Everyone just expected Bucky to be okay. It was one of the check boxes on his list, like being Steve’s best friend, like being a flirt, like loving dancing, like loving dames. All check boxes, all expectations that he had to fulfill.
It wasn’t that difficult. Bucky had been the world’s leading assassin for the past 70 years, being Bucky Barnes was barely a drop in the bucket. He smiled in the right places, he swung his arm around Steve’s neck at the right times, he told a dirty joke at the right juncture, and Ta-Da! Bucky Barnes, Steve Roger’s greatest friend!
Then Bucky would go home, to the apartment he shared with Steve, of course, because why would he not want to cohabitate with his best bud? He would kick off his sneakers, hang up his leather jacket, spin a smile in Steve’s direction, a mocking salute, and call it a night, disappear into the depths of his room.
He’d wait just long enough for Steve’s footsteps to lead him from the bathroom to his own room, then Bucky would push up his window and make his exit via the fire escape. Feet shoved into a pair of black boots, torso covered by a jean jacket, fingers pushed through his coiffed hair to make it messy, and Bucky would vanish into the bustle of Brooklyn by moonlight.
It took him twenty minutes to get to his destination, he waited patiently outside the front door, hands jammed deep into his pant pockets as he bobbed on the tips of boots to keep off the chill of early November.
Eventually, the door creaked open and suspicious eyes peered out of him. They blinked, those brown eyes that were always so critical of him, then the door opened and Maria Hill arched an eyebrow.
“Bucky,” she greeted with a tired sigh.
He shrugged under her scrutiny. “It’s too quiet there. Something about Tony forcing his own renovations on the place and sound proofing it because he’s obsessed with Steve having super hearing. He doesn’t, by the way, that wouldn’t even make sense. Why the fuck would Steve want super hearing? Hearing out of both ears was the biggest improvement that guy was ever going to get.”
It all came tumbling out, the way it always did, the moment Maria shut the door behind her and Bucky was ensconced in her shitty one bedroom. The noises of the city traffic poured through the seams of her poorly insulated walls. Maria turned without looking at him, resettling herself cross legged on her couch where she had been in the middle of watching a period Chinese soap opera.
Bucky joined her, sinking down on the floor so his back rested up against the couch, his long legs sprawling out in front of him. “What’d I miss?” he asked.
Maria crunched down on a pretzel before gracious offering him the bowl. Bucky grabbed a handful and shoved them in his mouth. “Tang just shot Liang and now Renren is all horrified and crying.”
Bucky grinned. “Liang definitely had it coming. Asshole freaking joined that other gang without even consulting anyone.”
“Whatever, the important part is that Renren’s tears are like iconic. The woman makes her eyes as wide as possible and then just starts trembling. It’s like a religious experience, really,” Maria said, shuffling on the couch so she was closer to Bucky and the pretzel bowl was easier to pass between them.
“You think Shang is going to end up shacking up with Yaqing?” Bucky asked, squinting in the dark of Maria’s apartment to make out the Chinese subtitles as they flashed across the screen.
“I hope so, imagine their babies, Bucky, they’d be mobster prince and princesses,” Maria said earnestly.
Bucky couldn’t fight off his amusement and in the dark, miles away from Steve and his oppressive apartment and expectations, Bucky laughed.
They watched shitty Chinese soap operas, ones Maria had to stream off of Chinese streaming sites because nobody else was watching this crap, just like nobody outside the US was watching shitty American soap operas. They both knew the language, even if Maria didn’t always get the four tones right and Bucky would spend minutes at a time harassing her into corrections.
Bucky didn’t exactly remember why he knew Chinese, why he couldn’t just speak it but also read it. He assumed it had been important for some long dead mission, didn’t matter now. No one at SHIELD had asked what languages he knew because there wasn’t anyone really left to ask those questions.
There were the shattered remains of SHIELD that operated out of Tony Stark’s headquarters and the Avengers. Bucky had been cleared by Natasha and the guy with the eye patch. Bucky didn’t bother to catch his name, there was a memory of trying to kill the guy once and Bucky figured they were better off the less they interacted. Some people held long grudges about what a person had done while under duress.
And while everyone associated with Steve held the same expectations of him that Steve did, Maria Hill had looked at him, bloodied, hair knotted, eyes wild, and frowned. “Jesus, someone get the guy cleaned up.”
That was it. No pitying, ‘oh, Bucky’ looks; no ‘but he was the Winter Solider’ stares, nothing. Just Maria assessing his level of filth and ordering a shower. When it had all started piling up, Bucky remembered that, remembered her casual indifference.
It had been stupid, really, looking back at it. Sam, Natasha, Steve, and Bucky all squashed into Steve’s apartment, splitting pizza and beer. Someone had proposed poker and the cards were dealt out. And it was just so stupid. Steve had looked at Bucky, squinting at him with this knowing grin and said Bucky was bluffing.
It was the certainty in that look, the absolute knowledge that Bucky was bluffing, because he was displaying some long forgotten tell. And Bucky had felt sick. Because he knew that Steve was going to be disappointed. He was going to be torn apart when they revealed their hands and Bucky wasn’t bluffing at all.
Of course he had been right, Steve had looked so lost, betrayed, even when Bucky showed his flush. Sam and Natasha had shifted uncomfortably, eyeing Bucky with sudden distrust, as if this one thing, this one box left unchecked made him dangerous.
So when they had all left, when Steve had wandered down to his bedroom with defeat sinking between his shoulders, Bucky had slipped out his window and ended up on Maria Hill’s doorstep. She had looked at him just as she had that one time before, critical of him as a person, not as Bucky Barnes, and said, “What?”
That was it. She’d opened the door, let him in, and it had all come spilling out. Well, sort of. Bucky wasn’t a gusher by nature and that hadn’t been changed by receiving major electrical shocks to his brain. So it had been a comment or two at the beginning and as he continued to show up, a paragraph, and as the weeks turned to months, entire stories.
Maria never said anything, just let him get it out of his system and turned up the volume when he was done. It was exactly what Bucky needed and he didn’t really know how to thank her or if she would even want him to. If she even actually cared at all. He didn’t need her to, he just needed someone to listen to him, even if they were only pretending.
Tonight, though, as the credits were rolling over epic period music, Maria turned to him, her eyes bright even in the dark, and lifted both brows in question. Bucky wasn’t sure what she wanted, so he stared back, mute.
Maria rolled her eyes. “You know you need to talk to Steve about this stuff, right? Not just me?”
Bucky’s muscles tensed, his metal hand clenching into a fist before he purposefully relaxed it. “Nah, he doesn’t wanna hear this shit, Maria.”
She made a look of false surprise at this. “Oh, and I do?”
“Maria,” he whined, not sure if she was serious or not, only hoping that she wasn’t going to tell him he couldn’t keep coming here.
She didn’t, she only sighed, reaching over to ruffle a hand through his hair. Bucky was surprised by the touch and even more surprised when he leaned into it instinctively. It wasn’t like when Steve touched him, friendly pats to the shoulder, one armed hugs, slaps to the back, all weighted down by invisible expectations. This was simple, this was a touch meant to be comforting and nothing more.
Maria was simple, and Bucky thought he might have loved her for that if he felt like he could love anything.
“Bucky, I know that Cap can be a lot to . . . take in, but he’s still your friend, he still cares about you. And whether you know it or not, he’s trying to look out for you in his own way. Do him a favor, will you, look out for him too? Let him know what’s going on in your thoughts?” She was still touching him, gentle drags of her fingers through his messy hair.
It was short, like it had been before he fell. Another box checked on his list. Bucky Barnes cared about his looks. Bucky Barnes was a dapper dan man. Bucky, though, didn’t give a shit. It was hair. Long or short, didn’t mean a thing to him.
Bucky shifted away from Maria’s hand, not feeling comforted anymore, feeling cornered instead. “I should get going,” he said, rising smoothly to his feet and shaking out his hair. “Thanks for the show.” He tipped his head toward the TV and walked toward the door.
Maria tilted her head back on the couch, her eyes tracking his movements. “Think about it, Bucky, please?”
He shut the door quietly behind him and made his way back to Steve’s. He was going to have to find a new sanctuary. The thought depressed him more than he thought it would. He had grown dependent on Maria’s apartment, on her, and it had crumbled on him. Of course it had, Steve’s expectations were bound to get to her eventually.
How could they not? Those expectations were golden. If he could only be that person, he’d be a swell guy, the kind that always had a dame on his arm, that was always surrounded by friends. Who wouldn’t want him to be that guy?
Pushing up the window to his room, Bucky sucked in a final bitter breath and slipped back into the chains his best friend had made for him without ever knowing.
Even Steve was wary, kept his distance, was polite but not friendly. “She’s dangerous,” he explained when Bucky asked him that night.
Bucky was propped up on their counter, legs in grey sweats, feet bare, a spoonful of peanut butter between his lips. Steve kept looking at the peanut butter as if it was an alien species.
Bucky had wracked his brain as best he could for memories of peanut butter but had come up blank. He wasn’t sure if the blank was Hydra induced or because there were no memorable experiences in his past with peanut butter.
“We’re all dangerous,” Bucky countered, shoving his spoon back into the jar for another scoop.
Steve watched the action critically. Bucky frowned, making a show of pushing the spoon between his lips. Caught looking, Steve frowned. “What?” Bucky prompted, speaking with his mouthful.
“Nothing,” Steve brushed off.
Bucky made a dark face. “The hell is wrong with peanut butter?”
“Nothing,” Steve said more hastily this time, his features sliding from disapproval to guilt. “It’s just – you know – before, I was allergic to peanuts and, uh, even after the serum, you still never ate the stuff.”
Bucky blinked, his gaze dropping down to the innocuous jar in his lap. “Oh.”
Steve’s laugh was uncomfortably hollow. “Yeah, see, it’s nothing.”
"Right,” Bucky said blankly, dropping down from the counter. “See you tomorrow, pal, I’m going to hit the hay.”
Steve didn’t stop him, just bid him a goodnight, just like Bucky knew he would. Because Bucky had left another box unchecked. When the door to his bedroom closed, Bucky sunk down against it, legs splayed wide, peanut butter jar in his right hand, spoon in his mouth.
Fuck it. He liked peanut butter. Fuck it. He liked Wanda Maximoff.
The door opened soon enough and Wanda’s heavily kohled eyes glared out at him. “Yes?” she demanded in her vaguely accented voice.
“Heard you were dangerous,” Bucky said with a Bucky Barnes worthy smirk.
Wanda sized him up, head tilting upwards as she took him in. “And I heard you are a fraud.”
Bucky’s smirk spread into a real grin. “Something like that, yeah.”
Wanda held open the door to her shoebox room and Bucky stepped on in.
“You got a problem with peanut butter?” he asked, looking around the scant space. There was a lofted bed pushed up against one wall, a low couch beneath it. Against the opposite wall was a tiny kitchenette. There was no bathroom, Bucky assumed the floor had a communal one.
When he turned around, she was staring pointedly at him. That look said clearly she had no intention of answering his asinine question. It was answer enough for Bucky. “So,” he said, sitting down uninvited on her couch, “what’s your party trick?”
Wanda’s grin would have terrified a weaker man. As it was, it sent a thrill through Bucky. She lifted her hands, tensing them in a way that had Bucky worrying her tendons would snap, then suddenly a pulsing orb of red formed between them. “Should I show you?” she asked.
Bucky nodded without hesitation. She pointed a finger at him, and the red seeped its way across the room and into Bucky.
The room had a faint red gleam to it. It was a good mock up though, their old shithole in Brooklyn, tattered curtains hanging from the dingy window, sunk-in couch propped against the wall. Bucky circled the space, vaguely impressed.
He presumed it was meant to be a hallucination, that he was meant to believe in what he saw. Except, you didn’t spend seventy years of mind manipulation without building up some sort of tolerance. Still, Bucky gave her credit for the affect. Probably would have spun him out good if he wasn’t accustomed to that kind of shit.
The surprise was Steve coming out of the back room. Steve at twenty, all of five four, face narrow, bangs dropping into his blue-blue eyes. That – that had Bucky spun. He was across the room before he knew it, gripping Steve’s thin shoulder tight in his hand.
“Stevie?” he croaked, ashamed to find himself so broken by the mirage.
“Heya, Buck,” Steve said, his tone filled with that hopeless quality it had carried for so long.
“Jesus,” Bucky whispered before crushing Steve to him in a hug. “Jesus, I missed you, punk.”
Steve was shoving weakly at his chest, trying to push off the hug. “It was a twelve hour shift, Bucky, not a yearlong separation.”
Bucky huffed a laugh that was dangerously watery. “Seemed like a fucking long time to me.”
“Buck,” Steve whined as Bucky continued to suffocate him in his desperate embrace. “Get off of me, the neighbors are gonna start thinking you’ve lost your marbles.”
“Probably have,” Bucky agreed readily, but he backed off, being sure to kick the door shut with his heel as he did so. “Let me look at you, Stevie, shit.” He dragged his friend to the crappy couch, sinking down on it and holding Steve firm in front of him with two hands, one on either of Steve’s thin hips.
“You’re being weird, Buck,” Steve pointed out, but he was smiling.
“Yeah, well, last I checked, you liked my weird.” His eyes ran over every sparse inch of Steve, drinking in a sight he thought he’d never see again.
Jesus, how long had it been? Steve said it was a twelve hour shift but it had felt like longer, so much longer –
“Fuck,” Bucky hissed as he wrenched himself away from the scarlet tainted vision.
Wanda was looking at him critically, her almond eyes creased at the sides. “You’re not supposed to be able to pull yourself out.”
Bucky shrugged, his body tingling unpleasantly, mind a frenzy of thoughts. “Got my own party tricks, doll.”
She nodded before sitting down next to him. “And was it fun for you?”
“No,” Bucky answered truthfully. “That was awful. Didn’t know what they meant by dangerous. Really was not expecting that.”
“I can see.” Her long fingers tapped his hand which he hadn’t noticed was trembling.
Bucky clenched both hands into fists, breathing out steadily to will his nerves back into place. “Caught me off guard.”
“How can you miss him that much when he’s right here with you?” she mused. Bucky hadn’t realized she’d be able to see the vision as well and it gave him an extra jolt of adrenaline, heart pumping anxiously in his chest.
“It’s been a long time since then,” he answered vaguely.
“Does it ever get better?”
“What?” Bucky asked, not understanding the question.
“The longing? The grief? Does it get better?”
He blinked. “I guess I don’t really know.” He still felt like he hadn’t gotten Steve back. Or maybe it was the other way around, maybe he felt like Steve hadn’t gotten Bucky Barnes back.
“I spend every moment of every day feeling as if half of my heart has been torn out, left to wither and die,” she explained calmly, as if commenting on the weather.
Bucky tried to sort through his scrambled thoughts to come up with who she was talking about, and then he did. “Shit, your brother.”
“Mm.” She pressed her lips together.
Bucky was beginning to think this hadn’t been his greatest idea. This was not the sanctuary he was looking for. And then Wanda leaned her slight weight against his side and said, “I like peanut butter.”
“Bucky,” she answered, locking the door behind him before sashaying to her couch. “Would you like to see him again?”
Bucky’s heart skipped a beat. It was a tempting offer, a dangerously tempting one. He’d only had one other red vision since befriending Wanda. He had wanted to prove to himself that he wouldn’t be fooled a second time by the ghost of Steve Rogers.
He’d ended up weeping on her tiled floor. Ugly sobs, filled with snot and spit. She hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t reached out a hand to comfort him. Had let him wear himself out and fall asleep on that hard, cold, tiled floor, something for which he was eternally grateful.
So no. “No thanks, doll,” he said, words coming out tighter than he wanted them to.
She grinned at his weakness, because she was dangerous, just like Steve had said. “Tell me what you did wrong this time.”
Bucky frowned. He heel-toed out of his black boots before pulling himself up her ladder to the bed. Laying back on it, he looked up at her water stained ceiling. This place wasn’t in the best shape. He’d seen the communal bathrooms, that was a plague waiting to happen.
“Don’t rightly know what you mean,” he said, letting his old timey Brooklyn accent roll heavily over his words.
“They are all whispering about you today, Sergeant, the most boring drivel. That the Captain looks at you like you’ve let him down.”
Bucky’s heart ached. “That would be an accurate description, I’m sure.”
Wanda laughed, the sound harsh even in humor. “What lies you tell, Sergeant. Steve Rogers watches you like the moon pulls the tides.”
Bucky turned this over in his thoughts and came up blank. He knew how Steve watched him, constantly waiting for the next slip up, for the next box left unchecked. With a sigh, he admitted, “I ate a pickle. Apparently, I hate pickles. Then I glared at Natasha Romanoff which of course Bucky Barnes would never do, because he loves all women, is always a gentleman.”
It came out bitterly like it always did. Bucky reached up a hand, fingers pressing into the ceiling and following the yellowed outline of the water stain. He couldn’t get it right. No matter how hard he tried, he still stumbled and fell into pitfalls that even the Winter Solider couldn’t have come equipped for. It was much harder to maintain a person’s personality for great expanses of time than it was for long enough to get in deep with someone and then murder them in their sleep.
“Pietro liked pickles,” Wanda offered in consolation. “He would also have glared at Natasha. He did not like women whose hands were immersed in blood. Unless those hands were mine, of course.” He could hear the morbid smile in her tone and he smiled as well.
“Yeah, well, see, Pietro was lucky cuz he had you. And I bet you wouldn’ta cared if he decided one day he hated pickles or that he loved women like Natasha.”
“I suppose I would not. Though I would have talked him away from Natasha,” she said and the way she said it, Bucky got the impression Wanda would be keeping Natasha for herself. It made him grin wryly, the pair of them would be a force to be reckoned with, the Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch.
They fell into silence, each preoccupied with their own thoughts until Wanda asked, “And what does the Captain do that is wrong?”
“Hm?” Bucky frowned, thrown by the question.
“The Captain. What does he do that Steve would not have?” she clarified with polite interest.
And that – that was something Bucky had never thought of before. He had been so busy trying to be exactly who Steve wanted him to be, that he had never thought to wonder if Steve was exactly who he should be.
Bucky blinked, brow furrowed, fingers pressing into those yellowed ceiling tiles. “He fucking whistles,” he said suddenly, sitting up so sharply, his head struck the ceiling. He cursed fluently before dropping back to the bed, one hand rubbing at the top of his head.
“And Steve did not whistle?” Wanda prompted.
“Fuck no,” Bucky grumbled, still in pain though it was dissipating quickly. “Would have given himself an asthma attack just to try. Then in the war, well, that wasn’t exactly a whistling kind of place.”
“Mm,” Wanda murmured. “What else?”
After that, it was a freefall of discovering all of the boxes on Steve’s checklist that were blank, that were glaringly empty. It was fucking freeing, really, to know that Bucky wasn’t the only one fucking up. The difference was, there hadn’t been anyone there to hold Steve accountable for his own checklist. Shit, the only thing SHIELD knew about Steve was from musty old textbooks and Peggy Carter’s sepia toned memories.
And suddenly Bucky was mad, furious even, at Steve. All this time, all this time he had been trying so hard to be fucking Bucky Barnes and Steve hadn’t even been giving a pissant attempt at being Steve Rogers. Well, fuck that. Steve Rogers had a rude awakening coming to him.
“Later, doll,” Bucky threw over his shoulder as he jumped lithely down from the bed and jammed his feet into his boots.
“Try not to rip his heart out, Sergeant,” Wanda cautioned, crossing to the door, her hand touching his elbow.
“I’m not gonna,” Bucky argued. “Just think my pal needs a wake-up call, is all.”
Wanda quirked a look of disbelief in his direction but said nothing, only closed the door softly behind him.
“Steve?” Bucky asked, and it came out tentative, all the anger he had worked up at Wanda’s seeping out at the sight of his best friend defeated on a second hand couch because Steve didn’t see the point in buying something new when it was just as good when it was coming from Salvation Army.
There was a long moment where Steve blinked before turning to look at Bucky. “Thought you’d be out for most of the night.” The words were devoid of accusation, just an assumption borne out of past facts.
“I was going to be,” Bucky said, frowning as he crossed the living room to drop down on the couch next to Steve. And Steve was wrong, this couch was not as good as new, it was saggy, springs poked through the cushions to stab you in tender places, and it was the most hideous yellow, green, brown plaid that Bucky had ever set eyes on.
Steve nodded and Bucky decided that he could be Bucky Barnes tonight, tomorrow too, if it would keep Steve from looking like this. From looking as if he was all alone in a room full of people. “Hey,” he nudged Steve’s elbow with his own, “hey, you remember that time Feltzy dared you to eat a mud pie?”
Canting his face towards Bucky, Steve nodded again, hands collapsing down to hang between his legs. “Yeah, sure. That was about ’28, right?”
“Yeah,” Bucky agreed. “Do you remember what you told him?”
Steve’s brows lifted, perplexed. “Not really, I just remember eating the damn pie and having grit in my teeth for weeks after.”
Bucky grinned nostalgically. “Well, yeah, of course you were going to eat the fucking thing, you always had to be hard headed about the dumbest stuff. But no, Stevie, don’t you remember what you told old Feltzy?”
With a shrug, Steve shook his head, a whisper of a smile caught on the edge of his lips. “What’d I say?”
“You told Feltzy to shove it because eating dirt is most often a sign of an iron deficiency,” Bucky said with a proud smirk.
Steve huffed out a laugh. “I wasn’t wrong.”
“I couldn’t believe you had the balls to tell him that. Hefty kid, Feltzy, coulda taken you down easy. And I’m standing at the sidelines, getting ready to dive in and punch his lights out if he takes a swing at you. Then you come out with that shit and all I could think was what the hell is an iron deficiency and does Steve have one?”
Steve laughed louder. “My ma was a nurse, Bucky. I knew all sorts of stuff like that. How’d you forget that?”
“I was ten, man. It wasn’t that I forgot, just wasn’t something I thought about either. Anyway, you still ate the dirt, then puked on the walk home and I had to cover with you for your ma cuz you knew how pissed she would have been if you told her the reason you were sick was because you’d been eating dirt. Told her I accidentally gave you milk chocolate. That was one thing I knew you were allergic to, milk, still wasn’t sure if you had an iron deficiency, though.”
Steve’s face crinkled up in a genuine smile. “I remember now, you tried to give me an iron nail, said something about how I should lick it?”
“Shut up,” Bucky whined, smacking his best friend in the chest as the decades old embarrassment came back to haunt him. “Thought it made sense. You needed iron and I thought you could just absorb it from the nail or something.”
Steve cracked up. “That’s so dumb, Buck. That’s still the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Whatever, punk, I was just trying to keep you from having to eat mud pies.” Bucky sniffed indignantly, corner of his mouth twitching with a smile.
“Yeah,” Steve said, eyes still bright, “yeah, you were.”
And just like that, Steve was okay again, no dark shadows hanging over him. If only Bucky could get it right all the time. All the stupid details that made up Bucky Barnes that Bucky simply didn’t remember anymore. The big memories, he got those back, it was the menial ones, the ones that really made a person who they were that he was tripping over left and right.
And just like that, Bucky wasn’t okay again. He was back to feeling suffocated, to feeling those chains of Bucky Barnes slip around his wrist and tie him down. Still, he forced a smile for Steve and played memory road until the sun started to creep over the horizon.
In a wild turn of events, they weren’t at her apartment. Well, they had started there, but Wanda had been in the mood to wander, so now they were in Central Park, twilight overhead, pools of light provided on the path by the street lamps.
Bucky hissed out an agitated breath. “He was down in the dumps, doll face, can’t hit a man when he’s already down. Soldier’s honor and all.”
Wanda tilted a look at him, her eyes looking larger than they really were thanks to her excessive kohl. It made him feel even more analyzed than she was probably intending. “And who looks out for you like that?”
The night was cold, no other word for it. Not chilly, not a chill to the air, not a touch of winter. It was cold, even with Bucky in a long sleeve shirt, jean jacket buttoned to the collar, fingerless gloves on his hands, Bucky was cold. He shivered as the bare trees rustled with the wind and Wanda unwound her black scarf from her neck, tugging up the hood of her red jacket in exchange.
Bucky accepted the scarf because she would have forced it on him if he didn’t. He wrapped it around his neck haphazardly, shoving it down the front of his jacket for extra warmth. “Don’t need anyone to look out for me,” he bluffed.
She raised an unimpressed brow. “Of course not, that’s why you come to me, is it not? And Maria before that? Because you don’t need anyone at all?”
Annoyance simmered low in his heart. He hunched his shoulders up against the cold and dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t need this shit. The cold night air or Wanda’s dripping sarcasm. The spell was broken.
“It’s late,” he said, “I’m going home.”
Wanda didn’t come after him, not that he expected her to. She let him slip off into the night. Let him disappear into that fragmented memory of Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers’ best friend.
Not that Bucky minded, he enjoyed having the apartment to himself. Sort of. Maybe. Not really at all. He was fairly certain he would rather have been anywhere but alone in the apartment, but he had burned out two safe houses, first with Maria and second with Wanda, in as many months. SHEILD was a small operation at the moment and he was running out of places to crash.
So the lights were off and Bucky was sprawled across the couch, eyes running along the subtitles as his lips formed the words, listening to the rise and fall of tones from the actors on the screen. Yaqing and Shang were one hundred percent shacking up now and Bucky suspected the next ‘surprise’ would be Yanqing’s out of wedlock pregnancy. He could already imagine the exaggerated looks of shock and horror on the actors faces in next week’s episode.
Bucky was so immersed in the fantasy world that he didn’t hear the door open. He didn’t hear anything until Steve said, “I didn’t know you spoke Chinese,” in that devastated, heartbroken tone he used when Bucky had utterly failed at being Bucky Barnes. Clearly that wasn’t a check box he was supposed to fill, there was no ‘knows Chinese’ check box for Bucky Barnes.
“Yeah, well, neither did I for a while there,” Bucky sighed, hitting the power off button on the remote before Steve’s unhappiness could ruin the show completely.
“You didn’t?” Steve asked tentatively, pulling off his coat and hanging it off the rack by the door.
“Maria had this on one night, when I stopped by her place, and suddenly I knew that I knew Chinese,” Bucky explained, not even sure why he was bothering, it was only going to disappoint Steve even more.
“That’s, uh, that’s real neat, Buck.”
It was exactly the response Bucky was expecting. “Yeah, sure, pal.” Bucky stood up, tossing the remote onto the couch behind him. “I’m going to bed, have a goodnight.”
“Hey, wait.” Steve reached out, fingers brushing against the metal plates of Bucky’s arm.
In the dark, Bucky turned to look at the man who had been his best friend. Or maybe it was the other way around, Bucky had been Steve’s, but he wasn’t any longer, not since he came back wrong.
“It’s just, we don’t hang out that much anymore,” Steve hedged with a sheepish smile.
Bucky glanced around the apartment as if trying to envision the last time the pair of them had done anything together in it. It might have been the night he came back from Wanda’s ready to ream Steve out only to fall prey to Steve’s kicked puppy looks. “It’s late,” he said instead.
Steve’s shoulders drooped. “Yeah, I know, I just thought, maybe we could – maybe we could go for a walk or something?”
Bucky looked pointedly out the balcony window through which the falling snow was visible. “Bit cold out for that, Steve.”
“Okay, a movie than,” Steve rallied.
A look to the clock that was edging towards two in the morning. “Bit late for that.”
It cut Bucky to the core and he hated that more than anything. That as much as he could let Steve down, as he could get things wrong, he was still Bucky Barnes enough to care so very fucking much about Steve Rogers and his happiness. “Steve,” Bucky said with a tired sigh, “please not tonight. I can’t do it tonight.”
“Can’t do what?” Steve asked, his fingers still on Bucky’s metal arm, wrapping around now to hold him in place as if he knew Bucky was a second away from splitting.
“I can’t pretend tonight. I can’t be someone I don’t remember how to be, not tonight. Try me again tomorrow. I’ll muster it up, I swear. But tonight, I am so fucking tired, pal.” Bucky reached across, pushing Steve’s fingers off of him and headed for his room.
He closed the door, stared at the snow through his window for a moment, then fell face forward on the bed, suffocating his groan in the mattress. He wouldn’t even bother getting undressed. He’d just sleep like this. In his plaid shirt and black pants, with his socks still on his feet, and his hair still a mess from his fingers raking endlessly through the gel as soon as Steve had left for the night.
And maybe tomorrow he would be able to be Bucky Barnes. Or maybe tomorrow, he’d disappear for good, somewhere that nobody who remembered Bucky Barnes would be able to find him. Maybe that would be easier for all of them.
He was out of his room and across the hall in less than five seconds, practically tearing Steve’s door off the hinges as he forced his way into Steve’s bedroom. Yellow moonlight spilled into the room making it look closer to dawn than it could possibly have been.
Bucky fell to his knees beside the bed, gripping one of Steve’s sweaty shoulders in his hand and shaking him roughly. “Wake up, Steve,” he demanded.
With a harsh grasp of breath, Steve punched his way out of Bucky’s grip, catching Bucky in the jaw as he sat up, eyes wild and lost. Bucky regained his hold on Steve’s shoulder and shoved his friend back down harshly. “You’re awake, Steve, you’re fine,” he promised sternly.
There were several beats of just Steve panting, eyes lighting on everything and nothing all at once before locking on Bucky’s face. “Bucky?” he breathed out. Sweat beaded his forehead and dampened his bangs.
Bucky nodded, squeezing tightly at Steve’s shoulder. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m right here, Steve. You’re fine, promise.”
Steve swallowed thickly, nodding once, then twice, before sitting up and slumping forward, elbows pressing into his knees, palms pressing to his eyes. “Shit,” he breathed out shakily.
Bucky finally released Steve’s shoulder, settling more comfortably on the floor beside the bed. His own heart was racing with adrenaline in his chest, he pressed his side to the bed letting it hold his weight as he exhaled heavily. “Jesus, Steve, what were you dreaming about?”
“Nothing,” Steve croaked. Fear slid down Bucky’s arms like vines; Steve was crying. Holy shit this night was a disaster.
“Hey, come on, look at me, Stevie,” Bucky cajoled, turning back around, hand brushing Steve’s shoulder.
Steve twitched at the touch but didn’t reveal his face. Exhausted and anxious, Bucky pushed himself to his feet and crawled onto the bed, settling at Steve’s feet. He reached forward, tilting his head down so he could peer up at Steve from between Steve’s bent knees. “Steve,” he prompted.
Steve ground his palms harder against his eyelids, the harsh cadence of his breathing giving away the tears Bucky couldn’t see. “I’m fine,” Steve whispered.
“You are so fucking far from fine,” Bucky said without delicacy. He sighed, sitting back up. Steve wasn’t coming out anytime soon and apparently he wasn’t in the mood to spill his secrets either. Contrary to popular belief propagated by Steve himself, Bucky Barnes had never been the soft caring type. He cared, but not with kind words and promising smiles, never had.
Unable to say something comforting, Bucky reached out instead, his metal fingers rubbing at the tendons of Steve’s neck, trying to soothe the strain there. Except, apparently, this wasn’t comforting either, as the hitches in Steve’s breath picked up.
“Stevie,” Bucky groaned, digging his metal fingers into his best friend’s shoulder.
Bucky couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Steve cry and not just because his memories were patchy even on good days. Steve wasn’t a crier. He was a grin and bear it sort, well, without a lot of grinning. More like the stern face and bear it sort.
The quiet of the night stretched on as Bucky waited for Steve to get a hold of himself. He worked his hand down the upper portion of Steve’s back, kneading into the taut muscles. It was five full minutes before he realized that possibly messaging Steve’s back with his metal arm wouldn’t be that soothing at all. Perhaps the metal arm was another check box failed on the Bucky Barnes' list.
He stilled his movements, weighing the decision to switch hands or just stop altogether. Before he could decide, Steve was arching back up into the touch, his breathing having settled into a more appropriate rhythm. Bucky acquiesced, metal fingers pressing back into Steve’s skin.
“How’s it going, punk?” Bucky asked.
Steve heaved a breath. “Sorry,” he said, the words thick.
Bucky was perplexed. “Sorry?”
“For – for this.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not gonna get upset about a little snot and tears, Steve, or about waking up in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah, well, I’m still sorry.” Steve hunched forward, his shoulders bowing with the action.
Bucky’s hand followed the movement, creeping back up to Steve’s neck, then further to card through the strands of his short hair. “Alright, you’re sorry,” Bucky allowed. “Gonna tell me what all of this was about, now?”
“Why do you leave every night?” Steve asked instead of answering.
Bucky’s hand froze as his eyes widened. Damn, they were really doing this now? At ass o’clock in the morning and Steve a teary-eyed mess?
“Got places to be, is all,” he lied.
Steve gave a stuttering sigh. “I don’t know – I don’t know how to stop messing up.”
“What?” The word came out too loud in the quiet of Steve’s bedroom.
“I keep messing up and I know you’re going to – I understand, I do, I just wish I could fix it,” Steve pleaded earnestly.
“Fix what?” Bucky asked, pulling his arm back to his side and frowning at Steve’s curled up form.
The absence of touch seemed to finally prompt Steve into sitting up all the way. His eyes were puffy and red, even in the dark. “I don’t mean to keep getting it wrong, Buck. I swear.”
“Steve, Jesus, what are you talking about?” Bucky asked. It felt as if the world was tilting beneath him. He couldn’t scramble for the topic Steve was intent on discussing because it was all backwards. Bucky was the one messing up, he was the one not getting it right. So what the hell was Steve on about?
“The stupid pickles, the hair cut, the poker faces, the fucking peanut butter. I’m messing all of this up, Bucky, and I don’t know how to get it right. Because I don’t mean to mess it up, I swear. I’m trying to keep track, I’m trying to keep up, but I’m just falling behind, every time.”
The world seemed to halt for a moment, time a meaningless idea implemented by lesser beings as Bucky hit rewind on the last few months of his life. He ran through all of the unchecked boxes with a new filter. One where Steve didn’t think Bucky was failing, but that Steve was.
Bucky’s heart lurched and his stomach bottomed out. It was truly a holy shit moment. Steve wasn’t the one holding Bucky up to invisible standards, Bucky was. Bucky was the asshole finding all the cracks where he was no longer Bucky Barnes and Steve was on the sidelines, chasing after a ghost he could see and touch solidly but couldn't get a grip on.
“Stevie,” Bucky groaned, reaching forward desperately and dragging his best friend into a cramped hug. “Fuck, Steve. That’s not how it is at all, promise.”
Bucky cupped his hands around the back of Steve’s neck and ground their foreheads together painfully so that Steve was forced to look him in the eyes so that he would know Bucky was telling the truth. “I’ve been an asshole, a huge one, but I’m thinking, just maybe, you’re used to that sort of thing from me and this one time, you’ll be willing to forgive me.”
“Bucky?” Steve asked, brows furrowed.
“I thought – “ Bucky hissed in a breath. This was going to be ugly, he knew that, but it had to be done. “I thought you wanted me to be him.” He placed specific emphasis on the last word and by Steve’s sharp inhale, he knew he understood.
“I’m so sorry –“ Steve started, but Bucky snaked a hand around to cover his mouth.
“Nope, not this time. I’m sorry, because it wasn’t fair of me to assume that. I should of – I should have talked to you. Because every time I messed up, every time I did something Bucky Barnes wouldn’t have done, I thought I was disappointing you.”
Steve’s eyes had grown round with horror as Bucky spoke. It made him feel even more like shit. It was so fucking clear, if he had ever bothered to look at it, that Steve wasn’t the one beating Bucky up, he was doing that all on his own.
“Just, I thought there was this big comparison going on and I got that. It made sense. Bucky Barnes was the kinda guy you’d want somebody to be, only, that’s not me. It was, a long time ago, but that’s not who I am anymore. And I thought every time I let that show, with my dumb poker faces that aren’t the same and the way Natasha gets under my skin in a bad way, I thought you saw that and – “ he sighed, letting go of Steve and running a frustrated hand through his dark hair.
“You thought I was trying to tell you you were wrong,” Steve said slowly. “Fuck, Bucky.”
Bucky rubbed angrily at his eyebrow. He didn’t know what else to say. He’d made such a huge mess of this. And – and fucking Maria had seen it and Wanda after her. It had been so clear to everyone but Bucky.
“I – I don’t think you’re wrong,” Steve finally said as the tense silence between them stretched onwards towards an infinity. “I think you’re – “ he paused and even in the dark, Bucky could see Steve’s face heating up, “I think you’re perfect, Bucky. Because you’re fucking here and that’s all – “ he cut off with a sharp shake of his head.
Bucky groaned a sigh before springing forward at his best friend of more than ninety years and bulldozing him to the bed. Steve gave a startled grunt at the impact, but Bucky had him pinned down, head firm on Steve’s chest, listening to Steve’s heart hammering away beneath his ribs.
“You whistle now,” Bucky noted, fingers seeking out Steve’s wrist, tracing out the shape of his veins. “I like it.”
Steve huffed an amused laugh, his free hand coming up to run through Bucky’s messy gunky-gelled hair. “Sam says I can’t keep a tune to save my life.”
“So, you’re tone deaf, what’s new?” Bucky asked a bit more defensively than the moment warranted.
If anything, Steve’s amusement grew. He gave a playful tug to ends of Bucky’s hair. “Natasha told me peanut butter and pickles together is considered a delicacy by some.”
Bucky let out a stark laugh. Shit. While Bucky had been brooding over all the places where he wasn’t Bucky Barnes anymore, Steve had been out there trying to find ways to fit himself up with the new Bucky. Jesus. Bucky was a shit friend.
He clutched Steve tighter to him. “That sounds disgusting, Rogers.”
“You won’t know till you try it,” Steve reasoned.
“Uh-huh, and I’m just sure you already tried it for me, didn’t you, pal? It’s the mud pies all over again, isn’t it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with trying something new,” Steve responded loftily.
“So how was it then?” Bucky prompted, thumb jabbing against Steve’s pulse point.
“Tasted like shit,” Steve answered flatly.
Bucky cracked up, shifting upward until he could look down at Steve’s face. He was still a mess, eyes red rimmed, tip of his nose red, and Bucky thought he looked fucking beautiful. He knew Wanda’s phantoms wouldn’t be able to hold him anymore, not when he had this Steve with him every day.
“I love you, Steve,” he said honestly, “like a shit ton, and I’m sorry I almost ran us into the ground.”
“Bucky,” Steve groaned, freeing his wrist from Bucky’s grip to frame Bucky’s face with both palms. “Don’t be a dope, I could have said something. I should have. Should have told you about the pickles and peanut butter or about how I like your hair when it looks like you let an animal nest in it.”
Bucky barked out another laugh. “Shut up, asshole. It’s hipster fashionable, Maria told me so.”
Steve’s eyes crinkled up in a smile. “Whatever she’s telling you, jerk, it’s a lie. She’s just using you for Chinese tutoring. I asked. Can’t believe you’ve been whispering sweet nothings to her in Chinese and I haven’t been there to hear it.”
“Why? You wish it was you I was whispering those nothings to?” Bucky joked, but the way Steve’s face turned serious, Bucky realized he’d hit close to a mark he’d never realized was there. “Shit, really?”
Steve shrugged, letting his hands drop back down to the mattress. “Doesn’t gotta be anything, Buck. I’ve always loved you, that doesn’t have to change.”
Bucky thought this over for a moment. They could keep going like they had been, happier now that the dumbass checklists had been done away with, now that they were communicating instead of side-stepping each other. Maybe they could get a new apartment, maybe they could invite both Maria and Wanda over for movie nights.
Or maybe they could be something more. Tentatively, Bucky lowered his face, lips just brushing Steve’s. He rested there for a moment before pressing forward into a real kiss. It barely lasted any time at all, just long enough for Bucky to learn the shape and feel of Steve’s lips.
He pulled back, blinking wide in the dark. Steve’s face was blank with a combination of surprise and something else. Bucky thought about what Wanda had said. About not breaking Steve’s heart. About Steve’s eyes following him like the moon pulled the tides.
“Shit. You really love me, huh, Stevie?”
Steve’s lips pulled up in a minute smile. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Kinda love you too,” Bucky admitted slowly, just realizing it himself. “Like, I’d definitely be interested in conserving water with you.”
Steve’s brows pulled down in confusion. “Conserving water?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said with a roguish smile. “Gotta start sharing showers to save the environment, Stevie.”
And inches from Bucky, Steve Rogers burst out into pleased laughter before pulling Bucky Barnes down to him for a toe curling kiss.
Steve’s head was in his lap, Bucky’s metal hand kneading at Steve’s shoulder as Steve dipped apples into peanut butter. They’d finally found something to go with it that wasn’t pickles. Maria had suggested it after staring at them in disgust as they explained about the pickles.
Maria made a face, eyes still dazed as she peered around owlishly at them. Wanda was hanging down from her bed, arm still reaching out towards Maria who was curled up in Wanda’s newly purchased red papasan chair. “I saw,” Maria blinked again, then peered up at Wanda with a look of annoyance, “I saw Wanda and Natasha.”
Bucky laughed, choking on an apple and Steve snorted. “I’m not sure that’s using your powers for good, Wanda,” Steve said.
Wanda leaned further over until her long dark hair hung down toward them. “It was merely a glimpse, a promise of what could be, not what could have been, that falls into the realm of good to me.”
Maria scrunched up her nose. “Do you really think Natasha would go for it?”
“Perhaps if I showed her,” Wanda said coyly before Bucky hushed them both with a gentle, “Shut the fuck up! It’s on.”
Four heads whipped toward the mini television Bucky had bought for Wanda and set up on the tiny storage unit Wanda used as a pantry. Yaqing was staring down into the face of her newborn baby girl. She looked up with her epic tears at Shang who was staring in awe at his illegitimate family. The baby gave a big gasping cry and Bucky hurriedly translated the dialogue as Yaqing told her lover that their child shared his eyes and nose.
It was the middle of the day and Bucky didn’t spare a thought for the way his hair was a mess atop his head, or for the way he referenced Chinese words with Maria to make sure his translation was accurate. He grinned when Steve started whistling off tune as hell during a commercial, as Steve passed him another slice of apple lathered in peanut butter, as Steve tilted his head back and puckered up his lips.
Bucky took the clear invitation for what it was and bent forward to kiss his best friend, ignoring Maria’s catcall and Wanda’s knowing snicker. For the first time in a long time, Bucky was happy to be Bucky Barnes, happy to have Steve with him, happy at all.
“Love you,” Steve whispered before tuning back into the show.
“Love you too, pal,” Bucky said, arm reaching down to wrap around Steve’s chest and settle over Steve’s heart so he could feel the steady beat of it beneath his metal palm.