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Don't Leave Me Asunder

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Trees stood like knives,” Bucky mumbled under his breath, his noise-cancelling ear-buds ensuring the music surrounded him like a dream, easing the reality of another twelve-hour shift. He stopped for a moment, the rhythm of the song entrancing enough to take his attention away from what he was doing. He rolled his neck, the stiffness in his muscles was almost painful, as usual. When that didn't help, he rolled his right shoulder a few times as well, already noticing the beginning of a headache. He pressed the heel of his palm into his right eye and took a deep breath through his nose just as the drums began to pound his eardrums. This definitely wasn't the right song to end his night shift. Are you reaching? The Darcys asked loudly in his ears as he returned to the reception area.

Just another half an hour of this shit then he would change into his clothes, have breakfast at Simone's diner, and finally head home to crash in his bed. Rinse and repeat.

Great.

The floor shook suddenly, but Bucky didn't pay much attention. God only knew what Tony Stark was up to these days, and taking into consideration the last couple of years that he'd had, Bucky was more than happy ignoring God. As for Stark's shit, well, Bucky wasn't all that interested in finding out what kind of mess the genius was getting into each time.

A second, stronger tremor followed the first: just a regular Tuesday night for cleaning staff at Stark Tower/ Avengers Tower/ Look-at-me-I'm-Compensating-For-Something Tower. Two more tremors followed in quick succession before it was quiet again. Since he started working here, he had quickly become accustomed to a lot of weird shit. Nine months in this place would do that to any normal person. Of course, Bucky hadn't been a normal person since the war, so this job really wasn't helping his situation.

Bucky shrugged and returned to mopping the floor.

Perks of the job included the fact that Red Can (he absolutely fucking refused to call Stark by any other name) liked to play with his pet projects in the dead of night and that sometimes the offices below his apartments fell victim to that, which Bucky and his team then had to clean. Yeah, that got real old real fast about the third time it happened. After each rebuild, the amount of dust that they would collect in their hair or under their fingernails was impressive. Not to mention that in spite of wearing face masks and gloves and Stark hiring some professional biochemical cleanup teams, Bucky and his regular janitorial crew still had issues with steel-melting chemicals spills and strange smells. Working for a superhero definitely wasn't as glamorous as being one.

Also, there were tons of things that Bucky had to ignore. Like the fact that War Hawk or Hawk-Man or whatever the fucking guy's name was liked to hang out in the weirdest places, perched precariously on wherever Bucky least expected to find him. Most of the times, the guy was covered in bruises, his hands or face always bandaged or stiched-up. Bucky knew he was the only non-powered person – not counting Red Can, who was at least covered in metal for protection – on the team, so he had no fucking clue how the guy was still alive.

And the woman with red hair, that loved intimidating the staff every once in a while with her blank glare whenever they had the misfortune of meeting her. There was nothing scarier than that woman's impenetrable, judgemental stare. Bucky kind of hated her. Once he made the big mistake of snapping at her in Russian (thinking she might not understand; boy was he mistaken or what?) when she stopped to watch them work. Help with the cleaning or fuck off. Yeah, that went as well as to be expected, which meant that she'd simply stared at him and she had acquired the bad habit of hovering over him every once in a while. The frigid winds of the Arctic had more warmth than that woman's eyes when they were assessing him.

The tremors continued under his feet one after another and Bucky checked to see whether people were running for the emergency exit. Since no one was panicking or taking cover, he assumed that nothing worrying was happening though Stark's experiments probably would be considered quite worrying by a vast majority of the population, and possibly by a few of the three letter agencies as well. The two guards (most likely SHIELD agents in disguise) were looking up at something that was happening one level up, but since they didn't seem inclined to run, Bucky figured no life-threatening situations would occur in the next five minutes, and he went back to his bucket and his weird-ass music.

If he were to be honest – God forbid – Bucky had to admit that he was less annoyed by the Viking alien (he had lost his faith in gods a long time ago), but that was only because one time Bucky managed to get him to move some furniture for him and then took him out for burgers and fries because the guy was seriously missing out on the finer earthly pleasures. They met one more time when the big guy was wondering around the offices looking for a girl. Apparently, there was a physics lab inside the building. Who knew?

The only Avengers that Bucky hadn't met so far were Captain America and the green guy. He knew some people actively tried to meet all of them, but Bucky was very okay with keeping his interaction with the superheroes to a minimum. He just needed to keep his job for another year so he could finally finish paying off the debt from his treatment. Then he could finally die of exhaustion and be done with this miserable life.

A cloud of dust particles suddenly floated around Bucky like messy snowflakes, distracting him from Moby's melancholic tunes. He stopped and looked around wondering for a brief moment if he had kicked up the dust himself from a patch of the floor that hadn't been cleaned properly yesterday night. His eyes narrowed. Ryan must not have properly cleaned the waiting area, though Bucky had specifically told him that Ms. Potts insisted on it.

He turned, already reaching for his phone to take some goddamn pictures to shove them up Ryan's ass so hard he would be licking the floor clean for the next month.

And froze, his jaw dropping.

What the fuck?

Part of the first floor had collapsed onto the ground floor, debris and dust all over the goddamn place. The windows of the offices on the upper floors had shattered. The couches in the waiting area were in splinters, crushed by debris from the upper floors. Was that a robot arm? Mechanical parts were scattered everywhere. There was literally an eye socket at Bucky's feet. He looked up and realized that the only way he had remained unscathed was because he had been cleaning under a concrete arch that was only there for aesthetic purposes. And Captain America's shield was jammed half-way into the stone.

His life had reached new limits of disbelief.

He stared back at the craziness that must have just happened behind his back and realized that Captain America was arguing with Stark, whose faceplate was up, while Hawk Guy was watching them with a rueful smile on his face. Bucky took one ear-bud out as he took in the scene in front of him with utter incredulity.

“Just admit it, Cap, it was a good idea to lure them here,” Stark waved his metallic hand, smirking triumphantly. “Come on! It's not hard to say Tony, you were right and I should bow to your strategic genius.” Bucky wouldn't take that smug tone from Red Can, but the Captain simply passed his fingers through his golden hair making it stick up in so many different directions, it left him looking completely ridiculous. His Irish complexion was unevenly flushed, making him look all splotch. But he did look like he could bench-press Bucky with his pinky finger. So this was Captain America. Huh, not much to write home about. Becca would be disappointed to hear that.

The sudden thought of his sister raised a tight knot in his throat. He shook his head in a feeble attempt to clear his mind and pay attention to the conversation that the superheroes were casually having in his presence.

“I'm not sure that Pepper will agree, when she sees this disaster in the morning,” Captain America replied calmly, crossing his arms. Stark's face fell a little and the Hawk chuckled.

“Harsh, Cap, using the love of my life against me! I thought you were more principled than that!” Stark exclaimed theatrically, though Bucky could tell he didn't really believe it.

“This is why I didn't move into the Tower in the first place,” Captain America muttered. Red Can just rolled his eyes.

“That's because you don't know what you're missing, Steve!” Hawk Guy interjected, shaking his head. “I live for the complimentary breakfast.”

“Thank you, Clint! Thank you!” Tony gestured widely as he continued, ignoring the accompanying screeching sound of metal. “Listen to the Bird! He knows what he's saying.”

“Well, in that case, I will just take my shield and let you guys deal with this mess,” Cap said sweetly though none believed him, company included. He turned, but stopped abruptly as he caught sight of Bucky.

“I'm not cleaning this goddamn mess,” Bucky found himself saying. Later on, he would blame this on Captain's blue eyes. Because there was too much kindness in them, too much honesty, even through the surprise that Bucky was there.

“Oh, hey, Buckeye,” Stark said. Bucky rolled his eyes upon hearing the old nickname. “I almost forgot you were there. I'd like to make two points.” He continued to fire in quick succession words upon words, metal fingers raised. “One, you aren't going to clean this mess. You're probably going to clean the mess after this mess is cleaned. And two, I need to buy some ear-buds like yours because you seemed oblivious to the fact that I saved your life.”

“You mean Steve saved his life,” Hawk Guy snickered.

“Details, details,” Red Can replied, waiving his hand, looking at Bucky expectantly. Bucky just held up his noise-cancelling Stark brand ear-buds, which made the man crow in pleasure. “See? I'm the best! Didn't I say I'm the best?”

“Tony, please.” Cap pinched his nose and stared at Stark with his fatherly I'm-disappointed-in-you look, and somehow Bucky was feeling guilty all of a sudden, even though he wasn't the one being chastised. But, if Bucky thought it was difficult to have Stark's attention on him, it didn't even come close to having those blue eyes look at him, taking in his crippled form. All that attention didn't sit well with him.

He knew how he looked, with his hair cut short and looking like a bird made a nest in it. With bags under his eyes and stubble on his cheeks. With his khaki uniform with the Stark logo, showing his empty left sleeve, smelling like cleaning chemicals and sweat. Compared to the three specimens of men in front of him, each handsome in their own right, he was garbage. Being under the microscope in front of Captain America himself, who looked like was better suited to be on a calendar with sexy firemen and half-naked policemen than saving the world, was not his idea of a good time.

And that ugly thought, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary people, was his cue to get out of there. He could think badly about himself all night long, but probably trashing Captain America – even only in his head – was too far. He'd been in a negative head space for so long that ugly thoughts came so easily to him now. He wondered briefly if he would ever find his way back to his old self, no matter how jaded by life he had become.

“Thanks for saving my life,” he said, emphasizing his words with an eye-roll to make sure it showed how much he didn't appreciate the gesture at all. Cap's eyes narrowed a little, his frowny face looking absolutely ridiculous when he was still flushed from the battle's exertion. No, Bucky wasn't going to think attractive too. He wiped his hand over his uniform and stared at the three men who continued to stare back at him. For a second time in as many minutes, Bucky rolled his eyes so hard he wondered if it was possible to sprain eye muscles. “Can I leave now?”

“Yes, Buckeye of my eye,” Stark said. “See what I did there?” He poked the Hawk in his ribs, but when no one made a comment, Stark sighed in defeat. “No one appreciates me. Fine, go, young grasshopper. The other guys are already in the staff room. It will take some time to sort this out, so Brannon will let you know what to do in the meantime, all right?”

“Thank you.” Bucky nodded and slowly backed away from the main hall, feeling Cap's burning eyes drilling a hole in his back.

As Stark had said, all the cleaning staff was already gathered in the staff room. Brannon, their manager, was making sure that everyone was accounted for and there were no injuries. Jake Brannon was an ex-lieutenant whose life upon returning fell into shambles pretty fast due to an impressive streak of bad luck and poor choices. Most of them had a similar story, because life outside the military was difficult, especially when suffering from PTSD. People thought they were heroes, but nobody was inclined to work with them when they got back. No one wanted to see their nightmares and their wounds, their scars, the mess in their heads. And those that did want to help? They never stayed. It was just too goddamn difficult. People didn't do difficult over months or years. His heart gave a painful lurch. The thought of his family pushed bile up his throat. They had been willing to deal with his difficulties but he repaid them with only shame and silence. And in the end so much anger he had to leave.

Bucky shook his head and forced himself to pay attention to Jake. He was a tough son of a bitch with a soft spot for Bucky, which Bucky basked in every once in a while. Brannon gave Bucky a once-over to make sure he was fine before sending him to have a seat. Straight and to the point, they were all informed that for the moment they were going to be put on administrative leave with full pay for at least a week. Stark was weirdly generous at times, especially with the cleaning staff. They were all vets in search of a workplace where people understood what their needs were and meet those needs. At least Bucky could admit that Stark accomplished that. Bucky wasn't sure whether this was because Stark had a soft spot for military personnel after his stint in Afghanistan or because of his friendship with Colonel Rhodes, but he appreciated it deep down inside. Very deep down inside.

As everyone still upheld military efficiency, the meeting ended quickly and everyone went to change and leave. On his way out, Bucky checked his surroundings, but couldn't spot either the man, or his shield, so he shrugged and went to have breakfast with Jake and a few others.

O~O

Bucky woke up with a start, body trembling, fingers gripping the messy sheet uselessly. Heart pounding in his chest, blood rushing in his ears, the bitter taste of it in his mouth as present as ever. Drenched in sweat, pushed to the limits of sanity, it took him quite a while to calm down enough to take in the surroundings. He forced himself to focus on the details of his room. His blackout curtains were askew. There were several days' worth of laundry on the floor and he should probably vacuum at some point this month. He fixed his gaze on a crack in the drywall near the ceiling and breathed slowly and deliberately. He wasn't living in luxury but this was his – he owned this. The taste of ash and dust and pain slowly faded.

The stump hurt, a dull ache that never seemed to settle, endless and unyielding, but he welcomed it in this situation. It reminded him that he was alive, though he supposed there was always something quite ironic about it. The afternoon sun shone shyly through the curtains; he slowly began to register the noise from the street: laughter, loud phone conversations, and car honks mixed happily together in a cacophony of life that reminded Bucky he needed to get ready for his job. Taking in the outside world had always helped settle the boundaries between nightmares and real life.

He pushed himself off the bed and went straight to his tiny bathroom, taking off his damp t-shirt and shorts, dumping them both in the hamper. Avoiding himself in the mirror, he got into the shower, letting the cold water hit him first before finally warming up. He leaned forward, his fingers spreading on the cold tiles as he let the water spray against his tense muscles, washing away the nightmare. The water travelled over his wide shoulders, gently caressing the scars on the left side, pushing through the small trenches in the blemished skin. The water didn't care about the burns on the left side, the shotgun wound on his right, the scar under his clavicle. It made no difference to the water that there was only a stump on the left side, just scarred skin that ended abruptly just above the elbow, never to be seen again. It couldn't care less that there were more burn marks on both legs, that his entire body was a jigsaw of bad memories and bitter crushed dreams.

And neither did Bucky as he closed his eyes and tilted his head just so, water pushing down against hair and three-days-old stubble. He stayed like this for a few long minutes and then exhaled sharply through his mouth, opened his eyes and started washing with military efficiency.

Once he was out, he quickly dressed in a pair of freshly washed jeans and a black t-shirt and opened the window, letting a bit of fresh air enter the room. He drew the curtains away to look at the dying sun and then pushed himself away from the window. He ignored his unmade bed and went to the kitchen for his first round of caffeine and to take his pills. He ate some toast and drank a second cup of coffee before grabbing his bag and throwing his iPod, the current book that he was reading, a bottle of water, and a pack of crackers. He closed the window, checked that everything was either locked or safely put away before grabbing a black hoodie and his bag, slamming the door behind him.

It was only three blocks from his place to the subway station. The C-train was not as packed in the evenings as it went towards the 168 Street; most of the young professionals that worked in Manhattan were returning home rather than going back downtown. Bucky had always been grateful for this small mercy. He managed to stay calm more easily on a half-empty train. He hated catching people looking at him with pity, eyes lingering on his empty left sleeve. Some would even stop him and thank him for his service, and Bucky swore on all things holy that those moments were horrible and he hated them the most. He didn't like crowds – too many possibilities of something going wrong. There were times when he had been late for work just because he had to wait for a less crowded train. That was one of the few moments when Bucky had been glad that he had accepted Stark's offer to work for him. He was a pretty lenient employer.

By now he had become an expert at finding the least populated train car. He took his book out as soon as he found a seat, tucked away in the far corner. He had about forty minutes of this shit and he goddamn refused to stare out on the window like he was some sort of lunatic. He had not read as much before his stint in the military, but now books were his escape. Also, it helped that the previous tenant had left behind quite a few boxes of paperbacks, after he had sold everything else to go on a cross-country trip. Bucky didn't let the owner throw them away and even bought a small bookcase from Salvation Army for them. Reading made time pass quicker.

Once he got to Manhattan, he had another short walk before arriving to work. It took him just a few steps onto the platform to realize his mistake. There was no work that evening. He had completely forgotten the previous night. Bucky swore furiously under his breath, drawing the attention of a few passers-by. He took a deep breath before making his way to the opposite platform.

Shit, shit, shit. What was he going to do in the next few days? He needed the job to take his mind off of things. If he didn't find something to do, he would have a hard time ignoring the letters from his family building up in a neglected drawer of his desk. He kept telling himself that they would just stop sending them – he hadn't been in contact for over a year. Or he'd have to come up with a better excuse for not going to the VA, another thing he'd been avoiding. For fuck's sake, why did bad guys have to always attack New York? Why couldn't they just go to other city centres like Seattle or Los Angeles?

He was so caught up in his bitterness that he didn't see the other person until it was rather too late. His right shoulder caught the other man in the opposite shoulder and Bucky swore loudly again.

“Shit! Sorry, pal,” he mumbled trying to get his bearings. “I didn't see you there.”

“Don't worry about it,” came the kind reply. “I was distracted as well.”

But when Bucky raised his eyes, he promptly swallowed his tongue. Great, wonderful! He had just bumped into Captain America. Why couldn't he just pay attention to where the hell he was going? And why the hell did Captain America have to look so handsome in his casual clothes? Like couldn't he just strut in his uniform all day long? Instead he was wearing a white t-shirt, black jeans, and a fitted jacket that hugged him in all the right places. He looked absurdly larger than life, out of place on the drab grey train platform. And not a wrinkle in sight either. Just for that, Bucky could hate him on principle.

“Oh, hey!” Captain America said once he recognized Bucky. “Nice to see you again.” Then, almost as an after-thought, he extended his left hand and waited. Grumpily, Bucky had to admit to himself that Cap seemed genuine and really did look the part, so Bucky took his hand and shook it.

“Nice to see you too, sir,” Bucky mumbled, distracted by the callused feel of Cap's hand in his.

“Sorry for not introducing myself yesterday. Or actually this morning.” Cap smiled, somewhat embarrassed. “Steve Rogers.”

“James Barnes, but everyone calls me Bucky,” Bucky said, and then took his hand back. Out of Cap's warm grip, his hand felt cold. It felt strange. He clenched it into a fist at his side.

“Do I dare to ask where Bucky comes from?” Cap said as he shoved both hands back in his jeans.

“Buchanan, my middle name,” Bucky replied, checking to see when the next train would come.

“Oh, I see. That explains Tony's nickname for you.” Steve followed his gaze and checked the timetable as well. Another five minutes of making small talk with Captain America. Seriously, why did this sort of thing always happen to him?

“So where are you headed?” Cap asked into the painfully awkward silence. Bucky cringed inside. It was obvious that neither of them knew what to do in this situation.

“Home. You?”

“Home as well. I live in Dumbo.”

“Shouldn't Captain America keep this sort of information to himself?” Bucky couldn't stop his petty tone if he wanted to.

“Well, technically Captain America doesn't live anywhere. He's always there when people need him. But Steve Rogers lives in Dumbo. I've always been a Brooklyn boy and I ain't going to stop now,” Cap said and pulled his hat a little lower on the eyes when he noticed a couple watching him. They were just about to come and approach him when they noticed Barnes' look. After five months of being glared at by the redheaded, he'd learned a thing or two. His eyes must have screamed murder because the couple backed away quickly. It didn't escape Cap's notice; he smiled softly to Bucky. The man was too kind for his own good. “What about you?”

“I live in Clinton Hill,” Bucky answered. He rubbed a hand over his chin, a nervous tic. His stubble itched. He really needed a shave.

“Pretty far for a walk in Manhattan,” Steve said casually. Bucky froze. Then he grimaced.

“I kind of forgot that I don't have work today,” he admitted at last. “I only remembered once I got off the train.”

“That's unfortunate.” Cap hesitated before adding, “In that case, want to grab a late dinner?”

Well, that question had come out of nowhere. Bucky clenched his hand on the strap of his bag, ready to see pity or worse in Cap's eyes. But there was none. If he were to be honest, which he was only in his thoughts, the only Avenger that Bucky Barnes had been remotely interested in was the man in front of him. It wasn't just because, at the end of the day, Captain America was a veteran just like him, that he experienced the Second World War, or that he had lost all his friends to war or time. It had been because he was a man out of time, that was exactly what most of the vets felt upon returning home. The sense that after all the horrendous things that they saw during the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, after all their sacrifices and their pain and suffering, the world had moved on without them. People around them had gone on with their lives, blessedly oblivious of their harsh reality. And Captain America seemed the epitome of that.

Plus the guy was a strategic military genius and partly the battle of New York had been won because of him. They had learned in school about his strategies used against Hydra during the war and Bucky had read several biographies of the man. Who could have known that the legend was alive, just frozen, suspended between life and death? And now that very genius was standing in front of him, casual about an invitation to a dinner that Bucky was sure people would have given their first born for. And yes, Bucky was an asshole, but when Captain America invited him to dinner, he felt compelled to say yes.

“Sure, but only if you let me take you somewhere, sir,” Bucky answered politely. “I promise you won't regret it.”

“I'm sure, but I will regret it if you keep calling me sir,” Cap said, flushing slightly. Bucky's heart thud in his chest suddenly. What the fuck just happened here? “My name is Steve.”

“Then call me Bucky.” Bucky noticed the train coming. “Come on then, Steve. I promise you that once you eat at Simone's Dinner, you won't want to eat anywhere else ever again.”

Steve laughed quietly but let Bucky pull him into an emptier train car and sat next to him. They made casual conversation throughout the train ride, the few people that got on ignoring them in favour of their own thoughts or worries. Their knees kept bumping into each other and a few times they sat in silence, though it was far less awkward than before.

Bucky had to wonder what the hell had possessed him to say yes, but in between his empty flat and his inability to find sleep now that he was up, a late dinner with Captain America didn't seem like such a bad idea.

If he only knew.

O~O

Bucky was in awe.

He presumed that this was how people felt when they met someone they admired very much or whose work had an impact on their lives, such as actors and musicians, writers and artists. But there was something completely different about Steve Rogers. Bucky gazed at him through his eyelashes as Cap checked the menu. Yes, he was perfect in as much as a soldier created through a wonder serum could be. He definitely had the stature and the miraculous muscles that everyone talked about. He was taller and wider than Bucky, who had lost a lot of weight during his stint in the hospital and then during PT. There was something troublesome, almost frightening, to the fact that the man in front of him could effortlessly break him in two. It wasn't a matter of skills or competence. Everything amounted to sheer physical strength and Bucky had never met anyone in his life to exude this utter force on such a level.

Bucky peered at Cap's hands – big, almost clumsy in the way they held the menu; thick fingers, calloused from holding the shield for so long. Capable. Determined. Cap's jaw was square, clean shaven, but the contours of the jaw gave him almost a cruel air, resolute and impenetrable in its own stubbornness and righteousness. Larger than life, a colossus of justice and morals, ethics and determination.

If it weren’t for those baby blue eyes. Cap's eyes told a completely different story, one that Bucky had no right to know and most likely, never would. Also, Steve seemed to hunch all the time, trying to look smaller, as if a little unused to the stature, to its athleticism and power. Or maybe simply trying to project that he wasn't a threat. Nonetheless, Steve Rogers looked like the peak of human evolution, whereas Bucky felt like the reject of human evolution, simply to be discarded, one of many.

Bucky looked back at his menu, ignoring the last thought.

“I got to ask,” Steve said after their waitress took their orders, “just to be clear on one thing.” And then there was that smile again. “Is your full name James Buchanan Barnes?”

“Yeah, I know.” Bucky rolled his eyes. “Believe me, I know. I was the butt of so many jokes I've become immune, though, in my parents' defense, it was a simple coincidence.”

“So you weren't named after the fifteenth president?” Steve asked, genuinely curious, though Bucky could glimpse a touch of irony too in those eyes. For a brief moment, Bucky had the vivid feeling that Captain America could be a little shit at times.

“Nope, my grandpa from my mom's side is named James and my grandpa from my dad's side was named Buchanan.” Bucky shrugged self-consciously. “At the time, my parents didn't want to argue about which first name they should choose, so they just added both on the birth certificate. It took me a while to find out about one of our most obscure presidents.”

Cap chuckled, “Why not Jimmy then? Or Jim?”

“Jesus, those are actually worse than Bucky.” Bucky shuddered in disgust. “My mom liked to call me Bucky and it stuck,” he added simply, taking a sip of his water. He didn't want to explain how his sister fell in love with his nickname and even built a teddy bear, which she named Bucky Bear and which she carried everywhere she went, including college. How he had wanted to be Bucky forever and ever, how it gave him an identity that he missed later on in the army. But, he didn't want to spend time with Captain America talking about himself, so he asked abruptly, “What about you? Did people ever call you Stevie or Steve-O?”

“Not to my face,” Cap replied, looking down and away, his fingers playing with the napkin in front of him. “I always had problems making friends and the fact that I was ninety pounds soaking wet really didn't help my case. And later on, maybe because people were suddenly awestruck by my persona, no one dared to give me a nickname.”

“That's actually kind of sad,” Bucky mumbled. At Steve's double-take, he hurried to add, “It's just that me and the guys would rib each other constantly about pretty much everything and we found the strangest most obnoxious nicknames for the new guys. It was kind of our favorite past times.”

“So what would my nickname be if I were to serve alongside you?”

Steve's rather innocent question triggered that bitterness hidden inside of Bucky. But you weren't, he thought ruthlessly. You fucking weren't there and I lost half of my squadron and lost touch with the other half because I was too much of a coward. Where were you? Where were you and all the other Avengers when we were being slaughtered and mauled and reshaped into something that we didn't recognize anymore?

Bucky recoiled at his own pettiness. He hated this constant negative head space, these troublesome thoughts, this anger that couldn't be assuaged by anything or anyone. Logically, he was conscious that his perception of other people and the mundane realities of life had been permanently twisted and reshaped by the atrocious things he had seen during the war. But, time and time again, he had found himself in the impossibility of explaining this to the people around him. Unfortunately, he had discovered that the people not involved in any aspect of war were remote and away from its atrocities and, as such, found it impossible to understand its consequences. Furthermore, everyone seemed to constantly attempt to encourage the former soldiers to let go of war and its bad memories, to move further away from it. As if it was that easy to let go, as if they didn't try to do that time and time again, but failing miserably because it was easier said than done.

“You know what I miss the most?” Steve's question pulled Bucky back to him, to the reality of Simone's diner and the people around them. Cap was looking out on the window – he seemed remote and far away, that national icon again, a statue incapacitated by its own importance and icon status.

“What?” Bucky asked, a sudden bitter taste in his mouth.

“I miss the camaraderie, the stupid jokes we would make in the darkness, trying not to freeze our asses off,” Cap answered. “The unyielding faith in the men next to me, in their loyalty and bravery. That strange feeling that no one else in the whole world would be able to comprehend the immensity of war, except for the men with whom you served.” Steve tilted his head slightly and pressed his lips together as he looked back at Bucky.

“The bad coffee and the cold nights when you would rather be in bed than on duty,” Bucky added, invisible claws raking his insides. “The interminable patrols and the bad jokes. The outlandish stories about women and men-”

“There was just woman talk back in my day.” Steve smiled ruefully and Bucky blushed slightly as he remembered that Cap came out as bisexual the previous year in an article in The New York Times to put an end to the rumors and to the use of his image as a weapon against LGBT folk. It had been discussed time and time again, dissected and interpreted for many weeks afterward, until the next outlandish attack came and people forgot about it because Captain America had been back for nearly five years by that point and he didn't seem remotely interested in anyone. Bucky guessed it was because no one could compare to the great Peggy Carter.

“The back pain when we would sleep roughly and the lack of communication with the people we loved because sometimes it was too much and we couldn't bear to listen to mundane things like football scores and paying bills.” Bucky spoke softly now, because he understood at last what Cap tried and succeeded in doing. “The laughs and the cries and the goddamn barked orders. We spilled blood together, fought together, died and got wounded together. But then we got home and-” Bucky fisted his hand, pushing the nails deep inside his palm, leaving deep marks in the flesh.

“And we wondered why we waited so long for something so disappointing,” Cap concluded with such wretched bitterness that it stunned Bucky. He let the forceful silence cover them like a shield and when the waitress brought their order, she found them looking out on the window at a world remote and far away.

“I would have called you Baby Blue,” Bucky said abruptly and smiled abashedly as Steve raised an eyebrow in response. “For your eyes,” he clarified as he could feel his ears burning in embarrassment. “Or American Pie, for being born on July 4th,” he added and this time Cap threw back his head and laughed.

“I see how it is,” Steve said at last, still chuckling. “I bet you were a little shit in the army. What were you? A lieutenant? A sergeant?”

“I was Sergeant Big Shit for you, thank you very much.” Bucky smirked, oddly comforted by Steve's laughter.

“I'll keep that in mind.” And Steve winked. Bucky's hand froze on the damn fork. He read all those books about Captain America and not one mentioned that Cap could wink and be so sarcastic or swear. Bucky smiled back, but kept quiet and dug into his food. He felt a sense of a generous privilege to be privy to such idiosyncrasies, a sort of warm secret that left Bucky wondering how come he was able to shed his embittered self and be so open with Steve.

The night sneaked upon them like a silent cat, the diner emptying and leaving them among the few to still be there. They'd ordered slices of pie and cups of coffee time and time again as Steve explained to him the strategies employed at Ardennes or when destroying the small Hydra base at Cremona in Italy. Bucky found himself asking questions about it and listening carefully to Steve's explanations because it was absolutely impressive to listen to such a military genius. On the other hand, it seemed as well that Steve enjoyed talking about his exploits in the war, even offering an anecdote or two related to the Howling Commandos. In turn, Bucky talked about some of the battles he participated in Afghanistan, about some of the convoys he accompanied and tall tales about his guys. The entire conversation flowed so naturally between the two of them that only later did Bucky realize that not once did Steve ask or stare at his missing limb, whereas Bucky never asked about Cap's feelings on coming back from the dead (or the frozen, to be more specific).

“So is Stark like your best friend?” Bucky asked as they made their way to the subway station. Steve was in the middle of telling him about the apartment that Tony Stark built and decorated specifically for him (not surprising) and which Cap never used (also not surprising). However, Steve grimaced funnily upon hearing Bucky's question, but then seemed to think about it (another thing that Bucky liked about him – Steve seemed to give such straight-forward and thoughtful answers).

“I think all Avengers are my best friends in their own way,” Steve said after a while. “They all fulfill different needs in different ways. Like, if I want an honest, truthful opinion with no sugar coating then I go to Nat.”

“Nat?”

“Black Widow,” he clarified, slightly amused by Bucky's obliviousness. “Then, if I want to have a heartfelt conversation and catch up on the real life, I speak with Sam. And so on and so forth.” Steve checked to see the time of the next train before returning his attention to Bucky. “What about you?”

“I don't have any friends left,” Bucky grudgingly admitted, effectively killing the conversation. Half of his friends died and he avoided the other half because he sure as hell didn't want to face their recriminations. Not that they could tell him worse things than what he had already told himself. Bucky wondered whether he pissed off Steve with his evasiveness, but when he peered at the guy, Cap appeared mostly deep in his thoughts.

By the time he realized what Steve was doing, they were a block away from Bucky's address.

“You know you didn't have to take me home, right?” Bucky joked. “I am a big boy and all.”

“It's the least I could do,” Steve said, “after introducing me to that awesome food.”

“Which you paid for,” Bucky grumbled remembering how relieved he'd been when Steve paid the large bill without letting Bucky even come close to his wallet. Well, relieved and annoyed at the same time.

“Again, it was the least I could do,” Steve replied and followed Bucky's lead as they stopped in front of the building's main entrance. The street was quiet and empty and there was a cold breeze pushing through the few trees on the street. Bucky felt oddly confused about how to proceed next, but Steve again seemed to be attuned to his mood because he asked, “So how about we do this again?”

“What? Eat enough for a small army and talk about war strategies?” Bucky stalled, a tight smile pressing against his lips. Unfortunately, it appeared that Steve wasn't buying his shit when he said,

“Well, that, if you want. Or just going out, see a movie.”

Oh, fuck.

Bucky swallowed hard. Shit. It sounded like Cap was inviting him on a date. In fact, the simple idea of it was so ridiculous in its absurdity, Bucky almost laughed, had it not been for Steve's curious determination.

“I don't think it's such a good idea,” he answered in the end. But as soon as the words flew out in between them, poisoning the air and leaving him strangely bereft, Bucky realized he made a mistake. Not to mention the way Steve's shoulders seemed to tense, a dark and impenetrable shield against Bucky's rejection. It occurred to him that Steve was the honest type of man and that if he wanted to see more of Bucky, then it must have been the truth. But the harsh reality was that Bucky was not good for anyone, least of all for Captain America and his honesty.

“I see,” Steve spoke softly. “Well then, thank you anyway for having dinner with me and listening to my stories. I'm-”

“Maybe it's not such a bad idea after all,” Bucky blurted. Shit, shit, shit. Killed and throttled by the baby blue eyes.

“Bucky, what?”

“I mean,” he pushed on, feeling his face flush again, and not even the darkness or the stubble could hide that, “clearly, no one showed you the good spots to eat in modern New York. It would be a crime against humanity to let Captain America at the mercy of Stark's chefs.” They watched each other in silence for just a brief moment – Bucky craved to pick up a phone and call Becca, tell her that he had had a stare down with Captain America, and yes, those goddamn eyes were as blue and as kind as the legends said.

“To be fair, they aren't so bad,” Steve quipped with all the resemblance of a man who in fact seemed to think exactly the opposite. Bucky smirked.

“Pal, you don't fool me. Come on, let's exchange phone numbers.” Bucky froze with his hand half-way down his pocket. “Am I allowed to have your phone number?”

“Yes, Bucky,” Steve said, rolling his eyes.

“You know, you say that, but I'm not actually convinced,” Bucky grumbled as pulled out his phone. Steve just winked at him again and they exchanged phone numbers. “So, I guess I'll see you around?” he asked after that, shoving the phone back into his jeans pocket and pulling out the keys to the door.

“Sure.” Steve smiled and Bucky hated himself for a moment as he felt crushing disappointment at not hearing it's a date. “Take care of yourself until then, Buck.”

Nope, he did not enjoy this nickname.

“You too, Steve.” They awkwardly shook hands and then Steve waited for Bucky to enter his building before finally leaving. Bucky took the elevator and as soon as he was inside his apartment, slumped against the door and closed his eyes, his legs oddly wobbly, his heart pulsating against his ears.

Steve Rogers was a menace and for once, Bucky didn't want to be safe.

O~O

It was a terrible day.

Bucky took one look at the world outside – drowned in rain and gray clouds, washing away all the colors – and pulled the curtains back, choosing to ignore the bland world and go back to sleep. The previous night had been plagued by nightmares and restlessness. The little sleep that he had acquired was far from relaxing – when the nightmares had woken him up, it had taken him a while to go back to sleep: the pillow was too soft, the mattress not hard enough, the sheets were either too hot or too cold, and his stump hurt. It didn't help that for the past couple of days he felt listless and about to lose his mind.

Bucky wasn't used to have so much time on his hands because he usually made sure to keep busy. Too much free time meant that he began thinking about his family, how maybe it was better to just give them a call every once in a while, see how they were, see whether they still hated him. He would patrol the apartment time and time again, touching the barren walls, the sparse furniture over and over again. He would check for potential IEDs under his bed and his bathroom, he would do several hundred push-ups, which almost always left him breathless and in pain, his right arm cramping hard. He would do all the training exercises that he remembered over and over again, seeking comfort in a routine that was no longer there.

By the fourth day, he was sure that if he wasn't going to start working soon again, he would lose the little sanity that he had left.

Waking up around noon, he didn't bother eating, just grabbed a cup of coffee and his meds then pulled the black out curtains aside again and laid back down in bed. He looked out on the window, from where he could barely see the patch of gray sky. The rain crashed against the windows as if searching for a way to get in, like a claw scratching in the night.

It took him a few tries to be aware of what was happening around him. However, when the knocks came, short and hesitant, Bucky welcomed them – suspicious – but terribly relieved. No one would look for him, he didn't order anything, but whoever was knocking on his door was a fellow human being and they would exchange a few words with Bucky.

To his surprise and slight alarm, Bucky opened the door to a flushed Steve Rogers, smiling shyly at him, head slightly bowed and one hand shoved so far in the pocket of his jeans, it must have reached Narnia. However, in his other hand, he was holding a small plastic bag that seemed a little heavy.

“Sir?” Bucky said, feeling his own lips twisting in a resemblance of a smile. He must not have succeeded if he were to judge by Cap's increasingly defensive pose.

“Bucky, I thought we agreed you'd call me by my given name,” Cap replied, hunching into himself in a way no man of his stature should ever try.

“I'm sorry, Steve,” Bucky replied in haste and then opened the door wider to let the man enter, without even questioning his own action. “You just took me by surprise. I just wasn't expecting you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” came the mumbled reply as Cap sat awkwardly in the little hallway. “I also apologize for coming here unannounced, but I discovered something and wanted to show you.”

“Me?” Bucky carded his fingers through his hair a few times before beckoning Steve to follow him into the small living room. And no, small wasn't a euphemism for chic or anything else. His living room contained on one wall the bookcase that he bought from Salvation Army, with other books towering precariously next to it, a small coffee table, a barely there TV resting on a small cupboard with two drawers (which contained Bucky's paperwork from the hospital, bills and other documents about his debts that Bucky would rather forget they existed, thus hiding them there) and a stained couch, which Bucky covered with a comforter from his mom to try and make it look more comfortable.

Steve was still standing up, making Bucky slightly uncomfortable, especially since he was very much aware of how he was dressed. Gray stained sweats, a white t-shirt that barely covered his stump but leaving his clavicle scar out in the open. His bare feet added to his general sense of vulnerability. Whereas Steve was dressed in tight black jeans, an even tighter gray t-shirt and a blue denim jacket that looked so good it should seriously be banned from ever being worn. He was a hazard.

“I have to ask something first,” Bucky said, still dazed by Steve's presence in his shitty living-room. “Which, of course, you don't have to answer. But it seems to me a bit off and I honestly think I might already know the truth but-”

“Bucky, just ask,” Steve replied, his full lips lighting up with that bashful smile of his again.

“It's going to sound rude.”

“I don't care.”

“You should care.” Bucky slightly frowned. “Nobody should be allowed to be rude to you. Ever.”

“Buck, Stark is the epitome of rude,” Steve said, flushing slightly. “I think you and I can do little about that. And stop stalling, just ask me.”

“Okay, okay,” Bucky mumbled, running his fingers through his hair. “Do you buy your own clothes? Shit. Sorry.” Bucky face-palmed himself because, honestly, he shouldn't ask the hero of a nation if he chose his own goddamn clothes.

“Stop saying sorry. Well, Nat did come with me and Tony did order a few for me,” Steve said, tilting his head slightly, making him look more exposed than a man of his caliber should look. In fact, there was a certain vulnerability to Steve that appealed to Bucky in a warm way that coiled tight inside of him, pressing gently again the frozen walls of the self-imposed isolation in which he lived.

“It's just that they don't seem to suit you,” Bucky grumbled, his blush intensifying. “If I were to imagine what Captain America would wear during his free time – not that I do, mind you – it most definitely wouldn't have been these clothes. And by the way, you can stop me any time now.”

“Oh, no, please, carry on,” Steve said, puffing his chest out a little, smirking in an all-knowing sort of way. “I want to hear all about your fashion advice, Bucky.”

“You're a punk, you know that?” Bucky huffed a laugh.

“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Steve grinned innocently but Bucky didn't buy the act at all.

“No idea, my ass,” he mumbled, making Steve laugh quietly. “So what brought you to my humble abode?”

“Well, I was looking for some music,” Steve said and took out some CDs out, “and I found these. Can I use your laptop?”

“You came all the way here to show me some CDs?” Bucky asked, even as he opened up his laptop on the coffee table and let Steve fiddle with it.

“You'll understand in a minute,” Steve answered and pressed play on whatever he wanted Bucky to hear. It was almost surreal to sit down on his own couch, next to Captain America himself, and listen as his living room was filled with the calming strings of a guitar. The song seemed to talk about sunny afternoons and ice cream eaten in the park, gentle conversations in the evening and sweet kisses in the night, and Bucky ached with a longing so bad, he pressed his only palm against his chest.

He took a few quiet deep breaths before he was convinced his voice was going to sound normal when he asked, “What's so special about this song?”

“You mean besides the fact that it makes you long for sunny Sundays afternoons?” Steve said and finally looked at him. “The song is called Sweet Sue and it's played by,” and Steve paused for dramatic effect before saying rather proudly, “Bucky Pizzarelli.”

It was very difficult to hide his own disbelief when he asked, “You came all the way here because you found a guitarist called Bucky?”

“It was too funny. Plus his music is great,” Steve said quickly. “Also – get this – he has a whole album made with a guy named George Barnes. What are the chances of a guy named Bucky to make music with a guy named Barnes?” Steve looked rather pleased with himself, chuckling softly and Jesus, nobody ever mentioned that Captain America was such an utter dork. Bucky could almost picture that small guy from Brooklyn, too stubborn for his own good, too poor and too ridden with illnesses, but with a deep sense of humor that he must have carried it with him even after the transformation.

What kind of man was Steve Rogers that it took him only one friendly conversation to decide that he wanted to befriend Bucky? And most of all, what kind of man would Bucky be if he were to give in temptation now and tell Steve to leave, too afraid of being friends with such an icon, when he had so many issues?

However, while Bucky had always had little success in confronting his fears, there was one thing that stood the test of time: he had never been a coward when it mattered. Therefore, he let himself relax and smile sincerely for what felt like the first in a very long time.

“Yeah, it is funny,” Bucky finally said, making Steve gaze at him through his eye lashes – and Jesus Christ, Bucky was not sure whether he was equipped enough to deal with that. “Is it now a good time to mention that my dad's name is George Barnes too?”

“Seriously?” Steve laughed, throwing his head back. He is beautiful, Bucky thought in a fuzzy sort of way.

“Yeah.”

“This is better than I thought,” Steve admitted as the song ended and another began. They both relaxed further into the couch and listened to song after song without saying anything. “My dad's name was Joseph Rogers and my mom's name was Sarah.”

“Irish?” Bucky asked and Steve smiled with his eyes closed.

“Yes.”

“Mine as well,” Bucky offered. “Well, my great-grandfather on my dad's side. He came to America with only a small suitcase and built up a construction company out of nothing. My dad's name is George and mom's name is Winifred and I have a sister called Becca.”

“Bucky and Becca?” Steve chuckled and opened his eyes, looking back at Bucky. They both sat closer now on the couch, bodies attuned to each other. The warm music pushed against the empty walls. No photograph adorned the walls or the bookcase, no family portrait in sight. Yet Steve didn't say anything about it, even though he must have noticed.

“Yeah, another joke in the family,” Bucky rolled his eyes. “You know what? Now that I think about it, we were the butt of many jokes at the Thanksgiving dinners when the whole family gathered.” He smiled fondly, “My sister's name is actually Rebecca Joanna Barnes.”

“After your grandmothers?” Steve guessed.

“Yeah,” Bucky whispered and closed his eyes against the onslaught of emotion. Lately, he found himself missing his family more and more, thinking about all those unopened letters, maybe full of recriminations, but the last vestiges of their familial unit. “You want to order some food?” he asked, as always burying away troublesome thoughts.

“Pizza? Peperoni, mushrooms, and olives?”

“Oh, a man after my own heart,” Bucky joked. “Two for you, one for me?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered blushing slightly but reaching for his wallet.

“Don't even think about it, pal! Put that back,” Bucky ordered as he reached for his phone. “You're my guest and it's my turn to pay anyway.”

“Yeah, but I came uninvited.”

“I really don't want to hear about it, Steve,” Bucky said obnoxiously and smirked when Steve rolled his eyes. He ordered quickly the pizza and then they relaxed together, listening to music.

When the pizza came, Steve took his jacket off and grabbed his own boxes, digging in like a starving man. Bucky wondered briefly whether he should go to his bedroom and change, maybe into some cleaner sweats (he doubted he had some; he hadn't done the laundry for the past two weeks) but it would look like he was trying to make an effort and he didn't want to give the wrong impression. By then, they had changed the music to the album that Pizzarelli and Barnes made together. The music combined with the rain outside made for quite a romantic atmosphere.

“I used to have a scar on my collarbone, too.” Steve broke the silence casually and Bucky chewed his pizza slowly in an attempt to avoid giving details, avoid talking about his body and how much he avoided looking into a mirror for fear he might discover more scars. But Steve didn't give the impression that he was pressing for details as he continued, “I think people forget all the time that I was this scrawny little kid from Brooklyn who'd fight all the time.”

“How did it happen?” Bucky asked, immediately ashamed that he was asking for details when he was so reluctant in talking about it.

“Ezra Sanders happened. Jesus, what a jerk that guy!” Steve became more animated. “He would constantly whistle and talk dirty at the dames passing on the street, always drunk and always ready for a fight. He was working down at the docks until the financial crisis hit. They fired a lot of people back then, and he was one of the casualties.”

“It must have been tough for him but that doesn't excuse bad behavior,” Bucky replied leaning forward for another slice of pizza. He felt hungry, as if he hadn't eaten in ages.

“Yeah, I know. He had a mean left hook, I'll tell you that, not to mention he would fight dirty each time. He'd use just about anything, including bottle shards. Not a fun experience. It bled pretty badly and mom was really unhappy with me.” Steve shook his head, smiling sadly. “It wouldn't be the last time I fought with Ezra, but it sure as hell was the worst.”

“I got shot,” Bucky answered, looking down at the pizza in his hand, unable to stop the words coming out of his mouth. “It was during my second tour in Afghanistan. One minute we were laughing, the next all hell broke loose. They must have been hunting the senior officers because that day, only me and Lieutenant Harrison were targeted and shot.” Bucky swallowed past the instant taste of bile in his mouth, hands clammy and oily. Whether from the warm pizza or the terrible memory, he didn't know. “Anyway, it hurt like a bitch, bled worse than that.”

“How many tours?” Steve asked gently.

“Three.” Bucky put the slice of pizza back in the box and grabbed a paper napkin, avoiding Steve's eyes. He wiped his hand and went into the kitchen to drink some water, coming back with one glass for Steve, too.

“Thank you for telling me, Buck,” Steve said gently when it looked like the conversation wasn't going to move on. “Though just so you know, I mention these stories to you, but I don't want you to share some of yours if you don't feel comfortable. I hope you know that.”

“You're an odd one, Steve,” Bucky replied, a wan smile on his lips. He was tempted to ask Steve why him, why his sudden interest in Bucky's person, but found himself unable to do so. Not that he would have been able to explain himself why he was suddenly opening up to a national icon and why he was grateful for his presence in his apartment, as strange as it was.

“So are you, Bucky,” Steve muttered. “But isn't it great that we found each other, two odd balls in New York?”

“Yeah, yeah, it is,” Bucky admitted.

They polished the pizza and drank more water then finished listening to the albums. Later on, Bucky would reflect on this moment and think about the easiness with which he accepted Steve in his life, the subtle way in which the man inserted himself into every aspect of his life. He would come to conclude that this had been the moment that everything changed.

O~O

The next time it happened again, Bucky didn't pay much attention to it.

And for a person that insisted so much on isolating himself from others, this easy acceptance was quite puzzling. But Steve had such a warm way of talking about things and of gesturing that Bucky felt like a barren land receiving rain for the first time in centuries. He felt like a long-frozen tundra in the middle of the agonizingly slow process of thawing.

And like any thawing, there was pain involved.

Steve returned to Bucky's apartment two days later. This time, he seemed much more relaxed in a red chequered shirt, which was quite large on him, a white undershirt, a blue hoodie, and well-worn jeans. When Bucky raised an eyebrow in question, Steve admitted that he had gone shopping for some new clothes all by himself (so no one could influence him) and although it hadn't been an experience that he would repeat any time soon, it had been illuminating, at the very least.

“Oh, look at Steve Rogers, all grown up.” Bucky teased him as he went to get his laptop from his bedroom. As a matter of fact, Bucky too made some improvements related to his person: he had shaved and put some freshly cleaned sweats and a baggy t-shirt – he had managed to do laundry the previous day, a task which, combined with cleaning up a little his apartment, kept his mind carefully blank. As such, he felt much more human than the first time Steve had visited his apartment.

In reply, Steve rolled his eyes and took out a couple of CDs from his pocket. “Yeah, all grown up. I can even tie my own shoelaces, can you believe it?”

“If you don't stick your tongue out, I might be able to believe you,” Bucky said and laughed delightedly when Steve did just that. It was so easy at times to smile or laugh in Steve's presence.

“God, how could the history books miss the fact that Captain America is such a sassy little shit,” Bucky said, shaking his head in disbelief as he switched on his laptop.

“It's Captain Big Shit to you, thank you very much,” Steve said, smirking. The certainty that they could keep bantering back and forth from now until eternity stopped Bucky from adding anything else. He reached over and checked out the CDs.

“You do realize that I have listened to Billie Holiday, right?” Bucky asked as he chose one of her albums (Lady Sings The Blues – one of his mom's favorites) and pushed it in the CD slot. Billie's vibrant voiced filled the room in the next moment, weaving that special musical magic of hers, and Bucky swallowed hard a few times, trying to forget that his mom loved jazz and used to make him and Becca listen to it every Sunday afternoon.

“I haven't, though,” Steve answered. When Bucky dared to look at him at last, Steve had his eyes closed, his head resting peacefully on the couch, although the furrow of his eyebrows talked about anything but relaxation. The remoteness of his entire posture pressed hard against Bucky's own willing alienation.

Occasionally, Bucky thought about Steve and his situation. It was impossible to comprehend, to envision really, how much Steve had lost, how resignedly lonely he must have felt when he had been reanimated and discovered that all his life had disappeared in an instant. Watching him now, sitting comfortably on his couch, dressed in a hoodie and a chequered shirt, but far from looking relaxed, Bucky couldn't help but feel like they were the last two lonely people on this earth, detached from everyone else through sheer stubbornness (in Bucky's case) and the abject weight of a superhero persona (in Steve's case).

Bucky sagged next to Steve, drifting away as he listened to Billie promising a long-gone love that she would give him all of her. He closed his eyes and hummed under his breath a few times, but thoughts circled his mind like hungry hyenas. This was happening often lately – over and over again he would think about a certain aspect of his life, obsessing over every detail, wondering what he could have possibly done to change the end result. Then that ugly wrath would obtrude upon each fibre of his being, each cell: such a futile fury in the end as the guilt stayed on the same, the absence of his arm merciless as always.

Everyone around him had made him all the more furious with all those stupid phrases like 'it's going to get better', 'it could have been worse', 'you're lucky to be alive'. And while he recognized their good intentions, he sure as hell hated them for all those empty words, because no, it wasn't going to get better, and fuck no, he wasn't lucky at all, left behind in a prison of horrendous memories.

“What's the one thing that people said to you when you came back that you hated hearing?” he asked hesitantly, unwilling to open his eyes and see Steve's reaction.

“You've been asleep, Cap, for almost seventy years,” he said, and the lack of any inflection pierced through Bucky's heart. Jesus, he thought he had had it tough! “You?” Steve asked eventually, “What's the worst thing that was told to you after the war?”

“You're so lucky to be alive, you should be grateful,” Bucky said, seething. He found easier to speak with his eyes closed as if the words suddenly gained an independence of their own and they could come out of their own accord. Also, no matter how irrational it might have sounded, Bucky was convinced that if there was anyone in the world who would understand his pain and hurt, it would be Steve Rogers.

But getting out the words wasn't so easy, so he bit his lips several times, to the point of drawing blood. But he revelled in its tangy taste, bitter and appealing. He opened his eyes and stared at his only hand. He fisted it and pressed the knuckles into his right thigh as he hard as he could. The black cloth of his sweat pants swam in front of his eyes. He took a deep breath. His mouth opened almost without his consent,

“I don't remember my first week in the National Military Hospital in Kabul,” he said eventually. “Apparently I contracted a septic infection, after the amputation, and by the time they sent me to Landstuhl in Germany, I was half dead. But then, when I could stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time, everyone kept telling me how lucky I was to still be alive, how, despite the amputation and the other wounds and health issues, I was lucky to have made it,” Bucky said through gritted teeth. This impotent fury still left him breathless after all these months, the unbearable and cruel reality check, the feeling of something essential irreversibly changed inside of him.

“All the Howlies gone,” came a strangled reply from his right side and when Bucky dared to look at Steve, he wished he didn't. Because even with his eyes closed, Steve looked so barren and utterly broken that looking at him did nothing but augment the feeling of inadequacy as Steve continued. “Peggy in a hospital with Alzheimer's, Howard dead, a modern world that I could barely comprehend, egotistical superheroes and agencies playing with people's lives.” Steve opened his eyes but kept staring in the distance, his jaw tightened with the same recognizable and futile fury.

“What's the one thing that you loved since you came back?” Bucky asked, because he wasn't going to keep letting Steve think about all the horrible months in which he must have felt so lonely and detached from everyone else.

“Disney cartoons,” Steve mumbled in reply, but with each item that he spoke about, he was getting a little less dark, “ice cream – I know, predictable – walks in Central Park, painting and drawing, movie nights with my friends, conversations with you.” Steve was gazing at him now through his thick eyelashes and something warm, taffy-like, drowned each cell in Bucky's body. Steve's look curled around Bucky thick as molasses, digging at those dams, those walls inside of him – not easily conquered, but soon they would collapse. “What about you?”

The question propelled Bucky to his feet almost instantly.

“You know what I was thinking?” he exclaimed, fake cheer so obvious it could have been spotted from a mile away. "Instead of ordering something tonight, I'm going to cook dinner.”

“Bucky, you don't have to talk about it, but-” Steve tried to say as he stood up as well, eyes liquid blue, almost acidic in the way they burned Bucky with their sincerity.

“What do you feel like eating?” He forced the question out, begging Steve to drop the subject because he sure as hell wasn't going to admit that nothing seemed right anymore in the world, that far too few things brought him joy and almost all of them were related to his family, a family which he forcibly kept away. He really didn't feel like being psychoanalysed and asked question after question, forced to come up with answers that he didn't have. Steve would probably give anything to have his family back; he wouldn't understand why Bucky continued to push his away.

It was a relief to notice that Steve appeared to understand he wasn't going to talk about it; he followed Bucky into the kitchen.

“First of all, I have to ask, can you cook?” Steve's attempt at humor was so pitiful that Bucky almost smiled again. Instead, he pressed his hand against his chest and gasped, “How dare you mock me, sir? I shall have you eat your words!”

“They might be the only thing I eat tonight if you prove to be a lousy cook,” Steve replied, leaning against the fridge.

“Alright, pal, now you've done it.” Bucky shook his head, trying not to laugh. “Prepare to be amazed.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Chop some vegetables for the best chicken and stir-fry you've ever tasted.” Bucky started to pull out different pots and utensils that he might need in his new endeavour. “Come on, Stevie, chop, chop, we don't have time to lose, especially with your superhero stomach, you bottomless pit, you.” Bucky winked at Steve and shoved him towards the chair in front of him. Steve chuckled as he took his hoodie off and put it on the back of the chair before finally sitting down.

“Who taught you how to cook?” Steve asked curiously as Bucky dug some assorted vegetables out of his fridge and unceremoniously dumped them in front of Steve, along with a wooden block and a knife.

“My mom,” Bucky said. He shook his head, remembering all the times when he would have rather bought pizza than prepared it from scratch, as his mom insisted. “My mom thinks that any man should be able to cook and help their partner with the chores around the house. Let me tell you though, learning how to cook with one hand? Not the easiest.”

“So what's your favorite food that your mom taught you how to cook from scratch?”

“Pizza!” They both laughed at his genuine delight. “What about you? What's your favorite dessert?” Bucky wriggled his eyebrows. “Is it apple pie with a side of freedom?”

“Oh my God, Buck, that was horrible!” Steve snorted but still couldn't control the sudden delighted bark of laughter. “For the record, I hate apple pie,” he admitted after he calmed down.

“I'm sure that right now Lady Liberty is gasping in horror and every American has their heart broken.” Bucky pressed his hand over his heart again, knife still in hand as he had been in the process of cutting the chicken breast into small pieces. He sighed dejectedly, knowing that he looked ridiculous but unable to stop, especially since Steve was grinning happily at him. “In fact, I predict that this day will be remembered in the annals of history as one of the saddest days in America's history indeed.”

“Oh, wow, now who's the melodramatic one?” Steve rolled his eyes as he finished with the carrots.

“Well, I did take some drama classes in high school,” Bucky said and returned to his task, but not before winking. “Okay, so if it's not apple pie, what is it then?”

“Everything related to lemon – lemon cheesecake, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars, lemon pudding. You name it, I'll eat it.”

“So what you're basically saying is when life gave you lemons, you ate them.” Bucky laughed at his own joke; he could see from the corner of his eye that Steve was shaking his head fondly. “So what about lemon drizzle?”

They continued to talk about favorite desserts, naturally moving on to other topics. If Steve noticed the different kitchen utensils that were adapted to Bucky's needs – some of them looked as failed mechanic experiments, others from a sci-fi movie – he didn't mention anything. They kept the conversation on friendlier topics, joking every now and then, and Bucky didn't remember the last time he'd had a night like this: late dinner with someone listening to the beautiful voice of Billie Holiday. He was pretty close to feeling content.

Therefore, Bucky felt only slightly guilty when Steve left just as the mellow, gentle light of the dawn started peeking through the window. And he didn't regret it one bit when he woke up five hours later, for once refreshed and freed of nightmares.

O~O

The next few times they spent together were pretty much a repeat of their first encounter. Occasionally, Steve would grin mischievously and add to the stack of CDs some singer or player of an instrument that shared one of Bucky's names – Jesus, Stevie, Bucky would yell, seemingly put upon, did you just Google all of these guys? No, I don't want to hear it. No, Stevie! I swear on all things holy, if you press that button, I'll murder you. I swear it! That had ended in a squabble in which Bucky hadn't fared very well. His coffee table was slowly being overrun by stacks of CDs. Sometimes it was country singing, such as Dave Barnes and Bucky Covington; other times it was jazz, such as Alan Barnes. Steve even managed to find a death metal band in which the lead singer's name was Chris Barnes. Needless to say, they decided pretty quickly that genre wasn't really for them, and Steve vowed to stop for a while. There was only so much even a superhero could endure.

Then they started watching Walt Disney productions and that had been a new torture in a league of its own. Not only Steve wanted to watch several of them in one go, but he talked about art and shadowing and light, and how some of them were tainted with the political and social views of the time. While Bucky was more than up for political debates, now and then he just really wanted to enjoy something in peace and quiet, without analysing the narrative style or the character development or lack thereof. In fact, he had not realized how much could be said about Disney’s works until he watched them with Steve.

“No, Steve, we're not watching Bambi,” Bucky snapped at the superhero currently sitting on his couch, doing his best impression of the puppy eyes. “Nice try, pal! But I'll have you know, better men have tried that with me and it didn't work!”

“Oh, wow, Buck,” Steve gasped, “I thought I was the best man you've ever met!”

“You're the best something, all right!”

“I resent that, Buck.” Steve shook his head trying for all intents and purposes to look dejected. “Could we watch Fantasia again then? Or Dumbo?”

“As long as we are clear on the fact that we are not touching Bambi,” Bucky said, already reaching for the Dumbo DVD. Who could have predicted that he would develop a soft spot for the cute elephant?

Steve sighed put upon, but his lips twitched knowingly when he noticed what Bucky had chosen. He leaned forward for another lemon bar, which Bucky had picked that morning as a joke from the bakery across the street still smelling of rich flavors and foggy early mornings. Steve had brought pizzas again and some beer. The beer did nothing for him but gave Bucky a nice buzz. He couldn't have too much because the alcohol could interfere with his meds, but it still made him mellow and eager to enjoy Steve's presence.

“I heard that you're not going to start work again next week,” Steve said at last and Bucky nodded. Jake Brannon called him two days ago to let him know the works were delayed due to additional damage to the infrastructure so they were going to have an extra week off. Bucky brushed away Jake's questions about how he was feeling because for once he didn't want to worry his manager. Jake had to worry about most members of his cleaning crew so he had more than enough on his plate. Also, the fact that Steve had come for the past couple of weeks almost daily had helped a lot.

“You heard, Stevie?” Bucky chuckled and Steve blushed slightly. His Irish complexion was completely unaffected by the serum and at times, when he smiled so sweet and blushed slightly, Bucky couldn't help but let that pure want course through his veins, sweet and thick like molten lava. Like right now, for instance, all Bucky wanted was to run his fingers through Steve's hair and press himself against his body.

“You know what I mean,” Steve groused and pushed a whole lemon bar in his mouth.

“Nice, pal, really nice,” Bucky said as he rolled his eyes and picked one lemon bar for himself. Steve tried to smile with his mouth stuffed full of lemon bar (and no, hell no, Bucky was not going to think about this later on), but choked on it and started coughing.

“Great,” Bucky said as he returned from the kitchen with a glass of water. “Captain America survived Hydra, aliens and all sorts of other abominations only to die in my living room choking on a lemon bar. This ain't Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, pal.”

“Buck,” Steve said in between mouthfuls of water, “I swear to God, if a lemon bar doesn't kill me, it sure as hell will be your sass.”

“Well, someone has to keep you on your toes,” Bucky winked, ignoring Steve's epic eye-roll. “If I don't keep your ego in check, who will?”

“Oh, so this is how it is,” Steve said and clapped Bucky on his right shoulder before squeezing it gently. “Glad I have you on my side then, Bucky. Thank you.”

Bucky had read a lot of crap books in his life. While in Afghanistan, he sure as hell couldn't be picky about the literature that he came across so he had read tons of romance novels (one would be surprised by how many things soldiers would read entirely non-ironically). But he had never thought that he would find the terribly exaggerated romantic expressions in them so useful until he felt Steve's touch. It felt like somehow Steve branded him, the heat of his hand clear through his clothes, touching his skin, leaving him utterly breathless. His stomach plummeted to new lows as he gave Steve a wavering smile.

They turned their attention back to Dumbo and watched the sweet elephant turn his life around despite the adversities. Maybe there was a lesson to be learned in all of that after all.

O~O

Steve was gone on a mission. They hadn't spoken for three days now.

It was almost unbearable.

Bucky pushed suddenly the books that scattered around him, all falling down with a muffled thud. He scrubbed his face over and over again, skin too tight, ugly restlessness spreading between his ribs like fire, pressing against that terrible phantom ache of an arm that wasn't there anymore. Logically, Bucky understood that Steve's sudden presence in his life wasn't a magical cure, ready to fix everything from his inability to get in contact with his family and other friends to the deep hatred that he seemed to have at the moment for his body. However, illogically, he wondered how the fuck he still got bad days like this, in which he would push and push against his dark thoughts and they would push back harder and harder, like the first signs of a terrible hurricane.

Buck slammed the rest of the books against the barren walls of his desolate apartment. He dropped on the couch again and pressed his face in the pillow, yelling in frustration. If superheroes could save all of goddamn mankind, why couldn't one save a veteran from his nightmares and frustrations and his goddamn fears? He kicked against the back of the couch with his feet over and over again, the motion kind of calming in its utter ineffectiveness.

Then, just as abruptly as his frustration had appeared, it disappeared, leaving him feeling absurd. Hoping against hope that the sudden sincere friendship that he enjoyed with one of his personal heroes could suddenly calm his nightmares and pains was absurd.

Bucky had become a sort of an expert in absurd expectations.

He pulled his knees up to his chest, pressing his eye sockets to the bony protrusions, trying to clear his mind. It wasn't an easy feat, but as he started to control his breathing and take in his surroundings yet, he put his feet back on the floor and sighed heavily. This too would pass before long and he would be able to get back to his normal self. He checked the time – another three hours before getting back to work. He should maybe try and prepare something for his late dinner.

And then he spotted it sitting inconspicuously on the floor, probably having fallen during his tantrum. Dark blue and soft-looking, Steve's hoodie lay crumpled in a pile on the floor. Bucky leaned forward and grabbed it gently, bringing it to his own and inhaling deeply. It smelled so much of Steve, Bucky hardly could breathe (now that was a paradox if he ever lived one). Sweat and aftershave and something which belong entirely to Steve Rogers. He buried his entire face in it and took another breath.

The ridiculous thought appeared out of nowhere, but it invaded Bucky's mind insidiously within an instant. The idea was preposterous, ludicrous in the easiness with which Bucky accepted it. He had three hours to kill. What better way to do it?

He grabbed his phone and the hoodie and went to his bedroom, closing the door after him. He still felt ridiculously exposed, as if invisible forces were witness to what he was about to do and they would mock him later on. However, the idea appealed so much to him that within minutes he was down to his underwear. He took the hoodie and pressed it against his own body, then slowly slid his stump and then his good arm inside of it. It took a bit of time to fumble with the zipper but then he was finally wrapped in it. He lay on the bed and pulled the material up to cover his nose. Suddenly, that insignificant hoodie became a shield against reality, Steve present in the very fibres of it, protecting Bucky from his own dark thoughts.

Although he had promised to himself that he'd never do this, he allowed himself to briefly fantasize of a world where Steve Rogers was just another common face in an ocean of blue collar people, a Steve with a mundane existence just like Bucky's. A Steve that instead of being called in by Tony Stark to come save the day, he would go to work and live in a small apartment with Bucky. Mrs. Jenkins from 3A would call them to see about the leaky faucet in her bathroom, or Mr. Percy from 8E, who needed help with the stairs, would get them to carry his groceries and then press a small shiny coin in one of their hands in return. He dreamed about a Steve who came home in the afternoons, who would cook dinner for his Bucky; they'd argue about paying bills and changing TV channels; they'd argue about movies and books, about who would do the laundry that week and who'd pick up the flowers for Winifred when they'd visit that Sunday.

Bucky scrunched his eyes tighter, but tears fell silently anyway. They would speak in the dark about their plans and fears, hopes and dreams. They could afford a dinner out every once in a while, a movie date, a walk in the park. The world would be theirs and they'd be so happy.

But the impossibility of the entire scenario pressed like a spiteful anvil against his heart, squeezing out unrealistic expectations. Still, he dreamed and dreamed and dreamed. Because within those dreaming hours he had someone to curl around him and someone to love him.

O~O

“Man, are you all right?” The voice came out of nowhere and it took a few moments to spot Hawk Guy perched precariously on a file cabinet. The entire image was so utterly ridiculous that Bucky couldn't help but snort. “You don't look all right,” Hawk Guy added and jumped down with such grace that Bucky forgot he didn't like the guy. In the harsh fluorescent light, the guy's bruises looked even worse – he had a band aid on the nose, which looked like it might have been broken, and his right eye was an ugly shade of violet; Bucky cringed at the sight of it, thinking of the kind of hit he must have taken. Hawk's right arm was in a sling but it seemed more as a precaution rather than a necessity and Bucky felt oddly relieved.

“Pot meet kettle,” he mumbled but stopped wiping the floor. Hawk Guy was definitely not in any condition to join an Avengers mission any time soon, judging by the bruises and the casual clothes the man was wearing. “What was it this time?” he asked eventually, slightly reluctant, gesturing towards the Hawk Guy' general appearance. “Giant robots? Foul smelling squids?”

“Mad kangaroos, if you can believe it,” Hawk Guy answered, rubbing the back of his neck and smiled widely. “Those little guys can throw a mean left hook.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” Bucky said, chuckling softly despite himself. He leaned slightly forward on the mop stick. After three weeks spent in the presence of one Steve Rogers, all of a sudden he was Mr. Social.

“Okay, it was actually a bunch of stupid Russians mobsters, nothing to worry your pretty little head about,” Hawk Guy said in such a business-like manner that indeed it seemed to Bucky that the guy had violent encounters with mobsters all the time and the other party rarely lived to tell the tale. “I'm Clint, by the way. Clint Barton.”

“Bucky Barnes,” he answered and shook the man's hand. “Do you really think I'm pretty?” he said in a slightly higher tone, batting his eyelashes.

Clint smirked, looking far too confident for a man who seemed to have played the role of a human piñata just that morning, “Your name rhymes with Lucky. Want to meet him?” And before Bucky could even process the words and prepare a rather sarcastic remark, Clint whistled and suddenly a light-brown Labrador skidded across the floor, in a poor attempt to control his limbs. He looked mangy (though he was sure that Clint took care of his own dog) and one of his eyes was missing. Clint made a gesture as if to say go ahead and Bucky slowly knelt down with his hand out. Lucky licked his hand as if he were a human steak and then immediately went for his face with his tongue. Bucky managed to let the mop in the bucket so he could press against Lucky's side, patting it slightly and then running his fingers through his somewhat coarse fur. He scratched the dog's belly a few times and Lucky pretty much stood there with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, a look of bliss on his face.

“He's really nice,” Bucky mumbled at last. He patted the dog one more time then stood up again. “How did he lose his eye?”

“I don't know.” Clint shrugged, the movement ungainly as it made him flinch slightly in pain. “When he came into my life, he had already lost it. But it doesn't seem to have affected him – he and Mr. Whiskers play together all the time and Lucky seems fine.”

“Who's Mr. Whiskers?”

“Nat's cat.” Clint's eye twitched. “Don't even get me started! You'd think that a kick-ass former Russian spy would give her cat a much more interesting name than Mr. Whiskers.”

“Nat?” Bucky repeated. “You mean Black Widow?” When Clint nodded in confirmation, Bucky shuddered. “Wow, I didn't expect that.” Spending time with Steve had had a bad influence on him. He now used the majority of the Avengers names correctly, which in turn was unsettling – Bucky was a grumpy old man at heart; he was aware of his own taciturn nature. However, now he definitely needed to Google Clint's Avenger name after this. The guy was nice, the least Bucky could do was to use his proper Avenger name.

“I know, I'm a lucky guy.” As if hearing his name, the dog now lying at Clint's feet yawned and rolled over to make himself more comfortable. Both Bucky and Clint smiled fondly, entranced by the dog's shenanigans.

Bucky shuffled his feet a little and ran his fingers through his wild hair.

“Can I ask you a question?” he said eventually, looking up again at Clint, who nodded before scratching at his stubbly cheek. “Do you know anything about Steve?”

“Steve?” Clint's eyes widened in slight surprise. He reached for the back of his ears and only then did Bucky realize that the man in front of him was wearing hearing-aids on both ears. Bucky's hand twitched, but it's not like he knew sign language, and even if he did, would it work with one hand? It didn't feel right to suddenly raise his voice either – so he just hesitated awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. But Clint didn't let him react in any way as he mumbled, “Huh, so I did hear well.” He stared at Bucky. “So you and Steve are friends now.”

“Yes,” Bucky gritted his teeth as he answered, already regretting having asked the question. But he hadn't heard anything from Steve and he sure as hell didn't have the clearance to access any information on his own. So he stared back at Clint pleading silently that the man would have something to tell him and then he would go back to what he was doing without making a big deal out of it. And then Bucky could go home and bury his face into a pillow.

“I can't tell you much,” Clint answered at last, “but the last report from yesterday didn't contain any alarming news. Their ETA is tomorrow evening”

“Thank you,” Bucky mumbled, oddly touched by Clint's openness. “I really appreciate it.” He ran his fingers through his hair, then awkwardly adjusting his uniform at the collar. “I should get back to work now.”

“Yeah, I should take the dog back upstairs as well.” As if knowing that they were talking about him, even without saying his name, Lucky got up and yawned again. “Aw, dog!”

“Yeah, someone is really tired,” Bucky chuckled. “It was great meeting you, Clint. Officially. And you too, Lucky.” Bucky leaned forward and gave the dog a few good scratches behind the ears.

“Great to meet you too, man.” They shook hands again and Clint smiled pleasantly again, even if the bruises on his face made for a rather ghastly appearance. “I'll let you know if there are any changes in team's status.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said. “I'd really appreciate that if you don't mind.” Bucky picked up the mop stick clumsily and started the mope again as Clint and Lucky made their way back to the elevators that took them to the apartments above.

“Hey!” Clint turned around and shouted, “Maybe I can bring Lucky again some time, while you're here. I think he likes you.”

“I'd like that,” Bucky answered warmly, sensing Clint might be in need of a friend too.

“Alright then.” Clint turned back again to Lucky, who was patiently waiting for his master to bring him back to his comfortable bed. “Hear that,” Clint said to him, “Bucky's going to let us visit him some time. I'll bring you along only if you promise –”

The elevator doors closed before Bucky could hear what Lucky was supposed to promise. He shook his head and smiled to himself. It crossed his mind that maybe in all these weeks, when he used to find Clint everywhere around his place of work, wasn't because they didn't trust him or because they were testing him. Maybe it was more of a personal matter. Maybe it was just because the guy wanted to be friendly.

Bucky shook his head again, this time in disbelief. Or maybe Bucky was reading too much into the situation. After all, who would want to be friends with him: missing an arm, drowning in debts, constantly struggling, when they had Tony Stark or Bruce Banner, or even Thor, at their beck and call?

Bucky gripped the mop a little tighter. But Clint had been nice and Lucky had been even nicer. So Bucky could try and be friendly next time. It wouldn't kill him. He would remember to Google Clint's Avenger name.

An Avenger that was deaf, kicked ass, and took names? Clint Barton was sure worthy of being remembered and respected.

O~O

In the end, Steve returned in the early hours of the morning two days later.

Bucky had just finished mopping the reception area, just as the sky was fading into a lighter shade of blue. He hadn't been worried about Steve because he knew that Clint would keep his word about letting Bucky know if changes occurred. Also, no news was better than any news. So he had managed to get some decent sleep in those two days and even make some small talk with his cleaning crew. If they had been surprised by his sudden friendly demeanor, they hadn't mentioned it and had included him in their pleasant talk without making any awkward comments. Bucky was very grateful.

He was just about to go change and grab some really early breakfast with the team, this time determined to engage in the conversation rather than letting it float around him when he heard the elevator that led to the underground garage. It was restricted to most personnel, with the exception of a chosen few. The doors opened to reveal Steve Rogers, still in his Captain America uniform, his hair in such a disarray that he almost looked like a hedgehog. A cute, puppy-eyed hedgehog. He was sweaty and blotchy, an ugly cut on his forehead which had thankfully already been tended to; he had six small white butterfly clasps in a row just above his left eye, but no other visible wounds. His uniform had been ripped in various places, but ultimately, Steve was alive and well, stepping carefully towards Bucky as if not to spook him.

And Bucky never thought he would say this after getting to know Steve for only three weeks, but he sure as hell was glad to see him. Fondness and relief blended into a powerful surge of affection and -dare he say it? - happiness.

“Honey, I'm home,” Steve said with the demeanor of a man who knew exactly that he was being a little shit and whose humor most certainly wasn't appreciated, no matter what he thought.

And, by all things holy, Bucky had prepared himself to give Steve a piece of his mind, mostly about making stupid jokes, but as soon as the man got close, that surge of affection made him act in the only way he knew how. Bucky grabbed the man and pulled him close to him in what could possibly be described as the worst hug in the history of hugs. Steve's lack of reaction made the entire situation all the worse and Bucky was already trying to pull back, sick with humiliation and dread, when suddenly Steve's arms wrapped around Bucky in a bone-crushing hug (No joke; being hugged by a superhero who could literally break him in half was no small feat). As he was being squeezed tight, he hid his face in Steve's neck, inhaling deeply the smell of sweat and blood and thought to himself that nobody died because of a hug so he squeezed back as well.

“Welcome back home,” he whispered in Steve's skin, eyes closed in pleasure at being so affectionately hugged.

“It's good to be home,” Steve replied in his shoulder and Bucky shivered.

They stayed like that for a very long moment, Steve seeming reluctant to let Bucky go, though he did ease the pressure a little. Bucky was reluctant to let go of Steve just because the hug felt so good. In fact, it took Jake showing up to see why Bucky was so late for them to break apart. In the embarrassment of getting caught by his own manager in a tight embrace with Captain America (that was a script for a comedy in the making), after obtaining a promise from Steve that they would see each other that afternoon, and after following Jake back to the staff rooms, as he was changing into his street clothes it occurred to Bucky that that hug had been the first hug in over a year.

O~O

“So you and Captain America, huh?” Brannon said a few weeks later. It had become a common occurrence to see Steve talking with Bucky for a couple of hours here and there, either in the early hours of the morning or in the early hours of the night, time seemingly having little importance to the man with the plan.

This particular morning Bucky had finished later than the rest of his cleaning crew and he was the last one to go change. Not that this hadn't been his strategy from the very beginning, when he got hired here. If Bucky hated something more than talking about his experience back in Afghanistan and about his loss, then it would definitely be to expose his body in front of another person, hyperaware that they were looking at his scarred body and judging him based on the history of his skin. In itself it was an absurd notion – at the end of the day, all of them were veterans, all of them moulded into something new, completely irreversible, unknown, made of molten and marked flesh. Oh, how the god of war loved to mark his people! Rationally, he knew that his peers would never make light of his scars and stump, but the anxiety still lingered. Most of the time, he would wear an undershirt if he really had to change in front of them, or wait until they had all gone so he could revel in the privacy of the locker-room and prepare for the trip home.

Most of the time, he was the last one to leave, except for Brannon. He should have expected this discussion a long time ago, because he knew Brannon had his own moral code, protective and accepting of his people. And for some reason, he had decided a long time ago that Bucky was his favorite (God only knew why) and now always paid a little extra attention to him. Although Bucky sure as hell would have liked to avoid this discussion at all costs, he was also very much aware that apart from Steve, Brannon was one of the few people left that genuinely cared about him. Even just as a manager. So he squared his shoulders and nodded to Brannon to follow him to the subway station, though he knew perfectly well that the man had driven to work.

“It's not like that,” Bucky mumbled and glanced at Brannon. The older man had a cigarette held between his thin lips. His hair was getting whiter and his wrinkles deeper, yet Brannon still emanated such a powerful sense of authority that Bucky felt almost compelled to tell the truth.

“Like what?” the former lieutenant asked carefully.

“Like whatever you're implying,” Bucky huffed and pulled the backpack tighter on his shoulders. “I'm friends with Steve Rogers. Just friends.” He bitterly pressed each word, almost daring himself to believe it.

“Bucky, I am not judging.” Brannon looked at him, a faint smile on his lips. “In fact, I am quite glad that you finally managed to make one friend and step out of your comfort zone. Whether you are friends or more, it's not my place to judge. I am just concerned.”

“Concerned?” Bucky repeated the word, slightly baffled.

“Bucky, you're friends with an Avenger.” Brannon stopped him by touching his shoulder slightly, then pulled him in a café. “Do you mind if we have a cup? I really need one.”

“Okay, I guess.”

Brannon ordered for the both of them as Bucky found a table close to the window. It was far enough from the counter and the place hadn't been hit by the morning rush hour yet, so they still had enough privacy. It also helped that some generic indie music was playing pretty loudly from the speakers, probably to ensure that even the sleepiest commuters had woken up. Brannon joined him five minutes later with two cups of Americano and two warm sandwiches.

“What did you mean by that?” Bucky asked when it was clear that Brannon didn't know how to approach the subject again. When the older man looked up from his sandwich, Bucky clarified quickly, “That I'm friends with an Avenger.”

“Bucky.” Jake said his name with a sort of fond exasperation, leaving his sandwich half eaten on his plate. He took a gulp of coffee and then stared back at Bucky. “Look, I don't think that there's any sane person who isn't grateful that these guys saved us from an alien invasion and ten million other things that have tried to invade since or take away our freedom. But in order to do what they have to do to save the day time and time again, they have to be a little... unhinged.”

“Unhinged?”

“Yes, unhinged.” This time Jake said each word with a sort of cruel clarity. “Remember three years ago, when they had that major leak of information? Thousands upon thousands of files were released on line at the hands of that mad scientist guy, whatever his name was.”

“I was in Afghanistan back then,” Bucky said, admitting implicitly that he hadn't paid attention much to what was happening in the world, too miserable struggling with his own harsh reality. All that he cared about at the time was that his family was safe and sound.

“I know, like most of us.” Jake shook his head as if trying to chase unwelcomed thoughts away. “But the point is that at the time the American army made a summary of the most important information contained in those files. They had people running around the clock trying to get their hands on everything before Stark could manage to wipe everything. Bucky, these people have so much blood on their hands. They did unspeakable things.”

“I hardly think that Steve Rogers did unspeakable things,” Bucky huffed, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs in front of him as he fisted his hand. “Have you actually met the guy?”

“Stark did, Banner did, fucking hell, Romanov could probably drown in the pool of blood spilled by her hands,” Brannon hissed. “And your precious Rogers was a combatant in World War II. Do you actually think that he didn't get his hands dirty once or twice in order to win the war? As we all did. Fucking hell, Bucky, we are decent people and we still closed our eyes time and time again to the atrocities that were happening during our stay in Afghanistan.”

“What's your fucking point?” Bucky barked, that familiar anger ratcheting up again. He relaxed his hand, looking almost amazed at the half-moon marks in his palm from his nails.

“They have to be unhinged in order to do their jobs, in order to save humanity and maybe wash a little blood from their hands. They do it to repent, to protect whatever interests they have, to atone for the sins they had committed before.” Brannon took a sip of coffee again, before adding, “Frankly, I don't know and I don't care. They sure as hell don't do it out of the kindness of their hearts. And whoever is caught up in their lives pays the price sooner or later. And I'd hate to see you involved in this.”

“Then why accept Stark's help? Why work for them?” Bucky asked, furious at what he perceived as hypocrisy.

“Because if Stark wants to atone for his sins, then I'd rather help him do it, by helping all the military veterans that I can.”

“So what you're saying basically is that I should stay away from Steve and Clint and all the rest,” Bucky concluded, at last, coffee getting colder and colder, sandwich untouched.

“Yes, that's what I think you should do,” Brannon admitted and looked for a moment forlorn at the half-eaten sandwich on his plate.

“And if I don't?” Bucky pushed further and Jake's lips thinned in response. They stared at each other, Bucky barely able to breathe. He hadn't expected this warning coming from Jake Brannon, the one guy who had seemed stubborn enough to save each and every one of them. But there was some truth in what he said, Bucky was aware of that. He had spent enough time around Stark to realize that Brannon's assumptions weren't so far-fetched.

At last, Brannon sighed and leaned back as well in his chair. He pinched his nose, a little smile on his lips, wobbly at the corners.

“Then I got your six, boy,” Jake told him, and the tension uncoiled inside of Bucky. He let himself breathe a few times before he could look back at Jake. The older man just watched out on the window. “Maybe at the end of the day, we are all unhinged for doing this – going to foreign lands, watching our brothers and sisters die, spilling blood on the worthless sand, being witness to unspeakable things and being unable to stop so many horrible acts of cruelty.” Brannon looked back at Bucky, gray eyes suddenly liquid. “But I'd die for each and every one of you, as I am sure you would do, too. And this is what civilians will never understand – this brotherhood forged in sand and blood, a cruel world which escaped them completely.”

Bucky's hand shook as he took hold of his cup and drank half of it in one go, burning his tongue in the process. God, how had he forgotten about this? How had he forgotten how much it meant to be part of the military, to be supported and understood by only a few?

“We few,” he found himself quoting Shakespeare, “we happy few, we band of brothers;/ For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile.” Everyone in his unit had known this quote though some of them had barely finished high school. But they had all learned it after a particular tough mission when they had lost Lomax and Gonzalez. One of their NCOs had mentioned that quote and it had stuck with them for the rest of their time in Afghanistan as any famous wise words would, when spoken in particular harsh circumstances.

“Yes, son,” Brannon said gently and put his hand on Bucky's forearm. “I wanted to warn you about this, but it doesn't mean that you have to listen to me. You do what you have to do, and we'll all have your back.”

“Thank you,” Bucky mumbled against the sudden lump in his throat, eyes suspiciously wet.

“Let's finish these sandwiches,” Brannon said gently.

They ate in silence then finished their coffees and went their separate ways, Brannon back to his car, parked in the garage at the Avengers Tower, and Bucky back to the subway station. He walked towards the station with the epiphany of a man who suddenly realized that maybe he had not been as invisible as he had thought. Up to that point, because of his own isolation and lack of interest in meeting other people, he had assumed that he would be left alone and ignored, but this entire time people had been paying attention to him.

Bucky had chosen a job that most of society felt indifference towards, or worse, disdain, based on the assumption that he mattered little because he was a janitor. Despite the busy workplace and the fancy people he got to talk to, he was still a janitor, an ex-soldier, an amputee, and an employee with only hospital debts to his name. And he was ready to believe he mattered little in the grand scheme of things (which he did – Bucky never had visions of grandeur). Maybe he would have been inclined to listen to Brannon a couple of weeks ago when Steve had gone to that mission. During those days, Bucky had walked like a ghost around the city, invisible and unknown to the others. He didn't care about Avengers or the sick psycho of the day wanting to conquer the world. The world at large left Bucky alone, with his anger and pain.

But now....

But now there was a different story altogether. Maybe Clint Barton was unhinged and had a lot of blood on his hands, but he had made conversation with Bucky, had brought Lucky to visit a few times now, and he even gave Bucky information about Steve. Stark was annoying and utterly refused to call Bucky by his given name, but Bucky was now used to seeing him with bloodshot eyes and dark circles under them, talking at Bucky about stuff that most likely required a Ph.D. and then some for him to comprehend. He even paid them for the three weeks they all stayed at home and basically did nothing.

And Steve – kind and generous Steve, that seemed just as angry at the world as Bucky, just as lost, but still capable of absolute compassion and empathy.

Maybe Bucky was embittered and angry, grumpy and terribly fatalistic at times, but he was never ungrateful and he wasn't about to start now. So when it came to the Avengers (ugh, he was starting to use their proper name and all – Bucky felt sick to his stomach), he was going to take a chance.

Thinking of Steve, he smiled as he took a seat in the least crowded car train he could find.

O~O

His cell phone rang just as he was tucking himself in bed. As soon as he saw who was calling, a smile flourished on his lips. He pressed the green button, fully grinning.

“Hello? Is that you, Baby Blue?” Bucky could hear the bark of laughter almost straight away.

“Yes, it's me, Winter Blue,” Steve answered at last and Bucky sighed, pretending to be annoyed.

“Steve, you don't get to take my nickname for you and turn it against me.”

“Says who?”

“Says everybody who's anybody. Them are the rules,” Bucky said, trying to hide his chuckle. He loved the fact that Steve found a nickname for him and it was close to his – Because your eyes are the color of the sky in winter, Bucky. Shut up and stop complaining, Steve had said with the cutest of frowns.

“Well, I am Captain America and I can change the rules however I see fit,” Steve mock-declared, making Bucky snort.

“Really? How interesting that when it suits you, you are Captain America, but the rest of the time, when it would suit me, nothing.”

“Them are the rules, Bucky,” Steve repeated obnoxiously and Bucky sighed in defeat. Steve was even more stubborn than he was. “Now, did you arrive home safely?”

“Yes, mother, I even took a shower and brushed my teeth without any help. Hell, I was almost ready to go to bed, hadn't someone decided to use their super secret cell phone to call me names and check up on me.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Steve chuckled. Bucky hid his smile in his pillow, giddy and warm. “I am a perfect gentleman and I would never call you names. Hell, Buck, don't you know people from the forties are the most polite?”

“Dear God, I am trading jabs with a one-hundred-year old,” Bucky mumbled, but Steve heard it anyway.

“And don't you forget it, Buck.”

“Is there a point to this phone call?” Bucky breathed put upon, though the smile in his voice could hardly be hidden. “Or did you just call me to keep me awake with jabs?”

“Fine, rob an old man of one of his very few pleasures in life,” Steve said but then chuckled, positively taking away all the drama he might have wanted to infuse the words with. “Tomorrow evening, you are cordially invited to Casa de Steve where there should be copious amounts of food and even two Disney productions.”

“Oh, Steve, I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Bucky laughed softly. “How can I resist such a tempting offer? Consider yourself visited tomorrow evening then, Baby Blue.”

“I swear to God, no manners in you youngsters today,” and Bucky could almost hear Steve's eye-roll. “Want me to pick you up?”

“By all means, keep spoiling me like that and I might just get used to it.”

“Well, you deserve to be spoiled,” Steve answered with far too much honesty for Buck to handle.

“Alright, so how do we do it then?”

“Just give me a shout when you wake up and let me know around what time you'll expect to be ready. I'll come and pick you up.”

“Sounds fine to me. Also kudos to you, grandpa, for choosing a Saturday.”

“I know, also a remnant from bygones eras when people would come on Saturdays to visit and announce it in advance,” Steve said mockingly as Stark's voice could be heard in the background saying, My presence is precious and you know it, Cap, anytime and any day.

“You're at the Tower?” Bucky asked, this time a bit more alert, but before he could go on overdrive with the questions, Steve calmed him quickly.

“Just a standard report of new information regarding some of our targets. Nothing serious, Buck, I promise.” Stark mumbled something in the background, but he was too far for Bucky to pick up now, but Steve still snapped at him to keep quiet.

“You'd better not lying, Stevie,” Bucky groused, biting his lip, but his heart was already starting calming down.

“I promise,” Steve's fond voice made Bucky smile again. Bucky and Steve, sitting in a tree, Stark's obnoxious voice could suddenly be heard in the background again. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Unhinged all right, that one.

“I swear to God, Tony, Pepper will hear about that time we went to have a drink a year ago,” Steve shouted. Tony replied immediately, suddenly sounding defensive, You wouldn't. “Don't push me. I just might.” Steve sounded so much like a disappointed parent that it made Bucky smile stupidly at his ceiling. “Look, I have to go, Bucky. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, take care, Stevie.”

“You too.”

After they hang up, Bucky looked at the cell phone in his hand with a stupid smile on his face and then hid it in the pillow again. For once, the pillow stood as a silent witness to his beautiful dreams rather than his usual nightmares. And for once Bucky fell asleep with a peaceful smile on his face, a small nearly-invisible miracle.

O~O

“You goddamn bastard!” Bucky shouted in awe as he looked at Steve's motorcycle. “You had a Harley Davidson and you rode the subway all this time?” He shook his head in disappointment. “What the hell is wrong with you, Stevie?”

“Okay, Buck, enough with the drama, please.” Steve pinched his nose as he let Bucky pet the bike's handlebar, ooh-ing, and aah-ing. The bike was really awesome but he sure as hell didn't appreciate it as much as he appreciated its owner, who came to pick up Bucky in black leather jacket, white Henley, and dark jeans, looking like the all American boy that people loved to talk about.

“But, Steve, it's a Harley!” Bucky whined as he checked out its chrome handlebars.

“I got it, Buck, your fetish related to motorcycles is safe with me,” Steve said sweetly but Bucky couldn't be bothered. He really loved bikes. “But, before you do kill me for hiding this beauty, I have to tell you the truth. I haven't been riding her because I had to take her for a service and they discovered that she needed some parts replaced, so that took a while.”

“You're forgiven then,” Bucky said benevolently and patted the bike one more time before he turned to Steve again, who had watched all of Bucky's shenanigans with a sweet smile on his face.

“You look good today, Buck,” Steve muttered softly and Bucky flushed so hard, he could feel his ears burning in response. If he were honest with himself, he had paid attention that afternoon to how he was going to get dressed for his dinner with Steve, even though it was just a friendly one. He had chosen a dark pair of jeans that showed off all the right places and a blue cardigan over a white undershirt, with a black jacket on top. It had been difficult to arrange the empty sleeve so as not to be too bulging or too short, but for once the fabrics cooperated with him. He even managed to tame his hair, which wasn't a small feat, and found some loafers that didn't make him look like a grandpa. Most fashionable clothes were designed for able-bodied people, so he got stuck sometimes buying the ugliest things. Shoelaces were a thing of the past for him, which limited his options. However, all in all, today he felt good about the way he looked.

Nonetheless, as he opened his mouth, he was tempted to say something disparaging related to his appearance – he had never dealt well with compliments (on a side note, Bucky never understood why people were never taught to accept compliments at school; actually anything useful for real life in school). Still the belief that Steve was an honest man stopped him. If he thought that Bucky cleaned up all right, then who was Bucky to contradict him? He still wasn't able to get out a thank you but at least, he managed to smile graciously enough. Steve's lips twitched again in that bashful sort of way and ducked his head to pull out an extra helmet. And after Bucky put it on, Steve made sure the fastenings were clipped securely before he swung a leg over the on the bike and Bucky followed his lead.

The ride to Steve's apartment was pretty uneventful. Steve rode safely, ensuring that his speed wasn't too high or that he didn't take the curbs too abruptly. In response to this, Bucky had plastered himself against Steve's back and realized how difficult it was to maintain equilibrium and a strong enough hold on the man in front of him with just one hand. His heart hammered throughout the entire ride, but nonetheless, he liked the thrill of riding behind Steve, feeling his firm muscles tense and relax. Steve took more of the back streets, ensuring they didn't hit too much traffic. Bucky rested his head on the span of Steve's shoulders and relaxed slightly. Not enough to stop bunching the leather of Steve's jacket in his hand, but enough to show he wasn't afraid. In the back of his head, there was the unfailing certainty that if something happened, Steve would catch him.

Steve stopped in front of a brownstone, a solid green door guarding its entrance. Bucky's knees were wobbly as he got off the bike and took a few steps towards the house in awe before turning to Steve, “Is this all yours?”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded as he secured the bike in front of the house and then beckoned Bucky to follow him up the steps towards it.

“And you live alone?”

“It's dangerous enough for people to live next to Captain America, I didn't want to put the people that might share the building with me at risk,” Steve answered. He opened the door and quickly punched a code in the alarm screen at the entrance. He turned to Bucky, smiling shyly, “Plus I have a SHIELD approved alarm system, which has been tested by Nat. She deemed it sufficient so I'm counting on it to keep at bay potential enemies or... admirers.” He added the last word quite reluctantly as he closed the door behind them.

But Bucky grinned like a shark anyway as soon as he heard it, “Oh, admirers, is it? Oh, Steve, I'm almost sorry for them. Did they wait for you naked? Did you give them your patented disappointed grandpa look? Please, tell me, you did that. Please, Stevie, I need to know, for strategic purposes.”

“You're a menace, you know that?” Steve smiled and ruffled Bucky's hair.

“Watch it, pal, it takes time to preserve this beauty.”

“You keep telling yourself that, Buck.” The soft look that Steve threw his way warmed Bucky in ways he insisted on not thinking about. He tried to take his mind off of it by looking around at the immense living-room – it was probably as big as his entire apartment.

“So this is Casa de Steve,” he murmured. Just to be a little shit, he added, “Do I have enough clearance for this? Should I have asked permission from SHIELD to visit their golden boy?”

“You have the highest clearance, Bucky.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, Captain America himself invited you in,” Steve said and took a few steps in the living room.

“Thanks, but I'd appreciate it even more if it came from Steve Rogers.” Bucky smiled shyly at Steve who beamed back in response.

“So be it then. Do you want a tour of the house?”

Bucky was pleasantly surprised to see that the place looked lived-in. Steve had tried to make himself at home. In the immense living-room, an entire wall was dedicated to books and various memorabilia. On the opposite wall, there was a fake fireplace, on which rested a few pictures and drawings. A huge couch, a TV set and a coffee table full of books, newspapers, pencils and sketch books completed the room. It was very Steve, which made Bucky feel like smiling all over again. The first floor had been converted into two bedrooms and a bathroom, while the second floor had been turned into a massive studio filled with drawings, paintings, and various artistic endeavours, which intimidated Bucky quite a lot. He couldn't see all of them properly as some of them were turned towards the walls or covered with sheets, but he made a promise to himself that he would ask Steve some day about them.

The house tour ended back on the ground floor, where the kitchen was already filled with great scents. French windows led to a small, tidily-kept garden and ended in the wall of the neighboring brownstone. However, no windows were on that side, which gave the room an infinitesimal sense of intimacy. All in all, the entire place screamed about Steve's preferences and tastes.

Bucky took his jacket off and gave it to Steve to put it on the hall stand because Steve was a gentleman and wanted to do that.

“So,” Steve said enthusiastically and clapped his hands, “we have pizza, garlic bread, nachos with cheese and mild salsa, and as dessert, a lemon meringue pie for me and a slice of cherry pie for you. Popcorn and beer are available but not necessary, so please let me know what else I could bring you.”

“Jesus, not all of us have enhanced stomachs,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes at Steve as he took a seat on the comfy couch. He immediately moaned, “Jesus, this is the best thing I have ever sat on, ever.”

“I will let Tony know that you appreciate the taste of his decorator,” Steve mumbled blushing furiously and leaving a confused Bucky as he headed into the kitchen to bring the food.

“Please, do.” Bucky moaned again and even wiggled his ass in the comfy cushions a few times. “In fact,” he yelled to make sure Steve could hear him, “could you please tell him to donate one for me?”

“Buck,” Steve answered in a normal tone as he returned with a plate of chips and two beers in his hand, “I assure you that Tony would do that in a heartbeat as soon as I'd mention that to him. But something tells me that you'd throw a fit as soon as you saw it being delivered.”

“Well,” Bucky grumbled as he took the offered beer, “I can still dream about it. Not that it would fit my apartment anyway. And besides, then I would have to stay at home and fight off all my neighbors who would want to steal it. I'd lose my job and they'd gang up on me anyway.”

“Wow, and people think I am the melodramatic one.” Steve sat next to him and took the remote control.

“Who said that? I am the only one that is allowed to call you melodramatic.” He grinned showing almost all his teeth and Steve huffed a laugh.

“Thank you, Buck, much appreciated.”

“My parents always taught me to respect my elders, you know,” Bucky replied like the little shit he was. Steve barked out a laugh, his eyes full of mirth. Bucky's eyes flickered to his mouth, a sudden desire to press his lips against it. He shook his head slightly and took a sip of his beer – there was no point thinking about it.

“How long are you going to make jokes related to my age?” Steve said when he had finally calmed down with such a tender look on his face that Bucky inhaled shakily before he could answer.

“As long as I can, pal.”

“You do realize that technically I am only three years older than you, right? The seventy years spent frozen don't count.”

“Sure they do, Stevie, that's why you're such a grandpa. And when I am going to be a hundred years old and I will be yelling at kids or chase them off with my walking stick, I promise that I will still call you grandpa, even if you'll still look like this.”

“I won't, Buck,” Steve mumbled in such a distant tone it made Bucky's heart unexpectedly heavy. He turned his body slightly towards Steve, who tried his best impression of a valiant smile but came out more like a grimace.

“I thought that the serum made you immortal,” Bucky said the words hesitantly. “All the scientific evidence left from Dr. Erskine pointed to that conclusion. I mean, that's what I've been reading.”

“Oh, Buck, you read about little old me?” Steve smiled ruefully even as Bucky blushed so hard the tips of his ears were burning. “No, I am not immortal. Thank God, Dr. Erskine wasn't a cruel man.”

“Cruel?” Bucky repeated, confused.

“Yes, could you imagine? Being immortal would be a curse, Buck,” Steve said all of the sudden very agitated. “Seeing everyone I ever loved gone – I experienced that once already and I wouldn't wish the experience on even my greatest enemy. To be robbed of the experience of getting old would be the worst punishment and I wouldn't have accepted the serum, had Dr. Erskine not given me multiple reassurances that that would not be the case. I hated my frail body, my impotence and my inability to help people, but even knowing what the serum could do for me, I wouldn't have accepted it if one of the side-effects was immortality.”

“Oh, Steve,” Bucky said, pulling closer to the man, taking Steve's left hand in his and holding it tight. Steve was tense as a coil, his shoulders a hard line again, and for a moment Bucky was tempted to apologize for ruining the night with his silly questions. But Steve's eyes made him think otherwise. Those baby blue eyes were tinged with the pain and hurt of a man who indeed had lost everything once. A man who, Bucky didn't doubt, wouldn't be able to cope with a second similar experience.

“I am definitely difficult to hurt or kill,” Steve told him in such an indifferent tone that Bucky felt almost compelled to squeeze his hand again in reassurance. Steve's full lips twitched again in silent recognition. “I am fit and healthy, cured of all my birth illnesses and frailty. I can heal and recover faster than normal human beings and I can probably do a lot of other things that others can't. But I will always be a victim of time. In fact, I bet you we will both be a hundred-year-old grandpas yelling at kids and complaining about them.”

“I love the fact that you want to be a grumpy an old man with me,” Bucky said unwittingly and by the time Steve gave him a heart-stopping smile in reply, it was too late to take it back. So he let a new flush flood his cheeks again with a defeated sigh and squeezed Steve's hand one more time before he turned back to the TV. “Now, I was promised Disney movies, goddamn it.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Your Highness. Right away.”

“Stevie, you know, if you roll your eyes so often, they might fall out of your head,” Bucky replied sarcastically, smirking a little as Steve rolled his eyes again just to be obnoxious. He made himself more comfortable, this time not pulling away from Steve, leaving only a small space between the two of them, heat ratcheting a notch. “You're such a punk.”

“Takes one to know one,” Steve said sweetly and pressed play, but instead of a movie to start playing, Bucky heard surprisingly the voice of Nina Simone. He looked back at Steve who was trying to play the innocent card with all the conviction of a man who didn't want to appear one at all.

“Seriously, you punk?”

“It's called Buck, Bucky!” This time Steve laughed like a little kid. “You have to appreciate the lady – she is a great singer.”

“I don't have anything against her, pal,” Bucky said and tried to pry the remote from Steve's hand but with little success. “I just have something against you not stopping with this shit. I thought you said you were done looking for singers with my name, after the last fiasco.”

“But this is not a singer, Bucky, it's a song with your name,” Steve said and this time Bucky lunged harder for the remote as the song started all over again.

Bucky would think later on that moment how one innocent moment turned into so much more in just a single second. He would think about it, but he would still find it impossible to remember who started it first.

Maybe they both did. But all that Bucky realized at that moment was that Steve titled the head just so and Bucky leaned forward and they both pressed against each other in a sudden heat of lust as lips clashed in a fierce kiss. Steve's hands came up and cupped Bucky's face, thumbs drawing gentle circles on his cheekbones as he pried Bucky's mouth open with his clever tongue.

It was too much and not enough and Bucky heard himself moaning, but couldn't care less.

When the lack of air finally pushed them apart, they could only stare at each other a whole minute suspended in infinity, Nina Simone’s voice still singing in the background. In that sole moment, Bucky couldn't think, couldn't breathe as he felt surrounded by Steve, even though he was on top, in Steve's lap.

He couldn't have this and yet he wanted it so badly. So in order to silence his thoughts, the sudden alarm that wanted stubbornly to push past the lust of morewantmore, he leaned slightly forward again and this time it was Steve who surged up and kissed the hell out of Bucky. It was like being claimed – Steve's hands all over him now, pressing against his back, sliding up and down. Their kisses turned open and wet at some point and Bucky didn't care, didn't care as long as he could have this feeling just one more time. He knew it was dangerous to let it carry on like this, but he couldn't help it – his logic was overpowered with each of Steve's nips and kisses. Each time he thought he might have the strength to stop this insanity, Steve would catch his mouth again, making Bucky groan in pleasure, grabbing Steve by the hair and coaxing the kiss into something so much fiercer, so much hotter.

Steve's hand pushing against his cardigan felt like cold water being poured suddenly and merciless onto his head. Bucky pushed against Steve so hard he almost fell to the floor, had it not been for the supersoldier arms holding him on.

“Bucky?” Steve asked confused but Bucky looked away quickly.

“Let me go, Stevie, I have to go,” Bucky said quietly but he didn't recognize his own voice. Steve immediately let him go and Bucky scrambled to his feet. He shook his head to clear his mind, but his heart was heavy and all he could hear was the blood rushing in his ears. And then he made the mistake of looking at Steve and Bucky couldn't stop the sob that pushed past his lips, merciless and obstinate. Steve was so beautiful, his hair in disarray from where Bucky had grabbed at it, his lips red and slightly open, delicious proof of what they've been doing. And his eyes – his eyes were burning with naked desire and affection.

“Buck.” His name was spoken softly, like a plea or a prayer where one wasn't so sure that there would be someone out there listening to it.

“I have to go,” he muttered again and he stumbled twice as he reached for the hallway, his jacket still on the hall stand, bereft and lonely.

“Bucky, come on! Please, don't go! I'm sorry if I've upset you, I-”

“I'm so fucked up!” Bucky barked, anger coiling in his belly like a long-forgotten friend. He turned to Steve who looked shocked by Bucky's outburst. “It's not a fucking exaggeration. I am so fucked up, it's not even funny. What could you possibly want from me?”

“Whatever you'd be willing to give me, Bucky,” Steve answered, hurt gathering quickly in his eyes and Bucky couldn't bear to see it, so he turned his back to Steve.

“I have nothing to give you, Steve, nothing.” Bucky pressed the heel of his palm into his forehead, trying to carefully select his words. “Ignoring the fact that you are Captain America, you are a kind man, Steve Rogers. You're generous and nice in a way I'll never be. Maybe you're not perfect but you're pretty close. And so out of my league,” Bucky sobbed the last few words. “I don't want to see you regret me. I couldn't bear it.”

“I would never do that, Buck, you know me better than that.” Steve tried to put a hand on Bucky's shoulder but he shrugged it off quickly.

“You say that now, but you will. Sooner or later, you will.”

“Buck, you don't get to decide whether that's what I would feel or not,” Steve said, determined again. “You don't get to decide on a fixed future and pretend that it is certainty when you know that anything could happen. What makes me so close to perfection? Nothing. I could be the one to break your heart, I could be the one to do something wrong. I am inexperienced when it comes to relationships.” Bucky could hear Steve's breath hitch. “But we won't know unless we start. Unless we begin this wonderful journey. Together, Buck.”

The silence pressed against them oppressive and gut-wrenching. For a moment, Bucky wished to have the courage to turn around and face Steve, press against his body and ask for forgiveness. It could be so easy – three steps. That's all it would take. But what if he made Steve miserable with his insecurities and nightmares and pain?

What if?

“Find someone else for your journey,” he hissed then gritted his teeth. “I sure as hell am not worthy of it.” And before Steve could say anything else, he opened the door and slammed it hard behind him.

It resounded terribly in his now empty life.

O~O

Bucky hadn't spoken with anyone in nine days. Brannon kept throwing him worried glances, Clint abandoned any idea of talking to him and just brought Lucky for a few cuddles, which Bucky accepted with the sort of guilt felt only by a man undeserving of any gesture of kindness. He hadn't had breakfast anywhere and every day he went straight back home. He hadn't said hello or goodbye or thank you or please. At home, he stared in the mirror and wondered what kind of man he had become. What kind of man refuses to accept that which had been given to him willingly, something which he had dreamed about and cared about and wanted to have for so long?

In the mornings, once he had had his breakfast and shower, after he had pulled back the blackout curtains and cuddled in bed, he took the cell phone out and listened to Steve's voicemails. There were short and sweet. In the first couple of days after Bucky ran like an idiot and a coward, the messages were simply variations of apologies, heartfelt and true. However, after that, they became more of check-in messages, small bits and pieces of information, because Steve was not a quitter.

Bucky would listen to those messages several times a day. On his way to work, Steve's voice in his ears, as if whispering mundane secrets that only Bucky was allowed to hear. Or in the shower, on loud speaker as the water would turn gradually cold on Bucky's body, leaning against the cold tiles, pressing his forehead against the hard surface. In those moments, the voice sounded booming and so full of life that many times Bucky had almost picked up the phone and called him back.

But...

But, Bucky sighed, as he finally dusted the entire reception area. He really didn't know what to do. He wanted to talk with someone about Steve, he wanted to explain the situation and see whether he was the only person that saw the differences between them, the difficulties that would arise sooner or later. He had an almost visceral belief that indeed Steve would not judge the quality of his body, he wouldn't press or demand intimacy straight away, that he would be patient and kind. At the end of the day, Steve Rogers was Captain America with everything that the role implied and Bucky really didn't want to get involved with him if he wasn't ready to truly commit. Because, at least he could admit to himself that, there would never be anyone after Steve.

Steve was it.

Bucky sighed again.

Great. Such insight, he thought bitterly. Now if he could just figure his shit out start acting on it, that would be great.

“You missed a spot.”

Bucky was so startled by Stark's voice that he flinched and almost dropped the duster. He turned around ready to give Stark a piece of his mind, full of invectives (Bucky had been in the army after all and had been witness to such colourful language that even his great-grandma would blush in her grave), but the man's face and slumped posture made him bite his tongue.

In fact, everything about Stark's body spoke of a hard day at being an Avenger. Half of Tony's face was such an ugly shade of purple that it made Bucky sick to his stomach to think about what kind of blow the man had to have experienced in order to be so horribly wounded, even with the face plate on. He had three stitches on the other side of the forehead and there were other bruises and lacerations on his arms that couldn't be hidden by the t-shirt.

Yet Stark was holding two steamy coffee cups and smiled ruefully at Bucky, which added all the more to the gruesome effect of his face.

“Jesus,” Bucky croaked and his voice was so hoarse that he had to clear it several times, before asking, “What the hell happened to you? And why aren't you in your bed, sleeping it off?”

“Oh, Buckeye of my eye, I knew you'd care,” Stark replied, but his shit-eating grin did little to hide the terrible tiredness in his eyes, the pinched expression that made Bucky shake his head in disbelief. He refused to be roped into another endless dispute with the man regarding his name and Tony, perhaps sensing that tonight Bucky felt little about his dodgy sarcasm, just cracked his neck and took a few steps towards the couches in the waiting area part of the reception.

“Come on, let's sit down. I wanted to drink coffee and no one else was awake at this hour to enjoy this brew of gods and my stellar personality. Apart from you, that is.”

“Oh, lucky me! I feel so much more appreciated,” Bucky replied, rolling his eyes, but nonetheless, he followed Tony and grabbed the offered cup of coffee as soon as he sat down. He took a mouthful and moaned in pleasure, leaning backwards and getting more comfortable.

“You should. I still remember the way you take your coffee,” Stark said and Bucky got a closer look at his wounds.

“So are you allowed to tell me what happened?” Bucky asked after a while when it was clear that against his nature, Stark wasn't going to mention anything that brought those terrible wounds upon him.

“Stupid robots belonging to the maniac du jour.” Stark sighed and drank half of his cup in one go. “But I kicked his psycho ass if that's what you're wondering.”

“I had no doubts about that,” Bucky admitted sincerely. Tony's eyes widened, his mouth slightly opened but then he grinned with that annoying self-confidence of his. Sometimes Bucky honestly wished he was able to emulate that level of self-confidence.

“Look at you, all grown up and wise all of a sudden. I see that the great man with a plan did you some good.”

“Can anything be kept secret in this building?” Bucky pinched his nose, sensing the dangerous turn of the conversation.

“Oh, please, you made two mistakes. First, you asked Clint about Steve – and let me tell you something about our dear Hawkeye friend – he really loves to gossip and I promise you that your biggest mistake would be to underestimate him. Secondly, whatever lovers spat you had with the dear old Cap, has made him mope for days.” Stark spoke fast, with wild gestures, sloshing the coffee in the cup with little regard to the fact that Bucky had just finished cleaning the place. “And I mean, the guy can really mope – you should be ashamed of yourself, Buckeye, if only because you made me see Cap moping around like a kicked puppy.”

“Do we really have to talk about this?” Bucky hissed. The coffee suddenly left a bitter taste in his mouth. He gritted his teeth and put the cup down.

“No, I guess we don't have to talk about this,” Tony said uncharacteristically softly, and then he put the coffee next to Bucky's cup and stared into the distance. “In fact,” he spoke belatedly, “I wanted to talk to you about something else.” Tony ran his fingers through his dark hair and pulled at several times, before he finally looked back at Bucky with a painfully serious look. “The evil scientist that I mentioned – we keep fighting him and we haven't been able to catch him yet. But yesterday, he mentioned some things that got me thinking.”

“What things?” Bucky muttered.

Stark shrugged, his shoulders moving despondently. “Just stuff.” He swallowed a few times. “I'm sorry, Bucky.” Bucky's eyes widened in shock upon hearing the words, but Stark pushed on now that he had found the courage to do so, “I'm sorry that I tried that first trial prosthetic on you. I hurried and I didn't take in consideration all the risks involved in the procedure. I was just – shit, I was just so enthusiastic with all the findings and-”

“Tony, stop!” Bucky interrupted him. “You didn't do anything that I didn't want you to. I did give my consent. Remember?”

“Yes, but I didn't explain everything properly and I let that incident with your family occur.”

“Tony, it really wasn't your fault. It was mine, and mine alone,” Bucky said, turning his whole body towards Stark now and grabbing his thigh. “Look, man, I don't know what that fucking asshole scientist told you and honestly I don't want to know. But I was grateful for your offer. I still am, even after everything that's happened. Your prosthetics program means a lot to many veterans and I promise you that I've never thought you were responsible for what happened. At all.”

They stared at each other for what felt like ages. It felt like centuries passed, but Bucky was filled with the certainty that Stark really needed to hear that. It had been an incident that had profoundly affected Bucky's relationship with his family. However, it hadn't been Stark's fault. At the time, Bucky had been filled with such anger and frustration, despite having a new limb, revolutionary in the way it functioned and moved. Bucky had been one of the few recipients and while the others have managed to accept that artificial limb and move on with their lives, Bucky had been the only one to go back to Stark and had it removed.

The metallic arm, built from vibranium and other precious metals, had been acclaimed at the time as heralding a new age for any person affected by the loss of a limb. It was flexible and acted like a real arm, moving and even having some feelings, though heavier than the usual models. Bucky had been more than happy to receive one. But a few months after receiving it, while frustrated that it still caused him pain, despite the build up in muscle mass, in a fit of rage, he had pushed past his sister trying to get out of the house. He had no realized that he had pushed so hard until Becca had almost flew into the couch. He had never seen his sister look at him as if he were a stranger. And although he hadn't caused her any lasting hurt, other than a slight bruise, Bucky had never been able to forget her frightened eyes, the way she shied away from him when he tried to help her up, and the terrible disappointment in his parents' eyes. All of it had made Bucky decide to leave his family and stay away from them. What he had done had hurt them too much. The next day he disappeared from their lives, leaving just a note in which he had apologized for what he had done. He had gone directly to Stark laboratories and had demanded to have his prosthetic limb removed. At the end of the day, he wasn't worthy of it anyway.

“Don't tell him I said that,” Stark muttered, breaking the silence, slightly flushed, “but Steve deserves to be happy and you made him happy, Bucky. I know it's not easy accepting a superhero in your life. God, do I know!” The flush deepened. “I see it in my Pepper's eyes every day, the struggles that she faces, the constant worrying and sacrificing. But, Buckeye of my eye, we are people, too. We deserve to be happy, too. We bleed and we hurt, we cry and we laugh, too. I don't know what happened between you and Steve. He's keeping even Natasha in the dark, though God only knows how many times that woman tried to threaten the truth out of him. But whether as a friend or as more, please don't shut him out of your life. It makes me sick to my stomach to admit this, but he is a hero, a legend who kind of lives up to the legend.”

Stark clapped him on his thigh a few times before he got up and stretched, “Okay, you need to finish your job and I need to get back to bed. I do need my beauty sleep.” He winked, grinning like a shark, “It's really difficult being this handsome but someone has to do it.” Then, as an after thought, he shuddered and his grin dimmed a little. “On the other hand, if my lovely wife wakes up and sees me missing, she might shoot me. I better hurry.” He picked up both mugs and walked quickly towards the elevators. He had almost stepped into one when Bucky called his name and Stark turned, any effect that his risen eyebrow might have had lost in the aftermath of his bruising.

“For what is worth,” Bucky said, his throat wet and clogged with all that pent up emotion, “thank you, Tony.”

Tony nodded just once, then stepped in and let the elevator doors close in on him, leaving Bucky alone with much to think about.

O~O

The problem with epiphanies and with heartfelt conversations in real life? They didn't provide changes straight away. While Bucky appreciated Tony's moment of candor and honesty, he remained as divided on the matter as ever. Therefore, when he arrived home that Saturday morning, after officially two weeks of not speaking with Steve or with almost anyone else for that matter, Bucky couldn't find it in himself to go straight to bed.

He took a shower, dressed in clean clothes, and ate mechanically in front of the TV. He grew restless as soon as he finished eating so he took his meds. Sleep seemed out of the equation for the moment as he changed the channels dispassionately, not even registering what was happening in front of his eyes. After going through them three times, he realized that the whole thing was an exercise in futility so he turned off the TV and decided to go to bed with a book, in the hopes that reading would calm him down and he would be able to sleep, stop his mind from going in circles. But the more he tried to avoid thinking about anything, the more his thoughts started to push at the front of his mind, relentless and pitiless.

He sighed and snapped the book shut, throwing it across the room. The pang of guilt at doing that was drowned though by the utter annoyance that he felt for his own existence. Throwing a tantrum like a silly child wasn't helpful in his current situation. There was one person whom he could talk to about all these things, about his stupid feelings for Steve and his own goddamn life. But in order to contact that person, he needed to receive a sign first.

He pinched his nose and scrunched his eyes really tight. Shit, goddamn shit! Why was it so goddamn difficult?

He opened the drawer from the night stand and took out the batch with the most recent letters from his family. Most of them were from his sister Becca, but there were quite a few from his mom and dad as well. His hands turned clammy as he kept staring at the letters in his hands. Tongue thick inside his mouth, he bit the inside of his cheeks a few times before he decided on a system. He was going to choose three random letters and he was going to read them. If they were full of recriminations, then it was clear there was no point in calling his sister. In case they were friendly enough, he would try. He would pick up the phone and he would dial that number that, although it wasn't registered in his contact list, he knew it by heart.

Two hours later found him reading letters still, most of them now opened all around him. He had pulled even the ones he had hidden in a shoebox under his bed. While the first ones had been full of worries and doubts, apologies and self-deprecation, the later letters were full of ordinary details about their lives. His mom would mention gossip about various members of their extended family, about trips taken with his dad, even a few photos. Details about a life that he hadn't been present for anymore. Their lives had moved on again as if he had been gone overseas.

His sister though – Becca had been relentless in her quest to make Bucky understand that she hadn't thought anything about that incident, that she had honestly thought it had been a malfunction of the artificial limb and would Bucky stop being so fucking stupid and come home? She had threatened to burn his collection of toy sports cars, his little league trophies, and his Bucky Bear. Do not think I wouldn't dare to stoop so low, idiot! She had written. Are you even reading these letters, Bucky? Because I swear to God, when I find you, my dear older brother of mine, I am going to kill you slowly and painfully for letting me share the Christmas dinner with Lucas and Tamara. Our stupid cousins are still stupid. And yes, his breath still stinks, and yes, she still half-chews, half-spits the food.

In other letters she talked about her internship and her new boyfriend and Bucky had definitely crumpled more than a few of those letters, already thinking about how he could enlist Clint for help and maybe have a talk with the guy, no matter how much of a caveman he would look like. Other letters contained minor stories about colleagues and friends, tiny misadventures, thoughts on current world affairs. But all of them, without exception, were ending with Love you, Bucky. I hope to speak with you soon.

I have to confess, she wrote in one of her letters, that lately, I have been thinking about how naïve I had been regarding your time in Afghanistan. Because your calls to us had always been so funny and full of optimism, because your leave had always been full of laughter and trips down the memory lane, I never questioned about how you must have felt. That alienation when coming home must have been horrendous. And we pretended that we didn't see you checking the house, the sleepless nights, the nightmares which left you whimpering in the middle of the night (the walls are as thin as always in our home). After you left us, I watched tons of documentaries and read all the books about people's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read editorials in The New York Times and went on forums and read those stories too. And I remember thinking: not once did we ask you how you were. We were always encouraging, forcibly optimistic at times, but we never asked how you felt about all those things. I confess it left me utterly-

Bucky grabbed the phone so fast, he didn't even realize it until he was already holding it. He bit his tongue several times while he dialed the number, then kept staring at the screen as if pressing the call button was the hardest thing he had ever done. And maybe it was because that small screen blacked out time and time again and each time Bucky could only swallow hard, his heart pounding in his chest, all the blood rushing in his ears. Hand turned so clammy, he had to wipe it several times against the sheet before he was able to pick up the cell phone again.

His mind blanked the moment he pressed that little green button and it turned upside down and transformed into the red one. The humdrum of the action was unsettling in itself as was Bucky's sudden desire that he would get his sister's voice mail, take the cowardly way out. Maybe leave a message, maybe not. But someone out there must have really had a tooth against Bucky because his sister answered on the third ring.

“Hello?” How could such a simple word break Bucky's heart? “Hello?” She repeated after a while, impatience tainting each letter in the word. Bucky still couldn't find it in himself to open his mouth. He gaped like a fish, but no words would come out, every sound drowned by the mad thud of his heart, noisy and unrelenting. “Listen, pal,” she snapped suddenly annoyed, “I don't have time for this weird breathing in someone's ear shit. If you-”

“Becca?” he croaked, as if he had just swallowed a shot of gravel mixed with glass. His sister’s breath hitched and sweet Mary and Joseph, but all Bucky's blood rushed to his ears, heart stammering in his chest (he really didn't care how anatomically impossible that move was, it felt that way and no one was going to tell him otherwise).

“Bucky?” Bucky had never thought possible for a person to sob his name in such a heartbreaking way. “Is that you?”

“Yes. It's me,” Bucky confirmed as he barely managed to push the words out, strangled by fear. And then his sister had started to bawl on the phone, sobbing his name and repeating desperately don't hang up, don't hang up, even though there was no chance in hell Bucky could do that. It made him feel like a fucking bastard for making his sister go through this and before he knew what was happening, he broke down as well and started crying in earnest. He had tried to heal on his own and do his best given the circumstances. He had tried to isolate himself so he wouldn't hurt anyone anymore but still, he failed. Because all along, he had been hurting himself as well. And that was the worst.

It took a long time for Becca to calm down and even longer for Bucky to hear her past the sudden rush of guilt and shame that threatened to paralyze him completely. But an hour later found them talking in hushed voices – Bucky still in his bed, but this time under the blankets and sheets, wrapped tight in the flimsy protection that such cloth could offer; Becca still in her apartment, having to calm down and drinking a good cup of tea as she listened to Bucky's incredible story about a boy named Steve, who just by coincidence was Captain America too.

“Bucky, I don't know why you are agonizing over this,” Becca said at last. “You don't need me or anyone else to tell you what to do. You already know you want to try. So stop moping around and give the guy a chance.”

“Becca, it's not that easy.” Bucky scrunched his eyes shut tighter.

“Yes, it is. You're just making things more complicated than they should be.” A small pause and then, “Shit.”

“What?”

“Your fucking boyfriend is hotter than mine,” Becca whined and the absurdity of what she was saying hit him so hard Bucky couldn't help but laugh. “Shut up, Buchanan, it's really not funny. This is so unfair.”

“Becca, he's not my boyfriend,” he said after a while.

“But he will be,” she said, and Bucky could almost picture her smile, curling softly around the edges of her lips, lighting her face, making her even more beautiful and kinder than she already was.

“I missed you so much,” he confessed, pressing the phone tighter against his ear.

“I missed you too, you idiot. So much.” She sniffed a few times before adding in a softer voice, “I need you to go to Steve and ask for a second chance. In fact, tomorrow evening I'll expect a phone call from you detailing the awesome reconciliation that you guys had. And then we'll plot how you're going to ask for an autograph from Hawkeye for me and how you can return grovelling back to mom and dad. Not necessarily in that order.”

“Becca, I'm not asking Clint for an autograph,” Bucky said as his stomach churned just at the thought of talking to his parents.

“Yes, you will. He's awesome. I know where you work now, Bucky. Don't make me come to your work and embarrass you. I will do it if I have to.”

“Were you always such a menace?” he grumbled fondly.

“Pot meet kettle.” Becca cackled in his ear and Bucky smiled and smiled and smiled.

O~O

The first light of dawn caught with Bucky as he waited patiently for Steve to come home. It was going to be a beautiful day in New York and as he was waiting on the steps to Steve's brownstone, Bucky couldn't help but feel like a hero of an eighties movies, clichéd and weirdly optimistic, but still slightly nervous. He wiped his palm on his jeans and looked down the street. No sign of Steve yet.

He hadn't been able to sleep after his long conversation with Becca. He had tossed and turned, thinking that in the morning he would be able to find all the necessary excuses to call Steve or send him a text. But the longer the time passed, the more he realized that in every scenario that he had created in his mind, he was making just the smallest of gestures and it would still be Steve's responsibility to make all the grand gestures. Steve would be the one coming to him, Steve would listen to the message and call him back. Steve would be the one to wait for him in front of his apartment (maybe even inside, who knows who Steve could bribe for that with his baby blue eyes and his honest to God, too good to be true air).

He couldn't bear the thought of it.

He had sighed, annoyed at himself, at his own fear of being rejected even now, after Steve had made so many attempts to contact him, had given him space to think, and had respected all the boundaries that Bucky had imposed on him time and time again.

It was his turn to act.

So he got out of bed and took a shower. He brushed his teeth and changed into some clean clothes, a baseball tee, and dark jeans. He even combed his hair and looked at himself in the mirror. The bags under his eyes were still horrible, but for the first time in as long as he could remember, his eyes were clear and full of hope. He went to the kitchen and made some coffee. He almost inhaled the first cup. He forced himself to drink the second one a bit more slowly. He looked at the watch and could no longer bear to wait in his apartment until dawn, so he grabbed his wallet, his keys, his phone, and a thick hoodie. When he left his apartment, the click of the door resounding powerfully inside the sparsely furnished rooms.

He had a well-prepared speech, well-thought out, even managing to find a few arguments in his favor. However, the wind left his sails as soon as he got to Steve's address and realized that the man in question wasn't at home.

So there he was, still waiting on the door steps, almost two hours later.

He had thought that by the time Steve would come, he could reign in his emotions and nervousness. Well, two hours later, his hand was still clammy and his throat dry. He was shaking his leg almost compulsively and every now and then he would wipe his hand on his jeans. Yeah, he was really romantic and all. Steve was going to fall at his feet. But Bucky couldn't help it even if he tried, which he couldn't because he was too nervous. He had forgotten most of his speech, he had run his fingers through his hair so many times that he was probably looking like a hedgehog by now and he had bitten his lips so hard he may have drawn blood.

Also, his romantic failure was probably being supervised by at least a dozen of three-lettered agencies because he sure as hell didn't believe that Steve's house wasn't monitored. As such, Bucky could almost picture his pathetic puppy-face being recorded and transmitted through various satellites and splayed over various screens, met with questions about his insignificance and generally deplorable state. But for once, Bucky couldn't care less.

He looked at the time and checked the street again. Still no sign of Steve. What if Steve had gone on a mission overseas? For a few weeks at least? Or lay wounded somewhere where Bucky could never reach him? Before he got too worked up over this, he was going to call Stark and ask him about Steve's whereabouts. He froze with his hand on the phone. Or, better yet, call Clint. Chances were he wouldn't be ribbed as much and he would find out easier what happened to Steve.

He was just reaching for his phone when a black car, nondescript with tinted windows pulled over in front of Steve's brownstone. The obviousness of the car belonging to a governmental agency was so glaring that Bucky rolled his eyes so hard that for a moment he feared he must have sprained them. Nonetheless, his heart began to thud stronger, afraid for a moment that some stupid agents were going to come and tell him to take a hike and leave their national icon alone.

Luckily for him, it was Steve who got off from the car pulling a small bag after him. He didn't seem to notice Bucky as he slammed the door of the car with enough force to make it shake a little and Bucky winced in sympathy. Bucky's stomach plummeted as he watched Steve staring after the black car long after it disappeared from view. The mission must have been difficult indeed – Steve's shoulders were tense, a hard line of compressed muscles, the mark of an exhausted Atlas. His short hair was in disarray and the green Henley that he was wearing had some black stains on his back, all rumpled. Steve was a mess but he was Bucky's mess. And Bucky was his. Hopefully.

Something warm bloomed inside of Bucky, pressing against his ribs, insistent and warm. He gathered his courage and stood up, ready to call Steve by his name when Steve turned. Shock blossomed on his face like an ugly wound as he took in Bucky's presence on his steps, eyes widened in response. He dropped the bag at his feet and took a few steps towards Bucky before he stopped.

They stared at each other for what felt like ages, Bucky standing ramrod straight, each passing moment filling him with doubts and disgust at his own failings. But then Steve surprised him again by finally stepping closer to Bucky and pulling him in the familiar bone-crushing hug.

“I'm so glad you're here,” Steve mumbled quietly into Bucky's neck and Bucky couldn't help the shiver born in response. His arm wrapped around Steve's waist and held on, closing his eyes and taking in the familiar form of the man that changed his life. Maybe Stark was right – at the end of the day, apart from Thor, the Avengers were ordinary human beings that needed companionship and support as much as any other human being. Actually, the simple fact that Thor – a demi-god in his own right – had a human girlfriend proved only further the truth of their humanity.

“I missed you,” Bucky found himself muttering the truth. “God damn you, I missed you so much, Stevie.” In response, Steve almost pulled Bucky off the pavement, arms wrapped tightly around him like a shield from the world.

“I missed you too, you jerk,” Steve said softly, his smile almost palpable and Bucky had to open his eyes and watch it bloom on those wonderful lips.

“I prepared a speech, but I forgot most of it,” Bucky blurted out and then hid his face, mortified by his own sudden honesty. Steve chuckled and pressed his lips against his left cheek.

“It doesn't matter,” he answered and looked at Bucky like he just managed to hang the moon in the sky. “I'm just glad you're here.”

“Maybe it doesn't, but I still have something to say and I want you to hear it.” Bucky pulled from the hug and Steve let him. “Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Steve nodded and went to pick up his bag from the pavement, before coming back and unlocking the door. “Have you waited long?” Steve asked as he held the door open for Bucky to get in first. Then he entered quickly and disarmed the alarm.

“Two hours or so,” Bucky answered as he entered the living room. “I was just about to call Clint and ask whether you were overseas when you pulled over.” He turned to Steve, whose lips were twitching in that warm kind of way, honest and true in a way few things were in Bucky's life. Perhaps for the first time in forever, Bucky found himself looking at his future with a bit of hope. “I need to say some things. Will you let me say them?”

“Of course, Bucky,” Steve said and took a few steps towards Bucky, but still keeping a comfortable distance between the two of them.

“I was a jerk and a coward,” Bucky began bluntly and stopped Steve – who opened his mouth to speak – with an impatient gesture of his hand. “Please, Stevie,” he pleaded, “please, I really need you to listen to me without interrupting and without asking anything. Otherwise, I don't think I can do this.” Steve nodded softly and Bucky carried on. “I was wrong to run away that night. And I was wrong to ignore your messages.” Bucky ran his fingers through his hair and pulled tight in order to calm down enough to say whatever he had come here to say. “I got scared,” he admitted, looking away from Steve, shuffling his feet against the plush carpet. “You accept me and you want me in ways I can't possibly comprehend, Stevie. You look at me and you see me, whatever I am these days. And God help you, Stevie, but I look at you the same way.” Bucky took a deep breath and stared back at Steve. “I am still fucked up and I will probably always be, and I sure as hell am not a man of grand or romantic gestures, but God, Stevie, I want to keep you, and I want you to keep me. So I think what I am trying to say here is can we start our journey, Stevie? Because I'm sick of missing you.”

It took Steve literally two steps to reach for Bucky, cup his cheeks and kiss the hell out of him, tender and intimate in a way their kisses weren't before. Bucky felt owned by the intimacy of the kiss, by the sheer emotion that each press of lips, each gentle swipe of tongue that seemed to tattoo against his own lips. He grabbed Steve by the Henley and pulled him closer still, their bodies a new entity of its own. Bucky admitted quietly to himself that he had never been kissed like that – he felt cherished and whole. His entire body was singing, famished to be loved.

“Bucky, Buck,” Steve whispered repeatedly against his lips, and Bucky had never heard his own name imbued with such – dare he say it? - love before. “Can I give you my answer in a different way?”

“I thought this was it.” Bucky gathered his wits enough to answer, still dizzy with relief. “Because let me tell you, pal, it was an awesome answer.”

“I'm glad you liked it,” Steve replied, grinning. He looked gorgeous with his hair sticking in all directions and his lips red and plump, demanding to be kissed again. Steve took Bucky's hand and pressed a kiss on each knuckle. “I was thinking of something different, but I need you to trust me.”

“I trust you, Stevie,” Bucky answered in a strangled voice. Steve's eyes were molten, burning bright.

“Then follow me,” Steve murmured. He took Bucky by the hand and pulled him gently towards the first floor. Their shoulders brushed against each other as they climbed the stairs and Bucky shivered each time he felt Steve's body heat.

Once inside the bedroom, Steve closed the door behind them and faced Bucky. They stared at each other in silence for what felt like ages as the sunlight spilled around them. Then Steve pulled off his Henley, standing in all his half-naked glory in front of Bucky, who could feel his mouth drop in what must have been a most unflattering expression. Then Steve took a step forward and grabbed Bucky's hoodie, helping him take it off. He threw it aside and watched Bucky through his thick eyelashes. In response, Bucky blushed hard but held steady.

“You are very distracting,” Bucky whispered afraid to say something wrong but still desperate to hide his anxiousness.

“No more than you are,” Steve replied gently.

“Yeah, right.” Bucky rolled his eyes and God, how he wished he had his other arm now if only he could cross them both in front of him. Sometimes he missed the most mundane of things.

“Sometimes I might say things that are difficult for you to accept as being true,” Steve said determined as he put his hands on Bucky's shoulders, “but I want you to believe me when I say them. I want you to never doubt my honesty.” Buck tried to look away but Steve tilted his head just so he could catch his eyes again. “When I was nine, I pushed a swing too hard and it hit me in the chin,” he said abruptly. “I had a scar right here,” Steve added and pressed his lips against the left side of Bucky's chin, kissing him gently right there. Bucky's breath hitched and his hand fisted convulsively.

“Then,” Steve continued in the same kind voice, “when I was twelve, I tried to convince Jerry O'Keefe that I could climb the school fence as fast as him and his gang. I fell and cracked my head open in two places. Here,” and he kissed Bucky's right eye-brow, soft and lingering, “and here,” and he kissed Bucky on the crown of his head. When he pulled back, he smiled ruefully. “I was so angry, even back then, at so many things, but later on in life, I began to pick fights.”

Steve gripped Bucky's t-shirt but stopped nonetheless when he felt Bucky's hand pressing gently against his. Bucky's breath came in short puffs, dizzy from so much attention, ravenous to feel those touches, but utterly petrified at the idea that he might see disgust in Steve's eyes. They must have stayed like that for ages before Bucky finally gave a slight nod and Steve helped him take his t-shirt off. As soon as he heard the soft thud of the material falling to the floor, Bucky looked down and away.

Steve grabbed him gently by the chin and coaxed him into looking back up. He was met with such an unyielding honesty and affection that it left him completely breathless.

“My fight with Ezra Sanders left me a scar right here,” Steve whispered and kissed Bucky on the right side of the collar bone. Then he knelt and hugged Bucky's midriff tight. “I was grateful to be alive for so long when the doctors gave me very bad odds of ever making it. But,” and Bucky could feel Steve's Adam apple move against his skin, “I hated my body.” Steve took a deep breath against Bucky's stomach, nuzzling it ever so slightly. Each touch of that stubbled cheek against his sensitive skin sent a shiver down his spine.

“I was born with a heart murmur,” Steve said after a while and raising his head, he kissed Bucky above his heart, thankful of its strong beating. “My breathing was affected by asthma.” Steve kissed his sternum and moved around his nipples. He pressed gentle kisses against them too, and then mapped the burn marks on the left side with his tongue. Each wet swipe was branding Bucky, left utterly speechless by such worship of what he perceived to be a damaged, unlovable body. And each kiss contained a core of sincere affection.

And when he thought he couldn't breathe anymore, when he thought that he was going to yield and die under such honest onslaught of emotion, Steve stopped and looked up at Buck, who couldn't help but gently run his fingers through his soft hair. Steve looked like the god of war daring to kneel in front of a human. It was glorious. Steve stood up again. They were both half-hard but this had never been about the sex in the first place. Steve stared back at Bucky, wrapped in sunlight, like an atoning god, his blue eyes kind and sincere.

“Here's the thing, Buck,” he said softly, “I might be a hundred years old, but seventy out of those were spent in ice. And the serum? Made me what I am today, but just for a few years before I crashed that plane in the Arctic. So I want to make sure that you understand when I say that I lived most of my life in that damaged body that was mine and mine alone – with my heart murmur and my asthma, my scoliosis and my anaemia. Even though I might look perfect to you, I can still feel those scars on me and sometimes I find myself searching for them because they were telling my story, a story that I lost forever when I accepted the serum.”

“Stevie,” Bucky whispered his name like a prayer, but his lover shook his head.

“Your scars tell me your story, Bucky,” Steve pressed further. “And your missing limb? Doesn't make you weak. On the contrary, it tells me the story of your strength and your resilience, your sacrifice and your pain. It absolutely does not tell me that you are ugly, or unworthy. Because to me, Buck, you are beautiful and worthy. To me, you are perfect just the way you are.”

Bucky inhaled shakily, eyes dangerously liquid, “Where have you been all my life?”

“Frozen in ice,” Steve replied like the smart-ass that he was, punching a startled laugh out of Bucky.

Bucky and Steve by merrkkat

“You're such a punk,” Bucky murmured and grabbed him by the nape, pulling him down so he could kiss him something fierce.

“Can we have breakfast now?” Steve asked, pulling back slightly and flushing prettily as his stomach grumbled. Oh, that flush travels all the way down, Bucky thought delighted to know such a small personal detail.

“We were having a moment, pal, and your stomach ruined it,” Bucky sighed put upon and let go of Steve.

“Supersoldier metabolism, what can I say?” Steve shrugged, still blushing prettily as he changed into some sweats.

“Are you going to use the supersoldier excuse every time?” Bucky pulled his t-shirt on but accepted Steve's offer of a pair of sweats. They pooled at his ankles, making him look like a kid. He scowled at Steve.

“What?” he asked innocently.

“Right, this act right here? Doesn’t work with me, pal.”

“Well, too late now, Buck.” Stevie grinned mischievously as they went downstairs. “We're beginning our journey together now. It's a non-refundable journey.” Steve opened the door of the fridge and scowled at it. Then shut it off and beamed at Bucky. “So what do you say, Buck? 'Til the end of the line?”

“'Til the end of the line,” Bucky agreed, floating in his own personal cloud nine.

“Great!” Steve clapped his hands and grabbed his wallet. “In that case, let's start with our first journey to the supermarket because I have nothing edible in my home.”

Bucky's laughter lasted all the way to the grocery shop around the corner.

O~O

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was spilling its light with the giddiness of a child. Everything was warm and peaceful. The houses gained colorful shades, playful and warm.

Steve and Bucky were outside a blue house with a literal white picket fence. The garden was well kept and colorful pots of flowers adorned the narrow porch. It was really beautiful and tranquil in a way only old houses seemed to look nowadays.

Bucky sighed deeply and thunked his head against Steve's shoulder.

“I don't think I can do this,” Bucky grumbled, his knees weak.

“I wouldn't be able to do it either. I mean Jersey, Buck, really? Out of all the darkest secrets you could have had, you really had to have the darkest?” Bucky could feel Steve's smile through his very pores so he couldn't help but smile in return.

“Don't be a punk, Steve,” Bucky mumbled as he pushed further until obediently, Steve's arms wrapped around him gently and held him tight. “It could have been worse than Jersey.”

“It really couldn't, Buck,” Steve said against his ear, laughter in his voice, affection and love spilling all over. He gave him a soft peck on his cheek. “I am already reconsidering our entire relationship, just so you know.”

“No take backs, pal. Sorry.” Bucky hid his flushed face in Steve’s neck. “You're stuck with me forever now. 'Til the end of the line and that jazz. Plus, your friends like me better than you so you might be in for a surprise.”

“Oh, so that's how it is?” Steve pressed more against his body, their hearts so close to each other. A silent benediction just for the two of them to know.

“That's how it is, pal.”

Steve masked his smile against Bucky's cheek. “So do you want to go in?”

“Yeah.” Bucky sighed and tilted his head just so Steve could kiss him, which of course his boyfriend gladly obliged. Steve tasted of happiness and smiles, but also the lasagne they had for lunch.

It was perfect.

They stepped back after a few more kisses.

“Should I wait for you?” Steve asked, ever the doting boyfriend.

“No, thank you,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “But I'll give you a call once I'm ready to leave.”

“All right.” Steve hugged him once more. “I love you,” he whispered tenderly. “And your parents love you too, so it's going to be all right.”

“I know.” Bucky smiled. “I love you too.”

They let go of each other and Bucky walked towards his parents' house at last. He turned, smiled and waved like a dork at Steve, who chuckled but waved back. Then he got on the bike and left, leaving Bucky alone on the quiet street. From inside the house, he could hear the TV and his mom's voice calling for his dad. A light breeze was picking up and a car honked in the distance.

He smiled again and pressed the doorbell.

Everything was going to be all right.

 

The End