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No Spirit Standing in the Sun

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One shit day in the late springtime, Bucky trudged to the clinic as usual and found he couldn’t get in the front door.

“What the fuck?” he said, because sharp fricatives calmed him these days. He shook the doors to no avail and swore again. After the third try and a set of breathing exercises designed to keep him from beating anyone to death with his fake arm, he saw a tiny, minuscule, virtually invisible sign taped to the door with some faint, totally illegible scrawl on it that apologized for the inconvenience and indicated he should enter through the back. Grumbling, Bucky kicked the brick of the building as he rounded the corner, just for the hell of it. Just so the building knew he was really, really inconvenienced.

Bucky only went to the meetings at the VA Outreach Center because he’d promised Morita he’d take care of himself just as Morita took one last rattling breath. It was bullshit of Morita to go and die on him just when he was making promises he didn’t want to keep. He cursed himself for a soft-hearted dumbass every time one of Sam Wilson’s sessions came around and he had to roll out of bed, grapple with the itchy-ass prosthesis, and make his way down to Chapel Street.

He never said anything at the meetings, just sat in the circle with his baseball cap pulled down low and his good arm tucked over his chest. He listened to the other vets spew out their sob stories and he thought of Morita, done in by the same IED that took Bucky’s arm, and Jones, who got to go home to Georgia two legs short, and Falsworth, who couldn’t get off the couch even to talk to his old pal Sergeant Barnes on the phone, according to his mom. Bucky thought of Dugan, who couldn’t handle being home and signed up for another tour only to bite it as soon as he got back to Iraq, and Dernier, whom no one had heard from in more than a year. Sometimes he would think of them and laugh, because weren’t they just a matching set? Didn’t they all deserve each other? So there he sat at the meetings Morita had tricked him into, a black hole of a man, and he couldn’t even feel bad about it. He had nothing left for this pack of strangers and the wounds they sported, so like his own and ugly for it.

He wound his way around the clinic until he found the same room they always had their meetings in. A few of the regulars were milling around the coffee dispenser on the back table, carrying on conversations too hushed for Bucky to make out, not that he wanted to. By the lectern at the front of the room, Sam was shuffling some papers, and even though Bucky had never spoken to him before, had never even opened his mouth in this room, Sam didn’t seem surprised when Bucky sidled up to him and asked what the hell they were doing keeping reception all locked up like it was.

“That contest they were running last year, do you remember?” Sam said.

Bucky could feel his brow furrowing as he shook his head.

“Oh.” Sam met his eyes, which he was always trying to do, and Bucky just let him get on with it this time. “Well, there was a mural contest,” he said. “Or a mural proposal contest, or something. It was open to vets and their families to basically propose a mural for the front room. So this dude won it, friend of mine, actually, and he’s going to start painting it tomorrow. They’re just cleaning it up, doing up a paint job, that kind of thing.”

“Why paint it now if he’s just going to paint over it?” Bucky said. His voice sounded loud in the quiet of the room, loud and scratchy and hoarse. Bucky cleared his throat. Sam tilted his head.

“Gotta give him a clean slate, don’t we?” Sam said, lips curling at the corners. “Canvas. Wall. Whatever, it’s gotta be sparkling. Can’t have no dirty foundation for high art.”

Bucky huffed, and it was kind of a laugh, rusty and disused, and he could tell that it delighted Sam. Normally Bucky would scowl just to spite anyone who got any enjoyment out of looking at him as if he were a sideshow, but as far as Bucky was concerned, Sam was the best of the bunch at the clinic. He never coughed up weird feel-good new-age lies about feeling your feelings — he just told it like it was, even if “it” was about feelings. Bucky had gone through four meeting leaders before finding Sam, so he knew a good thing when he saw it, and if Sam wanted to go all curly smiles at him, well, Bucky would try not to throat-punch him.

“You gonna say anything in today’s meeting, man?” Sam said.

“Nope,” Bucky said. Sam laughed, full on head back throat bared teeth glinting laughed, and that felt — good. Bucky was having a feeling, and it was good. He smiled back, just a quirk of his lips.

“All right,” Sam said. A few more people trickled into the room, and the vets in the back began taking their places in the circle of seats. Sam stuck his hand out and met Bucky’s eyes again. His were a deep, illuminated brown, ringed with black. Before he knew what he was doing, Bucky was shaking his hand, and Sam’s grip was firm and dry. The contact — Bucky’s first in a long, long time — zinged up his spine like electricity. “Can I get your name?”

Bucky paused, because he’d made himself a promise that he wouldn’t give anyone here anything of himself. He had so little left, and he needed it. But Sam was good, and easy to sit with, and never took what anyone didn’t want to give. Sam was safe.

“James,” Bucky said. “I’m James.”

“Pleased to meet you, James,” Sam said. “I’m glad you’re here, even if we annoy you.”

Bucky didn’t bother denying it. When the clock struck seven, he took his seat — back to a corner — and everyone else took theirs. Sam started the meeting by saying, “Let’s talk about this week’s small victories. Who’s got something to share?”

They went around the circle. Sheryl, who was about the size of a dime but could probably bench Bucky until he cried, began.

“My apartment had this termite nest.” Groans rose around the circle. “Seriously.” Sheryl shook her head as if waking from nightmares. “Turns out they were eating the wall between my bedroom closet and the bathroom, and if I put anything against either wall, it was gonna crumble. My piece of shit landlord was acting like it was no big deal, but I got an extermination guy in there and he charged my landlord’s dumb ass instead of mine. So now I’m termite-free and don’t even have to pay for it.”

“Hey man, that’s not even a small victory,” Antoine said. “That’s like an Everest victory. You can’t be showing the rest of us up like that right off the bat.”

Sheryl smirked and jabbed a middle finger up.

“Suck it up, dude,” she said. “Your turn.”

Antoine was a big guy — 6’5” if he were an inch, all of it solid muscle — who had incongruently dainty mannerisms. He sighed and shifted, crossing his legs at the knee.

“I talked to my dad on the phone for ten minutes without yelling,” he said. From past sessions, Bucky knew that Antoine’s dad was a ball-busting asshole who was never happy with anything Antoine did.

“That’s so small feat, Antoine,” Sam said. “Good for you.”

More murmured encouragement came out of the rest of the group, and Antoine nodded and raised his hands up.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Ain’t no epic tale of termite vanquishing.” He nodded to Dennis, the munitions specialist to his right.

“I, uh. You know. Used my breathing exercises.” Dennis squirmed in his chair.

“When did you need them?” Sam asked.

“When my customers were being assholes,” Dennis said. He flexed and unflexed the fist on his knee. “Which means I do it like, ten times a day. Fifteen on Wednesdays.”

“That’s a lot of progress, man,” Sam said.

“Thanks,” Dennis mumbled. He snuck a glance at Bucky, who waved on his turn. What victories did he have anyway? He’d kicked a building not half an hour before, and he’d hoped it had hurt the building’s feelings. He was a damn mess. He fixed his attention on Everett, who had taken the time away from the army to gain thirty pounds of beer belly. Bucky couldn’t blame him.

“My mom’s car’s air conditioning went out,” Everett said. “And she can’t afford to bring it into the shop again. So I got under there and figured stuff out and fixed it on my own.”

“Awesome,” Sam said.

“How are we defining ‘small victories’ again?” Antoine said.

“Jordan,” Everett said, and to his right Jordan took a deep breath. She was tall and black-eyed and had no extra body mass to her. She was the only one of them who’d kept her hair shaved close to her scalp.

“I told my brother about me and Alana, and then how Alana died. I didn’t cry or punch anyone.”

Bucky found himself nodding, and he met Jordan’s eyes by accident. He felt flayed open.

“That’s fuckin’ boss,” Sheryl said, and Jordan’s gaze skittered away from Bucky’s before he could break away himself.

“Thanks,” Jordan said quietly. She looked at Jamil, whose dream of opening a breakfast joint was being delayed by his night terrors.

“I made the perfect pancake,” Jamil said. His face split in a grin, and his spine was straight and tall. Sam grinned back at him.

“You better bring us some someday,” he said, and Jamil nodded so hard his head seemed as if it might fall off.

Corey, a single dad since his girl left during his second tour, went last.

“So my kid wanted this Thomas the Tank Engine,” he said. “But not just any Thomas the Tank Engine. This really weird one with bells and whistles, hard to find, and fuckin’ expensive, obviously. Girl didn’t exactly inherit her taste from me.” Chuckles, polite or genuine, Bucky couldn’t tell, tittered around the circle. “But anyway, it’s her birthday soon, right? And she’s been a real champ lately, so I scrounged and saved and found a good deal online, and I got it for her. It came in the mail yesterday, and it’s really fuckin’ cool, too, I can’t even blame her.”

The group congratulated him, told him he did a good job and he was a great dad. When everyone was done, Sam leaned into the circle, elbows propped on his knees.

“It sounds like everyone did some great work this week,” he said. “We’re fed this idea that our lives are narratives, with clear rising and falling action, arcs, goals that masquerade as climaxes before our happily ever afters. How many of us thought everything would change and be smooth sailing once we got that job we wanted, once we got married, once we had kids? But the truth is, there’s no storybook to follow. The truth is, all we’ve got are a series of moments, and they build up until we can look at them as a collection of choices we’ve made. Can we be happy with our choices? Can we define those moments on our own terms, or do we let them define us? I want to propose that these victories y’all had this week are not small at all. They’re moments you seized and took control of — they’re moments you’re rightfully proud of, because you worked for them and you worked through them and you came out the other side standing tall. Ain’t nothing small about that.”

It was time for a break, and then they went around again talking about a moment where they could have made a better choice. It felt like sitting in on confession, everyone ticking off their bad deeds or castigating themselves for knee-jerk reactions they wished they didn’t have. Sheryl had snapped at the waiter at dinner with her sister, Antoine hung up on his dad, Dennis kicked a stall door in the work bathroom and dented it, Everett ignored his nieces and nephews when they wanted him to play with them, Jordan got so drunk over the weekend she blacked out, Jamil freaked out because his all his frying pans were warped, and Corey had a tantrum when his daughter did.

Sam started in on his validating, inspirational speeches again.

“We need to acknowledge our emotions as they occur,” he said. “Allow them, catalogue them, and then try to comport ourselves in a healthy manner that doesn’t do harm either to ourselves or the people around us, even in the heat of the moment. Pushing them down and pretending they aren’t there only sets us up for a future meltdown. Part of being kind to ourselves is not denying what we feel, no matter how nonsensical it might seem. That’s just part of what it means to be a person.

“It’s also important to look at how we’re letting guilt color our behavior — you know what I’m hearing a lot of? I’m hearing a lot of stuff about how you felt bad you did something, but not about how you rectified it. Guilt can trick us into believing that because we feel bad, we’re taking responsibility for our behavior, but the reality is that it’s easy to let guilt run the show. It’s easy to wallow and do nothing about what’s causing our guilt. But it’s not helpful, or healthy, or how we heal.”

Bucky closed his eyes, but he couldn’t escape the sight of the bodies of children, broken and lifeless, in the rubble his unit had reduced a whole village to. He couldn’t escape the bile that rose up in the back of his throat.

“What if you did something really bad?” he said suddenly, and he felt the weight of eight pairs of eyes settle on him. He forced himself to open his own. Only Sam was able to school his expression away from outright shock. Bucky cleared his throat and dropped his gaze to the floor. He worried the edge of his sleeve in his fingers. “If you did something really bad, are you allowed to feel guilty? What if there’s no making up for the things you did? What if there’s no apology that can ever make what you’ve done better?”

There was a long moment of silence, and Sam shifted once in his seat, slowly, as if in a concentrated effort not to spook anyone.

“Guilt is an emotion, same as any other, that must be acknowledged and dealt with,” he said. “It’s just one that can be easy to get lost in, and those who get stuck there can’t usually make the necessary positive strides in readjusting to civilian life. No one’s asking you not to feel guilt, but we’re trying to find a way to make it productive. But we’re talking about being here now, in the moment, in the States. We’re talking about our experiences in coming home after war. Do you want to talk about your service, James? Because if you do, that’s something we can make time for.”

Bucky shook his head and slouched further in his chair.

“Okay,” Sam said. “Thanks for speaking today, James.”

Murmurs rose up around the circle as everyone thanked Bucky for sharing, and congratulated him on the big step he took, and Bucky gritted his teeth and hunched his shoulders inward.

Sam ended the session with some tips on overcoming “the guilt wallow” as he termed it, and a reminder that every victory was an important one. Bucky slipped out like a shadow, and he walked home because it was drizzling, and he deserved it, and if anyone jostled him on the subway right now he didn’t know what he’d do.

He considered that choice his victory for the week.

Mrs. Epstein was ninety-three years old and pretty spry for it, but she was still ninety-three years old, which meant that when Bucky got home just before 10 o’clock, she was asleep, and he had to tiptoe through the apartment to get to the single bedroom he rented from her. He found a note on his door asking him if he’d be a dear and get some heavier groceries for her in the morning. He always did on Fridays, reliable enough to set a clock by, but he liked that she always asked. He also tidied up for her and helped her do errands if she needed it, and she kept his rent almost criminally low, which was perfect when construction jobs dried up. She never treated him as if she were doing him some kind of huge favor, and he appreciated it.

He took his boots off and set them gently on the floor. His prosthesis came off with a sigh of relief. As he turned his table lamp on and settled into bed with some Bradbury, he hoped tonight wouldn’t be one of the nights he woke Mrs. Epstein with his nightmares.

The next time Bucky went to the Outreach Center, the blocked off front doors had better signage and he chose not to kick the corner of the building. He went around the back and made his way to the usual room, where Sheryl was playing with her phone and Sam was speaking earnestly to Jamil. Bucky didn’t have a watch and hardly kept his phone on him, but he figured he must be early. He couldn’t bring himself to plop into a chair yet, not after last time, not with so few people to occupy Sam’s time and earn his kind eyes. Bucky receded back and slipped down the hall on silent feet, until he found himself rounding a corner toward reception. The lights were on.

He peeked inside and found the entire huge space done up in scaffolding and protective plastic. A faint pencil grid marked the white walls, and other marks he couldn’t make out had been sketched on. He thought no one was there until he caught sight of a guy high up in the scaffolding to his right, hunched over on his knees and scribbling. The guy was so close to his work, his nose was probably smudging the wall. Bucky tried to close the door and leave him be, but the plastic under the door crinkled and in his peripheral vision Bucky saw the artist’s head pop up. Bucky chose, in that moment, not to swear aloud. He built up a lot of small victories that way.

“Hello?” the artist said. He leaned to the side and peered at Bucky curiously.

Bucky’s brows drew downward even as he tipped his head up to look at the artist. There was a niggling feeling at the back of his mind, the same feeling he got when he knew he was forgetting something but couldn’t get his fool brain to give it up.

The artist’s hands seemed huge, too big for a guy with such a small frame, and they were smudged with pencil. Bucky could see he even had a stripe of it over his nose and down one cheek. His hair was light, a little overlong and falling in his eyes, and he had the kind of skin that blistered after about two seconds in the sun. If his eyesight wasn’t failing him, Bucky thought he could detect freckles, and the maddening thought that he had left the oven on or failed to lock the door or something else really important intensified, damn near choked him out.

“Hey,” he said after a moment, because that was the right response when someone talked to you. Above him, the artist tilted his head. The ceiling lights backlit him, made him look like something from bad student photography whose creator was convinced it was art. A false angel. Bucky wondered what he looked like to this man whose entire life must revolve around creating beauty: a scruffmonster with tangled hanks of hair hanging limply down from underneath a baseball cap, thrift store clothes, threadbare and ill-fitting, one hand in a pocket and the other a dead weight at his side, unmistakable for anything but what it was — a consolation prize for absence. Bucky rolled his shoulders inward, suddenly self-conscious. “Sorry — I’ll leave you alone,” he said.

“Hey, you don’t have to,” the artist said. He twisted and shifted until his legs were dangling off the edge of the platform he was on. Out of his tatty work shorts stuck knobby knees and delicate ankles, dusted with fine golden hair that glinted in the aggressive lighting. He was looking at Bucky hard, as if Bucky were a puzzle to be unlocked. “It gets kind of lonely in here by myself all day.”

“No one helps you?”

“I have a couple assistants,” the artist said. “Interns on loan from a gallery to hand me things and get me food and stuff, but I work longer hours than them. It’s not fair to keep them like that.”

“How long do you think it’s gonna take?” Bucky said.

The artist laughed then, and he shoved a big hand through his hair. Something in Bucky’s brain went haywire at the sound, the sight of it. He knew this guy, but from where, where, where?

“Jeez, I have no idea,” the artist said. “I’ve never done anything like this before, you know? It’s supposed to be my big break, but the truth is I’m terrified. What if it comes out like crap? What if I tell them six months, but it takes two years? What if I’m just not…”

“Hey,” Bucky said. “You won the contest, right? That means you’re better than good enough. That means you’re the best. It’s gonna be great, you shouldn’t worry.”

The artist wiped a hand over his eyes, smearing more graphite all over himself, and then peered down at Bucky sharp-eyed.

“Do I know you?” he said. “I’m not being weird, I just… I feel like I know you. What’s your name?”

Thank fuck I’m not going crazy, Bucky thought.

“James,” Bucky said. On impulse he stuck his hand up in the air, and the artist stretched downward to shake it.

“I’m Steve,” the artist said, and then there it was, like sunrise over a valley. Or a bomb in the mountains.

“Steve Rogers,” Bucky said faintly. “Jesus Christ, it’s Steve Rogers.”

Both of Steve’s eyebrows went up, and in a fraction of a second, he shimmied down the scaffolding and landed with a crinkling of plastic at Bucky’s feet. He had to crane his neck to look up into Bucky’s face. He peered at him searchingly until his mouth parted and his breath wavered out of his lungs.

“And you’re Bucky Barnes,” he said. He reached out as if disbelieving, hands gripping Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky, stunned, let him. “God, how long has it been?”

How long had it been since the only stable home Bucky had ever known fell apart in a matter of hours?

“Seventeen years,” Bucky said. He cleared his throat when the words came out like a croak. “God, it’s been seventeen years.”

Steve’s big eyes were shining up at him, same as ever. Last they’d seen each other, Bucky had been twelve, Steve had been almost eleven, and they were the last kids in the house to be taken away from the Furys. Nick, their foster dad, had had a stroke, and the state of New York had found him and his wife Natasha unfit to be foster parents any longer. Bucky had cried for a week straight, but when he was done, there was no force on Earth that could make him shed a single tear again. Until Iraq.

“I looked for you,” Steve said, hands still locked on Bucky’s biceps. “I Googled and Facebooked and everything, but.” He laughed, soft and bitter. “But I guess your name was never really Bucky. God, I should have known.”

“Do you know how many Steve Rogerses there are?” Bucky said. “Like, ten million.”

“I’m not actually on Facebook,” Steve said. “It gives me the heebie jeebies.”

Bucky felt his face split in a smile. It felt good.

“Me too,” he said. Then, as if without his brain’s volition, Bucky threw his good arm over Steve’s shoulder and crushed him to his chest. Steve locked his arms tight around Bucky’s waist. Bucky’s face was in his hair, and he smelled just the same — sunshine sweat and pencil dust. Bucky remembered flash lights and giggling in bunk beds, catching toads at the cabin in the summer time, making little comic books that only Nick and Natasha ever bought from them for a quarter. Bucky breathed Steve in and remembered. Squeezed him harder.

“God it’s good to see you,” Steve said. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

Bucky had to laugh at that. He stepped back, and Steve’s arms fell from their place around him. He felt just that bit emptier for it.

“Your eyes must be mighty sore then, pal,” he said.

“You bet your ass they are.” Steve looked him up and down, grinning. “Yep, best thing I’ve seen in years.”

Bucky gave Steve a soft slug on the shoulder, and Steve beamed that million-watt smile up at him.

“Look at you,” Bucky said. “Winning big time art contests and shit. I’m gonna be telling people I knew you back when.”

“I probably still have one of our comics.”

“That shit’ll be worth a lot in a couple years, you wait and see.”

“I’ll split it with you.”

Bucky’s face felt sore from smiling. They stared at each other for a second, and then Steve said, “Hey, do you wanna catch burgers or something? I can probably call it a day on this.”

“Yeah, let’s,” Bucky said. But then he blinked and stepped backward. “Oh shit, I can’t. I’ve got a meeting. I’m probably late. Oh what the hell, I’ll skip and we can go somewhere.”

“No, hey, don’t skip,” Steve said. The tender pink tip of his tongue came out to wet his lips, and Bucky refused to let his eyes stray to it. “Meetings are important. I can always work on this some more.” He slapped the wall. “Come find me when you’re done.”

Bucky got the foreign urge to squeeze one of Steve’s cheeks with all five fingers. He made his promises and beat it out of reception before he could do anything stupid like act on said urge.

At the meeting, he was buzzing with energy, leg bouncing like the world’s peppiest jackhammer. Sam asked him twice if there was anything he wanted to share. Both times, he shook his head, and when the meeting was done he was off like a shot.

Clarissa was explaining it all to Bucky and his three foster sisters when Nick came in and turned the TV off.

“Awwww!” came the chorus of little voices, but Nick just stood in front of the TV with his hands on his hips. He glowered down at them real good but you could tell he didn’t mean it. Before Bucky had landed in the Fury house two years earlier, he’d become pretty handy at telling when someone meant their glower.

“Family meeting,” Nick said. “I want four little bums in their chairs at the table for some strawberry shortcake, pronto.”

The girls, who were all under six, squealed and popped up from the floor to stampede into the kitchen. Bucky got up with a little more dignity, being a big kid at nine years old. Nick made a half-smile at him and clapped his shoulder.

“Natasha doesn’t just make strawberry shortcake for no reason,” Bucky said. “Or at all.” Natasha’s skills in the kitchen were limited to sandwiches. Nick did anything more complicated, and he’d been gone all day at work.

“Hell no,” Nick said. “I bought it on the way home.”

“What’s going on?”

Nick patted him, none too gentle in his nudge to get Bucky into the kitchen.

“You worry too much, Buck,” Nick said. “Quit dragging your feet and get some damn dessert.”

He had been plied with fudge brownies when Aisha arrived, peach crumble with Lana, and some kind of squishy custard thing with Rosie. Other kids had come before too, short termers, and Nick and Natasha always made sure Bucky and everyone else had something special to eat just before breaking the news. That was the pattern. That was how it went with the Furys.

Still, Bucky was always afraid the day would come when they would be all soft and happy full of sweets and the Furys would announce that it was time for Bucky to get out of their house.

The strawberry shortcakes were tall, soft biscuits still steaming from being warmed in the oven, piled high with vanilla ice cream, strawberry slices, and strawberry drizzle. Everyone but Bucky had whipped cream, because he hated whipped cream, and Rosie had to have sprinkles. Bucky ate his mechanically, barely tasting it, watching the ugly bird clock on the wall tick away. When Aisha and Lana had made a respectable mess of themselves, the table, and the floor underneath them, Nick finally quit it with the small talk about how everyone’s day went and got to the point.

With his elbows planted on the table and his one eye somehow on all four of them at once, Nick said, “We’re getting a new addition.”

And Bucky, even though he knew it had been coming, even though he knew there was no dessert for when kids left, let go of a knot that had tightened around his lungs.

Natasha reached out and rubbed his shoulders, because she was some kind of mind reader or something.

“It’s a boy this time, just a little younger than you, Bucky,” she said, and Bucky’s heart leapt. There hadn’t been another boy in the house for ages. “His name is Steve. Rosie, we’re going to move you into Aisha and Lana’s room to make room for Steve to bunk with Bucky, okay?”

Rosie nodded solemnly, scraping the sprinkles off her ice cream carefully and plugging her mouth with the spoon. There were two sets of bunk beds in the girls’ room anyway, from when there had been more kids in the house. Natasha squeezed Bucky’s shoulder once before dropping her hand.

“Now listen here, kidlets,” Nick said. “Our friend Steve has just lost his mama, and he’s very, very sad. I expect you all to be nice as pie, got it?”

“They’re fine, Nick,” Natasha said sternly. They never yelled at each other, or the kids, even when they were mad. Bucky liked that about being with the Furys. “Remember how scary it was to come to a new home?” she asked, and around him the girls all nodded, big-eyed.

Bucky had been through three homes after his dad had given him up and before he’d been placed with the Furys. He’d learned to be afraid in those homes, and to listen to his fears. They’d kept him alive. Coming to the Fury house had been like coming to any other — it was the staying, and the learning that no one here was going to take their mood out on him and the other kids, that was different.

“He’s lucky he’s coming here for his first go,” Bucky said suddenly, and then sank in his chair, shoulders hitched up to his reddening ears, when Nick’s eyebrow went up and Natasha got a foreign, soppy look on her face.

“He’ll be even luckier to have you for a brother,” Natasha said. To his left, Lana reached out with one chubby toddler hand and smeared his cheek with ice cream. Rosie and Aisha giggled, and Natasha stood to wet a napkin for him. “I think that’s her agreeing with me,” she said, and Bucky sighed. He pushed Lana’s hand away gently and wiped himself down with the napkin Natasha offered.

When Steve arrived the next afternoon, he was smaller than Bucky expected, about the same size as Rosie for all that she was two years younger than him. He had one big duffle bag and a stubborn set to his chin. His hair was fine and pale, sticking up here and there on account of being too fluffy. He had giant eyes that threatened to swallow his face. Lana and Aisha hid behind Nick’s legs as Natasha was introducing them to Steve, and Rosie shook his hand as gravely as she did everything else. 

“And this is Bucky,” Natasha said finally. Nick’s hands on Bucky’s shoulders gave him a little shove forward, and Bucky stuck his hand out. Steve’s hand was little and damp, but the shake was surprisingly firm.

“Hi,” Bucky said.

“Hi,” Steve said. 

There was a pause as they eyed each other, and then Bucky felt one of Nick’s toes poke him in the ankle. 

“Let me take your bag,” Bucky said, just like Nick had told him to. Steve handed it over with only a little hesitation. “You wanna see our room?” Bucky asked. That earned him a tentative curve of Steve’s mouth. Bucky jerked his chin in the direction of the bedrooms and led Steve down the hall, the heavy duffle dragging along on the carpet behind him. 

That night after lights out, Bucky lay in the top bunk, listening to Steve sniffle as quietly as he could. Bucky tried to sleep, but he was wide awake, and behind his eyelids was his father, tearful as he signed the papers to make Bucky someone else’s problem.

Bucky turned over on his side and slid his hands underneath his pillow. He had a reading light stashed there, and a couple beat up comics he’d read thousands of times. He had to think about it for only a second before he was dangling over the side of his bunk with the reading light in one hand and a comic in the other.

“Hey,” he said. “You want one of my comics?”

There was a pause in the sniffling, and then Steve’s voice came, damp and hesitant.

“Okay.”

Bucky held out his hands and in the dark he could see the shape of Steve sit up in his bedding. He took what was offered and mumbled a congested thank you.

Bucky hauled himself back up into his bunk. A dim light flooded the bedroom and Bucky heard the turn of the pages between muffled sniffs. He turned his face to the wall.

“I miss my parents too,” he said, quiet. From the silence that followed, he knew Steve could hear him. “But don’t worry. The Furys — they’re good. So.”

Steve didn’t say anything, but the pages kept turning and the ragged breathing stopped, so Bucky figured it was safe if he closed his eyes.

Steve got a burger about the size of his head and practically had to unhinge his jaw to get the first bite, but he managed it somehow. Bucky watched in admiration as Steve took the kind of bite that would have Bucky covered in ketchup and lettuce and cheese, and chewed it with a weird, misplaced delicacy. Bucky, for his part, had ordered a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and he was working on cutting it down the middle like a huge goober before trying to get it in his mouth.

“So,” Steve said after he’d swallowed and dabbed at his mouth. “The army, huh?”

Bucky felt one side of his mouth lift in a facsimile of a smile.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Steve only tilted his head, burger steady in both hands. His eyes were like the sky in early morning.

“Benefits,” Steve said. “College, training, pension.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah.”

Steve broke eye contact, suddenly very interested in his own fries.

“I tried to join up, when I was eighteen,” he said. When he lifted his eyes again, they were wry and bright. “Be like my dad, you know? But. I’m not like him.” Steve gestured vaguely at himself, expression suddenly pinched and drawn.

“Not dead like him, you mean,” Bucky said, and he felt his own eyes widen in time with Steve’s. His stomach clenched and he felt sick. “Oh God,” he said, “Jesus, Steve, I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry, I’m so fucking—”

“No — hey, Buck, it’s okay,” Steve said. “You’re right, you know? You’re right.”

“I shouldn’t have fucking opened my big dumb trap,” Bucky said.

Underneath the table, Bucky felt Steve’s shoes bump at his ankles.

“You tell it like it is,” Steve said. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you.”

Bucky didn’t say anything. He poked around at his fries, but didn’t pick any up.

“Besides,” Steve went on, “once I got a little older, I realized a few things about the US military forces. Everything in the last seventy years has been neo-imperialist posturing and greed. My dad died for oil and pride and racism.”

“So did all my friends,” Bucky said. Because even if Falsworth, Jones, and Dernier — hell, even if Bucky himself — were still walking around with pulses in their necks, something essential in them had still died out there in the dust and sand. He could barely grasp at the reasons he’d once had to join up. He saw the Adam’s apple in Steve’s throat bob, and then their eyes met again, and Steve nodded.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Steve said. His smile was small and lopsided, and Bucky wanted to touch it with his good hand. “I’m glad you found me.”

“What’s a peacenik like you doing painting the VA anyway?” Bucky winked and tapped Steve’s foot under the table. He picked up half of his burger and raised his eyebrows at Steve over the bun. Steve snorted and shrugged.

“The contest was open to the family members of vets, too,” he said. “I saw the ad, saw the prize money and the perks, and I had an idea and I thought why not, you know? I was just finishing my MFA and looking for any opportunities to get my work out there. So I drew up a proposal and sent it in and I didn’t think about it again for six months. Then I get this call.” Steve blinked hard and shook himself. “It still feels surreal. I keep waiting for them to say they made a clerical error and I’m second place, or they called the wrong guy that first day.”

“You’re in, though,” Bucky said. “You’re already making the blueprints or whatever on the walls.”

Steve’s bony shoulders rose and fell in another shrug, and the crooked smile he wore scraped at Bucky’s lungs.

“Still can’t believe it,” he said. “Just because the brain knows a thing doesn’t mean the heart does.”

Bucky grunted and plugged his piehole with burger before more dumb words could come flying out of his face.

“Tell me about you, though,” Steve said. “Tell me about the last seventeen years. I want to hear everything.”

Bucky let himself wonder, just for a moment, how everything would have been different if they’d managed to stay together, if their plan at worked, if Nick had never had the stroke at all. After a while, ketchup plopped down over his fingers, and he shook himself. He found Steve peering at him with a furrow in his brow.

“Bounced around some foster homes,” Bucky said, voice a croak. He cleared his throat. “Some were crap, some were just not good fits, whatever. When I was sixteen they put me in a group home. Got my GED when I aged out. Worked as a bike courier and a busboy and a bouncer and one time an office temp but that didn’t work out. Then for a few years, I was a mechanic. That was cool.”

Steve was nodding along, as if he were really listening, as if he were really interested in the boring minutiae of Bucky’s life as an unwanted, unnoticed vagabond. Bucky’s throat felt clogged with words he’d never said to anyone, but Steve’s eyes, big and earnest, made him want to say everything. He took a deep breath, and it shook only a little bit coming in.

“I got to be like twenty-five, and I wanted to do something real,” he said. “I got it into my head to go to college for mechanical engineering. Suddenly I had this big life goal, you know? I’d never had one before. And I didn’t have anyone to help me figure anything out, like what the hell is a FAFSA, and what’s the timeline for applications, and who do you ask for letters of recommendation if you don’t know any teachers or whatever? Who was going to help me? How could I pay? What fucking college would even take someone like me?” Bucky pushed three fries slathered in ketchup into his mouth just to catch his thoughts. Steve looked increasingly like Bambi, sitting across from him with his tragedy mask on. Bucky wiped his mouth with a napkin and shook his head.

“The army had all the answers,” Steve said. Bucky nodded. “They helped you with your questions and getting things in order. They even promised to pay for the whole shebang.”

Bucky’s lips twisted up. “All you gotta do is sell your soul first.”

Steve looked just about ready to say something sappy or horrifically supportive, so Bucky kicked back in the booth and looked off over Steve’s shoulder.

“What about you?” he said. “I need the full scoop on Steve Rogers, master of fine arts.”

Steve scoffed and hunched in over his plate.

“I bounced around a little too,” he said. “After a few tries, I landed with this family on Long Island. You know the type who have like fifty kids and keep adopting them? They were nice enough, but families like that are stretched too thin most of the time. I turned them down when they offered to adopt me, too. I was practically eighteen, and other kids needed them more than I did. We still send each other Christmas cards and all, but that’s it.” Another shrug. “After high school, I went to Hunter for their studio art program, and after that, I worked in graphic design for a couple years before going to grad school at SUNY Purchase. Studio art and art history dual degree. And that’s you caught up on boring old me.”

They looked at each other over their plates. Overhead, a fluorescent light bulb flickered, and time seemed suddenly both vast and vaporous.

“Seventeen fucking years,” Bucky said faintly.

“Yeah,” Steve said, and this time his smile was sad.

When Steve turned eight, they were up at Natasha’s family’s cabin in the Adirondacks, where they always went for a few weeks in the summer. He not only turned eight, but he also lost a tooth, which Bucky could see had a tiny hole in it.

“I hope you didn’t hurt yourself getting that thing out,” Bucky said. The tooth kinda had chunks of blood and gum stuck to it as if Steve hadn’t been able to wait for it to loosen up on its own, and Steve’s smile was tinged pink all over, but it was as big as ever. “I bet we could put it on a string and give it to Aisha for a birthday necklace.” Bucky took the tooth in one hand and Steve in the other and dragged them outside.

“Won’t Aisha put it in her mouth and choke on it?” Steve said. Aisha was still little, having just turned four. She’d gotten her own little cake, and so had Steve five days later.

“Maybe Rosie, then,” Bucky said. He went straight for the hose on the side of the cabin facing the lake.

“It’s not Rosie’s birthday,” Steve said. “Is it? When’s Rosie’s birthday?”

“November, I think,” Bucky said. He picked up the hose and sat Steve on the steps. “Open up,” he said, and Steve popped his mouth open without hesitation. Bucky turned the tap on low and aimed the stream into Steve’s mouth. It was hot out, but Steve still squealed when the water got all over him. “You gotta swish the blood out,” Bucky said. Steve got a mouthful and sealed his lips before swishing it all around dramatically. “Now spit.”

Steve spat and then grinned big. Bucky inspected his face and found him blood free.

“Good,” he said. “Now hold out your hands.” Steve did, and Bucky fished the tooth out of his pocket. He put it in Steve’s cupped palms, then filled the little reservoir with water. He stuck a finger into the pool and rolled the tooth around Steve’s hands to clean it off. When it looked clear, he turned the hose off and plucked the tooth from Steve’s hands. He put it back in his pocket, and Steve dumped the water. He wiped his palms off on his shorts, which were wet anyway, but a second later, he had pitched himself face first into the grass, and Bucky practically tripped over him. “Steve!”

“Look, a toad!” Steve said. He held up his hands for Bucky to look. Sure enough, there was a tiny little toad there, about the size of a dime. “Hey Bucky, get a bucket,” Steve said, and laughed. Bucky rolled his eyes but went rummaging for a bucket anyway.

“There are loads of ’em around,” Bucky said when he got back. Steve set the toad gently in the bucket. He put some leaves in, and some grass, and then a splash of water from the hose.

“Let’s get a bunch, then,” Steve said. “I kinda like how they smell.”

Bucky knew what he meant. All the Adirondacks seemed to smell of crisp cut grass and cool fresh rain, and the toads added a whiff of sweetness to it. Bucky, who had never been out of the city before living with the Furys, knew how easy it was to get silly on the novelty of it.

Bucky and Steve hunted around the property for toads. They were best found in cool, damp spaces in the shade, like under some trees or even under the deck. The pier seemed a little too wet for them. When they had so many Bucky couldn’t see the bottom of the bucket anymore, they hefted the bucket back behind the house and Bucky told Steve to lie down. Before he could, Natasha sauntered out, arms crossed, and peered into the bucket, eyebrows drawing together.

“What are you boys doing to those poor things?” she said.

“Pourin’ ’em out over Steve,” Bucky said.

Natasha uncrossed her arms and let them hang loosely at her sides.

“Well,” she said. “Don’t roll over them or anything, Steve. They have feelings.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve said.

“Okay, have fun,” Natasha said, and then she was gone again.

Steve was almost buzzing with excitement when he lay out on the grass. He spread his skinny arms out to the sides, like that Jesus that hung in the bedroom Bucky shared with four other boys at his last foster family, but way funner. He stood over Steve, poised to overturn the bucket.

“You ready?”

Steve nodded frantically. Bucky took a breath and shook dozens of toads out over Steve, who squealed with laughter as they hopped all over him. Bucky began to laugh too. He threw the bucket over his shoulder and felt delirious, as if Steve’s joy were infecting him and swelling his whole body up. When the toads had scattered and the laughs had turned to soft huffs — and a wheeze, in Steve’s case — Bucky made sure the space next to him was clear of rogue amphibians before letting himself collapse in a heap, right side half on top of Steve’s left.

“That was awesome,” Bucky said.

“My mom used to take me to parks in the summertime and help me catch fireflies,” Steve said. “I would get a bunch and then set them free, and they would all rise up flashing and blinking. It was the best.”

He went silent abruptly. This was probably the first summer he hadn’t been able to catch fireflies with her. Bucky had nothing to say to that.

“What did you used to do with your mom?” Steve asked in a small voice. Bucky closed his eyes. It wasn’t Steve’s fault he hadn’t learned what being a foster kid was like yet. Hadn’t learned there are questions you don’t ask. Being with the Furys was like being with a real family; how was Steve to know better?

“I don’t remember her much,” Bucky said. “She died when I was little. She was having a baby, and got, um, high blood pressure, or something. The baby and her both died.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. My mom is dead, too.”

“What did her in?”

“Cancer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What about your dad?”

Bucky let out a heavy sigh and turned on his side to face Steve. Steve’s nose was red and his eyes were wet, but Bucky pretended not to see.

“Don’t ask anyone else this, okay? Other foster kids, they don’t understand like you and me.”

“There aren’t any other foster kids,” Steve said. “The girls are too little anyhow.”

“Maybe someday there will be other foster kids,” Bucky said. Here, or in another home, there would be other foster kids. He couldn’t bring himself to tell Steve that what they had with the Furys wasn’t permanent, that nothing was permanent for people like them. “Promise me.”

“Okay, I promise.” Steve pressed his lips together, and the corners of his mouth trembled downward.

He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, Steve was still looking at him as if he had all the answers in the universe.

“My dad had problems after my mom died,” Bucky said. “In the end he decided he couldn’t keep me, so he put me in foster care. I haven’t seen him since.”

The sweet smell of toads was fading, and all Bucky could hear was the lap of the lake and the calls of birds overhead. The wind in the trees. After what felt like a long time, Steve put his arms loosely around Bucky’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must miss him lots.”

“It’s okay,” Bucky said. He put his arms around Steve, too, because for some reason it felt like he was the one doing the comforting.

“My dad was a soldier,” Steve whispered. The words felt humid against Bucky’s neck. “He died in the war.”

Bucky didn’t really know what war Steve was talking about, but he nodded and held on tighter.

“It’s okay,” he said again. “We’re okay.”

Bucky felt a toad on his leg. It was soft and light, and it tickled a little. He didn’t dare move, in case he hurt it.

Steve was flicking through deeply discounted records at Goodwill.

“Who even has a record player anymore?” Steve said. He held up a Carpenters LP.

“Hipsters who delude themselves into thinking vinyl sounds better and quinoa is a great idea,” Bucky said. He rifled through some cassette tapes, and then moved on to VHS. He waved one at Steve. “Look — the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV show. This has like two episodes on it. Seventy-five cents? Highway robbery!”

“We need it.”

“You don’t even have a TV!”

“But Mrs. Epstein does.” Steve practically batted his lashes at him, and Bucky sighed.

“What about a VCR?”

“There’s probably one for a dollar around here somewhere,” Steve said. He waved a John Denver record at the electronics section down the aisle. Bucky got to his knees to dig out the bottom shelf, and sure enough, there was a veritable cornucopia of VCRs. He picked out one that looked less like it might cough up dust and die in the middle of some very important ninja turtle action. It was, in fact, a dollar.

When he sat back on his heels, triumphant, he found Steve standing over him balancing a handful of VHS tapes in his arms, smiling as though he’d just found five toads. Something inside Bucky swelled and cracked, and it felt like relief.

Bucky’s favorite time of day was when all the kids were allowed to pile into Nick and Natasha’s bed, and Nick would read to them with his peculiar emphatic delivery. Nick would get a whole mess of baby girls in his lap, and Bucky and Steve would get tucked under each arm. Nick would make those stories come to life in the way only he could, and Bucky would be perfectly, blissfully happy.

Bucky had one suit he used for job interviews, and Steve had wrangled him into it for some new gallery’s opening night. He was standing in front of Bucky now, fiddling with Bucky’s four-in-hand with a little line deepening between his eyebrows. He was just about the right height for Bucky to lay a smacker right on his forehead without much bending. Not that he would.

“You don’t have to go,” Steve said for the millionth time. He yanked at Bucky’s tie, because apparently tying one neatly and properly was a skill set neither of them possessed.

“I got nothing else going tonight,” Bucky said. “Seriously, Steve, we’ve been planning this for like two weeks. Quit your bellyachin’.”

Steve worried at the inside of his cheek. His eyes were trained on Bucky’s tie, and all Bucky could see were miles of eyelashes. What was that even for, evolutionarily? He should have just enough to keep dust out of his eyes, but instead he practically had wings on his face. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t logical.

“My art school friends can be a bit—” Steve cut himself off. “I just don’t want you to go and not have fun.”

“Hey,” Bucky said, lifting his hand so he could thump Steve on the shoulder. “Are you gonna be there, chump?”

Steve tilted his head to look up at him, his face marred by the unhappy little pinch he’d made of his mouth.

“Obviously,” he muttered.

“Well then.” Bucky clapped his hand on the side of Steve’s face and then dropped it again. “I’m sure to have fun, aren’t I?”

Steve smiled up at him as if he were grateful, as if he had anything to be grateful for, as if he were the one who couldn’t believe his luck. Bucky swallowed, licked his lips, and let Steve jerk him around by the tie until it was time to go.

The gallery was full of people wearing self-consciously outrageous clothes and hair-dos, who talked too much about their “processes” and looked at Bucky as if he were somehow both quaint and tragic for not being an artist himself. It would almost grind his gears if it weren’t such a refreshing change from being the object of fear and pity for his haunted eyes and missing arm. Besides, Steve didn’t seem to like that crowd too much himself, and even though a lot of people came up to talk to him and congratulate him on his work for the VA, he stuck by Bucky’s side all night nursing champagne and offering him tidbits of information — read: gossip — on the more ridiculous attendees of the show.

“That’s Pierre,” he’d whisper. “Don’t let the accent fool you — his name’s actually Peter and he’s from Detroit. He screams at blank canvases and then sells them for thousands of dollars.”

Or:

“Over there in the pom-pom dress is Leroy.” Steve’s lips catching on Bucky’s ear, Bucky’s breath going ragged until he forced it even. “He collects poop from every animal he can find in New York and paints with it.”

Or:

“Big gestures over there is Kami. If you talk to her for too long she’ll start wanting to make your asshole into a stamp series. Avoid her unless, you know, you’re into that.”

Some of them, Steve said, were just talentless hacks who moved in the right circles and cultivated what they considered the right image for a bohemian artist in New York. Others were genuinely talented, but were more invested in being shocking or seeking fame than using their skills to create and say something meaningful. That seemed to get his goat the worst.

“So, you don’t even like anyone here?” Bucky asked. The two of them were warming the walls, and if they were pressed a little close for privacy, Bucky wasn’t about to complain about it.

“No, I do,” Steve said, eyes gone big. “I mean, some of them are fine as acquaintances, as long as you don’t talk shop with them. Just, it doesn’t look like my real friends are here yet, and I don’t have all this energy for empty social interactions with people who don’t really want to have a real conversation, or are only interested in me now that they think I might be making a name for myself, you know?”

Bucky looked down into Steve’s face with its wide eyes and plush mouth. Trusting only Bucky in a roomful of people he must have had more in common with than some washed up vet off his rocker. Bucky’s throat went dry and he tried to swallow around it. The din of music and conversation faded around them.

Steve’s lips parted as if to say something, but he was interrupted by a slim hand on his shoulder. He whirled around and Bucky blinked as if waking from a trance.

“Maria!” Steve said, and threw his arms around the interruption.

Embracing Steve now was a woman in a black dress and red stilettos, towering over all of them and making Bucky believe she probably didn’t need those heels to do it. And behind her was Sam Wilson, natty in a pinstripe suit and purple tie. Bucky felt his eyes widen without his volition. Sam smiled at him and raised his champagne flute.

“To art,” he said. He raised his eyebrows, and Bucky knew he was giving him an out. It was a little like being a kid and seeing your teacher at the grocery store, but Bucky was a grown-ass man and knew damn well the people who took care of him had lives of their own. He could deal with this. He straightened himself up and mustered a little smile.

“For some definition of the term,” he said, and clinked their glasses together. Sam’s familiar smile slid into a smirk as he took a sip and that, more than anything, put Bucky at ease.

There was a tug at his elbow, and Bucky turned back to Steve. He was smiley and flushed, a little out of breath from having the air squeezed out of him.

“Bucky, this is Maria,” he said. “She paints with the blood and tissue of the crushed testicles of men she’s vanquished.”

Steve plucked Bucky’s drink from his good hand just as Maria’s slid into it, and she shook with as firm a grip as Bucky imagined Sheryl or Jordan would. That is — firmer than any commander he’d had the army.

“Maria, this is Bucky,” Steve went on. “He’s my best friend.” And that was it: Bucky’s heart stopped.

“Don’t listen to a word this one says,” Maria said with a wide grin. “I eat the testicles for breakfast and paint with my afternoon BM, just like Oren over by the punch bowl.”

Bucky barked out a laugh. He shook her hand heartily before dropping it.

“This is Sam, my partner,” she said, gesturing toward him with her palm up.

“Bucky,” Bucky said, and shook Sam’s hand too.

“Good to put a face to the name,” Sam said, half his mouth quirked upward. “Steve talks about you pretty much nonstop.”

“It reminds me of when I was twelve and had a Trapper Keeper full of pictures of Eddie Vedder and what I’d wear to our wedding,” Maria said.

“You can’t actually embarrass me to death, but I’d still like you to stop trying anyway,” Steve said.

“How ‘bout that art on the walls, eh?” Bucky said, winking. Steve looked at him as if the whole universe were in his mouth. He handed Bucky’s drink back to him, and their fingers sparked where they brushed together.

“Static,” Steve murmured, but Bucky’s breath caught anyway.

“Have you been to the photography room?” Maria said. “Sharon’s stuff is in there — the only really gorgeous pieces in this whole joint, far as I can tell.”

“Lead on, Macduff,” Steve said, flicking his hand outward in a sweeping gesture. Maria took Steve’s wrist and dragged him away, leaving Sam and Bucky to trail along after them at a more sedate pace.

“This whole art thing,” Sam said. “It’s not exactly my area.”

“What, you don’t like—” Bucky gestured at a film that was projecting on a loop on the far wall. “—rip offs of Bergman set in a Manhattan art school?”

Sam snorted and shook his head.

“If there’s something to like, I don’t get it, dude,” he said. He shrugged. “Most of it’s fine, innocuous. Flash in the pan stuff that won’t last, I figure. But even the stuff I can tell is really good, man, it goes over my head. I feel a little bad about it, because Maria and Steve are a pair of goddamn geniuses, I swear, but this whole world?” He waved his hand around. “I’m a stranger in a strange land.”

Bucky nodded, and Sam smiled again, that twisty, crooked little thing.

“It’ll be cool to have someone else around who’s as much at sea as I am in all this. You and Steve look about ready to, I don’t know, exchange rings made out of wildflowers at the height of the blood moon, or something, and then you can be my art show wing man all the time.”

Bucky felt the blood drain from his face.

“Me and Steve aren’t like that,” he said. “And neither are you and me.”

Sam raised both his hands in surrender.

“Hey — sorry, man. White flag, okay?”

Bucky felt each word like a punch to his gut.

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry, I shouldn’t be such a dick.”

“James, man, it was my bad. Boundaries and shit, I should have been the first to respect them.”

Bucky tugged a bit at his hair, which was pulled back into as neat a ponytail as Steve could manage. He needed a trim. A splash of champagne sloshed over onto his fingers.

“Look, I just… need to get used to it, right?” he said. “You’re Steve’s friend. We’re gonna be around each other.”

“I don’t have to be around if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Bucky scoffed.

“See, this is what frustrates me about counseling sometimes,” he said. “Not everything is about my comfort. Not everything is about coddling my neuroses. You have a life to live, and sometimes it’s gonna overlap with mine. We can ease into it, but I’m not gonna evict you out of our own social circle, man, I’m not that selfish and damaged.”

Sam tilted his head. Bucky wondered what rebuttals he had whirling around in there.

“Well,” Sam said. “How do you propose easing in, then?”

Bucky peered into the room Maria and Steve were in, and then looked around at the installations in the room he and Sam were in. He leaned in as close to Sam as his hackles would allow.

“Wanna make fun of some art?” he whispered.

“Man, I thought you’d never ask.”

Steve was a year under Bucky in school, but apparently that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to go up against bigger, older boys in Bucky’s grade when he caught them hassling kindergarteners.

The third time it happened, Bucky dragged him to a CVS on the way home for bandaids and Neosporin.

“You gotta stop doing this, Steve,” he said.

“They were being mean!”

“So tell a teacher, no need to get your own face flattened yourself.”

“Teachers aren’t quick enough,” Steve said. “Teachers don’t always help.”

Steve was scowling the way he always did when faced with the world’s many little injustices. Bucky paused in his ointment application to look at him. He tilted his jaw out at an angle and challenged Bucky with wet, angry eyes.

“Yeah, adults are shit like that,” Bucky said. Abruptly the downward arc of Steve’s mouth inverted and he giggled before he could swallow it down.

“I can take care of myself, Buck,” he said. “Who’s gonna take care of the little kids?”

“Little kid fairy godmother?”

“Pff.”

“Listen,” Bucky said. “I know you’re trying to help, but you can’t keep getting beat up like this. They’ll take you away and get Nick and Natasha in trouble, okay? Do you get that?”

The tears that had sprung up long Steve’s lashes finally fell.

“No,” he said, voice tiny.

“Well.” Bucky wiped the Neosporin off on his pants and stuck his hands in his pockets, shoulders hitched up to his ears. “Now you do. So.”

“I’ll be more careful,” Steve said.

Bucky sighed, but he let it go. He figured it was as good a promise as he thought he could get right now anyway. When Steve’s grubby little hand slipped into his on the way home, he didn’t mention it. He just gave it a squeeze and led the way.

Bucky woke up when his neck gave and he fell face first into Dandelion Wine.

He was sprawled out on the couch in Steve’s apartment, and Steve was sketching with his notebook propped up on Bucky’s feet, which were conveniently located in his lap.

“You all right?” Steve asked, eyes never leaving the page. Bucky blinked a few times and yawned all big. His body felt about ready to ooze out of its skin.

“What time is it?” Bucky croaked.

“Mm, like one? Maybe two. I don’t have my phone on me.”

“Ah, shit,” Bucky said. He sat up and waited for Steve to lift his sketchbook before he pulled his legs away. “The train’s not gonna go to my stop anymore.”

“Oh. You’re going home then?”

Bucky rubbed at his eyes. His prosthesis itched and rubbed on his stump all wrong, and he wanted to get it off. He cleared his throat, but before he could say anything, Steve kept going.

“But you don’t have to, you know? I mean, there’s the couch, and I know you have to get Mrs. Epstein’s groceries in the morning, but you can do that without going home first, right? And I could go with you, pick up some eggs. I’ve got an extra toothbrush and probably some pajama pants that’ll fit you, and you’re tired and shouldn’t have to walk so far with the limited train service. So. You could stay.”

Bucky huffed and passed a hand over his face. He was in the kind of state where he could rub his eyes forever.

“Just like old times, huh?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. When Bucky opened his eyes, Steve was flushed and looking down at the floor. He hopped to his feet. “I’ll get some pillows and blankets and stuff. You can— uh.”

“What?”

Steve tipped his chin up and met his gaze.

“You can take your prosthesis off. I know you hate it, and you don’t have to keep it on for the likes of me.”

Bucky stared at him, words evaporating on his tongue. When the moment threatened to stretch beyond comfort, Steve broke the contact and began flitting around the tiny space, getting all the things he needed to outfit a guest for the night.

Bucky steeled himself. It was just Steve. Steve, who had been there when he was just a damaged kid trying not to love anything or anyone in case it was taken away. Steve, who was here now that he was a damaged adult who could hardly figure out how to love at all. Steve, who knew him, all the stupid, shattered, ruined parts of him, and liked him anyway. Bucky steeled himself and took his shirt off.

Steve came back when Bucky was down to his underwear, laden with bedding and a pillow and pajama pants that clearly weren’t his own. He was of a height with Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky tried not to curl in on himself when he saw Steve’s eyes on his stump.

“Does it hurt?” Steve asked, hushed.

Bucky took a dispassionate look at the ropy mess of red and white where his stump terminated mid-humerus.

“It’s not like that,” Bucky said. “It’s hard to explain. There’s an ache, I guess, and your brain can’t quite comprehend that your whole arm is gone, so there’s something about it that’s always surprising, and I don’t know if missing something is like hurting, but.” He shrugged and ducked his head, chin to chest. “But if it is, then yeah, it hurts.”

Bucky saw Steve’s Adam’s apple bob in his throat, and then Steve was setting down his haul and leaning against him, his forehead on Bucky’s bad shoulder, his arms limp at his side.

They stayed like that until Bucky’s eyelids drooped, and they had to go to bed.

On Bucky’s tenth birthday, Steve gave him a whole set of Hardy Boys books. Saved up and did extra chores and picked out the nicest set at the bookstore. When Bucky unwrapped it, he shut himself in the bathroom to cry where no one could see him. He’d never gotten something so nice before. When he came out again Steve threw himself at him apologizing, but Bucky only told him he loved the books, they were perfect, they were the best things he’d ever seen. He rubbed Steve’s back as Natasha watched with warm eyes, and Nick had a tea party to distract the girls.

Kosher franks were just plain better leaning against a railing at Rockaway Beach with your best pal. Bucky wasn’t exactly enamored of the sand, but the air was salt-crisp and the sun was shining though it was still cool enough not to be bothersome. He had no complaints. He watched Steve attack his hot dog from the side with a lot more concentration than seemed necessary, and in his peripheral vision he saw two girls with ice cream pass by and give Steve an appreciative once-over. Bucky smirked, and when they passed, he shoved his shoulder into Steve’s, who scowled up at him and only made him laugh.

“Tell me the truth, Steve,” he said. “You’re a fuckin’ lady killer.”

“What?” There was a bit of ketchup smeared at the corner of Steve’s mouth. Without thinking much of it, Bucky took his own napkin and swiped at it.

“Those girls about creamed their pants looking at you.”

What?” Steve craned around, eyes gone big as the moon. Bucky laughed so hard he had to be mindful about the way hot dog threatened to go up his nose.

“I mean, they’re probably legal, you should go ask one out.”

“Oh my God,” Steve said, ducking his head. To Bucky’s delight, he flushed a deep red, and Bucky slapped his shoulder.

“Seriously, Steve, they’re kinda cute. Get over there.”

“Bucky, no.”

Bucky’s laughter abruptly dried up, and he let his hand fall from Steve’s shoulder.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. He turned back toward the ocean. No one was on the beach because it was still too cold out, but the water was calm, a nice gradient of blue to green. It crested white here and there, and in the distance, birds circled and dived.

“They were probably looking at you anyway,” Steve said. He took another bite of his hot dog, too big to chew. But chew it he did, as always.

“Nah, they had better taste than that,” Bucky said. He nudged Steve’s tennis shoe with his boot. “What, they not your type?”

There was a long pause while Steve swallowed his food, and then shoved the rest of the dog in, too. When he was done, he said, “Something like that.”

He took his tennis shoes off and slung his little body under the rail. He landed on the beach and walked toward the water, leaving gentle indents in the sand. Bucky didn’t know whether to trail after him or to leave him be, but in the end he did what he always did when confronted with Steve Rogers: he followed him wherever he went.

Bucky hated it when the social workers came. They always seemed to be trying to ruin a good thing. They made the kids take turns speaking to them privately, and then as a whole family, and every question seemed like a trap.

They came again when Aisha bit another kid at pre-k. No one seemed to care that the other kid wouldn’t stop calling Aisha horrible names or telling her lies about black kids not being allowed to go to school, but suddenly it was a big deal when she fought back. Bucky didn’t think he would ever understand what grown ups considered justice.

Bucky tried to prep Steve — keep your mouth shut, don’t say anything — but Steve still came out looking troubled and Bucky’s stomach dropped.

“James?” The social worker was a woman this time, and she raised her eyebrows and smiled, acting all pleasant when Bucky knew the truth. He scowled at her, and she tilted her head down and let her smile go wry — the look adults got on their faces when a child was being naughty and cute at the same time. He scowled harder, but Natasha patted him on the back and said, “Go on, now. You worry too much, kid.”

In the kitchen Bucky crossed his arms and stared hard at the social worker, whose smile grew more and more brittle the more he wouldn’t give in to her stupid questions about how he liked living with the Furys. He gave curt, single-word answers and felt proud of himself.

“James, what do you think is happening here?” she asked after a long time.

“You’re trying to find a reason to take us away from Nick and Natasha,” he said.

“Do you think there’s a reason you should be taken away from Nick and Natasha?”

If Bucky scowled any harder, his face was going to fall off, but he figured it would be worth it.

“Everything you ask is a trap, see? You pretend it’s an innocent question, when really you’re playing it so any of us says one thing out of line and you ruin the good thing we got going here.”

“So you think living with Nick and Natasha is a good thing.”

Obviously.”

“Right. Well, can you tell me a little bit about it? What good things do Nick and Natasha do?”

“You ever been in a foster family?” Bucky said. “Ma’am?”

The social work looked at him with sad eyes and sighed.

“No, I have not,” she said. “But it’s my job—”

“Then you don’t know what it’s like to be in a house where you’re scared all the time, where the mom or dad or grandma or whoever is always yelling or drinking, and the other kids are allowed to do whatever they want to you, like scrub the bathroom floor with your face or wipe shit in your mouth or kick you in the ribs just for lookin’ at ’em wrong. You don’t know what it’s like to go to a new house that’s just the same over and over and over, and then land in this one, where no one yells even if someone’s made a mess, and we get an allowance for doing our chores, and we get our own spaces and clothes and toys and books, and someone talks to us every day like we matter, and no one hurts each other, and the worst punishment any of us can expect for being bad is that we don’t get to watch TV after dinner. So you don’t know what it’s like and you want to ruin it for those of us who do, because what? A little kid bit another little kid? Lady, you’re delusional.”

The social worker sat back and blinked at him. He was breathing hard and his eyes were burning. His throat made some embarrassing sound and he put his head on the table, turned away from the social worker. The ugly bird clock ticked away.

“Okay,” the social worker said after a long time. “Okay, James. I have everything I need, I think. Thanks for speaking with me, all right?”

Bucky didn’t say another word. He and Steve and the girls got to stay with Nick and Natasha for now, but Bucky knew it was only a matter of time.

Bucky lost a construction job when some jerk-off called him a cripple and he proved how much of a cripple he was by flattening the guy’s nose. He was sitting at Steve’s door holding a rag to his own split lip, prosthesis gone who knows where, when Steve rounded the corner of the corridor and stopped dead at the sight of him.

“Jesus Christ!” Steve said. He rushed to Bucky’s side and pushed his hand off his face to assess the damage.

“I’m fine,” Bucky said. “Just pissed I lost my job. And my arm. You think insurance will get me another one?”

“What happened, Buck? Whose ass do I have to kick?”

“Just a douchebag running his mouth about my arm. I’m a fucking idiot for letting him get to me.”

Steve hissed in sympathy when Bucky’s sore, bloody lip was revealed.

“I’ll go talk to your supervisor,” Steve said. “No one should have talked to you that way. We can fight this.”

Bucky smiled even though it hurt. He shook his head.

“My hero,” he said. “Nah, Steve. This is my hill, and I’m not dying on it.”

“It’s not right!”

“It’s fine, just, can you please let me in?”

“God, yeah, sorry.”

Steve fumbled with the keys as Bucky rose to his feet.

“I just didn’t want to go home,” he said. “Mrs. Epstein’s still awake this time of day, and you know she’ll ask me a zillion questions and fuss over me and I’ll just feel like such a shit, man, I am such a piece of shit.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Steve hustled him into the apartment with big hands on his shoulders and plopped him down onto the couch. He disappeared into the bathroom and Bucky dropped his face into his hand. He yanked at his own hair.

“I shouldn’t’ve come here,” he said when Steve came back with a first aid kit. “Shoulda known you woulda been like this, too. Steve fuckin’ Rogers, savior to every hard luck case he ever saw.”

“Sorry I’m not gonna treat you like the garbage you apparently think you are,” Steve snapped. “When you’re all cleaned up, I’m gonna go get Mrs. Epstein and we’re both gonna give you a solid kick in the ass.”

Bucky couldn’t help it — he laughed. He rested his head back against the couch and closed his eyes. Steve dabbed his lip, his cheekbone, his eyebrow with iodine and stuck little bandaids all over him. When Bucky opened his eyes again, Steve was kneeling on the couch cushions beside him, and the position allowed him to glare down at Bucky with all his fearsomeness.

“You’re a horse’s ass, you know that?” Steve said.

“You love me,” Bucky said.

“God fuckin’ help me,” Steve said.

Steve’s teacher, Mrs. Washington, called Bucky into her classroom just as he was about to book it out of school to go home.

“I won’t keep you, Bucky,” she said, and Bucky took a deep breath and held it. He was trying to be more patient, but he really wanted to see Steve and watch cartoons.

Mrs. Washington produced an envelope the size of Texas from her desk and handed it to Bucky. It had Steve’s name written in big cursive letters on the front, complete with stickers and glitter.

“We all miss Steve,” she said. “We thought we’d make him a get well card. Can you see that it gets to him?”

Bucky nodded, lips glued shut.

“How’s he doing?” Mrs. Washington asked.

“He has the lungs of an octogenarian who’s smoked three packs a day for his whole damn life, ma’am,” Bucky said.

Mrs. Washington laughed once, loud like a clap in an empty cave.

“Now who said that?” she said.

“Nick Fury,” Bucky said. “It’s on account of Steve being born premature. But the hospital gave him a special machine and everything, he’s gonna be fine.”

“Okay,” Mrs. Washington said. She patted Bucky’s back. “You’re a good friend, Mr. Barnes. You make sure he knows we’re all thinking of him here.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bucky said. And then, right before he dashed out the door, he remembered what he was supposed to say. “Thanks, Mrs. Washington!”

It was a short run back to the Furys’ brownstone. Natasha greeted Bucky with a ruffle of his hair and a plate of sandwiches to take in to Steve and the girls. She didn’t mention the gigantic envelope tucked under one arm, but she was pretty sharp so Bucky figured she knew what it was.

Nick and Natasha had moved the TV into Steve and Bucky’s room, where Steve’s oxygen tank was set up. Bucky found him on the bottom bunk as usual, scribbling in a notebook while Aisha, Lana, and Rosie crowded around the tube. My Little Pony was on, and even though Nick and Natasha had told everyone the TV was Steve’s territory while he was sick, he was too soft not to let the girls watch what they wanted anyway.

“Hey, you should eat something,” Bucky said. He plucked off three little sandwich halves for the girls and one for himself. There were a bunch left, and he wanted to see Steve eat all of them. Steve’s oxygen tank was hooked up to his nose, but he didn’t like eating when it was in. He shifted enough to sit up and took the plate before dislodging the tubes from his nose.

“Thanks, Buck,” he said. He put an entire half a sandwich in his mouth at once. Bucky shook his head. He toed off his tennis shoes before collapsing on Steve’s bunk beside him.

“Here,” Bucky said. He set the envelope down between them. “Got a buncha saps in your class, I guess.”

Steve grinned at him, sandwich visible through the constellation of missing teeth in his mouth.

“That’s nice!” he said. He wiped his hands together over the plate to clear the crumbs off. He wiggled his fingers like Homer Simpson confronted with a donut. He peeled the back open lovingly, as if envelopes weren’t made to be ripped. When he finally got it open, it was an oversized picture of a basset hound with a compress on its head. GET WELL blared across the front in huge green letters, and on the inside, all of Steve’s classmates had written little messages and signed their names. Steve took the time to read each and every one and hum over all of them.

Bucky never thought to make Steve a card. Maybe he should have. Wasn’t that something people did, make sick people cards? It seemed dumb and obvious, and Bucky was halfway to kicking himself before he realized the card was now stuck between the bed and the side table, and Steve had wriggled into his usual position at Bucky’s side.

“Wanna know a secret?” Steve whispered. Steve’s breath was hot on his ear. Bucky stared unseeing at My Little Pony, at three heads blocking the bottom of the screen, and nodded. “I don’t miss school so much. I like it better here with you and the girls and Natasha. Look.”

Steve pushed his notebook into Bucky’s lap and pointed to the page. It was Bucky and Aisha and Lana and Rosie and Natasha and Nick, just their faces, and it didn’t look as though a kid had drawn it at all. The drawings really looked like them, and they had shading and no weird lumps or anything. Bucky blinked and picked the notebook up.

“Jeez, Steve,” he said. “These are really good.”

“Maybe I miss art class a little.” Art was only once a week, so Steve had only missed one session, but Bucky knew it had bummed him out.

“You could be an artist,” Bucky said. “We could go look at your stuff in a museum.”

“You think so?”

“Definitely,” Bucky said.

Steve took the notebook and flipped some pages. He slid the notebook back into Bucky’s lap. Bucky saw a pretty lady with soft wavy hair and a pointed nose.

“This your ma?” Bucky asked.

Steve nodded, eyes bright and smiling brave.

“She was real pretty, Steve,” Bucky said. “You do a good job.”

“I get afraid,” Steve whispered.

“What do you mean?”

“I get afraid I’m forgetting her. Or, I don’t know, if I’m happy and I like being with all you guys, I’m saying I’m happy she’s gone? I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”

But Bucky only nodded.

“It does,” he says. “But you’re not gonna forget her, right? Ever ever?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then she’s not gone anyway, and she would want you to be happy. That’s what moms want, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“Then you’re golden.”

Bucky ate his sandwich, and sneaky-slipped another one into Steve’s hand, which he absent-mindedly shoved into his mouth whole. Bucky kept looking at Steve’s mom. He wondered what she must have been like, to get a kid like Steve in the lottery. She must have been real good.

“Hey, Steve,” he said at a commercial break.

“Hm?”

“I got an idea.”

“What?”

“You and me should make a comic of our own. A superhero comic like… like Captain America and Spiderman and X-Men and all the best ones. Only maybe your mom could be the hero? What was her name?”

Steve lit up and shifted to face Bucky full-on.

“Sarah!” he said.

“And what was her job?”

“She was a nurse before she got sick.”

“So, Super Sarah, that’s way too obvious, we have to think of something better than that, she’s from some other planet, and she crash landed here with no way back. She makes friends with a boy genius—”

“An engineer!”

“—an engineer who thinks he can get her home. She doesn’t really want a lot of contact with the primitive humans, but she can’t help making friends with the engineer or his family and friends. Then one day she can’t find him, and finds out he’s sick and she has to visit him in the hospital. She finds out a lot of humans are sick in all different kinds of ways, and her race has amazing healing powers, and she feels like she has to help them somehow, since they’ve helped her and all. She’s on a mission to heal everyone who needs healing.”

“Wow, Buck, how’d you think of that?”

Bucky shrugged.

“I dunno, I just read a lot of comics.”

“We need to do it!”

“We will,” Bucky said. “That’s just her origin story. We could do, like, a hundred different stories.”

Steve clapped his hands and he flipped to a new page in his notebook.

“What’s her outfit look like?” he asked.

“She’s from a super evolved race of aliens,” Bucky said. “So her flight suit is really efficient, no weak spots, no weird stuff hanging off. Just plain, probably.”

“Good, good, that makes sense.” Steve curled himself completely over the notebook in his lap, sketching out in long, bold lines, his fine hair sticking up everywhere. Bucky patted it down, and Steve was so engrossed, he didn’t even notice the touch.

One night in August, Sam caught up with Bucky before he could dash off to find Steve.

“You know, it’s good to see you excited,” Sam said. “Might do the others some good if they could hear about it, too.”

Bucky shoved his hand into his coat pocket. He thought of Steve, and sitting in Steve’s tiny studio apartment watching him sketch, and movie nights at Mrs. Epstein’s, and wandering around Brooklyn looking for cheap things to eat and do. Steve was so far removed from Bucky’s life in the army that it seemed wrong to mix the two. Steve was simultaneously his past and his future, and Bucky sometimes wondered if Steve could make the last few years of Bucky’s life disappear altogether.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with this, though,” Bucky said. Tonight, they’d talked about coping mechanisms. Sheryl had a dog to play with, Antoine talked to his brother on the phone, Everett had taken up knitting, Dennis listened to the first Doors album on repeat, Jordan kicked the shit out of her punching bag, Jamil baked all sorts of things he found on the internet, and Corey had tea parties with his daughter and her army of Thomas the Tank Engines.

Sam took a deep breath and let it out slow and measured, just like the breathing exercises all the vets who went to his sessions practiced.

“You compartmentalize,” he said. “I get that. And I’m happy to see you happy. But our lives can’t be cut up like little sandwiches. Eventually, all those parts we like to keep separate touch. What are you gonna do when that happens?” As if it hadn’t already happened, seeing Sam at that gallery show.

Suddenly Bucky’s brain supplied him unbidden with the image of Steve, small, peaceable Steve with his pencil callouses and his sunless skin, sprayed with blood not his own. Bucky bristled.

“Buddy,” he said, “you gotta lay off.”

Sam raised his hands.

“I got to take care of my own,” Sam said. “And right now, whether you like it or not, you’re one of mine.”

“What I do when I’m not here ain’t your business.”

“James, I’m not trying to give you any shit,” Sam said. “But I gotta wonder what you’re getting out of coming here when you never share and barely react to what the others have to say. And man, I gotta wonder if you’re not doing more harm than good when you come to the group when you so clearly don’t want to.”

Bucky clenched his jaw. In his pocket, his hand made an answering fist.

“You’re kicking me out? Seriously?”

“No, man, that’s not what this is,” Sam said. His eyes were so kind it hurt, and Bucky had to look away. “I just want you to think about your goals, all right? I want you to think about what you want from these sessions, and what you can do to achieve that. And if you need help getting there, or you want a sounding board, you let me know and I’ll be there with wings on, you got that?”

Bucky swallowed to keep the words from pouring out of his gullet like poison, but it wasn’t enough.

“I promised my best guy,” he blurted.

Sam’s eyes sharpened on him, and he tilted his head.

“Run that by me?” Sam said.

“My best friend, he died — out there.” Bucky shook his empty sleeve as if it were an explanation all by itself. Maybe it was. “And he was—” bleeding out in what was left of my arms “—he made me promise. So. Here I am.”

“What was the promise, specifically?” Sam asked. “What were the words y’all used when this promise was made?”

Bucky scowled and hunched his shoulders. What he and Morita had said in their last moments together seemed sacred, and not for prying eyes. It was for Bucky alone.

“He made me promise I’d take care of myself. That’s all you need to know.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “And do you think what you’re doing is living up to your promise? Are you taking care of yourself, James?”

“Fuck you, Sam,” Bucky said. He wheeled around and slammed out the doors without looking back, even when Sam called his name.

He stomped all the way over to reception, where he found Steve up near the ceiling, nose pressed against the wall.

“Hey, come on,” Bucky said. “Let’s get outta here.”

“Just let me finish this one thing,” Steve called down.

“Steve!”

“Hold on, Buck!”

“I gotta get out of here,” Bucky said. “I’m leaving.”

“Hey! Bucky, wait!”

But Bucky was walking fast and Steve’s voice was fading away. He walked and walked and walked until his feet ached and his mind was numb and clear, but when he found himself slowing, it was in Steve’s neighborhood, at Steve’s building, and he was letting himself in and laying his forehead against the door like some kind of idiot.

He stumbled when the door opened, and there Steve was, in boxers and a tank top, tall as Bucky’s shoulder but making him quail at the sight of his thunderclap face anyway. Bucky didn’t even have time to be distracted by the fact that Steve Rogers apparently had pierced nipples, because Steve started in on him right away.

“What’s your goddamn problem, Barnes?” Steve said. “If you didn’t want to see the movie, you coulda just told me, you know? You completely crapped out on me tonight.”

“Do you think I’m a fucked up piece of shit disgrace to the service and all my dead friends?” Bucky said.

Steve’s mouth snapped shut, and Bucky watched his chest heave a few deep breaths in and out. He swung the door wide and stepped aside.

“You jerk-ass,” Steve said. “Get the fuck in here.”

Bucky dragged his feet and shuffled in, but Steve’s insistent hands on his back shoved him into the couch without ceremony. Steve disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a glass of water, which he pushed into Bucky’s hands.

“Now where the hell did you get an idea like that?” He stood in front of Bucky, feet planted wide and arms crossed, ready to fight Goliath in his name. Bucky took a long draw of water and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“Sam,” he said.

“Sam Wilson.”

“Yeah.”

“Sam Wilson from the VA Sam Wilson.”

“Yeah.”

Steve stared at him before forcing his hands to unclench and pitching himself into the couch next to him with a sigh.

“Listen,” he said. “Can you tell me exactly what happened? I’m having a hard time thinking Sam would say something like that, but if you say he did, then I believe you, okay? But just, explain, please?”

Bucky scrubbed his hand through his hair. He could feel it draping over his scalp in the wrong direction now, and he probably looked nuts, but, well, he figured he was nuts these days, so what did it matter?

“He didn’t say exactly that,” Bucky said. “It was just… implied.”

“Okay, but what did he say exactly then?”

“What’s with the third degree today?” Bucky said. “Why’s everyone gotta know ‘exactly?’ He said some bullshit to me and now I’m—” Bucky shook his hand out in front on his face and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Hey,” Steve said, and Bucky felt his hand on his wrist. “Look at me.”

Bucky forced his eyes open. Steve’s face filled his line of vision — his eyes, his soft red mouth, the furrow in his brow.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Steve said. “You’re not a disgrace, or a fuck up, and I’m proud to know you, Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky’s breath shuddered out of him, and it took nothing, nothing at all, for his lungs to swell and push his body up and forward until his lips pressed soft against Steve’s. Steve made a tiny sound, and Bucky could feel the rush of his inhale, but there was electricity lighting his spine and all his skin felt abuzz. His lips parted to let Steve in, but Steve pulled away and turned his face, panting.

“Steve?”

“Sorry,” Steve said. “That was wrong of me. I shouldn’t have taken advantage. Forgive me.”

He took a swipe at the hair flopping into his forehead and put the coffee table between them. He sat in a chair and looked across the table at Bucky — just off, just at his ear, or right behind him. Bucky sat up straighter.

“Steve—”

“About what Sam said,” Steve said. “We can work it out together, all right?”

“You didn’t take advantage,” Bucky said. “I’m the one, I wanted it and I didn’t pick a good moment and I’m sorry.”

“Okay, great, everyone’s sorry.” Steve threw his hands up. His mouth was turned down like a half moon and he slouched in his seat. “Can we have a real conversation now, please?”

“I feel like we found a way better topic just now, though.”

Steve flattened his mouth and leveled a humorless look at him.

“We didn’t find shit,” he said. “We found a way to avoid whatever made you act like a prick tonight, and I’m not…enabling you. Sam Wilson’s exact words, right now, Bucky, come on.”

Bucky let his head fall back against the couch cushions.

“I told him about Morita. How I promised him I would take care of myself. Jim’s last, I don’t know, victory. More like emotional blackmail, the little shit.” Bucky snorted. “He knew what he was doing. So, you know, I’m doing it. I go to meetings. I listen to everyone. I do the goddamn breathing exercises. And if i don’t say anything, so what? You don’t have to. No one can make you say anything. But then tonight, Sam was all so do you think you’re keeping your promise? Like — like I’m shitting on Jim’s memory if I don’t open my trap and spill my guts out at seven o’clock every fucking Thursday. Like I’m a shit friend who didn’t even deserve to make the promise in the first place.” Bucky’s throat thickened, and he snapped his mouth shut to stop up the words.

He could hear the creak of Steve’s chair as he shifted in his seat.

“Okay, so let’s parse this out,” he said. Bucky lifted his head and looked at him. His eyes were steady on him, serious and even. “You promised to take care of yourself. So Sam essentially asked you if you were taking care of yourself properly. Is that about the long and short of it?”

“You’re not getting it. It was more loaded than that.”

“I think there’s a load somewhere, but it’s not in Sam’s question.”

Bucky’s mouth twisted.

“You’re fuckin’ salty tonight.”

“Look, Buck. The real reason you’re mad at Sam is because you know he’s right. You’re not mad at him, you’re mad at yourself, and you’re taking it out on the rest of us.”

Bucky gritted his teeth together and gripped his hair in a fist. He inhaled and held his breath until he felt his heart stop stumbling.

“You’re out of line,” he said, forcing his voice steady.

“Ain’t salty to tell the truth, Buck,” Steve said.

“You’ve got no idea what I’ve been through, what I’ve done, and you got no right—”

“So tell me,” Steve said. “Tell me everything. I want to hear everything about you, Buck, even the shit you think is too ugly to say out loud.” Steve stood up and came back around to the couch, but when he sat, he put a healthy amount of space between them. “And if you can’t tell me, then tell your group, or just Sam, or one of the VA social workers one on one. You’re not alone in any of this, but you’ve got to be as brave as I know you are and let us help.”

“I don’t deserve it,” Bucky whispered. One of Steve’s big hands closed on the back of Bucky’s neck, and he slid down the cushions until their sides pressed together.

“No one does,” Steve said. “And everyone does. Funny thing about deserving.” He pushed his fingers through the strands of Bucky’s hair. Bucky sagged into him, and then he felt the soft touch of lips at his cheekbone, his temple.

“Don’t deserve you, either.”

“Too bad,” Steve said, “’cause I’m all in.”

Bucky groped for Steve’s free hand, and Steve caught his fingers and tangled them in his own. Bucky let his head fall against Steve’s collarbone, where he smelled deep and rich and clean, and Steve sifted though his hair.

“Service made me a monster,” Bucky whispered. Steve’s hand squeezed his.

“No, it didn’t,” he said. “If it had, you wouldn’t be the kind of guy who gets an old lady’s groceries every week, and you wouldn’t tell a total stranger that he deserved to win a contest when he had a crisis of confidence all over you, and you wouldn’t be sitting here wondering if you were a monster because monsters don’t care if they are or not. Whatever’s haunting you about your service, Buck, I can’t forgive you for it because it’s not mine to forgive, but I can promise you one thing: it makes you 100% certifiably human. Not perfect, just human, and the guy I’ve always admired most in the whole world.”

Bucky lifted his head.

“I been trying real hard not to kiss you for weeks,” he said.

The tip of Steve’s tongue flickered out to wet his lips, and with a sweep of those eyelashes, his gaze darted to Bucky’s mouth.

“Deprivation ain’t healthy,” Steve said.

“Can I?”

Steve’s hands came around, tentative, to cradle Bucky’s jaw. He rubbed a thumb over Bucky’s lips.

“If we do this,” Steve said, “it can’t be because you think I’m gonna save you from yourself. It can’t be what you do instead of going to meetings and figuring out how to cope.”

“Can it be because when I look at you my heart damn near flies out of my face?”

Steve turned a pretty pink right to the tips of his ears, and his smile came out crooked and shy.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “Yeah, that’s a good reason.”

Bucky kissed him then, and it felt like fireflies, rising into the sky.

Aisha, Lana, and Rosie had all been rehomed quick after Nick’s stroke. Natasha was haggard around the edges and cold to the social workers who came to pick them up. Bucky thought this might be Natasha’s version of fighting, since she was above yelling, but for once it didn’t make him feel less like everything in his life was about to crumble into dust. Bucky knew she probably got to keep him and Steve on account of them being over ten years old, but he didn’t know how long that would last.

His answer came two weeks later when she took them to the hospital to visit Nick, her face stony and the train ride silent.

Nick couldn’t speak yet, though he was gaining back use of his left side. He gifted them with a rare smile, only half functional but breaking Bucky’s heart for its brightness anyway. He gathered Steve up first, face buried in his hair, and he held him for a long time. Natasha stood ramrod straight in the corner of the hospital room, her arms crossed and her nose going red. Bucky felt his eyes prickle.

Finally, after a few more kisses to the side of his head, Nick released Steve and held his arm out to Bucky. Bucky threw his arms around him and held on tight, as if the force of this hug might stop the way his eyes threatened to flood. It didn’t. Nick cradled the back of his head with one big hand and breathed him in as if memorizing. He mumbled something unintelligible, but in the years that would follow, Bucky would convince himself that Nick said, “get you back.”

Natasha helped them pack when they got back to the brownstone. Turns out, you accumulate a lot of stuff when you live with one family for five years, which Bucky had never done before. Bucky picked out a few books, one set of ninja turtle action figures, and the bear Natasha had given him when he’d first gotten there, even though it was for little kids. He figured he could hide it. He distilled his life with the Furys to a single duffle bag and told Natasha to give the rest to some other kids.

She only stroked a hand through his hair and looked bleak.

She let him and Steve sleep in her bed with her that night, but while she fell asleep with a frown on her face, Bucky stayed up chewing his thumbnail, and to his right he could hear Steve’s shallow, wakeful breathing.

“Steve?” he whispered sometime after midnight.

“Yeah?” Steve whispered back.

“We’re going to be separated.”

“You think so?”

“That’s how it is.”

“But I don’t want to!”

“Shh, you’ll wake Natasha.”

“Sorry.”

“Listen. I have a plan. But we have to be really smart about it, okay?”

“Okay.”

“You go into the kitchen and get sandwich stuff. Be real quiet, don’t make a sound.”

“…we runnin’ away, Buck?”

“Yeah, Steve, we are. We got no other choice.”

Bucky had read Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain. They were some of the books he’d tucked into his bag. If he and Steve could just get out of the city and back to the Adirondacks, where a lot of the cabins went unoccupied for long stretches of time, they could live really well. They were mostly grown anyway, and then when they turned eighteen they could buy their own place and make it nice and no one would ever threaten to take them away from each other again because that didn’t happen to grown ups. If they could just make it through like Brian and Sam had, they would be all right.

Steve was scribbling away at his drawing table, his entire arm and parts of his face swiped with charcoal, while Bucky sat in the recliner reading Tolkien’s short story collection. He was getting pretty distracted from the golden coin in the forehead story when he would catch Steve sneaking glances at him every once in a while.

Finally Bucky set the book down and stared at Steve until he looked up for another peek. Bucky raised his eyebrows at him, and his ears turned pink.

“You have no poker face, anyone ever tell you that?” Bucky said.

“I’ve never even played poker,” Steve grumbled.

“Steve. Are you drawing me like one of your French girls?”

“So what if I am?”

“Slouching in a recliner isn’t exactly the ideal pose, I figure.”

Steve’s tongue darted out to wet his lips, and Bucky suppressed the urge to smirk. The artist in his natural habitat was like a deer Bucky didn’t want to spook. He stood up and moved into the kitchen, discarding his shirt along the way and pulling the hem of his tank top out of his jeans. Steve’s eyes had gone a little glassy as they trailed down Bucky’s body.

“How do you want me?” he asked, voice gone husky.

Steve’s eyes snapped back up to his, and his cheeks flushed to match his ears. Bucky had learned over the past few days that Steve was fun as hell in bed, unselfconscious about his body and frank about his desires. In a small span of time, they’d discovered that their lifelong affinity for one another extended to sex, and it had been a more joyful and freeing experience than Bucky had ever had before.

So it was funny and a bit sweet that Bucky could make Steve blush just by shedding one layer of clothing.

“Uh.” Steve’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. Bucky valiantly held back his laughter. But Steve stood tall and squared his shoulders and got that try me look on his face that dove Bucky crazy and said, “Naked. On the couch.”

One side of Bucky’s mouth tilted up then, and he assumed by the way Steve’s eyes darkened that it was a sexy smile instead of a mocking one. He undid the button of his jeans and let them pool at his feet as Steve watched with greedy eyes. He peeled off his tank and left that on the floor, too. He was totally bare, from his toes to his thickening cock to the hair that trailed up his torso to his stump. His livid, scarred, sore stump. And Steve was looking at him like a pauper looks at a feast. Heat bloomed through the middle of Bucky’s chest.

He grabbed his book and then arranged himself on his side across the couch, one knee drawn up so he could prop his book against his thigh.

“This good?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Just whatever’s comfortable.”

Bucky winked at him, and he fussed with his sketchpad and charcoal all flustered, and Bucky thought, oh fuck, this is what love is.

Bucky read as Steve drew, and he lost track of time. He looked up when he’d finished three of the short stories to find Steve flexing his right hand and squeezing kinks out of it with his left. He shifted into a sitting position and got to his feet. He reached Steve in two strides because the studio was tiny, and before Steve could protest, Bucky snatched his drawing hand up and began to massage it one finger at a time.

Steve looked up at him as if in awe, and Bucky wondered what exactly he saw there that the rest of the world didn’t.

“Look at you,” Bucky murmured. “Draw on walls all day and come home to draw some more. Gonna give yourself carpal tunnel.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Steve said quietly. “When so much beauty is just loafing around my apartment begging to be immortalized?”

Bucky’s heart hammered into his throat. He raised Steve’s hand and kissed each fingertip, the palm, the lifeline.

“You’re getting charcoal on your face,” Steve murmured.

“So we’ll match,” Bucky said.

Steve’s breath was ragged in the silence of the apartment. Bucky tugged him up and slotted his mouth against his. Steve’s hands landed on Bucky’s hips, and he made Bucky his all over again.

They weighted down their backpacks with ham sandwiches, apples, little bags of chips and bottles of water. In whatever spaces were left, they stuffed spare clothes, with lots of extra underwear and socks. Bucky packed an umbrella and clutched a compass in one hand, and he found a tarp he was fairly certain Natasha wouldn’t miss that would roll up into one of Steve’s extra pockets.

“We should leave a note so they know we’re safe,” Steve whispered. The house was eerie and still with Nick gone, Natasha asleep, and the bunk beds in the girls’ room empty and cold.

“We can’t,” Bucky said. “You think they’re just gonna let us go live off the fat of the land, no problem? No, Steve, we can’t leave a note.”

Steve passed a hand over his eyes, brushing the blond fluff out of his eyes, but he nodded anyway and hefted up his backpack. He tipped to the side but righted himself before Bucky had to intervene. Bucky swallowed.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Ain’t your fault this is how it went. You — you were always trying to warn me about it, weren’t you?”

He and Bucky stared at each other for a long moment. Bucky’s lungs felt constricted.

“Ready?” he asked. Steve nodded. They eased open the door as quietly as they could. They took one last lingering look at their home before the shut the door again and set off north, toward the Adirondacks.

There weren’t many cars out this time of night, and the darkness rendered familiar streets foreign. The spill of streetlights turned everything sinister. Steve stuck close to Bucky, and his breath was labored from the weight of the pack, but they couldn’t afford to slow down.

“We just gotta make it out of the city,” he said. “Then we’ll have an easier time hiding.”

“I’m fine,” Steve said, and Bucky politely ignored the wheeze in his voice.

They walked another ten minutes before Steve was really dragging, and Bucky didn’t have it in him to make him go on. He sat him on a stoop and went rummaging in his pack for Steve’s inhaler. He pushed it into Steve’s hands.

“Here,” he said. “Twenty minutes and we hit the road again.” He watched Steve hit the inhaler in that funny double squeeze way and hold the albuterol in his lungs before letting it out real slow.

“I’m good to go,” Steve said in a croak, and Bucky snorted. He reached out and ruffled Steve’s hair before smoothing it back down.

“I know you are, kid,” he said. “Maybe I want a rest, ever think of that?”

Steve peered at him suspiciously, but Bucky produced an apple from his backpack and made a show of biting into it. Steve put his inhaler away and went spelunking for some food of his own just as a cop car pulled up in front of them and Bucky’s heart went haywire.

“Don’t say anything, okay Steve?”

“Bucky…”

“Not a word, Steve.”

Two officers got out of the car. Before approaching, they held up their badges and called out to them.

“Hey boys. I’m Officer Cruz and this is Officer Vasquez. We’re going to approach you, okay?”

Steve pressed into Bucky’s side, but stuck his chin out the way he did when he was about to be a real stubborn pain in the ass.

“Do whatever you want, I’m not your mom,” he said, and Bucky had to press his lips together in order not to laugh, even as his heart quailed in his chest.

The officers chuckled too, and they came up slowly before squatting down in front of the stoop Bucky and Steve had claimed.

“Listen guys,” Officer Cruz said. “You can’t be out here all alone, okay? Whatever the problem is, me and my partner here can help you out, but you’ve gotta come with us.”

“We’re fine here, thanks,” Steve said.

Officer Cruz nodded as if he expected nothing less.

“How about your names, can I get those?”

“Hell no,” Bucky said. “We got rights.”

The officers exchanged looks, and when they faced Steve and Bucky again, they were smiling in that particular way adults had, where they know something you don’t and are about to use it against you. Bucky hated them.

“We’ve got pizza and soda down at the station,” Officer Vasquez said.

“Really, a bribe?” Steve sneered. Bucky knocked his foot with his own and made a severe face at him when he glanced his way. He clammed up.

“Boys, I’m real sorry to do this, but unless you tell us where home is and we can make sure it’s safe there, a trip to the station isn’t optional.”

Steve finally, finally kept his mouth shut. The officers both sighed.

“It’s warm and we can get you some nice pastries, okay?” Officer Cruz said. “Come on. Up you go.”

Steve and Bucky didn’t even have to consult each other to pitch themselves onto the ground and turn into a matching pair of dead weights. They may have screamed when the cops pried them up and slung them under their arms, and lights started flicking all down the street at the caterwauling.

In the back seat, they held hands. At the station, donuts and croissants and mini candy bars and steaming mugs of hot chocolate were paraded in front of them to no effect. They were eventually separated, and the last glimpse of Steve Bucky got through the police department headquarters felt like watching the end of the world.

“It’s 7:02,” Steve said from his place high in the scaffolding. Bucky was on the floor directly below him, sprawled out on his stomach reading Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He could hear Steve’s sigh travel all the way down just to flick him in the guilt muscle, which was located inconveniently beside the heart.

“You know you’ll only be mad at yourself if you don’t go,” Steve said. “And then you’ll be a grump-ass and I’ll force you to talk about your feelings again. No one wants that, Buck.”

“They always start a few minutes late anyway,” Bucky said. He got to his hand and knees like a sloth in a hurry.

“Sam’s not gonna be mad at you,” Steve said. “He’ll be glad you’re there.”

“Steve, he practically handed me an engraved invitation to get the fuck out.” He stood and stretched.

Above him, Steve swung his legs over the side of the platform, and paint plopped wet by Bucky’s feet. There was probably a spray of gold in his hair and on his clothes now. He sighed. Taking up with Steve had meant getting spattered with paint on the regular, and he was getting used to it.

“You gotta stop putting words in people’s mouths,” Steve said. He looked about three seconds away from shaking his finger at him. “Now you go to your meeting and be brave, Buck, okay?”

On impulse, Bucky clambered one handed up the scaffolding and stole a kiss before hopping back down and leaving reception. His mouth still tingled when he slunk into the meeting room like a shadow and took his usual seat. Sam smiled at him and nudged his shoulder with his own.

“Sorry,” Bucky said.

“’s nothing,” Sam said.

“I’m gonna talk today,” Bucky said in a rush. He wanted to be on the hook for this. He wanted not to wriggle his way out.

Sam raised his eyebrows, but nodded anyway.

“I’ll let you take the floor to start, is that cool?”

Bucky swallowed and nodded.

“Awesome,” Sam said. When everyone was assembled, Sam made the announcement. “James here has some things to say tonight. We’re gonna table our regular discussion for after, if that’s all right with everyone.”

Around the circle, Sheryl, Antoine, Everett, Dennis, Jordan, Jamil, and Corey all nodded and murmured their assent. Most of them even gave him encouraging smiles. He felt small again and resisted the urge to hunch in on himself. These other vets were willing to give him all their attention, even though he’d been a black hole in their meetings for more than a year. He took his good hand out of his pocket and tried to relax.

“So I’m a big old queer,” he said, loud in the quiet room. No one said anything. No one even made a face at him. He licked his lips and took a deep breath. “It was always mostly academic. Back room blowjobs a couple times a year aren’t shit for like, being close to someone, or even letting people know you’re a big old queer. And who did I have to tell anyway? A dumb foster kid who aged out of the system, no fuckin’ friends to speak of. Then I join the army and DADT gets repealed a year into my service, and two of the guys in my special ops unit get drunk and say, fuck it, they’re big old queers, and they don’t care who knows. So all of the sudden I’m on my feet saying me too, you jagoffs, you’re not fuckin’ special, and nothing exploded and the world didn’t end and no orgies spontaneously broke out, I see what you’re fantasizing about over there, Sheryl.” Laughter rose up around him, and Bucky cracked his own smile. It made him feel lighter. “They were the best group of jerks any guy could have at his back. And in one weapons-grade fuckin’ SNAFU, they, we, all of us were killed or otherwise destroyed.” He waved his empty sleeve. Everyone’s attention was on him with their grave, furrowed brows. Their damnable sympathy. “But you know what I thought when the IED took the whole goddamn house down on us? Do you know what went through my mind?”

“What, James?” Sam said softly.

Bucky swiped angrily at a hank of hair that tickled his forehead.

“All I could think of was how happy I was that this was the end and I didn’t have to think about the three fucking little kids who got between my unit and the orders we were given. All I could think of was how I deserved to burn in hell forever for what I’d done, and it was a fucking relief I was finally gonna get it.”

The room was silent. Sam’s gaze was steady on his face, Jordan sat there with big fat tears rolling down her cheeks, and everyone else was staring at the floor.

“We noticed too late,” Bucky said, voice cracking. “We noticed too late and couldn’t do shit, and you know what the colonel said later? Collateral damage, boys. Put it outta your heads. Can you imagine? If it had been three American children, three white children? They’d never—” Bucky though of Aisha. He thought of Rosie, and Lana, and every other child of color who had been his sibling, however briefly. He slammed his fist down on his own thigh, and Jamil flinched in his seat. “They’d fuckin’ never.”

He was breathing hard and everyone giving him their big eyes. He counted to ten as he exhaled and forced his heartbeat down.

“So sue me,” he said, “I was glad when we were out a few months later and the IED flashed and the building came down. I was glad I was gonna bleed out from my dumb shit arm. I wished it could be different for all the other guys, but for me?” Bucky pursed his lips and shook his head. “I was glad to be done. Only I wake up one arm short a few days later in a sandpit hospital, and they tell me I’m going home, I’m going to be fine.

“So I come home. I get a room in an old lady’s apartment and try not to shake too much. I join you guys here, bein’ a downer, sorry about that. I get shit work for guys who don’t have degrees, and I lose most of the jobs anyway. I collect my pension and burn my fuckin’ medals. And then what happens to me? Right when my life is shit and I’m expecting the universe to drop a steaming load on my face any second?”

His audience was rapt, and Sam prompted him once more. Bucky licked his lips.

“I meet this guy. And he’s — everything. Everything good and bright about the world. The kind of person you don’t let the darkness touch, if you can help it. But I’m—” Bucky shrugged and sank back into his chair, suddenly spent. “I’m just this walking disaster, man. What could I ever offer him? What good can I be to someone else, knowing what I’ve done? But the goddamn miracle of it is he doesn’t care. He thinks we should be together anyway. And I’m weak enough to want to keep it, even though I’m gonna end up hurting him. I keep thinking I can maybe be a different kind of person, the kind of person who doesn’t make war on little kids, the kind of person he can be proud of, but instead I wake up every morning and…” He shook his head. His words just dried up. He slid down further in his seat and looked at the floor. Everyone let the moment lie for a while, until all Bucky could hear was the tick of a distant clock and his own heartbeat in his ears.

“Thanks for telling us that, James,” Jordan said eventually. “It’s good to get to know you, and to have another ‘big old queer’ in the room. But you remember how Sam says the words we use and the little things we say matter?I think you’ve gotta cut out all that stuff insulting yourself. I had to learn that too. Because we’re not stupid and we’re not worthless, and we shouldn’t say it even if sometimes we believe it.”

Bucky did his best to cross his arms, which was mostly just shoving his good hand under his stump these days. He’d never even bothered asking his insurance for a new prosthesis. He dipped his head in one jerky nod.

“You know what we all done,” Jamil said suddenly. He had clear eyes the color of tea steeped too long. His habitual joviality had evaporated, and he was all kinds of serious, looking into Bucky’s eyes. “You been here when we’re raging and when we’re crying. You’ve listened to all our sins like this room is our own personal confessional. We’re none of us sitting around with clean hands. And we all of us deserve to love someone, and to have them love us back.”

“All right, everyone, we’re not here to jump all over James,” Sam said.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Bucky said. “They’re both right. Some of us just need a kick in the ass to wise up.” He caught Jordan’s eye, and she gave him an unimpressed look. “Sorry,” he said. “I… needed some truths about self esteem to be explicitly revealed to me?”

Sam smiled wryly.

“Better,” he said with a tilt of his head. “You’ll get there. And James? Good luck with your boy, dude.”

Steve’s hands were bigger than his. Bucky marveled at this every time he pressed their palms and fingers together with their mismatched calluses — Bucky’s from handling the tools of a sniper, Steve’s from handling the tools of an artist. They lay quiet in bed, naked in the dim light of Steve’s bedroom, lining up their hands and sharing the cooling air between them. Steve lay on his back while Bucky was sprawled on his stomach, half on top of Steve with his chin propped on his chest. He drew his fingers down the length of Steve’s, and Steve tangled them together and closed his fist. His lips were slick and parted, his eyes half lidded, and the remnants of his pretty pink flush was there from the tips of his ears to the crests of his hip bones. He had delicate little bars through his nipples, and one was close enough to Bucky’s mouth that he had to tug on it with his teeth, just a little. Steve’s mouth curved upward in a contented smile.

“No teasin’, Buck,” he murmured.

“Who’s teasin’?” Bucky shifted and pressed a kiss to Steve’s nipple, savoring the way he sighed underneath him. Steve settled a hand in Bucky’s hair. Bucky rubbed his nose in the fine, near-invisible blond hairs that fuzzed out between Steve’s pectorals. He laid himself bodily over Steve and breathed him deep. He listened to Steve’s heartbeat, low and steady, comforting. Steve’s other hand trailed light over Bucky’s shoulders, his spine.

“Hey Bucky?”

“Hm?”

“Are you happy?” Steve said.

“Delirious,” Bucky said.

“Seriously.”

“Yeah, seriously.” Bucky lifted his head, and Steve’s hands came up to frame his face, to trace his cheekbones with the pads of his thumbs. “I’ve never…” Bucky’s throat went dry. This should feel vulnerable and terrifying, being so open with someone, but instead it felt like he was finally free. Being with Steve felt like being himself for the first time in his adult life. Probably for the first time since they’d been separated. Bucky didn’t know what that meant about him, probably something deeply troubling, but he was done questioning the good things he got in life. “I’ve never been close to someone like this. I’ve never been happy like this. You’re like…coming home and taking your pants off.”

Bucky regretted it as soon as it was out of his mouth, but Steve burst out laughing and lunged up to sling his arms around Bucky’s neck and drag him down into the bedding.

“You’re such a fuckin’ romantic, Buck,” he said, and slid his open mouth against Bucky’s. Bucky hummed into his mouth and pulled his body flush on top of his own. They kissed until they were breathless, and then Steve flopped back off to Bucky’s side, tangling their legs and their hands and snuggling up to Bucky’s stump like it didn’t bother him at all. Bucky’s heart felt swollen.

“What about you?” Bucky asked.

“What about me what?” Steve said, tracing Bucky’s fingers up and down and slotting them together again and against.

“Are you happy? With me?”

Steve shifted enough on his pillow to look Bucky in the eye. He pushed a lock of Bucky’s hair behind an ear and let his hand linger on the side of Bucky’s face.

“I feel like this is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life,” he said. “Like everything was on hold or I was going through the motions until I found you again. I did all this stuff, like get my master’s and have a gallery show and win that contest, but it was just, I don’t know. It was really great to achieve those things, but now I can be happier about them, since I get to share them with you. Does that make sense?”

Bucky nodded.

“I wish we’d never been taken away from each other.”

Steve smiled, the sad kind of smile.

“You would have been my brother forever, and we never would have had this.”

Bucky closed his eyes and set his forehead against Steve’s. This is worth it, he thought as Steve stroked his cheek. He would walk through any fire to get to where he was right here right now, he and Steve with nothing but skin between their two pulses, tangled up like a single beast and delirious with it. And what were regrets worth anyway, when there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about how time flowed on and on, and all anyone could do was live with their choices? If you were lucky, you could carve out some happiness amid the rubble.

“I think I want to make the army send me to college like they promised,” Bucky said.

Steve popped up in bed, face all lit up and beautiful.

“Really? Because I have this whole list for you, I ranked them by their engineering programs, and I think it would be really—”

“You made me a list?” Bucky propped himself up against the pillows. “You were waiting for me to want to go to college again?”

Steve paused. He tucked his bottom lip behind his teeth.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry. Should I not have?”

Bucky wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“No, it’s… it’s fine. Just, no one’s ever done something like that for me before.” No one had ever though Bucky was anything but a worthless burner before.

Steve stood up, naked and unselfconscious, his flaccid cock just a little curl in the bronze nest of his pubic hair. He looked like something that belonged in the classics section in a museum, and Bucky wanted nothing more at that moment than to swallow him whole. Steve rounded the couch and went rummaging in his messenger bag before making a little sound of triumph and bounding back to bed with a piece of paper in his hand. He bounced his ass on the mattress and grinned up at Bucky as he presented his list.

“They’re all in New York,” he said. “But if you wanted to look somewhere else, we could do that too.”

“We,” Bucky echoed. Steve chewed his lips and raised his eyes to meet Bucky’s. His eyes were a dark blue, flecked with grey.

“If you wanted,” Steve said.

“I wanna be where you are,” Bucky said.

“We’ll go wherever’s best for you,” Steve said. “We can even get you in some community college classes, build up your GPA. You could go to Cornell or something!”

Bucky laughed and set the list aside to pull Steve up against him.

“You’re pretty confident for someone talking about a high school drop out.”

Steve slung his arms around Bucky’s neck and rubbed his face in his throat.

“I know what I know,” he said.

Bucky propped his chin on Steve’s shoulder. He stroked his hand up and down Steve’s back, memorizing the knobby line of his spine.

“I gotta tell you something,” he said.

“Hm?”

“I don’t think I wanna be an engineer anymore. Does that mess up your list?”

Steve pulled away and looked up at him with raised eyebrows.

“We can always make a new one,” he said. “What do you want to do?”

Bucky swallowed past the dryness in his throat. He’d never let the thought coalesce enough to articulate it before. It was only now that he’d allowed himself to entertain the possibility of going to college for real that he even acknowledged what had always been there. He turned onto his left side, and Steve turned onto his right, and Bucky forced himself to make eye contact.

“I think I want to write books,” he said. “Kids’ books, the kind that got me through foster care and made me feel a little less alone. Is that dumb?”

“No, Buck,” Steve said. “That’s just about the smartest thing I’ve heard all day.”

“I probably don’t need to go to college for it, but if it’s on the government’s dime, some writing classes wouldn’t hurt, right?”

“I think people forget the arts are a learned skill, too,” Steve said. “I’ve seen some children’s lit MFAs around, even. I think Stony Brook?”

“Ew, Long Island though.”

“Don’t be a hater.”

“But an MFA? Just think of it: we could have matching degrees hanging over the mantle in our lovely box on the street corner.”

“You callin’ my degree useless, bub?”

“Never ever,” Bucky said, because Steve’s degree had gotten him this ramshackle studio apartment, had gotten his ass into the VA just when Bucky needed him most, had led him back to Bucky where he was meant to be, and it was the furthest thing from useless he could think of. “Don’t get carried away, though. I haven’t even gotten into college yet, and you’ve got me halfway to a doctorate.”

“I just want you to have everything,” Steve said, eyes wide and devastating. “I want you to have all good things.”

Bucky brought his hand up and cupped Steve’s face. He pressed their foreheads together and felt Steve’s eyelashes on his skin as his eyes fluttered shut.

“I do,” Bucky said. Steve shuddered against him, and Bucky pressed his lips to his. Steve pushed a leg between Bucky’s and opened his eyes again. He set a hand against Bucky’s cheek. Bucky traced the lines of Steve’s face with a light fingertip. He skimmed his jaw and his brow and the bony ridge of his nose. He laid the pad of his thumb on Steve’s lips. “It just kills me, you know?”

“What does?” Steve said, voice low as though not to disturb the crystalline intimacy of the moment.

“How gorgeous you are,” Bucky said. “And you don’t even know it.”

Steve’s mouth quirked crookedly against Bucky’s thumb.

“I’ve got some news,” he said. Bucky hummed out a questioning note. “You’re pretty devastating yourself.”

Bucky snorted, and Steve caught the pad of his thumb between his teeth. Bucky’s breath hitched.

“If that hobo look does it for you,” he said. “It’ll be storming the runways next season, just you wait.”

“Don’t be like that.” Steve’s hand left Bucky’s cheek to tangle up their fingers. He pulled their hands to his own chest and pressed Bucky’s palm against the steady thump of his heart. “You’re it for me.”

Bucky’s breath shuddered out of him, and he let go of Steve’s hand only to slide his own around Steve’s hip to pull him closer. He slung a leg over Steve’s and rested their foreheads together. Their penises perked to meet each other again in the humid space between them, but sex right now seemed distant and abstract.

“I don’t know what deity I pleased to deserve this, but I’m gonna do my damnedest not to fuck it up,” Bucky said.

Steve huffed and shook his head.

“Wanna know a secret?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re, um. You’re the reason I knew I was queer. When I was a kid.”

What?

“You know, kid crushes,” Steve said. His ear was turning pink, and Bucky tried not to laugh at him. “You were really cute, and I’d never had a friend like you, and even when we got separated…” His mouth clicked shut.

“Even when we got separated…”

Steve took a deep breath. “I would imagine you rescuing me, like some prince out of a fairy tale. Just — swooping in and taking me away somewhere we could be together forever, without all the bullies and foster family drama and homework and whatever. My foster brothers or guys at school would all talk really raunchy about girls and shit they didn’t know about because they were dumb teenage boys, meanwhile I’m in the corner with my mouth shut because all I wanted was to kiss a boy I hadn’t seen in years and live happily ever after.”

Bucky drew his hand up Steve’s back, where the skin was smooth and the bones were prominent.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t rescue you when you needed it,” he said. “But if it makes you feel better, you’re rescuing me right now.”

“We rescued ourselves,” Steve said. He cradled Bucky’s jaw in one hand, swept his thumb over Bucky’s cheekbone. “This is the happily ever after part.”

Sometimes in class, Bucky had a hard time forgetting he was in a room full of eighteen year olds. At thirty, he was damn near twice their age, and their priorities seemed out of whack to him. Most of them seemed to spend a lot of time trying to wheedle out of the education they were paying to get while simultaneously harassing the instructors for A grades they didn’t earn. On the other hand, there were the overachievers, who completed everything early and asked for extra, but somehow didn’t endear themselves to the instructors this way. Most of the kids were politely distant with him, which Bucky could appreciate, some were dicks, which he could deal with, and others — well. Others apparently thought the one-armed guy with the deliberately anti-military hair in his face was the epitome of mystery and sex. He almost died of blushing so hard and felt like a real Steve Rogers about it when the first of a series of freshman girls asked him out on a date. He tried to remember eighteen and mostly just came up with an overwhelming sense of desperation and doom.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, he dropped in on Mrs. Epstein and did her chores or got her groceries. Sometimes they just had tea or watched TV. Bucky felt as though he understood her a lot better than he did his classmates. Steve ribbed him all the time about secretly being a ninety-five year old man.

“Get off my lawn,” Bucky would say, and catch the tongue Steve would stick out at him in a kiss.

It was a Tuesday afternoon after tea and conversation with Mrs. Epstein that Bucky came home to find Steve red-eyed and sitting at the table clutching a mug of tea all his own. Bucky’s heart flip flopped right in time with his stomach.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “What’s happened?”

Steve rubbed his face and pushed the newspaper across the table to Bucky’s usual seat. Bucky strode over in two steps and snatched it up.

It was folded to the obituaries, and there in the middle was a picture of Nick Fury, young and handsome and grave as ever in his dress blues, both eyes intact.

Fury, Nicholas J.

December 21, 1939 — October 1, 2015

Bucky found that his hand was trembling too hard for him to read the actual obituary, and he dropped the paper with a muttered curse.

“We already missed the funeral,” Steve said. He pushed through his hair with both hands and left it sticking up all over. “That’s what I get for reading week-old news, I guess. God, I feel so stupid now. This shouldn’t have been the thing that made us find them. We should have thought of looking them up before this. We should have reconnected. It’s not even like it’s hard, with the internet and all, I just didn’t think—”

“Don’t,” Bucky said, and Steve clammed up. Bucky gentled his tone with a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “It felt too weird, like imposing, or like we’d be bothering them. I thought about it a lot, actually, and I never did anything about it.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, voice small.

“Classic foster kid inferiority complex, I guess,” Bucky said. He held his arm out. “Come here.”

Steve stepped in close and Bucky locked his arm around his back. He could feel Steve shudder into his chest, but he wasn’t crying. Bucky felt a cold sense of inevitability settle over him. Numbness.

“We’re gonna look up Natasha,” Bucky said into his hair. “And we’re gonna bring her, I don’t know, a casserole or something.” Steve huffed a forlorn little laugh out into Bucky’s collarbone. “It’ll be good. We’ll be good.”

“I just never thought… I don’t know, even after the stroke he seemed so powerful and big. Like there was nothing on earth that could bring him down.”

“And if he was still out there, even if we never saw him again, somehow things were going to be okay.”

Steve nodded, and the arms around Bucky’s back tightened.

“I guess I thought I was done mourning my parents, you know?”

Bucky stroked through Steve’s hair once before thumping him on the shoulder and taking a step back.

“Come on,” he said, chucking Steve lightly on the chin. “Use your Google-fu and find Natasha. I’ll pre-heat the oven.”

It wasn’t the brownstone where he’d spent the best days of his childhood, but it was a close second — a nice ground floor duplex with ramp access instead of stairs. Bucky got an attack of nerves just when he was supposed to ring the bell. Steve sighed, handed him the casserole dish, and shouldered in between Bucky and the door. He pushed the doorbell and Bucky watched him straighten and square his shoulders like a man facing his firing squad. Bucky wanted to smush against him forever.

The door swung open to reveal a small woman with white hair that tumbled to her shoulders in soft waves. Her brows were as fine and expressive as ever when she arched them delicately upward.

“Oh my God,” she said.

“We brought sweet potatoes,” Bucky blurted, thrusting the casserole dish around the Steve-shaped blockade before him.

Natasha took the dish from him, but instead of stepping aside to invite them in or even slamming the door in their faces, she stepped forward and closed the circle of her arms around both of them at the same time. Steve was probably getting squished, but he didn’t seem to mind. Bucky closed his eyes and focused on feeling exactly what the moment was giving him, just like Sam advised: closeness, and warmth, and relief. And then grief: for Nick, for their life together, for the person he used to be when he lived with two good parents.

Natasha stepped back and ushered them in. She led them to the kitchen, where she began pulling out all the fixings for sandwiches.

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve said.

“I want to,” Natasha said in a tone that brooked no argument. Steve glanced at Bucky, who shrugged.

“Can we help?” Bucky said.

“Get the plates out and serve up some potatoes,” Natasha said. Steve made a beeline for the cabinet that seemed most likely to house plates while Bucky ran through three drawers before finding a serving spoon. Steve laid out three plates on the kitchen table and Bucky ladled out a portion of casserole to each. They looked at each other, and then at Natasha, whose back was turned to them. Bucky nodded at a chair, and Steve shrugged and sat down. Bucky sat next to him, and they waited silently while Natasha chopped things and ripped lettuce and arranged all her stuff just so.

“I think that’s the same clock,” Steve said, pointing to the clock on the wall. It was puke green and dingy yellow and had the silhouette of a bird on the face.

“Nick’s mother gave that to us,” Natasha said. “I never had the heart to dump it even though it’s an offense to eyeballs everywhere.”

She brought a plate of sandwiches over and set it in the middle of the table. She put a hand of both their shoulders and looked between them fondly.

“My boys,” she said. “Look at you, all grown up and missing limbs. You were always attached at the hip. Nice to see some things don’t change.”

Steve and Bucky exchanged looks. Steve went wide-eyed and a little pink. Bucky cleared his throat.

“Actually, uh, we’re. You know.” He waved his hand between them.

“For God’s sake,” Steve muttered. “We’re together. Like. Gayly.”

A single fine brow arched skyward. Natasha got that look Bucky was startled to find he recognized, the one where her mouth twisted into a little pinch in one corner that meant she was amused but way too cool to show it.

“What a shocker,” she said. “I’m totally surprised and appalled.”

She sat down in the chair next to Bucky’s and transferred a sandwich onto her plate of potatoes. Bucky glanced at Steve again, who made big eyes at him as if he was supposed to know what that meant. He got a kick to his foot underneath the table when he made a confused face back. Steve rolled his eyes and leaned forward to make deep meaningful eye contact with Natasha.

“Natasha, we read about Nick in the paper,” he said. “We were devastated, but we can’t imagine what you’re going through. We wanted to let you know that we’re here if you need anything. You got a list of chores? Errands? We can do it, you just say the word.”

Natasha put her sandwich down and linked her hands together under her chin. She fixed them with a sharp-eyed look that made Bucky think about whether or not he’d done anything he could get in trouble for right now.

“It was a long time coming,” she said. “Not that the moment it happened wasn’t astonishing, and heartbreaking, and godawful, but.” She shrugged. “We had a long time together. We had a good life, and, while it lasted, good kids. After his stroke, we spent a lot of time getting him back to his life, and in the last five years, he developed emphysema. Never smoked a day in his life, can you believe it?”

Bucky’s throat felt thick, and he swallowed convulsively around the humidity that gathered there. He shook his head. She smiled sadly at him.

“Thanks for coming today,” she said. “It would have meant a lot to him.”

“We should’ve come sooner,” Steve said. “We’re real sorry about that.”

Natasha scooted her chair in.

“You know Nick,” she said. “If he could see us now, it’d be all pull your damn face out of that pout and I ain’t gone and died just so all y’all could sit around looking like someone shot your dog.

Bucky laughed, but it was ragged with the threat of tears. He squeezed his eyes shut and dipped his chin to his chest. He felt a slim, cool hand on his wrist.

“Hey,” Natasha said gently. “There’s stuff I should tell you.”

He forced himself to look up, even though his vision blurred. He blinked and blinked until it went away.

“When Nick was home again, and we’d moved in here to make things easier on him, we tried to get you — all of you — back. But CPS wouldn’t certify us again, and they wouldn’t even return our calls or anything. We didn’t know what had happened to any of you, or where you were. We could only hope you’d gone to good homes. But we were really disappointed about you in particular, Bucky. The truth was, we’d been back and forth with family court trying to get your biological father to give up his parental rights, and we were fighting some policies that made it hard for Nick to adopt due to his age, but we were trying so hard, Bucky. Had been for years, and then suddenly, it, you, the whole life we’d built — it was gone. And I’m sorry about that. I’m so immeasurably sorry.”

Bucky shuddered as his breath left him. He pulled his hand back from Natasha’s to cover his eyes and he lost the battle to keep the tears in. He suddenly missed Nick’s brash voice and his hand at his shoulder, the way he was always knew whether to kick Bucky in the ass or to pat him on the head, the way he was the only real dad Bucky had ever had. He missed him so bad it felt like he might throw up.

He could feel Steve’s hand making slow circles on his back, and he and Natasha were speaking to each other in hushed tones, but Bucky couldn’t hear any of it.

“I wish I hadn’t had my head up my ass for the last ten fucking years,” he said abruptly, and the voices went silent around him. “I wish I’d had the balls to find you and see him and, and just, fuck. Fuck.”

There was the scraping of a chair, and then Natasha was kneeling in front of him, pulling his hand from his eyes, and looking up at him with a terrible sympathy.

“You’re here now,” she said. “And I’ll tell you the truth, Bucky Barnes — it’s never too late for family.”

Bucky sagged and sort of halfway fell into her, but Natasha was warm and solid and ready with open arms.

“My boys,” she said. “Oh, my boys. Growing up and taking up with each other. It’s every parent’s dream.”

Bucky laughed, and so did Steve, and Bucky let himself feel what the moment was offering: a good, clean pain.

When Steve finished his mural, he revealed a vibrant display of color and light that managed to make reception look bigger and brighter than it had ever been. Upon first glance, it looked like an elaborate impressionist landscape of all the world’s environments and countries, but if you inspected more closely, you saw that each brush stroke was part of a letter, each letter a part of a name, each name the talisman of loved one left behind. The names of the fallen rollicked over frosty hills and burned like the sun in the tropics. They snaked like rivers through mountains and unfurled like smoke in the desert. Thousands of names in tiny bursts of color spread, alive and pulsing, across the walls of the Outreach Center.

When Bucky brought Natasha — and later, Aisha and Rosie and Lana — to the clinic to show off Steve’s work, he led the way toward a sleepy village done in brown and orange and purple and gold. He rubbed his thumb over Jim Morita’s name. Dugan was there next to him even though he was supposed to be somewhere else. Bucky wasn’t too proud to beg for some blatant favoritism from Steve if it meant putting two Howling Commandos together, where they belonged.

“These are my friends,” he told his family. “And this is how I remember them.”

As brilliant points of light that wouldn’t go out.

End