Bucky was born with the words "Are you okay?" emblazoned straight down his sternum in perfect calligraphy like the world's least effective 'get well soon' card.
When he was a little kid he assumed that his soulmate was his mother, because he got into a lot of scrapes and she asked him that all the time. That suited his four-year-old self just fine.
When he was older, and way less keen on marrying his mom, the dicks he hung out with in high-school would ask him that while staring meaningfully into his eyes until he threatened to kick their asses.
By the time he joined the army, the only ones who knew what his words said were the administrators who read his enlistment forms and his best buddy Clint, who had wheedled it out of him during a drunken night in London on their way to Afghanistan. When Clint had returned the favor, it was one of the best moments of Bucky's life. Because Clint's words were: I'm not an angel, I'm your nurse, which at least meant he'd probably survive their tour of duty. It meant Bucky could risk getting close to the guy, maybe even having him as a real friend. Bucky's folks were dead, and all he knew about Becca was that his she was teaching somewhere in the Pacific; they hadn't spoken in years. Bucky thought it was kind of nice having someone who gave a shit about him.
Clint insisted that Bucky's words meant he'd survive too, but Bucky was pretty sure people would ask if you were okay even while you were circling the drain.
Mostly, he tried not to think about his words too much, and especially what kind of situation he might end up in where someone would ask. On the long, boring recon missions where no one was shooting at them, Clint liked to fuck around with lists of non-lethal reasons Bucky might be asked. Hangovers came up a lot.
"Maybe you twist your ankle," Clint offered.
Bucky wiped his face with his hand, his palm coming away grimy with dust and sweat. God he hated the desert. "Maybe you meet that nurse because I shoot you myself."
Clint grinned. "You know you whine like a bitch when you're hurt."
"You know you'll whine like a bitch when I pound your teeth in."
Clint burst out laughing. "So sensitive!" He made puppy-dog eyes. "Are you okay?"
"Fuck you." Bucky shifted his pack higher on his shoulders. It felt like the sand was grinding down into his bones.
Reilly and Grant, the other two members of Bucky's small squad were walking a few steps ahead of them, looking equally as bored and unimpressed with the sepia landscape. Grant kept scuffing his feet, kicking rocks and pebbles; probably pissed at the world again.
"Hey, wake the fuck up over there, Grant," Bucky called.
"Sir! Yes, Sir!" Grant said. He didn't kick the next rock.
Bucky rolled his eyes but he didn't call Grant up for his mild insubordination. He couldn't really blame the kid for how he felt. "What the fuck are we even out here for?" he groused to Clint. "We're supposed to be doing reconnaissance on what? Fucking goats?" He jutted his chin at a couple cropping at the sparse, dry grass. "You think those look dangerous, Barton?"
"Why? Pissed-off ex-girlfriend?" Clint gave him a shit-eating grin.
"Just your mother," Bucky retorted. "Now I know where you get your looks from."
"And the charm," Clint winked. "Don't forget the charm."
"How can I forget something I've never—" The world blew up around them.
"Stop laughing," Steve growled. "Come on, Sam—it's not funny!"
"No, no. You're right. It's not funny. It's hilarious." Sam was laughing so hard that he kept moving out of frame on the screen of Steve's Starkphone. "Tell me again how you met your 95 year-old soulmate at the library."
"She's not my soulmate!" Steve glowered at Sam. "And she's not 95, she's sixty. And her name's Peggy."
Sam disappeared off the screen and there was a thunk as he rolled off his bed onto the floor, still laughing. "You know her name!"
"Shut up. She introduced herself. And she's not my soulmate! She just couldn't hear me."
"Yeah, because she's 95…"
Steve sighed heavily. "Fuck off."
"What?" Sam said, and then burst into fresh peals of laughter.
"Just because your soulmark isn't a generic question like mine doesn't mean you get to make fun of it."
"I'm not making fun of your soulmark, Steve," Sam said with great sincerity. "I'm just making fun of you. And your Boy Scout ways. Did Ms. Peggy who is only sixty appreciate you offering to get that book off the high shelf, stud?"
"You're an ass."
"She did, didn't she?"
"I don't know," Steve mumbled. "She didn't hear me."
"Fuck off!" Steve swore again. His phone flashed. "Natasha's on the other line, so I'm hanging up on you now."
"What?" Sam said, still laughing, as his image switched to Natasha's face.
She looked pissed off, all but glowering at her phone screen.
"What's wrong?" he asked her. "Did you have a bad shift?"
"No," she said flatly. "My shift was fine, except for my fucking sergeant. Things went to hell right after, when I changed out of my uniform." She took a breath. "I got them."
"What did you—" Steve gaped. "Oh, my God. You mean your soulmarks? You finally got them?"
"Yeah." She sounded anything but happy about it. "They suck."
"They suck?" Steve parroted. "How can they suck? They're not as bad as mine, are they?" He hated the idea of Natasha having to live with a soulmark that everyone said all the time.
"No," she sighed. "Not quite as bad. But I think my soulmate's an idiot. Check this out." She propped her phone up against the windowsill in her bedroom. "Tell me if you can see all of it." She pulled the back of her shirt up. "It's long."
Steve read it, lips shaping the words as he tried to decipher the astonishingly messy scrawl. By the time he got to the end he was laughing.
"It's not funny." Natasha glowered over her shoulder at him.
"Did I break that?" Steve quoted, still laughing. "Oh no, I broke that, didn't I? Was it yours? I'm really sorry if it was yours. Well, they're polite."
Natasha turned around to face the little screen. "He's a goof. I waited twenty-three years for my soulmarks, and he's a goof."
"Poor Nat," Steve said. "Here you thought you'd never get a soulmate because you had to wait so long for your marks. And now you actually have one, and he's a goof. Bummer." He smiled.
Natasha blinked and her glare softened to an expression of wonder. "Holy shit. I have a soulmate."
"Yeah." Steve grinned.
"I have a soulmate!" Natasha repeated, laughing. Her eyes were shining.
"Yeah, you do."
"I have a soulmate! I have a soulmate and he's a goof!"
"That's awesome, Nat. I can hardly wait to meet him."
She wiped her eyes and then grinned. "And think of how easy it'll be for me to find him."
"Really?" Steve shook his head. "We're sharing this tender moment and you harass me about my soulmark? Is that how it is?"
"Oh that's how it is, Rogers." She laughed.
Steve pretended to scowl. "You're as bad as Sam."
Natasha tilted her head, grinning wickedly. "What?"
Bucky woke up in Landstuhl missing a week and a half of his life and his left arm. He didn't know what happened to Clint, and no one seemed to be able to tell him. The best anyone could tell Bucky was that they thought he'd been shipped back to the U.S. Somewhere. The address he'd given on his enlistment form was a P.O. box in Iowa, that belonged to a local circus that went bankrupt in 2004. And Bucky didn't have anything better. They'd never exchanged contact information for when they got back to the States. You don't exactly think about exchanging email addresses in a war zone.
The only thing Bucky could remember from what Clint'd told him was that he had a shitty apartment in Bed-Stuy. Bed-Stuy was spitting distance from where he used to live in Brooklyn, and the only place Bucky had ever called home was Brooklyn anyway. He figured that if he went back to New York, maybe he'd have a chance in hell of finding him.
Turns out when you're missing an arm, everyone asks are you okay? all the damn time, but no one wants to give you a job. Bucky had never thought about his soulmarks much, and pretty soon he was a lot more concerned about keeping his fucking apartment than finding the love of his life. And the nice lady at the V.A. told him that she was working on his benefits—and he should call back in about a year 'cause that was how long it was taking these days.
The shelters got old real quick, with all the other desperate assholes thinking he'd be an easy mark because he was missing an arm. Bucky got sick of sleeping with one eye open in Afghanistan, and having to do it all over again in New York just to sleep on a too-soft, dingy mattress full of bedbugs sucked harder than it blew.
Sleeping rough was actually easier, and God knew he was used to it. The one bright spot about having no obligations beyond finding three squares and a place to shower meant he had lots of time to look for Clint. But it was like he'd vanished off the face of the planet.
And then winter came.
"I think maybe I kind of hate my job," Steve said.
"Everyone hates their job. That's why I made Pepper run my company." Tony swirled brandy around in his glass, almost but not quite failing to splash Steve's shirt. Again.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Is that before or after the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist thing?"
Tony gave Sam a long, flat look that was only marred a little by the squinting. "After, of course. I've always been a genius, phillip, phillipeanut…billions of something. Plus I never said that."
"I saw it on YouTube."
Tony snorted expansively. "YouTube lies."
"YouTube doesn't lie—it's video," Steve protested.
"Everything lies!" Tony made a grand gesture with the hand holding the brandy, which somehow didn't spill what was left in the glass. "If you don't believe me, ask the redhead girl. The pretty one. She's over there somewhere."
"Pepper?" Steve looked around, but he could only see Natasha, drinking a beer as she looked out the window.
"No. Pepper's not pretty—she's Gorgeous. I mean that one." Tony pointed with the brandy glass. "The narc."
"Natasha's not a narc!" Sam told Tony.
"She's not a narc yet," Tony said darkly. "Give her a few more years as a cop. That's like ten for normal people."
"That made no sense."
Tony pouted thoughtfully, ignoring Steve. "Or she'll be a supervillain." He nodded to himself, then seemed to remember that he was trying to tell them something. "Right. YouTube totally lies. Like, lying liars who lake." He took a drink.
"Aaaaand you're cut off." Sam deftly removed the drink from Tony's hand and put it on the coffee table.
Tony blinked mournfully at the glass, even though it was less than three feet away from him. "I don't care if you're friends with Pepper. I still hate you."
"Your liver loves me." Sam turned to Steve. "What did you say about hating your job?"
Steve shrugged. "I don't hate it, hate it. I just…" He grimaced. "I mean, I like nursing. I really do. I like being able to help people, you know?"
"Nurses are awesome," Tony said. "But you must look like crap in that little white dress."
"Your brain terrifies me," Sam said.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Come on, Tony. Don't be sexist. Your girlfriend's in charge of a multinational corporation."
"My soulmate, you mean." Tony grinned smugly.
Steve rubbed the mark on his thigh. "That's not my point, Tony. What I was trying—"
There was a crash on the other side of the room. "Did I break that? Oh no, I broke that, didn't I? Was it yours? I'm really sorry if it was yours," Someone said.
Steve whirled, searching out Natasha. She was still at the window, now staring wide-eyed at the dark haired, unassuming man in glasses who'd somehow managed to knock a lamp off a table practically onto her feet.
"You're the goof!" Natasha said.
"So, how's Bruce?" Steve asked.
Natasha eyed him over the rim of her disposable coffee cup, still gusting steam in the weak January sunlight. It was cold enough to cut through Steve's jeans, chilling his legs until the skin felt a bit numb. Natasha's hands were in her duty gloves, her torso wrapped in the bright yellow winter jacket the NYPD issued to their officers. She looked like the cold wasn't bothering her at all even though her breath was misting as she spoke. "Bruce is fantastic. I never thought it'd be so easy to be with someone. My soulmate is the love of my life. Did you really drag me out of my warm cruiser to drink coffee in the freezing cold just to talk about Bruce?"
Steve grimaced. "…Yes?"
She rolled her eyes. "Liar."
"Didn't you want to spend your break with me?"
"I barely get breaks so I need you to get to the point." She sipped her coffee. "It must be important if you're still here instead of heading home after your shift. So spill."
"I'm not on shift. I'm in training for the next six weeks."
"My heart's bleeding for you and your eight-hour days."
Steve huffed a short laugh. "Yeah, well, my eight-hour days are kind of the problem." He sighed. "It's just, kind of hard to talk about. I mean, I know how privileged I am."
"Am I seriously spending the precious few minutes I have on break talking about you being a white male?"
"What? No." Steve shook his head. "I meant this training I'm doing."
Natasha stared at him. "So what's the problem with it?"
"This training to be a cardiac care nurse," Steve said. "I mean, I know how privileged I am to even be here, you know?" He gestured around them, encompassing the grandeur of the Maria Stark Memorial Hospital campus. "The nurse manager of the cardiac intensive care unit asked for me specifically, just from seeing me help transfer a patient from the ER. And I know how rare that kind of opportunity is—I mean, they're paying for me to learn how to do this. And it's such an important job. And I feel ungrateful to even be thinking about it like this, but…"
"Thinking about it like what?" Natasha was still staring. "You haven't said anything."
"The classes are boring, Natasha!" Steve burst out. "I have no time for anything other than reading papers and writing exams on ECGs. The only thing I really want to do is pediatric nursing." He shrugged miserably. "I guess I'm just not cut out for the cardiac ward, you know?"
"Can't you just ask for a transfer to the pediatric ward?" Natasha took another sip of her coffee.
Steve let out a breath that plumed white in the air. "It's not that simple." He bit his lip. "I mean, I signed up for this, Nat. They're paying for my education. I can't just tell them I don't want to do it anymore." He grimaced again, looking across the slushy parkette outside the hospital's main entrance. There was a man across the street, huddled in a doorway. "I just don't want to work with adults."
"Why can't you tell them you don't want to do it anymore?"
"Because I owe them," Steve exclaimed. "They're giving me this great opportunity—I even get paid more—and here I am, hating every second of it. How do I tell them that?"
"'Sorry, boss. I hate every second of this. Can I go do something else'?"
Steve looked at her flatly. "Natasha."
"Seriously, Steve. It can't be that hard," she said. "Just tell them it's not your thing."
"Because…because they're counting on me to finish my training and do the job. Because I'd be letting them down if I quit. And they might not want me to work for Maria Stark Memorial anymore."
She shrugged. "There are other hospitals."
He raised an eyebrow. "Like there are other police departments?"
"I know what you're getting at." She raised both her eyebrows at him. "But I've never wanted to work anywhere but for the NYPD. My sergeant sucks but I can wait him out. The job's worth a little pain in the ass."
"It's a big pain in the ass," Steve said.
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Fine. Then don't do the cardiology stuff."
"But if I don't, I might get fired."
"Then do your art."
"But I want to be a nurse!"
"Then do the cardiology stuff."
"But I don't want to!" Steve burst out. "I want to work with children!"
"Then tell them!"
"I can't!" Steve said again. "Don’t you see that?"
"Come on, Steve!" She snapped. "You've got two choices here. Either tell them you want to leave cardiology, or you suck it up and stay. That's it." Natasha must have seen the dejected look on Steve's face because she softened her tone. "I get it. It's tough. But the sad truth is that being an adult means we don't always get what we want. I want to be a cop, but I don't want to have to deal with my fucking sergeant. Except I can't have one without the other. It's the same for you. You want to be a nurse, but that means you have to work cardiology. So work cardiology. It won't last forever."
"I guess." Steve sighed. "It just feels like it."
Natasha bumped his arm with her shoulder. "Hey, you want a job that you love all the time? Then you can't work with people. You'd have to be self-employed—in the wilderness. Where no one talks to you. And you make your own electricity. With solar power. And a waterwheel. And hunt yaks."
"You've given this a lot of thought," Steve said.
Natasha sighed. "It's a dream."
They both burst out laughing.
"Where the hell do yaks even live?" Steve said. He smiled as he said it, but he didn’t feel better. He loved Nat like a sister but she could be really black and white sometimes. It made her an excellent cop, but not every solution was black and white. Then again, maybe this problem didn't really have a solution at all. It just felt like his dream of working with sick kids was slipping through his fingers, one cardiogram at a time.
"The Himalayas," Nat said. "But I'm serious. Work is hard, and sometimes it really bites. But the only real alternative is that." She gestured with her chin at the man on the other side of the street who Steve had noticed before. He was in the meager shelter of the doorway of an abandoned building, wrapped in a sleeping bag. Only his eyes were visible. He looked cold and miserable and alone. Steve's heart immediately went out to him.
"Jesus," he muttered. "What'd you think happened to him?"
Natasha shrugged again, but she looked like Steve felt. "Who knows? Mental health issue maybe? Or he got laid off. Maybe his criminal record means he can't get a job."
Steve eyed her. "Not everyone is a criminal, Nat."
"That's what the criminals want us to think, Steve." Natasha looked back at the homeless guy. "But he doesn't vibe like a criminal." She shook her head. "I wish society wasn't so fucked."
Steve bit his lip. "I have some money I could give him."
"That's part of the problem," Natasha said. "It is getting really cold though. Think I'll suggest he move on to a shelter." She started crossing the parkette towards the intersection.
"Do you think he's hungry?" Steve jogged after her. "Because I could—"
Just then the guy started coughing. Steve was too far away to hear but it was obviously violent by the way his back heaved as he hunched over, nearly toppling face-first onto the icy pavement.
"That looks bad," Natasha said, already fingering her radio.
"Really bad," Steve agreed. They sped up to the intersection where Steve shifted from foot to foot as he waited for the light to change. On the other sidewalk pedestrians were rushing home from work, giving the man worried looks as they neatly stepped around him. Steve bounded into the street the second the light turned green, Natasha right behind.
Across the street, the guy stood, still coughing. The sleeping bag slid off his shoulders to fall into a sad puddle around his feet. He bent over, spasms wracking through him. And then he dropped to his knees.
"Uh-oh," Natasha murmured. She immediately keyed her radio, requesting an ambulance to their location.
They both skidded to a stop at the doorway, boots sliding on the slushy ground.
Up close, it was painfully obvious how sick the man was. His skin was grey except where two spots of color lit his cheeks like the red street lights lit the early evening gloom. There were dark streaks under his deep blue eyes, which were unfocussed and shining bright with fever. He didn't have a coat under his sleeping bag, and his grey hoodie was filthy. The sleeve of his left arm was tied in a knot just above where his elbow should have been.
"Are you okay?" Steve said automatically. He crouched down closer to the man, wanting to help but not knowing how.
The guy shivered, then looked at Steve in confusion. He frowned. "What?"
There was a tremor across the skin of Steve's right thigh as the man spoke, like an icy gust of air. Steve shivered too. It was damn cold.
"He's not okay. Sir," she said to the ill man, using her cop voice. "I'm Officer Romanov with the NYPD. You look like you're not doing well. I've called an ambulance to help you."
"I'm a nurse," Steve said. "I work in the hospital just across the street. Can I help?"
"M'fine," he croaked, then immediately coughed again. It sounded deep and wet and thick, and his breath wheezed as he inhaled.
Pneumonia. Steve thought. "I think you have an infection in your lungs," he said. "You need to see a doctor."
"Can't afford it." The man needed to pause in between each word. His lips were tinged a faint shade of blue and Steve's chest tightened. The man was either freezing or he couldn't breathe; both could kill him.
"That's not important right now," Steve said. "You're really sick and you need to go to hospital."
"Ambulance ETA two minutes," Natasha said. "I'm going to flag them down."
"Thanks," Steve said to her, then turned back to the man. "What's your name?"
He gave Steve a slow blink like he had no idea what he'd just been asked. "What?"
Steve winced at his lack of comprehension. "My name's Steve. What's your name?"
"Oh," he said. "Um. James. James Barnes." He coughed again, the same awful wet hacking, then spat a viscus yellow glob onto the icy sidewalk. It was marbled with red.
"Here." Steve grabbed the sleeping bag and wrapped it around James. The blanket was disgusting, but what Steve noted was the breadth of James' shoulders and how easily he could feel the bones even through the layers of clothing. James was trembling, despite his forehead being hot, and his lips were still blue.
"They're here!" Natasha came jogging back, keeping pace with an ambulance rolling slowly until it stopped almost in front of them. Two EMTs came out. One went to the back, the other immediately came over to Steve and James.
She crouched down in front of James. "Hello there," she said gently, "My name's Jemma. Officer Romanov said you were feeling poorly. What's the trouble?" She had a lovely English accent.
"Nothing," James wheezed. "I don't want to go."
"It's all right, we just want to look after you," Jemma said. "You don't seem to be feeling well at the moment. My friend Fitz and I are here to help."
James shook his head. He looked up at Steve, his blue eyes big and imploring. "I don't wanna go. Clint, please. They'll take my arm."
Jemma gaped at Steve. "What?"
Steve startled and touched his thigh, wondering if she might be his soulmate. Then he gave his head a sharp shake. Now wasn't the time. "He's missing half his left arm."
"Ah." Jemma nodded. "Are you Clint?"
"No," Steve said. She didn't react to what he'd just said; apparently he wasn't her soulmate, either. Just as well, since he had to worry about James. "I’m a nurse at the hospital and the officer and I witnessed his collapse. I think he might have pneumonia and a fever. He could be delirious."
"Oh dear." Jemma's partner Fitz came up, pushing the stretcher. "Let's get you into the ambulance where it's nice and warm, shall we?"
"No!" James grabbed onto Steve with his one hand. "If I go, you'll be gone."
"It's okay." Steve tried to carefully disentangle James' fingers from his wrist. "They just want to help you."
Fitz looked at Jemma. "We can't take him if he doesn't want to come."
Steve's head jerked up to look at Fitz. "You have to, he's really sick."
"Clearly," Fitz said in the same kind of accent as his partner. "But we can't force him. There are rules."
"I can," Natasha said. "Just give me the word and I'll arrest him."
"No one needs to get arrested!" Jemma said. "I'm sure there's a way we can work this out." She turned back to James. "What if your friend comes with you? Would you let us help you then?"
Steve shook his head. "But I'm not—"
"Yeah." James nodded. He was still focused on Steve as if he'd vanish the second James blinked. "Okay, yeah. I'll go if Clint comes." He tugged Steve a little closer to him. "Don't let them take my arm, 'kay?"
Steve swallowed. "I won't, I promise."
"Excellent!" Jemma exclaimed. "Come on, Clint," She said brightly, then bopped Steve's shoulder with her fist. "Let's get your best friend James onto the stretcher!"
"Text me," Natasha said. "Let me know what happens."
"Sure." Steve nodded distantly. James was letting Fitz and Jemma load him onto the stretcher. He hadn't let go of Steve's wrist.
Things moved very fast after that.
Steve rode in the back of the ambulance with Jemma and James on the very short return trip to Maria Stark Memorial. His presence seemed to help keep James calm, which Jemma certainly appreciated.
As did the nurse at triage, and the doctor that examined him.
Steve kept trying to leave. He didn't know James and he didn't want to invade the man's privacy like this. It was against everything Steve had learned as a nurse to know about James' health history when he wasn't part of the circle of care.
He hoped someone in the ER would recognize him so he'd be off the hook, but apparently there was high-turnover on this ER shift and his move to the cardiology ward meant that he no longer knew them. Everyone just accepted that he was 'Clint,' and Steve didn't have the heart to tell them otherwise, because James wanted Clint with him so badly.
"Clint, is he allergic to any antibiotics or other medications?" James' nurse asked.
"I don't know," he said honestly.
"Thanks," the nurse said quickly and disappeared back through the curtain leading to the small alcove in the hallway where James was being assessed. She returned a moment later. "He's really agitated," she said. "Can you come?"
Steve could hear James calling for Clint all the way down the hallway. He bit his lip. "Okay."
They went back through the curtain where James was pulling his arm out of a doctor's grasp.
"Please, Mr. Barnes," the doctor said as he tried to hold down James' arm. James pulled it away again, still calling for Clint. "We need to start this IV to give you fluids and medicines to make you better."
"Clint!" James said happily, reaching for Steve. "I thought you were gone."
Bruce turned to Steve. "Oh, thank God," he sighed. "Clint, help me hold him still so I can start an IV."
"Right," Steve said faintly.
"Wonderful," Bruce said. "Okay, James. I'm just going to put a needle into the back of your hand…"
The doctor was shorter than Steve, with dark, curly hair, a kind, open face and gentle brown eyes. He looked familiar, and Steve realized the doctor was Bruce Banner, Natasha's soulmate. Steve knew they worked in the same hospital, but this was the first time he'd seen him there.
Bruce looked up. "Clint, I really need—Wait. Aren't you Natasha's friend Steve?"
"Yes, I—" Steve started.
James looked at Steve, with the same wide-eyed confusion as before. "Clint?"
Steve sighed inwardly, but smiled at him. "Yeah. I'm right here, James."
It was going to be a long afternoon.
And so it went.
James stayed delirious for hours. He did have pneumonia, and a dangerously high fever that lasted even after he was given the antipyretics. The nurses had to persuade James to let go of Steve long enough for them to get James into a hospital gown, but Steve was grateful he could at least give James that much privacy. Steve had to stay outside of the X-ray as well, and the way James kept calling for his friend broke Steve's heart.
After that, Steve was almost glad James immediately latched on to him again when they started a second IV in his elbow for the antibiotics, and then when they moved him to a wardroom for the night.
At some point during the interminably long day Steve just started telling people he was Clint. It was easier, and James looked so happy whenever he heard the name. It would be really hard for Steve to explain if any of his co-workers saw him there, but he'd cross that bridge when he came to it. Luckily the ER was several floors away from the cardiac ward.
He'd texted his manager to let her know that he'd had a family emergency and that he'd probably need the next day off. She'd been wonderfully understanding, which made Steve feel a bit guilty. Of course, at that moment, he was the closest thing James had to family. So Steve told himself it was true enough.
"Goodnight, Clint!" The nurse said cheerfully. "I'll be back in a couple of hours to give James more medications. Hopefully he'll keep sleeping, but let me know if he needs anything!" Steve gave her a wan smile as she closed the door to the private room they'd put them in.
As soon as she left, Steve let out a heavy breath and carded the fingers of his free hand through his hair. James had fallen asleep holding the other one. Steve needed to text Natasha, not only to tell her what was going on, but to get her help to find James' real family. He also wanted a sandwich, but he wasn't sure he could move.
He sighed again and looked over at the sleeping James.
James was on his back, his intense eyes closed and his face relaxed for the first time since Steve had met him. Not that they'd actually met for real.
Now that Steve had the opportunity to really look at him, Steve realized that James was gorgeous. He had thick, dark hair that came down to his shoulders in unkempt waves. His face was too thin like the rest of him, but his cheekbones were wide and his features were beautifully even. James' breathing was still strained, but with the cannulas feeding oxygen into his nostrils his lips didn't have the unhealthy tinge anymore. Steve glanced at the O2 Sat monitor, relieved when he saw the percentage was well over 90. He'd purposely avoided doing any nursing care for James, reluctant to get in the way of the staff on shift. But it felt weird being in a hospital and not actually doing medical care.
Even asleep, James exuded a restless energy, like an animal that wasn't quite tame. Steve wished he could draw him like that: a portrait hinting at the wildness beneath the man's skin.
Steve wondered if that wildness had always been there, or if the military had fed it like a spark to a flame. The X-ray technician had given Steve James' dog tags, assuming Steve was Clint like everyone else, and Steve pulled them out of his pocket now.
He fanned them out in his hand. "Who are you, James Buchanan Barnes?" he murmured. "What happened to you? And if Clint is such a good friend, where is he? How could've he let you end up like this, homeless and alone?" Steve's voice dropped to a whisper. "Is he dead? Was he a soldier, like you?" He sucked in a breath. "Was Clint your soulmate?" No wonder James had held onto Steve so tightly and hadn't let go. If Steve ever found his soulmate, he'd do the same.
The door creaked open, jolting Steve out of his thoughts. Bruce peeked in. "Is it all right if I check up on him?"
Steve sat up straight in his chair and shoved the dog tags back into his pocket. "Yeah, sure," he said softly. "Come in."
Bruce nodded and slipped inside, shutting the door carefully. "Oh, good, he's asleep. I thought he might be too distressed." Bruce checked the monitors, then moved to look at James' IV, tilting Steve's wrist so he could see it in the back of James' hand. "You two seem…close."
"He thinks I'm some guy called Clint." Steve scrubbed his face with his free hand. "Would you believe me if I said I just met him today?"
"Yes I would," Bruce said. He let Steve's wrist go and straightened. He tilted his head a little and smiled. "I have to say, from everything Natasha's told me, letting a stranger hold on to your hand for hours seems very much like something you would do."
"Natasha's told you about me?"
"Of course," Bruce said. "You're really important to her." He grinned. "I'd be jealous, but…"
"But I'm gay?" Steve grinned back.
"But I'm her soulmate," Bruce finished. "But yes, that too." He put his hands in his lab coat pockets, turning his attention to James. "What do you think happened to him?"
"I wish I knew," Steve said.
"I checked. He seems to have fallen through the cracks with the V.A." Bruce grimaced apologetically. "I don't think inquiring was legal, technically, but I hated the idea that he'd have nowhere to go and no one to take care of him when he's so sick. I did find a Corporal Clint Barton in his file, though."
Steve's head snapped up. "You found him? I asked Natasha to check too, but she hasn't gotten back to me yet."
Bruce tilted his head. "I kind of found him? The only address was a P.O. box in Iowa, and the number's out of service. Maybe Natasha will have more luck."
"Oh," Steve said, deflating. "That's too bad." He looked down at where James' hand was still loosely gripping his. "Do you think they're soulmates?"
"Who knows?" Bruce said. "It's obvious their relationship is important." His lips thinned. "At least it was."
"Maybe Clint's dead," Steve said.
Bruce nodded. "I was considering that myself. It's just awful, a wounded veteran ending up like this. He's got no one."
Steve licked his lips, coming to a decision. Or maybe he'd already made it hours ago, when he'd agreed to go in the ambulance with a total stranger. "He's got me."
Bucky drifted back to consciousness in layers. A steady, rhythmic beeping woke him up, and then he was aware of the faint smell of plastic and something in his nose. He tried to swipe it away, only to realize someone was holding his hand.
Bucky's eyes flew open.
There was a big, blond guy curled up in one of the terrible plastic chairs, sleeping with his neck at the kind of angle you don't want to wake up with. His arm was stretched out, holding Bucky's hand even while he slept.
Clint! he thought, only to have the elation crash a second later because no, that wasn't Clint. It wasn't anyone Bucky knew. He was too tall, too blond, too stupidly good-looking, if Bucky was honest. Not that Clint would break a mirror, or anything, but this guy was amazingly handsome.
Which didn't explain why he was holding Bucky's hand.
"Hey," Bucky said. He shook the guy's hand a little bit. His throat was dry and he coughed. His chest hurt and his lungs still felt like they were full of crap, but he didn't feel quite as awful as the day before. He'd been pretty sure he was going to die in that doorway; he hadn't really cared, except he'd never see Clint again. "Hey, blondie." He shook harder. "Wake up."
The blond woke up with a gasp, then winced and clapped the hand that'd been holding Bucky's to his neck. "Ow." He blinked a few times, then apparently noticed Bucky was awake and grinned. No one should look that bright and happy right after they woke up in a hospital. "You're awake!"
"Where am I and who the hell are you and why were you holding my hand?" Bucky said.
"Um…Maria Stark Hospital, Steve Rogers, and you thought I was Clint," the blond—Rogers—said on one breath, then winced again. "Sorry. About not being Clint, I mean."
Bucky looked at his hand. It was still warm; a little damp. There was an IV poking out of it, as well as one in his elbow. "I thought you were Clint?"
"Um, yeah." Rogers scraped his fingers through his hair. "You have pneumonia, and you were delirious. Your fever was really high."
"Huh," Bucky said. He got delirious a lot when he was sick as a kid. Looked like he still did.
"But you're going to be okay now," Rogers said quickly, like that was the reason Bucky was staring at him. "The doctors've put you on some really strong antibiotics." He frowned. "You're not allergic to antibiotics, are you? Because they asked me before and I didn't know."
"No." Bucky shook his head. "Why'd they ask you?"
Steve sighed yet again. "It's a long story."
Bucky gave him a flat stare. "I ain't going nowhere."
Steve looked deeply uncomfortable. 'My friend Natasha and I saw you nearly pass out from coughing from across the street. We called an ambulance, but you, um, thought I was Clint, and you wouldn't go with them unless I went with you. So…" He spread his hands. "Here I am."
"Yeah, fever, delirious, hand-holding. I got that part," Bucky said. "What I don't get is, why'd you stay?"
"Well, you were so sure I was Clint, you pretty much convinced everyone else, too," Steve said. "So they started asking me stuff that I guess Clint would know?"
Bucky blinked at him a few times. "So you stayed the whole night with a guy you've never met, pretending to be someone he knew because…" He arched his eyebrows.
"It, um, seemed easier than trying to explain," Steve said.
"Staying the entire night, holding my hand, seemed easier than trying to explain," Bucky drawled.
"Who the fuck are you?" Bucky said.
"Steve Rogers," he said, looking confused. "Like I said."
"No, not your name, dumbass—who are you? What the fuck are you trying to pull on me? You get your jollies from saving homeless guys? You got a thing for amputees? Your church need more converts? You're lookin' for your last Boy Scout badge? What the fuck's your game?" He was shouting by the last part, disappointment that the blond he'd woken up to wasn't Clint bleeding through his confusion about what the hell happened, blasting out as anger that he'd had to be scraped off the sidewalk 'cause he was too sick to take care of himself, and brought to a fucking hospital that he'd never be able to afford. "I never asked you to take me here! I never asked for—" The words shattered into a chest-wrenching cough that felt like his lungs were punching through his ribs. He doubled over, clutching his chest with his one arm. The cannula slipped from his nose and suddenly he couldn't breathe.
Steve rocketed out of the chair. He pulled Bucky upright, deftly replacing the cannula under his nose. "Are you okay?"
There was a shivery feeling down his sternum, probably from all the fucking phlegm clogging his pipes. "What?" Bucky wheezed. Then he was coughing too hard to say anything else.
Steve held Bucky up with one arm, tapping him on the back with his other as if Bucky was a little kid. "It's okay, it's okay," Steve murmured. "Cough it out."
As if on cue, Bucky horked up a disgusting wad of foul-tasting phlegm and spat it into the tissues Steve held under his chin. The glob was green and streaked with red. It made Bucky want to puke just looking at it.
"There you go." Steve let Bucky go only long enough to drop the tissue into the garbage and rub sanitizer all over his hands. He came back right away, smiling. "Bet that feels better, huh?"
Bucky glared at him.
Steve winced. "Sorry. Um. Have some water." He held a lidded cup up to Bucky's mouth. Bucky sucked on the straw. The cool water was wonderfully soothing on his raw throat
Bucky kept glaring at Steve as he wiped his mouth with the side of his hand. He coughed a few more times, but without the choking desperation of before. He rubbed his sore chest on reflex, then slapped the space under his neck when he realized what was missing. "My tags!" he snarled at Steve. "Give 'em back!"
"Oh, yeah, sorry! Hang on—I got them right here." He shoved his hand into his pants' pocket. "We had to take them off for the X-ray." He held out his hand with the tags coiled in his palm.
Bucky snatched them and awkwardly dropped them over his head one-handed. They caught on the cannula tube. "Fuck."
Steve reached for them, then stopped, hands hovering. "Can I help?"
"Knock yourself out," Bucky muttered, then waited with his jaw clenched while Steve unlatched the chain, then threaded it under the tube and fastened it again behind Bucky's neck, all with the kind of caution Bucky would've normally associated with diffusing bombs. Steve's warm hand ran along Bucky's nape as he moved Bucky's hair. The quiver of awareness from the touch caught Bucky by surprise.
Steve patted his back again. "So, military?"
"No," Bucky said flatly. "I lost my arm in a poker game."
Steve smirked. "I thought you chewed it off, like a coyote."
Bucky smirked too. "You ain't that ugly."
Steve burst out laughing, and yeah—he wasn't that ugly at all.
"So, what you do, then. When you're not holding random people's hands, I mean?" Bucky said to him, mostly just to distract himself from the way Steve looked when he smiled. No one wanted a homeless guy crushing on them.
"Oh, I'm a nurse," Steve said. "Here. Well, at this hospital. I work on the cardiology ward."
"Good for you." He was a nurse. That explained the whole hand-holding thing then, and in no way did it make Bucky feel disappointed to know that. He sagged back against the raised head of the bed, exhausted just from coughing. He still felt like shit. His chest ached and his head was pounding, regardless of all the antibiotics apparently being pumped into him. He eyed Steve wearily. "Seriously, kid. I'm a homeless, one-armed vet. I got nothing. What the hell are you doing this for?"
"You needed me," Steve said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
Bucky shook his head. "Whatever, kid." He closed his eyes. "I'm going back to sleep."
"Okay," Steve said. "I'll be here."
Steve never left.
Bucky slept on and off for most of the next day. Almost every time he woke, Steve was there.
"Hi," Steve said. "How're you feeling?"
Bucky glared. "Like shit."
Steve frowned, considering. "Is that, 'like shit' better? or 'like shit' worse?"
"You're an ass," Bucky said, and closed his eyes again.
Next time Bucky woke up, the nasal prongs were gone and Steve was still there.
"Hi," Steve said. "Are you hungry? There's soup if you want it."
Bucky glared. "Soup," he said.
Steve nodded. He swung the table tray over Bucky's lap and took the lid off the Styrofoam bowl. "Chicken noodle. The hospital makes good soup. Want some?"
Bucky'd been hungry for so long that the spoon was almost at his mouth before he even registered what he was doing. He stopped, looking at Steve side-eyed. "If I eat this, will you go away?"
"Nope," Steve said cheerfully.
Bucky rolled his eyes and ate the soup.
When he woke up next, Steve was back in the uncomfortable plastic chair, asleep with a textbook cradled in his lap that had an overly-realistic picture of a heart on the cover. He looked young and sweet and like he'd never been touched by any of the pain of the world. Bucky absently rubbed at his sternum as he watched the soft rise and fall of the kid's chest; the way his eyelashes flickered against his cheeks. The dumbass Boy Scout was going to get a nasty crick in his neck again. Bucky opened his mouth to wake Steve up, but then…didn't.
Bucky closed his eyes.
The next time he opened them there was a redheaded woman sitting in Steve's chair.
"What the fuck?" Bucky demanded. "Where's Steve? Who the hell are you?"
She gave him a cool smile. "You're just as charming as he said you were."
"Where is he?"
She rolled her pretty green eyes. "Keep your shirt on, soldier. He's home taking a shower. He'll be back soon."
"Oh," Bucky said, both relieved and a little embarrassed that he was relieved and now the redhead knew it. "He doesn't need to come back."
"He knows that," she said.
"Who are you, anyway?" Bucky asked. "One of his Boy Scout friends?"
She smirked. "My name's Natasha Romanov."
"Romanov," he repeated, frowning. It sounded familiar. "Were you with him when he…did this?"
Her smirk widened. "Saved your life, you mean? Yes, I was there."
"He do this a lot?"
"Not really." She sat back and took a sip of her coffee. "But you're the first who wouldn't let go of him."
"I thought he was someone else," Bucky mumbled.
She hummed as she sipped her coffee. "Clint, right?" She leaned forward, her expression sympathetic and curious. "We were hoping you could tell us where to find him."
Bucky scrubbed his face with his hand. It'd been over a year, and the grief still felt like a gut punch every time he heard his name. "Damned if I know."
"I'm sorry," she said, and she sounded so genuine that he looked up in surprise. "Was he your soulmate?"
It wasn't the kind of thing you asked, normally, but this wasn't a normal situation. "No. Not my soulmate. But I love him like a brother."
"I'm sorry," she said again.
"Thanks," he said.
They went quiet. Bucky thought about the enormous hole that Clint had left in his life when he disappeared. Natasha sipped her coffee and watched him. It was kind of peaceful, actually. Bucky had forgotten how nice it could be to just be around other people who weren't ordering him around, needing to be kept safe or shooting at him. On the street, he was around people all the time, but they weren't with him. As soon as you were homeless, you turned invisible. It was good to be seen.
He turned his head towards Natasha. "Thanks," he repeated.
She smiled. "Anytime."
He didn't remember falling asleep, but the next time he woke it was late afternoon and he was alone.
The disappointment blindsided him. Turned out he'd gotten used to waking up with somebody else there, and Natasha had said that Steve would be back. Guess someone was a liar.
The door opened and a guy came in. "Hi, Mr. Barnes," he said, smiling. "I'm Doctor Bruce Banner. I admitted you yesterday evening. Do you remember me?"
Bucky thought about it. "…Kinda?"
Banner grinned. "Good enough." He came over and grabbed the clipboard attached to the foot of Bucky's bed. "Ah, this is good," he said, nodding to himself as he flipped through it. "You're fever's broken, your oxygen levels are excellent…" He put the clipboard back then flipped his stethoscope over his head. "I'd like to listen to your lungs, if that's all right?"
"Sure," Bucky said, a little surprised to be asked. He leaned forward when Banner touched his shoulder, then breathed when the doctor told him to.
"Well, there's still fluid in there, but it sounds much better than when you came in," Banner said. "How are you feeling?"
"Less like I'm gonna drop dead," Bucky told him. "I'm still coughing, though," he added. "But I don't think I'm spitting up as much crap anymore, and there's no blood in it."
"It's always good when you think you'll live," Banner said with a smile. "It's to be expected, that you'll still be coughing stuff up as your lungs clear out the fluid. But it's great to hear there's no more blood in it. It means the antibiotics are working." He walked around the bed, then asked permission before he lifted Bucky's arm to check the IV lines. "The chart says you've been eating and drinking. How's that going?"
"I'm pretty good at the eating and drinking, doc," Bucky said.
Banner smiled at him again. "Then I think I can discontinue these IVs and switch you to an oral antibiotic and send you home." His smile faded. "Where is home, by the way?"
Bucky grimaced. "I'll work something out." Somewhere away from the hospital for sure. There were loads of other doorways that didn't come with dumbass blond good Samaritans attached.
"It's winter." Banner looked worried. "And you were somewhat malnourished when you came in, that, and the exposure to the elements is probably why the pneumonia hit you so hard." He held Bucky's gaze. "You need to be somewhere warm and dry with access to nutritious food for you to fully recover."
"I'd be happy to oblige if you know a place where they don't mind not being paid," Bucky said sardonically. It's not like he liked living on the streets.
Banner frowned. "That is quite an obstacle," he said. "I'll get the Social Worker to come to talk to you about options before you leave. And maybe we can feed you again before—"
The door opened.
"Sorry we took so long!" Steve exclaimed as he came into the room. There was a tall, handsome black guy with him. Both of them were carrying big shopping bags in each hand. "I washed the stuff you were wearing but the stains wouldn't come out. So I wanted to bring you some of my stuff, but I realized that none of my clothes would fit you, and while Sam's clothes might, he thought we should just buy you clothes so you could have some of your own. But then the store was really crowded and parking was terrible—" He finally stopped his mile-a-minute narrative. "Well, anyway, we're back."
"Nice to see you, Steve," Banner said. He nodded at the other guy. "Sam."
"Hey, Bruce," Steve acknowledged the doctor. He turned back to Bucky. "James," he said. "This is my roommate, Sam. He helped me get you this stuff."
"Hey," Sam said as he put his bags on the bed. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," Bucky said distractedly. There must have been about fourteen hoodies in that one bag alone. He looked up at Steve. "What'd you do? Buy the whole store?"
Steve actually blushed. "We didn't know what you'd like?"
"We can return anything that doesn't work," Sam explained. "I kept the receipts."
"Well, that settles the 'keeping warm,' part of the problem," Banner said, indicating the bags of clothes. "But there's still the issue of where you're going to stay."
Steve and Sam looked at each other. "He's staying with us," Steve said to Banner. His blush deepened. "Um."
"What my friend is trying to say," Sam said with a pointed look in Steve's direction, "is that you're welcome to stay with us, James, until you're better."
"I thought you weren't coming back," Bucky said for no reason.
Steve blinked. "What? Why?"
Because you weren't here when I woke up. Bucky thought, but to Steve he said. "Dunno. I just figured…" he shrugged, aware his grin probably looked a little tight. "Why stay? You did your bit, right? And it's not like I ever thanked you or anything."
Steve blinked again. "I was always going to come back. Didn't Natasha tell you?"
Bucky gave him another shrug. "Sure."
"Then why did you think I wasn't coming back?" Steve said. He still looked bewildered, like he had no idea how Bucky might possibly think that Steve had no obligation towards him whatsoever.
"Okay, gentlemen. Let's save this for later," Sam said, putting his hands up. "The priority right now is getting you out of here. Am I right?" he said to Bucky.
"I think so," Banner put in. He gestured at the door. "I'm going to finish your discharge paperwork," he said to Bucky. "And for the record, I highly recommend you take them up on their offer. You need to get well."
"We've got lots of hot water too," Sam said. "Just saying."
Bucky grimaced. He knew he was disgustingly filthy, and staying overnight in a hospital marinating in his own fever sweat sure as hell hadn't helped. "A shower would be nice."
Steve smiled. "We got you a toothbrush, too."
"Glad that's decided," Banner said briskly. "I'll be back in a few minutes with the paperwork."
Bucky bit his lip. "Doc, I can't…" he trailed off, too ashamed to admit out loud that he couldn't pay.
Banner looked confused for a moment, then seemed to get it. He waved his hand dismissively. "This is the Maria Stark Memorial Hospital—we have funds. Don't worry about it."
"Oh," Bucky said, stunned. That seemed far too easy. "Thanks, doc. For everything."
Banner smiled warmly. "Believe me, I'm just glad I could help."
He went out the door, leaving Bucky with Sam and Steve.
Steve had two hoodies laid out on the end of his bed, and was holding a third one between his hands. "Black, navy blue or dark grey?"
"Red," Bucky said, just to fuck with him.
"You can stop pacing anytime now, Steve. Really," Sam said. "I doubt he's an ax murderer. And if he is, he's still too sick to take us both." He laughed at his own joke, then louder at Steve's unimpressed expression.
"I know he's not dangerous, Sam," Steve said. He carded his fingers through his hair. "I'm just…do you think he'll like it here?"
"Seriously?" Sam demanded incredulously. "Free clothes, free food, someplace warm to sleep…. He's not a feral cat, of course he'll like it here."
"It's not that," Steve mumbled. "I don't want his gratitude." He wasn't sure what he did want, but for some reason the opinion of this man he barely knew really mattered. Steve hadn't worried this much the first time Natasha had seen the cramped, messy little apartment he shared with Sam, but with James…
It was just important that James was happy. That was all.
"I know it's not about gratitude, Steve," Sam said on a sigh. "I'm just saying, don't worry. It'll be fine. This is a nice place and we're nice people. Of course he'll like it." Sam side-eyed him. "Just tell me something: is this going to be a regular thing with you? Are we going to have to put up a tent in the living room?"
"No," Steve said immediately. He turned at the wall and paced back towards Sam. "I don't know. Yes? No? Maybe?"
"Thanks for the confirmation," Sam said dryly. He put down the pizza store brochures he'd been idly leafing through and leaned in the doorway of their tiny California-style kitchen, crossing his arms. "You know, Steve," he began gently, "I know you hate this cardiology thing, but you don't owe the world anything. You're still a nurse, and you're a good man. It's enough."
Steve looked away from Sam's knowing gaze. It was hard to feel like a good man when he was hating his job so much. He cocked his head. "Is the shower off?"
"As of ten minutes ago," Sam answered. "Which has nothing to do with what I just said."
"I know." Steve's mouth flicked up in a brief smile. "It's just...I feel so selfish, hating something that still helps people. I mean—" Steve shut his mouth the instant he heard the bathroom door open. He and Sam snapped their heads up to look at James, who was wandering into their living room.
"Uh, I didn't mean to interrupt," James said.
"Damn, boy," Sam drawled. "You clean up nice."
Steve could only nod in completely agreement, except 'nice' didn't even begin to cut it. James' hair was clean and combed back, hanging damp to his shoulders and curling at the ends. He'd shaved, and he was wearing a red hoodie over a grey tee-shirt with a red star on the front. His black jeans were slung low on his thin hips, so that only his long white toes were visible sticking out beneath the cuffs.
He was too thin, and still too pale from the pneumonia, but his shoulders were broad and he was spare and lean with muscle. And Steve realized that if he kept standing there not saying anything James would think he'd lost his mind. He cleared his throat. "How, um. How was your shower?"
"Good, thanks. It's nice to be clean again," James said, like Steve had asked him a real question. He smiled, crooked and a little shy, and held up the safety pins Steve had left with the clothes. "Would you mind…?"
"What? Oh. Uh, no. No I wouldn't," Steve stammered. He went up to James and carefully plucked the safety pins from his hand. This close to James, Steve could smell the faint trace of the shampoo he'd used, and see the tinge of windburn on his cheeks. Steve gave in to his desire to touch, and gently slid his free hand around the back of James' left arm. James' eyes darted to Steve's hand, then up to meet his gaze, and Steve's breath caught in the depth of that stormy blue. He was suddenly incredibly aware of how close he and James were standing, and how simply beautiful James was. Steve couldn't look away.
"Are you okay?" James whispered.
Steve blinked. "What?"
Sam cleared his throat and Steve and James both startled. "I'm just gonna go…deeper into the kitchen. And order pizza." Sam pulled out his cell phone. "Way deeper. Into the kitchen. So, you guys just finish…" He waved his hand vaguely. "Whatever it is you're doing." He walked away, shaking his head.
James and Steve looked at each other again, and then chuckled sheepishly. "So. Your sleeve," Steve said.
"Right. Sleeve." James swallowed. "Uh, you just kind of fold it. Then pin it. Up."
"I can do that," Steve said quickly. "Front or back?"
"Doesn't matter," James said. Then, "Back."
"Okay, James," Steve said. "One pinned sleeve, coming right up." He started folding, then smirked. "Or, left up."
"Punk." James smirked as well. "But you can call me Bucky. That's what they called me in the army."
Steve tilted his head. "Bucky?"
Bucky shrugged. "It's from my middle name. Buchanan." He looked out the window. "Clint called me that first."
Steve's fingers stilled on the sleeve. His heart sank. "You and Clint were really close, huh?"
"Yeah," Bucky said softly, still looking out the window. "I miss him every damn day."
Clint and Bucky were soulmates, Steve was sure. Just like he and Bruce had talked about. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I can't imagine anything worse than losing someone like that."
Bucky nodded. "Yup."
Steve concentrated on finishing pinning the sleeve, trying to shake off the totally inappropriate feeling of disappointment, knowing Bucky's heart was spoken for. The man had lost his soulmate; there was nothing to be jealous of. Steve should've felt happy that his own was still out there, still waiting.
"Maybe we can find him," Steve said, carefully closing the second pin. "There. All done." There was no reason to smooth down the cloth over Bucky's left arm, but he did it anyway.
Bucky shrugged, but he was still looking away. "Already tried."
"Yeah, well, it won't hurt to try again."
Bucky turned back to Steve, eyes narrowed. "I've already tried everything and got nowhere. What kind of magic resource do you have that I don't?
Steve grinned. "Hey, Sam!" he called over his shoulder. "You still working at the V.A.?"
Sam poked his head out of the kitchen. "They didn't fire me this morning. So, yeah."
"V.A.?" Bucky said to Sam. "You work for the V.A.?"
"Yes I do," Sam confirmed. He came back into the living room. "I got access to a lot of files on our veterans. If Clint's out there, we'll find him."
"I asked for their help," Bucky said. "So many times…" He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and when he opened them their blue depths were lit with hope. "Do you really think we can find him?"
"I think so." Sam nodded. He looked at Steve. "But if we don't, we got one more trick up our sleeve."
"Natasha," Steve said. "She's a cop," he explained to Bucky.
Bucky stared. "She's a cop? She was in my room for a couple hours and never said a damn thing."
"Yeah. She kind of does that," Steve said.
"Not so great with the communication," Sam added. "But, I meant Tony Stark," he said to Steve.
"Tony!" Steve said, "of course!" He turned excitedly to Bucky. "Tony's rich and he knows everyone. If he can't find Clint, no one can."
Bucky went from staring to gaping. "You know Tony Stark?"
"Pretty cool, huh?" Sam grinned.
"Why am I so fucking exhausted all the time?" Bucky whined. "All I do is sleep. It fucking sucks!"
Steve dropped his bag by the front door and shot Bucky a look as he took off his coat. "You're recovering from severe pneumonia."
"It's been three days!" Bucky whined again.
"Yeah, three days since you were in the hospital," Steve said. "It's going to take a while for you to feel normal again."
"I wanna feel normal now."
Steve looked unimpressed. "Go back to bed."
"I'm already on the couch. This is my bed. And it sucks." He paused. "Not the couch," he said quickly. "I mean having to sleep so much. I like having the couch to sleep on. I'm not ungrateful."
"I never thought you were," Steve said kindly. "And you need to sleep. That's the only way you'll get better. You need to give your body energy to heal."
Bucky flopped back against the small stack of pillows Steve had arranged for him so he wouldn't cough so much in his sleep. "Yes, Nurse Rogers," he said on a gust of air. He threw his arm over his eyes. "I'm bored." He lifted his arm when Steve laughed. "Quit laughing at me."
"I'm not laughing at you," Steve said. He turned around to yank about forty text books out of his backpack, and Bucky indulged himself by staring at his fantastic ass as he bent over. "I'm laughing at how you're all whiny and bitching and okay, I am laughing at you."
"Glad one of us is entertained, here," Bucky groused. He blinked hopefully at Steve. "Entertain me now?"
Steve laughed again, and Bucky found himself caught by Steve's bright gaze. His heart thumped ridiculously in his stupid chest, which made his sternum shiver like it did back in the hospital. He coughed.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked, concerned.
The shiver on Bucky's sternum spread through his whole body and he shuddered. Steve had just said his soulmarks, like everyone else always did. "What?"
Steve blinked. His left leg twitched and rubbed at his thigh. "You were coughing."
"I'm recovering from severe pneumonia," Bucky said. "I'm gonna cough."
Steve rolled his eyes. "I'm going to study." He gestured at the end of the couch. "Mind if I sit?"
Bucky pulled up his feet. "Mi casa es su casa."
Steve sat and Bucky immediately put his feet on Steve's lap. He smiled.
Steve eyed him. "Really?"
Bucky fluttered his eyelashes. "I'm recovering from severe pneumonia," he said. "Keep me warm?"
"Jerk," Steve laughed. He put his text book directly on Bucky's ankles. "Fine then, you can share the glory that is Cardiac Trauma 101 with me. Because I'm gonna read it out loud."
"Yay! Bedtime story!"
Steve shook his head. "Were you always such an ass, or did you save it for me?"
"Oh, I'm totally saving myself for you," Bucky said, and then realized what he said, and then blushed. Luckily Steve was already flipping pages and didn't notice.
"So, pathophysiology of the left or right ventricle?" Steve asked absently, still looking at the pages.
"Left," Bucky sighed. "Although, really, neither."
Steve's sigh was an echo of Bucky's. "Welcome to my world."
"Your world has a nice couch," Bucky said.
He fell asleep to the sound of Steve's quiet murmuring about heart murmurs and replacement valves.
"What the fuck?" Bucky screeched. He kicked himself to the far end of the couch, eyes wide.
"Easy, soldier," Natasha said. "Stand down."
Bucky scrubbed his face. "Jesus Christ. You scared me."
"Obviously." She looked at him over her shoulder as she hung up her coat.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Bucky asked. His heart was still pounding.
"Steve asked me to check up on you since I’m off today and he's in class," she said. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Steve doesn't tell me shit," Bucky muttered. "If I'd known you were coming I wouldn't have hit the ceiling like that."
"If I'd known you'd hit the ceiling like that, I would've brought my camera," Natasha said.
Bucky laughed. "Fair."
"So how are you feeling?" She asked as she rummaged around in her cavernous bag. "Better?"
"Yeah, lots," Bucky stood. "But I'm still not one-hundred percent."
"It's only been ten days since you were in hospital," Natasha said. "Be patient."
"That's what Steve says all the time," Bucky mumbled.
Natasha fetched a large container out of the bag. "I actually brought cookies for you and Steve. But since he's such a non-communicative asshole, I don't think I'll give him any." She held out a Tupperware. "Want one?"
"Damn straight!" Bucky immediately took them from her. He held the container, eyes wide. "They're still warm."
She smiled smugly. "I carried them in an insulated pouch."
"Poor Steve and Sam. No warm cookies." Bucky said. He put them down on the counter and went to the fridge. "Milk?"
"Coffee," Natasha said. She pulled a Thermos out of the same large bag. "Want some?"
"I think I love you," Bucky said. "Wait." He made a show of pulling up the hem of his shirt, as if he were going to show her his soulmarks. "We're soulmates. Gotta be. Only my soulmate would bring me hot coffee and warm cookies."
"Darling," Natasha cooed blandly. "Whatever would my boyfriend say?"
"Fuck'em. We're meant for each other." Bucky hauled open the fridge with gusto. "Milk or cream, my darling?"
"Black," she purred. "Like my heart."
He laughed. "Me too." He slammed the fridge and grabbed two mugs in his one hand instead. He put them on the counter and then deftly opened the thermos one-handed, pouring both cups with a flourish. He passed one to her. "My lady."
She took it with a smile. "You're pretty good with only one hand."
"I've had to be," he explained. "It was either that or starve to death. The V.A. is still sorting out my paperwork to put me in line for a prosthetic."
She made a face. "That sucks."
"Tell me about it." Bucky took a sip of coffee and hummed with pleasure.
She smirked. "Wait 'til you try the cookies."
"Oh, I'm gonna try them right now." He pried the lid off the Tupperware and then offered her the container. "I can do a lot of things without my left hand," he continued. "But some things are a real bitch. Like, have you ever tried to tie your hair back with only one hand?"
"I hated doing it with two hands when I was in the academy. That's why I keep it short." Natasha tilted her head. "Why don't you cut it?"
Bucky smirked humorlessly. "Not a lot of barbers are willing to work for free."
Natasha made a face in sympathy, then gave a half-shrug. "I'll do it."
He looked at her in surprise. "You can cut hair?"
She shrugged again. "Sure. Why not?"
"Because it's my hair," he said. "You any good?"
Her grin was wicked. "I guess we'll find out."
"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
"Only for about two weeks," she said breezily. "I'll go grab the stuff from the bathroom."
"I just don't get it."
He was sitting on the side of the bathtub with a towel around his bare shoulders. Bits of his hair were coating the bottom of the tub around his feet.
"Hm?" Natasha said noncommittally. She snipped off another piece of his hair and it fell in a clump to the floor. "Get what?"
"Steve, Sam, you." Bucky said. "You're all so nice."
"I'm not that nice," Natasha said. The scissors clicked at the back of his head. "Steve's the nice one."
"You're cutting my hair."
"You're letting me do it."
Bucky huffed out a laugh. "True that."
She tugged gently at his hair until Bucky tilted his head in her direction. "So, what don't you get about us being nice?"
"Dunno." He shrugged.
"Don't shrug." She pushed his shoulders down.
"I guess I don't get why…" He stopped, swallowing against the sudden tightness in his throat that made it too much of a risk to speak.
"Hey," she said softly after a while where he hadn't said anything. She poked him in the shoulder. "You've gone quiet."
He nodded, swallowing again. "Sorry," he rasped. "I just…" He clenched his jaw until the ache in his throat subsided a little. "I just don't get it."
Another lock of his hair floated into the tub. "Get what?"
"I'm not…I'm just a fucking vet without a left arm," he forced out. "I don't get why you're all so nice to me."
The scissors stopped. "I don't understand," Natasha said. "Why wouldn't we be nice to you?"
"Because I don't deserve it," Bucky blurted. He started to cry. "Jesus. Fuck. God." He grabbed one end of the towel around his neck and wiped at his face. "Sorry. You don't need this shit."
"Neither do you," she said simply. She sat down next to him, facing away with her feet on the floor. Their left hips nearly touched. "Why don't you think you deserve it?"
Bucky shrugged with his one single fucking arm. "Because I'm fucking useless. I'm a goddamn freeloader couch surfing in the apartment of some guy I barely know. I nearly died on the street because I was dumb enough to think I could find my friend when I can't even find a fucking job. Because I let my squad get blown up by an I.E.D. I should've known was there!" He pressed the towel over his eyes, shoulders shaking.
"That sounds really rough." Natasha said. "I'm sorry you've had to go through that."
"You don't understand," he said. "It's all my fault. Clint's probably dead and it's all my fault."
"It's not your fault," Natasha said fiercely. "You went to war. People get injured, people die in war. None of that is your fault."
He shook his head. "I'm never gonna see him again."
"Maybe not," she said, and the truth in her words felt like being drenched in cold water. "But that doesn't mean you don't deserve help."
"What if Clint's not dead?" Bucky turned to look at her. "Who's helping him?"
"I don't know," Natasha said. "But Sam and Tony are looking for him, and I've sent out some inquiries too. And if we find him—and if he needs it—we'll help him. Because he deserves it. Just like you do."
"I should be helping you look," Bucky spat. "I should be doing something. I hate this. Being so fucking useless."
"Look," she said. "You've already kept yourself alive, on the street, on your own, for over a year. That's not useless."
"Who cares?" Bucky demanded. "That's nothing special. Lots of people do that!"
"Yes they do," she said simply. "But we're talking about you. And you just said that one of the only things you can't do without both arms is tie your hair back. So, either you're useless, or you're not. Which one is it?"
He licked his lips. "I don't know anymore."
She arched an eyebrow. "Yes, you do."
He looked at her looking at him, and he thought about telling her to fuck off and walking away with half a haircut and none of his dignity. But he was so damn tired of feeling like this: useless and helpless, and like he'd lost his ability to be part of the world when he'd lost most of his arm.
"Yeah," he sighed.
"And I'm telling you, there is no reason to think he didn't change his name," Sam said as they walked down the hallway towards their apartment. He gestured vehemently with the hand not holding the bag of takeout. "I mean, you know how it is. You hang out with celebrities and shit. People have reasons to go off-grid all the time."
Steve rolled his eyes, easily hefting the much larger bag of the rest of the takeout. "Tony Stark never changed his name. And I doubt Clint Barton would feel the need to do it, either. You watch too many movies, Sam." He pulled his key out of his pocket, then frowned at the door. "Did you leave the door unlocked?"
"Natasha came over," Sam said. "She said you asked her to check on Bucky."
Steve blinked at Sam. "Yeah…when she was off shift. I thought she was working."
Sam blinked. "She had a drop shift. Didn't she text you?"
"Natasha doesn't tell me anything," Steve said as he nudged open the door.
"You guys are really tight," Sam said, deadpan. "Seriously. You warm my heart, with the amazing way you communicate. I mean it. I—" he stopped when he banged into Steve, who was standing frozen just inside the doorway. "What?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "This is our apartment, right?"
"What?" Sam shoved at Steve. "Move, you heifer."
Steve stepped aside. "I didn't even know we had that shelving unit."
"I bought it before I went to college," Sam said faintly. "I forgot I had it."
Natasha looked up from where she was sitting on the couch, which was now nestled cozily under the window. "Hey." She waved.
"Holy fuck," Sam whistled, looking around. "Did you do all this?"
More hooks had been added to the cluster on the front door, so there was finally room for everyone's stuff; the framed pictures that had been under Steve's bed since forever had been hung on the walls; the forgotten shelf was standing assembled and already set up with books and some trinkets that used to be cluttering the windowsill in the kitchen.
"Holy fuck," Sam murmured. He trotted down the hallway.
"Yeah," Steve said. The kitchen was cleaner than when they'd moved in, and the dent Tony had accidentally put in the drywall during one of their Christmas parties had been plastered over and repainted.
"Holy fuck!" Sam said again, shouting from his bedroom. "Someone unpacked the boxes!"
Steve goggled. Those boxes had been in Sam's room since they'd moved in. He'd started using them as surfaces for his clothes.
All the furniture in the living room had been moved, making the area look spacious and comfortable. It was like a completely different apartment: clean, inviting and large, instead of the grimy and poky place it'd been. It even smelled of baking instead of gym clothes.
Steve turned to Natasha, who was serenely flipping through one of Sam's Sports Illustrated magazines. "You do all this?"
She shook her head. "It was all Bucky. I made cookies. We didn't save you any."
"Bucky did this?" Steve looked around, realizing that there wasn't a trace of the other man anywhere in the living room. His heart seized. "Where is he?"
"Your bedroom." Natasha tilted her head towards the short corridor.
"I'll just. Uh." Steve gestured with both thumbs before not-quite-running to his room.
Bucky was there, just as Natasha said. Even so, the sense of relief was so profound that Steve had to hold the wall for a second, just to catch his balance.
Then again, Steve had felt off-balance around Bucky for a while.
Bucky was lying on his stomach on top of Steve's newly-made bed with his right arm above his head, dead to the world. Steve forced himself to only look at Bucky through the lens of his nursing training, noting how Bucky was less pale and less painfully thin. He still needed to gain some weight and get more color in his cheeks, but overall he looked better.
Then Steve gave in and just allowed himself to look at him.
Bucky's hair had been cut, showing the graceful curve of his neck. He was wearing one of Steve's sleeveless undershirts, which showed the well-defined muscles in his back and his right arm. His muscular left arm ended just below his elbow, and a scar from the seam of stitches was visible along the edge. His lips were softly parted in sleep.
Steve leaned against the doorframe, watching Bucky breathe, wishing he could just go over and curl up beside him.
He's not yours, Steve reminded himself. Bucky was Clint's soulmate, not his. And it wasn't fair to either Clint or Bucky for Steve to want otherwise.
Absently, Steve rubbed at his soulmark on his thigh. One day Steve'd find the person who'd say what? to him for real. It wouldn't be meaningless or empty the way it'd been so many times before. He'd finally find his soulmate, like Bucky had.
He just wished it could've been Bucky.
Bucky woke up because of the loud voices coming from the living room.
He wandered in, rubbing at his eyes, then squinted at what was apparently a party.
Natasha was there, leaning against Doctor Banner, which was a bit of a surprise. She'd mentioned a boyfriend, but he'd figured she was joking.
"Good to see you, James," Banner said.
Bucky smiled and shook his hand. "Good to see you too, Dr. Banner."
"Call me Bruce."
"Sure, Bruce," Bucky said. "Call me Bucky."
"Bucky?" Bruce looked confused. "Is that short for James?"
"Hey, Bucky!" a short guy with black hair and a beard hollered, even though Bucky was standing less than three feet away. "It's about time you got here. I was going to wake you up in two more minutes. You're missing the party."
"Tony," sighed the tall, striking redhead standing next to him.
Bucky blinked at them both, then looked blankly at Steve. "Party?"
"Of course!" Tony exclaimed. "I always bring the party."
"He kind of does." Steve shrugged. Then he grinned, and God, he was breathtaking. It wasn't even his looks, though the beauty of the man was unbelievable. It was just…him. His smile and the way he looked at Tony with fond exasperation, and his sense of humor and his kindness and just…everything.
"Are you okay?"
"What?" Bucky blinked again, rubbing his sternum. Steve kept asking him that; kept using his soulmark words. It was fucking annoying.
Steve came over to him. "You kind of blanked out for a minute," he said softly. "It's okay if you're still tired. I mean, the apartment looks amazing. But you're still recovering. I don't want you to wear yourself out."
"I'm fine," Bucky said automatically. He was a little tired, but it wasn't too bad. "It was really no trouble. But, you like what I did?" He'd worked his ass off to thank Steve—and Sam, of course—and make Steve happy.
"I love it." Steve beamed at him. "I can't believe how much you did. The apartment's never looked this good."
Bucky beamed back at Steve. They held each other's gaze, and Bucky wanted to kiss Steve so badly that he was sure the other man could feel it. Steve had to feel it. It was like a giant neon sign—
"Hey," Sam said. "Are those my jeans?"
"Huh?" Bucky shook himself, then glanced down at his clothes. "Oh, yeah. Totally. I didn't want to get my stuff dirty."
"I hate you," Sam said. "But, I love my apartment now. So, free pass."
"He's also wearing your shirt, Steve," Natasha said. "I gave it to him."
"You're like, the worst best friend ever," Tony said to her.
"I don't mind," Steve said, looking into Bucky's eyes again. "He looks good in it."
"Do you guys need a moment or something?" Sam asked. "Because if not, we have pizza."
"Oh, great. I'm starving." Bucky ducked his head, wishing he still had his long hair to hide the blush that was now colouring his face.
"Here you go." The striking redhead who wasn't Natasha handed him a plate with two slices on it. Bucky noticed how they'd both been cut into smaller pieces, to make them easier to eat with one hand. That was really thoughtful, but she also had a fork in her other hand, which meant Bucky had to choose which one to take first.
"I got it," Steve said, and took the plate. "Thanks, Pepper." He held it at the perfect height for Bucky to eat from it one-handed.
And just like that, Bucky realized he was in love with Steve Rogers.
The thought was stunning and completely overwhelming. They weren't even soulmates. How could Bucky have fallen in love with anyone but the one person in the world meant for him? His immediate instinct was to leave; start walking and not stop until he was miles and miles from the party and the apartment and anything that was remotely connected to Steve Rogers. His second instinct was to just grab Steve and never, ever let go.
"Wait," Tony said. "You've only got one arm."
Bucky yanked his gaze from Steve to focus on Tony. "You just noticed that now?"
"How do you do anything with only one arm?" Tony barreled on. "I mean, I can't even jack-off one-handed."
"He's actually very capable," Natasha said coolly. "He's the one who fixed this whole place."
"You did this with only your North-Paw?" Tony looked around. "Wow. That's…that's extremely amazing. I've been to this apartment lots of times, and this is the first one where it doesn't look like the wrong side of a blast zone."
"Oh my God," Pepper said. "Tony, I don't care that you're not actually drinking. You're cut off." She turned to Bucky. "I am so sorry for my soulmate's complete lack of social graces, class or charm."
"Hey, I'm charming!" Tony spluttered.
"You're definitely something," Bucky said.
Tony laughed. "Seriously, you're awesome. I mean that," he went on. "Look at all the shit you did with just your right hand. That shelf." He pointed at the newly-assembled Ikea monstrosity Bucky had found in the apartment's storage. "How the hell did you get that standing one-handed? Did Natasha help you?"
"I just got my nails done," Natasha said.
"You're a cop."
"Yeah. I'm a cop with nice nails."
That was total crap, but she shot Bucky a look and he didn't say anything. Natasha had actually helped him—with everything but the big stuff. She'd made a point of telling him he needed to figure it out on his own so he could see how useful he really was. Bucky hadn't appreciated that much. Except it'd worked.
"I did it by myself," Bucky said quietly.
Tony spun around. His dark eyes were suddenly sharp. "How?"
It was a little unnerving, to suddenly be the target of all that focus. "It wasn't that hard," Bucky said uncertainly. "I just…lifted it."
"Oh." There was a wealth of disappointment in that word. "Just brute strength and stu—brute force, right?"
"Well, no. I couldn't just lift it like that. It was too heavy. I mean, it's particle board, but it's fucking dense, you know? And it's just fitted together with screws and an Alan key. If I tried to lift it from the middle with one hand it'd just twist and fall, and if I lifted it from the top, the whole thing would come apart. So I had to improvise."
Tony was completely focused on him again. "What did you do?"
Bucky shrugged. "I used a couple clamps and a board. I clamped the board onto each end of the shelf, so when I lifted it from the middle I distributed the weight evenly. That way it didn't twist."
"Oh, my God," Tony said, wide-eyed. "That's, like, exactly what I would've done."
"Yes! Cool! Very, very cool." Tony nodded like a bobble head. "Tell me more cool stuff." He clapped his hands and rubbed his palms together, looking around the apartment. "There." He pointed to the repaired hole in the drywall. "How did you fix that?"
"Right." Tony turned back to Bucky, looking him up and down with his hand rubbing his goatee. "How do you tie your shoes?"
"One of those stick gadgets with the floss like a tiny bow."
"Zip up your hoodie?"
Tony nodded again. "Good use of resources. Smart."
"Bucky's brilliant," Steve said, then beamed at Bucky like it was true.
"It's not brilliance, it's survival," Bucky said. "What else was I supposed to do?"
"There's a big difference between surviving and living," Tony said seriously. "Trust me, I would know."
"No shit," Bucky snapped. "Did Steve tell you how he and Natasha had to scrape me off the sidewalk? I wasn't living. I was barely surviving." He gestured sharply at the repaired wall with his one hand. "I figured out how to do this kind of shit because I had no choice. That's not smart. Trust me," he added flatly. "I would know."
Bruce looked confused. "But, getting pneumonia wasn't your fault. It happens to a lot of homeless people."
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Sam said quietly. "Doesn't make it any less smart."
"Exactly!" Tony snapped his fingers, then pointed at Sam. "What he said."
"That's not the point!" Bucky said, pissed off. They weren't getting it. Smart men didn't end up homeless. Brilliant soldiers didn't let their best friends disappear. He didn't deserve their praise. "I just put up a fucking shelf. It's nothing."
"Hey," Steve said. "It's not just that, Bucky. You survived for nearly a year on your own, and you have all these skills you used to fix up our whole apartment. That's not nothing."
That's not nothing. It was almost exactly what Natasha had said to him that morning, when he'd been blubbering while she cut his hair. She'd asked him if he was useless or not. But he knew what she'd really meant was whether he thought he had a right to exist. Even if he was homeless. Even if he'd let Clint get hurt and then vanish like he'd never existed.
Who the hell was Bucky? Once he'd been worth something, then he'd lost his arm and his best friend and everything else he cared about. Question was, could he be worth something again?
Steve thought he already was worth something, but Steve was a nurse who'd spend hours holding the hand of a stranger. Bucky wanted to trust that, but he wasn't sure he could.
"Definitely not nothing," Tony said. "It's something. It's great. I mean, the shit you can do with one arm?" He shook his head in admiration.
"It really is impressive," Pepper said. She walked over to Tony, her heels making precise little clicks on the floor. "Tony's right. That's the kind of innovators Stark International is always looking for."
Tony put his arm around Pepper's waist. "And that's why you're my soulmate," he said to her, all smiles.
"You're offering me a job?" Bucky stared at them. "Why?"
"Because you're useful," Natasha said.
"Oh, my God," Steve said. He beamed at Bucky again. "This is amazing! Pepper, Tony, you're amazing! Thank you!"
Bucky wished he could just be happy the way Steve was, but it was too fast and too good. Shit like this didn't happen to him. "You're offering me a job?" he asked again. "What'm I even going to do?"
Tony flapped his hand dismissively. "We'll figure it out later. But I know you have to come work for us before someone else snaps you up." He blinked. "Paperwork." He looked at Pepper. "We need paperwork." He looked back at Bucky. "Chrome, mat black or bronze?"
"Your new arm," Tony said as if it was Bucky who'd missed part of the conversation. "What colour?"
"Look what you can do with only one arm," Tony gestured to the apartment. "Imagine the shit you'll do when I make you another one. Plus the technology that arm will need is gonna blow the market in prosthetics wide open and make us a wad of cash. But really it's gonna be for the veterans and, like, people in countries without resources, so we'll get a shit ton of good publicity. It's a total win-win for Stark International, really."
"You can make me an arm?" Bucky was stunned. "For real?"
"Yes, I can." Tony said, completely serious. "I can absolutely, positively make you a fully-functional prosthetic arm."
"Really?" Bucky said faintly. He looked at Steve. "He can do that?"
"Didn't I just say I was going to make him an arm?" Tony asked the room in general.
Steve was laughing. "Yeah, he can do that," he said to Bucky. "I can't believe this. This is so incredible." He pulled Bucky into a tight hug, and for a moment Bucky just let himself melt against him.
Sam looked at everyone. "So, that just happened." He clapped Bucky on the back. "Guess you're getting an arm."
Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. "I so wanted a quiet weekend."
"It will be quiet!" Tony shouted. "In my lab! Just the three of us! You, me, the world's most advanced prosthetic…"
Bucky reluctantly pulled back from Steve and then looked towards Tony. "Who is that guy?"
"Bucky," Steve said formally, "I'd like to introduce you to Tony Stark."
Bucky's jaw dropped. Suddenly all the references to 'Stark International' started to make sense. "Holy fuck."
"He tends to have that effect on people," Pepper said wryly.
Bucky looked at everyone. He remembered Steve and Sam telling him that they knew Tony Stark before, but he'd kind of dismissed it. "How the hell do you guys know Tony Stark?"
"We went to school together," Bruce said. "I never got rid of him."
"We know him through Sam," Steve said as Natasha nodded.
"I know him through Pepper," Sam said. "Stark International has been really generous to the V.A. here in New York."
"Because you're doing such great work with our veterans," Pepper said warmly to Sam. She turned to Bucky. "I'm Tony's soulmate, as I may have mentioned."
"She'd never have given me the time of day, otherwise." Tony said cheerfully.
"Very true," Pepper agreed. She took his arm, smiling softly at him. "And I would've regretted it forever."
"Aw." Tony grinned. "She loves me. God bless soulmarks!" Tony's eyes shot wide and he snapped his fingers at Bucky. "Oh, oh! Soulmarks! I knew there was a reason I brought the party to you tonight! It's Clint! We found him!"
"I still can't believe it," Steve said. They were sitting on the couch under the window, next to each other. It was late; the party in celebration of Tony finding Clint and Bucky's sudden job offer had continued for another two hours before everyone left and Pepper managed to lever a still-enthusing Tony out the door. Bucky still looked poleaxed. Steve couldn't stop grinning at him.
His smile was almost entirely real. Tony had found Bucky's soulmate. They would leave Friday afternoon to drive the two hours to Poughkeepsie. Clint lived on a small farm in the township. It was strange to think Clint and Bucky had been so near to each other all this time.
Steve was happy for Bucky. He really was. Except for the way his heart was breaking at the thought of Bucky reuniting with his soulmate and leaving Steve's life forever.
So dramatic! Steve heard Natasha's voice chastising him. Bucky would be working at Stark International. He'd still be in New York. They could be friends.
Well, until Bucky moved to Poughkeepsie to live with his soulmate. Steve sighed.
"Are you okay?"
Steve turned to look at Bucky, startled out of his melancholy thoughts. "What?"
"You seemed a million miles away there."
Steve forced another smile. "Just tired."
"I know what you mean." Bucky rubbed the back of his neck. "Tony's a piece of work, huh?"
That turned Steve's smile genuine. "That's an understatement."
"But he's for real, though. Right?" Bucky looked at him uncertainly. "Like, he meant what he said?" It wasn't the first time Bucky had asked that question since the party ended.
"Tony's a lot of things but a liar he isn't," Steve reassured Bucky again. "If he promises something he always delivers. You'll get that arm, and a job too. If you want it."
"I do." Bucky grimaced. "It's just…a lot to take in. You know?"
"Yeah, I do." He put his arm across Bucky's shoulders, relishing the feel of the solid muscle and how the bones were already a bit less prominent under his skin. "I’m really happy for you, Buck."
"It's all because of you," Bucky said. "None of this would've happened without you—and Natasha and Sam—and everything you've done for me." He dropped his gaze. "I don't deserve this, Steve."
Steve opened his mouth to argue, but paused. He knew how that felt: the awful sense that you were getting something that you didn't merit. It didn't matter what anyone else told you; that feeling of not being worthy wouldn't budge. "I know what you mean."
"Yeah?" Bucky's eyes lifted to his. He frowned. "That's bullshit. You're too good, Stevie."
The nickname warmed his heart and broke it a little more. "Too good?" He smiled sadly. "I could say the same thing about you."
"That's bullshit too." Bucky's frown deepened. "You know my story, Steve. And yeah, I heard what everyone said at the party tonight, but they're really nice people. They'd see the best of anyone. Even a guy like me who couldn't keep it together long enough to not end up on the street. They're like you."
"I'll take the compliment," Steve said, "but I can't agree with you. Yeah, my friends are nice, but they're not suckers and they're certainly not stupid. They can tell if someone's worthy. Same as me."
Bucky's smile was thin. "You're a nurse. You think everyone's worthy."
"Of care, maybe. But not of living in my apartment," Steve protested. "I didn't have to take you home. I wanted to. Because you deserved it."
"What'd I do to deserve anything, besides collapse at your feet?" Bucky snapped. "I'm not a fucking stray kitten, Steve! I'm a grown man! You don't know anything about me! You don't know who I hurt, or what I did, or anything!"
This was the argument he hadn't wanted to start; trying to convince Bucky he deserved anything good was getting Steve nowhere, just like he'd figured. "I know you're a good man. That's enough."
Bucky shook his head. He swallowed, his eyes red and wet. "You keep saying that. You, Natasha. You all keep saying that. But it's not true. It's just not true." He started to cry.
"Aw, Buck." Steve pulled him into his arms, holding him tightly as Bucky wept against his shoulder and clung to him.
"I lost them," Bucky sobbed. "I lost all of them. Clint. Reilly, Grant. All of them. I didn't see the fucking I.E.D. and they all paid for it. I don't deserve to be here. I don't even deserve to be alive."
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Steve said into Bucky's hair. "That's terrible. I'm so sorry that happened."
"What am I gonna tell Clint when I see him?" Bucky said through his tears. "How can I even face him after everything I've done?"
He's your soulmate, Steve wanted to say, but he knew that wouldn't help Bucky right now. He didn't feel he deserved anything good, and a soulmate was one of the best things the Universe could give you. "I don't know how," he said instead. "But I'm sure Clint will want to talk to you." He swallowed. "He loves you, Buck."
"It's my fault they died. I was their sergeant. They trusted me and I failed them. I failed them and they died."
You didn't fail them. It was on the tip of Steve's tongue but he knew it wouldn't help. "It must feel awful to think you've let someone down," Steve said instead. He didn't believe Bucky had let anyone down, and certainly not his men, but that's what Bucky believed.
"Yeah." He was still crying.
"They were counting on you to get them home and that didn’t happen."
"Yeah," Bucky sighed. "They didn't come home."
"I've never been in Afghanistan," Steve said. "But I've always imagined that the I.E.Ds must be pretty hard to detect. Is that right?"
"Yeah," Bucky said again. "Those bastards can hide 'em in anything. The one we triggered was buried in the ground and Grant stepped on it. Like a landmine."
"But you saw it first?" Steve asked. "And you didn't warn him?"
Bucky sat up. "What? No!"
"Oh," Steve said. "I just thought that maybe you'd seen it. Because you said that it was your fault."
Bucky wiped his eyes with his one hand. "Of course I didn't see it. They're designed so that they can't be fucking seen. What'd you think?"
Steve tilted his head. "So if you didn't see it, how'd you let them down?"
Bucky opened his mouth and then closed it again. "I should've known."
Bucky's sigh was full of despair. "I don't know," he said, defeated. "The area was supposed to be friendly. There was no reason to think we were in danger. Maybe if I'd been paying more attention…"
"Maybe," Steve said. "Maybe not. You said it was really well hidden."
"It was an awful war," Steve said quietly. "And you should've been able to trust what you were told and your friends never should've died. I'm so sorry."
"Yeah," Bucky said on a breath. He looked worn out; ragged. But his eyes were dry when he lifted his head. "Do you—do you think Clint will forgive me?"
There was nothing to forgive, but Bucky wasn't ready to hear that. "Yeah," Steve said. "I think he will."
The drive to Clint's address was silent.
Bucky's grief was a palpable thing. Steve knew it was necessary; Bucky was finally able to mourn his friends without the dark filter of self-blame. But it was breaking his heart to see him hurting.
Re-breaking his heart. His heart was already broken, from knowing that Bucky's soulmate was waiting for him at the end of their journey.
Steve flexed his hands on the steering wheel. It didn't help that the road ahead and the forest on either side was bleak and bare with winter, skeletal branches under a cold grey sky. It felt impossible they were heading to anything good.
Steve was trying to be happy for Bucky, but he couldn't manage it. Which was more proof that Steve wasn't anything like the good man Bucky thought he was. It was just ironic enough to be funny.
He gave a humorless smirk, and Bucky blinked and turned his head to look at him. The beautiful grey-blue of his eyes were clouded as the winter sky.
He gave Steve a brave attempt at a smile. "What?"
"Nothing." Steve shook his head. "Just something I thought of."
"Oh." Bucky turned to look out the window again.
"You're wrong about me," Steve said before he could change his mind.
Bucky looked at Steve, frowning in confusion. "What?"
"You think I'm so good. Well, I'm not. I'm not a good man." Steve kept his eyes firmly on the road so he didn’t have to look at him. "You've praised me for being a nurse, for being so caring. But I hate my job. I hate it so fucking much that some days I wish I'd never gone into nursing." Now that he'd started talking, the words kept coming. It was like ripping a bandage off a wound; he couldn’t stop bleeding. "I don't know what my problem is, why I hate it so much. But I'm not even sure I'm in the right career anymore."
Steve glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Okay?"
"Not okay," Bucky said quickly. "I meant, I didn't know you hated it."
"Well I do." Steve face was hot with embarrassment. Bucky had enough issues of his own to deal with; he didn't need to hear Steve bitching about nothing. "Anyway, forget it. You don't need to hear my problems. I'm sorry for bringing it up. I know you've got enough going on."
"I don't mind."
"Well, I do," Steve said again. "I shouldn't have dumped this on you. Sorry."
"But we're friends." Bucky's smile was uncertain. "And friends dump shit on each other. Right? I was blubbering all over you last night."
"God, Bucky. It was my privilege to hear it."
"Well, maybe it's my privilege, too." Bucky's smile was more certain. "So, spill."
Steve chuffed out a small laugh. "Famous last words."
Steve took a breath. "I was asked to join an elite team of nurses who care for the sickest heart patients, and I hate it. God, it sounds so dumb when I say it out loud."
"Not to me," Bucky said. "Why do you hate it so much?"
"Because I want to work with kids," Steve said immediately. "I actually went into nursing to work pediatrics. It's all I've ever wanted to do. But then the first job I got was the ER, and from there I got invited to do cardiology. It's like, the better I get at my job, the farther away I get from what I really want. It sucks."
"That does sound like it sucks," Bucky agreed. "It's like the army. The better at your job, the worse shit they give you to do."
Steve laughed despite himself. "Exactly."
"But nursing's not the military. Can't you just say no?"
"I could but I can't," Steve said. "I could refuse this position, but they've been really good to me. I don't want to let them down."
"I get that. Believe me I fucking get that," Bucky sighed. Then he tilted his head. "Aren't there any kids with heart problems?"
"Of course, but—"
Bucky interrupted him. "So why can't you just work with them?"
"Because…" Steve stopped. He blinked. "I don't know. I never even thought about it."
"Do the kids with heart problems go to your hospital?"
"Yeah," Steve said wonderingly. "Maria Stark Memorial is the regional center for pediatric cardiology." He risked a glance at Bucky. "I never even thought about it. I just figured…I don't even know. We've only been studying adults."
"Can't be too different for kids, can it?"
"Well, actually," Steve explained, "most adult cardiac problems are caused by pathological changes over time, while children tend to have congenital malformations—"
"I wasn't really asking, asking." Bucky grinned.
Steve burst out laughing. "I can work with kids in cardiology!"
Bucky laughed with him. "Why not?"
"Oh my God, it's so simple! I can do cardiology with kids! Why didn't I think of that?"
"Sometimes we need other people to tell us what we should already know. This really great guy showed me that." Bucky's smile was still sad around the edges, but his eyes were bright and warm.
Steve swallowed as he looked at him, overwhelmed by Bucky's easy, unthinking generosity. Bucky had been through so much loss and hardship, and it'd just made him kind. He'd fixed Steve's apartment and then his life and he hadn't asked for anything. He didn't even know how much he'd done.
He was beautiful.
Steve held his gaze for far too long for safe driving. I love him, he realized. I'm driving him to his soulmate and I love him.
He cleared away the sudden thickness in his throat. "Thanks."
Bucky grinned back. "Anytime."
They turned off a gravel road onto a long, gravel driveway. Goats peered at them through a wire fence and chickens wandered and scratched at the tufts of grass peeking out through the snow. There were two horses in the field with the goats, and an alpaca with thick, shaggy black fur.
The driveway led to a large house that probably looked the same about 100 years ago. Weathered white slats covered the front, framing rectangular paneled windows and a sturdy wooden door that led to a large porch and the front steps. The wood was worn grey, but the bannister of the stairs and the porch rails were covered with the husks of flowering vines. It must look beautiful in the summer, Steve thought.
The whole property was sweet and peaceful, even against a sky grey winter sky. It was the kind of place Steve could easily imagine an injured war vet could heal. It would be perfect for Bucky. Steve stared at the house through the windscreen and told himself it was a good thing Bucky's soulmate was here.
Steve wanted to believe that. Maybe it would make it easier to leave Bucky behind.
"It looks really nice, Buck," he said quietly as he brought the car to a halt.
"Yeah. Real nice." Bucky was staring at the house, his breath coming in shallow gasps like he was terrified.
Steve furrowed his brow. "Are you okay?"
"What?" Bucky turned to look at him, his right hand rubbing his sternum, his eyes still wide and frightened.
"Are you okay?" Steve repeated. His thigh itched and he kneaded it absently. He wished 'what' wasn't quite so common a response. "You were looking a little far away there."
"I guess," Bucky's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Just wondering what Clint's going to think, is all."
"He's going to think it's a miracle you're here," Steve said. "He'll be really glad to see you."
Bucky nodded, biting his lip. "Tony told him I was coming, right?"
Steve blinked. He had no idea whether or not Tony had done more than given Bucky Clint's address. "Yes?"
"Fuck," Bucky said.
"Just go ring the doorbell," Steve made himself smile. "It'll be fine. I promise."
Bucky didn't move. "What if he hates me?"
"He won't hate you," Steve said. He's your soulmate. He couldn't bring himself to say it. "He loves you," he said instead. "You know that."
"What if he won't forgive me?" Bucky's voice was barely audible.
"He'll forgive you," Steve said with certainty. "Bucky, you did the best you could. He'll know that."
Bucky nodded, still looking out the window. He swallowed and looked at Steve. "Will you come with me?"
"Of course," Steve said with an ease he didn't feel. The last thing he wanted to do was to see this soulmate reunion that would take Bucky away from him forever, but the idea that Bucky would want him there was humbling. "Anything you need, Buck. You know that. I'd…."
He stopped talking. Bucky was looking at him with an intensity that Steve couldn't define. "Bucky?" he asked softly. "Are you all right?"
"No," Bucky said. "Yes." He took a breath. "Damn," he muttered, then leaned over and kissed him.
Steve's murmur of surprise turned into a moan. Bucky's mouth was soft against his, his lips gentle and demanding all at once. Steve's hands went around Bucky's back, his mouth opening under the small nips of Bucky's teeth. Bucky's tongue slid against his, sending sparks racing down his spine. They were barely touching, only connected by their mouths and hands, but the kiss was better than any Steve could remember. It was perfect. Like they were meant to be together. Like Bucky was his soulmate.
Steve pulled away. He knew he should apologize; remind Bucky that they shouldn't have done that with his soulmate waiting just steps away. Instead, all that came out of his mouth was "Buck?"
"Don't say anything," Bucky said quickly. "I know…I know I shouldn't have done that. But I can't be sorry." He got out of the car before Steve could reply.
Steve opened the door. "Bucky?"
Bucky turned around. His expression bleak.
"Wait for me." Steve got out of the car and followed.
Bucky stood on Clint's porch, staring at the faded wooden door with its decorative screen, hand raised in a fist, poised to knock and alert Clint to his presence.
He was shaking.
You kissed Steve was buzzing through his mind, nearly as loud as the Clint won't forgive you that was circling his brain like vultures.
He should never have kissed Steve. Steve wasn't his soulmate. He couldn't be. They'd known each other for a couple of weeks now, and if their first words had been that momentous, Steve would've said. Steve belonged to someone else, and Bucky's crush was just going to lead to disaster.
But maybe not a disaster as big as when Clint opened the door.
His mouth was dry and his heart pounded. He hadn't felt this scared since Afghanistan, when he'd first realized that there was a real possibility that the men under his command wouldn't make it home. Then, the worst case scenario had been more terrible than he'd even imagined. Now he was standing in front of Clint's door, scared out of his mind that his worst fear about Clint not forgiving him might be better than what would really happen if Clint opened the door.
Steve said something, his big hand solid and warm on Bucky's shoulder, making Bucky realize how cold the air was. I could run away with him, Bucky thought. Leave right now and go back to the city. Pretend I never got Clint's address. Pretend I'm Steve's soulmate. Pretend everything will be fine.
"What?" Bucky replied automatically. He'd been so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn't really heard what Steve said.
"I asked if you were okay." Steve gave his shoulder a small squeeze. "Your hand must be getting tired like that." Bucky was still holding his hand up to knock. He hadn't even noticed.
"I'm fine," he said. He wasn't fine. He felt like he was being torn in half, with wanting to see Clint and wanting to run.
"You can do this," Steve said quietly. It sounded like he really believed it.
"Okay," Bucky said.
It was stupid, but Steve held his breath as Bucky knocked. He imagined the sound echoing around the old house, Clint looking up in surprise. He hadn't wondered what Clint looked like before, but he did now. He wondered what expression the man would have when he opened the door, whether Steve had accidentally lied and Clint wouldn't be happy to see him. If Clint even knew they were coming.
He heard feet on wooden floorboards, and tried to catch Bucky's eye, offer him a last bit of encouragement. But Bucky was looking straight ahead, like a man facing a firing squad.
The door opened.
Clint had the same width as Bucky in the shoulders, but that was where the similarity ended. He was shorter than Steve expected, older as well. He had unremarkable light brown hair cut in a military style, and a face that was just slightly on the wrong side of good looking. But his eyes were a warm blue-green; vibrant and welcoming.
He'd frozen as soon as he saw Bucky, with one hand still holding the door.
"Hi, Clint." Bucky's voice wavered on the word.
"Bucky!" Clint threw himself into Bucky's embrace. The two men clung to each other, their words spilling out in over-lapping apologies.
"I'm sorry, Clint. I'm so sorry—"
"I should never have left you—"
"I didn't know—"
"You lost your fucking arm! I didn't know—"
"I went to Brooklyn, but—"
"Tried so hard to find you—"
"You were relying on me. All of you—"
"I should've seen what Grant was going to do—"
"I Should've known—"
"I'm sorry, Bucky. I'm so damn sorry."
They held each other and cried, and Steve wished he could be anywhere else but intruding on this moment. Steve wasn't Bucky's soulmate. He had no business here.
He edged his way down the steps, wondering how he could extract himself from the situation. He was Bucky's ride back to the city. Bucky had an appointment at Stark International to start the process for his new arm that Monday, but maybe Clint could drive him instead. He was sure that Bucky would be fine without him now.
The door opened again, and this time a woman came out onto the porch. She was lovely, with long dark hair and big brown eyes. She was also massively pregnant.
"Clint, all the heat's escaping—" she stopped speaking when she saw them. "Is everything all right?"
Clint let go of Bucky with one hand and wiped at his face with the other and turned towards her. He looked both shattered and exultant. "Laura!" he sniffled, smiling broadly. "This is Bucky."
She put her hands to her face, her eyes immediately welling with tears. "Bucky?"
"Yeah!" Clint's grin got impossibly wider. "It's a goddamn miracle."
Laura gave Bucky an enormous hug, only slightly hindered by her large belly. "Oh my God, Bucky! Oh my God."
Steve gaped. His mind whirred, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. It was obvious that Clint and Laura had a relationship, and it seemed pretty significant since she was expecting and Clint had to know. Siblings? Steve thought desperately, relatives? Best friends?
But even as he thought it, he knew it wasn't true. There was something about the way that Clint looked at Laura that made it clear that he was in love with her.
But Bucky was his soulmate. It didn't make any sense.
Laura finally released Bucky from her grasp. Her eyes were wet and she was sniffing just like Clint, only she looked delicate where he was a mess. "Thank you for saving my husband's life."
Bucky wiped his eyes with the side of his hand. He looked at Clint, grinning with his eyes still wet. "Husband? Is this beautiful woman your angel, buddy?"
"I know, right?" Clint beamed at Bucky and Laura. "Had to marry her quick before she changed her mind."
Laura smirked, then put her arms around Clint, leaning her head on his shoulder. "Never."
Steve stood awkwardly on the top step, confused as hell. Were they a soulmate triad? Did Bucky know? He didn't look unhappy at Clint's news that he was married, but maybe Bucky was being brave. The idea made Steve a little angry.
"Hello," Laura said to him, smiling. "You must be Bucky's friend."
"Yeah," Bucky said. He tossed Steve a grin that stole his breath. "This is Steve. He's the reason I'm here."
Steve stepped reluctantly onto the porch. He lifted his hand in a small wave. "Hi."
Laura hugged him. "Thank you so much for bringing Bucky back to us."
Triad, Steve thought. He wanted to be happy for Bucky; triads were rare, and the idea Bucky had two soulmates to love him was wonderful and no less than he deserved. But neither of them were Steve. He hadn't thought his heart could break more than it already had, but he was wrong.
"It's cold out here," Laura said. "Please, come in."
Clint all but pulled Bucky into the house, holding his arm again as if now he'd found him he couldn't bear to let him go.
Steve followed them inside.
"So, Bucky," Laura said into the comfortable silence that had enveloped the table, "tell me about working with Clint."
They were sitting in the kitchen, eating one of the best stews Bucky had ever tasted. He smiled at her around a mouthful of goat meat, grateful that she'd chosen a topic he'd be happy to talk about. He swallowed. "He was an ass."
Laura and Clint both laughed and Bucky glanced at Steve, ready to share the joke. But Steve was looking at his bowl. He'd barely said anything since they'd sat down.
"That sounds like Clint," Laura said as Clint made a noise of protest. She grinned. "Tell me."
"He was stubborn as hell, and always thought he knew everything better—"
"That was Grant!" Clint cut in, laughing. But then his face fell. "Shit, Bucky. You know he's dead, right?"
Bucky nodded. "Yeah. Reilly too."
"Yeah," Clint sighed. "Fuckers."
Bucky chuffed out a small laugh. "I can't believe I miss those assholes. They made you look like the most cooperative, efficient grunt in the sandbox."
"Aw, Reilly was okay. Grant was the one with the stick up his ass." Clint took a long drink from his beer, finishing the bottle. "He was one of those dicks who figure the world owes them something just for breathing," he explained to Laura. "God forbid you tell him anything…" He grimaced. "But I'm speaking ill of the dead."
"Dying doesn't make you perfect, just gone," Bucky said.
"True, that." Clint leaned back in his chair, idly turning the bottle around in his hands.
Laura lifted her glass of milk. "To Grant and Reilly," she said. "Not perfect soldiers, but good men."
Clint smiled and lifted his beer, tapping the neck of the empty bottle to the rim of her glass. Bucky did the same, smiling back at Laura and Clint. He turned to Steve in time to see an expression of such sadness on his face that Bucky froze with the bottle half raised in his hand. Steve smiled, just a moment too late.
"I don't care what you keep telling me, you are an angel," Clint said to Laura.
Laura laughed. "Just yours," she said. They smiled at each other with such love in their eyes that Bucky couldn't help grinning at the two of them. He glanced at Steve, and realized Steve was staring back at him with almost the same expression. Bucky blinked and Steve looked away.
Clint was eyeing him and Steve, his eyebrows raised in a question.
Bucky shook his head 'no,' and Clint looked askance but thankfully let it go.
"So, how'd you two meet, anyway?" Steve asked Clint and Laura. He smiled, but it looked strained. "I bet there's a story there."
"I think that Bucky's probably told you that we both got blown up pretty good when Reilly and Grant died," Clint said. "I was in pretty rough shape so they had to evac me back to the States. I had a head injury along with some other stuff, so they just kept me unconscious the whole time. When I woke up," and here he turned to Laura, the same emotion brimming from his eyes. "There she was. I was so drugged up that I didn't know if I was alive or dead, but looking at her? I didn't even care."
"He asked me if I was an angel." Laura took Clint's nearer hand in both of hers. Her smile was full of affection. "I'd been waiting my whole life to hear those words. I even became a nurse because of them. But I'd always been scared that it would be the first and last words my soulmate said to me. And then the one who says it is this busted up soldier with a bandage around his head and so many bruises I couldn't even see his face." She blinked and her eyes were misted, her small hands held Clint's even more tightly. "And I couldn't stay as his nurse anymore, but I wanted to be near him, so I could make sure he was okay…" She cleared the tears out of her eyes with the tips of her fingers. "Pregnancy hormones," she said with a tiny smile.
"So the next time I wake up, this gorgeous woman who keeps saying she's not really an angel brings in the hospital chaplain, right?" Clint took up the story, grinning hugely. "And we get married, right there. Just like that." He put his free hand on top of hers. "Best decision of my life."
"Wow. That's, like, the sappiest fucking thing I've ever heard," Bucky said, grinning. He turned to Laura, ignoring Clint's gleeful 'fuck you!' "You sure you weren't the one with brain damage, marrying this jerk?"
Laura laughed. "Well, when he wanted to move to the country and farm goats? I did wonder."
"You love the goats."
Steve, Bucky noticed, was finally smiling for real. "I think that's a terrific story," he said. "When is the baby due?"
"April fifteenth," Laura said. She put her hands on her belly. "All though I really wouldn't mind if he wanted to come earlier."
"She," Clint said with confidence. He rubbed his wife's stomach. "A beautiful little girl, like her mother."
Laura shook her head, still smiling. "As long as it's healthy, I really don't care either way."
The table lapsed into silence again. Steve looked down at his bowl, making idle trails with his fork in the gravy.
"Steve's a nurse too," Bucky said, trying to get that real smile back on Steve's face.
"Really?" Laura said, all interest. "What kind of nursing do you do?"
"Emergency, until recently," Steve said. "But right now I’m in training to move to critical care cardiology." He caught Bucky's eye for a moment. "I'm hoping to work with children."
"That's amazing," Laura said. "I did intensive care for a while—that's where I was when I met Clint—But after I met him, well, it became too hard to constantly see family members in pain. I just couldn't do it anymore."
"I get that," Steve said. "It can be so hard to shut that kind of stuff out. Who knows? Maybe I won't be able to work with kids anymore after I have some of my own." He looked at Bucky when he said that, but looked away before Bucky could even react.
Steve wants kids? Bucky thought. The idea made him really happy. Until he remembered that he wasn't Steve's soulmate. Those children would never be theirs.
Clint was looking at Bucky again, with the same question on his face.
Bucky rolled his eyes at him.
"That's exactly how I felt." Laura nodded at Steve. "I thought I'd always want to do hospital nursing, but now I can't even remember how I managed it for so long."
"She's crazy about the goats," Clint said with authority. He laughed.
Laura laughed with him. "Yes, but I prefer my job with our local public health unit a bit better. Telling people they need to vaccinate their children is a lot less emotionally difficult than ICU nursing ever was."
"I’m glad you're happy," Steve said.
"Happier than I ever dreamed," Laura responded, but then she shook her head. "And probably making you want to vomit with it." She laughed. "So, enough about me and Clint. What about the two of you?"
Both Bucky and Steve looked at each other. Steve looked away first.
"We're friends," Steve said.
Bucky nodded. "Yeah." He managed a smile. "I'm just lucky he's been willing to put up with me this long."
"It's no hardship, Bucky," Steve said quietly, but he still wouldn't look at him.
Laura stared at both of them. "Just friends? But I thought—"
"We're just friends," Steve said definitively. He stood. "Thanks so much for the lovely dinner, Laura, Clint. But I really need to get back to the city." He turned to Bucky and his smile was brittle. "I think I'm leaving you in good hands."
"Wait, what?" Bucky said, heart plummeting. "You're leaving?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Clint said, hands up like he would physically stop Steve from moving. He shot a glance at Bucky out of the corner of his eye. "You can't leave now. News said there was a storm coming in tonight."
"I should be fine if I leave now," Steve said.
"You'll drive right into it," Clint insisted. "And the plows won't be out again until tomorrow morning."
"Stay," Laura implored. "It's just one night. It's meant to be a big storm."
Steve's jaw twitched. "I've driven through worse."
"Not on my watch," Clint said.
"Steve," Bucky said. His voice wasn't loud but Steve's troubled gaze instantly swung to him. "Don't go."
Steve just looked at him for what felt like a long moment, his expression unreadable. "Okay," he said.
"All right, Sarge, what the fuck is going on with you and the blond?" Clint said.
They were in the barn, where Clint had dragged Bucky to after dinner, leaving Steve and Laura to clean up. Supposedly Clint had needed his help, but all Bucky had done was open the door of the barn so Clint didn't have to put down his bucket of kitchen scraps.
Now Clint was leaning against the rough wooden wall with his arms crossed while the goats gobbled down old lettuce leaves and the tops of carrots.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Bucky said, watching the goats. "We're friends, is all."
"Right," Clint drawled. "And I got a bridge to sell you."
"Fuck, Clint," Bucky snapped. "We haven't seen each other in nearly two years, and the best you can do is fucking interrogate me about my love life?"
"Is that it? You in love?"
"It doesn't matter. He's not my soulmate."
"Ah, C'mon, Clint! You think I wouldn't know?"
"Is he your boyfriend at least?" Clint spread his hands. "Your friend-with-benefits? Because the way he looks at you—"
"We're not anything!" Bucky spat. "He and his friend pulled me off the street, alright?" He looked down. "We're not anything."
"Pulled you off the street? Like, you got hit by a car?"
"I was homeless." Bucky felt a rush of shame saying it out loud. "And sick, and I would've probably died there on the street if Steve and Natasha hadn't helped me. Steve stayed with me in the hospital and then let me live at his place." Bucky nudged an uneaten carrot top towards a goat with the toe of his boot. "He's just a really good guy. Maybe all nurses are like that. Like Laura."
"Shit, you were homeless?" Clint said like Bucky's words had just sunk in. "Fuck. You were sick and homeless and I wasn't there—"
"Sounds like you were dealing with your own shit," Bucky said. "Head injury, right?"
"I still should've been there for you, man." Clint was tearing up. "You're my brother."
"Fuck, don’t cry. You already cried enough." Bucky pulled Clint against him.
"Fuck you, my therapist says it's good to cry," Clint mumbled against his shoulder. "I tried to find you. But by the time I got my shit together, your address wasn't good anymore. I nearly decked your fucking landlord. If Laura hadn't been with me…"
"He was a dick, but it wasn't his fault I couldn't make rent," Bucky said. "But things were mostly okay. Don't worry."
"Sure. Being homeless is a walk in the park."
"Lots of fresh air?"
Clint chuckled, stepping away from Bucky, but then his expression grew serious. "I am never losing you again."
"I don't plan on getting lost again." Bucky squeezed Clint's shoulder. "I need you in my life, Clint. Have since basic."
"I really owe Steve a lot," Clint said. "Don't I?"
"You and me both." Bucky nodded. "He's so good. I can't believe he's even real sometimes."
"I just don’t get it!" Clint burst out. "The two of you—the way you look at each other. It's like me and Laura. How the hell are the two of you not soulmates?"
"I don't know, alright? But he's not."
"I don't buy it. You're telling me he really didn't ask if you were okay when you first met? Really? That guy who looks at you like that?"
Bucky opened his mouth to say 'no,' but then shut it again. He thought back to the moment when he met Steve. It was blurry from his high fever; as unreal as a dream. "I don't know what he said," he admitted. "I'm not sure I even heard it."
"Right there!" Clint snapped his fingers and pointed. "So how do you know he's not?"
"Because…" Bucky wanted to deny it, but realized that he had no proof either way. "Because Steve never said anything!" he settled on finally. "I may have been out of my head with fever but he sure as fuck wasn't. If we were soulmates, don't you think he might've mentioned it?"
"You were out of your head with fever?" Clint said, horrified. "Aw, Bucky!"
"I'm fine." Bucky waved off his concern. "The point is, doesn't matter how sick I was, Steve's had plenty of time to say something and he hasn't." He shrugged miserably. "So there's that."
Clint looked equally miserable. "Sucks, bro."
"Yeah, sure does."
Clint sighed and went to start giving the goats' fresh water. A couple of chickens wandered by, pecking at the left-over greens. The barn was so warm that Bucky was almost uncomfortable in his coat. He leaned against the wall, watching Clint work.
"What do you think Steve's words are?" Clint asked over his shoulder.
"Fucked if I know," Bucky said. "It's not really a topic of conversation."
"Sure," Clint said. Then he perked up. "Think they're really specific?"
"Like yours and Laura's?" Bucky shrugged. "Maybe."
"Maybe that's why he became a nurse." Clint turned off the water and grabbed a pitchfork off a hook on the wall.
"Do you actually want my help with anything?"
"Naw. Just stand there and look pretty, like you did when we were in the army."
"Ha ha. And fuck you."
"You'd rather fuck Steve, I know that," Clint said. He grunted as he lifted a pile of dirty straw. "Seriously, though. Maybe he did become a nurse because of his soulmarks, like Laura did."
"You said that. And I don't know."
"You should ask him."
"Shits and giggles?" He lifted another pile of straw.
Bucky let out a breath in frustration. "He's not my soulmate."
Clint stabbed the pitchfork into the straw. "Look," he said. "We both know soulmarks go one of two ways. Either really specific, or really dumb. Like yours. If his soulmarks are really specific, like Laura's and mine, you're right. Not soulmates, sucks to be you and you can move on with your life. Or, they're vague as fuck—like yours—and he probably heard 'em a million times already. Also like yours. And if that's the case my friend, maybe he did already say your marks and you already said his, just neither of you knows it." He grinned. "Ta-da!"
Bucky rubbed his sternum. "There's no way."
"Just fucking ask him, Bucky. Seriously, what do you got to lose?"
"Nothing," Bucky sighed.
"Great," Clint said brightly. "Help me get the eggs, gimpy."
Clint grinned at him. "I really missed you, bro."
Bucky grinned back. "Likewise."
Steve was lying on his bed in the guest room, staring at the sky-blue ceiling, dotted with fluffy painted clouds. This would be the baby's room once they were born. It looked like the middle of a summer meadow, full of warm greens and bright flowers. Steve was sure their child would love it. He wished it could make him happier too.
Bucky knocked on the frame of the open door. "Steve?"
Steve looked at him. Bucky's cheeks were pink from the cold outside, and his eyes were as warmly blue as the painted sky. There was a dusting of stubble on his cheeks and his dark hair was tousled and windblown. He looked beautiful, and perfect, and Steve kind of wanted to die.
He swallowed some liquid into his dry throat and sat up. "Yeah, Buck?"
Bucky bit his lip. "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Bucky." Steve sat up straighter. "You can ask me anything."
"Thanks," Bucky said. He went quiet, just looking. Steve tried to school his features, but he was sure everything he felt for Bucky was spilling out of him. He knew Bucky could see it as plainly as the walls of the room, but Steve couldn't contain it. He didn't even know how.
"What is it, Bucky?" Steve said gently.
Bucky opened his mouth and closed it again. He frowned like he was having some kind of argument in his head. "You still okay to take me to my appointment with Stark on Monday?"
"Yeah, Buck. I said I would and I meant it. But, I thought you wanted Clint to take you."
Even though there'd been no mention of it during dinner, Steve still wasn't sure that Clint, Laura and Bucky were not a soulmate triad. The heart-wrenching reunion on the porch between Clint and Bucky made it impossible to imagine that Bucky and Clint couldn't be together. And that had to mean that Laura and Bucky were together, too. Laura's vague question about his and Bucky's relationship at dinner was probably just her gentle way of telling Steve she was okay with him being a placeholder until Bucky came back to them. They were probably just waiting for Steve to go so that the three of them could discuss their relationship. They were probably waiting to consummate their soulmate bond too, and Steve was in the way. He gritted his teeth, wishing the idea didn't bother him so much. Bucky would be cared for and happy, part of a real family that loved him. That should be enough.
Bucky shook his head. "No. I want you." He blushed. "For the drive."
"Right." Steve cleared his throat, then noted the uncertainty in Bucky's expression. "Are you nervous?"
Bucky nodded and smiled, but there was something off about it that Steve couldn't place. "Just don't know what's going to happen," Bucky said. "You know?"
"Sure," Steve said. "Getting a new arm. It's got to be a big deal."
Bucky nodded again. "I should be happy about it, right? But the idea of having two arms again…" His voice dropped. "I'm worried it's gonna hurt."
"Tony will take care of you," Steve said. "He won't let anything bad happen."
Bucky's sky-blue eyes met his. "You'll be there?"
"Absolutely," Steve said with conviction. "I'll be with you for as long as you need me."
"Til the end of the line?"
Steve smiled. "Til the end of your fingertips, at least."
Bucky huffed out a laugh. "I really like you, Steve. I’m glad we met."
"Me, too," Steve said.
They went silent. Steve waited for Bucky to leave but he didn't. He was still looking at him like there was more on his mind.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked.
"What?" Bucky said immediately, then "No. No, I'm fine."
Steve rubbed at his leg. There was that word again. "You just looked lost for a second there."
Bucky smiled faintly. "I'm fine. Promise."
"Okay." Steve smiled back. He loved the way Bucky looked when he smiled.
"Well, goodnight," Bucky said.
"Goodnight," Steve repeated.
Bucky didn't move. He was still looking at Steve with an intensity that was almost unnerving. Steve stood, drawn irresistibly towards him.
"Steve," Bucky breathed.
"I'm right here," Steve said as he leaned in and kissed him.
The first time they'd kissed they'd barely touched. Now they surged together, fusing from shoulder to hip, their tongues intertwined and their hands moving everywhere.
Steve's cock was rock hard, his breath coming in short gasps, his heart pounding in his ears as his whole world became the feeling of the man pressed up against him. He worked his fingers underneath Bucky's shirt, tracing the hard muscle with his palms. The feel of Bucky's skin was too much and not enough at the same time. He wanted all of him naked, immediately, writhing beneath him—"
"Bucky!" Clint called. "Steve?"
They sprung apart. Staring at each other wide-eyed with their chests heaving.
"Yeah?" Bucky croaked, wiping his mouth with his hand.
"You guys wanna watch a movie?" Clint shouted.
"Fucking cock-blocking asshole," Bucky muttered. "Actually—" he called.
"That'd be great." Steve shouted right over him.
Bucky looked at him, shocked and hurt. "What?"
"We can't do this." Steve couldn't look him in the eye. "Not with Clint and Laura upstairs waiting for you."
"What?" Bucky repeated. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Steve said. He was. For leading him on, for taking him away from his soulmates, for kissing him. For falling in love when it was just going to lead to heartbreak for them both. "I'm sorry. I just can't."
"Yeah," Bucky said, rough. "I'm real sorry too." He wouldn't look at him.
They went downstairs together, not touching.
They left the next afternoon.
Steve sat in the car, grateful that he had the excuse of warming it up for the ride home. He honestly liked Laura and Clint, but Bucky had been cold and brusque with him ever since their kiss the night before, and watching his warmth and humor with the couple had become unbearable. The worst part was that Steve didn't know why Bucky was angry. Steve had done the right thing. The honorable thing. He was trying so hard to be good and let Bucky be with the people the Universe chose for him. But instead of accept that, Bucky had been hostile and angry.
Bucky finally stalked towards the car with at least three reusable bags of food dangling from his one hand, but turned and grinned when Clint hollered a last goodbye and Laura waved before pulling her husband inside. Bucky waited in silence while Steve got out of the car to open the trunk so he could put the bags in, then climbed into the passenger seat still not speaking.
Steve clenched his jaw as he did a careful turn and drove out of the snow covered driveway. The promised storm hadn't been as bad as Clint predicted, and Steve couldn't stop the resentment that if he'd been allowed to leave when he'd wanted, none of this would have happened.
They drove in silence for a while, until they'd turned away from the side road Clint and Laura lived on and were back on the main road that led towards the highway. Steve cleared his throat.
"So what's in the bags?"
Bucky looked at him and then looked away. "Eggs. Goat's milk. Some frozen mutton. Cookies."
Bucky grunted in reply.
Steve exhaled silently. "You looking forward to coming back?"
"To the city?" Bucky asked tonelessly. "Sure."
"I meant the farm," Steve said.
"Sure," Bucky repeated.
"You and Clint seem really close," Steve tried.
"And Laura's really great, huh?"
Steve exhaled a little louder this time. He was forcing himself to keep his temper in check, not make things worse. Bucky was still going to be living with him, for the next while at least. And Steve didn't want them to stay at this level of animosity. They'd been friends before the kiss had ruined everything. Steve wanted to go back to that friendship, even if he couldn’t have anything else.
"It's cool that she's a nurse," Steve said. "We have a lot in common."
"If you say so."
Steve pressed his lips together, forcibly holding back the retort on the tip of his tongue. He turned on the radio.
Bucky turned it off. "I hate this music."
Steve turned it back on. "I'm driving."
Bucky changed the station. "Fuck that."
Steve glared at him. "You want to drive?"
"Fuck you," Bucky snarled. "You think I wouldn't if I had both hands?"
"Oh shit," Steve wanted to smack his head against the steering wheel. "I didn't mean it like that. I forgot you only have one arm."
"Well that makes one of us," Bucky snapped.
"I'm so sorry, Buck," Steve said. "That was a really dick thing to say. I'm sorry."
"You say that a lot," Bucky said. "That you're sorry."
Steve knew exactly what Bucky meant. "I am sorry for kissing you," Steve said. "I shouldn't have. It was wrong. You're already spoken for."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Steve looked at him, incredulous. "Clint. Laura. Your soulmates."
Bucky stared back at him, a look of total shock. "That's what you think?"
"Yeah," Steve focused on the road to hide his misery and confusion. "I could see it. The way Clint hugged you. Laura's crying—"
"They're not my soulmates!" Bucky spat. "Clint's my friend! My best friend! and Laura's his wife! How the fuck could you think…" He let the sentence trail off, shaking his head.
"They're not?" Steve asked, astonished. "They…really? They're not your soulmates?"
"You didn't even ask me, Steve!" Bucky yelled at him. "You thought they were my soulmates and you didn't even fucking ask!"
"It's private. Why would I—"
"Natasha asked me! She didn't have a problem with it!"
"Yes! because she asked!"
Bucky was right. "I'm sorry," Steve said. "You're right. I should've asked. I'm—"
Bucky lifted his hand. "Stop talking. Just, shut up. I'm done. We're done."
Steve looked straight out the windscreen. He didn't say another word.
Bucky seethed silently all the way back to Steve's apartment. He was so furious he thought he was going to burst into flame.
Steve thought that he and Clint and Laura were some kind of soulmate triad. Steve had kissed him and then rejected him because he'd thought he was a fucking soulmate triad with his best friend and his wife. It was so ridiculous it was laughable.
Except Bucky kind of wanted to punch Steve in his perfect teeth.
Why didn't he ask? Bucky thought to himself as they climbed the steps up to Steve's place. Steve was walking two steps behind him, carrying two of the three bags Laura had given him like some kind of cowed servant.
Fucking asshole had even waited for Bucky to take one of them first. Making a point about not being ablest again. Which just made Bucky even angrier.
He had to wait for Steve to open the door of his apartment, but then had the grim satisfaction of slamming it shut with his foot. Fuck, he was pissed.
Maybe the worst part was how Bucky knew if he was angry at Steve for not asking whether Bucky had soulmates, then he had to be angry at himself for not asking Steve about his soulmarks the way he'd kind of told Clint he would. If he'd just done that then….
Well, then big, fat nothing. Steve still wasn't his soulmate.
Yeah. Bucky was pissed at Steve but he was also angry at the Universe.
He managed not to break any of the eggs putting them into the fridge, though the glass bottles of the milk rattled when he thunked them down in the door. He shoved in the rest then slammed the fridge shut, then raked his fingers through his hair and stalked into the living room. He stood there with his hand on the back of his neck, fuming.
Steve was standing in the living room, looking forlorn. "Bucky," he said plaintively.
Bucky ignored him. Instead he went to the window and pulled open the blinds, staring out over the winter skyline. He heard Steve come up behind him; saw his empty reflection in the glass. But he didn't say anything.
It was like the glass reflected their whole relationship. The outline of something real but with nothing inside it, like the edges were the possibility but the center was vacant. Steve wasn't his soulmate, and no matter how much Bucky wanted that to be different, it would never change.
Steve was still standing behind him, close enough that if he just reached out, his hand would land on Bucky's shoulder, but Steve didn't move.
Bucky dropped his head as despair washed over him.
"Are you okay?"
Bucky's head snapped up. He whirled on Steve. "What?" he shouted. "What, Steve? What the fuck do you want from me?"
Steve stared at him, his eyes huge. He rubbed his leg. "What are you talking about?"
"My words! My fucking words, Steve!" He shrugged off his jacket and let it drop to the floor behind him. He tore off his red hoodie, then yanked his tee-shirt over his head. He didn't think about how Steve would be able to see the terrible scars on the remains of his arm before he'd lost the barrier of clothing, but by the time he did it was too late and he was still too angry to care. He slapped his chest, and the words emblazoned there in that stupidly precise handwriting. "You're not my soulmate! Stop saying my fucking words!"
"Then you stop saying mine!" Steve hollered right back. Steve had already taken his jacket off. Now he undid his jeans and shoved them down his hips right in front of Bucky and the entire city behind them. "Fucking asshole!"
One single word was scribbled on his thigh in Bucky's messy block letters: What?
Steve was staring at him, breathing hard.
"That's my writing," Bucky said stupidly.
"Fuck you." Steve kicked out of his pants, took the last step into Bucky's space and hauled him into a kiss. Their teeth smacked together just shy of painful. Steve managed to get his fingers caught in a tangle of Bucky's hair and Bucky moaned.
That must have set something off in Steve because a second later Bucky found himself flat on the living room couch, pinned by Steve's boxer-clad hips. Steve kissed him, hard and urgent while Bucky ground against him.
"I fucking hate your stupid soulmarks," Bucky breathed into his mouth.
"Likewise," Steve muttered against the skin of his neck.
"Couldn'ta said anything different huh? Had to say 'are you okay?' like every other fucker on the planet."
"Like 'what's' so fucking unique."
"I'm still fucking angry at you."
"Jesus, Steve! Why aren't you naked?"
Steve lifted off from sucking an impressive hickey onto Bucky's collarbone. "I can do that." He stripped off his shirt, allowing Bucky to admire the hard angles of his chest and the fierce curves of his arms. "Now take off your damn pants."
"Yeah, okay." Bucky jerked up his hips so he could shimmy off his pants and boxers all together. They got caught on his boots. Steve twisted to yank them off, nearly falling off the couch in the process. Then he was totally naked under Steve's gaze and he shivered, even though it felt like his blood was boiling.
"You're so beautiful," Steve breathed. "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to say that?"
"I wanted to be your soulmate when I woke up in the hospital with you holding my hand," Bucky said. "But you hadn't said my words."
"I must have," Steve said. "You're my soulmate."
"And you ask me if I'm okay all the fucking time."
"See?" Steve mouthed Bucky's collarbone. "And you never hear me."
Bucky gently lifted Steve's chin so that they were gazing into each other's eyes. "I love you."
Steve's grin was blinding. "I love you too. I think I've loved you since I woke up holding your hand."
"Damn straight," Bucky said. He surged up to kiss Steve some more.
The door opened.
"Well, this is new," Sam said.
Jamie Reilly Barton was born four minute after two am on April 17th. She came out red and wailing and Bucky loved her immediately.
"You really named her for me?" Bucky was holding the newborn in his arms, staring at her like he'd never seen anything so perfect.
"Well, you and Reilly," Laura said. She smiled tiredly at Clint, who was lying on the couch in the birthing suite, dead to the world after encouraging his wife for nearly two days.
"I don't even know what to say." Bucky couldn't take his eyes off his namesake. He could feel Steve at his back, close enough so that their hips were touching. "I can't believe you'd name her after me."
"You're Clint's brother in every way that counts," Laura said sincerely. "And we expect you and Steve to be a pretty big part of her life. Like you are in ours."
"Thank you," Steve murmured. He was also gazing at Reilly, his eyes shining. "She's perfect."
"She's pretty amazing." Laura smiled.
"Do you want her back?" Bucky forced himself to ask. He made no move to return her.
"I'll have her until she's eighteen," Laura said. "You can hold her for now."
Bucky smiled. The plates in his left arm whirred softly as he shifted her tiny weight. He was now the liaison for the Stark Prosthetics project; a walking advertisement for how well they functioned.
"I want one," Steve said quietly. "I want a baby, Bucks."
That was no surprise. If anything, working in pediatric cardiology had only solidified Steve's love of kids. He'd make an awesome dad.
"Can we get married first?" Bucky joked softly. "You need to make an honest man outta me, Rogers."
"I can do that," Steve grinned at him.
"Oh my God!" Laura exclaimed. "Did you two just get engaged?"
Clint startled awake. "Laura? Is J.R. okay?"
"The baby's fine. Everything's fine," Laura soothed. "Bucky and Steve just got engaged."
"Oh, cool," Clint muttered and closed his eyes. They snapped open a second later. "They got engaged?"
Steve and Bucky looked at each other. "Did we just do that?" Steve asked.
"I guess we did." Bucky smiled. He'd been teasing Steve when he suggested they get married, but suddenly the idea felt really, really right. He blinked against the unexpected well of emotion.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked him.
"Yeah, I am," Bucky said, beaming at his soulmate. "I'm just fine."