The sink is the last straw.
The hallway light that flickers when you open the closet wasn’t the last straw. The toilet cistern that makes a noise like a gunshot when it refills wasn’t the last straw. The bedroom radiator that remains stone cold whatever Steve did wasn’t the last straw. Steve glares down at his kitchen sink, the water in it murky brown and refusing to drain away.
This, Steve thinks. This is the last straw.
He grabs his keys and stomps out into the hallway, lights flickering as he thunders over to the stairwell. The elevator is still out of order, and has been since he moved in three months back. The landlord had said not to worry, he wouldn’t be climbing four flights of stairs each way for long, it would be taken care of immediately.
Pietro is clattering up the stairs, dressed in his biking gear, as Steve is going down. He gives Steve a wave as he runs past, messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and is gone before Steve can wave back. His bike is propped up against the wall on the ground floor, and Steve steps around it on his way to the last room down the hall. He glares at the number on the door, the zeros hanging crookedly, and hammers his fist on the panel.
A zero detaches completely, dropping to the thin carpet with a clink.
The door cracks open, and a tousled blond head pokes out.
“Uh?” Steve’s landlord blinks at him. “Steve, right?”
“Mr Barton.” Steve looms over him, and he’s a man who casts a long shadow.
Barton yawns, scratching his nails through the stubble on his chin. “Is it rent day or something?”
“No, Mr Barton.” Steve folds his arms across his chest. “And it won’t be until that elevator is up and running.”
Barton looks at him blankly. “Huh?”
Steve, despite his size, is not exactly good at being threatening. He’ll go tot-to-toe against an asshole causing trouble, or a guy who won’t take no for an answer from a girl. Or littering. Or talking in the movie theatre. But he needs something to rail against, and this guy in 4-day-old sweats reeking of pizza and dog hair is firing up all his Help Him instincts when he’s trying to muster up the Fite Me ones.
Steve sucks in a breath. Okay, so they’re on first name terms now. “Clint.” He tries again. “I appreciate that the rent on this place is low, but that doesn’t absolve you of providing a certain standard of living.”
He gives Barton, Clint, and expectant look. Clint scratches the nape of his neck for a few minutes.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Steve snaps. “The elevator is still out of order! The water pressure in my apartment is inadequate, the electrics are a safety hazard and my sink is blocked again.”
Clint rocks back on his heels, as if every word were a physical blow. He guy looks used to taking a beating.
“Look,” Steve says, a little more quietly as he reigns his temper in. “I pay you rent. And you provide me with accommodation to a certain standard. I’m just asking you to keep your end of our agreement.”
“Uh.” Clint glances sideways, and over his shoulder Steve can see a kitchenette drowning in dirty coffee cups and empty beer bottles, old pizza boxes and dirty clothes piled up on the floor. A sandy-coloured dog snores away in the midst of it, on top of a purple jumpsuit of all things. “I’ll call the elevator people again. Maybe this time they’ll show up?”
“Thank you,” Steve says. When Clint makes to shut the door, he rams his boot against the frame. “And my sink?”
When the door hits Steve’s foot and flies open again, Clint mutters under his breath. It sounds suspiciously like ‘Aw, door’.
“Bucky Barnes in 107,” Clint says, much louder.
“Is he the maintenance worker here?”
“He is now,” Clint gives Steve’s foot a gentle shove, and shuts the door in his face.
There’s little point in staring at the door once it’s shut, but Steve stares at it anyway. He raises his hand to knock again, but lets it drop. Back up the stairs it is.
He moves Pietro’s bike to one side, making sure no one will trip over it on their way out.
Damn kid needs to slow down a little, Steve thinks churlishly, and stomps up to the first floor.
Despite having lived there for a few months now, Steve hasn’t met half of his neighbours, holing himself up in his private little fleapit and getting lost in colours. There’s Wanda and Pietro across the hall, twins, one too loud and the other much too quiet. Wanda mumbles under her breath in a language Steve doesn’t understand, while Pietro is loud and brash and constantly moving. He’s met the lady downstairs a few times, and gave some colouring pencils he was never gonna use to her kids. He’d gotten a picture shoved under his door for that, of Barton dressed up as Robin Hood or something. It’s up on the refrigerator.
He’s met Grills a couple of times, the old guy hammers on his door and shouts an invite up to the roof whenever he’s having a cookout. Steve listens intently when he does, but still hasn’t quite worked himself up to going up there.
Next time, he tells himself, he’s a terrible liar.
He’s never stopped on the first floor before, and pauses on the landing, looking from side to side. He’s pretty sure there’s only two apartments on each floor, so how can someone live in 107? Barton (don’t call him Clint, he can’t stay mad at a name like Clint) must be giving him the runaround.
Steve clenches his jaw, and walks over to the nearest door. It’s unmarked, and when he pulls it open it reveals a broom cupboard. A mop sits in a bucket, a broom leaning against the back wall, and on a shelf there is a clutter of bottles and a few dusty looking rolls of toilet paper.
Steve pushes the door shut, and moves along.
So he owes Barton an apology, because the next door along is marked 101, but someone has gone over it with a sharpie, turning the 1 into a 7.
Steve raises his fist and knocks.
Beyond the door there is a complete lack of sound. No creaking of furniture, no footsteps across the floor, and Steve lets out a yelp when the door suddenly opens, and the maintenance guy stands before him.
107 brushes a strand of shoulder-length hair back, tucking it behind his ear, and Steve’s mouth dries up.
He’s tall, maybe an inch or so less than Steve, all lean muscle and tension beneath the layers of t-shirts and hoodie. Behind the fall of his shaggy chestnut brown hair are blue eyes, creased at the corners. 107 folds his arms across his chest, watchful and wary.
There is something about him, about the way he holds himself, like a dog all too familiar with a well placed kick but still comes when called. It sets off every last one of Steve’s Help him instincts, and a fair few other ones that involve getting bent over a table and are Not Helpful.
His left hand, the one tucked into his armpit, is silver. It’s well-hidden, under long sleeves and the bulk of his body, but Steve catches a glimpse of it as he leans against the doorframe.
“Can I help you?” 107 asks, what was his name? Stop thinking with your dick, Rogers. Bucky. That was it.
“Uh.” Steve pushes paint-streaked fingers through his hair, trying to flatten it down and only getting cadmium yellow everywhere. “Bucky?”
107 nods. “So they tell me.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
“I’m. Uh. I’m Steve Rogers, up in 402?” Steve points upwards, as if the concept of floors is a thing that needs explaining. Bucky, if that really is his name, follows the line of Steve’s finger to the ceiling, before returning his gaze to Steve himself. It lingers this time, slow and almost predatory, and Steve shifts from one foot to the other. “My sink’s blocked again, and Clint, uh, Mr Barton said to come see you.”
Bucky’s mouth ratchets up a little at the corner. “Seriously?”
Steve nods. “You’re the maintenance guy, right?”
“I’ll be damned,” Bucky murmurs. “I am.”
Bucky follows Steve up the stairs to the fourth floor. Steve fidgets with his keys, casting glances over his shoulder the whole way up. They guy has no toolbox, no supplies, nothing, he’s just following Steve, silver hand shoved in his pocket.
When they reach Steve’s apartment he fumbles his keys, dropping them on the floor and cursing under his breath. He finally gets the key in the lock and the door open, holding it out so Bucky can come in.
Once they are inside Steve regards his apartment with fresh eyes and sags inwardly, he should have cleaned up a little. It’s not terrible per se, there’s books scattered across the couch and half-finished canvases propped up against every wall. And tubes of paint and pencil shavings and empty chip packets, and okay he should have cleaned up. It’s not like he was expecting company.
“Oof.” Bucky waves his hand (the flesh and bone one, the silver one still awkwardly hidden away) in front of his face. “You trying to kill yourself, Steve?”
He hadn’t noticed how strong the smell of paint fumes was while he was here, but after a little time outside Steve realises that the place reeks.
“No,” Steve sputters. “I just…”
“Ventilation,” Bucky announces, walking over to the window in search of fresh air.
“It’s stuck.” Steve calls after him. “I can’t get it open.”
Bucky glances back at him before pushing his hands against the sash window. It doesn’t budge, swollen wood and too many layers of paint sticking it fast. Bucky grunts, trying to get his fingers under the base, but there’s no room to work with.
“Yeah, that’s stuck,” he agrees. “I’ll have to come back to fix it.” He looks far too happy about that, turning around to take in the room. If he takes any offence at the state of the place he doesn’t show it, and points to the kitchenette. “In there?”
Steve follows Bucky like a lost dog in his own apartment, watching from a distance as he moves dishes out of the sink and stacks them up on the counter. While he’s bent over the sink Steve stares vacantly at his back, divining the play of his muscles under all the layers of clothing.
“You got a bucket or something?” Bucky asks after a few minutes of poking around.
Steve lets out a startled little grunt, his attention having shifted to Bucky’s ass at some point in the silence.
“Yeah.” A blush rises up Steve’s throat, and he rubs his face, flustered. “I’ll just go…” He gives up on making sense and fetches the bucket from his closet, and hands it over.
Bucky opens the cupboard under the sink, sweeping aside the half-empty bottles of bleach and window cleaner that Steve doesn’t remember buying, and shoves the bucket under the waste pipe coming down from the sink.Once it’s in place he sits back, one hand against the floor to brace himself. “Don’t suppose you got a wrench handy?”
Steve looks around, even though he knows the answer is no. What the hell would he be doing with a wrench?
“Never mind,” Bucky hums thoughtfully. “This should work.”
He reaches under the sink with his shining silver hand, and grasps the top of the U bend. Steve watches as his shoulders bunch up, and then the screw fitting gives way with a loud gurgle, dirty water spilling over Bucky’s hand as he unscrews it the rest of the way.
The smell is enough to make Steve gag. He turns away, hand over his mouth, while Bucky unscrews the other end of the U bend and drops it in the bucket.
“What the fuck?” Steve wheezes as Bucky stands up, bucket in hand. His other hand, the silver one, is smeared in stinking black slime from fingers to wrist.
“Grease,” he says, giving the bucket a shake. “Coffee grounds, maybe baby wipes?” He pokes at the contents with a finger, and Steve hiccups in disgust.
“Don’t touch it!” he retches, and the corner of Bucky’s mouth ratchets up a tiny bit more.
He carries the bucket into the bathroom, and washes out the U bend in the sink, whistling to himself.
Steve really wishes that the living room window opened, and takes himself off to the bedroom. At least that one opens, and he can hang his head out in the fresh air until the whole thing is dealt with, cute ass be damned.
“All clear!” Bucky calls out after several minutes of Steve staring glumly at the fire escape. He straightens up, looking around to see Bucky wander into his bedroom, drying his (hopefully scrupulously clean) hands on a towel.
He looks almost relaxed. There’s still that tension around his eyes, an economy in his movements, and Steve hastily kicks the nearest dirty t-shirt lying on the floor towards the laundry basket.
“I’ll bring the bucket back…” Bucky says, pausing to pick up a book lying at his feet, turning it over to read the synopsis on the back cover. “...when I fix the window. Can I borrow this?”
He holds the book up: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.
So long as he’s taking away the bucket of slime Steve is willing to agree to anything. “Sure.”
Bucky turns to the door, then stops, slowly turning back. “Don’t be so hard on Barton, okay?” Bucky says slowly. “He’s doing his best.”
Steve snorts. “He’s a shitty landlord.”
“Yeah, well,” Bucky sighs. “He’s got enough with the avenging, you got any problems you come see me, alright?”
Bucky gives Steve an odd look. “You know he’s an Avenger, right?”
“Barton?” Steve coughs out a startled laugh. “Clint Barton, our landlord, is an Avenger?”
“You didn’t know? Isn’t that how you met?” Bucky nods to the door. “That’s how he found the twins. You saw what happened in Sokovia.”
Steve vaguely remembers the TV on in the care home, the sound off so as not to disturb Ma while she was sleeping. The reports of Novi Grad tearing from the earth’s foundations and rising up into the heavens.
“Shit,” he murmurs.
“They had no place else to go, so once Pietro was out of hospital Barton said he had a room going spare.” Bucky flicks through his book. “Bit more than a room, so it turns out. How did you end up here?”
“I was looking for an apartment. And I couldn’t afford anything in Brooklyn after Ma died, so I came out here… because… it was cheap… and…” Steve swears under his breath. “I got adopted just like you guys, didn’t I?”
“Welcome to the family.” Bucky salutes him, book still in his hand, and heads out the door.
After a minute of stunned silence, Steve skulks back to the kitchen. The stinking bucket and Bucky are gone but the sink drains perfectly, and smells faintly of bleach.
Mollified, he sets the water running, and goes back to cleaning his brushes.
Bucky doesn’t come back the next day, or the day after. On the first day Steve barely notices, waking up with the sun and poking at his latest piece until his back aches and the shadows across the room lengthen. On the second day it bothers him, and he puts off going out to the store in case Bucky comes over while he’s out. On the third day he’s out of coffee and a little bit pissed, so stalks down to 107 to have words.
He stomps down the stairs, working up a good head of anger, and pulls up in front of Bucky’s door. The man still has his bucket, damnit.
When he knocks, a little too forcefully, the door creaks open, revealing the apartment.
Where Steve’s place is cluttered, Bucky’s is… sparse.
Sparse is putting it nicely.
There is no couch, no coffee table, no TV. Hell, it barely looks like anyone even lives there. A bookcase has been cobbled together out of chipped breeze blocks and planks of wood against one wall. The splintered shelves are filled with remaindered paperbacks, dog-eared and torn.
“Bucky?” Steve calls out, stepping over the threshold.
The kitchenette is the only place with any signs of habitation. An electric kettle sits on the counter, a mug upside down on the draining board by the sink. There are packets of cookies and candy bars piled on top of the fridge, but it’s the notebook Steve is drawn towards, left askew on the kitchen counter.
Steve takes a few more steps into the room, hand reaching out for the book. He pulls it back at the last second. What the hell is he thinking, rummaging through a stranger’s possessions?
He takes a step back, a scrap of paper crumpling under his shoe, and bends down to retrieve it. It’s a piece of page torn from a paperback, a jagged edged scrap of random words without context.
Now that Steve is looking he can see more pieces of paper, wedged under the kitchen counter and along the skirting board. He picks up another piece, reading the name across the top, and behind him Bucky clears his throat.
Steve spins around, handful of paper held up like a shield, and sees Bucky in the doorway. He doesn’t look pissed that Steve is rummaging through his stuff, or at least not as pissed as he should be. There is a jar of dill pickles cradled in the crook of his arm.
“What are you doing, Steve?” he asks slowly, making no attempt to move out of the doorway.
Steve opens his mouth to explain, but catches a word on the edge of one of the pages. The book must have been one of those old prints where the author’s name was on the top of each page, and the word Bester pokes out from under his thumb.
“This is my book?” Steven frowns at the scraps, and then Bucky. “This is my book!”
Bucky’s mouth twists. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
While Steve struggles to think of anything else to say other than variants of ‘you tore up my book, you dick’, Bucky comes in, nudging the door shut behind him. He carries his jar of pickles over to the counter but doesn’t put it down, and unscrews the lid.
“You want a pickle?” he asks, taking one out and biting the end.
“No, I do not want a damn pickle,” Steve snaps. “You tore up my book.” You dick.
“Yeah, it… uh… didn’t sit right with me.” Bucky crunches through the rest of the pickle. “I’ll buy you another one.”
“I don’t want another one.” Steve sputters. “You can’t go around wrecking up other people’s property.”
Bucky glances at him, and fishes another pickle out of the jar. “Still doesn’t explain what you’re doing in my apartment.”
Steve’s mouth shuts with a click of teeth. Bucky cradles the jar, hugging it to his chest, as if he expects Steve to grab it and smash it on the floor or something.
“You never came back,” Steve says finally. “To fix my window.”
“Course I didn’t,” Bucky snorts. “Gotta find you a new book first.”
Steve sighs, lowering his fistful of paper shreds. “It’s fine,” he says, deflated. “Forget about it.”
It’s just a stupid book, and like most classic sci-fi uncomfortably misogynistic. Steve can live without it. He watches Bucky taps his silver fingers against the jar, fretful and silent.
“I’ll take that pickle now,” Steve says, a weak attempt at making peace.
The pickles were from Simone across the hall, the lady with the little kids. Nice kids, Bucky tells Steve with the kind of mild shock of a person unaccustomed to spending time with children, and surprised to find that they’re not actually little demons.
Her hot water was out, and with the weather getting colder she had been understandably worried. After all, kids need a lot of washing, don’t they? The water had been a half day’s work, and Simone had provided him with endless cups of coffee while he worked, and a sandwich and home made pickles at lunch.
It was a small thing, but it seems to have stayed with him, so after the water was working Bucky had looked around for anything else that needed taking care of. He noticed black mold in the bathroom, and that kind of thing isn’t good for a kid, right? So he’d torn out the damaged plaster and replaced it, and when it was dry painted it with some kind of mold resistant bathroom paint.
Simone had wanted to give him something for his hard work, but Bucky wasn’t going to take money from an already struggling single parent, so he’d asked for some pickles.
Steve has to admit that they’re pretty good pickles, crunchy and sour with a little kick from black peppercorns. Luckily Bucky has no qualms about sharing, and they work their way through half the jar, the story of their gifting coming out in fits and starts.
“Alright.” Bucky screws the lid back on and finally puts the jar down on the counter. “Let’s see about that window.”
He has a bag already prepared, filled with sandpaper and paint scrapers and wax, and most of a paperback book in little pieces. Steve’s stomach, full of pickle juice and peppercorns, turns over at the thought of Bucky avoiding him over a goddamn book. A book with characters names like ¼main and @kins, Jesus Christ.
Bucky follows Steve up to his apartment, silent as ever. Steve has to look over his shoulder a couple of times to make sure he’s still there, and how does he walk up the creaking stairs so damn quietly?
Once in the apartment Bucky takes a look around at the room, settling his bag of supplies down by the window.
“Can we move this stuff outta the way?” he asks, pointing to the canvases propped up everywhere. “Maybe clear the table?”
Steve starts gathering up the pieces, moving them to his bedroom while Bucky gets to work.
“Why do you have them all over the place anyway?” Bucky asks, scratching at the gap between window and frame with a paint scraper. “Why not, I don’t know, hang them up or something?”
“They’re not finished.” Steve says, picking up a few books from the table. He pauses, watching Bucky’s back as he stretches up to work on a top corner. “Or I’m not finished.”
“Uh-huh,” Bucky grunts. “How does that work?”
“I…” Steve looks down at the books in his hands. “I don’t like what I make,” he says at last. “I paint something, and all I see is what’s wrong with it. All the things that don’t match the idea I had in my head.” He sighs, putting the books on a shelf. “So I keep them out and I make myself look at them until I’m. I don’t know, until I’m okay with how they turned out. Maybe if I give it long enough I’ll be proud of them.” He glances up to see Bucky staring at him, eyes wide. “What?”
“Nothing.” Bucky shakes his head, turning back to his task. “It’s just. Something to tell the therapist.”
Steve’s mouth moves before his brain engages. “You have a therapist?”
Bucky nods, pointing to his bag. “This thing isn’t shifting, can you hand me that chisel?”
Steve doesn’t ask when he hands over the chisel, of course he doesn’t ask. It would be rude. And inappropriate. So he doesn’t ask.
“Okhuyet,” Bucky mutters under his breath. “Steve, I can hear you thinking it, spit it out.”
Bucky doesn’t have a hammer with him, so uses the flat of his silvery palm to drive the chisel into the layers of paint. Steve flinches at the first few strikes, half expecting the window to shatter, but it holds firm.
“Weekly sessions with a therapist is part of my plea bargain with Shield.” Bucky answers the question Steve still can’t bring himself to ask. “That and living under the close supervision of a primary Shield agent.”
“Shield?” Steve’s brow furrows. “Aren’t they, like, Homeland Security or something?”
Bucky turns to give him another wide-eyed look. “You don’t watch the news, do you?”
“I watch the news,” Steve bristles. “I’ve just… had other things going on.”
“Yeah?” Bucky finally gets the window open. “Like what?”
Steve watches as he reaches up and fiddles with the top of the sash, and carefully lifts the window up.
“Give me a hand, would you?” Bucky asks softly. “You’re taller than me, you should be doing this anyway.”
Steve comes over to help, lifting the window out of it’s frame. The rush of cold, crisp air is invigorating as they carry the pane over to the cleared table and set it down.
“My mother died,” Steve says quietly. “Cancer. It took a long time.”
Bucky straightens up to look at him, but Steve keeps his eyes cast downwards.
“A year, pretty much. Surgery, then two rounds of chemo before she couldn’t take any more.” There are flecks of paint under his nails, digging into his skin. They shouldn’t hurt as much as they do. “Even with insurance the bills wiped out her savings. And the hospice. And the… the funeral.” he heaves out a sigh, resting his hands on his hips. “Ain’t enough that she’s gone. I couldn’t afford a place in Brooklyn after that-”
“So you’re out in Bed-Stuy,” Bucky finishes.
“Yeah.” Steve risks a glance his way, and finds no pity in Bucky’s careworn features.
He’s tired of pity, it achieves nothing, helps no one.
Bucky hands him a sheet of sandpaper. “You work on this, I’ll do the frame.”
Steve looks over at the gaping hole in his apartment, a cold wind blowing through. “You need a coat or something, it’s getting cold.”
Bucky grins, sudden and bright, like Steve just said something funny. He shakes his head, and gets back to work.
After a few minutes, Steve goes to his bedroom to fetch a sweater, the room getting colder with every passing minute. Bucky seems fine with it, humming to himself as he runs the scraper over the jagged edges of dried paint. Maybe all those layers of t-shirts are keeping him warm, or he’s used to the cold.
When the frame and window are sanded down to Bucky’s satisfaction he gives all the raw edges a few coats of wax, and together they lift the window back into place.
Bucky’s hands are cold when they brush against Steve’s, and he shivers in sympathy.
Once in place, the window moves up and down easily, though not exactly smoothly. Bucky is good, but he can’t work miracles.
After all the effort in getting it open, Steve feels a little guilty about closing it up, trying to get some warmth back into the room. Bucky doesn’t seem to take offence, packing up his supplies and dropping them into his bag after carefully piling up the shredded copy of Steve’s book on the table.
Steve watches, tugging at the sleeves of his sweater, and points to his shelves. “You want to borrow another?” He clears his throat, feeling like an idiot. “Maybe bring it back if you don’t like it this time?”
Bucky hesitates, his gaze flicking from the shelf to Steve, suddenly wary again.
“You pick,” he says after a moment. “You pick one.”
Steve walks over to the books, drawing his finger along the spines. He settles on one, a bit foolish maybe, but maybe it’ll make him laugh. He hands it over, and Bucky looks at the cover with a scowl.
“Yeah,” Steve shifts awkwardly under his glare. “It’s about Death. It’s good, I think you’ll like it.”
Bucky looks unconvinced, but adds it to his bag. “I’ll bring it back,” he promises.
“You’d better,” Steven answers with a smile.
Steve misses Bucky the next time he comes by, out on a ridiculous search for the right brand of oil pastels, and finds his copy of Mort on his doorstep, whole and unharmed.
He flicks through the pages, looking for damage or clues, but there is nothing to be divined from them. He carries it into the apartment, pushing the door shut behind him.
He doesn’t expect the piece to come out anything like he plans, but he sets up his easel, lays out his pastels and cloths and tools, and gets to work.
There’s a knock at his door the next morning, and Steve quickly covers up his project before going to answer it. He cracks it open to see Bucky standing in the hallway, Steve’s missing bucket in hand.
“Hey.” Bucky raises his hand in an almost wave, and Steve takes a step back, opening the door to let him in.
“Hey, Buck.” Steve shuts the door behind him. “You after another book?”
Bucky snorts, lifting up the bucket. Inside is a cloth and a weird looking bit of metal. “Radiator. The one in the bedroom’s the one you’re having problems with, right?”
Bucky doesn’t wait for an invite, sauntering off to Steve’s bedroom. Steve hastens after him, scooping up the dirty laundry scattered around the floor and dumping it in the hamper in the corner.
Bucky sits down on the floor next to the radiator, turning the dial on the side down to zero. He takes out the cloth and weird little doohickey from the bucket.
“What are you doing?” Steve picks up a couple of books, cramming them in his already overstuffed bookcase.
Bucky holds up the bit of metal, it looks like the kind of thing you open a can of sardines with, only chunkier and made of brass. “My guess is there’s air in the radiator,” he says, tapping a little pockmark high up on the end. “If it’s full of air, water can’t flow through, so no heat. Take out the air, problem solved.”
Steve watches as Bucky presses his flesh hand to the side of the radiator, feeling for warmth. He won’t find any.
“You want some coffee?” Steve asks while he communes with the plumbing.
“Black,” Bucky answers quickly. “Lots of sugar.”
By the time Steve is back with the coffee, Bucky is putting the long-suffering bucket up against the side of the radiator.
“Coffee.” Steve hands it over. “Three sugars.”
“Perfect.” Bucky takes the cup and sips at it, still a little too hot, and puts it on the windowsill.
Steve sits on the edge of the bed watching as he inserts the little key into the pockmark and twists his wrist. There is the slightest hiss of air, and a dribble of water.
“I was a-” Bucky stops, clears his throat, and pauses to push the cloth under the key and catch the drops of water spitting out. “I was a soldier, apparently. At least that’s what they tell me. Got my arm blown off by an IED or something, I don’t remember. You ever heard of Hydra?”
Steve isn’t that out of touch. “Yeah.”
“They snatched me up. Gave me a new arm, fucked with my head. Brainwashing, conditioning, a lot of fancy-assed words for treating a person like a thing.” Bucky sighs, his shoulders gaining tension. “I was their puppet, their attack dog, for a… for a really long time. I did a lot of things, unconscionable things, and Barton was sent to take me down.”
“Barton?” Steve asks. Maybe the landlord really is an Avenger.
Bucky ignores him. “The guy had every reason to hold a grudge, but he made a different call.” The sputter of water becomes a thin stream. “I got deprogrammed, which was a lot harder than it sounds. And then. Well, I was a security risk. They weren’t gonna put me back out on the streets, not with my record, but I wasn’t gonna be an attack dog again, not for Shield, not for nobody. Not so long as I have a say in it.”
Bucky turns the key, and the stream of water slows to a trickle and finally stops. “Barton offered me a place here. I said I wouldn’t take no charity, and he said fine, you can be the maintenance guy.” Bucky’s mouth tilts up, not quite enough to be a smile. “Didn’t think he meant it.”
His story told, Bucky picks up his coffee and takes another sip, wetting his lips before setting the cup down carefully. “Do you want me to leave?”
“No.” Steve’s mouth jumps the gun again, running off before his brain is in gear. His next words are more considered. “Why are you telling me all this?”
Bucky’s shoulder twitches up. “Figured you ought to know.”
Bucky sucks air between his teeth, tilting head to the side. “You got a girlfriend, Steve?”
The rapid change in subject is enough to makes Steve’s head ache. “No, nor do I plan on getting one,” he says flatly. “I’m an artist living in New York with an absentee father and mother issues.” He huffs out a breath. “You do the math.”
Bucky bows his head, shoulders shaking, and Steve is pretty sure that rusty sound scraping up his throat is a laugh. Bucky manages to pull himself together and turns the heat back up on the boiler. He gets to his feet with unexpected grace, collecting up the bucket, rag and key.
“I gotta go check the pressure in the boiler downstairs,” he says, taking a last swig of coffee. He glances up at Steve again, eyes crinkling. “Can I come back?”
“Yeah.” There is something, unseen but there, a gossamer thread stretched between them. “I gotta pick out another book for you to read.”
Bucky gives him a sloppy little salute, two finger to his brow and then sweeping out, and heads out the door without a sound.
Bucky doesn’t come back that day, though Steve picks through his books until he has a small pile of books to loan. Then he remembers what Bucky had said by the radiator and goes through them again, tossing out half of them and cursing himself for lending him Mort of all things.
Jesus Christ, no wonder he tore up The Demolished Man.
Steve puts The Bourne Identity back on the shelf, no amnesiac assassins today, thank you. he takes out Maurice instead. Adding it to the pile feels a little bit like pitching a house brick through a front window.
Steve picks up the stack of books, heart set in more ways than one, and takes them downstairs. He doesn’t knock on Bucky’s door, instead leaving them in a stack by the door.
Task complete he heads back to his warm apartment, and goes back to his oil pastels. He sets up a fresh sheet of paper, something new in mind.
Steve is just cleaning up when there’s a light tap at the door. He wipes off his hands and chucks the towel onto the couch on the way to the door, cracking it open to find Bucky in the hallway holding a six pack of beer.
“Hey.” Steve holds the door open. “I was just gonna come down and see if you were in.”
Catching hold of Bucky has been a bit hit and miss of late. He dropped by one afternoon to fit a water pump, and was done in an hour. Steve should have asked him to stay, should have ordered in a pizza and suggested a movie or something, but by the time he’d thought to ask, Bucky was gone again.
Books have passed back and forth in the meantime, Steve trekking down the stairs to leave them at Bucky’s door, and coming back to his apartment to find books waiting for him.
Bucky seems to consider it before coming in, hefting up the beer as if by way of explanation. “Grill’s having a cookout. Thought you might wanna come.”
Steve’s first instinct is to say no. For once he swallows down the answer, and points to his easel by the window. “I made you something.”
Bucky follows him into the room, bottles of beer clinking together as he walks, and comes to a stop in front of the easel.
The bottles in his hand rattle when he looks at the picture, though his eyes give away nothing.
“It’s not my best work,” Steve admits. “But I tried to-”
Bucky doesn’t move. He doesn’t speak, and the rattle of glass seems to grow louder.
“You know what, forget it,” Steve backtracks in a panic. “I’ll throw it out, it was stupid, I just-”
Bucky sets down his beer and moves closer to the picture, cocking his head to one side as he studies it.
It’s him, rendered in rich oil pastels. In the picture Bucky stands, his thumbs tucked into his back pockets. Hips are tilted, his weight rests on one foot, his face in profile as he looks at something beyond the canvas. His hair is a tangle, but there are glimpses of blue between the twisting strokes of russet and umber. The colours contrast with the faded burgundy of his customary layers of t-shirts, a glimpse of silver at his wrist. Every crease and wrinkle has been carefully drawn, giving him a soft, rumpled appearance.
“It’s me,” Bucky murmurs, scarcely believing.
“Yeah,” Steve nods. “I just wanted you to see how I see you.”
“But.” Bucky turns to face him. “This is-”
“Beautiful,” Steve finishes. “Because whatever you were before, whatever you were forced to be, this is you. This is what you choose to be. And I…”
He leans in, slow enough that Bucky could back away if he wanted, and presses his lips to the corner of Bucky’s mouth. Before he can pull back Bucky turns his head, chasing Steve’s lips, and kisses him back.
One kiss leads into another, and then another, until there is barely anything to set them apart. Steve’s hands find their way into Bucky’s hair, fingers twisting as their lips part briefly, only to experience the delight of meeting again.
Steve could gladly stay that way forever, or at least until they get a little more horizontal and a lot less dressed, but Bucky has other ideas, damn him.
“You should come up to the roof,” he says, his voice a sweet rasp in Steve’s ear, his hands cradling Steve’s hips.
“Hmpf.” Steve is graceless in the face of adversity. “I like it here.”
Bucky kisses him again. “So we come back.” Another kiss, slow and filled with promise. “After.”
It’s hard to frown when Bucky holds him close, kissing at the wrinkles on his brow before they form completely. Steve has never backed down from a challenge, and perseveres with his grimacing.
“Who’s gonna be there?”
Bucky stops kissing him, which is positively unfair. “The neighbours. Katie is back in town I heard.”
“Katie?” That’s a name Steve hasn’t heard before. “Is that Clint’s girlfriend or something?”
“Nah, his protégé.”
Steve nods. No way on earth Clint could be in a-
“The Red Scare is his girlfriend, and she’ll be there,” Bucky continues. “But, we’re kind of keeping our distance after the whole trying to kill me thing.”
“What?” Steve tenses up like a bowstring. “She tried to kill you?”
“Yeah, but I did shoot her first, so…” Bucky shrugs, before giving Steve a sympathetic pat. On the ass. “It’s been a weird couple of years.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve mutters, half-sceptical, as Bucky gently leads him to the door, and all that waits beyond.