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I'm Not Sick (But I'm Not Well)

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Any other day he would have forgotten about it by now – but not yesterday. For some reason he stewed on it, chewed on the memory until it was gristle between his teeth.  The man’s face was now burned in his mind, vivid and bright, a flash of white across the busy intersection of Times Square.  Bucky had barely reacted in time, slamming on his brakes and praying to any god that was listening that he didn’t get rear ended, he can’t afford tripling his insurance on his truck. 

He remembers hanging out the side of his truck, face red and waving his fist in typical New Yorker style as the man’s eyes got real wide, jaw dropping while he twisted his head to take in the bright televised billboards and glittering skyscrapers of midtown. 

Fucking tourists, Bucky had thought bitterly, falling into his seat and throwing his finger out his window at the drivers honking behind him impatiently.  He white knuckled the wheel, tentatively stepping on the gas when he saw a man dressed in all black step in front of his truck, literally strolling across one of the busiest intersections and ignoring angry drivers. He cut across lanes of traffic, stopping behind the man in white, who still stood slack-jawed on the median.  There were several SUV’s converging on the intersection, all coming to abrupt stops and blocking traffic both ways, circled around the median as dozens of men and women poured out, all wearing tactical gear and surrounding both men.  Bucky found himself gawking, uncaring that he was now holding up traffic himself.  He watched the man in black say something to the man in white, who was still panting and looking at the buildings in confusion and disbelief.  After the man in black finished speaking, he put his hands in his pockets and studied the man in white for a minute.  The other man stood still, tensed and ready to flee; Bucky thought that that was what would happen, that any minute the man in white would run, but instead he seemed to sigh in resignation, dropping his head and –

A sudden horn blaring pulls him back to the present.

Bucky should’ve let it go – and any other day he would’ve because, hell, it was just another day in New York – but something about the guy just stuck. Seeing the man in white now, sitting outside the diner across from his usual vender spot and talking to his friend Beth, it seemed too coincidental in a place like New York City.  It was like the universe was trying to tell him something, to do something.

Apparently Bucky thought that message was to get out of his food truck and give this guy a piece of his mind.

“Hey! Hey, you!” Buck shouts. There are several people sitting on the patio today, and they all turn, but Bucky keeps his eyes on his prey.  The blond man is sitting alone, doodling absentmindedly on some napkin, and only looks up last minute when he seems to realize the angry guy is talking to him.

“You,” Bucky repeats, jutting a finger out.

“Can I help you?” The guy asks, rolling his shoulders back and, fuck, this guy is big – even sitting down – but Bucky has already started and his native Brooklynite blood is boiling. This guy was going to get it. 

“Yeah! What, were you raised in a barn?” Bucky asks sharply, his voice loud and his accent thickening.  “Your Ma not teach you to look both ways before crossing the street?”

The guy’s brows pinch and his nostrils flare, “Excuse me?”

“You see that truck over there?” Buck asks, pointing his thumb back to his food truck across the street, “Well you almost got real acquainted with its bumper yesterday.  Next time you decide to go jogging in the middle of Times Square, do us all a favor, sweetheart, and look before you step out into rush hour traffic,” Bucky snarls and the guy sits back like he’s been physically hit.  Then his shoulders shake and an odd sounds come out of the man’s throat that Bucky realizes a second too late is supposed to be laughter.  It’s an ugly sound, bitter and harsh.

“You came out to what – fight me or scold me? I can’t tell which – for playing in the street?”

Is that what Bucky was saying? Technicallymaybe…Bucky backtracks, “I’m here for an apology.”

Another ugly laugh.  The guy looks exhausted, his body going tenser with each sound and his eyes darkening. “Yeah, not happening.  If you wanted an apology, you’ve approached this whole thing entirely the wrong way.”

“Oh have I?” Bucky asks, his tone has dropped unexpectedly, even to him, and comes out threateningly.  The guy stands up suddenly, and Bucky braces himself. He’s a little taller than Bucky, and a little bit broader across the chest, but the haircut and his Mama’s boy khaki’s dampen his intimidation factor. His body, though, is coiled tight, like he’s been waiting for this, itching for a fight.

Bucky growls, and before he can take a step forward or say another word, the guy is immediately on the offensive and pushes Bucky once with unexpected strength and really, really hard. Bucky tips backwards right into a passing busboy.  He recovers quickly and doesn’t fall, but the busboy with a bin full of dirty dishes loses his footing and falls forward, the crash is loud and sudden.

“Bucky! What the hell?!” Beth yells, running up to the busboy. “Tommy, you ok?”

“Fuck. Sorry ‘bout that, kid, you ok?” Bucky asks, assessing the damage.

The kid, Tommy, hisses in a breath. “I’m ok, but that guy…”

Bucky glances over his shoulder and sees the man he’d been arguing with sitting back in his seat, hunched over himself with his elbows on the table and his arms are curled protectively around his head. Bucky can see him shaking from where he’s crouched and he recognizes it immediately.

Fuck…this guy’s a vet.

Beth steps around Bucky quickly, “Sir? Sir, are you ok?”

“Beth, stay back,” Bucky warns, standing and putting himself between the petite waitress and the vet; the guy is seriously jacked and he’s definitely not thinking straight now. He sees a couple men in suits he hadn’t noticed before, they quickly move around the tables towards the man, their body language is aggressive.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Bucky chides quickly, raising a hand up, unsurprised when they stop midstride. “Stay right there,” he orders, “He’s already spooked he don’t need you roughhousing him…plus I’m pretty sure he’ll break you in half.” The men share a quick look and a nod, then one pulls out a phone, but Bucky’s attentions are back on the man in turmoil and he takes a step forward, still not quite hovering. He drops his voice into a soothing tone as he asks the guy, “Hey, pal. Hey…you ok?”

The guy doesn’t speak, just visibly wraps his arms tighter around his head and making his answer obvious.  Bucky feels his heart crack; he’s been here before himself.

“Hey, man. I’m coming closer, but I’m not gunna hurtcha, I promise.  Listen to my voice…you’re safe. You’re safe and you’re home.  You need to breathe deep breaths for me.” The guy doesn’t move, and Bucky asks quietly, pulling a chair up and sitting across from him, “Can…can you tell me where we’re at?”

No answer, so he’ll have to guess.

“Is there sand?”

A pause, then the smallest shake of the head.

“No? Ok…trees?”

Another pause, then a nod.

“All right. Well I want you to listen to my voice ok? Listen to the traffic next to us – we ain’t over there anymore. You’re in New York and you’re safe, and nobody’s gunna hurt ya, ok? I promise…Can I touch you?”

No answer, and Bucky holds his breath.  With both hands, he places his palms on each of the man’s arms down close to his elbows that rest on the table.  His touch is so light, the guy might not even be able to feel it through his jacket, but Bucky needs to ground him, and increasing gentle pressure can help do that if he does this right.

“You’re in New York, you’re safe, and nobody is going to hurt you,” Bucky says again softly, applying more pressure gently with both hands. He feels the man tense minutely, then relax.

“That’s it, that’s it. Can you speak? What’s your name, pal?”

The guy keeps his head between his arms, chin to chest, as he says, very quietly, “Steve…my name is Steve.”

“Steve. I’m Bucky. Don’t ask…boring story, parents are dumb,” Bucky chuckles as he inches closer. “Can you tell me where we are, Steve?”

A wet, shuddered breath, but Bucky doesn’t ask again.  After a minute of heavy silence and labored breathing, he hears Steve mumble, “We’re in New York?”

“Yeah, pal. We’re in New York and we’re safe. Can you say that for me?”

A nod. “We’re in New York…”

“And?”

A shaky inhale, “And we’re safe.”

“One more time for me, Steve,” Bucky prompts, his hands have started rubbing idly up and down the man’s arms, slow and hopefully comforting as the man comes back from his nightmares.

“We’re in New York. And we’re safe.” Steve repeats, his voice breaking.  Bucky’s face twists.  He wants to give the man privacy, shield him from the audience that has gathered.  He can feel the tension around them, the patrons holding their breath. Bucky hopes Steve can’t feel it too.

“Again, Steve.”

“We’re in New York, and we’re safe.” A little more confident this time, a little surer, but he’s still trembling.

“Good, good,” Bucky coos, “Keep telling me that…tell me until you’re ready to look up ok?”

Steve nods. “We’re in New York…and we’re safe.”

“We’re safe,” Bucky reassures, hands never stopping.  He feels the tension siphon out gradually as Steve does as instructed, repeating the mantra several times before he finally, shyly, raises his head and he starts to look at the crowd that’s gathered around them.

“Uh-uh…eyes on me,” Bucky instructs, and Steve eyes flit to his, red-rimmed and hollow, wet and unbelievably blue, but he looks at Bucky and gives a small, wobbly smile and suddenly everything is tipped sideways, the moment switching from anxious to intimate. Bucky swallows.

“One more time, Steve?” Bucky asks softly.

“We’re in New York, and we’re safe.”

“That’s it, pal. Hey,” Bucky greets with a warm smile, still rubbing his hands gently on Steve’s arms.

“Hi,” Steve says shakily, returning with his own timid smile.  He looks understandably embarrassed, but visibly thankful. “Thank you…I’m sorry…”

“Shh, stop. I’m sorry, I know those can be scary,” Bucky says, and Steve’s eyes go a little wide, surprised at Bucky’s words. Steve opens his mouth to say something when one of the suited men interrupts, stepping close to Steve’s side much to Bucky’s ire.

“Sir, I think it’s best we go back to HQ.”

Steve’s eyes widen further, bright blue saucers, and Bucky panics.

“I’m ok,” Steve insists. It’s a lie and Bucky knows it, he can still feel the guy trembling lightly under his hands which are still resting on Steve’s arms.

“Sir, it’s an order…”

And that makes Steve draw in a sharp, deep breath, nostrils flaring and his shoulders rolling back like he’s preparing for another fight, Jesus Christ

“I don’t take orders from—” Steve starts to say, his voice angry and clipped, before he’s interrupted again.

“Sir.” The voice comes from the other side of Steve and Bucky, another suit, and both men recognize it for the warning it is as they realize they’re surrounded by several personnel, flanked now on either side of them.  When they approach, Bucky isn’t sure what will happen as he sees Steve scowl, eyes calculating whether or not to push back, to fight anyways.  He must decide against it, thank God, because he lets out a resigned sigh.

“Ok. Ok,” Steve says, and then he’s standing and out of Bucky’s reach.  He looks down at Bucky again, eyes softening with gratitude. “Thank you, for everything.”

“Yeah, Steve. Anytime. Take care,” He says numbly, still not quite digesting what happened. Steve nods and shoves his hands in his pockets, turning and walking away, his flock of spooks surrounding him, and leaving Bucky alone in their wake.

 


 

 

Bucky isn’t quite sure why he’s surprised, but when he sees Steve approaching his truck the next afternoon, his hands fumble a little.

It’s the lunch rush; men in business suits and women with their ears connected to their phones line up along the truck and Bucky finds himself in that familiar fast pace that silences his mind.  He’s so busy (tongs, bun, ladle chili; tongs, bun, ladle chili), that he almost misses that familiar mop of blond hair and those brilliant blues.

“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says, giving a hesitant smile.

“Hey!” Bucky exclaims, passing a chili dog to the next customer. Not wanting to seem too familiar, he errs on the side of caution. “Steve, right? How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know.” Steve shrugs, side-stepping out of the way of another business suit barking an entire office’s order.

“You feelin’ any better?” Bucky asks.  He’s trying to remain casual, but he has a somewhat desperate urge to keep Steve nearby. Something about Steve had struck a visceral chord deep within Bucky, he found himself feeling protective and fond of the man he’s known for only twenty minutes.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, as good as I can be, I guess,” Steve admits weakly. A group of teenagers knock into Steve, jarring him forward, the biggest one quickly puffs up, ready to make threats, but when Steve scowls back with a nasty look, the kid quickly deflates and goes back to stand orderly in line. Bucky offers Steve an apologetic look.

“Sorry, it’s lunchtime,” Bucky says, stating the obvious.  He can multitask pretty efficiently, but he doesn’t want Steve to end up overwhelmed by rude customers.

“It’s ok…I just, uh…wanted to thank you again for yesterday and to apologize for acting like a complete ass and shoving you,” Steve explains. “It’s been a long couple of days, but I shouldn’t have lashed out.”

Bucky’s jaw drops.  “Steve, no. You…are you kidding? That was me! I was the ass!” He blurts, and he can hear patrons chortle and murmur around them, so he keeps his hands busy, and suddenly the people seem to get louder again as Steve shakes his head.

“You’re working. That’s just all I wanted to say, Bucky. Thank you,” he says again, heartfelt, before he turns away.

“Wait!” Bucky blurts, and Steve turns back. “If you don’t mind the smell, come inside! I’ve got an extra hat you’ll have to wear, but it’ll be easier to chat in here and…well, I wouldn’t mind the company,” Bucky admits.  He sees the tips of Steve’s ears turn pink, and he takes a minute to consider, but then he nods.

“Ok.”

 

 

 “Wait…Wait… I wanna see something.”

“Bucky, what--?”

“There,” Bucky says triumphantly.  He’s flipped the ‘Weiner Soldier’ ball cap he’d given Steve around, bill backwards, and Bucky cackles. “You look like such a bro.”

Steve blushes and brings a hand to rest atop the hat, “A what?”

“You know, the college frat boy types,” Bucky laughs. He drops his voice low into his best impression, “’Bro, do you lift? You look so swole right now. No homo,’” Bucky mocks, lightly punching Steve’s bicep. Steve’s eyes widen and he gets this goofy grin as he tries to flip his cap right side forward and Bucky laughs. “No! No, come on, leave it. It looks good. What? Really! Don’t look at me like that – I mean it. It makes you look less…stuffy.”

Stuffy? I’m not stuffy,” Steve sours, and Bucky can’t help but notice the small smirk of his mouth and the way his cheeks go pink again.

“Just relax, we’re selling hotdogs, not life insurance.  Untuck your shirt. God, did your grandpa dress you? Untuck your shirt and - you know what? Just lose the plaid. I ain’t losin’ business over this.” Steve is completely flummoxed as Bucky pulls his plaid button-up off and leaves Steve in his white undershirt and his pressed khakis. Bucky unzips his merchandised hoodie and hands it over. “Here - if you’re so uncomfortable.”

Steve eyes him warily, but zips up the hoodie - and nope! - Bucky won’t be able to wear that anymore. It stretches so tightly across Steve’s biceps and his chest, Bucky’s pretty sure the zipper is going to do God’s work and unzip itself. 

He looks good though – less Ma n’ Pop and more hot delivery guy. The local college girls hanging around quickly notice, and if Bucky thought Steve blushed brilliantly at his attention, the obvious forwardness of the college girls turn Steve absolutely crimson.

 


 

 

Steve starts coming to Bucky's truck every day after that and keeps him company.  Sometimes Steve helps by wiping down counters or making the chilidogs. He doesn’t handle the register or accept any cash, and Bucky prefers it that way because, frankly, he’s only known the guy a few days; regardless of what the little voice in the back of his head suggests.

Bucky loves having the company. He works so often, and almost always by himself, he doesn't have many close friends outside of his family and Sam (and maybe Mrs. Keeley, a local deli owner and his supplier who rents out her kitchen for Bucky's prep every day). Some days they talk about everything – well, Bucky does.  Steve is still reserved, but he seems eager to hear all about Bucky.  He listens intently about Bucky’s life, his ma and his sister, how he became a college drop-out after two years and joined the ARMY.  He listens as Bucky talks about his time overseas, the friends he made, and he doesn’t ask questions when Bucky talks around what led to him leaving, or why he doesn’t have so many friends anymore.

In a matter of days, Steve had somehow quickly become Bucky's favorite person.  He finds himself looking forward to when Steve comes by, and being disappointed when Steve has to leave.  It isn't attraction, at least Bucky doesn't think so, not really – not like that – but they dance along the line between friendly and flirty.  It’s a line that Bucky is all too familiar toeing. Most times it’s casual, just jokes and snarky comments, but then one of them twists it (and it isn’t always Bucky), and the tension stifles them, thick and palpable.

It’s frightening, and Bucky worries that maybe it's just him. That somehow he’d developed this profound attachment to a stranger and that, most likely, Steve is just bored and lonely after coming home from overseas. Maybe once he meets someone else, he’ll move on.  The idea causes an acrid taste to rise in his throat that is hard to swallow.

Even though most days they only talk about Bucky, or just goof around in the truck, occasionally they do talk about Steve, but it’s always brief and superficial.  Steve is a little different, surprisingly difficult, and skillfully evasive.  It’s clear that he’s struggling with something that Steve isn’t ready to talk about.  They rarely discuss anything meaningful to Steve; they don’t talk about Steve’s family, or his hometown, and they don’t talk about his time in the service or even how long he’d served.

They talk about seemingly trivial things, like how Steve doesn’t sleep anymore except for an hour or two a night, but he doesn’t mention whether or not it’s due to nightmares.  Steve will comment in passing how he can’t concentrate on anything for more than five minutes, and Bucky doesn’t point out on how he has had to pull Steve out of that thousand-yard stare, eyes drifted and mind very far away.  They don’t talk about how Steve seems to lose time, sitting still for twenty minutes before he comes back to himself, or how Steve will forget to eat and then gorge everything like he’s been starved, like maybe he hasn’t eaten since the last time Bucky asked. 

It surprises Bucky how quickly the signs present themselves in their short friendship, that even Bucky has noticed the depth of Steve’s distress. They’re all there, every day, but Steve doesn’t seem ready to acknowledge it, shrugging off Bucky’s concerns with that same wide brush of denial – “It isn’t like that, Buck, I’m fine. I’ll get over it.”

It’s easier for Steve, Bucky would guess, to pretend like everything is ok; to putz around with Bucky and do something as mindless as selling chilidogs out the back of a food truck. He wants to help, he knows how dangerous it can be to just let it lie – but he doesn’t want to pester an essential stranger, regardless of how attached he feels – so Bucky doesn’t push anything on Steve except his company. At least Steve seems to accept that willingly and Bucky tries not to linger on the fact that their conversations seem to leave him with more questions than answers. He never really learns anything about the guy, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s still easy somehow, this thing with Steve feels familiar. They get along.

Bucky takes it upon himself to help Steve adjust, and Steve seems to trust him with it, just as he seems to trust Bucky for support and guidance – a responsibility which he also takes seriously.  With Bucky leading the way, Steve looks at the city with a cautious, newfound wonder that Bucky finds himself envious of. He asks questions, usually thoughtfully, more often critically, but occasionally excitedly – like he can't contain his curiosity, and Bucky can't help but find it endearing. 


He tells himself he’s helping Steve – he must be – even if he doesn’t try to get him to talk, right? For now, Steve is his friend and he won't push for more, either platonically or romantically.  He just wants to help him, help Steve find his place again in this world, just like Sam had helped him when he came home.  He must be doing something right, because Steve still comes every day – of his own free will – and that has to account for something. 

 


 

 

Steve is helping Bucky serve customers when they show up. Two young men in their late teens, maybe early twenties, and they're holding hands and laughing. It's cute, Bucky thinks to himself, but he can feel Steve stiffen beside him. 

Bucky looks over and sees Steve staring at the boys, his eyes wide and his mouth open in disbelief.

"Steve," Bucky hisses quickly. "You're staring."

Steve quickly drops his eyes and looks down at the counter, that brilliant blush flushing up his cheeks from his neck. "Sorry."

Bucky sighs. "It’s ok. I bet it's not the first time they've been stared at for being open." 

"But that doesn't make it right," Steve finishes thoughtfully.

"But that doesn't make it right," Bucky echoes.

"So, what, they can just...hold hands and kiss in public? Aren't they worried that people will notice or...or do something?" Steve asks. His tone isn't accusing, it's innocent and curious.

Bucky tries his best not to judge Steve when he asks things like this, things Bucky believes to be common sense that seem to intrigue or confuse his new friend, like credit cards and ATMs. This, however, this was different. 

"What backwater hick-town did you grow up in that you've never seen a gay couple before, Steve?" he asks, incredulous and maybe a little too brash.  Steve bristles.

"I've seen queers before, Buck. My neighborhood was full of 'em," Steve scoffs and Bucky grabs his arm quickly, maybe a little too forcefully as his skin burns at Steve's words. 

"Don't call them that."

"What?" Steve asks, shocked. His eyes drop to Bucky's hand squeezing tight on his bicep. "What, what did I say?"

"Queers," Bucky repeats, his voice dropping low. He realizes from Steve's genuine confusion that he's not being homophobic, but ignorant, and that quells the anger in Bucky’s chest. "Don’t say it like that. When you do, it can be misunderstood, like a slur, Stevie. It can be offensive." 

Steve's eyes are wide and apologetic in immediate understanding. "But I didn't mean it like that. I just...that's what we called them back..."

"I get it," Bucky says, releasing his grip. "It's ok, Steve. Just watching out for you is all."

Steve sighs heavily and turns, stirring the chili Bucky has simmering on the stove. They're quiet for a long time, and Bucky feels awful for reprimanding Steve like he had when it was clear it was simply ignorance, not at all malicious. But the idea that Steve could be intolerant to something Bucky identified with himself burned him. Still, Bucky had secretly promised himself to take the responsibility of reeducating Steve on civilian life, and occasionally that includes topics Bucky thought were common knowledge.

“So…is being…is it considered a bad thing?” Steve asks, his voice cautious and low, “Here, I mean, in the city.”

Bucky shrugs, and tries his best to answer truthfully. “Most times no, it’s not.  A lot more people are open and receptive than you’d think and coming around to the fact that it’s natural, actually, but it’s still…it isn’t considered the norm. So a lot of people, people who have good intentions, don’t really know how to handle it openly.

“Of course, there are always bigots and the bible thumpers who cry out about sins and filth, but they aren’t as common as you would think, at least in most places. Most times they’re just louder,” Bucky explains, before turning to find Steve watching him, listening intently with his brows furrowed in concentration.

“I can explain it to you sometime if you’re interested. It can be a little complicated, it’s constantly evolving as society continues to understand the complexities of people, but it can be interesting and it’s worth learning,” Bucky offers, and Steve nods.

“Yeah, I think I better,” Steve agrees, before getting real quiet and turning back to the chili pot he’d been stirring intently. "I used to get beat up all the time by people who thought I was...gay," Steve says softly, and Bucky watches him for a moment. He's only able to see the side of Steve's face, but the man's expression is twisted, regretful.  "I was smaller, and scrawny; an easy target. But I never...I never took it for the insult it was meant to be. The neighborhood I lived in, it was a more...accepting. We saw fellas with fellas and girls with girls all the time, though it still wasn't – it wasn't something you acknowledged or admitted, and you never behaved like that openly. I mean unless you wanted trouble or to wind up in jail." Steve smiles a little sadly. "The world really has changed, huh, Buck?"

"Yeah, Stevie. I guess so," Bucky says. He can't think of a place that would lock up a guy for loving who he loves and getting away with it this day and age, but he understands that there is some sort of weight in this moment for Steve. He's happy. Something about this city has instilled some pride in him that Steve was sorrowfully missing, and it seems to brighten him, lift him.

"I'm glad. It woulda saved me a lot of hurt if it was like that where I'm from," Steve chuckles self-deprecatingly, and Bucky can't stop himself, the words sort of tumble out of him at once.

"Were you, though?" Steve's back visibly stiffens. "Are you gay? It’s…it’s ok if you are, obviously. I mean…"

Steve taps the spoon against the rim of the pot and sets it down on the counter and turns further away from Bucky, stepping towards the back of the truck. Christ, Barnes, you know better than this, he scolds himself. What makes Bucky think he'd be gay except for a sad story about bullying? Or assume he trusts Bucky enough to come out to him if it was true, especially given the fact that Steve is clearly someone who is uncomfortable with the topic in the first place? He kicks himself internally at the misstep. 

"Fuck…I'm sorry, Steve, that's...that's none of my business," Bucky apologizes.

"You're right, it's not," Steve says, harsh and bitter.

"Sorry," Bucky repeats, but Steve just goes real still as he stares, eyes unfocused, at the counter, and Bucky goes back to the serving window to give Steve some illusion space.

 


 

 

Bucky is dawdling in his truck at his usual spot when Steve rolls around the next afternoon looking terribly serious.  Dread fills Bucky’s chest, immediately jumping to the worst conclusion as his stomach twists into knots.  Is Steve still mad at him? Is he coming here to tell Bucky to fuck off for good? He’s been acting a little more despondent recently, and grumpy, but Bucky has tried not to push Steve into talking about it when he made it very clear he was in no mood.

Bucky tries to read him, but as always, Steve’s brows are pinched together and his jaw is clenched tight, and today he’s hunched forward and his frown is a full on scowl.  Bucky, sensing the gravity of Steve’s mood, straightens and motions for Steve to come in straightaway as he sits in the driver’s seat and waits for Steve to take his seat.  Bucky decides to play it cool. “What’s up, Stevie?”

Steve’s scowl seems to get impossibly deeper and Bucky braces himself for it, but what Steve says next isn’t at all what Bucky expects. “D’you have a computer I can borrow?”

Taken aback, Bucky blinks. “Huh?”

“A…uh…a computer,” Steve repeats. “Do you have one? Doesn’t everyone –?” he cuts himself off and squirms in his seat uncomfortably before mumbling to his hands. “Sorry, I shouldn’t ask. I don’t know what um…what the uh, protocol, is about asking for these sorts of things anymore.  It’s just, you offered before and–”

“Steve, stop,” Bucky says, chuckling, because really? “Stop. There isn’t a protocol. I’m your friend and you need a favor. It’s ok, that’s what friends are for,” Bucky insists, and Steve blows out a tired breath and gives Bucky a weak smile, the one that always seems to twist Bucky’s heart just so.

“Ok, sorry. I just…I know I’ve said this a hundred times but I’m really outta my element here,” he says weakly. “You’ve got no idea.”

Bucky nods, not really understanding but he’s heard enough to know that Steve’s life is complicated to say the least. “So what do you need exactly, like a laptop?”

And there is that look again – stricken frustration – an expression Steve gets often, one that Bucky can see but he never really understands. 

“Whatever you can get me,” Steve finally says, turning a little in his seat so his torso faces Bucky.  His arm rests casually on the chairback and his other hand on the dash.  “I just…I have a feeling these guys I’m working with aren’t telling me things.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “I just think they aren’t really telling me everything I ought to know,” and he says it with such honesty that Bucky doesn’t question it any more.

“Ok. Tomorrow I’ll bring my laptop and you can use it as long as you need it. If you can’t take it home with you, use the diner’s wi-fi. I’ll park close enough that you can get a signal.” Steve nods, but that look is back again and Bucky worries, “Is that ok?”

Steve looks up, his eyes wide and bright and blue, his expression anxious but grateful. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Thanks, Buck.”

Bucky smiles softly and Steve looks past him and over Bucky’s shoulder, going rigid and shifting in his seat.  Bucky twists and in the truck’s left mirror he can see one of Steve’s usual goons approaching the truck. Something tugs in Bucky’s chest when Steve sharply says, “I’ve gotta go. Thanks, Buck. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, tomorrow,” Bucky confirms, not taking his eyes off the suit in his mirror. He can hear Steve shuffle out of his truck and after a minute he can see the blond’s back, walking away with his hands in his pockets back up the street, probably back to that prison he seems forced to call home.

 


 

He brings the laptop as promised and even gets closer spot to the diner for a better connection.  Steve comes early, around ten o’clock, looking haggard and tired.  His eyes are hollow and cradled in heavy bags.  Still, he climbs into Bucky’s truck with his usual polite greeting with no problems as Bucky begins to cook.

“Rough night?” Bucky asks, unable to resist.  Steve grunts and Bucky laughs as he pulls out his MacBook. “No porn,” Bucky says with a wink, and he revels in watching Steve turn successive shades of pink to red to practically burgundy.

“I’m just looking up—”

“I know, I know, Steve. Christ, it’s a joke.” Bucky sighs playfully, and he watches that coil Steve’s wound in loosen slightly with a small smile.

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve says.  The laptop wakes up when Steve opens it and Bucky goes back to cooking the hotdogs and stirring the chili when Steve says, “I don’t know how to work this thing.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “PC guy, huh?”

“Must be,” Steve says, sounding annoyed. Bucky leans on the center console and turns the laptop to face himself.  He can feel Steve’s heavy presence next to him, watching, and Bucky has to stop himself from leaning into the blond’s shoulder as he connects the wi-fi from the diner and pulls up Safari. It earns him a bright smile from Steve, “Thank you. I should be able to take it from here.”

After that Steve doesn’t seem to have any problems.  He sits hunched over, tapping away on Bucky’s MacBook and narrowed eyes concentrating on whatever he’s researching.  Bucky wants to ask him what he’s reading that is clearly making him upset, but he figures Steve’s got enough people at SHIELD trying to pry into everything he does, so instead he cooks and enjoys Steve’s quiet company through the lunch rush.

 


 

 

"I trust the guy about as far as I can throw him…and probably not even that far," Steve mutters before pausing thoughtfully, "Definitely not even that far." Bucky chuckles at Steve's expression, his eyes faraway with just the barest hint of a smirk as if he's actually picturing hurling his boss across a room. 

Apparently lending Steve his laptop had been both a blessing and a curse.  Steve had come to Bucky’s truck the next morning practically foaming at the mouth, angry and rabid and ranting about Fury. Who that is exactly, Bucky isn’t sure, but apparently he’s the guy responsible for keeping Steve under lock and key - only letting him out on the condition of chaperones - and that’s enough to earn him a bitter grudge from Bucky too. Steve was practically spitting and snarling, his entire body tense. Bucky knew it was time to engage in a form of therapeutic release before Steve had some sort of physical outburst (or an aneurysm).  For once, Steve didn’t question it when Bucky suggested some form of outlet, and he didn’t pester Bucky about closing the truck early or moving his schedule to accommodate Steve. Thankfully, he seemed open to the idea - eager, even - to let out some of his festering frustrations and anger, and willingly allowed Bucky to corral him into his truck. Bucky drove them to the batting cages with the idea of decompressing, because sometimes hitting things as hard as you possibly can is the most therapeutic thing someone can do. 

Bucky’s up at the bat, helmet on and grip firm, while Steve stands safely behind the chain-link fence.  He is still venting ruthlessly about his boss, but at least now Steve looks a little less purple in his rage and a little more relaxed.

Bucky winds up his bat as the machine pops out another easy one, he swings and it connects – the ball sailing straight and a little right.  Steve whistles and Bucky grins.

“That woulda been a homer,” Steve drawls playfully, hand shielding his eyes as if he was gauging the distance and not like it was caught gracelessly into the net.

“Givin’ Jeter a run for his money tonight,” Bucky brags, swinging again and sending the next ball in the same direction as the first, the same as he’s been swinging all night. His hands and shoulders are beginning to burn, his back is going stiff, but he feels good.

“That’s a Yankee guy isn’t it.” Not a question. Bucky can practically feel the disgust seeping out of Steve.

That’s a Yankee guy isn’t it,” Bucky mocks him childishly as he swings – thunk – and another ball sails.  Steve chuckles.  Bucky adjusts his grip, and gets back to the topic on hand. "It's not like you're the first guy to ever hate his boss, Steve.”

Steve groans, “He’s not my boss,” Steve clips, “but he’s something else. SHIELD is something else.”

Bucky frowns.  Steve doesn’t talk about his work often, hell, he doesn’t talk about himself at all, and Bucky will be damned if he gets deterred now; Sam would call this progress. “How’d you get mixed up into SHIELD anyways?  Aren’t they like…super spies or something?”  He’s heard of SHIELD, though they’re much more discrete than their national security counterparts. Apparently they have more freedom than the FBI, and less red-tape than the CIA, and were always recruiting. They’d plucked plenty of guys out of Bucky’s unit before, he’d even been screened before his last tour, but the shady backdoor shit? A guy can only do that so long. Still, he never would’ve pegged Steve as the type – brick house body or not.

Steve sighs behind him, the sigh Bucky’s already become all too familiar with, and he knows what Steve’s going to say next, “It’s a long story…and complicated.”

“We got time,” Bucky shrugs.  It’s what he says when Steve tries to deflect.

“I just don’t understand why he’s hiding things from me,” Steve huffs, moving on as predicted. His fingertips grip the links tightly and he gives the fence a small shake in frustration.

“It’s called working for the government, Steve. Things are on a need’ta know basis. You were in the ARMY, you should know.” Another thunk, last one, and Bucky extends his arms out at his sides and winds them in big circles. “You’re up.”

“You’re right, but I was a soldier and SHIELD is spy stuff, and I…well…that’s not really me,” Steve admits with an honesty Bucky’s come to know is just Steve.  Bucky slips past him, and Steve takes Bucky’s sweaty helmet right off his head and slips it on his own.

“Then get out,” Bucky says. It seems like the obvious answer.

“It’s not that simple, Buck,” Steve says, practicing his swings.  For a guy who says he never played a lot of sports growing up, he’s got a pretty good swing, and Bucky says as much. “I’ve been watchin’,” Steve says flirtatiously with a raised brow and a twinkle in his eye.  Bucky rolls his eyes while his stomach somersaults.  They’ve been getting gutsier with this line of flirtation. Bucky knows it would get Sam’s head shaking in disappointment if he knew, but it’s not like that, it’s a playful banter between friends – harmless – at least Bucky doesn’t think Steve has any true intentions. He understands it now – it’s part of Steve’s wall, another tool for deflection and a degree of separation that Bucky himself uses frequently and is familiar with. 

Still, coupled with Steve’s innate earnestness, Bucky finds himself fumbling at it all the same.

"Not you though," Steve says offhandedly, and Bucky huffs a noise of protest.

“You mean I ain’t the one you’ve been watchin’?” Bucky teases, batting his lashes dramatically, and Steve chuckles with a shake of his head.

“I meant you don’t hate your boss,” Steve elaborates.

"Me? My boss? Oh no. No, no, no. I hate my boss. Haven't you met him?" Bucky asks, and he can tell Steve is grinning even though he’s facing the pitching machine.

"I have." Steve nails the first pitch.

"Then you know: Total. Ass,” Bucky smirks, trying not to swoon at Steve’s natural athleticism. “He never gets to work on time, he's been planning on getting his old truck painted for months, and worst of all..." Steve turns to face him, curious at Bucky’s hushed tone as Bucky leans in close to the fence. Bucky tries not to focus on Steve’s mouth as bites his lip, stepping in closer to Bucky to listen. "I hear he takes advantage of free labor," Bucky whispers. Steve chuckles.  Another ball whizzes out, Steve isn’t paying attention and the ball rattles the chain link fence between them, both men jump back in surprise. 

Bucky clears his throat to continue, and Steve looks sheepish as he steps away from the fence and back up to the batter’s box. "I'm not kidding! I hear he's somehow tricked some poor guy into working ten hours a day - for free. He doesn't pay the guy a cent.” Bucky spreads his arms wide, feigning shock, before grinning. “Can't blame him though, stupid bastard keeps coming back for more," Bucky adds, and Steve laughs, really laughs. 

"Must be a glutton for punishment," Steve guesses.

"Nah, he probably just fell for the guy’s ol’ Hollywood good looks and charm," Bucky says with a wink. Steve rolls his eyes.

"Nah, I've met him, that definitely can't be it." Bucky squawks in offense, and Steve laughs again through his swing. He still nails it. 

"So you're telling me this free workin' punk is both dumb and blind? Man, I'm really freeloadin' ain't I?" Bucky says with a smirk, and Steve rolls his eyes again with an open smile. "I'll have you know I've been told by numerous little old ladies - not my grandmother, I can see you about to say it now -" Steve bites his lip. Busted. "- I've been told numerous times I look like James Dean, and if they were forty years younger -"

"Should I leave, Buck? Is there enough room in this cage for the two of us and your ego?"

"Ha-ha," Bucky deadpans, and Steve snorts at his own recycled joke. “Just keep swingin’ twinkle toes.  I hear Fury’s face is on the next one.” Bucky sees Steve’s grip tighten on the bat, his whole body coils, and that’s the only warning he has when Steve absolutely cracks the next ball, but it flies straight, clanging against the pitching machine in a godawful sound that is just like –

Bucky hits the ground, hands over his head and neck.  The sound echoes out, and Bucky is sweating, but he realizes his overreaction a moment too late, Steve is crouched down at the edge of the fence, eyes wide and apologetic.

“Buck? You ok?” Steve asks, his voice hushed and panicked.

Bucky looks around the cage, thankfully they’re the only ones still there, and he sits up onto his haunches quickly, dusting off his clothes. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine, Steve…just…yeah. I’m fine.” Bucky clears his throat and Steve swallows, still knelt down beside him, fingers clinging onto the cage that separates them.

Another ball is pitched, it shakes the cage, but neither man react this time.  Bucky smiles tightly. “It never really goes away completely, at least that’s what Sam, my VA buddy, tells me,” Bucky explains, and he sees Steve shift uncomfortably; he juts out his jaw and furrows his brows again, but this time he doesn’t deny what Bucky is hinting at, and that’s new.  Message received. Bucky shouldn’t push his luck though. “S’posed’ta keep your eyes on the ball there, kid.”

Steve gives a wan smile and a nod, standing up and turning back for the next pitch.  Bucky puts his hands on his knees and blows out a shaky breath.  Even though it only lasted a couple of seconds, Bucky feels his heart beating against his ribs, and he pumps his fists tight and releases it, willing his hands to stop trembling.

“So what do you wanna do with the truck?” Steve asks in a swing, his form is lazy now, and he hits the ball almost casually. Bucky recognizes his new form for the precaution it is, and when Bucky finally wills himself to stand up, he smiles at Steve in a way he hopes looks a little like genuine gratitude.

“Paint her. My sister painted the name on the side when I first got it; it was only supposed to last until I started getting enough business to get it detailed professionally.  Now, I got that and then some and…” Bucky shrugs, his arms crossed.  He still feels a little off balance.

“I can do it if you want. I mean…I’m not a professional, but I can hold a brush.” Steve smirks, and Bucky gapes at him.

"You're serious?"

"Yeah, I used to do that a little before…paint for businesses and stuff. You got any idea of a mascot or logo or anything?" Steve asks before another swing. Bucky shakes his head.

"That sounds awfully professional, Stevie,” Bucky remarks, and Steve rolls his eyes. “But it’s whatever you want.  I have no ideas...Whatever you want. I’ll pay you," Bucky insists, and Steve scoffs.

"You can’t pay me, you haven’t even seen my work! How do you know I’m going to do a good job? How do you know I’m not going to paint a giant dick on the side of your truck?” Steve asks playfully.  He stops suddenly, standing up straight and resting the bat on his shoulder. “Dick jokes are still funny, right?” He asks, entirely too serious for the question.

“Dude - dick jokes are always funny,” Bucky laughs, and Steve beams proudly, dropping back into his stance. “Either way, Steve, you’ve only been working with me for like a week and I can't find a single stray napkin, receipt, or invoice that doesn't have one of your little doodles on it. I trust your skills just fine. Dicks and all."

Steve's mouth does a funny thing, the corners quivering to smile or maybe laugh before twisting into something like guilt, lips pressing into a thin line, before he bites his lip and swings wide idly, barely clipping the ball as it bounces into the net. "Ok…I'll draft up some ideas tonight, and bring them to you tomorrow."

 

--

 

Bucky is surprised when Steve brings it up on his own. He’s dropping Steve off after the owners had to kick them out to close for the night.  Bucky’s body is warm and loose, just the right side of achy.  He’s looking in his left side mirror and sees the nondescript black ford that Steve’s goons drive pull up behind them.  “Damn, still can’t lose ‘em, Steve,” Bucky jokes, “Should I be insulted that they aren’t even trying to be discrete anymore?”

Bucky glances to his right and sees Steve wringing his hands, that deep look of frustrated concentration back on his face.  Bucky forgets that this is Steve’s default expression when he’s not around and the thought worries him. “Hey…what’s up?”

Steve chews his lip bright red, and when he lifts his gaze, Bucky can see the hesitation and uncertainty behind his eyes. “You said it doesn’t go away but…does it get easier?” Steve asks.  His voice is just above a tentative whisper, as if he isn’t sure he’s allowed to ask. Bucky drops the truck into park.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah it does,” Bucky finally says.  Steve nods, but he doesn’t look convinced, so Bucky continues. “When I first came back I was triggering two, maybe three times a day; I could barely go outside. I pushed everyone away - my friends, my family.” He pauses, trying to choose how to tell his story very carefully. “I finally went to the local VA – but not to actually get help, I just…I got so sick of everyone bugging me about it.

“So I went, and I gotta admit, I acted like a complete douche.  I didn’t say anything, to anyone. Everyone who tried to talk to me I just straight up ignored. The only person who didn’t give up on me was my buddy Sam – well, he wasn’t my buddy then, he was just a counselor – and I almost punched him in the face.  He didn’t force me into anything, or push me to talk…he just…cared.  He checked up on me, he’d talk to me.  He taught me everything I know about how to handle myself when it gets to be a bit much, because it still does sometimes,” Bucky explains, and Steve swallows audibly, looking back to his lap.

“But now I can run this monster on my own; I can talk to people; I can function. It took a lot of work to get here and if we have time someday, it’d probably do me a lot of good to talk about it to someone…” He pauses, and Steve glances over at Bucky, a little surprised, but patient. “Today was the first time in a long time I…” He starts, but the words get caught and he recognizes the embarrassment in his tone. He sucks in a deep breath. “My last time overseas, my ‘copter was shot down, I don’t…I don’t wanna get too into the details, but…the uh, the sound the ball made earlier when I…when that…it sounded just like the bullets hitting the side of the hull. And for a second I was there again, I was freefallin’, I could…” Taste the smoke, feel the burning in his chest, the panic as the windows switched from blue to brown to blue, over and over, the screaming –

“Bucky?”

Bucky starts, he hadn’t realized he’d stopped speaking and Steve’s hand is firm and warm on his arm. “Sorry.” Bucky tries to smile, and he can tell it doesn’t reach his eyes. “My point is it gets easier, eventually, but I’m not sure that it will ever really go away.”

Steve nods as he pulls his hand away and Bucky tries not to mourn the loss. “I’m sorry, Buck…that that happened.”

“Not your fault,” Bucky shrugs, because it wasn’t.  Bucky’s been to that batting cage dozens of times and he’s never triggered. It’s been a long time since his last episode, he was about due, he’d guess. “I’m just glad you were ok,” he adds, remembering Steve’s blue eyes, wide in alarm, but clear and present.

“I’m not sure I’m ever ok,” Steve whispers with heartbreaking honesty.  He’s looking out through his window into the foyer of SHIELD.

Bucky’s face twists. He understands the feeling, knows it well.  He wants to tell him it will be ok and that it will get easier, but some voice stops him in the back of his mind, the voice that reminded him he didn’t believe anyone when they’d told him those same words before.  Though he knows the answer, Bucky still asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Steve answers, empty. 

Bucky feels his eyebrows furrow as presses his mouth into a firm line.  He knows he shouldn’t be disappointed.  Being back is all very new to Steve, this is probably the first time he’s recognizing the fact that his service fucked him up. 

“Are you sure?” Bucky tries again, and Steve exhales sharply in irritation.

“I’ll bring those designs in tomorrow,” Steve says, his voice distant. Bucky curses himself internally.

“Well, don’t – don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s no rush,” Bucky sighs, resigned. Steve nods curtly as he opens his door and steps onto the curb.

 


 

 

"Steve is the single most evasive person I have ever met," Bucky growls into his phone. He's talking to Sam, his old counselor at the VA in DC, venting to him about his new friend. "Seriously, the guy deflects like it’s an Olympic sport."

Sam laughs loud and light. "That's a lot coming from you."

"I'm serious! I don't even know how he does it, I'll ask him some question about, oh, I don't know, his Ma, or his hometown, and next thing I know we're talking about the cold war and I seriously have no idea how the conversation got there! It's actually impressive," Bucky admits belatedly. 

"Ok, so the guy isn't comfortable talking about himself, not everyone is as narcissistic as you, Barnes." 

Bucky rolls his eyes even though Sam can't see his face. "You wound me, Wilson." Sam laughs again. “I just don’t get it, I mean…I know that sometimes people can’t see what they don’t want to but, come on…PTSD is hardly a new concept.  Fuck, they even drill you about it right before you’re discharged.”

“Oh how quickly you’ve changed your tune, Barnes,” Sam says drily. “I should be proud.”

“Sam, it’s like he’s not even trying to see-“

“Pot, kettle.”

Dammit, Wilson.”

Bucky can hear the sharp, impatient exhale Sam lets out. “It’s not always that simple, Barnes. You know this.  It took you how long to figure it out? You can’t exactly hold it against the guy to be in some sort of denial.  It takes time, Bucky. If he's as fresh as you say he is coming home then he's got a lot to work through. If his Momma raised him with some sense of manners, then he was probably taught at a very early age that it's rude to talk extensively about himself; it can be hard to adjust to that. Just give him time. Even you got that."

Bucky sighs heavily. He knows he’s being unfairly impatient. It’s just that he can see the way Steve is twisted inside and he just wants to help. "One minute he's fine – we're joking around and shooting the shit – and the next he's shut down. Silence. I get whiplash talking to the guy. I don't know what kind of combat he saw but the guy is fucked up and I just hate to see him silently suffering. He carries his grief around like a cross, like he doesn’t want to bleed on anybody, and I just wish there was something I could do. Anything." 

Sam is carefully quiet on the other end of the line, and Bucky squeezes his phone intermittently like it'll get Sam to talk, which he does eventually. "He really does sound like you." 

Bucky groans. Sam: always the insightful bastard.

"That's not my point," Bucky insists.

"I know it's not. My question is what kind of relationship do you two have? Seems to me you might be getting a bit too close too soon, you've only known the guy for what, a week? Don't spook him." Bucky scrubs a hand over his face. When did this get so complicated? When had he become so invested in someone who was, essentially, a complete stranger?

“I just – I really don’t think he has anyone else, Sam,” Bucky admits, and he hears Sam sigh heavily into the phone.

“Man, that makes what you have with him that much more important.” Bucky chews on his lip. "Be there for him, and listen. It sounds like he’s already making progress, so keep doin’ what you’re doin’; be his friend, but for the love of all things holy do. Not. Engage,” Sam instructs. 

Bucky scoffs.

“Dude, I’m serious, all right? I know you, I’ve lived with you.  Go ahead and deny it, but even three states away I can tell you’re this close to asking the guy to go steady with you,” Sam says with exasperation.

“Whaaaat? I don’t know about – I’m not – that’s completely –” Bucky flounders, both unable to deny Sam’s accusations or give another explanation. He doesn’t want to admit it but he can see the harsh truth in Sam’s words and it cuts him to the quick. He’s thought about it before, the unconventionally fast attachment Bucky has developed to Steve.  He doesn’t understand how it’s happened so quickly and he’s not willing to confess it out loud, not even to Sam. He realizes that he needs to reign himself in and keep his emotions in check.

“I mean it, Bucky. Keep your charm, and your hands, to yourself," Sam warns.

Bucky sighs heavily. He’s made his decision. Steve doesn’t need a boyfriend, he just needs afriend, and Bucky can be that – he wants to be that.

"Ok, ok I will, Sam. I promise.”

Chapter Text

"I don't know about this, Buck," Steve says, eyeing Bucky dubiously as he tightens his laces. "Where I'm from, running was never really looked at as a leisurely activity – "

"Steve."

"– It was a punishment."

"Steve," Bucky groans, exasperated. "It'll be good for you. Hearing that all you do is mope around SHIELD until I come by sounds depressing."

"I don't mope," Steve sniffs, looking out at the running path.

"Uh-huh," Bucky hums. "And what do you do for fun, Steve? Besides work at The Weiner Soldier food truck. For free."

Steve purses his lips and shrugs, his pride is stopping him from answering truthfully aloud, Bucky bets.

"Right, then we're going to try a bunch of different activities to get you reacquainted with society," Bucky says optimistically, “You liked the batting cages, now let’s try something a little less aggressive.” Steve side-eyes him, doubtful, but he doesn't say anything else.


The weather is good. It's one of those cool, crisp spring mornings when Mother Nature decides it's not warm enough to be muggy yet. The path is clear, there are birds singing, the breeze is refreshing, and the steady pounding of Bucky's shoes on the path are relaxing.

Or at least they would be if he didn't have to hear an insufferable huff beside him every other step.

Steve is miserable. Every few minutes he makes this small sound, like a groan – an 'I can't believe you're actually making me do this' groan. Bucky never pegged Steve for a whiner, and this display would amuse Bucky any other time, but after two miles of Steve practically running with his hands down at his sides and his head tossed back in over-dramatic suffering, Bucky loses it.

"What is your problem?!" Bucky huffs, coming full stop and resting his hands on his knees.  Steve stops immediately, his face twisted in guilt.

"I'm bored! This is not what I think of as fun," Steve whines. "Can't we go do something else?"

"No. No, we're going to be healthy, active adults. Plus exercising is good for you! Endorphins: nature's natural high; it can help with your funk."

"My what?"

"You know, that scowly mood you've always got on," Bucky explains, rolling his hand as he stands up straight.

"I don't scowl," Steve protests, and the expression in question is on in full force even as he says the words. 

Bucky rolls his eyes and stands there for a minute, hands on his hips and catching his breath.  He's not out of shape, not in the least, but what had started as a slow, steady jog turned into an almost full out dash. Still, Steve wasn't even sweating, his breathing was level, and his skin wasn't even flushed – and Steve flushed if he thought too hard sometimes. The guy is in incredible shape.

Bucky has an idea. "I'll race you."

"What?"

"Last one back buys breakfast!" Bucky taunts, doubling back and running in a full sprint.  

"BUCKY!" Steve shouts, annoyed, and for a second Bucky thinks he's not going to take the bait, then he hears rapid footfalls behind him and feels the gust of wind as Steve blazes past him.

 

Bucky doesn't check his time, but it has to be a new personal best. When Bucky sees Steve, the blond is standing by the bench where they started and lights up in a goofy grin looking equal parts smug and satisfied. When Bucky reaches him, he falls on his hands and knees and rolls over, absolutely drenched in sweat.


"O...K...I think...I'm dying..." Bucky pants, squinting into the sun until Steve stands above him, blocking it.

"That. Was. Amazing!" Steve says excitedly. He's not even winded and has only the faintest traces of sweat lines on his shirt. Bucky groans, disgusted at Steve's new found delight. "I feel so...so..." Steve is bouncing on the balls of his feet, jogging in place.

"Runner’s...high...It's...good for you." Bucky explains, still panting. “What was your time? You’re so fast.” Steve perks.

"This happens every time you run?"

"Not every time. And it's not just running, if you work out...enough...the body releases...endorphins, and...fuck...I feel like I'm on fire..." Bucky groans as he sits up, reaches back and pulls his shirt over his head; it falls onto the ground with a disgusting wet slap. Bucky falls back flat and lets the breeze chill his overheated chest, still trying to catch his breath.

Steve clears his throat.

"I think I'm going to take another lap," he says suddenly, and he's gone before Bucky even opens his eyes.

 

 

“I box,” Steve says, completely out of nowhere. Bucky opens his eyes and frowns up at the sky; he’d almost fallen asleep.  They’re laying shoulder to shoulder on the roof of Bucky’s truck.  The light pollution from the city that never sleeps is too potent to make out any stars, but the skyscrapers are pretty when they’re lit up at night. The day has been a long one, but it felt like Bucky may have made some progress with Steve again.  The blond seemed lighter somehow, looser, like some of the weight that seemed to always hold him down had shifted into something more comfortable between them.

“Hm?”

“You asked me before what I do when you’re not around; I box, sometimes.” Bucky lolls his head to face Steve, but his features are steeled and he’s keeping his focus resolutely on the buildings towering over them.  “I box and hit the bag until my arms feel like they’re going to fall off,” he chuckles, and Bucky feels himself smile too, small and fond.

“Does it help you feel better?”

“It helps me not feel anything at all.” Bucky stiffens minutely, but Steve doesn’t seem to notice.  He's quiet for a long time.  “It’s strange, I just, I feel empty. All the time.  It reminds me a lot of how I felt after my Ma—” Steve cuts himself off abruptly, pulling his lips between his teeth, swallowing his next words.  Bucky’s mind fills in the pieces, just as he does with everything Steve chooses carefully not tell him.  After a steadying breath, Steve continues, “I can’t really…I can’t describe it.  I don't...I don't really feel anything. Unless I’m angry – which happens a lot – then I go hit the punching bag for a couple’a hours until I’m back to…nothing.”

This, Steve opening up to him, the weight of this moment isn’t lost on Bucky. Steve is skittish about his feelings, and evasive to the point of denial. Bucky lets Steve’s pause linger between them while he chooses his next words carefully, trying to keep his tone neutral and nonjudgmental as he asks: “Is that all you feel? Anger or nothing at all?”

Steve’s answer is in his silence and Bucky nods.  The next question he asks out of necessity, though the signs are all there and obvious to anyone, but maybe, as Sam pointed out, not to Steve. “Steve, do you think you’re depressed?”

Steve scoffs, “I’m not sad, Bucky,” he grumbles, his tone almost petulant.

“It doesn’t always culminate in sadness,” Bucky is quick to point out. “Sometimes it can just be apathy; it can be anger; it can be lethargy,” Bucky explains, quoting from his old Psych 101 textbook, pointing out symptoms Steve is already manifesting.  He’s thoughtful for a moment, taking in Steve’s worried features, before he adds softly “Plus, I think…I think maybe you are sad.” 

For a long time Steve doesn’t say anything to that; his gaze focuses upward and then he is blinking rapidly, eyes misting, and it would be so easy for Bucky just to reach out, to grab Steve’s hand and offer him some form of comfort. He nearly does it but, as Bucky starts to reach for him, Steve’s face twists and his hands come up to rest on his chest, closing himself off. Bucky bites his lip and goes back to staring at the sky.

He wishes Sam were here, he would know what to do.

“The only thing that gets me out of bed now is knowing that for a few hours I get to leave that place.  That I get to go outside and…and see people, people with no expectations from me,” Steve admits finally, open and honest and a little desperate.

Bucky chews at his lip. “This might...this is probably going to sound really stupid – but I gotta ask – can’t you just leave?”

Steve frowns and exhales deeply through his nose.  Bucky has mentioned it before, but he didn’t think Steve had given it much thought. Still, he’s guessing he already knows the outcome. “I can’t,” Steve mutters. “I don’t know anyone else.”

“You know me,” Bucky reminds him. He brings his eyebrows up playfully and gives his best smirk.

“Besides you,” Steve chuckles, his voice soft and thoughtful.  For the first time since this conversation started, Steve turns his head to look at Bucky and Bucky forgets to breathe.  He feels his smile slip, his mouth going lax as his eyes trace the sharp lines of Steve’s face and the soft curves of his eyes, his mouth.  Bucky’s eyes drift up to Steve’s and he sees the man studying him with the same intensity, and also with the same trepidation.  Steve's heavy gaze causes Bucky's stomach to flip, the sensation sends an immediate warning to Bucky's brain - the lines are blurring again.  Bucky doesn't let the moment linger.

“Steve, I’ve gotta say something,” Bucky hesitates, and Steve’s eyes narrow in apprehension.

“Ok…”

“How they treat you, and with those goons they got following you, that ain’t right.  I’m not going to ask you what you do now for SHIELD but…I think whatever it is you do for them, you don’t want to anymore. And I hope you know that that’s ok. Whatever it is you did for them, for the ARMY, you don’t owe them anything.  They can’t…They can’t treat you like a target or some sort of field experiment, watching your every move. It ain’t right, and it ain’t healthy for you and your recovery—”

Steve bristles. “I’m fine, Bucky.”

“Steve—”

“I am.  I know – I know what you think – but I’m fine.  I’m ok.” The way he says it is stubborn and only half-convincing.  “I don’t need to talk it out and I don’t need to hug it out,” Steve tells him with a sneer, and his voice stirs a panic inside Bucky. “It’s over. I’m here; it’s done, and what I’m doing is moving forward.” Steve sits up and Bucky quickly follows suit.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to upset you,” Bucky explains, low and pleading, “I’m just trying to give a little insight as a fellow soldier who got fucked up by the guys calling the shots, I think you need to consider—”

“You have no idea what I’ve been through and you don’t know what I need,” Steve snaps, practically rounding on him, his body completely tense.  Bucky doesn’t flinch.

“You’re right,” Bucky admits. “You’re right, I don’t know because you haven’t told me.”

“Because it’s none of your damn business!”

“I’m not saying it is my business, I’m just trying to help you!”

“Save it,” Steve snarls, standing and stepping up to the edge of the truck.

“Steve—!”

Bucky gasps as Steve jumps from the roof of Bucky’s truck in one swift motion, somehow landing gracefully on the concrete eleven feet down, hands in his pockets.  Steve barely looks over his shoulder when he says, only loud enough for Bucky to hear over the traffic, “I don’t need you trying to fix me, Buck. I got enough people trying to do that already.” He says it bitterly, and the blow lands.

“Steve, wait…please, I’m not—” but Bucky is left alone, watching Steve’s back, leaving him despondent and giving Bucky no chance to explain.

 


 

 

“I told you not to engage,” Sam scolds in Bucky’s ear.  Bucky had called him the next morning as he was loading his truck for the day, confused and frustrated over what happened with Steve. Sam listened intently and as usual the first thing he says is ‘I told you so.’

“I didn’t! I didn’t ‘engage,’” Bucky hisses. “I don’t know what happened. One minute he was fine and the next minute he literally jumped off the roof of my truck.”

“Everyone’s got their landmines, Buck. You had hundreds when I met you and I seemed to trip on one every time we talked; Steve is no different.”

Bucky leans his forehead on the side of his truck, squeezing his eyes shut and tightening his grip on his phone. “You’re right, I know you’re right but…he just shut down so quickly, Sam. He wouldn’t even give me a chance to explain or even apologize before he was down the block.”

“Wow, he really is just like you.”

“Ha-ha.”

Sam sighs on the other end, and Bucky can just picture him putting his hand on his hip, his nonthreatening ‘I’m about to drop some knowledge on you’ stance.  Bucky braces himself.

“I know I said that as a joke, but I’m actually serious.  He really sounds like he’s going through it the same fucked up way you and so many other vets do: by bottling it up and covering it with denial.  The problem is you can’t force it, you can’t make him see it because that could be triggering, or worse he’ll push you away instead. Either way he’ll end up ten steps backwards instead of one step forward despite your best intentions. Right now, the best you can do is just be an ear for him, let him talk, let him vent. Ask questions when he seems like he’s willing to talk, but don’t be disappointed if he most likely doesn’t want to.”

Bucky’s throat grows tight because that’s exactly how Sam had handled him at first. “I’m not like you, Sam; I’m not a therapist…and I can’t fuck it up with Steve.”

You don’t have to be.  What Steve wants right now – what he needs – is a friend, and he hit the jackpot with you.” That gets Bucky to smile. “Don’t look at yourself as his stand-in therapist or his counselor, and don’t look at him as a patient. Just be his friend. Once he starts talking and opening up, it’ll be easier to make the suggestion of seeing someone qualified because he’ll trust you.  The only way you can let him down now, Barnes, is to cut him off.”

“I wouldn’t—!”

“I know,” Sam assures.

Bucky stands there for a minute, letting Sam’s words sink in as he tries to remember how the hell he got himself into this so quickly and why he cares so much about it or about Steve.

“Ok, thanks, Sam. For everything.” Bucky chews on his lip, feeling that familiar sense of gratitude he always gets when he talks to Sam. “Ya know though, I’m gettin’ real tired of you being right all the time. Isn’t that counteractive to my recovery? Shouldn’t you let me have my moment every once in a while?”

Sam lets out a deep belly laugh. “I let you have plenty of moments, Buck, you just somehow always seem to complicate and fuck ‘em up last minute. Someone’s gotta save your ass.”

“Yeah, yeah. Talk to you later, Sam,” Bucky laughs, pulling the phone from his ear to hang up.

“Keep me updated. And Bucky!” He pauses. “Don’t make this thing with Steve any more complicated than it already is,” Sam warns again. “Watch your charm.”

Bucky laughs awkwardly, already feeling unintentionally busted. “Yeah, Sam. I won’t.”

 

 


 

 

He probably should’ve expected it in retrospect. 

Bucky had been serving customers all afternoon. It was getting late, and Steve hadn’t been by yet, which was unusual.  He tried not to dwell on it or let the disappointment linger too long, and instead chose to keep himself busy.  The spring was always Bucky’s favorite time to serve, when the breezes were still cool and the sun was still warm, not yet hot.  He’d had his back to the window, cooking up more hotdogs on the grill when a deep voice echoed behind him.

“Heard you’ve got the best dogs in Manhattan.”

Bucky smiles proudly. “Best dogs in New York,” he corrects, spinning on his heel ready to give his best salesman smile.  He misses it though, the smile turning into an involuntary curled snarl he can’t hide when recognizes the man in black he’d seen with Steve in Times Square.  He’s consistent, Bucky thinks, wearing black again from head to toe, and a leather eyepatch over his left eye he hadn’t seen before.  He can tell the man knows Bucky, recognizes him, or at least knew who he is somehow, because he doesn’t show any surprise at Bucky’s sudden defensive tone. “What can I get you.” A statement, not a question. He won’t be winning any customer service awards any time soon.

The man inhales deeply, his chest puffing out as he puts his hands on his hips, the action too garish to be anything but deliberate. “Just lookin’ for a good chili dog. You were highly recommended.”

Bucky doesn’t respond to the indirect compliment.  He grabs his tongs and serves up a standard chilidog, no garnishes, and hands it to the man.  If he’s being passive aggressive in his technique, maybe throwing his tongs a little too carelessly, at least the man gets the message.  The man in black takes a big bite of his food, his eyebrows go up and he looks…surprised, delighted even. Good, Bucky thinks smugly.  The man in black doesn’t say anything about his food, instead he says “I hear we have a mutual friend.”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Is that what you call the people you imprison? Friends?”

The man chuckles and Bucky snarls. “He’s no prisoner, Sergeant Barnes, I can assure you of that.”

Bucky’s stomach drops unexpectedly, though he doesn’t show it. “How –?”

“How do I know who you are? I know a lot about you, Sergeant. And I think it’s time you and I had a little talk,” the man in black says.  Suddenly the back door to Bucky’s truck slides open, and a serious looking woman in a suit is standing there, her arm stretched to her side; right this way. Bucky can tell by the way her shoulders are set that she’s wearing a holster and that she is definitely armed. Given the look she is carefully not giving Bucky, he would bet that him noticing was intentional.

They lead him, much to his surprise, across the street to the diner where he first met Steve. 

“What do you know about our friend?” The man in black asks once they are seated.  The man cuts a deep contrast against the soft brown hues of the booth and the cheery atmosphere in the diner. Bucky idly plays with his fork and the woman watches him intently.

“Isn’t it rude not to introduce yourself before asking personal questions?” Bucky asks, his tone light but his intention sharp.  He looks up and the man in black’s mouth stretches into an amused smirk.

“I didn’t realize introductions were necessary. I’m guessing he hasn’t mentioned me.”

“He doesn’t mention much at all,” Bucky says curtly, he realizes he’s turning hostile and defensive but he doesn’t care, instead he raises his chin defiantly.  The man’s smirk only gets wider; he’s pleased.

“Nick Fury, I’m the Director at SHIELD.  To my left is Agent Maria Hill.” They don’t offer their hands, and Bucky isn’t surprised.  Bucky’s purses his lips. So this is Fury? He thinks to himself.  That seems to only make Bucky more suspicious as his eyes flit from Fury to Hill.

“James Barnes, though, you already knew that,” Bucky says with a sneer, a false smile playing at his lips.

“Your file may have passed over my desk once or twice. Your service history is…interesting.  I should be surprised this is the first time we’re meeting.”

“Should be?”

“You left the service after your solo mission to Somalia, dropped everything, turned in your equipment, and hopped on the next plane stateside.  The only government business you were willingly involved in was the VA program in DC, where you spent several months living with your sponsor, Sam Wilson.  By all accounts, it’s rather obvious that if anyone had approached you to continue using your skills for your country you’d have broken their neck,” Fury recites as he settles into the booth, making of show of getting comfortable as if now Bucky was supposed to be impressed instead of irritated.

“You read what happened in Somalia?”

“I did.”

“Then you know I’d do a lot more than just break their neck.” Bucky’s tone is cool, but his eyes are sharp.  Still, Fury looks unimpressed.

“I’m not here to talk about you though, Sergeant.”

“Right, you’re here to talk about Steve,” Bucky nods, pursing his lips and tilting his head. “You’re probably going to be shocked when I say I’ve got even less to say to you about Steve than I do my service record.”

Fury chuckles, but the look he gives Bucky isn’t one of amusement. “It strikes me as funny that you’re so quick to label us the enemy here when we’re the ones who saved your friend.”

“Our job now is to help him,” Maria clarifies.

“Help him how? By keeping him locked away in his tower?” Bucky growls.

“You callin’ yourself the prince in this little scenario?” Fury asks, and Bucky clenches his jaw.

“Steve’s situation is a...unique case,” Hill cuts in, exasperation clear.

“No shit, even I can see that,” Bucky snaps, practically baring his teeth.  There’s something about her flat tone and expressionless face that makes it almost more irritating than Fury’s condescension and arrogance. It’s how nonchalant the both of them approach talking about Steve, both so blasé about it Bucky wonders if they see Steve’s struggles at all, or, probably more likely, if they simply don’t want to. “Seems to me that unique case is just a kid, and you people have got him wound so tight he’s about to snap.” Bucky pins both of them with a look that neither care to react to, reiterating Bucky’s frustrations. “So yeah, I’m a little wary to talk about anything with you – especially Steve. The guy can’t even take a piss without hitting one of your guys’ boots. Those are his words, not mine.”

Fury narrows his eye.  Hill’s face again goes calculatingly blank. “Forgive us for coddling him but let me enlighten you that your friend is a soldier. He has contributed greatly to this country, and his skills doing so are important not just to us, but to the world.”

Bucky rolls his eyes at the dramatics of it all. “At what cost?” he asks, incredulous.  “Because it seems to me the guy has done enough for you.”

“And what has he done?” Fury asks pointedly, probably knowing full well Bucky doesn’t know.  He boasts a laugh at Bucky’s hesitation. “Oh – you don’t know?” Fury patronizes.

“I don’t need to know what he’s done to know he doesn’t owe you a damn thing,” Bucky grits out.

“Frankly it’s not that simple,” Hill snaps.

“It never fucking is with you people, is it?” Bucky rebukes.  Why were they even talking to him? Why did they feel the need to explain themselves to him, to explain Steve?  It roiled him, but he wanted to say his piece, he wanted to at least try to help Steve.  

“Look – you’re right.  I don’t know Steve’s service history.  The guy is the most evasive man I’ve ever met but...it’s pretty obvious he’s seen some shit, and he’s sacrificed enough for you people and for his country.  C’mon…He’s a vet, not a target, not case; let him go,” Bucky pleads.  

His last words seem to strike a chord in Hill, but Fury just cocks his head and carefully asks, “What exactly is the nature of your relationship?”

What is the nature of his relationship with Steve?

What is his relationship with Steve, and, more importantly, why does everyone seem to care?

How can he even begin to explain how he felt when he recognized the man was clearly a soldier? How does he explain that seeing a fellow vet in need of comfort and support  resonated so deeply within him because Steve really does remind him so much of himself?  Bucky had reached out and Steve grabbed on willingly and desperately and with both hands, like a man unaccustomed to that connection. Bucky hasn’t let go since and somehow Steve has found a way into Bucky’s heart, which he didn’t even realize was open, and now he can’t seem to let him go - he doesn’t want to.  He selfishly wants more, and he recognizes that those thoughts aren’t going away and that he can’t seem to shake this underlying connection he longs for with Steve.  It shocks him, the intensity of it all.  Still, he could never ask that, not of Steve, the man who clearly gave all he had whenever asked and yet people still asked for more. He couldn’t be like them.

Bucky swallows. “He’s my friend.”

Fury stares at him for a long time, pulling the silence over them, assessing him.  Bucky doesn’t blink, and this seems to placate something in the man.  

“Good, he could use more of those,” Fury says, rising from his seat.  Hill stands too while Bucky remains seated and shaken.

“It was good to meet you, Sergeant Barnes. I don’t imagine this is the last time we’ll be speaking,” Fury says, and Bucky tries not to hear that as a threat.

 


 

 

After his visit from Fury, Bucky finds it hard not to be suspicious that he hasn’t seen Steve all day.  He worries as he realizes he doesn’t have any way to get in contact with Steve either, and he knows that if he marched up to SHIELD headquarters right now, they would be conveniently ignorant as to who Steve was or his whereabouts. 

It’s not until he’s closing up shop and putting the food away at the end of the day that Steve finally shows up, practically dragging his feet and carrying an old cardboard file box.  He looks exhausted.

“Hey, Stevie, I was worried about you.  Whatcha got there?” Bucky asks.  His cheerfulness is sucked away in an instant when he sees Steve’s face, his expression drowning with sorrow.

Steve’s not looking at him, he’s staring through him distantly, and his eyes are red-rimmed, vacant and raw.  “Steve?” Finally Steve’s eyes meet his. “What’s wrong?”

“I just want to go home,” Steve croaks, and Bucky feels like he can hear his own heart snap in two within his chest as he reaches for Steve, who doesn’t move, overwhelmed by his own grief as he begins to crumble. “I don’t want to be here anymore…” his voice cracks and his face twists.  Bucky guesses Steve must have been barely holding it together so far, and now, away from the ever watchful eyes of SHIELD, he’s the closest he can ever seem to get to solitude and he breaks wide open.  Bucky quickly pulls Steve’s head to his shoulder, the box fitting awkwardly between them as Steve lets out a choked sob.

“Ok, shh, ok,” Bucky murmurs soothingly, rubbing circles on his broad back.  Steve gives himself only a minute to actually cry before he tucks himself back in, putting the walls back up as he regains his composure and stiffens his spine, though he doesn’t pull away. “I’ll take you…I’ll take you wherever you want to go, no matter how far,” Bucky promises, he doesn’t let go.

He feels Steve shake his head as he croaks weakly, “Can’t go home. I can’t ever go back.” Bucky lets the silence linger.

“Then where?”

Steve barely sniffles, his forehead rests heavy on Bucky’s shoulder and he lets Bucky hold him a little longer until he whispers “Your place? I can’t stay in that building one more night, I ca—I can’t.”

“Ok, my place,” Bucky coos in Steve’s ear, “And what about your spooks? Am I making beds up for them too?”

Steve laughs hollowly, “They won’t follow us, not tonight.”

Bucky nods, unsure of what to say.  He pulls away from Steve and touches his chin, and Steve lets him tilt his face up gently.  His eyes are red-rimmed and damp but still impossibly bright; his face is blotchy but still soft and Bucky feels his breath catch audibly in his throat. He swallows it, like he does every other inappropriate feeling he has with Steve, and nods back to the truck. “Let’s go. My place is a good drive from here and I’ve still gotta stop by the deli and drop off my leftover stock. It can’t sit in the truck all night.”

Steve gives a wan, appreciative smile and nods, and Bucky can see his grip tighten a little more of the box in his hands.

 

 

It takes about an hour for Bucky to finish packing away the truck at Keeley’s Deli, his supplier just on the other side of Manhattan.  Steve sits resolutely silent in the passenger seat, eyes caught in that thousand yard stare out the windshield.  Bucky doesn’t press him for conversation and just lets the silence settle comfortably between them until they arrive at Bucky’s apartment.

They move upstairs in the same heavy silence that has sat between them throughout their drive and, when Bucky flicks the lights on in his apartment, it feels almost awkward to break it.

“Welcome to Casa de Barnes,” Bucky grins nervously as he leads Steve further inside.  “Are you hungry? It’s a little late for dinner but I can still make you something. Do you want to take a shower or… would you rather just get some sleep? Let me grab you some blankets.” Bucky shuts himself up and steps around Steve, who is quietly scoping out his apartment.  Fortunately Bucky’s Ma raised him right, and the place isn’t in such a bad state, though he still picks up some wayward dishes and discarded laundry along his way.

Bucky recognizes belatedly that he’d been so attuned to Steve’s grief, he hadn’t even thought that the guy should bring anything with him. Bucky is willing to bet that whatever it is Steve is death-gripping in the box isn’t pajamas, so he grabs a pair of shorts and a shirt for the blond to change into along with a blanket and pillow.

“I’ve got a change of clothes for you if –” Bucky stops mid-sentence when he steps back into the living room.  Steve is sitting on the couch, his elbows on his knees and his head hanging low between his shoulders. His body looks drained, defeated.  He’s got one hand sitting loosely on the lid of the box, and the other over his eyes, as if he has to physically prepare himself for whatever is in the box.  Despite himself, he tries again, “Hey Steve?”

The blond lifts his head and when his eyes meet Bucky’s, he smiles and Bucky feels that new ache in his chest again.

“I’ve got an extra set here for you, and some blankets and a pillow. There’s towels in the bathroom if you want to get cleaned up,” Bucky explains, “I’ll um…I’ve got some uh, budgeting and stuff to do, so I’ll be in my room if you need anything.”

“Thanks Bucky, I don’t mean to kick you out of your own space,” Steve says, understanding what Bucky was offering without being overt, and Bucky shakes his head and waves a tired hand.

“It’s no problem. This seems important,” Bucky grabs his laptop and his receipts from the table where he usually does his data entry. “I’ll be in my room, it’s the door at the very end of the hall…if you, uh, need anything.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve says, his voice tired but genuine. Bucky leaves him there with his things and hopes that whatever is in that box - whatever demons Steve has to face now - Bucky hopes Steve can mend himself again.

 

 

He keeps himself busy.  Running a food truck isn’t always glamorous; sometimes you’ve got to sit down and crunch numbers, order stock, pay bills – just budget. Fortunately, Bucky isn’t in this business for the glam, and he’s always had a knack for numbers. He quickly loses himself in the menial task, trying to keep his mind off the man in his living room.

What if he’d wanted Bucky to stay? What if he’s having a complete mental breakdown in his house and Bucky is in here bulk ordering hotdog buns? No. No, if he wanted Bucky to stay, Steve would’ve said so, right? Steve isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He surprises Bucky in how vocal he can be over some of the most trivial of things. But this is asking for help, not for opinions…was Steve ok at asking for that? Is he even capable of recognizing when he needs it? If that night on top of his truck was any indication, the answer is no and Bucky’s in here balancing his checkbook while Steve is having an existential crisis with whatever’s in that box.

Bucky chews on his pen.

He couldn’t force his help onto Steve, the blond has made that abundantly clear before.  Sam was right, Steve needs a friend, not a nanny – not another person smothering him against his will like the supposedly benevolent folks at SHIELD. Friends give each other space when they ask for it, and that’s what Bucky was doing.  So why does he feel so bad about it?

Bucky shakes the thoughts out of his head and tries again to focus on his spreadsheets.  The past couple weeks have somehow taken him off his usual schedule, and now he has twice the amount of work to catch up on.  His supply was running drastically low, and he wasn’t going to ask the Keeley’s for stock at twice the price when it was his own fault. He’s bouncing his knee and tapping his pen nervously when he hears two soft knocks on the door.

He thinks he might’ve been up before the blond had even finished knocking.  Bucky throws his bedroom door open and sees Steve on the other side, his eyes bloodshot and red, wet from old tears, breathing heavy, and his body seeming to tuck into itself. Suddenly all Bucky can see is a young man in pain, not the strong, beast of a man that Bucky has grown accustomed to.

Steve reaches for him as Bucky pulls him in, turning to lean his back against the wall and wrapping his arms firmly around Steve’s body as Steve curls his arms around his neck.  Steve doesn’t cry, he just holds fiercely tight onto Bucky, and Bucky holds him back just as hard.  After a minute, Bucky loosens his grip to see Steve’s face, but the blond squeezes tighter, not ready to let go, so Bucky relents, stops fighting and just lets himself be held.  Neither man say anything, or ask any questions. Bucky doesn’t dare to break the fragile silence around them and just holds Steve as he steadies his breath. 

Bucky doesn’t know how long they stand there, or when he tucked his face into the space between Steve’s jaw and shoulder, or when Steve did the same.  He feels Steve sigh, his body melding impossibly closer and squeezing Bucky just a little tighter.

Bucky doesn’t bother asking the obvious – he knows. Instead, he brings a hand up and cards his fingers through Steve’s hair as he asks, “What can I do?”

Steve sucks in a shuddery breath and shakes his head; “Just this.”

“Can we sit?” Steve nods, and slowly they sink to the floor right there in Bucky’s bedroom doorway, never loosening their grip on each other.  Bucky readjusts to hold Steve between his thighs, and when he leans back against the wall, Steve twists to lay partially on his side with his face in the crook of Bucky’s neck, arms around Bucky’s body. Steve sighs a contented sound, melting.

For minutes Bucky holds him, carding his fingers through his hair.  He briefly wonders if Steve has had this comfort since coming home, being held and soothed protectively, before he realizes that he knows Steve hasn’t.  Steve has said before he doesn’t have anyone outside of SHIELD and Bucky.

The lines are blurring again between appropriate and not, but Bucky doesn’t care, and given how Steve is wrapped up in his arms, he’d guess that Steve doesn’t care either.  I’ve got you, he thinks to himself, and he tightens his arms protectively. Steve let’s out a fragile sound, his breath hot and damp on Bucky’s neck, and Bucky’s body stiffens but he doesn’t move. Breaths turn into dry kisses along his throat, becoming open mouth and wet with each successive kiss. Bucky squeezes Steve’s arm gently. “Steve,” he warns, but even his tone is weak. Encouraged, Steve doesn’t stop; he twists in Bucky’s arms and brings his left hand on the other side of Bucky’s neck, kissing along the column of his neck, nipping and sucking lightly. “Steve…”

“You want this.” Not a question, but a breathy declaration. There is no denying it, just the feeling of Steve’s soft lips on his throat, kissing up to his jaw is enough to get Bucky’s breath hitching and his cock firming in his pants. He’s dreamt about this.

“You don’t,” Bucky points out, hands grabbing Steve firmly. “Not like this.”

“I do.”  Steve wriggles more, his left hand gliding down Bucky’s body to the hem of his shirt, before slipping underneath to find hot skin.

“You’re upset.”

“Nnn…”

“Steve…”

“I know you want this, Buck. I know you’ve wanted this as long as I have.”

Bucky’s eyes roll back because the idea that Steve had been thinking of Bucky like this – intimately – it roils him in both the best and most inappropriate ways.  His mind fogs more and more with each successive touch. “Kiss me,” Steve breaths, his mouth nipping at the corner of Bucky’s own.

Bucky squeezes his eyes tightly shut. “I don’t think I should.”

Steve pauses, but Bucky can still feel his breath on his skin. “Do you…Do you really want to stop?”

Bucky whines faintly. No.

Steve chuckles. “Then let’s not.”

As if it’s that simple.

“Steve…you – you’re upset, you’re not thinking straight,” Bucky explains.

“I’m ok, Buck. I want this,” he insists, fingers sneaking into the waistband of Bucky’s jeans and Bucky snaps into clarity, hands grabbing firmly onto Steve’s wrists.

“Steve, when I picked you up you were crying.”

Steve pulls his hands away and sits back on his haunches, narrowing his eyes. “Well, I’m fine now.”

“If you’re magically fine now, then what was in the box?” Bucky challenges.

“The past,” Steve says too quickly, half-hearted and dismissive, before leaning back in to kiss Bucky who quickly dodges it.

“Yeah, no dice. What was in the box?” Steve bristles, but doesn’t try to kiss Bucky again. Instead, he glares at him, jaw clenched. “Steve, I know you. You’re not ok.”

“You’ve known me for two weeks,” Steve glowers, his eyes hard.

“Yeah, that argument doesn’t really work when you’re trying to get in my pants,” Bucky huffs.  For once Steve doesn’t argue with him, but he doesn’t waver.  Bucky snaps, bringing his head a few inches from the wall he’s leaned against and knocks his head back against it hard enough to jar himself and his frustration. He tips his head back and closes his eyes with a heavy sigh. “You hadn’t spoken more than a dozen words to me before now; you’re not ok. Anyone who knows anyone more than a day can figure that out. I can’t…I can’t do this if it’s something you’re going to regret later.”

Steve says nothing, just looks down at his hands, now in his lap, so Bucky continues.

“If this is some sort of one-off distraction for you, if you’re expecting me to fuck you out of your head, then I can’t do that. I want this to be real, I want it so much…” His confession trails off, he’s unable to finish that thought aloud, but it still gets Steve looking at him again.

“I’m sorry, Buck,” Steve says softly.

Bucky nods, understanding what this was.  His cheeks go hot from embarrassment at the realization of the weight of his words, and he quickly looks away and clears his throat.

“It’s ok, Stevie, no harm done.” He feels a warm hand on his cheek, and his face is turned towards Steve whose eyes are wide and bright and blue, a weak, lopsided smile on his face. Wordlessly, Steve scoots closer into the vee between Bucky’s thighs, his knees resting beneath either of Bucky’s legs.  Then he leans in, and Bucky sucks in a breath that makes Steve pause for a moment just before their lips touch, Steve’s eyes stay locked on Bucky’s own and it feels like it takes Bucky a full minute to realize what Steve is waiting for and Bucky doesn’t make him wait a second longer before he closes the gap between them.

Steve’s lips are soft and gentle, just like the hand on Bucky’s cheek.  The kiss is innocent, chaste but promising.  Steve pulls back just enough to breathe. “You’re not a distraction, Buck. I still want this – I want you.” He kisses him again, and Bucky goes completely still at Steve’s words, his mind racing as his lips are thrumming at the press of Steve’s.

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to, but don’t assume for me that I don’t, or that I can’t decide…because I know what I want, and right now I want you and –” Bucky exhales sharply through his nose and cuts Steve off mid-sentence, finally kissing back with fervor, alleviating the ache on his lips with Steve’s warm own.

“I want it…I want to,” Bucky insists quickly between kisses. “I just had to be sure.” He can’t believe his voice sounds so wrecked when all they’ve done is kiss. Steve groans before moaning high in his throat as he brings up his other hand, cradling Bucky’s jaw with both hands and tipping his head just so to align their mouths just right and deepen the kiss. 

Kissing Steve now is not what Bucky expected given how this had started...for a man who Bucky had thought was only desperate for a physical distraction, Steve kisses him reverently. He kisses him gentle and unhurried, and Steve’s unexpected tenderness overwhelms him, pulling a whimper from Bucky’s chest and soothing an ache he hadn’t realized he’d had.  Steve is encouraged at the sound, his tongue glides out along the seam of Bucky’s lips, asking for entrance, and Bucky opens without hesitation, swallowing an excited breath from Steve.  The kiss ignites, blazing hot, and Steve eagerly writhes between Bucky’s thighs, somehow trying to get as close and flush to him as possible.

Bucky’s mind is fogged with a heady want. He wraps his arms around Steve’s body, fingers twisting into the fabric of his shirt as he tightens his grip. Steve licks into his mouth softly before he sinks his teeth into Bucky’s bottom lip which pulls a throaty moan out of him. Steve smirks as he lowers his kisses down along Bucky’s jaw, tracing with his mouth the paths his hands have just taken down Bucky’s body until his fingers trace along the waistband of his jeans.  Bucky can hear the pop of his button, followed by Steve’s fingers slipping inside as Steve kisses back up his chest to Bucky’s mouth.  He curls his hand around the thick, hard heat of him, and Bucky groans unabashedly.

“Wait – wait,” Bucky pants, and Steve freezes immediately. “No, don’t stop! I just…bed. Let’s move to the bed. We’re a little too old to be rutting on the floor like a couple of teenagers dontcha think?” Bucky husks, smirking at Steve as the blond sits back and looks at him with his own devious grin.  Steve snickers, leaning forward again and sinking his teeth into Bucky’s neck softly.  Bucky gasps.

“Ok. Stand up,” Bucky orders, his voice shaky with want.  Steve does as he’s told, albeit hesitantly, and after numerous failed attempts as he kept getting distracted by Bucky’s enthusiastic kisses.  Steve offers his hands to help pull Bucky to stand, but his height lines Bucky’s eyes with Steve’s groin and his evident arousal, and Bucky’s mind blanks.  Ignoring Steve, Bucky reaches forward and with both hands he slips his fingers into Steve’s front pockets, pulling him in suddenly.  Steve braces himself, hands up on the wall behind Bucky’s back and Bucky shifts to his knees and mouths at the taut fabric over Steve’s cock.

“Bucky, what –?”

“Isn’t this what you want?” Bucky asks with a devilish smirk, his tongue darting out to lightly lick his lips. He knows what he’s doing, and he watches Steve’s eyes drop to his mouth.  Steve doesn’t answer aloud, but he swallows audibly and even on his knees Bucky can see the darkness of Steve’s eyes, pupils swallowing that bright blue. Bucky exhales a heavy breath, the heat dampening the fabric around Steve’s cock with warm air and Steve’s eyes roll up with a moan.

“You don’t…you don’t gotta do that, though,” Steve pants, his legs are shaking, and Bucky hasn’t even attempted to get inside his pants yet.

“Don’t assume for me,” Bucky says, echoing Steve’s earlier words. “I want to do this for you.”

Steve swallows again, pulling his lip between his teeth as Bucky can’t help himself, darting a tongue along the seam of Steve’s zipper. “Do you?”

“Yes,” Bucky grins, “very much so.”  He starts mouthing at the fabric again as a show of assurance.  The moan Bucky lets out may be more for show at this point, but he can feel how hard Steve is, how badly he wants this, and Bucky’s mouth waters at the thought. “Can I?” Bucky asks, purposefully looking up through dark lashes.

“Yeah, yes…fuck,” Steve practically pleads.  He’s still leaning on his palms, bracketing Bucky between himself and the wall. Bucky slips Steve’s belt undone quickly, before undoing Steve’s pants and pulling them down to his knees, boxers and all.  Steve’s big and hard and flushed red, just begging for Bucky’s mouth and this time Bucky moans for real.

The minute Bucky’s lips are on Steve’s dick the blond moans, guttural and loud like he just can’t help himself.  Bucky whines in response, bobbing his head and gradually taking more and more of Steve’s dick, relaxing his throat and hollowing his cheeks.  “Jesus! Fuck – Christ,” Steve pants, tipping his upper body forward and resting his forehead against the wall.  Bucky falls into a steady rhythm, savoring Steve’s taste while the blond whimpers gentle praises and begins to tremble. Bucky palms either side of Steve’s hips, offering the blond some form of support as Steve’s legs become more and more unsteady.  Bucky can’t see his face, so he focuses more on worshiping Steve’s dick, his form gets purposefully sloppy and ostentatious and the sounds are downright filthy. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh –” Steve chants.

Bucky can feel Steve tensing in his hands, can feel Steve’s cock get impossibly harder on his tongue as he presses forward, his cock sliding further, deeper, and Bucky moans lewdly.

“Bucky…I’m going to…I’m gunna—” He doesn’t even finish his warning, instead he cries out Bucky’s name just as Bucky pulls back enough to hollow his cheeks and flick his tongue along Steve’s frenulum before he slides Steve’s cock back in quickly, swallowing eagerly as the blond comes down his throat.  Steve brings a shaky hand to the back of Bucky’s head carefully and tangles his fingers in Bucky short hair as Bucky swallows him down gently. Bucky, ever the showman, pops off of Steve with a loud pop and a smug grin before finally looking up at the man towering over him.

“Christ, Buck…” Steve whimpers. He looks wrecked.  He’s leaning on his left forearm which is pressed against the wall, his body folded over Bucky in a way that the light above Bucky’s bedroom door illuminates Steve’s golden hair. Steve doesn’t stop carding his fingers through Bucky’s hair tenderly, brushing loose strands off his forehead, and Bucky feels his cocky grin slip, falling into something more fond and hopeful, while his thumbs continues to gently caress Steve’s hipbones.

“I’m good on my knees,” Bucky boasts, though instead of his voice sounding confident, it comes out coy. Steve snorts softly but doesn’t say anything. Instead they stare at each other for a moment, eyes locked onto one another’s and somehow speaking volumes they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge aloud.  Steve begins to kneel, and Bucky realizes Steve’s knees have been fighting the urge to buckle for what must be ages now. 

“Bed,” Bucky reminds him, and Steve nods, pulling Bucky up to his feet then pressing him against his wall one more time, hands wandering and lips welcoming a taste as Bucky lets him in. 

He tries to return Steve’s kisses with the same overwhelming reverence that Steve has shown him.  Bucky kisses him ardently, silent confessions with each brush of their lips – I want you…I want all of you, like this, every way, in any way.  He tugs Steve to his bed and tries to not convince himself that Steve is echoing his sentiments back with the same unspoken devotion.

Bucky pulls Steve atop himself and lets Steve’s hands wander as he explores his skin. He lets Steve’s hands grip his hips like they were meant to be there, feels Steve’s fingers glide beneath Bucky’s shirt and slot between his ribs as if he were molded for him, and when Steve’s mouth finds Bucky’s again, his body pressing flush against his own with a searing kiss, Bucky moans unabashedly because it’s intoxicating, and it’s exhilarating, and Bucky’s mind goes blissfully blank. 

 


 

When he wakes up, he’s alone.

The bed is cold next to him, and Bucky curses at himself.  He’s done exactly what he said he wouldn’t; he made it complicated. Steve had come to him tearful and hurting and Bucky took him to fucking bed.

What kind of friend does that?

Bucky groans loudly and rolls out of bed.

How stupid could he be? How insensitive?

He takes a shower and retraces the night in his memories as he lets the water wash Steve off his skin - his sweat, his smell. The warmth and the pressure loosens tense muscles and something in Bucky’s chest. He’d put up a good fight, he put it all out there and explained himself to Steve…and Steve still kissed him. Steve had kissed him. For all that it should, it doesn’t really make Bucky feel any better.  He still feels like the lowest of scumbags. He should’ve stopped him, he shouldn’t have given in.

‘I’m ok, Buck. I want this.’

Bucky shakes out the thoughts in his head, slipping out of the shower and getting dressed.  It takes him a minute as he passes through the living room to notice it: the box was still here, the lid propped crooked across the top.

Bucky finds himself drawn to it, his curiosity getting the better of him.

‘What was in the box?’

He approaches it slowly, only a foot away from it now, his fingertips just inches away. What could it be? What could have upset Steve so much? Or rather, what is it that made Steve so desperate that he would throw himself at Bucky just to get out of his own head? It’s right here…

‘The past.’

He’s touching the lid now, and he can barely see the corner of…what? Is that a file? And an old photograph –?

He panics, and Bucky lets out a shuddered breath as he adjusts the lid, and slips it onto the box correctly, sealing it shut.  His relief is quickly overwhelmed by shame as Bucky realizes the gravity of what he’d almost done.  Steve left SHIELD for privacy, to get away from the people who felt entitled to know Steve’s actions and his intentions at will, and here Bucky was about to essentially do the same, invading Steve’s privacy without his consent.

He’s never gotten ready and left his apartment so fast.

 

 

He doesn’t hear from or see Steve all day.

As he’s treading back into his apartment after a long day of self-loathing, he’s blindsided by an unexpected pang of disappointment, as if he thought maybe he’d come home and find Steve inside, waiting for him on his sofa.

Embarrassment and disappointment and confusion all flood him at once.  It was Steve. It was the way Steve had come to him, the way he’d held him, it pulled vows from Bucky, vows to protect, to hold Steve so gently as to keep the pieces from crumbling.  It was the way Steve had kissed him back so reverently as if with unspoken promises of his own.

Bucky doesn’t know what he expected from it all, but the ache in his chest must mean he’d expected something.

 

 

Chapter Text

Friday starts off like any other day – and then suddenly it’s not.

He’d spent the morning as he did every other, but with more intent.  Intent to ignore the voice in his head that spoke of Steve, intent to not dwell on why the blond had suddenly abandoned him. Abandoned? Bucky rolls his eyes at himself and his dramatics.  Steve didn’t abandon him because there was nothing to abandon.

It was clear Steve needed a distraction, and Bucky was just convenient. It’s his fault for putting more weight into what happened between them. 

Either way, for the first time since Bucky and Steve had met, Steve hadn’t come to see him, and that spoke volumes about what the other night had meant to him.  Bucky had believed it, that Steve had wanted more from him – to be with him – and that was what stung more than anything. 

Steve’s feelings seemingly made clear, Bucky made his own choice to not dwell on things he could not change.  If Steve wasn’t going to at least face Bucky about what had happened and let Bucky talk about it and clear the air, then Steve would be the last priority on his mind.

By noon, Bucky had decided he was failing his goal miserably, and prayed for a distraction – any at all – to get him through the day without picturing the blond’s face.

In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best idea.

Bucky is looking up when it happens. A bright light, brighter than the sun, pierces through the blue and when the flare fades, there’s a tear in the sky – a rift over the new Stark Tower.  He can hear people gasp and see them point upwards, curious and awestruck.  Bucky climbs out of his truck to get a clearer view and he’s frozen in panic as his eyes see but don’t comprehend.

After only a moment, something starts falling out of the rift, small specks of black that quickly increase in numbers as they begin pouring out of the sky.

He can hear the early murmurs of panic around him. It’s enough to get his survival instincts to kick in.

Bucky climbs back into his truck and locks up quickly, sliding into the driver’s seat as the specks of black begin to move and migrate outwards, no longer falling straight down to the ground but changing course and flying through midtown in different directions.

Bucky has barely put his truck into drive when he hears it, screeching metal as something crashes through the roof, shaking it suddenly and violently. It dents into the floor with a loud thud and Bucky shouts, throwing the gearshift back into park as he twists back and stands, instinct making him grab his trusted bat from behind the driver’s seat as the person – no, not a person – thing – stands up and shakes itself off.

Bucky’s eyes go wide with terror.  He’s never seen something like this before.  The creature towers over him, a foot taller than him, with a mask that covers its face but doesn’t impede the terrible sound it makes – hoarse screeches as it assess Bucky as a threat.

His special forces training kicking in, Bucky immediately unfreezes and brings the bat to the creature’s body with a hard thwack.  It recoils, bringing its arms down to protect its body and hisses at him, loud and long and Bucky wavers only a moment in fear.

He’d never been trained for monsters.

He swings the bat wide and high, aiming for the creature’s shoulder, then again, this time connecting with its head.  The creature slams into the stainless steel counter, dragging pans and utensils on the floor as it tries to regain its footing.  Bucky doesn’t relent, he swings and swings repeatedly and voraciously, body shot after body shot, his muscles burning with exertion.  The creature shrieks and finally lunges unexpectedly, pushing Bucky back into the front of the truck between the front seats.  Bucky tries to lift the bat to protect himself but it’s too late, the creature grabs at his left shoulder, its claws pierce into the meat of him and he screams, pain surging through his body. That somehow gives Bucky the energy he needs to press his leg between them and kick the creature off.  Its claws, which were still deep into the tissues of his shoulder, rips into the flesh of his arm as it falls back. Bucky cries out at the sight of his wound – thick, mangled lines that drip blood and leave searing pain from shoulder to wrist.

He remembers his gun almost a second too late.  While the creature tries to regain its footing, Bucky lunges for the top of the stainless steel cabinets and grabs the SIG he has hidden from view.  Muscle memory overcomes fear and pain and Bucky fires three shots in quick succession – pop, pop, pop – right into the creature’s head.

The creature steps back, wavering on its feet, and for a second Bucky is horrified that it wasn’t enough to kill – how the fuck can he kill something like this? he thinks to himself in a panic, gun still raised, before the creature falls back, and its weight falling through the rear door of the truck and onto the street.

Bucky falls back into his seat, overcome with the adrenaline pumping through his veins that gives him a high he hasn’t felt in over a year since he’d returned to civilian life.  His left hand shakes violently from it but his right hand, the hand holding the gun, is completely still.  He pushes out a shaky breath, the adrenaline quickly twisting into disbelief and then fear as Bucky’s eyes land on the gray corpse outside his truck, its feet resting almost comically in view on the back bumper.

He doesn’t have long to rest though as he hears a piercing scream and…planes? Motors? Something flying overhead in succession, zipping in the sky.  What the fuck is going on? Bucky stands up expecting unsteady legs but his body has become what it used to be: swift and agile and completely silent as he slowly walks to the rear door of the truck and looks up. 

There are pods or fliers, something zipping through the sky, and on them more of those gray creatures.  A shiver runs down Bucky’s spine at the thought that there are more of those things. It dawns on him that that hole that ripped open above Manhattan where the little specks were falling out were these creatures – and there were thousands of them. At least.

What the fuck is going on?

Bucky grips his gun and grabs his extra cartridges and his bat before he clambers out of his truck knowing full well that it’s a metal death trap. He doesn’t have time to reminisce about it.  The protection it did provide however, was protection from the sensory overload of the street.  It’s complete chaos.  Men and women and children running down the street, flooding out of buildings and into the streets to run from the mayhem and all Bucky can think is ‘No, it’s not safe, stay inside – for God’s sake stay inside!’ As he hears explosions from blocks away, he can see some of the pods overhead with the gray creatures shooting lasers into the crowds and creatures jumping into buildings, onto the streets (and Bucky figures that’s how he met his newest friend lying dead outside his truck).

He runs across the street to the diner and sees Beth the same time she spots him. Her eyes go wide at the sight.  “Bucky! Your arm!”

He’d almost forgotten, the adrenaline was numbing the pain.  He looks down to see his arm is lacerated, deep angry red lines dripping blood. “Shit,” he hisses, pulling off his jacket quickly and wrapping it around his arm to staunch the bleeding.  Just as quickly as his attention was brought to his arm he turns his focus to Beth. “Are you ok?”

She’s visibly shaken up but she looks fine physically.  “What’s happening? What are those things?” She asks, voice bordering on hysterical as the explosions loom closer. 

“I don’t…I don’t know,” Bucky shouts through the din. “We need to get off the streets, back into the diner. C’mon!” As Bucky tries to lead Beth inside, he looks up and sees one of the pods gunning right at them.  Covering Beth’s head, Bucky yells for others to take cover before a loud explosion blows them off their feet, rubble falls heavy around them and instinctively Bucky wraps himself around Beth, covering her from the debris.  He can feel a few big chunks hit him hard enough on the back to knock the wind out of him as the air instantly becomes hot and stifling, burning his lungs.

He coughs and raises his head reluctantly and sees the diner has been blown out.  He and Beth and other civilians are covered in black soot and rubble but he ignores himself and asks, “Are you ok? Is everyone ok?!”

Beth is fully hysterical now, shaking and shrieking, “The diner! It’s gone! The people – there were people inside!”

Bucky swallows hard and uses his right hand to try and rub soothingly on Beth’s arm as she unravels, but his eyes are already scoping the area for another refuge because they’re running out of time, they need to find shelter.  He needs a place with few windows, but in Manhattan he knows that’s impossible – downtown was made to be functionally attractive, not necessarily secure and definitely not secure enough from a literal monster invasion.  He spots a place with potential on the next block where there’s a bank with narrow windows, edifice made of hard limestone, big and imposing.  The upstairs looks less defensible, he can see the big windows as the threat they are, but if he can get people in the lobby and watch the windows… He trusts his aim now enough to try.  Another explosion rings out, closer still, and Beth cries.

“Beth, Beth listen to me. Look at me.  I need you to calm down.  I need your help,” Bucky says as soothingly as he can muster.  Beth’s face twists but she brings her eyes to his expectantly, eyes wide and wet with fear.  “We gotta get people off the streets.  The cops’ve got their hands full and someone needs to help.  I want you to run straight to that bank, ok?” Bucky nods at the building and Beth twists in his arms to see. “Run straight there and tell whoever you can to follow you.  Run into the lobby and stay there.  Use whatever you can to find to block off the lower windows, try and keep these guys out.” She’s nodding.  Bucky knows, being given a mission, something to do in the chaos, gives a person purpose and can help curb their fear into something useful and good, otherwise it’s crippling. “Can you do that for me, sweetheart?”

Beth nods again, this time more vigorously before furrowing her brows and asking, “What about you? Where are you going?”

“I’m gunna go search that police van for some more stuff, maybe I’ll find something useful, but I’ll meet you there. You gotta run though, run fast, and get everyone you can,” Bucky orders, and Beth nods.  He helps her up on shaky legs and she turns and sprints the opposite direction, arms waving and shouting for people to get inside.

Bucky doesn’t wait and watch for long as another explosion flares overhead. Bucky looks up to see a trail of red and gold zip above him (Iron Man, his mind provides), slaloming between the buildings and followed by a horde of those fliers.  At least they’ve got someone helping.  Even if it is the crazy billionaire with a fancy suit and a death wish, it’s something.

He manages to make it to the abandoned police van a block down from the diner, the doors splayed wide open and almost raided empty from panicked servicemen.  Almost.  Bucky climbs in and makes his way all the way to the back and grabs the last M4. He checks the safety switch, and the cartridge to see if it’s loaded before grabbing every extra fitting ammunition cartridge, including those for the standard issued glock he’d also found, and stashed everything he could in an empty bag.  In another one of the bins he finds an extra shoulder holster.  He slips it on carefully, mindful of his arm and shoulder, and wads up a piece of a torn jacket to slip between the holster’s strap and his shoulder wounds, providing much needed extra pressure. He slips his own gun into the waistband of his pants, the glock into the holster, and tucks his bat into the bag of ammunition and throws it over his good shoulder as he gets a ready hold on the rifle.

Quickly, he slips out of the van and starts making his way back to the bank, ducking between abandoned vehicles and seeking coverage in doorframes along the way as fliers still zoom overhead.  He decides not to waste any shots on the creatures (aliens?) flying overhead, though he knows he can probably hit a few. He doesn’t know how long this will last and he needs to plan accordingly.

By the time he reaches the bank, the door is barricaded heavily and Bucky pounds on it.  Within minutes it’s opened and he slips inside, quickly helping to reinforce the door again.  There are about fifty people inside, all looking at Beth expectantly as she looks at Bucky armed to the teeth.

“Stay away from the windows.  Keep here in the center of the lobby or against that back wall behind the counters.” Bucky orders, and people already begin nodding, ready to take orders from someone, anyone who looks calm enough and could possibly know what they’re doing.  Bucky glances up at the balcony on the second floor. “I’m going up there. I’ll have a better vantage point to stop any unexpected intruders,” Bucky explains.  They look wary, but no one’s going to argue.  He gives the security guard an extra clip, since he’s his only backup, and makes his way upstairs.

 

 

For the most part, they’re ignored and secure.  Eventually the constant sound of explosions stop rattling Bucky’s bones and he’s able to stay as present as possible, though his body still shakes when he’s relaxed.

He’ll definitely need to go stay with Sam for a while after this is over.  Maybe he’ll be able to talk Steve into going with him. Bucky’s breath catches and his hands begin to tremble again because Steve.

He still hasn’t heard from him.  He has no idea where he is…though most likely he’s tucked away safe in what has got to be one of the most secure buildings in New York City.  That calms him somewhat. At least Steve is safe.  Even if he is with the people who hold him prisoner, at least he’s safe.

When this is over he’s going to find him. When this is over he’s going to march right into SHIELD and tell Steve the promises he’d made to him, the ones Bucky was too scared to speak aloud, and he’ll kiss him, a good one, hard and filthy.  He might even dip him.

The things that become important at the end of the world…

He’s so deep in his reverie he almost misses the sound of glass breaking above him.  The ceiling – it’s glass! Just as the realization hits, the dome shatters and one of those creatures drops in, the civilians screaming in fear.  The creature lands on the balls of its feet right into the center of the lobby below like it’d aimed for it and Bucky runs to the edge of the balcony, rifle trained.  It’s holding a spear that glows bright blue along its edge, and the creature has it aimed right for the security guard who is holding his gun up lamely in a show of defense.

“Hey!” Bucky yells, shooting one shot at the creature’s head.  It’s wearing a helmet, and the bullet ricochets violently, narrowly missing civilians.  He’s gotten the creature’s attention though, and it screeches malevolently and jumps up onto the banister of the balcony in a single bound. Bucky rushes back on instinct, wall at his six, and keeps his gun on it.  It takes a deep breath and lets out a horrible, shrill scream, making Bucky wince but only momentarily as Bucky seizes his window, two quick shots, one in the creature’s mouth and another in its eye. It immediately goes limp, falling over the banister and back into the lobby. People shriek at the loud thud of the creature’s body landing on the marble.

“Is everyone ok?” Bucky shouts, leaning over the edge. Before anyone can respond the windows shatters behind him, and there are more creatures.  Bucky swings his rifle but one of the creatures shoots a beam from his spear (that’s new) and knocks Bucky’s gun out of his hands, tossing it across the room. He reaches for the SIG in his waistband, but a second too late as two more creatures jump through the windows and round on him.  Bucky dives behind an overturned desk as they begin to shoot their weapons.

He crawls from one haven to the next, hands and knees, and every few seconds glancing up to see the creatures communicating.  Two of them look over the bannister while the other two begin to shoot at the overturned furniture, hunting for Bucky.

He grips his SIG, and carefully crawls to a crouch, taking a deep breath in, holding it…3…2…1 – he springs! Standing up straight Bucky aims and fires within a second and before any creature realizes what had happened, one is dead on the ground while Bucky dives behind a pillar as the creatures fire at him again. 

He looks quickly, seeing one of the creatures pull out some sort of device and turn a dial that lights up a screen, a beam of light pulsates, fluctuating back and forth across the display. Now, Bucky isn’t a bomb expert, and he definitely isn’t an alien tech expert, but little beams of light gradually moves faster and faster? He’d bet money that’s a bomb.

Shit. That’s a bomb!

Bucky fires at one of the other creatures whose attention he’d lost, one that looked ready to pounce on the defenseless civilians below, and he clambers to the edge of the balcony and yells, “There’s a bomb! Get out! Get out! Avoid the main road – just go! There’s a bomb!”

Quickly the people panic, flooding to the back entrance and breaking down an emergency exit they’d previously barricaded. Bucky can’t watch, his attention back on the creatures who screech loudly. Their cries ring his ears as he aims for another creature but the other rounds on him quickly, wrapping its arms around his torso and Bucky screams as the pain shoots up his shoulder and down his left arm.  He’s pinned, and the creature with the bomb flicks the dial again and the flashing quickens and this is it – this is it for him.  At least he tried, please, let someone get out of this alive –

A flash of red, a gust of air, and a clanging sound of metal pulls Bucky out of his last thoughts, both literally and figuratively, as the creature gripping him falls backwards, bringing him back with it.  They fall hard, Bucky landing on his shoulder and his vision goes white with pain as he cries out.

“I’ve got you…” says a voice, and his chest warms at the sound. But when he opens his eyes, he sees a man being pulled away from him draped in…an American flag?

Bucky immediately scrambles up, reaching for the glock still in his holster, but the man doesn’t need his help to fight the creature that has him in a chokehold, and Bucky briefly sees a flash of gold as the costumed man flips backwards, twisting the creature with him as it falls hard into the ground under the man’s weight, who lands perfectly on the balls of his feet.  Bucky tries to see his face, but before he can get a look, another creature grapples with the man, and Bucky, for the first time today, is afraid to shoot – unwilling to risk hitting his unexpected hero.  Instead he aims for the other creature coming on the man’s six, two quick, clean shots and it staggers backwards, falling out of one of the windows.

Two creatures left. Bucky aims his gun at one, the one with the bomb, but the costumed man knocks his attacker off and right into the other creature, the bomb flying from its hands and onto the ground.  All four clamber forward – but as Bucky goes to reach he’s pulled back by the costumed man as the other creatures grab the flashing bomb until the screen glows bright. Bucky realizes then what’s about to happen when a bright light bursts from the device.  Bucky blinks and a shield is in front of him a nanosecond before the explosion, the man’s arms around him deflecting the brunt of the damage, but the force knocks them back, throwing them against the opposite wall and knocking the wind out of him.

He can’t see. The intensity of the blast temporarily whites out his vision and he’s blind. The heat in the air dries out his lungs, his throat is on fire, but he’s alive. Bucky twists on the ground, and before he can account for all of his limbs he feels himself being turned onto his back and he flinches. Fights the hands on him.

“Shh…shh, stop, Bucky it’s me. You’re ok…you’re safe.”

The edges of Bucky’s vision are gradually coming back to view, but he still can’t see. He does, however, recognize that voice. “Steve?” He croaks.

There’s a wet sound to his right, like a laugh or a single sob, and a hand in his hair as Steve says, “Yeah. Yeah Buck, it’s me.”

Bucky feels his eyes go wet, a lump forms in his throat and he's overwhelmed. All prior doubts, frustrations, and anger quickly draws out of him as unexpected joy takes his place because Steve’s alive.

“Bucky I saw your truck and I…I was so scared. There was so much blood. I – I thought you were dead,” Steve chokes.  Bucky blinks a few times, and he can see the outline of Steve’s figure, large and looming over top of him.

“I thought you were smaller,” Bucky says in disbelief. The costume cuts Steve in an intimidating figure; his shoulders seem impossibly wide, his chest is massive and broad. Bucky realizes it’s because this is the first time he’s seen Steve sit straight, he’s not folded in on himself, trying to make himself disappear. He looks good.

He looks stupid, but he looks good.

Steve chokes out a laugh, and curls over Bucky, resting his sweaty forehead against Bucky’s own and he can’t help it, he feels so relieved that Steve is here and he’s ok. They stay like that for a moment, curled into each other, until the faint sounds of an explosion cut through to them. “Help me up,” Bucky says.

“Bucky, you’re really hurt…your arm—”

“No shit. Help me sit up.” Steve does so reluctantly, his hands tentative and gentle, and the gesture brings memories back of hot hands on slick skin and Bucky finds the wind knocked out of him all over again at the memory. He flings an arm out wildly, and Steve falls back on his ass. “Stop!” Bucky practically shouts, his skin feeling scorched where Steve had touched.  He was just ok, he was just grateful, but now the hurt has come back in a furious wave that chokes him.

“Buck—“

“Don’t…don’t touch me, I…” Bucky tries to scoot away; now isn’t the time - the world is ending. He isn’t going to spend his last breath yelling at an idiot, or worse: apologizing for what he’d done. But it is the end of the world, and Steve leans forward.

“Buck – your arm,” Steve warns, his voice gentle yet grating on Bucky’s nerves.

“I can’t…I can’t have you here, I’m…” Bucky’s panting. The adrenaline that had been pumping through his system, that had gotten him from his truck to here, felt like it was siphoned out all at once, leaving Bucky with shakes and nerves and oh my God he nearly died.

“Bucky, I need you to breath. You’ve gotta breath, you’re hyperventilating—”

“What are those things!? What’s happening!? Why are you dressed like Captain America!?” Bucky shouts, his voice pitchy and desperate. Steve quickly crawls forward, a cautious hand reaching out to Bucky’s shoulder. When Bucky doesn’t pull away, Steve makes contact and pulls the man to himself, arms wrapping carefully, but firmly, around Bucky’s body.  He rubs large circles on his back, and Bucky is breaking…the shakes have graduated to full blown tremors and his body trembles violently.

“I’ll answer your questions the best I can but you have got to breath,” Steve instructs, taking a deep breath in that Bucky recognizes is his cue to copy.  Bucky sucks in a shaky breath, holds it as long as Steve, and releases it, already a little less unsteady. His head slowly stops spinning as they repeat the breaths a few more times, each time Steve praising him, “That’s good, Buck, just like that. Deep breaths.”

Finally, Bucky can’t feel his heart pounding in his throat, and his vision is normal again. He whines as Steve continues to rub at his back. “Steve…”

“Those…creatures? They’re aliens.  They’re from another dimension. That hole you saw in the sky is a portal, some lunatic opened it to try and take over our world and—” Steve cuts himself off with a laugh of disbelief, like he really can’t believe his own words. If it were anyone other than Steve, Bucky wouldn’t believe him either. “—And we, a team, are trying to stop him.”

Bucky finds his strength again and sits up, pulling himself away from Steve who lets him go reluctantly.  Bucky stares at him a moment before he places a hand over the star on Steve’s chest. “And this?”

Steve starts to chew on his lip and juts his jaw out, thinking. Bucky waits, a newfound fountain of patience, before Steve finally says it. “Well I’m…I’m dressed like Captain America because…I am Captain America.”

Bucky thinks he can hear his brain snap in two. He laughs tentatively and pulls his hand back. “No. No, Captain America is dead. Unless...is that what you’re doing for SHIELD? Are you picking up the literal shield and acting like Cap? Or is this some weird fetish—”

“I’m Captain America, Buck,” Steve repeats, his tone no less serious.

Bucky shakes his head in resolute denial. “No…No, you’re fucking with me. Stop. Everyone knows Cap died in World War II, saving New York.”

“Apparently not,” Steve tells him, smiling sadly.  Bucky stares at him, his eyebrows furrow up and he can’t believe it, he just can’t… Bucky leans away, head shaking as Steve reaches for him again.

“No…no, don’t – don’t touch me,” Bucky wheezes, he feels like he’s been kicked in the chest again. “I gotta – I gotta think –”

“Bucky,” Steve pleads, face twisting.

“—you’re not Captain America. You can’t be. You’re – you’re Steve, you’re my friend, you…” Bucky babbles because his brain can’t compute. He wants to blame it on the loss of blood, but Steve being Captain America? That just doesn’t make sense because –

“Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t I be your friend and be…Captain America?” Steve challenges, his voice hardens at his own supposed title, but his eyes are hurt and desperate as he reaches for Bucky again, the other instinctively pulling back.

Stop, no…” Aliens in New York; other universes; a fucking wormhole in the middle of the sky, and yet the most difficult thing for Bucky to accept is that Steve thinks he’s a superhero.

“I don’t know what you want me to say…” Steve sounds lost, and he’s kneeling now, clearly trying to stop himself from crowding Bucky again.

Bucky barks a harsh laugh, “How about the truth!”

“I am telling the truth!”

“Do you even hear yourself? How can I believe that?” Bucky spits, his voice cracking.  Steve winces, and Bucky covers his eyes with his right hand. His head is spinning.

“Because I haven’t lied to you, Buck, you’ve gotta believe me,” Steve cries. Bucky feels woozy and he can feel himself start to sink as his body loses its strength, he quickly props himself up on his right arm, but the motion causes Steve to panic, his next words tripping over one another in a rush, “My name is Steven Grant Rogers. I was born July 4th, 1918,” Steve says, trying to sound stern as he slowly shifts back to Bucky’s side. “I was recruited for Project Rebirth and served in Europe to take down Hydra bases. In 1945, I had to put my plane into the water. It didn’t kill me, it…preserved me.”

Bucky’s breath quickens, his mind flooding with more questions, the disbelief is still there but he can’t stop himself from asking, “How?”

“I don’t know,” Steve murmurs, he’s now got a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky tries not to press against it. Bucky couldn’t really believe him…that was crazy! Any person can go on Wikipedia and look up Steve Rogers and get the same information…hell, Bucky had to memorize it once in high school for his history tests! But…but this is Steve. Steve, who’s always truthful; Steve, who can’t lie to save his life, and right now his expression is honest and open and very, very sad.

Bucky holds his steady gaze, reading his face, his eyes, looking for any signs of deceit or dishonesty, but he finds none. He only finds Steve looking at him with those impossibly blue eyes that are honest, desperate for Bucky to understand, to believe him, to trust him.

Bucky drops his eyes. What a day.

“Ok…ok, say I believe you.” He hears Steve’s breath catch slightly and Bucky silences him with a sharp look. “Say I believe you, that you’re really the Steve Rogers, then when…when did they find you?” Bucky croaks, he’s tired and starts to lean into Steve’s touch, and the blond quickly sidles up next to him, Bucky’s weight leaning against Steve’s chest. He feels faint.

Bucky can’t see his face, but Steve’s tone sounds weary and weak. “Um…about two weeks ago.”

Bucky freezes, snapping his eyes up to Steve’s face. “What? But you and I…”

Steve winces and nods knowingly. “The first time you saw me – when you nearly hit me with your truck? – those were my first steps into modern New York City,” Steve explains, his voice is tired, and his body softens against Bucky’s like just talking about this lifts a weight off of him that had been exhausting his strength, even as he tightens his hold on Bucky.

Bucky laughs, not out of amusement, but sheer disbelief. “Your first steps into New York and you were almost a splat on my bumper?! Jesus, Steve…didn’t your Ma teach you to look both ways before crossing the street?”

Steve gives a guilty smile. “I never really was big on self-preservation.”

“Obviously,” Bucky sighs, waving at Steve’s uniform. That earns a real chuckle from the blond. “So that’s why SHIELD was up your ass all the time…because you were adjusting.”

“Mm-hm.”

“You literally woke up into a new millennium,” Bucky says, trying to grasp what Steve was – is – going through, but all these explanations only give Bucky more questions.

“And the computer stuff? God, you asked so many questions, and about everything,” Bucky trails, dropping his face into his hand. Steve rubs his back, and Bucky can’t stop the thought of how backwards this is: Steve comforting Bucky when Steve is the man out of time.

“The computers in my time were a lot rarer and a lot bigger. No screens, they’d just print out little sheets and—”

Bucky snaps his head back up, eyes wide at Steve. “So when I tried to get you to talk…about your time overseas…”

This time Steve freezes, and his expression passes from guilt to worry to exasperation. “You gotta understand, Buck, it’s all still really fresh for me. To me, World War II was a couple weeks ago, not - not seventy years. I…I haven’t had time to think, let alone come to terms with everything,” Steve explains critically, and it sounds like a line, like he’d said it before a dozen times, and Bucky realizes he probably has, to all those SHIELD agents, maybe even to Fury.  “I couldn’t tell you because – because I just couldn’t. It, this, it doesn’t seem real, even now – fighting aliens in the future – fuck,” Steve laughs, it’s weak, and once again, Bucky is overwrought for him.

“What did it feel like for you? Waking up and –”

Steve makes a sound like he’s dying, a thick cry at the back of his throat and Bucky pushes himself in front of Steve, hands on either side of Steve’s face as the blond cracks. “I’m sorry, Steve – Steve, I’m so sorry…I shouldn’t’ve—“

Steve shakes his head, his eyes and cheeks are red, but there are no tears. “No, I just…I can’t think about that right now.” His breathing is shaky and Bucky nods furiously, whispering ‘I’m sorry’ over and over as Steve regains his composure. Finally Steve breathes a deep sigh, and when he exhales he tips his forehead to rest on Bucky’s, eyes closed, lashes damp and fanned across his cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky repeats solemnly, slipping his own eyes shut.

“For?”

“Pushing you…for trying to make you talk the other night…and then for-” Steve brings his hands up and circles his fingers around Bucky’s wrists.

“Bucky, don’t you ever apologize for—” Steve cuts himself off, Bucky can hear a quiet radioed voice and he recognizes belatedly it’s coming from the earpiece in Steve’s ear.

“Yeah, I got it. I’m on my way, Natasha. Try and keep them from crossing the bridge.” Steve says, his voice is hard and authoritative, something Bucky realizes only ever heard on the History Channel documentaries. Suddenly it all seems very unreal again.

Bucky twists out of Steve’s grip, and they both stand. Bucky still feels a little dizzy, but when Steve brings his eyes back up to Bucky’s, he feigns alertness as Steve offers an apologetic smile. “I’ve got to…”

“Duty calls, Cap.” Bucky understands, but Steve scrunches his nose.

“Don’t. You can’t call me that.”

“What? Cap? Would you rather I called you sir?” And Steve’s face flushes and a pool of heat swirls in Bucky’s belly. Oh, well there’s an idea.

“I can’t leave you here,” Steve says, nodding at Bucky’s arm and then looking around the room as if he’d forgotten exactly what the situation was outside. Bucky can’t blame him, for a moment, he was in this bubble with Steve too.

“I’ll be fine, Steve.”

“Bucky…”

“I killed three of these things already. I’ll make my way to the closest hospital when the coast is clear.” Steve narrows his eyes and Bucky rolls his own, “Or just come find me here after…I’ll be fine. Go,” Bucky says, motioning for Steve to leave. He doesn’t mention the dizziness, or the nausea now making itself known, and he can see Steve hesitate as he picks up his shield. Before he turns to leave, he grabs Bucky’s shirt loosely and pulls him in, slotting their mouths together, it’s brief and chaste, but it sends reassuring warmth down to Bucky’s toes, like a promise.

“I’ll be right back.”

“And I’ll be waiting,” Bucky assures.  Steve hesitates, and for a short second Bucky worries he’s about to be tossed over Steve’s shoulder, but then he turns to leave, leaping from the window with fearless grace.

Bucky’s head throbs and he decides he needs more air.  Erring on the side of caution, Bucky takes the stairs up to the roof, opening the door and leaning against it, sitting in front of it to keep it propped open so he can feel the air.  Distantly he can still hear explosions, but they aren’t close, not anymore.  Still, his hands shake, and Bucky hisses at the intermittent jolts of pain shooting through his shoulder.

He looks at the wound, it’s soaked through the makeshift dressing, but the bleeding has stopped, or at least considerably slowed.  Still, he tries not to focus on how his fingers are going numb on his left hand.

He’s feeling tired, and when he closes his eyes, everything feels far away and he’s not so dizzy anymore.

Steve will be back soon.

 


 

He’s shaken awake, hands on each shoulder gripping him tight. Bucky sucks in a breath, and he can hear a gasp of relief. “Bucky, Buck…open your eyes for me.”

He wants to, but he’s so tired, and the light is so bright. A shadow crosses his vision and he hears an unfamiliar voice, a woman. “Who is this, Cap?”

“A friend.”

“He doesn’t look good,” another voice, a man.

“Bucky, hey, open your eyes.”

Bucky makes a noise of protest as one of his eyelids are pulled open, and he sees a glimmer of red before his eye slips shut.  “We need to get him to a hospital. How long has he been injured?”

“I don’t know, he was hurt when I found him.”  Steve’s voice sounds shaky, concerned, and Bucky feels so dizzy but he wants to tell Steve he’s all right.

“Woah, woah, woah, kid; don’t move, yet,” the other man’s voice says. 

“You should call Stark. Or Thor.”

“I don’t want to call Stark,” Steve says, his voice is petulant and Bucky wants to laugh.

“Ok, well call Stark, or carry your friend to the hospital.”

A long pause. “Hey, Stark? I need a favor. Yeah, yeah I know you just saved the world but…”

 


 

 

When Bucky opens his eyes, he’s immediately nauseous again – the lights are too bright, the air smells stale and sterile, his mouth is foul and dry. He rolls his eyes around the room, it’s stark white, and that makes the red and blue figure sitting beside him that much more startling.  He’s watching the television, and Bucky can hear indistinct chatter about superheroes in Manhattan.

“Steve?”

Steve’s eyes fly to his and he leans forward, a hand already reaching for Bucky’s own. “Bucky! Hey…how’re you feeling?”

“Like shit,” Bucky says eloquently, he goes to lift his left hand.  His arm is in a sling, and when he goes to move it he immediately feels a jolt of pain up through his shoulder and into his chest.

“Woah, woah. Here, press this…the doctor says it has pain medicine in it,” Steve offers. Bucky clicks the button immediately and within a minute he feels a flood of relief.

Ooo, that’s good stuff,” Bucky giggles, causing Steve to smile too. “Did you bring me here?”

Steve nods, then shakes his head. “No, not really…Stark did.”

Bucky’s eyes open wide.  "Tony Stark? Did I get flown here by Iron Man?  Was it bridal style? Are there pictures?” He’s snickering again, picturing himself as the damsel in distress rocketing through the air. Steve chuckles.

“No,” he answers pointedly, and much to Bucky’s disappointment. “Stark sent a car…somehow, there was no driver, and Natasha drove us here.  I can’t drive…” Steve explains, and his tone sounds embarrassed.

“Probably didn’t have to in the forties,” Bucky comments offhandedly in Steve’s defense. Steve’s face does a funny thing at that, twisting in amusement.

“Yeah, not really.”

“You ok?” Bucky asks, and Steve’s eyes widen.

“Me? Am I ok? Bucky, you almost lost your arm,” Steve says incredulously.

“What?!”

Steve winces, he must realize that Bucky literally just woke up and he has no idea what’s happened. “I should get the nurse.”

“Wait,” Bucky says, fingers wrapping around Steve’s wrist. “How long was I out?”

Steve shrugs and looks out the window; it’s dark out. “A few hours.”

Bucky nods and lets go, watching Steve wander to the door and poke his head out.  Bucky chuckles, and Steve shoots him a questioning look. “What?”

“You’re still wearing your uniform,” Bucky points out, and Steve’s cheeks go pink.

“Yeah, well…”

“Aren’t you worried you’ll be recognized?”

“I was more worried about you,” Steve answers honestly, and Bucky finds himself at a loss for words as the nurse wanders in.

“I’m so sorry, hon, it’s been a helluva day,” says the nurse, Bucky’s only just laid eyes on her, but her personality is bursting and Bucky feels some of the nervousness ease in his chest. “Mr. Barnes? I’m Keisha, I’m your nurse. How’re you feeling?” she asks, pressing a button on the monitor beside him, immediately Bucky feels a cuff on his right arm inflate, and he wills himself to relax.

“Ok…tired. I feel…funny,” Bucky explains eloquently.

“Your head cloudy?” Bucky nods. “That would be the morphine.”

“I don’t like it,” Bucky admits.

“Pick your battles, hon. It’s either a cloudy head or a lot of pain,” Keisha explains bluntly.

“I’ll keep the morphine.”

“Good choice,” Keisha smiles as she writes down Bucky’s vital signs. “You look good here.  Now, while you were out you were given two units of blood, and we’ll be rechecking your H&H in another hour or two, but so far, you’re looking a lot better than when you came in.”

All that doesn’t mean anything to Bucky, and Steve is sitting far on the other side of the room, his hands clasped by his mouth with his elbows on his knees, hunched over and listening.

“And my arm?” Bucky asks weakly.

Keisha tsks, “It was close.  The doctor will give you a full explanation tomorrow. You’re staying here tonight, but as far as people who have survived the day? You’ve gotten pretty lucky.”

Bucky swallows because he’s sure she would know. “Yeah…”

“Get some rest, hon. I’ll be back to get that blood sample from you in an hour or so.” Keisha says, filling up a cup of water on Bucky’s table and moving it within reach. “If you need anything, this button calls me, ok? Oh, and only you can press the morphine button; not me, not the doctor, not your boyfriend –” Bucky’s face gets hot “– just you.  Call me if you need anything.” And almost as quickly as she’d come in she was gone; Bucky couldn’t hold it against her, he’d be willing to bet the hospital is overflowing now.

He tries to sit up, and immediately Steve is on his feet at Bucky’s side. Bucky smacks his hands away. “I got it, I got it.”

Steve wrings his hands. “How’s your arm?”

“It hurts,” Bucky hisses, cradling his sling with his right arm for extra support.

“You lost a lot of blood; your arm was all tore up when they took off the wrap,” Steve says, his brows tucked low in worry.

“The beauty of field medicine.” Bucky winks, but he feels dizzy sitting up and immediately slides back down. 

“Here,” Steve offers, pressing a button on the side of the bed that lowers the head of the bed down without Bucky doing the work.

“Thanks.”

“These are neat, wish we had these,” Steve says a little giddily.  He presses the button again and Bucky goes up again, then down. Bucky chuckles.  It should feel weird, joking about that with Steve, but it doesn’t, and Bucky would guess from the mixtures of looks Steve’s trying, and failing, to mask, he feels the same. “I’m glad you’re ok,” Steve mumbles, sitting in the chair by Bucky’s bed.

“Mm…ok is relative,” Bucky muses, cracking his eyes open to peek at Steve out the corner of his eyes.  He sticks out like a sore red, white, and blue thumb, and finally Bucky can’t contain himself anymore (he’ll blame it on the morphine). He sits up again suddenly, and his hand waves dramatically at Steve who looks at him in confusion. “What…what is this? What the hell are you wearing?” Bucky makes a show of poking at Steve’s suit. “Does this even offer any padding? What’re these for? Do you store stuff in here?” Bucky asks, his fingers trailing a zipper on Steve’s thigh.  He’s surprised when he’s actually allowed to grasp it without Steve pulling away, instead looking at him completely amused when Bucky grabs the zipper and begins to zip it down then up, up and down, up and down, up and –

“I don’t know,” Steve practically whines, batting Bucky’s hand away when he continues to play with the zipper repeatedly.  “When they said they had a new uniform, I was expecting something practical like my old tactical suit, not…pajamas,” Steve huffs, scrunching his nose.  His tone is what can only be described as adorably pathetic and Bucky grins wide when he sees Steve watching him from the corners of his eyes, looking a little relieved, and his mouth just barely upturned in the corners.

“Well, judging from all these tears and holes I’d say you’d better ask for your money back, pal.” Bucky grins, leaning back into his pillow.  Steve rolls his eyes wide and shakes his head.  Bucky is joking, but looking at how tattered Steve’s uniform is actually causes some worry to bubble up in his chest. “Are you ok though? I mean, I saw you fucking leap and jump across cars…and I know that you’re a super soldier and stuff but…are you hurt?” Bucky asks.

Steve gives him a small, wry smile as his face pinches into concern. “I’m fine, Bucky.  I’m fine.  I just…didn’t have time to change and I wanted to make sure you got looked at,” Steve explains firmly.

“You don’t gotta sit here with me now, though,” Bucky mumbles sheepishly. “I’m sure you’ve got…I don’t know…what do superheroes have to do after they save the city? Is there paperwork involved?’

Steve lets out a small huff of laughter, but his eyes go wide as he shrugs his shoulders. “I have no idea, but it’s over.” Steve sighs. “The rift is closed, the Chitauri are being gathered by SHIELD as we speak, and Loki is being detained.” Bucky only understands part of what Steve has said but he understands enough to believe him. “So I can take five minutes to sit with my friend now that he’s awake.  I think that’s the least I deserve.” Steve smirks and Bucky rolls his eyes as he feels his cheeks flush hot.

“Whatever,” Bucky sighs and his eyes drift to the television.  It’s news coverage of the day’s events, which they are now dubbing the Battle of New York.  There are people in the streets already clearing the rubble and debris in midtown.  Bucky begins to feel his throat tighten as he watches shaky, handheld footage of the creatures leaping onto buildings, of a giant, floating creature that looks akin to something you’d find in the deepest parts of the ocean.  Bucky feels himself choke on a gasp. “What is that thing?” He asks, eyes wide and stunned, “Did you fight one of those?”  The question sounds ludicrous as he asks it, but it’s Steve’s answer that sounds even more unreal.

“I didn’t really get close enough; I was more on the ground.  I got to watch Hulk take one down all by himself and that was interesting.  I think I woulda liked to punch a space whale though,” Steve chuckles and shrugs. Bucky feels his eyes get impossibly wider.

“Hold up – you’re disappointed that you didn’t?” Bucky squawks incredulously.

“Wouldn’t you be?” Steve asks, surprised.  He seems to realize belatedly that no, Bucky would not welcome the opportunity; he’s not some super soldier, he’s doesn’t have an iron suit or…whatever the fuck that big green guy is. He almost died, and Steve –

“Woah, hold on, Bucky, calm down…” Steve jumps to his feet at his side. “Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Steve’s eyes are on the monitor beeping behind Bucky and Bucky feels himself try to level off his breathing, he hadn’t even realized he’d started hyperventilating until Steve instructs him to match his breathing.  Steve places a warm hand on the nape of his neck and the other on his arm, and it grounds him a little. “Let me get the nurse –“

“No!” Steve stops, and Bucky shakes his head feverishly. “No. She’s busy. I’m fine…I’m good, I just…”  There were aliens.

There were aliens in New York.

Aliens exist and superheroes are real

Bucky nearly died today…AGAIN.

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and drops his head back into the pillow. “I’m sorry, this whole alien thing is news to me.”

Steve chews his lip and looks at the door again, trying to decide if he should go find Keisha or not.  He decides against it, and sits in his chair at Bucky’s bedside instead. Bucky stares hard at Steve, who seems adamant to let his eyes rest anywhere but on Bucky’s own. “I don’t get it, how’re you so calm? You were literally on the front lines.”

“So were you,” Steve’s quick to point out, eyes locked on Bucky’s left arm.

“This isn’t about me, I’m not a superhero who just thawed after, what, seventy years frozen in the arctic? I’m freaking out here and you’re fine? You’re just ok with everything?”

“I haven’t really stopped, Buck,” Steve murmurs. “I haven’t stopped fighting weird shit since 1945, and 1945 feels like yesterday.” He chokes up on the last words, and Bucky’s chest fills with guilt.

“Stevie, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound insensitive.”

Steve shakes his head. “No, you didn’t sound like that at all,” he sniffs, and when he scrubs a hand over his face he looks completely composed, like he hadn’t just revealed cracks in his composure.  Even though he empathized with Steve, he envied him and his ability to just push it back down, even if it wasn’t exactly healthy.  Bucky wanted to help, he wanted to tell Steve he could let it out, that he could cry if he needed to.

“Steve, if you need to talk…”

Steve ignores him, instead pulling a piece of paper off his bedside table and eyeing it with too much focus. “Are you hungry? We can order you some food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Bucky says, moving the menu out of the way so he can look at Steve. “Hey, are you ok?”

“You said it yourself Buck, I’m ok with everything,” Steve clips, then sighs heavily and keeps his eyes adamantly on the menu. “Keisha said it works just like room service, so it might take a few minutes to get here -”

Steve…”

“Bucky,” Steve snaps, and Bucky’s jaw immediately clamps shut at the sight of Steve glaring at him. “I’m fine. Just drop it.” Steve clenches his jaw and makes a point to look back down at the menu in his hand. 

Bucky scowls. “Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Ugh!” Bucky groans, and he lifts his good hand up to rub his eyes and he can hear Steve’s indignant huff beside him. Bucky’s frustration is boiling over, and he spits out his thoughts before he can even stop himself. “You’re so stubborn! God, talking to you is like pulling teeth!”

Steve clenches his jaw, narrowing his eyes at him. “I don’t have to talk about things if I don’t want to, Buck, so I’m not going to. You need to figure that out.”

“But it’ll help! It’ll help if you just…get some of it off your chest. Believe me, I’ve been there -”

Steve makes a show of rolling his eyes. “Jesus Christ, stop –”

“-It helps! Is it because you don’t trust me?”

“You’re the only person I trust right now.”

“Then trust me when I say you will feel better, trust me to find someone who can help you recover, to move on.”  Steve’s upper lip curls and his eyes are sharply bright, he shakes his head and willing Bucky to stop talking but he doesn’t. “Why won’t you let me help you?” Bucky explodes, exasperation and fatigue and a day’s worth of unbelievable shit finally wearing his patience.

“Because I don’t want to!” Steve bellows, and then he snaps his jaw shut, and averts his eyes as Bucky does the same.  Steve’s body is tense as a board now as he drops his head into his hands, his shoulders shaking. Shame floods him as Bucky realizes what he’s just done. Christ, he told himself he wouldn’t do one thing – that he wouldn’t push Steve – and he did it anyways.  Bucky chews on his lip as he tentatively glances over at Steve, who now has his fists in his hair.

“I’m sor–”

“Everything is different here!” Steve cries in disbelief, dropping his hands away from his face.  He looks at Bucky with tired, red-rimmed eyes, pleading for Bucky – for someone – to finally understand. “You know what guys did before when they had shell-shock? They drank. They drank and they smoked; they boxed, they gambled, they fucked, or they…jumped off the bridge,” Steve snarls, and Bucky’s stomach drops. “Men don’t – didn’t – talk about it. They didn’t need coddling, they fucking accepted it and got on with their lives.  If that meant living the rest of his life with a bottle at his side then that’s what happened!”

Steve has his hands twisted, wringing together, his face is angry and hard as he rocks back and forth in his seat, quickly unraveling.

“And it just pisses me off! It pisses me off that I literally died to save the world,” he continues.  His voice is deep and graveling, words spat out viciously. “I drowned, Bucky. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fucking pleasant; I didn’t fall asleep or…or close my eyes and wake up rested in 2012! I drowned and I remember it all. I remember every. Second. I remember every thought, every detail - I remember the water rising around me, I remember the burning in my lungs as I fought to hold my breath and knowing I couldn’t. I remember that instinctive first gasp for air that was nothing but ice. I remember dyin’, and I was – Buck, I was scared,” Steve cries. He’s leaning forward, his hands twisting Bucky’s blankets and Bucky just sits there in stunned silence as he watches Steve crumble apart, and all because he pushed him there. Steve drops his eyes to his fists, swallows a sob that almost broke loose, forcing it into a whimper instead as he continues almost eerily calm.

“But I didn’t die,” he says, almost as an afterthought, in numb disbelief. “I wake up and for the first time I feel like this body has truly failed me because everyone I know is dead, and I’m alive, and I shouldn’t be.” Steve laughs brokenly, as if the realization has just occurred to him. Tears are falling freely, at odds with the almost manic smile on his face and his next words are bitter and angry. “I died once, and I’m expected to just do it all over again.”

Steve goes real quiet again then, reserved, and Bucky can see his face twisting to fight against the already flowing tears, but Bucky doesn’t look away, he doesn’t dare to even blink away his own tears that blur his vision.

“I don’t want to – I shouldn’t have to! I don’t want to be here, I shouldn’t be – I shouldn’t be here, I should still be dead in the ocean!” Steve cries, he drops his head down onto the bed beside Bucky’s thigh.  Bucky palms the side of Steve’s neck with his right hand and guides him to his chest, and Steve goes willingly, climbing into the tiny bed and fisting Bucky’s shirt, weeping openly as Bucky alternates between rubbing circles on his back and running his fingers through his hair wordlessly.  And that’s all Bucky can do – hold the man he’d forced to fall apart, it’s all he can do because he doesn’t have the words to say.

 

 

Against all odds, they sleep. 

Steve falls asleep first, cried out and exhausted on Bucky’s chest, with Bucky’s arm wrapped around him. Bucky doesn’t dare move, not even when Keisha comes back in to draw his blood.  He warns her wordlessly with desperate eyes, and she understands.  Silently, she slips on the tourniquet and takes two small vials of blood out of Bucky’s right arm, the arm he’d had wrapped around Steve, and leaves just as quietly as she’d arrived. 

Steve doesn’t even stir.

 

 

When Bucky wakes he’s alone again, or so he thinks.  Immediately realizes he no longer has the heavy warmth of Steve pressed on his side.  There’s sunlight warming the room now, and Bucky blinks rapidly, eyes regaining their focus.

“At ease, soldier,” comes a somewhat familiar voice next to him, and Bucky turns to see a woman sitting by his bed.  She’s got the remote to the television in her hand, and she’s dressed casually in skinny jeans and a black and red shirt, a jacket thrown casually on the back of the chair she’s sitting on.  She even has her feet propped up on the edge of Bucky’s bed.

“Who’re you?” Bucky croaks. “Where’s Steve?”

“Debriefing,” the woman says. “Funny thing about saving the world, there’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

“Really?” Bucky asks, embarrassed at the excitement in his voice, he likes being right.

“Apparently,” the woman confirms, amused. “I’m Natasha.”

“Bucky,” he offers, he tilts his head back and juts his chin. “Are you a patient too?”

“No.”

“Then get your feet off my bed,” Bucky frowns, nudging her feet with his leg.  Thankfully, she takes it for the joke it (kind of) is and grins as she drops her legs off the bed and stretches to her feet.

“Steve and I have some business to attend to this afternoon, a farewell party of sorts.  He wanted me to make sure you knew he’d be back…he didn’t want to wake you. You two looked so cute curled up together,” Natasha teases with a wink, and Bucky feels himself blush.

“I don’t wanna hear it, you and I aren’t on that level,” Bucky scolds half-heartedly, and Natasha gives him a wolfish smile.

Yet,” she corrects. “I work with Steve, so I imagine this won’t be the last time I see you.”

Bucky smirks at her as she crosses her arms across her chest. If she was part of the fray yesterday, she doesn’t look it. Still…“I’m trying not to take that as a threat.”

“Only a promise,” she grins. “All right, I’m leaving. I’ve done my job. Get some rest, lover boy, Steve will be back soon.” And she’s gone with another wink, slipping silently out of Bucky’s room and leaving him alone again. He stares dumbfounded for a minute before he remembers something very important he should’ve done yesterday.

Bucky leans carefully to the bedside table and grabs the hospital phone.  He must’ve lost his cell phone, but thankfully he has two phone numbers memorized (three if he counts his favorite pizza place). He punches in the numbers and gingerly holds the phone to his ear and prepares for the worst.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Sam.”

A punctuated exhale. “James Barnes, you sonovabitch. Where the hell are you? I’ve been watching the news! I’ve called your phone a hundred times! Your mother is worried sick!”

Bucky winces. “I know, I’m sorry, Sam…I was right there in it all. I must’ve lost my phone.”

“Christ, Bucky. Where are you now? I’ll come to you.”

That’s the last thing Bucky wants, someone here hovering and babying him. “You don’t have to do that, Sam, I’m ok.”

The hell I don’t! I’m already in New York, man! They cut off traffic but I still got in…”

“You’re here!?”

“Relatively speaking,” Sam says, his tone sounds a little hurt at Bucky’s surprise. “When I couldn’t get a hold of you I worried, so I drove here and, now you can’t be mad, but I’m crashed at your apartment waiting for you. Your mom and sister have been panicking, they can’t get a flight in to come see you themselves.”

Bucky frowns. “Since when do you and my mom talk?”

“Oh all the time!” He can hear Sam grinning. “Don’t you know? We chit chat, I tell her about my girl problems, she tells me she wishes her son was more like me, same ol’, same ol’.”

Bucky’s grinning now. “You motherfucker -”

“Not yet.”

“Ughhh…” Bucky gags. “Oh god…no…no, don’t even joke, not my Ma.”

Sam just makes a contemplative noise and says, “Now I know I can’t take it as gospel, she is your mother after all, so I’ve gotta account for dramatics…but she says you only call her twice a year –”

Bucky’s face pinches, “Whaaat?”

“– And that even then all you do is talk around whether or not you’re seeing somebody. Did you know your mom’s aching for grandkids? Don’t let her down man, Becca’s too young.”

“You better get on that then, favorite son,” Bucky teases, and Sam guffaws over the line.

“Man, I’m so glad you’re ok. Where are you at? Don’t tell me, are you in the hospital? I oughta come get you, when do you get out?”

“Yeah, I’m in the hospital. They should let me out soon,” Bucky hopes. “Just wait for me at my apartment, I’ll call you with updates.”

“I drove all the way to New York City to find you and you’re going to make me wait at your apartment?” Sam asks in blatant annoyance. “Is there someone with you?”

As if summoned, he sees Steve at the door wearing those goddamn khakis and button-up shirt.  “Yeah, yeah someone is here. I gotta let you go…”

“Bucky—!” Click.

“Hey.” Bucky tries to smile, but he can’t help the pit of nervousness in his stomach.  He wonders if Steve is still mad at him.

“I’ve got doughnuts,” Steve says with his own wry smile, holding up a paper bag.  Ok, so maybe not mad but…

Bucky uses his right arm to make childish grabby motions at Steve, and the blond smiles coyly as he shuffles over to Bucky’s bedside and extends the bag of doughnuts.  He’s surprised when Bucky grabs his wrist instead and pulls him down to sit on his bed, and Bucky pretends he can’t see the early workings of a flush creeping up Steve’s cheeks.

“Everything ok?” Steve asks, his voice is lilty and casual and Bucky understands quickly that the walls are back up, he’s been pushed back to arm’s length emotionally.  Still, Steve doesn’t pull away when Bucky’s fingers twine with his own, and his eyes stay focused on their joined hands with an affectionate smile on his face.

“Am I ok?”

“You are the one in the hospital bed, Buck,” Steve points out dryly.  He’s still not meeting Bucky’s eyes, but he’s gently rubbing his thumb over Bucky’s knuckles, and Bucky feels a dichotic mixture of ease and wariness as he tugs on Steve’s hand.

“Hey…will you look at me?” Bucky asks, and Steve hesitates, but then reluctantly lifts his eyes to Bucky’s. “I’m sorry,” he says, mustering every ounce of earnest strength he has to convince Steve that he means it.

“You don’t—”

Bucky squeezes his hand and gives him an exasperated look. “Steve, for once please don’t fight me on this. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed you last night, you were so patient with me. You’d just saved the world, and I’m pretty sure you and that Natasha woman saved my life, and I acted like a total ass –”

“You were upset…” Steve interrupts, still coming to Bucky’s defense.

“Not an excuse. Hey…c’mon, look at me.” Steve pinches his eyebrows and reluctantly does as Bucky says. “Not an excuse, ok? From now on, I won’t push anymore. I’m sorry.”

“Ok…” Steve murmurs, his shoulders dropping somewhat. “I’m sorry too, I know you’re just trying to help.”

“You don’t get to apologize here, Steve, you really…you really didn’t do anything wrong. It’s on me. I just…” He laughs, self-deprecatingly, willing himself to try and not make this whole thing about him, “I can tell you’re not ok…you said it yourself and I just, I want to help…but I never meant to force myself on you, I’m sorry.”

“I can get by on my own, Buck. I don’t need you to baby me,” Steve sniffs stubbornly.

“The thing is, Steve, you don’t have to,” Bucky says, and that makes Steve pause and give him a weak smile. “No one expects you to do this on your own, I promise.”

Steve bites his lip, his brows pulling down into the barest hint of a frown. “Ok, Buck.”

“Ok?”

“Yeah, ok…” Steve smiles again, shyly this time, and Bucky feels his heart soar.

“Ok!” Bucky grins, and Steve huffs a laugh as Bucky finally makes a grab at the neglected bag of doughnuts Steve brought. “Steve…Stevie…man, are these six Boston Creams?” Bucky asks in excitement.  That blush comes back on Steve’s cheeks in full color and Steve clears his throat.

“Yeah, I remembered you saying they were your favorite.”

Bucky takes a savage bite out of one, moaning at the taste of sugar and fat and chocolate. Tastes like heaven. “I’m going to get hurt more often if you’ll bring me these.”

“Tell you what, I’ll bring you more of these if you promise not to do that,” Steve jokes, rolling his eyes as Bucky is already polishing off his first doughnut and even sucking on his fingertips for traces of it. He ate too fast, but he regrets nothing and hums in delight at Steve’s offer.

“Stevie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Bucky purrs, dropping his head back into his pillow now that his belly is full with sugar. He closes his eyes with a smile as he feels Steve’s hand find his.  He doesn’t see the tender way the blond smiles at him, filled with fondness and gratitude, all because he understood that reference.

“Yeah, Buck, I think it is.”