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To Be Vulnerable Is Needed Most Of All

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Steve's Play List:

Perturbator - Shadow Force '84
Bryan Ferry - Is Your Love Strong Enough?
Queens Of The Stone Age - I Am Designer
Nine Inch Nails - All Time Low
Depeche Mode - Enjoy The Silence
The Who - Behind Blue Eyes

 

"Ugh, this page is fucking killing me," Nat whines over Skype.

Steve smiles and sits back, looking over the page he's just pencilled, flexing the fingers of his drawing hand. "That bad?" he asks.

Natasha huffs dramatically. "I never have this kind of hassle when I colour your pages, Rogers. Honestly, Hill is a goddamn sadist and I'm her masochist, except I'm totally not getting off on this."

Nat is working as a colourist on the comic book series Steve is currently drawing and a limited series with Maria Hill, probably the most anal artist Steve has ever met, and he's pretty anal about his own work.

Steve has been working as a full-time comic artist for two years now, after about three years of working part-time in a supermarket and drawing his ass off the rest of the time, finally getting a chance to do some fill-in pages for a small comic publisher and working on a million other projects. He's been working on his first big series for the last four months with Nat. He still has to pinch himself now and again to remind himself that he's doing what he always dreamed about for a living.

Steve was reluctant to talk to Natasha Romanov when they first started working together nearly two years ago on a terrible four issue series; not because he didn't like her, but because he was too damn shy and she had a reputation for being far too cool. He had managed to stave her off with emails for as long as possible until she demanded a Skype conversation to talk about another project they'd been working on. Much to Steve's surprise, they had hit it off straight away, conversations coming easy and an online friendship had soon struck up. Nat is hilarious and blunt and it didn't take her long to figure him out and decide that they were a good working team as well as friends. He had finally met her face to face at a comic con they were both guests at and she had batted away his out-stretched hand and pulled him into a hug so hard, Steve had bitten his tongue.

Steve and Nat talk a lot over Skype while they work; being a freelance comic book artist is a great job but can get kind of cabin fever-inducing. Half the time they're online, they barely even talk, just work and occasionally remember that the other is there at the other end of the line, Nat often piping in with insults about his music tastes and Steve telling her to fuck off, but he notices that she always turns off whatever she is listening to and lets Steve play his own stuff.

Steve lives alone so Skyping and Facebook messaging (mainly with Nat and his editor, Sam,) are his main source of human contact given his heavy workload, which is pretty damn sad. Mrs Nesbit, the old lady who lives on the first floor that Steve sometimes picks up groceries for, doesn't count as she's constantly trying to set him up with her granddaughter, some Harvard student called Peggy, and every conversation he has with her always seems to steer towards that awkward subject.

"Well, the pages you'll get off of me this week are pretty simple. There's like one whole double-page spread that's just a snowfield," he replies, considering a panel.

He can hear the smile in Nat's voice when she answers. "That's what I love about you, Steve; your minimalism."

Steve laughs and picks up his mechanical pencil again. He hears clattering in the background and Clint, Natasha's husband, shouts from their kitchen.

"Tell Steve his artwork in issue 3 gave me a boner."

"Clint says you gave him a boner," Nat says nonchalantly.

"Yeah, thanks Clint," Steve shouts back.

There's some shuffling on the other end and Clint's voice, louder, at Nat's desk. "Honestly dude, that issue was like AMAZING. You are one talented son of a bitch."

Steve grins and rubs a hand on the back of his neck, "Well, it was okay but I still need to work on my - "

Clint and Nat groan together. "Rogers, for fuck's sake - take a goddamn compliment," Clint says. "Just say, "Thanks Clint." Say it."

Steve sighs and smiles. "Thanks Clint. Thank you."

"Better. Stop being so modest, you're making the rest of us assholes look bad."

There's a beat of silence and then Clint gives a laugh. "Steve, what the fuck are you listening to? It sounds like a bad 80s action film."

Nat groans. "It's that Retro New Wave junk he's obsessed with."

"Hey," Steve says mock defensively, "Perturbator and Power Glove are fucking geniuses, so you can both go and shove it." Nat and Clint snort in unison, one of the many weird symbiotic things they do that freaks Steve out.

"You just like anything that sounds like old videogame music, you uber-nerd," Nat says but not unkindly.

"Well, on that note," says Clint and Steve hears him kiss Nat. "See you later, gorgeous. You too, Nat."

Natasha tuts and Steve laughs. He hears her apartment door slam shut.

"Where's Clint off to at 9pm on a Monday night?" Steve asks, erasing a line that's a bit too wonky for his liking.

"Some bro thing at a sports bar. Guys from his archery club. He'll come home all boozy and handsy, I guarantee it. But hey, I'll take any action I can get."

Steve giggles. There's a moment of comfortable silence as they both work, listening to Steve's music, and then Nat says, way too casually, "So speaking of action - "

Steve groans and makes a face, aware that Natasha can't see it but making one anyway. "No, no we weren't speaking of action."

"Oh come on, Steve! Just tell me you've got someone interested, or have a date any time in the next century..."

Steve sighs and sits back, dropping his pencil. "No, it's all very quiet. No-one on...any horizon," he says softly and maybe a bit sadder than he'd intended.

He hears Nat give a soft sigh. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel bad. I just want to know that some hot guy is lusting over you in some manner."

Steve takes off his glasses and puts them on his desk, then laces his hands behind his head and stares up at his ceiling. "No, you didn't make me feel bad. It's my own fault. I've been using deadlines as an excuse to not do anything in...that department. I just...it's hard. I'm not very good at it."

"An introvert's life doesn't have to be a lonely one," Nat says. "Why not try speed-dating again? You met that Brock guy through one of those things, right?"

Steve makes a noise. "Yeah, but Brock was...he was nice and all but we didn't have anything in common really, and I think he was looking for someone a bit more...less terrified. And not such a loser."

"Steve, you're way too hard on yourself." When Steve starts to protest Nat just gets louder and talks quicker. "You're an awesome guy; you're really funny, incredibly sweet and decent, stupidly talented and you're hot, you are. I'm starting to worry that Clint wants to have sex with you because he's always saying how hot you look when there are any photos of you at a comic con online..."

Steve barks out a laugh. "Well, if you guys ever get divorced then I guess I have that option."

Nat laughs too, but then her voice softens again. "Just give yourself some credit, Rogers. People think a lot of you. You just need to start thinking a lot more of yourself."

Steve swallows the lump rising in his throat. "Thanks Nat", he says quietly. "It'll happen when it happens. I'm just not one for...casual stuff."

"You are so old-fashioned," she replies, but he can hear the fondness in her voice.

He folds his arms on his desk and rests his head on his arms. "I didn't want this conversation to end with me in self-pity mode again. I've done way too much of that lately."

"We're all allowed to wallow a bit. But hey, if it makes you feel any better, my friend Lori saw that picture of us at Insight-Con and practically blew her lady-load. She wouldn't stop asking about you. So even if YOU don't think you're sexy, the ladies do."

Steve gives a small laugh. "I'm flattered but unless she's got a huge cock, I'm not really interested."

Natasha shrieks and gives a loud cackling laugh. Steve never says stuff like that and she loves being shocked by anything dirty he says. It doesn't happen a lot.

"Holy shit, Steve!" she chokes out between laughs and Steve laughs with her for a few minutes, always pulled in by Nat's infectious giggles.

"Okay, well I guess this is as good a time as any to hang up on you," Nat says, sniffing and, Steve can visualise it, wiping away a few laugh-tears. "I can't believe I get to see you again week after next at Ultron-Con; I can't frikkin' wait. God, such a lame name for a convention."

Steve chuffs. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to 3 days of being teased by Tony."

Nat groans. "Yep, I look forward to him sleazing over everyone."

"Well, as much as I hate to say it, without Stark I wouldn't be working on this series."

Nat snorts. "Believe me, his writing isn't half as good without our artwork. Oh, which reminds me - make sure you send me anything you want printed for the con. Lori can get some stuff done on the sly where she works. You should totally reprint your Icons Of Horror posters."

"I think I will. Thanks, Nat."

Steve can hear Nat shuffling some papers about on her end. "Well, I guess I'd better go and get my lady-parts prepped for Clint's drunken return later."

Steve makes an over-exaggerated "ew" and Nat laughs. There's a beat and then: "Oh my god, is that Bryan Ferry?"

"It's from the Legend soundtrack!" Steve exclaims.

He's pretty sure Nat is rolling her eyes. "Steve, you have the worst taste in music, like ever."

Steve snorts. "You and Clint like Nickelback so I think I pretty much win this round."

Nat starts to protest and Steve cuts of Skype before she can say anything else. He smiles and immediately taps out a message to her.

captain_rogers: luv ya :)

Natasha replies almost immediately.

black_widow: you suck

***

Steve stacks his completed pages and puts them aside on his desk, ready to start inking in the morning. Sam has approved everything besides the 2 pages he pencilled today and he emails them over, knowing that Sam will call him in the morning. He's looking forward to the inking because it means he can just zone out to music or Netflix. He likes not having to think so much, especially about himself. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He knew that Nat would eventually ask him about his love life and was dreading yet another conversation about "getting out there" and all that shit. He knows he has to make an effort, but his shyness and lack of confidence always get the better of him.

He'd never been good with girls in high school, and then when he'd realised he actually liked boys, not much better with them either. Brock had been the exception; he had been funny and handsome and had seemed to genuinely like Steve, but Steve had been so wound up about what to do, how to act, it had eventually put Brock off and they'd parted ways. It had been amiable, but they hadn't been in touch since.

He switches off his laptop at about 12:30am and pads to the bathroom to brush his teeth. His one bed apartment is small but comfortable; a fortress of books, comics, DVDs, videogames and music. Someone to share it with would be nice, and he feels a pang in his chest. He glances at his reflection as he brushes; he honestly can't see any kind of hotness and thinks Nat is talking out of her ass (again). He's a bit on the lean side, gets ill way too often (considering he's alone most of the time, what is he catching from who?), hair always doing the opposite of what he wants it to do. He has nice eyes, that's about it. They're bright blue and Brock had been fond of staring into them as often as he could when they had been dating. He takes off his black-rimmed glasses as he brushes and squints at the mirror. He doesn't get any better looking.

Natasha had once sent him an email of cut-and-pasted tweets and forum comments by fan-girls about his eyes as a confidence booster and he'd grown redder and redder with each one. She had made the mistake of mentioning this to Bruce Banner, another comic artist, at a convention last year and Tony had overheard and now sang "Behind Blue Eyes" to Steve every time he saw him, crooning dramatically.

Steve sighs. It has less to do with his looks, and more to do with him. He is way too shy, easy to embarrass and blushes beet red at the drop of a hat. He wears awkward like a bad shirt.

He wipes his mouth and turns off the light, carrying a glass of water to his bedroom. He sits on his bed and picks up his journal from the side-table, starting to make a list of all the things he needs to do before Ultron-Con, not including his book deadlines. He sighs and rests his head on his pillow; not much room left for a love-life anyway.

***

"Cut the check!" Sam shouts loudly into Steve's ear when he answers his phone the next morning, almost knocking over his mug of coffee.

"Hi Sam," Steve winces, but smiles with relief because that always means that Steve has no amends to make - his pages are all approved.

"Awesome work as ever, dude," Sam says. "Holy hell, page 18? I think a bit of piss came out when I saw it."

Steve erupts into laughter and Sam laughs along with him. "But seriously, Steve - great job. You just seem to get better with each issue. I think you should be prepared to get a hell of a lot more interest in the next couple of months because this series is your ticket, I'm telling ya."

Steve huffs. "Nah, it's only because Tony Stark is writing it; it's got nothing to do with my artwork."

"Bull. Shit. Just because the guy is writing a show for AMC doesn't make him Comic Book Jesus. This book would be nothing without you." There is warmth in Sam's voice and Steve smiles and remembers Clint's not-so-subtle advice from last night.

"Thanks Sam. Natasha does a pretty good job of making my stuff look better though."

Sam gives a little laugh. "Always the gentleman. I was thinking of offering Nat a couple of covers to do, artwork and everything. What do you think?"

"I think she'd be totally into it," Steve says. Nat is an unbelievably good artist in her own right and rarely gets any other stuff to do besides colouring at the moment. Steve knows she'll jump at the chance.

"Cool." He hears Sam lean back in his squeaky chair. "So, how's things?"

Steve walks into the kitchen and puts his mug in the sink. "Yeah, pretty good. Busy, but I can't complain about that. I'm really enjoying drawing this series."

"Well, we love having you on it. You're like one of the most modest artists we've ever had. I keep expecting you to suddenly go full-on diva on us but you don't."

Steve laughs. "I don't think I'd even know how to be a diva."

"Don't do it, man. You're a nice guy who hits his deadlines and doesn't complain. It'll get you far."

Steve gives a soft laugh, wishing he could apply his professional aspects to his personal life. "I hope so."

"Okay, I need to give Nat a call and get her on these covers. Take it easy, Steve."

"Thanks Sam. Bye." Steve hangs up and leans against the sink, suddenly a bit less motivated than he was to get started on his inks. Apart from crossing the street to pick up some food from the grocery store, he hasn't left his apartment in about four days. He glances out of the window. The sky is clear and blue, just a few wisps of cloud. He slips his sneakers on and grabs his messenger bag before he can let himself change his mind. It's new comic book day and he wasn't planning on going to the comic book store until tomorrow, but screw it. He flips his laptop on stand-by, noticing a message from Natasha before he does. Maybe he'll pick her up a gift from the comic book store, just for being awesome and the only really good friend he has.

Steve locks his door and trots down the stairs. There are boxes in the second floor corridor and the door to 2E is open. Someone new must be moving in. He tries to have a look as he passes but doesn't see anyone. He collects his mail on the way out of the building and smiles as soon as he heads down the street; the day is warm and the fresh air feels good. His spirits lighten a bit. He'll let himself wallow later on.

***

It's 12:45pm by the time Steve is back at his apartment building, a third of a way through a bag of strawberry Twizzlers. He picked up a ton of new comics and a Funko Pop Tyrion Lannister for Nat, which she's been harping on about for ages. He knows she'll go ape when she sees it and gives himself a grin. He's heading up the stairs to the second floor when he hears a loud thump and someone shout: "Ah, shit! Watch out on the stairs, I dropped a fuckin' box!"

A cardboard box filled with stuff, most of it spraying out every which way, comes rolling down towards Steve and he drops his bags instinctively to grab it. The comics slide down the steps and out of the plastic bag, fanning out in the lobby, followed by his messenger bag. Luckily, the rogue box doesn't have anything breakable in it: A few books (Steve spies some Harlan Ellison), a pair of muddy sneakers, a bunch of towels and Tupperware tubs minus the lids.

Steve starts to gather the loose items and put them back in, looking up as the box's owner descends the flight of steps towards him. A guy about the same age as Steve, longish hair falling in his face, wearing a black hoodie, jeans and weirdly, bare feet. He's holding his left arm awkwardly at his waist.

"I'm so sorry, man. I was trying to carry too many at once and it just went." The guy looks up at Steve with huge grey-blue eyes, brow knitted in embarrassment.

Steve shakes his head. "It's okay, nothing breakable in here." He sets the books on top of the towels.

"I don't give a crap about this stuff. Are you okay?" He glances down the steps. "Aw, shit. You dropped all of your bags."

Steve laughs quietly, "Honestly, it's okay." He looks up at him again, and Steve's breath catches slightly as the guy's brow un-knits and he gives a relieved grin. He's...wow. He's really cute. Steve looks down quickly, hoping to God that he's not blushing and rests the box on a step. He's about to say something when the guy in the hoodie passes him on the stairs and starts to gather up Steve's comics and his messenger bag.

"I'm really sorry," he says as he picks up the books. Steve notices that he mainly uses his right hand to do it, the left arm still at his waist, a black glove covering his hand.

Steve follows him down and picks up his messenger bag. "It's really okay, please don't worry about it." He catches a whiff of something like coconut from the guy as he hands Steve his stuff.

"Cool - you like comics?" he asks, slightly more at ease. He tries to cross his right arm over his left a bit.

Steve gives a little smile. "Yeah, I uh, I draw them. For my job. I mean I read them too, but I work on a couple of books. None of these though..." Babbling. Idiot. He gives himself a mental slap.

The guy raises an eyebrow, impressed. "Seriously? Like published?"

Steve nods, instantly feeling like a hack for mentioning it and attempting to impress a perfect stranger. A very cute perfect stranger. "It's no big..." He kind of trails off.

"That's awesome! I can't draw for shit. You must be good if you earn a living from it." He relaxes a bit, resting his right hand on his hip and Steve finally realises the guy's left arm is prosthetic.

He just looks down at the comics in his hands and says, "I'm...okay, I guess."

The guy gives a warm laugh. "Wow, so much confidence." He holds out his right hand to Steve. "I just moved in to 2E. Well, almost." He indicates the box on the stairs. "I'm Bucky."

Steve takes Bucky's hand and shakes it, hoping that his own palm isn't clammy and he doesn't feel like a wet fish. "Steve. I live up in 3C." Bucky's hand is warm.

"Well, this wasn't the way I wanted to meet the neighbours but I'm glad it was you I dropped a box on and not some old lady or something. I don't think I could live with myself if I brained a senior citizen with my towels."

Steve laughs softly. They head back up the stairs and Bucky grabs the box with his right hand and hauls it up under his arm. Steve isn't sure whether to help him or not; he doesn't want to assume that Bucky needs the help, but also doesn't want to seem like a dick by not helping. They reach the landing and Steve sees more cartons just outside Bucky's door.

He immediately picks one up, heavier than the one that fell down the stairs and turns to Bucky, not wanting to just waltz into his apartment.

Bucky gives him a grateful smile and Steve feels relieved. "Thanks, man. I've been at this all morning and was slowly losing the will to live."

Steve follows him into the apartment. It's pretty much the same layout as his own place, but with a nicer couch and a green kitchen. He puts down the box with the others that have been moved in and goes back out into the hall to pick up another one. "No problem. It sucks moving in on your own; I did the same."

Bucky kicks another box through the door into the small hallway. "Yeah, I don't have any friends here really. I was in Boston before this for a bit. I'm from Brooklyn originally, though."

Steve brings in the last box and sets it down. "Yeah, me too. Never really left New York."

Bucky puts his right hand on his hip again and nods at Steve. "Thanks so much, Steve."

"No problem." He clears his throat awkwardly and indicates to the door. "I'll, uh, leave you to it." He shuffles to the door. Come on, you idiot, he hisses to himself, don't leave this hanging. Just go for it. Fucking talk to him. He turns when he gets to the door and flounders a bit.

"Um, if you need like, a cup of sugar or anything...," Yeah, smooth Steve,"...I'm just upstairs. Or y' know, not sugar but if you want...to hang out?" He just about manages to stop himself wringing out his hands.

Bucky brightens a bit. "3C, right?"

Steve hopes his smile isn't too obvious. "Yeah. I'll...see you." He exits, just managing to not walk into the door frame and pretty much runs upstairs and to his own apartment.

***

Natasha reacts as expected to the Tyrion Lannister toy, shrieking at the photo Steve sends across.

"You are too awesome, Rogers," Nat says and Steve hears exaggerated kissing noises close to the microphone of her laptop.

"No tongue," Steve says and Nat giggles.

He finally managed to get started on inking a page after the whole Bucky thing, feeling a bit light-headed and flushed when he got inside the door of his own place. Whether Bucky would actually accept his invitation to hang out was another matter but Steve just wanted to bask in the moment and feel proud that he'd actually done something. It's a small victory for him.

He hears Nat coo approvingly as Depeche Mode comes on. They work in silence for a bit.

Steve clears his throat. "So, um, I met this guy who moved in downstairs. Seems okay."

There's a beat of silence before Nat clears her own throat and says, "So, um, that was so not smooth and you are terrible at hiding the fact that you are obviously interested in some guy who just moved in downstairs."

Steve groans and Nat gives a wicked cackle. "God, Steve! So come on, who is he, is he cute, gimme."

Steve huffs a sigh. "His name is Bucky - "

"Bucky?"

" - he's...uh...very cute - "

"Bucky?"

" - and he's got a - "

"His name is Bucky?"

"YES! BUCKY! BUCKY BUCKY! It's probably a nickname, jeezuss!"

Natasha howls with laughter. "Calm down, Rogers! You'd better hope he didn't just hear you screaming his name like a maniac!"

Steve groans louder and throws his pen down. Natasha has this whole ice maiden thing going on when they're at comic cons: She greets people with a smirk and raises a casual eyebrow at comments and pretty much has people wrapped around her little finger basking in how cool she is. Yet she's a complete goofball behind closed doors. He's heard her singing along to songs off-key and in as high a pitch as she can, while him and Clint scream with laughter. She was the one who decided that anytime Clint says "It would be my genuine pleasure," (which he says a lot) he has to eat a spoonful of garlic puree. Clint often says she's wasted on being an artist and should have gone into something involving espionage or mystery shopping instead.

"Nat..."

"Okay, I'm cool. I am genuinely excited for you."

Steve picks his fine-liner back up. "Nothing's even happened. I just helped him move like four boxes into his living room."

Nat gasps. "You went into his apartment? Holy shit, this is moving too fast for me."

"Nat!"

Natasha laughs. "Oh, come on! Dude, this is amazing. You have to ask him out."

"I don't even know him!"

"That's what asking someone out is for."

"I...uh...," Steve hesitates.

"What? What?! Spit it out!"

"I told him he could borrow a cup of sugar...if he wanted."

Steve turns down the volume on his laptop to drown out Nat's laughing.

***

black_widow: Okay, I'm sorry to tease.

black_widow: Steve

black_widow: Steeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve

captain_rogers: what

black_widow: Honestly, I think you should just go for it. You're a total a catch.

captain_rogers: I'm thinking about it

black_widow: I told Clint. He says you're too cute. He wants to eat you out with a spoon.

black_widow: eat you up with a spoon

captain_rogers: You guys are gross

captain_rogers: I'll let you know if anything happens

black_widow: You'd better!

***

Steve has just finished washing up his dinner stuff at about 7:45pm when there's a knock at his front door. His stomach flips - he never gets visitors so it could only be one person - and a for a second he isn't sure what to do, dish-towel in one hand and a plate in the other. There's another knock and Steve almost throws the plate down instead of the towel and hurries to the door, taking both with him.

Bucky is in the hall, still bare foot and in his black hoodie. He gives a little smile. "I hope your offer to hang out still stands because I don't need any sugar."

Steve steps back. "No! I mean, yeah! Come on in. Sorry, I just finished dinner." Steve holds the dish-towel and plate up as if by way of explanation.

Bucky walks in. "Damn, I knew I should have come up earlier." He stops short when he sees Steve's DVD collection. "Holy crap. I don't think I've seen that many movies, let alone own that many."

Steve closes the front door and gives a laugh. "Can you tell I don't get out much?"

"I don't either so I guess I've made the right friend." He stops again halfway over to the DVDs and points at Steve's Wii U. "Do you have Mario Kart?"

"Totally. You want to play?" Steve wonders how Bucky will use the controller with just one arm. He also wonders how he's managing to sound so calm and not blush every two seconds.

Bucky beams. "Oh, hell yes."

"Do you want a beer?" Steve walks back to the kitchen and puts the plate and dish-cloth on the counter whilst slyly checking his shirt to make sure he didn't dribble any lasagne on it.

"Jeez, I kind of feel like I've just swaggered in here and decided I want to play with all of your stuff and drink your beer and have nothing to offer in return." Bucky is stood watching Steve with both hands on his hips now, an amused grin on his face. Steve hands him a beer - Bucky takes it with his right hand - and Steve just shrugs.

"The company's good enough for me."

Bucky takes a swig of his beer and spots Steve's desk. "Oh hey, yeah. Your comics. Can I see?"

Steve rubs a hand through his hair, suddenly more self-conscious about showing Bucky his artwork than anything else. "Yeah, sure."

They walk over to Steve's desk and he quickly glances at his laptop to make sure that his earlier message thread with Nat isn't visible. Nope, Photoshop. Good.

Bucky looks down at Steve's latest page in progress. "Wow, that is...amazing," he says softly. He puts his beer down on the book shelf far away from the artwork (Steve kind of loves him for that) and scans the page.

Steve reaches for his portfolio on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. He puts it on the desk, clearing a space. Steve unzips it and then kind of flounders. "Um, this is most of my best stuff." He steps back and lets Bucky open it.

Bucky is silent as he flips the pages. There's a mixture of different work in the portfolio: Superhero pin-ups, original work, sequentials, a bit of graphic design (not Steve's strong point.) He tries not to shift nervously as Bucky stops on one his Icons Of Horror pieces - the An American Werewolf In London poster. "This is amazing," Bucky breathes. He turns to Steve, a mixture of admiration and you-said-you-were-good-but-not-this-good on his face. "You are really talented."

Steve can feel his face getting hot and is about to do his usual protesting, but he stops himself, holding Bucky's gaze for as long as he can before caving and looking down.

"Thank you," he says quietly.

Bucky taps the poster. "The bit where he gets shot in the alleyway at the end always gets me. When he kind of recognises his girlfriend for a second."

Steve nods. "Yeah, it's heartbreaking."

A notification bloops up on his laptop. Bucky closes Steve's portfolio and retrieves his beer from the bookshelf. "You want me to start up the Wii while you get that?"

Steve indicates the DVD shelf. "Cool. All the games are on the bottom left." He watches Bucky walk over and then pulls up Skype.

black_widow: Clint just ate chocolate with ketchup on it and I didn't even dare him to.

captain_rogers: he's here in my living room right now

black_widow: WTF whats going on what

captain_rogers: we'er gonna play mario kart i gotta go

black_widow: pt me on call so i can listen in

captain_rogers: get bent

black_widow: don't put me on stand-by i swear

Steve closes his laptop and heads over to the couch. Bucky is holding one of the controllers and Steve can see that he can move the fingers on his prosthetic arm. He wants to ask about it but gets the feeling that it's something Bucky should bring up without a prompt.

Bucky points to a picture of Nat and Steve propped up on his 24 box set. It's from the first comic convention they met at. Nat is draped casually across Steve's shoulder while she strikes her "cool pose" - hip jutting out, pouting, red hair flung over one shoulder -while Steve smiles crookedly, his hand on Nat's waist. "Girlfriend?" Bucky asks.

Steve huffs a laugh. "No, that's Nat, She's a comic artist too. That's her husband Clint photo-bombing us in the background. They're kind of my best friends."

Bucky nods and Steve tries not to dwell on whether Bucky might be gay. He's here because Steve invited him and that's more than he could have hoped for.

***

It ends up being a great evening; they play Mario Kart for about four hours, drink beer and talk about crap. About a million races into the game, Bucky calls Steve a punk for ramming him off of the Rainbow Road again. He gets his own back with a blue shell two races later though and howls with laughter as Steve goes from 1st place to 6th and Bucky nabs 2nd place. Steve calls him a jerk but can't stop laughing. Bucky puts his controller down and flexes his right hand.

"Oh man, I love this game so much." He glances at Steve. "You realise it was a mistake to invite me over, right? You wont get rid of me now."

Steve flashes him a grin. "Fine by me; it beats losing online all the time. I swear everyone who plays Mario Kart online does nothing but play Mario Kart online."

Steve's phone vibrates and he reaches across the coffee table to grab it. It's a text.

NAT: Are you two having sex yet?

He makes a noise in his throat and tosses the phone onto the floor.

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Problem?"

Steve shakes his head. "Just Nat being...Nat."

The phone vibrates again and Steve sighs and picks it back up.

CLINT: Nat says don't ignore her. Did you get some?

Bucky stands up. "Can I use your bathroom?"

"Go for it," Steve says and chuckles as Bucky wobbles a bit on his way there. He hears an "Ow," as Bucky body checks the bathroom door.

Steve quickly texts Clint back.

STEVE: no, we're playing Mario Kart tell Nat to stop thinking about me having sex its gross

Steve gathers up the empty beer bottles and takes them into the kitchen. He leans against the sink for moment, happy and a little bit drunk. He hears Bucky coming out of the bathroom. He pokes his head out of the kitchen. "You want some water or something?"

Bucky walks over, both hands tucked into his hoodie pocket. "At the risk of losing any masculine credibility I may have built up during the course of the evening: Do you have any tea?" He makes a squinty face.

"I think," Steve says, rooting through a cupboard, "I have some green tea somewhere. Is that okay?"

Bucky leans against the counter with a dopey smile. "Perfect."

Steve finds the box of tea and fills the kettle. He drinks two glasses of water and leans against the fridge.

"So what do you do, like job wise?" he asks Bucky.

Bucky kind of frowns and looks down at his feet, which are dirty. "At the moment, nothing. I'm kind of between things."

Steve hopes he hasn't said something wrong and Bucky looks up and must see it on his face because he gives a little smile and says, "It's no big thing."

Steve nods and the kettle clicks. He pours the hot water into a mug and hands it to Bucky. "We should totally do this again."

"Yeah, that would be cool." Bucky goes and sits on one end of the couch. "I haven't done anything like this for ages. It's...nice."

Steve flops down on the other end of the couch. "Yeah, I don't have guests 'round often."

"What about Nat and Clint?" Bucky asks.

"They live in Milwaukee."

Bucky chuckles. "Ah."

"I see them at comic conventions which is cool. I kind of wish they lived closer. I pretty much talk to Nat every day, though - she works from home too so we kind of keep each other company. Clint does some IT thing for a job. I forget what."

"They sound pretty cool."

Steve smiles. "Yeah, they are."

There's a moment of silence and the Mario Kart title screen loops.

Bucky clears his throat. "Hey, uh, thanks again for earlier. Helping me with the boxes. I kind of...my arm gets kind of..." He glances at Steve, unable to finish his sentence.

Steve quirks up a corner of his mouth and gives a little shrug. "It was my genuine pleasure."

Bucky gives him a funny look, then his face splits into a huge smile and he laughs, deep and loud. "Who the hell says that?"

Steve starts to laugh too. "I know, right?" he says which only makes Bucky laugh harder.

When they both calm down a bit, Steve picks up the controllers and hands one to Bucky. "Come on, I'll thrash you one more time."

Bucky snorts. "Bring it."

***

It's after 2am when Bucky finally stands up and stretches. "I think I've outstayed my welcome long enough now. And beaten your ass into the ground shamelessly." He does a funny little body pop that makes Steve giggle. He gets up too and walks with Bucky to the door.

"Yeah, I need to get up early and ink a bunch of stuff to send to Nat tomorrow." He groans.

Bucky steps out into the hallway. He starts to walk backwards down the hall, hands in his hoodie pocket again. "Thanks again, Steve. Seriously."

Steve leans on the door frame. "Any time, man."

Bucky grins and disappears down the stairs, feet slapping on the wood floor.

Steve shuts the door and puts on the latch. Then he turns off the Wii U and the living room lights and heads to his room, too tired to even bother brushing his teeth. He kicks his jeans off, throws his shirt over into the hamper and crawls into bed. He checks his phone: Nothing else from Nat and Clint.

He sends them both a text.

STEVE: So, he just left

Less than 30 seconds pass before he gets two texts almost simultaneously. The bastards were actually waiting up for him.

NAT: WHAT HAPPENED

CLINT: Nat has been imagining filthy things

STEVE: We played on the Wii and drank beer and that was it

NAT: AAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGG

CLINT: So how was it?

Steve pauses for a second and can't help the huge smile that spreads across his face.

STEVE: Really really good :)

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Steve's Play List

Loverboy - Working For The Weekend
How To Destroy Angels - Ice Age
Woodkid - Run Boy Run
Beck - Little One
Them Crooked Vultures - Mind Eraser (No Chaser)
Daft Punk - Human After All

Steve wakes up with a hideous taste in his mouth and the unmistakable feeling of getting a sore throat. He groans. A sore throat usually leads to an ear infection too and he really can't be doing with that at the moment. He's always been the kind of person where a small case of not-feeling-well will escalate quickly into really-damn-sick and spent most of his high school years, when not being bullied, working extra hard to catch up on work he missed out on while having tonsillitis, gastroenteritis or the flu. He hopes that it's just a combination of a late night and too much drinking and laughing. He thinks back to the previous evening and smiles to himself. He still doesn't know Bucky very well but Steve already thinks he's kind of great. Okay, very great.

He heads into the kitchen and downs a glass of water before padding into the bathroom for a shower, coughing a bit along the way. Ugh, great timing. If he is coming down with something, he at least hopes it clears up before Ultron-Con. Being ill at a convention is the worst, especially since he'll most likely be drawing sketches all weekend, and Nat would kill him if he gave whatever lurgy this is to her and Clint.

He stands under the hot water, grinning every time he remembers something funny from last night. Should he go and see Bucky later and invite him over again? Or will he turn up on his own like he did yesterday? Steve doesn't want to seem too desperate but all he can think about is wanting to see Bucky again and hear him laugh. He rinses his hair and turns off the water. Coffee, emails, cough drops, work, then he'll think about Bucky.

Which is bullshit because he ends up thinking about him all morning regardless.

***

He's barely even sat down at his desk after booting up his laptop when a call comes through from Nat over Skype.

Steve sighs and braces himself as he answers.

"Good morni - "

"You are going to tell me EVERYTHING right now. I want every little detail, anything that happened that could be scrutinised as some form of attraction or double entendre, what he looks like, did you manage to touch him in any way, everything, right now." Nat takes a breath. "Good morning."

Steve laughs croakily and just puts on Working For The Weekend as loud as his laptop's volume will go, not caring if Hobo Guy from next door starts banging on the wall.

"Don't you dare try and drown me out with awesome 80s beats!" He can just about hear Nat screeching over the music.

Steve turns it down. "Okay, okay. Just give me a minute to get my shit sorted and I'll tell you everything."

"God, you sound like crap," Nat says.

"Thanks. Yeah, I think I'm coming down with something, yet again." He gives a cough. Yuck, definitely getting more mucus-tastic.

Natasha whines impatiently. "Sorry you're feeling sick and all but hurry up and get on with it."

"Okay, fine," Steve says as soon as he starts inking. He gives Nat a breakdown of the evening. She interjects occasionally with squeals and a couple of "Oohs!" and Steve ignores her when she asks him on a scale of one to ten, how much did he just want to start humping Bucky's leg.

"I don't know whether to go and see if he wants to hang out again. Is that a bit too desperate?" He coughs and makes a groan.

Nat hums. "Maybe just wait and see for now? And maybe not with that cough; wouldn't be too sexy if you sprayed him with phlegm. I mean, he came over after you asked; chances are he'll come over again." Something drops on the floor at Nat's end with a clatter and she curses. "I say wait it out."

Steve makes a little whine. "I don't think I can wait. But I don't want to come across like some crazy stalker."

Nat snorts out a laugh. "I don't know; I can totally imagine you giving yourself a homemade "Bucky" tattoo like Mark Wahlberg did in that shit film. What was it called? With Reese Witherspoon?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"He's like stalking this girl and carves her name into his chest. It's so bad, it's amazing. Dammit, now I need to find out what it was called." He can hear Nat typing furiously.

"Yeah, I'm not gonna do that." Steve reaches for a thicker nibbed pen. "Anyway, who cares about Mark Wahlberg; you're supposed to be helping me decide what to do."

Nat clucks her tongue. "I did help; I said just wait it out. If you don't hear from him today, go and see him tomorrow. Or maybe even when you don't sound like you've been possessed by Pazuzu." A brief pause. "Fear! It was called Fear. Oh my god, I need it. I'm totally buying it right now." More tapping.

Steve makes an annoyed noise.

"Oh, stop being so dramatic! You met him yesterday for fuck's sake. Nothing happens this quickly. It took Clint like two weeks to work up the courage to say hello to me and another week to ask me out, and even then all he actually managed to say was "Do you like Bratwurst?" and forgot to actually ask me out." A beat. "Order confirmed! Mark Wahlberg as a crazy stalker is mine to own."

"I'm sure Clint will be thrilled."

"I'll make him thrilled. So, come on; you haven't actually told me what this guy looks like."

Steve takes a breath. "About our age, I think. Maybe a year or two older. A bit taller than me, not-quite shoulder length brown hair - "

"Long hair, eh?" Nat makes a weird noise of approval.

" - yeah, long hair. Uh, huge grey-blue eyes, amazing smile, great laugh, really funny," Steve finishes quickly.

Nat chuckles. "Okay, that was a bit more than just his looks. Oh my, Steve."

"Yes, oh my," he mutters. He pauses, not quite sure why. "Um, I think he's...his left arm is a prosthetic."

Silence on Nat's end for a second. "Really?" she asks softly.

Steve puts down his pen." Yeah, he was holding it kind of funny when we met and I think he was trying to hide it. But then he was using it when we played on the Wii U. Like, the fingers could move and stuff. I don't know if it's his whole arm, he had long sleeves on and he was wearing a glove."

"Shit. That's really...how do you think he lost it?" All humour has gone from her voice.

"I don't know. Car accident? Maybe he's military. I don't know, it didn't seem like the kind of thing you ask about after only knowing someone for a few hours. He mentioned it at one point but he seemed a bit uncomfortable."

"I guess if he wants to talk about he will. I mean, it sounds like he's already looking for a friend and I can't think of anyone better than you for the job. You tend to bring out the best in people."

Steve shakes his head. How does she do that so effortlessly? Make him feel like he matters more than he does. "I'm not..."

Nat cuts him off. "Clint will tell you the same thing. And Bruce."

Steve picks his pen back up, unsure of what to say. "So, uh...yeah. That's pretty much Bucky," he says quietly.

They work in silence for a bit, Nat humming along to How To Destroy Angels.

"Well," Nat suddenly says loudly, making Steve jump, "in all of the crazy-with-a-kay excitement with you and your new love obsession, I totally forgot to tell you something awesome that happened. Guess what I got offered yesterday?"

"Some covers from Sam, " Steve says, trying to sound uninterested.

Nat makes an indignant noise. "What the what? How the hell did you know?"

Steve smiles. "I was talking to Sam about a minute before he called you. He asked what I thought."

"I can't have just one little thing, can I! What did you say to him?"

"I said you'd jump at it. It's about time they gave you something other than colouring. You're the best artist I know."

Nat grumbles. "If you're going to be so damn nice about it..."

"Congrats, Nat. You're going to own those covers." He kind of makes a not-quite-cough without opening his mouth and ends up coughing again anyway. He's sounding worse by the minute.

"Thanks Steve. Look, you sound terrible - go and get some medicine or something. I feel bad making you talk on here."

"Yeah, I've got some cough stuff somewhere. Man, I feel like shit."

Nat puts on her business voice. "Okay, I'm hanging up now. Just go back to bed, get some rest, don't worry about work."

"But I need to get you these - "

"Steve, we're two issues ahead and I can pull it out of the bag if I need to. Just...you sound horrible. Take a day off."

"But I really need - "

"Steve. Day off."

Steve mumbles something.

"Yes, Nat - I will. You are beautiful and kind and wise - "

"Yes, I'll go back to bed!" Steve says loudly, gurgling a bit at the end.

" - with the perkiest boobs of any woman I've ever - "

Steve hangs up.

***

Steve ends up working for another two and half hours. He knows he'll feel better at least having something done before he goes back to bed. He'd logged out of Skype to throw Nat off of the scent but after about an hour of working, gets a text from her.

NAT: You're not in bed, are you

STEVE: Not yet - just a bit longer

NAT: I fucking knew it

STEVE: Because you're a witch

NAT: If you don't go to bed now i'm cursing your entire bloodline

STEVE: I'd rather you used your hoo doo to make Bucky fall in love with me

NAT: You can totally do that on your own

Steve gives a little smile. He can never feel down about himself for long with Nat around.

STEVE: I'll try

NAT: OMG I just realised what Bucky almost rhymes with

***

Steve emails the pages to Nat when he's done and gets back into bed. His mood has deteriorated over the course of the morning: he's pissed off with his dumb-ass immune system for letting him down but even more pissed off because if Bucky does want to come over again, he won't be good for anything. He puts his glasses on the bedside table and rolls over. He can already feel his right ear starting to ache and whines pitifully to himself. Fuck it, he's feeling sorry for himself today.

He sleeps through until about 5:30pm, feeling even worse than he did when he went to bed. He drags himself to the bathroom and goes to the toilet. He looks in the mirror and tries to smooth down his hair which is completely stuck up on the left side of his head and then gives up when it just wont happen. His ear is killing him now and he knows that tomorrow is going to have to involve a trip to the doctor. He finds some Ibuprofen in the cupboard, coughing harshly, and takes three of them. He drinks cough syrup straight from the bottle.

He grabs a glass of water from the kitchen and then switches on the Wii U, resigning himself to a possibly sleepless night. He pulls the blanket off of the back of the couch and wraps himself up. He's just about to start Arkham Origins when his phone vibrates.

CLINT: Nat says you have consumption

STEVE: Feels like it

CLINT: You okay?

STEVE: Not great. I'll be fine

CLINT: If I was there, I'd be making you soup and mopping your brow

STEVE: :)

 

***

An hour later and Steve is losing his temper big time. His head feels like it's about to explode and he cannot beat Deathstroke for the life of him.

"Oh for fuck's sake!" he shouts as Batman gets hit in the face yet again and he coughs painfully. Steve's ten seconds away from throwing the controller through the TV and when Batman gets killed for the eighth time in a row, he finally shrieks in frustration and shouts "You fucking asshole!" at the screen, controller skittering across the coffee table, and then doubles over, coughing and retching. He sinks back onto the couch, chest burning, head pounding and switches on the TV instead, barely able to keep himself from kicking the Wii U as he does. He finds a marathon of River Monsters and zones out, wrapped up in his blanket on the couch like a blond, self-pitying burrito.

Two episodes into the show and he's getting quite into whoever-that-guy-is trying to find an electric eel in a big muddy pond when there are three sharp knocks at the door. Steve bolts upright, his head spinning and stands up, steadying himself with a hand on the back of the couch. He's not sure he wants to answer the door in his current state, but chances are it's Bucky and Steve wants to see him, even if he does look like a wreck.

He opens the door, but there's no-one there. His heart sinks but as he's about to close the door, he notices a thermos on the floor. There's a post-it note stuck to the top. Steve picks it up and reads it:

Drink Me.

He glances down towards the stairs but there's no-one there. Heart thumping, he shuts the front door and takes the thermos into the kitchen, unscrewing the cap. He sniffs the golden liquid inside - smells like honey and lemon. He pours out a mug and takes a tentative sip. It's really good - sweet and sharp and his throat seems to appreciate it. He smiles at the note. It has to have been Bucky; Hobo Guy would sooner start banging on the wall at Steve's coughing than make him a drink and Mrs Hernandez is as deaf as a post. Bucky must have come up earlier and heard him coughing through the door. His bad mood instantly fizzles out and he can't help the sense of giddy excitement building inside himself.

He takes the mug and the thermos back to the sofa and quickly taps out a text, sipping the honey and lemon.

STEVE: Okay, so something really cool just happened

A couple of minutes later his phone buzzes.

CLINT: Is it cooler than watching Ghost Dad? Because that's what we're doing right now

STEVE: It's Bucky related

Less than twenty seconds pass before the next text comes through.

CLINT: Ghost Dad is now paused. This had better be good

Steve gives a summary of the last ten minutes.

CLINT: It's Nat - HOLY SHIT. I refuse to believe that he just had a bag of lemons in his kitchen which means he went out and bought you lemons WTF

STEVE: He might have had lemons

CLINT: No-one just has lemons, nobody ever needs lemons, HE BOUGHT YOU LEMONS

STEVE: I don't want to read too much into this

CLINT: This changes everything. when a man buys you lemons, it means something

STEVE: Can you stop saying lemons

CLINT: Okay, phone taken away from Nat. She's gotten herself over-excited

STEVE: Does it mean something when another man buys you lemons?

CLINT: I wouldn't know. I bought a guy a watermelon once and nothing happened. Go to bed and go see the doctor tomorrow

STEVE: Now I don't know whether to buy him a new bag of lemons or not

CLINT: FFS

An hour later, Steve's phone buzzes.

CLINT: Nat says if they made rom-com about you and Bucky, it would be called The Lemon Effect

***

Steve barely sleeps that night, the pain in his ear a constant dull throb. He's coughing less now though and he dozes fitfully on the couch, occasionally catching sight of the now-empty thermos and smiling to himself, the TV a low hum in the background, one show merging into the next throughout the night. When it starts to get light outside, he staggers to the bathroom and has a shower, standing dazed and exhausted under the spray.

He calls the doctor's office as soon as it opens and manages to get an appointment for 11:20am. He takes some more Ibuprofen and inks two comic panels before flopping down onto the couch again. He can't stop thinking about lemons.

He gets a text from Nat.

NAT: How are you this morning?

STEVE: Not great, didn't really sleep. Doctors in a bit

NAT: Let me know when you get back

STEVE: Will do

At 10:15am, after an hour of agonising, he makes a decision and heads over to the bookcase behind his desk. He sits on the floor, waits for the dizziness to pass and grabs his portfolio from the bottom shelf. He flips through until he finds the An American Werewolf In London piece and pulls it out, sliding it carefully into one of the cardboard sleeves he made a ton of to mail out artwork to people. He wobbles over to the kitchen and washes Bucky's thermos (he's now hoping it's Bucky's) and sticks the post-it that was on the cap to his fridge. Nat was right: Nothing happens this quickly, but if there's a chance something could happen, Steve doesn't want to sit and wait like he always does. Bucky (maybe) went out of his way to do something nice for Steve and that must mean...something, right?

Steve steels himself as he puts on his sneakers and jacket and coughs harshly, taking a second by the door. He picks up the cardboard sleeve, his bag and the thermos and heads out of the door.

***

Steve hesitates outside of Bucky's apartment, self-doubt creeping back in. He can hear the muffled drone of a TV on the other side and knocks on the door before he can stop himself. He hears foot steps and takes a deep breath. Bucky answers the door, still wearing the same hoodie from the day before. Steve catches that same hint of coconut on him.

Bucky smiles, and Steve's stomach flips. "Hey!" He seems genuinely happy to see Steve. Steve tries not to let himself get too excited.

Steve goes to say hey, but ends up coughing instead, turning away from the door. He straightens back up after a minute and gives Bucky an embarrassed smile. Bucky's brow is furrowed in concern.

"Shit, are you okay?" Steve tries not to look too long at those huge eyes.

He nods. "I'm going to the doctors. I get this a lot, like ear and throat stuff. Hopefully antibiotics will help."

Bucky nods and then gives a small smile. "You sound like a drowning robot."

Steve gives a laugh. "Gee, thanks." He holds up the thermos. "Um, thanks for this."

Bucky takes the thermos and puts it on the table by the door and then runs his right hand through his hair and looks everywhere but at Steve. "Yeah, I...uh...came up last night to see if you wanted to hang out again and heard you coughing. Thought you could use it."

"It was good. Thank you," Steve says softly. They stand awkwardly for a moment before Steve holds up the cardboard sleeve. "This is for you, just as a...thanks...I guess."

Bucky looks up and takes the sleeve - with his left hand, Steve notices - and takes out the poster. He gives a pleased little chuff. "Oh wow, I...thanks, Steve. Are you sure?"

Steve nods and babbles. "Yeah, it's just a print...I mean, it's not like it's...you said you liked it, so..." Oh god, you fucking meatball...

Bucky gives Steve a smile that would make him happily jump in front of traffic. "This is amazing. Thank you." He looks back up at Steve. "What were you losing your shit over last night? You sounded like you were having a total meltdown."

Steve winces and gives a groan. "You heard that?"

Bucky laughs and says, "It was hard not to."

Steve waves his hands about in frustration. "Just trying to beat Deathstroke in Arkham Origins. It's the most annoying boss fight ever. I was in a bad mood to begin with so my patience was like this." He holds his thumb and fore-finger apart a few centimetres.

"Well, next time I come over, I could give it a go?" He looks at Steve hopefully.

Steve smiles and shifts his bag on his shoulder, the words "next time" instantly sparking excitement in him. "That would be cool."

Bucky grins. "I'll totally kick his ass for you."

Steve feels a flush creeping up his neck and waves an arm, taking a step back. "I guess I'd better get going. I've got an appointment."

Bucky nods. "Sure. Hey, um...let me know how it goes?"

"I will," Steve says, coughing. He heads towards the stairs, but suddenly turns back before Bucky closes his apartment door and blurts out, "Did you have lemons?"

Bucky opens his door wide again and gives Steve a confused look. "What?"

"The drink. Did you have already have a ton of lemons or did you go out and buy them?" Steve can't believe he's asking this.

Bucky leans against his door frame with a curious little smile. "I went out and bought them. Why?"

Steve swallows and says as casually as he can, "Oh, no reason. I'll see you later." He turns to the stairs before his face is completely red and hurries down, waiting until he's out on the street before stopping next to a tree. He texts Natasha.

STEVE: He bought the lemons

Nat answers in less than a minute.

NAT: I told you. NOBODY just has lemons

***

The doctor applauds Steve's ability to be able to develop an ear infection, sore throat and cough in less than a day. Steve groans as some antibiotic goop is injected into his ear and the doctor wads up a cotton ball and packs it in, telling him to leave it for at least a week and try not to get any water in it. He prescribes something else that Steve can barely hear, almost completely deaf now in his right ear. He just nods along with whatever the doctor is saying.

Steve stops by a pharmacy on his way back home and watches amused while a little boy with a lazy eye-patch over one eye tries every tactic in the book to cajole his Mom into buying him a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy. The Mom totally isn't buying it though.

"Nicky, you've got more than enough Ninja Turtles," she says, no nonsense, before whisking him away, the kid's protests carrying all the way to the door.

He texts Nat again on his way back.

STEVE: Antibiotics acquired, ear full of gunk, can't hear

NAT: Good. Are you going to see Bucky?

STEVE: He told me to let him know how it went at the docs so yes

NAT: Can you take a selfie and get him in the background - I need to see what he looks like

STEVE: I've never taken a selfie in my life and I'm not starting now

NAT: He won't know that - I need to see

STEVE: No

NAT: You don't deserve lemons

***

Steve checks his mailbox in the lobby, hoping that his latest Amazon order is in but there's nothing. He considers checking Bucky's mail box and taking his mail up for him but decides against it. He walks up to the second floor and knocks on Bucky's door. He answers a bit quicker than he did earlier.

Steve turns so Bucky can see his cotton-wadded ear and holds up his prescription. "Now to play the waiting game."

Bucky holds up a finger. "Wait here a sec," and disappears down the hallway and off into the kitchen. He comes back with a glass of water and a paper bag. He hands the water to Steve. "Might as well make a start on those tablets now."

Steve tries not to smile as he takes two of them and hands the water back. "Thanks."

Bucky hesitates and then holds out the paper bag. "I got you some blueberries. They're like full of good stuff, apparently."

Steve takes the bag. Lemons AND blueberries. This is making his head spin.

"I don't think I've had this much fruit at any one time in my life," he says with a laugh that comes out sounding like a squeak.

Bucky gives a little shrug and a smile. "I thought it might help."

"I think it will. Thanks. Again."

Bucky seems to be deciding on something, then asks, "Do you want to hang out later? I mean, we could just watch a movie or something."

"Yeah, I'd lo - that would be cool. I don't want to infect you with whatever this is though."

Bucky gives a dismissive wave. "Pfff, I've got the immune system of a rhino. I'll bring food to make up for all the beer I drank the other night."

Steve smiles. "Awesome. About seven?"

Bucky nods and then says, "Oh, uh...hang on." He reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his cell phone. "Let me give you my number, just in case."

"Cool," Steve manages not to drop his phone as he taps in Bucky's name, then gives Bucky his own number. "I guess I'll see you later?"

Bucky steps back into his apartment. "I'll be there."

Steve gives a wave and heads up the stairs, forgetting about the pain in his ear for a couple of minutes.

***

Steve decides not to tell Nat about the blueberries for now; he's allowed to keep something for himself. He still feels like crap but manages to finish the inks on at least one page.

"Steve, I have to hand it to you. You've known this guy, what, less than two days, and you've already got his number, hung out with him AND he made you something from scratch. You'll forgive me for thinking that there is definitely something there."

Steve smiles. "I know, I know. I'm...starting to believe it...maybe. But I still know barely anything about him."

Nat speaks slowly, using the patronising tone he knows drives Clint insane. "That's why you hang out with him, so you can ask stuff and GET to know him. It's not rocket science, Steve. Give him something too, y' know. Big yourself up a bit."

"I'm not very good at bigging myself up."

"Yes, that's because you're the world's most modest idiot. Just...you've got nothing to lose." Nat makes a whiney crying noise." I just want to see you happy."

Steve gives a smile. "Nat, how can I not be happy with you and Clint around?"

Nat makes a little noise and is quiet for a moment, then says, "I meant sex happy."

Steve groans.

***

He takes a nap for a couple of hours and gets up at about 4pm, his cough slightly better but his ear still a dull constant ache. He throws on a clean t-shirt and paces for about an hour before finally sitting in front of Cartoon Network, chewing his nails. He manages to doze off in front of Adventure Time and wakes up with a start when his phone buzzes. He scrabbles for it to check the time. 6:45pm. Okay, phew. It's Clint, anyway.

CLINT: Good luck with the big date

STEVE: It's not a date, just a movie, in my apartment

CLINT: It's a date. Have you brushed your teeth?

STEVE: No

CLINT: You're totally going to now

STEVE: He's bringing food so no and I'm sick

CLINT: You totally will

STEVE: Go and brush your own teeth

CLINT: Have fun :D :D :D

Steve shakes his head. He has the best lame friends.

His phone buzzes again a few minutes later. It's Bucky.

BUCKY: On my way up

Steve stands up and then sits back down again. He waits, tapping his foot against the floor. There's a knock at the door and Steve deliberately holds back for a few seconds before getting up and letting Bucky in. He's got a couple of bags full of chips and snacks and he's wearing a dark blue hoodie zipped up over a white t-shirt this time. He's still wearing a glove on his left hand.

He holds up the bags. "I bought all of this junk and realised that I probably should have got dinner stuff instead."

Steve shakes his head. "That's okay. I haven't been up for much food-wise today. Snacks are good, thanks."

Bucky gives a smile. "Okay, cool." He puts the bags on the couch. "How are you feeling?"

Steve nods. "A bit better. Pretty much can't hear anything with all this crap in my ear."

Bucky rubs his right hand up and down his left arm. Steve saw him do it earlier. "I kind of feel bad inviting myself over again while you're ill. If you're not really up for it - "

"No, no, it's fine! I wanted to. I can't guarantee that I'll be much fun but it's nice to just...have someone to hang out with." Steve turns away, busying himself with some pens, realising that he's kind of just admitted to not having any friends. At least not any that don't live a five and a half hour flight away. He dumps the pens on his desk then goes to sit down on the couch. He coughs but it's not as bad as it was earlier.

"Wait a sec," says Bucky and indicates the other end of the couch. "Sit over there and then I'm not talking into your deaf ear."

Steve nods and shuffles down while Bucky sits and pulls a carton of orange juice out of one of the bags, handing it to Steve. He takes out a bottle of water for himself.

"Do you have family in New York?" Bucky asks, dumping Cheetos, plain chips, two bags of Chex Mix and a pack of Strawberry Twizzlers on the coffee table.

Steve sits back and opens the Cheetos. "No, my parents died when I was eleven. I don't really have any other immediate family."

"Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't mean - "

Steve shakes his head. "No, it's okay. I ended up with a really great foster family; they encouraged me with my drawing and helped me through art school. I don't think I'd be where I am now without them. They moved to California though so I only see them a couple of times a year."

Bucky nods, chewing his bottom lip.

"How about you?" Steve asks.

Bucky frowns slightly. "A sister who lives in Denmark. We don't really speak much."

There's a beat of silence and then Bucky leans back against the couch. "I've kind of put a downer on things. I'm sorry."

"You haven't," Steve says quietly and Bucky looks over at him. There's a look on his face that gut-punches Steve; a slightly desperate look and something almost like...like he's anxious for Steve to accept him. It only lasts a second before Bucky turns away and looks over at one of Steve's bookcases full of graphic novels before Steve can say anything else.

"So, if someone wants to get into reading comics, what would they start with?"

Steve immediately perks up and clambers over the back of the couch and heads for the bookshelf; he's not going to push Bucky. There's obviously a lot more going on with him than he lets on. "Now we're talking." He waits for Bucky to join him. "Are you into superhero stuff?"

Bucky shakes his head. "Not really."

Steve nods and reaches for a book. "Okay, we'll start with the obvious - Watchmen. It's kind of like a superhero story but totally not. It's like..." He flounders for a minute, "Just take it. It's epic."

Bucky flips through Watchmen. "Woah, there's a naked blue guy in here."

Steve smiles. "That's Dr Manhattan. Don't look too much, you might ruin the ending."

He pulls out more books and stands up next to Bucky, getting more animated. "100 Bullets is an awesome series. It's like a crime thriller with really well written characters. It's long too so if you like it, you'll have a blast - take the first three because they kind of get better after the first one. Um, Hellboy, definitely. That's one of my all-time favourites. I'll give you three of those, too. There's an awesome spin-off series that runs alongside it if you like it . Global Frequency is just two books long but is a really clever concept. There's one totally fucked up story that's just - I don't want to spoil it." He hands Bucky the books.

Bucky laughs. "Wow, you're really into this."

Steve looks at all the books on his bookcase. "I don't understand how people couldn't be. There's so much great art and a lot of the stories are just like..." He spots another book and grabs it. "Oh! Planetary. You totally need Planetary." He pulls down another book and hands it to Bucky who adds it to the small pile he's holding.

"That should keep you going for a bit at least. I could pretty much end up giving you my entire collection." Bucky is watching him with a curious little grin, head cocked slightly, his hair falling into his face. Steve is suddenly overcome by a wave of shyness and quickly takes off his glasses and cleans them on his t-shirt.

"Uh, you can hang onto those as long as you want."

Bucky holds them in the crook of his right arm. "I'll take care of them."

Steve steps back towards the couch, coughing softly. "What kind of movie do you want to watch?"

Bucky puts the graphic novels on the table and sits down. "Something weird."

Steve walks over to his DVD collection and considers for a moment. "Have you seen Society?"

Bucky shakes his head.

Steve grins. "Oh man, if you want weird." He takes down the case and puts the DVD in the player.

"Is it horror or sci-fi or what?" asks Bucky.

Steve sits back on the couch with a huge grin. "I'm not saying. Just watch it."

Bucky gives a little laugh, enjoying Steve's excitement. "Okay, this had better be good."

For the next hour and thirty-something minutes, Steve is having an insanely good time watching Bucky's reactions to the movie. Bucky is sat cross-legged on the couch with his right arm holding his left. He occasionally mumbles "what the hell," gives several laughs with an "oh my god" and come the big reveal, rakes his hand through his hair and turns to Steve with a look of utter WTF on his face. Steve bursts into gleeful laughter.

When the movie ends, Bucky turns to Steve and throws him a look. "What the fuck did you just make me watch?!"

Steve stands up with a smile. "An 80s body-horror classic."

Bucky covers his face with his arm. "I just...what the hell."

Steve laughs and heads to the kitchen. He opens the blueberries and rinses them off, putting them into a bowl. "Pick something else. I could probably manage another one," he calls to Bucky.

Bucky stands up and scans the DVD collection. Steve puts the blueberries on the coffee table and steals a few glances at Bucky while he picks out a DVD, reads the back, puts it back, picks another. He looks away quickly when Bucky turns around, holding up Dead Snow.

"What's this like?"

Steve smiles. "It's awesome. Nazi zombies."

"Sold." Bucky takes out Society, and puts in the new DVD. He sits back down next to Steve, grabbing a blueberry and throwing it up and catching it in his mouth. He does it another five times in a row, each time throwing the blueberries higher and gives Steve a check-me-out grin.

Steve pffts and picks up a blueberry, throws it up way too high and groans when it hits his glasses, leaving a mark and bouncing off onto the floor somewhere. Bucky cracks up.

"Lame," he exclaims still laughing as Steve flips him a finger and takes his glasses off to wipe them off on his t-shirt. Bucky reaches for them when Steve finishes and Steve hands them to him.

"So are these a hipster thing or what?"

"No, I actually need them to see things and I'm totally NOT a hipster," Steve says. He watches as Bucky tries them on - holy shit, he looks hot in glasses - and makes a horrified noise.

"Oh my god, you're totally blind! I feel like I'm underwater."

"I'm not THAT blind," Steve says. "I'm mildly short-sighted."

"Mildly?" Bucky laughs. "You're just a blond blob surrounded by other blobs. Oh man, my eyes can't take it." He takes them off and before handing them back to Steve says, "So how clearly can you see me?"

"Clearly enough to see that you're a jerk," Steve says and leans across to grab them as Bucky laughs again. Steve can't believe how effortless this feels; just being able to slip into an easy banter with someone.

Steve puts his glasses back on and says, "What?" at the weird little grin Bucky is giving him.

"You've got the freakiest blue eyes," he says but not unkindly.

Steve can feel his face grow hot. "The guy who writes the comic I draw always sings this song by The Who to me called Behind Blue Eyes. It drives me insane. It doesn't even make any sense about me lyrics-wise, he only does it because he thinks it's funny."

Bucky starts to sing the song in a low, clear voice. Steve looks up surprised, his chest suddenly feeling warm as he listens to Bucky sing the first couple of verses. "It's a good song," Bucky says when he's finished.

"Well, I used to like it," Steve mumbles, knowing full well that he likes it even more now that Bucky just sang it to him.

Bucky sits back, letting his hair fall over his face. "Okay, so are we watching this Nazi zombie movie or what?"

Steve gets up. "Hang on, I need to take my antibiotics. Do you want anything?"

"Nah, I'm good thanks, Blue Eyes." Steve can hear the smirk in Bucky's voice. He throws a cushion at Bucky as he heads to the kitchen but he's buzzing slightly. Bucky can mention his eyes whenever he wants.

Steve gulps down his tablets and then joins Bucky back on the couch.

"So what's the plot of this one?" he asks Steve.

Steve snorts. "Plot?"

He starts to get sleepy about thirty minutes into the movie, chewing on a Twizzler and trying to keep his eyes focused on the screen. He's also trying to focus on Bucky's laughter and his little exclamations of delight he makes at the ridiculous action in the movie. Eventually he can feel the tiredness overtaking him and dozes off with Bucky's giggles in his ears.

***

Steve is aware that someone is talking to him and blinks awake. The TV is turned off and Bucky is crouched down in front of him, shaking him gently on the shoulder and saying his name softly.

"I didn't mean to fall asleep," Steve says groggily.

Bucky gives him a smile. "You've been out for the last hour. The movie's finished."

Steve props himself up. "Did you like it?"

"Yeah, it was fun. I'm going to head off now. You need to sleep."

Steve rubs an eye. "Okay. Don't forget the books."

Bucky holds them up. "I'm going to start them tomorrow. Thanks."

Steve gets up, wincing at a crick in his neck where he fell asleep awkwardly on the couch. He follows Bucky to the door. Bucky stops just outside and turns to Steve with a smile.

"Thanks again. I'll let you know if I get any nightmares from Society."

Steve laughs. "I've got worse movies than that. We'll do one next time."

Bucky gives him a crooked little smile. "Colour me intrigued." He heads off towards the stairs. "You totally smell like Twizzlers," he calls without looking back and heads down to his floor.

Steve leans against the front door after he closes it and lets out a shaky breath. Yeah, he's got it pretty bad.

***

Steve's alarm goes off at 6am and he hits the snooze button with a grunt. He clears his throat to gauge his cough. Still there but not as bad as yesterday. His ear is still throbbing but at a lower rate. Okay, this is a start. He rolls over to catch another ten minutes and his phone buzzes. He sighs; he's surprised that Nat has managed to make it this long without wanting to know how last night went. He reaches over for his glasses and props himself up on his elbows and snatches up his phone. He blinks. It's not Nat, it's Bucky.

BUCKY: Okay, I thought I'd read a couple of pages of Watchmen before I went to sleep last night and I just finished the whole book. Probably one of the best things I've ever read. Emotional wreck. Your fault...

STEVE: Rorschach is one of the greatest characters ever created

BUCKY: I just can't process it

STEVE: That ending, right?

BUCKY: I haven't felt like this since I watched Bambi as a kid

STEVE: Wow

BUCKY: Why would you do this to me

STEVE: Because you need to read all of the awesome things

BUCKY: Need sleep. You are a very bad influence

STEVE: :D

He smiles to himself and lies in bed for another twenty minutes, indulging himself in some elaborate Bucky-related fantasies (although he can't quite bring himself to think about THOSE kind of Bucky-related fantasies. Not quite yet, anyway...)

He gets up and heads straight to the kitchen to put on coffee and puts two pieces of bread into the toaster. He re-reads the text thread about ten times as he waits for his laptop to warm up. He quickly scans his emails: An offer for a variant cover on a pretty popular mainstream series, an invitation to be a guest on a pod-cast that he really likes, a few junky emails. He decides to answer all of those later and Skypes Nat.

"Well, Mr Rogers. How are you this fine morning?"

"Better, I think. I actually slept last night."

"Alone or...?" Nat teases.

"Yes, alone. And yes, it was fun last night." Steve tells Nat about the whole Blue Eyes thing and Nat makes excited noises.

"He stayed up reading Watchmen when he got home and texted me like first thing this morning," Steve says, shuffling pages aside and trying to find his 0.5 fine-liner as he takes a bite of slightly burnt toast.

"Did he like it?" Nat asks, talking with her mouth full, no doubt eating a bagel with cream cheese - her favourite.

"He said he was an emotional wreck and that I'm a bad influence on him."

Nat snorts. "You couldn't be a bad influence on anyone if you tried; you're like the most horribly decent person I know."

"I could be a bad seed if I wanted to."

Nat laughs and then chokes slightly as a piece of bagel goes down the wrong way. "Yeah, because all the tough kids say "bad seed". You pick up other people's litter and help old ladies with their groceries - you couldn't be a bad seed if you tried! You're like the All-American Boy."

Steve sighs theatrically. "Fine, I guess I'll just be boring old me."

"I didn't say you were boring. And Bucky obviously doesn't think you're boring either."

"I hope not," he says.

They talk for a while about movies. Clint made Nat watch the remake of Total Recall after they finished Ghost Dad and Nat threatened to divorce him for liking it. Steve tries to do an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger and makes Nat laugh until she retches. She makes Steve put on Them Crooked Vultures and sings along in her stupid high-pitched voice until Steve begs her to stop.

"Oh, me and Clint are going to his aunts lake house tomorrow for the weekend so you'll have to make do with whatever signal we can get on our phones. No internet up there."

"What? You're leaving me for some crusty old lake house?" he gripes, only half joking.

"Yeah, I guess you'll have to try and seduce some hot guy in your apartment building over the weekend instead," Nat replies. "Me and Clint have a bet going on as to when something is actually going to happen between you two."

"What the hell!"

"I'll split the winnings with you because I'm absolutely going to win."

Steve puts on his best offended voice. "I knew I was just a dancing monkey to you guys."

"We've got you a little waistcoat and a fez."

Steve laughs. "Gee, thanks."

He cringes as he hears Nat crack her knuckles. "Okay, I need to go to the store and get lake house supplies. TONS of condoms."

"Aaarrgghh, no!" Steve yells.

Nat gives a wicked laugh. "Well, we're not going up there for the beautiful scenery and rare birds."

"Have a great trip. Please don't tell me all about it."

"We'll be thinking about you the whole time."

***

Steve is still in his pyjamas at 1:30pm but has almost finished inking his pages and has made a start on answering his emails when he happens to glance out of his window and sees Bucky leaving the apartment building. He's wearing a baseball cap, his hair poking out of the bottom, and a green army jacket over the blue hoodie he was wearing last night. Steve watches as he walks across the street, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, towards the subway. He watches him walk as far as he can before he disappears out of sight. Steve wonders where Bucky is going and tries to ignore the pang in his chest that he feels knowing that Bucky isn't on the floor below.

***

Although his ear still hurts, Steve is feeling a lot better by 5pm and has had a productive day, getting a glowing email from Sam to him and Nat about the first four finished pages on the latest issue that she must have sent him earlier in the day. He made some thumbnails on the variant cover and even managed to start a sketch for fun that he's had in mind for a while. He's about to jump in the shower when he gets a text from Bucky.

BUCKY: Hey dude. Can't hang out tonight. Hope that's okay

Steve can't help the feeling of disappointment that washes over him.

STEVE: No problem. Everything alright?

BUCKY: Yeah, just a bit of a crappy day. Long story, blah blah. Do something at the weekend?

STEVE: Totally. Just let me know when

BUCKY: Look forward to it

Steve gives a sigh. He knows he's going to be counting down the minutes until he sees Bucky again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Steve's Play List

Cibo Matto - Artichoke
Desert Sessions 9&10 - Dead In Love
DYE - Fantasy
The Kinks - I Go To Sleep
Nine Inch Nails - Beside You In Time
Perturbator - Naked Tongues

It's Friday morning and Steve can't stop thinking about Bucky. He thinks about him as soon as he wakes up, when he's making coffee and takes his antibiotics, when he answers his emails, when he's working on the pencils for the variant cover. He keeps glancing hopefully at his phone, wanting Bucky to text but the morning crawls on and nothing. About a hundred times he considers texting him but chickens out at the last minute. He's a total wuss and he knows it but he doesn't want to be desperate wuss.

His phone buzzes at 11:45am and he snatches it up but it's Nat. Attached is a photo of her and Clint holding about ten condoms each and making suggestive faces. Steve can't help but laugh; he doesn't know what he'd do without Nat and Clint.

STEVE: Gross. And a bit ambitious on Clint's part maybe?

NAT: All for you, Steve. And Clint wants to know why you're thinking about his part *wink*

STEVE: I always think about Clint's part. I'm only friends with you to get to Clint's part

NAT: Clint says he's yours anytime you want him but he thinks maybe you should be thinking about Bucky's part instead

STEVE: I'm not going to answer that

NAT: You just did, you filthy boy

STEVE: Have a great time you pair of pervs

NAT :D :D :D

Steve tosses his phone on the desk and cranks up his music. Okay, he'll leave it until 3pm and text Bucky. Just one quick text, to see if he's read any of the other graphic novels he lent him.

God, this is pathetic, Steve thinks to himself. He feels like he's fifteen again when he had a huge crush on Scott Lang in high school. Scott had been on the basketball team and hadn't been the most popular boy in school but was popular enough that he hadn't had much reason to interact with Steve at all. Steve had been in the Art Club and Book Society. Scott had a ton of friends, Steve didn't really have any. Steve had pined for the better part of a year over Scott and had been devastated when Scott had ended up with Angelica Jones, a smart, pretty girl who everyone liked. They were actually married now; Steve had looked him up on Facebook a while back, just to torture himself.

Steve had always hoped that his shyness and lack of confidence would eventually get better the older he got, but college had been a mainly solitary experience for him and drove his self-confidence into the ground. He couldn't afford to live on campus and had made few friends, focusing on his work and trying not to let the loneliness cripple him, putting on a brave face for Kyle and Samantha, his foster parents. He often beat himself up for not just going for it and doing what came easily to most people, just talking to them, hanging out. But whenever he tried, he would freeze up, turn red, chest tightening, anxiety turning him into a clammy mess. So he just eventually accepted being alone, trying not to let it sucker-punch him in the middle of the night when all he could was sob quietly until he fell asleep.

Meeting Bucky had sparked something in Steve; yes, he's totally attracted to Bucky but he also feels easy in his presence and when he gets over the initial flustering, he feels more like himself, more like the person Nat and Clint seem to like so much and part of him wants to cling desperately to that. Even if Bucky isn't attracted to Steve, his friendship would be enough.

He looks up as a Facebook message bloops. It's Bruce.

BRUCE: Hey Steve! Just wondering when you, Nat and Clint are getting into Chicago for Ultron-Con next week?

STEVE: Hey Bruce - Thursday afternoon. How about you?

BRUCE: Same - are you guys up for getting some drinks thurs evening?

STEVE: Oh, I think so. How are things? Really digging your stuff for Dark Horse

BRUCE: Awesome! Can't wait to see you guys. Thanks - it's a lot of fun! You and Nat are KILLING Stark's book - Issue 3? You talented prick!

STEVE: Clint said similar so I'll say thanks. Is Betty coming to U-Con too?

BRUCE: Betty would rather wash her eyes out with bleach, so no, just little old me.

STEVE: :D Yeah, I'll be gearing myself up from Monday. Deep healing breaths

BRUCE: Dude, you'll be fine. You'll be too busy to think about anything else! What panels are you doing?

STEVE: Me, Nat and Tony are doing one on the book (FUN), and I'm doing a general artist panel with Rob Reynolds and Phil Coulson

BRUCE: Oh awesome! Phil is a great guy. Don't know Reynolds that well but his work is really nice. Yeah, good luck getting a word in edgewise with Stark and his ego!

STEVE: See why I'll be gearing myself up? I can only take that guy in very small doses

BRUCE: Well, I'm mainly looking forward to getting a certain artist totally smashed on Captain Morgan's again...

STEVE: You guys are never going to let me live that down

BRUCE: Hey, isn't your Skype handle Captain Rogers? You loved it!

STEVE: It doesn't happen often...

BRUCE: Captain Rogers is awesome!

STEVE: Captain Rogers is a moron

BRUCE: Dude, you were so funny - I mean, you're funny anyway but I've never seen you that drunk and you were HILARIOUS!

STEVE: You, Nat and Clint are the only people I would ever get THAT drunk with

BRUCE: Which is why I need to buy you all of the drinks

STEVE: You're forgetting the really good part where I threw up outside of Subway and started to cry

BRUCE: Aw, nobody cared about that!

STEVE: Captain Rogers did

BRUCE: Okay, we'll go easy on you but I really do want to see Captain Rogers again...

STEVE: I'll see if I can convince him to make an appearance

BRUCE: Yay!

***

Three o'clock comes and goes and Steve has totally chickened out of texting Bucky, picking his phone up, starting a message and then deleting it about five times. He finally gives up and finishes inking issue 5, trying to keep the self-loathing at bay. He throws his pen down at four-thirty and heads out to the grocery store, deliberately trying not to glance at Bucky's apartment door as he passes it. In the store he considers buying Bucky some lemons but then puts them back, feeling like an idiot. At 6 o'clock he texts Nat and Clint, wondering if they have any signal at the lake house.

STEVE: Hope you guys made it to the lake house okay

NAT: We did and are doing filthy things

STEVE: Ew no

NAT: Clint caught a fish and gutted it and I fell over into a cow pat, not sure what filthy things you're thinking of

STEVE :) Miss you guys

NAT: Next weekend I'm going to be hugging you sooooo hard

STEVE: I honestly can't wait

He makes himself an early dinner and puts on Twin Peaks intending to watch the whole first series to distract himself. He convinces himself to text Bucky first thing in the morning to see if he still wants to meet up. He definitely will.

***

Steve finishes Twin Peaks at about 1am and makes his way to bed, feeling exhausted. A David Lynch marathon before sleeping was a bad idea. He brushes his teeth, avoiding his gaze in the mirror and the goes to his room and clambers under the bed covers, trying to ignore the empty feeling inside him. He's just turned off his lamp when a text comes through. His heart leaps - it's Bucky.

BUCKY: Hey

STEVE: Hey!

BUCKY: Hope I didn't wake you

STEVE: I only just got into bed - everything okay?

There's nothing for about ten minutes and Steve is almost about to text again, wondering if everything is okay with Bucky when another message finally comes through.

BUCKY: Yeah, fine. Just wanted to say hi

STEVE: Do you still want to meet up tomorrow?

BUCKY: Is that okay?

STEVE: Of course - my place after lunch? 12:30ish?

BUCKY: Awesome :) How are you feeling today?

STEVE: Much better, thanks. Ear still hurts but not half as bad. I should be better company tomorrow

BUCKY: Because you're such terrible company generally

STEVE: There's less chance of me falling asleep this time

BUCKY: See you tomorrow, Blue Eyes :P

Steve instantly feels wide awake again.

***

The next morning, he starts to sort out his work for Ultron-Con. He's attended this comic convention before and it was a busy one for him, signing comics and doing sketches for people and he generally had a great, if not exhausting time. His table is next to Nat's, which is good; he sometimes gets a bit overwhelmed at cons and knowing that her and Clint will be close by makes him feel less nervous than usual. Steve wishes sometimes that he wasn't so shy - it cripples him more than he lets on to Nat and Clint.

He needs to make a trip to the art store next week, as well as getting a few new portfolio pieces printed and makes a checklist for himself. He feels a small swell of pride that he's made it this far with his artwork; he's not good at much but he's good at drawing (even though you would physically twist his arm to make him admit it out loud.) Natasha keeps pounding it into him that he needs to just accept that he's good and that other people think he's good too.

Steve glances at his phone - 11:15am. He feels like it's Christmas morning, he's so jittery. He quickly eats some toast and jumps in the shower, almost forgetting about his cotton-packed ear and spending too long trying to wash his hair without getting the spray anywhere near the right side of his head - not an easy feat. He gets dressed and puts on a white t-shirt and his favourite blue plaid short-sleeved shirt, the one Natasha says makes his eyes look even dreamier (her words, not his). He heads back into the living room and crouches in front of the portfolio pieces spread out on the floor, still trying to decide which pieces to drop and which to keep.

Steve is engrossed in flipping through a couple of his older sketchbooks, considering if he should take a couple along to the con when there's a knock on the door - Bucky's knock. He looks at the time - 12:10pm. He wants to take Bucky being super early as a good sign. He smoothes his hair with one hand, hurries over and answers the door and can't help the stupid goofy grin that stretches across his face.

Bucky smiles back, his eyes bright. "Hey man," he says. He looks as though he hasn't seen Steve for weeks which instantly makes Steve feel like hugging him and more right there in the hallway. He's holding what looks like board game under his right arm. "Sorry I'm early."

Steve steps asides and Bucky walks in. He's wearing the same dark blue hoodie from the other day. "No problem. How's it going?"

Bucky nods noncommittally. "Not bad." He sees the artwork spread out on the floor and Steve steps around him to clear it up.

"Sorry, I was hoping to have this sorted by the time you got here. I'm at a comic con in Chicago next weekend and I needed to get my stuff ready."

"Oh, cool," Bucky says, and bends down to look at one of Steve's postcards that he hands out to people with his name and website on. "Do you do drawings and stuff for people there?"

Steve places the loose prints back into his portfolio and sets it on the desk." Yeah, sketches, signings and some panels with other artists. It's good but exhausting."

Bucky stands back up and holds out a few graphic novels which he has tucked next to the box he's holding. "I medically need more 100 Bullets. This series is just..." He waves his arm around. "It's fucking awesome."

Steve laughs and takes the books. "I know right? I'll hook you up with some more before you go. Hey, I'm like your dealer for comics."

Bucky holds up the box with a little smile. "This is so lame but I have Battleship."

Steve laughs. "Holy shit, I haven't played Battleship since I was ten!"

"Me neither. I found it when I was unpacking. I didn't even realise I had it. Wanna play?"

"Heck, yes! Can I get you a drink or anything?"

Bucky heads over to the couch. "Um, a soda or something? If you're having one."

Steve grabs two cans out of the fridge and joins Bucky on the couch. He's setting up the boards on the middle cushion and Steve sits cross-legged on one end, handing Bucky his drink. Steve can't help but notice that Bucky seems a bit less energetic than the last couple of times they've met, head down more than usual, shoulders hunched. He has dark circles under his eyes.

"Thanks," Bucky says. "I have to warn you, I kick ass at this game."

"Yeah? Well, I remember being pretty good at it when I was younger so don't get your hopes up."

Bucky looks up and raises an eyebrow. "Challenge accepted." Steve melts a little inside as Bucky gives him a cocky smile.

They set up their grids and start to play. As the game progresses, Steve notices that Bucky does this...thing with his lips and it's making Steve a tiny bit crazy. Whenever Steve calls out a grid position, Bucky chews his bottom lip, then swipes his tongue over it before saying "Miss." Steve squirms slightly, trying not to focus too much on it.

They've been playing for about 20 minutes and Bucky sinks yet another one of Steve's battleships. He hasn't hit even one of Bucky's yet. Steve is getting a bit frustrated; he's by no means a sore loser but technically he should have hit at least one of Bucky's ships by now.

"What the hell?" he mutters as he puts a peg on G6. "How am I hitting NONE of your ships?"

Bucky gives a little shrug. "I don't know, man." As he leans forward to study his grid, his hair falls into his face and Steve catches a tiny little smirk ghost across Bucky's face.

"Oh my god, you're cheating!" Steve cries out and Bucky looks up, eyes wide, his mouth falling open in a totally guilty smile.

"No, I'm not," he says, "I'm just really good at this!"

Steve lunges forward and pushes Bucky away, spinning his board around. Bucky has started to laugh against the arm of the couch, seeming more like himself, Steve notes with some relief.

"You're TOTALLY cheating! I SAID H7 and D9! What the fuck? And that one! I would have won by now!"

Bucky is laughing hard now. "I'm sorry! I couldn't help myself."

Steve sits back and crosses his arms. "I bet you steal money from the bank in Monopoly, too."

"Only when no-one's looking," Bucky says, laughing even harder at Steve's indignant look.

"Okay, I'm sorry. I'll play for real this time."

Steve shoots him a glare, trying hard to stay angry. "I don't think I want to now."

Bucky leans forward with an apologetic smile. "I said I was sorry."

Steve shakes his head.

Bucky nudges Steve's foot with his own. "Come on, Stevie."

Steve's chest flutters when Bucky calls him that and he can't hold back the smile he's been hiding. Bucky's face breaks out into a huge grin.

Steve leans forward and starts to pull the pegs out of his board. "Fine, but you suck."

Bucky gives a little snort. "I know. I bet you've totally cheated playing games. Everyone cheats, sometimes."

Steve starts to reset his board. "Actually, no I haven't."

"Come on, never? Even just for fun?" He sounds incredulous.

"Nope."

"Why?"

Steve throws his hands up. "Because it's wrong!" he says, as if Bucky should know.

Bucky is silent for a beat. "Well, now I feel like a total asshole for cheating." He shakes his head with a little smile.

Steve doesn't look up from his board. "You ARE a total asshole for cheating. But I still like you." He glances up at Bucky and looks down quickly when he sees the amused little smile Bucky is giving him.

"You're something else, Steve Rogers," he says quietly.

Steve is silent for a beat. "C7," he says and they start to play.

***

Steve doesn't think he's had this much fun in a long time. Bucky stays true to his word and doesn't cheat this time, and they're both pretty evenly matched with Steve winning by one game. Bucky keeps telling really unfunny jokes that still manage to set Steve off into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Bucky seems pleased every time he gets Steve laughing and seems to be making it his mission to make Steve snort, which he did once and had Bucky in hysterics.

They're about to set up for another game when Bucky clears his throat. "This is going to sound really dumb..." He hesitates and Steve looks up. "...but...I know we only met like three days ago, but I feel like I've known you for ages." He doesn't look up from his board.

Steve continues making up his grid. "Me too," he says softly.

Bucky looks away quickly when Steve meets his eyes (Christ, those eyes). "I'm usually pretty closed off with new people but you...you're really...easy to talk to." Steve notices that Bucky has turned slightly pink.

"I'm glad," Steve manages, willing himself not to blush too.

Bucky seems to be on the verge of saying something else, but then seems to decide against it.

There's a moment of awkward silence and then Bucky says, "Okay. Uh, D5."

"Miss," Steve says.

Bucky fiddles with a peg. "So, how long are you at that comic convention for next weekend?"

Steve pushes his glasses up. "F10. My flight's on Thursday morning. There's some panels and stuff on the Friday afternoon so I need to be there to set up. Nat and Clint are going Thursday too, so I get to hang out with them and our friend Bruce which is cool. I haven't seen them for a while. I'm back Sunday evening."

Bucky nods. "F10 miss. J9. Sounds like fun."

Steve lets out a groan. "J9 - hit. Yeah, it is but it's - oh crap!" He exclaims and slaps a hand to his temple. "Shit, you just reminded me of something I need to do. Hold on a sec."

Steve climbs over the back of the couch and goes and sits at his desk, flipping open his laptop.

Bucky watches from the couch. "Everything okay?"

Steve sighs. "Yeah, I was meant to send Nat some files of stuff to get printed. Sorry, I wont be long."

Bucky stands up and stretches. "No problem." His left arm stays at his side and Steve realises he'd totally forgotten about it. He tries not to stare as Bucky's hoodie rides up slightly, exposing the top of his boxers. Bucky walks over to his bookshelf and starts to flip through an art book.

Steve zips up the files and sends them across to Nat with an apologetic email, hoping it's not too late for her friend to print his stuff, knowing that she probably wont get it until Monday anyway. He can already feel himself start to get wound up again for next weekend. He should be used to the manic nature of conventions by now, but Steve being Steve somehow gets into a state of panic over the smallest things. He stands up and manages to knock over a plastic cup full of pens. He lets out a frustrated howl as they skitter all over the floor. Bucky comes over with a smile and starts to help pick them up.

"You're getting a bit worked up," he says, putting a bunch of pens back into the cup.

Steve shakes his head. "I know. I can't help it. I start to worry like a week in advance of these things. It doesn't help that I had a full-on panic attack at the last con I went to and I'm worried it'll happen again."

Bucky looks up at him, his face unreadable. "What happened?"

Steve fiddles with a pen, clicking the cap on and off. "I don't know. One minute I was fine, just sketching and the next...I just...I got all dizzy and couldn't breathe. I was trying not to make a scene but Clint took me outside and had to help calm me down. He's good like that. Nat got scared and they wanted to take me to the hospital and it turned into this big thing. I was okay in the end but it kind of got me a bit..." he trails off.

Bucky is silent for a moment then says quietly, "I had a panic attack on the subway the other day."

Steve looks up at him. "What?"

Bucky looks down at the floor. "I had an...appointment and instead of taking the bus, like I should have done, I tried the subway. I was down there for about ten minutes before I...people tried to help and they called an ambulance and it was...so embarrassing. I had no-one to call and I'm sure all those people must have thought I was..." he can't seem to finish. "That's why I couldn't come over." He frowns at the floor. Steve thinks back to seeing Bucky leave the building the other day and his stomach twists at the thought of him alone and scared, surrounded by strangers in a New York subway.

"You could have called me," Steve says softly.

Bucky looks up, his eyes worried but searching. "I couldn't ask you..."

Steve steps forward and puts the pens he's been holding back into the plastic cup. "Yes, you could."

"You would have come?"

Steve meets his eyes. "We're friends, right? Of course I would've."

Bucky looks away and swallows and doesn't say anything. When he does speak, it's barely audible. "Thank you." He turns away.

He wants to talk, Steve thinks. But he doesn't say anything to Bucky, doesn't push it. He gets the feeling that if he tries to ask anything further, Bucky will shut down. Nat was right - if Bucky wants to talk about whatever it is he keeps skirting the subject of, he will.

Steve indicates the couch. "Do you want to finish the game or do something else?"

Bucky unconsciously rubs his left arm. "Something else?"

Steve starts to tidy away the Battleship pieces and puts the box on the coffee table. Bucky has drifted over to Steve's video games and crouches to look through them. Steve heads to the kitchen and starts to boil some water to make green tea for Bucky and coffee for himself.

Bucky turns as Steve puts the mugs on the table and gives him grateful smile. "Thanks." He holds up ZombiU. "What's this like?"

Steve scratches his head. "It's good. I, uh, haven't played much of it because it freaked me out a bit."

Bucky laughs. "Really?"

"It's first person and scary. Don't look at me like that!"

Bucky turns on the Wii U and puts the disk in. "Okay, I have to play it now."

Steve sits down, happy to watch Bucky play. He familiarises himself with the controls, muttering to himself as he gets to grips with the touch screen. Steve can't help but find the face Bucky makes when he concentrates, kind of frowning, jaw jutting slightly, pretty adorable.

"Okay," Bucky mumbles. "I think I've got it."

"Good luck," Steve says and sits back with a smile.

Bucky let's out a chuff. "It's a game. How scary can it be?" He starts to play and within twenty minutes is sitting further forward on the couch than he was to begin with, face tense.

"Shit shit shit," he mutters as zombies pour into the safehouse. He keeps looking down at the control pad which doesn't help.

Steve tries to offer advice. "Just make sure you keep by the wall - don't look down at the controller, you need to focus on the screen. Watch out - if you die, you wont have the items you've collected when you continue."

"Will you stop saying stuff, you're panicking me!" Bucky says, annoyed.

Steve makes a "well-excuse-me" noise and sits back again. Bucky turns a corner straight into a zombie which attacks and they both scream, slightly less masculine than they would have liked. Bucky jumps up and starts to shout, waving the controller about. Steve cracks up as Bucky's character dies. Bucky lets out a string of expletives.

"Okay, I don't want to play this anymore." He sits down and puts the controller on the table.

"Told you," Steve says throwing Bucky a shit-eating grin.

"Yeah, you're so smart," Bucky says, and leans over to mess up Steve's hair.

Steve grabs Bucky's hand and says, "Hey, not the hair! I spend all of two minutes brushing this." He quickly lets go of Bucky's hand when he holds it slightly too long.

Bucky picks up his mug and drinks some of his tea. "I was thinking," he says, kind of a bit too casually, "if you want to come to my place for lunch tomorrow? I mean, if you're not busy. I can't cook all that well but I can make this pasta thing that tastes almost like food." He's nervously playing with the paper tag on the end of the tea bag string.

"Sure, that sounds great," Steve says, and he picks up the controller and starts to play where Bucky left off, trying not to read too much into anything.

"Awesome," Bucky says and Steve thinks he can hear relief in his voice.

Bucky leaves at 9pm, and it's all Steve can do not to ask him to stay longer.

 

***

Steve heads down to Bucky's apartment at 1pm the next day, wiping his palms nervously on his jeans. He knocks on the door. Bucky answers a minute later, smiling and ushering Steve in. He's barefoot again and wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans.

"Um, I got started on lunch a bit late so it still needs to go in the oven for a little while," he says apologetically to Steve.

"That's okay," Steve says and follows Bucky through to the living room. His apartment is a lot less cluttered than Steve's, and slightly more grown-up looking, Steve thinks, suddenly embarrassed with his own place. The furniture is modern and minimal and there are a few books on the table in front of the TV and a large canvas print of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks on one wall.

"Wow, you unpacked and got this place sorted quickly," Steve says. The last time he was here, there were boxes everywhere. It took him at least a week to get his shit together when he moved into his own place.

"Yeah, I don't sleep much so I just got on with it. I hate having boxes all over the place." He watches as Steve walks over to look at some more framed pictures Bucky has arranged smartly on one wall. He smiles and points at his An American Werewolf In London print, hanging in a light wooden frame. "You framed it?"

Bucky gives him a little shrug. "I really like it." He shifts nervously. "Do you want a drink or something?"

"Just a glass of water?" Steve can't help but notice that Bucky seems a bit on edge.

Bucky nods and heads into the kitchen.

Steve turns back to the pictures. There's a diploma for a degree in Political Science hanging up too, and Steve smiles as he reads the name James Barnes printed on it.

"Your name is James?" he asks and turns towards the kitchen. Bucky comes back with a glass of water and hands it to Steve. He nods, giving a self-conscious little smile.

"Yeah, nobody calls me James, though." He heads back to the kitchen.

"So where does Bucky come from?" Steve asks.

He hears plates clattering. "My middle name. It's, uh, Buchanan, like the President. Kind of lame but for some reason the nickname stuck."

Steve gives a small laugh. "It's kind of cool. My middle name is Grant. Can I help with anything?" he offers.

"No, I'm good," Bucky calls back, his voice sounding tight.

Steve goes to take a sip of water and stops short of his mouth when his eyes rest on a framed photo. Bucky is in military fatigues, a taller man next to him dressed the same with a shaved head, arm slung around Bucky's neck, both laughing at the camera. Bucky's hair is shorter than it is now and he's giving the finger to the photographer with his left hand, his real hand. He looks happy, his eyes bright. Steve swallows. He remembers telling Nat that he thought Bucky might have been in the military. So this is what Bucky had been wanting to tell him, not quite managing with words. Steve puts his glass down and turns to the kitchen. Bucky is leaning against the door frame, watching Steve, hair obscuring his face.

Steve indicates to the photo. "A friend?" he says softly, pointing to the other man in the picture. Bucky nods and walks over stiffly, standing next to Steve, staring ahead at the photograph.

"Tim," he says, voice strained.

"What happened?"

Bucky inhales through his nose, his voice flat when he answers. "We were in Afghanistan. Land mine. Tim died. I didn't." He rubs at his arm again.

Steve looks down at the floor. "Shit, Bucky. I'm so sorry." His voice is almost a whisper. He looks up at Bucky, floundering. He has no idea what the right thing to say is. Bucky looks at him.

"It's hard to tell people about myself," he says quietly, "but I feel like I have to because of this..." He holds up his left arm.

"I didn't want to make you feel uncomfortable, so I didn't..." Steve begins.

Bucky shakes his head. "I'm glad you didn't. I wanted...to tell you, the first day we met. But it didn't seem right, just blurting it out. I have such a great time when I hang out with you, I didn't want to think about it. It's all...fucked up."

They're both silent for a few minutes. Steve tries to form the right words in his head.

Steve turns to Bucky, and shifts a bit, hoping what he wants to say doesn't sound totally idiotic. "I can't ever know what you've been through or how you feel, but...I can listen. If you ever wanted to talk."

Bucky looks away quickly and Steve suddenly panics, thinking that he's made Bucky angry, or insulted him in some way, but then Bucky turns back and his face is soft, blinking his eyes hard. He nods.

Steve reaches out tentatively with his right hand and gently touches Bucky on the shoulder, letting his hand rest there for a moment.

Bucky swipes at his eyes with his sleeve and nods towards the kitchen. "I'd better..." He walks off and Steve rubs the back of his neck. He wishes he could talk to Nat. He makes his way over to the kitchen and watches as Bucky pulls a dish out of the oven, not looking up at Steve.

"Can I least set the table?" Steve asks.

Bucky looks up and gives a little smile, his eyes slightly red. "Sure. Forks and stuff are in that drawer." He nods towards Steve's left.

Steve gets knives and forks and takes them out to the dining table, placed where his desk sits in his own apartment. He goes back to the kitchen and Bucky is serving pasta onto two plates.

"That smells really good," Steve says.

"Well, it's the only thing I can really make. I'm not a great cook." Bucky clears his throat and seems to gather himself.

"I could give you a run for your money there. I tried to bake a cake once and put salt into the mix instead of sugar. I ate two pieces before I realised."

Bucky looks up at Steve and gives a laugh. "You're kidding?"

Steve shakes his head. "Nope. It was gross."

Bucky hesitates before picking up the plates and puts his hand on his hip. "Thanks Steve," he says. He seems unable to say anything else. He walks out of the kitchen and over to the table. Steve follows and they eat.

 

***

After lunch they eat candy and watch some episodes of Buffy on SyFy and talk about growing up in Brooklyn. Bucky seems more like himself and Steve wonders how hard it was for him to build up to this. He doesn't want to feel sorry for Bucky - he's sure that's the last thing Bucky would want him to do - but he wants to help him in any way that he can, even if that's just listening to him when he needs someone to listen. He's not a therapist, he doesn't know how this all works, but he hopes he can do...something.

He also realises, as Bucky does a really good impression of Spike, that he may be totally gone for this guy.

Bucky flicks a Starburst wrapper at Steve's face, "Steve? Are you there?"

Steve turns to Bucky. "What?"

"You looked all spaced out for a second."

Steve reaches over and grabs a few more Starburst. "Yeah...I was...just thinking about how good season three is." He nods at the TV.

Bucky smirks. "You're the biggest nerd I've ever met. Like seriously, the biggest."

Steve smiles and nods. "Yeah, I was so popular in high school. You wouldn't believe. So many people wanted to kick my ass, I just couldn't keep up."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "I wouldn't have kicked your ass in high school."

"Were you on the football team?"

"Yeah, so?"

Steve laughs. "Then you would have totally kicked my ass!"

Bucky snorts. "That's such a cliché. Not every jock is a dick."

"The ones at my school were."

"Well, you should have come to my school. We would have been friends." Bucky flicks another wrapper at Steve.

Steve gathers up his own candy wrappers and throws them at Bucky, most of them fluttering down into his hair. "Really? I had a Star Wars backpack."

Bucky picks a couple of the wrappers out of his hair. "Every kid had a dumb backpack at one time or - "

"I was sixteen."

Bucky looks at him with a you're-kidding-right look.

Steve laughs. "See? Ass. Kicked."

"I think I would've spoken to you for three minutes and decided you were cool. I'm sure I would've."

"You sound pretty certain about that."

Bucky nods. "You won me over within two minutes on the day I almost killed you with a box of towels."

Steve glances at him. "Yeah, barely being able to string two sentences together without going red always works."

Bucky shrugs and turns back to the TV. "Worked for me."

Steve can't think of a response to that and turns back to the TV. They watch in silence for a while.

"Hey, I need to run some errands tomorrow. Just like to the art store and the printers if you wanted to tag along," Steve finally says, hoping it sounds as laid-back as it does in his head.

Bucky nods. "Sure. I have an appointment at eleven, but can come over after?"

Steve smiles. "Cool." He looks at Bucky for a beat too long.

Bucky smiles. "What?"

"You've still got a candy wrapper on your head."

Bucky feels about and Steve leans over to pluck it from his hair. Bucky turns towards him and Steve gets a hint of lemon Starburst - fucking lemons - on Bucky's breath. He pulls away quickly and scrunches the wrapper up. Bucky is still looking at him, and Steve flicks the wrapper and it hits Bucky on the cheek. He laughs and punches Steve on the arm.

Steve's phone vibrates on the table and he picks it up. There's an email from Tony with the script for the next issue.

Steve groans. "I've gotta get back to work," he says and sinks back onto the couch.

Bucky chuckles. "So enthusiastic."

Steve shakes his head. "Thumbnails wait for no man." He gets up off of the couch with an exaggerated groan. Bucky gets up too and walks him to the door.

"So, I'll see you tomorrow?" he says as he stands outside Bucky's apartment.

"Hopefully I wont be any later than twelve-thirty," Bucky says. "Hey, really...I...thanks." He looks up and Steve gives him a shy smile.

"I meant what I said," Steve says. "Anytime you want...in the middle of the night, whenever."

Bucky nods gratefully. "See you tomorrow, Steve."

 

***

Steve tries to call Natasha as soon as he gets back to his own apartment but it goes straight through to her very icy-sounding voicemail. He sends her a text instead.

STEVE: Can you call me as soon you get back? Nothing urgent but just really need to talk

He sits at his desk, leaning his chin on his hand, thinking about this afternoon. He watches as the light fades outside, city sounds making their way through the closed window. His phone vibrates.

BUCKY: I really wish I'd known you in high school

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Steve's Play List

Elvin Bishop - Fooled Around And Fell In Love
Portishead - The Rip
Takeshi Kobayashi - Rumble Fish
Perturbator - Ghost Dancers Slay Together
Rob Laufer - Towards The Sunrise
Mark Lanegan - 100 Days

Steve steps out of the shower the next morning and hears his cell phone ringing in his bedroom. He grabs his towel and runs across the hall, slipping slightly on the wood floor, cursing loudly as he does, and picks up without checking to see who's calling.

"Hello?" he answers, out of breath, dripping water onto his bed.

"It's Nat, what's wrong? What are you doing? I only just got your text."

Steve catches his breath. "Hey Nat. I just got out of the shower. Sorry, nothing's wrong. Can I call you back? I'm kind of naked and wet."

Steve hears a bark of laughter from Clint on the other end.

"Have you got me on speakerphone?"

"Why would I not let Clint listen in? We're driving back and I only just got signal. Is everything okay?" She sounds genuinely concerned and Steve sits down on his bed, drying his hair.

"Sorry Nat, I didn't mean to make you worry. It's...it's Bucky related."

Clint says something and Nat gives him a sharp shush. "You don't sound excited. I don't like this."

Steve gives a small laugh. "No, everything's good, I think. I...how far away from home are you?"

Nat gives a groan. "Well, if Clint hadn't just got distracted by something shiny and taken the wrong exit, we'd be about 35 minutes away."

"Well, YOU can fucking drive next time," Clint says.

"Was it the World's Biggest Yarn Ball, Clint?" Steve asks and gets called a rude name in return.

Nat sighs. "I'll Skype you as soon as we get back. Hopefully around nine o'clock?"

"Thanks Nat. And don't worry, there's some good stuff."

"Neither of us are winning this bet anytime soon, are we?" Clint says.

 

***

 

Steve gets dressed and reads Tony's email from yesterday.

Tony Stark (t.stark@tonystark.com)
To: Steve Rogers (steven_rogers@gmail.com), Natasha Romanov (n.romanov@blackwidow.com), (sam.wilson@falcon-comics.com)

Issue 6 script. Do me proud, babies. T

Steve sighs and turns on his printer and makes coffee and cereal as the printer churns out Tony's script. His mind is still on yesterday; finding out about Bucky's arm and his friend, Bucky seeming so desperate to tell him without actually telling him. He thinks of the smell of lemon on Bucky's breath and how easy it would have been to run his hand through Bucky's hair instead of grabbing that candy wrapper. He takes off his glasses and rubs his face, taking a deep breath. It's too early in the morning to start getting himself worked up about things he may or may not be reading too much into.

The printer stops and Steve gathers the papers together, ready to read through and make notes in preparation of drawing up roughs.

He looks up as a Facebook message bloops.

SAM: Hey Steve - sorry for the FB message. Comps in the office are down - on my phone. Did you get the new script?

STEVE: Hey Sam. Yep, just printed out

SAM: Cool! You at U-Con this weekend?

STEVE: Yeah, me, Nat and Tony. You going?

SAM: Can't make this one but will be in NY for Vision Con - you there?

STEVE: It's in my backyard, so yeah

SAM: Look forward to finally meeting you in person!

STEVE: I'm a lot shorter IRL than I sound over the phone

SAM: Yeah, well that doesn't make you any less of an awesome artist :P

STEVE: Should have issue 6 thumbnails to you soon

SAM: No rush, man. Enjoy the con

STEVE: Thanks Sam

Steve puts on some music and starts to read, jotting down notes as he goes. As much of an egotistical dick as Tony can be, he really can write a great story and Steve has to admit that this is the best project he's ever worked on. He reads the script through again, already excited by some of the images that are coming to mind. He staples the pages together and reaches for some blank sheets of paper. A call comes through on Skype and Steve drops the paper and answers.

"Hey Nat."

Nat huffs and Steve hears her pull her chair in to her desk. "We're back! I'm unpacking later, Clint just got called into work so he's pissed and I just got Tony's email which I'll read only when I have to. Okay. I'm good."

"So how was the lake house?" Steve asks.

"Sweaty, sexy and a bit boring because Clint slept through most of the weekend. I did see a raccoon fall down some steps though, so it wasn't all bad."

Steve laughs and pushes his pens about on his desk. "You have the BEST vacations."

Nat snorts. "I should have taken some work with me." She pauses and her voice is softer when she speaks again. "Okay, so what's going on?"

Steve takes off his glasses again. He presses the heel of his hand into his forehead, unsure of how to start. "Bucky was in the military. Afghanistan. He lost his arm and his friend died."

Nat is silent for longer than usual. "Fuck. That's...fuck, Steve."

Steve flounders helplessly. "I know. I feel so...you should have seen him. He was building up to it, to telling me and I just wanted to...I told him he could talk to me if he wanted. I feel so... all I can do is listen to him." He exhales.

"Well, he wanted to tell you and he did. He trusts you, by the sound of it," Nat says.

"Yeah," Steve says quietly. "I wish I could do something more though."

"What could you do, other than just be there? You're not a psychiatrist. You've never been in the army. Maybe you just need to be you."

Steve gives a bitter laugh. "Yeah, to play video games and obsess over dumb movies and tell him what comics are cool." He's never felt more useless in his life.

"Exactly," Nat says firmly. "Maybe that's what Bucky wants, did you ever think of that? Maybe he just needs a totally sweet, honest dork to feel normal around. I mean, normal isn't the best word but you know what I mean. To not feel like the-guy-who-lost-an-arm."

Steve sits for a moment. "He...he did say that when he hangs out with me, he forgets about...the other stuff."

"So there you go," Nat says smugly. "He likes you, Steve. I mean, there isn't much NOT to like."

Steve smiles sadly and shakes his head. "Nat..."

"Although, you really do need to get out more. And your hair kind of sucks..."

"Hey!"

Nat laughs, but not meanly. "Seriously, he seems like he needs someone like you in his life. He wouldn't have told you about himself otherwise, right? Whatever you're doing, it sounds like it's helping him, even if it's just a little bit."

"Is it...is it selfish that, even though he's been through all of this shit - that he's obviously STILL going through a lot - that... I just want him to like me?" Steve's voice is small. "Does that make me a terrible person?"

Nat's voice is hard and honest. "Steve, you couldn't be selfish if you tried. You liked Bucky before you knew about his arm, right?"

"Yeah."

"And all you can think about now you know what happened to him is wanting to help and support him? Yeah, so selfish."

"You know what I mean, Nat."

"Yes, I do and I'm trying to convince you that you're not a horrible person. You're not selfish for wanting another human being to find you desirable."

Steve takes a breath. "But what if I accidentally...I don't know, trigger something? Say the wrong thing?"

"That's probably going to happen, I mean, you don't know what he's been through or how he really feels, but you're going to end up saying the right things too," she says gently.

"I mentioned that panic attack I had in Phoenix and he opened up," he replies, folding the corner of a piece of paper over.

"There you go," Nat says and he can hear her smiling. "So, you said there was good stuff too. Gimme."

Steve gives a run down of the weekend. She gasps at the lemon Starburst. "Fucking lemons, dude! You sound like you're getting a bit more confident in your ways, at least," she says and Steve can hear her opening a packet of something.

"He's coming with me to the art store in a couple of hours after I asked him. It's a start, I guess."

Nat makes a sobbing noise. "My little Steve is growing up!"

Steve groans and buries his face in his arms. He mumbles something.

"I can't hear you!"

Steve props his chin on his forearm. "I said he's funny and so fucking cute and he cheats at Battleship and he's just...he makes me feel really good about myself."

"You could certainly do with more of that. You never got this way about that Brock guy."

"I've never met anyone like Bucky," Steve says, his voice laced with longing.

"Sounds like he's never met anyone like you either," Nat offers and Steve want to hug her so badly. It's times like this that he hates the distance between them and feels so damn lucky to have her as a friend. Nat, who always knows the right thing to say, who teases him endlessly but, he has no doubt, would drop everything in a heartbeat and come to New York the same day if he needed her to.

He sits up again. "I guess I can only see how things go. I'm not even sure he likes...boys..."

"He seems to like you; maybe it doesn't matter which way he swings."

Steve hums and picks up Tony's script. "Have you read the new script yet?"

Nat crunches on something. "No, I'm saving it for when I need something to read on the toilet."

Steve snickers. "It's actually really good. I've already got some cool ideas; we'll talk when you read it - I think we can run with some awesome colour themes."

"Sounds good," Nat says. "I'll email you the pencils for my cover too; I need an expert opinion."

"So why are you sending it to me?"

"Hur hur hur," Nat says goofily. "Oh god, I just got an email from Maria Hill, hang on..." There's silence for a beat then Nat gives an infuriated cry. "I don't fucking believe it - more changes!" Steve hears something hit the floor.

"She's at U-Con this weekend," Steve says. "Maybe you could talk to her?"

"I'd rather shove my Wacom stylus up her tight butt but I bet there's already a huge stick in there."

Steve breaks into gales of laughter. "Oh wow, now there's an image! Sometimes I regret having such a good imagination."

"I would initially be against you thinking about me in that context but I know you only get off on thinking about guys shoving things up their butts."

Steve flushes a nuclear shade of red. "Oh my god, Nat!" he cries out and buries his face in his hands.

Nat shrieks with laughter on her end, knowing full well that she's embarrassed Steve beyond belief. "And now I know which guy you want to shove - "

"DON'T! Don't say another word or I swear I'll hang up and never speak to you again."

Nat can't stop laughing and manages at one point to say, "You're too easy to wind up, Rogers!"

Steve throws a few choice insults at her and she eventually calms down.

"Oh, Lori can print your stuff for the con; I'll bring it with me on Thursday."

"Thanks Nat," Steve says. "Bruce wants to know if we want to meet up on Thursday night."

Nat claps. "Hell yes! Me and Clint can't wait to get a certain comic book artist piss-drunk on Captain Morgan's again...," she sing-songs.

"Not you too! That was what Bruce said!"

Nat laughs. "Steve, you get smashed-out-of-your-face drunk like once a year and when you do it's hilarious and you have a great time. Until you throw up."

"And cry," Steve adds sullenly. "Don't forget the crying."

"We'll make sure we're ready this time. Honestly, we're all prepared to buy your drinks all night just to see Captain Rogers. How many friends would do that?"

"I'm such a lucky guy," Steve says with mock joviality.

Nat giggles. "Okay, I need to sort out this Hill shit. Let me know if anything good happens on your art store trip."

"I will, Nat. I really missed you the last couple of days."

"Missed you too, Steve. Bye."

She hangs up and Steve gives a stretch. He feels a lot better after having spoken to Nat. He stares out of the window again, something he seems to be doing more and more lately. He sees a couple walking on the other side of the street, hand in hand, laughing easily. Steve's never had that; he's always getting in his own way, too worried about the what-ifs to just take a chance.

Steve puts his music back on gets back to work, thinking about what Nat said, about Bucky needing someone like Steve. He hopes it's true.

Bucky texts him at 12:15pm.

BUCKY: On my way back, should be about 20 minutes?

STEVE: Cool - see you soon

Steve flips through his portfolio and tucks his memory stick inside. He finds his checklist and tucks it in his back pocket. He feels happier, lighter. Twenty minutes and he'll see Bucky again.

***

Steve lets Bucky in when he knocks at 12:45pm. He's wearing the army jacket and baseball cap he had on the other day, both hands in his pockets. He has a days worth of stubble on his face. He looks like he has slept though and Steve feels relieved.

"Let me just grab my stuff," Steve says and shoves his sketchbook into his bag. Bucky follows him in, closing the front door with his foot.

"Is it okay if we stop by the sandwich place at the end of the block? I'm starving. I need to eat something the size of my own head."

"Sure," Steve says. "How was your appointment?"

Bucky leans against Steve's desk, watching as Steve shuts down his laptop and nods. "Yeah, it was actually...really good."

Steve closes the lid of the computer and looks at Bucky. "How are you?" he asks, hand resting on his portfolio.

Bucky looks at the floor for a moment, then turns to look at Steve with a small smile. "Better than I have been for a while."

Steve smiles back, wanting to see Bucky smile like that every day if he can possibly make it happen. "Let's go."

 

***

They both walk down the street eating sandwiches, Bucky laughing as Steve constantly drops pieces of pastrami on the sidewalk, leaving a meaty trail behind him.

"How are you managing to not get any of that in your mouth?" Bucky says as he finishes his own sandwich and balls up the wrapper.

"Look how huge this thing is. My mouth obviously isn't as big as yours." Bucky nudges into him and another piece falls down onto Steve's sneaker. He curses at Bucky, trying to stop his portfolio from slipping out from under his arm and not drop his sandwich at the same time, making an urgent little noise.

Bucky reaches out and takes the portfolio from him, a bright smile on his face, as he tucks it under his right arm. He's walking with an easy swagger that somehow makes Steve more feel more comfortable about himself. The relaxed confidence Bucky had the first day they met seems to be back and the more they walk, the more Steve starts feels less awkward, less inclined to stare down at the sidewalk than he would if he was on his own. He had suggested that they walk the five blocks to the art store, bypassing the subway for obvious reasons and admitting with some shame that the bus gave him motion sickness. Bucky had been more than happy to walk and Steve is now glad they did. There's no real plan, no rush and he feels like he could walk the length of the city with Bucky and not get tired.

"Thanks," Steve says and manages to eat the rest of his sandwich without dropping any more of it.

"Oh hey, I read Hellboy last night," Bucky says.

"Oh yeah? What did you think?"

"I really like it. Creepy but I like how most of the stuff is based on folklore and stuff."

Steve cracks a huge smile. "Oh, wait until you get to Conqueror Worm - that book is creepy is hell. I'll totally give you the rest. Did you read Planetary?"

"I started it; I get the feeling I need to be into comic books a bit more to get that one though?"

Steve gives a little nod. "Yeah, maybe you do. I'd stick with it though, there's some good stuff. Global Frequency too."

Bucky stares ahead at the street. "I didn't think I'd enjoy them as much as I have, to be honest. I kind of only took them the other day because I thought it would make you happy."

Steve ignores the flurry in his stomach. "Really?"

Bucky nods. "But like, Watchmen really got to me and I thought, well, Steve obviously knows what he's talking about so I'll stick with it."

Steve can only smile to himself.

They walk quietly for a bit and then Bucky indicates something up ahead. "Is it okay if we go into that bookstore for a sec? I just want to see if I can find something."

"Sure, I'm not in a hurry. As long as I can get to the printers before five-thirty, we can do whatever."

Bucky smiles and Steve follows him into the bookstore. Bucky starts to head towards the back.

"Hey, I'll just be a minute. I want to see if they have a graphic novel in stock," Steve says.

Bucky gives him a nod and heads towards the back of the store. It's not too busy, even though it's lunchtime, but there a few people milling about. Classical music that Steve recognises but can't place plays softly over the speakers. He always forgets how much he loves the smell of bookstores. He swings quickly by the graphic novel section and checks for the latest volume of Angel and Faith but they don't have it. Maybe he'll see if Bucky wants to go to the comic book store with him later. He heads back and after a minute, finds Bucky leaning against a book shelf looking down at a book. Steve sidles up beside him.

"Find what you were looking for?"

"Yeah," Bucky answers, voice quiet. He chews on his bottom lip and holds out the book, open to a page. "Tim showed me this poem when we were first stationed. I haven't read it since I was discharged and my - it was suggested that I read it again."

Steve takes the book and looks at the cover: The Poetry Of Alan Seegar. He reads the poem.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Steve is silent for a moment and then looks up at Bucky. "Wow, that's...I'm not all that into poetry but that's pretty...incredible."

Bucky looks pained. "Yeah, Tim was really into poems - not that you'd know it by looking at him. He was always trying to get me to read stuff. I mean, I love books but poetry's never been my thing. I read it in high school because I had to, but he finally convinced me to read this one and it just...the guy who wrote it was killed in action in World War I. It was...it was Tim's favourite."

"I can see why," Steve says softly and hands Bucky the book back. "You should buy it."

Bucky glances up at Steve and gives him an apologetic look. "I'm sorry."

Steve shakes his head. "You don't ever have to apologise to me."

Bucky looks up at Steve and manages a smile. "Thanks." Bucky holds the book with both hands and nods towards the counter. "Are you getting anything?"

"No, they didn't have what I wanted. If it's okay, I'll look in the comic store later." He starts towards the cash desk and Bucky follows. Steve thinks back to his conversation with Nat this morning. Did he say the right things? He hopes so.

He steps over to a magazine rack while Bucky pays for his book and idly spins the display.

"Steve?"

Steve turns toward the voice and stops dead, frozen in place. Of all the timing. Of all the places he could be at this exact moment, in a city as big as New York. It's Brock. He's stood a few feet away, looking smart in a tailored suit.

"Shit, I thought that was you!"

Steve manages to speak, his voice slightly high-pitched. "Brock, hi. How...how are you?"

Brock steps closer and nods, still smiling. "Yeah, I'm good. How are you? Are you still drawing?"

Steve is aware of Bucky stepping up beside him, waiting politely.

"I'm good, thanks." He can feel the slow, agonising burn of redness spreading up his neck, the anxiety already closing like a fist around his throat. Of all the times to run into Brock Fucking Rumlow, the only guy he's dated in the last year. "Yeah...it's going really well, thanks..." He swallows, feeling like he's got a lump of concrete lodged in his windpipe.

Brock doesn't seem to notice that Steve is slowing burning into a red hot mess before him. "I meant to call, but law school kind of got in the way, but I thought about you a lot. You're looking really good."

Steve squeaks out a thanks and Brock glances at Bucky, still waiting patiently next to Steve. "This is Bucky..." Steve manages.

"Crap, I'm sorry," Brock says and offers his hand. "I'm Brock." Bucky tucks his book under his left arm, hand still in his jacket pocket, and shakes Brock's hand with his right.

"Nice to meet you," Bucky says with a charming smile. Steve looks down at the floor, hoping the feeling of utter mortification that has overwhelmed him isn't showing on his face. He glances up as Brock lets go of Bucky's hand. Brock gives Steve an accepting little smile, looking quickly at Bucky and then back to Steve.

"Well, it was great to run into you. I guess I'll see you around." He holds up a hand.

"Bye," Steve says weakly and watches Brock leave the store. He stands for a moment, hoping the redness in his face has receded.

"Shall we go?" he says finally, his voice strained, not looking at Bucky and starts to walk towards the entrance.

He all but stumbles into the fresh air, not wanting to look back. If Bucky didn't know that Steve was gay before, he sure as shit must do now. If Bucky realises it, he doesn't show anything, just falls into step beside Steve, watching him closely with an amused little grin on his face.

"So," he says casually, "who was that?"

Steve watches the street. "That was Brock," he says, voice thick, realising how his answer doesn't explain anything. He swipes a hand across his forehead, chiding himself for trembling slightly.

"A friend?" Bucky asks, and Steve can hear concern creeping into his voice.

Steve nods, barely aware of doing so. He's breathing harder than he'd like through his nose, feeling like an idiot for getting so worked up, trying hard to calm down and failing miserably. He knows he's over-reacting, that maybe Bucky doesn't even care, but his body and brain seem dead-set on working against him.

Bucky takes Steve's arm and steers him towards Walgreens. "Wait here a sec, I need something."

He disappears inside while Steve leans against the window taking a few deep breaths. Bucky returns a few minutes later with two bottles of water and a pack of Strawberry Twizzlers. He hands Steve one of the bottles. He offers a little smile.

Steve nods and takes the bottle, unscrewing the cap and taking a few long gulps. He feels a bit better. "Thanks," he finally manages. Bucky hands him a Twizzler and Steve takes it.

"So," Bucky says, "let's get to the art store." He starts to walk away and Steve follows, falling into step beside him, feeling embarrassed and ridiculous. He chews his Twizzler miserably.

"I was thinking," Bucky says after a while, "that we could get take-out on our way home and play some Mario Kart?" He glances at Steve. "If you want."

Steve looks at Bucky, not sure what kind of expression he's expecting on Bucky's face. But all he gets is a reassuring smile, those amazing eyes soft and unassuming. Whatever happened back there, Bucky seems to be saying without speaking, it doesn't matter. Steve looks away first.

"That sounds great, Buck," he says.

 

***

Steve picks up Bristol Board and some new markers from the art store. Bucky looks bemused at the rows of pencils, paints, canvas and acres of paper.

"You know how to use all of this stuff?" he asks Steve.

"Not everything. I used to paint a lot but I don't really get the time anymore." He picks up a new sketchbook.

Bucky reads some of the colours on a display of oil paints. "I wouldn't know where to start."

"A piece of paper and a pencil is as good a place as any," Steve says. "I can give you some art stuff if you want to give it a go."

Bucky chuffs and shakes his head. "I'm not very arty. I'd lose patience pretty quick if I couldn't get anything to look good straight away."

"Well, that's why you practice."

"Nah, I've seen your stuff; I couldn't ever be as good as that." Bucky is playing with a couple of wooden art mannequins, making one kick the other up the butt. "There we go," he says. "That's a much better use of my time."

Steve picks up a hand mannequin and folds down all but the middle finger, holding it up. "I could give you some lessons if you wanted? Just still-life stuff."

Bucky smiles and shakes his head. "Thanks, but even you would get pissed off with me."

"I doubt that," Steve says and puts the hand mannequin back on the shelf, next to the figures, middle finger facing the aisle.

Bucky smirks. "How grown up are we?"

They leave the art store and head to the printers. There's a thirty minute wait for Steve's stuff so they grab a coffee and pretzels from a vendor across the street, sitting on a bench and seeing who can attract the most pigeons with crumbs. Bucky starts to gloat triumphantly when he has seven pigeons to Steve's five, so Steve slides his foot out and two of Bucky's fly away.

"You douchebag. Never cheated, huh?"

Steve looks at Bucky and says with mock seriousness, "You're obviously a very bad influence on me."

Bucky's eyes flit across Steve's face. "Yeah?"

Steve's breath catches for a moment and then he turns away and throws another piece of pretzel on the floor. "Ha! Now I've got eight! Oh and look, time's up." He stands up and all of the pigeons fly away.

Bucky gets up and snorts. "The game was over when YOU cheated, Mr Cheating-Is-Wrong."

Steve holds his portfolio over his head and shouts, "I WON!"

An old couple walking by give Steve the stink-eye and Steve lowers his portfolio and gives them an apologetic nod as they walk off, mumbling and tutting.

Bucky starts to laugh. "Oh my god! I bet that's the first time you've ever raised your voice in public and you got totally owned by a couple of senior citizens!" He throws his head back and laughs hard, his right hand clutching at his stomach.

"Screw you," Steve says but he's smiling and starts to laugh too. "I'm fucking useless," he says and kicks a stone into the garbage can next to the bench.

Bucky slings his right arm around Steve's shoulders, still laughing. "You are, but in the best possible way." He starts to laugh again and leads them back across the street to the printers.

Steve lets himself enjoy the warmth of Bucky's arm across his shoulders, Bucky's laughter vibrating though him. It's the best feeling in the world.

 

***

They head to the comic store next, Steve promising to be quick. He finds the book he was looking for and pays, ready to head out when Bucky walks towards him, holding two comics. His comic.

"I think I'm going to buy these," he says.

Steve looks flushed and realises he hasn't shown Bucky the actual issues, just the original pages. "You don't have to; I have them at my apartment."

Bucky shrugs. "If I'm going to get into all this stuff, I think the first comic I buy myself has to be yours." He indicates to the two sales assistants who are at the counter bagging and boarding comics. "Do they know you draw this?"

Steve shakes his head. "No, I don't think so. I mean, if they did they would have said something. I've been in here a million times and there are a few photos of me online at comic cons so I'm sure they would have mentioned it."

"Why don't you say something? I'm sure they'd be blown away."

Steve shakes his head again, vehemently. "No, I wouldn't want to..."

Bucky gives Steve an unbelieving look. There's fondness in it too, though. "Aren't you proud of yourself?"

"Yes," Steve says, "but I'm not...I don't like the...attention..." He trails off and Bucky nods with understanding.

Bucky walks up to the counter with the comics and Steve picks up Maria Hill's comic, mainly to look at Nat's colouring again. He has all of the issues already but likes to look at them in the store, getting a little thrill every time he sees something by someone he knows. He gives a smile as he sees S.ROGERS in small letters on a computer screen on page 6. He and Nat always try to drop in little easter eggs for each other whenever they can. Clint's name has turned up in at least twelve comics that Nat has worked on and he claims that's about as romantic as she gets.

"Oh hey, good choice," he hears one of the assistants say to Bucky. "Winter Soldier is a really great series."

"Yeah?" Bucky says, and Steve can hear the smile in his voice.

"The guy who writes it is working on a sci-fi series for AMC. He's a genius," the other assistant says, gushing. Steve groans inwardly.

"I actually know the guy who draws this," Bucky says to them and Steve freezes up.

"Really?" The assistant with the deeper voice sounds incredulous. "You know Steve Rogers?"

Steve turns away slightly, but he can't help but listen. It's so weird to hear people talk about him like this. He reads the reviews that each issue of Winter Soldier gets and is always pleased that his work is praised, but since he's pretty much legally a (self imposed) hermit, he never hears anything other than mentions on comic book podcasts.

"Yeah," Bucky says, "he lives in the same apartment block as me."

The two assistants laugh and one of them says "What the fuck!"

"Can you ask him to come in and do a signing for us? Our customers would go ape-shit!"

Bucky gives a little laugh. "They would?"

"Dude, look at the guy's art - it's amazing! Shit, I can't believe this. We have to get him to come in." The assistants start to babble about which comics Steve has worked on that they would want to get signed for themselves.

Steve can feel his neck start to go red, but this time he doesn't feel panic, just a strange giddy sensation.

The assistant with the lisp puts Bucky's comics into a plastic bag and hands them to him. "So what's he like?"

Bucky answers almost immediately. "He's a great guy."

Steve puts the comic he'd been holding back onto the shelf and heads towards the door. He waits outside and shifts his portfolio from arm to arm when Bucky comes out of the store, a big smile on his face.

"Well, that was interesting," he says and starts to head off down the street, back towards home.

Steve falls into step beside him. "Why did you do that?"

Bucky glances at him. "To see that look on your face, mainly."

Steve looks down at the sidewalk. "That was weird," he mutters.

"But good weird, right?"

Steve smiles and nods. "Yeah, it kind of was."

Bucky gives that crooked little grin, his eyes glancing sideways to Steve. "Good."

 

***

They pick up some Chinese food on the way back and head up to Steve's apartment. They sit on the floor leaning against the couch, food out on the coffee table and watch some Parks and Recreation. Bucky declares Ron Swanson the single best character ever created and Steve suggests that they eat nothing but bacon from now on.

They play Mario Kart, both of them playing as dirty as possible now that cheating has been established. Bucky snatches Steve's controller from him at one point and sits on it, screeching gleefully as he wins the race, Steve trying unsuccessfully to push Bucky over and retrieve it.

They finally quit at midnight and Bucky heads out.

"Hey," Steve says before Bucky goes down the stairs, "I have a ton of work to do tomorrow, but if you want to just...come over and read comics while I work, you can. I mean, if you want to. I'll just be drawing and listening to music."

Bucky gives a pleased little smile. "That sounds good," he says and Steve's heart leaps. "I'll come over after lunch?"

"Great. See you tomorrow," Steve says and Bucky holds up a hand and whistles the Electrodrome track music as he heads down the stairs.

 

***

The next morning, Steve sends Nat a text.

STEVE: So much Bucky stuff to tell you about, I don't even know where to start

NAT: Does any of it involve lemons?

STEVE: Not this time but I'm just nnnnggggggggg

NAT: Save it up for Thursday; I'll need it by then. Up to my neck in shit.

STEVE: Everything okay??

NAT: Yeah, design job with stupid deadline just came in. Good money though. I'll email my cover to you later.

STEVE: Cool. Good luck with the job

NAT: Text me if anything gets shoved anywhere

STEVE: You're killing me

NAT: :P

 

***

Bucky comes over after 12:30pm and hands Steve back the graphic novels he's already read.

He holds up Global Frequency. "Think I'll read these now," he says.

"Drink?" Steve asks.

Bucky shakes his head. "Nah, I'm good." He heads over to the couch and sits down. Steve goes back to his desk and picks up his pencil, sneaking a glance over to Bucky. From here he can see part of his face when his hair doesn't fall forward. He bends his head down and starts to draw.

"Is the music okay? Not too loud?" He asks.

Bucky looks over. "No man, it's fine."

They sit in silence for an hour, Steve feeling more productive than he has for a while. He flies through his work. Having Bucky in the room seems to be having a strange effect on him; maybe knowing that he's a few feet away rather than a whole floor means that Steve has less room to pine. And he can also sneak looks when Bucky's head is down. He eventually stretches and lets out a groan, louder than he'd meant to.

"Everything okay over there?" Bucky asks, still reading.

"Yeah, I just forget how much I hunch over when I work." Steve gets up and rolls his shoulders.

Bucky holds up Global Frequency Volume 1. "That fucked up story in here that you mentioned; was it the one about the cyborg guy?"

"Yes!" Steve exclaims. "What did you think?"

"It was totally fucked up," Bucky answers, glancing over at him, the look on his face similar to the look he'd given Steve after watching Society.

Steve laughs. "Can I get you a drink now?"

Bucky runs his hands through his hair. "A soda would be good. Thanks."

Steve goes into the kitchen and gets two cans and a bag of chips. He hands Bucky his soda and tosses the chips on the table. Bucky gets up and puts the two graphic novels back on Steve's bookshelf.

Steve heads to the bathroom. "You should carry on with Hellboy," he calls back into the living room before closing the door.

When he comes back, Bucky is still stood by the bookshelf, holding a few books, head cocked towards Steve's laptop.

"What this?" he asks, indicating the music.

"Oh, it's a French guy called Perturbator. He does all of this awesome kind of retro electronic stuff. Nat and Clint constantly harass me about liking it."

"This is amazing," Bucky says and puts the books down. He pulls a few little dance moves, similar to one he'd done on the first night they played Mario Kart.

Steve gives an impressed little laugh. "Wow, how the hell did you learn how to move like that?"

Bucky dances across to Steve, legs moving effortlessly, his good arm doing some insane robot-type movements.

Steve laughs, eyes wide. "Holy shit, that's amazing!"

Bucky laughs and tucks his hair behind his ear. "I've picked a few moves up over the years."

"From who, Johnny Five?"

Bucky laughs again. "It's easier than it looks."

Steve nods, his brow knitting in disbelief. "Oh yeah, I'm sure it is. Can you Moonwalk too?"

Bucky manages to Moonwalk about three feet before he trips slightly and snorts out a chuckle.

"I cannot believe that you can do that."

"Yeah, it's one of my better life skills. Come on, I'll show you some moves."

Steve steps back. "No, no, no. I can't dance for shit."

Bucky puts his hand on his hip. "Everyone can dance a bit."

Steve shakes his head again. "Not me. The best I can do is Sad Uncle Dancing."

"What the hell is Sad Uncle Dancing?" Bucky says, breaking into a fit of giggles.

Steve rolls his eyes. "You know, at weddings, when you see the Sad Uncle trying to dance?" He does an embarrassed side to side shuffle that has Bucky doubled over with laughter.

"Oh man, that's exactly what I thought you were going to do!"

Steve throws up his hands. "I told you."

"Look, start the track over and I'll just show you. If you learn the moves slowly, it's easier and then you can speed it up. If you want to." He gives Steve a pleading look.

Steve huffs and walks over to his laptop. "Fucking fine," he says and skips the track back to the beginning. He walks back over to Bucky, hands tucked under his armpits.

"Okay, let's get this over with."

Bucky stands to Steve's left and starts to show him how to move his feet. Steve follows along frowning, stumbling a couple of times, not quite succeeding it but not doing as badly as he thought.

"See, you're getting it," Bucky says. "Now you just put them together and up the tempo." He demonstrates, making it look simple and encouraging Steve to try. Steve sighs and tries to copy Bucky. He actually manages to look almost like he knows what he's doing.

"There! You can do something else besides the Sad Uncle Shuffle at least."

Steve pushes his bangs out of his face and gives a pleased little laugh. "Okay, that wasn't as bad as I thought."

The track ends and another track starts up.

"Holy shit, are you kidding me? Elvin Bishop?" Bucky cries out. "I fucking love this song!"

Before Steve can say anything, Bucky grabs Steve by the hand, holding it up and resting his prosthetic arm on Steve's waist and starts to move him about in an exaggerated waltz. Steve can feel the heat spread across his face and puts his hand on Bucky's shoulder to steady himself, worried that he'll drag them both down if he trips up in Bucky's feet and loses his balance.

"Buck..." he starts to protest, but Bucky just starts to sing loudly in his face.

"I must have been through about a million girls, I'd love 'em and I'd leave 'em alone..." His brow is knitted in false earnestness, his eyes wide.

He looks so utterly ridiculous that Steve starts to laugh. Oh, what the hell...he thinks, and starts to sing along with Bucky on the chorus. Bucky's face breaks into a huge grin and they both start to sing louder, making their movements even more childish and pronounced, practically throwing each other around.

As they both start to wail the second verse, a loud banging comes from the wall nearest to Steve's desk. Hobo Guy isn't very impressed, it would seem. This just makes them both laugh harder and sing louder and Bucky throws Steve out in a twirl. Steve almost falls down but Bucky pulls him back in, laughing hysterically and they both continue to howl along with the music.

The banging gets louder and more insistent and Steve and Bucky respond by singing as loud as they can, making guitar noises when the solo kicks in. Tears are streaming down Steve's face and Bucky is trying his best to keep upright. They're laughing too hard when the last verse kicks in and Steve lets go of Bucky and crumples to the floor. Bucky points at Steve and laughs hysterically and holds his side, trying to indicate that he has a stitch.

The banging eventually stops and Steve manages to sit up, snorking and wiping his eyes.

Bucky holds out his right hand and pulls Steve up. "Do you think he's going to come over and kick our asses?" he says, nodding towards the wall.

Steve shakes his head, giggling. "No, he's a chicken shit. Banging on the wall is as far as he ever gets."

Bucky staggers to the side. "Oh man, I think I pissed myself a little bit."

This sends Steve into another gale of laughter which only gets harder when Bucky starts to stumble towards the bathroom.

 

***

Steve manages to get most of issue 6 thumbnailed while Bucky reads more Hellboy. He asks Steve to put on Fooled Around And Fell In Love again, singing along to it in his normal singing voice, which is amazing and makes Steve feel a little bit more than fuzzy inside.

At around 4:30pm, Bucky gets up and walks over to Steve's desk. "Can I make you a cup of coffee or something?" he asks.

Steve starts to push his chair out. "Oh, I can..."

"No, you carry on working. I'll do it." He heads into the kitchen. Steve can't hold back a smile.

An email comes through from Nat with her cover attached. It's incredible, as Steve thought it would be and he tells her so, saying that if she doesn't get offered her own series after this, Steve will set up an online petition.

Bucky comes back and puts a mug down on Steve's desk. "How's it going?" he asks, pointing to the stack of paper next to Steve.

Steve takes the coffee gratefully. "Yeah, pretty good. I wanted to get a ton of work done before I leave on Thursday and I've finished a bit more than I thought I would."

Bucky takes a sip from his own mug. "I won't be able to hang out tomorrow. Got a...thing. Fucked up stuff." He glances down at Steve.

"Anything I can help with?" Steve offers softly.

Bucky smiles and shakes his head. "No, it's just something that's going to take a lot out of me. I won't be great to be around." He looks into his mug.

"If you need to call me, you can."

Bucky looks at Steve the same way he did on the park bench earlier, the way that made Steve stop breathing for a split-second. Bucky swallows and looks away. "What time is your flight on Thursday?"

Steve cleans his glasses on his shirt. "One-thirty. I'll probably be heading off at about ten. I'm kind of weird about getting to the airport on time."

Bucky turns back to him and smiles. "I'll come and see you before you leave."

 

***

Steve makes a ton of macaroni cheese from a packet in the cupboard and they eat it whilst watching more Parks and Rec. Steve's phone rings at about six-thirty. It's Clint. Bucky turns the volume down on the TV.

"Hey sailor," Clint says when Steve answers.

"Hey yourself. How's it going?"

Clint growls. "Work is being a pain in my dick and Nat is stressed out over some advertising job she needs to finish by tomorrow afternoon but other than that, it's all gravy."

Steve snickers. "Are you guys set for Thursday?"

"That's why I'm calling. What time does your flight get in?"

"It's at one-thirty in the afternoon so about three-forty-ish, I think?"

"Cool. Our train gets in at two-fifteen. We'll come and meet you at the airport."

"You don't have to do that," Steve says.

"Like hell we don't. You sir, are getting ravaged."

Steve laughs. "I look forward to it."

Clint yawns. "So what are you up to?"

"Just hanging out, watching Parks and Recreation."

"Oh, just hanging out?" Clint says a bit too loudly and Steve can hear scuffling in the background. "On your own?"

Steve sighs. "No..."

"With Bucky?" Steve can hear a snicker on the other end that is unmistakably Nat.

"Yes..."

Steve can see Bucky looking over at him from the corner of his eye.

"Dude, put him on. I want to hear if this guy is actually real."

"No!"

Clint huffs. "Just make him say hi and we'll leave you alone."

Steve exhales through his nose and turns to Bucky. "Will you say hello to my friends? Just...grunt or something."

Bucky gives a confused little smile. "Sure."

Steve holds out his phone.

"Hello, I guess?" Bucky says and Steve quickly puts the phone back against his ear to smother out the excited noises from the other end.

"Okay, so I guess I'll see you guys on Thursday?" Steve says loudly.

Clint is laughing. "Sure thing, Steve. Take care, we can't wait to see you."

Steve stifles a smile. "Yeah me too, you assholes." He hangs up.

Bucky lets out a laugh. "What the hell was that?"

Steve rubs an eye. "They wanted to know if you were a real person and not something I'd made up. They're idiots."

"You told your friends about me?"

Steve looks at Bucky, a little embarrassed. "Well, yeah."

Bucky smiles. "Okay." He turns the volume back up on the TV.

 

***

An hour later, and Bucky leaves, turning to Steve with a smile that's a bit too bright and telling him that'll he see him on Thursday before his flight. Steve watches him descend the stairs, wishing he had the courage to go after him and pull him close and just...

Steve slumps down on the sofa, already not looking forward to even going one day without seeing Bucky, let alone three and a half days, but also hoping that everything will be okay with whatever thing it is that Bucky has to do. Steve rolls over and stares at the ceiling. So much has happened in the last few days that he can't quite process it. Part of him almost doesn't want to go to Chicago now, when he could be here with Bucky instead. He closes his eyes and thinks of all the little points of contact Bucky has made over the last couple of days. Throwing his arm across his shoulder, dancing with him, ruffling his hair. Steve can still feel his warmth, that faint smell of coconut which has to be from his shampoo. He swallows hard and opens his eyes.

He doesn't think he's going to get much sleep tonight.

 

***

Steve spends the next morning packing. He manages to compress everything into one suitcase for the hold and his messenger bag. His portfolio will hopefully count as cabin luggage too. Nat and Clint have one of his roller banners that they'll bring with them on the train. He has a banner for Nat here to make flights a bit easier if she comes to a comic con in New York. He makes sure to pack the Funko Pop he bought for her last week and a DVD of Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too for Clint. He puts everything together by the front door and double checks his plane ticket, hotel details and the information for picking up his con pass on Friday. He still has a day but Steve's anxiety means he has to get everything ready now and check it at least a million times between now and when he leaves tomorrow morning.

Steve checks his emails; the guys from the podcast want to know if he can record with them next Tuesday. He says yes. He cleans the kitchen and then straightens up the rest of the apartment. His eyes fall on his graphic novel bookcase and he thinks that he should have given Bucky some more books for the weekend. He'll sort out a stack and give them to him in the morning.

He finishes the thumbnails for issue 6 and scans them in; he'll send them to Sam in the morning.

He answers a few emails about his con sketch prices and how many slots he has left for drawings.

The day drags on.

 

***

At six-forty-five, he sends Bucky a text.

STEVE: Hey, hope everything went okay today

Twenty minutes pass before he gets a reply.

BUCKY: Hey Steve, sorry - was sleeping. It was pretty terrible but necessary. Tell you about it some other time. Having the last couple of days to think about kept me from flipping tables. I'll come to yours at 9.30 2mor?

STEVE: Sounds good. Take care, Buck

Another ten minutes pass.

BUCKY: I think I

BUCKY: Thanks dude

 

***

Steve puts a pile of books - four more volumes of 100 Bullets, a few volumes of Hellblazer and From Hell - next to his luggage. His checks his phone again - 9:10am. If anything, the flight is going to be the last chance he'll get to relax for three and a half days. He takes a few breaths and paces the apartment, checking the windows, the oven. He checks his phone again. 9:16am. Relief floods him when he hears a knock at the door.

Bucky looks tired and worn, his smile tight around the edges, the dark circles under his eyes worse than ever. Steve is about to say hi when he notices Bucky's left arm. The sleeve of his hoodie is pinned up, stopping a few inches below his shoulder. Steve meets Bucky's eyes.

Bucky smiles wanly and comes into the apartment. "Yesterday. Arm stuff. Much fun."

Steve closes the door. "Can I get you anything?"

"Nah, I'm good. I'm pretty much going to sleep all day." He sits on the couch, sagging slightly.

Steve follows him over and sits down. "I sorted some more books for you, if you want them."

Bucky brightens slightly. "Yeah, that would be great. Thanks." He goes to rub his left arm and swipes at thin air and the back of Steve's couch instead, laughing bitterly when he realises what he's just done. He gives Steve a stilted smile.

"Does it hurt?" Steve asks softly.

Bucky looks at him, eyebrows knitting together in what looks like defensiveness for a second, but then eases into concentration as he considers. He looks far away for a moment. "Yeah...but it's not...it's like an itch I can never scratch. Even with the fake one...it's...you don't get used to it."

Steve meets Bucky's eyes again and Bucky tucks his hair behind his ear. "Are you ready for the con?"

Steve nods. "As I'll ever be."

Bucky kicks Steve's leg with his own. "You'll be fine. I'm going to read your comics later. I wanted to save them for...after." He gestures vaguely to his left arm.

"I hope you like them. Nat's colouring pretty much saves my artwork." He gives a self-deprecating laugh.

"Don't do that," Bucky says quietly. "Don't put yourself down all the time."

Steve looks down for a moment. "I don't even realise I'm doing it." He doesn't look up. "Maybe you could kick my ass for me whenever I do?"

He looks at Bucky with a hopeful little smile. Bucky's face breaks into a tired, but genuine, grin. "Now that I can do."

They talk about video games and books for a while and then Steve's phone alarm goes off. Fifteen minutes until his cab arrives. Bucky stands up.

"Come on, let's wait outside."

Steve slings his bag over his shoulder and picks up his portfolio. Bucky tucks the graphic novels under his arm. Steve drags his suitcase out into the hall and locks the door. They head downstairs and Bucky stops to put the books in his apartment. They wait on the sidewalk, both of them suddenly quiet.

"Hey, are you on Facebook? Nat usually posts a ton of pictures from every con if you wanted to know what it's like."

Bucky shakes his head. "No, I don't do Facebook."

Steve reaches into his messenger bag and pulls out his sketchbook. He tears a piece from one of the back pages and scribbles something on it. "Here; this is Nat's Tumblr. Everything goes on there too. I don't think you have to join up. I don't update much on Twitter."

Bucky smiles and takes the paper. "I'll check it out."

They both look up as a cab heads their way.

"I think this is me," says Steve as the taxi pulls in.

The driver opens his door. "Rogers?" Steve nods and the driver put his suitcase in the trunk.

Steve turns to Bucky. "I guess I'll see you?"

Bucky holds out his hand and Steve shakes it. It's warm and firm and he doesn't want to let go. "Have a great time," Bucky says. Steve lets go.

He gets into the cab and watches as Bucky walks back up to the apartment entrance, turning before he goes in and holding up his hand. Steve holds his up in return as the cab pulls away. Steve swallows hard and tries not to look back.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Steve's Play List

Royksopp - The Girl And The Robot
Sound City Reel To Reel - Centipede
Groove Armada - Look Me In The Eye Sister
How To Destroy Angels - The space in between
Charlotte Gainsbourg - Vanities
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - Parallel Timeline With Alternate Outcome

Steve gets to the airport stupidly early and grabs a seat in the farthest corner of a coffee place, out of the way, waiting for check-in. Keep busy, focus on little things, he tells himself. He updates his Twitter and Facebook with details of the con, texts Nat and Clint to let them know he's on his way and then sketches for a while. He doodles a few new designs for upcoming characters in Winter Soldier, but his mind soon starts to drift and he puts his pencil down, resting his chin on his hand. He people-watches for a while; families coming and going, couples, businessmen. All heading somewhere, to someone. He feels his loneliest around other people.

He thinks about how...used up Bucky looked this morning and he desperately wants to text him, but holds himself back. He's never fallen this hard so fast for someone before and it scares him a little bit. He tries not to think about it too much, to try and reign back his feelings because if rejection comes, it'll be that much worse. He tries not to dwell on Bucky's smiles towards him, his touches. Steve takes a sip of coffee and gets back to his sketchbook.

The time finally rolls around when he can check his bag in and then he heads off towards security. It's pretty straightforward and as Steve puts his belt and sneakers back on, he starts to feel a bit more excited, mainly about seeing Nat and Clint. He lets himself think about the curve of Bucky's jaw and the way he lets his hair fall into his face for a moment. He heads to the departure lounge and starts to draw again.

 

***

 

The flight is fairly uneventful. He ends up with a window seat in a row of three, and is about to sit down when a woman and her son, a cute little kid with scruffy brown hair and a plastic dinosaur under one arm, come to sit in the other two seats. Steve offers to sit on the aisle seat so the little boy can look out of the window during the flight.

"That's really kind of you," the woman says, "are you sure?"

Steve shuffles out of the way. "He'll probably get a lot more out of it than I will," he says with a smile.

They land in Chicago slightly earlier than planned and Steve texts Nat before he heads through to pick up his bag. He gets a text back almost immediately.

NAT: HOLY SHIT WE'RE COMING WE'RE ON OUR WAY

Steve smiles. They're all staying in the same hotel, booked for them by the con, with a few other artists and guests. Bruce is staying there and Steve thinks Luke Cage is too, although Steve hasn't met him before. His work is really great and Steve hopes he'll have the time, and courage, to meet him and get a couple of books signed.

He heads out of Departures and perches on a chair within easy view of the entrance, jiggling his leg nervously. He's sat for about fifteen minutes when his phone vibrates.

BUCKY: Hey, hope you got to Chicago okay

STEVE: Hey! Just landed - waiting for Nat and Clint. How are you feeling?

BUCKY: Tired, but slept pretty much all day until now. Bored out of my mind already

Steve gives an excited little smile. Maybe Bucky misses him.

STEVE: Well, sure you are, 'cos I'm not there

BUCKY: Who am I going to play dumb-ass games with now?

STEVE: Go see if Hobo Guy next door to me wants to play

BUCKY: Yeah, right. Maybe we could go get food when you come back on Sunday?

STEVE: I'm there

BUCKY: :)

Steve starts to read the thread through again when he hears a high pitched "Steeeeeeeve". He looks up and groans, a huge smile on his face. Nat and Clint are skipping hand in hand towards him calling his name childishly, not giving a shit about the dirty looks they're getting from other people in the terminal. He stands up and puts his hands on his hips, shaking his head. A few feet from him, they finally snap and come barrelling over, grabbing him in a double bear-hug and laughing loudly. Steve can't help but join in, trying not to trip over his bags.

They finally break away and Nat gives him a proper hug, kissing him on the cheek. "God I missed you, dork."

Steve hugs back. "I missed you too. You cut your hair."

Nat steps back and tucks a strand behind her ear - it's shorter than the last time he saw her, falling just below her ears. "Yeah, I don't know if I like it."

"It looks really good," says Steve and Nat gives him a pleased smile.

"Hey, what am I, chopped man-meat?" Clint grabs Steve and pulls him in, kissing him on top of the head. "How you doing, Steve?"

Steve claps Clint on the back and pulls back, beaming. "Really good now I'm here. Nice jacket. Purple, huh? That's a...brave colour choice."

"Oh, you wanna go there?" Clint says, laughing.

Nat throws an arm around Steve's shoulder and grabs his suitcase. "Come on, we'll get you checked into the hotel, give you a haircut and then we're going to meet Bruce at that awesome burger bar place we went to last time."

"Cool, I was - wait, what? Haircut?"

Nat hurries on. "Now hear us out. We think you'd so look amazing without the emo bangs - "

"I am NOT emo!!"

" - and we have a style in mind that's easy and sexy and you'll totally have a cute picture to text to Bucky..."

Steve holds up both of his hands. "Nat, there's no way I am letting you cut my hair."

Nat makes a face. "Duh, I'm not cutting it."

Clint ruffles Steve's hair. "Snip snip."

"Come on, Clint. You are NOT cutting my hair." Steve looks wildly at them both.

"Hey, who do you think did mine?" Nat says. "Just trust us, okay?"

Steve whines as they hail a taxi outside of the terminal.

 

***

 

Steve is on the same floor of the hotel as Nat and Clint and as soon as he puts his stuff down on the double bed they grab him and drag him to their room.

"I can't believe you guys are doing this me. I've only been in Chicago for an hour!" He's sat on the toilet in their bathroom, glasses resting on the toilet tank with a towel around his shoulders, hair dripping wet where Clint shoved him unceremoniously under the shower spray.

Nat is sat on the edge of the bath. "Look, all we're going to do is cut it a little shorter and gel it up a bit - "

"You didn't mention anything about GEL," Steve cries, and Clint throws a towel over his head and gives Steve's hair a vigorous rub, both of them ignoring Steve's muffled protests.

Clint throws the towel in the bath and tilts Steve's head back, combing through his hair. "Now try not to move; I can't guarantee that I wont get your ear by mistake."

Steve sighs. "You two are bullies. You do realise this is bullying, right? I had gifts for you guys but I don't think I want to give them to you now."

Nat waves a hand. "We're helping. You wouldn't have agreed to it if we had ASKED you."

Steve's voice is loud. "So you bullied me into it instead!" He makes a helpless noise as Clint starts to cut, strands of blond hair falling to the floor.

Steve finally resigns himself to it and listens as Nat recounts the whole Maria-Hill-Anal-Colour-Change incident. "I'm not getting paid enough for this shit," she sulks.

Steve gives a little laugh. "Didn't anyone tell you? We're not in it for the money - we're in it for the artistic thrills."

Nat scowls. "She's a control freak. I don't even know why I'm working on the fucking book. I get no say in anything whatsoever."

Clint laughs. "Man, I'm glad I just get paid to fix hard drives and pretend I know how to program HTML." He leans in front of Steve and measures the length of his hair on the sides.

Nat snorts. "You're too dumb for anything else."

"I am but a simple man. With a big penis. So hey, Steve, speaking of penises: You and Bucky. How's that going?"

Steve flushes but doesn't have anywhere else to look that isn't directly at Nat or Clint. "I think it's going okay. I don't know."

Nat gives a smirk and raises an eyebrow. "Come on - spill."

Steve recounts the last few days, but leaves out the part from this morning with Bucky's arm.

"Are you going to say anything to him?" Nat asks.

Clint bends Steve's head down and trims the back. "No, because I don't know if anything is ACTUALLY happening...I just...can we talk about this later?"

"Fine," Nat says sulkily. "But if you ask me, SOMETHING is happening."

Clint straightens up, running his hands through Steve's hair and nods. "Okay, I think we're pretty much done." He holds his hand out towards Nat. "Nurse, hand me the lube. I mean, gel."

Steve frowns at Clint. "Where did you even learn how to do this?"

"Budapest," Clint answers without any further explanation. Steve looks at Nat and she gives a conspiratorial shrug. Steve sighs. Clint rubs some gel into his hands and runs it through Steve's hair, tweaking the front.

"Okay," Clint says, stepping back and assessing, "I've kept your lame side-parting - don't give me that look - but now you just have a little bit of style going on." Nat makes an excited peep when she sees Steve's hair.

Steve puts his glasses back on and brushes the hair off of the back of his neck and drops the towel around his shoulders onto the floor, swiping more hair from the front of his t-shirt.. "I'm dreading this..." he breathes as he looks in the mirror. But, it's...not bad. His hair is shorter, swept to the side and up at the front a bit and without his bangs, his eyes are big and blue behind his glasses.

"Huh," he says.

Clint folds his arms. "Steve, you look pretty hot."

Nat rolls her eyes. "Jeez, should I leave you two alone?"

Steve runs his hand through his hair at the back. "It kind of looks better."

Clint hands Steve the pot of gel. "See? We told you. You look great. You're a handsome guy, Steve."

Steve blushes and drops his gaze. "No, I'm..."

Nat stands up and drapes an arm across Steve's shoulder and pecks his cheek. "You really are. Now, take a picture and send it to Bucky."

"No way. I don't do selfies and it'll just be weird to send him a photo saying "Hey, check me out." No."

Nat and Clint groan. "Okay, fine. Give me your phone."

Steve knows he's not going to win this one so he hands it over with a frown. Nat fiddles with the camera and stands behind Steve with Clint. "Okay, so the three of us are in it and you can be all like "they made me do it." How's that?"

Steve mutters under his breath and Nat takes that as a victory. She holds the phone out in front of Steve, pulling Clint in closer.

"Okay, everybody say I-Want-Your-Body-Bucky!" Nat snaps the picture. She shows it to Clint and he laughs.

"That's so awesome. I want a copy of that."

Nat hands the phone back to Steve and grabs Clint by the sleeve, leading him out of the bathroom. "Come on, " she calls, "let's get hammered."

Steve looks at the photo; he's stood in front of Nat and Clint, looking put out, frowning and doing what Nat calls his Jaw Thing, while they make goofy faces and rabbit ears behind him. He can't hold back a smile; it's a pretty awesome photo. After a moment of hesitation, he texts Bucky and attaches the picture.

STEVE: And this is what happens when I get together with Nat and Clint

He hits send and nervously puts his phone back into his pocket, giving himself one more glance in the mirror, for once not hating what he sees. He follows Nat and Clint out of their room, grabbing his jacket.

 

***

 

Bruce whoops when they all come into the bar, and gets up from the booth he's been saving, hugging Nat and doing some weird handshake with Clint. He smiles wide when he sees Steve and gives him a hug.

"Hey, great to see you man! Whoa, great hair cut!"

Nat and Clint both push Steve and say, "See?" at the same time.

Bruce laughs. "Oh, okay. That's creepy. You two have been together way too long."

Steve gives a self-conscious little smile. "Clint did this," he says, pointing to his head.

"Get the fuck out of here," Bruce says.

Clint smirks. "I'm a man of few talents. One of which happens to be hairdressing."

Bruce laughs and they all sit down, Steve sliding in next to Bruce and Nat and Clint sitting opposite. The bar is busy and loud and usually, Steve would start to feel uncomfortable and anxious but he feels good at the moment, a mixture of being with his friends and liking his new haircut. The anticipation of wondering if Bucky will say anything about it is also sending his nerves in a different direction.

Nat grabs a menu. "I hope they still have that Jack Daniels burger from before." Clint makes a noise of agreement.

Steve quickly checks his phone while the others talk about whether or not burgers should come with the option to be rare. There's a reply from Bucky.

BUCKY: Wow, your hair

STEVE: They forced me into it

BUCKY: It was a good move

Steve feels a buzz run through him and quickly tucks his phone away.

When the waitress comes to take their order, Bruce insists on paying for everything, after a lot of protesting from everyone else, and tells them to order whatever drinks they want. Nat gets two mojitos, Clint orders three beers. Steve asks for a rum and diet coke and the others all clap and cheer.

Bruce flashes the waitress a smile. "Make that three rum and diet cokes." When Steve shakes his head and looks back down at the menu, Bruce mouths "doubles" to the waitress and she nods and hides a smile. They all order burgers and sit back, catching up on things that have happened since the last con they were all together. Their drinks come and Nat and Clint both hide grins when Steve takes a sip of one of his and doesn't notice that it's a double. Their food comes and Nat makes overly sexual noises as she eats her burger.

"How come you never make those kind of noises with me?" Clint says, dropping his pickle onto Nat's plate.

"Man, I wish I got to see you guys more than three times a year," Bruce says, when they're done. "Why do you all live so far away?" Bruce lives in California.

"You should all come and live in New York," Steve says, reaching across to eat the rest of Clint's fries. He's feeling slightly fuzzy but good. He thinks he must be a lightweight if he feels like this after only two and a half drinks.

Bruce hisses. "You have winter in New York - no thanks."

Bruce orders another round of drinks and they all start to let go. Nat grabs Steve's phone and starts taking pictures. Clint buys a round of shots, making Steve take two. Steve, usually photo shy, doesn't seem to mind so much as Nat takes pictures and actually poses with Bruce for a few. Steve is becoming more and more animated with each drink, using his hands to punctuate the smallest things, talking a mile a minute about crap and Nat and Clint are desperately trying not to crack up too much, Nat taking photos of everyone, while Bruce giggles wickedly.

Steve suddenly realises, as he starts to sing along loudly to the music in the bar - something he NEVER does - that he's a bit more far gone that he was about twenty minutes ago and holds up his hands, pointing at the empty glasses in front of him, frowning. He grabs Bruce's arm. "Wait, wait, wait...," he says.

"Captain Rogers is in the house," Bruce says, punching the air with his fist.

Steve blinks at the empty glasses before him, hand still clutching Bruce's arm. "You did something, you fuckers..." His voice is slurring.

Bruce slaps him on the back. "What's a few doubles of rum and coke between friends?"

Steve squints and looks up at Nat and Clint, which sends them into gales of not-too-sober-either laughter.

Steve shakes his head and stands up. "I need to take a piss, but when I get back, we're all going to have...words."

He hears them all laugh again as he wobbles off, glancing his hip off of a table a few feet from theirs. As he sways at the urinal in the bathroom, trying to order his thoughts, he thinks, God, I want Bucky so badly. He pats his pockets for his phone, intending to text Bucky and let him know, but remembers that Nat has it. He zips himself up, makes a concentrated effort to wash his hands and heads back to the table.

Bruce has another drink waiting for him, beaming over his own beer. "There you go, Captain."

Steve sits down heavily. "You're all so mean to me." Bruce slings an arm around Steve's shoulders.

"Steve, we all love you and we love seeing you drunk. You're always so quiet and nice, it's funny when you act like a normal person."

Steve shrugs Bruce away and makes a grabby hand at Nat. "Give me my phone," he says and Nat instantly makes a suspicious face.

"Why?"

Steve's mouth moves before his brain has a chance to follow. "Because I want Bucky...I mean I want to...I need Bucky. To call Bucky." He's finding it hard to get his words out in the order he wants them.

Nat holds his phone to her chest. "Oh no, no, no!!"

"Nat, give it!"

Bruce looks confused. "Who the hell is Bucky?"

Clint leans on the table, grinning. "Some guy that Steve is madly in love with."

Bruce laughs. "I thought he was talking about a dog or something. What kind of a name is Bucky?"

"It's his middle name nick-name," Steve says, stumbling over his words again, and he reaches over the table, knocking over three empty beer bottles, trying to get his phone from Nat.

"Steve, you are not calling Bucky in this state because it will be a HUGE mistake which you will regret. Therefore, I will be holding onto your phone until you are sober." She looks like she's enjoying herself and takes a photo of Steve stood up over the table with an incredulous look on his face, arm still reaching, cheeks flushed.

"Fine," he snatches up Bruce's phone. "I'll call him on Bruce's cell!"

Bruce tries unsuccessfully to grab his phone back from Steve.

Nat takes a swig of her mojito. "Go ahead."

Steve stares at Bruce's phone for a minute before putting it back on the table with a frustrated howl. "I don't know his number in my head."

Clint laughs and says "lame" and Bruce slides his phone away from Steve. "I get the feeling that I've been missing out on some major action. What's with this Bucky guy?"

Steve lets out a sad moan and slumps back into the seat sagging slightly to the left. "Bucky's amazing," he says, "he's so funny and he dances like a robot."

Clint snorts. "He's got it pretty bad."

Bruce snickers. "I can see that."

Steve leans forward onto the table, like he's about to let them all into a secret and they all lean in with him, faces grinning expectantly. "I just want to...want to..."

He let's rip with a string of extremely explicit things that he wants to do to Bucky and Nat shrieks almost spilling her drink. Clint sits back, eyes wide, covering his ears and Bruce claps a hand over his mouth, laughing hysterically.

Nat is clutching her middle, sobbing with laughter. "Steven Rogers! I honestly didn't know you had it in you! Oh my god! There's us thinking you're so sweet and innocent. Jesus!"

Clint points at Steve. "I never want to have those mental images of you ever again, I don't care who it's with."

Steve sits back and makes a face, giving a dismissive wave of his hand to Clint. "I bet you do them."

Bruce is still laughing. Nat holds up the camera, set on getting as many photos of Captain Rogers as she can. Steve looks far away for a moment.

"But I just want to suck his - " They all shout in unison and Bruce lunges across to clamp a hand across Steve's mouth before he can finish as Nat snaps another picture and Clint starts making loud la-la-la noises.

Bruce pulls Steve into a hug, his hand still over Steve's mouth. "Oh Steve, dear sweet filthy Steve." Steve tries to pull Bruce's hand away and Bruce says he will, if Steve promises not to say anything else. Steve nods and Bruce lets go.

Clint gets up, shaking his head. "I'm getting Steve some water."

 

***

 

They head off to another bar so Clint and Bruce can play pool, Steve weaving along besides Nat, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other without leaving the sidewalk and heading off into the street. They find a place down the block that is quiet and Nat steers Steve to a booth near the back.

"How are you sober and I'm not?" Steve complains as he manages to somehow knock his own glasses off.

"Because I can handle my booze, Rogers, and you can't. Now stay," she commands as he slides across the seat and she heads to the bar.

Steve leans his head against the wall. The giddy effects of the rum are starting to turn into self-pity and regret, coupled with his head feeling like he's in a centrifuge and he lets out a low whine to himself, not feeling too good.

Nat comes back with a pitcher of water and two cups of coffee. "Okay, we're going to make sure we don't have a repeat of last year." She pours a glass of water and makes Steve drink two in front of her.

Steve sighs and rubs his eyes. "Please don't tell Bucky what I said."

Nat gives a little laugh. "What are you talking about?"

Steve looks down at his coffee. "About what I want to do to him."

"Steve, if I hadn't commandeered your phone, you would have done that all on your own and made a huge mess. Why would I even think about doing that?"

Steve looks down at the table, drunk and confused. "I don't know..."

Nat edges up to him with a sigh. "I knew we shouldn't have done this. Steve, I'm not going to call the guy you like and tell him stuff. I'm not THAT mean."

"I'm sorry," Steve says frantically, "I didn't mean - "

Nat puts an arm around him. "I know what you meant. You're a terrible drunk, Steve."

"I feel bad for saying those things when he's...you know..." Steve gestures something that Nat can't quite decipher. "It was so disrespectful."

Nat makes a sad little noise and shakes her head. "Steve, only YOU could be blind stinking drunk and still think you were being disrespectful to someone. You are adorable."

Steve rests his head on Nat's shoulder and says, his voice barely a whisper, "I want Bucky so badly." She rubs his arm. "I know you do. Come on, drink some more water."

Clint and Bruce come over to the table after three games of pool, grimacing at Steve slumped next to Nat.

"He's not still talking about putting things in places that I don't want to imagine things going, is he?" Clint asks.

"Oh dear," says Bruce. "Captain Rogers has crashed and burned."

Steve gives Bruce the finger and a pathetic scowl. "This is your fault." He takes a gulp of coffee and burps.

Clint gives a snort. "I guess that's you done drinking for the year then?"

Steve groans and slumps onto the table. "I can taste my own stomach."

Nat pours Steve some more water and Steve starts to protest. "Shut up and drink it. You'll feel really bad in the morning if you don't and I know you don't want to have a hangover AND have to talk to Tony Stark."

Steve groans louder.

 

***

 

It's late when they get back to the hotel. Bruce gets off of the elevator on the third floor and blows Steve a kiss as the door shuts. Nat and Clint get Steve to his room and it takes Steve ten minutes to convince them that yes, he can take his own clothes off and get into bed without setting himself on fire or something. Nat gives him quick a hug and hands him his phone back only after he absolutely promises not to text or call Bucky and Clint punches him lightly on the shoulder. As he unlocks his door, he watches the two of them walk off down the hall, Clint sliding his arm across Nat's shoulder and kissing her on top of the head. She winds a hand around Clint's waist and leans into him and Steve feels a twinge in his chest. He goes inside and forces himself to drink another three glasses of water in the bathroom, his head spinning slightly less than it was earlier. He checks his phone, but there's nothing.

He undresses and all but passes out on the bed.

 

***

 

Steve blinks awake; his phone is ringing and he rolls across the bed, to answer it. The time on the bedside clock says 8:48am.

"Wha?" he manages before the pounding in his head starts. He lets out a moan. He takes a drink from the glass of water on the bedside table.

Nat laughs way too cheerfully for someone who drank just as much as he did the night before. "Good morning, Mr Rogers. How are we feeling?"

Steve rolls onto his back and throws his arm over his eyes. "My head hurts."

"Well, I'm not surprised. Imagine how you would feel if I hadn't made you drink your own body weight in water. Did you puke at all?"

Steve looks around. "I can't see any. I don't think so." That's something at least. "Although it kind of tastes like I did."

"Good, because we're going down to breakfast in thirty minutes. Have a shower and get dressed. We'll come and get you." She hangs up.

Steve lies for a moment, trying to remember how much he had to drink last night. Way, way too much. He winces as he remembers telling the others what he wanted like to do with Bucky and buries in face in his pillow. He quickly checks his phone to make sure he didn't send any incriminating texts to him without realising. No - thank fuck for that. After a moment, he taps out a message.

STEVE: Guess who's feeling very rough this morning after drinking a few too many last night?

He hits send and sits up, rubbing the back of his neck and burps. Gross - tastes like rum. He heads to the bathroom and takes some Advil and a text comes back.

BUCKY: PROOF OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN

Steve bites his lip and looks through his picture gallery. Nat took tons of photos, some of them actually really good. He smiles as he sees a few really funny ones of him and Bruce, leaning in and making faces. There's one of Clint trying to look cool (which he usually ends up doing really well anyway), a selfie of Nat making her sexy pouting face, one of her drinking her cocktail with wide-eyes. There's one of Steve laughing at something and he's surprised to see how happy he looks. The next one is of him stood up, looking at the camera, slightly pissed-off, grabbing for the phone. He looks pretty wasted, his cheeks red and eyes slightly unfocused. He swipes to the next one and Bruce is lunging at him while Steve has a slightly dreamy look on his face, eyes half-lidded, mouth mid-speech. Oh god, he remembers exactly what he was saying when THAT photo was taken.

He swipes back to the previous photo, of him standing over Nat, and attaches it to a message without any explanation.

BUCKY: Oh my god, that is amazing. You look so angry

STEVE: Nat was holding my phone hostage

BUCKY: What time does the con start?

STEVE: 2pm - 6pm so not too bad. 2morrow will be the busiest day

BUCKY: Good luck :)

STEVE: Thanks man

Steve puts his phone down on the sink and starts to run the shower. How is it even possible to miss someone so much in just a day? He takes off his t-shirt and boxers and gets under the warm spray, hoping to wash away some of the hangover, as well as some embarrassment, if that's possible. His mind starts to drift, thoughts turning back to Bucky and he turns the cold water up a notch.

 

***

 

He's just attempting to use the hair gel that Clint gave him when there's a knock on the door. Nat and Clint are stood in the hallway, Nat looking immaculate as always and Clint looking slightly bleary.

"Look at you, doing your hair," Nat says with a smirk.

Steve walks back into the bathroom, leaving the door open for them. "Did I do it right? I have no idea if it looks right."

Nat follows him in and leans on the sink. "It looks great. You look cute."

Clint leans against the door frame, watching Steve frown into the mirror. "You know, if you end up making out with Bucky when you get back to New York and it's because of your new hair, you totally owe me."

Steve tries not to look at them both as he washes the gel from his hands. "Look, uh, could you guys forget about all the stuff I was talking about last night? The...Bucky stuff?"

"I already have no idea what you're talking about," Clint chuffs. "I made sure to give myself a cognitive recalibration when we got back last night so I never have to think about you doing dirty things ever again."

Nat gives a little giggle. "Oh Steve, don't worry about it. There's nothing wrong with letting everyone know that you think about sex and jerk off just like everyone else."

Steve makes a noise and goes scarlet. Nat grabs him in a hug, pinning his arms to his sides. "Come on, forget about it. Clint already has."

Steve sighs and Nat leads him out of the bathroom. "What time are we leaving?"

"After breakfast. We might as well set up early, then we can look around before it gets busy."

They take the elevator down to the breakfast room and Bruce is already there with a table for them. Steve gets a bowl of cereal and sits down while Nat and Clint run over to the bacon.

"So, how you doing this morning, Mr Potty Mouth?" Bruce asks with a grin, putting four sugars into his coffee.

Steve plays with his cereal. "Please erase all memory of all things I said last night that had anything to do with sex."

Bruce gives Steve a friendly nudge. "I'm sorry; we can't help but tease you. It's so easy to make you blush. Look, already forgotten."

Steve finally smiles at Bruce. "Thank you."

Nat and Clint come to the table with two plates full of toast and bacon. "Luke Cage is sat down over there," Nat points to an area of the breakfast room that they can't see, "and he is fucking built. I mean, the guy is HUGE."

Clint gives her a look. "Hey, hello; it's me, your husband."

Nat waves him off. "I'm committed to you for life but I can still ogle." She holds out her plate. "We got bacon for you guys too."

They eat and talk about things they want to get at the con. Bruce and Steve start to get into a very heated discussion about something in Blade Runner and Nat tries to get another glimpse at Luke Cage again without Clint noticing.

 

***

 

They all pile into a cab, barely fitting their con stuff into the trunk and having to heap most of it into laps. Bruce shotguns the front seat and Nat, Clint and Steve squeeze into the back.

Bruce makes a dramatic arm motion. "To the convention centre!" The cab driver gives him a look. "Please," Bruce says and Steve smothers a laugh.

Things are already looking really busy when they arrive, a huge line of con goers snaking around the block and Steve feels the familiar tight feeling in his chest start to close in. He takes a couple of deep breaths, trying his best to be quiet, looking out of the window away from the others. He feels Clint's hand on his shoulder and looks around.

"You're okay. I'm here if you need me." Steve gives him an appreciative nod.

They're in the line to pick up their passes when Steve sees Phil Coulson heading over. Bruce grins and they shake hands.

"Hey Phil, this is Steve Rogers. You guys have a panel on Sunday, right?"

Phil turns to Steve with a smile. "Oh hey! God, I love your work. I'll have to get you to sign my copy of Disassembled if that's okay?"

Steve smiles shyly. "Yeah, sure."

Phil gives them a wave. "I have to get back - I'm sat next to Thad Ross and he keeps trying to take over like a foot of my table."

They finally get their passes and head into the hall; it's already manic with people setting up, booths everywhere, a ton of people already milling around. Steve keeps his eyes on Nat and follows her through the hall to the artist's alley. Bruce stops to talk to Dane Whitman and tells Nat and Steve that he'll catch up.

"Oh my god," Clint cries excitedly, "I can see the Iron Throne!" He starts to run off. Nat turns around, looking cross.

"Clint, you need to help me set up first!" But he's already out of view.

Nat marches off again. "I wanted a picture on the Iron Throne," she sulks.

They find their tables which are next to each other. Bruce is sat opposite. Steve winces inwardly when he sees that he's next to Tony, even though it makes sense, as they all work on Winter Soldier. The table is already set up but there's no Tony in sight. Steve hopes he doesn't come back for a while at least.

Nat crosses her arms and stares back down the aisle. "Clint has our fucking banners."

Steve is already rearranging the table cloth on his table. "Aw, let him have his fun. He's going to be running around after us all weekend." He starts to unpack his prints and the comics he intends to sell. Nat shuffles about in her suitcase and pulls out a large package wrapped in brown paper.

"Here are your prints. I hope you don't mind but I had a peek. They're amazing. I might need to nab a Hellraiser one from you if that's cool."

"Sure," Steve says. "I'll swap you for that District 9 one you did?"

Clint comes back, grinning. "Check this out!" He holds up his phone, a photo of him lounging on the Iron Throne, frowning and pouting. Steve bursts out laughing.

"Wow, do you think you could have spread your legs out any wider?"

"That's how it's done on the Iron Throne. This is so my new Facebook profile picture."

Nat punches him on the arm. "You could have at least waited until we'd set up, you dick."

Clint props Steve's banner against his table and pulls Nat into his chest. "I love you honey, but the Iron Throne will always come before you." Nat squirms away and continues setting up her table. "At least make yourself useful and go get us a coffee or something."

Clint turns to Steve. "You want a coffee, dude?"

Steve reaches for his wallet. "Yeah, that would be great."

"No, no, I'll get it. You can get them tomorrow."

Clint heads off and Steve sets up his banner. He's lost in concentration, deciding which originals to sell when he hears Nat mumble, "Uh-oh," under her breath.

Steve is about to ask what when he hears a smug voice crooning behind him. "No one knows what it's like, to be the bad man, to be the sad man..." Steve hunches his shoulders and gives Nat a look.

"Hello Tony," he says and turns around. Tony is swaggering towards him, still singing. He's wearing a suit and sunglasses. Indoors. Of course he is. Steve stands up straight, already feeling himself getting defensive.

"Behind Blue Eyes..." he finishes with a flourish.

Tony stops in front of him and cocks his head. "Rogers, you actually got a haircut. And a modern one, at that." He takes Steve's hand and pumps it vigorously, making Steve's glasses slide to the end of his nose. "Your taste in clothes still sucks though. Hey, nice work on the comic, which is excellent, but then you were working from my scripts, so why wouldn't it be." He pulls Steve away to the side before Steve can even say anything and heads towards Nat.

"Hey gorgeous." Tony attempts to pull Nat into a hug but she twists away and grabs his hand, shaking it instead.

"Hello Tony. You're looking...smart."

Tony gives her a winning smile. "So where's that lunk you're always hanging around with?"

"You mean my husband? He's about."

Tony makes a "hurm" and turns back to Steve, who has gone back to arranging his table. "So how are you, Sad Sack?"

Steve turns back to Tony and is about to answer when Tony waves a hand at him. "Oh, I don't care. You just keep drawing those pretty pictures. Oh, FYI - our panel tomorrow, I took the liberty of giving the moderator some prompts and stuff. I wouldn't want us all to not look like professionals. Think you could actually make some noise at this one, Rogers? I know you have issues communicating with other human beings on a normal level but a few words would be nice."

Steve clenches his jaw and starts to shuffle about in his bag, annoyed. "I'd be happy to, if I could get a word in anywhere. Do you think you'll be able stop talking long enough for me and Nat to say anything?"

Tony beams at Nat. "He's such a people person."

Nat starts to assemble her roller banner. "Only with you, Tony. Don't you have female con-goers you need to go and be sleazy against?"

"Plenty of time for that, Red. And it's not sleazy, it's charming."

Nat gives him a look and deliberately puts her banner between them.

Tony spies someone down the aisle and gives his hands a clap. "Well, as much as I would love to stay here and be dragged down into dullness and depression with Mr No-Fun and the Ice Queen, I can see someone I'd much rather speak to way, way over there." He slaps Steve's ass as he walks away, not bothering to enjoy the reaction on Steve's face. "See you kids later." He saunters off.

Steve turns to Nat with an unbelieving shake of his head. "Why can't he just say hello and have a normal conversation like anyone else?

Nat arranges her prints on her table. "Because he's Tony Stark and he's a prick, that's why."

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. His head is still too messed up and fuzzy to have to navigate the sarcasm and irritation of a conversation with Tony. "Why are we working on his book? Like, really?"

Nat throws him a wry smile. "The artistic thrills."

Clint comes back with Bruce in tow, handing a latte to Steve and a frappe to Nat. "Oh no, did we just miss Tony? I'm so sad," he says in a voice that couldn't be less enthusiastic if he tried.

Bruce puts his stuff down on the table across the aisle and comes over, looking at Steve's prints. "So what did Mr Charisma want?"

"To annoy me, what else." Steve gives his table a critical look. "I think I'm done. Do you need a hand, Bruce?"

"Nah, I don't have much. It'll take me like five minutes."

"Go and have a look around, dude. You'll probably be too busy tomorrow," Clint says and helps Nat set up her display stand.

Steve wipes his hands on his jeans. "Um, I saw a graphic novel stand over there. I'll just be a minute?"

"We'll look after your stuff, take as long as you want," Nat says, rearranging everything Clint just set up.

Steve heads off, knowing exactly what he wants from the stall, having seen them on his way in. The guy on the book stand gives him a warm smile and Steve picks up two volumes of Before Watchmen for Bucky. He's nervous as he buys them, wondering if it's a bit much. He hands his money over before he can change his mind and heads back to his table.

Nat and Clint are squabbling over what looks better pinned up on Nat's banner and Bruce is complaining because his table cloth is too small.

"That was quick," Nat says, eyeing the bag his books are in. "What did you get?"

Steve quickly puts the books in his messenger bag,. "Um, Before Watchmen. Just a couple of them. For...uh, for Bucky."

Nat raises an eyebrow. "Wow, you're already buying him graphic novels."

Clint starts to hum the wedding march loudly.

Steve gives them both a scathing look. "It doesn't mean anything."

They both nod and say "Of course it doesn't" at the same time.

Nat's table is finally ready and Clint flops down on the floor behind Steve and becomes engrossed with his phone. Nat stands back and snaps pictures of her table from various angles.

"Are you going to be updating your Tumblr with photos this weekend?" Steve asks.

"Of course I am," Nat says and snaps one of Steve. "Why?"

"I, uh, gave your Tumblr address to Bucky because he's not on Facebook. Just so he could see what the con was like."

Steve can hear Clint chuckling behind him; Nat tries to hold back a smile and comes over to Steve's table. "Oh well, in that case, let's give him something to look at."

Steve stiffens, not sure how to pose. "Come on, Steve - just smile. You look like you just shit yourself," Nat says and Clint actually guffaws from the floor.

Steve lets out a breath and gives Nat a look just as she takes a photo. "No, I wasn't ready!" he protests.

Nat shows him the photo. "There. You look cute and professional. Hopefully he'll see this and realise how much he misses you."

Steve looks down at the table and starts to pull his drawing stuff out of his bag. Nat catches the corner of his mouth curling up in a slight smile, though.

 

***

 

The doors open at 2pm and it gets busy pretty quickly. A few people make a bee-line straight for Steve and Nat and within fifteen minutes, Steve already has six commissions. Tony hasn't come back to his table yet and a few people mill about waiting for him, talking excitedly. Nat is listening to a short ginger-haired guy talk about digital colouring and giving him her whole cool smirk-and-eyebrow treatment, Clint stood behind her table, arms folded. He tends to stick close-by ever since The-Guy-Who-Kept-Harassing-Nat-And-Almost-Got-Punched incident. Steve knows he's keeping an eye on him too.

A few guys he recognises from other cons come over to get some issues of Winter Soldier signed and Steve chats to them, finally relaxing a bit. Tony comes swanning back to his table, greeting everyone like he's a major celebrity but thankfully ignores Steve for the rest of the day. Bruce has a steady stream of people to talk to and manages to break away for a minute after a couple of hours.

"Are you guys up for meeting Phil at the hotel for drinks after we get food? He's going to get Dane to come and maybe Luke Cage, too."

Nat raises an eyebrow. "I'm in. Also, hotel bar prices means not many drinks so that's probably a good idea."

Clint huffs. "Yeah, nice try. That's so not why you want to go."

"I'm in," Steve says, thankful that not much booze will be involved.

Bruce runs back to his table and Steve gets back to his sketches, thinking about the books in his bag and how he can't wait for Sunday night.

 

***

They all start to pack up at six o'clock; it had been a good start. Steve managed to get thirteen commissions in all so far and completed six of them. He'll have to try and get a few more finished tonight so he doesn't get a back-log tomorrow. Nat also did pretty well, although she complained that Clint's stink-eye scared a few potential punters away.

"I didn't like the cut of their jib," he growls.

Tony leaves with a small entourage and Bruce throws a balled up napkin at his head as he walks by and ducks under his table. Steve happens to be looking straight at Tony as he turns around and he glares and points at Steve as he walks on.

Steve throws Bruce a dirty look as he comes up from under his table, hand over his mouth. "Dude, I'm so sorry! That was bad timing."

They head out of the convention centre and stop at a pizza place for dinner. Clint makes far too much noise when Steve's order comes, covered in anchovies. Steve plucks one off and puts it on Clint's arm and Bruce inhales the soda he'd been drinking and starts to choke when Clint screams and throws his arm up, trying to get the anchovy off.

Back at the hotel, Phil is already in the bar talking with Dane and Luke Cage is sat at a table with his arm around a pretty petite woman. Phil waves when he sees them and they all introduce themselves. The small woman with Luke is his wife, Jessica. As conversations get started, Steve excuses himself and drifts away to a table on his own, intending to get some sketches done. He checks his phone, but there's nothing from Bucky. He wonders if Bucky is thinking about him.

Steve has been drawing for an hour when someone pulls out a chair next to him. He looks up and it's Jessica. "May I?" she asks.

Steve clears some of his stuff from the table. "Oh sure, yes."

She smiles and sits down. "You looked a bit lonely, even though you were working."

Steve raises his eyebrows. "I did?"

Jessica smiles sweetly and says, "I get a bit overwhelmed at these things too. I like to come, to support Luke, but it gets a bit much for me sometimes."

Steve smiles back. "Yeah, it can get a bit intense."

He looks over to the bar. Phil, Bruce and Dane are all howling at something while Nat sits on a bar stool, looking pissed off and neglected, while Clint and Luke talk excitedly, Clint looking like he's having the time of his life.

Steve's brow knots a little. "I hope they don't all think that I'm being...anti-social or anything. I just wanted to get some drawing done before it gets busy tomorrow."

Jessica shakes her head. "Don't worry about it. Not everyone can stay switched on all the time, although Luke could just keep going if I didn't remind him to sleep."

They talk about little things for a while and Steve feels grateful that Jessica came over, that he met someone new and it was easy and pleasant. She eventually excuses herself to go to bed and touches Steve's shoulder lightly as she gets up.

"It was really good to meet you, Steve. I hope we get to chat again before the con is over."

Steve watches her walk to the bar, kissing Luke on the cheek before heading out towards the lobby. Clint catches Steve's eye and makes a "everything okay?" face and Steve gives him a tired smile and nods. He gets back to his sketches.

 

***

 

As they walk through the convention centre the next morning, on their way to their tables, Nat gets stopped by Maria Hill. They greet each other pleasantly and make small talk, Nat's smile looking more like a rictus grin as Maria chats to her. Clint makes a small warning noise and steers Steve away.

Steve has just started to sketch again at his table when Nat comes back, looking furious. "What a bitch."

Steve gives Clint a look and Clint just shakes his head and turns away.

"What happened?" Steve asks.

Nat sits down with a huff. "She was going on about how good my work is."

Steve and Clint wait for more. "And?"

"And that was it!"

Steve looks confused and is about to ask why that was a bad thing but Clint steps between their tables and offers to get coffee. Steve gives him a twenty and Clint leaves. Bruce waves at them from across the aisle and takes a photo. The doors open and everything goes crazy.

 

***

 

Steve barely has time to think the whole day. Tony's recent TV work means that everybody is suddenly interested in the Winter Soldier series and he and Nat are inundated with people wanting sketches, prints and more conversations than Steve is able to handle. Clint stays close to both of them for the morning, giving Steve the occasional reassuring pat on the shoulder which he's happy to receive.

Bruce has somehow managed to get Jessica to look after his table so he can have a look around and she gives Steve a smile and a wave when she catches his eye and Steve smiles brightly at her. Bruce comes over to Steve and Nat when he gets back, squeezing behind the table.

"Holy shit, I can't believe it's so busy!" he exclaims. "There are bronies EVERYWHERE!"

"How do you know they're bronies?" Steve asks, looking up from a sketch and rubbing his neck.

"Because they're dressed up as fucking horses!"

Nat is managing to sketch and keep up a steady steam of talk at her table. One guy asks her what it's like to be a woman working in comics and Nat gives him a particularly icy stare. "It's exactly like being a man working in comics, just with less testicles."

Clint snorts.

The crowd thins out at about one o'clock and Steve sits back, taking a few deep breaths. He's grateful that he's been so engaged in drawing, unable to think about anything besides the paper in front of him. As he looks over at Nat, face calm and smiling as she sketches something for a girl of about fifteen who looks like she's just met her idol, he spots two people cosplaying as Rorschach and Dr Manhattan from Watchmen. He turns to Clint.

"Clint, can you get a picture of me with those guys?"

Clint looks to where Steve is pointing and laughs. "Oh cool, yeah, gimme your phone."

Steve hands Clint his phone and shyly approaches the two guys and asks for a picture. They respond enthusiastically and come to Steve's table, posing beside him. He gives a check-this-out smile to the camera. He thanks the guys and they shuffle off, posing for someone else.

Clint shows him the picture. "That's amazing. I can't believe that guy actually painted himself blue."

Steve sits back down and attaches the photo to a text.

STEVE: Thought you'd get a kick out of this

He picks his pen back up and glances at his phone every two minutes. A text come back after ten and Steve snatches it up.

BUCKY: Oh my god!! Thank christ Dr Manhattan is wearing underwear

STEVE: They were awesome

BUCKY: How are you?

STEVE: Really busy. Tired but good. How are you?

BUCKY: I'm okay. Hope you don't get too wiped out

Steve smiles to himself over his phone and Nat's voice breaks into his happy haze.

"Well, I don't have to ask who you just got a text from to make you smile like that." Steve goes red and Clint ruffles his hair.

Their panel with Tony goes as expected: Tony talks most of the time, even to the annoyance of the moderator, and Steve and Nat manage to get in a few answers to questions about working on the Winter Soldier series. As Tony talks about his new show and how writing for TV is SO different from writing for comics, Nat, who thought to bring a sketchpad and Sharpies with her, draws a chibi Tony with a huge mouth and holds it up surreptitiously to the crowd. There are scattered laughs and Tony obliviously continues to waffle. Steve picks up a pink Sharpie and draws a bow on chibi Tony's head and a Hello Kitty face on his chest. He holds it up and the laughter is louder. Nat and Steve duck behind the drawing and giggle together.

"What are they doing? Are they stealing my thunder? They're totally stealing my thunder," Tony says, his mock annoyance edging onto real annoyance.

Nat looks over at him. "Tony, you've totally hogged this whole panel. We've managed to contribute to about 12% of this whole conversation."

There are some "oohs" from the crowd and Tony snorts.

"See what I have to deal with? They gang up on me. They don't understand what it is to be a true genius."

Steve, without really thinking, throws his middle finger up at Tony and Nat stifles a manic giggle as the crowd start to laugh and clap. Steve feels his face turn red and Tony gives him a very dirty look as he continues to talk. Nat gives Steve a fist bump.

Clint groans with relief when they get back to their tables, still giggling about the panel. "God, it's been crazy. Steve, I sold like fifteen of your horror prints. Nat, some guy from Image came over and said he wants to talk to you and that he'd be back later. I'm going to need a fucking beer after this."

 

***

 

Steve starts to struggle at about four-thirty, suddenly finding it harder to focus on his sketches, his throat feeling tight, his head feeling light and muffled. He gives a tight smile to the guy talking at him about a comic series he's never read and takes a long swallow from the bottle of water Bruce got for him half an hour ago. The guy finally leaves and Steve glances around at Clint, stood with his arms folded behind Nat, and Clint immediately comes over.

"You okay?" he asks softly, leaning down towards Steve.

Steve nods. "Yeah, just a bit...I might need to go outside."

Nat leans across her own table, face furrowed in concern. "What's going on?"

Clint puts a hand on Steve's shoulder. "I think he needs to get some air."

Nat ushers them away. "Well, go. I'll keep an eye on things." She stands up and positions herself between the two tables.

Steve stands up. "Sorry, Nat."

She shakes her head. "No apologies. Get outside."

Clint walks Steve out into the aisle, keeping his hand on his shoulder. Bruce looks up, worried, and Clint gives him an "it's okay" wave. They walk through the crowd and Steve is about to turn towards the main entrance which is clogged with people, making his heart thump faster, when Clint pulls him in another direction.

"I know a secret way out," he says and they walk across the hall to a service entrance. Clint mumbles something to the security guard and he nods and lets them through. Steve immediately feels relief when he hits the fresh air, the service yard empty save for a few large garbage cans. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes, talking in large gulps of air, his head clearing. Clint doesn't say anything, just stays next to him, his arm across Steve's shoulders.

After ten minutes, Steve pushes himself away from the wall. "Thanks Clint," he manages quietly and Clint pulls him into a little hug.

"Anytime." He leads them back in and Nat looks relieved when they get back.

"Are you okay?" she asks Steve as he sits down.

Steve nods weakly. "Yeah, possible disaster averted. I just feel like an idiot."

Nat hits him lightly on the arm. "None of that. I was thinking that maybe you, me and Clint could just go somewhere quiet after this? I'm pretty wiped and I think we'd both want to just hang out with you." Clint nods in agreement.

"What about Bruce?" Steve asks, worried that he's made things complicated.

"Bruce is cool; he's going to some club with Luke and Dane," she says, and he realises that she must have spoken to him.

Steve nods. "That would be nice."

Things have started to wind down and the aisles gradually thin, people heading off to after-parties or bars, groups of cosplayers gathering together for photo shoots. Steve rubs his wrist, which has been steadily aching for most of the day. Tony leaves at five o'clock, brushing by Steve's table and giving him the finger back. He goes to say something to Nat as he passes and steps away when Clint gives him a frown.

Steve packs away his paper and pens, zipping up his portfolio. Bruce heads over after covering up his table. He glances down at Steve. "Everything okay?"

Steve nods and Bruce gives them all a wave. "See you guys tomorrow."

Nat throws an arm around Steve's shoulders and Clint's waist and leads them off down towards the entrance. "Come on, Men. Let's go."

 

***

 

They find a BBQ place and eat a very messy but tasty dinner. Steve cracks up as Clint annoys Nat by saying "moist towelette" as often as he can until she threatens to boycott any and all sex with him.

Steve shuffles about in his bag and finds his wrist support, sliding it on and pulling the velcro tabs in place. He gets out his unfinished sketches and pens.

Nat tuts, looking up from the copy of Fun Home she picked up on the way out of the con. "Steve, it's probably a good idea to rest your hand rather than try and do more work."

Steve puts his glasses on the table and rubs his face. "I know, but the more I get done tonight, the less I need to worry about tomorrow."

Clint starts up another game of Tetris on his phone and points to Steve's wrist support. "That's what you get when you use your right hand for everything." He waggles his eyebrows.

Steve starts to draw and Nat holds up her phone, ready to take another picture of him. Steve waves a hand. "Nat..."

"Come on, we'll give him one more to look at before bedtime." She gives him a sly little grin. Steve sighs with a defeated smile.

Nat snaps the photo and gives it an appraising look, holding her phone out to him. "I think this is the best one yet." Steve looks tired but happy in the picture, pencil in hand, a little lopsided smile on his face.

Steve hopes that Bucky sees it.

 

***

 

Steve says goodnight to Nat and Clint when they get to the hotel, dead on his feet. Clint is determined to have another drink before they call it a night and Nat waves to Steve as Clint drags her to the bar. Steve gets back to his room, ears buzzing slightly in the quiet, trying to readjust to the silence, letting it take him over. He loves comic cons but the constant noise and interaction steadily wears him down until all he wants is somewhere quiet and dark.

The bedside clock flashes 9:15pm and Steve chuffs, thinking it was a lot later. He takes a quick shower and brushes his teeth and gets into bed, turning off the lamp and savouring the feel of the pillow on his head, his shoulders aching against the mattress. His phone rings and he groans, expecting Nat or Clint, ready to refuse if they try and cajole him back downstairs. It's Bucky.

Steve's heart leaps into his throat as he answers. "Hi!"

"Hey, I hope I'm not butting in on anything?"

"No," Steve answers quickly, stumbling. "No - I just got into bed."

"Oh shit, sorry. I just wanted - " Bucky says, sounding just as flustered as Steve.

"No, it's fine. I...it's good to hear your voice...I mean, it's good to hear from you." He winces. Don't sound desperate...

"Oh, good...cool. I just wanted to see how you were...I was thinking about you...how you did today at the convention..."

"I'm fine. It was a good day. I'm so tired now though, its ridiculous."

Bucky laughs softly. "Yeah, I was looking at Natasha's Tumblr. It looked pretty insane."

So he was looking. Steve's face starts to feel warm.

"Hey, what happened to your hand? You were wearing a thing..." Bucky sounds concerned.

"Oh, that's just my wrist support. My hand gets funny when I've been drawing all day. It was pretty intense for commissions."

"Ah, okay. Good. I mean, good that you didn't hurt it."

Steve smiles. "So how's it going? What have you been up to?"

"Pssshhh, nothing. Unless you count a marathon of My Strange Addiction as something."

"Did they do the one about the guy who dates his car?" Steve asks and Bucky erupts into a fit of laughter. Steve hadn't realised how much he'd missed that sound.

"Oh my god, yeah! That was just insane. Oh, and the woman who licks cats!"

They talk about some other episodes for a bit and Steve tells Bucky about Tony and the panel they had. Bucky mentions to Steve how he thought he heard Hobo Guy shuffling about up on Steve's floor and how they should try and lure him out of his apartment when Steve gets back.

"I don't think he ever leaves by the front door; it couldn't have been him. I think he creeps out through the fire escape." Steve says, sounding sleepier by the minute but determined to stay on the phone as long as Bucky wants to talk.

"I looked at his mailbox this morning but there's no name on it," Bucky said.

Steve laughs. "You're totally stalking him!"

"No I'm not! I was so bored I thought I'd try and find some shit out. You've lived in this place longer than me - don't you know anything about him?"

Steve considers. "No, now that you mention it. I've never actually seen him, just heard him banging on the walls."

Bucky excitedly launches into what he's calling Operation: Boo Radley and starts reeling off things they should do to try get Hobo Guy to make an appearance.

Steve interrupts Bucky after Idea Number Five: Set off the building fire alarm and wait for him to come outside. "Wait, are you reading this out? Did you write all of this down?" Steve starts to laugh.

"Dude, I was bored!"

Steve rolls onto his side. "I should have lent you my Wii U," he says, sounding drowsy.

"Nah, it wouldn't have been as much fun without you to play," Bucky says and they both fall silent for a moment.

"I should let you sleep," Bucky says.

"No, I'm fine. This is nice," Steve says without thinking.

Bucky gives a soft chuckle. "Okay. Actually, I wanted to ask you a question. But you don't have to answer it if you don't want to..."

"This sounds ominous..." Steve says, closing his eyes.

Bucky is quiet for a beat. "That Brock guy we ran into..."

Steve's eyes snap open and his throat catches. He doesn't realise that he hasn't answered until Bucky says, "Steve?" his voice slightly worried.

Steve clears his throat. "Yeah, I...I'm still here."

"So...uh...who dumped who?"

Steve rolls onto his back. He thought that Bucky must have figured...things...out the other day. "He dumped me," he says quietly into the dark.

Bucky is silent for a moment then says quietly, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable."

Steve puts his arm across his eyes. "No, it's fine. I, uh, I filed that one away with the other Steve's Amazing Fails a while ago."

"Steve, I...um...I wanted to say..." Bucky sounds like he's struggling to get the words out.

"What is it, Buck?" Steve asks softly, not daring to hope anything.

Bucky lets out a little sigh. "I should let you sleep. It was good to talk to you."

Steve closes his eyes. "Yeah, you too. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah, see you tomorrow. Goodnight Steve."

He hangs up and Steve puts his phone on the bedside table. He lies awake thinking for the better part of an hour before his mind finally gives in and he drifts off to sleep, dreaming of grey-blue eyes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Steve's Play List

The Thompson Twins - Hold Me Now
Mondo Generator - So High, So Low
The Billy Nayer Show - One Winged Man
Peaches - Talk To Me
Eels - World Of Shit
Mogwai - Hunted By A Freak

Sunday morning, Steve meets Nat and Clint in the lobby, suitcase packed. They were going to have to take all of their stuff back to the con with them; Steve's flight is at 5:10pm and Nat and Clint's train back to Milwaukee is at 6:20pm. Nat makes a yowling sound when Steve comes over and grabs him in a tight hug, knocking his glasses askew.

"No, you're not allowed to go back to New York. I won't allow it."

Steve hugs her back and adjusts his glasses. "We still have a whole day together yet, idiot."

She pulls back, her face set in a frown. "Yeah, a WORKING day. It's not the same."

Clint puts an arm around Nat's shoulders. "She started crying last night after two drinks. She really doesn't want you to go."

Nat hisses and elbows Clint hard in the gut. "Don't tell him I cried!"

Steve feels a bit like crying himself. He reaches out and hugs Nat. "I love you, Nat. The next time I see you, you'll be in New York. Besides, we talk everyday pretty much."

"It's not the same." Nat buries her face in his shoulder and Steve is surprised by the genuine anguish in her voice; Nat never gives anything overly emotional away and it's sweet and kind of scary when she does. "You're my best friend, you know that right?" Her voice is small.

Steve hugs her tight. "Of course I do. You're my best friend, too," he says softly.

Nat steps back, face knotted, and turns and stalks off towards the lobby bathrooms.

Steve watches her go and turns to Clint, still rubbing his stomach where Nat had elbowed him, face worried and questioning.

"Don't worry about it," Clint sighs. "She got a bit upset last night. Nat thinks she doesn't need many friends, you know this whole lone wolf thing she has going on. She misses you and she worries about you more than she lets on."

"You know you're my best friend too, right?" Steve says to Clint, his face pinched.

Clint rolls his eyes and grabs Steve by the shoulder, yanking him in. "Oh, don't you fucking start. You two are the worst."

"I would say get a room, but that's so done," says Bruce, coming over from the elevator, dragging a duffel bag behind him.

Clint hooks a foot around Steve's leg and dips him towards the floor, arms wrapped around Steve's back. "We don't need to hide our love," he says into Steve's startled face and kisses him hard on the mouth, making loud moaning sounds.

Bruce drops his bag and fumbles in his pockets, laughing his ass off. "Oh my god, my camera! I need my camera!"

"No!" Steve shouts, pulling his face away, and the clerk at the desk gives them all a stinking look. He twists out of Clint's grasp and slithers to the floor. "No more embarrassing pictures of me!" His face is red and Clint laughs, helping him up. Bruce's phone rings and he slides his bag across the Steve and Clint, one finger up, heading out the front, laughing as he answers.

"Hey Betty...what? Yeah, I've been laughing all weekend...honestly, I think I've damaged myself internally..."

Steve glares at Clint. "Well, you have the honour of being the second person who's ever kissed me like that in my entire life." He turns away.

Clint looks at him and when he realises Steve isn't joking, his eyes widen. "Seriously?"

Steve nods, his face going from raspberry to puce.

Clint looks mortified. "Oh dude, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it, I was just fooling around. I didn't mean to - "

Steve shakes his head and fumbles with his bag. "No, just...it's stupid. I'm stupid. Forget I said anything."

Clint puts his hands behind his head. "This morning isn't going the way I'd hoped it would..." He walks over to Steve and turns him around.

"I'm sorry. It was a stupid thing to do. I wasn't thinking that it might...mean more to you than a joke."

Steve doesn't look at him. "It's okay. I'm just feeling a bit...confused this morning. Don't worry about it."

Clint folds his arms. "You don't have to count that one as a real kiss. I mean, I'd be flattered if you did but it wasn't one of my best." He tries his best to sound light-hearted.

Steve forces a weak smile and busies himself with his bags, turning away. Nat comes back from the bathroom, face neutral.

"Are you losers ready to go now?"

 

***

 

They buy breakfast on the way to the con, eating in the cab, much to the disapproving looks of the driver. There's a slightly maudlin atmosphere between Nat, Clint and Steve which Bruce has picked up on, but doesn't mention. Steve is lost in thought, the conversation with Bucky the night before replaying over and over. Clint has one hand on Nat's knee, mulling over how to tell her that he did something very stupid. Nat stares out of the window.

Their spirits lift a bit when they get to their tables and find several people cosplaying as Winter Soldier characters waiting for them. Tony is in the middle of charming them all and one girl keeps giggling wildly at everything he says. He turns and sees them coming.

"Well, finally, they show up. Come on, these lovely people have been waiting for your tardy asses to get some pictures taken."

Steve is slightly blown away by the guy in the Winter Soldier costume, which is scarily close to his character design, with some amazingly thought out details. Tony directs everyone into position, yanking Steve by the arm and flinging him in the middle of the group and holding up his hands defensively when Nat tells him she'll break his arm if he grabs her. They get a few group shots, with the characters posing around them. Tony, much to Steve's surprise, is insanely pleasant to the cosplayers, and stages some really clever and funny photos. Steve and Nat smile at each other, actually having fun with him for once, although neither of them would ever tell him that. Steve gets Clint to take a photo of him with the Winter Soldier on his phone and then Tony pulls Nat and Clint in for a photo of just the three of them.

"Purely for promotional purposes," Tony says.

The cosplayers finally disperse and Steve stashes his suitcase under his table. Nat starts on some new sketches, back to her usual snarky self, muttering about giving Maria Hill a piece of her mind if she comes anywhere near her table. Clint is stood behind her with a worried look on his face.

"I'm just going to go for a walk, before the doors open." Steve says to them and Nat nods.

"We'll keep an eye on your stuff."

As Steve walks away he hears Nat say, not as quietly to Clint as she thinks, "Shit, I think I screwed up this morning with my stupid emotional outburst..."

"Um, probably not as much as me. I did something really stupid while you were in the bathroom..." Clint replies and Steve turns the corner into the next aisle before he can hear the rest. He wanders idly between the stalls - comics, replica weapons from movies, video games, t-shirts - but doesn't take any of it in. Steve wonders why Bucky asked about Brock and what it could mean, if anything. His phone vibrates in his pocket.

BUCKY: Hey! What are your thoughts on noodles?

STEVE: I like them?

BUCKY: A new ramen place opened down the street - wanna try it later?

STEVE: Sure - I'll text you when I'm on my way back home

There's a pause before the next message comes in.

BUCKY: Everything okay? I hope I didn't upset you last night or anything

Steve quickly replies.

STEVE: No, no you didn't, not at all, Nat got upset this morning and I got weird with Clint and I'm just really exhausted. Kind of looking forward to coming back to NY

BUCKY: Crap, sorry to hear it. You want to talk later?

STEVE: I think I'm being melodramatic, don't worry about it, I'm tired. Any new intel on Hobo Guy?

BUCKY: Not yet. I need you as my point man for any further missions

STEVE: Why am I the point man? Don't they always get shot?

BUCKY: No, they lead the charge. Anyway, I'd have your back like a sniper or something

Any uncertainty or weirdness that Steve had been feeling about the conversation last night quickly dissipates. He can feel something between him and Bucky. He doesn't want to hope too much that Bucky is attracted to him the way he is to Bucky but something has built between them in the last week. Steve feels like...he matters. Nat and Clint make him feel like he matters, as do Bruce and Sam, but this is different. Bucky is someone who came into Steve's life as an outside force, not related to his work in any way, a stranger he met on the stairs who seems to like him and want to hang out with him and...connect with him. Steve didn't realise how much he had ached for someone like Bucky until he had met him. His brief relationship with Brock had been awkward and difficult for Steve; a constant time frame of worrying that he wasn't good enough, couldn't act the right way or say what he wanted to say without blustering. With Brock, Steve had just felt like he'd been trying too hard all the time. With Bucky, it feels easy and...right.

STEVE: My hero. Wouldn't that make you my sidekick?

BUCKY: Sidekick?! Fuck you!

STEVE: Okay, fine. Partners

BUCKY: Better :)

He smiles, feeling that flutter in his chest. He checks the time; his panel with Phil and Rob is in thirty minutes. He heads back to his table, in time to see Clint stalking out of the hall, his face livid. Steve's stomach sinks. He's equally as distressed to see how angry Nat looks sat at her table, making pencils marks on a piece of paper like she wants to kill it. Steve approaches cautiously and Nat's face softens when she looks up and sees him.

"Clint told me what he did and I can't believe he'd be so...uargh!" She runs her hands through her red hair. "He just stormed off because I called him a fucking moron and now he's mad at me...and then there's me being a total emotional idiot earlier...we've ruined it. We've ruined the con!"

Steve comes around the table and sits next to Nat, nudging her with his foot. "No, you haven't. How many times have I been an gibbering wreck in front of you? I think you're allowed one little show of emotion now and again. Besides, it made me feel special."

Nat gives him a you-ain't-all-that look and he smiles. "But Clint said he made you feel really bad with his stupid kissing thing, which he did to Bruce last year, I might add."

Steve lets out a breath. "It wasn't his fault. I know he was only messing around. It just made me feel...a bit inadequate about my love life. I shouldn't have snapped at him."

"Is Brock really the only guy you've ever been with?" Nat asks, her face soft.

Steve looks down at the drawing she's been working on and nods. "If you could call it that. Nothing went beyond...kissing..." He can't quite meet her eyes, finally admitting what he thinks she already kind of knew.

"That's nothing to be ashamed of, Steve."

Steve gives a bitter chuckle. "No? It doesn't feel that way. When we ran into Brock the other day, I was so...terrified about what Bucky would think and I was so mad at myself for thinking that it would matter. He called me last night and we were just talking about crap and then he asked me about Brock, and I got all weird and...I don't know... I'm so worried that I'm going to scare him away."

Nat holds his hand. "I think it would take more than that to scare him away, especially after telling you about Afghanistan and everything . Have you been in touch today?"

Steve nods. "Yeah, just now. We're meeting for food later."

"So, there! You haven't scared him away. Who knows, maybe him finding out was a good thing. He might be thinking about you in the same way you think about him."

"I can't let myself hope for that," Steve says sadly.

"Why not? Steve, you don't just meet someone and hit it off the way you have with him everyday. Just...you're thinking about it too hard. Just see how it goes. You might be surprised."

Steve squeezes her hand. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

Nat looks away. "You're going to make me cry all over again. Shut up."

Steve laughs and puts his arm across her shoulder. "You don't cry. I don't believe that you did. It must have been an eyelash in your eye or something. Natasha Romanov doesn't have the capacity for tears."

Nat laughs and turns back, looking at him warmly. "It was totally an eyelash."

Steve spots Clint coming back, laden with coffee and paper bags. He doesn't look angry anymore, just apologetic. "I bought lots of coffee and baked goods to win myself back into both of your private parts."

Nat stands up and leans across the table and kisses him, something she's not very comfortable doing in public, and Clint smiles at her with such a look of devotion that Steve can't help but feel happy and jealous at the same time. He wants someone to look at him that way. He wants Bucky to look at him that way. Clint looks down at Steve and offers one of the paper bags.

"I got you all the cinnamon rolls." He's wearing such a look of remorse on his face that Steve wonders how he got so mad at Clint in the first place; the guy doesn't have a bad bone in his body.

Steve gives him a lopsided grin. "Thank you." Clint beams and things are good again.

Steve waits until Clint has taken a mouthful of coffee and says, "You totally gave me a semi when you kissed me earlier," and Clint inhales the coffee down the wrong way and starts to cough. Nat shrieks with laughter and sprays fragments of blueberry muffin over her table.

 

***

Steve takes the cinnamon rolls to his panel where Phil and Rob are waiting outside for him. Phil smiles and shakes his hand again. Rob Reynolds is tall and intense and slightly terrifying until he smiles and tells Steve that he's insanely jealous of his work on the Winter Soldier. Steve splutters something nice about Rob's work and they head in. There's a big crowd and Steve focuses on ignoring how many people are in the room and on the moderator's questions instead. It turns out to be an amazing panel. Steve hands out cinnamon rolls to Rob, Phil, the moderator - a guy called Dave - and to a few people in the front row of the audience, which gets him a round of "aw, cute" from a few girls sat near the middle. He returns to the table, blushing, and Phil pats him on the back and says, "Thanks for making the rest of us look bad," which gets a laugh and Steve feels any trepidation about talking in front of a crowd drain away.

They talk about their various projects and how they got into comics, and Steve starts to open up a bit, becoming less shy as the panel goes on. When it's the audiences turn to ask questions, someone asks Steve how well he really gets on with Natasha and Steve says "She's my best friend," which gets more "aws" from the crowd.

Dave the moderator says, "She has this reputation for being a bit...scary? What's she really like?"

"She's terrifying," Steve answers. "I'm too scared not to be her best friend." The crowd laugh and the panel wraps up.

Steve heads back to his table after chatting to Phil and Rob for a bit, exchanging email addresses with them both. Nat is sketching and Clint is looking after Steve's table. Clint pats him on the back when he sits down. Steve pulls out his sketchpad and pens and starts on the rest of his commissions.

The day passes in a blur; it's not as manic as Saturday but the flow of people is steady and Steve eventually has to turn away people wanting sketches otherwise he'll never finish them. The girls from the panel stop by his table. There are three of them, all in their late teens by the looks of it, and they talk and joke with him for a while, buying prints and getting copies of Winter Soldier signed. When they finally leave, all giggling madly to each other, Nat leans across to him, a huge disbelieving smile on her face.

"Oh my god, they were totally flirting with you!"

Steve's eyes widen. "No they weren't. They were just being nice."

"Steve, they took like a million photos of you. They were so flirting."

Nat snorts loudly and tells Steve he's completely clueless and Steve starts to protest again and Clint shakes his head. "Man, it's a good job you're into boys because you'd be a nightmare with girls," he says.

At 3pm, he starts to pack away his stuff and Nat comes and helps him, dismantling his banner for him.

"I can't believe you're going. It feels like we had no time to hang out at all," she says. "You need to come and stay with us for a weekend, just a normal weekend and we can watch movies and get angry about things on the internet together."

"That would be great," Steve says with a little smile.

When he finishes, he heads over to Bruce's table to say goodbye.

Bruce stands up. "You're leaving already? Boo."

"I have to catch my plane. It was great to see you again, Bruce."

Bruce hugs him. "I'll see you at Vision-Con next. Maybe we'll be nice and give Captain Rogers a break."

Steve smiles. "That would be appreciated."

Tony looks up from his own table, which he's been sat at for all of ten minutes the whole day, constantly walking off to schmooze with people. "Oh, you're leaving already, Rogers? The con too much for your delicate disposition?"

"As always, it was such a pleasure to see you, Tony." He reaches into his bag and pulls out the chibi Tony sketch him and Nat did at the panel. "This is for you."

Tony frowns at the sketch and glares at Nat. "My head isn't that big."

Nat laughs. "Oh, it's about right," she says.

Tony scowls and tosses the picture aside, but as Steve puts his portfolio under his arm and picks up his suitcase, he sees Tony slide it into one the books next to him.

Nat covers up her table and her and Clint walk with Steve out to the main entrance of the convention centre to find a cab. Clint gives Steve a little nudge and when Steve looks up at him, Clint raises an eyebrow - his way of asking if everything's cool with them. Steve nudges him back and nods.

Nat grabs Steve and hugs him hard. It hasn't had this much physical contact for a while and he hugs her back just as firmly. He gives Clint a hug and climbs into the cab. Nat huddles up to Clint and he kisses the side of her head.

"Text us as soon as you get back," she demands.

"I will. I'll call you tomorrow?"

Nat gives a hard nod, blinking furiously.

Steve gives her a little smile. "Watch out for those eyelashes."

"Take care, Steve." Clint says, looking equally as forlorn.

Steve waves to them until the convention centre is out of sight and faces forward. As much as he's going to miss them, he can't help the growing excitement building inside him of seeing Bucky again.

 

***

 

When he gets to the departure lounge, he texts Nat.

STEVE: At the airport. Love you guys. Thanks for my haircut

NAT: I'm so depressed it's unreal. Clint just went off to buy me a million things. He loves his lame Teen Wolf DVD BTW

STEVE: Speak 2morrow x

He takes a breath and starts to tap out another message.

STEVE: Boarding in about 20mins. Should hopefully be back by about 7:30

BUCKY: Awesome! See you soon

Steve sits back and tries to calm the butterflies in his stomach. He pulls out the copy of Lobster Johnson that he managed to buy himself and reads for a bit, totally distracted by thoughts of Bucky and having to re-read the last three pages twice to know what's going on. The plane starts to board.

 

***

 

The flight seems to drag this time. Steve constantly jiggles his leg without meaning to until the guy next to him, a sour businessman, brusquely asks him to stop. Steve flushes and apologises and spends the rest of the flight looking straight ahead at his seat. When they land, he all but runs through security and baggage claim. He hails a cab and bites his nails the whole way back. He finally arrives at his apartment building and Steve is suddenly hesitant to go in, his nerves getting the better of him. Come on, don't be a fucking wuss, he tries to tell himself, but his inner voice is just as nervous sounding. He heads in through the door and goes to check his mail box.

"Hey!"

He turns and Bucky is sat on the stairs, waiting for him. He stands up and gives a little wave. He's wearing a red checked shirt over a white tee under his army jacket instead of his usual hoodie, his baseball cap in his pocket. His left sleeve is pinned up and he nervously runs his hand through his hair. Steve swallows slightly, totally unprepared for how seeing Bucky again makes him feel. How had he forgotten how amazing Bucky's eyes are, how his smile makes Steve feel like the best person in the world? Steve realises that Bucky is...beautiful. He's fucking beautiful.

"Hey," he replies, a huge smile creeping across his face before he has a chance to try and act cool. Bucky comes over to him and for one split heart-stopping second, Steve thinks he's going to hug him, but he holds out his hand instead. Steve shakes it and they both laugh awkwardly. "How are you?"

"I'm okay." Bucky's eyes flit up to Steve's hair. "That haircut makes you look so different."

Steve touches the front self-consciously. "I'm still getting used to it."

"How was your flight?" Bucky asks.

Steve nods. "Yeah, it was fine. I was next to this guy who decided to use both armrests, which was really annoying. Um, let me just dump my stuff in my apartment and we'll go."

Bucky picks up Steve's portfolio. "Cool."

They head up and Bucky tells him about an argument between Mr Castor and Mrs Gonzalez that happened this morning on the fourth floor that ended with Mr Castor's laundry ending up being thrown out of the window.

"It was amazing," Bucky says, as Steve opens his front door and pulls his suitcase inside. "His towels had all these weird stains on them, even though they'd just been washed." He puts Steve portfolio on his desk.

"Did you leave the building at all this weekend?" Steve asks with a grin.

Bucky saunters over to him. "With this much neighbour action and bad TV to watch? Why would I?"

Steve nervously rummages in his bag and pulls out the two graphic novels he bought for him at the con. He holds the plastic bag out to Bucky. "I, uh, got you a present. It's just...something. I thought you'd like them."

Bucky takes the bag and his face lights up when he sees the books. "Wow, there's more Watchmen?"

"Yeah, they've only just come out as graphic novels. They're really good. There are more if you like them. I...um..." Steve trails off.

Bucky shakes his head. "I...wow, thank you, Steve. That was...really good of you." His eyes meet Steve's and Steve feels a jolt run straight through from his toes to his throat.

Steve looks away before he makes himself any more obvious. "Maybe we could watch the movie too. It's different to the book but good different."

"There's a movie?!"

 

***

 

They head to the ramen place, which is modern but comfortable and get a table near the back, Bucky sitting with his left side close to the wall. Steve wonders how self-conscious he is about his arm, but doesn't say anything. They both order beef udon and Bucky insists on getting a bowl of edamame, which Steve has never tried before. He stares uncertainly at the bright green salted beans when they arrive.

"Why are they still in their pods?"

"Because you do this, "Bucky says and picks one up, putting it in his mouth and dragging his teeth along the pod, chewing the beans as they come out. Steve thinks he might have a heart attack as he stares a bit too intently at Bucky's lips as he pulls the bean pod from his mouth. He shows Steve the empty pod and dumps it in the empty bowl next to the bowl full of beans.

Steve picks one up and tries it, Bucky watching him as he does. "Wow, it's good," Steve says and drops the empty pod, picking up another one. They make their way through the bowl and Bucky starts to shift the salt flakes at the bottom of the bowl with his finger when they've finished.

"I read your comic over the weekend," he says. "It was really good. Your artwork is just...I can't believe you can draw like that."

Steve gives an embarrassed little smile. "Thanks. Oh, hey. Look at this." He gets out his phone and flips through his photos, finding the one of the guy in the Winter Soldier cosplay.

Bucky holds his phone. "That's amazing! That must be so awesome, to see someone like something you drew enough to want to make a costume out of it."

"Yeah, it's a bit...overwhelming."

"Did you take any other pictures?" Bucky asks and Steve nods, indicating that Bucky can flip through the photo gallery. He drinks his soda, watching Bucky's face as he looks at picture after picture, unable to draw his eyes away from him as he reacts with little laughs and smiles.

Bucky holds the phone out to Steve with an amused grin. "What was going on in this one?" Of course, it's the one of Bruce lunging to cover up Steve's mouth, as Steve talks about something he'd never tell anyone about while he was sober.

Steve blusters. "I don't know, I was probably babbling about something...I can't really remember."

"Looks like it was good, whatever you were talking about," Bucky says with a mischievous smile and Steve wants to sink into the floor.

Bucky smiles at the photo of Steve, Nat and Clint taken after his haircut, the one he'd sent to him. "Natasha and Clint seem really cool," he says.

Steve grins. "Yeah, they really are. You'd like them. Nat can come across as a bit harsh when you first meet her, but she's amazingly sweet. Clint is just like a dog in human form."

"Yeah, I'm not sure they'd like me though," Bucky says, handing Steve back his phone.

Steve looks up. "They would."

Bucky gives him a small smile. "How would you know?"

"Because I like you," he says and quickly adds, "and they wouldn't like anyone that I didn't like."

Bucky gives a pleased little smile and looks away. "Well, then."

Steve looks up gratefully when their food comes and starts to eat. It's really good and Bucky, halfway through his bowl, says that they should make a thing of this. Steve can't quite get the hang of his chopsticks and throws one at Bucky when he laughs as Steve accidentally flicks a bamboo shoot onto the floor. Steve points and laughs when Bucky gives himself noodle whiplash, splattering broth all over his face.

"That was awesome," Steve says when he finishes, balling up his napkin and putting it into his empty bowl.

"Yeah, it was," Bucky agrees but he doesn't sound like he's talking about the food.

Steve insists on paying with some of his con takings, much to Bucky's protests. They leave the restaurant and amble back to the apartment building. The evening is cool and clear, and as tired as Steve is, he couldn't be happier right now, walking next to Bucky, listening to him talk about little things, laughing at his terrible jokes.

They walk along in contented silence for a few moments.

"At the risk of sounding like an idiot," Bucky says, scratching his neck, not looking at Steve, "I kind of missed you this weekend. Everything I did, I just kept thinking "this would be so much more fun if Steve were here"."

Steve's insides feel like they're about to boil and he stares fixedly at the sidewalk. "Yeah, I...uh...I missed you too. You would have got such a kick from the con." He refuses to look up at Bucky. "There's one here in New York in a couple of months. Maybe you could...come with me. I always get two passes."

"I'd really like that," Bucky says and Steve finally looks up, the smile on Bucky's face enough to make his heart want to explode.

Steve looks up at the darkening sky. "Well, then."

They get back to the apartment building and Steve starts to head up the stairs when Bucky calls him back.

"What?" Steve says as he comes back down. Bucky is stood in front of the mailboxes, looking shifty.

"Keep an eye out," he says excitedly. "I'm going to look in Hobo Guy's mailbox."

"What? You can't! Isn't that...illegal or something?" Steve nervously looks up the stairs.

Bucky gives him a pfft. "No." Then he looks uncertain. "I don't know, but I'm not stealing anything, for fuck's sake, I'm just going to get his name."

Steve steps over to him. "Well...hurry up..." He glances at the front door.

Bucky grins, his eyes full of trouble, and Steve suddenly thinks about how much fun it would have been to know Bucky as a kid, to be friends with him and do this kind of thing after school, spending summers together. Maybe in another life.

Bucky carefully opens Hobo Guy's mailbox, the two of them freezing in terror when it makes a loud squeak. Steve steps back a few feet and glances up the stairs. He comes back. "Come on..."

"Okay, okay..." Bucky opens it the rest of the way and pulls out the papers inside, rifling though them awkwardly with his one hand. "It's all junk leaflets," he says disappointed and Steve is too, caught up in the petty adventure. Suddenly the front door opens and they both squeal in fright, Bucky haphazardly stuffing the junk mail back into the box and running after Steve up the stairs. For some reason, they run straight by Bucky's place and continue, stumbling and flailing, up to Steve's apartment, bursting through the door and laughing hysterically, and a bit shakily, when the door slams closed.

"It was Mrs Nesbit and her dog," Steve manages to blurt out between laughs, which sets Bucky off again.

"Oh man, we must have looked so suspicious! You screamed when the door opened!"

"No, I didn't!" Steve protests.

Bucky takes his baseball cap off and tidies his hair. "You did, you totally did!"

Steve lunges forward and messes up Bucky's hair with both hands. "You did too AND you ran just as fast as I did up here!"

Bucky ducks away from Steve and snatches his glasses off. "You did NOT just mess up my hair!" He dodges out of reach when Steve tries to grab his glasses back. "Oh, you want these back, Blondie?"

Steve lets out a squawk and grapples Bucky around the waist, barrelling them both into the kitchen door, sending it flying back into the wall with a loud bang. Bucky laughs and gets Steve in a headlock, which is surprisingly strong considering he just has one arm, Steve's glasses still in his hand. Steve starts to laugh uncontrollably and struggles weakly, trying to reach up to Bucky's hair again. There's a very loud series of bangs from the wall across the room and they both freeze in place for a second, before Bucky lets Steve go and they snigger quietly to each other. Bucky hands Steve back his glasses and they straighten themselves up.

Bucky suddenly turns to the wall and shouts, "WHAT'S YOUR NAME?"

Steve yelps in horror and drags Bucky over to the couch. "What the fuck?" He hisses. "Don't do that!"

Bucky smirks. "Why not? He wont do anything, you said so."

"Yeah, but he's more likely to finally snap and break into my apartment and do stuff to me than go downstairs to your place!"

Bucky gives a little snork. "He's not Buffalo Bill!"

"He could be; who knows what he does in there all day?" Steve suddenly imagines a fridge full of heads and lampshades made out of human skin.

"Maybe he's a comic artist too..." Bucky says innocently and whoops when Steve pushes him over the back of the couch. Bucky lies back laughing, eyes creased up, hand on his forehead as Steve swipes at his legs and flops onto the couch next to him, smiling and rubbing his eyes.

Bucky eventually sits up and tucks his hair behind his ear. "I've got another arm thing tomorrow," he says evenly, looking ahead, "and it's going to be...kind of crap. I...uh...can I come over when it's done? Not for long or anything, just...if I go straight back home I know I'll get..." he holds his hand up, not quite sure what to do with it.

"Of course you can," Steve says. "You don't have to ask."

"I know, but...I might not be much fun."

Steve leans his head back. "You don't always have to be. I'll do whatever and you can just read comics or play games."

Bucky nods, still staring ahead. He's quiet for moment before continuing. "It's a new kind of procedure...with the arm. They hook up my nerves or something and it's...kind of complicated and gross. But it means I'll have better use of it and..." He trails off.

Steve watches him for a minute, not sure what to say but not wanting to stop Bucky from talking about his arm. His barriers are slowly breaking and Steve wants him to know that he can talk to him. "You can come here. Anytime you want. No matter how you feel."

Bucky finally looks up at Steve. He looks like he's trying to figure something out. He's about to say something when Steve's phone rings. It's Nat.

"Oh shit," Steve exclaims, sitting up. "I was meant to text Nat..." He answers. "Hi Nat, I'm so...no, I'm not dead...I know, I'm sorry...yes, I'm a terrible person...the worst, yes...yeah, I'm sure spiders will erupt from my eyes during the night...not my eyes? Then whe - ew! Nat! Well, you're one too so I guess you would know...yeah, I love you too...bye."

Bucky chuckles as Steve hangs up. "That sounded like the best weird conversation from this end."

Steve puts his phone on the table. "She worries about me."

Bucky sighs and scoots to the edge of the couch. "I'd better go. I need to be up stupid early in the morning."

Steve walks with him to the door. "I could make dinner, if you think you'd be up for food?" he offers.

"You don't have to do that."

"I know. I was thinking about making chicken teriyaki anyway."

Bucky raises his eyebrows. "Chicken teriyaki, huh? Okay, I guess I'll let you make me dinner."

Steve laughs softly and pushes him out of the door. "Now get off my property."

Bucky stands in the hallway for a moment, a big smile slowly spreading across his face as he watches Steve.

"What are you - " Steve begins but then Bucky runs to Hobo Guy's apartment door and knocks loudly three times before running off down the stairs as fast as he can, laughing madly as he does.

"You asshole!" Steve manages to shout after him before slamming his door and locking it. He steps away quickly and listens, head cocked towards Hobo Guy's place. Nothing. He grabs his phone from the table and texts Bucky.

STEVE: I cannot believe you did that. He's going to break in here and make a suit out of my skin

BUCKY: Then we'd know he has good taste in clothes

STEVE: I hope he makes me into a stew and offers you some and you eat it and don't realise that you're eating me

BUCKY: Eat you, huh?

Steve blushes from his chest to his hairline. He's never been much good at flirting and has no idea if this is or not. He waits for a moment, agonising over what to send next.

STEVE: Only the good parts

BUCKY: I guess I'd have to eat the whole thing

Steve swallows and manages a smile before realising that he's getting very warm, the red in his face eventually heading somewhere else the more he thinks about Bucky. He grabs his suitcase and drags it to the bedroom, intent on unpacking, trying to focus his mind on something else. It takes all of three minutes for him to acknowledge that that's not going to happen and he goes to take a shower.

 

***

 

Steve had set his alarm for 8:30am on Monday morning - the latest he's ever intended on staying in bed - knowing he'll need the sleep, the con having drained him physically and mentally. His phone vibrates at 8:10am.

NAT: I don't believe it. I'm ill. I NEVER get ill

STEVE: Oh dear, what is it?

NAT: I've lost my voice and I'm coughing up sludge

STEVE: Gross. Are you in bed?

NAT: I couldn't get up if I tried. Won't be able to speak today :(

STEVE: Stay in bed, get some lemons

NAT: Ha ha ha (sarcasm) So how was your date with Bucky?

STEVE: It wasn't a date, we just went for dinner

NAT: Yeah, that's a date

STEVE: Whatever. I think he might have flirted with me but I can't be sure

NAT: Why not??

STEVE: We were kind of talking about cannibalism...

NAT: ....I don't think I even want to ask

STEVE: Stay in bed today. We'll talk when your voice is back

NAT: I'm watching Breaking Bad and doing nothing else

 

***

 

Steve gets up and has a shower, then makes some breakfast and starts to catch up on his emails. Sam has left him a message saying that he'll have feedback for issue 6 by Wednesday, which means that Steve has time to do some of his own work and he suddenly gets excited to have a couple of days to himself. He marinates some chicken ready for later and wonders where Bucky goes for his "arm stuff" and if he goes alone. He thinks he must do; Bucky has never mentioned any other friends in the time he and Steve have spent together. He can't imagine Bucky not having any other friends - he's funny and charismatic, confident and seemingly at ease with all the socially normal things that Steve finds hard to do. Nat, Clint and Bruce would say otherwise but it was a slow hill for Steve to climb to be able to feel comfortable enough, especially with Clint and Bruce, to finally be himself. Bucky was charming and forthcoming the first time they met and Steve can't imagine other people not wanting to be around him. Why he decided that he wanted to be friends with Steve still perplexes him but he's trying very hard to give himself some credit, just like Nat is always telling him to do.

He sits at his desk, preparing to work and looks at the sketches of the new characters he made for Winter Soldier. He considers something for a long while.

 

***

 

Bucky texts him at 2:20pm.

BUCKY: Just getting back. Will be up in a bit?

STEVE: Whenever you want. How are you?

BUCKY: Exhausted

Bucky looks tired when Steve answers the door and his eyes are red and puffy, like he's been crying. Steve instantly feels concerned but Bucky gives him a wan smile and comes in, the books Steve lent him tucked under his new left arm. He sees Steve looking and holds up the books.

"I couldn't do this before." He winces and lowers it, shifting the books to under his right arm. He's still wearing a glove on the hand of the prosthesis and is back in his usual hoodie and jeans combo.

Steve steps forward. "Wow, so it's like really advanced?"

Bucky nods. "The other one had some function in the fingers but it was a bit more...superficial? I don't know. They tell me all this junk and half the time I don't know what they're saying and zone out. I shouldn't really."

Steve nods and Bucky suddenly holds out his left hand, prompting Steve to take it. Steve takes it and the fingers, Bucky's fingers, curl around his own and they shake hands lightly. It feels hard, Steve thinks he can sense metal through the glove, but it doesn't feel weird. He wonders if Bucky can feel anything through it. He lets go.

Bucky rubs one of his eyes. "God, I'm wiped. It's weird, the level of concentration I have to give just to do simple things with this thing. I feel like I'll never get used to it. I have a million exercises I need to do every day and it's so much more difficult than I..." He lets out a shaky breath and looks away.

Steve puts a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "Go and rest."

Bucky looks up at him gratefully. "I can't thank you enough...for just..." He lowers his head.

"It's okay," Steve says and walks Bucky over to the couch. Bucky sits down and finally gives Steve a little smile. "I was reading From Hell on the ride back. I don't think it helped my mood any."

Steve laughs. "Yikes. I'd stick with 100 Bullets. Can I get you anything?"

"No, I'm good," Bucky says.

Steve indicates the music playing from his laptop. "I can put something else on?"

"No, I like your music," Bucky says and Steve smiles.

He heads back to his desk and sits down. Bucky scoots down on the couch and opens From Hell. They sit in silence for the better part of the afternoon, Steve drawing, Bucky reading. Bucky falls asleep with From Hell splayed across his chest and Steve turns the volume down on his laptop.

At 6 o'clock, he heads into the kitchen and starts to make dinner, trying to be as quiet as he can. He's cooking the chicken when he hears a noise behind him. Bucky is leaning on the kitchen counter rubbing his eyes. He looks unbearably cute and Steve has to hold back a smile.

"I didn't mean to fall asleep. Can I help with anything?"

"Nope, I've got this. Do you want to watch something while we eat?"

Bucky gives a little nod. "Something I've seen a million times before, maybe? I don't think I could concentrate on anything new."

"You can pick. Go on in, I wont be long."

Bucky heads back into the living room and Steve checks the rice.

When he walks in with two plates of food, Bucky is sat cross-legged on the sofa, the title screen for Commando on the TV.

"Oh, I haven't seen this for ages," Steve says and hands Bucky a plate.

"Thanks," Bucky says. "Yeah, mindless action and bad puns. Perfect dinner viewing."

Steve laughs and sits down. Bucky takes a mouthful of the chicken teriyaki.

"Holy crap, this is good. This is really good."

Steve beams.

 

***

 

They finish Commando, Steve's gut aching from laughing at Bucky's terrible but hilarious Arnie impressions, and Steve takes the dishes to the kitchen and starts to wash up. Bucky follows him in and tries to hustle him away from the sink.

"Come on, Steve - at least let me do the dishes."

"Nope," Steve says and turns his back on him.

"But you - "

"Nope."

"Don't be a - "

"Nope."

Bucky makes a frustrated noise and Steve giggles. "Fine, but I'm not happy about this." He pokes Steve in the ribs and Steve makes an embarrassing squeal. Bucky wanders back into the living room.

"Can I put your music back on?" he calls.

"Sure," Steve says. "It should just be paused. Knock yourself out."

Steve finishes the dishes and dries off his hands. He grabs his sketchbook and a pencil from his desk before heading back to the couch, heart pounding slightly.

He sits down and opens his sketchbook and Bucky looks up from his graphic novel. "What are you drawing?"

Steve scratches his cheek. "Well, I was wondering...um...how would you like to be a character in Winter Soldier? Only a small one, but he'll be in a couple of scenes in a later issue. You can say no, I just thought..."

Bucky looks overjoyed. "Are you fucking kidding me? Hell yes!"

Steve smiles, relieved. "I already started some sketches but I thought...you'd make a great character. Um, I'd need to do some reference sketches of you, if that's okay, and then I'll do a design in my comic book style."

"This is the coolest thing ever. What do you need me to do?"

Steve turns to a blank double page spread. "Just carry on reading and I'll sketch you, if you're okay with that? Maybe just face this way but you can move around and stuff."

Bucky sits back against the arm of the couch, turning towards Steve, suddenly unsure of what to do with his face. Steve laughs. "Honestly, just read and forget that I'm doing this."

Steve starts to sketch and Bucky looks up every two seconds for a few minutes before finally settling back into his book. Steve sketches him, drawing a few headshots from the front, focusing harder than he really needs to on Bucky's eyes.

"Could you sit at an angle?" Steve asks after twenty minutes. Bucky shifts and gives Steve an is-this-okay look. Steve nods and draws Bucky in profile, his stomach churning, giddy at being able to stare at him for this long. When he has enough reference he sits back.

"Okay, I'm done. You can sit however you like now."

"Can I see?" Bucky asks excitedly.

Steve angles his sketchbook away. "Not yet. Wait until I've done the full character design."

Bucky mewls but gets back to his reading. Occasionally stealing glances at Steve's sketchbook in the hopes that he can see something. Steve sketches Bucky's character as a full-body shot, drawing him in the clothes he wore last night and hesitating at the left arm. He decides to draw it with the sleeve pinned up. The character design is in his comic style, but there's no doubt that it's Bucky. Steve is surprised and a little bit embarrassed that he's managed to capture Bucky's body language in the sketch; he's leaning on one foot, head tilted slightly, cocky and confident. Steve is suddenly nervous about showing Bucky the drawings, worried that it'll be totally obvious how he feels about him.

"Have you finished?" Bucky's voice breaks into Steve's thoughts and he turns to him.

"Um, yeah. I hope you like it. If you want me to change anything, you can tell me...I don't want you to be unhappy with it..." He hands the sketchbook to Bucky and watches his face.

Bucky blinks at the two pages of sketches, his face neutral and Steve's heart sinks. Oh god, he hates it, I've offended him, he knows...

"I don't...fucking hell..." Bucky finally breathes and he looks up at Steve and the look on his face tells Steve that he doesn't hate them. "These are..." He shakes his head.

Steve clears his throat, not trusting that his voice won't sound like he's just hit puberty. "Do you like it?"

Bucky gives a little chuff. "I love it," he says quietly. "I...you've made me look a lot more handsome than I really am..."

"I just drew you as you are," Steve says quietly and Bucky swallows, still looking at the picture.

"I'm glad you drew my arm this way." He says after a minute and Steve is relieved. They sit in a silence that Steve can't quite define for a moment.

"So, do you think they'll like it? Your editor and the writer?" Bucky asks, handing Steve his sketchbook back, eyes still on the drawing.

Steve nods. "I think so; it's pretty much my call with smaller characters. If not, I'll convince them." He looks up at Bucky with a smile and Bucky just shakes his head at him.

"What?" Steve asks with a grin.

Bucky looks away, a small smile on the his lips. "Nothing. You're just...you're really cool."

Steve closes his sketchbook and quickly stands up. "Can I get you a drink?"

Bucky stands up too. "No, I think I'm going to head off. Thanks so much for dinner and for putting up with me."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Yeah, you're such a hassle to hang out with."

Bucky punches him lightly on the arm with his left hand. "Can I pick up some more books tomorrow?"

Steve nods. "I have a podcast to do in the evening but I actually don't have any deadlines so come over whenever you want."

When Bucky opens the front door, Steve side-steps around him into the corridor, putting himself between Bucky and Hobo Guy's apartment door. Bucky laughs and holds up both of his hands. "I wont do anything, I promise."

Steve folds his arms and tries to look stern. "Yeah, keep walking."

 

***

 

The next morning, after he's started some doodles for a comic project that he's thinking about self-publishing, Steve scans in the sketches of Bucky with all the intention of sending them to Sam, but mainly of sending them to Nat. He texts her.

STEVE: Are you alive?

NAT: Barely. Still can't speak. Clint is having a great time tormenting me

STEVE: I have pictures of Bucky. Well, sketches anyway

NAT: SEND THEM NOW

STEVE: Meet me on Skype

A few minutes later, Nat's profile pops up.

captain_rogers: Okay, I'm submitting this as a character design for a minor character in Winter Soldier

He attaches the sketches and waits for Nat to reply.

black_widow: Okay, I don't believe for a second that he looks like this. No-one is this good looking

captain_rogers: That's Bucky

black_window: Fuck me, Steve. Or rather, I hope he fucks you

captain_rogers: NAT

black_widow: You know I'm going to need a photo to compare these to. I don't quite trust your artistic license

captain_rogers: We'll see

 

***

 

At 12:45pm, as Steve is finishing lunch, Bucky calls him.

"Um, I've got a leaking something on my kitchen sink and I don't know what to do. There's water all over the floor and I can't get the super on the phone."

"Ugh, yeah, the super in this place is useless. Hang on, I'll come down." Steve hangs up and grabs his toolbox from under his own sink.

Bucky looks pissed off when he answers the door, barefoot, his jeans wet at the cuffs. "This fucking sucks!" he exclaims and then looks down at Steve's toolbox. He looks up with an amused smile on his face.

"What?" Steve asks, as he steps into the small hallway.

Bucky closes the door and they walk through to the kitchen. "I kind of never figured you as being the toolbox type."

"Hey, I know some manly, DIY things. I live on my own - I need to know how to fix junk." Steve stares down at the wet kitchen floor, some towels spread about. He recognises a couple from the first day he met Bucky.

Bucky throws his arms up. Steve can't quite get used to seeing him make symmetrical arm gestures. "Look at this shit."

Steve takes his shoes and socks off and heads to the sink. He opens the cupboard, looking at the pipes and immediately sees the leak. He turns off the water at the valve.

"Yeah, I think this pipe is leaking. I'm just going to have a look. Do you have a big bowl?"

Bucky roots through a cupboard. "Yeah, I didn't think to put a bowl under there. I just saw all the water and panicked." He hands Steve a plastic mixing bowl.

Steve carefully unscrews and releases the pipe, and the built up water spills into the bowl. He sets it aside and looks at the cylinder. "There's a small crack on here, but I think I can fix it." He shuffles about in his toolbox and finds a rubber seal and clamp. Bucky looks on, face slightly agog.

"Shit," he says. "This is too small. I'll have to get another one."

Bucky rubs his left arm. "I can't believe you know how to do this."

Steve stands back up and shrugs, secretly pleased that Bucky seems impressed. "I picked some stuff up; I got so fed up waiting to have small things fixed I just read books and watched YouTube videos and tried some things myself. Turns out it's not all that hard."

Bucky gives a sceptical snort. "Oh yeah, it's a cake walk."

"There's a hardware store a few blocks down. I can get a new clamp." He bends down and shuffles about in the toolbox again. "Maybe I'll get some resin too, just to be safe."

"Okay, but I'm paying you for this if you can fix it."

Steve shakes his head. "Don't be an idiot. The clamp and resin won't cost much and it's no hassle."

"Dude, this is - "

Steve holds up a hand. "Fine, just...buy me noodles next time we go back to that ramen place."

Bucky nods. "Okay."

Steve puts his shoes and socks back on. "It won't take me long to get the stuff. I've turned the water off so if you need - "

"I'm coming too. I'm not letting you do all the work. I kind of feel bad for dragging you down here now."

Steve gives him a shrug. "It's fine. I haven't got any pressing artwork on for today. And it's kind of fun - I don't fix things that often."

Bucky looks at Steve, biting his lower lip. " Just when I think I've figured you out..."

Steve looks for a beat too long at Bucky's lips and almost trips over his toolbox on the way out of the kitchen. "Come on."

 

***

 

The hardware store isn't far and it's a nice day outside, sunny, quiet and mundane, which makes Steve all the more surprised when it happens. They're about two blocks away from the store, passing a large garbage truck hauling and emptying cans, a few garbage men scurrying about the street, grabbing more garbage cans and carrying them back to the truck. Steve walks on for a few seconds before he realises that Bucky isn't walking beside him anymore. He looks back and his breath catches in his throat. Bucky is stood in the middle of the sidewalk, frozen, a look on his face that Steve hasn't seen before on him but is all too familiar with. Bucky's eyes are wide and he looks...terrified. His arms are at his sides and his shoulders are hunched. Steve can see from where his is that Bucky is breathing too shallowly. He hurries over to him.

"Buck?" he says softly, Bucky's eyes are not quite focused on the here and now. There's a sheen of sweat on his face and he's shaking slightly. He doesn't answer. Steve starts to panic, but then forces himself to calm down. If he panics now, he'll be no use to Bucky at all. He thinks about Clint and what he does when Steve has a panic attack. He's pretty sure this is what's happening to Bucky but it looks so much worse than the ones he's had. He puts his hands on Bucky's shoulders, pressing down firmly and looks Bucky in the eyes.

"Bucky? I need you to look at me." He's thankful that he doesn't sound as scared as he feels.

Bucky's eyes focus slightly and he looks at Steve, his breathing suddenly accelerating, the fear in his eyes palpable. He's starting to hyperventilate.

Steve looks around quickly and sees an alleyway a few metres down the street, away from the garbage truck. He quickly steers Bucky towards it, one arm across his shoulders, his other hand pressing on Bucky's chest. Shit, his heart is hammering. His movements are stilted and heavy. Steve manages to get him into the alleyway, which is dim and quiet. Bucky's breathing sounds horrible in the confined space and Steve's own fear rises in him, threatening to take him over too if he doesn't act quickly. He sits Bucky down on the concrete floor, which isn't very clean and kneels in front of him.

Bucky is looking at the floor, sagging against the wall, his breathes coming out in huge, wheezing sobs. His face is now drenched with sweat and his hair is clinging to his damp forehead. Steve wipes Bucky's hair away and holds his face in his hands and meets his eyes.

"Buck? You have to look at me, okay? You're with Steve and we're in an alleyway in New York."

Bucky's eyes roll and he's trying to look elsewhere. Steve shakes Bucky's head slightly, still holding his face. "No, Bucky - look at me. It's okay. I'm here."

Bucky finally focuses on Steve's face and says "Stevie?" his voice small and terrified, ragged around his breathing.

"I'm here, Bucky. You're not alone. We're in a really smelly alleyway and I'm pretty sure we're sitting in garbage juice, but I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."

Bucky looks at him and gives a small nod and Steve can see that's he's trying to calm down, trying to control his breathing. He's shaking so badly, Steve can feel it vibrating through his own body. I have to keep talking to him, Steve thinks and the panic starts to rise again when he can't think of anything to talk about, his mind suddenly going horribly blank. He shifts to Bucky's side, sitting next to him against the wall. Bucky's arms are hanging limp between his legs which are splayed out in front of him on the hard concrete, breathing still laboured.

Steve wraps one arm around Bucky's shoulder and the other across his chest and Bucky immediately grabs Steve's arm with his own, his left hand surprisingly tight.

"Just listen to my voice," Steve says softy. "Just focus on my voice and you'll be okay." Bucky nods, harder this time and Steve desperately searches for something to say. Come on, say anything, do anything, fucking sing if you have to. The only song that Steve can think of all the lyrics to at the moment is California Girls by The Beach Boys and if this were anywhere else, any other situation, he would NOT be doing this. He starts to sing in a high, shaky voice.

"Well, East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear..."

He stumbles a couple of times and hits the chorus way too high, but soon relaxes a tiny bit, singing it over and over, Bucky's breathing eventually slowing down, his shaking subsiding. He rests his head against Steve's. Steve continues to sing until he can feel that Bucky's breathing is somewhere approaching normal. He stops singing after a couple of minutes and rubs his hand up and down Bucky's arm.

"How we doing?" He asks quietly.

He can feel Bucky nod. "I think I'm okay," he says weakly and Steve's heart breaks a little.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Bucky's grip on Steve's arm tightens slightly. "I don't know what happened. There was a noise, I think from the garbage truck...I don't...even remember..." He makes a small choked sound in his throat.

Steve holds him tighter. "It's okay, you don't have to talk if you don't want to."

"I'm sorry..." Bucky says.

"There's nothing to be sorry for," Steve whispers and before he knows what he's doing, he runs a hand through Bucky's hair. He quickly lowers it, but Bucky just makes a small sighing sound. They sit in silence for a while, Steve has lost track of how long they've been here, on the hard, cold floor, amongst garbage cans and cigarette butts, the city beyond the alley carrying on as normal.

Bucky finally starts to shift and Steve lets go of him, the air around him suddenly cool and empty without Bucky's body heat against him. He stands up and helps Bucky to his feet. The backs of both of their jeans are dirty and damp - they were sitting in garbage juice - but Steve doesn't care. Bucky leans against the wall for a moment.

Steve gently reaches out and puts his hand on Bucky's arm. "Let's go home."

Bucky shakes his head, face ashen, but determined. "No, I want to carry on. I can't...can't let it..."

"Okay, we'll carry on. But if you start to feel bad, you have to tell me."

Bucky meets Steve's eyes and nods.

Steve starts to head out of the alleyway, when Bucky grasps his arm. Steve turns around and Bucky looks embarrassed and tired and spent. "I...thank you, Steve. I don't know what I would have done..."

Steve gives him a sad smile. "I know what it feels like. I'm glad I was here. I don't know how helpful I was but..."

Bucky's grip tightens slightly. "You helped." He hesitates a moment and then pulls Steve into a hug, his arms around Steve's neck. Steve is motionless for a few seconds, then hesitantly wraps his arms around Bucky's waist. He can feel how warm Bucky is, his head resting against the crook of Steve's neck and time stops for a moment. Steve leans his head against Bucky's shoulder, breathing in sweat and coconut and another smell that's just...Bucky. They stand, arms around each other for a few minutes before Bucky breaks away. Steve drops his arms quickly and steps back.

They look at each other for a moment before Bucky says, "God, it really does smell in here."

Steve gives a chuckle and they leave the alleyway and head to the hardware store.

 

***

 

Steve fixes Bucky's sink, Bucky making an impressed noise when Steve turns the water back on and the pipe remains dry. Bucky looks tired and edgy, on the verge of saying something about ten times but just folding his arms instead. It's 4:45pm and Bucky has apologised at least a million times for wasting Steve's day.

Steve picks up his toolbox and heads towards the front door. "Do you want to come up?" he asks.

Bucky puts his hands in his hoodie pocket. "I think I'm going to sleep. I feel...not great."

Steve puts his toolbox down and leans on the wall. "If you want to talk or...anything, you can call me or come up. Don't ever think that you're putting me out."

Bucky frowns and looks away. "You...you're such a good person, you know that?" he blurts out.

Steve doesn't know how to respond. Today has been intense to say the least and he's used up pretty much all of his emotions at this point. He can't even manage a blush.

"Buck, I..."

Bucky steps forward. "No, you are. I can't even..." he sounds flustered, like he needs to say this. "You met me last week and you're already like my...my best friend." He looks at the floor. "My ONLY friend," he whispers.

Steve is slightly floored. "Best friend?" he asks, with a thrilled little smile. Bucky looks up and the frown on his face fades.

"See?" he says, his voice a mixture of amusement and annoyance. "How do you do that? I feel like a total idiot for...for earlier and an asshole for putting you through all my shit and you just...just act like it's all okay for me to do this and like you want to be my...friend..."

"Of course I want to be your friend," Steve says. "You're awesome."

They stand in Bucky's hallway, stinking of garbage, tired and damp, and however their relationship was defined this morning, it's shifted somehow, into something else and they can both feel it.

Bucky leans forward and gives Steve a little punch on the arm. "Punk."

Steve kicks Bucky lightly on the shin. "Jerk."

"See you tomorrow? Bucky asks.

"You'd better."

 

***

 

Steve takes part in his podcast, pleased that the days events don't hinder how he comes across, enjoying the discussion, a strange calm settling over him for the rest of the evening.

He isn't going to tell Nat about Bucky's panic attack. That's between the two of them and even though Steve has kept her and Clint informed of pretty much everything Bucky related (and relayed more sexual information about himself than he'd ever want anyone to know about), what happened earlier isn't for anyone else to be aware of. Steve can still feel the terror of seeing Bucky, helpless and frozen in the middle of the street, of his own panic at not knowing what to do but then thankfully, miraculously, pulling it together. He can still feel the warmth of Bucky against him, how good he smelled and how everything is now...different between them. He shoves away that small ember of hope that keeps threatening to glow brighter because if it catches, and the fire rages out of control, there will be no hope if reigning it back in.

He can hardly sleep that night, staring into the darkness, turning to look at the clock and wincing when only fifteen or twenty minutes have passed. It's 1:45am when his phone rings and he panics when he sees that it's Bucky.

"Bucky? What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"Shit, I'm sorry, Steve - I'm fine, nothing's wrong. I'm okay." He sounds thankful for Steve's concern, and Steve is relieved that Bucky sounds more like Bucky.

Steve flops back onto his pillow. "Then why the fuck are you calling me at nearly two in the morning?"

"I got Hobo Guy's name," Bucky says and Steve wants to laugh at the sheer manic exhilaration in Bucky's voice.

"What?" Steve says, sitting up. "How? What is it?"

"Come down to mine and I'll tell you," and then he hangs up, knowing full well that Steve will go. He jumps out of bed, putting his glasses back on and pulling on his pyjama pants and heads to the front door, not quite believing that he's doing this, feeling about twelve years old. He quietly locks his front door and pads down to Bucky's apartment. Bucky is waiting, peering through his half open door, wearing a different hoodie and grey jogging pants and quickly pulls Steve inside. The small hallway is dark, a lamp on in the living room somewhere.

"Okay," Bucky says quietly, Steve just about able to see him in the dark, "I went back down and looked through his mail again - "

"Bucky!" Steve says, hushed, as though anyone can hear them.

"No-one was around, it was fine!" Steve can feel Bucky's breath on his face; he smells like chocolate milk.

"So, what is it?" Steve asks.

Bucky pauses dramatically. "Jim Howlett," he announces, barely able to hold in his excitement.

Steve feels disappointed but then, he isn't entirely sure what he expected to feel. "Is that it?"

Bucky gives a snort of disbelief. "What do mean, is that it? That's an amazing name!"

"It's totally average," Steve says.

"Steve, that is the name of a guy with a huge gnarly beard who...who makes friends with bears and lives in the woods!"

Steve laughs, doubling over slightly, his head butting Bucky's chest. "No it's not! It's the name of some guy who lives next door to me who never leaves his apartment. Also, if his name is Jim on his mail, that means his name is James which is YOUR name too!"

"No, he's totally into some shady shit, I can feel it. I bet he works for the government or something. And if you ever call me Jim or James, you would no longer be my friend."

Steve laughs harder and Bucky jabs Steve in the shoulder. "How can you not be excited by this?"

Steve straightens and gathers himself. "I am excited, I just, I don't know, expected a better name."

Bucky huffs out a breath and Steve realises how close they are in the dark hallway. He can see Bucky watching him, his eyes glittering, and Steve's body is suddenly racing with adrenaline because he's seriously considering kissing Bucky and he's pretty sure, almost certain, that Bucky is considering kissing him too when a door slams on the floor above and they both suddenly jump and look at each other as they hear heavy, clumping footfalls coming down the stairs.

Bucky whispers, "Holy shit - it's him! It has to be him!" and reaches for the doorknob.

Steve grabs his hand. "What the fuck are you doing?! Don't open the door!"

They listen as whoever it is descends the next flight and then Bucky pushes Steve away and runs out of the front door. Steve yelps and follows him out, staying on the landing as Bucky races down the stairs. He comes back up two minutes later.

"Fucking shit-bags - he just disappeared!"

Relief floods Steve's body. They won't be getting made into curtains tonight, at least. "I can't believe that just happened."

Bucky pushes Steve lightly on the shoulder. "We would have seen him if you had let me open the door."

"I just stopped you from having your skull being made into a fruit bowl. So, you know, you're welcome."

Bucky laughs and looks around the empty landing. "What the fuck are we doing?"

Steve stretches his arms. "YOU dragged me down here at 2am to tell me about some guy's name."

"Well, if I was tired before, I'm wide awake now. Want to watch a movie?" He jabs a thumb at his apartment.

Steve knows that staying up most of the night will mean he'll be technically useless to work tomorrow, but if it means spending more time with Bucky, he'll do it. "I can go and get Watchmen?"

Bucky's eyes widen. "Yes. Go get it now."

Steve runs back upstairs and grabs the DVD. Bucky has left his apartment door open a crack and Steve let's himself in. He heads to the living room. Bucky comes out of his bedroom with two blankets and throws one at Steve. "Here."

Steve hands Bucky the DVD and flops onto the sofa, putting the blanket over his legs. Bucky grabs the remote and sits down next to Steve, closer then Steve expected, Bucky's leg touching his. He turns to him while the DVD churns.

"Hey, how are you feeling?"

Bucky looks at him and lowers his eyes. "Okay. Still a bit shaky."

"If you wanted me to come down, you didn't have to put on the whole Hobo Guy thing," Steve says quietly.

Bucky bites his lip and shakes his head slightly. "I know," he says. "I just wanted things to be...fun again. Not so...you know."

"You don't have to hold it all back, not for me." Steve forces himself not to look away.

Bucky looks at Steve with such a look of gratitude, it makes Steve's chest hurt. "I know."

Steve finally looks away and Bucky starts the movie.

 

***

 

Steve makes the mistake of resting his head on a cushion against the armrest about a third of the way into the movie, because he falls asleep not long after, his leg still touching Bucky's. He's dimly aware at one point, of Bucky getting up to get a glass of water, and gently taking Steve's glasses off when he comes back. Steve can't be sure, through the veil of sleep, but he thinks he can feel Bucky stroke his cheek softly.

He wakes into the early morning grey haze of Bucky's apartment, confused as to where he is. Propping himself on one elbow, he sees Bucky asleep on at the other end of the couch, blanket pulled up to his chin but rumpled in a heap at his waist, his legs tangled with Steve's on the middle cushion. Steve sits up as quietly as he can and pulls Bucky's blanket down so it covers his legs. He stares at Bucky's face in the dim light, having to squint without his glasses. Bucky looks so peaceful, his lips parted slightly, his long eyelashes against his cheek and Steve wants more than anything to lean across and lie alongside him, to bury his face in Bucky's neck and feel him breathing.

He lies back against his own cushion and dozes.

 

***

 

He wakes up a few hours later with the world's stiffest neck, head almost hanging off of the armrest. He already knows the rest of the couch is empty because he feels cold. He sits up and looks around. Bucky comes out of the kitchen with two mugs and immediately starts to laugh.

"Oh wow, that is the best morning hair I've ever seen."

Steve makes a noise and runs a hand through his hair, trying to flatten it.

Bucky hands him a mug; the coffee smells strong.

"Thanks," Steve says, his voice croaky.

Bucky sits back down on his end of the couch with his own mug.

"What time is it?" Steve asks, realising that he left his phone up in his own apartment.

"About 9:45," Bucky says.

Steve grunts and takes a sip of coffee. "Did you enjoy the movie?"

Bucky nods. "Yeah, I really did. I kind of liked what they did with the ending; I think the whole alien thing would have been a bit too weird. Rorschach though, that guy was amazing."

Steve smiles. "Yeah, he nailed it. He's such an asshole and a tragic character at the same time."

Bucky nods. "And the whole Dr Manhattan sequence was just amazing, how he gets transformed. I never thought I'd be into a comic this much."

Steve nudges Bucky with his foot. "You're welcome."

Bucky grabs Steve's foot and tickles the bottom of it, laughing in victory when Steve shrieks and lurches forward, slopping coffee onto the wood floor. "Never do that again," he says, tucking his legs under him.

They watch an episode of Judge Judy and then Steve, reluctantly, says he has to get back upstairs to work. Bucky wanders to the door with him.

"I owe you noodles," Bucky says.

"For my amazing plumbing skills, hell yes you do."

"Meet me here at six?"

Steve smiles and heads up the stairs. "It would be my genuine pleasure," and he hears Bucky laugh.

 

***

 

He has about 8 texts and two missed calls from Nat, which means she must be feeling better. He switches on his laptop and goes to his room to grab one of his own hoodies, his favourite blue one and zips it up. A Skype call comes through almost straight away.

"Where the hell have you been?" Nat says, sounding a bit worse for wear, voice breaking where she's still obviously ill.

Steve decides to give her a thrill. "Sorry, I left my phone here last night."

There's a lengthy silence before she says, "What do you mean?"

"I spent the night at Bucky's," Steve tries to keep the smile out of his voice and feign nonchalance.

Nat starts to shriek something that turns into a horrible coughing fit and he hears her leave the desk and head into another room. There's a beat of silence before he hears frantic footsteps running back to the microphone.

"You sneaky little shit!" She says, her voice ecstatic.

"Nothing happened," Steve says hastily. "I fell asleep while we were watching Watchmen."

Nat lets out a disappointed groan. "So you didn't play around with each other's bits?"

"I wouldn't tell you if we did!" Steve says indignantly.

There's a muffled cough as a reply.

"How are you feeling?" Steve asks.

"Don't change the subject. Who cares how I am. You spent the night at Bucky's. This is a big development."

Steve gives a hum of agreement. "Maybe. Things feel...different. Since Sunday."

Nat doesn't leave Steve alone until she gets the full story and by the end has pretty much lost her voice again.

 

***

 

The next few weeks pass in a dizzying haze; Steve sees Bucky every day. He usually comes over after lunch, just to read while Steve does work. Steve finds Bucky's presence somehow calming, filling a hole in his apartment that Steve didn't even realise existed and his productivity seems to soar. Sam loves the character design based on Bucky and Steve even gets a grudging email from Tony saying why the hell did he have to give that character one arm, because that somehow makes him a hell of a lot more interesting and now he's thinking about writing him into the story as part of a bigger arc. Steve doesn't tell them that the design is based on a real person. When Steve shows Tony's email to Bucky, Bucky flushes a shade of red usually reserved for Steve. He wears an odd little smile on his face for the rest of the day.

They eat dinner together a lot, either at Steve's or out at the ramen place. Bucky attempts dinner a couple of times, making a pretty good spaghetti bolognaise one evening that ends up having a lot more garlic in it than they both thought. They end up play-fighting on Bucky's couch, breathing garlic breath onto each other until they both start to feel sick and have to stop. Steve is glad they do because at one point, Bucky's hand grazes his crotch and he can feel embarrassing things start to happen. Bucky doesn't notice, thank god.

Steve defuses a plan of Bucky's to dress up as a delivery guy and attempt to lure Hobo Guy - Jim Howlett - out of his place.

Bucky attempts to get Steve dancing a few more times, his new arm able to do more than his old one and Steve often just sits, enraptured, watching as Bucky body-pops his way around the space in the living room, a couple of times letting himself be persuaded to learn a few moves.

Bucky tells Steve that he attends therapy sessions three times a week. He admits to Steve that this scares him, that he needs it so badly, that he doesn't feel like he'll ever be right again. He doesn't talk about his time in Afghanistan, not yet, and Steve doesn't push. He doesn't have any more panic attacks though for which Steve is thankful.

Steve tells Bucky about the time in High School when Georges Batroc and Danny Leighton beat him up so badly, they fractured his left arm in three places. Steve confesses quietly that he'd never felt so utterly worthless than at that point in time and Bucky puts his arm around Steve and says, "You're worth more than ten of most people."

He's quicker to touch Steve than he was; putting a hand on his arm when they crack up laughing over something stupid, or throwing an arm around his shoulder when they go to the ramen place. Steve starts to do the same, becoming less worried about what things could mean and how they should be deciphered, just letting them happen. Looking back, he's glad they didn't kiss that night in Bucky's hallway, if that's what was going to happen - it could have been a huge mistake. Bucky was in a bad place that day despite his playfulness and it would have been all wrong. If anything does happen, it should be when he's in a good place and Steve hopes (although a part of him refuses to embrace it and spoil everything) that they're maybe heading that way.

Nat and Clint treat his time with Bucky like a massive soap opera, wheedling details out of him, giving not-so-useful suggestions on how to get Bucky into bed, much to Steve's annoyance. One morning whilst talking to Nat, before Bucky's usual time of arrival, she suggests, in all seriousness, about having a Skype chat between the four of them.

"We really want to meet him and Skype is the only way. Even if it's not a video call."

Steve is reluctant. "I don't know, it might not be the right time. I'd feel weird about it."

Nat sighs. "Okay, but we're honestly serious about this; we know we give you a hard time and tease but this guy means a lot to you and we want to be his friend too."

Steve smiles. "I know, Nat. It means a lot to me, it really does. I just...I'm still finding my footing with things and I just want to see where it goes."

Nat gives a theatrical sigh. "Fine. But we still need to see a photo of him."

Steve finally does get a photo. Bucky drags him along to the Museum of Natural History to show him the Giant Squid and the Sperm Whale after Steve says that he hadn't been since he was nine and doesn't remember it. They stare up at the diorama and Steve gives a little chuff.

"That's pretty cool."

Bucky folds his arms and smiles. "I told you."

"I didn't say that I didn't think it would be cool, just that if it was THAT cool, I would have remembered it."

Steve gets out his phone and snaps a couple of pictures. He's about to go and get one of the Blue Whale too, when Bucky pulls him back.

"Let's get one with these guys in the background." He points to the squid and the whale. Steve hands Bucky his phone and he sets it to selfie mode, Steve's internal no-selfie rule going straight out of the window. Bucky moves close to Steve, lining up the squid and the whale behind them and says, "Ready?" Steve nods. The counter counts down and takes the photo.

Bucky smiles at the picture and shows it to Steve. "That's pretty cool," Steve says, trying to sound nonchalant. He loves the picture; they look happy, leaning in towards each other, both smiling big lopsided smiles, the squid and the whale behind them. Steve tucks his phone back into his pocket, actually excited about sending the picture to Nat later.

Bucky points up to the diorama. "You're totally the squid," he says to Steve.

"Why am I the squid?" Steve doesn't agree with things that have more than four legs.

"Because you're smaller than me."

"Yeah, but not by much!"

Bucky gives him a shrug. "Sorry, I just think I'd make a better whale than a squid."

"Yeah, I guess," Steve says in agreement. "Your ass is a lot fatter than mine."

Bucky whoops and grabs Steve in a headlock. Steve starts to protest loudly and they end up tussling in the Hall Of Ocean Life, laughing hysterically. A teacher trying to talk to her class marches over and tells them to grow up and that they're causing a disturbance. They let go of each other and apologise, Steve going redder than he has done for a while and Bucky holding back a laugh as the teacher re-joins the kids. He suddenly grabs Steve in a headlock again and drags him off towards the Hall Of Mammals shouting: "This is what happens when you leave school and become grown-ups, kids! THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS!" They run off laughing and Bucky suggests they find the T-Rex skeleton and try to figure out where his wiener would be.

They're in a coffee place, a few hours later, tired and giggly, when Steve sends Nat the photo. Bucky goes to the bathroom and Steve quickly attaches the picture to a text.

A message comes through two minutes later.

NAT: Holy shit, you two look adorable together. And he is REALLY cute...

STEVE: Told you :)

They're on the subway, heading back home, Bucky humming Hold Me Now, when Steve realises that he's never been as happy as he has been these last few weeks. He's never felt so like the person he's always wanted to be when he's with Bucky.

Which makes it all the more devastating when things suddenly fall apart.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Steve's Play List

Queens Of The Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
How To Destroy Angels - A Drowning
Beck - Lonesome Tears
Nine Inch Nails - Something I Can Never Have
Pupa - Current
Air - Sex Born Poison

Steve is just coming back up from the basement with his laundry when Bucky walks through the front door of the apartment building looking slightly pissed, returning from his therapy session.

"Hey," Steve calls and Bucky looks up, brightening slightly.

"Hi," he says, then curses as he drops the small stack of papers he's been carrying, throwing his backpack on the floor and kneeling down to retrieve them. Steve sets his laundry basket down and helps him.

"Bad one?" Steve asks and Bucky sighs, shaking his head.

"No, it was good. Just...I'll tell you in a sec." He can't quite pick up a few sheets with his left hand, face scrunching up in concentration. Steve stacks a few sheets together and slides them back into the cardboard folder they were in. He can't help but glance at a sheet of paper, some of Bucky's spidery handwriting visible. "...make positive chang..." "stop blamin..." "...owledge my feelings for..." He looks away quickly, feeling bad for looking at Bucky's private papers.

They stand back up and Steve hoists up his laundry. "I made you a sandwich," he says.

Bucky smiles at him and it's the one Steve likes best, the one that makes him feel like the most important person in the world.

They head up to Steve's apartment and he sets the laundry down, Bucky tossing his backpack on the floor and shoving the folder of papers inside. Steve hands him the sandwich and Bucky follows him back to his desk, leaning on it while he eats and Steve draws.

They've settled into a strange little routine together: Bucky coming up to Steve's after lunch or his therapy sessions, depending on the day, just hanging out while Steve works and then they spend time together in the afternoon and evening, watching movies or playing video games, talking the whole time, usually. Their friendship has developed into a solid thing, something that feels like it's always been part of Steve's life. Steve is always hoping for more, but he's decided to step back, that anything more than friendship should come from Bucky. If Steve does something that makes clear his feelings and it's all wrong, everything could be ruined. He's settled for going to bed every night heart aching, pining pitifully, but refusing to ruin what they have between them.

"So what's up?" he asks when Bucky finishes eating, measuring out a couple of panels.

Bucky lets out a tired sigh. "Jane says I need to start thinking about what I want to do with my life now, where I want it to go. Think about jobs and...stuff."

Steve knows that Bucky hasn't worked since he was discharged; he doesn't know when that was but it's been a while at least, certainly before he moved to New York from Boston. He knows that Bucky is on disability and that he hates it, his face always settling into a sullen frown whenever the checks come. Bucky has mentioned that he has money put aside too, but Steve doesn't know anything beyond that.

"Well, what do you think you might want to do?" Steve puts down his set square and pencil, giving Bucky his full attention.

Bucky gives Steve a helpless look. "I have no idea. I can't just keep reading comics and playing video games here all day, that's for sure."

Steve grins. "Believe me, if I could afford to pay you to do that, I would."

Bucky forces a small smile and picks up Steve's mechanical pencil and starts to click it. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do."

"You don't want to follow up on your Political Sciences?"

Bucky shakes his head, watching the lead from the pencil get longer and longer as he clicks. "That part of my life is done."

"Well, what makes you happy?"

Bucky catches the thin lead as it finally pops out of the pencil and holds it delicately in his hand. He turns and looks at Steve, brow furrowed, chewing his lip. Steve almost (almost) thinks (hopes) that Bucky is going to say "you", but he just gives a helpless little shrug. "I have no idea anymore."

Steve considers for a moment. "If there's no reason for you to rush into this, if you have the time to think, then just see what happens. Worrying about it isn't going to make it any easier. If you need me to help, I'll be here."

Bucky's smile is genuine this time and he carefully slides the lead back into the pencil and hands it back to Steve. "I feel like..." he hesitates. "I'm glad I met you, Steve," he says simply and heads over to the couch, not looking back around.

Steve watches as he starts to play Assassin's Creed III, his latest gaming obsession, his shoulders tense, and Steve knows that he's worrying anyway. He doesn't blame Bucky for feeling the way he does; he's being asked to start his life out all over again. Part of Steve - the selfish part - wishes things could stay like this, wishes that Bucky could just come over every day and read comics while Steve worked. Just having Bucky near him every day makes Steve feel happier and the thought that that could change soon makes him feel miserable. He feels like a complete asshole for thinking this way and wants more than anything to help.

 

***

 

Steve finishes working at about 5:20pm and sits on the couch next to Bucky. He takes off his glasses, rubbing his eyes and groaning loudly.

"Hard day at the office?" Bucky asks with a grin.

"Page 4 and 5 was a nightmare. I had to draw a million robots. Literally a million."

"I can put something else on?" Bucky offers, indicating to the Wii U.

"No, it's okay - I like watching you play."

Steve glances at Bucky as he continues the game for a few minutes. He looks...lost. Steve reaches over to the controller, still in Bucky's hands and pauses the game, Bucky looking up at him in surprise.

"Look," Steve says, "it's easy enough for someone else to say "Hey, time to get your life together" than it is to do. If you need the time to figure things out, just take it. Don't think that you have to suddenly know what your life should be this very second."

Bucky leans his head back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. "I know. But it's like..." he swallows and Steve knows that he's going to talk about something difficult. "When I joined the army, I had it all figured out. I was going to do a couple of tours and me and...and Tim talked about doing something together when we got back and I knew where I wanted to live and then..." He holds up his left arm and then lets it drop heavily. He turns and looks at Steve.

"You have your life together and you let me come here and just bum around..."

Steve gives a small laugh. "Yeah, I'm doing a swell job of my life. I can barely talk to anyone without becoming a mess."

"You know what I mean," Bucky says quietly.

Steve reaches across and gives Bucky's left arm a nudge. "We - you'll figure it out."

Bucky gives a tired sigh. "You want to go and see a movie? I don't feel like playing this anymore."

They head off to the movie theatre, stopping to grab a hotdog each on the way. They look at the movie choices in the lobby and Bucky suggests Edge Of Tomorrow. Steve wants to see it but thinks about how violent it looked from the trailers and that it might not be a good idea.

Steve hesitates before saying, "Are you sure? It looks kind of..." He isn't sure how to say what he wants to say. "It might...trigger..."

Bucky gives Steve an appreciative smile. "I think I'll be okay. If not, you're here, right?"

"You will tell me? If anything - "

Bucky throws an arm across Steve's shoulders. "Of course. Come on, I'm paying for this one." He drags Steve over to the ticket booth.

There are only about six other people in the screen with them so they get a whole row to themselves; Bucky immediately puts his feet up on the back of the seat in front. For the first forty-five minutes of the movie, Steve glances at Bucky to make sure he's okay. He seems alright, laughing in all the right places, making small sounds when something awesome happens on screen. Bucky eventually catches one of his looks and leans over, his mouth so close to Steve's ear it makes him shiver. "I'm okay. Really," he whispers. He gives Steve a reassuring smile and they continue to watch, Steve relaxing. He can't stop thinking about Bucky's mouth so close to his face.

They both love the movie, talking about it non-stop on the way home. They argue about what they would have done if they could reset the day, each having a better plan than the other, evidently. Steve mentions Groundhog Day and they begin a new argument about what they would do if they could relive one day over and over again.

"So if you could pick one day, out of your entire life to relive, which day would you chose?" Bucky asks, kicking a stone down the street in front of him.

Steve considers for a moment. "The day we went to the Museum Of Natural History."

Bucky looks over at him, a strange expression on his face. "Out of your whole life? All the days you could pick and that would be the one?"

Steve nods. "It was a really great day," he says softly to the ground in front of him.

Bucky says nothing and Steve doesn't look up at him. After a moment, he asks which day Bucky would choose.

Bucky is quiet for a long time. "I don't know," he finally says and they walk home in silence.

 

***

 

Steve wonders if that day was the cause of what would follow; the day Bucky started to worry about what to do with his life, when they saw Edge Of Tomorrow and Steve chose a day that included Bucky in it to relive if he had the chance. For a few days after, Bucky seems distracted, still hanging out at Steve's apartment but not really all there, slower to smile, quieter than he has been for a long time. Steve worries for a while that there might be a panic attack coming, that something was triggered and might be building but then Bucky will laugh at something he says or nudge him when they play Injustice to put him off, but something seems to be lacking and Steve can't quite put his finger on it. He pushes the thought aside and tries to think that it will pass and everything will be back to normal.

A couple of days later, they get the subway to Central Park. Bucky comes over earlier than usual, quiet and on the verge of saying something a few times and then just settling into a gloomy silence on the couch, not really reading the book he's holding. That knot of worry starts to tighten in Steve's stomach again and he can't concentrate on his drawing. He suggests they go to Central Park, to get out of the apartment.

"What about your work?" Bucky asks, a small frown creasing his forehead.

Steve shrugs. "It can wait."

Bucky nods and smiles but as he turns away, Steve can see that small frown return.

He seems to perk up slightly when they arrive at the park, buying two donuts and handing one to Steve and they eat as they walk. It's a gorgeous day by New York standards, warm but with a breeze and the park is buzzing with people. It's lunchtime on a Thursday and everyone seems to want to be outside. Steve is doing most of the talking, mainly about the possibility that he might want to buy a PS3, when a grey squirrel scampers into the path in front of them. They both stop and watch as it flits about on the concrete, picking up a leaf and putting it down, checking out a gum wrapper.

Steve breaks off a piece of his donut and throws it gently a few feet in front of the squirrel. It approaches the donut fragment cautiously, but then picks it up and eats it. Steve smiles and Bucky gives a little laugh. Steve crouches down on the path and breaks off another piece, throwing it down on the concrete, closer this time. Bucky watches, transfixed, as the squirrel bypasses the piece of donut altogether and makes a beeline straight for Steve.

Steve makes a small shocked noise as the squirrel leaps on his arm. Bucky gives a surprised laugh.

"What the hell?"

Steve stays completely still and looks up at Bucky, eyes wide. "What do I do?"

Bucky slowly gets his phone out of his pocket. "I have no idea but I'm getting pictures of this."

The squirrel makes it's way down Steve's arm and starts to eat the donut from Steve's hand. He gives an elated little laugh as the squirrel just sits there, not a care in the world. Steve's leg is going dead from his awkward crouch and he shifts his weight slightly, worried that the squirrel will run off, but it doesn't move, just continues to eat.

Steve looks up at Bucky, an expression of pure delight on his face, just as Bucky takes a photo. Bucky looks at the picture and something in his face changes, Steve can see it, just for a second. He's just about to ask Bucky if he's alright when the squirrel jumps down off of his arm and runs away, back into the trees.

"I can't believe that just happened," Steve says, a goofy smile on his face.

"Yeah," Bucky says weakly. Something definitely isn't right.

Steve's face clouds in concern and he steps towards Bucky. "Are you alright? Do you feel okay?"

Bucky doesn't meet Steve's eyes but waves him off. "I'm fine. I maybe shouldn't have eaten that donut." He tucks his phone back in his pocket and starts to walk. "Can we head back now?"

Steve watches him for a second then catches up. "Sure."

They walk for a few minutes and Steve can see that Bucky looks tense.

"Bucky, if you feel - "

"Steve, would you stop asking me if I'm okay? I'm fine. Just stop hounding me every two seconds," he snaps. Steve falls silent, shocked and a little hurt; it's the first time that Bucky has ever been anything approaching angry at him. The knot in his stomach tightens.

Bucky lets out an exasperated breath. "I'm sorry. I just feel a bit off. It's not a panic attack or anything."

Steve nods but doesn't say anything.

Bucky glances at him. "I'm sorry, okay?"

"It's fine," Steve replies but he doesn't say much else on the train ride home. Bucky stands, leaning against the door, hair falling into his face. Steve has no idea what he's thinking and doesn't dare ask him.

 

***

 

When they get back to their apartment building, Bucky stops on his floor, not following Steve up to his place.

"I'm really tired. I might just call it a day." His face is neutral.

"Okay," Steve says and he can feel a hard lump rising in his throat. Did he offend Bucky? His concern never seemed to be a problem before.

"I, uh, have an arm thing tomorrow so I might not be able to hang out. I'll see how I am." Bucky isn't looking at him and Steve's heart sinks.

"Will you let me know how it goes?" Steve asks, barely managing to keep his voice even.

Bucky finally looks at him and smiles, but there's something there that Steve doesn't like, something sad and...he's not certain. "Sure."

Steve forces a smile. "Okay. Maybe we can do something on Saturday?"

Bucky turns and unlocks his door. "Maybe," he replies and steps inside.

Steve hurries up to his own apartment, stomach feeling like it's full of lead, his throat tight. He did something wrong and he has no idea what. His apartment feels strangely empty, the silence wrapping around him like a heavy blanket and he realises how long it's been since he was on his own, really on his own, since Bucky moved in downstairs. The familiar shroud of loneliness starts to descend again and Steve shakes it off, heading back to his desk, convincing himself that he's overreacting, that Bucky is just having a bad week and that everything will be okay in a few days. But he doesn't feel very convinced. He goes to bed anxious and slightly afraid.

 

***

 

"Steve? Steve! You haven't been listening to a word I've said!"

Steve snaps back to Nat's voice. "Oh, sorry. I was just..."

"Are you okay? What's up?" she asks, that comforting mix of concern and demand in her voice.

Steve looks out of the window. "Bucky's been acting a bit...I don't know. I think I did something to offend him but I don't know what."

Nat snorts. "Steve, you couldn't offend anyone if you tried. Have you asked him what's bothering him?"

"He won't talk about it."

Nat must sense the anxiety in Steve's voice that he's trying desperately to hide. "Look, he's been through a lot and there's no way to know how he really feels unless he tells you. Maybe he just needs to work some things out on his own. I'm sure everything's okay. It can't be fun all the time."

Steve leans his head on his hand, spinning his pencil around and around on his desk. "I know, I just thought we were...that he could talk to me about those things. He was really opening up and now he seems to be, I don't know, shutting down."

"I'm sure it isn't as bad as you think it is. Maybe he just needs to step back for a little while. I mean, you can't say that it hasn't been a little intense for you both since you met him," Nat says softly.

"Yeah, I guess. I think I've gotten so used to seeing him every day that it just feels a bit like it was before. And I don't want to be on my own anymore." His voice cracks slightly and he coughs to try and hide it.

"Oh Steve, you're not on your own," Nat says with a pang in her voice. "You'll never be alone with me and Clint around, you know that."

Steve looks out of the window. "I know. It's not the same as, well, you know. Being WITH someone." He gives a bitter laugh. "Not that I'm with him."

"Just give him his space. I know it's hard and I know you want to help him but he might feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. I don't think you've offended him or anything like that. I mean he'd tell you, right? He's always been upfront with you, hasn't he?"

"Yeah, he has. But that's what makes all of this so weird. He's been acting strange for about a week and yesterday at the park it just seemed to get..." he throws his glasses down and scrubs his face with his hands. "It doesn't feel right."

Nat is quiet on the other end and Steve can see the face she's making in his mind - the frowny-serious-face. "Just give him time, Steve. I don't think you've done anything, but you being you, you're going to blame yourself for anything that goes wrong."

Steve picks his pencil back up. "So what have you and Clint been up to?"

 

***

 

It's 8:45pm and Steve still hasn't heard anything from Bucky. He agonises over whether to text him for about twenty minutes before sending one.

STEVE: Hey. Hope everything went okay today

He tries to get back into his saved game of Mass Effect 3, but it's been a while since he played and he can't quite remember what story he was following or going for. His eyes dart down to his phone every few minutes.

It's almost 11:20pm when Bucky texts him back. Steve is sitting in bed with a book and his hands shake as he reads the message.

BUCKY: It was fine

Steve's face falls. He can't find any warmth or comfort in those three words and he puts his phone down on the bed beside him. The knot of hurt in his stomach flares into a hot ball and doesn't go away.

 

***

 

Steve is up early on Saturday, giving his apartment a much needed clean, doing anything to take his mind off of things. He sorts through all of the random crap on his desk that seems to build up and spread like kipple: post-it notes with cryptic messages in his own handwriting that he can't remember writing, a few gum wrappers, a packet of High School Musical trading cards that Bucky bought him as a joke. He sets everything aside, paper, pencils, pens and cleans the eraser shavings off of the wood. He stacks everything back neatly, throwing away anything that doesn't need to be there. He looks at the trading cards for a moment and then puts them in a drawer.

He finishes cleaning the kitchen at around lunchtime and decides to get some groceries first before eating anything, his refrigerator holding nothing but three bottles of hot sauce (all open and half-used), a sad looking package of string beans, two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and a bar of Hershey's chocolate that must be Bucky's because Steve maintains, and they'd argued about this, that Hershey's tastes like puke and he would never eat it.

He closes the refrigerator and heads back into the living room, putting on his sneakers and grabbing his wallet. Steve almost doesn't knock on Bucky's door on his way downstairs, suddenly afraid, but forces himself to, the sound tentative in the empty hallway. He hears footsteps and Bucky answers, looking tired and stubbly. His mouth draws into a tight line for a second when he sees Steve, but then he smiles. It looks forced.

"Hi," he says; his voice sounds unfamiliar and detached.

"I just wondered if you wanted anything from the grocery store," Steve says softy, turning his wallet over and over in his hands.

Bucky shakes his head. "No, I'm okay."

He doesn't say anything more, just stares at the floor, his eyes hard. Steve doesn't know what else to say. He WANTS to say a lot of things - what's wrong, did I do something, please talk to me - but he just stands in the hall, watching Bucky shift from one foot to another, the soft murmur of the TV coming from his living room and he can feel that things aren't right between them, which only makes his confusion grow.

"Okay, well, I gotta go," Bucky says and steps back inside, closing the door.

"Bucky," Steve blurts out, and Bucky stops, looking at Steve.

"Did I - " Steve hates how small his voice sounds. "You would tell me if I did something? To hurt you?"

He sees the briefest flash of shame in Bucky's eyes but it's gone as fast as Steve thinks he saw it.

"You haven't done anything," Bucky says and closes the door, leaving Steve standing in the hallway, alone and upset.

 

***

 

Steve doesn't try to text Bucky for the rest of the weekend. He sends Nat a half-hearted message on Sunday morning about not being able to talk because of a sudden project with a stupid deadline, feeling like a prick for lying, but he can't bring himself to try and explain what's going on. He carries on with his work, not really into it, but knowing that he has to do it. He redraws the same first panel on page 7 about three times, unable to make it work before sitting back in frustration. He finally gives up trying to do anything productive and zones out in front of adult swim, watching episode after episode of American Dad. He falls asleep on the couch.

On Monday morning, he blows off Nat again, and he can tell she's getting worried but she just goes with it, telling him that Clint misses him. His stomach is a nervous wreck, churning constantly and he can't focus on anything. The day drags on and Steve's mood descends further. He finally sends Bucky a text at 7pm.

STEVE: Can we talk?

He doesn't get a response.

Tuesday is no better. Steve works in a haze, his mind running a mile a minute, his eyes constantly feeling the prick of tears that he wont allow himself to cry. He knows that he should leave the apartment to get some fresh air but he can't muster the enthusiasm.

Nat texts him at about 2:30pm.

NAT: So when are you going to tell me what's really going on?

STEVE: I'm sorry. Bucky isn't talking to me. It's been nearly three days

NAT: Really? Have you tried to see him?

STEVE: On Saturday. It was like I was talking to someone else. He wont text me back. I don't know what I've done

NAT: I want to call you

STEVE: I still have this deadline - not a good time

NAT: I don't know what to suggest :(

STEVE: Me neither

 

***

 

Wednesday morning, Steve decides that if he still hasn't heard from Bucky by 3pm, he'll go down and try and talk to him. The decision is a ticking clock and he works on a page for Winter Soldier, determined to get something productive done today. He hopes that Bucky really just needed a breather, that maybe things had been getting a bit too intense. If that is the case, Steve wishes that Bucky could have told him. Maybe he was so wrapped up in the good time that he was having, he didn't think that Bucky wasn't. Was he too clingy? Too needy? He racks his brain, trying to think of every instance in which he could have been too overbearing.

He makes himself a sandwich that tastes like cardboard and pulls the garbage bag out of his kitchen trashcan. He throws his sneakers on to take it downstairs and stops dead when he opens the front door. Everything he's ever lent or given to Bucky is stacked neatly just to the side of his door, presumably so he doesn't trip over it all on his way out. Every book, every DVD is there in that smart little pile. He suddenly panics; if Bucky couldn't have been any clearer to him before, he's being clear about everything now and the statement couldn't hurt any worse than if he'd just punched Steve in the face.

Steve can feel the anguish rising in his throat, as well as his lunch, and drops his trash bag in the hall, leaving his front door wide open and races down the stairs. He hammers on Bucky's front door.

"Bucky? Bucky, please talk to me!" he shouts into the cold wood, knocking as loud as he can. "Please, just tell me what I've done!" He can't hear anything on the other side of the door.

His frustration grows and he hammers on the door until the side of his hand throbs. "Bucky, please just answer the fucking door!"

The door of 2C suddenly opens and Mr Hargensen, a sallow man in his late 40s, and also an asshole, steps out into the hall.

"For Christ's sake, will you keep that racket down? He's either not in or not coming to the door so give it a rest! It isn't bad enough that the two of you run around like kids all the time that you have make all this noise?"

Steve steps back. "I'm sorry," he says.

Mr Hargensen gives him a dirty look and slams his front door. Steve stands in the hallway for a few more minutes, staring at Bucky's front door, feeling more lost than he ever has in his life. He goes back up to his apartment, kicking the garbage bag back in through the doorway, leaving the pile of books and stuff in the hallway and closes his front door. He picks up his phone and calls Bucky. It goes straight through to voicemail.

Steve talks rapidly, not caring how desperate he sounds. "Bucky, please - whatever I've done, I'm sorry. If I was too annoying or...or...if you just need some space, I'll understand. Please just talk to me. If I could just know what's wrong, I could help or back off, or whatever you wanted me to - " he gets cut off by the beep. He throws his phone down on the couch, takes his glasses off and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. He tries calling again but each time just goes straight through to voicemail.

He had steeled himself for rejection from the first day he met Bucky, but now that it's here, now that it's actually happening, he can't handle it. Is he that bad of a person? That much of a loser? A strangled sob makes it's way out of his mouth and he tries to swallow it down. He should be used to this - it's happened his whole life and it looks like a repeating pattern. He slumps on the couch and takes a few deep breaths, trying to hold back the tears that may not stop if he lets them start. Why is this happening? How does he manage to repel people so easily? If Nat, Clint and Bruce saw him more than four times a year, would they eventually see what it is that everyone else sees in him that makes them run and never look back?

Steve can't let the hurt and pity take him over, he can't. It would be too hard to come back from. He lies on his side and curls up, listening to the silence around him. The silence that he has to get used to all over again.

 

***

 

He wakes up to the sound of his phone ringing. He sits up - it's dark out. He doesn't know how long he's been asleep. He grabs his phone, hoping more than anything that it's Bucky, but it's Nat. There are a few missed calls from her. He doesn't answer, not in the mood to try and talk, feeling like the worse friend ever. It's 8:30pm. A major headache is threatening to erupt any minute now and he shuffles over to the kitchen to get a glass of water and some Advil, leaning against the fridge in the dark. His phone rings twice more from the living room and he lets it. A heavy numbness has settled over him which he knows will break soon if he allows himself to wake up fully.

He doesn't bother turning on any lights on his way back to the couch, intending to go straight back to sleep. A text comes through from Nat.

NAT: Clint's in the hospital - please call me

Steve freezes as he reads the message, any numbness he was feeling replaced by cold terror. Hospital? The thought of anything happening to Nat or Clint...he doesn't want to think about it. He fumbles with his phone, calling Nat as fast as he can.

"Steve?" She sounds tired.

"Nat, oh my god, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I didn't answer. What is it? Is he okay?"

Nat let's out a sigh. "Yeah, he's fine. He got shot in the thigh with an arrow by one of his stupid archery club buddies. He's high as a kite on morphine and babbling about driving boats and dogs eating pizza, I don't know."

Steve sinks back on the couch, feeling more relieved than he's ever felt about anything in his life. "Thank fuck. I was...shit, I thought something else...I'm so sorry I didn't answer when you called."

"It's okay. I just needed to talk..." Nat's voice breaks and Steve is officially the World's Biggest Asshole, "...and I didn't have anyone else...there wasn't anyone else I wanted to speak to..." She takes a deep breath and her voice is steadier when she continues. "When they called and told me he was being taken to the emergency room, I just thought that..."

"Hey, it's okay. He's okay, right?"

"Yeah, nothing major was hit, no arteries or anything. I almost punched the guy who did it in the throat when I saw him but he's pretty torn up about it. It was just a stupid accident." She blows her nose.

Steve lets out a breath. "I could catch a flight to Milwaukee tonight - "

"No, don't be stupid. I mean, I appreciate it but there's no need."

"Nat, just say the word and I'm there," Steve says earnestly.

"I love you, Dork. It's fine, honestly. I just wanted to hear your voice." She sounds grateful nonetheless.

Steve lies back down on the couch, pulling the blanket over himself. "I'll stay on the phone as long as you want me to."

Nat gives a tired little laugh. "Thanks, Steve. They're letting me stay here with Clint tonight. God, I'm a mess."

Steve smiles, the first real smile he's managed for a couple of days. "Yeah, I bet. With your hair all looking good and wearing those boots that make your ass look great."

Nat let's out a bark of surprised laughter. "Okay, one: How did you know that I'm wearing those boots, and Two: Why the fuck are you looking at my ass?"

Steve sniggers. "You love those boots. And Clint was the one who pointed out your ass and I had to agree. I might be into guys but I can still appreciate a great ass."

Nat laughs harder this time. "Oh my god, that is the creepiest thing you've ever said to me. Please don't talk about my ass ever again. Don't even think about my ass."

Steve laughs with her. "I'm sorry I've been a shitty friend the last couple of days."

"What are you talking about? You haven't."

"Yes, I have. I didn't have any deadline. I just...I didn't feel like talking to you. I'm sorry."

Nat gasps. "Holy shit, Steve Rogers told a lie! Call the police! The world is ending! Cthulhu has finally come to claim us all!"

Steve giggles. "You're such a dick."

"If you didn't want to talk, you just had to say. I'm not going to throw a hissy fit. How are things with Bucky?" she asks softly.

"That doesn't matter right now. Not with Clint being in the hospital."

"Steve..." Nat coaxes.

He's silent for a moment. "Not good," he says quietly.

Nat sighs, "Oh Steve, I'm so - sorry, wait a sec..." There's a muffled conversation on the other end. "Steve, I have to go, they want me in with Clint to talk about medication and stuff. I'll call you back as soon as I can."

"Don't worry about it. At the moment, I care more...more about Clint. Just text me to let me know that everything's okay."

"I will. I'll speak to you soon." She hangs up.

Steve pulls the blanket up to his chin. After a few minutes, he flips through the photo gallery on his phone and finds the picture of him and Bucky with the squid and the whale. Bucky looks happy in the picture; what changed between then and now? He studies Bucky's smile, the way he's leaning towards Steve, a mischievous look in his gorgeous eyes. It hurts more than anything.

 

***

He wakes up on Thursday morning, cold and feeling like he hasn't slept at all. He doesn't move from his foetal position on the couch, just stares ahead at the blank screen of the TV.

His phone goes off and he rolls to the side - he's been sleeping on it all night.

"Hi Nat. Is everything okay? Is Clint alright?" His throat feels like he's been eating rusty nails.

Nat's voice is hushed and she sounds like she's trying not to laugh. "He's fine. I'm slightly hysterical from tiredness though. You have to speak to him; he's still on the morphine and it's hilarious. I'm technically not supposed to be on the phone."

Steve can't help but laugh, as shit as he feels. "Okay, put him on."

There's some shuffling and then Steve hears Nat say, "Steve's on the phone for you."

"Hey buddy!" Clint's voice is slightly higher pitched than usual, slurry around the edges.

"Hi Clint, how are you feeling?"

"I'm...doing...great. I had an arrow in me and now I don't." He sounds surprised.

Steve holds back a laugh. "I heard. That must have sucked."

"Oh, it did. But now things are really looking glup."

Steve hears Nat crack up into a hoarse breathy laugh and he chokes back a giggle. "That's good, Clint."

"Hey Steve, I gotta tell you..." He pauses.

Steve waits for a moment. "Clint?"

"Yeah?"

"You wanted to tell me..."

"Oh yeah!" Clint sounds pleased. "I had to tell you...you're the only man I've ever kissed that I would kiss again...and I usually only kiss men once...but you, I would kiss again in a second..." He hears Nat make a noise of protest.

Steve rubs his eyes. "Wow, that's very flattering."

"And you can totally come on my boat." Steve hears Nat in the background say, "Honey, you don't have a boat."

Clint makes a disgusted noise. "Did they take it away when they took the arrow out?" There's more shuffling and Nat comes back on.

"And that's Clint on morphine. As horrible as this whole situation has been, I think this has been the best bit."

Steve sits up. "Poor guy. Tell him I'm thinking about him when he starts to come down."

"I will. Thank fuck Clint has medical insurance because this is going to cost a fortune." She yawns. "Are you okay?"

Steve let's out a shuddery breath. "No. But there we go."

"I wish I knew what to tell you to make things better."

"I know. Will you keep me updated?" Steve says.

"Of course. You too?"

"I will," he says sadly.

 

***

 

11:20

STEVE: Will you please talk to me?

13:42

STEVE: I just want to know what's going on

15:23

STEVE: Just tell me what I did wrong. I never meant to hurt you and if you could just tell me

18:32

STEVE: Bucky please

21:57

STEVE: I don't know what to do

 

***

 

Steve starts to get angry on Friday afternoon. He's been working all morning and the rage has been building steadily hour after hour. He's not a bad person. He's always tried to do the right thing and that only ever got him beaten up or called a brown-noser in high school. He's always tried to be a decent person and he always ends up alone, ignored and made to feel like he doesn't exist. Steve doesn't usually let himself wallow - he's always just tried to move on and do the best he can but there's only so much he can take before it just starts to feel...unfair. He throws down his pencil and stands up, hands threaded together behind his head. He paces the living room, considers smashing something, but then laughs bitterly at himself when he doesn't want to make a mess.

He thought Bucky was different but Bucky is an asshole just like everybody else. His shoulder's slump and he immediately regrets thinking that. Bucky's not an asshole, no matter what's going on at the moment and so...it must be him. Steve makes a desperate noise, suddenly deathly afraid that he's going to die alone, that his life is a zero-sum that doesn't mean anything, that someone else always gets something and he gets nothing. He's going to die alone, never having been with anyone and the world will go on without him and Steve Rogers will be a loser that no-one even remembers. He knows that isn't true, not really, that Nat and Clint care, but at the moment, that's not enough. He feels a lump of panic rise in his throat and forces himself to calm down, taking off his glasses and covering his face with his hands, breathing hard.

He stands in the middle of the living room, the afternoon light streaming through the window. He considers something for a long time.

Thirty minutes later, fully resolved, he picks up his phone, hesitating slightly before he dials.

"H-hi... It's Steve...yeah, I know, I'm kind of surprised that I called too."

 

***

 

Steve stands outside of the bar later that evening, fiddling with the collar of his shirt, pulling at his sweater. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. But before he can even consider running back to his apartment, it's too late.

"Steve, hey!" He turns and Brock is there, looking great in a shirt and tie, his jacket over his arm, smiling brightly.

Steve smiles nervously. "Hi. I'm glad you could meet up. I, uh, I feel like an idiot for calling."

"I was happy when you did. I came straight from work so I'm a bit of a mess."

"Yeah, you look terrible."

Brock laughs and gives Steve a look. "Yeah, you too. That haircut is pretty awful. I mean, what were you thinking." Steve recognises the flirty look in Brock's eyes.

Steve blushes and looks away. "Uh, shall we go..."

Brock opens the door and they head into the bar, Steve too nervous about being here in the first place to worry about how busy it is. They find a table near the back and Steve gets his wallet out. Brock holds up a hand.

"I'll get these. What do you want?"

Steve stands awkwardly. "Um, rum and coke? Thanks."

"You still like that crap, huh?" Brock says with a smile. "Single or double?"

"Double," Steve says without hesitation.

Brock grins at him. "Well, alright then." He heads to the bar.

Steve sits down, suddenly feeling more miserable than he ever has in his life. What the fuck is he doing? This isn't him; he doesn't do this. He sits back and takes a few deep breaths. Brock comes back with his drink and a beer for himself, sitting next to Steve. He mumbles a thanks.

"So how are you?" Brock asks.

Steve nods. "I'm okay. I, uh, yeah, I'm okay. How are you?"

Brock takes a swig of beer. "Yeah, pretty good. I'm working at a law firm now. Hoping I can make my way up. Your drawing's going pretty well, right?"

"Yeah, it's...it's great. I'm working on an awesome book. It's getting pretty popular." He downs his drink, Brock giving him an amused look.

Steve plays with his empty glass for a moment. "I...I think I'm going to get another one. Do you want another beer?" He looks at Brock's drink, which is still pretty full.

"Uh, sure," Brock says.

Steve heads to the bar, not feeling a hundred percent certain that he should be doing this, but doing it anyway. He orders a beer and two double rum and cokes, one of which he drinks at the bar before he heads back to the table. He can already feel the alcohol buzzing through his system. Brock is watching him as he comes back.

"So, I was glad I ran into you that day at the bookstore," Brock says. "Although I was a little disappointed that you were with someone."

Steve swallows. "I'm not with anyone."

"I thought that guy you were with - "

"No," Steve cuts him off and takes a big mouthful of his drink, "we're not anything." He's starting to feel a little bit bolder and looks Brock in the eyes. "Are you seeing anyone?"

Brock blinks and looks down at his beer. "Uh, no. I haven't been involved with anyone since I went out with you, actually."

Steve starts slightly at that. "Really?"

Brock gives a little nod. "Yep. Just didn't really...mesh well with anyone else."

"Oh." It's all Steve can think to say. He swallows down the rest of his drink and Brock gives a little frown.

Steve is clenching and unclenching his hands under the table, feeling a little bit muzzy from the drinks - he really should have eaten something before he came out - and he lets out a shaky breath.

Brock leans towards him slightly. "Look, Steve..."

Before he can say anything else, Steve surges forward and kisses him hard, one hand going to the back of Brock's neck, pulling him in. Brock makes a surprised noise and for a second starts to kiss Steve back before pulling away and pushing Steve gently with one hand. Steve looks confused and flushed.

"I, uh, look Steve, I'm really flattered that you chose me for this one night stand or whatever this was going to be, but this isn't you. And as much as I really do want to sleep with you, I don't think this is good idea." His eyes are soft.

Steve makes a choked sound, finally breaking down, and slumps against the seat, covering his face with his hands. "Oh god, I'm so sorry. I don't...I wasn't thinking...I just wanted..."

Brock slides next to Steve and puts an arm around him. "I don't know what's going on, but you could have just talked to me. You didn't need to try and get me into bed."

"I'm such a fucking loser..."

"No, you're not. You're an idiot, but you're not a loser."

"Then why did you dump me?" Steve looks at him, drunk and upset and, Brock can't help but think, utterly adorable.

Brock gives a sigh and picks up his beer. "Finally, we're having this talk?"

Steve looks down at his lap. "I really liked you."

Brock lets out a breath. "I really liked you too. And, um, to be honest? Breaking up with you was one of the worst mistakes of my life."

Steve looks at him, still hazy, not sure what to say. Brock gives a sad little smile. "You're my one-that-got-away."

"Then, why..." Steve asks quietly.

Brock looks down at his beer. "I wanted more from you than you were ready to give and me, being an asshole, I wasn't prepared to wait and give you time. I, uh, I fell pretty hard for you and I knew it was all a bit new for you and you wanted to take things slow, but I didn't. I was...I should have given you time. That sounds so dumb." He rubs his head.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

Brocks holds up a hand. "I don't know, because I'm a selfish prick? I can't even give you a good reason." He looks at Steve, his brown eyes full of warmth. "It was never because of you as a person. You're like the sweetest, funniest guy I've ever met."

Steve gives a cheerless smile and shakes his head. "People keep saying that and yet I still seem to get crapped on."

"So this other guy that you're obviously crazy about and trying to get back at for some reason..."

Steve shakes his head. "There's nothing there. It was always a one-sided thing."

"Right. So this isn't about making him jealous?"

"I wouldn't have told anyone about this. It would have been...my first time." He stares steadily at the table.

Brock sighs and pulls Steve in closer. "You know this was a terrible way to go about that, right?"

"Yes," Steve says miserably. "I'm sorry, Brock."

Brock shakes his head. "If it were anyone else, I'd be pretty pissed off. And if I couldn't see that you were already a total mess when we got here, I'd maybe have considered it. But I'm not that much of a selfish prick." He takes a swallow of beer. "I'd also be considering asking you out again on a proper date, but I can see that you're hung up on this guy who doesn't like you back."

Steve picks up the remains of his drink and swirls the liquid about. "I thought there was something between us but I was wrong. He won't even speak to me."

"This is the guy from the bookstore?"

Steve nods.

"His loss, I guess."

Steve finishes his drink. "I think I should go."

Brock puts his beer down. "Come on, let's get you a cab."

 

***

 

They pull up to Steve's building, Steve still fuzzy from the rum. "You didn't have to come with me."

Brock gives him a smile. "I wasn't going to let you try and get home by yourself. I like to think that I'm kind of a gentleman."

Steve gives him a grateful look. "You are."

Brock looks at Steve for a moment, then slides across the back seat and kisses him softly on the cheek, his lips grazing the corner of Steve's mouth. Steve meets his eyes.

"If this other guy doesn't wise up, give me a call?"

Steve nods and gives a little smile. "Bye, Brock."

He climbs out of the cab and watches it pull away. After a moment, he goes into his apartment building. He stops in the lobby and, after glancing around, opens Hobo Guy's mailbox and pulls out the couple of letters that are in there, looking at the name on the envelopes. One is addressed to Jim Howlett, the other to James Howlett. They're both handwritten and Steve holds them up to the light to try and see inside. He suddenly feels bad and stuffs them back into the mailbox.

Steve walks heavily up the stairs, his mind buzzing, and stops on the second floor landing, looking at Bucky's apartment. The hurt and anger from earlier starts to rise again and he stalks towards Bucky's door, knowing this is a terrible idea but doing it anyway. He knocks loudly on the door.

"Bucky? It's Steve. I'm not leaving until you answer the door and talk to me." He keeps up a steady rhythm of knocks. "I can do this all day," he calls loudly and leans against the door, continuing to knock, getting louder, his hand starting to hurt. "I'm going to keep knocking until you open the door." There's no answer and no indication that Bucky has heard him so his starts to pummel on the door with both fists.

"Bucky, open the fucking door!" he shouts.

Mr Hargensen's door flies open and he steps into the hall wearing a ratty old bath robe.

"It's eleven-twenty at night! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Steve suddenly sees red; years worth of never losing his temper bursting like a full dam. "Fuck off! Go back inside and finish jerking off, you asshole!" Even he's surprised at the anger in his voice.

Mr Hargensen's face goes bright red and he steps forward, pointing a shaky finger at Steve. "You can be sure that I'll report this disturbance to - "

Steve takes a step towards him, looking him dead in the eyes. "Go ahead, make a fucking complaint - I'll make a complaint against YOU for claiming unemployment when you obviously have a job. You think we don't all know about that? Now, fuck off and leave me alone! FUCK! OFF!" He screams the last two words and Mr Hargensen backs off to his apartment, face white, and closes the door without another word.

Steve is breathing heavily and turns back to Bucky's front door. He bangs on it again. "Bucky, open the goddamn door and talk to me. I'm not leaving until you do." He thinks he hears a slight shuffle on the other side. He bangs again and winces as his hand flares with pain.

"I'll stay out here all night if I have to. I'll start singing. You know I can't sing. Just please - Bucky, please..." Desperation has started to creep into his voice.

There's nothing. Steve leans against the door.

"Well, East Coast girl are hip, I really dig those styles they wear... and the Southern girls with the way they talk, they knock me out when I'm down there..." He sings in his high shaky voice, face turned to the door. He sings for twenty minutes, the same stupid song over and over, his voice getting louder then starting to break, his mouth drying out horribly, his head starting to pound. He leans his head against the door and starts to knock on it again as he sings. He can feel tears crawling into his eyes and is about to give up when the door suddenly opens and he almost stumbles forwards, straight into Bucky. The relief that overwhelms Steve is cut short when he sees him. He looks terrible.

Bucky's hair is lank and greasy, his eyes red and sunken, framed by dark circles. He hasn't shaved for a few days and he looks...wild, Steve thinks. He also looks furious.

"What?" he says in a low voice, almost guttural.

Steve puts one hand on the door frame to steady himself, suddenly feeling dizzy. "Bucky, why...why won't you talk to me?" It's all he can manage as Bucky stares at him with hard, cold eyes.

"There's nothing to talk about."

Steve shakes his head. "You can't just...you can't just cut me off. If I did something, you have to tell me."

Bucky shakes his head and looks away, a reproachful look on his face then stalks back into his apartment but he leaves the door open. Steve hesitates and then follows him in. There's just the one lamp on in the living room but as Steve passes the kitchen, he can see shattered glass on the floor, a couple of broken plates too. He stops in the living room and watches as Bucky sinks onto the couch, hair falling into his face, shoulders hunched and turned away from Steve. Something is very wrong and fear rises in Steve, cold and alarming.

"Bucky, you have to tell me what's wrong," he says, walking a few steps towards the couch.

"No, I don't," Bucky answers in a slow, deliberate voice.

Steve is getting desperate, not knowing what to do now that he's finally here. "How the hell am I supposed to help if you don't tell me what's wrong?"

Bucky leaps up and charges at Steve but stops a few feet from him. "Who even said that I ever wanted your help?" He's shouting, his face twisted into something ugly that Steve barely recognises. "I'm not your fucking charity project."

Steve recoils. "I never...you're not a charity project. I've never thought of you as a charity project. How could you even think that?"

Bucky gives a short, harsh laugh. "Yeah, right. You just want to be the one to fix me, just like everybody else."

"I want to be your friend. That's all I've ever wanted."

"Why, so you can tell your comic book buddies that you're so good to the guy with one arm and a dead friend?"

Steve frowns, getting angry himself. "What the fuck? No, I don't...where the hell is all of this coming from? When did I ever do anything that made you think that?"

Bucky sneers. "Yeah right, like you don't want something from me just like everybody else? Like you're not just trying to get into my - "

Steve cuts him off before he can go any further. "Why are you doing this? I thought we were...what changed? I don't...." He's getting more frantic.

Bucky grabs at his own hair, making an enraged sound and takes a step towards Steve. "You know what? I don't need anyone trying to help me, I don't need anyone trying to fix me, especially some fag with no fucking life."

He lunges forward and shoves Steve hard with both hands, the force sending Steve stumbling backwards and he almost falls over. He stands shocked and crushed; the push he could deal with, he'd even have preferred it if Bucky had just beaten the crap out of him, but the venom behind that one word wounds him more than anything physical that Bucky could ever do to him.

Steve swipes a sleeve at his eyes and steps back, unable to say anything else, the hurt washing over him like a wave of broken glass. For a split-second, Bucky looks dismayed and makes a small movement forwards, but then his face hardens again and he looks away.

"Just get the fuck out of here," he says, his voice barely audible. He staggers back over to the couch and sits down heavily, his back to Steve, drawing his legs up to his chest.

Steve walks to the front door, feeling sick and hopeless. Before he leaves, he says, "If you need me, you know where I am," his voice finally breaking and he has no idea if Bucky has heard him or not. He closes the door behind him and goes up to his apartment. He curls up on the couch and finally lets the tears come.

 

***

 

He calls Nat at 5:15am the next morning, far earlier than he ever would usually. She answers after a couple of rings sounding groggy.

"Steve?"

"Hey Nat," he says and his voices sounds strained and too high. "How's Clint doing?"

"Clint's okay; he's coming home this afternoon. You sound weird, what's wrong?" He can hear her sitting up.

He tries his best to speak but just starts to cry instead, huge desperate sobs that he can't control. He can just about hear Nat trying to console him over his own hitching breaths and weeping.

"Oh god, Steve...come on, take a breath, you have to breathe, okay? What happened?"

Steve calms down enough to tell her; of his ill-thought out plan of trying to sleep with Brock, of finally seeing Bucky and how angry and malicious he was. He cries into the phone until he's exhausted and his eyes are sore.

"I'm sorry," he finally snorts, wiping his nose on the couch blanket.

"Don't be sorry," Nat says and she sounds desperately sad. "You don't deserve this, Steve. You're such a good person."

"Am I though? I don't think I am..." He buries his face in the couch cushion, trying to stifle a fresh round of tears.

"You are. God, I wish I was there with you." She's sounds unhappy.

Steve wipes his eyes, vision even blurrier without his glasses and through seemingly endless tears. "I'm sorry, Nat. I know you have enough to worry about, with Clint and everything..."

"Clint's fine," she answers with a little sigh. "I think he's actually enjoyed this whole thing. At least it gives him a cool story to tell people."

Steve lets out a shaky breath. "I don't know what to do," he says, sounding wrecked. "I don't know anybody that I could call; I don't think he has any other friends, not in New York anyway, and the only family he has is a sister in Denmark, he mentioned a while back. I have no idea about any of his doctors..."

"Maybe just give him some time?" She hesitates. "He wouldn't...he wouldn't try to hurt himself, would he?"

Steve goes cold. "I...I don't think so. He's never seemed...I...no." He puts a hand across his eyes.

Nat is quiet for a moment. "He might come to you for help..."

Steve shakes his head. "I don't know, Nat. He was...he hated me..."

"You can't know that."

"You didn't see him," Steve's voice catches. "He looked so..."

Nat Sighs. "I wish had the answers, Steve. I don't know what to do. I wouldn't know what to do if I was there with you."

"I know, Nat. I just...I have nobody else."

"Maybe you should get out of the apartment today. Just blow the whole day off, wander around. Go to an art gallery. Clear your head. There's nothing much else you can do."

Steve puts his glasses back on. "Maybe I will. Look, thanks Nat. For everything. Can you let me know when Clint's back home? I'd like to talk to him, just see how he is."

"I'll get him to give you a call. Let me know if anything happens, okay?"

"I will. Bye, Nat."

Steve sits for moment, completely cried out and exhausted. He curls up and goes back to sleep.

 

***

He wakes up at 9:45am, feeling strangely calm. At least now he knows where he stands with Bucky. There's nothing more he can do. If he tries to speak to him again, Bucky either wont speak to him, or will get even more angry and Steve doesn't want to antagonise him. The thought of leaving Bucky alone as he was makes Steve sick to his stomach but Bucky made it more than clear how he felt. For a minute, the hurt flares up, fresh and stinging and Steve tries to push it down. He heads to the bathroom and has a long shower, not moving under the spray for at least twenty minutes.

He gets dressed and attempts to eat something, not bothering to turn on his laptop or even think about working. Nat was right. He should get out of here for a while, even if he has no destination or plan in mind. He downs a quick cup of coffee and puts on his sneakers, suddenly wanting to cry again but stubbornly not giving in. He grabs his sketchbook, hesitating before flipping to the pages where he sketched Bucky, his chest feeling tight as he looks at the drawings. He looked so different last night, nothing like the Bucky on these pages. Steve swallows hard and closes the sketchbook, jamming it into his bag. He picks up his keys and heads out of the door.

He descends the stairs quietly and hesitates on the second floor landing. He's still worried about Bucky, no matter what's happened between them and he steps as quietly over to the door as he can, pressing his ear close. He can just about hear the TV and what sounds like pans being shuffled about in the kitchen, the muffled clanging almost a comfort. He steps away softly and heads downstairs.

 

***

NAT: Hey Steve, hope you're okay. Clint's home but fell asleep as soon as he got here. I'll get him to call you later

STEVE: Hey Nat, glad to hear that he's back. Give him a big kiss from me

NAT: Are you okay?

STEVE: Not really. I might have bought a PS3

NAT: Well, we all make impulse buys when we're upset

STEVE: And 8 games

NAT: Ah, shit

STEVE: I've never felt this bad

NAT: :(

 

***

 

Steve gets home and sets up his PS3, spending the rest of the day playing Heavy Rain, anything to stop him thinking beyond what's in front of him, drained and exhausted and spent, already intending to fill the weekend doing nothing more than playing video games. He doesn't want to think about Monday, having to slip back into his old life of work and loneliness. At 7:25pm, Clint calls.

"Clint, hey! How are you?"

Clint sounds tired but okay. "Hey Steve. I'm good. A bit sore. Can't walk all that well at the minute but it could've been worse. That's the last time they let us use the crossbows."

"I'm so glad you're okay. Do you remember talking to me when you were high on morphine?"

"No, I don't and I can't believe you both took advantage of my delicate state by making fun of me when I was off my gourd on drugs. My WIFE especially." Steve hears Nat telling Clint to fuck off in the background.

"It was pretty funny. You sounded so cute." Steve already feels happier talking to him. "It was kind of scary for a minute, when Nat called me. I didn't realise how much I actually gave a shit about you."

Clint laughs. "Wow, I feel so loved."

"But seriously, I'm glad you're okay. I love you as much as I love Nat, you asshole."

"I love you too, dude. Nat told me what happened with...everything. I'm sorry, Steve. I wish we could help."

Steve sighs. "I know you do. Just...don't worry about me. You've got enough to think about. I bought a PS3 and a ton of games and that's all I'm going to do all weekend."

"PS3? Why didn't you buy a PS4?"

"It was cheaper and it had all the games I wanted. I don't care about the new stuff."

Clint snorts. "You're an idiot. You should have gone for the newer one. What's the point of buying an older console?"

"I don't have to take this from someone who got shot by a fucking crossbow."

Clint gives a chuckle. "Hey, I was doing great with the crossbow, it was Will who couldn't shoot straight. Oh, I gotta go - our take-out just arrived. Look, I'll call you Tuesday or something?"

"Yeah, no problem. Take care, Clint. I miss you guys."

"We miss you too. Try not to get too down, huh?"

Steve smiles sadly. "I can't make any promises on that one."

 

***

Steve ends up staying awake most of the night playing on the PS3, eventually falling asleep around 4am on Sunday morning, wrapped up the same blanket he wiped his nose all over yesterday. He wakes up at 10am, goes to the bathroom, grabs some coffee and toast and carries on playing, not bothering to shower. He feels strangely removed, not like himself. It's not a nice sensation and Steve wonders if he'll ever not feel like this again. He considers sending Brock a text, just to apologise but puts it off. It was unfair to do what he did, especially since finding out that Brock still had feelings for him and the embarrassment is still a bit too fresh.

At 5pm, he orders a pizza for dinner, too tired to try and cook anything himself. It arrives half an hour later, covered in anchovies and pepperoni and he eats all but two of the slices. He starts to play The Last Of Us, knowing full well that it will freak him out, but determined to play anyway. He turns off the lamp, intending to go all out if he's doing survival horror.

He's a couple of hours into the game, sat tensed on the couch, when he thinks he hears a knock at the front door. He pauses the game and listens, heart starting to hammer slightly. He waits for around two minutes but there's nothing. He slumps back on the couch about to un-pause the game when it comes again: Three short taps, almost barely there. He stands up, his breathing suddenly heavy and walks to the door. He opens it and Bucky is in the hallway. He looks as terrible as he did the other night, still wearing the same clothes, hair still limp. But he doesn't look angry anymore. He just looks scared. Steve swallows hard.

"Buck?" he says softly.

Bucky's eyes flit up to his but he looks away quickly. "I..." his voice is thick and Steve notices that's he's shaking slightly.

He reaches out carefully and pulls Bucky gently through the door. "It's okay," he says as Bucky stumbles into the apartment. Steve closes the door behind him and turns to Bucky. He's standing with his back to Steve, shoulders hunched, just about lit by the glare of the TV. Steve doesn't think to turn a light on.

"Bucky, are you alright? Can I do anything? Just tell me what I can do."

Bucky's head sinks deeper and Steve hears a choked sob. "Why are you doing that?"

Steve steps towards him but then stops, not wanting to crowd him. He's just so relieved that he's here. "Doing what?"

"Being so fucking...nice to me."

"Bucky, it's okay - "

"No, it's not! You're not supposed to be nice to me, you were supposed to stay away from me, just like I made everyone else stay away, not tell me that I could come here if I needed...why are you still..." He starts to cry.

Steve lets out a breath and gently puts a hand on Bucky's shoulder. Bucky flinches, and for a moment Steve thinks that he's going to lash out at him, but he just turns around and he looks so utterly broken.

"You're supposed to tell me that I'm an asshole and that I didn't deserve to come back and...and..."

Steve shakes his head. "No, Bucky - "

"You were supposed to tell me that I'm a fucking asshole who should have...should have died...with Tim..."

"No! Don't say that - "

Bucky covers his face, his sobs full of misery and hopelessness. "I should have died...I should have died with Tim...it was my fault..."

Steve puts his arms around Bucky, pulling him close, Bucky's head against his shoulder. "Don't say that, please don't say that..."

Bucky's sobs grow louder. "I saw it. I saw the landmine. I saw that the ground looked strange and I didn't say anything and we just kept walking..."

Steve holds him tighter. "It's okay..."

Bucky wraps his arms around Steve's waist and cries into Steve's shoulder, his body shuddering, overtaken in his grief. Steve backs them up slowly until he feels the front door behind him and then eases them both down onto the floor. Bucky sags into him, his cries loud and wet. Steve holds him close. He's so warm and he smells terrible but he just holds Bucky and lets him cry. Steve glances over at the wall by his desk and swears that if Hobo Guy bangs on it, just once, he'll go next door and punch him in the face.

"Why don't you hate me? You need to hate me," Bucky says in a small choked voice.

"I can't hate you," Steve says quietly.

"But I was so...god, I was so...I'm sorry, Steve. I'm so fucking sorry," he puts a hand on Steve's face and Steve rests his head against Bucky's.

"It's okay, Buck."

They sit like that, against the front door, the only light coming from the TV, for a long time. Bucky cries and Steve holds him, stroking his hair, whispering to him. Bucky's sobs eventually ease and he just holds Steve back, letting out shuddery rattles of breath, finally cried out and exhausted. After a while, Steve helps him to his feet and guides him over to the couch. Bucky drops onto it, eyes puffy and red, nose running. Steve goes to his bedroom and finds one of his winter blankets. Bucky looks so small sat there, lit by the glow of the TV, sniffing. Steve sits next to him and covers his shoulders with the blanket.

Bucky turns to him, his face so full of remorse and shame, that Steve almost wants to cry himself. "I'm so sorry, Steve," he whispers, face starting to crumple again. "I thought it would be better for you to hate me..."

Steve puts his arm around Bucky and Bucky rests his head on Steve's shoulder. "Why? Why did you want me to hate you?"

"Because I was happy and I don't deserve to be," he starts to weep softly.

Steve pulls Bucky close again. "Bucky, you deserve to be happy."

"It was my fault..."

Steve presses his face into Bucky's neck. "No, don't think that. Don't ever think that."

Bucky leans against him. "I don't deserve you for a friend."

"Well, tough shit. You've got me."

Bucky huffs out a tiny laugh and Steve can feel how tired he is, his weight pressing on Steve, his breathing slowing down. He eases Bucky down onto the couch, getting up and lifting his legs onto the cushions, covering him with the blanket. Bucky's eyes watch him, drowsy and solemn.

"I'll just sleep for a little while, then I'll go," he says.

Steve shakes his head. "Stay here tonight. I'll keep my bedroom door open if you need anything."

Bucky reaches up and takes Steve's wrist, pulling him down so Steve is kneeling on the floor, almost level with him. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because," Steve says.

Bucky's eyes search Steve's face. "Because why?"

Steve reaches out and runs his fingers through Bucky's hair, settling on the floor. "Just because."

Bucky closes his eyes, his breathing soft and even as Steve strokes again and again.

"I'm such an asshole," Bucky murmurs, his voice heavy.

Steve runs his hand through Bucky's hair again and then brushes the back of his hand across Bucky's cheek. "No, you're not."

Bucky makes a sound that could be words but then he's asleep. Steve watches him for a long time, tucking Bucky's hair behind his ear, watching his shoulder rise and fall steadily. He eventually gets up and turns off the PS3, the room suddenly dark and he stands listening to Bucky's breathing. He goes quietly to his bedroom, leaving the door open and puts on his lamp. He changes into a white t-shirt and pyjama pants and sits on his bed, tired and shaking. He texts Nat.

STEVE: Bucky's here. He's asleep on my couch

NAT: Is everything okay? What happened?

STEVE: Long story. He's not okay but he's here at least

NAT: Call me when you can.

STEVE: I will

He puts his phone down and goes to the living room again and takes one last look at Bucky. He's breathing deeply. Steve gets into bed and turns off his lamp, wondering why he feels so strange before realising that the knot of fear that had tied up his stomach for so long is finally unwinding.

 

***

 

Steve wakes at 8am on Monday morning, half expecting Bucky to be gone, but he's still asleep on the couch, in the same position that Steve left in him the night before. Steve watches him for a moment and then goes to bathroom. He pads quietly through to the kitchen, closing the door as he makes coffee and boils some water. He sits at his desk and sketches for a little while. He looks up when he hears Bucky stirring.

Bucky sits up slowly, looking around and rubs his face.

"Hey," Steve says softly and Bucky turns around, blinking sleepily.

"Hi," he replies.

Steve gets up and makes Bucky a mug of tea. Bucky watches him as he puts the mug on the coffee table and sits next down to him. He wrings his hands as he sits.

"It was that stupid squirrel," Bucky finally says.

Steve is confused. "Squirrel?"

"The day we went to Central Park. I...I'd been feeling really weird for a while...and..." he reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and pulls out his phone. He flips through his photos and shows Steve a picture. It's the one Bucky snapped of the squirrel eating the donut out of Steve's hand. Steve is smiling at the camera, looking overjoyed.

"I don't understand..." Steve says.

Bucky looks down at the picture. "You just looked so...happy and innocent and it just made me feel like...I didn't deserve to know you...that I shouldn't be happy because of Tim and you just made me feel...like...you wanted to be friends with me and it didn't matter what had happened or what kind of person I was...or...I don't know what I'm trying to say..." He wipes his eyes, tears rolling down his face again.

"You should have talked to me," Steve says.

Bucky leans back on the couch. "I know, I'm a fucking idiot. I thought...it was easier to push you away..."

Steve puts an arm around him. "I really missed you."

Bucky makes a small laugh through his tears. "You're doing it again. I was so...cruel to you and you're just being so fucking good about it..." He turns to Steve, his eyes pleading. "I can't believe I said what I said. You have to know that I didn't mean it, I didn't mean any of it..." He's still crying, his breath hitching.

Steve smiles softly. "I know."

Bucky leans his head on Steve's shoulder and they sit quietly for a moment.

"I missed you too," Bucky whispers and curls his arm around Steve and Steve thinks he could sit like this forever, just pressed against Bucky, holding him.

"I remember..." Bucky says, his voice small, "I remember lying there, and I could see my arm..."

Steve holds his breath, and he realises that Bucky is asking him if it's okay to talk about this, in that way he asks without actually asking. Steve gently rubs his hand up and down Bucky's arm in encouragement.

Bucky swallows. "I couldn't understand why I was seeing it but I couldn't move it...and I was trying to move my fingers and they weren't doing anything and I was wondering why my arm was way over there..." He stifles a sob.

Steve closes his eyes, heart breaking slightly. "It's okay...it's okay..."

"...and I looked up and Tim was...everywhere. He was everywhere..."

"Oh god, Bucky, I'm so..." Steve pulls him closer and lets him cry again, Bucky's arm tightening around him.

Bucky eventually pulls away, wiping his eyes. "God, it feels so good to be able...to tell you..." He runs his hands through his hair. "I feel like I've been holding it in for so long." He meets Steve's eyes. "I wanted to talk to you but it never seemed..." He shakes his head.

"I know. I didn't want to push it. I'm glad you can talk to me." Steve wipes his own eyes and gives a small laugh. "Fuck, I'm just glad you're talking to me again at all."

Bucky looks away for a moment, making his mind up about something. "Can I show you my arm?" he asks and Steve can see how hard this is for him.

Steve nods. Bucky pulls his hoodie off and drops it on the floor, looking horribly self-conscious in his black t-shirt. Steve can see the prosthetic where it emerges from Bucky's sleeve, a mixture of plastic and metal that he can't quite understand. Bucky takes off his glove and drops it next to the hoodie. He holds out his hand and flexes the fingers, his brow knitting slightly, looking up at Steve.

"Where...how much of your arm was...lost?" Steve asks.

Bucky takes a breath and pulls off his t-shirt. The prosthetic extends all the way to his shoulder, a brace and a series of straps running across Bucky's chest and under his right arm and around his back. He points to a few inches below his shoulder. Steve slides his hand into Bucky's left, feeling the metal fingers - they're lighter than he thought they would be - and he smiles. Bucky's fingers close around his hand and he let's out a quivering breath.

"It doesn't freak you out?"

Steve shakes his head. "It's kind of cool. I can't believe they can do this."

Bucky nods and let's go of Steve's hand, picking up his t-shirt and sliding it over his head. Steve glances at the lean muscle of Bucky's body, what looks like an appendectomy scar on his side, and quickly looks away when Bucky pulls the t-shirt down. Bucky sits back against the couch and flexes his left hand again, not picking the glove back up.

"I missed my last four therapy sessions," Bucky says, studying his hand. "I guess...I need to call and make an appointment. Jane tried to call me a few times."

"Do you want me to come with you?" Steve asks and Bucky looks up at him.

"But what about your work? I feel like I'm just...intruding on your life. I can't ask you to - "

"Yes, you can," Steve says and Bucky smiles - Steve's favourite smile, worn around the edges slightly but there, and he feels so damn good and happy and...he thought he would never see that smile again.

He glances at Steve, more like the Bucky he knows again. "Thank you, Steve. For...for everything. I'm fucked up, like really fucked up but..." He looks away. "You keep making me feel like maybe there'll be a time when I won't be."

Steve can't think of anything else to say but "You're welcome," in a small voice, afraid that anything else will break him.

 

***

 

Bucky manages to get an appointment for 11:45am and heads back to his own apartment for a shower. Before he leaves, he stands in front of Steve, rubbing his left arm, eyes full of uncertainty.

"We're okay?" he asks.

Steve smiles. "We were always okay."

Bucky shakes his head. "I was such a - "

Steve stops him. "Bucky..."

"But I hurt you." It's a statement, not a question.

Steve looks at the floor. "You did. But...it doesn't matter now." He gives Bucky a little smile. "You're a jerk, but you're the best kind of jerk."

Bucky lunges forward and grabs Steve in a tight hug. "You're such a punk," Bucky whispers and Steve hugs him back.

"I know," he says into Bucky's shoulder.

Bucky pulls away. "Meet me in twenty minutes?"

Steve nods and watches as Bucky goes down the stairs. He waits until he hears Bucky's apartment door close and heads into the bathroom for a shower. He makes it a minute before he starts to cry, the last week suddenly hitting him hard and he cries in sadness and weariness and relief.

 

***

 

They catch the bus to Bucky's therapist's office, Steve feeling slightly motion sick by the time they get there, but not caring. The waiting room is modern but cosy and they sit down and wait together, the receptionist speaking quietly into an intercom as they do. Bucky looks nervous and Steve nudges him gently, giving him a reassuring smile. Bucky smiles back.

A pretty petite woman with brown hair in a French Braid steps out of her office and smiles at Bucky, a genuinely happy smile.

"James," she says cheerfully and Bucky gets up, wiping his hands nervously on his jeans, hair falling into his face when he takes off his baseball cap. He turns and looks at Steve before heading in. Steve nods. Bucky goes into the office and the therapist gives Steve a little smile, as though she recognises him. Steve smiles back, slightly confused. She heads in after Bucky and the door closes.

Steve sketches for the better part of two hours, not caring how long Bucky will be. He could sit here all day if he had to. Finally, the door opens and Bucky steps out with Dr Foster, Steve assumes from the certificates in the waiting room that he's had time to read. Bucky looks tired but calm, some brightness back in his eyes. He gives Steve an encouraging smile and Steve feels a tight warmth in his chest. Dr Foster touches Bucky's arm, his left, Steve notices and he turns to her and gives her a little hug.

"Remember what I said?" Dr Foster says softly and Bucky nods. He indicates to Steve.

"Um, this is my friend, Steve."

Steve stands up, tucking his sketchbook under his arm and holds out his hand. "Hello," he says shyly.

Dr Foster beams at him and shakes his hand enthusiastically. "I'm so glad to meet you finally. I feel like I know you already."

Steve isn't quite sure what to say and looks to Bucky for help, but Bucky is looking away, over at the receptionist's desk, his cheeks slightly red.

Dr Foster lets go of Steve's hand and turns back to Bucky. "I'll see you on Wednesday?"

Bucky nods. "Thank you."

She heads back into her office, giving them both one last smile.

Bucky puts his baseball cap on and rubs his face with a sigh. "Do you want to get something to eat?"

Steve nods. "Yeah, that sounds good."

They leave the office and find a sandwich place down the street. They eat quietly, but it's not an awkward silence. Steve catches Bucky looking at him a couple of times, his brow knitted slightly in worry, as though he thinks that Steve is suddenly going to up and leave. Steve gives him a light kick under the table and Bucky smiles.

When they get back to their building, Bucky hesitates on the second floor.

"Do you want to watch a movie?" Steve asks Bucky softly.

Bucky smiles and Steve can almost feel the relief coming off of him. "Yeah, that would be nice."

Bucky chooses The Life Aquatic and they both slump on the couch, drowsy but content. Half-way through the movie, Bucky nods off, jolting awake with a start and giving Steve the finger when he laughs. Steve shifts himself around slightly and gently tugs on Bucky's sleeve, pulling him closer. Bucky scoots over and leans into Steve, resting his head against him. Steve puts his arm around Bucky's shoulder and they carry on watching and Bucky eventually falls asleep against him. When the movie ends, Steve turns off the TV and just listens to Bucky breathing, warm and happy. He carefully picks up his phone and sends Nat a text.

STEVE: I think we're going to be okay

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Steve's Play List

Jon Brion - Here We Go
Queens Of The Stone Age - The Vampyre Of Time And Memory
Beck - Volcano
David Bowie - Modern Love
Tegan and Sara feat. The Lonely Island - Everything Is Awesome!!!
Foo Fighters - Headwires

"I've been thinking about something..." Steve begins carefully one afternoon while he's inking comic pages and Bucky is sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, writing in his journal. He's working on what Jane calls his "Positive Life Changes" - a list of things he wants to aim for and how he can go about working towards them. He's also taking a Cognitive Therapy Course once a week and has notes to write and different exercises to do.

"Is it Oblivion? Because you've been talking about it non-stop for the last three days," Bucky says, not looking up. They watched the movie a few days ago and Steve has been obsessing over it ever since.

"No, well, yeah, but this is something else. Something kind of important. It's just a suggestion and you can say no if you think it's stupid..."

Bucky climbs up onto the couch and rests his head on the back, looking over at Steve.

Steve has been thinking about this ever since Bucky mentioned that he needs to start looking for a job, working over the practicalities in his mind a million times, how he can go about it, whether Bucky would even want to do it.

"You know your whole job situation?"

Bucky groans and throws his arms over the back of the couch. "Don't remind me..."

"Well, how would you feel about me teaching you some comic stuff in Photoshop and Illustrator? Um, I could show you how to flat pages for colouring, maybe some lettering. It's...it's nothing big but there are always artists looking for people to do stuff to save them time and I know Nat is always looking for decent flatters...it's mostly technical so you wouldn't need to worry about if you can draw or not..." He glances over at Bucky. He's looking at Steve, his brow knitted slightly like he can't quite believe that Steve is still bothering with him. It's a look that Steve has seen a lot over the last couple of weeks since everything became okay between them again and he's desperate to get Bucky to stop making it.

"You would do that?" he asks Steve.

Steve gives him a shrug. "Why not? I mean, you won't be raking in the money but it's kind of fun...and we can...work together..."

Bucky gets up and walks over to Steve's desk. He's wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans (barefoot) and Steve feels a swell of pride; Bucky doesn't wear his glove over his left hand any more and only wears hoodies when they go out. The fact that he's comfortable enough with Steve now to not cover up his arm makes Steve feel like they're heading in a new direction. Bucky has been doing a lot better since his breakdown, talking to Steve more openly and keeping up with his therapy. Although he's cautious about it, he also touches Steve as much as he can; small, tentative gestures, as though he's testing the water despite the fact that he's fallen asleep against Steve more than a few times. He'll throw an arm around Steve's shoulder more often than before, or rest a hand against the small of Steve's back as he reaches for something in the kitchen when Steve makes dinner. They hug every time Bucky leaves in the evenings and Steve hadn't realised how much he himself was starved for the contact, elated by any chance to feel Bucky against him, having to check himself for how long he clings. They both seem unsure of how to proceed with physical affection since Bucky's breakdown; side-stepping around each other - wanting to touch, making small points of contact but hoping that the other will make the first move.

He comes around the desk and leans next to Steve, careful not to dislodge a stack of paper and reference books. "But that's so much of your time..."

Steve shakes his head. "It's not; we can maybe set a schedule for every other day to begin with, a few hours in the morning for me to show you stuff, then you can just play around for as long as you want. You kind of learn a lot through trial and error, to be honest. We'll make sure it doesn't clash with any of your therapy sessions..."

Bucky folds his arms and looks at the floor, chewing his lip, letting his hair flop over his face the way he does when he wants to hide how he feels and Steve wishes that he could take a photo of him like this. He tries not to stare too much but he's finding it harder and harder not to. He feels like any time not spent taking Bucky in - the way he laughs at something Steve has said, the face he makes when he's playing video games, how peaceful he looks when he falls asleep on the couch, when he gets playful and his eyes become huge and mischievous - is time wasted.

"I don't know what to say," Bucky says finally, looking at Steve through his hair.

Steve gives him a little lop-sided grin, eyes earnest, tilting his head. "Say yes?"

Bucky's face breaks into a huge smile and he pushes Steve with his foot so he spins in his chair. "Okay. Yes."

Steve laughs and grabs his desk, stopping himself mid-spin. "Awesome! I have an older laptop that you can use; it's still good but we can get you an external hard drive and I can set you up a table next to - "

Bucky grabs Steve's hand and hoists him out of his chair. Steve staggers forwards, almost head-butting Bucky in the chest.

He straightens up and Bucky is staring at him with sincere eyes. "You know how much I appreciate what you do for me, don't you?" His hand is still grasping Steve's, firm and warm.

Steve looks down at Bucky's fingers wrapped around his. "It's not much - "

"But it is. You...have no idea."

Steve doesn't look up. "Um, do you still want to come to Vision-Con with me? It's at the end of next month."

Bucky squeezes Steve's hand and Steve looks up. "Of course I do," Bucky says. "I'd finally get to meet your friends, huh?" He lets go of Steve's hand.

"Yeah," Steve says with an excited smile. "I think you'll get on really well with them."

Bucky runs and hand through his hair. "I hope so."

Daft Punk starts to blare from Steve's laptop and Bucky gets that look on his face that Steve dreads - the one that means that he's going to try and get Steve to dance. Steve immediately sits down and is about to face his desk to start drawing again but Bucky grabs him and drags him out of his workspace.

"Come on, Stevie - indulge me in my need to throw some shapes."

Steve loves it when Bucky calls him Stevie. "You can throw all the shapes you want. I'm more than happy to watch." He tries to twist out of Bucky's grasp but Bucky just starts to dance around him, feet moving impossibly fast, doing the robot thing with his arms - he's getting much better with his left - that Steve could watch for hours.

"Do a few steps and I'll let you go," Bucky says with a wicked smile.

Steve groans and indicates the music. "I'm too slow for this." He tries to evade but Bucky just starts to block him with body-pops.

Steve laughs and puts his hands on his hips. "You know this is torture for me, right?"

Bucky pouts out his lower lip and pokes Steve on the shoulder.

Steve lets out an exasperated sigh and looks down at his feet, trying to remember some of the moves Bucky showed him. He dances a few feet across the wood floor, trying to do something with his arms but feeling like a total idiot. Bucky hoots in delight and grabs Steve's hand pulling him around in a circle.

"You said you'd let me go if I danced and I did!" Steve cries as he's spun, but Bucky looks so happy, he's not trying all that hard to get away.

Bucky eventually lets him go and continues to dance to the track, making it look effortless, hair flying every which way, eyes closed with a little half smile on his face and Steve just watches, fully admitting to himself for the first time, that he's totally and utterly in love with Bucky Barnes.

 

***

 

That evening, they watch Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Steve does an impersonation of Caesar that has Bucky laughing and amazed, making Steve shout "No!" and say "Caesar is home" again and again until he starts coughing from making his voice that low and grating.

They start to try and out-do each other with monkey noises, Steve reminding Bucky every two minutes that they're apes in the movie, not monkeys until Bucky throws a cushion at him and tells him to stop being such a nerd. This descends into a full-on cushion fight complete with screeching ape noises until they both freeze when a particularly louder-than-usual series of bangs comes from the far wall. They stop mid-screech, falling silent.

"Yeek; I'd forgotten about ol' Jim Howlett," Bucky whispers to Steve.

"Why are you whispering?" Steve asks.

"I don't know," Bucky says and they both start to laugh.

 

***

 

Bucky has a therapy session with Jane followed by CBT the next morning and won't be over until mid-afternoon, so Steve heads down to his storage cage in the basement. He finds the folding table he used as a temporary desk when he first moved in and drags it back up his apartment, hoping there aren't any spiders in it when he unfolds it. He pushes it up against the back of his own desk; there's a bit less space in the living room now but if it means being able to look up from his own computer and watch Bucky at the desk in front of him, he doesn't care. He digs out his old laptop and boots it up. Everything still works fine and he clears out any unnecessary files. He stands back, slightly nervous but excited too.

Skype starts to chirp so Steve sits back at his own desk.

"Good morning, Natasha," he sing-songs.

"Well, someone sounds happy. Did they decide to bring Deep Space Nine back or something?"

"No, but they should."

Nat sucks in a breath. "Steve, we've talked about this. It's Next Gen or nothing."

They squabble about Star Trek for five minutes until Steve calls for a ceasefire.

"So, how are you?" Nat asks.

"I'm good," Steve says, moving his light box to the side and sliding across his latest page.

"I'm going to assume that Bucky is also good from the tone of your voice and horribly cheerful demeanour this early in the morning."

Steve smiles down at his latest page. "Yeah, Bucky's doing good. It's...it's going really well."

"I'm really happy to hear that. I hate to think now there was a time when that might not have been the case," Nat replies.

Steve swallows. "Yeah..."

"What's wrong?" Nat is quicker to voice concern now whenever Steve sounds even slightly off.

"No, nothing's wrong, everything's..." Steve hesitates and lets out a shaky breath. "I think I'm in love with him, Nat. Like, really in love with him."

He can hear the smirk in Nat's voice when she speaks again. "Well, no duh, Steve. I could've told you that weeks ago."

"Is it that obvious?"

"Well, you talk about him all the time, like ALL THE TIME. And your voice goes all moony and dreamy when you talk about him. Also, you drew him into the comic you work on, so yeah, it's totally obvious."

Steve makes a small moaning noise. "God, how is he not totally onto me?"

"It could be that he does notice and maybe feels the same way but because you're both idiots, you won't say anything to each other." Nat is using the tone that Clint calls Nat's Annoying Preachy Voice.

Steve lets out a pained sigh. "I can't say anything, not yet. He's doing really well at the moment and I don't want to do anything that might upset things. I just...I need some time."

"For you or for him?" Nat asks softly.

Steve is quiet for a long beat. "For me. I can't...I can't think that I might lose him again, Nat."

Nat gives a soft sigh. "Me and Clint have had to adjust our bet like twenty times, you realise."

"You're still doing that?!"

Nat gives an evil little laugh. "So, have you told Bucky that HIS issue of Winter Soldier is out next week?"

"No, I'm going to tell him when he comes over later. I didn't tell you - he agreed to the whole me teaching him Photoshop thing."

"Oh, awesome! Do a good job, Steve, because I need a really good flatter. Hank is a fucking nightmare and I'm really starting to resent paying him the page rate I'm paying him."

Steve laughs. "I'll try my best. It might not work out but...we'll see."

"So, are we finally going to get to meet him at Vision-Con next month?" Steve can hear the expectation in Nat's voice.

"Yes, he's coming with me."

Nat squeals and claps her hands. "Oh my god, I can't wait! We've booked our hotel - "

"Nat! You could have stayed with me!"

"We didn't want to impose - also, it might have been weird given everything that's happened with you and Bucky so we wanted to give you guys some space. I also think we need to ease him into our intense insult-driven friendship."

Steve gives a soft laugh. "That's appreciated, Nat. Still, next time you stay with me."

"Deal. Oh, how's your hair doing? Think you might need a trim by the time we get here?"

Steve rolls his eyes. "You know what, I think I will...and maybe some more gel..."

Nat gives a victorious laugh. "Steve Rogers, you totally owe us for that haircut!"

 

***

 

Bucky knocks on Steve's door at 2:15pm and Steve let's him in, taking the bag of Twizzlers that Bucky shoves into his face. There seems to be this unspoken thing between them that Bucky knows how much Steve likes Strawberry Twizzlers and buys him a bag any chance he gets.

"How was therapy?" Steve asks, pleased that he can and that Bucky will talk about it.

"Yeah, it was good. I actually feel like I'm getting somewhere. Slowly, but getting somewhere." He gives Steve a little shrug and puts down his backpack. He spots the new table, giving Steve an excited little grin.

"Is that my desk?"

Steve nods and they walk over. He'd brought in a chair from his bedroom that had just always ended up with clothes slung over it, left over from the last tenant of the apartment.

"We'll have to get you a better chair but hopefully this is cool for now. You can use my graphics tablet for the time being - I only really use it for tidying up my scans. I know it's not much to look at..."

Bucky sits down, facing Steve's desk. "Steve, this is great, honestly. I told Jane about this and she was really happy. She thinks it's a great idea."

Steve can't help but smile. "Good. I, uh...good."

Bucky looks at him. "Can we start now?"

Steve blinks. "Now? Like right now?"

Bucky gives a nod. "Yeah, I'm in a really good headspace so..."

"Okay," Steve says, suddenly feeling very excited and he goes around his desk, pulling his chair around to Bucky's table. He remembers something and goes to one of his paperwork drawers and finds a blank notebook. "This will be useful; you'll probably need to take a ton of notes to begin with." He hands Bucky a pen.

Bucky takes a breath as Steve boots up the laptop. "Okay, hopefully I wont make too much of a mess of this..."

Steve gives him a friendly punch on the arm. "Okay, I guess we'll start with page sizes..."

Steve spends two hours teaching Bucky about page formats, what dpi sizes are best for print, basic navigation in Photoshop, how to set up a basic file; all the while Bucky is making notes and asking questions. Steve didn't realise how much he would enjoy this and he starts to feel relaxed and confident as he talks Bucky through everything. He shows Bucky how to use the graphics tablet, laughing as Bucky constantly looks down at what his hand is doing rather than up at the screen following the cursor.

"Yeah, this is going to take some getting used to," Bucky mutters as he holds the stylus and tries to select the image menu.

Steve sits back in his chair and stretches. "We won't over-do it. It's a lot to take in. If you're up for doing some more tomorrow, I can show you some basic scanning and line art adjustments? It'll probably be good practise for using the tablet."

Bucky flexes his hand. "Yeah, that sounds really good. I'm actually kind of enjoying this. It's been a while since I learnt anything new; I think my brain kind of went dormant for a while."

Steve gets up and moves his chair back to his desk, sitting down. Bucky smiles at him from his desk and raises an eyebrow. "This is pretty cool. I still can't...thank you so much for doing this. I...you know..." he fiddles with the stylus, "you're...fuck it, I can't speak." He hides behind his hair.

Steve throws a balled up post-it note at Bucky and he looks up. "Oh, so this is what I can expect in the workplace?"

Steve gives a snigger as Bucky throws the wad back and he ducks out of the way. "Oh! I totally forgot," Steve says. "The issue of Winter Soldier with you in it...well, your...uh, character, is out next week."

Bucky's face lights up. "No shit!"

"I thought we could go to the comic book store and pick up a copy," Steve tries not to stare too long into Bucky's eyes.

"Well, yeah! Don't you get any free copies though, from the publisher or whatever?"

"They send me a bunch but it's usually a couple of weeks after each issue is out. I could ask for a PDF but I thought it would be...I don't know...more of a thing to go and buy it."

Bucky watches Steve for a moment over the top of his laptop, his mouth quirked up in a strange little grin.

"What?" Steve asks with a nervous smile.

Bucky shakes his head. "Nothing. You want noodles tonight? I think I want noodles."

 

***

 

Steve starts to call Nat at night just before he goes to bed, instead of their usual morning calls, apologising for screwing up their routine but wanting to feed Bucky's enthusiasm for the design work they've started. Nat feigns being put out, but he knows she would do anything for him if it meant him and Bucky getting closer.

"This had better pay off," she gripes one evening, "do you have any idea how excruciating it is waiting for you two to hook up?"

Bucky is fast to pick up everything that Steve shows him over the next couple of days, much to Steve's delight and surprise. He finally clicks with the graphics tablet as soon as Steve shows him some basic colouring with one of his older Winter Soldier pages. He shows Bucky how to set layers and pulls the same page, finished with Nat's colours, off of his USB stick and puts them side by side.

"If you hide these layers," Steve explains, pointing to the screen, "you can see how Nat builds up the colours from the flats, which is on this layer. You can pretty much just select the same colours for each character or scene from these when you do a new page. Just hold alt when you have the paint bucket selected and it'll turn into the eye-dropper. Then you just click and...." Bucky does it and starts to fill in areas on the line art page.

"Awesome! And that's kind of it. For flats, you wont have to do much more than point and click half the time, maybe a bit of drawing just to tidy up line-art. It's not a glamorous job but it saves Nat so much time if someone else does them. Although the guy who flats for her now is an ass who always tries to get more money out of her."

Bucky frowns. "She pays the flatter out of her own money?"

Steve sighs. "Yeah. But I know she'd rather pay someone who isn't a douche bag so if you get the hang of it and think you might want to give it a go..."

"You think she'd be interested?" Bucky asks.

"She already said she would be."

Bucky gives Steve a sly little look. "So you talk about me a lot with her?"

Steve feels a flush start to creep up his neck. "Well, I told her about showing you all of this...and she...uh...she said if you got good at it...and...yeah..."

Bucky turns back to the line art, holding back a smile. "Uh huh."

Steve clears his throat and moves his chair back around the desk. "I'll, uh, leave you to it."

 

***

 

The next evening, they watch The Lego Movie and a day later, Steve wishes they hadn't because Bucky will not stop singing Everything Is Awesome. Steve loves it when Bucky sings; he has a great voice and it sends little shivers up Steve's spine and into...other places...when he sings along to whatever songs he knows on Steve's laptop, but this is starting to drive him nuts. He sings it when he comes over in the morning, he hums it while Steve is showing him how to fix a page when he accidentally works on the wrong layer, he sings it when he goes into the bathroom and he's still singing it when he comes back out.

Steve finally snaps that afternoon. Bucky is working on a page, just to see how long it will take him to flat, singing that damn song under his breath, probably unaware that he's doing it.

"Oh my fucking god, Buck. Please stop singing that song. I can't take it anymore." Steve takes his glasses off and scrubs at his face.

Bucky looks up, surprised. "What?"

Steve runs his hands through his hair and grabs a fist full. "That FUCKING SONG is driving me insane. You sing it all the time and I'm getting to the point where I want to flip my desk."

Bucky gives him a sheepish grin. "I'm sorry. I can't get it out of my head. It's so catchy."

"I know but I'm going to go full-blown Darkman if you don't stop it soon. Please..."

Bucky holds up his hands. "Okay, okay. I'm officially cutting myself off."

Steve lets out a breath. "Thank you."

He carries on with his sketching for a while, then he hears Bucky singing it again, softly under his voice. Steve looks up at him. Bucky's eyes are glued to the screen in front of him and he seems totally unaware that he's doing anything.

"Bucky..." Steve says, real annoyance in his voice now.

"Oh shit, sorry. Sorry." Bucky says and holds up a hand. He returns to his work.

A few more minutes pass and he's doing it again. Steve looks up, putting his pencil down with a sharp tap on his desk. "Bucky..." he says again and this time he sees the smile creeping across Bucky's face as he starts to sing it louder, eyes fixed on Steve, his shit-eating grin getting bigger.

"I mean it. Stop...don't get louder!"

Bucky stands up singing and pointing at Steve. "Everything Is Awesome...!"

Steve stands up and leans across his desk. "Bucky, it's not funny any - don't cut me off!"

Bucky is singing at full-volume, his voice breaking as he laughs too. He starts to jump up and down.

Steve makes a noise and runs around his desk. Bucky gives a little shriek and dodges away, still singing, and vaults over the back of the couch, scrabbling to get away from Steve who howls when he catches his shin on the edge of the coffee table. He grabs the bottom of Bucky's t-shirt but falls onto the couch face-first as Bucky gets away. He runs back towards Steve's desk, turning around and dancing.

"Everything is bet-ter when we stick togeeeeether...!"

Steve starts to shout at him to stop, laughing now as Bucky sings louder and more out of tune and Steve grabs him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides, shaking him back and forth. Hobo Guy starts to pound furiously on the wall but Steve and Bucky don't care, Bucky laughing hysterically as Steve stumbles and they both go down. Bucky grabs one of Steve's legs and sits on him, Steve yelping at him to get off when he realises what Bucky is about to do.

"No, no, no, Bucky that's not funny, tickling is a form of torture in some countries - " He shrieks frantically when Bucky tickles the bottom of his foot.

Bucky laughs manically as Steve squirms beneath him. "Yeah, not so tough now!"

Steve grabs at Bucky, shrieking and begging for him to stop and suddenly, Hobo Guy ups the tempo, banging on the wall so hard, a few books fall off of Steve's bookcase. Bucky stops and looks over at the fallen books, wide-eyed. Steve wriggles out from under him and gives Bucky a look.

"Shit, I think we really pissed him off." Steve is suddenly worried.

Bucky snorts. "Pffftt, he's not going to come over and tell us to stop. He only leaves his apartment in the dead of night. I think passive-aggressive wall pounding is the best he can do."

Steve gets up and pulls at his t-shirt. "I'll remember that when I wake up at 2am and he's in my room with a knife to my throat..."

Bucky puts a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Then you just run and come get me. I'll beat him off for you."

Steve gives a little snigger. "You'll beat him off?"

Bucky rolls his eyes. "You know what I mean..."

Steve tries to be a serious as he can manage. "Will you beat him off with both hands?"

Bucky smacks him on the arm. "For fuck's sake, Steve. I'm trying to tell you that I'd fight Jason Fucking Voorhees for you - " He stops suddenly. "You know," he adds quickly, "if it...came down to it..." He looks away towards the fallen books.

Steve feels like all of his internal organs have suddenly switched places, not sure what to make of Bucky's grand gesture, if it means anything at all. Whatever Steve thinks, Bucky looks uncomfortable, rubbing his left arm.

"Jason isn't all that," Steve finally says. "If you'd have said Freddy Krueger maybe..."

Bucky turns to Steve, managing a little smile. "Jason beat the shit out of Freddy Krueger..."

Steve folds his arms and looks down at the floor. "Fine, but it would take both of us to beat Jason. You could distract him because he's kind of slow - just watch out for his machete because he's mean with that thing, and I'd go and look for a big rock to bash his head in with and then he'd be all like "ouch, my maggot head" and pass out and we'd both have to find a way to dispose of him so he doesn't come back from the dead AGAIN - "

Bucky starts to laugh. "Do you just think about this stuff all the time? How to fight off movie bad guys?"

Steve gives him a disbelieving look. "Buck, there are like twelve of those movies and nothing EVER works on Jason. If you're going to fight him for me, you need to think about these things."

Bucky does that thing with his bottom lip that Steve can't look at for too long without just wanting to grab him and pull him onto the floor. "I guess you're right."

Steve rubs the back of his neck. "I'm really hungry. Let's go and get some food."

 

***

 

They head out of Steve's apartment and make it a few feet down the hall, still arguing about how to kill Jason, when Bucky suddenly realises that he doesn't have his hoodie and makes Steve go back so he can get it, not quite ready to venture out with his arm completely exposed. Steve makes an over exaggerated groan and starts to unlock his front door again. Suddenly, Hobo Guy's apartment door flies open and he steps out into the hall. Steve and Bucky both freeze in terror and Steve feels Bucky's hand clutching desperately at his jacket sleeve. Steve thinks he's going to puke.

Hobo Guy - Jim Howlett - is as terrifying as Steve thought he would be. He remembers what Bucky said when he first found out his name - that he sounds like a guy who lives in the woods and makes friends with bears - and he can totally see it now, minus the big gnarly beard. His facial hair is kind of weird, though. Howlett is tall and feral looking, with intense, piercing eyes. Steve can't quite tell how old he is, but he looks kind of haggard. And he looks angry. Really angry. He stops just outside of his apartment door and points at the two of them. They both unconsciously take a step back.

"Do you have any idea," he says slowly, his voice low and gravelly, and Steve's insides turn to water, "how loud you little pricks are?"

Bucky makes a weird noise in his throat and Steve says "Guh". Bucky's hand tightens on his sleeve.

Howlett slowly raises a hand above his head, eyes unblinking, staring them both down. "I've had it up to here with all the shouting and the screaming and the banging..." His eyes flit down to Bucky's left arm and he pauses, his frown easing slightly. He straightens up and gives Bucky a long look, eyes still intense, arms folded. Steve can smell something like cigar smoke coming from Howlett's apartment.

"You military?"

Bucky flinches slightly and lets go of Steve's sleeve. Steve glances sideways at him; he's standing up a bit straighter, defensive.

"Yes. No. I...I was" he manages, his voice hard.

Howlett's eyes narrow. "Afghanistan?"

Bucky starts slightly. "How did y - yes."

Steve watches the exchange, unmoving.

"Haven't seen you at the VA," Howlett says, and his voice is less harsh but still severe.

Bucky shakes his head. "I don't go."

"You should."

Bucky's face hardens into a frown. "What would you know - " he begins before backing off, stepping closer to Steve.

If Howlett is offended, he doesn't show it, just leans against his door frame with his arms folded, watching Bucky closely. "Iraq. Four tours."

Bucky shifts on his feet. "Oh."

"What are you, twenty-four? Twenty-five?"

Bucky nods. "Uh, twenty-six."

Howlett straightens back up. "You should go. You're too young to have to deal with that shit by yourself. You may not think you need to, but I would if I were you. I'm going on Thursday. 8pm." Steve can't quite tell if this is an invitation for Bucky to join him or not.

Steve sees Bucky swallow and he side-steps closer to Steve again. Steve gently puts a hand on his back and Bucky leans into it slightly. He doesn't respond to Howlett's offer, if that's what it is.

Howlett gives an annoyed grunt and finally turns and walks back into his apartment. "Keep the goddamned noise down, assholes. And stop going through my fuckin' mail box," he says before the door slams closed.

Steve and Bucky stand in the hallway for another minute, not moving.

Bucky finally stirs. "I think I shit myself," he says quietly.

 

***

 

They're both still a bit shaky as they eat their noodles, not quite believing what just happened.

"How did he know we were going through his mail?" Steve asked, taking a gulp of soda.

Bucky pushes a piece of kamaboko around his bowl with his chopsticks. "Hmm," he says, not really listening to what Steve is saying. He's been quiet since they finally managed to grab Bucky's hoodie from Steve's apartment and practically run out of the building.

Steve watches him for a moment. "You know, maybe you should go to that meeting," he says softly.

Bucky looks up at him. "You're kidding right? With...with that guy?"

"It might be a good idea."

Bucky's face hardens and he looks down. "No."

"Why not?" Steve knows he might be pushing a bit, that Bucky obviously doesn't want to talk about this.

"Because it was hard enough to talk to you about everything. I don't think I could handle telling a bunch of strangers about..." He stares down into his bowl.

Steve puts down his own chopsticks. "Buck, you know you can talk to me about anything, and I know you talk to Jane about everything but...maybe talking with people who know exactly what you're going through and have gone through the same thing...similar things...it might help."

"Steve, no. I don't want to and I don't want to talk about it," he says firmly.

Steve just sighs. "Okay," he says gently.

Bucky is silent for a long time, frowning and chewing his lip. When he finally does speak again, it's to ask Steve if he can buy Borderlands for Steve's PS3 because he really wants to play it. Steve says of course he can.

They eat the rest of their food in silence. When they leave and head back to the apartment, Bucky is still quiet and Steve tries not to feel too concerned; Bucky has been doing great lately - Steve loves that he's back to his playful, fun self - but he needs someone else to talk to about his time in Afghanistan and Steve can't quite provide that outlet for him, as much as he would like to be able to. He doesn't really think that Howlett is the right person either, although it surprised him when he seemed to reach out to Bucky, however terrifying that was. Steve can only be there for Bucky in the best way he knows how.

Steve starts to sing Everything Is Awesome softly, not looking at Bucky as he does, self-conscious about his singing voice which always comes out higher than he wants it to, but singing anyway. He gets to the second line and glances at Bucky who is staring at him with a smile tinted with wonder, like he can't believe that Steve indulges him as much as does, and Steve just sings louder. Bucky finally joins in and Steve throws an arm around Bucky's shoulder. He feels a jolt of happiness as Bucky puts his arm around Steve's waist and he wants more than anything to lean in, just lean in and kiss Bucky softly on the cheek. But he doesn't. He just sings as loud as Bucky, both of them getting odd looks from people on the street and Steve can't even bring himself to feel embarrassed.

 

***

 

Bucky has a panic attack on Thursday morning. They finish up with some more work in Photoshop and he goes down to his own apartment, which he spends less and less time in, to take some laundry down to the basement. Steve has a short chat with Bruce over Skype, both of them talking excitedly about Vision-Con.

"So, will we get to meet the infamous Bucky of whom Captain Rogers was so keen to talk about in horribly explicit detail?" Bruce asks with a little snigger.

"Yes, you will and I will kill all of you without hesitation if you mention ANY of what I said in Chicago to him," Steve replies quickly.

Bruce laughs. "Like we would. But there's no way I'll be able to look at you both without thinking about you doing those things. I hope you realise that."

"I think that says more about you than it does about me, Bruce. You should really talk to Betty about that."

"Dude, I'm an artist - my imagination is a thing that runs all by itself. I can't help it if you feed it images of gay porn involving my friends and it just goes with it."

They talk for a few more minutes before hanging up. Steve sketches for a while before realising that Bucky has been gone longer than it usually takes to do a load of laundry in their building's crappy machines. He knows that Bucky will probably chide him for checking up on him, but Steve heads down to his apartment anyway. There's no answer when he knocks and he suddenly feels uneasy, walking down the stairs quickly to the basement. He heads through the storage cages and by the ancient boiler which breaks down every winter, without fail, usually during heavy snow.

"Shit," he mutters to himself when he sees Bucky on the floor, breath rasping, eyes wide and scared and breaks into a run.

He kneels down besides Bucky, pulling him into a sitting position, Bucky grabbing Steve's arm tightly.

"It's okay, I'm here, I'm here," Steve says. He shuffles them up to the wall and rubs his hand up and down Bucky's back. Bucky's breath is hitching horribly in his throat, his right hand gripping his knee, white at the knuckles.

"Okay, breathe. Breathe Buck, okay? Try and take a deep breath or you'll start to hyperventilate."

Bucky shakes his head frantically but Steve can see him trying. He pulls Bucky closer. "You're okay. Just think about Ghost Shark and how fucking ridiculous that movie was."

He can feel another hitch in Bucky's breathing which means he's trying to laugh and eventually, his breaths aren't as frantic. Steve continues to talk about bad shark movies and Bucky rests his head against the wall, eyes closed, breathing through his nose. When he opens them, his breathing is slightly shuddery, but otherwise okay. He glances at Steve with apologetic eyes. Steve just shakes his head and squeezes Bucky's shoulder.

"I can't keep doing this to you," Bucky says, his voice shaky.

"You'd rather be on your own when this happens? I'm just glad I thought something was up and came down to check."

Bucky lets out an angry sigh. "This is so fucked up. One minute I'm fine, the next I'm just all...scared for no reason and thinking that I'm underground, in the dirt..." He rubs his eyes.

Steve squeezes his shoulder again. "Bucky, go to the VA meeting."

Bucky looks up at him, frowning. "Steve, no. I don't want to go to that fucking meeting - "

"Buck, will you just - "

" - with that fucking psycho who thinks he knows - "

" - shit, Bucky! Just...do it for me, okay?" Steve blurts, without thinking. Bucky's mouth snaps closed and he looks at Steve for a moment, still frowning, his eyes darting across Steve's before he looks away at the washers which have fallen silent, their cycles over.

"Fine," he says at last. "Fine. But...I'm doing it for you. Not for me."

Steve stands up and holds out his hand. "Come on."

Bucky looks up at him and shakes his head in resignation, letting Steve pull him up. Steve helps him load the dryer and they head back upstairs. Bucky freezes at Steve's door when Steve walks straight by it to Howlett's apartment.

He turns and looks at Bucky before knocking, giving Bucky a get-over-here gesture. Bucky stalks over and stands next to him. Steve hesitates for a second, then knocks. There's nothing for a minute, then they hear heavy footfalls. They both suck in a breath.

Howlett opens his door and frowns down at them. "What?" he says, bluntly.

Steve nudges Bucky but he doesn't say anything, just stares not-quite at Howlett, mouth tight.

"He wants to go to the meeting," Steve says quickly.

Howlett looks at Steve for a second, then looks at Bucky. "Do you? Or does your boyfriend make all your decisions for you?"

They both tense, Steve flushing immediately, his defences up, but then realises, slightly mortified, that Howlett didn't say it in a derogatory tone, just as a matter of fact.

"He's not my boyfriend," Steve and Bucky both say together and look at each other, surprised, Steve aware that Bucky looks as red as he himself feels.

Howlett gives them a little snort that could be a laugh and then shifts impatiently on his feet. "So, yes or no? Are you coming or what?" He snaps.

Bucky breaks his gaze from Steve and tries, not quite successfully to look Howlett in the eyes. "Yes," he says, slightly begrudgingly and Steve, in all of his mortification, can't help but be proud of Bucky.

"Fine," Howlett says."7:30pm, out here. I don't like being late." He slams the door in their faces.

They both stand staring at the door for a moment, and Steve finally glances at Bucky. Bucky is staring back at him and they seem unable to break eye contact. Bucky eventually smiles, holding back a nervous snigger and Steve bites his lip to keep from laughing and the tension breaks. They hustle back into Steve's apartment.

Bucky woofs out a breath. "Fuck, that guy scares the shit out of me. I can't believe you're making me do this."

Steve takes his glasses off and rubs his forehead. "I think I preferred him when he was just a noise on the other side of the wall."

Bucky walks over to his desk and sits down. "Well, you've opened the floodgates now. I'm blaming you totally."

Steve sits down, picking up his pencil. "Yeah, I'm sure he'll want to come over and watch Rick and Morty with us and play Mario Kart until 2am."

Bucky chuffs and Steve puts his music on and they work in silence, neither of them wanting to quite acknowledge what Howlett said, but both recognizing that the atmosphere around them has changed yet again.

 

***

 

At 7:15pm, Bucky is a nervous wreck and Steve shoves a glass of water in his face.

"Just calm down and drink this."

Bucky takes a gulp of water and splutters as it goes down the wrong way. "I don't want to do this. I've changed my mind," he says in a tight voice when he finishes coughing.

"Just go and see what it's like. That's all - you don't have to talk if you don't want to."

Bucky nods and runs his hands through his hair. "Yeah, okay. Okay. I just wish you were coming with me."

Steve does too but they spoke about it and agreed that Bucky needs to do this on his own.

"You'll be fine. Just try not to piss off Happy Jim and you'll be fine."

Bucky puts on his hoodie and jacket, looking around for his baseball cap. Steve sees it tucked under a cushion on the couch and hands it to him. Bucky kneads it in his hands. "Yeah," he says finally. "Okay."

They head out into the hall to wait, Steve just as nervous as Bucky. At 7:26pm, Howlett's door opens and he comes out into the hall, wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and a old faded leather jacket. He gives them both a stern look and locks his apartment. He strides straight by them and heads down the stairs.

"You coming or what?" he calls back to Bucky.

Bucky jumps and hurries after him, looking back at Steve, face worried. Steve gives him a smile and a wave, feeling a small ache in his chest as Bucky disappears down the stairs. He heads back into his apartment and flops onto the couch, knowing he won't get any work done while he waits for Bucky to come back and texts Nat.

STEVE: So Bucky just left for a VA meeting with our scary neighbour...

NAT: He actually went?

STEVE: I talked him into it

NAT: Because he loooovvvvveeeessss you....

STEVE: Don't start

NAT: He did it FOR YOU

STEVE: Why do I bother telling you anything again?

NAT: So I can tell you what an idiot you are, idiot. Clint says you're an idiot too

 

***

 

Steve makes a grab for his phone just over an hour later when a text comes in.

BUCKY: On my way back

STEVE: How was it??

BUCKY: Tell you when back, he's watching me

Steve waits in the hall for them, pacing, ducking back into the apartment when he hears the building door open and two sets of feet clumping up the stairs. Howlett comes up first, scowling when he sees him. Bucky follows behind him, making a wide-eyed face at Steve. Howlett strides by and unlocks his apartment door.

"Um, do you want to - " Steve begins, too polite for his own good.

"Nope," Howlett says and slams his door.

Bucky hurries over to Steve and pushes him back inside his apartment, closing the door. He leans against it and takes his baseball cap off.

"Holy crap, that was intense. Do you have any beer?"

Steve runs to the kitchen and grabs two bottles, handing one to Bucky who is sitting on the couch, legs outstretched.

"So, how was it?" Steve says, sitting beside him and taking a swig of his own beer.

Bucky shakes his head. "I didn't say much, but listening to the others...it was...so fucking sad. He talked a lot." He nods towards Howlett's apartment. "He got pretty badly injured; he's got metal plates and pins everywhere by the sounds of it. He saw a lot of people die and blamed himself for most of it. I can kind of see why he's...the way he is. Why he doesn't want to talk to anyone."

"Shit," Steve says quietly.

Bucky frowns slightly. "I think I'll go back, but...I don't know if I could talk about Tim." He takes a long drink and sits for a while, thinking.

"Are you glad you went?" Steve asks finally.

Bucky gives a small nod. "Yeah, I think I am."

 

***

 

The next few days see a huge improvement in Bucky's work; he can set up files in next to no time, tidy up line art and seems to be a natural at laying down colours. They're working him towards doing some actual flats for a later issue of Winter Soldier, as soon as Bucky feels like he can do it. Steve is thrilled, not just because his idea is actually going somewhere, but because Bucky seems to be happy that he's found something he's good at and that he genuinely enjoys. His desk is as messy as Steve's now, with graphic novels stacked up haphazardly, post-it notes everywhere and Bucky's therapy paperwork in a neat little stack on the end of the table. He left his Positive Life Changes journal at Steve's one night and Steve almost took a look, but put it down as fast as he picked it up, feeling horribly guilty for even considering reading it - Bucky's therapy is private and Steve only wants to know what Bucky chooses to share with him.

They have fun together too, working in the same space. They listen to music and talk, sometimes just working quietly, happy to be in each other's company. Steve also looks at Bucky a lot; he can't help himself. He tries to nonchalantly steal glances at Bucky when his head is down, looking at his notes, or flipping through a comic to study some colours. A few times he looks up from his own work and thinks he sees Bucky quickly looking away from him and his heart leaps. Could he...? But he's as quick to shoot down the idea as he is to accept it. It's easier to be negative. It also terrifies Steve slightly to think that there's a chance that Bucky could feel the same way about him.

Wednesday morning, Bucky comes bounding in through Steve's front door when he opens it for him, grabbing Steve and dragging him in a manic waltz around the living room. It's new comic book day and Bucky is stupidly excited to see his character design in print.

"When can we go?" he says, finally letting Steve sit at his desk.

Steve lays a page on his scanner and fiddles with his laptop. "They don't open until 10am. It's only 8:45am now."

Bucky lets out a melodramatic wail as he sits in his own chair.

"Plus, the new comics don't usually come in until 10:30am and they need to unpack."

Bucky wails louder. "Can't you just show me the pages now? I know you have them."

Steve shakes his head. "No, we're going to the comic book store."

Bucky gives him the stink-eye. Steve just smiles sweetly at him.

Bucky finally convinces Steve to leave for the store at 10:25am and they head down the block, Steve basking in Bucky's excitement, trying not to look at him too doe-eyed and love-sick, trying his best to focus on whatever conversation they're having.

They reach the comic book store and Bucky heads straight to the new comics. The same two guys from before are at the counter, checking off a huge stack of graphic novels on several invoices. The bigger of the two holds a hand up to them in greeting. Bucky gives a small squeak when he spots the new issue of Winter Soldier and snatches up a copy. Steve chews his thumbnail, his stomach suddenly trying to exit through his mouth.

Bucky finds the two pages with his character on them and makes a pleased little noise, before falling silent, just staring down at the panels. Nat has done a really great job with the colours on this issue and, Steve couldn't help but notice when she sent them across to him weeks ago, she'd really focused particularly on Bucky's character. Steve is starting to get nervous at Bucky's silence and pokes him on the arm.

"Well?" he says.

Bucky turns to him and shakes his head. "This is...this is so cool." He looks Steve in the eyes with such intensity that Steve has to turn away, worried that Bucky will see his infatuation.

"You're so talented," Bucky says, looking at the pages again. "You've made me look so much better than I really do." He flicks though the rest of the issue.

No, I haven't - you're the most beautiful person I've ever seen and I could stare at you and draw you forever and never get bored, Steve thinks, but he just picks up a copy for himself too.

"Is this all you're getting?" he says and Bucky turns to him.

"You should tell them that you draw this," he says, holding up the comic and indicating the comic store guys.

Steve shakes his head. "No, Bucky, we went through this last time - "

"Why the hell not? You're so good, Steve. They'd be stoked. Why do you hide all the time?"

Steve glances at the counter, but the comic store guys are still hunched over the invoices, not noticing their hushed exchange.

"Because I don't want to make a big thing about it. It's nothing special and I just don't want to make myself out to be a...an egomaniac or something," Steve says, a frown crossing his face.

"You're the last person in the world to ever come across as an egomaniac but fine," Bucky says and lets out an exasperated breath as he waits for Steve to pick up some more comics, before they head over to the counter.

The big guy with the deep voice looks up and smiles. "Back for more, huh?" he says, indicating the comic in Bucky's hand.

Bucky gives him a smile. "It's really good." He glances at Steve but he just takes Bucky's copy of the comic and adds it to his pile, not looking at him.

"I'll pay for these altogether."

They stand in silence for a moment while the big guy rings up Steve's comics, Steve looking absently at a display of Munnys on the counter.

Bucky suddenly points at Steve and says, "He's Steve Rogers."

Steve looks at Bucky, horrified, heat rising up his neck. "Bucky!"

The two guys look up at Steve. The small one with the lisp frowns. "No, he's not. He comes in here all the time." He takes his phone out of his back pocket and starts to look for something.

Bucky folds his arms. "He's Steve Rogers." He looks at Steve, giving him a little smirk while Steve gets redder, looking back at Bucky like he wants to kill him.

The big guy gives Steve a look. "Are you really Steve Rogers?"

Steve looks down and nods.

"Holy shit, he is!" The small guy shows something on his phone to the big guy. "He's on Natasha Romanov's Tumblr!"

The big guy looks up at Steve. "Dude, why didn't you say something? You've been coming in here like forever."

Steve just mumbles something inaudible, wanting to hide.

"He's too modest for his own good," Bucky says, pulling Steve in with his arm, Steve trying to squirm away from him.

"You have to do a signing for us - your work is amazing," the little guy says. "Would you sign a few variant covers of Winter Soldier for us now? People will go nuts if they're signed by you." They both look at Steve expectantly.

Steve just nods, still not saying anything and the big guy reaches up to pluck some comics off of a display on the wall above the counter.

"I can't believe this," the little guy says as Steve signs them on the cover.

"Thanks so much," the big guy says, beaming at Steve. "Hey, can we email you about maybe doing a proper signing? We have all of your books and we take good care of any artists we get in."

"Free coffee and donuts..." the small guy says with a smile.

"I...I'll think about it..." Steve manages, his mouth feeling dry and tasting slightly bitter.

Bucky grabs the Sharpie Steve had been using. "Here, I'll write down his email address." He scribbles on a scrap of paper and hands it over, looking at Steve who will not meet anyone's eyes, his face red and blotchy.

The comic store guys chatter excitedly to each other as Steve and Bucky leave, Bucky waving to them. Steve storms off down the street, clutching his messenger bag tightly, jaw clenched. Bucky runs to catch up with him.

"Steve..."

"Why the hell did you do that?" Steve says angrily. "I told you I didn't want to say anything. It wasn't funny."

"It wasn't meant to be funny...Steve, just stop for a second...Steve!" Bucky grabs him and pulls him into the doorway of a Laundromat that closed down months ago.

"I told them because you're so fucking modest all the time; you never take enough credit for anything you do and you're so talented and decent, you deserve to have people look at you and realise how...how amazing you are."

Steve looks down at the ground and starts to protest, but Bucky grabs his shoulders and makes him look up, his grey-blue eyes bright and soulful.

"No Steve, listen. If it wasn't for you, I could easily have turned out just like Jim Howlett, hiding myself away and not talking to anyone and becoming this festering person blaming myself for getting someone killed..." he swallows hard and lowers his arms. "The day we met, it took every ounce of courage I had to come up to your place that evening. I thought...I thought your offer was just you being polite but then you were just like...this amazing person who actually WANTED to be my friend and I couldn't quite believe it. It would have been so easy for me not to go and just lock myself away in my apartment but I did and it was the best decision I ever made in my life. Just...you have to start giving a damn about yourself because you're fucking worth it, okay?"

Steve just stands still, unable to move.

Bucky finally looks away, not sure what to do with himself after this admission. He looks down and folds his arms. "That's why I told them."

Tell him, Steve says to himself. Just tell him how you feel about him, tell him now. But he can't say anything other than, "oh," in a small voice.

"I've never had a friend like you before," Bucky says quietly.

Steve nods down at the floor. "Me too," he says.

They stand in an awkward silence and Steve looks at the ground, at his bag, anywhere but at Bucky because if he does, Bucky will know in a second how Steve feels about him. He also doesn't want to see how Bucky is looking at him, because all of a sudden, he doesn't quite know how he'll handle it if Bucky is looking back at him in the same way, insecurities he thought he'd maybe laid to rest creeping into his mind like poisonous tendrils.

Bucky finally moves. "Come on, let's go home and get lunch."

Steve follows him out of the doorway and they start walking.

"You know, I'll come with you if you do a signing," Bucky says carefully to Steve. "I wasn't just going to leave you to do it all by yourself after outing you like that."

Steve twists his bag strap in his hands. "I'll think about it. I really will."

 

***

 

Bucky goes to another VA meeting with Jim, the scenario playing out the same as last week - Jim stalks off, Bucky follows, they come back, Jim slamming his door without a word. Bucky doesn't talk much about the meeting, only to say that he'd actually introduced himself and told everyone he'd lost an arm. The next two meetings he keeps to himself.

The comic store incident has pretty much gone unspoken between them for the last couple of weeks although it's all Steve can think about, especially Bucky's declaration, which Steve wants to mention because it was the best thing anyone's ever said about him, but he doesn't know how to bring it up. Bucky just returned to being a goof as soon as they got back and Steve just went with it, pushing his emotions aside and wondering what it all meant, just becoming more confused and self-doubting the more he thinks about everything.

Steve is talking to Nat one morning while Bucky is at one of his sessions with Jane. Vision-Con is creeping closer and Nat wants to collaborate with Steve on a new print.

"I was thinking something epic..." Nat muses.

"Define epic," Steve says, flipping through an earlier issue of Winter Soldier for a character he's forgotten how to draw. "We don't have that long to get something done. What is it, like two and a half weeks away?" Steve tries to push down the knot of pre-con anxiety he's starting to develop.

Nat makes a humming noise. "Maybe not really epic but a few choice iconic sci-fi characters? Like, we could have Predator, Christopher Johnson from District 9, The Iron Giant, the T-800 Endoskeleton, whatever you wanted. I know it's not totally original but I think if you drew them and I pulled out all the stops on some digital painting, it could be really cool."

Steve likes the idea. "Yeah, I could be persuaded. It would go pretty well with my Icons Of Horror prints. I can do some thumbnails this evening?"

"Awesome! Lori can print them and we can split the takings, if that's okay?"

"Sounds good to me." Steve looks up as Bucky walks through the door, slightly earlier than he thought he'd be. Steve gave him his key this morning because he was thinking about going to go out to the art store and wanted Bucky to be able to come in and work on his pages if he was out. He gives Bucky a little wave. Bucky sees that Steve is on Skype and quietly puts his things down, sliding into his chair.

"Uh, I have to go Nat. Bucky's here and I have to show him how to - "

Nat pounces. "He's there right now? Well, how rude of you, Steve, to not properly introduce us." She's loving this. "Hey there," she calls slightly louder. Steve cringes inside. He quickly and surreptitiously taps out a message to her.

captain_rogers: PLEASE DO NOT EMBARRASS ME I BEG YOU

black_widow: chill out

Bucky looks at Steve with a nervous smile. "Hi. You're Natasha, right?"

"Yes, I am. I can't believe that Steve has left it so long to get us to meet, kind of. It's nice to finally put a voice to the comic book character."

Bucky gives a little laugh. "Yeah, nice to meet you too. I've heard a ton about you and Clint."

"All terrible and highly incriminating, I hope."

"No, all very nice and laden with praise. Sorry."

Steve gives a little smile.

Nat makes a disappointed noise. "Well, we get to finally meet you in person in a couple of weeks so I guess we'll have to change that. Hey, you may even get to see Steve drunk out of his - "

"Yeah, no, we won't. Captain Rogers is sitting this one out," Steve cuts in quickly. "I'll speak to you tomorrow, Nat," he enunciates firmly.

He can hear Nat smiling. "Yeah, no problem. It was great to talk to you however briefly, Bucky," she says.

Bucky gives Steve an encouraging little smile. "Yeah, you too. I can't wait to meet you guys."

Steve hangs up quickly and gives Bucky a little grin. "And that was Nat."

Bucky pulls his therapy paperwork out of his backpack and puts it all on the desk, his journal on top. "She sounded really cool. I feel slightly less nervous about meeting her now. Slightly."

A message pings through from Nat.

black_widow: He sounds amazing :)

Steve stifles a grin.

"You'll be fine. Honestly, she's a total nerd and the coolest person. Clint is just like this funny doofus who acts dumb most of the time but is actually really smart and just doesn't want anyone to know. Bruce is awesome too. He's really laid back. Although once at a con, he went totally berserk at this one guy who kept trying to provoke him into this weird fight and he literally flipped over his own table, like literally, and scared the guy off. You'll like him."

Bucky gives Steve a look. "Until I say something wrong and he flips a table at me."

"You'll be fine. They all can't wait to meet you."

Bucky holds his journal in his hands, curling the pages. "This is kind of a big deal for me. I...uh...you and Jane are really the only two people I know and talk to for more than five minutes at any given time."

Steve feels a little pang in his chest. "They'll like you. They really will. Just be as much of a dick as you are around me and you'll all get on fine." He dodges a wadded up ball of paper with a little laugh.

Bucky sits for a few minutes, looking at a page in his journal. "I've got another appointment tomorrow morning so I might be over a little later." He looks a bit nervous as he speaks.

"Is it CBT?" Steve asks, trying to mask his concern.

"Uh, no. Just something else on my Positive Life Changes list. It's kind of...I'm kind of nervous about it."

"Is it anything I can help with?" Steve asks and Bucky smiles at him.

"No, it's just something that's been a long time coming...it's kind of stupid but..." he gives a shrug. "We'll see how it goes tomorrow."

Steve indicates his journal. "So, how are the Positive Life Changes coming along?"

Bucky chews the inside of his cheek. "They're getting somewhere. Some are harder to approach than others. There's a pretty big one I'm struggling with that kind of...scares me more than the rest." He looks down at a page, his face unreadable. He finally looks back up at Steve. "It's a good kind of scary though."

"I think the things worth doing always are. Kind of scary, I mean," Steve says, resting his chin on his hand.

Bucky nods slowly. "Yeah, you got that right," he says quietly, more to himself than to Steve. He puts his journal down. "So are we doing this layout tutorial or what?"

 

***

 

Bucky wants to make meatloaf for dinner, insisting on doing it all by himself because Steve cooks for the both of them nearly all the time they aren't out getting noodles. Not that Steve minds - he's always enjoyed cooking for himself and enjoys cooking for Bucky even more, especially since Bucky seems to love everything he makes. Steve listens from his desk as Bucky clatters around in his kitchen, trying his best not to get up and peer in. He hears a few muffled grunts and a howl of dismay at one point.

"Need any help?" he calls.

"No! I can do this. It's just a fucking meatloaf, it shouldn't be this hard!"

Steve gets back to working on some thumbnails for the sci-fi print and soon he hears the oven door open and close and the sound of running water as Bucky cleans up. He comes out of the kitchen ten minutes later, a line of worry between his eyes, hair slightly dishevelled.

"I think I fucked it all up," he says and stalks over to the couch. "I hate cooking."

"Well, no matter how it turns out, I appreciate the thought," Steve says and stands up stretching.

Bucky grunts and fiddles with his hair. Steve comes over to the couch and leans over the back, looking at Bucky solemnly.

"Even when I'm in the Emergency Room having my stomach pumped, I'll still appreciate the thought."

Bucky gives an incensed cry and pulls Steve down where he crumples laughing, head next to Bucky's knees, legs dangling over the back of the couch. He looks up at Bucky.

"It smells pretty good. Don't worry about it, it's just meatloaf."

Bucky looks deflated. "I just wanted to make one thing that wasn't either completely contaminated with garlic or burnt on the outside and raw in the middle."

Steve knocks Bucky's shoulder with his knee. Bucky smiles down at him and Steve feels an overwhelming sense of contentment and he forgets himself for a moment, gazing back at Bucky maybe a little too adoringly. Bucky reaches down and plucks Steve's glasses off, putting them on and squinting at him.

"You look good in glasses," Steve says with a hazy smile.

Bucky smirks. "Do I look smart?"

Steve swings his legs down from the back of the couch and sits up. "Yeah, about as smart as I look in them." He reaches for his glasses as Bucky takes them off.

"Wait a sec," Bucky says before Steve puts them back on. "I've never actually really seen you without your glasses on before. Not for longer than like two seconds."

Steve turns his glasses around in his hands. "There's not really that much to see," he says, feeling self-conscious.

Bucky is looking at him, his grey-blue eyes flitting across Steve's face and Steve's eyes wander down to Bucky's lips for a second and everything's a bit blurry. Steve shifts nervously, feeling more exposed than if he were actually sat stark naked on the couch.

"Can I put my glasses back on now?" Steve finally asks, his voice a bit more breathy than he wants it to be.

Bucky lets his hair fall in front of his face. "Yeah," he says softly and the oven timer goes off.

 

***

 

The meatloaf is good. In fact, it's really good and Steve warns Bucky that this may need to become a regular thing now.

"This is better than the one my foster mom used to make and hers was incredible," Steve says, reaching over to the coffee table for another piece from the dish.

"Really? You're not just saying that?" Bucky asks.

Steve shakes his head. "It's really good," he says, taking another mouthful and Bucky beams.

After dinner, Bucky plays Borderlands while Steve sits next to him on the couch and starts on the sci-fi print pencils, him and Nat having decided from the thumbnails to go for Predator, The Iron Giant, the exosuit from District 9, the T-800 endoskeleton, RoboCop and Pris from Blade Runner. After a couple of hours of sketching, Steve puts his drawing materials aside and just sits, curled on the couch, watching Bucky play. He can feel his eyes getting heavy, the noise and music from the game becoming muffled and he finally drifts off to sleep.

When he wakes up, the PS3 is turned off and he's leaning against Bucky who has an arm around him. Steve looks up at him sleepily.

Bucky gives him an amused smile. "Hello," he says softly.

Steve smiles back. "Sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep. What time is it?" He can't quite bring himself to move.

"It's pretty late," Bucky says, still looking down at him. He brings up his other hand and gently brushes his fingers through Steve's hair. "Your hair's all smooshed."

Steve swallows hard, trying to keep his voice even. "Your appointment...you'll be tired..."

Bucky looks at Steve for a moment longer, then unfurls his arm. Steve sits up.

"Yeah," Bucky says finally, "I guess I should head back. Can I come up here afterwards?"

"You don't even have to ask."

 

***

 

Steve feels slightly groggy in the morning and taps out an email to Sam, who he'll finally get to meet in person at Vision-Con. Tony has been late delivering the next comic script and while Steve thinks he can still hit the deadline when it comes in, he might need an extra day or two just to give Nat a clear window to hit her deadline too. Sam replies almost straight away saying that it's fine and that he's looking forward to meeting Steve and Nat too.

He sits back in his chair, chewing his nails. He can't stop thinking about the way Bucky was looking at him last night. Does he feel the same way? If Steve had leaned up to kiss him, would he have kissed back? Steve wishes he didn't keep hesitating to act on his instincts but he's so scared that he'll do something and Bucky won't react in the way that he hopes he will and everything will be screwed. Steve rubs his eyes and lets out a long sigh. He picks up his fine liner and starts to ink the sci-fi print.

At 11:30am, Bucky knocks on the door, his usual three short taps and Steve gets up to answer. He opens the door, about to ask Bucky if he wants to go to Central Park later but the question lodges in his throat when he sees him and all Steve can do is gawp.

Bucky's hair is short, parted at the side and swept up slightly, no longer falling in his face. His eyes stand out, piercing and huge without his usual brown curtain to hide behind. He's wearing the red-checked shirt and white t-shirt from the day he'd met Steve after he got back from Chicago, standing slightly awkwardly in the hall, nervous. Steve can only blink a few times. He looks...he looks incredible.

Bucky runs his hand through his hair, obviously unused to not having more to touch. "You're not saying anything..." he says, his voice laced with worry.

Steve finally catches himself. "You look...you look so...different," he breathes.

Bucky swallows. "Different good or different bad?" He looks at Steve in anticipation.

Steve can't seem to move, trying his best to tear his eyes away from Bucky and failing spectacularly. "Good...different good..."

Bucky finally smiles, relieved. "It feels really weird."

Steve steps aside and Bucky comes in, playing with the front of his hair, rubbing the sides of his face. "I feel so exposed."

Steve puts his hands in his pockets and gives Bucky a grin, unable to take his eyes off of him. "So this was the big appointment?"

Bucky rolls his eyes and gives an embarrassed laugh. "I know, it's just a stupid haircut. But I thought...I'm starting to feel like...a different person...better...and I just thought a change might..."

Steve can't help but smile wider and he steps forward, making himself move, and very lightly brushes his fingers up through the front of Bucky's hair, adjusting a short lock that has fallen out of place. Bucky watches him, eyes glittering.

"That's better," Steve says and takes a small step back. "You look...you look great."

Bucky's face breaks into a huge smile, slightly shy around the edges. He flits his eyes away from Steve. "Thanks," he says and runs his hand through his hair again.

Steve mock frowns. "Although you do realise that you've now totally screwed up the continuity of your comic book character..."

 

***

 

Steve starts to get ready for Vision-Con which is now less than a week away - updating his portfolio, adding original pages to sell, sorting out new prints, while Bucky watches YouTube Photoshop tutorials, teaching himself whatever he can find. He had to tell Jim that he won't be able to make next week's VA meeting and was just met with a grunt and a slammed door.

"He was fine about it," Bucky tells Steve when he asks how Jim responded.

Steve didn't think Bucky could get any more attractive but his short hair is driving Steve crazy, to the point where he's finding it difficult to concentrate on anything when Bucky's at his place, which is almost all of the time.

They're sat at their desks one afternoon, Bucky concentrating on his laptop screen, a slight frown on his face, absorbed in what he's doing and Steve has been throwing furtive looks at him for the last hour. He lets his eyes linger a bit too long at one point, losing himself in the amazing flowing line of Bucky's jaw and neck, when Bucky, without looking up from his work says, "You're staring again."

Steve jumps and his face flashes red; he thought he'd been pretty inconspicuous about everything this whole time but obviously not. He hurries to pick up his pencil which he immediately drops (of course) and it skits across his desk. He ducks his head, embarrassed beyond belief, pretending to be interested in something on his computer. When he brings himself to glance back up, once the colour in his cheeks has cooled down somewhat, Bucky is just smiling a pleased little smile.

 

***

 

"Oh my god, I'm so fucking excited I could shit myself right now," Nat squeals and Steve hears Clint say "please don't" in the background.

Nat and Clint are flying into New York tomorrow and so is Bruce; the con starts at 1pm on Friday and they all decided to arrive on the Thursday so they could get together for food, drinks and, in Steve's case, another haircut. Of course, one of the main reasons they all wanted to fly in early was to meet Bucky.

"I can't wait," says Steve. "Just...Bucky's really nervous about meeting everyone. Don't scare him off, okay?"

"Oh Steve, he's going to love us and we're going to love him. Don't worry so much. Oh my god, I can't believe I'm going to meet him."

Steve hears Clint come over to Nat's laptop. "By the end of this weekend, one of us is winning this bet," he says.

Steve covers his face. "Please don't do anything. Please..."

Nat groans. "Steve, we're kidding - "

"We're totally not kidding." Clint breaks in.

" - we're not going to embarrass you, we're not going to terrify Bucky, everything is going to be awesome, I promise. Did you get your panels? We're on another one with Tony. And get this," Nat's voice raises an octave, "I'm on one with Maria Fucking Hill. I mean what the fuck? Just because we're both Women In Comics..." Nat spits out the last part.

"Honey, calm down. That vein on your forehead is getting really big," Clint says, and Steve winces because there's nothing worse than telling Nat to calm down.

Steve hears Nat suck in a breath and immediately jumps in before things get messy. "So, what's the plan for tomorrow?" he says hastily.

"Our hotel's a couple of stops from Times Square so we thought you and Bucky could meet the three of us outside of Midtown Comics around 5pm and we can go find a bar or something?" Clint says.

"That sounds great. Nat, I'll bring your banner with me on Friday, okay?"

"Thanks Steve. Okay, we still need to pack but I cannot wait to see you tomorrow. Both of you."

"Can we look forward to seeing Captain Rogers?" Clint asks expectantly.

"With Bucky there? No fucking way in hell," Steve says. "You'll get to see Steve Rogers drinking beer because he's way less uninhibited with that than he is with rum."

Nat and Clint both make a disappointed noise.

"I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow, Steve. Are you sure we can't let Bucky know that you want to suck his - "

Steve hangs up on Clint before he can finish.

 

***

 

"I'm so nervous. I can't believe how nervous I am." Bucky rubs his hands on his thighs. They're on the subway the next day, heading to Times Square to meet everyone. He pulls at the collar of his shirt and then his jacket.

"I'm really hot. Are you hot?"

Steve puts a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "It's going to be fine."

Bucky sits back and takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, it's just they're really important to you and I don't want to mess anything up..."

Steve gathers himself. "Buck, you're really important to me. And they all know that, which is why they want to meet you so badly."

Bucky gives Steve a look of gratitude and something else that Steve can't quite figure out. "Okay," he says at last.

They finally reach Times Square and head out of the subway station, the nervous knot in Steve's stomach going into overdrive. His best friends are going to meet the guy he's completely in love with, and they may or may not (Steve feels a pang of guilt for not quite trusting them, but then they did slip him doubles of rum without telling him) do something that will totally out him. He glances at Bucky; he's walking slightly stiffly, jaw clenched and Steve can tell he wishes he had his long hair to hide behind. He can see Midtown Comics up ahead and starts to look around. He finally sees them waiting outside, Nat pulling on Clint's jacket sleeve and looking annoyed and Bruce laughing at Clint. Steve can't help the smile that spreads over his face.

"There they are!" He says excitedly to Bucky. Bucky pulls down on his shirt and runs a hand through his hair again. He makes a nervous little noise in his throat, glancing at Steve.

Nat sees them and points, shouting out something as she does. Clint and Bruce turn around and both break into huge grins. Steve gives a wave. Nat comes sprinting over and throws herself at him, Bucky waiting apprehensively behind them.

"My dork! I'm finally reunited with my dork!" she squeals and Steve laughs into her shoulder.

"Hey Nat," he pulls away beaming. "How was your flight?"

She frantically waves a hand at him. "Boring, short, we're here, want booze." She looks over at Bucky and back at Steve again with an excited smirk. Steve gives her a look and turns to Bucky.

"Nat, this is Bucky."

Bucky smiles nervously and steps forward, holding out his right hand. "Hi," he says shyly.

Nat bats his hand away and grabs him. "I'm not shaking your damn hand, give me a hug." Steve hears Bucky laugh and he hugs Nat back. She looks over at Steve and mouths OH MY GOD to him, her eyes wide. Steve shoots her a warning look.

Bucky looks less nervous when they pull away. "I know we kind of met already, but it's great to finally meet you for real. Steve talks about you all the time."

Nat gives Bucky a raised eyebrow and a knowing grin. "Oh, does he now?" She gives Steve a little push. Clint and Bruce come over and Nat wraps an arm around Clint's waist.

"Bucky, this is my dumbass husband, Clint Barton and this is Bruce Banner. He's kind of a dumbass too."

Clint shakes Bucky's hand enthusiastically. "It's great to meet you, man. Steve's told us a ton about you."

Bucky smiles at Clint. "Hi. I, uh, heard you got shot with a crossbow?"

Clint gives an excited smile and looks at Nat. "I told you! This is The Thing I'm going to be known for. Oh, I'll have to show you my scar. It's AWESOME."

Nat gives a snort.

Bruce shakes Bucky's hand. "Hey dude, good to meet you. I hear that Steve is trying to turn you into one of us comic folk, both recreationally and professionally."

Bucky gives a little laugh. "Yeah, I'm actually really enjoying it. Both aspects."

"It's only a matter of time before you'll be getting angry at ret-cons and sidekicks coming back from the dead like the rest of us."

Steve feels a weight lift from his chest as he watches them all interact, knowing that his friends will make Bucky feel welcome. Bucky looks a lot less stressed now that the actual introductions are over and he gives Steve a relieved grin.

Bruce points down the street. "I saw a bar somewhere a couple of blocks down that looked pretty good. Everyone okay to head there?"

They all agree and start to head off. Clint and Bruce walk together, arguing animatedly about Pacific Rim.

Nat steps between Bucky and Steve and links arms with them. Steve knows she deliberately made sure that Bucky was on her left and he doesn't have to remind himself why he loves her so much.

"Come on, boys. I don't know about the two of you, but I want beer and I want it now."

They start walking and Bucky looks over at Steve, a stupidly delighted smile on his face. Steve smiles back at him, feeling like he couldn't be any happier than he is at this moment and suddenly makes a promise to himself: That he'll tell Bucky Barnes how he feels about him before the end of the weekend.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Steve's Play List

Crash Kings - No Looking Back
Perturbator - Last Kiss
Aimee Mann - Wise Up
Air - Biological
Nine Inch Nails - I Would For You
M83 - This Bright Flash

They all stumble into the bar, Clint and Bruce still arguing, Nat and Bucky talking easily about how Bucky is doing working in Photoshop. Steve brings up the rear of the group alone, but for the first time in his life, he doesn't feel left out. He's still letting himself bask in the warmth of seeing Bucky with his best friends. As they head to a table, Clint turns to Nat to ask her something and Bucky looks around for Steve. He gives him a little smile.

"Everything okay?"

Steve nods and smiles back. "Yeah, everything's great."

Bucky walks closer to Steve and touches gently him on the arm. "I'm really glad I'm here."

Steve takes a moment to just look at Bucky, eyes completely focused on him, wanting Bucky to know how he feels, not quite ready yet to vocalise it, but allowing himself to let his guard down, even just a little bit.

"I'm really glad you're here too." His voice is husky. Bucky's mouth twitches slightly and his hand tightens on Steve's arm.

"Hey, we got a table," Clint calls over to them and they both turn to look at him. "Come on."

They make their way through the bar to a booth. Clint slides in next to Bruce and crushes him against the wall. Bruce lets out a big "oof" and elbows Clint in the side. Nat pulls Steve down onto the seat next to her. Bucky stands next to the table and rubs the back of his neck.

"Um, I'd like to get everyone a drink, just to say thanks. For uh...you know." He goes slightly pink and Steve's heart fills.

"Aw dude, that's so cool," Bruce says sincerely. Nat gives Bucky a big smile.

Clint stands back up and slaps Bucky on the back. "I'll come with you, man. Thanks."

Bucky smiles and nods. They all call out various drinks and Clint walks with Bucky to the bar.

As soon as they're out of earshot, Nat and Bruce pounce on Steve both talking at the same time - asking if Steve's said anything to Bucky, how good they look together, what the fuck is going on between them - babbling heatedly.

Steve holds up his hands, pressing himself into the back of the booth's leather seat and glances around to make sure Bucky and Clint are far away enough not to hear anything. "God, calm down! Just give me a chance to - "

Nat holds a hand up to Steve's face. "No no no. Steve, please tell me you're going to say something to him soon because, honestly? I could cut the sexual tension between you two with a goddamn chainsaw."

Bruce leans over and gives Steve a nod and a grin. "Dude, honestly? It's so obvious. He's totally into you."

Steve sits up. "I'm going to tell him this weekend, okay? I've...I've made my mind up. I have to tell him. Just let me do it on my own when the time is right..."

Nat punches him in the arm. "You'd better. I mean it." She holds her hands out in front of her like she's holding something inexplicable and can't quite believe it. "Oh my fucking god, Steve - how has this gone on for so long?!"

"Hey, it's not that simple - "

Bruce shakes his head. "Steve, really, if you couldn't see how OBVIOUS it is - "

Steve balls his hands into frustrated fists. "It's so not as easy as you guys think it is. It's been really...it's..."

Nat grabs him and drags his head to her chest. "Oh, my sweet, poor Steve..." he desperately struggles to get his face away from Nat's boobs. "You're such an idiot."

Clint and Bucky come back with the drinks. "I leave the table for five minutes..." Clint mutters looking down at them and Steve wrenches himself free of Nat, face glowing pink. Bucky is laughing as he slides into the seat next to Steve and hands him a beer.

"Yeah, great pep talk," Steve says to Nat and Bruce as he straightens his glasses.

Clint puts a tray of shots down on the table. "I thought we needed shots."

Bruce makes a face. "Jagermeister? Really, Clint?"

Clint plants a hand on Bruce's face and dishes out the shots. "Look, I think we should have a toast. We're in New York, we're all going to a comic convention and we have to initiate our new friend, Bucky..." he slides an extra shot over to Bucky who groans,"...into our happy little comic book family. Come on, one...two...three..."

They all down their shots and make disapproving noises, Bruce immediately trying to get rid of the taste by downing his beer too.

"Holy crap, that's awful..." Steve makes a face.

Clint points at Bucky's extra shot and starts to slam his palms on the table. "Come on, Bucky..." he goads.

Bucky picks up his other shot and throws it back, grimacing as he puts the glass down. Clint, Nat and Bruce cheer and Steve shakes his head.

"Don't let him bully you into drinking any more shots," Steve says to Bucky. "And also, you're meant to be cutting my hair later so don't get too shit-faced," he points to Clint.

Clint waves his hand. "I could cut your hair and make it perfect if I was blind-folded AND shit-faced."

They all order burgers and more beer and Bucky starts to open up, laughing along with everyone, telling funny stories from his childhood. Steve tries not to watch him too much as he talks about a trip to Coney Island that ended in disaster which everyone is getting into but he looks so happy and carefree that he can't not. Steve turns back to his fries and catches Bruce giving him a total asshole grin, raising his eyebrows a couple of times and then fluttering his eyelids. Steve gives him a dirty look.

Nat leans across the table when she finishes her burger. "Hey Bucky, did Steve ever tell you the story about the Soda Crotch Incident?"

"No, don't!" Steve cries.

Bucky snorts and ignores Steve's protests. "No, he hasn't."

Steve buries his face in his arms.

Nat puts a hand on Steve's back and talks across him to Bucky. "We were at this convention in Dallas and Steve had a panel. So he decides like five minutes before going up to have a can of soda and -"

"Clint shook it up!" Steve cries not raising his head.

"I didn't shake it up and I maintain to this day that I didn't," Clint says but looks at Bucky and mouths I Shook It Up.

"So the can exploded in Steve's hand when he opened it and went all over his crotch and he had no time to do anything about it - "

Clint and Bruce start to snigger. "It was so fucking funny," Bruce snorts, "we actually covered over our tables and lost out on print sales to go and watch the panel - "

" - and he had to go and talk about breaking into the industry with a sticky wet crotch for like an hour..." Nat rubs her hand in circles across Steve's back.

Steve sits back on the seat, his face unsmiling, throwing Bucky an un-amused look as he laughs in uncontrollable barks. "It was not funny at all. I felt like a total moron."

"The best bit was when you had to walk across the stage with both hands covering the front of your jeans. You looked like a sex pest," Clint adds and Bucky breaks down again. Nat throws her head back shrieking.

Steve just shakes his head. "You were all so helpful that day. Thanks again for that."

Bucky wipes his eyes. "Oh Stevie, that's amazing." He gives Steve a little nudge. Steve finally smiles, rolling his eyes.

They talk about the time Clint passed out under Nat's table at a con in Boston when he decided to smuggle vodka in a water bottle and ended up drinking the whole thing himself. Steve brings up Bruce's table flipping episode and Bruce laughs and takes a swig of beer.

"Did I tell you guys that Betty made me go to an anger management councillor after that whole thing? It was so blown up out of all proportion."

Steve stands up. "I'm getting more beer, who wants some?" They all raise their hands.

Nat stands up too. "I'll help you, Dork. Come on." They shuffle out of the booth and head to the bar.

Steve orders and turns to Nat. "I can't believe you bought that soda story up..."

Nat leans on the bar and tosses her hair back. "Hey, at least now Bucky's thinking about your crotch." She smirks and kicks him gently.

"I knew I couldn't trust you guys..."

"Oh, chill out. We're only telling him because we want him to feel included and anyway, we all really like him." Nat leans in close, shoulder to shoulder with him. "But seriously, he's really awesome. I can see what all the fuss is about now."

Steve smiles down at the bar. "He's...he's amazing." He looks back over to the table and Bucky, Bruce and Clint are all laughing hysterically at something.

"Please tell him how you feel," Nat says quietly to him, looking at him earnestly. "I'm more than 100% sure that he feels the same way."

Steve lets out a breath. "I really hope so..."

"Steve, the way he looks at you..." She shakes her head. "Trust me, he does."

Steve swallows. "I'll tell him. When the time is right."

They take the beers back to the table and Clint suggests going back to their hotel after this round.

"We can pick up a few six packs, I can cut Steve's hair..."

Everyone is buzzed enough to not care what they do afterwards. They finish up their beers and head out. Steve, Clint and Bucky go to the bathroom and Steve threatens to get his own back on Clint for the Soda Crotch Incident, which he knows he did on purpose no matter what he says, by dousing him in toilet water. Clint just zips himself back up and stands, legs wide apart, telling Steve to do his worst.

"It's not much fun if you want it to happen," Steve grumbles.

Clint is about to say something else when Bucky, who has been washing up at the basin, throws water from his cupped hands at Clint's crotch, Clint shrieking as it hits him. Steve laughs in delight and Bucky stifles a laugh and gives Clint an apologetic look.

"I'm sorry but I had the sudden urge to defend Steve's honour," his cheeks are red from the beer and shots and he giggles. Steve smiles wider and Clint just narrows his eyes at him.

"That's the last time I ever buy you shots, man."

Steve sniggers and pulls Bucky out of the bathroom, feeling a rush from the beer he's had himself and from the fact that Bucky actually did what he just did...for him. They both emerge from the bar laughing, Nat and Bruce waiting outside for everyone.

"What's so funny?" Nat asks with a grin.

"You'll see," Steve says.

Clint comes out of the bar a couple of minutes later with a big wet patch still on the front of his jeans. Bruce points and laughs and Nat just shakes her head.

"Can't you go five minutes without making a mess of yourself?"

Clint points at Bucky. "Well, that was a fun walk though a crowded bar. Can you believe that he did this? I've only known him for three hours."

Bucky offers to daub Clint dry with a napkin from the bar and Steve doubles over laughing on the sidewalk. Clint shakes his head but smiles and starts to walk with Bruce down the street.

Nat follows and runs ahead of them, snapping pictures of Clint's crotch on her phone. Steve and Bucky walk after them.

"I don't think I should have done that," Bucky says to Steve with worried grin. "You don't think he's - "

Steve shakes his head. "Clint likes any excuse to make a big thing about his crotch - I wouldn't worry about it."

Up ahead, Nat is trying to take a picture of Clint and Bruce jumping in mid-air together.

"Thank you for defending my honour," Steve says to Bucky, giving him an appreciative smile.

Bucky grins back at him. "Any time."

 

***

 

They catch the subway a couple of stops to Nat, Clint and Bruce's hotel, stopping at a convenience store along the way for a few six packs of beer. Clint's damp crotch apparently forgotten, he talks with Bucky the rest of the way to the hotel and they look as though they're actually hitting it off pretty well. They all squeeze into the elevator and head up to Nat and Clint's room, Clint threatening to fart all the way up as everyone else protests loudly.

Clint drags Steve into the bathroom. "Come on, the sooner I cut your hair, the sooner I can get really drunk." Steve glances back into the room as Clint starts gathering towels and his scissors; Bucky and Nat are sat on the bed with a pad of post-it notes while Bruce is trying to open a bottle of beer on the edge of the beside table. Clint grabs Steve by the collar and drags him over to the already running shower, barely giving Steve a chance to take off his glasses.

"Under you go, Rogers," he shoves Steve under the spray. Steve can hear Bucky laughing in the bedroom. He's never going to get fed up of that sound.

 

***

 

Halfway through Steve's haircut, Nat comes into the bathroom flipping through her phone. Bucky and Bruce are talking over each other loudly in the other room, Bruce sounding more and more slurred.

"What are you guys doing in there?" Clint asks as he cuts around Steve's ear, Steve mewls a warning as he gets too close to actual flesh.

"We're playing Who Am I - hurry up so you can come and play with us." She hugs her phone to her chest and squats down in front of Steve, lowering her voice, her eyes shining with excitement.

"Okay, now if there was any doubt what-so-ever, I give you exhibit A." Nat holds her phone up for Steve to see and Steve takes it. It's a photo of Clint and Bruce jumping in mid-air on the street, Clint's wet crotch even more pronounced by the flash of Nat's camera. Steve looks up at her in confusion.

"About what, Clint looking like he got way too excited and blew his wad?"

"And what a wad!" Clint announces.

Nat groans and snatches her phone back from Steve. She mutters as she zooms in on something and thrusts the phone back into Steve's face. Steve and Bucky are walking a few feet behind Clint and Bruce, enough that they're visible in the picture, both turned towards each other. Steve is looking at Bucky with such a look of love-struck adoration that it's so obvious how he feels about Bucky and he suddenly panics, even though he's resolved to tell Bucky as much as soon as he thinks he can. But then he looks at Bucky in the photo...and he's looking back at Steve in exactly the same way, a look of complete infatuation on his face. Steve can only stare for a moment before finally looking up at Nat whose I-Told-You-So-You-Idiot smile is turned up to eleven.

"I, uh, I'm..."

She stands up and pats him on the cheek. "I'll send you a copy." She kisses Clint on top of the head and saunters back into the bedroom. Steve hears Bucky shout to Nat, "Tell Bruce that Engelbert Humperdinck is a real person, he doesn't believe me!"

There's a beat of silence in the bathroom and then Clint starts to chant quietly, "Steve And Bucky Sitting In A Tree..."

"Clint..." Steve growls.

"...J-E-R-K-I-N-G O-F-F!"

"CLINT!"

 

***

 

Clint finally finishes and Steve thanks him, getting a wet kiss on the forehead in return, not bothering to use any gel on his hair. He follows Clint back into the bedroom, taking a beer from Bruce as he holds one up. Bucky smiles at Steve as he sits down next to him, flushed with laughter and beer, a post-it note with Ben Affleck written on it stuck to his forehead. He pats Steve's hair.

"It looks good," he tells Steve.

"Having a nice time?" Steve asks and Bucky nods, grinning goofily at him and Steve can feel the warmth of his leg against him.

Nat slaps a post-it on Steve's head and Bucky laughs when he reads it.

Clint squeezes onto the bed next to Bucky, already two-thirds of a way through a bottle of beer. "Let's do this thing!"

Bruce sticks a note to Clint's head - he's Hulk Hogan. Clint scribbles one out for Nat and presses it to her head.

"Okay, Nat. You first," Bruce says, shuffling to the end of the bed to sit with her, his own post-it with Ivan Drago scrawled on it in Bucky's handwriting, stuck at a wonky angle.

"Am I Hitler?" she asks straight away and Clint howls.

"How did you get that so fast?"

Nat screws up the post-it and throws it at him. "Because I can read you like a crap book."

They all play and drink, Bucky unable to get Ben Affleck and screwing his face up when he finally gives up and reads it. Steve can't guess his either, slightly distracted by being pressed so close to Bucky, protesting loudly when he discovers that he's Ed Gein. Bucky puts his arm around Steve's shoulder and says that HE knows that Steve isn't a serial killer. Nat snaps a photo and gives Steve a huge smirk.

Clint suddenly sits forward, slopping his fifth beer onto the bed cover. "My scar! I need to show you all my crossbow scar." He stands up on the bed, having to lean against the wall as he undoes his belt. Bruce and Nat cry out and Bucky, who is sat next to Clint, looks up in horror.

Clint pulls his jeans down and grabs for Bucky's hand. Bucky starts to wail in protest. He scrambles over Steve, trying to get away and Clint shuffles along and grabs Steve's hand instead, bringing it up to the shiny, puckered scar on his thigh, inches away from his underwear. Steve shrieks, his face way too close to Clint's crotch for comfort. He turns his head away and Bucky and Bruce laugh hysterically, clutching at each other. Nat snaps a few photos, her own laughter hoarse and breathy.

"Oh my god, Clint no! I can see the outline of your junk!" Steve shouts and tries to wrench his hand away from Clint's thigh.

Bucky and Bruce laugh even harder. Nat snaps another photo then shuffles across the bed and grabs Clint's jeans, pulling them up and Steve scrabbles over to Bucky and Bruce, wiping his hand on Bruce's shirt and making him scream as if his hand was actually covered in something.

"Oh hello," Clint says and smiles down at Nat.

"I think you've had enough, honey," Nat says and does Clint's belt back up. Clint sways as she does, his eyes blinking heavily.

Bruce rolls off of the bed onto the floor and crawls over to the bathroom.

Steve turns to Bucky. "I guess we'd better head off; it'll take us about forty-five minutes to get back."

Bucky nods and stands up, giggling as he staggers back a step. "Yeah, I guess."

Clint slumps down onto the bed, mumbling into the pillow. Nat, who even when drunk, manages to maintain a solid exterior, walks Bucky and Steve to the door.

"We'll meet you at 10:30am outside the convention centre, okay?"

Steve nods and hugs her. She grabs Bucky by his jacket and pulls him over too. "You boys are so awesome."

Bucky makes an "aw" sound and hugs her tight.

They pull away when they hear Bruce starting to throw up in the bathroom.

Nat closes her eyes and groans. "Great, that's my night sorted. Give me a text when you get home, okay?"

"Will do," Steve says and pulls Bucky down the hallway. Bucky waves to Nat all the way down the corridor and around the corner.

 

***

They're still kind of drunk on the train ride home, giggling madly to each other over stupid things, constantly grabbing at each other. Steve lets himself touch and be touched but knows, no matter how drunk he is, that he won't say anything to Bucky now; he doesn't want to be wasted when he finally tells him.

They make it back to the apartment building and creep up the stairs to Bucky's place, stifling snickers and shushing each other when they get too loud. Bucky leans against his door and fumbles with his keys. He opens the door and leans on it swaying.

"Are you sure you're going to be okay getting home?" he asks Steve, the cutest smile on his face.

Steve nods and starts to back away towards the stairs, worried that that smile might make him act too impulsively. "I think so. Text me in five minutes to make sure." He trips on the stairs slightly and Bucky laughs from his doorway.

"Come over to mine at 8:30am?" Steve calls from the stairs.

"As you wish," Bucky replies, mimicking Westley from The Princess Bride.

Steve gives him a small wave and heads up to his own apartment. As he closes his front door, his phone vibrates.

BUCKY: did you get home okat

STEVE: just, i almost got mugged

BUCKY: im so wasted

STEVE: drinks lots of water, go bed

BUCKY: justdfhe

Steve gives a little chuckle and heads to the kitchen to drink as much water as he can. His phone vibrates again.

NAT: Ugh, Bruce sprayed puke everywhere except in the fucking toilet

STEVE: crap, where is he

NAT: Asleep in our bath

STEVE: sorry nat

NAT: I take it you got home okay?

STEVE: just got in

NAT: Clint is now trying to get all sexy and I'm covered in puke. What a night

Steve takes a glass of water with him to his bedroom and gets undressed. As he gets into bed, another text comes through from Nat. Attached is the photo of him and Bucky looking at each other. Steve smiles and stares at it in the dark until he falls asleep.

 

***

 

He opens the door to a very tired looking Bucky at 8:25am the next morning. His hair looks slightly scruffy but in that deliberately good way that Steve can never quite manage. He seems to have abandoned wearing hoodies as of late and the blue plaid shirt over the white tee he's wearing makes his eyes look practically glacial. Steve steps aside and lets him in, rubbing his eye under his glasses.

"Next time, stop me from drinking so much," he begs Steve, the heel of his hand pressed to his head.

Steve smiles and bends down to tie up his sneaker, wincing slightly as his own head pounds. "But you were having such a good time."

Bucky leans on Steve's desk, a content smile breaking out on his face. "It was awesome. Your friends are so cool."

"They're your friends now, too. They like you a lot," Steve pulls his jacket on and indicates the small pile by the door. He's managed to condense all of his con stuff into two backpacks. They have two roller banners to carry and Steve also has his portfolio.

"That's what we're taking with us. The bags aren't too heavy."

Bucky comes over and slings on one of the backpacks and picks up one of the roller banners.

"Let's do it."

Steve smiles and throws the other backpack over his shoulder. "Feeling ready for your first comic con?"

Bucky nods with a worried little frown. "I think so. I'm excited but I have no idea what to expect really."

"Well, tomorrow especially you'll be pleased that you're behind a table rather than in front of one." Bucky follows Steve out of the apartment and they head out towards the subway.

The train is busy, Friday morning commuters out in full force and they squeeze themselves into a space near the back of a carriage. Steve can already spot a few cosplayers in the next carriage over on their way to Vision-Con. He glances at Bucky; he looks tired but also at ease and Steve can't help but feel excited. They're going to a comic con together and there's every chance that Bucky Barnes feels something for him. Part of him still wants to dismiss the idea, play it safe and ignore all the signs but, and as much as it terrifies him to admit it, the signs are there.

You're going through with it, he tells himself.

 

***

 

Bucky's eyes widen as soon as they get within view of the convention centre, staring in awe at a pretty awesome Big Daddy and Little Sister cosplay posing for photos.

"That is the coolest thing I've ever seen," he says, beaming at Steve.

Steve smiles back at him. "Just you wait."

Nat is bright and cheery when they find the three of them, her ability to absorb alcohol and burn it into nothing but raised eyebrows and pithy remarks enviable to everyone. Clint looks slightly haggard, leaning against the wall and gives them both a tired wave but Bruce is completely out of it, curled on the concrete floor around his con bag.

"Holy crap, is he okay?" Bucky asks, staring down at Bruce.

Nat shakes her head. "He's fucked."

Bruce moans from the floor.

Steve gives him a little nudge with his foot. "I didn't even think you had that much to drink."

Bruce looks up at them. "I feel...so bad." He makes a pitiful squeal and buries his face in his bag.

Nat folds her arms. "Yeah, well I had to clean up your vomit so imagine how bad I feel. Get the hell up and let's get inside."

They collect their passes and make their way to the artist's alley, Bucky looking slightly bewildered by everything as he walks alongside Steve. "I had no idea it was this big," he mutters.

They find their tables and start to set up, Steve noting with a sigh that he's next to Tony again. As always, his table is set up but there's no sign of him. Bucky stands aside, slightly unsure of what to do as Steve and Nat start to sort out their tables. Clint says something quietly to Nat and she nods.

"Hey Bucky, want to come and help me get some coffee for everyone?"

Bucky gives Clint a grateful smile. "Yeah. I can actually feel useful doing that."

Clint looks over to Bruce who is in a daze, trying to straighten his table cloth. "Coffee?" he calls.

Bruce nods and mumbles something.

Steve watches as Bucky and Clint head down the aisle, talking to each other.

Nat smiles as she unrolls her banner. "I think Clint really likes him."

Steve starts to unpack his prints. "He really enjoyed last night. Thanks for not scaring him away."

Nat dumps a stack of their new sci-fi prints on Steve's table and starts to set up her display stand. "I get the feeling that even if we were complete assholes, he'd stick it out for you."

Steve just grunts.

Clint and Bucky come back with coffee and paper bags full of baked goods, laughing about something. Bucky hands Steve a latte and a cinnamon roll, biting into one himself. Bucky indicates to Steve's table.

"Looks really good," he says, a flake of cinnamon roll in the corner of his mouth.

"Thanks," Steve says. He makes a motion to his mouth. "You've got...uh...something..."

Bucky wipes his mouth and looks back up at Steve. The flake has somehow moved to his cheek.

"It's over..." Steve makes a motion again and Bucky rubs the wrong side of his face. Steve steps forward and brushes it away, his whole body feeling like a shook-up soda can as he touches Bucky's cheek.

"Thanks," Bucky says quietly, the ghost of a smile on his face. Steve steps back and takes a big mouthful of too-hot coffee, a distraction if ever he needed one.

"Jerk Alert..." Nat warns and Steve can see Tony walking down the aisle towards his table, a smirk already crossing his face. Steve gives a little groan and turns to Bucky.

"I apologise in advance..." he mumbles.

Tony miraculously doesn't start to sing at Steve this time, just walks up to him and holds out his hand. "Hey, Rogers." As Steve goes to shake his hand, Tony swipes it away and runs it though his hair.

"Yeah, original," Steve says with a wry smile.

Tony snorts and holds his hand out again. "Okay, for realsies...I'm going to try my best not to make fun of your hair or your clothes or how you always look like you have a stick shoved way, way up your ass all the time or the way you go bright red over EVERYTHING for this weekend. Only because the last couple of issues of my comic were spectacular and I guess you had a small hand in that..."

Steve shakes Tony's hand and Tony glances at Bucky. "New buddy?" he asks and Steve braces himself.

"This is Bucky. Bucky, this is Tony, the guy who writes Winter Soldier."

Bucky takes Tony's hand and shakes. "I really like your writing," he says diplomatically but Steve can see the wariness in Bucky's eyes. He's heard a lot of stories about Tony.

"Bucky?" Tony asks, his face already breaking into a smile and Steve sucks in a breath because he knows that Tony is about to make some smart-ass remark about Bucky's name. But then Tony's eyes narrow slightly as he looks at Bucky as if he's trying to figure something out, then a look of recognition crosses his face closely followed by an expression of intense amusement.

He gives Steve a knowing look and a smug little laugh. "Oh, that's amazing, Rogers. That's really good. Very...subtle."

Steve gives him a cold stare and Tony holds in a smirk and turns back to Bucky. "It was really great to meet you, Bucky. Very...enlightening." He turns and walks back to his table, sniggering to himself.

Bucky watches Tony leave then looks at Steve. "That was really confusing."

Steve just shakes his head. "That's Tony all over."

Steve is about to step back and give his table the once-over when he's suddenly grabbed from behind in a bear-hug. "Cut the check!"

Steve smiles and gets turned around by Sam, Nat stood behind him with smile on her face. Sam grabs Steve's hand with both of his and pumps it up and down enthusiastically.

"So good to finally meet you, man!"

"Sam, hi!" Steve says and Nat comes around and stands next to Bucky.

"I had to come and find you guys now before it goes balls to the wall. I'm sorry that I won't get to be around much this weekend but booth is going to be rammed and yours truly has to be on it the whole time."

Steve shakes his head. "No problem. I think we're going to be pretty busy too. You're on the Winter Soldier panel with us on Sunday though, right?"

Sam smiles. "Hell yes! I cannot wait." He looks at Bucky. "Oh, I'm sorry - Sam Wilson." He holds out a hand and Bucky shakes it.

"Bucky Barnes. I'm Steve's friend; just helping him out this weekend."

Sam gives Bucky a look. "Have we met? You look kind of familiar..."

Nat puts her arm around Bucky's shoulder. "Think of him with longer hair..."

Sam thinks for a second and then gives a huge grin. "You based the new character on him?" he asks Steve. Steve nods and goes slightly pink.

Sam laughs and turns to Bucky. "Well, I hope you're prepared - Tony has some dark shit lined up for you in the next story arc!"

Bucky gives a laugh. "I look forward to it."

Sam gives Steve a friendly slap on the back and leans in to give Nat a kiss on the cheek. "Great work, both of you. I'm looking into getting you guys a better page rate each so - " He holds up two sets of crossed fingers. He indicates to Tony. "Well, I guess I'd better go and say hi to him too. See you guys Sunday."

They watch him walk off and Nat turns to Steve with a raised eyebrow. "Better page rate, huh? I think he likes us."

Steve puts an arm around her. "How could he not? We're pretty awesome."

 

***

 

The con opens at 1pm and things already get slightly insane. Steve is inundated with commissions and his sketch slots fill up quickly. Nat also gets swamped and when Steve has a moment to look up, she indicates with wide-eyes that she's already sold eighteen of the sci-fi prints. Bucky is handling things well - sitting next to Steve and taking the money for his prints so Steve can work. He was nervous at first but seems to have settled into a nice little patter with the punters, answering questions as best he can and joking around. Steve glances up a few times from his sketches to meet Bucky's eyes and their smiles go from reassuring to something else over the course of the day. Steve's head swims slightly and he focuses all of the nervous energy he feels into his sketches.

Clint hovers between the two tables, helping Nat and coming over to talk to Bucky when things calm down slightly. Apparently they've discovered they both have a love for a couple of sci-fi writers that Steve is unfamiliar with and talk enthusiastically about storylines and characters.

At one point Clint leans close to Steve and says, "Your boy's a natural."

At 5pm, things taper off and Steve stretches, flexing his hand. He's done eight commissions already, with another nine on the list.

He turns to Bucky with a smile. "Thanks so much for helping me. You have no idea how much time it saves me to draw just having someone else deal with the prints."

"No problem. I had no idea you got this busy. I can't believe you can draw as quickly as you do. This is all..." he indicates the con as a whole, "...pretty awesome and new and...scary." He looks at Steve and Steve gets the feeling that he's not just talking about the convention. His eyes seem to search Steve's more and more.

Steve's emotions roil for the millionth time. "Yeah, it's pretty...terrifying," he says softly.

Bruce drags himself over to Steve's table. "Is it over yet?" He kneels on the floor and rests his head in his arms on the table.

Bucky pats Bruce on the head. "I feel for you, man."

Bruce looks up, his eyes bloodshot and out of focus. "I'm so sorry but I have to go back to the hotel. I feel like microwaved crap. If I sleep it off, I'll be better for tomorrow."

Steve nods. "Just let us know if we can get you anything."

Nat gets up from her table and comes around to the front, giving Bruce a kick in the side. He groans in protest.

"I still haven't forgiven you for soaking our bathroom in puke."

"I'm sorry," Bruce mumbles and slumps against Nat's legs. Nat huffs out a sigh and takes her phone out of her pocket.

"Smile boys," she says and holds it up, ready to take a picture. Steve and Bucky immediately lean in towards each other.

Nat looks at the photo and quirks up an eyebrow. "Cute," she says and holds it out to them. There's no point in her showing them what they can both already see by now but she does anyway; they're leaning towards each other, Steve's eyes bright and blue, a shy smile on his face. Bucky looks like there's nowhere else he'd rather be.

Nat makes sure they both take it in then grabs Bruce by the collar. "How much water have you drunk today?" she asks and drags him away.

 

***

 

Bruce heads back to the hotel, so the rest of them find a restaurant, some Italian place, and go for dinner. Steve carries on with some sketches and the others talk easily amongst themselves. He occasionally glances up to see Nat give him a look while Clint and Bucky are deep in conversation. He knows exactly what that stare means: Are you going to tell him? Steve gives a tiny shake of his head. Not tonight. Nat kicks him hard under the table.

They part ways at about 10pm and Steve and Bucky get on the subway, sat next to each other, both quiet. A homeless guy gets on at the next stop, a cup full of change in his hand and he starts to sing Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship. He's really good and Steve and Bucky can't help but break into laughter as the guy continues to sing. Steve digs out ten dollars and puts it the guy's cup. He gives an appreciate nod and sways down the carriage, trying to charm the rest of the passengers smattered about the train.

Steve looks at Bucky and they both smile. Steve feels heat rising in his face and turns away.

Bucky stops on his floor when they get back to the apartment.

"What time are we leaving tomorrow?" he asks Steve, flexing his left shoulder.

"The con starts at 10am so about 8:30 again, I guess. Is your arm okay?"

Bucky nods. "Yeah, just need to rest it a bit. Don't worry." He pauses. "I...uh..."

Steve swallows and waits.

"See you tomorrow?" Bucky finally says, eyes unreadable.

Steve steps away. "Yeah. See you tomorrow."

 

***

 

If the day before was insane, the Saturday is utter chaos. Steve barely looks up from his sketches for most of the day. At any other con, he thinks he would feel a panic attack starting to come on but Bucky's presence at his table is keeping him grounded, giving him something to work towards. But now that there's a more than good chance that Bucky feels the same way, he's suddenly terrified to say anything, worried still that everything could come crumbling down. He thought that Bucky was going to say something to him last night, would gladly have welcomed it, but he didn't and now Steve can feel the pressure building back up. There's a palpable bubble around them now, getting smaller and smaller, crushing the air and drawing them closer and Steve wants to pop that bubble so badly and just let things happen, but those insecurities are holding him back again.

He wouldn't have a minute to even get Bucky alone now, though. The aisles are packed with people, the noise around them suffocating. Bucky is stood up talking with people, handling Steve's prints, barely getting a chance to do anything else. At 12:20pm, Steve heads off for a panel with Darcy Lewis and Don Blake about self-publishing. He quickly checks his phone on the way and sees a text from Nat, sent two minutes ago.

NAT: This is getting silly now...

STEVE: What is?

NAT: Don't give me that

Steve stuffs his phone back into his pocket.

The panel is great - Darcy is hilarious and Steve spends most of the panel laughing with Don. They talk quickly afterwards, Darcy asking Steve if he'd like to take part in a podcast she's putting together. He takes her card and hurries back to the artist's alley. Clint is helping Bucky at Steve's table, talking earnestly to him about something, Bucky nodding. They look relieved when they see Steve come back. The crowds have eased slightly, most people heading off to lunch.

One upside, Steve thinks as he walks by Tony's table, Tony in full-on pretentious mode with the people surrounding his table, is that he hasn't has to deal with Tony. Small favours and all that.

"You guys should go and have a break. I'll be fine on my own for a while."

Bucky rakes his hand through his hair. "That was bat-shit mayhem. I don't know how you do this."

Steve gives a laugh. "You get used to it. Thanks again - I know this must be a bit overwhelming. You're okay though? Not getting too...closed in?"

Bucky shakes his head. "I'm fine, honestly. I'm having a great time. This is so different from anything I've ever done. Clint's been awesome too."

Steve looks up; Clint is at Bruce's table talking to him about something. Bruce looks a lot better today; he bought Nat three Game Of Thrones Funko Pop figures in a last ditch attempt at forgiveness for the puking and she's as happy as anything.

Clint eventually comes over. "Come on, let's get these losers some lunch. Anything in particular you want, Steve?"

"Anything remotely digestible would be appreciated. Thanks guys."

Bucky turns back and gives Steve a smile as he follows Clint down the aisle. Steve sits down with a sigh and rubs his neck.

"You're dragging this out..." Nat calls to him, sketching manically at her table.

"Please don't start. Just let me do this at my own pace."

"If we do that, we'll be sat here this time next year in exactly the same place."

Steve throws her a look and she holds up both hands. "Fine, fine. We're all restraining ourselves to the point of pain, waiting for you to do something. Actual physical pain."

A group of people walk away from Bruce's table and he leans over, cupping his hands around his mouth. "Has he told him yet?" he shouts from across the aisle and Steve covers his face with his hands.

 

***

 

When six o' clock finally rolls around, Steve couldn't be more relieved. He had to turn away sketches by three o'clock, not taking on anymore for fear of being unable to finish them by tomorrow. He still has a few to do, but he can get those done tomorrow morning. Maybe then he can actually have a walk around in the afternoon and buy some books.

Clint and Bucky are sat on the floor, backs against the booth behind their tables. Nat has gone to find Maria Hill to give her a USB stick with some page amendments on it, muttering and cursing as she walks off, still fuming from her earlier panel with Hill who apparently commandeered the whole thing. Clint gives Steve a tired smile as Steve packs away his drawing materials.

"How you feeling?" he asks.

Steve nods and gives them both a huge smile. "Everything hurts and I'm dying."

Bucky gives a tired little laugh from the floor. "Today was insane. Legitimately insane."

Clint yawns. "This is what we do. We're comic book rock stars."

Bruce comes over and slumps on the floor next to Clint. "Well, this rock star just wants to go somewhere quiet for dinner and not drink any more alcohol, ever. Until the next con, at least."

Steve takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. When he puts them back on, Bucky is watching him from the floor, his eyes peaceful, a small smile on his face. Steve's chest aches.

Nat comes back, too tired herself to make any fuss about Hill and they all get up and head out of the convention centre. Steve and Bucky manage to fall behind a few feet and Steve gets out his wrist support and puts it on they walk.

"Your hand hurts?" Bucky asks, concern in his voice.

"A little. It usually does after an intense day of sketching. It'll be fine tomorrow; I don't think I'll take on any more commissions."

Bucky gives him a little nudge with his arm. "If I didn't appreciate how hard you work before, I do now."

Steve looks at the ground as they walk. "I can't tell you how grateful I am for your help this weekend. I never intended for you to be running my table..."

"It's been a blast. Really." Bucky looks genuinely pleased. "One day to go," he adds softly.

Steve nods and lets out a shaky breath. "One day to go."

 

***

 

Nat drags them into a Japanese restaurant for dinner, much to Steve and Bucky's delight and they order noodles. Clint can't quite get the hang of his chopsticks and starts to eat his food with his hands, much to Nat's disgust.

"It's like being married to a fucking caveman. And that's an insult to cavemen."

The restaurant is playing a mix CD of hits from the 60s, which Bruce finds hilarious for some reason. "Nothing adds to the atmosphere of a Japanese restaurant quite like The Kinks," he snorts.

Steve is sat quietly, happy to listen to everybody else talk, tired but in that pleasant way when it's been a productive day. Norwegian Wood by The Beatles has just finished playing (Steve makes a mental note to add it to his play list on Monday morning). When the next song comes on, he blinks a couple of times. It's California Girls by The Beach Boys; the one song he can only ever remember all of the lyrics to, out of all the songs in all the world. He sung it the day Bucky had his awful panic attack in a stinking alleyway and he sung it again, the day he thought Bucky would never speak to him again. His stomach flips slightly and he wonders if Bucky remembers. He glances over and Bucky is already looking back at him. He flits his eyes up, indicating the music and smiles sadly. Steve swallows and gives a little nod, the significance of the song not lost on them.

 

***

 

Clint hangs his head when they all get to the subway station, about to head off in opposite directions. "Last day tomorrow..." he says pouting. Bruce gives him an exaggerated hug.

Nat raises an eyebrow in Steve's direction. "Yes, last day tomorrow," she says pointedly and Steve shoots her a look. Bucky has joined Bruce in hugging Clint, the three of them swaying and laughing, so he hasn't picked up on Nat's comment.

"You know, the more you three watch my every move, the less likely I am to make it," he hisses to her quietly.

Steve and Bucky's train arrives and they hop on, laughing as Clint runs alongside blowing them kisses.

"You and Clint seem to have really connected," Steve says to Bucky when they sit down, both exhausted. Steve leans his head against the window.

Bucky nods. "Yeah, he's just really cool. I like Nat and Bruce a lot too, don't get me wrong. Clint's been great this weekend though."

Steve smiles a lazy smile. "I'm so happy you like my friends. And I'm really happy they like you too."

Bucky sits back. "You said they would."

"Mmm," Steve manages and closes his eyes, just for a second.

Bucky is shaking him gently and he sits up.

"Steve, next stop."

Steve looks around. "I slept the whole way?"

"You looked like you needed it," Bucky says and stands up, holding his hand out to Steve. Steve lets himself be hoisted up and rubs his face, shifting his portfolio in his arms. Bucky leans against the door, waiting for the train to stop, lost in thought. As they walk back to the apartment, Steve chides himself, knowing yet again that he and Bucky will part ways at the second floor landing.

 

***

 

Nat is talking quietly to Bruce and Clint at her table when Steve and Bucky arrive the next morning. Clint nods several times and then sees them and gives a wave. Steve puts his portfolio down and Nat grabs him in tight hug from behind, pinning his arms to his sides.

"Last day," she says sadly, no admonishment in her voice this time. Steve can feel her face pressed to his back. He rubs a hand along her arms.

"I know," he says softly. "Why don't you and Clint just move to New York?" He turns around and hugs her tight.

"Believe me, if we could afford to..."

Clint grabs Bucky by the shoulders. "Come on, Coffee Boy. We've got important work to do." They walk off towards the coffee stand.

Bruce joins Nat and Steve. "So, nothing yet, huh?"

Steve shakes his head. "The timing..."

Bruce gives him a hard punch on the arm.

"Ow!"

"Just do it, for the love of crap. Put us and yourself out of all of our miseries. This weekend has been like a slow death - "

"That's such an exaggeration - "

" - and the urge to just grab you both and smoosh your faces together is starting to look more and more like the only solution to this whole farce." Bruce wags a finger in Steve's face.

"What time is our Winter Soldier panel?" Steve asks Nat.

"Three o'clock. And don't change the subject."

"I'm not changing the subject. The subject has now officially been dropped."

Nat and Bruce groan and grab each other, wailing loudly into each other's shoulders. Steve ignores them. Clint and Bucky come back with coffee for everyone and Bucky sits next to Steve, watching as he sketches, a few minutes to go before the main doors open.

"How many sketches do you have left to do?" he asks, eating a cinnamon roll. Steve can smell the cinnamon on his breath; yet another thing to drive him insane. Steve loves cinnamon and the thought of Bucky tasting like it is almost too much to think about.

"Um," Steve checks his list. "Six. Hopefully I'll have them done by my panel this afternoon."

"I was thinking of coming along, if that's okay. Clint said he would watch your and Nat's tables."

Steve smiles. "Sure. Just...I'm terrible on panels, so just be prepared for lots of mumbling and blushing."

"I'll sit at the front and cheer you on," Bucky says with a grin and gets up to talk to Clint.

Steve stares down at his sketches. Today. It has to be today. He can't keep wussing out. He groans to himself, louder than he'd meant to.

"Everything okay?" Nat says from her table.

Steve rests his face in his hands. "Yes. No."

Nat turns back to her sketchpad. "Your own damn fault," she says simply.

It's definitely the quieter of the three days and Steve isn't complaining. He can actually talk to people today and his commissions are coming along quickly. Bucky sits next to him for the most part, helping out when he can, joining in with several conversations. When it gets quiet, he huddles with Clint, talking and laughing. Steve gets a text.

NAT: If you don't make a move on Bucky soon, I'm worried that Clint might

The three girls Steve met at Ultron Con find his table and all talk to him excitedly, promising him that they'll be at his panel later. Nat smiles wickedly from her table and mouths "so flirting with you".

Steve finally finishes his commissions not long before the panel and throw his hands up. "I'm free!"

Bucky comes over and sits down. "You're done?"

Steve breathes a sigh of relief. "Yes. I have to mail a few out to people because they left yesterday, but I'm officially done."

Nat looks at her phone and stands up. "Okay, we'd better go. Let's get this over with. Are you coming with us, Bucky?"

Clint walks over to them. "I got this covered. Have fun at the panel."

Nat grimaces. "Tony Stark is on the panel. There's no fun involved."

Bucky finds a seat at the front of the audience and wishes them luck, touching Steve on the arm as he does. Nat pokes Steve in the side.

The panel ends up being more fun than usual, Tony actually acting graciously for a change and letting Nat and Steve get more than three words in each. Steve has a feeling that Sam had something to do with that. He's a great addition to the panel; easy-going and funny, getting the audience involved with questions before it's even time for a Q and A, much to the moderators annoyance.

The panel is starting to draw to a close but Sam starts to talk with Nat about working across multiple disciplines and Steve feels a flutter when he glances in the audience and sees Bucky watching him. He holds a hand up to Steve, a little smile on his face. Steve smiles back, forgetting where he is for a second. He hears a throat clear softly to his left and turns to see Tony, sitting and watching him with a huge grin. He looks over to Bucky in the front row, then back to Steve and winks at him.

Steve turns away from him quickly, his cheeks going hot. This is ridiculous. His feelings for Bucky being obvious to his close friends he can take; he's more than happy to sit through the teasing and the cajoling, the not-so gentle encouragement. But to have Tony figure it all out one second into meeting Bucky and then sit here grinning at him like a moron is too much. He keeps his eyes down for the rest of the panel.

 

***

 

Steve and Nat talk with Sam quickly outside of the hall, before Sam has to run back to his booth. "Still got some portfolio reviews to do. Look, we should all have a Skype meeting at some point. I'd love to get the two of you working on another book so if you want to think about pitching something..."

Steve and Nat huddle together excitedly as Sam leaves.

"Holy crap, this could be really cool," Nat says. "Remember that horror comic idea we were throwing around?"

"Yeah, I think we should start putting something together..." Steve tapers off as Tony comes out of the hall and Steve can see Bucky stuck in a knot of people not far behind him. Tony sees Steve and walks by, leaning in close as he does with that big smug grin slapped all over his stupid face.

"So obvious, Rogers. I almost said something right then and there on the panel but you know what? Even I'm not that much of a dick." He walks off without another word.

Nat is about to ask what the hell that was about when Bucky joins them. "That was so cool," he says with an impressed smile. "You two were awesome up there." If he noticed Tony's little performance, he doesn't say anything.

Nat casually puts an arm around Steve. "You know, the con closes in an hour; why don't you two have a walk around? You've barely left the table all weekend. Go and catch the rest of the show while it's quiet. Me and Clint can take care of the tables."

"Are you sure? What if it gets busy - " Steve asks, and Nat gives his arm a tight squeeze.

"Yes, I'm sure," she interrupts him through a gritted-teeth smile.

Bucky grabs Steve by the arm and pulls him away before he can say anything else. "Thanks Nat!" Bucky calls and she starts to walk back to the artist's alley with a big smile on her face.

They wander through the aisles, looking at the booths filled with toys, comics, replica weapons, obscure actors who played bit parts in old sci-fi movies that most of the younger crowd probably won't have even seen. Bucky sees a life-size model of The Terminator and drags Steve over for a picture, trying his best to look stern as Steve takes one, but unable to keep a straight face. They giggle together at a guy bent over some comic boxes on a dealer's table, his ass crack on prominent display.

Steve is giddy as Bucky pulls him from booth to booth, not caring about the con or what's around them, just happy to be with him, losing himself in Bucky's excitement, that intense warmth spreading through his body and making his head feel muzzy. They stop at a graphic novel stall and look through the books. Steve picks up a few volumes of Fables. Bucky is trying to decide on a couple of books and Steve watches him, how perfect his profile is, how soft his brown hair looks. Bucky looks up to ask Steve's opinion and stops before saying anything.

He gives Steve a questioning little smile. "What?"

Steve swallows, kicking himself again, wondering which opportunity is going to be the right one. "Nothing," he says softly.

Bucky holds up The Authority and Locke & Key. "I can't decide so I'll get both."

As they start to walk off, Bucky stops Steve and points at a pretty amazing Totoro cosplayer. "I have no idea what that is, but I want a photo with it."

Steve reaches out to take Bucky's phone but he shakes his head. "I want one with both of us." He asks a girl standing nearby if she would take a picture for him. Steve smiles and steps to the other side of the cosplayer, waiting while the girl takes a couple of pictures.

Bucky thanks her and Steve waves to the cosplayer as he/she walks off, waving back. "Thanks Totoro," he calls.

"You know what that thing is?" Bucky asks.

Steve nods with a grin. "I'll tell you about it later."

Bucky steps close to Steve and smiles as he shows him the photo. It's ridiculous; they're either side of the cosplayer, Bucky with a huge wide-eyed expression, Steve just smiling like this happens to him every day.

"You look cute," Bucky says softly and Steve looks at him, meeting Bucky's grey-blue eyes and he's telling Steve, telling him that he can say something. Asking him to tell him, in that silent way of his. Steve blinks and feels the heat rising in his face. He searches for the right words.

"Buck..." he starts but swallows hard and can't go on. He lets out a breath and looks away, nerves getting to him, feeling like a failure because he can't even do the one thing he promised himself.

He looks down in surprise when he feels Bucky's right hand wrap around his left, fingers threading through fingers. He looks up and Bucky just smiles at him, tender, eyes sincere, never leaving Steve's. I know, he's saying without saying anything. His thumb rubs softly against Steve's hand, a small reassuring gesture.

Steve suddenly feels overwhelmed with...with everything. He feels the same way. Bucky feels the same way. He squeezes Bucky's hand gently and finally smiles back. A small self-deprecating smile. I'm an idiot, he wants to say but it's not happening. Bucky just smiles, chewing his bottom lip.

They walk slowly down the aisle, back towards artist's alley, hands interlaced. They glance at each other every few seconds, suddenly not wanting to look anywhere else. Steve's heart is thumping madly in his chest and he's sure Bucky can feel it through his fingers. Bucky continues that slow, soft rub of his thumb against Steve's hand and each stroke sends tremors of anticipation through him . They reach artist's alley and both let go of their hands together, walking towards the tables. Clint looks up and calls Bucky over, a stack of books in his hand. Bucky gives Steve a furtive smile and heads over.

Nat looks up from her sketching as Steve walks by. She sees his face and her eyes widen. Steve gives her a little nod and walks behind his table, putting the books he bought in his backpack and sits down. Nat glances over to where Clint and Bucky are talking vigorously about whatever books Clint has in his hands. Steve busies himself with shuffling his prints around. His phone vibrates.

NAT: DID YOU TELL HIM

STEVE: He knows

NAT: DID YOU KISS??!!!!

STEVE: Not yet

NAT: WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY

STEVE: Not here

He hears Nat make a high-pitched whining sound. He looks up and over at Bruce. He's sat at his table, hands clutching at his head. DID YOU? he mouths.

Steve nods to Bruce but puts his hands up in a just-calm-the-fuck-down-don't-make-a-big-deal gesture. Bruce looks over to Nat and they frantically wave their hands around. Steve looks over to Bucky and Clint; they're still talking about the books, mercifully unaware of the weird silent mime show taking place just behind them. The con is winding down quickly, so the aisle is thankfully free of people. Tony isn't at his table either, which Steve couldn't be more grateful for.

Steve taps out a text to Bruce and Nat.

STEVE: It's done, whatever's going to happen will happen. NOW LEAVE ME ALONE

They both read it and give him the finger.

 

***

 

The con finally ends and they all start to pack away their things. Bucky dismantles Steve's roller banner while Steve packs away his prints, both darting looks at each other and smiling shyly as they do. Steve turns around to see Clint and Nat both watching with huge childish grins on their faces. Bruce wanders over, always the first to finish packing and helps Nat to take down her table display. He's smiling like a goon at Steve and Bucky too and Steve thinks he has the best-worst friends ever.

"What time are your flights?" Bucky asks them, taking Nat's packed-up banner from Clint.

"Ours is at 8pm," Clint says taking one of Nat's con bags. "I think we'll just head straight to the airport and get dinner before we go."

Bruce sits up on Steve's empty table. "10pm. I'll do the same. Why are these things always over so quickly?"

Nat packs the last of her stuff away and they all stand in a little group, happy and sad and excited - three of them excited for the other two, two of them for each other.

"So Bucky," Nat says, hands on her hips, head tilted in a smirk, "how was your first comic con?"

Bucky scratches his neck and nods, looking at the floor, slightly emotional. "It was amazing."

Clint walks over and gives him a big hug. "Now we've got another reason to look forward to conventions so much." He throws Steve a big smile.

"Come on, we need to get the rest of our stuff from the cloakroom," Nat says and turns away quickly, striding down the aisle. Steve knows she's getting upset.

Bruce and Clint pick up their remaining bags and head after her, leaving Steve and Bucky to walk after them.

"I'm glad you had a good time this weekend," Steve says quietly.

Bucky looks at him, eyes bright. "I really did. And it's not over yet."

Nat, Clint and Bruce get their remaining bags from the cloakroom and they all wait outside for a cab, hugging and saying good-bye. Bruce and Clint grab Bucky and crush him in a man-hug.

"Next con, you're going to have to meet Captain Rogers. He's a lot of fun," Bruce says with a snicker, indicating to Steve. "Very explicit."

Clint snorts. "Yeah, I get the feeling we'll be able to divulge a few more embarrassing stories about Steve next time we see you."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"

Steve gives a helpless shrug. "I can't win."

"Oh, stop being so dramatic," Nat pulls Steve in and holds him tight. She presses her mouth to his ear. "You will tell me everything," she whispers fiercely.

Steve squeezes her. "You know I will."

Nat lets go of him and hugs Bucky. "It was so, so awesome to meet you and hang out with you. I can see why Steve likes you as much as he does."

Bucky looks as pink as Steve does when she pulls away, giving Steve her little raised eyebrow smirk as she picks up her bags. "See you boys in Pasadena, I guess."

Bruce throws up both arms. "My home turf, finally!"

Steve and Bucky watch as they all pile into a cab. Clint rolls down the window and sticks his head out like a dog as they drive away, Steve and Bucky waving until they're out of sight.

Steve turns to Bucky. "Home?"

Bucky nods and they head to the subway.

 

***

 

They both hesitate on the second floor landing when they finally get back.

"Do you...want to come up and ...watch a movie or something?" Steve finally asks, his voice fuzzy.

Bucky nods. "Yeah. Just...give me a few minutes?" He indicates to his apartment.

"Sure. Here, I'll take the rest of the stuff up." He takes the other banner and backpack from Bucky. "I'll...I'll leave the door open."

Bucky nods again and unlocks his door. Steve heads up the stairs, his feet feeling slightly heavier than usual. He opens his front door and dumps all of his con stuff in a pile, intending to put it away whenever. He suddenly has no idea what to do with himself. What happens now? How is this going to...? He picks up his portfolio in a panic and heads to his desk. He opens his laptop and puts on his music, if only to drown out the silence and the doubt it will bring if he listens too hard.

He takes out the commissions he needs to mail and starts to stuff them into card-backed envelopes. Bucky knocks on the door and opens it, smiling when he sees Steve at his desk.

"You're not working again already, are you?" he asks as he closes the door and walks over to him.

"I, uh, no...I just wanted to get these ready to mail tomorrow..."

Bucky nods and leans on Steve's desk next to him.

"I won't be long," Steve says and continues to pack the envelopes, hands shaking.

"That's okay," Bucky waits as Steve works, looking over to his bookcase. After a minute he indicates the music playing from Steve's laptop.

"I really like this track," he says softly.

Steve nods. "It's that French guy whose stuff you like to dance to. It's called Last Kiss." His voice sounds weird and he's still frantically packing envelopes, not wanting to look up.

Bucky reaches out and takes Steve's hand. "Steve," he says, his voice gentle.

Steve finally looks up at him and he's never been more terrified in his life, everything has been leading up to this point and there's every chance he could blow it and ruin everything and Bucky will never want anything to do with him ever again and then...

...and then Bucky is leaning over and pressing his lips to Steve's, one hand resting on his shoulder, pulling him in and Steve forgets everything bad he's ever thought about himself as Bucky kisses him softly, running his hand up Bucky's arm to his neck, feeling how soft his hair is and wondering how he could possibly have gone this long without doing this. They kiss like that at Steve's desk, soft and slow until Steve feels Bucky smile into his mouth and he can't help but smile back.

Bucky pulls away, his hand stroking Steve's face, fingers tracing a line from his eyebrow to his jaw, eyes hazy and pleased. "What took you so long?"

Steve kisses Bucky softly on the corner of the mouth and buries his face in Bucky's neck, his arms going around Bucky's waist and pulling him close. "I don't know...I was scared...I'm an idiot..." he mumbles.

Bucky's rests his left hand hesitantly on Steve's hip, still self-conscious about it, and then slides it up his back, pulling him closer. "You're an amazing idiot," he says huskily into Steve's shoulder. "I'm so glad I met you. So fucking glad..."

"Me too," Steve whispers. "You have no idea."

Steve raises his head and looks at Bucky, losing himself in those eyes, feeling like he's underwater. "I wanted to tell you how much I...for a long time. But I wasn't sure you were ready or if you felt the same way..."

Bucky gives a knowing little smile. "I wasn't sure either but then Clint told me how you felt."

Steve blinks. "What? When?"

"On Thursday night, at the bar. When we went to get drinks." He's smiling wider now, nudging his nose into Steve's, rubbing gently.

"What...the fuck..." Steve splutters.

Bucky gives a little laugh. "Yeah, I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I'd only just met the guy and we're at the bar making small talk and then he just says, "You know Steve's crazy about you, right?" just like we were talking about the weather or something."

"What...what did you say?"

"I was kind of shocked, I mean, it came out of nowhere, but then I just said something like, "Well, that's good to know because I'm kind of crazy about him too." And then Clint just nodded and asked me if I was going to do anything about it."

"I don't...but you..."

Bucky runs his hand up and down Steve's back. "I told him I didn't know and he just nodded and said, "Well, we'll have to do something about that." Turns out you'd already said something to Nat about telling me how you felt, so I just...waited."

Steve shakes his head. "I can't believe those guys...they totally set me up......" He looks at Bucky, still smiling at Steve. "So you knew? Since Thursday?"

Bucky nods and kisses him softly on the cheek.

"Was it worth the wait?"

Bucky brings his mouth close to Steve's, his breath hot. "Every second," he says and brushes his lips against Steve's. Steve sighs and pulls him in, not wanting to waste another minute of not having Bucky less than an inch away from him, kissing him like he's wanted to for the last couple of months. They manage to stumble over to the couch, giggling into each other's mouths, Bucky holding Steve by his shirt collar, Steve's hands on Bucky's hips and they fall onto it, foreheads smacking together painfully as Bucky lands on top of Steve laughing, hands either side of him. He smiles down at him, like he can't believe his luck.

"You have no idea, Steve..." he says and gently takes Steve's glasses off and puts them on the coffee table, "...how fucking incredible you are..."

Steve gazes up at Bucky, slowly brings a hand up to brush through his hair. "I can say the same. God, Buck..." He surges up for another kiss, pulling Bucky down and they forget everything but each other.

 

***

 

They lie together an hour later, legs tangled, Bucky against the back of the couch, face nestled into Steve's neck, drawing lazy patterns into his back with his right hand. Steve sighs happily, breathing in the coconut smell of Bucky's hair, letting himself relish how good he feels against him.

"I can't believe I almost ruined everything..." Bucky murmurs into Steve's chest.

Steve rubs his hand up Bucky's arm. "What are you talking about?"

Bucky leans back, face to face with Steve. "When I...when I had my breakdown. I was so sure I'd ruined everything. But you..." he frowns slightly, "you didn't...give up on me..."

Steve runs his hand through Bucky's hair and kisses him on the forehead. "That was never an option."

Bucky's hand tangles in Steve's shirt, pulling him closer even though there's no space left between them. "This is going to sound so...melodramatic but...you...you saved my life...you know that, don't you?"

"Bucky..."

"No," he says firmly, eyes darting frantically to Steve's, "you did. The day we met, I was so ready to give up and just become a shell of a person and you...you were there on the stairs and you looked up at me with those unbelievable blue eyes and it felt like...I suddenly felt like maybe I could claw my way back out of the hole I'd let myself fall into..." Bucky closes his eyes and shakes his head.

Steve holds him tight. "You saved me too, Buck. You did."

Bucky opens his eyes and lets out a shaky breath, a small line of worry between his eyes. "I...I think I'm in love with you, Steve."

Steve smiles softly. "Well, I already know that I'm in love with you." And the smile that breaks out on Bucky's face is worth everything - the waiting, the pain, the doubt - and they fall into each other again, kissing and laughing and maybe crying a little. Then Steve's stomach growls and they laugh again.

"Pizza?" Steve says, nuzzling Bucky's neck.

Bucky nods. "Lots of pepperoni."

 

***

 

They watch Dredd while they eat, curled together on the couch. When the movie ends, Bucky turns to Steve and kisses him, both of them tasting like pizza and Sprite.

"Can we...is it okay to take things slow? It's been...a while for me with all of this..."

"Of course. It's been a while for me too. I mean, I wasn't with Brock for very long and...I, uh...I've never actually...slept...with anyone." Steve looks at him, trying to gauge Bucky's reaction.

Bucky's face is soft. "You've...never?"

Steve shakes his head.

Bucky leans in and kisses him tenderly, his hand on Steve's neck, stroking lazily. When they part, Bucky smiles slyly. "That's kind of hot."

Steve immediately reddens. "Bucky!"

Bucky laughs. "It is though!" He kisses Steve's jaw. "I get to have you all to myself."

Steve lets Bucky trail kisses up and down his neck. "Will you stay here tonight?" he asks quietly. "I mean, just to sleep...not..."

Bucky nods. "I don't think I could actually pull myself away from you now, even if I wanted to."

Steve manages to sit up and rises off of the couch, holding out his hand. Bucky smiles up at him, hair a mess, his shirt slightly askew. He takes Steve's hand and Steve steers them over to the desk to shut down his laptop, Bucky kissing his hand the whole way. Steve turns off the TV and the living room light, laughing softly as Bucky wraps his arms around Steve's middle and kisses the back of his neck. They head through to the bedroom and Steve switches on the bedside lamp. Bucky looks around.

"I've never actually seen your room before."

Steve roots around in his dresser and throws him a t-shirt and a pair of pyjama pants. "Well, you'd better get used to it."

Bucky gives Steve a little smile. "I'll get changed in the bathroom." He leaves the room and Steve quickly gets into his own t-shirt and pants, unable to believe that Bucky will be staying with him, in his bed. He considers texting Nat and Clint but isn't sure that their flight will have landed yet. Bucky comes back in, looking unbelievably cute in Steve's Queens Of The Stone Age t-shirt. He folds his clothes neatly and puts them on the floor.

Steve slides his hands around Bucky's waist. "I love you, Bucky Barnes," he says, a blissful smile on his face.

Bucky huffs a breath and pulls Steve in, arms around his neck. "I love you too, Steve Rogers."

They pull away and laugh together, climbing into bed, arms immediately wrapping around each other, legs weaving together. They talk softly and kiss, Steve taking Bucky's left hand when Bucky tries to roll away onto his good side, kissing his fingers and placing it on his hip. Bucky shakes his head and presses his face into Steve's shoulder.

Steve's phone vibrates and he rolls away to pick it up from the bedside table, Bucky moaning as he does.

"Just a second," Steve laughs as he tries to pull Steve back immediately.

"Get back here," Bucky gripes and his legs tighten around Steve's as he opens a text from Nat.

NAT: FINALLY back home, flight was delayed an hour. Hope things are going well hint hint tell me what the fuck is going on

Bucky reads the text with him and laughs. "Shall we put them out of their misery?"

Steve sighs. "I guess we'd better or I'll never hear the end of it."

He starts to type out a reply but Bucky takes his phone.

"Let's give them something good." He sets the camera to selfie mode and holds it up. Steve grins and curls his hand around Bucky's neck, kissing him on the cheek. Bucky snaps a picture and they look at it. Steve's heart leaps; Bucky is staring dreamily into the camera while Steve kisses him and they both look stupidly happy.

Bucky turns to Steve and kisses him softly on the lips. "I think that one will have to be my new wallpaper."

Steve grins and attaches the picture to text back to Nat with nothing else. Before he hits send he says, "Okay, how long before we get a reply?"

Bucky thinks for a second. "Less than a minute."

Steve hits send and they both snicker together. Less than a minute later, a text comes back. Bucky laughs.

The text is a photo of Nat and Clint, both looking ecstatically at the camera, socks raining down around them like confetti, IT'S ABOUT FUCKING TIME!!!!! written underneath.

Steve and Bucky laugh and Steve texts back, Bucky watching, his head on Steve's chest.

STEVE: We got there in the end

NAT: We're so fucking happy for you guys

STEVE: Yeah, we're pretty happy too - we're kind of in love with each other :)

Bucky kisses Steve's neck when he types that.

NAT: Oh my god!!! I'm crying, like really crying. You made me cry. Clint's laughing at me

STEVE: Speak soon :)

NAT: me and Clint love you guys

Steve puts his phone back on the table and turns off his lamp, Bucky wrapping around him as he rolls back over. They kiss softly in the dark for a while, hands moving over each other's backs, Bucky giggling when Steve's hand runs lightly up his side.

"Oh, so you've got a ticklish spot too, huh?" he laughs into Bucky's mouth. "I'll remember that when I need to inflict a little torture of my own."

They finally settle, pressed against each other, breathing together.

Steve is starting to drift to sleep when Bucky says drowsily, "Steve?"

Steve presses his face to Bucky's hair. "Hmmm?"

"Remember when we went to see Edge Of Tomorrow? And you asked me what day I'd want to relive over and over and I didn't know?"

"Yeah..."

Bucky kisses Steve on his collar bone. "Today. I'd want to relive today. Just to get to now."

Steve feels a lump rise in his throat and he takes a shaky breath. He strokes Bucky's hair until he falls asleep.

 

***

 

Steve blinks awake, unaware of the time but very aware of the warm body pressed against him, an arm around his waist and steady breaths making a hot patch on his back. A wave of happiness washes over him and he feels for the hand wrapped around him. He can't help himself and rolls over slowly, greeted by a sleeping Bucky Barnes, hair all over the place, mouth slightly open. Steve can't hold back a goofy grin; he looks so adorable. He gently raises a hand and runs it down Bucky's face, fingers feeling two day old stubble, down to his neck. Bucky shifts and makes a noise. Steve kisses him softly on the eyebrow, resting his hand on Bucky's neck. Bucky makes another noise and his mouth curls into a small smile.

"Do that again," he says not opening his eyes, voice thick with sleep, shuffling closer to Steve and wrapping a leg around him.

Steve kisses both eyebrows and then makes his way down Bucky's face to his mouth, stopping before he gets there.

"You know we're both going to taste horrible," Bucky murmurs and opens his eyes, his smile widening as he sees Steve.

Steve runs his tongue over Bucky's lips, making him chuff in surprise. "I don't care," Steve says with a grin.

Bucky brings his hand to the back of Steve's neck and pulls him closer. "Well, if you don't care..."

They kiss greedily, Bucky's hands in Steve's hair, Steve's hand running down Bucky's side and getting a small squeal in his mouth because of it. When Steve's hand runs up Bucky's back under his t-shirt, Bucky twists his body away from Steve.

"Uh, might have to stop," he says breathlessly. "Getting a bit too excited."

Steve smiles and rolls onto his back. "Yeah, good idea." He stretches his arms above his head. "You want breakfast?" He sits up and reaches for his glasses, turning to look at Bucky, grinning and flushed.

"That would be great. Coffee and Cheerios?"

Steve swings his legs out of the bed and gets up. "I'm sure I can manage that."

Bucky reaches out. "Hey, come here."

Steve crawls across the bed to him and Bucky leans up to kiss him quickly on the mouth. "Love you, punk."

Steve grins. "Love you, jerk." He gets up and heads to the door. "Are you coming or what?"

Bucky gives him an embarrassed smile. "Uh, give me a minute. To calm down."

He emerges from the bedroom ten minutes later, Steve already on the couch eating his own cereal, a bowl on the table for Bucky along with two cups of coffee. Music plays from Steve's laptop. Bucky joins him and they eat in silence, legs pressed together. Bucky puts his bowl down when he finishes and gets up, going to his desk and shuffling through his therapy paperwork. He comes back with his Positive Life Changes journal.

"Can I show you something?" he asks Steve.

Steve puts his arm around Bucky's shoulder as he sits down. "Sure."

"When me and Jane started this, I had everything written down on like a million sheets of paper. She thought a journal might be a good idea to keep everything in one place and she suggested I write down the most important things I wanted to work on at the front, as a reminder of what I wanted to aim towards." He hesitates and hands Steve the journal.

Steve looks at him. "Are you sure?"

Bucky nods.

Steve flips the journal open to the first page. There are just two lines written down:

-Stop blaming myself for Tim's death.

-Acknowledge my feelings for Steve.

Steve blinks hard, tears coming too quickly to his eyes. "How long ago did you start this?"

Bucky puts his hand on Steve's knee and squeezes lightly. "A while ago," he says quietly.

Steve nods and hands Bucky back the journal.

"Oh hey, don't cry," Bucky says, surprised when he sees the tears and hugs Steve hard. "I didn't mean for it to make you cry."

Steve shakes his head against Bucky's shoulder. "No...it's good crying." He takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. "It's happy crying," he says with a little laugh.

Bucky smooths down Steve's hair. "You were always one of the main reasons I wanted to get better. You still are."

Steve takes Bucky's hand and sniffles. "Wow."

Bucky cocks his head when Aimee Mann starts to play. He grins and stands up, holding his hand out to Steve. "Come up here and dance with me."

Steve takes his hand and Bucky pulls him up, putting Steve's arms around his neck, his own hands on Steve's hips. He doesn't do anything more than sway, looking lovingly at Steve as he starts to sing softly to him. Steve presses his face to Bucky's and sways with him, just listening to his voice.

Steve Rogers never thought he could be this happy.

And neither did Bucky Barnes for that matter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Bucky's Play List

How To Destroy Angels - Is Your Love Strong Enough?
Justice - Waters Of Nazareth (Erol Alkan Remix)
Jim Noir - On A Different Shelf
Coldplay - Atlas
SWANN feat. Nouela - Black Hole Sun
Death In Vegas - Hands Around My Throat

 

"You're staring again," Bucky says without looking up from his laptop, raising an eyebrow.

"Can you blame me?" Steve grins back. It's been over a week since they officially got together and Steve still can't stop himself from looking at Bucky when they work. All he wants to do is grab Bucky and drag him over to the couch and kiss him and run his hands through his hair and...

"Finish that damn page and we can do stuff later," Bucky's face breaks into a smile and he finally gives Steve a wily glance.

Steve turns back to his laptop begrudgingly. "Fine," he mutters. In the few days after Vision-Con, they'd done nothing but stay less a foot apart from each other kissing, touching, watching movies and playing video games that somehow always ended in more kissing and touching before the movie was over, video games paused and left unfinished. Finally, Bucky had stepped in and dragged Steve over to his desk one morning when Steve decided that chewing Bucky's ear and whispering sweet and slightly stirring nothings to him in bed was going to be the order of the day and firmly stated that they needed to get back to work. Fun stuff would have to wait until comics were drawn.

"How do I put two layers together without flattening the whole image?" Bucky asks, his face scrunching up slightly.

Steve gets up and moves around his desk to Bucky's. He rests his head on Bucky's shoulder and shows him how to move the layers together that he wants to flatten and go to merge down in the layers menu.

Bucky twists his head around and kisses Steve's cheek. "Thanks."

Steve kisses him back on his eyebrow, making Bucky smile in that sleepy way that drives him crazy. "Anytime."

He's considering kissing his way down to Bucky's neck when Skype starts to chirp so he hops back to his desk; it's Nat. He's spoken to her a couple of times since the con, she and Clint stepping back after their meddling and giving Steve and Bucky some space. Not that it stopped her sending Steve text after text asking if they'd done anything particularly dirty yet.

STEVE: When we do, I'm only going to tell you that it's happened. Don't expect details

NAT: So you haven't yet?

STEVE: We're taking it slow

NAT: BORING

STEVE: Oh, I'm sorry. I'll go and jump his bones right now

NAT: :D

STEVE: Get bent

Steve looks up at Bucky. "You don't mind if I talk to Nat, do you? It won't be too distracting?"

"Don't be stupid; it's your apartment. It'll be nice to talk to her, anyway."

Steve picks up the call. "Hey Nat."

"Rogers: What is best in life?"

Steve answers immediately. "Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women."

Bucky snorts. "Oh my god, you two are such nerds."

Nat laughs. "Is that Hot Boyfriend I can hear insulting us?"

"Is that what you're all calling me now?"

"Sorry, Hot Boyfriend - I can't hear you because you're not versed in the ways of Conan The Barbarian like me and Steve are. Get back to us when you can quote the entire opening monologue and maybe we'll talk."

Bucky gives Steve a withering expression. "Please don't tell me that you both know it from memory."

Steve and Nat answer together. "Well, yeah." They all laugh and Steve shrugs at Bucky.

"This is kind of what you've signed yourself up for."

Bucky shakes his head. "Is there any way I can amend my contract?"

"Okay, okay. No more nerdery. For now." Nat shuffles some papers about loudly. "Business talk. How are you guys?"

Steve throws Bucky an admiring look which Bucky returns with a little smile. "Yeah, we're good. Just getting back to work."

"Clint misses you both. He's been so depressed since Vision-Con. I think I should feel insulted that my company isn't enough but it's so pathetic the way he's moping around, I can't be angry."

"Yeah, I've been getting random texts from him asking me if I'm thinking about him. I wasn't sure if he was joking or not," Bucky says with a worried laugh.

"We'll have to arrange a video Skype or something one evening," Steve says and Bucky nods.

"That would be good," Nat agrees. "I can't take any more of his bromance pining."

They talk for a while about movies, Bucky zoning out slightly when Steve and Nat start to argue about Blu-ray re-issues (or something, he has no idea) and which commentaries are worth listening to on certain movies.

"Oh hey, I know what I was going to bring up. Bucky..." Nat says and he looks up, feeling slightly silly for doing so when she's not even in the room.

"Yeah?"

"You're still serious about getting into flatting, right?"

"Yeah, I'm getting there...still picking up a few things."

"He's doing great," Steve interjects. "He can flat faster than I can." Bucky shakes his head at Steve and Steve just smiles back.

"Well, I'm so ready to get rid of Hank. How would you feel about flatting issue 10 of Winter Soldier for me when it's done? I think we'll be far enough ahead that it won't be a rush job and you can see how you feel a few spreads in and decide if it's something you might want to do for me on a regular basis."

Bucky looks up at Steve, surprised. Steve nods at him encouragingly. "I, wow, that's..."

"The page rate isn't amazing," Nat says apologetically, "but I pay slightly better than most colourists do. And given that you're Steve's boyfriend, I think I can trust you more to get the job done because I can just rag on him if you're slow or crap."

"Hey!" Steve exclaims and Bucky chuffs out a little laugh.

Bucky looks slightly moved. "I don't know what to say. Are you sure? I mean, I haven't been doing this very long and I wouldn't want to - "

"Better to jump straight in and see how it all works," Steve can hear the resolve in Nat's voice - she's hell-bent on convincing Bucky to do it.

"Okay. Sure. Let's do it!" Bucky sits back in his chair and looks at Steve, a big smile on his face, eyes filled with excitement.

Steve can't help the swell of pride that rises in his chest. Bucky has come so far since they met and he seems happy at the moment, really happy. He still attends his therapy sessions but Jane thinks they can maybe start to think about dropping a session a week. She was overjoyed to hear about Bucky and Steve finally admitting their feelings for each other and thinks it's a big step towards Bucky's eventual and hopeful recovery. He'd told Steve the other night that he knows he'll never be the person he was before Tim's death again, but he likes the new person that he's becoming.

"You've got a lot to do with that," he'd said, staring into Steve's bright blue eyes. Steve had held him tighter.

"Awesome!" Nat exclaims. "I know you'll do a good job. I know a ton of other artists looking for flatters too so the work is out there if you want it..."

They talk for a while longer and Nat finally says she has to go. "I'm going to make Clint a Baked Alaska, which I NEVER do because it's really hard and I get angry if it doesn't come out perfect, but it's his favourite and I'm so sick of him being all sad and stuff."

Steve and Bucky both make smooching noises. "You're so cute, Natasha," Bucky says in a high voice.

"You can both fuck off. Okay, love you, bye," she says and hangs up.

Steve gives Bucky an encouraging look. "You're going to get paid for doing comic work!"

Bucky gives him a self-conscious frown. "But what if I - "

"You won't," Steve interrupts. "I'm here to help, anyway."

Bucky sighs and reaches his hand across his desk to Steve's. Steve takes it, rubbing gently. "I'm so lucky." He meets Steve's eyes.

Steve gives him his lop-sided smile. "I'm the lucky one."

 

***

 

Steve finally manages to get back into some semblance of productivity with his work and roughs three pages. He smiles as Bucky sings along with several songs, occasionally giving Steve a little grin when he looks up. At 5:30pm, Bucky gives a big stretch, leaning back in his chair and then gets up and wanders over to the couch, where he flops down on it out of sight.

"Are you coming over here or what?" he calls to Steve after a couple of minutes.

Steve gets up, rubbing his neck and rolling his shoulders and walks across the living room. He leans on the back of the couch and looks down at Bucky. He's lying with his left arm tucked under his head, staring up at Steve with a sleepy smile.

"Hi handsome," he says.

"Oh, so it's fine when YOU want to fool around," Steve tilts his head and narrows his eyes.

"Hey, one of us has to take the initiative and make sure some work gets done. Now, are you coming down here or do I have to drag you down?"

Steve makes a face. "I don't think I want to n - "

He's cut off as Bucky leans up and grabs him by the front of his t-shirt and pulls him over the back of the couch. Bucky gives a yell when Steve accidentally knees him in the crotch on his way down.

"That was a bad idea," Bucky laughs, grimacing in pain.

Steve kisses him softly on the neck, running his hand down Bucky's side. "I'm sorry," he mutters making his way up to Bucky's jaw with his mouth, planting kisses and little licks. "I would kiss it better but..."

Bucky makes a surprised noise and grins at Steve. "I'll hold you to that." He shifts and wraps his arms around Steve, running a hand down his back as Steve smiles into Bucky's neck, kissing and nipping. Bucky makes a pleased little hum. Steve props himself up on his elbows and looks down at Bucky, bringing a hand up to brush through his brown hair.

"I can't believe I get to do this now," Steve says, eyes taking in Bucky's face. Bucky runs his hand up to the back of Steve's neck, stroking lazily.

"You're so fucking cute," Bucky says and takes Steve's glasses off, something Steve always seems to forget to do until they're getting in the way. "I mean, look at those eyes. How are those things even real?"

Steve crosses them and Bucky laughs. He pulls Steve down and they kiss slow and deep, Steve settling on top of Bucky, one hand still in his hair, the other resting on Bucky's hip. They both know how this will end up because it happens every time: Their kisses will get hotter and more frenzied and one or both of them will break away before things get too heated, both not quite ready to take things to the next level of intimacy.

Bucky sighs into Steve's mouth around his tongue, hands disappearing up Steve's t-shirt to roam over his back, trace his sides with his fingers. Steve breaks away from the kiss and runs his tongue down Bucky's throat, smiling at the vibration of the breathy chuckle Bucky makes as he does. Steve's slides his right hand under Bucky's shirt and he shifts his hips so he can feel the soft skin of Bucky's stomach as he works his way back up Bucky's neck to his mouth; he swallows Bucky's soft moans as they kiss harder. Steve doesn't think he'll ever get enough of touching Bucky; it's been so long since he's touched anyone this way and even then, he was so self-conscious and anxious, it was never as enjoyable as it should have been. But with Bucky, it feels right and amazing and Steve finally feels like the person he's always wanted to be.

"Steve," Bucky breaks the kiss after a while, huffing out a breathy warning and slides his hands out from under Steve's t-shirt. Steve makes a disappointed noise, missing the warmth of Bucky's hands on his skin already. Bucky gives a small laugh and moves his hands to Steve's shoulders. "I know...I'm sorry but I need to..." He moves his body to the side and gives Steve an embarrassed look as his erection brushes Steve's leg under his jeans.

"It's okay," Steve says, catching his own breath. He lets Bucky manoeuvre to the side and snuggles against him, snaking his arm across Bucky's chest. "I'm uh, not exactly not-excited myself..."

Bucky turns to him. "I'm sorry," he says and kisses Steve softly on the mouth. "I'm still a little...I just want to feel totally ready before we do anything else and I don't want to get too, uh, riled up."

Steve gives his head a little shake. "Don't apologize. To be honest, I'm...I'm terrified of doing anything beyond what we've been doing."

Bucky presses his forehead to Steve's. "We'll figure it out," he says softly. "I want your first time to feel right."

Steve strokes Bucky's neck. "I hope I'm not a disappointment..." he says quietly.

Bucky frowns. "Hey, don't even think that. I've only slept with two people and one of those was such a disaster I wish I could wipe it out and pretend it never happened. You're the only person I've ever been in love with so believe me, you won't be a disappointment."

Steve swallows and nods. They kiss and Steve rests his head in the crook of Bucky's shoulder. "Thanks Buck."

Bucky kisses the top of Steve's head and pulls him closer. "Is it okay if I stay here tonight?"

Bucky asks every time, regardless of Steve's insistence that he doesn't need to. They've spent every night except one together since Vision-Con; Bucky felt like he should go back to his own apartment for a night at least. Steve hadn't been able to sleep at all, missing Bucky's body lying beside him and had been amused and relieved when Bucky had called him at 2:30am asking if he could come back up because he couldn't sleep either.

Steve smiles dopily up at him. "Of course it is." He kisses Bucky on the chin. "How do you feel about chilli for dinner?"

Bucky nods and smiles. "I feel good about chilli. I like having a boyfriend who cooks for me."

Steve swats his arm but smiles back. Hearing Bucky call him his boyfriend always makes his stomach bloom with warmth. He untangles himself from Bucky and gets up, heading to the kitchen. Bucky heaves himself off of the couch and follows, getting a soda from the fridge.

"I'll pay for the groceries the next time we go to the store," he says, watching as Steve rummages though a cupboard getting out sauce and spices, then walks over and smoothes down Steve's mussed hair.

Steve turns and gives him a crooked smile. "My groceries are your groceries."

Bucky puts a hand on Steve's hip, pulling him close. "I'll make you a meatloaf," he says in a low husky voice and Steve laughs loud and pushes him away.

Justice starts to play on Steve's laptop in the other room and Bucky's eyes widen. "Oh no," he mutters.

Steve looks alarmed. "What?"

Bucky grabs Steve's hands. "I need to...I need to dance, like right now..." he gives Steve a wicked grin and starts to pull him out of the kitchen. Steve groans and plants his feet onto the floor.

"Tell you what, YOU dance and I'll watch."

Bucky lets go of Steve's hand, starting to dance backwards into the living room. "Where's the fun in that?"

Steve folds his arms and leans against the wall. "Believe me, I get a lot out of watching you dance."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

Steve gives him a knowing little smile. "Uh-huh."

Bucky dances his way over to Steve. "Anything in particular you like especially?" He looks at Steve through his long eyelashes and Steve gives him a shy little laugh.

"I, uh, like the thing you do with your arms. The robot thing," he can feel his face go red as Bucky pops a few moves for him.

"I'll remember that," Bucky says with a smile that makes Steve get excited all over again.

He watches as Bucky dances to the track, unable to tear his eyes away, dinner forgotten. Bucky seems to get better and more confident with his left arm every time he dances and Steve can only watch in admiration as Bucky moves across the room. Bucky glances up with a grin, chewing his lip and makes his way back over to Steve.

"You owe me a slow dance," he says, with mischievous eyes.

"Deal," Steve says.

 

***

 

The next morning, Steve gets an email from one of the guys at the comic book store. Bucky has just come back from a therapy session and is making a few notes in his journal before getting back to work himself. Nat has sent him a couple of test pages to flat with notes on how she'd like the files set up.

Danny Rand (dan.rand@gmail.com)
To: Steve Rogers (steven_rogers@gmail.com)

Hi Steve,

I hope you don't me contacting you; my name's Dan and I work at Hyperion Comics - you kindly signed a bunch of books for us a little while back. I was wondering if you would be interested in doing a signing two weeks from now. We've set aside a Saturday and can start to publicise it ASAP if you think you'd like to. We'd make sure you'd have all the coffee and donuts you can eat/drink without throwing up and if you wanted to sell any prints, we won't ask for a cut. We can also order in any Winter Soldier variant covers and any other books you've worked on.

I hope you're interested because I know our customers would go nuts.

Thanks,

Dan

Steve makes a worried noise and Bucky looks up, concerned. "What's up?"

Steve leans back in his chair, brow furrowing, a knot of anxiety starting to form in his chest. "The comic book store wants to know if I'd like to do an official signing."

Bucky looks delighted. "That's awesome!"

"I don't know..."

"How different could it be to attending a convention? Just go for it."

Steve shakes his head. "But at a con, I'm one of a hundred artists there. This is like...I'd feel really weird."

Bucky puts down his pen and leans across his desk. "You know, this could be really good for you. I bet you anything it'll go really well and you'll feel a hundred times more confident afterwards..."

Steve sighs and shakes his head, unsure.

Bucky gets up and walks around the desks to Steve. He kneels in front of him and takes his hands. "Just try it. I'll go with you."

Steve looks down at him and wonders if he could love this guy any more. "You'd better. It's your fault this is happening," he says with a little smile.

Bucky shuffles forward between Steve's legs, hands on Steve's knees and leans up, brushing his lips softly. "Stevie, you'll be great. You have nothing to worry about."

Steve gives him a shy little smile. "Have I told you how much I like it when you call me Stevie?"

Bucky grins. "No. Have I told you how much I like it when you call me Buck?"

Steve is about to answer when Bucky pulls him onto the floor. Steve giggles as Bucky curls around him. "Whatever happened about making sure that work gets done?"

Bucky nuzzles Steve's cheek. "Five minutes won't hurt."

Forty-five minutes later they finally get back to work.

 

***

 

Steve emails Dan back and they arrange to talk tomorrow at the comic store. He lets out a nervous breath and sits back. It's done now. He's never done a signing on his own outside of a comic convention before and he's scared but maybe a little excited too. He knows having Bucky there will help.

He goes to the kitchen and makes two cups of coffee, setting one down on Bucky's desk and leaning against it. "Are you going to the VA tonight?" Steve asks Bucky.

Bucky gives a nod. "Yeah, Jim was pretty insistent that I don't miss anymore. Or as insistent as he can be. He was all like, "Don't miss another fuckin' meeting" and then closed his door on me."

Steve laughs at Bucky's imitation of Jim - it's pretty good. "I shouldn't laugh, he's actually been really good about everything."

Bucky nods in agreement. "I feel kind of bad for him. I don't think he has anybody. Or anyone that he hasn't pushed away. I kind of get that; I was almost there myself."

Steve looks down, remembering how awful it was when Bucky was having his breakdown.

"Luckily for me, this dumbass that couldn't take the hint kept being all amazing and sexy and made me not want to run away," Bucky adds softly and Steve looks up to see him smiling gratefully at him.

Steve ducks his head. "I couldn't be sexy if I tried," he mumbles.

Bucky turns back to his laptop. "Tell that to my tent pole the next time we make out on the couch."

Steve goes red straight away. "Buck!"

 

***

 

Steve waits with Bucky in the hallway that evening, playing Thumb War, Steve annihilating Bucky every time. Bucky grabs Steve's hand and looks at it.

"You must have some kind of mutant thumb or something to keep winning like that," he inspects it closely.

Steve smirks. "Nope, just pure skill."

Bucky is about to demand a rematch when Jim's door opens and he steps out. "Ready to go?" he says gruffly, locking his apartment.

"Yes sir," Bucky says respectfully and a little fearfully.

Jim gives him a look. "Drop the sir crap." He strides off down the stairs. "Come on."

Bucky kisses Steve quickly on the mouth. "See you later."

"Bye," Steve says dreamily as he watches Bucky follow Jim down the stairs. He still can't quite believe how things have turned out. He runs his hands through his hair and goes back inside to call Nat.

"Let me guess: Bucky's out somewhere."

Steve flusters. "Yeah, but that's not why I'm calling - "

Nat gives a laugh. "Oh, I'm joking. I'm not offended; I'd rather know that the reason you don't call me as much is because you've got Bucky's tongue rammed down your throat."

"For fuck's sake, Nat!" Steve cries and blushes anyway.

Nat howls with laughter. "If it wasn't easy to wind you up before, it's going to be a breeze now! Relax, Rogers. But seriously, everything's going okay?"

Steve flips through his notes for issue 10 with a smile. "Yeah, it's going great. We're taking it slow. It's good."

"Okay, I won't pry anymore. Although it's all me and Clint can think about at the moment."

"Ew!!"

Nat snorts. "Not like that; we want you two to be...y'know. Happy. Like, HAPPY."

"I'm sure we will be. Bucky's not really ready and god knows I'm scared to death..."

"Steve - "

Steve talks quickly. "Don't worry, we've talked about it. He knows I'm a...you know...that I haven't...had..."

Nat makes a high-pitched noise. "You're damn so coy - it's adorable! What is this, 1945? Christ Steve, you haven't had sex. SEX! SEX! You can say it!"

Steve covers his face. "Please stop..."

"It'll all be fine and you'll be having lots of hot sex in no time."

"Okay, time for a subject change. I might be doing a signing in a couple of weeks at a comic store here."

Nat makes a pleased noise. "Steve, that's awesome! I didn't think that was something you'd want to do. Oh wait, let me guess: Bucky talked you into it."

Steve wonders how Nat always knows these things. "He outed me to the guys in the store a while back. And he kind of talked me into it..."

"If I'd had known that the only way to get you to do anything was to find a hot guy to bat his eyelashes at you, I would have tried to find one sooner."

"They said they wouldn't take a cut on any prints I sell so I can take some of the sci-fi prints and pimp your stuff too- "

Nat clucks her tongue. "Okay, I can take the hint - no more hot guy talk. Thank you for the pimpage, which I accept. Oh, I spoke to Bruce quickly today; he's totally swamped with deadlines but he said to say hi to you and Bucky and he'll try and call you next week."

Steve looks down at his to-do list. "Cool, I haven't really spoken to him since the con. Okay Nat, I need to try and get some stuff finished while Bucky isn't here to distract me - "

"With his handsome face and roaming hands - "

" - so I will call you soon. We'll do a video chat and make Clint feel better."

"Yes please. He's starting to call me "dude" and "man" too much for my liking lately. Oh, I'm going to email you about that horror comic pitch for Sam too."

They hang up and Steve works quietly for a while, thinking about the comic store signing.

At about 8:30pm, he hears noises outside the front door - Bucky and Jim in the hall - and gets up to let Bucky in, just as he knocks. He gives Steve a hug but Steve immediately knows something is up. Bucky doesn't look great; he's quiet and shuffles into the apartment, taking off his jacket and sneakers mechanically and sitting down on the couch without a word. Steve sits down gently beside him.

"Everything okay, Buck?" he asks softly.

Bucky shakes his head slightly.

Steve thinks he knows what's wrong. "Did you talk about Tim?"

Bucky stiffens slightly and then nods. Steve puts his arm around him and Bucky immediately leans in and hugs him hard. They sit for a little while.

"Do you want to watch a movie?" Steve asks gently.

"No," Bucky says and he sounds so small. Steve rubs his arm.

"Wait here a sec," Steve says and gets up. He shuts down his laptop and starts to turn off the lights. He takes Bucky's hand and pulls him up.

"Come on," he says softly. They go to the bedroom and get changed into their bed clothes. Steve pulls Bucky into bed and turns off the light, shuffling up close to him and holding him, stroking his hair lightly. Bucky curls his arm around Steve and buries his face in Steve's shoulder.

"I'm sorry...I just can't..." he begins.

Steve shakes his hand. "You don't have to talk if you don't want to."

He feels Bucky nod against him and continues to stroke his hair in the dark. Bucky's breath is hot on Steve's neck and he wishes he could just take away all of his hurt. But it's never that easy.

After a while, Bucky leans up and kisses Steve softly. "I love you, Steve."

"I love you too," Steve whispers.

 

***

 

Bucky is sat up reading when Steve blinks awake, early morning light filtering through the window blinds. Steve buries his face in Bucky's hip and Bucky runs a hand through Steve's hair.

"Good morning," Bucky says softly.

Steve makes a noise and looks up at him. "How are you feeling?"

Bucky gives a little shrug. "Okay. Thanks for last night. I'm sorry I was so...you know."

Steve shakes his head and nuzzles into Bucky's side. "Don't apologize." He props himself up onto his elbow. "What are you reading?"

Bucky holds up Steve's copy of Horns. "It's the guy who writes Locke & Key, right?"

Steve nods, rubbing his eye. "Yeah, his books are really good. You should finish it."

Bucky puts the book down and slides back down onto his pillow, moving up against Steve and kissing his lips softly. He strokes Steve's face lightly with the back of his hand. "Why do you put up with me?"

Steve gives him a little smile. "Because you're so awesome."

Bucky sighs. "But there's much of my shit to wade through..."

Steve runs his hand down Bucky's back, tracing his spine lightly, feeling the straps that run across his back from his left arm. "Yeah well, I'm all in on this. You're worth it."

Bucky finally smiles.

 

***

 

They head to the comic book store after breakfast, Bucky brightening slightly as they walk down the block. Steve hesitates slightly before they head into the store and Bucky turns and gives his hand a squeeze.

The two guys behind the counter look up and smile when they see Steve and Bucky. The big guy comes around the counter and holds out his hand.

"Hey, Steve. I'm Dan. Sorry it's taken me so long to actually introduce myself, given that you've been coming in here for so long."

Steve shakes his hand. "It's okay. I never exactly said much. I'm kind of...shy, I guess." He gives a nervous laugh.

Dan smiles. "Don't worry about it. We're just glad you said yes to the signing. We really appreciate it." He turns to Bucky. "Sorry dude, I'm Dan."

Bucky shakes Dan's hand. "Bucky. This kind of my fault."

Dan laughs and the little guy comes over to them too. "This is Vic."

They all shake hands and head to the counter where Dan opens a notebook. "Well, if you're cool with the date, we can start getting some flyers made, put the word out on Twitter and Facebook and all that junk - Vic's the man for that."

Vic gives a grin. "I have a lot of connections."

Steve nods, hands wringing slightly. "Yeah, that sounds great. I was thinking, I could maybe do an exclusive print for you guys?"

Dan and Vic immediately look excited. "That would be amazing. Something like that would be a huge draw for people." They talk about what they can order in, how long the signing will last and all the little details. Steve starts to feel excited at last and gives Bucky a smile. Bucky nudges him.

Vic gives Bucky a look and then makes an I-Should-Have-Guessed gesture with his arms. "You're in the comic, aren't you? Winter Soldier, I mean."

Bucky grins. "Yeah. Different hair though."

Vic laughs. "That's so cool."

"One of the perks of having an artistic boyfriend," Bucky says and Steve's face gets hot.

Dan gives an envious sigh. "Yeah, I often dream of meeting a comic artist who will want to draw me into all of their books..."

Vic snorts. "You have. You're just too scared to make a move on her." Vic turns to Bucky and Steve. "There's an awesome local artist called Jess Drew whose self-published comic we sell and Dan is totally in love with her - "

"Vic, what the hell!" Dan cries, getting red himself.

"Well, you are!"

Dan punches him hard on the arm. "Don't you ever say anything when she comes in or I'll skin you and wear your damn face as a mask."

Steve and Bucky crack up and Dan shakes his head. "Anyway, enough about me," he shoots Vic a death-stare, "I guess we're all set?"

Steve nods. "I'll email you about the print. Let me know if you have any ideas and I can work up some thumbnails."

Vic nods enthusiastically. "This is going to be so cool. Thanks for doing this, Steve."

Steve smiles. "Well, I had to be talked into it."

Dan turns to Bucky. "Then thank YOU for being so pushy."

They say good-bye and Steve and Bucky head home.

"How do you feel?" Bucky asks Steve as they cross the street.

Steve nods. "Good, I think. Nervous, but good nervous."

They reach their apartment building head straight up to Steve's place. Steve throws off his jacket and dumps his bag and sneakers by the door about to head over to his desk. Bucky grabs his hand and pulls him back. "Hey, come here."

He puts his arms around Steve's neck and nuzzles Steve's nose with his. Steve slides his arms around Bucky.

"You okay?" Steve asks softly.

Bucky rests his head on Steve's shoulder. "Yeah. I just...talking about Tim with everyone last night. It was weird. No-one blamed me and...so many of them have gone through similar. But it still feels like..."

Steve holds him tight. "I know."

Bucky sighs and it's so heavy and sorrowful. "I think I'm okay and then it just...hits me all over again." He starts to cry softly against Steve.

Steve can only hold him and tell him over and over that he loves him, no matter what.

 

***

 

They have their first real fight a few days later. Bucky comes back from a therapy session with Jane, frowning down at a letter. Steve comes out of the kitchen and kisses him on the cheek.

"Everything alright?"

Bucky shakes his head. "I need to go back to the hospital in a few weeks. For my arm." He stalks over to his desk and sits down roughly. "I fucking hate this," he says and covers his eyes with his hand.

Steve walks over and puts a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "I'll come with you."

Bucky is quiet for a moment. "I'd rather you didn't."

"Why not?" Steve asks, slightly taken aback.

Bucky takes a breath. "You haven't seen me without this," he holds up his left arm. "I'm not ready for that, not by a long-shot and at the hospital, you'd see it and all the crap that hooks up and...I don't want you to see it and how it makes me...it's painful and I hate it and I don't want you there. I can barely put myself through all that shit and I don't want to put you through it."

"Buck, I don't care about that. I'm not going to let you go on your own, not now that we're - "

"Steve, I said no. I care about it." Bucky's eyes are hard. "You're not coming. I'm sorry, but you don't understand this. You really don't."

Steve is silent for a minute before he speaks. He feels a pang of hurt that Bucky wouldn't want him there for something that's so important and that he couldn't understand how hard it is. He knows how hard it is for Bucky. "Fine." He walks back over to his desk.

Bucky sighs. "Don't be like that."

"Like what?" Steve doesn't look up, hating himself for sulking but doing it anyway.

"Look, this isn't about you. It's about me and - "

"No, you're right. I don't understand. How could I ever understand?" His voice is harder than he means it to be.

Bucky frowns. "Why are you getting so mad? I don't want you to come because I don't want you to see me at my worst."

"I've already seen you at your worst. All I want to do is support you and you still don't trust me to - "

"This isn't about trust, Steve. It's about me not wanting my boyfriend to see me with a fucking mangled arm, getting hooked up to shit and crying from the pain. I'm sorry if that hurts your feelings but it's the one thing I'm really not ready to share with you." Bucky is getting angry and his voice rises.

"Yeah, well, I'd share it with you." Steve feels like a prick as soon as it leaves his mouth but it's out and he already regrets saying it.

Bucky's face clouds over. "You asshole. How can you say that? You have no idea what it feels like. You can't..." he stops and gets up, storming over to the front door and Steve's stomach flips.

"Bucky," Steve stands up quickly. "I'm sorry - "

"Fuck you." Steve can hear the hurt in his voice before he slams the door hard on his way out.

Steve makes a frustrated yowl and kicks his trash can over, paper spraying everywhere. "Shit." He sits down, head in his hands. Why did he have to be such a dick about it? He should be the one person who stands by Bucky no matter what, not get butthurt when he can't be involved in every little thing. Steve kicks the trash again can and it spins across the room into the kitchen door. He's not one to get petty about things but he went and acted like a little kid. He sits chewing his nails, feeling sick to his stomach. He's managed to hurt the one person he cares about more than anything, all because he assumed it was his right to be part of everything in his life. In time maybe, but not right now. He sits stewing and feeling like a total asshole for the better part of an hour.

Steve finally heads down to Bucky's apartment, hoping that he's there, although he isn't sure where else Bucky would want to go, especially if he was upset. He knocks softly on the door, expecting no answer but it opens and Bucky stands there, face hard, his eyes red and Steve sags a little.

"I'm such a prick," he says quietly. "I'm so sorry."

Bucky swallows and looks down. "You can't fix everything, Steve," he says, his voice uneven. "I just don't want you to see me like that...broken..."

Steve throws his arms around Bucky. "I know, I'm sorry. I just want to be there for you. I won't go but I'll be here when you get back. I'll always be here."

Bucky hugs him back. "I want to show you, eventually. How I look without the prosthetic... I just can't right now. I hate it so much."

Steve pulls back and kisses Bucky on his cheek, his eyebrows. "Whenever you're ready. Just say the word."

Bucky pulls Steve inside and shuts the door. They kiss in the hallway and then make their way over to the couch. "Will you just lie with me for a while?" Bucky asks, eyes tired and wet.

Steve nods and wipes a tear from Bucky's face. "As long as you want."

 

***

 

Bucky needs to do some laundry and clean his slightly neglected apartment, but kisses Steve at the door and tells him he'll be up later.

"I'll make Chicken Teriyaki," Steve promises and Bucky smiles, genuine and appreciative.

Steve gets to the top of the stairs and sees Jim unlocking his front door, about to go into his place with a bag of groceries in one hand. Steve's never seen him out at this time before; he didn't even hear him as he left Bucky's apartment. Jim gives him a nod as Steve approaches his own door, face still twisted in his permanent scowl.

"Your boy okay?" he asks curtly.

"As okay as he can be," Steve answers, trying not to sound as nervous as he feels.

Jim nods and opens his door, about to head in.

"Mr Howlett," Steve says quickly before he loses his nerve.

Jim steps back into the hall, looking put out. "What?" he grunts.

"Thank you. For what you've done for Bucky." Steve stands, expecting another grunt and a slammed door but Jim just looks at him and puts a hand against his door frame.

"Isn't much."

Steve shifts on his feet. "It's more than you think."

Jim's face doesn't change but he doesn't move from his door either, he just stands and considers Steve for a moment.

Oh, what the hell, Steve thinks. "Um, if you ever wanted to come over, just for a beer or something..."

To Steve's surprise, Jim's face softens. Not by much, but enough. It makes him look slightly younger and less like he might pounce and tear something to shreds at any given moment.

"Thanks kid," he says softly and his voice has an edge of sorrow to it, "but I'm not very good company." He goes inside his apartment and closes the door without slamming it.

Steve feels a lump rise in his throat, suddenly feeling an overwhelming sadness for Jim Howlett. That could have been Bucky, he thinks. Maybe not right now but in a few years time when the self-hatred had enough time to take hold and sink bone deep; blaming himself for mistakes he had no control over, shutting himself down as a person and rotting away from the inside out. He stands in the hallway for a while before heading back inside.

 

***

 

Bucky comes up after 6pm, tired and handsy, hugging Steve from behind as he makes dinner and generally making a nuisance of himself, the argument earlier forgiven and forgotten by Bucky, but still burning Steve with guilt. They eat dinner whilst listening to music, Bucky rubbing Steve's foot with his own throughout. Steve takes the dishes out to the kitchen afterwards and starts to rinse them.

"Hey," Bucky is stood in the doorway, watching Steve.

Steve turns and puts the plate he'd been holding in the sink. "Yeah?"

"You owe me a slow dance, remember?" He holds his hand out.

Steve smiles shyly. "Right now?"

"Right now." Bucky pulls him into the living room.

Steve listens to the music. "Black Hole Sun? Not too depressing?"

Bucky shakes his head and puts his arms around Steve's neck. Steve puts his hands on Bucky's hips and starts to move with him, faces close.

"I'm sorry about earlier," Steve whispers.

Bucky holds him closer. "It's okay. It's done with."

Steve nods and rests his head on Bucky's shoulder, closing his eyes and taking in everything about him; his smell, the way he sways, his breath against Steve's neck. I don't ever want to be apart from you, Steve thinks. He presses his mouth to Bucky's ear.

"I love you so much," he says quietly, his voice breaking.

Bucky gently brings his hands up to either side of Steve's face and makes Steve look at him. Steve rests his hand on Bucky left and strokes the fingers, even though he knows that Bucky can't feel it. Bucky just looks at him with those huge eyes and smiles at Steve like he's the only thing that exists in the world.

 

***

 

For the next week, they both work hard - Steve on his comic pages and the print for the comic store signing (they agreed on an exclusive Winter Soldier print, coloured by Nat) - and Bucky on his test pages for the Winter Soldier flats. He's been scribbling furiously in one of his therapy journals too whenever he's not working on his laptop. Steve wonders what he's writing but doesn't ask.

They still haven't progressed beyond kissing and some (dubiously innocuous) touching, both still hesitant to take the next step but Steve is starting to feel slightly bolder and more confident when they're together, his insecurities finally weakening piece by piece. Bucky still has his limits and Steve is more than happy to wait, testing out his own.

Bucky wakes up particularly playful on Wednesday morning, sending Steve into screeching fits when he starts to tickle his feet, pinning him down with surprising strength. The tickling evolves into a furious bout of kissing and frenzied touching that has them both flushed and needing a cold shower each by the end of it when one of them, they can't remember which, finally manages to pull away.

"There's that tent pole I mentioned," Bucky gasps with a smile as Steve turns even redder and heads to the bathroom.

They set a Skype call for that evening with Clint and Nat. Bucky tags along with Steve to the printers to pick up his artwork for the signing on Saturday and gets carried away at the art store, trying to sneak kisses whenever he can behind shelves full of sketchpads or paint display stands.

"What is with you today?" Steve exclaims, half amused, half annoyed as Bucky pulls him behind a stack of canvases and starts to kiss and lick gently at Steve's neck.

"What, I'm not allowed to give my sexy as hell boyfriend a hickie in public?" He starts to suck lightly at Steve's neck under the collar of his t-shirt.

Steve starts to give in. "You'll give me more than a hickie if you keep doing that..." he breathes as he unconsciously grabs at Bucky's hair. He jumps a mile when he hears someone clear their throat. An old lady holding several pots of poster paint looks at them both with wide eyes. Steve turns beet red and stumbles off to pay for his Bristol Board and markers.

He hears Bucky say, "Ma'am," politely to the woman before he runs after Steve laughing hysterically.

"I'm glad you found that funny," Steve says mortified.

Bucky throws an arm around Steve's neck. "We just gave her the thrill of her life. She'll be telling that story for weeks."

When they get back to Steve's after lunch, Bucky convinces him to take the rest of the day off. "Come on, Stevie. All we've done is work. Let's just have one day to ourselves." He makes his pouty face which shouldn't work on Steve by now but always does.

Steve runs a hand through his hair and sighs. "Okay, fine. A day off would be good, I guess. Do you want to play Mario Kart?"

"I was thinking maybe a board game..."

"I don't have any board games."

"How about Battleship?" Bucky gives Steve a blinding smile.

"The last time we played Battleship, YOU cheated," Steve punches him on the shoulder.

Bucky looks mock offended. "Only on the first round. Then I was good."

Steve sighs and leaps over the back of the couch. "Fine, okay. Go and get Battleship."

Bucky makes a squeak of joy and runs out of the apartment. Steve can't help but smile - Bucky's happiness is always infectious. He puts his feet up on the coffee table. He can hear Bucky running back up the stairs and his front door closes. Bucky scrambles over the back of the couch, almost kicking Steve in the face.

"Buck, calm down! It's only Battleship."

Bucky makes a face that instantly has Steve suspicious. "What?" he says warily.

"How about we mix it up a little?" Bucky is grinning like an idiot.

Steve holds up his hands. "How do you mix up Battleship?"

"How about Strip Battleship?"

"What?! No!"

"Come on, Steve. It'll be fun! We'll keep it clean, I promise." Bucky leans across the couch and drapes himself across Steve. "Please? No further than boxers."

Steve tries to shake him off. "We've already seen each other in our underwear; why do you - "

Bucky smooshes his face against Steve's. "Please please please please please..."

"Okay, okay! Now get off of me..." he throws Bucky off and gives a little sigh. "I can't believe I'm doing this."

Bucky gives a victorious snigger and starts to set up the grids.

"You'd better not cheat. I mean it, Buck. I don't want to be sat here in my skivvies while you're still fully dressed."

"Steve, I promise you, I will not cheat." He makes the Boy Scout salute and gives Steve an earnest smile. Steve finally cracks and smiles back and sets up his own grid, shaking his head.

"Okay," Bucky says as soon as things are done. "I guess every hit on a ship is an item of clothing."

Steve nods and makes a face, shuffling closer to the boards.

Bucky leans over and gives Steve a soft kiss on the mouth. "I know that look; you don't have any reason to be self-conscious. Not with me."

Steve nods. "I know, I just still feel a little..." he doesn't quite know how to finish.

Bucky rubs his face against Steve's. "Believe me, Steve - you have a great body."

Steve blushes and smiles. "Yeah, well you're pretty fucking hot yourself..." he mumbles and Bucky laughs. He scrambles back to the other end of the couch.

"Okay, D6."

 

***

 

Twenty minutes later and Bucky is sat in his boxers and one sock, looking confused while Steve laughs, still in his jeans and t-shirt, barefoot, only having taken two hits.

"Okay, since when did you get so good at Battleship?" He gives Steve a look.

Steve gives him an exaggerated shrug and a huge wide-eyed smile. "I don't know. Weird, huh?"

Bucky narrows his eyes. "Don't get cocky."

Steve looks down at the board and smirks. "You're the one who's getting cocky..."

Bucky throws his shirt at Steve's face. "F7."

"Hit. Do my glasses count?" Steve starts to take them off.

"No, they don't fucking count!" Bucky cries.

Steve laughs. "Okay, okay." He takes off his t-shirt and drops it on the floor. "Happy?"

Bucky's mouth quirks in a little smile as his eyes flit down to Steve's torso. "Very."

Steve looks at his grid. It's getting very warm in here all of a sudden. "Uh, J5."

Bucky howls. "Hit! What the actual fuck?"

Steve shouts in victory. "YES! I WON! Ha ha haaaa!"

Bucky resentfully takes off his remaining sock. "You know, you're a real sore winner."

Steve leans back, a huge grin on his face. "Well, I don't win very often."

Bucky finally smiles back and starts to take the pegs out of his grid, ready to put everything away. Steve reaches out and stops him. "You get an extra turn," he says, his eyes bright.

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Yeah? How come?"

"Because I won and I said so."

Bucky leans back. "Okay," he says, eyes never leaving Steve's. "B3."

Steve doesn't even look at his board. "Hit," he says and stands up. He takes his jeans off, kicking them away, feeling not as sexy as he'd like to in his boxer shorts, but the look on Bucky's face makes him feel slightly more confident. Bucky watches him, his eyes fixed on Steve's as he moves the Battleship grids onto the table and crawls over Bucky as he slides down to lie on the couch.

"You sunk my Battleship," Steve says huskily and Bucky reaches up to grab the back of Steve's neck and pull him down into a hungry kiss, hands roaming Steve's back and sides, his thumbs tracing lightly along his stomach. Bucky rests a hand in the small of Steve's back and pulls him closer. Steve flinches as their bodies press together, conscious that he's already getting hard and tries to twist away. Bucky grabs Steve by the hips and holds him in place, legs shifting so Steve is resting between his thighs. Steve breaks the kiss to look down at him.

Bucky is breathing heavily and he gives Steve a faint smile. "It's okay," he gasps and Steve can feel how hard Bucky is against him too through their underwear. Everything suddenly seems very bright.

Steve nods and kisses Bucky softly. "I'm scared," he says, voice barely a whisper.

Bucky presses his forehead to Steve's and gently starts to move his hips against him. "You don't have to be scared."

Steve buries his face in Bucky's neck as he moves his own hips slowly, not quite prepared for how good it feels.

"Shit," Steve whispers and grabs a handful of Bucky's hair. Bucky makes a little moan and runs his hands down Steve's hips, fingers trailing under the waistband of his boxer shorts and -

- the fire alarm goes off. It takes a minute for them both to register the piercing wail echoing throughout the building and Steve slumps against Bucky with a frustrated groan.

"You are fucking kidding me," Bucky shouts at no-one in particular.

 

***

 

Apparently, Mrs Hernadez had put a pot roast in her oven and forgot about it, not hearing the oven timer because she's almost completely deaf, hardly even noticing the smoke until the fire fighters broke her door down.

Steve and Bucky stand outside across the street, after hastily getting dressed and using the fire escape, which was kind of exciting, and joining most of the other tenants over by the building opposite. They watch the fire fighters milling about, trying to ignore Mr Hargensen's braying complaints.

"That guy is such a dick," Steve mutters.

Bucky leans his head against Steve's shoulder. "When do you think we'll be able to go back inside?"

Steve puts his arm around Bucky's waist. "Soon, I hope."

"Kind of killed the moment..." Bucky mutters.

Steve laughs quietly. "Yeah." He glances across the street and sees Jim Howlett smoking a cigar at the corner of the building alone. He catches his eye and holds his hand up. Jim nods and turns away.

 

***

 

They get back into the building an hour and a half later, having given up on waiting and going for noodles.

Steve looks at his phone. "We'll be talking to Nat and Clint in about fifteen minutes."

Bucky presses himself to Steve's back and wraps his hands around his waist, resting his head on Steve's shoulder. "Another time, I guess," he says softly into Steve's ear.

Steve nods and turns around in Bucky's arms, a sly grin on his face. "Strip Battleship was actually kind of cool."

Bucky bites his lip. "Strip Battleship was actually kind of hot."

They both giggle softly and Steve heads to his desk to grab his laptop and bring it to the couch. Bucky flops beside him and they squabble about The Official Strip Battleship rules for next time.

Bucky shuffles closer to Steve when Skype starts to bloop, the laptop resting on Steve's knees.

"Hi guys," Steve says when he sees Nat and Clint sat on their own couch.

Clint makes sexual noises and grabs the laptop, pressing his tongue to the camera.

"Ew, Clint no!" Nat cries and there's a lot of shuffling and wobbling on the other end. Steve and Bucky start to laugh. When Nat wrenches the laptop away from Clint, the image is blurry.

"But I want to give them some tongue," Clint says and Nat wipes down the camera with her sleeve.

"Thanks Clint. I'll take that tongue," Bucky says as they come into focus again, Nat looking annoyed.

"I knew there was something between us," Clint replies and waggles his eyebrows.

Nat finally gives a smile. "Look at you guys and how cute you are." Steve and Bucky press their heads together and make faces.

Clint looks forlorn. "You guys have no idea how depressed I've been since the con, - " Nat rolls her eyes and holds up a hand - "I had the best time and now real life is dull and disappointing."

"Well gee, thanks, honey." Nat shoots him a look.

Clink quickly kisses her cheek. "Except for you and your Baked Alaska."

Steve strokes the camera on his laptop. "Aw, poor Clint."

Clint quickly stands up and presses his groin to the screen. "That's the stuff."

Bucky breaks into gales of laughter and Nat makes Clint sit down and promise to behave for two minutes.

They all talk for a while about work and comics, then Bucky and Clint get into an argument about how the timeline in The Terminator movies is screwed until Nat and Steve get bored and Nat steps in and makes them stop.

"Oh Bucky, I meant to say - your flats on the test pages are awesome. You nailed it."

Bucky brightens. "Yeah?"

"Yep. So what do you say? Be my new flatter?"

Bucky turns to Steve. Steve gives him a big smile.

"Okay. I won't let you down, Nat." Bucky makes an embarrassed noise when they all clap and cheer. Steve kisses him on the mouth and Nat and Clint start cheering even harder.

Clint fans himself with a hand. "Oh my."

"I'm trying to stay on here and talk to you guys as long as possible because Clint has decided that Wednesday night is now Board Game Night and he's convinced me to play some...thing..."

"Settlers of Catan will change your life," Clint plants a wet kiss on Nat's cheek and she pulls away with a grimace.

"Oh, we played a board game today..." Bucky says with a playful grin.

"No! No we didn't!" Steve says too quickly and too forcibly and Nat and Clint immediately stand to attention.

"We did, we played - " Steve lunges at Bucky and covers his mouth with his hand. Bucky struggles to get away, laughing into Steve's palm, the laptop rocking wildly on Steve's knees. "We played Str- " Bucky manages before Steve mashes his hand against his face again.

"No we didn't!"

Nat bounces up and down excitedly. "Oh my god, what did you do? Steve's gone so red!"

"Don't tell them, they'll never let me forget it!"

Clint starts to shout. "Come on Bucky! Fight him off! Tell us!"

Bucky finally manages to escape Steve's frantic grasps and he grabs the laptop before it slides onto the floor. "We played Strip Battleship!"

Nat and Clint go berserk and Steve slithers down the couch with his face in his hands.

"You dirty little bastards," Clint says with a huge smile.

Nat collapses against the back of her couch, roaring with laughter. "And during the day too! Rogers, you dog!"

Clint starts to sing Afternoon Delight. "Gonna find my baby, gonna hold him tight, gonna grab some afternoon delight..."

"There was no afternoon delight...I hate you all," Steve shouts from behind his hands.

"Oh my god, I need more information," Nat says, eyes wide.

Bucky gives her an apologetic smile. "Sorry Nat, the rest is between me and Steve's skivvies."

Nat whines in disappointment. "Fine. But next time Captain Rogers is in town, I'm getting all the dirty details."

"I'm now trying to figure out a way that Settlers Of Catan can become Strip Settlers Of Catan..." Clint considers.

"You'll be the only one stripping," Nat says with a raised eyebrow.

Steve finally lowers his hands. "Okay, well as always, it was great talking to you guys and feeling embarrassment beyond belief. I need to hang up and have STRONG WORDS with my boyfriend who will be lucky to ever see me in my skivvies again." He glares at Bucky.

Nat and Clint laugh and make "ooohhhh" noises.

"Oh Steve, wait! Your comic store signing - is it on Saturday?" Nat says before Steve can hang up.

"Yeah and I'm shitting myself about it."

"You'll be fine, dude. Good luck." Clint gives a wave to the camera.

"Look after him, Bucky," Nat says and they all wave and make stupid noises until Steve finally hangs up.

He puts the laptop on the table and turns to Bucky, about to rip him a new one for telling Nat and Clint about Strip Battleship when Bucky scrambles across the couch and pins Steve down, kissing him.

"Before you get mad," he says, speaking fast before Steve get one word in, "I'm just going to remind you why you love me so much. I'm funny and cute and I can cook meatloaf and you like it when I dance and you think it's adorable that I like Watchmen so much and that I've already read it six times and I didn't get mad that they changed the ending for the movie and you like that I get so excited when I see GIFs of Red Pandas on Tumblr and I've almost learnt the entire opening monologue from Conan The Barbarian just to prove how much I love you and as much as you want to deny it you get secretly turned on when I smell like cinnamon - "

Steve is laughing so hard at this point, that he can't be mad at Bucky. "Oh, shut the hell up, you moron." He pulls Bucky down and shuts him up some more.

 

***

 

Bucky returns from his VA meeting on Thursday in better spirits than the previous week.

"I talked a little. It's still difficult but it's getting kind of easier." He continues to write in his journal.

Steve's signing on Saturday is from 11am - 3pm and Dan gives Steve details about using the back entrance into the comic store.

"I've got a feeling that a lot of people are going to turn up and I think it'll be better if you come in through the back if there's a line outside." He called Steve Friday morning just to finalise everything. "We wouldn't want you to get mobbed!"

Steve's stomach had turned when he said that and Bucky had spent the better part of an hour after the call trying to calm Steve down.

"You'll be fine. I'll be there and Dan and Vic seem to know what they're doing. Just try and enjoy it, okay?"

On Saturday, Steve gets all of his stuff ready, getting up stupidly early, too nervous to stay in bed. He makes sure he's got enough prints and paper for sketches, laying everything out on his desk and double checking. He glances up when Bucky comes out of the bedroom, hair messy and sleepy-eyed in Steve's favourite Metal Gear Solid t-shirt and his boxer shorts.

"What are you doing? It's only seven forty-five." He stumbles over to Steve and hugs him, resting his chin on Steve's shoulder and groaning tiredly.

"I was too nervous to sleep," Steve says, putting a hand on Bucky's hip and turning him so he can count how many blank sketch covers of Winter Soldier he has. Bucky puts his hands on Steve's shoulders and moves him away from the desk.

"Steve, you're going to be fine. It's not some life or death thing, it's a signing at a comic book store and you're going to kill it. Okay?" Bucky gives him a crooked little grin, his eyes sincere. Steve feels such a swell of love for Bucky at that moment, he can barely even respond. I could do anything for this guy, he thinks to himself. I WOULD do anything for this guy. He wants to tell Bucky how he's managed to dull the pain of everything bad anyone has ever said to him in high school or college, every black eye and punch to the gut, every time he was ever ignored or made to feel like a nobody. But it's too much for Steve to even try and put into words.

"What?" Bucky asks, his brow furrowing slightly in concern.

Steve just shakes his head and hugs Bucky back. "I'll tell you some other time."

 

***

 

Vic lets them in through the back of the store, chattering excitedly. "There's already a huge line outside!"

Steve gives a nervous smile and Bucky squeezes his shoulder.

"I'm going to do a coffee run before we get you started. What can I get you? No, no - we're buying all day," he says when Steve tries to give him some money.

"Thanks so much. Um, I'll have a latte, I guess?"

Vic turns to Bucky. "What'll you have?"

"Do they do green tea or anything?"

Vic gives Bucky a smile. "Ever had chai latte? If not, I highly recommend it."

Bucky grins. "Okay, I'll give it a go."

Vic leads them into the store and heads out to the coffee place. A few customers not there for the signing are milling about and Dan comes out from behind the counter.

"Hey guys! Okay, the line outside is looking really good. I think we're going to have a busy day. Are you good to start in fifteen minutes?"

Steve nods and Dan brings him over to the table they've set up. It looks really good, with all of Steve's books he's worked on for the last couple of years and a space for his prints. Steve lets out a breath and starts to pull his stuff out of his bag.

Bucky heads over to the front door and wanders outside, walking briskly back in with an excited look on his face a few seconds later.

"Holy shit, the line is around the block!"

Steve makes a desperate noise and Bucky steps close. "I'm here. You'll be fine."

Steve nods and gives him a tight little smile. Vic comes back in with coffee and donuts.

Bucky takes one mouthful of his drink and makes a noise. He leans down beside Steve, sat at the signing table and nervously flexing his drawing hand. "Hey, kiss me."

Steve looks distracted. "Buck, I'm kind of - "

Bucky quickly kisses Steve on the lips and leans away, watching as Steve finally gives a genuine smile. "Cinnamon," he says slightly dreamily.

The signing goes phenomenally well; Steve finally relaxes and signs comics, chatting easily to people and doing quick sketches. Bucky stands close to the table and Steve for the most part, talking to Vic and Dan when they break away from the main counter. A few people recognise him from his comic character and insist on photos with him and Steve. The store thrums with people for the next few hours and Steve finally has to admit that this was a good idea. He can lose himself in a sea of people at comic cons, but to have people turn up just for him and his work has given him a boost of self-confidence that's been a long time coming. He glances up from a sketch at one point and catches Bucky's eye. Bucky gives him an everything-okay look and Steve smiles at him, happy and thankful.

Things finally wind down at about 2:30pm and Steve stretches and stands up. Dan heads over and offers Steve a bottle of water.

Bucky is behind the counter with Vic talking about his flatting work.

"Well, I think we can consider this a success," Dan says to Steve with a huge grin. "Thank you again - we've had one of our best days ever."

Steve rubs his neck and smiles. "I've had a really good time. Thanks for having me."

"Hey, we were wondering - the store closes at four-thirty today and me and Vic would like to get you guys dinner, just as another thank you. It's been awesome to hang out with you and Bucky's been really cool helping us out with stuff too." Dan waves away Steve's protests to pay for dinner and he finally accepts.

Dan heads out to the back room to sort out some paperwork and Vic starts to gather up the few remaining books on the signing table. Bucky joins Steve behind the counter.

"So, how was your first signing?"

Steve can't keep the smile off of his face. "It was awesome. I think I needed something like this."

Bucky leans in and kisses the corner of Steve's mouth. "Told you," he says quietly.

Steve takes Bucky's hand. "Thank you. For being here."

Bucky smiles. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Dan comes back and leans against the counter with a tired sigh. "What a day."

Vic puts down the stack of books next to the cash register and slumps next to Dan. "I want beer," he mumbles.

Steve shuffles in his messenger bag and pulls out two comics. "I, uh, these are for you guys. Just as a thank you for everything." He hands them each a Winter Soldier sketch cover drawn especially.

Dan looks shocked. "Oh dude, that's so awesome."

"This is amazing," Vic says excitedly, looking at his sketch cover. "I'm so getting this framed!"

They hang out and talk until closing and then head to the noodle place which Dan and Vic also like. They discover that Dan is writing a sci-fi novel when he isn't working at the comic book store and Vic has a YouTube comedy channel with his friend Pete which he's way too modest about. They're both really funny and surprisingly self-deprecating and Steve finds himself identifying with Vic especially, who had a rough time at school because of his size and his lisp.

"We should do this again," Dan says as they all leave and stand outside, Steve and Bucky agreeing.

"Yeah, we can get a bit too wrapped up in work sometimes and forget about socialising - " Steve begins.

Bucky nudges him. "I'm the one who usually has to make you stop working and take a break. Maybe we could have a beer and video games night?"

Dan and Vic jump at the chance and Steve says they'll arrange something next time he and Bucky come to the store. They say good-bye, heading in opposite directions and Bucky slips his hand into Steve's as they walk home. Steve can't stop smiling.

 

***

 

It's 8:30pm by the time they get back and Steve toes off his sneakers with a tired groan and heads over to the couch, leaving his jacket on the floor. Bucky follows and grabs Steve by his belt and pulls him back before he can sit down. Steve giggles as he stumbles into Bucky and turns to face him.

"I had a really great day," he smiles giddily and rubs his face against Bucky's, content.

Bucky makes a happy noise and runs his hands up Steve's sides. "I'm so proud of you. You're pretty amazing - have I told you that recently?"

Steve chuckles and lets Bucky lead him over to the couch. "Yeah, once or twice."

Bucky pulls him down and they lie next to each other, smiling like idiots.

"I couldn't have done it today without you," Steve nuzzles Bucky's neck and huffs happily.

Bucky smiles dopily as Steve kisses his way up Bucky's throat to his mouth. "You just needed a friendly kick up the ass," he says and takes off Steve's glasses. He kisses Steve softly on the lips, brushing lightly and Steve gives a quiet sigh. He puts his hand on Bucky's hip and shuffles closer, not wanting any wasted space between them. Bucky slides his arm around Steve's back and they start to kiss deeper, more insistently, legs intertwining.

Somewhere along the line, they lose themselves a little, kisses becoming more desperate, hands unable to stay in any one place, both gasping and panting. Bucky rolls Steve onto his back and straddles him, pulling his t-shirt over his head and off, throwing it casually behind the couch. Steve gazes up at him, eye's half-lidded, a small smile on his face.

"What are you looking at?" Bucky breathes, with a little grin. Steve leans up and kisses Bucky again, breaking away for a second and raising his arms when Bucky pulls up his own t-shirt, taking it off and throwing it over towards the TV somewhere, leaning back in as Bucky bites at his neck, running his hands over Steve's chest, slowly grinding into Steve with his hips. Steve's heart is pounding as they start to kiss frantically again, knowing that this is it, that it's finally going to happen.

He pulls away from Bucky and meets his eyes, breathing hard.

"Are you okay?" Bucky strokes Steve's hair, panting.

Steve nods. "I want to sleep with you," he gasps softly.

Bucky presses his forehead to Steve's. "Me too."

Steve can only nod.

Bucky kisses him softly again. "Come on."

They get up and head to the bedroom, Steve swallowing hard, freezing slightly as Bucky takes his own jeans off and looks at him. He strokes Steve's face.

"It's okay," he whispers and starts to undo Steve's belt. Steve nods, letting Bucky kiss him softly on his cheeks, his brow, behind his ear, as he lets his jeans drop and steps back. His breathing sounds so loud. His hand trembles as he brushes it through Bucky's hair.

"I'm sorry...I'm just..."

Bucky quiets him with a kiss, soft and reassuring. "I know."

They get into bed and Bucky takes off his boxers, dropping them on the floor. After a beat, Steve takes his own off and Bucky moves over to him, pulling him close and kissing him softly. Steve gasps as their bodies press together, running his hand down Bucky's side. He buries his face in Bucky's shoulder.

"I love you," he whispers into Bucky's ear.

Bucky gently turns Steve to face him. "I love you, too. So fucking much."

And it happens, slowly and sweetly; Bucky telling Steve how much he loves him over and over as they explore each other, taste each other; Steve forgetting everything as Bucky kisses his stomach, trailing his tongue down, smiling as Steve makes a noise he didn't even know he could make.

And later, Steve tells Bucky how much he loves him, over and over as he moves inside him, Bucky not taking his eyes off of Steve's as they breathe together. Bucky brings a hand up to the back of Steve's head, stroking gently and feeling how damp the nape of Steve's neck is, captivated by how Steve looks making love to him for the first time.

And all Steve can do is stare down at this boy who saved his life as much as he saved his.

 

***

 

They lie together, sweaty and slightly giggly afterwards. Bucky curls against Steve and kisses his neck, tasting salt and something else that is very distinctively Steve.

"So, how do you feel?" he asks, brushing Steve's hair away off his forehead.

Steve gives a tired little smile. "Okay, I guess." He laughs as Bucky pokes him in the belly.

"Just okay?"

Steve pulls Bucky into him and kisses him lazily. "I feel...amazing. You feel amazing." He runs a hand down Bucky's back, trying to think if there will be a time that he'll ever get fed up of how good he feels lying naked next to him.

Bucky smiles, eyes tired but happy. "I can't believe I got to be your first."

Steve traces Bucky's eyebrows with a finger. "It was worth the wait."

Bucky's eyes start to drift shut as Steve runs a hand through Bucky's damp hair. "I hate to break the mood," Steve says and Bucky opens his eyes again, "but maybe we should have a shower."

Bucky groans and nuzzles closer to Steve. "We're fine. What's a little stickiness between boyfriends?"

"As much as I love the idea of waking up stuck to you, we really should," Steve says with a laugh.

Bucky groans again and rolls away, getting unsteadily to his feet. "Whoa, head-rush." He leans against Steve as they walk to the bathroom. "I think you fucked me completely off-balance."

He laughs as Steve makes an embarrassed noise and flushes from the chest up. "Steve, we just had sex and we're both naked and about to have a shower together. How are you STILL managing to blush?"

Steve starts the water running. "I can't help it," he whines and Bucky gives him a little shove.

"You're so cute."

"Get in the damn shower," Steve grumbles.

They stand under the warm spray together and Steve turns Bucky around and washes his hair, dragging his fingers along Bucky's scalp and making him groan.

"You have no idea how good that feels," Bucky murmurs, eyes closed, swaying slightly.

"Well, you can do me after and I'll find out."

Bucky snickers. "Oh, I plan on doing you alright." Steve gives his hair a yank. "Not right now, obviously..."

Bucky washes Steve's hair, enjoying the way he leans back and smiles, making a little humming noise.

"Good, right?" Bucky rakes his fingers gently down the back of Steve's neck.

"Hmmm, do it some more."

They finally get out, tired but clean and Bucky insists on drying Steve's hair for him, scrubbing vigorously with the towel and laughing as it sticks up every which way. Steve just smiles, eyes dozy, watching as Bucky dries his own hair and carefully dries his left arm. Steve steps forward and uses his towel to help dry the straps that run across Bucky's back.

Bucky looks grateful and a little sad. "I wish you could touch me without this thing on."

Steve kisses his left arm. "With or without, it wouldn't stop me from touching you."

Steve puts his usual t-shirt and bed boxers on while Bucky just opts for pyjama pants, crawling back into bed. Steve turns off the lamp and snuggles beside him, enjoying how clean he smells. Bucky kisses Steve gently on the temple.

"Are you going to tell Nat?" he asks.

Steve gives his head a small shake. "I don't have to."

"You tell her everything. You know they'll both want to hear about it." Bucky gives a little laugh.

"Because they're pervs," Steve murmurs. "I'll tell them tomorrow..."

"Well, make sure you tell them that I think you're pretty incredible in the sack..."

Steve chuckles. "I might tell them that..."

"...and that you're hung like a - "

"No, I won't be telling them that."

 

***

 

They don't get very much done on Sunday, Bucky not having to convince Steve very hard to take a day off.

"You know this is kind of unfair if this is going to be your go-to method for getting your own way," Steve gasps after Bucky disappears under the covers with an evil grin.

They finally emerge from the bedroom at 3pm, tired and aching but unable to stop smiling at each other. Steve orders pizza and flops onto the couch with a groan, checking his phone for messages. There's a text from Nat sent at 11:26am. Bucky nudges him over and stretches out beside him reading Horns.

NAT: So how did the signing go?

STEVE: Sorry for the late reply. It was amazing. I think I really needed something like that for my confidence

Nat replies two minutes later.

NAT: Awesome! So Hot Boyfriend is a very good influence on you

STEVE: Yes, he is :)

NAT: I'm so glad you had a good day

STEVE: Yes it was very eventful in many ways...

NAT: Meaning...?

STEVE: Um...

NAT: OH MY GOD DID YOU DO IT

STEVE: Yes :P

NAT: HOLY SHIT! And????

STEVE: It was incredible

NAT: Can you hear me screaming? Because I just screamed really loudly

STEVE: Some car alarms just went off and a dog started barking

NAT: Clint wants to know who topped

STEVE: You're not getting anything else from me, least of all that

NAT: We both think it was Bucky

STEVE: Why??

NAT: Well, it makes sense

STEVE: WTF why?!!!

NAT: So obvious. He totally tops

STEVE: Okay well FYI we both have

NAT: OH MY GOD I DIDN'T THINK YOU'D CRACK SO EASILY

STEVE: Oh, get fucked

NAT: Sounds like you're doing enough of that for everyone

Steve groans and throws his phone on the table.

"You told Nat," Bucky says with a smile.

"Yes and as always, wish I hadn't." Steve rubs his hand across Bucky's stomach. "Want to watch a movie while we eat?"

Bucky puts his book down. "Yeah, I've had a hankering to watch An American Werewolf In London actually."

Steve kisses him. "Cool. Want to grab some drinks and plates? Pizza should be here soon." Steve heads over to his DVDs and finds the movie while Bucky goes into the kitchen. He comes back and puts plates and two beers on the table as well as a couple of bags of chips.

"I have to go to Boston on Tuesday. To the hospital." He stands chewing the inside of his cheek and Steve doesn't need to ask why Bucky didn't tell him that his appointment was this week. He's still ashamed of himself and the way he acted during that fight.

Steve nods and walks over to him, gently cupping his jaw with one hand. "If you ask me, I'll go with you."

Bucky nods. "I know." He doesn't ask and Steve doesn't push.

The pizza arrives and they both settle on the couch to watch the movie, Bucky lounging against Steve, stroking his fingers lightly up and down Steve's arm. Steve had forgotten how much he liked the movie, enjoying the dry humour and the amazing make-up effects. It isn't until the end credits start rolling that he realises Bucky is crying.

He sits up, startled. "Oh hey, what's wrong? What is it?"

Bucky shakes his head. "It's so fucking sad..." He wipes his eyes.

"What, the movie?"

"Yes! He gets shot and it's not fair!"

Steve laughs lightly and kisses the top of Bucky's head. "God, we'd better not watch the 1986 version of The Fly if this is how you get over tragic 80s horror films."

They play Mario Kart for a while, when Bucky announces that if he wins the next race, they're going to go back to bed and do more dirty things.

"Aren't you tired? How could you possibly be horny again?" Steve cries out and veers off of the track as Bucky leans over and rubs his crotch.

"Yeah, that's a semi if ever I felt one..." Bucky bites his lip with a smile.

They don't bother finishing the race.

 

***

 

Bucky starts to flat his first pages for issue 10 of Winter Soldier on Monday morning, fretting over the first page, then finally getting into it. He's also been reading up on lettering and general typography, squeezing in as many InDesign and YouTube tutorials as he can. Steve can't help but be stupidly proud of Bucky's dedication.

"Do you really think I might be able to do this for a living?" Bucky had asked on one of his bad days, growling in frustration whenever he made any mistakes.

"Considering you've only been doing this for a few months and how good you've become, I'd say yes. Maybe not for a while but yes."

"You're my boyfriend - you have to say stuff like that..." Bucky had given him a sideways glance.

"I'd say the same if you were just some hot stranger who'd walked in off the street and showed me what he could do."

As Monday draws on, Bucky gets quieter, singing along to Steve's music less, only speaking when Steve asks him anything and he knows that Bucky is thinking about his trip to Boston tomorrow. Steve gets up from his desk at 5:40pm and starts to make homemade burgers for dinner.

He's just shoving a baking tray of fries into the oven when he feels Bucky's arms snake around his waist and he starts.

"Holy shit, don't sneak up on me like that," Steve twists around and puts his arms around Bucky's neck. "I could have been holding a knife or something."

Bucky rests his head on Steve's shoulder. "I'm scared. About tomorrow."

"I know you are," Steve says quietly. "My offer still stands."

He feels Bucky shake his head. "Okay, I won't ask again. Can I at least come with you to the station?"

Bucky nods. "I have to leave at four-thirty in the morning."

"I'll be there."

 

***

 

It's a bleak morning, still dark and damp from a light rain that fell during the night. Steve wishes it wasn't so far to Boston; he won't see Bucky until late tonight and knows he'll be thinking about him the entire day. Bucky walks with his shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets.

When they get to the station, Bucky asks Steve not to come in. Steve swallows back the hurt and nods, telling himself it's not personal. He has to do this for Bucky.

"I've got something for you," Bucky says, his brow creasing in that way it does when he's nervous. He pulls one of his therapy journals out of his bag and hands it to Steve. "Promise me you won't read it until you get home." Steve takes it and nods. He notices now that Bucky refers to his apartment as home, his own place is just "downstairs". He holds Bucky tight.

"Please let me know when you get there." He kisses him. "I'll see you tonight."

Bucky nods. "I love you."

Steve gives him a lopsided grin. "Love you too."

He watches as Bucky walks into the station, looking back once and giving Steve a small wave.

 

***

 

Steve climbs back into bed when he gets home, feeling like he should attempt to get some more sleep before working otherwise he'll burn out by early afternoon. He looks at Bucky's journal, slightly anxious about opening it but Bucky had given it to him, wanting him to read it. He's pretty sure this is what Bucky has been writing for the last couple of weeks. He flips it open to the first page and reads the first line.

"When I left for Afghanistan in November 2012, my name was James Buchanan Barnes and I was 24 years old. I left that man behind and came back as someone else, two halves of a person that will never be whole again."

Steve's breath catches. He swallows and flips through the journal, page after page of Bucky's entire experience in Afghanistan and afterwards, poured out on paper for Steve to read. He feels a sob rise in his throat and holds it back. He knows how hard it is for Bucky to tell him anything difficult about his past, how he spends days working up to it and how writing this, letting it all out for Steve to finally know, must have been such a huge decision for him to make.

He takes a few shaky breaths and starts to read. The journal is raw and honest, surprisingly eloquent and absolutely heartbreaking. Steve has to stop several times, overwhelmed. He had no idea. When he finishes he finally lets the tears come full force, crying for the Bucky he'll never know that was left behind in Afghanistan.

 

***

 

Steve sits at his desk all day, trying to work but unable to stop thinking about Bucky and his journal. Bucky texts him at 11:30am to tell him that he's at the hospital. He doesn't ask if Steve has read the journal yet.

He thinks hard about two things all day, chewing his nails and staring out of the window. He misses Bucky horribly the whole day, resisting the urge to text him every two minutes, feeling empty and alone. Bucky texts him at 5:24pm.

BUCKY: Done at the hospital. So tired. Will let you know when I'm back in NY. Miss you

STEVE: Love you so much. Can't wait to see you

Steve makes himself some macaroni and cheese, too drained to make anything else. He starts to re-watch The West Wing from Season 1, each episode an hour off of the clock and closer to Bucky coming home.

At 10:45pm, Bucky finally texts.

BUCKY: In a cab, won't be long

Steve grabs his blue hoodie, flinging it on along with his sneakers and heads out of his apartment. He sits on the front steps of the building waiting, not caring how cold it is and never thinking that he could miss Bucky so much in one day. He looks up, wishing that the light pollution wasn't so bad and he could see the stars. He tried going on the roof once just to see if it made any difference but it didn't.

A cab finally crawls down the street and Steve stands up. Bucky steps out and thanks the driver. He looks exhausted but smiles up at Steve like he hasn't seen him in a week. The force of his hug almost sends Steve stumbling back and he laughs softly.

"You'd laugh at me if I told you how much I've missed you today."

Bucky kisses him hard. "Likewise."

They head back into the building. "How was it?" Steve asks.

Bucky shakes his head. "Like I expected it to be. I just want to go to bed." He looks at Steve. "It was hard without you. Maybe...maybe next time I'll be able to ask you to come."

Steve puts his arm around Bucky's waist as they walk upstairs. "Whenever you're ready."

Bucky won't say anything more about the hospital and he takes several painkillers after he brushes his teeth. They get into bed, lying together in the dark and talking softly.

They fall silent for a while and Steve hopes that Bucky isn't asleep. "Buck?" he asks quietly.

"Yeah?"

"I read your journal."

It's a few minutes before Bucky speaks again. "And?"

Steve goes to speak but bursts into tears instead. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, I had no idea...I'm so sorry..."

Bucky cradles Steve's head as he sobs. "It's okay, Steve. It's okay."

"No, no it's not. How could you go through all of that and still be...how can I ever be any help...you went through so much..."

Bucky kisses Steve's hair. "Listen to me; I didn't write it to make you feel bad, or guilty, that's the last thing I wanted to do and I didn't want to upset you...when we had that fight and I told you that you could never understand...I felt so...I really WANTED you to understand...and I just couldn't talk about it. I can't even talk about everything with Jane. But I wanted you to be the one to know everything because you've always understood me, since the day we met. You've just...always known the right thing to say to make me feel better and you've never been angry or frustrated with me when I couldn't talk to you about everything...I wanted you to know what happened and exactly how I felt, during and after. So it was easier to write it all down."

Steve clutches at Bucky's arm. "I'm so sorry about everything that happened to you...I wish I could take it all away and make you not hurt anymore..."

"I know," Bucky kisses Steve's head again. "But...it took the worst thing to ever happen to me to get me to the best thing that ever happened to me."

Steve shakes his head and cries harder. He can feel Bucky smile against him.

"You know I'm talking about you, right?"

Steve chokes out a laugh. "Yes." He wipes his eyes. "Thank you for the journal. I just...it was really beautiful too. Your writing..."

"My writing's not too great..."

"No, it's so good, Buck. You have no idea."

Bucky strokes Steve's hair in the dark and brushes the tears from his cheeks. "I want you to be able to ask me stuff...about what happened, more than I've already told you... and I want to be able to answer. I think it's still going to take a long time. But at least the journal can help."

Steve kisses Bucky softly. "Thank you."

 

***

 

In the morning when they're both working, Steve approaches Bucky with the first of the two things he spent most of the previous day thinking about. He puts down his pencil and looks up at Bucky, humming softly to himself as he flats Steve's completed issue 10 pages.

"Buck, can I talk to you about something?"

Bucky doesn't look up from his laptop. "Sure."

"It's kind of important."

Bucky looks up, a crease of worry between his eyes.

"It's okay," Steve says quickly. "It's...art related. Kind of." He suddenly feels nervous. "Shit, now I'm worried about offending you or something..."

Bucky gives him a little grin. "Okay, kind of intrigued now."

Steve takes a breath. "Your journal. I think it's really important, because it's an account of what happened to you and how you started to get through it afterwards. But it's also...I think people with PTSD could really relate to it, with whatever's happened to them in their own lives because it's not just about you and Tim. I mean, the way you've written about it...it's just...really incredible."

Bucky looks down. "You really think it's that good?"

"Yes. I'm not just saying that. I was thinking...how would you feel about self-publishing it?"

Bucky looks up and Steve is worried that the idea is going to go veer towards the bad side of the scenario he had worked up in his head. "You mean like as a book?"

Steve suddenly panics. "Yeah, kind of. I'm...I don't want you to think I'm trivialising it and what happened to you..."

"Steve, you could never make me think that." He looks at Steve with such love in those grey-blue eyes that Steve feels more relief than he thought he would. "Would it work? As a book, I mean."

"Well, I've been thinking; it could work really well as mainly prose with maybe some key illustrations. Make it more abstract, I guess."

Bucky rests his head on his hands. "Would you illustrate it?"

"If you'd let me."

Bucky is quiet for a long time. "It would mean people knowing. About what happened to me."

Steve nods.

"Going to the VA has been hard. So much harder than I thought it would be. Listening to other people talk and having to talk to them about my...experiences. But it's kind of helped. It's still hard but I find that I want to talk more now, that holding it all in just makes me feel like...like I'm being slowly poisoned."

Steve thinks of Jim Howlett, alone in his life and already riddled with his own poison.

Bucky scratches his neck. "Can I talk to Jane about it?"

"Of course. Buck, it was just something I thought might be - "

Bucky gets up and walks around to Steve's desk. He pulls Steve up and holds him. "I think...I think I want to do it. I think I need to do it."

"I want to help. I want to be able to do something. I can never put the two halves of you back together as much as I want to but..."

Bucky's breath hitches. "You've done so much more than that."

Steve considers talking about the other thing he was thinking about yesterday, but decides to leave it until the time feels right.

 

***

 

Jane is more than encouraging to the idea of Bucky self-publishing his journal. He's only shown it to Steve, hesitant to show her when it's in such a raw state but she offers to proof read it if he decides to go ahead with self-publishing it. When he gets back to Steve's apartment later that morning, he tells him they should do it. Steve beams and shows him some ideas he'd already started to sketch. Just in case Bucky had said yes.

"I think we should keep it to the standard comic book format but we can look into getting it printed on some really nice heavy gsm paper with a bit of texture. It'll cost us more but I think it'll be worth it."

Bucky looks at some of the page layout ideas, overwhelmed by how much work Steve has already put in. "These are really incredible. You...you've drawn me as me."

Steve puts a hand on Bucky's back. "Well, yeah. It's all you. The whole thing."

Bucky smiles. "Um, what about colour?"

Steve shows him another sketch. "I think maybe black and white with one colour that we can use as a central emphasis. Maybe run it throughout, have it connect the images with some of the text..."

"Red," Bucky says, chewing his lip.

Steve rubs his back. "Okay."

They talk some more and decide to set aside a couple of hours together every day to work on the book. Steve tentatively suggests that they could aim to have it finished by the Pasadena convention, which is far enough away to get the work done, and sell a limited number of copies. Bucky lets out a shaky breath and agrees. They decide not to tell anyone else about the book for now.

"I can't think of a title," Bucky says.

"It'll come," Steve replies.

 

***

 

The days soon fall into a rhythm of work and being together, of video games and movies and sex. The book is coming together, Bucky working hard on getting the typography and lettering just right, Steve's illustrations fitting around Bucky's words and it finally starts to form a coherent thing.

They have a gaming night with Dan and Vic which ends up being hilarious, Vic being so good at Mario Kart that the others eventually ban him from playing so one of them might have a chance at winning. Dan brings over his N64 and they play Goldeneye until Steve begs off, finally fed up of always being the first one to die. Steve shows Dan his portfolio and the two of them spend the rest of the evening huddled over Steve's desk talking about original pages and favourite comic artists. Bucky and Vic watch Bob's Burgers and drink too much beer.

Bucky still has bad days but then so does Steve and they work through them together. There hasn't been a panic attack for either of them for a long while, each seeming to ground the other. They talk about taking a trip to New England when their deadlines ease off and Steve feels happy and excited, more than he ever thought possible. He gets away a lot for comic cons, but this is different. He's never been away with anyone special before. Bucky decides that they should go hiking on the trip and starts to research mountain trails.

They spend a lot of time in bed, talking, reading, loving each other. It doesn't take much for one of them to touch the other and find themselves suddenly naked, breathing hard together and forgetting what they had been doing before.

One day, after distracting each other so much that they couldn't work and ended up writing off the day to have sex, they lie together on Steve's bed, sweaty and sleepy, the afternoon sun moving across the wall. Bucky whispers filthy things into Steve's ear with a smile, even though both of them couldn't possibly do anything more. Steve lets him, laughing softly and running his hand lightly over Bucky's collarbone. They're both content, so at ease with each other now Steve finds it hard to think of the times that were filled with awkward glances and longings for intimacies that he thought would never be his. He finally feels like this is the right time to ask Bucky the other thing that has been burning through him since the day Bucky gave him his journal.

He turns and meets his eyes, seeing the faint glimmer of hope in Bucky's face that his dirty talk has maybe swayed Steve into another round.

"Move in with me," Steve says softly.

Bucky blinks and looks surprised, his eyes unsure, searching Steve's. "What?"

Steve props himself up on one elbow. "Move in with me. I mean, you practically live here anyway. You don't have much stuff and you'd save on rent and you would...live with me." He looks at Bucky hopefully.

"You...mean it?"

Steve smiles down at him. "Of course I mean it. Will you?"

Bucky grabs the back of Steve's neck and kisses him, deep and almost desperate, pulling Steve down onto him. They finally break away, both of them slightly breathless.

"Is that a yes?" Steve asks with a smile.

Bucky pulls on Steve's hair. "Yes it's a fucking yes!"

They both laugh and Steve kisses Bucky again, moving from his mouth along his jaw and down his neck, happier than he's ever been.

"Uh, where are you going?" Bucky asks with a smirk as Steve continues to kiss and lick his way down his body, enjoying the small gasps that Bucky makes at the light touches. He stops at Bucky's hip and looks up innocently.

"You know, I forget..."

Bucky makes a noise.

Steve smiles up at him and runs his hands down Bucky's thighs. "Oh, wait. I remember now..."

It's a few hours later after having eaten too much pizza, sat in their underwear on the couch watching Zombieland, that they decide on a date to have Bucky move in.

 

***

 

Nat shrieks so loudly when Steve tells her that he holds his phone away from his ear, wincing. Bucky looks up with an amused smile.

"I guess she's pleased for us."

It's later that afternoon when Steve, working on the front cover for Bucky's book in Photoshop, thinks of a title. The cover is a drawing of Bucky in his army fatigues, his left arm a dotted red line from the shoulder down. The red line is a central theme throughout the book and Steve is proud of how the whole thing has come together. The book is something that is entirely theirs, his and Bucky's.

"I think I have a title for the book," Steve says quietly and Bucky looks up.

"Yeah?"

Steve nods and writes it down on a scrap of paper, holding it up for Bucky to see. Missing Peace.

Bucky makes a pleased little noise. "That's...that's perfect."

 

***

 

Bucky moves into Steve's place a week later, his lease not all that hard to break and their landlord more accommodating than they would have thought. Bucky guts his apartment, throwing away anything he hasn't laid eyes on since he moved in and arranging for everything else, mostly kitchen stuff and a few stray pieces of furniture, to go to Goodwill. It only takes a few trips up to Steve's between them to get Bucky moved in. He stares sadly at the pile of boxes and framed pictures stacked together, his canvas print of Nighthawks resting against the couch.

"I can't believe this is all I have," he mutters.

Steve rests his head on Bucky's shoulder. "You've got more than you think," he says quietly and Bucky nods, trying not to measure his life in the few things heaped before him, but in the other things he's gained: Purpose, confidence, happiness. All because of a lonely blond haired boy who took a chance on him one day, reaching out in his own solitude.

 

***

 

Bucky puts his canvas of Nighthawks in the bedroom. Steve convinces him to put the picture of Tim up too. The rest of Bucky's things eventually merge with Steve's and then all of a sudden, they're living together. They work together and play together, Steve more inclined to dance with Bucky now, still self-conscious and embarrassed but pulled in by Bucky's strange magnetism that has held him since that first day.

One evening there's a power cut throughout the whole block and Bucky yowls in frustration because he hasn't saved his progress on BioShock Infinite for two hours. Steve kicks him in the dark and tells him it's own fault which sparks a play fight. Somewhere between Steve getting Bucky into a headlock and Bucky trying to pull Steve's socks off to get to his feet, they end up naked on the couch, Bucky moving over Steve, mouth pressed into his neck, gasping. Steve wraps his legs around Bucky and moves with him in the dark, both unable to say anything more than the other's name.

That isn't to say that things are perfect by any means. They squabble over little things but eventually work it out, always taking longer than it should, both of them too stubborn for their own good. They have a big fight a couple of weeks after Bucky moves in, mainly about Bucky's therapy - he wants to drop his sessions to one a week and Steve thinks it's a bad idea - and Bucky ends up storming out of the apartment, only to storm back in a minute later when he remembers that he doesn't live downstairs anymore. He slams the bedroom door for emphasis. When Steve ventures in a few hours later, they're both calm enough to talk about it.

Bucky comes back from a VA meeting one evening, despondent.

"What's wrong?" Steve asks, concerned.

"Jim won't be going to any more meetings," Bucky answers, turning one of Steve's sketchbooks left on the coffee table over and over in his hands.

"Why not?"

Bucky shrugs. "He didn't say. He just said that today's was his last and he hopes that I'll still go."

Steve knows that Bucky has started to talk more to some of the people at the meetings and that he's been for a beer with a guy called Rhodey. He'll be okay without Jim there but he knows that as little as Jim ever says, Bucky likes him. Steve himself has said nothing more to him after that day in the hallway, when Jim asked after Bucky.

"You'll be okay," Steve says and takes Bucky's hand.

Bucky rubs his thumb against Steve's. "I know I will, but what about him?"

A couple of years later, they'll both remember that evening as they watch, shocked and saddened, as the paramedics take Jim out of the building covered on a gurney, neither of them having seen or spoken to him for a long time. It will hit Steve hard and he'll remember how he tried to reach out to Jim as Jim had done for Bucky, if only to offer an awkward beer. But even back then, Jim's own demons had taken too firm a hold on him and there was no going back. Bucky and Steve will sit in silence, both cried out and finally decide together to look for another apartment.

 

***

Bucky finally works up the courage to show Steve his arm without the prosthetic. Bucky is in bed, reading the latest Winter Soldier with his character's new arc - Sam was right, it gets very dark but in a good way - and he puts the comic down. Steve is quietly sketching next to him.

"Steve?"

"Yeah?"

Bucky starts to undo the straps that act as a brace from under his arm. Steve looks up, surprised and puts down his sketchbook.

"Buck, are you - "

Bucky nods. "I'm sure."

Steve thought he would be prepared for seeing Bucky without his prosthetic but it still shocks him. He's so used to seeing Bucky with two arms, the asymmetry throws him off. He stares sadly at Bucky's arm, ending a couple of inches below his shoulder.

He looks up, Bucky's face scared and questioning.

Steve leans over and holds him. "Thank you," he whispers into Bucky's shoulder.

Bucky hugs Steve with his right arm and sighs heavily into him.

 

***

 

Missing Peace finally gets finished two weeks before the Pasadena Comic Con. Bucky prints out a copy for Jane to proof read. He won't show Steve the inside front cover, telling him he wants to wait until it's printed to show him. Jane reads it and hugs Bucky hard.

"Okay, so Bruce is going to pick us all up from LAX on the Thursday. I couldn't even convince him to let us take a shuttle," Nat says one morning on Skype. Bruce has insisted that they all stay with him for the con. Steve and Bucky have their flight booked, getting into L.A two hours before Nat and Clint do. They still haven't told the others about the book, wanting it to be a surprise.

"We'll have to get him something as a thank you; it's really generous of him to put us all up," Steve says and Bucky nods.

Nat agrees and they all talk excitedly about the con.

"You know, it's actually going to be really boring now that the two of you are actually together. That whole drama of waiting for the both of you to stop being oblivious morons was the highlight of our year."

 

***

 

The book arrives from the printer two days later, Bucky bursting excitedly through the door after signing for them downstairs. He puts the box down and steps back.

"I'm almost too nervous to look," he says looking up at Steve.

"But you've seen the proof! You know what they look like, idiot."

"I know but...we're going to be giving these to people." Bucky rubs his left arm. He finally bends down and opens the box, taking out a copy and walking over to Steve.

"Do I finally get to see the inside cover?" Steve asks with a little smile.

Bucky nods and hands the book to him. Steve opens it.

Missing Peace

Written by James Buchanan Barnes

Illustrated by Steven Rogers

For Steve, who saved my life.

And for Nat, Clint and Bruce, who all helped too, more than they could ever know.

Steve grabs Bucky and holds him, worried that if he tries to speak, he'll cry like an idiot instead.

Bucky smiles. "So you like it?"

Steve nods and kisses Bucky on the temple. "I love it. I love you."

Bucky kisses Steve softly on the lips. "You're something else, Steven Rogers."

 

***

 

They get into L.A on Thursday at 11am and get coffee, both excited as hell to see Nat and Clint, checking the arrivals board every five minutes to make sure their flight is still on time. Bucky jumps up when he sees them, Clint shouting "My boys!" from the other side of the terminal and getting a lot of looks.

Bucky starts to dance his way over to them and Steve groans in embarrassment as Nat and Clint start to dance too, dragging their bags with them and looking like a couple of lunatics. Clint finally drops his stuff and grabs Bucky in a hug, sliding one hand down to his ass and squeezing gently.

"I missed you so much," he says in a loud exaggerated whisper and Bucky crumples into hysterical laughter. Nat makes a disapproving noise.

"Hey, get your hands off of him. That's MY ass," Steve says and Clint lets go of Bucky and grabs Steve in a tight hug, grabbing his ass too as Steve laughs and struggles.

"Don't worry, I've missed yours too."

Nat elbows Clint out of the way and pulls Steve and Bucky into a hug, planting kisses on them both. "God, you both look great. I'm so happy to see you!"

"It's good to see you too, Nat. You look awesome." Steve kisses her cheek.

"Well, yeah. I know. I always look awesome."

They all head over to the exit, waiting for Bruce who pulls up a few minutes later. They all ambush him as he gets out of the car, his laughter muffled in a five-way bear-hug. They manage to squeeze most of everything into the trunk, Clint calling shotgun and Nat, Steve and Bucky squeezing into the back seat, already giggling madly.

"Betty is sad that she won't get to meet you guys but she's out of town at some big conference this weekend and couldn't get out of it. She made you all goody bags though." Bruce pulls onto the freeway and they all start complaining about the heat.

"Welcome to California!" Bruce cries and turns the air-con up full blast.

They get to Bruce's place just over an hour later; he lives just outside of Pasadena in a scarily nice neighbourhood.

"Holy fuck," Clint exclaims as Bruce pulls into his driveway. "You never told us you lived in the fucking Playboy mansion!"

"It's not that big," Bruce laughs.

Nat's eyes are wide as she stares at Bruce's house. "Bruce, this is amazing. How are you working in comics and able to afford this?!"

Bruce gives them a little smile. "It's all Betty."

Steve gives him a look. "What the hell does she do?"

"She's a neurosurgeon," Bruce says and they all start talking at the same time. He laughs and gets out of the car.

"How did we never know this?" Nat says, shielding her eyes as she looks up at the big two-story house. "That's a pretty significant thing to leave out of a conversation."

Bruce starts to unload the trunk as Steve and Clint babble about how the double garage is as big as their living rooms and Bucky points excitedly to a lizard scrabbling up the trunk of the palm tree next to the house.

"Like I'm just going to come out and say "Oh yeah, I'm living with a brain surgeon!" It never crossed my mind."

They all make more noise when they see the inside of the house and Clint drops to the floor and rolls around. "I'm sorry Nat, but I'm leaving you for Bruce. I don't care what price I have to pay - I live here now."

Nat kicks him and then shrugs. "You know what, I don't blame you."

They pile their con stuff next to the front door and Bruce takes them all upstairs.

"Okay, Nat and Clint, you're in this room. You have an en-suite bathroom." Nat squeals when she sees the room and Clint grabs Bruce and holds him by the shoulders.

"You know how much I've always respected you as a person right?"

Bruce laughs and twists away, walking down the hall. "Steve and Bucky, you're in this room. Sorry there's no en-suite but that bathroom is pretty much all yours." He points to a big bathroom on the other side of the hall.

Bucky gives him a look. "How disappointing. Come on, Steve. We're leaving."

Steve laughs and shakes his head. "Bruce, this is amazing. Thank you so much."

"Yeah, this is really too much," Nat says, her hands on her hips.

"Guys, you don't know how excited I am to have you here. It's no big deal."

"OH MY GOD THERE'S A FUCKING POOL," Clint shouts from the bedroom.

 

***

 

Bruce makes them all dinner later, after they've all scoured every inch of his house, Clint threatening to push everyone into the pool. They have burritos, tacos, nachos and a million other things, Bruce handing them all beer as they sit and eat in his huge dining room, an 80s compilation blaring from his iPod dock.

Bucky shouts with glee as Living On The Ceiling by Blancmange starts to play. He jumps up and starts to dance, the other all clapping and cheering in surprise.

"Holy crap, look at him go!" Clint cries.

Bruce laughs. "Wow, you never told us he was this good."

Bucky gives a shy little laugh and grabs Steve by the hand. "Come on, handsome."

Steve protests and turns red but eventually gives in to everyone else shouting at him to get up and fucking dance. He manages to match some of Bucky's moves, much to the delight of everyone else and finally sits back down with a flushed smile.

"Happy? Now leave me alone!" Bucky kisses him on the cheek.

Clint decides to try and do some break dancing to Grandmaster Flash, sending everyone into loud hysterical laughter, Nat sliding off of her chair onto the floor when he attempts to caterpillar across the room.

They all eventually head into the living room, drunk on laughter more than the beer. Nat and Clint flop down on the couch while Bruce sits on the floor. Steve and Bucky sit together on a huge leather bean bag, laughing as they shift around and try to roll each other off.

"You two are so damn cute," Bruce says with a grin.

They all start to talk about the con and Steve puts his arm around Bucky and gives him a smile.

"Shall I get the books?" Bucky asks nervously.

Steve looks over at the others, all talking easily.

"Yeah, I think it's a good time."

Bucky gets up and excuses himself and Nat gives Steve a happy little smile.

Steve sits up when Bucky comes back, giving him an encouraging nod.

"Um, can me and Steve talk to you guys about something?" he asks.

"Is Steve pregnant?" Clint says and they all laugh.

"Thanks Clint," Steve says. "This is kind of a big thing."

Clint suddenly sits bolt upright, completely serious. "Oh my god, you're getting married."

Bucky laughs and Steve gives him an annoyed groan. "No, we're not getting married."

Nat slaps Clint around the back of the head. "Will you shut the fuck up and let them speak?"

Clint sits back rubbing his head and Bucky sits down next to Steve. Steve puts his arm around Bucky's waist.

"I don't know how much you know - I mean, I know that Steve has mentioned to you guys that I lost my arm in Afghanistan."

Nat nods and says softly, "We never wanted to make a thing about it unless you spoke to us..."

Bucky shakes his head. "No, I'm glad you didn't...I don't think I could have talked to you guys about it but I wanted to say thanks for never making it an issue in New York. It meant a lot to me that you were so willing to make me your friend because of Steve."

They all make happy noises and Clint gives Bucky a big smile.

"You're a great guy; it's not hard to want to be your friend," he says and Bucky looks down. Steve pulls him in.

"Um, me and Steve have been working on a book. About...about how I lost my arm and what happened to me."

Nat sits forward. "You're kidding. You guys kept that quiet."

Bucky gives a small laugh. "Yeah, I kind of wanted to not say anything until it was done. I wanted you to all to be able to read it when it was finished." He gets up unsteadily and hands them all a copy.

"Oh my god, this is gorgeous," Bruce says as he flips through it. He sees the inside front cover and the inscriptions and motions to the others, suddenly quiet.

Clint looks slightly overwhelmed as he reads it and Nat looks up at them both with a pained expression.

"Bucky, this is...can we read it now? Like right now?"

Bucky nods. "Yeah, I was hoping you would. If that's okay."

They all start to read and Bucky rubs his palms on his jeans, hands shaking. He turns to Steve.

"I'm going to wait outside." He heads off to the back door.

Nat looks up at Steve. "Steve, this is incredible."

Steve stands up. "I'm going to go outside too. Thanks, you guys."

He finds Bucky sat on one of the lounge chairs next to the pool. He smiles as Steve sits next to him and looks up at the darkening sky. "It's so warm here."

"Yeah, it's nice."

"What if they hate it?" Bucky whispers.

Steve puts his arms around Bucky. "They won't."

Steve swings his legs up and shuffles down the lounge chair, pulling on Bucky's sleeve. They snuggle together and watch the stars come out.

It's over an hour later when they hear the back door open and they both sit up. Clint comes out of the house, red-eyed, and Bruce follows, his hands in his pockets.

Bucky stands up and goes to say something but Clint just pulls him into a hug, not saying a word. Bucky sags against him slightly and Steve hears a little sob escape him. Clint looks up at Steve and just gives him a little nod. Steve turns away, fighting to hold back his own tears. Clint holds Bucky for a few minutes and then pulls away, one hand on Bucky's shoulder as he wipes his eyes.

Bruce steps over to Bucky and gives him a hug too. "Bucky, that was...it's fucking amazing."

Bucky tucks his hands under his armpits and nods down at the patio. "Thank you," he says, voice choked with emotion.

Steve steps over to them. "Where's Nat?"

Clint swallows. "She went to the bathroom. She's...she's a bit of a mess."

Bucky makes a desperate noise and Clint puts an arm around his shoulder. "No, it's okay. It just hit her, that's all. She cares about the both of you a lot."

Bruce lets out a shuddery breath. "We all do."

Bucky moves over to Steve and cries into his shoulder, everything becoming too much for him. Steve rocks him and whispers softly. Clint and Bruce sit down on a lounge chair together and watch the pool.

Nat comes out of the house ten minutes later, eyes as red as Clint's and walks over to Steve and Bucky. She hugs them both hard. When she pulls away, she takes Bucky's left hand.

"Can I talk to you for a minute?" she says softly, her voice raw. Bucky nods and she leads him away from the pool. Steve watches as she speaks quietly to Bucky, bringing both hands to his face. He nods several times and then they hug. Whatever is said stays between the two of them and Steve never asks.

 

***

 

That night, when everyone has gone to bed, Bucky worries that he's killed the mood for the weekend.

"You haven't. They're all moved that you would want to share that with them. I said before, they're your friends now too."

"I never thought they'd react the way they did. They really...they really cared..." Bucky chokes up again.

"Of course they care. They think a lot of you," Steve kisses Bucky's hand.

Bucky takes a shaky breath. "This was a good idea. The book, I mean. I feel like it's starting to chip away at the bad parts of me that are still there. I never would have thought to do it."

Steve smiles against him. "I have some good ideas. But then it's easy having you to inspire me."

Bucky chuffs a little laugh. "You're such a sap."

He kisses Steve and sleeps better than he has done for a long time.

 

***

 

The next morning is bright and warm, the sky a single solid block of blue, bluer than Steve has ever seen it. Bruce drives them all to the con, ready for set up. They all pitch in with the money for the car parking at the convention centre and then throw extra money at Bruce for gas, all jumping out of the car quickly before he can throw it back at them . They all huff their con bags out to the front of the convention centre, things already getting busy. Cosplayers stand for photos in big groups and they all watch a huge glut of Final Fantasy characters pose in fight scenes for a while. Nat, Clint and Bruce start to head towards the main entrance but Bucky holds Steve back.

"Just wait a second," he says and Steve shouts to Nat.

She turns around. "What's up?"

"We'll just be a minute," Bucky calls to her. "We'll meet you in there."

Nat gives them both a little smirk and hurries to catch up with Clint and Bruce.

Bucky puts down the bags he's holding and Steve lowers his.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

Bucky puts his arms around Steve's neck. "You know, I don't care how much money we make on the book. I don't even care if nobody likes it. It's ours. I'm prouder of that than I am out of anything else I've ever done."

Steve smiles. "Me too. It feels...it feels really good."

"Maybe you can give one to Tony. See what he thinks," Bucky says with a sly grin.

Steve laughs. "You know what, screw it. I will. Not that he'll ever admit it if he thinks it's good..."

Bucky kisses Steve softly and Steve kisses him back, neither of them caring that they're in the middle of a bunch of people dressed as video game characters and completely getting in the way.

Bucky nuzzles his cheek against Steve's. "I love you, Steve Rogers."

Steve kisses Bucky's eyebrow. "I love you, Bucky Barnes."

They pick up their bags and head into the convention centre to catch up with the others.