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Rougher Times Than These

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Traffic along the harbor was backed up for three miles. Bucky drummed his fingers on the cracked leather steering wheel cover and sipped from his large, lidded cup of too-weak gas station coffee, waiting for the line of cars to budge more than an inch. He listened to locals shouting to each other from dinghies and fishing boats along the docks through his open window and grimaced at the odor of low tide. At least the weather was holding, and the job itself promised to be indoors. Clint tipped him off about a buddy of his on the Coast Guard who mentioned the luxury yacht that docked last night due to engine failure.

“They just got back from Aruba. Guess they’re doin’ a world tour for their wedding anniversary,” he told Bucky over a couple of beers and Frito pies eaten straight out of the bags. “Better start prayin’ they have a bad mechanic fixing that boat. Means more money for whoever stops by for a visit.”

Bucky stirred the remnants of chili, chopped onions and soggy corn chips with his spoon and shrugged. “Long as they need me to build ‘em something, I don’t care about the mechanic or when they ship out of here.”

Clint snorted into his beer and nodded. “Fair enough. Get out there. Make that money and skedaddle.”

Darcy tended the bar at the bowling alley and listened in more than casually as she wiped the counter. “I heard that the two of ‘em are a piece of work.”

“How?” Bucky asked before scooping up the last bite of lunch from the crumpled bag.

“Money doesn’t necessarily mean good taste. The older one was business beige and looked like he had a stick up his ass. His husband, though... “ Darcy glanced around to make sure no one else was listening, even though the bowling alley was almost deserted. She rolled her eyes as she explained, “That guy looks high maintenance and like somebody you don’t wanna get caught next to on a crowded subway.”

Clint “hmm’ed” and shrugged. “Trophy husband, huh?”

“He’s good looking until he opens his mouth,” Darcy added as she began to dry a rack of beer mugs that came out of the dishwasher. “Then, you just wanna get out of the way.”

Bucky ignored that, sucked it up, and packed his tools into the pickup that morning, steeling himself for a ride. He needed the money. And, who knows? If she liked his work and paid him what it was worth, it would mean good word of mouth. Bucky finally made it to the marina’s crowded parking lot and found himself a spot all the way in the back. He unpacked his toolbox and donned his belt. The air was balmy and humid enough that he was thankful that he wore a loose tank top, armholes gaping open all the way down to his ribs. His jeans were wrinkled and torn but clean, his last pair for the week that lived up to that claim.

Bucky followed the captain’s directions to the pier where the Frigga was docked, and he felt like someone punched him in the chest. “Holy crap,” he murmured, whistling at the sheer size and gorgeous lines of the luxury vessel. Everything was immaculate, fresh, and top of the line, and Bucky saw its staff and crew hurrying around the deck. From the port side, he heard the low sounds of two men bickering.

“...it’s like you planned to take this trip by yourself, Tony, honestly. I can’t live like this for the next month. That’s not a closet. It’s a joke. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted me to rough it.”

“If I wanted you to rough it, darling, we would have gone on that safari I suggested that you so gleefully shot down. This is your project. You deal with it. My skeet is calling my name.”

“Calling your name is what I’ve been doing all morning, but you don’t seem to care.” Bucky heard that voice, haughty but pleasantly deep, with a New York accent, groan in long-suffering fashion. “Ugh… fine, then. I’ll take care of it myself. Just like I do with everything else.”

“Hey,” Bucky called out, waving from the dock at a stately, fit-looking man with well-styled, thick dark hair and a swarthy tan. He wore weekender clothes with designer labels and had a skeet rifle slung over his shoulder. He rocked back on his heels when he saw Bucky and raised his brows.

“Oh, look what the cat dragged in… Good morning! Who the hell are you?”

“You called for a carpenter?”

“No!” And to Bucky’s surprise, he stalked toward the starboard deck, his indication that he’d been dismissed.

“O. Kay.”

“You’re the carpenter?” That voice changed direction and grew closer, and Bucky heard light foot creaking on the shallow steps leading down from the upper deck.

“Sure am.”

“Well, what the hell took you so long? Were you waiting for that awful haircut to grow out?”

Bucky opened his mouth to give this piece of shit back as good as he got, but it went completely dry at the sight of its owner, all five-and-a-half feet of him. Guy couldn’t weigh more than a buck forty-five. Built like a swimmer, with a hard, flat abdomen and lithe limbs. He wore nothing but a pair of pale blue, silk pajama pants and wire-rimmed sunglasses with a Dior logo on the stems. Bucky immediately assumed he was hungover, but he still moved with surprising, indolent grace, clearly a man who didn’t have anywhere to be at the minute.

“Got caught up in traffic coming down the hill.”

“Down the hill,” Mr. Wonderful muttered under his breath. Bucky saw him roll his eyes behind those smoky lenses. “You realize that was a rhetorical question? That the answer doesn’t matter? Because you’re late?”

“You never gave me a time. You just said to stop by-”

“Jarvis said to ‘just stop by’ after I told him I wanted you here no later than nine AM.”

There was no way this guy could’ve rolled out of bed any earlier than ten minutes ago.

“Better late than never.”

“We’ll agree to disagree.”

Bucky sighed. “You mentioned-”

The blond held up a quelling hand.

“Jarvis… mentioned that you had a closet you wanted repaired?”

“Remodeled,” Bucky was told. “So, will you do it or not?”

Bucky’s mind reeled. “You’re going to be here for, what? A week?”

“Not if I can help it. The mechanic thinks he can get us back en route within two days. It will need to be finished way before then.”

“Way before… okay. Okay. I’d at least need to see it before I -”

“Follow me.”

“-accept.” Bucky watched him pivot on his heel and stalk back up the steps, and he followed him wordlessly, enjoying the view the entire way toward the living quarters. All right. Darcy’s assessment rang true; the guy was a lot more attractive when Bucky didn’t have to hear him speak, but that ass spoke for itself. Bucky realized that the crew and serving staff were watching him, and that his own features felt transfixed in that dumbstruck expression that only happened when something truly fucked him up. He focused instead on the nape of that slim neck shown to perfect advantage by that messy undercut style.

“It’s right through here. I don’t know why I never got around to having anyone in to fix this. We had so many more skilled carpenters in the city… are you paying attention?”

“Uh.” Bucky found himself goggling once more at the careless spill of wealth. The living quarters boasted of the same embarrassment of riches. Plush fabrics in gaudy patterns and edgy, bold colors filled the bedroom suite. The king-sized bed was dressed in heavy damask and so many throw pillows that you practically had to excavate the bed from under them to actually sleep on it. Sculptures. Succulent plants in mosaic-patterned vases and pots. Oil paintings.

All of this. On a boat. Bucky snorted back a laugh at the sight of the portraits of the couple. Both of them looked overcoiffed, overdressed, and constipated. They were holding a matched pair of ginger-brown corgis. The corgis were dressed in designer sweaters.

Designer. Sweaters.

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Bucky. Barnes.”

“Bucky Barnes.” Bucky’s new job rolled the name around in his mouth. “You’re serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

“Good Lord. Well. I supposed you can tell a lot about a person by their name.”

“What can you tell about me?”

“That I need to lock up my prescriptions and that you don’t have a close enough relationship with soap.”

“Huh? HEY!”

To add insult to injury, the guy picked up a bottle of cologne and spritzed himself first, a brief whiff of citrusy, metallic scent that was too sharp for Bucky’s taste, and then he reached over and sprayed Bucky with it, too, without bothering to ask permission. Bucky coughed and fanned the air in irritation. “Do you mind?!” Bucky demanded.

“Yes. I do. That’s what I’ve been trying to convey.” And just when Bucky thought this guy couldn’t show him more shocking examples of bad client etiquette (he was batting a thousand so far), one of the members of his staff walked in, dressed in a crisp, white shirt and an impeccable dark vest. He carried a tray of canapes and crackers, along with a small, silver pot of something shiny, black, and slimy looking that made Bucky wrinkle his nose. “It’s about time, Jarvis. I was worried that I’d have to wait.”

“Apologies, sir.”

“Surely, I’ve heard them all by now.” Jarvis gave him an expectant look as he picked up a round, white wafer and spread it thickly with the slime, using a tiny knife. He took a delicate bite, grimaced, and then spat it out onto a tiny napkin. “Jarvis. What the hell. What did you just serve me?” Bucky skirted around him and began measuring the space with a retractable tape. Anyone else would have thought a walk-in closet on a yacht was enough.

“Caviar, sir,” he told him, nonplussed. His features were tranquil, but there was something in his eyes that pleaded with Bucky, briefly: Just fucking shoot me now. For the love of a merciful God.

“Did you get this at the Dollar General? Oh, God, it lingers…” Mr. Sunshine made tongue-scraping motions and shooed Jarvis off. “Take that slop back to the kitchen and throw it out.”

“I’ll be sure to let the Russian tea room back in Manhattan know that their product was most inferior.”

“That’s a gross understatement. And that was gross caviar. Unacceptable. Please remind them that caviar should be round and hard and of adequate size, and it should burst in your mouth at precisely the right moment.”

Bucky’s face went blank. His nerveless fingers let the measuring tape snap shut. Jarvis coughed briefly, nodded, and backed his way out of the room. Good luck, he mouthed at Bucky. Bucky’s stomach was still twisted up with apprehension. This dude was loaded, but he was also batshit crazy. Bucky was having second, third, and tenth thoughts about taking this job, but then he remembered that the kids needed school shoes, backpacks, and a metric crapton of stuff that he couldn’t afford. Not unless he wanted to take that job at the fertilizer plant.

“Come here. As you can see, this is inadequate. A five-year-old designed the living quarters, as you can tell by the lack of space. I don’t want to have to keep all my shoes in boxes, and I want to have some drawers for my delicates… are you paying attention?”

“Delicates. Shoes. Got it. So, are you thinking shelves, or-”

“Shelves. Did I ask for shelves?”

“No. Just so we’re absolutely, crystal clear, your Majesty, what are you asking me for?” Bucky’s voice lacked any fucks to give, but he still gave him his most winning smile, dimples and all.

This guy wasn’t buying it. He removed his sunglasses and slid them up onto the top of his head.

Bucky’s breath caught. Those eyes were a pale, milky blue, like matched opals. Guy might be an asshole, but he had good genes. Long, sandy lashes. Heavy, arched brows that looked like they saw a pot of wax and a pair of tweezers. Without the glasses, Bucky noticed one tiny flaw. His nose was crooked, and only really noticeable if you squinted and stared long enough. (Bucky had to catch himself, and coach himself not to squint. It took more effort than he thought he had.)

It was the kind of face that Bucky wished he could wake up to, drowsy and sleep-tousled in the morning sunlight. But Fate was cruel and had an awesome fucking sense of humor.

“I’m asking you to remodel the closet. I want access to my belongings and my shoes and I want it organized. I want it completed in two days. Can you handle the job?”

Bucky hooked his thumbs into the armholes of his tank, tugging it down and lacing his fingers together, just to mess with him. Sure enough, those eyes flickered over his exposed pecs, but they zoomed back up to his face in an instant. He looked bored. Bucky shrugged. “I can handle it. It’s not gonna come cheap.”

Then he looked even more bored. “Name your price.”

“Three thousand,” Bucky told him without blinking.

The man’s lips curled. “And you said you’re a professional carpenter?” Bucky opened his mouth to set him straight, but he held up a hand, waving him off. “Beggars can’t be choosers. I haven’t a doubt in my mind that you’re probably the only carpenter up here in Elk Snout. Just get it done.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’n.”

“Grant. Grant Steven Rogers-Stark.”

Because of course this guy hyphenated.

“Well, la-di-dah,” Bucky muttered to himself as his client disappeared. “Well, Barnes, let’s get this show on the road.”

*

 

“When are you gonna get home, Barnes? The natives are getting restless.”

“I know, Barton, and you know I’m good for it. I’m totally gonna do you a solid when I get back. You saved my life by taking the girls.”

“Yeah, well. I’m already regretting it. The twins superglued my ass to a kitchen chair and stole the remote while I was stuck. I never want to watch that much Disney Channel again. Except maybe Phineas and Ferb. That show’s fucking hysterical. Whoever wrote it is a friggin’ genius.”

“I didn’t know I’d end up here overnight,” Bucky admitted. “I thought this was just gonna be a quick repair. Easy-peasy. But she wanted a remodel, and I need the dimes. My gas tank was practically empty when I came down the hill.”

“I know that, man. I’m just sayin’. We’re talking a pretty big favor when you get back. We’ll discuss whether it’s sexual. I’m flexible.”

“And you’re kidding.”

“Only a little.”

“You’re the best, Barton.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere. But a six-pack of imported beer will get you a good time.”

“Barton. C’mon.”

“A guy’s gotta try.”

 

A familiar, and by now despised voice behind him demanded, “Do I pay you to make phone calls? Or am I paying you to remodel my closet?”

Captain Hot Pants reeked of cologne and tanning oil. He wore a tiny, lime green speedo and a mesh tank top, and those ridiculous sunglasses were back on his face. A platinum Rolex shone on his wrist, competing with his wedding bands. He paused in berating Bucky to pick at one of his fingernails, making a tsking sound.

“Just checking in,” Bucky assured him. “Everything’s moving right along.”

“Just remember that I’m not paying you by the hour.”

Just basking in your presence is payment enough. “Hey. Can you ask Jarvis if he has anymore of that tapenade? It’s friggin’ fantastic.”

“I’ll be sure to let him know. He’ll be thrilled.” Bucky knew he was rolling his eyes behind those glasses, but it didn’t faze him.

Grant exited quickly, as though he found Bucky distasteful, and he presented Bucky with yet another distraction. That speedo was a thong. “Jesus,” Bucky muttered. That ass. Like two perfect little half-moons, tanned, tight and ripe. A tiny, strawberry birthmark winked at Bucky from the left cheek. The sight of it burned itself into Bucky’s brain and shut down all rational thought. His mouth had dropped open for who knew how many seconds, before he snapped out of his trance. He got back to work with some difficulty, resenting how tight his jeans felt from just that one glimpse.

Before Bucky could even finish mitering another drawer, Jarvis appeared with another of his carefully arranged trays. The tapenade accompanied a selection of crackers, cheeses and thinly sliced meats.

“You’re a gem, buddy.”

Jarvis gave him a curt smile. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Barnes.”

“Hey. How did you end up working for that guy? Did you lose a bet? You can be honest?”

“I’ve been working for the Stark family for over thirty years.”

“The Stark family?”

“I was formerly employed by Howard and Maria Stark of Stark Steel Industries. They oversee five shipyards and operate primarily out of Long Island. When they passed, their son, Anthony, inherited the estate. You’ve met him. Clever facial hair. Carries a skeet gun?”

“Yeah. We’ve met.” Bucky sighed. “You’re a saint.”

“I’m merely loyal. Will you be needing anything else, sir?”

“Got anything to drink?”

“There’s an ice bucket in the corridor, sir. I packed it with a few bottles of sparkling water. Will that be all?”

“I’m good.” Bucky clapped him on the shoulder. Jarvis turned on his heel and left, eager to be done with the questions. It was just as well. Bucky didn’t plan to get too attached to the Stark-Rogers family. He had no doubt that Jarvis would give him the bum’s rush out off the deck once that money was in his pocket.

Bucky could almost taste it. It would help him to tie up a few loose ends and give the girls a good foundation, until he could get funding for his venture with Clint. The closet was taking shape. Once Captain Hot Pants gave it his seal of approval, Bucky was out of there.

Bucky lost himself in the noise and dust for the next few hours. He scrubbed the sweat from his brow and lowered his goggles, shucking the work gloves to reach for his snacks. While he loaded a cracker with prosciutto and gouda, he heard that voice again drifting to him through the open window.

“When did the mechanic say he would be finished, Tony?”

“Any time now. We might be able to ship out tomorrow morning, sweetums.”

“God, Tony, don’t call me that.”

“All right, Granty-Bear. Just be patient. We can’t rush good work.”

“I just can’t wait to get the stench of Elk Snout off of me. And of that filthy carpenter. God, I can’t take it another day.”

Bucky nearly choked. Okay. Guy was hitting below the belt.

“And the way he eats. It’s like he thinks we’re running a bed and breakfast for a biker gang.”

“You went through a rebellious phase before we were official, sweetums.”

“Tony. Please. There’s ‘rebellious,’ and there’s making questionable life choices.”

“Give yourself some credit, dear. You chose me.”

“And I question that every day.”

“Grant. That was unnecessary.”

“So’s that polo shirt with those slacks. Go make yourself useful and talk to him. Find out when he’s going to be finished.”

“Who? The mechanic?”

“No. The dirty carpenter. Jarvis, make sure you count up what’s in the safe before and after he leaves.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Bucky’s face flamed with indignant rage. The fuck? He chucked his hammer onto the bed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair in frustration. How the hell did this guy have the nerve? Bucky showed up, poured all of his creativity and energy into this job, and hammered it out on an impossible schedule, so that this guy could access his shoes and his “delicates” without dirtying those manicured hands. Bucky sweated his ass off while he just wandered the decks, tanned, got oxygen facials and shopped online, talking with his mother about country club memberships and how Tony was “in denial” about his testosterone levels, and a host of things Bucky couldn’t give a damn about. He was just about ready to rip his ears off the sides of his head if he had to listen to Grant Stark-Rogers mention whether he could get tickets to Fashion Week or whether the oysters in Jarvis’ bouillabaisse were locally sourced one more time.

He was just so spoiled.

Bucky gritted his teeth and turned on his saw to drown out the noise of their chatter.

*

 

The following morning, Bucky showed up bright and early to clean up the room, using his shop vac to clear out the sawdust. The shelves and drawers were even, freshly varnished and immaculate. Bucky knew at least a dozen friends of his who would give their eye teeth for that much closet space, or to have all the fancy clothes and shoes that this guy owned to put in it in the first place. Wasteful. It was wasteful. But, hey. Whatever floated his boat.

Bucky packed up his tools into their box and laid his tool belt beside it out on the deck, not wanting to waste any time. He needed to get to the bank when it opened to make the deposit and put gas in his truck for the ride up the hill. Clint was champing at the bit to get his house back, and the girls were getting antsy. Doreen got a hold of a box of blue hair dye and experimented on Clints beagle, Lucky. Bucky promised him he’d pay for a trip to the groomer’s to set things straight. If Nat was still alive, she’d have had some choice words for how to be a good houseguest, but Bucky was tired. He was just… so goddamned tired.

Jarvis arrived with a coffee tray and automatically poured him a cup.

“Buddy, I’m gonna miss you,” Bucky assured him as he took a sip of the sharp, bright French roast.

“You flatter me, Mr. Barnes.” He appraised Bucky’s work and nodded in approval. “Let me fetch Mr. Stark-Rogers. He will be eager to see the finished product.”

“Yeah, color me eager, too.”

Jarvis bit his lip and exited smoothly. He returned moments later with Steven in tow. He was dressed in tennis whites and once again reeked of that cologne. The sunglasses were hooked in the neck of his shirt, and he had his hands stuffed into his pockets. He paced the room indolently.

“Well? Show me.”

“I think you’re really gonna like this. Check this out.” Bucky pulled him forward by the elbow and picked up a small remote. “You just use this. Just like a garage door opener.” Bucky hit pointed it at the new shelves and hit the button. The shelves rotated on little toggles, dividing and moving the racks mounted there, which each housed a pair of shoes. Bucky staged the display with a few pairs just to give him the visual. He hit another switch, and one of the drawers opened, displaying the “delicates” inside. “Accessible and organized. No need to leave your shoes in the boxes. You wanna find ‘em? Just hit the switch-”

“What is that?” Steve’s voice held bewildered exasperation. The enthusiasm that Bucky had hoped for was missing from his tone.

“What do you mean, what is it? It’s your closet. I remodeled it, just like you asked. I made it functional.”

“But what did you make it out of?”

“Wood,” Bucky said simply.

“I know it’s wood. But what kind?”

“Oak.”

“OAK?!”

“Oak. O. A. K. Oak. Which is a type. Of. Wood.”

Steve gave him a long-suffering sigh and rubbed his brows. “Really? What planet are you from that you think this is acceptable? I asked for cedar.”

“No. No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did. I explicitly asked for cedar!

“The hell you did! You never mentioned it.”

“Well, everyone knows you make a closet out of cedar! It keeps out the moths!”

“Buddy, you can take that up with the moths, but you need to pay me first, and I’ll be on my way.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not paying for this. This is shoddy workmanship. You didn’t do what I asked.”

“Since when did you ask? Every word out of your mouth’s been a direct assault on my character or a demand! ‘Don’t touch the safe, carpenter. They’re called utensils, carpenter. Don’t tramp dirt across my Persian rug, carpenter.’ You’ve got some nerve. And I’ll tell you another thing: I have a hard time believing any biker would take you for a ride, with that stick that you’ve got shoved that far up your ass!”

Hectic splotches of color rose up in Steve’s cheeks. “I KNEW it. You WERE listening!”

“Hard not to, sweetheart. We can all hear you across the pier, complaining and bitching to anyone who will listen!”

“Oh, that’s it. Get out. Get off my boat. Your services are no longer needed.” Steve stalked out of the suite and up onto the deck, with Bucky close on his heels. Bucky saw the boat through a haze of building rage.

“No longer needed? Just give me the money you owe me-”

“HA! Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not paying for that train wreck! Learn how to do your job!”

“Learn how to do my job? This, coming from the trust fund kid who I’ve watched lay around on this damned boat with kale or some such shit on your face-”

“Kelp. It’s kelp.” Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky’s nerve and lack of distinction.

“Whatever! You have all these people waiting on your hand and foot, buddy, but I haven’t seen one person on this tub that wouldn’t be thrilled if you accidentally tripped overboard during a storm!”

Steve looked pissed. His nostrils were flaring, and his chest heaved. “Everyone wishes they were me! You know nothing about me!”

“I could guess plenty about you, ‘Granty-Bear.’ I know no one’s ever shown you a good time and made you speak in tongues. You’d never be this uptight if they had!”

“Jesus, the nerve of you! I don’t know how to have a good time?!”

“The hell you do!” Bucky dared.

“Watch me.” And Grant crowded Bucky, stomping on his foot with his Italian loafers before he gave Bucky’s shoulders a shove, really putting some back into it for a guy that small. Bucky toppled backward over the rail, and his breath burst from his chest with the shock of the bracing, salty water as it swallowed him up.

He scrambled up to the surface, cursing. “HolyshitholySHIT! It’s fucking FREEZING! You ASSHOLE!”

“I don’t know, Bucky. That was pretty fun. Hey, let’s have some more fun!” Grant reached for his tool box, heaving it.

“HEY! Those cost me money!”

Splash! His box of screwdrivers and nuts went floating away. His tool belt soon joined it, and Bucky heard Tony from the port side of the ship muttering.

“Well, that didn’t go well.”

“Start the engines, Captain Earl!” Steve cried out. Moments later, they roared to life as Bucky fought against the building wake, trying to get to his tools before they were lost to the choppy, foaming water.

“You’ll pay for that!”

“Have a nice life! I know I do!”

 

Bucky managed to retrieve most of his tools and threw them up onto the pier in about three trips. By the time he hoisted himself up onto the deck, he was exhausted, half-frozen and pissed beyond belief. He was out two day’s worth of work that he could have done anywhere else, and he was further in the hole than he was before.

Great. Just fucking great.

Chapter Text

“Tony? What’s that garbage that you’re watching?”

“Baby, look! It’s an old episode of Cribs. Mummy and Daddy were featured on it, I was about sixteen when it aired.”

“You must feel so nostalgic.” Steve rolled his eyes from his seat at the vanity. He rubbed moisturizer into his forehead, noticing a fresh frown line. Time to go back to Doctor Sampson for more Botox… “Can’t you turn that off? I want to go to bed?”

“It’s almost over, Granty-Bear.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Tony glanced over at him from where he was tucked under the Egyptian cotton sheets in his Armani pajamas. “What’s crawled up your tookus tonight?”

“Nothing’s crawled up my ass, Tony. I’m just exhausted. And that show’s obnoxious.”

“What you call obnoxious, I call proof positive that Starks are the cream of the crop. I enjoy being me.”

Grant made an impatient noise. He closed the jar of cream and put on his reading glasses, deciding to read for a few minutes. He picked up his Kindle and returned to his bookmark, trying to ignore the sound of the television (next to impossible when it had surround sound). He made it a page and half through his novel, when he felt Tony’s foot bump up against his, tickling his sole with his toe. “Ugh, Tony… please. When was the last time you got a pedicure?”

Tony gave him a defeated look. “All you can think about are my feet?”

“Tony. I’m just not in the mood.”

“I can’t persuade you?” Tony waggled his brows as he rolled to face Grant. His hand crept over to Grant’s narrow hip, touching him through the thin silk of his pajamas. Grant batted his hand away, making Tony roll over and sigh.

“That’s why we pay for premium cable, Tony.”

“How you wound me.”

“Tony,” Grant told him, ignoring his predicament. “Where’s my wedding band?”

“I don’t know.” Tony was put out and done with the conversation, already flipping through the channels for a distraction.

“Tony, I think I left my wedding ring on the deck. Go and get it.”

“Pffffffttt… Right now? Not gonna happen, diddums.”

“Tony!”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous! That’s how some of the worst action movies begin. Rich, handsome billionaire goes up on deck in the middle of the night and gets hijacked by Colombian drug cartel. Not this billionaire. Just get it in the morning, Grant!”

“No. I want it now. Anything could happen to it. You don’t leave platinum to get washed away at sea. You just don’t.”

“Then next time, don’t take it off up there,” Tony muttered under his breath as Steve bundled himself up in a lightweight bathrobe, leaving his Kindle on his pillow.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Granty-Bear.”

 

Grant grumbled the entire way up the steps, nodding to the staff as they made their rounds. They were only a few miles out from shore, and the sea was tranquil, promising the faintest rocking motion for the duration of the night and an easy sleep. Grant refused to appreciate that now. “JARVIS!” he called impatiently into the dark.

Edwin Jarvis sat ensconced in his quarters, Beats headphones wrapped around his ears and a mug of tea in hand. He idly conducted an imaginary orchestra as he listened to Beethoven, a soft smile on his face. His employer’s frustration never entered his mind.

It could have been any other underappreciated, peaceful, perfect night. Tranquility and opulence, both taken completely for granted. Captain Earl listened to the radio, focused on the report that a low-grade storm was rolling in from off the coast.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“We might be able to outrun it,” his first mate suggested. “We can make up the lost time in the morning.”

The captain made a thoughtful noise, then nodded.

Grant grumbled to himself. “Where the hell is Jarvis? JARVIS! TONY!” He wandered over to his tanning nook, wishing the crew hadn’t turned down the lights for the night already, but it wasn’t worth it to head back and turn them on himself. Grant bent down over the lounge chairs, patting around, and then he noticed something shiny. “Aha! There you are!” he pronounced in triumph. He lunged forward and reached for it, but the chair was in his way. His reach wasn’t quite long enough. He barely tapped it with a fingertip, and the ring skittered away. “Shit,” Grant hissed. “C’mere, you…”

Captain Earl deftly turned the wheel, aiming the ship west. The sound of the engines roared, ruining the silent night.

Grant lost his footing and balance as the momentum of the sudden, sharp turn pitched him sideways. “What… GAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” He hit the railing, unable to catch himself quickly enough, and he was dragged over the side. He plunged into the dark, icy water, and the sound of the engines swallowed his bellow of rage.

“JARVIS! TONYYYYY! TONY! HELP ME! I’m in the water! HEY! HEY! Turn the ship around!”

To his dawning horror, the ship sped away, it’s fog lights growing smaller, and Grant flailed and kicked in its wake, spitting out mouthfuls of water that backwashed into his face. The bathrobe grew tangled around him, and despite the fact that it was his favorite, he shrugged his way out of it, letting it float free.

Grant continued to call out, until the yacht disappeared from view.

“Fuck… they left me behind.”

Grant treaded water and turned to face the shore. He could see the lights from Elk Snout’s pier. Grant weighed his options. Survival float, and hope for the yacht to circle back around. Swim toward shore. Or.

Or.

“Guess we’re swimming.”

Grant gave silent thanks that he’d become a certified swimmer and diver while he was still attending NYU. It was going to be a helluva long night.

If he even survived it.

*

 

Twelve hours later:

 

“So, he just left you high and dry like that? He didn’t pay you for all that work?”

“Sure fucking didn’t. Screwed me out of the time and labor, the cost of materials, and I lost half my tools in the drink. Hey, Clint,” Bucky told him as he twisted around on his bar stool, “thanks again for watching the girls.”

“Lucky’s still an attractive shade of Smurf, by the way. It’s an interesting look. He’s still hiding under the couch.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hey. Don’t worry about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. Know how I told you I was talking to my buddy at the bank?”

Bucky’s eyes lit up. “Yeah? And?”

“He said if we’re serious about that golf course, and if we have some design concepts that we can show him, then his bank manager might be willing to have a little sitdown with us and talk about funding it.”

Bucky slapped the lunch counter sharply. “Hot damn! That’s what I like to hear.”

“Still need a concept, though.”

“It’s beer and mini-golf, buddy. It’s not a foreign concept.”

“It still needs pizzazz.”

“We’ll figure out the pizzazz when we sit down with ‘em. Just make it happen.”

“Working on it. Hey, there’s still a spot open for that night job at the fertiilzer plant. If you show up tomorrow night, you pretty much have the job.”

Bucky’s shoulders sank, and he threw up his hand. “That’s fine. I’m in. I need the cash.”

“Doreen’s pants are already high water. I told her she looked like she was ready to go clamdigging last night.”

“C’mon. Don’t tease her.”

“She’s not that sensitive.”

“I ain’t worried about that. She might get revenge.”

“Ohhhhh, she will. I have no doubt.”

Darcy swung by their spot and set down their lunch orders. Clint rubbed his hands together and grinned down at his pastrami reuben with its crusty, grilled marble rye. Bucky’s more economic tuna melt promised to leave his stomach growling in an hour, since it lacked Clint’s tower of fries. “Hey, Darce,” Bucky asked, “do you have any potato chips?”

“Yeah, babe. Right behind the window.” She pointed to the window where the busboys usually pushed their tubs of dishes through to the kitchen. “Go ahead and grab one. My back was turned, I didn’t see a thing.”

“You know I’m good for it next time.”

“I know that, puddin’.” She winked at him and wandered off to clean a rack of beer tankards. Bucky headed to the window and crawled through it on his belly to grab one of the snack-sized bags of off-brand ruffled chips. Before he shimmied back, he paused when he heard the TV that Billy turned on while he was washing dishes. The local news anchor, Trish Tilby, was standing out on the pier, catching Bucky’s attention.

“... the unidentified man was taken to Elk Cove Medical Center late last night when he was extracted from the water by personnel on a garbage scow. Local authorities have had no luck contacting friends or family. The gentleman was uninjured except for a concussion that has impaired his memory. I have with me Roberto DaCosta, the man who first spotted our John Doe in the water. Can you tell me how you happened to find him, Roberto?”

“We heard a noise, and we thought it was a… what do you call it? A seal! He sounded like a seal!” The man made clapping motions with his arm and a bleating noise. “You know? A seal! And then he got caught in the net, and we pulled him up, and it was a man!”

“What a daring rescue! Back to you, Pat.”

The news anchor back at the station continued to read from his report. “We have some footage from a brief interview with our John Doe. Hopefully, by sharing this news coverage, he might be reunited with his family, if he has any.” Bucky began to inch his way back, until the camera panned to John Doe, dressed in a plain, light blue hospital gown.

It was a mugshot of that little asshole who ditched Bucky’s invoice. His eyes were squinting with annoyance, slightly glazed. His blond hair was a bird’s nest, not the carefully styled, artful tousle that Bucky had grown to resent whenever they spoke. His face was wan, no doubt from the concussion.

“Sir? I’m here with Action Six News. Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in the ocean so far from shore?”

“Karma,” Bucky muttered, and a slow, wicked smile spread across his face. Billy lowered a stack of sticky plates into his sink of hot, soapy water and grinned back at Bucky.

“Another nutjob. Guy must have been high on something and lost a bet. Maybe he was a weekend fisherman.”

 

“Not likely, bud,” Bucky assured him.

“How did I end up here?” That was Grant, or “John Doe,” sounding less than tickled. “Do you mind? I’ve been up all night in this hellhole, these sheets feel like sandpaper- get that thing out of my face.” Bucky watched Grant Stark-Rogers swat at the microphone that Trish had pushed up into his face.

“I’m so sorry. I just thought it might help if we would get your account of what happened so we could locate your family.”

“Locate a better dermatologist.”

“Er… pardon?”

“That’s the worst collagen and Botox I’ve ever seen. Get a refund, sweetheart.”

Trish’s eyebrows drew together. She looked about ready to cry. “Can you tell us your name, sir?”

“Of course I can. It’s… my name’s…” His words drifted off, and his blue eyes went blank. “Give me a minute… oh, never mind. Just go.”

“And now, for the weather!” Pat told them cheerfully back at the station.

Billy let out a bark of laughter and changed the channel to the soccer game. Bucky scrambled back out of the window and hurried back to the counter. Excitement squirmed in his chest. “Clint! Clint. Did you just hear that news report?”

“Just a bit of it. John Doe? Garbage scow?” Clint messily crammed bits of fallen pastrami into his already full mouth, licking thousand island sauce off his fingers. “So?”

“Barton. It was him.

“Him, who?”

“That Stark bastard. The guy who stiffed me for that remodel. He was right there on the TV! The reporter just said that he lost his memory. Don’t you know what this means?” As Bucky said the words, the idea took root in his mind and bloomed. The memory of the lost money and tools was still too fresh. Bucky remembered all of the microaggressions, the constant complaining about his speed in getting the work done, and the way that nothing seemed to please this guy. Maybe money didn’t buy happiness, but it bought decent beer, and school supplies, and shoes, and a new fan belt for Bucky’s pickup truck and an entire crapton of other shit that he was having to do without for far too long. Longer now, since he’d wasted his time on that remodel for someone who wasn’t even grateful. Where did this guy get off, having everything and not appreciating a damn bit of it?

Maybe it was up to James Buchanan Barnes to show him how.

What was it that Grant had told him? Oh, yeah.

Everybody wants to be me!

They’d just see about that.

“I don’t think I like that look on your face, Barnes.” Clint frowned, sandwich clutched and dripping in his grip. “That’s never good news when you look like that.” Clint had previous hangovers, woke up in unfamiliar locations, and ended up unfortunate haircuts whenever Bucky got that look. And that was just back during high school.

God help him.

“Clint.”

“Buck?”

“I’ve got an idea.”

“Aw, Bucky, no!”

“Yup! I’ve got a hell of an idea!” Bucky grabbed his sandwich, cramming half of it into his mouth as he exited the bowling alley.

“Am I gonna hafta post bail?”

“Nope! No… just… I’ve gotta call the kids and tell them to go to the thrift store. This is gonna be so great!” And like that, he was off. Clint heard Bucky’s pickup roar out of the parking lot.

“Why do I have the feeling I just got dragged into something illegal?”

“Want some ranch for those fries, babe?” Darcy asked him, nonplussed.

Clint brightened. “Please.”

*

Somewhere out over Pacific waters:

 

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Why is it so quiet this morning?”

“I meant to ask you once you had your espresso, sir. But it appears that your husband is missing from the ship.”

Tony had lifted the small cup to his lips, pinkie extended. He choked on the first sip. Jarvis hurried forward to rub his back. “So terribly sorry to alarm you, sir.”

“But… he just said he was going up on deck to get his wedding ring!”

“You never heard him return to bed?”

“I was. Distracted.”

Tony looked guilty. But he pushed it off, taking another fortifying sip of coffee.

“Perhaps we need to take this up with the Coast Guard, sir.”

“Of course! At once!”

“Mr. Stark, sir?” It was Captain Earl, hanging on the doorway to the galley and staring earnestly. “There’s something you need to see. Come with me.” Tony and Jarvis followed him into the reading room, where they watched the news report.

Tony came face to face with his husband’s mugshot. “Oh. My stars. And garters,” Tony muttered slowly. “What the hell.”

“This may explain why he never came to bed, sir.” Jarvis’ tone was bland. Earl looked flummoxed.

As Grant told the reporter to get the mic out of his face, Tony sighed. “Jarvis, prepare my gray suit. We’re making a slight detour back to Elk Snout.”

Chapter Text

Tony gingerly made his way into the county hospital, grimacing at the scents of antiseptic and poor people, trying his best not to touch anything. His chauffeur, Happy, waited outside in the Cadillac, along with Olaf, his bodyguard. Tony was tempted to have him accompany him inside, but decided it might be best to attract less attention to himself.

“Pardon me,” he asked the receptionist, “does this center have… er, a psych unit?”

“We do!” she told him, tone chipper. “It’s a locked unit, so you will need to be escorted in by the security guard.”

The guard approached as Tony signed himself in and took the little temporary ID bracelet. “Nice suit, sir.”

Tony preened. “Just a little something I dug out of the closet.”

“Who are you here to visit?”

“A certain ‘John Doe.’”

The guard’s face lit up. “Are you family?”

“Uh. Possibly. I just… want to confirm it. I mean, he didn’t remember his name. And sometimes the camera can distort a person’s looks. You know how it is.”

“Oh, buddy. You don’t even know. My niece just had her senior portraits done. She’s so much cuter in person than those things made her look. She could have used an Instagram filter and had a better portrait than what she got.”

Tony and the guard chatted casually as he was led onto the elevator, and they descended into the bowels of the poorly funded hospital. They walked past innocuous framed prints and several “Staff Only” doors.

“My husband went missing,” Tony informed the guard, whose name badge read “J. Rhoades.”

“Right at the same time that this gentleman showed up. Wouldn’t that be amazing if it turned out to be him?”

Tony didn’t share his enthusiasm, but he gave him a weak smile, glad that he was wearing his sunglasses and that Rhoades couldn’t see that it didn’t reach his eyes. As they entered the locked unit, Tony heard the familiar, sharp tones of Steve’s voice, which told him immediately that a) he’d been deprived of Jarvis’ special espresso, b) he’d had less than his requisite ten hours of sleep, c) and someone offered him a helpful suggestion of some kind. Any suggestion.

“He’s right through here,” Rhoades told him cheerfully.

Tony heard him loud and clear through the security glass. Already actively ranting, and it wasn’t even noon.

“...I insist that you take me to speak to your director. This is unacceptable. You can’t keep me here against my will, in this nightmare of a semi-private room…”

Tony saw him, clean and dressed in the appalling hospital gown and bundled up under the scratchy looking hospital blankets, high spots of color in his lean cheeks. His hair was unstyled and messy, and his eyes looked slightly bruised, but they were sparking with anger. Oh, this wouldn’t do at all. Tony’s mind conjured the image of riding all the way to the pier listening to that, and his stomach sank.

“And you SNORE!” Grant flung a finger at his neighbor in the next bed, who casually munched on a piece of toast. The other patient paused in doing this to stick out his tongue in defiance.

“I’m going to call my lawyer. Just wait. I’ll sue you down to the last IV needle if you don’t call someone to take me out of here. I demand better treatment than this.”

“Sir, you’re a bit overwrought. Would you like a little something to help you calm down?”

“To calm down? Who could be calm in these conditions? Look at this. These are the runniest eggs overeasy, and you want me to be calm?”

“We have oatmeal?”

“Sure. Now you expect me to eat spackling paste!”

 

Rhoades nudged Tony. “He sounds much better than he did a while ago. He sure had some harsh words for my wife, though.”

“Your… wife?”

“Yes. Trish Tilby, Action Six reporter.” Rhoades sounded proud. “Er… he had some choice words to say about her hair. And… her Botox. He could have been a little nicer, but he’s under the weather. So. Want to pop in and say hello?”

“I,” Tony hedged. “I don’t. Think so. You see.”

ThinkTonyTHINKTonyTHINKTONY

“I’ve never seen that man in my life. Must have been a trick of the light. He looks like Gr- uh, my husband, but. He’s not. He’s not. Nope. Never seen that gentleman.”

Rhoades’ face fell a little in disappointment. “Oh. Okay. Well, hey. Thank you so much for coming by to help identify him. We’ll just have to keep trying.”

“Try really hard,” Tony suggested. A flutter of excitement hit him as he backed away from the security doors. “This is the way back out, right?”

“Just back out the way you came,” Rhoades assured him.

“Have a nice day, now.”

“You, too, Mr. Stark.”

And maybe. Just maybe.

Maybe if Grant hadn’t been so focused on the injustices of his hospital stay, he would have noticed his freedom waiting outside the door.

But freedom took many forms.

 

*

Tony nearly sprinted out of the building, tripping down the steps in his Gucci loafers. “Happy, start the car!”

“Sir? Sir, do you have a moment? We’re just conducting a Man on the Street interview-”

“No time.”

“Well, do you just have a moment? We’re trying to find friends or even an acquaintance for the young John Doe staying here at Elk Cove Med-”

“I said I have a previous engagement. NO PICTURES! No pictures! Thank you!” Tony shoved the microphone away.

Trish Tilby made an exasperated sound as the man in the gray suit and expensive sunglasses disappeared into the Cadillac, and it sped off.

“Is it a full moon tonight? Is that why people are acting like assholes today? Harry, just turn off the camera. Just turn it off.”

*

 

Minutes later, the Immaculata was cruising out of the Elk Cove harbor. Tony’s voice could be heard above the sound of the engines speaking to the crew.

“Mr. Rogers-Stark has decided to leave me. Let’s CELEBRATE.”

*

 

Bucky re-watched the footage of the interview at the hospital as he was getting dressed, and he caught the “Man on the Street” interview. The camera caught Tony Stark, skeet gun aficionado, hurrying from the hospital and demanding “No cameras!”

“Figures,” Bucky muttered. “Coward.”

“I still can’t believe you’re gonna do this, man,” Clint said, shaking his head. “I mean, you could go to the hospital and see if you can get some money out of him?”

“That’s not gonna work. If I’m not family, they won’t let me in to see him, anyway. And this will work out better.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously, buddy. What could go wrong? The way I see it, he owes me. Three thousand dollars. At a rate of a hundred dollars a day, that’s a month that it’ll take him to work it off. You know that husband of his is long gone. Ran out of there like a bat out of hell, and the thing is, I don’t blame him. I don’t know what I’d do if I was married to that.”

“Guess you’re gonna find out,” Clint joked. “I don’t know where you get your balls, Barnes.”

“Quit being skeptical. This is gonna work out fine. I need a babysitter. And Mr. Grant Stark-Rogers needs a roof over his head. He’s a little lamb, lost in the woods. Abandoned. I’m doing him a favor.”

Clint made a noise and waved Bucky off. “God, I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Bucky clapped him on the shoulder, straightening his tie on his way out of Clint’s shabby trailer. “The girls are waiting back at the house. They went thrift shopping. You should see the stuff they bought!” Bucky’s demeanor was gleeful as he hurried out to his truck.

“Lord, protect my best friend from himself,” Clint muttered under his breath.

On the other hand, if this panned out… it was gonna be frickin’ awesome.

 

Bucky arrived at the hospital and greeted the receptionist out front with a sunny smile that showed off his dimples. She just as cheerfully handed him a visitor’s badge and introduced him to Rhoades, the guard, who looked momentarily confused.

“Wow, you’re the second man who’s come forward to identify our John Doe. We were feeling hopeful that someone would take him - I mean, identify him,” Rhoads admitted. “C’mon. Let me show you where he’s staying.”

“Oh, God, you don’t know how relieved I am to hear you say that. Thank you so much for taking care of my Stevie and keeping him safe.”

“Stevie, huh?” A smile pulled at the corners of the guard’s mouth. “That’s his name? I wouldn’t have pegged him for the type to answer to ‘Stevie.’”

“Oh, he’s not the fancy type at all,” Bucky assured him. “He doesn’t stand on ceremony. It’s always been Stevie. He’s a sweetheart when you get to know him.” Bucky inwardly cursed himself for telling such a boldfaced lie to such a nice security guard, but the more he got into it, the easier the fabrication became to maintain. Keep spinning that yarn, Barnes.

“You’re sure this is your husband, right?”

“Positive,” Bucky told him with utmost confidence. He smoothed the lapels of his corduroy blazer and straightened his hair with his fingers. “I’d know my Stevie anywhere.”

“Awwww. You two in love?”

“He’s my soulmate. Light of my life.”

Bucky suppressed his gag reflex at that one.

“Well, that works for me! C’mon in, I can’t wait for this happy reunion. Oh, and there’s the matter of his belongings. His clothing got ruined on the trip here. He landed on a garbage scow, poor guy. But we still saved these.” Rhoades went to a small safe and pulled out a Ziploc bag. Inside was a pair of small, blue silk underpants. Bucky grinned at them, noticing the monogram, “G.R.S.” “Gotta say one thing for your husband. He has nice taste in underwear.”

“Sure does. I’ll take those.”

“Let’s say hi to your groom.” Rhoades badged them in to the hospital room, where Grant was lying in bed, looking pissed and fit to be tied.

“I said I wanted to be left alone, unless you’re planning to transfer me out of here to a better hospital! Or to send me home!”

“We don’t know where home is for you, sir, but I think this gentleman does.” Rhoades urged Bucky forward with a smile. “Say hello to your husband… what did you say your name was?”

“Bucky.”

“Say hi to your husband, Bucky!”

“Who?” Grant sat up in bed, staring at them both. “What did you just say?”

“Hi, baby!” Bucky called out cheerfully.

Grant’s mouth hung open in shock.

“Whatsamatter? Cat got your tongue?”

“That’ll be the first time today,” Grant’s roommate informed them sourly as he poured himself water from a pink plastic pitcher.

Grant’s mouth worked. A range of emotions flitted over his face. He struggled free from the covers and stood, and Bucky really noticed how tiny this guy was in the gown, which swamped his slender body. Up close, his eyes still looked a little bruised, and Bucky noticed a small scrape near his hairline. That must have been where he bumped his head when the garbage scow picked him up, Bucky reasoned.

“I don’t know you. Guard! I’ve never seen this man in my life!”

“You’ve had a hard day, sir. Remember, you bumped your head. Your memory might be a little fuzzy-”

“My memory would have to be made of pocket lint for me to believe that this man is my husband.”

“Baby,” Bucky insisted, affecting a wounded look, “don’t you remember me? C’mon, Stevie, c’mere! Gimme some sugar!” Bucky rushed forward, arms spread, but Grant backed off, putting up his hand. Bucky noticed his wedding ring was gone, along with the Rolex watch. Okay. So at least he had the common sense not to go for a nightly dip in all of his jewelry. Too bad it might have provided the hospital with some clues as to where he came from.

All the easier for Bucky to spin this yarn.

It was gonna be the payback of the century.

“Don’t touch me! Guard, throw him out! I can’t believe the hospital just lets anyone in claiming to be someone’s spouse! What kind of outfit are you running here?”

“Stevie, you went out for a dip last night, and the kids and I were so worried when you didn’t show back up at the house!”

“That doesn’t sound like something I would do.” And Grant’s face twisted up in bewilderment at the mere notion. “And what do you mean, the kids?”

“Oh, you have children?” Rhoades warmed to the topic. “Good for you! Family’s important!”

Bucky nodded, clapping him on the shoulder. “It sure is! And it means the world to my Stevie.”

“Stop calling me Stevie. That’s not my name.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s…” Bucky watched him draw a blank. “I know what my name is, of course, don’t be ridiculous… it’ll come to me in a minute.”

“Stevie Barnes. You took my name when we got hitched.”

“We’re not married!” Grant insisted, looking more and more appalled with the idea as the discussion progressed.

“Sure we are! We got married when you were discharged from the Navy!”

“I… was in the Navy? I was in the Armed Forces?”

“Sure! You still love those night dives of yours, honey bear!”

Grant’s roommate snickered at “honey bear,” and Grant glared back at him.

“You’re telling me all these things that make no sense. You have nothing of mine to even prove your case that you’re my husband. I don’t believe you, and I think you should leave. Surely something would spark some recognition?”

“You want a spark, baby? Well, how about THIS?” Bucky grinned, closing the space between then, and he pulled Grant into his arms, dipped his head, and gave him a hard kiss. Grant “mmmmph’ed!” and beat Bucky’s chest with his fists, and Bucky felt his entire body go stiff as a board. He felt a moment of guilt and dialed it back a notch, loosening his grip on him to give him the chance to pull back. Oh, that did not go over well…

Grant shoved him off, looking pissed as a wet cat. He wiped his mouth with disdain.

“Well, how about if he knows a detail about you that no one but your husband would know?” suggested the doctor, who had been listening in and making notes on his clipboard.

“Like what?” Grant demanded.

A brief memory hit Bucky, and he smiled like a saint. “I know. I know a detail that might help. My Stevie has a… it’s silly, I know it, but he has this really cute little strawberry birthmark, right smack-dab on his left butt cheek! A husband would know that.”

Bucky decided not to mention that the entire Elk Cove harbor knew that, if they saw him walking around the decks in that tiny thong, but the doctor and the guard didn’t need to know that.

They watched Grant expectantly. Grant’s face flushed, and he walked away from them for a moment, ducking behind the privacy curtain. When he was certain no one was looking, he pulled down the disposable underwear and took a good, hard look.

Bucky knew he had won when he heard his defeated, muttered “Fuck.

Rhoades smiled. “He’s all yours.”

 

*

Bucky and Grant sat through a mountain of paperwork, and within minutes, they were discharged. Grant… Stevie strolled out like royalty, dressed in a dark, forest green jumpsuit that was lent to him by the captain of the garbage scow when he was first brought in. It read “Elk Cove Waste Disposal” on the back and it was three sizes too big, but there was no help for it. Bucky suppressed a snicker. “Your chariot awaits, kind sir.”

“Such as it is. Am I up to date on my tetanus shots?”

“Aw, don’t hurt ol’ Betsy’s feelings,” Bucky warned, patting the hood of the battered pickup. As soon as he opened the door for Stevie, Bucky’s two dogs instantly barked their heads off from the seat. They leapt out and automatically jumped up onto Steve, sniffing at him and licking him everywhere. Bucky’s speckled Great Dane was tall enough to put its front paws up onto his shoulders and wasn’t shy about giving him kisses up close and personal. Unlike Bucky, the dog meant it.

“You remember Budweiser and Tequila?”

“Oh, good Lord… I have dogs named after alcohol? Get down, foul beast!” Stevie sputtered, shoving the dogs off. “Call them off!”

“C’mon, boys. Daddy doesn’t want any lovin’ right now.” The dogs hopped back into the seat, and Stevie looked confused.

“Where am I going to sit?”

“Hop up into the back. They won’t mind.”

“Excuse me?!”

“Hey. There’s no sense in being picky. Ride up front, close and personal with your loving hubby and our dogs, or ride in the back. Your choice.”

Stevie weighed his options. Bucky advanced a step toward him, giving him a devilish grin, like he might kiss him again. That made his choice a simple one.

“I’ve got some bungee cords to tie yourself down with if you want. Road gets a little bumpy as we head up the hill,” Bucky warned as they pulled out of the lot. Steve leaned back against the windshield, regretting not for the last time that day that the panels slid open to let the dogs occasionally sniff and nose at him through the glass.

“Isn’t this illegal?” Stevie yelled over the rush of wind. Bucky took a winding country road through the tall oaks and pines. Stevie wheezed a little from the thick odors of sap and motor oil.

“Just hold onto your sweet butt, Stevie, and we’ll be home in a flash.”

“I still don’t believe that I was in the Navy,” he called back.

“You wanted to travel. That’s what you told me back when we left high school.”

“And I ended up back here?”

“Home’s where the heart is,” Bucky assured him. Stevie’s hair whipped around his face, and he fought the futile battle to push it back out of his eyes.

“Oh, God… I ate… a bug.”

“Then keep your mouth closed!”

He made gagging sounds, trying to cough it back up, to no avail. Stevie’s only consolation was that the route was scenic. He could see the ocean through the gaps in the trees, and the cliffs. Flocks of starlings flew in formation across a pristine blue sky. Some voice in the back of his head assured him, At least we’re getting a break from the smog, except that he would remember where he would have lived that even had smog. He tried to relax. The wind blowing in his eyes made him drowsy, and all he could think of was that he was sorely in need of a nap. For at least a week.

Bucky turned onto a back road, heedless of the bumps in regard to his beleaguered passenger in the back of his truck. Stevie could smell pine needles and the stench of standing water as the truck finally, mercifully rolled to a stop. “We’re here, sweet cheeks! We’re home!”

The dogs leapt out of the car as soon as Bucky climbed out, and he reached up to lift Steve down. Steve needed the help, because his legs didn’t feel like they would hold him once he saw the house.

This is home?” His mouth gaped open.

“Another bug’s gonna fly in if you keep doing that.”

“Oh, my God. It’s. It’s. A hovel.”

“Awwww. We haven’t been here that long, sweetie. It’ll just take a little elbow grease. C’mon. Come on in and get comfy.”

“Comfy.” Steve felt numb as he trudged up the steps. He felt like he was viewing the world through a greasy, cracked lens.

Surely, this wasn’t his house.

It was two stories of aging, crumbling wood that looked so old that indoor plumbing wasn’t guaranteed. Steve saw loose slats around the windows, and cracks in the windows themselves. The screen door was torn, and there was a water barrel - a water barrel! - sitting on the front porch. Out in the front yard, there was a dilapidated station wagon with weeds growing under it and several bicycles parked or lying in the dirt. “Oh, my God.”

“It’s something, huh? It’s all ours, baby.”

“That’s. That’s nothing to brag about. This. People don’t live like this. They just don’t..”

“It’s cozy.”

“When’s the last time that you cut the grass?”

“The whole world is our front yard up here, Stevie.”

“Please, stop calling me that.”

“Come on in. There’s someone who’s been dying to say hello.”

Steve just wandered in behind Bucky, sucking in a breath at the sight of the interior.

Chaos.

That was the only word that came to mind when he saw the crookedly hung curtain rods with shabby, filthy drapes. The torn upholstery on the rumpsprung sofa and love seat. The dinette set whose chairs had the old school, seventies metal legs and the strange little detachable caps at the top. And they were rusted. Anything that was made in any form of metal in the living room or kitchen was rusted. There wasn’t even a dishwasher. The sink was made of scarred, cracked enamel. Formica countertops showed signs of distress, and the finish peeled here and there, looking like it lost the battle with the occupants of the house.

“Girls! Daddy’s home! Look who I brought with me!”

“PAPA! PAPA, you’re home!”

The dogs began barking again, and they darted around the room, heralding the entrance three girls. The oldest of the three appeared to be chasing the other two around the room while they attempted to keep a novel out of her grasp.

“Gimme back my Twilight, or I’m gonna brain you!”

“No! No!” The younger two were close to the same size. The eldest had ginger red hair and freckles and was built like a colt. The younger two were tween-aged and had dark hair and murky, blue-gray eyes like Bucky’s. The red hair puzzled Steve.

Everything about this whole situation puzzled Steve.

“Three,” he said aloud.

“Yeah,” Bucky confirmed.

“I have. Three. Girls.”

“Four, baby.”

What?!

“Don’t forget about little Josephine.”

On cue, a little girl with auburn pigtails leaned out the shuttered window up in the loft and grinned down at all of them. She waved at Steve, stuck her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck out her little tongue.

“Nyah, nyah!” she crowed.

“She’s going through that smart aleck phase,” Bucky reminded him.

Steve just nodded, right before his whole world went black. He keeled over without a sound.

Chapter Text

Steve woke up on his back, on the uncomfortably lumpy couch. He found himself staring up into five sets of nostrils… no, make that seven, once Tequila and Budweiser padded over to see what the ruckus was.

“Please tell me this is only a nightmare,” he moaned.

“Honey bear,” Bucky pleaded, “don’t say that. The kids have missed their Papa Steve.”

“Papa Steve,” he muttered. “That sounds like a roadside fast food pizza place where they serve everything with plastic utensils and give you a menu that you can color.”

“I want pizza!” That was Josephine, evidently. “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” Her voice sounded like a pack of freshly lit firecrackers, making Steve’s head throb even more.

“Papa, where did you go,” asked one of the dark-haired girls - twins, Steve guessed, shuddering at the implications, because he was not ready for this -

“We missed you so MUCH!” the other twin insisted. Her sister shoved her.

“I missed him more than you did!”

“No, you didn’t! You didn’t care!”

“Asswipe!”

“Douche nozzle!”

“GIRLS!” Steve gaped in horror. “Who taught you such language?”

“Oh, they probably learned it watching YouTube,” Bucky claimed, not wanting to admit that they’d spent a lot of time with their Uncle Clint.

“Fart knocker!” added the oldest one, who still intrigued Steve with that bright red hair. Her features were delicate and soft, even though there was a hard glint in her green eyes. She had Slavic cheekbones, and if she smiled, she would look a bit like her father.

Steve sensed it in his bones that his own genes hadn’t gone into this child.

Perhaps not into any of them.

“Henh-henh-henh-henh! FART KNOCKER!”

...aaaannnd that was Josephine, the cherubic little angel and proud owner of a potty mouth. She made her voice low and gravely and squinched up her little face.

“Why does she sound like that?” Steve asked.

“It’s nothing. She just loves old episodes of ‘Beavis and Butthead,” Bucky insisted. “You know kids. You try to get them to watch Disney or Nickelodeon. Whatever keeps ‘em entertained.”

“Good Lord.” Steve was appalled. He sat up and watched the children wreak further havok, getting into a shoving match.

“Doreen! C’mon, sweetpea!”

“She took my book!” Doreen currently had one of the twins in a headlock, while her sister was smacking her in the behind with a Doc Marten boot. “OW! GRACIE! Quit it, or I’ll kick your ass!”

“No one is kicking anyone’s ass!” Bucky told them calmly. “Charity, those are good boots. Your Uncle Clint gave Dorrie those for her birthday. Put it away.”

“NEVER!” she cried out. Bucky sighed and took the boot, but she refused to let go. Bucky shook his head and simply lifted the boot higher, effectively tugging his daughter up off the floor in the process. She merely cackled as Bucky walked upstairs to the loft, letting his daughter swing from his arm.

“Are they usually this indulged?” Steve wondered aloud.

“Glad you’re feeling better, Papa, welcome back!” Gracie insisted, giving Steve a near-strangling hug. Steve’s arms froze for a second, then hesitantly rose to return it.

“Thank. You. Whatever your name is.”

“Papa?” She pouted at him as she withdrew. “I’m Grace, remember?”

“Oh, sweetie. I wish I could.”

She shrugged and ran off. Josephine was still chanting “PIZZA! PIZZA!” in the background, stomping around the room in a spare pair of her father’s work boots with his baseball cap tilted crookedly on her head. Steve bit his lip at the sight of her, surprised by the pang of wistfulness in his chest.

Okay. That was cute.

“The natives are getting restless,” Bucky mentioned casually. “You back up to snuff yet, darlin’?”

“Can we be done with the pet names?”

“Aw, snookums, we always talk like this to each other. It’s part of what makes us work,” Bucky claimed, throwing Steve a little pout for good measure.

“‘Snookums’?”

“Well, we could always go back for those other ones we use when-”

“No. No, no. ‘Snookums’ it is. Lord help me… okay.”

“Okay. So. When’s dinner?”

Steve scowled. “I was going to ask you the same thing. Does anyone even deliver this far out of town? If so, let’s get sushi.”

“Sushi? Raw fish? GROSS!” Gracie and Charity both stuck out their tongues.

“Ew,” Doreen pronounced, wrinkling her nose.

“Yucky,” Josephine confirmed as she folded her little arms and continued to stomp her feet in Bucky’s boots.

“We don’t get fancy for dinner, sweetie. Maybe that bump on the head rattled things around a little more than we thought. Sushi. That’s funny. You’re always so funny.”

Steve’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “So, I can’t even expect a decent meal in this hovel?”

“Stevie! This place is nicer than where we left.”

“We moved here… deliberately???”

“Our last place was a real DUMP.”

Steve gaped. His eyes scanned the room, taking in the water stains on the ceiling and the warped floor boards.

“Worse than this??”

“Oh, you don’t even know, baby. We’re so much better off here.”

Steve didn’t even know, and that remained to be seen, but he didn’t reiterate that. “Right. Dinner.” But he paused a moment. “Can I wear something that doesn’t make me look like I was just released for good behavior and six months parole?”

“Well, sure, Stevie. Your clothes are in the closet, on the left side. Go get comfy.”

“Thank goodness,” he muttered.

Bucky chortled behind his hand once a closed bedroom door separated them.

“Great job, girls,” Bucky mentioned.

“My drama club teacher says I’m really growing,” Gracie told him proudly, on a loud whisper.

“Think he’s buying it?” Doreen murmured.

“Just keep it up. He’s eating it up, kiddo. Milk it for all it’s worth. I know I am.”

 

Steve shucked the horrid jumpsuit, shuddering as he chucked it into the overfull clothes hamper that had a broken wicker lid. Would a trip to Target kill Bucky? Or Wal-Mart, even. Steve shuddered again. Wal-Mart. He stood in the disposable underpants for a moment, grimaced, and threw those into the wastebasket. He dug through the dresser drawer, deciding that those were fair game until he began to remember which ones were his. The size medium, soft cotton boxer briefs were a little big on him when he stepped into them, sagging a little in the seat, but at least they didn’t feel so institutional.

Steve turned to the wardrobe and rifled through the left side’s offerings, sliding the hangers down the pole. His face slowly contorted into a rictus of pain. “Oh, my Lord… what. What the hell. Bucky. BUCKY. Please explain this.”

“What’s wrong, sugar lips?”

“PLEASE don’t call me that.”

“Need help in there?”

Steve crossed his arms over his bare chest and made a “talk to the hand” gesture at the closed door. “NO. Just… I’ll show you in a minute. I’m not decent.”

“I told you that we don’t get all that fancy here, Stevie. I don’t mind ‘indecent’ if you don’t.”

Steve’s temples throbbed, but he felt a funny little dip in his stomach at the emphasis that Bucky put on the word “indecent.” Steve sighed and yanked a buttondown shirt and a pair of dark wash jeans off the first hanger. He furiously tugged them on, doing up the fastenings and zipper, and when he turned to check his reflection, he growled in dismay.

“No. Nononono. This won’t do, Bucky. This is… this is not me.”

“What’s wrong?” Bucky waited outside the door. “You sure you don’t need help?”

“Bucky. Explain this.” Steve yanked open the door and stepped out, gesturing to his mid-section.

The girls snickered and giggled. Bucky just smiled slowly, with a gleam in his blue eyes that Steve didn’t trust.

“Look at this!”

“Look at what?”

Steve dragged him by the arm back into the bedroom. Steve stared at himself in the full-length mirror in the bedroom. The highwater jeans were ill-fitting and sagged off of his hips, and the shirt was three times too big. “What are these??”

“Those are your kicking-around clothes,” Bucky assured him.

Steve looked flummoxed. “There’s no way I could have ever fit into these! Was I… short?”

“Well, yeah, honey. Before you had your back surgery to straighten it out. And you packed on the pounds when you were sitting around on the couch recuperating.”

Steve’s eyes bulged. “I was short. And fat.

Bucky chucked him under the chin. “We thought of you as ‘cuddly,’ sweet cheeks. More of you to love!”

To Bucky’s amusement, Steve paled.

“Youve gotta admit, you’ve lost a lot of weight!”

“How. Much. Weight.”

“Oh. About eighty pounds.”

Steve just gaped. He attempted to speak, then failed.

“I told you it didn’t matter. I loved you either way, Stevie.”

Steve made a garbled sound.

“So.” Bucky clapped his hands. “What’s for dinner?”

*

 

What was for dinner, he asked.

What, indeed.

Steve stared at the antiquated gas range and the stew pot that had a broken handle. He’d filled it with water, reasoning that he should be able to boil something. Steve couldn’t recall ever cooking anything beyond a home ec class at private school when he was in eighth grade. He’d never cooked again ever since The Apple Dumpling Incident, and Mother assured him that if he found himself the right spouse, he’d never have to, anyway. Sarah Rogers knew a thing about marrying into the right family and staffing her home accordingly.

Joseph Rogers enjoyed a post-military career as a history professor, but he made his real money in trading securities. When he finally died of an aneurysm, he left behind a wealthy widow and a son that she smothered out of protectiveness.

Not that Bucky knew this.

“You just need to get back to your old routine,” Bucky assured him as they sat down at the dinette. The twins were munching on bargain cheese curls from a mostly empty bag. Josephine was dipping a soda straw into an open bottle of chocolate Hershey’s syrup and eating it.

“Don’t spoil your supper,” Steve warned them. “What routine?”

“You know. Cooking. Cleaning. Getting the girls off to school. The usual.”

Steve’s stomach sank. It sounded abysmal.

Steve reached into the freezer bag that Bucky took down from the icebox - which was completely frosted over, icicles and all - and he pulled out a raw chicken.

A whole chicken. Beak, feet, and all.

“Did you steal this out of someone’s yard?”

“No! You should enjoy this, honey! It’s organic. You like stuff that’s locally sourced, right?”

“This. This didn’t come from Whole Foods, I’m guessing…” Steve’s voice trailed off.

“Papa, I’m hungry!” Josephine wailed, kicking her legs against the chair.

“Better get cookin’,” Bucky suggested.

“And I normally do this?”

“You’re a better cook than your mom was. Sometimes she couldn’t see straight once she started drinking.”

“My mother DRANK?”

“Not that much before noon. You don’t remember the speech she gave at our wedding?”

“I don’t want to, do I?”

“Oh, honey, it was great. It took your brothers and your dad to get her down from the table.”

Steve felt faint. “My mother was a lush?”

“Yeah, but your dad was able to make it to the wedding, since he was on parole.”

“My father was a felon?”

“He just wrote too many bad checks the first time. The bank robbery was a felony.”

Bucky was dying inside. The laughter that he had to squelch down made his gut hurt.

“I don’t think I need to hear anymore.” Steve poked the cold, raw chicken and lifted it up by the feet. He laid it gingerly into the pot of water and tried to tuck all of its limbs inside, but they were stiff and uncooperative. Bucky bit his lip.

This was getting good.

Steve tried to force the head into the pot, but then the feet would pop back out. Steve’s expression was agitated and confused.

“Okay. I can do this. Even though… I don’t feel like I’ve ever done this in my life, but okay. Ooookaaaaay. All righty.”

“Sure you know what you’re doing?”

“I’ve got it.”

“Mmmm, can’t wait.”

Steve managed to cram the head into the pot, and he almost retched at the sound of the neck cracking as he forced it in, but he managed to get it in. Just for good measure, he threw in a carrot and a stick of celery. Broth. Soup, maybe. He was making soup. Right? This was how you made soup?

He cranked the oven dial for that burner, but nothing happened.

“Honey?” Bucky asked him.

“Yes?”

“You’ve got to light the burner.”

“The burner?” Steve looked bewildered.

“It’s a gas stove. You have to light it, sweetie.”

“Oh.”

The girls looked at him expectantly. Steve could have sworn Doreen was hiding her smile behind her hand. Steve saw the long book of matches on the counter.

“Oh, here we go.”

He never turned the oven dial off while he was making up his mind. The match skritched as he dragged it across the side of the box. He lowered the tiny flame to the burner’s jets…

...and the Devil rose up to meet him. The bluish gas flared into a dinner plate-sized fireball, and Steve bellowed in horror and the stark, blistering pain that swept over his hand. “BUCKY! GAAAHHH! IT’S ON FIRE!”

“SHIT!”

“FIRE! FIRE, DADDY!”

“Get the extinguisher, girls!” Bucky called out. Bucky leapt up from his seat and hurried to the stove, quickly shoving Steve back and turning off the gas. He slapped the lid down on the open flame, trying to cut off the oxygen to the flames, and Steve cried out behind him, cradling his hand. “SHIT!”

“Oh, my God, it’s all going to burn down!” Steve cried.

“Are you okay, Stevie-”

Before Bucky could get the rest of the words out, Doreen and Gracie came barreling forward, both armed with kitchen fire extinguishers. White jets of foam rushed out of the nozzles, hitting Steve in the chest and face. Bucky saw it coming and stepped nimbly out of the way. The rest of the flames caught the secondhand blast of chemicals, but Steve bore the brunt of it.

He stood there sputtering, spitting out the flecks of it that landed in his mouth. “Oh. Okay. That just happened.”

“Are you okay, Papa?” Josephine asked. To her credit, she looked worried.

Grace and Charity exchanged smug looks. Bucky looked chagrined.

“That’s a tricky burner. Got a little kick to it.”

“My hand,” Steve muttered. He looked distraught and at the end of his rope. Bucky glanced down at his hand, and sure enough, the skin was an angry red, promising blisters, and Bucky immediately felt guilt wash over him.

“Aw, Stevie. I’m sorry, baby. Let me get the ointment.” Steve looked up at him gratefully, until he told the girls, “Nice hustle.”

Nice. Hustle.

Bucky made Steve sit down for a minute. He knelt in front of him and gently cleansed his hand with a cool rag, smeared on a generous amount of burn cream, and wrapped his hand in a gauze dressing. It still stung, but at least it felt less raw. Bucky’s calloused fingers were gentle.

“Thank you,” Steve told him grudgingly.

“Gotta take care of my best guy,” Bucky murmured. He gave Steve’s jaw a little nudge with his knuckles. His expression was almost tender. “You good?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Okay! So. Dinner!”

...and then he had to ruin it. Steve grumbled his way back to the stove.

*

 

Roughly an hour later, they sat at the table, working their way through Steve’s supper.

“I didn’t know mashed potatoes were supposed to be crunchy,” Gracie said.

“Think of it as au gratin,” Steve attempted, hoping he could pass it off. Josephine gnawed on a drumstick, while Charity made an uncertain face over her overboiled vegetables.

“No. These were mashed potatoes at some point,” Bucky argued. “Nice try, honey.”

Steve glared. Bucky shrugged, throwing up his hands helplessly. “What? They aren’t usually crunchy, is all I’m sayin’.”

“I think you’ve said enough.” Steve began to clear the table, encouraged by the bare chicken bones at least. They’d eaten it. Surely that was a small victory.

Bucky stood from the table and scratched his stomach. “Welp. I’m going out.”

Steve looked up in surprise. “What?”

“Out. I’m going out with Clint.”

“But… it’s late? What do you mean, you’re going out?”

“Honey. Calm down. I go out every night after dinner.”

“Every night?” Steve looked appalled again. That little divot appeared between his brows, not unlike the way it did when Bucky presented him with his oak closet. Yeah, that was the look. It didn’t get anymore appealing with repetition, but at least now, Bucky deserved it.

“It never bothered you before.”

“This never bothered me before?”

“Nope. You’re just gonna hafta deal with it, snookums.”

Steve rolled his eyes, and his shoulders dropped. “Please don’t. Enough with the snookums.”

“All right. G’night.”

“When are you coming back?”

“When I feel like it. It just depends on how drunk I get.” Bucky grabbed his bowling bag and clapped a baseball hat onto his head. “Don’t wait up.”

He took Steve’s look of horror with him out the door, chiding himself That was cruel, Barnes. You genius.

*

“I’m telling you, buddy, that was the worst dinner I ever ate. Barely edible. But I didn’t have to cook it myself, so it was fine.”

Clint snorted into his drink. “Wow. So you actually pulled it off?”

“It’s working like a charm. He’s eating out of my hand. The kids are laying it on a little thick, but at least they get dinner out of it.”

“Buck. C’mon.” Clint gave him a hard look. “They miss Nat.”

Bucky’s lips thinned as he took his next shot, letting the ball fly down the lane and picking up a spare. “I know that.”

“When he finds out, he’ll be pissed.”

“Hey, he pissed me off, too. He took food out of our mouths when he stiffed me.”

“I’m just saying. What happens if the girls start to like him?”

“Sure. ‘If.’ I can tell that he’s never taken care of a kid before in his life. I’m not too worried about that.”

“Never know. They might get attached.”

Bucky scoffed and took a drink of his soda. He had to drive back up the hill, and he wasn’t planning on getting wasted. Clint lived three blocks away and had his Lyft driver programmed into his frequent contacts. Bucky didn’t even want to know what Clint was drinking.

“Bucky,” Clint added, “I miss Nat, too.”

Bucky nodded, sighing through his nose. “I thought maybe things would be better if I didn’t have to stay in the same place. It reminded me too much of her.”

“When we get that golf course up and running, things will start looking up,” Clint promised. “You can fix up the house. Maybe get a housekeeper. Might even meet somebody new between now and then.”

“Sure. I’ll make sure that the girls vet whoever swipes right on my Tinder profile, okay? My four daughters with active imaginations and glands.”

Clint snickered. “I love your kids, buddy, but you’ve gotta be a little more firm.”

“They’re fine.”

“Okay.”

“Hey, I’m gonna get going. I’ve let him sweat it out long enough.” And despite Bucky’s bold claims, he really didn’t want to stay out too late. Josie still sometimes got night frights.

Bucky glanced at Clint’s drink. “What are you drinking?”

“The cheap stuff.” He handed it to Bucky, who took a whiff of its contents and grimaced.

“That’ll work.” He splashed it over his flannel shirt and handed Clint back the glass, then handed over a five-spot for him to buy another. “You rock, buddy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Give my best to your loving spouse.”

Bucky barked out a laugh as he left.

 

He drove up to the house and revved the engine a little as he parked, just enough to wake Steve if he wasn’t still up, because he needed an audience for this little performance. Bucky planned to push him to the edge.

Spite fueled Bucky, along with the memory of the lost income, and of how it felt to spend one more night without Natasha. Bucky missed her laughter and her scent. He longed for the spill of her red hair against the pillow, gleaming like fire in the morning sun when they woke up. He needed to eat her cooking and listen to her corny jokes while she was braiding the girls’ hair and clipping coupons. But Fate was a bitch, and his life went spinning down the toilet when he laid his wife of thirteen years in the ground. Bucky and Being Happy weren’t on speaking terms, lately.

And, hey. Misery loved company. Right?

The evening sky seemed to agree with Bucky. It was only sprinkling by the time he started up the freeway, but it was pouring by the time he walked in through the front door. Bucky darted inside as the rain pelted him, but he put on a show of staggering once he let himself through the door. As though he’d conjured him, Steve stood in the living room, arms folded across his middle. Bucky noticed that Steve was wearing his boxer briefs and one of his t-shirts, in a battered, slate blue cotton. The neckline gaped a little, showing Steve’s knobby collarbones. His body was a study in hard angles and smooth lines. The color brought out his eyes, but Bucky was in too much of a mood to heckle him to enjoy them at the moment.

But, still.

His amnesiac, pretend husband was very cute. Even when he was annoyed.

“Do you know what time it is?” Steve’s tone was clipped.

“Clock’s right over there, Stevie,” Bucky slurred. “You waited up for Daddy. Someone must’ve been lonely, huh?”

“Lonely?” Steve’s sandy brows shot into his hairline. “No. I wasn’t lonely. I stayed up reading Little Golden books to Josie for about an hour before she would go to sleep. She’d dipped a little too deeply into the Hershey’s before dinner, as you might recall.” Because Bucky had let it happen. “I also had to wrestle Doreen’s copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ away from her. Do you know that she’s been reading those awful books?”

Bucky weaved on his feet. “No, but I wouldn’t mind if you did, Steviekins.” Privately, Bucky thought, No, but I’m going to find it and burn it in the trash heap tomorrow. He needed to pay more attention, and Bucky regretted all of his distractions that would make him overlook a detail like that.

Steve stumbled back as Bucky closed the space between them, snaring him in his arms. The reek of alcohol fumes made Steve gag. “What on earth have you been drinking? That’s absolutely foul!”

“What? I just had a little drinkie-poo. And then I had another. Or three.”

“And you drove? Steve’s eyes widened in alarm. “Bucky. No. You can’t do that. Please, don’t do that again. We’re up here in the cliffs. You could have- I don’t even want to think about what could have happened to you.”

“Awwww, Stevie, were you thinking about me?”

“Yes! I mean, no! I was worried! I was worried sick! How could you be so irresponsible?” Bucky didn’t let go of him, even though Steve tried to evade his grasp. Bucky breathed hotly over Steve’s cheek, bringing the stench of alcohol with it.

“Wanted to hurry home to my Steviekins. Missed you, baby.”

“Bucky, that’s enough. You need to go to bed.” Bucky’s hands on Steve’s body felt hot. His eyes, up close, were constantly shifting shades of blue and gray. His stomach fluttered with the close contact, but this felt wrong. Steve pushed against Bucky’s chest to urge him off. Bucky leaned in, as though he would kiss him, feinting back when Steve jerked his face away.

Then, Bucky grinned. “You’re right.” He quickly released Steve and cheerfully told him “Good night!”

“Uh. Okay.” Relief washed over Steve, and he straightened his shirt.

“You get the couch.”

“What?”

“See, honey, it’s your back. You usually sleep out here,” Bucky explained smugly. “Our bed’s too soft. That’s what jacked it up in the first place, and then you had your surgery.”

“But-”

“It’s for the best. You’ll rest better out here. I know you’ll be lonely, baby. I can always visit you if you get lonely-”

“No. No, no, that’s. That’s fine.”

“Nighty-night.” Bucky blew him a kiss from the bedroom door. “Extra blankets are down the hall.”

Before Steve could tell him goodnight, Bucky closed the door on his shocked expression. He snerked back laughter as he changed out of his sodden, stinking shirt.

Worth it.

Yet as he crawled under the covers, Bucky replayed their conversation in his head.

 

Stevie had worried about him.

 

Steve returned to the couch, rearranging the cushions and a lumpy, threadbare, spare pillow into a more comfortable configuration. He found a wedding ring quilt that someone had handsewn in creams and soft greens, perhaps the only thing in the house that was well made and that wasn’t tacky as hell. Steve listened to the rain drum down against the roof. Maybe that would help him sleep, he reasoned.

Out of nowhere, as soon as Steve’s head hit the pillow, the dogs came running inside through their dog door at the sound of a crack of thunder. Their fur was damp and musky smelling, and they leapt up onto him in a pile. “GAAAAHHHH!” he cried out. “Oh, come ON!”

They whimpered and shivered against Steve, refusing to get off. Steve finally gave in and shoved them further down toward his feet. At least they were warm and kept out the drafts; Steve made a note to himself to check the windows for gaps in the morning.

Moments later, Steve felt something hit his face. He cracked his eye open and felt another cold, wet drop sting his cheek. He saw the hole in the ceiling. More silvery drops fell from that weeping hole, and Steve sighed raggedly.

“Seriously, Lord?” he muttered.

Okay.

Okay, then.

*

 

Steve managed to find three saucepans in the cupboard and positioned them strategically around himself, placing one under his chin. The droplets rained down, tapping against the floorboards and hitting the keys of the piano, in remarkably good condition but slightly out of tune. The tinkling notes infiltrated his sleep, and his exhausted mind wove the sounds into strains of music.

And because his imagination was a kinder place than his new reality, the landscape of his mind bent the darkness into an intimate scene. Soft club lights dusted the lounge, landing on the gleaming shoes, cufflinks, and tie pin that the pianist wore a few yards away. Steve always enjoyed shiny things, even on other people. A tiny smile graced his lips in sleep. This was a nice dream.

The flute of champagne tasted sharp and bright on his tongue. The waiter who served it to him smiled charmingly at him, admiring him with a glance. Steve knew he looked good, hair fresh from a trim and deep conditioning treatment, nails manicured and brows threaded. The silk tuxedo was well-fitted and on point, making him look and feel taller. He smelled the canapes and lobster bisque from the buffet tables. Tony smiled at him from the bar before he turned to one of his associates at the bar. Steve couldn’t hear the words, but he read his lips, easily discerning the word “skeet.” Because of course.

But Steve turned his attention back to the couples dancing on the floor. His mother waved to him from the edge of the floor. Yes, that was her. Not drunk. Just sipping a flute of wine, like his, and laughing at something another woman in an evening gown whispered into her ear. She looked elegant, well-fed and happy, and a feeling of contentment stole through him.

“Mom,” he said in his dream. Sarah Rogers - Sarah? - waved to him again with a small, lace-trimmed fan, urging him to go enjoy himself. She was doing fine.

The pianist played “Auld Lang Syne.” Steve watched the ornate clock above the bar tick close to midnight, and the ceiling began to rain down confetti and bits of glitter that dazzled the eye.

Lots of it.

Steve felt bits of it land in his hair, blinking as it flew into his eyes. He spat bits of it out of his mouth, fanning it away.

He jerked awake just as another fat raindrop hit him square in the nose. “Ugh…”

He gazed around him into the darkness.

“Fuck.”

Chapter Text

Steve managed to fight his way back to sleep once the rain slowed to a low patter outside, quelling the torturous drips that kept hitting him in the face, jerking him awake every few minutes. He lingered in the murky, gray silence of shallow sleep, not willing to face reality yet.

Reality had other ideas. Heinous ideas.

A cold splash of water hit him squarely in the face.

“Wake up, sleepyhead!” Bucky loomed over him, dressed for the day already in his ubiquitous flannels and denim, with his hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Annoyance broke through Steve’s stupor of exhaustion.

“Are we really doing this right now?”

“Oh, look at that sunshiney face! Somebody’s ready to start the day!”

“God, I’m living in a nightmare that starts at the crack of dawn.” Bucky tugged the nearest saucepan away from where it sat on Steve’s chest, smirking at its slopping contents.

“It’s time for you to get the girls up and ready for school,” he told Steve cheerfully. “Don’t want ‘em to miss their bus.”

Steve groaned and turned away from him dismissively. “Wouldn’t that be tragic.” He closed his eyes again and buried his face in the cushion.

Bucky sighed. “Well, if they do, they’ll just have to spend the day home with you.”

That made Steve’s eyes snap open and woke him up faster than being splashed in the face.

 

Bucky had to jump back out of the way to avoid Steve barreling straight into him as he rose from his makeshift bed. “OKAY! Up and at ‘em, girls! Wakey, wakey!” he shouted. By the time he raced - raced! - up to the loft, Josephine was already wide awake and jumping on the bed, the twins were sitting up in bed and rubbing their eyes, and Doreen was still curled up in a ball beneath the covers, clutching the pillow over her face.

“Just a few more minutes,” she grumbled.

“Nope. Gotta face the day, sweetie. Up and at ‘em. Time to conquer the day! Get up. Get washed.” In the back of his mind, Steve heard himself telling her, If I have to get up, YOU have to get up, little girl.

“I’m hungry,” Grace complained.

“Me, too! Me, too!” Charity and Josephine chimed in.

Doreen buried herself further under the covers.

“I’ll make breakfast! Just start getting ready! Don’t wanna miss the bus!”

Steve didn’t want them to miss the bus.

Doreen remained largely unresponsive and uncooperative.

“Don’t you want to go to school and spend some time with your friends?” he urged.

“What friends?” she grumbled back.

“Well… surely, you have some?

“Say hello to this little one,” she challenged, and Doreen neatly flipped him the bird.

Steve squawked. Then, he bellowed back down the stairs, “BUCKY! Your - I mean, our daughter just flipped me off!”

“That doesn’t make you special, honey,” Bucky called back. He was sitting on the couch, inspecting Tequila’s ears for mites. His voice sounded noncommittal and amused.

“That was very rude, young lady,” Steve chided.

“Whatever.”

Charity and Gracie peered back around the corner of the doorway, smirking, while Josie wreaked havoc in the toy box instead of going to the dresser for clothes. Doreen wasn’t helping matters with her resistance.

“Whatever. Okay. So, that’s how we’re doing this,” Steve muttered. “All right.”

He reached down and grasped the edge of the covers, whipping them off. Doreen squint-glared up at him in challenge, but Steve simply shrugged, gripped the head of the mattress, and tilted it up at a seventy-degree angle. Doreen emitted a “WHOA- HEYYY!” and slid to the foot of it, scrabbling to stay on, but gravity dragged her to the floor with a thump.

“Rise and shine, buttercup,” Steve told her cheerfully, while still gripping the mattress upright. “You’ll get this back at nine PM.”

“I’m telling Dad,” she threatened.

“What can your father do to me that he hasn’t already?” Steve countered, even though the possibilities made him shudder. “Go get washed, please.”

Dorrie glared and roughly shoulder-checked Steve as she walked past. It was hard to take her seriously in Cookie Monster pajama pants and a Happy Bunny tee, with her hair a tousled, auburn nimbus around her face. Steve briefly wondered if it was too early for a stiff shot of something in his orange juice to take the edge off this drama.

Surely it wasn’t too early, if the gods were kind.

Grace and Charity wisely scampered off. Steve glanced down at Josie, who stared up at him wide-eyed, a battered Barbie in each fist. He planted his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

“Move it along, missy,” he told her in clipped tones.

“You’re funny,” she pronounced, following it with a Beavis-like laugh before she skipped downstairs.

“How is this my life?” he muttered to no one.

The next twenty minutes were abject chaos. Steve managed not to light himself on fire at the stove this time, managing some slightly burnt scrambled eggs and ham, some toast that he managed to scrape to the correct shade of brown and cover generously with jam, and some juice from concentrate that he accidentally overdiluted. Perhaps one could call it “reminiscent of juice.”

“These eggs taste like rubber,” Gracie complained.

“Still better than Daddy’s,” Charity reminded her as she scooped up a mouthful, washing it down with the watery juice.

Steve made a valiant attempt with Josie’s hair, attempting to pull it back into a ponytail. He finally settled on leaving it down and snapping on a little elastic headband to keep it out of her face. Josie peeked at herself in the mirror and beamed. “I look awesome, Papa Steve!”

It still sounded wrong to his ears, but Steve managed a smile and gave her head a brief pat. Josephine gave his waist a bone-crunching hug in return. Steve’s arms lifted up reflexively, the way they might if he was wading into too cold, too deep water, not knowing how to handle the gesture, but before he could process that it was happening, she released him.

“O. Kay.” Steve felt an awkward flush creep over his skin as she hurried back to the table to finish her toast, cheerfully swinging her legs where she sat.

“What are we taking for lunch?” Charity asked Bucky.

“Ask him,” Bucky reminded her, nodding at Steve with a gleam in his eye.

Steve frowned as he wandered back to the fridge. Just as he opened the door, they heard a honk outside.

“Oh! That’s the school bus! Kids, grab your backpacks,” Bucky told them as he inspected Budweiser’s paws, attending them with nail clippers and doing nothing to further the effort to get the girls out the door. “Just gonna let ‘em go hungry, huh?” Bucky asked Steve. His tone was benign, but his blue eyes were accusing.

Oh, how Steve was growing to hate that look.

“You could help me out,” Steve told him as he snatched a jar of peanut butter and slapped it on the counter along with the still-open jar of jam. “How long do they wait?”

“About two minutes. We live all the way up here in the sticks,” Bucky reminded him. “Sure would be a shame for them to miss that bus…”

Steve never moved so fast. He dumped out the remaining slices of bread from the bag, spreading them too thickly with peanut butter; the slices of cheap, soft bread thanked him for his efforts by tearing under the force of the spoon.

“What about snacks?” Josie asked as she bounced on her feet, backpack and jacket on and rubber rain boots on her feet, even though it was a clear day outside.

“Snacks, snacks…” Steve yanked open the cupboard and found a half-pound bag of M&Ms that was already open. “Here you go!”

He crammed a sandwich into each sandwich bag that he rummaged out of the cupboard, dumping in a liberal handful of M&Ms, mentally apologizing to each girl’s teacher for the sugar rush he was inflicting on their work day, but it couldn’t be helped. Bucky really could stand to go food shopping.

Steve handed each girl a lunch bag as they tripped out the door. Doreen glared at hers and gave Steve a dubious look. “Seriously?”

“Most important meal of the day. Go. Go show that dazzling personality to its fullest,” Steve told her.

Doreen rolled her eyes.

“Thanks, Papa Steve,” Charity called over her shoulder. The bus continued to honk, and Doreen waved them down, sprinting down the front walk.

“Papa?” Grace told him, pausing at the doorway. “You’re going a great job.”

“Uh. Okay. Thanks. I think.”

“Bye, Papa!” Josie called, waving with her little plump hand and stomping after her sisters in those ridiculous boots.

Once they disappeared into the bus and it rumbled down the gravel road, Steve took a second to breathe.

Bucky chose that moment to ruin it. “Okay. So.” He clapped his hands. “Now that we got that out of the way, here’s your list of chores.”

“My… what? I beg your pardon?” Steve stood befuddled as Bucky reached into his shirt pocket and handed him a folded slip of paper.

“Just to jog your memory, here’s what you normally do around the house. Figured you might wanna get back to your routine, snookums.”

“My routine?” Steve scanned the list, written in Bucky’s scratchy handwriting. “Oh, my word… Steve’s eyes bulged. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I do all this every day?”

“Well, not lately. I mean, you’ve kinda let this place go, hon. Hey, I’ve gotta jet. Have fun, sugar lips.” Bucky patted Steve’s cheek, and Steve shrank back from his touch.

Which. Was a bit of a shame, all things considered. Stevie had nice skin, well moisturized and with tiny pores.

“I’ll be home for dinner!” Bucky said as he paused at the door, leaving Steve with the dogs. “Might as well go take a shower and get dressed.”

“Might as well,” Steve muttered. He wandered over to the bathroom, closed the door, and promptly shrieked in surprise.

“Watch out for the turtle,” Bucky called out before he left. “He’s a sneaky critter.”

Steve held the tiny green turtle gingerly between his finger and thumb, setting it inside a cup beside the sink to keep it from creeping off. Oh, this day had been just full of delights so far.

*

And it just. Kept. Getting.

Better.

 

After a tepid shower, where he briefly doused himself in the rusty-smelling spray (a water softener or filter would have certainly been nice?), Steve changed into another of the shabby pairs of jeans. This pair was far too long, this time, and he had to borrow one of Bucky’s belts pulled in to the narrowest notch, eventually cutting a new one to hold them up, and then he had to roll up the cuffs six inches. “Oh, this is excessive,” he growled as he hopped into the offending trousers and paired them with a t-shirt whose neckline sagged below his knobby collarbones. It was a bit chilly in the drafty house. Steve purloined one of Bucky’s flannels, which swamped his narrow frame, but at least it smelled fresh and was velvety soft from so many wearings and washings. It gave him scant comfort, as did the cup of Folgers coffee that he brewed himself from the antiquated plug-in coffee pot. It still managed to taste like ambrosia to him.

He no sooner finished it when the dogs rushed at him out of nowhere as he was taking out the kitchen trash, knowing he would need to make a second, third, or even tenth trip to clear out all the rubbish that needed his attention. “GAHHH!” The dogs yipped and slavered all over him, tails wagging, and Steve recoiled at their lack of personal boundaries when Tequila nosed him in the crotch.

“Bad dog! That’s getting too familiar! Sit! SIT!”

Steve managed to find two cans of Alpo in the cupboards, cranked them open, and ran them out onto the front porch. The dogs leapt onto it, devouring it with enthusiasm despite how unceremoniously it was served.

“Okay,” Steve breathed. “Okay.” That bought him about ten-minute head start. He crossed “Feed the dogs” off the top of the list. Would that the rest of it was so easy.

Next: The refrigerator.

Steve opened it again, bent down, and pulled out the produce drawer, promptly wishing he hadn’t. “UGH!” He fanned the air and screwed up his face at the odors that emanated from it. Half-liquefied cauliflower, zucchini and tomatoes formed a nasty brown slick in the bottom where they leaked through their plastic bags. “Oh, that’s foul…” He was glad he hadn’t eaten yet once his stomach had the chance to process that miasma in its entirety. Steve unrolled a garbage bag from the box and got to work.

Blackened bananas. A ketchup bottle with one congealed squirt left in the bottom. An expired carton of milk that turned into green cheese. A science project in an old margarine container - how quaint, Bucky was using it as Tupperware - that had been macaroni at some point. Three hopelessly bruised apples. The stub of a block of cheddar dotted with three different shades of mold. A graying, mummified piece of turkey lunch meat in the plastic wrap that looked like Bucky had purchased it last Christmas. (It was August.)

Each shelf was sticky to the touch, making Steve wince and grimace. “Ugh. UGH. Why? Just… WHY?” He handled each object between his finger and thumb, holding them far from his body as he dropped each into the garbage bag. He tested each shelf and noticed that they were removable, and he brought each one to the sink, which was already overflowing with dirty dishes.

“Where to even begin?” he said with dismay.

At the bottom. Of course.

Steve washed the cheap dishes, many of which were plastic or that strange melamine. What few ceramic plates and bowls that Bucky owned were chipped or cracked. Steve soaked them in hot, soapy water while he attacked the refrigerator shelves with diluted Pine-Sol. At least it helped cut through the smell… The dishes were slimy with remnants of condiments and egg. Even just touching the floating bits of wet food made him nauseous.

“And. I. Have.To do. This. Every. DAY,” he pronounced through gritted teeth. He dried them with a worn, holey dish towel that was almost on its last gasp, hoping Bucky hadn’t put it to less acceptable use beforehand. Steve scoured the sink with the rough, scrubby green side of the sponge once it finally drained (was it clogged? Was it supposed to make that noise?) and some Comet from a slightly rusted can. There. That was. Better.

Somewhat.

The freezer.

A frozen wasteland of unlabeled items in plastic wrap and tin foil. Steve shuddered, before he got to work with a long, sinister-looking ice pick, chiseling his way through the three-inch-thick crust of ice lining the walls. By the time he finished, his arm felt like it would fall off.

The kitchen almost looked like human beings lived there by the time Steve cleared off the counters and dining table. And by “cleared,” that meat sweeping most of the contents into another empty bag. Steve rummaged in the closet and produced an old canister vacuum of indeterminate age with dented chrome parts. An odd, musty scent arose from the half-full collection bag, but it would suit Steve’s purposes.

He turned it on, aimed the hose at the table, and sucked up the debris, crumbs, and at least an inch of sawdust from its surface. That, Steve decided, would leave it just uncluttered enough so he could actually wipe it off.

It was shaping up to be a long day. And Bucky’s list felt endless. It was already ten AM, and he wasn’t even a third of the way through it. Steve stared around the rest of the house, at the acres of board games, piles of toys, trash, dirty clothes and torn, soiled curtains. Out the window at the depleted stack of firewood, the unmowed front yard overrun with weeds and thistle, and the empty clothesline.

Steve shrugged, rolled up his sleeves, and went back to work.

 

*

Wicker was a bad material for step stools. Steve found this out when he stood on it to reach the cobwebs with his duster and ended up putting his foot through it, scraping up his calf.

 

*

The washing machine sounded like the screaming of a thousand dead souls disturbed from their graves when Steve loaded it and turned it on, adding soap flakes from the box. He wondered not for the first time how Buck - how he and Buck - lived like this. How could anyone live like this. The machine roughly agitated the load of clothes. Steve managed to handwash a few items of the girls’, like a soft lavender dress that looked like it belonged to Josephine. No sense in throwing it in with Bucky’s work shirts, which smelled like dead moose. Surely, it would get ruined. Steve wrung it out by hand, and then attempted to dry it further using the old-fashioned rollers. Honestly, where did Bucky get these appliances, at a museum?

CLANK! CLANK! BOOOOOOMMMM!

Steve’s head jerked up and his eyes widened at the sight of the washing machine as it began to jerk and shake its way free of the wall. “Oh, SHIT!” Washing machines weren’t supposed to do that. Were they?

It advanced on him, sloshing soapy water and suds. The thing weighed a ton when Steve tried to shove it back, frantically hitting it with a nearby wrench. He managed to stop it before he ended up pinned to the wall. He managed to finish washing and wringing one load, which then took forever to hang on the wash line.

 

*

 

The chainsaw had a kick once he pulled the ripcord and got it to turn on with the third try.

“GAAAAHHHH!”

The vibrations from the saw ran up his arms, rattling their way down his spine and making his teeth click.

*

To Steve’s credit, that had been one damned ugly scarecrow standing out in the garden. He hadn’t meant to sever its head.

*

No living room floor should be covered in that much used chewing gum.

 

*

By the time the girls made it home from school, bouncing their way inside and asking him was for dinner, Steve snapped.

Bucky found them all in the living room when he slammed the front door shut. “Hey, pumpkin,” he called out cheerfully to Gracie where she sat thumbing through her early reader.

“Hey, Daddy.”

“What’s going on?”

“Papa Steve’s over there.”

“Where’s dinner?” Bucky noticed the lack of cooking smells, but he did notice the scent of detergent. The kitchen actually looked livable, and Bucky could see bare floorboards for the first time since they moved into the house. That, in and of itself, was an accomplishment. “And where’s-”

“He’s over here, Daddy!” Josephine informed him.

Bucky walked into the living room and found Steve on the old, battered and patched recliner. His shoulders were slumped and he was in his stocking feet. Bucky noticed him in a different ill-fitting outfit this time, and he grinned at first, until he noticed Steve’s expression.

“He’s been like this for a half an hour, Dad,” Doreen told Bucky.

“He keeps making this weird sound,” Grace added, imitating it. “B-b-buh-buh-buh-buh…”

Charity and Josie added their own impression of Steve with glee.

“Chainsaw,” Doreen explained. “He had a hard time getting it to turn off. His arms kept shaking even after he put it down.”

“There’s lots of wood outside, though,” Grace told Bucky, offering that as consolation.

“Papa sounds funny,” Josie informed them all. “I like when he says ‘buh-buh-buh-buh-buh.’”

Steve just sat there. Limbs limp. Glassy eyed. Mouth slack.

“Jesus,” Bucky muttered, feeling a real moment of concern. Had he killed him? He only meant to get him back for the lost money, but this.

“Stevie?” Bucky snapped his fingers in front of his face.

Steve made a low noise of distress.

“Buddy? Baby? You okay? Blink one for no, and two for yes.”

He looked catatonic.

Bucky took a different tack, since he was starving after a grueling day of work. “What’s for dinner, snookums?”

“Buh. Buh, buh buh,buh-buh-buh…”

Josie giggled again.

“Okay, he’s not supposed to do that,” Bucky murmured. Steve’s expression was still so blank.

“Washing machine. Tried to eat me. There’s. There’s things living in the refrigerator. I think I found a possum in the lettuce drawer. Or maybe it was spoiled broccoli. I just don’t know.” Steve turned to Bucky, and in a dispassionate tone, he asked him, “How. How do you even know.”

Yep.

Steve had snapped.

“Stevie, I-”

“B-b-buh-buh-buh-buh…”

Bucky sighed. He was really gonna freak out the kids if he didn’t cut that out.

Bucky reached for him and lifted Steve into his arms like he weighed nothing. He smelled faintly of sweat and Pine-Sol, and his whole body was quivering. Bucky felt a pang of sympathy, and even felt a little guilty for what he did next, but Steve needed to snap out of it. He kicked open the front screen door, carried Steve to the brimful water barrel on the porch, and dunked him into it, letting him slide all the way down until his head sank all the way under.

Steve burst back up thrugh the surface, sputtering and gasping. “What the HELL, Bucky?”

“Feel better?”

“Oh, my God… I can’t believe you just did that. Oh, God. This is freezing. I don’t know where this water’s been. There could be organisms in it. We live miles from civilization! I might need a tetanus shot! Or a month of antibiotics!”

“Pull yourself together, babe. C’mon. You’re freaking out the kids!”

“The kids?!” Steve sputtered at him, scraping his long, wet bangs back from his eyes. Those eerily pale blue eyes glared up at Bucky accusingly. Steve looked like a drowned kitten.

“I don’t belong here! I feel it! My life is like DEATH! My children are the spawn of death, and you are the DEVIL!” That was to say nothing of the fact that Steve still doubted they were even his children from his seed. So many aspects of his family were a mystery to him, in this household where everything was in bad repair, nothing was sanitary, and the inmates appeared to be running the asylum.

Bucky gave him a sympathetic smile and cradled Steve’s cheeks in his large, warm palms.

“Honey. We like you,” he told him, as though that was supposed to magically explain everything and erase the indignities of the past six hours.

Steve wailed and sank back beneath the water. If he stayed there long enough, maybe it would kill him. Then, he wouldn’t have to wake up and do this again tomorrow.

Chapter Text

By the fifth day, Bucky realized that he could see the bare floorboards. It just struck him out of the blue when he was cleaning out his bowling bag. The usual piles of trash, toys and debris tracked in from outside had vanished. “Huh,” he mused.

That was a surprise. Bucky just thanked his lucky stars that his “Stevie” was still relatively completely clueless about their marital status, and that he could milk it for all it was worth. Even though he hadn’t worked out the logistics of how to break it to him, when the time came, that he… might have kind of held him against his will. Kind of. It didn’t technically count as holding him for ransom if Bucky didn’t leave a note demanding money, did it?

To Stevie’s credit, for a papered trust fund baby, he actually knew what to do with cleaning products. The house smelled less like neglect and more like lemon Pledge. Steve managed not to light himself on fire again, Bucky managed to reassemble the scarecrow out back, and so far, none of them had gotten food poisoning from Steve’s rotten cooking. (They’d had a close call when Steve attempted to make chili.)

Bucky’s “husband” sat at the dining table, scowling over a stack of bills.

“Whatsamatter, pumpkin?”

Steve rolled his eyes and gave Bucky a long-suffering look. “Did you know that half of these are overdue?”

“Call ‘em up and tell ‘em that I haven’t won the Lotto yet. I heard it’s up to five million this week.”

Steve looked aghast. “Honestly?”

Bucky shrugged, even though a hint of indignance crawled up his spine. “Hey. I’m doing my best. They’ll get paid when I get paid.”

“And then what? What if they turn the lights off, Bucky?”

“Then we’ve got candles in the cupboard.”

Natasha loved the ones from the online catalogs. They all smelled like artificial vanilla, herbal nonsense to Bucky, but Nat always said they “set the mood.”

Steve tsked, but he went back to shuffling through the statements. He had his reading glasses on - he’d picked up a pair of “cheaters” at the dollar store, and Bucky realized that the Dior sunglasses Steve - Grant - had worn on the yacht were probably prescription - and they gave his face a nerdy cuteness, making his blue eyes appear even bigger and emphasizing the narrow line of his jaw. “That sounds awfully irresponsible.”

“Hey. Let me tell you something.” Bucky set down his bowling bag, wandered up to the table and leaned his butt on the edge of it. He folded his arms and stared down at him, taking in the hard set of Steve’s mouth. “I’m the breadwinner in this house. We have to get by on what I make. I know you’re used to living like a king-”

“Am I?” Steve countered, raising his sandy brows.

Bucky bit his tongue. Shit. Right.

“Well. You’re, you’re sure acting like it, pumpkin.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Are you really going to act all Fred Flintstone on me right now? Mr. Man of the House?” Steve picked up the stack of bills and waved them accusingly at Bucky. “Pick one. Pay at least one. We’ll cut corners and move some things around if we have to.”

Which. Was laughable. Considering.

“Cut corners,” Bucky muttered. “Christ…” He tugged on his hair and pushed away from the table. “We’re practically living in a circle, Stevie. Ain’t no corners left to cut, but hey. Let’s ‘move things around.’” Steve heard the air quotes in his voice and dropped it.

“Fine, then.”

Bucky wouldn’t tell him that he planned to go to the power company when he was in town to at least make a partial payment on the gas bill. It would have to do, for the moment. A resentful voice in the back of his head reminded him, This guy can pay all of your bills ten times over without even blinking. You could have paid them by now if he just gave you what he owed for the remodel. Bucky remembered this every time Steve handed him another plate of rubbery eggs and burnt toast and whenever Steve hovered over a sink of greasy dishes, cussing under his breath the whole time while the girls wreaked havoc in the living room.

It was so hard, though.

When Bucky came home, Steve… he just looked so worn out. Bucky still found the ill-fitting clothes amusing, but sometimes, Steve would sneak things out of Bucky’s side of the closet.

“Is that my shirt?”

“Hmmm. I seem to remember that I washed it, using that ancient excuse for a washer out back. And I hung it to dry. And I folded it and put it into the dresser. So, the way I see it, I get first crack at everything in that dresser, Bucko.” Steve’s voice was matter-of-fact and clipped and he delivered this edict with a bland expression.

Bucky’s brows drew together, but he found his mouth stretching into a crooked grin. “Bucko?”

“Don’t like that as much as sugar lips, huh?”

Bucky bit his lip against silent laughter and went back to his awful eggs.

Truth be told, Steve didn’t look too bad in Bucky’s light blue tee. It still swamped his narrow frame, and it was old and broken-in, but it brought out his coloring. It also caused a strange little flutter in his gut. The shirt knew how it felt to be wrapped around that lean, hard body, piquing Bucky’s curiosity. Sometimes, he looked at Steve, and his fingers itched to touch him, somehow. Just a gesture. But he schooled himself against it. That wasn’t part of their little arrangement, was it?

 

Not in this lifetime.

Steve still cut Bucky a wide berth whenever they shared the room. Maybe he didn’t remember his own name, but he remembered that he thought Bucky was dog meat. Once in a while, Bucky watched Steve in the middle of some new, unfamiliar chore, like when Bucky convinced him that the gutters needed cleaning, and Steve would just stop in the middle of it, looking bewildered. Searching his memory. Then, he’d come up empty, start mumbling under his breath about “I didn’t sign up for this” right before trudging his way through it.

Through it all, Steve just struggled to remember. There were so many gaps in his memory. When had he and Bucky even met, again?

High school, Bucky insisted. Through Clint.

What made Steve join the Navy?

You wanted to see the world. You wanted to serve good ol’ Uncle Sam.

Bucky told him all of these things with firm insistence and a disarming smile. Steve wasn’t fooled by that smile. That was the smile that convinced the hospital administrators to discharge him home with this… ruffian. And Bucky always gave him that smile whenever he added another noxious, odious chore to his already endless list.

By the sixth day, though, Steve came sweeping out from Bucky’s bedroom, swaddled in Bucky’s too-big flannel bathrobe. Bucky smirked at the sight of those skinny calves sticking out from below the hem.

He started rummaging through the drawers in the old, battered desk and the stacks of letters on the whatnot shelves. He pulled each handle with cool efficiency and purpose.

“What’s goin’ on, darlin’?”

“I’m looking for things to help me remember,” Steve told him snippily. “This makes no sense.”

“What doesn’t make sense, Stevie?” But Bucky felt a frisson of panic curl in his gut.

“Photos. Memorabilia. There’s nothing that screams ‘me’ in here. There’s just… kitsch, and squalor,” he muttered, flicking his eyes around the room in distaste at the cracked, peeling wallpaper and faded draperies. “Just another day in paradise…”

Bucky attempts to push it off while Steve continues to go through the drawers and cabinets. He grows more agitated as he searches, and Bucky decides to take a different tack.

“Baby. Don’t worry about it. We just lost a lot of things in the move.”

“How do you just lose a wedding album? Didn’t anyone take any pictures?”

Bucky made a sputtering sound and threw up his hands. “Aw, Steve. That’s… we never really had a wedding album. Not really. Just… you know. People took pictures and sent us copies. We did the wedding on a shoestring budget. We were just starting out!”

“So, isn’t there even a photo box?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky mumbled.

Because he hadn’t thought this far.

Steve folded his arms and gave him a mulish look. “That sounds like the kind of thing I would have protected.” He motioned around at the framed photos of Bucky and the girls, and Bucky silently thanked himself for remembering to hide the ones of Nat in the garage. Bucky wasn’t ready for him to open that can of worms. Bucky guiltily noticed that the photos were hung on the wall with precision, every frame perfectly perpendicular to the floor and impeccably polished.

Well. That warmed Bucky, just for a moment.

“Why’s this so important to you all of the sudden, Stevie?”

“Because I want to know how the hell I ended up here!” Steve railed. “How did this become my life? What twist of cruel fate left me here in this hovel and threw me into your company?”

Laughter danced in Bucky’s eyes, but he mastered it. “You really don’t remember, baby?” Bucky leaned back against the wall and tucked his thumbs into the armholes of his tank top, lacing his fingers together. Steve’s eyes flitted over Bucky’s bare chest, mesmerized by the sight of his taut flesh and flat nipples.

But.

But.

The gesture evoked a memory. Steve glanced at Bucky, then at the large closet beside him.

The image of another closet, larger and more elaborate, flashed in his mind’s eye. Small, elegantly beveled drawers. Sliding shelves. Fine leather shoes. Silken delicates.

Bucky watched Steve’s face, seeing his memories drift in that instant, and he realized he needed to distract and redirect him.

Steve pointed at Bucky. “You-”

“Hey, Stevie. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about those photos. Know what? Does it mean that much to you?”

Steve’s nostrils flared, and he folded his arms. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

Shit.

Steve had Bucky over a barrel.

Bucky shrugged. “Sit tight.”

“Where are you going?”

Bucky was already shouldering his way into his denim jacket. “Out.”

That explanation sufficed most nights. Bucky took the sound of Steve’s low growl of frustration with him as he bolted out the door.

“Why am I not surprised?” Steve muttered. “I won’t wait up…”

Steve finished collecting the dirty dishes from the counter and went up to help the twins with their homework. He managed to rein Josie in long enough to read her Stellaluna and three of her cardboard Eric Carle books before she finally started to settle down. Dorrie ignored him and pretended she wasn’t watching “Rick and Morty” episodes on her phone with her earbuds plugged in. The act of reading the simple, predictable stories had the effect of her tousled, curly head sagging against his shoulder where he sat leaned up along her headboard, keeping his voice at a low, soothing drone. Gracie, not to be outdone, wandered over with a dog-eared copy of Harry Potter and challenged Steve with the claim, “I can read better than that, wanna hear me?” and managed to read them all a chapter of Goblet of Fire without too many goofs in pronunciation that, strangely, made pride flare in Steve’s chest.

There were worse ways to spend bedtime. Much, much worse.

*

 

Bucky pulled into Clint’s driveway and noticed belatedly that Darcy’s little blue Honda Civic was parked there behind Clint’s beat-up Ford F250. This was gonna get awkward. Bucky steeled himself and walked up to Clint’s mobile, knocking softly on the window. He heard low grumbling from inside before the lights clicked on, and Clint slid the window open, leaning his tousled head outside. He gave Bucky an incredulous look. “Seriously, Barnes? Do you know what damned time it is?”

“Is that Bucky?” That was Darcy’s voice, all right, just as bleary and disbelieving as Clint’s.

“Don’t worry about it, Darce, I’ve got this,” Clint remarked.

“Hey, buddy. I wouldn’t do this, but I’ve run into a little wrinkle.”

“A wrinkle, huh?” Clint shrugged, but Bucky was running on adrenaline and a lack of solution. In a few more weeks, Steve would work off his debt. Bucky had a decent thing going, and he didn’t want to end it too soon. He just needed to do a little more finagling. With Steve there, Bucky could take on more jobs and have a little help with the girls at night. Just for a little while…

That meant he had to give Steve a history. A reasonable facsimile of a life as Bucky’s husband.

One that wouldn’t send him running for the hills.

“What do you think you can do with these? I need wedding photos.” Bucky handed over an envelope that he’d managed to recover from the truck.

Clint gave him his best You’ve gotta be shitting me right now face. “Wedding photos, Bucky?”

“Yeah. Steve wants to know why there aren’t any.”

“Because, and check me on this if I’m wrong, but… you’re not exactly married to the guy.”

“Yeah.”

“Barnes. God. You’re in a pickle. This is gonna turn into a whole world of shit!”

“You don’t have to tell me twice, Barton!” Bucky raked his fingers through his hair.

“No. I do. I told you once that this was a bad idea. I don’t wanna get into the middle of this.”

“Into the middle of what?” Darcy loomed behind Clint, wearing one of his too-large t-shirts with her long brown hair in appealing disarray. Bucky envied Clint his situation and felt like a dick for interrupting it.

“Never mind, Darce. Go back to bed. It’s between me and Bucky.”

She tsked and gave Clint a little shove. “Know what? That’s fine. I’m going home.”

“Aw, Darcy, no! No! Wait a minute!”

“Fuck this,” she muttered as she fumbled for her clothes and prepared to leave.

Bucky gave Clint a sheepish smile. “Now you’ve got some free time. And you were up, anyway.”

As Bucky came inside, Darcy hurried past him, purse slung over her shoulder and still dressed in pajama bottoms. Clint watched her leave in disappointment.

“Hey. Remember back when our parents were kids, and you had to take film to those photo places to get it developed? Thank God for Photoshop now, eh?” Clint grinned at the handful of mugshots that he pulled out of the manila folder that Bucky handed him, the same one they gave him at the hospital when he ID’d Steve.

“Just work your magic. I’ve gotta convince him that the two of us tied the knot.” Bucky snickered after a moment. “And that we had a honeymoon.

Clint shook his head. “I think you’re enjoying this a little too much, Barnes.”

“What? Nobody’s getting hurt. It’s not like Stark didn’t leave Prince Charming high and dry. I’m protecting him.”

“Bullshit. Whatever. So. What am I doing here?”

“A little creative photoshopping. Anything that makes us look like a happy couple.”

“Alcohol. Alcohol would do that. That’s what you’re thinking of,” Clint prodded. “I’ll see what I can do. God, look at this poor schmuck.” Clint snickered. “This is gonna mess with his head.”

 

*

 

The next morning found Steve in the kitchen, scraping futilely at the grimy buildup from the hard water around the sink, and Bucky sidled up to him, holding the handful of photos triumphantly.

“Look what I found,” he bragged. “Just so happened to find these beauties in the attic.”

Steve gave him a dubious look, but then his eyes widened in surprise.

Clint had worked his magic, all right.

Steve gingerly leafed through each photo, printed on glossy stock. There they were. Steve found himself standing with Bucky, wearing an unremarkable gray tux. Bucky was grinning beside him, showing his dimples and holding his arm wrapped somewhat possessively around Steve’s waist.

“This was us?”

“Well, who else would it be?”

Bucky had no idea where Clint got the stock photos from that he’d doctored, but he was impressed with his work. Steve was wearing his cheaters, so he probably wouldn’t notice the editing up close. Clint managed to get a few shots that looked like they were taken outside at a park, and some of them seated at a table in a restaurant. He’d been pretty creative.

Steve’s expression in all of them was slightly dazed, bordering on pissed.

 

“Was I always this miserable?” His voice sounded dismayed.

“Aw, Stevie, you were just feeling emotional, that’s all.”

“I… guess. Wow.”

“We’ve made it work so far,” Bucky told him.

“Well, this is my life. I didn't marry very well, did I?”

Bucky’s lips twisted. “Satisfied? You were worried we’d lost these?”

Steve gently shoved the photos at Bucky. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Bucky took them back from him, pushing down the laugh that tried to bubble its way into his throat. “For better or worse, sugar lips.”

Please, don’t call me that.”

*

 

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles:

 

Tony disregarded the third noise complaint he’d received so far that week and turned up the speakers. Jarvis served another round of mixed drinks, trying to hide his consternation. One of Tony’s guests, clad in a bikini and using a priceless artifact as a pinata stick, batting tentatively at the crepe paper donkey hanging above the starboard deck with it, whooped in delight as she took one of the mai-tais from the serving tray. Another one pinched Jarvis on the bum, ignoring him when he mentioned politely that Mrs. Jarvis wouldn’t approve.

Swimsuit models danced freely along the decks and leaned along rails, lounged on couches and chaises. The air reeked of sunscreen and alcohol, making Jarvis cough. They’d docked for three days, and Tony enjoyed his newfound freedom with abandon.

Jarvis felt true apprehension when Mr. Stark allowed one of his houseguests to release one of the clay pigeons into the air. Tony cackled as he took his shot, missing it completely. He managed to bank a shot off of the bell dangling across the harbor.

“Sorry!” he called out, while he sounded anything but.

Jarvis tried to manage the flow of food and drinks to the deck and keep the party in check. As he returned to the kitchen with a tray of empty glasses and bottles, he heard the galley phone ring accusingly. “Oh, dear,” he murmured before picking it up. The caller ID told him it was from Manhattan. That could only be one person…

“Jarvis,” she hissed as he accepted the call. “Where. Is. My. Son.”

“Oh. Hello, Mrs. Rogers-”

“Don’t you ‘hello, Mrs. Rogers,’ me,” she snapped. “Fetch me my son, Edwin!”

“I’m afraid… he isn’t in at the moment. Er, he went. Shopping.”

“Shopping? Where? The Bermuda Triangle? Jarvis, I’ve been trying for days to get a hold of my son. I insist that you let me speak to my odious son-in-law, since you’re being so unhelpful right now.”

Jarvis almost felt relief. “Very good, madam.” He marched up the steps after putting the handset on mute. Jarvis soberly approached Tony, who looked bleary-eyed and disheveled.

“You have a phone call, sir.”

“Where are they calling from, Jar-Jar?”

Jarvis grimaced at the nickname. “Manhattan, sir.” He put ominous emphasis on the name. Tony’s expression sobered in an instant, and he made throat-cutting motions, but Jarvis turned off the mute button and shoved the phone into Tony’s grip and stepped back. Way back.

“Tony,” Sarah boomed on her end of the line. “Where is Grant?”

Oh.

Fuck.

“Mom! How have you been?” Tony cried. He made shushing motions at the girls, swatting away the one who grabbed his butt. She winked at him and sashayed off to dance on his coffee table.

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me. I’ve been trying to get a hold of Grant for days. I don’t trust you, Tony. You keep giving me excuses. You’d better produce my only child, or there will be hell to pay, do you hear me?”

“It’s… he’s… it’s complicated!”

“What’s complicated about letting me talk to my son on the phone? His personal cell just goes to voice mail! He hasn’t checked his Facebook, and he was due at my book club two days ago!”

Shit. Tony had forgotten about that.

“I’ve heard that Ronald Reagan biography was very revealing,” Tony attempted.

“Tony.”

“Sarah.”

“You’re full of shit. Produce my son within the next week, or I’ll call the police.”

She rang off, burning with irritation. “We’re going to take a trip, just you and Mommy, yes,” she cooed to the bichon frisse sprawled on her lap.

Tony handed Jarvis the phone, looking ashen but resigned.

“Jarvis. Have the captain set course for Elk Snout.”

Chapter Text

As much as Steve dreaded the rigors of getting the girls off to school in the morning and trying to keep up with the housework during the week, he hated Sunday afternoons even more.

That meant Bucky was home for the day on the couch, beer in hand, shouting at the television in his NFL replica jersey. And on this particular afternoon, he’d brought home company. Steve mentally thanked himself for putting together a chicken stew in the crockpot that morning (thank you, Pinterest) since Bucky gave him such short notice none whatsoever that Clint was planning to come over. The girls wrought their usual havoc in the kitchen, leaving it strewn with toast crumbs and globs of jam all over the counter. By the time Steve cleaned up the breakfast dishes, Josie got into Bucky’s shaving cream and gave herself a foamy beard. Steve managed to catch her and take away the Bic that she had uncapped and poised to drag down her plump cheek.

“BUCKY! What…! Josephine, what have you done?!” Josie grinned and darted out of the bathroom, dripping shaving cream in her wake. Steve threw up his hands and turned on the tap to rinse away the dollops of foam all over the enamel, and then let out a shriek when one of the dollops moved. “Oh, shit!”

“What’re you goin’ on about in here, sugar lips?”

“What is that??” Steve stood up on the toilet seat lid, cringing. Bucky grinned up at him as Steve pointed into the sink.

“Aw, don’t mind him. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Bucky reached down and plucked up the small, wriggling turtle. “He won’t hurt nobody,” Bucky assured him as he rinsed the little varmint under the cool tap water.

“Jesus,” Steve muttered as he gingerly stepped down, but he backed up when Bucky waved the turtle in his face.

“Don’t hurt his feelings! Give him a kissy!”

“If you don’t get that thing out of my face, I’m making turtle soup,” Steve warned him. “Amphibious creatures don’t belong in my sink. Got that?”

Bucky guffawed. “Keep your wig on, Stevie. I’ll put him back in his tank.” He cradled the little turtle and rubbed the back of his shell with his forefinger. “Hey, might wanna clean that up. Clint’s coming over.”

“What?”

“Clint. My bowling buddy. C’mon, babe, you remember Clint Barton?”

“No. Should I?”

“Sure! Good ol’ Clint! He always comes over to watch the game!”

“He does?”

“Yeah. So, go ahead and finish tidying up, huh? Might not wanna leave Josie looking like she needs a rabies shot while we’re at it.”

Steve’s aggrieved sigh followed Bucky out of the bathroom, and he smirked at the low, grumbled string of profanities that followed as Steve cleaned up the sink. Bucky returned the turtle to his tank. “Great job, little guy,” he murmured to it as he set him on his rock.

Steve got Josie cleaned up and changed into a fresh shirt that read “Just Hand Over the Cookies and No One Gets Hurt” and he made a quick lunch for the girls, grimacing as he realized that meant another sinkload of dishes. This isn’t what I signed up for. That thought echoed in his head on constant loop.

Was it? Did he really sign up for this?

Steve let his eyes wander over the living room. Josie was stomping around the living room in a pair of Bucky’s enormous work boots. Charity and Gracie fought over the remote to the TV, until Bucky nimbly took it from them both.

“I wanna watch Captain Underpants, Dad!”

“Not gonna happen, sweetheart. The only thing playing on that TV right there for the rest of the day is football.”

“AWWWWW!” They whined in stereo, wearing matching pouts.

“Girls, come and help me put away the clean dishes, please,” Steve encouraged.

“It’s Gracie’s turn,” Charity insisted.

“Is not,” Grace informed him.

“Then I guess we’ll have no clean dishes for pie,” Steve mentioned casually.

That changed their tunes.

“Pie?”

“Well, I was going to make a chocolate cream pie, but I don’t have anything to serve it on, when all these dishes are dirty, and the clean rack is full-”

There was a thundering of feet into the kitchen, and Steve bit back a smirk as the twins tag-teamed the chore, with one of them standing on a step ladder while the other handed up the clean plates to put into the cabinet. Once in a while, he could reason with them.

That didn’t mean he was still nursing a slight grudge from Josie giving him a makeover the other afternoon while he stole a precious, coveted nap.

*

 

Steve woke up to the swishing, creeping feel of something soft and airy brushing across his nose, and he sneezed sharply. Gracie was waving his feather duster over his face, booping him in the nose with it.

“*pfffft-pffft.-puh-PAH!* God, please don’t.”

“Wake up, Papa Steve,” Josie wheedled.

“Get enough beauty rest?” Charity teased. Grace snickered off to the side before resuming the effort to look casual. Steve yawned and batted away the feather duster.

“That’s not sanitary,” Steve reminded them snippily.

“Sorry, Papa.”

Steve’s face felt sticky for some reason. He wondered if he’d gotten some maple syrup on his chin from breakfast and left it there before he’d collapsed. But it was worth it. Any opportunity to nap, even for a minute, was worth a million dollars in this house. Now, if only they’d let him enjoy it…

Steve wandered into the bathroom to brush his teeth. His mouth tasted like something died in it. He closed the medicine cabinet, still bleary with interrupted sleep.

“This is gonna be good,” Grace muttered. Josie giggled behind both hands.

Doreen wandered down the stairs and glared when she noticed her makeup bag and its contents strewn across the coffee table. “What are you jerks doing with my makeup?” she demanded.

“Shut up,” Charity told her, shoving her for good measure. “Just wait.”

Steve dashed water into the sink and grabbed his toothbrush, giving it a good rinse before he picked up the toothpaste. He growled at the sight of the tube, blatantly squeezed in the middle. What heathens did he live with to have to suffer these indignities every day? Steve coaxed the paste down from the end of the tube before squeezing out a dab onto the bristles. He glanced up into the mirror as he began to brush his teeth, and then he squinted at his reflection.

“What the…?”

Steve bellowed bloody murder.

That sent the girls into fits of giggles, except for Doreen. “What did you do?”

“Nothing,” Josie said sweetly.

“God, you guys are such dorks,” Doreen hissed before Steve stalked out of the bathroom. He scanned the room and found them in the living room. The twins gazed up at him innocently. Doreen clapped her hand over her mouth when she got a good look at Steve, but he still heard her smothered “Oh, my God!”

“Was this really necessary, girls?”

“You look pretty, Papa Steve!” Josie informed him.

Pretty.

“Is that my eyebrow pencil?” Doreen demanded. “That was Urban Decay! I used a whole month’s allowance on that!”

“Oh, so this was yours?” Steve questioned as he pointed up at his face.

Doreen clapped her mouth shut and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In the meantime, Steve’s face was caked with inexpertly applied mascara, eyebrow pencil with little regard to where natural eyebrows ended and skin began, garish brown and green eye shadow, and fuschia lip gloss. Earth-toned, orangey blush was dusted liberally over his lean, fair cheeks. His expression of reprimand was undone by the constant urge to blink, since his eyelashes were stuck together with mascara. “This didn’t just materialize out of nowhere,” Steve challenged, and he knew by her guilty look that the momentum had shifted.

Doreen wasn’t supposed to have makeup.

“How old are you again?”

“Pop,” she argued, “You know how old I am! I’m thirteen!”

Steve had legitimately forgotten for a moment. “You never leave the house with all of this on your face,” Steve pointed out sagely. He folded his arms. Doreen fidgeted and began to scoop up the cosmetics, shoving them back into her bag.

“It’s no big deal! Please don’t make a big deal of this!”

“Well, I should know if my daughter is wearing makeup to school! And just so you know, Dorrie, none of this is suitable for your coloring.”

“Oh, my God. Get bent..” Doreen cut her eyes at Steve and folded her arms across her chest, makeup bag still clutched in her hand.

“We have rules for a reason. We’re going to talk about this once I wash this off.”

Grace and Charity were still snickering, ignoring their older sister’s distress.

“I hate you!” she cried, and she gave Charity a rough shove in umbrage as she bolted upstairs.

“Papa Steve! She shoved me!”

“Girls. That’s enough. Josie. Did you do this?” Steve asked gently.

Josie Beavis-laughed at Steve again, and he sighed raggedly.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Okay.” He clapped his hands. “I think you three have some homework to do.” That was met with a chorus of groans, but at least that gave Steve some much-needed quiet for an hour so he could fix dinner.

Bucky kept glancing over at Steve across the dinner table as he ate his slightly overboiled potatoes. “Why are your eyebrows shiny?”

Steve shrugged.

“Is that… glitter?”

“It’s pixie dust,” Steve lied. “By the way, Bucky, make sure to pick up some decent cold cream the next time you go to the store. That soap you use is rough on my pores.”

Bucky’s brows drew together, and he huffed. “Whatever you say, your Highness.”

Doreen got up from the table and scraped her plate into the trash without excusing herself. “Whatever,” she muttered under her breath before she left the kitchen.

“Hey, young lady, that’s not…” Bucky let the scold die on his lips. “What crawled up her butt?”

“Is she allowed to wear makeup yet?” Steve inquired as he spread his roll with margarine.

“Makeup? Hell, no.”

“Might want to remind her of that the next time you two chat,” Steve suggested.

Bucky opened his mouth, then closed it. Then he opened it again. He looked flummoxed.

“Our oldest daughter has been sneaking makeup,” Steve clarified, just to get him caught up.

“Aw, Dorrie’s not a sneak,” Bucky insisted. “That’s not like her at all. She’s a sweet kid.”

Steve gave him a jaundiced look. “Really, Bucky?”

“What?”

“You have no clue. Go. Go up there and talk to her.”

“What? Now you have an opinion on how I’m supposed to raise my daughters?” Bucky scoffed. Irritation rose up into his chest, making his ears burn and his scalp itch. Steve was giving him one of those know-it-all looks, like the one when he informed Bucky that closets were made of cedar, and that everyone knew that. It chapped Bucky’s ass then, and it chapped it like hell, now.

Your daughters?”

Bucky’s lips tightened. “Stevie. Just… you can’t… you can’t just…” Bucky tugged his hands through his hair, completely at a loss.

Steve had a point.

And yet, he didn’t.

“They’re my daughters, too,” Steve reminded him, and Bucky saw him straighten up in his seat, like someone injected steel into his spine. “I’m allowed to have an opinion. Our daughter shouldn’t be going behind our back. She’s thirteen. She should look thirteen.”

Which. Bucky.

Actually agreed with.

Not that he could actually tell Steve this. Hell, no.

“Steve, back when we had the girls, we agreed that we’d raise them ‘natural,’” Bucky told him. “We’ve never been really firm on ‘rules.’”

“I agreed to that?” Steve shook his head, as though he was trying to shake off a fog. He held up his hand. “No. There’s no way I ever agreed to such a thing. Bucky. The girls are running wild. And why on earth am I not supposed to have an opinion on something like this?”

Because it made Bucky feel like he was lacking.

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered aloud.

“Daddy, you said a bad word,” Josie schooled.

“Daddy’s a grownup,” Bucky said.

“Gracie and I are ten,” Charity said. “Does that mean we can say it?”

“What? No!”

Steve gave him another of those looks. See what you’ve started?

Bucky fumed. He shoved his chair back from the table and stomped out of the kitchen, straight up the stairs to the girl’s sleeping loft. Doreen was lying on her belly, sulking over one of her books. Bucky stared down at her for a moment. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Her tone was a grumble of annoyance, but Bucky was nonplussed. He sat on the edge of her bed and leaned his elbows on his knees, letting his hands dangle in front of him.

“So. Makeup, huh?”

She made an exasperated sound.

“Dorrie. Look. I’m not crazy about that idea right now. I know some of the girls at your school might wear it, but… I think it’s too soon. I mean, a little nail polish, or maybe some lip gloss for a special occasion is fine. I just… I don’t want my daughter walking out the door looking like a Kardashian.”

Doreen gave him a horrified look. “Oh, my God. Dad. Don’t even joke about that.”

Bucky raised his brows at her. “Hey. Listen. I mean it.”

“You never minded it before.”

“I never knew about it before.”

 

The irony of the situation was completely lost on him, but he soldiered on.

 

Doreen just stared down at her book, unable to meet his eyes. “I look like a baby without makeup.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do, Dad! You don’t understand. It’s not a big deal, anyway. I don’t have any friends. I hate my school. I hate that you made us move.”

Bucky chafed. “Guess I’m sorry to hear that, pumpkin. But we needed a fresh start, and this is where we ended up. It’s time to make the best of it. You feel like you’re more popular if you wear all that makeup?”

Doreen sighed. So, that was a yes.

“You look pretty without it. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

“I still wanna wear it.”

“Hey. We’ll revisit this. But… look. If girls are being mean to you because you don’t wear makeup, then they might not be worth hanging out with.”

Doreen’s lip quivered.

“Pumpkin-”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Dorrie-”

“I want Mom,” she muttered.

Bucky deflated. “Sweetheart, I do, too.”

“Can you leave, now?”

“All right.” He rose from the bed, at once feeling obtrusive and like an interloper in the girlish bedroom. Bucky scrubbed his palms on the legs of his jeans and peered around the room. “But I’m taking this with me.” He reached for the makeup bag, earning himself his daughter’s glare.

“Fine, then.”

“It’s not fine. You did this without asking permission. And, y’know what? Steve… “ Bucky glanced at the doorway, and then he knelt down, closing the distance between them. “He’s not your dad,” Bucky murmured, “but just… you have to listen to him.”

Her expression was incredulous. “What?”

“I mean it. He was right about this. I love you, Doreen. Okay? I know you’re thirteen, and you think that’s grown up, but you’re still a kid. I’m still your dad.” The inklings of a conversation that Bucky had been meaning to have with her drifted into Bucky’s consciousness, and the words found their way into his mouth. “You helped me take really good care of your sisters after we lost your mom. If I didn’t tell you that before, I wanna tell you that now, Doreen. You don’t have to worry about that, now. I’m… I’m getting used to this. Okay? I just. I don’t want you to grow up too fast. That’s not fair to you.”

“We can get by fine without him,” she insisted.

“But isn’t it nice to have a little help?” he urged.

“Not if he’s just gonna tell me what to do.” That was said with a pout.

Bucky’s smile was lopsided. “I didn’t say you had to give him an easy time,” he allowed. “I mean, he does kinda have a stick up his butt.”

Doreen’s lips twisted and she scrunched her nose in agreement.

“We good?”

“Yeah. We’re good.”

“I love you.” Bucky kissed her forehead and ruffled her hair, making her swat at his hand.

Bucky headed downstairs. Steve pretended he wasn’t straining to hear their conversation at the sink as he washed the dishes. Bucky decided he needed to continue his act for the sake of being consistent. He reached for his jacket, taking it off the peg and shrugging into it.

“Where are you going?” Steve asked.

“Out. Don’t wait up.”

But then, he walked up to Steve and poked him in the side with a soft object. “Hey. Hide this when you have a second.” Steve barely had the chance to dry his soapy hands on a dishtowel before he clutched at the thing Bucky shoved at him.

Doreen’s makeup bag.

Bucky shrugged, and he gently clapped Steve on the shoulder. Steve didn’t shrink from his touch. He looked for Bucky’s earlier disdain, searching for it, but he found none in those blue-gray eyes.

“Thanks for dinner, baby doll.”

“Oh, with praise like that, I don’t need diamond rings.”

Bucky snorted, and he clapped Steve’s shoulder again before he turned and left.

Steve felt a brief sense of satisfaction as he glanced down at the makeup bag.

“Okay,” he said to himself. “Okay.”

 

*

It almost felt like a victory. Slightly.

Yet, Steve felt like he’d made it almost to the top of the hill, only for his boulder to slip from his hands and tumble back to the bottom.

Clinton Francis Barton.

Dear God.

It was like listening to Bucky in stereo.

The two of them just sat there, sprawled in every direction across the furniture, munching on handfuls of snacks and gulping beer from the bottle - “Grant” was never much of a beer drinker, and on those rare occasions, he only condescended to drink microbrews from a chilled glass - constantly yelling at the screen, belching, and scratching themselves in places that he shuddered to think about.

“Who are we rooting for?” Steve inquired.

“What? Who do ya think?” Clint laughed outright, waving his beer at the screen and sloshing a little out of the bottle, onto Steve’s freshly polished side table.

“You’re both wearing different jerseys,” Steve pointed out.

“Look, Stevie. The Eagles are Clint’s team. The Giants are my team. But Clint still watches all the Giants games when they come on.”

“Yeah. So I can talk shit when your shitty team loses,” Clint reminded him.

“So. You watch football. Even when it’s… a team… you hate?”

“Duh,” Clint prodded. He gulped down the rest of the bottle and let out a belch that made Steve wish he could rip off his ears. “Hey, Bucko, toss me another.”

On the other side of the living room, Charity, Gracie and Doreen played a rousing game of Monopoly and fought over each other’s real estate purchases. Steve managed to catch Josie before she could get into the chocolate syrup bottle again, because he didn’t want to deal with the resultant sugar rush and shenanigans.

“No fair,” she pouted, folding her chubby arms.

“Not before dinner, sweetheart. Don’t want you to spoil it.”

“It’ll still taste like crap,” Charity muttered under her breath.

“What was that?” Steve planted his hands on his hips.

“Uh, she said she can’t wait for how delicious it’s gonna taste, Papa Steve,” Grace called over sweetly.

“Uh-huh.” Steve made “I’m watching you” motions with his fingers before he retreated back into the kitchen.

Supper went about how he could have predicted it. The girls actually ate the stew without overt complaint (“What’s this weird green stuff?” “That’s basil, sweetheart. And oregano. Please, just eat it.”)

Clint had no reservations. He just shoveled it all down like a truck driver, occasionally licking his fingers. “It ain’t bad,” he murmured.

“You’re too kind,” Steve deadpanned, watching him eat in silent horror. He handed Clint a paper towel, hoping that he at least knew what to do with it. Clint obliged him, wiping off his chin with it and shooting Steve a wink.

The dinner felt like it would last forever. Clint continued to carry on the conversation, even with his mouth full, but at least he was jovial.

“I’m liking what you guys have done with the place,” Clint told Steve.

“Oh. Yes. I bought some new curtains to give it a little-”

“You cleaned it,” Clint pronounced.

Steve was chastened. “Yes.”

Clint leaned over and clapped Bucky’s arm. “Somebody’s getting spoiled.”

“Gotta live like a king in my castle,” Bucky agreed.

Steve shot Bucky a glare. Bucky shrugged and snickered.

Well. If that was how he wanted to play it.

The girls dawdled at the table and swapped knock-knock jokes with “Uncle Clint,” most of which were real stinkers. Clint and Bucky rambled on endlessly about football and bowling scores while Steve attempted to do damage control in the kitchen, clearing away empty beer bottles and setting dirty dishes in the sink to soak.

Clint burped again. “That was great!”

Charity answered him with a burp of her own.

“Ooh! Nice one!”

“Charity, sweetie, that’s not… that’s not polite,” Steve chided.

“What? She’s just thanking the chef!” Bucky countered.

Steve’s expression was pained. “Is this how you would behave to have dinner with the Queen of England?” He didn’t remember who it was who used to ask him that when he was growing up, but Steve knew that was the token response whenever his table etiquette slipped.

“I had dinner with the Queen of the Roller Derby, once,” Clint mentioned. “She could open beer bottles with her teeth. God, what a woman.”

“Sounds like a keeper,” Bucky agreed.

Steve scrubbed his face with his palm and simply turned away.

Bucky and Clint headed back out to the living room and resumed their game. Bucky propped his feet up on the coffee table. He was wearing a battered, dingy pair of white socks that had a hole in the toe. Steve wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“Hey. Stevie. C’mere. Come and work your magic.”

“Excuse me?”

“C’mon. You know I love it when you rub my tooties.”

“You. You want me to rub your feet?”

Steve looked like Bucky had asked him to eat a cockroach.

“C’mon. You know I love your foot rubs, sugar bear,” Bucky cajoled. Clint’s eyebrows nearly flew into his hairline, and he almost choked on a sip of beer. “I’ve been working on my feet all week long. Sure would love it if somebody rubbed my feet to help me unwind.”

That strange mixture of flattery, guilt trip, and horse shit, as well as how mystified Steve felt at the mere concept of administering a foot rub, of all things, chipped away at Steve’s resolve.

“I give good foot rubs?” He didn’t quite believe it.

“Sure do.”

Clint watched “Stevie” take the bait and tug Bucky’s foot into his lap. He squeezed and kneaded it awkwardly, yet Bucky made a low groan of appreciation. Bucky caught Clint’s look of surprise and winked at him.

“You sly dog, you,” Clint mouthed at him before he took another pull of his beer.

This is what I’m talking about.

Bucky’s little payback venture was paying off. It wasn’t just about the money anymore. It was about this. There was something satisfying about Steve - Grant - waiting on Bucky and doing all the things that he used to order his staff to do while he just sat around, useless and pretty, never so much as lifting a finger. If the girls got three squares and homework help and bedtime stories out of it, and if the house was less of a pigsty, then what was the harm? Bucky was very pleased with himself at the moment, even if foot rubs weren’t Steve’s strong suit.

Give him time.

Bucky had to check himself. His smugness was leaking into his expression.

“Bucky,” Steve whispered. “What’s with Clint?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Why does he keep staring at me like that?”

“Staring? Oh. Pffffttt… it’s no big deal. You two used to date.” That lie came to Bucky in an instant, because he loved pushing Steve a little closer to the edge.

Steve jerked around to stare at Clint, who was scratching his stomach. He let out a deep belch. “Whoof. Dumplings,” he muttered.

Steve looked horrified. And fascinated.

“You two were pretty hot and heavy,” Bucky reminded him. “You were pretty broken up about it when he dumped you, sweetheart, but that paved the way for you and me, so it all worked out.”

“Wow.”

In the kitchen, the girls convened.

“Look what I found,” Charity told her sisters, holding up the super glue. “This was in Dad’s tool kit.”

“What’re you going to do with it?” Gracie wanted to know. Charity’s eyes were dancing.

“Just a minute. This is gonna be so great.”

Doreen popped her head out of the kitchen. “Hey, Pop, do we have any dessert?”

“I could go for some brownies,” Bucky agreed. Steve paused in rubbing his feet and looked dismayed.

“I didn’t make brownies. I don’t have anything left to make them.”

“How about chocolate cream pie?” Charity called innocently.

Steve set down Bucky’s foot, and Bucky felt bereft at the loss of contact. Steve’s fingers were strong, and his lap was a comfortable place for his foot to rest. Bucky’s body had begun to relax with the firm kneading of his feet and Steve’s light tugs on his toes, and it was almost jarring when Steve got up.

“I did make a chocolate cream pie,” Steve told her.

“Well, maybe you should hustle that sweet little fanny of yours into the kitchen to get us some,” Bucky suggested. His face was smug, and Steve cut his eyes toward him.

“My ‘sweet little fanny?’ You’re treading on thin ice, mister.”

Bucky’s eyes were dancing. He was enjoying this too much. Clint watched the exchange, wishing he had popcorn.

Bucky leaned upright, reached out, and swatted Steve on the ass. “Hop to it, Stevie. We’re dying for pie over here.”

Ohhhhhh, Steve was just about done. It wouldn’t take much more. Just. One. Last.

Straw.

The girls were giggling in the kitchen while Bucky was laying down the law. Charity had the tube of glue uncapped, and she was liberally smearing a trail of the clear, acrid-smelling goo onto the bottom of a dinner plate. She managed to give a second plate the same treatment before setting it back into the cabinet. The girls scurried back into the living room after Charity chucked the glue back into Bucky’s tool kit. Steve muttered to himself the whole way into the kitchen.

“Who does he think he is?” Steve yanked open the refrigerator and found the pie, appetizing and perfectly decorated with pristine puffs of whipped cream and shavings of chocolate. It had been his finest effort to date, and it seemed a shame to waste it on Clint… Steve’s appetite deserted him when he faced the prospect of watching him eat again.

He wasn’t a bad person, Steve mused. Just… uncouth. Unpolished. Rough around the edges. Steve’s husband kept company with such interesting characters, and he was a character, himself.

Steve set the pie on the table, and he reached for the stack of plates. He took down two of them and attempted - attempted! - to set them on the table.

“What the…?”

The plates clung to his palms. Steve tried to set them down, but he couldn’t release them. He gave each hand a firm shake. Then another. The plates stuck fast to his palms, and outrage rose bright and sharp in his chest.

“GIRLS!”

Bucky heard his bellow and jerked upright in his seat. Clint stared at him, eyes wide.

“Dude? What’s with your husband?” he asked, looking a little scared.

“Got me.”

“Who did this? Which one of you did this?” Steve stormed into the living room, waving his hands around. Bucky wondered what his beef was, until he noticed the problem.

He chuckled outright. “Oh, wow.”

“This isn’t funny,” Steve told him, but the girls were giggling from around the edge of the stairs. “You think this is funny?”

“Aw, Stevie, you’ve gotta lighten up.”

“Lighten up?! This is what I get for cooking and cleaning, and trying to restore some sense of order to this-”

“Steve. Remember, pumpkin, we have company.”

And just to add insult to injury, Josie, who had found the chocolate syrup bottle, ran up to Steve and squirted a healthy river of it onto Steve’s shirt.

“Papa has plates on his hands!”

Steve had such a dead look in his eyes. “Really?”

Josie darted off.

“C’mon, girls, that’s enough. Don’t do that to your pop,” Bucky scolded.

“Really, Bucky? What are you even blustering about? You never punish them. You won’t do anything about this,” Steve snapped. “Aren’t you even grateful?”

“Hey, I appreciate you! I wouldn’t mind a little appreciation myself, sometimes. And somebody promised me dessert, last time I checked. “None of this ever bothered you before. You need to lighten up, Stevie. C’mon. You used to have a sense of humor.” And Bucky realized this claim was patently false, knowing what he knew about “Grant.” He’d been humorless and uptight, pinched and tight-assed about every little detail, and nothing ever pleased him.

“A sense of humor? Well, that’s news to me. And you know what? It bothers me now.” Steve threw up his hands, a comical gesture while he still had the plates firmly attached to his hands like flippers.

Clint and Bucky snorted with laughter.

Steve turned on his heel and headed back into the kitchen.

“You told him,” Clint muttered. “Be careful, though. He looked like he might smother you in your sleep.”

“Nah. He’ll be fine. I’ve got him where I want him. The girls are just messing with him.”

“C’mon. Bucky.” Clint reached over and socked Bucky in the shoulder. “Take it easy on him. I know the girls like to play around, but they need to go easy on the pranks. Nat wouldn’t have liked letting the girls run this wild. And, hey. Lucky? My dog? He’s still blue. It’s fading, but remember that your girls did that. There’s just messing around, and then there’s destructive.”

That sobered Bucky. “Yeah. Man. Clint. I’m sorry. You’re right. Lucky’s a good dog. He didn’t deserve that.”

“Yeah. Well. He can pull of blue, but not just everybody can. Rein them in a little. Pay attention.”

“Hey,” Bucky mentioned, changing the subject. “Let me have one of your beers.”

“I’ve only got two left,” Clint argued.

Bucky grinned. “We’ll just have to send the husband out to get more.”

Clint slapped off the cap to his bottle and took a smug sip, nodding in agreement.

The girls huddled around their father, still snickering over their prank.

Steve returned calmly to the living room. He hovered over Bucky, still carrying the plates. He bent down with a smile that was almost serene, and that, frankly, frightened Bucky a little.

“Your chocolate cream pie.” Steve neatly slid the pie dish down to Bucky’s lap and smoothly backed away.

That was almost civil. The girls were even silent with anticipation. Clint’s beer hovered by his lips unsipped.

But Steve just left the room.

“Guess we can’t really ask Steve to get us some plates,” Bucky realized. “Dig in, girls.” Bucky managed to cut himself a slice of it with his pocket knife, and Josie and the twins eagerly accepted their portions. All of them made a mess of it as they ate.

“S’gut,” Clint mumbled around a mouthful.

“Not too shabby, eh?”

Steve let his family and houseguest distract themselves with the pie while he wandered outside. Steve managed to unhook the long garden hose from its holster and fed it through the window, not unlike his first night at the house, when he’d needed the extra water pressure to wash off all that caked on grime from the dishes, because Bucky had let his housekeeping slip while Steve was at the hospital… or wherever the hell he’d been. Steve’s memories were still foggy, but he knew, deep down, that he’d never been “okay with all of this before.”

Seriously, Bucky.

The idea, when it came to him, glimmered and spilled into his consciousness like a single drop of rain into a pond, causing ripples.

They were raising the children “natural?” With no rules?

Oh, but Bucky.

There were rules.

First rule: If Papa ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Steve entered the living room, smiling again. “Sugar lips?”

His tone of voice should have been warning enough. But Bucky was stuffed, buzzed, and relaxed from his foot rub, and he never saw this coming. “Yeah, Stevie?”

“Fire, fire, FIRE!” Steve sang, and he managed to squeeze the trigger on the hose and let loose with the icy spray of water at full blast, earning himself stunned shrieks from the girls and Clint’s panicked, “Holy SHIT!”

“What the…!!!” Bucky was hit by a barrage of water as Steve flicked the hose, waving it back and forth. How the hell was he managing that with the plates still glued to his hands? Listen to that little shit! He was laughing his ass off.

It hit Bucky then that he’d never heard Steve laugh before.

Not just chuckling, either. Steve was getting his own back and full-on cackling at Bucky’s expense, blue eyes bright and crinkling. The girls were shrieking and trying to hide behind the furniture, to no avail. Steve got them too, and Bucky heard them laughing, too, just from disbelief.

“Daddy, I’m getting wet!” Josie cried, but she didn’t sound like that was a problem.

“Jesus, this is just like that weekend I had in Budapest again,” Clint muttered.

That was a story Bucky wanted to hear one of these days, when his pretend husband wasn’t trying to drown him. Bucky was soaked from head to foot, with his hair hanging in lank hanks around his ruddy, dripping face. His expression held challenge in it, and Steve knew he’d misstepped.

“Oh, it’s on,” he muttered, and when he said that, Steve’s smile suddenly dropped. “Get him, girls!”

“Oh, shit!” Steve doubled back, dropping the hose as he darted out the front door. But he was laughing breathlessly, stumbling over the grass as he ran behind the house. His heart hammered in his chest. The girls looked like drowned kittens, and he knew he was in for it.

But it was worth it. Oh, God, it had been worth it.

Steve hurried off into the brush, and he heard the girls scrambling after him. “He went that way!” That was Josie, because of course she would rat him out, the little stinker. Steve crouched behind some bushes and waited. “We’re going to find you, Papa Steve!”

“And we’ll take sweet, sweet revenge!” Charity sounded determined. “Come out where we can see you!”

Steve had them in his sights. Doreen was armed with a Super Soaker, and why wasn’t he surprised. Charity and Grace brandished Nerf foam dart guns at the ready. Steve realized he was jealous that he was unarmed and at a distinct disadvantage. Josie was the only one who wasn’t packing, and Steve realized she might be his ace in the hole. They girls kept hunting for him, and he kept ducking back into the brush, sizing up his opportunity.

He leapt out and pounced on Josie, scooping her into his arms. “I gotcha!”

“HELP ME! HELP ME!” she shrieked, all giggles at being snared.

“You can’t get me without getting her,” Steve told her sisters, who looked smug.

“Let our sister go!” Charity cried.

“NEVER!” Steve pealed off a dramatic laugh for effect, and Josie swatted at his hands, futilely smacking at the plates.

But the girls got him anyway, making Steve and Josie sputter as they hit him with Super Soaker spray and foam darts.

“Don’t shoot ME!” Josie cried.

“She’s right,” Grace told them.

“We’ll just have to get personal,” Doreen pronounced soberly. “Let’s tickle him.”

“Oh, shit!” Steve yelped again, and this time he set Josie down and ran off again, but the girls overtook him and tackled him. Grace and Josie dragged him down by the knees, and Charity attacked his ribs with grabby little fingers. The five of them were a screeching, giggling pile, and Steve yelped again at the feel of underbrush poking him anywhere that he had exposed skin.

That was how Bucky found them moments later. He just threw up his hands. The kids were damp and filthy, but their cheeks were flushed with laughter, and Steve just…

Just finally looked looser limbed and less drawn around the eyes. He was smiling. It changed his whole face.

It made Bucky think unlikely thoughts. But, he cleared his throat and beckoned to them all.

“We had a dinner guest,” he reminded them as the girls helped Steve to his feet.

“I’m on my way out,” Clint called out as he tramped down the porch steps. “Thanks for the lovely dinner!”

“Good night, Clint!” Steve called back, waving to him with the plate. Clint’s face scrunched up at the sight, and he saluted him as he climbed into his pickup.

“God, Barnes has his hands full,” he muttered.

Chapter Text

To Bucky’s credit, he herded the girls off to the shower to get washed up while Steve worked on freeing his hands from the plates. He went out front and bashed them against the front porch, regretting that they were two of the only ceramic dishes left in the cupboard. He swore at the sting of the impact, but at least he had the use of his fingers again. “Bucky? Do we have any nail polish remover?” Steve called out.

“I do,” Doreen replied. “In the bathroom, in the bottom cabinet.”

“Thank you, baby.”

“You’re welcome.” Her voice sounded conciliatory, and Steve sighed to himself. Okay. Maybe she didn’t totally hate him at the moment. Steve found the acetone-based remover and went to work on his fingers, working off the rest of the glue and plate fragments, tsking over the wasted dishes. By the time he managed to wash his hands, throw out the decimated remainder of the pie and begin mopping the damp living room, Bucky made his way back downstairs. He stared at the carnage, sighing and tugging on the back of his hair. He huffed a laugh at Steve’s disheveled state.

“Look at you,” he chuckled.

Steve tsked. “You had it coming, buddy.”

“Oh, I had it coming?”

“Yes. Yes, you did.”

“For what?” Bucky feigned ignorance, but he knew he had a talking-to coming his way. Steve swung his eyes in Bucky’s direction and planted his weight on one skinny hip, folding his arms.

“For what, you ask? Uh, for everything? Bucky. Come on. Unannounced company? The constant pranks from the girls? They way you just… you let them run all over me, and sometimes, they run all over you, too.”

“That’s how we’ve always-”

“No.”

Bucky raised his brows, and he felt irritation crawl down his back like a rash of angry ants.

“Bucky. I’m trying. I’m trying so hard.”

And his tone is what took Bucky aback. It was soft, without any wheedling, sounding a lot less accusing than Bucky would have expected. Bucky’s brows drew together this time, slowly catching up to what his ears were telling him.

“*pfft* I know that.”

“Do you?”

And Steve gave him a smile that was tight and self-deprecating.

“‘Course I do, Stevie.”

“You tell me that none of this ever bothered me before. Are you sure it didn’t, or did you just not realize that it does?”

“Stevie-”

“I’m pretty sure this would have bothered me, Bucky. Especially feeling like you don’t appreciate any of this. It’s not fun being unappreciated when you work this hard.”

“Well, no shit.”

This time, Steve’s brows flew up into his hairline.

“It’s just funny hearing you tell me that, sweetheart.”

“Why’s it funny? I work my fingers to the bone!”

Lately. Bucky wanted so badly to fling that out there, but he put a tight lid on the urge. He huffed a laugh.

“Try doing what I do for a living, and supporting a family of six.”

“So, you swing a hammer.”

“Which takes skill. Carpentry is a trade, darlin’. One of the oldest in the world, and I’m damn good at it.” Bucky was standing closer than he’d intended, and he poked Steve in the chest for emphasis. “Not that I expect you to know anything about that.”

“Why, because I’m not a carpenter?”

“Because you’ve never had to lift a finger or struggle to make ends meet!”

“Sure, I have!”

But Steve had a fleeting, frightening thought: Have I? His memories were so blurred, and he searched them for meaningful references, but none of them produced images of actual, gainful employment.

Then, it came to him. “The Navy.” He pounced on it.

“What?”

“The Navy. You said I was in the Navy. You told me that yourself.”

Fuck.

Well, that little white lie was coming back to bite Bucky in the ass.

“Look,” Bucky grumbled, “do you think you have it that hard here?”

“When my daughters behave like their father’s evil minions, yes.”

Bucky flinched.

“You don’t think they got any of that from you, huh? They’re your girls, too.”

And like that, Bucky had turned the tide. Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. Bucky read the uncertainty in his eyes. That was a conversation they hadn’t had, yet. Steve still didn’t know where he came in the equation in regard to the girls’ parentage. Bucky didn’t plan to edify him any time soon.

“If Josie’s hardheaded, she gets that from you,” Bucky added, just for good measure.

That made Steve crow out loud. “Oh, I beg to differ. She gets that from you. The twins are your clones, but Josie is your evil doppelganger in personality.”

“Hey!”

“Well, she is!”

“Doreen gets her sass and her lippy attitude from you,” Bucky countered.

“What? No, she doesn’t!”

“The hell she doesn’t! She does. She totally does.”

And for the second time that night, Bucky watched Steve’s hard shell crack. A pleased little smile crept over his lips, changing his face.

Shit. I wish he wouldn’t do that.

Bucky didn’t think that Grant - Stevie - was capable of that look. Not the same man who railed at his butler for serving him inferior fish eggs.

“Okay. She’s a stinker. But, she’s my stinker,” Steve claimed.

“Good. Take credit for that. It’s all your fault,” Bucky tossed back.

“Hey! JERK!”

“Punk,” Bucky huffed. “Hey. You almost done out here?”

“I guess. The couch is still a little damp.”

“It’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

“I won’t have anywhere to sleep before then.”

 

Bucky’s smile faltered.

“Maybe I can take the -”

“Go change. C’mon. Take the bed.”

“- floor. Wait…”

“It’d only be for one night,” Bucky suggested hastily. “The couch is, uh. Wet.”

Steve opened his mouth, then clapped it shut. He glanced away quickly, but not before Bucky saw the deep, red blush creep over his face, all the way down to his neck. “I don’t want to… I mean-”

“You used to sleep there,” Bucky pointed out.

“Before… my back?”

“What?”

“My back. You said the bed bothered my back. Right?”

“Uh. Right. It, uh. It did. But, I think you’ll be okay for tonight? I mean, unless you just want to sleep on the floor?”

Steve weighed that option for that moment. Hardwood floors. Not so much as a throw rug or an air mattress. Shit. They really needed more sleeping options, since a new mattress wasn’t within financial reach. And, even if it was… sleeping with Bucky… his husband... wasn’t the most appealing prospect.

Unless. Unless it was. At some point, it had been.

Right?

Steve hesitated.

“Going once. Going twice…?”

“Uh. Yeah. I guess. The bed should be fine. I guess.”

Bucky quirked his brow at him and threw up his hands. “Your chamber awaits, your Highness.”

Steve bit his lip against the rising snicker and headed for the bedroom. He rummaged through the bureau and found himself a pair of Bucky’s pajama pants.

“Hey! What gives?”

“Finders keepers,” Steve reminded him. “I washed it. I get to wear it.”

“You’ve been awfully familiar with my side of the closet.”

“Again, I’m the one who maintains your side of it, as I recall. I can afford to be picky about what I take out of it.”

Bucky didn’t remind him how picky he had been about another closet he could remember. A bubble of laughter lodged itself in his chest, but Steve had his back turned to him as he changed out of his damp, dirt-streaked clothes.

Bucky’s mouth went dry when he removed his shirt. It had been a couple of weeks since he last saw that body. Steve’s tan had faded, but he still had those appealing freckles. His skin was smooth except for the dusting of blond hair on his arms. His body was still elegantly slim and hard, and Bucky could count the bumps of his spine. He removed the belt that was holding up the too-large jeans, letting them drop around his ankles, and Bucky’s pants grew uncomfortably tight. That ass would fit snugly in the palms of Bucky’s hands if-

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, FUCK.

Heat crept over Bucky’s skin, and his fingers spasmed when he realized how tempted he was to touch him. No. His inner voice scolded him to behave himself. Bucky turned away quickly.

“Figures you’d pick my favorite ones,” Bucky muttered.

“Aw, poor baby,” Steve told him, entirely unsympathetic.

 

What Steve wouldn’t admit was that even Bucky’s clothes were just as ill-fitting on him as the ones the girls had procured for him at the thrift store, they were soft and well-worn, cozy and broken-in. It was like wrapping himself in a hug. He drew a strange, unnameable comfort from putting on something Bucky had worn. Despite everything else about their day-to-day squabbles and Steve’s hectic routine, this, at least, felt right. It was familiar, when everything else left him adrift. Natural. Steve hopped into the pajama bottoms and a lightweight wifebeater tank.

“Guess I’ll have to just sleep naked,” Bucky teased.

Steve spun around, and his expression was mortified and panicked. “Let’s not be hasty…”

“God, I’m kidding, Stevie.” But Bucky wiggled his eyebrows at him and gave him a wicked look.

Steve marched over to the bureau, dug through the top drawer, and flung a second pair of pajama pants that hit him squarely in the face. “Here you go!”

Bucky’s low scoff made Steve blush again as Bucky left the room to brush his teeth.

They took turns using the bathroom. Steve sponge-bathed at the sink, realizing he didn’t have the energy for a shower, brushed and flossed his teeth, and turned off all the lights in the front of the house. His body screamed with exhaustion, and Bucky was already tucked into bed, with the other side of the covers turned down. Steve immediately realized that this was happening. They were going to share a small, closed space. Bucky was decent, wearing an undershirt and the pajama pants. Steve wondered if this was how he always slept, and he felt annoyed at himself that he really didn’t know.

“Hop on in, Stevie.”

“Uh. All right.”

“Don’t be shy.”

“You know, maybe the couch is dry enough-”

“You’ll catch a cold. And if you do, I don’t wanna hear about it tomorrow,” Bucky warned. Somehow, he knew “Grant” had to be an even worse diva if he was sick. Bucky didn’t know if he could handle that.

Steve inched into bed and tugged the covers up to his chin. He hugged the edge of the bed, giving Bucky a wide berth. Bucky snorted.

“Comfortable over there?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” Steve’s tone was huffy and implacable, despite this claim. The mattress was bouncy and comfortably firm, singing Steve’s body a siren call of encroaching sleep.

“Right. G’night, snookums.”

Steve sighed gustily. “Please don’t call me that.”

Bucky reached over and turned off the lamp, plunging them into darkness, and Steve’s eyelids instantly grew heavy.

“Stevie?”

Steve tensed with irritation. He hoped to God Bucky wasn’t feeling chatty. “Yes, Bucky?”

“Dinner was good. It was really good.”

Steve felt the little knot of worry uncoil itself. “Thanks. That’s… thanks, Buck.”

“Night, Stevie.”

“Good night, Bucky.”

Within minutes, despite the nagging realization that he was sharing the bed with the man who had rode him for days with endless chores and heckling, Steve dropped off to sleep, keenly aware of the warm body behind him and the way his breathing, too, slowed and leveled off to low, shallow snores. The dogs slept out in the living room, disappointed that they didn’t have Steve to use as a pillow.

*

 

Sunlight crept into the bedroom through the gap in the curtains, piercing and bright. Steve groaned aloud and murmured, “Too early…”

Things slowly blurred into focus around him, strangely unfamiliar from the vantage point of lying in bed. In this bed, anyway. He was on his side, and the pillow beneath his cheek felt sweat-dampened and surprisingly firm. His back was pressed up against something warm, and there was a firm weight lying across his hip.

Steve felt a hot gust of breath fan out over the crest of his shoulder. That made his eyes snap wide open, and he tensed when he realized the source.

Bucky.

At some point, one of them had wandered over the invisible divide in the mattress. Bucky’s hand was slung over Steve’s hip, and his fingers twitched with every other snore. His knees were bent, fitted into the crook of Steve’s, making them flush like a pair of spoons. Which explained the warmth radiating from Bucky’s body, wrapping Steve in its glow.

Bucky realized something was different. Steve’s voice was too close. Too soft, with a hoarse, raspy edge that he found more appealing than he would expect. His hands was wrapped around a firm, angular hip. He smelled Steve’s skin and hair, which was tickling his lips, because at some point in the night, they’d gotten awfully familiar. His eyes drifted open and realized that his arm was under Steve’s cheek.

He was holding Steve.

“Shit,” he hissed.

“Shit,” Steve echoed, and before either of them could process the situation and let it fully bloom, Steve was up like a shot, throwing aside the covers and Bucky’s arm.

“Sorry! Sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh, God…”

“Take it easy, Stevie! Geez!”

“Uh. Um. I. I need. I need to get the children up and ready for school.”

Sure. He did. That was feasible, wasn’t it?

Bucky looked sleep-tousled and had a pillow crease in his cheek. His eyes were slightly puffy, and his tank top was askew and hiked up over his belly. His taut, rippling, muscular stomach. Shit. His nipples were hard, tight little peaks beneath the thin cotton. His expression was put out at having his rest cut off so abruptly, when he’d been so cozy using Steve as a full-sized teddy bear. Bucky… Bucky in the morning, before he started making unreasonable demands to get Steve’s goat, was a different animal altogether.

Way too goddamned tempting.

Bucky yawned and stretched, and Steve saw all the sinewy veins running along his biceps with that motion. That wasn’t helping the situation below Steve’s waist, and he turned his back on his husband, immediately heading to the closet for a robe. He shrugged into it and tied the sash tightly around his waist, grateful for the voluminous, thick plaid flannel.

“You cold?”

“Yup. It’s a little bit nippy - er, chilly - in here,” Steve snapped. “I’m going to get the girls ready and make breakfast.”

“Need any help?”

“I’ve got this,” Steve assured him as he sailed out of the room.

Bucky huffed, shaking his head. That had been abrupt. Then, he chided himself.

Smooth move, Barnes. Idiot. Can’t make moves on the guy in your sleep.

At least the couch would be dry that night. No more awkward wake-up calls. Steve could get back to his chores, and Bucky could reap the sweet, sweet rewards. If his arms missed the feeling of that body cuddled close, he’d just have to get over it.

Even if he craved it.

Bucky grew used to an empty bed, out of necessity as much as choice. He’d had offers, but he wasn’t ready yet. Bucky couldn’t very well leave the girls alone at night while he went out on the prowl, and he sure as hell didn’t want to bring home a random partner to help him get his rocks off, and then have to explain to the girls that he had needs.

The irony wasn’t lost on him, though, that they’d accepted his newly acquired “husband” without much complaint, and even a grain of enthusiasm. Bucky mulled this as he found himself a change of clothes and headed to the bathroom first, beating the girls before they hogged all the hot water.

Upstairs, Steve roused everyone from their beds, hovering in the doorway and looking smug. “Wake up, sleepy heads. Up and at ‘em.”

“Nnnooooooo,” Charity groaned. She had the pillow squeezed over the side of her face and was hunched under the covers. Grace aped her sister’s gesture, while Josie sat up and pouted, curls a tousled cloud. She rubbed her eyes and “hmmphed” petulantly.

“Don’t wanna go to school,” she whined.

“Sorry, sweetheart. Those are the breaks.” Steve had a mountain of housework just to get caught up from the after-dinner disaster, and he was craving some time to himself.

“Are you gonna spray us with the hose again?”

“That depends. I might not if you hurry up and take your showers.” Then, almost as if on cue, Steve heard the water turn on downstairs. “After your father gets out of it.”

“That stinks,” Charity grumbled.

“Get your clothes together, girls. I’ll go make breakfast.”

Grace brightened. “Can you make pancakes?”

“Well. I can try.”

“Yay! Pancakes! Papa Steve’s making PANCAKES!” Josie announced, and she hopped out of bed and began to pull clothes out of the dresser. Steve made no comment on the fact that she picked out a green tutu, sparkly pink leggings, and a red and black sweatshirt with polka dots.

“Very bold choice,” he told her.

“I want pigtails in my hair today.”

“Pigtails, huh?” Steve had watched a braiding tutorial on YouTube and thought he figured out the mechanics of making a decent pigtail, but only practice would make perfect. “We’ll see. If you get washed up quickly enough, we might have time, okay sweetheart?”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Steve reached down and tweaked her nose.

“School sucks,” Doreen complained.

“Why? What don’t you like about it?”

“It’s just lame,” she assured him. “You don’t care. You don’t have to go there every day. You get to stay here.”

“Oh, and it’s just a barrel of laughs,” Steve told her dryly, rolling his eyes. “Aren’t there any extracurriculars?”

“Like what?”

“Well, like a club. Theater? French Club? Field hockey?”

Steve’s memories of his private school were vague, but he remembered a uniform with a gray tie and navy blue sweater and sharply pressed slacks. He’d played… tennis.

Hadn’t he?

The memory of Bucky during their high school days simply wouldn’t materialize. Bucky said they’d gone to high school together. Why was that so difficult to picture? Steve made a mental note to ask Bucky to see their yearbook. Maybe it would trigger some more memories.

“Field hockey might be okay,” Doreen allowed.

“You might make some new friends.”

“I’d have to ask Dad.”

Steve gave her a blank look. She doubled back.

“Uh. I mean. You think that would be okay?”

“I definitely think it would be okay. And I think your father will be fine with it.”

Her lips quirked up in a shy, pleased little smile, and before Steve could say anything else, she stepped forward and caught him in a brief, tight hug.

“Thanks, Pop.”

Steve’s cheeks warmed, and he gave her shoulder an awkward pat. “You’re welcome, Dorrie.” His eyes sparked for a moment, but she released him quickly and went thumping down the stairs. Steve followed at a more sedate pace and wandered into the kitchen, pulling down pans and bowls. He downloaded an easy (somewhat) pancake recipe from Pinterest on Dorrie’s phone and started mixing while the girls fought their way into the bathroom for their turns in the shower. Steve listened to Bucky humming to himself in the other room as he got ready, and the dogs crowded Steve’s legs, waiting for him to drop something onto the floor for them to lap up. Steve hustled them outside and fed them to keep them happy before going back to his breakfast preparations. He managed not to ruin the first pancake, flipping it once it started to bubble in the middle. That built up his confidence enough to keep making them until the bowl of batter was empty.

Bucky was smiling when he entered the kitchen, dressed and fresh. “Wow. That smells good, Stevie. I haven’t had pancakes in forever.”

“I don’t normally make them… do I?”

Bucky hesitated. “No. You don’t. This is just a nice surprise, is all.” Bucky gave the stack of hot cakes a funny expression.

“Well, dig in. There’s plenty.”

Bucky felt a keen mixture of pleased surprise and guilt.

Nat.

Pancakes. Those had been her specialty. Crepes. Blintzes. She would make them with fruit compote or sour cream, dusting them with powdered sugar and cinnamon or brushing them with a sweet lemon glaze. The girls loved Nat’s pancakes. She made them on Sunday mornings, when they had the time to wake up late and enjoy a lazy breakfast and watch the girls’ cartoons before Bucky’s football game came on.

Oh, how that memory hurt.

Bucky couldn’t crowd Nat at the counter, wrapping his arms around her waist and breathing in the sweet scent of her hair.

“Don’t make me burn them,” she’d always warn.

“I’m hungry for more than pancakes,” he’d always tell her. Nat, ever the tease, would grind back against him, promising him time in the shower once the girls were served at the table.

These weren’t Natasha’s pancakes. Bucky lost the woman he loved far too soon, and suddenly, this felt like a betrayal.

“Hey. Know what? I think I’ll just have coffee, Stevie.”

“Buck.” Steve frowned. “Go ahead and eat. Don’t go hungry, you’ve got a long day ahead of you.”

“Steve, I’ll be fine, okay?”

Steve noticed the change in him, the tension in his shoulders and shuttered expression. He decided not to press. “I’ll make you coffee. You like it strong, right?”

“So it can strip paint off a barn.”

“Always the connoisseur.” Steve wouldn’t admit that the way Bucky liked his coffee was growing on him, even though it was Folgers instead of Jarvis’ special blend of immaculately filtered espresso.

Not that he could recall such a thing. Just… an echo of more carefully prepared coffee, served with more ceremony. Steve heaped the canned grounds into the basket and filled the carafe three-quarters full, dumping it into the chamber and hitting “On.” Minutes later, the girls sat at the table, drowning the pancakes in syrup and margarine. Steve made obscene sounds over his cup of coffee.

“Mmmmmmmmm. Good stuff.”

Bucky snorted into his cup.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Josie giggled, kicking her legs as she ate.

“Let a man enjoy his coffee!” Steve whined.

In a few minutes, the school bus honked outside, and Steve was up quickly, handing the girls their backpacks. “Okay, girls, hustle! Get out there and have a good day.”

“I don’t wanna,” Charity complained.

“Me, neither,” Grace told him.

“I’m gonna ask about field hockey,” Doreen told Steve.

“Good for you.”

“Field hockey?” Bucky asked. “You’re gonna go out for that?”

“Pop said I could,” she shrugged.

Bucky blinked. “Uh. Okay. That’s fine, pumpkin.”

“Thanks, Dad.” She leaned over and kissed Bucky’s cheek. Then, she doubled back and kissed Steve’s, making him blush beet red.

“Have a good day, Dorrie,” he called after her.

“Bye, Daddy! Bye, Papa!” Josie waved and darted after her sisters, and they clambered onto the bus. Steve felt dazed and warm.

“Well, back to the grind,” Bucky told Steve.

“Okay.”

“Don’t have too much fun, now.”

“Oh, the mischief I plan to get into,” Steve mocked.

“Hey. Stevie?”

“Hm?”

“Thanks.”

Bucky saluted Steve with his commuter cup of Folgers, and Steve waved him out.

He felt out of sorts once he was alone, filling the sink with soapy water. So many questions swirled in his mind, the loudest of which rose above the chorus: When the hell would Steve figure his husband out?

*

 

Halfway through his day, Steve heard the landline phone ring. Their reception was so poor up in the hills, and it was rare that anyone ever called it, but Steve dropped the blanket that he’d been about to pin to the clothesline back into the basket and dashed into the house. He answered it on the fourth ring and breathlessly answered, “This is Steve?”

“Pardon? Is this… the Barnes residence?”

“Well, yes. It is. This is Steve.”

“Uh. I’m sorry. I guess I’d expected to speak with Mr. James Barnes.”

“Uh. Well. I’m Mr. Barnes, technically.” At least, Steve assumed as much. That was another detail that was vague since he returned home from the hospital. “Steven Barnes. Uh. I took Bucky’s name when we got married. And he doesn’t really answer to James.”

“Oh, of course!” The woman on the other end of the line sounded relieved. “Well, you and I can still have a little chat. Actually, I was hoping you could come in to the school today.”

Steve’s blood ran cold. “What happened?”

“Well, I would really prefer to have this conversation with you in person, if that’s all right.”

“Is it serious?”

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve noticed some undesirable behaviors, and I would like to nip this in the bud.”

Steve sighed, feeling the weight of the world settling itself on his shoulders. Jesus. Teachers didn’t just call parents out of the blue to tell you that your children were star pupils, did they?

“Can you give me directions to get there? My husband took the truck to work. We live quite a way out of town.”

“Oh, that’s right! You know, I didn’t get the chance to meet you when I came up the hill and introduced myself to Bucky. Your girls gave me quite the welcome.”

“Oh. They did?”

“They shot me with silly string and Nerf darts.”

Steve bit his lip against the bark of laughter that threatened to erupt from his chest. “That’s terrible. Oh, goodness. I’m so sorry about that.”

“We’ll go over a few more of my concerns when you get here.”

“Oh, I look forward to it, ma’am.”

He rang off the phone and leaned back against the edge of the counter. “Earrrrggggh,” he growled. “Whyyyy-eeeeeeeeee…?”

*

 

Steve looked up the bus route and trekked almost a mile down the road, waiting inside the tiny shelter. Steve watched the traffic pass him by, listening to the road noise and the rattle of tree branches overhead, stirred by the strong mountain breezes. His house might be the definition of a “fixer upper,” but the neighborhood did have a certain rustic appeal. Their nearest neighbors were a half a mile away on each side. Steve felt like he had lived in more crowded areas filled with traffic and sidewalks so heavily populated that you had to walk down them at a near-sprint.

Maybe while he was enlisted in the Navy. Sure.

Steve boarded the bus and fed his meager spare change into the box. “Might wanna buy a pass when you get to the depot downtown, pal,” the driver suggested.

“I’ll keep that in mind. I’m going to have to bring my girls back with me,” Steve agreed.

“Oh. You live here long?”

“Not really.” Steve couldn’t even give him a rough guesstimate.

The ride down the hill made him anxious. He was worried about the meeting with the girls’ teachers without Bucky there to fill in any valuable information. Steve cursed his gappy memory. The worst part of it all…

… was feeling inadequate.

His eyes burned. Why was all of this so damned hard? Why did his daughters feel like strangers to him? Why was every task so difficult? Why did the girls treat him so much like a second-class citizen compared to how they treated Bucky?

A shiver of insecurity ran through him.

Did they love him?

That made dread bloom in his gut.

So little of the day he was found in the hospital made so little sense. Why the hell was he in the ocean? Why was his relationship with Bucky so stilted?

Did Bucky love him?

Did Steve love Bucky?

“Get it together, Steve,” he muttered.

*

 

At the shop, Bucky was just as unsettled, grilling himself as he used the table saw. A cloud of wood dust rose up from the planks, fogging his goggles.

Why did his body betray him like that? Why the hell did he reach for Steve in his sleep? Worse, why did waking up curled around him feel so right? It wasn’t that Bucky didn’t find him attractive. He’d had that stern conversation with himself from the moment he met him at the pier. Guy was a) married, b) a pain in the ass, and c) thought Bucky was the scum of the earth.

Damn him for fitting so easily into his arms. Bucky didn’t need to fall down that particular rabbit hole. He’d been alone too long. That was the only way Bucky could explain his instinct to draw him in and to hold him. Was he really that hard up that he wanted Grant Steven Rogers-Stark?

Hell, no.

Lukewarm bologne tasted like a filet mignon when you were starving, Bucky reasoned. Of course his body had ideas. Steve wasn’t encouraging him, either. Bucky strengthened his resolve not to let it happen again. Tonight, Steve would be on the couch, Bucky would be behind a closed door, and that was that.

Right?

Bucky sighed and muttered aloud, “Right.”

But a few moments later, Clint wandered up to him, standing in front of him so he would see him coming and not surprise him while he was using sharp tools. He was covered in sawdust, too, and wearing a pair of goggles with purple frames. “Hey. School called. They want you to meet Steve for a meeting.”

“Aw, shit…”

“Hey. They probably didn’t commit grand larceny or stab anybody. My Josie’s high-spirited, but she’s a good girl,” Clint claimed.

“I know that. You know that. Still sucks.” Bucky sighed. “I needed this time on the clock.”

“Hey. Go. Take care of business. Steve’s there. He’ll do some of the talking.”

“Yeah. Know what? He probably will.”

Yet Bucky was panicking, because Holy shit. My fake husband’s going to my kids’ school. What if someone recognized him from the news?

Clint looked like he realized the same thing. “Go. Clock out. Beat feet, Barnes, and get your ass over there.”

“Bye, Barton.”

“Good luck!” Clint called over the noise of the shop.

*

Steve knew he wasn’t exactly stunning in a pair of jeans that he’d swiped from Bucky’s closet, a soft, faded blue flannel shirt, and a fleece-lined denim jacket that hung on his slim frame, but the teacher actually beamed when he showed up. “Mr. Barnes?”

“Please. Call me Steve.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you. The girls didn’t tell me that their father had gotten remarried.”

That gave Steve pause. A jagged-edged puzzle piece slotted into place. “Bucky and I went to high school together,” he informed her.

“Oh. That’s nice. At least you had that history together, then.” She gave him an indulgent look, but Steve knew she was assessing him. “Well. My name is Adrienne Frost. I’m one of the teachers in the combined classroom. I handle sections of children between grades one through four.”

“Which explains why the twins are here with Josie,” Steve mentioned, nodding at the girls. Josie waved shyly at him, but Charity and Grace looked guilty. Doreen waved despondently. “Hey, Dorrie. What’s going on, sweetheart?”

“Nothing. We didn’t do anything wrong,” she argued.

“That remains to be seen, young lady,” Ms Frost snapped.

That got Steve’s back up in an instant. “I beg your pardon?”

“Mr. Barnes. I’ve been meaning to talk to you and your husband about this for some time, but your children are very unruly in my class. They lack focus and basic manners. Your little one seldom sits still - look, she’s squirming right now!” She was antsy in her seat, rubbing her back against the edge of the hard wooden seat.

“Josie, settle down, baby, okay? It won’t be long, we just need to talk,” Steve assured his youngest, but she pouted and folded her arms.

“I tried to give the girls their aptitude tests today,” Ms. Frost told him. “We use these to assess the childrens’ abilities, but they refused to take them. Greta and Chastity-”

“Grace and Charity,” Steve corrected her firmly. His nostrils flared with irritation.

“Oh, well. I apologize.”

“I hope you’ve been addressing them with the right names?”

“Oh, they make that a challenge. They often play that trick of identical twins, answering with each other’s names during role call or when I try to call on them to participate.”

Charity looked smug. Steve raised his brow at her, and she automatically sobered. She and her sister fidgeted in their seats.

“Girls, this won’t take that long. Please, settle down?” Steve asked. But even Doreen looked uncomfortable, and her cheeks were slightly flushed.

“Doreen wouldn’t focus on her test, either. She was very distracted. I can’t tolerate that kind of behavior during class time. As educators, we already face the challenge of many youngsters in one classroom-”

“I understand that.”

“Well, your husband ignores it. I have to tell you, Steve, that your husband… he hasn’t been the strongest role model. How are things at home?”

Steve resented the personal nature of the question. “We’re managing.”

“Mr. Barnes.”

“Steve.”

“Steve. Your girls simply need a firmer hand and better discipline. They show signs of neglect and a lack of direction.”

“I’ll take that up with Bucky when we get home, but is this really a conversation you want to be having right in front of them?” Steve mentioned blandly. Her manner was obtuse and inflexible.

She looked taken aback. “You don’t appreciate honesty?”

“I appreciate tact and professionalism more,” Steve suggested.

His calmness and the crisp way he worded his jibe made her fake smile drop.

“The girls will still need to make up these tests. They will have to set aside time after school, in detention.”

“Of course,” Steve assured her. “I don’t know when Bucky will get here, but that probably won’t happen today. We only have one vehicle.”

The condescending smile returned. “Of course you do.”

Steve gritted his teeth. She did not just go there.

Steve wandered over to the girls. “I don’t know when your father is due to get here, girls, but we have to talk about this when we get home. He’ll be very… oh, my God!”

His voice rose on a lilt of panic and dismay. “Ms. Frost?”

“Yes?”

“Get up. Come here.”

She was stunned by the change in his tone. It was cold, stiff and imperious. Steve straightened up as he waved her over. “Look at this.”

“What-”

“Look at their arms. Look here. And here.” Steve gently rolled up Josie’s sleeve, revealing patches of angry red welts. He indicated similar rashes spreading over their skin, creeping onto their necks and cheeks. “And Josie is running a fever,” he said as he stroked her curls back from her forehead, making a tsking sound. She leaned into that touch and nodded miserably. “Poor baby,” he cooed.

“Oh, my.”

“Oh, my,” Steve mimicked. “Look. This? This is unacceptable?”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s most likely poison oak.”

“So, they probably came to school with it,” she pronounced stiffly.

“But you ignored it. And instead of sending them to the nurse’s office, so she could give them something to soothe it, you called me in here to lecture me and assassinate their character, AND my husband’s.”

“I figured they were playing sick. They’ve done it before.”

Steve spat out the words like bullets.

“You sit here, smug and self-righteous, while you ignore the needs of vulnerable children. Did you remember that they’re children and not just your paycheck? Do you even enjoy teaching children, Ms. Frost?”

“Well, of course-”

“Then, you should act like it. I know my daughters can be high-spirited, but I won’t stand here and listen to you telling me that they don’t know discipline or act like my husband hasn’t been doing his best! He works hard, and I spent some time in the hospital recently. That gave him the burden of taking care of the girls himself while he was trying to earn a living and put food in their mouths! And my husband might have his quirks, but you won’t stand here and tell me he’s a bad example for our daughters. They’re a lot like their father, which means that they’re bright, strong, funny, sensitive and talented, and they have bright futures ahead of them if you do your job. Don’t just ignore them because of their father’s income or some perception that you have that we’re not ‘good enough’ for your precious school or your ridiculous aptitude tests. They’re a waste of paper and a poor indicator of talent or academic drive.”

“Go, Papa,” Grace murmured.

“Right?” Doreen whispered.

“I love these girls. They’re good girls, do you hear me? I’m taking my children home. You can shove those aptitude tests up your ass, and you can damn well set aside the time for them to work on them tomorrow, during school hours, if you really care about their success.”

Steve headed back toward the girls’ desks. “C’mon. Grab your backpacks. Chop-chop.” Steve clapped his hands, waving them up. They didn’t hesitate, scrambling to grab their books from cubbies and sliding into their jackets.

“That was so great,” Charity hissed.

“Yeah, it was.”

*

 

Bucky halted in the hallway outside the classroom the moment that he heard Steve raise his voice. Bucky flinched, remembering what it was like to be on the other end of Steve bitching someone out.

But, being a spectator to it was something else entirely.

Steve was dignified, haughty, and gave absolutely no fucks. Bucky saw him through the door’s glass pane, bending over the girls with concern and worry in his eyes. He was gentle when he checked Josie’s fever, and he was loaded for bear when he turned around to let Frost have it.

It was masterful.

Bucky chafed for a moment when it seemed like Steve was going to agree with her about his lack of discipline. But…

He didn’t. It floored Bucky.

Steve defended him.

They’re a lot like their father, which means that they’re bright, strong, funny, sensitive and talented…

That almost sounded like praise. Not just for the girls. But for him.

“Wow,” Bucky murmured to himself. It was a lot to unpack.

Steve.

Steve didn’t hate him.

And Steve.

Steve loved the girls. He’d said as much, right?

Right?

“Wow,” Bucky repeated.

Steve met him in the hallway. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it. Sorry you have to leave work early, Bucky.”

“I wasn’t gonna miss this,” he assured him. “Hey, Stevie. Thanks for coming down the hill.”

“Of course.” Steve had an arm around Charity’s shoulders, and Josie was balanced on his hip. All four of his daughters looked miserable, and Bucky knew they had their work cut out for them when they got home.

“Okay. Kids, let’s get in the truck. We’ll stop at that doc-in-the-box on Main Street and get you straightened out.”

*

Steve and Bucky waited together at the clinic until it was their turn to be seen, but just as they walked back, a slim, attractive brunette walked up to the check-out desk and then beamed when she recognized Bucky. “Hey, Barnes! What’s shakin’?”

“The girls caught poison oak,” he explained.

“Awwwww.” She reached down and ruffled Josie’s hair. “What’s up, Josie-Jay?”

“I’m itchy,” she moaned.

“Poor baby.” Then she noticed Steve. “Hey, there.”

“Hello.”

“You look familiar,” she mentioned.

“I… I’m not sure we’ve met.”

“Well, I’m Darcy. I’m going out with this guy’s best friend, proving that I make questionable life choices,” she joked.

“Best friend?”

“Clint,” Bucky reminded him.

“Oh.” Then it dawned on him. “OH.”

Bucky realized that Steve had bought his previous tall tale about being “hot and heavy” with Barton in high school, and he coughed to cover a laugh.

“So. You’re dating Clint, now.”

Darcy narrowed her eyes at Steve. “Yyyyeahhhh.”

“Well. That’s. That’s nice.”

“Okay. I’m just here to pick up a ‘scrip.”

“You’re off work already?”

“Yup. Bonehead’s gonna take us out to dinner tonight. As long as I don’t have to cook it, I’m a happy camper.”

“Hey. Darce. Could you do me a favor and drive Steve and the girls home? I need to wrap up some things at the shop. Stevie? Do you mind?”

“No. That’s fine, Bucky.”

“Hey. Great. Thanks a million. Look, here.” Bucky dug into his wallet and handed Steve a couple of crumpled twenties. “Use that if you stop by CVS.”

“I have to stop there, too,” Darcy agreed. “We can all do it in one trip.”

“I owe you, hon,” Bucky told her, patting her arm fondly.

“Sure do, buddy!” She winked at him and sat beside Josie, allowing her to climb into her lap.

“Thanks, Stevie.”

“See you tonight,” Steve told him.

Bucky nodded, and he leaned in and kissed Steve’s cheek, stunning him speechless. He rushed out of the clinic waiting area. Bucky’s daughters and Darcy all stared at him, making Steve blush furiously.

“Why’s Papa all red?” Josie wondered.

Doreen ducked her face behind an old issue of People magazine, but she was smirking.

Chapter Text

The ride home was uneventful. Darcy chattered a mile a minute about Clint and Bucky, filling Steve’s ear. Steve was grateful that she removed the impetus for him to make small talk. The day’s rigors were getting to him, and he just wanted to spend the rest of the day in his own house, away from judgmental teachers. For the first time since he left the hospital, home actually sounded good.

Steve didn’t know what to make of that.

Darcy parked the car and leaned her head out the window. “Wow. The front yard looks nice. The weeds were taking over the last time I stopped by.”

Steve beamed. “It needed a little TLC. I actually kind of enjoyed it.”

“Bucky works so many hours, he never really has the time.”

Steve bit back the response that If he wasn’t always off bowling with your boyfriend, then maybe that lawn would be in better shape. Hadn’t Steve just defended him to Ms. Frost? No sense in attacking his husband’s character now. Especially not in front of the girls.

Their girls.

“So, you know Bucky through Clint?”

“Uh-huh. And through Nat,” she added. Her voice grew fond, and a little sad. “She was so young,” Darcy mentioned. She thought better of expanding on that, glancing back at the girls. Doreen’s expression grew tight.

“Want Mommy,” Josie whined from the back of Darcy’s little, cramped sedan.

“Sorry, baby,” Darcy apologized. “Hey. Come and see me the next time your dad brings you to the arcade, okay? I miss you little stinkers.” The girls piled out of the car and gave her kisses goodbye.

“Bye, Aunt Darcy!” Gracie called out.

“Darcy, it was kind of you to give us a ride. I really appreciate it.”

“It’s hard when you have one car and you live out here in the boonies,” Darcy agreed. “So. How you liking it up here?”

“It’s… rustic.”

Darcy wrinkled her nose and chuckled, nodding. “That’s one word for it.”

“I have a long night ahead of me. I’m going to get them settled.”

“Yeah. Sure. No problem, Stevie.”

There was Bucky’s nickname for him again. Steve had to admit it was growing on him, even though he wasn’t used to such… familiarity from anyone else. Not really.

Not ever.

“It’s funny. I feel like I know you from somewhere,” Darcy mused.

“They say everyone in the world has seven doubles.”

“Can’t place where I might’ve seen one of yours. But, hey! At least you’re cute!”

Steve laughed, ducking his face.

“See you later, Steve.”

“Good night, Darcy.”

The sun had moved west, painting the yard in the late afternoon, buttery light that filtered beautifully through the trees. It was deceptively peaceful, belying the chaos that waited for him inside. Steve no sooner followed the girls in through the screen door when the caterwauling began.

“I wanna get in the shower first!”

“You went first this morning!”

“Did not!”

“Did TOO!”

“You didn’t hang up your towel! Papa Steve, I don’t want to use this one, it smells like Doreen’s farts!”

Ah, the joys of fatherhood…

“Get settled, girls,” he called out. “Dorrie, you shower first. Then you can help me with dinner.”

That perked her interest. “What’re we having?”

“Whatever we can cobble together.”

“Mom used to call it ‘mystery stew,” Dorrie admitted.

Steve huffed. “Sounds delicious.”

Dorrie smiled, but it was sad and noncommittal.

“Go ahead and shower,” Steve told her.

She ducked into the bathroom and locked the door before Grace could barrel inside. She banged on the door anyway, taking umbrage. “You suck, Dorrie!”

“That’s not nice. Your sister doesn’t suck,” Steve told her calmly. “Find some pajamas.”

Grace sulked.

“Would you like some tea?” Steve offered.

“What kind?”

“Oh. I don’t know. Let’s see what we have in the cupboard.” Steve rummaged in the cabinets and found a box of crumpled tea bags. “Let’s see. Mint. Lemon. Oh, here’s orange blossom.”

“Orange,” Grace said immediately.

“I want tea!” Charity insisted.

“There’s… oh, you’re in luck, there’s still two orange ones.” Steve fished them out of the box.

“Mommy let us have tea,” Josie told Steve. “We used to have tea parties.”

Steve’s voice was thoughtful. “That sounds nice, sweetheart.”

Steve set the kettle on the stove and wished heartily for a glass of wine. He settled for a cup of chamomile brew and just breathed in the steam while the girls took turns in the shower. Then, he fished the bottle of Caladryl out of the CVS bag and generously slathered each girl with the lotion, urging them not to scratch.

“I’m itchy,” Charity complained. She dug her short nails into the patch of red bumps along her forearm until Steve gently gripped her hand.

“Try not to do that. It makes it worse. Trust me.”

Steve didn’t remember how or why he knew. Dim memories of a hike of some kind came to him. He heard the echo of his mother’s voice assuring him “Don’t scratch. It gets under your nails, dear. You don’t want that.”

When he imagined her, she didn’t look like a woman who had ever even been hiking.

“That’s what happens when you roll around in poison oak,” Steve reminded them. “All right. I’m going to make dinner. Then, I want you girls to clean up this room. It’s a pigsty.”

“We like it as a pigsty,” Grace insisted.

“Well, it’s beginning to trickle down the stairs.”

He noticed Josie fiddling with the bottle, rubbing some on her own face. “Oh, baby, be careful. Don’t get that into your eyes.” Steve gently took the bottle and tugged her into his lap to show her the label. “See? Right here. Read it, it says “do not get in or near your eyes.”

Josie pouted, grabbed the bottle from his grip, and tossed it onto the floor. She tossed herself onto the bed and burrowed under the covers, pulling them over her head. Steve sat there, flummoxed.

“Josie? Sweetie? What’s wrong?” He glanced at the girls. “What was that about?”

“You told her to read,” Charity supplied.

“She can’t, yet,” Grace added.

“The teacher makes fun of her,” Doreen said. Her expression told Steve that she had opinions on the subject that weren’t for polite company, and he realized that he agreed with them in their entirety.

“She’s a small child!”

“She can’t read for a small child, either,” Doreen pointed out.

Steve twisted himself around, reached over, and patted the small lump under the covers. “We’re going to work on that,” he promised. “Dorrie. Come on down and help me with dinner, okay?”

*

 

Bucky returned within the hour, exhausted, starving, and done with that day. Clint reminded him that the lead at the fertilizer plant was offering extra hours to anyone who showed up, and the prospect of that didn’t appeal to him. But if he could just sit down, eat a hot meal uninterrupted-”

“Bucky?”

...oh, shit.

There was something wheedling in Steve’s tone, and Bucky felt his patience evaporating.

“Why do you sound like you want something?”

“Because we need to talk?”

“Can it happen after dinner?” The aromas in the kitchen were inviting, and impressively, not burnt.

“Go. Get settled in,” Steve allowed, sighing.

Bucky already hated the sound of that sigh. Sighs like that never prefaced a conversation that he wanted to have. Bucky took off his work boots and set them by the front door, knowing he’d have to put them right back on again within the hour. Steve handed him a plate, and Bucky served himself from the casserole dish on top of the stove. The girls were already settled, faces pink with itch cream and dressed in pajamas as they ate dinner. Seeing them comfortable and fed helped quiet some of the noise in Bucky’s head, but Steve had that look on his face that told Bucky that he wasn’t going to cut him any slack. Bucky kissed each of them hello, returning Charity’s soft smile and ruffling her hair before he sat down and ate. “Feeling any better, pumpkin?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Josie’s fever came down,” Steve assured him.

That relieved him. “Good.”

The girls chatted with him about the rest of the day. Bucky grinned when Grace told him that Charity gave a boy that had been teasing her a wedgie, even though Steve looked on in disapproval.

Once the girls cleared their plates and headed upstairs to work on their homework, Steve followed Bucky to their bedroom and gently closed the door.

“Got a minute?”

“Not really, but shoot.”

Steve frowned. “Do you have plans?”

“Yeah. Kind of do.”

“Well, I won’t interrupt your sparkling social life-”

“God, Stevie! Out with it, already!”

“Did you know Josephine can’t read yet?”

“She’s six!”

“She should know a few words by now, or at least some phonics. We don’t want her to fall behind, Bucky.”

“She won’t. She’s a smart kid. Have a little faith.”

Steve was tight-lipped, and there was a divot between his brows. “I know the girls are new to their school, but I’m worried they aren’t making friends. Charity and Grace play awfully rough. All of them seem to love pranks, Bucky, but you don’t want anyone to end up hurt.”

“No one’s ended up hurt!”

“Doreen told me that they dyed Clint’s dog Lucky blue.”

Steve pronounced this blandly, and Bucky sighed heavily.

“It’s really not funny.”

“It’s a little funny.”

“Bucky…”

“The girls are doing fine, Steve.”

“I just feel like you could give them more guidance!”

“I give them plenty of guidance! And I put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads!”

“They don’t just need a breadwinner! They need a father!” Steve snapped. “You need to take more responsibility around here!”

“Really? Well, how would you know, Mr. Martha Stewart?”

“Well, I’m no expert-”

“No! You’re not! You can’t just come up to me and act all judgy about how I raise my daughters!”

Your daughters?” Steve raised his brows.

“It’s none of your business, anyway!”

Steve froze. Bucky immediately realized his mistake.

“My children are none of my business, Bucky?”

“Steve-”

“No. Enlighten me. Tell me how they’re none of my business. This is a marriage, right? We’re two adults taking care of this family, aren’t we?”

Steve didn’t want to come out and talk about what had been nagging him since the ride home. “Nat” felt like forbidden territory, even though it had opened Pandora’s box.

“You want to lecture me about how I am with the girls, but you don’t know what you’re talking about, Steve!”

Steve’s face went on a journey. He blinked, and huffed, shaking his head in denial. Bucky didn’t know if he was going to laugh or cry. Then, he threw up his hand and turned his back to Bucky. He stared out through the window, watching as the sun began to set.

“I mean, you help,” Bucky began. “It’s not like you do nothing around here.”

“Thanks.” Steve’s tone was terse.

“Damn it, Steve.”

“Is this something I never minded before?”

Bucky was struck silent. He tugged on his hair and slowly, quietly sank down onto the bed.

God. Steve was right.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, being called out on your shit. Because it hit him, suddenly, that he’d never treated Nat like this. On the surface, yes; “Steve” was still Grant Steve Rogers-Stark, boujee millionaire asshole and the guy who stiffed him of his income after he worked his ass off to deliver what he wanted. But, when you took away the mani-pedis and oxygen facials and jewelry and designer labels and fancy trappings, threw him into a home with faulty plumbing and gave him a family to take care of, even though the guy had no clue of how to even take care of himself, it was hard to maintain Bucky’s side of the argument.

Just because Steve didn’t have his old memories back didn’t mean he didn’t have his own opinion. And it was harsh, for Bucky, seeing how his life looked through someone else’s eyes.

“Is this how things always were between us before?”

“No,” Bucky admitted quietly.

They’d never been like that between Bucky and Nat. Bucky was still angry that she was gone, and nothing could fill the hole left in his chest when her death ripped his heart out.

“Do you always not listen to me?”

“Of course I listen to you!” Irritation crept into his voice, and Bucky pulled on his hair again, at a loss. “Look. I do. I… you can talk to me. All right? Even if I don’t always agree with them… you can have an opinion. I’ve gotten so used to-”

I’ve gotten so used to having to do all of this by myself.

Steve felt the change in Bucky. He watched him deflate, and there was a pinched look around his mouth. His blue eyes were suddenly sad, lacking their earlier belligerence.

Several seconds ticked by on the rickety old wall clock.

“Bucky?” Steve’s tone was hesitant. “Can I say something?”

“You will anyway, even if I say no, right?”

Steve’s sigh was heavy, followed by a self-deprecating chuckle. “Yeah. That sounds like something I’d do.”

“Well, go ahead, then, I guess. Knock yourself out.”

“I don’t have a damned clue what I’m doing.” He threw up his hands. “I don’t, Bucky. This… all of this feels new to me, and frightening, and crazy. You’re right. Okay? Do you want me to tell you that you’re right? I’m no expert on kids. But. Just. Just don’t act like I don’t care. Your girls are a lot to handle.”

“Our girls.”

“What?”

“Ours.”

Steve opened his mouth again, but Bucky held up his hand. “I’m done. Okay? We’re done for now. I’m going out.”

Things were too close to the surface. There were too many things that were trying to push their way out of Bucky’s chest that would shift the momentum and open the door to too many things that just weren’t possible between Bucky and Steve.

Steve was there to work off his debt. Period. Bucky needed to get them back on that footing.

Steve’s expression grew mulish. “Fine, then.”

“Don’t wait up.”

Bucky headed for the door, crammed his feet into his work boots, and he climbed into his truck, turning the radio’s volume up to drown out his own thoughts.

Steve cleaned up the kitchen, growing more irritated as the night progressed. He helped the girls finish their homework, read Josie her stories without any further urging that she read the words herself - that could wait - but as the sky darkened outside, Steve’s skin felt itchy and tight. The first, angry pink patch of skin erupted on his forearm, and he groaned in dismay.

“Damn it,” he hissed.

*

 

Bucky returned home late, sore all over, and ready to collapse. The house was quiet and still. The porch light was the only one Steve left on for him before he took himself to bed. Bucky crept inside and removed his boots again, grateful to wiggle his toes. He headed for the refrigerator and helped himself to a beer.

He paused for a minute, noticing the lack of an odor, and the sparkling clean shelves and neatly packaged leftovers. A glance inside the freezer showed him that it was defrosted and well stocked. The kitchen was neat as a pin. The appliances gleamed, the clean dishes were carefully stacked in the rack, and the garbage had already been put out. Bucky clicked on the range top light and perused the front room of the house using its dim glow to see, and he released a shaky breath.

All around him was evidence that Steve was trying. The house was livable and clean, fresh-smelling and ready for company. Bucky and Doreen’s magazines were piled in a basket on the side table. The coffee table had been cleared of clutter, and the living room floor looked like it had been dust-mopped. There was plenty of firewood, cut and stacked in neat cords outside, ready for the winter chill once the seasons changed. The evenings up in the hills were already growing nippy. Bucky still faced the burdens of getting the girls outfitted for colder weather. Outgrown shoes. Sports gear for Dorrie, if she played field hockey like she’d suggested. Those things cost money. Bucky needed to work for that money.

But in the meantime, Steve worked his ass off holding down the fort at home. Bucky realized that he hadn’t acknowledged it yet and given him so much as a thank-you.

He saw Steve curled up on the couch, with his back to him. His breathing didn’t sound like he was asleep. “Stevie? Hey. Stevie?”

“What do you want?” Steve’s voice was low and petulant, just on the edge of long-suffering, and Bucky huffed a laugh.

“I know you’re awake. Steve. I know earlier, I said some things that I shouldn’t have.” Steve shuffled a little and tugged the blanket further up over his shoulder, as though he wanted to lock Bucky out. Bucky sat on the edge of the couch, boxing him in. His hip bumped up against Steve’s lower back, and Bucky reached down to gently grip his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it. Okay? I didn’t mean it when I said that the girls were none of your business. And you’ve been working really hard to take care of them. And. Maybe. I guess, you’ve been working pretty hard to take care of me, too. You’ve been doing a lot around the house, and it looks really nice.”

“Fine,” Steve told him.

“Can we talk about this?”

“No.”

Bucky jerked, and his brows drew together. “C’mon, Stevie. I’m trying to make amends, okay? I know I was a real jerk. Can you just look at me, so we can talk?”

“No,” Steve emphasized, and his voice sounded a little uneven.

“Why not?” Bucky pried at his shoulder, tugging him to face him, and Steve finally met his gaze.

“Because I’m so ugly!

“What?”

“I have poison oak, too!”

“Oh, shit! Stevie! It’s… it’s okay, baby!”

Steve shook his head, and even in the low light, Bucky saw the angry red rashes all over Steve’s delicate, fair skin, competing for dominance with his freckles. His eyes were red-rimmed, he’d slathered himself with the pink itch cream, and his nose was running. Steve was in quite a state, and Bucky found himself chuckling.

“Don’t laugh, you jerk!”

“I’m not laughing at you! It’s just… yeah. This is what happens when you roll around in the dirt with the kids, Stevie.”

Steve reached over and swatted Bucky with a throw pillow, making him laugh again. “Don’t look at me!”

“Oh, don’t be that way! No hard feelings, Stevie.”

“I look horrible!”

“Normally, you look damned cute, Steve. Okay?”

“Really?”

“You just don’t now.”

Steve bopped him with the pillow again, and he sniffled roughly.

“Stevie?”

Steve tried to turn away from him again, but not before Bucky saw the glimmer of unshed tears. “Don’t be upset.”

“Leave me alone, Bucky.”

“No. No. I’m not just leaving you here. C’mere.”

“What? No. Bucky. Bucky, don’t. Put me down!” Bucky leaned down and pulled aside the covers, scooping Steve into his arms. He carried him bridal style from the couch. “Bucky, you’d better not throw me in that water barrel again! I’m warning you!”

“I’m not, punk,” Bucky assured him. His voice was amused. Steve was easy to carry, barely a burden for Bucky at all as he walked them into their bedroom. “C’mon. Let’s tuck you in.”

“You said the bed messed up my back.”

“One more night won’t hurt it too much.” Bucky set him down and peeled back the covers, tucking Steve back in. He reached down and fluffed the pillow beneath his head.

“When will it get better, Bucky?”

“Better than this? We’re living the dream, sugar lips.”

Steve’s laugh was low and ragged. He didn’t even chide Bucky for the despised nickname. “Tell me something that isn’t horrible. Something about my life.”

Bucky sat on the edge of the bed, tucking the covers in more snugly around Steve and watching him shift to get more comfortable. “Well. There was this one time, back in high school. When you were working at Burger World.”

Steve smirked. He looked fascinated. “Burger World?”

“Yeah. You were a waiter there over the summer.”

“I was?”

“Yeah. Before you went into the Navy. So, you were working, and you had just come out of the kitchen. There was a commotion and people were worried because this kid out front started choking on a French fry.”

“Oh. Wow. Then what happened?”

“Well, you dropped everything and hurried over to him, and you gave him that move - the Heimlich maneuver! You wrapped your arms around him, pushed on his belly, and he puked the fry right up. Saved his life. The manager made you Employee of the Month.”

Steve looked surprised and more than a little pleased. “Really?”

“Yeah. You used your fast thinking and saved that kid’s life.” Bucky gave him a fond smile and smoothed Steve’s tousled hair back from his face. “I was really proud of you.”

“You know, you can be really charming when you want to, Bucky.”

“Good night, Stevie.”

“Good night.”

Bucky took the couch, and the dogs crowded him, taking advantage of his body heat, but Bucky didn’t mind. Steve had earned himself a decent night’s sleep.

Chapter Text

 

“Looks like it’s time to flip those, Stevie.”

“I know that. I’ve grilled burgers before,” he boasted to his husband, who raised his brows in response. Which gave Steve pause. Haven’t I? He searched for that information, wondering where the muscle memory came from as he prepared the food. Steve prepared the patties the night before, wrapping each one in tin foil before packing them into tupperware. Bucky and Clint insisted that the last likely warm day of fall required a barbecue at the park. Dorrie rummaged through the garage to find the badminton set and net, Josie’s plastic pail and shovels for the sandbox, and their dedicated play clothes (Steve made a mental note to mend the hole in the knee of Grace’s jeans), earning Steve’s soft smile.

“That was helpful, sweetheart.”

Doreen shrugged, but he caught her pleased smile as she turned and left the kitchen. It surprised him when she came back a few minutes later.

“Hey, Pop?” she asked, tone furtive. She glanced around a moment and addressed him again when she noticed that Bucky wasn’t in the room.

Steve huffed as he stirred a bowl of potato salad. “What’s up, Dorrie?”

“Do we have enough food for tomorrow?”

“We should.”

“For all of us, and maybe another couple of people?”

“That. That… depends on ‘a couple.’ How much were you thinking we need?”

The question intrigued Steve, but he kept his smile casual. Doreen bit the corner of her lip and folded her arms.

“I dunno. Just. Maybe a couple of my friends might show up. I thought it might be nice if they wanted to come and eat, that’s all.”

“Do they have any food allergies?”

Doreen shook her head.

“If you think we need more than what I have so far, let me know. In case your friends have big appetites.”

Steve kept his voice low, because Dorrie’s posture and body language gave him the feeling that Bucky would have opinions about the direction of this conversation, and Steve wanted to suss things out himself, first.

“Let me call them first,” she told him.

“Go ahead, sweetie.”

“And, hey. Um. All of this looks great, Pop.”

Steve’s cheeks heated up in pleased little prickles when she leaned over quickly and gave him a hug. She released him just as quickly and darted off.

“What just happened here?” he murmured to himself. Steve tasted the potato salad and then added more salt and pepper. Thank goodness for Pinterest and YouTube cooking tutorials… feeding four girls and a husband with a rapacious appetite was getting a little easier, but Steve wondered how he ever did it before the accident.

Yet here he was, now, cooking outside, fanning away the errant flies and leaning away from the smoke. Steve shivered a little as a low breeze worked its way beneath the back of his collar. Beneath Bucky’s hoodie, somewhat faded, perhaps dark blue once upon a time, Steve wore a lightweight turtleneck. He’d hemmed up the jeans he found on his own side of the closet, still curious as to why they were so damned long. A belt kept them firmly anchored around his waist, but they still hung a little low. Before his little accident, had he been shopping impaired?

Steve watched Grace and Charity set up the badminton net while Josie made inroads through the sandbox with her pail and a handful of her small, plastic dolls. Doreen was visible on his periphery, hunched and giggling with a couple of her friends, but Steve gathered the impression those weren’t the ones she’d invited to lunch. Clint and Bucky’s voices distracted him as he removed the burgers from the grill, stacking them on a chipped ceramic platter that he’d picked up from the thrift store.

Bucky and Clint sat huddled at one of the battered picnic tables, holding notebooks and a large flip pad. Clint nursed a bottle of beer and munched on the Lay’s dill pickle flavored chips while the two of them brainstormed, piquing Steve’s interest. “Snack bar can go over here. Bathrooms over here.”

“Put the bathrooms closer to the entrance,” Bucky argued.

“They don’t need to be the first thing you see when you walk in,” Clint countered.

“What are you two working on?”

Bucky squinted up at Steve, holding up his hand to block the mid-afternoon glare. “Just a little project Clint and I’ve been talking about. Nothing that’d interest you, babe.”

“Why wouldn’t it interest me?” Steve planted his hand on his hip, brandishing the spatula. “Try me.”

Bucky’s lips twisted up in a little smirk. “Okay. We’re talking about a mini-golf course.”

“You mean, building one?”

“No, discovering one at the end of the rainbow.”

“Haha, smart ass.”

Bucky’s smirk widened into a genuine smile. “Yeah, building one. It’s what I do, if you recall.”

“You might have mentioned that, once. And the laundry that smells like Sasquatch stole your shirts gave me some clue.”

Clint snickered and took a long pull off of his beer.

“Punk,” Bucky muttered. “Be that way, then, and see if I tell you anything else about my idea.”

“Don’t be a spoilsport. Tell me.”

“Your husband didn’t like my idea,” Clint interjected. “Sink’Em and Drink’Em. Each hole represents all the world’s greatest breweries.”

Steve looked less than impressed. Bucky tsked, shaking his head.

“What?” Clint demanded. “You thought it was a good idea when we were drinking last night!”

“It’s a horrible idea now that I’m sober.”

Steve shook his head in amusement and unwrapped a pack of hot dogs.

“Have you got a better idea?” Clint demanded.

“How about the Seven Wonders of the World?” Steve suggested suddenly.

“We need a different theme for eighteen holes,” Clint scoffed, but Bucky gave him a shove.

“Like, which ones, Stevie?”

“Well… like, the Taj Mahal,” Steve suggested. “Or the Roman Colosseum.”

Clint blinked. Bucky looked surprised.

“What else?”

“Well, how about the Great Pyramids, and the Sphinx?”

“That… sounds kinda cool,” Bucky admitted.

“Can we build that?” Clint wondered.

“If I had some sketches, then maybe.”

Steve laid the hot dogs across the grill and then wandered over to the table. He took Bucky’s flip pad and a pen and started scribbling. Within minutes, he had a rough sketch of a Roman Colosseum that earned him a look of awe from Bucky.

“Have you always known how to draw?”

“You tell me,” Steve told him flippantly.

“That’s really good,” Clint added. “You’ve been holding out on us, Steverino.”

Steve chuckled as he kept on sketching. “Maybe I picked this up in the Navy.”

“Uh. Yeah,” Bucky agreed, adding one more lie to the towering pile.

“Stonehenge,” Steve suggested. “That wouldn’t be too hard to design, I’m thinking. Or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” He continued to sketch, and despite himself, Bucky felt a current of excitement at Steve’s ideas, picturing his sketches as golfing holes.

Clint grinned. “I’m liking this!” He leaned over Steve’s shoulder and watched him draw with rapid, sharp strokes. “God, you’re good at that.”

“Didn’t I draw back when we were together?” Steve asked, giving Clint a quizzical look. Clint choked on his beer mid-gulp.

“Back when we what, now? Uh... “ Bucky kicked him under the picnic table, and Clint changed his tune. “Uh. Y’know, maybe you scribbled a little back then. You were, uh. In Art Club. Yeah, that was it. Back in high school, Steve.” Steve didn’t notice the look Clint and Bucky exchanged as he went back to his drawing.

“You used to scribble little pictures on the love notes you left in this guy’s locker,” Bucky added, just to be a dick. It worked. Steve blushed like a beet.

“Shit, I’m about to burn the hot dogs!” It was a handy excuse to hurry away.

“Hey, got any other ideas for the course?” Bucky called after him.

“Maybe later,” he suggested. Steve was trying to shove the picture of a teenaged Clint, horrible manners, flatulence and all, and the thought of his own teenaged self being intimate with him out of his mind. Hot and heavy, Bucky had claimed. Dear Lord…

He finished the rest of the grilling without incident and called the girls to lunch. Grace and Charity showed up quickly, fixing themselves burgers and making generous use of the condiments. Steve prepared Josie’s hot dog, adding a neat squiggle of ketchup down its length after neatly tucking it into the bun.

“It’s still hot, sweetheart. Let it cool for a minute.” She refused his offer of some potato salad. Steve added a handful of carrot sticks to her plate before setting it down and fetching her a juice box from the cooler.

“Where’s Dorrie?” Bucky wondered aloud.

Steve nudged him, gesturing toward the edge of the seating area. Doreen stood talking to a young man roughly her age with dark hair and braces on his teeth. Bucky’s brows drew together.

“Who’s that?”

“I’m guessing that’s her other lunch guest,” Steve told him.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “You knew about that?”

“Let her introduce him,” Steve advised. “Don’t scare him off.”

“That’s my job,” Bucky argued.

“Bucky…”

“Well, it is. DORRIE! Come and eat! Bring your friends!” Clint smirked and shot Steve a look. Steve raised his brows, telegraphing a warning: Don’t let my husband do anything illegal to this boy. I can’t afford bail.

“Take it easy,” Clint told him aloud.

“Easier said than done.” Steve felt a bubble of amusement tinged with anxiety rise up in his gut. Doreen was too young to date, in his opinion. He also had no doubt in his mind that Bucky was about to grill this boy like a flounder. In the meantime, Steve was glad he brought along extra food. He looked like he could eat.

 

*

“Can you background check a thirteen year old?”

“Isn’t that a little excessive?”

“No, I don’t think that’s excessive. That’s our daughter, Stevie!”

Steve huffed a silent laugh from the kitchen table, where he sat sketching on a large pad of newsprint paper. He borrowed the twins’ colored pencils and elaborated on his ideas from the picnic table once the dinner dishes were finished that night. The girls were watching Netflix and polishing off the rest of the bag of potato chips.

“Piotr’s parents both work downtown,” Steve pointed out. “I met his mother at the bank. She seems nice. His younger sister is in Josie’s class.”

“Look him up, anyway. See if he has any misdemeanors.”

“God, Bucky…”

“What? I’m serious!”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Hey, I’m heading out.”

“Oh…”

“Bowling night,” Bucky offered. His voice was off-the-cuff, and he was already shrugging into his jacket.

“I didn’t know this was your league night.”

“Yeah, well. We changed it.”

Doreen glanced up from the TV as her father stalked toward the front door. “Girls, love you. Don’t wait up,” he called out.

“Good night, Daddy,” Josie told him.

“Bye, Dad!” Grace and Charity chorused. Dorrie’s brows beetled, and she gave him a brief wave as the screen door slammed shut.

“Your father and his bowling,” Steve muttered in his wake.

“Sure, Pop,” Doreen told him. Her voice held an odd edge.

“What? What’s that look for?”

She immediately looked apologetic. “Nothing.”

“Dorrie.”

She glanced toward the corner of the room. “If he went bowling, Pop, then why did he leave his bowling ball behind?”

Steve felt a moment of startled confusion, followed by a flare of embarrassment as his eyes followed her finger. The leather bowling bag sat in its customary spot, still zipped up, a testament to its owner’s lie.

Steve blinked, combing his fingers through the back of his hair. Doreen realized that she’d spoken out of turn and returned to her queue. Steve spent the next hour or two sketching, and musing.

*

“Is everything fine?” Darcy looked concerned as she hugged the girls hello, staring at Steve over the tops of their heads while he put on his jacket.

“Everything’s fine. They already ate. It’s okay with you to just watch them for a couple of hours?”

“Sure! That’s nice that you can meet him downtown,” Darcy told him.

“Thanks for letting me borrow your car.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll put gas in it on the way back.”

“Don’t worry. And I won’t let them stay up too late.”

“Okay. Girls, I’ll be back soon.”

“What are you two going to do on your date?”

“We might go bowling.”

*

 

Steve couldn’t appreciate the serene sky and what promised to be the last of the mild autumn weather that night. Frustration, dread, and some feeling that he couldn’t name filled his chest as he drove down the hill. Why would Bucky lie to him? Each possibility that drifted into his mind was worse than the last.

Steve knew his relationship wasn’t ideal - he was still working on functional, at this point - but he felt like they were beginning to understand each other. The house was still a challenge, and helping to raise the girls took all of his physical and emotional energy, but Steve felt such a surge of affection toward them when they appreciated any of the things that he did. Charity and Grace listened to him with rapt attention as he explained their English grammar assignment. Doreen liked his blueberry pancakes. Josie asked him to do the voices whenever he read her favorite bedtime stories.

And Bucky… well.

There were moments.

They sat together to review the bill pile, now, and Bucky would lean in close enough that their shoulders brushed, giving Steve a whiff of his shampoo. Steve caught Bucky looking at him once in a while. Steve could swear his husband was checking out his ass. Bucky hadn’t kissed him since the morning that he brought him home from the hospital. Steve searched his memory for any other times that they might have been affectionate with one another and came up empty. Steve asked himself, as he had so many times since he returned home, Were they happy? Did they love each other?

Bucky was handsome. There was no question about that. Steve had noticed him, looking like an Old Spice ad in his broken-in denims and flannels, skin ruddy with good health. Steve wouldn’t pretend that the sight of him wandering out of the shower in the morning, towel wrapped around his taut waist, with his dark hair gleaming and dripping down his bare back, didn’t affect him. Bucky caught him looking, often shooting him teasing looks, and Steve usually hurried out of the room with a muttered apology just as Bucky dropped his towel.

Which made him feel like a goddamned idiot. Bucky was his husband. Didn’t seeing him naked go with the territory??? Yet, there was such a niggling feeling that he was staring at something forbidden. Bucky was certainly no stranger to Steve’s body, if he could remember a detail like his birthmark. Steve flushed again in remembered embarrassment. The whole world didn’t need to know about it, did they, Bucky?

Steve continued to punish himself with dark thoughts.

What if there was someone else? Bucky spent so many evenings out, and he insisted that Steve “never minded it before.” (Bullshit, Bucky. Steve called bullshit.) Steve could fill that time alone after the girls went to sleep with reading or looking up recipes on Pinterest, but it wasn’t the same as unwinding at the end of the day with another adult. Bucky worked hard, and Steve appreciated that he was supporting them, but it still felt lonely. He felt…

Lost.

Doreen pointing out his husband’s lie was the icing on the cake. Steve decided it was time to confront Bucky. They were going to have this out. It was one thing to have a husband who had a questionable relationship with personal hygiene.

It was another thing entirely to have competition for him.

Steve pulled into the bowling alley lot and parked Darcy’s car. His feet crunched against the gravel as he stalked up to the entrance. The alley was crowded, but he didn’t see Bucky’s truck. The cold knot of dread in his stomach grew bigger.

Steve wandered inside. No sign of his husband’s glossy brown hair or broad shoulders in this crowd. No sign of Clint, either, whom Steve would certainly have expected to see on their so-called “league night.”

Steve wandered up to the front counter and spoke to the woman at the register, waiting for her to finish renting a pair of homely bowling shoes to an older gentleman wearing red flannel. “Hi.”

“Hey there, sweetheart. What can I do you for?”

“I wanted to know if my husband Bucky’s league is bowling here tonight?”

“No, hon. No leagues tonight on the board. Just a bachelor party coming in, and a birthday party.” Then she smiled. “Did I just hear you right, sweetheart? Did you say you’re Bucky’s husband?”

“Sure did.” Steve felt sick, but he gave her a weak smile. “Guess he hasn’t really mentioned me.”

“No, he didn’t, that sonofagun,” she agreed. “You are so cute! You don’t know how happy you just made me, sugar! I didn’t know Bucky tied the knot again!”

Steve rubbed his nape uneasily.

“God, listen to me running off at the mouth… y’know what, Bucky mentioned this might be his night at the fertilizer plant.”

Steve’s brows drew together. “The fertilizer plant?”

The cashier looked confused. “He just started working there a few weeks ago. He didn’t tell you?”

“Well, I guess I know, now.”

“Maybe it was a surprise. Don’t tell him I told you. That big stinker,” she teased. “That husband of yours is a good man, though. I’m glad he has someone to help him and be there for him, now. It’s just been him and the girls for so long, since Natasha passed.”

“His league night isn’t tonight, though?” Steve reeled at her words, feeling himself go pale. It was too much to process.

“Nope. Sure ain’t. He isn’t in the dog house, is he?” She cracked her gum at him.

“Not yet.”

She winked at him and patted his hand. “You show ‘im. Give him heck, darlin’, okay?”

“Um. Do you mind if I have one more question?”

“Not at all, sugar.”

“Is it usually just Bucky and Clint, when they bowl?”

She winked at him again. “Those two goofballs, and once in a while, a couple of the boys from the fertilizer plant, but there ain’t anything fishy going on, hon. Except maybe the fertilizer itself. Stuff’s made from composted fish heads and guts, didja know that?”

“I didn’t. Wow. Okay. Thanks for that. Really, I appreciate it. Thanks for your help.”

“You know the place, right? On Fifth Street and Graymalkin? Six blocks west of here.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, hon.” She called after him a moment later. “What was your name again, honey?”

“Steve. Steve Barnes,” he told her.

“Oh, that’s sweet, you took his name!”

“Have a good night!”

Adrenaline made Steve dizzy. He hurried to the car and sank into the driver’s seat, letting his emotions wash over him. “Goddamn it,” he hissed. Steve dashed hot dampness from the edge of his lashes as he attempted to pull himself together.

It’s just been him and the girls for so long, since Natasha passed. I didn’t know Bucky tied the knot again!

She’d quashed his earlier doubts, but now, Steve had twice as many questions as before.

In the meantime, Steve could at least put one of his doubts fully to rest. He pulled out of the lot and headed six blocks west, parking across the street from the two-story factory. Two spaces ahead of him, he spied Bucky’s truck, and Steve listened to the sounds of men’s voices as they worked.

He waited breathless minutes, listening to the radio on low volume. He saw a familiar, lanky, broad-shouldered brunet shouldering a large sack of fertilizer and laying it atop the growing stack on the pallet. Bucky, looking exhausted and resigned.

“Okay,” Steve murmured. “Okay.”

He drove off before Bucky could notice him, unable to process his emotions.

Bucky had lied to him.

Why?

 

And what else had he lied about?

*

“Stevie, have you seen my blue shirt?”

“I just ironed it,” Steve assured him. “It’s hanging up in the closet.”

“It sure is,” Bucky confirmed. “Thanks, babe.”

“No problem.”

“Hey, I mean it, Stevie.” Bucky laid the shirt on the bed and paused beside Steve, where he sat folding a mound of socks. His touch was gentle as he squeezed his shoulder. “That was nice of you. I appreciate it.”

Steve’s answering smile was soft. “Not a problem, Buck.”

“You okay? You look a little tired. Did you sleep enough last night?”

“I’m fine.”

“I woke you when I got home last night, didn’t I? Stevie, sweetheart, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Steve had topped off Darcy’s gas tank, and she was surprised when he arrived home alone and early.

“Short date night?”

“Bucky had something he had to take care of. How were the girls?”

“We didn’t do anything illegal,” Darcy promised. “Just went cow tipping and toilet papered a few yards…”

“Oh, so they were little angels, then.”

Darcy grinned, wrinkling her nose. “No, they really were. They were pretty bushed.”

Darcy hugged him goodnight and took off, leaving Steve with his own troubled thoughts. He tossed and turned, finally falling into an uneasy sleep. He did hear Bucky come in, but he didn’t stir when he heard the low thump of Bucky’s work boots landing on the floor or the gentle click of the bathroom light.

Steve still wasn’t sure how to proceed with the information that he had, other than to accept it.

But in the meantime, the lies had to stop.

Bucky fiddled with his necktie in the mirror. His hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail and his jaw was cleanly shaven. Steve felt a pang of attraction, but he shoved it down. Bucky still turned to him, smiling. “Is this too much? Too little? Whaddya think, Stevie?”

“You look nice. Here. Let me fix that.”

“I hate these things,” Bucky admitted as Steve reached for his tie, undoing it and beckoning to Bucky to sit down on the bed, facing the vanity mirror. He reached around him from behind and tied it into a tidy Windsor knot. “You’re good at this.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice… I think.”

Bucky reached for his hand, curling his fingers around it. Steve’s pulse skipped. “Still having trouble remembering?”

“Yeah. Just… yes. I am. It’s hard.”

“It’ll come back to you.”

“Sure. Hey. Good luck tonight. And you know what? If you don’t get it, so what?”

“Yeah. Let’s not entertain the thought of me not getting it. Stevie, we need this.”

There was a tightness around Bucky’s mouth, and Steve saw the exhaustion etched in his face, the faint bruises under his eyes from too little sleep.

“I know we do. I know you can do this. I believe in you, okay? But I’m just saying, Bucky… we’ve been through rougher times than these. Right?”

Bucky closed his eyes and exhaled a shaky breath.

Steve didn’t take it personally when Bucky let go of his hand and stood. The emotions that flashed over Bucky’s face told Steve loud and clear that this wasn’t the time for a discussion about honesty.

“I packed up the drawings for you. They’re in the kitchen. Good luck, baby.”

Bucky paused at the doorway. “Baby?” he asked. His smile was lopsided.

“What?”

“It’s just… it’s been forever since you called me that.”

As in, “never.”

 

“Knock ‘em dead, Buck.”

Chapter Text

Bucky met Clint at the lobster house’s parking lot, palms clammy with sweat and feeling slightly sick. He gripped the poster tube of Steve’s sketches and nodded at his oldest friend, who looked somewhat presentable for a change in a dark gray suit jacket and a pair of work slacks that didn’t have any tears or stains. He’d even made a halfhearted attempt with his hair; Bucky couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Clint without a baseball cap.

“Show time,” Bucky told him.

“God, I hope we don’t fuck this up,” Clint agreed.

“We can do this,” Bucky promised. “It’s a good idea. We just have to pitch it right, and we’ve got this.” Bucky preceded him inside, and he told the hostess that they were meeting a party of six.

“Right this way, gentlemen.” Bucky and Clint followed her in, distracted by the elegant crowd and the scents of seafood and herbs. Bucky already felt underdressed and out of his league, but he found his smile, hoping it looked more confident than he felt, when Erik stood up from the table first, offering them firm handshakes, which the most of the men around the table soon copied..

“James. Clinton. It’s good to see you. Glad you could make it. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

“Likewise, Mr. Lensherr.”

“Please. Call me Erik You remember my partner, Charles?”

“Fondly,” Bucky said. He reached down to shake Charles’ hand, enjoying the man’s shrewd smile and hearty grip.

“I hear they have an excellent clam chowder here. Would either of you like a drink? I’m having one.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Bucky admitted.

“Me, too,” Clint added. Bucky heard the nervousness in his voice and hoped his best friend didn’t launch into Babbling Mode.

The server arrived to take their orders for drinks and appetizers, setting down baskets of bread and butter. Bucky began answering questions as soon as his beer bottle was uncapped.

“We were considering the lot over on Westchester, just off the freeway.”

“Should give us enough room for parking,” Clint added.

“And it’s a mini-golf course, you say?” Erik’s tone was polite, but not thrilled. Bucky felt himself begin to sweat again.

“I’d like to show you a little of what we have planned. I think you’ll like it.” Bucky removed the cap from the poster tube and shook out the sheaf of sketches. He passed them around the table and enjoyed the intrigued smiles and nods.

“This has potential! And curb appeal,” Charles told him. “You feel you could build this, based on these designs?”

“Clint and I have been doing things like this for a long time. Our last project was the playground at the town park.”

“That remodel was some beautiful work, boys,” Erik’s accountant told Bucky.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Clint reached to take the sketch from his neighbor and accidentally knocked his beer off the edge of the table. “Shit! Shit, sorry! Didn’t mean to do that! Aw, beer, no!”

Bucky felt a spike of embarrassment and hoped to God they survived this night.

 

*

Three hours later, Steve paused in brushing his teeth at the crunch of Bucky’s key in the lock. He spat the foam into sink and dashed his brush under the faucet before rushing out to meet him. Bucky looked exhausted, but he beamed at Steve. His tie was already loosened, and his cheeks were slightly pink.

“Go on. Ask me, Steve.”

“Did they like your idea? Are they willing to give you the loan?”

“Stevie. Sugar lips. They LOVED it.”

“So that means-”

“We got it. We got the loan. We’ve got our golf course, baby.”

Excitement at the possibilities gripped Steve. “I knew you could do it, Bucky! I knew you had it-”

Before he could manage anymore praise, Bucky closed the gap between them and pulled him into a hug that stole his words.

Oh.

Steve’s arms coiled around Bucky’s waist, and all he could do was breathe him in. So. This was how it felt. Bucky’s body was a little overheated from his heavy blazer and his time spent inside the stuffy restaurant. Steve smelled a hint of garlic and beer on his breath, competing with his cologne and shampoo. He felt solid and firm, and Steve didn’t know how much he needed Bucky told him until until he was wrapped in his arms. Steve processed the feel of Bucky’s fingers caressing the crown of his head, tugging lightly on his hair and scratching at his scalp.

Steve’s response was to cling to him for a moment, stroking Bucky’s broad back while he listened to his slow, even breathing.

“I couldn’t have done it without you. They loved your sketches. They called it your vision.”

“It was your vision, too. I just put it on paper.”

“I’m serious, Stevie. You got us that deal. Thank you, sweetheart.”

The endearment was soft. Sincere. There was no smugness or mocking in it.

“I’m glad I could help. You know that, right? That I want to help you, Bucky? You do so much for our family,” Steve murmured into his chest.

Our family.

It was almost painful for him to gently release Steve and step back. Steve was slightly tousled, his lean body swamped by Bucky’s pajama bottoms and a dingy gray tee that was a little stretched out around the neck. He’d fit so easily into his arms, and his expression was bereft at being let go. Steve’s praise compounded the lie. Guilt stabbed into Bucky’s chest.

“You do help, Stevie. Okay? Maybe, uh. Maybe I don’t tell you that often enough. I’m… gonna head to bed.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you up, you must be worn out. Here. Let me take your jacket and hang it back up. I can take it to the cleaners tomorrow-”

“I can drop it off, Stevie. Don’t worry about it. You’ve done enough.” But Bucky still allowed Steve to help him out of the jacket, craving the light graze of his fingers.

“Get some rest, Buck.” Steve hung the jacket on the hook behind the bedroom door, setting it aside so that Bucky wouldn’t forget it in the morning when he left for work.

Bucky braced himself for rejection. “Stevie?”

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Wanna hang out back here for a little while? I know the bed messes up your back, but… do you need to hurry off to the couch yet?”

Steve’s smile held amusement. “I never have to hurry off to that couch. Bucky, I swear to God, we need a better couch one of these days.”

“Put it on the list, Good Lookin’. Climb into bed.” Steve huffed. He closed the bedroom door and turned on the lamp on the dresser, turning off the brighter overhead light, preferring the softer glow that it cast over the room, relieving his tired eyes. Bucky groaned in relief, too, as he shucked the necktie and tugged off his dress shoes. Steve turned down the covers and crawled into bed, watching Bucky quietly as he undressed.

Beautiful. Bucky was all sleek muscle and firm, taut skin. His limbs were dusted with dark hair; a sprinkling of it trailed from Bucky’s navel below the waistband of his boxer briefs. His ass was high and round, making Steve’s palms itch to stroke it.

Bucky rummaged through the drawer and found a soft, battered undershirt, robbing Steve of the perfection of his bare chest. Finally, he tugged his hair from the offending elastic, shaking it loose around his face. Steve’s breath caught. Bucky ducked out to brush his teeth. When he returned, he clicked off the lamp. The bed sagged beneath Steve as Bucky climbed under the covers. He saw the faint outline of Bucky’s body in the dark as he pulled Steve close. A deep sigh escaped Steve as he settled against Bucky’s chest. His heart thumped slowly and evenly beneath his cheek.

“You’re so warm.”

“You cold. Stevie?”

“M’always cold,” he admitted.

“M’sorry. Hey. Let’s hit Walmart and get you some longjohns tomorrow, okay, babe? I was gonna get the girls new jackets and snow pants this week, anyway.”

“I’ll put it on the list.”

“You’ve gotta tell me if you’re cold, babe.”

“You would’ve figured it out at some point. I’ll be the one turning blue, teeth just chattering away…”

“Punk. C’mon.”

Steve’s arm lay curled around Bucky’s chest, palm splayed against his ribs. Bucky idly stroked Steve’s hair again, enjoying its softness. Steve felt the tension slowly bleed out of his body. He felt Bucky shift his knee, nudging Steve’s leg until Steve draped his over Bucky’s thigh. All the blood in Steve’s body zoomed down into his groin.

“So, they really liked the drawings?”

“Yeah. They asked me who my designer was. I told ‘em my husband dreamed these up. They asked me if you did this for a living.”

Steve chuckled. “It’s always just been a hobby.”

Possibly. As far as Steve knew.

“I can do things with my hands, but I can’t do that.”

“You’ve always…” Steve paused, yawning cavernously, “been good with your hands, Buck.”

His voice was a raspy husk. Bucky felt his dick twitch, but he urged it to behave. Steve’s thigh was too close to the goods…

Still.

Just let me have this. Just this. Just for a little while. It had been too long since Bucky had just held someone for comfort. In three years since losing Natasha, Bucky could count on one hand how many partners he’d had and still have a finger or two left. Meeting anyone to scratch that itch meant getting a babysitter. And it still felt too awkward bringing anyone home, knowing the girls would be there in the morning, seeing them occupy their mother’s place. It felt awkward. Bucky didn’t want to deal with “awkward.”

 

Steve thought about the other night. The cashier at the bowling alley solved the mystery of the girls’ mother and his place in their lives. He was their stepfather, not adoptive father. “Papa Steve” now made perfect sense. And now, he truly ached for Bucky, ached for Doreen, Charity, Grace and Josephine in light of what they’d lost. It still troubled him that Bucky hadn’t told her that he’d remarried… wouldn’t it have come up, if they’d been married for a long time? Their wedding photos suggested that they had? And Bucky’s stories about them in high school. There were so many gaps.

Steve wanted so badly to remember. He wanted so badly to fully live this life, and to fit into this family.

He wanted them to love him.

He wanted Bucky to love him.

That revelation made his eyes snap open in the dark. Bucky felt his body tense.

“Whatsamatter, babe?”

“Nothing. M’fine. I’m sorry. I’m keeping you up, and you’re so tired. Buck, I can go out to the couch.”

“Do you want to?” Bucky’s voice was plaintive. Steve felt his chin tip, brushing his forehead as he tried to stare down into his face in the dark.

“If you want me to.”

“I don’t. Please?”

Steve burrowed more deeply against his chest in response.

Damn it. He wasn’t going anywhere.

*

 

Bucky stirred awake first, stiff-limbed and bleary in the low morning light. Everything in the bedroom had a bluish-gray cast, and Bucky saw streaks of pink in the sky outside.

His arms were empty when he woke, but he felt the scant curve of Steve’s butt pressed against his thigh, and his ankle was trapped between Steve’s feet. Guy had hogged all the covers in his sleep; Bucky’s exposed skin was clammy and cool, and most of the blankets were on the other side of the bed. Steve was snoring shallowly, and Bucky didn’t want to budge, for fear of waking him too soon. His blond hair was a tousled wreck. His long, artist’s fingers were curled in the blankets, Bucky fought the urge to lean over and taste the vulnerable nape and unbury him from his warm nest.

Bucky woke about ten minutes before the alarm was due to go off, which irked him, but they had a busy day ahead. Clint and Bucky needed to book their appointment with the realtor to view the lot, after they signed the paperwork for the loan at the bank. And Steve had to get the girls off to school. Reality intruded on them too soon, just as things were getting interesting.

“Stevie? I need my foot back.” Bucky demonstrated this by tugging it free. Steve jerked; a low grunt escaped him, and he reached up to rub his eyes before he opened them.

“Time’s it?”

“Nine minutes before we needed to be awake.”

“Shit,” Steve hissed. “Too. Early.”

“You’ve never been a morning person.”

“No,” Steve admitted. “Mornings are grossly overrated.” Steve turned and sprawled free of the upper half of the covers. The hem of his shirt rode up over his flat belly as he yawned and stretched. He cracked his eyes open and huffed at Bucky. “You look disgustingly good for someone who just woke up. Is that your superpower?”

Bucky snickered, shaking his head.

“God, look at that smug smile. You make me sick.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Take it however you want, Barnes.” Steve rolled himself upright and stretched again, letting his joints crack.

“You sound like a rice krispy treat.”

“I’m getting old. Leave me alone.”

Bucky felt bereft as Steve left the room. His steps thudded up toward the loft as he went to wake the girls, flying in the face of his claim that he didn’t appreciate mornings. He’d grown good at them within a matter of weeks. It hit Bucky, then, how long Steve had been with him.

Almost a month and a half. Long enough for Steve’s real family and friends to notice his absence. Elk Cove’s local news never aired a follow-up story after he was discharged from the hospital. Whenever they were downtown, he introduced himself as “Steve,” not “Grant.” Bucky didn’t put it past Tony “Hoity Toity Skeet Gun Lover” Stark to abandon any legitimate search for his husband after Steve left with Bucky.

Which made it hard. If - when - Grant regained his memory, that left Bucky in a tight spot.

*

 

“Yo, Barnes. I hate to tell you this, but you’re in a whole world of shit.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“You have to tell him. You’re gonna hafta do it soon.”

“Well, no shit.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re taking it awfully well. I mean, what did you think was gonna happen? I told you this was a bad idea!”

“No, you didn’t. You told me I was crazy for thinking about it.”

Clint snorted into his coffee. “Kinda the same idea, Bucko.”

“I’ll tell him eventually. I swear, Barton.”

“Have you gotten your money’s worth out of him yet?”

Bucky’s mouth tightened, and Clint suffered his glare with a shrug of his shoulders. “That’s not how it is, now.”

“No? Sure was when you started down this little rocky road.”

Bucky combed his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Look. The girls are crazy about him. It’s not like he’s unhappy here.”

“Because he doesn’t know the truth. Let’s see how happy is when you tell him, ‘Hey, sweetheart. Know how I told you we’re married, and we have four kids together? Well, the joke’s on you, I kidnapped you from your husband.”

“That sonofabitch abandoned him and left him behind.”

“And you just conveniently came to his rescue. Look. Bucky. I’m not telling you how to live your life. But this is gonna blow up in your face. Mark my words.”

This was surprisingly sound advice from his best friend, whose life philosophy boiled down to “Hold my beer.”

“I’ll break it to him soon.”

“You owe it to him. And, hey, Bucky.” Clint reached out and gripped his shoulder, giving it a little shake. “I know you two have a good thing. Believe it or not, I get it. I mean, you’re different with him around. You smile more. I’ll even go out on a limb and tell you that you’re glowing like a great, big jackass. But, you lied to him. You’ve made me lie to him. Get your story straight, man.”

“Yeah, yeah. Barton, you just remember to keep your mouth shut.”

“What are friends for? Remember that time that we released all the goats from the Ag department in high school and left them up on the roof? I didn’t squeal then, and I ain’t gonna squeal now.”

They sat through a half an hour of loan paperwork, shook hand with Erik and Charles, and Bucky and Clint headed out to the lot. Within two days, they were measuring and marking out the specs for all eighteen holes and hiring a crew. Bucky could almost smell the snack bar nachos.

*

Bucky returned home to the smell of beef stew and the sounds of Charity practicing her recorder. Doreen worked on her book report on the laptop while Grace helped herself to a handful of graham crackers. Josie occupied Steve’s lap, helping him to flip the page of a comic book that Bucky recognized from his stash in the attic. To his delight, and to Steve’s, she was reading aloud from it in a halting voice, sounding out the syllables.

“You. You’ll. Nev. Never. Stop me. Captain America. You’re. You’re not p-pow-powerful-”

“Powerful. Good,” Steve repeated, nodding as she continued.

“Enough. To defeat me.”

“That was awesome, sweetie, great job!” Steve spied Bucky in the doorway. “The Red Skull is on the rampage,” he told him.

“She’s reading that by herself?”

“Just about,” Steve confirmed. “Bucky, we already ate. The rest of the stew is for you.”

Bucky wandered into the kitchen and set down his toolbox. He helped himself to the contents of the pot and listened to his youngest work her way through the comic book.

Josie paused and turned to Steve with a solemn expression. “Papa, are you gonna leave?”

Steve’s smile faltered. He rubbed her back gently and calmly asked, “No, sweetheart, why?”

“Because sometimes mommies leave. And that means that daddies leave, too.”

Charity stopped playing her recorder. Doreen’s fingers stopped tapping on her keyboard. Grace’s eyes were round with fear.

Steve felt a lump rise up in his throat. “Oh, baby, no. I’m not going anywhere. I love you.”

Josie beamed and wrapped her arms around his neck. Steve’s eyes burned. Josie’s sisters exchanged looks of relief and resumed what they were doing. If Steve had noticed, he would have told them, Don’t worry. I know you lost her. We can talk about this when you’re ready.

Bucky ducked back into the kitchen before Steve noticed that he’d witnessed the exchange. He felt like someone had punched him in the chest.

“Papa, I made you something.” Josie reached into the pocket of her long, cotton tunic top and pulled out a necklace made from painted macaroni noodles.

“Josie, I love it. I’m keeping it forever.” Steve demonstrated this by putting it on, and they continued reading their book.

 

After Bucky finished dinner, he joined Steve in the living room while he picked up the clutter and collected dirty clothes in a laundry basket. “Hey, Stevie. Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?” Steve’s eyes were warm. He was still wearing Josie’s necklace. The sight of it distracted Bucky, but he knew he needed to come clean to Steve.

Somehow.

“There’s, uh. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time. Steve-”

“I know about your job. That’s what this is about, right?”

“What?”

“I know you shovel fish guts. I know about your second job. I know you aren’t spending all of those nights just bowling, baby. You know, you could have told me.”

Bucky was flummoxed. Steve’s face was so open, and so earnest. “You don’t have to be embarrassed, Bucky. I know you did it for us. I was just a little worried, that’s all. You keep late nights. And you have to drive home late at night.”

“I might not have to, if the course really takes off,” Bucky reminded him, but he was reeling. Steve knew one of his secrets, but it wasn’t the secret.

“Stevie… that wasn’t all I wanted to tell you.”

“Oh? What else were you going to tell me?”

And he stared at Bucky with those gorgeous, milky opal eyes, looking expectant.

Bucky caved.

“Baby, I forgot your birthday.”

Steve gaped. “It’s… it’s my birthday?”

“Yeah, baby, it is! I’m sorry!”

“Oh, my… it’s my birthday!” Steve sputtered a laugh. “Wow! I forgot, too!”

“Hey. Y’know what? Get dressed, and call Darcy to come and watch the girls. We’re going out!”

Bucky put aside his nagging guilt and just let himself enjoy Steve’s look of delight.

*

 

The cover band was horrible. The drinks at the bar were watered down. Steve could smell the tobacco from the patio blowing in, since the owner didn’t observe his own property’s smoking ordinance to make patrons smoke at least fifty feet away from the building.

But Bucky still took his husband for a spin on the dance floor, after several rounds of pool, darts, and shuffleboard. Bucky even challenged him to a game of Galaga, and Steve managed to beat Bucky’s highest score by fifty points.

Steve’s face gleamed with sweat that also darkened the tips of his hair. He was flushed and happy, laughing breathlessly as Bucky pulled him in for another dip.

“People are staring. They’re gonna think we’re a couple of dopes!”

“Let ‘em! It’s your birthday!

Steve was buzzing already after two drinks. His throat was parched from laughing and from trying to talk to Bucky over the noise of the crowd. They spent most of their time when they were seated at the bar leaning in close, almost in each other’s laps. Steve felt the heat radiating from Bucky’s body through his thin sweater. Bucky’s eyes were glazed and shining. His hair was slipping loose from his ponytail, and his lips were rosy from the iced drinks and from eating the too-spicy buffalo wings they’d shared.

“This place is a dive! Do you always come here?”

“Just once in a while. Don’t you remember, Stevie? I proposed to you here!”

“Oh, my God… you did?!”

“Yup. Down on one knee, right in front of everybody.”

Steve laughed, shaking his head. “Was I happy?”

Bucky nodded slyly.

“Did I cry?”

Bucky nodded again, but he leaned in and told him, “And I promised you that I’d never make you cry again. Because I wanted to make you the happiest man on earth.”

Steve flushed and shook his head, but he was still smiling. He wanted so badly to believe it.

“Hey. Wanna get some air?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Before they headed outside, Bucky ordered from the server again and let her know they were headed for the patio. Minutes later, she met them at a small table with a bottle of rose and two plastic wine glasses. Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky.

“You’re spoiling me.”

“You only live once. Hold that glass so I don’t spill it,” Bucky advised as he filled Steve’s glass.

“Better not, at seven dollars a bottle,” Steve joked. “Oops. Almost lost my bottom…” He tapped the bottom back onto the glass as it worked its way loose. Bucky waggled his eyebrows at him.

“Happy birthday, Stevie.” They toasted, clinking glasses, and Steve took a less than gentlemanly gulp.

“Good stuff,” he murmured in contentment. They stood and leaned over the edge of the railing surrounding the patio, staring out at the pier. Steve shivered a little from the frigid breeze that blew in from over the water, but the night was crisp, and the sky was full of stars. The moon had a frosty halo around it reflected by the water’s rippling surface in gleaming white streaks. Bucky huddled close to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders to keep him warm. Steve groaned in contentment and leaned into it.

“This is nice.”

“Good.”

Steve looked nice in a button down shirt that actually fit - he’d picked it out from a consignment store - and a V-necked sweater that flattered his narrow frame. The dark skinny jeans made him look slightly taller. The tip of his nose was red, and his eyes were gleaming and bright.

“Bucky? Why do boats always blow their horns three times like that?” A small yacht was doing exactly that as it pulled into the harbor.

Bucky huffed, giving Steve’s shoulder a squeeze. “There’s an old legend about that. You never heard it?”

Steve shook his head. Bucky gave him another little squeeze.

“It was the legend of Arturo and Catarina. Arturo was a Portuguese fisherman. He met this beautiful girl, Catarina, and eventually they fell in love.”

Steve smiled dreamily. “Awww. I like this story.”

“Problem was, her father was a territorial governor. He didn’t think he was good enough for her little girl. He told Arturo to ship off. So, he did, and a year later, he came back and told her to meet him out in the harbor when he sounded his horn three times.”

“That’s so romantic.”

“But they couldn’t see each other through the fog. He called out to her, ‘Catarina! Catarina!” Then he dove off the ship into the icy waters. She swam out to meet him too. Then, they-”

“Kissed?” Steve asked hopefully.

“No. They drowned.”

“Oh, that’s awful. This is a terrible story!” Steve pouted, hoping that it would get better.

“Well, the legend has it that whenever the spray goes up into the air, it’s the two of them at the bottom of the ocean, finding each other. Sailors still honk their horns three times.”

“At the bottom of the ocean,” Steve mused. “Making love?”

Bucky chuckled, nodding. Steve gave him a funny look. Bucky refilled his glass. They were almost out of wine. Inside the bar, the band played an old, slow Elvis standard. The vocalist was off-key, and the speakers were a little sour, but Steve set his glass down, and Bucky followed suit when Steve’s hand drifted up to Bucky’s shoulder, and the other around his waist.

They were dancing again, a low, furtive sway under the stars. Steve’s temple pressed against the side of Bucky’s neck, making his soft hair tickle his skin. Steve felt Bucky’s heart beating through his flannel shirt, and he looked up when he felt it skip. Bucky stared down into his face, rapt. Need shone from those crystal blue eyes.

“What?”

“Bucky? How old am I today?”

Bucky’s lips quirked. He pondered the best answer to this. “Twenty-nine.”

Steve’s eyes crinkled. This particular lie, he didn’t mind.

Steve reached up and smoothed a lock of hair back from Bucky’s face that escaped his ponytail and trailed across his lips. Bucky took that as a silent invitation. He leaned in slowly, giving Steve every opportunity to tell him no, and excitement warmed his chest when no refusal came, and when Steve met him halfway.

He heard Steve’s low, breathy groan of want as he brushed his lips over his in a slow, hot caress. Steve’s fingers tangled in Bucky’s hair, and Bucky pulled him closer when Steve yielded, opening for him. Bucky tasted him, exploring the interior of his mouth, nipping at those soft lips, then sucking on them in mute apology when Steve whimpered. They came up for air after many dizzying seconds.

Steve could only stare. He was breathing hard, clinging to Bucky. “Neither one of us is in any shape to drive.”

“We’ll call an Uber. Or have Clint come and get us.”

“Clint,” Steve decided. Bucky’s smile was bleery, and the way Steve was staring at him was undoing him. He couldn’t keep his hands off of him. They were furtively kissing as Clint pulled into the lot minutes later, looking equal parts amused and disgusted.

“Geez. Get in before you two cause a scene or get arrested…”

“Big talk, coming from you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Take it you two had a good time?”

“It’s my birthday. But you probably already knew that.”

“A little birdie might have told me,” Clint scoffed. He took in Steve’s radiant smile and mouthed to Bucky over the top of his head, You’re so fucked.

Chapter Text

Nice Things

Summary: All aboard for smut.

Author’s Note: I know I diverged from the original movie’s plot a little with the appearance of Clint at the end, but I’m not going to have Bucky drunk-driving Steve home up the hill in his truck. I feel like a lot of eighties movies let drunk driving happen, even during a time when there was such a strong campaign against it. That was another pet peeve of mine when I rewatched this movie as an adult.

Overboard also had one of the most bizarre love scenes. If you’re reading this story, you’re getting spoilers, anyway, but there was this moment where they filmed Kurt and Goldie on the floor, angling the camera from under the bed. I never understood the point. Creaky bed springs? I had NO clue. I’ll be leaving that part out.

Bucky was grateful not to have to drive them home, because now he had both arms free. Steve sat cuddled against his side, half-dozing as the street lights whizzed by above their heads. Clint would grunt under his breath or tsk to himself as he steered them up the road, just glancing up at the two of them with irony. Steve’s eyes were dazed when he felt the truck roll to a stop in their driveway.

“We’re home, you crazy kids! Safe and sound! Now, get out!”

Bucky snickered as Clint let them out. “Hey. Now we can send Darcy home to you, pal.”

“Sure. You two get to get busy as soon as you walk in through that door. Go ahead, act all smug about it, and hey, Barnes? I don’t want any goddamned details tomorrow! Keep that shit to yourself!”

“Thanks, Clint,” Steve told him cheerfully.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re welcome, birthday boy. Glad you had fun.” There was warmth in his smirk. Clint gave him a little salute as he backed out. Bucky reached for Steve’s hand and urged him toward the front door eagerly. Darcy pulled it open before he could unlock it.

“Where’s the truck?”

“Clint brought us.”

“Sweet. Okay. You guys look torn up. The girls are asleep. I’m outta here.”

But her smile was indulgent. “Glad you had fun,” Darcy told Steve. She gave him a brief hug. “Happy birthday.”

“Oh, it was,” he assured her.

Darcy made it to her car before Bucky turned off the porch light and locked the front door. In the next heartbeat, Steve was on him, taking Bucky’s face between his hot palms and kissing him with renewed hunger. Bucky sighed into it, backing Steve up against the door as their tongues tangled together, and he slapped off the wall light switch, plunging them into welcome darkness. Steve felt Bucky’s hands roaming over his body, sliding beneath the hem of his sweater and lifting the hem of his shirt out from his waistband. Steve quivered when those warm fingers stroked his skin, exploring the smooth plane of his flat stomach.

Bucky’s lips traveled over Steve’s face, sliding down over his throat, nipping at his pulse. Steve arched against Bucky in response, clinging to him, gripping his hair and tugging on it. Bucky was desperate to get Steve into the bedroom - their bedroom - and to get him bare and begging. Steve kissed him like he was starving for it. Bucky wondered if Tony had ever taken care of Steve’s needs or kissed him properly, making good use of that sweet mouth. Bucky crowded him against the door, urging Steve’s legs apart with his thigh. Steve made a sound of need and ground himself down against it. He reached down for Bucky’s ass and gripped it, squeezing its generous, ripe curve.

“You’ve got such a nice ass,” Steve husked.

“So do you, sweetheart.”

“It’s yours, if you want it.”

“Jesus, Stevie…”

Bucky reached down and scooped Steve up, wrapping his legs around his hips, and he carried him the rest of the way to the bedroom. Once the door clicked shut, their hands began the race to strip each other down. Shoes were toed off, belts thumped to the floor, and buttons were pried open in haste. Their breathing was heavy and uneven as they exchanged more nipping, hungry kisses. The silhouette of Steve’s body was gracefully slim as he stood in just his briefs. Bucky enveloped him and began to touch him everywhere, giving in to the siren call of all that bare, fair skin. Steve groaned with need. Bucky’s hands felt amazing, trailing pleasure in their wake.

“Want you, Bucky.”

“You have me, sweetheart. I’m all yours.”

Bucky backed up against the bed and sank down to the mattress, pulling Steve to straddle his lap. Bucky traced the column of Steve’s spine, counting the bumps with his fingertips. He lapped at Steve’s throat, kissing a path down his sternum, and when his mouth found one of Steve’s tiny, pebbled beige nipples, Steve arched against him again, clutching at the back of Bucky’s hair. Bucky breathed over it, spiraling the tip of his tongue around that firm little nub, humming in pleasure at the salty taste of Steve’s flesh.

For so many weeks, Steve felt self-conscious about his body, wondering what Bucky thought when he looked at him. They’d gone for so long without true contact, and then there were the clothes… oh, the godawful clothes. Steve couldn’t remember the time that Bucky had described, when he’d supposedly been heavier, but he wondered if Bucky loved him at that size, before. If he’d ever touched him like he was, now. With reverence bordering on awe.

Steve kneaded Bucky’s shoulders, exploring the cords of tight muscle hardened from physical work. “God, Bucky… you feel so good.”

“I’ll make you feel good, Stevie. Hm? Tell me what makes you feel good.”

“Your mouth,” Steve told him. His body shuddered as Bucky dragged his mouth to his other nipple, suckling and teasing it like he had the first.

“You like my mouth?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll show you what else I can do with it.”

“Please… oh, please. Please.

Steve felt the nubby texture of the bedspread under his knees as he shifted to give Bucky better access. Bucky’s hands lifted Steve’s ass slightly as he bent down to nip at his ribs, and he let out a little sound of dismay when Bucky nudged him back and set him on his feet, but felt arousal jolt his stomach when Bucky reached for his briefs and tugged them down from his hips. Steve’s dick bobbed free of the restricting cotton, twitching, already leaking a pearl of gleaming wetness. “C’mere, Stevie,” Bucky rasped, right before he took Steve inside the lush heat of his mouth.

Steve hung onto Bucky for balance, feeling his knees buckle from the pleasure wrapped around his aching flesh. Bucky slowly bobbed his head, lapping at Steve’s engorged tip and humming around it. Shivers of pleasure ran down Steve’s spine as Bucky slowly established a rhythm. Steve freed Bucky’s hair from its ponytail, tossing aside the elastic so that he could play with those soft, gleaming locks while Bucky sucked him off.

Bucky.

He loved the sound of his name in Steve’s soft, ragged voice. Bucky grasped Steve’s hips and let Steve ride his mouth, pulling him down further into sweet oblivion. Steve’s dick stiffened, pulsed and twitched from Bucky’s labors, driving all rational thought from his brain. Bucky lapped at him hungrily, pulling on him like he couldn’t get enough. He caressed Steve’s body, the lean, tapered thighs, the sweet curve of that tiny ass, gently teasing the snug globe of his sac with his fingers.

“Lube?” Steve whispered.

“For special occasions. In the bathroom. Just give me a few more minutes, sweetheart. I need to taste you.”

Oh, Steve clung to Bucky, then. He feverishly scraped Bucky’s hair back from his face, watching his mouth work, rosy and stretched around Steve’s aching flesh. It was erotic, watching himself push inside, seeing Bucky’s eyes closed in pleasure and hearing him groan with contentment. Steve just caressed his face, letting his hips give in to the urge to thrust until Bucky matched his pace. Bucky was drooling a little, and Steve made a choked noise when the tip of his cock bumped up against the base of Bucky’s throat when he took him down that deep.

“God, Bucky…!”

Bucky chased Steve, shunting his face down on him, again and again, gripping Steve’s ass tight. Bucky had waited too long for his not to savor it. Bucky opened his eyes for brief, tense moments. Ride my goddamned mouth. He telegraphed those words with his eyes, a challenge. Steve felt the sexual power of that look, the insistence of Bucky’s mouth, and he took it. His hips snapped forward in a sharp, clean shunt, making Bucky’s eyes roll shut. He struggled to swallow Steve’s leaking, salty essence, and he felt himself drooling all over him, all down that slick, throbbing length, and it was so good. Bucky ignored the crick he was getting in his jaw and kept going, opening his eyes again so he could stare up into Steve’s face.

Bliss. He read it in Steve’s glazed, drowsy eyes and the way his mouth had dropped open, rosy and chapped from Bucky’s kisses. He was flushed and gleaming with sweat. Glowing. Desperate for release, just how Bucky wanted him. Bucky pushed him further, took him higher, faster, until Steve’s eyes snapped open side, and Bucky felt his whole body stiffen. His hips jerked, and he began to spill into Bucky’s mouth. Bucky groaned and took him down, every drop, pulling him through it with warm, smooth shunts, caressing that quivering body through the little shocks.

Steve stared down at him in quiet wonder and just stroked Bucky’s hair and face as he recovered. His knees quivered weakly until Bucky pulled him back down to his lap.

“I love watching you.”

“Yeah?”

“I like hearing you make those sounds. God, your face, Stevie. Look at your face.”

Steve shook his head and tried to duck his face, but Bucky reached for it, clasping Steve’s heated cheeks in his palms and kissing him deeply. “Look at you.”

Because he was seeing him. Finally seeing him, and wondering how he’d ever come this far without him.

“I want you to get the lube,” Steve murmured, “but I don’t want you to get up and leave me to do it.”

“It’ll only take a second.”

Bucky was as good as his word. Within moments, he was back, the door was closed again, and they were sprawled together, skin on skin once Steve disposed of Bucky’s boxer briefs. Soon, Steve had Bucky releasing little choked sounds of pleasure as he reached down to touch him. Bucky felt silky and hard in Steve’s palm, and it was all Bucky could do not to let him finish him that way, just letting him work him with those smooth, deft strokes until he came. Bucky urged Steve to roll onto his back, slicked his fingers and touched him, gently teasing his snug entrance. Steve’s breath hissed out between his teeth and his head tipped back into the pillows. “Please…”

“You feel so nice, Stevie.” He felt tight and tense, and Bucky pushed his finger inside, just up past one slippery knuckle. Steve shuddered, squeezing back in response. “It’s okay. Take it easy. We’ll do this nice and soft. Let me in, sweetheart. You’re gorgeous. You feel so good. I’m gonna make you feel so good after I get you ready.”

Steve nodded, and his face… God, his face looked so wrecked already. “Get me nice and ready for you, Bucky. I wanna take you. Wanna take all of you. All nice and deep and hard… make me ready for you, Bucky.”

Bucky nearly came just listening to him telling him those things in that raspy, desperate voice. Bucky gave his finger a slow, twisting thrust. Steve’s body quivered and his fingers twisted in the covers in response.

“Nice and easy, sweetheart. That’s my Stevie. Look at you taking me. Feel so nice and tight.” Bucky kissed him, distracting him a little from the growing pressure. Steve’s legs were splayed open wide, and his cock was slowly twitching back to life as Bucky pressed into him. Steve clung to him and returned his kisses fiercely, with hungry, nipping bites. Bucky massaged that tender little sweet spot inside once he found it, and Steve nearly came off the bed.

“Bucky…”

“There you are…”

“God, Bucky…”

“All nice and soft,” Bucky murmured. Bucky dribbled a little more lube on his fingers and slid a second one inside Steve’s snug sheath. Steve thrust his hips up at him, and Bucky let himself drown in his kisses. He thrust into Steve slowly, painstakingly, feeling the snug clamp of his walls ease just the slightest. His fingers flexed and twisted, and Steve looked so sexy like this, wide open and rosy, his entrance gleaming with slick. Beautiful. “Want some more, sweetheart?”

“You know I do, Buck. Please. Please, give it to me, Bucky, please, pleaseplease…”

Steve arched off the bed, stretched and full around all three fingers and pushing himself down on them to give himself that exquisite pressure. Bucky lingered there, taking his time and working Steve until he ached, until he was begging for it. Bucky’s fingers slid inside him now, nice and smooth and with less resistance. Bucky kept working him, just to enjoy the feel of him and to keep him like this a little longer, all warm and relaxed, taking pleasure from his touch.

“Like my hand? Does that feel good?”

“Yes, Bucky, God…”

Bucky kept toying with his sweet spot. “I could just stay here all night.”

“Bucky. Bucky.

“Do you want that?”

“You know what I want.”

It was an impossible choice, at first. Steve didn’t want Bucky to remove his hand and stop the sensations that were pushing him over the edge, but he couldn’t go another minute without Bucky’s cock, long, plump and inviting, pushed deep inside him. Steve’s eyes drifted open when he heard the tear of foil, and he watched Bucky roll the condom down his length. He didn’t question it.

Bucky still told him, “I’m about to make a big mess, sweetheart.”

Oh.

Bucky let his fingers slip free, and Steve throbbed with need until Bucky covered Steve’s body with his and carefully lined them up. Steve’s fingernails dug into Bucky’s shoulders as he sank down into his heat, and he bit the side of his neck. Bucky jerked at the sensation of pleasure/pain, withdrew and thrust into Steve again. It felt like coming home. Steve’s hands roamed over his flesh, and his legs gradually wrapped around Bucky’s ribs.

“Yes, Bucky,” Steve grated out. Bucky’s forehead dropped down against Steve’s neck. He felt so hot, sweet and tight wrapped around him. Steve’s ass coddled his cock so well, fitting Bucky like a glove. Bucky thrust into him evenly, listening to Steve’s broken little cries and panting breaths.

“Mine,” Buck insisted. “You’re mine, Stevie. I ain’t letting you go.”

Steve shook his head, and he tugged on Bucky’s hair to make him lean back, allowing him to look him in the face. Steve’s eyes flitted over him, reading something there that made his brows draw together. “You don’t have to.”

Bucky kissed him long and hard, and he rode Steve, wringing pleasure from that slight, compactly elegant body until he made Steve come again, painting their stomachs with his sticky release.

“I don’t know if I can… oh, God, Bucky…”

“Take a little more, sweetheart. Just a little more.”

Because one night to hold Steve and make love to him would never be enough. Bucky wanted him to remember this, wanted to etch the sensation of his touch and how it felt to fall apart into Steve’s consciousness and perfect flesh. Bucky came, feeling the climax rattle through his spine, down into his hips. He held Steve so tight as the spasms finally slowed, and he collapsed against him, spent and limp.

Steve’s hands wandered over him, swiping at dripping sweat, scraping his hair back from his face. Steve’s breath misted over Bucky’s brow. He heard the low click as Steve reached over and turned on the small bedside fan to cool their overheated flesh. Bucky shifted himself, leaning up on his elbows so he could stare down into Steve’s eyes. He leaned down to give Steve one last kiss, brief but tender, before he got up to dispose of the soggy condom. Steve tweaked the blankets in place, tucking them both in, and they fell asleep listening to each other breathe.

*

Steve woke up to the sensation of soft kisses and the covers being gently peeled back. Bucky’s lips were ticklish against his neck, and Steve reached for him, coiling his arms around him and giving him a proper good morning.

“I’m dreaming. Don’t wake me up yet,” Steve moaned.

“Sure I can’t talk you into waking up, baby? I’ll make it worth your while. Promise.”

The bedroom was filled with buttery light, bringing out caramel gold glints in Bucky’s dark hair and the faint flush in his skin. His hair was tousled. They both had heinous morning breath, but Steve kissed him back eagerly, letting Bucky press him back into the mattress.

“This is nice.”

“I wanna give you all the nice things, sweetheart.”

Steve palmed Bucky’s cheek, feeling the hint of raspy stubble along his jaw. “It feels like we’re doing this for the first time.”

Bucky’s eyes crinkled. He kissed the edge of Steve’s thumb, nibbling on it teasingly. “Every time with you feels like the first time, Stevie.”

Before Bucky could kiss Steve again, they heard a sharp, hectic knocking at the door.

“Daddy! DAD! Papa Steve! Help! Help! We need you! Come quick!”

“What the hell…?”

“Sounds urgent.”

“They’re starting in too early. Don’t worry, baby, I’ll take care of it. Hey, here, babe. Put this on.” Bucky tossed Steve a discarded undershirt and his briefs from the night before. Steve blushed. He felt disappointed that their good morning greetings had been so rudely interrupted.

“DADDY! HELP US!” That was Josephine.

“Dad, the toilet’s clogged! Hurry!” That was Doreen, but Steve could swear that he could hear Grace and Charity giggling in the background.

“Why do I not wanna know how that happened?” Steve murmured as he tugged on his clothing. Bucky hopped into his sweats and jerked open the door.

“All right, girls, what’s all the ruckus-”

“SURPRISE!” They chorused as they hung in the doorway. Josephine darted into the room and hopped into bed with Steve, smothering him with a hug. She handed him a big red envelope that had his name scrawled on it in big, shaky swirls. Gracie and Charity were giggling and holding a slightly lopsided, blue-frosted cupcake stuffed with gumdrops on a plate out to him, while Doreen hovered smugly in the doorway.

“I hope like hell you two are decent.” That was Clint’s drawl from the living room.

Steve sat in thrilled confusion. “Bucky! What is all this? Did you plan this?”

“I had willing accomplices,” he informed him. “Clint helped me out and made a little trip to Kmart before I called him for a ride home.”

“Darcy helped me pick it out last week. This guy was gonna wait for your anniversary, but he decided to give it to you for your birthday, instead.”

“What on earth… oh, Bucky!” Steve was still carrying Josie on his hip when he joined them in the living room, and he felt hot tears well up at the sight of the gleaming white, spanking new washer and dryer sitting next to his coffee table, wrapped in big red bows. He set her down and accepted another hug, then hugs from all the girls. Clint didn’t protest when he hugged him next.

“Aw, Steve!”

Bucky found his arms full of laughing, sniffling Steve. “You deserve nice things, sweetheart. It’s gonna take a while, but I wanna give them to you.”

“You’ve made me so happy. This is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

Clint gave Bucky a hard look. Bucky sent Steve to go and make the coffee while Clint helped him move the machines into the garage. They spent a leisurely day in the house, and all day, Bucky fought the nagging feeling that these were the last days with Steve and that any moment, it could all slip from Bucky’s fingers.

Chapter Text

Steve heard the crunch of gravel and leaves beneath Bucky’s pickup’s tires, and he hurried out to the porch, planting his hands on his hips accusingly.

Inside the truck, Clint grinned and waved at Steve from the passenger seat. “Uh-oh. Somebody’s in trouble for breaking curfew, buddy.”

“Nah. I’m king of my castle. That’s just my baby welcoming me home,” Bucky argued, and he felt a frisson of amusement at the expression on Steve’s face.

He was Not Having It.

Bucky grinned sheepishly as he parked the truck and climbed out. “How much trouble am I in now?”

“How much time do you have to discuss it?”

Ouch…

“Honestly, Bucky? This is what you do on the day of your grand opening? You sneak out and go quail hunting?”

“I didn’t ‘sneak.’ I just left the house really quietly so I wouldn’t interrupt your beauty sleep, darlin.’”

“That qualifies as sneaking.”

“Oops.”

“Aw, no! C’mon, Steve! We brought back dinner!”

“I’m not cleaning those,” Steve informed them, making a face at the brace of freshly killed fowl. “Good grief, there’s feathers everywhere…”

“Save ‘em. Look up how to make a down pillow on Pinterest, since you’re on it all the time now,” Bucky suggested.

“Jerk,” Steve insisted, waving him off. “When was the last time you cleaned out your truck, anyway?”

“I don’t need a piece of this domestic drama,” Clint said. “The two of you sound like Fred and Wilma right now.”

“Take those things somewhere. Through the back,” Steve emphasized. “Don’t track that mess in through my clean living room, Bucky!”

“Picky, picky…”

“And get washed up and changed. The girls are ready, already. It doesn’t make sense to be late to your own grand opening.”

“Party can’t start until I get there,” Bucky told him, treating Steve to a view of his dimples and the gleam in his eye.

Steve brandished his palm, swinging it back and aiming for Bucky’s tail section. Bucky yelped and swerved out of his reach, making Clint guffaw as they took the pheasants into the backyard to store them until they were ready to clean them. Steve humphed under his breath and examined the truck.

“What am I even gonna do with you two?” he muttered. Steve opened up the driver-side door and clucked at the mess of soda cans and junk food wrappers, wrinkling his nose at the Frito wrappers dripping with remnants of chili. “Ew. Gross. How can two grown men live like this?” Steve found a discarded, white plastic shopping bag and began to stuff the garbage into it in an attempt to tidy the truck. He dusted off the dashboard with his palm and was annoyed that his skin came away with a thick film of gray dust. “C’mon, Bucky, be better than this…”

He opened the glove compartment, searching for a rag, and he spied a wadded up, lilac purple cloth. “Aha! Here we go… oh.” He shook out the rag and noticed the fine silk and scalloped trip around the edges of the leg holes, and -

“Holy shit,” he exclaimed as he shook out the panties and felt a cold shiver run through his chest. He held them up to the fading afternoon sunlight and tried to catch his breath for several cruel seconds.

“G.S.R.,” he read aloud as he picked out the custom embroidered initials. Monogrammed panties? The soft fabric seemed to burn his fingers.

“Hey, Stevie, what’s taking you so long to -”

“BUCKY!”

Bucky froze at the edge of the porch as Steve ducked back out of the truck and held up the underpants, shaking them in his fist. “What are these?”

“Stevie…”

“What’s the meaning of this, Bucky? Why did I just find these in your truck?”

The color drained from Bucky’s face and his lips thinned. “Baby, it’s not… it isn’t-”

“It isn’t?!”

Clint appeared behind him and his blue eyes grew round. He backed up and rubbed his nape.

“Okay, this looks bad,” he muttered.

“You think?”

“Jesus… Stevie.”

“Don’t ‘Stevie’ me! Please tell me this isn’t what I think it is? Bucky, how could you? Please tell me this doesn’t mean what it looks like!”

I can’t, because it looks so much goddamned worse, sweetheart. “I didn’t cheat on you, baby, I swear!”

“You didn’t?” Steve’s voice was uneven and harsh. He waved the panties at Bucky and threw them in his face. Bucky caught them and shrugged.

“Look… we need to talk. Okay? There’s something we need to discuss that I’ve been keeping from you for a long time-”

“Something we need to discuss? Fine. Talk.”

Even though Bucky’s stomach dropped into his shoes, the words came out in rusty, resigned tones.

“These are yours. Okay? Those are yours, Stevie. That’s not even your real name.”

Steve narrowed his eyes and folded his arms. “What?”

“Those initials. Your real name isn’t Steven Barnes. It’s Grant Steven Rogers-Stark. That’s your married name. We’re not really married. I found you when you fell overboard from your yacht. You live in New York and you’re married to a guy who owns a shipping and steel industry.”

Steve began shaking his head with Bucky’s words, looking more incredulous with each one. He opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again.

“It’s the truth,” Bucky admitted, and for a moment, he could finally breathe. The truth was out, in broad daylight. He didn’t have to keep spinning this web. Steve knew the truth, now, and-

“I don’t believe you. This is ridiculous. Bucky. Bucky.

Bucky stood there, rooted to the spot. Confusion paralyzed them both: Steve, because he couldn’t believe his ears; and Bucky, because Steve wasn’t climbing into the truck and getting the hell out of Dodge at his news.

“What on earth are you saying?”

“This was all made up. The kids aren’t your kids. We aren’t really married.”

“The children… Bucky!” Steve laughed. “Are you out of your mind? Of course those are my children! We talked about this!”

On cue, Doreen led her younger sisters outside, and she had Josie balanced on her hip. Josie wore a soft, dark pink corduroy dress and knit stockings, a heavy sweater with a unicorn on it, and had her hair braided and pinned into large loops, a style that took Steve a long time to painstakingly work on, but it was worth it. She looked adorable, and Steve gave her a fond smile as they appeared.

“Hi, pumpkin,” he greeted, even though his voice had a slight edge to it.

“What’s going on? When are we leaving?” Grace asked.

“We stayed clean,” Josie told Steve. “Just like you said, Papa.”

“You don’t have to call him that,” Bucky told them. The girls eyed him with confusion, and Bucky read panic in Doreen’s eyes.

“What else are we supposed to call him, then?”

“C’mon, girls. It’s over.”

“What’s over? We’re going to the grand opening,” Doreen informed him as the girls trooped down the porch steps. “Go get ready, Daddy. C’mon, Uncle Clint, you too!”

“I’m going inside to get my phone. It’s almost done charging,” Steve announced as he brushed past Bucky and went inside. Bucky turned to the girls once Steve was out of earshot.

“What are you doing?” Bucky hissed.

“What are you doing, Dad?” Doreen demanded, as she set Josie down and squared off with him. She folded her arms and glared up at him. “Why are you trying to drive him off?”

“I’m not! I did something stupid, okay? And it’s time to tell him the truth!”

“Dad, don’t!” Grace whined.

“Nice going, Dad,” Charity told him sullenly, throwing up her hands.

“Hey. Watch your step,” Bucky warned, wagging his finger in her direction. “I’m your father!”

“Well, so is he,” Doreen pointed out. “We’re keeping him, Dad.”

Bucky did a double take. His girls were nodding adamantly; Josie’s nods made her braided loops bob.

“What are you saying?”

“He’s good to us, Daddy,” Gracie told him.

“He makes us pancakes and helps us with our homework,” Charity informed him.

“He does the bad guy voices! Grrrrrrr!” Josie explained to him, making a little growly face and brandishing little finger-claws at him. “I want Papa to stay with us!”

“Don’t ruin it, Dad,” Doreen pleaded. And her eyes looked so desperate. Bucky’s throat closed up and his eyes and cheeks felt hot.

Damn it.

“Bucky, please go get ready, we can talk about this later,” Steve said briskly as he descended the steps and tucked his wallet into his pocket along with his phone.

“We have to get this out in the open,” Bucky argued, but then, Clint nudged Bucky and shoved himself between Bucky and Steve, because the hurt, confused look in Steve’s eyes was inevitably too much for him to handle.

“Steve. Hey. It was me.”

Both of them whirled to stare at Clint. He shrugged and gingerly plucked the panties from Bucky’s grip.

“It was me, okay?”

“What are you talking about, Barton?”

“Yeah.” Clint rubbed his nape again, looking sheepish. “These are mine. Well, they’re not ‘mine’ like I was wearing ‘em, but. Y’know. I’m. I’m the one that left these in the truck. I, uh. I got. Lucky. I strayed.”

Steve’s eyes widened, and he reached for Clint, gripping his arm. “Oh, Clint, no! Please tell me you didn’t!”

Bucky knew what whiplash felt like in that moment. What. The fuck.

“Yeah. Well. It’s true. I kinda got into one of those video chats with a cam girl when Darce was out of town. And she might have come over. These went through the wash, and I forgot about ‘em. Bucky said he’d hold onto ‘em for for me until… aw. Y’know. This looks bad. I guess the jig is up.”

Bucky just shook his head, but Clint was nodding emphatically, and Steve wore such a look of stunned relief.

“Clint! Oh, my gosh, that’s… wow.”

“Please don’t tell Darcy,” he pleaded.

Steve shook his head. “Are you sorry? I mean, you won’t do this again, right? I’ll leave it up to you two to work this out, but… oh, Clint!”

Bucky threw up his hands. “Barton!”

“Hey, they didn’t call me ‘Bad Clint Barton’ in high school for nothing,” he insisted as he shoved the panties into the pocket of his flannel.

“Maybe it’s time for them to call you something else, pal.”

“I didn’t mean to drag Bucky into this. He'd never do that to you. You know that, right?”

Steve shook his head, and Clint was alarmed to see the glint of tears in those luminous, pale blue eyes of his. Then he “oof’ed” as Steve flung himself at him and hugged him so hard that Clint bit his tongue.

“Okay. Take it easy.”

“Thank you for telling the truth, Clint.”

“You’re, uh. You’re welcome.”

“Bring Darcy some flowers. Get her something nice. Okay? You guys need to work this out. She’s amazing, okay?”

Bucky couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He tugged on his hair and turned on his heel, stomping into the house.

Doreen followed him. She hung in the doorway to their bedroom and pinned Bucky to the spot.

“You can’t tell him, Dad.”

“Not if you guys keep getting in the way,” Bucky railed back. “What do you want me to do, huh? He might figure it out on his own!”

“Dad, please make him stay!” Her voice rose to a desperate pitch. “We need him, and he loves us! And he makes you happy! You’re different since he came here! I see you holding him. I’ve seen you kiss him.”

Bucky knew with that revelation and with the calculating look in his daughter’s eyes, he was so fucked.

“Dorrie. I want him to stay, too. Okay? I do. But the minute he gets his memory back, that might be it. He might leave us. And then there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Then, you’re just not trying hard enough,” she accused.

“Dorrie-”

“I’m not telling him. Neither are the girls. We love him, Dad.”

“You were never supposed to,” Bucky grumbled.

“Yeah? Well, what’s your excuse?”

With that, she walked out on him. Bucky cursed under his breath and kicked the dresser.

He took the shortest possible shower and changed into a clean pair of jeans, a blue plaid flannel buttondown, and a soft gray sweater that Nat had given him on his last birthday. A part of him needed to feel close to her, tonight. Doreen’s words chafed him and cut too close to the bone.

“Hey.” Clint was the second person to interrupt his efforts to get ready. “Are you ready to quit being a dumbass?”

“Me?” Bucky threw up his hands. “What was the meaning of that little show out there?”

“I did what needed to be done!”

“I was going to come clean! He gave me an opening, and I took it! None of us were gonna have to lie anymore! I should kick your ass, Barton.”

“Yeah? Well, I did it to protect your ass. You belong with Steve. He’s good for you and the girls. Now, go. Get your ass in that truck and spend the day with your family. With your husband.”

With that, Clint headed for his own truck, climbed in, and tore out of Bucky’s driveway. The girls sat in the back of the extended cab, while Steve waited for him in the front passenger seat, looking hopeful.

“Do you have anymore surprises for me today?”

Bucky shook his head. “None that I planned, Stevie.”

Steve quietly reached out and patted Bucky’s knee, and Bucky caught Steve’s slim, cool fingers in his grip and squeezed them.

“Stevie… I’m sorry.”

“Sorry you didn’t cheat?”

“That’s not what I mean. Just… sorry I made you worry. And that I was trying to cover that up-”

It was almost the truth.

“You can always talk to me. You don’t have to hide things from me, Bucky. You know that, right?”

Bucky nodded, and he lifted Steve’s hand to his lips and kissed his knuckles. The knot of tension in Steve’s chest unwound itself, and he left himself enjoy the golden sunlight dancing through the leaves overhead, showering them with lacy shadows as they drove down the hill.

*

 

“Sir. They’ve found him.” Jarvis handed Tony the address on the printout. “It’s rather remote.”

“Fair enough. Jarvis, call the limousine service. See if they have a Rolls-Royce. Grant will want to come home in style.”

*

The billboard for the mini-golf course was ostentatious and cost Bucky and Clint a pretty penny, but you could see it from the freeway, and the girls whooped and giggled as they drove past it and took the turn-off.

“Isn’t that nice, girls?” Steve told them, craning his neck around to grin at them.

“It’s awesome, Papa!” Charity told him.

“Do we get to play any time we want?” Grace asked.

“Of course you do, sweetheart.”

They arrived at the lot and parked, and the girls automatically ran ahead of Steve and Bucky, ducking under the velvet ropes outside the admission gates.

“This is amazing,” Steve told him. “I can’t believe you two built this!”

“You dreamed it up, baby,” Bucky reminded him. He looped his arm around Steve’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “I couldn’t have done this without you. All of this,” he said, gesturing to the different holes on the course, before he tapped on Steve’s temple, “came from in here.”

“Awwwww.”

“Man, you two are sickening,” Clint told them, wrinkling his nose.

“Can I help it if I’m crazy about this guy?”

Steve blushed and tightened his arm around Bucky’s waist. “You promise?” he murmured. “I’m not gonna find more panties in the glove box?”

Bucky shook his head. “I like the way you look in my boxers when you steal ‘em.”

“I told you. If I wash and fold, then it’s finders keepers, pal.”

“You look good in ‘em, Stevie.”

And Bucky let himself relax for a minute. Just let me have this. Please, he begged the universe. Let us just enjoy this for a while.

The afternoon became a blur of activity. The girls wanted to play the entire course. Stonehenge. The Colosseum. The Taj Majal. The Sphinx. Mount Rushmore. Every structure brought Steve’s drawings to life in stunning detail. The smells of hot dogs and popcorn from the concession stands filled the air, making their mouths water. The girls’ friends found them and gushed about how cool everything was, and Bucky felt a swell of pride. He was finally able to give them the life they deserved and opportunities they might not have had before.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was brief, and Bucky let Steve cut the blue satin length with a large pair of shears, to deafening applause.

Bucky took the microphone from the chamber of commerce head, Nick, and informed the crowd, “I’d like to thank all of you for coming out today to make Barnes and Barton’s Seven Wonders Mini-Golf Course and Midway Games course a spot on the map! And I’d like to thank the person who helped make it possible. His name’s technically on the sign too, ever since I gave him my name. My husband, Steven Barnes.”

Steve blushed to the roots of his hair, and his hand flew up to cover his mouth. He shook his head, but Bucky heard his sheepish laughter anyway.

“Bucky, c’mon…”

“Don’t be embarrassed. You helped with this. It’s yours, too.”

Bucky pulled him close and kissed his temple.

“C’mon, give him a real kiss!” Clint called out. Darcy cupped her hands around her mouth and joined in.

“KISS HIM! KISS HIM! KISS HIM!”

“Kiss him, Daddy!” Charity called out.

Steve’s nose scrunched, and he grinned up at Bucky, who was staring down at him fondly.

“I love you, Stevie.”

Steve let out a choked, “Oh, my God…”

“I love you,” he repeated, and watching Steve absorb the words infused Bucky with warmth, like watching him open the gift he’d always wanted under the Christmas tree. His whole face just bloomed. It hit him in that moment how much he could lose if Steve refused to stay with him if he ever found out the truth.

“I love you too, Bucky. So much.”

Steve reached up and cupped Bucky’s nape and tugged him down for a fervent, drugging kiss that made all of the sounds around Bucky drift away. He didn’t hear the arcade games or party-colored golf balls thudding against the bumpers or the whirr of the cotton candy machines. All he heard was Steve’s sharp intake of breath as he kissed him back, tightening his grip on him.

Steve looked dazed as they came up for air.

The crowd broke into applause. They remembered that people were watching at that moment, and Steve ducked his face into Bucky’s shoulder.

“Shit…”

“We just made a scene.”

“It’s a mini-golf course. Folks in this town are used to seeing crazier stuff happen in places like this. Just remind Clint about half of the stuff he used to get up into out in the shooting range or under the bleachers.”

Steve blushed again. “Did any of it involve me?”

“That’s a secret, babe.”

 

The same cover band from the lobster house played out on the gazebo, and Steve and Bucky cut a rug, along with Clint and Darcy, and a few of the guys from Bucky’s bowling league and their wives. The girls went out and played another round of holes, and the sun began to set just above the line of brightly colored pennants waving along the parking lot.

Josie looked exhausted from her perch on Doreen’s hip. Her mouth was streaked blue with cotton candy, and she held the paper cone limply in her grip. Charity and Grace looked worn out, too, and Steve and Bucky decided it was time to pack it in.

“I’ll close up tonight,” Clint informed him. “Take your brood home.”

“Thanks, man.”

“I get to cross this off my bucket list,” Clint bragged. “Man, I’m so pumped!”

“Feels good, doesn’t it?”

“Heck, yeah, it does!”

They piled into the truck, and Bucky stopped halfway up the hill at a roadside flower stand.

“What are you doing?”

“Just getting a little something to celebrate, Stevie. Just give me a minute.”

Bucky got out and perused the tubs of plastic-wrapped bouquets and selected a spray of blue, yellow and white daisies. He handed the vendor a tenner and let him keep the change. Steve huffed as Bucky handed him the flowers before he climbed inside.

“Might look nice on the breakfast table tomorrow morning,” Bucky told him. He leaned in and kissed Steve, making him hum with pleasure. “I want more days like this with you, Stevie.”

“All we have to do is make them happen.”

Bucky wanted to much to believe that.

They held hands as Bucky’s truck rolled up the hill, enjoying the soft music pumping through the speakers and the fresh, cool evening air. Bucky just wanted to stagger inside the house, get into his pajamas, and pile onto the couch with his family, with Steve tucked up under his arm. It had been a long day.

So, when he saw the silver Rolls parked in his driveway, forcing him to park his own truck on the grass, Bucky felt a strange frisson of dread. “Who’s that?” Steve wondered aloud. “Were you expecting company, Buck?”

“No. I wasn’t, not this late.”

Bucky cut off the ignition, and before Steve could ask any further questions, he watched a tall, burly guy in a dark suit climb out of the driver’s seat. He wore dark glasses, like a secret service guard, and Bucky paused as he climbed out of his truck as the guy opened up the rear door.

His breath felt like someone had punched it out of his lungs as Tony Stark appeared, dressed to the nines, with an expectant smile on his face.

Steve climbed out of the truck and blithely announced, :Oh, hi, Tony. I’ll be back in a second, I just have to put these in some water…” Steve rushed past him, ignoring Tony’s open arms and Bucky’s look of shock behind him. The girls looked equally confused as they climbed out.

“Who’s that guy?” Charity demanded.

“That’s a Rolls-Royce,” Doreen hissed. “He’s loaded.”

“He looks like a douchebag,” Grace whispered.

“Girls, don’t,” Bucky warned. His heart was pounding and sweat broke out across his flesh.

Tony watched Steve pass him and his expression was flummoxed. He glanced at Bucky, pointing back in Steve’s direction, then shrugged.

“Okay. So. That just happened. I mean, that was Grant, right? My husband? Who’s been missing for the past two months?”

“Yes.” Bucky’s voice was clipped.

“Then I guess you’ve got some explaining to do, there, Prince Charming.”

Bucky waited for Steve to emerge from the house. Steve didn’t leave him hanging long.

He slowly opened the screen door and stared out into the yard, pinning Tony with his pale blue eyes. “Tony. You’re. Anthony Edward Stark. I know you. You’re… you’re my husband. Your family owns Stark Industries.”

Tony nodded, smirking, pointing to Steve in a “right on the nose” gesture.

“And… I’m Grant. Grant Steven Rogers-Stark. I met you when you were a junior at MIT. I was still working on my art major at NYU until Mother told me it was a waste of time!”

“Well, it was,” Tony mentioned casually. “But you were young. You were having fun.”

“I’m Grant Rogers-Stark! Oh, my God, it’s all coming back to me now!” Steve grew giddy as the fog lifted and the memories came rushing back. “My mother is Sarah Rogers! And… I have money! Lots of it! Bucky, I have a trust fund! I mean, I came into it a while ago, but, Daddy left me so much money when he died! I even have money in Switzerland!”

“Switzerland?” Tony muttered.

“This is such good news!” Steve clapped his hands, and Bucky felt like he’d been gutted with a spoon.

Steve was oblivious. He ran down the porch steps and threw himself into Bucky’s arms. “I’m so happy, Bucky! You don’t know how much this means to me, I remember! I have my life back, and…”

Time stopped as Steve let the reality of it set in.

He slowly withdrew, pulling back to stare up into Bucky’s face. “Wait a minute.”

“Steve.”

“Hold on. You’re…” The truth registered in his eyes, and his smile dropped. “You. You’re that dirty carpenter who hates me.”

“No. It’s not like that. Stevie-:

“Don’t.” Steve backed off, and he swatted at Bucky’s hands as he futilely tried to hold onto him. “Don’t touch me.”

“Please, let me explain.”

“You can’t… you can’t just explain this. You… you held me here. You made me take care of your house. Do your chores. And, you told me we had children together -”

Steve stared at the girls, as though they held the possible answers, but he saw Doreen looking guilty, and Charity and Grace with pleading expressions. Josie just looked confused and sleepy, clinging to Doreen’s hand.

“Do you want to press charges. Sweetheart?” Tony offered. “I can have our family lawyer here by morning if you-”

“No,” Steve blurted. He stiffened. “I’m just going to go inside and collect my things, and then we’re leaving.”

Bucky felt his heart shatter.

“Dad, stop him,” Doreen pleaded.

“I can’t. I can’t fix this. I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry…”

“He’s leaving?” It hit Josephine in a rush what was unfolding. “Where’s Papa going?”

“That’s not our papa,” Charity told her. She was sniffling, and Grace was already wiping her eyes.

“Why did you have to come here?” she cried, stomping over to Tony, but his driver got between her and the millionaire.

“Touch my daughter and I’ll kick your teeth in,” Bucky warned.

“I’ll just wait in the car, Olav,” Tony told him.

Steve emerged moments later, looking despondent.

“I. I don’t have anything here.”

But Bucky noticed the macaroni necklace sticking out from under his jacket. He was taking that, at least. Even as he was leaving them behind, he was keeping a promise to a little girl who treated him like her whole world.

Bucky forced himself not to reach for him. “Baby, please… I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t try to contact me.”

“For what it’s worth, Stevie, thank you. For everything.”

Steve shook his head sadly.

Tony got out of the car and helped Steve - Grant - climb inside. Olav slowly turned the car around, heedless of the tire tracks he was leaving on Bucky’s lawn, and he pulled out of the driveway. The girls ran after the car, crying after Steve.

“Don’t go! Don’t leave us, Papa! You said you’d never leave!”

That was Josie.”

Steve’s eyes welled with tears. He turned away from the window and welcomed the distraction of Tony’s voice directing Olav to take them back to the marina. Those young, girlish voices haunted Steve for the rest of the ride.

When his staff met him on deck and welcomed him back, Jarvis actually hugged him.

It hit Steve then that Tony never did. He hadn’t even asked him if he was all right.

“Say goodbye to Elk Snout,” Tony jeered. “Care for a glass of pinot, darling?”

Chapter Text

Grant set down his Kindle for the third time that afternoon, losing interest in his new novel despite the favorable reviews and smooth prose. He just wasn’t in the mood. He took a sip of his morning latte and noticed that it was lukewarm. Jarvis appeared, even though Grant hadn’t summoned him.

“Sir?” He glanced at him anxiously, noticing the unfinished cup. “Would you like me to refresh that?”

“No. Please, just take it away, if you don’t mind. I’m sorry, Jarvis. I didn’t need my morning caffeine fix as much as I thought.” Grant gave him a self-deprecating smile. “Sorry to make you go to the trouble.”

Jarvis’ eyebrows flew up into his hairline.

“Er. No. Sir. It’s. No trouble at all. It’s my pleasure to serve you. Perhaps you’d prefer a soothing up of tea, instead? I have a nice decaf chai that I could finish with steamed coconut milk and honey? Or some chamomile? Oolong?”

“That first one sounds nice, if you’re planning to make one for yourself? You could join me, if you want?”

“Oh. Well. I have to finish a few tasks in the galley, sir. But, I can bring you your tea on the deck, if you like? Just for a change of scene?”

Grant nodded weakly. “Thank you, Jarvis. Tea on the deck will be fine.”

Jarvis backed out of his suite, leaving him despondent and alone. That was his new normal.

The staff tiptoed around him, lately. The walls of every room on the yacht seemed to hem him in, and Steve spent a lot of his time above deck, just watching the waves foaming in their wake and the clouds changing shape. Tony occupied himself with the company via teleconference and video chats, or so he assured Grant whenever he asked; goodness only knew what he was doing on that laptop of his behind closed doors.

Two weeks. Two weeks of quiet afternoons and sleeping in decadently late. Grant never had to lift a finger. Breakfast was served to him on Lenox china and Baccarat crystal. Steve had access to endless novels on his Kindle and could watch whatever movies he liked in his yacht’s private screening room. His personal esthetician and nail technician gave him facials and pedicures out on deck whenever they docked in a new marina.

He wore designer clothing that was sent out to be dry cleaned and pressed. Everything he owned was custom fit and immaculately maintained. His closet made every selection easy to reach and choose from, and he felt a pang of frustration every time he entered it.

“You said you hated it, snookums,” Tony reminded him dryly. “It’s still not cedar.”

“It’s fine, Tony.”

“We could always change it. Hire whoever you want. We’re not docked in the armpit of the coast, anymore. Plenty of decent professionals out there who know how to build something to the correct specifications.” Tony patted Steve’s shoulder. “None of them will try to brainwash you into playing house, at any rate.”

Grant paled. He rose from his seat and left the room without another word.

“Someone’s moody,” Tony muttered.

Steve made it all the way outside before the tears fell. He leaned against the rail and sobbed into the sleeve of his white cardigan.

“Goddamn it,” he rasped. “Why?”

Why, Bucky?

He felt empty and raw. How was this his life?

How.

He should be happy. Grant had everything. His health. His youth, his looks. More money than he could spend in a lifetime. A gorgeous apartment in New York City and several other properties in the most desirable locations. A private box at the Met. Luxury cars. Book clubs. Art committees. He still spoke to his mother a few times a week on the phone, and they made promises to meet for lunch. Sarah dragged him to her personal physician once she saw for herself that he was intact and unmolested. Their reunion had been tearful and anxious, and Sarah shot Tony venomous looks over the top of her son’s head as she held him tight. Sarah could be overprotective, but she loved him. Grant drew strength and reassurance from that, but he was still so confused by all of the conflicting emotions that kept him up at night.

Why had Bucky done that? Why had he kept him for so long?

Was every word out of his mouth a lie?

All Grant knew was that the man he saw in the mirror every morning felt like a stranger. The expensive haircuts and waxed brows felt excessive. Every penny he spent on casual luxuries felt like it would have been better applied to school supplies or gym uniforms or on the cable bill.

The wind whipped his short, blond locks and made the flaps of his sweater fan at his skin, blowing salty mist into his face, but it had no answers for him. Grant was so goddamned lonely, staring out from an empty, gilded cage.

 

Sarah visited him when they docked in New York, with her tiny dog in tow. Sarah’s bichon frisse was spoiled, but Grant cuddled it close for most of her visit.

Sarah took Jarvis aside. “That’s not the son I raised, Jarvis. He’s a shell of his usual self. What happened to him while he was captive?”

“He was hardly ‘captive,’ Mrs. Rogers,” he corrected her.

“You can’t convince me my son hasn’t been through an ordeal. Look at him! He used to be so ebullient. He had some starch in his spine. He wasn’t this… melancholy.” She pronounced this like it was a personal affront to all of her own efforts, and Jarvis sighed. “All right. Let’s call Dr. Wilson.”

“You’re certain, madam?”

“Of course I am. He’ll sort Grant out and get to the bottom of this. This isn’t normal for him.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. Everyone’s making a big deal about Grant. No one gave me this kind of attention back when I had my nervous breakdown.”

“No one cares about your nervous breakdown, Tony. Pipe down,” Sarah hissed.

“Well, I care,” Tony sniffed as he sipped his tumblr of scotch.

Dr. Wilson showed up at the harbor driving a gorgeous Daimler that was a testament to how much Sarah overpaid him. But his smile was infectious, and Steve found his calm manner soothing.

“Do you think you can do anything for him, Doctor?”

“That’s up to him.” Sam Wilson eyed the small buffet table of hors d'oeuvres. “Ooh. Gherkins!”

Sarah piped up suddenly, “There he is!” Steve entered the sitting room and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, making genuine contact instead of the makeup-sparing air kisses that they usually exchanged. “You look handsome, sweetheart. Is that a new sweater? That looks like Dior.”

“I have the same one in red,” Tony bragged. Sarah huffed.

“Well, Grant, it looks nice on you. We need to plan to go back to Fashion Week.”

“If you’d like that, Mother, then I’d like that.” Grant eyed the buffet’s offerings with a jaundiced eye. Everything was finger-sized. A side of him wished for some burger sliders or a Frito pie. Sarah approached the love seat and waited by the edge of it.

“Jarvis? I’m sitting,” she informed him archly. Jarvis hurried forward, lifted up the edge of her cocktail dress’s skirt, and fanned it out neatly behind her as she sat so that it would not crumple the taffeta beneath her rump. Tony just rolled his eyes.

Grant went to the buffet table and picked up the small silver tray of pate and crackers. He approached Sarah with it and asked, “Mother? Would you care for some?”

Sarah nearly dropped her wine stem. She gaped at Grant before eyeing Dr. Wilson accusingly.

“Did you hear that?”

“That’s interesting. Grant, what made you decide to pick up the tray and offer it to your mother?”

Grant looked confused and affronted. “I. I just. Thought she might like some.” He approached Dr. Wilson with the tray, and he rewarded him with a charming smile.

“Fascinating.”

“What’s so fascinating about my son performing manual labor like a common servant, Doctor?”

“Well, I’d like some, for one.” Sam helped himself to the crackers and pate, and Steve smirked up at him. Sam winked back at him.

Sarah looked like she might have an aneurysm.

Jarvis arrived to relieve Grant of the tray. Grant reached out and gently gripped his wrist to make him pause.

“Jarvis? I’d love a beer.”

Jarvis rocked back on his heels. “A. A beer. You wish for a beer, sir?”

“Please.”

“All right.”

“Did you hear that?” Sarah demanded.

“I did. A beer sounds pretty good. Might go nicely with this pate,” Sam mused. Andrew returned from the galley moments later with the beer bottle, a chilled glass and a bottle opener on the tray, but before he could serve it properly, Steve took the bottle, walked it over to the buffet table, leaned the edge of the cap against it, and neatly slapped it off the bottle. He took a deep, appreciative swig of the amber ale and smacked his lips.

“Good stuff,” he murmured.

He looked up and saw looks of disbelief on Sarah, Tony and Jarvis’ faces, but saw only amusement on Sam’s.

“I might charge more than my usual rate for a house call,” he mentioned casually.

Steve looked confused. “I just did something wrong, didn’t I?”

 

*

Bucky fiddled with the stove, wondering how Steve had managed to create so many great meals when only two of the burners seemed to work. He emptied two cans of Spaghettios into the saucepan that wasn’t quite big enough to hold it all and stirred it futilely with a spoon. Clint let himself inside the kitchen without knocking, which was fine with Bucky, since he was occupied at the moment.

“Hey. How are you guys managing?”

“Look around. How do you think?”

The kitchen was a shambles. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink again, and the living room was cluttered with shoes and toys. The dogs were sleeping on the couch, but their ears perked up at the sound of Clint’s arrival, and they came to him, tails wagging and greeted him with sloppy kisses.

“Where are the girls?”

“Out in their clubhouse. They refuse to come inside.” Bucky had converted an old toolshed into a “she-shed” for his daughters, and they occasionally used it as a space for timeouts when they were frustrated. They’d spent most of the past two weeks out there, because just like Bucky, they sure as hell missed Steve.

“Have you heard anything from him?”

“No. Which means that at least he isn’t planning to press charges for kidnapping.”

“Ouch,” Clint muttered. “Hey. I don’t wanna be that asshole that says ‘I told you so,’ so.”

“Thanks.”

“I kinda did, though.”

“Yeah. Kinda didn’t listen.” Bucky opened up a sleeve of Ritz crackers and crumbled a few on top of the soggy pasta. Bucky and Clint remained busy at the mini-golf course, which was a distraction, but his nights were lonely and his bed was too goddamned empty.

He couldn’t get Steve’s face and that look of betrayal and heartbreak out of his head. Steve had trusted Bucky. Steve had expected Bucky to provide for him, and in exchange for that trust, he had taken care of Bucky’s family and made a home out of next to nothing, within a few short weeks. He’d eaten up Bucky’s steady stream of lies, just to keep him where he wanted him. All for the sake of payback. Now, his daughters were suffering, and it was all Bucky’s fault.

“I feel like shit, Clint. I feel like a goddamned heel. I mean, when this started, it was just about the money. I just wanted him to give me back what he owed me. But… God, Clint. Steve was just… he was different than I expected. So much different.”

“He sure straightened those girls of yours up, that’s for sure. They stopped lighting things on fire. That was progress.”

“They loved him.”

“Yeah? Well, so did you, punk.”

Bucky ran his hand through his hair and tugged on it. “I can’t get that look on his face out of my head. I hurt him, Clint.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“I don’t wanna keep feeling like this.”

“You’ll figure it out. For their sake,” and Clint motioned in the direction of the backyard, “you have to.”

“I used him. I manipulated him. I just… this isn’t’ me. Right? This isn’t what I do?”

Clint sighed, shrugging, and instead of offering him another flip remark, he shocked Bucky by pulling him in for a tight hug.

“Aww. Look. You fucked up. Big time. You screwed the pooch on so many levels, Buckster. I mean, maybe you’re sitting here having a crisis because Stevie called you out on your bullshit. Maybe it’s because he’s different than you thought he was, and now you’ve gotta live with what you did and the fact that he’s gone. Because maybe, just maybe, you fell in love with that guy, and you feel like you don’t deserve him, and you’re probably right. You feel like you’ll never make it up to him, right? Because it’s hopeless, right?”

Bucky pulled back and gave Clint a wild look. “Barton, what the hell-”

Clint huffed, reached out and smacked Bucky upside the head.

“OW!”

“Snap out of it. Listen to yourself, fer cryin’ out loud. You don’t wanna keep feeling like this? Get in line. Neither do your girls. Neither do I, watching you just slide downhill like this. You wanted your payback, and you got it.”

“I don’t want it anymore. I want Stevie. Or Grant. Or whatever he calls himself. He wasn’t happy when I met him, Clint, but he was happy when he was here with me and the girls. I know I fucked up, but I can give him what he needs, on his terms, if he lets me. No more lying to him. No more spinning him a yarn about a life he never had.”

“Then how about getting up off your ass and showing him that life could be better with you in it? How about you start with a real apology? And I mean grovel. It’s time to do some serious groveling. And the thing is, don’t just keep him here expecting him to play Carol Brady or June Cleaver. Nat didn’t let you get away with that shit,” Clint reminded him.

“I know that. That’s… that’s not what I want. You don’t get it, Barton. I liked it when he argued with me. I love that he was a smartass. I just - fuck - I miss him so fucking much. He made me think we could do better. And be better.”

“Then, be better. Do better. Not just for him.”

“Fuck… I’ve gotta call the girls in to eat.”

Bucky stomped outside into the yard, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. Clint eyed the saucepan and grabbed a bowl, scooping up some of the unappetizing contents.

“Spaghettios surprise,” he muttered aloud. “Bon appetit.”

 

Bucky knocked on the door of the clubhouse, and Gracie lifted up the slatted window shutter.

“What’s the password?” she demanded.

“Come and eat,” he grumbled. “C’mon, girls. Come inside.”

“Daddy, we’ve got a plan,” Charity informed him.

Doreen actually opened the door and wandered out to talk to him, but her expression was still sullen. “It’s a dumb plan,” she told him.

“Is not!” Charity shouted, shoving her, earning herself a shove in return.

“Hey! Knock it off! Calm down!”

“Daddy, we need a boat!” Josie piped up.

“Yeah!” Charity told him. “We have about fifteen bucks that we pooled together. We can rent a fishing boat and go after Steve! We can find him and ask him to come back!”

“This is a job for Captain America!” Josie added, eyes shining with excitement. Bucky hated to bust her bubble. He scrubbed his palm over his stubbled jaw and sighed.

“A fishing boat isn’t fast enough to catch a yacht. Captain America can’t help us get Steve back. Put that iea out of your minds.”

“But we’ve gotta do something, right Dad?” Grace wanted to know.

“He’s not coming back. He hates me now, okay? I’m sorry, all right? All of this is my fault. Please, girls… just come inside and eat.”

Josie howled and stomped her way back into the clubhouse and slammed the door.

Bucky rolled his eyes heavenward. Well. That went well.

Clint watched them thoughtfully from the back door of the house, munching on his spaghettios. “Okay,” he muttered. “Okay.”

*

 

Sarah stayed another couple of nights, much to Tony’s annoyance. She occupied one of their guest suites along with her dog, and she snored peacefully wrapped in satin pajamas and piled under layers of luxurious bedding, with a black velvet sleeping mask over her eyes. Princess, her bichon frisse, wore a matching custom-fitted mask, too; the veterinarian claimed it helped with the dog’s anxiety. If Grant didn’t begin to come around to his baseline, Sarah knew they would have to take extreme measures. Perhaps an inpatient stay for “exhaustion.” It was a fashionable, discreet diagnosis.

Tony occupied his den on the yacht, sitting atop the bar in his pajamas and bare feet. A half-empty tequila bottle sat beside him, and he hummed into a tall, bronze vase just to hear his own disembodied, deeper voice echoing back up at him.

“Tofuuuuutti. Tofutti, where are you?” he groaned. “You owe me another samba… Tofuuuuuutti…”

Between his moping husband and hostile mother-in-law, there were so few places on his boat that he could escape. Tony longed for warmer days of dancing on deck and letting the rest of the world assume his spouse had been lost at sea, leaving him a poor, unfortunate yet still attractive bachelor. The fates weren’t always kind.

 

Grant found other ways to occupy his time. His suite felt lonely, and over the past few days, he realized that making eye contact with his crew and actually smiling at them and asking how their days were going went a long way toward having adult conversations. Grant followed the sound of rumbling male laughter toward the galley, and he found his yeoman, first mate, a couple of his technicians, and Jarvis all enjoying chilled beers and small bowls of snacks.

Grant gently rapped on the doorframe. “Knock-knock?” His voice was soft and full of entreaty. “May I join you?”

Jarvis gave him an enthusiastic nod. “Of course, sir! Pull up a chair! Better yet, here, I’ll get that for you!” He ushered Steve to the counter and fetched him a bar stool. “Would you care for a beverage, sir? Some of the ‘good stuff’ that you’ve asked for of late?”

“Well… hold on.” Grant motioned to his technicians, who looked like they were about to leave. “Good stuff? Let’s redefine ‘good stuff.’ Put your money where your mouth is, guys.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Shots, Jarvis! I know we have tequila on this old tub! Come on, now!”

His first mate clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Now we’re talking!”

Jarvis grinned. “Let me find the shot glasses.”

Within minutes, Jarvis, ever the capable butler, had small plates of lemon and lime wedges and shakers of salt lined up across the marble countertops.

Grant poured everyone their second round, grinning wickedly, and everyone in the room was shocked that his face was capable of such a look. Those pale blue eyes were twinkling. Absolutely unthinkable. This wasn’t the socialite and walking migraine that they knew and loathed. This man had a soul, and a sense of humor!

“Okay, everybody ready? All right! Lick! Salt! One, two, three, drink!” They tossed back the expensive tequila, letting it burn all the way down. Grant whooped, and everyone in the galley paused for several seconds, until Jarvis reached for his wedge of lime first and bit down deeply into it. Grant growed, and everyone in the room chortled at him for tapping out first.

“I knew it! I knew it, Jarvis! I called it! Pay up!”

“No fair! No fair! We need another round! Johnson grabbed his lime before I did!”

“You sucked first, Ed!”

“Oh, bollocks!”

They made small talk and munched on cocktail nuts and Chex mix, and Grant felt some of the tightness in his chest ease. It was a nice distraction, and it helped not to feel so alone, but he kept glancing wistfully through the porthole toward the coastline.

Jarvis sensed his melancholy coming back, and the crew looked tired. “All right, let’s wrap it up, gentlemen!”

The first mate and the captain shook Grant’s hands, and the yeoman stepped forward and gave him a kiss on each cheek, making him giggle. Grant’s crew trooped back out to the engine room while Jarvis began to clean up.

Grant re-capped the bottles of tequila and gathered up the empty beer bottles.

“You don’t have to do that, sir.”

“I like feeling useful, Jarvis. I hope you don’t mind?”

His voice held a plaintive note. Jarvis shook his head and smiled.

“Not at all, sir.” They continued to tidy up the counters, discarding the depleted wedges and dusting up crumbs. “Oh. Before I forget, sir. I found your cufflinks. Try not to lose them again.”

He handed Grant the small sapphire and diamond cufflinks, and Grant stared down at them in confusion. “Again, Jarvis?”

“Indeed, sir. The last time, I believe you told me ‘Jarvis, I seem to have dropped my cufflinks somewhere between Forty-Fourth,” and he mimed blowing his nail polish dry and fanning the air, “and Forty-Eighth Street. Find them..”

Grant’s smile dropped, and he gave Jarvis a look of contrition. “Oh, Jarvis. I’m so sorry. I’ve treated you so badly. You’ve always done so much for me, and I’ve never made any effort to say thank you.” Guilt flooded him when he realized the extent of his poor behavior, and Grant wondered if the rest of his crew had similar experiences in dealing with him that they discussed when he was out of earshot. The warm, muzzy blur of tequila began to fade, and Grant was left with the truth about how he thought of himself, liking the man he saw in the mirror each morning a little less.

Jarvis’ expression softened. He gave Grant’s shoulder a warm pat. “Apology accepted, sir.”

“Oh, Jarvis. Everyone thinks I’m crazy around here, now. Do you, too?”

“Oh, sir, not at all! Are you yourself?” Jarvis shrugged. “Perhaps we’re just seeing a different side of you, and it will take a bit of getting used to. I’d like to think that you’ve grown, if you forgive my temerity in saying so.”

Grant blushed and shook his head sadly. “You’re being too kind.”

“You deserve kindness. Don’t doubt that. Let me tell you something, sir. So many of us are limited by the stations that we are born to. We walk around with blinders on. But you have had the rare privilege of escaping yours for just a spell, and I feel it’s given you an entirely new perspective. What you now do with that knowledge is entirely up to you.

Grant gave him a tight little smile, and the two of them went back to cleaning up.

Grant retreated back to his suite. Tony was asleep, snoring lightly with all of the covers tossed askew. He changed into his pale blue pajamas and eased into bed, but he lay awake for a while, musing.

What you do with that knowledge is entirely up to you.

“Up to me,” Grant murmured.

He wondered how he ended up there, literally drifting on a course that he never set. Grant married Tony to meet his mother’s expectations. He ran in the right circles, knew the right people (although there were so few of them that he truly considered “friends” instead of “colleagues” or “acquaintances”), wore the right clothes, drove the right car. Grant wondered when he stopped being an artist and simply became a husband and a business partner. He missed the scratch of pencil on paper and the pride he once took in creating something with his own hands. When he was with Bucky, it came back to him, natural as breathing. Cooking. Making curtains. Braiding pigtails. Draping slipcovers. Repainting the face on the new scarecrow once Bucky built it.

How did he end up with no one to hold? To kiss? Who would tell him that they loved him? Who would offer to keep him warm, sharing blankets and oversized flannels? Who would tell him that he made the best pancakes? Who would make him macaroni necklaces now, and play him a shaky, faltering tune on the piano and smile up at him with so much pride?

Who would call him “Stevie” in the dark, between cool cotton sheets?

Grant longed for autumn picnics and burnt hot dogs and playing badminton with a crooked net. He wanted to watch school plays and field hockey games while he warmed his hands around cups of cheap cocoa. Bucky’s face haunted his dreams, and his body craved his touch, gentle and ardent. Grant argued with himself every night that what Bucky did was wrong, but the biggest crime he committed was making Grant love him and his four sweet daughters when he would only, always have to walk away.

Grant wanted a life that included grade schoolers, middle schoolers and high schoolers reminding him that he had “no chill.” He wanted Josie to ride his feet while he walked her around the living room and wanted Doreen to act bored while he was cooking but to still hang over his shoulder while he baked banana bread.

He wanted Bucky to watch him whenever he entered a room with those, deep, soft, blue-gray eyes that crinkled when he smiled.

Did Bucky love him? And if so, could Bucky love this Grant? They hated each other at first sight, and Grant cringed at his past behavior. He thought back to the shabby condition of the house when he first set foot through the door. Bucky had been barely surviving. He was the only adult taking care of four children, and Grant had stiffed him the money he owed him over a detail like the wood that he chose to build the damned closet.

Of course Bucky had to be angry and frustrated. Grant took food out of his daughters’ mouths.

Grant didn’t just want to be a decoration on Tony’s arm or the other name on a couple’s country club membership. He wanted to be a husband, and a partner. And just as importantly, a father. Maybe “Grant” had been horrible to Bucky, but “Stevie” could be someone he could love. Maybe Grant needed to remind him that they were one and the same.

Who was going to help Bucky handle the books of the golf course?

Grant wondered that to himself as he eased himself back out of bed and shoved his feet into his slippers. Who was going to help the twins with their pre-algebra homework? Who was going to rub Bucky’s sore shoulder when he inevitably overextended himself?

He hurried off to the engine room and spoke to the captain. His crew looked confused by his appearance there, but they greeted him politely.

“Captain. I need you to do something for me.”

“Name it, sir.”

“Change course. Turn this boat around. I want to go back to Elk Cove.”

“Elk Cove? We’re back on course to get to the Florida Keys by tomorrow afternoon!”

“I know that, and I’m so sorry, but this is important. I left some unfinished business behind. I need to get back there, right away.”

His voice was gentle but firm, like his grip on the captain’s arm.

“It will be my pleasure, sir.”

The captain turned the wheel, and his first mate accelerated the gears. The Immaculata changed course sharply, stirring up a rough, frothy wake behind her.

Sarah found herself rolling out of bed and landing on the floor of her suite with a thud from the momentum. Princess yelped and hopped down into her lap, licking her face.

“What the hell is going on here?”