Ever since Steve got big, it seems like he's been the one saving Bucky, when it used to be the other way around. Steve saved him from regular Nazis a bunch of times. He saved him from Hydra twice. He even saved him from New Jersey. (Fucking Paramus.)
Now, Bucky thinks, it's time for him to save Steve.
Not that Steve thinks he needs saving. Every time the Avengers call him, off he goes, saving the world, or at least a little chunk of it. And every time he comes home, he seems worn down, like he's lost another piece of himself.
Bucky knows what it's like to be missing pieces of yourself. His memory is a smashed fun house mirror, with the memory of braiding his sister's hair merging with the memory of a kill in Vilnius, and an image of a skinny Steve watching a ball game fusing with one of Hydra officers watching him as his brain was fried in that fucking chair.
Tony's therapists and Sam have helped him put himself back together, to deal with the missing pieces. They've pried the Hydra triggers from his mind and showed him how to deal with the shell shock. (PTSD they call it now, but it's the same fucking thing). He still checks every new location for threats and exit points, but he's nonchalant about it now and no one notices. Well, no one except Steve. And sometimes Sam. And Audrey.
Audrey always notices. She's a sharp one. He can see why she's Steve's friend. She's the best friend Bucky's got, after Steve. Steve rescued him from Hydra and Jersey. Audrey gave him ballet.
He fucking loves ballet. Who'd a thought it, a dumb Brooklyn mook like him? He has a memory of the old Bucky at a boxing gym, teaching skinny Steve how to throw a punch, but he knows that kid would never have been caught dead in a ballet class. Now, it's the thing he loves doing most. (Well, second most, maybe, after fucking a certain super soldier.) He loves dancing until he's so exhausted he can't manage another step. He loves teaching a class and watching his students nail a difficult series of moves. He loves teaching the little ones, letting them climb up his left arm until they lose their grip on the shifting plates.
Bucky wishes so fucking much that Steve could find his ballet. Find something that he could do besides beat up Hydra assholes. And alien assholes. And whatever other assholes the Avengers have found who are in need of beating up.
He knows that Audrey feels the same way about Steve. She'll glare at Bucky when Steve shows up for Sunday dinner with more than the usual amount of bruises, which means he got more than the usual amount of injured on his last mission. She'll pat Steve's arm when he curls up on the couch after he's finished helping Herb install a new battery in his car or Mrs. Lambert plant fall bulbs. She'll make sure he gets the biggest piece of pie at dinner, and will run interference for him if the Gutierrez kids want him to play ball when he's fallen asleep on the couch.
But tonight things get worse.
Steve's been away for over a week with the Avengers, and Bucky's not sure when to expect him home when there's a knock at the apartment door. He opens it to find Sam and Steve, both of them looking exhausted.
"Your boyfriend couldn't find his key," Sam says.
Steve doesn't say a word. He just gives Bucky a peck on the cheek and heads back to the bedroom.
"Goodbye to you, too, Cap!" Sam yells to his retreating back. He gets a half-hearted wave in response.
Bucky feels a flare of anger and worry fire inside him. He's not mad at Sam, exactly, but Sam is the one he can turn his anger on.
"What the fuck, Wilson?"
"Tough mission, Barnes." Bucky can't stay angry at Sam when looks that worried.
"He injured?" Steve makes the shittiest patient. He thinks he can walk off broken limbs and bullet holes.
"Nah. Just…tough mission. Look after him."
"I always do."
By the time Bucky locks up and makes it to the bedroom, Steve has stripped down to his skivvies and fallen asleep. All Bucky can do is curl up around him and pull the comforter over them both.
Steve doesn't sleep well, tossing and turning and occasionally catching Bucky with an elbow. And after Steve has the dream—the dream they never talk about, the one with a train and wind and Bucky falling—Bucky doesn't sleep at all. He props himself up and keeps watch over Steve, holding him close as he can.
In the morning, Bucky has grit in his eyes and a fog in his brain but it's a small price to pay for chasing Steve's demons away.
Bucky doesn't know how he managed it, but Steve looks worse than he did the night before, his hair sticking up, his eyes bleary and far away. Bucky nearly suggests they both go back to bed for the day, but it's Sunday. Steve never misses Sunday at Audrey's unless he's on a mission. And Audrey might be just what Steve needs right now.
When they arrive at Audrey's, Steve doesn't head over to Mrs. Lambert's to see if she needs help turning her compost pile. He doesn't go down to Herb's to see if he's got the latest part to install on that wreck he calls a car. He doesn't even check if the Gutierrez kids are up for throwing a ball around. He just gives Audrey and Liz a hug, and heads straight for their couch, where he curls up, closes his eyes and falls asleep.
Audrey gives Bucky a look with raised eyebrows. Bucky can only shrug in response. His worry flares brighter than ever, and he perches on the arm of the couch, stroking Steve's hair as he sleeps.
Audrey sits in her favourite chair with a book in her hand that Bucky knows she's not really reading. She barely turns a page all afternoon, her attention all on Steve.
The light's fading in the living room when Liz finally announces dinner is ready. Steve rouses himself at her voice, his hair sticking up and a line down his cheek from the sofa cushion. Bucky has a sudden image of a younger, tinier Steve, sitting up under blankets on his mother's sofa while he hacks up a fucking lung. Bucky thinks tiny Steve had more fight in him than the man in front of him. He reaches out with his right hand and smooths Steve's hair down before he pushes him toward the dining room, then he takes Audrey's arm and escorts her in for the meal. Audrey pats his arm, her concerns as palpable as his own.
Dinner is quieter than usual. Audrey doesn't talk about her senior girls who auditioned for a Broadway chorus line this week. Bucky doesn't talk about the advanced instructor's course he's taking. Liz doesn't talk about how her students managed to nearly blow up her physics lab this week. The three of them spend all their energy watching Steve as he forces himself to eat his meal with his eyes on the table, not saying a fucking word.
When Liz goes to get dessert—pound cake and ice cream, one of Steve's favourites—Audrey reaches out and puts her hand on Steve's, not minding when he flinches at the touch.
"Steve, honey," she says, her voice quiet. "I think it's finally time for you to come home from the war."
Steve looks up.
"What?" He seems surprised to find them both looking at him with concern. The big idiot. "No. I'm fine. Just… I'm fine."
"You're not fucking fine," Bucky insists. "You look like shit."
Steve's eyes widen, and Audrey looks at Bucky like the nuns would at St. Brigid's when he used bad language in their hearing. Which would be fucking hilarious any other time, 'cause Bucky's heard the way she can talk when she's really pissed. Though granted, she mostly only does it with him, and only when they're alone. It's their little secret.
"Okay, I look like shit. But what do you want me to do about it, Buck?" Steve runs a hand through his hair and has it all sticking up again. "I can't just quit. I'm Captain America."
"No, you're not," Audrey says firmly. "You're not Captain America. You're Steve Rogers. And you've done enough."
Steve sits there for a minute, mouth open, not saying a thing. Then he hunches over, and it's like the fight's gone out of him, like he's actually gotten smaller. And he starts to sob.
Bucky freezes in his seat. He's used to being the one who's the mess, the one who needs comforting. But Audrey gives him a look, nodding at Steve, and he knows this is it. This is how he saves Steve, a little bit at a time.
He's at Steve's side in an instant, clutching him tightly, as if he needs to hold Steve together.
"Audrey's right," Bucky whispers into Steve's ear. "It's time to come home for good. The world will keep on turning, even if you're not wearing the tights, you dumb punk." He feels a stuttering laugh explode out of Steve's chest.
"Stupid jerk," Steve says.
"That's my Stevie," Bucky says, and even though Steve's still sobbing, his eyes swelling, his nose snotty, Bucky feels like everything's going to be okay.
Steve quits the Avengers the next day. He marches right into the Tower with Bucky beside him and tells Tony he's done. Gives him the shield and then walks away.
"What am I supposed to do with this thing?" Tony asks.
"Give it to Wilson," Bucky throws back over his shoulder. He looks over at Steve, and Steve nods.
"Sam's a good man," Steve says without looking back.
They spend the rest of the day in bed, ordering pizza, watching screwball comedies and fucking. It's going to take more than one day for Steve to stop looking like he's got pieces missing, but he's already smiling more.
Steve's all for spending the next day in bed as well, but Bucky's due in Queens. He has to make Audrey lunch and teach his classes. Steve pouts, but finally lets him go. When Bucky gets back, with a paper bag full of tamales from their favourite Mexican place, Steve is excited. He's added more shifts at the Pride Center, and has found an art class right around the corner that starts Thursday night.
Bucky knows Steve isn't the kind of guy to sit around doing nothing, but fuck, he thought he'd take a few more days off.
By the time Sunday rolls around and they make it to Audrey's house, Steve looks pretty fucking happy.
"I'm back from the war," he tells Audrey. She gives him a hugs that lasts practically forever. Bucky tells himself he's not crying; he's got something in his eye.
And that's the way it goes.
Steve does more and more at the Pride Center, running youth drop-ins and parent information nights and bisexual mixers.
He comes home every Thursday from his life drawing class covered in charcoal and chalk dust with a bunch of new sketches in his portfolio. Bucky is biased, but he thinks Steve's art is pretty fucking special.
One Thursday, Bucky gets home from the dance school to find Steve unpacking his drawing supplies when he should be heading out the door.
"No class tonight?"
"No class. The model called in sick." Then he gives Bucky a look. The look that he only uses when he wants something, the scheming little fucker. Steve knows Bucky won't say no to him about anything.
Bucky sighs, thinks about resisting for about a second, and then says, "Do ya think they'd let me stand in?" Because it's not falling for Steve's schemes if he's the one who's suggested it, right?
"Would you?" Steve says. Like it's a surprise. Like it wasn't his plan all along. Then he's texting the teacher and the other students and telling them he's bringing along his own model.
The other students all love Bucky. He doesn't give a rat's ass about showing his own ass to a bunch of artists, (he's been doing it for his own private artist since the '30s), and can hold a pose for as long as they need him to. And it's nice to hang out with people who view his metal arm as a drawing challenge, not the mark of what a freak he is. Before he knows it, Bucky has agreed to a semi-regular gig at the art school as a life model.
Then the director of the Pride Center calls Steve one evening and asks him if he'd be interested in a paying job. Because their social worker got a job closer to her home in the Bronx, and the kids already trust Steve, and has he ever thought of doing a social work degree?
As Bucky listens, Steve blushes and stammers and explains how he never even finished high school, not when him mom got sick and then she died and he had to make enough money for rent and food. Bucky takes the phone away from him before he can talk himself out of anything. It's another little moment when Bucky can save him.
"He'll get back to you," Bucky says. Before Steve can say anything, Bucky calls up Bruce and Tony and talks to them about GED and TASC and advanced placement and navigating college entrance requirements. Turns out Bruce knows people at NYU and Tony donates a shit ton of money to Columbia. Before twenty-four hours have passed, Steve has dates for writing his TASC tests, is enrolled in undergrad classes at NYU and a grad class at Columbia, and has himself a job at the Pride Center as their youth social worker.
Turns out there are a lot of people who'd love to see Captain America helping LGBT kids, and they all work to make it happen. (Bucky's not about to tell any of them that Steve Rogers ain't never been the same thing as Captain America, not when they've all been so helpful.) Steve is so overwhelmed by what everyone has done for him that he doesn't stop blushing for a week. Bucky thinks he's fucking adorable.
Steve has found his ballet, the thing he does to make the world a better place instead of beating up assholes. Not that he still doesn't take on the occasional asshole who goes after his kids at the center.
He works at the center during the week, except for the two afternoons he's got classes in Manhattan. Two evenings a week, he takes art classes.
Inside of a year, Steve's running his own art classes at the center. He and the kids even paint a mural, of great figures in LGBT history, in the center's meeting hall. A few months later, he gets Bucky to volunteer to teach a dance class at the center. He teaches ballet, and in return the kids teach him some hip hop moves. Steve comes to watch him whenever he can. It makes Bucky blush, when he catches Steve looking at him like he's so proud of him. Bucky's not so special. Not like Steve. Steve is so fucking special, and he's never really known it.
Steve may not be in the Avengers anymore, but you'd never know it. One of them's always showing up at the center to help out. Natasha has her own little troop of girls who trail behind her whenever she helps Steve out with a group session. Wilson shows up at the apartment regularly, and Steve takes him up to the roof to coach him on how to use that stupid fucking shield while Bucky helpfully throws things at him. (He has to hand it to Wilson, he only lets his guard down long enough for Bucky to bean him with a softball the one time. Bucky's really glad Wilson's the one wearing the tights now.) And every single Avenger turns up at the recital when Bucky graduates with his dance teacher certification. He goes to take his bow, and there they all are, standing and clapping and yelling like the idiots they are, with Steve in the middle, just beaming.
Bucky has gone from having no family at all, to having a bunch of families. There's the Avengers, and the dance school. There's the center and Steve's classmates, who get brought home for meals on a regular basis, and then talk to him about shit like the intersectionality of being a queer, disabled veteran with mental health issues. It's weird, being able to talk to people about all of that. But good weird. He likes not having to hide the best (and worst) parts of his life like he and Steve used to have to.
And above all, there's Audrey and Liz.
The best thing about Steve's new life is that he doesn't miss any more Sundays at Audrey's house. Audrey, who gave two lost soldiers their first family in the future, and is still Bucky's best friend who didn't used to be Captain America.
He's so glad Steve's found his happy ending. Because Steve's his happy ending. Always has been, forever and ever, fucking amen.