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took my love, took it down

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The problem, Bucky thinks now that he has most of his memories back, is that his whole entire world has always revolved around Steve Rogers. Steve has been always been half of Bucky’s identity. Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers’ best friend. Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers’ wingman. Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers’ teammate. And now, well, now Steve had other people to fill those positions. And of course, of course he’d always been a little bit in love with Steve. Not that he had ever said anything. He couldn’t really back then, not when such a declaration could have ended the friendship that had been the only ray of light in the darkness of his short existence. So when he overhears Steve telling Natasha that he’s finally found someone he’d like to date, someone with similar life experience, Bucky clings blindly to the hope that maybe, just maybe, Steve is talking about him.

 

i. i’ve been afraid of changin’, cause i built my life around you

Bucky had not always felt so helplessly desperate. Well, he had, but not when it had come to Steve. At first, when Steve had found him huddled behind a dumpster in a crumbling Brooklyn alleyway, he’d been relieved. His memories had already began to claw their way back into his consciousness, and they were unrelenting. They woke him, thrashing, from his sleep, and haunted his every waking moment, reducing him to a quivering, sobbing mess by the time he’d managed to make his way to their old neighborhood. He did not know then why he’d returned there, his mind had been blank and his body operated seemingly on autopilot before the memories began, but the moment he’d arrived, he collapsed, curled in on himself, and had not moved since. With each new memory, good or bad, Bucky or the Soldier, his body physically shuttered, and he clutched his head in his hands and moaned miserably.

So when Steve’s voice broke through the onslaught of memories, softly murmuring, “Hey, Buck it’s okay. I got you,” all he could feel was sheer relief.

Steve had come for him. He knew Steve would come for him. Steve always came for him.

The first months were the worst, even after the return of his memories had slowed to a more bearable pace. Bucky had no ability to take care of himself, after years upon years of being sprayed down with a hose, fed through IV, and shoved in a frozen capsule, self-care did not come easy. He had to struggle to relearn things that had once been second nature to him, or to the old Bucky anyway. Things as mind-numbingly simple as when to eat meals and how much to eat before stopping, and how to operate a shower, and use shampoo, and how often should he do said things. There were days when Bucky could almost function normally, and then there were days where he would squeeze himself into the tightest space he could find, refusing to speak, move, or eat no matter how much Steve pleaded. There were days when he would leap to attack if startled by so much as an object falling over, or Steve speaking before Bucky had realised he was in the room. Almost every night Bucky would snap awake screaming and thrashing violently from nightmares.

Yet through all of it, Steve was patient, and gentle, and Steve. Steve would smile at him, make him breakfast, sit with him on the days he couldn’t bring himself to move or speak, and hold him when his night terrors felt too real. And Bucky had not realized how much he’d missed Steve, even when he’d had no memory of who the man was.

The months after Bucky had finally begun to recover were the best. Steve seemed so excited to have Bucky back, and to have someone to experience the new century with. He would take Bucky everywhere from sightseeing, to sporting events, to museums, and movie theatres. It almost felt as though it were the good old days and it was the two of them against the rest of the world once again.

And then everything came to a screeching halt.

The realisation came one morning when Bucky lumbered out of bed late and stumbled sleepily into the kitchen of Steve’s D.C. apartment to find Natasha Romanoff lounging there, leaning casually back in her chair, feet propped up on the table. Steve was standing by the stove, scrambling eggs and the two were laughing quietly about something. They tried to stifle their laughter when Bucky walked into view, and he quickly realised that whatever it was must’ve been some kind of a private joke.

He swallowed heavily, suddenly feeling awkward. “Hello Natasha.”

“James.” She answered coolly. Natasha still didn’t trust him, and Bucky didn’t blame her. It wasn’t exactly easy to trust someone who had tried to kill you on more than one occasion.

If Steve picked up on the dramatic atmospheric shift which had just taken place, he didn’t comment upon it, “Morning, Buck! Sleep well?”

The two had been sharing a bed since Steve brought Bucky back to the apartment. The arrangement made it easier to calm him down after the panic attacks, so, Steve knew that Bucky had suffered a nightmare the past night. Bucky chose to assume that Steve was wondering if he had slept well since then.

“Fine,” he murmured, moving to sit on the far side of the table, away from Natasha, “What were you two laughing about?”

Natasha and Steve exchanged a look which Bucky couldn’t decipher.

“Nothing,” Steve said at the same time as Natasha said, “Classified.”  The two looked at each other again and chuckled.

“Oh. Alright.” Bucky frowned and looked down at his hands, fiddling distractedly with the metal one. He and Steve had private jokes growing up, and often the Commandos found themselves staring at the two in confusion whenever they’d remembered one. It felt remarkably strange to be on the other side of the scenario. Something cold and unsettling began to unfurl in Bucky’s gut.

He cleared his throat and tried again, “I didn’t know you were coming by today,” doing his best to sound casual and friendly.

Steve snorted from behind the stove, “Neither did I.”

Natasha smirked at Steve’s back, seeming to ignore Bucky entirely, “Someone had to come check on you. Make sure you hadn’t burned the place down yet.”

“You act like I am completely incompetent at life outside the battlefield.” Bucky couldn’t see his face but he knew that Steve was rolling his eyes playfully.

The woman grinned wolfishly, “Well you’ve yet to prove yourself, and you still haven’t called-”

“Nat,” Steve said warningly, turning around to face the table. He stole a quick glance at Bucky before returning his gaze to her, “We can talk about that later, alright?”

Natasha didn’t say anything, but she raised her eyebrows in clear amusement.

Bucky suddenly felt the need to leave the room, and he quickly excused himself to go take a shower. His hands trembled as he pulled off his clothes and stepped under the spray of warm water, and his heart raced uncontrollably in his chest. Steve had never hidden anything from him, not as long as they’d known each other. They’d told each other everything, that was what best friends did. Now, Steve had something he wasn’t willing to share with Bucky, but that he would rather trust Natasha with. Bucky found himself leaning against the tile and sliding slowly to the shower floor. Natasha Romanoff was Steve Rogers' best friend.

* * *

Bucky tried not to let this particular revelation affect anything between him and Steve. He told himself that he should be lucky that Steve was his friend at all, let alone one who was willing to take in an amnesiac Russian assassin with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But part of him couldn’t shake the miserable feeling that he was losing Steve, that Steve was slipping out of his grasp when he had only just got him back. Bucky suddenly found himself doing everything he could to hold on.

Hey Stevie, wanna watch a movie?

Can we go to the park today?

Want to go grab something to eat?

“Course, Buck.” Steve almost always replied, smiling his brilliant beautiful smile that always made Bucky’s heart manage to beat a little faster.

It helped at first, being the one to prompt Steve with activities. Up until Bucky’s realization regarding Steve and Natasha’s relationship, Steve had always been the one trying to get Bucky to leave the apartment. Sometimes he literally had to drag Bucky out of bed. Now, Bucky constantly tried to come up with things for the two of them to do together. And it was working. Steve seemed ecstatic that Bucky was becoming so animated, although he probably wouldn’t be if he discovered why. But Steve didn’t know why, Bucky reminded himself, so all was going well until-

“Hey Steve, I was thinking maybe we could go…,” Bucky paused in the doorway of the bedroom when he noticed that Steve was on the phone.

Steve spotted Bucky and gave him a half smile, holding up a finger as if to say, “Give me a second.”

Bucky nodded and slumped against the doorframe to wait.

“...no, Sam. It’s a black tie event, you can’t wear your Falcon suit.” Steve huffed in exasperation, “I don’t care if Tony says he’s going in the Iron Man suit, he’s going to look ridiculous… It’s a press event…”

Sam Wilson was Steve’s good friend and running buddy. The two ran together almost every morning and went out for beers at least once a week. Their relationship was casual and easy, much like Steve’s and Bucky’s had been growing up. Steve always returned from his outings with Sam looking relaxed and happier than he did at any other time since Bucky had began living with him. Bucky hadn’t felt jealous until recently, but now just the mention of Sam was enough to make his stomach churn.

“I know, you are the best wingman, but you don’t actually have to be wearing wings at all times… I can invite someone else if you are going to pout.” Steve was laughing now.

Steve’s words hit him like a punch to the gut. He didn’t know why, because he honestly shouldn’t be surprised to hear Steve agreeing aloud that Sam was his wingman. Sam had been the one fighting at Steve’s side on the Helicarrier all those months ago when Bucky was still the Winter Soldier, and Sam had been there again when Steve finally tracked him down to that alleyway in Brooklyn. It wasn’t surprising at all, so Bucky didn’t know why it hurt so much.

“Just be ready at five, and wear something appropriate.”

Steve clicked the phone off, and turned to grin at Bucky, the grin immediately fell off his face, “What’s wrong?”

Bucky realized how distressed he must look and quickly shook his head to clear it, “Uh, nothing. I was just wondering if maybe you wanted to go check out that art exhibit you were talking about the other day?” He tried his best to keep the hope out of his voice.

Steve looked down a bit guiltily, “Actually, I have a press event for the Avengers at the Capitol Building. I’m about to go meet Sam and then we are gonna head over.”

Bucky paused a beat before answering, holding out a fleeting hope that maybe he too would be invited. The world knew about Bucky, ever since Natasha released all of S.H.I.E.l.D’s files online, and Steve had spoken about him and his progresses in many press conferences and interviews, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to show up at a public event with Steve. However, after a few moments passed it became clear that he wouldn’t be offered any such invitation.

Fighting the crushing disappointment, Bucky smirked and said, “Oh no big deal, we can go another time. Have fun wooing the American masses with your golden boy smile, punk.”

He spent the night in bed, staring miserably up at the ceiling, partly because he was afraid of the nightmares waiting for him in the shadows of his mind, and partly because Sam Wilson was Steve Rogers' wingman.

* * *

Bucky had never actually met the Avengers, not all of them at least. He knew Natasha obviously, and Sam had recently been inducted into the group after hitting it off with the others at the last press junket. He’d met Tony Stark on several occasions both because he helped Bucky maintain his prosthetic arm and because he led the Avengers with Steve and the two had become quite close. The man moved wildly, spoke loudly, and was a little too nosy for his own good. Bucky thought he would actually like Stark if the man and his team didn’t steal Steve away from him so often. He tried not to be bitter about it.

The other Avengers, however, Bucky had not met. He wasn’t sure if it was because they were busy when they weren’t saving the planet from certain destruction or if it was because Steve did not trust Bucky enough to meet them yet. Bucky hoped it was the former, because he did not want to think about being unworthy of Steve’s trust, even when he knew he had not earned it. All that Bucky did know about the Avengers, he knew from what he overheard from Steve or what he watched on the news.

Bucky watched the news often, especially when Steve was away on missions. If anyone asked, not that there was anyone to do so, he would claim that he was doing his best to keep up with current events. His borderline obsession with broadcast news had nothing to do with him desperately trying to find out if Steve was safe. That would be completely ridiculous.

The truth, though, was that it was hard for Bucky. It was hard sitting uselessly at home while the man that was his whole world went off to face certain death. Bucky shuddered to think about what he would do if something were to happen to Steve.

So when there was a particularly desperate situation and the Avengers were all called to Europe in the middle of the night, Bucky immediately planted himself in front of the television. It was some sort of robot attack from what Bucky and the newscasters could tell, but no one really knew anything. It was beyond frustrating. He watched on the edge of the couch, body rigid, muscles clenched, white knuckling the armrest with his flesh hand for what felt like forever. He watched as Steve nearly died over and over again and all he could do was sit and stare. It was unbearable.

The Avengers won, in the end. They always did, somehow. Even when it seemed that there was no hope, they pulled through. Bucky dreaded the day when they would not. The day when Steve would not stumble back into the apartment with partially healed cuts and fading bruises, smiling at Bucky and asking what he’d been up to while Steve was away.

Nothing. Bucky would think desperately, I can’t do anything when you are gone. I can’t do anything until I know you’re coming back.

Instead he would drawl, “Nothing much, pal. Why? Ya miss me?”

Much to Bucky’s relief Steve did once again stumble through the door, slightly injured but alive.

That night as they ate dinner in front of the television in the living room, so that Steve could continue to make his way through his long list of television shows and films he’d missed while under the ice, Bucky mustered up the courage to ask, “Steve?”

“Hm?” Steve answered around a bite of pizza as he turned to look at him, tearing his eyes away from their fourth consecutive episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“Do you...do you ever think about me maybe going with you?” Bucky was unsure if his attempts to keep his voice level were working.

Steve’s brows furrowed in confusion, “Going with me where?”

Bucky looked down at his own plate of pizza, unwilling to meet the other man’s eyes, “You know, on missions and stuff.”

There was a long pause, and he did not dare look up at Steve’s face.

“...Buck I… I don’t think that’s the best idea.” Steve finally replied, voice sounding a bit strained.

Bucky wanted to kick himself. How could he be so stupid? Of course Steve didn’t want him out there in the field. After all he’d done, how could anyone ever trust him with a gun? It was a miracle Steve even trusted him enough to live in his home.

“Yeah, yeah you’re right. It’s stupid, forget I asked.” Bucky forced himself to look up and give Steve a halfhearted smile.

It must not have fooled Steve because his frown deepened, “What’s wrong, Bucky? Why’d ya ask? Do you get bored here alone? Because I can-”

Bucky interrupted, looking away again, “Aw, Stevie it’s nothing. I just worry about your punk ass out there fighting robots and monsters is all.” He stole a quick glance at Steve out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge his reaction.

Steve’s eyes immediately softened and his mouth quirked up into a little smile, “Hey Buck,” he reached out a put a hand on Bucky’s flesh shoulder, Bucky forced himself not to lean into the touch, “you don’t have to worry about me. The Avengers are the best teammates a captain could ask for, they’ve got my back out there.”

“Yeah I know, doesn’t mean I can’t still worry about ya,” Bucky replied in the lightest tone he could manage, giving Steve his best grin.

Grinned at him, even though all he could hear in the back of his mind is, He doesn’t need you.

The next day the Avengers were honored for their efforts at the White House by representatives from nations all across the globe. Bucky settled down to watch the coverage on the news, as always. He knew that the days of the Howling Commandos were over and that he was not Steve’s teammate any longer, still he couldn’t help but grit his teeth as Steve laughed and bonded with the Avengers over their shared victory. Couldn’t help but wish it was he standing at Steve’s side as the cameras flashed. The Avengers were Steve’s brothers-in-arms and Bucky didn’t know what he was going to do.

* * *

It was a particularly nice day when it happened. One of those perfect summer afternoons where it was hot, but not uncomfortably so, and all the clouds in the sky were the big, white fluffy kind. Despite the general beauty of the day, Bucky couldn’t feel more miserable. The past few days Steve had been away on Avengers business, and now that Bucky finally had him all to himself all Steve wanted to do was run errands.

Steve didn’t seem to see anything wrong with their plans to go to the grocery store, smiling contentedly to himself as he compared the labels of two practically identically cereal boxes. It’s just that, Bucky had been hoping, praying really, that two of them would spend some time together doing something other than buying milk. Praying that maybe, just maybe, they’d do something fun and Bucky would be able to get Steve to smile in that carefree way he did when he was with Natasha, or Sam, or the Avengers.

And the thing is, Bucky knew he was being selfish. Knew that he should be happy he was getting to spend time with Steve at all, but it didn’t help to squelch the bitterness that had been building inside him ever since that morning in the kitchen with Natasha.

Bucky was just returning from fetching a carton of eggs, and was halfway down the aisle towards Steve when the man’s phone went off. Steve, seeming to have decided between his two boxes of cereal, dropped one into their cart and placed the other back on the self before reaching into his pocket to pull out his Stark phone.

“Hey, Nat,” Steve greeted brightly as he answered, causing Bucky to freeze in his tracks. He froze, because Steve hadn’t noticed him there yet and Steve told Natasha things that he didn’t tell Bucky anymore. And Bucky knew that it was stupid, and selfish, and delusional to pretend that eavesdropping on a phone call would bring him any closer to Steve, but Bucky couldn’t really stop himself at this point. Before he even realized what he was doing, Bucky found himself ducking behind a display of Cheerios, in order to get a good vantage point without being seen.

“No, I’m at the grocery store with Bucky,” Steve was saying, chuckling quietly at whatever she’d said as Bucky settled himself in to watch.

Steve was silent now, listening to whatever it was Natasha had deemed important enough to tell him via voice call.

Finally Steve spoke again, “I was planning on asking, actually.”

He rolled his eyes at whatever’s Natasha’s response was, but the expression on his face was one much more of exasperated amusement than annoyance. It was a look he used to give Bucky back when they were living in Brooklyn. When Bucky would come home to the tiny apartment they shared, drunk off his ass and sporting a bloody nose he’d earned from kissing some dame behind the dance hall who’d already had a fella. Steve reserved that look for his new friends now.

“Well, I think that I finally found someone with similar life experience.” Steve sounded a bit defensive now and there was a long pause before he huffed out a sigh, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, I have to ask them on a date first.”

A date? Bucky blinked in surprise. Steve hadn’t mentioned anything about dating before. At least, not since Bucky moved into his apartment. At first, there was a little sting of jealousy inside Bucky’s chest, because he was having enough trouble earning Steve’s attention as a friend, and now he was supposed to compete with a romantic interest? But then Steve’s words sunk in.

Steve had said he’d finally found someone with similar life experience. Similar life experience. Bucky and Steve grew up together in the 1940s, they both fought Nazis in World War II, and now they were both men out of time in this new century- Steve must have been talking about him. Because who had more similar life experiences to Steve than Bucky? Bucky’s heart was hammering a mile minute because Steve was talking about him. He had to be. Steve was going to ask Bucky on a date.

Bucky couldn’t help the excitement and relief that bubbled up in his chest. For so long he’d wanted this, for as long as he could remember Bucky had wanted Steve and now it was finally happening. Those past few weeks he had been so worried that he was slipping out of Steve’s life, he’d been absolutely beside himself, and it all seemed so ridiculous now. All his agonizing all seemed so silly, because Steve was going to ask him on a date and just the thought made Bucky feel a warmth in his belly and he found himself squirming a little.

Pulling himself out of his own thoughts, Bucky realized that he’d missed the rest of Steve’s conversation with Natasha, and the man was slipping his phone back into his pocket. Bucky figured it was probably time to ditch his hiding spot, so he slipped out from behind the display of Cheerios and approached Steve grinning broadly, all his previous misery regarding dull errands forgotten.

“Hey, Stevie!” he called as he walked over, displaying the carton of eggs in his hand proudly, “Got the eggs!”

Steve grinned at him, which made Bucky’s heart soar even higher than it already was, “Glad you’re so excited about it, Buck.”

He took the carton from Bucky’s hand and placed it carefully into the cart to keep them from cracking. As he did so, he looked at Bucky with raised eyebrows and noted, “You certainly seem to be in a better mood.”

Bucky did his best to contain the huge smile that was threatening to break onto his face and probably cause Steve to be suspicious of his friend’s sudden mood swing. He managed to just send him a little half smirk, “What can I say? It’s a beautiful day.”

That night, Bucky stood in front of the bathroom mirror and frowned at himself. He hadn’t gotten much sleep. Between the trouble he had letting his guard down and relaxing enough to even fall asleep, and the nightmares that woke him once he finally did, it wasn’t exactly easy for him. The sleepless nights had him sporting dark bags under his eyes, just visible behind his long shaggy hair, which now reached all the way down to his shoulders. He didn’t exactly look like date material.

It was disheartening. He remembered when he used to go on dates with pretty dames back in Brooklyn, when he spent longer than he probably should have fixing his hair in the mirror beforehand. Bucky didn’t think he had it in him to be quite that vain anymore, but still, he wanted to look good on his date with Steve. He wanted to impress him, needed to impress him, more than anything. Bucky squared his shoulders in determination. He might not be able to do anything about the dark circles, but his hair, his hair he could fix.

* * *

There was a reason that Bucky had not gotten his hair cut before.

He had been standing outside the barbershop for a while now, doing his best to muster up the courage to go inside. He figured he must look strange, just standing out on the sidewalk, staring up at the sign that proclaimed the shop to be open. In his flesh hand he clutched a few twenties that Steve had frantically given Bucky back when he had first moved in saying, “I’d just feel better if I knew you had some cash, in case you need something and I’m not around.” In his metal hand, currently gloved even though it was a blisteringly hot day, he held a photograph of himself in the 1940s, which he’d stolen from Steve’s bedside drawer.

Come on Barnes, he berated himself mentally. Come on, it’s just a stupid haircut.

Bucky took a deep breath in and blew it out slowly, before forcing himself forward and pulling open the door to the shop. A little bell rang signaling his entry and he winced at the unexpected sound. The place was mostly empty of patrons, except for one man in the back corner getting a shave. An older man towards the front, who obviously worked there, turned and smiled at him in a friendly manor.

“Uh,” Bucky swallowed thickly, trying not to lose his nerve, “I uh, I need a haircut.”

The man laughed and Bucky jumped a bit in surprise, “Yeah, I can see that.”

Bucky frowned and looked at his feet, rubbing at the back of his neck self-consciously.

“Why don’t you take a seat right here,” the man suggested, and Bucky looked up to see him patting the barber’s chair nearest him.

Staring at the chair, Bucky felt a sweat begin to break out on his forehead. His whole body suddenly felt cold and stiff, and he knew that he was going to have to deal with this, but now- No. No, he could do this. He was going to get a goddamn haircut, just like any other fella would before a big date.

Bucky seated himself in the chair slowly, trying his best to keep his breathing even. He squeezed his eyes shut, ignoring how the room suddenly felt as though it was spinning. He had avoided this kind of thing for so long now, even when Stark did maintenance on his arm Bucky had insisted they sit on the floor. Because just the thought of being back in the chair, while they’d- No. He stopped himself again, he couldn’t be thinking about that now. He just had to get through this.

“So how’d you want it?” the man asked from behind him. Bucky didn’t even open his eyes, just held out the photo for him to take.

The man snorted, “Vintage, huh? Well, that’s what all the kids are into these days. This a picture of your granddad?”

Bucky swallowed and answered weakly, “Something like that.” A bead of sweat slid down his face.

“Hey, you alright, bud?” The barber asked uncertainly, finally seeming to pick up on Bucky’s general distress.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I just don’t, I just,” Bucky babbled anxiously, eyes still screwed tightly shut.

The man made a sympathetic noise, “It’s alright son, we get a lot of folks in here who don’t like this, with the VA so close by and all. You’re a veteran aren’t ya?”

Bucky let out a shuddering breath he had not realized he’d been holding, “Yeah.” It’s not technically a lie.

His eyes are still closed, but he could feel the man nodding behind him in understanding. “Don’t worry, son, I’ll go quick for you. Anytime you want me to stop you just let me know. Alright?”

Bucky nodded furiously in response. He just wanted to get it over with, wanted to get out of that chair and back home to the apartment and Steve. Steve who thought he’d gone out for run. Steve who would be beside himself with worry right now if he knew where Bucky really was. Steve, who was going to ask Bucky on a date.

Bucky bit his lower lip and steeled himself. This is for Steve he reminded himself. He already owed Steve so much. He could do this one thing for Steve.

The barber began snipping away at his hair and Bucky gripped the arms of the chair desperately. He frantically tried to focus on anything, anything at all but the sound of the scissors snapping, or the razor buzzing. He was aware how erratic his breathing had become, but he couldn’t seem to even it out. More than once the barber stopped and questioned if Bucky wanted him to continue, worry evident in his voice. Every time he did Bucky forced himself to wheeze out, “Yes.”

It’s for Steve. It’s for Steve. It’s for Steve. He chanted over and over again in his head, It’s for Steve. It’s for Steve. It’s for Steve.

Bucky didn’t know how long the haircut actually lasted, but after what seemed like forever he felt the man behind him step away from the chair and say, “Alright, you’re finished.”

He opened his eyes slowly, anxiously, and then sat up straighter in surprise. It was… it was like looking into dream. He looked, well, he looked like Bucky Barnes. Of course, he had long come to terms with the fact that he was Bucky Barnes, and that Bucky Barnes hadn’t died all those years ago when he’d fallen from that train. But this was the first time he actually looked the part. He stared at himself.

“You like it, huh?” The barber asked, snapping Bucky out of his trance.

He realised suddenly that he was smiling stupidly at himself in the mirror, behind him in the reflection he could see the barber’s amused expression.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s looks great. Thank you so much. I’m sorry, I was-,” Bucky started to apologize for his behavior.

The man waved him off, “It’s no problem, I’ve had much worse customers than you. You wouldn’t believe how rude some people can be.” He gave Bucky a look as though they were sharing a private joke, and Bucky found himself smiling again in spite of himself.

When he stood up and reached into his pocket, asking the barber how much for the cut, the man just shook his head and said, “For you my friend, no charge. Thank you for your service.”

When Bucky returned to the apartment, Steve was lounging on the couch in a too tight t-shirt and too baggy sweatpants, leafing through one of his American History books. Bucky couldn’t be sure from his position by the front door, but he was pretty sure it was about one of the presidents. He didn’t look up as Bucky entered, absorbed in his reading, but he called out a friendly, “Hey Buck, how was your run?”

“Uhhh,” Bucky answered intelligently, unsure if he should draw attention to his new look or the fact that he’d lied to Steve about where he’d gone.

His hesitation finally got Steve to lift his head and turn to look at him, “What’s wrong are you-” He stopped mid sentence, eyes widening as he took in Bucky’s appearance.

Steve just stared across the room at Bucky, speechless for what felt like forever. Finally Steve shook his head, as if pulling himself out of his own thoughts and managed to form coherent words, “You, uh, your hair is uh… you cut it.”

Bucky looked away from the blatant staring and tried not to shuffle his feet, suddenly feeling nervous, “Yeah, do you...” he swallowed, “Does it look good?”

Steve blinked in surprise, “What? Yeah, Buck you look great!” He blushed suddenly, and didn’t meet Bucky’s eyes for a moment. Bucky felt his heart flutter a bit, hiding the small smile he felt surfacing on his features.

“I’m just surprised you got it cut is all. When I asked you a month ago you were pretty adamant about keeping it long.” Steve was giving him a knowing look now, because he wasn’t an idiot and Bucky might have never told Steve why he refused to visit the barber, but it didn’t exactly take a genius to put it together.

Bucky shrugged, trying his best to feign nonchalance, “Just had a change of heart I guess,” and because that came out a little strained, he quickly added, “Plus it was getting annoying having to brush it out of my eyes all the time.”

“I would of come with you, if you’d asked.” Steve murmured softly, ignoring Bucky’s joking tone.

“I know,” Bucky replied, doing his best to keep his features neutral. He knew Steve would have come with him if he’d asked, and he’d honestly considered asking him. Steve’s presence sure as hell would have made the whole ordeal less terrifying. But then, Steve would have asked him why he wanted a haircut in the first place and Bucky wasn’t ready for him to know that he’d overheard the conversation about the date just yet.

Steve didn’t saying anything to this, just continued to look at Bucky with an unreadable expression. Bucky didn’t want to be the type to fish for compliments, but he couldn’t help himself, especially when he might get the chance to make Steve blush again. He cleared his throat, “But, you uh, you like it?”

Steve didn’t blush this time, just grinned a blindingly beautiful smile at Bucky, “Yeah, pal.”

There was another long pause and they just watched each other from across the room. Steve was giving Bucky a thoughtful look. For a moment, Bucky wondered if Steve was about to ask him on that date. His heart began to hammer with nervous excitement.

But then Steve broke the silence with, “Well, anyway, I got to run. I’m meeting up with Natasha to go shopping for ‘real clothes’, whatever that means.”

Bucky forced himself to push down his disappointment. He’d only overhead the information about the date just a day ago, there was still plenty of time for Steve to get up the courage to ask him out.

“Well maybe she means clothes that actually fit you for a change,” Bucky teased.

Steve gave him an appalled look, “My clothes fit!”

Bucky couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting down to where Steve’s shirt tightly hugged his chest. He was suddenly finding it hard to swallow. They were going to have to agree to disagree on that one.

* * *

It wasn’t until a week later that everything went to hell.

Bucky was perched on the kitchen counter, scrolling through his Stark phone and listening to the sound of Steve humming to himself as he prepared their dinner. Steve wasn’t much of a cook, never had been, but there was still something familiar and comforting about homemade food that created a warm, expansive feeling in Bucky’s chest.

“You could be helping you know,” Steve paused his humming to address Bucky.

“Nah, Stevie, I think you got this.” Bucky shot his best grin at him.

Steve rolled his eyes, but continued to hum happily to himself as he went about making some kind of chicken dish. Bucky leaned his back against the counter, forcing himself to look away from Steve, currently bending over to place something in the oven, and fixed his gaze determined on the news site pulled up on his phone.

One of the featured articles is a movie review. They hadn’t gone out to do anything fun together in quite a while, what with Steve being so busy with the Avengers, so Bucky found himself saying, “Hey, you want to go see a movie or something this weekend?”

“Uh,” Steve hesitated, “Yeah, maybe. I actually...well.” Steve was blushing again, straightening himself up from the oven.

Bucky stopped breathing for a moment. This was it; Steve was finally going to ask him.

“I, uh, actually have a date this weekend,” he finally gets out.

Bucky blinked. Wait, what? That couldn’t be right. He hadn’t asked Bucky yet. Was he just assuming that Bucky would agree to go? It wasn’t as if Bucky had ever purposely tried to keep his feelings for Steve a secret, but he didn’t think he was that obvious.

“A date?” Bucky echoed faintly.

Steve was blushing even more now, which Bucky wouldn’t have believed possible if he wasn’t witnessing it in this moment, “Yeah, with Sharon Carter. She’s Peggy’s niece. She helped us with the whole Hydra/Shield disaster. I know it seems weird, but we actually have a lot in common.”

Bucky’s heart plummeted. “Oh,” is all he can manage to reply.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. He was looking at Bucky with a searching expression, as if he was expecting Bucky’s approval, as if Bucky’s opinion on this matter was vitally important to him.

And because he was a masochist, Bucky forced his face into what was meant to be a smile, but what probably looked like a grimace and murmured, “That’s...that’s great, Stevie. I’m real happy for you.”

Steve’s face lit up, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Bucky’s reply was barely louder than a whisper.

He wanted to cry. Bucky hated that he wanted to cry. Hated that he had deluded himself into thinking that Steve, God, Steve could actually be interested in dating him. In dating Bucky. It all seemed so absurd now, why hadn’t he stopped himself from becoming so invested? How could he have possibly thought that this would end in anything other than tears?

He heaved a deep breath, desperately trying to remain calm. He would not allow himself to cry in front of Steve. Steve, who had a date with a girl who was probably beautiful and wonderful, who would make him happy, and who was not a fucking ex-Russian assassin that still sometimes wet the bed from night terrors. No, he would not cry in front of Steve, would not ruin his happiness.  

Clearing his throat Bucky attempted the smile again, although he was sure it was half-hearted at best, “I’m sure she’ll love you, pal. Any dame’d be lucky to have you.”

Steve looked pleased for a moment before giving him a mildly disapproving look, “You aren’t supposed to call them anymore, Bucky.” But there was no heat to his words, only amusement as he chastised his friend.  

Because that’s all he saw Bucky as, a friend. And not even his best friend.

Bucky needed to get the hell out of that room. He made up some excuse, and stumbled off the counter and out of the kitchen ungracefully. Steve yelled after him that he’d call for him when dinner was ready, but Bucky wasn’t even listening anymore. He stumbled into the bedroom, closing the door behind him with what was probably too much force, but Bucky could not bring himself to care.

He collapsed against the wood and slid down until his face was pressed against his knees. And for the first time in 70 years, Bucky Barnes allowed himself to cry.

* * *

Bucky doesn’t know it, but Steve calls him for dinner an hour later. He doesn’t know that Steve knocks softly on the door after ten minutes, checking to see if Bucky had heard him. Doesn’t know that after another minute without an answer Steve would force open the door to make sure Bucky was okay. Doesn’t know that Steve would fly into a complete panic when he can’t find Bucky anywhere in the apartment. Doesn’t know that Bucky will call Sam in near tears telling him that Bucky’s disappeared and he doesn’t know where he’s gone.

He doesn’t know any of this because, by the time Steve calls him for dinner one hour later, Bucky is long gone.

 

 

ii. time makes you bolder, children get older

 

Bucky knows he is being selfish. God does he know. Twice since he slipped out the bedroom window, crawled down the siding, and dashed down the street he almost turns around and goes back.

Steve will be upset, obviously. Bucky has long suspected that the reason that Steve had been so adamant about finding him and bringing him home in the first place was because of some misplaced guilt about Bucky’s fall those years ago. He is certain that same guilt will make Steve come looking for him this time as well. Because of course Steve will think this is all somehow his fault.

And in a way it is.

Bucky simply can’t stick around to see himself slowly disappear from the life of the only person he’d ever truly loved. Can’t let his bitterness and jealousy ruin the happiness Steve had managed to carve out for himself in this new era. In a way, Bucky’s sudden departure has everything to do with Steve.

But in a way it really has nothing to do with Steve at all.

Because without Steve, Bucky has no idea who he is. Has no idea what kind of person he is when he is not being compared to Steve, or referenced to him. All his life Steve had been there, and his entire purpose had been looking out for him. When they were scrappy little kids it was by keeping Steve from getting his ass kicked by bullies. After Steve’s mom died it had been by making sure he had a place to live, food to eat, and medicine to remedy him when he was too sick to work for himself. In the war it had been watching Steve’s back on a battlefield.

But now? Steve didn’t need him for that anymore. Or anything really.

And Bucky has never bothered to figure out who he is apart from Steve. All his likes and dislikes were in reference to some memory he shared with the other man.

So yeah, it’s selfish, but Bucky runs.

 

* * *

 

He hops the first bus he can get out of DC, heading northeast. He doesn’t have a clue where he’s going. Part of him wishes he could go back to Brooklyn, but he quickly discards the thought. He is supposed to be discovering himself after all, and going back to the place he lived with Steve for decades would be counterproductive. Not only that, but it’s the first place Steve will inevitably look for him. Although New York State, he figures, is as good a bet as any.

Bucky stands at a bus station in Poughkeepsie for several minutes staring up at the departures list, trying to decide where to go next. None of the names of the cities give any particular draw to him.

He thinks he’s been to Albany before, as The Soldier. An image of a bloody knife and a screaming woman suddenly flares up in his mind. He shudders violently and quickly pushes the thought away. He’s definitely not going there.

In the end, he picks one at random and ends up purchasing a ticket for Ithaca. The ride is long and finds him stuck between the window and an overweight man who spends the whole ride talking obnoxiously into his cellphone. Bucky is exhausted and wants nothing more than to sleep, but the tight seating arrangement is making him feel too trapped and anxious. Instead, he spends the four hour ride clenching and unclenching his metal fist and scanning the bus for exits.

When they arrive in Ithaca, Bucky is relieved to stumble off the bus and into the fresh air. Most of the other riders line up to get their luggage but Bucky didn’t bring anything with him. He only has the clothes on his back and a few crumpled bills that he had pulled from the place where Steve hid them in his sock drawer. Half of that money was gone now, spent on bus tickets and a lackluster sandwich at the station back in Poughkeepsie.

Bucky wanders aimlessly around the city for a few hours. He needs to form a plan, but to do that he also needs to have a goal in mind. He grits his teeth in frustration as he drags his feet sluggishly across the pavement. Planning has been something he’s struggled with since coming back to the world. He still wasn’t used to having freedom to decide what he wanted to do or where he wanted to go. He’d never needed to worry about these things as The Asset. Back then, his handlers would point him in a direction and that’s where he’d go. He doesn’t miss it, god no he would never miss that, but he can’t deny it was simplier.

He continues to walk purposefully through the streets until the sun begins to set and his stomach begins to turn over in hunger. Sighing, he leafs through his remaining cash. There really isn’t much there, but he thinks it will be enough for a night in a cheap motel and a meal from a convenience store. He needs more money. He needs a job.

“Well, there’s a goal for you,” Bucky mutters dully. He’s not quite sure how he’s going to pull that one off.

Dragging a hand across his face, he allows himself one more heavy sigh before he sets off with a slightly more determined stride than before.

 

* * *

 

Three days, two nights spent curled under an overpass, and one bag of shoplifted potato chips later and Bucky still hasn’t found a job and he’s all out of cash. He may have underestimated just how hard it is to get a job without submitting personal information and documentation, things he can’t risk showing because the second it goes into a system somewhere Steve will show up and demand to know what the hell Bucky thought he was doing. He knows that he has the skills to get what he needs to survive, that he could slip a wallet from someone’s pocket, break into a house, or shoplift without getting caught. But, Bucky’s just so tired of taking things from people. He took people’s lives as The Asset and he took up Steve’s time and energy in these last few months and Bucky just wants to be able to get by without taking. And honestly, that bag of chips had only been when he was feeling truly desperate.

So Bucky has spent the last few days starving, and sore, and wishing he could just have a hot shower somewhere. He thanks the stars that it’s summer, because he only has a tattered t-shirt and jeans to protect him from the elements, but still it gets pretty cold at night here. Bucky loathes, loathes the cold. He wakes with a start from a particularly violent nightmare on his third night and he is shaking and scared and cold, so so cold.

And worse, he’s alone. He’s so fucking alone.

He paces shivering in front of a payphone for two hours afterwards, debating just calling Steve and begging for his forgiveness and to just please come get him. His resolve wins out and he doesn’t make the call, forcing himself to stumble bleary-eyed away from the phone before he irrationally changes his mind. He has to rub his eyes roughly with his flesh hand several times to stop the threat of tears spilling over.

Bucky has no idea what the fuck he’s doing.

* * *

“Dude.”

He rolls onto his side and whines at the noise.

“Dude, you’ve got to get up; you can’t sleep here.”

Bucky bolts upright into sitting position, body tense, eyes wide, ready to fend off any threat that dare comes at him. A dog starts barking loudly.

“Whoa, okay Jesus,” the voice, female he registers, sounds slightly fearful, “I’m sorry, but you can’t sleep here; this is private property.”

“I, uh…” Bucky murmurs incoherently, his head still spinning from his abrupt departure from unconsciousness, “Mm sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” He must have crashed somewhere after his almost-call to Steve last night.

He blinks his eyes several times and shakes his head vigorously. As his vision clears he finds himself faced with a young woman, who looks thoroughly concerned. She is Asian, Japanese maybe, and in her late twenties by his best guess. Her long black hair is pulled into a sloppy ponytail and she’s wearing a loose-fitting blue t-shirt that reads “Ithaca Animal Rescue” in bold white lettering. Which explains why she's currently holding the leashes for four different dogs.

“That’s uh, okay. Just um, move along now,” she says uncertainly.

He makes a move to pull himself off the ground when one of the dogs, a big black and brown fluffy one, leaps forward to lick Bucky’s face, tag wagging. The woman lets out a horrified squeak and begins tugging on his leash.

“Bernie! Bernie down boy! Oh god, I’m so sorry!”

Bucky, to his own immense surprise actually finds himself laughing, “Nah, it’s okay.” He reaches out a hand to stroke Bernie’s soft furry head with his metal hand, “Hey there, pal.”

Bernie seems to think this is the best possible turn of events, as his tail starts wagging twice as fast and he redoubles his efforts to knock Bucky over with his kisses.

The woman eyes Bucky’s arm warily, but says nothing. He is thankful for this, but still finds the silent scrutiny of the weapon uncomfortable. He reclaims her attention by saying, “Always wanted a pet growing up. Parents could never afford it though, and then with Steve’s allergies…”

He quickly stops that train of thought, firmly but gently pushing the dog off him and climbing to his feet. He almost brains himself on a bench as he gets up, which he figures he must have been aiming for as his body sunk into unconsciousness after last night’s ordeal. The bench is situated in front of a building whose sign matches the lettering on the woman’s shirt. So, yup, he slept next to a bench outside an animal shelter last night. Classy.

“Anyway, sorry for trespassing. It won’t happen again,” he mumbles, feeling suddenly as embarrassed as he should have been when he first woke up. He turns to walk down the street, but he can’t make himself move with much purpose. He’s still tired and hungry and he doesn’t exactly have anywhere else to go at the moment.

“Fuck, ah fuck,” he hears the woman mutter a few feet behind him, “Wait, hold on, ow.”

He turns to see her half-hurrying, half-stumbling towards him, trying not to trip over the excited dogs and their leashes. He blinks in surprise, but pauses as requested.

“My uh, my name is Kim,” she says a bit breathlessly when she reaches him, “I would offer you a hand, but, you know.” She gives a helpless shrug as she pulls up the leashes with her hands.

“I’m Bucky,” he answers before he can stop himself and winces slightly. He really shouldn’t be giving out his name. Steve is certain to be looking for him, and he should be more careful about leaving a trail, it’s the whole reason he’s still sleeping on the ground every night for godsake.

“Right. Bucky. Hi.” Kim gives him a flustered, but apologetic smile before awkwardly asking, “Do you have anywhere to go?”

For a moment he considers lying, but at this point who would believe him? She found him sleeping outside, in tattered clothing. He’s dirty and knows he must smell pretty repulsive by now. Everything about him screams homeless.

“Not really,” he responds dully.

“Are you on any drugs?” she asks, narrowing her eyes in scrutiny.

“No,” Bucky snaps quickly, caught off guard by the question. He tries to cover for it, “Well, I mean...no! I don’t take...do...drugs. I used to smoke back when...but I uh, don’t anymore...so uh, no drugs.” Nailed it. That was convincing. He used to be so smooth, what’s happened to him?

She doesn’t say anything to this, just watches him thoughtfully for a moment.

“Okay,” she decides finally, “Come with me.”

He follows her into the front entrance of the shelter. It’s extremely white inside and it smells like bleach, but it’s bright at least, with posters and pictures of various animals housed in the shelter scattered across the walls.

“Wait here,” Kim tells him, before vanishing through a back door with the dogs.

Bucky occupies himself with reading the various flyers posted above the front desk window. He is halfway through Why it’s Important to Spay and Neuter Your Pets when Kim returns, this time with a severe looking woman.

She looks to be in her late 50s, with crows feet around her eyes which are half-hidden by her rectangular purple glasses. She is sporting grey hair tied into a tight bun and the same blue shirt as Kim has on. She stops about a foot away from Bucky and eyes him up and down, gaze piercing. Behind her, Kim is looking a bit nervous, left cheek tucked in like she’s chewing the inside of it.

After what feels like full minutes of silent judgement, she finally says, “So, James is it? Kim says you’re looking for a job.”

Bucky does not know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t that, “Um...yes?” He shakes himself out of his shock, “Yes!” He shoots Kim a look and she shrugs helplessly.

“...and a place to stay?” The woman prompts, raising one eyebrow.

“Er, yes. I’m uh... a veteran and I’ve been having a hard time adjusting.” It wasn’t totally a lie, “I’ve been struggling a bit.”

The woman huffs out a breath, “Well, we are in pretty desperate need of extra hands around here. We get a lot of volunteers from the colleges, but we really need someone to stay around on a more permanent basis. Are you any good with animals?”

He’s about to open his mouth to admit that he doesn’t really have much experience with animals when Kim speaks up suddenly, “Oh yeah, he’s great with animals, you should have seen him with Bernie a few minutes ago.”

“Is that so? Well if Kim here is vouching for you, then you have my full trust.” Kim looks pleased quite pleased with herself. Bucky on the other hand knows he must look as slacked as he feels.

“Yeah, but I...,” Bucky sighs, “The reason I don’t have a job right now is because I don’t...I’m trying to lay low and I didn’t want to give my personal information away.”

The woman’s eyebrows shoot up, “Are you telling me you want to be payed off the books?”

Shame and embarrassment pricks at his stomach, “If, if you’re unwilling to do that I completely understand.”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, “No, you volunteer here.”

“Huh?” Bucky blinks.

“And Kim really deserves a promotion, so I’ll have to double her pay,” she continues.

Kim’s mouth falls open in shock.

“What Kim decides to do with that money is up to her. She could even loan it to a friend if she wanted to.” She glances over her shoulder and fixes Kim with a meaningful look.

“Right. Thank you!” Kim grins, catching on.

The woman turns back to Bucky, “In the meantime, there is a bed and a bathroom with a shower in the back of the building. We stay there sometimes when mothers are delivering a litter late into the night. You can stay there until you get on your feet again, but not longer.”

Bucky can’t believe his ears, “Of course, thank you so much… Mrs…”

“Bara. But you can call me Helen. Now, I’ve lots of work to get done. I’m sure Kim will show you the ropes.”

And with that she disappears through the back door. Bucky stares after her.

“What just happened?” he mutters under his breath.

Kim walks over to him, slightly cautious as he processes the events that just occurred, “So, um. You’re welcome.”

He glares at her suspiciously, “You told her my name was James.”

“Your name is James,” Kim answers agreeably.

“I didn’t tell you that.”

“There aren’t that many guys with a metal arm that go by the name Bucky,” Kim shrugs, shuffling her feet a bit.

“No one else has recognized me before,” he retorts, crossing his arms and leaning against the front desk window.

Kim sighs and looks a bit guilty, like she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t have been. After a moment of hesitation she replies, “Well not everyone is studying World War II at Cornell and is writing their dissertation on Captain America and the Howling Commandos.”

Bucky can’t help but snort, “So that’s why you decided to help me?”

Kim smiles a bit deviously, “Well I can’t deny that a little part of me was hoping to get a primary source for my paper, yeah.” Her face softens though. “But really, I couldn’t just leave you out there. You’re a national hero! As an American citizen it was practically my duty to help you.”

He chuckles softly, “Well, I appreciate it. Thank you, I mean it.”

Kim’s face lights up, “Like I said, you’re welcome.”

There is a short lapse into silence before Kim speaks again, “Can I ask you something, though?”

“Depends,” he answers cautiously, already suspecting where this is headed.

“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with-”

“It’s a long story and it’s not one I feel like sharing, alright?” he snaps loudly, cutting her off.

She jumps a little and Bucky immediately feels guilty.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs, “It’s just, it’s hard to talk about.”

Kim nods, “That’s alright. I understand.” She swallows and then gestures to the back door, “Come on, I’ll show you around.”

 

* * *

 

Bucky’s first week at Ithaca Animal Rescue goes pretty well, all things considered. Kim’s off-hand comment about Bucky being great with animals was sort of a fib, because Bucky has never had much contact with animals except to toss the occasional stray some scraps back in Brooklyn. There is a bit of a learning curve.

The first time he took one of the dogs out for a walk he ended up getting pulled halfway across downtown, where he then face planted into the sidewalk when the dog stopped abruptly to sniff something. Kim tells him not to worry, that he’ll get the hang of it eventually. The college volunteers laugh themselves to tears.

But Kim is right, eventually he learns the ropes, knows how to predict the animal’s behavior and how to best respond to it. It actually comes pretty naturally to him, and he finds himself looking forward to his work each day. It also helps that the animals seem to trust him instantly, something that Bucky finds both relieving and concerning. Can’t they tell how dangerous he is? If they could, they certainly didn’t seem to care as long as Bucky scratched behind their ears.

When Bucky wasn’t caring for the animals, his other duties included cleaning and manning the front desk. The cleaning is easy; they kept enough bleach and cleaning supplies to kill an elephant. The front desk, however, is a little more intimidating. Perhaps because it is Helen who walks him through it the first time. Her eyes are intensely serious as she explains what all the different forms are for, where to find them, how answer certain questions, and who to call if he was asked something he didn’t know the answer to.

It’s a lot to take in and Bucky is determined to do it right. He knows that Helen took a huge risk by “hiring” him. He can’t afford to fuck it up, even though sitting at the front desk and having people fire questions at him makes his metal fingers tap nervous patterns into the wood. He bares it all, and at the end of the week Kim grins at him and hands him a stack of bills.

“Time to go apartment hunting, mister.”

 

* * *

He finds an apartment a few blocks away from the shelter. It’s not particularly nice, only one room with peeling paint and an outdated oven with slanted burners that annoyingly cause his eggs to slide to one side of the pan each morning.

But it’s cheap and Kim helps him find someone to inspect it and make sure it’s up to code. The landlord is a burned-out looking man in his thirties who always smells like weed and seems to be perpetually dressed in a hoody. Bucky doesn’t really care though, because the guy lets him pay the rent in cash and doesn’t ask any questions. After the first month Bucky can afford to buy cable and a small tv which he almost snaps in half while trying to hang it on the wall with his metal arm.

It doesn’t feel like home, he doesn’t think anywhere will ever feel like home without Steve, but it doesn’t feel like nothing either.

 

* * *

Bucky’s been working at the animal rescue for six months when a stranger walks up to the front entrance, drops a cardboard box unceremoniously on the ground, pounds on the door, and walks off. He’s working the front desk that morning, making his way through adoption paperwork and trying not to get too distracted by Tobias, the college volunteer who had propped himself up on the desk next to Bucky and was chattering away in favor of cleaning out the back cages.

The sound of the knocking causes them both to startle. Bucky snaps the pencil he was holding in half and Tobias, who had been halfway through a rant about some internet video game he played, went toppling off the desk.

“What the hell?” Tobias mumbles, sliding what Kim calls his “hipster glasses” back up his long nose as he pulls himself to his feet.

Bucky doesn’t respond, already vaulting easily over the desk and making his way to the door. He pulls it open and drags the box inside. Tobias had managed to clamber after him, eyes wide and shaggy brown hair ruffled, “James? It’s not a bomb is it? Or dead babies? Please don’t let if be dead babies.”

Everyone here calls him James. That’s how Kim introduced him to Helen his first week, seeming to understand without explanation that he didn’t want people to know his true identity. For someone who had devoted years to studying something extensively, she seemed pretty relaxed about meeting said thing in person. She never even prompted him with questions for her dissertation, which he knows she must be dying to do. He decides he likes Kim for this reason, considers her to be a friend, even if she probably doesn’t think of him as such.

“Why would someone leave a box of dead babies in front of an animal shelter?” Bucky asks, rolling his eyes as he peels tape off the box cover and lifts it open. The room is suddenly filled with the sounds of high-pitched squeaking noises, as about a dozen wiggling furry bodies try to climb their way out of the box.

“Kittens!” Tobias exclaims excitedly, dropping down on the floor next to Bucky to stroke their soft little heads.

“I’m going to call Helen,” Bucky says trying not to feel overwhelmed. One of the kittens, a little grey tabby, gets hold of his sleeve and begins to climb up his arm. It takes a full minute to pry it off before he can run for the phone.

Helen, who had been taking the day off for once, arrives practically seconds after Bucky calls. He’d moved the box to a back room so the kittens wouldn’t get lost if they managed to get out of the box, although he doubted they could because they were tiny.

She examines the squirming box of fluff silently, with pursed lips. He isn’t sure how she can look at something so adorable for so long without smiling even a little bit, and he’s an ex assassin so that’s saying something.

“Did you see who left them?” she asks finally, turning to Bucky.

“I didn’t see their face, they were already walking away. It was a man, I think,” Bucky supplies.

She nods seriously, “They’re much too young to be without their mother, they can only be four weeks at the most.”

“How long do kittens usually stay with their mother?” he asks, honestly curious.

“Seven weeks usually, but it’s better to keep them together for even a few weeks after that.” She frowns, “We’ll need someone to foster them for a few weeks, make sure they get socialized and properly fed. It’s going to be difficult to find someone at the last minute.”

“I could take them,” Bucky is saying before he can stop himself. He doesn’t know why, but the idea of giving the helpless little things to some stranger makes him anxious. He feels strangely responsible for them. He was the one who found them after all...sorta. Maybe it’s just his old protective instinct kicking in after all those years of looking after Steve, but now that it’s out he can’t stop himself. “I mean, I don’t know much about taking care of kittens or anything, but I don’t have a roommate or any of pets so it wouldn’t be an issue...and my landlord could care less.”

Helen looks genuinely surprised. “You’re willing to foster ten kittens?”

Tobias is giving him a shocked look from where is leaned over the box, one of the kittens swatting at his hair.

“Yeah,” Bucky shuffles his feet a bit, “I dunno, I like looking after things, I guess.”

He doesn’t know if he should feel proud or horrified when an actual crooked smile begins to curl onto Helen’s face.

 

* * *

 

It’s not that he thought it would be easy taking care of ten kittens at once, but well, he hadn’t expected it to be this hard either. They have a special diet and vitamins that they need to take on a strict schedule. He needs to take the time to give each individual kitten attention and affection, making sure they get used to human contact. His couch is shredded within the first day. They keep him up practically all night with their squealing and crying.

It’s absolutely exhausting. Yet somehow, he loves every minute of it.

And maybe it is just that his protective side had been screaming to get out ever since he realized that Steve didn’t need Bucky to take care of him anymore. Maybe it’s just his insecurities making him feel as though he needs to do this to feel like he’s worth something. Maybe he just likes damn kittens, for Christ’s sake. All he knows is that for the first time since he’d broken through The Asset’s programing, he feels as if he matters to someone. And if those someones area bunch of baby animals with no clue who he was or what kind of atrocities he’s committed, well he knows that they are counting on him to look after them anyway, and that feels damn good.

He still has nightmares. It’s these times when he is yanked from sleep, sweating and shaking in an empty bed, that he misses Steve the most. He misses Steve all the time of course, always feels a hopeless gnawing sensation in his stomach reminding him that something’s missing. The feeling becomes completely unbearable after the nightmares. If Steve were there he would wrap his arms around Bucky and murmur soothingly, reminding him that It’s 2015, Buck.  You’re in DC, and I’m here with you, it’s okay just breathe.

Tonight, however, when Bucky wakes half-sobbing from a twisted vision of a white dress, the smell of flowery cologne, a young boy crying, and something red and warm dripping down his flesh hand, Steve is not there to comfort him. It hits him like a freight train, how much he misses Steve, how much he wants him there. He curls in on himself, sniffling silently in the dark, feeling absolutely miserable for himself.

He allows himself to wonder if Steve is still looking for him. He must have looked for him when he first left, Bucky is sure of it. Because it’s Steve, and his morals would never allow him to sit by and do nothing.

It has been months though, almost half a year. Steve wouldn’t still be looking now. Bucky had been in a good enough place mentally when he left. Steve didn’t have to worry about him going on a Winter Soldier murder spree. There’s no reason that he would still be searching for Bucky, a man from his past who simply didn’t fit into his life anymore. He’d probably moved on, was out enjoying the century with all his new friends, saving the world every now and then. He and Sharon were probably pretty serious by now. Maybe he’d even asked her to marry him. Bucky flinched inwardly at the thought, feeling the unwelcome jealousy bubble up inside him.

Steve has a new life now, he has to remind himself, and so does Bucky. They both have people relying on them. For Steve, it’s the Avengers and generally the world at large. For Bucky, it’s only some kittens and a few employees at an animal shelter in a small rural city. It’s different, but Bucky is strangely okay with that.

He allows himself to take a few shaky breaths, before pushing away the aching sadness and loneliness coursing through him and pulling himself out of bed. He stretches for a few moments, trying to sooth his tense muscles, sore and tight from clenching in fear as he dreamt. He abandons the effort after a while, too numb inside to really care, and makes his way over to the basket where the kittens sleep.

The basket was a gift from Helen, to thank him for volunteering to take them in. He didn’t realise until he brought it home that he didn’t have much in the way of blankets to coat the inside, so he’d ended up going through his limited wardrobe and picking out his softest shirts and sweatpants to line it with. Most of the time the kittens made a complete mess of the basket, rolling around and playing it in when they were awake, but at the moment they were all curled silently up together fast asleep.

He heaves a heavy sigh and lowers himself down next to them, reaching out his flesh hand and running it softly over their fur. Some twitch silently in their sleep, but none wake up. The remnants of his night terror had just about passed when he realized there were only nine kittens in the basket.

Bucky is quickly on his feet, trying not to panic. It’s a kitten, he tells himself rationally, they like to hide under things, I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. He diligently checks under all the furniture and all the closets. There’s no kitten. He can feel his heart rate starting to pick up, the anxiety from his nightmare quickly creeping back up his spine. He checks the cupboards and the drawers and behind the fridge and there’s still no sign of the little creature. It’s becoming hard not to panic now.

He paces across the room, breaths come in short and fast, vision becoming blurred, legs shaking. He runs a hand through his hair, frantically.

What if it got outside? What if some other animal got it? What if it got hit by a car? Oh, god, what was he gonna tell Helen? She was going to fire him for sure! He was supposed to be looking after them!

Somewhere in the back of his mind he knows that he’s about to have a panic attack. He’d experienced them before, much more frequently when Steve first brought him back. Back then Steve would talk him down and sit with him until he calmed enough to hold, rubbing soothing circles into Bucky’s back. But Steve wasn’t here right now, he didn’t get to have Steve anymore. He’d chosen to leave, he’d chosen this.

He finds himself pulling the burner phone he’d purchased a few months ago off the kitchen countertop and calling the only person he can think of. It rings for a long time and for a few agonizing seconds Bucky doesn’t think they’ll pick up.

Then, “Bucky?” Kim’s voice is drowsy, as if she’s just woken up, which she probably has because it is the middle of the night.

“Kim,” he replies, voice shaking.

“Bucky,” Kim sounds immediately more alert, “Bucky, what’s wrong?”

“I- I can’t,” Bucky stutters hysterically.

“Whoa, hey man. It’s okay, breathe,” Kim says, clearly concerned but trying to keep her voice level. “Just breathe.”

He takes a few gasping breaths, before managing to even them out a little.

“That’s it,” she encourages, “What’s wrong buddy?”

“One of the- the kittens, it’s, it’s gone and I looked everywhere and I can’t find it,” he finally manages to choke out, “I fucking lost it, I don’t know what to do. Why can’t I do anything fucking right?”

“Hey, hey, it’s gonna be okay. I’m coming over right now, I’ll help you look for it,” she promises.

He takes another shuddering breath, relief coursing through his veins. “You, you don’t have to,” he says anyway.

“I’ll be there in 10.”

Bucky spends those next ten minutes on the floor next to the basket, frantically counting the remaining cats and making sure they’re all there. He’s on his 25th recount when there is a sharp rapping noise on his door. He scrambles to him feet and yanks it open.

Kim stands there, wearing a Cornell hoodie and pajama pants with little pictures of the Captain America shield on them. Her hair is messy and she’s sporting dark circles under her eyes. Bucky has never been so happy to see anyone in his life.

They look again in all the places Bucky has already checked, this time more slowly to make sure he hadn’t missed anything in his panic. When they don’t find it in any of those spots, Kim checks all the windows to make sure that none of them were open enough for the kitten to slip out. Bucky knows they’re all locked tight. He has to check them every night twice before he can fall asleep.

When Bucky’s face begins to take on a truly devastated look, Kim pats his arm comfortingly, “Hey, don’t worry. We’re gonna find it. Where haven’t we looked yet?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbles defeated, “Where else is there to look?”

Kim is scanning the room, looking for anywhere they might not have checked, when a soft mew sounds. She spins around, trying to gauge the direction it came from, “Did you hear that?”

Bucky is already moving across the room, “It came from over here.”

It’s the corner where the bed is propped against the wall. There’s not much over there except a small bedside table and a pile of clothes that missed the hamper. He bends down and begins pulling back his laundry and, “Mew!”

A little black kitten with wide green eyes is staring up at Bucky and he lets out a half-laugh, half-sob of relief. He gently lifts the kitten up and cradles it against his chest.

“You gave me a real scare there, you little punk,” he finds himself muttering, stroking the little bundle of fur softly. “Why the hell were you hiding in my dirty clothes, huh?”

“He must like how you smell for some inexplicable reason,” Kim teased, sounding as relieved as Bucky felt.

“I smell great,” Bucky sniffs defensively, “And she’s a girl.”

Kim widens her eyes in mock horror, “Oh, I am so sorry. She.”

She comes over to stand beside him, reaching out to rub the kitten softly behind the ears, “You had us worried there, you little ninja.”

Bucky is finally able to breath normally again, “Sorry for waking you up and dragging you out here for nothing. You can go home now; I’ll be okay.”

Kim eyes him up and down once, clearly observing how his body is still trembling, “I don’t think so, why don’t you sit down and I’ll get us something to drink.” She motions to the couch and gives him a look that clearly states this will be non-negotiable.

“You really don’t have to,” he protests anyway, as he sinks onto the couch.

“Of course I do, that’s what friends are for,” she says easily as she walks into the kitchen and pulls open the fridge.

Bucky stares at her, stunned.

She pulls some juice out and turns to look back at him, she takes one look at his face and demands, “What? What’s wrong?”

“We’re friends?” He can’t help but ask for clarification.

“Did you think we weren’t?” Her face is a mask of concern now.

He looks down at the kitten still tucked against him, avoiding her eyes, “I don’t know. I guess I just haven’t made a friend who wasn’t Steve’s friend first since,” he laughs humorlessly, “God, since as long as I can remember.”

It’s Kim’s turn to look stunned now. He doesn’t pretend not to know why. It’s the first time he’s ever voluntarily mentioned Steve in her presence. He bites his lip and focuses on stroking the cat as he waits for her to speak.

After a long moment, “We’re friends,” she confirms softly.

They lapse back into silence as she pours them each a glass of juice. She walks slowly back into the living area and holds out a glass for Bucky to take with his free hand. “Thanks,” he mumbles softly.

She nods and sinks into a cross-legged position on the floor next to the couch. They don’t speak for a long time, simply sit and sip at their drinks in companionable silence. Finally Bucky sighs and gives in, “You can ask, you know, I know you want to.”

“I didn’t want to upset you,” she answers quickly.

He closes his eyes. “I know. But you can. Ask I mean.”

A hesitant pause, “Why’d you leave?” she asks finally, “Everyone knows you were living with Steve; he talked about you in interviews a lot.”

“It’s a long story,” he says distantly.

“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” she counters, not pushing but prompting.

Bucky doesn’t know how to begin. All this time he’s been building up all this stress, and pain, and loneliness and he doesn’t even know how to make sense of it anymore. Doesn’t know how to explain it to someone else in a way that will make sense. In a way that will properly convey his emotions about it all. When he finally opens his mouth what tumbles out ends up being, “He’s dating Sharon Carter, did you know that?”

Kim is staring at him now, clearly surprised. This is not what she expected him to say.

He snorts. “Sharon fucking Carter. Talk about keeping it in the family. He probably has some weird complex.” The words come out bitter and nasty but he can’t help it. He’d been holding it all inside for months and it’s finally coming out now, for better or for worse.

“I mean, I don’t know why I was so surprised. I don’t know why I let myself get so invested. I don’t know why I ever thought he’d be interested in someone like me, when he could be dating someone like her.” And suddenly the bitterness is ebbing away and, oh god, he can feel the tears coming up. “I guess I just really wanted it to be true, you know? That maybe he wanted me too?”

He turns to look at Kim, whose mouth has fallen open is pure shock. There’s no going back now, so he forges on.

“My whole life I’ve been in love with him. Ever since we were kids and I didn’t even know what it meant. And of course I never told him, it wasn’t...back then it would have ruined him and I just couldn’t do that too him.” He sniffs a little and rubs at his eyes with his forearm. “But then, we were both here and it’s okay now and I thought maybe it could work… I guess I was just kidding myself, huh?”

“Oh, Bucky,” Kim whispers, voice a mix of sympathy and awe.

“It’s not just that though,” he murmurs, “I could have dealt with him being with someone else. If that’s what made him happy, then I could live with it. But it’s not just that. It’s worse. He doesn’t fucking need me anymore. He has all these new friends, he’s got the Avengers. We were barely spending time together anymore, and he was so happy when he was with them and it would have been so fucking selfish of me to pull him away from that. He’d have stayed with me if I asked him too, if I told him I needed it, I know he would have. But what kind of person would that make me?”

He pauses, talks a deep breath, tries to steady himself. Kim is watching him, eyes wide, waiting in complete silence for him to continue.  

“So yeah, I left. I couldn’t stand to watch him be happy without me in his life. I know it’s fucking awful of me, but I couldn’t do it. It’s better this way. He’s better off without me.”

The little black kitten curled on his chest crawls up a little and licks at his cheeks where a few stray tears have spilled over. He quickly wipes them away.

“Anyway,” he whispers almost to himself, “You must think I’m a terrible person now.”

“You’re not terrible,” Kim answers just as quietly, “It’s actually really selfless of you to sacrifice your own happiness for Steve’s. You must really love him. Did you ever tell him?”

The question is like a knife to the gut. “No. I wanted to, but then he had a date with Sharon Carter and he was so damn excited about it. I couldn’t ruin it for him.” Bucky lets out a shaky breath. “And you know what the most fucked up part of it all is? It’s been six months and I just still miss him,” his voice cracks unflatteringly, “I miss him so fucking much.”

“That’s not fucked up, that’s human,” Kim counters, “You love him, of course you miss him. I’m sure he misses you too.”

“Maybe at first he did, but he’s moved on by now. He’s got new friends,” Bucky insists.

Kim looks like she wants to argue this, but decides against it, “So why’d you end up in Ithaca of all places?”

He actually laughs a bit a that. “I didn’t really think about it, I’d never been here and I didn’t want to pick a place where Steve would think to look for me.” He shrugs. “I just sort of ended up here.”

There’s a pregnant pause before Kim scoots over and places a hand on his metal arm, “For what’s it’s worth, I’m glad you came here. If you didn’t, we’d have never met, or became friends.”

He gives her a tentative smile, “Yeah, well if we hadn’t met, I’d probably still be living under an overpass somewhere,” he swallows thickly, “Thank you, Kim. I mean...for everything. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to make it up to you.”

“You don’t have to,” she promises sincerely.

He shakes his head disbelievingly, “Why’d you really do it?”

A look of confusion masks her features. “Do what?”

“Help me, talk to Helen for me and get me that job. You didn’t do it just because you

recognized me.”

For a long time she doesn’t respond, her face blank, eyes looking distant. Finally she answers, voice sounding as though she’s far away, “My mother died when I was ten years old.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky replies immediately.

Kim shakes her head but still doesn’t meet his gaze, “It’s been almost fifteen years now, but… back when I was little she used to read me these children's stories, Captain America and the Howling Commandos: The Amazing Adventures of America’s Heros.” She laughs softly, “They weren’t true mostly, just made up stories for kids, but they were something we shared together. When I try to think of my mother now, it’s those memories that are clearest in my mind, all these little details… what her perfume smelled like, the little birthmark on her cheek, the way she always made up voices for the different characters just to make me laugh.”

She pauses, a soft smile spreading across her features.

“When she was in the hospital, and she knew she was going to be gone soon, she gave me this Bucky Bear,” she stops for a seconds, then clarifies, “It’s a stuffed bear based on your, uh, comic book alter ego.”

Bucky knows what she is talking about. Remembers seeing Bucky Bears being sold in toy shop windows in London and Paris, the rare times the Howlies got a few days leave. He remembers whining to Steve about how they’d softened him into a cute animal, when he was a soldier and a deadly sniper, damnnit. Steve, of course, thought it was adorable and bought one, keeping it tucked in his pack during missions. Bucky was appalled by this behavior. He hadn’t known that they still sold Bucky Bears in this era.

“She told me to keep it, and that if I ever needed to feel safe once she was gone, I just had to hold Bucky Bear and think of her,” she laughs slightly hysterical.

“As I grew up I read more and more stories about Captain America and the Howling Commandos, but I started to read actual history books and essays and research. It made me feel close to my mom, and I always did it with Bucky Bear at my side.”

Finally, she looks up and meets Bucky’s gaze, “That stupid little bear got me through my mom’s death, and middle school, and high school, and college. I was holding it when I made the decision about my dissertation topic. And you know what? I still have it in my room, on a shelf above my bed.”

Bucky is stunned, can’t think of what to say.

“So if you are asking why I wanted to help you, Bucky Barnes, it’s because you’ve been helping me my whole life. Even if you didn’t know it. When I realized who you were, I figured it was time I returned the favor.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he manages to breath out.

She shrugs, “There’s nothing to say,” she glances down to where he is sitting and gently cradling the now sleep kitten in his arms, “If you’re worried that you haven’t lived up to my expectations - don’t be. You’re a good man James. I’m honored to call you my friend.”

He’s too moved for words. He opens and closes his mouth several times, but nothing comes out. He can feel the sting of tears in his eyes once more, but this time they are not accompanied with the usual crushing sadness.

When he is finally able to form words again he whispers, “Thank you, for sharing that with me.” He hopes the words come out as sincerely as he feels. “And for everything else. If there is ever anything I can do for you…”

She gives him a slightly devious smile, “Well, I do have this paper I need to write.”

Another quiet laugh escapes his lips, “What do you want to know?”

 

* * *

 

After his heart to heart with Kim, Bucky feels strangely lighter. Sure he still misses Steve, still loves him. But that crushing loneliness and grief he was feeling over the loss of their relationship has ebbed. His nightmares begin to lessen, only once or twice a week instead of almost every night, and when they do come he can pull himself together after a few moments. It wasn’t as though he’d solved any of his problems, but the fact that he’d shared them with someone seemed to be enough. He guesses there really is something to all that “talking about your feelings” crap after all.

He thinks his improved mood must show because suddenly the other volunteers and staff members at the animal shelter begin to talk to him. Not that they hadn’t been friendly before, but now they seemed to seek him out, want to spend time in his company. It is different, but it’s nice.

Tobias invites him to play frisbee with him at the gym with some of his Ithaca College friends. Bucky cannot remember the last time he’d been invited somewhere. He goes, and it’s actually really fun. He doesn’t use even half of his enhanced body’s potential, but he’s still easily the best player and the teens fight over whose team he should play on. In the end, he ends up switching teams every game to be fair. When they finish, Tobias smacks him playfully on the back and invites him to come back next week.

On weekends, Kim comes over and sits at his breakfast bar on her laptop. She asks him all kinds of different questions about the 40s, about the war, and about the Howling Commandos. She asks as few questions about Steve as she can get away with and he appreciates that, but when she does ask he finds it surprisingly easy to talk about Steve without feeling like he’s going to burst into tears. All of Bucky’s responses get diligently written down and color coded in a Word document. He can’t help but be impressed with her sheer organization and focus.

When they finish working on the paper for the day, they play what Bucky has entitled in his head, “The Trying New Things Game”. It’s not really a game, but part of the reason Bucky came up here in the first place was to figure out what kind of things made him happy, not just things he liked because Steve liked them or things he liked doing specifically with Steve. Since he’s started the “Trying New Things Game”, Bucky has discovered that he likes thriller movies, ice skating, the taste of lemonade flavored vodka, putting gummy worms on his frozen yogurt, and strangely enough- baking sugar cookies.

He might be a little too proud of the sugar cookies, but he doesn’t think anyone can really blame him. It’s pretty much the first time he’s made anything in an oven without burning it. He brings in a batch to the animal shelter and everyone loves them. Even Helen looks impressed.

Eventually, the time comes that he needs to bring the kittens back to the shelter. They’re all old enough to be sent to homes now, and as much as Bucky would like to keep them, it really isn’t practical to have ten cats living in his little studio apartment. Still, he is protective as a mother bear and is determined each kitten goes to a good home. With Helen’s permission he is allowed to set up an adoption event for the kittens. Tobias helps him make flyers for it on his computer, which he hangs all around town.

He is in the process of setting up for the event the night before, making sure everything is ready when Helen says to him, “I’m really impressed, James; you’ve come quite a long way.”

She doesn’t know the half of it. Still, he’s never heard her praise anyone like this before and it makes a warm feeling of pride spread through his chest. “Thank you. It’s been rough, but I think I’m doing better now. I never would have gotten there if you hadn’t given me this job. I can’t thank you enough for that. Anyone else would have turned me down without even thinking about it.”

There is a strange glint in her eye when she responds, “Well, my grandfather fought in World War II. Used to tell his grandkids this incredible story of how Captain America and the Howling Commandos saved his unit. Told us that if it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t be there telling us stories at all.”

Bucky’s mouth falls open. “Did, did Kim tell you?”

She snorts, “Please, I’m old but I’m still sharp. I figured it out on my own.”

And it’s still strange. It’s the second time in the past month that someone has told him how he’d impacted their life in a positive way. He supposes that in all the Winter Soldier’s death and destruction he’d forgotten that it wasn’t who he was, wasn’t who Bucky Barnes was. Bucky Barnes was someone who helped and protected people. Maybe he’d never realized this in the first place. So intent on protecting Steve above anything else because he loved him, Bucky hadn’t realize that helping and protecting was just part his very being.

He swallows thickly, “Still. Thank you.”

She nods, but doesn’t say anything.

A loud squeak and the sound of tumbling catches their attention and they both turn to look at the small inclosure he’d set up for the kittens, who were currently engaged in an epic play fight. He smiles despite himself.

“You were great with them,” Helen says.

“I’ll miss them,” he admits, “It’s going to be quiet back at my place without them.”

“You should keep one.”

He can barely contain a gasp of excitement, because ex-assassins did not gasp with excitement over kittens. “Really? Are you sure?”

“As if there is anyone out there who’d make a better owner.” Helen’s voice is dry with sarcasm, but he can tell she’s teasing.

Ninja, his kitten, the black one who’d given him such a scare that fateful night, likes to sleep curled up between his chin and his chest and greets him at the door when he gets home from work. She’s got him wrapped around her paw the moment he brings her home. Kim says they’re nauseating and gives him a disgusted look where he sits on couch with Ninja perched on his shoulder. The kitten is rubbing her head against his and purring loudly, and Kim returns to typing rapidly away at her dissertation.

Bucky can’t remember the last time he felt so content. Almost like… almost he’s happy.

 

* * *

Two hundred thirty miles away, Steve Rogers lies in a half empty bed and cries himself to sleep for the second time that week.

 

iii. I’m getting older too

 

Bucky is working at the front desk, sorting through seemingly endless mountains of paperwork when he hears the soft ringing noise that indicates someone has entered the lobby. He doesn’t look up from his work, unwilling to break his concentration just this second, and calls, “I’ll be right with you.”

“Take your time, Robocop.”

His blood runs cold.

It takes almost a full minute for him to calm his racing heart enough to look up and answer coldly, “How’d you find me?”

Tony Stark looks completely out of place in Ithaca Animal Rescue. He’s wearing a suit which, like most of the things he owns, looks extremely expensive. Bucky almost winces as he watches him lean casually against the sterile white walls that probably still aren’t clean no matter how many times they’ve been scrubbed. Stark is wearing sunglasses, even though it’s an overcast April day and he’s indoors.

“Don’t ask stupid questions, Bucko. You have met Jarvis, haven’t you?”

Bucky glares at him through the little front desk window. “He couldn’t find me the first time I went missing.”

“Yeah, well that was before he’d compiled all sorts of important things like retinal scans, fingerprints, head shots, and what not.” Tony shrugs, pulling out his smartphone and tapping away at something.

“I don’t remember giving any of those,” Bucky answers evenly, desperately trying to remain calm.

“You were pretty out of it when Spangles brought you back, weren’t you?”

“So you took them without my permission, when I was out of my mind?” Bucky growls out, anger flaring up in his belly.

His change in tone actually gets Stark to look up at him, eyebrows clearly rising behind the sunglasses, his hands come up in a defensive gesture. “Hey, don’t get all Russian assassin psycho murderer on me, alright? Back when I took them you weren’t exactly stable; I had no way of knowing if you weren’t gonna make a break for it and start shooting people in the streets. It was a matter of national security, I mean, it would have been irresponsible to not take them.”

Bucky can’t actually argue with him on that. He decides to try a different tactic.

“You haven’t told Steve where I am.” It’s not a question. If Steve had any idea where Bucky was he would be here right now confronting him, not Tony Stark.

“He came to me, asked me if there was any way I could help find you,” Tony shrugs, “Jarvis located you like a billion years ago, but yeah, you’re right -  I didn’t tell him.”

“Well, why not?” Bucky can’t help the suspicion in his voice.

Tony looks a little too indifferent, “Didn’t seem right.”

When he doesn’t continue, Bucky gestures with his hand that he should explain.

The other man sighs, like this is all a big inconvenience and he didn’t come all the way to freaking Ithaca just to talk to Bucky, but he elaborates, “You’re a grown ass man and it’s not up to me, or Steve, or anyone else to decide where the hell you can and can’t go.”

He pauses for a moment, looks around a bit as if to be sure no one else is listening in, and adds, “And for the record, as someone who was held captive by people and forced to do things I didn’t want to do, I understand how important it is to be able to make your own decisions. I know that what happened to me wasn’t anything like what happened to you but… I get it, okay? So, if you decided that what you want to do is come live up here on Hoth and never talk to Steve again, well that’s your choice and I’m not gonna stop you from making it.”

Bucky can’t help but be surprised. It was pretty public knowledge that Tony didn’t like to talk about his experience being held hostage in Afghanistan, so the fact that he’d decided to share this with Bucky must mean something. A display of trust perhaps.

Swallowing, Bucky asks carefully, “If you aren’t here to bring me back, then what do you want?”

Tony huffs, “Normally, I stay out of stuff like this, because I’m just generally bad at people and feelings and all that kind of stuff. Seriously ask Pepper or Rhodey or anyone really they’ll vouch for me-”

“Stark,” Bucky snaps impatiently, pinching the bridge of his nose with his left hand, hoping the cool metal against his skin will help ground him as his current situation continues to spiral out of his control.

“Right. Well. Like I said I would normally stay out of it, but Steve has been really...not good lately.”

Bucky’s stomach churns, something was wrong with Steve? Was he sick? Injured? Did Sharon break up with him? She’d have to be crazy to do that, Steve was amazing. Steve was everything. His tries and fails to keep his voice from cracking when he asks, “What’s wrong with him?”

Tony is giving him an incredulous look now, “Are you serious? You fucking vanished, he’s been beside himself.”

He sighs. This was what Stark came all the way here for? “He just feels guilty because he thinks he’s responsible for me. He’ll get over it,” Bucky promises, trying to sound reassuring.

“It’s been ten months!” Stark throws his hands in the air, “He moved into the tower after three! He hates my tower; he called it ugly to my face!”

Bucky doesn’t understand what the problem is here. “So? Now he’s closer to all his friends. The horror,” he deadpans.

“Not all of them.” Stark gives him a meaningful glare, crossing his arms, “He misses you, you’re his best friend and you disappeared without saying goodbye or telling him what was up. I’m not saying you have to come back, but the least you can do is tell the guy where you went and that you’re okay.”

Bucky doesn’t bother to correct that he is not in fact Steve’s best friend, because admitting that out loud still stung. Instead he says, “You and I both know the second I tell Steve where I am, he’s going to show up here.”

“And that would be so bad?” Tony sounds genuinely confused, like he can’t possibly fathom why Bucky wouldn’t want to see him.

Because who wouldn’t want to see Steve? He’s Steve, of course Bucky wants to see him. It’s just that Bucky knows that the second Steve shows up and looks at him with those big, disappointed blue eyes, Bucky won’t be able to say no to leaving with him. And then the little bit of happiness Bucky has managed to scrape out for himself would be gone and he’d be miserably watching Steve’s life from the sidelines again. Bucky doesn’t think he could bare to go back to that. He thinks that not having Steve at all is easier than having him and then watching himself be replaced, which is what would eventually happen if he went back. Bucky can’t live through that twice.

“It’s not that simple, okay?” Bucky looks down at this hands as he answers, “I have my reasons for leaving, and I’m not coming back. Steve will be okay; he has all of you to look after him now.” It hurts to admit this, that looking after Steve was something he was no longer responsible for, even though for almost his whole life it’s practically been the only thing he really knew how to do.

Tony watches him for a minute, before heaving a sigh, “Fine. No one can say I didn’t try, right? I still get the good karma even if I don’t succeed, yeah? You get karma for trying?”

Bucky knows better than to answer, waiting as patiently as possible for Stark to pull it together. Stark leans back from the wall and straightens his jacket.

Then suddenly he says, “Hey, you got a sharpie back there?”

Feeling his eyebrows furrow in confusion, Bucky grabs a red sharpie out of the mug of pens and pens on the desk and hands it to him. Stark takes it and uncaps it, then gestures to Bucky. “Give me your arm, not the bad-ass-robot-one or it will smear off.”

Too tired to protest, and frankly just hoping it will get him to leave, Bucky slides his right arm through the window. Stark scrawls down a phone number in untidy but legible handwriting.

“That’s my direct line, no PAs, or secretaries, or incompetent answering service people. Jarvis transfers all calls on that line straight to me. You should consider yourself lucky, only about ten other people in the world have that number.”

Bucky can’t hide his surprise. “Why are you giving it to me?”

“Well, I doubt there are many other people you can call if your cybernetic limb breaks, and if there are and you call one of them before me I will be extremely insulted by the way, but also, in case you need anything else. I tend to be what people call a ‘valuable resource’.”

He honestly doesn’t know what to say to that.

“It’s okay, no need to thank me,” Stark says brightly. He turns to leave and walk a few steps toward the door, before looking back over his shoulder at Bucky and says, “Think about what I said though, yeah? I don’t know how much more mopey Captain America I can take. It’s exhausting.”

And with that, Tony Stark disappears through the front door.

 

* * *

 

That night after he’s carefully typed the number written on his arm into his phone under the name “Rich Asshole”, Bucky curls up in bed with Ninja and tries not to think about Steve. He tries not to feel guilty. He had been trying to do the right thing by coming out here. Steve wasn’t supposed still be worrying about him. Stark must have just been overreacting, he’s sure Steve is fine. And if he isn’t, he’ll get over it. Bucky just has to keep telling himself this.

 

* * *

 

He doesn’t watch the news anymore, not like he used to, because there is a way too much of a chance that Steve and the Avengers will be featured. It wasn’t like he didn’t care about Steve and his friends anymore, because that would be insane, but Bucky is really trying very to move on with his life and be happy with what he has. It’s hard to do that when the person who you are trying to get over is being broadcasted to you in full HD practically 24 hours a day.

So no, Bucky doesn’t watch the news anymore. He’ll read the newspaper, pick and choose what articles he reads, and sometimes Kim lets him borrow her laptop and he will scroll through CNN’s website. He knows that he won’t be able to go through his whole life pretending that Steve isn’t an international figure and a superhero. But, it makes it a little easier sometimes to skip over the article about how the Avengers saved the day again in favor of reading some study about sleep cycles or a story of dog who saved someone from a burning building.

That’s why he doesn’t know about the huge battle taking place in some city halfway across the world until he is walking past a television display in the window of an electronics store and spots a blurry image of Steve out of the corner of his eye.

Bucky, who been walking back from the grocery store and was carrying a bag filled with eggs, bread, and milk in his left hand, stops dead in his tracks.

The Avengers are fighting what looks to be an army of mutant, doglike aliens. There seems to be thousands of them, and Steve and his team are in the middle of it all. And they are getting ripped apart. He spots Natasha on the grainy footage, heavily favoring her left as she fights, her trademark catsuit ripped with blood spilling down the black fabric. Iron Man is there, but the armor is clearly broken and malfunctioning, one of the gauntlets entirely missing. All of them look half dead and Bucky knows better than anyone that the Avengers are the type to pull out a win when it seems all is lost, but he can’t remember ever seeing them look this bad.

And then the camera changes to a shot of Steve, zoomed in enough that his face can be seen almost clearly. His uniform is torn and caked with blood, which is pouring from gashes all over his body. He is fighting, but his movements are slow and labored, nothing like what Captain America should be capable of. Steve’s eyes are bruised and half-lidded, his gaze vacant, face pale. Bucky hasn’t seen Steve look like this since...since the Helicarrier.

The bag of groceries falls to the ground and Bucky is sprinting across town to his apartment now. He doesn’t stop to unlock the door, instead just forcing it open and throwing himself inside. Ninja darts under the bed in fear of the loud crashing he makes. It takes him a full, frustrating minute to turn on the television and flip to a news station because his hands are shaking so badly.

“-what appears to have been an alien attack has finally ended, thanks yet again to the Avengers.”

Bucky shutters heavily as he inhales, “Oh thank god.”

Of course then, “This just in, we are getting reports that Captain America is down. We repeat Captain America is down.” The news reporter quickly goes off script, “Do we have a visual? Can we show that?”

His heart plummets, “Oh god, oh god no.”

The screen changes to Sam Wilson leaning over Steve, frantically talking to someone in his communicator, while checking Steve’s injuries. He looks terrified. The tattered Captain America suit is completely soaked in blood, seemingly both from the aliens and Steve himself. Bucky can make out the white glint of bone in several places underneath all the blood and guts. He doesn’t appear to be breathing.

Bucky barely makes it to the bathroom and over the toilet before he vomits. He is sick several times in a row before he is able to slide down to the floor and rest his head against the cool tile. His shaking has become so violent now that he can’t move to pull himself up, all he can do is sob dryly into the floor.

Through the open bathroom door, he can hear the newcaster report that Captain America is being airlifted to a hospital in New York, where they are equipped to handle his unique medical challenges. The newscaster also reports that it is unlikely Captain America will survive the flight.

And finally it hits him- Steve is dying. Steve actually is dying and Bucky is fucking lying on his bathroom floor. He needs to do something, anything.

Fighting his trembling muscles and the headrush he gets whenever he tries to move,

Bucky forces himself to his feet. He makes it out of the bathroom and across the apartment to where his phone is plugged in to charge on the kitchen counter. He rips it from the plug and desperately scrolls through his contacts. He jabs his finger on the number and throws the phone jerkily against his ear.

For a few terrifying moments, no one answers.

Then, “Robocop? Is that you?” Stark’s voice sounds exhausted, drained of emotion.

“I saw, I saw Steve- is he going to- is he gonna,” Bucky can’t make himself say the word.

“Jarvis is going to set up a jet for you. Get to the airport, pronto.”

“I- okay, okay I’ll be there,” Bucky chokes out, trying futilely to keep it together.

There is a long pause and for a moment he thinks Stark has hung up when he says, more softly than before, “I’m sorry Barnes, it doesn’t look good. You’d better hurry.”

 

 

* * *

Bucky hotwires a car and speeds to the airport, ignoring stoplights and traffic signs. Someone is waiting for him when he arrives and escorts him to a jet. He sits in his seat, vibrating with anxiety and fear while they make the final preparations for takeoff. Desperate to do something with his hands as a distraction, he pulls out his phone to fiddle with it. He has four unread messages and two missed calls from Kim.

 

Kim received 5:05 pm

Are you watching the news?

 

Kim received 5:06 pm

Bucky!

 

Kim received 5:07 pm

Are you okay? Bucky please answer!

 

Kim received 5:08 pm

Jesus christ answer this as soon as you get this. I’m really worried

 

Bucky sighs, closes his eyes and steels himself before answering.

 

Bucky sent 5:36 pm

Flying out to NYC. Don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Please watch Ninja for me.

 

Bucky sent 5:38 pm

They don’t think he’s gonna make it.

 

Kim received 5:39 pm

God, I’m so sorry, Bucky.

 

Kim received 5:40 pm

Of course I’ll watch Ninja for you. If there is anything else you need let me know.

 

Bucky sent 5:41 pm

Thank you.

 

The flight attendant comes around and asks him to please put away his electronic devices. He turns the phone off and slips it into his pocket. He faces the window as the plane pulls onto the runway for take off and tries desperately not to think about anything at all.

 

* * *

The flight to New York and the subsequent shuttle from Laguardia to the hospital is a blur. When he arrives, he is escorted through the lobby and into an elevator where he rides what seems like hundreds of levels to get to a private floor. He steps off the elevator, alone. He gets about two feet before someone is in front of him, blocking his way.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing up here,” Natasha Romanoff says, voice dripping with disgust and barely concealed rage, “Where the hell have you been?”

Bucky swallows, but doesn’t say anything. From the look on her face he knows there is no answer that he can give that will satisfy her. Part of him is angry, because she doesn’t know why he left and she has no right to judge him or confront him about it. The other part of him realises that she’s Steve’s best friend and she’s probably just as scared as Bucky is right now.

“How is he?” he finally asks.

She glares at him, but responds, “In surgery. The doctors are shocked he even lived long enough to get here. We won’t know anything until after he gets out, if he does at all.”

He takes a moment to notice that she herself is covered in bloody bandages, her right arm slung in a cast, dark bruises are splashed across her cheeks. She looks like death warmed over.

“Is everyone else okay?” he asks softly.

She narrows her eyes, “We’ll live. Bruce and Thor got away with barely any scratches. Tony got pretty banged up, a concussion and a broken rib. Sam lost a ton of blood. Clint broke both his legs falling off a roof, but they’re clean breaks, so he’ll recover.”

“I’m glad,” Bucky murmurs honestly.

She nods, looking over him, like she’s trying to figure him out. He shuffles anxiously under her scrutinizing gaze.

Thankfully he is saved by voice calling out, “Is that Barnes?”

Bucky looks past Natasha and into a waiting room area where all the other Avengers are gathered. Clint Barton, is seated in a wheelchair wrapped in bandages and both his legs in casts. His head lists to side every few moments before he yanks it back up, struggling to stay conscious. Tony Stark is in a chair beside him, a large dark purple bruise covering his left eye. He talking on the phone rather insistently to someone named Rhodey and trying not wince while a team of nurses tends to his broken rib. Across from him, Thor is seated with his elbows on his thighs, slumped over, looking worried and tired. On Thor’s other side, Bruce Banner is wrapped in a blanket with his knees drawn against his chest.

The voice came from Sam Wilson, who is looking ashy and sickly and is currently hooked up to some IV fluids. He is seated in the corner of the room, by a door that Bucky realizes with a jolt is the entrance to the surgery.

“Yes, I’m here,” Bucky answers grimly, focusing his gaze on Sam.

To his surprise, unlike Natasha, Sam doesn’t appear angry with him, “Hey man. Why don’t you come sit with us while we wait for news?”

Bucky nods, grateful not to go sit alone somewhere and worry himself sick over Steve once again. He moves cautiously past Natasha and lowers himself into a seat next to Sam. Tony briefly pauses his phone conversation to give Bucky a nod. The other Avengers, whom he’s never met before, all watch him like he’s a zoo exhibit. He might as well be, Bucky Barnes: Steve Rogers’ friend since childhood who abandoned him, only to return when he’s on his deathbed.

A fresh wave of guilt washes over Bucky. God, what if Steve doesn’t make it and he died thinking that Bucky wanted nothing to do with him? What is Stark is right and Steve really did take Bucky running off hard? How could Bucky have been so selfish? His breathing begins to quicken, his eyes blur with tears. What if he never gets to see Steve again? What if he can never set it right?

“Deep breaths, man,” Sam’s voice cuts into his thoughts, “It’s gonna be alright. Steve’s tough, he’ll pull through. I’ve seen him do it before.”

He means the time where Bucky almost beat him to death on the Helicarrier. Bucky winces and closes his eyes. He wishes that this whole terrible thing was just another one of his night terrors, that soon he’d be thrashing awake in his sheets and sending Ninja leaping off the bed.

But it’s not. This is real, and there’s a very real possibility that Steve Rogers is going to die.

A single tear slips down Bucky’s cheek and he takes a wheezing breath. Sam reaches out and places a comforting hand on his flesh arm. Natasha, who had followed him over to Sam, drops into the seat next to him. She doesn’t say anything, but he knows that this is a show of companionship and understanding.

He’d been so jealous of these two, jealous that they’d grown so close to Steve. Now, he just feels sympathy for them, because he knows exactly how they are feeling in this moment. They are just as scared and worried as he is. He finds himself actually glad they are here, glad he is with people who care about Steve.

They wait together in silence.

 

* * *

 

Bucky must have drifted to sleep at some point because he is woken suddenly, by Natasha jabbing him in the shoulder. He quickly remembers himself and jerks upright, blinking sleep from his eyes. The Avengers are all leaning forward in their seats, some even getting to their feet as a doctor comes into the room. His scrubs are covered in blood and he looks exhausted.

They all wait with bated breath. The room is so silent that all Bucky can hear is the sound of the blood pounding in his ears.

“Give it to us straight, Doc,” Sam says gravely.

The doctor clears his throat, “Captain Rogers is out of surgery, there were a few complications but overall the procedure was successful,” he hesitates for a moment, slides his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “However, his condition is still very fragile. Even with his healing factor the injuries Captain Rogers sustained are critical. It will be another few hours at least before I can guarantee that he will survive.”

A few sighs of relief echo around the room. This is the best news they could have hoped for. Bucky doesn’t allow himself the luxury of relaxing, won’t allow himself to until he is certain that Steve is going to fully recover.

“Captain Rogers has been in and out of consciousness since we finished the surgery. He does not seem to be in pain. We are giving him plenty of medication, but he is very disorientated. If one of you would like to go sit with him, to be there when he wakes or so he won’t be alone if he... passes,” a look of sympathy crosses the doctor's face and it is clear he thinks that the latter is the more likely of circumstances, “I will allow it. But only one. Too many people will only confuse and upset him in his current state.”

“Barnes,” Natasha says immediately, “Barnes should go.”

Bucky can’t hide his surprise. Not so long ago Natasha had been furious that he’d even shown up here.  Now she was volunteering him to go sit vigil with Steve at his deathbed?

His surprise must show on his face, because she then adds, “It’s who Steve would want.”

To his shock, no one argues this. Part of him wants to protest, wants to suggest that she or Sam go, because surely they would be better choices. But, he is desperate to see Steve right now, and he’s not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he finds himself stepping forward and following the Doctor through the door.

Steve isn’t awake when he enters the room. His bruised eyelids are closed and his mouth, cut and bloody, hangs open as he takes shallow breaths. The rest of his body is completely covered in bandages. There are about a dozen different machines hooked up to him, monitoring his lifesigns. Their presence and occasional beeping sets Bucky on edge, bringing back more than a few unpleasant memories of Hydra and the chair and-

He forces himself to push them away because none of that matters right now, nothing matters more than Steve. When has anything ever?

Bucky lowers himself into the chair next to Steve’s bed. It’s been almost a year now, since Bucky had last seen him. He hasn’t often allowed himself to fantasize about what reuniting with Steve would be like, because he so firmly believed it would never happen, but the few times he did, well, he had never imagined anything like this.

He doesn’t know what to say, what he should say, if he should say anything all. Steve is clearly unconscious, and if he weren’t it would be unlikely he would remember anything Bucky said to him in his current condition.

Still Bucky finds himself half sobbing out, “Hey, Stevie.”

Steve of course makes no sign that he heard anything. Bucky finds himself continuing anyway.

“I’m sorry for disappearing on you. It wasn’t… it wasn’t right of me to do it like that. I should have told you I was leaving, you would have let me go if I asked you to. I just, I wasn’t thinking straight and... I won’t apologize for wanting to go, but I will for not saying goodbye. It was real shitty of me, and it wasn’t fair to you. So I’m sorry,” he swallows and blinks back of few tears, “I’ve really missed you. Stark says you missed me too, but that just seems silly. You’ve got all your new friends… god, you’ve got so many people who care about you Stevie, I hope you know that. They’re all sitting out there in that lobby waiting for you. They need you to pull through. Don’t let them down, okay?”

And dammit, he’s really crying now, tears flowing freely down his cheeks.

“Stevie, please don’t die. I don’t fucking know how I’ll live with myself if you do,” and he hesitates a moment, because even though Steve is unconscious Bucky had never dared before to say this out loud to him, “I love you, punk.”

It’s actually a relief, admitting it to Steve, even if his friend can’t hear him. He’s crying a bit harder now, but not necessarily from fear or sadness. Maybe it’s because he’s finally beginning to realize that while he has his own life now and his own identity, a part of him will always love Steve. Because loving Steve is part of what makes him Bucky Barnes. It’s not the only thing, but it’s undeniably a part of him. So yeah, Bucky is crying even more now because losing Steve would be like losing part of himself, like losing another limb, and he can’t bare to think of that.

He thinks he’s cried more in the last year than he’d ever cried in his life, “God, Rogers you’ve turned me into such a fucking sap, you know that?” Taking a shuddering breath, he pulls his sleeve across his face to wipe away the tears.

“Bucky?” a slurred voice murmurs.

He rips his arm away from his face and Steve is blinking drowsily at him. Bucky slides forward against the hospital bed ungracefully, stumbling slightly, “Hey, hey, pal. It’s me, I’m here.”

“Bucky,” Steve repeats again, warmly.

“Yeah, Stevie,” he swallows, “How you feeling?”

“Mm fuzzy,” his eyes are drifting closed again.

Frantically, Bucky reaches out and places his flesh hand over Steve’s, “Steve! Steve, hey try to stay with me for a little bit, huh? Can you do that for me?”

“An’thing fur you,” Steve mumbles, sounding exhausted but happy, “Missed you.”

Bucky chokes out a sob, “Yeah? Missed you too, Stevie.”

“Mhmm,” Steve lists lazily, “When you coming home?”

Bucky can’t bring himself to lie, “I don’t know if I’m coming home again, Steve.”

For a moment, Steve’s eyes glaze over with sadness, but it’s quickly gone as he brightens, “S’okay, I’ll jus come see you.”

“Sure thing, pal,” Bucky says softly, because couldn’t stand to see that sadness on Steve’s face again.

Steve lets out a soft sigh, “Mm sleepy, Buck.”

And just like that he’s out again, eyes drifting closed. Bucky would panic, but the little beeps of the monitors stay the same and the sound of Steve’s shallow breaths continue to fill the room.

Bucky sits with Steve for hours, through the whole night. He doesn’t wake up again. When the earliest light of dawn begins to crawl through the window, the doctor returns. Sam is with him. Bucky sits up straighter in his chair.

“Good morning, Mr. Barnes,” the doctor say formally.

“Good morning,” Bucky answers, but he’s watching Sam.

Sam looks tired, face all dark circles and red rims, like he didn’t sleep at all that night. But there’s a light in his eyes and a calmness to his demeanor. Bucky’s body floods with relief. Steve is going to be okay.

“I’m pleased to inform you that Captain Roger’s condition has stabilized. We are confident that he will make a full recovery,” the doctor informs him, although Bucky had already guessed this, “It’s nothing short of a miracle. I’m amazed that he was able to make it through the night.”

All Bucky can do is nod tiredly in response.

Sam gives him a gentle smile and says, “Hey man, why don’t you get some rest? I’ll sit with him for a while.”

Part of Bucky screams at the thought of leaving Steve, but he is exhausted and emotionally drained. He nods gratefully at Sam, “Thanks.”

He pulls himself up, removing his hand from where it was still laced with Steve’s, and makes his way toward the door. He allows himself one last glance at Steve’s sleeping form. Sam pats him lightly on the shoulder as he passes, “Stark mentioned that he has a room set up for you in the tower. You can rest there.”

Bucky nods to show he understood, thanks the doctor, and leaves. He rides the elevator down to the hospital lobby and walks out into the busy Manhattan streets. He flags down a taxi. When the driver asks where he wants to go, he does not say Avengers Tower.

 

* * *

 

When Steve wakes up, really wakes up, Sam and Nat are sitting at his bedside. They are immediately all over him, asking how he’s feeling, if he’s in any pain, if they should call the doctor. He is in pain but he thinks it’s bearable, considering. He insists he’s feeling okay, that they shouldn’t worry.

Nat tells Steve in a voice much softer than she normally uses that Steve had been very close to dying, perhaps closer than he has ever been before and this certainly wasn’t his first brush with death. She tells him that the doctors said it was a miracle, that he shouldn’t have even survived long enough to get to the hospital, let alone through surgery and then the night.

Sam gives him an admiring grin and asks, “How do you do it, Rogers?”

Steve is about to respond with a joke, something to make his friends laugh and take away the look around their eyes that can only be described as the threat of grief, even just for a moment. But he doesn’t, because then he remembers something.

“I dreamed Bucky was here,” he murmurs softly, “And he told me that…”

Steve shakes his head to clear it, because it was a dream and he wasn’t getting caught up in something his fevered mind conducted while under what was probably ridiculous amounts of drugs.

“It helped, I think. Like if I could just focus on holding on, he’d be there at the end of it. You know?” He closes his eyes, fighting the pain building up inside himself that has nothing to do with his injuries, “I guess that sounds silly now. It was just a dream.”

Sam and Natasha are looking at him with stricken expressions now.

“What?” he asks defensively.

Neither of them answer for a moment, sharing a look that Steve can’t decipher. Finally Sam speaks up, voice clear and careful. Calculated.

“Steve, Bucky was here.”

Steve can feel his eyes widen into what must be an extremely comical expression. He hears the heart rate machine pick up, and he knows any moment a doctor or nurse will be hurrying through the door to check on him.

“Where is he now?”

 

* * *

 

Bucky stumbles off the bus at the Ithaca Bus Station and has a strong sense of deja vu. He is exhausted, hasn’t slept since he dozed off in the hospital waiting room and hasn’t really slept since the night before that. Still, he doesn’t think he could sleep a wink if he tried,so when he returns to his apartment he drops onto his couch and pulls out his phone.

He has an unread text message.

 

Rich Asshole received 8:09 am

Running is for cowards.

 

It stings. He ignores the message, opens a new one, and types to Kim.

 

Bucky sent 3:30 pm

I’m back.

 

Bucky sent 3:31 pm

He’s gonna be okay.

 

Kim received 3:33 pm

I’m coming over right now

 

True to her word, she arrives ten minutes later. She lets herself in, Bucky had long given in and just gotten her a copy of his key a long time ago. He’s sitting on the couch when she gets there, Ninja curled asleep in his lap. He strokes her dark fur softly and resolutely doesn’t say anything as his friend crosses the room and drops into sitting position on the floor in front of him.

Neither of them speaks anything for awhile. Kim watches him thoughtfully and he avoids her gaze. It must be entire minutes that pass before she finally says,“I fixed your door. You kind of busted it.”

He’d forgotten about that, “Thank you. How much do I owe you?”

Kim rolls her eyes, “Please don’t.”

He frowns, but doesn’t respond. Instead, he continues to focus his attention on dragging

his fingers through Ninja’s fur. The little cat snuffles quietly under his hand and begins to purr.

“I didn’t expect you to come back so soon,” Kim says quietly.

He just shrugs, because he knows she’s worried about him, but he really doesn’t want to talk about the last 48 hours.

“I know that…” Kim searches for a second, “...you have been going through some... things, with your relationship to Steve. It’s just, I kind of thought you’d stay with him, at least for a few more days.”

Buck shakes his head, a little angry because dammit, he doesn’t want to deal with this right now. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that he’d left Steve barely alive and that he would, or already did, wake up to learn that Bucky had once again walked out on him. He doesn’t want to think what kind of a person he is for doing that to the guy he is in love with.

“I left after I heard he was going to make it,” Bucky replies, doing his best attempt to remain toneless, “All the Avengers are still there with him, there was no reason for me to stay.”

To his shock Kim leaps to her feet, eyes blazing in a rare display of anger. He finds himself shrinking back into the couch a bit.

“Goddamnit, Bucky! I understand that you needed to get away to find yourself or whatever, you’ve been through a hell of a lot and I get that, but you’re my friend and I fucking care about you and it drives me nuts that you could think that you aren’t worth Steve, okay? I don’t know Steve, but I know that you love him and that means he must be a good person. And any halfway decent person would be falling over themselves to be friends with someone like you!” She jabs a finger at him accusingly, “So quit acting like Steve doesn’t want you just because he has the Avengers. Stop acting like you aren’t worth being loved, because you are!”

He gapes at her, rendered completely speechless.

The fire in Kim’s eyes is already starting to die down, her features begins to soften. She takes a deep breath, “Look I’m sorry for yelling at you, but-”

“No,” he interrupts, “No, you’re right.”

Kim blinks at him in surprise but waits for him to continue, slowly lowering herself onto the couch next to him.

“I think I finally figured that out when I was there. That it was possible for me to still

have Steve in my life, even if it’s different than the way it’s always been before. Different from the way I wanted it… So you’re right, that’s not the real reason I left.”

“So why did you?” she prompts softy.

“I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t want to find out what would happen when he woke up and saw me there. I guess I just wasn’t ready to hear whatever he had to say about me leaving. Guess I wasn’t ready to tell him why I left in the first place,” he closes his eyes, “Stark says I’m being a coward. Do you think that?”

“A little. I mean no, I don’t think you are a coward. You’re the bravest person I know. Don’t give me that look you are, but the act was a little cowardly. Running away from this problem isn’t going to make it go away,” she smiles a bit at him, “But maybe you’re right, maybe you’re just not ready to deal with it yet.”

Bucky laughs humorlessly, “What if I’m never ready?”

Kim’s smile grows now, “You will be.”

At last, a little quirk of a smile tugs at his lips, “Thanks.”

She rolls her eyes again, “Come here you idiot.” She pulls him into a hug.

When they pull away she says very seriously, “You know what will make you feel better? Frozen yogurt. Let’s go get frozen yogurt.”

He’s really smiling now, “Yeah, okay.”

 

* * *

 

July rolls around, sticky and muggy the way that month always is. On the 1st, Bucky is bringing some of the dogs in from a walk when Tobias, who is only wearing socks for some unknown reason, comes sliding down the aisle of kennels towards him.

“James, hey!” His eyes are light with excitement and he stops next to Bucky, leaning forward a bit in anticipation.

“Hi,” Bucky responds as he carefully moves the latch on the kennel in front of him into place. He doesn’t say anything else, just patiently awaits whatever the kid is so excited to share with him.

“I’m having a Fourth of July barbecue!” he exclaims joyfully, “You should come! All the guys from frisbee will be there!”

And Bucky just stands there blinking at him, because July 4th. He must have a strange look on his face because Tobias is now waving a hand in front of his eyes. “James! James! Hey man, you there?”

He quickly shakes his head to clear it, “Huh? Oh right, yeah I’ll come, I don’t see why not.”

Tobias whoops with excitement, like hosting a barbecue is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. “It’s gonna be great! There’ll be food, obviously, and beer, and I’m working on getting fireworks.” He’s already turning to speed away on his sock skates as he calls over his shoulder, “It starts at 3!”

“I’ll be there,” Bucky promises the retreating figure, but his mind is already slipping away.

The fourth is Steve’s birthday.

The thought plagues him the whole rest of the day, nagging in the back of his mind. He doesn’t know why it bothers him so much. Maybe it’s because for all the years Bucky had been able to, he’d been there for Steve’s birthday, ever since they were kids. The guilt that had been plaguing him since that fateful night in the hospital is returning in full force. He couldn’t just show up for Steve’s birthday. Besides, he didn’t even know where Steve was going to be on his birthday, anyway. He could probably ask Stark, but based on the way he’d left things with him it’s probably not a good idea. Yet...he has to at least do something.

Last year Bucky hadn’t gotten Steve anything for his birthday. Bucky didn’t exactly have money of his own to spend back when he’d been living with Steve, and it seemed silly to spend his friend’s own money on a birthday present. When he’d expressed this to Steve, feeling sad and horrible because he’d never not gotten Steve at least something for his birthday, Steve just gave him a fond smile and told him not to worry about it. He’d said that he was just glad to have Bucky back again and that was the best present he could ever receive. Bucky had called him a sap and tried to hide his blush.

So after work Bucky finds himself walking into the local art store. He’d passed it many times before, on his walks with the dogs or on errands, but he’d never paid it much mind. It’s small, locally owned, and dusty. There’s no one behind the counter, so he busies himself by looking around. He doesn’t actually have any idea what kind of art supplies Steve would want, or need really. Honestly, he probably doesn’t need anything; he’s sure Stark keeps an art studio for Steve somewhere in that tower of his and it probably has twice as many supplies than this tiny store.

Then again, Bucky hadn’t really seen Steve drawing while he was living with him. He wonders if Steve doesn’t draw anymore, if that’s just one of the many other things that have changed over the last seventy something years.

Another thought hits him like a freight train. Maybe Steve hadn’t been drawing because he’d never took the time for himself. It seemed entirely possible. Between his duties with the Avengers, looking after Bucky, and catching up on the last century, it wasn’t exactly like Steve had a lot of free time on his hands. He feels a little sick thinking about how something that had once been so important to Steve, made him so happy, had been one of the first things he’d tossed aside. The more he thinks about it, the more certain Bucky is this is what happened.

Maybe Steve didn’t actually need the art supplies, but maybe he needed the push. Maybe he needed someone to remind him that he needed to do things that made him happy too. Because if there was anything Bucky had learned in the last year, it was that you needed to take time for yourself.

The cashier, a young black man wearing an oversized sweater, walks in from a back room and looks startled when he sees Bucky there, “Oh sorry! Have you been here long?”

Bucky shakes his head, “I’ve just been looking around, it’s fine.”

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” the cashier asks hurriedly.

“Uh, no. Well, just some stuff for sketching, I guess? It’s a gift for a friend, I don’t know much about art.”

The man brightens, clearly in his element, “Well we have plenty of sketchpads and paper, and we have all different kinds of pencils.” He moves across the shop and Bucky shadows him. “Do you have a price range?”

He shakes his head again, “I’ll get whatever you say is best.”

The man spends the next fifteen minutes showing Bucky the different supplies and

explaining the merits of each. It doesn’t mean much to Bucky, so he just ends up buying whichever ones the worker recommends. He leaves the shop with a huge bag of art purchases, having spent much more than he probably should have. He can’t bring himself to feel too guilty about it.

He goes home and wraps the gifts carefully in tissue paper, a process made extremely difficult due to Ninja rolling and jumping around in it, and places them in a cardboard box. He adds a small note with the gifts, which he spends a long time agonizing over. In the end he just goes with something simple.

 

Happy Birthday, punk.

Stay safe out there.

- Bucky


He tapes the box shut and walks it down to the post office. He has it shipped to Avengers Tower, because that’s where Stark said Steve is living now. When the woman behind the counter asks for his name and return address, he gives the real ones.

 

* * *

 

On July 5th, it’s pouring rain. It hasn’t rained in weeks and it had been starting to get dry and dusty, so the rain is actually a welcome change and it’s put Bucky in a particularly good mood. He is walking back from work, ignoring the looks he’s getting from strangers on the sidewalk as he leaps over (and into) puddles like a little kid.

He’s pondering what he should make for dinner when he gets to his apartment and sees someone sitting on the front step.

Bucky freezes.

It’s Steve.

He had expected that this might happen when he sent that package, but he hadn’t really allowed himself to think about it. Because if he had, he’d have spent the last five days freaking out. Much like he was doing right now.

Steve is completely soaked to the skin, wet hair matted and pinned to his skull, rain dripping down his face and into his eyes. He is sitting with his legs pulled against his chest and his eyes are on the ground, watching the raindrops bounce against the sidewalk. He looks like he’s been out here all day. Bucky knows that Steve doesn’t really get cold anymore, but he has to at least be uncomfortable.

He clears his throat purposefully, “So, uh, that was fast.” Steve’s head shoots up.

“Bucky.” His voice is choked, eyes full of emotion.

“How long have you been sitting out here?” Bucky asks, because he doesn’t know how else to respond. Doesn’t know what to do with the tormented look on Steve’s face.

Steve swallows visually, “A while. You weren’t home.”

He sighs heavily, walks up the steps past him and begins to unlock the door, “You could have let yourself in instead of sitting out in the rain, you idiot.”

“That would have been rude,” Steve mumbles.

Some things never change. Steve is watching Bucky from his spot on the stairs, his eyes are wide and desperately hopeful, like he’s actually worried Bucky is just going to close the door in his face and leave him out here in the rain.

And he’s not going to deal with that sorry ass look on Steve’s face for another second so Bucky says, “Well come on, you need to get out of those wet clothes. You look like a drowned rat. Let’s see if I have anything that will fit you.”

Steve scrambles to his feet so fast Bucky practically misses it when he blinks, and follows him into the apartment. Bucky pull off his sneakers and deposits them on the matt by the door and Steve quickly follows suit.

“Wait here,” Bucky says and walks across the apartment to the bathroom. He pulls open the linen closet and fishes out a fresh towel before returning. When he walks back into the room, Steve, still dripping wet, is crouched on the floor with a finger extended to Ninja who is sniffing it curiously. Something twists in Bucky’s stomach at the sight. It’s goddamn adorable, is what it is.

“Here,” Bucky says and tosses Steve the towel.

Steve looks up and catches it easily, “Thank you.” He stands up, much to Ninja’s disappointment and begins patting himself dry. Bucky crosses the room and roots through his drawers, trying to find something that might fit Steve.

He ends up with an oversized t-shirt he usually sleeps in and a pair of sweatpants. He brings them over to Steve. “This is the best I can do.”

Steve takes them and gives him a small smile, “I’m sure they’ll be fine, thanks, Buck.”

He says the nickname so softly and slightly awed, as if he can’t even believe he’s here right now. Bucky thinks he knows the feeling. His brain still hasn’t fully processed the fact that Steve is here. In his apartment. Steve.

And then Steve is pulling his wet t-shirt over his head and Bucky finds a very fascinating spot on the ceiling he’s never noticed before. When Steve is finished changing he places his wet clothes on the floor next to his sneakers and clears his throat. Bucky returns his attention back from the fascinating popcorn style ceiling to Steve who is shuffling as if nervous.

“So, uh, you have a cat,” Steve says a bit awkwardly.

“I do,” he agrees, feeling completely ridiculous.

There is a long moment where neither speaks and Steve just watches Bucky with his big blue eyes, searchingly. It takes a few seconds for Bucky to realise that he is waiting to be invited to stay, not just come in for a few moments to change his clothes.

“Uh, why don’t you sit down?” He gestures to the couch, “Do you want anything to drink?”

“Coffee would be nice if you have it.” Steve visibly brightens before walking over to the couch and settling down. Bucky can’t see him as he roots around in the kitchen to make coffee but he is acutely aware of Steve’s eyes on him.

He taps his metal fingers restlessly against the countertop as he waits for the coffeemaker. He doesn’t know what Steve is going to say to him, but he knows the inevitable conversation isn’t going to be easy. Bucky tries to keep his breathing even. He put his address on that package because he thought he was ready to do this. Now he thinks that may have been an oversight on his part.

When the coffee’s done he pours it carefully into two mugs, takes a deep breath and walks back into the living room. Steve’s eyes follow him the whole way. He hands Steve his mug, a Captain America and Bucky Barnes comic book one that Kim had gotten him because she thought she was funny, and it his makes mouth twitch into a little smile. Bucky debates sitting on the floor for a moment, but then thinks fuck it and drops himself onto the couch beside Steve.

“Happy Birthday,” Bucky says, taking a sip of his coffee and then wincing slightly when it burns the roof of his mouth, “How old are you now, 200?”

Steve chuckles quietly, “Funny. You’re one to talk,” he adds more softly after a second, “Thank you for the package.”

He shrugs, a little embarrassed, “Yeah, well I felt bad about not getting you something last year.”

“I haven’t drawn in...god a long time,” Steve murmurs, “Everything’s been so crazy, I guess. No one else really knows how much I used to... so no one mentioned it and I guess it just fell by the wayside. It was real nice present,” his voice is so earnest, and he’s looking at Bucky like he really means it, “I’d forgotten how much I missed it. So thanks.”

“Yeah, well you’re welcome, pal,” Bucky mumbles.

There is an awkward silence, and it’s clear neither of them know what to say or, at the very least, how to bring it up. Bucky can feel his heart banging away in his chest, waiting for Steve to start demanding why the hell he’s been hiding out in Ithaca this whole time. But Steve doesn’t start yelling, doesn’t even look angry really, just sad. Part of Bucky wishes Steve would just yell at him, at least it would be over quickly. At least he wouldn’t have to see the misery in his eyes much longer.

When it’s clear Steve isn’t going to say anything anytime soon, Bucky takes matters into his own hands, “You look better than last time I saw you.”

A humorless chuckles escape Steve’s lips, “Yeah, I’ll bet,” then he fixes Bucky with an earnest look, “Bucky. Why’d you leave?”

And there it is, the question he’s been terrified to answer.

“The night at the hospital? Or the other time?” Bucky thinks he is going to be sick, how could he have possibly thought he was ready to do this?

“The hospital, or um both, I guess,” Steve’s eyes shut tightly and he heavies an big uncomfortable breath, like he’s bracing for the worst, “Both.”

Bucky swallows nervously, “I left the hospital before you woke up because I wasn’t ready to have this conversation with you… conscious anyway. I wasn’t ready to tell you why I left the first time.”

Steve opens his eyes, looks at Bucky, “And now?”

He lets out a helpless laugh, “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready. So I guess now is a good time as any.”

His friend doesn’t respond, just watches him, eyes wide and full of pain.

“God, Stevie, you have to understand… I was trying so hard to be what you wanted me to be. Whatever, whoever, that person was supposed be. I thought I knew who that was, that I was supposed to be your best friend, the guy who was always at your side, the guy who always had your back. That’s who I’ve always been, Steve. You got to understand that,” Bucky takes a shaky breath before continuing, “But you don’t need me to be those things anymore. You’ve got Natasha now, and Sam, and the Avengers for Christ’s sake. You don’t need me for any of that stuff anymore.”

“Bucky-” Steve begins, voice sounding broken.

He just shakes his head, continuing before Steve can say anything else, “Don’t, Steve. Don’t pretend it’s not true. Things are different now, you don’t need me like you used to. And I get that now, but then… it was like I had no idea who I was supposed to be anymore. No idea what I was supposed to do with myself. I needed to figure out who I was...when I wasn’t with you. So I left. I shouldn’t have just up and done it, and I’m sorry about that. But I can’t feel sorry for leaving.”

There are a few moments of silence, as Steve struggles to form words, “You...I...Buck, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were feeling that way. I wish you had said something,” Steve’s voice is cracking, the threat of tears showing in his eyes, “Bucky, maybe I don’t need you to look after me like you used to, but that, that doesn’t mean I don’t need you. God, that I don’t want you.”

“Not the way I want you,” Bucky mutters bitterly, before he can stop himself.

“What?” Steve asks, startled.

Shit. He hadn’t meant for it to come out like that. Steve is watching him with an even more intense focus then he had before, sitting completely still as if any movement he makes will spook Bucky.

“Jesus, Stevie, do you really not know?” Because it has to be obvious by now. Maybe Steve has known all along and just never said anything because he didn’t want to let Bucky down easy. Or worse, maybe he knew all along but didn’t say anything because he found the idea repulsive.

He watches Steve’s adam's apple bob a few times, his mouth opening and closing in an inner struggle to form words. Every second he doesn’t speak is like agony to Bucky, just prolonging his inevitable misery.

“That night, at the hospital…” Steve finally speaks, voice barely more than a whisper, “You told me you loved me.”

Bucky blinks in surprise, because that was not what he was expecting. At all.

“I thought you were unconscious,” Bucky’s voice comes out sounding strangled.

Steve’s face morphs into an unreadable expression. Shock, maybe? Disbelief?

“I was… I thought it was a dream at first,” he looks down at his hands, “But then Sam and Nat told me you were really there… I still wasn’t sure though… I thought maybe it was the drugs messing with my head. But it’s true, you said that,” he looks up at Bucky again, his gaze piercing, “Did you mean it?”

Well, it’s now or never. “Yeah...yeah Stevie, I meant it.”

“How...how long have you…” Steve trails off, voice hoarse.

Bucky shrugs half-hearted, doesn’t meet his eyes, “I dunno. Forever, I guess. Long as I can remember.”

“Why, why didn’t you say anything?” Steve sputters.

“Cause’ I’m a coward, why’d you think Steve?” He is having trouble keeping his voice a normal volume, “I was scared to tell you then, when it was a fucking death sentence. I was scared to tell you now because I didn’t want to lose you altogether. I was fucking too scared to tell you when you were actually conscious.”

Steve’s face looks even more pained than before, as if something particularly awful has suddenly dawned on him, “The night you left D.C.… I told you about my date with Sharon.”

To his surprise, anger is suddenly twisting in Bucky’s gut, “That’s not the only fucking reason I left okay, Steve? I’m not a baby, I can handle not getting what I want. It was only part of why I left. The trigger to the bomb that was just fucking waiting to go off.” He gets up abruptly, unable to stay still any longer. Snatching Steve’s mug, only half empty, from his hands, he stalks across the room to the kitchen and drops both his and Steve’s in the sink with a loud clatter. He grips the edge of the slink tightly, can feel the cheap surface bending under the strength of his metal hand. It takes a few moments before he can hear the raggedness of his own breathing, before he can realise how close he is to hyperventilating.

Part of him registers the sound of Steve getting to his feet behind him, and crossing the room. He stops a few feet behind Bucky, says nothing at first.

After a few tense moments, only filled by the sound of Bucky’s struggling breaths, Steve murmurs, “I know that’s not why you left, but it’s still...it’s still awful it happened that way, Buck. If I had known how you felt, I’d have never-”
“Never what? Dated anyone? Told me you were dating someone?” Bucky spins on him, hackles raised, ready for a fight.

Steve takes a step forward, then back. He takes a deep steadying breath, “I’d have never asked Sharon out in the first place.”

Bucky stares at him.

Steve’s face flushes slightly, and he looks down at his feet.

“What?” Bucky demands incredulously, because now he has no idea what is going on. Because Steve must be implying that he would be willing to not date anyone just so Bucky doesn’t feel bad. That’s what he has to mean. He couldn’t possibly mean…

“Bucky,” Steve’s voice is gentle, and he’s looking Bucky in the eyes again, “Do you really not know?”

The room is spinning. It feels as though the floor has been yanked out from under him. Because can Steve really be… can he really be implying...?

And suddenly Steve is kissing him. Actually kissing him. Steve is kissing Bucky. His hands are resting firmly on Bucky’s hips, pulling him forward and into him ever so slightly. His lips are soft and they taste like apples and that minty toothpaste that Steve likes. At first all Bucky can do is stand there like a deer in headlights, because all the times he imagined telling Steve how he felt, he’d never, ever in his wildest dreams allowed himself to imagine this. He has never imagined that Steve might possibly want him too.

Bucky begins to feel his eyes drift close and he leans in and kisses Steve back, allowing everything else to fall away for a few moments. Steve makes a noise of approval in the back of his throat and presses himself even closer. It’s not the best kiss of Bucky’s life; it’s rushed and a little too frantic and forceful. But it’s their first kiss, and it’s certainly the best first kiss of his life.

They’re both trembling and breathing heavily when they finally pull apart for air. Steve’s eyes are blown and his face is flushed red. His lips are puffy and swollen in the way freshly kissed lips always are. It’s all Bucky can do from throwing himself onto Steve again.

“Bucky, I’ve been in love with you my whole life,” Steve breathes out, voice shaky, “I never said anything back then because I thought you weren’t interested. You were a ladies man, you were with a different dame- I mean girl, practically every night. And after I got you back from Hydra… I was just so happy to have you back. I didn’t want to lose you again. So I didn’t say anything, but god, Bucky, I should have and I’m sorry.”

His hands are still on Bucky’s hips and he can feel how violently they are shaking as Steve continues, “When I asked Sharon out I thought it would help me get over you. But I know now I was just kidding myself. The night you left I was a mess. I called Sam and Nat and practically every one of the Avengers. They all told me that you were probably just getting some air and that you’d show up in a few days,” he swallows and gives Bucky a broken look, “But then you didn’t and I looked everywhere for you and I couldn’t find you. I was so afraid I’d never see you again. That I’d lost you for good this time. That I’d never get to tell you.”

Bucky lets out a breath that he hadn’t known he was holding. His fingers circle around Steve’s wrists and he leans forward again, rests his forehead against Steve’s.

“Say it again,” he whispers.

Steve doesn’t have to ask what he means, “I love you.”

The words are quiet, but confident. Bucky’s entire body shudders.

“I love you so much, Bucky,” Steve says again, “I’m sorry I was such an idiot about it.”

Bucky half laughs, half sobs, “You and me both, pal.”

They stand there pressed together for what feels like a long time. Bucky is half convinced he’s going to wake up at any moment, and it will have all been a dream.

When he doesn’t, Bucky whispers, “Steve?”

“Yeah Buck?”

“I love you too.” He knows that Steve knows this, but it’s the first time he’s said it old loud, intending for the other to hear.

At the words a genuine smile breaks onto Steve’s face. And he’s looking at Bucky like he’s the fucking sun. In spite of himself, Bucky can’t help grinning back, because he can’t believe this is actually happening right now.

“Can, I uh, can I kiss you again?” Steve asks ducking his head a bit, voice almost shy.

Bucky rolls his eyes and presses his lips back against Steve’s in answer.

 

* * *

 

They end up on his bed at some point, their kisses turning more urgent. Bucky is on his back and Steve is over him, hands propping himself up on either side of Bucky’s head as he leans over and trails kisses along Bucky’s neck. They’d ditched their shirts long ago, and Bucky has been basking in the euphoria of the feeling Steve’s skin against his own.

Bucky’s half hard in his pants and he can’t help himself from bucking up against Steve. Steve blushes slightly, but presses himself back in response and Bucky can feel that he’s not the only one who’s hard.

Still, it’s all happening pretty fast and though Bucky loves it and wants every second of it, has wanted this for so long, he finds himself saying, “You know, we can stop if… if we’re going too fast, we don’t have to…” He really really hopes Steve doesn’t agree, because he thinks he might actually die if they stop now.

Steve pulls away and cocks his head slightly, “Do you want me to stop?”

Bucky shakes his head no a bit too aggressively.

A sly smile spreads across Steve’s face and he rolls his hips, and what the hell, he was blushing a few seconds ago.

Bucky gasps, unable to control the outburst, “Alright punk, if that’s the way you want to play it,” he reaches down and begins to tug on Steve’s pants, “These. Off. Now.”

Steve pouts at him, blue eyes filled with false earnest, “Aren’t you gonna buy me dinner first?”

“Original,” Bucky mutters, finding the rim of Steve’s sweatpants. His fingers fumble as he tries to pull them down, “Now, stop making jokes and help a guy out would you?”

Laughing quietly, Steve plants another kiss on Bucky’s lips, this one soft and affectionate, before pulling down the pants and kicking them off. His erection is clear under the thin fabric of his boxers. Bucky’s throat goes momentarily dry. Steve raises his eyebrows expectantly at Bucky, “Your turn.”

Bucky’s hands are shaking and sweaty and it takes achingly long to unbutton his own pants and wriggle out of them. When he does, Steve drops them off the side of the bed and leans over to kiss Bucky, pressing their bodies together again. Bucky can feel his own, now fully erect, cock up against Steve’s with only a bit of cotton between them. He lets out a groan and grinds up against Steve, who lets out a noise almost like a hiss as he grinds back.

Steve pulls away after a few minutes, sitting up on his knees. Bucky is about to protest and then he feels Steve’s hands grip the edges of his underwear and pull them down. Steve tosses the boxers off the side of the bed with the rest of the clothing, leans back over Bucky with one hand braced by his head. The other hand grasps Bucky’s cock and he can’t help but to moan. It’s a bit embarrassing honestly, but Steve seems to like it because he kisses Bucky softly on the cheek before beginning to slowly jerk him off. This continues for a few minutes, Bucky writhing and moaning before Steve removes his hand and pulls away again. He whines in protest and is about to demand to know why the hell Steve stopped when Steve’s mouth is suddenly around his dick.

“Steve,” Bucky gasps at the warmth and wetness, tries not fuck up into his throat the way his body is screaming for him to.

Steve sucks him off like a pro, tongue and lips seeming to know all the right tricks, and for the first time Bucky wonders if he’s done this before. Bucky’s never given anyone a blowjob, though he’s been on the receiving end of his fair share, mostly from some of the dames he’d taken dancing back in the day and once from a very entusicatiac man down by the docks when Bucky had been feeling particularly miserable about his feelings for Steve. Steve had never had much luck romantically back in the day, but maybe after the serum…

“Steve, I’m gonna-” he warns, breathing erratic and unable to help the small little thrusts into Steve’s mouth now.

Steve glances up at him, but doesn’t pull back. He watches Bucky’s face as he comes in Steve’s mouth. Bucky’s vision blurs for a moment and he cries out, dropping his head back onto the bed. When he can see straight again he watches Steve swallow and wipe his mouth. Bucky stares at him, jaw unhinged.

“And how was that?”

Steve makes a face, “Didn’t taste good, but not horrible either.”

“You done that before?”

“Nope. Was it okay?” Steve watches him a bit anxiously now.

Bucky is sure he must look a bit crazed, “Are you kidding me? That was incredible! Where’d you learn to do that?”

Steve flushes but looks pleased with himself, “Internet.”

“Pervert,” Bucky says affectionately, propping himself up on his elbows and kissing Steve deeply. He can taste himself on Steve’s lips.

Steve hums happily into Bucky’s mouth and grinds his hips down, still completely hard. Bucky pulls away from the kiss and fixes a serious look on Steve, “Fuck me.”

The other man’s eyes widen comically, his mouth falls open. Bucky actually feels himself blushing, suddenly unsure of himself, “I mean, if you want to. We don’t have to, obviously-”

“No, no! I want to. Believe me, I want to,” Steve’s voice catches a bit in his throat, as if the thought is making it hard to speak, “I just...are you sure?”

“Very sure,” Bucky confirms.

Steve swallows loudly, “Okay, do you have-”

Bucky rolls over underneath him and fishes the tube out of his bedside table. Steve’s eyebrows raise. Bucky suddenly realises what this looks like, “It’s not, I don’t...sometimes I use it...just me though… I’ve never... with anyone,” he stutters incoherently.

Steve takes a sharp intake of a breath above him.

“Steve?”

“Sorry, I was just picturing that.” His voice is raspy, like his throat has gone dry.

Bucky grins, “Why picture, when you can have the real thing?” He presses the lube into Steve’s hand and wriggles himself further beneath the other man.

“Do you want to- on you stomach?” Steve suggests, “I think it’s supposed to be easier that way.”

Bucky shakes his head, “Like this, wanna see you.”

Steve nods, squeezes some lube onto his fingers, and then carefully sets to the task of working Bucky open. Bucky’s moaning again after a few minutes, fucking himself down onto Steve’s fingers. It was true what he’d said to Steve, sometimes he does do this to himself, but somehow Steve’s fingers are so much better than his own.

“You like that?” Steve asks him a bit breathlessly.

Bucky can only nod in response, panting far too heavily to form words.

He’s only half aware of Steve wiggling out of his boxers and tossing them aside. When Steve finally pushes into him, the feeling is so overwhelming he has to grip the sheets in fistfuls and bite the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming. Steve groans loudly above him, face going slack in pleasure. He stays inside Bucky for a minute, not moving, just letting him used to the feeling.

But Bucky is nothing if not impatient. He kicks Steve a bit and hisses, “Move.”

Steve laughs and leans over to kiss Bucky deeply as he begins to thrust. He starts out slow at first, because as impatient as Bucky is he’s still never done this before.

After a while, once Bucky’s more comfortable with the sensation of Steve inside him, he begins pressing his hips up to meet Steve’s thrusts. Steve seems to take this a cue to pick up the pace, fucking Bucky faster and harder, one of his hands on Bucky’s torso holding him in place. Every few thrusts he hits a spot inside Bucky that makes him see stars and moan like a cat in heat.

Bucky is hard again and he finds himself reaching down and wrapping a hand around himself, jerking off in time with Steve’s thrusts. Steve is panting Bucky’s name over and over again, between littering kisses along his neck and chest.

“Buck, god, I’m gonna come.” He drops his forehead to Bucky’s and his thrusts became more fervent.

Bucky just presses a kiss to his lips in response. Seconds later Steve is coming inside him, moaning in pleasure. It’s warm and sticky, and it feels kind of weird, but it’s intimate and the thought makes Bucky squirm in pleasure. A few more twists of his hand and Bucky follows him, breathing heavily, Steve’s name on his lips.

Steve drops onto the bed next to him, rolls onto his back and sighs, closing his eyes, “That was amazing.”

Bucky slides a bit closer to him, rests his head on Steve’s shoulder and drapes his arm across Steve’s torso, “Mhmm,” he agrees contentedly.

“I missed you so much,” Steve whispers softly, turning his head to press his lips against the top of Bucky’s head.

“Missed you too, punk,” Bucky answers back through a yawn.

“Please don’t ever go somewhere I can’t find you ever again.” Steve voice is full of emotion and Bucky tilts his head up to meet his eyes for a moment.

“You got it, Stevie,” he promises, then yawns again, exhaustion creeping into his body. He closes his eyes and burrows his face back into Steve’s shoulder, “Love ya.”

If Steve returns the sentiment, he doesn’t hear because Bucky is already drifting to sleep.

 

* * *

 

When Bucky wakes up there are arms wrapped around him and his face is mashed against something warm and sturdy. At first he is still disoriented from sleep. He freezes, muscles tensing, and prepares to access the situation before moving into fight or flight. Then, the events from the previous day come back to him, like waves washing up on a shore. He tilts his head up, cracks an eye open and yes- there’s Steve. Steve’s hair is a messy and his mouth is hanging open slightly, soft snores escaping every once in awhile.

For a few minutes Bucky just stares at him, part of him in disbelief that what happened yesterday was true, that it wasn’t just some fevered dream Bucky’s lonely mind had concocted. He narrows his eyes and presses his flesh finger into Steve’s side experimentally. The other man snuffles in his sleep and wiggles a little, but doesn’t wake. So yeah, he’s really there.

“Huh,” Bucky mutters to himself, and then laughs. He’s honest to god laughing and he can’t seem to stop. It’s not that the situation is particularly funny. It’s ironic sure, that they’d both been harboring feelings for each other all these years and neither had the guts to say anything. But it certainly wasn’t funny. Yet here he is, cackling loudly into the sheets like a lunatic.

Apparently this is enough to actually wake Steve up, because he grumbles sleepily, “Huh? Buck? Whacha laughin at?”

“I don’t fucking know. At us, I guess. At everything.” He looks up at Steve who is blinking at him with bleary, sleep heavy eyes.

“Something funny about it?” Steve rubs his hand over his eyes and yawns.

“Naw, I’m just…” Bucky smiles at him, “Really happy, I think.”

Steve smiles back, and pulls Bucky closer to him, “Mmm, happy too. Missed waking up to you.”

Bucky nods against his chest in agreement, “Always slept better with you here. Was really hard some of the nights alone. The nightmares…” he shivers a bit, “Well they were always easier with you there.”

He can feel Steve’s grip on him tighten a little, protectively, “I’m sorry, Buck.”

Bucky roll his eyes, even though he knows Steve can’t see, “Don’t apologize for something you couldn’t control Steve. I’m the one who chose to leave.”

Steve doesn’t respond, just presses a soft kiss to Bucky’s forehead. And Bucky finds himself pulling himself up and kissing Steve on the lips, because he’s allowed to do that now. And isn’t that a thought.

When he pulls way Steve makes a face at him, “Yuck. Morning breath.” But his eyes are glowing happily.

Bucky is about to make a witty retort when he spots the digital clock on the oven across the apartment.

“Shit, I’ve got to go,” Buck pulls himself away, out of the tangle of Steve’s embrace.

Steve’s face crumbles so fast Bucky almost feels as though he’s got whiplash. There is real hurt and confusion in his eyes as he sputters, “But, I thought that- we are-”

At first Bucky is completely lost as to why that sorry ass look is on Steve’s face. And then it hits him. He thinks Bucky’s leaving. Leaving, leaving.

“Jesus Christ, Stevie. Not like that. To work, you idiot. I’m going to be late for work.”

Steve’s face softens, relief visible on his features, “Oh.”

“You have abandonment issues,” Bucky says, only half teasing.

The other man sniffs in mock contempt, “Well, I guess I’ll just wait here and hang out with your cat all day.”

“Don’t you have anything to do? You know, superhero stuff?” He makes a vague motions with his hands that’s supposed to represent anything that might fall under the category of ‘superhero stuff.”

“Nothing more important than being here with you,” Steve replies easily and truthful, not even a hint of joking in his tone.

Bucky groans, “God, you’re such a sap.”

Steve gives him his best grin, “You love me though.”

“For some unknown reason,” Bucky agrees as he hops off the bed.

He roots through his drawers for his work clothes, fully aware that Steve is watching him from the bed, his eyes moving up and down Bucky’s naked form. And that shouldn’t make Bucky flush the way it does, because they had sex last night for christ’s sake. Bucky forces himself not to focus on Steve’s lustful gaze, because he really is going to be late for work and he doesn’t have time to go down that path.

When he’s fully clothed, he hurries around the apartment, making last minute preparations. He fills Ninja’s food and water bowl, grabs his keys from the counter, unplugs his cellphone from its station on the counter and slips it into his back pocket. He turns to Steve, still curled up in the sheets on the bed, to tell him that there's food in the fridge and to help himself. The look on Steve’s face is so close to that of a wounded puppy it almost physically pains him to look at it.

Sighing, and knowing when he’s been beat, Bucky asks, “Steve, do you want to come to work with me?”

Steve gets tangled in the sheets, trips, and crashes to the floor when he leaps out of the bed.

They walk into the rescue center lobby holding hands.

Kim is working the front desk and looks up when she hears the bell go off. Her eyebrows rise when she sees Steve. They meet her hairline when her eyes drift down and notice their clasped hands.

Bucky gives her a sheepish smile, “Good morning, Kim.”

“It looks like congratulations are in order,” she grins at him.

He grins back, “Steve, this is my friend Kim. Kim, this is Steve.”

“Nice to meet you,” Steve smiles politely.

“Likewise,” she says, then turns and gives Bucky a knowing look, “See, told you that you’d figure it out eventually.”

He nods solemnly, “You’re so wise and all knowing.”

“Don’t get sarcastic with me Mister.”

Steve is looking back and forth between them, looking slightly confused. Bucky gives his hand a reassuring squeeze, because he’s allowed to do that now.

“Kim is studying Word War II at Cornell,” Bucky informs him, “She’s doing her dissertation on the Howling Commandos.”

Steve blinks in surprise, “Oh, really?”

She nods eyes lighting up with excitement, “You have to let me bug you with some research questions sometime.”

“Sure, anything for a friend of Bucky’s,” Steve agrees easily, and Bucky knows how much Steve hates being interviewed. His heart swells a little.

With that settled she returns her attention to Bucky, jabbing the pencil she’s holding at him accusingly, “Anyway, you sir, are late. Go take you boyfriend and do your job before Helen fires us both.”

Steve blushes brightly at the word ‘boyfriend’ and shuffles his feet a bit. Bucky just sticks his tongue out at her and pulls Steve towards the back door.

Bucky goes throughout his day, doing all the tasks he normally would. Steve shadows him dutifully all the while, trying to help when he can but clearly just as unsure of how to handle animals as Bucky was when he first started here. Every so often Bucky will look up from what he is doing and catch Steve watching him with proud, admiring eyes.

“I like working with them,” he explains to Steve in a quiet voice as he strokes one of the dogs behind the ears and clips a leash to it’s collar, “Looking after them, it makes me feel good. They need me take care of them and they trust me to do it, you know? Know it sounds lame, but-”

“It doesn’t,” Steve promises.

When they return from walking the dogs that afternoon, Tobias is on shift. He takes one look at Steve and his mouth drops open wordlessly. He points and makes a loud noise in the back of his throat.

“Hey, man,” Bucky greets, pretending the kid isn’t making a complete fool of himself.

“You’re...he’s...you…” Tobias struggles.

Steve steps forward and offers his hand, kind enough to put the poor kid out of his misery, “Steve Rogers, nice to meet you.”

“I-I’m Tobias Woods,” Tobias shakes the offered hand, all the while shooting Bucky a completely dumbfounded look. Then a look of realisation dawns of his face, “You never told me you were that James!”

Bucky chuckles and shrugs, “You never asked.”

Tobias looks back at Steve who is giving him his best, ‘friendly national icon Captain America smile’, and then dissolves into a huge nerdy breakdown about how Steve was his childhood hero and how he’d grown up with posters of him on his wall.

Steve is a good sport about the whole thing. Listening to Tobias's rambling stories and nodding in all the right places. Bucky watches in amusement from a few paces back, leaning against one of the kennel doors.

“You look happy,” Kim’s voice greets him out of nowhere.

Bucky practically jumps out of his skin. “Don’t sneak up on deadly assassins,” he snaps at her when he recovers. She’s walked up next to him, mop in one hand and bucket resting at the floor by her feet, clearly having paused on her way to the supply closet.

“Sorry,” she says, not sounding sorry at all, “But it’s true, you look really happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen you.”

He colors slightly, “Yeah, well. Steve can have that effect on people.”

“You’re going to go back with him, aren’t you.” It’s not a question.

He turns and frowns at her, blinking a bit in surprise, because he hadn’t actually thought about it. Everything has been happening so fast, he hasn’t actually had the chance to really think about what this all means for him. But Steve is going to have to go back to New York eventually, he can’t lead a team of superheroes from Bucky’s studio apartment in Ithaca. Yet, Bucky leaving with him would mean giving up everything he has here.

“I don’t know… my job’s here and I…”

She gives him a playful elbow with her shoulder, “I’m sure there are plenty of animal shelters in Manhattan that would love to have James Buchanan Barnes as their employee.”

He nods, knowing she’s right, “You’re here. You’re my friend.”

“I’ll just have to come visit,” Kim says confidently, then adds, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do. You should do what makes you happy. It just seems like being with him,” she gestures to where Steve is standing with Tobias, who has pulled off his sneaker for him to sign, “is what makes you happiest.”

“Thank you, spirit guide,” he mumbles sarcastically, but he knows she’s right.

At that moment Steve looks over his shoulder, face displaying an expression that can be only read as help me, as Tobias babbles and thrusts his dirty sneaker into Steve’s hands. Kim and Bucky both smile and give him a thumbs up.

 

* * *

 

When they are walking back to Bucky’s apartment that night, he can’t help but notice the way Steve is dragging his feet, his demeanor somehow more subdued than it had been earlier. Bucky wonders nervously, if he’s done something to upset him, prays that he hasn’t done anything to upset him. Because the last 24 hours have been the best of his entire life and he really doesn’t want to blow it all now.

“Steve?” he asks tentatively, bumping his shoulder against the larger man’s affectionately, “You okay, pal?”

“Huh?” Steve startles a bit, “Oh, yeah of course, Buck. I’m fine, better than fine.” He doesn’t meet Bucky’s eyes. It doesn’t sound very convincing, something is definitely bothering him.

“Did I do something wrong?” Bucky questions anxiously.

“What? No, god, Buck, no,” Steve runs a hand through his hair and pauses on the sidewalk. Bucky drifts to a stop beside him, watching in nervous confusion.

“It’s just, it’s silly because… you left because you thought I didn’t need you,” he laughs humorlessly and shakes his head, “But it looks like you got it the other way around.”

“I don’t understand,” Bucky admits honestly.

“You’ve got friends here, ones who care about you. You’ve got a job, that you’re really good at. You’re happy here. I came here thinking I would be bringing you back with me, or at least hoping. But now, I feel like… maybe you should just stay here.”

“Are you being fucking serious right now?” Bucky demands in disbelief.

Steve’s eyes widen, “I mean, I still want to see you. I love you, Bucky, Jesus- I just, I’ll have to make a lot of trips back and forth for the city. I mean it won’t be easy but we should be able to make it work, I-”
“Steve,” Bucky interrupts forcefully.

Steve winces slightly, but his mouth snaps shut. Bucky grabs him by the collar of his shirt and tugs him forward into a kiss. Steve makes a sound of muffled surprise before he leans into the kiss. It’s a little too forceful, but it’s affirming and affectionate all the same.

When they break apart, gasping for air, Bucky wraps his flesh hand tightly around Steve’s wrist, “I’m going back with you, you jackass.”

“Are you sure, because-”

“I’m sure,” Bucky says, voice strong and clear, “I can find things that make me happy anywhere I go. And where I want to go is wherever your punk ass is.”

Steve’s face morphs into one of awe and affection, “I wanna be wherever you are too, you big jerk.”

“Good. So let’s just agree to be in the same place and save us both a lot of misery, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve nods, his lips curling into a soft smile as he pulls Bucky back into his arms for another kiss. Because he can do that now.

 

* * *

Moving back in with Steve is strangely uneventful. He shows up with Steve at Avengers Tower toting a duffle bag of his belongings over his shoulder and Ninja tucked between his chest and metal arm.

Stark takes one look at him and says, “Good. Took you idiots long enough.” He gives Bucky an approving nod before jabbing a finger at Ninja and saying, “I’m not paying for any property damages that thing might cause, just FYI.”

“Yes, you will be, Sir. Pets are covered in the lease,” JARVIS says from the ceiling.

“Dammit,” Stark mutters.

The rest of the Avengers seem a bit wary of him at first, but he does his best to be friendly. He introduces himself without breaking eye contact and is the first to offer his hand, “We haven’t met officially, I’m Bucky.” It’s something he’d have never done a year ago, and he’s reminded of this everytime he sees the glow of pride in Steve’s eyes. He should probably find this demeaning, but instead it just feels good.

Sam, to his surprise, is actually thrilled to see him. He pulls Bucky into an unexpected hug, “Ah man, I’m so glad you’re back! None of us could take depressed Steve any longer.”

“Hey!” Steve whines in offense.

Bucky laughs. He thinks, now that the raging jealousy he’d had over Sam’s friendship with Steve is gone, they might actually grow to be real friends.

Natasha takes the longest to warm back up to him. He doesn’t blame her; she’s still Steve’s best friend and she knows he’s hurt Steve in the past. Bucky knows that’s what Natasha sees when she looks at him. The first few days he’s in the tower she watches him, eyes like daggers, as if she expects him to up and leave again at any moment. Bucky knows he’ll just have to prove her wrong.

He meets Pepper Potts about a week after he moves in. He’s playing with Ninja in the living room on his and Steve’s floor when the elevator dings and she walks out, high heels clicking as she makes her way over to him.

“James,” she greets and reaches out a hand to him as he scrambles to his feet to shake it, “I’m Pepper Potts.”

“It’s nice to meet you, m’am, and Bucky is fine,” he says politely. He knows who she is and more importantly he knows that she’s someone you don’t want to mess with. Clint Barton had told him the other morning, over his bowl of Cheerios on the common floor, that she could actually breathe fire. Bucky still isn’t sure if Clint was just messing with him or not.

“Tony tells me you enjoy working with animals,” she says without preamble, glancing down for a moment to where Ninja is sitting at their feet and looking up at her with wide curious green eyes.

“Yes, m’am,” he winces slightly, worried he’s trying too hard to sound formal.

Ms. Potts must not mind though because she just smiles a bit and continues, “How would you feel about working with Stark Industries to set up a non-for-profit program?”

“For animals?” he asks dumbly, then “Me?”

Her eyes are amused as she answers, “Yes, you. Are you interested?”

Bucky finds himself nodding vigorously, “Yeah, yeah. That’d be amazing.”

“Great!” she exclaims, “I’ll have JARVIS work out a meeting time and we can discuss it in more detail.” And with that she’s clicking her way back into the elevator with her heels.

Bucky frowns down at Ninja, “You saw that happen too, right?”

A month after Bucky’s been in New York, he gets a package in the mail. He rips it open and pulls out a thick wad of paper. There’s a post-it-note attached to it that reads, “Rough Draft. Thought you might want to read it. Thanks for everything - Kim”.

There’s something else in the package. He reaches in and pulls it out. It’s a Bucky Bear. It looks old and frayed, fabric fading and there’s several places where it’s obviously been resewn. He loses his breath for a moment when he realises what it means.

He texts Kim.

 

Bucky sent 12:04 pm

I can’t accept this

 

Kim received 12:06 pm

I don’t need it anymore. I’ve got the real thing these days. Take care of him for me will you?

 

His throat feels tight, but he doesn’t press further. The bear gets carefully placed on a shelf above the desk in his new office.

Things are good. They’re good, but they aren’t always easy.

Like the times when Steve comes home in a particularly rough state, pale and bleeding from a fight that got a little too close.

Bucky all about throws a fit one night when Steve stumbles in with a broken arm and a black eye. He swears at Steve, makes him promise that if it ever gets bad enough, and the Avengers need the backup, he’ll call Bucky in, let Bucky watch his back. Tells him that he’s not going to spend another night sitting by Steve’s bedside, not sure if he’d live or die and knowing that he’d done nothing to prevent it.

Bucky honestly expects more of a fight from Steve. Expects him to give the old answer, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Expects him to worry it will trigger Bucky’s Winter Soldier memories and somehow undo all the progress he’s made. Instead Steve just nods and says, “Alright, Buck.”

It’s not much, but Bucky sleeps easier after that.

Sometimes he still wakes from nightmares, screaming or whimpering or not making any noise at all- just frozen in terror. Those nights, Steve will roll over onto his side, facing Bucky and pulling him into his arms. It’s as reassuring as it’s always been. What is more reassuring is when Steve presses his lips to Bucky’s forehead and murmurs into his skin, “Love you.”

Because he is Bucky Barnes, he whispers back, “I love you, too.”