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These American Dreams (ain’t no white picket fences left for me)

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(part i)

Bucky could set his clock by him. Every Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 am, a bearded man wearing a shirt two sizes too small jogs past his front window. The man runs faster than anyone should be able to run without looking winded.

If Bucky doesn’t have to work, he gets up somewhere between 7:00 and 7:20 am, brushes his teeth, stumbles downstairs, hits the button on his coffee pot, and at 7:28 pulls back his living room curtains from where he’s closed them the night before. He waits, cradling a cup of hot coffee between his palms.

If he does have to go into work on the weekend, he’s out of bed at 7:00 and straight into the shower after brushing his teeth. But he still waits at the window at 7:28, stupidly tense with a flutter of expectation until the jogger comes into sight at 7:30.

As soon as Bucky sees him, something in him relaxes. He can drink his coffee, get dressed, and get on with the day.

+++

Today’s one of the weekend days he’s supposed to be working. He’s going to be late if he doesn’t get his ass moving.

When he gets to the shop, Mr. Sottosanti hands him a small piece of flimsy carbon paper. The chickenscratch on it says something about Mrs. McNearney’s washing machine. “She asked for you,” Mr. Sottosanti tells him. “Go on.”

Bucky scratches the back of his head. “She does know I’m not a plumber, right?”

His boss shrugs.

“And that in fact I work at ‘Sottosanti’s Car Repair Shop?’”

“Don’t pretend you don’t like her fresh-baked crumb cake.” Jake come in from the garage, wiping smears of oil off his hands on a dirty rag. “Next best thing to my Angie’s strawberry pie this side of the Mississippi.”

Mr Sottosanti looks up. “Son, go make an old woman happy. Word’s gotten round this town that you can fix just about any bit of machinery built before everything had a computer in it. She hasn’t replaced that machine since the mid-70s when her husband up and died on her, and she’s not about to now.”

Jake leans on the counter. “Welcome to Havensport,” he says with a smirk. “You need directions over there?”

Bucky rolls his eyes. Jake knows full well this will be his third time to Mrs. McNearney’s place in the five months he’s been working at Sottosanti’s. He grabs a box of tools from the corner and throws Jake the bird on his way out.

+++

He ends up sitting at her little round kitchen table, eagerly accepting that slice of crumb cake and drinking her black tea politely, plenty of milk, Irish-strong. She won’t let him stop splashing it into his mug until she’s satisfied he’s taken as much as he really wants. ‘Nonsense,” she tells him. “I can afford a carton of milk and a strong young man like you needs to keep calcium in his bones.” She stares him down.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and drinks his tea.

When he moved to Havensport seven months ago, he bought a gallon of milk at a time. It was cheaper than buying two half gallons a week, and after years stationed overseas, he still thinks the price of milk is outrageous. But that was before he realized how many midnight hours he’d be spending at the supermarket, picking up jugs of milk and cartons of eggs and loaves of bread just to explain his constant presence in the store, and really, there’s only so much milk one man can drink before it spoils.

He stays at Mrs. McNearney’s an hour and a half, bills her for thirty minutes of work, and hangs out working at the shop until 6:30 pm to make up for the lost time.

+++

He shrugs when Jake claps his shoulder on his way of the car shop. Mr. Sottosanti smiles and says, “Don’t stay too late.”

He’s starting to get used to how things work around Havensport, Indiana, population 8,294. “It’s important to be adaptable,” he tells Maximilian. Maximilian glances over at him. “Don’t roll your eyes at me,” Bucky says.

Earlier this week, he was at the grocery store. It was 3:30 am. When he went to pay for his milk, there was a pallet of seedlings in front of the registers. “Oh yeah,” Cindy told him. She was flipping through a home and garden magazine on top of her register. Her brassy blond-streaked hair fell over her face. “It’s only March. They’ll stay in here a while longer, and even after we put them out for the sunlight next month, we’ll still move them at night in case we get spring snow. Jerry insists.” Her smile was tired but kind. “Why don’t you get a few? We got basil, mint, rosemary. Even cilantro.”

Bucky’s recently learned to like cilantro.

“But I’d skip the cilantro, if I were you,” she continued. “It bolts too easily. You got space in your backyard for a garden.”

By now, Bucky’s learned not to be startled when people in this town say stuff like that. Everyone knows his house, the size of the yard, the way the shutters used to be navy blue before they were painted grey, even the way fifteen years ago the basement had flooded along with all the other ones on the eastern half of the block. Nat had warned him about this type of thing when he decided to move to the middle of nowhere, but after the hustle and bustle of New York it took a while to adjust.

So he nodded at Cindy instead of freaking out and said, “You know what? Maybe you’re right,” and he picked up small plastic containers of oregano, basil, and parsley. He asked Cindy how Madison was doing and if she got the part she wanted in the high school play, and neither one of them talked about how Bob still hadn’t found a new job yet and how many empties Cindy returned each week to the store when she came in for the graveyard shift.

+++

Havensport has all the things it should have: Tom’s Neighborhood Grocer on Washington Avenue with the National Saving Bank next door and Molly’s Pet Grooming across the street. The few big box stores are zoned to the outer edges of the town. Around the corner from the grocery store, on Grand Street, at the edge of the public square is the martial arts studio and Carmella’s Cocina and the teashop.

The teashop is called “Infusions,” like some pretentious hipster place out of Brooklyn that Bucky would have ignored on his way to the train. Apparently some mornings there’s a line out the door. It opened only a few weeks before Bucky moved to town and against all odds has been a hit. The teashop serves coffee, but only select variations on espresso. French, Arab, Turkish, Colombian, all served in tiny cups with blue Iznik tiles patterned on the sides. If you want black drip or a cappuccino, you’ll find yourself looking elsewhere. The tea selection, however, is a different story. It’s not your grandmother’s “Rose Garden Café” that serves weak tea in dainty china with mayonnaisey egg salad on the side.

Bucky doesn’t know any of this first hand, of course. Angie, the goddess of strawberry pie, fills him in on the details over dinner one night, because this is something Bucky should know about if he is to live in this town, Angie assures him.

It took Jake over three months and calling in a favor before Bucky had agreed to come have dinner with his family. “Man, you owe me for picking up your shifts those two days you called in,” he’d said with a laugh, and Bucky froze still standing in his kitchen.

“Just kidding, you know I don’t mean that. Just come on over. We’re easy people to get on with, promise.”

Three more months later and Bucky’s somehow on his third dinner with them. Angie laughs and offers him a second Corona to go with a second round of tacos. Bucky leans back in his chair, clutches his belly, and groans the way he saw someone do on a sitcom on TV. “I haven’t eaten this much in ages. I’m gonna explode if I have any more.”

Jake salutes him with his beer. “She’s a mean cook.” A tinkling crash comes from the living room. “Mickey,” Jake shouts. “If you break your Nana’s vase, you’re not going to see your cell phone for the next week!”

Angie sticks a plate with another taco in front of Bucky. It’s piled high with cheese, guacamole, tomatoes, and sour cream. He doesn’t remember tacos being so good – he doesn’t ever remember eating food quite like this – and he shakes his head and digs in.

“Now I do have to admit,” Angie says, “that the tea at that place really is something new. There’s all the traditional stuff, of course, but it’s got blends I’ve never heard of. I hear the owner’s from the west coast. Some fancy place like Malibu. Apparently these things have taken off out there. Never thought little Havensport would have its own teashop, though. Thought we were big when we got a Starbucks ten years ago.” She snags Jake’s Corona and grins. “Though I think part of the attraction might be one of the baristas. Or whatever you call them in a teashop.”

“Hey,” Jake says, as he makes a grab for his drink.

“Honey, I’d have to dead and buried not to notice the shoulders on that man.” She winks at Bucky. “That’s only part of it, though. You know who he is, right? Rachel was telling me all about it the other day. I didn’t catch the whole story – you know what her house can be like with half the kids in the school district over there – but she had an old magazine on her coffee table with him on the front cover.” She hands Jake back his beer. “His eyes looked so sad. I can only imagine that if he came out here to work in a teashop, of all things, he must be craving some peace and quiet. And I for one hope that everyone in this town has enough respect to give it to the man.”

Bucky likes that she’s willing to afford the man some privacy. Bucky hopes he can have the same. Before he could get his discharge papers signed, he was poked and prodded to an inch of his life. Something about “trauma” and “his injuries” and “sorry not sorry, son, standard procedure.”

Standing, Angie kisses the top of her husband’s head and starts clearing the table. Bucky stands to help her. She shushes him back down.

+++

On a Sunday, two weeks after the taco dinner, Bucky stretches in bed and then stumbles downstairs into the kitchen to pour himself coffee. It’s 7:28 am, and he takes his place at the window. This early in April, the trees are still skeletal, but the snowdrops are hanging their heads pale and lovely against the chilly wind and the crocuses are peeking up yellow and purple in the dark Midwestern earth.

He stands at the edge of the window, still. He gets it – this probably isn’t the kind of normal that he’s supposed to be part of out here in the heart of the country. Back in wet December when the guy first showed up on his street, in a meaningless effort to tell himself that he wasn’t some sort of creeper, Bucky would try to watch unobtrusively from behind the curtains. He gave up on that around the time he realized that the guy ran by at the exact same time every weekend. Now he simply stakes out his favorite spot to wait for him to blow by.

Time is important; it’s important to mark time. He’s learned that if he doesn’t, it has a way of escaping him.

There were a few tense mornings when it had snowed and Bucky wondered if the jogger would make it out. He always did, though. Except the weekend he didn’t, back in February. It hadn’t even been snowy. Bucky had stood by the window, listening to the time tick by. It was 7:29, 7:30, 7:31, 7:32, 7:35, 7:39, 7:44, 7:50. The minutes were interminable, and finally Bucky slid down the wall and sat on the floor, knees bent in front of him, his arms curled around his legs until Maximilian roused him from his stupor.

The rest of the day had been a thick sludge of molasses. That had been a Saturday. Sunday was worse.

This Sunday, though, today the jogger runs by. His back is straight even as his arms pump at his sides. Bucky watches him go, 7:30 on the dot, and sips his coffee.

+++

He goes back to check on Mrs. NcNearney on Thursday evening. She swats his arm and says, “I know your sweet tooth, Mr. Barnes. You were hoping for more of my crumb cake, weren’t you?” and he says “You caught me.” He smiles down at her. Sometimes smiles feel strange on his face, but Mrs. McNearney smiles back at him as though it fits him the way it should.

“Shouldn’t a handsome young man like you have better things to do than keep an old woman company?” The wrinkles on her face are powdery. “Back in my day, I’d have been head over heels for someone like you. Why you’re almost as handsome as my Joe was the day he came back from Korea.” Her cloudy eyes unfocus but that smile on her face is eighteen years old. “He had grey-blue eyes like yours, and they somehow could see everything that I was, and his strong arms held me close and safe.”

Bucky lets her pat his hand before she gets up, ignoring his offers of help, to get out two plates and the softened butter. He hopes Becca wore that same unburdened smile on her face when she was eighteen. He’d already shipped out by that time.

He spends three hours at Mrs. McNearney’s, two of them at her kitchen table eating the best crumb cake in America while he listens to her stories about being ten years old on V-J Day and what it was like when the troops came home.

She pats his arm with her bird-frail hand, and says, “I suppose war is different now, Mr. Barnes.”

He shakes his head. “Still ends the same way, don’t it?”

+++

That weekend, he catches a flight out of Cincinnati and lands in La Guardia. He keeps his appointments, even the one Natasha strong-armed him into with Dr Pike, and then gratefully escapes into the metal wilderness of the city once he’s finished. Evening is slinking into the city, and he finds himself walking block after block as the smell of roasted nuts from food carts and the sweetness of perfume from passing women on their ways to restaurants fills his nose.

With his hands shoved in his pockets, his black jeans and grey hoodie, and his hair pulled back messily, he looks like any other New Yorker. He thinks of his little cape cod back in Havensport, his seedlings on a TV table that had been left by the previous owner in one of its many hidden storage spaces, and the jogger who he won’t see this weekend. He doesn’t mind missing him because he knows he’ll be there on the street keeping time, whether Bucky’s watching or not. His hair will be just the shade of wheat-brown that will light up golden under the sun as the season turns to true spring, and as he runs by the empty house, it will fall over his forehead, damp with sweat.

The night is dark now, and a group of women, one of them wearing a cheap bridal tiara and satin sash, call out to him. He flashes them a quick grin, part muscle-memory, part genuine amusement, and ducks into a bar to sit in the uncomplicated ease of strangers having a few drinks while they watch the game.

Angie texts him an invitation to dinner for when he gets back.

“Chili night Friday! Bring beer and Maximilian if he’s in the mood!”

+++

It’s not actually that Bucky is such great friends with Jake and his wife. They’re nice enough and all, but he only ended up there in the first place because he didn’t want Jake to feel like Bucky owed him something, even if he knows Jake doesn’t really think that. It’s always better to have someone owe you rather than the other way around. He thinks he’s had so many dinners over there now that he’s back to owing Jake. “Shit,” he mutters, and he takes a deep breath, slow in and slow out.

He just doesn’t know that many other people in Havensport. He likes it there, though, even if he doesn’t know what to do with himself sometimes or feels as though he’s missing something from his life.

He needs a hobby. Maybe he’ll take up cooking classes. Carmella’s Cocina offers a few, including one called “Essential Knife Skills.” Next to Carmella’s Cocina, there’s the martial arts studio. They’re looking for new instructors so that they can expand their repertoire. He’d thought about offering to teach, but somehow that didn’t seem like a great idea yet.

Maybe once he can sleep through more nights than not.

On the other side of Carmella’s Cocina is the teashop. He hasn’t ever gone into Infusions, despite Angie’s recommendations. Perhaps that’s because the only time he ever seems to walk by is when he’s on his way to the grocery store, and at that time of night, the shop’s lights are out and the door is closed. The chalk sign that clearly stands on the sidewalk in the daylight has been pulled inside behind the door with its painted wooden frame. Sometimes, though, there’s a light on in the second story above the shop.

+++

Because this is how it goes. When he moved here, he had no idea that Tom’s Neighborhood Grocer would become his new best friend. But seeing as it’s the only place open all night long other than the gas station, when he can’t sleep or he wakes up after a dream that quickly fades from memory, when the walls of his little house seem too close and even Maximilian can’t snap him out of it – Tom’s and its fluorescent yellow lighting welcomes him.

So it’s 2:19 in the morning on a Friday – wait, no, Saturday now – and he’s at the goddamned grocery store again.

Bucky stares helplessly at the long rows of boxed cereal and wonders when this became his life. This is why he usually ends up with the frosted mini-wheats. Unlike the Raisin Bran, which is always hidden away like the shameful granddad cereal that it is, the Mini-Wheats are conveniently placed at grabbing level, like a beacon of normalcy right next a box of something mindbogglingly electric and blue.

But – Maximilian really does prefer Raisin Bran even though he’s not supposed to have cereal. Or raisins, for that matter. It was just Bucky’s luck that he found this out after Maximilian had developed a taste for the cereal, and now he’s spent more time picking raisins out of the damn bran than either one of them has actually eating it. Bucky sighs and starts scanning the shelves for the purple box.

He’s straightening back up from digging the Raisin Bran out of the back of the bottom shelf when a hand reaches past him and grabs the biggest box of Lucky Charms on the shelf.

“’Scuse me,” the owner of the hand says.

Bucky blinks blearily at the guy for a second. He takes in the way his shoulders fill out the worn red flannel of his shirt, how soft the golden brown beard on his face looks, how somehow the wan florescent lighting highlights his tired blue eyes. He has black ink stains on the hand holding the Lucky Charms.

His heartbeat skyrockets, unwarranted. In the instant before he exclaims, “You!” he manages to clamp his mouth shut. He doesn’t know why he never expected to bump into the jogger in a town this small, but he really never did. Something about the man standing here, in front of him, in the middle of the night – Bucky shouldn’t even recognize him, not when he flashes by in a few seconds from twenty yards away on the street, but Bucky’s eyes are sharp and in that moment it somehow seems the greater impossibility that he wouldn’t know the jogger.

He has the strangest sensation of his own hand reaching out to grip the forearm of this stranger, this man who up close has soft, wide eyes and startlingly long lashes and pink-flushed lips. Long seconds, one, two, tick by in a suspended hush that Bucky breaks, with an almost painful sensation, by looking down at his hand. His arm is locked down by his side, and Bucky breathes a silent thank you to whatever deity might be listening that he hadn’t actually grabbed out at a total stranger.

He blinks again, suddenly much more present, and wishes that maybe he’d at least bothered to change his work-stained shirt eight hours ago when he’d gotten home. He’s about to say something stupid like, “I didn’t know your eyes were blue. Because I can’t see them, you know, when you run,” but thankfully he’s beaten to the punch.

The guy cradles the Lucky Charms he grabbed off the shelf in his arms. He shakes his head. “I don’t care what the box says, there is nothing natural about that,” he says, voice aghast.

Bucky’s startled into a short laugh. Somewhat reluctantly, he tears his eyes away from the guy and follows his gaze to the electrically colored Blueberry Mini-Wheats. “They’re a little terrifying,” he agrees.

The guy looks at him sideways. His gaze slides down to the Raisin Bran that Bucky’s holding, and the corner of his mouth tips up. “Not that I would judge anyone’s cereal, of course.”

Bucky’s mouth drops in outrage as the guy steps forward, grabs the Blueberry Mini-Wheats, and walks away grinning, a box of artificially colored and flavored cereal in each hand. He’s fifteen feet down the aisle by the time Bucky pulls himself together and hisses after him, “It’s for my dog!”

From the end of the row, the guy turns and throws him a skeptical look before disappearing into the engulfing pit that is the cookie aisle.

Bucky narrows his eyes and grabs another box of Raisin Bran.

+++

He regrets those two boxes as he walks home. They’re not heavy but they sure are awkward. It’s a cloudy night; there are no stars to see by, only the dim streetlamps casting yellow circles on the grey sidewalk.

When he gets home, Maximilian is still curled up under his nest of blankets on Bucky’s bed. He snuffles against Bucky’s hand but otherwise doesn’t stir when he crawls in with him. Bucky groans into the pillow and tries not to think about the man clutching his electric blue cereal or the clean lines of his shoulders or the way his arms curve thick with muscle. Details he’s seen but failed to give enough weight to, so focused was he on the mere presence and timing of the jogger outside his window.

This isn’t something he was expecting. Bucky rolls onto his back, lays his hands on his belly, closes his eyes as he’s trained himself to do, and lets himself fall asleep.

+++

It’s just after 7:00 am when Bucky wakes up, which means that he got almost four whole hours of sleep despite everything. He stretches, pleased.

And then he remembers that it’s Saturday morning. In a rush, he throws back the covers and jogs down the stairs so that he can draw back his curtains that cover his living room window. He doesn’t even know if his jogger will come by this morning, not after he was awake and at the store at 2:30 in the morning. Were the Lucky Charms for him? Which marshmallows are his favorites? When will he try the electric blue Mini-Wheats? He is deeply annoyed with the jogger for making him wonder these things.

Bucky pinches the bridge of his nose and decides to make coffee. At least it’s a good morning. The ones that aren’t so good, the ones where he can’t quite stumble out of his fog, those ones he spends sitting on the floor with Maximilian and feeding him extra bits of cereal after the jogger passes by. Nat had shrugged when he told her this and said, “Well, I don’t remember you ever being a morning person.”

There’s an expectant little thrum that zags under his skin as the clock ticks close to 7:30.

As the man enters the frame of his window, long legs eating up the pavement in front of Bucky’s house, something settles in Bucky.

+++

He decides that whatever inside him settles at the sight of the jogger simply needs to stay settled. It’s enough to know he’s out there, running past 4521 Pine St at 7:30 in the morning. It should be enough.

+++

Late April is still too cold to plant the seedlings. The ground’s frozen through. Bucky shivers. He can’t wait for summer and its long, golden days. He puts the seedlings on his windowsill and waters them on Sunday, and isn’t sure where the rest of the weekend went. It’s not like he left the house except to walk Maximilian.

“Another reason to consider a dog,” a therapist had told him. “It’ll force you out. Also, man, I’m not your therapist.”

He’d asked Natasha. The conversation went like this:

“Sam says I should get a dog.”

“I’m not a dog person.” She hadn’t so much as glanced at him, just continued reading her magazine with her legs draped over the arm of Bucky’s chair.

“The dog’s not for you.”

“I don’t think you’re a dog person, then.”

Bucky had narrowed his eyes. “You’re supposed to be supporting me. You called yourself my friend.”

She snorted inelegantly. “Your memory is faulty. I don’t keep friends.”

Bucky let his eyes bore into the side of her head. Finally looking up from her magazine, she narrowed her eyes back at him. “Fine. Yes, I think you should get a dog, James. You need a companion animal. I think an ovcharka would do well for you.”

Bucky wrapped his arms around his legs where he leaned against her couch. “Sheepdog? You want to get me a sheepdog for a service animal?”

She flicked her finger against the cover of her magazine. For a moment, it seemed as though she was somewhere else, and then her eyes glinted at him and she bared her teeth in something that resembled a smile. “Russian bear dog. They kill wolves.”

“I always liked dachshunds, myself,” Bucky told her.

+++

Maximilian jumps off the bed and lands with a solid thud as Bucky’s alarm goes off for work. He groans and rolls over onto his side to smack the snooze button.

He flops down onto his stomach, his arms starfished out. From downstairs, he can hear Maximilian’s tags clanking together as he wanders around sniffing the kitchen floor for any food droppings he might have missed from the night before.

Dachshunds are great vacuum cleaners, Bucky’s learned. They might not hunt wolves – small rodents are another matter altogether – but they go after crumbs with a vengeance.

It feels like thirty seconds later when the alarm goes off again. “Fuck,” Bucky mumbles into his pillow. Even without looking, he knows the glaring green numbers on the clock read “6:38.” The green is supposed to be calming, Natasha had told him when she presented it to him as his house-warming present. “Because you have some issues there, James,” she told him. She smiled sweetly while he scowled at her. “Haha, very funny,” he’d said, unwrapping it.

It’s still beeping shrilly at him. Bucky bats blindly at it and sweeps it to the floor. He swears he just fell asleep. Downstairs, Maximilian barks.

Bucky moans, hauls himself out of bed, and stumbles downstairs to fix Maximilian a bowl of kibble topped with a few flakes of raisin bran, and doesn’t think at all about fit men with beards made for touching or joggers with heavy thighs and sweat dampening the patch between their shoulder blades.

+++

That’s not true. This sensation – what this sort of reaction to a person feels like – was lost to him ages ago it seems, and the ripples that it spreads through him catch him off-guard. But this man does something to him. In his head, there is a flash of firm skin against his, a silence pierced by harsh breath and broken guttural sounds.

He realizes he is cradling his skull in his palms. He has a headache. Getting up, he goes to the kitchen and gets some Advil. He thinks he liked his jogger better from a distance. At a distance, he’s just an exceptional timekeeper.

Bucky moved to Havensport at the end of last summer, when the last leaves had already fallen from the trees and frost was making the grass brittle. The jogger showed up in December and marked the weeks for him, one by one. “Find something constant,” Dr Pike had suggested. “You can take back almost anything in this world that is taken from you, except time. Keep time close.” So Bucky found the jogger, right outside his front door, and counted through the winter with him, right into this spring.

But now, now the jogger is a real person. A person who not only insulted Maximilian’s cereal choices but then tricked him into buying so much of the damn stuff that it’s going to expire and get soggy before the dog even eats it all.

Nah, that’s probably not true. Everything you buy in a store these days has so many preservatives in it that it could survive a host of endless Siberian winters.

+++

A few more days pass before he finds himself back at the grocery store. This time it’s late enough – or early enough, depending on how you look at it – that he could almost pass for a harried, pre-work shopper picking up some bread and eggs at 5am before the day starts.

As he passes the cereal aisle, against his own better judgment, he can’t help but take a long look down the row to see if there’s a tall man in a flannel shirt with an ass you could bounce quarters off snatching another box of Lucky Charms. If Bucky’s pulse starts just a little when he turns his head, no one needs to know about that but him.

The aisle is empty.

He’s simultaneously disappointed and just a hint of relieved. It’s not like he needed cereal anyway. He picks up a carton of eggs.

+++

Nat always answers when he calls her. Sometimes she sounds out of breath, like she’s running, and she tells him to keep talking anyway. Other times, she’s hushed and short, and she’ll tell him it’s not a good time, but she still picks up. Their conversations are short, even when he’s pretty sure she’s sitting on her couch, feet up, glass of wine in her hand, watching some movie he’s never heard of on Amazon.

She says, “Maximilian packing on the pounds yet?” and “Are you still in love with that white picket fence house of yours?” and “When am I going to get a taste of Mrs. McNearney’s crumb cake?”

And he says, “Why does everyone think I feed him crap? It’s only cereal, and I pick out all the raisins for him!” and “The picket fence is actually useless because Maximilian can squirm underneath it if he wants to,” and “They make these things called planes, you know.”

When he talks to her, his clearest images of her are as a girl, then a young woman, as though they were scenes from a play pieced together. He teaches her how to use her lower mass of gravity against overconfident men; he drinks black rose-scented tea with her to the sounds of Chopin and Tchaikovsky; he blocks the swing of her leg with his arm and she flips backwards, landing lightly on her feet. He shows her how to use her sleek edges to slide away from anyone who would lay a finger on her, and she introduces him to the ballet while she wears a jade green dress and the scent of jasmine.

He’s drifted away from her voice. It calls to him, low and even, in his ear, asking if he’s joined the group she sent him the link for over in Cincinnati. “Stop pushing, Natasha,” he tells her, and she laughs, wry, and orders him to get the recipe for that coffee cake.

“You’re a horrible baker,” he says, and hangs up the phone.

+++

He wakes up covered in sweat from dreams he can’t remember. They make pain spike through his body. Pulling on his sneakers and a hoodie, he jogs to the grocery store, gritting his teeth against the phantom jabs that make the bones in his legs ache. It’s warm enough now, even so late at night, that he can no longer see the white of his breath hanging in the still, small hours.

He finds himself back in the cereal aisle. He stands there with his hands shoved in his pockets for ten minutes, long enough that he’s probably triggered some sort of warning on the security cameras, if anyone could be bothered at this hour to actually care. Finally, he realizes that he’s still got more Raisin Bran than any sane person could need and wanders over to the refrigerated section for a half gallon of milk and checks out with Cindy.

As the automatic door swings open for him to leave, someone steps through the entry doorway on the other side of the metal railing that’s meant to corral the shopping carts in and out of the store. He catches a glimpse of a grey pullover and a startled, cheeky grin and deep blue eyes that meet his for just a second before he’s out the door and walking home past the darkened teashop.

The grocery bag swings loosely in his hand.

+++

That weekend, Bucky has a surreal moment where he almost steps outside as the jogger passes.

He pictures himself opening his door and standing on his front porch so that he can wave at the man. Maybe even he could casually leave his house at just the right moment for a jog of his own. After all, he’s seen the guy smile at Mrs. Higgins across the street when she waved at him.

Then he thinks that maybe there’s a big difference between Bucky lurking on his porch on a chilly spring morning when anyone with the sense god gave a goat would be inside, and a cute little old 79 year old woman waving at a man young enough to be her grandson as she picks up her morning paper.

He stays inside. It’s 7:30 am, and it’s now time to drink his coffee. He savors the heat, and he hums into his mug from behind the safety of the window, appreciation at his weekend jogger seeping into his flesh.

+++

Bucky sees the jogger again a few days later. He’s standing in front of the bananas, running his hands through his hair. The May sun is beginning to streak through it, and the strands look soft and touchable.

Bucky shoves his hands in his pockets and turns away to hide the smile sneaking over his face. It probably makes him a piss-poor human being to take such pleasure in another’s obvious suffering – because he knows firsthand that insomnia is the kind of suffering that twists itself like a screw through your brain and there’s no other reason for the guy to be in a grocery store at 2:00 am – but he can’t bring himself to be sorry. The little knot he carries tight in his belly undoes itself at the sight of him.

+++

The weekend comes sunny and warm. The tips of the trees are turning a pale green, and Bucky’s neighbors are starting to put flower boxes out on their front porches. Across the street, Charlie is pulling out his lawnmower for the first time. Bucky googles around for a while and decides that it must be time to plant his seedlings.

“The internet wouldn’t lie to me about this, right, Maximilian?”

Bucky rolls his shoulders back and steels himself for a long chitchat about Havensport High’s chances against Millsburgh’s baseball team, and then jogs across the warming black of the street over to Charlie to borrow some garden tools. Half an hour later, when he’s released, he lets Maximilian out into the backyard and watches him sprawl happily under the May sunshine as Bucky digs into the dark earth and pats the damp soil down around his little herbs.

Maximilian snaps suddenly at the air as a butterfly flits above his head, but his short dachshund legs refuse to lift him high enough to catch it, and he settles back down a few feet away from where Bucky kneels. Bucky’s fingers accidentally bruise the tender leaves of oregano, and the sharp scent makes him think of sparkling blue waters, like the Mediterranean that he’s seen in photos, and a rocky shoreline with wind-twisted pines high on the hills above.

+++

Bucky begins to wonder how the jogger would smell just out of the shower, all warm flesh, the scent of soap clinging to his skin, whatever smell belongs to him caught where his neck meets his shoulder.

+++

He spends two days under the hood and chassis of a classic Dodge Challenger. Its owner stands next to him in the garage and says, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and Bucky wipes his brow with a rag and says, “No, sir, they don’t.”

The man swings a purple duffle bag over his shoulder. “Guess I’m stuck for a day or two. On my way to the farm. Coming from the east coast, looking for some green open spaces. You know any place around here where I can get a decent cup of joe?”

“How do you feel about tea,” Bucky replies, and the guy huffs a laugh and says, “Yeah, that figures. Alright, point me. I’ll be back in a few hours to check up on how it’s going.”

+++

He decides he’s got to get over his shit. As if it’s that easy.

The jogger – the cereal guy – whatever he’s calling him now – Bucky’s probably got more in common with him than his married coworker or old ladies who make him crumb cake anyway. The guy obviously can’t sleep, just like Bucky, or he wouldn’t be at the store at 3:00 am and out jogging at 7:30.

“There, see?” he says to his dog. “Something to talk about.”

Still, though, this thing with the jogger – maybe it’s a little creepier than it was, now that he’s actually talked to the guy. Once. Okay, sure, it was over cereal choices at 2:30 am, but that pretty much counts as far as Bucky’s concerned.

“Maximilian,” he says. “I used to have game.”

The dog stares at him and then barks demandingly for his squeaky ball.

+++

Bucky wakes up to Maximilian’s quiet snuffles. The little dog presses his long snout into Bucky’s face as he’s been trained to do. The faded image of the old Dodge Challenger blinks behind his eyelids. His hands feel empty suddenly, and he hovers them in front of his face as though he expects to find them holding something. His ears ring with dream-echoes of the car backfiring or the sound of fireworks or maybe it’s the sharp pop and recoil of a gun.

The dog is a sturdy weight at his side. Bucky pets him rhythmically until his breathing calms. “Well, Maximilian,” he says quietly, “how would you feel about a trip to the grocery store?”

When Bucky sits up, Maximilian takes that as his cue and jumps off the bed. “Let me just get your service jacket,” Bucky says to him.

It’s cool outside, the May night still this side of crisp, but the wind ripples gently through the leafing trees as they walk to the store.

Cindy calls out a greeting to Bucky as he comes in. He lifts his hand from his pocket and waves briefly, but doesn’t call back. She returns her attention to her magazine, used to this from him at this time of night. Most people don’t come shopping at 2:00 am, after all. Bucky’s still not sure why the store stays open all night in this small town, but he’s grateful it does.

He’s standing in front of a long row of chilled meats when he hears footsteps approaching. Maximilian cocks his head but doesn’t bark as he would if he weren’t working right now.

The jogger is wearing another flannel shirt tonight. He’s got a ball cap on and he’s walking up to the ground beef next to Bucky. Bucky sucks in a breath. There’s that reaction again, a jolt that courses through his tired body, disorienting in intensity, when the jogger comes in arm’s reach of Bucky.

The guy waves a dorky little greeting under the florescent yellow lights, and Bucky feels like he does when Maximilian has kicked him in the soft of his belly in his sleep.

The guy looks down at the dog who, despite standing in front of a refrigerator full of meat, is alert and focused on Bucky. Not for the first time, Bucky thinks he needs to send in another donation to Mutts With A Mission. The guy laughs and shakes his head. “Well, I’ll be. This the Raisin Bran lover in the house?”

If the man’s smile kicked Bucky in the stomach, then knowing that he remembers Bucky and the conversation from weeks ago does ridiculous things to Bucky’s state of mind. Maximilian whines softly and looks up expectantly at him. It steadies Bucky enough so that he doesn’t blurt out something hideously embarrassing.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, fighting the urge to duck his head to hide his pleased expression. “Maximilian is working now, so I can’t really introduce you, but he’s the culprit.”

He waits for the guy to say something stupid about his service dog being a tiny dachshund or even about him needing a service animal at all, but the guy just grins at him and the corners of his eyes crinkle.

“In that case, I’d settle for an introduction to you,” he says, and Bucky feels his insides doing little cartwheels.

He exhales and holds out his hand. “I’m Bucky.”

The man is still holding his eyes, his smile slow and deeps as it spreads across his face and reaches his eyes. “Steve,” he says. His hand is warm in Bucky’s, and Bucky has to consciously let it go.

“Haven’t seen you here in a while,” Steve says. He immediately blushes. “Not that I’m – don’t think that – it’s pretty empty here in the middle of the night,” he finishes lamely.

Bucky looks down to hide the helpless grin on his face. Steve clears his throat. It seems like a long time later when he says, “Sometimes the bed is too soft.” Bucky risks a glance over at him and sees him looking at Maximilian’s service jacket, but he doesn’t say anything else so Bucky doesn’t tense up too much. Instead he nods his head and they stare at twenty different cuts of meat in companionable silence as the hour ticks closer to 3:00 am.

+++

The next day, Bucky finishes up the work on the Dodge Challenger. Its owner pats it as Bucky slides out from under it. “Thanks for the tip about the teashop,” he tells him. “Spent a few hours using their wifi. Chatted with the barista. You ever check it out?”

“No.” Bucky doesn’t really feel like standing around and shooting the shit. He grabs a few of his tools from the garage floor. His hands feel empty without them.

“Great selection,” the Challenger man is saying. “Even had a Russian blend that I’ve never tasted outside my friend’s apartment. Think she imports it. A little taste of home, whatever that means. It’s a small world sometimes. I haven’t seen her in a few months so I had a cup for her.” His glance flickers back to Bucky. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

Bucky sighs minutely. Mr. Sottosanti insists they’re friendly to the customers. “Nope.” The pause stretches a beat too long before Bucky says, “I like it, though. It’s quiet.”

“Sure seems that way, doesn’t it. Like somehow the outside world stops outside the town limits. Nice little slice of Americana you got here.” The man chuckles as he swings his duffle bag into the car. The glint of silver embroidery catches Bucky’s eyes. “I have a feeling I’ll be back someday. In the meantime, well, it’s a good afternoon for driving. We’re supposed to have a nice summer ahead of us.”

“Hope so.” Bucky opens the garage door so he can move the Challenger into the lot out front.

The man squints into the bright sunshine. He looks far down the street, as though he can see all the way out of town, the whole way to the farm and those wide open spaces as far as a bird can fly. “Oh, don’t worry. The Farmer’s Almanac promised us a rich summer.” He shrugs and looks back at Bucky. “After that, it’s anyone’s guess. So I’m going to get out and enjoy it.”

“Let me take this out of here for you,” Bucky says, “and you can be on your way.”

+++

When he gets home from work, he sits down on the couch with Maximilian. He’s felt irritable in his skin all day, like there’s something delicate and fragile encasing his entire body, and he can see through it and move with it, but a sharp poke at the wrong angle might snap it.

He draws a line down his arm. The prosthetic is cool against his fingertip.

+++

In his dreams that night, Bucky is driving a 1971 Challenger down the California highway, winding down the coast. “Blend in,” the dream whispers tell him. He wants to pull over and walk down to the shining water to take it in, but he doesn’t dare. He’ll be late if he stops. The pale winter sun barely warms him through his dark clothing.

+++

God, if he’d known it would be this easy, he’d have jumped off his porch and said, “Hi, I’m Bucky, what’s your name, do you want to be friends?” months ago.

Now that they’ve introduced themselves, Bucky runs into Steve all over the store, all the time. He’s in the paper products aisle, next to the apples, the bins of nuts, and the frozen foods section. It’s possible that Bucky spends even more time at the grocery store now than he used to, although he really didn’t think even he could do that. He asks Steve how often he comes grocery shopping, and Steve looks vaguely sheepish.

“That’s what I thought,” Bucky says, the corner of his mouth curling up. He shoves his hands in his pockets to stop himself from reaching out to Steve, even if it’s just to pat his arm.

He’s not so sure that he’d be able to stop there, is the thing. Every time he sees him, he’s more and more drawn to Steve, who manages to look mostly awake and put together even under the unflattering grocery store light in the middle of the night, in a way that he can’t remember being to another person. Steve settles something deep in him even as he’s riling up a whole bunch of other things.

Steve laughs and points at him. “Pot, kettle, my friend.”

+++

Bucky tells Steve that he works at Sottosanti’s. Steve says, “Oh, neat. They did some great work on my bike a few months ago,” and Bucky replies, “You’re the Harley Breakout guy,” and “Nice ride.”

Steve’s face lights up. “Did you do that work?”

Bucky shrugs and rubs the back of his head.

Steve bumps his shoulder into his. “Thanks,” he says.

Bucky tries not to lean into that solid heat. It leaves Bucky with the odd sensation of wanting to drop to his knees in front of Steve and suck his brains out through his dick, and at the same time wanting just as much to cuddle up on a couch with a bad movie and pizza with this guy.

Bucky is so fucked.

+++

“We should probably apply for jobs here,” Bucky says.

Steve nods thoughtfully. “I bet we do know the layout of this place better than even the store manager.”

Bucky snickers.

+++

The basil is growing like a weed in Bucky’s backyard. He’s pretty sure the mint that he’d bought the week after his first round of herb-purchases actually is a weed. Still, though, he pretends it’s not and learns to pull out the things that people – mostly Angie and Mrs. McNearney – tell him are the real weeds.

“What makes you think I know anything about gardening?” Natasha says in her flat voice when he makes the mistake of asking her.

The back of his neck grows tan above the line of his shirt. He sweats in his long-sleeved tees. He knows he’s far from the only vet who’s come back with a prosthetic, but it makes him stand out, which in turn makes him nervous. Easier to keep it covered.

In the evening he grabs himself a beer and sits outside staring at the grill that the previous owner left with the house. It should be used – juicy steak, a baked potato to go with it, maybe a couple ears of grilled corn when it comes into season in a couple of months, shared with some good company. It seems like something from a dream, but Bucky knows that there was a time, before, when he would have been the first person throwing that party.

“Dammit,” Bucky says, and he goes to bed waiting for Steve to jog by in the morning.

+++

Now’s about the time he should probably mention to Steve that he runs past his house twice a week.

Actually, that moment might have been a few weeks ago. Somewhere around the time he’d started spending a few nights a week in a grocery store with the guy.

Bucky foresees a really awkward conversation in his near future. It goes something like this:

“So, funny thing about your jogging path, Steve.” They’re in the frozen pizza section.

Steve tosses him a quizzical look.

“Yes, I know you run. And right around 7:30 every weekend morning, you pass my house.” Bucky taps his finger on the door closed around the frozen goods. He watches Steve follow the motion. “And by ‘right around 7:30’ I mean exactly at 7:30.”

A small huff of laughter shakes Steve’s shoulders. “You mean that after sitting up half the night in the frozen goods section of the grocery store, you’re not still in bed at 7:30 on a weekend? You don’t really strike me as a morning person.”

Bucky shrugs. “I’m not. Or I wasn’t. These days – ” he trails off.

Steve glances away, his face carrying an expression Bucky can’t read for a second before Steve straightens his shoulders and looks back. Bucky blinks before Steve’s smile clears into something amused. “I bet I know which house is yours. Thought I was catching someone there out of the corner of my eye. Enjoying your cup of coffee?”

This time it’s Bucky who glances away. He can feel heat spreading across his face.

+++

He’d deny it if ever asked, but for the whole rest of the week after that conversation, he wonders if maybe, just maybe, Steve won’t come running by that weekend. If he’ll change his path now that he knows there are eyes on him.

Steve isn’t shy by any means. He teases Bucky under the harsh yellow store lighting, and sometimes it even seems like he’s flirting a bit – but he always pulls back. It’s almost a conscious thing, the way he reins himself in when he leans in too much, when his weight shifts toward Bucky. As if he doesn’t want to get too close.

Bucky reminds himself that just because he’s a paranoid asshole, Steve isn’t necessarily one as well.

+++

They sit on the floor amid soft plastic bags full of sliced bread for an hour while Steve talks about how he left his old job to take online architecture classes and how he hopes to finish his degree in a year or two. Bucky’s got his legs drawn up, his arms wrapped around his knees, while Steve has stretched his long legs out in front of him. He occasionally shakes his foot, something that seems absent-minded. Bucky knew a guy once in the army who did the same thing when he was sketching in his free time.

Steve waggles his fingers. “It’s why my hands always have ink all over them. We’re supposed to do all our projects on the software they want us to learn, but there’s nothing quite like pen and paper for some things.”

+++

On the first Saturday morning of June, Bucky opens his door at 7:28 and sits on his steps with his coffee. Maximilian sets his butt down gingerly at his side. If he’s not working, he doesn’t particularly like sitting on hard surfaces. He eyeballs a bee as it hums on by, probably on its way to Mrs. Solinski’s tulips.

Bucky raises his mug at Steve as he passes by, and Steve shakes his head with a laugh that Bucky sees but doesn’t hear.

Bucky goes back into the house long after Steve’s gone, unable to wipe the grin from his face.

+++

The next weekend, Steve jogs up to the steps. It’s 7:30 am. He looks back and forth between Bucky and Maximilian, and Bucky shrugs. “Go on, then. He’s off-duty.”

With a delighted expression – Bucky still can’t figure out how this man manages to beam such happiness so much of the time – Steve leans down and offers the dog his hands for sniffing.

“Seriously, do you shit rainbows?”

Steve’s eyebrows jerk up. “Sure,” he says easily. “And I piss streams of pure gold and sweat diamonds from my delicate brow.”

He stares at Bucky. Bucky stares back. God, he wants to jump this man and that sweaty body and kiss that little smirk right off his face.

“Seriously, Buck, I –” Steve cuts himself off. The tiny grin slips from his face and his carefree expression goes tight for such a quick moment that Bucky’s not even sure if he’s imagining it. But it’s enough to throw him, and into the suddenly awkward silence, Steve says, “I should finish my workout.”

+++

He doesn’t see Steve for a few days after that, and when he runs into him in the store on Thursday night, Steve blurts out, “I just wanted to let you know that I might not be out jogging this weekend.” He pauses, frowning. “That’s weird, isn’t it. That I’m telling you this? I told Sharon that it would be weird, but she insisted that I should say something to you. So that you didn’t worry.”

Bucky can’t help a huff of laughter from escaping him, even though he feels a bit cut up inside. On the one hand, Steve thought about him enough to ask this Sharon person if he should say something to Bucky about a change in his schedule; on the other, why won’t Steve be there?

Steve is still rambling. “It’s just that I know how important routine can be. Not that I’m saying I’m some crucial part of your day or anything. But even little things can matter unexpectedly.” His voice quiets and becomes more sure. “When I got out, I was lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself, with my time, energy. There was no structure, and suddenly everyone I had known and fought with wasn’t there at my side to keep me on track.”

“What did you do?” Bucky asks. He fights the urge to clamp his fingers down over Steve’s where they’re worrying the hem of his t-shirt.

With a wry smile, Steve replies, “I wallowed.” He glances at Bucky. “Look, I know you don’t talk about it. But there’s nothing like three am on a dirty grocery store floor if you ever feel like it.”

There’s a long silence between them. Finally, abruptly, Bucky splits the quiet. “I was a sergeant,” he says. “Lots of guys hang out with guys from their units. My men are all blown to bits.” He swallows. “Are you going out of town or something this weekend?”

Steve’s eyes are blue and calm and he holds Bucky’s gaze for a moment before accepting the change of subject without comment. It’s like being lightly pinned to something solid and stable.

“Got a call from a few friends. Well, people I used to work with. I’m pretty sure they think I still do work with them,” Steve tells him with an exasperated expression. “Looks like they need my help with a project they’ve got going on. Should only take a few days.”

+++

“You sound happier,” Natasha says to him.

“You can’t possibly be able to tell that from the way I said hello,” Bucky grumbles.

Nat sniffs. “Please.” There’s a pause. “I’m waiting. Spill.”

With a put-upon sigh, Bucky says, “Turns out I’m not the only person haunting the grocery store in the middle of the night.”

Her laugh is low in his ear. “Is he cute?”

“Ass to die for,” Bucky says immediately. “He does this thing where he talks with his hands and just kind of reaches out and touches you without even realizing it, and then he’s startled to find that he’s got his hand on your chest.”

“Mm-hmm. Kukla, you sure about that?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. He slouches down in his couch. “He’s not like that. He’s a gentleman. Wish he wasn’t, sometimes. Last week I thought for a second that he might actually ask me out. I was sitting on my porch, he was jogging by. Stupid,” he mutters.

The silence on the other end is different, suddenly. Bucky’s not sure how he knows this, but he does – some sixth sense warning him. “Nat?” he says. “Everything okay?”

“Sure,” she says. “Look, you know I’m the last person to give advice. But maybe things that seem too good to be true are.”

Bucky groans. “Jesus, Nat, he’s not trying to take advantage of my helpless state or something. What am I, a Victorian maiden?” Through the phone he can hear her munching on something. Cookies.

“Not quite,” she tells him wryly.

+++

When he woke up in the hospital, no one would tell him anything for weeks. They waited for his memory to return. It didn’t, and he didn’t recognize anyone until Natasha walked in. Her face carried fading yellow bruises and her hair was wavy where it had been straight, but her eyes were the same wary green and her hair the same burnished red and her body was angled and tense, and those were all things he remembered. He didn’t know from where or why or what her name was.

She called him “James,” and he said “yes.”

Then the doctors and the therapists started talking to him. They told him that he’d lost his arm in the explosion that had landed him in the hospital. That he’d been in an induced coma for several weeks. That they had had to fit him with a prosthetic while he was under. That all the security was for his protection. That he carried many government secrets that certain groups would kill to get knowledge of. That he’d been trying to protect his team, his squad, when the bomb went off. That he was the only survivor. That his name was Bucky Barnes and he was from Brooklyn.

Natasha, the red-haired woman, sat in a chair in the corner and watched as he was told all of this. After the doctors left, he asked her how long they’d known each other.

She raised her eyebrow. “I don’t know how long you’ve known me – maybe it’s been years, maybe it’s been thirty minutes from your point of view – but I’ve known you for almost my entire life. We went to the ballet together. I taught you how to drink tea and you taught me how to use a knife.”

He nodded. “Any chance that you could smuggle me in some meatballs and sauce? I could really go for some real food right about now.”

The corner of her mouth tilted up, but it was a long time before her body relaxed even the slightest bit. She still carries herself tight around him, on the rare occasions that he actually gets to see her, although he pretends not to notice. It’s something he thinks he’s not supposed to see. No one else seems to.

+++

He wakes up in the night with tears on his face, reaching out for something that isn’t there. He’s curled on his side, the way you would wrap yourself around something smaller.

Somehow the rest of the night passes. He thinks he moves once to take a piss and go downstairs, where he sits on the kitchen floor. Maximilian is at his side. When he moves, his bones feel old, an old man in a young man’s body. The cupboards and kitchen furniture cast shadows on the white wall, thrown into relief by the moonlight, and the shapes are those of the Afghan mountains. They are dark in the night, small pinpricks of light from a town at the base of the hills, the rest sharp and hulking against the twinkling stars. His colonel says grimly, “War makes us all brittle before our time, sergeant. God willing, one day we’ll all make it home. Or failing that, our bodies will, wrapped in a flag.”

As the sun rises, the mountains turn dusty and yellow. “The bodies are of no consequence,” he is told. “Others will find them. Finish the mission.” Bucky picks up his gun and slings it across his body. He turns and assesses the landscape. If he remains close to the road, snipers will pick him off.

He looks at the last of the fading stars in the morning sky and begins to scale his way up the side of the mountain.

+++

After Steve’s been gone four days, Bucky goes to the grocery store. He goes back the next night and the next, and Steve still doesn’t show back up.

Bucky tells himself it’s a good thing, that this time without seeing Steve will make the craving to touch him dissipate. It’s been getting worse since they actually started talking. Bucky starts groaning about blue balls to Maximilian, but that’s not all there is to it, and Bucky’s not sure which part of it is more startling. Did he used to go in for all that height and brawn, for such golden tanned skin so perfect over rippling muscle, for the strength of such shoulders and thighs, before? For that matter, he doesn’t know when the last time was that he really wanted someone, anyone. Most days it feels like war burned that out of him.

Yet despite all of that, there’s this undefinable pull to Steve that makes Bucky’s fingers twitch to reach out to him and draw his face near. For all his sheepish smiles and perfect golden beauty, there’s an edge to him that Bucky wants to trace. A serious set to his mouth when he thinks Bucky’s not looking, something that’s hard and unmovable and good.

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve would say if Bucky ever got up the guts to say something like this to him. “I’m not good,” and that would be how Bucky would know he’s lying because isn’t that what all good men say? Steve would reach out, as though he were going to touch Bucky’s cheek, and then he’d stop himself as he has so often in their conversations and tuck his hands away.

Bucky returns to the grocery store again the next night.

Cindy waves to him. She’s propped up on her elbows, idly flicking through a gardening magazine she’s probably read a dozen times already. “Haven’t seen him. Don’t think he’s in town,” she calls out.

Bucky turns sharply. A hot flush spreads over the back of his neck.

She shoots him a knowing look. “Don’t deny it, kiddo. If it makes you feel any better, he does the same thing on the nights you don’t show up.”

Something tightens in Bucky’s chest.

“You been following the news?” she asks without any real interest. “Sometimes I sure am glad I don’t live on one of the coasts. They get some freaky stuff happening out there.”

Bucky angles her gardening magazine toward him so that he can see it too. “I don’t watch the news,” he tells her, and then they talk about how to get rid of slugs for twenty minutes.

+++

When a week has passed, he finds Steve tossing an apple back and forth in his hand. Bucky’s heart is already singing a staccato song in his chest because Cindy winked at him when he walked in from the starlit night and jerked her thumb toward the produce section.

Steve turns toward him with his whole body just as Bucky’s coming around the edge of the bakery shelving. He makes an aborted step forward and his face brightens.

“Hey,” Bucky says. His fingers ache to touch Steve, to grip him close in a hug, to clasp the back of his neck.

He forces himself not to do any of these things even though it’s almost painful not to. “Have a nice trip?” he says, instead.

+++

“It’s the longest day of the year today,” Steve tells him some time later. Bucky startles. He lost track of the clock.

Steve glances at his watch. “It’s 3:21 am.”

It’s been just over an hour, then. Steve breathed 852 times in that space of time. Bucky worries his lower lip between his teeth. He hadn’t known he was counting.

“First day of summer,” Bucky realizes out loud.

“I’ve never spent summer in the country.”

Bucky knocks his knee against Steve’s. “Better watch out. This is town, not country. You’ll go pissing someone off with talk like that.”

“Compared to New York, everything’s the country.”

“Do you miss it?”

“I don’t know.” Steve examines the tile beneath his feet. “When I think of summer, I think of sweltering in the humidity, sitting on the fire escape trying to escape some of the heat. Girls in pretty dresses, guys standing around on street corners smoking and hollering at one another. The noise of construction, the smell of rotting garbage.”

“Sounds great, pal,” Bucky tells him sarcastically, but it does actually. It sounds just like summer ought to sound like, all the way down to the putrid odor of the trash on the street.

Steve smiles. “I can think of a few I didn’t want to ever end.”

+++

Once, Mr. Sottosanti asked him why he chose Havensport, Indiana of all places to buy a house and come live. “We don’t get so many young men moving out here from the big city, you know. Mostly people come back here because they got family.”

Bucky grabs a wrench so that he can loosen a tight screw on the Mitsubishi they’re working on. “Got a sister a few towns over,” he says after a bit. A bead of sweat rolls down his temple. The June heat is starting to fill up the garage.

Mr. Sottosanti chuckles. “Younger sister?”

Bucky lets his face ask the question for him.

“Son, I’m an older brother myself. I know that look of worry that you got on your face right now. I gotta tell you, no matter how old you get, she’ll always be your baby sister.”

Dropping his eyes, Bucky stares at the guts of the car. “She’ll always be seventeen in my head, same as she was the day I shipped out.”

+++

“I’ve spent a lot of time destroying things,” Steve tells him. “Necessary to do, but I guess at some point you get tired of that, you know? I want to learn to build things.”

Most days Bucky feels like he can barely put things back together the way they should be, fix broken cars and washing machines and motorcycles back to their original state. Creating something new? Starting from scratch and building things that didn’t even exist before? Bucky doesn’t even know what to do with that. He wonders if Steve was always like this. Somehow, he thinks he was.

“Do you drink tea?” Steve asks him.

Bucky shrugs. “Mostly only when it’s put in front of me.”

Steve looks down at his hands. “I could do that. Put it in front of you. Tea, I mean. If you wanted.”

For one breathtaking moment, Bucky thinks Steve is actually asking him out, albeit in a spectacularly bad fashion, finally, finally after always dancing forward two steps and back one, but it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t care, and he’s about to leap on it, when Steve adds, his face flushing, “I have a part time job at Infusions.”

“What?” Bucky says, totally taken aback.

“The teashop? Down on Grand Street? You probably walk right by it to get here.”

“Oh.” Bucky knows he shouldn’t feel so disappointed.

“I usually open up, weekdays at least. I’m thinking that since you’re sitting here with me at 2:47 in the morning in an admittedly crappy grocery store, you don’t sleep very well.”

Bucky makes a noncommittal sound. The side of his body where Steve presses against it feels as though it might be branded with the heat coming off Steve’s body. Bucky wants to curl into it, hoard it for himself, and then strip it down to basics, all the way down. He wants to learn how Steve tastes, what his skin smells like, what it feels like under his mouth and pressed naked against his own.

He stays very still so Steve won’t realize how close they are and move away.

“So I thought,” Steve says, oblivious to Bucky’s thoughts, “that if you came in for a cup of tea and a friendly face, then maybe some of those mornings wouldn’t be so hard.” There’s a moment of silence.

Bucky swallows. Once upon a time, before he was shipped overseas into the war, this would have been the point when he would have curled his finger over Steve’s pinky where it rests on the hardness of his thigh. If Steve had leaned into him when he did this instead of pulling away, Bucky might have slid his hand over that thick slab of muscle and let it sit there.

As it is, though, he bites his lower lip. Steve’s eyes flicker down his face and then back up, almost guiltily. “Steve,” Bucky begins. “You really want a –” He cuts himself off. “Sure,” he says, and he forces a smile.

+++

“Oh my god,” Bucky says. “You’re everywhere. The grocery store, jogging by my house, and now I find out you’re the guy I haven’t even met from the teashop. Don’t think I haven’t heard about the barista who fled the big city after he ended up on too many magazine covers. I bet Cindy reads them all.” He laughs a little but stops as soon as he sees the worried look on Steve’s face.

The tips of Steve’s ears flush pink. “Not everything they say in the news is true.” He shakes his head ruefully. “I’m not trying to take over your life by being everywhere in it, though. I could be … not everywhere if you needed me to be.”

Bucky shoots him a look that he hopes conveys how stupid that is, but says only, “You gotta have your life, too.”

+++

The thing is, Steve actually is everywhere. He’s everywhere, and he’s driving Bucky crazy with his broad hands and hair that’s turning more and more blond every day under the young summer sun and those eyes that seem unfairly shadowed at the strangest times and that beard that looks so soft that it’s a wonder Bucky’s managed to keep his hands off it.

Steve’s body constantly leans into his. The inch gap between them when they talk fairly snaps with energy, with the tingle of Bucky’s skin. And the worst of it is that Bucky’s beginning to suspect that Steve feels it too. It’s written in the pink flush on his cheeks, the catch of his breath, the constantly aborted motions of his hands, the sway of his body, the way he jerks back when he catches himself – as though he thinks he’s caught himself doing something he shouldn’t be doing.

“Maximilian,” Bucky says. He braces his weight on his kitchen counter, leaning on his elbows. Without paying much attention, he drops sugared raisins from the dog’s cereal in his own mouth. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

+++

Jake and Angie invite him over for their 4th of July clambake. He goes, mostly because even though he actually likes them by this point, he’s still trying to keep his balance sheet even with them. “Shucks, Buck,” he thinks someone told him once. He sees a flash of bony skinned knees. “The world don’t have to be like that.”

He shows up for an hour or so before blatantly slandering Maximilian by blaming him for his own early departure. “Scared shitless over fireworks.” He nods to make his point.

“Sad, man,” Jake says, pointing his beer bottle at Bucky.

Bucky shoves his hands in his pockets and makes sure to grin on his way out. “I am.”

He walks home, even though it’s three miles. Fireworks shriek through the air from Highland Park to the west, faint glitter thrown into the sky in the distance. The grocery store is still open but is shutting down at 10:00 pm, the way it does on all holidays. He dreads the long night with nowhere to go. Inevitably when the store is closed, it winds up being a bad night.

There’s a light on in the teashop on Grand. His feet slow, an action almost outside his own volition. A middle-aged couple sits with their heads bent close, as new lovers do, and a gaggle of fourteen year olds stands around the counter, giggling as they order drinks to go.

As Bucky stands at the window with his hands shoved in his pockets, Steve happens to look up. Their eyes lock, and Bucky has the sense that he’s not listening to a word the girls inside are saying. A shower of red and blue sparkles reflects against the glass, and somehow that decides Bucky. He pulls back the door and the bell overhead tinkles.

The girls, tea in hand, come rushing toward him on their way out. He jumps out of their way. One of them calls out, “Happy Birthday!” as she’s pushed forward by her friend in a flurry of laughter and excited voices.

Steve is leaning on the counter, grinning. Bucky saunters up to him. “It’s not your birthday,” he says, unaccountably certain of this.

Steve throws a sharp look at him, and says, “No, it’s not. People think it is. It got out in the world that way a while ago.”

Bucky looks up at the menu, taking the place in. The menu is written on a slate slab hung on the wall. There are stacks of heavy, dark mugs on shelves. The tables are mostly round, with an occasional square one thrown in. They look like reclaimed wood. One wall is a glossy olive green, the others are grey so pale they’re almost white.

“How do you know that?” Steve asks.

“What, about your birthday?” Bucky shrugs. “Total guess. Logic. Here you are working on the 4th, can’t be your birthday too. How’d you get stuck here tonight?”

“I took Amanda’s shift. Nice girl, college kid home for the summer. She wanted to be out with her friends.”

Bucky laughs. “Because you’re so old.”

“Regular grandpa,” Steve agrees cheerfully. “What can I get you? On the house.”

Bucky glances up at the menu. “Never was much of a tea drinker. Dunno what I like. Surprise me?”

+++

The drink Steve gives him is surprisingly light and tastes like the honeysuckle that crawls up sagging, rusty fences in Brooklyn.

Bucky inhales the steam coming off the top of his cup. Steve’s shoulders relax.

An hour later, he helps Steve pull in the wooden sign out front and wipes down the counter when Steve tosses him a towel. “Shut your trap,” Bucky tells him when he protests Bucky’s helping out. “My mama didn’t raise no slouch.”

Steve’s eyes as he looks at him hold something far away and happy. “No,” he says, “she didn’t.”

Bucky doesn’t usually like to try to think about past things because it just makes his head pound, but the expression on Steve’s face makes him ask. “What about your mom?”

“My ma?” Steve’s laugh comes full, from deep in his belly. “Oh, Mrs. Rogers would have beat me with my da’s old belt if I’d slacked off. Or threatened to, at least. I gave her a lot of grief. Her and my best friend.” He falls silent.

“What happened to her?”

“She got sick.” His voice is quiet but there’s still a lingering smile on his face. “Sometimes it feels like it was a long time ago. Other times, it was just yesterday.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Time is funny like that.”

They sit in the shop into the wee hours of the night. Firecrackers pop sporadically in the neighborhoods around them.

+++

Bucky decides he likes the teashop. He adds it to his short list of places he goes. Over the next few weeks, he stops by so much that he thinks Steve must get sick of him, but there’s never been anything other than delight and warm welcome on his face every time.

It takes Bucky’s breath away. How can any person open himself like that, be such a close embrace every time? He imagines himself asking Steve one night while they sit on the grocery store floor and stare at the Lucky Charms.

“What do you even want with a guy like me putting his mug in your face? You don’t know me,” he’d say, “no really. Look, I’m not – I’m that guy. That guy who hangs out at the grocery store at shitty hours, whose best friend is his service dog, who can’t even get back into regular therapy because the idea of sitting in more meetings while some shrink picks my head apart makes me want to scrape my own skin off. I put on a show, and most days it’s damn good show for everyone, but that’s because I’m good at being what I need to be, not because I’m okay all the times I seem to be okay. I’m completely fucked up, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be not fucked up. I’m that guy.

“And then there’s you. You’re in school to be an architect. You have friends who miss you enough to drag you back to New York often enough to make it expensive. You’re the reason that stupid teashop is making any money, don’t deny it. I’m pretty sure you rescue kittens and old ladies in your spare time.”

Maybe he even does say some of this, because Steve looks at Bucky with a tight expression and says, “And yet I’m right here beside you, in that same grocery store at 3:00 a.m.”

He sighs. “Bucky, it took me two years to even enroll in school because every time I sat down to draw something, I drew the same thing over and over again, one of a thousand things I can’t get out of my head. I could draw mountains in my sleep these days. I work in that damn pretentious teashop because my friend blackmailed me into it so that I wouldn’t hole up and dive into depression. My old employer, for lack of a better term, still calls periodically to try to drag me back into the shit I left because they insist I only took a leave of absence and that by the time summer ends, I’ll be right back where I started.”

He smiles suddenly. “But you were right about the last thing. I did rescue a kitten from a storm drain last week, and the Havensport Chronicle wrote an article about it that landed on page three.”

Bucky pulls back away from him far enough to punch him in the shoulder.

Steve says, “Did you hear that they’re going to take the artificial coloring out of the marshmallows in Lucky Charms? That’s swell,” and Bucky says, “Golly, that sure is neat,” in a voice as artificial as the food coloring in the cereal just to mock Steve’s speech patterns.

“You’re such a jerk,” Steve tells him then, and Bucky smiles slyly before admitting that “the thing about the cereal is actually pretty cool.”

+++

And yet there’s some distance between them. Some days Bucky thinks he creates it himself, because there are times when Steve seems like the only thing that’s solid and real in a world that’s constantly shifting under Bucky’s feet.

On these days, he spreads his toes in the dark earth of his little garden and bruises mint between his fingertips because his mother used to grow mint in the window of their little apartment, and the scent of oregano makes him think of Italy and the blue Mediterranean and snow-topped Alps that he’s never seen in person and doesn’t really want to, and the curly tips of his parsley make him think of choking down a strong, bitter food he didn’t possess the name for before but now knows is called tabbouleh under a hot dusty sun while he sweats in heavy tactical gear meant for northern winters rather than desert dryness. He eats methodically, until his commander stands, shakes hands with the man in cool thin robes in front of him, and says, “We have an arrangement, then.”

Maximilian barks. Bucky raises a sprig of mint to his face.

+++

Other days, most days, Bucky thinks he’s about as obvious as he can be with Steve short of pinning the man to a wall and telling him point-blank, “I’d like to fuck your brains out. Or let you fuck my mine out my head. I ain’t picky. And then maybe order greasy Chinese takeout and watch Jaws, until we’re ready to do it all over again.”

He doesn’t understand this weird gap between them. It feels so unnatural. He’s pretty sure he’s not the one creating it, either. “Maximilian,” he says, “I’m becoming romantic in my old age.” Maximilian stares at him, silently demanding.

“Goddammit,” Bucky snaps in frustration. “How did I end up friend-zoned by the hot jogger? This was not the plan.”

His dog walks away and goes to the pantry to nose about for fallen flakes of Raisin Bran.

“The plan was considerably more naked and sweaty than this,” he yells after the dog.

Too late, he notices his windows are open to let in the evening breeze. Mrs. Solinski glares at him through her kitchen window and holds up her one year old granddaughter. Bucky winces and goes outside to mow her lawn for her. Dusk is falling, but his eyesight is excellent and he gets the whole thing done before night is fully fallen.

Summer’s fully here now, anyway. The night is warm and humid.

+++

(part ii)

+++

He calls Nat. “I have a problem,” he says in a rush to her. “I should have just slept with him. Instead we talked. For hours. In a grocery store, for god’s sake. Doesn’t get less sexy than that. And now a teashop. It’s like we’re dating, in some freaky June and Ward Cleaver kind of way. We might as well be going to church every Sunday.”

Natasha murmurs, “I told you this would happen when you moved into a house with a dog and white picket fence,” and “Have you been watching “Leave It To Beaver,” James?”

“He’s a service dachshund,” Bucky snaps. “It was on TV Land. A lot.” He doesn’t have any defense against the fence.

She says something under her breath that sounds a lot like, “Why do I have to be the one to deal with you assholes?”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Because you made the mistake of sleeping with me, and now the disaster of my nonexistent love life is your disaster too.”

“I regret ever reminding you about that.” She snorts incredulously. “Of all the things for you to hang onto. Why did I get stuck with you?”

“Nat, Natasha mine, you are the jewel in my heart, the diamond of my eyes, the light of my life. The memory of all other women pales when compared to you. I would never dishonor the shrine of your memory by forgetting you.”

“Except for all the times you did.” Her voice is uninflected.

“Except for all of those,” Bucky agrees. “Can we talk about Steve again? What am I going to do?”

For the first time, Natasha’s voice gentles. “Have you considered that he might be the one who’s right about this?”

Bucky leans back against his couch. He’s sitting on the floor in front of it. “What?”

“Perhaps there’s a reason he doesn’t want to get involved.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything. He runs his fingers through the weave of the carpet and then smoothes it back out.

She says, “Are you ready for this? Emotionally, mentally? I know what you were like when you left New York. Maybe Steve recognizes that and is trying to do the right thing by you.”

“What, by coddling me? By treating me like I don’t know my own mind?” Part of him notes curiously that he’s gone very still, his voice low and flat, where usually he’s vocal and demonstrative when he gets upset. Maximilian curls up by his side.

“Yes,” she agrees tersely.

“Fuck that, Nat. You don’t get to control my life just because we slept together.”

“Oh piss off, Barnes. You know as well as I do that has nothing to do with it. But go ahead and believe what you want. You seem to be pretty good at that these days.”

Bucky strokes long sweeps down Maximilian’s back to ground himself. “I know I’m fucked up. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize a good thing when I see it.”

She sighs. “It’s not wrong.” There’s a long pause. “I’m just not sure you really do recognize it.”

+++

He wakes up with slat red-crusted eyes the next morning from dreams he doesn’t remember. His voice is hoarse. He rinses off, not bothering with soap, and throws on a pair of jeans. It’s Wednesday morning, which means Steve is opening the teashop at 6:00 am, and that is something to hold onto, something he can mark time with.

He decides a cup of tea is exactly what he needs this morning because letting Steve hand him a cup to sip slowly makes the tightness in his chest ease for just a moment, the same as, even now, when he jogs by on the weekend something wound close in Bucky relaxes. Inside Infusions, he usually stays at the little bar right at the front until he can’t take the exposure any longer and moves over to a corner table with straight sight lines.

The plan goes something like this: He’ll ask Steve to take an early break and step out back behind the shop, just five minutes if the place is busy as it so often is the mornings he opens, and he’ll say, “Don’t get me wrong,” as he steps into his space. His heart will be pounding. Nerves will jitterbug in his belly as he says, “Look, we have a great time together, right? So I’m sorry if I’m about to read this wrong. But this is so overdue,” and he’ll close that damn gap between Steve’s mouth and his. When Steve kisses him back, he’ll blurt out something embarrassing like, “Oh thank god, I thought I might just be that freaky guy who you can’t get rid of at 2:00 am in weird public spaces.”

What actually happens is this: “Hey, Bucky,” Steve says. His smile this morning is as bright as ever but seems a little worn around the edges. “I’m glad you stopped in this morning. I’m headed out soon, actually. I’ve got to make a quick trip to New York this afternoon.”

Bucky cocks his head. His fingers briefly dig into his thigh before he forces them to straighten back out. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Just, uh, a friend called last night. She asked if I’d swing by.”

“Oh.”

“She sounded a bit upset, so I thought I’d better go see what’s up.”

“Sure,” Bucky tells him. He’s not sure why he feels like Steve is understating the matter. Something about the tension he’s carrying in the veins of his neck. “Need a lift to the airport?”

Steve shakes his head. “I’m good. But thanks.”

Bucky ends up leaving the teashop this morning before he gets twitchy at the bar and moves to his table. Someone else claims it anyway.

+++

When Bucky first moved to Havensport, the local VA tried to set him up with a job. In-house security at the Bank of America, even though the bank already seemed very well-staffed with security. The bank was on Destiny Avenue in the next town over, the big town where people go to shop for things they can’t get in Havensport. The bank was next to Home Depot and Wendy’s. Bucky didn’t mind the twenty-five minute drive or the monotony of the day. He was good at staying focused on a task at hand until it was completed, even if, annoyingly, the task of security was never one that was going to be completed. He even liked the fact that he barely had to interact with any customers and was basically invisible.

His hands shook every night when he left, though. They shook with relief that that day hadn’t been the day he had to actually deal with a security threat, real or imagined, a robber or a customer in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“That’s all it would take, you know,” he would tell Maximilian as he sat on the floor with him and fed him cereal. “One little thing wrong, and I could slip. I could take out everyone in the place before I knew what I was doing. Before I realized that I was in Indiana, America, and not Afghanistan. What the hell were they thinking, putting a guy like me into that kind of situation? Do they want me to mess up? Someone in the VA really knows what they’re doing.” He snorts and lets his hand fall to the kitchen floor with a dull thud. Maximilian pushes at it with his nose, licking the sweetness from the raisin bran flakes off his fingers.

The VA had been strange, actually. The people working there hadn’t seemed to be belong in the middle of Indiana, like they were misplaced out of a Washington bureaucracy. Maybe they were. One of the other vets who’d been there filling out forms said that the center had only recently opened. “’Bout time,” the other man had said. “I don’t remember my last center having so much security around. But if they get me some better housing than the shithole I’m in now, I’ll play whatever game they want me to.”

When Bucky puts in his notice at the bank after three weeks, he tells the branch manager that he was looking for something more project-based, with task completion as a quantifiable metric. “Thanks for the opportunity,” he tells her, shaking her hand. “I hope you’ll give a chance to another vet even though I didn’t work out.” He doesn’t want to ruin someone else’s chances by scaring the shit out of her, after all.

It’s Mrs. McNearney who gives him the idea of working in a car shop. “Something to do with those strong, young hands. Can’t sit around on them forever while time wastes,” she says, patting the back of his left hand. “Now, would you like some sugar in your tea? I think you would.”

She tells him to go into Sottosanti’s Car Repair the next morning, that Giovanni is a fair man and the pay won’t be great but it will keep him busy.

“Ma’am,” he says, bewildered.

“Nonsense,” she responds briskly. “You fixed my car, didn’t you? You walked up to a strange old woman who you saw struggling with her car and pushed me and my car back to my house – a whole block! – and took my husband’s old tools and set everything to rights, didn’t you? Right in my driveway! That’s good enough for me and I’ll wager it will be for Giovanni as well. Now the next time you come see me, I’ll make you my crumb cake. Best in show twenty-three years running at the county fair.” She sniffs, brows raised. “Except for back in 1998, when Tracey Smithers cheated with her peach cobbler.”

Mrs. McNearney smiles at Bucky. “Don’t worry, dear, she doesn’t participate any longer.”

+++

Steve isn’t back by the weekend. Bucky abruptly decides that someone needs to mark the passing week. Summer is already flying by; he can’t lose the weekend, a whole week. He puts on his sneakers at 7:28 Sunday morning and jogs out of his house at 7:30.

+++

He runs down the street. In his ear, he hears the voice of a drill sergeant from basic. His own training, or maybe it came from a movie. “Pace yourself, you’re going to be running a long time,” Bigsby had yelled after them every morning. “If you stumble, pick yourself back up. If you fall, then you will find your feet again. If you can’t find your feet, then you will goddamn crawl until I say you will not.”

Bucky remembers the weariness of his body. He remembers the smell of men sweating around him, the pounding of his heart in his eardrums as he run. He remembers his knees aching and his shins burning and his quads turning to jelly even as he pushed on. These things are all sensations that course through him, rather than images he can focus on. Those – those are all gone.

+++

When he leaves his house on Sunday, he braces himself for all of these things. He promises himself he only has to jog for five miles this first time, even though surely when he was in the army he could have done fifteen with a heavy pack on his back.

Maximilian wags his tail at him when he puts his sneakers on, expecting a walk. “Sorry, boy. Not this time.” The dog’s inability to understand makes Bucky feel guilty. Maximilian is so excited at the prospect of a walk that his whole body is wagging along with his tail, his little butt dancing back and forth. Bucky groans. “When I get back. Promise.”

He jogs the first mile, finding his rhythm. He expects his legs to start feeling it by mile two. When that doesn’t happen, he picks up the pace. By the time he hits four, he’s feeling great. His breath is steady and his body feels alive, like it’s doing something it was meant to do all along. He blows past his five mile point and keeps going. He does a circuit through the town and out to the cornfields that take over once the speed limit signs go from 30 to 55. The corn is higher than his knees. Insects buzz past his ears, and black birds perch on power lines. Here and there great leafy trees line the roadside and throw shade over him as he runs below them. The temperature keeps climbing with the sun.

At some point, it occurs to him to turn around. He’s been running for hours; endorphins are zinging through his body, keeping him going fast, but he reckons they’ve got to spin themselves out at some point and he’d better be prepared for the crash – or at least near to his house when it happens. When he finally gets back to his place, the sun is past its zenith in the sky and he’s pretty sure his sugar is bottomed out. He feels like he did right after he got back to the States and out of the hospital, back when he didn’t remember to eat unless he set a timer. He goes inside, grabs Maximilian’s leash, and walks him around the block while his limbs shake and nausea rides his stomach.

“Hey, neighbor,” Charlie calls out from across the street when Bucky loops back around the block with the dog. Maximilian is leading the way, trying to tug Bucky along as black spots dance in front of his eyes.

Bucky waves vaguely in his direction.

“You’re not looking so good,” Charlie tells him. “You’re not catching a summer cold already, are you?”

“Don’t think so,” Bucky mumbles without stopping. “Nice seeing you, catch you later.”

Inside, he drops Maximilian’s leash, grabs the carton of orange juice from the fridge, and gulps it down straight out of the container. The cold kitchen floor is soothing against his cheek. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

He comes back to himself with Maximilian’s snout pushing against his ear as the dog whimpers. It takes a lot of effort to reach up and pet him. The shadows are stretching across the room. It’s got to be at least three in the afternoon. “Well, that didn’t go like I remember it going. I guess I forgot to stop,” he says.

Maximilian barks at him. “You’re right,” Bucky agrees with him. “I don’t remember how it’s supposed to go. Haven’t been running in a long time just for the hell of it.” He stretches over to the fridge and grabs the peanut butter. It’s the natural kind that separates. He swirls the oil back into it with his finger and then sucks a gob into his mouth. “You deserve a reward,” he tells Maximilian. “Have you been sitting here all this time? You’re such a good boy.” He gives him a finger full of peanut butter too.

+++

Bucky doesn’t really want to go to the teashop until he’s sure Steve is back. He tried it once, just to see if he was around. The shop wasn’t the same without him there. He goes to the grocery store instead.

When he falls asleep after coming home later, he dreams of snow falling gently from the sky. Big, puffy flakes that land on his nose. He is a child, and he’s just gotten off the train with his family. They’ve gone upstate to cut down a tree for Christmas, a rare treat, and it makes sense the way dreams make sense, knowing it’s the middle of summer, knowing that he can’t take a spruce back on the train to New York but accepting that the tree will end up in his family’s apartment anyway.

His friend runs ahead. His cap falls off his head as he spins around and laughs. “Look, Bucky, have you ever seen anything like it?”

Bucky picks up the knit hat – a Christmas present from last year, he remembers – and yells, “Wait for me!” The snow is falling thicker and faster, and he plunges ahead, following the other boy. The trees grow closer and closer together. The cold presses down on him. His teeth chatter as the sun dips behind the forest line. The temperature begins to fall. It falls and falls, and the air is blue with enveloping cold.

There are lights ahead, lights in a small village, lights burning from the windows of a church. Women with the heads bound in kerchiefs watch him as he passes, their children tucked behind their skirts. He pushes open the door of the church. A priest in black garb greets him and says, “Like children, legends must be born in their motherland.” He can see his breath in the dark church, lit by candles.

He wakes up with a gasp, covered in a cold sweat. His teeth chatter in the hot July night.

+++

Steve standing in front of the Lucky Charms, his hands shoved in his pockets, his shoulders hunched over.

At the sight of him, something eager flutters low in Bucky’s belly. He must make some sort of sound because Steve glances up, and he exclaims, “Bucky,” as a grin splits his face.

He’s shaved. His face is smooth. Without the beard, it’s both more boyish and yet harder at the same time. Bucky’s torn between wishing he’d gotten to run his fingers through that soft scruff and wanting, right now, to learn the shape of Steve’s face. To press his nose into his skin and inhale him, to bite the sharp edge of that jaw. He feels breathless, as though Steve has somehow managed to steal all the air away from him.

+++

Bucky buries his own hands in his pockets to keep from reaching out to him. “Hey, stranger,” he says lightly.

Steve grimaces. Something like a flash of anger sweeps across his face – it’s cloaked but Bucky reads it in the clench of his jaw, in the slight flare of his nostrils – and then is overtaken by weariness. “Sorry about that.”

Bucky looks at him askance. “Why are you apologizing?” he asks, even though part of him is soaking it in. Because Steve should be sorry. Not for being away, but for making Bucky miss him. This is irrational, Bucky knows. That knowledge doesn’t make the feeling go away.

“I didn’t think I was going to be gone so long. I don’t have your number.”

It’s never occurred to Bucky to give it to him. He forgets that he’s supposed to be attached at the palm to his cell phone.

“I would have told you if I’d realized I wasn’t going to be around this weekend. I hope you and Maximilian didn’t wait too long for me in the mornings.”

Bucky thinks about denying it, shrugging it off with a “nah,” but he can’t quite bring himself to. Instead he says, “I went jogging myself instead.” He doesn’t bother telling Steve how natural it had felt, right up until the moment he realized that running probably wasn’t supposed to be that easy and he’d crashed.

That makes Steve’s eyes go bright with excitement. His grin returns. “So that means you’re going to be joining me from now on, then, right?”

“Shit. If I’d known me telling you was going to get me roped into your craziness, I’d’ve kept my mouth shut,” but Bucky’s laughing as he says this. “If you didn’t mean to be away so long, what happened to you?”

“I wasn’t planning on it. You know that right? I would have told you, Buck.” Steve rubs a hand over his newly bare face. Bucky bites back a small, pained noise at the sight.

Steve sighs. “You know how friends can get under your skin like no one else? Close friends, I mean. They can annoy the shit out of you.”

“The friend who asked you to go to the city in the first place,” Bucky guesses. “She was upset about something.”

“Yeah. She thinks – there’s something she wants me to keep my distance from.” He looks down. “I don’t think I can.”

“Did you calm her down?”

Steve laughs ruefully. “She’s very opinionated,” he says, which is not an answer.

Raising his eyebrows, Bucky says, “And you’re not.”

Steve jerks his chin in amused acknowledgement. “You know how it is. When you’re away from a place, people tend to leave you alone unless they really need you. But when you show up, all of a sudden your friends have all these things to do with you. Things you could help out with.”

Bucky doesn’t really know how it is. His men were his friends, and they were blown to bits by an IED on a roadside in Afghanistan.

Some of this must show on his face, because Steve looks away and says, “Anyway. I got caught.” One of the florescent lights overhead flickers. “I mis – it’s good to be back here.”

+++

He wants to kiss the flat of his belly. He wants to feel through soft fabric the hard heavy bulge of him against the side of his cheek, to breathe in the tangy musk of his skin and know the crinkle of his hair against his nose.

Bucky slides into his couch and imagines himself sliding down on his knees in front of Steve.

+++

“Come hiking with me this weekend,” Steve says. “I was thinking about driving down to the state park or up to the one of the reservoirs. Day trip. You seem like a guy who’s not afraid of a bit of time outside.”

Bucky can tell from the way Steve’s eyes go wide and blue right after the words pop out of his mouth that he hadn’t fully thought the invitation through before he said it. Bucky takes a sharp breath in and without giving Steve time to regret it, he says, “Sounds great.” He pauses. “Wait. Does this mean you won’t be jogging by my house this weekend?”

Steve shakes his head but promises, as if he can see how unsettling this idea is, “I’ll be at your house at 7:30.”

When Bucky leaves the coffee shop to head to work, he rearranges his appointment that had been scheduled for Saturday. The call goes something like this:

“Really? What could be more important than me? I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

Bucky pinches the bridge of his nose. “I can’t come to New York this weekend. Pick any day next week and I’ll be there.”

“Whatever.” The line goes dead. But there’s already a text waiting for him. It reads, “Wednesday, 11:00 am. I demand Mrs. McNearney’s crumb cake in tribute. Yes, I know about that. I need something to lord over Romanoff.”

+++

Butterflies flit around Bucky’s stomach. This will be the first time he and Steve have done something together that’s been planned in advance. Almost like a date. It could be a date. Except that it’s not. Except that Steve looked like he regretted inviting Bucky along as soon as he’d asked. They’re just two guys going hiking, that’s all.

“If you think all the other things you do with Steve aren’t also planned in advance these days, you’re even more delusional than I thought you were, Barnes.” Natasha’s voice is just over on the other side of scornful.

He hears Pepper in the background arguing with Natasha. “I think it’s cute. There’s something so magical about that flutter of wanting and not knowing. It’s the sweetest torment.”

“It always ends, and usually ends badly,” Natasha says, although which one of them she’s speaking to Bucky’s not sure.

“Oh hush. Let them have this. Let them enjoy it. How many times do you get to fall in love?”

“Twice, at least,” Natasha murmurs, so quietly Bucky thinks he’s not supposed to hear, except that Natasha never does anything unawares or without motive and she was the one who pointed out his unusual hearing back in the hospital.

“You didn’t notice,” she’d stated. Her eyes were narrowed, as though she couldn’t believe he wouldn’t notice this.

“It’s not exactly like I have a great frame of reference,” Bucky had pointed out sharply.

She’d glanced up at the monitors on the wall and not said anything. Finally, later, when she’d gotten up to leave his room, she’d mouthed at him across the room, “Just think about what else you might not be noticing.” He read her lips perfectly.

Bucky had spent the rest of the night with a splitting pain in his head, and he didn’t think about anything at all.

On the phone now, Bucky complains, “You guys are talking like there’s something going on here. I don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes Steve – ”

“—looks at you like he wants to devour you – ”

“—and sometimes he literally backs away from me. It feels like walking a tightrope. Six months ago even the thought of wanting this kind of thing woulda seemed unreal, and now look.”

The line is silent except for background noises.

“Natasha?” Bucky says when she doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t know, James,” she tells him. “I promised I wouldn’t lie to you if I could help it.”

Bucky laughs unhappily. “So we’d better end this call, then.”

“Bye, Bucky,” Pepper calls out before Natasha disconnects the call.

+++

Natasha was the one who introduced Bucky to Pepper. She’d helped him buy his house.

He’d apologized. “I’m sure you have better things to be doing.”

Pepper smelled clean, like kind, fresh things. “No,” she’d said simply. “I don’t.”

She’d said, “You have a lot of people telling you not to do this. Not because of the money – you’ve got plenty in the bank and you’ll have your pension. But because moving to small town America with its white picket fences and Main Streets is a pretty big change for a guy from Brooklyn.”

“You mean a newly discharged vet from Brooklyn, not so far out of the hospital. In particular, one who can’t remember anything that happened before waking up in a hospital. Pepper, I might never remember.”

“Some would be worried that you’d be building a life that wouldn’t be what you really wanted, not if you knew yourself better.”

“Some? What about you?”

She’d smiled. “Is it what you want now?”

“Yes,” Bucky had told her. “It’s what I want.”

“Okay then. Sometimes now is all you’ve got. You’re going to hold onto it for as long as you can grab it, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Not until you want to hear different.”

+++

Steve picks him up at 7:30 am on Saturday, as promised. He’s got coffee waiting in the car. “Oh bless you,” Bucky says and makes a grab for it.

Steve laughs. “Least I could do for dragging you out so early. Gotta get moving before it gets too hot. Figured without some caffeine in you, you might not be quite human yet. I remember– ” Steve suddenly cuts himself off.

Bucky watches his fingers flex around the steering wheel. His own fingers are warm around the travel mug. “Yeah, it takes me until the third cup to really pull it together. I’m usually at work by that point.”

They pass by rows of corn and low green squiggly lines of melons. The late July sun shines brighter and burns the dew off the fields. As they get closer to the state park, the trees grow bigger and begin to cast dappled shadows over the car. Bucky leans his head back against the headrest on his seat and stares out the window. He can see for miles through the trees. Everything is incredibly sharp to his eyes, and he is alert to it all. He thinks about Natasha in the hospital, pushing him about his hearing, and a wave of nausea washes over him. He gathers up those thoughts, presses them into a little ball, and decides to throw them away from himself, from Steve, from this day. “Mind if I roll down the windows?”

Steve shakes his head. He’s humming along with the radio, some song Bucky doesn’t know, off-key.

Bucky smiles and thrusts his hand out into the air rushing past them. He spreads his fingers wide.

+++

They’ve been hiking for a few hours when Steve tosses him a bar of something vaguely edible. “I know, almost as bad as k-rations,” he says, chuckling at Bucky’s wrinkled nose, “but we’re burning through a lot of calories and this is a full day’s hike. I packed lunch for later.”

They’d had an argument about who was carrying the backpack when they got out of the car. “Jeez,” Bucky had groaned. “I didn’t know I was supposed to bring something. I’m such a schmuck. Wait,” he said suspiciously, “just how long a walk are we going on?”

Bucky munches the protein bar as he tromps onward. He stuffs the silver wrapper in his pocket and says, “Thanks, Steve. This is nice.” Steve turns back, sideways to look at him – the trail isn’t wide enough for both of them to walk side by side – and Bucky waits until Steve opens his mouth to say something sincere back before he interrupts.

“Race you,” he challenges with a grin, and he pauses just long enough to see Steve’s mouth drop open and to wink at him before taking off.

“You’re such a jerk,” Steve yells after him, and then all Bucky hears is the sound of his own feet scrambling on the dry, brown earth and Steve’s feet pounding after him.

+++

Miles fly by underneath his feet. Steve’s never more than a few paces behind him, no matter how fast he runs. And he does run faster with each passing mile, pushes himself harder as adrenalin pushes through his body and makes him feel like he can do this forever.

They pass a startled trio of hikers, ducking off the path in order to avoid colliding with them, and Steve calls out a hello that’s almost immediately left behind. A cluster a small birds flies out of a tangled patch of wild berries when Bucky brushes past. The thorns snag his pants but don’t slow him down.

It seems like only a short time later when he feels Steve’s hand reach for and glance off the back of his sweat-soaked shirt as he makes a grab for him, but the sun is high in the sky now and it’s been longer than it seems. Bucky laughs breathlessly. “That the best you can do?” he tosses over his shoulder.

“Them’s fightin’ words, Barnes,” Steve shoots back. He’s nipping at Bucky’s heels, and Bucky thinks he might get tackled at any second.

He laughs again. The day’s heat feels glorious on his skin and the forest soaks up the sun, rustling with life as he and Steve crash through it. “Can’t walk away from a challenge, can you?” His words are punctuated by gasping breaths – he doesn’t know how far they’ve run or how long, but it’s been more miles than he’s counted, leaping over fallen trees, scaling up boulders and back down, pushing through open patches of light and back into the shaded forest, Steve overtaking him, Bucky passing him again.

Bucky makes it to the next glade before Steve puts on a burst of speed and crashes into him, tackling his back and throwing him face-first to the ground. For a split second, Bucky tenses, his body reflexively ready to fight, and then he hits the grass, a sharp rock stabbing into his hip, and he lets himself be pushed by Steve’s heavy body into the ground. It takes the breath right out of him, a whoosh of air escaping his lips. His arms are spread wide on the earth and he turns his face to the side, his cheek on the cool earth, to avoid getting a mouthful of mossy ferns.

“Gotcha,” Steve tells him mildly, as though he isn’t pressed into Bucky’s back from head to toe, trying to catch his breath.

“Oof,” says Bucky.

Steve says, “Oops,” unrepentantly, and throws off the backpack so he can roll off Bucky onto his back. Bucky looks at him out of the corner of his eye, lets his face rest on the ground a moment longer while he thinks about how good, how right, it felt to have Steve lying on him like that, and then he rolls over too.

“God, I was made to do that, I think,” he says. “That was great.”

Steve takes in a deep breath. Then he turns his head so that he’s looking at Bucky. “I can’t believe you sat on your porch all this time while I jogged by without joining me. That’s it, James Barnes. No getting out of it now.” His eyes are a bright, lively blue. They are so much brighter now than when Bucky met him under those dull fluorescent lights in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.

“What can I say? I’ve got stamina,” Bucky says, he winks at Steve and Steve rolls his eyes.

He wonders what would happen if he just leaned in and closed the small distance between their faces. Steve’s face is flushed with exertion. Even his lips are rosy. They look like something Bucky wants to taste, to draw between his own lips and worry at gently.

Steve’s smiling at him, and Bucky feels his heart pounding in a way that has nothing to do with the miles they’ve run. For a moment, he almost thinks that Steve’s going to reach out, maybe cup the back of his neck and draw him closer, but then Steve’s body shifts away and Bucky blinks into the sun. A bee hums nearby. It seems very loud.

“Choice of ham and cheese, turkey, or peanut butter and jelly.” Steve’s rummaging through the backpack. He tosses a bottle of water to Bucky.

+++

Bucky tucks his second sandwich baggie back into the backpack. They lie on their backs and watch the clouds drift by. “What are you talking about,” Bucky complains, “that’s totally an old shoe.”

Steve nudges him with his foot. “It’s a turtle, Buck. Don’t you see design on its back?”

“Those are shoelaces,” Bucky insists, simply to be contrary.

“Just for that, you’re carrying the bag all the way back to the car later,” Steve tells him, shoving the backpack in Bucky’s direction. Bucky pushes it behind his head and turns his head on the green grass to watch Steve as he stares up at the bright sky. There’s a dandelion next to Bucky’s nose.

Steve says, quietly, “I’ve failed a lot of people in my life. But I mostly think about one of them, one of the many I couldn’t save. Not all the rest. Is that wrong? Shouldn’t I be haunted by all of them?”

Bucky makes an unconvinced noise. “I think that makes you human, not a bad person.” Far above them, a plane trails a white plume across the sky. The sound of it hums along behind it. “I don’t remember all the people I must have let down. And that’s not what bothers me. Sometimes, in my dreams or even when I close my eyes and just sit still, I feel these hot bursts of – I don’t know – not success, but of completion. Like I carried out my mission and that’s satisfying. But I can’t remember what the missions were. So I have to trust that I was doing the right thing. That they were good missions.” He shivers in the sticky midday air.

Steve props himself up on his elbow and looks at him. His eyes seem old, set deep into their sockets as Bucky squints into the sun to look up at his face. It’s quiet. The only things around them are chirping birds and a squirrel that skitters up a tree. The ground is firm beneath Bucky’s hand. He flexes it against it, digging in slightly.

“It seems like there’s no one else in the world but us,” Bucky says quietly. “Like the world doesn’t exist outside of this patch of grass and sunlight.”

Steve’s exhalation is almost a shudder. “And here we are, hanging suspended in it, like time is frozen.”

“Steve,” Bucky says. His heart feels impossibly big, like it’s going to explode right out of him. “Time never freezes, even when we lose track of it.” This is one lesson he feels like he’s known forever. It’s why he has to make sure he marks time, marks the passing of it.

“I know. I know the world is waiting out there.” Steve’s smile is lopsided. “How ‘bout we keep it waiting just a while longer.”

+++

The hot, shuddery feeling that Bucky carries around in his belly doesn’t mean that he sleeps any better at night. It doesn’t mean that when Maximilian noses at him and climbs into his lap like the bossy little thing that he is, Bucky doesn’t wrap his arm around him and let the steadiness of the dog’s heartbeat soothe him. It doesn’t mean Bucky suddenly reverts to the outgoing, engaging guy he might have been before he went into the service and learned the shape of foreign mountains and the harshness of a cold wind in his throat.

If anything, it makes him wonder if he’s going even more nuts than he knows he already is. He’s thirty-one, for god’s sake. He doesn’t remember feeling like this when he was younger. “I mean, half the time, I almost feel like I’m gonna puke from the butterflies fucking up my gut. Half the time I feel good, like I want to walk around smiling stupidly at shit. The rest of the time, I’m just horny.”

“I like your math,” Natasha tells him. “Don’t you have any friends in Indiana you can make crazy with this?”

“Nat, I’m pouring out my heart to you and you mock my pain. I’m too fucking old for a crush like this.” Bucky’s standing at his kitchen counter eating sugared raisins out of Maximilian’s cereal. The dog is looking at him with big brown eyes. “Knock it off,” he tells him, even as he drops a flake for him.

“What does that even mean?” Natasha says. “Look, kukla, you don’t ever get over falling in love, no matter what age you are.”

“Jesus, don’t say that. I’m not falling in love. I like the guy. A lot. He’s hot, he’s an insomniac like me, he’s a vet so he’s cool with all the crap I’m dragging around behind me.” Bucky pauses while he takes a moment to pet Maximilian. “But I don’t know anything about love. Do you?”

There’s a silence on the line. “I’ve been in love,” she says finally. “The man who trained me. Love is – I think love is about knowing someone and being known. You don’t need both to fall in love, but you do for it to last.” Her voice is flat. “He knew me because he made me. But. I didn’t know him, so it couldn’t last. It didn’t.”

“That guy sounds like an asshole,” Bucky tells her after he finishes being stunned. It strikes him how many secrets they all carry around with them. “But you just proved my point. I can’t be falling for Steve – I barely even know him. He barely knows me. Hell, I barely know me.”

Her laugh is low. “Maybe you already know him better than you think. Or maybe it’s the other way around.”

“I thought you wanted me stay away from him,” says Bucky suspiciously.

“Don’t put words in my mouth.” Her voice turns sharp. “You were never going to stay away from him, not once you met him. I simply don’t want to see you end up in any worse a situation than you have to be in.”

“If I do, it won’t be because of Steve,” Bucky tells her. “I’m pretty sure it will be despite him.”

+++

Bucky’s back from New York and his Wednesday morning appointment on Friday. He saw Dr Pike while he was there. On Saturday morning, he sits with Maximilian on his front step, waiting for Steve to jog up. Bucky’s got his sneakers and running shorts on.

“Well?” Steve calls out from the street.

Bucky shakes his head ruefully and puts Maximilian inside. “I don’t know how you can be so obnoxiously cheerful while running at 7:30 in the morning,” he says as he trots over to him.

Steve laughs and wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulder, pulling him in for a quick side-hug. “Such a stormcloud,” he teases. He releases Bucky, more quickly than Bucky wants, and heads down the street at a steady jog.

“Dammit,” Bucky says, and he runs to catch up with him.

+++

On Sunday, Steve drags him to the town square after they finish their run. “I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t believe you haven’t checked out the farmer’s market yet,” he exclaims.

“Why shouldn’t you?” Bucky asks. He rarely pries, but it’s a curious remark.

Steve’s eyes dart away and back. “There’s always so many people there. Close quarters,” he says vaguely. “I know you don’t love that kind of thing. They have tomatoes like you wouldn’t believe, though.” The words tumble out in a rush. “Red all the way through and bursting with flavor.”

“You cook?” For some reason, this surprises Bucky. A stab of pain lances his ruined shoulder joint where the prosthetic joins his body; he lets Steve change the topic from why Bucky shouldn’t go to the market to the tomatoes without further comment.

Steve looks sheepish. “Not exactly. I’m pretty good at things that come out of boxes, though. And I can slice the hell out of a tomato for roast beef sandwiches.”

Bucky shakes his head in mock dismay. “I’ll make you a deal. If these tomatoes are as good as you say they are, I’ll make my Auntie Lucia’s red sauce for you. I feel like I haven’t been able to find a tomato that’s not white in the middle since I got back to the States.” He suddenly realizes that he’s a few steps ahead of Steve. Turning, he sees Steve blink away a distant expression.

Steve catches up to him. “Deal.” He holds out his hand to shake, and says, “If you ever need a taste tester, you’ve got a ready volunteer. What else did Auntie Lucia teach you to cook?”

His hand is warm against Bucky’s skin. “I don’t really know,” Bucky answers, forcing himself to let Steve’s hand go. He flexes his hand at his side against the phantom pressure lingering there. “I don’t really remember her. Just some tastes and smells that flash through me and make me sure she did exist at some point. I think maybe she wasn’t really my aunt. A neighbor? Someone who used to watch me and my sisters when my mom was out. Sometimes I’ll cook something Italian and suddenly think I must know how to make it because of her. Since I’m Irish through and through.”

The grass of the town square is soft under Bucky’s shoes. People greet Steve, calling out “Hey there, Cap,” and “Captain Rogers, good to see you, we’ve got some real nice produce in today, fresh from the fields this morning.” One or two say hi to him as well, customers from the shop mostly who see him there a lot, and Mrs. Higgins who lives across from Bucky says hello to both of them. Bucky makes sure he smiles back politely. He laughs at Steve’s game face. Steve’s trying to hide it, but he doesn’t know half of the people calling out their hellos. Despite that, he waves back to all of them.

“Either the teashop sees a lot of people or you’re even more famous than I thought. They all seem to know you,” Bucky remarks. Steve’s uncomfortable with it; there’s a line of tension riding high in his shoulders.

“What?” Steve says. “Oh. Well. Everyone comes through. And, well, the other too. He spots a table laden with bright red tomatoes. “I bet Auntie Lucia had blueish grey hair,” Steve says.

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure. It would be like a puffy cloud around her head, pulled back in a bun at the base of her neck. She probably wore a black dress and carried around a wooden spoon to whack the back of your hand if you tried to snitch something from her kitchen. She probably gave big, soft hugs. I can see her now.”

Bucky shakes his head. He can practically feel the ache in his hand from the phantom wooden spoon Steve’s conjured up. “Sounds like you’ve had an Italian aunt or two yourself.”

Steve smiles and weighs a tomato in his palm. It looks ready to burst. “How many do you need?”

+++

Bucky’s exhausted when they get back to his house. Not from the run – they jogged for two hours and now Bucky mostly just feels loose and easy – or from carrying back five pounds of tomatoes, a peck of peaches, a bunch of carrots with their tops still on, and a dozen eggs.

Steve was right. There were a lot of people at the market, and most of them seemed to know Steve and want to talk to him. “Just call me Steve,” he’d said more than a few times, cutting people off when they’d started to greet him as “Captain.” Once inside, Bucky gratefully bends down to say hello to Maximilian. Steve watches him from the doorway. “I’ll get out of your hair,” he tells him. “Thanks for taking a chance on the farmer’s market. See you Tuesday morning when I open the teashop?”

For a second before he leaves, Bucky thinks Steve is going to reach out for him. But his hands settle back on the frame of the screen door and push it open without touching Bucky.

+++

Andy Bancroft brings his 1939 Ford Deluxe Coupe by Mr. Sottosanti’s. Bucky wipes his hands down on a rag and whistles when he sees it. “Haven’t laid my eyes on one of these in a month of Sundays,” he says. He steps out into the sun and shields his eyes. “She’s a beauty.”

“My pride and joy.” Andy watches Bucky. He greets Mr. Sottosanti, who’s come out of the shop with Jake, and tells Bucky to “go ahead. I see you salivating over her.”

Bucky runs his hands over the hood of the car. “Any reason you’re bringing it by?”

“I don’t trust my baby with just anyone. No offense, gentlemen.” He nods to Mr. Sottosanti and Jake.

Jake laughs. “Hell, Andy, I wouldn’t trust myself. None taken.”

“I usually do the work myself or haul her to Cincinnati or even Chicago if I get stuck. But I’ve been hearing good things about your work, Bucky. Heard that the older the machine is, the handier you are. Even though this girl was born about forty-five years before you were.” He chuckles.

Bucky glances at his boss. “I’d love to see what I can do, but it’ll take time. Don’t want to get it wrong.”

Mr. Sottosanti waves him off. “Sure, sure. Andy, I’m afraid we’ve lost him to it.”

Bucky spends the next week inside the car. He tinkers and takes pieces apart, and lets the puzzle of the old car and the sound of metal clanging on metal soothe him. At some point, he must have seen one of these at a car show or a parade, maybe even gotten into the guts of one. The car is easy and familiar underneath his hands.

+++

Steve serves him a strong, spicy black tea with three spoons of sugar on Tuesday morning, and Bucky tells him to come over Wednesday evening for pasta with Auntie Lucia’s red sauce and meatballs. Steve looks like he’s having a religious experience on his first bite, and Bucky does have to admit that the sauce is robust in a way that he hasn’t been able to manage with any of the tomatoes from the store. He wants to lick the speck of sauce off the corner of Steve’s mouth.

They sit on the floor under florescent grocery lighting in the very early hours of Friday morning, while Steve talks about how it felt when he got out of the service – “I never meant to. I don’t think I ever thought I’d be coming home. I did, though, and everything was different than it was supposed to be.” Bucky can relate to that feeling.

“It was such a slap in the face. Betrayal.” He stops talking. His jaw sets. A look of fury sweeps over his face so quickly that had Bucky not been staring right at him, he’d have missed it. “Jesus, I’m no better – ” He swallows. “I gotta go.”

Bucky looks at him, holding his face carefully expressionless.

After a minute, Steve sighs. He smiles wanly. “See you tomorrow morning?”

Bucky relaxes and nods. He wonders if he would be able to fall asleep if he just leaned his head down on Steve’s shoulder. He’s pretty sure he’d be able to, especially if he could rest his hand over the solid, steady tick of Steve’s heart. He swallows hard against how badly he wants to do this.

Bucky cooks Steve bacon and eggs after they finish their Saturday jog, and Steve tells him that he’s got the closing shift at the teashop that night. “Took it for Kayla.”

“Maybe I’ll swing by,” Bucky says, and he does. He sits at his table and drinks green tea with honey and reads his book of short stories and tries not to stare too much at Steve as he takes care of the shop.

When Steve glances over at him, the corners of his eyes crinkle with his smile. Bucky sighs and forces himself to concentrate on Chekov.

+++

Sometimes Steve rests his hand at the base of Bucky’s spine, large and heavy. He does it to usher Bucky forward, to point him in the direction he wants, and probably not to fuck with Bucky’s head.

Bucky shoves his boxers gracelessly down his thighs and jacks himself off to the thought of those warm hands on his skin. He licks his own hand and fists his dick, swiping his thumb over the head. He comes on his own stomach with a cry, something that sounds a lot like Steve’s name.

+++

They check out together at the grocery store on Tuesday night. Cindy’s reading one of the tabloids she likes from the display. She taps her finger on the page she’s got open and sighs. “Look at this. Another celebrity love implosion. Beat out the Avengers’ latest exploits for front page even. These magazines are so nasty about it, too.”

“You don’t have to read it,” Bucky points out.

The noise she makes is scornful. “That is a very annoying thing to say. You sound like my kid.”

Beside him, Steve tries to muffle his snort.

“What else am I supposed to do here all night? Except sneak into the manager’s office and watch you two on the security cam.”

Bucky looks at Steve. Steve looks right back. His eyes are wide. Bucky supposes his own are the same. “What?” they say in tandem.

Cindy’s laughing at them. “Oh, boys. I couldn’t resist.”

She glances back down at the picture on the tabloid. From upside down, all Bucky can make out is that it’s some pretty blonde woman shrieking something. “I think that what we really all want, that all we really want, is to believe that we’ve changed somebody. That we mattered enough to have been able to do that. And if we can’t actually do it, maybe we’ll tell ourselves lies enough so that we think we did.” She twists the wedding band on her finger.

“So the lies matter most in the end? That’s a pretty dim view of love.” Bucky tries to chuckle. The sound dies in his throat and slinks backwards. It catches on something inside of him.

At his side, Bucky feels Steve shift. “It’s not love to try to change someone.” His words seem loud.

Cindy flips the tabloid shut. Under the florescent lighting, her face is lined and tired. She can’t be more than fifteen years older than Bucky at most. “You think we make things hard for ourselves. Harder than they need to be. Maybe, Cap.” She smiles wanly and shrugs. “Maybe for some people it can just be easy.”

“Maybe,” Steve echoes, and there is something sad around his mouth. Bucky looks at the slivered moon through the store’s front window.

+++

Bucky raises his eyebrows and stares at Steve over a table full of summer fruit, plums, peaches, nectarines, and heaps of corn. “You were one of those hipsters who used to go to the green market and buy half the place out, cart it back on the train, and then stare at it helplessly in your galley kitchen, weren’t you? No, no, I got it this week. You bought everything last time.” Bucky hadn’t had any cash on him last week. He purposefully brought some with him this go around.

“Don’t forget some plums,” the vendor says. She’s a freckled thing with brown hair and big brown eyes trying her best not to stare at them too obviously. Her eyes flicker down to Bucky’s covered prosthetic, as though she knows it’s there even though his hand is in his pocket, and back up to Steve’s face. Bucky’ll wager that’s her dad standing to her left and her brother to her right, each with customers of their own. “You can try them and see how sweet they are.” They’re the oblong dark purple prune-plums. Steve bites into one and holds it out to Bucky.

Bucky knows he shouldn’t, but he does – he takes a bite out of it right from Steve’s hand. His lips brush past Steve’s fingers. “Delicious,” he says, after he takes his time swallowing. “We’ll take ‘em.”

The girl’s eyes are wide. Bucky smiles at her the way he thinks he once did all the time, and she blushes and looks away.

“Bucky,” Steve says, sotto voce, and Bucky thinks that if Steve had known him before he would have scolded him constantly, and Bucky would have let him. He looks over at Steve. Steve’s face is flushed and his eyes are spread dark, all pupil, and even though Bucky knows it’s not for him, he lets himself pretend it is.

“I never went to any green markets when I lived in Brooklyn,” Steve tells him.

“Didn’t have any in your neighborhood?”

Steve’s eyes tighten. He’s squinting into the sun. “No. But when the fruit was in season, you could get it down at Hayworth’s nickel and dime.”

Bucky has a hard time looking away from him. His face is turned up into the light, his hair is streaked with gold, and in that instant he looks like everything real and good that Bucky knows. He can hardly bear to keep his hands off him. He wouldn’t even be trying to get off if he could touch Steve. He just wants to feel his skin, strong and tender and whole, against his own scars.

He clears his throat. “I need peaches to take to Mrs. McNearney.”

+++

The third weekend after Bucky starts jogging with Steve, Steve is late. It’s 7:32 am, Saturday morning, and he’s not here yet. On his front porch, Bucky paces and exhales, a long shudder. Maximilian whines at his feet and jumps up against his shins when he stops to bend over in a fold down his front. The little dog licks his nose. His coat glints red-gold in the morning sunshine.

Bucky looks at his watch and wonders why time has not stopped. Surely time must stop if the jogger – if Steve – doesn’t come by at his appointed time. This isn’t even about his compulsion to mark time by the unflagging footsteps of the jogger anymore. It’s that if Steve runs past his house, runs to his house on a Saturday morning, then the world must be okay.

He doesn’t watch the news. It only stresses him out, and several people have suggested that he stay away from it. He’s just fine with that. But he almost goes inside to turn on the radio and see what’s going on.

It’s absurd, he knows.

He sits down on his front step with Maximilian and stares down the block, as though he could conjure Steve up. It can only be a minute or two later when he spots Steve, all the way down the street, looking like he’s running, not jogging, to Bucky.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, breathing hard, as he stops short at the base of the steps. “I’m so sorry, Bucky. I know I’m late. I tried to get here as fast as I could. My – friends – were calling me from Washington.”

“Do you need to go?” Bucky asks. He realizes that he is trembling minutely.

Steve sits down next to him. Maximilian curls into him on one side; Steve presses up against him on the other. His thigh is warm beside Bucky’s. Bucky puts his hand on Steve’s knee. Slowly, as if he shouldn’t or doesn’t want to but can’t help it, Steve covers his hand with his own.

“No,” he says. “Not even if I had to save the world.” His smile turns down at the edges, pulling in on itself. His eyes are heavy.

+++

They don’t go jogging. It would be spoiled now. Bucky takes Steve into his backyard and shows him his little herb garden. The basil has grown like a weed, and the oregano’s not far behind. The parsley bolted and has small yellow buds at the top. He doesn’t mind. He’s decided he doesn’t like parsley. It makes his throat want to close up.

“The soldiers returning from the war brought back a taste for oregano and basil,” Steve says. He rubs some oregano between his fingers and brings them to his nose. “Except in pockets of places like New York – there, immigrants had brought it with them forty years earlier.”

“You mean World War II,” Bucky clarifies.

For an instant Steve seems startled. It passes quickly. “Yeah.”

“It smells like mountains to me,” says Bucky. “Like things growing between rocks and crevasses filled with snow.”

Steve shoots him an unreadable look and seems to shake off a shiver. “I think it grows in the Alps?” is all he says, though.

“Never been. I hear they’re pretty. Anyway, doesn’t oregano like warmer weather? It grows down by the Mediterranean where the water is deep and blue. I’m pretty sure it’s marjoram that grows up in the mountains.”

Steve is shooting him a slightly incredulous look. “Of all the things to rem – know.”

Bucky shrugs. “I read a lot of gardening magazines in the grocery store before I started hanging out with you. Can you imagine what it must have been like without having these flavors in food?”

“No,” Steve says, leaning back on his elbows and looking up at the sky. “But I bet Auntie Lucia’s red sauce would have been pretty bland.”

Bucky chuckles. “Heaven forbid.”

+++

He has an excess of tomatoes. They might have gone overboard at the market on Sunday. He makes sauce and walks it the four miles over to Mrs. McNearney’s house.

She exclaims with delight and sets about boiling water for pasta and grating cheese.

“It’s Steve’s fault I got so many,” he says. “Blame him.”

“Nonsense,” she tells him when he tries to help her. “The only thing I need you to do is get that bowl off the top shelf. It’s not often I need a dish of that size. Not since I stopped hosting Thanksgiving at my house.” She brushes a wisp of hair out of her face. “My children drag me off to one of their houses for the holidays now. Thanksgiving at Charlene’s, Christmas at Jeffery’s, Easter at cousin Amy’s.”

“You miss cooking for them.”

She raps her wooden spoon against the edge of the pot after stirring the rigatoni she’s just dumped in. “I miss them needing me to cook for them. They’re family, no matter how old they are, no matter how old I am. I’m never going to stop taking care of them.”

+++

The only thing that Steve can cook that doesn’t come from a jar or can or box mix is pot roast and potatoes. He tries to roast a chicken they bought at the market. The thighs are tough and the breast meat is raw, but Bucky chews through it and then tosses the carcass in a stock pot that Steve has for some reason and makes soup with it.

“This is going to take a few hours,” he warns.

“Classes start next week. I can’t believe we’re in August already. Where did summer go?” Steve looks so stressed that Bucky wants to smooth his fingers over his brow and wipe away the lines.

“It’s not over yet.” They’re still in the dog days of summer. Even the grass is wilting under the heat.

“I’ve got my first assignment,” says Steve. “Mind if I work on it?”

Bucky shakes his head and starts rummaging through Steve’s fridge. All their trips to the farmer’s market have paid off – he’s got carrots and celery and potatoes, as well as onions from the store. Bucky frowns. He’d like some herbs.

“Oh, my neighbor will have them. I’ll pop across the street and see if I can get a few. What do you want?”

When Steve returns, he sits at his kitchen table and sketches on a pad of paper. The sides of the sheet are covered in equations and angles with little measurements written in. Bucky chops up vegetables in neat little piles of equally sized bits and listens to the scratch of the pencil behind him. He figures out where Steve has things stored in his kitchen and lets the room fill with the smell of chicken soup.

“Do you realize this is the first time I’ve been in your house?” Excitement churns in Bucky’s stomach. It seems like it ought to be a big deal, even though that’s actually the last thing he really wants. He doesn’t want to accidentally push Steve away.

Steve’s been running past his house for months, slowly moving onto the sidewalk to talk to him, then the porch, and then inside. There were steps to the whole process, incremental stages, although Bucky didn’t plan it that way. This – this almost sudden invasion that Bucky has made into Steve’s house, simply as a result of an off-hand comment about his mother’s chicken soup, it feels big. Like Steve’s let him into a place he was holding back.

Steve’s head pops up. “I can’t believe that.” He stops. “Wow, I guess it is. You just seem to – know your way around,” he finishes after a pause. Bucky doesn’t think that’s what he was originally going to say. If it were Bucky, he’d say, “I just seem to fit,” but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

“It’s not actually mine. I rent this place.”

“Why?” Bucky says, frowning. It seems so … impermanent. As though one day Steve could up and go, leave Havensport and everyone in it behind. He turns slightly, just enough to catch one of those little glances that Steve sometimes flicks toward him. They have just enough weight to allow Bucky to catch the edge of them and taste them against his tongue. Bucky draws his lower lip into his mouth, worrying it, and Steve looks down at the table.

“The apartment came with the job at Infusions. That’s why it’s above the shop.”

Bucky wants to say, “Are you planning on leaving?” but he recognizes that he doesn’t really have the right to that question and may not want to know the answer.

“Anyway, even if I weren’t at the teashop,” Steve continues, “the owner’s an acquaintance of sorts. He won’t kick me out. I think. He wants me there, for now. I don’t know how much attention he pays to the shop, frankly. He owns a lot of places.”

“That’s good,” Bucky manages. Steve’s gaze is questioning. “It’s good to know you have a place to live,” Bucky explains, albeit a bit weakly.

“Oh,” Steve says, and he exhales. “True.”

+++

Steve’s kitchen is small. They bump into each other as Steve tries to help him find bowls and glasses, and Bucky turns abruptly, only to run smack into the hard planes of Steve’s chest. There’s a small bird lodged inside Bucky’s chest cavity, perched on his ribs, and the echo of their collision makes it flutter its wings and send nervous, impatient ripples through Bucky’s body.

Steve steps back after just a moment too long, as though he forgot to when he was supposed to. His lips are parted.

+++

Bucky’s beginning to forget what it’s like to not want this man. He cannot remember a time before he wanted him, which may not sound like much given that he doesn’t remember anything before last fall aside from phantom sensations and quick flashes.

But it still manages to feel like it’s the whole world burning in a tight knot in his chest.

+++

Steve tells him he’s going to be switching onto evenings at the teashop for the next two weeks. Something about one of the girls going away to college for her first semester and how they have to get someone else trained for her shift, and in the meantime he volunteered to help.

“Of course you did,” Bucky says.

Steve rubs the back of his neck the way he does when someone calls him out on the things he does. Like when Bucky caught him trimming Mrs. Higgins’ shrubs the week before, across the street from Bucky’s house. “You were supposed to be at work,” he said sheepishly.

“Thought I wouldn’t find out your secrets?” Bucky said archly, and Steve rubbed one of his big hands over the back of his neck. Mrs. Higgins dragged them both come inside. Steve made it out with a plate of cookies; Bucky escaped with bleeding scratches from her devil cats dripping down his calf. He gave them the evil eye on making his exit and hissed, “Maximilian will eat you,” while Steve had Mrs. Higgins distracted.

Later, in Bucky’s house, Steve sat across from him at the kitchen table and kicked him in the shins. “Oops,” he said unrepentantly.

“What was that for?” Bucky exclaimed.

“Giving Maximilian bad ideas.”

Bucky shrugged. A small smile crept over his face, though, and he didn’t move his hand away from where it was almost touching Steve’s on top of the table.

Steve’s eyes flickered down to the table. An expression that Bucky felt as though he really should have been able to read – but couldn’t – flitted across Steve’s face. He left his hand where it was.

+++

So Steve begins to work evenings at the teashop, and Bucky begins to spend a few hours after work there. There’s an absurdity to it that he can’t get away from – he sits at his table as the sky darkens outside, reading, talking to Steve when there are no customers; he helps him wipe down the counters when he begins to feel like he’s being too obvious about staring at Steve’s bare forearms, lifts stacked canisters of tea out of the back room and large bags of sugar and coffee when he becomes aware that he’s sitting motionless and silent for long enough that he’s starting to lose time – and then he heads home, walks Maximilian, goes to bed for a few hours, and wakes up to walk to the grocery store, wave hello to Cindy, and sit amid the cereal boxes with Steve as though he didn’t say goodnight to him only hours before.

“Hey,” he says, tapping Steve on the knee. “Where’d you go?”

Steve looks at him questioningly. The florescent lights are dull on his face.

“Looked like you were a thousand miles away. Everything okay?”

Steve’s eyes come back into focus. “Yeah. Not miles. Years. Sorry.”

“Nah,” Bucky says. “I know I’m not the only one living with ghosts.”

“You ever feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop? Like – I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “Ignore me, I’m talking nonsense.”

“Every day, pal. Every day. I look around this town, like something out of a postcard series on America, my own house with its white picket fence and neatly mown lawn and the kids across the street, and I think what the fuck am I doing here. What am I playing at?”

It seems like Steve’s eyes narrow infinitesimally. “Why did you come here, Buck?”

Bucky shrugs. “Dunno. Guess I was looking for something I left behind.”

“Apple pie?” Steve’s tone is dubious. “I don’t know what else you come here for. You aren’t from here. This isn’t the life you wanted, before, I’m sure of it.”

“Maybe I wanted to find myself. Maybe here’s as good a place as any. My sister’s a few towns over.”

Steve rests his head back against a cereal shelf and closes his eyes. “Then I hope you find it.” He doesn’t say another word the rest of the night.

+++

“Sorry about the other evening,” Steve tells him two nights later. He comes over to Bucky’s table carrying a steaming cup of jasmine tea. It smells like night-blooming flowers and apologies, and Bucky thinks about sweltering Brooklyn nights spent sitting on the sun-soaked fire escape outside the window and the scent of Auntie Lucia’s flower boxes wafting down from the next story. The smell is sweet but the memories make his head ache. He pushes them back.

Bucky’s reading Rumi, which Steve seems to find surprising. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. It’s not like he doesn’t have his own moments. He thought they’d get less and less frequent the more time that passed, but they’re not. If anything, the pounding in his temples, the deep ache in his bones, the fire that burns across his skin like knives slicing his flesh – they’re becoming more frequent. “Need help in the back?”

+++

Steve’s out front waiting on customers. From the storeroom, Bucky can hear women laughing and the low rumble of Steve’s chuckle. It makes Bucky relax, as does the mindless work he’s doing, moving bags and canisters around, emptying the contents of boxes onto shelves. He gets lost in the blank space inside his head as he lifts burlap sacks of coffee. He’s probably rearranged this whole space three times by now. He’s grateful that they let him.

A movement scraping by the corner of his eye makes him whirl. Every muscle in his body goes taut, ready to attack. He lashes out with his fist before he can stop himself, his right hand going reflexively for his knife holstered on the side of his thigh.

It’s the empty air on the side of his leg that his hand grasps where his knife no longer rests more than even Steve’s wary face that brings him back to himself. “Fuck,” he snaps into the tense air between them. He’s breathing heavily, as if he’s just run a long way. “Shit, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” A shudder courses through his body, and he’s angry, so angry with himself.

“Bucky.” Steve’s voice is calm. “It’s all right. I startled you.”

“No, it’s not,” Bucky says tightly. “Jesus, I nearly took your face off.” He looks away from Steve and takes a step back. His body is shaking with the rush of adrenalin, and his skin is prickly. He takes another step backwards and runs into the shelving.

“You weren’t going to hurt me, Buck.” Steve holds out his hand, whether for Bucky to take or just as a calming gesture, Bucky doesn’t know. He shakes his head and focuses on evening out his breathing.

Steve drops his hand and steps forward, closer to Bucky. Bucky stares at him. His eyes must be the size of saucer plates. Steve’s hands reach for his arms, and Bucky lets him grip both of them. Their heat seeps into him. Without meaning to, he lets his breath synchronize with Steve’s, a steady in and out.

Steve’s forehead is touching his. Their faces are so close that he can feel the damp warmth of his breath. Steve’s nose brushes past his, and all it would take is the slightest motion, the gentlest lift for Bucky to slide his lips across Steve’s. He parts his lips and inhales, and just as Bucky begins to close the gap between them, so close he can taste him, Steve makes a tiny noise and turns his face to the side.

“I can’t,” he whispers, and it slices through Bucky.

His breath catches and he jerks away. For a second he feels as though he’s free-falling, as though his center of gravity has been yanked away from him. He stares blankly at Steve. His heart has been torn in his chest. It’s become unmoored from the rest of his body, and it’s hanging there, painfully untethered, burning and bloody and pulsing in a body that seems empty and hollow.

Bucky swallows. His throat feels small.

Steve says his name, as though from far away. Bucky watches his lips move. His voice is trying to pull him back.

There’s an exit out of the teashop from the storeroom where they’re standing. All the sound rushes back in as Bucky unfreezes. It’s suddenly loud around him, and Steve’s eyes are wide and blue and pleading as, for the second time in ten minutes, Bucky steps away from him. Someone rings the bell for service at the front counter. There’s the clank of teacups, glass on glass, and the low murmur of the people chatting.

“You have a customer,” Bucky mutters. As he slips out the back door, he hears Steve curse. Outside, the night sky is filled with stars. The moon is a sliver hanging drunken and crooked.

+++

He dreams that night of war. Every night he dreams, and most nights he doesn’t remember what he dreams about. Sometimes it’s the chill of his cold sweat that wakes him, other times it’s Maximilian’s whimpers and wet nose pushing at his face.

“Good dog,” he says. He strips off his t-shirt and boxers, grabbing clean ones out of the nightstand beside his bed. He keeps a few changes stashed nearby for this inevitability. He shivers in the late August night. At the foot of his bed, there’s a soft blanket that he wraps around himself and the dog. He hates being cold. Maximilian burrows under his knees where he’s bent them and curls up around them. “I know, boy.”

He was in Afghanistan. He thinks. That was where they told him he served when he woke up, so it must be there. It was somewhere with mountains, somewhere cold. He thinks the dream took place during his second tour. Here, in the safety of his bed, he pulls the blanket tighter. People have an image of the desert as a hot place, a place of scouring suns and soaring temperatures. Bucky thinks only of the cold, though. The way the heat leached out of the rock and dust as soon as the sun went down behind the mountains. The way snow fell too early in the year and numbed his hands as they wrapped around his sniper’s rifle. The way he trudged after his captain with snow soaking through his boots, and called back to the small squad behind them, “C’mon, boys,” and got back a steady stream of French curses for his pains. The cold stole the wry laughter from his lips. Ahead, his captain stopped. Bucky drew up by his side. Together, they looked down into a jagged ravine, and the snow kept falling.

“We crazy enough to do this?”

“Hell yeah,” Bucky replied, and his captain reached out and clasped his shoulder with the shadow of a smile.

Bucky reaches up under the blanket and touches his shoulder, where he can still feel the fading pressure of that clasp. He doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until he gasps. Beneath his fingers, his shoulder is cold.

+++

The day dawns bright and rosy, like almost every day this summer. The farmers are fretting over how little rain they’ve had, although it’s not ruining the crops because the spring was so wet and left the groundwater table high.

Bucky lets Maximilian out into the backyard and wiggles his toes on the dewy grass. It’s still out here, except for a few enterprising songbirds, and it feels as though the world is still waiting for the day to fully arrive, holding its breath through the summer days before everything ripens and falls to the ground.

The sun sneaks over Bucky’s bare toes and then presses boldly onto his face, a long streak of light across his body. There are pains deep in Bucky’s bones, heavy weights that press into him and make him tremble some days. This morning, Bucky barely feels them for the pressure that is bearing down on his chest over his heart, for the self-recrimination that fills his head. “Stupid to push, stupid,” he mutters.

+++

When Bucky was in Steve’s apartment, it didn’t occur to him how bare it was. He was so focused on Steve and the soup. But later it struck him. There were no photographs, no weird little knickknacks of the sort friends give you for housewarming presents, no plants. Even the furniture was bland, like it came out of a catalogue. The only thing to show that Steve lived there at all were his architectural textbooks, a computer and fancy-looking tablet, and some stacks of books on the floor. The books look like they were selected off a list of the top hundred modern classics and the Times bestseller list. He had a set of speakers in the corners of the living room.

“Don’t you draw?” Bucky asked him. “Where’s all your work?” There was certainly none of it – finished products or even art supplies – lying about.

Steve said, “Some of it’s in the bedroom,” and Bucky wanted to ask to see it but the vagueness of Steve’s answer made him think he shouldn’t. Maybe Steve’s shy about showing his work, or maybe the content is private, filled in with memories that hurt.

Bucky’s house is filled with mismatched furniture, hand-me-downs he picked up over the winter months. He leaves his hoodies tossed over the couch and the kitchen chairs, crumbled in heaps on the floor by the door. Maximilian’s toys are strewn across the floor.

+++

He stays away from the grocery store in the late, awake hours. He tells himself that he’s not trying to avoid Steve. It’s just that he doesn’t know what to say to him. It’s not every day he tries to kiss someone who doesn’t want it. A wave of shamed heat flushes through him.

He walks Maximilian instead. When his traitorous feet take him past the town’s main square and the teashop, he can’t help but notice that the light is on in the apartment above the shop.

+++

He has too many vegetables on his counter for one person to eat. The zucchini develop dark spots as the week goes on. He doesn’t make the meals he was planning on making, before.

The thing is that once he got past the cut of rejection, it doesn’t really surprise him. These last months have been the best thing he knows, finding Steve, making a go at a life that he fears, deep down, isn’t his to have. But summer with all its bounty is coming to an end, just like Steve said a week ago, and turning seasons are a way of marking time with the inevitable changes they bring.

+++

Back in New York, before he came here, he went to a group meeting. It was Pepper’s idea. He likes Pepper, so he went even though he felt like he had concrete in his stomach the whole time.

One of the guys stood up and said, “The docs call it PTSD. I guess it’s good having a label for things. But I don’t know about any of that. Here’s what I know. I signed up because I was young and dumb and didn’t know what else I wanted to do with my life. I liked being part of a team. I liked knowing I had guys at my back.

“But they tell you that you’re building a better world and that one day you’re going to go home and enjoy it, just like everyone else. That ain’t true, though. I don’t think the ones who build that world ever get to go home and enjoy what they sweated and bled for.” He looked around. Bucky did too, and saw the rows of nodding heads. “And I’m not meaning to sound bitter. That’s just god’s honest truth.”

+++

Saturday comes. At 7:25 am, the heat is already edging in through the screens. If this keeps up, Bucky might even turn on a fan. He refuses to use the air conditioning. It chills him. At 7:28, he slides down with his back against the inside of the front door. Maximilian trots over to him.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Bucky tells him. “I got greedy. This is what happens when you get greedy.”

He dreamt last night of blood, of his skin soaked in rust red, fire engine red, night-black red, and he dreamt of cupping Steve’s face with his blood-stained hands and Steve turned to him and kissed his fingertips.

“This has to be enough, Maximilian. It has to be enough that I’m here.”

“Count your small victories,” Sam had told him. “Some days that’s all you’re gonna have, and some days there won’t be any victories at all.”

At 7:30, there’s a knock on his door. If the wood were not between them, Bucky would be leaning back against Steve’s shins. He breathes out. It would be a good place to be.

“Bucky,” Steve calls through the door. He knocks again, less politely this time. “I know you’re in there.”

Bucky stays where he is. Maximilian is wagging his tail, the traitor.

Bucky knows he should be an adult about this. He should get up and face Steve, smile like it’s okay, let it go the way Steve seems to want to, move ahead, keep the friendship going. Bucky leans his head down on his knees. But when what he wants most in this world is to kiss the breath out of him and call him dollface and sweetheart and sugar as Steve laughs helplessly into his mouth, to roll over in the sun-warmed grass with him and dip his tongue into the notch at the base of Steve’s throat and taste the salty sweat there, to feel the sweet burn of Steve’s body against him, to make summer last just a little longer – he can’t open the door.

There’s a soft, dull thud against the wood, as though Steve has rested his forehead on the solid barrier between them. “C’mon, Buck,” he says, so softly Bucky can barely hear him. “Please.”

+++

He watches Steve jog slowly down the street.

+++

They do it all again the next day.

+++

He has dinner on Wednesday with Jake and Angie after Jake drags him home. He called his wife at lunch from the office. Bucky heard it out in the garage. “Hey babe. Do you have enough stuff to add one to dinner tonight?” There’s a pause. “Yeah, I got what Mickey would call a sadface over here.”

Angie is all smiles that evening. She gives him twice as much meatloaf and potatoes as he needs, and asks him how his herb garden is holding up under the heat.

“I water it a lot,” Bucky tells her, “just like you said.”

“Told you you’d be a natural.”

Bucky’s tone is wry. “I’ve been reliably informed that it’s next to impossible to kill mint. Not sure that makes me a natural.”

There’s no-bake cheesecake for dessert. “Tea?” she offers.

Bucky shakes his head quickly. “Coffee if you have it made. My water’s fine, too.”

Jake gets up to put on the coffee. “I think I could use a cup myself.” He bangs around in the kitchen. Angie says, “I hear you’ve been being spoiled over at the teashop by the handsome barista with the shoulders. You’ve been seen around town quite a bit recently together. Better you stick to coffee here.” She laughs. “My tea isn’t going to compare to anything that man can offer.”

She glances back over at Bucky and her face falls. “Oh, honey.”

+++

Bucky doesn’t tell her anything. At least, he thinks he doesn’t. Somehow, though, by the time dessert is finished, she’s looking at him with a mixture of pity and exasperation on her face. “I’m not sure which one of you needs to pull your head out of your own ass more.”

“God help me if you ever meet Natasha,” Bucky mutters.

“Bucky, that man adores you as plainly as the nose on your own face. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be making a place for you in his world long after Jake here and I are dead and buried, and if you’ve got a lick of sense you’ll be doing the same.” She snorts at the expression she must see on Bucky’s face. “No, not because you’re incomplete without love in your life or some shit like that. But because you’ve got the kind of love they write books about, for god’s sake.”

She sounds so sure. Bucky presses his fist into the side of his head to stop the throbbing.

+++

When he gets home, there’s a handwritten note that’s been slid under his door. Bucky tenses briefly before he forces himself to relax. Picking it up, he sees Steve’s familiar writing. It’s in places all over the teashop, signs and lists that Bucky knows Steve makes.

It reads:

Bucky – I’m going to be away for a few days. Short trip back to New York. Bad timing, I’m sorry. I’ll be back next week. See you then. – Steve

There’s a doodle on the bottom, the skyline of Manhattan and, smack in the middle of the reaching skyscrapers, a little cape cod house with a picket fence. The city skyline is a mere sketch, lines conveying the image, but the little house is detailed and precise, all the way down to the dachshund sitting on the stairs with his tongue hanging out.

Bucky’s heart squeezes in on itself.

+++

The thing is, Bucky misses him. He misses the press of his hand against his lower back. The sound of his laughter, too rare. He craves the way his eyes are bright and alive when they look at him. He wants to watch him sketch, wants to see him smudge pencil on his hands and his face when he rubs them tiredly over it. He wants to push food at him and make sure he breathes, slow and steady, through the night. He wants to tug away that weariness that sometimes seeps through Steve’s skin, to stave off whatever nightmares keep him awake and sitting on a grocery store floor at 1:30 am a few times a week.

He’s been gone two nights when Bucky sighs, puts his shoes on, and heads out of his door in the middle of the night. He walks slowly to the grocery store and look at up at the apartment above the teashop as he passes. The lights are out.

He does it again the next night, and the third night he doesn’t even bother going into the store. He just stands in front of the dark apartment on the sidewalk and turns around.

He jogs by himself on the weekend and listens to the cicadas sing their night song as he walks by the empty apartment hours later.

+++

On Monday night, there’s a light on over the teashop. He doesn’t give himself time to think about it before he takes the back stairs two at a time and pounds on Steve’s door. There’s a fine tremor running through his hand, he realizes, even as his heart pounds like he’s run all the way here. He hears footsteps coming to the door, quick steps, and he nearly backs away, regretting the impulse that drove him up the stairs.

Steve yanks open the door. “Bucky,” he says, and his eyes are some impossible combination of worried and relieved. He’s wearing loose sweats and a stupid tight t-shirt. His feet are bare, and Bucky distantly thinks how unfair it is that they’re tanned and golden. Even his feet are attractive. Feet shouldn’t be attractive. “Thank god.” Steve practically exhales the words. “I – ”

“What did you mean by that drawing?” Bucky talks right over him, tight and impatient.

Steve looks taken aback. “What do you—”

“Why did you leave that? What the fuck, Steve? What was that supposed to be?” Bucky throws the words at him with his hands, sharp, abrupt gestures that punctuate his words. “You don’t get to leave shit like that. You don’t get to.”

Whatever Steve was expecting to come out of his mouth, it doesn’t look like it was that. His eyes go wide and startled, and his hands fly up, chest-level, as if he would clutch Bucky’s forearms to calm him. He doesn’t. He doesn’t and Bucky wants him to. He wants him to grab Bucky’s hands and pin them against his chest so that he can curl his fingers into the soft fabric over slabs of muscle there, so that maybe, just maybe, Bucky could rest his forehead there, over his own hands resting on Steve’s solidness.

“I only – it was a doodle. I didn’t want you to wonder where I was. I just wanted to tell you.” A sad smile tips the corner of his mouth up, slanted and close. “I just wanted you to know.”

“Know what?” Bucky snaps. “That you can’t make up your mind? That you’re too afraid to step up and take what you want? What I’m offering you. God,” he says, running his fingers through his hair and tugging strands out of their messy bun. “I wanted to give you everything, and you” – he wants to shove at Steve, wants to push against him, and to stop himself he fists his hands in his shirt right where he wanted them to be anyway – “you wanted to take it. That’s the worst part.”

He can feel the rush of Steve’s heart tattooing the back of his fingers. Something fierce ticks in Steve’s jaw. One of Bucky’s barbs landed there, and Bucky’s glad.

Steve’s voice is harsh and low, almost a growl. “Why do you gotta be like this, pushing and pushing and not letting go? Why this, of all things?”

Bucky wets his lower lip and leans in closer. As if he could taste the words Steve so begrudgingly gives him. “And what else am I supposed to push you about? What else, if not this?” He swallows. “This feels like everything,” he says, nearly a whisper.

“Bucky,” Steve says. His eyes close for a second and when he opens them again, they focus on Bucky’s lips. “Bucky,” he says again, soft and pleading. He is shaking his head, talking, his words falling over one another now. “It’s me. I’m the – I’m not a good person. You think I am. But you don’t know. I’ve done horrible things and I’m still doing them, cheating and lying and I don’t deserve to have you, you’re the last person I deserve. I can’t take advantage of you that way, not when you don’t even remember our own life. God, if you only knew it all.”

“Yeah, the sun shines out of your ass, or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t care. Don’t you get it? I. Don’t. Care. I don’t want the man you could be. I want you the way you are, with all the shit you’re carrying.” Bucky’s right up in Steve’s space, crowding him back inside the apartment, and Steve – Steve lets him.

“So all that crap about you not being a good person? That’s not what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say, ‘Yes, Bucky, this is everything.’ For whatever that means, however long that is, let yourself have it. Let me have it.” This close, Bucky can feel the heat of Steve’s flesh. His skin smells faintly salty, the merest hint of musk and spice leftover from a shower earlier after he got off the plane, and something else that is simply Steve. Bucky thinks he’s been smelling it all his life, it’s so familiar. He wants to taste it so bad.

Time hangs between them, impossibly suspended. Bucky is nearly dizzy with it all, with the begging and the needing and the not knowing. He can feel an apology in the back of his throat, clogged up with the utter humiliation of putting himself out there like this, the conviction that he’s fucked it up beyond all repair, but he can’t speak. He can only stare back at Steve, his hands still locked tight in his shirt, scraping against his chest, as though he could lay claim to him.

The light above them in Steve’s small entryway is dim. Steve makes a small noise, and suddenly Bucky’s not sure who moved first, who got tangled up in the other, but he’s crowding into Steve’s body and Steve into his, and he’s kissing him, too hard at first. It doesn’t matter, though, because when Bucky backs off, Steve follows his mouth and kisses back just as hard. It’s not the perfect kiss; there’s no finesse in it, just something desperate and half-crazy from being held back for so long.

Steve gasps into his mouth. It might be his name. It might be an echo of Bucky’s last words, and either way, Bucky can’t bear it. He unlocks his hand from Steve’s chest and rests his finger over his lips. Steve’s tongue darts out to meet it. He cups the back of Bucky’s head with one of his broad hands and slides the other behind his shoulder blade, and Bucky tilts his head just so and lets Steve fit his mouth against his in a long, heavy kiss.

+++

(interlude)

+++

“There’s a garlic fest over in Dupontsville this weekend. Want to go?”

Bucky’s fingers are tangled up in Steve’s. He can’t stop glancing down at them, rubbing his thumb over the fleshy part of Steve’s palm. “You’re such a city boy pretending at being a country boy.” His voice is vaguely mocking but the pleased affection he can’t keep out of it – doesn’t want to keep out of it – takes the sting out of his words.

Steve pretends to be affronted anyway. “I’m learning all the simple country pleasures I didn’t have the chance to before.” He grins at Bucky. “Besides, you’re no different than I am there.”

Bucky draws back and looks at Steve. They’re sitting on the floor of his little apartment, their backs pressed against the couch. Steve has a faint red mark on the side of his neck where Bucky had worried his mouth, unable to stop himself from leaning in and tasting the salty-warm of his skin. When he grins like he’s grinning now, small lines crinkle the edges of his eyes and his face looks younger, as though somehow in these moments he’s just a guy two breaths away from pulling Bucky down onto the floor with him and tightening his hands around his ass so that he can grind up into him. As though he’s not a tired hero come back from war overseas to a world that doesn’t quite line up the way he expected it would.

Bucky wants to keep him that way for as long as he can. He pushes him down onto the hard floor and follows him down, heedless of the discomfort to both of them, and learns the shape of his body.

Steve’s gasp hangs in the air above them, answered only by the ragged groan Bucky cannot hold back.

+++

“I have to go,” he says finally, dragging his mouth away from Steve’s. “I wasn’t planning on being gone this long.” It’s been hours, drugged hours lingering in unexpected places and speeding by too fast the rest of the time. The sun will be coming up soon.

Steve doesn’t protest, although his hand tightens around Bucky’s hip.

“Maximilian’s taken good care of me. I have to do the same for him.” The words fall from his lips, an explanation that wasn’t asked for but which Bucky offers anyway. Maybe it’s more for himself than for Steve.

“Will you come to the teashop tonight after work?” Steve asks, his voice a low rumble nearer to Bucky than Bucky thought he’d ever get.

They both know the answer’s yes – surely Steve knows the answer is yes – but Bucky smiles at being asked and Steve smiles at the answer anyway.

+++

Bucky goes to the teashop that evening, and it’s not all that different than it was before, except in all the ways it is, except that now Bucky is free to touch Steve.

Steve touches him right back. His touch is hesitant at first, as though some lingering guilt for giving into this thing between them makes his fingers light, but even his gentlest touch sends bright awareness through Bucky’s nervous system.

When Bucky walks home after closing up the shop with Steve and going upstairs to his apartment with him for a late dinner, he tilts his head back to the dark sky and stands in the middle of the block, his hands shoved in his pockets, tracing the constellations with his eyes.

+++

At the garlic fest, there are wonderfully tempting things like pulled pork served with whole garlic cloves and garlic steak tacos, along with some not so wonderfully tempting items. Steve looks askance at the garlic fudge.

Bucky laughs under his breath at the expression on his face. “It can’t be that bad. You’ve eaten worse.”

“Sure I have,” Steve replies easily. The sun is shining down on him, glinting off the golden streaks in his hair. “Doesn’t mean I need to put that to the test now.”

The sounds of the grandstand waft through the garlic-heavy air. Something country that has the crowd clapping and cheering. Sunburnt children weave circles around their drooping parents, holding dripping ice cream cones. Strangers salute them – Steve, really – and Steve nods back. He tenses when they clap him on the shoulder and thank him for his service and heroism, but softens again when Bucky touches his arm. Bucky ignores the ones who throw dark glances in their direction. Whether it’s homophobia or something more particular to Bucky, he doesn’t know, but he’s not about to let it spoil his day. It’s not the first time he’s seen those looks, and it’s not likely to be the last.

There are cries of “Captain America!” that mingle in with “Captain Rogers.” Bucky laughs and offers to win Steve a stuffed Captain in the arcade tents. “Look, the kids are all carrying them around. They’ve got all the Avengers.”

Steve is tense – it carries even into his fingertips and hands where Bucky can see – but he tells Bucky that he’d rather have the Hulk. He doesn’t fully relax until Bucky pulls him back to the garlic fudge.

“Oh, c’mon,” he says. “I dare ya,” and Steve shakes his head in resignation as Bucky snickers and pulls out his wallet. “Can’t turn down a dare, can you?”

Steve laughs. The deep sound of it, uncomplicated and maybe a little rusty-sounding, makes Bucky want to kiss him right there in the middle of the crowd. Instead, he gamely eats the garlicky cotton candy Steve buys for him and even takes a bite of Steve’s garlic fudge.

“’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” he admits, surprised. Steve turns away from the display of painted wooden signs in front of him that proclaim, “Spoiled rotten lab lives here!” His eyes seem to say, “ain’t that the story of our lives,” but he doesn’t actually say it. His eyes crinkle in the corners, maybe from squinting into the sun, maybe from the smile he’s wearing, and he leans forward and kisses Bucky, garlic breath and all.

+++

After their jog on Sunday morning, Bucky pushes Steve around the corner of his house into his backyard. He opens the back door for Maximilian to come rushing out. The dachshund paws up on Steve’s knees eagerly, and Steve bends over to scratch behind his ears.

Bucky eyeballs the pair and takes advantage of Steve’s distraction to tackle him to the grass. Steve lands with an ‘oof’ while Maximilian jumps nimbly out of the way. Bucky braces himself on his arms planted on the ground on either side of Steve’s body. Steve looks up at him. He opens his mouth to say something, and Bucky swoops down before the words can come out. Steve whimpers into his mouth, and the unexpectedness of it makes Bucky’s stomach clench and his dick pulse in his pants. He eats the soft, needy sounds straight out of Steve’s mouth.

Later, Steve goes home to shower off the stink of their run and grab his schoolwork. He comes back, tucking his phone into his back pocket as he rings the doorbell, and walks on in when Bucky pokes his head around the corner of the kitchen and calls out to him that the screen door is open.

Steve sits at the kitchen table and does something with angles and design that Bucky mostly ignores while he tries out the new recipe he found in an old cookbook. At some point, he lifts his head from his tablet and makes a sound, rueful, that grabs Bucky’s attention.

“What,” Bucky asks.

“Nothing.” Steve taps something on his screen before putting it down and stretching his arms out. Bucky follows the line of his muscles going taut and makes himself stay where he is so that he can actually finish the dish he’s making. “Just – if you’d asked me when I was younger if this was what I’d imagine myself doing on a Sunday afternoon, I don’t think it would have been it. I wouldn’t have been here in a place like this, living the kind of life you can live here.”

Bucky holds his breath.

“But,” Steve continues, “I bet there would have been a part of me – one I wouldn’t have admitted to – that would have soaked it up anyway.” He gets up and crosses the kitchen to where Bucky’s leaning against the counter.

Behind them, the timer goes off. “That’s the cornbread,” Bucky murmurs. “It’s done,” he says needlessly.

“You have to take it out?” Steve says in a husky voice. His face is very close to Bucky’s. He’s breathing him in, inhaling everything Bucky’s exuding, all the need and want. This close, his eyes are dark and Bucky hangs onto them, lets the world shrink down to nothing more than the space that their bodies inhabit. There’s no hesitation left in Steve now, no room remaining for it.

Steve noses the side of his face. His faint stubble is rough against Bucky’s skin, and it sends a little jolt through his entire system. The timer dings again, staccato.

“Steve,” Bucky mouths into his skin. “The bread’s going to burn.”

“Let it,” Steve breathes, and Bucky groans. “Can’t. Can’t waste it. Can’t burn the house down.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees but he doesn’t let Bucky go. Instead he presses short kisses down the curve of Bucky’s neck, sharp ones, lingering ones that lick at his skin. Outside the window, someone is mowing a lawn.

“I didn’t think,” he says when he lifts his mouth away from Bucky’s shoulder reluctantly, “that I’d ever get to have this. If I were a stronger man, I still wouldn’t.” He keeps pulling the neck of Bucky’s shirt away from Bucky’s neck; his lips are red and swollen.

Bucky looks at him, like this, and thinks, “fuck.” He pulls away from Steve abruptly and yanks open the oven door to pull out the cornbread. “You just needed the right person to come along.” He presses the ‘off’ button on the oven and turns back around.

Steve’s looking at him, or just past him, out the window, as though he’s looking at something far away. “You make me break all my boundaries. You always—” His eyes focus back on Bucky. “How do you do that?” he asks, as though bewildered.

Bucky doesn’t answer. He can’t. There isn’t an answer, and he knows it because he knows that he, too, has no boundaries when it comes to this man. He takes Steve’s hand, pulls him up the stairs, and tugs him into his bedroom. He stops at the foot of the bed. “Yes?” he says, and Steve says, “Yes,” and Bucky smiles. “Take your clothes off.”

Steve’s eyelashes drop down his face, and Bucky adds, “Slowly. Let me see you take them off.”

He lays himself across the bed and props himself on his left elbow. His breathing is slow and heavy, his eyelids at half-mast, as he watches Steve bare himself to him. When Steve is down to his tight boxer-briefs, Bucky kicks off his own shorts and yanks his shirt over his head. Steve’s eyes flicker down his body, halting at his groin where his dick is jutting out against the thin cotton of his boxers. Bucky glances down at himself. It’s only slightly less obscene than the outline of Steve’s dick through his underwear as he chubs up. He curves left.

Bucky draws his lower lip into his mouth. He doesn’t miss the way Steve’s eyes are drawn back up his body, back to the wet sheen on his mouth, or maybe the eager look that he knows is painted across his face. “Pull them down,” he tells Steve, “just a little. Just – there.” He swallows. The head of Steve’s dick, red and slick, peeks out over the top of his waistband. “Oh god.” His breath whooshes out of him in a loud shudder. He presses his hand down on his own cock, unable to stop his hips from jerking up once into his palm, and then discards his boxers entirely.

Steve’s eyes are nearly black. There’s the faintest rim of blue at the edges. “Bucky,” he says, sounding strangled. “I need – let me touch—” and Bucky surges up to his knees and crawls to the edge of the bed and wraps his mouth around the tip of Steve’s dick. The tremor that courses through Steve’s body thrills him; his cock jumps, untouched.

With a wet slurp, he draws back only so that he can lick Steve down to his thick base and bury his nose in the golden brown hair crinkled there. Steve smells like red iron and ozone, like the metal skeleton of the city or the tang of gunpowder mixed with cedar. The position’s uncomfortable on Bucky’s neck, braced as he is on his fists to lean off the low platform bed. He cranes at an awkward angle so he can suck Steve back into his mouth, and he doesn’t care, barely even notices.

His hands are greedy thieves over Steve’s skin, the strength of his thighs, the tautness of his ass, stealing the responses that Steve tries to hold back. “No,” Bucky tells him, “that won’t do. Show me. I want to see everything.”

+++

Steve drags him out of the shop at lunch. “I’m going to be at Marco’s Pizza Palace tomorrow,” he told him before he left that evening. “Waiting for you. Don’t make me look like a fool by standing me up.” He tucked his thumbs into the waistband of Bucky’s track shorts.

Bucky groaned. “That’s not fightin’ fair, Rogers.”

Steve’s answering grin landed on the far side of smug.

The next day at 12:30, Bucky sputters out some excuse to Jake and slips out the side door to the sound of Jake’s catcalls. Bucky flips him off over his shoulder.

Steve has two whole pizza rounds waiting for him. Bucky grabs the shaker of red pepper flakes from the counter and brings it over to the table for Steve on his way in. The tables are small, covered in thin red and white checkered cotton cloths with stacks of napkins at the far end. Bucky slides onto the bench across from Steve. His leg slots between Steve’s knees under the narrow space below the table.

Steve folds his slice in half before digging in. Bucky catches himself doing the same thing and chuckles. “Wha’dya think that chances are? That two chumps from Brooklyn would end up in little middle-of-nowhere Havensport? Hardly seems real sometimes.”

His mouth full, Steve doesn’t answer.

+++

Bucky’s doing something complicated on the grill with peaches and chicken when Steve shows up. There’s rice in the cooker on the kitchen counter, and the sun has already sunk low in the sky.

“Try the iced tea, would you? I found the recipe online, called sun tea? Kind of strange, but easy.”

“Sure,” Steve says easily. There’s the sound of him setting something down on the small patio. He wraps his arm around Bucky’s side and kisses him below his ear.

Bucky twitches, unexpectedly ticklish, and Steve laughs. When Bucky glances over, he sees that Steve’s brought an overnight bag with him. Something hot rushes through him. It’s a heady wave that sluices over the whole of his body, leaving him trembling almost at the knees. He grasps the tongs and flips the chicken pieces over on the grill, laughing softly, skeptically. Oh, he thinks, looking at Steve petting Maximilian. His heart feels like a hummingbird’s wings, fluttering frantically against the cage of his ribs with joy.

Steve says something and Bucky blinks back against the onslaught of his happiness, of his recognition of the feeling. Steve repeats himself; Bucky forces himself to focus. “Cooking?” he says. “Yeah, you’re right, I wasn’t always into it. One of my therapists suggested it.”

“Then I guess I’m the lucky beneficiary of your therapy,” Steve says. He opens the back door and drops his bag on the kitchen floor.

“Probably,” Bucky tells him wryly. “It was the only thing she said that stuck. You don’t have to think about anything when you cook. There’s just you and the food and the flavors, and the only thing you’ve got to do is put them together. The rest is all silence.”

“Like fighting.” Steve’s voice is low. “The rest of the world becomes white noise.” He rubs his hand over his face.

Bucky studies him a moment. The setting sun casts a rosy golden glow on the strong line of his nose, on the edge of his jaw. He says, “Can you put the rice in a bowl and grab some plates?”

“Jesus, that’s delicious,” Steve says later, slouching low in his chair beside the rickety wooden table Bucky inherited with the house that serves as their outside dining table. Getting up, Bucky can’t resist stealing a kiss from his peach-sweetened lips.

The sky is dark now. Maximilian snaps at fireflies. This late in the summer, there are fewer than there were at the start but the dog’s tail keeps wagging anyway.

“Look,” he says, “up. The great bear. And the lion beside him.” Bucky knows all the constellations in the night sky. He tips his head back and traces them, calls them by their names.

Steve is quiet. Bucky turns his head away from the sky and looks at him. Steve is watching him with a tight expression on his face that clears as soon as Bucky glances over. “Sorry,” he says. “Brooklyn boy. No stars in the city sky. You surprised me. I didn’t know you knew them.” He takes Bucky’s hand and uses it to point to the wide sky. “Tell me that one.”

“That’s the little bear.” He uses their joined hands to pull Steve up out of his chair. “C’mon, it’s better if you lie on the grass. It’s already too late to see Mercury tonight, but in another month or two, Venus will rise at dawn when you get to up run. The stars and planets will tell you where you are in the world, if you remember to look up at them.”

+++

Steve’s body radiates heat. Bucky curls up next to him in bed until he gets too hot, and then he rolls over, away from him. He accidentally jabs his foot into Maximilian, who snorts at him, annoyed. “Look, boy, I just don’t think there’s room for three of us in this bed.” Maximilian refuses to budge, forcing Bucky’s leg to cant to the side awkwardly.

Beside him, Steve is sound asleep. He makes tiny breathy noises in his sleep. Bucky places his hand lightly over Steve’s belly and lets the gentle rise and fall lull him back to stillness.

+++

That weekend, they drive over to Clifty Falls State Park and hike the waterfalls. The morning heat hasn’t yet driven the birds to silence, and the sounds of visiting families bounce off the layered stonebed. Steve pulls him off the path and into the woods, and presses his back into a tree. Wide, dark green leaves hang over their heads, and Steve kisses him there, the bark digging into through his clothes uncomfortably, the soft fullness of Steve’s lips insistent against his.

+++

Steve’s been spending more nights than not at Bucky’s – Maximilian still refusing to give up an inch of his space – when Bucky realizes. “You lied to me,” he exclaims.

“What?” Steve says, guilt already cutting across his face. “I –”

“No,” Bucky says, wonderingly. “I can’t believe it. But the evidence has been in front of me for weeks!”

“Bucky.” Steve reaches out to him, and Bucky dances away.

“Look at you, how guilty you look. And you should. You’re not an insomniac. You sleep just fine! What the fuck?” He’s trying to keep a straight face but Steve’s torn expression is making it hard. It’s been an idea growing in his head for a week or so, but until he said it out loud and saw Steve’s face, he wasn’t sure. Now he is, though – Steve’s eyes give it all away. Part of him wonders what Steve thought he was going to say that’s making him so jumpy, but he pushes it down. Outside the window, the long summer sun is still high in the afternoon sky.

“I don’t think there’s been one night since you started coming over here when you woke up in the middle of the night without me jostling you.”

“Uh,” Steve says. “Would you believe that I just sleep that much better with you by my side?”

Bucky crosses his arms. “Romantic, punk. Give it another try.”

Sheepishly, Steve sinks down onto the couch. “It is your fault, in a way. I really do have trouble staying asleep sometimes. When I’m – well.” He shrugs. “After I met you that night in the grocery store, I wanted to see you again. And I didn’t know how else to, other than to keep showing back up there in the middle of the night.”

“So, what,” Bucky says incredulously. There’s a grin spreading across his face that he can’t stop. “You just showed up every few nights to see if I was there?”

“Not exactly. Yea, no, it’s worse than that.” Somehow Steve manages to hunch his shoulders in on himself and look smaller than his frame should allow.

“Let’s hear it, then.”

Looking down at his knees, Steve tells him that he would watch from his window above the teashop. “When I saw you walk by, I’d head out, over to Tom’s.”

“Wow.” Bucky falls onto the couch next to him. “You’re lucky I like you so much. Because otherwise that would be really creepy. Maybe it still is.”

Steve finally looks at him. He scoffs. “Please. I know full well you watched me every weekend as I jogged by your house.”

Bucky laughs. “God, we’re so stupid. So much wasted time.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Bucky echoes. A shadow falls across the brightly lit room as the afternoon sun shifts. Bucky shakes himself. He grabs the front of Steve’s shirt and pulls him down on top of him across the sofa. Steve’s weight is heavy on his body, solid and real.

Steve’s phone is going off in his back pocket. He tosses it to the floor. A warm breeze floats in through the screened window. The curtains flutter like pale ghosts in the corners of Bucky’s eyes, but his attention is focused on Steve as he reaches down and pushes Bucky’s shirt over his head. Bucky lifts his shoulders and neck up to help.

Steve bends over his, distracting him with a tantalizing touch that seems to be everywhere at once. Bucky strains for any place that he can reach, any place that his lips can press against. When Steve sighs his name, Bucky can feel the minute vibrations of his throat against his mouth and he cannot stop the shuddering sigh that escapes him. He lets his legs fall open. Steve’s fingers trail ribbons of fire up and down his inner thighs. His pants are gone, discarded like Steve’s phone on the floor. Steve slips his hands beneath him to cup and squeeze the meat of his ass, a small nudge of possessiveness even as his mouth trails wet heat down the edge of his dick, briefly enveloping his cock, and pressing into the crease of his ass.

Somehow they make their way upstairs. The couch isn’t built for two broad-shouldered men. Bucky removes Steve’s clothes, his own long since abandoned downstairs, before crawling onto the bed. Steve follows. Bucky stays on his belly, the smear of his heavy dick leaking into the sheets.

Steve’s fingers slick with lube brush over his hole, and Bucky rocks up on his toes and spreads his legs. Steve’s hand presses into the dip of his spine as he presses his fingers, one and then more, into Bucky. As Bucky slowly opens to him, he hums inarticulate praise into the space beneath his shoulder blades.

When his cock sinks in deep and lingering, Bucky whines high in his chest and Steve spreads himself across Bucky’s back to reach up and lace his fingers through Bucky’s, uncurling them from the tight fists they’ve made in the sheets. Steve pulls his hips back and slides back in once more, as far as he can go, and one of them gasps, “Oh, Christ,” before Steve starts fucking into him in short, small motions that keep him spread open. Steve’s sweaty body is plastered to Bucky’s skin, his arms locked tight against Bucky’s, and only where his hips snap and rut in and out of Bucky is there any separation. Each tiny motion feels like the world is shaking, though, intense and magnified beyond all reason. Bucky’s heart is a staccato song in his chest, and his thoughts splinter and scatter leaving only one thing, an endless cry for more.

He thought once he had Steve, this longing would abate. But now that he’s allowed to put his hands on him and hold him firm and warm within his body, it’s only worse than it was. What is it about this man, that his slightest touch makes everything in Bucky tremble, as though there is something in him that is fighting its way to the surface of his skin if only to be closer to Steve.

Bucky is unspooled beneath his hands, under the firm press of skin to skin.

+++

Their runs get longer. Bucky jokes, “Must be all the sex. My stamina’s increasing,” and Steve rolls his eyes in exasperated affection at him. They jog slowly through the town, picking up speed as they cover the dark roads that cut straight lines through rows and rows of corn. The tassels are golden brown and wilting under the late August sun.

When the blacktop starts kicking up too much heat at them, Steve veers off the road and over the gently curving land into the shade of the woods.

“Done yet?” Steve tosses the question over to him, and Bucky throws it back at him, “Not on your life, darling.” It’s so different from that first run he did alone, when Steve wasn’t in town, when he ran and ran and felt the world come alive under his feet only to collapse the second he stopped, the second he remembered that he was supposed to be tired. And that was it, wasn’t it? He suddenly realized he was supposed to be tired and only then was he.

But Steve’s not tired and Bucky will keep pace at his side.

Steve shakes his head as though he’s looking around – there’s no one as far as the eye can see – and then he’s running faster, his arms pumping at his sides, and Bucky laughs and chases after. His heart is pounding in his chest and his legs are pleasantly warm and the landscape is a blur in the corners of his eyes.

+++

(part iii)

+++

Mrs. McNearney calls Mr. Sottosanti to have Bucky come fix her refrigerator. “It’s making a loud noise,” she complains.

“Take the toolbox,” Mr. Sottosanti tells Bucky patiently. “We’ll cover you here. Rick doesn’t need his car back that soon.”

She’s made a frangipane tart with the nectarines Bucky dropped off while she was at church on Sunday. She gets out small plates while Bucky pulls the refrigerator forward. “It’s probably just the fan blade,” he says.

It takes him about five minutes to set the machine to rights. “Tell me about your beau,” she says as she cuts wedges out of the tart. Bucky bangs his head on the back of the fridge.

“I don’t have time these days for shyness, Bucky Barnes. Let me get you some lemonade.”

Once he’s seated at the table with her, she pats the back of his left hand. He looks at her frail hand covering his metal one without any sign of fear. He shakes the strange thought away. There’s no reason to expect her to be afraid. Uncomfortable, perhaps, with his unique prosthetic, but that’s it. “This tart is great,” he tells her.

“Yes, dear, I know. But thank you. I hope your young man is good to you. I can hardly imagine anything else. He certainly makes sure you eat right, and that’s a start in the right direction. I always fed my Joe well. And there’s been a hole in your life at least since I’ve known you.”

Bucky makes a noise. “Holes in my head, you mean.”

“Nonsense. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last soldier to return from overseas missing a few pieces.”

“More than few pieces,” he mutters.

She raps the back of his hand with the flat of the pastry knife. Bucky starts, amazed.

“I’ll not have you feeling sorry for yourself. Tell me about your Steve,” and Bucky turns his head, looks out her kitchen window at the colorful flowers in the window box, and says, “He yanks every chain I got, Mrs. Mac.”

Her laugh is girlish and delighted.

+++

“I have to go back to the city for a few days,” Bucky tells Steve. They’re lying in bed in the dark. Maximilian is snoring at Bucky’s feet. He doesn’t bother specifying which city; Steve will know. Around here, people mostly mean Cincinnati when they say “the city,” or occasionally Indianapolis or Columbus. But they’re two boys from New York.

“Do you mean to stay here?” Jake asked him once, over dinner.

“Bought a house, didn’t I?”

“Person can buy a house anywhere and sell it anywhere, too.”

“Honey, don’t push,” Angie said with an apologetic glance at Bucky. “Let the man enjoy his strawberry pie in peace.”

Bucky stared down at the table. “I don’t look much past next week,” he said finally. Ruefully. “Some days, if I can see to tomorrow, it’s a good day. All I know is that this seems like a good place. As good as any to try to make a home.”

Now, in the quiet night, he says to Steve, “I have a few appointments.”

Steve’s head is nestled up on his shoulder. He’s got one heavy arm draped over Bucky’s chest. He’s too big to lie like this, but he doesn’t seem to mind his feet pushing off the end of the bed. He slots into Bucky’s side as though he was always meant to belong there.

“Anything I can help with?” Steve asks.

“Nah.” Bucky breathes in the clean scent of his shampoo and beneath that, the sunshine-smell of Steve himself. Steve doesn’t say anything else, and Bucky doesn’t expect him to. Steve doesn’t ask him many questions, never has since they met. It’s as though he knows Bucky doesn’t have answers for him, for himself either. Tonight, though, Bucky keeps talking.

“When I woke up in the hospital, they told me I’d be in therapy for a long time. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t remember a thing. Just the explosion, trying to shield someone, a lot of blood. The rest – a blur.”

Steve murmurs, “You get flashes here and there. You face goes distant. I can feel it under my fingertips when I touch your wrists, the back of your knees. Your eyelids.”

“Yeah. Some things – it’s like I have to fit the puzzle back together. Most things don’t make sense when I remember them. There’s no context.” He shivers in the summer night. “I just remember being cold.”

With a small sound, Steve throws his leg over Bucky’s and wraps himself tightly around him. His weight ought to be too much for comfort, but even in the humid warmth Bucky takes it easily. He doesn’t know if Steve’s aware of his hand tracing patterns on Bucky’s arm. He can barely feel it himself. The metal arm has incredible strength and dexterity, but less sensation. Distantly, he is aware of feeling grateful for this and hating that same gratitude.

“I got a medical discharge. They showed me a scan of my brain. It’s dark in places it shouldn’t be. They told me I might remember in a month or five years or twenty, or never.”

In a low voice, Steve says, “Do you want to?”

“Of cour-”

Steve’s finger pressed against his lips hushes him. “No,” he says. “Do you really want to?”

Silence fills the room and blends into the dark. Steve exhales and slides his head off Bucky’s shoulder onto the pillow.

Bucky turns his face away from Steve. The stars are bright tonight. He can make out the little bear easily through the window. “What if I forgot you?” he whispers. “If I flip-flopped. Got back all the stuff lost to me now and forgot all the new stuff.”

Steve reaches out and traces a line over Bucky’s heart, down the center of it. “I’ll be there.” His voice is sure.

+++

Natasha calls. “I’ll be in the city for the next few days.”

“Nat,” he says. “What if I never remember?”

She throws it back at him. “What if you do?”

He leans his head back against the wall. “There’s something inside me. Clawing to get out. Sometimes when Steve touches me – ” Bucky stops and traces his fingers over his own chest, like Steve had the night before in the dark. “He asked me if I wanted to remember.”

“Mrs. Rogers didn’t raise a fool,” is all she says.

“That doesn’t make me any less scared.”

“I hear he works in a teashop.” Something rustles through the phone speaker. She’s bending down, maybe. Bucky doesn’t remember telling her that. “Come and drink tea with me after you’re done with your appointments.”

+++

The night before Bucky flies to New York, Steve’s phone goes off. Maximilian growls in his sleep. Steve tosses the sheet back and tries to slip out of bed. Bucky can tell he’s trying not to wake him. It doesn’t matter. He’s been awake for a long time. He even thought about walking to the grocery store, but Steve was already here so it didn’t seem to matter.

“What is it?”

“Sorry,” Steve tells him, bending over to press a kiss to his shoulder, the nearest spot he can reach. “I’ll go downstairs to take this.”

Through the vents and open windows, Bucky hears him say, “Godddamit. Couldn’t this have waited? You promised. It’s not even September yet. I’ll call you in the morning.”

The front door opens quietly but the creak of the screen gives him away as Steve steps onto the porch and sits down on the stairs.

+++

He lets over an hour go by before he crashes Steve’s little party of one. He sits down on his right. His left arm is firm against Steve’s side. It’s cool outside, a chill in the night for the first time since the spring.

“You ever walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, Stevie?”

“Sure I did.” Steve leans into him, as though he is a sink of gravity and Steve is helpless against it. Bucky knows the feeling. “I was a kid. Made me feel like I was on top of the world. Because you’ve got all of Manhattan in your sights from there.”

Bucky squeeze Steve’s thigh. The tiny plates of his fingers catch the moonlight, glinting.

“When I was a kid,” Steve continues, “it seemed like Manhattan was practically a different city. It sat under different stars, rich stars. When you could see ‘em, I guess.”

They sit for a long time. The sky is clear. Mrs. Solinski’s cat slinks across the street. Bucky’s ass goes numb. He pays it no heed.

“Tell me again.” In the silence, Steve’s voice seems loud. “Show me the summer stars you see.”

“There’s the great bear,” Bucky says. “And over there, the lion.” He traces his finger against the sky and recites the list of all he can find.

+++

It seems to Bucky that Steve’s phone is going off more and more. “You sure have a lot of friends. If they want to talk to you that much, they could just come see you.”

Steve glances over at his phone, unimpressed. “They’re mostly people I used to work with. They don’t want to hang out with me. In fact, some of them would probably prefer we didn’t. They just want my help with stuff.” He exhales. “I’ll never get my degree at this rate.”

“Why don’t you just turn your phone off, then?”

The expression on Steve’s face turns guilty. “I couldn’t. Well, I shouldn’t. If something really important came up, I’d—”

“They’d probably be fine without you.”

“Knowing them, they’d just turn it back on if they wanted to reach me.” Somehow his chuckle sounds wry.

Startled, Bucky eyeballs the phone. “Can you even do that remotely?”

“I can’t. They can, I’m sure of it. Too many techies in that bunch.”

“Holy shit,” Bucky says. “There’s eyes everywhere.”

+++

Bucky’s nightmares come far more often than Steve’s do. Steve tends to sleep through the night, spread over or under Bucky as much as Bucky will allow it before he rolls away. He can’t fall asleep with someone touching him even though he’ll be the first to curl into Steve come morning.

When Steve wakes up shuddering, his sides bellowing like a racehorse, Bucky asks him, “What are you afraid of?” His voice is hoarse, hesitant.

Steve swallows. Maximilian worms his way up the bed alongside him and licks his cheek. Steve begins to pet him rhythmically, just as Bucky has done so many nights. “Things that haven’t happened yet. Things that I might do. When it comes to you, I never could – ” He cuts himself off.

“You’re not the only one who’s fucked up,” he confesses in a rush. “This is – it’s like we’re in a world that’s separate. From everything else. Nothing else around us, just you and me.”

There’s a long silence. Bucky nudges the dog out of the way and they lie in the dark, tangled up together. Steve pushes the cool of Bucky’s metal wrist up until Bucky’s fingers rest light against his cheek and then heavy when he relaxes them, and Steve turns his mouth to them.

“Let’s pretend,” he says, barely audible. “Let’s cocoon ourselves away.”

“I would,” Bucky answers him, “if only I thought for even five minutes that you could actually do it. There is nothing about you, Steve Rogers, that says you can walk away from a fight.”

“I wouldn’t be walking away. It would just be a different fight.”

Bucky exhales through an open mouth. Through the window, he sees the twinkling stars make their slow turn through the sky. “I know.” His bones ache. The light sheet covering his body feels like a concrete slab. He doesn’t bother asking Steve if he aches too.

Bucky almost thinks Steve’s fallen back to sleep when he finally speaks again. “You want to know what I fear? I fear the end of summer. Cocoons don’t last forever.”

“They’re not meant to,” Bucky murmurs sleepily.

+++

There’s a car waiting for him at LaGuardia. Bucky groans. He hates it when there’s a car. It makes him feel like he’s a swell wearing gloves and a top hat. His past may be a mystery to him, but he knows there is no world in which he lived that kind of life. A flash of white out of the corner of his eye makes him blink. He’s in a store, and the salesgirl is blushing as she takes out trays of leather gloves for him to peruse. “No, no,” he tells her, “I need a smaller size. They’re not for me.”

“Oh,” she says, her mouth turning down. “Ladieswear is on the third floor.”

“Nah.” He leans across the counter toward her, winking. He fingers the wad of cash in his pocket that he’s been so carefully saving. “I got a kid brother.”

“Sir?” the chauffeur says. It doesn’t sound like the first time he’s tried to get his attention. “I can deposit your bag in your rooms for you, if there is another place you’d like me to drop you off.”

+++

He spends an hour with Dr Pike. Then he walks downtown, all the way down to Centre Street where pedestrians can access the Brooklyn Bridge. It takes a long while but he’s in no hurry. It’s not like his next appointment exactly has a set time.

When he reaches the middle of the bridge, he stops and leans over the rail. Manhattan doesn’t look as funny to him as Brooklyn does. They told him that Brooklyn was the hot place to be, that there was a lot of construction going on, but its jars him every time he visits New York to see it. The pieces of it that have come back to him – cigarettes on the fire escape, the tiny window in Auntie Lucia’s apartment, the candy store three blocks away, oranges at the nickel and dime corner store next to the barber’s where men coming up in the world got their shoes shined while they got their hair cut and slicked back – they’re just pieces. He can’t see the whole town in them.

Closing his eyes, he imagines he is on top of the world, on top of the Brooklyn Bridge, and can see the whole thing without being weighed down by any of it. A tiny smile curves his mouth, thinking of Steve up here, younger, smaller, just as fierce.

He looks back at Manhattan. People passing by inadvertently jostle him. His left hand clamps down at his side.

Night is falling, sticky and hazy in the endless glow of the city, by the time he buzzes to be let into the workshop. When the glass doors slide open, he looks around. “Hey, Dummy,” he says. “Stark being nice to you?”

+++

Stark’s been tinkering with his arm for about an hour when Dr Banner wanders in. Bucky knows it’s deliberate that he’s there, but he still manages to slip into the workshop like he’s lost. His hands are deep in his pockets.

Bucky watches Stark’s shoulders relax once Dr Banner is inside. “Chop, chop, my jolly green giant. I needed your help on this neural interface twenty minutes ago.”

Dr Banner casts a small smile at Bucky. “Hi, Bucky. How’s Indiana?”

Bucky shrugs and tries to think of a normal sort of answer. He doesn’t like coming here and having Stark pull apart his arm, doesn’t like being sedated when Stark and Banner dig into the shoulder joint, doesn’t like spending nights in this bullseye target of a tower even if Pepper assures him it’s one of the safest places in the world. He doesn’t like it any more than Stark does, and he’s still not sure why Stark bothers doing it.

But it’s better with Dr Banner there. Stark is less twitchy even if his mouth still runs at the same pace. There’s something about Stark that’s unnerving. Maybe it’s that he senses Stark’s own unease with him, even if he covers it well, full of brash words. Maybe it’s the metallic flashes he sees out of the corners of his vision around him. The last time he left the tower, he heard the squeal of tires in his dreams for three nights.

“Breathe in, Bucky,” Dr Banner says calmly. “In, two, three, out, two, three. There you go. Okay, now relax your hand. One finger at a time. Let it loose.”

Startled, Bucky looks down at his arm. His fingers are clenched into a fist. Stark watches him from a few feet away with dark, sharp eyes.

“Sorry,” Bucky mutters. He rubs his right hand over his face.

“Right, sensitive spot there,” Stark says warily. “Noted. You make a note of that too, Barnes. In case it happens again.”

Bucky turns his head abruptly and meets his eyes. “Will there be a next time? Do I have to come back? My arm is working fine.”

Stark picks his tools back up. “Dunno. I think most of that depends on you.”

The studied nonchalant indifference of his tone makes something small and ugly flare in Bucky. “It’s your arm, isn’t it? You created it. Put it on me. How can you not know?”

Stark’s fingers tighten around his blowtorch. The flame jumps out, blue with heat. “You think I – Christ on a crutch.” All indifference is gone from his voice now. He sounds incredulous. “No. No. Fuck no.” He stabs the flame from the blowtorch into the air at Bucky. “You are one weapon,” he says, his voice breaking on itself, “that cannot be laid at my doorstep.”

“Tony,” Dr Banner warns.

Bucky finds that he is holding himself motionless. Taut. He is aware of everything in the room, Dummy frozen in the corner, Dr Banner’s long calming breaths, Stark’s shoulders slumping down his back.

“Yeah, Brucie, I got it,” Stark says. “Ready, Sergeant?” He lowers his mask over his face to shield his eyes from the flare of his small blowtorch. It muffles his words. “I don’t think we’ll be able to go on like this much longer now. The leashes we’re all on are getting shorter. And maybe they should be. Things are shifting around us, Bucky boyo.”

Bucky looks away as Stark goes back to work on his arm. In the corner of the workshop, there are projects stacked. A quiver of arrows, a stack of small coin-shaped disks with a small spider etched into them, Captain America’s cowl. A chill runs down his spine.

+++

High in Avenger’s Tower that night, the stars hidden even from his sight by Manhattan’s light pollution, he dreams of bright sunlight on white snow. There is blood on the snow. It’s a trail of blood, he sees. It’s coming from his arm. Someone is screaming.

When he gasps himself awake, he curls up into the spot where Maximilian and Steve should be.

+++

After he’s showered the plane off his skin and played squeaky ball with Maximilian, he goes to the teashop. Steve’s grin when the bell above the door tinkles at his entry is blinding. Bucky blinks back the image that is suddenly superimposed on Steve’s frame, one where he’s younger, paler, smaller, with hair flopping into his eyes but with the same face-splitting grin.

Sauntering up to the counter, Bucky leans over it and pulls at Steve’s shirt to draw him closer for a kiss. “Thanks for taking care of my dog,” he says into his mouth. He can feel Steve’s smile against his lips. It feels good.

He waits until Steve gets a break between customers and can come over to talk to him. While he waits, he looks out the shop window. He’s in his favorite seat, his back to the wall, with a view of the door where he can amuse himself by watching people come in and making up stories about their lives. He likes to whisper these to Steve when he sits with him, just so that Steve will laugh and shake his head and say, “Bucky, that’s Amber Jones, and she’s probably never been more than one hundred miles from this town, much less been a pro surfer thirty years ago,” and Bucky will say, “But look at the muscles on her legs! It’s either that or triathlete, and you gotta admit that that’s not likely.”

Steve will then shake his head and say, “Right, because that’s less likely than pro surfer. You always did—” He clears his throat. “You got a good imagination on you, Buck.”

Tonight, Steve’s phone buzzes on the table between them after a few minutes. He’s been asking how Bucky’s trip was.

“Tiring,” Bucky tells him. “They have to look at my arm every so often. The doctors told me that I had to make sure it was properly integrated to function fully since it’s experimental tech. I always get the feeling like there are more people in the room than I can see. Cameras, maybe. Reports that are going – somewhere. And the guy who does most of the stuff – I get the feeling he doesn’t like me very much.”

Steve’s mouth tightens. “Why do you think that?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Just a feeling. Like we have a past that I don’t remember.” Stark is a man who holds most of the world in the palm of his hand. He’s not a coward or cruel. He’s helped Bucky, especially back when he first woke up and he had a strange metal arm welded into his spine and no idea what to do with it. These things make the feeling that much worse.

“He’s not the only one I get that from. Like they know things about me that I don’t. Sometimes even strangers on the street, the way they look at me, especially if they see my arm. I don’t think anymore it’s just curiosity or discomfort about a metal hand.” He pulls his hand out from under the table and lets it rest next to his teacup. Both he and Steve stare at it a moment.

Bucky clears his throat. “Saw my friend Natasha. Did sushi with her. She’s the one who helped me get Maximilian. She keeps saying she’s going to come out here to visit. I think you’d like her. She’s the only person I remember from before, in a way.”

Steve looks over his shoulder as the bell rings. A mom with her three kids comes in. “Duty calls.” He pushes himself up from the table. “Someday you’ll have to tell me how you two met.”

+++

The next day is September 1st. “It’ll be apple picking season soon,” Mrs. McNearney tells him. “You and your young man had better go and bring me back apples fresh off the trees. I want them dusty with sunshine, you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bucky helps her out of her chair.

“And I expect to meet Steve soon, you know. Now, did you go and visit your sister yet? She’s waiting for you.”

+++

His headaches are getting worse as Labor Day draws nearer. There are times when he’s under a car and the screech of the machines in the garage brings tears to his eyes. He doesn’t let them fall. It feels as though someone is pounding on the side of his head with an icepick, from the inside out.

Steve brings him cold presses made of washcloths if he’s around when they happen. He’s being called away more and more these days. He tries to hide his worried expression from Bucky.

Bucky chuckles, immediately gritting his teeth at the wave of nausea that brings, and breathes out gently so as not to jostle his head, “You’re not fooling anyone, pal.”

“I’ll be better tomorrow,” Bucky promises. He’s taken four Excedrin Migraine that Steve brought him and choked down some bread and cheese. Angie told him that it was bad to take Excedrin on an empty stomach. “Oh yeah,” Steve had said, like this was news to him but didn’t want to show it.

There’s a parade through the center of town for Labor Day. “My ma would’ve like that,” Steve told him. “She was a straight out socialist back in the day. If she wasn’t working, she used to take me to parades in the city.”

“Least we can do is go to Havensport’s, then.” There’s not much Bucky wouldn’t do to put that shine in Steve’s eyes.

+++

Labor Day is bright and muggy. Bucky wears shorts and one of his thin, long-sleeved tees, and Steve wears a baseball cap low over his face with his sunglasses. They both have the day off. Around them, children shriek and weave between adults’ legs. The high school marching band trumpets on by. Neighbors chitchat about the cookouts to come that afternoon. Angie and Jake invited Steve and Bucky to theirs.

After the parade, they go back to Bucky’s house. He shuts the blinds in his bedroom and turns on the fan. During the parade, he watched how people around them looked at Steve, saw how their eyes lingered on the bulge of his arms and the tightness of his broad chest before dipping down quickly, and Bucky wanted to jump him right there and then. Steve’s hand slipping into his and holding tight kept him still.

In the house, though, he is free to touch in all the ways he wants to. His teeth catch at the smooth flesh of Steve’s torso as his hands slide down his flanks. The warm, humid scent of Steve’s arousal, of Steve himself, rises through the cotton of his underwear. Bucky knows he’s wanted this man for as long as he’s known what it is to want someone, something, and that can’t be right, these impossible things.

Steve’s voice when he says Bucky’s name is a curl of contentment, half drunk on sex and love.

They don’t make it to the cookout.

+++

There are more cars passing through Havensport. Bucky has dinner with Jake and Angie a few weeks into September. Jake says it’s good for local business to have more people swinging through town. Angie doesn’t like it. “I’m all for people moving in and settling down,” she says, with a half-apologetic smile at Bucky. “But strangers coming in? We’re not even on the highway. The nearest McDonald’s is in Millsburgh. Though we do have the Wendy’s. The only thing we’re on the map for is being one of the best school districts in the state.”

She puts a smile on her face. “Enough of that. Where’s Steve off to this time?”

Bucky leans back in his chair and tries to relax his shoulders down his back. His left shoulder sits heavy in the socket carved out for it. It sends a twinge down his spine. As always, he’s stuffed to the gills after Angie’s fabulous food. He never knows how to repay them for all they share with him, their home, their warmth, their welcome. He’d brought them a peck of apples after he dragged Steve to the orchard half an hour down the road for Mrs. McNearney, and then three early orange pumpkins they’d picked only yesterday from the U-Pick fields at Jackson’s Pumpkin Farm.

Mickey carved one up already and it’s sitting on their front step. When Angie opened the door for Bucky earlier, she’d shaken her head. “It’s never going to last until Halloween.”

“I’ll bring you another,” Bucky offered. A sudden, cool breeze caught the back of his neck.

“Well come on in,” she said. “Would you believe we’ve finally had to shut the windows at night?”

At the table, Bucky tells them that Steve is in New York. “He’s doing something for his old employer. Not his boss exactly, some of the guys he used to work with. They’re not letting him go very well.”

“You don’t sound like you like them very much.”

Bucky glances over at Jake. “I don’t.” He realizes his head is pounding again, like there’s something in there that wants to get out.

“Sorry,” he says as he swallows down some Advil. “The docs warned me that I might have persistent headaches. I’d hoped they’d be better by now.”

“I’ve seen you in the shop. They seem worse lately. I thought you were going to pass out the other day. You went white as a sheet.” Jake chuckles. “I got ready to catch you when you went down.”

“Nah, they’re alright,” Bucky lies.

Angie brings out chocolate cake. “This should help.” Her husband throws a skeptical look at her. “Don’t they say that chocolate makes headaches worse?”

“Hush your mouth,” she laughs.

+++

He hasn’t been to the grocery store recently. It’s been a few weeks. Even though Steve’s not around all the time, he’s there enough that Bucky hasn’t needed to sit on the floor next to the bread beneath the old-time comfort of the florescent lights. Most places don’t have them anymore these days, he’s noticing.

The night is still warm when he walks out into it. In the last week of September, the days should still be hot but it should be cooling off after the sun sets. Bucky can’t help but envision the whole thing as a hanging time, like a fruit suspended on its stem becoming almost too heavy to bear, this perfect summer ripening into a glorious fall that must, inevitably, collapse under its own weight. The leaves will turn and drift down, the pears and apples will fall from their trees, the last tomatoes will blacken on their stems, and pumpkins will turn the fields orange as their vines wither away. Frost will creep across the lawns and Maximilian will lift his paws against the cold earth.

But not tonight. Tonight the cicadas still sing.

Bucky’s only a few blocks away from the grocery store when he sees a shadow where there shouldn’t be one. He stops and pushes his hair back out of his eyes. The shadow is gone. There’s nothing but a dim yellow circle on black from the streetlight. He tilts his head.

He decides to keep heading for the store and its welcoming lights. Rolling his shoulders back, he keeps walking. The cicadas have gone silent and the night is still. Bucky is the only thing moving in it.

When he gets to the grocery store, Cindy calls out to him. “Well would ya look at what the cat dragged in? How you been, kiddo?”

Bucky lets the automatic door swing shut behind him. He smiles and walks over to her register.

“You and Steve too good for the likes of us now that you finally pulled your heads out of your asses?” Her words are harsh but hold no sting. “Too busy at night, more like.” She winks at him.

Bucky ducks his head. He thinks maybe the tips of his ears are red. “How’s Madison doing? She surviving the first few weeks of school?”

He whiles away an hour there between staring at brightly colored boxes in the cereal aisle and Cindy’s stories about Madison’s first trip to the principal’s office. “First for this year, at least,” she sighs, and Bucky hears the way she carefully doesn’t mention Bob in any of her ramblings. His mother used to do the same.

“You’re ridiculous,” he tells himself as he picks up a box of Raisin Bran for the dog and Lucky Charms for Steve. He had confessed, finally, to Bucky that he’d only bought the electric blue Mini-Wheats to mess with Bucky. “They don’t taste anything like blueberries,” he’d said with a face.

Cindy laughs her tired smoker’s laugh at the cereal and asks how the little guy is doing. “You need to bring Maximilian in here soon.”

He’s still making promises to her as the automatic door shuts behind him. He waves to her through the window and swings the lightweight bags on his way home. He glances up, habitually, as he walks past the teashop. There are no lights on in Steve’s place. Bucky figures he must be asleep. Steve sleeps just fine once he’s out, but he doesn’t sleep very long. Luckily, Bucky matches him in this. Whoever said that the body needs eight hours of sleep at night to be fully rested didn’t measure either one of them very well. Of course, Bucky’s chronic bad dreams and insomnia don’t help anything either.

Something brushes past his arm. It could be a bat, a moth even. The arm can be very sensitive. Some sixth sense tells Bucky it’s not.

He whirls, his arm striking out even as his leg comes up into a high kick aimed squarely at chest level for a man. It connects with flesh. Someone grunts as the wind is knocked out his lungs and he stumbles back. The bags with the cereal lie on the ground. Another man springs forward, and there are three more behind him. Their black gear blends into the night, but the moonlight glints dully off their weapons.

Bucky’s body lashes out. It moves in ways that he didn’t know it could. His metal hand fists itself around someone’s throat until the man is deadweight, unconscious and hanging from his hand like an unwanted appendage. Bucky drops him in a heap on the ground and steps over him. He yanks guns and knives from their hands, his body a blur of motion. He barely notices that he’s not even breathing hard. He simply punches through them all, twisting before he’s aware he needs to so that he can dodge a blow, using the arm as a deadly weapon, stoically ignoring the punishing blows they land on him, the places their knives cut through his thin clothing and into his skin, the bite of their taser that tries and fails to take him down. He doesn’t know why, but he does all this silently. It seems important that no one hear this.

When it is over and they are all lying in a groaning heap at his feet, he looks down at them, uncomprehending. “Shut up,” he growls at one. He kicks him viciously in the side, and the man’s face goes lax.

He blinks. He stands there for a few minutes, long enough to realize that he should move, and does so, almost blindly. His feet take him home. Later it will dawn on him that going straight to his house after he’s been attacked might have been stupid. Later he’ll wonder why it didn’t occur to him to go to the police station, which was only two blocks from where he’d been standing.

He sits on the kitchen floor with Maximilian on his lap. An hour before dawn, he stops his rhythmic stroking of the dog and stands to look out the kitchen window. There’s a bright dot above the horizon, brighter than any of the stars. “Look, Maximilian,” he says. He can hear the wonder in his own voice. “There’s Venus racing ahead of the sun.”

+++

The pounding on his door draws him out of his stupor. He hears a key in the lock. Steve is calling out his name as he enters. He sounds agitated. Bucky doesn’t know why he bothered knocking at all.

“Sorry,” Steve begins as he sees Bucky standing at the kitchen window. “I shouldn’t have knocked and woken your neighbors. Is your phone charged? You didn’t answ – Bucky? Bucky, you’re bleeding.”

Bucky looks down at his chest. His shirt is torn and there’s dried blood all over his clothes. His skin is slashed open in several places. “Oh yeah,” he says calmly. “I need to shower. I have to be to work in an hour.”

All the expression falls away from Steve’s face. Left is a set mask, something firm and unyielding with anger swirling in his blue eyes.

“No,” Bucky says, “no. Don’t look like that.” He places his hand on Steve’s chest, spreading his metal fingers wide over his heart. “Look.” He points out the window. “It’s the wolf star. Venus. She comes at dawn in autumn.”

Steve echoes him. His accent is pretty good. “Bucky,” he says cautiously. “What happened?” Despite Steve’s efforts to sound composed, his voice isn’t quite steady. It’s a mix of rage and determination and something that sounds like heartache. Bucky is unable to puzzle it all out. His head feels foggy.

“Attempted mugging, I think.” Bucky frowns. “I thought there were six of them but I must have been imagining things in the dark. That’s impossible. I couldn’t have taken out that many. Maybe there were two? I guess I haven’t forgotten all my training yet.” His voice is wry. “They didn’t take my wallet.”

Steve’s jaw is clenched. “Did they say anything?”

“No. Should I report it? I’d hate to think of someone else getting in trouble.”

“Jesus.” Steve pulls him into a hug. Bucky returns it, not because he feels like he needs a hug but because he’s always happy for an excuse to wrap his arms around Steve and lean into his solid bulk. He’s real in a way that the night has not been. “Why don’t you shower? I’ll take care of it,” Steve says.

+++

After work that day, Bucky stops by the house so he can feed the dog and change his bandages. Maximilian scarfs down his food, as always, while Bucky looks at the skin on his chest where he was knifed. The cuts are sealing themselves together in red lines. They must not have been as deep as they looked at first. He puts the box of bandaids away and then goes over to the teashop, taking his book and dog with him.

There’s a man in a suit standing at the counter where the drinks are served. He’s talking to Steve in a voice low enough that no one else is paying him any attention. He doesn’t turn around when Bucky comes in, but he stops talking before Bucky can listen in.

Bucky doesn’t normally try to hear other people’s conversations, not even Steve’s. Especially not Steve’s, maybe. It makes something cold creep down his spine, like he might hear something he’d regret knowing. But this is the same man who earlier in the day had walked into Sottosanti’s. He’d asked politely for an oil change. “I’ll wait,” he’d said after he was told it would be at least an hour. He sat in their crappy little waiting room with its faded chairs and burnt coffee and the smell of gummy oil and the TV airing some home improvement show. After looking around and taking it all in, he’d pulled out a tablet and appeared to focus on it.

There was something about him that made Bucky sure that he was as perfectly aware of his surroundings as any soldier would be, even if the suit screamed government man. He’d seen quite a few of those suits while he’d been in the hospital. They’d asked him to sign a lot of papers. Natasha had sat in her chair in the corner and rolled her eyes. “Right,” she’d said. “Because it will be your forms that keep him in line.”

“Hush,” Pepper had scolded. “Let them have their formalities. That’s the bargain he struck.”

Since Bucky didn’t remember striking any bargain, he had to assume that he’d done it before he lost his memory or that they weren’t talking about him at all. Maybe it was the captain he’d heard them mention a few times. He didn’t ask. He just wanted out of the hospital, away from its sterile white walls and squeaky floors and shiny instruments. They made his gut clench.

When the oil change was done, Mr. Sottosanti asked Bucky to go out front and finish up with him. “Sure, boss,” he’d said, wiping his hands down on a rag and dragging in a deep breath.

The man put his tablet away and approached the counter. “Friend of mine who passed through here told me about this place. He said you did good work on his car.” He smiled mildly. “I warned him not to drive that Challenger across country.”

Bucky thought back a few months to the start of summer and a guy with a purple duffle bag, a small arrow embroidered down in the corner, and a far-seeing gaze. It seemed like a very long time ago. Town was quieter then. So was Bucky’s brain. “You’re all set,” he said to the suit. Bucky didn’t see any bruises on him and when he’d walked over to pay, he hadn’t moved stiffly. There was no reason to think he was directly connected to the mugging last night. He was just another stranger passing through.

Watching him now at the counter with Steve, Bucky still doesn’t think he was one of the men who attacked him. But he’s making Steve’s mouth turn down unhappily and his shoulders tense. Bucky doesn’t like the way the man in the suit looks perfectly calm and composed while Steve’s face grows ever darker.

Bucky doesn’t approach. He sits down in his usual seat with Maximilian at his feet, and opens his book as though he’s reading.

The man says quietly, “The clock is ticking.”

Bucky looks out the window. Across the square on the north side where it’s shaded by the shadows of buildings, there are a few leaves on the maple tree that are orange-tipped. He shouldn’t be able to overhear this hushed conversation, but he can. He flicks his eyes back to the counter.

Steve’s jaw is set. “I don’t give a damn about your clock.”

“It’s not my clock, Steve. Don’t pin this one on us. If anything, we’ve bought you time. You knew someone would have to come calling eventually.”

“No,” Steve tells him.

“We need you.”

“Find somebody else. I told you, I’m done. As long as – ” He cuts himself off abruptly. Bucky looks down at his book hastily.

In the same low voice, as though they’re speaking about the weather, the man says, “You can go to them or they will come to you. That’s the choice you have. And if they come to you, there will be bystanders caught up in it.”

“No one’s going to get hurt,” Steve says, like it’s a vow, and the man taps his fingers once on the counter.

“That’s not for you to decide. You know I’m not in favor of those Accords, either. But they will find a way to rope you in. So do it on your own terms. Better to be a hero, Steve, than a vigilante.”

Steve smiles tightly at him. “I’ll get you your coffee to go.”

As Steve works the machines, the man turns around. Bucky doesn’t bother hiding the fact that he’s watching him. A faint smile crosses the man’s face. He nods his head in acknowledgement.

“Here you go,” Steve says. He holds out the coffee.

“For what it’s worth,” the suit tells him as he takes it, “I’m sorry. If I had time to give, I would.”

+++

Steve bends down next to Maximilian and pets him for a long time. “Someone you used to work for?” Bucky asks finally. “Sounds like he wants you back. He was in the car shop today.”

Steve’s head jerks up. “What did he say?”

Bucky shrugs. “Nothing. Just got an oil change.”

Sitting down at the table, Steve makes a noise caught between a sigh and a laugh. “I told Coulson that I had quit. Told them all. They keep calling it a ‘leave of absence.’ I go help out when something big comes up, but other than that – ” He stares at his hands. “I wish they’d all go away.”

Bucky turns his head and looks across the peaceful town square. “Some people get to be the ones who sit back and let life come to them. They get to enjoy it. Other people have to be the ones who create the spaces for all those people to sit and enjoy life in.” He keeps his voice mild even though his insides are roiling about. “Seems to me like you might be one those who have to make space for everyone else.” Without looking, he stretches out his left hand and blindly finds Steve’s hand. He wraps his pinky around Steve’s thumb. He can feel the pulse there. It matches the beat of his heart.

“Which one are you?” Steve asks him.

Bucky swallows. “Trying very hard to be one of the people who sits back and enjoys life.”

Steve exhales. It sends a long, slow shudder through his body that Bucky feels reverberate through his metal arm. “God,” he says, “Buck. Bucky, I’m pulling you down. I’m gonna pull you down.”

“Hey,” Bucky says sharply. “None of that.” He gets up and moves in front of Steve’s chair. Crouching down with bended knees, he lets his hands weigh heavy on Steve’s solid legs. He looks up at Steve, straight in the eye. “If you could do it all over again, make all the choices you’ve made in your life, would you do it the same?”

Steve’s silent for a long time. He finally says, “I should say yes.”

“Would you do it the same?” Bucky’s question is firm.

Steve jerks his head sideways, never breaking eye contact. “No,” he answers, his voice just above a whisper. “God help me, no.”

Bucky thinks his cry to god comes less from any belief in some supreme being and is more a quiet gasp of horror. “Ask me,” he demands. He ignores Steve’s flinch and tightens his hands above Steve’s knees.

“Don’t make me. It’s not a fair question. You don’t remember most of your life. You can’t possibly answer it.”

“Ask.”

Steve’s eyes are red-rimmed. He shakes his head. “I can’t.”

+++

“Let’s walk,” Bucky suggests a few evenings later. They’re going over to Mrs. McNearney’s for dinner. She’s doing up roast chicken and potatoes. “And I’ll figure something out to do with all these darn squash you brought me from your captain,” she said with her hands on her frail hips. “Can’t eat zucchini bread every day, I suppose. I hear vegetable pasta’s becoming a thing. Think I’m too old to learn about that one?”

At six, it’s still full light out. The moon is coming up low over the horizon, pale against the bright sky. Steve waves across the street to someone he knows or who knows him. They pass the ice cream parlor thronging with kids and their parents, and Bucky smiles. It’ll stay open as long as summer lingers. He takes Steve’s hand and pulls him along. “C’mon, walk a little faster. We can stroll home. I don’t want to be late.”

Steve laughs. “I thought I was the one who was supposed to be nervous here. I’m the guy in the hot seat meeting the surrogate grandma.”

“Oh, please. She already loves you. You’ve bribed her with enough fruits and veggies for the last two months. She knows I’m just the delivery boy.”

Steve charms Mrs. McNearney over dinner, of course. Pulls her chair out for her at her scratched up but gleaming dining room table, eats seconds of everything, and admires the pictures she has hanging on her fridge of her youngest granddaughter and first great-grandson.

She refuses to let Steve help clear the table, but does allow Bucky to bring a pile of dirty plates to the sink. “Be a dear and take the pie out of the fridge for me, please. I’m just going to whip up some fresh cream for it. It’s been so long since I had two handsome young men to spend an evening with.” Her smile is radiant. “Now shoo. Take these little plates with you and the pie server, and I’ll be right along.”

He takes the plates, but not before wrapping his arm around her thin shoulder. “Not longer than it’s been since I had dinner with a beautiful woman.”

She shakes her head at him but her smile gets even bigger. “You haven’t lost your famous charm, James Buchanan Barnes,” she tells him.

He pauses in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. The sun is setting. Its pink-gold rays cut through the window screen, scattering themselves on the table and glinting over Steve’s hair. The expression on his face makes Bucky’s breath catch.

“You’re a good man, Bucky.”

Bucky doesn’t know how to respond. He says instead, “Come over and look at Mrs Mac’s wedding photo.” It’s on the hutch. Her hair is dark and her skin is smooth, and Joe is beaming at her side. Standing there, in this house with its frilly curtains and too-many porcelain knickknacks as the day draws to an end, Bucky wishes he could freeze this moment in time so that it could last forever. “Maybe it will,” he whispers, almost to himself, and Steve looks at him curiously but doesn’t speak, only lays his hand on Bucky’s cheek and breathes in the scent of his skin under his jawline.

+++

The last time Bucky had dinner with Jake and Angie, when they’d asked why Steve wasn’t with him, he’d explained that Steve’s old coworkers had called him back for some freelance work. “National security stuff.”

“You don’t sound like you like them very much.”

Bucky glances over at Jake. “I don’t.”

“Sweetheart, a man who wants to come home will always find a way to come on home.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

Angie exchanges a look with her husband. She says, “Steve’s work. You have a lot of the same skills as him. Is that something they’d let you help out with, if the need came up?”

The question is innocent. It shouldn’t make bright lights spike behind Bucky’s eyeballs. He winces and stays very still, waiting for it to pass. He has to consciously keep his metal fingers from splintering Angie’s chair.

“Honey, stop trying to steal Bucky away from the carshop. We need him there,” Jake says, throwing a worried glance at Bucky.

They told him, before he bought the house, before they let him out of that hospital. “We might need you back one day, son. You go, you rest and recover. Get on with your life and don’t worry about us. We’ll come looking if that time ever comes.”

So no, he’s not worried that Steve won’t come back to him. He’s worried that they’ll come looking for him, too. He thinks of the man in the broken down Challenger earlier in the summer, the man in the suit after Labor Day. Steve would say they were here for him, not Bucky. Bucky isn’t so sure.

+++

No, that’s a lie, too. He’s not worried that Steve won’t come back to him, and he’s not worried that the suits or their armored goons will come looking for him to drag him off to wherever Steve keeps running back to.

He’s worried – afraid, terrified – that one day, he’ll follow Steve anyway. That he’ll leave this quiet, happy life behind, and pick up and choose to go after him.

“Shit, Maximilian.” He pets the little guy softly and stares into the dark night from his front steps.

+++

The car shop is quiet Tuesday afternoon. A few oil changes, a set of new brakes for Gary Hollenbeck. He’s been tired all day. There’s an itch at the base of his skull, a prickle that won’t stop teasing his muscles into tenseness. “Hey, boss,” Bucky says. “You mind if I take the rest of the day? I got something I gotta do.”

Mr Sottosanti waves him off.

Bucky picks up his tools and places them back on their shelves. He straightens them. He wipes his hands carefully. He inhales. It’s a long, shuddery breath.

More leaves are starting to turn. None have fallen yet, but it’s just a matter of time.

“You headed out?” Jake clasps his shoulder on his way past.

Bucky flinches minutely under his hand.

Jake doesn’t seem to notice. “What, got a hot date or something? Steve off today?”

“No,” Bucky says. He swallows against his dry throat. “I’m going to go visit my sister.”

Mr Sottosanti’s head pops up sharply.

+++

He drives three towns over to the address Natasha had given him months ago. “When the time comes,” she’d said, pressing the slip of paper into his hand. He leaves the car outside the gates on the side of the road, walks up the drive.

He stands for a long time in front of Becca’s grave. The stone tells him that she had a long life. He only missed her by a few years.

+++

The night before, he sat with Steve on the front steps of his porch. His white picket fence gleamed dully under the streetlamp. On the mat next to him, Maximilian snorted in his sleep. Bucky looked out into the dark night. The stars pricked at the black of the sky. “You ever get that little itch on the back of your scalp, like the world is watching? Or waiting? I wish I knew what for.” He laughed a little at himself. “If wishes were fishes, I suppose.”

Steve’s breath was a long sigh. His voice, when he spoke, was low. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I never thought I’d have forever. I knew I wasn’t going to make it that long.” He chuckled, wry. “Though if my best friend had anything to say about it, I was damn well going to try.”

“Just for him?” Bucky said skeptically.

“Naw.” His shrug was somehow sheepish and determined at the same time. “For me, too. I was always the one getting into fights, the troublemaker, the one who people said was too big for his britches. People said I was dragging him down, that nice boy.”

“No,” Bucky said, sure as he’s been of anything, “it wasn’t like that. You were one of the things that made him hold his head high each day.”

Steve’s smile was like a ghost of a smile. “I don’t know about that. But – but I’d like to think it’s true. He was meant for better things. I was just damn lucky my life got to overlap with his.” He looked over suddenly at Bucky. “For whatever space of time. It was never going to be forever. I just wanted long enough.”

Bucky glanced down. “It’s never long enough.”

On the street, a lamp flickered and blinked off for a moment before coming back on. It cast a dim yellow glow on the dark street, like a moon swinging low in the sky before resuming her nightly spin.

“Tell me again,” Steve said. He laced his fingers through Bucky’s and pointed their joined hand to the sky. “That one.” He traced the big dipper.

“It’s part of the great bear.”

“Bol'shaya medveditsa,” Steve repeated.

“Almost,” Bucky said. “Roll your tongue around the ‘l’ a little bit more. Like this. Большая Медведица.”

“And there’s malaya medveditsa.”

“His little brother. Малая Медведица.” Bucky echoed Steve. “You remember the name for Venus? The wolf star of the morning?”

Steve leaned into Bucky’s side. “Volch’ia Zvezda.”

+++

“We met in the hospital,” he told Steve, about how he met Natasha. “She was the first – only – person I recognized. I didn’t even know myself. No one would tell me anything. They asked me all the questions and gave me none of the answers. Medical staff, therapists, people in suits. Later, they told me that was because every time they gave me all the answers, I went to sleep with them and woke up with nothing the next morning. My mind wiping itself clean every night. To deny some reality I can’t face, to protect me from something horrible in my head?”

He thinks that someone finally told them to stop. Stop telling him about the past so that he could move forward into the present. He doesn’t know how he feels about that.

“I don’t have a fucking clue about how cratered my brain is or why. I only know that the story they finally fed me isn’t true. Too much doesn’t add up, not anymore. But I damn well wanted to believe in it. So I can’t tell you about how I met Natasha, not the real story. I just know that she’s my little spider.”

Across the table, Steve’s eyes were troubled, but about his mouth hovered a tremor of hope, uncertain as it was. “You’ve started speaking in Russian sometimes,” he said. “Do you hear it? Malen'kii pauk, your little spider.” He stared down at the wood of the table and then steels himself, resolutely looks back up. “Bucky,” he said, “I —”

In a flash, Bucky stretched across the table and pressed his finger across Steve’s lips, cutting him off. He shook his head. “Let it wait. Whatever it is, it will keep just a little while longer. Won’t it?” He couldn’t keep the pleading from his voice.

“You’ll hate me,” Steve told him.

Bucky looked at him for a long, hushed moment. “Then trust me enough to be the judge of that,” he finally replied.

+++

He doesn’t go to the teashop the evening of the day he visits his sister’s grave. Steve lets himself into the house after his shift is over at 8:00 pm. Bucky is curled up in bed, cradled around a thousand memories. His head is quiet now. There is no pounding, for what seems like the first time in months or since he woke up.

Images ricochet around his skull. Waking up each morning in a sterile hospital, asking to be told about the chair and the ice and the assassinations. Afghani mountains under the Soviet regime, a Dodge Challenger on the California freeway, a dark-haired woman with blood bubbling from her mouth whispering “Tony” with her last breath, blood gushing from his little spider’s abdomen after he’s shot his mark through her, the ballet and tea and so much pale skin under his hands many years before. Steve is smaller in his mind. His nose is bloody again, probably from punching Tommy Mullins in the face for the third time this week, or trying to.

He's afraid to fall asleep for fear that it will be gone again in the morning. So many times, he has gone into sleep and woken up a blank slate, been wiped and iced and thawed out a new man again. Maybe it was the only thing his body could do, in the end, even once he was out of HYDRA’s grasp. He screws his fists into his eyes. “Not again,” he whispers into the dusky evening.

He hears Steve’s footsteps on the stairs. He wants to shout at him, “What did you think was going to happen? Did you have a fairytale ending planned out for us?”

Steve would reply, “I was weak. I couldn’t stand it, how you woke up confused and smiling each morning. How each day after we told you everything, the way you’d freeze into a statute and stare silently at the wall. No more smiles. How you’d scream in your sleep each night like you were witnessing the torments of the damned souls that Father Peter would tell us about when we were kids.”

He would say, “I know how selfish it was. Natasha was furious when I came out here. After I pleaded with her not to tell you, to let you just wake up and have a chance at a regular life for as long as you could. She wanted me to leave you alone.”

He would say, “I thought perhaps you were punishing yourself. It felt like you were punishing me, too, and maybe I welcomed that in a way.”

He would say, “I couldn’t stay away, though. I never could, from you. I wanted you to have a home to come back to when you were ready. You would have done the same thing for me. You were always taking care of me.”

He would strip out of his clothes, down to his underwear, and lie down beside Bucky, carefully not touching him. And he would say, “I wanted to steal just a few months for us. It seemed like the least we deserved.”

Bucky would scoff into his pillow. “You know as well as I do it’s never about what people deserve. We’re no different from anyone else. If I got what I deserve, I’d be suffering a thousand hells right now.”

Steve would be propped up on his elbow beside him in bed. “Aren’t you?” His voice would be nearly inaudible, even to Bucky’s enhanced ears.

Listening now to Steve’s footfalls, he closes his eyes. It doesn’t matter; a hundred dead faces skim the top of his eyeballs anyway. His hand feels bloody.

+++

He wakes on silent scream. There’s wetness by his ear, and he realizes there are tears running down his face. He reaches across his body with his right hand for his arm and finds the cool metal of it, squeezing his hand into a fist just to see if he still can. He doesn’t breathe out until he’s sure it’s there.

Beside him, Steve rolls over. “Bucky?” he murmurs in a voice full of sleep.

Bucky rubs his hands over his face. He tastes salt. “Just a dream. I was falling. Down, a long way down.”

Steve tosses his arm over him, as though he could wrap him up. He presses up close to him, as though he’s going to meld right through his skin into his skeletal frame. His breath is hot on the side of Bucky’s neck. It melts the ice clinging to Bucky’s hairline. “Tell me about it,” he says. His voice is barely audible. It sounds thick.

He shakes his head. “I think you already know.” Steve’s body flinches at his side.

Bucky is trembling. He can see his own body: his hands in the dark, his scarred torso when he lifts his head, his legs corded with HYDRA-built muscle, his bony toes. He can feel the rise and fall of his chest, the sweat of his body half under Steve’s, the dull pain of his arm welded into his spinal column. These things don’t matter, though. He has woken up insubstantial, as though he is only a ghost. The place he thought he had in this world, it doesn’t exist. It never did, not for him. He has been a shadow slipping through the long decades.

He needs to feel real. Everything else can wait. “Steve,” he whispers, taking hold of his hand and bringing it down his front. The slide of Steve’s palm and fingers over scarred skin is a searing heat that licks at the edges of the long cold in Bucky’s body.

“Anything you want,” Steve says into his neck. His lips trail dazzling warmth against the seam where metal meets flesh.

“Then roll back over.” He kicks his thin boxers off, tugging Steve’s down far enough that Steve gets the hint and pushes them the rest of the way down. Bucky rolls them over and pulls himself in close, his chest flush against Steve’s back. He slicks his hand and strokes Steve’s barely hard dick. He’s almost sorry to feel it grow thick against his fingers. Sometimes, when he’s patient enough, he’ll kneel between Steve’s legs and simply cradle him in the warmth of his mouth, letting him swell slowly as the involuntary reflexes of Bucky’s mouth, the wet heat of it, the very intimacy of the act, create an unstoppable reaction in Steve.

Steve’s hips make tiny motions back against his body as Bucky teases him. The metal of his hand is smoother than flesh but the fine plates that make up his fingers create ridges that undulate sinuously against the sensitive velvet skin of his cock. Withdrawing his hand, he coats his own dick with slick and wipes his hand between Steve’s thighs. Steve shudders when he brushes past the wrinkled sac of his balls.

He slides his dick between Steve’s legs. “Hold tight,” he says in a voice he almost doesn’t recognize. Steve’s body encases his. The heat of him, the wet slide, the jerk of his hips, the thrust of Bucky’s own. Around him, the world is disintegrating and he knows only this. Here, only this is real, Steve’s body, his harsh breath, the familiar smell of him, sex-drenched now, but still clean and fresh and real. His flesh against Steve’s, his dick dipping between Steve’s thighs, his hand losing its rhythm on Steve’s cock – these are the things that anchor him to the earth as the rest all falls away.

In this place, time is not measured by a tyrannical clock, or the constant tick of human lives, or even the swift passing of the seasons. It is counted only by the thrum of Steve’s heartbeat, alive and strong. Many beats go by. He hears Steve saying his name, from far away. He feels Steve gently turn him and cover him with the solid weight of his body. His hands are on his face, grounding, reassuring, as he asks, “Are you back with me?”

Bucky’s breath hitches. “I’m here,” he answers. He falls asleep with dark blankness behind his eyelids and the steady pulse of Steve’s heart against his hand.

+++

The sun is barely rising when he swings his legs over the side of the bed with a groan. Maximilian jumps down, thudding solidly, and tromps on down the stairs. “I gotta let him out,” he tells Steve, patting his ass.

Steve swats at him half-heartedly as he mumbles something. His face is still buried in his pillow.

Downstairs, Bucky opens the back door and immediately shivers. Maximilian hops down the three steps outside. Rubbing his eyes, Bucky follows. He steps onto the lawn, expecting soft grass to cushion his feet, but instead stiff blades poke into his skin. He opens his eyes and looks down with dismay. The grass has gone crunchy. Frost has knit the entire lawn a lace cap.

A deep red leaf drifts down from the oak tree at the far reach of his yard.

Steve comes up silently behind him and rests his chin on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky thinks of a time when he couldn’t do such a thing, when the top of his head barely reached Bucky’s shoulder.

Inside the house, through the door left open with the lingering habits of summer, Steve’s phone rings.

+++

(aftermath)

+++

The airport is crowded in the late afternoon. This morning’s frost has long since melted away. Bucky waits in the security line impatiently. He hands the woman at the post at the top of the line the chipped card that they’d given him when he got out of the hospital so that he can get through with his arm. Instead of going through the scanners, they pat him down and thoroughly search his carry-on.

He wonders if they realize what a charade it is. Stark had, months ago. He said, with a mocking laugh, “As if any of it would stop you if you decided to use half of what you were taught.”

“Tony,” Pepper reproved. He held his hands up. “Sorry, sorry. Hey Bucky, want a teddy bear? It’s an original. Found it in my dad’s shrine to Captain America.” He tossed him a little brown bear in a blue and red uniform with a black mask across its eyes. Bucky looked at it blankly. “Why would I want a ragged old stuffed animal?” He threw it back at Stark.

Once through security, he sits down at the gate. He gets up and buys a bottle of water. He sits back down. The glossy terminal is filled with the resonant chatter of families and couples eager to board and the waspish, demanding tones of businessmen tired of travelling. It’s punctuated with the roaring rush of airplanes taking off and landing.

This morning, standing on cold toes in the frozen grass, Steve had sighed and kissed the edge of Bucky’s ear. “Dammit. That’s Sam’s ringtone. He wouldn’t call this early unless it were important.” Disentangling his arms from Bucky’s body, he trotted inside and grabs the phone.

Bucky wasn’t watching but he heard Steve’s voice get more and more serious. “They what? When. Christ. Yeah. Okay. I’ll come.”

When Bucky turned around, Steve was standing in the kitchen, the phone in his hand at his side, with his eyes closed. He brought Maximilian back in and didn’t say, “Again? You just got back,” or “Let them do it themselves this time,” or “One of these times, it won’t go right. You’re tempting fate, or at least all of those who would reign in the righteousness of Captain America.” If Steve listened to any of those concerns, he wouldn’t be the man Bucky grew up with and Bucky wouldn’t love him the way he does. Instead, he said, “Do you have time for me to make you a cup of coffee?”

“Yeah.”

Bucky pushed him toward the stairs. “Go shower. I’ll pack you something to eat for the trip.”

+++

After Steve leaves to catch his flight to the city, Bucky makes himself the same turkey sandwich he’d packed for Steve, fills his thermos with coffee, and heads into work. As usual, Mr. Sottosanti has the TV in the waiting room tuned to the morning talk shows. Bucky leafs through the work tickets with today’s date on them to see what he’s supposed to start on first. Next to him, Jake yawns. “Stay sharp, there,” Mr. Sottosanti admonishes him with a laugh.

The door opens. Bucky looks up, tensed against anything that might walk in. Marsha Wilkins hands him her keys and asks him to call her at work with anything that won’t pass inspection. “Sure thing,” he tells her.

Jake writes up the ticket. He keeps glancing up at the TV. “Huh.” It’s not quite a word, more an expression of surprise. He shakes his head. “Kiev. Damn Russians.”

“What’s that, son?” Mr Sottosanti asks.

“Nothing.” Jake points up at the TV. There’s breaking news scrolling across the bottom of the screen. “Looks like Russia finally invaded. You know Angie’s got cousins who still live in Ukraine. She does Christmas cards with them. They’ve been worried that Russia was going to attack the capital but didn’t really think it would happen.”

Mr. Sottosanti picks up the remote and changes the channel to CNN. Shaky footage of burning buildings flashes across the screen as the anchor’s voice in the background tells Americans that “we don’t know who is behind these attacks, but they seem to be focused and well-organized. There is no statement yet from the White House. The Kremlin has just issued a brief written statement denying all involvement. We go now to our reporter live on the ground in Ukraine. She’s—”

Bucky flicks his eyes up to the screen. The mess airing on the television is splashy and dramatic. He shakes his head and says to Jake, “Putin probably didn’t do that. Not his style. He’s involved somewhere, though. They’re right about that.”

He wonders if Steve is there yet. Where Natasha and Sam and Stark are. It all feels too much like a diversion. His whole body is curiously alert, like it’s preparing for something more demanding than crawling under cars.

Jake asks him if he’s okay. “Your arm is spasming,” he points out.

Bucky looks at his boss. “I’m going to start on the Malibu.” He has to get away from the TV. The images of the city burning pierce his skull, which is answer enough to his fear of the night before. He woke up remembering it all. He didn’t really expect anything else – he’s already had reprieve enough.

Outside the garage window, a few yellow leaves kick on down the sidewalk. He supposes that summer’s done, then.

+++

Just before lunchtime, the news anchor interrupts the Kiev crisis broadcast to report further breaking news. Simultaneous bombs have exploded in four cities across the Middle East, including one in Tel Aviv. He wipes his hands on a rag. He packs up the set of tools he’s been working with. He eats his sandwich.

Mr. Sottosanti is standing behind the counter making calls to customers. Bucky waits at his side silently until he’s off the phone. “I’m going to need the afternoon off,” he tells him. “And maybe the next few days too. Something’s come up.” He’s going to wring Steve’s neck.

Jake comes in. The door shuts hard behind him. “Bucky, you just took yesterday afternoon off.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky tells them, and he walks out. He is sorry, more than they can know. He wants nothing more than to stay in the shop, to let his hands blacken with oil and dirt and good, hard labor. But Steve is out there somewhere in that, the Avengers spread thin over too many countries and crises, and it doesn’t matter if he can watch out for himself. There’s never been a day in Bucky’s life when he didn’t have Steve’s back if he possibly could.

He takes Maximilian to Mrs. McNearney’s. The dog whines at him when he kisses his head. “I know, boy.”

Mrs. McNearney wraps him up in a surprisingly hard hug. She comes up to his shoulder. He rests his metal hand on her tissue paper cheek and smiles down at her.

“Don’t you get into too much trouble, you hear me? I never heard much good that came out of big cities, and I never liked it when you went off to New York City every few months. I don’t like this any more than that. You might have grown up there, but that was a different world back then. There are bad men out there trying to get at you, Bucky.”

It’s 2:00 pm by the time he gets to the airport and nearly 3:00 before he’s boarded the plane to Washington. His head is pounding again. He turns in his seat as much as the small space will allow him to do, ignoring the man next to him, as though he can curl in on himself. He thinks of Steve’s warmth, the way he runs his broad hands up and down his arms and creates phantom sensations in Bucky’s left arm, the moist heat of open mouthed kisses being placed on the weapon he cannot detach from his body.

The plane is cold.

As it soars above the clouds, the clouds become mountains, and they are snow-covered. His mind shies away from those mountains. He prefers to think of wide open fields, waving green with corn, where he can run with Steve. They had gone out only four mornings ago, jogging past the limits of town as Steve’s laughter floated back to Bucky on the warm wind. It seems like a lifetime ago: this morning’s frost will have snapped the vibrancy from the grains and the leaves on the trees will hang a little lower.

He doesn’t want to touch down in DC. He doesn’t want to become the soldier he must be once he lands. He’d rather remain the man who got on this plane – a man who took his dog to a friend’s, who told his boss at a car shop he needed a few days off, a man who has milk that will spoil in the fridge of his small sixty-five-year-old house. That man has a gurgling fear churning up his gut.

On the plane, Bucky moans quietly and wraps his arms around himself, as though he can stop the tremors that course through his body that way. He pulls Steve’s sweatshirt out of his bag and drags it over his head. The man sitting next to him edges away from him. He smells like stale potato chips.

+++

By the time the plane lands at Reagan, Bucky hasn’t said a word to anyone in hours. He doesn’t have any words he wants to say. The TVs in the airport are talking in loud voices about an assassination attempt on the British prime minister. He disembarks and takes the Blue Line downtown. He doesn’t know the address of the building he’s headed to, but the knowledge of how to get there is programmed in his head. He doesn’t need an address. His hands clench around emptiness. Even with his bag on his back, he feels lightweight, as though he isn’t carrying everything he’s supposed to be carrying. He’s missing his guns, his knives, his grenades.

The building will have his supplies. A flash of corrugated grey metal pops behind his eyelids when he blinks. A warehouse. He’s going to a warehouse. There may be guards. He will remove them.

By the time he’s reached the warehouse, the pounding in his head that’s been going on since he left the shop for the airport is beginning to recede. The coldness had spread through his limbs and become part of him, and it is calming and heavy, like there is icy metal in his veins.

He takes out the front guards before they realize he’s there, and then steals their weapons so he can get through the rest of them. Somehow he knows right where they are posted, and he pushes through them without pause. There is fear in their eyes at the sight of him, and a small, far away part of him shrinks down at that, but mostly he accepts it as the way things are. He won’t get through this, not so soon after it’s all come back to him, if he does anything else.

Inside the warehouse, there are guns and knives, and an entire arsenal that he knows exactly how to use. Once he’s loaded himself down, his hands no longer feel empty and useless. He sees, almost distantly, machine oil under his fingernails from the Malibu he was working on only a few hours ago. He pushes that back. It’s irrelevant. It will wash off, along with the blood. In the cache, there is body armor, black, and it fits him, so he puts it on.

As he leaves the room, he notices that there is a sweatshirt on the floor. It came from him. He discarded it for the body armor. The armor is more practical. He doesn’t need the sweatshirt; it will only weigh him down and add bulk he doesn’t need. With a grimace, he picks it up. It smells like sunshine and fresh things, out of place here in this rusty giant box of concrete and metal. His stomach heaves. He lurches to the floor and vomits up the dissolved grey remnants of his turkey sandwich.

Spitting the aftertaste out of his mouth, he wipes his lips with the back of his hand and shoves the sweatshirt back in the bag before swinging it onto his back. There is a computer in the next room over.

+++

He steals a quinjet from the old SHIELD headquarters. It has the capacity to deflect tracking and radar, which is all he needs to get across the ocean to Europe. As he crosses DC to get to the underground storage site, he hears snatches from the radios he passes, and TVs, and conversations between people. “and in Paris, Iron Man has” – “archer seems to be” – “Where are the Avengers in all of this mess?” – “falling to pieces” – “The public is already clamoring to know why the Avengers are even involved.” – “likely a matter of domestic security” – “bullshit, man, this is terrorism” – “should send help” – “not even our business” – “Captain America is alone in the ongoing Kiev onslaught” – “if the Sokovia Accords were in place” – “need for superhero regulation, they’ll all see” –

Strands of hair slip loose from the bun at the back of his head. He climbs into the jet and powers it up. His movements are precise and measured, his heart is a dull thud in his chest. He takes off into the sun, flying east. It is blinding. He grabs his mask out of his bag and slides it on. The black of it dulls the piecing light to a muted twilight as he flies against the sun into the night.

The last time the sun went down over the edge of the earth, Bucky was dancing. He’d been curled up in bed, a kaleidoscope of images fracturing behind his closed eyelids. When Steve finished his shift at the teashop, he came straight to Bucky’s house and let himself in. Bucky hadn’t responded to his call up the stairs, so Steve came up and sat on the edge of the bed. “Hey, Buck,” he said. “You feeling okay?”

“Fuck off,” Bucky said venomously. He pulled his knees in closer to his chest.

Steve rested his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky could feel the concern radiating off his body. “I meant it, Rogers. Fuck. Off.” He couldn’t see it, not the way he was tucked into himself, but he knew, just knew, that Steve was holding up his hands, palms facing out, in the same ‘ok, backing off’ gesture he’d always had. Bucky scowled into his pillow.

“I’m just going to go make some dinner, then. Come down if you get hungry.”

A few minutes later, the faint sounds of Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye floated up the stairs. It was a mixed playlist Steve liked to listen to while he sketched or cooked. Some of the music was even familiar to Bucky, though he hadn’t known why. Tonight, though, when the Andrews Sisters came on, Bucky remembered dancing with Judy Carruthers down on Atlantic Ave to the song seventy-five years ago. He uncurled himself and went into the bathroom to splash water on his face. He didn’t look at himself in the mirror.

By the time he got downstairs, Ella Fitzgerald was on. He held out his arms. “Come on.”

Steve looked torn. It was obvious on his face – he wanted to come over to Bucky and cheer him up, but – “Buck… Me and dancing, not so good. Two left feet.” He hung back.

Bucky swayed over to front of him and held out his hand, knowing that Steve would take it. He always did. “Promise I won’t let you look stupid.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “That’s because no one’s going to see us.”

He swung Steve forward. “You learned to dance at some point,” he pointed out as Steve matched his footsteps. He carefully didn’t specify when he thought it happened. It wasn’t a conversation he was ready for yet.

“Had to.” Steve’s face took on a wry expression. “Horse and pony show after I” – he paused – “got back a few years ago. Fundraisers and make nice events. They had some nice ladies teach me.”

Bucky held him against his body. It was closer than his body remembered holding the ladies, when he thought about the sensation of dancing. His feet moved confidently across his living room floor. Maximilian jumped out from underneath them when they got too close for his liking. Ella turned into Frank and back into Ella, and he hummed along with her. She sang about spells being cast and life being like a song, at last. The song made him think of radios that were scratchy in ways he hadn’t heard in years, about small fires with men crowded around them to chase off the chill of a winter night, about wet woolens and a warm arm slung around his shoulder and a time when both his hands were flesh and bone.

He spun Steve in a wide circle, as though he were not 6’2” and muscle-built. Meeting Steve’s eyes, Bucky pulled him back in and pressed his body flush against Steve’s.

Their movements got slower and slower until they gradually came to a halt in the center of the living room. Steve’s breath was in his ear. He asked, “You feeling more like yourself?” and Bucky didn’t answer. He didn’t have an answer for that.

“You’ve shivering. Want me to close the window?” he said as he ran his big hands up Bucky’s arms. “Mr. Sanchez told me he was bringing in the rest of his crop as fast as he could. He’s expecting a frost this week. Maybe even tonight.”

Bucky shook his head. “I’m not ready. Leave it open. Let’s pretend summer will last forever.”

Steve laughed fondly and called him stubborn. Ella stopped singing. They stood there, Steve’s hands spread wide over Bucky’s biceps. Finally, he leaned down and kissed Bucky’s arm in the gaps between his fingers, right where the metal turned red and a star pointed out sharply.

Bucky jerked. Steve never avoided the red star on his arm but he never paid it any particular attention, either.

“What’s that one called?” Steve asked, and Bucky followed his gaze down to the red star on his body. His mouth turned down.

“It has no name. No god in heaven created it. It was made by men whose goal was to strip all things away, not give life to new things.”

He turned his face into Steve’s neck and breathed in the deep, familiar scent of his skin. It carried a sad note in it, a minor pungency. “Let’s go upstairs,” he said. “You’re right, we’d better shut the window.”

On the quinjet, it is silent. Even the sound of Bucky’s breath is quiet. The ocean is black far below, and from these heights, there’s no way to know that the world down there is in chaos. That the Avengers are out avenging again, that Steve is without backup as they are spread too thin on the ground. Where is Sam? Sam is good at salvaging things: he told Bucky to get a dog, after all. No wonder he never came to see Steve in Havensport – Bucky would have recognized him and wondered.

As he flies into the night, Bucky likes less and less the pattern he is beginning to see. He knows that this is one piece, one bloody horrible day in a larger war. It’s got every ulterior motive Bucky can think of behind it and then a few more, and he knows too that Steve didn’t need him to come rushing. That Steve’s been in worse fights probably just in the last six months, let alone his entire life.

But whatever else is going on today, whatever other goals so many acts of terrorism might be furthering in each chosen location, this has something to do with the Avengers as well. Today is one more day full of crises that Steve can’t help but get involved in and try to fix. That man, the one in the suit, he might not have been HYDRA but he said something that Bucky hasn’t been able to get out of his head. “Steve,” he’d said, “better to be a hero than a vigilante.” At least part of this feels like a design meant to highlight those who are heroes, who play by the rules and come back when called, so that the rulebreakers can be punished and undermined.

He doesn’t like it. Steve never met a rule he didn’t want to break.

The hours are long before Europe lights up beneath him. He passes over the Alps and thinks of jagged peaks and oregano-scented slopes and high snow drifts and a far fall down. The earth curves below and he descends.

+++

From there it’s not hard to find Steve. There’s a trail of bodies, a trail of blood, and finally the hum of Sam’s wings swooping through the sky to guide him. Kiev shimmers through a black cloud of smoke in the near distance. A child wails in the house Bucky climbs to the top of so that he can scale the apartment complex next to it. Calmly, he swings his rifle over his shoulder and takes aim at three black-clad men coming too close to Steve’s exposed back.

The men land in a crumble on top of one another. Steve turns around, and Captain America surveys the landscape before punching his way back into the fight. Bucky picks off his attackers one at a time, so fast that it seems as though he is taking them out in whole sweeps. There is something wrong with these men. They are not quite men. They’ve been altered. The stray thought brushes through his head, wondering how voluntary any such alterations might have been, but such thoughts are a luxury that he cannot afford. Grimly, he pops holes in their brains as quickly as he can, as quickly as the Asset ever knew how to.

He knows now what Steve really meant when he told him about the one he lost, the one he could never let go of entirely. “Later,” Steve said, “everyone thought I was the strong one. When we were serving together. But I know the truth. I’m a coward, and he was the strong one. Because he followed me. That takes a hell of a lot of trust.” He stared down at his hands.

“You asked me a few weeks ago if I’d do it all the same, given the chance to do it again. And I said no.” He swallowed, hard. “He was always at my back, and I didn’t know how to exist with it any different. So I guess if I could do it all over again, I’d be dead and he’d be dead too, wrapped up together in old European earth, unmarked and bound together for an age to come.”

“He wouldn’t have wanted that,” Bucky told him, sure. “I wouldn’t. And you don’t either, not really.”

Steve looked at him, lifting his head up from his hands. An odd smile picked at the edges of his mouth. “No,” he agreed.

Bucky wrapped his thumb around Steve’s pinky as they sat there on his front steps in the warm dusk. “Oh, darlin’.”

His bullets are shifting the tide in Captain America’s favor. Civilians keep getting in his way and Steve is desperate not to hurt them. Whoever is behind this – HYDRA, SHIELD, the Security Council, some government faction – they’ve been using that in their favor. There are helicopters hovering at a far distance, news channels trying to catch a glimpse. Bodies pile around Bucky on top of the building, men he’s taken down as fast as they came at him. He snarled at them in Russian and they saw the great red star on his arm, and terror filled their eyes even as they fought on as though possessed. Drugged, Bucky thought. He knows that drug.

In the middle of it all, his face bloody and his uniform torn, Steve turns around and looks directly up at Bucky in his nest.

+++

The battle rages and then sputters for several days. Hospitals fill up, in Kiev just as they did in Tel Aviv and Istanbul and Riyadh. Finally there’s nothing more for him to do. He knows it will take Steve several more days to be free; he’ll have to go back to New York for some sort of debriefing. Bucky slides away into the dawn before Steve can come looking for him. He’s nearly back to the States when his phone rings. “Yasha,” Natasha says. “Welcome back.”

“The hell with it,” he tells her, and she laughs and hangs up on him. Five minutes later she calls back to tell him to leave the quinjet outside of town and she’ll make sure it gets picked up.

“Trouble’s brewing,” she says. “Think you and Cap might want to keep your heads low for a bit. He’s got some powerful people running against him.”

Bucky takes the jet higher as he flies back into American airspace. “No shit,” he says, irritated. “You ever tried to get Steve Rogers to take something he didn’t want to quietly? Think the time for laying low is over.”

Her voice is mocking. “Well you did a pretty good job of it for the last year. He bargained hard for you to keep them off your back. Turns out losing your memory is good for some things after all, isn’t it.”

“Natasha,” Bucky says pleasantly. “Would you like another scar on your abdomen to match the first one I put there?”

This time her laugh is as real as it gets. It’s quiet and contemplative, like a small golden bell. “There you are,” she says.

“немного паук,” he says gently.

Her laughter cuts off. “I wanted to forget too.”

“Don’t be bitter that I did. My mind gave me that reprieve for a time.” He swallows. “The things in my head, Natalia.” His voice cracks on her name. “There are horrible things in my head. Your turn to teach me. How do you live like this?”

She answers, “You wake up each day and hold them close. Some demons you cannot chase away. So you wrap yourself around them and carry them with you.”

The silence on the line is heavy but she doesn’t hang up this time until he’s clearing the Indiana skies and is sloping toward the earth.

+++

He goes to the grocery store that night. And the next and the next. Cindy snaps her gum and waves to him as he enters.

He knows there are eyes on him. Now that the calm has been broken, other problems will be swift to follow. Another call will come or more unwanted visitors, or something will drop out of the sky like the winter snows, and he’ll respond – he’ll follow Steve. He’ll come less and less often to his little house with its white fence and now-wilted herb garden. It seems impossible that in less than a week so many leaves have fallen from the trees. They tangle playfully around his feet in the chilly night, a rustling carpet that would show up orange and red and gold under the autumn sun. The thin-skinned summer flowers are frost-burnt and browning in their flower boxes on his neighbors’ porches, and fall mums in their pots are beginning to line the front steps of all the houses.

On the fourth night, he’s in the cereal aisle sitting on the floor. Maximilian is at his side, looking longingly at the box of Raisin Bran. Steve’s footsteps are soft as he walks up to them. His hands are shoved in his pockets. Taking them out, he sits down on the floor next to Bucky. Their shoulders touch lightly.

“My head’s a fucking mess,” Bucky tells him.

“Well, that’s nothing new,” Steve points out.

“You are such an asshole. Does anyone understand this about you?” Bucky turns to face him. He catches the tail end of a faint smile on Steve’s face. It fades.

“Bucky,” he begins, and Bucky shakes his head.

“Don’t apologize. I don’t want to hear it. You think I don’t know why?” His laugh is slightly scoffing. “I know why better than you do, Steve, if I had to wager on it.” He angles his body towards Steve. “You owe me a question. You wouldn’t ask me before. Said there was no fair way for me to answer. I think you just didn’t want to hear the answer. But your excuse is gone. So ask me now.”

Steve’s eyes are old again in his young face. “Would –” He clears his throat. “If you could do it all over again, would you do it all the same?”

Bucky’s answer is immediate. “Yes,” he says resolutely. “And I’ll tell you why. Because that life got me right here. Right here with you and Maximilian in a crappy grocery store that never closes. And what I’ve got right here – it was a good summer. Best we ever had, Stevie.”

With a raw, broken laugh, Steve points out that a summer’s not a life. Bucky braces himself on Steve’s strong thighs and leans up to kiss the side of his mouth. “Doesn’t matter. My head’s a mess but I know about good things, how they don’t last unless you fight tooth and nail for them.” He smiles at Steve, finally unburdened by his answer. “Don’t stop fighting on me now.”

Under the wan and homey florescent lighting, Steve’s face suddenly looks luminous.

“Look, I can’t choose what happened to me, what happened to you. Whatever’s gonna happen, because the shit’s about to hit the fan again. But I can still choose you.” Bucky thinks of the moment in the heat of battle when Steve found him across buildings and rubble and crumpled bodies and explosions. His eyes as he looked up at him perched on the edge of a fiery building – Christ, his eyes.

They burned with salt and smoke, and a wild thing that Bucky recognized as regret mixed with joy only because he knew his own eyes were full of it too. Steve’s face was contorted and stricken, and Bucky thought he had never looked so beautiful as in that moment, there in battle, Bucky at his back, the scales fallen from his own eyes, no film of memory coming between them, finally able once again to see his own self reflected back to him in Steve’s face, as it ever was.

Out there, beyond the confines of this little town, the world is waiting for them. But tonight Bucky will buy a box of cereal for his dog and let Cindy tease Steve about the latest rumor about Captain America on the front of her tabloid and he will go home with Steve, where he’ll touch him the way he’s always longed to, this time with knowledge, with all the weight of so many years behind them. It’s enough to be getting on with.