised himself to take the responsibility of reeducating Steve on civilian life, and occasionally that includes topics Bucky thought were common knowledge.

“So…is being…is it considered a bad thing?” Steve asks, his voice cautious and low, “Here, I mean, in the city.”

Bucky shrugs, and tries his best to answer truthfully. “Most times no, it’s not.  A lot more people are open and receptive than you’d think and coming around to the fact that it’s natural, actually, but it’s still…it isn’t considered the norm. So a lot of people, people who have good intentions, don’t really know how to handle it openly.

“Of course, there are always bigots and the bible thumpers who cry out about sins and filth, but they aren’t as common as you would think, at least in most places. Most times they’re just louder,” Bucky explains, before turning to find Steve watching him, listening intently with his brows furrowed in concentration.

“I can explain it to you sometime if you’re interested. It can be a little complicated, it’s constantly evolving as society continues to understand the complexities of people, but it can be interesting and it’s worth learning,” Bucky offers, and Steve nods.

“Yeah, I think I better,” Steve agrees, before getting real quiet and turning back to the chili pot he’d been stirring intently. "I used to get beat up all the time by people who thought I was...gay," Steve says softly, and Bucky watches him for a moment. He's only able to see the side of Steve's face, but the man's expression is twisted, regretful.  "I was smaller, and scrawny; an easy target. But I never...I never took it for the insult it was meant to be. The neighborhood I lived in, it was a more...accepting. We saw fellas with fellas and girls with girls all the time, though it still wasn't – it wasn't something you acknowledged or admitted, and you never behaved like that openly. I mean unless you wanted trouble or to wind up in jail." Steve smiles a little sadly. "The world really has changed, huh, Buck?"

"Yeah, Stevie. I guess so," Bucky says. He can't think of a place that would lock up a guy for loving who he loves and getting away with it this day and age, but he understands that there is some sort of weight in this moment for Steve. He's happy. Something about this city has instilled some pride in him that Steve was sorrowfully missing, and it seems to brighten him, lift him.

"I'm glad. It woulda saved me a lot of hurt if it was like that where I'm from," Steve chuckles self-deprecatingly, and Bucky can't stop himself, the words sort of tumble out of him at once.

"Were you, though?" Steve's back visibly stiffens. "Are you gay? It’s…it’s ok if you are, obviously. I mean…"

Steve taps the spoon against the rim of the pot and sets it down on the counter and turns further away from Bucky, stepping towards the back of the truck. Christ, Barnes, you know better than this, he scolds himself. What makes Bucky think he'd be gay except for a sad story about bullying? Or assume he trusts Bucky enough to come out to him if it was true, especially given the fact that Steve is clearly someone who is uncomfortable with the topic in the first place? He kicks himself internally at the misstep. 

"Fuck…I'm sorry, Steve, that's...that's none of my business," Bucky apologizes.

"You're right, it's not," Steve says, harsh and bitter.

"Sorry," Bucky repeats, but Steve just goes real still as he stares, eyes unfocused, at the counter, and Bucky goes back to the serving window to give Steve some illusion space.

 


 

 

Bucky is dawdling in his truck at his usual spot when Steve rolls around the next afternoon looking terribly serious.  Dread fills Bucky’s chest, immediately jumping to the worst conclusion as his stomach twists into knots.  Is Steve still mad at him? Is he coming here to tell Bucky to fuck off for good? He’s been acting a little more despondent recently, and grumpy, but Bucky has tried not to push Steve into talking about it when he made it very clear he was in no mood.

Bucky tries to read him, but as always, Steve’s brows are pinched together and his jaw is clenched tight, and today he’s hunched forward and his frown is a full on scowl.  Bucky, sensing the gravity of Steve’s mood, straightens and motions for Steve to come in straightaway as he sits in the driver’s seat and waits for Steve to take his seat.  Bucky decides to play it cool. “What’s up, Stevie?”

Steve’s scowl seems to get impossibly deeper and Bucky braces himself for it, but what Steve says next isn’t at all what Bucky expects. “D’you have a computer I can borrow?”

Taken aback, Bucky blinks. “Huh?”

“A…uh…a computer,” Steve repeats. “Do you have one? Doesn’t everyone –?” he cuts himself off and squirms in his seat uncomfortably before mumbling to his hands. “Sorry, I shouldn’t ask. I don’t know what um…what the uh, protocol, is about asking for these sorts of things anymore.  It’s just, you offered before and–”

“Steve, stop,” Bucky says, chuckling, because really? “Stop. There isn’t a protocol. I’m your friend and you need a favor. It’s ok, that’s what friends are for,” Bucky insists, and Steve blows out a tired breath and gives Bucky a weak smile, the one that always seems to twist Bucky’s heart just so.

“Ok, sorry. I just…I know I’ve said this a hundred times but I’m really outta my element here,” he says weakly. “You’ve got no idea.”

Bucky nods, not really understanding but he’s heard enough to know that Steve’s life is complicated to say the least. “So what do you need exactly, like a laptop?”

And there is that look again – stricken frustration – an expression Steve gets often, one that Bucky can see but he never really understands. 

“Whatever you can get me,” Steve finally says, turning a little in his seat so his torso faces Bucky.  His arm rests casually on the chairback and his other hand on the dash.  “I just…I have a feeling these guys I’m working with aren’t telling me things.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “I just think they aren’t really telling me everything I ought to know,” and he says it with such honesty that Bucky doesn’t question it any more.

“Ok. Tomorrow I’ll bring my laptop and you can use it as long as you need it. If you can’t take it home with you, use the diner’s wi-fi. I’ll park close enough that you can get a signal.” Steve nods, but that look is back again and Bucky worries, “Is that ok?”

Steve looks up, his eyes wide and bright and blue, his expression anxious but grateful. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Thanks, Buck.”

Bucky smiles softly and Steve looks past him and over Bucky’s shoulder, going rigid and shifting in his seat.  Bucky twists and in the truck’s left mirror he can see one of Steve’s usual goons approaching the truck. Something tugs in Bucky’s chest when Steve sharply says, “I’ve gotta go. Thanks, Buck. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, tomorrow,” Bucky confirms, not taking his eyes off the suit in his mirror. He can hear Steve shuffle out of his truck and after a minute he can see the blond’s back, walking away with his hands in his pockets back up the street, probably back to that prison he seems forced to call home.

 


 

He brings the laptop as promised and even gets closer spot to the diner for a better connection.  Steve comes early, around ten o’clock, looking haggard and tired.  His eyes are hollow and cradled in heavy bags.  Still, he climbs into Bucky’s truck with his usual polite greeting with no problems as Bucky begins to cook.

“Rough night?” Bucky asks, unable to resist.  Steve grunts and Bucky laughs as he pulls out his MacBook. “No porn,” Bucky says with a wink, and he revels in watching Steve turn successive shades of pink to red to practically burgundy.

“I’m just looking up—”

“I know, I know, Steve. Christ, it’s a joke.” Bucky sighs playfully, and he watches that coil Steve’s wound in loosen slightly with a small smile.

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve says.  The laptop wakes up when Steve opens it and Bucky goes back to cooking the hotdogs and stirring the chili when Steve says, “I don’t know how to work this thing.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “PC guy, huh?”

“Must be,” Steve says, sounding annoyed. Bucky leans on the center console and turns the laptop to face himself.  He can feel Steve’s heavy presence next to him, watching, and Bucky has to stop himself from leaning into the blond’s shoulder as he connects the wi-fi from the diner and pulls up Safari. It earns him a bright smile from Steve, “Thank you. I should be able to take it from here.”

After that Steve doesn’t seem to have any problems.  He sits hunched over, tapping away on Bucky’s MacBook and narrowed eyes concentrating on whatever he’s researching.  Bucky wants to ask him what he’s reading that is clearly making him upset, but he figures Steve’s got enough people at SHIELD trying to pry into everything he does, so instead he cooks and enjoys Steve’s quiet company through the lunch rush.

 


 

 

"I trust the guy about as far as I can throw him…and probably not even that far," Steve mutters before pausing thoughtfully, "Definitely not even that far." Bucky chuckles at Steve's expression, his eyes faraway with just the barest hint of a smirk as if he's actually picturing hurling his boss across a room. 

Apparently lending Steve his laptop had been both a blessing and a curse.  Steve had come to Bucky’s truck the next morning practically foaming at the mouth, angry and rabid and ranting about Fury. Who that is exactly, Bucky isn’t sure, but apparently he’s the guy responsible for keeping Steve under lock and key - only letting him out on the condition of chaperones - and that’s enough to earn him a bitter grudge from Bucky too. Steve was practically spitting and snarling, his entire body tense. Bucky knew it was time to engage in a form of therapeutic release before Steve had some sort of physical outburst (or an aneurysm).  For once, Steve didn’t question it when Bucky suggested some form of outlet, and he didn’t pester Bucky about closing the truck early or moving his schedule to accommodate Steve. Thankfully, he seemed open to the idea - eager, even - to let out some of his festering frustrations and anger, and willingly allowed Bucky to corral him into his truck. Bucky drove them to the batting cages with the idea of decompressing, because sometimes hitting things as hard as you possibly can is the most therapeutic thing someone can do. 

Bucky’s up at the bat, helmet on and grip firm, while Steve stands safely behind the chain-link fence.  He is still venting ruthlessly about his boss, but at least now Steve looks a little less purple in his rage and a little more relaxed.

Bucky winds up his bat as the machine pops out another easy one, he swings and it connects – the ball sailing straight and a little right.  Steve whistles and Bucky grins.

“That woulda been a homer,” Steve drawls playfully, hand shielding his eyes as if he was gauging the distance and not like it was caught gracelessly into the net.

“Givin’ Jeter a run for his money tonight,” Bucky brags, swinging again and sending the next ball in the same direction as the first, the same as he’s been swinging all night. His hands and shoulders are beginning to burn, his back is going stiff, but he feels good.

“That’s a Yankee guy isn’t it.” Not a question. Bucky can practically feel the disgust seeping out of Steve.

That’s a Yankee guy isn’t it,” Bucky mocks him childishly as he swings – thunk – and another ball sails.  Steve chuckles.  Bucky adjusts his grip, and gets back to the topic on hand. "It's not like you're the first guy to ever hate his boss, Steve.”

Steve groans, “He’s not my boss,” Steve clips, “but he’s something else. SHIELD is something else.”

Bucky frowns.  Steve doesn’t talk about his work often, hell, he doesn’t talk about himself at all, and Bucky will be damned if he gets deterred now; Sam would call this progress. “How’d you get mixed up into SHIELD anyways?  Aren’t they like…super spies or something?”  He’s heard of SHIELD, though they’re much more discrete than their national security counterparts. Apparently they have more freedom than the FBI, and less red-tape than the CIA, and were always recruiting. They’d plucked plenty of guys out of Bucky’s unit before, he’d even been screened before his last tour, but the shady backdoor shit? A guy can only do that so long. Still, he never would’ve pegged Steve as the type – brick house body or not.

Steve sighs behind him, the sigh Bucky’s already become all too familiar with, and he knows what Steve’s going to say next, “It’s a long story…and complicated.”

“We got time,” Bucky shrugs.  It’s what he says when Steve tries to deflect.

“I just don’t understand why he’s hiding things from me,” Steve huffs, moving on as predicted. His fingertips grip the links tightly and he gives the fence a small shake in frustration.

“It’s called working for the government, Steve. Things are on a need’ta know basis. You were in the ARMY, you should know.” Another thunk, last one, and Bucky extends his arms out at his sides and winds them in big circles. “You’re up.”

“You’re right, but I was a soldier and SHIELD is spy stuff, and I…well…that’s not really me,” Steve admits with an honesty Bucky’s come to know is just Steve.  Bucky slips past him, and Steve takes Bucky’s sweaty helmet right off his head and slips it on his own.

“Then get out,” Bucky says. It seems like the obvious answer.

“It’s not that simple, Buck,” Steve says, practicing his swings.  For a guy who says he never played a lot of sports growing up, he’s got a pretty good swing, and Bucky says as much. “I’ve been watchin’,” Steve says flirtatiously with a raised brow and a twinkle in his eye.  Bucky rolls his eyes while his stomach somersaults.  They’ve been getting gutsier with this line of flirtation. Bucky knows it would get Sam’s head shaking in disappointment if he knew, but it’s not like that, it’s a playful banter between friends – harmless – at least Bucky doesn’t think Steve has any true intentions. He understands it now – it’s part of Steve’s wall, another tool for deflection and a degree of separation that Bucky himself uses frequently and is familiar with. 

Still, coupled with Steve’s innate earnestness, Bucky finds himself fumbling at it all the same.

"Not you though," Steve says offhandedly, and Bucky huffs a noise of protest.

“You mean I ain’t the one you’ve been watchin’?” Bucky teases, batting his lashes dramatically, and Steve chuckles with a shake of his head.

“I meant you don’t hate your boss,” Steve elaborates.

"Me? My boss? Oh no. No, no, no. I hate my boss. Haven't you met him?" Bucky asks, and he can tell Steve is grinning even though he’s facing the pitching machine.

"I have." Steve nails the first pitch.

"Then you know: Total. Ass,” Bucky smirks, trying not to swoon at Steve’s natural athleticism. “He never gets to work on time, he's been planning on getting his old truck painted for months, and worst of all..." Steve turns to face him, curious at Bucky’s hushed tone as Bucky leans in close to the fence. Bucky tries not to focus on Steve’s mouth as bites his lip, stepping in closer to Bucky to listen. "I hear he takes advantage of free labor," Bucky whispers. Steve chuckles.  Another ball whizzes out, Steve isn’t paying attention and the ball rattles the chain link fence between them, both men jump back in surprise. 

Bucky clears his throat to continue, and Steve looks sheepish as he steps away from the fence and back up to the batter’s box. "I'm not kidding! I hear he's somehow tricked some poor guy into working ten hours a day - for free. He doesn't pay the guy a cent.” Bucky spreads his arms wide, feigning shock, before grinning. “Can't blame him though, stupid bastard keeps coming back for more," Bucky adds, and Steve laughs, really laughs. 

"Must be a glutton for punishment," Steve guesses.

"Nah, he probably just fell for the guy’s ol’ Hollywood good looks and charm," Bucky says with a wink. Steve rolls his eyes.

"Nah, I've met him, that definitely can't be it." Bucky squawks in offense, and Steve laughs again through his swing. He still nails it. 

"So you're telling me this free workin' punk is both dumb and blind? Man, I'm really freeloadin' ain't I?" Bucky says with a smirk, and Steve rolls his eyes again with an open smile. "I'll have you know I've been told by numerous little old ladies - not my grandmother, I can see you about to say it now -" Steve bites his lip. Busted. "- I've been told numerous times I look like James Dean, and if they were forty years younger -"

"Should I leave, Buck? Is there enough room in this cage for the two of us and your ego?"

"Ha-ha," Bucky deadpans, and Steve snorts at his own recycled joke. “Just keep swingin’ twinkle toes.  I hear Fury’s face is on the next one.” Bucky sees Steve’s grip tighten on the bat, his whole body coils, and that’s the only warning he has when Steve absolutely cracks the next ball, but it flies straight, clanging against the pitching machine in a godawful sound that is just like –

Bucky hits the ground, hands over his head and neck.  The sound echoes out, and Bucky is sweating, but he realizes his overreaction a moment too late, Steve is crouched down at the edge of the fence, eyes wide and apologetic.

“Buck? You ok?” Steve asks, his voice hushed and panicked.

Bucky looks around the cage, thankfully they’re the only ones still there, and he sits up onto his haunches quickly, dusting off his clothes. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine, Steve…just…yeah. I’m fine.” Bucky clears his throat and Steve swallows, still knelt down beside him, fingers clinging onto the cage that separates them.

Another ball is pitched, it shakes the cage, but neither man react this time.  Bucky smiles tightly. “It never really goes away completely, at least that’s what Sam, my VA buddy, tells me,” Bucky explains, and he sees Steve shift uncomfortably; he juts out his jaw and furrows his brows again, but this time he doesn’t deny what Bucky is hinting at, and that’s new.  Message received. Bucky shouldn’t push his luck though. “S’posed’ta keep your eyes on the ball there, kid.”

Steve gives a wan smile and a nod, standing up and turning back for the next pitch.  Bucky puts his hands on his knees and blows out a shaky breath.  Even though it only lasted a couple of seconds, Bucky feels his heart beating against his ribs, and he pumps his fists tight and releases it, willing his hands to stop trembling.

“So what do you wanna do with the truck?” Steve asks in a swing, his form is lazy now, and he hits the ball almost casually. Bucky recognizes his new form for the precaution it is, and when Bucky finally wills himself to stand up, he smiles at Steve in a way he hopes looks a little like genuine gratitude.

“Paint her. My sister painted the name on the side when I first got it; it was only supposed to last until I started getting enough business to get it detailed professionally.  Now, I got that and then some and…” Bucky shrugs, his arms crossed.  He still feels a little off balance.

“I can do it if you want. I mean…I’m not a professional, but I can hold a brush.” Steve smirks, and Bucky gapes at him.

"You're serious?"

"Yeah, I used to do that a little before…paint for businesses and stuff. You got any idea of a mascot or logo or anything?" Steve asks before another swing. Bucky shakes his head.

"That sounds awfully professional, Stevie,” Bucky remarks, and Steve rolls his eyes. “But it’s whatever you want.  I have no ideas...Whatever you want. I’ll pay you," Bucky insists, and Steve scoffs.

"You can’t pay me, you haven’t even seen my work! How do you know I’m going to do a good job? How do you know I’m not going to paint a giant dick on the side of your truck?” Steve asks playfully.  He stops suddenly, standing up straight and resting the bat on his shoulder. “Dick jokes are still funny, right?” He asks, entirely too serious for the question.

“Dude - dick jokes are always funny,” Bucky laughs, and Steve beams proudly, dropping back into his stance. “Either way, Steve, you’ve only been working with me for like a week and I can't find a single stray napkin, receipt, or invoice that doesn't have one of your little doodles on it. I trust your skills just fine. Dicks and all."

Steve's mouth does a funny thing, the corners quivering to smile or maybe laugh before twisting into something like guilt, lips pressing into a thin line, before he bites his lip and swings wide idly, barely clipping the ball as it bounces into the net. "Ok…I'll draft up some ideas tonight, and bring them to you tomorrow."

 

--

 

Bucky is surprised when Steve brings it up on his own. He’s dropping Steve off after the owners had to kick them out to close for the night.  Bucky’s body is warm and loose, just the right side of achy.  He’s looking in his left side mirror and sees the nondescript black ford that Steve’s goons drive pull up behind them.  “Damn, still can’t lose ‘em, Steve,” Bucky jokes, “Should I be insulted that they aren’t even trying to be discrete anymore?”

Bucky glances to his right and sees Steve wringing his hands, that deep look of frustrated concentration back on his face.  Bucky forgets that this is Steve’s default expression when he’s not around and the thought worries him. “Hey…what’s up?”

Steve chews his lip bright red, and when he lifts his gaze, Bucky can see the hesitation and uncertainty behind his eyes. “You said it doesn’t go away but…does it get easier?” Steve asks.  His voice is just above a tentative whisper, as if he isn’t sure he’s allowed to ask. Bucky drops the truck into park.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah it does,” Bucky finally says.  Steve nods, but he doesn’t look convinced, so Bucky continues. “When I first came back I was triggering two, maybe three times a day; I could barely go outside. I pushed everyone away - my friends, my family.” He pauses, trying to choose how to tell his story very carefully. “I finally went to the local VA – but not to actually get help, I just…I got so sick of everyone bugging me about it.

“So I went, and I gotta admit, I acted like a complete douche.  I didn’t say anything, to anyone. Everyone who tried to talk to me I just straight up ignored. The only person who didn’t give up on me was my buddy Sam – well, he wasn’t my buddy then, he was just a counselor – and I almost punched him in the face.  He didn’t force me into anything, or push me to talk…he just…cared.  He checked up on me, he’d talk to me.  He taught me everything I know about how to handle myself when it gets to be a bit much, because it still does sometimes,” Bucky explains, and Steve swallows audibly, looking back to his lap.

“But now I can run this monster on my own; I can talk to people; I can function. It took a lot of work to get here and if we have time someday, it’d probably do me a lot of good to talk about it to someone…” He pauses, and Steve glances over at Bucky, a little surprised, but patient. “Today was the first time in a long time I…” He starts, but the words get caught and he recognizes the embarrassment in his tone. He sucks in a deep breath. “My last time overseas, my ‘copter was shot down, I don’t…I don’t wanna get too into the details, but…the uh, the sound the ball made earlier when I…when that…it sounded just like the bullets hitting the side of the hull. And for a second I was there again, I was freefallin’, I could…” Taste the smoke, feel the burning in his chest, the panic as the windows switched from blue to brown to blue, over and over, the screaming –

“Bucky?”

Bucky starts, he hadn’t realized he’d stopped speaking and Steve’s hand is firm and warm on his arm. “Sorry.” Bucky tries to smile, and he can tell it doesn’t reach his eyes. “My point is it gets easier, eventually, but I’m not sure that it will ever really go away.”

Steve nods as he pulls his hand away and Bucky tries not to mourn the loss. “I’m sorry, Buck…that that happened.”

“Not your fault,” Bucky shrugs, because it wasn’t.  Bucky’s been to that batting cage dozens of times and he’s never triggered. It’s been a long time since his last episode, he was about due, he’d guess. “I’m just glad you were ok,” he adds, remembering Steve’s blue eyes, wide in alarm, but clear and present.

“I’m not sure I’m ever ok,” Steve whispers with heartbreaking honesty.  He’s looking out through his window into the foyer of SHIELD.

Bucky’s face twists. He understands the feeling, knows it well.  He wants to tell him it will be ok and that it will get easier, but some voice stops him in the back of his mind, the voice that reminded him he didn’t believe anyone when they’d told him those same words before.  Though he knows the answer, Bucky still asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Steve answers, empty. 

Bucky feels his eyebrows furrow as presses his mouth into a firm line.  He knows he shouldn’t be disappointed.  Being back is all very new to Steve, this is probably the first time he’s recognizing the fact that his service fucked him up. 

“Are you sure?” Bucky tries again, and Steve exhales sharply in irritation.

“I’ll bring those designs in tomorrow,” Steve says, his voice distant. Bucky curses himself internally.

“Well, don’t – don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s no rush,” Bucky sighs, resigned. Steve nods curtly as he opens his door and steps onto the curb.

 


 

 

"Steve is the single most evasive person I have ever met," Bucky growls into his phone. He's talking to Sam, his old counselor at the VA in DC, venting to him about his new friend. "Seriously, the guy deflects like it’s an Olympic sport."

Sam laughs loud and light. "That's a lot coming from you."

"I'm serious! I don't even know how he does it, I'll ask him some question about, oh, I don't know, his Ma, or his hometown, and next thing I know we're talking about the cold war and I seriously have no idea how the conversation got there! It's actually impressive," Bucky admits belatedly. 

"Ok, so the guy isn't comfortable talking about himself, not everyone is as narcissistic as you, Barnes." 

Bucky rolls his eyes even though Sam can't see his face. "You wound me, Wilson." Sam laughs again. “I just don’t get it, I mean…I know that sometimes people can’t see what they don’t want to but, come on…PTSD is hardly a new concept.  Fuck, they even drill you about it right before you’re discharged.”

“Oh how quickly you’ve changed your tune, Barnes,” Sam says drily. “I should be proud.”

“Sam, it’s like he’s not even trying to see-“

“Pot, kettle.”

Dammit, Wilson.”

Bucky can hear the sharp, impatient exhale Sam lets out. “It’s not always that simple, Barnes. You know this.  It took you how long to figure it out? You can’t exactly hold it against the guy to be in some sort of denial.  It takes time, Bucky. If he's as fresh as you say he is coming home then he's got a lot to work through. If his Momma raised him with some sense of manners, then he was probably taught at a very early age that it's rude to talk extensively about himself; it can be hard to adjust to that. Just give him time. Even you got that."

Bucky sighs heavily. He knows he’s being unfairly impatient. It’s just that he can see the way Steve is twisted inside and he just wants to help. "One minute he's fine – we're joking around and shooting the shit – and the next he's shut down. Silence. I get whiplash talking to the guy. I don't know what kind of combat he saw but the guy is fucked up and I just hate to see him silently suffering. He carries his grief around like a cross, like he doesn’t want to bleed on anybody, and I just wish there was something I could do. Anything." 

Sam is carefully quiet on the other end of the line, and Bucky squeezes his phone intermittently like it'll get Sam to talk, which he does eventually. "He really does sound like you." 

Bucky groans. Sam: always the insightful bastard.

"That's not my point," Bucky insists.

"I know it's not. My question is what kind of relationship do you two have? Seems to me you might be getting a bit too close too soon, you've only known the guy for what, a week? Don't spook him." Bucky scrubs a hand over his face. When did this get so complicated? When had he become so invested in someone who was, essentially, a complete stranger?

“I just – I really don’t think he has anyone else, Sam,” Bucky admits, and he hears Sam sigh heavily into the phone.

“Man, that makes what you have with him that much more important.” Bucky chews on his lip. "Be there for him, and listen. It sounds like he’s already making progress, so keep doin’ what you’re doin’; be his friend, but for the love of all things holy do. Not. Engage,” Sam instructs. 

Bucky scoffs.

“Dude, I’m serious, all right? I know you, I’ve lived with you.  Go ahead and deny it, but even three states away I can tell you’re this close to asking the guy to go steady with you,” Sam says with exasperation.

“Whaaaat? I don’t know about – I’m not – that’s completely –” Bucky flounders, both unable to deny Sam’s accusations or give another explanation. He doesn’t want to admit it but he can see the harsh truth in Sam’s words and it cuts him to the quick. He’s thought about it before, the unconventionally fast attachment Bucky has developed to Steve.  He doesn’t understand how it’s happened so quickly and he’s not willing to confess it out loud, not even to Sam. He realizes that he needs to reign himself in and keep his emotions in check.

“I mean it, Bucky. Keep your charm, and your hands, to yourself," Sam warns.

Bucky sighs heavily. He’s made his decision. Steve doesn’t need a boyfriend, he just needs afriend, and Bucky can be that – he wants to be that.

"Ok, ok I will, Sam. I promise.”