Texting Bucky remains an exercise in patience. His responses are curt and impassive, and they are never prompt. They are like brittle, twiggy trees scattered across the plains, groping with wooden fingers, resisting the flower and green of spring. Every time Steve comes upon one, he has a hard time deciphering whether or not it is still alive.
Bucky does respond, though; it just takes him anywhere between twenty minutes and two hours. For example, when he gets home from Chicago on Sunday afternoon, Steve sends a text thanking Bucky for spending time with him. Bucky's blunt "np it was fun" arrives after ten p.m.
Good thing it's dead week, because Steve can't even begin to focus on school. No tests, no quizzes, no assignments due; just a week dedicated to studying for finals. In other words, a week dedicated to procrastinating studying for finals.
In Steve's case, it also means daydreaming during lectures. After spacing out through his entire statistics class, he gives in and sends Bucky a simple "what's up?"
It isn't until after lunch that his phone vibrates with the reply.
listening to rumlow ramble through another team meeting
livin the dream
Caught off-guard, Steve laughs, sharp and loud—which wouldn't be an issue, except he's sitting alone in a quiet study room on campus. From the next table over, half a dozen tall women with basketball logos embroidered on their backpacks turn to scowl at him.
"Sorry," Steve whispers. He turns back to his phone, hand over his mouth.
Brock Rumlow, the Southeast State University Defensive Coordinator, has been working under Alexander Pierce for about five years. He and Steve shook hands once after a game. Rumlow's grip was hard, and he didn't smile, or even say anything—just nodded sharply and moved on. For some reason, Steve's first thought was "hyena."
On film, though, Rumlow seems like more of a predator than a scavenger. He is the fire to Pierce's ice; he is a semi-automatic, the serrated edge of the blade. On more than one occasion, he's gotten into disagreements with officials over bad calls—throwing headsets, tearing up play sheets, cursing at everything that moves, keeping his toes just outside the sideline to avoid a penalty. Southeast State fans praise him for his intensity, though some ESPN analysts suggest he might be a bad influence on his players.
Steve can't imagine Rumlow droning on about defensive shifts in front of a table full of jaded college kids. He's still grinning as he texts Bucky back: "Lol Rumlow doesn't seem like a boring guy!"
Bucky doesn't respond at all to that text.
Several hours later, Steve changes the subject and asks how practices are going. American State won't resume normal team functions until around Christmas, depending on which bowl game selects them. It makes Steve feel detached from the world, as if gravity has stopped working, but only enough to keep him floating just out of reach of the ground.
Steve tries to live vicariously through Bucky, but his reply is strange.
What do you mean? Aren't you getting ready for NAC game?
yeah the team is practicing but im sitting out
Steve's heart stutters. There's only one reason a starter would sit out of practice this early in the week.
Are you hurt??
Of course, that's when Bucky stops responding. Two hours later, he tells Steve, just a precaution.
That's understandable—maybe—but it doesn't help lower Steve's heart rate. All he can think about is Bucky lying on the grass, unable to breath, all the wind knocked out of him, an angry red welt blossoming on his stomach.
It's just one more reason Steve wishes he were the one playing on Saturday, instead of Bucky. The Northern Athletic Conference Championship is always a big deal, but this year it feels even more fateful than usual.
Steve has been to two NAC games with American State. This year, he won't be playing in the game at all. It's a strange feeling. He's grown accustomed to playing that thirteenth game, being part of the championship race. The very thought of spectating makes him restless.
Every year, Chicago hosts the NAC Championship Game at Soldier Field, where the Bears play their home games. The media has been, for lack of any better descriptor, going apeshit. The Winter Soldier playing in Soldier Field? That's a written invitation for every sub-par sports journalist in the country to try their hand at punny headlines.
Clint has made a point of sharing his favorites with Steve all week. Steve becomes more and more tempted to smack him every time. In fact, Clint is about to make another dumb joke on Wednesday night when Steve shoots upright, gaping at the TV screen.
"The game is in Chicago."
"Ye-es." Clint glances between Steve and the ESPN anchors. "What part of Soldier Field did you miss?"
"It's in Chicago," Steve repeats. "That's still only an hour away."
"Well, yeah, it doesn't move or anything," Clint points out, but Steve is already bounding out of the room and upstairs.
Once he's in his bedroom, he dives for the phone on his nightstand, almost ripping the charger out of the wall in his enthusiasm.
I'm gonna drive up to see the nac champ
Bucky's response is uncharacteristically swift.
Miraculously, with one short text message, Steve has found out not only how to get Bucky's attention, but also to keep it.
sorry bud its our turn this year
wait steve are you serious
don't you dare
that's a stupid idea don't be an idiot the fans will kill you
text me the hell bck you goddamn punkass motherfucker
The irony of the situation, and that text in particular, is not lost on Steve. A more spiteful person might leave Bucky to a death spiral of neglect and anxiety—for revenge, if nothing else. But Steve thinks it's funny. Revenge is far from his mind.
Don't worry, I can't actually afford tickets
YOU SCARED ME
I'll come to Chicago though maybe I can see u after the game
THAT'S NOT BETTER
Steve doesn't give up. He harps on Bucky all week. He asks what hotel the Southeast State team will be spending the night in, and Bucky pointedly ignores him. So Steve asks when they'll be traveling, and Bucky simply says, "idk". Bucky maintains his cold demeanor all week. Late on Friday night, Steve finally cracks the ice.
Just filled up the gas tank. What hotel are you guys in
What's your room number
congress plaza on lake shore room 343 seriously don't do anything stupid
Bucky must know that his arguments are fruitless. He said it himself. You're not really an easy-way-out kind of guy.
Chicago is a miracle. It's no Brooklyn, but as big cities go, it's still a miracle. No matter where you're from, if you're in Chicago, you can find a home. If he wanted to, Steve could probably find an entire bar dedicated to the New York Giants. There is, in fact, an American State-themed bar in Boystown, but that's a bit of a trek from Soldier Field and Southeast's hotel.
So Steve wears black—plain black hoodie, black T-shirt, black windbreaker—and sneaks into a Pittsburgh Steelers bar that's showing the NAC Championship on all its big screens. The bartender, a cute girl with a deep tan and bobbed hair, asks him for his order almost immediately, but the bar is so packed that it takes almost ten minutes for him to actually get his drink.
Steve takes the opportunity to scout the crowd in the bar. Several of the patrons seem to be Penn Central fans. As soon as Steve sees them, decked out in red and gold, his stomach furls like burnt newspaper.
Peter Parker plays for Penn Central. Or he did, until Bucky knocked him out for the season.
That's when the bartender returns with Steve's local IPA. Too late to back out, now.
From that point forward, his experience watching the game is entirely predictable. Southeast pulls ahead early, James Barnes makes a string of earth-shattering tackles, and the Penn Central fans descend into a state of hostile camaraderie. They all share a deep and wrathful hatred for Southeast and for Barnes in particular, and have no reason to hide that hatred among friends.
Steve pulls his baseball cap lower over his eyes and nurses his second beer. He tries to zone in on the game and ignore the angry mob, but it gets harder and harder as the second half drags on.
The man next to him, a sloppy middle-aged blue-collar worker in a Steelers jersey and a Penn Central hat, keeps trying to get Steve's attention. He thinks they're buddies, the way everyone is buddies when rooting for the same team in a big game.
"If Roberts could throw straight, Lemurian would have a chance, wouldn't they?" he booms half-way through the third quarter, giving Steve's shoulder a rough shake.
"Hm," Steve says with a noncommittal smile.
That's when he realizes something that makes his brain stall out.
He's rooting for Southeast State.
Well, "rooting" might be a strong term. He's not crossing his fingers or biting his nails or jumping up and down when they score. But his heart races when they go for a long pass, and he almost leaps out of his seat every time Maximoff scores, and, God, now Lemurian is deep in enemy territory and he's squeezing his glass so hard it might crack.
He takes a deep breath and releases his grip.
His blood pressure rises and falls with Southeast State University, the waves of their success and their dire stretches of anxiety. As deeply ingrained as he is with disdain for those black uniforms, Steve still can't extract himself from Bucky. It's tearing him down the middle and he just hopes no one in this bar notices.
Lemurian makes a big play. The fans in the restaurant go wild. Steve hunches farther into his jacket and digs his fingernails into his heart line.
Bucky is playing more stiffly than usual. He favors his left side more and gets up slower. He is not the same cyclone Steve watched on film, or the same storm they played in the Frozen Wasteland. He remembers Bucky sitting out practice all week. Just a precaution. What kind of precaution, though?
The teams line up near the goal line. Steve's eyes zero in on Bucky first, where he settles in the middle of the defense, giant brace on his left arm, a looming iceberg. Then Steve scans the offense's formation. They line up in the shotgun, with just one man in the backfield. Steve starts to tap the side of his glass frantically. Lining up four receivers is a risk for the offense—exactly the kind of formation that Barnes will be able to shred like tissue paper. On the goal line, of all things. Steve can't for the life of him figure out what Lemurian is doing, but it can only be good for Southeast State.
Lemurian throws to the middle of the end zone. A knot draws tight in Steve's stomach. A broad-shouldered tight end tips an errant pass, the ball goes skittering out of bounds, and the tight end doesn't stop. He and Bucky collide in the middle of the field.
It is nuclear fusion. Both players are solid rock, indefinable energy—you can practically see the explosion.
The tight end gets up slowly, with the help of a teammate.
"It's fucking Barnes again!"
"He should be kicked out of the league, this is ridiculous."
"Why is there no flag?!"
The Penn Central fans, livid, speak their minds loud and clear. Steve tries to block them out while staring at the screen.
Bucky rolls onto all fours and sways there before another linebacker drags him to his feet. Obviously dazed, he trudges to the sideline so a substitute can take his place.
Pandemonium. You'd have thought Lemurian scored a touchdown, but no; everyone in the bar is celebrating the James Barnes injury.
"Serves him right!"
The big annoying drunk next to Steve is the worst. "It's about time he got a taste of his own medicine. That kid needs to be locked up before he does any more damage."
"Locked up where?" Steve says coldly. He's on his feet. He has no idea when that happened.
"A goddamn insane asylum, that's where," a young man in a beanie responds.
Big Drunk disagrees. "He needs to be in prison." He pokes Steve, hard, right in the shoulder. "You know that kid is a criminal? You know he's been arrested before? Alexander Pierce is a real piece of work, you know that? He recruits thugs and fuck-ups and says he'll straighten 'em out, but he really just turns 'em into attack dogs."
"They're kids," Steve says. "You said it yourself."
"You on their side or something?"
"I got no love for Southeast State," Steve says honestly, "but that doesn't mean they deserve to get hurt."
"That asshole Barnes deserves to get carted off the field in an ambulance."
"Yeah!" the kid in the beanie chimes in. "After what he did to Parker, he can go to hell for all I care."
Strictly speaking, Steve never throws a punch. But someone may or may not end up bent backwards over the bar, and a bottle may or may not shatter across the floor, and bar stools may or may not go flying, and Steve may or may not be in the middle of things.
And that is how Steve Rogers gets kicked out of a bar full of Pittsburgh fans watching a Wisconsin game in Chicago.
It's just as well; the cold air outside helps him relax. Helps him breath normally. Another block away on Lake Shore Drive, he finds an Irish Pub with more neutral patronage. By the time Steve settles into his seat, the game is almost over, and Bucky is on the field again, playing with the same vigor he had in the first quarter.
The sight is absurd, for some reason; it seems like the last twenty minutes never even happened. Like Bucky never tackled that tight end or took a possession off or showed signs of injury at all.
In the end, it isn't close. Southeast stacks on another touchdown and ends up winning by twenty. They are a force of nature. They are a storm that doesn't stop. They are sixty-mile-per-hour winds and six feet of snow and there's really no way to fight them. All the country can do is wait for them to pass.
The Congress Plaza is easy to find. In any other city, it would be a gem, but in Chicago—Lake Shore Drive, no less—it is a second-tier upscale establishment. Nice enough for a Division I team, but not so nice that booking over fifty rooms will put you in debt.
Steve can tell he's in the right place when a stream of Southeast players almost knocks him over on their way to the bar in the lobby. Ducking his head, hoping no one recognizes him, Steve darts to a bank of elevators and takes one to the third floor.
He tries not to constantly look over his shoulder. This isn't weird, he tells himself. Friends and family members and significant others visit players in hotels all the time. Sometimes. Well, infrequently. But it happens.
The plush maroon carpet swallows his footsteps. As he traipses down the corridor, faint voices murmur from behind closed doors. They are indistinct and unreadable. They could be Southeast players celebrating or travelers sleeping before an early flight or businessmen cheating on their wives. It's astounding to realize, but to some people, there was no football game tonight. The Northern Athletic Conference has a Champion, now, and most of the universe doesn't even care. It doesn't mean a thing to some people, when for Steve—well. There is a flock of birds in his stomach, beating against his ribs, flapping in his throat, trapping his heart in his chest.
He reaches a T in the hallway. A sign on the wall says that rooms 301-324 are to the left, while rooms 325-351 are to the right. He turns right and almost immediately hears a thump from somewhere down the corridor, followed by shouting. Instinctively, his pace accelerates.
There are two voices, but Steve can't make out the words. He passes room 335, 337, 339.
"… the point of letting you sit out of practice all week if you sit out half the damn game, too?"
Steve's feet slow down, but his heart rate skyrockets. The door of 343 is propped open by the security lock. He hears another thump and a muffled response and hopes fervently that he is mistaken; that those shouts aren't coming from Bucky's room.
"Pardon me for fucking exaggerating," the first voice says. "It wasn't the whole game. It was three possessions. Which is three possessions too many!"
"I could barely breathe."
Steve's heart turns to ice.
"Maybe if you could fucking tackle properly, you wouldn't hurt yourself every goddamn time you come in contact with a running back half your size."
"Aren't you the one supposed to teach me to tackle?"
Steve considers knocking, decides against it, slides his fingers into the space between the door and the doorframe, and then hesitates. There is a war inside him, a war between passion for Bucky and passion for American State football.
"Don't give me your fucking attitude, Barnes."
Bucky mumbles another response, and Steve can't make out the words, but it is, unmistakably, Bucky's voice. It is Bucky's voice.
The other voice is louder, this time. "You want to run that by me again?"
"Back off!" Bucky shouts, the pitch rising almost an octave.
The desperate sound surges down Steve's spine. He bursts into the room without a second thought about privacy or consequences and the sight before him triggers thunder.
"What the hell is going on in here?"
They both look up at Steve, mouths hanging open.
A lean, dark-haired man in official Southeast State gear has Bucky herded into the corner between the wall and the IKEA entertainment center. There are no obvious signs of violence—neither of them seems to have touched the other—but Bucky has his back flat against the wall, both hands held up in a show of innocence, and instantly, Steve's hackles are raised.
"Who are you?" the stranger says. He doesn't back away from Bucky; in fact he rounds on him and adds, "who the hell is that?!"
Bucky's eyes—his whole face—are still fixed on Steve in abject astonishment.
"Why don't you give him a little space?" Steve says, eyes flicking between Bucky and the stranger.
He doesn't, of course. He still has Bucky crowded into a corner, but he turns to face Steve in full—and Steve realizes who exactly is in the room with them.
For a split second, Steve is speechless, but when he finds his voice, his throat smolders with it. "You're a coach."
"And I don't know who the hell you are," Brock Rumlow says, "but I do know this is none of your business."
"You're his coach. Give him some space."
So he does. Rumlow gives Bucky some space. He whirls around and bears down on Steve, instead.
"Listen, I don't know who you think you are," he says, teeth bared in a wolfish, bony smile, "but I do know you got no business here."
"And you've got no business shouting at students like that." Steve sets his jaw. "Maybe you need to take a walk. Cool down."
Rumlow's eyes glint. "Are you telling me to leave?"
"Might be for the best."
Shaking his head, Rumlow grins and advances on Steve. "Listen here, you—"
He doesn't get to finish his insult, though, because as soon as he moves toward Steve, the room implodes. It begins with Bucky throwing himself between Steve and Rumlow, growling like an animal. In return, Rumlow shoves him bodily to one side, and Bucky bounces against the wall with a hollow thud.
That is when Steve snaps.
He doesn't clearly remember the full sequence of events, but he does remember pushing Brock Rumlow aside; several sets of hands on him; at least one person—maybe Steve—shouting obscenities; and after the abrupt and confusing cyclone of violence, Steve finds himself pinned to the wall.
It is Bucky holding him there. The shock, more than the physical force, is what keeps Steve in place.
Bucky's fingers are buried into the front of Steve's shirt, and his eyes flash with vitriol, with bright, toxic, don't-mess-with-me pink around his irises. His chest heaves. "What the fuck are you doing here, Steve?" he demands, giving Steve a little shove for emphasis.
"I'm—what? Come on, I just—"
"Steve?!" Rumlow interrupts, grabbing Bucky's shoulder to get a better look. Bucky shakes him off with a snarl, but not before Steve and Rumlow make eye contact. Rumlow starts to laugh. "Oh my God. You're Steve Rogers."
"Get out, Brock," Bucky snaps.
Rumlow ignores him. "Steve fucking Rogers. As in, American-State-Steve-Rogers."
"I said get out!" Bucky roars, breaking through the gravel in his voice. "Get out, get the fuck out, let me handle this!"
A wicked, skeletal smile takes over Brock Rumlow's face, as if he is merely amused by Bucky's outburst.
"You're out of control." Still laughing, Rumlow leers between the two of them.
Bucky squeezes his eyes shut. Steve can feel the tension all the way to Bucky's fingertips, where they are still buried in his sweatshirt.
"We need a muzzle for you, Barnes."
Rumlow flings the door open and backs out of the room, still smiling. Still laughing. Like this is a joke, like it's funny the way Bucky gasps for air, like these emotions are just a glitch in need of repair.
It burns Steve around the edges.
Even after Coach Rumlow is gone, Bucky doesn't move right away, not even to release Steve. Doesn't even open his eyes.
Steve wants to throw up. The look on Bucky's face is so twisted, so shattered and lost, gasping for air, a gaping canyon of betrayal and confusion.
He twitches at the sound of his name.
No one's called me that in years.
"What the fuck are you doing here?!" he says, shoving Steve against the wall again for emphasis.
"I don't—I want to help—"
"Why are you here?" Bucky looks at him fully. Eye-to-eye. His face is drowned in rage, like gazing into the darkest crevice of a thunder cloud.
Bucky is going to hit him. Steve knows it, without a shred of doubt in his body, and he also knows he won't do anything to stop it.
And then Bucky is kissing him.
It is hard and inelegant. It is a brand against his lips, pressing so hard they could count each other's teeth. This is what it feels like to be struck by lightning, Steve thinks. He is paralyzed, trapped in a column of unholy fire.
Steve doesn't think to close his eyes, so he is still staring at the blur of Bucky's eyelashes, just inches from his nose, when it ends—just as abruptly as it began. Bucky reels away, holding up both hands as if they've betrayed him. In a daze, he stumbles to the door and undoes the security lock so the handle can latch shut. Then he buries his face in his hands. He takes a breath, and the air rushes between his fingers.
"Brock's gonna be back." He lowers his hands to his mouth, glaring at the door to his hotel room, as if he expects Rumlow to reappear any second.
"It's none of his business—"
"I'm gonna be sick," Bucky hisses.
"Me too," Steve says, stomach blazing. "That was so out of line, a coach—"
"No," Bucky cuts him off, his voice hoarse. "I mean—I'm—"
He turns, a little unsteady on his feet, and half-trips his way into the bathroom.
"Oh, god—" Steve darts after him.
When he flicks on the bathroom light, Bucky is already on his knees in front of the toilet. Steve only just has time to dive forward and pull Bucky's hair out of his face before he shudders and throws up. Bucky grabs the edge of the bathtub to steady himself, rocks on his heels, and takes a deep breath.
Then he pitches forward and vomits again.
"Oh, Bucky," Steve whispers.
He whines, but otherwise doesn't respond.
Steve gathers Bucky's stringy hair into one hand, and uses the other to rub Bucky's back. "I'm so sorry."
This goes on for some time. Bucky purges his system of all the savagery and anger and violence bubbling inside, and of whatever potent cocktail of painkillers kept him on his feet for the duration of the Northern Athletic Conference Championship Game. Steve eases onto the edge of the bathtub, never losing contact with Bucky. He stays by his side, strokes his hair, rubs his back, and murmurs words of encouragement.
It takes forever. Every time Bucky is able to relax for a few seconds, his body spasms again and he crumples forward to throw up.
"There's nothing left!" he sobs, pleading to no one in particular, after breaking down in dry heaves for the third time.
"Shh, it's okay," Steve says softly. "You're doing good. You're doing so good."
Eventually, the retching deteriorates into dry coughs and painful shivering.
After a few minutes of measured breathing, Bucky lifts his head and pushes himself away from the toilet. Steve can see his face, his eyes streaming from the effort, his lips curled back in a grimace. It almost makes Steve sick, himself. It's like an icepick twisting into the little divot below his collarbone.
"You're okay," he whispers, mostly for his own sake.
Bucky falls off his heels to relax on the floor, dragging the toilet seat shut on his way. He wipes his mouth on the front of his white T-shirt, leaving behind a smudge of scarlet. With a groan, he sprawls across from Steve, his back against the cabinet under the sink. His knees are splayed, his head tilted back, his throat exposed.
Steve's eyes drift to Bucky's left arm. A thick rope of white scar tissue snakes up the inside of his elbow. Steve thinks of the compression sleeve he wore until the surgery; he thinks of the heavy brace Bucky wears during the games; he thinks of Sam Wilson's back spasms; he thinks, absurdly, of the Old Guitarist.
Steve is so lost in thought that he jumps at the sound of Bucky's voice.
"Why did you come?" he croaks.
"I wanted to see you."
"You shouldn't have come." Bucky's voice sounds like a blunted knife.
"I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Bucky doesn't answer and he doesn't move for several minutes. Steve waits, hoping that the neatly quilted layers of silence will soothe Bucky, somehow.
Steve can be patient. He listens to the high whine of the fluorescent light and the distant, padded footsteps of hotel patrons down the hall. He notices the way sweat beads on Bucky's forehead and around his shirt collar.
Steve has to fight another pang of nausea. "Does this happen a lot?" he asks, and winces at the way his voice cracks the silence.
He doesn't think Bucky is going to answer, at first. Eventually, though, he rubs at his watering eyes and curls his chin into his chest. Just enough that Steve can't see the look on his face when he says, "I guess."
"It always hurts."
Steve frowns. His mind drifts to a dull ache and a smiley-face scar on his elbow.
Bucky's answer is so quiet that it couldn't unsettle the dust on the floor. "I get sick sometimes."
"I wasn't talking about—wait." Steve's hand goes still again, and his eyes widen. "Are you always in pain?"
Bucky has an uncanny ability to remain silent and motionless. It almost seems like he does it on purpose, as if he enjoys the suspense.
"No," he says, finally. "Not enough to make me sick."
Steve closes his hand into a fist to keep it from shaking. "…Okay," is all he can manage. "Okay."
"What about Rumlow? Does he … yell at you … a lot?" This is not the question he wants to ask. It doesn't at all encompass the avalanche of inappropriate actions he just witnessed Brock Rumlow commit, and he has to swallow down the bile rising in his throat just at the thought of letting him get away with it all. But this is also the gentlest wording he can come up with.
"He yells at everyone," Bucky says curtly. "He's a dick."
Steve drops to his knees. He reaches, tentatively, toward Bucky's ankle, stretched across the tile floor.
Bucky frowns at him. When he doesn't protest, Steve takes it as a signal to go ahead. He beckons, and Bucky sticks out his foot.
"You were amazing tonight," Steve says, swiping a thumb under the arch of Bucky's foot. "Still looked painful, though."
"No one could tell," Bucky mumbles. "They shoot me up with enough drugs beforehand, and even I can't tell I'm injured."
"I can tell."
"Yeah," Bucky says. It comes out with a rush of air, like a laugh, or a sigh. "I bet." He winces, pulls one knee to his chest, and covers his eyes with his right hand. "Do the lights have to be so fucking bright."
That triggers a memory for Steve. Any nausea? Dizziness? Sensitivity to light?
He stomach does a clumsy somersault. "Bucky?" he asks tentatively.
Bucky spreads his fingers enough to see Steve through the slits.
"You okay?" Steve asks.
Experimentally, Steve traces his fingers around the fine bones of Bucky's ankle. "How's your head?" he whispers.
"Physically or emotionally."
"Well—" His stomach trips again. "Physically."
Another long, pressurized silence. Bucky covers his eyes again. After a few minutes, he says, "Shit," and that's all.
It takes a second for Steve to realize that was an answer.
Bucky goes on, "Everything feels like shit. Everything always feels like shit."
His hands drift to his stomach. He clutches his shirt, twisting the fabric in his fists.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, clearing his throat. He slides forward across the bathroom tile, closer to Bucky; close enough to touch, but far enough for some breathing room. With measured movements, he reaches out to brush a fingertip against the scar on Bucky's arm. "This is new."
Bucky sucks in a deep breath. "Mm." His left hand twitches, as if he wants to hide it, or to grab something. When it becomes clear that he isn't going to speak—isn't even going to uncover his eyes—Steve runs his finger down the scar. "What happened?" he murmurs.
Holding his breath, Steve glances up. Hears the click in Bucky's throat as he swallows; sees the the sliver of white teeth between his lips.
His fingertips flutter around Bucky's elbow. Ice is so dense and so cold and so brittle.
"What kind of surgery?"
Steve's lips are tingling, aflame with a thousand pins and needles. "When was it?"
"The community college."
The atmospheric pressure drops around Steve's diaphragm. "What happened?" he whispers. He feels a little like he's begging.
The lines on Bucky's forehead deepen, but he doesn't speak.
"We match, you know," Steve says with a matter-of-fact smile.
Bucky opens his eyes and raises an eyebrow.
"Here, look," Steve says. Twisting his arm, he shows Bucky the scar there, the delicate crescent smiling under the crook of his elbow.
Bucky's hand drifts toward Steve, but something stops him halfway, fingers shaking. His eyes are fixed on the scar. "Not really a match."
Steve looks at his own elbow, its neat, curved pink line; and then at Bucky's, bearing an eight-inch ragged rope of scar tissue. He shrugs. "But we've both had surgery."
"What kind of surgery?" Bucky frowns at Steve's arm.
Bucky's eyes flick to Steve's face. He sees the grin there. "I'm serious," he deadpans.
"So was I."
It's not the familiar banter that widens Steve's grin; it's the way Bucky's lips twitch as he tries not to smile.
"Tommy John surgery." Steve folds up to sit cross-legged, and one of his knees brushes against Bucky's. He pretends he can't still feel the kiss burning his lips. "Freshman year. I was supposed to redshirt anyway. I got here, I started training, throwing on campus, and I was in pain every day. When I told our physicians, they checked me out. Said surgery would help."
"That was risky, you know."
"We thought it would help in the long run." Steve shrugs. "I figured it was worth the risk."
"Did it what?"
"… Did it help?"
Steve brushes Bucky's anklebone with his fingernails. "Yeah," he whispers. "I feel better than ever."
Bucky catches Steve's hand and holds it still. It is the lightest touch, the kiss of a summer breeze, but for some reason it makes Steve's fingertips go numb. He can't speak. Can't even breath. He runs a thumb along each of Bucky's fingers, along the rough, broken skin, and yearns to kiss away all the bruises and scars. His lips ache with it.
Then Bucky speaks, and steals all of Steve's attention.
"I broke my arm," Bucky begins. "Went up for an interception and got flattened into the ground." His voice is a steady whisper, a gentle wind curling through crisp autumn leaves. The kind of sound that doesn't ask to be heard. The kind of sound you have to listen very closely to hear. "Compound fracture. Just above the elbow."
With his free hand, Steve brushes his fingers over Bucky's scar.
"I needed surgery to repair it," Bucky goes on, perhaps even softer than before. "Bunch of plates and screws."
Bucky sucks in a breath. "And then I transferred to Southeast, and, um—" he laughs bitterly, "—they took the plates out and cleared me to play. And I re-broke everything."
His head tilts back and he closes his eyes.
"So, you know. They cut me open again and put in more hardware."
Steve stares at Bucky's arm. "Is it still there?"
"I bet you drive airport security nuts."
"Metal detectors love me."
Bucky's lips twist into a noncommittal smile, and Steve's stomach flips. Something occurs to Steve, then, and he holds his breath. He doesn't want to ask. "Are you okay, though? Is it—does it still hurt?" His voice cracks.
"Everything hurts," Bucky says bitterly.
He said that once, before. Steve can't let it escape. "What do you mean?"
Several breaths pass between them.
"I broke a few ribs when we played you."
"Three cracked ribs," Bucky says, fingers hovering over the left side of his torso. He chuckles, and then winces. Steve begins to feel ill.
"You played with broken ribs?"
Bucky shrugs. He lets go of Steve's hand and reaches around to grab the sink. Wincing, he pulls himself to his feet. "In the second week of the season I got a nasty hip pointer."
"And when we played Wisconsin, I tweaked my ankle."
Steve stands up, too, but doesn't know what to do with his arms. "What—"
"I'm just a walking injury report, you know?"
"Oh my god, Bucky."
"I'm used to it." With a sickening nonchalance, Bucky unwraps one of the plastic hotel cups, fills it with tap water, and rinses out his mouth. He spits a disgusting pink color into the sink, then refills the cup and drinks the whole thing.
When he turns around to face Steve, they both seem to realize, at once, how small the bathroom is. Bucky is very close; Steve can see where sweat has dampened his hairline; he can see the sticky blood stain smeared on the front of Bucky's shirt.
Steve gazes at his lips, shining with drops of water. From this close, Steve could count the little lines laced across Bucky's lips like stitches.
Even though he is staring right at them, Steve can barely see Bucky's lips move. But he hears it. One word, enough protest to bring him back to his senses.
"Don't," Bucky says again, reading Steve's mind. "I shouldn't have … I'm sorry."
Steve runs his tongue over his teeth, and imagines he can still feel the indent of Bucky's against his own.
"Why did you come?" Bucky whispers. He hunches his shoulders and studies Steve's collar bone.
"I want to see you."
"You shouldn't be here." For the first time, Steve detects some inflection in Bucky's voice. A strained, thready quality. A plea.
"The hell I shouldn't."
Bucky shifts, and Steve flinches, instinctively. He thinks back to all the times he almost got punched this afternoon. He might have deserved some. Bucky draws nearer, and Steve braces himself—a storm—rain lashing against his bones—and then, on an exhale, Bucky winds his arms around Steve's neck.
Instantly, the winds die. Everything inside Steve stutters to a stop.
Bucky's embrace is firm. He tucks his face into the side of Steve's neck and breathes. After a moment, an overwhelming moment of flooded circuits, Steve hugs him back. He wraps his arms around Bucky's waist and holds him, shaking with the effort not to squeeze too tight. He thinks of the broken ribs and feels heat gather behind his eyes.
"You shouldn't be here," Bucky whispers, even as he tightens his hold.
"The hell I shouldn't," Steve says again.
He hasn't held Bucky like this in years. The muscles in his shoulders unfurl for the first time in years.
Everyone looks at Bucky and sees a storm: brutal, relentless, unforgiving. They see destruction and ruin in his wake. They see something wild and want to put it in a cage.
But he isn't a storm, at all. Bucky is the eye.