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Love Stories for Tedious People

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The emergency departments of hospitals are all alike. Some are small, just a couple of rooms, a bathroom, a harried nurse who greets the frequent fliers by name, and some are huge, with dozens of rooms and a team of people who don’t even know each other’s names, let alone the patients.

This ED is on the larger end of medium. Not the size of the academic center where he did his residency, but not like the places out in the sticks where he did some of his rotations, either. The sinks are automatic, not foot-pedal or (God forbid) faucet, but the dividing curtains were clearly hung in the mid-90s and never updated, probably never washed, beige and a sort of sickly peach and lavender. He raps his knuckles on the door as he walks in.

“Hello,” he says, brightly, in his best professional voice, already pulling back the curtain. There isn’t time to wait for the patient to compose themselves before barging in; there is never time. “I’m Dr. Rogers, and I’ll be seeing you today. What brings you in?”

The man on the bed gives him a withering stare, then gestures wordlessly at his heavily scarred shoulder and the piecemeal arm attached to it, obviously half-graft and missing some muscle groups. The arm itself is an attention-grabber, but the skin is healed and the scars are old. His eyes zero in on the bandage—sloppy, probably Bill, damn him—taped loosely around the elbow, already starting to soak through.

Steve whistles softly. “Okay,” he says, “let’s take a look.” He eases the bandage up. His hand cups the arm at the elbow, supporting it, and the scar tissue is cool and tight. “Looks like we’ve got a major laceration, went through into the pronator, we’ll need a couple layers of sutures but we should be able to get you out of here in no time.”

“Good,” says the patient.

“Marcy!” Steve calls out into the hall. “Suture kit?”

Marcy’s voice arrives shortly before she does. “On it, boss.” She comes in wheeling the metal cart with the kit laid out—plus the irrigation supplies, bless her heart.

“You’re a ray of sunshine in this world,” Steve says to her, and she laughs out loud.

“Silver-tongued devil,” she drawls, and the patient makes a faint noise that might be a laugh. It’s hard to laugh with muscle showing red through the wound.

“Can you irrigate while I get the note started?”

“No problem.” She draws up a stool next to the bed and smiles at the patient, all courtesy and grace. “Before the doctor can start the stitches, we have to make sure the wound is as clean as possible. This may be uncomfortable, but please bear with me. We’re going to start with an injection to numb you up.” She draws it up from the little lidocaine bottle, flicks the syringe.

As she presses the plunger home, gently working the tissue with her other hand to get the bolus to dissipate, the patient’s muscles tighten. “No problem,” the patient says, tonelessly.

Steve’s logging in to the terminal, bringing up the patient’s record. “Okay, Mr. Barnes,” he says, “can you tell me about how you got that cut?”

The patient twitches—Steve catches the movement out of the corner of his eye—and says, sounding reluctant, “Captain.”

“I’m sorry, Captain.” He opens the window for Patient Details and corrects it. “It looks like we haven’t seen you in a while. We have you listed as on no medications. Did the medical assistant confirm that with you?” If Bill did anything on this record besides open it and enter vitals, it’s not showing. BP is 126/84, not bad for somebody in pain, and pulse is in the 80s. Temp rules out current infection.

“No.”

“Are you on any medications currently?”

The patient definitely looks uncomfortable, despite the grim set of his face. Could just be Marcy, squeezing the saline bottle with ruthless efficiency, getting something—gravel? black and gritty—out of the potential space between skin and muscle. “Citalopram. Oxycodone.”

“Okay, great. Do you know the doses on either of those?”

“Citalopram is 20 milligrams a day. Oxy is 5 milligrams. As needed.”

“And how often do you find that you need it?”

“Sleep.”

“Okay, so once a day?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, thanks. Any allergies to medications?”

“No.”

“Now, can you tell me more about this cut?” Steve half-turns to make eye contact. These terminals are set up so you can almost, but not quite, face the patient while you’re working. Nobody has ever been involved in patient care who designed these systems, he’s pretty sure.

The effort is wasted, anyway. The patient is staring at Marcy, which has to be uncomfortable, since she’s got his arm at an unnatural angle to get the last of the debris washed out. The bright, hot light she’s pulled over to center over the laceration makes a spotlight for the wet mess. “How’s it looking, Marcy?” Steve asks.

“Not too bad. Some debris, not much. Laceration is fully 10 centimeters. 10.2.”

“Thanks. Captain Barnes?”

The patient finally lifts his eyes to look at Steve.

“Can you tell me how this happened?”

The patient clearly doesn’t want to, but manages to say, with some effort, as Marcy gently lifts one side of the skin flap, “Working on a car. Lost a chunk of metal.”

“Okay. Was the metal clean?”

“Pretty clean. Just some crap from the garage.”

“And do you know if you’re up to date on your tetanus shots? That would be a shot any time in the last ten years, and we don’t have it on record.” The record is almost empty, actually. It looks like he came in once twelve years ago, also an ED visit, diagnosis code for MVA, but a quick double-click shows minor injuries only.

“Yeah.” Captain Barnes grunts as Marcy moves his arm, easing the soaking wet plastic-backed fabric chux out from under it. “Had to have it current for service.”

“Okay, thanks. Marcy, are we ready for the sutures?”

She’s sliding a dry chux back under the arm, patted carefully dry with a washcloth, and without looking up she says, “Yeah, should be.”

“Great. Thank you.” Steve knows part of the reason he gets along with the nurses (and he does) is that he thanks them, and they can tell he means it. He does. Can’t take them for granted.

He moves over, and Marcy shifts to the side. There’s a commotion in the hall—Marcy’s head jerks up—and he says, “I’ve got this, if you need to check that out.”

She’s out the door before he’s finished talking. The patient is watching her go.

Steve starts narrating as he picks up the kit, shuffling the items by the handles, slipping gloves on. “Okay, we’re going to start by getting a better view here, and then we’ll start with the sutures. How’s your pain level?”

“Just start.”

Steve glances up at that, surprised, and meets the patient’s eyes, which are (for once) locked onto his. The look in them is—unpleasant.

After a few beats of silence, the patient adds, “I’m used to it.” It is probably pain, especially in that arm.

“You’re in a hurry?” asks Steve as he picks up the clamped needle he’s got set and braces his other elbow on the other side of the patient’s arm.

The patient doesn’t answer.

Steve doesn’t press the issue. He uses one elbow briefly to readjust the lamp. The muscle needs some gentle TLC, coaxing the edges back together, and the sutures there clearly hurt. The patient’s breathing takes on a rhythm that’s got to be counted out for how regular it is. He’s done this before, breathing through pain.

When he finishes the muscle and starts reapproximating skin, the patient seems to start calming down. The familiar back-and-forth of the curved needle through the tissue, looped up, let go one clamp as he grabs with the other, and spin for the knot, tie, cut, start again, is easy. The PA could have done this if they’d had one on tonight, but she’s out with a flu that’s been going around, choking on ugly coughs that no one wants in the ED.

Marcy comes back as he’s finishing up. “Hey, boss,” she says, the light gleaming off her dark forehead, sweat making it sparkle out of the corner of his eye, “need anything?”

“He’s going to be done in a couple of minutes,” he says. “Can you get started on the discharge paperwork?”

“Yeah, no problem. You want antibiotics?”

“Broad-spectrum prophylaxis. Doxy. Week course.”

“Okay. You want him to get the first dose here?”

“No allergies on file. Should be fine.” He’s tying the last knot as they talk.

As he finishes, a thorough swab, Marcy starts explaining the discharge paperwork to the patient—sir, we’ll need you to sign here—

“Don’t call me sir,” the patient says.

Marcy takes it in stride. “Of course. We’ll need your signatures here to indicate that you’ve received a copy of this, and that you understand you’ll need to complete the full week of prescribed antibiotics.”

“Fine,” he says, as Steve lets go of his arm and scoots back on the armless rolling stool.

“How’s that feel?” asks Steve. The patient gingerly tests the arm by flexing it. Everything about it is stiff and ungainly—there is no way these are injuries from the original MVA, this is major, and surgery like this means either another MVA, an industrial accident, or war.

“Fine.”

“When the numbing agent wears off, you may feel more discomfort. I’m going to prescribe some additional oxycodone for that, ten pills. If you’re in pain after that, let me know.”

The patient’s eyebrows draw together. “You personally?”

“Call the hospital, they’ll let me know and I can give you call back.”

“…okay.”

Steve pauses for a minute, and then says, “Do you have a primary care provider at the VA?”

“No.”

“You might consider going. The one nearest here is actually really good, a friend of mine works there.”

The patient stares at him in a way that communicates how little he wants to have this conversation, and Steve drops it.

By the time they get Captain Barnes up and out of the room, the MA is hovering (not Bill anymore, he must have gone off shift, who’s this? Chang?), ready to get it clean and set for the next patient.

Steve gets sidetracked almost immediately by the commotion from earlier—turns out, Marcy tells him, there was a teen who took a bad hit at a skate park, and it would have been fine, if he’d been wearing a helmet, which he wasn’t, or if his drunk friends hadn’t gotten into a fight, which they did. So now there’s a kid with a nasty concussion and a laceration looping down over his forehead and right through an eyebrow, which they’re going to need to figure out whether to call Plastics on, and on top of that there’s a couple of drunk kids with broken bones in their hands and they need to figure out how bad that is under the alcoholic belligerence, and Steve knows from personal experience that their Ortho guy is bad at hands and also a huge windbag who might refuse to come in at all. Kay, who’s on with him tonight, has her hands full, and they have to break out the restraints. The resident (Valerie?) is sweaty and pale at it all.

The bad news is that they do end up calling Plastics. The good news is that it’s Natasha who shows up, and when she finds out Ortho doesn’t want to come in, she picks up her cellphone, and says some things in a toneless voice that make Steve’s hair stand on end. Ortho shows up in record time and meekly works on the hand (only one out of eight ends up needing him).

And that’s a Saturday night, or at least a small part of a Saturday night, and if that had been all there was to it, he would have forgotten Captain Barnes as easily as he forgets anyone in the endless parade of patients.

 

He’s standing outside the hospital the next week on a break, his phone in hand, just checking the scores and letting his mind be blissfully blank. It’s still light out, which is nice. He doesn’t always get to see a lot of daylight. The ED is pretty self-contained and he always ends up volunteering to work long blocks of the overnight shifts no one else wants.

“Hey,” says Maria, the other doc who’s on today, sticking her head out the door. “We’ve got a situation.”

“Yeah?” The phone lolls, already forgotten.

“DV situation. Wife has multiple stab wounds. Husband self-inflicted gunshot. Coming our way.”

“Jesus,” says Steve, shoving his phone back into his pocket, heading back inside. “Why us?”

“General has their hands full. Pile-up on the freeway.”

“Christ. Okay. Let’s go.” The ED is humming with activity, frantic, and by the time they’ve split up the patients and stabilized the wife for transport (her husband, as it turns out, has lousy aim and probably didn’t really want to kill her, because Steve’s never seen such tentative stab wounds in his life and her worst problem is going to be the scars) and the husband has coded out (Maria is on that one, thank God, Steve isn’t good with the DV husbands) it’s been a long fucking day and he stands under the shower in the resident’s room with his eyes closed for longer than he needs to. He picked this hospital because it’s not any of the level 1 trauma centers for the region. Usually if anything major comes their way it gets shunted to General ASAP or it’s scheduled, a surgery or something specific, and it never even passes through the ED.

He pulls a pair of clean scrubs from the laundry rack and heads home. It’s not a long walk. He didn’t want to get too far and the hospital regs specify “within 20 minutes” anyway. But it goes right by a deli, and as he passes he realizes it’s not too late to grab something, and his stomach gripes on cue.

The bell over the door rings as he walks in and the whole place smells faintly of pastrami, no sharp stink of hand sanitizer or underlying reek of blood. He’s staring at the sandwiches, picks one out without really seeing it, and gets to the register before he realizes his keys are in his pocket but his wallet is back in the residents’ room.

“Oh, man,” he says to the clerk, who looks bored by all of this already, “I’m sorry. I’ll be back in—five, ten minutes. Left my wallet at work.”

“I got it,” says a voice behind him. It’s familiar.

“What--?” he turns around, and it’s the patient from last weekend, with the ten-centimeter laceration, wearing a leather jacket with long sleeves that make it impossible to see whether the arm is healing up. Makes it impossible to see the arm. That’s probably the point. The hand, despite being covered in fine scars, is in good condition.

The patient (what was his name?) puts down cash, which seems weird but fitting, and says again, “I got it.”

Barnes. That’s right. “Thanks,” Steve says.

“No worries.”

It might be inappropriate to accept this, but it’s under the reportable limit. The clerk doesn’t care, rings them up together, a sandwich for Steve and a pack of cigarettes for Captain Barnes. Steve makes the effort not to frown at them but isn’t entirely successful, and Barnes catches him frowning, and the corners of his lips quirk like he wants to smile.

“Headed home?” asks Barnes, and it occurs to Steve that this probably an attempt at small-talk.

“Yeah.”

“Long shift?”

Steve sighs, and it’s huge, shuddering, tells a lot more than he wants to. “Yeah.”

Barnes just nods, and they walk out side by side, over the checkerboard linoleum, under the fluorescent lights.

As they get to the door, Barnes says, “Went to the VA.”

“Yeah?” That feels a little bit better.

“Yeah. Got a regular doctor now.”

“That’s good,” says Steve, “really good.”

Barnes actually looks at him at that, and says, “Got some good advice.”

It’s there on the sidewalk in front of the deli that Steve realizes he’s stopped walking, and so has Barnes, and they’re on the sidewalk and it’s cold and the pavement is glittering with an early frost under the fluorescent lights, and there’s the distant smell of leather from the jacket hiding the mangled arm. Their eyes are meeting for a long moment like a quivering drop of mercury and there is something, something, and he’s been so tired for so long and that’s no excuse, but that’s probably why he’s just figured it out.

“I know you,” he says.

Barnes raises his eyebrows. “Do you, now.” (It is not a question.)

Steve closes his eyes. “I do. Where—where did we meet?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the longest sentence he’s ever heard from Barnes, and is also definitely a lie.

He knows, then, all at once. It’s a picture in his mind from—“Peshawar,” he says, his eyes still shut.

Steve opens his eyes. Barnes doesn’t deny it. They keep looking at each other, and Barnes says, “Yeah, I was there.”

Steve is expecting Barnes to walk away, after that, because it’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it, but instead Barnes says, “Did you leave your wallet at the hospital?”

“Yeah,” he says, not really finishing the thought.

“I’ll walk you back. You’re too tired. C’mon.”

And Steve follows Barnes as he turns, still shocked, the adrenaline from the memory still rising, still flooding him, but a hand’s on the small of his back, steering him.

 

Peshawar.

Doctors who want to be heroes: what do they do? Well, some of them might go into Medicins Sans Frontiers, Doctors Without Borders. They might do a lot of good, a lot more good than they could possibly do back stateside. They might get to know the bureaucratic arm better than they want to. They might be disillusioned. They might realize they’re not always there to do the right thing, or that the leaders don’t always care about what the right thing is, or care about supporting the actual medical personnel in the field. They might eventually leave, might even leave before they’re really supposed to.

But before they leave, they might end up in Pakistan, which is by and large not in bad shape—dusty, sometimes, but there’s always a good place to grab a quick bite to eat, and a place to stay, sometimes a hotel, sometimes not. Pakistan shouldn’t take the flak for being where this happens, because bad things can happen anywhere; any ER will prove that. They might get the directions wrong. There might be miscommunication with a driver. They might end up in the middle of trouble. They might end up in a fucking unannounced combat zone outside any real cities with combatants who don’t even fucking know there are MSF in the area.

They might make some bad decisions, end up crouching behind a half-burned wall, no team and no medical supplies, just a man, with no gun and no defense.

And they might see a combatant who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, just a teenager, with a fucking big gun and white rims around his pupils because he’s scared and a scared kid with a gun is never a good thing. Steve learned that in residency at a trauma 1 back when he still thought he wanted to be a trauma surgeon. He’s seen what one bullet does, let alone however many that thing holds.

The kid is looking at Steve, not even really seeing him, seeing something else, nightmares, maybe, and he’s raising the gun with his finger on the trigger. There’s a noise like a punch and Steve flinches and the kid topples forward and sprawls in a way that is immediately, obviously, death. There’s a red haze on the ground and the hole in the back of his head is a lot smaller than the one Steve knows is in the front.

Steve looks up past the kid’s body and sees—holy shit, how far away is that?—sees a man in desert camo, only visible because he’s letting himself be visible, with a rifle. Just the eyes under the fabric, just a strip of the face. The man meets his eyes for a few seconds and then is gone, dropping out of sight behind the edge of a rooftop.

Somebody grabs his arm right about then and yells “The fuck are you doing here? Move! Move!” and he ends up safe and sound on a plane back to the States. He gently informs MSF that they can go fuck themselves, and drops his plans for a trauma fellowship at a lead hospital and takes the job at a second-rate hospital where he only rarely has to hold in the lifeblood pouring out of a kid or pronounce them DOA.

There’s absolute silence on the walk back to the hospital. Steve can hardly breathe. No wonder the name didn’t ring a bell—it was never a name, just a picture. And the picture didn’t include the thin white cotton bedding with its random blue ink splotches, the metal handrails on the bed, the familiar sounds of monitors in the background. A man without a shirt, just a hospital gown hanging off his shoulders.

Steve walks in, walks directly to the residents’ room, and gets his wallet, which is (thankfully) untouched, from the table where he’d dropped it, next to the lockers. The residents like him, he can’t imagine they’d steal from him, but then there’s other people who have access.

When he walks back out, Barnes is right where he left him, standing next to the back entrance, sandwich he’d taken silently in hand.

“Walk you home,” says Barnes, “you look d—real tired.”

“Dead on my feet,” says Steve, “I know.”

They’re about halfway there when Steve says, “I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t say. About Peshawar.” It feels like enough of the tension has bled out of the air that he can say that much, even if he’s still trembling a little, remembering the hot wavering desert air and the whisper of the bullet.

Barnes shrugs. “Doesn’t matter much if you do. I’m out.”

“Finished the tour?”

“Finished all the tours. Not much good to them like this.”

“You’ve still got—” Steve stops himself, but then starts again. “Good mobility in that arm.”

“Not enough for what they need.”

“I—I should thank you.”

Barnes makes an ugly noise in the back of his throat.

“No. I mean, I’m here.”

“You didn’t see,” Barnes says, very, very quietly. And then doesn’t finish the sentence.

“Was he your—?” (Target. Of course he wasn’t. Couldn’t be.)

“No.”

“Did it interfere...” (With your mission?)

Barnes doesn’t say anything for a long minute, and when he finally does, he just says, “Yes.”

“Was it—a problem?”

“No.”

“Thank you anyway.”

Barnes huffs slightly. It makes a little cloud of steam in front of his mouth.

“I’m sorry,” says Steve.

They don’t say anything for a few more minutes, and then they’re in front of Steve’s building. It’s a pretty nice one, a doctor’s salary stretching more than most would in this neighborhood.

Steve says, “I’m—you know, I’m glad we ran into each other.”

“Me too,” says Barnes. He doesn’t seem inclined to say anything else, starts to turn. His head jerks back when Steve puts a hand on his shoulder.

Steve is light-headed from the lack of sleep, from not eating, the sandwich clutched in his other hand. The adrenaline of being catapulted back into a memory he does not want to have. It’s been a long goddamned day, and he’s coming apart.

“I’m not okay,” he says. “I—do you want to come in?” He doesn’t know where Barnes would be going, otherwise. He doesn’t care.

Barnes just stares at him.

“Not like that,” he adds, suddenly aware of how it sounded. “Just. Company.” From one PTSD case to another.

Barnes relaxes, finally, but Steve can feel each muscle group going one by one and it’s not a natural relaxation, it’s deliberate. Everything about him is deliberate.

“Sure,” he says.

Steve sits down on his couch as soon as he gets in the door, still in his clean borrowed scrubs, kicks off his shoes, props his socked feet up on the coffee table, and goes to eat his sandwich. He’s so hungry but chewing is effort he’s not sure he has in him. Barnes sits, lowering himself gingerly onto the far side of the couch, a full cushion between them.

Barnes finds the remote and flips on the TV and it’s How It’s Made, thank God, and a few bites later, between bites, despite maybe his best intentions, Steve falls asleep.

 

He wakes up all at once, the way he’s woken up since he went overseas the first time, to Darfur. It’s early—the sky outside the window is just getting light.

He’s in his scrubs (long day) and there’s barbecue sauce down the front (not blood, completely wrong consistency and color) but there’s no sandwich in his hand or near it and he jerks his head to the side and there’s Barnes, wide awake, reading a book from the shelf next to the couch. Has he moved at all? It’s a toss-up.

Barnes doesn’t look up. “You okay?”

“I... think so. God.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry about—” Falling asleep. Needing you to shoot someone for me.

Barnes cuts him off midway through the awkward pause, and shoots him a sideways smile, the first smile. “Yeah, whatever, Ace. You’re going to be stiff as hell. Sandwich is in the fridge.”

He’s even still wearing his leather jacket.

“Well, thanks, anyway. Hey,” says Steve, “can I get a look at the cut? I want to make sure it’s healing right.” (Provision of care outside the hospital, his brain reminds him, and he deliberately, methodically ignores it.)

“It is.”

“Please.”

Barnes’ mouth twists ruefully, and then he’s shrugging off that sleeve, the jacket hanging off his shoulder. Steve is on his left anyway and that makes it easy, without even moving much, to gently pull back the tape and examine the wound. It is healing right. It’s healing better than he would have even expected. He hardly needs a bandage, but it’s an excuse.

“Hang on a minute,” Steve says, standing up. “I’ll get my kit and get that wrapped up again.”

He stops in the bathroom to use it, washes his hands, and in the mirror he looks so pale, so pale.

When he comes back out the living room, Barnes is still sitting in the same position, book balanced on his knee, flipping pages occasionally with his right hand. He glances up when Steve settles down with the kit and does up the bandage again. It’s a fast thing, an easy thing, and his hands are sure after the sleep.

When he finishes Barnes flexes the arm again, experimentally, rotating it to look at the bandage below and behind his elbow.

“You working again today?” Barnes asks.

Steve shakes his head. “Post-call. Don’t have to be back until tomorrow.” He was actually post-call yesterday, too, so today feels particularly well-deserved. “Did you even sleep?”

“Little bit. I have a weird schedule.”

They sit there in silence, Barnes not pulling his jacket back on yet, Steve still in his sauce-stained scrubs, staring at each other, until Barnes says, “Fuck it. I don’t feel like going home. You want to go to Coney Island?” and Steve laughs out loud and says, “Yeah. That sounds great.”

On the subway out, changed into street clothes if not shaved, Steve says, “I haven’t been out there in years.”

“Me either.”

“You go to the beach back in the day?”

“Yeah, summers.” Barnes hums a couple bars of Boys of Summer and then breaks off.

“Back then everybody called me Mr. America,” Steve says, just to have something to say.

Barnes snorts. “Really? What for?”

“Irony. I was tall, you know, but seriously skinny. Wicked asthma, full nerd.”

“Your friends sound like assholes.”

“What else are you going to get around here?”

They trade low chuckles. Barnes’ eyes drift up and out, like he’s going somewhere else.

“Did you have any nicknames?” asks Steve, which is like asking for a first name (which he already has, he remembers it’s a J, real common, James or John, no, James) except it doesn’t call attention to the fact that they’re strangers with something inexplicable happening here.

Barnes rolls his eyes. “Still do. Bucky.”

“Really? Bucky?

“It’s short for Buchanan. Middle name.”

“And that was better how?”

“It wasn’t supposed to be better. It’s a nickname, they’re supposed to suck.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“But it stuck and now I’m, like, Bucky, forever. Stuck with it.”

The subway jerks and throws them back, and since they’re sitting facing in that means it throws Bucky into Steve’s side. There’s a momentary press of heat before Bucky’s sitting upright again.

Steve realizes he hasn’t told Bucky his first name.

“Well, Steve’s better than Mr. America, so I went with it.”

If they pretend hard enough that this isn’t weird, maybe it won’t be.

When they get off the subway, Steve has to blink hard at the light. “Thought it would be darker,” he says. “Thought it was going to rain.”

“I guess we got lucky,” says Bucky, shouldering ahead of him, and he glances back with another little smile, secretive and bright.

 

The beach isn’t bad, actually. Somehow they both gravitate there without talking about it, skipping the boardwalk, even though it’s pretty sparse on people at the moment, being gray and genuinely threatening to rain, in the fall, past when most people would want to come out here. There are still people, but nobody trying to sunbathe.

It’s out on the open, empty beach that Steve says, “Are you in PT?”

Bucky is silent for a moment, then says, “Yeah. As of a couple of days ago. The doc at the VA says that will keep it from getting worse.”

“They’re right.”

“Who’s your friend out there?”

“Sam Wilson, he’s one of the therapists.”

Bucky’s eyebrows quirk up. “You ever see him?”

“Not—like that.”

“Then how?”

“My ex.” The words lay on the air for an uncomfortable beat. “It’s okay, though, we’re friends now.”

“Guess it took time.”

“Some.”

This is a little too much and Steve is waiting for it to overbalance. But Bucky looks undisturbed.

“Where’d you go to med school? Local?”

“Sort of.”

“So where?”

“Columbia.”

Bucky drawls, “Wo-o-ow,” and then, “and you’re out here why?”

“Didn’t want to do research, didn’t want to hang out with any more rich people, this was a good place.”

Bucky looks up the beach, and says, “You get any shit for being queer in med school?”

“Didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t have to. I was with a girl second year, everybody just assumed.”

“Got it.”

“So that’s the life story. You want to tell me yours?”

Bucky exhales hard but silently, and it’s only because Steve has years of practice at counting respiratory rate without looking directly that he catches it. “ROTC, went in full-time when I finished college, had some skills, had some fuck-ups.”

He’s not going to ask what skills. He’s pretty sure he knows.

“The arm—you’re wondering, right? Stupid shit. I was in a convoy, we took some fire, we were basically fine but the vehicle flipped and my aorta did something screwy and I ended up with, like, a piece of it blocking blood to my arm. By the time I got to surgery half the muscles were dead.”

Steve just nods. He can tell it from the description, thoracic aortic dissection, LSCA blocked, upper left extremity ischemia, anterior compartment muscle fibers not responsive to electrical stimulation, not viable, yeah. Could have been one surgery or four, doesn’t really matter. The delay between the impact and the surgery would have cost him dearly. There’s a lot salvaged, but not enough to look normal ever again.

“The hand, though,” says Steve after a moment. Those scars aren’t from any necrosing muscle. Nothing’s missing. There are probably cut tendons littering his fascial compartments inside, but his hand has typical bulk, and he can move it okay for someone with that much muscle loss.

Bucky flexes it without looking at it.

“That was a different day,” he says, and that’s all he wants to say about it.

They spend a lot of the day quiet. They get hot-dogs for lunch, and just walk up and down the beach like they own it. Neither of them wants to sit down, at least not for more than a couple of minutes here and there, and so by the time the sun starts thinking about going down, it’s become obvious that there’s something kind of fucked up about wandering past the same guy with a metal detector more than once or twice.

“You’ve got work tomorrow,” says Bucky, and it’s not a question.

“Yeah.”

“Should get home.”

“Yeah.”

They’re silent on the subway ride again, except for occasional comments—“sorry,” being jostled, or “stop’s coming up,” and a nudge to wake him up—and when they get back to Steve’s door (without anyone mentioning that that’s where they’re heading) Steve says, “You have to—go home, right?”

Bucky nods. He doesn’t looked thrilled about it.

“Okay. Well, look. I’m having friends over Saturday, we’re just going to watch some bad movies. You want to come over, they start showing up around six. You can come over any time, though.”

Bucky just looks at him for a couple of seconds and then nods, and he’s gone, and Steve feels heavy as hell levering himself into bed. Bucky was right, he got stiff. But he didn’t want to go back to sleep that morning, and now having gotten some quality sleep deprivation in, he’s ready to crawl into bed to wake up at three in the morning and roll into work by three-thirty.

He’s drifting off when he thinks that Bucky sure did smoke a lot of nothing for a man buying a pack of cigarettes.

 

Natasha shows up first on Saturday. “Hey,” he says, “there might be—somebody else coming tonight.”

She raises her eyebrows but says nothing, and he’s glad. She’s been trying to set him up with everyone she meets for months, keeps saying “you’re a doctor, Steve, you are perfectly capable of getting some action if you’d just try,” and “it’s not healthy to go this long without a human companion, or any companion, actually, maybe you should get a dog,” but this time she says nothing.

There’s a knock at the door and Steve opens it and it’s Bucky, bad hand shoved in his pocket but other than that looking reasonably relaxed, and he can feel his lips rolling oddly until he realizes he’s smiling, and Bucky smiles back.

Bucky comes in and there’s a hesitating moment next to the coat rack but then he takes off his coat and leaves it on the rack. He’s wearing a long-sleeved black t-shirt that’s stretching over his broad chest, and Steve says “Natasha’s working on the salsa, want to help?”

They end up standing in the too-small kitchen, Natasha on one side of the counter, Steve and Bucky on the other, chopping vegetables. Bucky’s bad hand is still fine at keeping the veggies in place and his good hand is clever with a knife, and Natasha is good at chit-chat when she wants to be, so by the time the door lets in Sam and Clint, and Bruce (who runs the Radiology research unit at the biggest academic hospital downtown) shows up alone, it’s easy to wave a hand at him and say “Hey, guys, this is Bucky,” and they just nod (although Sam, later in the living room, will mouth “Bucky?” with pained eyebrows and Steve just spreads his hands in shared confusion).

The movie they pick that night is Nosferatu, and Natasha rolls her eyes because she hates the really old black-and-whites but she puts up with them the same way Steve puts up with the godawful medical dramas she likes. Clint sits next to Natasha the way he usually does when he thinks he can get away with it, and Sam smirks at Steve over Clint’s head. Bucky ends up settled down in the end chair next to the couch where Steve’s sitting, so they’re not touching at all. (Except when Steve stretches out his legs and Bucky stretches out his and their feet end up bumping, and neither of them pulls back.)

After the movie, they sit around talking for a little while, but in a conspiracy of decency, no one asks Bucky anything more challenging than whether he’s got plans for the next weekend (“Don’t know”) or how he feels about a viral video of a porcupine desperately seeking treats (“Pretty cute”).

Natasha leaves first—she had an unexpectedly long surgery the day before that didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, and Steve knows she’s still feeling it—and Clint gives Sam a ride. Bruce says, “Let me help you clean up,” and when they’ve got stacks of dishes in the kitchen and they’re starting to load the dishwasher he says in a low voice, “Careful, buddy.”

“What?” says Steve, startled. Bruce is so serious, sometimes it feels like he’s the grown-up out of all of them. Which he is—he’s a little older—but not by much, and he likes these nights as much as anybody, even when they get silly.

“Remember India?”

“Yeah.”

“He looks like I felt.”

They finish washing up in silence, and when they come back out, Bucky’s leaned back in the chair, looking for all the world like he’s fallen asleep. Steve doesn’t buy it, somehow, but Bruce gives Steve an un-smile and leaves, his boots audible on each step outside.

Steve waits until the bootsteps fade before turning back around. If Bucky wants to pretend, he can—he can let that be how it is. He can let that happen.

But that’s not how it is. When he turns, Bucky’s eyes are open, watching him, and the facade of easy sleep is gone without a trace.

“Do I pass?” asks Bucky.

“What?”

“As normal. For a night with your friends.”

“I—I think they liked you, if that’s what you mean.”

“It’s not what I mean.”

“They don’t care whether you’re normal. They’re all doctors or ex-military.”

“They liked me?” He doesn’t sound like that matters, but Steve nods anyway.

They stare at each other in silence, and then Bucky says, still calm as hell, which has to be a lie, “Aren’t you ever going to ask me why I did it?”

Steve shakes his head.

And he does know. On some level, he knows that Bucky couldn’t have watched an innocent bystander get shot to hell. Blew a mission for it. What is it like to see the guy you spotted for a split second, whose life you saved, sitting in an ER, years later, not even remembering you? And what did it take not to show it on his face?

Bucky blows out a soft breath. “Are you going to ask me anything?”

“What did it cost you?”

Bucky says, evenly, “Not more than it was worth.”

They’re still looking at each other.

“Stay over tonight,” says Steve.

Bucky’s lips quirk. They’re beautiful. “But not like that?

“Like that,” says Steve, and his heart is pounding, he can’t believe the words he’s hearing, but what else could he possibly say?

Bucky is watching him, and then standing up, and he walks over to Steve, and then—side-steps around him. Steve’s hands are still hanging at his sides, and Bucky snags his jacket off the coat rack.

“No,” says Bucky, his voice not unkind, “but thanks.”

He’s gone.

Steve stands there for another minute, and then sits down, heavily.

 

It isn’t until he opens his phone up a few hours later than he sees a new number in it, the screen left on it. Somebody entered it while he wasn’t paying attention. (His passcode is his fingerprint, so that’s a little iffy. But maybe somebody guessed the numeric code: 0704.)

It just says B.

 

He is able to wait until his next rough night on call to text. He just sends a picture of his scrubs in a corner in a heap, utterly destroyed, and the note “It’s probably Ebola”

it’s not Ebola.

“You don’t know. It could be Ebola.”

Steve, I would know if it was Ebola

(How?) “Fine, it’s not Ebola. But there is a LOT of bile on those”

I am not going to ask and you are not going to tell me

“I’m not supposed to have to touch bile straight from the duct”

so ur feeling wussy about surgery?

“Not wussy, just lifestyle-conscious”

They go on like that for a bit, until Steve falls asleep, in his own bed for once, instead of the couch or the chair, and Steve wakes up the next morning to find that the last message of the night was sleep, you moron

 

Steve makes it out for a cup of coffee with Sam.

“How’s Patient Zero?” asks Sam. (Of course he’d asked how they met, and of course Steve had to tell him at least part of the truth, and now Sam, being Sam, has to say things like “your sexiest patient” and “are you sure he’s never going to need ER care again, Steve, because I wouldn’t want you to compromise your professional ethics over a boner” and “fine, FINE, I will stop harshing your boner vibes” and “no, Steve, I’m messing with you, I think as long as you aren’t ever his doctor again it’s probably fine but if this is a Thing you should call Ethics for a consult” and “no, I don’t think they’d fire you already, you huge paranoid baby”.)

Steve shrugs. “He’s not seeing you? He said he was seeing somebody at the VA.”

“No, if he’s seeing somebody it’s not me.”

“Okay.”

“Which could b—”

Before he can say could be you Steve cuts him off. “It’s not.”

“Huh, really? I figured—”

“Me too. But it’s not.”

“Oh. Ouch.” Sam does look sympathetic, although that could just be his therapist face instead of his ex-boyfriend face. Staying friends is not without its challenges.

“Yeah.”

Sam picks up his coffee and takes a long, slow sip. “Guess not every single person in the military was queer.”

“I mean, look at Clint. He’s... basically straight, right?”

“Yeah. It’s weird.”

Steve can’t help it, he laughs at that. “I know, right? Straight people seem fake.”

It’s a conversation they’ve had before but there’s something to be said for familiar ground, and Sam raises his eyebrows: “Hey, don’t ask me, I’m genuinely homosexual!”

They get away from the subject without any more questions, but Steve still just doesn’t believe it, somehow. Doesn’t think that’s the issue. But Bucky feels... real, and present, and that’s some kind of gift.

It’s fucked-up, though. And he’s not going to tell Sam about the bullet in Peshawar. Sam caught on to the wrecked arm, from the way Bucky was holding it, but didn’t say anything about it, and that’s how it should be.

 

He’s at work. He spends a lot of time at work. Emergency departments smell like latex gloves and rubbing alcohol with a whiff of unspeakable human filth underneath. Anxious family members wander the hallways like ghosts, out of the rooms where they belong, trying to catch a nurse or a doctor to come make it better faster. He drops off his lunch bag in the overcrowded fridge that no one cleaned on the last two Fridays, and he settles in to the routine, smiling at patients, Hello, I’m Dr. Rogers, and What brings you in tonight?

He has one patient who doesn’t want to admit that what he’s got is a bullet graze. It’s only a graze, and he’s denying it steadfastly, and Steve catches Kiran anyway to tell her to give the cops a call. When they show up the kid gets scared and scrabbles back away from them, back over the bed.

“It’s okay, kid,” says one of the cops, but they’re lying, obviously, and once he’s patched up he’s taken into custody for being involved in a gang-style shooting earlier that night.

 

He texts Bucky about it on his way home. It’s about four in the afternoon, after his thirty-six-hour shift, when he feels light and like he’s floating but still sad. He waits for something, and when the phone gives the half-shake that means there’s a text, he pries his eyes (which had drifted shut while he walked) back open and sees, kids shouldn’t play with guns.

It’s mostly not this bad. It’s mostly a steady stream of minor injuries and major heart attacks. Most of his work is handing people over to Cardiology or stitching them up or bracing something and sending them home.

“Do you think it’s messed up that I did it,” he texts.

 no.

“What kind of car are you working on?”

mustang

and that one comes with a picture of a fiercely pretty car, fast, low to the ground, currently clearly only about half-there.

Steve falls asleep on the couch, watching Bath Crashers.

 

He wakes up to a very, very soft knock at the door. It’s dark. He gets up and goes to answer it. He knows who it has to be.

And it is. Bucky says, “Couldn’t sleep.”

Steve steps back from the door. Bucky hangs up his coat, and this time he’s wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt under it and the wreck of his arm is visible. There’s the pink mark of the healing cut, starting to turn shiny and pale, the sutures already gone. The skin where muscle used to fill it out is puckered and doesn’t stretch right when the arm moves.

Bucky sits down on the couch next to him. He checks the time—he’s been sleeping for about seven hours, and could probably be awake now—but he just flips the channel over to something that’s making soothing noises, looks like a cooking show. Bucky leans back into the couch, and is out in under ten minutes.

When he wakes up again, Bucky’s feet are in his lap. He’s stretched out on the couch and his good arm is dangling over the side and his left arm is jammed between his body and the couch. His mouth is slack, and he’s snoring a little.

Steve just sits there. It’s still dark, definitely night. The alarm in his bedroom is going to go off soon. He’s on again today. It should be post-call, but one of the senior docs is off and the schedule is all messed up for the week. So he gets some sleep and then he’s back in. But in another week he’s off his block and he’ll have ten days off in a row.

The alarm is going to go off soon, but he just watches Bucky while the television runs in a low persistent mumble.

Bucky clicks back into consciousness after a couple of minutes of it, and his eyes open and focus on Steve’s.

“So why did you do it?” asks Steve.

“You don’t remember me,” says Bucky. “From before.”

“Before what?”

“Before I took the shot.”

“No.”

“We were in that town, before, a couple of weeks—we were in that town at the same time. I used to see you around. And I thought, you looked like a good guy. Being a doctor. You were good with kids. And I knew it was going to kill you if I shot that kid in front of you, but he was going to kill you if I didn’t, and I thought, you know what, let’s see what happens if I do it.”

Steve is staring at Bucky’s face.

“I wasn’t—I didn’t know you were at that hospital. Swear. I was working on the car and a piece of metal I had propped up fell down and I felt pretty fucking stupid, and also it really hurt, and then you were there, and you fixed me up.”

This a place for Steve to say something. He says “Yeah?”

Bucky says, “And I figured, I did it right. I did that right, at least.”

There’s a moment before Steve says, “Your target?”

“Just a local asshole. Didn’t matter. You mattered.”

“You got in trouble?”

“Got reamed. They didn’t give me too much shit after that.”

“I’m—glad.”

“I was good.” He says it simply, not showing off. “Don’t know what to be now. I’m not as good at anything as I was at that. Don’t have to figure it out yet.”

The alarm goes off. Bucky pulls his feet back, and Steve gets up to turn it off. When he comes back out of the bedroom, Bucky is in the kitchen, making coffee.

Steve sits across from him on a barstool and Bucky leans against the counter with his hip.

“Why’d you say no to me?” says Steve, eventually.

Bucky looks at him like he’s crazy. “You’re a doctor and you’re a mess,” he says. “I’m—I shot somebody in front of you. You really think that would be a good idea?”

“Yeah,” says Steve.

Bucky shuts his eyes for a second and drinks some of the coffee.

“Hear me out,” says Steve.

He gets a dramatic eye-roll for that one.

“I really like you,” says Steve, “not for—what you did, but because you’re—fun. You think I’m funny. Or at least you laugh at me, which works. And I want to see you again. Lots. Pretty much all the time.”

Bucky’s shaking his head but he’s smiling a little. Steve goes in for the kill. “And what if I’m just out there being wrong about things when you’re not around to correct me? Isn’t that going to drive you nuts?”

Bucky’s still smiling as he says, “No,” again, but not to that question, and then “you’re going to be late for work if you don’t get off your ass.”

He’s not wrong, and Steve hates being late, so he drops it and goes to get dressed. When he comes back out of his room Bucky is waiting by the door and walks him in silently. But Steve’s pretty sure the silence has changed. It feels warmer, less weighted.

 

Natasha says, “So this is Tony. He’s seeing Pepper.”

Pepper is, as far as Steve can tell, Natasha’s best friend in the world outside Clint, who is somewhere between “best friend” and “kind of married.”

Tony sticks his hand out, smiling. Steve has a couple inches on him, if not a lot of weight, and when Tony shakes his hand, he gives it a tight, almost punishing, squeeze. Steve just takes it. If Tony needs to feel big, that’s okay.

“I’m told you are a genuine, certified Hero Doctor,” he says. Steve can hear the capital letters. Steve laughs.

“Used to want to be one,” he says. “Now I keep my head down and collect my paycheck. Nat’s a hero, though. Sews kids up so good nobody ever knows they got cut.”

“Self-deprecating, even. Lord have mercy,” drawls Tony, and everyone laughs a little, and the conversation loosens a bit once Pepper asks Natasha about her latest surgery.

The restaurant is bright, honestly too bright, and Steve is waiting, even though he’s not sure if that’s wise. He’d texted Bucky earlier, but no response.

Bruce shows up and kisses Pepper on the cheek—she smiles, turning it for him—and while Nat and Pepper and Tony chat he sits next to Steve and says, in his perpetually serious way, “How is the new shift schedule going?”

“Not bad. I’m up for my vacation block day after tomorrow.”

“Guys!” someone bellows from the front of the restaurant. They all turn around, and of course it’s Thor, grinning his big stupid grin with all his beautiful teeth, and his hair is pulled back in a man-bun of the latest fashion, and he has his smiling girlfriend, Jane, on his arm. No one is sure how a competitive surfer ended up with a beautiful astrophysicist, but she gives every indication of finding his company enthralling.

So they pull up more chairs. At least three separate conversations are going on down the length of the pushed-together tables, and in one of them Bruce says, “You look really tired. Are you sleeping? Do you need another trazadone trial?”

“No, I told you, those just make me sleepwalk. I’m not sleeping great.”

“I’m just reluctant to prescribe zolpidem when your sleep schedule is so erratic. This isn’t good for you. You can’t keep doing it forever.”

“Oh, but you can keep giving yourself migraines over funding indefinitely?”

Bruce leans back and sighs. “I didn’t choose the research life, the research life chose me.”

“You’re not even delegating. Come on. Some of your residents are great. That new intern? Kamala? She could be an amazing researcher if you gave her more chances to develop her skills.”

“Steve, sometimes you’re so kumbayah it hurts. A grant application from her is going to get torpedoed in minutes. She’s young, she doesn’t have the publication history, she’s a woman, she’s got a name like Kamala. The grants all dried up when the economy went bust. Just keeping the lights on is my job for now.”

“So she can’t get the grants. Let her do the work. Let her stretch her wings.”

Bruce fiddles uselessly with his napkin. “It’s not that simple.”

“It is, trust me. Sometimes things are as simple as trusting someone to do the work.”

Right then he feels something on the back of his neck, not a touch but a shift in the air, and when he looks up and back, Bucky is standing behind him, smiling with a funny twist to it at the end.

“Got another chair?” he says, and Steve cracks a smile back and they shuffle chairs a little bit (scooting Thor and Jane down to the right, Bruce and Steve to the left) until Bucky fits in.

“This is Bucky,” Steve says, with a little wave, and everyone just kind of nods and goes back to what they’re doing (well, Thor, of course, leans around Jane and yells “ALOHA, man!” with his perennial enthusiasm, to which Bucky tilts his head to the side, smiles with raised eyebrows, and says “And to you as well,” which makes Thor grin his giant, shit-eating grin).

“Hey, Bucky,” says Bruce, “I was just trying to convince Steve that he should take a work schedule that lets him actually sleep.”

Steve shoots Bruce a dirty look. “I, meanwhile, was really hoping Bruce would admit that not every single thing in his lab has to be done by him personally. Especially when he still has clinical and teaching responsibilities.”

“You’re both right, argument over,” says Bucky comfortably. “What’s for dinner?”

“Uh, I don’t even know. Bruce? What kind of restaurant is this?”

Bruce picks up a menu and starts thumbing through it. “Looks like... Indian-modern? Lots of things on here that sound kind of made-up.”

Steve picks up the menu and yeah, lots of this looks pretty ridiculous. Bucky leans over—peering over his shoulder—and says “Get the number 3. It should be good.”

“You know this place?” asks Bruce, but Bucky just shakes his head. Steve does order the number 3, Bucky orders the number 15, and damn if Bucky isn’t right, the number 3 is delicious. (It tastes nothing like what he remembers from the trip that started in India and led to Peshawar.)

Bruce is saying to Bucky, “So how long have you been in New York?” and Steve tries to act like he’s not waiting for the answer, too.

“Been back a couple of months,” says Bucky. “I was away.”

“For work?”

“Yeah.”

Jane is leaning in to their conversation now. “And what’s work?” she asks, in the light way somebody who’s never done a dirty job can.

Bruce shoots her a warning look but Bucky either misses it or seems to. “Army,” he says to her, smiling, charming, “but I did my tour and now I’m looking for the next big thing.”

(Bruce chokes a little on that one and Steve sharply toes him in the ankle.)

“Oh!” she says. “Well, you know, I actually know a lab that’s looking for a research assistant. Do you like stars?”

He blinks at her, looking almost soft for a second. “I—sure?”

“It’s pretty boring, mostly just data cleaning and database management, but the pay is better than being a barista and the insurance is great. Do you want me to email the listing to you?”

“Yeah, sure,” he says, and he’s punching his email address into her phone, and Steve is trying like hell not to be a little tiny bit jealous that she gets that. It’s not like there’s even something he’d do with that address, but he wants it anyway.

“I’d be a pretty great barista, though,” says Bucky, turning back to Steve.

“I’m sure you would.”

“I’m good with machines. I could be an espresso-machine whisperer.”

Steve laughs a little bit, and Bruce is smiling at them, and it feels so normal. It feels so good.

When the party breaks up, eventually, Steve and Bucky and Bruce and Pepper and Tony are the last people still at the table, talking with great animation about whether humans are ready to colonize Mars. Bucky is firmly in the “why not” camp, Steve thinks they ought to be more concerned about the mental health of astronauts than he believes NASA is, Tony is 100% ready to launch the ship yesterday, and Pepper and Bruce are trying hard to care. Steve keeps seeing Pepper and Bruce trading looks and it makes him a little uneasy, but Tony doesn’t seem to notice. Tony’s been drinking, maybe only three drinks in, not an unreasonable amount, but enough that his face is flushed and he’s gesturing expansively.

“—for instance,” he’s saying, “if the issue is that astronauts are going to have interpersonal conflict, why not pick astronauts who are all attracted to each other, so you get the drama out of the way up front with sex, instead of nagging and backbiting?”

Bruce coughs so hard on his margarita that Pepper has to pound on his back. (Steve could point out that it’s not a useful gesture, but Pepper looks very concerned and clearly thinks she’s helping.)

Bucky is smiling a little and says, “You honestly think everybody fucking is going to make it less fucked-up?”

“It could! They should run an experimental series! Lock astronauts up with unlimited lube and see what happens! All-bisexual crew. Pansexual. Whatever. Everybody into absolutely everybody, nothing but highly attractive and intelligent people—because those of us who are highly intelligent are, of course, also the most attractive—”

Bruce has put his head down on the table and Pepper is fanning him gently with a paper napkin.

Steve hasn’t touched any alcohol, and neither has Bucky. They look at each other and Bucky says, “I think Bruce is going to die if we don’t get him home soon.”

Tony glances over, down to Bruce’s head, and looks comically dismayed for a moment, then up at Pepper, who tips her head to one side and shoots him a look that is equal parts love, plea, and remonstrance.

“I’ll call the driver,” he says. “We’ll drop him off. Do you guys need a lift home?”

Steve opens his mouth but Bucky says “No” and something about it stops Steve from answering.

Tony, who is a hell of a rich guy, apparently, has the driver pulled up front by the time they all get to the door. (He has also paid the bill ahead of time, the sneaky fink, and Steve glowers at him but Tony just smiles angelically back, the effect spoiled by the blotches of red on his neck where he’s still flushing from the alcohol.)

Pepper and Tony get Bruce into the car between the two of them, and as they drive off Bucky says, “Tony’s in for a good night.”

“What, really? Pepper seems pretty worried about Bruce.”

Bucky lifts his eyebrows at him, and when Steve still doesn’t get it, lifts his eyebrows yet higher. Suddenly Steve says, “Oh. Oh.

“Lightbulb time. Okay, time to get us home.”

Steve says, “And where is that, exactly?”

Bucky shoots him a sidelong look, shakes his head a little. There’s a pause before he says, “Not tonight. I’ll walk you home.”

“It’s a hell of a walk.”

“You’re a big guy, you can make it.”

So they do walk, with a punctuating subway ride that gets them out of Manhattan. They talk a little bit, but nothing big, nothing scary. Just that Thor is unintentionally hilarious and Jane seems really nice and is Natasha ever going to have a personal life or is she obsessed with surgery, which, Steve points out, is kind of what surgeons are by definition, and Bucky looks at him consideringly, and says, “So are you obsessed with surgery, too?”

Steve looks down. The pavement is colder now, it’s riding hard on Christmas. A couple more weeks. “I don’t know,” he says, slowly. “I used to be. But you know how many surgeons burn out?”

“Guessing it’s not none.”

“It’s—surgery is great. It’s not like anything else. You have this, this huge privilege, this trust, to take someone apart and put them back together. I’ve—I’ve held people’s lungs, touched their hearts, while they were still alive—and it’s amazing. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to God. Not being God, I know what people think about it, but believing. Because the way we’re put together is miraculous, even if it isn’t a miracle. But the days, the hours, the system is just put together wrong. I read once about one in six surgeons is an alcoholic. That’s not right. Half wish they hadn’t gone into it. Some days I’m afraid I’m one of them.”

Bucky isn’t watching his face, just the road ahead of them, and that makes it easier.

He adds, more quietly, “I thought I was going to change the world. It turns out I didn’t have it in me to do that.”

“Sometimes you can’t see the changes, at first,” says Bucky. Steve turns his head to look at him, and he looks fine. But that voice.

“Tell me something,” says Steve.

Bucky shakes his head.

“Tell me the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

“Already told you about the arm.”

“I don’t think it’s the arm.” He’s seen the way Bucky relates to his arm—it’s awkward, it’s ugly, it’s not the arm he used to have, but it’s still there, and he can mostly use it. Some people hate their limbs after things like this happen. Bucky doesn’t. He doesn’t resent it, doesn’t even bother to hide it when it’s just him and Steve.

They’re still probably twenty minutes out from Steve’s place. Closer to the hospital.

Bucky is silent. And Steve lets it go on. Lets the silence just keep getting bigger until it’s suffocating.

Finally, Bucky says, “I got caught.”

“For—what?”

“Not for. Who.”

“Who—caught you?”

“Enemy.”

And that makes Steve’s chest hurt, makes the chilly air hurt, hurt, because that’s not good, because that isn’t supposed to happen anymore.

“Wasn’t like it is now. It was... easier. They weren’t going to kill me.”

The air is made of knives.

“But it wasn’t fun.”

“Christ,” says Steve.

Bucky just shrugs.

They’re quiet for a while. They’re almost to Steve’s block.

“I’m sorry,” says Steve. “Do you—want to just come in and watch something? Sleep?”

Bucky shakes his head, and when they get to Steve’s door, he pulls Steve into an unexpected one-armed hug and then releases him and walks away. Steve stares after him for a minute before turning and going up the stairs.

 

His last day on shift for the block is a bad one. Sometimes it seems like the worst cases get saved for days like today. No severe trauma, but there’s a kid with a broken arm, just two years old, and it could be innocent or it could be abuse, and as he pulls up the medical record on the computer he has a sinking feeling about what he’s going to see.

The kid’s been here before. Burn. Break. Burn. Burn.

He calls CPS from the dictation room, and the social worker grimaces, chewing on his lip, and offers a tentative pat on the back, between the shoulderblades. I’m not coughing, thinks Steve, and goes back to the room.

That mess takes hours to get dealt with, a crying mother and a father shouting so loud that even the glass soundproofing they pull shut doesn’t deaden the noise in the rest of the ED.

Steve’s got his game face on through the whole thing. He knows he does, because he’s practiced it. He knows how to make his face look thoughtful and concerned, how to keep the accusation out of his voice, how to assure the family that in situations where there are several ER visits in a relatively short period of time for a minor child we’re required to contact CPS, I’m sorry for the inconvenience, sir. And trying to splint the kid’s arm despite that, and the father makes like he’s going to take a swing at Steve. Steve has to catch the fist in his own hand and he’s just so damn mad and he grabs and twists and the guy grunts in pain and shock, and it looks like maybe that finally got through, and Security that had been lurking in the corner of the room moves forward but isn’t needed and there’s no more attempts at—at fisticuffs until CPS gets there. The kid has fine, dark hair, sweaty with pain, and big, scared eyes, and his eyes keep darting back and forth between his father and mother and the doctor and Security. And Steve is never going to know what happens, whether the kid stays there or not.

And after that, the very next case is an obvious drug addict. Vague complaints. “My head is killing me, doc, ten out of ten, but I’m allergic to that med—no, that med too. I’m allergic to contrast dye, can’t have a CT scan. I’m not allergic to, you know, that D medicine,” and why, yes, Steve does know Dilaudid, and he does not want to prescribe it, but if this is an acute case of something bad he doesn’t want to leave somebody in pain, so he talks the addict into a deal: he’ll get IV narcotic if he lets Steve runs a brain scan. (The hospital’s going to eat the cost on this one; they’re going to be pissed at him.) Magically, he isn’t allergic to contrast anymore.

By the time he’s ready for discharge, the IV is out, the high is wearing off, he’s pissed again because Steve is refusing to write a script for more narcotics, and Steve can confirm that there is no hematoma, so he’s okay with letting the guy go, which he does, shortly thereafter, flipping Steve the bird on the way out. (The attempt to bring the social worker into it was met with what can charitably be called resistance.)

Steve is standing in the clean supply room trying to find a splint for the next case (an adult, thank God, a wall-puncher this time, still unnecessary and pointless but better) when the door opens directly into him and it’s Bill, who can never manage to get anything done, let alone done right. Steve opens his mouth, and Bill flinches, and that’s what it takes for Steve to take a deep breath, instead, and say, “Bill, find me the size A splint and bring it to 14, will you?”

Bill nods, frantically, and Steve steps out into the hall, pressing the heels of his hands against his forehead, in little circles, trying to press out the anger.

When the shift is finally, finally up, he changes out of his sweat-soaked scrubs in the residents’ room and heads out without looking back. This time he makes damn sure he has his wallet and his keys and his phone, because he is not coming back tonight.

 

When he gets home, there’s a note taped to the door.

He opens it and it says “call me” and there’s no name.

He calls Bucky.

“Hey,” says Bucky, gravelly and quiet. It’s the first time they’ve talked on the phone instead of texting.

“You sound tired,” says Steve.

“Yeah. I thought you were going to be home earlier.”

“Ran into some bullshit at work.”

“Huh.”

“You want to come over, watch something?”

“I was going to ask you that.”

Steve pauses. He hasn’t even walked in his own door yet. He’s exhausted, he’s still pissed. He needs a shower and hot food delivered straight from the microwave and to calm the hell down.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

“Okay. I’ll send you the address.” Bucky hangs up.

Steve lets himself in, takes the fastest shower of his recent life, stares at his closet like it was bought for him by strangers, gives up, pulls out one shirt, un-gives up, stuffs it back in, pulls out another, and, sure, jeans, why not, and then he’s stuffing his feet into shoes and he’s out the door.

The address actually is walking distance away. It’s not a bad neighborhood, not great either, but Steve is a tall guy.

The night is oddly quiet, snow-quiet, but there’s no snow on the ground. It’s just all muffled and distant.

Steve is an intern. There’s a kid who comes in with a gunshot. The lead resident is trying to call the shots but her voice is failing, faltering. The kid is bleeding out.

The attending gives up on her, shoulders her out of the way, takes over. She’ll get ripped a new one, but not until after this.

The next week she isn’t there anymore. Neither is the kid. He didn’t make it. He dies on the table at 12:51am, and the nurse who puts it into the computer isn’t crying despite her tight lips and shining eyes but Steve walks out and leans up against a wall and loses it.

The attending, walking out, sees him. Makes eye contact. Says nothing. The ugly crying is silent, invisible, if no one acknowledges it.

Steve is a second-year resident. A kid comes in with a loop of bowel hanging out from a stab wound. It’s nicked, clearly, and the whole thing is terrifying. The trauma surgery fellow runs this one, and she survives, barely, after a surgery that gets described in the record as “unusually complex due to significant bowel involvement. Potential for necrosis. Follow in ICU for infection.”

Steve is a lead resident. A man comes in with a gunshot wound to his neck. The bleeding is incredible. The PRBCs and the crystalloid are going in like there’s no tomorrow and coming right back out. It turns out that more than just the carotid got clipped, the carotid and the jugular both took a hit, and the carotid isn’t so much damaged as ripped in a clean fucking circle all the way through and getting blood into this guy’s brain is going to be impossible. They have to pronounce him and Steve goes home and he picks up a lamp and hurls it at the ground and it explodes on impact. He would feel better if he didn’t feel so stupid, having to sweep up the pieces. His note for the death in the computer, which he does not dictate until the next day, ends with “Hemostasis could not be achieved.”

Steve is thinking about his trauma fellowship when he decides to do some time with MSF and his friend the transplant surgery resident calls him in tears, his attending slammed him into a wall because he fucked up a surgery, and what he’s upset about isn’t the wall, it’s the surgery. “How could I be so fucking stupid, Steve,” he says, sobbing openly, “how could I be such a fucking idiot, how could I do that?” and Steve has nothing for him, because Steve has been cracked open by now and his chest, too, is filling with blood. The patient is on vent and not expected to recover. Waste of an organ. Waste of a patient.

Watching the kid pitch over in front of him outside Peshawar isn’t the trauma. It’s just the straw that broke the camel’s nerve.

 

When he gets there, there’s light in the windows and he has to call up from downstairs. Bucky’s voice crackles out of the speaker—“Yeah?” and then the buzzing of the door as it swings open.

Steve knocks on the door anyway, even though Bucky’s expecting him, and when Bucky opens the door, he looks—just the same as always.

“Hey,” says Steve, and Bucky smiles, even though his eyes have bags under them.

Bucky turns around and heads back in to the apartment, and Steve follows, and he can see from the set of Bucky’s shoulders that he’s holding himself carefully.

“You hurt yourself again?” he asks.

“No,” Bucky answers, “just a long day in the garage.”

“Any progress?”

“Yeah, I think so. Plus I got an interview for Jane’s friend’s study.”

“Oh, cool.”

“You have a long day in the salt mines?”

“Yeah. Christ. Yeah.” Salt mines, where they go to mine tears.

Bucky emerges from the tiny kitchen as Steve’s pulling off his jacket (God, this place is a closet) and waves at the couch. “Have a seat. We have a feast fit for a king.” It’s take-out phad thai and Steve closes his eyes and inhales deeply over the plate. Bucky sets up a movie—it’s an old-timey musical, black and white, with twinkling, tinkling music, and it’s just really fucking nice. He says that to Bucky, and Bucky just smiles like the Sphinx.

He starts dozing after his plate is empty on the table, drifting in and out, the fabric of his jacket pressing up against his cheek as he turns his face into the couch.

Bucky is watching the television. Bucky is watching him out of the corner of his eye, he’s absolutely sure.

It’s enough. He falls asleep.

This time when he wakes up Bucky is gone, and he sits up on the couch. It’s dark, the television is off, and it’s not just dark, it’s so dark.

He hears the toilet flush and a minute later Bucky’s in the doorway again, looking at him.

“Thought you were gone,” Steve murmurs.

“Nah,” says Bucky, and without mentioning the fact that he probably has a bedroom where he should be sleeping, he crosses back over to the shitty broken-down tweed couch and takes his spot again. Steve lies down and Bucky lies down and their legs end up tangling in the middle of the couch, and it feels good, and this time when Steve falls asleep he feels like he’s being—held.

Bucky wakes them both up the next time by bolting upright. He doesn’t make a sound, but Steve’s awake instantly and he just flings out a hand and puts it on Bucky’s good shoulder and presses hard, and Bucky blinks the hair out of his eyes and then focuses on Steve’s face, and he sighs, heavily, and then lies back down. Slowly, Steve does, too.

The next time is really, genuinely morning, and Bucky is gone again, but there’s the smell of coffee in the air and, even better, the wafting scent of eggs, with some kind of vegetables maybe. Bucky walks in balancing two plates improbably and sets them on the coffee table and comes back with two mugs of coffee, all without words, and Steve just watches him and watches him, and this is good, too.

“Thanks for having me over,” he says, after swallowing a mouthful of the egg scramble.

Bucky smiles a little. “My pleasure,” he says, echoes of hostesses past.

“Got any plans for today?”

“I dunno. Doesn’t your break start today?”

“Yeah, I don’t have to be anywhere for ten whole glorious days.”

“Then let’s go somewhere you don’t have to be.”

They smile at each other like they’ve got a secret. Maybe they do.

“You know what I don’t get?” says Steve.

“What?”

“I’ve never seen you smoke.”

“I don’t smoke.”

“I saw you buy a pack of cigarettes.”

“Guy on the corner smokes. Was doing him a favor.”

“Tacked on a favor to me?”

“Was already doing one, what’s one more?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know. You pick. I picked last time.”

Steve stares off into space—the narrow window, smudged and dark; the dark, threadbare carpet in the hallway—and says, “The park? You want to check it out?”

“Sure.”

 

It’s turning into a thing, going places most people are starting to avoid because of the weather, and just staying mobile, talking sporadically, walking like they’re going somewhere but looping the same paths over and over again, just soaking it in. A little literally. There’s some brief, blowing rain.

“You said you’ve been back a couple months,” Steve says as they wander under the bare cherry trees, dark and slick under the glaze of rain.

“Yeah.”

“Those scars are older than that.”

It’s true. The scars on his arm are turning from pink to white, and that’s more than a couple of months of healing.

Bucky reaches out with his right hand, flicks a drop of water off a hanging dead leaf. “Yeah.”

“So what got you out?”

“Still the arm. Kind of.”

Steve waits.

“When I got, uh, caught. I already had the fucked-up arm. They patched me up pretty good, but I wasn’t sniper material anymore. But they could still use me. So I went back out. But when they caught me, they, I think they recognized me from before.”

“Oh,” Steve says.

“And they were pretty pissed.”

They don’t say anything else for a couple of minutes, but Bucky eventually says, “They—messed up my hand. Pulled out fingernails. Cut it up. I guess they left a lot of it okay. I don’t know why. But it was bad.”

He’s got the hand in question in his pocket again, and Steve knows it by now, recognizes the zebra-stripes of the scars, which are redder than the scars that track over the arm.

“Jesus.”

“It’s, you know, I’m getting therapy. Started not too long after I got back. I just knew I needed to, right? So it sucks, but I’m doing it.”

“That’s good.”

“I know.”

“What’s your therapist say about—” Steve wants to say me but instead goes with “working in research?”

“He figures it’s probably good. Different enough. Something new.” Bucky has been resolutely not making eye contact. He doesn’t start, either, when he says, “You got a therapist?”

“No.”

“You need one.”

“Says you.”

“You ask your ex about it?”

Steve frowns, uncomfortable, and says, “Sam doesn’t mix business with pleasure.”

“I bet he has an opinion about it, though.”

“Sam’s opinions are why we broke up.”

“And here I thought it had to be because he saw what you do to yourself,” says Bucky.

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that.

“I’m not kidding. You see what you look like when you get off work? You hate it.”

“Yeah, everybody looks like that when they get off the long shifts. It’s not a big deal.”

“You got anything going on? Because if you did, I don’t think you’d be spending so much time sleeping on couches with me.”

Steve opens his mouth, shuts it, starts again. “I—don’t have anything going on, but. Even if I did. I would still make time for sleeping on couches. With you.”

Bucky snorts a little, shaking his head. “Get yourself a shrink, Stevie. You’re in no condition to be making decisions.”

“I wish you would,” says Steve, can’t keep the vaguely petulant note out of his voice. But Bucky just shakes his head again.

They catch the subway back later and Bucky walks Steve home, without asking whether Steve wants to come over for dinner, and doesn’t give Steve another one of those hugs.

 

When Steve wakes up the next morning, in his bed, just for a change, he finds his head is about three sizes too big for his skull, and he knows he wasn’t drinking, so he drags himself out of bed long enough to hunt up the thermometer in the bathroom even though he already knows what it’s going to tell him. Yep. His second day of his block off, and he’s got a fever of 102. Thank God he lives in a city where you can order in chicken noodle soup. Or pho. Pho sounds good.

The shattering coughing starts a couple of hours later, after the phlegm has had a good chance to start running down the back of his throat, and he just makes himself a nest on the couch of what clean blankets he’s got and starts a marathon of all the shows he’s been half-watching while he tries to fall asleep lately. They do the trick and he can doze between coughing fits.

His phone buzzes—he tries to squint at it without moving his head too much. It’s Sam, actually, and when he drags it up to his face, he sees he texted Sam at some point in the night, “Do you think I need a therapist?” and Sam has responded Yeah, probably and it’s a little unfair to get that right now.

“I’m dying of the plague” he tells Sam.

You probably did something stupid and deserve it

“Might have”

You need me to bring anything over? and the thing is, Sam is still, even after everything, still such a solid and decent person that Steve knows he would, without expecting anything.

Nominally Sam broke up with Steve. Nominally. But Bucky had it nailed—Steve kept doing this. Exactly this. Coming home late, exhausted, working the worst shifts, not even doing what the other ER docs do and taking up like mountain-climbing or something to keep him whole in his off-time. He kept promising Sam something, a better life, more attention, more time, and he kept breaking the promises.

So Sam moved out and moved on, and is it weird that he still lives in the place he shared with Sam? It doesn’t even feel like Sam lived here, and he was here for almost a year. There aren’t any traces of Sam, none of his stuff left, and there are barely even memories, like that whole time was half a dream. It honestly might have been, for how badly Steve was sleeping.

“Nah, but I’ll take a counselor rec”

Sure thing, says Sam, and Steve gets an email a couple minutes later with some names—a couple of individuals, a couple of clinics.

Sam never knew about Peshawar. The only person who knew about Peshawar is the person who saw it from the rooftop. (Sam never knew about the time Steve’s attending called him a useless fucking waste of space, either.)

It feels wrong that he survived that. It feels wrong that he didn’t go down that day. He was stupid, he’d made so many stupid mistakes to get there, he’d seen so many things he didn’t want to see, and surgery had crushed everything out of him until there was nothing left. There isn’t a person in here anymore. It’s a doctor. That’s different.

And if Bucky says yes to him, what’s Bucky going to get? What Sam got?

So even though it’s a Sunday morning and he knows nowhere is going to be open and his brain is hurting like a splitting rotten fruit, he calls the first place Sam named and leaves a message about wanting to schedule something.

 

The fever continues to pound, and his eyes ache in their sockets, but it’s probably viral, nothing work would be able to help with. If he still feels like shit in a couple days he’ll go get some antibiotics but it’s not worth leaving the apartment for.

He gets a text around dinnertime, when he’s thinking about reheating pho. what r you up to?

“Not much, kind of sick”

what kind of sick?

“Cold or flu or something”

gross. contagious?

“Probably”

ok, cool. i got the job

“That’s really great!”

yeah, car money

“My head is killing me”

maybe you shouldn’t go on long walks with strange men in the rain

“Then I’d have to change my dating site profiles”

He doesn’t hear anything for a couple of minutes, wonders if that was a little too much, but then again, maybe Bucky is sitting out with his car, and he’s got something to torque. Maybe he’s fallen asleep, maybe he’s making himself dinner.

Bucky texts him back a couple of minutes later. you at least taking it easy?

“Oh, yeah. I live on the couch now. the couch is my friend”

ok

and that’s all he hears from Bucky for the rest of the night. It’s a whole day gone, nothing but watching television and movies and taking the occasional ibuprofen to keep the fever tolerable and sometimes letting the fever build to keep him down, keep him from getting up and trying to do something.

Bucky shows up the next day around noon with rice pudding and wasabi peas. “Clear out your sinuses,” he says, chucking the bag over at Steve’s lap. Steve sighs, thickly.

“Sinuses aren’t the problem. Yet.” They’re full of mucus but it’s not hanging around, it’s all running down the back of his throat like it’s doing its best Niagara Falls impression.

“They will be. Keep them clear.”

The wasabi peas are good, anyway, and it’s nice to have something he can actually taste. Bucky makes him tea. He isn’t sure whether Bucky really understands that he’s probably still contagious, but he’s too selfishly, childishly glad Bucky is here to mention it.

He doesn’t ask why Bucky came over, either. Bucky doesn’t make him move from his nest (which is starting to smell like sick-bed sweat, but Steve’s so used to the worst kinds from the hospital that this barely registers), just flops down in the armchair next to the couch again and instead of letting Steve die in peace, or fall asleep watching TV again, he starts talking.

“I grew up around here,” he says, “and man, it was weird to come back after deploying. It felt like this whole different world when I got back. I never thought I’d get sick of Taco Bell, but there you go.”

“Only thing on the base?”

“Only thing worth eating on the base, and you know that was bad.”

“Where were you?”

“Mostly Iraq, Balad. Some Pakistan. Little bit of Afghanistan.”

“Anybody else in your family in the military?”

“Nah. My mom just worked, you know, and my dad wasn’t around a whole lot, and my sister got married pretty young. So, I don’t know, I got the funding for college and figured the military would mean a real nice pension for twenty years of work, and that seemed okay. It wasn’t peacetime or anything, but it seemed pretty safe.”

“God. Yeah.”

“It’s okay, though. I kind of hated it. Don’t know if I could have done twenty years after all. This way I’m out forever, no going back.”

“What did you hate?”

“Authority! You’d think I’d know better, after all the shit with my dad, but no, somehow I figured it would be fine, I’d be able to shut up and listen. And I did it, but it sucked. Every fucking time I got called out for something like a thread on a button, I was just going, really? Really? And I got good enough with the weapons I certified on that I ended up getting recruited for it, and that was a little bit better, except you don’t really get to be a person when you’re doing that. You’re just... empty. You’re just waiting. You wait to take the shot, you wait like you got nothing else to do or think about, and your brain tries to fill the space.”

“Yeah,” says Steve, who’s blowing his nose again after some more peas, “yeah.”

Bucky tips his head back and stares at the ceiling. “You’d really think I’d know,” he says, “but I thought, maybe if I get good enough at this, they’ll lay off a little. They didn’t, but on a mission I got to just let my mind go, a lot of the time, and that was okay. That worked. That was how I ended up watching you, thinking about you.”

Steve thinks his heart maybe clenches, but it’s—he’d feel more if his head wasn’t so full of pressure and snot. It doesn’t seem fair for Bucky to say this now. It’s been a very unfair flu all the way around.

“I could see you cared, but I didn’t spot how fucked-up you are,” Bucky says conversationally. “You going to let this kill you?”

“If you mean the flu, then yes. I am absolutely going to let it kill me.”

“I mean your job.”

“I cannot think of anything else I can do.”

“There aren’t any other places that need doctors?”

“It’s—it’s a specialized skill set.”

“That’s what I had, too. Now I’m going to do something with a database about stars.”

“I always wanted to do this.”

“Pretty sure ‘always’ is the wrong word if it isn’t true anymore.”

“You going to keep nagging me until, what, I get a farm in the country?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

Steve scrubs at his face with a hand. “Look, I talked to Sam, okay? Got some names. Going to make an appointment.”

“I hope you’re not talking about waxing your bikini line.”

“Jerk.”

“Punk.”

And they’re looking at each, both smiling, little half-smiles that just about do the trick.

Bucky grabs the remote and changes the channel to Star Trek with Kirk and Spock and says, “Oh, cool, I like this one.” (Steve will later discover that Bucky likes every single one, including, maybe especially, the really bad ones. But he’ll put up with it.)

 

Steve drowses through that one, wakes up coughing hard, wet coughs. Bucky asks, “Do you have any cough syrup around here?”

Steve shakes his head. “Nothing works, ‘cept codeine, and I’m not gonna bug anybody from work for it.”

“Huh. Okay.”

The next one that comes on (great, why is everything on in marathons these days?) has Kirk and Spock—fighting over a girl? Except not really and, “Wow,” says Steve, “this is super gay.

Bucky glances over at him, raising his eyebrows. “You didn’t see this before?”

“No, I am not that kind of gigantic nerd.”

“Well, then shut up and watch it.”

Around midnight Bucky stands up and stretches. Steve doesn’t pretend not to look at him do it. Bucky says, “I gotta go. You need anything?”

“Nah,” says Steve, through the sinking feeling.

“Okay.”

An hour later he gets a text anyway that just says sleep, you punk

 

Sam tells Natasha he’s sick, he knows, because she a) calls him and b) has cookies delivered. It’s... sweet. It’s like she cares, but she isn’t going to come over and risk getting all his germs.

“You ever think about not being a doctor anymore?” he asks her. “Or at least leaving surgery?”

“No,” she says, distantly, “but I like what I do.”

“Yeah. I don’t know. I think maybe—” he stops to cough. It hurts less today. “—maybe I don’t like what I do.”

“Big shock. Your job sucks.”

“I don’t really know how I would be anything else.”

“Well, I don’t know. But you sound like shit. You sleep like shit. Your life sucks, your job sucks.”

“Yeah,” he says, and she’s right, and that’s kind of horrifying.

The clinic works him in for an appointment really quickly, actually, just a couple of days, so he actually ends up going in while he’s still coughing some. He feels guilty but if he has to reschedule he’ll probably flake out on it.

His therapist is a woman, maybe older than him but not by much, with dark curling long hair. She says, “Tell me about why you’re here.”

He starts to. He doesn’t get all the way through it. Doesn’t mention Bucky or Peshawar. Just says he has a friend who’s worried about him, friends, actually, because he’s under a lot of stress from work. She doesn’t seem intimidated when he mentions his work, which is good, because when people start acting like it’s a big deal, he feels even more like an ungrateful bastard than he already does for not actually liking it that much.

She asks him, “What do you want out of life?”

It’s such a weird question. “I want... to help people.”

“Is that all?”

“It—does there need to be more?”

She’s looking at him and he has the disconcerting feeling that she can see straight through his skull to the other side of the room.

“There usually is,” she says. “Tell me, do you think you deserve more?”

“No,” he says, without having to think about it, and they look at each other as that sits on the air.

She says, “Why is that?”

And it’s such a goddamned mess when he starts trying to pull it apart. No one’s ever asked him why he wants to help people, or what else he wants, there isn’t supposed to be anything else, altruism is a perfectly good goal, a reasonable goal. Altruism is sufficient. Altruism is not sufficient. Altruism is what “makes me want to walk out and never come back, sometimes,” he says, and stares at her in horror, and she’s still staring back at him, her face unchanged, and how still she is, like a mirror, like a lake, makes it possible to say these terrible things.

He ends up setting up another appointment for a week out. He’ll be getting up early, but why the fuck not. It feels, maybe not good exactly, but at least like something to talk.

 

He spends the rest of his time off recuperating, and by the time his next shift rolls around, he’s basically got his lungs back, just a couple of stifled coughs he stops in his throat when he’s getting patient histories.

And it’s like the hospital is determined to prove to him that he’s wrong, because this shift is everything he always liked about emergency medicine: he sets a bone, stitches a cut, comforts a child who’s scared but who’s got a greenstick fracture that doesn’t even need splinting, and then he walks into another room and it’s Mr. Wilding.

“Hey,” says Steve, and he sinks to the stool in front of the computer, but before he logs in, he rolls the stool over to the bedside. He reaches out and puts a hand on Mr. Wilding’s. “How are you doing?”

Mr. Wilding smiles, but tears are welling up in his eyes. “Not so good, Dr. Rogers, not so good.”

“Have you seen any of the therapists your doctor referred you to?” That one feels particularly awkward to ask.

“No, no. I don’t want to bother anybody. Just since Jenny’s been gone.”

“I know,” Steve says, softly. “I know.”

They sit in silence for a minute—well, as close to silence as the ED will give you—before Steve says, “Lin tells me you’ve got another abscess?”

“Yes, it’s here,” says Mr. Wilding, pointing to his inner thigh. It’s probably going to be another ugly one. His body is disintegrating, and he only seems to really care when the nursing aid makes him. It always gets to ER level (well, that’s what the nursing home staff think; a competent PCP could handle it just fine) before he comes in. This time, thank God, Lin has put in the new meds and Steve can actually get the visit set up in the computer in a timely fashion.

Steve has him scoot back on the bed and lie down, and he tucks the edges of the gown around Mr. Wilding’s thighs to give him some privacy. Lin has already left out the kit he needs, and he tucks chux under the thin, frail legs, the skin so friable it’s ready to break if he so much as breathes on it too hard. The blood vessels running through it are dark purple and starkly visible. He does a quick edema check, pressing a thumb into the ankle, and the skin goes deadly white and takes long enough to bounce back that he notes it. Up the Lasix.

The abscess itself is easy. A little pain and pus and Mr. Wilding is slowly eased back up to sitting, Steve’s hand on his back, supporting him, as Steve has supported so many backs before, and Mr. Wilding is still crying a little as Steve talks to him about making sure to call his doctor sooner next time.

“I know,” he says. “But it always used to be Jenny who made me.”

Steve nods. The ED is full. There’s a line of people, a whole room full of people, who are waiting, who are ticked off about the fact that they’re waiting, and he doesn’t have time to sit here and talk, but that’s really all he wants to do right now, is give Mr. Wilding his undivided attention for a few minutes, listen to him tell stories about Jenny and how she made him laugh even when she was losing all her hair from the chemo and how she liked ice cream for the sores in her mouth and how she was doing so much better until the end. He’s heard them before. He doesn’t mind hearing them again.

Jenny wasn’t young when she died. She doesn’t count as a tragedy. But to Mr. Wilding, she was everything, and her death is part of everything now, and he’s letting go of the world, lifting one finger from the wall at a time until someone will let him fall.

When Steve was a medical student, this was what got to him, worse than the open chest cavities in surgery, worse than the rashes and weeping sores. But now it feels right, to be here, to just be witness to the loss that’s circling Mr. Wilding’s life and defining his sky.

Mr. Wilding shudders to a stop in telling stories, running out of energy, and Steve has definitely let this run too long, at least two nurses have put their heads in the door—he can see them, around the curtain, but Mr. Wilding can’t—and he’s just shot them looks, and they’ve gone away. He’s pissing them off, but it’s okay.

 

He’s telling Bucky about it on the phone, later, cradled under his chin as he puts a couple of stitches back into a busted couch cushion cover.

“Huh,” says Bucky. “Is there a medical field where you get to listen to people talk about dying?”

“Yeah, suppose,” says Steve, not really paying attention. “Palliative care.”

“That’s really a thing?”

“Basically. It’s about—making people comfortable. Helping them have the most of what time they have left.”

“Why didn’t you do it?”

“Well, it’s a pretty new field. And surgery was a lot shinier. That’s where the heroes are, you know?”

Bucky says, “I think helping people die right is pretty fucking heroic.”

Steve pauses. “I guess. Never thought about it like that. Palliative care can be pretty draining, nothing but death, day in and day out.”

“It’s death, sure, but it’s life, too. The less you have left, the more you want it. The more it matters.”

They let the silence hang. It’s one of the comfortable things about talking to Bucky on the phone, one of the nice things. He doesn’t try to fill space that doesn’t need to be filled. He can let it be.

“I saw a shrink,” Steve says.

“Good.”

“You still seeing yours?”

“You know it. Got a couple more months at least, according to him.”

“What’s he say about me?”

Bucky’s silent for a minute, and Steve adds, “You don’t have to tell me.”

“No, it’s okay,” Bucky says matter-of-factly. “He says I should be careful how much energy I invest in you if you’re not willing to invest in your own safety.”

“My—safety? I’m pretty safe. I don’t go skydiving or anything.”

“No. But you have to be safe with your mind, too.”

“You know, it’s funny?” He’s only got a couple more stitches on the cushion cover. “Bruce told me to be careful about you, when we met.”

“Yeah?”

“He said you looked—really beat.”

“I’m still pretty beat.”

“I think you’re doing better. You actually talk now.”

“Says a guy who wants to talk nonstop.”

“I guess.”

“Hey, it’s okay.”

“No, I know.”

He finished the stitches, ties off the knot. Using a regular needle always feels strange, now that he’s used to clamps and sutures. But it’s good to stay in practice. His mom taught him, and when she was working too much to mend his clothes he’d do it himself.

Bucky says, “How long are you on work this time?”

“Six tens. I said I didn’t want a crazy block again.”

“Good, you should take more time off.”

“I already take a lot of time off, I just take it all at once and then do nothing with it.”

“Except get sick.”

“Exactly.”

“Don’t you have hobbies?”

“Not really.”

“What did you do before we started hanging out?”

“Saw friends sometimes, spent a lot of time on runs.”

“That doesn’t exactly cover that much time.”

“A lot of time on runs.”

“So this thing you do where we go out and just walk around, are you wishing we were running? I guess I could give that a shot. It seems shitty.”

“Nah, honestly, I still get some runs in and I don’t miss it. It was—maybe too much. I may have been running too much.” He’d lost some weight over it, especially in the last year or two, not that he wants to admit that. Hadn’t been eating well, and whenever he was home sitting still for too long he’d get itchy under his skin.

“So are you off for Christmas?”

“No. I’m on.”

“That sucks.”

“I’m always on Christmas. I take it because the other staff docs all have families.”

“You don’t?”

“Mom’s dead. No siblings.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. How about you? Hang out with your sister?”

“Yeah, she lives pretty nearby and I go over before holidays, sleep on their couch. Spoil the everloving shit out of my nephews.”

“That sounds good.”

“I always come home the next day, though. You should come over.”

Steve laughs. “I might. Only if we watch nothing but Star Trek.”

“I told you you’d start to like it!”

“Shut up, I didn’t say I like it.”

“You so do. You obviously do.”

“Smartass.”

“You know it.”

He hefts the cushion, tosses it back in place. “So Boxing Day?”

“I’m not calling it that, but yes.”

“Okay. You want me to bring anything?”

“Yes. Uh... food. No, get some beverages too. I’ll text you what to bring before you come over.”

“You want anything alcoholic?”

“God, no. It fucks up my sleep something awful.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Are you still on the trazadone? You know I tried that?”

“No kidding? No, they’re seeing if I can make it on willpower alone.”

“How’s it going?”

“Fine, I guess. I sleep. I get enough sleep.”

“Do you have trouble falling asleep or do you wake up too early? Or both?”

“Both, but you are, let me reiterate this for the slower learners, not my doctor. So stop it.”

“Sorry, sorry, habit. It didn’t work for me. Bruce said I should have paired it with meditation.”

“He’s not wrong. It would be a good habit.”

“But it takes so much time.” What he doesn’t say is that it’s like taking off too-tight boots, when your feet swell and then jamming them back into the boots hurts worse than before. His brain doesn’t like the little breaks. It feels unfair to know it’s going to hurt to go back.

“Sounds like you’ve got plenty of that. At least when you’re not on.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Steve sighs. “Do you meditate?”

“Sometimes. I’m not great at it.”

“Yeah?”

“Reminds me too much of work.” And Steve knows he means the old work, waiting by a window or on a rooftop.

“Huh.”

“Yeah. My therapist says I can sing row-row-row-your-boat real slow in my head, keep my brain busy. But dude.”

“I like this,” Steve says. “I like these calls.”

It feels awkward as soon as he says it, even before he says it, but he feels like he needs to say it. In case Bucky doesn’t know.

Bucky waits a beat before he says, “Me, too.”

 

The next couple of days at work are bearable. Dragging himself out of bed for his therapy appointment feels like dying, but he gets there in one piece, and his therapist (Helen) says, “Can you tell me more about your concerns around your work?”

It’s so close to what he says to patients that he laughs, and then has to explain that to her.

“The professional therapeutic relationship has a lot in common between different disciplines,” she says. “Medicine and psychology share a lot of ground.”

“Like psychiatry?”

She has a ghost of a smile for a second. “Well, there are some differences between psychology and psychiatry, but that’s certainly one intersection.”

“You know, I thought about going into psych when I did that rotation, but it wasn’t serious. I just couldn’t see myself doing that.”

“What could you see yourself doing?”

“Surgery. Definitely surgery. It was just—easier. In a lot of ways, but you see patients for a little while, you know, you don’t necessarily have to get to know them, and if it goes right, they come in with a problem and then you fix it and then they go home better. That was the real draw for emergency med, I guess, when I was looking at careers.”

“And is it still a draw for you?”

He pauses. “I—don’t think so. I used to like it, that you didn’t get wrapped up with the patients. But now... I’m starting to hate that I almost never see the same person twice. Or if I do, I don’t remember them. I see notes I wrote a year ago and it’s like somebody else wrote it.”

“Are there people you do see repeatedly? I think you mentioned a recent patient you knew?”

“Yeah. Older patients, especially. They come in because the snifs—sorry, skilled nursing facilities—don’t always have a doctor in house, and they’re worried about liability, I think, so whenever something goes wrong, even if it’s pretty minor, they show up at the ER.”

“And you’ve developed relationships with these patients?”

“Some of them. Some of them are too far gone. There’s one woman who’s in her eighties and she doesn’t really talk anymore, the nurse who comes in with her has to tell me what’s going on and I swear sometimes she gets it wrong.”

“What about the patients you do get to know better?”

He is staring out the window. It’s not that high, maybe six stories, and there’s not much of a view, but he cannot be looking at her, he cannot be meeting her eyes.

“I’m not helping them,” he says. It feels like betraying his work, everyone he works with, the whole crawling ant-hill of the ED. “What I’m doing, it’s not what they need. They need to talk, they need somebody to listen, they need—you, I guess. Or somebody like you. And I just don’t have time.”

“Doctors often say lack of time with patients contributes to burnout.”

“Doesn’t it? It feels wrong to kick them out.”

“Is that what you feel like you’re doing?”

“It’s what I am doing. What we’re all doing. We just see them, deal with a wound or a bowel problem or whatever it is, and then we ship them back off. In and out as fast as we can. There’s always more patients waiting.”

“And how do you feel about the patients who are waiting?”

“I hate them,” he says, and then he grabs his own wrist and digs his fingernails in.

She waits for him to keep talking. Christ, therapy sucks.

“It sounds awful. It sounds inhuman. But you have to understand. Half of them—okay, that’s not true, I know it’s not, but it feels like it. Are there for the drugs. Just the drugs. And we’re not counselors, we can’t help them with that, most of them don’t want any help even if we could help them, it feels so pointless to pump them full of drugs and send them back out. But anything else takes longer and messes up our numbers and then we get complaints. Complaints because we won’t prescribe them enough narcotics to sell or OD on.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like hell. I didn’t do this for this long to fail this hard.”

“Are you failing?”

He looks back out the window. The building across the street is gray, or at least looks gray in the shadowy winter light. There’s a ledge halfway up it. There are windows, probably other offices. Maybe the people in there watch this building and wonder how the people at the therapist are doing. Maybe they watch them, like the crying is sport.

“Yeah,” he says, and it feels simultaneously so heavy and like it’s no weight at all. “I am.”

“Most people wouldn’t consider being an emergency medicine physician failure.”

“They aren’t at my job.”

“Can you tell me more about why it feels like failure?”

“I’m not helping anyone. I’m not doing what I was supposed to do. I do some stitches—so what? They don’t need me for that. The PA can take those cases. I set bones that somebody else could set. I’m not bringing anything to this that somebody else couldn’t. I’m not bringing anything.”

“Do you feel like you’re bringing yourself?”

“No.” That answer comes quickly. “There’s none of me in it. At all. It’s just a game face and some routines.”

She settles back into her armchair and looks at him, perched there on the couch, sitting so far forward he realizes he must look like he’s ready to flee.

“Have you thought seriously about what you would want to change if you could?”

“No. Well, mostly no.”

“Why do you say mostly?”

“I know one thing I’d like to change,” he tries to play it off with a smile but his face isn’t cooperating, “but it’s not my work life.”

“It sounds like you haven’t left yourself much time for your personal life.”

“Yeah. That’s fair. But I’ve got this friend I’d like to start seeing romantically, and I think he—” and that’s always a stumble, even now, “wouldn’t be against it. But he thinks I need to get my head screwed on right.”

“Do you think he’s right?”

Steve wants to stop looking at the building across the street. Someone has paper snowflakes up in a window, probably somebody’s kid made them.

“Yeah. Honestly. Yeah.”

She’s looking at him, he can still see her out of the corner of his eye, and when he glances quickly at her she’s looking at him like she’s waiting for him to understand something.

“What work do you think you need to do to get your head screwed on right?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, in what ways is your head not screwed on right currently?”

“I get home from work and I’m just dead. I feel dead. I just sleep, only I’m not even doing great at that. My ex—said it was a problem. He said he needed more out of life than waiting for me to have time off.”

“Was that the only problem?”

“No. I was, I was really cold to him after a while. It was okay at the beginning, I could pay attention to him, but it started feeling like he was just asking me for more when I was already bone-dry. Drained.”

“And was that because of work?”

“Yeah. It was. I’d get home and he’d want to talk, or go somewhere, and even on my days off I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay home and be alone.”

“That doesn’t sound very conducive to a relationship.”

“It wasn’t. It was a hell of a life. I don’t blame him for leaving. I think I made him leave.”

“Do you think it was deliberate?”

“No. No. Just.. a side effect.”

Four windows over and one window up from the paper snowflakes, there’s a ficus that has to be the size of Godzilla. The leaves are all crowded up, pressed against the glass. The cold can’t be good for them.

“It seems like your work has a lot of negative effects on your life.”

“I don’t know who I would be without it,” he says, and when she raises her eyebrows at him in a sympathetic expression, he says, “I feel so screwed.”

“Any thoughts on what you’d want to do about it?”

“I guess so.”

 

When he gets in to work after that appointment, he’s already exhausted. It’s not a bad day. People are saving their real major accidents and acts of malice for the holidays. It’s still a couple days away.

He forgets to gel in to see his first patient and he doesn’t remember until he’s already touching them, so he shrugs it off, but it still bugs him.

He takes care of a broken finger, two broken toes, a nasty case of road rash, and one guy who thinks he might have appendicitis (it’s heartburn).

“Cold out there, Doc,” says the possible-appendicitis patient.

“Is it? I haven’t been out in a couple of hours.”

“Yeah, it’s getting worse. Going to be a cold night.”

He puts in the order for omeprazole and looks back at the patient, smiling, game face. “All right, Mr.—” has to check the computer one more time, surreptitiously, “Thompson, I think we have you about taken care of here.”

“Are you sure this isn’t going to kill me?”

“I’m confident, based on your symptoms and the exam findings, that you’re not currently in danger of a ruptured appendix. If the pain gets worse instead of better, though, you should come back in.”

“Okay,” says the patient, placated.

Steve’s on a swing shift, and that’s why he’s the one working when it does get cold that night, bitterly cold, cold to the bone.

The first of the homeless hypothermics comes in around ten pm. Late enough that not only has it gotten cold, but there’s been time for it to seep into the bones, and for bystanders to notice and call 911.

He gets the Bear Hugger set up, the paramedics help with the transfer onto the gurney, and he pulls and pushes and tugs the man into position so that the blanket—actually a bag that fills with hot air being constantly piped in, like a hot water bottle but faster and more consistent—engulfs him.

They’ll have to discharge him when he warms up enough. Steve calls the social worker on shift, just a heads-up, so when the patient is lucid again she can talk with him, try to get him into one of the (already badly overcrowded) shelters.

Over the next three hours (Steve was supposed to leave at midnight but who’s counting?) they get three more, two women and a man, all frayed, all fragile. One of the women is actively delusional and needs meds and restraints just to stay down so they can finish rewarming her. The last woman, who has long gray hair that hasn’t been washed in months, is smiling, peaceful, and calm in the blanket.

The hospital volunteers, mostly highschool or college kids who want to be doctors or who want some community service on their applications, keep grabbing blankets from the blanket-warmer for the other patients, who’re complaining about the temperature. They’re bringing coffee to the families every time he turns around. He catches at least two family members trying to slip coffee to patients, despite the fact that nobody in the ER—nobody—gets liquids until it’s clear they’re not going to surgery.

One woman grabs his arm as he’s headed down the hallway. “Doctor,” she says, “my sister just keeps throwing up. Can’t you see her yet?”

“I’m sorry,” he says, patting her hand as he pries it off his arm. “I’ll see if one of the nurses can swing by.”

That’s the kind of promise everybody makes in the ER, constantly, though they’re rarely honored. There’s too much to do and everyone’s already been triaged and it’s not as if they’re not all keenly aware of how many people there are waiting and how little time there is to do everything that needs to be done.

Elliot swings in and takes one look at him. “Jesus,” he says. “Steve. Go home.”

“You want to go over the handoffs?”

“Honestly? No. I’ll get it out of the resident. But go ahead and tell me if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Cliff notes. Labs pending on 2, 3, 9, and 15. Patients thawing out in 1, 7, and 8. 12 was hypothermic but should be ready for discharge soon, if you want to, but Social Work is on it trying to find him a shelter.”

“Grand. Hate these cold snaps.”

“4 is a possible MI, 5 looks like a broken wrist, 13 has had two rounds of emesis since admission.”

“Great. 14?”

“Schizophrenic, off meds. I can’t tell what’s actually wrong, but it looks like it could be something abdominal. She’s resistant to exam.”

“Who brought her in?”

“Her mother. She’s not having a lot more luck getting her to let us examine.”

“Great. Are we going to need restraints?”

“I don’t know. Hoping not.”

“Okay, so now I’m up to speed. Get out of here.”

“Ugh. Okay.”

“Steve. They’ll be fine. Go home.”

When you spend all your time somewhere—or at least, more of your time than bears thinking about—even if it’s somewhere you don’t feel happy, it can be somewhere you feel comfortable. Steve thinks about it sometimes, how much the ED feels like home, like a dysfunctional home where he has an endless supply of nagging, judgmental, needy relatives.

He skips the showers because he’s not, actually, covered in anything disgusting for once, and it’s so cold he might freeze if he goes home with wet hair. It’s a quick walk, and when he gets home he takes a long, hot shower, and wonders whether the woman with the peaceful eyes is going to get a shelter spot tonight or if they’re going to hold her until morning and then put her back on the street.

At least there weren’t any drug-seekers today. Not even anything too questionable. Nobody complaining of migraines, or dental pain, or unverifiable back pain, or kidney stones but I’m allergic to contrast, doc, I just need something to get me through.

When he gets out of the shower he thinks about going to sleep but it’s a little alarming, as it usually is, to think about lying there, somewhere between asleep and awake, with the vast pressing noisy dim world all around him. So he compromises and cracks open his laptop on the bed and watches old movies, musicals from the 30s, until he falls asleep between Fred Astaire’s smiling face and Ginger Roger’s skirt flowing like the edge of a wave.

He wakes up around four, shuts his laptop and shoves it to the side clumsily, and falls asleep until it’s actually morning.

He’s got a couple of hours until he has to be at work, so he gets up and gets dressed, and goes for a run for the first time in a couple of days. Getting sick was the first time in a while he’s gone more than a day or two without a run, and he can feel the sting of the cold, cold air in his lungs. The frost is lingering and persistent, and it’s going to be another cold night in the ER. It’s going to be another night for the homeless patients to show up in ambulances, nearly dead.

Sometimes they are dead by the time they arrive, frozen beyond retrieval. Those give him a sense of loss and also, somehow, a sick sense of envy. They get to just be gone. They get to escape.

He slows down, losing where he is, as the thought fills his mind, getting bigger and bigger: he’s been jealous of patients for dying.

Therapy has a way of planting bombs in your own brain that you detonate while you’re trying to just go about your business, exercise your variably-effective coping skills.

He can hear Helen saying Can you tell me more about this? Do you think you want to die?

And no, not really. But sometimes it looks (blue lips, blanched skin, dark stubble black against a gray, slack, empty face) better than his life.

That’s really fucked-up.

 

When he gets back from his run he calls Sam. It’s been a little while.

Sam says, “Hey,” cautiously pleased.

“Am I interrupting anything?”

“No, no.” He can hear the soft clatter of pans in the background. Making lunch, maybe, or cleaning up.

“I started seeing one of the therapists you suggested.”

“Wow, that is good news.” There’s nothing condescending in his voice. He just sounds genuinely pleased, maybe a little surprised. Practice helps, probably.

“Yeah. It’s—it’s been good so far. Only a couple of visits, though.”

“Do you feel like they’re a good fit?”

“Yeah. She... lets me talk. Doesn’t get upset when I say stuff that sounds fucked-up.”

“Well, that’s kind of the job.”

“I figured. But it’s good to be able to just talk.”

“Yeah,” says Sam, and there’s no hint in his voice that he spent months trying to get Steve to talk to him, or, actually, anyone.

“I think I let things get worse than I realized. I thought it was okay. I mean, I was still okay at work, right? So that meant everything was okay.”

Sam makes a noncommittal noise.

“No, I mean, not everything. Obviously. You were right. I should have listened to you a long time ago.”

“I’m glad you’re doing it now.”

“I am sorry. For everything I put you through.”

“I’m not going to say it didn’t suck, because it sucked, but I really am glad you’re seeing somebody now.”

Steve figures he probably means the therapist. Probably. But he’s not going to ask.

“So how are you?” he asks Sam.

Sam hmms a little and Steve sits up straighter.

“Not bad. It’s been a weird fall, but I feel like right now I’ve got a good panel of clients and they’re all making progress, one way or another.”

“Are you—seeing anybody?”

“Oh, don’t do this.”

“What?”

“Try to make like you’re going to start something up again with me.” Sam’s voice is still calm but there’s a little edge to it.

“Oh, Jesus. I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I was trying to do, I didn’t mean that. I just—you deserve to be happy.”

“What, and I can’t be happy single?”

“That—shit, I’m making it worse. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Just don’t pull that shit with me. We have too much history for it.” And history is a good word for it, keeps it clean instead of messy and melting and full of love that got thwarted and wasted and ignored.

“You’re right. I will keep my nose in my own business.”

“It was never like I thought you didn’t like me, Steve. Or even love me. You just... didn’t have any room in your head for a relationship.”

They’ve had pretty much this exact fight before, and Steve wants to head it off at the pass if at all possible.

“You’re right.”

Sam is quiet for a minute. The noise of pans has quieted down.

“Shit, I’m sorry. I know you meant well.”

“I’m not always good at meaning well.”

“Honestly, there is somebody I’ve gone out with a couple of times. I’m thinking it might be worth some more dates.”

“That’s cool, let me know if he ever needs an ass-kicking.”

“Steve, you are a skinny-ass doctor. Even if you could kick ass, you would end up losing your license over it. You are not my designated ass-kicker.”

“I’m hurt!”

“Bullshit.”

“Okay, I’m not actually hurt. I would be terrible at ass-kicking.”

“I’m afraid to ask, but how’s your work?”

“The usual. I’m working swing shifts and I’m not really sleeping, per se, and that’s most of what I’m talking with the therapist about.”

“Well, talking is good.”

“Spoken like someone with a vested interest.”

“If people ever run out of words, I am screwed, yes.”

They talk a little bit about Sam’s plans for the holidays (family) and whether Steve has tried Sam’s latest breathing techniques to relax at work (he has not).

Finally, Sam says, “Look, I got to be honest with you.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m feeling touchy. I’m feeling... I guess jealous isn’t really the right word. But I spent so much time trying to convince you that something was wrong, and you kept blowing me off, and now you meet this new guy who won’t say two words in a row and suddenly you’re seeing a therapist and having life-altering revelations? Why now?”

“How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“Oh, so help me, Steve.”

“Sam.”

Steve.

“Just say it.”

“One.” He sighs, heavily, loudly, deeply put-upon.

“But...”

“But the lightbulb has to want to change.”

“I didn’t want to change.” Steve is very aggressively fiddling with a stray piece of spaghetti he found half-under the toaster oven. “You couldn’t make me understand that I needed to.”

“Fuck’s sake.”

“But now, I think I’m at the end of my rope. I think it was change or—I think I had to change. It was time.”

“I’m glad it was eventually time. Even if I wasn’t there for it.”

“It’s not—not like it was magic that I met him and then started seeing this. It was just, a lot of little things.”

“Okay.” Sam sounds mollified, maybe not totally but a little.

They aren’t at a place where they can talk about new people. Not really. There are still memories left raw (that time they took a whole three-day weekend off together and went camping, to Sam’s total chagrin, and Steve was grinning and standing in a stream in waders casting for a fish and Sam was just yelling across the water “I have no idea what you find so amusing about this” and then at night in the tent, wrapped up in each other in the sleeping bag, Steve sucking a hickey into his neck and Sam dropping his head back against the inflatable pillow and groaning softly deeply in his throat and Steve whispering things in his ear that were filthy and sweet promises he couldn’t keep; the time Sam woke him up just in time for work and already had his clothes ready for him; the time Steve showed up to a formal reception in a full-on tuxedo and Sam, who was waiting for him, looked up and his whole face softened into a warm smile at the sight, and Steve grinned and tugged on his cufflinks and Sam wrapped an arm around his waist; the time Sam came home from work with red eyes and didn’t want to talk about it and Steve fucked him into the mattress with long, slow, shuddering strokes until Sam could sleep).

“Are you going to Natasha’s party for New Year’s?”

“Probably.”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“She’ll be heartbroken if you don’t go. You’re like her best Clint buffer.”

“I’m not sure she wants a buffer.”

“If she didn’t want a buffer, she’d already have him living in her sex dungeon.”

“We have no proof she has a sex dungeon,” Steve says, to be fair.

“And yet I am absolutely certain that she does.”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that I’ve never seen evidence.”

“If she didn’t want us to see the evidence, we would never see it. That tiny woman is terrifying.”

“Oh, come on, she’s just Russian.”

“It’s not the Russian. It’s the way she always looks like she wants a scalpel when someone says something she doesn’t like.”

“It’s true she could rearrange your face without breaking a sweat.”

“See? That’s what I’m saying.”

“Anyway, I’ll probably come. I don’t have other plans. Yet. You never know, the President might call me up.”

“No, he wouldn’t, but nice try.”

“I’ve got to start getting ready for work.”

“Your hours really are messed up.”

“I know, I know. I’m going to see if I can get on some better shifts for a while. Maybe even day shifts.”

“Oooh, regular day shifts? La-di-dah, Dr. Rogers.”

“Shut up,” he says, laughing a little. “I’ve got to go.”

“Yeah, all right. Take care.”

“You, too.”

 

The shifts until Christmas are largely unremarkable. He starts getting more burns (candles, attempts to build fires, mulled wine) and fist-fights (beer, vodka, mulled wine).

Christmas morning, he’s in the ED early. It’s a skeleton crew, and he’s the only attending on, though he does have a resident (Timothy?) and they can call in Kay if they need to. (Elliot is completely inaccessible and said something about “call me and die,” which means only if they really, really, really need to.)

It looks like a slow day. No one ever says that in the ED, because that’s an open invitation to the gods to mess with you. Doesn’t matter how scientific the doctor, how up-to-date on medical science, no one says that.

In between waiting for labs to come back on a patient, he actually has time to sit down, and a couple of nurses are chatting. Joon offers him a clementine from the basket at the front desk (not where patients can touch it; doctors’ hands are filthy but patients bring in their own unique bacterial flora) and he takes it, for once, dropping the peel in the wastebasket and listening to the nurses talk about their families.

“I swear,” says Charlie, “I take every holiday shift just so I don’t have to listen to my mom ask why I’m not married yet.”

“Well, she just wants grandkids,” says Joon, letting her chair twist back and forth.

“I don’t care if she wants grandkids, I’m not marrying her church buddy’s daughter.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am not the marrying kind!”

“I thought it was because women can’t stand you.”

“That, too.”

“What about you?” says Joon, looking over at Steve. “Avoiding family?”

“No, they’re—I just don’t have any living family.”

Joon’s face softens. “I’m sorry.”

“I lost my mom when I was in college, and my dad died when I was really young. Army. So I don’t mind coming in.”

“Of course,” says Charlie. “I’m sorry.”

Joon might want to ask what happened to his mom, but she doesn’t, so at least that’s something to be grateful for.

 

Inevitably, a guy comes in who was trying to do something unwise to or with the Christmas tree (it’s not clear from the ambulance report and the paramedics just keep cracking up), in a neck brace and beet-red, and it takes a while to sort that out. Once they figure out that he was either trying to fly from the top of it or possibly just climb and hang off it like King Kong, Steve runs a tox screen, which comes back positive (shock of shocks) for cocaine. By then he’s already gone back to a normal human color, and he’s greatly subdued.

Steve has a firm chat with him about rehab and calls in Social Work, but this guy promises with such deep and instantaneous remorse to go that Steve is absolutely certain he won’t.

While Social Work is in the room with him, another patient emerges from his room—drunk as a skunk, swaying dangerously—and tries to pick a fight with a nurse. Lucky for all of them, he picks Charlie, who looks like an average guy but despite his soft paunch can bench-press Steve, and Charlie ends up just holding him in something like a bear hug until the restraint pads are fastened to the rails of the bed and Security can help them get him back down.

Christmas is like this, sometimes, in the ER, full of the least good outcomes of families getting together, travel, and people considering the gap between Bing Crosby and where they are.

A minor stabbing comes in accompanied by cops, and Steve sews up a crooked gash that slices up the patient’s right thigh, skips over the forward crest of his pelvis, and then digs in again over his right lower quadrant. It’s bleeding freely but shallow, and the guy will be fine.

By the end of the night there’s been a little tragedy (a five-year-old having a massive allergic reaction to her grandmother’s well-meant peanut butter cookies ends up with a broken tooth from the pediatric intubation kit the paramedics had to use while panicking) and a little comedy (King Kong cocaine guy, as they take to calling him, slips on the ice in front of the ER on his way out and has to come back in immediately to have his ankles and ass checked, but he’s fine), and a lot of mundane details that are just not worth the effort Steve has put into detailing them in the computer. He’s taking advantage of Kay’s arrival for her shift (the deal is he takes the day and she comes in after dinner) to dictate some discharge notes off the clock when Joon sticks her head in.

“Dr. Rogers?” she says.

He pauses, putting a hand over the microphone. “Yes?”

“We, uh, just wanted you to have this.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” he says, but he turns away from the standing desk and takes the package. It’s smallish and square, and Joon is waiting expectantly for him to open it (damn, he didn’t get them anything, even a fruit basket), and the card that goes with it is signed by most of the ED staff. When he finally gets through the immaculate paper (not Kay, then, she can’t wrap a present to save her life) it’s a book—a little book—an old book, covered in fabric, and he has to blink hard a couple of times.

It’s an early edition of Auden that he’s had his eye on for ages but never got for himself because it seemed like a luxury, and he’s never felt right about luxury, not after growing up in the just-barely-two-bedrooms apartment with his mom working full-time, double and sometimes triple shifts, moonlighting at different hospitals, just to keep them afloat. The heart attack his second year at college shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did.

“This means a lot to me,” he says to her, quietly, “thank you so much. Can you tell everyone—thanks, from me?”

She nods, her eyes suspiciously bright, too, and ducks back out.

On his way home he can’t help thumbing through it, even though it’s so dark out he can hardly read anything except directly under the streetlights and there are occasional little wet clumps of warmish snow. He finds the poem he remembers almost immediately:

Who is passionate enough

When the punishment begins?

O my love, o my love,

In the night of fire and snow,

Save me from evil.

 

When he gets home he feels jittery, so he boots up the laptop and turns on the TV and watches a documentary about a sloth in tandem with reading about the current favorites for the Superbowl, in exhaustive detail.

He texts Bucky. “What time should I come over tomorrow?”

no definite plans, whenever you want. just not before noon

“Sounds good, I just got off shift anyway, probably not going to get to sleep for a while”

anything nuts happen today?

So he tells Bucky about King Kong Cocaine, and Bucky thinks that’s sad and funny at the same time (welcome to medicine, it’s either funny-sad or sad-sad or stupid-sad, or, once in a great while, more often in OB, painful-happy).

He leaves out the guy who came out swinging at Charlie—he’ll tell that one over food tomorrow, maybe—and turns his head to the side, and drifts off a little.

 

He makes it over to Bucky’s house the next day, after going a little out of the way to get to a real grocery store instead of just the corner store. There isn’t a lot of traffic to dodge, which is nice.

Bucky buzzes him up almost before he finishes saying “Hi” into the speaker, and he takes the stairs two at a time despite his bags of groceries.

Bucky’s left the door cracked and when he goes in Bucky is in the kitchen, humming along to something on the radio that has a lot of tinkling bells.

“How was yesterday?” he asks, setting the bag down next to Bucky’s elbow.

Bucky pulls the bag over and starts sorting through it. “Good, fine. My nephew is turning into a wicked awesome skateboarder, if you ask him, although there’s been no demonstration yet.”

“That’s something I’m sure he’ll be able to turn into a long and healthy career.”

“Don’t worry, she makes him wear his helmet whenever he’s actually on it.”

“Good. I’ve seen kids with dents the size of a softball in their head.”

“Jesus, really? How does that turn out?”

“Depends. Sometimes they just bounce back. With a little brain surgery. Sometimes it doesn’t go that well.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, good, you got the potatoes. Want to help mash?”

“Sure.”

Bucky hands him an honest-to-God cast-iron potato masher, so he settles himself in next to Bucky in the tiny kitchen and tries to keep his elbows to himself.

“Thought you would have been tired of these yesterday.”

“Eh, we don’t really do a traditional Christmas dinner. No ham or anything. Just a casserole.”

“That makes sense. Everybody’s tired anyway.”

“Yeah.” Bucky is briskly chopping vegetables on a bright, ugly, small plastic cutting board. “You do Christmas when you were a kid?”

“You kidding? We did midnight Christmas mass. Didn’t matter if Mom was on shift the next day, we were there at midnight and we stayed the whole way through. I was going to get Jesus in my heart if it killed me.”

“Yikes, we only did Mass when Mom was feeling guilty about not making us go more often. Maybe every other year.”

“I wonder if we were at the same church?”

“Our Lady of the Immaculate Reputation?” It’s actually Conception, but everybody called it that. Well, all the smart-ass kids, like Bucky.

“Hah, no, we went to Saint Wystan’s.”

“Go figure.” Bucky snorts derisively. Saint Wystan’s has a reputation for being overly, thoroughly pious.

“You grew up around here, though, right?”

“Yeah, more like over on the over side of the Heights. Where the real little apartments are.”

“Glorious view of the industrial yards?”

“Would have been if there’d been a view.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, leaning into the masher, “us too.”

“Where was your mom a nurse? Not your hospital, right?”

“No, she was over at the trauma 3.”

“You know I don’t know trauma levels from a hole in the ground.”

“Right, sorry. It’s actually been torn down. But it used to be King General.”

“Oh, yeah. Got those mashed?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, hold this,” and Steve pours out the milk under direction, and Bucky puts it over heat, and then swirls a saucepan that was sitting on a back burner, and hands Steve a pot of what looks and smells like gravy to stir.

“You really are making this a secret Christmas dinner, aren’t you?”

“Maybe. No ham though.”

“You and ham. Ham isn’t the only thing people ever have for Christmas dinner.”

“Maybe at your house.”

“Okay, we always had ham. But still.”

“No but still, there’s no ham, ergo it’s not a Christmas dinner, it’s just some good old-fashioned mashed spuds with gravy and some sautéed veggies.”

“No meat at all?”

“Wasn’t feeling it.”

“Okay. You want me to get some glasses out?”

“Sure. Pour me some—what is that, cider? Yeah.”

So they bump elbows a few more times, inevitably, before sitting at the could-generously-be-called-a-table in the “nook” where having furniture makes getting to the “balcony” (just a smoker’s balcony, you could fit about a single foot out there) impossible.

But the table is steady enough and they can both fit at it and eat comfortably, and they do, which is different—not eating on the couch—and Steve realizes after a minute that there is an honest-to-God tablecloth on the table, and he decides immediately not to say anything, lest Bucky never go Martha Stewart like this again.

“Going back to the therapist any time soon?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I have an appointment next week. Tuesday.”

“Cool. You know it’s not... it’s not like I’m trying to put you in purgatory, right?”

“Yeah,” says Steve, “I get it.” And he does.

“I just don’t want you to think I d—”

“I don’t,” Steve says over him.

“It’s just. I’m still fucked up. And you’re fucked up.”

“I said I get it.”

Bucky is frowning intensely at his plate, which is mostly empty but has a smear of gravy and thin potato detritus he’s pushing his fork through.

“Although,” says Steve, and Bucky doesn’t actually look up at him but his attention visibly shifts, “if you ever decide you want to go on an actual human date I could probably manage that without being a huge weirdo about it.”

Bucky laughs a little, and his back is slumped where he’s leaning over the table.

Bucky kicks him out after dinner, but Steve’s pretty sure it’s with more reluctance than he’s shown lately. And that’s good, right? And he feels like he’s getting better at reading Bucky, which is good, too.

 

Tuesday at therapy Helen asks him about Christmas. He tells her about the Auden, and the line that he just keeps coming back to, thinking of, Who is passionate enough when the punishment begins?

“And are you being punished?” she asks.

“That’s the thing, we all are. If there’s something worth being passionate about, it comes with punishment.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes. Look at medicine. It’s the one thing I know how to be passionate about, and it’s not just kind of punishing. It’s godawful. Straight through from the beginning.”

“Do you think you deserve punishment?”

“It’s not about deserving. It’s just how things work.”

“Is it?” she asks, and he hates her when she sounds like this, dry and far-away.

“It is.”

“But do you think, if you had to judge yourself, that you deserve punishment?”

That takes a minute to dredge up an answer to, but he knows it, really. “Yes.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell me anyway.”

Oh, he definitely hates her at moments like this. Getting the answer out feels like chewing on nails. “I’ve never—I’ve never been a good person.”

“How?”

“I’m just not.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Look, I know what good looks like, okay? And I’ve tried, I really have. But I can’t help it. I just look at people and I judge them, like it’s my job. And I took my mother for granted, and I used to get so mad at my dad for dying, and I know a good person doesn’t look at a homeless person and feel revulsion, and there you go. I feel like I’m better than them, somehow, apart from them.”

“So you feel better than other people, but you also feel like you’re not a good person for feeling that way?”

“Yeah. Basically.”

“Does that seem contradictory to you?”

“Whatever.” He shrugs.

Helen is so damn patient and so damn persistent, it’s pissing him off. “Did anyone ever tell you that you weren’t a good person?”

“What, do you want to hear that I’ve got Catholic guilt?”

“Do you?”

“No more than any other kid who went to Mass every week.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah. Every damn week. And I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

“When did you stop going?”

“High school.”

“So a few years before your mother died.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you feel guilty for that?”

His teeth briefly grind. “It bothered her, but she understood. She knew I was—bisexual. She knew it didn’t feel right to me to keep going.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“I... yes. I felt guilty.”

“Do you still feel guilty?”

“Yes.”

“Have you punished yourself for this before?”

He opens his mouth to say no but has to stop. He can’t quite say it.

“Maybe,” he says, instead.

“Tell me more about that.”

“In college, I met a girl. I thought my mom would—would really like her. But I didn’t bring her home because I didn’t want my mom to start getting excited about marriage and babies. I mean, I was nineteen, I went through all that work to come out to her, I didn’t want things to go back to how they were.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“And then before I ever brought her home, Mom died.”

“And how was that punishment?”

“I... I know how much it would have meant to Mom to think I was going to have a family and be happy, the way she would have wanted me to be.”

“Is that punishment for you, or just another thing to feel guilty about?”

He’s been alternating between staring out the window, glancing at Helen’s face when she’s talking to him, and staring at her knee.

“I guess another thing to feel guilty about.”

“So tell me about how you punished yourself.”

He takes a deep breath, looks down at his own knees.

“I think... I just turned it all into studying. After Mom died. I stopped seeing the girl. I decided to go premed. I was already kind of thinking about it, but after that it was just so clear, you know? Plus there were scholarships. So I turned everything I had into school.”

“And did that pattern continue in medical school?”

“Yes. I had a girlfriend, a couple of boyfriends. But it didn’t get serious. I didn’t let it get serious.”

“And after med school, did you let it get serious?”

“No, you know, I just didn’t even date during residency, just—met some people. And then after residency I was abroad for a while and had no time for dating, and when I came back and got settled at the hospital I met Sam, and then we were together for a while. And I think Sam would have gotten serious about me but I didn’t let him.”

“So your life has been medicine for how long?” she asks, too gently.

He has to stop and do the math. Since sophomore year in college—two years of undergrad, four years of med school, five years of Gen Surg residency, a year in MSF, and he’s been an attending at the hospital for two years now. “Four—fourteen years.”

“Do you think that might be a difficult habit to break, even if you wanted to?”

He’s staring at her face now. “Yes.”

“Do you think you would want to break that habit of thinking?”

“I don’t know,” he says, and he doesn’t just not know that, he doesn’t know anything, he’s adrift here.

“If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.

She’s looking at him, meeting his eyes, and it’s only because she’s still like a mirror that she can get away with saying, “I want you to think about that, Steve. I want you to come back next time and tell me what you would do if you couldn’t be a doctor anymore.”

He’s shaking on his way out of the office. Which is on his way into work.

He’s sharp with everybody that day, and the nurses notice and shoot looks at each other when they think he can’t see them. It’s not like him. He puts so much effort into being friendly and professional all of the time, and it’s a vacant facade, like the Old West towns for movies. It feels like that effort is just too fucking much. He can’t do that and have on constant replay in his brain—what are you punishing yourself for? What do you feel guilty about? What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor anymore?

What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor anymore?

He has to call Natasha that night. She has a more regular schedule and doesn’t resent him as long as he calls before ten-thirty, which he manages by leaving promptly and calling on his walk home.

“What would you do if you weren’t a doctor?” he asks her.

She doesn’t even have to think about it. “Mixed martial arts,” she says, right away. “I’m good at it. I enjoy it.”

“Really? I knew you did karate, but—”

“And kickboxing, and a bunch of other things. I would win championships and retire early on my prize money.”

“Yeah, I guess you mentioned some of those classes.”

“How about you?”

“I just... I don’t know. My therapist asked me.”

She hms a little. “What about art?”

“God,” he says, “I haven’t even thought about that in years.”

“Why not? You were always good at it.”

Somewhere he still has a drawing of Peggy sprawled on a futon, after she said, giggling, in her ridiculous English accent, “Draw me like one of your French girls,” although it’s only half-finished because she interrupted him before he could finish and that is a warm, sweet memory he’s left tucked away for almost fourteen years.

“Yeah,” he says slowly. “I guess I was.”

“So there you go. You can be an artist.”

“That feels pretty pretentious.”

“More pretentious than being inspired by ER and deciding to save the world?”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m going to bed. Don’t forget about the party. Call me if you want to play any more what-if games.” She hangs up. It’s not rude, coming from her. She just reaches the end of a conversation and is done with it. Steve’s met much more idiosyncratic surgeons, especially in Plastics. The higher the stakes, the weirder the personalities that make it in.

He’s almost home by then and when he walks in, he kicks off his shoes and hangs up his coat, and then goes looking for something. He finds it, eventually, in a box shoved in the closet of his spare room, which he has never really furnished and where he stores the things he never unpacked after moving in.

It’s a flat leather satchel, and inside are drawings. Not all of them, but the ones he really liked, enough to keep around.

His freshman year he’d thought maybe art. And he’d kept taking art classes, although he’d really slowed down on them after his mother died. But there are sketches of her in there, some in pencil, smearing with time and carelessness, and some in pen, still sharp even though the paper itself is starting to get grainy.

And there’s the drawing of Peggy he did before he asked her out, although if you talked to her she’d say she asked him out. Peggy was so brilliant, full of light and joy, there for a year abroad, and he’d joked with her about having a whole house full of kids, except it hadn’t really been a joke. He’d sometimes looked at her and thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to settle down and forget everything else he’d ever wanted to be. Even then he’d had the impulse to go into medicine—something to do with his mother, he thinks, maybe, because he’d gotten used to her coming home at all hours with stories about patients, smelling like rubbing alcohol and the wards (God, the HIV patients in the 80s and the early 90s, the look on her face when he told her he was bisexual, like he’d just told her he was going to die), knowing she was smarter than half the doctors she worked with but still taking crap from them. But still. If he’d stayed with Peggy, would he have turned into this?

When Peggy went back to England it was a relief to both of them, because by then his mother had died and he’d come unglued and stopped paying attention to the relationship at all. Peggy tried, she really did, even after she went back, sending him real paper letters, emailing him, but he’d just let it fall apart and eventually she had to be the one to say a proper goodbye.

He starts crying, and it catches him by surprise, and he has to jerk back so he doesn’t cry directly onto the sketches. It’s so strange to be looking at a drawing of a nineteen-year-old and feeling these things. It’s so strange to be feeling anything at all.

He wants to put them back. He doesn’t. He pulls the satchel out into the living room and leaves it on his coffee table. There’s still a mostly-blank sketchbook sitting in on top of another moving box, and he pulls that one out, too, and slowly uncovers a box of pencils and erasers and then sets it out on the coffee table next to the sketchbook and the precariously-balanced satchel, and then he has to leave the room, because he feels too alert and alarmed, his skin getting almost itchy.

He manages to ignore it the rest of the night and the next morning, but when he comes back after work, he fidgets, sitting on the couch, the TV going softly, and finally picks up the sketchbook and a pencil.

It feels clumsy at first, but there’s a little burst of familiar joy once he starts making things that are recognizable—he’s starting slow, sketching the table itself, just suggestions of the sheets of paper sticking out of the portfolio, but there it is, emerging gradually, almost real.

He sets it down when he gets to a good stopping point in the sketch and then goes and sits on the fire escape, which he hasn’t done in months, not since he first came home from MSF and moved in here and would sit on the fire escape when he could feel the fear bubbling up in his throat.

The street noises are familiar, too, but newer, and comforting in a way that helps with how scary the sketchbook is. It feels like a malevolent entity watching him from the living room.

He texts Bucky while he’s sitting out there I used to be really good at drawing

bet you still are

He can’t answer that.

pics or it didn’t happen

It not happening is exactly what he’s afraid of. But it’s a direct request, which Bucky doesn’t make a lot of, so he peels himself off the fire escape and slides back inside, and sorts through the stack of sketches, looking for something that gives away enough but not too much of himself.

He eventually settles on a sketch of his old medical school classroom, not cadaver lab, but just the rows of students ahead of him, their backs to him, everyone watching the lecturer.

He snaps a picture and texts it. A minute later he gets a response.

holy shit you weren’t kidding

“I thought about majoring in art”

you could be the amazing drawing doctor

“At a sideshow?”

why not

He doesn’t answer that and a minute later his phone buzzes again.

why don’t you draw anymore

“I don’t know”

yeah you do

“yeah”

take some time off man

“can’t”

He pauses, thinking about that, and then adds,

“not yet”

And maybe it’s his imagination but he thinks the thumbs-up Bucky texts back to him is genuine approval of that last bit, not sarcastic at all.

 

Bucky hasn’t showed up at his apartment uninvited for a while, but when he does, he looks like hell. It’s the night before New Year’s Eve, or morning, really. Steve was just talking to him the day before, and he seemed fine.

Steve steps back from the door before he even really registers that it’s Bucky there. Bucky’s eyes have purple shadows under them and there are fine red capillaries blooming in his eyes and his lips are tense, tight.

“Buck,” says Steve, softly, afraid to talk too loud. “What is it?”

Bucky just shakes his head. He doesn’t even peel off his jacket, just drops into the armchair, and Steve goes and makes a cup of tea.

When he comes back out with it, Bucky’s still sitting there in silence, staring at the TV, which is off at the moment. Steve’s laptop is sitting out on the couch, and Steve says, “I want you to have a key.”

Bucky’s head jerks up. “No,” he says, instantly.

“Okay. Okay. I just want you to be able to come here if you want to get away. Even if I’m not here.”

Bucky’s chin drifts back down. He looks so tired, and so cold. He doesn’t say anything. His eyes don’t focus anywhere in particular.

Steve sets the tea down on the end table next to the armchair and then sits on the couch, as close as he can.

He waits for a while. Bucky shuts his eyes, eventually, and his teeth start chattering. The sounds hurts Steve, physically hurts him, he can feel the pain pooling in his chest. He’s heard that sound before. Rape victims showing up to the ER for the exam. People who’d been awake all night in war zones.

Bucky doesn’t touch the tea. The steam goes off it. Steve... doesn’t look away from Bucky. Maybe Bucky would rather he did, he doesn’t know, but. Those bruised-looking eyes. He hasn’t been sleeping. Steve catalogues the physical signs he’d look for in the exam room: skin looks like it’s not as elastic as it should be—hard to tell without a pinch-test, but probably dehydrated. Jacket camouflages bulk. Is he eating enough? His hands are clenched, half-tucked into the long sleeves of his jacket.

Who is passionate enough when the punishment begins?

Who is passionate enough...?

The punishment begins.

Everything worth being passionate about comes with a punishment. This is one of the punishments for having Bucky in his life. (There will certainly be more.)

Bucky’s chattering teeth slow down. He lifts his legs and clutches his knees against his chest, a pose that makes him look as absurdly young as the expression on his face makes him look old. His eyes are still closed. Steve is still watching.

Finally, he opens his eyes. He actually seems to look at Steve and see him.

Steve... doesn’t know what to do. So he just keeps looking, and waits. It works for his therapist.

Bucky heaves a sigh after a couple of minutes. “I’m... it was a rough day. Some fireworks went off when I was coming home. I couldn’t... they sounded just like it. I don’t ever want to h—I don’t want to go back there. And it put me right back there.”

Steve nods, without saying anything.

“And, maybe that wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But it was a long fucking day, you know? Had to sit through a fucking training on what to do in the event of on-campus violence for work. They were... there was a video on it. ‘Active shooter.’ It was...” he trails off again, but Steve can fill in the blanks.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because one thing Helen has been telling him is that when he can’t fix things he should still validate feelings. That counts. It’s something.

Bucky nods, but he looks like he might be going away again.

“You want some tea?” says Steve, and Bucky glances over at it, following Steve’s eyes. He grabs it, gracelessly, and just drinks the whole thing in one go, throat cartilage bobbing. Symmetric, no sign of thyroid abnormalities, tracheal deviation. But thyroid’s a tough one to find even on physical exam.

They sit in silence for a few more minutes. It’s become recognizable, this balance they find between talking too much and letting everything go unsaid.

“You want to stay over?”

Bucky nods, once.

“If you want, you can take the bed,” says Steve. “It’s a pretty quiet room.”

Bucky shakes his head a little, and when Steve gestures to the remote questioningly, nods. So they end up with a documentary on geological formations that has no shouting and a lot of pretty panoramic shots and a narrator with a pleasant, droning voice, and Bucky slowly drooping in the armchair, gradually kicking off his shoes, pulling off his jacket. He’s got a button-up shirt on and a pair of slacks. It can’t be comfortable.

He gets up eventually to go to the bathroom, and when he comes back, he’s taken off the button-up so there’s just his white t-shirt on under it, and he sits on the other side of the couch from Steve, the left side—which feels wrong, normally they sit the other way round. But it’ll be fine.

He slowly slides down, then swings his legs up, until his feet are sitting in Steve’s lap.

Steve lets his hands drop to touch Bucky’s feet, and Bucky closes his eyes, and he’s pretending to sleep again. Steve can tell. But he doesn’t call Bucky on it, and eventually Bucky’s breathing shifts for real, not counted out anymore but with the natural soft high whines of sleep, and Steve is left debating whether to fall asleep in this position or put up his own legs on the couch.

He moves slowly, so slowly, and puts his legs up on the outside of Bucky’s. Will it make Bucky feel contained, will that feel safe, or trapped?

He drifts off still worrying about it, the volume turned so low they don’t even hear the infomercials that come on while they’re sleeping.

 

When he wakes up in the morning, Bucky is actually gone, shoes and jacket and all.

It sucks.

 

He texts Bucky that evening, “still going to the party?” but gets no response.

He dresses up, anyway, goes for a black sports jacket and a steel-blue tie that coordinates. Natasha likes it when he puts in effort. (He’s still not sure why Natasha never got into him, but then, sometimes it seems like Natasha never gets into anyone. She doesn’t say and Steve doesn’t ask.)

When he shows up at her vulgarly large condo—Manhattan; she works at two different branches of the same hospital system, and one of them is a nicer clinic in Manhattan, so she only has to come out to Brooklyn twice a week—she has somebody else get the door, a much younger man, who is very attractive, and she introduces him as “Jacques,” and he has a French accent, and okaaaaay, maybe she does get into some people after all.

Clint is in a corner of the living room looking frankly murderous, which is never a good sign but kind of how Steve feels, anyway, so he migrates in that direction. Natasha has a view, of course, and Steve looks out the window, enjoying the slight chill of the glass, watching the lights run and sparkle.

“Your friend coming?” asks Clint.

Steve shrugs. “Not sure.”

Clint just nods.

There are plenty of guests, most of whom Steve knows at least a little. Bruce shows up, and when Pepper and Tony show up, their eyes all meet and Steve sees an actual blush on Bruce. (Tony tips his chin up and smiles, somewhere between a boast and warm fondness, and Steve looks away as quickly as humanly possible.) Jane and Thor, and some of the other plastic surgeons, and ah, Jacques must know Thor, because they immediately hug on sight and exchange European cheek-kisses. No wonder Jacques looks like he must be chiseled and flexible; he’s probably another surfer.

Jacques is apparently on deputy host duty, because when Natasha starts getting three sheets to the wind and stops making conversation with people in favor of draping herself over one of the huge white leather couches, he materializes in front of Steve, who is still hanging out by the window (he circulated over to pick up a coupe of champagne, but that was about it) and demands to know if Steve wants to dance, only it comes out as more a command.

Steve wants to demur but finds himself getting pulled onto the impromptu dance floor, the area between the piano and the couches, bank of windows to one side. (He has pointed out to Natasha before that her condo looks an awful lot like the one on Frasier, a dazzling insight that earned him a glare and a smack to the back of the head.) Jacques is smiling at him, right up in his face, much too close for comfort, and putting his hands on Steve’s hips, and... good Lord, gyrating. Steve hasn’t been gyrated on since undergrad. Well, and the time he went to a bar to celebrate graduating with his MD.

He glances over at Natasha, and she isn’t even looking at Jacques. She’s looking past them to the corner where Clint is moodily consuming... okay, somehow he got ahold of an entire plate of canapés. And he’s methodically eating them one by one.

Jacques leans in. It isn’t loud, like a club; he doesn’t have to be loud to be heard. He says, “Natasha says you may or may not be available, is this correct?”

Steve shakes his head a little, says, “That’s... yeah, that’s correct.”

“Perhaps you would like to be available tonight?” Jacques tilts his head a little, raises his eyebrows, smiling. He has jet-black hair cut in a deliberately messy way that makes him look roguishly handsome and he knows it, clearly, and his eyes are a vivid, vivid green, and his skin is as pale as fine marble.

Oh, Christ. Did Natasha do this? Is she trying to set him up? “I don’t... I don’t think so.”

“Ah,” says Jacques, tastefully disappointed in a restrained way. “Well, at least you dance.”

Steve sticks it out a little longer, and then makes an excuse about needing water to escape from Jacques, who turns his attentions to... oh my God, is he flirting with Bruce? Bruce is visibly flustered and manages not to dance at all.

Steve grabs another coupe and heads back to the Corner of Pain with Clint, ready to tell him that maybe Natasha is not, in fact, seeing this young man naked, but he pulls up short; Clint’s not alone, even though he’s still hogging the canapés. Bucky’s there, talking to him. Well, they’re muttering at each other.

Bucky’s gotten a haircut. Bucky’s face looks younger, somehow, more open, as if there’s an echo of the Brooklyn boy he must have been before he went off to war. Bucky is wearing a dark gray suit over a black shirt. He looks devastating, and Steve doesn’t even know what his own face must be doing right now.

He keeps walking, almost bumping into one of Natasha’s practice partners in the process (Lila? the other Russian woman, frosty blonde, that Natasha seems to like best). When he gets back to the corner, Clint says, “Tell me that kid isn’t actually dating Natasha.”

“No, I... I don’t think he is.”

“Thank God. He’s like twelve.”

“He is very young.”

“Think he’s a model?” Clint’s eyebrows are drawn together as he glares in that general direction.

“I thought maybe surfer, it looked like he knew Thor.”

“Definitely surfer,” says Bucky. It’s the first chance Steve’s had to hear his voice. “Look at how he moves. It’s all about balance. He’s plastered but he’s still dancing.”

The three of them all look at him simultaneously. He’s got a friend of Natasha’s dancing, and he’s pressed up to her, hip to hip, like he wants to crawl into her right there and then. Natasha isn’t even watching. She’s still on the couch, head craned up and back, talking to Lila, who is gently patting her arm.

“Yeah, I don’t think they’re dating,” says Steve.

Clint snorts. “I’ll take the expert’s word on not dating.

Steve looks at Bucky, pained, but Bucky looks level and even, and Steve’s heart sinks, because he knows that face; that’s the face Bucky had on for the first visit to the ER, for the first time he ran into Steve and ended up sleeping in the armchair. That’s a face Bucky puts on. It’s not a real face.

“Did he come on to you?” asks Clint, as if he is hell-bent on finding inappropriate things to say.

Steve coughs. “A little.”

“Oh, yeah?” Clint perks up. “What’d he say?”

“Asked if I... wanted company tonight.”

“You don’t think he’s a gigolo, do you? It would explain so much!”

“I doubt it? I can’t see Natasha inviting a gigolo to her party. With work friends. Colleagues.”

“I can,” says Clint darkly, and shoves two canapés into his mouth at once.

Bucky, without saying anything, starts kind of edging away, and Steve has to fight the urge to edge after him. But when Bucky ends up walking over to the piano, past the dancers, Steve gives up and goes after him.

“Hey,” he says, in a low voice.

Bucky doesn’t look up. He’s resting one hand on the piano, which is painfully well-polished, and staring out and down at the city.

“Are you okay?”

Bucky shakes his head a little. “I’m fine.”

“I’m... I wasn’t sure if you were going to come.”

“I wasn’t sure either, but here I am.”

“Thanks for coming. I’m glad you did.”

Bucky doesn’t ask him anything about Jacques, which is kind of great but also kind of frustrating, because Steve would like to just say don’t even think about it, but Bucky doesn’t look like he wants to have that conversation. Or any conversation.

“You play?” Steve asks, instead, gesturing at the piano.

“Yeah,” says Bucky, “Little bit.”

Steve glances around. “Bet we could turn the music down for a few if you wanted to play a little.”

Bucky shakes his head no. Steve doesn’t push it.

“Fireworks coming up in a few,” he says, eventually. They’re about five, ten minutes away. The occasional muffled sound barely penetrates. “You want to... you want to just get out of here for a couple of minutes?”

Bucky looks over at him, and he looks tired again, despite the short hair, the young face. “Where would that be, exactly, where there aren’t fucking fireworks on fucking New Year’s Eve?”

“Look, Natasha wouldn’t kill us if we hid out in her bedroom.”

Bucky laughs humorlessly. “I’m not convinced about that.”

“No, for real, we have a deal.”

“A deal about hiding in the bedroom at parties?”

“She knows I don’t always do well at parties. So she said if I need to I can crash out there instead.”

“Is she trying to get you into bed?”

“She had chances. Never took them. It was a long time ago.”

Bucky’s weakening. Steve presses the advantage: “The view’s even better from there.”

Bucky gives a little choking laugh, and nods, finally.

Steve steers them back—it’s actually locked, but because he knows Nat and they have what she calls the “You Are A Huge Buzzkill, Steve” deal, he can feel up the edge of the doorframe until he gets to the key. He lets them in.

Nat’s bedroom is immaculate. She has a cleaning service come at least twice a week, and she had an actual interior designer do the place. It makes it feel like a spread in a magazine, someplace where nobody lives. So the bed is massive, with blood-red silk sheets and velvet duvet cover, and there’s a massive square white leather ottoman the size of back-to-back park benches over next to the floor-to-ceiling windows. (Sometimes he suspects that plastic surgery alone doesn’t pay for this, but she will never answer questions about what she did before Steve met her.)

Steve sits on the ottoman, and after a minute Bucky sinks down on it next to him, close enough that they’re touching all along Steve’s right side, Bucky’s left.

They’re staring together out at the sky. They don’t say anything for a while.

Bucky talks first, startling Steve with the breath he sucks in before he starts.

“I’m having some trouble getting used to working again,” he says, softly. “It feels weird to leave the apartment so much. It feels weird to meet new people. I’m not even working near the observatory, there’s too much light for that, so I’m on campus, and there’s these kids everywhere who are so goddamned young, and I look at them and I think, ‘I was that old in ROTC.’ I think ‘I was qualifying on weapons when I was just a little older than they are.’ I think ‘Maybe they’re going to die like I could have died.’”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He wants to check his pulse. He refrains.

“So, you know—it’s not. I’m not upset with you or anything. I know I’ve been... really quiet. But it’s just hard right now.”

“Okay,” says Steve, and even though he hadn’t necessarily thought he’d pegged it like that, he does feel relieved. He didn’t say something wrong to Bucky last night, he didn’t freak him out, Bucky’s not ticked about the Dirty Dancing reenactment out there.

When the fireworks start up, Bucky flinches, hard, and Steve—wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. It’s the most he’s ever touched Bucky, beyond letting their legs touch on the couch while they sleep, and he’s worried, worried it’s going to be too much, but instead of pulling away Bucky leans into it, and after a minute, when Bucky flinches again at the next volley, he puts his other arm around Bucky’s front, so they’re almost embracing, though he keeps his head facing forward and Bucky does the same thing. He laces his fingers together over Bucky’s shoulder.

They sit like that through the fireworks, and Bucky’s head slowly slips down until he’s leaning on Steve’s shoulder. And Steve knows he should feel something else, worry, concern, but mostly what he feels is good.

When the fireworks finally trail off, actually when they’ve been quiet for a while, Bucky takes a deep breath and sits up, and Steve’s arms fall away from him.

“I got to get going,” Bucky says, “I didn’t sleep for shit last night and I’ve got to sleep tonight.”

Steve nods, watching him, and he... just sits on the ottoman where he is while Bucky stands up and leaves.

When Natasha comes in a while later, probably around two, she’s got a couple of lipstick smudges on her cheeks, and the white silk dress she’s in is a stunner that almost glows in the low light, and she looks at Steve with his chin propped on his fist, still sitting and watching a sky that is now devoid of the lightshow, and she says, “Hey, are you going to sleep here?”

Steve glances back around at her and says, “Yeah, if it’s cool.”

She shrugs and pulls some of the fifteen billion pillows off the bed, and flings them at him. He knows there’s a fainting couch in the dressing room, and he grabs a spare blanket out of her linen closet, and he just falls asleep in there, in the space between her bedroom and the master bath, and somehow listening to her very quiet breathing in the night helps him get to sleep. Eventually.

 

He saves his next run for right after the next appointment with Helen. She’s starting to worm her way into his brain, and sometimes in his dreams he’s started hearing “Why do you think that is?” and “What would you have liked to say?”

Today he comes in and tells her about the art and she seems pleased, and he tells her he’s thinking about taking some time off and she looks pleased about that too.

“I had a fight with Sam a couple weeks ago,” he says, “but I think it was a good fight?”

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“I feel like I never gave him a real apology. Which he deserves. But I think with this,” and he gestures between the two of them, “I’m opening up more? And I can tell him I’m sorry and mean it and feel it, and I think he can tell the difference.”

“What were your apologies like before?”

“It wasn’t... I was sorry, but it felt like it wasn’t really my fault, because it was inevitable that everything was going to go to shit, because of course it was, because it was me and it was about work and that’s what work things with me do.”

“And do you still feel that way?”

“No,” he says, and realizes it’s true. “It’s not. It’s not inevitable at all.”

“So do you think you could potentially be happy?”

“Yeah. Maybe not now, but in the future?”

“Why not now?”

He laughs at her, surprised and a little pained. “Because this all hurts.”

“Can you be in pain and still be happy?”

And what a weird thing to say. Of course not. Right? But then again, why not?

He can feel his mouth twist with confusion, and she’s still watching him patiently.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe.” It feels like he’s been saying that a lot lately.

“Tell me about something that made you happy lately.”

He actually chews on his lip for a second before he tells her about Bucky at the party.

“It sounds like you care quite a bit about him.”

“Yeah.”

“And he’s concerned about you?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think about that?”

Steve twists his head away from her. The snowflakes are still up across the street, but somebody’s pulled down a wreath. He remembers the small bright red dots of the holly berries.

“I don’t think about it,” he says. “Mostly.” This is, objectively, a lie, but if you try really hard not to think about something, that’s like not thinking about it, right?

“Why is that?”

“I... what am I going to do about it, if I start thinking about it?”

“Do you think you’d have to do something?”

“Yeah.”

“What would you have to do?”

“I just asked you that.”

“Tell me what you think might happen.”

“I might...” the words are so hard, even after everything. “Stop. Working where I do.”

“Is it just the location?”

“No.”

“What else is it?”

“It’s... everything about it. Emergency med. It was exciting when I was younger but I’m kind of done being excited. And now it’s just a drain. It’s just this constant drain. I’m bone-dry all of the time and I didn’t even notice it, and that’s pretty messed up, right?”

“How do you think you might feel if you did leave emergency medicine?”

He closes his eyes, leaning back into the unpleasantly soft overstuffed couch for once. He can’t relax into it, but the artificial vulnerability lets him say, “I don’t know. Maybe free. Maybe like dying.”

“What would you leave it for?” she asks, relentless, pressing this new advantage.

“I don’t know. Maybe... I was thinking about palliative care. It’s new enough that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have a residency or a fellowship in it.”

“How do you think it would make you feel?”

His eyes still shut, he says, “Like I could actually help.”

“And would that be better than what you’re doing now?”

“Yes.”

“And would that be different than what you’re doing now?”

“What do you mean?” He opens his eyes to look at her.

“If your goal was to help when you went into emergency medicine, and your goal is to help in going into palliative care, how are you going to keep from getting burned out on it, too?”

He doesn’t have an answer for that one, either.

 

“I hate therapy,” he says casually to Bucky on the phone.

“Mmm hmm.”

“What are you up to?”

“Not much. Was just reading.”

“Yeah? What?”

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

“Oh, yeah? I never read that.”

“Me either. Don’t bother. It sucks.”

“Really?”

“When was the last time you didn’t notice if a woman was crying while you had sex?”

“Uh... I’m hoping never.”

“Right. So this is supposed to be smutty, but it’s just awful. Don’t bother.”

“Sounds like maybe you should stop bothering.”

He hears a soft chuff-thud over the phone. “Done.”

“Did you just throw it?”

“Across the room.”

Steve laughs. “Got to get better smut.”

“You should have heard the way he talked about asses. Pale pendulous globes and shit like that. Made them sound like the least sexy possible version of themselves.”

“Well, maybe his was?”

“I can’t rule that out.”

“We’ll never know.”

“So what sucks about therapy today?”

“She wants to know whether switching fields would actually help. Or if I’d just start doing the same stuff.”

“Not a bad question.”

“No, but I’m against it on principle. I already put in all this work thinking about this. I’d like to be done thinking about it.”

“You and me both.”

“How’s your therapy going?”

“Good. I’m getting to where I can actually sleep through a night more often than not.”

“I’m jealous.”

Bucky makes a noise like a laugh. “You could have all this, too, if you’d only started when I did. I got a head start.”

“Yeah, but I feel like you started with a worse score.”

They’re quiet for a minute over that, Steve just sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at the blinds. It’s dim but never dark in his bedroom.

“Maybe I did,” Bucky says. “It was a rough deal.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not... like I’m trying to not think about it. But it’s like I can think about it now without it taking up so much of my brain. It’s quieter now.”

“It was loud before?”

“So loud. You know what it’s like to just be awake, day after day?”

Steve doesn’t want to keep Bucky from talking but it seems important to say “Yeah, actually.”

“Yeah?”

“That’s residency. And in gen surg it’s five years. You do a lot of time on call, in the hospital, depending on what their staffing looks like. And I went in before they started trying to enforce the work hour limits, so I was working probably hundred, up to hundred and twenty hour weeks, when it was bad.”

“How often was it bad?”

“Usually.”

“Jesus.”

“But you were saying, you were awake?”

“A lot. It gets so boring. It would get to the point where I’d shut my eyes but I wouldn’t know I was doing it, and my brain would fill in the blanks, you know, make me think my eyes were still open, so I could be asleep but still think I was awake. It was pretty brutal.”

“You—were you deployed a lot? You were in for, what, ten years?”

“Yeah, give or take. You have to do at least eight. I could maybe have done some IRR, but I was thinking I’d go career, and that was around the time they started shipping everybody out whether they wanted to go career or not. Deployed... more than half of it, anyway. I’d come back, do some training, or train other people. Get some vacation. But there wasn’t—there wasn’t a lot for me to do back here. So I’d go back out. You get combat pay, you get something to do, it’s not the worst deal.”

“Huh.”

“I took five years for college. Engineering.”

“Yeah? That’s cool.”

“I suppose, but with this background it’s tough to find a job that calls for it. So I’m doing a lot of number-crunching for this project. It’s more stats than engineering, but it’s not bad.”

“Not bad is better than bad.”

“And they’re good people, mostly. There’s this one astrophysicist, I get like six emails from him a day and he is a dick. It’s just one project after another he wants data for, and he basically wants me to do the analyses for him, and I’m telling him no, that is not my job, you wanted that, you should have hired for a PhD, but you’re too cheap for that.”

“Awesome. I’ve got a resident right now who just will not do the required trainings. I’ve been hassling him for the last three weeks to take a ten-minute online thing for swearing he’ll wash his hands.”

“Does he?”

“That is not a question you want answered. About any hospital.”

“Ugh.”

“Yeah.”

Steve lays down on the bed, stretching out his free arm. He’s starting to feel tired, as if talking about exhaustion summoned it up.

“You know it’s cool,” he says, “if you—you never have to—”

“Shut up,” says Bucky, easily, and Steve feels better, warmer.

 

Steve’s annual performance review is up in February. (It’s a reminder, every year, that he left MSF before he meant to. It should have been June.)

They schedule it before his morning starts (he’s actually taking a normal block right now, starting at 8am, supposed to run to 8pm but he’s usually there until 9 or 10). So he shows up, coffee in hand, bleary-eyed.

“Steve,” says his boss, “I’ve noticed you’ve been acting differently at work the last few months. Do you want to talk about that?”

Steve stares at him blankly. “Differently how?”

Phil coughs delicately. “Your feedback is... well, your feedback is getting better, but your numbers are getting worse. You’re seeing maybe 4 patients for every 5 the other docs are seeing. Your wait-time scores are the worst we have in the ED right now, and the residents aren’t complaining, but it’s putting pressure on them.”

“So this is the first I’m hearing about it?”

“It’s been a pretty recent development. We were hoping it would resolve.”

“It’s still not respectful to have my performance review be the first place this comes up. I went to the trainings, Phil.”

“The only thing going in the report is your averages, which are still fine.”

“Okay. That’s less of a problem.”

“But I wanted to talk to you. It’s not just the times. It’s the way you are with the nurses and the MAs. You always used to get along with everybody, and you’ve been downright curt with some of them lately.”

“That’s because some of them are barely doing their jobs. We need better from them.”

“That may be, but we’re not going to get better with public reprimands. Praise in public—”

“Punish in private. I know.”

“Steve. I’ve known you since you came to this hospital. I’m worried about you.” And the hell of it is, Phil does look genuinely worried, his eyes soft and concerned around the edges, a little baggy. Administration isn’t easy, Steve’s actively avoided it, and Phil may be a bit of a stuffed shirt but he’s a good doctor and a good guy.

Steve stares into a middle distance for a minute and then says, “If I level with you, will it stay confidential?”

“To the best of my abilities. If it’s affecting your work, I can’t make promises.”

“I’m thinking about changing fields. The lifestyle in Emergency isn’t working as well for me as it used to. I’m getting older, I need more stability. I need more sleep.

Phil sits back in his chair, eyebrows going up, considering. “I have to admit, I did not see that as a possibility for you. You’ve always been so dedicated to the ED.”

“Well, people do change, from time to time.” Saying it out loud—it’s starting to feel real, in a way it hasn’t since the first time Bucky threw it out there as an option.

Phil’s nodding. “Yes. Okay. If you were to change fields, do you have a sense of what you’d like to do instead?”

“I’m still exploring that.”

“If you’d like to talk to HR—Steve, despite this recent streak you’re on, you’re one of our best people. Patients like you. We’d like to keep you.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yes. And we could see what other departments we might have openings in, or that we expect to have openings in, that could be a fit for you.”

“Wow. Phil, I did not expect this to go this well.”

“It’s better than hearing that you’re crashing out and you don’t know why,” says Phil, wryly, “which—believe it or not—we do hear from the ED sometimes, among other departments.”

“Yeah, I guess you might.”

 

He grabs coffee with Natasha that night after her surgery for the day ends, on a ten-minute break.

She has her eyes almost completely closed while she drinks her espresso in one long gulp. Steve makes a face of distress and chagrin at her, which she laughs at when she opens her eyes again.

“You are going to die,” he tells her, sincerely.

“I just need to drive home. This will get me there.”

He tells her about the meeting with Coulson, and she looks surprised, but not judgmental. “Are you telling me because you want to know what I think?”

“Maybe. Yes.”

“I think it’s a good idea. Your job sucks. Your life—”

“Sucks, yeah, I’ve heard it before.”

“And change is not always good, it is not always for the better, but it is one way to at least try to make things better.”

She looks sad and distant when she says that, and Steve says, “Hey,” and then, “how are you doing?”

“Not always well.”

“So,” he says, “maybe you should make a change, too.”

She looks up at him sharply, as if there’s something he might mean by that, but must not read that in his face, because she relaxes again and looks away.

“I have an awesome job,” she says, letting her Russian accent slip away completely. It comes and goes, comes and goes, more often when she’s been drinking or after a very long day. “I wouldn’t change my job for the world.”

“So maybe it’s not your job you should change?”

She drops her chin a little.

“Steve,” she says, “one of these days I’m going to tell you a story. And you’ll have to promise to listen to me.”

“Of course I will,” he says.

She heads out, and he heads back to work, with a quick tight hug first.

 

He gets a strangulation the next day. The patient comes in and he’s just a child, can’t be more than fourteen or fifteen, and the V on his neck is so red, so raw. Steve’s seen attempts before but none of them this young, or this healthy. He makes it, although not with a lot of leeway, and when Steve is trying to talk to him quietly, he’s making eye contact and Steve thinks the kid can hear and understand him just fine, but he won’t say a word. He’s going straight to the IPU as soon as the ICU is done with him. Steve will never know why the kid is here, or whether he gets better, or what better means in this context.

When he gets home that night, he has to just sit in front of his coffee table for a long time. Eventually he picks up his sketchbook, but what comes out is just a slow-motion replay: the time it takes to sketch the bruised, swollen shape of the kid’s neck.

He picks it up and tears it up, and then, because that doesn’t blot it out, he takes the drawing to the kitchen sink and soaks it, and throws away the wet remnants of the paper.

 

Natasha shows up at his house that weekend. He comes in after his last shift for the block to find her sitting in his armchair in the dark.

“Nat?” he says, blinking, because even when he goes to hit the switch, nothing happens. But there are lights in the hallway, in the rest of the building—it’s not an outage.

“Steve,” she says, “I want to tell you a story.”

He pauses, and nods, and goes to sit on the couch.

She hasn’t been drinking. He can tell right away from how crisp her voice is.

“I grew up in Russia during a very politically difficult time. I lost my parents quite young. I had to make choices about what to do to define my future life. And when the time came to choose what to do with my life, I had made sure I was ready to be selected for medical school. I learned very good English, I studied very hard. I was better than they needed me to be. Medical school in Russia is not as good as it is in the US, especially not then.”

He nods into the darkness, somehow sure she’s watching him out of the corner of her eye.

“I went to medical school. I did quite well. I went into surgery. I was approached by the government for some work. I knew if I did not take the work, it would be a bad thing for me. So, I took the work. It was not good work.”

Steve’s starting to get prickles up and down his spine.

“I did things I am not proud of. Assisted. Do you understand me? There were people who knew things the government wanted to know, and the government needed a set of hands. And many of these people were men, and they found it particularly unpleasant to be in the hands of a woman.”

She stops for a few beats, and then continues. “I was... visited. At one point. By the US military. They knew that I knew more about the program than they did. Their contact suggested, perhaps, I should think about defecting.”

Steve is wondering whether he ever wanted to know this.

“So, you have to understand, Clint is not my—my boyfriend. Clint is my handler.” More softly, she adds, “He knows what I’ve done.”

“Handler—do you still need to be—handled?”

“Not really. I haven’t been in touch with anyone from home since I left. I’m sure everything I know now is out of date, and the US people never told me anything.”

“Clint’s still here, though.”

“We are... friends. I suppose.”

“Why tell me this now?” he asks, gently.

“Your friend. I know what does that, to his hand. I’ve seen that. Not with him, you know, but I’ve seen clumsy fools do that sort of thing, out of anger.” She hasn’t moved, back still rigid, still not looking at him. “Anger is never a good place to work from. And I thought, perhaps, you should know. You should know what I am. You see? I am a monster.”

She’s been slipping into her Russian accent as she talks. It’s bizarre, a blending of who Steve thought she was with who he’s found.

They sit in the dark for a while longer.

Steve says, “You’re not a monster to me.”

Natasha exhales heavily. “It is kind of you to say that, but we both know that is not true.”

“People in—in war, do things they might not want to. Things that aren’t good. It doesn’t make them bad people.”

“I was not at war.”

“Really?” he asks, with a lingering skeptical edge to it. She doesn’t answer.

“They were not, by and large, good men,” she says. “But it does not excuse what I have done.”

“I don’t think you need excusing,” Steve says.

“Please, do not tell your friend.”

“I won’t. I won’t tell anyone. But you shouldn’t keep—you’re doing this to yourself, aren’t you, from guilt? You can’t live like that forever.”

“No one lives forever, Steve,” she says, and she sounds more like herself then.

 

He does break his promise, a little; he tells his therapist. Not everything, but that a friend of his was involved with something shady, something bad.

She misunderstands him at first. “You mean Bucky being a sniper?” she says.

“No! No, not—that’s not like this.”

Helen looks at him curiously. “Isn’t it?”

 

Steve is listening to a patient breathe. The noise is godawful, rales that drag and sputter, and it’s definitely pneumonia.

He sighs, easing the patient back again. “I’m afraid it does sound like pneumonia,” he says. “We can order a chest x-ray to confirm it, if you want to, but given your history, I’m certain you’re going to need to be on antibiotics for a while, until we can get it cleared up.”

“I have a date!” protests Mrs. Wilstein, widowed beach babe of the retirement community. She immediately breaks off into sputtering coughing.

“Yeah, not with that cough, you don’t. I’m waffling on whether to try to get you set up with 24-hour nursing care. Do you need that?”

“God, no!”

“Then you have to promise me you’ll take care of yourself. No dates. Lots of warm liquids. Bed rest.”

“Oh, all right. Fine. I’m not happy about it, though!”

“Very few people dance with glee at getting pneumonia.”

“Dr. Rogers,” says Lin, sticking her head in around the curtain, “when you get a minute, you have a call on line 4.”

“Okay, thanks, Lin.”

He gets Mrs. Wilstein taken care of—not hard; a prescription and she’s out of there—and heads to the phone.

“Hey, asshole,” says Bucky, “you’re not picking up your cell.”

“Cut me some slack, I’ve been in with patients. What’s the news?”

“You know how this job was temp?”

“Yeah?”

“I got a promotion. The old project manager is transferring to her other project full-time, and they’re bumping me up.”

“That’s great!”

“It is. And I know for a fact you’re supposed to be out that door in twenty minutes. I’ll make you a deal: I meet you at it, and we go out and celebrate.”

It sounds—wonderful. “Yes. Yeah. I’d love that.”

“Great.” Bucky sounds pleased, even a little smug, but Steve can let him have that.

And true to his word, Steve manages to escape at actual quitting time (still 8 on this block) and when he walks out the back exit, Bucky is standing there. He looks—well. He’s been growing his hair out again since New Year’s (“It turns out they don’t care if I look like Shaggy”) and he’s smiling by the time Steve gets through the door, and Steve walks up to him, right into his comfort zone, and stands way too close to him, and says, “hey,” real soft and quiet and intimate and familiar. Bucky says “hey,” back, and leans into him and in this March no-man’s-land between a miserable past and an indefinite future, Bucky kisses him, finally.

Steve and Bucky both still have their hands in their pockets, and it’s just a ghost of a kiss, soft and sweet and friendly and happy. Steve’s heart is hammering in his chest like he’s just jogged up three flights of stairs. This is the kind of kiss where they should pull back. He doesn’t pull back. He doesn’t want to pull back. And Bucky—doesn’t pull back, either.

After a few seconds Steve awkwardly pulls his hands out of his pockets and puts them on Bucky’s arms, and Bucky disentangles his hands from his own pockets and puts them on Steve’s waist, and Steve slides an arm around his back and pulls him in just a little tighter, and Bucky breaks the kiss, gasping, and Steve feels light-headed and proud and scared and realizes he’s gasping, too, already half-hard.

Bucky just buries his face in Steve’s shoulder for a minute, tipping his head and face down, and Steve can’t help himself, turns his head and presses a kiss into Bucky’s hair, presses his luck, arm still wrapped around Bucky’s shoulders, left hand resting on Bucky’s mangled right arm—he can feel the sinews under the thin windbreaker.

“Is this a good idea?” says Bucky, drawing his head back just enough to get the words out, without looking up.

“It could be.”

And at that Bucky draws back further, chuckling, his mouth curled up at one corner, soft and wet and Steve wants to kiss him again so bad.

“Can I kiss you?” he says.

Bucky answers by leaning in again, and they stand there, wrapped up in each other, for a while, until a car door slams in the parking lot and they both jump and then laugh at each other, low and secretive.

“So where did you want to go?” Steve asks, as they break apart, and as they’re turning, he reaches out and his fingers brush Bucky’s, and he’ll take credit for this, Bucky’s fingers curl into his and they’re holding hands and goddamn if life isn’t awesome tonight.

“I dunno,” says Bucky, carelessly, and they start walking without a real destination in mind. They end up at a tiny Chinese hole in the wall not far away, and when Steve is picking something out off the slightly sticky laminated menu, Bucky snakes an arm around his waist, and Steve feels so warm.

They go sit down to wait for their food, facing each other across a tiny table—against a wall, of course, Bucky’s back as close to the wall as he can get it, and Steve lets him have it even though it does make him feel a little itchy under the skin—and Bucky says, “So how was work?”

“Not too bad. Pneumonia, of course, got coughed on. Had somebody who swore they never took drugs. One of the nurses made fun of my shoes.”

“They’re pretty goofy.”

“I work at a hospital, everyone wears goofy shoes. Regulations.”

“You cannot tell me those are regulation.”

These are special Swedish orthopedic clogs that are regulation-compliant, I’ll have you know, and the only reason the nurse made fun of me was that she’s jealous she hasn’t tried this brand yet.” He wrinkled his nose. “Danskos give me foot cramps.”

Bucky’s grinning at him and for just a second the tip of his tongue sticks out through the corner of his mouth, and Steve loses what he was saying, and Bucky’s smile gets even bigger and more shit-eatingly smug, if that’s possible.

“But seriously,” Steve says, “promotion? How great is that?”

“Pretty great. It means I go from temp to permanent—well, nominally—and I have to whip this batch of lazy undergrad volunteers into shape.”

“Of course.” Steve nods sagely.

“And it’s a hell of a raise, and I get benefits, which is weird. They’re actually pretty good, I have to juggle which benefits I use. This university thing isn’t half-bad, you should try it.”

“They’re not as nice to doctors, believe it or not. Plus I’d have to take on a lot more teaching responsibilities.”

“You’d be a good teacher.”

“Maybe, but it’s not really what I like doing.”

“So what do you like doing?” Bucky cocks his head, watching Steve.

He looks down at the table and says, “I think I’m going to talk to HR. About getting on board with a different department.”

Bucky’s back straightens at that. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I... I talked to Phil about it at my performance eval. It wasn’t sterling. He said if I talked to HR they’d see what they could do about getting me switched out.”

“That’s great,” says Bucky. He’s watching Steve like a hawk. His eyes are a little narrowed, like he’s waiting for Steve to take it all back.

“I just... don’t want to live like that anymore.”

“Nobody could blame you.”

“I keep thinking—” He looks away, and then the hostess comes over, smiling, with their food, which smells amazing, and without a word Bucky starts picking up and swapping things around on their plates so they’ll both get some of each, just raising his eyebrows at Steve inquiringly and waiting for the nod.

“So,” says Bucky after a couple of minutes, through a mouth full of General Tso’s, “you keep thinking what?”

Steve pauses, swallows the bite, takes a drink of his water. Stares at the table. “I keep thinking,” he says, “about something my therapist said. She wanted to know what would be different, this time around.” And it’s not just the job, although it is mostly the job, but the idea of being in a relationship, which, to be fair, he was already basically in, but trying to actively maintain a relationship, and—“I feel like I think I have a handle on it, but what if I don’t? What if I end up in the same place?”

“Do you think you will?” asks Bucky, and Steve makes a face at him, because it’s such a therapist thing to say.

“Honestly? No.” He flails a hand up. “But I didn’t see it coming the first time, either.”

“Sometimes change is good just because it’s change. Don’t talk yourself out of it before you start.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. You sound like Nat.”

“I thought she didn’t like the nickname.”

“She’s not a huge fan, but she lets me get away with it sometimes.”

“Go figure. She always looks like she could hurt you if she wanted to.”

Steve chokes a little on his food, which tastes more like ashes than it did a second ago. “Yeah. She—she’s had a rough life.”

Bucky’s head tilts just a couple degrees off horizontal, looking at him, and he says, “Okay.” Nothing else. Bucky doesn’t pry. Bucky lets things be. Sometimes he lets things be for a long damn time.

The conversation gets less loaded, Bucky’s plans for his new office (“It used to be an actual supply closet, but it is technically my own office, with a door that shuts and locks”) and Steve’s art (“I’m trying this new thing I saw online where you draw for five minutes every single day and so far it’s not bad, kind of fun, I’m doing a series on the nurses now who think it’s cute”), the changing weather (wet but getting dryer and therefore acceptable), the Superbowl (the gods are cruel).

When they’ve plowed through as much of the food as they can handle, Steve is looking at Bucky’s hand, wondering if it would be weird if he reached across the table for it—it’s a little table, and they’re kind of a thing now, but Bucky doesn’t really leave his hand out for the holding—when Bucky says, “Do you have to work tomorrow?”

“Hm? Yeah. You?”

“Yeah, I have a conference call with the PI so he can brief me on where we’re at in terms of grant applications.”

The meaning of that dawns on Steve a second later. “So, uh—”

Bucky smiles at him again, his head lolling to the side some, and says, “The lightbulb goes on. So, no, I’m not asking you over or inviting myself over to your place. When’s your Friday?”

“Saturday. I have Sunday through Wednesday off.”

“Okay. How long’s your Saturday shift?”

“Not bad, it’s a ten.”

“You think you could be up for dancing after?”

“I—well, physically it’s possible, but I would have to be good at dancing, which I am not.”

“No sweat. I’ll teach you.” Bucky grins. “You just need the right partner.”

“Oh, god. I haven’t gone out since... oh my god, med school.”

“You’ll have fun, I promise.”

“I have definitely heard that before.”

“And then we will go back to my place.”

Steve is grinning, too, and says easily, “Well, if dancing is the toll for that, I guess I can cough up.”

They walk back slowly, this time, dawdling, sides pressed nearly together. “I never walk you home,” says Steve. “You always walk me home.”

“Yeah, I’m a little scarier than you are.”

“You cannot be genuinely concerned for my safety.”

“You’d be surprised. I have seen intelligent people do very stupid things.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll know it when you do it.”

When they get to Steve’s apartment, they pause, and Steve says, “Do I get a goodnight kiss?”

Bucky laughs, which comes out like an almost silent huff in the cool, wet air, and then leans in, and he kisses Steve like he means it, like he’s been thinking about it: he slides his good hand into Steve’s hair, and pulls him in with his other arm, and Steve feels warm, and good, and all kinds of things he wants to keep feeling and feel again.

They stand there in the shadows for a while—longer than would be strictly speaking seemly—and when Bucky finally pulls back, Steve leans after him for a second before recollecting himself and pulling back, too.

Bucky hasn’t taken his arm away from Steve’s waist, and he says, softly, “So Saturday night is good? You want to meet at your place after your shift, so you have time to pick out something more, uh, flattering than hospital green?”

“Yeah, that sounds good. I should be home by... nine? That work?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you then.”

“Okay.”

“Good.”

The corners of Bucky’s mouth crinkle in a helpless little alarmed smile, and then he lets go of Steve and walks away, and Steve watches him for a minute before he turns and heads in.

 

“Clint?”

Clint makes an incomprehensible noise.

“Clint, it’s 6am. Normal humans are already awake.”

“No, YOU are!” (Steve gets the sense that it’s not so much a statement about Steve’s habits as an attempt at a retort from a tragically non-awake brain.)

“Clint. Focus. I have a date. I need help.”

“Yeah, you’re not good at those.”

“Shut up. Help me.”

“I would if God had meant for me to be awake right now.

“What do you even do? I don’t even know what you do.”

“I do what I want, asshole. Look. Date. You have one. Who? When?”

“Bucky. Saturday.”

“Oh HO. I SEE.”

“Shut up.

“And what does the young padawan need help with? I have some suggestions on any leather you m—”

“NO NO NO. Shut up. Look, he wants to go dancing. I have not been dancing since undergrad. What do I even do? Is it ridiculous for someone my age to go dancing? How do people even dance now? What do I wear?”

“Oh my God you have it so bad. This is hilarious. I’m telling him. I am straight up telling him you’re freaking out over this.”

“Don’t you dare. He thinks it’s going to be fun.”

“It will be! You just need to relax!”

“Like that’s going to happen.”

“Did you—you’re not even going in yet, are you? You’re up early because you’re stressed about this.”

“Technically, I may not have to get in until eight.”

“I figured you two were practically a couple anyway. You’re seriously freaked out over this?”

“Practically a couple is not the same thing as going on a date dancing, you tool. Or would you be totally fine if you were going out dancing with Nat?” He feels bad for that immediately, and the silence on the phone stretches out a couple of beats before he says, “You know what, I’m an asshole, let’s disregard that last.”

“You are an asshole,” Clint says, and hangs up. Steve leans forward until his forehead is pressing into the cool glass of his window.

The phone rings a minute later. Steve picks it up without looking.

“Anyway,” says Clint, “what are you so worried about? It’s dancing. You stand there, you shift your weight from one foot to the other, rock your shoulders a little. You’ll be fine. OH OH maybe if you’re real lucky he’ll grind on you! You could dirty dance!”

The novelty of this advice from this source leaves Steve laughing helplessly.

 

Saturday night Steve is in a hurry on his way out of the hospital, distracted, jumping every time he gets surprised and trying not to think about the fact that if he’s lucky he could get lucky tonight. This hurrying proves to be a mistake, as he slips in a spring-rain puddle and ends up... oh, God.

Luckily, Kim is glancing after him and she sees him go down like a sack of bricks, and she runs out when he doesn’t get up right away.

“I think it’s broken,” he says, staring morosely at his ankle.

“Steve!” she says, and there’s a world of reproval in that voice.

She grabs one of the security guys, who hesitates but offers a powerful arm, and between the two of them they manage to limp Steve back in, where he has the novel and less than exciting experience of being a patient.

“I need my phone,” he says, making grabby hands at Kim as she starts to get him settled, moving his coat away from him. She glares. He shakes his head at her and says, “I—I had a date.”

Steve,” she says, with even more feeling than before, “you are a human disaster, what is wrong with you.”

“I know, I know. Just... give me the phone.”

He texts Bucky “Hey, so, I think I broke my ankle”

we don’t have to go dancing, you huge wuss

“But for real”

you for real broke your ankle? when?

“About two minutes ago”

oh ffs

“I knoooooow”

where are you?

“Hospital, did it on the way out of work”

how long you gonna be there?

“Probably a while. Need an xray”

you want me to come?

And he kind of almost wants to say no, because his ankle hurts like a son of a bitch and he knows it’s going to be really boring and he feels stupid enough already, but then again, his ankle hurts like a son of a bitch and it’s going to be really boring.

“Yes”

okay be there in like twenty

Steve’s doctor tonight will be Kim, of course, and he feels pretty guilty about getting bumped up over the woman with what looks like a sewing needle protruding through the back of her hand (a broken ankle should not be high on a triage list), but Kim just says briskly “She’ll live, she just needs a tetanus shot” and chides him for how woefully inadequate his hospital record is (“I at least need to know when your—did you not get a flu shot this year?” “No, I did, I just didn’t put it in. Employee Services knows.” “Employee Services won’t tell me, you jackass, it’s a Saturday night, they’re all gone. When was it?”)

After eighteen minutes (not that Steve is counting or anything) he gets a text. in the waiting room do I just walk back or whatever

“Yeah I’m in room 14”

When Bucky sticks his head into the room, the curtain is only half-drawn so he can see Steve right away. Kim is scowling ferociously at the EMR, and occasionally clicking with more vigor than should be required.

“Come on in,” says Steve, smiling lopsidedly. His ankle really hurts.

Bucky walks in, keeping an eye on Kim, and her eyes flicker up to his. She pauses—it’s a long pause for her, too, at least five seconds where she’s just staring—and then she says, “Well, hello. Steve, is this a visitor for you?”

“Yeah,” says Steve.

Her mouth is doing something funny around the edges. “Okay. Hi, I’m Dr. Zhang, but you can call me Kim.”

“Thanks,” says Bucky, who looks profoundly uncomfortable. “I’m James.”

Steve can feel his eyebrows climbing, but then Kim says, “So, did you know our Steve had plans tonight? Pretty unfortunate, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” says Bucky, tipping his head to one side like a challenge, “dancing.”

Kim looks like she’s going to burst an aneurysm, and Steve says, loudly, “So, does that cover what you need to order the x-ray, Kim?

“Yes! Yes, it does. Okay, I’m ordering some Percocet. The nurse should be in with it in just a minute or two.”

“Great. Thank you.”

“No problem. Do you, uh,” she starts.

“I think that poor woman with the sewing needle in her hand could probably stand to be roomed now,” Steve says, threateningly.

Kim looks at him, and the thing her mouth is doing is definitely her desperate attempt not to start smiling or worse, and she says, “You’re probably right. We’ll have to catch up later.”

“We caught up ten minutes before I left.”

“And yet,” she chirps, on her way out of the room, clearly not quite ready to leave.

Steve leans back all the way onto the bed and sighs, deeply. His ankle, propped up on a pillow, wants to continue to let him know that he has done something Very Bad to it.

Bucky drags up a chair backwards next to the head of the bed, dropping into the chair heavily enough that it creaks. He looks—“You look really good,” says Steve. His hair is pulled back in a tiny ponytail, and the white t-shirt under the leather jacket is very James Dean.

Bucky smiles like he almost has to chew on it, and says, “You look good for a guy with a busted ankle. You sure this isn’t you trying to get out of it?”

“I’m sure. Dancing only hurts my pride.”

“It hurts pretty bad?”

“It’s no Chernobyl, but yeah, it hurts.” It’s starting to swell, too, and Steve just knows it’s going to be a pain for weeks.

“So what will they do for it?”

“Probably not a lot. X-ray is just to make sure it’s not worse than it seems.”

“You gonna have to wear some kind of boot? Go on crutches?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“How are you going to get in to work?”

Steve sighs, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I don’t know. I’ll worry about that later.”

“I can give you a lift some days.”

“You have a car that runs? The Mustang still looks—uh, not really done.”

“It’s not, but a friend is leaving their car with me while they’re out of country.”

“Oh. Okay. Cool. That would be really helpful, actually.”

The nurse comes in then—it’s Joon, of course it is. She has a manic smile plastered on her face and she says, much more loudly than necessary, “Dr. Rogers! I am so sorry about your ankle! Dr. Zhang’s ordered Percocet for you, I brought a cup of water to take them with.”

“Thank you, Joon,” Steve says, grunting as he hauls himself up to sitting again. Bucky’s hand twitches like he’s going to try to help, but it’s unnecessary.

“Hi,” she says, handing Steve the pills and the cup without even looking at him. “I’m Joon, I’m one of the nurses here. I work with Dr. Rogers a lot.”

“I’m James,” says Bucky again. “Nice to meet you.”

“Under such unfortunate circumstances, though! But it is good to meet you!”

“Joon,” says Steve, gritting his teeth, “do you need anything else?”

“No, no,” she says, “I just wanted to make sure you know we’re here if you need us, and let us know if there’s anything we can do to make you more comfortable.” She’s talking directly to Bucky. “Do you need any coffee? Or a warmed blanket? Ice water?”

“No, thank you,” says Bucky, looking vaguely panicked now.

“Joon,” says Steve, warningly. “You shouldn’t neglect your other patients just for me.”

“Of course, you’re right,” she says, and she’s still smiling when she actually backs out of the room.

“Have you... ever had a friend here before?” asks Bucky.

“No. They’ve, uh, been a little concerned about me.”

“Tried to set you up?”

“Many unsuccessful times.”

Bucky raises one eyebrow at him, quirking the corner of his mouth.

“Unsuccessful because I refused to go on any and all blind dates with their cousins, neighbors, etc.”

“Are you out here?” asks Bucky, very quietly.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. It’s okay.”

“Okay.”

“What w—I don’t want to say anything you’re not comfortable with. But I’m not not telling them, you know?”

“I get it.” Bucky’s mouth is almost a smile.

“So it’s probably going to be a while before I get my x-ray. Could be an hour, maybe more, depending. I don’t think we’ve got too much for it tonight but I could be wrong.”

“Good thing I came prepared.”

“Yeah, how?”

Bucky pulls out his phone from one pocket and a ludicrously long charger cord from the other pocket, and carefully sets it up so it’s plugged into the wall, resting horizontally on Steve’s chest, and then gets it up and running, and—“Holy shit,” says Steve, “Netflix?”

“You know it. Need me to turn it down?”

“No, do you have headphones? We can share. Although—can you raise the head of the bed?” Steve could probably do it himself, but he feels just the right kind of spoiled, which is a nice distraction from the throbbing pain in his ankle that is just building and building at the moment.

Bucky fiddles with the controls for a minute, briefly manages to turn on the room TV, then gets it turned back off and gets the head of the bed up.

To get a better view, Bucky scoots his chair over, and then they queue up (“Something cheerful,” says Steve plaintively) Better Off Ted, which has both of them laughing out loud, especially once the Percocet kicks in. There’s a steady stream of people finding excuses to come into the room—everyone from the mousy high-school volunteer whose name he doesn’t know who wants to refill the spray bottle of disinfectant under the sink, to what seems like every nurse on shift, who “just needs” a tourniquet or a bandage or a bottle of lidocaine that they mysteriously can’t find in the clean supply room. But between Bucky’s breath tickling his ear and the show, and probably the narcotics, Steve is feeling a lot better.

So when Kim comes back in, just about at the hour mark, she finds them with Bucky’s chin propped up on the edge of the bed, next to Steve’s shoulder, and they’re both smiling at the little screen.

“Hello, gentlemen!” she says, brightly. “Steve, we’re ready for you down in imaging.”

Steve glances up and sighs, hitting the pause button. “Oh, man. Really?”

“Yes, and I am afraid I’m going to have to insist on a wheelchair.”

“I could do crutches.”

“No.”

Bucky is already getting to his feet. “Where’s the chair?”

“Just outside, if you want to bring it in.”

Bucky does, and he helps Kim get Steve into it with a minimum of wincing. (Steve likes to think he’s not wincing, but Bucky keeps getting a look on his face that says Steve’s not hiding it as well as he might like to.)

On the way down Clint texts him—how’s it going, stud?

Steve bites the bullet. broke my ankle before we could even leave

The phone rings, and he panics and picks it up by accident—earning a dirty look from Kim, who’s incredibly unnecessarily personally escorting them—and says, “I’m fine.

“DID YOU DO THIS ON PURPOSE?” bellows Clint.

“What? No!”

“SO HELP ME, ROGERS, YOU ARE THE WORST.”

“It was not—it was an accident! The ground was slippery!”

“TELL ME YOU AT LEAST ARE RESCHEDULING.”

“It is broken! Probably! I can’t reschedule yet!”

“YOU ARE THE LITERAL WORST.”

“Says the yelling crazy man.

“I’m telling Natasha,” says Clint, and hangs up. Steve looks at his phone forlornly.

Bucky is successfully not laughing, after one abortive cough, but Kim is staring at him in undisguised curiosity mingled with horror.

“Do you, uh, need some help there, Steve?” she asks.

“No. I need my friends to be chill.”

“Doesn’t sound like he managed it,” says Bucky. “Clint?”

“Who else hangs up on me like that?” Steve makes a face at his phone. “I should have left this in the room, but I was worried it would get stolen.”

“Not an unfounded fear, but you are going to have to leave it outside Radiology,” Kim says.

“I have been in a hospital before,” says Steve testily.

The phone rings. Steve groans. “Oh, God,” he says, and answers.

Steve,” says Natasha, all silky menace. “I just got the most interesting message.”

“I broke my ankle. I’m fine. That is literally all you need to know.”

“Do you need me to come down and take care of you?”

“No! I do not need that.”

“Are you very sure? Because I’m starting to get the impression that you can’t be trusted on your own.”

“I am so, so sure.”

“All right.”

“Look, I’m headed to Radiology for an x-ray, okay? I’m going to have to put my phone away. I’ll talk to you later. Appreciate the concern. Really.”

“We’re not done talking,” she says, but hangs up anyway. Steve blows out a sigh.

Kim says, “Sounds like you’ve got a support network ready to help you through the tough times!”

“Something like that.”

When they get to Radiology he hands Bucky his phone and says, “If anybody calls, do not answer it,” and Bucky nods. The slab is cold and the lead vest is heavy and too chilly, and Steve sighs heavily, and the tech says, “Dr. Rogers, please try to remain as still as possible,” and so he does.

Getting back to the ED is less of a production—Kim left and sent Joon back in her place—and it’s not much longer (only about two and a half episodes) before Steve gets cut loose with a prescription and, yes, a boot.

“You have to actually wear it,” says Kim, full of menace.

“I know. I went to med school.” Steve winces, resting more weight on the booted foot.

“Look, tell me you at least have a ride home,” she says.

Bucky nods. “Brought the car.”

“Good. See? James cares about your wellbeing, even if you don’t.” (They trade an awkward glance at that.)

Bucky helps him out past the treacherous puddles, and into the front seat of the car, which is parked so close there’s no way Bucky didn’t circle the block at least four times. The next dose of Percocet will be due right about the time they get home, whichever home it is tonight, and Steve has a low-boil panic at the thought that Bucky might leave him alone again.

Bucky drives him to Steve’s place, and parks the car in an overnight space, which makes Steve feel a little better, as Bucky slaps the sticker to the window. He gets out of the car with Bucky’s help, levering himself up, and curses every step up the stairs.

When they get in Bucky eyes the couch and says, “You want to just crash in bed?” Steve nods.

So Bucky sets him up with his laptop, and Steve gets logged in and says, “More Ted?” and Bucky nods, coming back in from the bathroom with a glass of water, and he cracks open Steve’s pill bottle effortlessly, and Steve palms the pills with great gratitude. The ache is huge and it flattens his mood. Bucky climbs in on his other side, both of them still lying on top of the covers, but their jackets in the other room, cellphones left in pockets, just t-shirts and—well, Steve’s wearing scrub pants, and Bucky’s wearing jeans. Bucky has somehow jammed almost every pillow Steve owns behind Steve’s head and neck so he’s actually comfortable, propped up enough to watch without having to keep his neck bent, and Bucky’s sitting propped against one pillow pushed against the headboard.

The relief comes in slowly on a wave as they’re watching the show, Bucky’s hand resting on his shoulder, and Steve can feel himself relaxing, starting to laugh more at the jokes, and then it changes, and the ballooning sense of well-being encompasses that point where they’re in contact.

He reaches up and covers Bucky’s hand with his. “I’m really glad you came down,” he says softly, and on the screen Veronica is firing a gun and Ted is flinching, and Bucky’s eyes flicker over to his. His face softens into a smile and he says, “Yeah, me too. Best time I ever had in a hospital.

Steve is stroking Bucky’s wrist, and he says, “I am also really glad they give drugs for broken ankles, because they suck.”

“I’ve never heard any positive reviews.”

“Sorry I ruined dancing.”

“’Sokay. I’ll make you go some other time.”

“We could practice. You could show me what the hell hip young people do these days.”

“It’s okay, no one will mistake you for a hip young person.”

Steve laughs, soft chuffing, and says, “You wanna make out?”

Bucky raises his eyebrows, and one corner of his mouth twists up while the other twists down, and says, “Yeah, sure.”

Steve shuts the laptop and pushes it over the side of the bed (it sounds like a soft landing) and turns as far onto his side as he can, and Bucky slides down, and at first the kisses are small, closed-mouth, like Bucky’s not sure whether Steve is going to hurt himself, and it’s—it’s really nice, actually, these almost-chaste kisses, but Steve dares himself to push for a little more, runs one hand over Bucky’s side, goes for tongue, and Bucky sighs into his mouth, almost a trembling note there, and Steve chases it, runs his hand over Bucky’s back and down to the waistband of his jeans, and Bucky—the way they’re lying is the way they always sit on the couch, with Steve on Bucky’s left, so it’s Bucky’s good right hand that slides up under his shirt and pushes it up, and Steve makes a noise, and it isn’t chaste at all; it turns hot and wet and dirty.

Steve jars his ankle and a silver-hot pain floods up his leg, but he keeps the reaction down, and Bucky, God bless him, either doesn’t notice or pretends not to, and then he wraps his leg up over Steve’s, and hitches them close enough that he can feel Bucky hard against his thigh. Steve pushes a hand between them and presses with his cupped hand over Bucky’s cock, which jumps, and Bucky groans and breaks away to catch his breath.

Their eyes meet and Steve raises his eyebrows, ok? and Bucky nods, almost imperceptibly, and Steve flips open the button and drags down the zipper, one-handed, backwards, like a champ, and then slides his hand into Bucky’s underwear and Bucky groans a lot louder.

“Do you want—” Steve says, breathlessly, and Bucky says, “whatever, whatever,” low and urgent.

So Steve licks his hand (Bucky watches him do it avidly) and then jerks Bucky off, torturously slow and sweet—finally a use for all those push-ups, his arm is indefatigable—and when Bucky comes it catches them both off-guard, his choked-off yell into Steve’s mouth and the hot rush between them. Bucky looks shocked, eyes wide, and his whole body gives a long, drawn-out shudder before Steve lets go.

Steve kisses him again, and again, and Bucky is still too out of it to do much more than breathe deeply.

When Bucky finally blinks and pulls off his t-shirt to clean up, he kneels up, Steve watches him, and then Bucky stares at Steve—he’s flushed, sweating—and in a fluid movement, pulls Steve’s scrub pants down and sucks him in. Steve gasps and drops his hands to Bucky’s shoulders, and his fingers flex and dig in as Bucky goes to town, it feels like—like he’s writing the alphabet on the head of Steve’s dick with his tongue—warm and wet, gentle but firm pressure, his hands on Steve’s hips with thumbs pressing in, and the pressure just builds and builds until Steve has to stutter out, “B—Buck,” and Bucky hums a question around his cock and he comes so hard.

Bucky swallows, and when he lifts his head their eyes meet, and Steve feels so good. Just so good. He smiles, and Bucky lets out a breath and smiles back.

“Told you it was a good idea,” says Steve, grinning, breathing hard and can’t stop grinning, and runs his fingers through Bucky’s hair. Bucky laughs out loud and grabs the t-shirt to dry him off.

He chucks it off the side of the bed, too, and then just flops down next to Steve. “This proves nothing.”

Steve reaches out and drops his hand on Bucky’s side, still heaving with breaths or maybe laughter, and says, “I owe you a date, though. I know.”

Bucky’s face is only a couple of inches away. He smiles through his hair and says, “Like I’d let you forget it.”

He has to get up and limp to the bathroom and back before he settles in to sleep, and Bucky yells, “Got a spare toothbrush?” as he rattles around.

“Yeah, top drawer on the right.”

Bucky comes back with a full glass of water and lays out pills—“for when you wake up at ass o’clock”—and then crawls into bed, hits the light, and falls asleep in five minutes flat. Steve stares at his face, striped in darker shadows from the blinds, and can’t stop running his fingers over the back of Bucky’s hand. But it doesn’t seem to wake him up.

As predicted, Steve wakes up at ass o’clock, which is actually about four, ankle a throbbing mess of pain, and takes the Percocet dose and when it sinks in, falls back asleep. Bucky doesn’t wake up for the whole thing, which means he’s either relaxed or dead, and Steve can hear his little soft breaths in the night.

 

In the morning Bucky makes a hideously pathetic protesting noise when Steve gets up, and Steve says, “I’m not dying in this bed. I am going to wear my own sweatpants, and somehow, I am going to have a breakfast of some kind.”

Bucky grabs his wrist and kisses it, and Steve has to abandon the attempt to get up, because it makes his knees go weak and rubbery. And he reaches out and just touches Bucky’s face, like he hasn’t been allowed to, before, and then he tips his forehead against Bucky’s, and Bucky closes his eyes and they kiss quietly for a long, long time, before Steve’s stomach rumbles out loud and Bucky says, “Shit, you do need breakfast,” and they try to sit up at the same time and untangle themselves.

“I’m a finely-tuned machine,” says Steve, “and I run on fuel, preferably waffles.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and says, “Waffles?” but with no real heat, which makes it more believable, and he stands up in just his boxers.

When Steve goes to get up, Bucky says, “Do you need to be wearing the boot?”

Steve shakes his head. “Only if I walk more than a couple of steps.” (This is a very small lie. It hardly counts.)

Of course, he’s not so much walking as hopping—putting weight on it is, in fact, unbearable, and he takes the next round of painkillers—and by the time he makes it through brushing his teeth, he’s sweating. Bucky sticks his head in and says, “You want help with the shower?”

Steve glances over at it and sighs. “Yeah.” The big white clawfoot tub looked so nice when he was picking this place out, but it’s not great for somebody who has to climb up and into it just to take a damn shower.

Bucky strips and Steve appreciates the view, he really does, as Bucky gets the water right—“You like it hot?” he asks, absently, and when Steve chuckles he shoots Steve a dirty look but his mouth quirks, too. But climbing in is a bitch and a half, and by the time he settles, reclining in it even though it’s going to be a shower instead of a bath, Bucky’s mouth is a tight line. The showerhead comes off and that makes showering a lot easier, and Bucky’s hands are everywhere as he kneels between Steve’s legs, gentle and competent and thorough, and once he’s warm and the painkillers have kicked in, he feels a lot less like complaining and a lot more like falling asleep in the tub.

Bucky gets out first and towels off briskly and then helps him out, extra cautious now that he’s wet, but he makes it with no casualties.

Bucky stashes him on the couch before returning with a pair of underwear and sweatpants, and Steve just stares at him, still naked, looking like a goddamn god, and says, “You never have to wear clothes again, by the way.”

Stopping dead in the middle of heading back to the bedroom, Bucky looks back over his shoulder and bursts into laughter. “Doped up and you’re still a charmer,” he says, smiling and shaking his head, before disappearing into the bedroom. Steve looks for the remotes but they’re more than arm’s-length away and that’s not really going to happen after the ordeal that was the shower.

Bucky comes back out in a spare pair of Steve’s sweatpants, no shirt, and Steve smiles at him, eyes lazy and narrowed, and pats the couch next to him. “Keep me company?” he asks.

“Not if you want food.”

Steve sighs. “Shit. I really, really do.”

“I figured. It won’t take long.”

Bucky makes an awful racket in the kitchen, and Steve leans back, propping up his ankle on the couch and trying not to jostle it, and drifts in and out a little. This dose is probably more Percocet than he really needs; he’ll dial it down on the next dose.

Waffles for breakfast, after all (how did he even have eggs in the fridge? he never eats here), and Steve just smiles hugely at Bucky, who pretends it’s not a thing and turns on the TV. They eat and watch quietly, Bucky careful to avoid Steve’s ankle, sitting at the far end of the couch, but Steve pokes him in the leg with his non-hurting toes, and Bucky smiles a little bit, like he can’t help it.

 

The rest of Sunday is uneventful, just more of the same punctuated by Steve’s complaints about boredom, and once, as Bucky runs his hand up Steve’s calf, Steve says breathlessly, “hey, come here,” and they end up kissing at an awkward angle, and Steve ends up getting another blow job, careful but so damn good, and he says, after, “God, I want to do that to you,” and Bucky’s breath hitches and he says, “I—yeah,” and Steve gauges something with narrowed eyes and then slides to the floor in one smooth (hideously painful) movement and with his head and shoulders propped up against the couch says, “How long can you kneel for?” Bucky laughs helplessly but gets down to his level, and Steve lays his hands on Bucky’s iron thighs as Bucky gasps and swears above him, and he’s smiling when Bucky comes in his mouth.

Bucky says, “I have to go to work tomorrow,” as they’re shifting back to bed that night, and Steve nods, sighing a little.

“Better get in while the getting’s good,” he says, pulling back the covers, and Bucky climbs in, and they fall asleep with Steve wrapped around Bucky’s back, ankle extended at a careful angle.

 

When Bucky leaves the next morning (and not until Steve’s comfortably settled on the couch again) he stops to kiss Steve before he goes, early, early enough to stop by his place and get his actual clothes, Steve assumes, and they kiss like they haven’t seen each other in weeks, instead of thirty seconds. Bucky is breathing hard and rests his forehead against Steve’s and Steve says, “Sure you don’t want to take a sick day? I’m told that’s a perk permanent employees get,” and Bucky laughs breathlessly and then says, “You asshole, do you want me to come by tonight?”

Steve replies, “I would want you to move in like two months ago, so it’s a safe bet I’m not going to say no,” and Bucky rolls his eyes but smiles anyway.

 

Steve’s been ignoring his texts but he finally responds to Natasha getting increasingly anxious and indignant about him.

“I’m fine, just laid up”

good, you crazy asshole, I can’t believe you ruined your date

“I don’t know if it was really ruined”

what????

“I mean he just left”

oh my god only you Rogers only you could pull this ridiculous bullshit and get away with it

you know what I’m going to come break your other ankle

just for being such a douche

“Feel free to try but my boyfriend was a sniper, he could probably kick your ass”

we will return to that later bc you are deeply wrong but more important oh my god he’s your boyfriend now??? official?????

“Pretty official, I think”

you lucky rat bastard

“I know”

he’s really good looking

“I knoooooow”

I am not convinced you deserve this

“Pretty sure I don’t”

ok we are in agreement

“Yeah I’m just a lucky asshole”

are you going back to work tomorrow?

“Probably give it an extra day. I should call in”

yeah, let them plan

So he does, and when the receptionist figures out it’s him he gets transferred to Elliot, who says, “Kim told me you broke your ankle, you dweeb, but your boyfriend is really hot?”

“It is none of Kim’s business! Or yours, for that matter.”

“Your ankle is all of our business. As is a boyfriend. Personally, I don’t care how hot he is or is not, but this broken ankle thing isn’t just a ploy to get out of working this week, is it?”

“What? No. You can see the imaging on file, dick. And I only want tomorrow off. I’ll come back in Wednesday.”

“Are you sure? You’re scheduled for a ten. We could make it an eight.”

He’s tempted to aim for stoic, but he’s not going to risk screwing Elliot on staffing. “Okay, an eight works. We’ll see how that goes. Is there back-up available if I don’t hold up?”

“Yeah, there is.”

“Great. Can you make the schedule changes?”

“Yes. By the way, bring your boyfriend by more often. The nurses love him. They can’t shut up about how tall, dark, and scary he is.”

“Which is why I will not be bringing him by, ever, if I can possibly help it. The nurses are frightening him.”

“You can try it your way, but they’re very persistent. I don’t think you have good odds of keeping him hidden.”

“I can try.”

 

He calls Helen’s office later to leave a message about the broken ankle and needing to reschedule their Tuesday appointment. He actually wants to talk, for once. He wants to say I’m happy, holy shit, I’m so happy.

 

With two days off and no Bucky to entertain him, he turns to the next best thing: incessantly texting Bucky.

“Hey, have you see my keys?”

jacket pocket you goober, just say you miss me

“please abandon your career, I can afford to keep you in the style to which you’ve become accustomed”

that isn’t saying much

i miss you too

“I’m bored”

call nat

“She’s busy”

so am i

“Yeah, but she won’t reply at all”

u already tried didn’t u

“yeah”

clint?

“he’s scary”

i’m texting him

“Oh god no”

The phone rings.

“Hi, this is Steve’s voicem—”

“Steve you cagey son of a bitch did you get LAID?”

“Nice to hear from you, too.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault if you didn’t check the five hundred voicemails we left you this weekend. You broke your ankle, we thought you were dead. Not in a love nest. Was this a ploy? Were you trying to get him to nurture you through a difficult time?”

“Clint, you are an embarrassment.”

“You have time off, right? Why don’t you do some art?”

“I don’t know. I’m pretty beat.”

“Yeah, you sound exhausted. Bugging the shit out of whoever picks up, however busy they are.”

“Are you busy? Do you even have a job? I’m still not clear on what you do.”

“You should draw something! Draw me. I’m gorgeous.”

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I was so bored I thought talking to you was a good idea.”

“You want me to come over and watch a movie?”

“...yes.”

Clint shows up a couple hours later, looking smugly pleased with himself for bringing over a copy of Willy Wonka with Gene Wilder, and gives Steve a remarkably limited amount of crap about spraining his ankle and having to wear the stupid boot around the apartment because he keeps hurting himself when he takes it off.

Clint finds Steve’s sketchbook under something on the coffee table and throws it at him and says, “No, seriously, draw me.” Steve feels a little sulky but does it, and is surprised and pleased and still kind of annoyed when he likes the end result.

When the movie’s over Steve sighs, knowing Clint will (probably?) have to go soon, but Clint settles back into the armchair and there’s a long couple of minutes of silence that feels... fraught? before Clint says, “I gotta ask you something.”

“Oh, Jesus. Okay. Fine.”

Clint fiddles intently with a hangnail, which is setting Steve’s teeth on edge, there is an infection potential there just get the damn clippers, and says, slowly, “Do you th—I guess Nat told you what she used to do.”

It’s not where Steve saw this conversation going, and he says, “Yeah.”

“You think—she still blames herself?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I worry about her.”

“Me, too.”

“I guess... I keep thinking she’s got to get over it.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing you get over.”

Clint looks up at him, and he looks so fucking sad. “I keep waiting,” he says.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Yeah?”

“Waiting... makes sense sometimes. But sometimes you gotta bite the bullet and actually talk it out.”

Clint makes a face. “Ugh. Fine. You’re probably right.”

When Clint goes, the apartment feels empty, and Steve doesn’t even try to putter around, just texts Bucky to bring dinner pretty please.

 

When Bucky gets in, Steve’s sitting on the couch, and his sketchbook is in his lap. “So it only took a broken ankle to get you to work on that?” says Bucky, sounding mild, but Steve hears the amusement and the annoyance in it.

“Hang on,” says Steve, and then holds it up, feeling simultaneously proud of what he’s made and deeply uncomfortable.

Bucky comes over and drops a bag and takes the sketchbook from him, and stares at it for a couple of minutes. “Damn,” he says, “that’s really good.”

On some level Steve knows it is—but then again, he also knows that faces are impossible, and the nose isn’t quite right, and what even happened with the folds of the fabric. But he’s been polishing it for hours. It’s Clint, pointing at the television and laughing.

“He told me he was coming over to ‘keep your batshit piece of ass from breaking anything else,’” Bucky drawls, handing it back after looking it over one more time.

“He’s famed for his gentility.”

“How’s my batshit piece of ass doing?”

“Good. Pretty good. Taking less Percocet, going back to work Wednesday.”

“That soon?” Bucky frowns at the boot. “That a good idea?”

“They have these little scooter things I can use. If you can drive me in.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“I’m only working an eight, you don’t need to leave early for me.”

“Nah, no big. If I feel like I’m slacking I can bring some work home with me.” He picks up the gym bag. “Went home and grabbed some stuff so I can stay here while the wounded man recovers.”

Steve grins at him, huge and goofy, and says, “Good, I was about to fall apart.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and snorts, and sits on the couch next to him and slides his arm around Steve’s shoulders. “Fine. You want dinner?”

“Yeah, but you just sat down.”

“I was just going to order something in. Didn’t grab anything on the way.”

“Okay, whatever sounds good.”

Bucky hums a little tonelessly and then picks up his phone and calls for some banh mi, which actually sounds really good, and reminds Steve of that ill-fated barbecue sandwich so long ago, and he’s staring at Bucky, lost in thought, when he hangs up and looks back over at Steve. “What?” he asks, eyes half-closed in suspicion.

Steve just leans over and kisses him, and Bucky sighs, softly, happily, and kisses back.

When the sandwiches get there Bucky jumps up to answer the door and doesn’t even bother trying to hide anything from the delivery guy, who looks so bored he probably doesn’t even notice Steve panting on the couch.

Bucky seems pretty happy to interrupt kissing for the banh mi, and honestly, Steve is too; it’s really good, and the bread is chewy, and they eat in silence for a while.

Bucky finishes first and while Steve is still attacking the end of his Bucky says, “You going to see HR any time soon?”

Steve pauses, then nods. He finishes chewing and says, “Have an appointment for Friday, actually. I called them last week.”

Bucky sits back, looking satisfied. “Good,” he says, “didn’t want to watch you torture yourself forever.”

“You still might.”

“We’ll see.”

 

Wednesday goes pretty smoothly, all things considered; he jets around on the scooter, looking kind of silly, but he doesn’t even care. He’s got the Percocet dialed down low enough that the ankle throbs through most of the day, but it’s easy to overlook it in the rush and bustle of work. He gets the cases that let him sit the most, and he flashes a grateful smile at Kim, who pretends she doesn’t see.

Thursday is boring, and stupid, nothing but back to back vague abdominal pains that have lasted “a while” and require imaging but have no definitive solution and Bucky isn’t coming over after work, something about a work dinner and after that he’s just going to get some sleep, because “you’re getting around better and all my plants are probably dead.”

Friday he goes in to work, and the first order of business is seeing HR.

The rep has kind, but deadly eyes, and he leans forward, elbows propped up on the desk, hair long enough to brush his chin, reminding Steve of Bucky.

“Dr. Rogers,” he says, “I just want to make sure you understand that this a major move. If it doesn’t work out, we can’t make any promises about getting you back into the ED. You’ve been successful there, and it would be a shame to lose a talented emergency physician.”

Steve takes a deep breath, and says, “I understand. I’m at a point in my career,” and he rehearsed this all last night into the mirror, wondering if it would feel less ludicrous if he weren’t wearing an ankle boot, “where I think I have a better understanding of my professional needs, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Emergency Department, it’s just not a good fit for me at this point.”

Mr. Odinson leans back, steeples his fingers, and surveys Steve in silence.

“Very well,” he says, eventually. “There’s been an opening in Palliative Care that we’ve had some difficulty filling. Dr. Coulson suggested that this might be your preference. Would you like to meet with the department head and have a preliminary talk about potentially transferring?”

“Yes. Yes, I would be very happy to do that.”

He texts Bucky as soon as he gets out of the slick, sterile office, and his hands shake a little bit.

Bucky texts back right away. that’s so fucking awesome

 

The meeting goes well. Steve is calmer than he’s been in months, more self-assured, and as he shakes hands with Sharon, his new boss, he can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be good.

His training, what there is of it, consists of working with one of the only other two palliative care specialists on staff, and by the time he’s seeing his own patients, he’s found that Dr. Jones is a gem, a solid, thoughtful doctor, who listens to patients with an intensity that they invariably appreciate.

His patients are usually thin and wasting; sometimes bloated with edema, chronic heart failure, or nephrotic, often in the final stages of cancers, and one of his first patients is an older woman who knows she won’t get a liver transplant but keeps smiling at him as if everything is going to be okay, and when she carefully arranges crystal points around herself at every visit, he tries not to disturb them.

He holds their hands when they seem to want it and gets used to the smell of kidney failure, and somehow it never bothers him half as much as the smell of c-diff always did.

 

Bucky actually throws him a party, or maybe it’s Nat’s idea, but whatever, he comes home after the first week to find that there’s a banner that says GOOD JOB HANGING OUT WITH THE DEPRESSING SICK PEOPLE, which is way longer than it needs to be and definitely custom-printed; he laughs out loud, and everybody cheers and waves drinks. They’ve been drinking since before he got there. Bucky’s been moved in for about two weeks, so he was probably instrumental in the whole thing even if it wasn’t his idea. Natasha is looking at him and smiling, and she gently punches his shoulder and says, “I am so proud of you, you moron,” and he protests, rubbing his arm, but then loses the thread and smiles back.

He says, softly, “You can be done worrying about me any time now. You should worry about you.”

She glances over to the other side of the room, almost involuntarily, and he doesn’t have to look to know that Clint is there.

“See something, say something,” he adds, just loud enough for her to hear.

He turns up the music. He’s been out of his boot for a couple of days now and his ankle is sensitive, still, but it’s okay, and Bucky looks up from where he’s sitting on the couch when Steve holds out his hand, then gets it and smiles. He lets Steve pull him up (though he doesn’t make Steve actually take any of his weight), and Steve concentrates on Clint’s advice: sway gently. It works.

 

Steve finds out, six months later, at a party where Natasha is sitting close enough to Clint that their legs are touching and she’s laughing so big that she shows teeth, that the Palliative Care Department had been suddenly given a rather large grant, shortly before he called HR.

He shoots Tony a suspicious glance over Pepper’s beautiful marble table, which Tony doesn’t see but Pepper intercepts, and she smiles back at him beatifically, innocently, too innocently. Bruce is talking to Tony, both animated, about some kind of program—virtual astronomy rendering, somehow better than what’s currently available, using self-teaching algorithms—and Bruce is saying, “—would have to license—” while Tony nods vigorously, and Pepper looks back at them and props her chin on her hand and her smile gets softer.

(By some strange coincidence, Bruce’s research intern Kamala gets a grant of her very own, from a private think-tank that appears to have some very unusual goals.)

Bucky nudges Steve’s knee with his under the table, and Steve turns back to him, and Bucky’s smile curls up the edge of his lip, slow, and Steve has to smile back, helplessly, and says, “Hey, you want to get married?”

The slow-motion explosion that starts as Jane hears him and her head whips around, and the roar of confusion that builds around them, is nothing, just waves on a beach, the rest of the world trivial, and Bucky’s smile lifts into almost a laugh, eyes squeezing shut, and then he opens them and says, “Yeah.”