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G.I. Joes and 2AM Diners

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It all starts with a G.I. Joe action figure.

It’s 1993 and Bucky’s five years old. He only remembers a few scarce things about the first day. He remembers playing out in the snow with his little sister. It was cold, but their parents had made sure they were bundled up in all the right clothes, and Bucky was actually starting to feel like he was boiling beneath his jacket and snow pants. He remembers there being thick, fat snowflakes dropping lazily from the sky, and whenever he’d stick out his tongue to try and catch them, Rebecca would do it too and Bucky, annoyed, kept calling her a copycat.

He remembers getting the second ball onto the body of the snowman they were building, when he’d started to feel lightheaded. His tummy hadn’t felt the greatest that morning, but it’d seemed to go away into the afternoon, which was why he’d been allowed outside to play. But suddenly, he’d gone from feeling perfectly fine one moment, to stopping dead in his tracks and wavering on his feet in the next. His little sister kept talking to him, but he could barely hear her – and then he crashed to the ground, losing consciousness, and he couldn’t remember anything for a while after that.

He remembers waking up in bed and being covered in sweat. The details are a lot fuzzier between that point and when his parents decided that he needed to be taken to the hospital; just bits and pieces of his bedroom, or flashes of his mother’s face, or a split-second glimpse at the big, plastic bowl before he was emptying the contents of his stomach into it. If he was even fully awake on to the drive over to the Maimonides Center, he can’t remember that.

He’s carried through the doors to the emergency room, and he faintly remembers hearing someone saying something about him running a fever – keeps getting hotter and hotter – and he can’t help it, he gets sick again right there in his dad’s arms. He’s brought to a room and stripped out of his vomit-covered jacket so they can wrap him up in a tiny blue gown. He doesn’t remember getting put into the bed, or the doctor coming in and checking his vital signs, or talking to his parents. Just flashes of lights and ceilings and the overwhelmingly crisp smell of cleanliness that only hospitals have, whenever his eyes incoherently open and roll around deliriously.

He remembers getting sick more, until there’s no more food left in his system and he’s bringing up nothing but bile. Yet it doesn’t stop. They try to give him crackers, but Bucky can’t keep them down for longer than ten minutes. They try to give him water, and even that doesn’t settle well. He can’t stop throwing up, and his fever doesn’t know how to do anything else but continue to rise. He remembers his throat stinging and sharp, shooting pains in his belly, and not even having enough hydration to cry, no matter how badly he wants to.

Bucky doesn’t remember hearing the doctor telling his parents about how they need to hook him up through an IV to some fluids, but he remembers freaking out the moment they try to pin him down. He’s five years old and he’s terrified of needles. His mom is out in the hallway because Rebecca had been scared and started crying, so it’s his dad who tries to soothe Bucky to calmness. Bucky stares up at him and keeps screaming, keeps crying without tears, because he’s far too fevered and he doesn’t want them to hurt him and stick a needle into the top of his hand.

His dad doesn’t seem to get it, though. He just keeps stroking his big palm over Bucky’s forehead and into his sweat-soaked hair, repeating reassurances that Bucky can’t hear but knows are a lie. And he’s so scared, he doesn’t want the needle, doesn’t want pain – but no matter how hard he thrashes, the staff keeps him pinned as gently as they can manage. He’s sobbing, loud and shrill, and the prick in his hand doesn’t hurt that much when they’re finally able to stick him, but in his state, it feels like torture. He cries out a loud “Oww!” and then cries even harder.

Bucky remembers a lady – she’s a nurse, but he doesn’t know that in the moment and he doesn’t care. There are a lot of people standing over him, but aside from his dad, she’s the one offering him a kind smile and telling him in a soft, melodic voice that it’s over, he did it, he was so brave… Her eyes are as blue as the sky, and there’s something about the protective way she’s encouraging Bucky that makes him calm down just a little; reminds him of that feeling his own mom gives him whenever he scrapes his knee, or bumps his elbow, or gets a bug bite.

Sniffling, still crying weakly, he can hear movements and talking, as the IV is started and Bucky starts getting the fluids he so sorely needs, and he keeps hearing you’re gonna be alright, but Bucky’s still just so scared. Still running a high fever. Still tired, and achy, and his head’s pounding and his stomach’s sore, and Bucky just wants to go home. His head lolls over to the right, and it’s at that exact second that he remembers seeing something in the doorway.

It only lasts a second. It’s small, whatever it is. Bucky doesn’t see shapes so much as he sees a mess of colors – just as quick as a blink of the eye, and then whatever it is disappears. It might’ve been a boy. It might’ve been his imagination. But Bucky’s so exhausted from the fight he just put up that he’s finally falling back out of consciousness, and he remembers the color gold – bright and beautiful, just like the sun.


The first night, Bucky spends waking up off and on whenever he feels nauseated. They continue to give him fluids, as well as stuff for his fever. But by the second day – though his temperature is more stabilized, even if too high to be considered ‘all better’ – he actually feels worse than the first. His mom explains to him that the doctors believe he has a real bad case of the flu, but with some time and patience, he’ll get better. 

There’s a lot missing during the second day because Bucky sleeps most of it off. At least one of his parents stays by his bedside as often as possible, and he’s told that Rebecca is going to be staying at their grandparents for a few days. Bucky’s five, and it doesn’t matter how sick he is, he remembers feeling jealous and disappointed that he’s stuck in some stupid hospital while his sister gets to eat chocolate chip cookies and watch cartoons on the TV in the basement.

By evening, the nurse from the night before comes back to check up on how Bucky’s doing. Her name is Sarah, and Bucky likes her. She’s a lot nicer than a lot of the other people who keep coming to see him. When he insists that he feels good enough to have some orange juice and soup, she’s the one to bring it to him. She even stays and talks with him and his mother the entire time he slurps it down.

Bucky does wind up getting sick again not long after, but the amount of time he’s able to keep the food down beforehand is much longer than the day before. Sarah tells Bucky that he’s already starting to show signs of getting better, and it must be because he’s very strong inside. Bucky can’t help but puff out his little chest a bit at that and agree, “I am strong.” Sarah and his mom laugh together, and Bucky smiles for the first time in over twenty-four hours.

It’s when Sarah’s leaving the room that Bucky sees that little hint of gold again. This time, he can make out clear as day that there’s a person attached to it. In the opened doorway, with one little hand on the frame, Bucky spots a small boy around his age peeking one eye into the room. The gold Bucky had seen is actually the boy’s short mop of hair, and even though he’s all the way on the other side of the room and Bucky can only see the one eye, he can already tell that it’s as bright and baby a blue as the nurse’s eyes are.

The second Bucky and the boy lock their gazes, that one eye widens and the kid disappears completely, retreating from around the corner. Bucky straightens up a bit and keeps staring at the door curiously, hoping that one blue eye and that golden hair will pop back out again. However, it doesn’t – not quite. Sarah steps out of the room and Bucky can hear her saying something, and then there’s a little voice replying, but Bucky can’t make out the words. The nurse reaches her hand out and when she brings it back in, the little boy appears and approaches her.

Bucky only just gets the quickest look at his face when he turns his head and stares back into the room at Bucky. But then Sarah keeps walking, and the boy is led away with her. The door is closed behind them, and Bucky finds himself staring at it for just a bit longer, as if by doing so, they’ll come back. When they don’t, he rolls over and asks if his mom can read one of the books she brought for him – getting distracted and thinking little on the incident; pushing it out of sight, out of mind, like children do.


Bucky finds the action figure on the third day. Well, it’s not so much that he found it, so much as he wakes up from a couple hours of sleep in the afternoon to see it lying on his bed next to his leg. Pushing himself into a sitting position, he picks up the G.I. Joe and stares at it in confusion. It’s certainly not one of his toys; he could tell you (in detail) exactly how many he has and what they look like with his eyes closed. 

When he looks to his parents and ask where it came from, they both glance over to the foot of his bed, trying but failing to hide a pair of small, knowing smiles. Bucky’s brows knit as he looks over to where they’re staring – only to see that golden hair again. This time, there are two eyes sneaking a peek at him from the foot of the hospital bed. The rest of him is still hidden. Yet again, the moment the boy sees Bucky staring back, he ducks away and disappears.

Bucky’s mouth opens and stretches into a playful grin. He’s still really sick and feeling dizzy, but he’s also not hooked up to the IV machine anymore – so he’s able to leap forward onto his hands and knees and quickly crawl over to the bed’s edge. Popping his head over the side and looking down, he sees the boy sitting flat on his butt and staring back up at him. Whoever he is, he’s tiny – much smaller than Bucky, and about twice as thin.

He’s got on a blue gown just like Bucky does, with a pair of Tazmanian Devil pajama pants underneath and black slippers on his feet. Looking at the gown, the first thought the brunet has is, Hey, we match! There’s something big and almost bulky-looking on top of his ears, as well as a white, plastic thing hanging from a string around his neck. The boy’s eyes are practically saucers again; cheeks bright pink with a blush.

“Hi!” Bucky says excitedly, happy to finally get a proper look at this kid’s face. “What’s your name?” The kid doesn’t answer. Instead, he just keeps staring up at Bucky like he’s seen a ghost. So Bucky holds the action figure up so the blond can see it. “Is this yours?” he tries next, trying to get small boy to talk. Still, he’s met with only more staring. Bucky frowns and goes to ask him if he’s okay when the boy suddenly breaks eye contact and starts to move. Without saying a word, he scurries onto his feet and then books it from the room. Bucky watches him go with a surprised expression, mouth hanging open.

“Hey – wait!” he calls after him, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed to chase after him. He whines and tries to protest when his dad quickly cuts him off and makes him get back into bed. They’re both chuckling now, and Bucky doesn’t understand what’s so funny. He pouts for a few minutes; arms crossed, and glaring from his parents to lowering his eyes and scowling at the blanket re-draped over his legs.

When he finally loses his steam a few minutes later, he turns the action figure back over in his hands and holds it on his lap. It looks old, like it’s been played with a lot. Still, it’s one of the coolest toys Bucky’s ever seen, and more than anything, he wants to find the boy who gave it to him and have someone to play with. So far, Bucky’s been horrendously bored the entire time he’s been there – which, to a child, might as well be an eternity.

Sarah comes back in that early evening to see if Bucky can stomach some toast with his juice and soup. Bucky gratefully scarfs it down, and to everyone’s delight, he only feels queasy afterwards but doesn’t actually get sick. She checks his temperature and lets them know that Bucky’s fever is still there, but continuing to lower at a nice, steady rate. If his body keeps up the good work, he could be out of there and back home within a couple days.

But now Bucky doesn’t want to go – not before he gets a chance to talk to the boy with the golden hair and give him his toy back.

As the nurse is about to leave the room, she notices the G.I. Joe poking out from under the blanket, next to Bucky. Getting a surprised smile, she says, “Oh!” and then asks if Bucky’s alright with her taking a look at it. “I was wondering what he did with this,” she murmurs to herself.

“Who?” Bucky asks.

“My son, he carries this thing around with him everywhere he goes,” Sarah explains to both Bucky and his parents. “Refuses to so much as leave home without it.” Shooting George and Winifred a conspiratorial smile, she hands it back to Bucky and pretends to think, “I wonder how it got in here.”

“I woke up and it was on my bed!” Bucky eagerly explains, none-the-wiser to the way the adults in the room are fighting to keep from grinning. “There was a boy, and he had yellow hair, and he was right there!” He clambers back over to the foot of the bed and points to the empty spot on the floor. “Right there – he kept lookin’ at me an’ I think he brought me it!”

Sarah pretends to gasp. “He did?” she asks.

“Yeah!” But then Bucky frowns, staring off as his momentary excitement vanishes. “But he wouldn’t talk to me. I asked him his name and he runded away. I think I scared him.”

Everyone’s smiling so warmly at him, and Bucky doesn’t get it. The more he thinks about it, the more he starts to worry that maybe they’ll think he did something wrong. Maybe the boy thought Bucky wanted to take the toy from him, and that’s why he ran. Now Bucky feels bad. Looking to his nurse with worry all over his little face, he wordlessly holds the G.I. Joe out to her with both hands.

“You want give it back to him?” she asks, now genuinely sounding surprised.

Bucky nods. “It’s his toy. It’s not nice to take things that don’t belong to you, that’s what mommy and daddy taught me.”

Sarah blinks a few times before exhaling a beautiful laugh and gingerly taking the action figure from Bucky. Staring down at it fondly, she sets her smile Bucky’s way and tells him, “You’re a very thoughtful boy, James. I’ll make sure Steven knows that you’re the one giving him his toy back.”

“His name’s Steven?” Bucky’s mother asks conversationally. They both seem interested too to know more about the boy who’s so fascinated with their son. Sarah politely says yes, and when asked how old he is, she answers that Steven is four.

“That’s why he’s so little!” Bucky says definitively, like he just solved a puzzle.

Sarah’s smile grows just the tiniest bit smaller, and something briefly flickers in her eyes that Bucky can’t comprehend at such a young age. She seems to hold the toy tighter to her chest as she says, sounding slightly strained, “Yes, well… Anyways, I’ll make sure to get this back to him safe and sound. James, you know which button to press if you need anything, right?”

“Mhm,” Bucky answers, proudly pointing to the proper button. “This one!”

“That’s right, you have such a wonderful memory,” she says. Then she adds to his parents, “Doctor Borson will be in shortly to check in on him.”

His parents thank her, and Sarah leaves. It’s only once he no longer has the action figure in his hands that Bucky realizes he now feels strangely lonely without it. And also bored again. At least that turns out to be quickly remedied when his mom winds up giving him a brand new coloring book and pack of crayons they’d picked up for him that morning.

Bucky wiles away the hours until it’s time to brush his teeth and go to sleep by trying his hardest to color within the lines on the pages. He considers making a drawing for Steven. But then he remembers that Steven might not like him very much. He might be afraid of Bucky. That makes him feel even worse. He didn’t meant to make it seem like he wanted to take Steven’s toy, if that’s how he made the younger boy feel.

And now that he gave the toy back, he doesn’t even know if he’ll ever see Steven again.

That night, while he dreams, Bucky sees himself at the playground near the apartment building where he lives. Steven is on one of the swings and Bucky pushes him so he can go higher, higher, and higher. They climb trees and race to see who can get down the slide the fastest.

When Bucky brings out the action figure and asks if Steven wants to play, the blond pulls out an identical one – and this way, they can both play together. Steven isn’t scared of him – isn’t mad at him – and in this dream, they’re friends. Sighing happily in his sleep, Bucky rolls over and tugs his blanket up tighter beneath his chin, a smile on his lips.

When he wakes up the next morning, he’s surprised and thrilled to find the G.I. Joe back on his bed.


Bucky waits all morning and into the afternoon for Steven to make another surprise appearance. Every time someone so much as passes by the door, Bucky’s instantly pretending to busy himself, so he can fake surprise when the little blond boy decides to pop his eyes over the edge of Bucky’s bed again. 

But the hours pass and Steven doesn’t show, even when his mother does. She always seems to be there; not a day that Bucky’s been there that she hasn’t been working. Her smile doesn’t seem as bright today, and Bucky wonders what’s wrong but he doesn’t ask, not right away. Eventually, after enough time staring out the window from his bed and longing to be able to play outside in the beautiful winter weather, his boredom catches up with him and he winds up asking his nurse if Steven is going to come back at all that day.

Sarah’s in the middle of taking his temperature, and gently scolds him for talking while the thermometer is in his mouth. Then she gives him another small smile – she looks tired – and distractedly explains, “I’m afraid he’s not feeling very good today, James. He’s just like you right now. He needs to stay in bed until he feels better again.”

“So he’s at home?” Bucky asks once she’s pulled the thermometer from between his lips, disappointment making the bottom one jut out into an unintentional pout.

She seems to hesitate for a moment, glancing from the temperature reading to Bucky and then back again. “No,” she tells him, “he’s here. He just has his own room, just like you do. But, I’m happy to say that your temperature is finally at a healthy 97 degrees and seems to be holding steady,” she reports, more to Bucky’s parents than Bucky himself. But then she looks back to him and smiles again, warm and motherly and encouraging (even if still not as bright as usual), and asks, “How’re you feeling today?”

“Good,” Bucky mumbles.

“Are you feeling sick to your tummy at all?”

Bucky shakes his head, still sulking.

“Wonderful. Doctor Borson will come in for a second opinion, but it looks like he’ll be able to go home by the end of the day. Just keep his diet light on his stomach for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, to build him back up, since he lost so much fluids,” she tells his parents. Bucky isn’t even listening until she adds in his direction, “That means no sugary snacks and plenty of water for the next couple days, young man. Promise?”

“Promise,” Bucky says quietly. Sarah holds his gaze challengingly, teasingly, and then Bucky starts giggling, repeating louder, “Promise!” Before Sarah heads out of the room, though, Bucky remembers the toy and shouts, “Wait! He forgot this here again.”

The look she gives it when Bucky holds it up to show it to her is almost sad, like she’s trying to keep something down. But Bucky’s just a child, and he has a one-track mind. Right now, the only thing he’s interested in is being able to see the boy with the golden hair again. He doesn’t like the idea of having to leave the hospital without getting to do that.

“Mommy, can I bring it back to him?” he asks Winifred.

His mother looks a little uncertain, and takes a second to glance to Sarah for confirmation, slowly replying, “I dunno, honey. He sounds like he’s very sick today, and you just got over the flu…”

“He’s not contagious, Mrs. Barnes,” Sarah kindly says, answering the unspoken question lingering in the air. “Unfortunately, my son’s been struggling for most of his life, but he’s a strong little boy. He’s just feeling under the weather today because of his anemia.”

Bucky’s mother makes a sympathetic sound and starts to say something in response, but Bucky interrupts, looking confused, “What’s ‘ameemnia’?”

They laugh quietly. “It’s called anemia, sweetheart,” his nurse says. “It… just means that he’s feeling sick, just like you were. Only for him, it’s because of something inside of his body that can’t go away quite as easily as the flu.”

Bucky’s grey eyes widen into saucers from fear. Terrified, he innocently asks, “Is he going to die?”

Sarah seems to visibly pale a little, and Winified gasps. “James!” she admonishes, before quickly saying to Sarah, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Rogers, he--”

“It’s fine, I understand,” Sarah replies, lifting a hand and nodding with a clipped smile. “No, sweetheart, he’s not going to die,” she reassures him, coming back to his bedside. “He’s just not feeling very good right now, but he’ll get better. He’ll always get better,” she adds, quieter this time, as if to herself. Taking a deep breath and seeing the stricken expression still on Bucky’s small face, she takes a seat on the side of his bed and picks up the G.I. Joe.

“Tell you what,” she proposes, handing it back to him and giving it a small pat. “I’m sure he would love to get this back. If you want, you can come with me in a little bit and bring it to him yourself.”

“Really?” Bucky exclaims excitedly, his frown being replaced by a huge grin and his eyes immediately sparkling.

“Absolutely, as long as it’s alright with your mommy and daddy,” she says. They both say that it’s more than fine, and then Sarah peers over at Bucky’s coloring book sitting on the small table next to the bed. “You know, I’ve seen you color some real nice pictures, James,” she tells him, “and Steven loves to color, too. I’m sure if you drew him a nice picture, he’d be really happy.”

“He would?”

“Well, I know I would be happy if I didn’t feel good and someone made a picture for me – especially someone who can color as nicely as you can,” Sarah says. “If you brought your crayons with you, and if he’s feeling well enough, you might even be able to color with him. He has lots of coloring books in his room.”

“Okay!” Bucky practically shouts, moving so quickly to grab his things that the action figure almost rolls right off the bed. Everyone chuckles amongst themselves, but just like that, Bucky forgets about the other people in the room. Wrapping up a bright blue crayon in his tiny fist – just like the color of Steven’s eyes, he remembers – he starts drawing Steven a picture, putting in more effort than ever before to make sure that it’s the most specialist thing he’s ever done.

Maybe if he does a really good job, Steven will want to be his friend.

 

---

 

A couple hours later, George runs out for the rest of the day so he can pick up Rebecca from her grandparents and spend some time with her back at the house; tidying up and getting Bucky’s room ready for his arrival. Bucky spends virtually every minute from the time Sarah leaves just waiting for her to come back. Every five minutes or so, he’ll look to his mom and ask, “Now?” and she’ll exhale a tired chuckle and always reply, “Not yet, honey.” 

But eventually, Sarah does come for him, so Steven must be awake and feeling well enough to have visitors. Bucky’s so excited that when she invites him to follow her, he leaps out of bed and runs straight out of the room – completely forgetting his things on the bed. They call after him and remind him of what he’s missing, and then Bucky’s spinning on his heel and running back into the room just as quickly. The mothers laugh when Bucky comes jogging back out, partially waddling as he tries to juggle the things he’s hugging to his chest.

Winifred helps him readjust so he has a better grip on his things, and then holds his left hand while Sarah leads them down a series of hallways to her son’s room. In his other hand, he’s tightly holding Steven’s G.I. Joe action figure as if to protect it from everyone else in the hospital. Wedged between his arm and his side are Steven’s picture and his crayons. When they finally get to his room, Sarah looks down to Bucky and carefully instructs, “Now, sweetheart? He’s still waking up and his head is hurting him a little. He has to have his hearing aids turned all the way up right now to catch everything, so try not to speak too loudly, okay?”

“What…?” Bucky asks, looking to his mom for clarification. His nose scrunches up and his brows knit. He has no idea what she’s talking about.

His mom must’ve been chatting with Sarah over the past few days, because the mention of Steven’s hearing aids doesn’t seem new to her. She just assures Sarah that they’ll be quiet, and then softly explains to her son, “Steven can’t hear as well as you and I can, honey. So he has to wear special devices on his ears to help him. But it can make him sensitive to sound sometimes, so if we talk too loudly, it can hurt his ears, and we don’t want to hurt his ears. So we have to try and speak quietly, okay?”

Bucky’s eyes are wide again, and he nods, flying to the other end of the spectrum and answering in complete silence. She’s right – he doesn’t want to hurt Steven’s ears. Sarah thanks them with a smile, and then opens the door so they can head on in. Bucky’s first thought is that Steven’s room looks a lot different than his. For starters, he has a lot more stuff in there; sort of looks like he took his bedroom from home and just moved it into the hospital. He must be there a lot.

There are all sorts of flowers in the room, with cards and stuffed animals and ‘Get Well Soon’ balloons – some looking brand new, and some slightly wrinkly; not floating quite so high, like they’ve been there for a while. The blinds in the room are closed, but the sun is so bright outside that the room itself is still pretty well illuminated. Bucky stays close to his mom’s side as he looks around, and then suddenly loses some of his nerve when his eyes fall to the big hospital bed and he sees the blond boy lying there.

Sarah walks ahead and goes to him, gingerly reaching out and brushing his bangs from his forehead. Leaning down, she kisses it and then whispers soothingly, “Baby? Hi, my love… There are those beautiful eyes. You have someone here who wants to see you…”

Now that the moment’s actually here, Bucky’s picking that moment to become shy. The bed looks really tall from where he’s standing, and there are a lot more machines surrounding it than there had been in his room, even when he was at his sickest. And Steven looks… really tiny, lying there like that. He’s slightly propped up, and he looks exhausted; already pale skin even more sallow, and making the golden hair Bucky remembers seem a bit mousier and duller by comparison.

There’s a thin tube running along the curve of his cheekbones. They wrap over both ears – over top of the hearing aids already sitting there – and then join together below his neck, where the tube rests on his frail little chest. There’s a machine sitting closest to his bedside that the tube looks to connect to, and it keeps making quiet, rhythmic sounds in the background.

Every time Steven had come to him, he’d been skittish and fled like a startled rabbit the second Bucky came too close. Today, he’s so weak and tired that all he does is tip his head to the side so he can see who his mother is referring to. When their eyes lock, Bucky steps closer to his own mom’s side, squeezing her hand tighter. Steven stares at him, and then slowly trails his gaze down to his toy in Bucky’s other hand.

Sarah leans back and gestures welcomingly for Bucky to come over. “It’s okay, James,” she encourages. “You can come say hi.”

Bucky looks up to his mom for confirmation. After she nods and likewise encourages him to go say hello, he lets go of her hand and slowly approaches the bed. Sarah pulls up a chair and helps him get onto it. Steven’s still looking at him curiously. Perhaps if he had more strength, he’d be finding something to hide behind, or at least turn pink by now. Instead, his cheeks stay as pale as the rest of him, and his lips look really dry.

Balancing the folded-up drawing and the crayons on his lap, Bucky stares at the action figure in his hand and quietly mumbles, “Hi…”

There’s a pause, and then Bucky hears a tiny voice answer, “Hi.”

“Steven, this is James. He wanted to come give you your G.I. Joe back and thank you for letting him play with it. Isn’t that nice of him to come do that?” Sarah asks, trying to prompt some conversation between them.

Steven nods, now looking to his mom.

“Can you say, ‘Hi James’?” she gently pushes.

Another moment of silence, and then Steven says, “Hi James.”

“Hi Steven,” Bucky shyly answers, because that’s the polite thing to do. He finally looks back to him, and lifts the toy for Steven to take. “This is yours.”

“I know,” Steven says.

“I didn’t want you to think I taked it.”

The blond eyes it for a few seconds, before reaching out and accepting Bucky’s offering, pulling it from the brunet’s fingers and sliding it over to his own lap. Sarah tells him to say thank you, so he does, and then there’s more silence. Trying to rectify it a bit, Winifred places her hand on Bucky’s back and says, “Don’t you have something for Steven, sweetheart?”

Except now Bucky doesn’t really want to give it to him. What if Steven doesn’t like it? Bucky worked really hard on that picture, and it never occurred to him that maybe this boy wouldn’t want to be his friend after all. Right now, he really can’t tell. Casting down his eyes, he stubbornly and wordlessly shakes his head.

“What?” Sarah and Winifred share a quick, confused look, and then Bucky’s mother gently tries to prompt him, “Didn’t you draw that beautiful picture for him? I’m sure he’ll really like it.”

Again, Bucky keeps his gaze down and shakes his head. But then, to all of their surprise, that little voice from the bed pipes back up, saying, “You drawed me somefin’?”

Bucky shifts uncomfortably in his seat, feeling his face go red to the very tips of his ears. This time, he nods.

“I like to draw too,” Steven tells him. “Can I see?”

For the first time since taking his seat, Bucky slowly peers up at him. This time, when their eyes meet, Steven gets a tiny smile and Bucky’s lips purse while he tries to hide his own. “Okay,” he relents, pulling the drawing out from under his pack of crayons and then putting it on the bed.

It’s a little out of the blond’s reach, so Sarah picks up the paper and helps him by unfolding it and holding it for Steven to see. This is the first glimpse she’s getting of Bucky’s drawing as well, and her entire face lights up at the sight of it, her smile finally getting as bright and pretty as Bucky’s become used to seeing it.

“Aww, James, this is beautiful,” she says.

“Which one’s me?” Steven asks at the same time.

Just like that, any shyness between them is gone. By children’s standards, conversation has been made, a picture’s been given, and that basically means they’re now friends. Bucky stands up on the chair and leans forward, resting his weight on his hands pressing into the flimsy hospital mattress. At first, Winifred goes to get him to sit down again, but Sarah assures her that Bucky’s fine so long as he doesn’t knock into any of the machines.

The two boys are already sucked into their own bubble, paying their mothers no more attention. Bucky points to the stick figure on the right and eagerly explains, “That’s me, and that’s you,” as he points to the stick figure on the left. “See? It’s sunny out and we’re building a snowman, see?”

He keeps pointing at the different things in the picture that he drew, and then Steven asks if Bucky wants to color with him. Bucky’s a little too enthusiastic when he exclaims, “Okay!” and immediately feels bad when Steve drops the picture so he can cover his ears with a grimace. Bucky claps one hand over his mouth as guilt washes over his face, and he whispers, “Sorry!”

Sarah’s about to assure him that it’s okay – he just needs to remember to be quiet – when Steven lowers his hands and answers, “S’ok. It’s jus’ because of my heawing aids.” And then he points to them so Bucky can see them better, proudly showing them off. Now that Bucky can see them, he looks positively enthralled – like they’re the most interesting things he’s ever seen.

“If I don’t wear ‘em, I can bawely hear you!” Steven explains, like he’s a seasoned expert on the matter. “But when I wear them I can hear weally good.”

“Mommy, can I have some too?” Bucky asks, looking to his mom for permission.

Again, their mothers laugh, and Bucky pouts again with disappointment when he’s told that, no, he unfortunately can’t have his own. Steven also explains to Bucky why he has the tube that goes into his nose – ‘It’s so I can breaf real good, ‘cause I don’t breaf so good wiffout it!’ – and then asks Sarah, “Can James sit on my bed wiff me?”

Bucky’s given permission, and sandwiches himself between the blond’s tiny body and the railing on the side of his bed. Their mothers grab Bucky’s crayons and a few of Steven’s coloring books from his rather large collection, and together, they flip open the pages and color. Steven’s still too weak to sit up properly, so whenever he seems to have bouts of fatigue and starts to find it difficult to stay within the lines, Bucky will reach over and help him – even when Steven starts getting annoyed and whining that he doesn’t need any help.

Within the hour, they’re already interacting and playing as if they’d been friends their whole lives. When Steven starts getting too tired to keep coloring, the boys are told that he needs to get some sleep, and then they practically have to be pried from each other. Bucky’s not happy about being told he has to go, and judging by the way Steven has his arms tightly folded across his chest while Sarah bundles him back up under his covers, neither is he.

Before he and Winifred are out of the room, they hear Steven call out after him, and then ask Sarah, “Can James come back to play tomowwow?”

Bucky’s about to answer yes, until he remembers that he gets to go home that night. Sarah looks to his mom and they share a momentarily unsure glance, and then Winifred offers, “Well, we don’t live that far from here. We can always exchange numbers…?”

“We live close by, too,” Sarah answers, smiling. “No reason the boys can’t get together for a play-date sometime soon, once this little guy’s feeling better.”

“I’m feeling better!” Steve insists emphatically, even though it’s very clear that he is in fact not.

“Tell you boys what,” Sarah suggests, addressing them both. “Steven gets some rest now, and James goes back home tonight because he’s feeling all better. If you both listen and are good boys, then we can talk and figure out a time where you two can get together to play. Maybe sometime this weekend?” she asks, looking back to Winifred with a small shrug.

“As long as they both listen,” Bucky’s mom answers with a grin.

Bucky perks right away. “I’ll listen, I’ll listen!” he promises.

Steven’s nodding, too. “We’ll be good, we swear!”

Sarah and Winifred share a triumphant little smile. It takes very little coaxing to get Bucky out of the room after that, and when Sarah looks back to her son, his eyes are already closed – pretending to be fast asleep within seconds, just so he can show her how ‘good’ he can be. Sometimes, a little reverse psychology goes a long way.


They’re inseparable after that, like they never knew what life was before they found each other. Their families grow close – as they do – and if they’re not in school or Steven isn’t in the hospital, one of them is at the other’s house. Steve stops calling Bucky James and instead develops a tendency of calling him Buck. Bucky finds that that makes him smile, for reasons he can’t figure out but dismisses just as easily. 

They swap toys and build pillow forts on the floor; bicker and push each other, but will be damned if any other kids around them try to do the same. Nearly every weekend, they’re having sleepovers – giggling and whispering as quietly as they can, and then getting into trouble time and time again when Sarah or Winifred will catch them, still awake at an hour far too late for boys their age.

Bucky learns his way around the hospital like the back of his hand, that’s how often he’s there to see his friend. The staff grows to know him by name. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for Sarah to make her rounds and then return to her son’s room to check up on him, only to find both boys squished onto the bed together, playing on their Gameboys, or watching TV, or making their action figures battle it out. Sometimes, she’ll walk in to find Steven passed out flat on his back, with Bucky curled up by his side, snoring softly. Those are the times where she smiles the warmest.

The years begin to pass, and they only continue to grow closer. By seven, Steven announces that he wants to go by Steve, not Steven. However, it’s around that same time that Bucky starts to call him Stevie – and he’s just about the only person Steve will let get away with that. He finds that he uncontrollably uses that nickname more when his friend is sick or, in his opinion, is in need of Bucky’s help. According to Bucky, Steve is pretty much always in need of Bucky’s help. If you asked Steve, he’d insist the complete opposite. Yet all the same, he always lets Bucky step in whenever he wants, even if it also makes him roll his eyes and huff until it’s over.

Bucky becomes an expert at all things Steve Rogers. He learns over time that Steve hates when people treat him like he can’t do things just because of his size. If there’s ever a task that Steve struggles with, Bucky will let him try and try, so that he doesn’t feel like Bucky’s babying him – and then sneak in and help the second the blond’s back is turned. Whenever there’s a lid that needs prying open or the like, Bucky knows Steve isn’t stupid…

It can’t be a coincidence that every time, the moment Steve gives up and Bucky gives it a go, the brunet will feign a struggle only to ask Steve to try just one more time. Steve has to know each and every time that when that lid comes off, or he’s able to pull that root from the ground, or finally get that stubborn plastic casing on his new toy open, it was Bucky who just went and did most of the work for him. But even though Bucky’s sure he’s caught on, Steve never comments on it. It’s sort of a silent arrangement they have: so long as Bucky doesn’t draw attention to it, Steve won’t either.

He learns that Steve’s actually a much better drawer than he is. As the years pass, he only proves to get better. After all, Steve gets plenty of practice; he seems to carry his sketchbook with him everywhere he goes. Bucky learns that he has a particular fondness for watching Steve draw. He always gets super serious, which makes it even more fun to try and distract him. Sometimes, it gets Steve laughing after enough rounds of, ‘Buck, stop it!’… ‘Seriously, Buck, quit it!’… “BUCK!’ Other times – say, if they’re outside and Bucky keeps lightly poking him in the cheek with a blade of grass, refusing to stop – Steve will turn on him and start smacking Bucky’s arm with his sketchpad until Bucky’s saying uncle.

Without realizing it, Bucky begins to memorize and associate colors based off of the image he has of Steve in his mind. Blue is only blue with reference to the particular hue of Steve’s eyes. Yellow or gold gets Bucky thinking of Steve’s hair; red reminds Bucky of his mouth. Bucky doesn’t think too deeply into it at such a young age, nor does he give it much thought that he prefers the sound of Steve’s tone-deaf singing to the sound of actual music.

He grows accustomed to Steve’s seemingly never-ending list of ailments, too. Within a year of knowing each other, Bucky becomes a master at administering Steve’s asthma medication and inhaler to him, during the times where the blond will fall into one of his many attacks. The first time Bucky had witnessed it and Sarah wasn’t immediately within arm’s reach, he cried even harder than Steve did. Eventually, though, he grows used to it (a thing in and of itself that he really doesn’t like) and tries his hardest to put on his game face the second Steve starts to show the usual signs and symptoms.

Whether it’s to help Steve through sickness, or jumping in and busting up his knuckles when a bully on the playground targets his friend, the mantra of Bucky’s life quickly becomes: Protect Steve Rogers at all costs.

And with every day that passes between them, it becomes harder and harder for Bucky to remember a time when something mattered nearly as much to him.


The summer before Bucky goes into the fourth grade, Steve and his mom move into a smaller apartment right in Bucky’s neighborhood. No longer needing to rely on rides to get to each other’s places, nearly every second of every day in August is spent in each other’s company. On the first day of school, Bucky doesn’t realize until he actually sees his best friend in the same classroom that – of course! – it means Steve now goes to the same school as him, too. 

Despite it being a third grade/fourth grade split class – the other boys his age believing that hanging out with anyone younger than them makes you a ‘baby’ – Bucky’s hand is the first one to shoot up into the air when their teacher, Mr. Erskine, introduces Steve to everyone and asks if there’s a volunteer who’d be willing to be his desk buddy for the year and welcome him to Marvel Elementary. Bucky doesn’t care if his other friends are staring at him as if Bucky had two heads; Steve grins the second Bucky raises his hand, and Bucky grins right back.

They wind up getting separated within the first week. Something about them talking too much and never paying attention. Steve gets placed next to a kid Bucky’s sort of friends with named Sam Wilson. Bucky is placed next to Clint Barton. Bucky likes Clint, and the two hit it off right away, having only vaguely known each other before. Similarly, Sam seems to really like Steve, and throughout the first half of class, Bucky spends most of it watching the way the other two boys keep smiling at each other. During the next recess, Steve asks Bucky if Sam can join them so they can compare Pogs.

At first, Bucky wants to say no. He doesn’t like the idea of this new kid coming in and potentially monopolizing their time hanging out. Bucky’s been so used to having Steve all to himself that the first place his mind goes is to feel an irrational sense of jealousy – like Sam will swoop in and take his place as Steve’s best friend.

However, he doesn’t want to be a jerk – and he knows Steve better than to boss him around and tell him no. Steve would probably just tell him to shove it anyways if he did (Steve really does not take well to being told what to do, unless it’s by his mother). In the end, Sam turns out to be really nice. Bucky’s wariness gradually lessens when time passes and he sees that Sam’s addition to their group by no means equals Bucky’s replacement.

If anything, it just opens the door to expansion. Within just a couple months, Clint gets invited to hang out with them, too. Then between Clint, Sam, and Bucky, several more people join in until before they all know it, what started as a duo becomes a group of about a dozen boys, all glued to the hip. Despite all of the others, though, it never stops feeling like it’s still Bucky and Steve at the end of the day.

Yeah, there’s a part of him that will still sometimes get defensive, and still has moments where he wants Steve on his kickball team. But it makes him feel a bit better when he sees Steve share those odd moments of possessiveness. After all, there are just as many times where Steve will get into a harmless argument with one of the other boys when, say, he wants Bucky on his team for baseball but someone else picked him first. And really, even though they all start hanging out with each other more and more outside of school, the sleepovers Bucky and Steve have on the weekends are still predominantly their own thing. Bucky quickly learns to love the weekends best.

Honestly, though, Bucky’s selfish when it comes to Steve, but he’s not blinded by it. For as much as he likes reassurance that he’s Steve’s best friend, he likes even more the fact that Steve does have other friends – because that year seems to be the year where things change for him, and the blond turns out to be in need of them more than ever.

Because being in a new school meant starting over, and unfortunately, not everyone is as kind, or willing to overlook Steve’s ailments and recognize that he’s got twice as much nerve and three times as much heart as the boys who tower over him in size. To Bucky’s fury, he watches Steve become the target of bullies. He doesn’t think he’s ever known a worse feeling than watching someone he cares about so much get picked on the way he does, especially since it’s completely unfounded.

One group in particular – some rotten sixth graders, led by Alex Pierce and Joey Schmidt – decides that Steve is now the sole target of their teasing. It starts small; things like, leaning in abruptly as they pass him in the halls so they can shout right next to his ears, or grabbing his sketchbook and holding it above their heads to see how long Steve will try to jump to get it back.

At first, Steve doesn’t come to Bucky about it. In fact, he doesn’t tell anyone – not until Bucky witnesses it escalate into shoving out on the playground. Without thinking twice, he breaks out into a run the moment he sees that it’s Steve, until he’s laying his hands into Alex’s side and shoving will all his momentum, making the older boy crash to the ground and bust up his elbow.

“Pick on someone yer own size!” Bucky shouts, before Joey comes from out of nowhere and pushes him right into Steve, making them both trip over each other and fall to the ground.

Okay, so maybe it sort of escalates into something a lot bigger than it needed to… Clint, having been trailing behind Bucky, sees the commotion and decides he wants to join in, too. Using the slingshot he always hides in his back pocket, he uses his hawkeye-precision to peg Joey on the hip with a small rock, then again with another to the shoulder.

Sam runs in to help Bucky up, and then Steve – only for Alex to shove Bucky back the second he’s on his feet. Steve breaks free of Sam’s grip to take a swing at Alex for doing that, but all that gets him is a right hook across the face. Seeing Steve spin from the hit and drop to the ground like a sack of bricks makes Bucky snap.

Unable to control himself, he runs at Alex with a shout and tackles him to the ground. His fists are only flying for a few seconds before he’s pulled off of him by one of the teachers. Turns out, their friends, Bruce and Timmy, had run off and done their part by actually being responsible and telling one of the teachers on yard duty what was going on. All of the boys get herded into Principal Coulson’s office, and the majority of them face consequences. The only thing Bucky can think while he sits there, jeans torn at the knees and dirt matted into his hair, is that he’s glad that their Principal seems to have developed a fondness for Steve in the months since his friend started there.

Clint winds up getting his slingshot taken away, which may as well be the end of the world as they all know it, according to how devastated it makes him. With multiple witnesses attesting to Alex and Joey having started the whole thing, they get the worst of it, earning a full week’s suspension. Clint and Bucky get a week’s worth of detention, with Sam and Steve able to walk away with only a phone call to their parents.

Steve’s bottom lip is split, and he looks indignant as the small group of them pile out of the office to head back to class. Bucky tries to throw an arm around him while he asks if he’s alright. To his surprise, Steve quickly jerks out of it and scowls at him, holding a mostly bloody Kleenex to his mouth.

“What’s your problem?” Bucky demands, not understanding why Steve’s acting like he did something wrong.

“I had ‘im on the ropes!” Steve insists. They pass by a water fountain and Steve spits a tiny mouthful of blood into it before continuing onward. Bucky’s gaping at him.

“Really?”

“Yes, really! What did I tell ya about not needin’ your help?”

Bucky stops dead in the middle of the hallway and grabs Steve be the arm, forcing him to a halt. “They were beatin’ the snot outta ya – what else did you want me to do? Just let ‘em?”

“Better than you makin’ me look like a baby who can’t take care of myself,” Steve mutters.

Bucky glares at him, feeling his face get hot. “I got detention for you, because I was just tryin’a help! But fine, you wanna be a big fat jerk, then go ahead. Last time I ever try to help you!”

And then he storms past Steve, knocking their shoulders together, and stomps back to class. He’s still fuming once he’s back in his seat, but not enough to miss the way Steve now looks to him a little guiltily when he eventually joins him back in the classroom a few minutes later – lip swollen and bright red, but no longer with the tissue in hand. Bucky stubbornly makes a point not to glance back over at him for the rest of the morning; a little betrayed and wanting his silent treatment to make it clear to Steve that he’s hurt Bucky’s feelings.

Lunch rolls around, which means that the students are allowed to sit wherever they want while they eat. Bucky keeps to himself and munches on his peanut butter sandwich miserably. He’s stubborn. He wants to go sit with Steve like he normally does, but he also doesn’t want to give in when he knows he did nothing wrong.

Turns out, he doesn’t have to wait long at all.

Less than two minutes in and from his peripherals, he sees Steve silently come and take a seat to his left. Bucky sneaks a glance at him, and then quickly looks away when Steve meets it, trying to appear nonchalant. Still chewing on the bite in his mouth, Bucky once again sees movement from the corner of his eye. Slowly, Steve places a small piece of paper on the desk, and then rests one of his mom’s homemade cupcakes on top of it. Bucky loves Sarah’s baking, and Steve knows that the cupcakes are especially his favorite.

A tiny, skinny hand tentatively pushes it over Bucky’s way. Bucky pretends not to notice it at first, and then Steve nudges it closer. Eventually, the smell of the chocolate icing wins him over, overpowering his childlike sense of pride and being replaced by the rumbling in his belly. He drops his walls, giving in and glancing down to it. When he slowly picks it up, he gets a better look at the note Steve had added underneath. In handwriting far neater than his own, it reads: I’m sorry.

Bucky doesn’t know why he feels compelled to keep the note. But the gesture makes his chest warm, like it always gets whenever he and Steve share a special moment together like this. And truthfully, he’s actually relieved that Steve did this, because being upset with him is exhausting. Frankly, it stresses Bucky out more than anything else in the world. So, he gets a small smile and plucks the piece of paper up.

After Steve watches him slip it into his backpack, Bucky very carefully uses his fingers to split the cupcake in two – as evenly as he can, right down the middle. Holding it out for Steve, Bucky turns his smile onto his friend, and after blinking a couple times, the blond smiles back and accepts it. Bucky takes a big bite and instantly his taste buds get hit with the delicious flavors of chocolate, French vanilla, and sprinkles.

All of their previous anger gone, Bucky asks over a mouthful of cupcake, “Wanna play with my new Crazy Bones at recess?”

Just like that – as is always the case between them – their fight is completely forgotten about, like it never even happened. They’ve never been good at staying sore with each other for very long.

Not that that means it’s the last fight they ever have on the matter. The year continues on, and Steve likewise continues to be the object of Alex’s, Joey’s, and their friends’ torment. In fact, it grows substantially worse after the little incident that got them suspended. Then, it’s like they start looking for any and every reason to attack Steve when they think they can get away with it.

And every time, Bucky interjects and tries to stick up for Steve, because there’s no way he lets Steve Rogers get his hands dirty without making sure he’s there to clean it up and take out the trash. And every time, Steve will let it happen only to get mad afterwards all over again. Though Bucky hates the arguments, he never lets that stop him from doing it all over again the next time it happens. And unfortunately, it only happens more and more, because even though Steve’s friends all make a point to protect each other – mostly Steve – as best they can, sometimes they still manage to get Steve when he’s alone and vulnerable.

Sometimes they snatch his things and play games of Keep Away. Others, they shove him around some more. Here and there, they and their group of thug friends will think it’s funny to pin Steve down so they can steal his hearing aids. They only get in more trouble for that stunt… Which seems to be perfectly timed – as in, horribly timed - with the beginning of the New Year, when Steve starts developing serious problems with his vision.

Steve always seemed to have problems with his sight, for as long as Bucky’s known him. But all this time, he was able to get by. However, more and more during class, he’d have to raise his hand and admit that he couldn’t read what was on the board so well, or it’d take him twice as long to read through the exercise activity in his notebook.

After testing positive for mixed astigmatism, he has no choice but to get glasses. They’re huge, look like they take up three-quarters of his face, and Steve positively hates them. Bucky tries to tell him that they don’t actually look half bad (at least, he doesn’t think so), but Steve doesn’t hate them any less. Nothing anyone says changes his mind or seems to help in the least.

Of course, with his bullies’ unjustified hate for him fueled only more by the hearing aid stunt, the glasses then become the next big thing that Steve starts getting teased for. Alex personally appoints Steve’s new nickname to be ‘Four Eyes’, while their buddy Brock begins to chant ‘Cyclops’ whenever passing them by. Some of the other kids – ones who don’t even interact with them and had never expressed a dislike for Steve before – even start adopting that nickname as well.

Within a month, Steve’s new nickname is Cyclops. Conveniently, around the same time, Steve starts to ‘accidentally forget’ his glasses everywhere. If he has to wear them, he has little problem with Alex or Joey stealing them right off his face. He barely puts up a fight to get them back, and seems to get even angrier with Bucky when he stands up for him and retrieves them for him each and every time.

But sometimes, when they’re alone and lying next to each other on the couch cushions littering the floor – way past their bed time, but still awake and whispering to each other nonetheless – things will get silent, only for Steve to quietly say out of nowhere, “Thank you, Buck…”

Bucky will tip his head to the side and look at him. Steve rarely ever meets his eyes when this happens. “For what?” he’ll whisper.

“…For bein’ my friend.”

Bucky knows it’s Steve’s way of saying the things he’s too proud to say otherwise. That’s another thing he’s grown to learn about Steve, and even more quickly grown to love: that he gets to see the real Steve; the person he truly is inside that only comes out when he’s comfortable and feeling safe. When they first met, he remembers the tiny boy by his bedside being so shy. To everyone, that’s how he usually tends to come across by first impression. But Bucky’s figured out by now what’s really going on up there.

Steve isn’t so much shy as he’s careful. He’s spent his whole life so far having to do exactly that in order to stay alive, so there’s a certain level of wariness when it comes to him and the rest of the world. At first. But get him somewhere where he feels comfortable, and suddenly he’s skinning his knees, falling out of trees, and shouting orders from the top of the play structure while he pretends to be the Captain of their ‘ship’.

Once Steve is comfortable, he opens right up and is the furthest thing from shy. Sometimes, he can be a bit too serious and could benefit from smiling more often than he frowns, but… Steve is made of sunshine. When Bucky’s with him, he can simply bask in the rays and feel peaceful and warm. It’s part of the reason why he has such a tough time understanding why Steve gets picked on so much. He doesn’t get how so many people don’t see the amazing person he’s always seen.

Around March, Mr. Erskine takes a chance and gives them a second opportunity to sit next to each other again. This time, it’s two weeks before they’re placed back on opposite ends of the room, and this time, they’re promised that there won’t be any ‘third chances’. (Even though their teacher does admittedly look a little bad about separating them again. He knows how close Steve and Bucky are; he sees it often enough.)

However, boys will be boys – they still find their ways to get into trouble, even from completely different sides of the room. Too far from each other to try whispering behind Mr. Erskine’s back, they’re caught making silly faces in the other’s direction one too many times and wind up having their parents called in when their disruptive behavior doesn’t stop. To say that they literally seem to do everything together wouldn’t be at all inaccurate. They both even face the same punishment: a week-long grounding, during which they aren’t allowed outside and, by extension, can’t see each other except in school.

Steve comes up with a creative way around that. Because if Steve Rogers is full of nothing else, it’s schemes. He’s always got a solution for everything, even if it’s something sneaky. Sometimes, Bucky feels like that’s another one of their own special secrets: that he seems to be the only one who knows that Steve isn’t the innocent little angel everyone else assumes he is at first glance. He knows better; that Steve’s a little punk, getting into just as much trouble as Bucky – sometimes, being the one responsible forgetting them both into trouble.

His idea is that they both read from their copies of The Hobbit every night; same amount of pages, with the rule being that neither is allowed to read ahead by so much as a single word. Then the next day, they can talk about it during recess and tell each other their favorite parts. They wind up having so much fun getting excited over the book that come the next week, they continue to work their way through the book, even after their punishments are over. Only instead of each reading their own separate copies from their own separate homes, they’ll get together so Steve can read everything aloud.

Bucky likes it so much more than when he reads the story in his own head. Even at eight, Steve’s the strongest reader in their class, because he rarely trips over himself when he reads out loud, and he has almost no problem with some of the bigger words. What he likes best is that Steve always throws on different voices for every character. It’s especially entertaining whenever he gets to the villain’s parts. The blond has a tendency to get so into it that he’ll eventually rise to his feet and start acting it all out, keeping the book in one hand and constantly glancing over to the pages while he gives it his all, like there was an Oscar in it for him for doing so.

Bucky finds himself on the edge of his seat when, one night, they finally get to the moment where Bilbo and Smaug meet for the first time. They have all the lights off in the room and are sitting on Steve’s bed, his Harry Potter comforter draped over their heads; the only source of light coming from their twin flashlights. Bucky keeps his on the pages of the book so Steve can read, while Steve angles his up beneath his chin, giving his face an ominous shadow.

“‘Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!’” Steve says, dropping his voice the best he can’t and giving it a dark and raspy edge. “‘But Bilbo was not quite so unlearned in dragon-lore as all that, and if Smaug hoped to get him to come nearer so easily he was disappointed. ‘No thank you, O Smaug the. Tremendous!’ he replied,” Steve now reads, using a more heroic version of his regular voice for the protagonist. “‘I did not come for presents. I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them.’”

Bucky keeps his flashlight aimed towards Tolkien’s words, but his eyes on Steve’s face. As Steve continues to perform through the lines and regale Bilbo’s battle of wits against the mighty dragon, Bucky finds himself weaving in and out of focus. Here and there, he pays attention to the story. Mostly, he just finds himself marveling at the fact that even with his face eerily lit up, and those gigantic glasses casting even harsher shadows, and the silly, over-exaggerated expressions he keeps making whenever he switches between characters…

Steve is beautiful.


Bucky is twelve when he gets his first girlfriend. Well past the year where he and Steve got to share the same classroom, these days, they really only see each other during recess. The whole thing with Connie comes out of nowhere, and it only lasts a couple weeks anyways. He’s not even sure how he gets roped into it. 

Apparently, she has a crush on him. Sometimes, Clint will nudge him in class and mutter, “They’re staring again.” Every time Bucky glances over, there’s always a small group of about five girls trying to sneak glances his way, only to quickly avert their eyes and giggle when he finally notices them back.

At recess one day, Bucky, Steve, and their friends (some members having left and others, included, since elementary school had come and gone and middle school has been like a brand new world for them) are dueling with their stack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and Connie’s friend Bonnie runs up to him, giggling like a loon. Bucky doesn’t really get what’s going on as she points over to a small huddle of girls – Connie in the middle and nervously saying something to her friends while she stares – and blurts out, “Connie likes you. You like her?”

Beside him, he can hear Clint cracking up under his breath, and some of the other boys snickering in kind. Without having to look, he can feel Steve’s eyes on him the entire time. Unlike everyone else, Steve stays quiet. Bucky spares a quick glance Connie’s way and then shrugs. “Um, yeah, she’s cool I guess,” he replies politely.

“Well, would you be her boyfriend?” Bonnie presses.

Bucky isn’t sure what to make of that. Would he have to do anything? He only gives it a couple seconds’ thought, which only really amounts to him considering that Connie is cute, and he hasn’t ever had a girlfriend before. Most of the guys in his grade are joining him into that age where they’re definitely starting to notice the opposite sex a lot more now. But he definitely doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his friends by coming across too eager.

So he shrugs again; nonchalantly replies, “Sure, okay,” and then goes back to playing cards. They can all hear Bonnie squeal as she runs off. Seconds later, and there’s a lot of high-pitched screaming from a dozen feet away or so – and then all the girls scampering away together. Clint and Tony are already shoving at him harmlessly and busting his balls, making kissing noises and improvising several variations of ‘Bucky and Connie sittin’ in a tree…’

Bucky’s just glad that Steve isn’t really joining in on the teasing. Actually, Steve hasn’t really looked at him since Bucky returned to their duel. That’s fine by him. Of all the people there, Bucky was the most uncomfortable with Steve having to see that. Steve’s the last person Bucky wants to go thinking that Bucky Barnes is… That Bucky Barnes is what exactly? He’s not all that sure what he’s worried Steve will think.

When the bell rings and they’re all standing in line to head back into the building, that’s when Steve says under his breath, so none of the others around them will hear, “So… You n’ Connie, huh?”

“Guess so.”

“What does that even mean?”

Bucky chuckles, suddenly feeling a little hysterical at the thought. “I got no idea, bud.”

Steve shuffles back and forth on the balls of his feet silently. Then he asks, “That mean you won’t be hanging’ out with us no more at recess?”

Things click. Bucky tells himself that that’s what he was worried Steve would go and think – that Bucky wouldn’t make time for him anymore. Throwing an arm around Steve’s shoulder, he gives him a quick shake and wills his voice to be cheerier when he promises, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me from spending time with my best pals, okay? You can’t get rid of me that easily, Rogers.”

For a second, Steve peers up at him with a shy smile, clearly pleased with that answer. At the same time, he uses his index finger to habitually push his glasses – now smaller, thinner, and actually flattering on his face – back up the bridge of his nose. Bucky’s stomach twists up into a knot without any warning. He quickly removes his arm from around Steve’s shoulder.

 

---

 

As it turns out, having a girlfriend in the seventh grade really doesn’t amount to much. Mostly, everyone just makes a big deal out of it because of course, everyone knows by the end of the day. Over the two and a half weeks that follow, they hug once and even that feels super awkward, since they only ever see each other at school, so they always have some sort of audience. 

He’ll sit with her sometimes at lunch, and twice he tries to be nice and invite her to join him and his friends at recess. Both times, she wants to hold Bucky’s hand. Bucky isn’t sure where that sense of dread in the pit of his gut suddenly blooms from when that happens… but it only seems to happen when he remembers that Steve’s there. There’s something Bucky can’t make out in the way that Steve’s gaze sometimes travels down to his and Connie’s entwined fingers. Then Steve will always quickly avert his eyes, like he’s been stung. Bucky’s lucky if Steve looks at him when he talks to him even once for the rest of recess. 

Of course, he’s always perfectly fine once they’re back in line again. And he never has anything but nice things to say to Connie, even if Connie doesn’t really acknowledge Steve much. Bucky goes out on a limb and assumes that it’s just because Steve’s still feeling threatened; maybe a little territorial. After all, it’s always really been them at the core of things. Girls were never part of the equation. But now they’re at that age where girlfriends will start to become more and more of a thing, so… this is probably something they’d better get used to.

Steve’s not at that stage yet. If he is, he hasn’t ever mentioned it to Bucky before, and Bucky likes to think that Steve will always tell him everything. He knows he can’t blame Steve, if he is feeling a bit jealous. Bucky would most likely feel the same way whenever the day came that Steve didn’t have as much time for him, because he had himself a girl who made his heart beat faster and his smile brighter… Someone he’d want to spend every second of his day with, and then Bucky wouldn’t be that person no more, and…

Bucky’s never actually really thought about it before. Now that he is, it scares him how much he loathes the very idea. He tries to hold onto the fact that, for now, he’s still got Steve all to himself.


That same year, Sarah starts seeing a guy named Victor. He seems nice enough, and always greets Bucky with a friendly smile whenever the brunet is over at the apartment. At first, Steve doesn’t take to him very well, even though he’s by no means overtly rude in Victor’s presence. But in private, when he and Bucky are playing on the N64 in his bedroom, or lazing on the floor with a couple of comic books in their hands, the truth will come out. 

Steve doesn’t talk about his dad much. There doesn’t seem to be much to miss, since Joseph died when Steve was too young to remember him. But Sarah hasn’t dated anyone else since, so this is a first. Bucky’s had the privilege of never knowing what it’d feel like to live with only one parent around, so he says little and listens a lot. As the months pass, Steve has less and less negative things to say about Victor, and their relationship seems to morph into something positive. Bucky likes that. He also likes the way Sarah smiles even more than usual, like something lacking had finally been filled. Bucky’s been in love with her smile since he was five years old.

Steve has that same smile…

But around the summer of 2001, that’s when things start to change. Despite no longer having school to worry about, Steve begins to make excuses to stop Bucky from coming over. Whenever they hang out, it’s either outside of at his own house. Whatever is happening seems to slowly change Steve, too. He always looks tired and worn out, like he’s been crying – and Bucky hasn’t seen him cry in years, so that possibility feels more like an anomaly. The odd times that Bucky does get to go to Steve’s place, the air in the apartment feels tense.

Victor’s only there about fifty percent of the time, but when he is, Bucky’s body is on edge until the moment he’s back out that door. Sarah’s smile stops looking quite as radiant. When they’re alone, Bucky will try to ask about it, but he never knows the words needed to phrase the proper questions. No matter how it comes out, Steve refuses to talk about it. But Bucky does notice that whatever nice things Steve had grown to say about his mom’s boyfriend stop altogether. Steve doesn’t bring up Victor at all anymore.

Bucky wishes he could do something for his friend to magically make everything better again.


Bucky’s thirteen, and after eight years of friendship, he screws up. 

It’s a Friday night. He’s supposed to crash at Steve’s, since Victor’s away again on one of his many business trips. He never seems to be around as much anymore, and Bucky’s gotten used to the pattern by now: for the two or three weeks at a time where Victor’s gone, Steve’s happier again. The Rogers’ household functions with a lighter air, and Sarah always seems far less stressed. Bucky’s long since figured out what’s going on, but he’s too terrified to ask about it.

He’s been there more than once during the times where he and Steve will hear Victor shouting through the walls of the blond’s bedroom. Sometimes, it makes Steve so distressed that he’ll cover his ears and curl into a ball until it’s over. One night, it was so scary that Bucky covered Steve’s ears for him, and stayed latched to his side until they heard the front door slam and knew that the man in the other room was gone.

He always keeps an eye out to see if Sarah’s got any bruises, and especially to see if Steve does. But he never finds any. Whatever’s going on seems to be purely psychological. The worst part is how bad of a friend it makes Bucky feel like – because for all of his bravado, and every scenario in his head where he either tells his own parents or finds a way to confront Victor himself, he always stays just as quiet. He’s only a kid, after all.

So, by association, he becomes just as relieved when he’s told that it’s just going to be Steve and Sarah for another short while. Then he’s able to go over whenever he wants, however much he wants. Tonight, they sneak out some bottles of beer from Victor’s not-so-secret cabinet – he has too much to even notice a few missing – and stash them into Steve’s backpack, before letting Sarah know where they’ll be and taking off.

They spend most of the evening at one of the parks in the neighborhood. They both have a lot of memories there growing up, but these days it feels like hardly any of the kids on the block actually play outside anymore. When Bucky looks to the vacant swing set, a part of him feels sort of sad; like the swings are lonely or something… wondering why no one wants them anymore…

The park is surrounded by a small perimeter of trees, so they’re left to their own devices and afforded privacy while they laze around the play structure and drink through their beers. Not many – only two each. Not enough to get them drunk, but to get them lightly buzzed, so every joke is funnier and every movement feels like dancing on clouds. They get the drinking part out of the way early so that they won’t smell of it or have the evidence all over them when they head back to Steve’s for curfew.

When the sun’s beginning to set – the sky like some gorgeous Impressionist painting; full of purples and oranges and reds – they lie on their backs in the grass and just… be. They chat, and Steve giggles every time Bucky’s voice cracks uncontrollably. Puberty finally found him, and over the last couple months, his body’s been changing more rapidly than he feels he can keep up with. He’s in that awkward stage, where he’s sprouted what feels like ten inches seemingly overnight, and his voice is deepening, and he’s got acne and hormones and girls like him more and he likes them more, too.

Steve still isn’t completely there yet.

But they don’t tell each other everything anymore. At least, Bucky doesn’t. Because with puberty, and hormones, and figuring out the changes in who he is and how he feels – it’s gone hand-in-hand with some other discoveries that terrify him. There are some things he just can’t tell his best friend.

Steve wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore if he knew that Bucky dreams about him sometimes. Specific types of dreams; dreams that get Bucky waking up with a painful hard-on and the front of his boxers wet. If Steve knew that there’ve been times where Bucky’s let his thoughts wander while his hand roamed… That his guilt-ridden mind had pictured what it’d be like to taste Steve’s mouth – as easily and sometimes even easier than picturing some of the other people in his grade that Bucky fantasizes about, boys and girls alike – while Bucky was curled on his side in bed and jerking off as quietly as he could manage… Steve wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

If Steve knew that Bucky wanted him practically every second that they’re together these days, in ways that Bucky knows neither of them are even ready for yet…

Bucky would lose him. There’s not a doubt in his mind.

And yet, he screws up anyways, because he’s got alcohol bubbling in his veins and lowering his inhibitions. Because Steve’s lying on his back with one skinny arm pillowed behind his head, and Bucky’s propped up on his side, facing him and… Steve makes the mistake of chuckling at the tail end of a joke he just made, and picks that moment to tip his head towards Bucky and look up at him with those big, misleading doe-eyes. Same eyes that’d poked up from the edge of that hospital bed all those years ago, only there’s so much more there now…

Because for one stupid moment, Bucky sees that look, that smile – and it feels like he’s pulsing so strongly between his legs, and his chest is tight, and his eyes have a thinnest glaze to them, and so do Steve’s. They’d been talking about… something… and Bucky’s already forgotten what that was, because the next thing he knows, he’s leaning down and pressing a kiss right against Steve’s slightly opened mouth.

It’s clumsy, since Bucky has no clue what he’s doing. He’s had more girlfriends than just Connie over the last year, but quick pecks (mostly to the cheek) is about the extent of his experience. Even Steve’s had a girlfriend or two, to everyone’s surprise, since he started the seventh grade. This is about the one time Bucky hopes that Steve’s had at least the same – if not more – experience when it comes to kissing, because he doesn’t want this to suck for Steve.

It’s a muggy night; the kind where your shirt sticks to your skin from sweat and makes you feel sticky. Bucky probably smells a little, and Steve smells a little, too – like sweat… and beer… and something sweet that Bucky can’t put his finger on now that he’s finally this close. Bucky’s still growing into his body and feels about a hundred feet taller than Steve these days, but the way his best friend seems even tinier beneath him like this is a headier feeling than any amount of alcohol could give him.

His heart’s pounding a mile a minute. He’s terrified at what will happen when he pulls away. So, to prolong that inevitability for as long as he can, he just… doesn’t. Not yet. He keeps his mouth on Steve’s and keeps kissing him, lacking any real sort of technique. Steve’s rigid and unresponsive at first. But then Bucky feels the amazing sensation of Steve lifting a hand and tangling his fingers into Bucky’s shaggy hair, suddenly holding onto the back of his head as though Bucky were his lifeline.

Steve finally pressing his lips back and returning the kiss is so damn good that Bucky sighs out an embarrassing sound, halfway between a breathy moan and a groan. It feels like forever that Bucky’s wanted to do this to Steve – more than anybody else, god, it’s always been Steve Bucky’s cared about most – and the majority of him just can’t believe that Steve hasn’t stopped him yet… That maybe Steve might actually like him that way, too…

His own hands had nervously stayed to himself, but with Steve holding the back of his head, he tentatively brings his left hand out to rest it on Steve’s belly. The shirt beneath his palm is damp with sweat, making everything feel hotter to the touch. He might be going insane – right now, that wouldn’t surprise him – but Bucky’s pretty sure he can feel Steve’s pulse from right there in his stomach. Each heavy thump makes him want to kiss Steve harder.

He’ll part his lips every few seconds, and Steve does the same; following Bucky's movements, letting him lead the way. But the kisses themselves are chaste, innocent... Bucky wants to slip his tongue into Steve’s mouth, just so he can know what Steve’s own would feel like rubbing back. But he’s never done that before, and the last person he wants to go and mess it up with like that is Steve. So instead, he lifts that hand from Steve’s stomach and cups the side of his face, because people always seem to do that in the movies and the other person always seems to like it.

They’re panting shakily. Every exhale Steve pushes out, Bucky draws back into his own lungs until he’s feeling dizzy. He’s not even sure how long the whole thing lasts, but it’s probably only a minute or so…

Suddenly over, all too soon, when Steve’s hand moves from his head to his chest without warning and pushes him back. It catches Bucky off guard; that sudden emptiness, and the ghost of their last kiss still making his lips tingle. His brain catches up with the rest of him a few seconds later, and he realizes what he just went and did. And Steve may have kissed back, but then again, Steve just went and stopped it.

Fear makes him want to keep his eyes closed forever… Never open them again, because he’s afraid of what he’s going to see. But he knows he has no choice, so he does. Steve’s brows are knit in confusion, and he’s staring up at Bucky with his own eyes wide, mouth looking swollen. Mortified, Bucky pulls his hand away from his best friend’s face and moves in time with Steve pushing himself up from the ground. He’s staring ahead – won’t even look at Bucky now – and Bucky sits up too, slowly… Feeling… Feeling ashamed, and also rejected.

He shouldn’t have sprung that up on Steve out of nowhere, but he hadn’t been thinking. Couldn’t think. It just sort of happened… Bucky’s mind switches into overdrive, and all he’s trying to do at this point is figure out the right thing to say. Sorry? Should that be what he starts with? Would it make better sense if he came out and just told Steve how he’s been feeling lately; how confusing it’s all felt? He isn’t sure if that’d just make it all worse.

Not completely knowing what exactly is going to come out of his mouth, he parts his lips to say something, but Steve beats him to it.

“I want to go home,” is what Steve whispers.

And Bucky’s heart cracks in two.

Keeping his eyes downcast, Bucky presses his lips into a tight line and nods, despite knowing Steve isn’t actually seeing him. He mutters back, “Okay,” so quietly that even his own ears barely catch it, before rising to his feet and following Steve out of the park. They say nothing to each other during the walk home.

Sarah’s watching TV when they get back into the apartment. To avoid any suspicion, Steve goes to the bathroom and subtly brushes his teeth while Bucky sits aimlessly on his bed and stares off, feeling worse than he can remember feeling in a long time. When it’s his turn to use the washroom, Steve quietly mentions as they switch places that he’s going to tell his mom that he doesn’t feel good and just wants to head to bed. Bucky nods and answers again, “Okay.” At this point, he won’t argue. He’ll say and do anything he has to so Steve won’t be upset with him – even if that means going to bed by nine on a Friday.

He always sleeps in Steve’s bed with him whenever he crashes at his place. With his recent growth spurt, it makes the squeeze a bit tighter, and… given what’d happened between them tonight, Bucky stops and questions for the first time whether it’s even appropriate that they do that sort of thing anymore. Regardless, and to his honest surprise, Steve still takes his usual spot and seems to expect Bucky to lie down in his. So he does. He’ll take it.

Steve’s back is to him, and he continues to be silent. Bucky stares at the back of his head, feeling so anxious that he could puke. Every other minute and he’s opening his mouth to say something, only to close it right away and think twice on it. When the nerves gnawing at his insides wind up getting the better of him, he blurts out, “I’m sorry.”

Steve doesn’t react from next to him, but Bucky knows he’s not sleeping yet. So he continues, “I’m sorry, Stevie, I… I don’t know why I did that. I get it if you hate me right now, I – I’d hate me, too. I shouldn’t have done that, I fucked up. Just… please, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I can’t lose you, okay? I don’t want this to change nothin’…” At this point, Bucky will lie. “It was the beer talkin’ – well, actin’, and… I’ve felt so all over the place lately, and… Fuck, I’m just really sorry… okay? I swear, I swear I won’t ever do that again.”

For another minute or so, still, nothing. Bucky’s about ready to cry. Then it’s like a miracle when Steve slowly shuffles next to him and rolls over. His eyes are hard, but not from anger – at least, it doesn’t strike Bucky as anger. They stare at each other, and Bucky hates that he’s practically shaking, but he can’t help it. He wishes he could tell Steve the truth, but now he knows… He just blew his only chance. He can never tell him now.

“It’s okay,” Steve finally replies. With a few breaths, his features soften enough to have relief flooding Bucky’s chest like a tidal wave.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says again. He’ll say it as many times as he has to. “I don’t want us not to be friends.”

“You’re an idiot,” Steve quietly replies, sighing. “I could never hate you, and… I’d never let this change our friendship. You know me better than that. Okay?”

“Okay…”

Steve forces a smile to his face. “Look, let’s just forget this happened, okay? I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

Bucky should feel grateful, but all that does is make his stomach drop with disappointment. Still, it’s the best he could’ve asked for in this situation, given the circumstances. So he nods. “Okay.”

“‘Kay… Well… Did you wanna play Ocarina of Time or somethin’? I’m not feelin’ so tired anymore. If we keep it down, ma won’t know we’re still up.”

“Alright…”

So they do; they crawl back out of bed and sit on the floor. They boot up Zelda and play until almost two in the morning, and as the time passes, they force themselves to make conversation until it doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore. Bucky isn’t sure if Steve is faking it or if he’s just so desperate to believe it, but when they’re finally joking around again and trying to stifle bouts of laughter to keep from getting too loud, Bucky tells himself that they’re fine, everything’s fine, and they’ll be able to get past this.

They are, and they do – and not a day after that passes where Bucky isn’t pretending it doesn’t kill him inside, to know that he and Steve will never talk about it again.


A couple months after Bucky’s fourteenth birthday, his life completely changes. 

He comes home from school to find his parents sitting at the dining room table, waiting for him. Rebecca’s already sitting there, too. They all look to Bucky expectantly. He slowly takes off his shoes and lowers his backpack to ground, slowly saying, “Uh… hi.”

“Hi, sweetheart,” Winifred says, sounding a bit too calculated in her cheeriness. Immediately, Bucky’s suspicious. “Did you have a good day at school?”

“Um… Yeah, it was fine.”

“Would you mind coming and taking a seat? There’s something your mother and I wanted to talk to you two about,” George chimes in, sounding no more trustworthy in this moment than his mother when it comes to his tone.

Feeling nervous, he nods and mumbles, “Okay,” as he goes to sit in his usual spot. He’s not sure what exactly is going on; his sister’s there, too, so it can’t have anything to do with his report card, or something he might’ve done wrong. Whatever it is seems to involve the both of them. But they haven’t even been arguing all that much lately – no more than usual – so that doesn’t seem to be the reason either. His eyes narrow and his brows pinch in the center when he casts his sister an inquisitive glance. Clearly she isn’t sure what their parents want to talk about either, since all she does is shrug.

Then his dad opens his mouth and begins to explain – and Bucky’s entire world crashes down around him.

 

---

 

“You’re moving?” Steve repeats back to him from his end of the phone call, like he just can’t believe it – and for good reason. 

Bucky’s in his room – or, his old room now, he supposes. By the end of the week, it won’t be anymore. He’s furious; feels betrayed by his parents, and plans not to speak to them for the rest of the night. The conversation wasn’t even completely finished and he was rising out of his chair, yelling, “It’s not fair!” before turning and running from the dining room and taking the stairs two at a time. He made sure to slam his door extra hard to get his point across, and when they tried to come talk to him a few minutes later, he’d locked the knob and told them to go away.

“Yep.”

“But the school year’s not even over.”

“I know.”

“Can’t they wait a bit or somethin’?” Steve asks, clearly as unhappy and thrown off by the unexpected news as Bucky is.

“Apparently not,” Bucky fumes. “Dad needs to start by a certain date, and he didn’t get to pick it.” He’s stomping around while he talks; kicking his chair over and throwing his own private tantrum. The first person he’d thought to call was Steve, so Steve’s unfortunately been privy to the worst of it. “They promised me we’d never have to do this again! They promised!

Steve knows about how much Bucky and his family moved around a lot for the first few years of his life. Thanks to George having been in the military since before Bucky’s birth, Bucky had been an army brat until they’d finally settled in Brooklyn when he was five. Luckily, he can’t remember most of it, but from what he can remember, he hated it. He could never get settled or have a sense of normality for very long. New places always meant Bucky could develop zero attachment to them, because one of the first lessons he had to learn in his life was that he’d always be taken away from it the moment he got used to it.

However, when Rebecca was getting close to the age where she’d start going to daycare, and Bucky would be heading into kindergarten, Winifred and George had settled in New York, under the agreement that the children needed more stability. Any traveling George needed to do wouldn’t involve the rest of the family, and Bucky remembers it being the best day of his life at that point, when they’d told him they wouldn’t be moving again for a long time.

He’d been kidding himself when he believed that it could last, though. His parents had tried to explain to them that they could use the increase in George’s pay, trying to pitch the entire thing like it could be seen as some sort of adventure, and that there were positives there, even if Bucky couldn’t see them yet. It hadn’t mattered that his mother looked sympathetic to Bucky especially, since she too would have to say goodbye to Sarah, and Winifred knew better than anyone how important Steve was to her son. Bucky doesn’t give a shit – he’s still mad at her.

Steve’s just as gutted at what he’s hearing. “You can’t stay?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, Stevie,” Bucky replies bitterly. “Can’t exactly stay here; we got no family in Brooklyn. What am I supposed to do – be a street kid? Live in alleys and eat garbage?”

He knows Steve’s just trying to help. Truth be told, if that meant he could stay behind and not have to leave Steve, Bucky would probably do just that. He sighs, deflating as he drops down onto his bed and stares off miserably. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he says, gentler this time. “I ain’t mad at you, I’m just… This really sucks.”

That’s a horrible understatement. To him, to them both, it feels like the end of the world.

“So where are they takin’ you again?”

“Some place in Indiana,” Bucky answers. “They got an army base there and dad’s been relocated. Guess he got a promotion or somethin’ and he ‘couldn’t say no this time’.” He can hear Steve scoff, and he meets it in kind, adding an indignant, “Yeah, tell me about it.”

“But you can’t just leave,” Steve argues. It makes Bucky’s heart hurt.

“Apparently I got no choice,” he replies. “I tried to tell ‘em I couldn’t go, but they just promised me I’d ‘make new friends’ and that didn’t mean I’d ‘have to lose the ones I got here’, and ‘they understand that it’s goin’ to be hard.’ If they knew how hard it would be, they wouldn’t be making me do it!”

“But… like… Indiana’s so far, Buck. It’s really far,” Steve keeps saying, and he sounds like he’s trying not to cry. Bucky can relate. He wishes they were having this conversation in person because he could really use a hug right about now, and his mom and dad aren’t exactly the people he wants that from at the moment. But he’d been unable to wait to tell Steve. This was the sort of news that couldn’t be prolonged until morning.

“You think I don’t know that? It’s gonna take, like, half a day to drive there.”

They’re quiet for a bit. Then Steve asks, “So… when…?”

Bucky closes his eyes, swallowing down a lump so big in his throat that he’d bet it could choke him if he let it. “This weekend.”

“But that’s only a couple days away!”

“I know, Steve, I… I know that.”

“Maybe – I dunno, maybe I can talk to ma, maybe… Maybe you could come live with us,” Steve quickly suggests, sounding as desperate as Bucky feels. “I could move all my things to one half of my room, and you could have the other half. We could get another bed, or… I’ll just sleep on the floor for a while. She might say yes, you never know, Buck. Lemme ask her.”

“Steve--”

“She’s at work right now, but she’ll be home soon, just – don’t say anythin’ to your parents yet, just gimme an hour or so--”

Stevie.”

“What?” Steve snaps, exasperated.

Bucky chews his bottom lip, hot tears making his vision blurry. It kills him, how badly he wishes they could do that. More than anything, Bucky doesn’t want to leave Steve. The thought of being away from him is almost as scary as the idea that he won’t be around anymore to make sure Steve and his mom are still safe, given that Victor actually lives with them now… But he doesn’t let himself cry – he’s got to stay tough, for Steve’s sake if nothing else. Same as it’s always been, even though Steve never wants it.

“My parents wouldn’t let me,” he tells him, voice wobbly.

Steve makes a weak noise. “But…”

“Thank you for tryin’ though, pal,” Bucky continues, trying to chuckle in a weak attempt to lighten the mood. It only winds up coming out strained. “You know I would if I could, but… it just ain’t in the cards.”

“So… you’re really going to move?”

“…Yeah, buddy. I have no choice.”

“But it’s not fair! School ain’t even over yet! You can’t just… you can’t just go, Buck!”

Closing his eyes, two fat tears escape the corners and roll down his cheeks. He nods to himself, aware that no one’s there to see, and forces a smile to his face – even though no one’s there to see that, either.

“Hey, hey, listen,” he replies, “you n’ me? This ain’t gonna change a thing. Doesn’t matter how far I’ll be, we’re still gonna be best friends, got it? If that means we write to each other every day and I have to call any punk who gives ya a hard time so I can give ‘em a piece of my mind, then… that’s how it’ll be. I’m sure I’ll be able to come visit eventually.”

He isn’t sure whether Steve’s finally crying or not, but he hears nothing from the other line at first. Then there’s a really horrible, muffled, pained sound, and Bucky has to cover his eyes and grit his teeth while a few more tears fall down to his jaw and drop off onto his shirt. He cries silently, so Steve won’t have to hear it; so Steve won’t have to feel his pain on top of his own.

“Okay,” Steve whimpers softly.

“Hey, it’s gonna be fine,” Bucky promises, back to forcing his voice to be even and reassuring. “I’ll make sure to see you every day before I go.” Chuckling – it hurts his stomach – he tries to lighten the mood by redirecting the subject a little. Falling back onto the mattress, he stares up at the ceiling and says, “Hey, you remember when we were kids, and we said we were gonna run away together and discover a magical Kingdom – you remember that?”

He hears a shattered-sounding chuckle. “Yeah, I remember,” Steve says.

“What did we call it again?”

“Asgard,” Steve answers, laughing again weakly. “From… um, that story from Norse mythology…”

“Yeah, that was it,” Bucky whispers. Closing his eyes, he asks, “Tell me about that again? About everythin’ we said we’d do.”

“Okay…”

For a while, he just lets Steve talk, and Bucky listens; like back to the good old days when they’d read through The Hobbit and Bucky thought he’d always have Steve by his side. Bucky tries to let himself get lost in the picture Steve paints for him. But really, the only thing he does is the only thing he’s trying not to do: imagine what life will be like without Steve Rogers, and hoping that his best friend doesn’t hear him cry.

 

---

 

One second, his life had been normal. Then, in what feels like the blink of an eye, it’s not his life anymore. The rest of the week passed by in a sort of blur, where Bucky stopped caring about his homework – what’s the point? He’s just starting all over anyways, with only a couple months of the school year left and knowing absolutely no one – and tried to hang out with the gang as much as possible.

Tony’s dad had arranged for all the boys to have a pizza party at the movie theater that Friday, and every single kid there gave him a hug when it was over. Even Clint. Actually, Clint looked like he was struggling not to cry even harder than anyone else – which says a lot, given that he usually likes to act like he’s too cool for that sort of thing.

Saturday, Steve had come over and helped Bucky finish packing up his room. That’d mostly been done in silence. That night, his parents let him stay the night at Steve’s. Bucky didn’t give a crap what they did while they were there; he just kept looking around the apartment and tried to memorize every last detail… Remembering in the back of his head, Steve’s proposal for Bucky to live with them and actually wishing he’d accepted it. Sarah had hugged him for almost ten whole minutes, and unlike the boys, she felt no embarrassment when she shed a few tears. Bucky almost lost it when she told him she’d made an entire batch of cupcakes just for him, to take on his trip.

“Don’t you eat them all in one sitting, young man,” she’d lightly scolded, holding his chin in a gentle grip. “Once you’re all settled in, I told your mother I expect a phone call, and I will ask her if I have to.”

“I won’t,” Bucky promised. He wasn’t even sure he’d touch a single one. A part of him just wanted to keep them forever, long after they’d go bad.

That night, he and Steve tried to stay up for as long as they could manage – like if they never fell asleep, Sunday wouldn’t come for them. But neither of them were strong enough to keep their eyes open that long, and around four in the morning, they both eventually dozed off. This time, Bucky wrapped an arm around Steve, and Steve didn’t stop him. No… Steve lifted a hand and held onto Bucky’s arm, locking them together; Bucky pressed to his back, falling into an uneasy sleep with the faint scent of Steve’s shampoo tinging every breath.

Now, all too soon, he’s standing outside of his house with Steve standing next to him. They watch as his parents, Sarah, and (unfortunately) Victor help the movers finish packing the last of their things into the box truck. It’s not fair, Steve was absolutely right – a week ago and this was the home Bucky assumed he’d be in until the day came when he got a place of his own. That had felt like a million years away. But without any warning, he’s being ripped away from his life. Logically, he knows he’ll probably understand why his parents had to do this… eventually.

Right now, he’s still fourteen, and he’s still leaving his best friend, and Bucky still feels cheated. He hasn’t really spoken to them much since he was first told the news, even though a part of him feels bad whenever his mom looks to him and he can see the guilt clear as day in her eyes.

It’s like he’s barely given a chance to let all of this sink in, and suddenly it’s time to go.

Winifred is the one to come tell him. She pulls Steve into a hug, which the blond accepts and returns, hugging her back tightly. She reminds him that in the summer, he’s more than welcome to come stay with them and visit; that she’s already spoken to Sarah about it, and of course Sarah says again that that’s more than alright. Winifred also tells him that once they’re all moved in and have their new number set up, Bucky will call and make sure Steve has the number and address.

He and Sarah have never been poor, per se, but they’ve also by no means have ever been ‘rich’, either. Because of that, Sarah’s never seen the necessity in owning a computer yet, and Steve hardly cares much for that sort of technology at his age anyways. So, without an email address to contact them for the time being, regular post and phone calls will have to do.

Steve politely says okay, but he really didn’t need to be told. Bucky’s already sworn to do that about ten times that day alone.

George and Rebecca say goodbye to Steve, too, while Bucky gets wrapped up into another hug by Sarah. Victor’s on his best behavior – of course he is – so when he casts that deceivingly charming smile Bucky’s way and wishes him a safe trip and says that he’ll be missed, Bucky hardly believes him. He doesn’t even answer; just stares back at him guardedly and then gives a stiff nod. He’s got his teeth so deeply buried into the side of his tongue that he could draw blood – but it’s the only way to stop himself from opening his mouth and saying something akin to, I find out you laid a single finger on either of them and I’ll kill you.

Everyone gives the boys a moment of privacy.

Steve’s biting his bottom lip and refusing to meet Bucky’s eyes. They’re facing each other, and Bucky wants to reach out and hug him, but he also doesn’t. If he hugs him, then it’s really goodbye, and he needs just a few more minutes – just a few more minutes, please. Steve’s baby blues are round and filled with tears when he finally look up to him, but then he’s sniffling quickly and muttering, “Um… here. I brought this for you.”

Swinging the backpack he’d been carrying from off his shoulder, he rummages inside of it and pulls out his old G.I. Joe. Bucky hasn’t seen that thing in years, and the sight of it almost does him in completely, because… as much as he’s trying to tell himself that this isn’t it, it still really feels like it is. He doesn’t know how to handle it.

“Wow,” he chuckles, swiping as discreetly at his eyes as he can. “Haven’t see him in a while. Hey, Joe.”

“I was thinking… maybe you could take it,” Steve slowly suggests, offering it out to him, “but not keep it forever or anythin’. Y’know? Like… it would give you a reason to come back. ‘Cause I’ll want this back one day. So… you hold onto it and don’t lose it, and when we’re older, then you can give it back to me.”

Bucky takes it from Steve’s hand; fingers curling around it and holding it as protectively as he remembers doing the first day they’d properly met, when he’d first walked the halls of the Maimonides Center. He knows exactly what Steve’s saying, without having to actually say it. He almost hugs the action figure to his chest. Instead, he holds Steve’s gaze and nods.

“You got it,” he answers softly. “I’ll take good care of him.”

“Yeah, well… you’d better.”

Bucky bites his lip, bouncing on the balls of his feet. After glancing over to his family – who’re still waiting for him patiently in the car – he steps towards Steve and mutters, “C’mere, man.”

Bucky’s arms open and he hunches down. Steve steps right against him, throwing one arm around his neck and the other around his back, paralleling Bucky and slotting against him perfectly, like a puzzle piece. It’s tight, and it’s desperate, and neither wants to let go. But they both know they have to. Staring ahead, face going red the longer he fights off the urge to cry again, Bucky chokes out, “Don’t do anything stupid ‘till I get back.”

“How can I?” Steve replies, voice wavering and his chin resting on Bucky’s shoulder; lips right next to his ear. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

Bucky exhales a laugh, feeling hysterical again. They break away and Bucky gives Steve’s shoulder a light shove with his fist. “Seriously, buddy, keep yourself out of trouble.”

“I will.”

“No you won’t.”

“Bucky, just go or I’m never lettin’ ya leave,” Steve jokes. Except he isn’t joking at all; despite the hollow lopsided smile he gets when saying that, his eyes give away how serious he actually is.

Bucky nods; feels like it’s getting hard to breathe again. Lifting Steve’s G.I. Joe up a little, he thanks Steve for it again and then sways, like he wants to say more. He does. He’s wanted to say so much to Steve, especially in the last two years. But in the end, he’s a coward and he doesn’t. He quietly says, “Bye,” and Steve pauses for a few moments before whispering back, “Bye, Buck.”

Bucky’s silent when he gets into the car. His mom asks him if he’s alright, but Bucky doesn’t answer. He won’t let himself cry until he’s by himself, in his new room where Steve will never be, but where he can let himself fall apart. They start up the car and follow behind the moving truck, backing out of the driveway. Bucky clutches onto the G.I. Joe for dear life, white-knuckling it in his lap. The whole time, his eyes are on Steve, who’s still standing on the lawn and likewise watching him go.

Sarah’s come up behind him, wrapping one arm around her son. With the other, she’s waving. As the car continues to back up, Bucky watches Steve step forward and start slowly walking alongside the car, never looking away from him. When they’re finally on the street and Bucky feels the car begin to pick up speed, panic seizes him, and he wants to scream, “STOP!”

He can’t open his mouth. All he can do is watch… Watch as Steve picks up his pace and starts trying to run alongside the car for as long as his lungs and his short little legs will let him. When they pass him, Bucky’s unbuckling his seat belt, and he doesn’t care that his parents are suddenly saying his name and telling him to put it back on – Bucky’s spinning around and clinging to the back of his headrest, staring out the back window and feeling like he’d rather die… Rather die than drive further and further away from Steve, and watch him keep running after the car, like if he could just catch up with them, things could be different somehow.

But then, they turn the corner. Bucky can’t see Steve anymore. The very last glimpse of him he gets is seeing Sarah catching up to him and trying to bring the blond to a stop. If Bucky didn’t know better, he’d think that it looked like Steve was trying to yell something to him.

Bucky’s mouth is open and his eyes are wide. He feels numb; keeps staring out the back window for another minute or so, hoping that somehow he’d see Steve turn the corner, too… Keep following him, not let Bucky leave. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t, and they keep driving further away. When he feels a hand touching his ankle, and his mother sympathetically murmuring, “James, sweetheart… Please sit down,” he finally does.

Moving slowly, never blinking, he twists and lowers himself back into his seat; puts his seat belt back on, and then stares out the window… Is scarred by the image of Steve running after his car. Doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to unsee it.

He squeezes the G.I. Joe in his hands so hard it hurts.

He doesn’t let go the entire trip.


It takes a little over a week for Bucky and his family to finally get all settled in. Bucky hates their new town, and his new bedroom, and his new home. When he starts school, he hates that, too. Within two weeks, they get their phone lines connected, and Bucky tries to give Steve’s house a call. In his hand is a small sheet of paper with their new address scribbled down, ready to relay it to Steve so they can write each other letters. In his room, on top of his dresser, sits Steve’s G.I. Joe. 

But Steve doesn’t answer. Rather, the phone doesn’t even ring. Before anything can happen, an automated voice is speaking into Bucky’s ear: The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and try your call again.

Bucky’s face twists up with a lack of understanding. Certain he’d dialed the wrong number, he hangs up and then does exactly like the faceless voice had instructed: he tries again… Places the phone to his ear, fully expecting it to ring this time…

The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and try your call again.

He stares at the receiver with a scowl, like the phone is somehow personally responsible for getting this all wrong. He knows his best friend’s number; he’s had it memorized for years, and it’s never changed. Still, to be safe, he calls to his mom and asks if he can see her address book. He double and triple checks, but sure enough, that’s Steve’s number alright. He hadn’t gotten it wrong – the number is in fact disconnected.

That doesn’t mean he stops trying.

The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and--

The number you are trying to reach is currently--

The number you are trying--

The number--

“Damnit!” Bucky shouts, slamming the receiver back down (and then getting scolded for his use of language). Outraged and baffled, Bucky explains the situation to Winifred, who then gets her own perplexed look. She too tries the Rogers’ number, and gets the exact same automated voice message that Bucky kept getting.

“Maybe they recently changed their number,” she tells him.

“They got no reason to change their number; they’ve had the same number for years,” Bucky argues stubbornly.

Winifred sighs. “Honey, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe there’s a problem with the phone company. Why don’t you try again tomorrow? You can always write Steve a letter and put all your information in there. That way, if they did change their number, he has a way to contact you and he can give you their new one.”

“Fine,” Bucky grumbles, getting up from the kitchen table and heading up to his room.

He writes Steve a six-page letter. The first thing he does is write down his new address and phone number, and then tells Steve – as if Steve wouldn’t know himself – that his old number isn’t working. He tells Steve all about Edinburgh – or more so, he complains about it. He says over and over how much he already misses Brooklyn, and even adds in there a few times that he misses Steve, too.

Bucky promises again that he’ll keep Steve’s G.I. Joe safe with him, and that it’s currently sitting on his dresser, in its own special spot. He ends the letter by asking Steve to send him back a picture – then I’ll send you one back and we can do that with EVERY letter, ok? – and tell him all about how he’s doing and how their friends are.

Bucky doesn’t add, and don’t skimp on the details. But he thinks it’s pretty clear in there that that’s what he’s saying.

The next day, Steve’s number still isn’t working. Bucky stubbornly doesn’t lose hope, and instead bugs his mom to bring him down to the post office so he can mail off the letter.

Then he waits.


Every day after that, even when he knows it’s too soon to possibly get a response, Bucky’s checking the mailbox the second he gets home from school. If it’s empty, the first question out of his mouth is, “Anythin’ today?” 

His mother always has to tell him no.

Every day that brings him no reply is paired with another day where Bucky tries Steve’s phone number to no avail. Gradually, he begins to panic, and the first place his fourteen-year-old brain goes to is that Steve’s mad at him; he’s upset with Bucky for leaving and he’s ignoring him. So Bucky writes and mails a second letter a few weeks later.

Only a day later and he opens up the mailbox that afternoon to find his first letter sitting in there, waiting for him.

Stamped across the front, in bright red ink, are the words: RETURN TO SENDER.

Bucky thinks he must’ve gotten the ZIP code wrong or something. But when he double checks it with the address his mom has written down in her book, everything matches up. Two weeks later, and Bucky’s second letter returns to him with the exact same stamp. According to the envelopes, Steve no longer lives at that address.

It doesn’t make sense. Bucky had only been gone a little less than two weeks by the time he was trying to get back into contact with him. But apparently, two weeks was all it had taken for Steve and Sarah to up and move, completely out of nowhere. Just as unexpectedly as Bucky’s move had been.

It hits him – cold and dreadful and hard – that he now has no way of getting a hold of Steve. Winifred, just as worried by the turn of events, tries to contact the Bartons and the Starks and anyone in her address book who might have Sarah’s contact information, but they know just as much as Bucky does – which is to say, nothing. All they know was that there had been an incident, and Sarah was forced to take Steve and move out of State. For the time being, no one seems to know where they went.

Bucky never even had the chance to give Steve a way to get a hold of him… and now he has no way of talking to Steve either. He spends most of that first night sobbing into his pillow while his mom rubs his back; says things to try to make him feel better, but nothing will work. The only thing that’ll help is hearing Steve’s voice. And Bucky can’t seem to have that now.

Weeks pass by, and then months. Bucky continues to write Steve letters, as if by sending them, everyone would somehow be proven wrong. For the first little while, he never stops checking the mailbox, and he refuses to be deterred when each envelope comes back with the same words stamped across it.

But then Bucky starts high school, and he starts making new friends. He still thinks of Steve every day, and hurts just as badly that he hasn’t heard a thing from him since he moved. To cope, his rationality begins to seep away from him and gets replaced by anger. It’s the first emotion Bucky’s felt in months that was complete and utter sorrow, and, well… anger makes it feel easier to move on. He never thought he’d have to move on from Steve Rogers.

But he does; convinces himself that if Steve wanted to get a hold of Bucky, he’d try just as hard as Bucky had. Only Steve would’ve found a way to make it work. Since he still hasn’t heard a damn thing, the only option that makes sense anymore is that Steve wants nothing to do with him now. Bucky moved, and that was that. Any other possibility is too heart-wrenching to bear, and at this point, Bucky can’t bear it. This is the only answer that helps him function, no matter how badly it still hurts.

Eventually, he stops writing letters. Eventually, he gives up on checking the mailbox.

One day, just a couple weeks before Christmas, he finds himself constantly being distracted from his homework by that stupid G.I. Joe action figure staring back at him from his dresser. Bucky does his best to ignore it, but it’s as if it’s searing a hole into the side of his head. Glaring at it, he finally snaps and throws his book off to the side, abruptly finding his footing on the floor. Without thinking twice, he grabs Steve’s toy and finds an empty box from their storage unit to shove it into. Back in his room, he hastily seals it shut with a messy tape job, before dropping it to the floor. Using his foot, he kicks at it with the side of his heel, sending it sliding it beneath his bed, as far back as it can go.

He knows he’ll never have it in him to throw it away… but he doesn’t think he can ever look at it again.

And for almost fourteen years, he doesn’t...


 ...


He’s screaming. He’s screaming and no one’s coming to get him. He’s alone, and they keep repeating his name – ‘Sergeant Barnes’, ‘Sergeant Barnes’, Sergeant Barnes SERGEANT BARNESSERGEANTBARNES—

He’s strapped to a table and he can’t understand a word they’re saying. First blink… Sees the lights overhead. Can still see. Can maybe get out of there. Second blink… Everything goes black. There are so many hands, grabbing him everywhere, and then he feels that free-fall sensation of being tipped back. There’s no table beneath him anymore. He might be floating, but he’ll never grow the wings he needs to actually fly away.

He can’t see, he can’t see, he can’t – there’s something over his face and he keeps trying to plead with them but he doesn’t speak their language. Even if he did, they wouldn’t care. Tipped back, back, back, back, backbackbackbackback – and suddenly he can’t breathe. He can’t see and he can’t breathe because they’re pouring water over his face and oh god, oh sweet god, he’s drowning, Jesus Christ, he’s going to die. His lungs are burning, filling up with water; it’s starting to pour out his nose and ears and tear ducts, filling him up like he’s a balloon – every nook, every crevice, every inch of him. He’s water now. Water and blood, no muscles or bones. Skin keeps him together, but he’s about to explode. And he can’t breathe, he’s dying but they won’t let him die, this will never end…

He’s suddenly in the middle of a field of destruction – his own personal No Man’s Land – as his friends, his fellow soldiers, shoot and run and kill and get killed. His weight distribution feels off; his left side feels lighter. And there’s some up ahead of him, someone he refuses to think about anymore, with golden hair and gangly limbs and a gun in his hand, and he’s not supposed to be there. The barrel is pointed ahead with purpose, and Bucky watches him tread forward.

He can hear explosions and gunfire; grenades and shouting. He would try to run, run to the faceless man with the golden hair, because Bucky sees the machine gun pointed in his direction but the other man does not. This man has no face, but Bucky knows his name anyways.

‘Steve! Steve, run!’ his lips would form and scream, except his lips aren’t moving at all and neither is he. He’s frozen there, trapped within a thick layer of ice – and he’s suddenly aware that he is cold, he’s so cold, but he can see perfectly fine and the image in front of him is so clear that it’s almost disorienting. “STEVE!” he continues to scream, but the sound only seems to echo off the walls of his skull. He screams so loud inside that his vocal chords scratch and rub raw anyways, and Bucky can taste the blood; feel it pool up in his stomach, slowly fill him up like a balloon again. He’s invisible, so the death and carnage continue around him as though he wasn’t even there.

He can see everything anyways. He can hear everything anyways. He can feel everything… and… he’s so fucking cold… The ice crawls up his chest and freeze his lungs, and Bucky can’t breathe. He thinks he might be missing his left arm.

The gun goes off – a quick and terrorizing, continuous piercing sound that fills the air around them all – and Steve’s body falls to the ground. Steve never even sees it coming; never gets a chance to run. Bucky tries to thrash, to break free, to do something – but all he can do is watch. Only now, Steve’s body isn’t up ahead of him, but right at his feet; lifeless eyes staring up at him, and his mouth hanging open; blood the brightest shade of red trailing down the side of his jaw. Bucky stares down at him in horror, and then ‘We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, we’ll miss you—’ and Bucky looks up and it’s Victor standing there, but he doesn’t look the same. He’s holding the gun; aims it right at Bucky’s face. ‘We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, we’ll miss you,’ Victor keeps telling him with a wolfish grin.  

The gun goes off. Bucky’s back on the table, finally able to breathe again. There’s a rusted knife in his hand and a sense of panic in his pulse. He doesn’t have much time. The blade is halfway into his bicep, right above the restraint – he’s got to get out of there. They’ll kill him if he can’t. He knows this now. The knife hits bone and this time, Bucky’s lips part and he’s able to scream, able to shriek, and it’s so loud and gut-wrenching and there’s nothing but fire coursing through his body--

With a strangled cry, Bucky jolts as his eyes fly wide and he bolts up into a sitting position. Wheezing and shaking uncontrollably, he frantically looks around the room like he always does. He searches for the bodies and the guns and the men who’d pinned him down, fully expecting to find them in there with him. But like always, all he ever sees are white walls, clothes, and furniture. This time is no different. His heart thumping wildly in his chest, he exhales shakily and drops his head into his right hand; shoulders bouncing as his upper body dry heaves, crying the silent tears that are long since too dried out to fall.

Whatever momentum he has in his dreams always catches up with him, and he considers himself lucky if he has a night where he doesn’t wake up screaming – let alone getting a decent, full night’s rest. This is his pattern now: sleep, dream, scream, repeat. Has been for a long time; ever since he was given that Honorable Discharge in 2013.

They’d told him – the doctors, the therapists, the fucking physiotherapists even – that it would gradually get better with time. They’d been lying. The nightmares never go away, and neither do the panic attacks. They’d been lying, because it’s not like he’s ever going to get his fucking arm back either. They made it sound so goddamn positive when he’d been given his prosthetic; told ‘he’d get used to it’, and ‘before he knew it, he’d be able to get through his everyday life as easily as he’d known before’.

Fucking liars! Not a day’s gone by since he lost it that he hasn’t ached for it back. The worst nights are the ones where he startles awake still thinking he actually has it. There’s always that split second between coming back into consciousness and having reality catch up to him where his mind tricks him into thinking he can still feel the phantom sensations of an arm probably still rotting in a hole in the ground somewhere in Pakistan.

Bucky hasn’t cried in over eight years. Sometimes, he has to press the only hand he has left to his chest to make sure there’s still a heart beating somewhere in there. It can be hard to believe when he looks into the mirror and sees the reflection staring back at him that there’s still a person hiding in there, behind a pair of lifeless, dull grey eyes.

He wouldn’t be surprised if he’s forgotten how to function.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky never really likes going back to sleep after a nightmare, at least not quite so soon. He’s learned from experience that when it’s still fresh in his mind – when he can still see everything so clearly, as if it’s being replayed right in front of him, even fully awake – the chances are higher that he’ll have another one when he closes his eyes again. Glancing over to his clock, he takes note of the time.

1:37AM.

Well, at least this sort of thing seems to be consistent.

He gets out of bed as quietly as possible, which is sort of ironic, given that he’s pretty sure the noise he made when he woke up probably woke his roommate up, too. It’s part of the reason why he and Brock are struggling to see eye-to-eye lately, and why Bucky recently made the decision to move out by the time the month’s up.

Brock’s not a bad person, but he doesn’t seem to have much patience for Bucky when he struggles through his late-night episodes. To a certain degree, Bucky understands. If he were living with someone who always woke him up to screaming in the middle of the night, or had to deal with someone who can go from extroverted to introverted at the drop of a hat, he might be a little worn out from it, too. He knows his issues are a lot to deal with – he is the one fighting to deal with them every day. He understands better than anyone how frustrating it gets. But he also has to remind himself that it’s not his fault either.

They’ve spoken about it a few times, but Bucky knows Brock mostly tolerates him because he’s never late with his half of the rent. Despite getting a little bit of money each month from the military, one of the things Bucky’s second therapist had suggested was that Bucky might re-establish a sense of normality if he found a job that was not too strenuous, in a more relaxed environment, where he could at least get out of the house and interact with people – feel useful again – a few days a week.

So he’s been working as a Customer Service rep over at Verizon for the last fifteen months. At first, he’d hated it. He’d been a soldier, a fucking sharpshooter, a Sergeant for Christ’s sake – and suddenly he was taking phone calls and dealing with one uptight person after another, all of them seemingly born with sticks up their asses. But over time, it wasn’t so bad. These days, he really doesn’t mind it. His boss is cool and his coworkers are alright. Most importantly, he never has to deal directly with all these people, and no one needs to see his prosthesis, so he’s spared all the uncomfortable questions.

But other than that – paying his half of the rent on time – and the fact that Bucky has the tendency to go quiet and stick to himself for long periods of time, never really getting in Brock’s way, Bucky knows he’s welcomed there for no other reason. Normally, that shit doesn’t bother him. He’s there to keep a roof over his head and have a place to live, not make a best friend. He has friends; he’s good without any more (may not see them all that much, but… they understand).

But as of recently, they’ve been butting heads a lot more. It finally all came to a boil when Bucky was holed up in his room, trying to ward off a panic attack, and Brock picked that moment to come pounding on his door and start barking at him that he’d had enough, Bucky needed to keep the fucking noise down at night – like he could control it somehow. Bucky wound up throwing the door open and getting in his face, and after a brief shoving match, Bucky told him that he’d be out of there by the end of the month.

He just hasn’t exactly found another place yet.

Padding over to his dresser, he expertly uses his right hand to get his shoulder attachment on, sliding it up over what remains of his left arm, and then securing the strap across his back and down the other side of his chest. Sliding his stump into the bebionic3 and making sure everything’s properly snug and hooked up, he turns the arm on and then throws on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He finishes by covering the robotic limb with the standard silicon glove he’d picked up the previous Christmas.

If he’s lounging around the house and by himself, he usually won’t wear it. Sometimes, he opts not to wear the prosthesis at all. Around other people, though, it’s a must as far as he’s concerned. At least then, it takes people a little bit longer to notice that the limb itself isn’t real. The glove gives off a pretty convincing illusion that it’s an actual hand, so long as you look at it from a distance.

He doesn’t feel like throwing his hair up tonight, so he grabs his baseball cap off his night table and shoves it onto his head. It’s still silent when he opens up his bedroom door, but he knows better than to assume Brock is sleeping. Chances are, he’ll come back home later to find another post-it note stuck to his door – Some of us have to actually work in the MORNING, or KEEP IT DOWN, or a message charmingly along those lines hastily scribbled onto it. And Bucky will do what he always does whenever he sees it: rip it off, read it, crumple it into a ball, and throw it the fuck out.

He’ll be gone in a few weeks anyways. Brock can fucking deal with it until then, in Bucky’s opinion. Still, after grabbing his jacket and keys, he has the decency to tiptoe through the apartment and shut the front door as quietly behind him as possible.

Every time this happens and Bucky knows he can’t fall back asleep, he hops in his car and drives down to the small little diner about ten minutes away. It’s about the only place in the neighborhood that stays open twenty-four hours a day, and Bucky would probably have been sooner driven to a nervous breakdown if not for its existence. Everyone knows him by name, and are never surprised when he comes walking through the door – making that little bell ring above his head, which Bucky finds really old-timey and inviting – at all hours of the night.

Mostly, he has a tendency to drop in between two to three in the morning. He always comes alone, and he’s almost always the only customer in the place. All the same, despite having free range to sit anywhere he’d like, Bucky always picks the booth in the far back corner, right on the left. There’s only ever a small handful of staff there at that time – two servers and one cook – and the moment they see Bucky walking in, they’re already doing what they usually do, and getting his spot ready.

Bucky likes to start with a glass of water with extra lemon, so that’s being set down before he’s even finished crossing to his seat. It doesn’t matter who the other server is and how much Bucky likes them, they know by now that he only lets Angela serve him. He suspects that some of them might think that it’s because he’s got a thing for her. Yeah, she’s beautiful, and if Bucky didn’t feel like he’d scare her off the moment she actually got to know him, maybe he’d ask her out.

But in reality, it has everything to do with the fact that she works full-time, and always the night shift. He’s guaranteed the same level of service, from someone who knows exactly how Bucky wants his order. The fact that Angie’s cute and friendly, and has noticed his prosthetic hand and never seems to mind is all merely a bonus.

Sometimes, it feels a little sad to say that this place feels more like home to him than anywhere else in New York has since he got out of the army and returned to civilization. He’s been getting by on a day-by-day basis – which his current therapist says should be seen as a positive. To Bucky, that just winds up feeling like an awful lot of days in which he’s technically had a ‘home’ but has still felt homeless. He’d probably live here if he could actually get away with it.

“Well hey there, Brooklyn,” Angie cheerfully greets him, accent just as thick as he remembers his own once being. She comes up to his booth to bring him his cup of Chamomile tea, same as always, that’s the order. Bucky tilts his head up a bit and responds with a polite smile, before she asks, “Trouble sleepin’?”

He averts his eyes, taking a breath as his features relax. “No, I just like beating the mornin’ rush hour,” he jokes. Then he meets her gaze again and smiles, making her laugh. He knows how to act normal, even if Angie knows by now that he’s anything but. Nodding, he admits with a hint of self-deprecation, “Yeah, you know how it is.”

“Not a problem, cutie pie. I’ll tell Marty to make you the usual, and here you go,” she says, placing the porcelain cup on the tabletop.

Bucky takes it with his right hand and cradles it, his features not giving away how embarrassed he feels inside at how quickly walking through the steps of his pattern brings his anxiety a little relief. “Thanks, Ange.”

“You’re welcome. I think we have one copy left of The Times that someone forgot earlier; let me go grab that.”

“You’re an angel,” he says appreciatively, sharing one more smile with her before she heads off to go track it down for him.

It’s the exact same routine every time this happens – in the exact proper order, done with the same meticulousness. Because they know Bucky; they’re used to him and his ways. He slowly sips through his tea and eventually starts turning pages through the paper after Angie brings it over. Then his plate is brought over to him: two eggs (sunny side up, yolks intact), two pieces of toast (cut in half, shaped like triangles), five sausage links, three strips of extra crispy bacon, and a small serving of home fries. They’ve offered in the past to arrange his plate the way they know Bucky likes it, but he prefers to do it himself, if only because that’s part of his routine, too.

He’s not as reserved about his prosthesis when he’s here. They’re all used to it, and none of them act uncomfortable by it, so when he goes through the different settings so the limb will act accordingly – enact the proper grip functions and help him maneuver with both hands – he’s only paying a little attention to the whirring, robotic noises it makes.

Using his knife and fork, he begins to slide around the food, making sure it touches as little as possible, and rearranges it all into their proper placements. Toast gets piled all on top of each other in the upper right hand corner. Beside it, on the left, are the eggs. Those get two shakes of salt and pepper, but no more. He eyes up the sausage links to note the size differences, and then carefully lines them all up in a row, from smallest to biggest. The bacon goes in the middle of the plate (if it rests on top of the eggs a little bit, that’s okay, he keeps reminding himself). And though the home fries stay where they are, he uses his fork to scoop them all into a tighter, neater pile; using the flat back of it to press along the perimeter, until he has them in as close of a square shape as he can manage.

Then he eats everything in the reverse order of how he set it up.

Bucky’s ashamed of himself, because this isn’t who he is, and he misses who that person used to be. He was never like this before the war. He wasn’t even like this during the war – it wasn’t until he got sent back to America that things changed. The specialists attributed his growing obsessive compulsive tendencies to the complete and total loss of control… the helplessness he felt during the duration of his capture.

Well no shit, Sherlock. Bucky didn’t need a psychology degree to be able to figure that one out.

It’s doesn’t affect most aspects of his life, but the ones it does touch, it holds with an iron grip. It’s become entered into his DNA, it feels like, to get into his car and drive to this exact diner every time he has a particularly bad nightmare. He has to sit in his booth, and be served by his waitress, and have his water and lemon and then his Chamomile tea, and then his meal exactly like this. He has to place his food and eat it in its proper order.

If even a hair feels out of place, Bucky’s chest starts to get hot, tight, and he can feel a panic attack coming right around the bend. Luckily, that hasn’t happened in well over a year – that’s how frequently he comes there and how well they know him. Bucky’s told there’s nothing to feel ashamed of, but it makes him feel no less broken.

Because even though he can still behave ‘normally’ and interact with people ‘normally’, there are so many walls he’s built up inside. When he’s out in public, he can keep it together seventy percent of the time. The other thirty is spent looking fine on the outside, but internally mapping out every possible escape route, in the event that he needs to make a quick getaway. When he’s in the diner, he’s self-conscious that the others are judging him every time he’s moving around his food and rearranging it.

He knows these people like him, and he likes them, too. For all intents and purposes, he knows they’re sort of like his friends. But he also knows how much other people stare when he eats in public. He knows that as much as his actual friends understand and don’t pass judgment, they’re still always watching when he does what he does, with a million questions and a million more concerns they’ll never voice.

The only people who he feels truly get it are his family – and even then, he hardly visits anymore. Rebecca’s going to school in Michigan and his parents live out in California now. With everything going on these days, it’s not worth the trip, much as he’d sometimes like to make it.

This is one of those nights where he wishes he still knew how to cry. If he did, he’d want to do it right now, as he cuts the sausage into tinier bites and then sticks his fork into it, bringing it to his mouth and eating… By himself, always by himself, probably at the one time where he imagines he could use some company the most. There’s just no one he trusts enough to open up to about this sort of stuff. He has a hard enough time not passing judgment on himself – he doesn’t need another person to do that for him.

So he carries on the way he always does and quietly works through the food on his plate. Subtly adjusting the grip pattern on his left hand, he uses it to turn the pages of the newspaper Angie brought for him, keeping himself busy by reading every single word on every single page. At work the other day, he overheard someone mentioning that they wouldn’t be surprised if newspapers got phased out within the next few years, ‘since no one reads them anymore.’ It always makes Bucky smirk to himself. He reads them all the time.

Angie comes by a couple times to check in and make sure Bucky’s doing alright or if he needs any refills. When he’s finally cleaned off the entire plate, she comes back to take it from him. He knows she’ll be bringing him his usual cup of coffee next; just a small one, black. Last part of his meal before he pays and heads back out. When she flashes him another one of those pretty smiles, Bucky battles the idea of asking her if she maybe wants to sit with him for a bit, maybe talk or something.

He gets as far as, “Hey Angie?”

She replies, “Yeah?” and lingers. Perhaps she’s hoping for something of the sort. Bucky doesn’t fucking know. He’s not as good at reading people anymore when it comes to regular, easygoing conversation. He also thinks he’s completely forgotten how the fuck the whole flirting thing works.

But he’s already changed his mind. Closing his mouth and smiling apologetically, he answers, “Never mind.”

The nice thing about Angie is that she knows enough about him to know not to push, despite momentarily coming off like she’s about to. She smiles at him again – friendly, not at all put on – and nods, assuring him, “I’ll go get your coffee.”

Bucky waits until she’s gone to drop the act and sigh, rubbing at his eyes with his fingers and wondering yet again why it feels so goddamn impossible these days not to be scared that everything can and will go wrong. It doesn’t matter how easily some things still come to him, or how convincing of a façade he can adorn for the things that no longer do – he’s still broken, and he hates it. Maybe he needs a new shrink. He’s feeling just as much of a compulsion to open up with this one as he has with all the rest over the last two years.

Which is to say that there is none. There’s just too much dusty furniture hiding up in his head, behind all those closed doors. He knows if he lets them open, he’s going to wipe all that dust off only to find that a lot of it should’ve never seen the light of day again.

All he knows is that he can’t keep carrying on like this for much longer.

Unfortunately, beyond that, Bucky doesn’t really know what to do about much else.


Two nights later, like clockwork, Bucky’s back in the diner, working through his eggs while he flips through the paper. As he browses through the Classifieds, he noncommittally peruses all of ads when he notices one with the words ROOMMATE WANTED written in a much larger font at the top. He’s not sure why it makes him take pause – after the whole thing with Brock, Bucky had sworn to himself up and down that he wasn’t going to go finding a new place with a complete stranger. Of course, that left very little in terms of options for someone who can’t really afford to be picky, given his circumstances, but still. 

He reads through it carefully, then finds himself going over it a second and a third time:

ROOMMATE WANTED  

26 yr. old male looking for roommate in 2 bedroom apartment.

Preferably male but females welcome if comfortable.

$750/month, all utilities included.

Flatbush Gardens, 1403 New York Ave, Brooklyn, NY

(347) 315-8858

References wanted, please contact for further details or appt.

Bucky can’t help but find that there’s something incredibly charming about this ad. Maybe it’s because of the fact that it’s someone about his own age who’s choosing to go about doing this the old-fashioned way. These days, it’s practically unheard of for the younger generations to resort to using the paper to put up an ad for anything, let alone a place to live or someone to live with. That’s what Craigslist is for. Everything gets done over the internet.

But even looking past that, there are a lot of great things about this proposal. For starters, $750 a month without having to worry about heat, or hydro, or internet and cable bills on top of that sounds like a steal. Throw in the fact that it’s a place in Brooklyn, and Bucky’s already feeling himself getting his hopes up. He’s interested in a potential interview, at least.

At the same time, he’s trying not to set himself up for disappointment. Usually, if something seems too good to be true, it’s usually because it is. The apartment itself could be a total dive. Though, that wouldn’t exactly be a make-it-or-break-it factor for Bucky. In that sense, he’s easy and quite accommodating. He slept in far worse conditions, with far fewer luxuries when he was overseas.

Maybe the guy offering the room is a total psycho. But then again, Bucky’s an ex-sniper with PTSD and violent night terrors, who knows every pressure point on a person’s body and could probably kill a guy with a toothpick and rubber band if he had to. So… That’s not really a deterrent either.

It’s him. That’s the problem, and that’s the reason why he realizes he’s frowning as he reads that last line for the dozenth time: References wanted… Not exactly his strongest suit. All of his landlords over the last couple years could definitely attest to Bucky’s trustworthiness in terms of the financial portion. But a few of them also have a good idea of Bucky’s struggles, since on more than one occasion they were hearing complaints from other people in the building regarding Bucky’s shouting carrying through the walls, bypassing whole floors.

He’s not sure if his and Brock’s current landlady is aware. If she is, she’s never said anything to Bucky about it. Or maybe she just spoke to Brock and Brock never felt the need to pass on the message. And what if the guy in the ad wants to get a reference from Bucky’s current roommate, to find out what sort of person Bucky is? What if he was asked why he’s in need of a new place? Bucky supposes he doesn’t need to lie exactly… There’s no law against him prettying up the truth a little bit.

It’s worth a shot, the logical part of his brain reasons. You got nothing to lose.

He pulls out his phone and almost makes the call, until he remembers what time it is. Best to wait until morning. After getting permission from Angie, he carefully rips the ad out of the paper, and heads back home a little while later with it folded and stuffed into his back pocket.

 

---

 

“Hello?” 

“Hi, um… Yeah, hi. Uh, I’m callin’ about the ad you had in the New York Post, ‘bout the one looking for a roommate?”

“Oh! Hi, yeah! I’m surprised anyone actually saw that,” the voice on the other line replies with what sounds like a chuckle. The voice is deep and seems friendly enough, so Bucky still thinks the coast is clear so far.

He’s sitting on his bed; cellphone pressed between his shoulder and his ear, with the small square of paper in his right hand. His prosthetic arm sits back over on top of his dresser, because Brock’s out for the day. Staring down at the ad, Bucky’s mouth turns up into a small half-smile and he finds himself blurting out, “Probably not as surprised as I was to see someone still usin’ the paper to find a roommate. What’s the matter – internet too complicated for ya?”

He’s met with a moment of silence. Bucky realizes how what he just said must’ve sounded. He hadn’t meant it like that, though, he was just trying to joke around a little. It came out before his brain even caught up with his mouth. Something about this guy’s voice, though foreign and unrecognizable by first glance, just evoked that reaction from him.

Smile vanishing, Bucky closes his eyes and sighs, shaking his head. Dropping the ad next to him, he grabs the phone back in hand and quickly says, “Christ, sorry man, I didn’t – that wasn’t meant to be serious. I was just kidding--”

To his shock, the guy on the other line suddenly bursts out laughing. It takes Bucky a second for that to catch up with him.

“I just mean, no one uses the paper anymore--”

“Dude, don’t worry about it. I’m not offended,” the man keeps laughing, voice light and non-judgmental. Bucky’s sigh of relief is less than a whisper’s volume at best. “I suppose I sort of had that comin’. For the record, I did put the ad on Kijiji, too.”

“I, uh… suppose that makes up for it then,” Bucky replies, softer now and slightly embarrassed as he tries to save face.

“You’re funny. Can’t help but pick up on the accent – you from Brooklyn, too?”

“Used to be,” Bucky replies, thinking back to that time as objectively as possible. That’s one of the many doors he’s not exactly running to go open. “Live over near Forest Hills right now. You know the area?”

“Oh yeah! They got the ArtWorld down there; I swing by from time to time. Man, Forest Hills is such a cute little area, why go back to Brooklyn?” the stranger jokes.

“Brooklyn was my home,” Bucky answers, not needing to think about it much. “These days, I feel like a little ‘home’ would be good for me.” He knows this guy was just teasing, but even now, even with all those doors he keeps locked, he’ll always be protective of the place.

Sure enough, the guy chuckles again understandingly, and answers, “No, no, I completely get it. I wouldn’t live anywhere else unless I had to. I love it here.”

“Yeah.”

After another small, slightly awkward pause, the guy says enthusiastically, “Okay! Well, the room’s still available if you wanted to swing by and come take a look. Bring any questions you might have, as well as any contact info for references you can give me, in the event that we think this might be an arrangement we both want. You still got the ad on ya, or did you need my info again?”

Bucky glances back down to the ripped out piece of paper next to his hip. “Yeah, Post is still sittin’ out on my table,” he fabricates. “I’m good.”

“Awesome, sounds good then.”

“Okay, well wait – when were you free? I mean, do you got certain hours for people to drop by for this, or…?”

Another easygoing chuckle. Bucky smiles to himself, liking its tone.

“That sounds like way too much organization for me,” he’s told. “I got today, tomorrow, and Friday evening off. Otherwise, I’m at work or in class, so… It’s really whenever works for you, man.”

“I got today off, too.”

“Oh, well cool, then come on over. I’ll be here all day.”

“Wow, waitin’ for me all day?” Bucky mutters dryly, giving humor a second attempt now that he knows it seems to be alright by this guy. “This is moving too fast for me. I think you’re gettin’ too attached; we might need to see other people.”

From the other line, there’s another peal of laughter. “Shut up, jerk, I don’t even know your name yet.”

Jerk… Shut up, jerk… Bucky’s ten, and listening to Steve moan on and on about how difficult the underwater level of Mario 64 is. Bucky tries to offer tips to help him through it, but Steve keeps fucking it up and insisting that the game is rigged; ‘It’s impossible! NO ONE can beat this stupid level!’ Bucky winds up taking the controller from his hands and making it through the level in one try. He silently hands the controller back to Steve, who’s gaping at the screen like it’s some sort of conspiracy, plotted by Bucky and the people over at Nintendo to make Steve Rogers look like an idiot. Bucky’s smirking, but despite not actually saying anything at all, his best friend glares at him and snatches it back, snapping, ‘Shut up, jerk.’

Bucky’s stomach twists into a knot, and he doesn’t want to be on the phone very much anymore. Shutting down a little and his voice sounding a bit marred, he answers, “Oh, it’s James.”

“Great, thanks for clearing that up. Now I can go back to fallin’ madly in love with you, all thanks to a two-minute conversation,” the guys continues, clearly not having caught on to Bucky’s change in demeanor.

“Mm,” Bucky hums distractedly. He quickly catches himself and then attempts to put in a bit more effort again, forcing a smile and adding, “I’ll make sure to dress as unappealing as possible when I head over, guy-who-still-hasn’t-given-me-his-name-back-either-yet.”

“Sorry,” the other man says, and he sounds like he’s still smiling. “It’s Steve.”

Just like that, that knot in Bucky’s stomach twists and sends a sharp pain across his abdomen. Bucky’s eyes close with a grimace. Of course it is. Why the fuck wouldn’t that be his name? Bucky guesses he had that coming…

“Okay Steve, well, I’ll see you in a couple hours or somethin’,” Bucky pushes out. It’s a struggle to keep his tone buoyant, and he suspects it might’ve come out a little strained, but it’s better than the way his thoughts sound in his head right now.

“Alright, see you then.”

“Bye,” Bucky remembers to say, and then hangs up the moment he hears the other guy – Steve – say it back. His pulse is already picking up speed, and it’s starting to feel a little harder to breathe, as Steve Rogers’s face – at different ages, with different expressions, the way he’d looked before Bucky kissed him, the way he looked running after his mom’s car – flashes through his mind. Closing his eyes, Bucky wills himself to take a long, deep breath to try and calm down.

He pulls up one of the exercises his third therapist had suggested, because sometimes that one actually seems to help. Releasing the air in his lungs, Bucky wordlessly begins to count.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five…

When he reaches one, he slowly inhales another deep breath and then repeats the process until his heart rate is calmer and Steve’s face – his Steve’s face – slowly fades away. Then he forces himself to get up and go take a shower so he can get ready.

 

---

 

It takes Bucky about a half hour to drive down to Brooklyn, but about an hour before he actually gets to the apartment building he’s looking for. It’s been a few months since he last had the guts to come back into this neck of the woods. Every time he does, he always feels the compulsion to drive back to his old neighborhood and slowly roll past all the places from his memory. It’s about the one time he lets himself do that anymore.

Eventually though, he pulls up to 1403 New York Avenue, and parks next to the curb on the street. This is a questionable part of the city, in his opinion, so it’s something to keep in mind. He’s had friends live around this block who were the victims of break-ins before. But this particular area looks nice enough.

From the exterior, the building seems just fine, too. Better than he was expecting, actually. As he goes to find the front door, he notices the little play structure they’ve got there. His first thought is that he hopes to god that this Steve guy doesn’t have a family living anywhere around him. The last thing Bucky wants is for some children to be woken up by his screaming and think the building’s haunted with the Bogeyman or something.

He searches through the directory on the box at the front of the building until he sees the name Steve R. He frowns, brows furrowing. No, there’s no way. That’s just too much of a fucking coincidence, and Bucky doesn’t think it’s very funny. If he knew there was someone up in the sky paying attention, he’d raise his right hand and flip them off. Some people believe that there’s a higher power responsible for all things in the universe, and if that’s true, than that higher power is a dick with a shit sense of humor. Or a passionate love for irony.

But he drove all the way out there, and the offer is still a really good one so far, so Bucky goes ahead and punches in the number for his apartment anyways. It rings a few times, and then the guy from the ad answers and buzzes Bucky in after a brief conversation. Steve lives on the fourth floor, so Bucky skips the elevator and instead just takes the stairs. When he finally walks up to the right apartment number, he keeps his left hand shoved into his jacket pocket (even though he’s already got gloves on), and uses his right one to knock.

He waits... and then the door opens.

For a fraction of a second, nothing happens. Then Bucky’s entire face goes blank - suddenly finding himself standing face-to-face with the ghost from his past. The last person he'd ever expected to open that door.

There’s no fucking way.

The man standing opposite him looks just as shocked at what he’s seeing. They stand there, all the air in the hallway sucked right away from them, as they stare at each other and process what exactly just happened. Unlike Bucky, the other man’s face only looks bewildered for a couple of seconds, before he’s getting a shocked, opened-mouth little grin and asking, “Bucky?

Golden hair, that smile – and Bucky could never forget those eyes. Run, is the first instinct his body has. But he’s glued there, unable to move or wrap his head around who’s staring back at him. Then it sinks in and Bucky can’t believe it, he can’t fucking believe this is happening right now. Of all the ads he could’ve replied to, or all the people in New York in need of a roommate at the exact same time as him, it had to be Steve fucking Rogers who opens the door.

Only it’s not just the fact that it’s Steve standing in front of him, but the fact that whoever this guy is looks like he ate the Steve Bucky remembers. He does not recall Steve looking like this.

Steve?” he asks back, still gaping, still unable to believe it.

“Holy fuck,” Steve exhales, those baby blues of his still popping out of his head as his smile grows twice in size. Sort of like what the rest of him did over the years, apparently. “I can’t even – you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me! Bucky? Like… Seriously, Bucky Barnes?”

“I could… say the same thing about you,” replies Bucky, slowly. He’s still in the middle of trailing his gaze up and down this guy’s body – head to toe – and the fucked up part about it is how much more there seems to be to have to take in. He’s ninety-nine percent sure he’s just went and gone into shock, and in this state, the only brilliant thing he can think to come tumbling out of his mouth next is, “I… I thought you were smaller.”

The kid he remembers stood no taller than four-foot-seven the last time Bucky saw him. He was thin and boney and awkward and beautiful. He wore baggy clothes, and big glasses, and always parted his bangs dead center of his bowl cut. By comparison, the guy Bucky’s looking at now seems like he just stepped right out of a fucking magazine.

He’s actually taller than Bucky by an inch or so, with a short, stylish cut; bangs lightly teased away from his forehead with product, clearly intentional but looking effortless. Just a little messy, and boyish, despite the rest of him looking like some sort of fucking body builder. His body is… his fucking body. What the fuck happened to him? Steve could never gain a pound if his life depended on it, and suddenly he looks well over two-hundred of pure muscle. The t-shirt he’s got on was either bought from the child’s section of the store, or Steve clearly doesn’t know what his proper size is, because his biceps look like they’re straining to burst out of it, and the way it hugs his torso so snugly almost gets Bucky’s mouth falling open.

Yet Bucky still notices he has a (much smaller and more concealable) set of hearing aids in his ears, and glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Maybe he’s a contacts person when he goes out (sort of like Bucky’s a ‘left arm’ sort of person when he goes out – he’s about to start laughing uncontrollably, oh sweet god, Bucky’s feeling hysterical, he might just pass out right there in the hallway before he even takes a step into the actual apartment), but right now he’s got on a pair of black-rimmed glasses framing his eyes. They remind Bucky of the ones Steve had eventually switched over to in middle school, only so much hotter.

The sight of those two simple things – the hearing aids and the glasses – make it so much more real to Bucky that this is in fact Steve Rogers, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. What he does know is that he’s completely fucked… Because all it takes is for him to look past the lenses of those black-rimmed glasses and get a good look at those eyes he was so in love with all his life, and Bucky’s right back where he was fourteen years ago.

He hasn’t been angry with Steve in years; that wouldn’t be the right word. He’s long since gotten over that. But that lingering feeling of betrayal, of abandonment? That’s always stuck with him. He thought that if he ever ran into Steve Rogers again, he’d react to him with a scowl and a few choice words, making sure when he left that his old best friend knew how badly he’d hurt Bucky.

But one look at him now, and just like that, it’s gone. Oh, the hurt still exists, but every nasty thing he ever wanted to say completely flees from him. Bucky has never been capable of staying upset with Steve, in any way, shape, or form.

Fuck.

Steve laughs, looking giddy and even more gorgeous than Bucky remembers (fuck!), and lifts one of the tree trunks he calls his arms to scratch at the back of his head and avert his eyes down. The apples of his cheeks turning the softest shade of pink (FUCK!!), he releases a quiet, bashful chuckle and shrugs one shoulder. He’s adorable. Son of a bitch, he’s so fucking adorable – it’s only gotten worse over the years, it shouldn’t be possible but yet it is. 

And Bucky is so completely screwed.

“Uh, yeah, I guess I look a little different than what you remember,” Steve laughs, still looking away shyly, those fucking eyelashes of his even longer than Bucky remembers them being, too.

“You think?” Bucky deadpans.

Steve seems to think he’s joking, and he lets out another barely there, breathy chuckle. Bucky’s heart slams against his chest, reminding him that it’s there, too. “Puberty finally found me,” Steve modestly explains. “I mean, I was like fifteen by the time it happened, but… yeah.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you fell asleep one night and magically woke up the next morning lookin’ like a rock solid ten,” Bucky says, still not joking – but also not meaning for that to actually come racing out of his stupid mouth. That causes Steve’s gaze to snap back up to his. He looks more surprised by that comment than anything else in the last minute and a half, which is completely baffling, since Bucky’s pretty certain he somehow slipped into the Twilight Zone sometime during the drive over without even realizing it.

“I mean, because of the muscles n’ shit,” he quickly adds, trying to look unaffected. Play it cool. Inside, he’s shitting bricks.

Steve nods, giving him a smile and doing that surprised, maybe-a-little-nervous chuckling thing again. Bucky wants to die. Looking for an out goes hand-in-hand with waiting for everything to go horribly wrong, which Bucky is sure is about to happen here, somehow. He thinks he’s found it when Steve drags his eyes from Bucky’s shoes back up to the top of his head and then makes eye contact, politely saying, “It’s good to see ya, Buck.”

Bucky interprets that as Steve subtly and politely trying to say, Now please leave and never come back. So he averts his gaze and nods, mumbling back, “Good to see you too, Rogers. Anyways… Sorry for wastin’ your time. Good luck with the whole roommate thing, see ya.”

“What? Wait!” Steve exclaims just as Bucky’s turning on his heel to book it away. Confused, Bucky glances back to him from over his shoulder. Steve’s giving him a weird smile, clearly not following, and then opens his door wider, as if to welcome him inside. “So that’s it? Haven’t seen you in fourteen years and you’re not even gonna come in for a few minutes?” Steve teases. Something’s off in his tone, though, Bucky can hear it. There’s seriousness in there, too. It’s a legitimate question.

In the back of his head, Bucky wants to coldly spit back, ‘You have the nerve to say that to me?’

But this is Steve. And that means that more than anything, Bucky never wants to go anywhere else again. That’s exactly how he winds up muttering back some sort of acquiescence, and is walking into Steve’s apartment before he can hack his legs off and stop himself from moving.

The inside is actually gorgeous, and much bigger than he was expecting it to be. Keeping both hands now shoved deeply into his pockets, Bucky doesn’t bother taking his shoes off since Steve suggests he can leave them on if he wants. Bucky’s telling himself that he’s probably only going to be there for a short time anyways (though whether it’s because he’s going to make an excuse to bail, or it’s going to be Steve who finds an excuse to kick him out, Bucky can’t make up his mind on yet), so he leaves them on.

“Wow, nice digs,” he says, following Steve towards the kitchen and looking around, taking in everything about the apartment.

“Yeah, it’s been good to me the last few years,” Steve fondly replies, actually reaching out and patting the marble counter top like the dork Bucky remembers him being. Right now, Bucky would rather he not do shit like that. It’s hardly helping him make sense of things. He’s still feeling a bit dazed by it all.

“Anyways, um… Yeah, this is the kitchen. Fridge is pretty big,” Steve tells him, opening up the door so Bucky can see for himself, “but I cleared off the entire bottom shelf, so… I mean, I can make more room if you’d--”

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Bucky interrupts.

Steve peers up at him, not following at all. “Whaddaya mean?”

“You’re still actually considering us livin’ together?”

Steve frowns, straightening to his full, towering height as he shuts the door. “Well… yeah, I guess so,” he answers. “Why, is that weird?”

Bucky shrugs. “A little. I mean, we basically haven’t spoken in over a decade.”

The momentarily crestfallen look that passes over Steve’s features makes Bucky want to detach his prosthesis so he can beat himself over the head with it. Fuck – Steve had been smiling, and Bucky had fucking missed that, regardless of all the other circumstances. And now he just went and fucked it all up. Figures he would.

Leaning against the side of the counter, Steve nods to himself, seemingly in deep thought. He sighs, lifting a hand and letting it drop heavily. “Look, maybe you’re right. Sorry, I… I get it, if this seems like a bad idea. I just thought… You know what? Never mind, it doesn’t matter.”

This is so undeniably awkward. Maybe Bucky should just go… Goddamnit fuck, but he’s never been able to walk away leaving Steve Rogers looking so thoroughly miserable. So he chews the inside of his cheek and then stares down at the floor, tapping his right foot off of it quietly. “Well… Look, no reason you can’t still show me the rest of the place, right? Give me the tour and stuff?” he says.

The blond cocks his head to the side to meet his eyes again, and then produces the smile Bucky’s always liked least – the one he does when he’s troubled or worse, sad on the inside. Bucky remembers that smile. That’s the one Steve gets when he’s fighting to show he’s hurting. Bucky’s heart punches him in the chest a second time; I’m STILL here, you fucker. Seems like being around Steve again is proving to be the only reminder Bucky needs to remember that he’s still human and still alive. He could’ve gone the rest of his life without having to find that out.

“Okay,” Steve replies. “Um, living room’s just through there, so I guess I can show you that next…”

They work their way through the apartment, their conversation wooden and forced at first. Bucky keeps noticing how Steve will casually throw in information about each room that’d only ever be pertinent to someone considering living there, too (sometimes the hot water in the shower can take a little longer to kick in; the internet’s quick, so two people watching Netflix at the same time’s no problem, but if both of us were tryin’ to Torrent, too, it might lag a little…). By the time Bucky’s being shown the second, empty bedroom, he’s figured out that Steve’s still trying to sell him on it.

This isn’t ideal. Bucky knows it’s a bad idea. Very bad – probably the worst he’s ever seriously considered, and yet he finds himself still reconsidering it. He knows why; he’s not a moron. It would mean living with Steve – Steve, who he hasn’t seen or heard from since he moved. Steve, Bucky’s best friend since he was fucking five years old. The kid he loved to the moon and back, and who went and shattered his heart. But Christ, Bucky’s always been a sucker for punishment when it came to him.

He’s also running out of choices. It’s either live with Steve, or live with someone Bucky’s never met before. The other options only get worse: be homeless, or move back across the country and in with his parents. But he’s too proud for that, same as he’s too proud to ask any of his friends whether he can crash on their couches if he absolutely has to. He’s not leaving New York to go live in California, and he’s not capable of couch surfing. He needs his own room, and his own privacy. He needs stability and a sense of control, otherwise he’s going to crash right back to square one.

He slowly walks around the room, sizing it up. It’s nice. He can picture his stuff in here, even though he doesn’t have much. He’s aware that Steve’s also watching his every movement. So he says, “So, if the rent’s $750 a month; that mean you’re payin’ the other half, or that mean I’m payin’ the majority of the way for you?”

Steve sounds like he’s smirking when he answers, still leaning against the door frame, “Fifty-fifty.”

“And any problems I should know about? Bug infestations, robberies, appliances breaking every other day?”

“Oh yeah, the last guy that moved out was a roach – didn’t I tell you?” Steve shoots back, sassy as the day Bucky met him. Bucky pauses mid-step and raises an eyebrow at him, and then Steve laughs awkwardly and waves his hand. “That was a bad joke; just trying to lighten the mood. My last roommate was just a bit of an ass, that’s all. No, no bug problems, Buck. And everything works fine.”

Bucky goes to the closet and opens the door to take a look inside. It’s a walk-in. Not bad at all. “And rent’s due…?”

“First of every month.”

“Alright,” Bucky says, walking towards him and gesturing that they can head back out. As they walk back towards the living room, he figures he’s not risking anything by doing it, so he asks, “Got any neighbors with kids?”

“What, you mean in the building?”

“I mean above, below, or next to you.”

Steve sits down on the couch. After wavering on his feet a little, trying to decide what he should do, Bucky sits down on the other side of the couch. Steve hums and then answers, “Nope, not that I know. I think there’s a family down the hall, but not immediately next to me. Why? Hate children?”

Bucky snorts. “Not at all. More like, wouldn’t want ‘em hating me. Or, gettin’ scared or some shit.”

Steve’s staring at him, shaking his head a little with a confused look; one that clearly reads as, You’ve lost me. Maybe it’s because this whole thing feels like an out of body experience, or maybe it’s because whatever bitterness Bucky still has in his heart towards Steve Rogers wants to test just how sincere this whole ‘it’s so great to see you’ act is… See if it’ll take nothing at all to make Steve repulsed by him and turn his back on him again, like he did so easily all those years ago.

So he pulls his hands out of his pockets for the first time since he got there, and without thinking twice, slides the thin black gloves off. He hadn’t bothered with the silicon skin sleeve that day, so that means it’s nothing but the black joints of Bucky’s robotic prosthetic. The second Bucky watches Steve’s reaction, though, he’s regretting it. Because Steve doesn’t take to it the way he was expecting.

Steve’s eyes fall to it, and all the blood in his face drains south. There’s shock – of course there is – but no disgust. If anything, Steve looks like someone just took a knife and carved his heart out. For a brief moment, his eyes widen and his lips part, inhaling sharply. Then his mouth just sort of hangs open while Bucky watches his eyes dart all across it. The exhale is shallow, shaky. Steve’s brows pinch in the center as he closes his mouth, hardening his jaw.

Looking back up at Bucky’s face, his voice trembles as it fights to stay calm, and he whispers, “Buck… What--”

“This is what the war will do to ya,” Bucky mutters before he can even ask; face a lot calmer than Steve’s looks, but Bucky’s voice sounds way too formal and apathetic for his supposed casualness to come across in any way genuine.

“And no, I don’t feel like talking about it. But if you want me as a roommate, you might as well know the basics: I was gone for three tours, I’ve been out for a little less than two years, and I have – as some would like to say – ‘issues’. I ask if you have any families nearby because one of my favorite past-times since I’ve been back is to have nightmares and sometimes, they can wake up everyone around me, too,” he sardonically explains. “That gonna be a problem?”

“Buck…” Steve weakly starts again. But Bucky isn’t finished.

“This guy?” He holds up his left hand and adjusts the thumb with his right hand, forcing it to change grip patterns so he can watch Steve’s reaction when it whirs to life and begins to move. “This guy gets me looks. But it’s the best I can get, and I hate when people stare. I hate it – you get what I’m tryin’ to say?” he asks carefully, tipping his head down as his eyebrows rise.

Steve’s still watching the way the metal fingers move. But he looks more fascinated than put off, though still with that ‘wounded, someone killed my puppy’ look. Meeting Bucky’s eyes again, Steve nods.

Bucky sighs, habitually jabbing at his inner forearm where he knows the power button is, even when masked by his clothes. The arm shuts down, and he maneuvers the glove back on before getting it into his pocket again. He keeps his flesh hand out, though. Eyeing Steve carefully, Bucky’s heart races while he tries to figure out what’s going on in that blond head of his.

He knows he looks hard and maybe even cold on the outside, but inside, he’s freaking out. He knows that was a lot to throw at Steve all at once, but there’s no way he can even entertain the idea of moving in here if Steve of all people will look at him like he’s some sort of fucked up, empty shell.

Steve is the one person in this world that Bucky would not be able to handle that from. He needs to know for sure before he takes a risk this big.

“So?” he asks, a lot quieter now that most of his fire has been released; losing some of his steam. “How would this be, if I lived here?”

“I…” Steve shakes his head, stumbling over a few aborted sentences before exhaling sharply through his nose and setting his jaw again. Shuffling a little closer, he makes sure he’s looking straight into Bucky’s eyes when he tells him, “I’m sure people always see that and say, ‘I’m sorry’… right?”

Bucky’s lips are pressed into a tight line. Yeah, and he fucking loathes it every single time. Begrudgingly, he nods.

“Okay, well, I’m not going to say that,” Steve promises. Thinking, he keeps taking pause between sentences, like he’s still needing time to let everything soak in. “I obviously don’t know what you went through. Much as I’d like to try, I know I never will… But I think anyone who would judge you for something like that is nothing but an asshole, and you’re better off without ‘em. Same with the nightmares. If you lived here… which…” He sighs. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Buck; I know the idea’s a little weird, and I know we can’t just… go back to the way we were… But…”

Stubbornly, he peers back up into Bucky’s eyes. If Bucky still knew how to cry, he might want to do it now, because… that look hasn’t changed one bit. That’s Steve’s game face – completely serious, and not a trace of a lie in it. In this moment, Bucky feels like he’s a kid again, and this is the same little boy staring right back at him, about to propose some stupid, hair brain scheme that he thinks is brilliant but will undoubtedly get them into trouble.

“Look, if you’re not comfortable with it, then that’s fine,” the blond continues. “I just figured that because we know each other, it’d be a better idea than goin’ with complete strangers. But maybe you’re right, maybe it’ll be too weird. However… regardless, that?” he asks, gesturing with his index finger to the bulge in Bucky’s coat pocket.

“That is nothing you should ever feel the need to explain or justify, okay?” Steve tells him, dead serious. “Especially not to me. You know what I grew up with. You think just because I look different now, I’m not that same person? Getting taller and working out doesn’t mean I don’t still have asthma. I take these things out of my ears, and I still only have thirty-five percent of my hearing. If I take these off,” he keeps going, now pulling off his glasses, “you’re completely blurry to me, same as before.”

Already, he’s squinting uncontrollably, like Steve’s just gone and forgotten his point and is now trying to see if maybe he can push past the shortsightedness in his right eye and miraculously overcome his vision problems. He used to do that a lot when he first got his glasses – Bucky remembers that, too. It’s hilariously adorable and sort of sad at the same time, and it softens Bucky’s heart enough to get one corner of his mouth turning up into a reluctant smile.

“Put those back on,” Bucky mutters, taking Steve’s glasses from him and placing them back on the bridge of his nose. Using his pointer finger to push them back up, he adds, unable to keep the slightly protective tone out of his voice, “You know you only hurt your eyes more when you do that.”

He’s still got that tiny smile, and Steve right smiles back when he finally sees it and Bucky comes back into focus. “Thank you, Buck,” Steve says. “Look, my point is, I could never look at you differently for that… okay? And… Listen, even if us livin’ together isn’t the best idea, I don’t… I mean, I don’t wanna know that when you leave, we’re walking back out of each other’s lives again. I’d like to stay in touch; maybe grab a drink sometime or something.”

No, Bucky wants to say.

“…Okay…” he hears himself say instead. “I guess we could do that.” Goddamnit. It’s those eyes, he can’t say no to those eyes.

Steve’s beams at Bucky’s response, and it’s so dazzling and perfect – and Bucky still can’t get over how fucking stunning Steve is right now – that Bucky’s resolve weakens even more and his own smile grows a little.

“Okay,” Steve nods. “Okay, awesome. Well… You obviously got my number, and now I got yours, too, so…”

“Yeah,” Bucky murmurs back quietly. Steve’s still sitting really close to him. Bucky wants to brush his real fingers through Steve’s bangs so he can relearn what they feel like tickling against his skin. He hates that he feels that urge, all these years later. If he doesn’t leave soon, he’s going to do something to ruin this, whether that’s kiss him (this guy, who used to be the most important person in his life, but is now still essentially a stranger), or open his mouth and blurt out, ‘Why did you leave me?’

Right now, though, most of him is just happy that maybe he and Steve can start fresh. He’s not sure if that’s even possible, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get over what happened, but… he can try. For Steve, he can try – even if he’ll never be that same guy Steve knew. He hopes Steve can live with that.

“Um… I think I’m gonna go for now,” he says. “This was all a little…”

“Overwhelming,” Steve finishes.

Bucky looks at him again. “Yeah,” he quietly agrees.

Steve nods. “I know… For me, too.” They share another small smile, and then Steve offers, “I’ll walk you to the door.”

“I’m sure I can find it just fine on my own,” Bucky jokes, rising to his feet and letting Steve come with him anyways. “I’m not the one with the shitty eyesight.”

“Oh wow, hey, I didn’t know you were still planning on becoming a comedian,” Steve sarcastically quips, just like how they used to. Then Steve smiles warmly at him and opens the door, stepping aside so Bucky can walk through. “It was good to see ya, Buck.”

“Jay,” Bucky winds up finally correcting him, stepping back out into the hallway – and before he thinks better of it. Again.

“Huh?”

Bucky stares off, his words catching up to him. He appears a little lost when he looks back to Steve, like he likewise just threw himself off, but he hasn’t had anyone call him that in years, and it was starting to feel a little too… familiar… Comforting, in a way Bucky knows will only let him down. Bucky wants to try another stab at friendship as much as Steve seems to want to, but he’s not quite as willing to open himself back up again so easily.

Still, he realizes how awkward it is for him to correct Steve when he clarifies, “It’s Jay now. I haven’t gone by ‘Bucky’ since I started high school. Everyone just knows me as Jay.”

Steve’s smile suddenly looks weird. He doesn’t react for a second, and then blinks quickly and looks away with a nod. “Right,” he faintly says. “Sorry, thanks for letting me know. Might take me a few tries, ‘cause of… y’know, habit. But alright, no more ‘Bucky’.”

“I mean… I – you can still call me Bucky, if you want,” Bucky offers, immediately trying to back-pedal, because the look on Steve’s face makes Bucky instantly feel like a big bag of shit. Of everyone in his life, Steve was always the one to call him by his nickname. It was always Bucky or Buck, and no one else called him Buck but Steve. Bucky ripping that away from Steve like that probably came across as nothing more than him being spiteful. Really, the only reason that came out was reflex more than anything.

Sure enough, he feels disappointment when Steve turns that rueful smile his way and shakes his head. “Jay is fine,” he answers gently. “It’s whatever you’re comfortable with.”

Bucky nods, feeling for the millionth time like he just went and jammed his fingers into an otherwise positive situation; scrambling it all up and making it worse. “Alright. Well, um… thanks, Stevie,” he quietly says. “Um, I’ll call you. About the room, when I’ve made up my mind. Or for coffee or somethin’.”

Steve says nothing as he walks away. This time, Bucky doesn’t get stopped. But, right as he’s about to push open the door to the stairwell, he hears Steve call to him, “Hey Jay?”

Bucky hesitates for a second; hand still on the door. “Yeah,” he answers, looking back to him.

He can’t decipher Steve’s expression, but he seems to look as lost now as Bucky does. Definitely less peppy than minutes before. Voice falling a little flat, Steve tells him, “So long as we’re laying down some ground rules… The whole ‘Stevie’ thing?” And then he opens his mouth like he wants to say more, only to close it right afterwards. Once again, they’re back to standing there aimlessly, looking to each other like they don’t know what to do; like they don’t know how to be around each other anymore.

It’s a shitty feeling. Almost as shitty as how Steve’s words make him feel. It’s like a punch to the chest, and Bucky thinks, Ah. So that’s what I just went and did to him. Feeling gutted for what Steve said to him, but also feeling frustrated at gutting Steve for pretty much the exact same reason, he drops his gaze and nods, turning back and leaving before either of them can say anything else.

Bucky can’t remember the last time he walked out of a situation feeling that confused. Mostly, it’s because he genuinely can’t figure out if what just happened was a good thing, or a bad thing.

He does spend the rest of the day daydreaming about Steve Rogers, though.

Sadly, Bucky thinks that hardly answers the question for him.


It takes four whole days for him to make up his mind. In those four days, he tries – he really does – to see what other options are out there. But none of them feel right. As much as he hates the gut feeling that’s telling him that the best place for him is living with Steve, he realizes that it’s right. He tries to rationalize it by figuring that, of all the people he could be saddled up with, Steve’s the least likely to give him a hard time about his issues. Steve’s always been understanding; he’s the farthest thing from the type of person, say, Brock is. 

That gut feeling also gets a little harder to ignore when Steve texts him the day after Bucky had seen him. It was disgusting, how much Bucky’s stomach filled with butterflies the second his name popped up on Bucky’s phone. Despite the confliction he felt about their little reunion, the idea that Steve would think better on wanting to be friends again and change his mind felt infinitely worse. Yet he swiped open his phone to find not a hello, or even a reference to anything they’d spoken about the day before.

It was a joke. The worst joke Bucky had ever heard in his life.

What’s the difference between bird flu and swine flu?

Oh god.

I’m going to regret answering this text, aren’t I? he’d typed back.

Probably.

Okay, what?

If you have bird flu, you need to get a tweet-ment. If you have swine flu, you need oink-ment.

It was the single worst joke Bucky had ever heard – and yet he laughed so hard at the lameness of it that his stomach actually hurt for the rest of the afternoon.

You’re an idiot. That joke was horrible and you should feel bad, he replied. Then he thought that maybe that could come across entirely the wrong way, and not the harmless way he’d intended, so he added, When’s your first stand-up gig? Save me a ticket so I can come and heckle you.

Prepare to be the target of all my jokes. I am hilarious, Steve answered less than a minute later, and fuck Bucky’s life if that didn’t get him smiling some more.

They’ve spent the last several days since chatting through text, and sometimes it feels so normal again that Bucky can convince himself that nothing between them has changed. Other times, he’s typing out whole paragraphs of the things he really wishes they could talk about, so as to address the elephant in the room. All he ever does is delete them, though; tells himself, Give things a chance first, and if we can make this work, then bring it up.

On the fourth day, what drives him to his decision is when he wakes up from another nightmare to discover, to his horror, that he’s pissed the bed. He can’t even look at himself in the mirror when he quietly goes to the washroom to change his underwear and clean himself up. But when he’s back in his room and staring at the dirty sheets he now has to change at almost four in the morning, the thought he has is that Steve wouldn’t judge him for this. Bucky could never go and tell Brock about something like this, let alone even knock on his door and ask for some company – any form of comfort.

But Steve… It’s not as if he’d want Steve to see this, or see him like this… But to know that Steve wouldn’t have anything but comforting words to say is what makes him grab his phone at such an ungodly hour and text him, I’m in if you still are.

Later that day, he wakes up remembering having sent that text and feels panicked, wondering if maybe he’d just gone and put himself out there only to make a fool of himself. Yet when he grabs his phone, he sees that he has three missed texts from Steve. All he needs to do is read the first one to know in his heart that he is in fact making the right decision.

Thank god. I just had some forty-nine year old check out the room who kept ‘jokingly’ asking me whether I’d feel weird about him having a meth lab in there.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking.

My life could’ve just become an episode of Breaking Bad. From now on, please only refer to me as Walter White.

Bucky smiles again and texts him back, already making a mental note to run out so he can grab some boxes. He hasn’t smiled this much since he was nineteen, and he doesn’t ignore that fact either. In a way, it makes him anxious. He can’t afford to make the same mistake twice when it comes to Steve. This time, he can only love him as a friend, since he’s long since given up on the hope that it could ever be anything more than that between them.

At the same time… Later that afternoon, while Bucky’s beginning to work through packing up the stuff under his bed, he gets a picture text from Steve. He’s holding up the first season of Breaking Bad and making the most ridiculous, horrified face. Over top of the photo, he’d used his finger to write, ‘THIS WAS ALMOST ME, MAN’.

Exhaling a soft laugh, Bucky’s smiling again. It may be bittersweet, but it feels good, and this is the first time in two years that Bucky’s understood what it is to be hopeful again.


Bucky’s out of there several days before the month is even up. Brock hardly pretends to be heartbroken over it, and Bucky scoffs “Prick” under his breath when he’s finally heading out and Brock cheerily calls to him from the living room, “Hey, send my condolences to the new roomie!” 

Steve really goes out of his way to make Bucky feel welcomed. The guy had actually thought it was necessary to have a welcoming present for him. It’s a small, potted plant... and Bucky has no idea what to do with it.

“Uh,” he says when Steve plops it into his right hand.

“Yeah, I dunno either,” Steve admits.

“Thanks?”

“I wasn’t sure what to get you. Apparently people like to give other people shrubs when they get new places,” Steve jokes. They both eye it like they expect it to start singing Bucky a tune.

Bucky arches a brow. “That’s encouraging,” he replies, heading towards his new room. “‘Welcome to your new home – have some dirt with a root that’ll die on ya no matter how hard you work to keep it alive.’”

“I think I saw that in a Hallmark card once,” Steve says from his doorway, smirking at him. “It’s very inspiring.”

Bucky snorts quietly. “Sorry, let me try again: oh, Steve, you shouldn’t have. My very own plant? Why, whatever should I call it?”

Steve shakes his head, crossing his arms and chuckling, “Okay, man, I get it. It was a lousy gift.”

Bucky drops his duffel bag to the ground and then strides over to the window, giving Steve a purposely wide-eyed expression as he continues, “Should I put it here?” He places it down on the windowsill for only a second, before picking it back up and moving it to the other end of the windowsill. Really, he knows how plants work, and that’s really the only place it’ll get decent sunlight. “Or should I put it here? Y’know, I really think this’ll be the focal point of the room. You’re a miracle worker, Rogers, you’ve changed my life. I’m going to become a botanist.”

“You’re an ass,” Steve says, leaving to go grab some of Bucky’s boxes from the hallway.

“I heard plants stay alive longer if they’re surrounded by love, plant killer,” Bucky calls back, throwing his bag onto the bed and unzipping it.

“I give that thing a day then,” he hears Steve’s voice shout back, and Bucky’s glad Steve isn’t there to see the type of smile that puts on his face.

After that, they wile away the first day unpacking Bucky’s things, which really doesn’t take long, given that Bucky’s only got about nine boxes to his name. When he notices Steve sliding open the X-ACTO knife to cut open the tape on the box labelled ‘OLD’, Bucky practically lunges himself at it, grabbing the box off the bed before Steve gets the chance.

“This one doesn’t need to be opened,” he insists, going straight into the closet to dump it in there. Steve’s a little surprised by his reaction and narrowing his eyes, so Bucky explains, “Just some shit from when I was a kid. Family heirlooms and stuff, y’know? I don’t need ‘em at the moment, though.”

The answer seems to satisfy Steve, who shrugs in response and then glances about the room, replying, “Alright. Well, looks like we’re done then. Good work, team. Good work, plant; nice supervising. Anyways, pizza?”  

“Sure, I’m starving.”

So they order some pizza and make camp in the living room, and Bucky does his best not to give into the itch in his fingers to pick apart his toppings and eat the way he normally does when he’s alone. As they watch TV and drink through a couple beers, Bucky notices while they keep chatting that Steve seems to have a harder time remembering not to call him ‘Buck’ than he had when their correspondence had been nothing but texting. Actually, come to think of it, Bucky doesn’t remember Steve calling him by name during any of those conversations at all.

Even still, he doesn’t say anything when Steve makes the odd slip, because Steve’s quick enough to correct himself and apologize, even though Bucky tells him he doesn’t have to do that. Because he gets it; for as much as he’s enjoying himself, he’s also struggling to keep from calling him ‘Stevie’. Their refusal to surrender to their old ways is that lingering reminder that – for as much as they want to pretend – things between them just aren’t the same anymore.

Here and there, Bucky sneaks peeks Steve’s way. Bucky’s already assuming that one of the biggest challenges he’s going to face when it comes to living with Steve is resisting the impulse to stare. It’s not easy, though. He always thought Steve was attractive, but now it’s a little ridiculous. Bucky’s still getting used to such a drastic change. Since Steve wore contacts that day, Bucky can see his eyes even better. His hair’s a little more disheveled than the last time he saw him, like Steve just rolled out of bed, even though he’s apparently been up since the crack of dawn.

(Steve’s a morning person, from what he tells Bucky. Bucky warns him that if he ever tries to wake Bucky up before noon on his days off, it won’t be his fault if Steve gets pelted in the face with a flying alarm clock.)

Bucky’s staring again. Shit. Every time Steve takes a breath, his pecks push against his shirt and once again, Bucky’s speechless at the fucking size of him now. If things were the way they used to be, Bucky would feel comfortable making a teasing comment about needing to take Steve out shopping to buy new shirts. This one is no looser on the guy than the last one Bucky saw him wearing. He knows better than to say anything that insinuating, though, so his mouth stays shut. He isn’t sure whether to thank Steve for having zero awareness of how clothing works, or to hate him a little for being such a tease without even realizing it.

Sometimes, they make light conversation, and others, they sit in silence and continue watching TV. Bucky could just be paranoid, but he finds himself always dreading the periods where they stop talking because to him it feels incredibly uncomfortable. Steve’s body language is strange to him; seems to border somewhere between relaxed and uneasy, too. The worst thing about there being an elephant in the room is when both parties know it's there and yet neither person has the guts to actually acknowledge it.

After more than enough awkward silences than he can stand, the most Bucky can say on the subject is when he lets out a restless chuckle out of nowhere and mutters, “This feels a little weird.”

Steve keeps his eyes on the screen at first, humming so short and quiet that it almost misses Bucky’s ears. But then he looks to him and smiles apologetically. “Little bit, doesn’t it?”

How long are we going to keep pretending nothing happened?’ Bucky wants to ask him.

“Just feels a little surreal. I think I’m still tryin’ to wrap my head around the fact that you’re suddenly here again. Like, I actually just look over and see you; you’re right there,” Bucky says instead.

“Yeah… same. Am I super lame if I admit that I’m still happy about this, though? ‘Cause I am. I mean, it’s good to see you, Bu—Jay. Sorry, I will get that right eventually,” Steve sighs with a smile, shaking his head. The more Steve respects his wishes and actually calls him that, the more Bucky’s starting to hate the way it sounds coming out of his mouth.

He pushes down that thought. “Yeah, but you were always super lame.”

“Then at least that part of me hasn’t changed,” Steve jokes back, averting his gaze back to the TV. After taking a sip of his beer, he says, “This ain’t Asgard, but I think it’s kinda cool that we’re livin’ together. Didn’t we used to say something about getting a place in the city back then?”

Bucky’s smile drops. The moment Steve mentions Asgard, he can suddenly hear his younger self trying to comfort Steve on the phone, the night he’d given him the news about having to move. Still looking at Steve, it feels like someone just wrapped their arms around Bucky’s chest and are giving him a violent squeeze. He sees Steve sitting there, but then he sees that skinnier face instead – sweaty and tipsy and carefree – tipping over to look up at him. And Bucky remembers leaning down and kissing him, and what Steve’s fingers felt like when they tangled themselves into Bucky’s much shorter hair… And he remembers the way Steve had ended it; how that had felt…

Remembers Steve running after his car, and Bucky turning the corner.

The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service.

Bucky’s lost his appetite. Turning away, he finishes off his beer and then mumbles, “I think I’m gonna go lie down for a bit,” even though it’s barely even eight o’clock.

“You alright?” Steve asks, confused and concerned, and all the things Bucky doesn’t want Steve to feel for him.

Bucky doesn’t bother looking. He doesn’t want to meet those eyes. If they aren’t going to talk about what happened, it can’t be helped if Bucky’s going to feel those familiar pangs of betrayal whenever he can’t help but think back to it. Sticking his empty plate in the dishwasher, Bucky then drops his bottle into the recycling bin before heading straight for his new room and shutting the door with a half-hearted, “I’m fine. Goodnight.”

Steve doesn’t follow. The nice thing about Steve Rogers is that he’s compassionate enough to know when it’s the right time to press a person and offer his support. The downside is that he’s also compassionate enough to understand when a person just needs some time to themselves; when it’s the better to give them some space.

For the rest of the night, Bucky stares blankly at the wall in front of him and does his best not to remember. He tries not to be angry with Steve for giving him what he wants.


Within a few weeks, things start to get more comfortable. They still haven’t even somewhat touched on the past yet, but they do begin to relearn what it is to be around each other every day. Despite it being the most confusing and sometimes painful time Bucky can remember going through in years, he also can’t recall when he last felt so happy. 

They go about their regular lives and see each other when their schedules line up. Steve turns out to be a busy boy; working down at the Brooklyn Art Studios a few days a week, apparently instructing hot yoga classes a couple other nights (of course, of COURSE he does; it’s not like the image that puts into Bucky’s mind makes him want to bash his head off a wall or anything), and going to his classes over at NYAA in the mornings and afternoons to get his Graduate’s Degree.

And Bucky has his things, too, he supposes – still goes into his own job four days a week, has his therapy sessions with Doctor Richards on Mondays and Thursdays, physio on Fridays, and tries to force himself not to slack on his daily jogs whenever he first wakes up every day. He tries to stay social, too, even though he’d admittedly rather be staying at the apartment (not even just to see Steve, but also just cause… well, he prefers the quiet). But Logan and a couple others from his first (and only) year of college invite him out a couple times, and even if it’s just for a few hours, Bucky pushes himself to go.

Steve invites him out at one point as well, to grab some dinner with a few of their old friends from elementary school. Apparently Steve still hangs out with them all the time, and the majority of them went to high school together. From the sounds of it, Bucky’s childhood fears of being replaced by Sam Wilson eventually did wind up happening, from the way Steve’s always talking about him. Bucky tries to remind himself that things are different now, and he can’t exactly be surprised.

When Steve tells him that Clint’s actually engaged now to some ‘incredible spitfire’ named Natasha, Bucky can hardly believe it. It’s even more unbelievable when Steve describes Clint’s fiancée to him and laughs about how ‘completely nuts about her’ the guy is.

“Dude, she cracks down the whip,” Steve says at one point. “She doesn’t take anyone’s bullshit. Clint practically worships the ground she walks on and follows her around like a lovesick puppy, even though they’ve been together for like four years. It’s awesome.”

Clint Barton, settling down at twenty-seven? Clint Barton, being a total romantic and not giving a crap who knows it? Even as kids, Bucky would’ve pegged him as the one in the group to be a bachelor until he was old and wrinkly and living a life just like Hugh Heffner. Needless to say, Bucky’s interest is piqued, and curiosity makes him really want to go, even if it’s just to see some familiar faces. He wonders how much the old gang has changed over the years; who’s stayed exactly the same by comparison.

But he can’t do it. Bucky’s not living in the same world as them anymore. He doesn’t think he’s even had any contact with any of them since before he was first shipped out, and that was way back in ‘08. Since his discharge, he’s pretty much been going out of his way to avoid any communication with the people from his old life. He ignores Facebook messages and pretends never to notice if they comment on the odd post he puts up here and there.

He assumes they would never be able to understand – why he’s not the same guy anymore, why he hasn’t been around in years, why he’s broken… And normally, Bucky could put on a brave face and brush it off, but… these people aren’t just strangers to him. They used to be as much his family as his own flesh and blood. To imagine them looking at him differently now… The very thought crushes him and makes him cower.

He’d have to watch them stare at his arm and squirm uncomfortably in their seats like people always do; get asked what happened and then only further kill the mood by changing the subject and refusing to talk about it. He’s sure of it. The only thing he’d be capable of doing if he let them back into his life is let them down.

There are little places in the world left for Bucky Barnes. Within this circle of friends is no longer one of them. So, despite Steve’s disappointment, Bucky declines and instead spends his evening watching Netflix off his laptop and wishing he’d gone – but also knowing he’s never going to.


He’d been doing so well by his standards. Steve typically didn’t seem to feel the need to look twice at his arm, unless it was to ask questions. But not the typical ones – unlike everyone else who’d ever seen it, Steve wanted to understand its mechanics. He said that it fascinated him. At first, Bucky kept staring at him like Steve was an alien, because he wasn’t used to this sort of reaction. He isn’t even a big fan of his prosthesis – as helpful as it is to him – so to suddenly have someone else looking at it like it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen made him wary at first. 

Steve was the last person that would ever mock him, and Bucky knew it, so he wasn’t sure why he’d questioned his friend’s integrity. Of course, when Bucky walked him through the different functions and explained the array of options he has in terms of grip patterns, or the way he can control the arm with the two specific muscles in his bicep, Steve seemed to know better than to try and ask how exactly Bucky came by needing it in the first place. He didn’t baby him, or take pity on him (even if Bucky could still see traces of sorrow in Steve’s beautiful blue eyes while he took it all in), or stick his nose where it didn’t belong by wanting to know what happened to Bucky while he’d been overseas serving. 

No, what Steve wanted to ask was if he could draw it.

And just like that, it made complete sense in Bucky’s head why the blond had been eyeing it with such enthrallment. Right – because Steve’s an artist and a total dork. He’d always found the most random things to become inspired by. Bucky had replied with a slow, “Um…” and then kept repeating that a few times like an idiot, hyper-aware of his bionic arm all of a sudden and feeling very self-conscious. He finally answered, “Rain check? M’not so sure I’m comfortable with that just yet.”

Steve’s eyes softened, and he smiled at him and replied, “Of course, buddy. Sorry, that was a stupid question--”

“Nah, I mean, it’s fine--”

“That was a little rude of me--”

“Well, I mean yeah, but… I expect that from you by now,” Bucky harmlessly replied, “…punk.” Then they held eye contact for a split second, before one corner of Bucky’s mouth curled up and Steve smiled back at the nickname, in that heart-stopping way Bucky hasn’t seen him smile like in over ten years. He’d found an excuse to quickly flee the room after that, only confusing Steve more by his sudden mood shift and complete one-eighty… again.

Aside from little moments like those, though, Bucky still likes to think he’d been doing pretty well, if he does say so himself.

But then, of course, the nightmares finally come back.

Surprisingly, it takes almost three and a half weeks for Bucky to have them at all in the new apartment. That’s probably the longest he’s gone without one ever in the last two years. But he was never arrogant enough to think for one second that they wouldn’t eventually find him again. Bucky can only run for so long before they always catch up.

It’s horrible, and worse, it’s new. For as horrifying as his nightmares are, Bucky’s at least used to the variety by now; normally he’s either unable to move and is forced to watch his men die around him (or on some nights, worse yet, watching Steve die, over and over), or he’s being tortured again; sometimes relives the moment when he’d made the decision to sever his own arm off for the chance at freedom.

But for whatever reason, this time his mind decides it wants to rip Bucky apart in an entirely new way – because he’s restrained on the table again, and he’s being burned and cut open and hit and hit and hit, but when the blindfold gets pulled off his face, it’s Steve smiling back down at him. Steve talks to him sweetly and then shatters Bucky’s kneecap. Steve lights a flame against the underside of that rusty blade so he can then press it to Bucky’s chest and listen to the way his flesh sizzles and melts and it fucking smells so bad…

Steve never stops smiling, and every time Bucky begs him to stop and pleads with him, Steve simply tips that smile his way and croons, ‘The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and try your call again.’

It’s got Bucky under so deep that not even his own screaming wakes him up this time. Instead, it’s when Bucky can start hearing somewhere in the distance, “Bucky! Bucky, wake up! Bucky, Jesus – come on, Buck! Buck!

Louder and louder, until suddenly the Steve in his nightmare forms his lips around those words – and suddenly Bucky’s opening his eyes and flailing on the bed when he actually sees Steve leaning over him. He doesn’t recognize the room he’s in and he’s still dreaming, he’s sure of it, oh god, no please, he has to get away, please don’t do this to me Stevie… And now Bucky finally does begin to shout – ragged, desperate, horribly pained sounds – while he struggles to break free from the large hands palming his shoulders. Staring up at Steve with nothing left in his eyes but pure, unfiltered fear, Bucky can’t even form words as he helplessly tries to escape with his life, like a cornered, wounded animal.

But Steve won’t let him go. The grip he has on Bucky’s shoulders is strong enough to keep him where he is, but still gentle somehow… Steve would never hurt meNot like that… Please, not like that…

“Bucky, Bucky, hey!” Steve repeats, worry all over his face. He’s not shouting at him, but he has to raise the volume of his voice to fight over the vehemence of Bucky’s yelling. “You’re okay – Buck, you’re alright, just a dream, you were just dreaming. It’s okay, hey, follow my voice… I got you Bucky. Come back to me, I got you…” 

When Steve moves the hand on Bucky’s left shoulder to brush his palm over Bucky’s forehead, smoothing his sweaty hair off his face, Bucky freezes. Staring off with his eyes still wide and unfocused, his mouth continues to hang open with shrill, violent gasps. Then he feels that hand slide down to his cheek and cup it; Steve’s thumb stroking along his cheekbone. It helps snap Bucky out of his stupor enough to blink and then close his eyes, shutting his mouth for a moment to swallow before panting shakily.

His fight or flight instincts abandoning him as quickly as they came, Bucky’s left feeling weak and exhausted. Though the tension in his muscles stays, his body now slumps heavily into the mattress while he opens his eyes again and stares off vacantly, trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. The sense of familiarity with his new room slowly comes back to him in pieces, one at a time.

Steve’s still speaking to him. As he alternates between keeping his palm pressed to Bucky’s cheek and combing his fingers through Bucky’s hair to clean it out of his face, he doesn’t move from his side while he takes a few deep breaths himself and whispers soothingly, “Shh, it’s okay… You’re okay… I’m here, I’m right here, Buck… Shh, you’re safe, was just a dream…”

Bucky’s still not fully aware yet. He’s never had someone with him when this has happened in the past, and it’s the first time he’s waking up this way in this strange new place, with Steve Rogers of all people comforting him. It’s why Bucky finally looks back up at Steve and isn’t convinced he’s really there. He’s not sure what to believe. But he begins to tremble, and before he can think better of it, he’s surging up so he can throw his right arm around Steve’s back and smother his face against the bare skin of Steve’s shoulder.

Steve wraps his arms around him without any hesitation, and maybe it’s because this sort of care is completely foreign to Bucky, but when he feels Steve start stroking his hair again as he continues to gingerly murmur reassurance, Bucky startles and then releases a strained, broken whimper. The fingers in his hair pause, but only for a moment. Steve only hugs him tighter after that.

“Shh… It’s okay… It’s okay…” Steve keeps breathing, resting his cheek against the side of Bucky’s head.

They stay that way for a while, with Steve cradling the back of Bucky’s head and playing with his hair, or letting his hand slide down Bucky’s naked back and rub wide, comforting circles against his skin. Every now and then, Bucky – still not fully convinced that this is real – will moan as if he’s in pain, or whimper, “Stevie,” like it’s a plea. Always sounding right on the verge of tears, but… Bucky’s still incapable of crying. He wishes he could. The rest of him is doing a good enough job at feeling like it’s falling apart.

And with every sound, every movement, every smallest shift Bucky makes, Steve never lets go or stops touching him in one way or another; always responds by whispering some more, “Shh… M’right here… Not leavin’ you, Buck… You’re safe, I’ll keep you safe, don’t worry… It’s alright, shh…”

For almost ten minutes, Bucky’s so out of it that he doesn’t even realize that he’s got no shirt on, and that the stump of his left arm is wedged between Steve’s side and Steve’s right arm. Steve, thank god, is so preoccupied with being Bucky’s rock that he doesn’t notice either. When he finally comes to his senses, Bucky feels the mortification but is too exhausted to show it. He stops making sounds, and Steve picks up on the subtle change in Bucky’s demeanor. Taking hold of the side of his face again, he pulls away so he can get a look at the brunet’s face.

They’re only inches away from each other.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, quiet and seemingly calm. Bucky can see how terrified he really is though.

Bucky swallows again and then gives a tiny nod. “Yeah… I think so… I’m sorry I woke you up…”

It’s so different, having Steve stroke his thumb over his cheek again when Bucky’s actually looking into his eyes. His heart feels like it’s in his mouth. He can feel himself slowly starting to get hard beneath his blanket, so he crosses his arms over top of his lap to hide it away. He doesn’t move anything else, though. His face is so close to Steve’s that he can see the faint traces of summer freckles that everyone always used to forget he had. Steve had been so focused on rushing to Bucky’s aid that he never even stopped to put his glasses on. There’s nothing standing between Bucky and those eyes…

“Don’t be, it’s okay,” Steve reassures him. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

Bucky frowns, his and Steve’s eyes still locked. Exhaling a sharp breath out of his nose, he shakes his head. You can’t do this again, a voice in his head reminds him. This is too risky. Fuck, but it’s right. Bucky could lean in right now and have his mouth on Steve’s in a split second… Just like when they were stupid kids, but Bucky would actually know what to do with himself this time. Steve would just stop him again, though. Despite however supportive he’s being right now, Steve still left him. He dropped Bucky from his life for fourteen years without a care in the world. Being held by him like this now, it makes it even more difficult to process because Bucky’s starting to feel like it doesn’t make sense…

How can Steve clearly still care about him and constantly be trying to get back the friendship they used to have, when he let it go so easily? It’s as if Bucky’s missing something, but he’s been certain this whole time that he had all the pieces figured out.

Bucky tries to swallow the lump in his throat. Any closer and he might be able to feel Steve’s breath on his face. He could just lean in and… It’d be so easy to…

“How blurry am I right now?” he whispers hoarsely.

Steve’s eyes drop down to his mouth, and Bucky forgets how to breathe. Sounding lost, Steve whispers back, “You’re not. I can see you, Buck…”

Bucky’s going to do it. He’s going to lean in and he’s going to kiss Steve Rogers, and they can try and figure out the rest of this confusing shit-heap of a pile together. Right before he can lean in however, his mind interjects, trying to save him in time:

Stop. You can’t do this again. He won't kiss you back this time.

Bucky remembers the way Steve had abruptly pushed him away once before. ‘I want to go home…’ He remembers Steve wanting nothing but to forget it ever happened; pretend it away, because all he saw Bucky as was a friend. A friend who… didn’t even need him anymore because… The number you are trying to reach--

Bucky changes his mind (seems to be what he’s best at now); forces himself to look away, and it feels nighly painful to do it. “I want one of my shirts, please,” he announces dejectedly, severing the invisible electric thread he could’ve sworn was connecting them just now.

You’re being delusional. Vulnerability is exactly what it sounds like – a weakness. Fall back in love with Steve a second time and you’ll never make it out alive.

True again. Bucky doesn’t have enough pieces of himself intact nowadays to be able to withstand such a blow. He just can’t handle it.

For a moment, Steve’s brows crease with slight tumult. “What…?” Then his brows shoot up as he finally notices that Bucky’s left, incomplete bicep is out on display, and he turns red, exclaiming, “Oh! Yeah, okay, umm…” Steve withdraws his hands and quickly gets off the bed, going to Bucky’s dressers. Hovering uncertainly, he glances back to him and asks, “Which one…?”

Bucky points. “Second to the bottom,” he quietly instructs. “Any one of them will do.” Steve pulls out a navy blue t-shirt and brings it over. Bucky only meets his eyes for a moment before saying, “Thanks,” and taking it, working it over his head and feeling a wash of relief when the baggy sleeve drapes over his stump enough to hide it again.

They sit for a while, not saying anything. But the whole time, Steve has his hand placed over Bucky’s, and strokes the top of it with his thumb, the same way he’d caressed Bucky’s cheek. His nerves shot to shit, Bucky wants to apologize some more for waking him up, while at the same time apologizing in general for being so fucked up now. He’s also jumping to the other recurring impulse, which is to bite the bullet and blurt out, ‘Why’d you leave me, Steve? Why wasn’t I enough for you no more?

He’s actually grateful when Steve breaks the silence by asking an entirely different question – not because Bucky’s glad that they’re once again avoiding the subject like the plague, but because the topic makes him so stressed out that part of him is also looking for excuses to prolong that conversation as long as possible. He’s glad Steve’s providing that scapegoat, even if Steve doesn’t know it.

“So, what do you usually do when this happens?” the blond asks. “Is there anythin’ that helps? Glass of milk, or a shower, or watching a movie? Somethin’ like that?”

Bucky huffs out a humorless, self-deprecating chuckle and shrugs, glancing over to his window; seeing the moon outside, big and bright. “I dunno… Normally I’d get into my car and go to this little diner I know,” he admits. “But it’s not quite as convenient to head over there anymore. It’d be like a half hour drive.”

Steve’s staring at him, and Bucky can feel it. When he gives in and looks back to him, he can see the gears spinning behind those magnificent blue eyes. He always used to get this little look on his face, whenever he set his mind to something. No one else ever seemed to pick up on it, but to Bucky, it had always been obvious. So he can see the exact moment when Steve makes the decision for them.

“C’mon,” he decisively says, patting Bucky’s leg and getting off the bed.

Bucky watches him head for the door, making no move to follow. “‘Scuse me?”

“What? It’s only--” Steve squints at Bucky’s alarm, unable to actually see the time thanks to having forgotten his glasses in the other room.

Bucky spares it a glance. “One-twenty-eight,” he answers. (Why is he not surprised.)

Steve gives him an unassuming smile. Now that he’s standing, it actually sinks in that Steve’s been there this whole time in nothing but a pair of track pants. Eyes quickly falling to his abdomen, Bucky gets his first proper look at Steve’s upper body with no clothing to hide it. Jesus fuck, this is so not fair right now.

The smile on Steve’s face is innocent and boyish and everything Steve Rogers is fucking not – but he’s got the body of a motherfucking Adonis, and it forces terrible thoughts into Bucky’s mind. Like… Pinching and flicking his tongue over Steve’s pink little nipples while Steve yanked on his hair, maybe… Or… mouthing over his ribs, his abs, his biceps… Suck on all that smooth, unblemished skin until it’s blotched with different shades of reds and purples…

This is one of those times where Bucky thinks moving in with Steve was the biggest mistake he ever made.

Clearing his throat, he forces his gaze back up no more than a split second after it fell, and hikes his legs up, bending his knees and making it impossible for Steve to see that Bucky’s completely at full mast now. First he was shattering in Steve’s arms from a night terror, and now he’s sitting there wanting to fuck him into the floor. Bucky really is a fucking mess.

“I said c’mon,” Steve repeats encouragingly. If he noticed Bucky staring just now at his body, he’s not showing it. “It’s not that late. Just lemme throw on some proper clothes and then we can head out.”

“Steve, you were asleep no more than twenty minutes ago.”

“Yeah, so? I’m up now,” Steve says with a shrug. Clapping his hands, he orders, “Get up, lazy bones! Let’s get some food into us!” Then he turns and heads out, and Bucky knows he has no choice in the matter.

Shaking his head, Bucky rolls his eyes and smiles.

 

---

 

“How’d you even hear me anyways?” Bucky asks when he and Steve are sitting in his regular booth less than an hour later. He’s sipping from his glass of water and anxiously waiting for Angie to come over to bring him his tea. Her eyes looked like they were going to fall out of her head when she saw him walk into the diner with Steve next to him. He pretended he didn’t notice the open-mouthed grin she got seconds later, clapping her hands giddily as she bounced up and down a few times, clearly reading way more into the situation than there was the read – but happy for him nonetheless.

Steve’s sitting across from him, taking in the diner, which he called ‘adorable’. “Hmm?”

“Earlier, how did you hear me? I thought you never slept with your hearing aids in,” Bucky says.

“Ah, right. Yeah, I tend to keep them in most of the time now, even when I go to bed. Anyways,” he quickly says, changing the topic suspiciously, “this place is nice. Seems like the people here know you pretty well.”

“Yeah, they’re great,” Bucky admits. “I started comin’ here a few months after I got back, and I guess I just never really stopped. Sort of became my go-to.”

“Hey, whatever helps, right?” Steve asks with a small, supportive smile. “Plus, coming here this time of night? Definitely has its perks.”

“No lineups,” Bucky jokes.

“No wait time on your meals,” Steve adds. “Nice and quiet. I hate when restaurants are super busy; feel like I can never hear myself think.”

“Yeah…” Bucky promptly closes his mouth and ends his input there when he looks past Steve and sees Angie striding towards them with Bucky’s cup of tea, and the hot chocolate Steve ordered. When she locks eyes with Bucky, she grins again, and Bucky smiles back, raising his eyebrows as he silently pleads, Please don’t freak out. Don’t ruin this for me.

“Here you are, boys,” she beams, handing them each their beverage. Staring at Steve with that knowing smile for far longer than Bucky would ever like, she turns to him and suggestively asks, “Jay, are you gonna introduce me to your friend?”

“Uh, yeah. Sorry, um, this is Steve,” Bucky offers. “Steve, this is Angie. She’s an angel. Make sure you tip her well. You’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t,” he jokes.

Steve shakes her hand. “Good evening, ma’am,” he politely says.

Angie giggles. “Well my, my, isn’t he the little charmer? So polite, Jay, I think you outta keep him.”

Bucky’s eyes widen as he looks from her to Steve. Steve likewise starts turning pink, but instead of getting that same baffled expression as Bucky, he dips his chin down to his chest and peers away with the faintest of shy smiles. “Oh,” he chuckles, “uh, no--”

“He’s just a friend,” Bucky explains at the same time.

“Yeah. It’s a long story.”

“We’re actually roommates now,” Bucky continues.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry – I didn’t mean to assume,” she quickly says.

“It’s okay,” Steve replies, not looking put off in the least.

Angie gives Bucky an apologetic look, so Bucky smiles tiredly and assures her again that it’s fine. It’s easier not to freak out when Steve’s taking it so well, so he tells himself that everything’s still okay. After a few sufficiently awkward moments, Angie throws on that happy-go-lucky tone again and asks Steve, “Alright, well, now that I hopefully haven’t gone and ruined that tip he told you about, are you ready to order or do you think you need a few more minutes with the menu?”

Steve closes it and rests his hands on top of it. “I’ll order whatever Jay usually gets,” he tells her.

Angie’s smile wavers as she quickly looks over to Bucky to see if that’s alright. Bucky’s likewise surprised by this answer and so he leans forward a bit and asks, “Don’t you even wanna know what exactly you’d be getting?”

“Nope,” Steve replies, shooting Bucky a side-glance. “I want to be surprised.” Though he’s still smiling, Bucky can hear the silent, Don’t question me on this. I can make my own choices. He looks very much like the scrawny kid who never wanted Bucky to make his decisions for him in their youth.

“Uh… Okay, I guess he’ll have the same thing as me,” Bucky says to their waitress.

Angie smiles again and nods, replying, “Comin’ right up,” before walking away (and winking at Bucky before she does, damnit, but they’d just told her…).

“Don’t be surprised if you don’t wind up finishing all of it,” Bucky warns him, forcing himself to ignore that, too. “I tend to get a lot.”

“Don’t underestimate the size of my stomach,” Steve retaliates. “I have to eat like a horse these days. It’s the only way I can gain any muscle.”

“You mean you’re tryin’ to gain more?” Bucky asks in disbelief. “Your shirts can barely take you as it is. Any bigger and those babies are gonna rip clean off the moment you so much as breathe.”

Steve laughs. “No, smartass. But if I wanna keep it and stop it from turnin’ all into body fat, it’s basically all about exercise and calorie intake. Basically the Catch 22 that no one ever warned me about when I started working out.”

“Yeah, it must be horrible to look the way you do,” Bucky dryly jokes. “You have it so hard.”

Steve smiles at that, but doesn’t answer. Interestingly, he only takes a sip of his hot chocolate and then changes the subject again by saying, “I’ll bet you ten bucks that I’ll clean my entire plate before you’re even halfway through.”

“Steve, you still owe me ten bucks from the time I bet that you couldn’t lick your elbow and then I watched you try for, like, an hour.”

“Then if I win this one, we’ll call it even.”

Bucky narrows his eyes at him. The Steve he remembers wouldn’t be able to eat half of the portion he’s about to get. Then again, this isn’t exactly the same Steve that Bucky remembers. Still, the offer is playful and Steve has that stupid, adorably goofy smile on his face while he awaits Bucky’s answer. So he sighs with mock exasperation and then says, “Fine, you’re on.”

But then when the meal comes, Bucky's completely forgetting about the little bet they have going - because he can’t believe he let himself be this much of an idiot. It doesn’t dawn on him until Angie’s setting his plate down in front of him that now Bucky’s just put himself into a predicament that screws him over no matter what he does: either forego his usual routine so Steve won’t see, or do it and then take that risk that he’s been avoiding the entire time he’s lived there so far.

He’s going to think I’m a freak.

“Buck?” he hears Steve asking. Bucky’s still staring at the food, and this time, Steve doesn’t correct himself for messing up his name. “Hey, you okay? You’re white as a ghost. Is this not what you usually get? I can call her back over if--”

“No, it’s fine,” Bucky interrupts unsteadily. Forcing a smile, he grabs his knife in his right hand and the fork in his metal one and gives Steve a quick glance before adding unconvincingly, “It looks good. I was just thinking. Sorry, zoned out for a second.”

Taking a deep breath, he starts to eat the home fries without rearranging his plate the way he normally does first. He can do this. If it means Steve won’t have to see just how messed in the head Bucky is now, he can do this. He can’t scare Steve off; it’s too soon. It’s just mind over matter, that’s all it is, that’s all it is, be normal, FUCK, why can’t you be normal!?

From the second that first bite goes into his mouth, he feels like he’s going to vomit. He wills himself to keep going anyways, and his hands are shaking and his face is getting red, but Bucky keeps shoveling food into his mouth to try and trick his brain into thinking that everything’s alright. He knows Steve’s watching him – staring, he’s already staring and Bucky’s trying to do the RIGHT thing for fuck’s sake; he’s coming off crazy no matter WHAT he does – and in an attempt to avoid talking, he chews the potatoes in his mouth so enthusiastically just to try and get them down that his teeth are crashing together painfully with every bite.

“Buck…?” he hears Steve slowly ask, but he sounds like he’s standing on the other side of a tunnel.

Except it’s not alright, it’s the farthest thing from alright, because this isn’t how this normally goes, and this was the only thing Bucky’s ever been able to control since he’s been back, and he knows it’s just food for fuck’s sakes--

“Bucky, are you okay?”

--but his breathing’s starting to get rougher, and his pulse is picking up speed, and every bite is getting harder to swallow because it feels like his throat’s closing up – oh Christ, he’s about to have a panic attack--

“I can’t do this,” he chokes out, dropping his cutlery and letting it clang loudly off of his plate. Speaking quickly, he’s covering his face with both hands and getting irrationally frustrated, insisting louder and louder, “Too hard, it’s too hard, I can’t, I fucking can’t!

“Bucky--”

“That’s not my name!” Bucky shouts at him, slamming his fists down onto the table and making the entire diner go silent. He can faintly hear Angie running over and sounding distressed when she asks Steve if he’s alright, if she should call somebody – but before Bucky knows what he’s doing, he’s slamming his metal arm down on one side of the plate. “Stop staring at me!” he yells at them both. “It’s not okay, I’m not fucking crazy – I just can’t do this! I can’t do this!” And then he’s whipping his arm across the table, sending the plate flying off and crashing to the ground.

Bucky hears it crack when it hits the floor, and distantly, he knows the food’s now scattered everywhere, and he knows that Angie’s running to go clean it up while her and Steve address each other to try and diffuse the situation before it gets any worse. Having dealt with this happening a few times before, Angie still looks visibly shaken but keeps her voice steady when she insists to Steve, “I got it, it’s fine! Just go sit with him!”

Bucky’s got his forehead pressed to the table and his arms shielding the back of his head as Steve quickly slides out from his side and joins Bucky. Bucky’s breathing raggedly, feeling similar to how he’d felt when he was jarred away from his nightmare earlier, and he can’t breathe, he can’t, he was supposed to be able to control this, this one little thing in his life, it was supposed to be his, it didn’t matter if people stared, he controlled it, and now he feels helpless again.

Can’t breathe, they’re pouring water over his face and he can’t breathe, he wants to beg them to let him die when they do this to him but they never understand his words – just keep pouring and pouring, and he’s strapped to the table again, and he can hear bombs and gunfire and all of his unit is dropping like flies, littering the ground around him, he’s useless and can’t do a thing, he can’t breathe, they’re gonna leave him there to rot if he doesn’t get out of there--

Steve leans forward and rests some of his weight on Bucky’s back, bringing his hand to the back of his head and resting it for a moment atop Bucky’s hands, giving them a comforting squeeze. Bucky can feel fingertips then grazing back and forth along his nape, and somewhere in the distance, Steve’s voice travels closer and closer to him: “Shh, Bucky, it’s okay… Just… Just breathe for me, alright? You’re safe, wherever you are, you’re not there anymore… Shh, you’re… you’re here with me, and… And your friend, Angie, you remember her? Your name… is James… Buchanan Barnes. You’re in a diner in Queens, New York, and you’re safe… You’re safe, breathe for me, Buck… Can you breathe with me?”

The gunfire and the detonating bombs slowly wash away. His head still against the table, hidden beneath his arms tenting over his head so Steve can’t see him, he lets out a few dry sobs and then nods, gritting his teeth. “From ten,” he chokes out.

“What?”

“Inhale. Pause. Exhale, and count backwards from ten,” Bucky recites, same way as it’d been told to him.

“Okay, okay buddy, we’ll do that. Alright… Take a deep breath for me,” Steve gently instructs. He sounds like his lips are right behind Bucky’s ear, like he’s draping himself over Bucky and cocooning him inside this booth. Safe from the outside world while he works through it. He keeps soothingly rubbing the back of Bucky’s neck in his hand.

Bucky pulls it together enough to follow his orders and inhale, as long and as deep as he can until he feels like his lungs could burst. When he exhales, Steve counts backwards from ten, then murmurs encouragement while Bucky shakes some more and takes another breath. They continue this for almost a whole minute, and then Bucky slowly lifts his head. He stares ahead, eyes void of anything really there, until he sees Angie stand in his peripheral vision.

Turning his head to look at her, he sees the broken glasses on the table to her right and all the strewn food back on the plate, which she appears to have picked up by hand in the midst of the commotion. Bucky’s face twists up.

“Ange,” he croaks weakly, “I’m… I’m so sorry…”

Angie’s got tears in her eyes, but she gives Bucky a tight, sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry about it, hun. Trust me, you’re still my favorite customer,” she promises. Looking to Steve, she tells the blond, looking a little unnerved but trying to push past it, “You did good, Steve, thanks. I’m… I’m just gonna go give this to Marty and then step outside for some fresh air for a few minutes. I’ll be right back to grab the glass – you two gonna be alright without me?”

“Yeah,” Steve tells her. “We’ll be fine. Thank you, ma’am.”

“Angie,” she corrects as she walks away.

Bucky miserably watches her go, feeling more humiliated and awful than he’s felt in such a long time. Fuck, he really is crazy. He was just trying to act ‘normal’ so things wouldn’t have to be uncomfortable, but he couldn’t even get that right. He straightens up a bit with a small sigh, and Steve straightens with him, wrapping Bucky up with his right arm and pulling Bucky to him.

Giving him a little shake, Steve quietly asks, “You okay?”

“Just say it,” Bucky mutters, furious with himself for ruining what had been a nice time. “You think I’m fucked up.”

“What? Buck-- Jay, I could never think that about you,” Steve replies, sounding a little offended by the mere suggestion. Bucky stays silent, so Steve gives him a little shake and repeats, “I could never think that about you. Ever.”

Bucky can’t look at him. He keeps his mouth closed and keeps his eyes downcast at the table. Now’s the time when the questions start. Now’s the time when the judgments come. It isn’t fair; he’s been to hell and back, and yet he can still function properly in so many other aspects of his life. Yet he has one nightmare or he doesn’t eat his food a certain way and Bucky’s completely falling apart. He wants to list off all the other ways in his life that Bucky’s still a regular fucking human being, just to prove to Steve that he isn’t crazy. As much as he may feel like his disorders sometimes run his life from time to time, he’s not alright with other people drawing that same conclusion.

He bites down on his tongue and waits for the inevitable.

His brows then furrow when he sees Steve’s hand come into view, slowly reaching across the table to grab his own plate. His food’s still untouched, and to Bucky’s confusion, Steve says nothing and carefully pulls the plate over so it’s where Bucky’s had just been. They both stare at it in silence, Bucky’s confusion growing until Steve turns his face towards him and softly asks, “Can you show me?”

It’s a trick. Show him and you’ll lose him.

Except when he turns his face and looks back to Steve, he can see the naked honesty in his friend’s eyes; his genuine desire to see into Bucky’s mind and try to understand. This isn’t a trick, it’s real. Bucky’s breathing catches as, for the first time in over half a decade, he feels his eyes suddenly fill with tears. Swallowing shallowly, he quickly looks away and sniffles, blinking them back before they can fall. Not saying anything, he stares back down at the plate in front of them, and then hesitantly reaches over to pick up Steve’s fork.

He’s aware of his every movement; feeling so anxious and embarrassed that he could pass out. He goes through the motions and slowly works his way through his routine, shaping Steve’s plate the way he wishes he could’ve done with his own. It’s not quite the same, but it does bring him enough physical relief that he feels substantially calmer by the time he’s done boxing the home fries into that tighter little square shape.

Releasing a quivering breath, Bucky places the fork back down and then bunches his hands – real and robotic – in his lap. He never takes his eyes off the plate, because he doesn’t want to see the way Steve’s staring right now. He can feel the tenderness in Steve’s gaze without having to look into his eyes; it’s practically radiating off of him. But tenderness can be easily misinterpreted as sympathy, and Bucky wants none of that. Sympathy is a form of judgment. Bucky just wishes he was invisible right now instead.

Steve takes the fork back into his own hand. He holds it above the plate, slowly hovering it over each individual grouping like he’s waiting for Bucky to tell him what to do next. Bucky keeps quiet until he watches the fork slowly start to come down towards the sausage. Then he hums quietly and shakes his head, just a hint of a thing.

“Mm-mm… Home fries,” he says under his breath.

When he peeks over to Steve, Steve peeks back, and to Bucky’s amazement, he has a warm, almost loving smile. Bucky lets out a small tuft of air from his nose and turns up one corner of his mouth for a brief second. It’s a weak, pathetic smile at best.

Steve eats one of the home fries, then holds out the fork for Bucky to take. Hesitantly, Bucky pierces into one of the soft potatoes with the tip of the fork and then brings it to his lips. It’s not terrible at all. In fact, Bucky’s so touched right now that it almost doesn’t bother him to accept in that same moment that he’d been kidding himself. He never stood a chance at not falling back in love with Steve.

He’d never fallen out of it in the first place.

Together, they take turns passing the fork back and forth – Bucky quietly guiding Steve through the order of what to eat next, and Steve never having one comment to make about it. He shares his food with Bucky in complete and total silence, letting his actions say everything. His arm never unwraps from around Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky wonders if this is what it feels like when delicate hands slowly work to take something broken, and try to piece it back together again.

Chapter Text

Once the nightmares begin, unfortunately it’s impossible to make them stop. Most nights, Steve will encourage Bucky to go to the diner, and Steve always joins him. Bucky buys Angie a bouquet of lilies to apologize for the incident with the broken plate. After smelling them and tearing up with a smile, she squeals, “Can I hug you?” and Steve grins the entire time she does.

Bucky realizes it’s the first time he and Angie have had actual physical contact. She's also the first person to hug Bucky other than Steve and his family in the last two years. Though he feels slightly awkward at first when he returns the gesture, it quickly makes his heart feel a little lighter, and Bucky can’t help but smile.

After the first few times, the blond stops ordering what Bucky orders, and starts testing out some of the other options to get a feel for what he likes best. Bucky likes that – same as he likes the fact that Steve carries on their conversations as per usual, despite Bucky rearranging his food like he normally does once his plate arrives. Not once does Steve ever let Bucky go out after one of his nightmares by himself, and he never looks anything other than happy to be there. Bucky’s suspicions are proven right: he had been lonely – a lot lonelier than he let himself confess, even if just in his thoughts – and finally having some real company makes things feel easier, if even by only a bit.

Over the month that follows, he and Steve begin to find their way back to what they used to have, inch by inch. There’s still more things that they choose never to discuss than there are things they do, despite how frequently they lose themselves in conversation when they’re around each other. But in baby steps, Steve starts trying to help wherever he can.

At the diner, and after having Bucky finally open up to admitting how much he actually struggles internally with his OCD whenever they’re there, Steve begins to gently coax Bucky out of his habit. Not by a lot – hell, the first time he even suggested that Bucky try ordering a different kind of tea, just to see if he could handle it, Bucky got so worked up that Steve had to quickly come sit with him again and rub the back of his neck until he calmed down. But it gave Bucky something to think about, and after a few more nights, he had the courage to go up to Angie as soon as he walked in there to see if she could maybe bring him Earl Grey instead.

His hands shook so badly when he held the cup in them, and it took Steve keeping an eye on him and quietly murmuring encouragement the entire time, but by about halfway in, the drink stopped tasting sour going down his throat, and Bucky was able to actually start enjoying it. It’s only been a month, and so far, the furthest Bucky’s been able to get is trying to change up which drink he gets before his meal comes.

But given how much of a challenge that in and of itself is for him, Bucky feels fucking proud that it at least seems to feel like it’s getting a bit easier each time he’s there. Steve never gets impatient for how slowly Bucky needs to take things; looking only delighted every time, and reminding Bucky that he can do this, and they’ll take it at his pace. He doesn’t push Bucky any further than his limits will allow – only promises him that Bucky is strong, that Steve is with him on this, and he has no reason to feel ashamed of his limitations… but that if he wants to try overcoming them and needs help doing it, Steve will be there every step of the way.

When it comes to the night terrors, Steve helps just by being there. During the times when Bucky’s particularly out of it when he comes to, his reaction is usually to bolt up into a sitting position and hug Steve to him until he calms down. Gradually, on the nights where he is more lucid and doesn’t feel like he needs to drop by the diner, there becomes an unspoken agreement between them that Steve will stay by Bucky’s side until he falls back asleep.

On those nights, Steve will climb under the covers with him and lie down on his back, lifting his arm up as Bucky’s invitation. Bucky will go wordlessly, and rest his head on Steve’s chest. He knows… Fuck, he knows that the pattern they’re developing between them is complicated, and unconventional. Sometimes, it makes him question what exactly it is they are, because friends don’t usually do this together – especially not two dudes who are supposed to be platonic. He can’t help but wonder sometimes if Steve feels just as confused; what exactly his friend is thinking whenever they lie together and cuddle as if they were lovers.

But Bucky’s selfish, and he’s greedy, and by god, he needs this. He doesn’t know how to admit to Steve that on the nights when Steve has Bucky wrapped up in his arms and absentmindedly plays with long strands of brown hair while humming softly – out of tune, but exactly like Bucky remembers – those are the only nights where Bucky never seems to have another uneasy dream when he finally falls back asleep.

The only nights where Bucky’s beginning to sleep soundly again are when he’s being held and protected by Steve… and Steve will rest his cheek on the side of Bucky’s head and stroke Bucky’s flesh arm with the tips of his fingers, staring off and never falling asleep himself until he knows Bucky’s okay. One night, he even whispers, “It’s my turn to take care of you now,” and it takes a few seconds for it to dawn on Bucky that he’s not completely certain he was supposed to hear that confession. Bucky doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with that… but he knows it makes his smile against Steve’s skin and sigh out a soft sound, and hearing that makes Steve start playing with his hair again.

Bucky always falls straight to sleep once that happens.

 

---

 

After being roommates for almost two months, it finally happens. To Bucky’s shock, he’s not even the one to instigate it.

It’s a Saturday – one of the scarce few since Bucky’s lived there that they’ve both had the afternoon off at the same time. Steve’s already been up for most of the morning, whereas Bucky doesn’t emerge from his room until almost two, and even then he still resembles the walking dead until he gets some coffee into his system.

Pouring himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, he joins Steve in the living room and watches TV with him, lazily feeding himself a (way) late morning breakfast. While they chat, Bucky idly roams through his Facebook on his phone, since his mom had texted him and Rebecca telling them to check out the new vacation photos she and George had put up from their recent visit to New Zealand. That turns into Bucky subtly stalking Steve’s Facebook a bit, since the two had only added each other after Bucky moved in and he still had a lot he felt he needed to go back and catch up on.

The question strikes him out of nowhere, but is brought on by the fact that there are a lot of photos Steve’s been tagged in, and a lot of their old mutual friends tend to comment on his posts a lot, but his relationship status is hidden. Bucky gathers the nerve – trying to prepare himself for the possible answer he’s going to get – for almost twenty minutes. He’s never been given any reason to suspect that Steve might have a girlfriend, because if he does, he never seems to be out with her. Plus, Bucky sees no justifiable reason why he would’ve kept her from Bucky, unless he was embarrassed by him.

When he starts to worry that he’s going to pussy out of it and bite the question down, he shuts off the screen on his phone and asks as casually as he possibly can, “So… You got a girlfriend or anythin’ like that?” And then he shoves a big scoop of cereal into his mouth to try and look cavalier and not suspicious at all for asking that – especially given that he and Steve had just been talking sports only seconds before.

Steve’s eyes still widen at that completely random question, before glancing to Bucky and then narrowing them, given him a strange look. Bucky waves his hand and tries to cover his tracks by saying with his mouth full, “I just mean, this feels like the sort of thing about you I’d know, but I realized we haven’t talked about it. Just figured if you did have a girlfriend, you’d wanna know that I’m cool with you bringing her by if you ever wanted to. You don’t have to, like… I dunno, hide her or anything--”

“I wouldn’t do that anyways,” Steve answers, interrupting him; eyes still on him, and face unreadable. Bucky’s surprised by the slight sharpness in his tone, like he’s just struck some sort of nerve inside of Steve.

Bucky swallows the food in his mouth and holds his stare. Slowly nodding and looking away, he says, “Okay… Was just askin’, calm down.”

Steve’s silent for a few seconds. “Wow, this is awkward,” he finally mutters. Bucky thinks he might’ve missed something in the last ten seconds.

“What is?”

Then Steve lets out a short chuckle. It doesn’t sound humorous at all; it actually sounds void of any amusement. Shaking his head, Steve replies, “Nothing, just… I guess I never realized just how little you actually know about me these days. Let’s see, how do I put this…?” He taps his fingers off his thigh, looking away now while he thinks. One corner of his mouth quirks up hollowly, and exhaling another quiet huff, that’s when Steve tells him, “I’m gay, Buck.”

Bucky’s in the middle of swallowing another mouthful of Cocoa Puffs when Steve says that. Eyes flying wide, he leans forward and has to pound his fist against his chest when it all threatens to go down the wrong tube. Steve watches Bucky while he coughs and then grabs his glass of water to wash it down and clear his throat.

“Bit of an overreaction, don’tcha think?”

Bucky looks back over to him, eyes still wide, even though he’s trying not to come off as shocked as he feels. “You’re…? Really?”

“Yeah. Came out back in high school.”

“…Sorry, man, I just… I wasn’t expecting that.” He coughs a few more times, that information still sinking in, and takes another sip of his water. Steve asks him if he’s alright, and then Bucky laughs weakly and nods. He apologizes again for his reaction and then puts his bowl of cereal down, no longer interested in his appetite. Though he won’t admit it out loud – certainly not to Steve – this is the greatest news he’s ever heard, and he wants to hear every detail to make sure he isn’t dreaming.

When he asks Steve about how it was for him to come out, Steve seems to relax a bit. Getting his genuine smile back, he fills Bucky in and gives him all the missing details; about how he realized it a few years prior, that he was already a lot bigger by the time he told people about it and a lot more popular around school, so he didn’t really get bullied for it. Bucky’s relieved when he hears that, because even if it’s not like he could magically go back in time and beat the shit out of anyone who might’ve given Steve grief over that, he’s still happier knowing that that wouldn’t have been necessary anyways.

Then Bucky gathers the nerve to admit to him, “I actually came out in high school, too.”

“Really?” Steve asks, looking a little surprised. “As… what? Gay?”

“No, um, bisexual.”

Then Steve nods, replying, “Ah, alright,” as if that answer makes sense to him. Bucky wants to question it initially, but then he figures… well, he did kiss the guy once upon a time. So Bucky liking guys too probably doesn’t come off as that much of a shocker. He is surprised by Steve’s sexuality, though. Even though they’d lost contact before Steve was even really all that interested in dating, Bucky had always assumed that his friend was straight. Even after he kissed Bucky back, fleeting of a moment as that had been, Bucky attributed it to Steve just being tipsy and caught up in the moment. Then when it dawned on him, what they were doing, that was when (and why) Steve pushed Bucky off of him.

The question now gnawing away inside that Bucky really wants to ask is if Steve ever saw Bucky that way, once he made sense of his feelings… Get tipped off in one way or another to know if Steve ever could see Bucky in that way…

But he also knows that’s probably not an answer he wants to hear. Sometimes, it’s better to be ignorant and never know, then have the truth and have that possibility stolen from you, even if that possibility is tiny as hell.

Returning the courtesy – or maybe because he really is interested and wants to know more about Bucky’s past, too – Steve asks him how his coming out experience was back in school. Bucky can’t completely believe they’re talking about this, since he's still wrapping his head around this new fact of Steve's. But he answers the question, even though there isn’t much to tell: his parents didn’t care, his friends didn’t care, and the only guy who tried to give Bucky a hard time for it wound up walking away from the confrontation with two black eyes.

“I did have to keep it mum once I joined the army,” Bucky admits, frowning to himself when he recalls what it’d been like to have to go back into the closet after finally having gotten used to living as an openly bisexual man. “Boyfriend back then couldn’t really handle never bein’ able to hear much from me or send me many letters whenever I was shipped out, so… That ended pretty quick. Can’t say I blamed him. It was disgustin’ though, how much easier it was when my next relationship turned out to be with a chick. No one gave a shit then; could even carry her picture with me and everything,” he jokes scornfully, eyes back on the TV screen.

Steve’s now the one watching him with interest. Wearing a matching frown, he hums his sympathy and then says, “Were you ever more open about it after? Like, after the whole ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ thing got repealed?”

Bucky shrugs. “Not really,” he says, feigning nonchalance. “There seemed like hardly much of a point. Not too long after they passed it, I was getting sent back out on my third tour, so… Not much of a priority to let everyone know who I liked to stick my dick into once we got back to Kabul.”

The truth is a lot harder to explain… That he knew a lot of men in his unit who were openly homophobic, and that despite all of Bucky’s talk, it scared the shit out of him to imagine what they could do to him once they were all off the grid and had guns in their hands. He’d heard enough stories to chase the idea of being ‘out and proud’ straight from his mind.

They’re quiet for a bit after that. This is more than Bucky’s ever opened up to Steve on the matter, and he’s hoping he won’t be drilled with too many follow-up questions, because this has already filled his quota, as far as he’s concerned.

“What made you join anyways?” Steve eventually asks, sounding hesitant. “You always told me you’d never follow down your dad’s footsteps.”

Because sometimes, it felt like the perfect excuse for something bad to happen to me without it having to look like my own fault.

“I dunno,” Bucky mutters, tone going dull. “Tried going to college, doin’ the typical eighteen-year-old thing, but it just wasn’t really for me. So… drop out and get a full-time job, or join the military. Obviously you know which option won.”

This is chartering into territory he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Maybe he never will. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation.

“Do you wish you’d picked differently?” Steve softly asks.

“Are we really still having this discussion?” Bucky snaps back; acidly continues, “No, Steve, I’m glad I got to kill people, get captured, be tortured, and come back one limb shorter than I what left with. I’d do it all over again if I only had the chance.”

From the corner of his eye, it looks like Steve flinches, and inwardly, Bucky reproaches himself. He’s just trying to know you again, give him a break. It’s just… Steve knows this is a sore spot for him, and a small part of Bucky can’t help but feel annoyed right now. Rubbing at his eyes with his flesh hand, he lifts the other one and then lets it thunk down off the couch cushion wearily.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs, “That was… I shouldn’t have said that. I’m a dick. I know why you’re asking… I just… can’t talk about this right now, okay?” Turning his head to look back at him, his eyes plead with Steve’s to understand – to take pity on him and drop it.

There’s hurt hiding there in Steve’s eyes. Wounded. He looks a little wounded, and it makes Bucky want to apologize some more and be the one to wrap Steve up in his arms this time. But funny enough, finding out about Steve’s sexuality is what stops him from doing that. Because they have been falling asleep in the same bed sometimes, and Steve does hold him through his rough episodes, and now that Bucky knows Steve has the capacity to be interested in him, he realizes that nothing more has happened between them because Steve isn’t interested.

Bucky should’ve prepared himself for that, but of course he went and pined after him in secret some more anyways. He’s such an ass. He should’ve just been happy with having Steve’s friendship back instead of trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

He can’t offer that sort of physical comfort right now due to the ache in his own chest, but he does offer him a small, guilty smile. Nudging his knee, he says much more softly, “Look, I’m sorry. One day, okay? One day I’ll tell you everything you wanna know; you can ask me every single question you want. I’m… I’m trying, Steve. Please tell me you know that at least.”

Steve sighs quietly, nodding. He puts his hand over Bucky’s for a second to give it a squeeze, and then just as promptly pulls it back. “I know,” he says. “I’m sorry I went there. You have been trying. I see it, Jay, and I’m so proud of you – you know how proud of you I am… right?”

“I know… Thank you.”

But the pained look on Steve’s face doesn’t go away. Bucky doesn’t understand what’s still missing at this point, why Steve still looks so troubled. Not until Steve bites his bottom lip and anxiously begins bouncing his knee off the floor a little. He says, “It all just makes me realize how much we don’t know each other anymore. I never thought… Y’know, back then, I never thought… These are the sorts of things I should know about you.”

In an instant, Bucky’s face falls, and that betrayed, hostile voice in the back of his head that’s been residing inside of him since he was fourteen jumps back into the driver’s seat. But he can’t help it – he finds it a little unbelievable that Steve would have the nerve to even try and make it sound like Bucky should somehow be blamed for their fallout.

“You mean like you never tellin’ me this whole time that you were gay?” he asks, the words coming out a lot more like an accusation than he means for them to. “You mean like those sorts of things, Steve? Because that’s the sort of thing I would’ve expected you to confide in me about.”

“If you’d actually accepted any of my friend requests over the last ten years, you would’ve known,” Steve snaps back defensively. “It’s not exactly like it was some big secret, Jay – when I was in relationships, I didn’t feel the need to hide them.”

“That supposed to be some sort of cheap shot at me, asshole?” Bucky rises to his feet, his blood instantly boiling.

Steve rises too, throwing his hands in the air. “No! All I’m sayin’ is that it was right there – I was right there that entire time! I would’ve answered any questions you had, and I would’ve come and talked to you just like the way we used to, but every single time I sent you a friend request, you’d just go and delete it again!”

“Okay, first of all, it took you almost three years to send me jack shit!” Bucky shouts. He doesn’t know how this suddenly happened; they’d been perfectly fine five minutes ago, but now they were actually doing this. They’re finally putting everything on the table, and Bucky doesn’t think he’s entirely ready, but it’s too late to back down. Bucky has a lot he’s going to make sure he says.

“Well I didn’t see you sending me one! Out of the two of us, I was the only one who ever took some initiative to try and get back into contact with you, and all you ever did was fucking nothing.”

Bucky has the sudden urge to punch Steve, hard. To avoid it, he lifts his hands and then makes a loud frustrated sound, throwing them into the air and turning to walk away. Spinning right back around and pointing at him, Bucky retaliates, “You got a lotta nerve, Rogers – oh, you got some goddamn nerve! I did nothing? I did nothing? I never took initiative, huh?”

Abruptly turning, Bucky storms out of the living room and heads straight for his bedroom. Going into his closet, he pants harshly and rips open the box he’d stashed away in there; the one marked ‘OLD’. Yanking out the envelopes, he rushes back in, right up to Steve. Hot, enraged tears blurring his vision (but not falling, Bucky will never let them fall for Steve Rogers again), he shoves the stack of nineteen letters against his chest. Reflexively, Steve lifts his hands and holds them there when Bucky takes a step back and points to them.

“What--?” Steve stammers out, looking down to them. It’s like the second Bucky shoved them against his chest, all of Steve’s own anger dissipates. Now he just looks overwhelmed, like he doesn’t understand what’s going on.

“You know how many times I tried to call you – hmm!? How many times I tried to get a hold of you, and thinking you wanted nothing to do with me no more? I wrote you every single one of those fucking letters within the first two months that I moved, even though I knew you didn’t even live there anymore! My mother tried calling everyone we could think of, and no one knew where the fuck you went!

“So at first I thought, ‘Hey, Steve had no choice; whatever happened was because he had to follow Sarah, and she had to have taken him for his own good.’ I was scared shitless every day because I thought something bad happened to you and I couldn’t get a hold of you to save my life. You could’ve been dead and I never would’ve found out! Yeah, I got angry after a while and sure, okay, maybe I thought you’d upped and left me for no reason ‘cause you were pissed that I moved or something, but you know what, Steve? I got over it.

“I realized I was being a chump and puttin’ blame on you that you didn’t deserve. I told myself, ‘Whenever he gets back, he’ll get a hold of me. He’ll do whatever he has to to give me a call, or get a goddamn email address.’ I thought your mom of all people would’ve at least messaged mine – wasn’t just me freaking out, y’know. Wasn’t just me who lost a friend, Steve – my mom lost one, too!”

“Buck--” Steve croaks, voice cracking. His eyes keep darting back down to the envelopes in his hands, each and every one stamped with the same red words, RETURN TO SENDER.

“How do you think I felt when I signed into Myspace one day, like a year and a half later, and saw that you’d commented on one of Tony’s pictures?” Bucky yells, ignoring Steve’s attempt to interject. “You were alive, and back, and apparently had been for a while – chattin’ it up with our old friends like you never even fucking left! So I waited – I waited to see if you’d get a hold of me. You had Myspace, so you must’a had an email address finally, and I told myself, ‘Just give him time – give him a chance to find you.’ It’s not like we didn’t have a bunch of the same friends on there, Steve!

“But you didn’t, not for almost another whole year. A-fucking-nother year, Steve!” Bucky shouts even louder, pushing his voice so much that the inside of his throat is starting to sting. Steve’s bottom lip is quivering and his cheeks are red, looking with every word like Bucky’s beating the hell out of him instead.

Panting loudly and shaking his head, Bucky keeps lifting his hands and then letting them fall, stammering over syllables and then shaking his head harder. “How could I accept them after that?” he asks, sounding so much more disheartened rather than denouncing now. “You threw away our friendship and wanted nothing to do with me for almost three years… Maybe that was easy for you, but… Losing you was the hardest thing I ever had to go through, okay? And that’s still including everything that happened to me with… this,” he hastily gestures to his arm, and everything it represents.

“I… I can’t understand you, Steve,” he continues. Still losing his fight with every breath, he mutters, “I don’t fuckin’ know,” and shakes his head again before leaning back against the wall, back thudding into it heavily. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he stares down at the floor with hard eyes and keeps shrugging, not knowing what else there is to say from there.

He’s probably going to have to start making arrangements to move out now, though.

Hearing a loud thump, Bucky peers up to see that Steve’s dropped back down onto the couch. He stares off as if in a daze, before slowly looking down at the envelopes again. His hands are shaking as he flips through them, reading the front of each one. Bucky’s skin feels like it’s crawling while he waits for Steve to say something – anything at this point. He doesn’t give a fuck what it is anymore, so long as there’s an apology and an explanation in there somewhere. It takes everything he has to stay where he is and hold his ground; not give into those teary, lost-looking puppy dog eyes and take back everything he just went and said.

Steve gingerly places Bucky’s letters down next to him, staring at them with that same torn up expression for a little while longer. Then he’s pulling off his glasses, sighing wetly as he rubs at his eyes with one hand. After shoving them back on his face, he bites his lip and bounces his knee again, looking like he’s gathering the nerve to finally respond.

“I swore to myself I’d never tell you about this,” is what he whispers.

Bucky stares at him, still completely guarded. Shaking his head, he firmly presses, “What. Tell me about what.”

Steve drops his elbow onto the couch’s arm rest. He brings his hand to his mouth, lips slightly parted as he looks as far away from Bucky as he can. His features slowly even out, only to grow almost lifeless, like Steve’s switching to some sort of autopilot. Bucky’s now bracing himself for the worst.

“You leaving was one of the worst days of my life,” Steve starts. His voice sounds impassive at first, but Bucky can hear Steve fighting to keep it steady. It’s trembling anyways. Exhaling a harsh breath through his nose, he smiles sadly, closes his eyes, and shakes his head. “You know, for that whole first day, I had every intention of packing up my things and finding a way to follow you out there somehow. I just… remember watching you guys drive away and thinking, ‘Come back.’ I didn’t know how I was supposed to survive without you. You were the only sure thing I’d ever known.”

Bucky’s heart is suddenly going crazy, and the room feels smaller because it’s getting tougher to breathe. Brows creased, he keeps his eyes on Steve, as Steve continues to stare off and relive the memories.

“I was… so pissed that you left,” Steve chuckles, fresh tears visible to Bucky even behind those glasses. “Not pissed at you – more like… at the world. I started actin’ out, at school, at home. To everyone, even ma. To Victor, too,” he then says, finally looking back to Bucky.

And then Bucky’s heart stops, just like that. Adrenaline and dread and an immediate rage shoots through his veins as soon as he hears that name. This is the first time since they’ve seen each other again that Steve’s bringing him up, and it hits Bucky like a freight train… He’d been so fucking blind. Of all the answers he could get, he knows he’s going to regret hearing this one the most.

“Got into a yelling match one night, told him to fuck off. Felt good,” Steve admits, his heartbroken smile getting a little more triumphant at that. “Know what he did?”

“If you tell me he laid even a finger on you, Stevie, I’m going to lose it,” Bucky warns him quickly, low and deadly; shaking, just like Steve’s voice is. Steve holds his gaze for a moment, then nods, casting his eyes down. Trying to control his anger and stop himself from seeing red, Bucky forces himself to ask, “He hit you?”

Steve hesitates. It takes him a few seconds to look back to Bucky again, but then he does it – he gives a curt nod. “Only once,” he answers. “Then I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in.”

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky groans before the words even finish leaving Steve’s mouth. He’s straightening away from the wall and breaking eye contact, feeling nauseated. His right hand tremors almost violently as he runs them both through his hair. He wavers on his feet, not knowing what to do with himself, not knowing how to breathe, how to not track that motherfucker down and rip every single limb from his body until he bled to death and got what he deserved.

He can picture it too clearly in his head – Steve’s small little face snapping to the side from the force of the blow, and Bucky suddenly spins around abruptly and slams his fist against the wall, shouting, “Fuck! FUCK!

Bucky hears Steve rise to his feet from behind him. “Buck, it’s okay.”

Bucky shoves himself away from the wall, still scowling, and crosses the room to him in a heartbeat. Throwing his arms around Steve, he pulls him in and hugs him tightly to his chest; palming the back of Steve’s head in his right hand and wrapping his prosthetic arm around the middle of Steve’s back. Steve’s arms are around him the second they touch, returning the embrace just as tightly. Bucky stares ahead, his grey eyes still wide and his nostrils flaring, and a dangerous look on his face.

He’s breathing harshly through his nose, still doesn’t know what to do with himself. He wants to kill Victor. He wants to kill him and make it hurt, and take his time, and prolong it, make it slow, so the prick is begging to die. And he knows he’s capable of it, too. After everything he’s been through, everything he’s done, Bucky wouldn’t hesitate to take this man’s life if he had the chance to do it. It should scare him that he’d be willing to do something that horrible for Steve Rogers, but it doesn’t. It never has.

“It’s okay, Buck, I promise,” Steve keeps saying. If Bucky didn’t feel seconds away from a murderous rampage, he’d bark out a sorrowful laugh at the way he’s noticed that Steve always goes right back to calling him by his old nickname the moment things between them get serious.

“Ma was there, and--” Steve tries to laugh. “I’d never seen her get so mad. He chased me to the bathroom and was bangin’ on the door; just screaming for me to open up or he’d break it down like he was the Big Bad Wolf or somethin’. Ma wound up coming out of nowhere and breaking one of our vases over his head so she could get me out. I thought she was going to kill him right then and there; never seen her like that before. She started screamin’ at him and called the cops, and… then she grabbed me and ran me to my room. Grabbed my schoolbag and emptied it out right there, just – sent my books everywhere.

“Shoved as much of my clothes as she could fit in there, as quick as she could; kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, baby, I’m so sorry, I’m getting you outta here, I’m so sorry,’ but I wasn’t mad at her at all. I was… I mean, I was scared. I thought he’d come walkin’ into the room at any second and kill us both. But he never did, he – heh, the coward actually ran off to try and get outta there before the cops showed up.

“I grabbed a couple things, just… held them in my arms ‘cause I couldn’t remember where my other bag was. Then we left. Everything else, we picked up once we were gone… Ma never thought to bring a single one of her own things,” Steve explains.

Still blinded by rage, Bucky closes his eyes and struggles to relax his breathing. Tightening his grip on the back of Steve’s head, he pulls his face back so he can shove their foreheads together. After several more quick, noisy breaths through his nose, Bucky opens his eyes; zeroes in on Steve but still clearly seeing Victor in the back of his mind. Shaking his head a little, he struggles to keep his voice calm and level as he says, “You’d better tell me he wound up in prison, Steve. Tell me that, I swear to god, Stevie--”

Steve smiles apologetically, like this is somehow his fucking fault, and answers, “I wish. We, uh… We left New York and couldn’t tell anyone where he went. Ma pressed charges, and we didn’t come back until it was time for his court hearing. I found out during that that… he’d hit her too, before. More than once. Ma never told me; she didn’t want me to have to know that. If I’d have known…” Steve now looks as dark and as livid as Bucky. Staring straight back into Bucky’s eyes, Steve swears, “You know what I would’ve done if I’d known.”

Yes, he does. Probably something similar to what Bucky wants to do now. Bucky presses his lips into a tight line and nods.

Steve sighs and leans away a bit, so Bucky lets go of him as Steve glances over to the couch. Bucky looks to it and then stiffly tips his head towards it; his silent way of accepting Steve’s proposal to sit back down. They do, and the rest of the story comes out, while Bucky does his best to listen and be the friend for Steve that Steve had been trying so damn hard to be for him lately.

It’s not easy. It’s one of the hardest fucking things Bucky ever has to hear… About how Victor got charged with one count of child abuse and a separate count for domestic violence, yet somehow only got sentenced to three years in jail and a $5000 fine. That part makes Bucky want to hit something again. All he can do is continue to hiss “Fuck” under his breath every few seconds and grit his teeth to ward off the very strong urge to track this guy down and pull every one of his teeth out of his fucking head. Now knowing that this piece of shit might very well still be walking the streets of New York at this very moment makes Bucky feel like losing it.

Steve understands. “I actually, uh… I saw him, like six or seven years ago,” he slowly explains with another frown. “I was at the grocery store and saw him standing in line at the checkout. I remember feeling nothing but… hatred, the second I saw him. I’d never known what it was like to hate anyone before that moment. And… I saw these kids, standing with him. They looked young enough to be his, and I just remember thinking – it would’ve been so easy to drag him outside and beat the shit out of him. Make him feel the way he made my mother feel…”

Baby blues meet Bucky’s. “But I couldn’t,” Steve then admits. “I couldn’t do that in front of his kids. And I think… I think that was the first time when I realized that I was scared of hating someone that much. I wasn’t that thin little kid anymore, like – I could’ve really hurt him. Probably could’ve killed him if I really wanted to. And I did want to, and that’s why I couldn’t.

“So what I did… I got into line behind him. I needed him to see my face, just once, just so I could see the recognition in his eyes. I took one of the things out of my own basket and I cleared my throat – ‘Excuse me, sir, did you drop this?’ And he turns, and he looks at it, then he looks at me, and…” Steve’s staring off now, and he chuckles breathlessly.

“Took him all of about a second and there it was. I saw it – he knew. And you know what? It felt so… fucking good to see that in him for a change. I mean, we hadn’t seen each other in years, and it wasn’t like I was worried he would ever try anything again, but… Knowing that he knew that that would never be a possibility again? Maybe it was immature of me, but it was closure. One of the best moments of my life – never told ma about it, though,” he chuckles again.

“Why?” Bucky asks. He’s having a hard time wrapping his head around everything he’s just been told, but he still needs to know. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

“Because I was ashamed,” Steve answers, grimacing as he stares down at his hands. He sounds so self-loathing when he elaborates, “I mean, at first I just kept tellin’ myself that it was my fault it got that bad. I should’ve protected ma; never let Victor lay a hand on her. And when he hit me, I… I cried, Buck,” he confesses. “I thought I was supposed to be braver back then, but… I just cried. It scared the shit out of me.”

“Stevie, you were just a kid back then,” Bucky cuts in. “Nothing like that was ever supposed to happen to you. You… your mom… Neither of you deserved it. It wasn’t her fault that it happened--”

“I know it wasn’t,” Steve says quickly.

“--And it wasn’t your fault either, Steve. Hey,” he says, using his right hand to slip his finger beneath Steve’s chin and force the blond to look at him again. Bucky stares at him sternly and insists again, “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Steve smiles feebly, breaking eye contact again. “Yeah… I know that now,” he replies. “Thank you, Buck. But I just… yeah. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you for the longest time.”

It turns out that no one ever really found out what had happened with Victor. As they continue to talk, Steve explains about how he and Sarah had agreed to keep the incident isolated once they returned to New York. Steve didn’t want people to know how badly he’d believed he’d failed to keep his mother safe, but what he’d really told her at the time was that he didn’t want to start fresh in high school with that lingering over his head. He didn’t want his friends to see him any differently, or to start brand new in high school with people labeling him a certain way without getting to know him first.

“I didn’t want to automatically be seen everywhere I went as ‘the victim,’” Steve says.

If it’d just been for her own sake, Sarah probably wouldn’t have hidden it. But because she understood and likewise wanted her son to be able to have a clean slate and start fresh – putting everything that they’d been through over the previous year behind them - she agreed. They found an excuse that worked for them when they moved back and people asked where they were and why they left, and because they stuck to it, eventually people believed them and everyone moved on. Steve got what he wanted and never had to talk about it again.

“But I knew if I talked to you, I’d wind up tellin’ ya,” Steve admits. “Looking back on it, I know now that it was stupid of me to think for a second that you’d ever be disappointed in me for what happened, but… I was so angry with myself at the time. Guess it clouded my judgment a little.”

Funny enough, Steve and Bucky really are two peas in a pod, because all Bucky can think by this point is that he should’ve been there. Realizing that he’s spent all these years being angry at Steve for something that wasn’t even his fault is a nice, hard slap in the face; a wake-up call he’s been sorely needing.

He’d indirectly placed so much blame on Steve’s shoulders when evidently, he was going through more than enough back then as it was – giving Steve the unfair responsibility to be the one to somehow contact him, even when it was just as impossible for him to reach Bucky as it’d been for Bucky to reach Steve. This entire time, they’d both felt like they couldn’t get in contact with the other – both holding off from doing so for so long because they were afraid of making it worse. Steve hadn’t forgotten about him; he hadn’t stopped caring. Bucky knows now that it’d been the exact opposite.

Bucky had wasted all these years for nothing… Because of nothing more than a misunderstanding. They could’ve had that time together.

Bucky looks pained. He shakes his head to himself and keeps sighing. Eventually, he turns away so he can drop his head into his hands while he makes sense of everything. Guilt making his throat tight, he lets his hands fall and then turns his face back towards Steve, long strands of hair hanging in his face.

“I can’t believe we let this happen,” he says, one corner of his mouth turned up into a faint, sad smile.

“Me neither…”

“All this time, I thought…”

Steve nods. “Me too.”

Bucky watches him, then leans back and runs his flesh hand through his hair, getting it out of his face. Sitting back into the couch, they both fall quiet again.

“You n’ me? I think we’re the biggest idiots in the State,” Bucky eventually tries to joke. Steve chuckles quietly to himself. Bucky doesn’t like the way Steve still isn’t really looking at him, how he still looks so disheartened. Grabbing Steve’s wrist, he tugs gently. Steve closes his eyes and smiles, chuckling under his breath and letting Bucky pull him closer until he’s sinking back into the couch cushions, his shoulder touching Bucky’s shoulder attachment.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky quietly says. “I should’ve known better than to think you’d ever… That was so stupid of me. I’m just, I’m really sorry, buddy.”

“I’m sorry, too.”

“I dunno if you think you can ever forgive me for… all that, but… I mean, if you can, I wanna try and start over, y’know?” Bucky says.

“Buck, there’s nothing to forgive you for. I’m the one who should be apologizing,” Steve sighs.

Bucky shakes his head. “Shut it,” he harmlessly mutters. “Don’t even say that, okay? You owe me absolutely nothing.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Steve turn his head to look at him. Bucky meets his eyes. The tears in Steve’s baby blues are long since gone, and the smile on his face is relieved and honest, even if partially exhausted, too. They smile, and though his heart still feels wracked with contrition, something of a weight feels like it starts to lift off of Bucky’s shoulders.

“I feel like an idiot,” he says. “Your ma must’ve thought I was the biggest jerk on the planet, huh? I dunno, maybe I’ll have to call her or something so I can apologize to her, too. Does she still live around here, or--?”

He doesn’t notice that Steve suddenly looks like someone just slapped him in the face again. Mouth open, eyes widening, and brows knitting together, Steve interrupts with genuine bewilderment, “What?”

Bucky doesn’t understand what he just said wrong. “I… Well, I just thought – I haven’t spoken to her in so long, maybe I could… What, you think she wouldn’t wanna talk to me anymore?” he asks worriedly.

Steve slowly looks away in shock. A split second later and he’s covering his mouth and sitting forward again. Bucky doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows it isn’t good, and Steve’s scaring the shit out of him.

“Steve, what’s going on?”

“I thought they would’ve told you by now,” Steve says under his breath, not for Bucky’s own ears.

“Told me what? Steve, told me what?”

When Steve looks back to him, Bucky knows it – he’s going to throw up. Even before Steve’s face pinches up with remorse and he tells him, “She passed away, Buck… Like, three years ago…”

Blood rushes into Bucky’s ears, and without any warning, he’s starting to have a panic attack. He barely hears himself reply, “What?” because then his chest is rising and falling erratically and he has to get out of there, he needs air, she can’t be dead, she was like a second mother to him, how could she be dead, she was so young, he can’t… He’s going to pass out…

Steve grabs his prosthetic hand quickly and wraps his other arm straight around Bucky, shuffling closer and trying to calm him down… Comfort him… And that’s so fucked up – she’s Steve’s mom, not his, and yet Bucky’s the one about to have a nervous breakdown. If Bucky hadn’t held onto his grudge, he would’ve known this; he would’ve gotten to talk to her one more time, been there for Steve when he needed Bucky the most – why did no one tell him this happened, it makes no sense

“Bucky, it’s alright, breathe for me, please, remember what we do? Remember? Slow and steady, backwards from ten – Buck, it’s okay, I’m right here,” Steve’s repeating next to his ear.

And what fucks Bucky up even more inside is how he can feel the tears right there, right on the verge, but even though he’s trembling and helplessly holding his face in his hands, and sobbing dry, anguished noises – they still won’t come. It only makes everything worse. He fucked this up so bad. This is one mistake he can’t undo.

“It’s not alright, Steve!” he shouts, cutting him off. “How could no one tell me!? Why didn’t you tell me – how could – why did I never know!? I could’ve been there, I should’ve been there! I would’ve gone to her funeral, Steve, it didn’t matter what I thought was going on between us, I would’ve fucking gone!”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Buck,” Steve whispers, now trying to rub the back of Bucky’s neck to calm him down as best he can. “I wanted to tell you, I wanted you there so badly, I – I was so angry when I didn’t see you there at first. But then I saw your mom--”

“My mom was there!?” Bucky shouts, whipping his head to the side to start at him indignantly. Steve keeps talking, and now Bucky’s reduced to whimpering out these pathetic, desperate sounds. He thought what Steve had told him before was hard enough to process. He’s not capable of handling this, let alone on top of that.

“She told me about you being out on tour,” Steve quickly tries to explain. His own voice is cracking up, but for Bucky, he wills himself to hold it together, despite however much this has to tear him up inside. “She knew it’d be best for you if you didn’t find out, and she… she made me puh… promise not to try getting a hold of you to tell you. I’m so sorry, Buck – I would’ve otherwise, I wanted to message you every single day after that, but I knew she was right. I – I knew what would happen if you found out, and I couldn’t live with myself if something bad happened to you just because I’d been s-selfish and needed you more. Bucky, I’m so fucking sorry--”

Bucky can’t hear anymore. He can’t let Steve keep talking about this like he did something wrong. Bucky’s not upset with him, not mad – god, he could never be upset with Steve for this, he just can’t believe it, Bucky had loved her so much, and he still remembers the moment he met her all those years ago… As if it happened only yesterday… She’d told him he was brave… She’s held his hand… She was an angel sent to Bucky, and if it wasn’t for her, Bucky would’ve never met Steve--

Steve is so stupid. He’s so stupid if he thinks he ever needs to apologize to Bucky for this, and Bucky can’t listen to anymore. Pale and shaking and he still can’t breathe, he can’t – he turns without warning and hugs Steve to him again. He’s the one who’s sorry. He should’ve been there. He should’ve been the one holding Steve’s hand when Steve had to watch his own mother get lowered into the ground. This whole thing feels so fucked up – it was never supposed to be like this for either of them.

“Don’t,” he bites out, over and over, while Steve buries his face against Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky’s nose is buried within Steve’s hair. “Don’t, don’t, don’t.”

Steve never lets others see when he’s breaking, so when Bucky hears a shaky gasp at the same time that the blond inhales violently and shakes against him, Bucky realizes Steve’s crying. Bucky tries to push his own tears out but his mental block is too big. He can’t. So he keeps Steve crushed to him while the room becomes blurry with tears that won’t fall, while Steve tries to fall apart as silently as he can – dampening Bucky’s shirt with tears that do.

And the whole time, Bucky keeps choking out, “Don’t, don’t…” and Steve seems to understand what he means. The arms around Bucky only squeeze back tighter each time.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Bucky whispers – still can’t breathe, is shaking as hard as Steve, but never lets him go, I’m sorry, I’m here now, forgive me, forgive me please I should’ve known…

He doesn’t let go until the sun begins to set.

 

---

 

“Why didn’t you tell me!?”

“James, honey--”

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME, MOM!?” Bucky shouts again. He’s out on the balcony, right hand shaking as a cigarette burns away between two fingers. “All this time – all this time I’ve been back and you never thought I might wanna know about this!?”

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry, I wanted to tell--”

“I don’t want your apologies, mom, I wanna know why you didn’t tell me!”

Winifred’s crying on the other end of the call. Bucky wants to stop himself, but fuck, he’s got no control right now. She’d been shocked to discover that Bucky and Steve were not only in contact again but living together, but Bucky wasn’t about to let her get off track. The first thing he’d done when she answered the phone was lay into her about the news of Sarah’s death.

A part of him knows he’s not being fair. It’s not like his mother would’ve kept something like that from him without a good cause, but in his current state, Bucky can’t make sense of what that cause could’ve possibly been. Nothing justifies keeping Bucky in the dark, as far as he’s concerned – and despite knowing how difficult of a subject this has to be for her, too, Bucky doesn’t care just yet. When he calms down, he can call her back and apologize. For now, he needs the truth.

“Whenever I tried to talk to you about them, after Sarah and I started talking again, you’d always shut down on me,” she struggles to explain, having to pause every few seconds because she’s either crying so hard, or has to sniffle loudly. “You didn’t want to hear his name, so I stopped. James, you… You have no idea what it’s like having your own child off fighting a war. I did it with your father and having to do that with you too felt like more than I could handle as it was!

“I’m sorry, sweetheart – but you don’t know what it was like; scared to check the mail every day because you never knew if there would be something in there telling me you’d gotten killed. Every time I heard the doorbell ring, or someone called me, I was preparing myself for the worst. You’d come home, and I’d hope to god somehow that you wouldn’t have to go back out there again, but then you did, and every time we took you to the airport, it was all I could do not to throw my arms around you and beg you to stay!”

“Mom… Look, I’m sorry okay? It’s not like I ever wanted to do that to you, I just--”

“I know you are, honey, I know,” she replies, voice still pitchy. She sniffles again and clears her throat. “I know it wasn’t your fault, and you were only doing what you had to do, I’m just trying to explain why… James, you’re my baby. I would’ve done anything I could to make sure you came home. How could I tell you when I knew you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it?” she asks him. “You think I didn’t want you there? That I didn’t see that poor boy who lost his mother and needed his best friend, and didn’t hate myself for being the one keeping you from him?

"But you wouldn’t have been able to come back – and we were always watching the news, every night, and things still sounded so bad over there… If I told you, if Steve told you, that’s all you would’ve been able to think about. The only thing I wanted you to focus on was staying alive and coming back, and all I could think at the time was that if you knew, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate – maybe you would’ve let yourself get killed because you wouldn’t know how to handle it.”

Bucky’s breathing hitches. He has to fumble with his lighter three times to light a brand new smoke. He closes his eyes tight as his face twists up. “Mom,” he begins to croak.

Winifred cries harder. “Now you may hate me and think I’m selfish for what I did, but you won’t know what it’s like until you have kids of your own one day. I did what I had to do to protect my son.”

“I don’t hate you,” Bucky whispers. “God, mom, I’m – fuck, I’m so sorry, I didn’t want you thinkin’… I’m just… I just found this out, I’m angry, but… I get it. I get it, I’m sorry.”

He does get it, even if it’s a hard thing to stomach. Leave it to her to have predicted exactly how he most likely would’ve reacted. He tries to imagine if that alternative would’ve been worse: learning that Sarah Rogers had died and that there’d be no way he could go to her funeral. Having to stay in the middle of blood, and death, and constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t about to get shot – all the time, distracted and grieving in a place where he’d have no choice but to get through it alone. That level of distraction could get a man killed out there.

The fact that Bucky knows he probably would’ve welcomed that under those circumstances is enough to make him certain that, yeah, that would’ve been worse. This is hardly much better, but… That, he wouldn’t have been able to handle. At least right now, he does have Steve, and Steve finally has him, even if Bucky was three years too late.

“I love you, mom,” he tells her when he’s met with nothing but the sound of more crying. “I’m sorry… I just don’t know what to do right now…”

“I love you too, sweetheart,” she says. “I should’ve told you when you were released, but – after everything you’d been through… You were already struggling so much as it was. I couldn’t put that on you as well, I just couldn’t do that…”

“I know,” Bucky makes himself say. It kills him to add, “I understand,” because the emotional part of him still doesn’t feel like he does. He does get it, on a logical level way, way deep inside of him, and he’s trying not to be upset with her. It’s just hard.

They talk for a bit longer, gradually both calming down and trying their best to change the subject to something a little easier after a few more apologies between them both. It’s the guilty part of him that winds up reluctantly agreeing that he’ll find some time sooner rather than later to see her and George. She even offers for them to do the flying, so Bucky won’t have to; that way, they can also see Steve. Bucky has a hard time being around his family sometimes, because it’s impossible for them not to look saddened whenever they have to see what he’s been reduced to. Under any other circumstances, and Bucky would probably find a way out of it altogether.

But he’d never gotten the chance to see Sarah near the end of her life, and now that he knows he never can, he’d move heaven and hell for a chance like that. So there’s no way he’s going to deny his mom the same opportunity to spend time with him, or with Steve, while she still can. He’s positive that his friend would be thrilled to see Bucky’s parents again, too.

It’s a comfortable night – cool, but not chilly. Bucky stays out on the balcony long after he gets off the phone. Sitting in the chair he’d set up out there, he smokes through half of his pack over the course of a couple hours, needing the time to think. Steve had mentioned he was going to run out when Bucky was first grabbing his phone to give Winifred a call, and Bucky’s not completely sure where he went, but he can only imagine that Steve was in desperate need of decompressing, too.

He zones out, looking out past the bars on the railing and getting lost in the view. He thinks about Sarah, and tries to recall every memory he ever had of her. He wonders – for the first time in years – whether there’s such a thing as God, and that even if he’s not a religious man, he hopes heaven exists, if only because that’s where Sarah Rogers deserves to be. He thinks about how easily it could’ve been for him to be six feet under, too… Absentmindedly rubs his left bicep and misses that arm, misses the life he’d once known. But he’d done what he had to to come back alive, just like everyone around him wanted.

Bucky doesn’t consider himself suicidal, not exactly. He’d never go out of his way to take his own life. But admittedly… There were a lot of times while he was out there where he cradled his rifle close to his chest and fantasized about how simple it would be to shove the barrel between his lips and pull the trigger. That sometimes, knowing that there still was the option to take his own life was the only piece of control he felt he had in a world where he was constantly scared shitless that someone else would do it for him without any warning. It’s fucked up, but that sometimes felt like the only motivation he had not to go let himself get killed.

Those thoughts still come to him sometimes, since he’s been back home. When the nightmares never stop and you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror anymore, Bucky thinks it’s only natural to consider every option – even the terrible ones. He’d never actually try, though… He could never do that to his family. There just hasn’t been all that much over the last two years to give Bucky a reason of his own to want to keep on living; not give up on himself.

He’s not even sure what time it is when he hears the screen door off to his right slide open. Though he doesn’t stop staring ahead right away, he sees Steve walk to him and slide over the extra little chair they keep out there now. Steve sits down without saying anything, and Bucky hears him lower a plastic bag down by his feet, but he makes no move to open it or explain its contents.

For a while, they enjoy the peacefulness in the air together – probably the only serene moment they’ve felt in ages. Bucky takes a drag off a freshly lit smoke, and instead of lightly busting his balls about the dangers of lung cancer and emphysema like Steve normally does, the blond lifts his left hand and opens up his fingers. Bucky doesn’t argue it; it’s been a rough day on both of them, and given that he’s been chain-smoking the evening away, there’s not much room for him to judge. He holds it out and then takes it back after Steve takes a short drag.

“Gonna be stars in the sky tonight,” Steve eventually says, breaking the silence after almost twenty minutes. They both continue to stare ahead – at Brooklyn, at their past, their memories. Bucky wishes there was a way to go back to that. For things to be simple again.

“You okay?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah… Yeah I am,” Steve slowly answers. Beneath the later of sadness and the mourning, he sounds like he still means it. “You?”

“Yeah.”

“I want to take you to see her,” Steve says, words still light.

Bucky nods, even though Steve is looking at him. “Okay,” he answers.

Then they fall back into silence. There are stars in the sky that night, and they stay out on the balcony for most of it; saying little, but not needing to say more. Without an explanation, Steve leans over eventually and opens up something within the plastic bag. He sits back in his chair and – still staring out ahead of them – extends his left hand Bucky’s way.

For the first time since Steve came out and joined him, Bucky glances over to him. In Steve’s hand is a cupcake; vanilla, with chocolate icing and blue sprinkles. There’s no explanation needed. Bucky can’t believe Steve remembers... He doesn’t have to say thank you. Steve knows. It’s not the same as Sarah’s cupcakes, but… they know that, too. Wordlessly, Bucky peels off the wrapper at the bottom and then, very carefully, splits it down the middle.

He thinks he catches Steve getting a bittersweet, nostalgic smile when Bucky holds his half back out and Steve takes it from him.

They look nothing like what they used to. Time and life have completely changed them. But as they sit there in silence, eating two halves of one cupcake, letting Brooklyn remind there where they came from, and enjoying a sky full of stars… They are those same little boys, somewhere deep down. For just a second, you’d be able to see them again.

And Bucky thinks to himself that maybe it’s little moments like these – fleeting as they may be – that remind him why life is still worth living.


They don’t visit Sarah’s grave for another month. Steve’s a little quieter than usual on the drive over, and Bucky gives him his space. His stomach is full of knots, but he’s resigned with himself to do this. If it was just on him, it might’ve been a longer wait before he gathered the nerve. 

But he’d brought the whole thing up in therapy over the last few weeks, and came to the conclusion that he should go, if only to be there for Steve and try to make up for all the times he hadn’t been in the last fourteen years. Doctor Richards has been coaxing him bit by bit to start opening up about his past, and Bucky finds that since he and Steve have buried the hatchet, it’s starting to slowly feel a little easier to let himself begin to unlock some of those doors in his mind and airing out the rooms with all the dusty furniture.

He’s still taking baby steps, but every day, he feels like he’s making some progress. Turns out he’d never thrown away the keys to all those rooms. He’s had them this entire time; he just needed the little push to find them that only someone who got him as much as Steve did could provide.

It’s a beautiful day. Something about that breaks Bucky’s heart in a bittersweet sort of way. It’d been raining the entire week, and he and Steve kept waiting for nicer weather but eventually they’d decided that they would go the next day no matter what, even if they had to bring umbrellas. Sure enough, they both woke up that day to see the sun shining and not a single cloud in the sky. Somehow, Bucky thinks Sarah’s the one to thank for that.

The drive to Evergreens Cemetery feels like it takes both far too long and not nearly long enough. Bucky lingers next to the car after they’ve parked; watching Steve start walking away while he hangs back with his hands shoved into his pockets. It’s not like he’s actually going to let Steve head in there alone while he tries to make a quick getaway, but… he also hopes for a split second that somehow, Steve would forget he’s there.

He doesn’t, of course. About ten seconds later and Steve realizes he can’t hear Bucky’s footsteps. Glancing over his shoulder and seeing Bucky still standing near the car, Bucky sees him smile ruefully as he turns right back around and comes back over to him.

“You don’t have to do this,” Steve tells him. “I get that this is still fresh for you. I’ve had three years to start getting used to it. We can come back another time if you don’t think you’re up for it today.”

Except Bucky knows that he does have to do this.

“Um…” Clearing his throat softly, Bucky stares down at the ground and shakes his head. “No, I’m okay. Sorry. Let’s go.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” the blond murmurs softly. Giving Bucky another tiny, encouraging smile, he leads the way and this time, Bucky follows.

Bucky hates these places. It felt like he was always visiting the cemetery when he got back home, for the first few months when he was at his lowest. There’d been a lot of men he’d gotten to know over the years who turned out to have been New York boys as well. Many of them never got the chance to come back home like Bucky did. Some of their deaths he even felt responsible for. There were quite a few nights that consisted of Bucky doing nothing but walking alongside all the tombstones; beer bottle in hand and more in the bag on his back, drinking himself stupid while he tried looking for names he’d recognize from dog tags he remembers reflecting sunlight before they reflected blood and loss.

When Steve eventually veers away from him and heads over towards one particular headstone, Bucky hesitates again to follow. His eyes flicker to the small bouquet of wilted flowers lying on top – someone must’ve left them there no more than a week prior, and he’s willing to bet that it was Steve. Bucky wonders how often Steve comes to see her… Worse, how frequently he chooses to make that trip all alone. He can only imagine how long it’s been since Steve volunteered to bring someone with him and let them be witness to something this painful for him.

His eyes slowly drop, and Bucky takes in the words: Sarah Alicia Rogers, September 27, 1967 – April 03, 2012. Daughter, Mother, Friend. Taken from our lives, but never from our hearts. His breath catches; wavering on his feet as his eyes widen a little and his face starts to feel numb. Vision flecking with black dots and that faint pinprick sensation starting to crawl over his skin.

He closes his eyes and swallows hard. Inhale… Exhale… Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven…

“You alright, Jay?” he hears Steve ask. It feels like he has water in his ears, clogging up the sounds around him.

But he nods anyways. “Yeah,” he pushes out, and his tongue is heavy in his mouth. Opening his eyes, he smiles a strained smile. “Just… don’t do well in cemeteries sometimes,” he chooses to say, and now he forces himself to walk up a little closer.

Steve lifts his hand and rests it on top of the stone. “Well, here it is,” he says – doing that thing again that breaks Bucky’s heart; smiling despite being sad, despite having nothing Bucky thinks he should be smiling about. Then Steve crouches down so he’s next to the plot, lowering the fresh bouquet of orchids they’d dropped by the floral shop to pick up on their way and setting them on the grass. Turning his face and looking at the tombstone, his lips start moving and it takes a moment for Bucky to realize that Steve isn’t talking to him anymore.

“Hey ma,” he says, voice surprisingly lighter than Bucky would’ve expected it to be. “Hope you liked the flowers. I tried to switch it up this time and bring you something other than roses… Turns out there are, like, more than fifty kinds of flowers. But I’m sure you already knew that,” he chuckles quietly. “I might try lookin’ around and trying to bring you something a little new from now on; try to find every single type of flower there is, y’know? And yes, even the ones that irritate my allergies.”

He laughs to himself and rolls his eyes, like Sarah’s actually there to make some kind of scolding comment about Steve and his sensitivity to pollen – probably would be wagging her finger at him and saying something like, ‘Now you listen here, young man, I do not want you making yourself blubber and sneeze just so you can bring me flowers!’ Bucky can actually hear it clear as day in his head.

Looking over to Bucky quickly, Steve smiles and then keeps talking to his mother: “I brought someone I thought you’d like to see, ma. It’s Bucky – well, I mean James. Don’t know how many times it seemed like we were beggin’ ya not to call him that, and all you kept sayin’ was, ‘Well that’s his name, isn’t it? The name his mom gave him, born and raised?’ Heh… Anyways, he n’ I are actually livin’ together now. It’s been great, I’m really happy to have him back. I wish you could see him – he looks exactly like I’m sure you’d remember.”

That makes Bucky close his eyes and rub at them with his right hand. Only Steve would think that Bucky still looked exactly the same, even though he knows he’s hardly recognizable anymore. Only Steve would see that same kid he grew up with, and not the mess of a person he became. Sarah would probably see him in the exact same light, because… like mother, like son. Fuck, he doesn’t know how Steve’s managing this as easily as he is. Bucky’s still struggling not to faint.

 “You wanna come talk to her?” Steve asks, glancing back up at him.

Bucky’s eyes widen. Shaking his head a little, his voice sounds pathetic and shaky when he mutters, “No, no thanks. I mean – I’m sorry, just--”

“It’s okay,” Steve replies understandingly and rises back up, leaving the flowers lying next to the tombstone for the time being. Both boys still looking to her grave, Steve takes a few steps back until he’s standing to Bucky’s right. For a little while, they’re quiet. Every second feels like an eternity, and Bucky’s chest is still feeling tight and his whole body, still tightly strung. All of his effort is being put into not spinning around and bailing. In his head, he keeps silently counting – Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six…

“It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Steve suddenly says from beside him. His voice is smaller now, it seems; soft, reminiscent, but still clear. Bucky can only guess how many times Steve had to talk about this before. He wonders how long it’s been since he last has. “I was already living on my own and putting myself through school. She started mentioning here and there… ‘bout things like back pain and how she kept waking up in the middle of the night with the sweats. I kept askin’ her to go get checked out. I mean, she was a nurse, it’s not like that would’ve been hard. But she wouldn’t right away. She kept tellin’ me it was probably some early signs of menopause.”

He chuckles at that, and it’s a completely emotionless, horrible sort of sound. Guilty, Bucky realizes. Bucky’s eyes are on him now, but Steve’s are still stuck to the words on his mother’s headstone. Bucky knows him, and he knows that tone. Knowing Steve, he probably blames himself for not having pushed her harder.

Not surprisingly, Steve then says, “I knew there was no way it was that, and I think she knew I didn’t believe her.” He shakes his head a bit. “I think she tried to convince herself that maybe it really was that, but I don’t think she ever really believed it either. I think she was just scared to get it checked out because something was tellin’ her it wouldn’t be good.

“Eventually, she didn’t have a choice. Her lymph nodes started getting swollen; started poppin’ up all around her neck and shoulders. About a week after she first noticed ‘em, she promised me she would go get them looked at, and by then I think she knew she didn’t have any other choice. I’d already threatened to pick her up and carry her there myself if she didn’t go.”

Steve frowns, and Bucky thinks he might have stopped breathing. But he continues to listen, no matter how pained his lungs are getting. It takes almost a whole minute for Steve to continue. He keeps parting his lips like he’s about to start again, only to make a quiet noise and then sigh through his nose, closing his mouth again. Bucky wishes he knew what to do to be there for him.

“Well, it was Hodgkin’s,” he winds up continuing. “She was already at Stage II by the time she got the diagnosis back. I remember thinking… If I’d have just pushed her a little harder… Not let her make so many excuses… Y’know, maybe she still would’ve been in Stage I and her health wouldn’t have declined so quickly.”

“Steve, that wasn’t your fault,” Bucky whispers. He’s shaking. Steve’s shaking. Grey eyes are still on Steve while baby blues never leave the mother that was forced to leave him far too soon.

Steve closes his eyes for a moment, shrugging with another one of those awful smiles. Opening his eyes again, he sounds way too casual when he continues, “Yeah, well… I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. I wound up droppin’ out of school and hitting the pavement to find a second job, ‘cause ma’s medical bills were gonna be through the roof. She got so mad when she found out I’d quit school,” he remembers, exhaling a barely audible chuckle.

One corner of Bucky’s mouth quirks up sadly. “I bet,” he agrees – able to imagine how that conversation had probably gone just as clearly.

Steve’s smile evens out, disappearing. “Yeah, it was almost as mad as I got when she tried to say that she wouldn’t accept treatment so I wouldn’t have to do that. I don’t think I’d ever yelled at her before that moment,” he reveals. “I told her it was my choice and that if she gave up on me and didn’t let me help her, I’d refuse to go back to school just to spite her. Didn’t really give her much of a choice; I mean, either way I wasn’t planning on going back to school. I’d made up my mind. Eventually, she got over it and learned to accept it.

“Moved back in with her so I could keep an eye on her. The cancer was aggressive – seemed like only a few months and she was twice as sick as when she’d been diagnosed. Within six months, it’d progressed to Stage III. Her body wasn’t responding to the treatments or acceptin’ them, not enough to get rid of it,” Steve mutters.

Bucky hates himself right now. He hates himself because his eyes are shining with tears but they’re still not falling, and every word of this is like someone’s wrapping their hands around his throat and choking him. But he’s holding it together because Steve needs him right now – and yet Steve’s standing there, opening up about all this and slicing open this wound just for Bucky, and Bucky wants to close the space between them and wrap Steve up in his arms… and yet he can’t seem to. Why does this always look so effortless for Steve? Steve always seems to know exactly what to do whenever Bucky needs him, and yet Bucky’s fucking useless to him the second the roles are reversed.

“Anyways, she… she started losin’ a bunch of weight and getting all these bruises all over the place. Her diet had completely changed, but it was like no matter how hard she tried to eat, she could never keep it down. After a while, she started coughin’ up blood… If I ever let myself cry, I’d wait until I knew she was sleeping,” Steve remembers. He’s so quiet… Looks and sounds just like the tiny, four-year-old boy Bucky saw lying in that huge hospital bed the first time they’d properly met.

“She was tough as hell though, Buck,” Steve says, smiling grievously again. Closing his eyes and quickly frowning, he catches himself, “Sorry… Jay – m’sorry, I keep--”

“It’s okay,” Bucky whispers, cutting him off. “I don’t care; fuck the name right now, Stevie.”

“Okay,” Steve gingerly replies, nodding to himself. “Um… Anyways… It took a little over a year from the time we found out to the night she wound up dyin’. It’s funny, but… I’d been so preoccupied with my own life, y’know, especially after high school ended and I moved out. It never dawned on me how little time I made for her. I always just thought that, I mean, because she knew that I loved her and it’s not like I was avoiding her or anything… I just thought that was enough.”

This time, when he smiles to himself, Bucky thinks it looks a little more real. “But you know, even with the circumstances, I try to tell myself that I got more time with her in that one year – like, real, quality time – than anything we’d had together since I was a teenager,” Steve says. “Yeah, there were a lot of bad moments, and I wish she never had to go… That was the single worst day of my life; that very first day she was gone… But we had a lot of great times, too. Watched a lot of movies,” he chuckles nostalgically. “You know it takes, like, two and a half days to watch the first six seasons of Dexter?”

“I never got the chance to watch past season two,” Bucky admits – slowly, carefully, like he could startle that smile on Steve’s face away if he wasn’t extra careful.

“There’re like eight now,” Steve murmurs, still sounding a little far away; lost in his head. “We’ll have to watch ‘em sometime.”

“Okay…”

More quiet, more thinking…

“That’s why I sleep with my hearing aids now,” Steve suddenly tells him. “I never wanted her to wake up in the middle of the night needing me, and me not being able to hear her.”

Bucky’s eyes quickly dart from Sarah’s tombstone back to the side of his friend’s face. Steve shrugs again to himself with one shoulder, like this whole thing he’s just gone and opened up about really isn’t that big of a deal. Bucky can only see Steve’s left eye, but he still doesn’t miss the tears there. They just haven’t fallen, just like Bucky’s. That’s Steve all over. Bucky wishes he’d let himself get vulnerable more often, instead of always thinking he had to be everyone’s rock. But he knows wishing that sort of makes him a hypocrite.

Steve sniffles softly, trying to hide it. Subtly, he brings up his right hand and shoves his fingers under his glasses, wiping at his eyes as discreetly as he can. Bucky keeps swallowing, but the lump in his throat refuses to get any smaller. Then Steve lets his hand fall back to his side and he takes a deep breath. He smiles again.

“She always loved you,” he says, still looking forward, never looking away.

Bucky sniffles, too, pushing down the tears – his body refusing to crumple – and finally looking back to the headstone again. Steve steps forward and removes the dying flowers from atop the smooth stone, before picking up the fresh ones and lying them down in their place. Bucky thinks he can hear Steve whispers privately, “I love you, ma,” before straightening again and rejoining Bucky’s side. They both continue to stare down at her… Both continue to get lost in their own memories, as they see the beautiful face and hear the melodic voice of an angel who finally got her wings back…

In Steve’s right hand, he holds the wilted bouquet of roses. His left hand hangs vacant by his side.

Without saying a word, Bucky reaches out and threads their fingers together. Steve’s hand is warm against his own.

Chapter Text

Grabbing some Starbucks on my way home. Want anything?

That’s not real coffee, I don’t know HOW many times I need to keep telling you, Steve eventually texts back.

He’s been in class most of the day, whereas Bucky just got off work. Normally he’ll grab himself a hot cup of coffee whenever he’s on his way back, but the weather’s only getting nicer this time of the year, and tonight he’s feeling something a little more chilled. He knows Steve tends to be in desperate need of some caffeine after a long day at school, and he’s done a lot of complaining lately about struggling with finding inspiration for his end of term assignment, so Bucky likes to think his offer is generous – not something to be mocked.

Re-reading Steve’s message, he scoffs under his breath and rolls his eyes, right thumb already busy typing a response: Says the guy who likes about 700 scoops of sugar in his coffee. I’m already in line, you want one or not?

In that case, I’ll have an Espresso Frappuccino. Money will be on the counter when you get home in case my muse FINALLY gets its shit together sometime in the next twenty minutes. If I’m in my room and the door’s closed, just knock first ok?

You give ME shit about my preference for coffee shops and then go and order a FRAPPUCCINO? I’m not going to knock now. I’m going to barge straight in there and throw your drink at you. Make sure you ain’t jerking off or I’m moving.

Bucky hesitates, thumb hovering over the ‘Send’ button. That’s a dangerous image to have in his head, and just the sort of joke Bucky still has trouble making around Steve. They can kid around about anything and everything, but the second things take a turn for the sexual, Bucky’s thoughts race away from him. Once they do that, it’s practically impossible to stop himself from getting hard. He’s inconspicuous about it though, and can usually reign his imagination in within a minute or so to make the beginning traces of an unwanted hard-on disappear. Luckily, Steve’s never noticed.

He presses ‘Send’. At least if he continues to make jokes like these and play it off like that sort of thing doesn’t affect him, it’s sending exactly the sort of message he wants. He and Steve have their moments – a lot, actually; like, frequently enough to confuse the hell out of Bucky sometimes – but he reminds himself on a daily basis that if Steve was interested in him, he would’ve made some sort of move by now.

But he hasn’t, so Bucky’s trying to do his best to put his own feelings aside and not let it get in the way of their friendship. The last thing he needs is for something like that to undo all the leaps they’ve been making and completely kill everything by making their friendship awkward again. These days, it’s like they’re practically back to the way they used to be, and Bucky can’t lose that a second time. 

So it’s not hurting anybody if Bucky thinks terrible, fucking filthy things about Steve all the time, or if he sometimes wraps his hand around his dick late at night and fucks his fist to fantasies he knows will never come true. Yeah, sometimes it makes him feel like a bit of an asshole – because Steve’s his friend, and maybe the constant desire to fucking wreck him and actually getting himself off to it here and there is disrespectful. But in his opinion, it’s better than any of the alternatives. Thinking things like that and acting on them are two completely different ballgames. He can’t help how he feels after all. He can only hope that with time, he’ll learn how to move on. Then things will be perfect.

His phone vibrates in his pocket again as Bucky shuffles a little closer to the counter, still waiting on the customer ahead of him. He pulls it out and gives it a look.

If my door is closed and you choose not to knock, it’s your own damn fault. Masturbation is healthy. Do we need to have The Talk? Steve jokes.

Go fuck yourself, Bucky shoots back, smirking. Then he actually can’t suppress the little laugh that escapes him when Steve immediately texts right back, MAKE UP YOUR MIND, BARNES.

Five seconds later: Make it a Double Chocolaty Chip Frap instead.

No. You’re gonna be bouncing off the walls all night and I will not be the one putting up with you, Bucky argues.

Please? :(

Bucky scrunches up his nose, tapping his foot off the ground while he considers it. Groaning, he shakes his head and texts, You’re giving your phone the puppy dog face again aren’t you?

No, Steve says at first. But then he sends Bucky a picture a few moments later. He’s staring at the camera and is in fact making that exact face. Under the photo is says, Okay maybe.

Goddamnit. It’s going to take Bucky a long time to get over him at this rate. Steve’s too adorable for his own good. Everything he does only makes Bucky fall deeper, and it’s frustrating, especially during moments like these, when Steve gives ‘that’ look. If Steve knew Bucky always kept every single photo Steve sends him, Bucky would probably change his name and move out of the country by morning just to avoid that conversation. Steve’s pictures are some of the only ones he even has in his phone. ‘Cause that doesn’t come off creepy at all.

Fine, Bucky finally relents, but we’re watching Californication tonight if you’re not drawing.

I might be drawing.

Then I’LL just watch it. Either way, fork over season 2. I want it on the living room table by the time I get home or I’m holding your stupid Frappuccino hostage.

You wound me, Barnes.

Bucky smiles again and puts his phone away just as the barista greets him to take his order. Less than a couple minutes later and he’s turning to head back out – Steve’s Frappuccino in his left hand and a Caramel Iced Coffee in the other for himself – when he hears someone call over to him, “Well I’ll be damned – Bucky Barnes?”

Bucky falters in his step, head now whipping from left to right to try and locate the source of the voice. Sam Wilson rises from the chair he’d been lounging in (laptop opened on the table in front of him) with a growing grin on his face, looking thrilled to see him. Bucky, by contrast, is doing his best impression of a deer caught in headlights before he remembers himself and promptly closes his mouth, forcing a tight smile to his lips. He panics for a moment, immediately thinking of his left hand, until he remembers that he’s wearing the silicon skin sleeve, and thanks to already having the cup in hand, he won’t change grip functions so there won’t be any unexpected, awkward robotic noises.

“Wow, uh… Hey, long time no see,” he answers, trying to act normal again. He wishes he could interact with everyone the same easy way he can interact with Steve nowadays. Bucky knows it’s all about just needing to take that initial step in order to re-establish the connection. Chances are, if he actually tried with any of his old friends, it probably wouldn’t take terribly long to feel comfortable around them again. The problem is that that ‘initial step’ is really fucking terrifying.

Sam approaches him, looking at first like he’s about to come in for a hug. Then he thinks better of it and stops himself, lifting a hand to squeeze Bucky’s (right, thank Christ) shoulder, since Bucky’s hands are full.

“Dude, I was wondering when we were gonna see your face again,” Sam says excitedly. “Steve told us all about you two living together now.”

“He did?” Bucky asks. He knows he shouldn’t be surprised, and he isn’t really. More so, his wariness makes it impossible for him not to be suspicious – suddenly concerned about what other stuff Steve might’ve told them about him.

“Yeah, he told us all about you responding to his ad about the whole roomie thing. If that isn’t a coincidence to end all coincidences, then I really don’t know what is,” he chuckles. “Yo, you busy right now? Haven’t seen you in ages, man.”

Bucky knows Sam wants him to sit down. Social convention tells him that he should, that’d be the polite thing to do, and a part of him really is excited to see such a familiar face. He’s scared shitless, though. If he sits, he might have to let go of Steve’s drink, and if he puts it down, his hand will move. If it moves, it’ll make sounds, and then everything about this nice little meet will go straight to hell.

But… Bucky’s hardly been going out much lately, unless it’s to his appointments or to work. Steve’s invited him out a bunch more times to get together with their old friends, and even though he keeps making excuses, it’s admittedly becoming harder and harder for him to say no. He’s basically been turning into a hermit and not leaving unless he really has to – but he knows he can’t make his life start revolving around Steve Rogers. Steve can be a helping hand – a part – of Bucky’s healing process, but he can’t become Bucky’s crutch. That wouldn’t be healthy or fair for either of them.

Doctor Richards has been trying to gently encourage him to start coming around to the possibility of getting himself back out there again. Slowly, as it’d been the operative word. Bucky’s not ready to brave the entirety of their old group all at once, and he already knows that. That’d be way too overwhelming. But maybe he can see this as another baby step. One-on-one isn’t nearly as bad, and… if Sam notices his arm, Bucky reminds himself that he only needs to provide as much information as he’s comfortable with. If Sam is still the same guy Bucky remembers, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Shoulders sagging, and maybe with his eyes still just a little wide, he smiles apologetically for his hesitation and then nods. “Yeah – okay, sure, I can stay for a few minutes,” he says, following Sam over to his table. Steve was hoping to get started and do at least some work on his piece, so… Bucky supposes he’s not in a total rush to get back straight away. Steve’s drink is already cold, after all. And besides, he’s pretty sure that once Bucky mentions why he was delayed getting home, Steve wouldn’t be anything other than thrilled at the news.

 

---

 

Bucky’s still in a tiny daze by the time he’s walking back into the apartment an hour and a half later. He shuts the door quietly, staring off and thinking about everything that just happened. He’s only so stunned because he never could’ve suspected it would’ve gone so well. It forces him to have to re-evaluate some things – namely, questioning everything he thought he knew – assumed – about people. And the way people saw him.

“Did you get lost or something?” Steve calls out to him. He sounds frustrated. Guess the whole ‘muse’ thing isn’t working in his favor tonight. “I needed my ‘stupid Frap’ about two days ago.”

Bucky pads up to his door frame and then lingers there, gaze slowly meeting Steve’s. The blond is sitting at the head of his bed with his back to the wall – sketchpad resting on his tucked up knees, and about a half dozen crumpled up sheets of paper on the mattress in front of him. Then he walks in, handing Steve his (completely melted) Frappuccino and softly replying, “Sorry, I… I got caught up on my way back.”

Actually seeing the look on Bucky’s face now, Steve frowns and moves his sketchbook to the side. Swinging his legs off the side of the bed (he’s in nothing but a t-shirt and boxers, oh good fucking god), he doesn’t pay his drink anymore mind as he looks up at Bucky and protectively asks, “You alright? What happened?”

“Nothing, nothing bad, I just…” Bucky frowns, narrowing his eyes a bit as he shakes his head. “I ran into Sam. Well, he saw me, but then he invited me to sit with him so I just… did.”

Steve’s eyebrows shoot up to practically near his hairline. “Really?” he asks. Quickly trying to pull it back a notch so he doesn’t come across too over-invested, he calms himself down and aims for nonchalance when he asks, “So, like… Did it go alright? What happened?”

Bucky traces the rim of his own cup with his middle finger, slowly taking a seat beside him. “It went…” He turns his head to look at Steve, confusion still making his brows pinch in the center. “…Great, actually. Y’know, he asked me how I’d been and what I’d been up to, and a five-minute conversation turned into, like, an hour. I’m pretty sure he caught me up on every last thing that happened to him since the fourth grade,” he chuckles weakly. Steve’s biting his bottom lip to keep from beaming, and Bucky’s feeling so all over the place and Steve looks so beautiful when he does that that Bucky almost drops his drink to the floor so he can grabs Steve’s face in his hands and kiss him.

But he knows he’s just feeling a little unnerved and giddy and overwhelmed, yes, so… Best not to act on those sorts of impulses.

“He told me what you’ve been tellin’ everyone about me lately. Thanks… for not sayin’ anything bad – or… nothing too personal,” Bucky says quietly, his eyes locked with Steve’s.

“You know I’d never say anything bad about you, Jay,” Steve replies with a warm smile. “And it was never any of my business to tell them anythin’ more than the basics. I knew that if you were ever ready to see them again, you’d choose whether to tell them or not. But that would’ve been your choice.”

“How are you so good at this?” Bucky murmurs, shaking his head as his eyes start roaming across Steve’s face. There’s a hint of awe in his voice. “How do you always know exactly what to do?”

Steve shrugs one shoulder bashfully. “I don’t, really,” he replies, averting his eyes down to his drink. “I just know that I never wanna hurt you. Everything else just sort of comes naturally after that.”

Bucky doesn’t know what to say, but his heart’s hammering away again. For a second, Steve peers back up at him, and the moment feels suspended around them. But then he’s smiling shyly again and taking a sip of his drink, melted and all. “So, did he wind up… y’know?” he asks, nodding towards Bucky’s prosthesis.

Bucky nods. “Yeah, I couldn’t really avoid that. I was… Fuck, I was so fuckin’ nervous the second it started making noise. I didn’t know what to expect but I assumed it would be bad.”

“And?” Steve prompts with a lopsided, knowing smile.

Bucky smiles self-deprecatingly, staring down and huffing out a short breath. “He didn’t care,” he answers, knowing that he should’ve known that all along. “He asked if it was cool to ask how I got it, and all I said was that I’d been in the army and I had an accident. He understood that I didn’t wanna talk about it anymore and then started talkin’ about how amazing prosthetics have advanced over the years, so we talked about that for a bit. Did you know a lot of his family were military?”

Steve’s still smiling softly at him. Nodding, he says, “Yeah.”

“He actually, um… We were talkin’ about work and stuff, and he mentioned that his uncle works down at the VA – you know, the one over on Poly Place?”

“Oh, really?” Steve asks, now sounding surprised again.

“Mhm. Sam apparently volunteers over there from time to time. Anyways, he offered for me to go with him sometime, if I ever wanted to. Maybe sit in on a few things… Or just help out and volunteer with him. He says it’s a nice environment; maybe I could meet other people who’ve been through some of the same sorts of shit as me. Because my parents were able to afford getting me the bebionic3, he thought it might be cool if I’d ever consider talkin’ to some of the other vets – showing them how it works, or even just sharin’ my experience living life now with a prosthetic. Like, if I was ever comfortable with that, obviously.”

“And… what’d you tell him?” Steve asks patiently, cerulean eyes so goddamn gentle with him.

Bucky draws in a long breath and then releases it with a hesitant smile. “I said thanks… That I’d think about it,” he admits, looking back to him. “I can’t go and promise I’ll be jumping to do that next week or anything, but… I dunno, maybe that’d be good for me. Gives me somewhere to talk about this shit with people I know get it. Sort of like… A safe place to vent, with people who understand, I guess?”

“I understand,” Steve says. “Did you give him your number at least? I don’t need him textin’ me at all hours of the night and expecting me to play the messenger,” he jokes.

“Yeah, I did. We might actually grab a drink next week or something,” Bucky admits. 

“That’s great, Jay, seriously.”

Bucky nods to himself. “Yeah… Thanks, buddy. It just feels really surreal. I had this idea built up in my head about how that would’ve gone, if any of our old friends ever saw me again. I’ve pretty much spent the last two years convincing myself that all they’d see me as was some sort of freak…”

“They love you, you big dope,” Steve replies, tone harmless. “They’ve always loved you. Your memory on the ropes or somethin’? All of us have our issues – Christ, thinkin’ back to how much of a liability I was to everyone back then? Seems like one of you was always getting punched to try and jump in and help me out.”

“Yeah, but you were always worth it,” Bucky says, more to himself than anything. It sort of just comes out without him meaning for it to.

There’s a pause, and then Steve replies, “And so are you. They all miss you, Jay. They pretty much ask about you all the time whenever I’m with ‘em.”

“They do?”

“Yeah, they do.”

Bucky chews on the inside of his cheek. “I’m still not ready yet to jump back into any group outings--”

“Hey, you don’t have to be, okay?” Steve gently cuts in. Right on cue, he reflexively brings his right hand to the back of Bucky’s neck and holds it, lightly stroking his thumb along the curve. His skin is slightly wet with condensation and chilly against Bucky’s nape. Eyes fluttering closed, Bucky hums out a soft sound of appreciation, thankful for Steve knowing exactly how to ground him sometimes, when he starts to feel anxious.

“Take it at whatever pace you’re comfortable with,” Steve tells him. “You took a big step today – don’t bite off more than you can handle just ‘cause you think other people will expect anything from ya. Just be proud of what you did accomplish today.”

Eyes still closed, Bucky lets his head tip forward a bit; a silent request. Taking his cue, Steve carefully pulls the elastic band from Bucky’s hair, undoing the small, messy bun and then using his fingers to shake it out a bit. Bucky almost full-on moans when he feels Steve’s perfect, delicate fingers start playing with his hair. Over the last few months, it’s quickly become Bucky’s kryptonite.

“I’m really proud of you,” Steve tells him.

“Thanks,” Bucky mumbles lethargically – preoccupied with how good Steve’s nails lightly scratching against the back of his scalp feels. “Proud of me, too.”

“I think sometimes, you tell yourself that the people that love you are gonna be so quick to judge and think differently, because you’re scared they’ll see you the way you see yourself,” Steve then says. Bucky’s eyes open and at first, he stares ahead, not responding.

“I think,” Steve continues considerately, “that you don’t give yourself enough credit anymore. But that’s okay. Y’know, with time, the tough stuff… It doesn’t feel so bad when you let yourself be surrounded by people again who’ll never complain about picking you up whenever you need to fall. You know who told me that?”

Bucky’s voice is hoarse when he answers, “I did.”

“Yep. Back when I was in Mrs. Danver’s class. You used to say a lot of stuff like that to me, Buck – Jay--”

“I don’t care,” Bucky immediately mutters tonelessly, like he’s now gotten used to doing whenever Steve apologizes for calling him that.

“My point is, you were stubborn, and arrogant, and annoying as fuck when it came to me, you know that? You refused to let me deal with things on my own, even when I told myself I didn’t need anyone’s help – not even yours. But you never walked away.”

Bucky’s breathing starts to get shallow when he feels Steve suddenly using his fingers to brush away the hair hanging in Bucky’s face, tucking it behind his ear. Then his fingers just sort of… stay there, like Steve isn’t sure what to do with them. Bucky slowly tips his face towards him and looks to him from the corner of his eye. His lips are parted, and Bucky hopes to god he’s not blushing right now, because his skin feels like fire, and he might be going crazy but Steve’s pupils look a little dilated – even if the rest of his eyes look sort of lost.

Fuck, now Bucky’s looking for things to read into that aren’t there.

Smiling meekly, he mutters, “Thank you, Stevie,” before making himself look away again. Clearing his throat and completely killing the slightly awkward (and weirdly intense) moment, he takes another sip of his drink and then picks up one of the crumpled pieces of paper.

“So what’d you get up to?” he teases flatly, studying the ball in his hand. Glancing to Steve, he asks, “Get any work done?” as he lightly tosses the paper ball at Steve’s head. Steve’s eyes close in time with it hitting his forehead and dropping to the floor, and he exhales a short, dry chuckle.

“Tonight,” Steve replies with mock enthusiasm, “I’ve successfully done a lot of work deciding that I’m never goin’ to be a professional artist, so I should just say ‘fuck it’ to this final and hang out with you instead.” Placing his drink on his night table, he falls back heavily against his headboard and sighs loudly.

“Didn’t get anything done?” Bucky asks sympathetically.

“Oh no, no, I got something done,” Steve replies sarcastically. Picking up the sketchbook, he flips to the previous page and then drops it back onto the bed so Bucky can see. It’s a hastily doodled drawing of a monkey attempting to ride a unicycle across a tightrope wire. Around his neck is a noose. There’s an arrow pointing to the tightrope wire, with the words ‘ADULT RESPONSIBILITIES’. Next to the noose are the words, ‘MY SANITY.’ The monkey has a big, erratic smile on its face and Steve has it saying, ‘FUCK THIS CLASS’ in fancy calligraphy.

“You know, if you put as much effort into your actual assignment as you did this picture, you’d have something to work with,” Bucky jokes. “Maybe you should just turn this in.”

Steve snorts, scrubbing his hands over his face. Sighing again loudly, he lets them smack off his thighs. “It’s just ‘cause I haven’t found the thing,” he says with frustration, making a gesture with his hands to nothing in particular.

“What ‘thing’?”

“The thing! The thing – like, that one thing that’ll make me go, ‘Yes!’ and sets my soul on fire. I haven’t found it yet for this stupid assignment and it’s pissing me off!” he groans.

“…I don’t supposed goin’ to the diner will help?” Bucky jokes. Steve rolls his eyes with a smile. “Well, what do you like to do when you’re stressed?” he then asks; quoting back to Steve, “‘A glass of milk, a shower, watch a movie – something like that?’”

Steve thinks about it. “Usually I get a nice stress releaser whenever I teach Bikram.”

“You mean over the yoga studio?"

“Yeah.”

Bucky holds his stare for a few seconds and then shrugs. “Okay, then… let’s go do some yoga.”

Steve laughs, thinking that Bucky’s kidding. “Dude, it’s almost ten o’clock at night; place closes at eight.”

“I thought you were a manager there. Don’t you have a key?”

“Well… yeah, but--”

“Live a little, Rogers,” Bucky challenges with a smirk.

Steve bites his lip and narrows his eyes. Clearly he’s considering it, though. Bucky knows Steve’s about to fold by the look on his face.

“Have you ever even done yoga before?” the blond then asks.

“Does stretching to try and reach the remote on the other side of the couch when I don’t want to get up count?”

“No.”

“Then no, I have not.”

Steve laughs, and Bucky grins at the sound. It’s always been, hands-down, one of his favorite things on the planet. Steve arches a brow, glancing back down to all the aborted drawings strewn around on his bed; bunching up his lips while he quickly taps his index finger off the mattress. Finally, he sighs and shakes his head, closing his eyes.

“You’re the worst influence on me,” he relents. “Alright, we can go give it a try. But if I think it’s gonna get me into trouble once we’re there, I’m calling the whole thing off.”

“An adrenaline junkie like you? Please – your heart’s gonna be poundin’ so hard that you’re gonna be thanking me,” Bucky replies, getting off the bed so he can go change into some looser-fitting, stretchy clothes. Steve mutters some sassy retort, but Bucky hears him making to get up and ready himself. When Bucky closes the door to his bedroom, he presses his back to it and closes his eyes, biting his lip.

Shit, why did he just go and suggest that? He was just trying to help – the same way that Steve had been over the last few months – but he should’ve looked for some other way, some other option once Steve mentioned the whole yoga thing. He’s only got a vague idea of what hot yoga entails, but even based on this completely basic concept, he might’ve just shot himself in the foot.

Because what he can only imagine is that now he’s going to have to spend the next hour or so alone in a room with a sweaty Steve Rogers. He’s going to have to watch him bend and contort and show off some serious flexibility that Bucky can’t even begin to imagine in his wildest fantasies – and Bucky’s going to be in track pants.

Loose track pants. Completely incapable of hiding even the slightest evidence of what that man does to Bucky’s body.

Jesus Christ, he’s finding it a little hard to breathe again. At this rate, Bucky’s going to have to ask to start using Steve’s inhaler.


Steve looks way too nervous when he’s unlocking the door to the studio; keeps looking around, as if expecting the police to show up out of nowhere, point their guns, and be like, “Freeze! Drop the yoga mats and give us a perfect Reverse Warrior or we’ll shoot!” 

“Steve, you’re gonna give yourself a hernia if you keep tensin’ up any harder,” Bucky flatly jokes, watching him the entire time he’s getting the door open.

“Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m about to do some yoga then,” Steve replies, sounding a little breathless as he steps inside and then beckons Bucky after him. Steve’s either really struggling with his moral compass by breaking the rules here, or he’s feeling that rush Bucky had joked about back at the apartment. Maybe a bit of both. Bucky likes it, though – he really doesn’t see what the big deal is, but Steve’s jitters are giving him a sort of contact high, and now he feels sneaky, too. They’re like a couple of explorers; going on one of their ridiculous adventures like when they were kids again.

Although Bucky suspects that if they actually tried to explain to a nine and ten-year-old Steve and Bucky that said big adventure was going into a yoga studio after hours to essentially get a work out in… chances are, their younger selves would be looking at them like they both had two heads a piece.

Steve shuts the door and locks it behind them, before quickly tiptoeing through the place to check and make sure no janitorial staff are around. Bucky trails behind him, snorting in his throat and shaking his head, muttering, “Steve, relax. I’m sure you’re not the first person to do this.”

“I bet I wouldn’t be the first person to lose their job here over it either,” Steve replies. “I’m gonna leave the lights off out here so no one sees from the outside.”

“Once again, you’re a manager,” Bucky reminds him, drawing out the word.

Steve leads him down the hall to the main room. “Yeah, which means I’m supposed to be settin’ a good example.” Unlocking the door, he pushes it open and turns on the light, gesturing for Bucky to do the honors and head on in first. Despite all his talk, there’s a glimmer of mirth in his baby blues, and the scarcest hint of a smirk on his lips.

“And yet, here you are,” Bucky teases with mock seriousness. As he walks past him, he jokingly adds, “You’re practically a felon now, Rogers. Have fun doin’ twenty to life.”

“If I go down, I’m taking you down with me,” Steve says from behind him.

He follows him into the room and then shuts the door. Immediately, Bucky’s letting out a loud breath and fanning his face. “Whew! It’s like a fuckin’ sauna in here,” he exclaims.

“Yeah, sorta the point of ‘hot’ yoga.”

“What’s the temperature in here anyways – the fires or Mordor?” Bucky keeps going, dumping the extra yoga mat Steve had given him down in front of the full wall’s length of floor to ceiling mirrors. He’s already taking a swig from his water bottle, which Steve had warned him he’d have to do fairly frequently in order not to dehydrate himself.

“105,” Steve answers, going up to the thermostats and double-checking. Humming, he says, “It’s lower now though; we usually don’t tend to keep the heat on here overnight when no one’s around. But, from the feel of it, the last class must’a ran late if there’s still this much hanging around. So…” He adjusts it for a few seconds. “There we go. Shouldn’t take long at this rate to pick up. Prepare for it to get hotter in here.”

Bucky’s already feeling clammy from the thickness of the air around them. Grimacing, he tightens the small, messy bun at the back of his head, thankful he’d opted to put his hair up. It’d be matted to his neck within minutes otherwise. “And people do this on a regular basis?” Bucky asks, staring between his and Steve’s reflection in the mirrors. Steve’s kneeling down and removing his shoes, so Bucky does the same.

“Yep.”

“Why?”

Steve grins over at him. “‘Cause it’s good for you, that’s why. Yoga’s a pretty useful and critical part of a lot of peoples’ weekly workout regiments; helps stretch everything out and center you. Least it does for me anyways. Hot yoga helps act as a kind of detox, too, ‘cause it gets rid of a bunch of the shit caking up in our bodies and releases the toxins when you get sweating.”

Bucky doesn’t know why exactly, but he’s already finding this a little sexy. He knew Steve taught classes, but this is the first time he’s ever seen him share his knowledge on the topic. Bucky’s never had Steve teach him anything – be such an expert on it that other people rely on him to show them how it’s done. Steve must be really fucking good at it, and from the way he’s already talking, it seems like this is something he’s also rather passionate about.

Bucky’s always found that when people are experts in something they love – no matter how random the thing may be – there’s something within them that comes out that’s incredibly attractive… A sort of self-confidence and effortlessness in their own skin. The only other time Bucky’s ever seen Steve in that kind of zone was when he watched him draw, way back when they were younger. He hasn’t really gotten the chance to see that yet since they’ve been roommates, but… from what he remembers, it was the most turned on by him Bucky ever remembers being, seeing Steve get that intense.

“You know I’m never gonna be able to keep up with you, right?” Bucky asks, sitting on his butt now as he pulls his socks off. “I’m pretty sure I grunted when I bent over to untie my shoes just now. I’m not flexible for shit.”

Steve exhales another soft, amused chuckle, getting back up to his feet with a sudden nimbleness Bucky’s never seen him have before. “You’ll be fine,” Steve says, crossing his hands at the hem of his shirt. Pulling it up his abdomen and over his head, he assures Bucky, “The nice thing about this type of yoga is that the postures aren’t considered terribly difficult or anythin’. They’re pretty standard, so people at any level can do them at their own pace. If you have trouble with any, I can try to help, otherwise you can just skip it. If you need any breaks, just tell me – y’know, if you can’t keep up with me or something.”

Yeah, Bucky heard pretty much one of that. He heard up to the word ‘fine’, but then Steve took his fucking shirt off. Bucky is never going to be able to look at his goddamn body now without staring at it like he’s always three seconds away from going cross-eyed. And thanks to him having switched over to his contacts before they’d left, those bright blue eyes are on complete display again, too. He’s going to be the cause of Bucky’s death, he’s sure of it.

Steve catches him gaping, so Bucky promptly shuts his mouth and gives him a tight, cavalier smile.

“Sorry, I’m still getting used to you lookin’ like this,” he lies, trying to play it off like it’s not any sort of thing.

Steve comes over to him, giving that cute as fuck, bashful smile that sits a little crooked on his face; tipping his chin down to his chest as he averts his eyes at the compliment. Fuck, Steve must really not understand what it is everyone else sees when they look at him. It makes Bucky feel a little possessive and also jealous in a way – Steve was always this stunning, but he spent so many years where no one else saw him as anything but the ugly duckling, that when the rest of the world finally got with the fucking program and sprouted a sudden interest in him, Steve never learned how to believe their compliments.

It’s sort of a punch in the chest; one that Bucky would sulk and get pissy about if it wouldn’t go hand-in-hand with blowing his cover in front of Steve. But it’s hard sometimes. Bucky wanted him, loved him in that way before anyone else even bothered to look at Steve twice. Yet other people have had their chance to be with Steve, and even if they blew it at least that was one chance more than Bucky’s ever gotten.

Looking away and forcing himself to think of something – anything – else, Steve picks Bucky’s mat back up and hands it to him. Undoing the straps, they unfold them and lay them out on the floor. Steve reminds Bucky to keep his water bottle nearby, and that they’ll be taking quick sips between postures, but not large ones. Apparently moderation is key; who the fuck knew that too much water could be bad for you? Son of a bitch, people should just be rolled up into bubble wrap at all times these days – what with how terrible every last thing is for you.

“Actually, it’s mostly just ‘cause you’re gonna have to piss a lot if you chug every time we have a quick water break,” Steve says, laughing after Bucky voices his general complaints about the world.

Before they get started, Steve gives him a basic overview of what they’re going to be doing. He reminds Bucky for the umpteenth time that Bucky needs to go at his own pace, and not to try overstretching himself or trying to pull off the postures to the same degree as Steve, otherwise he could hyper-extend or pull something. Just as Steve’s about to start teaching him, he stops himself again to ask Bucky if he wants to take his shirt or his prosthesis off.

“You’re going to be sweating balls, Buck,” he warns him, looking a little concerned. “Are you even allowed to get that thing wet?”

“Uh… I don’t know. I’m sure it’ll be fine though, I’m good with it on,” Bucky says.

Mostly, he’s just not a big fan of the idea of taking his shirt off in front of Steve, and especially not with having his left bicep on display like that. He rationalizes with himself that he might not be able to do some of the postures with only one arm. But inside, he really just doesn’t want Steve to see the damage.

Any of the times Steve’s seen it in the past (usually at night, the times where Steve wakes him up from his nightmares and Bucky had forgotten to wear a shirt to bed), it’s been brief and accidental. In the entire time since he’s lost it, Bucky’s never really shown it to anyone before – not even his family. Doctors and specialists don’t count. So selfishly, and maybe even superficially, Bucky doesn’t want Steve to discover that there’s perhaps a part of him that Steve would find ugly.

“Alright, if you’re positive,” Steve skeptically replies. Shaking his arms a little and lightly bouncing on the balls of his feet, he tips his head from side to side and then releases a breath, smiling over Bucky’s way. “Alright, so first we begin with what’s called the Pranayama Breathing exercise,” he begins to explain. “This is meant to initiate breath control and create a nice little bridge to allow for some equilibrium between our bodies and our minds. So, what we’re gonna do…”

Steve gives Bucky’s posture a once over, and then cuts himself off by coming over and standing directly behind him. Gently placing his hands on either side of Bucky’s head, he readjusts so Bucky’s neck is straightened. He hadn’t realized he’d already been falling back into old habits and falling out of posture.

“Sorry,” he chuckles.

“It’s okay,” Steve murmurs patiently. “Just relax… Feel your spine; try to picture it running from the very back of your neck, down to your tailbone.” As he speaks, he presses the first knuckles of his index and middle fingers to Bucky’s neck and then, with barely any pressure, drags them down the center of Bucky’s back, guiding him to correct the slight hunch on his own with Steve’s knuckles running over each notch in his spine.

Steve stops when he’s near the small of his back and then tells him, “Bring your feet together; heels and toes touching.” When Bucky does as he’s told, he jolts at the feeling of Steve gently placing his hands on the outer sides of his thighs. Steve chuckles breathlessly and apologizes, “Sorry, Jay, just making sure your muscles are contracted. You got it, good job. Okay… Bring your hands up beneath your chin and thread your fingers together.”

Bucky changes the grip pattern in his metal hand so he can do as he’s told. He almost shivers, despite the building heat in the room, when Steve places his palms on Bucky’s shoulders to coax him to relax them. Apparently Bucky has a lot more tension than he’d realized. Yoga might very well be tougher than he initially thought, too.

At Steve’s direction – the blond keeping a close, moderating eye on Bucky’s posture, and always jumping in to patiently redirect him if he starts slipping back into his ‘habit body’ without realizing it – Bucky’s instructed through the breathing exercise. With the first inhale through his nose, Bucky lifts his elbows above his head, keeping his hands below his chin.

“As you exhale through your mouth, you’re going to slowly lower your arms until your elbows are touching… While at the same time, letting the movement lift your hands and just as slowly tip your head back,” Steve explains. His voice is all steady and controlled; authoritative, but still soft and sort of husky right now.

When Bucky does as Steve says and exhales for the first time, Steve uses his hands to help tilt Bucky’s head back, to demonstrate how far back he should be going. Bucky’s already starting to feel sweat misting his skin, and his senses somehow seemed heightened – so Steve standing so close behind him while his hands innocently touch around Bucky’s body, knowing the makeup of it and how Bucky’s bones and muscles are supposed to function even better than Bucky knows his own body right now… It’s a fucking turn on.

And the breathing exercise surprisingly helps a lot. After he gets the hang of it and Steve takes up his spot on his own mat again to join him and get his own exercise in, Bucky’s able to go through the motions fluidly. Unexpectedly, it seems to help his mind feel calmer. He still sort of prefers the ‘count backwards from ten’ trick, because it seems a little more convenient to resort to in the event of an emergency – he’s not exactly going to randomly bust out this ‘Pranayama’ thing in the middle of a crowded place if he’s feeling his anxiety levels rise. But this is nice, too.

Once the breathing exercise is compete, Steve explains that there are twenty-six postures that get covered during Bikram hot yoga: twelve standing and fourteen lying or sitting. And from there, it all pretty much goes down the tubes in terms of Bucky being focused on his own body.

He’s way too focused on Steve’s.

Some of the postures are harder to even attempt to pull off than others, and yet even when Bucky’s finding himself laughing and stumbling over, having to give up and wait for the next one, Steve pulls off every single one like he was born doing it. Watching the careful – and downright insane – control he has when he’s crouched and balancing on the tips of his toes, arms perfectly extended in front of him as he does something aptly-named the ‘Awkward Pose’ (or, as Steve calls it afterwards, ‘Utkatasana’)… Bucky’s staring, and it’s impossible not to. The muscles Steve has to keep active just to maintain the posture means that his incredible abs are all tightened and clenched together, and the parts of his legs not covered by his shorts are stiff as a board.

Sort of like how Bucky’s on his way to becoming in his fucking pants.

When Steve shows him how to do some of the more complicated standing poses, Bucky’s starting to consider asking Steve to just kill him instead. In the ‘Standing Bow Pose’, Steve is able to lift and extend his right leg straight up into the air behind him – and holy fucking fuck, it dawns on Bucky in that exact same moment that the splits would be no problem for Steve. Being bent in half would also be no problem for Steve. There are probably very few positions that would be a problem for Steve, and Bucky just might accidentally swallow his tongue before this is all over.

It only gets worse as the minutes pass, they both begin to exert themselves, and combining that with the room finally being at its proper temperature, it’s not much longer before they’re both generously covered in sweat. Breathing gets heavier, and they have to frequently pause to take small sips of water, but then it’s right back to it. Bucky refuses to admit it, but the sweatier he’s getting, the more he’s certain he’s boiling under the t-shirt now vapor-locked to his torso. Worse than that, the most uncomfortable his arm is getting in his prosthesis.

“You sure you don’t wanna take something off?” Steve asks again.

“I’m fine, yes, I’m sure,” Bucky mutters back, trying not to snap impatiently. “Let’s just keep going.”

When they get to the ‘Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose’, Steve expertly and slowly shows him how to bend and keep his balance. But when Bucky tries, he keeps stumbling over and almost going face-first into the mat, making both boys laugh the harder Bucky keeps trying.

“My center of balance must be in my fuckin’ head,” he jokes, struggling to bend down again and reach his feet – his legs extended as far out as he can without feeling like he’s going to split in two. He’s having a hard enough time doing that without tipping forward – let alone being able to pull off the second part of the posture, which is to let his head hang forward and try to fold his upper body down and, essentially, in half. All while staying standing. Somehow. Bucky’s beginning to think that these positions are actually impossible, and Steve’s just some sort of alien who’s trying to fuck with him into thinking it’s legitimately doable.

Steve’s still chuckling, panting softly now from the heat, when he straightens up and comes back up to Bucky again. “Here, let me help.”

Bucky’s got blood rushing to his head from being virtually upside down like this, but he goes completely rigid when he feels Steve step right up behind him. His ass is in the air, and when the blond takes Bucky’s waist in his hands, the grip he gets makes Bucky almost gasp. Because it’s still mindful, careful, but the point is to be strong enough to steady Bucky’s weight and stop him from falling over. Paired with the fact that Steve’s hips feel like they’re just hovering behind Bucky’s ass, Bucky’s brain blanks out completely.

If he could still be capable of words, he’d probably beg for Steve to yank his track pants down and shove his cock inside of him. He’d babble and plead for it, and take it as hard as Steve wanted to give it to him. They’re in the perfect position for it; at this point, all Bucky would have to do for it to be a bit more comfortable would be to bring his hands to the floor so he could lift his head a bit.

He’s got sweat dripping from his forehead, and he has to keep blinking it out of his eyes, and all he can think about is how it fucking aches to have Steve this close. All he wants, all he needs right now, is for Steve to take mercy on him and grind himself right against Bucky’s ass. He just needs to feel Steve’s cock – even if just once, just for a second. He’s so aroused so quickly that if Steve gave him even that, Bucky would probably moan like a whore and come in his pants like a teenager again.

“There we go,” Steve says. Bucky wonders if it’s all in his head that his friend’s voice sounds like it’s dropped an octave. Steve sounds just as unprepared as he feels. Then the blond is taking a quick (and shaky) breath and talking Bucky through a series of several deep breaths in between counting.

By the time Steve’s telling him to straighten back up, Bucky’s head is spinning and he mutters, trying to sound like he’s kidding, “You let me go and I’m gonna fall right over. I can barely see straight.”

“Sorry,” Steve chuckles. “You did great, though. You’re doin’ great – you might be a natural. Okay, I’m gonna keep you steady, and when I say so, take a deep breath and on the exhale, slowly bring your hands to the floor and then bend your knees. I’ll help you up.”

Bucky does it, and though he gets a momentary head rush, Steve’s voice keeps finding its way to him and keeping his movements at a nice, slow pace, he straightens his shaking legs and rolls his spine back up, leaving his head for last. Steve’s hands still haven’t left his hips, and now… Now, Bucky can feel Steve’s breath on the back of his bare shoulder. Slowly turning his head, he meets Steve’s eyes. This time, he knows he’s not imagining things – Steve’s pupils are huge, and his eyes look a little hazy.

With the way they’re panting and the way Steve’s face is sweaty, golden hair wet at the roots and looking darker, it’s so easy to imagine that this is probably very similar to what he looks like during sex, too. They stare, in each other’s eyes and then, because Bucky can’t help it, down at Steve’s mouth. Neither one of them does anything, and all Bucky can do is wonder if he should take the initiative and be the one to lean in. But then his body catches up with him, and he realizes that he’s completely erect at the front of his track pants.

If he’s reading into things that aren’t there again, he’s about to make a huge mistake. If Steve doesn’t potentially see Bucky that way, he’s about to be completely busted. So he swallows and then hoarsely mumbles, “I think I need to sit down for a few minutes and have some water…”

“Oh – yeah, right, sorry,” Steve quickly says, letting go of Bucky’s waist and quickly turning away, averting his gaze completely. That gives Bucky enough time to sit himself down and rest with his back to the mirror, bending his knees so his hard-on can’t be seen. He doesn’t want to be completely out of line, but a part of him needs to know if Steve’s in the same boat as he is. Frustratingly, the guy’s shorts are too loose around the thighs to give anything away – making it about the one thing Steve Rogers owns that isn’t three sizes too small. Figures.

Or maybe Bucky’s just kidding himself again. Maybe Steve isn’t aroused at all. He does look a little thrown off kilter, though. He stares off with a small frown while he goes back to his yoga mat, and then looks to Bucky, opening his mouth like he wants to say something. Then he closes his mouth again and hesitates, then choosing to ask, “You mind if I keep going while you rest? I can guide you back into it once you’re ready again.”

Bucky fiddles with the water bottle in his hand, dropping his own eyes down to it with a small nod. “Sure, knock yourself out.”

It’s not the worse thing he’s ever endured, that’s for sure. Getting to watch Steve go through the postures in silence, since there’s no one there to instruct while he’s at it, is light-years better than having to actually do them himself. Bucky finds himself torn between trying not to drool at all the ways he’s seeing Steve flex, bend, and contort himself seemingly without any strain – and feeling troubled at the fact that, once again, this is one of those times where Bucky has absolutely no idea what the hell is going on between them.

One second, he’s determined that Steve doesn’t see him in the same way. The next, he’s started to question his judgment and wonder…

Every now and again, he’ll look away and frown uncomfortably as he tries to rearrange his shoulder cover, or wipe the line of sweat away that’s ringed between his arm and where it joins the bebionic3. He told Steve that it would be fine, but he’s never actually had it in these conditions before, and the longer he’s got it on in there, the more worried he’s growing that it’ll start to wig out and malfunction on him or something. It’s also starting to hurt, and that’s never a fun thing. The end of the stump itself is pretty numb in terms of his nerves there, but beyond that, he still has most feeling left – and the skin right above the metal socket is starting to look irritated.

Bucky tries to ignore it, he really does. Except that once he makes himself aware of it, that’s all he can feel, until his body starts to slowly wind itself up again – from physical discomfort and mental anxiety while he weighs out his choices. Steve starts looking to him more and more when Bucky’s foot begins to tap off the floor. When Bucky covers his face with his flesh hand to hide the scowl he’s wearing, Steve sees it, moves out of his current posture so he can stand straight, and concernedly asks, “Buck? What is it?”

“I… I think you were right,” Bucky admits – has such a fucking hard time saying that. He doesn’t want Steve to be right, and he doesn’t want his arm to be hurting. He doesn’t want to take it off, but he might not have any other choice unless he leaves the room altogether.

“What do you mean?”

Bucky hums with frustration, eyes squeezed shut and face pinched up. “I need to take this off,” he replies through gritted teeth. “I need to get this thing off me.”

“Bucky, hey, it’s okay,” Steve says, coming over to him. “Look, why don’t we go back home? It’s late anyways, we both gotta be up early tomorrow--”

“Just… Just stop talkin’ for a second, I need to think… I just need silence for a sec,” Bucky snaps. His face is still pained, but he takes a moment to look to Steve while he draws in and pushes out a few unsteady breaths through his nose… Can’t say sorry right now, but Steve can see in his eyes that he’s still apologizing for how his tone just came across. He knows Steve’s just trying to help, like he always does.

But this brings Bucky to a crossroad, and he recognizes it. Go down one path, and he latches onto Steve’s offer; uses it as an excuse to leave, and then live another day without his best friend having to see the remains of his left arm in all its glory. That road would undoubtedly be the safer one to choose. That’s the one he’s been deliberately choosing this whole time, after all.

Or… He can jump, and open himself up to ridicule and scorn and rejection, and if that happens, he’ll deal with the consequences then. If it doesn’t, then he’ll deal with how that makes him feel when it happens, too. Maybe he’s doing exactly what Steve warned him against and is feeling overzealous; maybe the progress he made when he saw Sam earlier is making Bucky think he’s somehow capable of taking on something this big, too, so soon. He doesn’t know.

He knows he’s so terrified that he’s beginning to tremble, though.

“H-Help me up,” he quietly requests, lifting his right hand and his mind still not completely made up yet. Guess he’ll know once he gets to his feet.

Steve takes his hand and pulls. Once standing again, Bucky stares down at the ground – jaw tight and lips pressed in a firm line – while he teeters on his feet a bit, unsure of where he’s about to head; which road he’s going to go down. Inhaling, Bucky presses his right hand to his forehead and pushes away all the soaked strands of hair in his face. Exhaling, it comes out shaky, like the rest of him, but in his head he still counts.

Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two…

“What do you wanna do, Buck?” Steve softly asks, his eyes having never left him. “Just tell me. We’ll do whatever you wanna do.”

Bucky hesitates, unable to look back at him, and then slips his right hand under the hem of his t-shirt. “I’m gonna need some help,” he says – making his decision. He starts to work the dampened shirt up his torso, and about halfway up, he feels Steve’s hands take hold of the hem and help him get it the rest of the way off. Bucky clutches onto it at first, white-knuckling it, actually. 

Another crossroad. Still time to back out. Steve would understand.

He lets the shirt fall by his feet. He reaches up and disconnects the strap running in a diagonal down across his chest, to the bottom of the shoulder attachment joining down over his bicep and to the arm itself. Normally he can do it by himself, but with the way his arm currently feels rubbed raw, he’d rather move it as little as possible until he gets the fucking thing off. Bucky’s eyes hesitantly meet Steve’s, and then he’s taking a shallow breath, making himself turn around so Steve can see the joining shoulder attachment at the back.

“I can’t reach it as well right now,” he whispers. “I… I need your help, please.”

Steve’s shivering when he reaches out to touch him. He seems to understand how fragile Bucky is; how vehemently he’s working not to shatter at the simplest caress. But together they work in silence and maneuver all of the pieces off. Bucky winces, groaning under his breath when Steve helps him pull his stump out of the socket and he’s met with a sharp pinch of pain. But then it’s gone, and the immediate relief Bucky feels in his arm is almost good enough to distract him from the reminder that it’s now out there in the open, nothing to protect him from Steve anymore.

Almost.

Bucky knows Steve’s unsure of what to do with himself now. Obviously, he wants to look, and he does. But every other second, he’s catching himself and trying to look anywhere but at it again, so as not to give off the wrong impression. Bucky’s body is programmed to take both reactions automatically as an insult – he’s staring because it makes him uncomfortable or he’s not staring because it makes him uncomfortable.

Somewhere deep down, though, Bucky knows that’s not why Steve’s struggling with it right now – and that that too all comes down to him. Steve’s trying not to look because he doesn’t want to make Bucky uncomfortable. If he does, it’s because he genuinely wants to see it – to know what the fuck happened to his best friend.

If Steve was the one in Bucky’s shoes, and he had a limb just like this… Bucky would undoubtedly be reacting the same way. He knows he would. He’d want to see it, too. He’d want to touch it with gentle fingers and tell Steve until he was blue in the face that every part of him – every single part, even that one – is still so beautiful. He’d hate knowing that Steve was ashamed of it, because it’s impossible for Bucky’s brain to fathom the idea of there being any part of Steve Rogers that Bucky couldn’t accept and love.

Of course, it’s always different when it’s happening to you. People tend to be the best at giving advice they’ll never be able to follow themselves; see things from a logical, objective perspective if it’s regarding anyone else, but then become completely blinded by it the moment it touches them and becomes personal.

Every time he nervously sneaks a peek at Steve and catches the blond’s eyes darting back down to his arm, the look on Steve’s face brings Bucky distress. There’s so much going on in Steve’s expression, but mostly it’s a lack of understanding, the ache to be able to, and a heartbroken sort of sorrow. They’ve always been especially susceptible to empathy when it comes to each other; feeling the other’s pain, their joy, their anger, and every colorful emotion that falls on the spectrum in-between.

“What?” Bucky whispers; eyes narrowed, voice guarded but vulnerable. “What are you thinking?”

Steve shakes his head a little. Absentmindedly, he wipes away some big drops of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and then looks for a second like he’s about to reach out and touch Bucky there. Bucky sucks in a quiet breath and at the same time, Steve withdraws his hand and thinks better of it.

“I’m sorry,” Steve quickly says, voice no louder than Bucky’s is, when he sees Bucky flinch just at the idea of being touched. Voice breaking, he makes no effort to hide when he looks to it this time, saying, “Oh, Buck…”

“Do I disgust you yet?” Bucky asks bitterly. In his mind, he can still see the way Brock had reacted the first time he accidentally saw. He can see his family’s sadness. Bucky sees flashes of the faces of strangers over the last twenty-four-odd months, and the varying levels of shock, judgment, and repulsion at the realization that he wore a prosthetic.

Aww, the poor war vet. He has PTSD. He has night terrors and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Treat him delicately now, everyone; treat him with kid gloves or he’ll fly off into a panic attack or murderous rampage. He’s no longer a person anymore. He is only the damaged remains of one.

There are two responses he gets to his arm, based on what Bucky’s seen as the majority in the past. One: he’s some sort of freak, some monster. Or two: he’s a thing to be pitied. He isn’t sure which is worse. Either way, people turn Bucky’s prosthetic into his definition – the thing that makes him who he is, when it’s only part of him, no bigger or smaller than anything else.

To his surprise, Steve meets his eyes and sincerely answers, “No.”

“Then… I mean, what… what are you thinking?” Bucky asks again, sounding desperate; feels so fucking exposed and naked right now.

Steve suddenly gets a strange, introspective smile. At his own expense, he asks, “You really wanna know what I’m thinkin’?”

Does he? Is he prepared for this answer?

“Yeah.”

“I’m thinkin’… There it is – the ‘thing’. Not – not that your arm is a ‘thing’, but…” Steve huffs out a self-deprecating chuckle. “I’m thinking that I really wish I had my sketchbook with me right now so I could draw you.”

That makes Bucky’s chest hotter than any hot yoga ever could. Bucky’s never posed for him before; he would’ve never had the patience or discipline for it in the past. The idea of Steve wanting to stare so intently at his body and his stump freaks him out, but… he’s always wished that he’d one day hear Steve say those words.

“You saying I… ‘set your soul on fire’?” Bucky jokes. But he’s so defenceless right now that he still sounds small and still, so scared. Any confidence he hopes would’ve translated into his voice is non-existent, and to his own ears, he just sounds pathetic.

Steve meets his eyes again. “Yeah, you do,” he softly answers… and combined with the way he’s being looked at, Bucky’s getting hard again, slowly but surely. That might just be the most erotic thing anyone’s ever said to him, even if Steve only means it for aesthetic purposes.

“Buck… You can say no – tell me if I’m crossing a line. But I could promise never to show anyone else if you didn’t want me to,” he says slowly, quietly, dead serious… “This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for, just… I don’t know what it is, it’s just – I need to draw you, when we get back to the apartment, preferably. You’re just… I wish you could see how you look right now."

Bucky’s throat is really dry. He could probably use some water, but that’s all the way on the floor, and he can’t move just yet. “I don’t know if I’m--”

“Like I said, you don’t have to. I just had to ask, I’m sorry…”

“You wanna draw me?” Bucky asks again, trying to make sense of that request.

Steve’s eyes don’t just roam back to Bucky’s arm. His gaze actually travels from Bucky’s face all the way across his midriff, down as far as his lower stomach. Along the way, he pays the left arm no more attention just yet than he does the right, regular one. That’s when Bucky realizes that it wasn’t even his stump that drove Steve to this realization – it’s just him. Just Bucky Barnes. Right now, for whatever reason, he’s inspired Steve; the whole package, not just that particular thing.

“Yes,” Steve whispers, eyes falling down Bucky’s chest.

“‘Cause of the arm?” Bucky has to make sure.

Steve doesn’t nod or shake his head, doesn’t even blink. But his brows do pinch the slightest bit in the center. “No,” he answers, like he’s perturbing himself as much as he’s making Bucky feel a little lost.

“Then why?”

“I don’t know. I don’t question my muse, Buck, I just… It decides on its own. Then I let it guide me. Right now, you’re just…” Instead of finishing that sentence, he peers back up to Bucky’s eyes. He doesn’t sound pushy when he asks, “Please, can I?” Bucky knows Steve won’t make him feel bad if he turns it down. Mostly, Steve just genuinely sounds like he really wants it, for whatever the reason may be. Inspiration at its strongest, Bucky’s guessing, even though he still can’t comprehend the idea of him making any sort of ‘pretty picture’.

So Bucky has no fucking clue what to make of this. This is the farthest thing from the response he’s used to. To be looked as almost reverently once he removed the things shielding his body and letting Steve in to see it is disorienting. He’s still waiting for the criticism; still bracing himself for some form of revulsion. Weirdly, Bucky had been so fucking convinced that that would be Steve’s reaction, that not getting it is what’s starting to make Bucky restless. The pieces aren’t fitting together in the way that makes sense. This isn’t how it usually goes.

“You won’t show anyone?” he asks.

“Not if you don’t want me to.”

“Will you make me see it when it’s done?”

Steve shakes his head. “If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to.”

Bucky chews on the inside of his cheek. “What if I see it and hate it?”

“Then I’ll throw it away.”

Bucky’s never known Steve to throw away a piece he loved – which, from what he’s picking up on so far, would likely be the case here. The fact that Steve is offering to do that for Bucky without any hesitation… Maybe that’s what makes him tip his chin a bit, doing his best to nod as he mutters, “Um… Okay. If you want to, then… okay…”

“If you’re going to be uncomfortable the whole time, don’t say yes just for my sake, Bucky,” Steve says, closing the space between them to clasp the side of Bucky’s neck in his hand. “I won’t be mad if you’re not really okay with it. I completely get it.”

“Steve, I… I said it’s okay, okay? Don’t make me start second-guessing myself.”

“Okay, I’m sorry… Thank you, Buck. I know I’m askin’ for a lot right now…” They don’t make a move to back off from each other. Steve’s hand twitches against Bucky’s neck, at the same time that Steve asks, “Do you mind if I touch you? Am I alright being this close right now?”

Bucky gulps, but he nods. Steve tries to ease his mind with a gentle smile, before carefully lowering his hand from Bucky’s neck and bringing up his other hand so he can rest them on Bucky’s shoulders. Before Bucky knows what’s happening, Steve’s eyes are falling closed, and he starts slowly trailing his hands across Bucky’s shoulders.

“What are you doing?” Bucky quietly asks as his brows furrow.

Steve smiles to himself again, looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry, I just… This is something I do… Helps me. If I can touch it, I try to memorize how it feels, so… I dunno, it’s hard to explain. It helps me when I’m tryin’ to put it on paper.” Opening his eyes, Steve’s hands stop at the very ends of his shoulders. “Should I stop?” he asks. “I don’t wanna…”

Please don’t stop.

“Uh… It’s fine. Do what you need to do,” Bucky answers. 

Steve nods and closes his eyes again. He’s so sweaty, with his bangs plastered to his forehead and his skin flushed; lips parted because it’s too warm in there to get a decent breath in otherwise… Steve is so stunning, and Bucky can’t close his own eyes just yet because the look of concentration on his friend’s face is hypnotizing. Bucky stands there and tries to stay perfectly still; tries not to tremble all over or breathe out a moan at the way Steve’s hands start mapping out his upper body at a torturously slow pace.

He skips over Bucky’s left arm, but touches everywhere else – his neck, his sides… He uses the tips of his fingers to trace his jawline until his middle fingers meet at the cleft in Bucky’s chin. Bucky’s biting his lip and breathing heavier again when it starts to become more intimate, more… Bucky’s never had a single person touch him like this, and it isn’t even sexual.

It’s so much fucking more than that, and he’s scared for Steve to press a hand over his heart and feel how fast it’s beating; feel the expanse and compression of Bucky’s chest, his lungs, and know that he’s leaving Bucky breathless.

Steve dips his fingers into the little hollow of Bucky’s collar bones. He presses his palms to Bucky’s flanks to slowly run his thumbs over every single muscle on his stomach… Counting them in his head, Bucky guesses… The pad of his middle finger brushes over his navel; skims with a feather’s pressure across the thin line of hair directly underneath it.

Fingers touch over every scar – thin, jagged lines of varying sizes; raised flesh from old burn wounds. In Steve’s throat, Bucky will always hear a soft, pained sound get trapped there whenever Steve finds yet another one in his path. Bucky’s body is full of them. It’s another thing he hasn’t really let Steve see the extent of until now. None of them go untouched… and Steve memorizes all those, too… Takes them in… Accepts the all…

Eventually, Bucky’s eyes do close of their own accord, and if he’s stuttering over his breaths – drawing in the quietest of gasps – Steve must think it’s just because Bucky’s overwhelmed, because he doesn’t stop… Keeps touching, keeps smoothing out the sweat on his skin, and Bucky’s body feels alive, it feels like it’s thrumming… He doesn’t know what this is but he wants more, he’s dying for it…

Steve does hesitate, though, when he slides his hands back up Bucky’s abdomen, towards his pecks. He pauses just as his fingers slot between Bucky’s ribs – a silent question. Waiting for Bucky to say no, and making no move to proceed until he gets permission first. Steve’s breaths are jagged and shaky, too, but still nothing about a whisper’s volume. Bucky’s too distracted by the sensations to find his ability to form words – he just wants Steve to keep touching him like this. He doesn’t want to lose this, whatever this is…

“Please…” he breathes.

Steve’s hands resume moving again, and Bucky could cry in gratitude if he wasn’t feeling a little under-hydrated. They run over Bucky’s chest and feel the size, the shape of them. It’s completely innocent, it feels like, when Steve grazes Bucky’s nipples, and Bucky has to dig his teeth back into his bottom lip to keep from whimpering. If Steve dropped his hands between them unexpectedly, there’d be no way they wouldn’t bump into his erection. Steve comes any closer and he’s going to have it pressing against his hip.

Then he feels Steve hesitate again. Having explored and categorized away every other part of him, Steve’s right hand now goes back up to Bucky’s left shoulder.

“Buck,” he says uncertainly.

There are tears in Bucky’s eyes when he finally re-opens them. Steve’s looking down to his arm, and Bucky wonders how long he’s had his own eyes open again. One look at his face, and Bucky thinks, I’m so fucking in love with you and I can’t stand it. He never wants this to end. He’ll let Steve put his hands on him anywhere; let Steve draw him over and over and over if that’s what he wants, as long as he promises never to look at him any differently than how he’s looking now… Like Bucky’s on some sort of pedestal, like… Like Steve could lower himself down at any second, look up to him, and say, ‘This is where you belong in my eyes.’

That’s how he’s making Bucky feel, and he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know what’s going on between them, but Steve’s making him feel beautiful again, and worshipped, and cherished, and even if it’s not something Bucky can solely rely on in his journey to recovery, he can be selfish and try to keep it right now for as long as he can.

“Do it… I want you to…” Bucky whispers in-between shallow, chopped up breaths.

Bucky’s face twists up when Steve tentatively begins to lower his right hand and starts to feel his way down Bucky’s stump. This time, when he closes his eyes, it’s because he has to. His body is so conflicted right now. It’s so difficult for him to let Steve do this to him that it almost physically hurts, like he can feel the agony of severing it off all over again. But it’s also good, it’s so good, he’s never had anyone touch it with so much delicacy and it resonates straight down to his core more powerfully than anything else he’s felt since the war, since long before that even…

He whimpers, with relief and with anguish and with all the walls he’d spent so much time building around this part of himself crashing down to the ground around them. He’s so fucked up…

“Buck…” he hears Steve breathe. He sounds pained, too, like he’s trying not to cry.

“Please don’t stop,” Bucky chokes out, the end of his sentence punctuated by a soft, sharp little gasp as he fights to breathe.

“I won’t, I won’t, you’re okay,” Steve quietly soothes him. He brings his left hand to the back of Bucky’s neck to ground him; gently petting his nape and hairline the way Bucky likes to try calming down some of the tautness in his body. He keeps his word, and his right hand never stops slowly running over Bucky’s stump; front, behind, the inner bicep… Bucky’s so oversensitive, it hurts, it feels so good… Bucky wishes he could cry, he wants to cry so badly, but he’s so fucking hard, he wants this so badly but he also doesn’t…

Steve steps in closer and touches his forehead to Bucky’s. Bucky’s mouth is open now, and he can feel Steve’s nose brushing against his, and fuck, Steve’s waist grazes his by accident and Bucky can feel it – feel how hard Steve is in his own shorts, can feel and hear how soft and unstable his breathing is as it tufts out against his own mouth… And Steve’s got his own eyes closed again and he keeps hold of the back of Bucky’s neck, and he keeps memorizing every last detail about his left arm, gentle and compassionate and so goddamn loving, like Bucky will crack down the center if Steve presses any harder…

The fingers of his right hand are grasping onto Steve’s lower side, digging in brutally, but Steve doesn’t stop him. Before he knows it, words are slipping out past his tongue, and Bucky hears himself saying, “Twenty-nine days… That’s how long I was captured…” Steve makes an unprepared sound in his throat at the same time that his hand stops moving along Bucky’s arm. Quickly, Bucky pleads again, babbling desperately, “Please don’t stop, please, please I can’t, please--”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Steve quickly says, and goes back to trailing his fingers aimlessly around it, beneath it… “I’m not going anywhere; I’m right here, I’m sorry.”

After a few loud breaths, Bucky nods, clinging to him impossibly tighter and trying to calm down enough to keep going.

“It was me and a couple men from my unit,” he struggles to explain, the memories starting to replay in his head – sequentially and with too much detail, just like a movie. “It’d been a trap, and we walked right into it… Didn’t even see them coming until it was too late. One second we were stalking the perimeter and then next… I had a bullet going into my leg and someone’s stock slamming into the back of my neck. I don’t remember much else, not until they’d already had me strapped down.”

The grip on the back of his neck gets tighter, and Bucky whimpers out a third time, “Don’t stop,” even though Steve’s made no move to, and Steve only replies all too quickly, “I won’t.”

“It was me and three other guys… I was able to get one of them out with me but the other two… already dead. That would’ve been us if I hadn’t gotten out of there…” Bucky’s breath starts catching, and there’s something horrible, something too strong for his liking coiling in the pit of his gut. He can feel it swirling and building, like it’s going to try inching up his intestines and lodging itself into his throat, and he tries to gulp it back down.

“I remember the chains… Rusty, they were… They were all rusted up and rubbed my skin raw. They’d feed me every few days, just enough to keep me from dyin’ on them… I think they thought I’d be useful to them for a while, somehow, otherwise maybe they would’a finished me off sooner… It was nothing but torture, every day, for twenty-nine days, and I had no idea what they were saying. I tried, I tried to understand, and when they broke me I tried to beg them to stop… Then I tried to beg them to kill me… They never did either.

“By my third tour, I didn’t… I don’t think I knew why I was fighting anymore, except for obligation. I mean… for my country, yeah, but… The things I saw, the things we had to do, Stevie… I… Every time I fired my gun, I never knew for sure anymore whether I was part of the solution or only fucking up the world even more than it already was…”

He has to pause, sniffling loudly and struggling harder to breathe as that pressure in his belly works its way up into his lungs. He tries to count backwards from ten in his mind, but it doesn’t seem to make it go away, not at all.

“So… The entire time it was happening, I remember thinking… These people hated me, and I hated them… But… It was all in the name of vengeance… And something about that got to me sometimes more than anything… That I would probably die out there, and I’d just be one of another couple thousand casualties that week… And when it was all over, these people wouldn’t even remember my face. They’d never know my name. I was nothing more than a weapon. And if they got killed, none of us would’ve cared either…

“It made no sense, Steve,” Bucky says, teeth gritted… Feeling a single tear wet the outer corner of his right eye and slowly start to trail down his cheek… Then a tear from his other eye… “I felt like I was gonna die for nothing. The world would be just as fucked up without me, ‘cause we all made it that way… That people who don’t even know each other would do the things they were doing to me… That we did to them…

“And I hated myself for wanting to die after a while. Every time I woke up and I was still strapped down, I’d scream and I’d cry and after a while I didn’t even care, I just kept begging them to do it. But they just kept… Kept going and… I thought I’d never see my family again, or Brooklyn, or you… They were gonna kill me or leave me there to rot and I knew I’d die all by myself, and I fucking… hate myself… because if they’d just understood me even a little, maybe they would’ve given it to me. I wouldn’t be here now, but I just… I just couldn’t – I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t, there was too much pain--”

There’s a harsh breath against his face. Steve’s starting to sob.

“They figured out after a while that I meant fuck all to them. No one was gonna pay up a ransom for some Brooklyn kid with no value, and that’s when I knew… But the moment I realized I actually was about to die, I panicked – I just…” It’s in his throat now. Bucky makes a sound like someone’s squeezing the life out of him, but Steve’s never letting go of him and his arm, no matter how badly Bucky shakes. With that, he tries to hold on just a little longer before whatever’s before whatever that thing inside of him is swallows him whole.

“If it’d been more than one guy that came back in, I would’ve been done. But… He undid the chains covering up my right arm – I don’t… I don’t know why, but… probably to herd me outside… Probably line me up with some other troops and shoot me in the face or something… Second my arm was free, I used my hand to go straight for the pressure point in his thigh. He had… There was a knife in his holster, he always wore it on him every time they tortured me… Sometimes he’d cut me open with it or… b-burn me with it, but…

“Second I incapacitated him, I was grabbing that and shoving it right into his gut. He feel over, onto me, and… He looked right at me, makin’ this… noise, and… I didn’t think about it for one second.” Bucky’s voice hollows out a bit, with regret and disgust and loathing, too – at those people in his memories, his captors… and also himself. Sometimes, he thinks he’s angriest with himself most of all.

“I was no better. I stabbed him right in the jugular, and--” I can still taste the blood in my mouth at night, Steve, he fucking bled all over me and I had no choice but to swallow some of it, even now I can taste it… “--I managed to get him off me before… I… I pulled and I – I fucking tried everything I could, but the chains they had around my arms had been too tight, I barely had any circulation in the left one, and… I remember every sound had me looking to the door, and I knew they’d come for me when no one brought me out. Every fucking second, Steve, I thought I was about to get a bullet in the back of my head.

“If I’d have been able to, I would’a been screaming while I tried to get that fucking chain off, but I couldn’t. I had no choice, I had to be silent… I had no choice… I still had the knife and there was no other way… Steve, I had no choice…”

The rest doesn’t matter. He trusts Steve can put two-and-two together and figure out what happened next. He doesn’t need to tell him what it felt like, to see what you were doing to yourself and to know it was either that or death, and to feel the blinding, white-hot pain – so much that Bucky almost choked on his own vomit, but kept sawing that fucking knife, never stopping, ‘cause he had to get out of there, he had to get out of there…

Nothing else matters, and that was the moment where everything changed. When he left that arm behind to escape, he left that innocent, carefree boy from Brooklyn there, too. Sometimes, when he dreams, Bucky pictures that boy still trapped in that room, pounding on the walls, crying, confused and alone… Screaming; hoping someone will hear him and let him out… Screaming; hoping someone will find him and let him die…

“I’m s… I’m so sorry,” Steve’s gasping, still heaving with his chest to Bucky’s as he continues to cry.

It pulls Bucky from his thoughts. He’s not in a war, he’s not in Pakistan, he’s not in that room anymore… He’s not that same person and he’s not untainted and he’s not complete, either…

But he’s here, and he was given a second chance, and Bucky hasn’t said any of this out loud to a single person, not ever. Everything crashes and collides together inside of him, and Bucky thinks he might be about to pass out.

“I’m so sorry,” Steve says again, strained. Without warning, he's suddenly planting his lips to the side of Bucky’s jaw, breathing noisily, sounding agonized... He starts to hastily press a few rough, quick kisses down Bucky’s neck and shoulder, making his way to his left arm. Bucky feels Steve lifting it up in his hand. Bucky makes no move to stop him.

His eyes are still closed, and his face is twisted up, and he can’t breathe, he can’t, he’s slipping in and out of the room – is right back where he was two years ago, can feel the way the knife felt disappearing into his muscles, and-- he’s here, he’s safe, he’s with Steve. He was given a second chance, and he has people who love him, and Bucky’s broken but he could try to learn how to become as whole as can be again, he can, he has to believe that—

His jaw drops with a startled, impassioned, breathless cry – he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, it’s choking him, it’s gonna kill him – when Steve sniffles and weeps and starts kissing all around the remnants of Bucky’s arm. Bucky finds the back of Steve’s head with his right hand and grabs golden hair between his fingers, right at the roots. It doesn’t stop Steve, and Bucky doesn’t try to stop him. Steve’s kisses are tender and they’re fast, like if he can coat as much of Bucky’s arm as possible with them, he can turn back the clock and erase Bucky’s pain.

“Beautiful,” he hears Steve lament between kisses – fragments and barely-heard whispered words, thickly laced with Steve’s grief and Bucky’s sorrow resonating within Steve’s very own heart. And he cries, and cries; cries for Bucky and keeps insisting, “It’s beautiful… You’re beautiful… Bucky… I’m so… so… fucking sorry…”

It’s gonna kill him, it grabs Bucky’s heart and twists, and his lungs, and his throat, and Bucky wishes this had never happened to him, he misses who he used to be, and he’s hurting – he’s hurting and he’s so tired of hurting, so tired or running, so tired of being tired… He tries to say Steve’s name to warn him that he’s about to pass out, or collapse, or die, or… It’s too powerful and Bucky’s scared shitless.

“S… S…”

The next sound that comes out of him is excruciating. Suddenly he really can’t breathe, because he’s gasping loudly with every inhale and losing control of his body, his chest rising and falling violently. He squeezes his eyes shut tighter, and suddenly that thing inside of him hits him full force – the overwhelming feeling, all the emotions he’s been trying to keep down.

Every locked door in his brain flies wide open simultaneously…

And Bucky finally shatters.

Tears start streaming down his face and he’s sobbing out loud, harrowing cries, because he doesn’t know how to handle all this anymore and there was no way to prepare him. Steve immediately straightens so he can grab Bucky and pull them together; palming the back of Bucky’s head in his entire hand and turning his own face into Bucky’s neck and crying into his skin, too. Bucky sobs against Steve’s shoulder and clings to him like a frightened child, shaking so hard that he’s spasming and gasping louder and louder with every breath – completely incapable in this moment of filtering any of the countless emotions all trying to flood his mind at the same time.

Steve never lets him go, even though it takes almost forty-five minutes for Bucky to stop crying. By the time it’s over, Bucky’s so exhausted and so worn out that his eyes are bloodshot and puffy around the edges. He says nothing when Steve gathers their things and guides a slightly dazed Bucky out of the studio. He says nothing on the drive home, but Steve holds his hand the entire way. And when they finally are back the apartment, the sketch is forgotten.

He stumbles into the bathroom, completely out of it, and sheds all of his clothing; lets the shower water wash all the leftover sweat from his skin while he stares off, not knowing how to feel about everything that just happened. When he emerges from the bathroom in a clean pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt, wet hair unbrushed and hanging in his face, the first thing Bucky says in over an hour is when he weakly mumbles, “Your drawing…” as Steve comes up to him, wordlessly takes his hand, and walks them into Bucky’s bedroom.

Steve simply answers, “Not tonight,” and then gently pulls Bucky onto the bed. Turning off the light and then pulling the covers over them, Steve molds himself to Bucky’s back and fills all the empty spaces. Bucky stares ahead, eyes still a little void of clarity, while Steve keeps a protective eye on him and starts stroking his fingers through Bucky’s hair with one hand. Gently untangling the knots with his fingers, Steve knows better than to ask questions.

So he doesn’t. He hums instead. Out of tune, soft, and perfect, just the way Bucky’s always liked it.

Bucky closes his eyes, feeling like he could cry again. He hopes that now that he’s relearned how to do that, that won’t mean he’s suddenly going to be bawling his eyes out at the drop of a hat. He counts backwards from ten, and this time, it works.

Baby steps. Just because the walls tumbled down tonight doesn’t mean there isn’t still a mess of rubble lying around up there. It’s still going to take a while and a lot of work for Bucky to stop trying to hide behind whatever pieces of debris he can find.

Within minutes, Bucky’s so exhausted that he falls asleep… With Steve’s voice in his ears, and Steve’s fingers in his hair, and Steve’s body and scent keeping him wrapped up beneath those blankets. Bucky falls asleep with his shoulders feeling a little lighter, knowing that even if the nightmares find him tonight, Steve will already be there to hold him through it.


A week passes, and then another, and they never do wind up making time for that drawing. Bucky isn’t quite sure what’s going on, but it starts to feel like there’s something different about Steve whenever they’re together now. 

He’s more closed off. It could just be Bucky being paranoid, what with putting himself out there as much as he did, but it’s beginning to feel less and less like simple paranoia. It’s not even like Steve’s necessarily acting differently with him after that night, it’s more that… he doesn’t seem to be smiling quite the same way at him now, and more than once, the way he regards Bucky is with a directionless, lost sort of look.

For all intents and purposes, things still carry out the same way between them on the surface. Aside from that particular night, Steve still sleeps in his own room and tends to have to run into Bucky’s at all hours to help wake Bucky up from a bad dream. They still go to the diner, even if Steve has to be up early in the morning for class and winds up heading to school with bags under his eyes. Bucky tries to insist that he can go alone. Steve never listens.

A few times, Steve will help lull Bucky back to sleep by holding him, either by being the big spoon or letting Bucky crash with his head on his chest again. Because helping Bucky is always the priority, things don’t feel as different between them at night. But during the day, when all is well and they’re just hanging around together, it feels like they got rid of one elephant in the room only for another to eventually have found its place.

Bucky knows what it is, he just doesn’t know how to decipher Steve’s behavior in relation to it. He knows Steve felt what he felt that night at the studio; that Steve being as erect as him and kissing his arm and calling him beautiful are all not things platonic friends tend to do with each other. Bucky knows he did nothing wrong that night – by Steve’s standards especially, everything that happened could only be seen as positives. So Bucky doesn’t understand what seems to have Steve so troubled lately.

As the days pass, Bucky flip-flops in terms of his moods. Some days, he feels more open and is willing to talk about more things from his past with Steve; memories from his time in the army, good and bad things from high school, his family… In the last session, he even had what Doctor Richards thought of as a ‘major breakthrough’ when Bucky spent the entire session talking about the situation with Steve, and how it felt to finally talk to someone about his arm (since he’s yet to do that with even the therapist himself). Whenever he’s at the diner, Bucky’s even able to start eating his meals in a slightly different order than he’s always known, even if he does still rearrange his plate the way he likes to first.

Other times, he goes inward again – gets lost in negative thoughts, or fears judgment, even from Steve. On those days, he can go from a near perfect mirror image of the guy he used to be to closing off without any warning and wanting to be alone for a few hours, holed up in his room and doing nothing but staring at the wall until he’s gradually calmed down.

But those times, while still regular occurrences, definitely don’t happen as frequently as they had when he first moved it; definitely not as often as they had before he did. In the grand scheme of things, even with the underlying feeling of something seeming off with Steve, Bucky’s still working at trying to adjust and continue taking those baby steps forward. Of his own choosing, he doesn’t always wear his prosthesis if he’s at home, even if Steve’s there. Yeah, he pretty much always wears a shirt that covers it, but to him and to Steve, too, they recognize it as progress.

Bucky even takes Sam up on that offer to go for a drink, and while he’s not ready to start volunteering down at the VA just yet, he does accept the information Sam goes out of his way to print off for him. And he even reads it, too; doesn’t just take them to be polite, only to ditch them the moment he leaves. Add to that that one afternoon, he gets a random Facebook message from Tony and Bucky actually replies to it for the first time in about five years – opening up that door to communication again and making the effort to reach back out – and Bucky’s been feeling better about himself lately than he has in god knows how long.

Except for that whole thing with Steve. That, he just can’t pinpoint, and it chips away at him every time they hang out now.

Steve’s been incredibly busy over the last week, with school and with work. Thanks to that, he hasn’t even had time to pick up any shifts over at the yoga studio. Now that Bucky knows how much of a stress releaser that is for Steve, he notices a lot easier that without it, Steve’s been looking a little more worn out the last few days. Bucky actually feels guilty whenever he wakes up at night now to find Steve in his room; now tries to dissuade him from crawling into bed behind Bucky and assuming his usual role until Bucky falls back asleep.

Despite whatever may be going on in Steve’s head, he never lets Bucky talk him out of staying. Turns out, it’s actually during one of these very nights, when Bucky has his head on Steve’s chest and fingers lazily threading through his hair, that he has his epiphany. It dawns on him that maybe the problem this entire time has been just another misunderstanding, due to a lack of communication. During the entire course of their friendship, Bucky never knew how Steve felt about him because he chose never to ask. The entire time, he’d always just assumed that his feelings were one-sided, because the possibility of rejection from Steve was too scary a thing to consider.

It still is, but… Bucky’s been feeling more and more certain that, even if Steve maybe didn’t see Bucky in any romantic way when they were younger, there’s reason to believe he might actually now. But the fact of the matter is, Bucky still hasn’t brought up that sort of conversation – and in Steve’s defense, it’s not like Bucky’s really made a move either. Only that one time when they were kids. But things are different now; they feel different now. No less of what they had growing up – just more. More feelings, more affection, more love for each other. More.

Maybe Steve’s just as freaked out to take that sort of plunge, because he’s just as terrified that there’s too much at stake, the same way Bucky’s always felt. Maybe he’s been unintentionally confusing Steve in the exact same ways, since Bucky hasn’t gone out of his way to make things any more obvious to Steve than Steve has in return.

Maybe all Bucky needs to do is let himself make such a big jump, risks be damned, and just go for it.

It takes him a few more days, but he starts building up the nerve to do just that. He has absolutely no clue how to go about laying such a confession onto Steve, and it seems like he considers every possible angle there is – he tries to put it in an email, but that seems too informal. Then he tries an actual letter, written by hand, but Steve should hear it coming from him, in his words, in his voice. That’s how Bucky would want to hear it.

He even scours the internet, typing in such ridiculous things into Google like, ‘How to tell your best friend that you’re in love with them?’ and spending hours reading posts on forums of people having their own little stories to tell – some so sweet and romantic that they could be turned into a movie; others, so disastrous that Bucky can’t even believe that person had it in them to talk about it in public. Most of the posts are written by teenagers, and it makes Bucky feel a little silly. But it also gives him hope, too, so… it is what it is.

What he decides on feels a little cliché and undeserving of someone as amazing as Steve Rogers, but Bucky basically gets impatient and hits a point where he doesn’t want to wait any longer. Steve had class all morning and then had to head straight to work from campus in the afternoon. Because they’re used to each other’s schedules, Bucky knows that Steve will be off work and getting back home around seven. As far as Steve’s concerned, Bucky’s working his own shift from three until eleven.

What Steve doesn’t know is that Bucky actually called in sick and plans to have dinner ready for him when he gets home instead.

Now, they do live together, so one of them cooking for them both isn’t exactly anything new. So Bucky knows he needs to intimate things up a bit. He runs out – surviving on virtually nothing that day but caffeine, nerves, and excitement – and picks up not one, but two fresh bouquets of orchids. He remembers Steve mentioning that that was the type of flower he wanted to pick up next for his next visit to see Sarah.

So Bucky figures he can put one bouquet in a vase on the dining room table, and that one can be just for Steve. The other can maybe be for them to take to her grave the following day, if Steve wants to. They’re both supposed to have some time off not that late into the evening, and Steve had already said he was planning to go then anyways…

He just really hopes Steve likes them.

It'd taken Bucky a while that day to decide on what he should make for dinner. He considered something fancy and intricate, until it dawned on him that maybe something with a bit more meaning - sentiment - behind it would have a greater impact. When the idea finally struck him, he felt like a genius. One of Steve’s favorite foods when they were kids – old enough that neither required a babysitter anymore – was this completely random concoction that he and Bucky had actually put together during what they’d dubbed ‘Fend for Yourself Night’ (or, in regular terms, on one of the nights where Sarah was working a late shift over at the hospital and Victor was out of town, as per usual). They’d had their hearts set on Kraft Dinner, only to discover that they’d actually already eaten the last box a few nights before and completely forgot. Neither one of them really knew all that much about cooking, but their combined efforts were enough to make them confident that they could find an equally delicious substitute.

It’d been such a weird combination; Steve saw the bag of yellow potatoes (he’s always had an unhealthy love for starch – would probably live off of it, if given the chance – which Bucky always joked was just because he was Irish), and triumphantly declared, “Ma taught me how to make mashed potatoes – let’s have those!”

The tomato soup had been Bucky’s idea, since there’d been a few cans in the cupboard, and then while they both looked at the remaining contents of the fridge, Steve was the one who reached in and pulled out the container with the leftover ground beef from the tacos he’d had the night before. Holding it up and raising an eyebrow at Bucky, the brunet had shrugged with a grin, replying, “Sure, why not?”

Bucky can’t remember whose idea it’d been to wind up layering the final product on their plates, but it turned out that mashed potatoes with ground beef on top, smothered in tomato soup (mixed with a little milk) was fucking downright delicious. For lack of a better name, Steve started calling it ‘Goosh’, and somewhere along the way, it stuck.

It hardly seems like that would be the sort of traditional, romantic meal one person would make for another they were trying to impress… but Bucky sort of figures that he and Steve aren’t very traditional. They never have been. Why break their streak now? Besides, there’s sentiment and history behind it. He knows he hasn’t even thought to make that meal since he’d first moved to Indiana. Who knows – maybe Steve hasn’t had it in a long time either. Bucky hopes he might’ve even forgotten about it completely. That would make the surprise even better.

But he needs something else; like, a dessert or a nice, fancy bottle of wine. Or both. Yeah, he’ll go with both. Beer with dinner, wine with dessert… Bucky’s mouth is already watering, and he probably looks like a gigantic dork while he walks through the grocery store, grabbing the ingredients he needs and sticking them into his basket while he has this monster grin he’s incapable of hiding on his face. At this point, he’s sort of been building himself up for this, and he’s not really letting himself picture any version of this going down in which Steve doesn’t like Bucky’s gesture.

At least he can gauge Steve’s reaction first. If Bucky, for whatever reason, gets a serious ‘just friends’ vibe from him when he sees that Bucky made him dinner and had a dessert waiting in the wings, yeah, it’s going to hurt like a bitch, but Bucky won’t let it show. He certainly won’t throw their friendship away because of it – though, he also won’t still be planning on coming clean to Steve about the true extent of his feelings either. What he can do is lie on the spot and use the cover that he’d put it all together simply because he saw how little time Steve’s had to unwind lately, and Bucky just wanted to do something nice for his friend so he could relax for an hour.

It’s the perfect excuse. (Bucky keeps telling himself that he won’t need it, mind you, but the point is, he’s going in prepared. He has his angles covered. Everything is going to be great, no matter what happens.)

When he gets back home, he hooks up his iPhone to the speakers Steve always keeps in the living room and puts on some of his tunes while he starts to get ready. He’s got less than two hours before Steve’s off work, which means about three or so before Steve actually gets home. Plenty of time, he tells himself confidently, so he can afford to run into the bathroom for twenty minutes – clean up the scruff he’s got going on so it’s a little more presentable, and then grab a quick shower to clean himself up.

He doesn’t want to get too ahead of himself and be presumptuous, but if he presses his forehead to the tiled wall and takes a couple extra minutes to lather up his fingers and make sure he’s clean everywhere… It’s better to be safe than sorry. At least he’ll be prepared if he’s lucky enough for something even somewhat close to that happening.

Either way, it’s been a while since Bucky’s fingered himself, so he gives himself the opportunity to waste a few minutes of hot water getting reacquainted with the feeling of coaxing his middle finger all the way to the second knuckle. Christ, it might have been a little longer than he remembers. He’s tight as hell. Biting his lip, Bucky tries to imagine what Steve’s fingers would be like fucking into him like this. Steve has a magnificent ass; he bets it would feel amazing around his own fingers, too, or his cock… Fuck, god, Bucky wants to know what Steve’s cock tastes like. Or if he likes having his ass eaten out… That’s sort of a thing for Bucky – getting it and doing it.

He’s terrible, and he knows it. Before Bucky can go and even somewhat hope that he’d ever be lucky enough to find himself in bed with Steve Rogers, he actually needs to get past the whole ‘So look, I actually love you way more than a friend’ part first. Talk about his brain skipping Steps A through Y and sprinting right to Z. He needs to bring it back a notch.

Of course, he can still know that on a logical level and keep being selfish for a few more minutes on a subjective one. Bucky seriously needs to run out sometime soon and invest in some sort of vibrator. Fingering himself for the first time in years (he thinks it might actually have been years, Jesus) reminds him of just how much he keens for being stretched open and getting properly fucked. He’s always been one of those people who drools just as hard from receiving it as he does being the one to top. He’s not picky – and he especially would never even think of being picky if it came to Steve.

He’s on the clock, though, so he doesn’t let himself get too carried away. Oherwise he’s going to walk out of the bathroom to find that Steve’s long since already gotten home. The potatoes themselves need more than a few minutes set aside for them, so… It’s short – panting under his breath and hissing with the odd little twinge of discomfort as he plays with his hole for a few minutes – and he gets nowhere near close enough to come, but it’s still pretty damn sweet.

It’s no surprise when he emerges from the bathroom a few minutes later to see that he’s still alone in the apartment, but a small part of him is relieved. Towel drying his hair, he heads for his bedroom so he can throw on some deodorant, spritz on a quick line of body spray, and then get dressed. After getting on his metal arm so he can cook more efficiently, he then throws on the nicest shirt he can find in his dresser (a casual but handsome black button-up, not buttoned up all the way because he is neither a cowboy nor a priest, as Steve likes to tease him) with a pair of red jeans. He’d worn that same getup within the first month of living with Steve, and looking back on it, Steve had been staring a lot that day. And not in the bad way.

Bucky knows it gives him a bit of a ‘hipster meets prep’ thing, which makes it – randomly – about the only thing in Bucky’s entire wardrobe that gives Bucky any sort of style other than the ‘loose hoodies and black jeans and I probably just rolled out of bed and got ready in less than five minutes’ look he usually has going on all the time. He finishes it off by keeping his hair down for a change, opting simply to tuck it behind his ears and letting it hang loosely around his shoulders. Rolling his sleeves up to his elbows, he heads into the kitchen to start cooking.

Seven o’clock rolls around, and it’s around then that the onset of nerves sink back in. Glancing to the time every few minutes, Bucky reluctantly considers whether he might have to change into an entirely different shirt. At the rate he’s going, he’s going to sweat the pits out of this one by the time Steve’s walking through the door. He’s got the table set up – flowers arranged in the center and a couple candles sprinkled around it, because hey, who doesn’t like candles? – and is just about finished with the food.

If timing is on his side, hopefully he’ll have the plates all filled up and ready with their childhood recipe not too long before Steve gets home, so it doesn’t get cold. The wine is on the counter with two empty glasses standing next to it for later, and in the oven, Bucky’s just put in the chocolate chip oatmeal cake he’d made from scratch, using a recipe he found online that looked delicious. He might’ve added one too many chocolate chips, but Steve’s got a killer sweet tooth, so Bucky doubts it’d be a problem if it was a bit more on the chocolaty side than he'd originally intended.

Seven-thirty comes and goes, and Bucky starts double-checking his phone to make sure the clock in the kitchen isn’t off. It’s not. Steve’s just late. Bucky’s first instinct is to text Steve to try and casually find a way to figure out what he’s up to or if he’s even on his way back home – oh crap, maybe he’d decided to get together with some of the gang, how did Bucky not even consider that? – but it could come off suspicious, and Bucky doesn’t want to tip Steve off in any way.

So he forces himself to stay patient by keeping the food on the stove and constantly checking it to make sure everything’s still nice and warm. Dessert might wind up being ready a lot sooner than he would’ve liked, but all that means is that they’ll be smelling chocolate while they eat potatoes. Knowing Steve, even that sort of combination wouldn’t be off-putting. It’d probably only make the guy hungrier.

By about ten to eight, his impatience wins him over, and Bucky disappointedly decides to at least make their plates so he can wrap them up and put them into the fridge for later. If Steve takes his sweet time getting home, Bucky can just have his by himself. He’ll at least try to wait as long as he can though first.

Literally right after Bucky finishes scooping some of the tomato soup over the second plate and putting the pot on one of the cooler elements to go grab some Tupperware to put the leftovers in, he hears Steve’s key in the door. Bucky almost leaps halfway across the room because he hadn’t been expecting it, and now it’s too late to grab a new shirt, shit, but he still smells okay he thinks, and the shirt’s black, so you can’t see any of the evidence of his nerves that might’ve soaked through, so that’s good too.

Heart getting with the program and beginning to beat like crazy because this is it, he can do this, it’ll all be fine, Bucky closes the cupboard and straightens, quickly tucking his hair back behind his ears out of nervous habit as the front door opens. From the way the apartment’s set up, one of the kitchen walls is adjacent to the door, and the dining room is connected to the kitchen – meaning that Steve only needs to get one foot in and look to the left to see Bucky standing there, and the setup he’s made for them right behind him.

Well, Bucky succeeded in one aspect – Steve most definitely looks surprised by what he’s just walked in on. But the level of stun that very abruptly washes over his facial features seems a bit over-dramatic; baby blues widen in shock and his lips part a sliver, but none of this is translating in a good way. Actually, he’s looking to Bucky right now like he was the last person Steve was not just expecting to see in their own apartment, but the last person he was hoping would be there.

Bucky tries to maintain the approachable smile on his face. Wringing his right hand over the left, he chuckles anxiously and feels his cheeks burning what he can only guess is a pretty bright shade of red.

“Hey,” he says. “Um… How was work?”

“Bucky, what are you doing here?” Steve asks before Bucky can even finish the sentence. The apprehension in his entire disposition does not go unnoticed in his voice, too.

Bucky blinks, his smile wavering for a moment while the rest of him feels like Steve just went and dumped cold water on him. He’s not feeling so confident anymore. This might just be that serious ‘friends only vibe’ he was (not so seriously) considering being a possibility earlier. Brows creasing a tad but still fighting to keep the unassuming smile on his face, he decides to forego his big plan and immediately resort straight to Plan B.

Untangling his hands, he glances over his shoulder to the table all done up and weakly gestures to it, starting to explain, “Well, I just – I thought I’d surprise you with, um--”

“Wow, Steve, parking around this building is a nightmare,” a smooth, English voice suddenly cuts in as someone else walks through their front door and into their apartment.

Bucky whips his head back to Steve, only for his eyes to instantly take in the sight of some random fucking dude stopping short the moment he walks up to Steve and likewise sees Bucky standing there. Distrust instantly springing Bucky’s walls back up in the face of this complete stranger, Bucky’s right hand instinctually snaps to the sleeve still rolled up on his prosthesis and hastily yanks it down. Fuck, he doesn’t have the skin sleeve on, fuck!

Steve looks to this guy quickly, appearing even more unprepared and dismayed than he was a split second before, but then his eyes are darting right back to Bucky. His mouth is still open.

Bucky hears a loud crack that sounds like it shakes the entire apartment to his own ears, as he feels the heart in his chest break in half. But neither of the other two seemed to have heard it. For a second, when he first takes in the sight of this other guy, it flickers over Bucky's face – smile dropping completely with a sudden inhale, and then he's just sort of… staring at Steve. At them both. Contrary to how prepared he'd thought he was, Bucky never actually considered this as a possible option. Despite whatever he'd been telling himself, Bucky actually thought Steve liked him back...

Steve’s own eyes are on the floor, and he looks pale; still looks like he’s fumbling to figure out what just happened. He also seems to have gone into shock.

And the poor stranger still half-standing in the opened doorway evidently has no clue what the hell just happened either.

If Bucky didn’t completely despise him right off the bat because of this, Bucky might even admit that he’s attractive. Figures he’d have brown hair and blue eyes, too. He sort of has the advantage thanks to that accent of his – certainly nicer on the ears, he imagines, than his Brooklyn one – and just from the few seconds’ interaction Bucky’s had with him, he immediately strikes Bucky as one of those people who just radiates ‘niceness’.

Bucky, on the other hand, is only further proven to be a complete asshole by comparison, if only because that realization makes him automatically hate the guy even more.

“Um… Hi,” the guy says, trying to break the ice and maybe ease the awkward tension in the room a little by extending some common courtesy Bucky’s way. “You must be Steve’s roommate. I’m Charlie.”

Bucky doesn’t know whether he should feel smug that clearly this guy has heard of him before, or pissed at the fact that he was addressed simply as Steve’s ‘roommate’ rather than his friend. Funny, Bucky wants to snap back, ‘cause I don’t remember him ever mentionin’ anything about you, pal.

That’s not what he says, though. What he does is slowly nod and press his lips into a tight, uncomfortable smile, trying to make it look as friendly as possible but he knows he’s failing. “Hey,” he mutters back stiffly. “I’m Jay.”

“Charlie’s, um… he’s a friend from school,” Steve meekly offers, meeting Bucky’s eyes again. Bucky wants to plead with him for this to be some sort of cruel joke, but the look on Steve’s face tells him this is the farthest thing from a laughing matter. Steve’s completely serious, and this is actually happening. And those stupid fucking candles are still burning away behind him, with that meal Bucky cooked for them getting colder by the second, and Bucky feels like the biggest fucking moron on the planet.

“Buck,” Steve says, sounding like he feels genuinely awful, “I thought… Weren’t you working tonight?”

“Took the night off,” Bucky answers, dropping his gaze away. “Didn’t feel so good…”

“I can go. If another night would be better, it’s not a problem,” he hears Charlie politely offer Steve. Fuck, he really is nice. Bucky wants to deck him for it, and that makes him feel worse.

When Bucky looks back to them from the corner of his eye, he sees Charlie looking to Steve for his answer, while Steve quickly looks between him, Bucky, and the dining room table in the background. Bucky doesn’t think he’s seen Steve react like this before; like someone just told him Santa Claus isn’t real and his brain just can’t seem to make sense of that information.

Right when Bucky sees him look like he’s about to talk, Bucky cuts in: “No, man, it’s fine. I was just about to head out anyways.”

“Oh… Well, if you’re sure?” Charlie asks him.

Steve looks like he could cry. “No, Buck, c’mon,” he croaks out.

Bucky makes himself smile again, and he feels like his face could split at the seams from how unnaturally it sits on him. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s fine,” he quickly insists, shoving his left hand into the pocket of his jeans. Gesturing to the bouquet of orchids still lying on the counter, Bucky can’t meet Steve’s eyes as he mumbles, “Oh, um, Rogers, I picked these up a little earlier. In case you wanted to bring them with you tomorrow. Anyways, I’m gonna get out of your guys’ way.”

Moving quickly, he walks past Steve to bend down and get his shoes on as fast as he can, angling himself so he can shield his left arm from the new guy as much as he can. He ignores the way Steve says his name again and tries to plead, “Bucky, you don’t have to leave, please--”

However, when Steve quickly says something similar again moments later, Bucky looks up to him with just a hint of warning in his eyes and interrupts, “It’s Jay. It’s Jay,” he repeats, calmer this time as he looks to Charlie as if he’s clarifying Steve’s mistake. Standing back up, he grabs his keys from the hook on the wall and then strides quickly into the living room to shove his phone and wallet into his back pockets.

They’re still awkwardly standing in the front entrance, but have apparently moved enough to give Bucky room to access the door. “So hey, there’s, um – there’s a cake thing in the oven that you two can have,” Bucky calls to them as he crosses the kitchen, heading towards it. “Just take it out when the timer goes off and give it five minutes to cool. Then it’s all yours.”

Charlie seems to have caught on to the fact that something’s incredibly wrong about the situation and that he’s somehow played a part in making it that way, despite clearly not knowing what he did. He’s smart enough to keep quiet though and not weigh in on that comment. Bucky swings the door open and he hears Steve try yet again, “Buck, wait, Buck--”

“I’ll be back later,” Bucky says over him, and then walks out of the apartment.

Seconds later and Steve’s coming out, too, hanging by the door. “Bucky, please don’t – please, don’t go, I’m sorry, this isn’t--”

“For the last time, Rogers, it’s Jay,” Bucky answers, raising his voice a bit but keeping it as controlled as he can. He never breaks his stride and doesn’t look back at Steve, even then. Just keeps looking forward and knows he only needs to keep it together until he makes it to his car. Then he can crumple where it’s safe, if that’s what his body chooses to do. Or maybe he’ll swallow it down again and revert back to a way of life where he doesn’t do shit like cry.

He hasn’t decided yet. Right now he just needs to get as far away from there – from Steve – as possible.

“Please--” Steve calls after him again. His voice breaks.

“Have fun with him, Rogers,” Bucky flatly calls back, and then pushes open the door to the stairwell, turning the corner and not having to hear Steve try to call him back anymore.


He drives around for a while, lacking any real sort of destination. His music blares from the speakers in an attempt to drown out the sound of his thoughts. But no matter how hard the guitars and bass make the inside of his car feel like it’s shaking, no matter that the near deafening booms of the drums makes his head hurt, he can still see Steve’s face, and worse than that, he can still see Charlie’s. Bucky can’t stop wondering what it is they’re doing; if they’re eating the meal Bucky had meant for him and Steve, or if they’re watching TV on the couch, with Charlie in Bucky’s spot… 

Not on the couch, exactly. His spot – right next to Steve. Maybe with Steve’s arm around him. Maybe with his arm around Steve. Fuck, the guy had better be gone by the time Bucky gets back home. If he walks into the apartment hours later and has to be met with the sound of sex from Steve’s room, Bucky might break something.

Or maybe that would be enough to make him want to move out. This whole thing has unfortunately made Bucky think about that, too. After all, it’s not like he can expect Steve to just never be in a relationship again so long as Bucky’s his roommate. And it’s Steve’s place, too, first and foremost. He has every right to bring whoever he wants back there, regardless of whether or not Bucky’s home.

But there’s a difference between Bucky trying to be the good guy and not let his whole ‘unrequited love’ thing come in the way of their friendship, and Bucky being forced to endure it getting rubbed in his face. Getting over Steve seems like it’d be an impossible task if Bucky had to re-open his wounds and get his heart broken over and over again first. If this is a glimpse into what living with his best friend is going to eventually have to entail, Bucky has to consider the possibility that the only way their friendship will be able to survive, and stay as strong as it is, is if Bucky gets over him.

And in order to do that, living together might not be part of that equation – at least for the time being. When (if…) Bucky finally moved on and was able to let go of any romantic feelings he has for Steve, then there wouldn’t be an issue. Constantly having to see Steve be happy and wanting someone else wouldn’t completely kill Bucky inside. He’d be able to be happy for Steve, which he knows is what Steve deserves out of a friend.

Honestly, he doesn’t know what he should do, or what he’s going to do. He doesn’t even know where he’s driving to now; just keeps taking random turns at intersections and trying to get himself lost. Unfortunately, he knows Brooklyn way too well and always winds up recognizing exactly what street he’s on. So he considers heading a little further out and going back into his old neighborhood over in Queens. Downtown New York is always a shitstorm to drive around in, so maybe he’ll head a little deeper in and go there. The lights and the constant sense of commotion might be a good distraction.

A few minutes later, though, Bucky realizes that he’s actually not that far from Evergreens. He still hasn’t gathered the nerve to go there by himself, and even joining Steve, Bucky’s only gone to see Sarah twice. Bucky’s not sure why now of all times is when something inside of him feels compelled to head there, but whatever the reason, he just knows that that’s where his heart – even in two pieces – is telling him he needs to be right now.

He just needs to make one quick stop first.

 

---

 

Sarah Alicia Rogers, September 27, 1967 – April 03, 2012. Daughter, Mother, Friend. Taken from our lives, but never from our hearts. 

Bucky’s been able to recite that engraving, word for word, since the first time he saw it. He doesn’t think it’ll ever get any easier to have to read them. Those words just don’t seem like enough. Sarah Rogers was so much more than that; her loss, so much more complicated and earth-shattering than to simply say, ‘Well, she’s always in our hearts, so at least a part of her will continue to live on.'

No. That’s not good enough for Bucky. He doesn’t just want Sarah in his heart, or in Steve’s heart. What he wants is for her to come back.

The bag he’d brought with him is on the ground by his feet, and he stands there for a while, hands in his pockets and his eyes never leaving her plot. Steve’s flowers from the previous week are wrinkly – petals tiny and dead – and still resting on the top of the stop, as usual. Looks like they’d been Cherry Blossoms. Steve’s been keeping good on his word to get her a brand new type every time he goes now.

He doesn’t know what to do. Steve tends to talk to her, but Bucky doesn’t know what to say, or where to even start. The idea of trying to talk to her scares him – partially because he doesn’t think he can handle the possibility that she’ll never hear him, and maybe partially because he doesn’t think he could handle the possibility that maybe – somehow, somewhere – she actually can. His lips keep parting, and he’s tapping his foot off the grass, and here and there Bucky will take a breath and open his mouth like he intends to say something, but then he loses his nerve and keeps aborting the effort.

Twenty minutes pass, and then fifty, and then almost an hour – and Bucky stands there the entire time in silence, trying and failing over and over to take that first initial step and make some sort of contact with her. All that happens is that Bucky starts to feel like an idiot, and ashamed of himself. This isn’t even the woman who gave birth to him and Bucky’s having a harder time with this than Steve. Steve’s only ever happy to see her, which is heartbreaking given the circumstances. Bucky, on the other hand, has been actively avoiding this moment.

He can’t do this. Bucky needs to get out of there. Biting his lip, he pivots with every intention to leave, even without grabbing the bag on the ground to bring it with him. The moment he turns his back to the grave, though, something in his chest gets tight, and Bucky suddenly finds himself spinning back around to face it.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” he voices out loud, aiming it at the general direction of the headstone without thinking. It’s hard to make eye contact at first, as if it’s staring back at him intently and Bucky just can’t meet its gaze yet. He smiles weakly to himself and huffs out a few short breaths through his nose, still pacing in short steps – unsure of whether he’s coming or going.

“I’m sorry, I… I’m not good at this,” he mutters. “Y’know, I… kept tryin’ to ask myself what it is I’d say once I got the courage to actually try talking to you. And I’m still not sure I really know, so… if this turns out to make no sense or sounds completely terrible… I’m sorry in advance.” It’s almost like he’s expecting some sort of answer. Of course he gets none, making him exhale a hollow, pained laugh as he quickly looks back to the ground and shakes his head. “The fuck am I doing?” he mutters under his breath. No one’s with him, no one’s listening, and no one cares.

Still, though…

“I have… all these stories in my head of you,” he quietly admits, “of memories and some of my favorite times with you and Steve. I thought that maybe it’d feel easier if I just… tried to talk about those, and… tell you which ones meant the most to me…” He chuckles, “Like when you and my mom took is to Coney Island, I – I don’t know if you’d remember that, ‘cause we went a bunch of times when we were kids. But that one stood out the most to me… I don’t even know why… I think it was ‘cause I made Steve ride the Cyclone, and then he wound up throwing up, like, five seconds after he kept insisting his was fine and you finally agreed to get him that candy apple he was moanin’ on and on about since we’d gotten there.”

Bucky chews on his bottom lip and then forces himself to peer back over to Sarah’s headstone. “Or… the time when we wanted to make chocolate chip cookies but didn’t any of the pre-made dough stuff… So you helped us try to make ‘em from scratch. And – Steve decides to throw a bunch of M&M’s in there without even askin’ us first,” Bucky adds, unable to keep from smiling as his eyes begin to feel a little wet. “Turned the entire thing green, and I was so mad. Then they wound up tasting like shit and you took us out for ice cream instead.”

He swallows, taking a few deep breaths to try calming down. Slowly walking over to the tombstone, Bucky touches the top of it with his hand and then withdraws it so he can lower himself to the ground and take a seat next to her.

“Except… then I realized that I couldn’t just pick some of my favorite memories, because they’re all my favorites,” he confesses. “So long as you and Steve were there, that was all that mattered to me – even if we weren’t doin’ much of anything. I mean… I don’t even know if you’re even listening. You might not even be here, or anywhere anymore. I… I don’t know, I just…”

He drapes his arms over his knees and then rests his chin on top of the right one, looking away. For a while longer, he falls back into silence while he tries to think of the right thing to say. When he realizes that there really is no ‘right’ thing, and that if he just let himself talk, he’d probably be there all night and straight into the next day, Bucky considers instead what it is he feels are the most important things for him to get to say to her.

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” he whispers, closing his eyes. Tears wet the corners, so he quickly sniffles and wipes them away before resting his chin on his arms again and peering back to her. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know… I hope… I hope that you’d know that if I did, I would’ve been there… Not just for you, but… for Steve. I should’ve been there, for all of it, for… I just wish I could hug you or somethin’, you know? See your smile one more time… Steve said he has some videos of you guys throughout the years; I – I haven’t been able to watch them yet, but I will…

“I’m… so sorry,” he says again, and this time, doesn’t make to wipe away the new tears that silently begin to trickle down his cheeks. “I loved you like a mom… I mean, I still do, I just… Y’know, you were the only other person other than my parents that I actually, truly felt like a son to. I wish I could’ve been there to help Steve take care of you – even if you would’a kept getting mad and telling me not to. I would’ve anyways…

“I… I know that I haven’t been around for a long time,” Bucky says guiltily. “I wish I had been. I never wanted to lose any of those years with Steve, I just thought that… I didn’t think he wanted me around anymore and – I mean, I should’ve fought harder, it just…” He sighs. “No excuses; I should’ve been there. But… I promise you… I promise with everything I have, I’m not goin’ anywhere now. I’m gonna be there for him, okay? I’ll keep an eye on him for the both of us.”

The deep breath he has to stop and take is shaky and it’s wet. He sees Steve standing there next to Charlie again and his face crumples, and Bucky cries a bit. Lifting his head, he runs his right hand through his hair and then keeps the side of his head pressed to that hand, elbow resting on his knee. “I think that… you probably always knew that I loved him. If you told me you’d always known, I just mean that I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. You were the only other person who always understood exactly what it was I saw. You have such an incredible son, Sarah… He’s such an amazing person – you’d be so proud of him. I know you’d be happy to see how well he’s doing since you’ve been gone, even if…” I should’ve been there. Bucky doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to apologize for that enough.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud before… I don’t even know how it sounds in my own voice, that’s how much I’ve been terrified to just... say that…” Another few uneven breaths. Bucky takes a pause to scrub his hand over his face while he sniffles softly. Then he looks back to the tombstone and smiles weakly. “I’m in love with him. Since I was nine years old, I’ve been in love with him. Heh, I… I didn’t even know what that sort of love was back then, but I knew I felt it for him. I hope that’s okay…

“I don’t… I don’t expect anything out of him. And… the truth is, I don’t honestly know if I ever will be able to know how to love him any other way. It’s always felt like it’s been just another part of who I am, for as long as I can remember… I don’t know if I can ever change it, but… I can try. If that’s what he needs from me, even if it hurts, I’m gonna try, okay? I don’t ever want you worrying that he’s gonna have to go through shit alone again, ever, ‘cause I’m – I’m not gonna let that happen. I’m with him to the end of the line, as long as there’s air in my lungs, I promise. I’ll make sure Steve’s okay. And… he is doing okay,” Bucky tells her. Then he chuckles in spite of himself and even adds, “And he’s back in school now – in case, y’know, you’d be happy to know that, too.”

The chuckle dies out, and Bucky hears it turning into a petty sob before he realizes that he’s continued crying again. Eyes bleary and fresh tears rolling down his cheeks, Bucky’s eyes crinkle as he fights to laugh again self-deprecatingly. But then his face is twisting up with a frown, and he whimpers in a low voice, “Fuck, I miss you…” before dropping his arm back across his knees and hiding his face against it, shaking to himself and crying as quietly as he can, occasionally whispering “I’m so sorry” again.

Bucky stays there for a little while longer, until he’s cried all the tears he needs to let out. Then he continues to sit there in silence, staring at Sarah’s grave; at one point, shuffling closer so he can lean against the tombstone and rest the side of his head against it. He’s there until the stars are out, and then he decides it’s time to head home. Bucky gets back up to his feet and slowly walks over to the bag. He’d considered getting her flowers, but that’s Steve’s thing and Bucky doesn’t want to take away from that.

So he picks it up and goes back over to the stone, reaching into the bag to open up the small plastic container they’d given him over at the bakery. Sliding Steve’s old bouquet of flowers over a little to make some room, Bucky pulls his hand back out from the bag, and then places down – near the center of the top of the stone – a beautiful, elegant cupcake… Vanilla, with chocolate icing, and pink hearts for sprinkles.

“Love you, Sarah,” he mutters, lingering for a few more seconds, before turning and heading back towards the car – leaving behind his offering with Steve’s, while taking with him the closure that Bucky had desperately needed. He finally got to say goodbye.


The apartment is dead silent when Bucky unlocks the door and walks back in. The first place he glances is to where they usually put their shoes, just to see if there’s an unfamiliar pair still neatly stacked there. The only shoes he can see either belong to him or they belong to Steve, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Charlie’s gone yet. Maybe his shoes are lying on Steve’s bedroom floor (along with the rest of his clothing), and the thought puts Bucky on edge immediately as he turns and softly shuts the door behind him. 

Maybe the guy’s shoes aren’t there because he and Steve wound up leaving. Either way, Steve was clearly preoccupied with him all night. Try as he might, Bucky wound up being too weak and completely caved after he’d gotten back into his car at the cemetery. He’d told himself he wasn’t going to check his phone while he’d been out. If he checked his phone and saw that Steve had tried to contact him, he’d feel compelled to reply.

If Steve didn’t try contacting him – not even a text or something – Bucky would feel like shit, because all that’d be doing is confirming that Bucky’s completely alone in these sorts of feelings. If Steve wouldn’t even bother making an effort to text him to see if he was okay, then it’d be hard for Bucky to feel like he didn’t care. So, at least by not checking altogether, Bucky wouldn’t be able to know for sure. Which basically meant that he could tell himself that he’d have a pile of missed calls and texts from Steve when he finally did wind up checking, and then Bucky would know Steve cared enough to try like that, and Bucky would still feel some semblance of control in this otherwise helpless situation for him.

But when he’d caved and checked his phone, it felt like there was a never-ending sinkhole in his gut as he looked to the screen and saw that Steve hadn’t sent him a thing. He shouldn’t have ever checked. He probably should’ve actually just hurled his phone out the window and over the Brooklyn Bridge rather than ever check it again, is what he should’ve done.

Reluctantly, Bucky turns his head and spares a glance into the kitchen. The dishes appear to have been done, and the table’s cleared away. The flowers are still standing though, as are the candles, though they’ve since been blown out. Bucky’s relieved to see that the bottle of wine he purchased is still sealed shut – untouched completely, given that it and the two glasses’ placement is exactly where Bucky had left it. Next to the microwave, Steve appears to have taken the chocolate chip oatmeal cake and taken it out of the pan. It’s cut into squares and sitting in a long rectangular Tupperware container. Not a single piece is missing.

Quirking a brow, curiosity gets Bucky opening the fridge door to check inside. His and Steve’s plates are still pristine and uneaten, covered in Saran wrap and sitting side-by-side on the middle shelf. Steve hadn’t touched a single thing Bucky made for him, but he didn’t throw it away, either. And it also means he didn’t share it with Charlie, which immaturely makes Bucky pleased.

Closing the door and straightening, he has the urge to call out Steve’s name, just to see if he’s still home. But if he’s locked up in his room and tangling around in bed with his ‘friend from school’, Bucky doesn’t feel like being ignored in lieu of sex. He also doesn’t feel like getting any sort of physical confirmation that sex might’ve been or was about to happen – in the event that, say, Steve came out of the room quickly and looked completely disheveled or some shit. Bucky also doesn’t call out his name because he’s more convinced that he’s actually alone within the apartment, and if he calls out Steve’s name only to hear nothing back, the loneliness is going to hurt.

Bucky kicks off his shoes and hangs his keys back up. After ditching his phone and wallet on the kitchen counter, he ducks into the washroom to splash some water over his face and throw his hair into a hasty, messy ponytail. He debates pulling his plate from the fridge and eating, since he still hasn’t done that all evening, but his appetite isn’t quite there at the moment. Instead, he goes with a bottle of water and makes peace with the fact that the only date he’s going to have that night after all is a threesome with his bed, and Netflix.

The lights in the apartment had been left on, so Bucky thinks nothing of it when he goes to pass by Steve’s bedroom to get to his own. The door to his left is wide open, which Bucky notes in the back of his head must mean that Steve is out after all, but he doesn’t bother giving it so much as a side glance.

Just as he walks past it, though, he suddenly hears Steve’s voice, softly but pointedly saying, “You were my first kiss.”

Bucky stops, unsure if he heard correctly, and then backs up so he can see into Steve’s room. The blond is alone; sitting on his bed, long, muscular legs draped over the side, while he holds one of Bucky’s old letters to him in his hand. He’s not looking at it, though – he’s looking right at Bucky; looks exhausted… Looks like he might’ve been crying at one point… Looks defeated, and confused, and guilty, and honest. Littered around him are empty envelopes and sheet after sheet of paper, all with lines of blue and black ink scrawled across them. Bucky’s letters. All of them, covering the bed. Steve looks like he’s been reading through each and every one.

“Did you know that?” Steve asks. Bucky’s a little confused and still a couple steps behind at the moment, taking in the sight of Steve with all of his letters like this; Steve, confessing such a thing without prompt.

“In the last month, I think I’ve read every one of these at least a dozen times,” Steve admits, following Bucky’s gaze and glancing over to them, before looking to the one in his hand. “This one’s my favorite; the very first one you ever sent. I think I could recite it back to you without even having to look at it anymore – that’s how many times I’ve re-read this thing.”

Going quiet, Steve extends his arm a bit and then drops the letter onto the rest of the pile on the bed. Folding his hands in his lap, he stares down at them. Something about him sounds resolved right now – like the things Steve’s saying have been planned and pre-planned and probably rehearsed a million times in his head. While at the same time, Bucky can see by the look on Steve’s face that this is still not easy for him to actually get out.

Bucky, still remaining silent, stays in the doorway and watches Steve’s face.

“Y’know, I think I was about… fuck, maybe seven the first time I felt myself blush around you. Like, the real kind – the kind that I thought was never supposed to happen with other boys,” Steve reminisces. “Seemed like with every year that passed, the older we got, the more I was starting to feel things when I was around you that confused me… I remember thinking, ‘Are boys supposed to feel this way about other boys?’ Fridays were my favorite night of the week, because I knew I’d be fallin’ asleep next to you.

“And I tried to tell myself that it was nothing… I was just a kid, I didn’t even know what those sorts of feelings even were,” Steve continues, frowning and brows creasing as he gently shakes his head; baby blues still down. His eyelashes are so damn long, and Bucky’s starting to clutch his water bottle a little tighter in his hand while he listens to Steve speaking.

“I felt like such an idiot when you kissed me that one time – y’know, that time in the park?” Steve asks, like Bucky could ever forget… Exhaling a chuckle, the blond says, “I thought you were only doing it ‘cause of the beer; I thought you were just trying to use me for practice so you could be better when one of your girlfriends tried to kiss you. Then… I mean, you told me it was because of the beer, and…” Steve shrugs one shoulder, staring down at his hands. “That was when I knew for sure that I liked you way more than just a friend, because I’d never felt hurt like that before,” Steve admits in a small, quiet voice.

Bucky wants to drop to his knees and start spewing out apologies and explanations, because no, that hadn’t been it at all… It’d been the exact opposite of that, for fuck’s sake. How was their entire friendship defined by their twin abilities to feel the exact same way about each other, but also both keep it from each other for the exact same fears, too? It’s starting to seem like this was the story of their lives when it came to each other.

Bucky wants to say something, but he doesn’t. His brain is still taking all of this in, and his breathing’s starting to quicken a little bit, and his pulse is slamming around everywhere.

“That was pretty much also the moment when I realized that I didn’t feel that way about girls. At all. And I tried to… Even after you moved, for the first couple years after I got back to Brooklyn, I…” Steve frowns at the memory, “…tried my hardest to be what I thought was ‘normal’, and like girls in that way, and have girlfriends. When I finally started goin’ through puberty, people noticed me more, and… girls noticed me, pretty much for the first real time ever, it felt like.

“But I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t feel right trying to force myself to be something I knew deep down that I wasn’t. And… I didn’t like feelin’ like I was using the girls I was seeing – ‘cause even if I was genuinely trying to have those sorts of feelings for them, a part of me always knew it wasn’t going to happen. Yet I always kept trying; kept usin’ them without meaning to. Then…”

Steve chews the inside of his cheek and takes a second to pull off his glasses so he can sigh quietly and rub tiredly at his eyes before sticking them back on. “I was my school's quarterback in the eleventh grade, and there was this guy on one of the opposing teams. We played against them a few times, and… I kept noticing the way he always looked at me. No matter how hard I tried to get butterflies around girls… nothin’. But that guy smiled at me a certain way? Instant butterflies. Anyways, we wound up hanging out one night, couple months later and he kissed me…

“It was intense... I dunno, maybe it escalated a lot quicker than I was ready for at the time, even though I still wanted it, but…” Steve smiles to himself, and yet it looks somehow sour – guilt-ridden again. “The entire time it was happening, all I could see was you in the back of my head. I tried to tell myself that that kiss with you didn’t count; we were young and didn’t know what we were doin’… and I thought you’d only done it because of a mistake… But I couldn’t. I still thought of you as my first kiss… And even after I came out, and started having relationships, and started experiencing all of my other ‘firsts’ – I found myself always thinking, ‘I wish this was with Bucky…’”

Picking up one of the individual pages from one of Bucky’s letters at random, Steve pulls it onto his lap and stares back down at it, holding it delicately. “I thought you’d moved on from me. There was even a point where…” Steve smiles a little, “I tried to forget about you. I was between boyfriends and… for like, eight months, during that time… I fucked a lot of people, Buck. Never felt right; just didn’t feel like me, and I knew I was only doing it ‘cause I was trying to replace you.”

Then Steve smiles a little more to himself and sounds gentle when he says, “Turns out, that’s impossible. Took all of seeing you standing in front of my door for five seconds, and I know you were just as irreplaceable now as you were then. But…"

No, no please, no ‘buts’, please… Bucky going to break down sobbing if the rest of this big speech is only meant to shatter his heart again. 

“I’ve been conflicted since you’ve been back in my life,” Steve tells him. He’s still not really looking at Bucky yet while he’s saying all this. “Every time I think I should… say somethin’ or do somethin’, I… I see how much you’ve been struggling, and how hard you fight every single day just to stay positive and try to get better. And I’m so proud of you, B-- Jay, I… I could never put into words how proud of you I am, for trusting me to open up to, and, I mean, for all the things you’ve been doing for you.

“But I didn’t want to be another mistake again,” he admits. “I didn’t want to take advantage of you being in a vulnerable place just because I was selfish. It wouldn’t have been right. I felt like I had no way of knowin’ for sure how you really felt, ‘cause… I guess I didn’t know if you even really knew that right now.”

They fall back into silence. Bucky wants to jump in and say something, but he gets the feeling Steve isn’t done yet. A minute or so later, Steve sighs and says, “Charlie really is just a friend. I’d invited him over because he’s a really good artist, and… he knew I was having trouble with the whole assignment thing, so he was gonna show me some of what he’s been working on and see if he could help me out at all.

“He’s… I mean, I think there’s a part of him that is interested, but I’ve never given him reason to think it was mutual. Leading people on isn’t something that makes me feel real good… I mean… I thought about it… Wondered if I was just kidding myself when it came to you, and thought… y’know, maybe if I really tried to open myself up to putting myself back out there for someone else, I’d eventually meet ‘the One’, I guess? Like… if I wasn’t meant to be with you, then all I needed to do was meet that person, and everything would be alright finally.”

Steve opens his mouth and then quickly shuts it, like he’s not sure what to say now. Shaking his head to himself, he frowns and then suddenly says, “About a year after ma died… I was over at the cemetery to see her. It was beautiful outside, and I was frustrated ‘cause of something going on at work – I can’t remember what, but… I hung out there a lot longer than I normally do, just talking to her, sitting next to her and working on a sketch when I had nothing else to say…

“And when I got up to go, I saw this man standing a little ways away. We were the only two people there at the time, from what I could see. And I remember… I’d seen him there before, more than once. Sometimes I’d look at him or others, I’d notice him noticing me. But I’d never once talked to him before; never asked him his name, or to see if maybe he needed an ear to listen to his story. I don’t know what it was about him that drew my attention to him so much on that day… I couldn’t even see his face at first, but something about him just… struck me as so sad, even from all the way over there. You know how I am – how people inspire... something in me sometimes,” he slowly explains, absentmindedly tapping his fingers over his heart.

“Maybe it was completely out of line for me to do it, but I went over to him,” he says. “He was older – like, eighties or nineties, easily. And the closer I got, the more I could see the look on his face. I knew that look; without ever having to see it on me, I knew I’d worn that same expression before, sometimes when I visited ma. You learn how to recognize it on other people, like… you share that with them, that sort of incomparable loss. And the entire time, maybe because of how old he was – I dunno, maybe because he looked so sad, I thought the grave he was visiting belonged to his late wife.

“I finally got up to him and said hi. I half expected him to tell me to fuck off – I mean, I didn’t mean to be intruding on a private moment for him, but like I said, something just made me go over there. I had to speak to him, and I wasn’t even sure why. He wasn’t mad or anything,” Steve remembers softly. “He said hi back and commented on what a beautiful day it was outside. But he sounded so… I don’t know. Broken. You know how you told me once that I have a tendency to smile when I’m sad? I finally got what you meant by that, ‘cause he was doing it too.”

“So… I look at the engraving on the tombstone, expecting it to be a woman’s name, right? Except it wasn’t… William Jacob Morrison; I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. From what I read, the dates would’ve put him probably a little older than the guy standin’ next to me, maybe around the same age… except he died in his twenties. So we were quiet for a while, and I dunno why he let me hang around for as long as I did. Maybe it’s ‘cause he always saw me there, visiting ma, so he knew we were both somehow in the same boat.

“Eventually, I asked him if this guy was his brother, or… uncle… maybe a friend? Part of me was just trying to make conversation; the other was just trying to understand his sorrow, ‘cause… you don’t even know – it was so palpable. I’d never seen someone look so sad. And he tells me… He says, ‘A friend. A friend I knew long ago; best friend there ever was.’ So I start asking questions – nothing too deep, just… I got the feeling he didn’t get to talk to people much about this, and maybe he needed someone to… listen, just be there for ten minutes…

“And he starts telling me some stories. He kept calling him ‘Billy’, and the more he said his name, the more love I could hear in his voice. And I realized – and I mean, you could see it, just in the way this man was talking about him – that it was so much more than that. At first I thought that what he was trying to insinuate but wasn’t actually saying was that they’d been lovers. But then he kept saying, ‘Things were different back then, son, things were just different,’ and it started to dawn on me that… They weren’t. But that didn’t make this man any less in love with him.”

Steve’s staring off, sounding like he’s in a sort of trance as he recounts the story. He’s frowning, and Bucky can see from the look on his face that Steve’s undoubtedly visualizing the memory in his mind with perfect detail. Bucky’s still standing in the door way – hooked on Steve’s every word, and breathing shallowly. He tries to imagine what this elderly man looked like… Tries to imagine the face of William Morrison…

“He told me about how he died… Got killed in action during the Second World War… Keeps talking for a while, then we both go silent. After a few minutes, I couldn’t stop myself; we – were both just staring at this guy’s grave and I quietly asked, ‘Did you love him?’ He knew what I meant. Eventually when he said, ‘I did,’ I knew what he meant, too. He did, and… I don’t think he ever stopped. That’s when he started telling me about his wife, ‘bout their kids… The life they had together. I could hear it in his voice, he sounded so guilty. He loved his wife, it was obvious he loved his wife very much…

“But he loved him, too. I don’t think he ever told him when he had the chance. It made me think about what life back then would’ve been like – bein’ the way we are, loving the people we do… I tried to imagine what that would’ve been like, to love someone that much and feel like I really couldn’t ever tell them. I mean, they actually had a reason; that sort of thing could get you killed back then.

“So… here with this man, telling the wife he loved, who didn’t have a clue that her husband had this eating away inside of him – no one did, from what I understood… and every day, for the last seventy years or so, rain or shine, he’ll tell her he’s going for a walk… And then he makes his way down to Evergreens, to see the friend he could never tell anyone that he loved. And he’d just… stand there. Talks to him sometimes, sometimes said nothing. But he spent the rest of his life wishing every single day that he’d done it differently. That he just… said something, anything.”

Steve finally looks up to Bucky now, meeting his eyes. “And you know what I thought the entire time he told me that story?” he asks calmly. “I thought of you. I thought of all the times I should’ve just told you how much you meant to me… and all the times I wanted to talk to you again just so I could. But I was still so scared... Then you… you show up one day, completely out of nowhere, and I thought… life might’ve been giving me that second chance I thought I’d never get. I just needed to know for sure first.”

Pushing himself off the bed, Steve starts walking towards him, making no move to slow down. “You’re an idiot if you ever thought for one second that it hasn’t always been you. It’s always been you--”

Bucky drops his water bottle the moment Steve’s within arm’s reach from him and still coming closer. It lands on the floor, and without thinking, Bucky acts on instinct alone and grabs either side of Steve’s face, catching hold of it just in time for Steve to wrap his arms around Bucky’s lower back and walk straight into him, crushing their lips together in a kiss.

If Bucky could think, it would be the single word, Finally. But he can’t. He’s too caught up in the taste of Steve’s lips, and the fact that after fucking eighteen years of waiting, of dreaming, of aching for this – Bucky has Steve Rogers pressed up against him, with his face in his hands, and his breath filling his lungs. They’re now wearing their hearts on their sleeves, Bucky’s stitching itself back together with every kiss.

It’s rough and passionate, and makes Bucky feel like he’s being opened up and turned from the inside out. It’s also a little frenzied, because they’ve both been building up to this moment for over half of their lives. Steve’s hands are on his back, and then they’re rucking up his shirt a little so he can clutch to Bucky’s bare skin. Then they’re grabbing everywhere they can – Bucky’s waist, the curve of his neck, his cheek, between his shoulder blades…

Bucky’s all over him, too. Their breathing is ragged against each other’s mouths as they both pull away with every few kisses to mirror each other and tilt their face to the opposite side before diving back in. His own hands move like he’s lost all control over them, grabbing everywhere he can reach; never letting Steve’s body move even an inch away from his.

The first time Steve keeps his lips parted and Bucky feels the softness of Steve’s tongue as it grazes his bottom lip, Bucky tightens his grip around Steve’s lower back and kisses him so hard that Steve’s forcibly bent back a bit. If his arms weren’t clinging around Bucky’s neck – one hand gripping onto his hair – he’d lose his balance.

He feels Steve tug, still panting harshly as he continues to assault Bucky’s mouth with feverish, dirty kisses. Bucky exhales a loud breath and then lets Steve tip back a bit, dragging Bucky forward with him. Grabbing Steve’s waist again tightly, they quickly stumble into Steve’s room; Bucky blindly finding the door with his right hand and throwing it shut behind them.

Bucky’s head is spinning and he can’t believe this is fucking happening – he’s so hard he’s hurting, has so much blood pumping through his veins because of how fast his pulse is that he’s dizzy, and Steve’s tongue feels so good against his, he tastes fucking incredible, and Bucky wants everything Steve is willing to give him.

The door is only just closed and they’re still moving, straight for the bed, never breaking their kisses. Steve’s already bringing his hands between them, making these soft, insatiable noises – mm, m-mm… mm… He fumbles to get Bucky’s button open and his zipper down, while Bucky grabs hold of the side of Steve’s face in his flesh hand again and presses their mouths together even harder. When the back of Steve’s thighs hit the mattress, they collapse onto it. Bucky lands on top of him; hears the sound of paper crinkling beneath Steve’s back.

They don’t care. Without stopping to look at what he’s doing, Bucky snaps his hand out and shoves away as much of the letters and their envelopes to the floor as he can. The one time Bucky turns his face away to look – expression glazed and eyes completely glassy and lips swollen and wet with Steve’s saliva – Steve exhales shallowly and turns Bucky’s face right back towards him so he can reignite their kiss no more than a split second later.

Bucky’s not sure how long they’re lying there like that, with Steve on his back and Bucky’s feet still on the floor. Steve winds up shifting underneath him while they make out so he can spread his legs and get his thighs wrapped around Bucky’s hips. Nothing progresses any further at first. As the minutes bleed away, the intensity between them doesn’t let up, but the quickness of everything ebbs just a little.

Like a couple of horny teenagers, Bucky starts rolling his hips and grinding himself down against Steve, and the friction of his cock scraping across the outline of Steve’s within his own pajama pants is so good that Bucky almost considers doing nothing but that all night until he and Steve come from it.

Sometimes it’s slower, gentler… During those times, Bucky’s more focused on sucking on Steve’s bottom lip, or feeling Steve’s tongue flick across the back of his top teeth, or even just drinking in the heady smell of him this close – of shampoo and cologne and arousal, all flooding up into Bucky’s brain and making him feel drunk.

But then Steve will tilt his hips up, and Bucky will feel him trying to rut himself back against him. Just like that, it makes Bucky lose his mind. Then he’s grabbing for one of Steve’s thighs and hoisting it a little higher up his side, pinning it against him even tighter – and then he really bears down on him, sharp and rough enough to make him chafe inside of his jeans and the bed beneath them creak.

With every undulation of Bucky’s hips, Steve stutters against him and bites at Bucky’s mouth, or digs his short nails into Bucky’s lower back from beneath his shirt. His mouth will momentarily fall open wider with a needy little unh – and it’s the hottest fucking thing Bucky’s ever heard. Steve moaning is the sweetest music that could ever be made, and it gets him groaning under his breath; fucking his tongue in deeper and then sealing his lips over Steve’s so he can swallow every precious note and keep it all for himself.

Slowing back down again, Bucky simmers down their kisses so he can pepper soft, innocent little pecks to Steve’s lips. He does some memorizing of his own, just in case this all turns out to be some kind of dream, or maybe if – for some fucked up reason – Steve stops him again. His right hand is pressed to the top of Steve’s head, and as Bucky turns his face from side to side and brushes his lips to his best friend’s, he idly runs his thumb back and forth along his hairline… to his temple and back…

Steve smiles against his mouth. Bucky smiles back and exhales, “What?”

“Nothing,” Steve murmurs back, tilting his chin back up to catch Bucky’s lips again. “You’re a really good kisser.”

Bucky chuckles quietly; kisses Steve again. “Well, I might’ve had some practice since the last time I did this to you.”

“Oh really?” Steve jokes.

“Yeah, just a little,” Bucky jokes back.

Steve hums and palms the back of his head, pulling Bucky down that missing inch as he parts his lips again. Slowly, they beat their tongues together, and Bucky takes a deep inhale through his nose, breathing Steve straight into his lungs again and getting another addictive fix. He draws back again so he can open his eyes and actually see Steve’s face. At the same time, those eyes he’s always loved to the moon and back slowly flutter open. Steve’s cheeks are flushed such a pretty pink, and his eyes are glassy and unfocused, pupils fucked.

“Hi,” Steve whispers, smiling.

“Hi.” Bucky nuzzles their noses together before giving the tip of Steve’s a tiny kiss. Steve’s eyes close again and he exhales a single note of a placated chuckle. Bucky looks back at down at him and tenderly says, “Hey Stevie?”

“Mm?”

“You’re so gorgeous…”

Steve re-opens his eyes to look into his. Biting his bottom lip and his smile turning shy, he lifts one hand from Bucky’s hip to tuck some of the hair dangling next to Bucky’s face behind the brunet’s ear. Then he holds him there, tracing Bucky’s cheekbone with his thumb. God, he’s so fucking beautiful, Bucky can’t even stand it.

“And… just so we’re clear,” Bucky continues, “it wasn’t because of the beer… It was never about that. Steve, I've... I've been crazy about you since the fuckin' fourth grade.”

Steve bites his bottom lip, the corners of his eyes crinkling up with a touched smile. “Me too, B--” He catches himself again and smiles apologetically. Before he can correct himself this time, though, Bucky kisses him again to shut him up. He never wants to hear Steve say any of these things to him with any other name.

“No no, it’s okay, you can call me that,” he says quickly. “Please call me that, actually. I never really liked you callin’ me ‘Jay’.”

“You’re the one who told me to, you jerk,” Steve replies – but he hardly sound annoyed. He actually sounds completely happy.

“I know I did, but… I shouldn’t have,” Bucky quietly admits. Averting his gaze, he shrugs one shoulder and then says, “Doesn’t sound right in your voice… Who I am - who I really am? It's when I'm with you, it's - it's Bucky, that's the real me... And... y'know, I like it when you call me Buck. That’s always felt...” Meeting Steve’s eyes again, he shrugs a second time and smiles, feeling a little silly.

“Bucky’s a better name anyway,” Steve agrees, understanding Bucky without him needing to finish, and lifting his head off the mattress so he can kiss at Bucky’s mouth again. They wind up finally getting comfortable on the bed – shoving off the rest of the letters to the floor that’d been under Steve’s back – with both of them on the sides, Steve’s right leg between Bucky’s and Bucky’s left over his.

More time drains away doing nothing but kissing, and honestly, Bucky would be more than happy with just that. It’s been a really long time since he felt anyone’s lips against his anyways, and he’s still in the middle of trying to learn all the different ways that Steve Rogers kisses, and kisses back. He likes the way Steve will let Bucky lead things at times, rolling a little more onto his back so Bucky can lean over him. Then the blond will go pliant; his mouth going slack and let Bucky fill it with his tongue.

When he’s got Steve like that, here and there he’ll start to kiss the contour of Steve’s jaw before going back to his mouth again. Steve keeps breathing out these sounds, these… half-moans, half-gasps… They’re all so soft and barely there, but they sound wholly desperate, all the same. Bucky’s tried to conjure up over the years what Steve would sound like in bed, but none of them compare to how he really sounds, right now. Every noise out of him shoots straight down to Bucky’s dick, making it pulse.

But Bucky also finds he likes when Steve takes some of that control back again. Then he’s the one framing Bucky’s face in large, artistic hands, and whenever Steve sucks Bucky’s bottom lip into his mouth just long enough to then nibble on it with perfectly straight teeth – those are the moments when Bucky would gladly spread his legs and let Steve fuck him so hard that the bed frame broke.

Steve’s shirt gets pulled off first, and then it’s like Christmas morning for Bucky Barnes. New territory, a whole new expanse of smooth skin and muscles and all the places his mouth has been watering for. He keeps his bionic hand either inactive by his side or around Steve’s hip. But with the other, he begins to let it trail around Steve’s back while they continue to kiss. Every smallest movement Steve makes has some sort of muscle pressing against his palm, and fuck, his body feels so fucking mind-blowing.

Steve’s own hand slides beneath the very bottom of Bucky’s shirt so he can distractedly rub around Bucky’s lower stomach and iliac furrow, sometimes sliding it up a little higher so he can feel the brunet’s own muscles. Having Steve’s hand so close to his opened fly makes Bucky want to grab his wrist and shove it down into his briefs, because any part of Steve that’s that close to his cock but still not touching it is nothing but a fucking tease.

He’s too preoccupied, though; instead nudging Steve’s chin up so he can smother his face against Steve’s neck and press hot, open-mouthed kisses along the curve… Sometimes scraping his teeth over the pulse point; others, sucking lightly, just to provoke a tiny scarlet dot to the skin’s surface. When his hand finds its way to the front of Steve’s body and continues its exploration, Bucky squeezes Steve’s left peck before sweeping the pad of his thumb over the tiny little nipple there.

Steve’s breath catching is so subtle that Bucky almost misses it. Bucky kisses his way across the front of Steve’s throat, making the blond tip his head back before letting it fall again once Bucky’s made it to the other, untouched side. Experimentally, Bucky begins teasing Steve’s nipple in his fingers; rolling it or giving it a gentle pinch, just to see how Steve reacts. Next to his ear, Steve’s breathing gets deeper, and Bucky can feel that nipple pebble up under the stimulation.

Bucky’s never been so turned on by another person’s reactions, their sounds – the level of need and lust and love he can feel between them, radiating back and forth like a give and take. The nail on his middle finger catches against Steve’s nipple and scratches over it. That’s when he hears an unexpected, pitchy gasp; Steve breathing out, “Oh god, Bucky." 

It’s the sweetest thing he’s ever heard. No one could ever say his name as perfectly as he’s just heard it, and Bucky never wants anyone else to. Steve doesn’t even know what he’s just signed up for. Now that Bucky seems to have gotten him, there’s no way in hell he’s ever giving him back up again. The whole thing gets Bucky feeling delirious, and hungry, and also like he could cry; laugh and cry and keep shouting that word, ‘Finally’, because it still all feels too good to be true.

“Jesus Christ, you’re so fuckin’ hot,” Bucky mutters, kneading Steve’s other peck in his hand before sliding it down Steve’s abs. Pinching the blond’s earlobe between his teeth, he speaks before thinking and growls, “I wanna fuck you so bad right now…”

Steve moans embarrassingly loud, and suddenly his right hand is going straight between Bucky’s legs and grabbing onto the thick outline of Bucky’s erection as if his greedy response is saying, This is mine now, all mine. Steve pants and begins to stroke him from over the fabric, sometimes pressing his palm flat against it and then grinding down. It’s the first time Steve’s touching his dick, even if there are clothes in the way, and Bucky’s jaw drops at the friction he wasn’t quite prepared for yet.

They find each other’s mouths again and share in a clumsy kiss – one filled with far more tongue that actual kissing. Dropping onto his back, he yanks Steve down and groans deep in his throat, feels it rumble within his chest, while tilting his hips up in small movements to push back up against Steve’s hand. Bucky almost whines when the blond suddenly breaks the kiss, though.

“What’s up? You okay?” he pants, still being a greedy shit himself and trying to coax Steve’s hand back against his dick with more pressure.

Steve chuckles breathlessly, nodding. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just… Are we taking things too fast, do you think? Like… should we slow down? Maybe work our way up to it?”

That sounds like the worst idea Bucky’s ever heard anyone come up with, ever. But he doesn’t want to push Steve further than what he’s comfortable with, nor does he want Steve only doing it because he feels like he has to. So he stops moving his hips and takes a breath. Nudging Steve’s hand off of him with his metal one, he opens his eyes and stares up at Steve for a few seconds.

One corner of his mouth turning up into a small, understanding smile, he answers, “If you wanna take things slow... then that’s what I want, too.”

Steve licks his lips before slowly biting the bottom one, his brows furrowing slightly. “What… what do you want, Buck? That’s what I’m askin’… I’ve…” He chuckles softly. “I’ve wanted this since I was, like, twelve. But I need to know you’re ready for it. If you need us to slow down and take things in baby steps, I’ll never push you. I just--”

“Fuck the baby steps,” Bucky cuts in. “All I’ve been doing for the last two years is having to take things as slow as humanly possible ‘cause that’s all I could handle. This isn’t like that. If you’re – if you’re trying to ask me if I want this right now, then I’m telling you I do and I need you to… I can’t have you second-guess me because you think I’m… Steve, this is what I want, okay?”

Steve searches his eyes and then nods. “Okay.”

Bucky nods back and pulls him down again. To his relief, Steve doesn’t hesitate to follow. “I’m not broken.”

“I would never think you were,” Steve breathes back, and then surprises Bucky by kissing him so forcefully that the back of his head is crushed down into the pillow. Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and lets out a low whimper of gratitude; exhales sharply against Steve’s mouth when he feels the pressure of Steve’s hand on his cock again. Only for a moment – then Steve’s slipping it past the waistline of Bucky’s underwear so he can properly touch it.

He bucks up against Steve’s hand with a shallow gasp. Steve whispers, “Oh my god,” at the feel of him – just as turned on by finally getting to touch him like this – and then presses his forehead to Bucky’s. Their eyes are closed, lips parted and touching but not really kissing. Both boys pant quietly and Steve keeps exhaling, “Fuck,” while he plays with Bucky the best he can from under two layers of clothing.

Bucky knows Steve’s clean; that it’s something his best friend would’ve told him, especially now, given what they’re doing. So he doesn’t hesitate to lower his hand and get his own feel for Steve’s cock, mumbling against Steve’s opened mouth, “I wanna suck you off…”

“Oh my god…” is the response he gets again, just as breathless and just as overwhelmed.

“Take your pants off,” Bucky quickly instructs. Steve promptly pulls his hand out of Bucky’s jeans and pushes himself up to undo the drawstring on his flannels. Bucky notices Steve’s hands are shaking, just like his own. It’s endearing, and gets him nervous, and excited, and feeling like a teenager about to fool around for the first time all over again. Getting his hands on his own waistline, he lifts his hips into the air to pull those red jeans down enough to free his cock.

Steve hasn’t even pulled his own pajama pants down yet. Bucky’s cock catches his attention, and suddenly Steve’s breathing out an anxious sound and muttering to himself, “Holy shit.” Forgetting about himself entirely, he twists to the side so he can bend down and lick right down the length of Bucky’s dick. Bucky’s brows pinch, mouth falling open, because that’s so fucking hot that he almost blows his load without any warning. Steve whimpers deep in his chest and then uses his hand to tilt Bucky up. Before Bucky can keep up with what’s happening, Steve’s licking his lips and then closing them over Bucky’s cockhead, breathing through his nose and bobbing his head shallowly.

Wet and hot and absolutely fucking magnificent – the inside of Steve’s mouth is the greatest thing Bucky’s ever felt. Bucky watches with wide eyes, his nose scrunched up, as Steve whimpers - fucking whimpers impatiently, like Bucky’s cock stuffing his mouth is getting him off – and sucks his dick with an honest enthusiasm. It’s the single hottest fucking thing Bucky’s ever seen, because he can see the side of Steve’s face like this: eyes closed and lips obscenely stretched, and Bucky’s cock sliding deeper inside the more Steve begins to relax his throat. When he hollows out his cheeks, Bucky can actually see the small bulge of his tip running across the inside of Steve’s cheek, and Bucky thinks he might be having a religious experience.

Careful not to knock against Steve’s hearing aid, Bucky breathes out his name reverently and threads the fingers of his right hand into Steve’s hair. Steve moans, the sound muffled, and fucks his mouth over him a bit faster. Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky notices Steve’s left hand disappearing into his pajama pants. He can’t look away from Steve’s face; his own, in a frozen tableau of shock. The way Steve looks with a cock in his mouth… oh fuck, Bucky’s never going to last if he keeps staring – especially when Steve looks so damn selfish for it, like sucking dick brings out the slutty part of him that Bucky never even knew he had; gets Steve so horny that he wouldn’t even need Bucky’s mouth, or even his own hand, to eventually come from it. Just Bucky’s cock, heavy on his tongue and nudging the back of his throat.

Bucky’s never seen even somewhat close to this side of Steve, and Bucky feels like he’s falling all over himself in his presence.

The sounds are making it harder for Bucky to breathe, too. Beyond the wet sucking sounds and the odd little pops from the suction of Steve’s lips moving around him, Steve’s not exactly quiet. Even bigger like this, his lungs have never been the strongest. So every few seconds, Steve will pull away and gasp loudly, like he genuinely can’t breathe. But then he’s diving back down and filling up his mouth again, whimpering some more as he goes back to sucking Bucky off like he’s fucking starved for it.

It’s sexy as hell, but also makes Bucky a little worried about Steve’s asthma potentially being triggered. He can’t believe he’s actually hearing himself say, voice hoarse, “Stevie, calm down--” as he tries to move his hand to beneath Steve’s chin to guide him away for a breather. Without even looking at him, Steve’s reflexes are sharp, and the hand that’d been tugging along his own cock snatches out and closes around Bucky’s wrist.

Before Bucky even knows what’s just happened, his wrist is pinned straight to the mattress, he can see Steve blink for a second as he takes a breath through his nose, and then those baby blues shut again as Steve lowers straight down and deep-throats Bucky all the way into his throat. Bucky supposes he had that coming for underestimating Steve and trying to tell him what to do, but it’s not exactly a penalty he’s going to complain about getting. Throwing his head back, Bucky flexes his hand beneath the pressure of Steve’s still keeping it down, and uncontrollably thrusts his hips up, fucking himself in even deeper.

Steve gags, then pushes out a strained, moaning sound and swallows around him, flexing his throat. Bucky’s never had anyone take him this well before, and he’s never felt anything like it. He starts babbling out a string of Steve’s name, choked out grunts – oh god, oh my god, fuck, Stevie, that’s so fuckin’ good--

He’s barely given a chance to hold it together. It’s been too long since he’s fooled around with anyone, and it’s Steve, it’s the hottest wet dream he’s ever had come to life. Steve takes no pity on him. It’s like the only thing he wants right now is to set Bucky off, to make him come, and taste everything Bucky will give him when he does. Those scalding hot, tight walls of his throat keep constricting around Bucky’s dick, and Bucky tries so hard to stop it from becoming too much, but Steve never lets him go more than a few seconds before he’s purposely shoving his nose back against Bucky’s pelvis and taking him straight to the root again.

He can’t hold on. It’s embarrassing because it’s been less than five minutes, easy, but Bucky’s wheezing out, “Oh fuck, fuck, Stevie, m’gonna come.” Any hope he might’ve had for lasting even just a tiny bit longer goes right to hell at that point. Because Steve’s response to that is to pull away with a desperate whine; struggling for air but licking the flat of his tongue back up the side of Bucky’s hard-on anyways, before sucking it between his lips again and shoving Bucky’s hand onto the back of his head.

A-Auh – oh, fuck--” Bucky stammers, Steve pressing on his hand as he bobs his head shallowly again, telling Bucky exactly what he wants. He takes over, fisting his hand at the roots of golden hair and guiding Steve’s pace. Seconds later and his tether breaks, resting his left hand on the top of Steve’s head, too… Moving Steve up and down and rolling his hips to fuck his face at the same time, and Steve braces both of his hands on the bed to keep upright. Lets Bucky take over him and reap his mouth for its benefits, humming and breathing roughly through his nose while his own cock tents out the front of his flannels, wetting the fabric straight through with his excitement.

Bucky whimpers, faster and higher until his jaw is suddenly dropping with a sharp and breathy, “Hah!” Entire body jolting, his grey eyes roll up into his head and then close with a shaky gasp, his orgasm flooding him and pumping Steve’s perfect mouth full. There’re stars behind his lids, and fireworks exploding everywhere; bursting and fanning out, extraordinary and rattling, touching every last cell in his body. Seizing up from the ecstasy, he stops controlling Steve’s head. He thinks he might hear Steve moan to himself, before that suction around him increases and Steve nurses Bucky through it, swallowing Bucky’s climax and then some, like he could encourage even more out of him with his tongue.

He doesn’t even stop once Bucky finally slumps into the bed, and Bucky hisses through his teeth. Oversensitive and twitching in Steve’s mouth while he starts to soften, like he’s trying to get away from the onslaught, Bucky uses his right palm to pat Steve’s shoulder quickly. Shaking his head, he slurs, “No more… Too much…”

Steve chuckles, low and wicked. Bucky would normally have some sort of sarcastic quip to throw back his way in the face of Steve acting a little smug, but goddamn, the guy has a reason to be. The mouth on him… His fucking mouth… Now that Bucky knows what it can do, he’s never going to be able to look at it again without fighting the urge to pin him to the nearest surface and fuck his throat, even if they’re out in public.

“C’mere,” Bucky says, weakly waving his hand. Steve kisses Bucky’s lower stomach a few times before crawling up him and giving him a vulgar smirk. Both of them look completely wrecked already, but Bucky more so, he imagines. When he kisses Steve and licks across his tongue, Bucky moans, still sounding exhausted.

“You taste yourself?” Steve whispers, then kisses him again.

“Mhm…”

Steve chuckles and then moans back softly. “I’ve been wanting to do that for years… You taste so good, you don’t even know.”

“Never would’a pegged you for the kind of guy who loves to suck dick so much,” Bucky tiredly jokes.

Steve smirks against his mouth, gathering Bucky’s hands – real and metal – to gently lift them over Bucky’s head and pin them there. Brushing his nose across Bucky’s, Steve playfully says, “Looks like there’s even more you don’t know about me.”

“Mm… Clearly…”

“Goin’ down on my partner is probably my biggest turn-on,” Steve reveals. Pecking Bucky’s lips with a completely mock innocence, he murmurs, “All you need to do is ask. If you’ll let me get away with it, I’ll blow you anywhere.”

“Don’t even fuckin’ kid about that, Stevie,” Bucky groans, closing his eyes but weakly meeting every one of Steve’s kisses. “Don’t say shit like that. You know I’m gonna take you up on it.”

“Anywhere,” Steve repeats, because Steve’s a sneaky prick and he likes causing trouble and Bucky fucking loves him for it, Jesus Christ… “You got a fuckin’ nice cock, Buck. You saw – I couldn’t even stop myself the second I saw it. Can’t blame me if I’m gonna want it all the time now. You’ll probably be the one havin’ to stop me from always droppin’ to my knees.”

Bucky breathes, “Fuck…” before kissing Steve roughly and biting down on his bottom lip. “Are you sure you’re the same guy I grew up with? ‘Cause I may be wrong… but I think you’re tryin’a dirty talk with me right now, Rogers. And the kid I knew would’ve never had that in him,” he deliberately teases.

“Oh, fuck you,” Steve laughs. “Those are some pretty big words for a guy I just got off in, like, two minutes.”

“It was not two minutes.”

“It was no more than three,” Steve shoots back.

Bucky smirks and closes his eyes with a deep hum, kissing at Steve’s mouth a bit more. “You were way too good at that,” he relents, still feeling boneless and sounding peaceful. “Poor guy like me? You could’a killed me, Stevie – you and that fuckin’ mouth of yours.”

Pleased with himself, Steve grins again into their kiss. He keeps trying to get his hand up Bucky’s shirt, so eventually, with Bucky’s permission Steve straightens up so he can work that off of him, giving him a hand to pull the sleeve down over his prosthesis. Bucky obediently lifts his hips back up when Steve pats them, and then he watches Steve watch his body as he peels Bucky’s jeans and briefs from his legs. He even dips his thumbs into Bucky’s socks so he can pull those off, too, which Bucky finds oddly adorable of him. It leaves Bucky completely naked and exposed on his bed – but even more oddly, doesn’t leave Bucky feeling like he needs to hide anymore.

It could be because the adoration in Steve’s eyes makes Bucky feel safe. It reminds him of when they’d been at the yoga studio and Steve saw his arm for the first time. He’d told Bucky that he ‘set Steve’s soul on fire’, and… now Bucky knows why he said that. Bucky feels the exact same way. Steve’s up on his knees, wearing nothing but his pajama pants and glasses, hair tousled and his chest flushed and his cock still hard. He stares down across Bucky’s body like it’s art, but Bucky can’t stop looking at Steve because if you asked him, Steve’s the one too beautiful to stand. Like the fucking sun, he’s so perfect that looking directly at him makes Bucky’s chest tight and his soul, moved – and all Bucky can think is, I am the luckiest fucking person on this planet…

“You think my prof will get pissed if I were to draw you just like this and submit that for my final piece?” Steve asks, only half sounding like he’s joking. Running his hands up Bucky’s legs, his baby blues keep traveling along every curve of Bucky’s body and he murmurs, “My god, Buck…”

“I love you,” Bucky whispers.

Steve stops, still staring down for a moment before turning his head to look at him. For a second, his eyes are wider and he stares at Bucky like he doesn’t know if he heard that correctly. Bucky doesn’t back down this time; he just holds his gaze and looks at Steve the way he’s always felt – that Steve Rogers is his entire fucking world. Whenever Steve looks to Bucky, Bucky wants Steve to be able to see that that’s exactly how he feels for him, every day for the rest of their lives.

And then Steve gets a smile. It’s bright and it’s emotional and it’s just the tiniest bit shy, bashful – the part of Steve showing through that will never understand just how amazing he really is. Gently taking Bucky’s hand, he tugs a little, and Bucky sits up. Steve slips one hand to Bucky’s side and helps pull him the rest of the way up, so they’re both on their knees. Bringing the other to cradle the base of Bucky’s head, Steve leans in and kisses him again… Deep and slow, and leaving Bucky’s head spinning.

Steve only stops it to kiss a light pathway to Bucky’s ear, bringing his lips to it. “I love you, too, Buck,” he whispers back. Bucky smiles, eyes closed, and then turns his face in as Steve kisses back down his jaw; wraps his flesh arm around Steve’s neck and holds him close when their lips re-touch, like they should never stop kissing ever again.

They hold each other close. Bucky shuffles closer so he can press himself to Steve and feel the size of him pressing back. It’s surprisingly big, which makes Bucky moan again when he realizes that Steve would’ve always had a cock that size, even back when he was short and skinny and still just as perfect. Fuck, he wishes he could’ve experienced that; that would’ve been so fucking hot. Steve groans, Bucky’s tongue in his mouth, when the brunet reaches behind him and roughly grips his ass, making Steve grind into him.

Steve’s left hand switches from Bucky’s side to his neck, while the other, Bucky feels, moves down and holds onto his left bicep. He keeps kneading at it, like the idea of Bucky’s stump gets to him for some reason, and Bucky finds it surprisingly turns him on, too. It makes him shove his hand down the back of Steve’s pants so when he goes to get another nice, big handful of his fucking perfect ass, it’s skin on skin. Steve twitches and pushes back against Bucky’s hand with a sigh.

“Take off my prosthesis,” he mumbles quickly, not wanting anything to be in the way of Steve touching him the way Bucky knows he wants to. Steve seems to hesitate, so Bucky kisses him again and insists, “I’ll be fine. I want this, it’s okay. Help me get it off.”

Bucky curves his back enough to create space between their bodies again, busying himself by sucking and kissing along Steve’s neck, his shoulder, while he feels Steve’s fingers applying a bit of pressure and hears the sound of the shoulder strap coming undone. Steve slips it off of him and then Bucky holds out his left arm away from his body, leaning away so Steve can take it in both hands and gently slide the socket off of Bucky’s bicep.

Steve glances over his shoulder and then quickly gets off the bed so he can rest the pieces down on his dresser. It warms Bucky’s heart to see Steve handling it so delicately – seeing it as something to be taken care of, and not something to grimace at. When he gets back on the bed, Bucky stays still and gives Steve a minute to take in the sight of his arm again, this time under a completely new context.

Of course, there’s still that lingering feeling of self-disgust that Bucky has for it; the one that comes with the memory associated to it, and the loss he feels that’ll probably never go away. But it’s impossible for Bucky to see the awe in Steve’s eyes as he looks down at it and feel ugly. He can’t, not right now, not with Steve. There’s really not a single part of him that Steve doesn’t find beautiful, too, and it makes Bucky hopeful… That maybe one day, he’ll be able to find his arm beautiful as well, even if just a bit.

Steve touches his fingers to it, and Bucky closes his eyes. Half of the arm is numb, while the parts that can feel are extra sensitive. The sentiment behind the action though is what surprisingly jars Bucky and makes him feel aroused again. Steve bends forward and kisses the joint of Bucky’s shoulder, with every intention to go lower and Bucky knows it. His way of giving Steve permission is to bring his real hand to the back of Steve’s head again and gently stroke his thumb across the short golden hair behind his ear.

He can feel Steve start kissing down his arm, and Bucky licks his lips and focuses on his breathing – trying to calm his body as much as he can so he can focus on nothing but the way the nerves he still has in there are coming to life with each caress. “What’s it feel like for you?” he hears himself asking.

Steve hums in thought, keeps kissing around it… “It’s softer than your other arm,” he admits. “Like… a different kind of soft. I don’t know… Can you feel everything?”

“No, not all of it. Where the socket was pressin’, though… Feels nice when you touch it there,” Bucky tells him.

He can feel Steve smile against his skin. “Here?” he whispers, pressing his lips to his bicep and then parting them, gently licking the skin, soft and wet. Bucky bites his lip and nods, exhaling through his nose. The arm doesn’t hurt to wear, but when he’s got it on long enough, the ring of the prosthetic that encircles his stump can get a little annoying. Bucky’s always found it make that one thin strip around his bicep particularly sensitive.

“Yes,” he breathes.

Steve groans quietly and keeps kissing. Bucky opens his eyes and tips his chin to his shoulder, peering down in time to see Steve kiss the very end of his arm. “Is it really beautiful to you?” he hesitantly asks.

Opening his eyes, Steve glances back to him and then rises back up, wrapping his arms around Bucky and nodding. “It is,” he says. “Everything about you is. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

“I’m gonna tell you I love you again,” Bucky warns him, eyes dropping back to Steve’s mouth.

“Good.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, t--”

“Shut up,” Bucky husks, leaning forward and cutting Steve off, needing more of him and now. Steve makes a quick mm sound of surprise when Bucky shoves his mouth to Steve’s, kissing him with a hot and desperate want, but then it quickly melts into a needy sound the second Bucky’s tongue is pushing against the seam of his lips and getting him to open up.

Bucky’s now only got the mobility of one arm, but that’s all he needs. Gripping onto Steve’s lower back tightly, Bucky uses his strength to twist them around. After Steve turns and drops to his back, Bucky climbs over him – right hand planted on the bed and keeping himself upright – and starts noisily kissing down his throat, shuffling lower as he goes and makes his way to Steve’s chest.

Steve’s nipples are even sweeter to tease with his mouth. Puberty never seemed to do much in terms of giving Steve much chest hair, and Bucky finds that strangely sexy. He’s so fucking smooth; just the faintest, softest little golden hairs sprinkling the skin that he can feel against his tongue. He drags it over the left one first, closing his mouth around it and sucking.

When he scrapes it with his bottom teeth and then quickly flicks it with the tip of his tongue, Steve’s back arches and pushes him even harder against Bucky’s mouth. There’s a subdued, strangled sound of pleasure above him. Steve snatches his hand out, holding onto the back of his head with one hand while the other is digging its fingers into the pillow. Bucky groans happily, moving to the neglected nipple quickly and lavishing it with the same care. Lids heavy, he stares up at Steve heatedly at the same time that the blond lifts his head and stares down at him.

His mouth is ajar and he’s so fucking red all over; so flushed and pretty, all for Bucky. Always been Bucky’s – didn’t matter who else got to touch him first. Bucky’s going to make Steve forget about every last one of them. As soon as they’re making eye contact, Bucky tilts his face to the side a bit so Steve can see when Bucky drives his teeth into his nipple, giving it a quick, sharp bite. Steve yelps, eyes squeezing shut.

He throws his head straight back into the pillow, bridging his back again. The sound sends a jolt of excitement to Bucky’s cock. He still needs a bit more time before he can get it up again, but it’s trying. Seeing Steve like this is making it shows the faintest signs of life already; just a few more minutes and Bucky will be well on his way to full mast again, he’s sure of it. Everything about Steve is just way too fucking sexy. His body has no other choice but to react off of it.

“You sound amazing, Stevie,” Bucky says, moving further down until he’s straddling Steve’s shins. Snapping the waistband of his flannels lightly off his lower belly, he slowly raises his eyes Steve’s way and gets a filthy smirk. “But you’re still wearing too many clothes.”

“Guess you’d better do something about that,” Steve sasses back – but he sounds so desperate for Bucky to get him naked that the quip lacks its usual playfulness. More than anything, he keeps gently writhing against the mattress and seems to be visibly basking in having Bucky’s eyes on him like this.

Bucky moves off of him so he can start yanking the pants down from one side. He doesn’t mind that Steve plants his feet to the mattress and lifts his ass up so he can use his own hands and help Bucky shed them off. Steve curls up enough to reach down and pull them and his own briefs off, tossing them off the bed. Lying back down, he rests his head on one arm and bites his lip shyly. His dick is glorious – there’s literally no better word to do it justice. Now that he can actually see it, Bucky’s having a really hard time picturing his little Steve with this between his legs before puberty caught him.

It’s definitely bigger than average; maybe a little skinnier than his own, but not by much… Still plenty thick enough to feel it for days. Unlike Bucky, Steve’s cut, and Bucky’s gaze follows the nice, thick vein that runs up to his frenulum. Like the rest of him, Steve’s cock is flushed, with the tip all red and shining with precome as it lies against his lower stomach. Bucky’s definitely salivating for it now, holy shit.

“And you thought I had a nice cock,” he jokes breathily, casting a glance up at Steve. To his surprise, Steve isn’t looking at him. He’s actually looking away almost… self-consciously. Bucky frowns and murmurs, “Hey,” while he leans over and gently turns Steve’s chin back towards him. Eyes soft, Bucky nods and says, “Whatever you’re worried about right now? Stop it. You got no idea what you’re doin’ to me, Rogers.” The evidence is starting to show again now. Any confirmation Steve needs can be found by the half-hardness in Bucky’s own dick again.

One corner of Steve’s mouth turns up and he closes his eyes, nodding back. Bucky knows it’s just that initial nervousness; truth be told, he’d felt a little apprehensive, too, that split second before he’d tugged down his own pants and gave Steve that very first look at that part of his body. You never know if the other person is going to like it or not, and fuck, Bucky so fucking badly wanted Steve to find him attractive everywhere.

So he gets it, he really does. But Steve’s lost his mind if he can seriously think that Bucky somehow wouldn’t love his dick. He’d very evidently been near-drooling over every other aspect of Steve’s body over the last couple months – hard as he’d been trying to mask that. Bucky smiles reassuringly and traces Steve’s plush bottom lip with his thumb to soothe him.

“I love you, okay?”

“I love you, too,” Steve quietly replies. He lets his lips stay parted; Bucky’s thumb dragging back along it. Bucky stares as he presses his thumb to it and tugs, and when Steve slowly tilts his chin down so he can suck the very tip of it into that sin of a mouth of his – probably just to remind Bucky again of what it’s capable of, because Steve’s such a shit, the little fucker – the pulse in Bucky’s cock is a little stronger this time.

He exhales a mixture of a groan and a chuckle. “Fuck,” he breathes, drawing out the word. “You’re way too fuckin’ hot; this ain’t even fair.”

Mm… Speak for yourself,” Steve replies, pulling away enough to speak, but still with Bucky’s thumb pressing to the corner of his mouth. “You think the only thing I ever fantasized about was me suckin’ your dick? Have you looked into the mirror lately?”

Pride fills Bucky’s chest at the familiarity of the compliment. Yeah, he’s heard this before – about how he looks like he has lips made for sucking dick. Maybe it’s a weird thing to push his buttons, but one of Bucky’s private kinks has always been getting praised for his mouth and how well he knows how to be good and use it. Withdrawing his hand, he maneuvers himself so he’s straddling Steve’s lower legs again and bending down.

Knowing Steve’s watching him right now makes it so much better. And Bucky knows exactly how to be a tease; how to drop his voice and sound soft, sexy… Submissive, even if he’s the one in the driver’s seat – like right now, he’s Steve’s pretty little cockslut, and he’s damn proud of finally getting to be. Sizing it up, Bucky licks straight up it, just like Steve had done with him, and keeps his eyes up on his best friend’s face the entire time. He wants to see what Steve looks like when it’s his turn to be taken apart.

It turns out that that’s just about the greatest thing ever, both in terms of sight and sound. It makes Bucky think… The last time he went down on a guy was way back after he’d first gotten home after his Discharge. It’d been in the bathroom stall of some seedy, disgusting nightclub, and Bucky had been desperate for some kind of affection. Just for a few minutes; that was all he needed.

He remembers that the lighting was shitty, the place smelled awful, and the floor was wet beneath his kneecaps. He didn’t want to know with what. They’d gripped his (much shorter) hair and thrust so hard into the back of his throat that Bucky was gagging with every push, but he never backed down or asked them to stop. He only wanted it deeper. He’d wanted it to choke him to death.

It hadn’t really helped, though – all it amounted to was Bucky having a freak out the next morning when he remembered what he did, and then a prompt emergency visit to the clinic so he could get himself tested. Luckily, Bucky had dodged a bullet that day, and that was pretty much the end of him seeking random strangers to comfort himself with if he felt low.

There’s something freeing about feeling the difference between what life had been like for him back then and what life is like for him now… The fact that the last cock Bucky let into his mouth was foreign and unforgiving, with no emotions attached and all the wrong reasons for doing it in the first place. So yeah, at first his technique is probably lacking a little, and when he first tries to relax his jaw and cram as much of Steve’s length past his lips, he sputters and has to pull away, leaving a thin line of saliva clinging between the tip and Bucky’s bottom lip.

But it’s Steve. Bucky’s safe, he’s happy – fuck, he’s been so genuinely happy these past few months. Not just because of Steve, but because of the things he’s grown more and more capable of; for rediscovering his own reasons to want to live again and finding the courage and strength still inside of him needed to move on with his life and make the most of it. There was a time where he thought he’d never get to have that back. 

After a few minutes, his eyes fall closed, and he puts his focus towards getting lost in the sensations. Steve’s cockhead is soft and supple between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, and he finds it a turn on to suckle on it slowly, languidly; drawing it out until he can tell that it’s making Steve too sensitive. Bucky likes how Steve’s thick enough to make his jaw ache after a while; how he’s hard as a rock and remembering how that sort of hardness feels sliding back and forth against his tongue.

He finds that his heart flutters whenever he can feel Steve – panting and moaning and repeating his name over and over from above him – pet the long strands of his bangs out of his face when they get in the way. Because it all feels so incredibly loving and considerate, and it reminds Bucky that this is real. And then Bucky starts moaning, the added stimulation dull but still incredibly erotic, when Steve clutches to Bucky’s left bicep and massages it again roughly while his other hand grips Bucky’s ponytail and moves Bucky’s head up and down his cock.

“Oh my… g… oh my god, Bucky… fuck, you’re good at this… A-Ah, mm fuck,” he keeps breathing, moaning, whimpering

Bucky pulls away with a small gasp and mutters throatily, “Can I eat you out?”

“God – fuck, really?” Steve replies breathlessly, sounding like Bucky just went and asked him if Steve might want a million dollars.

“Mhm, that somethin’ you like?” He guesses as much, seeing as how Steve’s now grinding his ass down to the bed just at the suggestion. Steve whines deep in his throat as he starts nodding. Bucky balances his weight onto his elbow for a second so he can wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, and then says, “Okay, just need to move for a sec.”

Steve helps out by following Bucky’s guidance and spreading his legs shamelessly so Bucky can situate himself on his knees between them. Bucky licks his lips while he stares down at Steve’s dick again, but then he lifts a brow and purses his lips into a mischievous smirk while he peers up at the blond. “So… how flexible are you anyways?”

Steve chuckles, blushing furiously as he covers his face with one hand. “You would notice that,” he jokes.

“Right, because there wasn’t a single part of you that was hoping I would.”

He sees Steve smile guiltily under his hand. “I might’ve,” he admits.

“You tellin’ me you weren’t showing off for me at all in the studio, Stevie?” Bucky asks, deliberately softening his tone – thick and sultry – while he brings his right hand to Steve’s ass and runs his middle finger over his hole. Steve’s smile drops as his mouth falls open with a gasp. Bucky bites his lip and quickly sucks on his finger so it’s actually wet when he drops it back down there, giving it a little pressure as he presses against it and teases Steve’s rim with small circles. “Were you showin’ off for me, baby?”

Steve nods, moaning and trying to shove down against Bucky’s finger. Bucky smirks and sucks on his finger again. This time, he doesn’t give Steve anymore just yet. Placing his hand on Steve’s shin, he experimentally starts pushing, and Steve starts bending it back towards his torso, going with it. “So… can you do the splits?”

“You know I can,” Steve answers, sounding pleased with himself.

Bucky hums under his breath. “Can you… bend yourself so your ankles are by your head?” he slowly asks next, still gently pushing on Steve’s leg.

The look Steve gives him is wanton and impish, and instead of verbally answering right away, Steve brings his knees to his chest before unbending them at the knees and fluidly continuing to bend himself in half, until he’s got one foot on either side of his head. Wrapping his fingers around his ankles, Steve gets a casual, mock nonchalant smile and asks, “You mean a little something like this?”

Bucky’s gaping. He’s also completely fucking hard again. “You just made that look way too easy.”

Steve snorts softly. “That’s ‘cause it is easy. I can actually get them right behind my head if you want.”

“Dude, you’re going to actually kill me if you do that, please don’t.”

That makes Steve laugh. “Fiiiine,” he playfully says, now crossing his arms across the backs of his thighs to essentially hug himself together. Letting his head relax back into the pillow, the little bastard just has to add, “One day you should eat me out while I’m in the Halasana pose.”

Oh no. “Which one is that, exactly?” Bucky asks, afraid to hear the answer.

“You ever see the one where the person’s lying down, with their hips straight up… Pretty close to a ninety-degree angle, I’d say… And then their legs are straightened above and beyond the head?”

“…Yes…”

“Yeah, that one.”

Bucky groans loudly, with a tinge of frustration. “Fuck me,” he breathes, shaking his head and bending forward. Spreading Steve with his right hand, Bucky’s still grumbling under his breath until the moment he leans in and gives Steve one single lick. Steve spasms slightly and then exhales a delighted, wobbly noise; sounds like he’s smiling slightly when he moans breathlessly, “Mm, Buck--” and then moans louder as Bucky darts his tongue out at him a second time. Bucky doesn’t waste time. Keeping his chin smothered between Steve’s cheeks, he starts plunging his tongue against his hole, over and over.

Fuck, yeah, he quickly understands how Steve was feeling when he was giving Bucky head. Bucky had forgotten how horny he gets when he’s eating a guy’s asshole; fucking nothing else in the world like it. With Steve bent like that, his ass is naturally lifted up a little, and just the tiniest bit spread, which makes Bucky’s job easier, since he can only do all this with one hand. Steve quivers and starts panting again, moaning out these excited, needy little sighs, and whimpering Bucky’s name whenever Bucky will trying spreading him a little more and pushing his tongue inside of him.

Wetting his middle finger between his lips again, Bucky waits until Steve’s hole feels looser and more relaxed against his mouth to glance up at the blond’s face and surprise him by suddenly slipping the tip of that finger past his ring of muscles. Steve fucking squeals at the unexpected intrusion. But at the same time, he arches his neck and Bucky sees him smile, mouth open and all – and it’s the fucking hottest thing ever.

“Holy shit, you’re tight,” Bucky whispers, watching the way Steve’s tiny pink hole suctions around the tip of his finger. He wiggles it a bit, making Steve clench even tighter around him. “Fuck… Where do you keep your lube?”

Steve points noncommittally in the direction of his side table drawer. “There, in there.”

Bucky goes and opens it up, finding it within seconds. Popping it open, he squeezes some onto his fingers and then places it on the top of the mini table. When he goes to climb back onto the bed and get back into his previous position, however, Steve shakes his head and beckons him over. “You gonna be able to do it from here?” he asks.

Bucky glances back down and then nods. He’ll figure it out. What winds up working is him resting on his knees, ass lifted, while he puts the rest of his weight on his right forearm. Steve switches his position so his knees are just bent and resting against his stomach. It’s not hard for Bucky to keep his balance and bring his slick fingers back to Steve’s opening. Unfortunately, he can’t eat him out like this now, but he still gets a decent view of his fingers fucking into Steve’s body – first one, then building up to three.

Behind him, Steve’s moaning rhythmically, exhaling one in perfect time with ever push of Bucky’s fingers. His hand is slid between Bucky’s thighs and stroking back and forth over his dick, making Bucky huff out his own sighs and expletives. A few minutes later, when Bucky hears the cap for the lubricant snap back open, a thrill passes through his body, and he involuntarily wiggles his ass a little before perching it up higher into the air.

Mm… Unh, god… F-Fuckin gorgeous ass, Buck…” Steve says huskily from behind him. Then Bucky feels Steve’s middle finger press to the inner side of one cheek, while his index finger presses to the other. Spreading him, Bucky hears Steve groan at the sight of him, and Bucky licks his lips, shaking his hair out of his face and breathing heavier through his nose.

Shoving his fingers deeper into Steve, the filter between his brain and his mouth obliterates and he begs, “Finger my hole, baby, please Stevie…”

A thick finger – Bucky guesses Steve’s pointer one – presses to his entrance and teases it in short, quick movements; coaxing Bucky’s rim to let Steve dip the tip of it inside of him, only to pull back right away and rub from side to side with the pad of it. Bucky’s probably even tighter than Steve is, given that the time between his last fuck and this is more than likely a lot longer than however long it’s been for Steve. So there’s some stinging and an uncomfortable pressure, but Bucky wants it. He can taste it on his tongue, it’s right there, just a bit more...

When Steve’s able to sink that finger in a little deeper, then a little bit more, Bucky’s jaw is hanging open and he has to pause to let his forehead drop down to his arm, his fingers still knuckles-deep in Steve’s own ass. Steve’s panting raggedly behind him and keeps going, patiently working Bucky open until he can push his finger all the way into him and then fuck him with shallow thrusts.

For the first couple minutes, Bucky’s admittedly a little self-absorbed. Knowing he has a part of Steve inside of him, and being opened up again for the first time in fucking forever, and being reacquainted with the feel of it all is enough to blank out his mind and reduce him to nothing but choked-out grunts, gasping shrilly when Steve fingers him at a quicker pace. Eventually, though, he faintly feels Steve’s asshole twitching around his fingers, and Bucky gets back with the program. Pushing himself back up, his fingers go back to fucking Steve’s ass while Steve’s own learn their way around the inside of Bucky’s.

They establish a tandem in the way they touch each other. Sweat gathering around their hairlines, they moan over each other and try to rock against each other’s fingers. When Steve’s curling the two he’s got in there to catch against Bucky’s prostate whenever he pulls them back, Bucky’s back bows and he lifts his head, pulling out his own fingers completely and squeezing his eyes shut while he starts crying out, completely blissed-out, “Fuck! Fuck… fuck… Oh, fuck…!

“That’s it,” he hears Steve whisper encouragingly.

Whimpering anxiously, Bucky braces his stump to Steve’s stomach and twists enough that he can suck Steve’s cock back into his mouth again to harden him back up. That only makes Steve finger-fuck his prostate faster, and Bucky’s eyes squeeze shut impossibly tighter as he stutters around the growing thickness of it, whining far louder than Bucky’s ever let himself whine before. Steve’s left hand goes to the back of his head, but instead of covering it with his palm and pushing Bucky back down, Bucky feels Steve’s fingers expertly slide the elastic from his hair.

He doesn’t shake it out like he usually does, though. He doesn’t rub at the back of Bucky’s neck or anything like that either. He tosses the hair band somewhere across the room, and then gathers Bucky’s hair into his fist so he has a sturdy grip on Bucky’s head – powerful, but not painful. Then he starts to work Bucky for him, his fingers never letting up inside of him and now, fucking Bucky’s mouth on and off his cock at the same time.

Bucky’s dripping between his legs. He doesn’t think there’s ever been a time in his life when he’s been this turned on before; his body and mind, this stimulated. Steve’s fingers kiss his prostate over and over and over, it’s relentless, and maybe Bucky’s biased, but he thinks that he’s never had a lover quite like Steve before. Steve’s only had his hands on Bucky’s body for less than a couple hours, and yet he knows how to work it and play it like a fucking instrument better than people Bucky had been with for months.

He’s got lightning-sharp bolts of pleasure shooting up his spine, down his legs, straight to his cock; swirling, growing, building in his lower belly… There’s spit on his chin and over his own quick little noises – mm, mm, mm, mm… - he can hear the loud, filthy sounds of his mouth over Steve’s dick. He can hear Steve behind him... Moaning, low and guttural; quick gasps and little groans of relief, and Bucky cares about that more than he cares about anything else in this moment.

Steve tastes delicious and feels like he belongs there – with Bucky and inside of him, everywhere he can be. It’s overwhelming to realize that, without it even needing to be said, Steve’s all his now. He loves him, and Bucky loves him back; more than he can put into words. No one else will get the right to touch them like this again, and Bucky wouldn’t have it any other way. No one else could ever be Steve, and no one can take his place. He knows he’ll never be able to get enough of him. It blows his mind a little to think that Steve seems to feel the exact same way in return. Bucky doesn’t think he did anything to deserve it, but he sure as hell won’t argue. Not when he’s waited this long.

God… Bucky… Ah, Jesus Christ, baby, c’mere, come up here,” Steve pants quickly, pulling his fingers out of him and gently pulling on his hip. His other hand lifts Bucky’s head by the hair to free his mouth. Letting go of that hair, it cascades messily around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky turns and crawls back up him – Steve holding onto his side and helping Bucky keep balanced – and as soon as his mouth is within kissing distance, Steve holds the back of his head and seizes the opportunity.

Bucky moans in his mouth, throwing a leg over him so he can grind their cocks back together. Steve’s other hand reaches down and slides two fingers back into Bucky, keeping them buried as deep as he can and doing nothing more than tilting his hand back and forth in the tiniest of motions. “Tell me what you want,” Steve breathes – a genuine request – in between kisses that Bucky’s taken back over on and is now controlling.

“I want you to fuck me,” Bucky moans back softly.

“You want me to fuck you?"

“Yeah…”

Steve catches Bucky’s bottom lip with his teeth and gives it a ginger little tug. He’s still rolling his hips up to grind back against Bucky; pushes his fingers an extra inch deeper into him, and Bucky didn’t think that was even possible. It’s like he can feel that one right in his gut, and he exhales a needy sound before whispering, “Fuck me, Stevie, want you so fuckin’ much baby, please…”

Oh god.” The words slip out in a rush of air, barely audible. Steve crushes his lips to Bucky’s to kiss him particularly hard, and then nods, his forehead and Bucky’s pressed together. “You need me to go grab a condom?”

“Don’t want one,” Bucky replies. “Just fuck me.”

Steve nods again. Bucky knows that Steve knows as well as he does that most importantly, neither of them need one – and with each other now, there’ll never be another need for them. Bucky doesn’t want anything standing between him and Steve, whether it’s Steve inside of him or the other way around. From the eagerness in Steve’s actions as he secures an arm around Bucky’s lower back and then sits them up… From the look on his face when they’re at eye level and he’s gazing at Bucky like he wants to eat him alive… It seems like a pretty fair assumption that Steve’s more than alright with it, too.

Bucky wraps his right arm around Steve’s neck and bites at his mouth again, beats his tongue to Steve’s, while the blond pats his hand around the mattress in search of the lube. Then Bucky hears a quick popping and snapping sound, and he knows Steve’s found it. “Lift up,” Steve mutters. Bucky braces his knees and shins to the mattress on either side of Steve’s body and does as he’s told; never moving his mouth away from Steve’s, but rising so there’s enough room for Steve to rub some slick over his cock, and then tease a little more in and around Bucky’s rim.

Right when Steve fists the base of his erection and keeps it angled up, Bucky touches their foreheads back together and for a moment, they breathe against each other, eyes still closed.

“I’m nervous,” Steve suddenly admits with a tiny smile, softly exhaling an embarrassed chuckle. “You nervous?”

“Little bit,” Bucky agrees.

“I’ve been dreamin’ of this moment for like… for like a good thirteen, fourteen years,” Steve reminds him. “A part of me just can’t believe you’re really here. Teen me has no fuckin’ clue what to do with himself right now.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Bucky chuckles back. “I’m scared, too. But… we want this – at least, I know I do. You?”

Steve opens his eyes. When he pulls his head away enough to look at Bucky’s face, Bucky opens his eyes, too. Steve smiles, still looking a little dazed and maybe a tiny bit shy. Bucky smiles back. Steve says, “Yeah,” and then Bucky pecks his lips.

“Good,” Bucky murmurs. He tilts his face to the other side and kisses Steve again. At the same time, he lowers himself enough to feel the wet tip of Steve’s dick grazing him. They both reflexively startle a little, and then laugh again quietly with embarrassment. It should feel awkward but it doesn’t.

“Just don’t make me come too soon,” Bucky says, dropping down a tiny bit more so he can feel it pushing against his hole.

“I can’t promise I won’t come too soon,” Steve jokes. But then Bucky’s letting gravity drag him down enough to have Steve’s cockhead struggling against his rim, before the muscles give and the very tip of Steve slips inside. Bucky’s jaw drops at the same time as Steve’s does; Bucky keeping a tight grip on Steve’s shoulder – his arm across the back of his neck – and Steve clutching Bucky’s thigh tighter with his left hand.

Already, Bucky can feel the strain. Steve’s thicker than the fingers he’d been using to prep Bucky open, and if Bucky’s gotten fucked by guys this big when he was younger, he’d have to do some serious thinking to know for sure. He’s pretty sure he hasn’t; he’d remember what a stretch like this felt like. He tries to start sinking down and taking more of Steve’s cock, but it’s been a while and Bucky’s out of practice. He’s only able to get half an inch before he has to stop, shake his head with an annoyed huff of laughter, and breathlessly say, “Sorry, gimme a sec.”

“You okay?” Steve whispers back. He already sounds wrecked, and it makes Bucky’s cock jump happily.

“Yeah. You’re just huge; my body needs a chance to catch up,” Bucky says with a smirk, eyes half-lidded.

Steve manages to laugh, even though he’s shaking a little and sounds like he’s fighting to steady his breathing, too. “You sure do know how to flatter a guy.”

“Don’t need my flattery, I’m just speakin’ the truth. Your cock’s gonna split me in two.”

“Doesn’t help that you’re…” Steve grunts, squeezing his eyes shut when Bucky accidentally clenches around his tip. “…really tight, Buck. Like, fuck… I probably should’ve used more fingers.”

“Well, I’m not getting off, so – we’re gonna make this fuckin’ work,” Bucky says, still sounding amused. Closing his eyes again, he presses his forehead against Steve’s and takes a few deep breaths while he tries to circle his hips. Poor Steve is doing everything he can beneath him not to move in response; biting his lip and exhaling roughly through his nose to fight from thrusting up into him, or dig his fingers too deeply into Bucky’s upper leg. Bucky can feel Steve’s self-restraint, and it likewise makes him a little impatient, too.

With a slightly strained sound, he’s able to sink down a little more, and then exhales loudly. He’s always responded very acutely, physically, to bottoming. Steve’s not even halfway in him and Bucky’s already flushing from his forehead to his cock. He’s beginning to sweat, and his legs are trembling. To try and relax him, Steve starts alternating between rubbing the back of Bucky’s neck and sliding his hand down to his stump, gently running his knuckles back and forth along it.

“Let me in, Buck…”

A-Auh…”

Bucky can’t help himself after hearing that. He just wants the wait to be over. He needs to feel Steve inside of him, all of him. Biting his lip, he forces himself the rest of the way down, pulling a ragged cry from his throat as he feels his hole open wider and swallow the thickness of Steve's cock. Steve’s just as unprepared, and buries his face straight against Bucky’s neck, his hand that’d been on Bucky’s arm snapping around him and grabbing onto the older man's side.

There’s so much pressure around his hole, and Steve’s cock seems never-ending, carving a deeper and deeper path inside of him, both painful and extraordinary. When Bucky’s finally seated, he’s shaking so hard that he can feel trickles of sweat rolling down his sides, his back, his hairline… He really does feel like he’s going to be split in two, but it’s the single sweetest moment of his entire life. It’s so good, it’s so fucking good…

“Oh my god, oh my god,” he keeps whimpering incoherently. Steve’s face is still pressed to his neck – silent, save for his broken up, labored breaths – and Bucky feels him cling to him even tighter, shuddering against him.

Bucky starts to roll his hips back and forth, and Steve finds his voice. “Stop, stop, stop,” he pleads frantically, muffled against Bucky’s neck. “Too tight… You’re too fuckin’ tight, I’m too horny right now… Just… hold on…”

Bucky nods, opening his eyes and trying to blink some focus back into his vision. Lifting his right hand, he cradles the back of Steve’s head and nods again, choking on his breaths while his body continues to slowly adjust and get used with the intrusion keeping Bucky so stuffed, so fucking full…

“Just tell me when,” he says.

Steve nods. It feels like an eternity, but after a half minute or so, Steve gives him the go ahead by pressing his hand to Bucky’s tailbone and giving it a tentative push. Bucky starts grinding against him, slowly at first; stirring Steve around inside of him and trying to loosen his muscles up. Every few minutes, Steve will suddenly grab him again and beg him to stop. Every time, he starts apologizing. Bucky always responds by kissing him quiet, sighing against his lips and whispering something back like, “It’s okay,” or “You feel so good…” Eventually, after they’ve both gotten used to it, he’s able to go for longer periods of time without Steve feeling too close.

After that, Steve doesn’t stop Bucky at all.

Now, Bucky’s never given a shit about the size of his partner, so long as they knew how to use it, but there’s admittedly something psychologically erotic about getting fucked by someone so big. There’s that ever-constant feeling of having his limits pushed, and the heady sense of pride flooding Bucky all over when he continues to prove that he can, in fact, take it. The initial pain turns into something exquisite; where it’s always lingering in the background but only making Bucky crave even more of it.

But the absolute best part is how much it feels like Steve’s taking over him like this – filling up every possible empty space within his body, erasing the lines between where Bucky’s body starts and Steve’s begins and fusing them, for the time being, into just… one. And when Bucky’s able to start rolling his hips faster, when he’s able to push his knees down to lift and fall and start bouncing himself off Steve’s cock, he’s greedy, he’s so fucking greedy, and Steve kisses him so hard his mouth hurts – keeps his hand pressed to Bucky’s ass and helps tilt it if Bucky’s fully seated, or stares at him in worship when Bucky’s sweating and moaning and fucking himself up and down the entire length of his dick…

They’re both selfish for each other. Both greedy and unquenchable, and maybe it’s a good thing, in a way, that it took so many years of yearning, wishing, pining, dying for each other… Because Bucky’s never felt something so passionate and raw, and he knows he’d never be able to experience that with anyone other than Steve – with their history, and their story, and just how long and how badly they’ve both needed this.

Steve collapses down onto his back again. With Steve’s hands securely on his hips, Bucky runs his right hand through his hair and then holds onto the back of his head. Turning his face in towards his arm, his mouth hangs open, eyes still closed, as he continues to work Steve’s cock and ride him. Steve’s eyes are magnificent and half hidden beneath drooping lids, glassy as marbles, and Bucky can feel it, how they’re entirely on him.

He knows Steve’s watching his face, and the beads of sweat roll down his chest, and the fluid rolling of his body. It makes Bucky feel sexy – on display, exposed and vulnerable, but in the best way possible this time. When he figures out how to reap the most from Steve’s dick so it’s scraping up against his prostate, Bucky braces his hand on Steve’s chest and tilts his head back, groaning longingly with every breath.

Steve’s own head is digging back into the pillow now; neck taut and arched, veins accentuated against the skin. His brows are tightly creased and his lips are parted, and he squirms beneath Bucky, like he’s trying to fuck back up into him but doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He keeps whimpering out, “Oh god… oh my god… fuck, unh…”

“You gonna come?” Bucky pants, lowering his chin so he can peer back down at him.

Steve starts nodding frantically, biting his lip and squeezing his eyes shut tighter. “Mhm, mm…”

“You gonna come for me, baby?”

Steve whines, the sound dropping and melting into an anxious moan. He starts breathing back, “Yeah, yeah, m’gonna come.”

Bucky’s pretty close, too. But instead of driving Steve to the edge the way he is now, he bends his elbow so he can lean in and suck soft, fast kisses up Steve’s neck, making Steve moan louder. Licking up to his ear, Bucky asks in a husky voice, “You wanna come with my cock inside of you, Stevie? Do you like that - comin’ while someone fucks your cute little ass?”

Steve grits his teeth – probably to stop himself from shooting his load then and there – and wheezes out a completely fucked sound. Turning his face towards Bucky’s, he parts his lips the second they graze Bucky’s and licks straight into his mouth. “Yeah, yeah I want it,” Steve moans back. “Fuck me, please, please…”

“Say my name…”

Bucky,” Steve whines impatiently. Bucky feels him start using his grip on Bucky’s hips to rock their bodies together faster. He’s probably getting so close that he really doesn’t care what happens at this point. Bucky’s eyes flutter closed momentarily and he smiles, mouth open, when Steve snaps his hips up to give him a particularly rough thrust.

“You want me to fuck you?” he asks again quickly.

“M’gonna come in, like, ten seconds if you don’t,” Steve warns, suddenly chuckling with bated breath, body still trying to work towards reaching its climax within Bucky’s. “Make up your mind, Barnes, but make it quick – you feel way too fuckin’ good,” he hisses, teeth clenching.

Moving promptly, lifts himself all the way off so Steve’s dick slips out of him. Readjusting, he gets off of him so Steve can lift his legs and bend his knees to his stomach while Bucky grabs the lube one last time to get some onto himself. After a few hasty pumps to give it a generous coating, Bucky watches Steve reach down and spread himself - his own hole still wet and prepped from Bucky’s fingers earlier.

Fuck him, Bucky wants to bury his face in there and eat it again, but Steve’s way too close for that – and honestly, so is he. Feeling Steve flex around his tongue and knowing he was sent over the edge from Bucky licking into him would probably be enough to bring on Bucky’s own orgasm.

So he fists his cock instead and guides it into Steve instead. Steve moans brokenly, reaching up to grab his inner thighs and shamelessly spread his legs wider, and he has absolutely no fucking room to talk about Bucky being tight – his hole is like a hot little glove, squeezing Bucky mercilessly but accepting him inside so fucking well. Steve winds up having to let his legs fall to either side of him so Bucky has the room to lower down and rest his weight on him. Holding himself up by his forearm, Steve grabs Bucky’s ass in one hand and his side with the other; working together to keep Bucky from falling over, making up for his missing arm.

The moment he bottoms out, Bucky’s pulling back and then slapping into him with frenzied, shallow thrusts. Now it’s his turn to watch Steve’s face, and he’s a goddamn sight when he’s getting drilled. Also definitely the louder of the two; crying out with every thrust so vehemently that there’s no way in hell all of their neighbors aren’t hearing it, or the fast, heavy groaning of the bed beneath them as it knocks into the wall.

Bucky plows into him so hard that Steve’s body slowly gets higher and higher up the mattress. Neither of them realize just how close the top of his head is to the bed frame until Bucky draws most of the way out and then slams back into him. The force makes it thud against the head board, and Steve cuts himself off in the middle of a moan to get a stupid grin on his face and mutter, “Oww?”

Despite the mood, Bucky can’t help but crack up. Steve starts laughing, too, and with a hasty apology from Bucky, they move together to get back down the bed a little so it won’t happen again. For a solid minute or so, they can’t stop giggling, even when one of them tries to kiss the other.

“My ass ain’t a diamond,” Steve jokes. “You drillin’ for gold or something?”

“And I’m not the one who’s deaf,” Bucky shoots back, retaliating by giving Steve a rough enough thrust to make the blond’s smile disappear with another gasp. “But you’re screamin’ like you’re trying to make me.”

“T… Touché,” Steve says, chuckling again breathlessly.

Bucky grins against Steve’s mouth, humming as he closes his eyes again and kissing him, hips beginning to move again. Within seconds, Steve's wrapping himself all around Bucky again and letting out another long and languid moan, the sound being broken up in time with the jutting of his body against the bed.

“That feel good, baby?” Bucky whispers.

“Yeah…”

“Oh… Fuck, you feel so good…”

“B-Bucky…” Steve’s nose scrunches up, crying out unexpectedly with a renewed enthusiasm.

“Right there?”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“That your sweet spot, Stevie?”

He keeps purposely aiming for it, and Steve answers by writhing underneath him and moaning again, loudly. He crosses his ankles against the small of Bucky’s back; the friction of Bucky’s stomach trapping his leaking dick against his own providing Steve with all the stimulation he needs to keep crawling closer and closer to the end. Tensing up all around him, Steve cries out once, twice, a third time – ah… ah… auh!  And finally, Bucky feels Steve’s cock - hard as a rock between them - start pulsing, followed moments later by the wet warmth of Steve’s come as he starts to spill between their bodies.

At the same time, his asshole flutters and tightens spastically around his dick, and Bucky watches Steve – watches those baby blues roll up into his head while Steve’s nose is all scrunched up; wrecked cries escalating into hoarse sobs while he comes all over them… And Bucky’s brows furrow, mouth dropping with a sharp exhale, feeling Steve’s muscles finally coaxing him one thrust too far and seducing that beautiful orgasm out of him next.

He gets as far as growling out, “Oh my god--” before he’s squeezing his eyes closed and pressing his forehead to Steve’s collar bone. Picking up the pace, he fucks into him without finesse, making a deep, choked sound in his throat when he starts to feel himself finally come. It’s so staggeringly good, making so much mind-numbing ecstasy coarse through his veins, that the corners of Bucky’s eyes get wet. Both boys gasping and fighting to catch their breath, Bucky goes pliantly with Steve pulls his face back up so Steve can kiss him and whimper the dying sounds of his climax between his lips.

Then Bucky pulls away – to pepper smaller, sweeter kisses to Steve’s mouth – and exhales tiredly, “God, I fuckin’ love you so fuckin’ much.”

“Mm… Love you, too,” Steve murmurs, looking and sounding just as thoroughly destroyed. “Why the fuck did we wait so long to do that? That was… Holy shit, that was so good…”

“You look like a wreck,” Bucky teases lovingly. He’s pleased as fuck with himself for being the reason Steve currently looks that way.

Steve gives him an equally as smug, lazy smile. “You’re not much better, from where I’m lying.”

They stare into each other’s eyes for a few seconds, and then both break out into grins. Bucky’s not sure which one of them starts cracking up all over again first, but it might’ve been both of them at the exact same time. But they’re suddenly both laughing – a little bit of shock with a little bit of shyness, and the rest, nothing but elation and excitement and maybe it also sinking in for them both that they finally did this. They finally have the relationship they’d both always dreamed of having, but never believed the other could ever want in return. Fuck, they really were the biggest idiots – not just in the State, but the whole damn world.

After rolling around and indulging in some playful kissing and light, murmured conversation for a while, Steve eventually goes to the washroom to clean himself up. While Bucky waits for his turn, he strips the blanket from Steve’s bed and uses it to wipe up his stomach before shoving it into the laundry hamper. Finding his briefs, he pulls them back on and then goes into his room to grab the comforter off his own bed for them to use for the night. He really doubts there’s any need to even bother asking – Steve’s going to be in for a rude awakening if he thinks Bucky’s ever going to sacrifice one more night of not sleeping in his arms again.

As he’s gathering it up into a big ball, he finds himself stopping mid-action when he glances over to his closet door. Staring over at it for a few seconds, one corner of his mouth turns up into a soft smile. Letting his blanket fall back onto his bed, he goes to the door and opens it.

Steve’s already sprawled across his own again when Bucky walks into his room less than a minute later. He’s in nothing but his boxers and glasses, with one hand pillowed behind his head and his other hand resting on his stomach. His golden hair is in complete disarray, and Bucky’s heart somersaults in his chest when Steve sees him and smiles in that adorable, boyish way that's always gotten Bucky so tongue-tied.

“You’re unfairly hot, has anyone ever told you that?” Steve asks playfully, likewise taking in the sight of Bucky post-sex. “Hope you’re not busy tomorrow night, ‘cause you may have a date with my sketchbook.”

“Oh really?” Bucky smirks.

“Yes. And by ‘may have’, I mean you do,” Steve answers. Trailing his gaze back down Bucky’s body, he bites his lip and makes a pleased, humming sound. “Goddamnit, you’re fuckin’ hot. Can we say ‘fuck it’ to being adults for a few days and just stay in bed ‘till Monday? Don’t know about you, but… yeah, that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for over a decade's worth of not fuckin’ you. Wanna suck you off again already.”

“Christ, Rogers, your mouth needs to be washed out with soap,” Bucky teases, leaning on his side against the wall. He knows he’s got no room to talk, given the mouth he’s always had. But it’s different hearing Steve talk like this, with such ease. It’s as sexy as it is surprising. “You always turn into a trucker after sex?”

Steve laughs with a shrug, then meets his gaze again and asks, “Sooo… you planning on staying all the way over there for the rest of the night, or are you gonna come join me?”

“I’d actually gotten up to go grab the blanket off my bed.”

“And yet, I see no blanket,” Steve keeps teasing. “Nice memory. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Bucky chuckles to himself and then goes over to him. “Actually, there was something I wanted to show you,” he tells him, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. Steve hadn’t noticed that his right hand has been behind his back the whole time, but when Bucky pulls it back into sight again, his eyes drop down to what’s in his hand, and Steve blinks, smile disappearing.

In it is Steve’s old G.I. Joe.

“Buck…” he whispers, “I…”

“I thought maybe you’d want this back,” Bucky says with a smile, handing it over to him. "I mean, I have been holding onto it for you for, like, fourteen years. Seems like it might've been a little overdue."

Steve takes it, looking awed, and stares down at it. Dumbfounded, he’s silent for a few seconds before shaking his head and murmuring, “I… I didn’t even know you had this thing anymore…”

“I never got rid of it,” Bucky tells him. “Even when I wanted to, I just couldn’t. I guess it was sort of like the little piece of you I refused to give up, even after I thought I’d lost you.”

Steve exhales a stunned, disbelieving breath, his eyes still roaming over it. Glancing back to Bucky, Steve gets a tiny smile before getting off the bed and going over to the bookshelf standing in the corner. Bucky watches him search through the titles, until he reaches up and slides out his old copy of The Hobbit. Returning to the bed, Steve puts down the G.I. Joe and then asks, “You remember when I told you about the night mom n’ I got away from Victor?”

“Yeah?”

“And I told you about how I’d grabbed some things; carried them out of there with me?”

Bucky nods. “Yeah…”

Steve opens up the cover of the book and pulls out a folded-up piece of paper. Bucky doesn’t know what it is until Steve opens it up and places it on the bed, turning it around so Bucky can see.

“Oh, Stevie…” he breathes, feeling his chest become tight with emotion and tears filling his eyes. Picking it up, he looks down at that drawing – two stick figures, one with brown hair and the other with yellow, standing next to a snowman. “As if you actually kept this…” Steve smiles warmly, his own eyes wet, as he picks up his action figure again and holds it in his lap; watching while Bucky stares down at his old drawing.

“Thank you,” Bucky suddenly says.

“For what?”

Bucky lowers it back down so he can reach out for Steve’s hand. Steve opens it up so Bucky can curl his fingers around it and then pull, making Steve lean forward so Bucky can bring his hand to his lips and kiss it. Looking back up to him, Bucky says, “For finding me all those years ago. You… You picked me, Steve. Thank you.”

Steve’s smile gets bigger, shier, but his eyes sparkle with affection. Moving his hand, he tucks some of Bucky’s hair behind one ear and then holds the side of his face, stroking Bucky’s cheek with his thumb. “And you’re the best decision I ever made,” he murmurs.

“You’re so fuckin’ cheesy,” Bucky laughs, a tear falling when he blinks and slowly rolling down his cheek.

“I love you, too,” Steve replies, leaning in and kissing him. Bucky smiles against his mouth and presses his lips back, lifting his hand to hold the side of Steve’s neck as Steve’s hand slides into his hair to pull him closer. When Steve moves and lowers himself down onto his back again, Bucky crawls over top of him, going without struggle. Everything’s slower the second time around, and gentle. They keep their eyes on each other – lips always close enough to lean in and steal another kiss – the entire time Bucky makes loves to him... When Steve tenderly rocks in and out of him and whispers, “I love you so much,” into his ear while Bucky’s the one on his back...

They’re tangled up in each other’s limbs for another two hours, but neither of them cares. The world’s been hard on them both – for so long, in such cruel ways… Losing the ones they love, losing each other, losing themselves… But right now, it’s the first time Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have felt whole again in over a decade – since Bucky was forced to turn that corner and Steve tried to run after him; had to watch each other get further and further away, both knowing that neither of them could change fate but desperate to try anyways.

Now, though... Now they can help each other find their way back, and be that missing puzzle piece that the other’s always needed. And as Steve kisses him, Bucky can’t help but think that finally, finally… it’s his turn to be happy again. If they’re selfish and desperate to make the most of finally getting their second chance at this – to not screw it up, to face life together and grow as friend, as lovers, and as individuals – then that’s only because it’s their right.

It’s going to take a while for them to make up for all the years they missed, after all. The rest of the world, as far as they care about it, can deal with it. 

 


 ...


 

It’s well past one a.m., and Bucky startles awake from another telltale nightmare. Steve holds him through it, kissing below his hair and murmuring softly into his ear for as long as it takes for Bucky to calm back down. When he can feel Bucky finally relax against him again, he pets his hair and asks, “Wanna go to the diner?” 

Bucky thinks about it, staring off into the darkness of Steve’s room and trailing his fingers back and forth along his chest. “You think maybe… you think maybe you can read to me?” he replies instead.

“Yeah sure, Buck, whatever you want. Got a book in mind?”

Bucky smiles to himself. “You know which one I want.”

He hears Steve laugh softly, and then say, “Alright, going old-school. Just let me grab the light…”

Bucky moves so Steve can flick on the lamp on his night table, before settling back against him and putting his head on Steve’s chest. The blond picks up his glasses and puts them back on, before picking up the old copy of The Hobbit and flipping to the first page. Before he opens his mouth to start reading, though, Bucky murmurs, “Hey Steve?”

“Yeah?”

Bucky chews on the inside of his cheek, gathering the courage he needs to say what he’s wanted to say for a while now: “Maybe we can… I dunno, see if the old gang wanted to get together next week or something.”

Steve doesn’t freak out. Steve doesn’t make a big deal out of this moment – the weight behind what it is Bucky’s really saying; the step he’s just chosen to make. Steve Rogers knows him better than that. All he answers is, “Sure, Buck. I’ll shoot ‘em all a Facebook message in the morning.” Bucky can hear the smile in his voice, though – the love, how proud he is – and that says it all, really. Bucky nods against his chest, curling up to him tighter. He's proud of himself, too.

Steve returns to stroking his hair. After a few moments of silence, he clears his throat and asks, voice light and content, “Ready?”

Bucky closes his eyes, still smiling. “Ready.”

With one hand still playing with the strands of Bucky’s hair, Steve holds up the book up his left hand and begins: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

On the dresser, leaning again Steve’s mirror, is his old toy. Theirs. It watches over them, just like it always has – ever since the moment a wide-eyed, golden-haired four-year-old boy decided to sneak into that hospital room and leave it there for Bucky Barnes to find, during a time when they needed a friend the most.

It all began with that G.I. Joe action figure… And though they look nothing like what they used to – because time and life have completely changed them – as they lie there together and Bucky listens to Steve regale Bilbo’s journey from the very beginning… They are those same little boys, somewhere deep down. For just a second, you’d be able to see them again.

And Bucky thinks to himself that it’s little moments like these – fleeting as they may be – that remind him why life has always been worth living.