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Out of All Our Crazy Dreams

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Steve starts writing a book.

He does it because he’s sitting around the tower day in and day out. With things the way they are right now, he’s not complaining, but he hasn’t been able to go out much. He definitely can’t take on any missions. Not that he would. He doesn’t know. He’s been giving speeches this past year, at universities and various events, trying to get the truth out ever since Insight, trying to get people to examine their values and not give in to the populist demagogues cropping up, spitting hate-filled rhetoric in every direction. So he’s been writing a lot anyway. He enjoys it, more or less. He always has, in a way you can enjoy something without needing to live and breathe it. And maybe some day, someone is going to want to know what it was like to be him. The boring parts. Bucky says he’s going to make a million dollars posting videos to the internet of Steve eating cereal, so he guesses in some weird, voyeuristic way, the interest is there.

The truth is, he’s gotta figure out something else he’s gonna do, if he’s hanging up the shield. It’s looking like he’s going to, what with Buck - not that he’s making this about Bucky, he’s not. But realistically, when is it ever going to be okay to go back in the field? Does he even want to?

When he’d first met Sam, Sam had asked, “what makes you happy?” and Steve had had no answer. He still doesn’t. The truth is, and he knows it; he’s never been a happy person. It’s just never mattered. He can’t look back at some point in his life and think “yeah, that was it, that was when I was happy.” It’s not a goal, or a state of being. It’s not something he’s ever felt motivated to pursue, or felt entitled to. Maybe in grade school. Maybe. The only reason he’d ever had any fun was because of Bucky, because of the way Bucky lived in the moment and dealt with things as they came, not fussing about what he couldn’t change. Bucky had known how to be happy, how to turn the most insignificant occasion into something worth celebrating. Probably the only time, the happiest moment in his entire life, when he thinks about it, was sitting at the table in the shitty tenement he and his ma had moved to that summer, splitting a sweet roll down the middle to share with Bucky, and realizing for the first time in his life, he’d made a friend. And he hadn’t even done it, it was Bucky who’d made friends with him, not the other way around. It was Bucky who had stopped to ask what he was drawing, and craned his neck to see, who’d sat there for an hour drawing pirates, back and forth, and laughing at Steve’s meager jokes, and come by the next day and the day after that. To this day, Steve doesn’t know why he did that, what Buck had seen in him.

Steve has let go of most of the past. He likes to think he has. He misses home, but it’s gone, and there’s nothing he can do about that except move forward. But maybe that’s why he’s writing a book. So that when no one else remembers, there’s a record of it. That even though everything else is gone, it still existed. Steve Rogers existed, he was somebody, a person, before all this. Maybe that’s egotistical.

He’s sick of going to the gym, he’s starting to hate Manhattan, and Bucky’s been asleep for literally forty-eight hours straight, so Steve decides to write a book.

*

Bucky’s having a nice dream about feeding chickens in a small and sunny urban backyard, so when he comes awake slowly in the dark and kind of stale bedroom with his mouth all dried up from sleeping with it hanging open, it’s a remorseful feeling and groggy and not that nice. He’s face down on the far side of Steve’s bed, half under the blankets with his tongue hurting from being so dry, and his head pounding from something he doesn’t know what. And he has to pee like a motherfucker.

He slowly edges himself up to sitting and his head takes revenge for all his past sins because it stabs behind his eyes and all over his skull in one big pounding throb. He can’t tell if it’s dark out or if Steve’s just got the wall turned on instead of windows, and he can’t bring himself to look, he just staggers to his feet and gropes his way to the bathroom, which is the fancy one Steve has attached to his bedroom because he took the fancier bedroom when they moved in here. Or maybe that’s not true, maybe it was Bucky who’d chosen the other, he can’t remember, and it doesn’t fucking matter right now he is dying from what he recognizes is dehydration. He doesn’t know if he needs water more or to urinate, but his lazy body makes the decision for him as his legs say “fuck you” and plop him down onto the toilet seat with barely enough time to get his dick out and aim it down. Holy Mother of Christ. He leans his head against the wall as he waits for his bladder to drain, and then just sits there a little while longer, in the dark.

*

Steve hears Bucky shuffle awake in the bedroom, but he resists the urge to go in and fuss. He doesn’t know what he would ask, anyway. “Are you still alive?” when the answer is obviously yes. Steve’s letting Bucky set his own pace these past few weeks.

Who is he kidding? Bucky’s been setting the pace since he threw Jasper Sitwell off a bridge and flipped their car, since he’d rolled to his feet and said “who the hell is Bucky?” Steve’s been stumbling after him ever since. In particular, he’s been letting Bucky set the pace since he taped a paper towel to a chopstick and said, “Don’t hurt me.” Like Steve could ever do anything besides let Bucky rip his heart out.

He listens to Bucky piss into the toilet for about five minutes, then the tap kicks on and it’s noisy, groggy slurping for another eternity while Steve’s pen tip hovers over the half-filled page. He’s just going to be cool, non-threatening, unassuming: as unassuming as he’d been when Bucky had hovered outside his bedroom door until Steve had invited him in; as non-threatening as he’d been when Bucky had crawled into the far side of the bed and laid, stiffly preserving his personal space although they’ve slept wrapped up in each other after fucking bathing together more than once. Steve is going to be as cool as he’s been the last week lying next to Bucky with his goddamn fucking eyebrows that are long and straight and...and there, every day, and every night, wrapping some sick, twisting ache into Steve’s chest with their mere existence, with just, fucking, Bucky. Existing. It’s killing him.

The door swings open and Bucky staggers out of the bedroom towards the kitchen, wincing with his entire body against the daylight streaming in because Steve’s got the opacity all the way off on the wall in this ridiculous, high-tech nightmare of an apartment. Bucky stands like a zombie in the middle of the kitchen, and Steve halfway stands up to approach him when he seems to make up his mind, heads for the pantry, and emerges with a can of Spaghettios which he opens and then polishes off straight from the can in about two massive spoonfuls. Steve thinks he should interfere when Bucky goes back to the pantry for another can. Vitamins, he hears the distant voice of his mother scold. She was always on about vitamins.

“You want me to make you something?” Steve offers. He has no idea what’s the nutritional content of Spaghettios, but probably not great. He’s not sure Bucky hears him, eyes still half closed from the frankly alarming amount of sleep he’s been getting, notching the can-opener around the rim of the can and cranking it open. Then Bucky’s eyes drift shut and he shakes his head. He wordlessly sets the can opener aside and it takes a couple tries to pick the lid out where it’s settled into the can. Then he shovels Spaghettios cold into his mouth, and all Steve can do is watch.

*

The future is fucking great. Canned food has come a really long way since his day, you can get a whole god damned meal straight from the can, and these future kids are really spoiled for flavor. Bucky eats three cans of Spaghettios, a can of ravioli, and two cans of beef stew that’s god damn gourmet compared the Depression.

*

Bucky wolfs down the canned stew like he’s got a gun to his head, then sets his spoon down. He wavers, blinks hard, belches, and lurches back to the bedroom. Steve stares after him and hears the bedsprings squeal when Bucky dumps his full weight back onto it. It’s a brand new bed; Steve hadn’t even known it had springs in it. Not that he was thinking about it, honestly. He looks back to the counter, which looks like a culinary warzone now.

So that’s that.

Okay.

*

“He’s not going to make it in today. No,” Steve says into the phone. Bucky had started seeing Dr. Borsao again twice a week since the surrender, or whatever the fuck that really was.

“No, he’s just sleeping,” he explains.

“Does he seem depressed?”

Steve chews over his answer for a moment. “No. I think he’s just tired,” he says.

*

That night, Bucky’s conked out beside him, on his stomach, his face turned towards Steve’s side of the bed. His eyebrow runs straight and smooth, feathering out and down at the end like it always has, towards his cheekbone and the three-day stubble that Steve could try for a year and never grow. He feels like he’s literally, actually dying from this. He doesn’t know why. It’s the light from the half-dimmed window cutting in across the room and glancing off the careful angles of Bucky’s face. He wants to run his thumb across that eyebrow. Steve rolls onto his back. He stares up at the ceiling like he’s looking for God.

*

“It’s been four days!” he says into the phone. Sam had called to say he’d accepted the job in Queens and is moving up at the end of the month, “right in time for winter,” he’d muttered darkly. Steve, predictably, had used the opportunity to talk about himself and the fact that Bucky is on his fourth day of sleep and he’s wondering if he should call a doctor.

“Does he seem sick?” Sam asks.

Steve glances at the bedroom door, which he leaves open a crack in the daytime because he needs to know if Bucky so much as coughs or moves, because he’s an absolute fucking ninny.

“No,” he says.

“He’s probably just tired, man. Let him sleep it off.”

They end the call and Steve stands alone in a massive room three hundred feet in the air. There’s not so much as a clock ticking. If he listens hard, he can hear the elevator trundling down the shaft.

*

Steve steps out for an hour to hit the gym, and when he returns, Bucky has raided the pantry again; crumbs and cans and a wrapper from a full block of cheese scattered across the counter. Bucky is standing near the window looking out over New York, and he turns as Steve walks in, his greasy hair lank about his unshaven face; his rumpled grey sweatpants and t-shirt, looking like a grimy, beautiful hobo.

“You’re up,” Steve says cautiously, casual. He sets his gym bag down next to the counter. He always brings a gym bag even though he lives in the same building as the gym and could shower at home if he wanted to, if he wanted to stink up the elevator. He would never have to go outside if he didn’t force himself, or if he didn’t drive Bucky to therapy if and whenever he decided to go. Bucky turns back to the window, looking down at the street far below. Steve had been hoping to get some actual food into him but it looks like he filled up on canned salmon with, what, corn and peas, there’s empty cans of on the counter.

“You want to go to the Met?” Bucky asks. Steve stills like a deer in wolf country, not sure what he heard. When he doesn’t answer, Bucky looks at him again, waiting.

Steve says, “If you shower, I do,” carefully gathering empty cans to recycle and trying not to make too much noise. After another long moment of surveying the city, Bucky says, “Okay,” and disappears into the bathroom. A moment later, the shower turns on.

Okay.

*

They take the subway to 79th, on Bucky’s initiative. He’d shrugged off Steve’s offer to drive. It’s only three or four miles, but. Well.

Steve donates fifty bucks to get them in. That’s the way museums should be; available to everyone, not matter how much money you have or haven’t got. They head straight for Ancient Egypt, which has always been Buck’s favorite. Crazy for mummies and all that shit.

They don’t stay too long, before Bucky starts slowing down again, phasing in and out of attentiveness in front of a 5,000 year old comb or something. Steve doesn’t say anything; he’s really trying not to coddle him, but it’s hard and he feels a sudden stab of wry sympathy for Bucky before, trying to get Steve to eat soup and Steve spitting and hissing every step of the way. Not that Bucky’s as rotten a patient as Steve used to be. But after ten minutes in front of the comb, which suffice it to say, is, at the very least, not the most interesting thing in the room, Steve says, “Ready to go?” and Bucky nods and blinks tiredly until Steve gently takes his elbow and guides him towards the door.

Outside, they walk for a few quiet blocks. The last of summer has blown out, and it’s been over a year since they’d brought Buck home from Omaha. Steve is wearing his hipster disguise, and Bucky looks like a skinny college kid, hunched into a dark red hoody with the hood pulled on, and black jeans that would be tighter if he hadn’t lost so much weight. He looks at the ground as he walks, glancing up every so often to the tops of the buildings and trees. Steve just watches Bucky. What the hell else would he look at? What better view is there in the entire damn city?

When they get home, Bucky collapses onto the couch, and Steve finally ventures, “You feeling okay?” Bucky nods, his head tipped back on the arm rest, one foot up and one planted on the floor. He used to sprawl like that when he’d come home from the docks, before he’d perk up with his second wind and started sassing Steve or talking his ear off about something he’d read on his lunch break, saying, “Isn’t that neat?” like Steve gave a shit about science. “Yeah, sure,” Steve would say, going for earnest and missing by a mile. He’d been a lousy friend. He never gave back a fraction of what Buck had given him.

*

Bucky watches Steve flick on the record player and crouch before the shelf, selecting an album. Him and his goddamn records, for a guy who never cared all that much about music.

Fuck if he ain’t beat, though - Bucky. He’s only been awake a couple of hours - hell - a couple of hours in the last few days. He’s not even sure what day it is, not that it matters. He watches Steve stand up and slide a record out of its sleeve carefully, reverently, like it’s a work of art. He’s just like...he’s just like himself, Bucky thinks. With a gargantuan effort, Bucky hoists himself upright, planting both feet on the floor and levering himself against his knees to stand.

Look at Steve, standing there in this gaudy apartment, downright ostentatious. It matches that fuckin’ hot-rod, Greek God body he’s got. Bucky creeps up and slips his arms around that skinny waist just as the music kicks in and Steve turns the volume on Cab Calloway way down. Bucky hooks his chin over Steve’s shoulder, then reaches around him to knock his hand away and turn the volume up. Not way up, just a little bit, so you can hear it at least. What’s with Steve turning the music on and the volume down so you can’t even hear it? He’s been doing that as long as Bucky’s known him, only his hearing used to be a lot worse so quiet to him wasn’t the same sort of quiet to everyone else. Bucky wraps both his arms around the best and biggest idiot on earth and rests his cheek against that granite back of his. Maybe he’ll take another snooze right here. But Steve turns in his arms, catching his right hand and elbowing his left up onto Steve’s shoulder while pulling him in at the waist. They sway off time to the music for a moment, pressed up against each other like sweethearts. God damn, but Steve got tall.

Things have been better, a lot better for Bucky since the surrender. He guesses all this whole time, he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing, that Steve was here or gave a shit about him or what that even meant, really, with Bucky being as fucking useless as he is. It’s like whatsit’s Cat, where if you hide in the elevator, you don’t have to find out if your best pal’s gonna rip your heart out or not, so you’re simultaneously alive and dead until you get off the elevator and find out which you are. So Bucky was the cat. Steve was the...whatsit.

“What’s the guy with the cat?” he asks, pausing the dance for just a minute. Steve overrules the pause and keeps swaying.

“Um…” he says, trying earnestly to answer Bucky’s stupid question.

“It doesn’t matter,” Bucky mutters, and presses his nose to Steve’s shoulder. He’s the gal, he guesses, with Steve leading. Even though Steve could never dance worth shit. Bucky leans back in Steve’s arms to watch their feet between them. “Look at you, floorflusher,” he scoffs. Steve pulls him back in and Buck can feel him smile against his head.

“Can’t stop these dancin’ feet,” Steve says.

“Is that what you call 'em?” Bucky mutters. Steve laughs.

*

Later, Bucky’s conked out in bed again, on his stomach, his nose turned towards Steve. Part of him wants to crush Bucky into the bed to just make this stop, this feeling of his soul being too big for his body. He knows it’s not right, to want Bucky the way he does. It feels dishonest, Bucky sleeping there, trusting him, and Steve wanting to press every inch of his skin to every inch of Bucky’s, and just hold him there, forever.

It’s not even about sex. Steve’s libido is off the charts, and he’s come to terms with that a long time ago. It’s not that. It’s the...it’s this needing Bucky, when Bucky is the one who needs him, right now. Bucky comes to him for comfort, for fuck’s sake, and to Steve it feels like teetering on a ledge, where you either find your balance or you don’t. Where that bolt either holds or it doesn’t, speeding over a snowy wasteland across a chasm a hundred feet deep. That bolt either holds or it dashes your heart in a bloody streak across the rocks below.

Bucky snuffles and touches the tip of his nose to Steve’s shoulder. Steve clenches his teeth and his heart and his eyes. He turns his head to watch Bucky. Jesus. Fuck it. Fuck it. He shifts gently onto his side, cupping his hand just shy of Buck’s face. He’s being ridiculous. It’s not like he’s never clutched Bucky to him or sobbed into his lap, or even, Christ, thrown up or bled on him or been pathetic or needy in a thousand different ways no matter how hard he tried not to be. Steve needing Bucky is absolutely nothing new. Still, he hopes Bucky or God or someone will forgive him as he lowers his hand to Buck’s face, curls in around him until their foreheads touch. His blood freezes when Bucky sucks in a breath, but then Buck scoots onto his side to fill the space against Steve’s chest.

They’ve done this a dozen times. Or three times, maybe. They’ve done this before, slept like this, so Steve can’t explain the fear that swells in his chest. He barely dares to breathe. He remembers the time when the bolt didn’t hold and the metal screeched free and Bucky was gone, along with everything Steve had ever loved or cared about. His arm tightens around Bucky, and Bucky squirms. He rolls onto his back and pushes Steve away. Steve lifts his hand and lets him go. It’s fine.

I’m fine, he thinks.

Bucky pushes him harder, his brow furrowing with some inexplicable frustration. “Switch,” he mumbles, pushing Steve. As always, Steve doesn’t understand.

Bucky pushes again, his prosthetic arm whizzing with just the slight movement. “Switch sides,” he says.

Oh.

Steve lifts himself up and hesitantly maneuvers himself over Bucky. He settles onto that side of the bed, and Bucky rolls - onto his right arm, this time - and tucks himself back in against Steve’s chest. He takes a deep breath in and exhales, warm against the fabric of Steve’s t-shirt which Steve vainly bought a size too small because after eight years, he’s still not over how much he loves this body, how right it feels and looks to him. Steve carefully lowers his arm over Buck’s shoulders, the metal cool and unyielding through his sleeve. This is Bucky. It’s Bucky. He’s here. They’re both here.

Steve’s arm spasms and trembles with the effort not to crush Bucky to him. How are they here? How is this possible? Steve buries his nose in Buck’s hair.

Why did Bucky stop that day? Why did he climb up on the steps next to Steve and ask to see what he was drawing? Why did he come back day after day, when Steve, the miserable little wretch that he was, when he didn’t deserve it? How did Steve get so fucking lucky? He’s so fucking lucky.

“You’re crushing me,” Buck says, smooshed against Steve’s chest.

“Sorry,” Steve whispers and loosens his grasp. Bucky slides the toes of both feet between Steve’s ankles and angles his nose up for air. Steve is so fucking lucky.

*

Bucky knows Steve gets bad nightmares sometimes. He used to stand outside Steve’s door listening to the tight little crying sound that Steve would never make if he were awake. He would think about knocking on the door. He would think about saying Steve’s name. He would think about telling him to shut the fuck up, or banging some pots and pans around to wake him up, but he never did any of those things except the pots and pans one time because he was mad at Steve about something else he can’t remember.

Now sometimes even though he’s been sleeping here a couple weeks, Steve still has bad dreams. That’s why he’s glad that when he wakes up to Steve making a sad, stifled sound, Steve is already holding him. He wants to be there for Steve.

*

“What’s all this?” Bucky asks, nodding towards the papers scattered across the dining table. Steve feels his face heat but he musters up some nonchalance and says, “Oh. I’m writing a book.” He wishes he’d put it away before Buck got up, but it’s not like Buck has shown a lot of interest in anything Steve has done for the last two years, up until now. Buck had slept a solid eight hours last night and risen at a reasonable hour, so Steve thinks, hopes, maybe they’re out of the woods with the Rip Van Winkle routine.

Bucky cranes his neck for a better look and Steve studiously twists the bread bag closed and sets it aside. He’s making toast to go with the two dozen eggs he’s about to scramble. His face heats when Bucky actually sits down at the table to read what Steve’s scratched onto paper, about the ice box and his mother’s economic ideas about cooking and fortified foods. He starts cracking eggs into the pan.

*

Steve is writing a book. It’s all Steve’s memories from when he was a kid back home, and talking about his ma, which Steve rarely does. Bucky pages through notes about stories and dates and little tidbits of things that happened and things Steve thought, that he’s going to work together into a book that Bucky will get to read. Scribbled notes like like “eugenics” and “Bradford Street,” and “WPA.”

Steve’s such a talented guy, Bucky wishes the whole world could’ve recognized it, or still could now, without thinking it’s because it’s ”Captain America.” He wishes people could know what Steve’s really like, without the mask and shield and the leaping around and all. Bucky glances up at Steve, standing over the stove every day like he never would have before. He would have stomped around and lived on doughnuts. They never would have had so many eggs back then.

*

It’s Steve’s birthday coming up, and Bucky wants to get him something really good. He used to be pretty good about picking out presents for Steve, because Steve didn’t have anything, so anything he got, Steve needed. He used to like to most of all get him art supplies, since it was the one thing Steve always liked to get and was always sharpening his pencils the tiniest amount to make them sharp but last the longest down till they were tiny little nubs, no matter how many pencils he had left or how many more Bucky bought him. But the thing Bucky liked to get was fancy new stuff Steve hadn’t tried, like gouache, or oil crayons, one time. Or fancy thick paper Steve would never splurge on and would scold Bucky when he did, while Bucky would go on and on about the weight and the feel and the quality and whatever else the guy at the art supply store had told him about it. Bucky could get hyped up about all types of shit he knew nothing about back then. Well, that’s how you learn more about stuff anyway. Bucky could have worked at the art supply store, the amount he spent talking and listening to the art supply guy to get some neat stuff for Steve. Bucky was kind of obsessed with getting stuff for Steve. Even though Steve’s filthy rich, once in awhile Bucky will wake up in sweats thinking he has to get some money for Steve. But now that Steve can buy whatever he wants, what the hell is Bucky going to get him? It’s not for a few weeks, so Bucky has some time to think it over.

There is one thing that Bucky knows he wants to get for Steve, but it’s not a birthday present. And he’s not sure he’s gonna give it. He’s not convinced he should. The more he thinks about it, the more and more he’s not convinced. That’s what you get for thinking.

*

Bucky mucks out the chicken coop and helps water the not-hydroponic plants and checks the pH and stuff on the hydroponics, helping out Rodrigo, not that Rodrigo needs his help. He consults on security schematics for a new StarkTech facility, and spies on Tony Stark in his lab with his robots even though Tony knows he’s there so it’s not really spying, only he doesn’t really want to talk to Tony, only watch his work. Bucky ordered some parts online and he’s going to make his own robot, he’s making Spider-Baby-Head from Toy Story only he doesn’t have a baby head yet. He doesn’t want to order a babydoll just to rip its head off. Then he would be like Syd. If he told Steve, Steve would probably find him the perfect baby head no problem because he loves to dig through junk and has probably passed by hundreds of old babydoll heads but never got one because he didn’t know Bucky wanted to build a spider baby head named Vanessa, is what his robot is already named. But it’s going to be a remote control robot, not an AI like Jarvis or Tony’s other fancy robots. He doesn’t want to build a creature, just a toy. He’s going to use it to scare Steve, that’s why he hasn’t asked Steve to find a baby head.

Anyway, so that is what Bucky has been up to ever since he surrendered to Steve to let Steve throw him off the tower if he wanted, which he hasn’t wanted to do because he loves Bucky even though Bucky has been skittish as a march hare and mad as one too. With Steve’s birthday coming up that no one else knows about, Bucky wants to get him the perfect present. Then eventually he thinks up the perfect present and he has to go talk to Pepper and Jarvis. He could get the present probably without Pepper and Jarvis but he would have to break the law and Steve doesn’t believe in breaking the law too bad for birthdays, and this would be breaking the law pretty bad in Steve’s opinion (not Bucky’s) but since it’s for Steve’s birthday, Steve’s opinion is the one that matters so that’s why Bucky goes to Pepper’s office at the end of the day after Jarvis has helped track down the present that Bucky wants to get.

“It’s Steve’s birthday coming up,” Bucky tells her, and watches Pepper’s face go through a range of emotions because she already threw a party for Steve on the Fourth of July and everybody had a nice time except for Bucky who was confused and mad because of A) fireworks, B) July? C) Mad, D) Confused. Mad because of being confused and confused from being mad, and it took three weeks before he figured out that both were because it wasn’t Steve’s birthday, and Steve didn’t remind him that this wasn’t Steve’s real birthday and just let Bucky think that his memory was wrong.

Bucky thinks he didn’t do it on purpose, it’s just that Steve doesn’t care about his birthday as much as Bucky does. Steve never cared about any birthday, even Bucky’s, and would say Shit! every time March tenth rolled around and then run out and buy something real quick, usually bourbon, if he was flush, or a used book if he wasn’t. Bucky got so many used books for his birthday from Steve, he thinks Steve didn’t even read the cover, he just got whichever one he could afford that looked the newest. This year, Steve got Bucky a camera with a telescopic lense that shoots film so it’s less convenient than his poloroid camera or his smart phone, but Bucky gets to make a dark room now and make Steve pay for it because Bucky doesn’t want to give his pictures to the developer, he wants to do it himself. But he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. He is just building up rolls of film in their little containers for now.

Anyway, Bucky says “It’s Steve’s birthday coming up,” and Pepper looks confused, then surprised, and then like someone kicked her puppy because Steve didn’t tell her she had his birthday wrong. But she doesn’t say anything, she just says, “what do you have in mind?” So Bucky tells her.

*

Bucky is not a particularly good liar, but he is a good secret keeper, and good at not giving things away. So when Pepper calls, he pretends to talk to her for a minute and then wordlessly hands the phone to Steve so that he doesn’t have to tell the lie, he just has to keep the secret. He lets Pepper invite him and Bucky over for dinner on October 28th, and hears Steve say, “Sure, that sounds great, let me check with Bucky,” and then looks at Bucky with his eyebrows raised seeing if Bucky knows what he’s talking about and Bucky nods. Steve says, “What can we bring?”

Later, as part of the plan, Pepper is going to cancel dinner and reschedule for November 4th which is Steve’s actual birthday, not July 4th. But if they scheduled dinner for November 4th right off the bat, Steve might put two and two together. He probably doesn’t think Bucky can or would trick him right now, but he might think that Pepper might try to if there were some sort of coincidence going on with a dinner and his actual birthday, and Bucky doesn’t want Steve to be suspicious. He wants it to be a surprise. And the surprise for Steve is also revenge for Bucky, on Steve for not caring about his own birthday when he should have known that Bucky would care.

Then Pepper pulls through for him again and gets the present that he wanted, and he sits with Jarvis near his processor core and turns it over in his hands. Now he has to wait for Steve’s birthday, and maybe get one other thing. He isn’t sure. He isn’t sure he wants to give it.

*

Steve has started scoping out apartments. Not seriously looking, just seeing what’s out there. He figures they’ll stay another winter at Stark Tower, and then in spring maybe he can talk to Bucky about getting a place outside the city again. He’s looking for someplace with a little more privacy, a little less action, maybe even a back patio where they could keep some potted plants or something, something a little more like home. Or the home he wishes they could have had. At least something a little more like the place Bucky grew up in, a narrow row house that had always been Steve’s idea of what a home ought to be, back when he was a kid living in rat-ridden tenements. He knows Buck likes living at the Tower and is always getting up to whatever the hell he gets up to every day, but Steve hates living downtown. The traffic and noise and anonymous crush of people, the tourists-

He’s not trying to be an old fart or anything, but he’ll never catch up with Manhattan, not in this day and age. In 1940 he would have loved to live in the city, right in the thick of it, but that was eighty years ago, almost. It just moves too fast, and he’s tired in a way he thinks might never go away, like he’s been going nonstop since he first woke up here, and he just wants off the ride.

He doesn’t know. It’s just something to think about. What he does know is that winter in New York is brutal, and winter in Manhattan can be particularly grim, so he’s just trying to find something to look forward to as the days get shorter and shorter.

*

Bucky tucks Jarvis into his breast pocket so that he can see out the camera on Bucky’s phone. He doesn’t have to bring Jarvis but he likes to have the company without having the pressure of having to be with another person. Jarvis doesn’t care if you talk to him or not. Bucky is just stepping out because he wants to get some nice paper to wrap Steve’s present in. Then, even though his stomach is quaking, he makes one more stop.

It’s November 3rd.

*

Bucky thinks maybe he shouldn’t do it. And maybe he won’t. He should have tested the waters first or something, but his way of thinking is, if he wants to do it, he can, and if he doesn’t he doesn’t have to. That thought calms him down on November 4th as they’re getting ready to head over to Pepper’s suite where they’re supposedly having dinner with just Pepper and Tony. Bucky’s wearing his nice blue shirt, and Steve is wearing a grey shirt with thin stripes that are a different, darker grey. He looks really nice and kind official, like how Steve doesn’t usually look, in a t-shirt or clothes for the gym. Pepper said they didn’t need to bring anything but that’s not how Steve was raised or Bucky either, so they have a couple bottles of champagne, which Bucky said “yeah, sure” when Steve suggested it even though there’s going to be champagne there and two bottles isn’t going to get them far, Steve doesn’t know that.

He thinks that if he gives Steve his birthday present now, it might give the game away, that they’re not just going to dinner at Pepper’s, so he thinks he should maybe not give his present until after, because he can’t bring the present either or Steve will see he has a present. But his stomach is all in knots anyway and he just wants to do this while they’re here, alone. So when Steve is getting the champagne from the refrigerator to put in a bag to carry, Bucky gets his present from his bedroom which is towering with boxes and packing material from all the stuff he ordered on Amazon that he’s going to have to sell on eBay now because he bought way too much stuff and barricaded his bedroom with boxes he was afraid to get rid of for some reason. Now he doesn’t feel that way as much, so maybe he can rid of some stuff and only keep the stuff he really likes, like only one typewriter, or two typewriters because he likes his braille typewriter, so...he doesn’t know, he doesn’t have to figure it out right now. He gets his present from under the bed, and then also he slips Tiny Steve into his pocket. He hasn’t been bringing Tiny Steve around with him and Steve has back Papa Smurf right now because Bucky gave him back, but he wants Tiny Steve with him today just in case.

He comes out of the bedroom and Steve sees that he has a present and his face kind of freezes like maybe he didn’t remember today was his birthday, or had decided a long time ago that it wasn’t going to be his birthday, and it got moved to July 4th so he didn’t think about it anymore, but it didn’t change for Bucky. He knows when Steve’s real birthday is. So he brings the present to the dining room table and Steve leaves the champagne on the counter and he comes and sits at the table even though Bucky didn’t sit down. Then Bucky slides the present to him and Steve looks at him and hasn’t said anything. Then he picks open the ribbon that Bucky tied it with after learning on youtube how to tie a good ribbon for a birthday present because he wanted Steve’s present to be perfect. Steve doesn’t rip the paper, he undoes the tape without ripping it because of old habits and thinking you might not get a swell piece of wrapping paper again for when you give a present to someone else. Bucky knew he would open the present like this, so he put the front of the present on the side where Steve would separate the edges of the paper so it would be a good presentation and not Steve have to flip it over. Bucky feels his heart in his throat and his heart stopping when Steve separates the edges of the fancy paper and then draws still.

Bucky had to get Pepper’s help getting this present, because it’s a national treasure and not something Steve would have liked for Bucky to steal. It’s a sketchbook. It’s old and the crisp white pages have turned sort of burnt with time, and still ragged at the corners from use, and the way the front and back cover fray on a spiral binding from being flipped around and opened and closed and stacked with other books like math books or science or stuff from school. The front of the sketchbook in the bottom right corner says Steven Grant Rogers in handwriting that hadn’t turned decisive and angular yet. Steve’s hand trembles, hovering over it. He turns the page.

Bucky had pored over this sketchbook for hours when he got it, all Steve’s sketches from ninety years ago when he first met Bucky and Bucky thought Steve was the best artist he’d ever seen up close, and he can see now how some of the figures were proportioned weird or didn’t look quite right, which he didn’t notice when he was a kid because he was so caught up in Steve and watching drawings happen right there on the page. He can see now as an adult that Steve was just a kid teaching himself how to draw and doing it stubborn over and over again until he got it how he wanted, and eventually got better and better as the years went on. Bucky hears Steve’s breath catch when he turns to the page of the sketch of his ma sitting at their old kitchen table, and the other page medicine bottles they had kicking around, for Steve. Bucky sees Steve clench his eyes shut and watches him struggle to get under control, but the caught breath escapes in a shaky whoosh on the next page cramped full of pirates, and one that’s chopping flowers with a big pirate sword and little butterflies are flying around. Bucky drew that one, when he was supposed to be bringing fish to his ma but then got distracted by Steve Rogers. That was the first time he ever talked to Steve.

Steve is breathing in a strangled way, and a drop of water falls on the page of pirates and Steve gasps and blots it with the back of his finger, then swipes under his eyes where tears are coming. But more tears just come and take their place. Steve squinches his eyes shut and he presses his hand over his mouth. His shoulders are shaking, with tears coming down over his hand. They don’t splash onto the pirates, they go down his wrist and soak into his sleeve. Then he breathes and turns the page, to more pirates they drew that day, crammed into every inch to save space in Steve’s sketchbook. Steve looks up at Bucky, eyes bright from crying but a smile that is making Bucky’s heart go into a funny shape.

“How did you get this?” he asks. His voice is just a kind of whisper sound and he clears his throat and keeps turning pages.

“Pepper and Jarvis helped,” Bucky says. He wants Steve to know Bucky didn’t steal it from the museum’s private collection. “Um,” he continues, though. “You have to give it back when you die.” Steve laughs, a huffing sound, and then he beams up at Bucky with a smile like the sun coming out. His eyes fill up with tears again. “Thank you,” he says. He flips back to the pages of pirates, just gazing down.

Bucky’s fingers fiddle in his pocket. He has his other gift he wants to give to Steve. He’s feeling like right now might be a good time to give it, like he might have the courage to give it right now. If he waits, he might not have the courage to, later. If he waits, he might not ever do it.

Bucky closes his fingers around the small box, brushing against Tiny Steve in that same pocket. He’s not going to not say what he means, to Steve. He’s not going to be the kind of fool who missed his chance. He draws the box from his pocket and he sets it on the table and slides it towards Steve. It’s obvious from the box what kind of present it is, the black velvet kind of box with a spring that keeps it snapped open or closed. Steve stares at the box like a wild, rare pokémon just appeared, and Bucky stuffs his hand back into his pocket, closing around Tiny Steve for reassurance and strength. It’s okay if Steve says no. They’ll still be Bucky and Steve, like always. Bucky tells himself this.

Steve glances at him before taking the box, then he slowly eases it open. Bucky bought two solid gold bands that are both in the box, so Steve can give one back to Bucky, if he wants to. Right now, Bucky wants to sink into the floor and his stomach feels like a celtic knot. Steve’s lips part in what looks like shock, for a moment that feels like forever. Then his hand is pressed over his mouth again, and his head is ducked so Buck can’t see his eyes. Then Steve jerks out of his chair so suddenly that Bucky startles, and the table jolts because Steve knocks his hip into it coming around to where Bucky stands, and he wraps Bucky in a hug like he’s been lost at sea. Then he draws back just as quickly, blinking away tears and holding the open box between them. Steve sniffles and then laughs a little bit, like he’s laughing at himself. He takes one ring from where it’s anchored with a little flap of covered cardboard, and sets the box beside them on the table. Then his fingers brush down Bucky’s sleeve and trace delicately around Buck’s hand and draws it up between them. Then he pauses and ducks his head until it’s almost on Bucky’s shoulder. He can probably hear Bucky’s heart pounding hard enough to lead the Macy’s Day parade, down there. Bucky curls his fingers around Steve’s hand. He raises his metal arm to Steve’s hips, and just holds him a moment. “You don’t have to,” he murmurs. It’s okay, really. It feels like it will be okay.

The words instead put the iron in Steve’s spine and he straightens up and looks Bucky dead in the eye. He says, “You want to do this?”

Well gee golly, Rogers, it’s not like he bought the rings or nothing. Instead of saying this, Bucky just swallows and nods. Steve’s lips curl into a tiny smile that for some reason feels full of the devil, and he slides the ring onto Bucky’s finger, the real one he was born with. Bucky’s blood feels like it’s filled with...little dancing fairies or something, it feels like some strange magic that could scatter like a flock of birds if he so much as breathes wrong. Steve retrieves the box from the table and presses it into Bucky’s hand. The other ring. Then he squares his shoulders like Bucky’s been watching him do since they were ten years old, facing the world head on. Bucky plucks the ring from the box and takes Steve’s hand in his - the left one, like tradition.

He never would have thought that this could happen. That out of all his crazy dreams he’d always had, after all the shit they’d been through…

“Who’d’a thunk,” he whispers. He slides the ring onto Steve’s finger. There. That’s it. He did it. He hears Steve’s breath leave him in a trembling whistle. Bucky closes Steve into his arms, just sops up his warmth and the truth of the moment.

“We married now?” Steve asks. Bucky squeezes him tight.

“You’re stuck with me, pal.”

They stand there so long that they’re late to Steve’s party.

*

“You don’t have to wear it, you know, for dinner -” Buck stutters. He hadn’t really intended to give it to Steve before the party, it just happened like that, in the moment. But now he doesn’t know if Steve wants to announce to everyone what they just did, especially since he doesn’t know that he’s about to do that. Steve had called to tell Pepper that they were on their way, and Pepper had said she’d leave the door unlocked. Steve will have time, Bucky thinks, to hide his hand if he wants to. When they open the door, everyone is supposed to give Steve a moment to see that they’re there, so it’s a surprise, but not a shock. That’s what Bucky had told Pepper. It’s because Steve has some PTSD that Bucky’s not sure he knows about, because he doesn’t react badly at the time, but then later gets angry for no reason and slamming things around in the kitchen and has to go to the gym to run for fifty miles, if something startled him five hours ago. So Steve will see when they get there that there’s more people than just Pepper and Tony, but they won’t jump out or anything like that.

“I don’t care who knows,” Steve says. That’s probably not entirely true. Steve’s a controversial public figure as it is these days, without suddenly cropping up mystery-married to someone who’s been legally dead since ‘45 and was an international terrorist in the time between then and now. But he figures Steve means among friends and he’s about to put his money where his mouth is, though he doesn’t know it. Maybe Bucky should tell him. But he’s still waffling over it when they get to Pepper’s, and the door isn’t closed, just closed over with the deadbolt keeping it open, and Steve is carrying the champagne and he pushes the door open. He stops and Bucky hangs back, and just past Steve sees everyone standing there, not too close, waiting a full three-count before they yell “Happy Birthday!” It’s Pepper and Tony and Nat and Sam and Arrow Man whose name is Clint and someone named “Thor” and his gal and some other people who Pepper warned him would be there who he wouldn’t know and Bucky had said “okay” because he’s sick of having everything in Steve’s life be about Bucky’s problems, or someone else’s problems, and just forget about Steve like Bucky’s best pal never existed. He did exist, and does, and was brought into this world on November 4th, 1917, and the least people could do is get that right, even if it’s not their fault they didn’t because Steve never set them straight. Steve is a real person and he has all these friends here who care about him, that’s why Bucky didn’t want to spoil the surprise, because he needed Steve to see it here with his own eyes and think it with his own brain, and not hear it first from Bucky, who knows from experience that you can’t tell Steve Rogers a goddamn thing, he has to learn it for himself. That’s why he hopes that Steve sees and learns that all these people love him.

Steve stands like a statue until the Happy Birthday dies down. Bucky is standing behind him in the doorway, so he can’t see Steve’s face until Steve turns towards him, looking stunned for the third time that day with his eyes shining. Christ, he’s really doing a number on old Steve today. Steve doesn’t move so much as drift towards Bucky, with everyone else kind of standing there maybe awkwardly watching, Bucky doesn’t know, because Steve touches his cheek to the side of Buck’s head, and Bucky can hear his throat clicking when he swallows hard, and his touch light on Bucky’s metal arm because Steve’s other hand with the ring is holding champagne. They stand like that for even longer than it took to wait for “Happy Birthday!” and Buck can tell Steve is crying again a little bit, but not like he’s struggling to stop. He whispers, “Thank you,” and tilts his head so that his forehead is against Bucky’s hair and his nose is against Bucky’s cheek, and he takes a deep breath.

“Happy birthday, punk,” Bucky tells him. Steve backs away, beaming, and turns towards his friends, suddenly ducking his head like he’s bashful. Tony Stark calls out, “Music!” and music starts playing, probably picked out by Jarvis. It smells like delicious food, and as Steve wades into the room, he slides his hand into Bucky’s and pulls him forward, towards the future.

 

THE END.