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Those who'll play with cats must expect to be scratched. - Miguel de Cervantes

 

 

 

Bucky woke with a jerk, eyes wide open in the plum-dark night. He didn't move - couldn't move. His lungs were working in jerky, too-fast gasps, nearly painful in their intensity.

His phone, tethered by its charging cord, had slid off the mattress and dangled above the floor, humming faintly with the 'sleep sounds' recording Bucky had put on continuous play. It cast a pale glow on the floorboards; sliding shadow and light that twisted in the periphery of his vision, making his pulse racket and his breath catch, jump-cut flashes on the backs of his eyes, and he shook his head, hard, trying to make it stop.

"F-fuck," he whispered, his paralysis breaking suddenly as every muscle drew tight, a convulsive, twisting flinch that was body-wide and bone deep.

"Fuck." Bucky clawed the tangled sheets and blankets down, hauling himself sideways to the edge of the mattress and upright, socked feet hitting the floor, the air like ice to his overheated body. He raked his hand back through his hair, fingers knotting in the tangled strands. "Fuck, fuck, ff-fuck…." His brain seemed stuck on that word, and he clamped his teeth shut, stopping himself from saying it again. The phone swung and the shadows jumped and Bucky thought his heart might tear out through his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, his hand tight on the edge of the mattress, bent down over his flannel-clad thighs, and breathed. Breathed; the stupidest, most primitive thing; the first thing, the thing every baby, every living thing, did. And he could barely do it. In, out, in again; rasping and stuttering and too shallow, making him lightheaded. It seemed to take forever for him to figure out he could grab his phone and stop the shadows.

He drew the phone up by its cord, hand shaking, and clumsily raised the volume, focusing on the dry, rushing hiss and sigh of the sea rolling in. He shut his eyes again, dropping his phone to the bed, right hand cradling the stump of his left arm. Slowly, laboriously, he matched his breathing to the rhythm of the waves, gasping inhales and shuddering exhales, over and over, while his heart rabbited in his chest.

Time passed - Bucky had no real idea of how much - until gradually, his heart slowed, his breathing evened out, and his whole body, from one moment to the next, seemed to go limp. The vice around his ribs fell away, and his spine let go, letting him curl down onto the bed, drawing his legs up. He was freezing, his shirt was tacky with drying sweat, sticking to his back and ribs. He didn't want to get up, though, to change; he felt like he weighed a thousand pounds, like his bones were made of steel and lead; his flesh, stone.

Think about something...something…. Cats, the rescue…. That was easy, pretty easy. The tuxedo girl, and the big, fat Ethel cat; the old grey tom and the new kittens, all smoke-blue and white, with tiny pointed tails and little pink paw-pads. And Steve, cradling a kitten in one broad palm, index fingers stroking ever-so-gently along a fluffy back. Yes, okay, that was...better.

He twisted, dragging at the covers, pulling them up and cocooning himself, his right arm crooked awkwardly up from the mattress, over his throat. Protection, of a sort. He could feel himself easing down, in tiny increments, and he kept the images of cats and kittens (and Steve) firmly in his mind. Dredged up something familiar and ridiculous, the ultimate contrast to the lurching sickness of the dreams. Bed-time reading when he was a kid: Cat in the Hat and Jellicle cats, Pyewacket and Socks and Crookshanks. Cats, always cats….

"Tattoo was the mother of Pinkle Purr," Bucky said, and his voice was a cracked rasp in his throat. "A ridiculous kitten with silky fur. And little black Pinkle grew and grew, 'til he got as big as the big Tattoo…." His voice sank to a murmur and then a whisper and then to nothing at all as he slipped slowly back down into sleep again, his breathing steady, strong and true.

And all that he did he did with her. "Two friends together," says Pinkle Purr.

 

When Bucky didn't have physical therapy (well, it was more 'you can do this on your own, now' exercising), or therapy therapy (that he skipped way too often but fuck if he liked talking about all his shit), or a group thing at the VA with Sam, he walked. He'd probably clocked more time, post-deployment, on his feet than he had over in the sandbox, and that was saying something.

But he just got…restless. His legs felt jumpy and his rooms were too small, and he felt like he had to be out and away and moving. Like he had to make sure everything was in place, everything was in order. And the sphere where that had to happen had widened, as he'd gotten better (?); from his rooms, to the rest of his ma's house, to the neighborhood and then beyond, until some days he found himself, footsore and exhausted, wandering around Canarsie or Sea Gate, for God's sake. Or in an alley off of Flatbush Avenue, though to be honest, that memory wasn't particularly clear. He really only remembered the cold, that had bit to the bone, and the rage that had been all-encompassing.

And Steve, hunched protectively over a skinny, stray cat like it was important - more important than his own safety, his own physical self.

That memory was clear, in a jumbled mess of images and sensations and emotions; of the reek of garbage and exhaust that couldn't overpower memory. The peculiar, metallic stink of sweat that was compounded of malnutrition, despair and sheer terror; the sweet-sick stink of rot.

Bucky's therapist had said routine was good; routine was an anchor. It gave him something to look forward to, to expect, to be sure of. Like the Army, routine replaced thought, but all too often, Bucky found himself lost in memories while his body performed by rote. So, he tried to vary it, tried to do things the same but different, even if that only made sense in his head. Today, after the nightmare, he was staying in. Cleaning. Getting everything in order, making sure it was all in place, in his place, instead of marching all over the damn city.

 

He lived in the garden apartment his parents had made out of the ground floor of his ma's inherited Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Gran Barnes had come to live there when Bucky was nine-nearly-ten, her iron-grey hair in a twist at the back of her neck and her little, red-leather change purse always handy to pass out quarters. She'd died the year Bucky had graduated high school, outliving her own son by a year.

The apartment had been updated after that, unlike the rest of the house; fresh and new and modern, with an eye toward a tenant. Someone arty, his ma had said. Which possibly explained the turquoise lacquer on the living room 'accent' wall; but nothing could explain the harlequin sea-green and white tiles in the bathroom except his ma's very eclectic tastes. (And really, it was probably for the best that the furniture ma's great-grandparents, the Fenstermachers, had dragged over from Germany somewhere had all been massive, and mostly impossible to move. Ma had had to decorate around armoires and china cabinets that couldn't be lifted by two strong men, thus keeping her more...adventurous ideas to a minimum.)

Coming back home, reeling from two months of being a prisoner; of torture, illness, and the loss of his arm...Bucky hadn't cared. He'd burrowed into the place like a rat in a nest, and not set foot outside for half a year. Not until his ma forced him; until he'd found himself sitting hunched and frozen in a rickety wooden folding chair in a drafty VA hall, listening to a woman with burn scars on half her face talk about beating her TV to death one night with a baseball bat when she couldn't figure out how to make her dvr work.

He got that - really got that - and the guy who was running the meeting had come up to him, after, just to say welcome, to say he hoped Bucky would be back. Sam Wilson, he'd said, taking Bucky's hand in a hard, calloused grip, meeting him eye to eye. It took almost a month, but Bucky had gone back, eventually; sometimes twice a week, sometimes once a month, never totally letting go, but spinning on the end of his tether, like a kite in a high wind.

An unlucky combination of meds (they were always tweaking the damn things), a death (the last of the guy's he'd been captured with had committed suicide), and the God-damn prosthetic being a God-damn bitch, had snapped the string, and sent him reeling. Not the first time, but the worst time; four months out on the street, just...walking. Moving. Hiding, from every one and every thing, but mostly from his memories. The cats had been the first crack in the ice that had frozen him; saving the cats, hunting down the little punk assholes that were using them for dog-bait. Meeting Steve, and remembering that there was a world out there, and good people in it.

So Bucky scrubbed, and dusted, and mopped, and swept. Turned out his closet and drawers and filled a bag to donate. Wiped down the inside of his 'fridge and polished every window. Dusted all his bookshelves and all the books (he had a hell of a lot of books). He even took a damn toothbrush to his shower. It felt good, after, to see everything so shiny-clean and fresh, every bit of recycled glass countertop and harlequin tile sparkling. Everything where it should be. He hadn't even used his toothbrush, this time, so...yay.

Sometime late that night, he shoved the last load of laundry into the dryer, pushed his shower-damp hair back off his face and went upstairs, stealthy as the Army had taught him to be, to raid his ma's 'fridge. Because he couldn't handle eating in his own spotlessly clean kitchen, or talking on the phone just then. Not...yet.

Upstairs was warm, faintly scented with tomato, most of the lights out but for the entry (which meant at least one sister was still out), and the kitchen. Ma was sitting at the table, cup of hot chocolate in hand, her latest book spread out on the table, all galley proofs and red-slashed pages. She was the senior editor of an independent publishing house.

"Jamie!" she said, smiling up at him, two pens in her left hand and a highlighter in her right, bright red flannel pajama set showing under her fluffy grey robe.

"Hey, Ma," Bucky said, coming over to land a brief, dry kiss somewhere on her hair. "Have a good day?"

"Just trying to whip this book into shape. It goes out in a month. You hungry?" she asked, not directly looking at the raw-red knuckles and skin of Bucky's hand. Vinegar and baking soda and some 'organic' citrus cleanser normally wouldn't do that, but Bucky'd spent the day being 'not normal'. So she was not looking, and not asking, but Winifred Barnes was no fool, no.

Bucky tucked his hand into his hoodie pocket and shrugged. "Yeah. Only have cereal and stuff. Kinda wanted something hot."

"There's soup, probably still warm," Winnie said, gesturing with the highlighter toward the big, stainless stove. A pot sat on the back burner, and a covered plate sat next to it, and Bucky uncovered the pot to find tomato soup, thick with basil and rich with sour cream, and garlic bread grilled cheese on the plate beside it. They were both still warm.

Bucky paused for a long moment to crush the rising tide of embarrassment and weary anger. Ma could hear him, clattering around down there, maybe. Could hear his water running and his washing machine going. Or she just knew, by now, his habits and routines. Could guess when things were wobbling out of true. So here she'd sat, proofing a new book and making food for her semi-hermit, kinda-crazy, wounded son. Jesus, he was pathetic.

Silently, he dished himself some soup, and got a grilled cheese, and settled at the far end of the ten-person table, out of the danger zone of papers. He ate, not looking up, listening to the scratch and shush of the pens and the highlighter; of papers being moved from this pile to that. The sounds of his childhood.

"So," Winnie said, and Bucky flinched before he could stop himself, dully registering the little, hitching huff of breath that followed. "You said you were volunteering at the cat rescue. You went...last week?"

"Couple weeks ago," Bucky mumbled, and the straightened up, looking up the table, finally. He wasn't in trouble, for fuck's sake. He wasn't sixteen and sneaking in past midnight, hickeys on his neck from Ted Bishome and Pabst on his breath. "There were these... magazine people there, and it was..they...it was kinda noisy."

"So are you going back?" Winnie asked, glancing up from slashing through half a page, and Bucky shrugged. Flinched again when she put the pen down with a little click and frowned at him. "Jamie-"

"Ma, I don't...I want to, okay? I'm trying."

"Sweetheart, I know you are. Just…. You know I worry."

"I know. And I'm sorry, I know I'm fucking up-"

"You're not messing up," Winnie said, picking up her pen again, and Bucky snorted softly, slouching down in his chair and swirling the last crust of garlic bread through the dregs of his soup. "You just need to get out into the world a little more, is all. You'll see."

"Sure," Bucky said, and then shot to his feet, the chair scraping back, as the front door crashed open with a sound like a gunshot. "Fuck, what the fuck-?"

"Ma, I'm home!" Marguerite, baby of the family, came tromping through the entry, shutting both doors with a bit more force than necessary, and navigating through the dim foyer, and sitting and dining rooms to the kitchen, coat and scarf and gloves being shed as she came, a huge bag hanging over her shoulder. She dropped it all in a chair, gave Winnie a kiss and sent Bucky a raised-eyebrow look. "Put your back down, Crookshanks."

"Quit slammin' the damn door, you're gonna break the glass," Bucky snapped back. He jerked his chair back to the table and stacked bowl and plate and spoon, carrying them to the sink and almost losing the spoon in the process. Marguerite - she'd taken to calling herself Daisy, just lately, nineteen and too smart for her own good - hip-checked him, getting a bowl from the cabinet. Bucky did lose the spoon, and almost lost the bowl, clattering it down into the sink hard. "Fucking hell, Meggie-"

"Daisy- "

"More like skunk-weed-"

"Hey!" Winnie was scowling, getting up from her chair, mug in hand. "Both of you knock it off. Meg, it's almost midnight, and you don't need to come stomping in here and being snotty right off. And Jamie-"

"I'm going to bed," Bucky said, and Meggie made a snorting noise, ladling soup into a bowl and dribbling it down the side of the pot.

"Going to hide-"

"Meg-"

"Please just fuck off, okay?" Bucky said, hating how his voice cracked at the end. Then he was gone, striding out of the kitchen and down the back hall, hearing his ma saying something to Meggie, her voice sharp and disappointed. Through the door and down, down to his place. His lair. Fuck how he hated that. Hated how he reacted; hated how any little fucking thing set him off. Hated that he'd made his bratty baby sister and his ma fight, all because of him and his fucking stupid…nerves. His twitchy, stupid, obsessive crap.

He paced, from the living room, through the kitchen to the back, outside entry, over and over, around and around, dragging his fingers back through his hair when he wasn't clenching his fist tight - when he wasn't thisfuckingclose to putting it through the wall. Resisting, with everything in him, the impulse to just grab his coat and get the fuck out. Hit the streets, go, never stop, until maybe he was out in fly-over country, somewhere. Out head-deep in the ocean.

His distracted glance slid over his phone two, three, four times, before he noticed the little light flashing, telling him he had a message. He finally stopped, and woke it up, and read the text message that had been sent...oh, hours before. When he was on his knees, scrubbing the fucking baseboards.

A couple signed the papers for Ethel Merman today. We're thinking of having a big send-off with catnip cake and milk. It'd be great if you could make it. This Friday, right after close? :) :)

Steve, texting him. Belatedly, Bucky remembered exchanging numbers with him, after Steve had cleaned up his bashed knuckles and applied superfluous gauze, his long fingers - artist fingers - carefully smoothing the micropore tape over Bucky's hand. In case you need to ask me...anything. About the cats or anything, Steve had said, that grey-blue gaze so damn open and earnest and...not judging him. Not seeming to. Maybe not at all.

Most of the jitter ran out of Bucky in a long, long sigh, and he slumped down on the couch and stared at the text until the screen went dark. And then stared at the little black square until he nodded off, listing slightly sideways, all the lights on, his fingers twitching like a kitten dream-feeding.

 

Bucky spent the next two days stalking around Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill and Bed-Stuy, trying not to get too far afield, but too damn restless to stay home. Meg stayed out past one and got into a shouting match with ma and Becca, and Bucky...cravenly hid downstairs, unwilling and, more importantly, utterly unable to do anything about it. Meg was ten years younger than Bucky, and eight years younger than Becca, the middle child. An unlooked-for, very late addition, and the reason Gran Barnes had come to stay; to help out Ma who was working, had two kids under ten, and was mostly on her own, besides. She'd been a cosseted baby and a spoiled toddler and Bucky loved her like crazy, and wished like hell that being around her didn't make his blood boil.

Dad had been overseas a lot in those days, his engineering firm building in Nigeria and then Tangiers and finally Ecuador, but he'd come home for good when Bucky was fourteen, something of a legend, a lot like a stranger. He'd died three short years later, from an untreated malarial infection. A one-in-a-million kind of death that meant the company had paid out, big time, to avoid any possibility of a lawsuit for not having the right drugs on hand at the right time. Or something.

It had meant life-long security for his ma, but at the time, to Bucky, it had been simply one of the most monstrously unfair and horrible things to have happened to him. Just when he and dad were getting to know each other, getting to fit. Discovering they both hated Michael Douglas and the stink of hot asphalt; that they both loved a rainstorm and crisp apples with sharp cheddar.

Of course, even more monstrous and horrible things had happened to him since then, but it still hurt, sometimes, to think of things his dad would never know, or see; that Bucky would never get to share.

So he walked and he cleaned and he re-read the Amber chronicles for the umpteenth time, and he tried really hard not to pick any fights or stomp his phone to death or any other fucking sorry-ass thing. He texted with Sam a couple times and avoided going to a meeting on the flimsiest possible excuse, and basically acted like an idiot, but fuck, some days...some days.... He just could not face the extra reality-dose therapy or counseling brought down on him.

 

On Friday, he combed his hair, pulled on some slim-legged jeans that Becca had said looked 'hot' (he was never shopping with his sister again), and grimly forced the stump of his left arm down into the cup of the prosthetic. He'd promised Sam he'd try wearing it more, try getting used to it. Even if the tight clasp of the cup reminded him, in a nauseating way, of the cinch of the tourniquet that had been knotted, too tight and too long, around his shattered left arm.

He settled his shirt-collar and got his coat on, clumsy, unused to the damn arm and feeling off-balance, when it was the lack of his arm that had made him lurch sideways for weeks, wobbling out of true and trying to compensate with a limb that wasn't there anymore. The early-March air was still chilly, the last bits of dirty snow and ice lingering in the darkest shadows; but the sun was bright and the sky was a pale and delicate blue, arching high and far overhead, clear of any clouds. Bucky tugged his cap down over his ears and left, locking up behind himself and shutting the gate to the little under-stair area that was basically his front stoop. The stairs to the house proper rose up a story behind him, polished stone that glittered with bits of mica.

Bucky set off, walking not quickly, but steadily. A ground-eating stride that would get him from Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights to the FAF in under an hour, on a good day. It was barely five miles, but traffic and people and...things could make it take longer, if he had to detour. If he had to stop and just breathe for a while, trying to shake the crawling sensation he got from having too many people behind him and around him. People he couldn't predict, or put in their proper (non-threatening) place.

He got a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket and lit up, inhaling carefully. He'd got some kind of respiratory infection while he'd been a prisoner, and pneumonia three times after his rescue, lying too long in hospital beds. Got it a couple more times after that, because his lungs were just not so great, anymore, and being on the street for four months in the dead of winter hadn't helped one bit. So he smoked like a twelve year old just trying it out, tiny sips of smoke that he didn't take in too deep, knowing his ma would smell it on him, no matter what, and give him that look of hers. Huffing, Bucky ground the cigarette out on a wall and shoved the crumpled butt into his pocket. He put a piece of spearmint gum in his mouth, instead, and chewed furiously. Smoke probably bothered Steve, anyway.

It wasn't until the FAF sign was in sight - lounging black cat on a red-brick wall, gold lettering - that he realized he was early. Hours early, because Steve's text had said 'after close', and that wasn't until six, and here it was barely past noon. Bucky's purposeful stride petered out into nothing and he came to a gradual halt, staring down the street.

So damn early. And Steve might not even be there. And he'd ditched on them; been a 'volunteer' for exactly one day and then vanished, because that had been a bad damn day (not all of it), that had turned into a bad damn week. Hell, more than a week. And fuck, he was tired of that. So fucking tired of the roller-coaster of ups and downs and sideways his life had become. So all they really knew about him was that he was a twitchy jerk who had promised to come work and help with the cats, and had snapped under pressure and run away. Why the fuck would they even want him back? (And Steve had seen him, every time, acting like some kind of over-the-top movie vet, all crazy talk and violence, exactly the wrong kind of person to be around...anyone.)

"Fuck," Bucky muttered. Indecision, humiliation, anger...Jesus, he was a mess. But Steve had texted him, Steve was maybe expecting him, even though Bucky was too much of a mess to have texted him back, fuck, fuck, fucking...fuck. Bucky got his phone out and then just held it, wavering between shooting off a quick 'sorry, couldn't make it' text or just turning tail and getting the fuck out of there. For once, he wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to everything going on around him.

Which was why someone saying his name startled the hell out of him, and his phone tumbled to the sidewalk with a little thump.

"Fuck!"

"Aw, hell, Buck, I'm sorry." Steve. Steve, darting down to snatch the phone up, turning it in its rubber case, inspecting it. "It looks okay, I don't think it got hurt. Wow, this case is cool-"

"Leave it the hell alone," Bucky snarled, snatching his phone out of Steve's hand.

"Oh," Steve said, and his voice was small and hurt. Then he visibly put that away, wiped his expression clean, and straightened up, squaring his shoulders. (Bracing for a hit, against more hurt...damnit.) "I- Were you coming to see your cat? She's still here."

"She's not my fucking cat. How many times-?" Bucky snapped his jaw shut, knuckles of his right hand rubbing hard against his forehead, eyes squeezed shut, just trying to breathe, trying to shove away the totally out-of-proportion reaction he was having. Rage with no focus and nowhere to go.

"Buck...wh-what can I-? Is there something I can do?" Steve asked, and Bucky wanted to yell at him; wanted to tell him it wasn't his fucking job to walk Steve through this, it wasn't fucking about Steve, it was just him, just Bucky, just his stupid, fucked up brain.

"Just stop," Bucky muttered, and he could hear the little whine and creak of the prosthetic, as his brain told it to make a tight, hard fist. "Jesus, just stop, fucking stop…."

"Okay," Steve said, and then nothing else, and Bucky took a sharp, hard breath in and lifted his head. Steve was gone. Turning, Bucky spotted him walking away, toward the shelter. He had a handful of bright canvas bags in his hand, bulgy with stuff, and his shoulders were slumped, his head down. Christ, he looked like a little kid, despite the width of those bowed shoulders, and Bucky cursed and shoved his phone away and followed, walking fast. Because it was himself that needed to stop - to shut the fuck up - but how was Steve supposed to know that?

He caught up in a few quick strides and then he didn't know what to do, so he just fell into step beside Steve, hands in his pockets, hunched against the breeze. He remembered Steve's quiet, patient presence that day, calmly waiting out Bucky's bad trip. (Sam didn't like comparing PTSD symptoms to drug use, but that's what it felt like to Bucky, who actually had had a bad trip or two, in his stupid teenage years). He’d just been there, when he didn't have to be, doing his best. Bucky dared a little bump of his shoulder - left shoulder - against Steve's, and Steve looked over at him.

"Sorry. Didn't mean...sorry."

"Me, too," Steve said, and Bucky huffed in irritation. As if Steve had anything to be sorry for. "You coming to the party? It's just gonna be us. FAF staff, I mean, no cat magazine people or anything."

"I'm not staff," Bucky said, at a loss for anything else to say, and Steve shook his head.

"Yeah, you are. Got the paperwork and everything. It'll be fun! Clint's making catnip cake with this," Steve said, rooting into a bright red bag and holding up a can of wet cat food. "Pretty sure it's going to be completely disgusting."

"I'm not eating that," Bucky said, and Steve grinned, bright and wide and sunny as the wide, blue sky.

 

 

Three days later, his hand shaking with nerves (and the prosthetic twitching with them, which was irritating, as well as just freaking Bucky out), he was back at FAF again. The party had been fun, low key; just deli sandwiches and soup, and sweet blinis with 'artisanal honey' (whatever the hell that was) and cherry jam. Bucky had mostly propped himself in a corner and watched everyone eat and relax and be silly with each other, not quite part of the group, but not completely an outsider, either. Steve had bounced like a ball between Bucky and his friends, flushed and laughing and just...so alive. So happy, and so handsome it was crazy. Ethel and the cats had gone nuts for the catnip cakes, mostly, and Clint had worn a tall chef's hat and been incredibly smug for someone who had basically opened cat food tins.

Bucky sidled in through the front door two minutes after they opened, giving Natasha a half-hearted smile. He'd seen her face on Sam's phone a couple times, heard a few remarks about dates, cats, and 'crazy-ass former Marines' in passing, and knew, without really wanting to know, that she and Sam were pretty hot for each other. But Sam smiled a lot, now, too, in a really sappy way, so that was okay.

She also had a way of handling Tony so that his random, stream-of-consciousness, rapid-fire ramblings didn't get too personal or too pointed, which had been nice at Ethel's going away party, when Tony had noticed - and started talking about - prosthetic limbs. Bucky really...hated that. But he also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and for her to launch into some kind of 'shared experiences' talk, and he hated that even more.

Now, she looked up from the computer she was working at with a little, knowing grin on her lips, and Bucky almost physically recoiled.

"He-ey," she said, sing-song. "Steve won't be in 'til after eleven, he had to go over to Manhattan."

Bucky felt whatever expression he had on his face go instantly flat and blank, and a tiny wrinkle appeared between Natasha's eyebrows.

"I'm here to help with the cats," Bucky said, and Natasha just looked at him for a long moment.

"Sure, okay," she said finally, going back to whatever she was doing on the computer, her nails clicking on the keyboard. That little curl of a smile on her mouth again, and Bucky had to clench his jaw, hard, to stop himself saying anything else.

Instead, he pushed through the door and into the back, heading for the rear access door. He was embarrassed, he was irritated - no, he was angry - and maybe it would be better if he just went back home, or took a walk, or-

"Hey, Bucky- whoa," Clint appeared around a corner, hands up and moving, smiling, until he saw Bucky. "You look- You okay?"

"I'm fine," Bucky snapped, and then sighed, because he knew exactly how he looked. His platoon used to call it his 'murder face', and they'd learned, fast, to clear the fuck out when Bucky looked like that. Clint...did not deserve the murder face. "Fuck. Sorry, I'm...sorry," Bucky said, and he reached up and tugged his beanie off his head, feeling some loose strands of hair come down around his cheeks. "I'm just...uh...I'm here to help with the cats, okay?"

"Sure, okay," Clint said. He scratched at his jaw, where a cartoon band aid - some red-headed girl with a bow? - was stuck. "We got a pair of mirror-twin toms in yesterday, they're really neat. Wanna see?" he asked, and Bucky took a moment replying, a little lost in his head, a little lost in the graceful, evocative movements of Clint's stubby-nailed, callused hands. "Bucky?"

"Yeah, yeah, that'd be...great. Sure," Bucky said. Trying to let go of all the prickly, negative crap swirling around inside him. He shrugged his coat off and went and hung it in the back, on the row of hooks there, stuffing cap and gloves into one pocket. He took his hair-tie out and carefully re-did his ponytail, cursing under his breath at how the prosthetic's material snagged his hair.

Maybe that was why he was so damn touchy today. Wearing the arm again so soon; being reminded, being uncomfortable in his own skin…. (But that wasn't why, and he knew that wasn't why, and he needed to be straight with himself. He was pissed that his intentions were so damn transparent, and that Natasha's look had been so knowing, and so amused. Pissed that his belly had clenched unhappily at her words, and that she'd made him acknowledge every bit of his expectations and desires and disappointment without one damn bit of effort. He felt stupid, and obvious, and like an intruder and fucking hell, he did want to see Steve.)

But he wanted to see the damn cats, too.

He followed Clint to the quarantine cages and saw the twins - two fluffy black and white toms with exactly opposite spots and patches - and a half-grown marmalade cat who might, Jesus, be pregnant, and a very old, white cat with one eye missing and scarred ears and a bandage-wrapped stump instead of a hind paw, which made Bucky clench his hands into fists for a moment before he gently reached out to scratch under the scruffy chin. The cat blinked and purred, wheezing a little.

Out of sheer habit, apparently, Clint read every chart for every cat aloud, pointing out the most interesting bits to Bucky and automatically checking food and water and litter boxes. After the first couple, Bucky took it upon himself to scoop the boxes and clean and refill the water dishes, while Clint expertly checked eyes and ears and pulses, or something, tenderly kneading his fingers over bellies when the cat would allow it.

After that, they moved onto the holding rooms where the adoptable cats were kept, and Bucky spent some quality time with the little tuxedo girl and the grey tom. But he helped clean and scoop and refill there, too, lost in the repetition of the work, not noticing when Clint wandered off; startling when someone called his name.

"Hey, just me." It was Steve, standing there all windblown and pink-cheeked, scarf dangling around his neck and a huge, black portfolio under his arm.

"Hey," Bucky said. And suddenly all his jangling nerves and irritation seemed to settle, his whole body letting go, just a little; riding easier in its skin. Steve.

"Sorry I wasn't- I had to go over to Manhattan. I had a meeting with the development guys."

"Oh," Bucky said. And then just stood there, like an idiot, with cat hair and litter dust all over him, his hair coming undone (again), a kitten digging tiny claws into his shoulder and another making a bid for his thigh. Bucky was pretty sure he was smiling, or something, because Steve was, and wasn't that just….

"Guess you've had a busy morning," Steve said, and settled the portfolio on the floor, draping his scarf over it. He opened the enclosure door and edged in, nudging cats back with his booted foot, and Bucky finally got it together enough to unhook the kitten from his knee and cuddle it up close to his neck, next to its sibling.

"Yeah." Oh, Jesus. Talk. "Clint kinda...told me what to do."

"He's pretty good at directing," Steve said, and scooped the kitten off Bucky's shoulder, cradling it in his palm. "Hey, buddy, hey. Ooh, look at those claws, look at that," Steve cooed, as the smoke-blue and white kitten batted at Steve's fingers. "Gonna be a contender," he said, grinning up at Bucky.

Bucky snorted softly, rubbing 'his' kitten under the chin and feeling its nose push at his jaw. "Mine's a lover, not a fighter," he said, and then felt his cheeks flush hot because, fuck's sake. Steve blinked at him, his mouth open on a little 'o', and then he laughed.

"Maybe that's better. Did you visit your girl?"

"Yeah, I did. She's doin' really good."

"Yup. She'd do really good in a forever home," Steve said, putting the kitten down on the floor and pushing a jingly ball a few inches, to distract it.

"Yeah, yeah." Buck put his kitten down, too, and watched it wobble over and pounce on its litter-mate. "What are you, uh, developing?"

"Huh?" Steve asked, and then he blushed, and Bucky just stared, a little confused and a lot intrigued. "Oh, um...I told you I worked for a gaming company?" Bucky nodded. "We were finalizing the art for all the characters and locations in a new game. We had the last meeting to approve everything today. Uh...you want to see?"

"Sure," Bucky said, after a beat, because Steve seemed kind of weird about it. They left the enclosure and Bucky made sure it was latched securely. Then Steve sneezed, and Bucky decided he'd better go wash, first, so they trekked back to the break room so he could scrub his hands clean and lint-roller the worst of the cat hair off him. Steve had the portfolio laid out on the table, fidgeting with the pages inside.

"Okay, so, um…. This new game is kind of....Alien meets The Lord of the Rings. There's space Marines and these weird kind of...space fairy-things and monsters and...the main character is kind of a...trickster kind of character…." Steve had turned over the first couple of pages, too fast for Bucky's taste, and he shouldered Steve aside a little and turned back.

Back to finely detailed, brightly-colored and fucking amazing images of soldiers in hi-tech, space-suit kind of armor, and weird little winged creatures with tentacles or antennae or extra eyes. Space ships that would have made Bucky-as-a-child do a happy dance, because they were….

"Fucking amazing, Steve, damn, these are just…wow, look at that, what is-? That's just-"

"That's what it looks like when they do the warp-drive faster than light thing," Steve said, and Bucky grinned, and turned another page. A ship's bridge, and what was probably quarters or a ready-room for troops. A mess hall with, Bucky snorted, weird green and grey and yellowish goop in battered looking steel trays.

"Looks like t-rats," Bucky said, and Steve made an inquisitive noise. "Oh, you know, you get these big trays fulla stuff, creamed corn, beans, stuff like that. Heat 'em up and and take the top off and there you go, shit on a shingle, ready to serve."

Steve laughed, but he sounded...nervous, or something, and Bucky was starting to get a little weirded out. He'd asked Bucky to look, so why in hell was he being so twitchy? Bucky glanced up at Steve, who was chewing on a thumbnail and looking tense.

"You good, there?" Bucky asked, and Steve blinked at him for a moment.

"Yeah, I'm - sure, I'm just...you know...showing somebody your art, it's -" Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, looking away, and Bucky slowly turned the next page over. A tall figure, that seemed to be kind of floating, or leaping straight up, filled the page. It was wearing skin-tight trousers and tall boots and some kind of articulated, filigree looking armor, mostly over its left arm and chest. It was also wearing a big, black coat, that flared out around it, ragged on the edges, the one arm torn away to show the armor, the collar up high, framing a long-haired face and electric-blue eyes and….

"Is that...me?" Bucky asked, and Steve groaned, slumping down into a chair and shoving both hands into his hair. He wasn't looking at Bucky; hell, he had his eyes closed.

"Yes. No. Fuck. Now that you're standing here...Jesus. I mean...it's kind of…? But it's not- I didn't think it- Shit."

"Steve," Bucky said, almost barked out, and Steve jerked and looked up at him, fingers still knotted in his hair. "You need to use your fuckin' words."

"Sorry. Hell. Okay, so, I needed the Trickster character, right? He's not bad, he's not really good, he just…. He got shoved into this box...thing...for like five thousand years and he's pissed and he's kinda tearin' up the place but he's helping people, too, and I kinda...you kinda...inspired me?" Steve's voice went up a little high and plaintive, and Bucky just didn't know what to say.

"Look, he has a kind of...a familiar." Steve turned the page over and there was that - guy - again, only this time he was crouching on top of what looked like a ruined building or a crashed spaceship or something and a little black and white...cat-like...creature was sitting on his shoulder, double tails curled around his neck.

"Is that my pishogay?" Bucky asked, and Steve nodded.

"Um. It's the hobo cat. What does pishogay mean?"

"Kitten," Bucky said. He touched his fingertip to the alien cat-thing in the picture and then sat down with a little thump in the closest chair. "Steve, why are you drawing...me?"

"I didn't mean to!" Steve said, and he flipped several pages in the portfolio over, raising a breeze, and showing Bucky a few, short glimpses of the guy - Trickster - in other poses, fighting with what looked like long, glowing knives or short light sabers, and interacting with the fairy-things or Marines. In most of them, he looked angry, or just unhappy. In a couple, he was grinning (nastily). "I just...when we, at the cemetery, you were...you jumped off that tomb-thing and you were moving around with the cats, and…." Steve flipped over another page, the Trickster character reclining on what might be stars or energy or who fucking knew what, no shirt, this time, but the armor still on. Steve blushed, hard, and slammed the portfolio shut. "When you were yelling at me about...the cat-killers in the alley, it just...you just...the way you move, it made me...see him. This character. Finally." Steve sat there, shoulders up and head ducked down, barely looking at Bucky, fiddling with the straps that held the portfolio closed.

"I'm sorry. I should have...I should have asked or said...something, or...something. I can change him, I can- I'm sorry."

"I thought you'd hate me," Bucky said, and Steve started and then looked over at him, fingers going still, finally. "I thought I scared the fuck out of you, and fuck, I hurt you, and I figured you'd hate me, or be scared of me. And then...in the cemetery, I could tell you wanted me to…. You felt sorry for me, but you didn't...push." Buck sighed, and raked his hair back, leaning back in the chair and staring up at the ceiling.

"You didn't have to be nice to me at all, but you were. You kept being nice, and you're not scared of me or...feelin' sorry for me. Fuck, Steve."

"I wouldn't," Steve said, his voice gone low, loaded with some emotion that Bucky wasn't quite sure of, but he could hear the sincerity of Steve's words. Just knew he meant it. "I couldn't be scared of you, Buck. You...you're a good guy. You had some bad times but...you're a good guy, and I'm glad - I'm glad we met."

They sat there for a moment, and then Bucky sniffed and rubbed the back of his wrist distractedly against his nose.

"So, am I the hero, or what?" he asked, and Steve's answering smile was huge and delighted and full of gratitude and excitement, and it warmed Bucky all the way to his toes.

 

 

"So, this cat rescue guy," Becca said, and Bucky sighed.

"What about him?" he said, and Becca just looked at him, one eyebrow up a little, curls of glossy chestnut hair coming out from under her beanie. "Oh, Jeez. Fine. He's an artist, and he's good with the cats, like cat-whisperer good. And he's really...just..nice."

"Nice like…nice, or nice like niiice?" Becca asked, and Bucky snorted laughter, sidestepping a toppled garbage can.

"Both, fuck, he's...both. He makes me feel...good. Not so freaky. Not like a freak."

"You'll always be a freak, James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree," she sing-songed, and Bucky laughed again, crowding into Becca so that she squealed and crowded back, poking him in the side. "You must never go down to the end of town if you don't go down with me."

"That's my line," Bucky said, and Becca stuck her hand through the bend of Bucky's right arm, where it was tucked into his coat pocket, and hugged his elbow to her side.

"I'm glad he...makes you feel good. What kind of an artist is he?"

"Gaming. For this gaming company. He makes designs for all the characters and the backgrounds and- He made these spaceships for this new game? Some kind of Marines in space with, fuck, I dunno, fairies or something, it's pretty crazy, but the art is amazing, fucking beautiful, it's really different and- What?" Bucky asked, looking over at Becca and seeing her just grinning at him, her eyes a little wet and her nose pink.

"What, what?"

"What's that look?" Bucky asked, and Becca sniffed and hugged his arm again.

"You've got the biggest smile on your face, talking about this guy. I haven't seen you smile like that in...a really long time," she said, and Bucky felt his cheeks flush and he looked down, hunching his shoulders a little. "Ah, fuck, I'm sorry."

"No, no, it's...it's okay, just...fuck, Becca. I got no idea what he sees in me, but every time he sees me, he just gets this look on his face, this fucking smile that lights up the whole damn room."

"It's 'cause you're such a swell fella," Becca said, in her strongest, most Brooklyn 'gun moll'.

"Aw, quit flappin' your gums," Bucky said back, and Becca rolled her eyes.

"Oooh-kay. Here we are," she said a moment later, and they both stopped and looked up at the store front in front of them. It said 'The Pet Emporium', and through the dusty window, they could see ranks and stacks of canned pet food, bags of treats and kibble, piles of chew toys and pet beds and bowls. Everything you could need. Bucky felt his heart skip and flutter, pounding suddenly, and Becca hugged his arm again, tight. "Okay?"

"Yeah. Okay. Here we go." With a hard, deep breath in, and his hand clutched tight around the list he'd made three days before, they pushed the door wide and went in.

 

They ended up getting a taxi home, because no fucking way could they hump all the stuff Bucky had bought back to Willow Street. Becca laughed at him most of the way home.

 

 

Bucky was going to die. Or something. Go nuts (nuttier), at the very least. Waiting for Steve was friggin' torture, and he should know from torture. Bucky took a third lap around his living room and then groaned in frustration. He couldn't do this. Making sure he had his phone, and the empty sleeve of his jacket tucked securely into the left pocket, he stomped to his front door, and went out. He stuck his hand in his jean's pocket and started walking up the block. He'd just go to the end - three houses away - and then back. Anything to get the jitters worked out of his legs; the restless, tingling energy that was making him want to strike out for Mill Basin or something. Manhattan Beach.

Bucky gritted his teeth and kept walking. He got to the end of the block and forced himself to turn around and go back. He marched past his own door and further down, trying to concentrate on the minute swelling of buds on the tree limbs that arched overhead, on the flitting presence of tiny little brown birds - sparrows? - through the trees. It was not even cold outside; just a little chilly in the shade. The bright spring sunshine was an almost tangible thing, lying warmly over his shoulders.

Mrs. Kovalenko - a thousand years old at this point, Bucky was sure - was sitting in her ratty folding chair at the bottom of her stairs, all in black, hunched from age, gnarled hands endlessly manipulating needles and yarn. She'd been a fixture on his block - in his life - since he could remember. First one out in spring, last one to go in when the weather turned cold again.

She looked up as Bucky strode past, bright brown eyes in a wrinkled-apple face, white hair wisping away from the crown of braids she wove it into every day.

"Dobroho ranku, dobroho ranku, Zhen'ka!" she said, flapping the multi colored…thing she was knitting.

"Dobroho ranku, Mrs. Kovalenko. How are you?"

"Still breathing, Zhen'ka. Just like you. Where are you off to?"

Bucky stopped, hand fisted in his pocket, his blood rushing in his ears. "Well, nowhere." He turned around and watched Mrs. Kovalenko add stitch after stitch in bright green to her knitting, her hands moving with grace despite the swollen knuckles. "I'm- I'm getting a cat. Two cats. I'm just waiting on the cat rescue person to come look at my house."

She made a face. "Look for what?" she asked, and the needles flashed, the green building. It was weirdly relaxing. Bucky crouched down next to her, catching a whiff of peppermint and Ben Gay.

"For...to make sure it's safe? For the cats."

Mrs. Kovalenko snorted. "What, safe? They're cats. Koty , they take care of themselves. You upset your domovyk, with these cats, maybe. Best you leave something nice."

Domovyk, Bucky remembered, were house spirits. Brownies. You were supposed to leave them milk or bread or something. Tobacco. Mrs. Kovalenko was a great believer in domovyk. The idea that a weird, hairy, little goblin lurked in every house had freaked Bucky out quite a bit when he was a kid, even though his ma had tried to reassure him that they were protectors, good spirits, not bad. Eight-year-old Bucky had still gotten into trouble for secreting little bowls of milk and bread all over the house.

He'd dropped a cigarette the other day and it had seemingly disappeared, rolling away from him and vanishing under something. So maybe the domovyk had it.

"I will," Bucky said, and Mrs. Kovalenko put her knitting down and reached out. Bucky flinched, just a little, and her hand hesitated. And then she cupped his cheek gently, caressing lightly. Her hands were thin and strong and cool, her fingertips rough, her nails neat ovals. Working hands, that had given him pennies and peppermint candy and bright, tangy tomatoes and crisp cucumbers all of his life.

"Ty khoroshyy khlopchyk, Jamesik. A good boy, yes?"

"I try to be," Bucky said, feeling like a little kid again; feeling, for a moment, young and clean and whole. Mrs. Kovalenko patted his cheek and then drew her hand away, dipping into the pocket of her cardigan. She pulled out a cellophane-wrapped peppermint and presented it to him with a grin, the skin wrinkling up all over her face, happy crinkles in the corners of her eyes.

"You go home, now, Jamesik. Make sure your domovyk is happy."

"Yes, ma'am," Bucky said, taking the peppermint and standing up with a creaking and popping of his knees. Mrs. Kovalenko picked up her knitting, and a moment later the needles were flashing, the yarn like magic twisting into shapes. Bucky stood and watched for just a moment more, and then he turned on his heel and strode away, still feeling…good. Lighter. He squeezed one end of the wrapper on the candy, pushing the candy out the other side and straight into his mouth, the cool-hot tingle and sweet-mint taste filling his mouth.

This was going to be okay; everything was going to be okay.

As he approached his house, he saw a motorcycle coming up the street, travelling slowly. A moment later, it pulled over and parked, and the driver reached up and dragged the full-face helmet off.

"Steve?" Bucky said, incredulous, and then not. Because - it just fit. Fit perfectly. Steve stood there, straddling the bike, in a worn, brown-leather jacket and plaid shirt, battered jeans and big boots. The helmet had mussed his hair into soft spikes, and he was smiling that smile. Big and warm and bright.

"Hey, Bucky."

"Hey," Bucky said back, and then just stood there. Steve just kept smiling, and after a moment, he put the kickstand on the bike down, and turned it off, and climbed off, tucking the helmet under his arm and walking over.

"So, you ready for the inspection?" Steve asked, and Bucky blinked.

"Uh. Yes. Yeah, I am, I'm- Yes, I'm ready."

"Okay, great," Steve said. And then grinned even wider, somehow, shifting a little on his feet. "You gonna...show me where you live?"

"What?" Steve laughed, just a little, amused huff, and Bucky wanted to slap himself. "Yes, shit, Steve, sorry, my fucking head's such a cluster-fuck today, sorry, man."

"Hey, no, that's okay," Steve said, and his smile didn't go away, it just turned..gentle, or something. Soft. "If you wanna put it off for a few days or something, that's fine, we can do that."

"No, man, I'm good, it's fine," Bucky said, and Steve cocked his head a little, looking at him. "Really, I mean it. C'mon and inspect, I dusted and everything." That made Steve really laugh, and Bucky felt good again. Christ, it was like a drug. And nothing on this Earth would let Bucky admit he really had dusted - and mopped, and scrubbed, and swept - for the last two days. Bucky made a 'come on' gesture with his hand and turned toward his house. Steve had parked about twenty yards away, and as they walked up the sidewalk, he looked around the neighborhood, taking in the clean-swept stoops and tidily painted trim and tall, budding trees with an air of admiration.

"Wow, nice street, Buck. You lucked out, huh? Do you rent by yourself or do you have a roommate?"

"Uh, no? I don't- I mean...this is my house," Bucky said, stopping at the wrought-iron gate that surrounded the front area that led to his door. Steve was staring up at the three stories of the house as if it would fall on him.

"This is where you live? The whole- the whole thing?" Bucky nodded. "It's a mansion!"

"It's a house," Bucky said, and fuck, he couldn't help it, he had to laugh at Steve's expression. "It's my ma's house, I'm in the garden apartment. C'mon." He opened the little gate and led Steve in; keyed open his door and stepped aside so Steve could walk through first. There was a little foyer, basically under the front stoop stairs, where you could leave your coats and shoes and stuff, though Bucky wasn't gonna ask Steve to take his damn shoes off.

They hung up their jackets, though, and Steve set his helmet down on the table there, where Bucky's keys lived in the little cloisonne bowl. Past the foyer was just a long hall, with the mostly-empty guest room on the right, and then the half bath. Then it opened out into the living room, and the little office niche that Gran Barnes had used for sewing (the light was good), and beyond that the galley-style kitchen and utility room. Then it became hallway again, with Bucky's room and bath off to the right, and, at the very back of the house, the little sitting area that opened onto the back yard.

Bucky watched Steve more than his feet - bumped into the wall and the end of the couch, watching. Steve didn't seem to notice. He made exclamatory noises over the double row of books that lined the long, built-in shelf down the hall, took in the atrocious 'accent wall' without a blink, craned his head around to look at the elaborate crown molding ma had picked out. He made what seemed to be approving sort of noises (Bucky thought) at the deep, squashy, couch that was covered in something sort of like a dark-brown suede, which ma had scattered with deep purple (Aubergine, Jamie,) and dark green and rusty yellow pillows.

"Wow," Steve said, and Bucky winced a little.

"Yeah, the colors are kinda... My ma redecorated."

"Huh? No, I mean...the colors are fine, she's got an eye, I mean - wow," Steve said again. "You've got a lot of books." All of Gran Barnes’s niche was wall to wall books, now, except for where the windows were. There were book shelves on every bit of free wallspace, and books stacked under the coffee table on the shelf there, and on top of the coffee table, and on the floor-to-ceiling shelf at the entry to the kitchen that was supposed to hold cook books or spices or some fucking thing. There were some on the floor, too, because Bucky'd run out of shelf space about forty online purchases ago. He always kinda forgot, that that many books seemed to freak people out.

"What are-? What do you read? What do you like best?" Steve asked, stepping up to the closest shelf of books to peer, head tilted, at the titles.

"Uh, mostly sci-fi. My dad-" Bucky stopped for a second, and swallowed, and took a deep breath. "My dad loved those pulp sci-fi stories from the fifties and stuff, got me started, and I...I just...I really like sci-fi." Bucky finished lamely. "There's stuff about...space, too, and uh - motorcycles and history and a bunch of the 'classics', you know, and...I think everything my ma's ever published. But mostly sci-fi."

"Your mom's a writer?" Steve said, eyes wide, his fingers tracing over the worn spines of Bucky's Ray Bradbury books.

"Oh, no, she's an editor? Works for Nine Muses Publishing; she's the senior editor. Mostly, uh, feminist stuff."

"Cool," Steve said, and he seemed to mean it. He stepped sideways, head cocked, investigating more books, and Bucky just wanted to do...something. Something stupid, most likely.

"You can… If you wanna borrow anything, you can, it's fine," Bucky said, and Steve looked like he'd just seen Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or something.

"That would be amazing, thank you." Steve beamed at him, and Bucky felt himself grinning back, even as heat crept up his neck and flushed his cheeks. Smiling, and staring, and the moment stretched on and there was something in Steve's look, there was something-

A door slammed upstairs, and Bucky jerked, startled, and the something seemed to pass. Bucky...felt weirdly let down, though from what, exactly, he wasn't sure. "I guess...you need to see...the rest?" Bucky said, and Steve shoved his hands down in his jeans pockets and nodded. He was wearing a tight, white tee under his plaid overshirt, and the way the fabric stretched when Steve moved was fascinating.

Get a grip.

"Okay, so, I put the bowls and stuff back here." Bucky turned and led Steve through the kitchen to the sitting area beyond. It wasn't huge, but it was big enough for an area rug, a big, plush chair (Chaise longue, Jamie), and a low table up against one wall. Opposite the chair there was a kind of storage area with a folding door that Bucky had removed. Two shelves held all the supplies he'd bought, two litter boxes sat filled and ready in the bottom. The bowls for food and water were in the kitchen, against the side of the 'fridge and mostly out of the way, and the multi-tiered cat tree stood against one of the French doors that opened into the back yard.

Well, not so much a yard as a stone-paved area with raised beds of ornamental grass, small trees and flowering bushes. Taller, espaliered trees lined the privacy fence, and in a month or so the whole place would be green and shady and whispering with plant life. Currently, it looked a bit muddy and bare, with only a faint fuzz of green showing on some of the limbs.

"You...really stocked up," Steve said, studying the loaded shelves in the closet. He looked serious, but the corner of his mouth was curling, just a little.

"Yeah, well, I just thought...I mean, I wasn't sure what they'd like, and I thought I should...I wanted to make sure- Becca made me," Bucky finished, and Steve looked over at him. "My sister. She came with me and she - kept putting stuff in the basket."

"Uh huh," Steve said, and Bucky could tell he didn't believe a word.

 

"So, everything checks out, everything looks good," Steve said, tapping away at his phone. He had some kind of form or checklist or something, all official. "I'd say you can bring the cats here any time." Steve looked up from his cross-legged position on the rug - he'd been checking out the books under the coffee table - and grinned. "Do you have names for them yet?"

"Um. Yeah. I thought - the pishogay, I'm going to call her Marlene," Bucky said. Steve looked a little baffled. "Like Dietrich? She's female, and in a tuxedo-" Bucky snatched up his bottle of tonic water and took a long drink, feeling Steve's gaze on him. When he put the bottle back down, Steve was still looking at him, smiling a soft smile.

"I like it. She's a lady, but she's feisty. What about the tom?"

"Grimalkin. It's from...well, Macbeth, but this other book, too, that my gran gave me, Beware the Cat? It's kind of...the first prose novel in English."

"Wow. She gave you-?"

"Just a copy," Bucky said. He got up and crossed the room to Gran Barnes' sewing niche, taking the hard-bound book from its spot on the shelf next to his favorite picture of gran and himself. "Here." Bucky folded gracelessly down next to Steve, doing his best not to lose his balance and fall sprawling and flailing into Steve. He wasn’t really conscious of the fact, until he was settled, that he'd put his left side to Steve. Again. He held the book out, and Steve took in both hands, tenderly. "It's a bunch of short stories about cats, kind of horror stories, folktales and stuff. Grimalkin was a faery cat."

"Man, this is...that's really...neat," Steve said. He was turning the brittle, tea-colored pages over with careful fingers, scanning the smudgy print. "This is- Is this Old English?"

"Archaic English," Bucky said, and Steve looked up with a lightning-fast grin. "It was published around fifteen-sixty? Something like that. So not as old as that."

"It's just amazing." Steve turned to the front of the book, and the little card Gran Barnes had tucked there slid out into his lap. It was just a piece of thin cardstock, and she's sketched a little, jaunty cat in one corner, and written For Jamie on his eleventh birthday. My little Prince of Cats. He could see Steve see it - start to read it - then he closed the book softly, card safely inside, and held it out. "Thanks for showing me."

"Sure," Bucky said. He put his hand on the book, tugging just a little, and Steve...didn't let go. Steve let Bucky pull the book, his hand, himself, a little closer and that something seemed to blaze up between them again. Bucky could see the flecks of steel-grey and green-grey in Steve's eyes; the individual, fine hairs of his brows, and the slightly chapped, full curve of his lower lip. That last seemed to magnetize his gaze, and Bucky felt himself swaying in a little closer, closer; felt his eyes go shut, safe darkness.

Steve's mouth was warm, and soft, and pressed without haste to Bucky's. Steve didn't try to push Bucky back, or draw him closer; didn't try to make the kiss deeper, or harder. He just touched their mouths together for a long (endless) moment, and then slowly drew back. Bucky opened his eyes.

"Is it- Is that okay?" Steve said, his voice was hushed, his hand still holding the book, his fingertips just touching Bucky's.

"Yeah, yeah, it's...it's good, it's fine," Bucky said, and this time he leaned in, his hand cramping down tightly on the book, breathing in in a shocky little gasp when Steve's mouth moved a little under his, opening just slightly. "F-ffuck, can I-? Is it...okay?"

"Yeah, sure, okay," Steve said, and Bucky felt a bubble of laughter rise up in his chest, pushing out between them.

"You don't even know...what I'm asking," Bucky said, inches from Steve, and he felt Steve's hand move, tugging. Taking the book out of Bucky's own grip with a little shake and setting it on the coffee table.

"Whatever it is, it's okay, I'm fine, it's fine," Steve said, and his voice was husky and a little breathless, one arm braced on the rug and his free hand coming back from dropping the book to catch at Bucky's. His cheeks were pink.

"I want to kiss you."

"You did, you are, that's great, yes, let's do that," Steve said, and Bucky laughed again, almost dizzy, his heart pounding and his whole body seeming to fizz, bubbles in his veins instead of blood.

"Okay, okay." They both leaned in at the same moment. Bucky felt Steve tip his head a little, and their mouths touched, and then Bucky was pushing closer, thighs flexing, crossed ankles grinding together. He felt Steve's mouth open under his; felt the light, tickling sensation of the tip of Steve's tongue flick over his lower lip. It sent a jolt all the way through him, mouth to belly - lower - and he made a tiny, huffing groan of a noise, and flushed hot all over.

Steve tasted, just a little, of the ginger ale he'd been sipping, and Bucky wanted more of that; more of the heat of him, and the spicy scent of soap or shampoo; more of the clutch and tug of their twined fingers. He leaned in closer, up onto his knees a little, his hand sliding free of Steve's and moving up Steve's forearm to his bicep, his shoulder, to his neck. He wanted - God - to curl his fingers in the fine hair there; he wanted to feel the sharp angle of Steve's jaw under his thumb.

Steve seemed fine with it - more than fine. He was kissing back with soft little licks at Bucky's lower lip - with little, kitten-nudgings of his chin and his cheek into Bucky's. His free hand settled lightly on Bucky's knee, then his thigh - skipped up to his ribs and then slid around, to press between his shoulder blades, bringing Bucky in even closer.

They were both leaning and pushing and twisting sideways, legs tangling against each other and the coffee table, until Bucky lost his balance and tipped right over onto his left side, no arm to save him, hand clutching Steve's shoulder. Steve just followed him down, his strong left arm still curled around Bucky to save him from landing too hard, his chest and his belly and his hip pressed against Bucky's.

Bucky was half-way on his back, half on his side, his foot was somewhere under the coffee table and his other one somewhere on top. His hair was in his face and Steve's face was right there, hovering over him.

Smiling at him.

"I think, if I move, I'm gonna turn the coffee table over on both of us," Steve said, fussing a little with one of the buttons on the worn, blue Henley Bucky was wearing. Bucky laughed, and God, that laugh felt so good. It felt like the last of the winter's ice in him breaking free.

"Who said you had to move?" Bucky said, and Steve's face went a little pinker, his chin dipping down.

"I'm tryin' to be subtle," Steve said, his hips shifting just a little. Bucky felt his eyebrows go up.

"Oh ho. Hey, there, Subtle. Nice ta meet'cha," he said, and Steve groaned and buried his face in Bucky's neck.

"You're killin' me."

"Nothin' to what my ma'll do if we break her fuckin' Kandinsky."

Steve's head snapped up like it was on a string and he twisted around, staring at the - incredibly ugly, to Bucky - wood and glass-topped monstrosity that they were currently in danger of toppling. His booted foot was, in fact, tipping it slightly sideways, and both their open bottles were starting to slide, just a little.

"That's a Kandinsky? I mean - really a Kandinsky?"

"I think? I dunno. She says it is, but she got it at some junk sale. You like it?" Bucky said, and squinted through strands of disordered hair at the thing. He really, really hated it; it was all sharp angles and glass he had to polish.

"I love Kandinsky. His 'Blue Rider' period is my favorite, but his Bauhaus works are- Did you read his Point and Line to Plane? It's amazing. He-" Steve made to sit up and the whole table tilted. Books, tonic water, and ginger ale went sliding.

With a yelp, Bucky lunged for the table, and Steve for the bottles, and between the two of them, Bucky's jeans and Steve's plaid overshirt ended up spattered. But the books (and the table, damnit), were saved.

Bucky put the mostly-empty bottles in the kitchen sink, took a deep breath, and marched back out to the living room. Steve was there, on his knees, re-stacking the disordered books, and Bucky felt his whole body flush, just...crazy. It was all so crazy.

"Maybe we should, uh..." Steve was looking a little flustered, so Bucky reached down to him, and held his hand out. Steve looked at it, and then up at Bucky. He took Bucky's hand in his and pushed easily to his feet, his fingers warm and strong in Bucky's. And Bucky felt.... He felt free. He felt better than he had in weeks. Months He felt like he was flying, and he felt like he was solidly, perfectly grounded, right there; Steve like an anchor and a beacon. He felt giddy, and braver than he had for all the long days and nights and months and years since the war; since his arm; since...everything.

"Maybe we should sit on the couch. Or recline on the couch. Or, you know...whatever comes to mind. On the couch."

"It's not, um...it's not some designer couch, is it?" Steve said, eyeing the big, brown, squashy cushions and multi-colored pillows with trepidation. Bucky shook his head, grinning.

"I think it's from the Furniture Warehouse or somewhere like that. Promise it's not a priceless antique. It'll hold up to something...un-subtle."

"Un-sub-, oh Jeez," Steve said, and blushed.

Bucky laughed right out loud, head tipped back, and tugged Steve into him with a pull of his arm. Catching Steve around the waist, he lifted his head up that scant inch or so to meet Steve, mouth to laughing mouth.

"C'mon, Steve, come and be un-subtle with me on my couch. Show me what'cha got. Dare ya," Bucky said, between kisses scorching and sweet and butterfly-light; soul-shaking deep. "Double-dare ya, triple-dog dare ya."

"Oh, no, not the sinister triple-dog dare!" Steve mumbled, and Bucky snorted helpless laughter, tugging at Steve, making them both stumble and stagger and fall, right onto the couch, scattering pillows, tangled together, pressed heart to heart.

"Man, you are some kinda nerd," Bucky said, and gave in to temptation and ran his fingers back through Steve's hair, mussing the tarnished gold, grinning at the slightly curling lock that fell down over Steve's forehead.

"You recognized it," Steve said back, and then he seemed to settle, going still, staring down at Bucky, his fingers stroking over Bucky's collarbone. His t-shirt had a little tuft of black cat hair, right on the collar.

"You sure you wanna...I mean, I'm kinda...weird. I drew you. A lot."

"I knocked you into a wall. You sure you wanna?"

Steve looked up, then, meeting Bucky eye to eye, and Bucky felt that look like a shock, like a fall, like a bolt of lightning. Like something really, really good. Like the best thing in a long, long time.

"I really do," Steve almost-whispered, and Bucky pulled him down, and kissed him with everything he was; with every giddy thump of his heart and coiling, unexpected heat in his belly; with every shaky, too-fast gasp of his lungs.

With every un-subtle emotion, right there, laid bare, for Steve to see.

And he wasn't scared at all.