Actions

Work Header

Heaven and That Other Thing

Chapter Text

In his free time, Steve had begun to develop a working theory of the Starbucks misnaming system. The hypothesis he was working on, as the dark-haired server handed him his order, was that there must be some underlying conspiracy behind the seemingly random misspellings. The evidence was right there on the cup, scrawled in green marker pen; there was no way anyone could genuinely have thought his name was “Stove”.

These days Steve had too much free time.

He checked his phone for texts as he settled in behind a corner table.

            Nat:                 Are you joining the mission today?

            Steve:              Might as well, got nothing better to do

            Nat:                 :)

            Nat:                 Do you want something better to do?

Steve rolled his eyes and took a gulp of too-hot coffee.

Pretend you’re not in pain don’t make a fool of yourself in a Starbucks you’re Captain America for god’s sake.

It was only after it had seared a path down his throat that he decided texting Nat might be a better alternative to drinking coffee.

            Nat:                 Or someone better to do?

            Steve:              I’M NOT A SPINSTER NAT

Maybe he shouldn’t have come out to her, but after a few months of her sporadic interest in setting him up with an exciting variety of women whose names Steve mostly knew, it had been satisfying to say he was bi and watch her backtrack over months of entrenched assumption. She was still the only one who knew.

Now he was starting to regret it.

            Nat:                 Okay but

            Nat:                 [picture downloaded]

Dammit. He knew the face, of course. Matthew or Johnathan or someone. From accounts. He was certainly cute – Steve privately thought that freckles on dark skin was cheating and unfair and possibly illegal – but he didn’t know anything about him, not even his name (which might have been Andrew, now he came to think of it). Same as all the rest.

            Steve:              No

            Nat:                 Why not? Connor’s a nice guy

Connor. Close enough.

            Steve:              I’ve said about two words to him

            Steve:              It’s different when I’m not asking them out, y’know?

            Steve:              I mean

The difference was that asking someone out was an opportunity to get to know them better; being set up was an obligation to.

            Steve:              nvm

Steve made to take another large gulp before remembering just in time. Instead he sipped gingerly at the coffee while waiting for the next text. It was good, and it always tasted better when he drank it in the store, with the warm, rich smell of coffee beans and sugary syrup hanging in this cookie cutter café.

            Nat:                 Well have you tried idk actually asking someone out?

            Nat:                 What about her?

            Steve:              Who?

‘Excuse me sir, is this yours?’

Steve started. The voice belonged to a green apron wearing a waitress in her late twenties. The first thing Steve noticed was the heavy black lines edging a pair of monolid eyes. The second was the set of elaborate twists and braids tugging the straight black hair from her face. One hand placed a tray of used mugs on the table while the other gestured with a battered black journal.

            Nat:                 Her

Her nametag said “Opal”.

‘Uh, no. It must have been here when I sat down.’

Opal smiled, and Steve’s internal monologue kicked in in earnest.

Ask her out. She’s pretty and Nat will be happy and she’s probably nice. She seems nice, and she works at Starbucks so she’ll be able to tell you the secret of the Starbucks misnaming conspiracy.

Opal had opened the inside cover and said ‘It’s got an address in it.’

But maybe she gets asked out a lot at work and is sick of it.

‘I can take it.’ Steve offered.

She was still smiling. She had a nice smile, ‘Oh, I can’t ask you to do that.’

And if she rejects me I can never come into this Starbucks again.

‘It’s fine,’ he assured her, trying for a charming smile but not quite feeling he achieved it, ‘I have a free afternoon before I have to go into work. I may as well.’

Am I talking about myself too much? Or am I being a coward by convincing myself not to ask her out?

‘Well, if you’re sure. It’s a Brooklyn address.’

Ask her out. You’ve fought Nazis you can ask a waitress out. It’s not that hard just do it.

‘It’ll be fine.’ he said instead, and she nodded slightly and got back to work.

Idiot.

His phone buzzed again, obnoxiously.

            Nat:                 Good job

            Steve:              Shut up

            Steve:              Just because I’m bi doesn’t mean I’m into everyone I meet

He’d nearly finished his drink before another thought occurred to him.

            Steve:              And stop spying on me

There was a name and address printed delicately on the inside cover, with the neat handwriting that Steve had learned to associate – after years of his own compulsive notebook collecting – with the care typical of the first marks of ink in a new book.

Bucky Barnes

Steve had always been jealous, in a detached sort of way, of people with nice handwriting. Mister Barnes wrote with graceful hooks on the Gs and Ys, and cursive Fs that made it seem as if he had learned to print from one of the nicer font families; no amount of artistic talent had ever made Steve’s own hand anything greater than a rushed sort of scribble.

And Steve definitely had too much free time if he was examining a stranger’s handwriting.

He turned his attention to the address. Brooklyn, not far from the streets he was most familiar with. It might even be a pleasant sort of distraction.

The coffee was now cold, so he discarded the last drops and headed into fresh air. New York was loud as ever; vibrant, the travel writers called it, though at his most romantic Steve never described it as anything more exciting than lively. Most of the sounds belonged to traffic, but nonetheless it gave the impression of perpetual, energetic life if you weren’t paying attention. It was a nice enough day, and Steve decided to walk.

Crossing the bridge didn’t come with that desperate sort of nostalgia anymore. These days, it came with a homecoming gaze over the familiar neighbourhoods and renewed thoughts of the apartment he’d have one day, soon, probably. But the address he had brought him to an unfamiliar building huddled in a street he barely recognised.

The ghost of a once-thriving ivy plant was still etched on the place’s three floors, but these days there was only the accumulated soot of the city over large, pale bricks. The iron railings all curved intricately like the hairstyle that Opal had worn, and the front door was jewelled in coloured glass. The style was distinctive, a remnant of art nouveau, with red brick buildings towering over it on all sides.

The cracks and the soot, and the cleaner square with the holes in the brick, just to the side of the door and implying some sign had been tugged unceremoniously from the wall, all suggested that the owner wasn’t as affluent as first glance might suggest. And yet, the whole front of the building glittered with flashes of sunlight against the many panes of old, wide windows, like some many-faceted jewel.

There was no doorbell, but the door was open and a notice hanging on it informed him in cheerful blue that, whatever this place was, it was open. The windows around the door chased the sunlight inside, and it fell across the carpet in a mismatched patchwork of colours. It was enough to dispel the gloom, and Steve could clearly make out the welcoming smile of the beautiful woman behind what appeared to be a makeshift counter.

Please don’t be a brothel. Please don’t be a brothel.

‘You’re Captain America.’ she said, with all the cheer of a greeting.

Steve considered denying it until he knew this place was savoury enough for Captain America to be in, but her certainty seemed to make that futile, so he merely shrugged and said, ‘I usually go by Steve.’

Please, please don’t be a brothel.

‘Nice to meet you, I’m Becca Barnes. How may I help?’

Steve drew the journal out of his jacket pocket, ‘I’m looking for a Bucky Barnes?’

‘That’s my brother, he’s upstairs.’

‘Right.’ Bucky and Becca Barnes, ‘Ah-’

‘We’re not twins.’ she added, pre-empting a question that she must have learned to expect, ‘It’s just a coincidence of nicknames. You can head right up if you like.’

The door she gestured to appeared to be solid wood that had almost, but not entirely, been stripped of white paint. To Steve’s surprise, the stairway behind it was lined with peeling retro wallpaper.

He didn’t particularly want to go upstairs.

Please don’t be a rent boy. Please don’t be a rent boy in some weird family brothel.

Sunlight was pouring through the single open door on the upstairs landing. A man’s voice was drifting out. Steve could catch the tone – stern, but kind – but not the words. He knocked on the wood of the door as he looked inside.

His artist’s eye couldn’t pick a detail to rest on. Behind the clear glass, the Brooklyn Street made up the background. The foreground was claimed by a brunet man who now turned towards him, haloed with bright sunshine and utterly surrounded by kittens.

What the hell sort of brothel is this?

‘Hi?’ the man said, as a small bundle of white fur began the trek up his left trouser leg and toward the food in his hand.

‘Hi, uh. I’m looking for Bucky Barnes?’

‘Well you’ve found him.’

Steve stepped into the room and raised the journal as an explanation, earning himself a delighted grin in response.

‘Thank god you’ve found it.’

‘It was in Starbucks.’ Steve said, as something began gently nudging his ankle.

Bucky collected it with another smile and several thank yous, while Steve glanced down at his ankle. He was looking at a bundle of multi-coloured streaks of fur; black and chocolate, chestnut, caramel and ginger, like broad strokes of barely-mixed paint. It paused the attention it was giving to his leg to blink at him with wide, blue eyes, before turning to the chew toy it apparently believed his shoelaces to be.

‘You interested in adopting a cat?’ Bucky asked, somewhat hopefully.

‘Adopting?’ Steve repeated, bending to scratch the kitten behind its ears. Now that Bucky had moved out of the sunlight, Steve could see him more clearly. There were scratches old and new marking his (strong, tan) arms, dark eyelashes framing his blue eyes, soft lips-

Steve’s internal monologue cleared its throat.

‘This is a cat shelter.’ Bucky was saying, and his Brooklyn accent was delightful, ‘I gotta try and get you to adopt one or I’m not doing my job, am I?’

Bucky shook some hair out of his eyes and Steve forced himself to drop his gaze to the now purring kitten.

Two crushes in one day, Rogers. Don’t let Natasha know.

‘This is a cat shelter?’ Steve asked, stupidly.

‘Yeah, ah…’ he frowned at the door, ‘did they take the sign again? They keep taking the sign.’

That would explain the empty square Steve remembered from the outside wall. He was all too aware that at every moment he was losing his justification for being there. But he wasn’t desperate enough to actually adopt a cat so it was about time he left.

‘Who does?’ he asked instead.

Ask him out ask him out ask him out.

‘It’s a long story.’ Bucky said, with what may have been a shrug. Steve got as far as thinking he’s probably straight before Bucky added, ‘But I could tell you some time, if you want?’

Wait…

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Over coffee, maybe?’

Oh my god. Okay, act cool.

Bucky was the one who looked nervous now, fixing a tentative grin as he finished, ‘I heard you like Starbucks…?’

‘What time do you get off?’ Steve asked. There was a fleeting pause as both men considered the possible innuendo in that question, and Steve cringed internally.

‘Well I own the place,’ Bucky answered, gesturing vaguely around him, ‘so whenever I like. Though you may have to stop FDR from chewing your shoelaces.’

Steve glanced down to where the kitten was indeed still attempting to eat through his laces. He bent down to scoop it up, pleasantly surprised when it reacted by immediately burrowing into his elbow and continuing to purr.

‘FDR?’

‘It stands for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’

‘Yeah I- I remember.’

It wasn’t Roosevelt’s face that sprung to Steve mind, but the image of his ma buying their food without looking as though she was trying not to cry, for the first time since the markets crashed.

‘You remember…’ Bucky titled his head slightly and Steve felt his stomach drop. The look of recognition that followed was becoming all too familiar for him, ‘wait, aren’t you-’

‘Kinda.’

Bucky blinked, ‘Kinda? You’re “kinda” Captain America?’

‘Well. I mean. I’m not wearing a flag right now. So you could probably call me Steve.’

He shuffled his feet awkwardly, suddenly wishing he wasn’t holding a kitten at that moment, so he could leave and pretend he’d never stumbled into the building.

Bucky looked as awkward as Steve felt, ‘Okay so, when I asked you if you wanted coffee, although you’re probably used to the future right now and uh, but anyway, I kinda need to clarify.’ he bit his bottom lip and Steve could only hope that he wasn’t about to back out, ‘I mean as a date. But not, like, a serious date. Like a casual date. Over coffee.’

Bucky seemed to be holding his breath.

With an attempt at a reassuring smile, Steve said, ‘Are you always this nervous when you successfully ask someone out?’

There, you’re committed now. You have to have coffee with this guy. Try not to be too weird.

‘I swear I’m usually smoother than this.’ Bucky answered, smiling when Steve chuckled in response.

FDR meowed so tragically when he was put down that Steve momentarily considered just sneaking him into his pocket and shoplifting the thing. Instead he was left behind, watching with melancholic eyes, as the two humans headed downstairs. One of them was holding a heated debate inside his own head.

Bad move, Rogers, you know nothing about him.

I know he’s wearing skinny jeans.

That doesn’t make him trustworthy. Or even date-worthy. How do you know you’ll even get along? And aren’t you supposed to be pretending to be completely straight?

Some very good points, but consider: he looks great in skinny jeans.

One of the many wonderful things Steve had discovered about the future was that calf muscles were no longer considered exclusively feminine. Men and women alike wore clothes that weren’t designed to suggest that the lower leg was actually a column of empty space over which the human body mysteriously hovers.

Bucky wore skinny jeans like all iterations of the garment were designed with his calves (and thighs, and ass) specifically in mind. Or, maybe, Steve should stop checking out this guy he just met from behind.

‘Can you finish getting the cats upstairs?’ Bucky was saying, placing the cat food on his sister’s cluttered desk, ‘I’m going out. Most of them are fine but I’m pretty sure James K. Polk is looking to escape.’

This guy Steve just met apparently had a cat called James K. Polk.

Becca glanced from Bucky to Steve and back, replying, ‘Do you have a superpower I don’t know about?’

Pulling off skinny jeans, Steve’s internal monologue suggested, and Steve couldn’t help but approve of that superpower both figuratively and literally, in this case.

Bucky just winked and changed the subject, ‘Jimmy Carter’s missing too.’

Who is naming these cats?

Becca nodded to a telephone table near the door, and Steve followed her gaze. There, resting peacefully, was a kitten that Steve supposed must be Jimmy Carter. It was larger than FDR, with grey fur and a face so squished that it seemed to be perpetually pressing against an invisible glass door.

And then they were heading outside, Bucky scowling at the place where the sign used to be as they passed. The sun was plenty warm to walk through, so they cheerfully ignored each empty cab that passed down the busier streets and made their way to the closest Starbucks on foot.

Steve used to call this one Brooklyn Starbucks, as he explained to Bucky in the absence of any other topic of conversation materialising, but now he called it SteeBeecks. He elaborated in response to a quizzical glance; unlike the more creative misspellings of his name, this place always simply changed the numbers of Es.

Bucky laughed, ‘They never misspell my name.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

He laughed again and Steve felt a pleasant lightness in his chest. Maybe this would go well and he wouldn’t later want to surgically remove the memory of this afternoon from his brain.

He drew out his phone as they left the sunshine for the building. This store was up a wide set of titled stairs, and filled an open industrial-esque space that – like many places in New York – looked like it was a portion of a disused warehouse or factory, but probably wasn’t. The windows were big enough, and the brick red and exposed enough, that it could be the set of a NYC sitcom.

Every time he walked in there he couldn’t help but wonder how many Manhattan apartments could have fit inside this one coffee shop.

Steve drew his phone out while Bucky ordered and texted Natasha;

            Steve:              Change of plan. Is Sam available for the mission instead of me?

            Nat:                 You better have a good reason.

            Steve:              [image downloaded]

Steve managed to avoid Bucky noticing the photograph being taken by about two seconds, before it was his turn to order. He shoved his phone and hand into his pocket hurriedly and mumbled the first coffee that came to mind.

His phone buzzed in his pocket but he refused to pay it any mind, focussing instead on casting around for something to say while they waited for their order.

Bucky broke the silence instead, with, ‘Is your phone buzzing?’

‘Yeah.’ Steve said, apologetically, ‘Tony put the vibration on the highest setting as a joke about how I must be deaf because I’m ninety-seven.’

Maybe don’t remind the attractive stranger who asked you out that you are old enough to be his grandfather. Great grandfather, even. Look at him, he’s a twenty-first century guy. He wears a scarf when it’s warm out. Millennials do that.

‘So why don’t you turn it back down?’

‘Because I um…’ Steve waited for a lie to come to his rescue but his mind remained stubbornly blank, so he was forced to admit, ‘I never actually worked out how.’

Actually you know what? Maybe don’t talk.

Bucky began to laugh again, but stopped himself, biting at his lip instead and offering, ‘Don’t feel too bad. When my younger sister first broke a phone screen she thought she could fix it by filling the gaps with glue, so you could always be less tech savvy.’

‘That’s comforting.’

‘Well, hey, I can fix it for you after you check those texts. And then Tony won’t get the satisfaction and at least you haven’t accidentally glued your phone to the family dog when you came home for thanksgiving.’

Steve nodded and turned his attention to his phone, making sure to angle the screen away just enough to not make Bucky suspicious.

            Nat:                 :

            Nat:                 It’s :D without the D

            Nat:                 Because you’ll probably be getting the D later

            Nat:                 btw Sam says you owe him one

‘Anything important?’

‘Not remotely.’

The server called Bucky’s name and Steve took the opportunity to delete any incriminating texts, just in case. When Bucky returned Steve couldn’t help but notice the name on the side of the cup, spelt correctly, utterly bereft of any unnecessary vowels.

The paper cup Steve retrieved had “Steeve” scrawled across it, which earned him another short laugh when he showed Bucky. Bucky, Steve was learning, was apparently quick to laugh. And it was a nice laugh; the sort that would be described as “melodic” by people who probably didn’t fully understand what a melody was. Nor was it too loud, he could probably laugh relentlessly without it seeming obnoxious.

Steve hadn’t learned many things about this person yet, but he liked all the things he had learned so far. He wondered what the first flaw he’d find would be.

Maybe he’s a serial killer.

Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes at himself as they headed for the table. It was thoughts like those – not the Starbucks Conspiracy or Natasha’s borderline nagging, or even Sam’s occasional hints that he should get a hobby – that really made him think that he had too much free time. It wasn’t that he was genuinely concerned that Bucky was a serial killer, it was just that he had idly been guessing at potential flaws and his mind decided that that would be interesting. Not in a pro-serial killer kind of way, more like an instinctive knowledge that there were more stories about serial killers than there were stories about people who eat with their mouth open.

God I hope he doesn’t eat with his mouth open.

They settled into the table in the far corner, a bit too large for the two of them. As rewards for this decision they earned sofas that were much more comfortable that the hard chairs towards the centre, a nice view of the afternoon-lit street below, and the unsubtle glare of an old lady a few tables over, who was either homophobic or very particular about how many people should sit at a table of that size.

The room was too tall and too spacious for the smell of coffee to drift through, but the muted buzz of conversation worked just as well to create the atmosphere of the place. The coffee was warm and so was Brooklyn, gleaming under the early summer. By any rational meter this was a far more pleasant endeavour than what he had had planned.

It was only now that Steve realised how awkward this could be. The whole point of the exercise was to hold a conversation, which could be torture if he couldn’t think of anything to say.

How do I convince him I’m not that weird? What do I tell him about myself that he doesn’t already know? What is he interested in? Music? Freedom? Trees? What? When’s a good time to mention Nat’s inevitable background check?

‘Uh. So. Nice to meet you.’

‘You too.’

‘Yeah.’

Bucky was nice to animals, Steve mused idly, so he probably wouldn’t be the type of serial killer from B grade horror films. Or maybe the cats were trophies from his victims. Maybe he fed the cats the bodies.

Steve drank some coffee as an excuse not to say anything else, and immediately regretted it.

‘Isn’t that still a bit hot?’ Bucky asked, with some concern, ‘Or does the serum thing sorta fix that stuff?’

‘Serum.’ Steve lied, trying to ignore his burning tongue.

‘Oh cool.’

Say something.

He couldn’t think of a response, so he faked another sip from the cup and cast around for a new topic. Something that would help him work out if he liked Bucky or not.

‘Nice scarf.’ God dammit. I can’t believe I just said that. Think of something more interesting to say, ‘It’s a nice colour.’

‘Thanks, I knitted it myself.’

Maybe he kills people who are cruel to animals. That’s probably it. With knives, and possibly some Satanic ritual.

‘You can knit?’

That’s adorable.

‘Uh. Well.’ he looked down at his scarf, ‘Yeah.’

Yes. Obviously. He knits. Ask less stupid questions.

‘I um. Well, I don’t knit. But I did once stab someone with a kitting needle if that counts-’ What? Shut up shut up shut up. ‘-they survived. And they got a free knitting needle. Which would be useful for-’ shut up ‘-gloves or. Jumpers. Winter can be cold in Europe.’

Great. Now who seems like a serial killer?

‘Yeah, I’ve heard that about Russia especially. Lots of. Snow. And Russians.’

Bucky started worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth again and Steve realised that he wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

‘I’ve never actually been to Russia. But you’re probably right about the snow. And the Russians.’

The windows were on the wrong side to capture the light, and Steve found himself trying to hold onto the image of Bucky the first instant he saw him, all lit up by the sun, just to keep his heartrate steady. He hadn’t thought of the risks then, but he saw them all too clearly now; the thought of a stranger knowing this much – too much – about him was starting to terrify him. It had seemed simple enough at the time, but now the threat of tabloid magazines and too many questions hovered at the edges of their little space and Steve just wasn’t ready.

So you better make him like you.

Bucky took a sip of coffee and Steve took that as a cue that his own was cool enough to drink.

He broke the silence with, ‘Why are your cats named after presidents?’

Another smile, Bucky seemed to be even quicker to smile than he was to laugh, ‘It’s a family tradition. It wasn’t really intended for cats but I’m probably not gonna have any kids, so whenever anyone brings in a litter of kittens that they haven’t named yet, they become presidents. Or first ladies, like my sisters are named after. When they get adopted I just reuse the old names.’

Steve’s first thought was that there was at least one cat somewhere in New York City called Richard Nixon. His second thought was ‘I did miss a chunk of the twentieth century, but I don’t recall there being a president named Bucky.’

To Steve’s complete surprise, Bucky dipped his head as blush began creeping into his face. He mumbled something to the table.

‘Sorry?’

‘It’s a secret.’ he mumbled, slightly louder.

‘Well I work in a place with lots of secrets,’ Steve pointed out, ‘and I’m pretty sure none of them involve some guy called Bucky secretly being president of the United States.’

Bucky shook his head, blushing ever harder, ‘Okay I’ll tell you if I can ask a question first. It’s not too personal or anything,’ he added quickly, ‘I hope. I’m just… kinda unsure… about something-’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Okay so I don’t want to pry.’ he began, ‘But I mean, well I’m not exactly up on celebrity news but I’m pretty sure you’re straight. Publicly at least. But ah…’

He gestured vaguely to the coffee cooling on the table between them and Steve nodded. He had enough experience trying to figure out where he stood in a social situation to empathise.

‘Well, I’m not out, and I didn’t think it through until after I agreed to coffee.’ he admitted, unable to keep his voice from dropping and feeling the adrenaline of trying to force the next words out even though there was no secret in them anymore, ‘But I’m bi, if that clears things up?’

Bucky nodded, returning to biting at his lip and with his complexion now turning a marvellous shade of red, ‘And to answer your question,’ he surveyed the room and leaned forward conspiratorially, ‘My name is James Buchanan Barnes.’

Steve wasn’t sure how to react to that.

‘Is that… bad?’

‘In my experience, when you let people know what your first name is, they find it funny to use it frequently for some reason. It’s fine when they’re using my full name, I just hate being called James.’

Steve placed a hand over his heart, ‘I swear, on my honour – and according to the history books Rhodey lent me, I’ve got lots of that – I will never call you James.’

He was starting to like the way the corners of Bucky’s eyes crinkled when he smiled. It was the sort of smile, and the sort of face, that Steve would have loved to draw if they’d met before the war.

‘I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.’

‘Deal.’ Steve agreed, ‘So what’s so bad about being called James Buchanan?’

Bucky leaned back on his sofa with amusement in his eyes, his shoulders against the chestnut upholstery and a bit more confidence in his posture.

‘Fifteenth president of these United States, James Buchanan.’ Bucky began, with the air of someone who had long ago perfected the telling of this story, ‘Widely considered one of the worst presidents in US history.’

The tale continued, Steve listening to the facts and the jokes and privately thinking that if his teachers had explained things like Bucky did, he would have been much better at school. The conversation continued, through history jokes and conspiracy theories, and a lively debate about who ought to be president next out of anyone from history. By the time Steve was arguing a case for Aleister Crowley, the coffee had gone cold on the table between them, and the old lady was leaving, glaring as she went.

‘She probably thinks you’re a Satanist.’ Bucky suggested, in a stage whisper, ‘All your talk about Crowley.’

‘I can’t be a Satanist, I’m Irish.’

‘And the two are mutually exclusive, are they?’

‘They were in nineteen thirty-five, let me tell ya.’

Whatever Bucky’s response was going to be, it was cut off when his phone rang. He checked the name on the screen, and then glanced at his watch.

‘It’s Becca,’ he supplied, declining the call, ‘She’ll be wanting me to finish the work for the day, I didn’t realise how long I’ve been here.’

The fluttering of nerves returned, to a lesser extent, as they traded phone numbers and considered doing this again, with an excess of “maybe”s and “sometime”s and “or something”s.

When they finally parted, it took Steve’s mind a matter of seconds to begin the inevitable process of running through everything he’d said and done in his mind and singling out things to dwell on. By now the shadows were starting to lengthen, and he decided to take a cab back to the tower and talk with Nat about what to do next-

Damn. She wouldn’t be back from her mission yet.

He hadn’t eaten anything but coffee since breakfast, so he microwaved a dinner in his kitchen and headed to the communal area to eat.

‘You really gotta eat better, Steve.’

Steve started, looking around to find Sam somehow reclining comfortably over two thirds of a five person sofa. They both glanced to Steve’s plate, on which sat a packaged mass of tomato and cheese with the dubious claim of being lasagne.

‘Yeah yeah.’ Steve grumbled, scooping up a large mouthful on his fork, ‘I thought you were on a mission.’

‘I was,’ he confirmed, ‘turned out to be easier than we expected. Not that you would have known that.’

Sam raised his eyebrows as Steve shuffled guiltily, but there was nothing serious in the accusation in his tone.

‘I know, I owe you one. I’ll add it to the list.’

‘So what was so important that you had to pull out last minute?’

The question hung in the silent room. Steve took another bite of lasagne. The carpet he was standing on was suddenly fascinating, all soft and unworn. How long did it take to weave a carpet? Steve pictured a sole worker tending to a vast array of elaborate machines, cast in shining bronze, out of which sprung fourth mountains of multi-coloured carpets.

‘What are you thinking about this time?’

Sam said he needed to reign in his imagination sometimes, but Steve didn’t see the point of what would essentially mean being bored all the time.

‘Uh… so is Nat here?’

‘Yeah, she’s-’ but Steve was too distracted by his phone buzzing to catch the end of the sentence, almost smiling to himself when he saw Bucky’s name.

            Bucky:             What do I tell my sister about what we were doing today

            Bucky:             ?

He looked from the messages to Sam and swallowed. Sam must have seen something in his expression because his face turned to concern.

If you didn’t want to have to deal with this problem, Rogers, you shouldn’t go on a date with a guy while you’re still in the closet. You brought this on yourself.

Steve’s internal monologue could be an asshole sometimes, but he had to admit that it had a point. Sam was the closest thing he’d ever had to a best friend.

            Bucky:             nvm I’ll think of a lie

It was one hell of a leap to take; Steve had preferred waiting on the edge for some time now, and even the thought of taking that next step was raising his heartrate uncomfortably.

            Steve:              Its fine you can tell her the truth

            Steve:              If you want

            Steve:              Just ask her not to tell anyone else

Okay. This was okay. This was progress of some kind, probably. He didn’t have to tell the world all at once, he could just tell a few people.

            Bucky:             If you’re sure

            Bucky:             And dw about Becca she’s trustworthy

Sam’s not gonna judge. He’s gonna be fine. But if you’re gonna let two strangers know today you gotta tell him.

            Steve:              I’m sure

‘You alright?’

Sam was still watching him, and still looking concerned.

‘Yeah I- I’m fine. I just, can we talk?’

Great, now you’re scaring him.

Sam swung his legs off the sofa at sat up straight, ‘Of course, what is it?’

‘Nothing bad,’ Steve said quickly, then began searching for an introduction to this conversation, ‘I, ah, didn’t join the mission today because I… had… a date.’

Sam’s eyebrows raised so far that his forehead bunched up in creases above them. ‘Okay,’ he said slowly, ‘What’s her name?’

‘Well see the thing is. Um. The date wasn’t actually with a woman.’

The silence was only a fraction of a second, and Steve was amazed by just how much panic he could fit into such a small space of time.

‘Right. Okay. So-’

‘So I thought I should maybe come out. To you anyway. Nat knows. But only because I sorta let it slip.’

Sam nodded, ‘So you’re…?’

‘I’m bi. Probably should have started with that.’

‘Okay.’ Sam said again, ‘So what’s his name?’

Relieved, Steve relaxed somewhat and admitted, ‘I’m waiting for Natasha, she’ll want to know all about it.’

Sam pulled out his phone, ‘I’m texting her.’

‘Sam, c’mon. At least let me finish my lasagne first.’

‘Nuh uh. I want to hear all about your date. And that is not lasagne.’

‘It’s trying, and that’s what counts.’

The lift doors opened thirty seconds later, and Natasha strode in with an expectant ‘Spill.’

They both turned to Steve, who took a breath.

‘Well, his name’s Bucky. He’s from Brooklyn, which is nice. Smiles a lot.’

‘Is he cute?’ Nat interjected.

‘Yes. But that might have been the kittens.’

 ‘What?’ Sam asked.

‘He was surrounded by kittens.’

‘…What?’

‘Kittens. Small cats.’

What?

‘He was surrounded by them.’

‘What?’

‘He was surrounded by-’

‘So what you’re saying,’ Natasha mercifully interrupted, ‘is that there was a crowd of kittens and you were more interested in the person?’

‘He was wearing these skinny jeans-’

‘I don’t care how cute the guy is. Kittens are cuter. It’s science. Ask Jane.’

‘Science.’ Sam agreed, solemnly.

‘I dunno,’ Steve told him, ‘Jimmy Carter wasn’t that cute.’

‘What?’

‘Jimmy Carter.’

‘What?’

‘He wasn’t that- we are not doing this again, Sam.’

Sam still looked lost, ‘Are you telling me the thirty-ninth president of the United States was also there?’

‘Jimmy Carter is a cat. All his cats are named after presidents.’

Sam and Natasha glanced at each other, and Steve guessed that they were silently daring each other to be the one to ask. Predictably, Sam lost.

‘How… ah… how many cats does this guy have?’ he asked.

‘We’re only asking because we care,’ added Natasha, ‘and we don’t want you dating a crazy cat guy.’

Steve rolled his eyes, ‘He runs a shelter.’

‘Well that’s alright then.’ Natasha said, ‘Now tell us everything about- that hydra info you got.’ she invented, after the tiniest of pauses as Tony entered the room.

A heartbeat, then Steve felt himself switch back into One Hundred Percent Hetero Captain America mode as he picked up the lie with a simple, ‘It’s in the report.’

‘They’re probably planning something evil.’ Tony suggested, sagely.

They could always find somewhere new to talk, but suddenly Steve wasn’t in the mood to tell (two of) his friends the details of his afternoon. Instead, he finished the rest of the meal that wasn’t quite lasagne and headed for his floor.

This evening it wasn’t his imagination that kept him occupied, but his memories. Police raids and scandal, and the first time he’d kissed a boy, now long dead. And trying not to cry too loudly in his room the night they broke up, realising that there was no one in the world he could turn to for sympathy.

He still wasn’t ready, but he was starting to feel optimistic. He had a lot of secrets in his life that he couldn’t tell anyone, but this didn’t have to be one of them anymore.

Chapter Text

The next few days were marked by Steve attempting to ascertain – availing himself of every source and equation Google could offer him – precisely when to text Bucky.

Not that that was the only question. Steve had a list hovering at the forefront of his mind.

  1. Who ought to text first?
  2. When’s a good time to text?
  3. What do I say?
  4. Do I ask him out again?
  5. What sort of date is a normal follow-up to coffee?
  6. Does he even like me?
  7. Am I overthinking this?

He had decided, after careful deliberation, that he should be the one to text first. That way Bucky wasn’t initiating everything and the whole thing seemed more balanced. This decision brought with it the problem that he apparently had no idea how to text Bucky.

On the third day, early afternoon, he decided that then was the ideal time to text him, if only he could think of something to say.

Maybe play it cool. You can do cool. You were frozen solid for sixty-six years, that’s how cool you are.

After writing and deleting seven separate text messages, the next step seemed to be to run through everything that they had discussed and hope to stumble upon something that could start a conversation. Eventually he typed out a message he thought sounded okay and pressed send before he could change his mind.

            Steve:              Y’know if you want people to stop stealing the sign outside your building, I know a lot of intimidating people who could help

It took three seconds for Steve to regret every word.

Bucky didn’t reply immediately, so for the next few minutes Steve’s internal monologue was filled with you idiot he thinks you’re a moron now he probably wasn’t even expecting a text from you and you should just forget all about him and try to pretend this never happened because it’s the only way that you’re not going to embarrass yourself further-

            Bucky:             hmm. Interesting offer but Im gonna try to reason with them first

            Steve:              Well in that case would you consider a second date instead?

That coffee was the first date, right? He definitely called it a date?

            Bucky:             Very smooth. When and where?

When and where? Steve’s mind filled with a distant humming sound and his internal monologue going uuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

            Steve:              tbh I didn’t think this far ahead. Is dancing still a thing?

Rogers what are you doing you can’t dance.

            Bucky:             Not the kind of dancing you’re familiar with. People mostly get drunk and sorta jump around

            Steve:              I can’t get drunk. Serum.

            Bucky:             Implying you’re game to jump around?

Steve honestly believed he’d injure someone if he tried that.

            Steve:              How about movies? People still watch movies. I know because there are millions of them I’m supposed to catch up on.

Again with the reminding him how old you are.

            Bucky:             Friday?

            Steve:              Friday’s good

And that answered question number five. Only six and seven were left to give him grief.

            Bucky:             :)

Does that mean he’s happy we have a second date? Or did he put that because he wasn’t interested enough in the conversation to think of anything to say?

Steve couldn’t think of a way to respond to that, so he asked about the time and place. And then, when the conversation finally came to an end, the only thing left to do was wait until Friday. It shouldn’t be that hard.

Except he definitely had too much free time these days.

He didn’t stay in his own tiny apartment much that week, preferring to hover indecisively around the tower until someone crossed his path with an offer to kill some time. On this occasion it was Thor.

‘Hi-’

‘I still cannot bring you to Asgard.’

‘I wasn’t gonna ask this time.’ Steve objected, resisting the urge to pout. It wasn’t his fault that he was so keen to see the place; when he was younger he’d been told that there’d be a lot more space travel in the future.

‘In that case what can I help you with?’

Steve shoved his hands into his pockets and thought for a moment.

‘Wanna come up with more fight tricks?’

‘Yes.’ Thor answered immediately.

‘Perfect. I’ll grab my shield.’

Steve took the lift up to his floor, thinking about how good a job he was doing at not thinking about his date on Friday, and retrieved his shield from where it was leaning against the kitchen wall. By the time he made it to the training room, Thor was already waiting there, swinging his hammer as if he were preparing for a baseball game.

With a flicker of a smile, Steve gripped his shield like a Frisbee and spun it towards the ersatz baseball bat.

Thor swung. Hard.

The shield hit the opposite wall and ricocheted, bouncing off the thick walls several times with a disappointing “ping”, while Steve and Thor dropped to the floor for safety. Lying there on the rubbery mat and listening to his shield clatter to a stop, Steve couldn’t help but think yes, this will be the perfect distraction.

‘Still don’t think we’re gonna do any damage to these walls.’ he said, with more than a hint of frustration. They’d been trying for weeks, just to annoy Stark, ‘Wanna get some obstacles out instead?’

‘To what end?’

‘Ever played pinball?’

He took Thor’s confusion to be a negative answer, and set about explaining the game. With each sentence Thor’s expression grew more delighted, until Steve recognised it as the same one Tony wore right before something exploded.

‘As long as you do not tell Jane.’ he finally agreed, grinning like a manic puppy.

Before he could stop it, Steve’s mind flicked to wondering how Bucky would react to hearing about this experiment. How mature and responsible was he? How mature and responsible does he expect me to be?

‘What do we do when it hits the ground?’ Thor asked, once a few obstacles have been set up; a makeshift set of metal poles and stocky boxes of wood and a sofa from somewhere.

‘Hmm.’ said Steve.

Both men thought intently for a few moments, trying to think of a way to organise this without getting Tony involved. Eventually, Steve announced that he was texting Bruce.

            Steve:              Hey, do you maybe have any giant magnets and a willingness to keep a secret from Maria?

The response came almost immediately.

            Bucky:             Well idk who Maria is so sure

            Bucky:             But unfortunately I’m fresh out of giant magnets :/

Shit shit fuck shit Rogers you fucking moron.

            Steve:              Shit sorry I sent that to the wrong person

            Bucky:             Yeah, I guessed

‘Has he agreed?’ Thor asked.

‘Hang on.’ Steve replied, aware that he was rapidly turning bright red.

            Steve:              Your name is where Bruce’s normally is in my contacts sorry

            Bucky:             So why do you need giant magnets and should I be concerned?

            Steve:              It’s just a training thing don’t worry

Steve quickly texted Bruce the same question, triple checking the name, while his phone continued to buzz from Bucky’s replies.

            Bucky:             pls don’t tell me its confidential

            Bucky:             Aw c’mon Steve don’t keep me in suspense, I gotta know what the magnets are for

            Bucky:             I promise I won’t tell that Maria person you were talking about

In the time it took Steve to read the messages, Bruce had replied with a question mark. Steve told Bruce where he and Thor were, and returned to considering his options.

Would Bucky disapprove if he told him the truth? Did Steve even want to lie?

            Steve:              Okay fine

            Steve:              But you can’t laugh

            Bucky:             How would you know if I laughed?

            Steve:              I’m an avenger, we have a surveillance system or something, probably

That sounds threatening. Good job, Steve.

            Bucky:             Okay I swear I won’t laugh. Now why do you need the magnets?

Steve typed out his response and held his breath, forcing his thumb to hit the send button on his phone screen.

            Steve:              Me and Thor were trying to play pinball with my shield but it won’t stay in the air long enough so we thought magnets would help it sorta float

Oh shit it looks so stupid written down.

            Bucky:             Oh my /god/

            Steve:              Okay so it’s not /really/ training

            Bucky:             Can you film it? This is the sorta content YouTube needs

            Bucky:             Make Pinball Wizard the background music it’ll be great

That’s a good response, right? That’s not disapproval?

            Steve:              We gotta set up the magnets first

            Bucky:             Alright don’t let me distract you. Tell me how it went on Friday

‘What are you smiling at?’

Steve looked up, Bruce was watching him from across the room.

‘Nothing.’ Steve said automatically.

‘Are you sure? Because it looked like-’

‘What me and Thor were thinking…’ Steve interrupted, before successfully distracting Bruce with the details of their proposed “training” exercise.

‘Anyone ever told you that you have too much free time?’ Bruce finally responded.

All the time, pal.

‘That didn’t sound like a no.’

After the obligatory show of being reluctantly dragged into this, Bruce set out designing the exact magnet set up. The fact that there were apparently some spare giant magnets floating around the tower perhaps didn’t surprise Steve as much as it should have.

Bruce and Thor headed off in search of one, leaving Steve alone with Mjolnir.

There it was, looking all dramatic with the handle pointing towards the distant ceiling, like this was an intentional set up.

But no one was watching.

Steve’s eye’s flickered over every inch of the room, looking for ajar doors or cameras he didn’t know about, or places to spy from. No one was watching. Definitely, no one.

He’d have to be quick, in case they came back.

Carefully, he reached out his right hand, griping the handle firmly and lifting.

It was as surprisingly light as he remembered; he imagined it’d be easier to swing in battle that way. So he could still lift it then. Somehow he wasn’t quite sure if he thought that that was a good or bad thing. It was only a few inches off the ground, but already Steve’s paranoia was getting the better of him, and he placed it down guiltily exactly where he found it. To the millimetre. He’d checked against a few tiny markings on the floor.

This was another one of those secrets he didn’t really need to keep. And yet, not a single soul knew aside from himself.

Thor and Bruce returned a few minutes later with the news that the magnets would take a while to set up, and Steve was left to return to his floor and search for something else to occupy him.

Maybe he should get a hobby. He used to have a hobby.

He shut that line of thought down before it could go any further and trudged into his living room, turning instead to the question of dinner.

Now could be a good time to learn to cook, he decided, recklessly. He may not have any recipe books, but he did have the internet, and that was more or less the same thing.

First, he ruled out anything that he couldn’t pronounce, simply because if he learned to cook it then at some point he’d have to say it out loud and he thought he’d save his future self that agony. Next, he ruled out anything that he could pronounce, if the only reason he could pronounce it was because he could speak French. French food just seemed like it would be much harder.

In the end he settled on bread and butter pudding, for two main reasons;

  1. He happened to have bread and butter in his kitchen, unlike the ingredients for most of the recipes he’d come across.
  2. In terms of difficulty, bread and butter pudding seemed like it’d be one step above toast.

It probably wasn’t intended for dinner, but it had egg in it so it couldn’t be all that bad.

That was Wednesday. On Thursday he wasted as much daylight as he could watching all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and wondering when he got so anxious when it came to romance.

Always. He’d always been like this. Somehow it’d actually gotten worse when he’d magically become attractive.

The next day, as Steve was more than amply aware, was Friday. From the moment he woke up, it became a day of what should I wear? What shampoo should I use? (the one that smelled like peaches) Should I take a cab? Should I do anything with my hair? Do I have any topics of conversation planned? Do I need some?

Finally, Steve began to wonder if he was over thinking things, but even that turned into an internal debate about precisely where the line was between acceptable and overthinking. Steve Rogers had developed a habit of throwing his motorbikes at larger, occasionally flying, enemy vehicles, but dates were scary.

Maybe we could get attacked by Hydra, he thought, optimistically, then I’d know what to do.

He indulged himself for a few minutes inventing a wild fight scene in the movie theatre, with Steve and Bucky trying to beat hydra without the rest of the movie goers realising there was any danger – they’d use the darkness and the loud sound effects of the film for cover – and without Bucky being scared in the slightest.

This, at least, was safe. If he was going to imagine ways this evening could go, it was better to imagine stories that had no real chance of happening. The alternative was building up expectations.

He shrugged into his jacket (the blue one that Nat had jokingly said brought out his eyes and Steve had chosen to wear tonight in the hope that she wasn’t far off the mark) and proceeded to spend somewhat longer that he ought to making sure it was sitting just so. The next question was how he was going to get there. The subway would take too long so that was out. A cab would cost money, but his motorbike might mess up his hair.

It was only when Natasha casually remarked ‘Y’know, a lot of people like men on motorbikes.’ that Steve made his decision. Not that he’d admit to that being the reason; a motorbike was just more practical, he was going to choose it anyway, he’d have sworn to that effect on a bible if he had to.

So it was only with mild apprehension – that Bucky might think he was trying too hard – that he rode his bike through the honey-golden evening towards the theatre. Bucky was already leaning against the wall, and as Steve pulled up he had a few moments to observe him before he noticed he was there.

The jeans he was wearing were darker than last time, and, if possible, tighter. But more importantly, he was wearing a jet black leather jacket as protection against the cold. Most of his hair was pushed back, but some had escaped and was hanging over his forehead in a way that Steve figured would be annoying to anyone who didn’t seem too cool to be annoyed by loose strands of hair. Bucky looked as though he could wear sunglasses at night without looking like a dickhead.

And then he glanced up at the sound of the approaching motorbike and smiled in a warm greeting. In this light, his eyes looked grey instead of blue and Steve wondered what colour they actually were.

‘Hi.’ he said.

Steve returned the smile without thinking about it, ‘Hi.’

The walked together up the stone steps into the warmth of the building. It was brighter inside, and Steve revised his earlier opinion; Bucky looked like James Dean and Marlon Brando got together to design their ideal man. That leather jacket may have become Steve’s favourite item of clothing in the whole world.

‘So what are we watching?’ Bucky was saying, and Steve willed himself to focus.

‘Well, there are a few movies on around this time, I figured you could pick.’

This served the dual purpose of Steve not having to worry about picking something Bucky wouldn’t like, and being able to find out what Bucky would pick.

They both glanced at the boards behind the counter, where the films and their times were picked out in orange dots of led lights, shining against the black background. One action, one romantic comedy, and one-

‘How do you feel about horror films?’ Bucky asked, watching him with the same expression Thor wears right before he does something Asgardian that he knows will seem impressive (‘It’s merely transport.’ he says, as a giant column of light swallows him up).

‘I’m fine with them.’ Steve answered, in the same slightly defiant voice he used to tell Thor that his Bifrost trick wasn’t that great. It wasn’t even the only bi thing in that area. Not that he’d tell Thor that last part.

‘You sure?’ asked Bucky, and there was the threat of a coming smile in the crinkles in the corner of his eyes, ‘Horror films are a lot scarier now than they were in the forties.’

‘Are you sure you’re alright with them?’ Steve countered.

He’d definitely be okay with them if he was a serial killer.

In the next instant, Steve learnt two things from Bucky’s expression. First, neither of them were willing to back down from any kind of challenge. Second, they were going to spend the next two hours subjecting themselves to bad acting and paranormal jump scares.

They bought the tickets and moved towards the cinema, the air more drenched in the warm smell of popcorn with every step. They were given a pair of seats at the very back of the theatre, handed across the fake wooden counter by a teenager with a knowing smile. Not too knowing, Steve hoped, trying to ignore the low-level fear that he would be recognised that always accompanied being outside.

The settled into their allocated spots as the room was still full of cheerful muzak. That was all it seemed to be full of; Steve counted three other people in total.

‘So how did the magnets go?’ Bucky asked, thankfully negating the need for Steve to think of something to say.

‘Sadly, Bruce says they’re gonna take a little while to set up.’

‘Quite complicated science, is it?’

Steve shrugged, ‘Probably. But most science is complicated science to me.’

Did that remind him that I’m ninety seven or just make him think that I failed science at high school?

Bucky laughed quietly, ‘I’m just curious how much time and effort you’re willing to put into a life-sized game of pinball.’

Lots. Way too much.

‘I got a lot of free time.’ Steve admitted.

‘Hmm.’ responded Bucky, ‘Have you considered adopting a cat as a potential way to fix that problem?’

It was Steve’s turn to laugh, ‘You just don’t stop working, do you?’

‘I gotta find the cats a home. ‘Sides, I’m pretty sure FDR misses you.’

‘Misses my shoelaces, more like.’ Steve muttered, as the lights lowered.

The good thing about the movies as a date, for Steve’s nerves, was that he didn’t have to worry about awkward silences. The bad thing, as he immediately realised, sitting next to Bucky in the darkened theatre, was that couples generally find other ways to enjoy each other’s company in the very back of a cinema.

As if to prove the point, a young couple meandered in, took their seats a few rows ahead of Steve and Bucky, and instantly began making out. The number of people in the room was now seven, which also happened to be where out of ten Steve was hovering on the “social panic” scale.

The movies had seemed like such a good idea, until he thought of it in terms of two solid hours sitting next to his date and silently staring straight ahead.

The ads finished and the lights were extinguished entirely. Bucky and his leather jacket were only a foot to his left in the dark. He was aware of the distance as the male character in a high school jacket gestured to the abandoned asylum inexplicably still standing in the middle of their town, and said “c’mon, it’ll be fun”.

Am I supposed to take his hand? Put my arm around him? Offer to get him soda?

‘Five bucks says the girl in the glasses has to be talked into staying before any weird shit even starts happening.’ Bucky whispered suddenly. Not a full minute passed before the skinny male character who hadn’t been given a name yet – or if he did, Steve had forgotten immediately – was calling her a chicken as she shivered dramatically and said “I don’t like this, let’s just go”.

Steve silently passed Bucky a five dollar note.

The silence didn’t seem quite so bad now, and when the first scream occurred a few minutes later, Steve muttered ‘I want that money back if it’s just a spider.’

Sure enough, when Jock Stereotype Male Main Character came running, it was to find Blond Cheerleader Female Main Character terrified by a spider, and looking altogether too pretty and too much in her mid-twenties to be a teenager.

Steve returned the five dollars to his wallet triumphantly.

Suddenly the film became a comedy. Steve thoroughly enjoyed every terribly line, and when the guy in the front row jumped so violently that his popcorn bounced upwards into the projection and fell like confetti around his shoulders, Bucky was too busy trying not to laugh too loudly that he missed the skinny guy try to punch the ghost. Seconds later the film claimed his first victim, as Skinny Dude was thrown down a staircase that was patently not designed with safety in mind.

Steve only learnt that character’s name when another male character – whom he hadn’t previously noticed – burst into the main underage beer drinking area sobbing “Eddie’s dead”.

‘Well then, Eddie shouldn’t have walked towards the mysterious flickering lights, should he?’ Bucky whispered.

They continued the game. Steve’s next prize was dinner after the movie, won when he predicted that the girl in glasses would call out “anyone there?” before walking directly to the ghost.

‘That was smooth.’ Bucky whispered, as the female main character stood in front of the other female character’s bloodied body, sobbing into the male main character’s shoulder. “It’s alright” the male character was saying, illogically.

Bucky then won the right to choose where they would eat, when he predicted the death of the final minor character. The main characters didn’t even notice; for some reason they were too busy finding a side room to make out in. Or try to, as it wasn’t long before they were predictably under attack from the vengeful spirit. Steve knew from experience that the male character bled far too much when his throat was cut, but he elected not to mention that fact.

The film marched on towards the final scene, and as the last character realised that the door she was trying to escape through was locked, Bucky leaned over until Steve could feel the leather jacket against his shoulder.

‘I’ll bet she just stands there screaming,’ he whispered, ‘for a kiss.’

Steve held his breath. The spectre moved slowly towards her…

Then she grabbed a chair and began trying to fight off the ghost, and Bucky straightened up again with a sound that might have been him saying ‘Damn.’

They sat in silence until the female character breathed her last, melodramatic breath and the credits began to roll. As the lights came up once more, Steve could see Bucky biting at his bottom lip like he had the last time they’d met. If he was regretting the last thing he said, Steve felt obligated to find a way to stop him feeling too embarrassed.

‘Modern horror films aren’t all that scary after all.’ he joked, as they made their way out of the theatre.

The couple who had spent the film kissing each other aggressively were arguing in the lobby as they left the building. It was dark now; they’d skipped right over twilight.

‘Y’know,’ Steve began again, ‘you still owe me for that last bet.’

‘Huh?’ Bucky asked, startled.

‘You bet me a kiss that that girl would stand still, screaming.’ he explained, ‘She didn’t. So you owe me a kiss.’

Bucky looked as though he was about to blush. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when a small group exited the cinema. Instead he stood in silence, looking shifty. Steve realised that Bucky must be thinking about the promise he’d made to keep his secret.

After a moment’s hesitation, he ducked into an alley and out of sight of any passers-by, with Steve following the movement. In the darkness, Bucky’s eyes were blue again, lashes sparkling in the faint orange glow of the street lamps. One second of breathless anticipation, and then everything was Bucky’s soft lips on his own.

For once Steve’s brain was silent, but his heart was more than making up for that. Instinct took over, moving one hand to Bucky’s waist and the other to his hair, while Bucky pulled him a little closer and continued the kiss.

Steve wasn’t sure which of them stepped back, it could have been both at once, but he let his fingers linger fleetingly on Bucky’s jaw before pulling away entirely.

‘Dinner?’ Bucky asked.

‘Just tell me where.’

They stepped casually back onto the street, Bucky all confidence once again as he said, ‘I know a great diner that does all day breakfast.’

‘Not a big believer in eating breakfast at breakfast time?’

‘Breakfast time’s a myth.’ he countered, matter-of-factly, ‘That’s why god invented all day breakfast.’

Steve didn’t have a response to that, so he laughed and asked, ‘You okay with motorbikes?’

His bike certainly looked the part, all gleaming metal under the city lights. But then, so did Bucky, with that jacket that Steve so admired, and a shirt for a band Steve had never heard of.

He’d have to ask Tony about the Cure later, and maybe acquiesce that little, impulsive part of his mind that was demanding he listen to their entire discography to find out why Bucky appeared to like them so much.

‘Haven’t been on one in a while,’ Bucky replied, shrugging, ‘Do you have a spare helmet?’

Of course he’d been on motorcycles before. No one who looks like that hasn’t. There’s probably a law somewhere.

Steve handed him the red one, resisting the urge to put it on his head for him, and silently thanked Natasha for convincing him to take the bike. He mounted it, waiting for Bucky to get safely in position behind him before bringing the machine to life. They rode through town with his mind split; one half on following Bucky’s directions through the early night traffic, the other on every inch of his body that Bucky was pressed against or holding onto.

They arrived far too soon.

The diner sat on the street corner, wrapped in glass and jutting out into the darkened street like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. It caught some of the same imagination that Hopper’s artworks used to spark in Steve, as if the people in them lead far more interesting lives that his own and he could only long to join their ranks.

The lighting turned the large windows into frames, with the people inside a show for those just passing by. They tugged open the door to join those people, settling into a booth with Steve feeling like for once he’d taken his place with those romantic strangers in Hopper’s paintings.

Bucky spoke to the waitress with a sort of familiarity that suggested Steve was sitting in one of his favourite places, and before either of them could order, she asked Bucky if he wanted pancakes again.

‘I think pancakes are wasted on the mornings.’ Bucky told him, after the waitress left their table.

‘I can’t judge you, I’ve been eating bread and butter pudding for every meal for the last three days.’

Bucky also had a half-smile; his eyes would crinkle and the corners of his closed mouth would turn up.

‘You know, I still don’t know much about you.’ Bucky said next, ‘And I imagine you know even less about me since you don’t have the advantage of finding me in history books.’

Steve did have the advantage of the Black Widow being eager to discover anything and everything she could about Mister Barnes, but he’d turned her down every time.

‘Good point. What do people normally ask on dates?’ he considered for a moment, ‘Cat person or dog person?’

Bucky attempted to shoot a glare at Steve, but somewhat ruined the effect by laughing, ‘I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.’

They were interrupted at that point by the waitress bringing their food over – impressively quickly, Steve thought – and in the short time before conversation started up again, Steve entertained himself by picturing Bucky attempting to walk forty-four dogs at once, each with the name of a president on their collar.

‘Alright alright,’ Bucky began, as Steve took a bite of his bacon and eggs, ‘where’d you learn to ride a motorcycle?’

Thank god you weren’t there to witness that disaster. I’d never be able to pretend to be cool around you if you’d seen me crash into a snowman.

‘France. And let me tell you I was not a natural, but I managed to get the hang of it without breaking any important bones. Your turn. Family?’

Bucky almost, but not quite, pouted as he poured slightly too much maple syrup over his pancakes, ‘That’s not fair. That’s a much broader question than the one I asked.’

‘Well, you could tell me what your favourite breed of dog-’

‘I have three younger sisters.’ Bucky said quickly, ‘All named after first ladies. You met Harriet Rebecca Lane Barnes – Becca – who was named after James Buchanan’s niece. Next is Abigale Adams Barnes, after John Adam’s wife and John Quincy Adam’s mother. She was the second first lady and the first second lady of the United States.’

Steve chose that moment to nod, just in case Bucky thought he wasn’t listening.

‘And the youngest – the one who tried to fix her phone with glue – is Alice Lee Barnes, after Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter. Uh… Mom and dad are still together, and the only extended family we’ve got is an aunt and uncle on mom’s side, who always made Thanksgiving fairly interesting. And that’s it.’

‘Nuh uh.’ Steve objected, ‘You can’t just say they made Thanksgiving “fairly interesting” and leave it at that. What’s wrong with your aunt and uncle?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t say anything is wrong with them. It’s just that… okay, put it this way; mom and her siblings all say that “love is like Ikea” because apparently that was something grandma used to say. It’s just that my aunt and uncle give slightly different reasons.’

‘Alright…?’

‘Mom says it’s because it’s because it can be frustrating and it takes some work, but if you do it right you get a home. Which is sweet. My uncle, on the other hand, says love is like Ikea because nothing ever works properly and you end up with only half your furniture.’

Steve didn’t know whether he was allowed to laugh or not, so he just said ‘Ouch. I take it he’s divorced?’

‘Several times.’ Bucky confirmed.

‘And your aunt?’

‘She says love is like Ikea because there’s a lot of screwing involved and you hope you don’t accidently make a baby’s crib.’

This time Steve couldn’t stop himself from laughing.

‘You’re aunt seems nice.’ he managed.

‘When I came out as pansexual she high fived me and told me, and I quote “guys can be dicks. Which, incidentally, is their best feature”. That was her only advice.’

Steve’s shoulders were shaking from laughter again, a piece of bacon forgotten half-way to his mouth.

‘That’s my family,’ Bucky finished, ‘What about you?’

‘Uh. Well, I don’t really-’

‘Shit sorry. I didn’t mean-’

‘No it’s fine.’ Steve assured him, ‘My ma was my only family and she died years before I went to war, so I don’t really have any family to miss.’

‘Sorry.’ Bucky said again, and then for a moment looked as though he was about to apologise for apologising.

‘Ask a different question.’ Steve suggested.

‘Okay… now I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times before, but what is your favourite thing about the twenty-first century?’

‘Vaccines.’ Steve said firmly, ‘If you wanna know my least favourite, it’s parents who don’t give their kids vaccines because they are worried about too many chemicals or something.’

‘Good answer.’ Bucky said, nodding and looking a little like one of the PR people who occasionally tell him not to do something, ‘Shows you care about things without being too partisan. Did you practice that for when interviewers ask?’

Steve shrugged, ‘I normally just say the internet. It makes Fox News less likely to freak out. Anyway, what about you?’

‘What about me?’

‘If you were trapped in nineteen forty-five, what would you miss most about the future?’

Bucky chewed a forkful of pancake thoughtfully, ‘Not gonna lie,’ he eventually said, ‘it’s a toss-up between human rights and rock n roll.’

Music. People talk about music on dates, right? Talk about music. He seems like he’d love to talk about music.

But before Steve could respond, his phone went off. Not the usual buzzing that indicated a text, but the ringtone that he never put on silent because he had to be able to hear it at all times.

‘I gotta get this.’ He said, apologetically, as he answered the phone.

It was Clint’s voice on the other end of the line, saying ‘Hey, man, I hope you’re not busy, but we got kind of a Nazi situation.’

Crap. That’s the worst kind of situation.

‘How urgent?’

‘Well, the fire’s not too bad-’

‘Where?’

‘Avenger’s base. The plane is ready at the tower if you can get there in the next quarter of an hour.’

Steve pulled enough money from his wallet to pay for both meals, with a sizable tip, ‘Fine. I’m on my way.’

He slipped his phone back into his jacket and apologised two or five times to Bucky, the only explanation he could offer being ‘Work.’

He got back to the Tower in twelve minutes, already pissed off. He hadn’t realised that there was anything Hydra could do that could make him hate them more, and then they go and interrupt his date. If all had gone well he could have given Bucky a ride home on the bike and maybe gotten another kiss for his trouble. But all hadn’t gone well and now he was-

‘Are you okay?’

Pepper was waiting for him as he moved towards the plane.

‘Fine.’

‘Are you sure? Because you seem really angry.’

‘I’m fine.’ Steve repeated, unconvincingly.

‘If you say so. Now I suggest you board the plane, it’s taking off in thirty seconds.’

‘Uh.’

‘Your shield is on board. Your uniform isn’t but I hope that isn’t a necessity.’

Steve just nodded awkwardly and boarded the plane, still fuming.

Nat was already at the controls, greeting him with, ‘Nothing too complicated. Just punch anything that isn’t an Avenger and try not to do anything too stupid. And sorry about your date.’

Steve watched the New York streets disappear below him and muttered, ‘So am I.’

Bucky was down there somewhere. Maybe he was still at that diner, or maybe he had started heading home.

‘That good or that bad?’ Nat asked, in response to his comment.

‘Does it matter?’

‘Just making conversation.’

The other parts New York State were comparatively boring, so much darker than the lights of the city as they flew over it.

‘It was good.’ Steve admitted.

‘Good.’

The rest of the flight passed in silence, and soon they were touching down in front of that familiar building, all lit up by embers.

‘Aw, cap, you missed most of the fight.’ Clint said, instead of the “hello” most people greeted their friends with.

‘Is there nothing left to punch?’

‘Rough day?’

My day was going great until you called.

‘Sort of.’

Nat led the way to the building, Steve stomping rather sullenly behind. He could smell birthday cake hanging on the cool night air, and it took a few bemused moments for him to realise that it was the candles, not the cake he was remembering; smelling the same as the dying fire.

The flames had been more or less extinguished, which could sum up any of the Avengers’ adventures, and apparently some Hydra agents had been captured. True to form, however, they weren’t exactly fountains of information. Tony was scowling as he showed Steve to the leader of the group, nodding his head in her direction with a grim ‘They’re definitely planning something.’

Excellent. Hydra planning something was about as positive as a munitions factory not having smoke detectors. Or James Buchanan getting elected, as he’d recently learned.

‘Alright.’ he began, taking a seat in front of the Hydra woman, ‘Tell me the plan.’

She smirked. He hated it when they smirked.

‘Hydra is like the tree in the garden of Eden-’

‘Look, I don’t get paid to do this job anymore.’ he interrupted, ‘So I definitely don’t get paid to listen to this bullshit. So tell me the plan or shut up, I’m not in the mood to hear the sales pitch for your cult.’

Behind him, Steve distinctly heard Tony whisper ‘What’s up with parallel universe Stephen Colbert?’ which didn’t do much for his stormy mood.

‘You’ll find out our plan soon enough.’ the woman replied, smirking in a way that made Steve suspect that the Hydra training programme had an entire course on smirking annoyingly.

Does that mean that Tony is Hydra? He’s definitely taken that course.

Steve sighed. So this was going to be his night; listening to this woman do her best impersonation of a movie villain, and digging around for extra information with Nat. At least he didn’t have Pepper’s job, apparently she was just making sure that there were zero news articles on the events.

He really hated Hydra.

Chapter Text

It had occurred to Bucky, partway through his reluctant walk home, that Steve had a dangerous job and that when he said “work”, he almost certainly meant risking his life.

His primary concern had been with what the threat was this time, but as he’d had no news alerts telling him that a city somewhere was in the process of being destroyed, his focus turned to Steve.

He’ll be fine. He’s Captain America.

That was true, Bucky thought, as he wondered down a side street, kicking a pebble like a teenager. He was Captain America, and Captain America always did alright, if you don’t count that time he crashed a plane into the arctic and was frozen for sixty-six years.

He’s almost certainly fine.

And that one shouldn’t really count because it wasn’t even an accident; he’d intentionally crashed that plane. Because Steve Rogers was apparently prone to self-sacrifice.

He’s probably fine.

This was not how this evening was supposed to go.

He turned onto his street in poor temper, glowering at parked cars and the odd indifferent lamppost as he trudged toward his home.

The orange streetlights were shining off his many windows, and turning all the cracks and broken bricks to black shadows. Becca always said that the building looked haunted at night, to which Bucky invariably replied that the scariest ghosts picked buildings that you’d never suspect, so his home was safe.

She wouldn’t be there now. She didn’t even work there, technically, but she hovered around and helped with the cats in a way that seemed half boredom and half suspiciously like keeping an eye on him.

The key glinted as he drew it out, but the light wasn’t enough for him as he fumbled for the lock and, once again, considered getting a porch light. Eventually the lock yielded. Bucky closed the door behind him and threw a disgruntled glance around the front room, thinking that it was far too early to be arriving home.

The cats were already locked up for the night, so he climbed the stairs to his bedroom on the third floor without looking in on them. The first light he turned on was at the top of the stairs, bringing his someone less-than-ideal living arrangements out of the darkness.

The top layer of wallpaper had largely peeled off of its own accord, or been torn of in large strips by some overzealous past residents. Bucky didn’t mind this much, as the wallpaper in question was a floral pattern in dreary dark brown. Unfortunately, however, the partial removal of the top layer only revealed the next layer down, looking somehow even worse in pea green.

The doors branching off the top landing led to a variety of worn down rooms. The bathroom, lined in black and white linoleum despite the fact that everything in the bathroom was a soft shade of blue. The guest bedroom, which Bucky used as a storage room for all the boxes that he still hadn’t unpacked. And his own bedroom, in which most of the furniture was arranged on phonebooks he’d carefully selected for their thickness. The uneven leg on his bed was resting on a phonebook marked nineteen sixty-three. The nicest rooms in the house were reserved for the cats.

He wasn’t tired yet, but he got ready for bed just for something to do.

‘Ugh.’ he said to no one in particular, immediately before crashing for the night.

His first thought when he woke up in the morning was is that a spider on the far wall, or just a dot, which wasn’t unusual and certainly wasn’t particularly noteworthy.

His second thought was I’m dating Captain America.

Actual Captain America. Steven Grant Rogers. With the jawline of a hero and astonishingly blue eyes that somehow seemed even bluer with that jacket he was wearing. And he rode a motorbike.

To be fair, Bucky already knew he had a motorbike, in the same abstract way that he knew President Obama had a dog, or Tom Cruise wasn’t as tall as he looked in his films. Except he’d never met Tom Cruise, or President Obama’s dog. But now he’d met – he’d kissed – Steve, and he was entirely aware of exactly how extraordinary and wonderful it was that he rode a motorbike. It was like finding out that Anne Oakley did parkour. She was already great, but just imagine how great she’d be if she ran around on rooftops like Batman, shooting beers out of the hands of KKK members, or something.

Bucky resolutely blocked out any train of thought that could lead him to dwelling obsessively over anything he said that might have been stupid. He knew that he probably had said stupid things, but he had a short window to forget them entirely if he just didn’t think about them for a bit.

According to his phone, there was no news about Captain America dying tragically overnight, so he figured “work” hadn’t been too bad. In fact, there was nothing Avengers-related at all. That was probably good news.

Okay, but what if… began what he knew was going to be an unpleasant thought, he made up the work thing just to escape?

‘Shut up.’ he muttered to the ceiling.

He wasn’t normally like this, he mused, clambering out of bed and stumbling towards the bathroom. He’d had a lot of practice at being all confident and charming when he wanted to. Something about this situation had him on the back foot.

Everything about this situation had him on the back foot.

He tried to isolate what it was as he showered and dressed for the day. Something to do with the fact that he’d always relied on the other person’s anonymity for his confidence; they didn’t know who he was and he didn’t know who they were, so if he made a fool of himself he never had to think about them again. These were important considerations, probably. But by the time he made it downstairs all he was thinking about was the way Steve smelled distantly of peaches whenever they’d leaned in to whisper to each other in the theatre.

‘Morning.’

Fuck.

‘Hi, Becca. You’re early.’

Becca was already halfway through feeding the cats, despite the fact that she didn’t actually work there. She just showed up. To be annoying. Even though she didn’t. Actually. Work there.

‘How’d it go?’ she asked, grinning in a way that she’d learnt at five was guaranteed to piss him off.

‘Shut up.’

‘That good or that bad?’

Bucky ignored her, moving over to where FDR was curled up into a tiny circle of multi-coloured fur. He unlatched the cage to stroke the kitten with his thumb as Becca sighed audibly behind him.

‘Are you gonna tell me anything? You’re killing me here.’

FDR was purring contently and Bucky continued to ignore his sister.

‘Did you kiss him?’

Don’t turn around. She’ll be able to tell if you turn around.

‘I take it you’re not turning around because you don’t want me to know you kissed him.’

Oh for fucks sake.

Bucky turned around. Becca’s face lit up like a child who’d just been told that there’d been a mistake and Santa was real after all. ‘You kissed Captain America!’ she announced, with no attempt to hide her delight.

‘Please stop.’

‘But you kissed Captain America.’

‘I’m gonna put up the new sign now. Outside. In public. Where you absolutely cannot talk about this.’

He moved into the back room before she could answer, and pulled out the next sign in the pile. This one was sky blue, with the words “Cat Shelter” spray painted on in white. They’d pulled the hooks off too, this time, so he carried a roll of duct tape on his wrist as he headed out of the house.

‘Okay so real questions.’ Becca continued, following him, ‘I won’t say anything compromising, I promise. The sooner you answer them, the sooner this conversation will be over.’

Bucky pulled the door open somewhat more violently than was necessary, ‘Fine. Shoot.’

‘What are you looking for with this relationship?’

‘We’ve been on two dates.’

The sign lined up neatly with the empty square, and Bucky held it in place with his good hand while he struggled with the duct tape with the other.

‘Okay… let me put this another way. Are you dating him because you like him? Or are you dating him because you like dating? You’ve done both. The former tends to end more disastrously than the latter.’

The damn sign wouldn’t stop moving under his imperfect grip, and getting the tape to hold it in place without getting stuck to itself was proving to be a real challenge.

‘I don’t know yet.’ he eventually said, honestly.

Becca sighed and held the sign for him, leaving him with both hands to deploy the tape. She seemed to be thinking, so he waited for her to get her words in order enough to speak.

‘Y’know…’ she began, never a good sign, ‘you probably shouldn’t give up on love just because you, statistically, suck at it.’

Two dates. Only two.’

‘I’m not saying it’s necessarily him, I’m just saying-’

‘Yeah yeah.’ Bucky cut her off, having mercifully finished the sign and now able to walk away.

He’d wait a few hours before texting Steve, make sure it was at a reasonable time for people to be awake and, hopefully, not busy. If he didn’t get a reply, that would be alright. Because they’d only been on two dates and kissed once and Bucky definitely didn’t care whether or not he could make Steve scream out his name in bed.

Or on any flat surface, really. It didn’t even have to be horizontal.

‘The internet calls him a dorito, by the way.’

Becca had followed him inside, and had apparently traded doing anything useful for saying nonsensical things and being more annoying than she was when she was seven. And she was very annoying at seven.

‘Who?’

‘Your Steve.’

‘He’s not-’

‘It’s because he has the shoulder to waist ratio of a dorito, apparently. In case you didn’t already know.’

Bucky hadn’t previously had any interest in what the internet had to say about Steve Rogers, but now he knew the dorito thing it wasn’t going to be easy to get the thought of his shoulder to waist ratio out of his head. Naturally, Becca would know what the internet called him because Becca was his younger sister, and that sort of thing was what younger sisters were for.

He spent the rest of the morning looking after the cats and parading them in front of the people who wondered in. Most of the kittens were still too young to be adopted; nineteen in total, from three litters that had surprised three Brooklyn families at the same time. They’d all been given presidential names, but most of the older cats had the names their first owners had given them; an unoriginal list of Mittenses and Fluffies and one that Bucky particularly liked called Dave. Dave liked bubble wrap and hated people. Some days Bucky thought he could relate.

He waited for lunch time before sending a text.

            Bucky:             Did work go okay?

He’d probably have to wait for ages to receive a reply. But just because it took a long time doesn’t mean that Steve suddenly disliked him. Or that he’d said something stupid. He just had to be patient and keep reassuring himself because apparently Steve – alone of anyone he’d dated – made him anxious. So now all he had to do was distract himself-

            Steve:               It was frustrating. But I can’t tell you much.

That was surprisingly quick. Bucky was about to type out a response when another text came through.

            Steve:               How are the cats? And FDR?

Aw, he had a favourite.

‘You’re texting him right now, aren’t you?’

Becca was watching him, partway through preparing to leave. Because she had no set time to work there. Because she didn’t. Actually. Work there.

‘What? No! I’m- how can you tell?’

‘Because you have that smile you get when you’re about to fall too hard for someone.’

The nicest criticism an ex had given him was that he fell in love too easily. The worst ex had called him a forest fire.

‘I can handle things just fine.’

            Bucky:             FDR has plenty of shoelaces to chew on, but I think he’s only interested when someone is wearing them

            Steve:               Sorry again for last night. My work never had the most convenient timing

Understatement, pal. If your work had convenient timing New York would’ve been invaded when I was outta town.

            Bucky:             Don’t worry about it

Third date third date ask him ask him ask him

            Bucky:             Even though you did leave before I could object to you paying

            Steve:               How rude of me

Captain America is sarcastic. Captain America is sarcastic and rides a motorbike and uses peach shampoo. And is fantastically not straight. A bisexual dorito.

            Bucky:             Very rude. It’s the 21st century you at least gotta let me return the favour

A bisexual dorito who hopefully wants to go on a third date.

            Steve:               That sounds fair :)

Captain America uses smiley faces while texting.

In Bucky’s mind, “Captain America” and “Steve” were separate entities. Captain America was the one he thought of when he considered how strange this whole situation was; for instance, Captain America never gets his name spelt right on coffee cups. Steve was the cute guy who flirts like his own words take him by surprise and would rather have a phone that sounded like there were roadworks nearby whenever he got a text than admit to anyone he knew that he didn’t know how to fix it.

            Steve:               When and where?

Good question, Mister Rogers.

Captain Rogers.

            Bucky:             My sister will know some good places

            Bucky:             Don’t worry I won’t tell her why

            Steve:               Which sister?

Oh yeah, I got lots of those.

            Bucky:             Abby. Writes for magazines. Describes everything as [insert city]’s best kept secret

            Bucky:             But it won’t be NYC’s best kept secret bc you probably know NYC’s best kept secret and I doubt it’s a restaurant

Lunch should already have been over, but Bucky was extending his break for just a few more minutes every time he happened to look at the clock.

            Steve:               I know several strong contenders

            Steve:               And I’m telling you none of them

            Steve:               Lose lips sink secret alien space ships disguised as the Statue of Liberty

            Bucky:             I’m only ninety percent sure that you’re joking and it worries me

A young family wandered in through the door, looking a little lost, and Bucky reluctantly put away his phone.

‘How may I help you?’

‘We’re looking for a cat shelter?’ the father said, squinting suspiciously around the room as if it were hiding.

‘This is a cat shelter, sir. Are you looking to adopt?’

‘Yes!’ said the two young girls, earnestly and in unison. They were either twins or clones.

‘Maybe.’ the mother corrected.

‘Well, the cats are through here.’ Bucky replied, gesturing to the door to the left, ‘If you’d like to take a look?’

The father gripped one on the girls’ shoulders as if he thought it was some sort of trap, but the mother smiled politely and nodded.

They would look at every single cat, complain about the kittens not being old enough, and then find a pet shop to buy their cat from. Bucky had learnt to recognise certain types.

Sure enough, by the time he was actually free to text Steve the details of their next date, he still had precisely the same amount of cats as he had before they’d entered.

And then he still had a few days to wait for date three.

Bucky took Sundays off. Really, he took whenever he wanted off as long as the cats were well cared for. It probably helped that he lived upstairs. But on Sundays and Mondays he shut up shop altogether. It was his version of a weekend, and today he was heading over the bridge, to wonder around Manhattan in search of some furniture.

A bookshelf was first on the list, and after that-

‘Hey! James!’

Please don’t be talking to me because if you’re talking to me I’m gonna have to fight you for calling me James and I’m pretty sure Steve isn’t gonna want to date someone with an assault conviction.

Bucky turned around, reluctantly. A man he almost recognised was smiling at him in the vague sort of way that people who are too rich to really be concerned about anything tend to smile.

‘Hey, remember me?’

He’s definitely talking to me do I punch him?

‘Uh.’

‘Harrison. From school.’

That would explain why he was wearing an outfit that looked like he bought all his clothes from the first class areas of cruise ships.

‘Yes, of course.’ said Bucky, ‘You called me “scholarship” for a full year. I was starting to doubt you actually knew my name.’

Harrison laughed unpleasantly, ‘But it was you who forgot mine, I knew you were James.’

Punch him punch him punch him punch him.

‘My name is Bucky.’

‘Aha,’ Harrison said, and Bucky cringed internally, ‘I forgot you used to get people to call you that nickname.’

M U R D E R   H I M

‘Well, you know what teenagers are like,’ Bucky responded, ‘always trying to improve what people think of them. I’m surprised you didn’t try to make up a new name for yourself.’

Harrison’s eyes narrowed slightly, but otherwise he did a reasonable enough job of pretending not to understand what Bucky was getting at.

‘But anyway,’ he continued, ‘are you coming to the reunion? Everyone will be there.’

Not for all the money in your trust fund, pal.

‘I doubt it.’

Harrison smiled again, but this time it wasn’t the vague rich person smile. This time it was the other rich person smile that Bucky knew all too well to mean you don’t want us to know how proletarian you are, and it made him want to break into his house at night and inject him with enough Botox that he could never pull such a stupid expression again.

‘Oh come now,’ Harrison was saying, ‘don’t you have any good memories of the old place?’

Leaving. Leaving was a good memory.

‘Well, that was where I was the last time someone said “oh come now” to me. It was your older brother, as I recall. And we were in a broom closet.’

Bucky had the satisfaction of watching Harrison’s face change from a detached sort of smugness to abject loathing in a split second. It was almost as good as a fist fight.

‘Not funny, James.’

Also not a joke.

‘My name isn’t James. And I don’t see why you should be so offended. It’s not like that was the only closet your brother was ever in.’

Harrison didn’t respond, just knocked his shoulder as he passed. It was something that they’d all done at high school, and Bucky had gotten into the habit of picking their pockets whenever they did so. But Bucky was a fully grown adult now, and he was far too mature for that sort of thing. Or so he would claim.

Harrison’s wallet was made of expensive looking leather, and stocked with two hundred dollars that Bucky quickly pocketed. And a Starbucks card with a free drink ready to be claimed. It had rained overnight, and though the pavements were mostly dry, Bucky found a nice puddle a few streets over - somewhere a helpful tourist would find it - to drop it in.

Okay, so pickpocketing was illegal. But it wasn’t like Harrison would miss the money. It was more an exercise in inconveniencing him. And if he donated the money to charity he was absolved of any moral fault and Steve would probably approve. If he ever knew. Which he wasn’t going to.

It was more a habit from his high school days anyway.

He moved on to the furniture store still attempting to convince himself of his own clear conscience. Which frankly wasn’t fair, since Harrison was the one who was an asshole.

But soon he was distracted by bookshelves. A whole lot of bookshelves. In different heights and widths and woods. And it was his role to select one of these bookshelves for the purpose of storing books. Because that was what bookshelves were for. Otherwise they would just be shelves…

Steve was probably saving the world, or something. Or playing life-sized pinball with Thor. Something much more exciting than this, anyway.

That one tall bookshelf in the corner was nice, all dark wood and carved patterns. Bucky bought it less on its merits and more because that was an excuse to stop looking at bookshelves. Despite these intentions, he then had to spend far too long on the somehow less exciting task of arranging furniture movers. By the end of the exercise both he and the bookshelf were sitting in the front room of his house. The fact that the bookshelf belonged on the third floor hadn’t occurred to Bucky as a problem until that moment.

‘I do make a lot of bad decisions, don’t I?’ he asked aloud to the bookshelf, which remained diplomatically silent.

The next morning he ate toast and paid his bills. On the TV the history channel was showing a dramatization of Steve in the Second World War, shooting at grey alien animations. “Sources suggest that Captain America spent most of the war wiping these invaders off the Earth” the voice-over was saying, “but who they were working with may surprise you. Find out after the break on Alien Invasions You Wouldn’t Believe.”.

Whatever Steve had really been doing during the war, Bucky was willing to guess that paying bills wasn’t high on the list.

Am I thinking about Steve too much? I’m probably thinking about Steve too much.

In one of his episodes of thinking about Steve too much, Bucky had decided that the logical next goal of the relationship was to get to the “hey do you wanna hang out” step, which was the one that came after the “do you want to go on another date at some point in the foreseeable future” step. A level three romantic relationship, where level one was awkwardly making small talk over coffee on date one. They’d moved from level two to level two point five when texting was no longer awkward. He’d make a list of all the levels, but Becca would almost certainly find it, and then she’d call him an idiot.

It was like a crush, except they were technically already dating. Which still seemed kind of weird. Because he was Captain America.

Bucky wondered idly what level he’d have to get to before that stopped seeming so strange.

Then he started wondering what level he’d get to at all.

Ooooh, you’re being reckless again, Barnes. If you’re gonna fuck this up, at least fuck it up before you start caring about the guy.

So Bucky tried to force Steve from his mind for the next few days, and tried to ignore the date scheduled in his journal (the one Steve had returned, but he wasn’t thinking about that) whenever he needed to book an appointment.

When the evening finally arrived, Bucky threw on his favourite leather jacket without thinking about it, and spent the entire trip there worrying that Steve would think he only owned one jacket. Which was a stupid thing to think about, especially when there were so many more serious concerns to worry him; like maybe Steve would suddenly remember that he knew an infinite number of much richer/cooler/better looking people, or the date would go badly, or maybe Hydra would attack them or something. Really, there were any number of terrible things that could-

Steve smiled when he saw him. God, he had a nice smile. He had just removed his motorcycle helmet and his hair was looking only marginally less neat than in must have when he’d first put the helmet on. That, and the fact that his shirt was slightly too tight for him made Bucky think that this whole thing was completely unfair.

‘Hey.’ Bucky said.

‘Hey.’ Steve replied, still smiling.

Oh fuck it’s like having a high school crush. Except all the guys at my high school were dicks.

‘Abby assures me that this place is New York’s best kept secret.’

Bucky nodded towards the restaurant, and Steve followed his gaze.

‘Sounds good.’

‘Of course, she doesn’t know about the alien space craft pretending to be the Statue of Liberty.’

Steve’s expression was amused, but not giving anything away as he replied, ‘The real secret is the government agents controlling all the robot stockbrokers on Wall Street. That one I’m definitely not supposed to talk about.’

Bucky lead the way inside, shaking his head and muttering ‘The recession was a conspiracy, I knew it.’

The fact that the place was on the second floor and only accessible by an outdoor stairwell certainly added to its claim of being a secret. Indoors was warm and somewhat dim, with webs of white Christmas lights sprinkling many surfaces, and tiny light bulbs on the ceiling taking the shape of constellations Bucky would probably have recognised if he hadn’t spent his whole life in New York City. Most of the corners were adorned with bouquets of lights in the shapes of flowers, and tiny lanterns with the filaments glowing bright inside took the place of candles on the tables. It all seemed at odds with the intricate Victorian décor, except that Bucky had had a brief history lesson when his sister told him about the place.

‘Don’t worry, it’s not expensive.’ Bucky muttered, seeing Steve’s expression.

‘If it is I’m gonna be the one owing you dinner.’

It was enough to make Bucky regret not picking a pricier restaurant.

‘Apparently it used to be expensive,’ Bucky elaborated, ‘but the owner got bored with the type of customers that brings. She owns property, so she doesn’t rely on this place for income.’

‘Pretty interesting hobby.’

They were seated at a table a little out of the way, and underneath something that may have been the Southern Cross, or may have been something else entirely. The menus were thick creamy paper with the meals written in script font. All easily affordable, as Bucky had promised.

‘Electric lights first became popular in the Victorian era,’ Bucky explained, ‘and Victorians weren’t known to do things by halves.’

‘Of course.’ Steve said, looking around with new understanding, ‘I heard about these things. Like the Blackpool Lights. But most of that was well before my time.’ he added hastily.

The Blackpool Lights were originally arc lights, and started a year before the lightbulb was patented, but Bucky wasn’t self-important enough to correct Steve.

‘And they were still too expensive to be considered tacky. They used to have big parties and fairs where you’d just walk around, surrounded by electric lights. Being an electrician was a much more respected career back then.’

‘And now it’s a theme for a restaurant. I’ve got to admit it looks pretty nice.’

That’s a good start.

‘Rumour is the owner kicks out anyone that calls it steampunk. Says it’s too historically accurate for that.’

Bucky had run through the decision over and over in his head. This is exactly the sort of restaurant he would have taken anyone else for a third date, without a second thought. He was very good at the early stages of a relationship. Probably too good, according to a certain ex that he wasn’t going to think about right at that moment; he said that he fell in love too easily, and that he somehow had that same effect on everyone else.

So no, there was no reason for Bucky to obsess over the place he was taking Steve. Bucky knew what he was doing, and there was no reason for this person to be any different. Except somehow, from the moment Bucky had been caught off guard when he realised who Steve was, this was different. It had put him on the back foot and he’d been trying to regain his balance ever since. Which was ridiculous, because Steve being Captain America didn’t even cross Bucky’s mind when they were together. He was just Steve, and he was great company, and Bucky knew he was running the risk of putting his own heart in danger again if he didn’t regain some control soon.

Bucky could see the lights reflected in Steve’s eyes as he talked, and throwing colour into his blond hair. The conversation was easy now, not like when they’d first met. Somehow they’d even made it through the main course without Bucky saying anything that made him want to build a time machine so he could go back and kill his past self before he met Steve.

They stayed for desert, Bucky finishing one of the less excruciating stories about himself with ‘But now you’ve gotta tell me something about you. Fair’s fair.’

Their desert would be out of the kitchen soon, but in the meantime they were far from bored.

‘How is that fair? You don’t have a Wikipedia page.’ Steve reasoned, ‘Either you tell me about yourself, or I let Nat run a security check on you. She’d be very thorough.’

Bucky quickly ran through his whole life to see if he had any secrets that were that serious. It took him a few moments to remember that he was, essentially, a normal guy and not – for example – a terrorist.

‘Nat, as in-’

‘Natasha Romanoff, yeah.’

Holy shit.

Bucky put on his most annoying smile and rested his chin on his hand, ‘You told the Black Widow about me?’

It could just be the light, but there was a chance that Steve was blushing.

‘A bit. Sort of. Don’t worry, I’ve told her she can’t spy on you.’

God, this was amazing. What had Steve told the Black Widow about him?

‘Did you tell anyone else?’

There was a fifty percent chance Steve was blushing. This was possibly the best thing that had ever happened to Bucky. He had to resist the urge to pull out his phone and take a photo just to commemorate this day.

‘Um.’ Steve began, which was a great way to start, ‘Only Sam. Just the people who know I’m not straight. Which right now means you, me, Nat, Sam, and Becca.’

That was difficult to respond to; Bucky hadn’t realised how closeted Steve still was. In fact, he’d imagined some past boyfriends, however brief the relationship had been, falling out of touch with Steve but still keeping the secret. This was… unexpected.

‘Well, you can tell Natasha that I’m not a danger to the Avengers, or a secret Nazi or something.’

‘Hmm.’ Steve said, ‘That sounds like something a secret Nazi would say.’

‘Just out of curiosity, what does this security check entail?’

‘Can’t tell you that. You might destroy the evidence.’

‘You got me. I’m planning on taking over the world with my army of cats. My evil plans include universal health care and replacing all confederate flags with assorted pride flags while their owners aren’t looking.’

It took a split second for Bucky to mentally reproach himself for that last sentence, and he quickly began running through everything he knew about history to work out where Steve was politically; hopefully not outraged by what Bucky had said.

Please be a democrat please be a democrat.

Nineteen thirties and forties. New Deal. Keynesianism. Unions. Henry Agard Wallace. He was probably fine.

‘I’m tempted to help with that.’ Steve replied, grinning, and Bucky relaxed.

‘We could make Brooklyn the new capital of the world.’ Bucky mused.

‘Make Buckingham Palace a summer home, for the cats.’

‘They could spend the rest of the time in the White House. We could put cat baskets under each presidential portrait so we know which one belongs to which cat.’

Steve laughed, ‘It’s a shame I had to leave so early last time, we could have had this all planned out already. Not to mention we could have finished the date.’

Bucky leaned forward over the electric lantern between them, resting his chin on his hand again in a parody of every female love interest Hollywood had ever cloned, ‘What did we have left to do?’

There was mischief all over Steve’s expression, and Bucky was starting to suspect that that was how Steve approached life in general, as much as flirting in particular. He leaned forward to match Bucky’s posture before speaking.

‘Well… I can think of one thing that I would have liked to try again.’

‘And what’s that?’ Bucky asked, innocently. But the question was unnecessary and the next moment they were kissing across the table.

It was longer this time, despite the difficult position. Bucky had to keep his right arm bracing himself on the table as his left rose to Steve’s neck, because there was a good chance his bad arm wouldn’t have been able to take the weight. Somehow collapsing onto the surface between them when his arm gave out didn’t seem like the most romantic way to end the kiss.

But Bucky didn’t linger on that thought for long. Steve had one hand high on his back like he was trying to bring him closer, and when one of them – Bucky wasn’t sure who – opened their mouth, Bucky could taste mid-afternoon coffee and the mint from Steve’s lamb meal and Steve, holding the kiss until they were nudging the line where the public place they were in had to be considered.

‘I don’t mean to disturb you-’

They broke apart so fast that Steve was almost the one face planting into the table. Bucky recovered quicker, looking up to see a waitress with an amused expression, holding two plates of chocolate cake.

‘Sorry.’ Bucky managed, as she set them down, ‘Erm, thank you,’

‘Thanks.’ Steve agreed, as she turned to leave.

There was no hope that they could keep straight faces, all they could manage was to wait for her to leave and then try to keep the laughing (it absolutely wasn’t giggling, because Bucky would never admit to giggling if his life depended on it) as silent as possible.

‘God I hope no one recognises me tonight.’ Steve gasped.

‘No one ever seems to. How do you pull that off, anyway?’

Eventually the mirth subsided enough for Steve to answer, ‘Nat taught me a few things.’

Of course she did. ‘No wonder she can get away with being a famous spy.’

‘Exactly. And just warning you now, she will want to meet you at some point soon if I keep stopping her from running background checks. But that’s only partly to do with security and mostly because she likes interfering in people’s lives and won’t be satisfied until she can pry.’

Bucky tried to imagine meeting the Black Widow, but quickly realised he had no idea where to even start conjuring up that scene.

‘Should I be worried?’

‘Nah, you’d probably like her. She’s nice. And kind of a dork. Although now I think of it, please never tell her that I called her a dork.’

‘Y’know, Rogers, that last sentence wasn’t all that reassuring.’

Steve just shrugged and took a bite of chocolate cake. Bucky sampled his own – warm and rich and made with slightly darker chocolate than he would have liked – while a thought occurred to him.

‘Is she going to want to meet Becca as well…?’

Steve glanced up, considering this prospect, ‘Probably, if she can find an excuse. Why?’

Bucky couldn’t help but grin, ‘It’s just that Becca is very confident, very annoying, and very gay, and she will flirt mercilessly the whole time just for entertainment.’

That got a laugh from Steve, and a short pause in which Bucky figured he was imagining exactly how that situation would go.

They were both nearly finished with their cakes, and they were starting to get glances from the wait staff who no doubt wanted their table freed up.

‘Okay, I have a question…’ Steve began.

‘Mmm?’

‘If Nat were to run a background check, is there anything embarrassing that she would find?’

Bucky paused with his fork halfway to his mouth.

Uh.

‘I plead the fifth.’

Steve looked like he’d won the lottery, ‘You gotta tell me.’

‘No I don’t.’

‘Please.’

‘Nuh uh.’

‘I told you about the pinball.’ Steve tried, pouting comically.

‘I have a big family, the guilt trip doesn’t work on me.’

Bucky finished his cake, while Steve was clearly considering his next tactic.

‘You know… I could always let Nat run a background check.’

It was Bucky’s turn to weigh up his options, ‘That’s not fair. I haven’t even looked at your Wikipedia page out of respect to your privacy.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I did watch a History Channel documentary, but only because it happened to be on and they were trying to explain everything with aliens again.’

Which was a lot funnier before the Battle of New York.

The waitress wandered over to clear their plates, and Bucky took the opportunity to ask for the cheque before she could start dropping hints.

‘Alright, you have permission to look at the Wikipedia page if you tell me one embarrassing thing that Nat would find.’

Intriguing offer.

‘Don’t laugh.’

‘Deal.’

‘I went through a phase of wearing eyeliner a lot. Mostly when I was going to bars and stuff. But still.’

Steve didn’t laugh. But he was wearing an expression like he was a teenager getting bored of a Nerf gun and Bucky had just handed him a flamethrower.

‘Is there photographic evidence?’

‘Worse. Facebook.’

‘Do you still have the eyeliner?’

Thankfully the waitress arrived at that moment, and Bucky paid for the both of them, plus a tip that was slightly larger than was ideal for someone with his income, just because he figured she deserved it.

Steve only dropped the subject as they made their way out of the restaurant, and when he moved towards his gleaming bike, he offered Bucky a lift home.

Sure you don’t wanna give me a lift to your place? Bucky thought, thankfully stopping himself before he could say that out loud.

He fitted the red helmet to his head again, and wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist with the word “dorito” springing, unbidden, to mind.

Chapter Text

Steve pulled up to Bucky’s house feeling like the air was too thin, somehow. But that had nothing to do with the atmosphere and everything to do with the way Bucky felt, holding on as Steve guided his bike under the glow of the city. Even the bridge seemed brighter, calling him home as it ever did, across the dark water.

Now he could understand what the travel writers meant when they called the city “vibrant”. In the right mood, or through the eyes of the right person, the place was alive.

Even Bucky’s home seemed touched by it, ghostly as it appeared. They both removed their helmets and Steve looked to Bucky, finding abruptly that he had absolutely nothing to say.

Apparently Bucky did, because he started with, ‘Since you refused to talk about yourself this evening, can I ask one question now?’

Steve would have been concerned, but Bucky’s tone wasn’t serious.

‘Go on?’

If I invited you in for a drink, would you accept?’

If he’s a serial killer, he’s definitely about to kill you Steve’s over-active imagination pointed out, half-heartedly.

‘I’m going with yes.’ Steve answered, even though the answer was definitely. Partway through the evening he’d noticed that Bucky’s jacket had sections of brown leather offsetting the black. This didn’t really have anything to do with his decision making except for the fact that Bucky looked really good in that jacket. And the skinny jeans (blue this time; Steve was beginning to wonder how many he had).

‘In that case can I ask a follow up question?’

‘Shoot.’

One of Bucky’s smiles was the one that spread slowly, so the corners pulled upward and the eyes crinkled and then he showed his teeth. It was a smile that seemed as if he didn’t even realise he was doing it, and it highlighted every unique feature of Bucky’s face that Steve would once have ached to draw.

‘Would you like to come in for a drink?’

Definitely.

‘Yes.’

They walked up the front steps together, Bucky making some comment about how he’d get a porch light someday, as he fumbled for the lock by the light of his cellphone. It opened with a click and Steve was ushered inside.

The door was closed and the lights flickered on, presenting the same lobby and same long desk Steve remembered from the day they’d met. And also-

‘Interesting place for a bookshelf.’

Bucky glanced over to where Steve was looking and sighed a little.

‘Okay so my judgement isn’t always fantastic.’

‘It’s just, and I’m not questioning your decorating skills at all, but normally they’re against a wall.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And not sideways.’

‘I sort of, uh, accidentally knocked it over when I was trying to move it.’

To Bucky’s credit, it was a nice piece of furniture, built in dark wood and ornate designs that suited the house to a tee. Probably it would look even better upright, against a wall, and actually stocked with books.

Bucky lead the way upstairs, to a living room, and offered an assortment of drinks that apparently resided in the kitchen through the door. Steve accepted one without paying too much attention and was pleased when it wasn’t half bad.

‘So where does that bookshelf actually belong?’

‘Top floor.’ Bucky supplied, glancing upwards to the high ceiling.

‘Hmm.’ Steve said, sipping his drink, ‘I could probably do something about that.’

‘And why do I think there’s a price to this generous offer?’

‘I’m just curious about this eyeliner phase of yours.’

Bucky looked startled, and for a moment Steve panicked, thinking he’d said something wrong. But then Bucky just covered his face with his free hand, laughing a little, and said, ‘In my defence, I look great in eyeliner.’

‘Do you?’

‘I’m not putting any on. It won’t come off entirely for a little while and Becca will know.’

‘As opposed to the bookshelf, which she won’t notice.’

Bucky hesitated a little, ‘I was gonna hide it.’

‘How?’

‘I was gonna put a blanket over it.’

Steve wasn’t sure how often Bucky invited people inside for drinks, or how that normally went, but he was willing to guess that it didn’t often involve applying make-up and the reorganisation of furniture.

Bucky caved, and soon he was showing him the spot where the bookshelf was supposed to go (‘Ignore the wallpaper, I inherited this place last year and have no idea where to start.’) before moving reluctantly to the bathroom to keep his end of the bargain.

The bookshelf wasn’t even that heavy. Okay, it was very heavy for a bookshelf, and there was a time Steve probably would have injured himself just looking at the damn thing, but compared to his day job this was pretty easy.

He set it in place against the wall, next to the guitar in the corner with the scarlet star splashed across it, and returned to the living room to find Bucky wearing sunglasses.

Steve had been right, he could wear sunglasses at night without looking like a dickhead. But that wasn’t the point of the exercise so he shook his head and said ‘Sunglasses.’

‘What sunglasses?’

‘The ones on your face.’

Bucky backed towards the empty room he’d been herding cats into the day Steve returned the diary. He’d explained later that it had been to get them out of the way for cleaning. It looked much different now with the curtains closed and the light coming from the bulb above their heads.

‘I’m not wearing sunglasses.’

Steve was finding it very difficult not to laugh, ‘I’m starting to see how you thought putting a blanket over the bookshelf would be a good way to hide it.’

Bucky was completely in the empty room now, Steve following.

‘Oh you mean these sunglasses.’

‘Yes.’

‘What about them?’

There was a good chance that Bucky could keep this up for a while.

‘Oh nothing. It’s just if you think you can get around this by saying there’s nothing in our deal about covering your eyes, I’m gonna point out that there’s nothing in our deal about me turning the bookshelf around so it’s facing the wall.’

‘Okay okay. But you really can’t laugh.’

He was biting his lip as he drew the sunglasses away from his face, but Steve didn’t see why. He hadn’t been kidding, he looked great in eyeliner. Fantastic, in fact. And with the leather jacket and the skinny jeans and the fact that Steve knew precisely how well he could kiss, the whole thing was amazing.

Tonight was going so much better than he had hoped.

‘Are you gonna say anything or am I gonna have to put the glasses back on in shame?’

‘Uh.’ Steve said. ‘Why did you uh. Stop. Wearing eyeliner?’

Bucky gave a one-armed shrug, ‘Why do you wanna know?’

‘No reason.’ Steve lied, ‘It suits you.’

Bucky stopped biting his lip in order to smile; the small, asymmetric one that served as an omen for a situation that was about to go his way.

‘Does it?’

‘Hell yeah.’ replied Steve. It wasn’t meant to be aloud but it certainly got his point across.

Bucky took a step forward, and Steve’s whole mind went on red alert: level Don’t Do Or Say Anything Stupid Or You Will Fuck This Up.

‘I’ll have to remember that.’

Steve’s mind was too busy focusing on Bucky’s lips to think of anything to say, but his legs decided to mirror Bucky’s movements and carried him forward. They were standing in the centre of the room, and that was the exact moment that Steve noticed Bucky’s mannerism of absentmindedly licking his lips.

The next moment they were kissing, and if the air was too thin then Steve certainly wasn’t getting enough of it. Bucky was pulling him in with his right arm on his back and his left resting weaker on his waist. And Steve had his hand in Bucky’s hair and Bucky’s tongue at his lips and the thought running through his mind that he hadn’t met anyone like this since, well… all the amazing people Steve had ever met were amazing in their own way, and Steve had never met anyone like Bucky.

Bucky tilted his head back for air and Steve used the opportunity to move his attention to his jaw. He took the tiniest of pauses just to make sure this was okay, and Bucky was grinning absently and breathing a little heavier. He needn’t have bothered; the arm at Steve’s waist was now moving under his shirt – skin on skin – and the one at his back was bringing him in ever closer.

‘Can I take this off?’ Bucky uttered, tugging at the shirt. Steve nodded and moved back for space, and now he could see Bucky’s face clearly. In his collection, Bucky had a smile like a genie must wear when temptation wins over their newest victim. But there was no malice, just an expression halfway between charm and hunger.

And the next second his shirt was over his head and being lost entirely to the floor. Steve gave Bucky little time to react – although he seemed to cover plenty with his eyes in that second – before he was moving forward again. He slid the jacket off Bucky’s arms in the same motion as their lips met once more.

This was probably closer to what people did when they were invited up for drinks, and Steve recalled reading something about the third date somewhere, but none of that was remotely relevant at that moment. All he wanted was to learn everything there was to know about Bucky Barnes, and he was more than happy to start with learning his body.

This empty room didn’t really give them a lot to work with, but they’d deal with that later. Right then Steve was far too busy trying to remember how to make his hands work while Bucky’s mouth was marking his collarbone. He managed to keep his mind clear enough to push Bucky’s shirt upwards, but he soon discovered a slight problem.

‘Buck-’

‘Hmm?’

‘You’re gonna have to-’ breathe ‘-stop for a sec. So I can-’

He could feel Bucky’s ribcage beneath this thumbs, and it took a few moments for Bucky to finally step back enough for Steve to finish removing the shirt.

He was thinner than Steve was, but plenty toned. For the first time Steve noticed that his left arm had a little less muscle, and a long, ragged scar that he would have to ask about at a point that wasn’t right then. He was grinning, too, like a devil newly freed, with a flush to his skin and his hair messed up in all the right ways.

They didn’t stay apart for long. He felt like a teenager, hormones telling him to touch and taste. Except he’d been useless at being a teenager, and getting someone like Bucky to look at him twice was a challenge in and of itself.

But now Bucky was impossibly close, and their hips were against each other in a way that sent blood pumping between Steve’s legs. Somehow, they manoeuvred towards one of the walls. Steve managed to get Bucky up against it, breathing heavily and looking beautiful, his eyeliner already slightly smudged.

Steve’s mouth set to work at the place where Bucky’s neck met his shoulder, and was rewarded with searching hands at his shoulder blades and spine. Then his teeth scraped skin, just lightly, and earned a little ah from Bucky. And suddenly hands were overrated. They were useful and all, but Steve wanted to know what sounds he could pull from Bucky with his mouth alone.

So he began migrating down; lips, teeth, tongue moving next to the shaded skin just below the collarbone. Bucky’s breathing came in gasps. And then to his breastbone, hands on either side of his chest, and Steve could feel his lungs expanding and his heart beating fast.

Down just a few inches more, to the muscles of his chest, and Steve was having fun mapping out this bare expanse of Bucky. He found the more sensitive skin there, sucking lightly and getting Bucky to groan in response, cut off with an abrupt intake of breath as his tongue found a nipple. Steve was ignoring the tightness in his trousers in favour of feeling every movement beneath his fingers.

He pulled back slightly for a view of Bucky’s strong, lithe body, rolling with Steve’s hands as they moved down his sides.

A little lower, to the base of his ribcage, and Bucky was starting to squirm. Steve was teasing now, but he was running out of room as his teeth brushed Bucky’s hip. Another groan, Steve kissing into the V shape between his hips as he fumbled with the jeans. He got the fly open, but that didn’t seem to be making any difference.

‘What, are these glued on?’

Bucky choked out a laugh, ‘You love my jeans.’

Steve, lowering himself to his knees, tried tugging them down by the belt loops. But it wasn’t working very well.

‘What makes you say that?’

‘You check out my ass when you think I won’t notice.’

Success, finally, and Steve retaliated by pressing his fingernails down the back of Bucky’s thighs to drag the jeans down.

‘Maybe I just like your ass.’ Steve muttered, to Bucky’s thigh.

‘Even more reason for me to wear- ah- f-fuck-’

Steve had cut him off by pressing teeth against the soft skin on the inside of his thigh. Bucky’s hands were tangling in his hair and Steve took that as his cue to finally stop teasing and lick a line up Bucky’s dick.

Bucky made a noise that was halfway between a moan and a whimper. He wrapped his hand around the length, running a thumb over the head as Bucky lost a few syllables in stuttering. And then he replaced his thumb with his tongue and Bucky was back to gasping.

Steve was still working the base of Bucky’s dick with his hand, but now he took him in his mouth. This had never been a skill he’d exactly mastered, but it was easy enough to get the hang of, based on how Bucky was shivering and stammering things that were mostly swear words and may have included his name.

Bucky’s hips started moving and Steve would have grinned if his mouth wasn’t otherwise occupied. He tried humming, and the response was a word or two, no longer stuttered, but still divorced enough from anything intelligible to Steve that he briefly wondered if he were speaking a different language.

Steve didn’t have to do much of the work anymore; Bucky was fucking himself into Steve’s mouth with more cusses and groans. And then his name, and more words that Steve finally understood.

He tried to catch a glimpse of Bucky’s face from under his eyelashes. He was breathing heavily, head against the wall. Then he was gasping Steve’s name again with a shudder and Steve hollowed his cheeks to guide him over the edge.

Bucky’s fingers were tighter in Steve’s hair as he came, hot and salty in the in the back of his throat. Steve swallowed it down and finally pulled away to glance up at Bucky properly. He was still out of breath, looking down at Steve with a lazy smile. It was enough to make him rise to his feet for another kiss. But this one was softer, quicker. And Bucky was the first to speak.

‘You want me to do something about that?’ he mumbled, glancing down to the bulge in Steve’s trousers.

He should have looked ridiculous, standing there, flushed, with his jeans around his knees and eyeliner marking his eyes. But the part of Steve’s brain that could possibly find Bucky ridiculous apparently wasn’t functioning very well.

‘What did you have in mind?’

Bucky leaned forward to kiss him again, following up with ‘I’m sure I can think of something.’

They moved away from the wall; Steve taking a step back and Bucky taking a step forward. Unfortunately for Bucky’s dignity, skinny jeans around one’s ankles are not good for mobility, and he stumbled. Without being able to use his feet to catch himself, he toppled forward, and Steve caught him on instinct.

Unfortunately for Steve’s dignity, this didn’t work so well. They both hit the ground with a muffled oof, Bucky on top and laughing into Steve’s shoulder.

‘I swear I’m normally more balanced than that.’ said Steve, trying to pretend he wasn’t a little winded.

‘I hope so! Unless there’s some fighting style you can save the world with that involves falling over your own feet.’

‘You’re the one who tripped.’ Steve pointed out, but he was too busy enjoying the sound of Bucky laughing breathlessly, and the pleasant weight of him on his chest, to really care. Bucky kicked his shoes off and managed to shed the denim impediment.

‘Yeah, I’m normally more sexy than that.’

They were both laughing now, and Steve’s only response was ‘Keep telling yourself that.’

Bucky raised his head, trying to glare but with laughter still in his eyes, ‘You know what, punk-

‘If you’re so sexy come and prove it.’

He seemed to accept the challenge, repositioning himself so that their hips were against each others’ and their mouths were separated by centimetres. The way he was looking at Steve suggested that he’d been given the ability to smoulder as a gift from a magic fairy on the day he was born. It was a look that burned through Steve’s wiring until it blew all the fuses Steve needed for thinking clearly and left only sparks. It was a look that made action superfluous, and yet Bucky elected to run one hand down the centre of Steve’s chest, moving over his body and eliciting little shivers as it went, while breathing suddenly became difficult.

Show off.

Steve’s phone chose that moment to ring. He fished it out of his pocket and – knowing exactly how many rules this broke – tossed it against the furthest wall. They stayed still for a few irritating moments, until it finally fell silent.

In the quiet that followed, Steve said, ‘You know… that wouldn’t have been a problem if I wasn’t still wearing my jeans.’

‘Is that a hint?’

Steve’s response was interrupted by his phone once again ringing obnoxiously, and instead he settled for swearing and reluctantly moving Bucky off him to roll over and retrieve it.

‘Hey Steve-’

‘Tony. The world better be ending or I’m hanging up.’

‘Tell him you’re busy.’ Bucky laughed, reclining on the carpet a few feet away, ‘Tell him you were about to-’

Steve rolled back over to him and covered his mouth with the hand not holding the phone. Silenced, Bucky settled for wiggling his eyebrows.

‘What was that?’ Tony asked, on the other end of the line.

‘Uh. The TV was on. Nothing. Why are you calling?’

Annoyingly, Bucky was shaking with suppressed laughter.

‘There’s a thing.’

‘Yeah, you’re gonna have to be faster and more specific.’

‘A hydra thing.’

That’s the worst kind of thing.

‘And they can’t wait until morning to, what? Attack us?’

Bucky was now looking concerned, which was nice.

‘It’s not an attack.’

‘Well if it’s not an attack why do you need me?’

‘It’s hard to explain. Just come to the tower.’

Steve hung up in ill-temper and removed his hand from Bucky’s mouth to stand up.

‘Work?’

‘Yeah, I’m sorry, I gotta- where’s my shirt?’

His search was somewhat hampered by the fact that his eyes kept returning to Bucky’s exposed frame, his legs lying just so and his head resting on one arm in a way that Steve was ninety percent sure was posing to mess with him. Either way it was working; Steve was all too aware that his dick was still hard, and wanted nothing more than to run his hands over every inch of Bucky’s exposed skin.

But he had to go, and Bucky tossed him his own shirt with a quick, ‘Just borrow this.’

‘Thanks.’

‘And think of baseball.’ he suggested, lifting his back to a half sitting position in a way that was blatantly intended to prevent Steve from thinking about anything with any clarity, ‘Nothin’ sexy about baseball. Just a lot of athletic men swinging, and playing with balls, and holding long, stiff wood…en bats.’ he finished, glancing down to Steve’s trousers and back up to his face.

‘You’re a jerk.’

‘See ya next time.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

Steve pulled the shirt – a bit too tight but not so bad – over his head and made his way regretfully out into the Brooklyn night. He had the whole ride back, sitting about as comfortably as he could, to shake off the distraction. The air wasn’t too thin anymore, just sharp and sobering and a little too cold. By the time he made it back to the tower, he was a marginally grumpier version of his usual self.

Most of the Avengers were waiting. True to form, Tony neglected a greeting in favour of ‘Okay so we found this thing- are- are you wearing a Runaways shirt?’

Behind him, Natasha’s poker face was perfect, but Sam had to turn away to hide his grin.

‘What?’

‘Your shirt.’

‘What shirt?’

Okay, so maybe this didn’t work for Bucky, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work for me.

‘The one that you’re wearing?’

Steve glanced down, ‘Oh, this shirt.’

Yes.’

‘What about it?’

‘Boys?’ Natasha cut in, mercifully, ‘We are here for a reason?’

‘Oh yes.’ Tony said, turning to one side so Steve could see the table behind him, ‘Put your hand on this box.’

‘What?’

‘This box, put your hand on it.’

‘You brought me here to put my hand on a box?’

You could be an artist, Rogers. Paintings don’t interrupt you when you’ve been invited up for drinks. But you’re an Avenger. You brought this on yourself.

Tony was bouncing lightly on his feet, ‘It’s a really cool box. It’s from Hydra, and it’s almost as old as you. Jarvis scanned it and he says it’s safe, just full of documents, but there’s this security thing that I think is supposed to keep anyone but the Red Skull out so-’

‘So you thought I’m close enough?’

‘It checks for superserum.’ Tony clarified, still bouncing a little, ‘Told you it’s cool. Anyway, if we don’t get past the security soon the box is going to destroy the documents so I need you to put your hand on it.’

Steve eyed the box suspiciously. It was about a foot cubed, made of dark metal, and covered with the sort of weird markings you’d expect to find on an artifact in an alien film. He moved forward cautiously, knowing full well that Hydra rarely made anything simple. But at the same time, Hydra did do a lot of frankly stupid things, and not trapping a box that Captain America could open wouldn’t be the dumbest. And besides, it was too much effort to be any more cautious about this.

‘If I lose my hand I want a really cool prosthetic.’ Steve muttered to Tony, ‘With lasers. And WiFi, probably.’

He placed his hand on the damned box. There was a buzz, a click, and then it opened.

‘Well that was stupid.’ Steve sighed, ‘Tell me if you find anything interesting.’

‘You’re not sticking around?’ Tony asked, in surprise. But Steve was already halfway out of the door.

This better not become a pattern; Hydra was now somehow interrupting his love life from nineteen forty-five. He didn’t bother going to his own apartment tonight. Instead he travelled down to his floor of the tower and thought about what he was missing out on because he had to put his hand on a fucking box.

So it turned out that Bucky was an absolute shit, in the best possible way. And he made the greatest sounds under Steve’s tongue. And under his skin Steve could see – feel, given the chance – his muscles moving his body the way clockwork moved an automaton. Efficient and capable, and with a sort of artistry that Steve had never really associated with the human body.

Steve shed his clothes haphazardly in the living room and moved through to the shower. He was thinking about how Bucky had looked at him, how he had felt touching him, and even the memory was enough to get blood pumping again.

He stepped into the shower with his mind very much elsewhere, and managed a half-hearted attempt to begin cleaning himself before giving into his thoughts. His own hand was certainly no substitute, but the thought of what it would be like to have Bucky take over was enough to get him as hard as he had been earlier that evening. And then it was standing with his legs a little apart, moving his wrist in familiar motions, and Bucky. How he felt pressed against him. How he tasted, how he sounded as he stuttered Steve’s name. How he looked, stretched out and at ease on the floor, all muscle tone and sloping curves.

Steve could help but let out a whimper, his hand picking up the pace of its own accord. But that wasn’t all that he wanted. God, he wanted soft sheets and racing hearts and moving together, in sync. Bucky over him, pinning his arms over his head. Watching him from beneath those eyelashes. Bucky’s lips, teeth, at his neck. And that one thing he never quite got up to with another man; the way Bucky would feel moving inside of him and fuck-

That image was blotted out for a moment as he came into the stream of water, his other arm bracing against the shower wall as he could only gasp.

Like a hormonal teenager. The serum had a way of heightening everything, of making him experience everything keenly and with all his senses somehow more alive, but this wasn’t just that. Bucky Barnes was simply something else. Like a little alchemic gold had seeped into his DNA at birth. Or like he’d been switched with a changeling, but had found his way home as a child with magic still traced beneath his skin. But thinking like this was unfair to Bucky; if he was as extraordinary as Steve had begun to believe, it wasn’t because of some accident of magic and science, it was because he was Bucky.

And with only three dates behind them, this sort of thinking was altogether too much, too soon.

He finished in the shower and stepped out a little guiltily, moving through his bedtime routine as his mind refused to calm. By the time his head hit his pillow he was thinking about all the mistakes that he could be making.

He’d never thought about the risks when he was with Bucky, but he was thinking about them now. Steve’s life came with secrets and danger, his past, present, and future all maps marked with “Here Be Dragons” in all the places that mattered the most; it was something he couldn’t bring a stranger into without allowing himself all sorts of vulnerabilities. He’d only be safe for as long as Bucky was on his side. And of course, at that moment, Bucky himself was one of Steve’s bigger secrets.

The stakes were too high. His last terrifying thought before he fell asleep was that – after only knowing him for a few weeks – this could only end in a happily ever after or a disaster. Unless, of course, he let it drop quietly away, but that didn’t seem on the cards any time soon.

He was woken up a little before ten with a text from Bucky. All those thoughts from the night before slouched obligingly back to their fearful home in the dim corners of his mind.

It was a photo, softly lit in morning light. Bucky was wearing a charming smile on his face, and a tiny kitten on his shoulder (and clothes, unfortunately). The kitten was familiar; it was the same multi-coloured bundle of fur that had found Steve’s shoelaces so delicious on the day he’d met Bucky, in a certain empty room.

            Bucky:             FDR says hi

FDR seemed perfectly happy to perch on Bucky’s shoulder and apparently was the greatest cat Steve had ever come across. Mrs Foster from three floors down had a cat when Steve was a teenager, but all that thing ever did was rest in the sun and hiss at passers-by.

            Steve:               If only I didn’t have to leave so soon, I coulda seen FDR again

            Bucky:             Yeah I know he’s the only reason you talk to me

Steve could think of several other reasons, as it happened.

            Steve:               No offence. It’s just that he’s cuter than you

            Bucky:             I was right, you are a punk

            Steve:               Jerk

He considered asking why Bucky was up at such a ridiculous hour of the morning, but then remembered that ten wasn’t actually early to many people.

Oh god.

Was that the flaw Steve had been looking for on their first date? Was he… (here Steve imagined dramatic horror movie music playing) …a morning person?

            Bucky:             Work go well?

            Steve:               It was annoying but brief

            Steve:               And also confidential

            Bucky:             The history channel was right about you

Texting Bucky was fun, but it came with the annoying side effect that Steve was shamed into getting out of bed, and therefore forced to find something to do with his time an hour or so earlier than he otherwise would have.

Maybe he should own more books. He could kill a lot of time reading books. And then people would think he was bookish, which apparently had become a good thing to be.

Or maybe he could start drawing again-

Steve froze in the middle of the living room, feeling his blood suddenly fizzing with the same adrenaline of hearing too many footsteps following, and movement in the shadows just out of sight. Quick breaths, quiet. Unable to make his limbs move in case something heard him. Wanting to call out for help but knowing there was nothing anyone could do. He could feel crosshairs brush his neck and tripwires at his ankles, ready to blow him to pieces if he moved.

He’d read up on how to deal with this online, and he’d found a method that seemed to help. But first he needed to

Breathe.

Steady breaths. In and out. Remind yourself where you are.

I’m in Avengers Tower. The security is world class and the glass is bullet proof and there’s no one else here. I’m safe.

I’m safe.

There were some things that Steve never thought about, because the way his mind could react scared him. And there were parts of himself that he’d jettisoned because there was only so much a soldier could take into war. This was one of those dangerous areas on his map. He never felt like he was out of the battle.

His phone buzzed again, and Steve felt a little relief. He could think of no one more suited to bringing him back to Earth than the one person who was on the outside of his war.

Chapter Text

People fell in love quickly in films. In a matter of days, hours even, if it were an action film. Half a second for a fairy tale. Steve had the disadvantage of being real.

So no, he wasn’t in love. But with all the information he’d gathered in the time they’d known each other, an honest and objective evaluation made it clear that love was one path he could follow. If circumstances allowed. And if he chose to.

But that wasn’t an urgent decision. If he managed to avoid overthinking this one thing, he could just enjoy knowing Bucky. It was late at night – the time overthinking was wont to take over – but his mind was quieted by the dip in the mattress next to him.

Bucky could have been a painting, but for his steady breathing. He was facing the centre of the bed, his weight on his right arm and his left pulled limply into his chest. In the darkness, Steve couldn’t make out the scar. Bucky’s relaxed face, too, was smudged into hazy curves, in the absence of any light to bring it into sharp relief. The only thing that stopped Steve moving over a little to kiss his forehead was the knowledge that he might wake up, and then he’d call Steve a sap for his trouble.

Steve hadn’t exactly been having a good week, but at least it had finished well. Better than well, as it turned out. This was the very first time Bucky had seen his apartment, and the very last time he was planning on letting Hydra affect their relationship.

Sam would want to hear about it when they next met. It had been him who had taken over Natasha’s traditional role of Meddler-In-Chief the day after the third date. But then, it had been Steve’s fault for showing up anywhere near him when no one else was around.

He’d still been texting Bucky when he moved into one of the communal areas of the tower. And, yeah, maybe he’d been smiling a little.

‘That the cat guy?’

Steve glanced up from his phone too late, only realising he was alone with Sam after he’d been trapped; if not by chains, then at least by social etiquette. His ma had told him that if someone started a conversation, he had to reply and definitely wasn’t allowed to turn around and jog away.

‘I’m playing Candy Crush.’ Steve lied.

‘Do you even have Candy Crush on your phone?’

‘Yes.’ Steve replied, still lying, ‘Who doesn’t?’

‘So how’d it go last night?’

At least if I jog away from this conversation, I know there’s no way Sam can catch me.

‘The restaurant was nice.’

Damn. He’s got wings. And I’m at least partially responsible for him having wings.

‘Anything else?’

‘No. We had dinner. That’s all.’

Sam was grinning. Which was annoying.

‘And at what point in the dinner did you swap shirts?’

Maybe I can steal his wings.

‘I’ve always been a big fan of the Runaways.’ Steve answered, deadpan, ‘Just the Runaways and Candy Crush. That’s my whole life.’

‘Look, man,’ Sam began, and anything that started with “look man” and wasn’t followed by an insult meant that he was about to say something for the good of the listener’s wellbeing and that listening wasn’t optional, ‘I’m not here to pry. I was just wondering how it’s going with you two so far…?’

‘He’s…’ if we weren’t dating I’d probably be referring to him as my best friend by the end of the month ‘…it’s good. I think. I mean, I’m pretty sure-’

‘So do you know what you’re looking for with him?’

Sam, if you don’t stop talking I am going to take your wing privileges away from you. I am going to steal your wings and throw them out of a window. Which would be a pretty ironic way to destroy wings.

‘Yes.’

Sam nodded thoughtfully, ‘And are you going to tell me what you’re looking for with him?’

‘No.’

There was a short pause.

‘Are you not telling me because you were lying about knowing?’

‘No!’ Steve objected, a little too defensively.

‘Are you lying right now?’

Steve ended the conversation as quickly as possible, thinking that Sam’s question had given him something new to obsessively overthink about.

But at least that afternoon brought something entirely different to fruition; the magnets were in place and Steve and Thor were ready for their first game of life-sized pinball.

Nat had heard about it, because she was Nat. Which meant that Clint had also heard about it, because he was Clint. And because he was Clint, he was positioned in one of the roomier vents with a camcorder and what was probably popcorn but what Natasha unfailingly referred to as bird food.

As far as training exercises went, it probably helped Steve much more that it helped Thor. But if he was being entirely honest, he didn’t need much more practice than Nazi Germany had offered at throwing and catching his shield. At one point Pietro had called his accuracy supernatural, to which Clint had cut in with a vague “eeh” sound and fired off three arrows at once. If showing off were a sport, Clint could probably give Tony a run for his money if he were in the right mood.

By the end of the exercise, Clint had plenty of footage, and the solid grey walls were still resolutely unscathed. Steve would have been more frustrated by this if he didn’t have an afternoon to spend editing film to fit The Who’s Pinball Wizard, a song he hadn’t heard of until Bucky had mentioned it, and now couldn’t get out of his head.

            Steve:               If I send you something you have to promise not to share it

            Bucky:             ???

            Steve:               And you especially can’t put it on YouTube

            Bucky:             Alright you have my word

Bucky gave Steve his email address and Steve sent off the final video, trying to imagine Bucky’s reaction. He’d cut out all the boring bits – and most of the parts that were less than flattering to Steve – but there was still plenty there to entertain Bucky. The part where Thor reaches out to hit the shield and ends up falling over was a good one. As was the part where the shield sliced cleanly through one of their obstacles. Steve’s personal favourite was the one where it veered wildly off course and nearly knocked Clint off his perch. This shot came with a projectile seemingly heading straight for the viewer, and the added bonus of Clint’s very avian and very undignified screech.

            Bucky:             Oh my /god/

            Bucky:             Oh my god Steve I’ve never seen anyone put so much effort into wasting time

            Steve:               Training exercise

            Bucky:             Sure it was

            Bucky:             If that was a training exercise then you have the greatest job in the world, and that’s coming from a guy whose job it is to play with kittens all day

Steve didn’t say that his job wasn’t all that great. Nor did he say that he sometimes lay away at night and wondered what he could possibly do with his life if he got out.

But even with Steve maintaining his silence on certain things, Bucky was nonetheless still helping somehow. Maybe it was just nice to have something outside of the violent world Steve occupied. Whatever it was, when the structure of texting and meeting for dates faded into one where they’d meet up on short notice with no motives other than to enjoy each other’s company, Steve couldn’t say he was sorry.

He brought him his shirt back when he was working one day, and Bucky immediately dragged him through to the cats’ room. A large black one that was apparently called “Dave” looked up from his bubble wrap to glare at him as he entered the room, but the rest followed his movements with more benign eyes. He wouldn’t willingly admit it to anyone, but Steve searched through the different cages (all reasonably large and comfortable-looking, and stocked with water and toys) for a kitten he recognised.

‘He’s out of the cage at the moment.’ Bucky said, answering with some amusement the question that Steve would have adamantly denied wanting to ask, ‘So he’ll either be hiding or perched somewhere up high. Or both. He’s an interesting cat.’

‘Likes sitting on shoulders, apparently.’

Bucky was peering in every dark corner, and standing on tip toes to check up high.

‘Uh huh. He’s great with shoulders. Like a parrot, but cuter. And gotcha.’ he finished, scooping out the purring ball of fur from some shadowy crevasse, ‘Come on, come see Steve.’

FDR was handed over, and immediately flopped into Steve’s elbow again, purring louder than a creature that size should be able to. Steve scratched it absentmindedly behind the ears with a mumbled ‘Hello again.’

‘He’s getting older.’ commented Bucky, ‘Soon he’ll be able to be adopted.’

‘Nice try. I ain’t buying a cat from you.’

Bucky shrugged, ‘That’s fine. FDR won’t have any trouble getting picked up by another family.’

Steve stopped patting him. Glancing up, he could see by the expression in Bucky’s eyes that he knew he’d won. FDR mewed for attention and Steve returned to patting him, a little protectively.

‘I’m sure the family will be nice.’ Steve muttered.

‘Probably.’ Bucky confirmed, cheerfully.

With a little whine, FDR rolled over in his arm.

‘So, uh. When… will he be old enough to be adopted?’ Steve asked, with an attempt at a casual tone that he knew failed spectacularly.

‘Next week.’

Next week.

‘When, next week?’

‘Thursday, at the earliest.’

So Steve had until Thursday to talk himself out of becoming a cat owner. He certainly didn’t want to own a cat. It was a big responsibility, owning a cat. Of course he wasn’t going to adopt this one. That would be stupid.

Bucky had to deal with some customers then; a middle aged couple coming in to pick a kitten to adopt when it was old enough. With as much subtlety as he could muster, Steve tucked FDR safely back into his hidden corner, and wandered off to buy the two of them some lunch.

He returned with Starbucks and burgers from a brown take out bag, and with a Be Back Soon sign in the door, they settled down on the floor in the front room, with their backs against the desk.

Bucky squinted at the name written on the side of Steve’s cup. Today it was “Stevee”.

‘Stevie.’ he read out loud, ‘I like it.’

‘Is he allowed French fries?’ Steve mused, watching the kitten that Bucky had accidently-on-purpose let out of the main room stumble over unfamiliar carpet towards them.

‘You can feed him just a few.’ Bucky said, ‘And he’ll love you forever if you do.’

That last bit was a mean, underhanded ploy to guilt Steve into adopting the cat, and he certainly wasn’t going to fall for it. And if there was a con going on, FDR must be in on it, because it wasn’t long before he was curled up against Steve’s leg, nibbling at the thin strips of potato he’d been given. And a tiny piece of meat from the burger. And the sauce that Steve let him lick from his finger.

‘Not to mention that I really cannot own a cat called Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’ Steve pointed out suddenly, despite the fact that they weren’t technically talking about the pros and cons of him adopting this kitten at that moment.

Bucky laughed and took a sip of coffee.

‘What?’ Steve asked, a little defensively.

‘Nothing.’

‘Okay then.’

A few moments later, Bucky added, ‘You could always call him Frank, for short. Frankie. Franklin. Or Rosie, for Roosevelt, if you’re not that into gender divisions for cats.’

‘I woulda thought you’d’ve suggested Del, for Delano, since you prefer shortening middle names.’

‘Well hey, in my case it was this or “Jimmy”.’

‘Jimmy’s not so bad.’

‘My elementary teachers used to call me “Jimbo”.’

Steve snorted, gracelessly, and couldn’t stop himself from subsiding into embarrassing giggles as Bucky’s scowl was ruined by the blush rapidly darkening his skin. It was a pleasant blush, in the way that everything about Bucky had the word “pleasant” attached to it. It had something of more antique standards of beauty, from when women’s cheeks were painted with Carmine or Chinese Red, pigments made of poisons to stain art onto the canvas.

‘Jimbo.’ Steve repeated, faintly.

‘Shut up.’

Maybe he didn’t have the porcelain skin that the classic artists he’d learnt about so adored, but the safer, synthetic paints could probably do it justice. The right mix of yellow and red, a little black, then combine it with white until the smooth tan matches whatever Continental heritage had given him that tone. A touch darker around the eyes, and more red mixed in for the damask in his cheeks.

He could call the colour “Jimbo”.

‘So now I know the real reason you hate your first name.’

Bucky scowled into the depths of his French fry packet, and Steve caught himself wondering how many separate colours he’d have to mix to faithfully capture his hair.

‘Ihatlmzbecsitpsh.’ he mumbled, rapidly.

Even FDR perked an ear up to catch what he was saying.

‘What was that?’

Bucky sighed heavily, Carmine now reaching the tips of his ears.

‘I said, I hate “James” because it… is… posh.’

Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t-

But it was no good; Steve suspected that if he’d been eating when Bucky had spoken, he’d be choking at that moment. What a way to go. Laughing to death about his boyfriend’s naming dilemma. He only stopped when FDR objected by digging a claw into his leg.

‘Like Falsworth. God, we shoulda called him “Jimbo”.’

Bucky had his arms folded defensively over his chest, but he couldn’t hide his interest, ‘One of the Commandos?’

‘James Montgomery Falsworth.’ Steve confirmed, ‘We used to call him Monty, like you call yourself Bucky. And he was definitely posh. His accent didn’t even sound real, that’s how posh he was.’

‘Well I’m not.’ Bucky replied, eyes fixed on the coloured windows in front of them as if they were far too interesting for him to tear his attention away, ‘As asking to be called Bucky made pretty clear. Not that anyone at my high school every actually called me that.’

‘Got stuck with James, huh?’

‘The nicer people called me James. The rest called me “scholarship”.’

It took Steve a few moments to click. ‘You went to a posh school?’

‘A posh, all boys school. Which I gotta tell ya, wasn’t so bad for me as it might have been.’

‘Did you, ah-’ don’t laugh ‘-have a uniform?’

Bucky nodded, miserably.

‘Oh my god. Wow. With a tie? Or, I don’t know, a blazer? Okay I’m sorry I’m not making fun of you. I just figured you were one of those cool kids at school who never realised they were popular and just thought everyone was nice.’

‘There were nice people at my school.’ Bucky muttered, fairly, ‘But there were also not nice people. And people who weren’t actually mean, just didn’t think a thousand dollars was a lot of money or sort of, didn’t understand the concept of not being able to get a job.’

Well, at least that sounded familiar.

‘I went to one of those big public schools.’ Steve said, frowning slightly at the memory, and I was five four, ninety pounds, and more than a little asthmatic, so it wasn’t that fun.’

‘I can imagine.’

‘Plus I kept picking fights with people.’

Bucky laughed in surprise, almost managed to hide it by taking a bite of his burger, and ended up choking a little.

‘I woulda liked to have known you at high school.’ he eventually managed, emphatically, ‘Would’ve made the time much more interesting, at least.’

‘You too.’ Steve replied. And then, because that seemed a little too sentimental, added, ‘Mighta saved me from a broken nose or two.’

‘Mighta gotten me a broken nose or two.’ Bucky mumbled.

The door opened at that moment, and FDR made a break for it. It was only Steve’s reflexes that caught him in time, and for a moment he was inches from the ground, little legs still trying to sprint to freedom, and then he gave up and went limp in Steve’s hands.

‘Hiya.’ a girl Steve recognised as Becca said, closing the door tight behind her and catching sight of Steve, ‘And hi you.’

‘Hi.’

‘Hey Becca.’ Bucky replied, with a smile, ‘Steve here was just considering adopting little FDR when he’s old enough.’

‘No I wasn’t.’ Steve protested, at the same moment that FDR meowed agreeably. Both Barnes’ turned to him with identical expressions of disbelief. It was sort of unnerving, actually, and a little like they knew something he didn’t. But then, they both had experience selling cats; they probably did know something he didn’t. At the very least they’d know when a future owner was in denial.

Now wide awake, FDR scampered in the direction of Steve’s shoelaces as Steve finished his coffee.

‘I’m gonna go check in on the other cats.’ Becca said, tactfully, ‘Oh and by the way, the sign is gone again.’

‘Who keeps stealing your signs?’

‘Tell you later.’ Bucky answered, looking a little apologetic as he returned his rubbish to the paper bag, ‘Gotta open the shop again soon.’ he explained, ‘I’ll just fetch you your shirt.’

He vanished upstairs, leaving Steve alone to level a stare at FDR, who was obliviously attempting to remove the plastic tip of his shoelace.

‘I’m not going to adopt you.’ Steve assured him, firmly.

The only response was a pair of wide blue eyes turning to his face, a soft mew, and then he was back to his makeshift chew toy.

‘You two getting along then?’ Bucky asked, re-entering the room as Steve was clambering to his feet.

‘Are you trying to set me up with a cat?’

‘Just doing my job.’

Bucky kissed him before he left, and Steve pretended not to be as happy about that than he really was. The whole time he’d spent there had that same happiness entwined with it. It was to be the only happy part of his whole week.

They made plans to hang out the day after next, once Steve’s upcoming mission (‘It’s still confidential, sorry.’) was finished, and Bucky had closed the shop for the day. In the meantime, Steve had the rest of the afternoon to run over the plans and get suited up.

The box, apparently, had been full of things that had made the scientists very excited and everyone else very nervous. But then, they’d been looking at different documents.

Tony’s eye had immediately been drawn to some set of schematics, and it hadn’t been long before Jarvis had them translated and he’d announced that Hydra had been designing prosthetic limbs. Steve hadn’t been there for that bit.

On the other hand, he had been there for when they’d put together all the documents in the box and come to one startling – horrifying – conclusion.

There were the files on Erskine’s formula, unfinished and expected; everyone knew this had been one of Hydra’s goals. Then there were the designs for prosthetic limbs, which Tony assured everyone were far more advanced than even modern prosthetics, and may even be more useful that a real limb in a fight once a soldier had had the misfortune to lose one in battle.

The next were files and files on the human mind. Some anatomy, some chemistry, some psychology. Some outdated and even Freudian, but others more advanced than current accepted science. More worrying still were the annotations in the margins, discussing the human brain in the terms of the (then) new computing machines.

These were the files that only the scientists among them could effectively decode, but Steve didn’t need much of an education to understand the little ledger tucked away underneath it all. Each entry began with the details of a new person, scrawled out in German. Steve understood enough not to need to wait for the translation; he’d brushed the dust off and scanned the columns.

Underneath the details were a series of notes, with the date and time jutting out in the last column. Some were nearly carbon copies of other people’s notes, others were scattered with under linings and question marks. The last row for each person infallibly read “Der Tod” – death – followed by a date and time. Underneath this the words “Versuch gescheitert” were stamped on in red ink.

‘Something failed.’ Steve read, frowning at the first word, ‘Attempt, I think. Attempt failed.’

It was Jarvis who responded, ‘I think a more accurate translation might be “Experiment”.’

Experiment failed. Steve felt faintly ill. Hydra never ceased to outdo their own past horrors.

He flicked through the pages, reading the names. Many were German, others Norwegian or French, or Czech, Slovak, Polish, others that Steve didn’t have the expertise to attribute to their country of origin, but it read as a history of Nazi invasion and Steve didn’t have the naivety left to be as surprised as he wanted to be.

The next person in the ledger was named White, Kevin, and the same hand that recorded all the past experiments listed him as a private in the 107th.

Shit.

‘You okay?’

He remembered the 107th, not just the ones he’d saved, but those he’d come across when he was the high command’s idea of entertainment. Of course they’d hated him. He’d thought he’d understood at the time, but it wasn’t until after he’d seen battle that he could really see things from their side. He was the person that the Army wanted to represent its soldiers, all red white and blue and macho bravado. And his job was to put on a show and walk away unscathed. Of course the real soldiers would resent that. Hell, even he resented that.

But the 107th had lost so many of its men, they’d been suffering, and the Powers That Be decided what they really needed was some musical patriotism. If he had been perfectly honest, his first actual fight had been prompted as much by his need to prove that he was more than some dancing propaganda lackey than his desire to help. In reality, if he wasn’t always so desperate to prove himself, he might have deferred to the strategy of his commanding officer rather than taking a risk that could have ended so much worse for everyone involved. And now, looking at that ledger, he couldn’t help but see how petty all his old motivations were, and how little deserved his status as American War HeroTM really was.

‘Steve…?’

Nothing he suffered through had ever truly been comparable to some of the stuff the unnamed men were dealt. You weren’t given an elite group of soldiers to lead into battle only to end up drowning in mud in some French trenches, exchanging projectiles artlessly across scarred fields. None of the Howling Commandos had even been seriously injured. Not even Steve, in the end.

‘Steve, are you okay?’

‘Fine.’ he answered, automatically, before he even registered who had spoken.

It was Clint, looking up from the file he was examining to watch Steve with concern that suggested he didn’t believe him. To Steve’s relief, no one else seemed to be paying any mind.

‘I’m fine.’ Steve repeated, a little more believably. He flicked over White, Kevin and the other soldiers of the 107th that he hadn’t managed to save. There were only a handful of names left, principally Russian, before the rows and columns were all mercifully blank. The last page with any writing contained only the words “Winter Soldat Projekt abgebrochen”.

‘This either says “Winter Soldier project finished”, or “Winter Soldier project aborted”. I’m not sure which.’

Natasha glanced up sharply, and Steve expected her to offer a second opinion, but instead she shot a significant look to Clint and left Jarvis to offer ‘I think “aborted” is the better translation.’

It made Steve feel slightly better. It was cold comfort, but at least Hydra had failed with whatever they were trying to do. And maybe, if Steve were being more optimistic than history would suggest he had any right to be, he didn’t have to worry about this at all.

‘So what’s the Winter Soldier project?’ Tony asked, and Steve, childishly, wished he wouldn’t.

Natasha was the one who answered, ‘It’s exactly what it looks like. It’s an attempt to make the perfect soldier.’

‘Like Steve?’

That was Bruce, and Steve cringed a little.

‘No, not like Steve.’ Natasha answered, in a careful voice that made him more nervous than he had been before, ‘Hydra’s idea of the perfect soldier wouldn’t be fighting for the enemy.’

If the words sounded like a joke, her tone took all the humour from them. Rather than elaborate, she pushed the pile of folders she had been examining – the ones concerned with the human mind – across the table towards Bruce and Tony.

Steve’s imagination was already kicking in, showing him tableaus of battlefields and fires, American soldiers with blank eyes advancing on him. Having no choice but to kill them while the real bad guys gave them orders from afar. It took him a few moments to notice that Clint, next to him, had also gone white. Probably the prospect of mind control hit a little too close to home there.

It was another nightmare for Steve’s collection. Sometimes he felt like his nights were penance for being okay during the day.

But for now he had to focus, and suddenly the question that he hadn’t thought to ask before was vitally important.

‘Where exactly did you get the box?’

‘Kiev.’ Nat answered, and Steve decided that she was the expert there, ‘People have been getting a little jumpy after the annexation, and Hydra wanted to get some information out before anyone found it. We intercepted them.’

This brought a whole new raft of concerns for Steve to consider and absolutely under no circumstances tell Bucky about. Like, why did Hydra now want the documentation for the Winter Soldier project? And was there more information that they’d already retrieved?

All this was lending considerable credence to Tony’s astute theory that they were “probably planning something evil”.

So, with a brief break for trying to talk himself out of adopting a cat over lunch in Brooklyn, Steve’s next few days were dominated by work. Not that Sam and Natasha seemed to notice. They took turns bombarding Steve with questions whenever they had a free moment on the mission.

‘So are you getting the cat?’ Nat asked, as Steve prepared to jump out of the plane.

‘What cat?’ he asked, innocently.

Unfortunately, he was jumping into Belarus instead of an ocean, and so was obliged to actually use his parachute.

‘When are you seeing him again?’ Sam asked, flying past him on his way down. Steve didn’t respond.

They took out the guards at the perimeter with relative ease, and met Nat at the door preparing for the next stage of attack.

‘Have you two… y’know…?’ she whispered, gun raised.

‘I have no idea what you’re getting at.’ Steve replied, though the word “fondue” floated through his mind.

The door opened, and thankfully they had to split up after the initial fight. Neither of them were tactless enough to ask questions over the group coms, so Steve was able to focus on the mission until he met Sam on the second floor.

‘Have you worked out what you want yet?’ he asked, at the exact moment he shot the Hydra agent attempting to enter the room.

‘Some quiet would be nice.’

‘Good luck, you’re needed in the basement with Nat. I’ll clear the top floors.’

Cursing under his breath, Steve traipsed back downstairs.

Clint passed him on the way with some questions of his own.

‘What are Sam and Nat asking you about all the time?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You look shifty, Steve. Be honest. Do you have a secret girlfriend? You can tell me if you do.’

Steve put a hand on each of Clint’s shoulders and looked him in the eye, ‘I definitely do not have a secret girlfriend.’ he told him, honestly.

Nat was waiting in the basement to ask, ‘So when are we going to get to meet him?’

‘Oh, I thought I was here to address the scary-looking dentist chair in the middle of the room, with the arm straps and weird machine above the head.’

‘That too.’

But the sight of the chair had drained most of Steve’s willingness to joke. He didn’t know what it was, or what Hydra wanted it for, but he could guess easily enough that the people sitting in it weren’t exactly volunteers.

It was at this point that his week really started heading downhill.

He thought about the men from the 107th being strapped in, one by one. He had no idea what would have happened to them, but he knew it was unlikely to be pleasant. That could have been the fate of the Howling Commandos, and he would never have known any of them.

‘Tony will be able to work out what it’s for.’ Natasha muttered, looking at Steve while Steve looked at the chair.

‘So what did you want me here for?’

‘There’s a file on you.’ she explained, clearly choosing her words with some care, ‘Most of it’s old, but some of it isn’t.’

‘Okay?’

‘I just thought you’d want this page before the others saw the file.’ she said, handing him a piece of paper.

Steve glanced down at the page and felt his stomach drop.

‘Is the whole file this detailed?’

It was a list of the people he’d known at the time he’d become Captain America. It wasn’t many; he’d left education a while before and he never really built relationships with the people he’d worked with. But it included the handful of people he’d had a romantic relationship with, complete with handwritten notes describing everything Hydra knew about the person. Three, by that time. None of them the sort of normal, healthy relationship that he was supposed to seek out, only one of them female. A fourth entry read simply “Agent Carter?”. He could see why Natasha was hiding this page; it would be pretty difficult for Steve to remain in the closet if his friends could read this.

Someone had annotated the page more recently. Subject is defensive of his people – potential weakness. No known recent romantic attachments yet.

Steve glanced up to the chair once more, his imagination filling it without his permission. He pictured Bucky struggling against the restraints, having done nothing to tempt this fate but the sin of knowing Steve. He couldn’t help but see him panicking hopelessly, being taunted by the Hydra agents, or worse, screaming out in pain.

‘You okay?’

‘What?’

‘You were doing that thing you do sometimes where you sort of stare off… never mind.’

Steve blinked a few times and collected himself, tucking the paper into his pocket. The safe thing to do would be to call it off with Bucky. Apologise. Try to explain as best he could without saying any of the things that had to remain secret. And just block off that section of Brooklyn and try to forget what he almost could have had.

But it was that last thought that caught him. He had no idea what he almost could have had, except that he knew that he liked spending time with Bucky. And more importantly, he didn’t know how Bucky would react to Steve cutting him out with no real explanation. They hadn’t even known each other that long – and sure, the longer he kept this up the harder it would be to walk away – but he knew instinctively that he didn’t want to see Bucky’s face when he told him.

‘Don’t.’

It was Natasha, interrupting his thoughts with a soft voice.

‘Don’t what?’

‘I know what you’re thinking.’ she said, ‘Don’t do that. It won’t help anyone.’

There must have been something in his expression, because Natasha and Sam both stopped asking him questions all the way back. Tony and Bruce were already hard at work examining the chair; it was on the plane with them, flying away from what would soon be a crime scene.

Steve found he couldn’t look at it, it only made things worse.

His phone buzzed a little before they landed, and for a moment he thought it was Bucky. But the name that showed up was Nat, who was deep in conversation and not meeting his eye.

            Nat:                 You can always talk to him if it’s bothering you. No specifics, just explain why you’re worried and see what he says.

It was, truth be told, the most reasonable course of action. So he tucked his phone back into his jacket and wondered how the hell he was going to bring it up.

The next time they were due to meet, Steve showed up at Bucky’s place in time to help him shut up shop. The shirt today bore the unmistakable prism image of Dark Side of the Moon, and Steve couldn’t help but think that at least he was familiar with this band.

‘Coffee?’ he suggested, as Bucky removed the “open” sign on the door and locked up.

‘Excellent idea, caffeine is just what I need.’

They were heading into the city anyway, so they settled on the Starbucks that Bucky had left his diary at in the first place.

‘This one I call “Sterbugs”.’ This time it was because they always spelt his name wrong in the most creative ways.

‘Of course you do. Lemme guess, are they in on the conspiracy too?’

‘They definitely are, you watch.’

At least this shop had the decency to prove his point. The order that Bucky had bought with the free drink on his coffee card arrived – somehow, miraculously – with the name “Bucky” written on it. Steve’s order was sporting “Stephe” in untidy sharpie.

Bucky laughed, ‘I prefer “Stevie”, if I’m being honest.’

‘You’re never going to drop that, are you?’

Now he was grinning like the menace that he was, ‘Nope. Never. Just accept it, Stevie, it’s your new name.’

He spent most of the time it took to drink the coffee trying to work out how best to bring up the conversation he was supposed to be having, while outside the shadows were growing longer. Soon they’d swallow up the streets altogether, and Steve and Bucky would transition back into their roles as Nighthawks.

But the conversation remained light, and broken by intermittent laughter the way it always was. Somehow Steve couldn’t quite bring himself to ruin the pleasant mood for Bucky. It seemed mean, to suddenly be talking about something serious where there were jokes still to be said and a multitude of smiles Bucky could wear. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to ruin the mood for himself. Either way, he soon didn’t have a choice about that and the mood of the evening crashed with Bucky’s next comment.

‘So Abby says there’s one of those art gallery things where hipsters go to drink wine and pretend to be experts, if you wanted to- are you okay?’

Of course I’m okay. He was trying so hard to be okay. And it’s not as if the entire concept of art scared him, but sometimes…

He’d learnt so much about art, and then he’d learnt the smell of cordite, and the banshee wail that Stukas made right before the bombs fell. Exactly how bad someone could be bleeding, and from where, before they didn’t have any hope of survival.

He didn’t go to art galleries anymore. These days he couldn’t justify spending hours just looking at paintings on a wall. He didn’t see the point. And he didn’t want to think about all the things he used to think about when he looked at art; like the hope that one day his works would be hanging up there too.

They wouldn’t be. And these days bullets and blades were far more important.

‘Steve? Okay, what’s wrong?’

Shit.

‘I’m fine.’

‘Are you? You were sort of-’

Fuck.

‘Staring? Yeah, I. Sometimes, yeah.’

Bucky was looking at him like he knew exactly what was wrong, and Steve focused on keeping his breathing steady.

I’m in New York. The war is over. I am safe.

The problem was that the war never really felt like it was over.

‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Bucky was asking, ‘Or do you want me to pretend I didn’t notice and just change the subject?’

As if this week wasn’t going badly enough.

He seemed genuinely fretful, like he had any real reason to care about how Steve was feeling. But there was concern lining his brow and he seemed to want Steve to be okay, and Christ, he was nice. He was lovely in a way that no one with any connection to Steve and the world he inhabited had any business being.

Steve thought about the chair and wondered how long Bucky could last being nice if he was ever put in it, before the things he’d endure caught up with him.

No one in this Starbucks, small though this one was, was in earshot.

‘So I found something the other day.’

Bucky looked a little surprised by the subject change, but he went with it with grace, ‘Not good?’

‘I can’t tell you much, but it’s Hydra. And it’s in a file they had on me.’ he took a breath, ‘You aren’t in the file, but it made me think that maybe knowing me might put you at risk.’

Bucky blinked, and suddenly all that concern he had had for Steve changed to an expression of nervousness, waiting for what Steve would say next, ‘So, are you… I mean…?’

‘Natasha said I should talk to you about it.’ Steve answered, and Bucky looked a little relieved.

‘Okay so… you’re the one with all the information, how bad do you think the risk is? And you have to answer honestly.’

Steve cast his mind back, searching for an answer that he felt was accurate enough to give, ‘I don’t think the risk is very high.’ he said, honestly, ‘It’s just that if it does happen to go wrong, it’s going to be really, really bad. They’re not exactly nice people, Hydra.’

At least Bucky seemed to be contemplating it, not just dismissing the fear out of hand like Steve would almost certainly have done in his position.

‘Alright.’ he said eventually, ‘Let’s just go to the art thing and we can think about it properly later. Unless you don’t want to-’

‘No, no. Art gallery is fine.’ Steve found himself saying, even as that old, twisting feeling in his gut returned.

Bucky smiled, one of those nice smiles that Steve wished he could catalogue so he could remember them all, and they left into the early evening, both pretending everything was perfectly fine.

Chapter Text

They picked up dinner on the way, a quick meal of fast food that left Steve still hungry, and moved towards the gallery. It wasn’t a proper museum, more one of those private collection type places that stupidly rich people ran as a hobby. What that meant was that the collection they’d be seeing was a) unlikely to be selected and organised coherently, and b) entirely a reflection of the owner’s taste. The ones where the owner was just trying to be fashionable were always boring, but sometimes – and as they stepped into the building Steve began to suspect that this was one of those times – the owner just happened to like art. Those collections had been some of Steve’s favourites to look at.

He always figured he’d collect art himself one day.

They each had a glass of wine in their hand before they had even orientated themselves properly. It was a large, sparse room, divided into wide and irregular corridors by short walls rising from the centre of the floor, stopping well short of the high ceiling.

A woman in a well-fitting suit was talking in an eastern European accent that Steve couldn’t quite place, and some of the more obvious hipsters were nodding solemnly and sipping at their substandard rosé. At the point when she began making grand references to Lorenzo de Medici, Bucky took the opportunity to drain half his glass in one go.

‘Good?’ Steve asked.

‘Nope.’

Drinking apparently out of boredom, Bucky finished his glass entirely before she’d finished speaking. As the group broke up to mutter profound comments to each other over the works, Steve took the opportunity switch glasses with Bucky.

‘Why?’

‘I can’t get drunk.’ Steve explained, as they moved away to the first painting, ‘Serum. So I never really put much effort into getting to like wine. And without having acquired the taste, it’s just horrible.’

Bucky laughed, ‘The first time I actually tasted wine I was fifteen, and I thought that all adults were either crazy or playing an elaborate practical joke on me to get me to drink it. But I like it now.’

The first time Steve had tasted wine, he’d also been fifteen, but he didn’t care how it tasted as long as it had alcohol in it. But then, they’d grown up in different environments, and Steve elected to talk about the painting instead. It was an abstract piece, all blues and rectangles and a hint of distant stars.

‘I don’t recognise it, who is it?’

It took Steve a few moments to realise that that was a weird thing to say for someone who supposedly knew nothing about art.

‘Natalia Goncharova.’ Bucky read, shrugging.

Steve liked it, it felt a little like longing. But maybe it wasn’t a good thing that all the artwork he liked felt like longing.

‘Never heard of her.’

‘Really?’ asked a smug voice uncomfortably close to Steve’s ear. He glanced up to a face that he didn’t recognise, ‘I’m surprised you haven’t, she’s quite well known.’

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Bucky taking a few large gulps of wine while the stranger spoke.

‘Sorry,’ Steve replied, sarcastically, ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. I guess I’ve been busy.’

He seemed to take the hint, and left swiftly, presumably to bother someone else. Bucky managed to keep his laughter silent until the man was out of earshot. Most of the people there were there for art; some alone, gazing at the paintings, a few in groups with the person that had dragged them there obvious, and a few couples. Steve guessed that that man and anyone like him were there because they liked the concept of art more than the art itself. It was nothing that he hadn’t gotten used to seventy years ago. No doubt knowing Natalia Goncharova’s name was fashionable, somehow.

They moved on, acquiring rather than seeking out the new glasses of wine that appeared in their hands. They passed a few pieces that couldn’t quite hold Steve’s interest, and were now examining a stunning painting of New York, damp with rain, by someone called Jeremy Mann. Steve was beginning to realise just how much art had moved on since he’d last cared.

He’d expected this all to hurt more than it did, but it felt weirdly like some sort of homecoming. He knew art galleries, and he knew the New York in the picture. Cityscapes like that made him want to belong to those streets, walking through them with some unknown purpose like the people in the paintings. But this was New York, and it was just outside the doors, and when he’d finished there he’d walk through the night with Bucky walking next to him, and they’d play the role of extras in any number of stories of passers-by. It was a difficult feeling to explain, but that was exactly the type of feeling he figured people were supposed to get from art.

Bucky’s second – third – glass was running low, so Steve found an opportunity to empty his own into it as he casually moved past.

‘You trying to get me drunk, Rogers?’

‘The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Barnes, tell me, that painting over there…’ he nodded forward, and Bucky followed his gaze, ‘Does that look like Grimshaw to you?’

It really did, the dark, vivid colours of a night scene, Victorian fog rolling over some lonely corner of England.

‘Why do I think you know more about art than you’ve let on?’

Steve ignored him, moving towards the painting and speaking in a quiet voice in case he was wrong, ‘It looks like Grimshaw. But if it is I don’t see why it doesn’t have a more prominent position.’

‘Oh, it is a Grimshaw,’ said the same voice from before, ‘I’ve checked. Sorry, I think I was rude before, so I brought you some wine to apologise.’

Bucky seemed less than thrilled, but Steve thanked him for the both of them, and he added, ‘It’s over there because these days the modern works are more interesting. Grimshaw, and many of the Victorians, feel like they’re not really trying to achieve anything but a pay cheque, I think.’

Sir, I will actually fight you over John Atkinson Grimshaw.

‘I disagree.’ Steve said, with as much force as he could politely get away with.

‘It doesn’t seem like you could get the same effect with an Instagram filter?’

Outside. Right now. See if the black eye I give you looks like an Instagram filter.

‘Yeah, well, the Victorians didn’t have access to Instragram,’ Steve pointed out, coolly, ‘so Grimshaw had to do it the old fashion way. With paint. And talent.’

The man gave a noncommittal shrug and finally left, and Steve muttered ‘That guy needs a better hobby.’ under his breath to Bucky.

‘I’d say you need a hobby, but apparently you have one that I didn’t know about.’

‘It’s not, I mean. Never mind.’

Bucky was slower draining his latest glass of wine, but eventually he was able to set it down, only to have Steve hand him his own. He didn’t object too much; he seemed to be enjoying himself more and more.

They turned a corner and the next painting hit Steve like a tonne of bricks.

‘Who’s that one then? You seem to recognise it.’

This week continues to outdo itself at being terrible.

‘Edward Hopper.’ Steve answered, in a muted voice.

Hopper’s works were always so light, even the night time ones, somehow. Steve had been there when his works were new. Back then the New York art scene was full of up-and-comers; that era and that city would later have its own little place in art history.

In an alternate universe, Steve was already dead, and his own works hung in art galleries like this one. People would talk about him like they talked about the other artists who had been going to have been his contemporaries. Hopper used to be Steve’s favourite, not because he wanted to be like him, but because he wanted to be like the people in his paintings. They all seemed like their lives were infinitely more interesting and significant than his own. It was longing, and it was the way Steve appreciated art.

‘I like it.’ Bucky declared, drinking more wine.

‘Okay I haven’t been fully honest.’ Steve admitted, ‘I actually hate art.’

Bucky turned his full attention to Steve, pivoting on the spot to slowly face him as if he wasn’t quite sure what was happening. It seemed almost comical, and Steve noticed a slight flush that had been creeping into his cheeks. He furrowed his brow, peering at Steve in a mixture of befuddlement and disapproval.

‘How do you hate art? I didn’t even realise that was possible.’

It’s a long story. ‘I, uh, went to art school.’

‘Funny thing to do if you don’t like art.’

‘Yeah, I might explain one day.’

‘If you don’t decide that you don’t wanna talk to me anymore?’ Bucky clarified.

‘If I don’t- yeah.’

Bucky spun around too quickly. Somehow none of the wine spilled, but he staggered slightly on his first step before moving forward with his usual easy balance. Suddenly it occurred to Steve that he was on his sixth glass and he hadn’t exactly been slow about it. Steve glanced from him, back to the Hopper painting, and knew that by rights he shouldn’t be there. There, in an art gallery, with Bucky Barnes and the ghosts of Edward Hopper and John Atkinson Grimshaw, feeling like someone he wasn’t.

The rest of the works were just pretty pictures, for Steve to gaze at and move on from, like normal people do. Except now Bucky was standing closer, asking Steve’s opinion on everything because ‘You know art, right? Is this one actually ugly or am I just uneducated?’ And then he was holding on to Steve’s arm, warm against the side of him, and admitting in his ear that he may have drunken a little bit much.

‘My fault,’ Steve conceded, ‘I sort of forgot that that happens. Sorry.’

Bucky grinned, ‘Don’t worry about it, buy me a drink some time.’

Steve liked the light in the next one; this artist used light the way the best photographers did, and if Steve knew about that sort of thing he would have ventured that it added depth. Bucky leaned on his shoulder, ‘You gonna say something clever about it?’

He really could, if he wanted to. The way that the loose style of painting didn’t make it seem any less like a real place, or that the fact that there were no people in it didn’t stop it from feeling like there were; the person looking at the scene somehow counted, and they’d be rendered in paint too if the angle had been slightly different. If this were an essay, he’d have to pinpoint exactly what gave it that feeling. But it wasn’t, and Steve didn’t care about art any more, and the way the colours seemed to pull at something in his heart was starting to make him feel a little sick.

Bucky knew that he went to art school, and that he hated art. His imagination didn’t even need prompting to invent a connection; it presented him with a hypothetical universe where art school taught a dislike for art the way Catholic school made atheists out of some students. After all, Steve was Catholic himself. He knew the difference between the students from Catholic families who were happy to learn more about their religion, and the students from other families who attended for the quality of education, and who would develop a veneer of benign resentment that would allow them to shed faith the moment they shed their uniform.

‘Steeevie…’ Bucky muttered, warm breath against his ear.

‘Huh?’

Such an art school would have to be grand building with grim students, strict rules and grey uniforms and rows of wooden desks all facing a distant blackboard. Not desks, easels. He pursued the absurd image for a moment; glum students splashing bright colours across canvasses. Maybe a model at the front, posing in exquisitely draped supple cloth, while an austere teacher gestured with a yard stick and occasionally threatened the knuckles of the students at the front.

‘Whatcha thinkin’ about?’

‘Sorry, I was daydreaming.’

Bucky pulled back a little and Steve wondered if he thought that he was lying.

‘I do that a lot.’ he added, as if that would make it more convincing. It occurred to him with a jolt that it might not be easy for his friends to tell the difference between a flashback and a daydream, and suddenly Sam’s concern made a little more sense.

Of course, there had been people who’d lost interest in art through the hard work required in studying it, so a lie was right there if Steve wanted to use it.

‘Alright.’ he finally sighed, ‘I used to want to be an artist, okay?’

Or I can just tell the truth and cringe to myself about it at random moments for the next five years. Perfect.

‘Well, why didn’t you?’ Bucky asked, then, ‘Oh, right. Never mind.’

Sometimes Bucky seemed to forget he was Captain America, and that was a nice feeling. It was the thing that somehow (dangerously, maybe) made Steve less anxious about being recognised, and it was the thing that made him want to ignore his phone when work was calling.

Christ, it made him want to adopt a cat, of all things. And that was something else he shouldn’t be doing.

The other thing he liked about the Mann painting, he thought, as they finally left into the cool evening, was that the people in it had no faces. They could be anyone; just another living piece of New York, moving through its arteries to its arrhythmic heartbeat.

The island of Manhattan, and all the streets ran north to south and east to west, like some grand patrician had announced that this was the way it should be. The first time Steve had been in London he’d gotten hopelessly lost. No one had thought to tell him that the streets didn’t make sense there. Nor did they think to mention that London was one city that had swallowed up countless more. Westminster and Paddington, and the place called Southwark that Steve persistently pronounced South-wark until Peggy decided that he could say Suth-ic or he could shut up, and Marylebone and Brixton and all the town squares in the middle of them. London was a primordial beast, evolving haphazardly from the past. New York just sort of existed, in neat little rows, turned ravines by the skyscrapers on their edges. What a strange place to live, where you could get somewhere unfamiliar just by walking in that direction.

Bucky was asking about the last time he’d been to a bar.

‘I do get out sometimes,’ Steve said, even as his memory reminded him that that wasn’t exactly true, ‘I do go to bars.’

‘Excellent, then let’s go to one.’

‘Why?’

Bucky shook his head, ‘I may not be very drunk right now, but I did drink that wine far too quickly and I no longer have enough tact to answer that question.’

‘Why a bar?’ Steve repeated.

‘Fine, you asked for it.’

‘Just tell me.’

Bucky sighed, ‘Because you look sad.’

Steve could wait for the cold air to sober Bucky up, and then they could say goodnight and try not to think about any awkward or embarrassing things they’d said while Steve’s mood failed to improve. And then they could go to their homes and try to decide if they were going to see each other again. It seemed like the mature thing to do in that situation.

It didn’t take them long to find a reasonable bar, and Bucky settled down at a table like he was staking a claim at a gold mine. Out of the way, towards a corner, and somewhere they could watch much of the room if they chose to.

Steve bought them both whiskey, and handed Bucky’s to him on the strict understanding that he was going to drink it slowly.

Bucky winked, something Steve had never actually seen outside of a movie.

‘If you think alcohol will cheer me up, I’m gonna need to remind you that I can’t-’

‘Do you still draw?’

He still seemed sharp, even with the reddish tinge to his cheeks. And maybe he seemed even quicker than before, like his usual personality obscured his intelligence, and now it was shining through.

‘Uh-’

‘Or paint, or whatever you preferred. You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to.’ Bucky added, ‘But I’ll probably be able to guess the answer if you don’t.’

This was one of those vulnerabilities he had been worried about. But even unsure of where they were going after that night, he found that he trusted Bucky to keep his secrets.

‘I… haven’t really had the time.’

There was sympathy written on Bucky’s face now, as he asked, ‘Is that a lie?’

‘Yeah.’

They both took a swig of whiskey, Bucky’s slightly larger, and Steve searched for some way to get the conversation back on track. But Bucky spoke first.

‘Edward Hopper?’

He thought back to the museum, to the diner Bucky had taken him to, to his time in art school.

‘He used to be my favourite. His works were new at the time I was… before the war.’ and in a quieter voice, because he’d never trusted anyone else with this information, ‘He always reminds me of the life I was almost going to have.’

Bucky drained the rest of his glass in one go.

‘Courage.’ he explained, inexplicably, ‘If I ask a favour can you promise to not get mad or… I don’t know, hate me? I should probably leave it alone but I don’t think I’m going to.’

‘What favour?’

‘Steve-’

‘Okay, I promise. I won’t do either of those things.’

Bucky drew a little book from his jacket pocket – the black leather diary that Steve had returned – and a pen. He flipped to a clean page and slid them across the table a little nervously.

‘Can I see? How you draw, I mean. I don’t really have anything better than that, but…’

He trailed off, watching Steve and biting his lip as he waited.

There was no reason for the request to be this terrifying. It’s not like he hadn’t drawn anything since the war. He’d made a few sketches in notebooks and on the corners of paper before he just… stopped. He’d been meaning to get back to it, and then he’d been avoiding thinking about it, and now he found himself struggling for something to draw when he didn’t really know anything these days except fighting.

Suddenly he was aware of his heartbeat, too loud and too fast, as he fumbled for something to draw that Bucky could possibly want to see. Brooklyn sprang to mind, but even the thought of that made his chest uncomfortably tight. That was what he used to do; in long afternoons when he was too bored to do anything else, or somewhere in Europe when he was waiting to get home.

He glanced up at Bucky and Bucky looked away, looking as jumpy as Steve felt. But at least that gave him his answer.

‘Alright.’ he said eventually, and he drew the diary towards himself and tried to work out where to start.

Of course it’d be the eyes. He always started with the eyes. And with only a black pen to work with, he didn’t need to concentrate on the colour. Just wide pupils and sweeping eyelashes, and if he could get them both to match then the sketch would turn out alright. For some reason, he really wanted this to turn out alright.

Bucky left for alcohol as Steve was shading in his eyelids, and when he returned a few minutes later Steve angled the book away from him. He sat down with the drinks, licking his lips absentmindedly in that way he sometimes did.

‘Alright, your turn.’ Steve began, not looking up from his drawing, ‘What do you like doing? Besides drinking coffee and selling cats to people who have no business buying cats.’

Bucky found Steve’s phrasing much funnier than he would have if he were entirely sober, but he managed to answer, ‘Music.’ and then added a little guiltily, ‘I can sort of sing a bit.’

‘Can I-’

‘No you can’t hear some. This is a public place. Maybe some other time.’

‘I’ll add it to the list, like you finally telling me who keeps stealing your signs.’

Bucky actually, genuinely, snorted, ‘So you can go threaten the neighbourhood watch. I’d love to see that.’

‘The neighbourhood watch is stealing your signs?’

‘What? No. Sort of. Yes.’

‘That doesn’t seem very neighbourly of them.’

Bucky’s mouth was the hard part. It seemed to be a different shape than most people’s and the smile he was trying to capture was delicate. Steve ended up asking how much Bucky knew about the presidents his cats were named after, and by the time he’d finished the lips he’d discovered with more than a little amusement that Bucky was an utter history nerd.

‘Spiro Agnew, more like Spiro Agno.’ Bucky was saying, sloshing his latest drink around while Steve was finally satisfied with the hair. It was difficult to make it long enough, and artfully messy enough, without it looking scruffy. It fell over his forehead at its leisure, and brushed the back of his neck, and if it got much longer it would be covering his ears.

‘And that’s how Gerald Ford became America’s second most accidental president, out of all of the accidental presidents we’ve had.’

‘Who’s the most accidental?’

‘That asshole Harry S Truman.’ Bucky stated, ‘Who is an asshole. But you probably already knew that.’

Steve’s mind flicked back to nineteen forty-four, and then to the Wikipedia pages he’d read later, ‘Oh I do. I surely do.’

‘Lowest approval ratings at the time he left office in the history of these United States. He did some good things too but I’m still not a fan. Do you know what his middle name was?’

Bucky was leaning earnestly across the table.

‘Uh… Simon?’

‘Nope.’

‘Scott.’

‘Nuh uh.’

‘Am I gonna be able to guess this?’

‘Probably not. It was S. The letter S. His parents couldn’t agree on a middle name. Poor Harry S Truman, you know how many businesses of his failed before he was elected to the senate?’

‘Three?’

‘Three.’ Bucky confirmed, nodded seriously, ‘They used to call him the Senator from Pendergast because he was the product of a political machine, run by this guy Tom Pendergast, which you’ve probably already guessed.’

Steve nodded, shading in the lines of Bucky’s neck. He’d known a lot of this already, but he could listen to Bucky talk about history forever. Especially drunk. Steve really ought to stop buying him drinks, but this was too much fun.

And he was only Pendergast’s fifth choice for the job. You know how he usurped Henry Wallace for the vice presidency?’

That brought a scowl from Steve. Whatever happened later, Vice President Henry Wallace had been extremely popular in Steve’s time, particularly in the North.

‘I remember the news reports. I was in Europe at the time.’

‘The Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart.’ Bucky said, darkly, ‘They’re the ones who got rid of Wallace.’

‘That sounds made up.’

‘It’s not made up.’

‘You trying to tell me that that isn’t a conspiracy theory? It’s got the word conspiracy in it.’

Steve was focussing on getting the light on Bucky’s leather jacket just right. He wasn’t wearing it today, but Steve could recall most of the detail.

‘It’s not a conspiracy.’ Bucky assured him, ‘It’s just one of those weird things. Like the Twenty Seventh Amendment.’

Steve blinked at the sudden subject change.

‘Yeah, I don’t… know the constitution… off by heart.’

That amendment hadn’t even existed when he crashed the plane.

‘Someone Watson.’

‘Who?’

‘That’s not his first name, I just forgot what it was. He got a C for a history thing, so he did exactly what you would probably do in that situation.’ Bucky laughed, ‘I can just see you angrily writing letters to the states.’

‘Yeah, I’m still lost.’

Steve had nearly finished now, just a little more shading and he could show Bucky, who was talking like he’d forgotten all about it.

Apparently Someone Watson wrote a paper about long-forgotten proposed amendment that would ‘…stop congresspeople raising their own wages or something. Oh yeah, a pay rise wouldn’t come into effect until after the next election.’

‘Good idea.’

‘Someone Watson thought so, but he got a C on the paper. Apparently his idea was unrealistic.’

‘And was it?’

‘Mister Watson wrote a whole bunch of letters to lots of people in lots of states and got it ratified just to prove his lecturer wrong. He’singlehandedly responsible for the most recent amenderment to our constitution.’ Bucky informed Steve, seemingly unaware of the mistakes he’d made in the sentence, ‘And the lecturer still gave him a C. Now I need the bathroom.’

As almost articulate as he had been, telling Steve history facts in a lively tone, he wasn’t so good at walking. His erratic stumbling around tables gave the impression that he was in the process of toppling over, but never quite managed it. Steve used the temporary quiet to finish the last details and sign his initials in the corner. He was abruptly nervous about it now, but there was little he could do about that. There was no way to erase the picture, and he couldn’t exactly steal the diary and hope Bucky wouldn’t notice. He could always tear a page out, but he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to.

In the next minute it became too late anyway, as Bucky teetered back to their table and dropped down in his chair. ‘Rogers, I am more drunk than I previously had realised that I was.’ he declared, ‘And it is your fault.’

‘Yeah,’ Steve conceded, ‘I’ll take the blame for that.’

‘You’re damn right you will.’

‘But I finished the drawing.’

That piqued Bucky’s interest, and he leaned over the table eagerly, ‘Lemme see. Can I see?’

Steve returned the pen and the book, and Bucky held the drawing with due care. A slow smile spread across his face as he examined it – the one that seemed like he didn’t even realise he was smiling – and Steve felt a little warmer for it.

‘You’re really good.’ Bucky told him, and suddenly Steve realised that Bucky was the first person to see anything he’d done since nineteen forty five, ‘Really really good. ‘Course it helps that you’re drawing such a handsome guy, but it’s… you should get back to drawing.’

‘I’ll think about it, but first, I gotta get you home.’

They took a cab back, Bucky sitting like he only distantly remembered how seats work, and Steve trying to pretend he didn’t notice the way the city lights lit up his face and flecked his dark hair with colour.

‘Don’ worry about me, I’ve been drunker than this before.’ Bucky was saying, while the cabbie shook his head almost unnoticeably up front, ‘Becca can vouch. She’s got this one video…’

He trailed off, watching Steve warily.

‘Video?’

‘No, I never said that, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’

‘How do I go about procuring a copy of this video?’

‘You don’t. There is no video. You’re imagining things.’

‘What’s on the video?’

Ineptly, Bucky folded his arms in a show of defensiveness, ‘You don’t know Becca like I know Becca. She’s devious. And I only got ten percent and I did all the work.’

This was a story that Steve definitely wanted to hear, but apparently it would have to wait for a later time because they were pulling up to Bucky’s house and he was starting to look very tired. Steve paid the cabbie, with a generous tip, and helped Bucky out and onto his porch. The next ordeal was wrangling his keys while he muttered apologies about the lack of a porch light.

Steve managed to find the light switch once they got inside, and Bucky blinked a few times as the room was brought to life.

‘Good enough.’ he said, to himself more than Steve, and lay down on the carpet, ‘Night.’

‘Buck you should go to bed.’

‘It’s two floors up and I’m tired. And you’re not my mom.’

‘How much did you have to drink?’

Bucky made a sound that may have been a number but also may have been a swear word.

‘Alright, up. Or I’m gonna have to carry you.’ Steve warned.

‘Nuh uh. You like me on the floor, I remember.’

Steve also remembered, very vividly, and a little part of his brain was cursing himself for accidently getting Bucky drunk and thwarting any chance of a repeat.

‘Alright, since you’re stubborn…’ Steve bent down to lift him up bridal style as Bucky mumbled a response.

‘I’m not the stubborn one, punk. You could be Someone Watson’s long lost bro- ah.’

Bucky’s sentence was cut off with a little noise of pain and Steve immediately loosened his grip.

‘You okay?’

‘Yeah ‘m fine, it’s not your fault. My left arm’s been useless since the thing.’

Now didn’t seem like a good time to ask what “the thing” was, so he satisfied himself with taking more care as he lifted Bucky up and moved him up two flights of stairs to his bedroom. He dropped him down on his bed with a muffled “oof” – Bucky immediately rolling onto his front – and turned to examine the room.

‘Nice wallpaper.’

‘I think it adds a certain something.’ Bucky agreed, to his pillow.

‘Is this bed propped up on phonebooks?’

‘Aesthetic.’

‘Alright.’ he said, ‘I’m gonna get you some water. And some bread in case you need it. I’m sure you can tuck yourself in.’

Steve had always found bread useful when he’d been drunk. Though, admittedly, that hadn’t been recently. Bucky’s kitchen was surprisingly well stocked; the spices alone had Steve thinking in shame of his own sparse kitchen. And then there was the recipe book, one of many and opened on the kitchen bench to a recipe that Steve couldn’t pronounce the name of, heavily edited in Bucky’s neat handwriting.

Even the guy who got flummoxed by a bookcase and is the victim of theft from the neighbourhood watch had cook better than I can.

Steve poured the water, and retrieved a plate of the least fancy bread Bucky had, as it occurred to him that the bookshelf incident probably had something to do with Bucky’s arm. Still, despite owning a business and a building, Bucky didn’t seem like he had his life together this much. The man owned Tahini. Steve hadn’t even heard of Tahini.

Steve returned to Bucky’s room feeling a little like a culinary outcast. First glance suggested that Bucky was already fast asleep, but he opened his eyes as Steve entered. His idea of tucking himself in seemed to be to roll himself up in his duvet like a flapjack, with the shoes he was still wearing sticking out one end, and his head the other. Steve set the bread and water on his bedside cabinet and stepped back.

He thought about the mystery video and fished his phone from his pocket to snap a picture of Bucky, lying face down and squinting as Steve, with his hair just long enough to flop all over the place. He could always delete it later, if he had to.

Bucky was frowning at the bread, so Steve moved it a little closer on the cabinet. As he set the plate more within reach, Bucky extracted his arm with some difficulty and caught Steve’s wrist.

‘If you’re gonna decide not to see me again, can you tell me in person?’ he mumbled.

‘Sure.’ Steve replied. Then, because that didn’t seem final enough, ‘Of course.’

He hadn’t really wanted to be reminded of the decision he was yet to make. But Bucky nodded and they wished each other goodnight, and Steve turned the lights off as he made his way out of the house.

It was late by the time he made it to the tower, but for some reason that certainly was not a coincidence, Sam and Nat were still wide awake. Clint was, too, but that was more likely to be a coincidence as he muttered, ‘Don’t worry, I’m leaving.’ when he saw Steve arrive.

‘No it’s fine.’ Steve said, impulsively, ‘You can stay if you wanna know what we’re whispering about. I could probably use your advice.’

Clint quirked an eyebrow, ‘Do I seem like the best guy to come to for advice, to you?’

Oddly enough, the answer was yes. And that was despite the fact that Clint was drinking espresso in the middle of the night and wearing a Green Arrow shirt.

Steve gave a noncommittal shrug, ‘You can have the deciding vote if they disagree.’

Clint settled back down onto the sofa and Steve took the armchair, feeling ridiculously like he was facing a full bench in some weird court.

‘Alright fill me in.’

He took a deep breath, ‘Okay, I’m not a fan of awkward conversations, so I’m gonna skip the part where I come out as bi and jump right ahead to the bit where you guys tell me if I should keep seeing Bucky or if it I should stay away for the sake of his safety.’

A beat of silence. Clint froze, mouth a little open. Then slowly, thoughtfully, he raised his mug of coffee and took a sip. So far it was Steve’s favourite reaction.

‘So how’d it go tonight?’ Natasha ventured.

‘Excellent. I accidently got him drunk, I nearly punched a hipster over a Victorian artist, and he hates Harry S Truman.’

Clint took another sip of coffee.

‘So this Bucky…’ he began.

‘We call him cat guy.’ Sam mentioned, helpfully.

‘Why?’

‘He owns a lot of cats.’

Looks after.’ Steve corrected, ‘He looks after a lot of cats. At his cat sanctuary. Where he works.’

‘And lives.’

‘You’re not helping, Nat.’

Clint drank some more coffee to collect his thoughts, ‘So you’re worried that knowing Bucky will put him in danger?’

‘Pretty much.’

‘But you like him?’

‘Yeah, I… I mean, I haven’t known him for that long, but I like him quite a lot as it happens.’

‘And what does he think about the danger?’

Steve thought back to the conversation over coffee. ‘He doesn’t know yet.’

Clint drained the rest of his mug in one go before saying, ‘Well, my vote is you let him decide. It’s easier for you, and he’ll have no right to be mad. Dilemma averted, and you don’t have to do any of the hard thinking.’

‘I’m with Clint.’ Sam chimed in, ‘It’s not fair to make decisions about someone else’s welfare without their input. He’s a grown man.’

Steve thought about it.

‘He thinks he can hide something by putting a blanket over it.’

‘He’s technically a grown man.’ Sam corrected, while Natasha laughed.

‘I agree with Clint, too.’ she said, ‘Mostly because I want you to keep seeing Barnes, if he wants you to. Plus, if you’re not gonna talk to anyone outside of the Avengers because you can put them at risk, your life is going to get very boring.’

Fuck.

Steve considered this, thinking that Nat had stopped short of using the word “lonely” only out of tact. “Okay…’ he finally said, doubtfully, ‘But what do I do if he’s gonna let me make the decision?’

‘Well then you both want to keep seeing each other, moron.’ Clint said, more than proving his worth as an advice giver, in Steve’s eyes.

‘So…’ Nat began.

‘Are we gonna hear anything else about him?’ Sam finished.

Clint raised his hand like he was asking for permission to speak, but didn’t wait before saying ‘I haven’t heard anything about him.’

Steve made a show of checking his watch, ‘Gee, would’ya look at the time. Even super soldiers need their sleep.’ And he rose to his feet to a chorus of frankly juvenile groans.

‘Come on.’ Sam pleaded, ‘One fact? Something interesting, though. Don’t tell us the colour of his hair or something.’

‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’ replied Steve, ‘And it’s brown.’

He started walking over to the lifts while his friends behind him were still complaining.

‘That’s not fair!’

‘We’ve been so helpful to you.’

‘Just tell us one thing.’

Steve thought about it, sending his mind back to their first date for an answer.

‘He knits.’ He finally offered, as the lift doors opened to admit him. He heard Nat say ‘You’re joking.’ before he was on his way to him own floor.

At least he was assured of one more meeting with Bucky, even if it was just to part ways. Still, it didn’t feel fair, somehow. He wasn’t finished with Bucky yet; he wasn’t even finished getting to know him. But he liked him enough to know that, under different circumstances, he’d want to see exactly how far this relationship could go.

Part of him was saying that he hadn’t known Bucky long enough to be too cut up about anything if it were to end now, but Steve remembered his smile and the things he talked about and the way he bit his lip when he was nervous, and he knew he’d feel the loss.

And Bucky had looked at him and asked him about his art like he actually cared about him.

But he was taking Clint’s advice. So, for now, the decision was out of his hands.

Stupid fucking Hydra and their stupid fucking evil plans.

Steve buried his head in his pillow and tried to get to sleep. It didn’t work too well, but it never really did. So the next morning (technically it was still the morning, though noon would come and go before he had finished breakfast) he stumbled around his floor of the tower, groggy from lack of sleep.

He’d been thinking about the people who would make up the entire cast of his life, if he could no longer include normal people.

It was a short list, and didn’t include anyone he could see himself sharing his life with. At this point his best option seemed to be to wait for the future love of his life to accidently acquire super powers. Alternatively, he could give up the ghost and just spend the rest of his life lonely.

Bucky didn’t text all that day, and Steve wasn’t sure whether he should text first.

The next day he woke up late again, to find that he’d gotten a message a few hours earlier.

            Bucky:             Can we meet?

God damn he was a morning person.

            Steve:               Sure

            Bucky:             Did you just wake up?

Just because you’re a morning person doesn’t mean that the whole planet is, pal.

            Steve:               No of course not

            Steve:               I’ve just been busy

            Steve:               Being productive

            Steve:               And contributing to society

Steve wasn’t even dressed yet.

            Bucky:             Alright then lets meet

            Bucky:             I’m working now but the place you call Sterbugs this evening?

They agreed on a time, Steve already feeling a little fidgety, and the rest of the day was given to checking his watch too often and apparently giving Sam a stress ulcer whenever he brought up Bucky’s name.

Any rational person would have decided that it was far too late for coffee by the time Steve pulled up outside the Manhattan Starbucks. But Steve didn’t get much sleep anyway, and Bucky didn’t seem to care.

Opal was working, but if she remembered Steve at all, the name she wrote on the cup – Steave – didn’t imply it.

They didn’t stay in the shop this time, instead wondering down to the water as they drank their coffee.

‘So I’ve been thinking about what you said…’ Bucky began. He may have been a little nervous, or that may have been Steve’s imagination, ‘and… have you thought about it more?’

Steve tried to phrase the solution he had reached in a way that made it seem as little like a dick move as possible.

‘I figured I’d leave the choice to you.’ he eventually said. Then, because somehow that seemed like he didn’t care at all, added, ‘If you wanted to go, I guess.’

‘Do you want me to? Leave, I mean.’

Bucky was watching him now, and he was wearing that leather jacket that Steve loved so much.

‘I don’t think you should take what I say into account.’ Steve tried. But Bucky was still looking at him, and he didn’t seem satisfied with the answer, so Steve decided to be honest, ‘No, I don’t want that. I really don’t.’

It was another peaceful night, and even at this time of year Steve was beginning to doubt that it could keep this weather up for that long. Either way, the lights from the city made the stars impossible to see.

Bucky was still holding his gaze as he answered, ‘Neither do I.’

One of them leaned forward first, but at the moment their lips met Steve had no idea who. Either way, the question had its answer, and Steve cupped his hand under Bucky’s jaw to deepen the kiss. It seemed to last for a long time, Steve with his eyes closed, seeing only darkness and feeling only Bucky, and relaxing.

The minute they broke apart, all he wanted to do was kiss Bucky again. And when the question of what to do next came up, none of the usual date type places seemed appealing. Steve found himself saying ‘You haven’t been to my apartment yet.’ before he realised how it sounded. But either Bucky didn’t notice or didn’t care, because they moved back to the bike with Bucky slipping his hand in Steve’s.

His apartment – his actual one, not the one in the tower that he stayed at too often – wasn’t too far away. Steve would be the first to admit that it wasn’t great; a little small, a view of the other grim buildings on the street, and built in an era that taste seemed to have forgotten. But there were good things. Natasha liked the security system, it wasn’t state of the art, but it was good. And Steve’s supersoldier hearing like the soundproofing, when it was late at night and he didn’t have footsteps and crying children and arguments stacking the odds further against sleep.

‘Okay, I’ll admit,’ he began, turning the lights on for Bucky to look around, ‘it’s kind of rubbish. But it was supposed to be temporary while I looked for a place in Brooklyn.’

‘Well, your wallpaper is much better than mine.’ Bucky offered, eyes moving over the plain walls and touching briefly on the collage of photographs and drawings that Steve had fixed there. Some emotion Steve couldn’t identify flickered fleetingly across his face, but he turned back to Steve with no trace of it.

‘Yeah, but I don’t have any cats, so it’s a bit of a trade-off.’

‘I know a way to fix that.’ Bucky said, without missing a beat.

That got a short chuckle from Steve, even as a part of his mind reminded him that someone might be adopting FDR very soon.

‘Do you want anything to-’

Steve was cut off by another kiss from Bucky, but this one ended far too quickly.

‘You sure about this?’ Bucky asked, suddenly serious again, ‘because if you still have doubts about being in a relationship I get it.’

Last chance, Rogers.

Steve couldn’t help but think about how much of that face he knew without looking, from drawing it so carefully two nights before.

‘I’m sure.’ he replied, because he understood with uncharacteristic clarity that anything else would be a mistake, ‘You sure you want me as a boyfriend?’

Bucky’s response was another kiss, longer this time, and deeper. He parted his lips and one of them slipped their tongue the other’s mouth and all the unease of the day was swiftly replaced with something Steve recognised as want.

Bucky’s waist felt so good under his hands, and then Bucky was pressing their bodies together and Steve began picturing exactly how he wanted this night to go. Maybe Bucky was thinking that too, because when Steve bit his lip he groaned breathlessly at the sensation.

This time it was Bucky using his lips, moving to Steve’s neck with no shortage of expertise and just enough teeth to make Steve feel dizzy. Steve reacted with one hand tangling in Bucky’s soft hair and another below his shirt to feel the ridge of his spine.

‘You okay with this?’ Bucky whispered, in the direction of Steve’s collarbone.

Steve’s answer was ‘Definitely.’ because Bucky’s breath on his skin had damaged his ability to act cool.

‘Bedroom?’

There is a perfectly good wall just a few feet away.

‘Through here.’

They moved to the next room, and Bucky sported a vampire’s smile as he pushed Steve back onto the bed. He followed shortly after, straddling Steve’s legs and leaning over with his hands on either side of his head.

Steve’s heartbeat picked up, pumping blood straight to his dick. He glanced up at Bucky through his lashes and said, in the calmest voice he could muster, ‘I hope you’re not planning on wearing all that for long.’

Bucky moved upright again, shedding his jacket in a flash, and Steve sat up to help him with his shirt. That was dropped to the floor quickly and Bucky tugged up Steve’s. His legs were pressed against Steve’s waist on either side, and as they moved closer together Steve could feel the friction between his legs and god did he want more of that. But then Bucky was shoving him back down and climbing off of him. Steve’s disappointment was cut short by the hands he felt unbuckling his belt. And then he stopped.

‘Why-’

‘Relax, I’m just getting your shoes off first. Don’t want you falling over.’

And then Bucky was back to dragging denim down Steve’s legs. He shed his own shoes and his (impossibly tight) skinny jeans like a pro, resuming his position on top of Steve both completely naked and completely hard.

He rolled his hips once, experimentally, and Steve momentarily forgot how to breathe. And then he turned his attention back to Steve’s neck with quick, devilish nips and hands moving up his body, dragging a gasped ‘Fuck me.’ from Steve’s lips.

‘Great idea. Do you happen to have condoms and lube lying around?’

‘Bathroom cupboard.’ Steve managed.

Without warning, Bucky’s mouth found one of Steve’s nipples, and he couldn’t stop his back from arching towards the sensation. Somehow, it seemed like revenge for something. And sure enough, when he pulled away, be murmured, ‘Ever considered keeping that stuff in your bedside cabinet, punk?’

‘Jerk.’ Steve returned. He elected not to mention that that was where he kept his gun. One of them.

But he did regret his choice of lube storage solutions when Bucky left him to fetch it. He returned shortly after to trace lustful eyes up Steve’s exposed frame.

‘No need to take your time.’ Steve told him.

‘You look great.’

‘Feel even better, trust me. Now come on.’

Bucky did as he was told, spreading Steve’s legs to fit between them as he tore open the condom packet with his teeth. It wasn’t a particularly good condom safety procedure, but most of Steve’s brain hated the part of Steve’s brain that had just thought the words “condom safety procedure”, so Bucky got away with it.

He ghosted one hand down Steve’s skin, raising goosebumps as he dragged his fingers from the centre of Steve’s chest until they brushed his inner thigh. Steve was already painfully hard without his cock so much as being touched.

Bucky was taking his sweet time about things, using his knees to raise Steve’s legs and certainly in no rush as he moved a finger over Steve’s hole.

Without the assistance of a functioning filter, Steve found himself grumbling, ‘Are you doing this on purpose? You’re fucking me not driving past road works, speed up a bit, you’re driving me crazy.’

It took a few moments to realise that Bucky was laughing, and with his voice shaking from it he uttered ‘If you insist.’ and slipped a finger inside him.

He couldn’t help but press his hips down on it, wanting more, needing more, and soon Bucky complied with a second finger, and a third, stretching him out while Steve stuttered incoherently to the ceiling.

And then he was empty again. But when Bucky pressed another finger inside of him, it was slick with lube. He moved it in and out while Steve grasped the sheets of his bed and his mind filled with all the sounds Bucky had made last time around.

He hitched Steve’s legs up as he moved forward, kissing haphazardly at any skin he could reach. If Steve had been thinking clearer he’d have been embarrassed by the low groan that escaped him.

And then Bucky’s face was over him, skin flushed and hair hanging down towards him.

‘Ready?’

Steve nodded rapidly.

‘You sure?’

‘I ain’t got all night.’

Bucky’s cock pressed against his ass, then inside, so tight and perfect that Steve could only gasp for a moment.

‘Fuck- Bucky-’

Bucky took Steve’s hands and pressed them against the mattress, on each side of his head. And he rolled his hips forward, slowly at first. Pushing deeper inside of him and then nearly all the way out as Steve whimpered.

With an amazing feet of flexibility, Bucky bent down enough to bite at Steve’s collarbone.

With each thrust Bucky pushed deeper and deeper inside of him. He released Steve’s hand so he could run his own down Steve’s body.

‘Still going too slow?’

‘Well you could always speed- ah fuck.’

Steve gasped a few more curses as Bucky hit that part of him that lit up his mind with flashes and colour. His head was swimming already as Bucky pulled nearly out and then in again, brushing against that spot once more. One of Bucky’s hands found his dick and started moving, up and down the length as their hips moved faster together.

This was all new for Steve, and without a real frame of reference, each of his overwhelmed senses burned fresh connections to fragments of disparate memories. The rush of sensations when Erskine’s procedure had finished, Mediterranean humidity on his skin, a fizz of endorphins immediately after falling, those dizzy hours of a fever finally passing where everything is too much but everything is better. It wasn’t enough. There was nothing that he could compare to the feeling of fingers fitting in to the ridges of a ribcage, the instinctive way a body can move.

Steve’s mouth was talking, but he had no idea what he was saying. Everything was sensations and heat and this huge risk he’d decided to take and it was so much better than he had realised. His hands were roving, hungrily claiming Bucky’s skin, and then pulling him in at his ribcage. He was so close now, and he needed something to hold onto as another thrust and another flick of a wrist sent him over the edge.

He came with stars in his vision and Bucky’s name on his tongue. The next moment he felt Bucky come deep inside of him, but Steve was too drunk on it all to hear the word he half swallowed.

And then they were both breathing heavily, Steve pulling Bucky forward for a rough kiss before settling back into the mattress.

‘I didn’t know this was a talent of yours.’ Steve managed.

‘You’re not so bad yourself.’

Bucky pulled out carefully, and they cleaned themselves up feeling slow with sleep. Bucky was rubbing his eyes, so Steve tugged him back onto the bed with a whispered ‘Stay here tonight?’

‘Mm’kay.’ Bucky mumbled, as Steve flicked off the light.

This was normally the cue for Steve’s mind to fill with pointless concerns. Bucky didn’t seem to have the same problem, already breathing slowly next to him.

‘Bucky?’ he muttered, as his eyes got used to the dark enough to see his relaxing form.

‘Hmm?’

‘I’ve decided to get a cat.’

He could just make out Bucky’s teeth as he smiled, ‘Great idea. I was wondering when you were gonna say that.’

‘Night.’

‘G’night.’

Steve lay awake a little while after Bucky had drifted off; thinking about what Sam had said, thinking about what exactly he wanted from all this. In the end he decided that he didn’t know yet, but with Bucky beside him, he couldn’t wait to find out.

Chapter Text

Having been thinking almost exclusively in terms of Steve, it took a while for Bucky to realise that he could call Captain America his boyfriend. Not, of course, to anyone but him and Becca, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Captain America gave me a blow job. Captain America likes me in eyeliner. I have fucked Captain America. It was a thought that, even now, he hadn’t quite gotten used to.

Steve had woken up late enough that Bucky had already made him pancakes with the scarce ingredients that he kept in his kitchen. But even then he still seemed to think that it was early. He certainly grumbled a lot, and staggered around flat-footedly, wearing only a pair of track pants and a blanket.

And yes, he was very much a dorito.

Steve’s nod to security had been to program an emergency setting onto Bucky’s phone. It was a nice gesture, and now Bucky had an Avenger or two to call on if he ever got in trouble.

The next time he was in Steve’s apartment, it was to help FDR – “Frankie”, now – get used to his new home. He certainly was an adventurous cat, jumping and scrambling up into ambitiously high hiding spots, and disappearing so far beneath the sofa that they ended up having to lure him out with a trail of chicken pieces. Tiny Frankie capitulated only when he realised that reaching out with his paw couldn’t quite earn him the furthest treats.

‘Do you have an Instagram?’ Bucky asked, snapping a picture of Frankie perching proudly on Steve’s shoulder.

‘I think the Avengers have a Twitter?’

‘Can I convince you…?’

It was the only time a picture that Bucky had taken had ended up on the news, right at the end, when everyone needed a happier story or two just before the weather.

Steve still didn’t talk about his work much. Just a darkened expression whenever Hydra was mentioned and a few comments about the prosthetics project Tony was now working on.

That last bit was something of a reassurance to Bucky; his left arm still shook badly sometimes, and there were times when it felt so weak that he didn’t trust it with a cup of coffee. Steve hadn’t asked about it yet, which was a relief of sorts, but he’d noticed his eyes flicking to his scar now and then and knew it would only be a matter of time before he’d have to tell him what had happened.

By this time the rest of his family was already starting to suspect that he had a “special someone”, as they called it. A suspicion he was categorically denying to his youngest sister over coffee.

‘The thing is, Buck,’ Alice was saying, ‘I don’t believe you in the slightest.’

‘Well that’s your prerogative.’

The man handing them their drinks froze suddenly, staring at something just behind them. They spun around to see a man dressed up in black, pointing a gun at Bucky’s forehead. The centre of his shirt was marked with a large octopus emblem in vivid red. Alice was helpful enough not to scream.

Shit.

‘Hi.’ the man said, in a tone of voice that was, frankly, far too cheerful.

‘Hi.’ Bucky replied.

The man made the executive decision to cock his gun threateningly, buying Bucky exactly the amount of time it takes to throw a grande white mocha at him and jump behind the counter.

Alice followed him a split second later, looking just as confused as she did panicked.

This is a stupid way to die.

Phone. Emergency setting. Thanks to Steve, his lock screen offered him a choice of “Emergency” or “Actual Emergency”. He pressed the latter.

He had enough time to select the “Yes” option on the “Are you sure this is that kind of emergency” box (and he was beginning to wonder who had come up with the wording of this particular programme) before the man strode calmly around the counter. Behind him, Bucky could see two more people entering the store.

The first man dragged him up, painfully, by his left arm.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck.

‘Now…’ he began, grinning in a way that was so sinister that he could only have practiced it in front of a mirror. But whatever he had been about to say next was lost when Bucky hit him over the head with the sandwich toaster from the counter next to him.

He crumpled, gun clattering uselessly away from them both, a half-toasted sandwich falling on top of him pathetically.

I can’t believe that worked.

A second man was already stepping behind the counter, so Bucky jumped it again to avoid him, only to find himself face to face with a brutish looking woman in the same unsubtle uniform. Excellent. He was going to be killed by the fucking octopus army.

Bucky felt something hard and thin on the counter behind him and grasped it, thrusting forward to stab the woman in the gut before she could shoot. She didn’t bleed, but she did say ‘Ow, what the fuck? Did you just stab me with biscotti?’

Why Starbucks? Why couldn’t I have been attacked in a knife store or something?

Bucky dropped the food item in favour of landing a punch to her jaw and using the brief reprieve to put as much distance between himself and the goons as possible.

‘You know what?’ she was saying, raising her weapon, ‘Fuck this guy. Hail Hydra.’

Yeah, fuck you too.

Bucky dropped to the floor right before she fired the shot, shattering the glass behind him.

Okay, so maybe Steve had a point about the danger thing.

He gripped a chair as she rounded on him, mustering as much strength as he could to swing. It connected with her upper arm and she staggered sideways, not sustaining enough damage until a helpful patron stuck his foot out to trip her.

She wasn’t out cold, but it was enough for her to lose her gun as she stood back up, kicking the patron in question before diving at Bucky.

Oh fuck.

Bucky had only a few moments to fumble behind him for a weapon. Unfortunately, he only managed to grab a spoon before the woman knocked him to the ground.

He hit his head uncomfortably hard, and his dizziness was only added to when she wrapped her hands around his throat and squeezed. Soon there was some thick pressure building behind his eyes as he tried hopelessly to fight her off.

Help needed to arrive in seconds or he was a goner. He thought of his family; they’d already come close to losing him once before. With his vision starting to blur, he wondered how Steve was going to react, how long it would take him to recover from the guilt he knew he’d feel.

And then there was a gunshot, a crack, and the woman collapsed to one side, gushing red liquid. It took Bucky, gasping for air, a moment to realise that it was too cold to be blood, and then another to register that the now-unconscious woman was covered in juice. Alice was over them both with the shattered remains of a blender in her hand and a concerned look on her face, just as another shot rang out.

Alice ducked just in time, and it missed her head by inches. It was enough to mix anger in with Bucky’s fear, and all his years of high school baseball helped him aim a Starbucks mug directly into the last guy’s face.

I hope everyone saw how cool that was.

Bucky used the opportunity to stagger dizzily to his feet, if only to distance himself from Alice when the man next attacked. With a gun stacking the odds against him and escape nearly impossible, his only chance was a close range fight. By the time the man recovered there was only a table between the two of them.

They both raised their weapons, which didn’t inspire much hope as it meant that the man was pointing a firearm at Bucky, who was pointing a spoon at him.

God dammit Bucky this is why Steve’s the Avenger and you run a cat shelter.

‘Are you kidding me with that?’ the mad asked.

Bucky shrugged and threw the spoon. It whizzed past his ear and the man turned to follow its journey, partway through a smug laugh when Bucky kicked the table into him.

Moron.

He hit the floor, losing the grip on his gun, and Bucky grabbed the nearest item from the table next to him and threw it at his head.

That turned out to be a cinnamon roll, and they shared and exasperated look before Bucky muttered ‘For god’s sake.’ and used the plate it had been on to knock him unconscious.

Swearing to himself and trying to recover his breath, Bucky pivoted on the spot to survey the damage. Dimly, he realised that the only reason he'd won was because the Hydra agents hadn’t been expecting him to fight back at all. It wouldn’t work a second time.

The college-aged worker was peeking from his hiding spot.

Mustering his best I-know-what-I’m-doing voice, Bucky gestured to the bedlam around him and said, ‘Tony Stark will pay for that.’

That earned a laugh from a blond man by the door. He, too, was holding a gun, but he wasn’t raising it.

‘Sorry.’ he said, catching Bucky’s confusion, ‘I think I’m a little late.’

‘Who are you?’

The blond man tucked his weapon back into his jacket casually, ‘Got your call.’ he answered, simply, ‘Looks like you didn’t really need help in the end, though. Good job.’

‘Yeah, thanks, who are you?’

‘You’re an Avenger.’ Alice said, then turned to Bucky with wide, confused eyes, ‘He’s an Avenger.’

‘Is he? Which one?’

‘Hawkguy, or something.’

Bucky turned back to the blond guy, who was rolling his eyes.

‘You’re, like, the fifth person to call me that this week, what’s going on? Who even are you?’

That seemed like Bucky’s cue, ‘This is my sister, Alice. I’m Bucky-’

‘Yeah I guessed. Nice to finally meet you, I’m Clint.’

He held out his hand, seemingly unconcerned with the destruction around them. Tentatively, Bucky shook it.

Clint immediately got to business, ‘Alright. Transport’s this way. I’m not sticking around to explain this to Officer Castillo, he’s still annoyed at me from that thing with the Russian Mafia. Your sister can come too, and you can explain how you took out three Hydra agents on your own on the way.’

He led the way to the car and, with a glance at Alice that he hoped assured her that this was okay, Bucky followed.

They climbed in the back with Clint driving, and pulled out of the park as red and blue lights appeared in the distance.

‘And it’s Hawkeye.’ Clint told them, glancing at Alice in the rear-view mirror.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Bucky joked, ‘it was a Starbucks, of course someone got your name wrong.’

‘You’ve been listening to Steve too much.’

‘Steve.’ Alice repeated faintly.

Clint ignored her, turning to Bucky, ‘So, you’re the guy who convinced Steve to get a cat.’

‘You’re not looking at the road.’

‘It’s fine. Why “Frank”?’

‘It’s short for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Please look at the road.’

Clint laughed at the name and reluctantly turned his attention back to his driving with a ‘You shouldn’t worry, I’m great at cars.’

He certainly seemed to be skilled at weaving through the dense traffic.

‘Where are we going?’ Alice asked, and Clint seemed to have forgotten that she was there.

‘The Tower.’ he answered, looking back to Bucky, ‘Have you been there yet?’

‘Oh yes, I drop by all the time, I just sneak past the security system and avoid any Avengers hanging around.’

‘Oh, you’re sarcastic. I shoulda guessed you’d be sarcastic, since Steve hangs out with you.’

‘He seems to tolerate you well enough, how sarcastic are you?’

‘He tolerates me because he knows the Avengers would fall apart without me.’

‘Well I seemed to do well enough without you, and I stabbed one of them with biscotti.’

Clint turned completely around to face him this time, ‘Why did you stab someone with biscotti?’

‘Look at the god damned road.’

‘Fiiiiiine.’ He replied, turning back around with a childish scowl, ‘We’re nearly there anyway.’

Bucky almost resisted the urge to gaze up at the building as they drove in. But he didn’t quite manage it and caught himself staring like a child up at the curving glass walls. Next to him, Alice looked a little dazed. Never had Bucky been more acutely aware that his boyfriend was Captain America.

The garage was quite large, and mostly filled with cars that Bucky could tell just by the paint scheme belonged to Tony Stark.

‘Good afternoon Agent Barton.’ said an unaccountably British voice coming from the walls, probably, ‘Shall I alert the others to your guests?’

‘You can tell Steve, Nat, and Sam, but let’s not let this get any further.’

‘Right you are sir.’

Clint turned to Bucky and Alice, ‘That’s Jarvis, he runs the building.’

They were brought into a quiet room on one of the lower levels, with sofas and tables and a look about it of having been largely forgotten. Clint handed them some water and they all took their seats a little awkwardly.

‘For the record.’ Alice muttered, ‘I am completely out of whatever loop this is.’

Clint nodded, ‘Yeah, I can see how this would be weird without an explanation.’

‘I guess we were wrong about whatever it is Bucky has been hiding.’ she continued, ‘We all thought he was secretly dating someone.’

Both Clint and Bucky choked a little on their water, but Clint was a little more skilled at covering it up.

Thankfully the door opened at that moment, and three more Avengers entered. The redhead – Natasha – moved over to Clint and the one that must be Sam introduced himself to Alice, but Steve was only paying attention to Bucky, taking a seat next to him on the sofa.

‘You okay?’

‘I’m fine, I’m-’

‘Bucky.’

‘Okay, I’m still a little dizzy, I hit my head kinda hard. But I think that will go away…’

He stopped talking as Steve’s fingers brushed his jacket collar away from his neck. There, Bucky knew tell-tale bruises must already be forming, and the expression on Steve face made him drop his eyes.

‘Jesus, Bucky.’

‘It’s not even that bad.’ Bucky mumbled, but he couldn’t stop his mind flicking back to that moment when he’d thought he might die. Steve must have caught some of the weakness in his expression, or else his mind was in a similar place, because his touch was gentle on Bucky’s arm, and he pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. Bucky closed his eyes to the touch, relaxing just a little, and when Steve kissed his lips he couldn’t help but feel safe again.

It was ridiculous how fast Bucky was falling for the guy. He knew he was falling; he’d done this enough times before. But this time he’d thought he’d be smarter. More guarded, more detached. Nevertheless he was falling, and any day now he was going to find himself in love again.

Alice derailed that train of thought by asking, ‘So you are secretly dating someone?’

‘Yep.’ Bucky admitted, guiltily, ‘Alice, may I introduce you to the Star Spangled Man with a Plan-’

‘Funny, Buck.’

‘-and Stevie, this is my sister, Alice Lee Barnes.’

‘Stevie.’ Clint snickered. Sam, too, looked suspiciously like he was trying not to laugh and Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky before shaking hands with Alice. Bucky just grinned at him.

He distinctly heard Nat stage-whisper ‘He’s a little shit, I like him.’ to Clint.

Steve, slightly louder, said, ‘So you’ve met Barton. Has he annoyed you much yet?’

‘He’s cool.’ Bucky replied, shrugging.

That must have been the wrong thing to say because Steve, Sam, and Natasha all turned to Clint with expressions of undisguised confusion. Clint faced Bucky with the same confusion written all over his face. Eventually, Natasha hit Clint lightly on the shoulder and announced, ‘Would you look at that? You made a friend.’ in exactly the same voice a proud mother uses when her socially awkward seven-year-old mentions another child’s name.

‘Yeah,’ Sam agreed, ‘And he’s not even working for an enemy organisation or some rich kid with a bow who’s decided to borrow your superhero name.’

‘Or a dog.’ Steve chimed in.

‘Let’s be fair to Barton,’ Natasha interrupted, ‘Steve’s the first one of any of us to get to know someone who’s actually normal.’

That can’t possibly be true.

But they all seemed to agree and Sam was saying, ‘I wouldn’t even categorise Darcy as completely normal. She did electrocute a god of thunder.’

Clint nodded, ‘And she’s a political science student who’s been an astrophysics intern for ages despite being involved in two potential apocalypses.’

After everyone came to the consensus that this Darcy person Bucky had never heard of didn’t count as normal, the conversation turned to the next step they should take. Regardless of the light tone, Steve had been holding Bucky’s hand between them the entire time, and Bucky knew that the marks on his neck were still in the back of his mind.

‘I don’t understand why Hydra was trying to kill him.’ Natasha was saying.

‘I think they wanted to kidnap him.’ Clint offered, ‘But that woman got mad when he stabbed her with biscotti.’

‘What?’

‘Biscotti. It’s an Italian biscuit thingy.’

‘He tried to stab her…’

‘With biscotti, yeah.’

Natasha gave him an appraising look, ‘Well, at least he’s resourceful. But I see no reason why Hydra would want to kidnap him. I’m surprised they know he exists, I wouldn’t have thought they’d put that much in the way of resources into following Steve. Especially with the state they’re in these days.’

‘I agree.’ Steve replied, ‘I would never have taken the risk if I thought it was this high.’

Bucky felt something heavy drop in his gut with the realisation that, had his perception of the odds been slightly different, Steve would have walked away. But Steve moved his hand so that it was around Bucky’s waist, and Bucky tried to accept the comfort and be fair. He understood where Steve was coming from, he just didn’t like it very much.

Alice was still looking thoroughly bemused, but no one seemed to notice.

Sam glanced at Steve and Bucky before turning back to Natasha, ‘We can work out what the hell Hydra is doing later, but now we ought to put some better security in place.’

‘If the other Avengers knew about this, it would probably be a start.’

Everyone in the room turned to look at Steve. Except for Steve himself, who was suddenly finding the wall to his left astonishingly interesting.

‘Steve?’ Bucky tried.

No response, if anything he stared at the wall harder, tilting his head slightly as though undertaking a serious inspection.

‘Ste-e-eve.’

Nothing.

‘Stevie, you’re not fooling anyone. We know you’re listening.’

‘You can’t prove it.’ Steve said, to the wall.

‘No one’s gonna force you to come out to anyone.’ Bucky assured him.

‘We’ll just encourage you.’ Natasha added, unhelpfully.

Steve sighed heavily, finally dragging his attention from the fascinating wallpaper, ‘It’s not like I haven’t been meaning to.’

‘Exactly.’

‘I was just hoping I’d say it accidently, like I did with Bucky. And Becca. And Alice. And Nat, if I’m honest.’

‘Oh my god, Steve.’

‘Or maybe I’d have an opportunity for a pun or something.’

Bucky was laughing, but Sam rolled his eyes, ‘Steve, you’re ninety-seven, for once can you act like a grown up?’

‘Alright.’

Natasha rubbed her hands together, ‘So you’re going to tell them?’

‘I s’pose.’

‘When?’

‘I was thinking in a couple of decades…’

‘Steve.’

‘Fiiiine. When we’re next all in one place, I guess.’

Clint grinned, ‘Good news. Guess who’s all in the Tower today for Hydra-related discussions?’

Steve groaned, ‘I forgot about that.’

‘Great!’ Sam announced, ‘We can make a cake or something to celebrate. And of course everyone will want to meet Bucky.’

With another eye roll, Steve turned to Bucky, muttering just loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘I hate my friends. I think I should get new ones.’

Bucky, who was already starting to like the friends of Steve’s that he had met, replied, ‘Well, I have a lot of cats that you can adopt, if you like.’

‘Nuh uh. You already conned me into getting Frankie. Do you have any idea how careful I gotta be every time I open my door? He just keeps running.’

‘For president.’ Bucky added in an undertone, as Natasha lead the way gleefully out of the room, ‘Just like his name sake, Franklin “I’m gonna run for president so many times there’s gonna have to be a new amendment preventing third terms” Roosevelt.’

‘History nerd.’

‘Punk.’

‘Jerk.’

‘I don’t know what you two kids are saying back there,’ Sam piped up, ‘but it better not be flirting.’

So far all of Steve’s friends were assholes in some way, it was great. As long as none of them were dicks about it, Bucky thought this should be fine.

When the lift doors finally opened, the first things he noticed about the area they were standing in was that it was a) very high, and b) very big. It seemed to have been crafted from the crystallised dreams of princes and well-paid interior designers, set at different levels with comfortable seating, ample table space, and an honest-to-goodness bar. There was no doubt that this was where the Avengers congregated to chat and discuss the fate of the world, with the island of Manhattan languishing outside the vast windows. Internally, Bucky made a mental note to strip the wallpaper of his own building as soon as possible. And maybe get a bed that doesn’t rest on phonebooks.

There were people standing around, too. Bucky tried to work out who was who based solely on the news reports that he’d seen. The one with the long blond hair, built even bigger than Steve, was easy enough to label Thor. And the slightly weird looking one that was hovering above the floor unnecessarily, just next to Thor; that was either the Vision or the Avengers were keeping more secrets than Bucky had realised. That guy over there was Tony Stark, something Bucky was sure of simply because he looked like Tony Stark, and Tony Stark was never off the television. The rest were a mystery, and he found himself trying to work out who looked the most like they’d turn angry and green at any minute.

Sam, Natasha, and Clint all looked at home, moving among the group with ease. But Steve stood there nervously, hands in his pockets and an expression that Bucky read as trying to work out how to get out of this situation. Bucky wanted to comfort him or help him relax, but he didn’t want to seem too familiar with him until this was over. And then there was poor Alice, who looked very aware that she wasn’t remotely part of whatever was happening, and seemed like all she wanted to do was disappear into the wallpaper.

Bucky, too, felt out of place. But he tried his best to seem as natural as possible as the one he recognised as Tony Stark glanced up and asked, ‘Who’s this?’

Steve seemed to have to force himself to speak, turning around and gesturing stiffly to Alice.

‘This is Alice,’ he said, ‘she’s Bucky’s sister.’

Rogers, the more you try to avoid this, the more ammo I’m gonna have to make fun of you with later.

‘And who’s Bucky?’ Stark inquired, fairly.

Steve gestured to Bucky, ‘This is Bucky.’

Bucky gave a half-wave and tried to keep a straight face.

Stark looked blankly to Natasha, who was doing a much better job of keeping a straight face. And then to Clint, who wasn’t.

Finally, he turned his attention back to Steve, who wasn’t straight at all, and asked, ‘And who is this?’

‘He’s Al-’

‘Don’t say Alice’s brother. Who is he?’

‘Alright, alright, I’m getting to that bit.’

‘Good.’

There was a brief pause.

‘So how are you all today?’

Steve.’ Natasha interrupted, giving him a look that Bucky recognised from Becca’s arsenal of expressions.

‘I’m just being polite!’ Steve objected.

‘I’m well today.’ Thor said, jovially. Bucky couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

‘Glad to hear it.’ Steve replied. Then with some nervous hand gestures, said, ‘Okay, can we just…’

Everyone moved towards the wide square of sofas in the middle of the room, still eyeing Steve but with occasional glances flicking to Bucky and Alice.

‘Okay,’ he said, moving forward with Bucky and Alice following nervously, ‘so I didn’t really want to tell you this today,’ or ever, Bucky thought, ‘but something came up, so, um. It’s probably the best time. Um.’

Bucky felt the sudden urge to search through whatever archives there were to see what Steve was like in his first Captain America performance. Was he this nervous? How funny was it?

‘So Bucky is here because he got into a fight with Hydra…’ Steve began, which was an interesting angle to take, but probably better than “Bucky is the guy who sold me my cat”, ‘which is a concern to me, because he happens to… uh… he is…’ Steve took a deep breath, raised his chin a fraction, and in a clear voice finished, ‘Bucky is my boyfriend.’

There were a few moments of utter silence. Bucky held his breath and hoped no one there was a devout Republican.

The first word was a warm ‘Congratulations.’ from a woman whom Bucky guessed from the suit as much as the face – as well as the look that she shot at Stark after saying that – was Pepper Potts.

‘Right.’ Stark said, ‘Yeah, congrats of finally getting someone. So you’re…’

‘I’m bisexual.’

‘Oh, cool.’

Thor was shaking Bucky’s hand next, and a brunet woman next to Sam was saying ‘How’d Cap get a normal guy?’

A man so relaxed that Bucky hadn’t even noticed him, grinned, shook his hand, and introduced himself as Bruce. The next two were Wanda and James Rhodes, and then a blond man named Pietro asked ‘So those three already knew?’

Everyone turned their attention to Sam, Clint, and Nat. Tony turned to Steve looking as though he was very close to pouting, ‘Widow I get, but you told the Bird Bros before us?’

Bird Bros.

‘We’re not-’

‘Don’t call us-’

‘We’ve talked about-’

‘Bucky, stop laughing.’

‘Bird Bros.’ Bucky repeated. The expression on Clint’s face was gold.

‘Don’t mind Bucky,’ Natasha told Tony, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘he says that Clint is, quote unquote “cool”.’

‘Never mind.’ the brunet woman, who had introduced herself as Maria, said, ‘He’s not normal.’

But then Pepper asked what had happened with Hydra and the introductions were over. Bucky began to tell the story, taking a seat next to Steve, and with the eyes dropping to his neck now and again he was very aware that the bruises there were starting to show. It made it difficult to skip the part about nearly dying, and Steve’s hand found his when he mentioned it.

Natasha’s first reaction was ‘I say we give him some training.’ because of course it was. Bucky may have only known Natasha for a matter of minutes, but he was beginning to recognise an indistinct outline of her personality. So far it consisted of two adjectives; scary, and sarcastic.

‘Yeah, that’d be great,’ Sam joked, ‘he could pick a signature weapon and we could make Cat Guy his official superhero name.’

‘Cat guy?’

Clint almost, but not quite, looked apologetic, ‘We, ah, sometimes refer to you as cat guy.’

‘Why do you know me as cat guy? Steve, why do they know me as cat guy?’

In response, Steve performed an elaborate series of motions that were clearly intended to amount to a shrug. It would have suggested that he didn’t know, except he obviously did and he was a terrible liar.

‘Look,’ Steve said, changing the subject, ‘I’m not really on board with teaching him fighting techniques-’

‘It’s that or we just stalk him all the time.’ Maria pointed out, ‘And to be honest, it doesn’t seem like that surveillance would be all that interesting.’

James Rhodes chose that moment to interject, ‘The third option would be that we just don’t let him outside ever, if you’d prefer that, Cap?’

Does everyone here call him Cap?

Tony turned to Bucky, ‘That doesn’t sound too bad. All you’d have to do is break off any social engagements you have for the next month or two, minimum.’

‘Well gee, I’d hate to miss that high school reunion I’m not going to anyway.’

‘And you’d have to stop going to Starbucks.’

‘You know what? Fight me.’

Clint, at least, seemed to find that entertaining. But Steve looked a little angry, a little despairing, and Bucky was beginning to worry where this path would lead them. But, miraculously, Natasha seemed to be reading all the same signs, because she intervened in a calm voice.

‘Breaking up with him now isn’t going to work. Not if Hydra already know about him. They’d see right through you and you’d just leave him with fewer defences than he has now.’

On the sofa between them, Steve gripped Bucky’s hand tighter.

‘What do you want to do?’ he asked, quietly.

Bucky bit his lip, ‘I can’t fight.’

‘We can teach you.’ said Clint.

‘No you can’t. My, um. My left arm doesn’t really work properly.’

The Avengers – the actual, real life, no joke Avengers – were the last people on earth Bucky had wanted to mention his arm to. But he couldn’t just pretend it wouldn’t hinder any fight he ended up in. and anyway, if what his doctor was saying was true, they were going to notice soon enough anyway.

‘How bad?’ Natasha asked, not unkindly. But of course they’d need to know, and Bucky was going to have to tell them.

His right arm gripped the sleeve of the jacket where he knew the scar was, and admitted, ‘Bad enough that I’m not gonna be able to fight anyone, unless I get lucky like I did today. It was s’posed to heal, but now my doc is saying that I might need to lose it.’

No one spoke immediately, but rather than being relieved, Bucky was almost hoping someone would ask what had happened. Just so he could get it over with. Too late, he realised that this was the first time Steve had been told how bad it was.

Pietro, not Tony, in the end was the one just tactless enough to ask, and Bucky frantically searched for the most casual way to phrase it.

There wasn’t one. He’d just have to say it.

‘I was in New York when you guys were, well, saving it. Not all parts of all buildings were perfectly structurally stable, I guess.’

There was another one of those uncomfortable silences, but Clint was nice enough to break it with, ‘We could still give you some training. I mean, most of us are trained to fight while injured, we just gotta focus on your right side.’

‘It’s a good option.’ Natasha agreed, ‘If you want. And we could give you something a little better than fists to protect yourself with. Not a gun,’ she added hastily, either at the look on his face or the one on Steve’s, ‘but something.’

‘It would be the most effective means of protection.’ Maria concurred.

Bucky looked to Steve for some sort of advice, but he just muttered, ‘I’m sorry about this.’ a little sadly and left it up to Bucky to decide.

‘Alright.’ Bucky agreed, trying to control his voice and expression so that Steve would feel as least guilt as possible.

‘Then it’s settled.’ Sam declared, ‘And in the meantime, lets welcome Bucky into our weird club and get him to tell us any embarrassing stories about Steve he’s got.

Alice was offered a lift home if she wanted to leave, and she accepted with the gratitude of someone desperate to avoid anything that might be socially awkward. But not before finding out that Becca already knew and giving Bucky hell for it.

‘Give it a rest,’ Bucky muttered, ‘just be glad that you know before Abby.’

That got a very sisterly grin from her, before a quick goodbye. Bucky pulled her to the side just before she left to say, ‘And I didn’t say before, but thanks for saving my life.’

She gave him a brief hug instead of a response, and then she left.

Steve was still standing closer than usual for most of the afternoon, taking his hand whenever the gesture was least likely to be noticed. If any of the others saw his behaviour – and Bucky was almost certain that they did – none of them seemed to think that it was strange.

At the first opportunity, Steve muttered ‘Stay here tonight?’ to Bucky, and Bucky nodded.

Someone professional-looking made sure that he didn’t have concussion, and Natasha had questions for him. Bucky tried to answer them as best he could and hoped he was helping. For a few minutes during this part Steve disappeared on some errand, and when he came back he was holding a soft scarf in his hands.

He wrapped it gently around Bucky’s neck with slow, careful movements, tied it up loosely, and tucked it under the collar of his jacket. The fabric was comfortable, but a little too warm for the weather. Nonetheless he didn’t remove it. Something about the way Steve gave it to him and the quick kiss afterwards kept him from taking it off.

A few of the others shot glances at the addition to his outfit, but none of them mentioned it.

Most of them were busy with Hydra-related work/discussion/whatever, but Bucky wasn’t in those particular loops, and apparently Steve wasn’t letting him out of his sight. So instead Bucky was given a grand tour of the Tower, which held a lot of rooms, a dangerously large number of labs, and some of the most interesting people Bucky had ever met.

Jane seemed nice, if a little manic, and she was followed more or less everywhere by the Darcy girl he’d heard about. She confirmed that she had, in fact, tased the god of thunder, and was also nice enough to mention that Jane had hit him with a car once or twice (twice).

The mysterious, disembodied British voice also seemed quite nice, and less ominous that he had at first. The next lab was on fire. Steve led the way swiftly past.

The last room they visited was the training area that Bucky recognised from the pinball video. Steve pointed out the ventilation shaft that Clint – ‘because he is actually just a bird in disguise, Buck, I’m sure of it.’ – had filmed from. And then he’d gone on to complain bitterly about how impossible it was to damage the walls.

‘Why do you want to damage the walls?’

‘I… um…’

‘You just want to prove that you can?’

‘No! Of course not! That would be childish.’

Bucky laughed, and began a new sentence before he noticed Steve’s face. Expression hazy, staring off into nowhere. He didn’t look too serious this time, so Bucky elbowed him lightly and said, ‘You ever gonna tell me what you think about when you’re distracted?’

‘Huh? Oh. Important things.’ Steve assured him, noticeably lying through his teeth, ‘Relevant things. The sort of things most people get distracted by. Nothing stupid.’

By the time they returned to the common area near the top of the Tower, someone was ordering pizza and everyone seemed keen to quiz them on their relationship. It would have been a little intimidating even if they weren’t Avengers; being probed for answers about his love life by a group of people he’d just met. But Steve was there, and he was doing wonders for Bucky’s confidence by virtue of somehow being more awkward about the whole thing. He didn’t want to answer any questions at first, but he soon learnt that if he didn’t tell a story, Bucky would provide the most embarrassing version possible of that story.

Tony provided some doritos for snacks, which resulted in a good ten minutes of Bucky resisting the urge to make a joke, until Steve got up to get something from his apartment.

Sam plucked a perfectly triangular corn chip from the packet and aligned it in front of his eye, ignoring the confused looks from the others.

‘So?’ Bucky asked, when Steve was finally out of earshot, ‘Is it true?’

‘What are you asking me for? I’m assuming you’ve seen him shirtless.’

‘Yeah, but I was a little too distracted at those times to bother with geometry and, actually, forget I just said that.’

No one else seemed to understand, but Sam was more than happy to fill them in. By the time Steve came back, he was greeted with the sight of everyone in the room raising doritos towards him.

‘I was only gone three minutes,’ he objected, ‘what did you do? Did you start a corn chip cult?’

‘There’s no cult.’ Pepper said, at the same moment Tony said, ‘And you’re our leader.’

‘What did I miss? Bucky, did they get you to join a cult?’

‘Me and Sam were just discussing all the wonderful things the internet says about you.’

Steve resumed his seat a little warily, ‘Like?’

‘Like how you have the shoulder to waist ratio of a dorito. Becca told me about that one, because she’s devious, just like I warned you.’

‘Who’s Becca?’ Clint asked.

‘My sister.’

‘Bucky and Becca-’

‘We’re not twins.’

Bucky managed not to give in to what was turning into a light-hearted interrogation, and resolutely refused to tell them his real name. True to his word, Steve was also deaf to their pleas for information. At least Steve was acting a little less weird around him now, and when people began retiring for the night, they were perfectly comfortable travelling down to Steve’s floor side by side.

It didn’t last long. The moment they were safely in a private area, Steve pulled Bucky into a hug and whispered, ‘I’m sorry.’ in his ear. Bucky returned it as best he could with his left arm feeling weak, and replied ‘You don’t have to be.’

Steve pulled back, looking sadder than Bucky was willing to accept, and said, ‘Yes I do.’

No you don’t, pal. Don’t be an idiot. I’ve already dated enough idiots for a lifetime.

‘No you don’t.’

‘Look, if I had known how risky it would be, I’d-’

‘Have broken up with me?’ Bucky finished, watching Steve’s expression with a challenge in his voice, ‘Because that’s kind of a dick move, Rogers.’

‘I know. But the other option is putting you in danger and I’m not really okay with that.’

‘Do you always make other people’s decisions for them?’

That familiar sensation was starting again; the one where the pounding of his blood seemed louder than usual and his fingers curled into fists without his permission. Anger, it was called. Steve seemed to be suffering from the same affliction.

‘Only when they don’t know enough to make them themselves. Bucky, you have no idea the things that Hydra does, I don’t wanna let you walk right into that.’

‘And if I want to take the risk? We made this decision together, Steve. You don’t get to pull some angsty guilt act when it doesn’t work out perfect.’

Bucky had never noticed the thing Steve’s jaw did when he was mad. But then, Bucky had never seen Steve mad. Suddenly he was aware that he was arguing with a six two super soldier who got into fist fights for fun.

‘You’re different to the others, I can’t just drag you into this and expect you to be safe. This is my responsibility now, I have to be careful-’

‘Because I’m so normal.’ Bucky cut in, not even trying to keep the bitterness from his voice, ‘I’m just the cat guy with the messed up arm that you talk to when you want to feel ordinary. But I’m too fragile for you.’

‘That’s not- for god’s sake you could have died, Buck. Do you think your family would be alright with this if some cop came to their home one day and told them you were dead? And what about Alice?’

‘Shut up.’

‘Do you think she’d think it was worth the risk if she watched you get your throat crushed by some Hydra goon?’

‘Shut the fuck up, Steve.’

‘Why?’ Steve demanded, and however this conversation had started, they were both pissed now.

‘Because you don’t get to unilaterally decide what’s best for people! You’re not the patron of everyone’s welfare, Jesus. Get over yourself, not everything is your fault! You can’t always control what… I mean…’ shit. ‘…wait, are we having an argument?’

Steve must have noticed the way Bucky’s whole manner changed with the realisation, because most of his anger was replaced with confusion, and a little concern.

‘Yeah?’ Steve answered, ‘I mean, people argue. It does happen.’

Shit. God damn it Bucky you never fucking learn.

‘Oh, I know. I’m something of an expert on the subject. Can we just… I don’t know… not argue? Please?’

This time, when Steve asked ‘Why?’ it was in a softer voice.

‘Honestly?’

‘Yes please.’

‘I’ve had a lot of relationships. Many of them… quite serious. And most of them accompanied by a messy breakup. I’m starting to think I’m cursed.’

Steve shoved his hands into his pockets and gave Bucky a searching look, ‘But we’re not breaking up… I mean…’

Bucky attempted a smile, ‘I’ve learnt all the signs. I was sort of hoping to avoid them this time. See, Mattie-’ a name I had been hoping to never mention again ‘-this guy I fell in love with a while back, Mattie. He called me a forest fire, right before he left for good. Said I was beautiful, which was the first time anyone had ever complemented me in such a venomous tone of voice, but I was only gonna hurt anyone who got too close. But that guy was an asshole, Elizabeth was much nicer about it.’

‘Elizabeth?’

‘A girl I thought I was going to marry, a few years back. I wasn’t the reason she moved to Chicago, I just made it easier for her, I guess. She said that I fall in love too easily, and have no idea how to build something with that. So can we just, I don’t know, not?’

Steve took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Finally, he said ‘Take a seat.’

He seemed calm now, so Bucky did as he was told and settled onto the sofa while Steve moved into the next room. When he came out a few seconds later, he was holding a small mirror.

‘I’m not sure you understand,’ he began, as he crouched down in front of Bucky, ‘take off the scarf and jacket for a minute.’

Bucky did as he was told, removing the layers to find that his skin underneath was marked with bruises like ugly inkblots in blue, purple, black. There was a navy stripe right across his windpipe, but it was worse on the sides, where the woman’s fingers had left bruising seared there, so clear and so dark that they seemed cancerous. He raised his hand to the marks, but the skin there was far too tender when he touched it.

‘They weren’t so bad before,’ Steve offered, ‘but…’

‘Yeah.’

In the mirror Steve was holding, Bucky’s eyes were suddenly wet. His mind flickered back to that wall of photographs in Steve’s apartment as he uttered, ‘You’re scared?’

Steve nodded, ‘I’m not supposed to be. I mean, Captain America isn’t supposed to be scared. But yeah, I’m scared that my job is going to hurt you.’

It was only when Bucky couldn’t look at it anymore that Steve set the mirror down on the table and took a seat next to him.

‘Can I ask you a question?’

‘What is it?’ Bucky asked.

‘Did you think that you were going to die today?’

Bucky thought back to that moment in the store when he’d started to black out, and he’d pictured what the reactions would be when his family, and when Steve, heard.

He didn’t answer out loud, but he rested his head on Steve shoulder and let Steve circle an arm around him to comfort him.

‘It was only for a second.’ he whispered, to Steve’s shoulder.

‘We’re gonna sort something out.’ Steve promised, ‘We’ll make sure that you’re safe. I made a decision not to let Hydra mess with this relationship, and I’m going to stick with it.’

So this was Steve’s life, not being able to meet anyone without having to worry that he’d somehow infect them with the danger that inhabited himself. It didn’t seem fair somehow, not to that kid from Brooklyn that Bucky had never met. The one who never backed down from a fight and only ever wanted to be an artist. And for all he’d talked about his personal history repeating itself, what he had with Steve still felt different, somehow. That feeling hadn’t disappeared when he’d recovered his balance.

Steve was right; Hydra could fuck off.

Chapter Text

With two of his three sisters now in the loop, and with Alice nervously checking up on him to make sure that he was safe (he was), it was only a matter of time before the rest of his family would have to know.

But that was going to have to wait; Bucky wasn’t planning on being anywhere near his family until the bruises around his neck had finally healed. He spent a lot of time wearing scarves, which he had a reasonably variety of, and hoping the weather wouldn’t be too hot.

Thankfully the warm spell had broken, in grey tones and drizzle, like some fitful fever finally sweated out. He couldn’t wear the scarves when he was training, however, and the slowly fading marks seemed to remind Clint – apparently the best option to teach Bucky how to fight – why he was being so patient.

It wasn’t that Bucky was bad exactly. On the contrary, his considerable experience in bar fighting from the years before his injury was finally coming in handy. The problem was that Clint was really, really good. It was annoying, really. Like he was showing off.

He’d been raised in the circus, apparently, so when they graduated to weapons he was able to demonstrate a few tricks. Bucky’s favourites were all the knife tricks, but only because he seemed to have an innate knack for them. Nat even seemed delighted enough to gift him a “proper” knife of his own.

It was outrageously beautiful for such a violent object, and he’d taken to carrying it around his home and flipping it absentmindedly. Not quite a switchblade – the fact that it didn’t open automatically alone was the reason he could legally possess it – the handle an intricate design in different coloured metals like it was woven together by artisans from the regency era, and a blade that flashed moon bright and deadly when it opened. He kept it on him at all times, only mostly because that seemed to be the point of the exercise.

If it bothered Steve at all, he didn’t say a word. Nor did he mention the bruises around his neck all that often. They’d first faded to greens and blues, then unpleasant variations on a sickly autumnal colour scheme. The one time Steve had let a comment escape, Bucky had winked and assured him that this was far from the first time he’d worn a scarf to hide marks on his neck.

‘First time you’d been strangled though.’ Steve had pointed out.

‘I’m starting to think you’ve never had an interesting sex life,’ Bucky had replied, enjoying the choking noises Steve had made, ‘but I take your point.’

It took over a fortnight for Bucky to stop wearing the scarves, and it was fully a month and a half before he was satisfied that his parents wouldn’t freak out the moment that they saw him. The next problem was the more mundane fact that this would be Steve meeting his parents.

They’d be having a roast. Abigale swore not to assume they were going to break up soon, and his parents even found some enthusiasm that didn’t make it seem like they were waiting for the inevitable train wreck to follow.

The only real question was whether to tell them who he was dating beforehand, and have them completely not believe him, or if he should just wait for the evening in question and relish their shock.

Steve insisted on the former, because he was a humourless bastard. Which was why, a few days later when Bucky was sure his neck had completely healed, he grabbed Alice and Becca to back him up and marched off to his parents’ apartment.

‘I can’t believe she knew before me.’ Alice whispered, while Bucky’s fist hovered inches from the door.

‘I can’t believe Alice got to meet the rest of the Avengers and I didn’t.’ Becca hissed back.

‘Oh, shut up Becca. You already met Captain America enough times.’

Bucky glared at the door and waited for them to be finished.

‘I bet you were too embarrassed to talk to the Black Widow.’

‘Yeah well, we all know you would have just flirted with her.’

‘Stop.’ Bucky told them both, ‘Or we’re gonna be out here all day waiting for you to be quiet.’

‘Fine.’ they both mumbled, and Bucky paused to make sure they meant it before finally knocking on the door.

Inside, he could hear shuffling and a bit of grumbling, his mother saying ‘I’ll get it then shall I?’ and a sound like his father being hit lightly on the head with a newspaper. Eventually she opened the door.

‘Oh, Bucky, so good to see you. I see you’re still not cutting your hair.’

‘What about us?’

‘Yeah, it’s good to see us too.’

‘Blatant favouritism.’

Bucky herded his sisters inside and was greeted by his father, grinning at him from his armchair.

‘Bucky, how are you?’

‘I’m great.’

‘And how’s your new boy? You’re not here to tell us he’s not coming to dinner are you?’

‘I’m-’

‘You two haven’t broken up already, have you?’ his mother cut in.

Ouch.

‘No. He’ll be here. I just sort of have to tell you something first.’

He took a seat in the middle of the sofa, his sisters sitting on either side of him like bodyguards, albeit a little squeezed for space.

‘You’re gay.’ his father guessed, in a faux shocked voice, because he seemed to have forgotten the number of times he’d already made that joke.

‘Nope. Still pan.’ Bucky dutifully responded.

‘Are you pregnant?’ his mother asked, because she had a similarly selective memory when it came to past jokes.

‘Nor that.’

‘So what’s the big deal? He’s not rich, is he?’

Bucky thought back to the Tower and his apartment and their dates, and realised that he had absolutely no idea.

‘Probably not?’ he replied, ‘It’s just that, the guy I’m dating-’

‘Steve.’ his mother interrupted, ‘Such a nice name, not one of those weird modern ones like “Apple”. If they have to name their kids after a phone, why couldn’t they pick a phone that actually works? Unless they’re named after the fruit, in which case that’s a whole other can of stupid.’

‘Steve sounds like an accountant,’ his father agreed, while Alice could barely stop herself laughing and Bucky only just managed to keep a straight face, ‘I’d trust an accountant named Steve.’

‘What were you saying about him?’

‘Oh, it’s… uh… about his job. You know… what he does for a living… he’s… um…’

‘He’s Captain America.’ Becca said, having apparently gotten bored of waiting for Bucky to find the words.

‘He’s what?’

‘Captain America. Bucky is dating Captain America.’

‘What do you mean, Captain America?’

‘What do you mean what do I mean? I mean he’s Captain America, that’s what I mean. If he wasn’t Captain America then I wouldn’t’ve said that he was Captain America.’

Alice nodded seriously from the other side of the sofa.

There was a long silence.

‘Frankie.’ his father said suddenly.

‘Huh?’

‘The cat. Frankie. I saw it on the news. I knew it looked familiar.’

Bucky sat back and let his parents talk it through.

‘Sweetie, you can’t recognise all of Bucky’s cats.’

‘I can so, and I’m telling you, I’d never forget a cat that sits on people’s shoulders like a parrot. Eats shoelaces too.’

Bucky nodded, ‘Frankie’s short for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’

‘See, darling?’ his father finished proudly, as if this were incontrovertible evidence, ‘Buck’s dating Captain America.’

‘Well if he’s really dating Captain America, then why doesn’t he bring Captain America here to tell us?’

Bucky didn’t point out that that would defeat the purpose of giving them prior warning, but he did say, ‘Steve’s not in New York at the moment.’

‘Really, where is he?’

Your guess is as good as mine. Apparently it’s classified.

‘He’s um… I don’t want to say it, because dad will…’

‘I’ll what?’

‘Your dad won’t do anything, just tell us.’

Bucky sighed, ‘He’s on a mission.’

His father immediately began humming the Mission Impossible theme.

‘So, Bucky,’ his mother began, while his father hummed slightly louder, ‘do you miss him while he’s away?’

‘Kind of, I guess.’

Yes. A lot.

‘Well, I suppose it’s still very new. And you girls can confirm that he’s not just making up the whole Captain America thing?’

Becca nodded, ‘I was there when they met.’

‘I’ve been to the Tower,’ Alice added, ‘and met the other Avengers.’

‘But I’ve known for longer-’

‘Alright.’ his mother intervened, ‘then I’ll take your word for it until the dinner.’

‘Great,’ Bucky replied, ‘in that case I gotta get back to-’

‘Bucky got in a fight with some Hydra guys in a Starbucks.’ Alice blurted out.

Dammit.

Both his parents looked to him with alarmed expressions, ‘What do you mean a fight?’

‘They attacked him.’ Alice explained, like the tattle-tale she was, ‘We had to fight them off.’

‘They attacked Bucky?’ his father repeated, at the same moment his mother proudly asked, ‘How’d he fight them off?’

‘Priorities, dear.’

‘I was just asking.’

Bucky stood up, ‘Can I-’

‘No you can’t, sit down.’

Bucky sat down again.

‘Is your boyfriend putting your life at risk?’

‘No!’ Bucky protested, ‘Trust me, he wouldn’t be dating me if he thought it would put me in danger.’

Okay, so technically that wasn’t quite true. But it was true enough and his parents didn’t need to know the details.

‘Well, Alice was worried enough to tell us.’

In the back of his mind, the image of the black bruises around his neck hovered like a storm cloud.

‘It’s fine.’ Bucky assured them, ‘they’ve made sure I’ll be safe, you don’t need to worry.’

‘How? Have they taught you to fight? Bucky, your arm-’

Stop talking about my arm for once, please.’

His parent were wearing those expressions again; the one they wore whenever they thought he was being difficult. The “we’re trying to understand where you’re coming from but ultimately you will do what we say” expression. It didn’t have nearly so much power now that he was an adult, and they’d had to find other methods to convince him, now that orders were out of the question. Like the guilt trip, his parents were great at that.

‘You know how we found out what had happened? We couldn’t get through to you and we had to go around to all the hospitals, asking after you.’

‘They were all so busy,’ his mother added, ‘it was nearly impossible to get any information and we were so worried. And then you got brought in a few hours later, and they were worried that you might have brain damage.’

‘You didn’t wake up for three days.’ his dad continued, ‘and then they were talking about amputating your arm. I know you don’t remember, but everyone was so scared that day.’

That last part wasn’t quite true; Bucky remembered more about the Battle of New York than he’d ever told anyone.

‘Can we stop with that? It’s not my fault aliens attacked so can you quit trying to make me feel guilty about it?’

‘We just care about you, we’re not-’

‘And don’t you dare mention any of this to Steve.’

There were a few long moments of silence. Alice shuffled guiltily in her seat.

‘Fine.’ his mother said finally, ‘You’re an adult, you can do what you like. Just, do us one favour?’

‘Depends on what it is.’

‘Go to that high school reunion. You’ll regret it when you’re older if you don’t.’

There was no way to politely escape until they had extracted a promise from him, and by the end of the meeting he decided that he was having a bad day. Bucky didn’t say a word to Alice as he finally left. It was childish, he knew, but that was just the mood he was in.

He was still scowling to himself when he stomped into his house, shutting the door behind him and sitting down with his back against it.

Steve had been gone a week now, and Bucky was starting to feel that particular kind of boredom that comes from making to text someone before remembering that that wasn’t going to happen. Clint was on the same mission, so he wasn’t getting any more training for a bit.

And now he had to go to his stupid reunion. Yay.

There was an alternative universe in which Steve wasn’t Captain America, and they could go to the reunion together. That wouldn’t have been nearly so bad, and might even have been fun. They could stand around in a corner somewhere and make fun of all the assholes.

And then they could skip out towards the end and go to McDonalds in their suits. And laugh together over Big Macs and Bucky would enjoy that warm, pleasant feeling that came with being in Steve’s company, like the version of himself that he presented to Steve was more like the person he really was. It was how he imagined travellers felt when they happened to meet someone who spoke their own language.

Bucky buried his head in his hands and tried to chase that thought away. But it was no good, and now he had two options.

  1. He could turn away and pretend it wasn’t true. Decide that he wasn’t going to allow himself to get too invested and cut his losses before it was too late.
  2. Admit it to himself and deal with the fallout.

This was the exact point that he’d always made the wrong decision. So he thought about Steve and tried to decide if this was a mistake he was willing to make. Steve was nice, and he loved art but didn’t talk about it much, and was protective of the people he cared about. And he had this way of picking up other people’s happiness, so that when the people near him were laughing, his mood would rise. But it only worked if he wasn’t lost in his own head.

Bucky tried to recall the exact colour of his eyes, beyond just “very blue”, and the way he dropped his gaze and smiled nervously at the ground when he was about to blush. And that fleeting look he got whenever Bucky called him “Stevie”.

So that was that then. He couldn’t walk away, so he was going to have to admit it. He was in love.

I’m in love.

He loved Steve Rogers, and if that was his next big mistake, then there was nothing he could do but tie himself to the mast and wait for the storm to end.

Steve should be back in another week and a half. In the meantime Bucky couldn’t even text him, but he did drop by his apartment every day to take care of FDR. He stayed longer each day so that little Frankie – as Steve insisted on calling him – wouldn’t have to be as lonely as he seemed, curling around Bucky’s legs and meowing the moment he entered. It was the one daily chore he didn’t mind so much.

Back at his home, he was relieved to find that the suit he would be wearing still fitted him perfectly. In fact, he looked great in it; English cut and French cuffs, and a top button that he had no intention of doing up. It was a three piece, and for once he decided that the waistcoat was in order. He may not be as rich as his hitherto classmates, but at least he could look fantastic. If only Steve were here to see him in this outfit.

His school was on the Upper East Side, where his Brooklyn accent and Rolex-less wrists marked him as an outsider. His lack of a date also failed to do wonders for his confidence, and no matter how great his hair looked, he knew some smug prick was going to make a comment about how he could afford a haircut, surely?

In the time since he’d last been in the school, they’d done up the gym again. The reunion was only being held in that building because they’d swapped a school hall for an auditorium, and the plush red, raised seats weren’t brilliant for dancing.

‘Hey, scholarship!’

Fuck off.

Richard caught his attention with the manner of someone who expected attention when he asked for it, and Bucky was compelled to reply, ‘Michael, right?’

‘Actually, it’s Richard.’ his date responded. She was a lovely brunette, early twenties, who clearly used checking the price tags for the most expensive item as a substitute for taste, based on the dress she was wearing, ‘I’m Sofia. I hope you don’t mind being called “scholarship”, Richard assures me it was just a schoolyard nickname.’

Bucky shrugged, ‘I like it about as much as he likes being called Dick.’

‘I… uh… don’t like being called Dick.’ Richard said, ‘I never have, as a matter of fact.’

‘Well there you go then.’

Ideally, that would have been his cue to leave the conversation, but Richard insisted on continuing with, ‘Oh, don’t make such a big deal of it. You were a scholarship student, you can’t complain about a nickname if it’s accurate.’

‘Well then, I don’t see why you don’t like being called Dick.’

Richard looked outraged, but Sofia seemed to be having difficulty preventing herself from laughing. The conversation finally ended there, Richard knocking Bucky with his shoulder as he went. Bucky had to remind himself not to pickpocket the man.

He moved on through the crowd, looking for someone he liked.

Anyone at all. Please.

‘James, I didn’t think you’d make it.’

Not you.

‘Neither did I.’ Bucky assured Thomas, ‘But unfortunately, nothing came up.’

‘Well it’s good to see you again.’

‘You too, Andrew.’

Thomas looked a little taken aback, ‘My name is actually Thomas, you remember?’

‘Well, my name is Bucky, but that didn’t stop you calling me James.’

Thomas’ equally annoying friends, whose names might have been Jacob and Malcolm but probably weren’t, soon arrived at his shoulder. One of them began with, ‘You’re really still calling yourself that?’

‘It’s really still my name.’ Bucky confirmed.

‘Well, if you say so.’ Thomas told him, ‘I always thought it sounded a bit…’ he waved his hand vaguely in a way that meant “lower class” without having to say those words.

Bucky aimed for mild surprise, ‘Really? You didn’t seem to have any problem screaming it behind the bike shed that one time.’

Thomas’ friends moved fractionally further away from him. Casual homophobia had never been so entertaining.

Try not to make everyone in the room hate you before you can leave. There isn’t even any alcohol here.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Thomas lied, ‘And I still remember you as James.’

‘Really? Why?’

The four of them all started. Bucky turned towards the voice to see Natasha appearing at his left side, her lipstick the same deadly shade of dark red as her dress. She was stunning, and it was almost certainly intentional.

‘I’m Natasha.’ she told the stunned group, ‘Bucky’s friend. His boyfriend is out of the state at the moment, so I’m filling in.’

She weathered the rally of “nice to meet you”s okay, and then someone said, ‘You know, you look a lot like the Black Widow.’

‘Do I? Funny that.’

When they finally left the little group, the three of them were frowning at her as she went, no doubt trying to prove to themselves that she definitely wasn’t the Black Widow.

‘Natasha?’ Bucky began, once they were out of earshot.

‘What?’

‘Something you wanna fill me in on?’

‘Yeah, I figured you’d be having a shitty night and I wanted to help. Trust me. It’ll be fun.’

‘They know you’re the Black Widow.’ Bucky pointed out.

‘No, they think I’m the Black Widow, and as long as I neither confirm nor deny, most of this room is going to spend the evening trying to figure it out one way or another. It’ll drive them crazy. Now, who do you hate the most, let’s go talk to them.’

‘Everyone?’

‘Well then I’m definitely putting my expertise to the best possible use tonight.’

The first guy to be completely convinced that Natasha was the Black Widow was a trust fund hipster named Chad. His wife disagreed entirely, though that might have had something to do with the fact that he flirted with Nat in front of her.

‘I’ll never get used to rich people.’ Bucky muttered, as they walked away.

‘I’m not even used to Stark. God, who’s idea was it to not provide alcohol?’

‘It’s a school.’

‘We’re all adults.’

‘Rich people are sinners for themselves and puritans for their kids. This place isn’t going to let alcohol anywhere near it.’

The next group were all the old jocks; a tribe of Tom Buchanans all were huddled together against the modern day. They were too lost in nostalgia to pay Natasha any mind, until someone came up and whispered something in their ears. Bucky had never seen a rumour visibly spread before.

When they finally moved away from the fourth or fifth group, Natasha asked him, ‘Having fun yet?’

‘Still not drunk. But thanks for showing up.’

Natasha flashed a smile, ‘Well, I couldn’t leave you moping the whole time until Steve gets back, can I?’

‘I’m not-’

She continued smiling, which was rude.

‘Nat, I’m not moping. I’m- I can handle not seeing Steve for a few weeks without turning into the protagonist from a young adult novel.’

‘Of course you can.’ Natasha told him, unconvincingly.

‘I don’t mope.’

‘If you say so.’

‘And I’m not… lovesick.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘You meant it.’

‘Did I?’

Annoying though Natasha sometimes could be, at least she made the evening a whole lot more entertaining. By the time they decided they’d been there long enough to satisfy Bucky’s parents, the gym was caught in an unsubtle but whispered debate, with one time acquaintances and long-lost lab partners fliting around with theories and gossip. Their conversation on the school steps was brief, before Natasha vanished into an expensive looking car.

Bucky took the subway back to Brooklyn, before trudging up the stairs and throwing himself on his bed without taking his suit off. He didn’t regret any of the bridges he’d been burning, but it had been exhausting.

Five days until Steve comes home.

Being in love was like how he remembered summer vacation; school was his day to day life, the default setting of his teenage years, and then summer arrived warm and happy and free. It was waking up the next morning and suddenly seeing a long stretch ahead of him where everything was just better. Those early days always seemed like he had forever.

God, Bucky wanted forever.

Being in love with Steve was no different. He wanted it to be different, he wished it was different. And sure, being around Steve felt so much different than being around any of his exes, but the love felt the same. It felt good, but with all his experience it felt like holding onto a nice dream when he knew he was going to wake up. Except dreaming never left such a wreck as love could bring.

The next five days were filled with the mundane errands of his life, and an eye on the news in case something – what, Bucky didn’t interrogate too closely – happened before Steve returned. He didn’t know exactly when he was due to land, but he knew that there was a whole string of debriefings and discussions and post-mission whatevers to do before Steve was free. He also knew that the first thing Steve had said he would do was to show up at Bucky’s door for dinner.

That wasn’t exactly a precise time, and Bucky found himself trying to act casual for no one, when he realised that all he was doing was waiting around and occasionally catching sight of himself in the mirror to make sure his hair was still great.

He finally heard a knock at the door a little after six, and Bucky prepared himself for the door to door salesman that was, with his luck, no doubt showing up just to get his hopes up. Instead he found Steve, a harsh cut above his eye and a slow smile spreading across his face. Bucky stepped aside and waited for him to enter.

‘Hi.’ he said, as a substitute for I missed you.

‘Hi.’ Steve replied.

‘What happened to your face?’

They kissed for the first time since he’d left, and it lasted a little longer than usual.

‘That’s classified.’ Steve finally said.

‘It’s a shame. You know I only like you for your looks.’

Steve put another stupid smile on his stupid face and Bucky had to kiss it again. Longer and deeper, and pushed up against him by all the hours of boredom he’d wasted pretending that he didn’t miss Steve that much. That didn’t matter now, not with the sensations of Steve’s hands, lips, tongue. They broke apart for air and Bucky used the opportunity to speak.

‘You want dinner first, or…?’

‘It can wait.’

And then they returned to making out, only stopping when Steve genuinely lifted Bucky up to place him on the desk, their mouths still together and his hands now on either side of Bucky. Bucky pulled him closer by his belt and wrapped his legs around him. The plan for the night was settled.

‘Condoms? Lube?’ Steve managed.

Bucky just groaned.

‘Let me guess, bedside cabinet?’

‘Yep.’

‘On the top floor.’

‘…Yep.’

Bucky extricated himself from his position and whispered ‘I’ll be right back.’ Before heading upstairs at a light jog. Steve followed behind, walking, and waited for him at the base of the narrow stairway.

The condoms and lube were located in record time, but Bucky made sure to limit his pace returning, so that he neither looked too keen nor fell down the stairs. It didn’t matter much; Steve didn’t seem to have any time for pretences as he grabbed Bucky and pulled him into another rough kiss. The items dropped to the floor out of Bucky’s hand.

‘Where are we doin’ this?’

‘There’s a wall right there.’

Bucky was already hard, and not in the mood for elaborate planning, so he said, ‘Good thinking Rogers.’ and let Steve pin him against his awful retro wallpaper. They shed their clothes by virtue of them simply being in the way of everything they wanted to touch. Steve pulled away to put on a condom, opening the packet with his hands instead of his teeth like a safety-conscious nerd, before Steve’s hands were at Bucky’s hips, then his thighs. And then, for the second time that night, he was being lifted off his feet.

Abruptly pressed against the wall – and 100% not winded – Bucky’s legs wrapped around Steve’s waist. Apparently he was light as a feather for Steve, who somehow managed to manoeuvre the lube to a usable position without dropping Bucky.

He didn’t tease this time, just opened him up with care and pushed fingers inside of him. Bucky stammered for more when he could so Steve wouldn’t have to slow the pace to make sure that this was okay. With lubed-up fingers still inside of him, Steve used his wicked mouth again to bite at skin. Bucky arched his back automatically and let out a moan, his cock now so hard it was almost uncomfortable.

‘That still work on you, then?’

‘Sh-shut up and fuck me.’

Steve slipped his fingers out and took the time to kiss him first, a bit rushed, a bit breathless, but somehow still everything that Bucky wanted.

I love you. I love you. I love

Someone was knocking on the front door. Normally Bucky didn’t mind people stopping by, but whoever was there now had made Steve stop.

‘They’ll be gone soon.’ Bucky whispered.

‘Barnes!’ the visitor called out, ‘It’s Jonathan, from the neighbourhood watch.’

This announcement was greeted by silence, though Steve was raising his eyebrows at Bucky.

‘I know you’re in there, Barnes.’ said Jonathan from the neighbourhood watch, stepping inside, ‘There are lights on and a motorbike out front. I was just walking past and I noticed that you’d left your door a little open. That’s not safe.’

Steve was laughing silently into Bucky’s shoulder. In the next room, Jonathan’s footsteps were getting dangerously close. He opened the door to the cats’ room and, finding no one, closed it and moved on.

‘Barnes? Can you hear me?’

Steve was now entirely shaking from hushed mirth, which was an altogether new sensation for Bucky, positioned as he was.

Jonathan from neighbourhood watch opened the door, but Bucky’s hand flew out to slam it closed before it could move more than an inch or two.

‘Barnes, I’m trying to help.’

‘Sorry pal,’ Bucky finally responded, trying to sound as if Captain Steve Rogers didn’t have him pinned naked against a wall at that exact moment, ‘I can’t open this door or the cats will escape.’

‘But I just saw your cats in a different room.’

‘Yeah, I just got a fresh shipment.’

A fresh shipment of cats. No offence, me, but what the fuck are you talking about?

Steve was biting his own hand in the effort to stay quiet. His other hand scratched lightly at the door as though to make the cat lie more convincing. Bucky had never realised that a scratching sound could be sarcastic before, but Steve somehow managed it.

Please be an idiot please be an idiot please

‘Alright, fair enough.’ said Jonathan the idiot from neighbourhood watch, ‘But you’ve still got to sort out your sign.’

Steve perked up enough to make it clear that he was listening intently, and Bucky realised that he still hadn’t fully explained the feud.

‘I had a sign.’ Bucky pointed out, ‘It disappeared in mysterious circumstances.’

‘That’s not what I meant, Barnes.’

‘Along with all my other signs. There’s been a string of disappearances.’

‘Barnes-’

‘Now I think of it, this seems like a case for our esteemed neighbourhood watch to solve. I have no doubt that they’d be more thorough and dedicated to solving this theft than the Pinkertons themselves.’

Steve was practically shoving his entire fist in his mouth to keep himself from laughing out loud. Which seemed a little unfair, since Steve’s mouth was now getting more action than the entirety of Bucky.

‘Now, I wouldn’t say theft, per se-’

‘Author Conan Doyle himself couldn’t imagine a cleverer, more astute collection of detectives than our humble neighbourhood watch. Agatha Christie’s heroes could never compare. Whoever wrote those shitty Sam Spade stories would be green with envy to see-’

‘Knock it off, Barnes. Just get a better sign and we’ll leave you alone. No one wants to see those ugly plastic things on our street. It’s bad enough that you wouldn’t let that company demolish this place and build something that fits with the street better.’

Steve actually looked shocked at the idea. He drew out his hand to hiss ‘They can’t do that!’ to Bucky, ‘It’s beautiful!’

‘Maybe I like the building.’ Bucky translated, for Jonathan the idiot from neighbourhood watch who thought that Steve was a cat and therefore not qualified to be an arbiter of architectural taste.

‘You’re the only one.’

‘It’s art nouveau!’ Steve whispered, scandalised.

‘It’s art nouveau!’ Bucky repeated, shrugging to Steve.

Jonathan the idiot from neighbourhood watch scoffed, ‘I don’t give a damn how French you make it, it’s not art, and it’s definitely not new.’

Steve looked about ready to start a fight, which put Bucky in a somewhat difficult position, so he replied, ‘Jonathan?’

‘What?’

‘Get out of my house before I call the real police.’

Jonathan left, slamming the door behind him, and Steve finally had the opportunity to laugh out loud.

‘You got into a spat with the neighbourhood watch because of aesthetics?’

‘There’s not really much crime in the area. Unless you count my signs being stolen. They need something to do.’

Steve laughed again, but Bucky could only resist so long. He thrust his hips downwards and cut off Steve’s laugh with a gasp.

‘Back from the distraction are we?’

Steve shut him up with a firm kiss, quickly migrating to other parts of Bucky’s anatomy. There were going to be marks where Steve sucked at his skin, noticeably avoiding his neck. With Bucky demanding more and their hearts beating quicker, he lowered him onto his dick. For a moment Bucky could only gasp, feeling the fullness. And then they began moving, up and down with the sound of quick breathing between them. Bucky’s hands were on Steve’s back, digging in enough that he’d be worried about leaving marks if he were thinking straight. The next thrust left him dizzy and Bucky found himself moaning Steve’s name. He didn’t say anything else, but he thought it.

With the wall bracing him, Steve’s hands were superfluous where they were, holding Bucky up. Steve found other uses for them, making Bucky squirm with every sensitive bit of skin they found. He didn’t touch his dick though, and Bucky was almost glad; the way Steve was using his fingers, Bucky wouldn’t have lasted long.

He curled his hands into Steve’s hair and brought his face forwards, close enough bite lightly at his ear and utter a stream of things he’d like to do to Steve if only there were enough hours in the night.

Like me making noise do ya, punk?

With every sentence Steve seemed to lose a little more control, speeding up a bit until Bucky was having difficulty speaking. As some sort of revenge, one of Steve’s hands wrapped around Bucky’s dick and started moving in time to the thrusts. The friction was almost too much. Bucky moved his head back against the wall and moaned.

Steve’s lips met his exposed neck, so much gentler than the other movements.

I love you, Stevie. I’m in love with you.

With every movement Steve hit the prostate again and again until Bucky was shuddering under his fingers, coming in a hot stream between the two off them. Steve didn’t last much longer, and then they were just trying to catch their breath, two messy, blissed out lovers relaxing breathlessly against Bucky’s terrible wallpaper.

‘Missed you, Buck.’ Steve murmured, a dopey (adorable) smile on his face.

Bucky raised his head to kiss that smile, whispering ‘Missed you too, Steve.’ against his lips.

They stumbled off to the shower together to clean up, leaving their clothes behind them on the stairs. There were any number of ways a shared shower could have gone, but neither of them were too ready for round two and their stomachs were starting to rumble. They stood under the hot spray and helped each other clean up, Steve watching him with a fond expression that must have matched the one on Bucky’s face.

‘Your hair looks even longer wet.’ Steve pointed out, brushing a lock from Bucky’s forehead, ‘Are you growing it out?’

‘I guess.’

‘How long are you planning?’

Bucky shrugged, ‘I was just gonna decide later, shoulder length, maybe. Why, do you not like long hair on men?’

‘Never thought about it,’ Steve said, somehow still looking attractive despite the fact that water was dripping from the hair plastered to his face, ‘But I think I might like it on you.’

Eventually they turned the water off and made an attempt at getting dressed again. They both got halfway before Bucky skipped ahead to the bit where he orders Chinese, and the rest of the evening was spent with jeans at their hipbones (Bucky made sure that his were sitting at exactly the right height for him to catch Steve’s gaze drifting down…) and nothing else.

They moved into the empty room – the one they’d met in and the one Steve had later done such a good job with his mouth in – and Bucky ate his rice leaning against the wall, while Steve sat cross legged in front of him.

Bucky’s hair was now long enough that he could brush it behind his ears – which he did constantly, with the easy, distracted forgetfulness reserved for breathing or blinking – but not so long that it stayed there. He was forever tucking it away, and it was forever falling back onto his cheekbone. Tonight he noticed it, because he could see Steve’s eyes following the damp locks that skimmed against his skin. He thought about all the movies he’d seen and wondered if Steve would reach over and brush it away while they ate.

‘Do you have some paper and pencils?’ Steve asked instead.

Bucky raised his eyebrows, halfway through a mouthful of noodles.

‘Pre’y sure there’th some art shtuff upshtairs,’ Bucky told him – very classy, Barnes – before swallowing and adding, ‘the room with the bookcase.’

Steve thanked him and made his way to the next floor while Bucky waited. He knew the bookcase was now overflowing with some of his books, and the guitar was still gathering dust in the corner. He wondered how long it had been since he’d last played and then, with a short surge of battle-of-New-York-related regret, wondered if his left hand would ever be able to dance along the frets the way it used to.

Bucky had finished eating when Steve returned with a sketchpad and pencils, and was relaxing against the wall with one arm behind his head. He was facing the curtained windows, but he turned his head to admire Steve as he entered the room.

He was built with grace as much as strength, all simple sloping curves that Bucky had only just begun to learn; all the hills and valleys that were all the more charming for falling elegantly short - just a little - of the clinical perfection he had been intended to reach. He liked the way these curves shifted, too, rearranging themselves under Steve’s taut skin to orchestrate his slightest movements.

‘No, don’t move.’ he said, as Bucky turned towards him, ‘Stay right where you are.’

Bucky did as he was told, watching Steve and letting the hint of a smile colour his face. He didn’t move per se, but he used all his years of picking up strangers in bars to shift his expression and the way he was holding himself, making the pose seem suddenly so much more suggestive. It wasn’t just the hand behind his head that Steve’s eyes were tracing now, but the one resting at his thigh. And the way the jeans rested low on his hipbone and left a little gap between the hips where the denim pulled away from the concave skin. The marks that Bucky remembered Steve leaving on his skin, the way his hair was messed up just so, the arch of his neck that he exaggerated just slightly, the rise and fall of his chest.

He knows I’m doing this on purpose.

There was nothing that Steve could accuse him of; it was an innocent enough pose that he was making seem obscene. And there was an almost-smile on Steve’s face like he knew exactly what he was doing.

Steve started drawing.

‘So, tell me about the neighbourhood watch.’

Bucky quirked an eyebrow, but dutifully lowered it again so Steve could draw, ‘What about them?’

‘They don’t seem like a normal neighbourhood watch.’ Steve prompted, ‘And I didn’t even realise those existed around here. It seems more of a suburban bible belt sorta thing.’

‘It is.’ Bucky agreed, ‘which is why it merged with the local version of those groups who are into gentrification and working bees to plant flowers along the roads.’ Bucky rolled his eyes, ‘Because if there’s any problem in Brooklyn, it’s that there aren’t enough flowers.’

Steve seemed to appreciate the sarcasm. This Brooklyn was better than the Brooklyn of his youth, but no doubt he could still think of any number of things that their effort would better be spent on.

‘So, they dislike you because…?’

‘Because I didn’t let this house be demolished when I inherited it. Apparently it doesn’t fit the aesthetics of the neighbourhood. And neither do my cheap plastic signs. Not to mention they’ve got this weird idea that if people can’t find my business then I’ll go bankrupt and move out and leave them to their bizarre urban white-picket-fence-esque utopia.’

Steve seemed intrigued as he gently sketched out the early lines of the drawing.

‘That seems a little, I dunno, militant?’

Bucky attempted a shrug without actually moving, and ended up performing a noncommittal sort of twitch, ‘They still call themselves the neighbourhood watch. Y’know, started by the sort of people who believe that crime is on the rise and they need to protect “their” neighbourhood.’

He briefly wondered how different this must all be from the sort of people who’d populated the Brooklyn Steve remembered.

‘Anyway, I guess there weren’t enough teenagers loitering for them to terrify, so they merged with that beatification group and now they’re some upper middle class gang who’s raison d’etre is to aggressively make these few blocks prettier.’

Steve was laughing now, and Bucky contemplated how his problems must sound compared to Steve’s own issues. Petty, probably, or ridiculous. Then again maybe Steve could use some problems, second hand or otherwise, that weren’t about the fate of the planet.

‘Want me to do anything about it?’ Steve mused, not looking up from where he was scratching the paper with quick, tiny strokes of the pencil.

Bucky considered this for a moment, ‘No, I think I can handle it.’

‘What about your new friends? Some of them can be quite scary.’

The image of the Avengers getting together to intimidate the local neighbourhood watch hung between them like a cartoon.

‘Maybe not.’ Bucky replied, but he was smiling.

‘You sure? We could organise a midnight raid. Get your signs back, and then we could hang all of them up at once just to piss that Jonathan and his pals off.’

‘Still not a good idea.’

Bucky was grinning now, before he remembered that that wasn’t the expression that Steve was supposed to be drawing. Steve seemed to have the same thought, because he changed his tone of voice as he changed the subject.

‘Hmm.’ Steve murmured.

‘Hmm?’

‘I was just thinking…’

‘Think quicker.’

‘About how much I like that leather jacket of yours. In fact, I’m starting to think that you look better wearing it than you do shirtless.’

Bucky raised his chin minutely in what he knew Steve would immediately recognise was a gesture of Challenge Accepted, and resumed his efforts to claim top spot in history’s high score table for most sultry muse.

Better?

Steve got back to the task at hand with a smirk; an expression that Bucky had not yet seen Steve wear and hadn’t realised was even in his repertoire. Which was a shame, since it was something that Bucky would be glad to see again.

But it faded soon and Steve was gazing at the paper, hand still creating lines that Bucky couldn’t see. It was probably a natural expression for the work Steve was doing, and it was only that he knew him well that Bucky noticed his mind drift off elsewhere. It was calm enough, not like the tension he’d worn that time at Starbucks, so Bucky gave him a few more moments before interrupting.

‘Steve?’

‘Huh? Sorry.’ he chuckled at some joke that Bucky didn’t know, ‘I was just thinking… never mind.’

He was finished shortly after, adding the last details with a practiced hand and glancing up with a smile.

‘Can I move now?’ Bucky asked, watching Steve put the pencils away, ‘My arm is going numb.’

‘Hmm.’ Steve said again. He made a show of comparing the real life Bucky to the one in the picture, tilting his head, reaching for another pencil only to change his mind a few moments later and put it back down.

Steve.’

‘Okay fine, you can move.’

Bucky shuffled over to where Steve was and silently asked permission to see the picture. It was granted easily enough, Steve endearingly attempting to not look nervous despite the dusting of pink on his cheeks.

Looking at the picture made Bucky’s heart feel full in his chest, the same as it had when Steve had first sketched out an image in Bucky’s diary in that bar. There was something uniquely profound about being drawn like this; every line Steve had committed to paper was another thing that he had noticed about him. It was the way that Steve saw him, being translated into art.

Bucky was grinning, and suddenly it was hard to ignore how much he’d missed him.

They both knew that Steve couldn’t stay over. He had more work to do, and Bucky insisted that he give FDR some attention before he developed a complex.

‘Frankie.’ Steve corrected.

‘Sure.’

But Bucky couldn’t resist asking about the cut that lingered, red and unpleasant, above his eye.

‘It’ll heal quick.’ Steve assured him, as he finally pulled his shirt back over his head.

‘Not what I asked.’

‘I know, but it’s-’

‘Confidential.’ Bucky finished.

There must have been some unintentional irritation in his voice, or maybe Steve just knew him that well, because with Steve’s next expression he felt compelled to backtrack with phrases like “It’s not my business” and “forget I said anything”.

Steve sighed, scrubbing his hand through his hair as he examined Bucky, who was worrying at his bottom lip again.

‘It was just a fight,’ he eventually said, ‘I didn’t duck quick enough, it happens. Not often.’ he added quickly, in reaction to something that must have shown in Bucky’s expression, ‘Don’t worry.’

Bucky nodded, unsure of what to say next, but Steve rubbed the back of his neck and continued.

‘Hydra’s stressing me out a little right now. I figure you’ve earned the right to know some things.’

He was talking about that fight in Starbucks again, and Bucky selfishly wished it could just go away.

‘Like why they attacked me?’

Steve shoved his hands into his pockets, ‘We’re still not sure why that happened, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the things we do know are starting to worry me a bit. I can tell you about it… if you want? Just a few things, I mean.’

Out of nowhere, Bucky wished that he was wearing a shirt for this conversation.

They took a seat on his comfortable sofa and he managed to acquire his shirt again. Steve only stayed a little longer, telling Bucky what he could about his work while Bucky watched him take his next big risk. Maybe he needed a confidant, or maybe he just hated secrets in a relationship. Either way, this kind of trust was entirely foreign to Bucky, particularly coming from someone who’d worked for an organisation that had been infested with Hydra the way houses were infested with termites; unnoticed until it had to be torn down.

There were still lots of things that Steve couldn’t say, but what he did say made Bucky glad that he could be someone outside it all for Steve to confide in. And, in that part of his mind that occupied itself playing sappy love songs and drawing little hearts around pictures of Steve, he was also a little more than glad that they were getting this close.

Knowing, he was told, wouldn’t put him in danger. He was only in danger if Hydra thought he knew things. Steve promised – not for the first time – to do everything he could to keep him safe. This was to pre-empt the effect of his next statement; that, in the unlikely event that Hydra did decide that he knew something, Bucky had official permission to spill any and every secret that could be used to keep him safe.

It was probably safer that he knew these things, he said. It was better that Bucky have bargaining chips, he said. Not that he’d ever need them, he said. And Bucky smiled in reassurance and took Steve’s concern for his safety for what it was; a just-in-case sort of deal, where the risks were thin and far away.

It was the first time that Bucky heard the words “Winter Soldier”.

Chapter Text

Summer was already over when the heatwave hit. The cats stretched out in the cages, twitching lightly and moving only slowly, as if they could sense the weather beyond their air conditioned room. Bucky, Frankie, and Steve took to lounging around the tower, pressing cool cans of soda to their necks as they rested on the balcony and neglected a variety of responsibilities, the New York below them sweltering on the other side of their sunglasses.

Even Frank was feeling it; he avoided the outside world in favour of settling into Steve’s cool Tower apartment.

Bucky insisted that the family dinner that Steve had been invited to was meeting the parents but not, he emphatically said, Meeting The Parents. There was a difference. Steve didn’t know what the difference was, but there was assuredly a difference.

The other thing was the doctor’s appointment that Bucky had in a few days’ time, but he wasn’t talking about that, so Steve wasn’t either.

For some reason Tony was still wearing suits.

Today he walked out into the sun in a nice charcoal English cut and a striped tie, looking for all the world as though he hadn’t noticed the heat. Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he was secretly a robot without any sense of temperature and he needed to wear jackets and long trousers just to cover up the wiring. Would that mean that the real Tony was dead? Or was Tony always a robot?

What if Tony actually spent his whole life in a mansion somewhere off the maps, controlling various Tony-bots from a lab and never leaving his comfortable home? As far as Steve knew, Jarvis could be a real person and the supposed AI could just be a PA system. Steve didn’t know exactly how Tony would spend his time in his mansion, but there was almost certainly an air hockey table.

The Tony-bot was snapping his fingers in front of Steve’s face, ‘Cap. You’re daydreaming again. Wakey-wakey.’

Bucky was wearing that light scowl he always had whenever someone casually called Steve “Cap”. Finally seeming satisfied that Steve was with them, Tony straightened up, smiling vaguely. This didn’t help Bucky’s scowl, as he apparently disliked vague smiles.

‘Go on,’ added Tony, ‘spill. What were you coming up with this time? Is it the Starbucks conspiracy again?’

Steve knew that Tony wasn’t actually a robot, but that didn’t stop him thinking I’m onto you as he waved off the question. Conspiracy theories were one way to pass the time.

Bucky withdrew into the cool interior with the promise of returning with more sodas, and Tony and his suit dropped into another seat, smiling.

‘So you two seem to be doing well-’

Steve cut him off, ‘How are you doing with the prosthetics project?’

‘If you’re trying to avoid talking-’

‘I’m not.’ Steve assured him, ‘I need to know.’

Automatically, he turned his gaze to the dark rooms inside, where Bucky had disappeared. Out of sight and out of earshot.

‘It’s a long way off being available to the public.’

‘I know, it’s just-’

‘We’re talking years, Steve.’

Steve resisted the urge to ask him to work faster. Instead, he was left to the mercy of his ever ready imagination. It wouldn’t be that bad, surely? People lost limbs all the time, and Bucky was already used to not having full use of his left arm. It was just…

In the spare room at the top of his house, Bucky still had an electric guitar gathering dust, covering the red star in a layer of white so thick that by now it was starting to look like ashes.

‘Are there trials or something? You said you were close to a prototype…’

Steve didn’t know what else to say.

‘That bad?’

‘I dunno. He’s not talking about it.’

‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Tony promised.

A few moments later, Steve found a cold soda being pressed into his hand, and Bucky was resuming his seat. Steve shot him a quick smile and turned back to Tony, only to be surprised yet again by his attire.

‘Tony, you gotta put a t-shirt on, I’m getting heat stroke just looking at you.’

‘Thought you’d be used to the New York summers, the way you act like you’re the personification of Brooklyn.’

Steve pressed the soda can to his forehead with a groan, the condensation mixing into the perspiration on his skin, ‘It was colder in the thirties. Fewer heatwaves too. Just that one big one and not much else.’

Tony left them a few minutes later with the explanation that some more work had just come up, leaving Steve feeling a little guilty. But not too guilty, he reflected, as Bucky grinned at the arrival of Frank, stretching out in the sun between them.

Steve would never get over his multitude of smiles, or the way sunlight attached to him like he was woven out of it into this human being, imperfect in the way light refracts through flaws in a gemstone. And Steve was thinking how easy the choice was, in the end.

After careful consideration, I have decided to fall in love with you.

It shouldn’t take long; Steve suspected that if he’d left the choice much longer he would have fallen for Bucky against his own will, regardless. But now he had the opportunity to walk into what he hoped would be his future, eyes open, hand in hand with the person he chose.

Steve Grant Rogers you are being a sap and if you say any of this out loud all you’ll do is embarrass yourself and anyone within earshot.

He cleared his throat and, in lieu of a conversation starter, asked Bucky who his favourite president was, on the assumption that Bucky wouldn’t be able to resist any conversation about history.

‘Henry Wallace.’

‘We’re not doing this again.’

‘He was great.’

‘He wasn’t a president.’

‘I’m retconning Truman. Did you look up the Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart?’

Steve had, and had been more than a little disconcerted to find that Bucky had been verifiably telling the truth.

‘Of course I did.’

They whiled away a little longer in the sun with Bucky complaining about Jimmy Byrnes – a person Steve had heard of at the time only as that guy the unions hated – while Steve laughed at his jokes and watched the rising heat distort the city below.

Eventually they had to withdraw for dinner. Bucky had commandeered Steve’s kitchen with the explanation that he wasn’t using it anyway, and was now making something that Steve had never heard of, while Steve himself was teasing Frank with a laser pointer he’d “borrowed” from one of Clint’s bows.

It’s not like he needs the laser dot anyway. He just uses them to look cool.

And if there were claw marks up the walls, well, Steve didn’t pay for this place.

Occasionally he was called upon to open jars, a duty he had casually taken up, along with the responsibility for holding things steady, carrying large or difficultly-shaped objects, and opening anything child-proof. He’d learnt that Bucky had prescription pain medication that he sometimes took for his arm. He’d also learnt that the pain medication prescribed to someone with difficulty using their left hand came in a child-proof container. Because apparently that made perfect sense.

It was the last day of Bucky’s weekend, and he had to return that evening to look after the cats, so Steve spent the rest of the time before bed cleaning the kitchen and lazing beneath the air conditioning unit.

The next time he’d be seeing him was when he would be meeting his parents.

Tired and already sick of the heat, Steve dragged his duvet off his bed to a loud meow.

‘Frank?’

‘Meow.’ said his duvet cover, angrily.

Steve pulled up the cover near the moving lump and freed his kitten, scooping him up with an apology and a ‘I didn’t know you were sleeping there.’

Frank bit his wrist affectionately and fell asleep on a spot on Steve’s bed that was almost certainly calculated to make Steve as uncomfortable as possible. Sure enough, Steve had to curl around his cat as he lay down under his sheet.

Stupid cat.

Frank meowed as if he could read Steve’s mind. Maybe he could; maybe cats could read people’s minds. That would explain why they always knew how to act cute when they needed to…

Three hours later, he knew he wasn’t getting any sleep that night.

God dammit.

An active imagination was great and all, until it wouldn’t shut up. Steve dragged his legs off the bed and rose to his feet. The twitch of Frank’s ear was the only sign that he’d noticed anything amiss. Nevertheless, when Steve had set up his space in the living room, Frank padded out as nonchalantly as he could manage, settling down on an armchair with only a reproachful glance at his owner to suggest that their shared presence in the room was anything more than a coincidence.

Steve had a canvass set up, and a set of paintbrushes laid out neatly next to a mug of water. And paint; acrylic and next to a bit of cardboard he intended to use for mixing. He had been very precise with setting it all up and the positioning and…

He’d run out of things to do and now he actually had to paint something.

Not Bucky, obviously, because that seemed a bit much. But something.

Steve stared at the blank canvass and pondered whether he should prime it again.

You gotta get more creative with your procrastination, pal.

The trouble was that he used to be very good at procrastination, because all he did to procrastinate was work on his art some more. Now he was telling himself that he could always just paint something he liked and was struggling to think of what that could possibly be. It seemed a little creepy to paint a person without their knowledge, and if he painted Frank then Bucky’d no longer be the crazy cat guy in the relationship.

Where’s my imagination now? Huh? You got me out of bed now where are you when I need you?

In the end he painted New York, out of habit. Just mixing the first colour, holding his hand steady as he applied the first tentative brushstroke, and then it was noon and he wasn’t finished but he was starving and there were bags under his eyes. It was alright, better than alright, and he was itching to get it complete but he had other things to do. So he washed his brushes in the sink and showered, scrubbing the paint from his tired hands, getting ready for the day in time to get a call over the PA system in the Tower.

‘Okay so I didn’t get any sleep last night but I can definitely put the sensors I’d designed into Hydra’s robot arm and I’ve been thinking about other limbs I could do once I’ve got this one done and how true to real life they should be-’ he took a breath, ‘-like obviously fingers are important but they’re tricky and people lose legs so I was thinking… how often do you really use your toes?’

‘Morning Tony.’

‘It’s afternoon, actually. Toes. It’s mostly just balance, right? I could do that without actually making mechanical toes.’

Steve still felt a little guilty for giving Tony more work to do, but at least he seemed to be enjoying himself.

‘I dunno. Some people like to wear flip flops.’

‘Hmmm.’ Tony said, ‘Anyway, that’s not what I was calling about. I’ve got this anniversary thing with Pepper and I need your advice on what tie I should wear.’

Steve moved into the kitchen and put some bread in the toaster for breakfast.

‘How about you just wear a t shirt. Like a normal person. In the middle of a heatwave.’

‘Not helping.’

Steve sighed, ‘Well, she must have given you a tie at some point, just wear that one.’

‘Hang on I’ll look.’

Steve checked his phone while he waited.

            Bucky:             Don’t forget dinner tonight

            Bucky:             My parents won’t mind if we’re late but we probably shouldn’t be late

            Bucky:             And don’t worry they’ll love you

            Bucky:             But maybe don’t mention anything that could be considered dangerous

            Bucky:             And be polite. I mean, you are polite so this shouldn’t be a problem

            Bucky:             Everything is fine so don’t be nervous

‘Steve?’

‘Yeah?’

‘There’s a good chance she bought me at least half of my ties.’

‘Oh.’

‘I don’t think I’ve ever bought a tie for myself in my life.’

            Steve:               Is there a reason I should be nervous?

‘Well what suit are you wearing?’

‘I don’t know. I was going to match it to my tie.’

            Bucky:             No not at all don’t worry

            Bucky:             What are you planning on wearing?

‘Dark green.’

‘If you’re sure.’

Steve glanced over at colours he’d mixed on the cardboard pallet, now drying rapidly in the early autumn heat.

‘Pretty sure.’

‘Great.’

            Steve:               idk

            Steve:               How important are my clothes?

            Bucky:             Not important at all

            Bucky:             But maybe we should discuss what you’ll be wearing

            Bucky:             Also I think we should travel by cab instead of motorbike

‘Still there?’

‘Huh? Yeah, I’m texting Buck. What am I s’posed to wear to meet his parents?’

There was a pause. Steve took the opportunity to respond to the texts.

            Steve:               You’re telling me not to be nervous but you’re starting to make me nervous

‘Are you meeting his parents or Meeting His Parents?’

What the hell is the difference? Am I the only one who doesn’t know the difference? Is it a future thing? Are parents suddenly some secret thing that can only be met in some grand reveal when a relationship gets more serious?

‘The first one, I think.’

‘Oh, that’s not so bad. What are the parents like?’

Is there a secret cult of parents I don’t know about that take down the people they don’t like that their children take home?

‘I dunno.’ Steve enunciated, as slowly and clearly as he could for Tony to follow, ‘I haven’t met them yet.’

            Bucky:             Don’t be nervous

            Bucky:             There’s nothing to be nervous about

Steve was starting to suspect that there was something to be nervous about.

‘A suit?’

‘No.’

‘That’s all I got. I’ll ask Pepper.’

            Steve:               What should I be wearing then?

            Bucky:             Don’t worry it doesn’t matter much my parents won’t mind

            Bucky:             How are you with funny anecdotes that show you in a good light but not like you’re showing off?

            Bucky:             Like, don’t tell that one you told me on our first date about how you stabbed that guy with a knitting needle

Steve had actually been hoping that Bucky had forgotten about that.

            Steve:               I was /nervous/

            Bucky:             Well that’s alright then because you’re not nervous now so everything will be fine

Well I wasn’t nervous before you started this conversation

At this point Steve remembered his toast, and checked to find that it had popped long enough ago that it was now cold. Perfect. He put it down again to warm up and turned his attention back to Tony.

‘Is this gonna take long? Bucky is stressing me out.’

‘She says jeans and a shirt with buttons. Do you own a sweater?’

A sweater. A fucking sweater.

‘Tony, pal, have you ever baked something on a warm day, and maybe you’ve been doing some cleaning or something, so you’ve been moving around and you’re starting to really feel the weather and then your cookies – say you’re making cookies – they finish in the oven so you open the door to take the cookies out, right? And heat rises, and ovens tend to be on the floor. So you’re already hot and you open the oven door and suddenly a wave of hot air is pouring out directly into you face. Have you ever experienced that?’

There was a short pause.

‘Fine, don’t wear a sweater.’

‘There’s a heatwave, remember.’

‘Uh huh.’

            Bucky:             if you can’t tell if something someone has said is a joke or not just look at me and laugh if I’m laughing

Oh my god.

            Steve:               Bucky, sweetheart, if you’re nervous just list the presidents in order or something

‘Anyway,’ Tony was saying, ‘I gotta go. But can you settle a bet first? It’s between me and Clint.’

‘…okay.’

‘Is Bucky a punk or a hipster? We can’t tell.’

Steve thought about it.

‘He does own a lot of Ramones shirts.’

‘Not helpful. Both groups do that.’

Great, now there’s another thing for me to not be able to stop thinking about.

‘I don’t really think he’s either.’

‘He’s definitely one of them. See ya.’

His toast was now burnt, so Steve gave up and instead arranged the clothes he was planning on wearing on his bed. All set to go. He had a few hours to kill, he may as well watch TV or paint some more or

He spent the next hour comparing different outfits in a mirror and trying to decide exactly how neat his hair should be. Neat enough, but like he’d been in a light breeze. Perfect.

But what if I do have to walk through a light breeze? Then my hair will be twice as ruffled.

Steve combed his hair again and resolved to walk through a light breeze to get the effect he wanted; it was less risky than having his hair pre-ruffled only to become downright dishevelled. If only there was some way to be sure whether or not there would be a light breeze involved in this evening.

He glanced outside again to check the weather and was forcefully reminded that his relative comfort was owing entirely to his air conditioning. The heatwave languished as it ever had, heavy and still over the hazy streets. Steve messed his hair up again.

Oh god you really are nervous. Don’t tell the knitting needle story.

            Bucky:             My hair isn’t long enough to be tied back but it seems too long to leave loose do you think I should use hairclips?

My soulmate.

            Steve:               Why are you so worried about your hair?

Steve hired a cab and gave him Bucky’s address, mostly because Bucky picking Steve up would require telling the driver he wanted to go to Avengers Tower. Bucky, a native New Yorker, had a deep aversion to being thought of as a tourist. For his part Steve, Captain America, had a deep aversion to being thought of as Captain America.

Bucky was wearing a sweater and mumbling to himself.

…Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe…’

‘Aren’t you hot in that?’

‘Dying.’ Bucky confirmed. His hair was indeed clipped back.

They moved through the sunlight reflecting off the glass buildings, making furnaces of the streets as Bucky visibly tried to calm his breathing, ‘…Martin Van Buren, pneumonia guy, John Tyler…

‘Pneumonia guy?’

‘William H. Harrison. I’ll tell you later. James K. Polk…

‘Is that helping?’

Bucky shook his head, looking pale. Nor would he be drawn on exactly why he was nervous apart from ‘Parents, y’know?’ all the way there. Steve didn’t know, but he was starting to become concerned as he paid the driver and followed Bucky to the door, where he was pausing (‘…Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, hopefully…’)

‘Knock.’ Steve suggested.

Bucky knocked. And inhaled, and-

‘Bucky! You made it, it’s so good to see you again! And you must be Steve, I’m his mother, obviously. I've heard sooo much about you.’

‘Um. Nice to meet you.’

‘But not too much, because our Bucky isn’t obsessive or anything. But it’s not as though he’s indifferent either. We’ve heard the normal amount about you. Come in, come in.’

Steve could have sworn that “our Bucky” was starting to blush. He was standing just close enough to hear ‘JohnAdamsThomasJeffersonAaronBurrGeorgeClinton’ being whispered, and only just educated in history enough to realise that he had started on vice presidents.

They were being lead enthusiastically down a short hallway and into a living room, where out of the corner of his eye Steve caught Mrs Barnes pointing rigorously at him in what she must have hoped was out of his line of sight.

Mr Barnes offered no such pretences of subtlety as he greeted Steve with a handshake and a ‘So you are really Captain America.’

‘I am.’ Steve confirmed, a little nervously.

‘That’s good. It would have been a strange thing to lie about, and our Bucky’s never been given to inventing such stories. Not to mention the other two backed him up.’

‘The other two?

‘So you do have a favourite.’

Steve glanced over to see Becca and Alice united by sisterly outrage.

‘Of course we don’t have a favourite.’ Mrs Barnes responded, ‘It’s just that we’re all happy that Bucky has someone new and we’re all very supportive of this relationship, for however long it lasts. Which I’m sure will be a while yet. But no pressure.’ she added, turning to Steve and biting her lip in the same nervous mannerism Bucky had.

There was something in the way she’d said “very supportive” that made it sound more like an order to her family that a statement of fact. But before he could overthink it, Mr Barnes had said ‘We’re just waiting on Abby.’ and the room had gotten very quiet.

Steve glanced at the array of nervous faces in polite bafflement.

‘So um,’ Becca finally said, ‘I’m assuming we’ve all remembered the same thing?’

I haven’t. What’s wrong? Bucky, what has everyone but me remembered?

Next to him, Bucky put his head in his hands and groaned, ‘We forgot to tell Abby.’

With immaculate timing, there was a knock at the door. Mr Barnes rose to answer it while Bucky leaned over and muttered to Steve, ‘I sort of forgot to mention that you were Captain America.’

‘What?’

‘Well I told my parents and the other two-’

Hey.’ the other two objected.

‘-already knew. So I sort of just… missed somebody. It’ll be fine. Elbridge Gerry, Daniel D. Tompkins, John C. Calhoun.

‘Abby!’ the living room greeted, with the sort of cheer that would tell anyone that something was up. The woman who must be Abby was wearing red lipstick, black court shoes, and a confused frown. Then she turned to Steve.

There was a heartbeat where the reaction paused and so did Abby, gracefully, like the moment’s hesitation at the height of a jump, before the fall begins. Then she shook off any expression but a polite smile and held out her hand, saying ‘You must be Steve.’

‘Nice to meet you.’ Steve replied, shaking it. The room seemed to be holding its breath.

‘You too.’

It was an easy out. No explanation was needed so long as she didn’t notice. The only problem was that telling her would only get more difficult the longer that they didn’t.

It’s just a job. No one has to take their family aside and tell them they’re about to have dinner with a dentist. Why should an Avenger be any different? It’s just a job.

They settled down at the table in the dining room, the parents taking a head each and Steve and Bucky occupying one side, while the other was taken by the three sisters, sitting side by side like trial judges with the oblivious Abby in the centre.

I don’t get paid for it but it’s still just a job.

Dinner was served with the warm, domestic smells of rosemary in butter and tender meat and crisp, golden potatoes, and the lighter scent of cooked vegetables rising up on the steam from the plates. The food was set on clean placemats in a belated effort to protect the table; a solid, wooden thing with dents and scars from decades of use and four children. Steve ran a finger over the pockmarks in the wood that were etched like freckles next to his fork, and wondered how much of the damage had been done by Bucky.

‘So, Steve,’ Abby began, ‘What do you do for a living? I haven’t heard all that much about you.’

The whole table turned to him. Steve’s mind when completely blank; even his internal monologue seemed to have shut down.

Bucky saved him, ‘He’s actually unemployed at the moment. He lost his job a little while back.’

My hero.

‘Oh, sorry to hear that.’

‘Yeah,’ Steve recalled the mess that had resulted in his monthly paycheque no longer coming through, ‘the organisation I worked for closed down so we all sort of… got made redundant.’

Abby nodded soberly, ‘And what industry are you in, if you don’t mind me asking?’

At the end of the table, Mr Barnes began humming what Steve thought might have been the Mission Impossible theme.

‘Defence.’

The Mission Impossible theme got slightly louder.

‘No singing at the table dear, it’s not polite.’ Mrs Barnes interrupted, ‘Remember how long it took us to get Bucky to stop? You’re teaching him bad manners, and in front of his newest boyfriend. New boyfriend, I mean.’

Bucky blushed aggressively at his dinner plate. Steve, meanwhile, was having difficulty stopping himself from grinning.

‘So uh,’ he began, ‘how long exactly did it take to stop him singing at the dinner table?’

George M. Dallas, Millard Fillmore, William R. D. King, John C. Breckinridge…

‘Years.’ Becca supplied, ‘We have videos.’

‘I’ve heard about the videos you have, though he hasn’t let me see any yet.’

Becca grinned, ‘That’s easily fixed.’

HannibalHamlinAndrewJohnsonSchuylerColfax…

‘Now, Becca, what did we say about waiting until after dinner to embarrass your brother?’

Becca dutifully fell silent at her father’s words, giving Alice an opportunity to pipe up.

‘Working in defence sounds like it could be dangerous, how safe, exactly, is your job?’

Bucky sunk low in his seat and let his hair obscure some of his face. Steve was saved answering by Mrs Barnes.

‘We’ve talked about this, Alice.’

I haven’t.’ Abby pointed out.

‘Yes, well, erm.’

That conversation was stopped in its tracks by Mr Barnes, returning to Alice’s point with ‘Well, Steve does seem to be the most reckless of the dates Bucky has brought home.

Bucky, sinking ever lower in his chair, shot his father a look.

‘I mean,’ Mr Barnes quickly backtracked, ‘not that he has brought all that many dates home.’

‘The usual amount of dates.’ Mrs Barnes agreed.

Abby muttered ‘Sure he has.’ under her breath, before jumping a little at a small thud that was almost certainly Becca kicking her under the table.

So this was what family was like? Steve wasn’t sure if he was jealous or relieved that he grew up with just his ma.

‘…Adlai E. Stevenson, Garret A. Hobart. Theodore Roosevelt…’

‘Don’t slouch, Buck, we have a guest.’

Bucky’s face ascended like the rising sun from its position nearly under the table in shame, bright red and hot, and with his hair unable to hide him as well as he clearly hoped. It was only his limited espionage experience that allowed Steve to notice the cellphone that Becca was presumably using to film.

‘So,’ she said, smiling at the table, ‘anyone have any embarrassing stories about Bucky that they’d like to share with his new boyfriend?’

‘Becca, we said not over dinner. Alice, Abby, put your hands down. You too, darling, you’re his mother, you should know better.’

Steve glanced sideways at Bucky and took a forkful of potato to disguise his laughter.

I should probably compliment Mrs Barnes on her cooking. That’s a thing people do. I’ve read it in books.

Steve swallowed and began, ‘The food is very nice, by the way… uh-’

Unless Mrs Barnes didn’t make it. It’s two thousand and sixteen, I can’t assume she made it. Sexism isn’t good for first impressions.

‘Dad’s the cook, usually.’ Bucky offered, saving him for the second time that night.

‘Oh right, well it’s delicious, Mr Barnes.’

Mr Barnes sighed, looking abruptly disappointed, ‘That’s very kind of you. I always make sure there’s plenty of meat when someone new is arriving so I can say “nice to meat you”.’ he shook his head sadly, ‘But Abby arrived after you so dinner wasn’t served in time.’

Bucky wasn’t laughing, so Steve didn’t either. Instead he nodded solemnly and offered a compliment for the pun as words of condolence.

‘Thank you, it usually works well. Except for that one time Bucky brought home a vegetarian.’

‘Oh yes,’ Mrs Barnes added, ‘Was that Lisa or Simon? I can’t recall.’

‘Ma,’ Becca interrupted, ‘How is this better than telling embarrassing stories?’

Bucky groaned in the direction of his vegetables.

Leaning forward conspiratorially, she added for Steve’s benefit, ‘Have I ever told you about the time Bucky got drunk and hustled a group of bikers out of two hundred dollars?’

That can’t possibly be true. Please let that be true.

Before he could answer, Bucky cut in with, ‘You mean the time you got me drunk and used me to hustle two hundred dollars from bikers, and only gave me ten percent?’

‘I paid for the alcohol.’

‘I did all the hard work.’

‘Shall I show Steve the video?’

Steve set to work on his meat and pretended not to hear the conversation.

‘Don’t you dare.’

‘I bet he wants to see it. And I bet he has something just as embarrassing on you.’

‘Steve has nothing on me.’

Under the table, Steve began flipping through the photos on his phone.

‘I bet he does.’ Becca was saying. Then, raising her voice slightly to make sure that Steve was listening, ‘And I bet he’d be willing to keep it quiet in exchange for seeing the video.’

‘Don’t blackmail me on my boyfriend’s behalf. He has nothing on me.’

Steve found the photograph just in time and held it up so that only Bucky could see. There he was, too drunk to stay awake, rolled up in his duvet with his shoes poking out one end and his head, face down on his pillow, showing at the other. It was the night that Bucky had mentioned the existence of such a video, and Steve had taken the picture specifically for this purpose.

Bucky groaned.

The rest of the dinner passed in amicable if somewhat nervous conversation, Bucky blushing no less than four more times. After the last of the food was eaten, Abby placed her knife and fork neatly on her plate and said, ‘So is anyone going to fill me in or are you just going to let me keep pretending I haven’t noticed?’

‘Noticed what?’ Bucky said, quickly.

‘Steve.’

‘Which Steve?’

‘The Steve who is sitting right next to you.’

The Steve in question politely drank some of his water and wondered exactly how often Bucky tried to get away with things with that method.

‘Oh, you mean this Steve?’ Bucky gestured vaguely to Steve’s bicep, ‘What about him?’

‘Are you kidding me with this, James?’

‘Abby, don’t call your brother James.’

The gig was up, Steve rubbed the back of his neck and waited for someone else to take the lead. Abby was also waiting, arms crossed and challenge on her face. All eyes turned to Bucky.

‘Okay so I maybe forgot to mention… he’s um… technically… he’s Captain America.’

‘Yeah I noticed, dumbass.’

‘So we don’t have to get into any discussions about this?’

For a moment Abby looked like she wanted to yell about something, but instead she calmly took a sip of her drink and said, ‘If you say so.’

Steve half expected someone to say “what do you mean by that?”, because even he could tell that something was, in fact, meant by that. But no one asked and the dinner ended pleasantly enough with Steve helping Bucky clear the plates, while Becca texted Steve a link to the video she’d mentioned.

He locked that text to save the video until that evening.

Bucky’s family seemed nice enough; good people who were more or less accepting of Bucky’s choices. Steve had heard nothing up until that point that would justify how nervous Bucky had seemed, until his mother asked if he could take the rubbish down to the basement.

Sitting across the living room from where Bucky stood, Steve couldn’t make out what he was whispering, but he was willing to bet that it was a series of historic names of some description.

The door closed with a click and any conversation in the room was hushed almost supernaturally as everyone turned to him. Mr Barnes started.

‘So Alice told us-’

‘Leave me out of this.’

‘-So we heard somewhere that our Bucky got into a fight in a Starbucks.’

‘Um-’

‘And we were just telling you that it’s never going to happen again.’

‘Well, of course.’

‘Not that we’re not proud.’ Mrs Barnes added, smiling despite the look she was getting from her husband, ‘We’re impressed that he managed to fight them off.’

Alice cleared her throat, and Becca elbowed her with a whispered, ‘Thought you wanted to be left out of this.’

Apparently Abby then decided that it was her turn, because she added, ‘And don’t fuck with him.’

‘Language.’

‘Don’t mess with him.’ she corrected, expression not changing.

‘I wasn’t going too…?’

‘Because you’re Captain America, so you’re going to be hard to forget if you’re half as bad as some of his past dates.’

‘Well, I’m not going to-’

‘And also being famous will make you easy to track down, and Becca will kill you if you try to pull any bullsh’ she glanced at her father, ‘-stuff.’

Becca nodded solemnly.

Bucky arrived then, looking a little out of breath, as though he’d jogged most of the way. The Barnes family collectively attempted an unconvincing show of acting casual.

‘What were you talking about?’ Bucky asked, glaring an accusation at each them in turn.

‘You.’ Alice replied, with undue cheer.

‘It’s after dinner,’ Becca added, ‘so I’m allowed to embarrass you now.’

Did they plan this cover in advance?

Mrs Barnes nodded, ‘I was just telling Steve here how much you loved the Captain America comics as a child.’

Bucky folded his arms tight over his chest and scowled at a spot on the wall that was a considerable distance from meeting Steve’s eyes. He wasn’t alone in his embarrassment; Steve would happily have burned every copy of those comics if he were only given the chance.

‘It’s not like he’s some fan.’ Becca added quickly, taking pains to seem like the kind one in the family even though Steve knew for a fact that she was taking more delight than anyone in her brother’s embarrassment, ‘He may be a history nerd but I promise he wasn’t obsessed with you.’

Bucky nodded in agreement at the patch of wall that still held his attention.

‘That’s right.’ Abby confirmed, ‘I don’t actually think he was that interested in you at all.’

The patch of wall in question was treated to a dark scowl.

‘Bucky?’ asked Steve, sweet as he could muster, ‘Did you think I was uninteresting when you were younger?’

A sigh, and a ‘There isn’t a right answer to that question, is there?’

It seemed a little mean to side with Bucky’s family, but Steve wasn’t too sorry. It was more that he was on the side of whatever could cause that rough tint to bloom beneath the skin of Bucky’s cheeks, the colour of a forest fire lighting the clouds from over the horizon.

And anyway, it wasn’t as if Bucky had let him off easy when he’d met the closest thing Steve had to a family.

Even despite the brief intermission for threats, Steve was sorry when the evening ended. They took the cab back to their separate homes with Steve occasionally glancing at the link that Becca had sent, all anticipation.

‘Don’t forget,’ Bucky whispered in his ear as he left at his home, ‘You’ve allowed me to see your Wikipedia page, and I’m not above editing it.’

What an interesting threat that was, and Steve was a little more than half intrigued by what Bucky would write. So it was with little regret that he settled down on his sofa – with little Frankie immediately draping across his socked feet – and pursued the link.

His first thought was that Becca needed to meet Nat as soon as possible. Bucky had been right. Becca was certainly devious.

Apparently she had a website set up, in a loose understanding of the term. It was closer to online storage, with an impressive collection of files located in folders stored under a person’s name. He clicked Alice’s first, out of curiosity about what Becca could possibly have on Alice. There was a lot there, but Steve was starting to get an understanding of the system she’d put in place.

Essentially what she’d built was a family photo album, with everything marked in blue open for members. Steve was not a member, but he had been given a password. This, he realised, was because everything marked in red required a password. Films made after wisdom teeth had been removed, probably. Poorly executed stunts from the reckless depths of the early teenage years, or any number of similar videos that Becca had taken it upon herself to store in this middle ground between hiding the footage and showing the world online.

And if she had a bit of lighthearted blackmail material, well, Steve was starting to suspect that that was what families were for.

Alice only had three videos marked in red. Abby had seven. Bucky had thirty-two.

Oh my god Bucky. Please don’t let any of this be on Facebook. I have PR people who will find out. They’re kinda scary.

Steve thought back to Bucky’s well-stocked and very mature-adult-looking kitchen. He’d since googled what tahini was and had discovered that is was some sort of fancy sesame seed paste. Or something. The thought was difficult to reconcile with the evidence Becca had amassed. Bucky just didn’t seem like he should have his life together enough to own tahini.

            Steve:               Okay I haven’t seen it yet

            Bucky:             Good

            Steve:               But will I ever get to look at the rest of these files?

            Bucky:             >:(

Steve scrolled down to number eighteen and typed in the password.

Devious didn’t quite seem to cover it anymore. He’d laughed. He’d laughed so loud that Frank had woken up with an angry meow and repositioned himself right on Steve’s keyboard in revenge. But he was small enough that he could see over him, and anyway, what he could see wasn’t the most important part of the video and it soon became clear that Becca had chosen which one to link Steve to with considerable care. He’d seen Bucky drunk before, though certainly not this much, but he’d never heard Bucky sing.

He must have been trained at some point; he hit every note like he’d invented them, like it was the band that had written the song that were following him and not the other way around. But it was more than that, it was the voice he sung them in. He sang like he’d been crafted out of jazz, the early days that even Steve was too young for, when jazz was the language of some seeping counter culture that didn’t have time for the neat, antique divisions of society. It was there in the inflection of his voice, a little sultry, a little amused, but he was singing to rock and roll and nothing had ever sounded better in all the world.

The Bucky in the video could barely stand, barely manage a sentence, and by all logic he shouldn’t have been able to pull this off. But he sang like it was all instinct, like he could flow though the song by feeling it. And that must have been the trick because his voice changed with every new feeling that the lyrics offered up. It was a bitter track, and he took to it with dark humour here, a softly cynical ‘ha’ with a smirk that might have been contempt, a curl of his lip and some anger when he needed it, and Steve guessed that he could break hearts with the right song.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world if this video made it to the public. Sure, there’d be complaints about drinking and gambling, and the sort of people Captain America ought not to be dating (though the sort of people who’d complain would no doubt take personal offence to Bucky’s gender, so Steve wasn’t too worried) but Steve defied even those most given to moral panic to hear Bucky sing and not think that there was something worthwhile in him.

            Steve:               So I’ve watched it

            Bucky:             As we text, your Wikipedia page is open on my laptop

            Steve:               I just wanted to register my offence at never having heard you sing

            Steve:               Because i should have at /least/ heard it on the radio or something

            Bucky:             I decided not to do the pragmatic thing and become a rockstar in order to pursue my true dream of cleaning out kitty litter and trying not to yell at customers

Steve withdrew for the night a little while later, and by the time he’d heard from Bucky again he’d finished the painting, chased the newest strand of Hydra intel to another dead end, and started wondering if he’d done something wrong at the dinner.

Four days had never seemed like a long time before.

Finally, over a breakfast that might as well have been called lunch, he got a message.

            Bucky:             You’re made of plastic in Canada

If Steve had been planning to wait for a little bit before replying, to act cool or something, his confusion got the better of him.

            Steve:               ???

            Bucky:             There are avengers kinder surprise eggs

            Bucky:             Those chocolate eggs with the plastic toys inside?

            Bucky:             They’re banned here but they’re legal in Canada

            Bucky:             And I have a weekend to kill and Becca has a car and even says she’ll drive and Alice has agreed to look after the cats

            Bucky:             And I know you have a lot of spare time. Clint says he can’t come but you could ask someone else to tag along if you want so Becca isn’t worrying about being a third wheel

            Steve:               How are you texting so fast?

Objectively, a road trip to Canada for the sake of a children’s toy was a ridiculous idea. But then Steve had a thought.

            Bucky:             Don’t say that in front of Tony he’ll call you grandpa

            Bucky:             So do you wanna come?

            Steve:               I’ll ask Nat

Nat already knew about the Kinder eggs, as it happened, and was able to say with certainty that it wasn’t actually Stark who was responsible.

She also said that she was definitely willing to travel to Canada, and Steve was more than happy to allow her the front seat when they finally left. Steve had never seen Becca smile like the way she smiled at Nat when they met. They both said ‘Nice to meet you’, but they seemed to mean slightly different things.

The car wasn’t new, but at least it had working air conditioning, else Steve would have pulled out then and there. It also had a manual gear box, and Bucky glared at it enough to guess that the only reason he wasn’t driving was that his arm wouldn’t let him.

This short road trip would live on perpetually in Steve’s memories as an ending of a sort. Or a beginning, if he were in that sort of mood. But at the time this was all unknown to him, senses all diverted by the brilliant flashes of sunlight on car windows and the sort of heat that settled over the skin and Bucky’s relaxed, summer-weary sighs and he rested with his head on Steve’s lap. The clip of his seatbelt gleamed where it hung, undone. Steve had objected at the movement, citing safety, but Bucky had merely listed the most dangerous exploits that his Wikipedia page had offered and looked at him with eyes that lit up with filaments of fresh, cool silver in the sunlight. Platinum. Mercury. Steve thought about taking his hand and then did nothing about it.

In the driver’s seat, Becca glanced at Nat with a smile that was all subtext and brought up the little plastic figures.

‘It must be cool to have a tiny toy version of yourself.’ she began, and Bucky winked at Steve.

‘I suppose.’ Natasha allowed.

‘I’m not sure they’ll manage to make them quite pretty enough, but they still sound neat.’

Steve didn’t need to see his friend’s expression to know that there was the smallest smile and that glint of mischief that was caught perfectly between the dangerous and dorky halves of her personality.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘You’ll have to tell me what you think when we get there.’

And she flashed a smile that would have seemed entirely innocuous except that Nat was an expert at miniscule eyebrow quirks that make nothing seem innocuous.

Bucky laughed, reverting to a stage whisper as he advised Becca, ‘Compliment her intelligence too, you don’t want her thinking you’re only into her for her looks.’

‘Ignore my brother, he’s an idiot.’ Becca told Nat, adding seemingly as an afterthought, ‘Unlike you.’

Nat thanked her with another warm smile. But when no other comment was forthcoming, Steve felt compelled to add, ‘Tasha thinks that you’ve clearly got the share of intelligence in the Barnes family.’

She shot an amused look at Steve while Becca chuckled with her eyes still on the road. Steve mouthed “you’re welcome” back at her.

Steve’s hand was brushing Bucky’s hair back as Bucky returned with, ‘Becca would love to have an intelligent conversation with you, in that case. Somewhere private where us idiots can’t bore you.’

Judging by the shaking of her shoulders, Becca was laughing silently as she drove.

Not to be outdone, Steve shot back, ‘Natasha would like you to know that she can think of more interesting things to do if no one else is around.’

‘I think the boys think they’re being helpful.’ said Becca.

Nat laughed, ‘You know what boys are like.’

Becca didn’t miss a beat, ‘So you prefer women too, huh?’

Natasha’s laugh wouldn’t quite have surprised her; it was more that she seemed to be allowing herself to react naturally. It was one of the things that Steve had learnt about her, though he wondered how easy she found it to switch her natural reactions on and off.

‘I’m afraid I’m not into anyone,’ she finally answered, nothing but lighthearted apology in her voice, ‘not in the way you were hoping for anyway.’

Becca made a show of sighing dramatically, shoulders slumping in disappointment, before enquiring, ‘Any chance you could introduce me to the Scarlet Witch?’

Eventually they made it across the border, Steve and Nat checking into a cheap motel for the night while the eldest Barnes children struck out in search of Kinder eggs. They were far enough north that the air was cooler, and Steve opened the windows wide to tempt the light breeze that ruffled the taller trees.

They returned a little while later, complete with a large supply of chocolate eggs, and Bucky claimed the position immediately to Steve’s left on the sofa. The first plastic toy was a tiny Hawkeye.

Bucky snorted and set it down on the table, where it stood to attention, perpetually ready to aim the miniscule bow.

Falcon was next, then the Hulk, then another Hawkeye. Steve ate his way through the soft milk chocolate of three eggs, discovering an Iron Man, a Black Widow (‘Gimme’, Nat said, grinning), and a third Hawkeye.

‘Got one!’ Bucky announced, holding up the little plastic man in the red, white, and blue uniform, ‘Look, it’s so cute. It’s even got tiny little wings on the helmet.’

Steve examined the toy version of himself with some trepidation. The line of the eyebrows suggested anger, but combined with the excessively round face, it gave the impression of a four-year-old attempting to appear tough.

‘I know he doesn’t have a stake in the company,’ Steve said, flicking the tiny plastic shield, ‘but I can’t help but think that Tony is responsible for this, somehow.’

When they’d acquired enough, Becca began organising them into a bar graph on the coffee table. Hawkeye was by far the most common, for reasons that none of them could quite work out, and there was a complete lack of Thor.

‘He’s got to be somewhere.’ said Bucky, examining the slip of paper that listed the varieties. There definitely was a Thor toy, they just hadn’t found it yet.

‘Well,’ Nat had said, ‘We’re out of Kinder eggs. Which of you two would like to get some more?’

It had been agreed, mostly by Steve, that neither Avenger was going to be responsible for acquiring the chocolate eggs. The ever present threat of being recognised had drifted to the forefront of his mind as he had thought about exactly how much he didn’t want to be caught buying children’s toys of himself and his friends. Natasha had started to use words like “paranoid” and “overthinking” but instead decided to drop it and agree to Steve’s stipulation.

Steve frowned at her, ‘I hope we’re not going to spend our whole weekend in Canada looking for a plastic toy.’

‘I’m sure we can go sightseeing, too.’

‘Good.’

‘On the way to buying more Kinder eggs.’

Nat.’

It was clear that Natasha wasn’t going to budge, but she didn’t win the argument until she added, ‘Imagine how disappointed Thor would be.’

God dammit.

Steve had never seen Thor pout, but something about him made it clear that he was capable of pouting.

They did end up seeing sights. Steve wasn’t sure if they were the sights that he was supposed to see – the sights that ended up in tourist catalogues so that tourists knew which sights ought to be seen – but they were sights none the less, and they saw them.

They also succeeded in finding a Thor, though by that time Bucky had taken to saying “fuck off, Clint” every time there was another Hawkeye.

They drove the weather back south as they returned, their little car followed by the cooler air that would eventually drive off the stagnating heat of the city. This time Bucky leaned away from Steve, his calves resting on Steve’s lap and his back against the passenger door. The sunlight catching on his face and making a halo of his hair made Steve think that, from some other plane of existence, gods of nature or the ghosts of the old masters were doing this on purpose. But surely there had to be a limit to how beautiful a muse could be before he short-circuited the artist and simply became art himself.

Steve had a growing list of sappy things that he was not ever going to say out loud.

At some point Steve’s sunlit muse took it upon himself to smile mischievously and say, ‘Becca, can you turn the radio up? Steve loves this song.’

Becca complied.

‘I have never actually heard this song.’ objected Steve.

‘Sure you have,’ Bucky returned, ‘it’s swing. You know swing.’

Steve listened to the twang of guitars and the quick beat and said, ‘This is not swing.’

‘Of course it is. It’s called Sultans of Swing. Why would it be called that if it’s not swing?’

The man on the radio was talking about someone playing guitar, “but it’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t wanna make it cry or sing”, while the guitar in the background of the song did the opposite of what the singer was describing.

‘It’s not swing.’

‘Are you calling Mark Knoffler a liar?’

‘Who’s…?’

The drive passed in music and inconsequential conversations. An ending, as he would realise later, but an enjoyable one. Summer was on the verge of vanishing and Steve was on the verge of learning something new about his boyfriend; that Bucky Barnes was exceptionally skilled at lying when something was wrong.

Chapter Text

A few months before the Battle of New York, when Bucky was at the edge of recovering from his latest romantic disaster and his left arm was a healthy and functional mirror of his right, he had an Idea.

It was a great Idea, he assured Becca that afternoon, it was for science. And besides, he was completely over Mattie and what could possibly prove that more than spending an evening getting pissed?

‘But you don’t do karaoke.’ Becca pointed out.

An interesting point, though Bucky had never fully explained why he didn’t do karaoke. His justification, though built purely on good intentions, always sounded too arrogant. It was the logical conclusion of five facts.

  1. Karaoke did not require talent, just the amount of alcohol needed to convince a person to embarrass themselves in public.
  2. The primary justification for untalented individuals to perform in a bar was that you weren’t supposed to be good at karaoke.
  3. It was fun.

These three facts, when taken together, lead easily enough to the fourth:

  1. In order for untalented individuals to enjoy this fun pastime on a night out, the status quo – that no one could sing and therefore the standard was comfortably low – had to be maintained.

It was a logical interpretation of an activity that Bucky would otherwise have been more than happy to subject himself to, even without much alcohol. In fact, there had been occasions where he’d performed at similar venues with no alcohol at all. Also with no karaoke machine. He’d even been paid for it. Which lead to the fifth fact.

  1. Bucky was not an untalented individual.

In short, his arrogant-sounding but well-intended excuse was that he was good enough at singing that he might ruin the fun for some other people, or at least damage some precious confidence, which was more or less the same thing. And singing was one of those rare activities where the skill of the person involved had no effect on how fun it was. So Bucky had decided that he had been blessed with a number of opportunities to sing and that karaoke wasn’t one of them. Except-

‘But this is for science.’

‘What science? The science of how alcohol specifically affects James Buchanan Barnes of New York City?’

James Buchanan Barnes of New York City nodded ardently.

‘But only in relation to your ability to hit the right notes?’

The nodding continued.

‘And does this scientific inquiry have many applications? Are you planning on being an alcoholic rock star in nineteen seventy-three?’

That wasn’t a no.

Bucky dressed in his new leather jacket, because it was new and he hadn’t shown it off enough yet. And he wore eyeliner, because he looked great in eyeliner, regardless of what Becca said.

Becca had chosen to accessorise her outfit with a small video camera. In hindsight, that should have been a warning sign.

They placed their bets as they entered the bar; Bucky wagering twenty dollars that he could still sing perfectly fine while drunk. It was a hypothesis, he insisted. Because this was for science. His sister offered a second deal, whereby she’d buy all his alcohol if he drank everything she bought him.

She was filming his answer.

‘With the caveat that I still have to be able to stand.’ he told her, ‘You’re not winning this bet just by making me pass out.’

‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’

They shook on it, Bucky accepting mostly because there wasn’t an awful lot of money in cats and, by contrast, there was an awful lot of money in student loans. Getting wasted on someone else’s dime wasn’t an opportunity that he could pass up.

(‘You don’t know Becca like I know Becca. She’s devious.’)

The bar wasn’t one of Bucky’s usual places, and he was a little relieved to find that it wasn’t too bad. It was dim in a way that suggested that the lighting was intentional, as opposed to the sort of dimness that came with blown bulbs and poor wiring. And it was clean in all the important places; dust and grime were consigned to hard-to-reach-corners and gaps under furniture.

Becca bought him shots with a shrug and a ‘I haven’t got all night for you to get drunk.’

He drank them one by one without a hint of disgust passing his face. It was a point of pride with him; they may taste like the moment you realise that the bite of cookie you just took was 75% baking soda that hadn’t been mixed in enough, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t pretend to enjoy it.

The bikers weren’t part of Becca’s plan. This, she assured him later. But nevertheless there were bikers all suited up in leather and Bucky supposed that even bikers had nights out because they seemed to be enjoying the karaoke as much as anyone.

‘How’re ya feeling?’ Becca asked, grinning.

‘Not even tipsy. I was thinking about rockers. Y’know, they were basically bikers but in the sixties in England-’

‘Buck, are you sure you’re sober?’

‘Completely. They used to get into fights with the mods. They’re the fashionable sixties types who listen to The Who and stuff-’

‘You talk about history a lot when you’re drunk.’

‘I talk about history a lot anyway. Rockers used to have these metal studs on their jackets, so when they fell of their bikes they’d get hot scraping against the road and leave little cigarette burns on their skin-’

‘Stand up.’

Bucky did as he was told, getting unsteadily to his feet and suddenly feeling the full force of the alcohol. Swaying a little, he clutched at the table and waited for the spinning to stop.

‘It’s a start.’ Becca said, doubtfully, ‘Here, drink this.’

Bucky did as he was told, no longer noticing the taste much, and a little while later he was eyeing his sister warily as she made her way across to the group of bikers. He wondered if he should follow her. Was that the polite thing to do? Or should he just sit there and wait?

In the end he settled on a mix of the two, coaxing his legs to move more or less straight ahead with little effort spent on the grace of the movement, and stumbled to a stop halfway to wait.

She was smiling and shaking hands, and then she was holding him steady, guiding him back to his seat, and watching with interest as one of the bikers stood up to the mic and began to sing.

‘You alright?’ she whispered to him.

‘Hmm?’ Bucky rubbed his eyes, ‘What time is it.’

Fumbling a little with his fingers, Bucky shed his jacket in the now too-warm bar. The stranger had stopped singing and then Bucky was being guided up to the microphone by his sister. He wasn’t so drunk that he didn’t realise the annoyance and the disapproval that rippled through the patrons. Well, he’d just have to prove them wrong. He had twenty dollars to win.

Afterwards he didn’t remember the song he’d picked. Something he knew, and he’d probably remember the next time he heard it. But he did remember the way the first chords caught on his nervous system and that uncomplicated feeling of turning off his dysfunctional mind and just relaxing into the music. It turned out to be as easy as breathing; some default setting that he could switch to without having to think.

There was a part in the video that Becca filmed, in a short instrumental, where he accidently knocked the microphone stand over. She was delighted by this shot; Bucky still holding the mic and peering down at the thin pole in something like confusion.

‘You okay, pal?’ he asked, before resuming the song.

It wasn’t the only part of the video that he didn’t remember happening. Becca had graciously included the bit where she’d challenged a group of bikers to a bet. They’d seemed like serious types, so she’d offered a serious number. With the group of them, their bets added up to two hundred dollars. And a glance back to her brother, flushed red and swaying uncertainly on the spot. Of course someone this drunk would be terrible at karaoke. Any one of them could have beaten him. They’d be fools not to take the bet.

The bikers seemed less than delighted when they’d left.

The film ended in the back of a cab, Bucky fitting into the space between the back and front seats, flushed and grinning in victory.

‘I won, didn’t I? C’mon, pay up.’

‘Yep.’ Becca said, behind the camera, ‘You won. Your prize is twenty dollars and never being able to go to that bar again.’

And the film finished with Becca balancing the camera gingerly so she could show the two hundred dollars that she drew out of her pocket, from which she selected a twenty dollar bill, and gave Bucky his prize.

It had been one of the worst hangovers of his life.

But he was feeling worse than that now, worse than he had felt in a long, long time; since that day he’d woken up in a hospital bed with a paralysing ache in his bones and a pounding in his head that wouldn’t be ignored.

He wasn’t quite awake, but he could feel it. That heavy fog filling up his mind and that deep static feeling from staying still too long, sleeping too long. And that other feeling that wasn’t quite a feeling, more like a painful absence that felt like nothing except wrong and left an unpleasant twisting in his stomach.

Sleep was better, but there was no more sleep to be had. Settled into his body was the sort of exhaustion that came with sleeping too deeply for too long. It came with a dry mouth and a thickness in his mind that made thought syrupy and slow. He was awake now, and the only thing for it was to open his eyes and deal with the situation like a grown up.

He groaned first, because he didn’t particularly feel like being a grown up.

‘Bucky?’

‘Mmm?’

The room he was in seemed the same as last time; hospitals favoured an economy in design that left space for little but uniform rooms, uniform corridors, and, for both workers and patients, actual uniforms. The sharp scent of disinfectant permeated the gown he was dressed in, the crisp, itchy sheets on his bed, the air he was breathing, the pores on his skin.

The smell of hospitals in winter… Except it wasn’t winter – though autumn had now begun in earnest – and that line had never made much sense to him anyway. Hospitals were the same in every season; endless chaotic clockwork of life and death and family and Hallmark cards and the sound of wheels on linoleum, and whatever those things were called that were tightened around arms so blood pressure could be checked. Bucky was having a hard time remembering, and whatever song that lyric had come from vanished as he tried to track it down.

Steve wasn’t there.

They’d agreed, of course, that he wouldn’t be. Hospitals had rules about how many upset hangers on could get in the way of their work, and Bucky had his family to consider. There were flowers though, ones that he felt sure he knew the name of but couldn’t quite remember. Delicate shades of blue and purple and pink and orange and red in patterns on the petals like they’d been woven out of sunsets and there should be a scent but there wasn’t, not through the hospital smell and for a moment Bucky thought absurdly that they, too, must have been drowned in disinfectant.

They were from Steve, though. This was an indisputable fact. They were beautiful, so they must be from Steve.

A hand on his forehead, brushing back his hair.

Bucky fumbled for the buttons attached to his bed and his fingers were so bad at it that he worried for a moment that they’d been focussing on the wrong arm all along.

‘How are you feeling, Buck?’

That was his mother’s voice, and though he could see her it somehow hadn’t registered that that was who was there. For a moment he made to complain, to see if the doctors or nurses could do anything about the strange not-feeling that was only growing with his consciousness, but then his first clear thought came in the instinctual understanding that this was a situation that absolutely required a joke.

‘Well, I could use a hand.’ he said, looking towards that device-thing that he still couldn’t get working. His voice came out a little hoarser than he’d expected, but at least he could form the words alright. His tongue felt weird, fat and heavy and uncomfortable in his mouth.

It worked. His mother smiled tiredly at him and managed to find the button that raised the bed until he was closer to sitting up. She was a genius, probably, or else an expert at hospital beds.

‘That was terrible.’

Bucky tried for a shrug, only to find that the movement made the not-feeling that much worse, ‘I gotta make the first pun or what’s the point?’

She sighed, shaking her head, and for a moment Bucky thought that she was upset until he heard her mutter, ‘Well, I suppose the joke is ‘armless.’

‘Very nice.’

‘You think so?’

‘Yeah, I’ve really gotta hand it to you.’

She laughed. A little quietly, a little sadly, but a laugh nonetheless.

There was absolutely no reason for his hospital of choice to be in Kips Bay, other than that was where he’d lived for a few years after he’d first moved out, and he’d never gotten around to changing back to something in Brooklyn.

‘The surgery went well.’ she told him.

No reason, except for the fact that Bellevue was the oldest hospital in the United States and Bucky couldn’t resist a bit of history.

Bucky nodded, glancing to his left arm, ‘They seem to have delivered what they promised.’

Whatever emotion he’d been expecting in reaction to the sight failed to materialise. It looked fake was all, like a magician’s assistant being sawn in half onstage. An illusion, or movie magic, and the bandages over his left shoulder were just there to hide the trick.

At least his arm wouldn’t hurt anymore.

A glass of water was passed to him, and he drank it gratefully, not realising just how thirsty he’d been until he started feeling better. He chatted about nothing for a while until the rest of his family was allowed in so they could chat about nothing as a group. And then he was left alone with the flowers and the rough sheets and the smell of disinfectant.

There was very little to do in the hospital. The television was small and distant, and fitted into the corner on the ceiling for efficiency but forcing him to watch it at an odd angle. Books were fine, until he made to turn the page and remembered with a jolt that his left hand would no longer do that for him.

He didn’t have to stay for long, it was just observation or something. But nothing important went wrong and the doctors assured him that the removal of one quarter of his limbs had been a resounding success. Textbook. He joked that the surgery had been so good that he should consider getting his other arm removed, but they didn’t seem to find it funny.

The flowers – lilies, he realised – were beginning to wilt as he left, but he pocketed the card attached. Hope everything goes well, call me if you need anything at all -Steve x

Maybe Bucky should have told him earlier. He’d waited until after they’d been to Canada to explain what the doctor had said. And then a full week longer because he was a coward and for some reason he couldn’t stand the thought of Steve being sympathetic.

Steve was waiting at the hospital with a car shiny enough to have been borrowed from Tony.

‘How was it?’

Bucky accidently tried that shrugging thing again.

‘I was mostly unconscious but I’m told it was swell.’

With a kind smile that by now he was used to on other people’s faces, Steve pulled him in for a hug; warm and comforting and somehow enough for him to relax a few muscles that he hadn’t realised were tensed.

I love you.

‘I liked the flowers.’ Bucky said, as they moved apart and headed for the car.

‘I’m glad.’ was the reply, and Bucky felt the crushing weight of small talk.

The inside of the car was just as nice as the outside had promised, and he settled into his seat wondering how often it was even used. The seatbelt proved to be a struggle. Steve took the buckle off him with gentle hands and clipped it into place.

There weren’t enough trees in Manhattan for the fire-flashes of colour that lined the streets of smaller towns in autumn; the overcast sky that loomed above them as they drove was the only real sign of the season.

‘It’s a nice hospital.’ Steve said eventually, ‘The building, I mean. It was around when I was younger.’

‘It’s the oldest public hospital in the country.’ Bucky duly replied, ‘It was founded in seventeen thirty-six. The country it’s in wasn’t even founded in seventeen thirty-six.’

He glanced over at Steve in time to see him grinning at the road.

‘What?’

‘You picked a hospital because of history.’

‘Of course I did.’ Bucky told him, ‘Y’know First Avenue is where it is because of that place. The hospital was there first.’

There was more to say, but Bucky found that he couldn’t really be bothered saying it. Instead he sighed heavily and turned his attention to the city passing by the windows.

‘So when did First Avenue come into existence?’

Steve was trying to keep him distracted.

‘Huh? Oh. The grid system of streets was decided in the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.’

What a useless thing to know. But Bucky knew it nonetheless.

The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearl.

That was the rest of the line, though he still couldn’t remember the song it was from. Something sad with lots of piano. He wasn’t in the mood for piano.

Bucky used to know how to play piano.

They eventually got out of the car and Steve started doing that thing he did where he stood much closer to Bucky than usual while pretending that he hadn’t noticed anything was wrong. It didn’t seem to be helping much, but then again Bucky didn’t like the idea of him moving away, so maybe he was just feeling that bad.

It was a relief to get inside.

‘You okay?’ Steve asked, as Bucky leaned back against the door to close it.

Becca had taken care of the cats, so there wasn’t any work to do at that moment.

‘Sorry.’ Steve added, ‘Stupid question. I just mean… you seem a little-’

Bucky let his legs lower him gracelessly to the carpet, back sliding down the door, and rested his forehead against his knees. He could hear the way his own breath came in shakily, and he could feel the tears forming in his eyes. Soon they were running warm down his skin and the fingers of his remaining hand were digging into his leg. There were other things he recognised, too; he could hear himself sobbing ardently, feel the shaking and the red blotchiness in his face and the lump in his throat and the tears dripping off his chin. It was bizarre; he hadn’t meant to be crying. He wasn’t even fully sure why he was. It was as though he’d lost that link between his mind and his reaction, and suddenly he had no control over the shaking he could now feel in his shoulders, the gasping breaths. And now the blocked nose, and then the itchiness is his eyes.

At some point Steve had dropped down next to him. It was his right side, and Bucky thought bitterly that he’d chosen well, for now he had a shoulder to rub in an attempt at offering comfort while they both sat, lost and miserable in their own ways, at the entrance to Bucky’s home.

But the warmth from Steve was still helping, and Bucky wanted little more than to take the comfort offered and lean into him, letting Steve’s arms wrap around him and listening to him murmur whatever would come to his mind. He resisted. No one could cry with dignity outside of a film and Bucky though absurdly about how he’d make a mess of Steve’s shirt. His voice wouldn’t work either, so there was no way to explain to Steve what he was feeling, even if he’d somehow managed to work it out for himself.

He didn’t know why he couldn’t stop, and there seemed to be nothing for it but to wrap his one remaining arm around his chest and cry himself into exhaustion.

Steve waited. He was there to help when Bucky’s last hiccoughing sobs finally subsided and he scrubbed the tears from his face. There were deep breaths now, trying to recover, and Bucky abruptly wanted to tell Steve that he loved him.

‘Sorry.’ he managed instead, and his voice sounded strange in the quiet. Now wasn’t the time for that.

‘You don’t have to be.’ Steve assured him, pressing a kiss to his temple.

‘I hadn’t meant to- I mean-’ Bucky took another of those deep, steadying breaths, ‘I just feel kind of weird, I think.’

It was the only way he could really explain. He felt kind of raw, kind of fragile, unsure of what it was that had started him crying in the first place. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had plenty of warning about losing his arm. God, there had been enough times he’d been more than willing to just get rid of the damned thing.

Steve helped him to his feet and they finally made their way upstairs. It was already getting late – and night was starting to fall earlier and earlier – and Bucky had been looking forward to eating something other than hospital food or the takeout that Becca had snuck in.

He glanced around the kitchen and realised that he was not remotely in the mood to learn how to cook one handed.

‘Problem?’

‘Yeah, I’m gonna need you to open some things,’

‘Yeah.’

‘and hold some things, probably. And.’ he shook his head, ‘I dunno.’

Steve was being patient and caring and it was outrageously unfair. Bucky could handle people who had no idea what to do in these situations. He was used to that. Steve had seemed like one of those people right up to the moment he proved not to be. It seemed too unlikely and Bucky found himself wondering how much of it was Steve’s considerable experience with terrible things happening, and how much was Bucky’s own considerable bias in his favour.

‘How about you tell me what to do and I’ll try not to mess it up too badly?’ Steve offered, ‘Just this once, though. I’ve avoided learning how to cook for this long, I don’t wanna start now.’

Bucky nodded, making to take a seat on the benchtop. Unfortunately, he’d already forgotten that he only had one arm to pull himself up with, and without the second arm to brace himself he lost his balance spectacularly.

Steve caught him on superserum reflexes refined by experience, lifting him up to the bench with their foreheads close.

I love you, Steve.

‘Apparently it’s normal to keep thinking you’ve still got both arms.’ Steve told him, pulling away.

‘Yeah, I heard. The doctors wouldn’t shut up about it. I’m more concerned about falling over now I feel so lopsided. You can’t always catch me.’

‘You sure about that?’

‘Well I distinctly remember one time you didn’t catch me. But you might have been distracted by how great I looked in eyeliner.’

Steve was blushing. It was such a great look on him, all blond hair and blue eyes like a Disney princess but with magenta cheeks finishing off the colour scheme. He seemed to be buffering too, slowly loading a response that eventually came out jerky and unsteady.

‘What- uh- are we making? Buck? Jerk?’

Beautiful.

‘Sesame Chicken, because it’s easy and you’ll have a hard time making something explode.’

Sesame Chicken
Easy, and Unlikely to Explode

Ingredients

  1. ‘Chicken breasts; enough to feed the two of us. They’re in the fridge.’

  2. ‘Greek yogurt.’ ‘Um?’ ‘It’s like normal yogurt but not as sweet. Have you really never heard of Greek yogurt?’

  3. ‘Tahini. That’s the sesame stuff you keep getting confused about, Stevie.’

Instructions

  1. ‘Preheat oven to one eighty fan bake.’

    Steve was already confused, peering at Bucky’s oven suspiciously, ‘That doesn’t seem very hot…’

    ‘It’s in Celsius. That’s my grandma’s old oven. All that time in America and she never got used to Fahrenheit, but I’m pretty sure that that was mostly passive aggression. She was good at that.’          

    Steve turned the dials as per Bucky’s instructions and grinned, ‘Haven’t screwed anything up yet.’

  2. ‘Okay, now get an oven tray and put some cooking paper on it.’

    Steve got it right second time around. The first time he tried he managed to rip the paper in half. Bucky managed not to laugh, but it was a close thing.

  3. ‘This next step might be a bit tricky for you.’

    ‘Shut up.’        

    ‘Put the chicken on the paper.’

  4. The next step required Steve mixing some Tahini and Greek yogurt together, which proved to be difficult as Bucky didn’t have any more specific measurements than ‘What seems right.’

    ‘How’s this?’

    ‘I’m sure it’s fine. Now put it on the chicken.’   

    ‘How much?’   

    ‘Just pour it out. Onto the chicken.’       

    That was supposed to be the end of this step, but Steve had to take some extra time to wipe up what he’d spilled with a paper towel.

  5. Steve took much longer than it normally took to sprinkle sesame seeds over it because he insisted on making pictures with them. Then all he had to do was put it in the oven for twenty-five minutes. He managed to burn his hand on the oven door, but otherwise it went swimmingly.

‘Ow.’ Steve said angrily, from the sink where he was holding his burnt hand under the cold tap.

Bucky shook his head, thankfully catching the fond expression on his face before Steve could turn and notice it.

Shit I’m so far gone for this guy it’s embarrassing.

‘I’m sure the serum will fix it.’ Bucky offered, ‘Since it lets you drink hot coffee and all.’

Looking a little guilty, Steve turned the tap off and moved over to where Bucky was relaxing on the bench.

‘Jerk.’ he said, holding him at his waist and pulling him in for a kiss.

‘Punk.’ Bucky returned, out of habit.

His eyes still felt itchy and tired from crying, and though whatever that was seemed to have passed, Bucky was more than ready to sleep by the time they’d finished the chicken (burnt, but only slightly) and Steve had cleared the plates away.

It was a relief to drop into bed, after waiting with incredible patience for Steve to get in first. Bucky’s bed was against a wall and there was no way Steve was getting the open side when he wouldn’t wake up until lunch time. This also meant that he would be facing Steve, as he wasn’t planning on sleeping on his left side.

‘You alright?’ Steve asked in the dark.

‘Still feel a bit weird.’ Bucky admitted. But he was home; it was warm and soft and comfortable and all those good things lying there in his bed, the dim orange streetlights bleeding through his curtain the only light in his room. He pursued Steve’s warmth, moving a little onto his side of the bed until they were in contact. It was a comfort; he figured this was one of those situations where he was expected to seek out comfort, and that was all the reason he needed to fall asleep with Steve’s arms around him.

It became a problem in the morning.

It wasn’t quite late enough in the year for Bucky to have to wake up in darkness, but the light seeping through his curtains had taken on a greyish blue tone and the air outside the duvet was cold. He may be a morning person, and he may have responsibilities, but it was nonetheless tempting to shut his eyes again and just stay there.

No. Get up. Cats.

Bucky couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a sleep in; even on weekends the cats needed tending to by a certain time. He’d been waking up early every day since he’d gotten the place, with a few short exceptions like the hospital-

He kept forgetting. And then he kept remembering like a rush of ice water. There was adrenaline every time, that stomach dropping feeling and the quickened pulse, as though it wasn’t already far too late for panic.

Not now, there’s work to do.

Carefully… carefully… he lifted Steve’s arm and slipped out, shivering against the sudden drop of temperature. There was work to do, cats to tend to, breakfast to be eaten, a shop to open.

Someone at the hospital had helpfully shown him how to pin up the sleeves of his clothes, but he took one look at the leather of his favourite jacket and decided that no pointy bits of metal were going to go through it on his watch. He picked a pea coat instead, which was a pointless decision because he couldn’t seem to get the hang of pinning the sleeve up and, frustrated, settled for letting it hang limp and useless by his side.

His morning chores took longer to do. Everything took longer to do. And by the time Steve had deigned to awaken, Bucky was already in a bad mood.

And argument could be made that this had something to do with the besuited man tapping his fingers irritably on the desk, who had insisted on barging into Bucky’s field of vision and had since refused to leave it.

He heard Steve pad downstairs, opening the door to lean against the frame and wait for Bucky to finish with the customer.

‘I’m just not sure that I want a cat.’ the man was explaining.

‘Well,’ Bucky replied patiently, ‘owning a pet is a big decision, if you aren’t sure-’

‘No, no. I definitely want a pet. I’m just not feeling the whole “cat” thing. Do you have anything else?’

Doing his best to ignore the ceaseless tapping of the man’s fingers against the table, Bucky squared his shoulders and responded, ‘This is a cat shelter, sir.’

‘Yes, yes, I see that, but I just said that I didn’t want a cat. I’ll take a dog.’

‘We don’t have any dogs, sir.’

The tapping increased in tempo, ‘Why not?’

‘This is a cat shelter, sir.’

The man rolled his eyes, a luxury that Bucky had denied himself at several points in this conversation, ‘What about turtles? This is Brooklyn, you must have turtles.’

Bucky – who until that point had never heard anyone make a connection between Brooklyn and turtles, and was at a complete loss as to what to make of it now he had – kept his expression carefully blank as he answered, ‘We don’t have any turtles, sir. This is a cat shelter.’

The man finally stopped tapping to throw his hands up in the air in frustration, ‘What about a bird? Do you sell birds?’

‘We do not sell birds, sir. Birds are not generally in high demand here, at this cat shelter, where we sell cats.’

‘Honestly, I’ll settle for some goldfish. How much do they cost?’

‘Unfortunately, sir, we do not sell any goldfish either.’

The tapping began again, ‘Can you check in the back? I’ll wait.’

With a flash, Bucky remembered the knife that he kept in his pocket, ‘There is no “in the back” sir, due to the difficulties inherent in keeping live animals in storage.’

More tapping, ‘Well, what do you have for sale besides cats?’

Bucky blinked at him, then opened the desk draw at his side.

‘This is Clive.’ he said, picking up a stapler and setting in on the desktop, ‘He’s a purebred stapler.’

The man stormed out without another word, slamming the door behind him. For a moment the windows rattled ominously and Bucky glared at them, daring one to shatter. None did.

Should’ve done postgrad, Barnes. You could be a historian. You could’ve fixed up this house with all the money historians presumably get paid, and not have to worry about offloading cats to assholes.

Steve shuffled into the room, grinning as though there was anything to grin about.

‘I can’t believe I let you sell me a cat.’ he said, ‘When you have purebred staplers in your stock.’

And now his mood was lifting.

‘But I’m sure you like FDR just as much.’

‘Frankie.’ Steve corrected, ‘We gotta stop calling him FDR or I’m accidently gonna say it one day, and then I’ll have to explain why I have a cat named after a president.’

‘Just blame it on the cute guy who sold it to you.’

Steve brushed a lock of hair off Bucky’s face as though he didn’t notice what he was doing.

‘I can’t stay.’ Steve continued, not without regret. He paused just long enough for Bucky to hear the unsaid Are you going to be alright? that hovered in the quiet before adding, ‘I gotta look after this cat that some cute guy sold me.’

‘Damn right.’

‘The other day I caught him trying to open a window latch with his paw.’

Bucky laughed, ‘Alright, see ya then. And thanks for-’ he thought about Steve staying next to him while he cried until he could barely breathe ‘-picking me up from hospital.’

‘No problem.’ he replied, and his expression softened, ‘Let me pin that up for you.’

Bucky stayed still while Steve carefully folded up the loose sleeve and pinned it in place.

‘Better?’

‘Better.’ Bucky confirmed. And then, because it sprung into his mind and he had a few moments before he’d talk himself out of it, he said ‘I love you.’

There was a pause. Bucky bit his lip.

He watched Steve’s eyes crinkle up in a smile and felt himself relaxing. When Steve next spoke, he said ‘I love you too.’ as if he was just realising it, and that revelation dawned with something close to wonder. Suddenly the day felt warmer, and Bucky felt warmer, and everything they had together felt a little more secure.

They kissed before Steve left, and then Bucky was alone in his front room. With the summer long over, the light streaming through the coloured windows was dim. Still, he could appreciate the colours playing on the carpet and the brightness of the room and he thought…

He shook his head, smiling slightly to himself. He’d been thinking a lot of things lately, but this one was really something.

…he thought about all his pointless fears and those loves that had long since burnt out and the fact that this was the first time that he’d ever said “I love you” first.

If that had been what he was looking for – a way to prove that what he had with Steve was different to all his failures – then he’d finally found it.

And Steve loves me back.

It didn’t take long for Becca to show up. She’d even brought coffee, that’s how rough a day she must have assumed Bucky was having. Unless she’d just bought two cups of coffee for herself, which had occurred before.

Nope, she was being nice. One of the coffees had his name on it and, as he took a sip, he could taste some raspberry flavouring added to his favourite white mocha.

She was being too nice to him. It was weird.

‘I’m not dying.’ he reminded her. Then, as an afterthought, added, ‘Am I?’

‘I know, relax. I can’t get my big brother a coffee once in a while?’

It was weird and Bucky would like it to stop.

The good news was that Clint chose that moment to text him, giving him an opportunity to abort the conversation before it got awkward. The bad news was that Clint had sent him

            Clint:               So how are you doing?

Oh god not you too.

            Bucky:             People are being too nice to me

            Bucky:             I’d actually thought you’d be the exception

            Clint:               I can go back to being a sarcastic asshole if you want

Texting was easy. It was nice to have something that still felt natural with only his right hand.

            Bucky:             Pls do

            Clint:               Sweeey, it’s a lot of effort for me to try and be nice

Ah, a typo. An inexhaustible seam of rich, pure comedy ore for Bucky to mine with nothing but the most impeccable creativity and artistry in order to craft the highest quality jokes.

            Bucky:             “Sweeey”

But then, basic mocking was a lot less effort.

            Clint:               Shut up

            Clint:               It was a typo

            Clint:               I meant to say sweet

Uh huh. Nice try, pal.

            Bucky:             Sweeeeeey

            Clint:               Stop

            Bucky:             Too late. You’re never gonna escape it

            Clint:               Why’d I even bother texting you? You’re clearly just as much of an asshole as you were before you went to Bellevue

Bucky was in a good enough mood that it didn’t even fall when he tried to reach for his coffee with his left hand. Dammit. Phone down. Sip of raspberry white mocha. Resume texting.

            Bucky:             You say the sweeeyest things

He was having a good day, as long as he didn’t think too hard about the strange not-feeling that was still settled in his left side. He even took the time to prepare a joke for the next time someone asked him how he was feeling; he could say he’d lost a lot of weight recently. Jokes were useful.

‘Hey, Becca, how much do arms normally weigh?’

‘I dunno. About eight pounds? Why?’

‘No reason.’

She clearly didn’t believe him, but Bucky forgave her when she offered to run the shop if he wanted to get out for a bit. Definitely too nice, but he could do with a walk.

He got half a block before he decided that this was a mistake.

There were people. And those people were looking at him. More accurately, they were looking at the space where his left arm used to be; quick glances and carefully looking away, a masterclass in making someone want to hide.

I’m gonna have to get used to this at some point.

But that point was somewhere off in the future, and every step he took made this whole thing more and more unnerving. In the end he decided that today called for spending money a little irresponsibly and he wondered around until he found a shop that would suit his needs.

That one, over there. That one sold knives. Perfect. He was in the mood to buy the most pointlessly pretty knife that he could find. They were all stored in cabinets against the walls, and he wondered in that direction to browse whatever range they had.

Never before in his life had he realised just how much effort was put into crafting knives like shining baubles and trinkets.

The range was dazzling; metals and mother-of-pearl, and shades of wooden handles or patterns etched into the blades. And the matte black ones that were threatening as shadows. He could spend his life savings here several times over.

But he found a set of throwing knives in a corner, grey with a tiny red star on each. Bucky thought of his neglected guitar and decided on the spot to buy these.

He stopped on the way home to buy a magazine that caught his eye because Steve would appreciate it. Actually, he mused, glancing down at the face looking out from the cover, Steve would almost certainly not appreciate it. Which made it all the more entertaining.

‘Hey, Buck.' Becca greeted, 'How was your walk?’

Bucky held out the magazine in answer.

‘Oh my god.’

‘Isn’t it great?’

‘It’s certainly a nice picture.’

‘Uh huh. I’m going to get him to sign it tomorrow when I go to the tower.’

‘Guess that makes you the luckiest man in New York.’

Bucky decided to leave the throwing knives behind when he went to see Steve, but the magazine was tucked under his arm. It was enough to make him briefly forget what the public apparently thought of his other arm; or his lack thereof.

He nearly fell over again on the way, but it wasn’t his fault if his balance was a little off.

‘Good afternoon, Mister Barnes.’

‘Hey Jarvis.’

‘Congratulations on a successful operation.’

‘Thanks… I guess.’

‘Captain Rogers is in his apartment. A lift is waiting for you.’

At that moment the lift doors opened with a self-satisfied “ding”.

‘Thanks, pal.’

‘No problem Mister Barnes.’

He stood in the lift and watched the numbers tick smoothly into the double digits.

‘Call me Bucky.’ he told the totally-not-unnerving-at-all disembodied British voice named Jarvis.

‘Duly noted.’

The doors opened at Steve’s apartment, and Bucky stepped out to greet him with a grin.

‘Congratulations.’

Looking more wary that surprised, Steve said, ‘Uh, what?’

Bucky held out the magazine for him to read, ‘You are New York City’s most eligible bachelor. You should read the article, it’s good. Apparently women should be falling at your feet. Are they? I haven’t noticed any, but maybe I’m just not observant.’

Steve hid his head in his hands while his ears betrayed him by inconsiderately turning a precious shade of pink.

‘What’s wrong, Stevie? It’s a great picture.’

‘You’re the worst, Buck.’

‘I was hoping you could sign it for me.’

‘The absolute worst.’

Eventually Steve did sign it, if only to get Bucky to shut up. He even included a little winky face next to his autograph.

Against the glass, it was starting to rain.

Steve’s apartment in the tower was the same as it ever was; underused and lacking a reasonable amount of ingredients. Only now there was the small addition of a painting leaning against a wall.

‘Steve…’

‘Oh. Right. That was supposed to be. Um. It wasn’t dry yet so I couldn’t put it away. But um. I see you’ve noticed. Um. I did a painting.’

Bucky still couldn’t believe how easily Steve blushed. But he was keen to make it worse.

‘It’s beautiful.’ he said, with feeling. The colours of New York City were now fixed to the canvas, spilling over each other the way light moves and resolving themselves into a skyline he’d always recognise.

‘I… it’s… um…’

‘I’m glad you’re painting again. I’ve been worried that you’re not gonna try to be anything more than Captain America.’

Woops. That wasn’t meant to come out. Good job brain.

‘What do you mean?’ Steve asked, because of course he couldn’t let it go.

Bucky made the mistake of shrugging again, but at least this time he was too distracted to focus too much on his absent arm, ‘I dunno.’ he said, which was a lie, ‘I mean, does it bother you that everyone calls you “Cap” instead of your name?’

Stop talking.

‘Not really.’ Steve said, frowning. But it wasn’t an annoyed frown. It was a thinking-about-it frown.

‘Right. Well. I dunno. Ignore me.’

Steve was kind enough to change the subject.

‘So Clint’s found the first of the toys you hid.’

Good. It had been the obvious decision to make; there were so many little plastic Clint Bartons from the Canada adventure, and not enough ideas about what to do with them. Bucky had taken it upon himself to gift them to Clint, one at a time, in various locations. His bathroom cabinet, under his pillow, in the air vents, on top of a doorway, in a jacket pocket…

Jarvis had been very helpful at giving Bucky access to all the places he needed to go.

‘Sweeey.’ Bucky said, grinning.

‘Uh…?’

‘Never mind.’

They went for coffee; Sterbugs, because it was closer. But not so close as another Starbucks that existed two blocks from the tower. Bucky asked him about that one as they settled into their favourite spot next to the windows, with the sofas designed for five people.

‘I went to that one once.’ Steve admitted.

‘And? What could they have possibly written on your cup that would make you not go back?’

Today Steve’s cup was labelled “Step”.

‘Uh, “Totally Not Captain America”.’

‘Oh.’

‘And a little star.’

Bucky laughed, ‘How do you know they were being sarcastic? They could have just thought that you were a bad Captain America lookalike.’

Steve took a large gulp of coffee, then did that wincing thing he always did when he was trying to pretend that he was too cool to burn his mouth.

‘I’m an excellent lookalike.’ he objected, sounding marginally raspier than he had a second ago.

Bucky remembered to only shrug his right shoulder, ‘You look taller on TV.’

‘Shut up.’

‘More patriotic, too.’

Steve had a way of laughing that made everything feel temporarily alright, even the weird numbness that he could still feel where his left arm used to be. He wondered how long that would take to finally go away.

‘So,’ Steve eventually said, ‘I’ve been thinking-’

‘Constantly.’ Bucky added.

‘Well, one of us has to use our brain. Anyway, you have a lot of spare room in your house, have you considered expanding your business?’

His coffee was now cool enough to take a sip without looking like an idiot, so he did so while he considered this, ‘You mean, to also sell purebred staplers?’

There was that laugh again, ‘Actually, I was thinking you could also run a cattery. Charge people to look after their cats while they’re away. There’s probably more money in it and you wouldn’t even have to work all that much harder.’

Bucky took another sip.

‘Rogers?’

‘Hmmm?’

‘Why do I get the feeling that this is about you leaving FDR alone when you go on missions?’

There was a slight pause, then

‘Frankie.’ Steve grumbled, ‘And it’s still a good idea.’

Partway through the date Bucky decided, privately, that whoever had written “Totally Not Captain America” on Steve’s cup deserved some sort of medal. Bucky had never actually been in that Starbucks, but he’d been in the one they were sitting in any number of times. Once, he’d even been careless enough to leave his diary behind at a table. Steve, of course, had absolutely no reason to frequent this Starbucks if he hadn’t been avoiding the one closest to the tower. Bucky would think it was fate, except he remembered Gavrilo Princip and knew better.

‘If I say something sappy,’ Steve began, ‘can you promise not to follow up with an awkward silence? Maybe change the subject or something.’

Intriguing .

‘So I’m kinda… not great at the talking about things stuff,’ Steve continued, ‘but I did sort of tell you that I love you yesterday and people tend to be big on the talking thing and I was thinking. Well, I’ve been thinking for a while about how, if I kept living life and doing new things in the future, at some point I’d be glad that I got frozen. Getting to that point kind of seemed to be the goal. I guess it turns out that I didn’t notice when I passed that point, but I’m pretty sure it had a lot to do with you.’

Aw.

Don’t blush don’t blush don’t blush.

Gavrilo Princip was nineteen years old in nineteen fourteen, and something of a radical, politically. He had ideology and a gun given to him by the Black Hand, and on the morning of the twenty-eighth of June, he was sitting in a Sarajevo café. Presumably, he was bemoaning the failed assassination attempt earlier that day, when a grenade thrown at Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car missed and injured people in the car behind.

‘Okay,’ Bucky said, ‘I’m gonna say something sappy, too. Same rules apply.’

Steve nodded.

The assassination attempt must have been on Franz Ferdinand’s mind too, because he and his wife insisted on visiting the injured people in hospital. The thing was, no one had thought to tell the drivers about the change of plan, so they were forced to turn around down a side street. As it turned out, Franz Ferdinand’s car ended up stalling right outside the café, and the gun, and surprised soon-to-be assassin named Gavrilo Princip.

Bucky took a deep breath, ‘See, I’m not great at philosophy, but I’ve had cause to think a bit – a lot – about love and all that stuff. And I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that it’s worth it. It sucks a lot when it’s over but it’s worth it for everything that happens while it lasts, and all the memories you get. And I was sort of thinking that that might be a good way to think about the past for you. Better to have loved and lost and all that.’

The moral of the Gavrilo Princip story, to Bucky anyway, was that history was kind of ridiculous. Incredibly unlikely things happen all the time and fate has nothing to do with it. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, Harry S Truman was gifted Henry Wallace’s job, and Gregory Watson got a new amendment to the constitution because he wasn’t happy with his C grade. And at the end of the day, Princip was just as responsible for Bucky meeting Steve as the guy who wrote “Totally Not Captain America” on that cup.

Bucky smiled, because Steve seemed to like it when he smiled, and added, ‘I also came to the conclusion, much more recently, that I would really, really like this particular foray into love to last for a long while yet.’

Steve was doing that dazed sort of stuttering thing he did when people said nice things to him, and Bucky watched and wondered if the Gavrilo Princip story would ever come up in one of their conversations.

He still felt weird when he was alone. Every time he shrugged, every time he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, every time he tried to pick something up with the wrong hand, it still brought him back with a moment of sickly surprise that he’d have to shake off again. And again. Once, maybe four times, he stood up quickly or spun around too fast and ended up tumbling onto his right side. The weight had changed, and now his balance was all off, and it was another of those things that he felt he should be getting used to quicker than he was.

A few weeks passed like this. Bucky even learned how to pin his own sleeves up, though his favourite leather jacket still hung morosely in his wardrobe. With a clearer perspective, he’d realised that Steve was, in fact, terrible enough at comforting anyone; it was only salvageable by Bucky being so embarrassingly in love that just his company was enough to help. Plus, the man was a treasure trove of perfect distractions.

For instance:

The call came through a little before midnight and Bucky peered blearily at the caller ID. Steve. Of course it was. Who else would still be awake?

‘Hello?’

‘Buck. Hi. Cat.’

His voice seemed a little urgent, and there was the sound of traffic in the background like he was still outside.

‘FDR? What about him?’

‘He actually managed to escape this time.’ Steve replied in a rush, ‘Just climbed down the fire escape.’

Bucky practically jumped out of bed.

‘How long’s it been?’

‘No, it’s fine, I found him. He was in an alley.’

Glaring angrily at the time on his clock, Bucky said, ‘So you called to tell me that your cat isn’t missing?’

Listening closely, there were definitely tiny meows on the other end of the line.

‘He’s not the cat I called you about. He found this kitten in the alley. Tiny, seems really sick. I can’t just leave him here because it’s nearly winter but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do and then I thought, I know a guy who knows a lot about cats that don’t have owners, I’ll just call him. So I did. So what do I do?’

‘Well,’ Bucky began, ‘first I’d recommend talking a bit slower. Then there’s a friend of mine, Laurel, who’s a vet. Not like your friends are vets. The other kind of vet. She works at this after hours clinic, I’ll text you the address now and then I’ll meet you there.’

‘Good plan.’

‘Also you might want to drop FDR off at your apartment if it’s close enough. That cat does not like the vet.’

‘Well uh, it’s really not close enough.’ Steve said, then, ‘And could you bring one of those little mouse cat toys all your cats love?’

‘Why?’

‘He just seems like he hasn’t had many cat toys in his life and I wanna help.’

Bucky didn’t laugh, but he did grin to himself in the half-darkness of his bedroom, ‘Sure thing Stevie.’

By the time Bucky made it to the clinic, Steve and Laurel were leaning over the table while FDR glared at everything from out of the defensible fortress he apparently believed the hood of Steve’s jacket to be.

‘Aw that’s cute,’ Bucky said, to announce his presence, ‘FDR trusts you to protect him from the vet.’

He moved around to see what they were looking at and found a pair of blue eyes blinking up at him from the smallest kitten imaginable. Poor thing. He knew in an instant that it had been abandoned; he’d had more than a few similar cases come through his shelter. It looked young enough that it should still be drinking milk, and its grey fur – though soft and beautifully patterned – was missing in patches. Laurel would have more than enough experience to focus on the fact that it was certainly smaller that it should have been, but judging by the expression of adoration on Steve’s face, he was diverted by its tiny meows and the white socks on all four of its paws and the end of its tail.

‘FDR found him,’ Steve explained, ‘I mean Frankie. He seemed pretty protective until we got here and he hid.’

Laurel was just bringing out a little bottle of milk, and Steve watched with rapt attention as the tiny thing closed his eyes as he drank, ears wiggling in time to every swallow.

‘Is he okay?’ Bucky asked.

Laurel smiled, and Bucky was treated to that familiar rush of relief he felt whenever Laurel smiled while wearing her lab coat, ‘He’s surprisingly healthy, just a little underfed. He will need to come back soon for inoculations but other than that I’ll be happy to release him tonight. He should be fine, you’ve taken in cats in much worse states and brought them back to health.’

The kitten seemed to have perked up already after the milk, and Bucky drew the mouse toy out of his pocket and offered it up. There was a moment of apprehension, and then he attempted a pounce that was more of an uncoordinated hop and took to the toy with delight.

‘You’ll give him a spot at the shelter, right?’ Steve asked, turning to him with an earnest expression.

‘That depends.’ Bucky answered.

‘On?’

Steve was practically bouncing.

‘On whether you’d rather adopt him yourself.’

There was a little pause. The unnamed kitten chose that moment to meow up at Steve and bat the toy closer to him so he could continue playing in his protective shadow.

‘That would be fine,’ Laurel said helpfully, ‘So long as Bucky will make sure you’re looking after him okay while he’s still young, you can take ownership of him.’

‘I’ve already got a cat.’ Steve protested, while the second cat he would own (despite his denial) nudged his hand with his head.

You’re fighting a losing battle, pal.

‘So you’ve already got most of what you’ll need.’ Bucky pointed out.

‘It wouldn’t even be that much more work.’ Laurel added.

Steve wasn’t giving up just yet, ‘But you already know what you’re doing, you could probably look after him a lot better than I could.’

‘Maybe,’ Bucky allowed, ‘At least until he’s old enough for someone else to adopt him.’

‘Oh no, that’s not working a second time. That’s how you conned me into getting FD-Frankie.’

Bucky scratched FDR behind the ears while he settled deeper into Steve’s hood.

‘And do you regret that?’

‘Well… no… but…’

Bucky played his trump card, ‘I don’t think this little guy wants you to leave him.’

They all looked down. The kitten was trying his best to climb into the sleeve of the jacket that Steve was wearing. Steve deflated slightly.

‘I don’t stand a chance, do I?’

His new kitten’s purring was muffled by the fabric of his jacket, but it seemed a good response anyway.

With a spectacular show of helpfulness, Laurel had the paperwork prepared before he could begin to reason his way out of it, and by the time she asked for a name it was obvious that he wasn’t even trying to. Because he already knew what the thing was to be called.

‘Henry Agard Wallace.’ Steve said, ‘Of course.’

‘Of course.’ Bucky agreed, smiling.

‘Of course.’ Laurel repeated, though this was far more sarcastic, ‘What a normal, appropriate name for a cat.’

Henry had migrated cheerfully to Steve’s pocket with his mouse toy, and was watching proceedings through the opening with bright, interested eyes.

‘Now, your full name.’

Bucky had never actually witnessed a deer caught in the headlights, but he knew what a history teacher looked like when a student asks something that they don’t know the answer to. A sort of half-surprise, half-horror, caught between wanting to encourage the student and not wanting to admit that they couldn’t answer a question about their own subject. Steve kind of looked like that, but for different reasons.

‘Steven.’ he eventually said, ‘With a V. Grant.’ he added, watching her write it out as if he could avoid the result by telling her slowly, ‘Rogers. R-O-G-’

Laurel glanced up at him, taking in his height, build, face. Her eyes flicked to Bucky for a moment and then back, before dropping down to the paperwork again. She filled out the rest of the name with considerable professionalism and didn’t ask questions. Steve no longer looked like Bucky’s old history teacher, who really should have known which king William the Conquer had beaten in 1066. Otherwise she was teaching half the battle and what was the point?

Steve signed his name at the bottom of the paperwork, picked up the supplies he’d need, and paid the small vet’s bill with a promise to return for inoculations. And then, with two cats hidden in his jacket like an inexperienced smuggler or a pet store shoplifter, he led the way into the early New York morning.

It was Harold Godwinson, incidentally. But only because Edward the Confessor had died earlier that year. That particular teacher had never really been good at anything but American history.

They went back to Steve’s apartment together so Bucky could help Henry settle in. Unlike FDR, Henry seemed far less interested in exploring than he did in staying as close to Steve as possible. The two cats, once released from the jacket, were already fast friends. Henry was willing to follow anywhere FDR led, so long as it was within petting distance of Steve.

In the end Steve and Bucky sat cross-legged, facing each other on the sofa, with the cats claiming the space in between. Where the elder kitten pretended not to care in the slightest about his owner, the youngest was content to lay on the cushions and purr, only moving if they stopped patting him. He was rapidly claiming the centre of attention and FDR was forced to abandon his show of nonchalance in exchange for his share of ear scratches and head pats. They both meowed mournfully when Steve answered his phone.

‘Tony, hi. It’s kinda early, is something wrong? Yeah,’ he threw a glance in Bucky’s direction, ‘yeah, he’s here. Why?’

There was a pause.

‘Okay…’ he turned to Bucky with a shrug, ‘He wants to know how you are since the surgery?’

‘Tell him I feel great. Tell him I’ve lost eight pounds.’

Another pause.

‘Oh, nothing, just a terrible joke. He’s fine though, sense of humour notwithstanding.’

And a longer pause. Steve said, ‘What, really?’ and then the pause continued. The cats vied for Bucky’s attention.

‘Nuh uh,’ Steve finally said, ‘I’m not… you have an interesting idea of “important”… okay fine, I’ll say it just like that. Yeah, yeah, hang on.’

He turned the phone into his shoulder to talk to Bucky, ‘That was Tony. He wants me to ask you something but he says I’ve got to phrase it exactly as he said it.’

‘Okay?’

‘He told me to tell you that “The coolest Avenger and smartest guy you’ve ever met has had a technological breakthrough, and would like to know if you want”,’ he rolled his eyes, ‘“an awesome new only-slightly-experimental robot arm”?’

Chapter Text

‘Y’know,’ Steve said, in early November as Bucky was squinting suspiciously at the Stark industry disclaimers, ‘when you get your new arm, you’re going to need some more training.’

‘That’s Clint’s job, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, but I was wondering, after the,’ he gestured vaguely at the paperwork and the hospital surroundings in a way he hoped encompassed the word “surgery”, ‘we could maybe go to laser tag.’

Bucky glanced up, grinning one of Steve’s favourite grins, ‘We’ve been together half a year, idiot, you can ask me out without using training as an excuse.’

‘Is that a yes to laser tag?’

‘Of course it is. Though I probably won’t be the same competition you’d get with the other Avengers.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Steve laughed, ‘You’re my best friend, there’s no one I’d rather pretend to shoot at with a light gun.’

Wait. What was that middle bit?

‘Best friend?’

Bucky was smiling. Steve, on the other hand, could feel himself beginning to blush.

‘Shush. Yes.’

‘Aw. You’re my best friend too, Stevie.’

Bucky had a way of telling the truth and seeming sarcastic at the same time. It was the way he smiled. He found this funny.

‘I’m never saying nice things to you again.’

Bucky turned back to his paperwork, sighing heavily and signing his name with a flourish. From the moment he did Steve felt a weird twisting feeling settle in his gut.

He’ll be fine. Tony will make sure he’s fine. Because I’ll kill him if something happens.

‘That’s the last one.’ Bucky said, handing it over to the nurse who’d just slipped into the room, ‘Tony’s lawyers really know how to cover his ass.’

Without any serious medical knowledge, Steve had no real understanding of what could go wrong. What he did have, however, was an active imagination that insisted on inventing marginally plausible potential disasters.

‘Excellent,’ the nurse was saying, ‘We’ll just-’

It was all very efficient. Pepper must have been in charge (of course she was, she knew how important this was to Steve and wouldn’t have left it to her subordinates) and it wasn’t long before Bucky was being put under with a nervous smile and his hand loosely in Steve’s.

They were doing something to his spine, what if he ended up paralysed? What about the arm itself? Steve had no idea how it worked, maybe it would electrocute him. Could that happen? And wasn’t it connected to his brain? What could go wrong there? Tony was a genius but he’d never studied neuroscience. He was relying on other people for a lot of it, and Steve had never met those other people.

He waited in the corridor, restless, but resisting the urge to pace. Tony, rudely, found this funny.

‘He’s going to be fine.’

‘So you say.’

‘Do you think that I would let him get this if it wasn’t one hundred percent safe? A little trust would be nice.’

Steve was bouncing a little, shoving his hands into his pockets only to pull them out again a second later. Checking his cellphone for no reason at all. Tapping his fingers.

‘What about Hydra?’

A pause. Tony glanced sideways at him.

‘What about them?’

‘We haven’t stopped them yet. How do we know they’re not going to attack Bucky again?’

And then Tony was sighing, ‘Can’t you worry about one thing at a time?’

‘Yes. Sort of. No. They’re trying to brainwash people, Tony. You confirmed that when you worked out what that chair was for. And they tried to kidnap Bucky. Isn’t that of concern? And what about the thing last week-’

‘Okay stop for a bit, Cap, you’re gonna pull a muscle worrying so hard.’

Cap.

The bird bros – as first Tony and now Bucky insisted on calling them – had been having concerns about the Winter Soldier project, namely why they weren’t actually trying to brainwash anyone since they have the tech. Wanda and Pietro had enough personal experience and Nat enough of both that and first-hand knowledge to come up with a theory. And then find proof.

See, the SSR had done a pretty good job of destroying a lot of Zola’s work, and most of what survived was from before anyone worked out how to get someone to survive the procedure.

‘Well, someone’s gotta worry, Tony.’

The only problem was the Hydra had reportedly – according to some agents now en route to their trials – discovered a potential solution. No one had been very forthcoming on what this solution was, but Steve didn’t like the sound of it.

And he certainly didn’t want Bucky anywhere near it.

The surgery was delicate, by all accounts. The arm itself was to be detachable, but the mechanism for attaching it and the connections to the brain had to be carefully fixed to Bucky’s body. There were a few difficulties, and it took an extra half hour in which Steve gave in and actually started pacing, but he came out of it alright and when it was all over Tony was grinning.

I guess I won’t have to kill him after all.

When he was finally allowed to see Bucky, a nurse was attempting to get him to say his real first name. Becca was already there, filming.

‘James Buchanan…’ he was saying, apparently distracted by the lumps at the end of his bed that were his feet ‘…like the president guy…’ he wiggled his feet under the thin cover ‘…heaven and the- I’ve forgotten. Heaven and that other thing.’

The nurse passed him as he entered, ‘He’s on some pretty strong painkillers right now, so…’

Bucky’s entire face lit up when he saw Steve. He even waved a little in case Steve didn’t notice him.

‘Heeeey Stevie.’

‘Hi.’

‘I was telling the man about history but he doesn’t seem to care.’

‘Well,’ Steve reasoned, ‘He was asking for your name.’

‘Heaven and…’ Bucky frowned and tried to mouth the word that he couldn’t remember, ‘I don’t know. I’m gonna call it that other thing. Stevie, what’s the other thing?’

‘Hell?’ Steve guessed, glancing over to Becca and the camera for help.

‘No nono. Not that. It’s really vague and John Hancock signed his name in big lettersssstevie…’ Bucky dropped his voice to a stage whisper and pulled Steve in conspiratorially, ‘Stevie why did John Hancock write so big?’

Becca laughed, ‘Are you talking about the constitution?’

Bucky’s response was a one-handed attempt at finger guns, ‘There is nothing stable but heaven and the constitution. That’s what James Buchanan said. What a dick.’

And he wiggled his feet seriously to illustrate his point.

Steve thought about Bucky’s habit of talking about history nonstop while drunk and wondered if it extended to painkillers.

‘Also, did you know, C. S. Lewis…’ Bucky began, answering Steve’s question brilliantly, ‘do you know what his middle name was?’

Oh, this again.

‘Was it S?’ Steve asked.

‘Don’t be stupid that’s Truman. How many people do you think have S as a middle name?’

With a shrug, Steve asked, ‘Then what is it?’

‘Staples.’

‘What?’

‘His middle name is Staples.’

‘Uh huh.’ Steve said, humouring him by nodding and hoping he didn’t seem too sarcastic.

The rest of the Barnes family arrived shortly after. Steve was more involved than the last surgery; in the month that had passed he seemed to have achieved another stage of acceptance. He wondered what point he would get up to before they stopped expecting them to break up at any second.

Their relationship seemed to have changed on a fundamental level sometime after Canada. They’d been learning about each other, getting to know each other, in the months since they’d met. And now they were past that; Steve had started looking to a future where Bucky featured prominently and Canada seemed to have brought the first, tentative stage of their relationship to an end. This new stage was even better.

‘Ma.’

‘Yeah Buck?’

‘Ma?’

‘Right here.’

‘Ma, there’s a…’ Bucky tapped the bandages around his left shoulder with an intent expression on his face, feeling the hard surface underneath, ‘…there’s a… a weird thing attached to my shoulder… they put a weird thing there…’

‘It’s where the arm’s gonna go, sweetie.’

‘But I don’t have an arm.’

Bucky frowned, trying to solve the mystery by focussing intensely and licking his lips.

‘They’re gonna give you an arm, Bucky.’

There was at least a week to make sure that everything was okay before Bucky could actually get the arm, and until then he was stuck in the hospital, on decreasing levels of painkillers. In the meantime, he was allowed to text.

‘He’s texting you right now, isn’t he?’

‘Huh?’

Tony glanced pointedly at the cellphone in Steve’s hand, ‘He’s only been in hospital for four days and you haven’t stopped texting him this entire time. What is it?’ he made a show of looking disapproving, ‘Are you sexting? Be honest.’

‘Uhhh…’ Steve looked at his phone

            Steve:               How do I make an expression more emphasised? Do I put an exclamation mark after it?

            Steve:               >:(!

            Bucky:             Double frown

            Bucky:             >:(((

            Steve:               >>:(

            Bucky:             That also works

            Steve:               >::::(

            Bucky:             That’s creepy

‘Just normal texting.’ Steve said, ‘Completely normal.’

‘Well good, because that’s how you’re going to have to act in the interview.’

‘Alright.’

‘No daydreaming.’

‘Fine.’

‘And it’s totally up to you but I’d recommending avoiding discussing the gay rumours.’

‘The… wait what?’

‘You’ll find out. Have fun.’

This was poor timing for sudden, abject panic. Tony was a dick. Journalists were all, individually and collectively, dicks. The PR people who insisted on setting up these interviews every so often were grade A dicks. People who find things like “gay rumours” interesting? Also dicks.

The journalist he was being interviewed by seemed nice enough, but Steve wasn’t fooled. There was every chance that she, too, was a dick.

‘Good afternoon,’ she was saying, ‘nice to meet you.’

Steve said something appropriately polite and meaningless in response. They shook hands. He focussed all his effort on appearing completely normal. And calm.

The first question she asked was about the period of (publicly) peaceful existence that the Avengers were enjoying. Steve gave the answers he was supposed to and tried to change his position on the seat the normal amount. Was it as peaceful as it seemed? Well, the Avengers were always prepared. No secret escapades? Steve had mastered evasive answers. What about personality clashes on the team? That question was unsubtly about Tony and Steve answered it as best he could.

Things about his personal life. Usual questions about the future. A new one about what friends he had outside of the Avengers, and he forgot how people normally held themselves when they were relaxed. Was he too tense? Did he fidget too much? She was asking about his love life now.

Alert.

‘Uh…’

Take evasive action.

‘…my job keeps me pretty busy…’

Which is a lie.

‘…and the safety of anyone too close to the Avengers would begin to be a concern.’

And an accidental truth. This is awful. Can I leave? When can I leave?

Steve felt the beginnings of a not-unfamiliar sensation of not quite being able to breath enough. Except his lungs were fine now. Must be something else.

The woman was nodded sympathetically, ‘I can see how that would be difficult. And do you have anything to say about the rumours about your sexuality?’

‘No.’ Steve said, before he thought about it.

‘You don’t want to defend yourself against the suggestion that the reason that you have been single for so long is because you are gay?’

If there was one emotion Steve knew better than panic, it was righteous fury.

‘Why?’ he asked, suddenly cold.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘It doesn’t seem like something I need to “defend myself” against.’

‘I, well, I didn’t mean-’

‘There’s nothing insulting about being thought of as gay. People can theorise about whatever they want, I’ll leave the outrage to Fox News.’

Shit. Good job, me. Look what you’ve done. You’ve started a fight with Fox. You can’t win against Fox. They don’t listen to facts.

At least the interviewer – who did not work for Fox – seemed to have found that last comment entertaining.

‘We can move on, if you’d prefer…?’

Read: please let us move on so I don’t seem so homophobic.

‘Good idea.’

‘Right, erm. Just before we wrap up, I can’t not mention the newest kitten you’ve introduced to us all via Twitter, Henry. He’s very cute,’ damn right, ‘but I have to ask… how many cats are you planning on getting?’

Oh god people think I’m a crazy cat guy.

Steve aimed for friendliness or charming self-deprecation or however it was his PR people would like him to come across.

‘I’m sticking with two, I think that’s enough. I’ve reached the limits of my cat-owning capacity.’ Steve thought of the pun “cat-pacity” and wisely decided not to say it out loud, ‘I only have Henry because I found him, I wasn’t exactly looking for a new cat.’

‘And your first cat?’

Bucky is definitely going to be watching this.

‘I hadn’t been planning on that, either, to be honest. The guy who sold him to me is very good at selling cats, and FDR was such a cute kitten.’

Wait.

‘Um…’ she checked her notes, ‘Your cat is called Frankie, right?’

Shit.

‘Well, that’s what I meant-’

‘Is Frankie short for Franklin Roosevelt?’

‘Well I imagine it could be, in certain circumstances.’

Steve was terrible at being evasive.

‘Right. But in the specific circumstance of your cat?’

Things like this are why interviews stress me out.

‘Look,’ he began, leaning forward a little to make sure that she was really listening to his defence, ‘I didn’t choose his name. He was already called FDR when I got him, the guy at the cat shelter named him. Honestly, all I did was changed his name to Frankie so I don’t,’ he rubbed his forehead with his hand like he had a headache, ‘have to admit that I’ve got a cat named after a US president. Because then I would look like a hyper-patriotic parody of myself.’

She was laughing, which was a little inconsiderate.

‘Didn’t FDR have a vice president named Henry?’

Please change the subject. Please just stop grinning and change the subject.

‘Yeah,’ Steve admitted, sighing.

‘And did you name your second cat after Henry Wallace?’

There was a pause. Steve sighed again.

‘You know the internet is not going to leave this alone, right?’

The interview ended shortly after that, and Steve had to remind himself not to sprint out of the room. It was already edited and online by the time he showed up at the hospital to see Bucky.

It was Bellevue again, though this hospital stay was considerably more cheerful than the last. On at least three occasions, Steve found himself wondering what happened to the limbs that were amputated. Had they just tossed Bucky’s arm in the bin? Were there trashcans in the off-limits areas of hospitals that had random body parts mixed in with the paper and packaging? Or did they dispose of what Steve guessed would count as a biohazard in a more careful way? Was there someone whose job it was to set detached limbs on fire?

Bucky smiled when he saw him.

‘Hey Buck.’

‘Hey Stevie.’

‘I bought you Starbucks on the way.’

The smile widened into a grin, ‘You’re the absolute best.’

‘I wouldn’t say that too soon, you’re still not allowed caffeine.’ Steve held out the grande beverage for Bucky to take, ‘I got you a caramel hot chocolate.’

Bucky pulled the drink close to his chest and inhaled deeply, having yet to stop smiling, ‘God, I gotta get out of the hospital.’

He moved over to one side so Steve could sit next to him on the bed, hip to hip, ‘Soon. Everything’s going alright so you should be getting a new arm at the end of the week.’

‘That’s not so bad.’

‘Which unfortunately means that I won’t get to laugh at you on pain medication anymore.’

Bucky snorted, ‘Oh god, what did I say?’

Casting his mind back a few days earlier, Steve recalled, ‘Well, you tried to convince me that C. S. Lewis’ middle name is “Staples”.’

There was a pause.

‘C. S. Lewis’ middle name is Staples.’

‘What?’

‘It is.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘I’m not lying. Clive Staples Lewis, that’s his full name.’

There was another pause in which Steve pulled out his cellphone to verify Bucky’s claim.

‘So, when you said that that stapler was called Clive…?’

‘It was a C. S. Lewis joke, yes.’

‘Nerd.’

Bucky laughed, leaning into Steve, ‘At least I didn’t just piss off Fox News and admit to owning presidential cats in the same interview.’

Steve groaned, burying his head in his hands.

‘And,’ Bucky added, ‘you took a political stand on LGBTQ rights. I thought Captain America wasn’t allowed to take political stands. That’s why you do that nodding thing with that blank gaze every time a conservative talks to you.’

Steve groaned louder, to make a point, ‘I make bad decisions when I’m anxious, okay? I don’t need to add “gay rumours” to the list of things that I have to worry about. I mean, what if they ask again? What am I gonna say? I’m not gonna lie and say I’m straight, but I don’t wanna…’

Shrugging with one arm, Bucky suggested, ‘Just say that you’re not gay. It’s not a lie.’

That was true. Steve leaned away a little to examine his boyfriend. His hair was now past his jaw, and had become a little wavy. Some of the locks curled at the bottom, hooking one way or another or brushing into his neck. And then there were his eyes, grey-blue and beautiful, and the way they crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. Bucky Barnes was one excellent reason why Steve wanted to finally tell the truth.

Not yet, but soon.

They had the surgery to worry about first. Not to mention whatever Hydra was doing. Steve told Bucky about it while Bucky drank his hot chocolate and rested against Steve’s shoulder.

They talked about the flaw with the Winter Solder program, and the suggestion that Hydra had found some way to keep their subjects alive without changing the process. Bucky was better at reading him than Tony was.

‘You think it’s superserum, don’t you?’

Steve shrugged the shoulder that Bucky wasn’t leaning against, ‘We know that they don’t have a working formula.’

‘That didn’t answer the question.’

Without Hydra having the formula themselves there was, as far as he knew, only one cache of superserum on the planet; pumping through his own veins.

‘I don’t know.’

By then Bucky’s schedule was locked into place. Barring some unforeseen event, Bucky would be becoming a cyborg by the end of the week. Steve left the hospital a few hours later and headed back to his own apartment. The door, he unlocked with his left hand, while his right was occupied texting Clint.

            Clint:               Have you asked him yet?

            Steve:               No and I’m not going to

            Clint:               C’mon there’s real money on the line

Steve rolled his eyes as he shoved the door open, slipping through and pushing it closed with a click.

            Clint:               Do you know how much coffee I can buy with that money?

            Clint:               I know you think I drunks to much coffee but come /on/

            Clint:               *drink

Oh my god Clint.

            Steve:               Nuh uh you’re not getting away with that typo

            Steve:               Not after you got Bucky saying “sweeey” all the time

            Clint:               You’re the reason Bucky won’t stop sending me >:(! so you can’t complain

            Clint:               Okay fine make fun of me just ask him I need to know

            Steve:               If you’re so sure he’s a punk and not a hipster why don’t you ask him yourself

Steve set his jacket on the bench and waited for the usual attention-seeking cats to appear near him.

            Clint:               It’s against the rules of the bet. I won’t get my money

There was a suspicious lack of meowing and cat heads nudging him for pats.

‘FDR? Henry?’

He walked towards the living room and shoved the door open, only to find-

‘Goddammit.’

It was still his living room; plain, pale blue walls with the photographs plastering one side, the beige sofas he’d bought more for practicality than anything else, wooden coffee table, grey carpet, television. The only difference was the drifts of soft white not-quite-snow that lay over everything. Down feathers, and, dragged from the sofa, the colourful fabric of his newly-eviscerated cushions.

Two pairs of feline eyes were watching him warily from under the armchair. Steve turned his attention to them with a defeated sort of gesture and a ‘Why?’

Neither of them answered. The eyes that belonged to Henry retreated a few inches further under the chair.

            Clint:               Also you should probably be watching fox news rn

That wasn’t a good sign. Steve threw himself onto the sofa, raising a cloud of soft white feathers, and turned the TV on as the feathers danced through the air and rested on the upholstery and on Steve’s clothes.

Stupid cats.

[‘…and now on Fox News, is Captain America everything we think he is? We’ve learned some things about him in his latest interview that the American people should have known earlier.’

‘I agree. His stand for gay rights seems far too partisan to me. And what are we to make of the cat names?]

Oh god.

[‘Now, he says that he didn’t pick FDR’s name, but what about Henry Wallace? I would argue that naming both cats after democrats shows a strong partisan bias, but even if he chose Henry’s name because he was FDR’s vice president, why not Harry Truman? Wasn’t he also one of FDR’s vice presidents?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Now I’m not saying that there’s anything un-American about Captain Rogers, but I do find it suspicious that he chose to name his cat after a well-known communist.’]

Henry Wallace was neither well-known nor a communist, though he had been left wing enough to attract communist rumours during the second red scare. Not for the first time, Steve wondered if Fox used conservative Facebook posts as their fact-checking source.

[‘And none of this is because he called us out by name in that interview, though I think that also says a lot about the person he is.’

‘You know who I think is responsible for this?’

‘Who?’

‘The mainstream media. They’ve used their liberal bias to convince an American hero that he’s supposed to believe this progressive nonsense in the twenty first century. It’s a shame, because I would have thought that, being from the forties, he’d believe in real family values-’]

Steve turned the TV off with a groan, sinking into the down feathers with the fleeting hope that he might somehow be able to disappear into them.

            Steve:               What am I supposed to do about this?

            Clint:               ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The cats that Fox News had developed a personal agenda against decided at that point that is was safe to leave their sanctuary. FDR went first, testing the open air with a single paw before slipping through the gap. Henry watched to see if the coast was truly clear before following.

‘Alright, you two. What happened to my living room? Which of you started it?’

They paused, moving closer together for security.

‘Was it you, FDR? This seems like something you’d do.’

Of course it was FDR; Henry mostly hid in jacket pockets or the inside of shoes, or slept curled up next to wherever Steve was sitting. Not that he didn’t play. Bucky had gifted him with fully a dozen little mouse toys, and he liked to group them all in one place and pounce on them at once. But FDR was the one who caused the mischief.

‘Alright, you’re both grounded.’

Steve contemplated what being grounded would actually mean for a cat, and realised that they probably wouldn’t notice. But they were still grounded. It was the principle of the thing.

Blissfully unaware of the stern punishment they had been given, FDR and Henry were soon diving through the feathers like children in the snow, and Steve resigned himself to letting them get away with their transgression and sending cute cat videos to Bucky. Henry was the star of them; his meow had turned out to be more like a squeak and Steve found himself hoping that that wouldn’t change as he got bigger.

Once again, he wasn’t at the hospital with Bucky for the final stage three days later. His family was, as they had been last time, but the reasons behind this were different. One of the news agencies – CNN, he was pretty sure, but certainly not Fox – were sending in a camera crew to report on the latest technological breakthrough from Stark Industries. Totally 100% Straight Captain America was not to be by his boyfriend’s side for that particular segment.

Still, it was interesting to watch. Tony was pretty honest about where the original tech came from, his personal (rather limited) honour code preventing him taking credit for something that he hadn’t invented. But a reasonable number of the beneficiaries of the trial were vets, and they seemed more than happy for Hydra’s scientific efforts to be used in a way that Hydra couldn’t possibly have wanted.

Also, whoever was behind the camera seemed to share Steve’s opinion of aesthetics, because Bucky got a few more, lingering shots than did the rest of them. It helped that he was doing that smiling thing that made him look like sunshine, and it was nice to know that Steve wasn’t the only idiot that that worked on.

Steve found himself watching the footage and picturing what it would be like when he finally came out. He’d have to introduce Bucky to America, and he was sure they’d love him.

The camera watched the expression of rapt awe on Bucky’s face as he tested out the fingers one by one, twisted the wrist around, picked up the objects he was supposed to. It was a shiny silver thing, made of overlapping plates like outsized fish scales. Beautiful in the way machinery could be beautiful, but at the same time staking a claim on that human sort of beauty that the rest of him captured so well. Steve wanted to paint the way that light glinted off it.

He was let out of hospital the next day, and when the lift doors opened to Steve’s apartment in the tower, it was to show him dressed up in his favourite leather jacket for the first time since he’d lost his arm. And, Steve quickly noticed, a new pair of gloves.

Well, it was cold out.

Steve asked how it went as if he didn’t already know from the news, and Bucky smiled and gushed about the new arm without actually taking off his gloves. It was warm inside, and Bucky had stepped in from the early New York winter. The change of temperate should have been enough to have him shedding the jacket, but-

‘Can I see it?’ Steve asked, and that smile faltered slightly.

‘Sure.’

Finally the gloves were shoved into his pockets, and the jacket slipped from his shoulder. It was just how it had seemed on TV, shining and graceful and working perfectly with the rest of Bucky. Steve held the hand in his own and Bucky laughed.

‘You know I can feel that? Sort of, anyway.’

‘Yeah?’

Bucky moved the fingers around until he was gripping Steve’s hand, ‘Tony added sensors to the original design, so I can feel pressure, but not texture or heat or anything. It’s kinda strange.’

Steve squeezed the metal hand and Bucky grinned in response.

‘How sensitive is it?’

‘Good question, I’ve been testing it. I worked out that I can’t feel a feather, but I can feel a scrap of paper.’

In his grip, Steve turned the hand over and, with an exaggerated bow like the French character always performs in films, bent to brush a kiss on the metal plates there.

That got another laugh, ‘Very theatrical. Do you know French as well?’

‘Oui Monsieur.’

‘No you don’t, I don’t believe you.’

‘Je parle français couramment.’ Steve replied, I speak French fluently.

Buck looked delighted. Steve couldn’t believe he’d never thought of this before; people loved people who could speak another language, and somehow French had made it to the top of the list of languages that people found attractive. If it worked on Bucky then Steve would speak as much French as he could.

‘You read that in a phrase book.’ Bucky replied, smiling nonetheless. Well, he’d just have to be convinced.

‘Ton sourire est beau, mon cher.’

And speaking French had the added bonus of allowing him to say sappy things without Bucky knowing. Like telling him that his smile was beautiful.

Steve leaned in towards Bucky’s lips, running a hand up his arm as he did so, because he was an asshole like that.

‘Je t’aime.’ he said, knowing full well that Bucky would understand that, at least. And then he kissed him.

What a nice life Steve had that he got to kiss Bucky. Beneath his palm, metal plates were shifting, and then Bucky’s hand pressed against the small of his back and Steve took the cue to deepen the kiss.

Bucky pulled back first, ‘That French better not have been a ploy, Rogers.’

‘Bien sûr il était.’ was Steve’s unapologetic answer. Of course it was.

Another kiss, this time that hand found the back of Steve’s neck. Then-

‘I know what you’re thinking. I don’t think Tony would be very happy if this was one of the first things I used my new arm for.’

‘You’re right. But I have a plan.’

Another kiss, just because.

‘What?’

‘We don’t tell Tony.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘It’s perfect, you see, because I don’t habitually tell everyone I know about my sex life anyway, so no one will get suspicious.’

Judging by how close they were standing, and a part of Bucky’s anatomy that Steve could feel through his jeans, the plan just might be going ahead.

‘Say that again in French.’ Bucky said, and Steve was more than happy to comply.

He babbled away as best he could, translated what had been said then moving on to waxing poetic about the colour of Bucky’s hair, while Bucky’s metal hand under his shirt pursued the sensation of Steve’s spine.

Next moment his shirt was being lifted over his head and he was being guided toward the sofa. The only pressure Bucky would be feeling now at the five fingertips that he pressed against Steve’s chest. He fell back onto the cushions, grinning, pulling Bucky in by his belt loops. Bucky’s fingers moved to the hem of own shirt and then stopped, flesh hand self-consciously rubbing against his left shoulder.

‘What it is?’ Steve asked, looking up with concern.

‘Nothing. It’s kind of. I mean.’

Even with two fully functional arms, Bucky still only shrugged with the right shoulder.

Steve drew his hands away from the belt loops and leaned back against the sofa, trying to communicate that what he was about to say had nothing to do with how he wanted that afternoon to go.

‘It’s fine, Buck. You don’t have to worry. It’s not like I didn’t see it before you got your new arm.

‘Well there are more surgery scars…’ Bucky replied, biting his lip, ‘And they haven’t healed much, so…’

Steve fished around for a less cheesy way to say “you’re perfect” and came to the conclusion that there wasn’t one.

‘You’re perfect.’ he said, trying to seem honest and earnest and all those good things.

‘You’re full of shit.’ was the response, but Bucky took his shirt off anyway.

The scars were there as Bucky had said, all around the seam where the metal attached to his skin. And there was the arm, looking incongruous on his organic body. But then there was Bucky, posture and movements fixed naturally on his whole frame, connecting the new arm to the body as if it had always been there.

‘You’re perfect.’ Steve said again, and pulled him in for another kiss.

The metal of Bucky’s hand warmed against Steve’s skin as they drew in closer. Steve could feel it reaching body temperature against his ribcage. His jeans already felt too tight as Bucky’s other hand found his waist.

They had to break apart for air. There were teeth at his bottom lip and hands lowering towards his hips. Steve pressed fingers into skin and Bucky took the lead. Lower, and he was hyperaware of every movement of those hands. They didn’t slip under his jeans nor try to open them. Instead Bucky’s new hand moved between his legs. Pressure against denim against his hard dick, and he gasped his need for friction.

Bucky took his goddamned time.

His hands moved upwards again, roving Steve’s chest, and Steve growled his annoyance. It didn’t help; Bucky seemed to find it funny. Every movement had Steve’s hips jerking, searching for something Bucky seemed to have no interest in giving him. But Steve had his own tactics and he tugged open Bucky’s fly. Not removing the jeans, but slipping his hands inside against Bucky’s skin. Pulling him closer with one hand on each cheek.

Bucky licked his lips and took up the challenge. His right hand moved lower again. Abdomen, hips, pulling open his jeans and leaving no breathing room before he was touching Steve’s dick. His wrist began moving in deliberate, almost painfully slow motions, and every time Steve’s hips moved in response he loosened his grip.

His metal hand stayed at his neck. Steve could feel the fingers pressing in on one side, Bucky’s breath against his ear as he chuckled wickedly.

‘I can feel your pulse.’

Fuck. Steve lifted his back off the sofa in pursuit of Bucky’s skin. His hands were still pulling him closer and he search for Bucky’s pulse with his mouth against his neck. There. Beating faster. He could feel it with his lips – his tongue – and then it was teeth against skin and Bucky was the one groaning for more. His hips moved against Steve’s jeans and the pace of his hand on Steve’s dick picked up. Steve returned the favour. He had no interest in teasing or going slow; he brought one hand to Bucky’s cock and moved it up and down in quick motions. Thumb rubbing over the slit and then back down the shaft. A flick of his wrist and Bucky was moaning, writhing against him, and no longer in charge.

Jesus- Steve-

The metal hand moved, tracing the ridge of Steve’s spine. And now Steve’s lips were tasting the metal of Bucky’s shoulder, the scars, the seam where the two met, and that metal hand was moving lower. Steve didn’t let up the pace until he felt Bucky shudder in his hands. A gasp. Metal fingers digging into skin. Bucky coming with a swearword and Steve’s hand on his dick.

There was only a moment of reprise, heavy breathing, then Bucky took up his work again with pupils blown wide and a look of determination. Steve wasn’t expecting to last much longer even without the way that the metal fingers were still tracing his spine down to the tailbone. Bucky’s bruised lips were against his once more. Hand still moving along his dick. Hot skin pressed against each other as they kissed and one metal finger finding the rim of Steve’s hole.

His back arched as it moved inside. Deep, and Bucky was grinning, and now Steve could taste salt and hear his heartbeat in his ears. The orgasm hit with force – stars in his vision – so many sensations at once and then he was trying to catch his breath while the dizziness slowly faded. Bucky was grinning down at him and Steve suspected that he’d lost whatever competition they’d been having.

‘Stevie?’

‘Hmm?’

‘You’re kinda good at this.’

Steve laughed breathlessly.

‘You’re not so bad yourself.’

It was certainly one way to kill time. They got cleaned up after that and Steve was treated to an accusatory glare as Bucky pointed to the mark that had been left on his neck.

‘I don’t heal as well as you do, Steve, people are going to see me like this.’

He was doing a very bad job pretending to be mad.

‘Just wear a scarf,’ Steve suggested, ‘you’ve got lots of those.’

One of his favourite things that he’d learned about his boyfriend was the reason why Bucky had so many scarves. Early on, one of his doctors had thought that knitting might help Bucky regain use of his arm. Bucky, it transpired, wasn’t very good at it. So rather than learn any complex patterns, he’d just knitted scarf after scarf until his doctor admitted that it wasn’t working. The fact that there was a time in Bucky’s life when he’d spent his free time angrily knitting scarves was a source of endless entertainment to Steve.

‘Yeah yeah. Do you want pizza? I’ve always wanted to order pizza to Avengers Tower.’

‘Dork.’

‘I’m not hearing a no.’

They ordered pizza, and three times Steve saw Bucky catch sight of himself in a mirror and look away. While they waited for the food to arrive, Steve texted Tony.

‘You gotta answer the door when the pizza arrives.’ Bucky was saying, ‘Oh, do you have one of those cap shield shirts that people wear? The grey one you’re wearing doesn’t really say “I’m Captain America”.’

‘No, Buck.’

‘Well, you have the actual shield. Just carry that.’

That wasn’t going to happen, but Steve couldn’t resist reaching around the corner, behind the sofa, where he’d left the shield. He held it out to Bucky, who took with a laugh and slipped his right arm into the straps.

‘How do I look?’

‘It’s a good look on you. I normally wear a shirt with it, but I think I like it better this way.’

He struck a pose, ‘Who’s strong and brave-’

‘Bucky no.’

‘-here to save the American-’

‘Buck.’

‘-waaaaaay.’

Goddamn he could sing. But he could also be a dork and Steve wasn’t about to let him get away with it.

‘That’s the wrong shield.’

‘What?’

‘I had a different shield when I was doing that.’

There was a pause.

‘Wait, you were actually part of that show?’

It was a little unfair for Bucky to laugh. But then, Steve was laughing too.

‘My god, you really weren’t interested at all in me in your history classes.’

‘Well, I’m interested now.’

‘Captain Rogers,’ Jarvis cut in, ‘I thought you should be aware that there is a young man holding pizza in the lobby. Perhaps Bucky should put a shirt on.’

‘Bucky.’ Steve repeated.

‘Yeah, I asked him to call me Bucky.’

Of course he did. Steve didn’t even know why he was surprised.

‘He’s in the elevator.’ Jarvis added. Bucky and the shield both dropped behind the other sofa with a thud.

There was a pause, then a ding, and then Steve was paying for the pizza.

‘Let me just get your tip.’ he told the ginger teenager gawping up at him.

He moved around the sofa to find Bucky grinning, holding out a twenty-dollar note. It seemed quite a large tip for some pizza, but he grabbed it anyway.

‘Thanks for the warning, Jarvis.’ Steve said, after the man had left.

‘You’re welcome, Captain.’

‘You know what? Call me Steve.’

‘Noted, Steve.’

It was an early dinner, eating junk food together in the living room while Steve asked Bucky about tattoos.

‘You know I don’t have any, pal, you’ve seen every inch of my body.’

‘Okay but-’

‘This conversation better not end in suggesting matching tattoos, because I’ve had three of those conversations, and those relationships all ended less than a month later. Erin actually dumped me two hours after.’

‘Erin’s loss.’ Steve replied, ‘And I was actually going to say that Tony’s got some paint that would work on the arm if you wanted some… personalisation…’ he trailed off. Bucky was looking at him like he knew exactly what Steve was thinking.

‘You don’t have to try to fix everything, Steve.’

And the hurt that Bucky had been feeling was all left implied. Steve had never lost a limb, let alone had it replaced with metal and robotics. The closest he’d ever come was Project Rebirth, when he’d been transformed into someone’s ideal soldier and a little – ungrateful, he’d scolded himself at the time – part of himself took over whenever he looked in the mirror and saw the change. There was something, for a while anyway, that was just Not Right about the reflection.

‘I was thinking about a red star.’ Steve pressed on, ‘Like your guitar, and those throwing knives you think I haven’t noticed. But I could do anything you wanted.’

Does Bucky know that he licks his lips? Is it really a habit or is it intentional? Why does he do this to me?

‘So you’ll be painting it?’

Steve focused a disproportionately large portion of his capacity for thought on making his shrug seem genuinely nonchalant, ‘Seems more practical.’

‘Does it now?’

‘Well we could get someone else to do it if you want.’

‘Nuh uh. You offered. It’s too late now.’

And Bucky smiled, and Steve smiled back, and he thought about all that time he’d spent with nothing to do when he wasn’t at work, killing time day by day and never trying to do anything with his life, and he wondered how he’d ever coped.

It was all going so damned well.

That, somehow, was the problem. Steve had never had a period of his life go well before without something sudden and unpleasant bringing it to an abrupt end. Hopefully this time it wouldn’t be anything as extreme as being frozen for sixty-six years. Hopefully this time it won’t be anything at all.

But there was Hydra. Maybe they weren’t as strong as they had been, but they’d be unlikely to send their lower level agents after Bucky a second time around. And then there was the memory of the war; every time he’d made a bad decision or hadn’t been good enough and cost someone their life, and every time he’d spend hours dwelling on each step so he knew what he did wrong, how to be better next time.

He’d always protect civilians. That much, he thought had been a certainty.

Bucky’s training started again shortly after, as the days grew shorter and Christmas decorations began appearing everywhere. Now that his left side was more powerful than his right, much of what he’d learned no longer applied. Not that he seemed to mind; it was a small blessing that Bucky at least seemed to enjoy the training. Clint had even promised to teach him a bit of parkour for fun (and possibly as part of some elaborate form of irony. Steve had mostly got the hang of twenty-first century humour but he still wasn’t sure why everything was apparently done ironically these days) once he’d stopped falling over in response to the sudden added weight on one side.

He knew it was working because Bucky had become a formidable opponent at laser tag.

I’m Captain America, Steve constantly thought to himself, and Bucky pulled off increasingly improbable shots. Apparently Clint had taken it upon himself to include some accuracy training.

Occasionally he thought I’m Captain fucking America.

Once, Bucky used his metal arm to reflect Steve’s shot right back at him. Natasha had been right; the guy was resourceful.

I am Captain America I should not be losing at laser tag to a guy who sells cats.

Steve reverted to stealth, scoring a few good points against Bucky until he wasn’t there anymore. He didn’t seem to be anywhere. And then-

Well now you’re just being dramatic, Steve thought, as Bucky rolled past action hero-style to shoot Steve before he even had time to react. And Steve ignored the ridiculous flood of relief that followed conformation that Bucky hadn’t actually gone missing, to shoot as he stumbled a little on standing up again.

Steve won by one point. He texted the result to Sam who congratulated him by way of suggesting that he was “too competitive”. Afterwards Steve bought them both ice cream, because that seemed like a date thing to do. Peppermint flavoured. Because this close to Christmas everything was peppermint flavoured. There was no escape. They walked unhurriedly back to Bucky’s home and Bucky told him about his thanksgiving.

‘They’re always awkward.’ he was saying, ‘I don’t know how much you know about extended families-’

Nothing at all.

‘-but mom invites my aunt and uncle over every year. Do you remember me telling you about them? She’s gleefully refused to settle down, and he’s settled down on three failed occasions and now does nothing but complain about his ex wives.’

Steve ate some ice cream, nodding thoughtfully, and decided that he didn’t like peppermint at all.

‘So it was awkward enough before grandma died and decided to leave me the family home in the will. We all thought it was going to be one of her kids; we’d have been placing bets if it didn’t feel so disrespectful. My aunt’s the oldest, but my uncle needed it more, and mom actually has a family. Everyone was surprised when it was me.’

That certainly would make the relationships a little tricky.

‘Why’d she pick you then?’ Steve asked.

Bucky shrugged, ‘I guess we got along better. She loved complaining about politics, but the politics she complained about happened ages ago. She didn’t really have anyone else who’d join in her bitter moaning about Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon.’

‘She sounds nice.’

‘She was kinda grumpy and she played a lot of punk rock. Plus she insisted on living fully a week after the doctors told us she wouldn’t last the night. Told me privately that she was doing it because her kids only ever visited when she was in hospital, and she wasn’t going to let them off that easily.’

This invited a whole new picture of what thanksgivings must have been like before Bucky’s grandmother had died.

Steve had a new respect for the house by the time they’d made their way back. It wasn’t yet dark, but Bucky mumbled something about needing a porch light out of habit.

Steve’s phone buzzed as they stepped inside.

            Nat:                 Captured R

Oh.

‘Work? Something important?’

‘Uh…’

            Steve:               Do you need me there?

            Nat:                 Not urgently. We have him secure, just make sure you’re here tomorrow morning.

‘No, it’s fine.’ Steve said, waiting for the door to close behind them before continuing, ‘The others have found someone we’ve been looking for for a while.’

‘Someone bad?’

Jack Rollins. Steve remembered the barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his head as he kneeled on a Washington highway, Rumlow’s word of caution – not here – the only thing saving his life.

‘Hydra.’ Steve replied, nodding, ‘And who knows, maybe he’s got something to do with the Winter Soldier project. We lost track of him a while ago so we don’t really know what section of Hydra he’s working for.’

Bucky frowned his confusion.

‘Hydra’s kinda weird.’ Steve explained, ‘When they’re strong they’ve usually got one big plan that they’re all working towards. But the kind of people that are attracted to that organisation are all power-hungry pricks, so when Hydra is weak it has a tendency to split into factions as everyone tries to become the leader and bring their own plans to life.’

And now Bucky was nodding.

‘The good news,’ Steve continued, ‘is that we don’t have to worry about a serious bid for world domination. That bad news is that it’s really hard to keep track of all the tiny wannabe Napoleons. But that can wait. Because right now I’ve got something for you.’

‘Oh yeah?’

Steve drew the toy out of his pocket. It no longer had the cheap plastic texture that it had when it was first pulled from a Kinder egg, though the layer of varnish he’d added smoothed out the paint.

‘Here,’ he said, handing it over, ‘we had lots of spares so I thought I’d…’

He watched Bucky’s eyes crinkle in the corners with laughter. The toy had been sanded down in places and painted over; brown hair and blue eyes, a black leather jacket that Steve had painted without its left sleeve to show the details of the silver arm. The red star was the final detail added.

‘That’s amazing.’ Bucky gushed, grinning down at the tiny version of himself, ‘I’m gonna have to put it somewhere cats won’t attack it.’

They moved to the cat-free zone upstairs, Bucky setting it down on the mantelpiece next to some photographs. Meanwhile Steve’s attention was caught by something that he hadn’t seen in the living room before.

‘Oh, that?’ Bucky said, following Steve’s gaze and biting his lips so hard that Steve made a metal note to up his game when it came to making out, ‘That was- I was- it’s um- I was practicing… I wanted to see if I could- could still… and I can but… I’ll just put it away…’

Bucky picked up the guitar by the neck, ears and face a particularly becoming shade of pink.

Nuh uh. You’ve seen my art I wanna hear you play.

‘Can I hear something?’

There was a very long pause. Bucky stood so still that Steve began to wonder if he had actually been frozen. Then he breathed again and said, ‘I mean, I haven’t played in years, and I’m only just getting used to the new hand-’

‘Okay, don’t worry-’

‘- so it wouldn’t be that good…?’

Steve’s internal monologue did a little dance.

‘I won’t judge too harshly.’

‘Alright.’ Bucky said, dropping onto the sofa and cradling the guitar on his lap, ‘Alright.’ he said again, apparently for something to do, ‘I’m not going to plug it in because… alright.’

He took a deep breath.

‘Are you alright?’ Steve asked, watching with a little too much enjoyment.

‘Alright.’ Bucky repeated, ‘I’ll um. How about I play Kitty’s Back?’

Having never heard of the song before in his life, Steve just nodded.

‘It’s got some nice guitar at the beginning so I can just play the intro if you…’

Steve tried to arrange his face into something that suggested that he’d really like to hear the whole song without seeming demanding.

‘Alright.’ Bucky responded, ‘Just tell me if you get bored and I’ll stop. It’s one of those Springsteen songs where you can’t tell what the actual words he’s saying are so if I sing it the way he does don’t expect to be able to follow the lyrics.’

Bucky still hadn’t started playing.

‘Alright.’ Steve said.

‘Alright.’ Bucky said, ‘Alright…’

And then he began. There were no chords at the beginning, just clear notes and bending strings and Bucky’s metal fingers sliding up and down the frets. A complicated little melody; all the notes seemed to change partway through, more like a singer than an instrument. It was fascinating to watch the arm move, all the plates shifting and gleaming in the light. And then the intro was hushed and the lyrics began. They sounded something like:

‘Ket lon sigh oh an Kitty’s back too-oo.’

Bucky’s eyes were crinkling up at the corners as he sang, and Steve suspected that he wasn’t quite nervous enough not to make fun of Bruce Springsteen.

‘She lef ta marry some top cat eight the coal true-ue.’

The star on his arm matched the star on his guitar, and Steve felt like he was getting a glimpse of a version of Bucky he’d never met. The one from before the battle of New York. But music seemed to be a pure talent of his and hopefully Steve would hear a lot more songs played on that guitar.

It was enough to drive Jack Rollins from his mind for a few minutes.

There were a few days until Christmas, and Bucky was celebrating it as he did every year; at his parents’ apartment with his family, trying to survive the hangover from thanksgiving’s awkwardness.

‘Wanna come over New Year’s?’ Bucky asked, as Steve was regretfully leaving for the night, ‘We can watch Almost Famous and The Princess Bride or something and you can avoid that party you’ve been complaining about for the last two weeks?’

Anything that got Steve away from Tony’s annual New Year’s party was fine by him, ‘That sounds perfect.’

‘Perfect.’ Bucky repeated, then, ‘And Grease. Have you seen Grease yet? Here-’ he fished around in his pockets for a few seconds before pulling out a spare key to hand to Steve, ‘You can let yourself in.’

It was a key to Bucky’s house. Steve had a key to Bucky’s house. And how much of that conversation was an attempt to make that seem as casual as possible? Bucky was neither blushing nor biting his lips, but he did seem to be waiting anxiously for a response.

‘Sounds good.’ Steve said, trying not to grin as he slipped the key (the key to Bucky’s house. That he now had) into his pocket, ‘Can’t wait.’

And then, feeling like he’d finally shaken off the feeling that everything was about to go wrong, Steve stepped out into the night to deal with whatever Jack Rollins had in store for him.

His newfound optimism would last all of five days.

Chapter Text

            Day one;

Steve ignored the Jack Rollins problem for the length of time it took to crash for the night in the Tower. That is not to say that he managed to successfully ignore it until morning; only until the lights were out and he was lying in bed.

Thinking.

That never seemed to go away and tonight he lay on his side with three quarters of his face pressed into his pillow and his arm caught underneath him, too tired to move but unable to shut his mind up for long enough to fall asleep.

There were a million ways that the morning could go, and it felt to Steve as though he imagined them all.

He only realised that he must have actually fallen asleep when a phone call woke him up.

Fuck off.

‘Uuuuh… huh?’ Steve answered, because the word “hello” was elusive to him and groans seemed the most efficient form of communication.

‘This is your wake up call.’ said Rhodey, on the other end of the line, ‘Because I know you wouldn’t get up until noon otherwise.’

If Steve had to guess how his answer was spelt, it would have been something like ‘Nnnnnnn.’

‘Rise and shine, Cap, you’ve got work to do.’

‘NNNNNNNN.’

‘I hope you didn’t sleep in this much in the army. The way my commanding officers used to talk about you whenever some poor soul failed an inspection, you got yourself a reputation as the perfect soldier.’

That required a better answer, and Steve raised his middle finger at the phone in the secure knowledge that Rhodey wouldn’t be able to see it, as he managed, ‘I don’t see how that’s my fault.’

Steve got out of bed after the call ended, feeling heavier than usual and unwilling to move any faster than the average Microsoft update.

Maybe he should get one of those Mac Book things instead. What were those updates like? Then again, Steve remembered the amount of time he’d spent with SHIELD’s IT department early on when he was still trying to work out how new tech worked, and how at least a third of the time there was someone complaining loudly about how terrible Apple was.

Steve learnt the entire modern approach to swearing from IT people trying to deal with Apple related problems.

It took him a few minutes to realise that he was still standing in the middle of his bedroom and wasn’t actually any closer to dealing with the Jack Rollins problem. He rushed through the rest of his morning routine, wondering how many of those IT people had been secretly Hydra.

Did Hydra have an IT department?

Steve Rogers go meet the rest of the Avengers and do your fucking job.

That’s what he told himself, but that order was met with a muted rebuttal from his ever-dissident internal monologue, but I hate my fucking job.

But then was not the time to reflect on his life choices, so he reluctantly stepped into the lift and travelled to the floor that Rollins was being kept in.

‘Good morning, Steve.’ Jarvis said as he travelled downwards.

‘Is it?’

No, it’s a dreadful morning.

‘Agent Barton has asked me to inform you that he has a coffee ready for you.’

Okay so maybe it’s an alright morning.

I should text Bucky.

I need to prove that I actually wake up in the mornings.

            Steve:               Morning beautiful

            Bucky:             Don’t think that that compliment is going to disguise the fact that you’re only texting me to prove that you’re capable of waking up before noon

            Steve:               Fine then I won’t call you beautiful

            Steve:               Morning Grinch

            Bucky:             >:(!!!

‘Captain.’ Rollins greeted as he walked into his cell, ‘You seem happy. That’s a new look on you.’

Fuck you.

‘Yeah, well unlike you I’m looking towards a long stretch of not being in prison.’

They had time to get Rollins to talk. It had been agreed that they weren’t going to bother any of the investigators they worked with until after Christmas. Steve wondered how legal this was and then decided that he didn’t care. It was always difficult to tell what was and wasn’t legal as far as the Avengers were concerned.

That first day was given to finding out as much as they could about him, gauging his reactions, to work out a strategy. He didn’t talk and no one expected him to. Steve spent his free time sketching listlessly and feeling unsettled about how much he disliked this work.

            Day two;

Clint was wearing a Santa hat when Steve walked into the communal area that morning, leaning on a kitchen tower and pouring some unidentified alcohol into his morning coffee.

‘Isn’t it a bit early for that?’

Clint shrugged, ‘Maybe Tony is rubbing off on me.’ and he took a gulp. It was all Steve could do not to shudder in sympathy; that amount of strong coffee in one mug was bad enough, with the alcohol added Steve wondered if Clint actually had taste buds at all.

‘Nice hat.’

He grinned, ‘Gotta get into the Christmas spirit somehow, our guest isn’t exactly full of cheer. He told me to wish you a happy Christmas Eve, by the way.’

Steve sighed and tugged the refrigerator open, ‘I gotta deal with him soon, anyway. I’m sure he’ll tell me himself.’

He gazed into the fridge’s cool depths and wondered what he actually wanted for breakfast. None of that. He closed it again and moved towards the cupboards.

Clint offered a sympathetic ‘Ugh.’ and added, ‘I don’t wanna pressure Wanda because I know she doesn’t like it, but I kinda wish she’d pull her mind reading trick on this one.’

There was nothing that he wanted to eat in the cupboards, either. Maybe he’d given up on the fridge too soon.

‘That would be great, then I can stop getting up so early in the mornings.’

Nope, there was still nothing in the fridge. Coffee it was.

‘It’s nine thirty, man.’

Steve groaned, ‘I should still be asleep.’

Clint gulped down the rest of the coffee in one and slammed the mug on the bench, ‘Yeah, same. Hey, after you finish with Jack you should take a look at Bucky’s Facebook page. If you make fun of him too I won’t look like an asshole.’

Steve’s entire internal monologue perked its ears up like a cat and went ?????????

‘Show me.’

‘Nuh uh. You’ve got work to do first.’

Well now I’m gonna be distracted. Thanks a bunch.

He downed his coffee and grudgingly moved to Rollins’ cell. Just give him the food, say your lines, and get out. Not much work.

‘Mornin Cap.’

Steve already wanted to punch him.

‘Aw, don’t be like that.’ Rollins continued, ‘It’s Christmas Eve.’

‘I’m just here to give you food.’ Steve told him, not bothering to look at him.

‘And then, let me guess, you’re just going to let me stew? Hope I’ll get nervous and say something?’

Steve set the tray down in silence.

‘You gonna leave me alone on Christmas?’

‘Well, we’ll have better things to do.’ Steve told him, and made to leave.

‘Merry Christmas in advance, then.’ Rollins told Steve’s retreating back, ‘To you and your boy, Bucky.’

Steve stopped, just before the door. Paused. Turned around with his arms folded tight across his chest.

‘Don’t think I’m scared just because you know his name.’

There followed a few seconds of silence. Steve watched the unpleasant smile grow across the man’s face and resisted the urge to punch it off.

‘You think we can’t touch him?’ Rollins said, a sort of victory in his voice.

With his heart pounding in his ears and a sickening feeling in his gut, Steve used all his self-control to keep the anger from his voice as he replied, ‘I don’t think there’s much that Hydra can do these days.’

Grinning now, Rollins rose to the bait, ‘Just you wait. You thought that you couldn’t trust anyone before? Wait until you see who we’ll have you fighting by the time we’re done. The Winter Soldier is going to be more that you can handle.’

Why is every Hydra agent always so goddamned melodramatic about everything?

That was Steve’s cue to leave, closing the door and giving a “how’d I do” sort of gesture to Natasha.

‘Well done.’ she said, ‘You’ve been learning. The good news is that we now know that he’s involved in the Winter Soldier project. They seem to be the only branch of Hydra that’s active these days.’

‘And the bad news?’

She shot him a look of pity, ‘Now he thinks he’s in your head we’re going to need you to take the lead on the interrogation.’

Fuck.

‘Nat-’

‘Just make sure he doesn’t actually get in your head. Remember they’re not going to bother going anywhere near Bucky if he’s not useful to them. And right now he’ll be much more trouble than he’s worth.’

‘Yeah I know. Don’t worry.’

‘Good. Now please go on Facebook. If you don’t make fun of Bucky, Clint and I will just seem mean.’

Curiosity won over annoyance, and Steve left Nat to fetch his laptop.

Tony had recently granted the Avengers the ability to create Facebook accounts by doing something baffling and possibly illegal with computers, which resulted in inventing new privacy settings for the lot of them. It seemed a lot of effort for one website, but Steve wasn’t complaining when he found the latest photo that Bucky had posted.

Fucking dork.

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by cats all sporting ribbon or tinsel on their collars, and all enjoying the cat treats and Christmas themed toys that were scattered around them. A kitten that Steve thought might be Grover Cleveland was burying his head into a Santa hat, and Dave was hissing at the camera from under a pile of wrapping paper.

“Spending Christmas with the family tomorrow,” the caption read, “so the cats are celebrating a day early.”

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was what Bucky was wearing.

Where did he even get a sweater like that?

It was large and brightly-coloured, patterned with a motif of paw prints and cartoon cat faces, as well as the more traditional snowflake patterns. Emblazoned across his chest in candy cane stripped letters were the words “CAT GUY!”

There was a good possibility that this was the greatest photo Steve had ever seen.

            Steve Rogers:              Oh my god Bucky you look ridiculous. You’re lucky you’re cute, there aren’t many people who could pull of such a terrible jumper.

Bucky must have still been online because it didn’t take long for him to reply.

            Bucky Barnes:             Jokes on you guys, Tony sent me this sweater and I’d bet my life savings you’ve all got one too.

That would explain “CAT GUY!”

Oh god Tony please no.

But Bucky was right. By the time Steve made it back to the communal area five minutes later, Natasha was wandering around looking extremely pleased in a spider-themed Christmas jumper with sleeves that flopped past her hands. Somehow that didn’t stop her clutching a hot chocolate in her covered fingers. The hem of the sweater reached her thighs but she didn’t seem to mind, nor did she object to the large gold letters spelling out “BLACK WIDOW!”

‘Hi.’ she said.

‘You were making fun of Bucky ten minutes ago.’

She shrugged, ‘You should see Clint.’

Clint, as it turned out, had paired his Santa hat with a purple sweater, patterned with Christmas trees, coffee, and arrows. “HAWKGUY!” was written across his chest and he seemed a little grumpier about it than Natasha.

“IRON MAN!” walked in next, the tiny knitted robots on his sweater all wearing Santa hats and carrying different coloured gifts. It was only at that point that Steve started thinking who Tony had paid to knit these ridiculous things. What did that conversation look like?

Steve was handed a large sweater of his own, the entire front taken up with the words “STAR SPANGLED MAN WITH A PLAN!” in red and silver stripes. The rest of the design was a pattern of silver stars on a blue background. Patriotic Christmas, because obviously.

“THOR!” looked alarming in a sweater with a knitted version of his own face on the front.

‘Hey, Thor.’ Steve greeted, with a smile. 'I didn’t realise you were showing up.’

‘It’s not for long, unfortunately.’ he replied, ‘I have to return to Asgard in a few days.’

‘Can I-’

‘You still cannot come to Asgard, no.’

D:!!! said Steve’s internal monologue.

‘But it’s Christmas.’

Thor, a god of a religion that did not involve Christmas at all, didn’t seem to think that the Christmas spirit was a good enough reason to relent.

‘No.’

Pleeeee-’

‘No.’

‘-eeeeease.’

There was a short pause.

‘No.’

Jane showed up a few minutes later in a jumper patterned like Christmas in space and the rest of the day was spent relaxing and comparing whose sweater was worse (all of them). Refusing to admit that he loved the damn thing, Steve nonetheless only took his off when it was time to leave the Avengers and the tower for midnight mass.

            Day Three;

Steve was woken up midmorning when the mattress he was sleeping on tipped over to the side. Dragged from a deep sleep, he was in a fit state to do nothing but say ‘What the f-’ and flop onto the floor beside the bed with a thud.

‘Wakey wakey Cap.’ said Sam’s voice, ‘It’s Christmas.’

Blearily opening his eyes, he was greeted by the sight of Sam, Rhodey, and Tony grinning down at him. With a groan he dragged the duvet off his bed, wrapping it around himself and trying to get to sleep again.

‘C’mon,’ Tony whined, ‘we don’t want to have to wait for ages for you to get your ass out of bed.’

‘It’s Christmas.’ Rhodey added, with all the earnestness of when Steve had said the same the day before.

Steve dragged the duvet over his head until he was wrapped entirely in a cocoon and mumbled, ‘Is it snowing?’ a little too hopefully.

‘Sorry, pal.’ Tony answered, ‘Christmas is losing one nil to global warming.’

‘Then fuck off.’

Rhodey was laughing. Why were people always laughing when he was grumpy in the mornings?

‘We have Christmas flavoured coffee.’

Slowly, Steve removed the duvet from his face.

‘It’s not peppermint, is it?’ he asked, warily.

‘Toffee nut.’

‘Fiiiiiine.’

‘But you have to get ready quickly because Clint is awake so the coffee isn’t going to last long.’

Steve rose, rearranging the duvet as he did so so that it was draped around his shoulders like a cloak.

‘Can’t you ask him to leave me some?’

Sam shook his head, looking sympathetic, ‘Apparently he tried to put some shoes on and stepped on one of those tiny Clint Barton toys and he’s holding you responsible.’

Damn.

Steve got showered and dressed in record time, and Clint shot him an annoyed look from the kitchen counter when he arrived in time to claim some of the coffee.

‘Merry Christmas.’ Steve told him, cheerfully. Maybe the warmth and fuzziness of the stupid sweater he was wearing was rubbing off on him.

Sam (“BIRD BRAIN”) was wearing a sweater patterned with angel wings in gold and silver. Even Pepper and Maria were wearing theirs, and no one was getting murdered over terrible design choices. It was a Christmas miracle.

Pepper, as usual, had everything organised, ‘Presents first because I know you’re all eager. We a have list of people to Skype, starting with Darcy. And, Cap?’

‘Huh?’

‘You might wanna do something about that.’

She pointed to the large Christmas tree in the corner, which was shivering as though in a breeze, the way it had been every time Steve had taken his eyes off it for two goddamned seconds.

Guys.’ he said, ‘You’re already grounded. Get out of the tree.’

They ignored him. As he watched, FDR’s paw appeared from between the branches to bat at a bauble. On the other side of the tree, Henry lost his footing once again and slid into the pile of gifts with an undignified and squeaky meow.

‘Serves you right.’ Steve told him, sternly, ‘You too, FDR.’

No response. Time for a change of tactics. Steve scooped Henry up and carried him over to his chair, when he sat, petting Henry and offering him one of Bucky’s Christmas themed cat toys.

It took thirty seconds for FDR to give in and abandon the tree in favour of Steve’s lap.

You’re still grounded.’ he whispered, as he handed FDR a cat treat.

Darcy was contacted on Skype as the presents were being handed out. Wherever she was, spending Christmas with some college friends, she had snow. She also had a Christmas sweater with the word “NERD!” written on it.

‘See,’ she was saying to her friends, ‘I told you I know the Avengers.’

Thor took that as an opportunity to regale Darcy’s friends with stories of her adventures, while more and more wrapping paper was scattered on the floor. Steve’s cats soon left him for this newest toy, and by the time it was finished the only sign of them was the movement of the pile of paper. Steve’s phone buzzed as they were setting up for lunch.

            Bucky:             Merry Christmas sweetheart. How’s the jumper?

            Steve:               Awful

            Bucky:             Who’s the Grinch now?

Hopefully, Steve couldn't help but think to himself, he and Bucky would be having Christmas in the same place next year.

            Day four;

The cats had now spent so much time in the Christmas tree that they scattered glitter on Steve’s duvet when they woke him up on Boxing Day morning. Henry even had a piece of gold tinsel stuck in his collar.

‘Mornin’.’ Steve groaned.

FDR batted at his face in response. It was his way of asking for food.

‘Yeah yeah.’

Steve grumbled aimlessly at his cats as he climbed out of bed. What he wouldn’t give to still be asleep. He had to talk to Rollins again today.

But despite the early wake up call, Nat still had the nerve to act as though he was late when he finally made it downstairs.

‘Morning.’

‘Only just.’ she replied, folding her arms.

‘Alright whatever. I’m here now.’

Rollins smiled when he entered, displaying every tooth that Steve would like to punch out. ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ he asked.

Steve didn’t answer. Instead he took his seat on the single chair facing Rollins; a hard wooden thing that led Steve to believe that someone had been putting too much thought into aesthetics and not enough into comfort. Just because this was a cell shouldn’t mean that the interrogators had to be uncomfortable too.

‘What about Bucky?’ Rollins continued, still grinning without bothering to hide that this was a fake smile. A shark’s smile, ‘How was his Christmas?’

We need him to give us information, Steve told himself, even as his instinct told him to break the neck of every Hydra agent who’d ever heard Bucky’s name. Well, instinct always had a tendency to overreact.

Time to show some weakness.

‘Don’t talk about Bucky.’ Steve snapped. And Rollins, always so transparent, was convinced as ever that he’d gotten inside Steve’s head. It was to be expected, he was STRIKE; finesse had never been part of his training.

‘Why?’ he asked, leaning forward with victory written all over his expression, ‘Are you worried about what we’ll do?’

Natasha would be so much better at this.

‘We know what you’re going to do.’ Steve assured him, sticking to the script as best he could.

‘I doubt that.’

‘We know about the Winter Soldier project. We know you’re trying to brainwash people.’

‘Aw, that’s cute.’

‘You’re saying we’re wrong?’

‘I’m saying you have no idea what you’re talking about.’

It was Steve’s turn to wear a smile he wasn’t feeling, ‘You don’t seriously think we’re going to throw out our intel just because a prisoner laughed at us, do you? We’re not that insecure.’

Steve’s internal monologue crossed its fingers. The quicker he could goad information out of this prick, the quicker he could leave.

Rollins leaned forward so fast that Steve nearly flinched, ‘You still think that the Winter Soldier is just a project,’ he informed him, all ill-advised confidence, ‘It’s a person.’

‘Your hapless brainwash-ee?’ Steve guessed, still trying to seem unimpressed, ‘You trying to convince me that you have tech to create an army and you’re only going to use it on one person?’

‘You missed the Cold War, didn’t you?’ was the response, ‘The one thing we learned from that is that you don’t need an army if you have a ghost. Bad news for you, I’m afraid.’

Also, you can’t get your hands on enough superserum to create an army Steve thought, but sure, keep pretending that it’s a strategic choice.

‘Bad news for me?’

‘Oh, Cap. To make someone into a ghost you have to kill him. Metaphorically, of course. I wish I could see your face when you find out what’s coming.’

Well that’s not ominous at all.

‘You mean what’s coming if you ever work out how to get someone to survive the procedure.’

Do I seem bored enough? Am I trying too hard? I’m not good at acting.

‘We’ve found a way.’

It’s totally superserum.

‘Sure you have. We’ll just drop everything and panic, shall we?’

‘That’s up to you. But if you keep getting overconfident because you think you’re the only person in the goddamned world who’s ever going to get superserum, you’re gonna get a nasty shock. And that’s all I’m saying.’

Told you so.

‘That’s all you’re saying.’ Steve repeated.

‘That’s right. Try and make me talk.’

‘Jack?’

‘What?’

‘You suck at being interrogated.’

Finally Steve could get out. He rose from the world’s least comfortable chair and headed for the door. This was Natasha’s problem now, except…

‘Hey Cap.’ Rollins called after him, ‘I hope you get a chance to say goodbye to your Bucky.’

The door shut behind him with the clicking of multiple locks.

            Day five;

‘He’s not in my head, Nat. I just think we need more info.’

‘Because he’s in your head. What did I tell you?’

‘You told me not to let him in my head.’

‘Exactly. I told you not to let him in your head. And what have you done?’

‘He’s not. In. My. Head.’

‘Then why have you brought in Wanda?’

It took a lot of convincing to get Wanda on side. At some point since joining the Avengers she’d developed a moral dislike for mindreading. Steve had brought her blueberry muffins as a bribe and talked about everything that Rollins had said.

‘So I’m worried.’ he mumbled, ‘Doesn’t mean he’s in my head.’

‘Well you should be worried, mister Winter Soldier.’

Natasha had developed a very convincing theory, ‘We don’t know that I’m-’

‘There he is.’ Tony greeted as he walked in, ‘The Winter Soldier. A much cooler name than Captain America, if you ask me.’

I didn’t.

As Natasha pointed out, Steve already had superserum. That would make it a lot easier for Steve to be the Winter Soldier. All they’d have to do was kidnap him and brainwash him without worrying whether or not he could survive the procedure.

Steve was a little offended that he was considered so easy to kidnap, but he didn’t say anything.

It was Thor’s last day on the planet for a while, and it was apparent that he would have rather spent it doing almost anything but working. Steve tried to convince him that bringing him to Asgard was a good way to stop Hydra brainwashing him, but he wasn’t buying it.

It was a nervous wait. Steve’s coffee slowly cooled, undrunk, in his hands.

Wanda returned with a grim expression.

‘So?’ Natasha asked, ‘Is Steve the Winter Soldier?’

‘No.’

She didn’t say it like it was good news.

‘Are you sure?’ Nat asked, and Steve wondered how well she took being wrong about things. Not very well, he was willing to bet.

Wanda turned to him, ‘Steve, can you sit down for a moment?’

It was a universal telegraph for bad news. Steve sat down.

‘Okay, I’m not very good at… tact… so, um…’ she performed a hopeless sort of gesture with her hands. One of them sparked slightly in red.

‘Who’s the Winter Soldier?’

‘I think we should start with the plan.’ she began, ‘They know that they don’t have much in the way of resources so they’re not trying anything big.’

‘So that’s why I’m not the Winter Soldier?’

She nodded, ‘They don’t have great experiences trying to take you down even when they were at their strongest.’

‘So who is the Winter Soldier?’

A pause, ‘But they still need superserum and the only way that they know how to get it is from you.’

‘Right. And the Winter Soldier is…?’

She was biting her lip now, but it seemed different to Bucky’s mannerism, ‘They want to use your blood, but they’re not going to kidnap you because they can’t pull that off; if Captain America disappears it's going to bring a lot more trouble for them than just the Avengers. And they’re not going to kill you because there’s no way of knowing how much blood they’ll need. They might need to come back.’

‘That still doesn’t tell me-’

‘I’m getting to it.’ she interrupted, ‘Slowly. I told you I wasn’t good at this sort of stuff. They’re only letting you live as a just in case type thing. The plan is to get everything they need in one go, because they’re only confident that it’ll work once. Once they strike the first time they figure you’re going to become impossible to get to, and all their plans involve a civilian being present so they have leverage and you won’t turn it into a full on fight. They’re hoping to immobilise you pretty early on.’

‘A civilian?’

‘A specific civilian. Drawing blood and abduction in one go.’

A specific civilian. Steve didn’t like where this was going.

‘Who is the Winter Soldier?’

Wanda was fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, ‘They picked him because they think he’ll be an easy target.’

‘Wanda-’

‘And because, when they use him in a fight, they know we won’t be willing to hurt him.’

Feeling a little dizzy, Steve already knew the answer before he asked, ‘Who…’

‘It’s Bucky, Steve. They want to brainwash Bucky.’

No one spoke. Even his normally loud mind fell disconcertingly silent. But only for a moment, then-

Why do I ever try?

Of course something went wrong. Steve was happy; something always went wrong. He’d only been optimistic for five days and now he could feel himself losing everything all over again.

Why do I ever even give a shit about anything?

‘That’s not happening.’ he told them, and he could hear his own horror in his quiet voice, ‘Nat…’

‘He’ll be safe.’ she assured him, but that didn’t stop his breathing growing quicker, deeper.

Bucky had made him feel like he had something more than battles to his life, and maybe it was a terrible thing to need another person but sometimes Bucky seemed like the only person who didn’t care that he was Captain America.

It’s not happening. He’ll be safe. I’ll make sure he’s safe.

‘How?’

His hands were shaking. He could tell because the coffee felt unsteady in his grip. And the quick breathing wasn’t helping because he was feeling dizzy anyway. His heart must be pumping as hard as it was hard to make up for the lack of oxygen, even as his lungs strived for more air. Was this a panic attack? He’d never had one of those before, though he’d come close. How could he tell? Was there a checklist he could run through to see if that was what this was?

‘We’ll make sure that Hydra have no reason to go after Bucky.’

His muscles seemed unable to relax, like when he’d held his breath for too long and his fingers started curling and uncurling of their own accord. His legs stretching themselves out like he’d forgotten how to just stay still. If this was a panic attack then it wasn’t how they looked on TV.

‘What- what do you mean?’

No, this was probably something else entirely. He just didn’t know what to call it. Sam would, though Sam hated dealing with psychology stuff with his friends. He used to try to get Steve a goddamned therapist.

‘Well, they need you two to be in the same place for their plan to work.’

Steve had lost track of who was speaking now. But whoever it was was being unreasonably calm.

‘So what? We just avoid each other? Have a long-distance relationship in the same city?’

People were sharing significant looks. One of them opened their mouth to speak but Steve cut them off.

‘And what’s to stop Hydra kidnapping him while he’s alone?’

‘He’s useless to them without the serum. They know you’ll make it impossible for them to get it once they take him.’

That must have been Wanda again, she knew what they were planning.

‘And why won’t they just get my blood first?’

Was he talking too loud? What was a normal volume again? Why wasn’t there enough fucking air?

‘Because they know the moment they get your blood Bucky’s going to be better protected than anything on this planet. They’ve already tried to get him once so they know you know he’s at risk.’

So it’s gotta be at the same time. Me and Bucky together.

‘Well how are we gonna fix it? Because that shitty plan of yours isn’t working for me.’

‘Steve-’

‘I’m gonna keep seeing him, I don’t give a damn what Hydra’s planning.’

Steve-’

He was on his feet with a strangely wet clatter. It took a few moments to register that that was his coffee hitting the floor. It didn’t shatter like it did in the movies, just landed pathetically with the beverage flowing out. No one made to clean it up.

‘I’m not breaking up with him.’ he told them all, calm as the centre of a storm.

In the silence he willed them not to challenge him.

It was Sam who spoke, ‘I don’t think you have a choice.’

‘Of course I have a fucking choice!’ – and he’d started yelling without noticing – ‘You, and Nat and Clint, you all wanted me to keep seeing him in the first place! We knew there were risks!’

‘That was different-’

‘We can fight Hydra!’

‘We don’t even know where they are. They keep moving-’

‘I told him I wouldn’t let Hydra ruin this.’

There was silence. Steve’s eyes were dry but he could feel a thickness behind them, and in his throat. He wasn’t yelling anymore, ‘I told him I loved him.’

‘I’m sorry, Steve.’ Tony said, and he sounded as though he meant it but that didn’t stop Steve’s anger racing back in a flash.

‘You’re sorry? You still have Pepper! And Thor gets Jane! This isn’t fair-’ his voice wavered on the last word as he heard how childish that seemed.

‘Jane nearly died because of me.’ Thor said, quietly, ‘Before London. An infinity stone came close to taking her life.’

‘And with AIM.’ Tony added, ‘I thought Pepper had died and it was my fault. You think I wouldn’t give her up in a heartbeat if it meant that I could be sure she was safe? I’m with her on a gamble but you know how the dice are gonna fall so you know what you have to do.’

Of course he knew. He just didn't like it.

Now there were tears in Steve’s eyes. That always happened when he ran out of fight. But he wasn’t going to let them fall yet.

‘When are you seeing him next?’

Wanda again, and she was trying to be kind.

‘New Year’s.’

‘That should be fine. Hydra won’t be ready by then.’

‘So that’s when I break up with him, is it?’ Steve snapped, ‘They’re not ready so I’m allowed to do it in person?’

He remembered Bucky grabbing his arm and making him promise to see him once more if he decided to end it. That was so long ago now, the night that Bucky had helped him rediscover art.

No one answered, so Steve walked towards the lifts. He couldn’t be there anymore and, pointlessly, he refused to let a tear fall until he was in his own apartment. It wasn’t a long ride; him, bracing against the wall and refusing to crumble just yet, telling himself not to remember that night.

There were a few seconds of respite as he stood, numbly, in his apartment. Next second it hit and he was sitting on the floor, trembling and trying to understand why this could feel like physical pain. That night had meant so much to Steve. Bucky had given him back art.

Before then art had seemed so useless in his brutal life, and he understood that now better than he ever had before. Of course everything was going to fall apart, that was how his life worked. What use was art? How was that going to help him survive? And survival should be his only goal; every time he tried for a happy ending he only ever broke his own heart.

I’ll never get a happy ending.

It was a thought that left him terrified of everything that the future held for him. But of course it did; he’d wasted his effort on love and hope and that was why he couldn’t breathe now. Why his heartbeat was racing and he could feel cold sweat on his skin. Why he felt like some terrible event was poised on the edge of occurring. He’d let himself believe in more than he’d ever have and now the illusion was vanishing.

I’ll never have a happy ending.

He knew which weapons he could use to the greatest effect, and that was information that helped him. But now he also knew what Bucky’s skin tasted like when it was flushed like the summer heat, and that was information that hurt him.

I’ll never have a happy ending.

Maybe if he kept repeating it to himself it would sink in this time and he wouldn’t try anything this stupid again.

I’ll never have a happy ending.

Or maybe he was repeating it because it terrified him.

I’ll never have a happy ending.

I’ll never have a happy ending.

I’ll never have…

It was only when he’d finally calmed down that he realised that that must be what a panic attack was like. Somehow he hadn’t even cried in the end, just dry eyes and shaking hands. He disregarded most of what he’d thought as ridiculous. Still, he felt uneasy that he’d thought it at all.

Both his cats had shown up at his side as if to comfort him, and that should have been touching. But the only thing he really felt was exhaustion.

He told himself he’d have a short nap but by the time he woke up Jarvis was telling him that there was pizza for dinner in the common area. Steve took the lift back up feeling shame settle in his gut, and when he joined the rest of the Avengers the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I’m sorry. For-’

‘We know.’ Tony cut in, ‘Don’t worry about it.’

It was the twenty-seventh of December. Steve had four days left of having Bucky in his life. The thought had occurred to him that he could just make this a temporary arrangement, but every part of his mind had rejected that idea. Hydra never really went away, and this was only going to happen again and again.

Bucky deserves better.

Once, in the four days that followed, Bucky had started a conversation over text. Steve had found that he couldn’t stomach pretending that everything was perfectly alright, no matter how much he desperately wanted to.

He stared into the bright screen for several long minutes before typing out “I love you” and hitting send. Bucky didn’t take so long to reply.

            Bucky:             I love you too

And Steve held the phone to his chest and hoped that Bucky wouldn’t come to hate him.

New Year’s Eve came too soon.

There still wasn’t a porchlight above Bucky’s door, and with night having long since closed in Steve understood why Bucky always fumbled for the lock. There was no moonlight to help him, and no stars shining through the thick layer of clouds. The air was frozen with the promise that it would finally snow. Soon, but for now it was just waiting. Steve shut the door behind him and kept the key in his hand.

‘That you, Stevie?’

Stevie.

‘Yeah.’

He followed Bucky’s voice through to the cat’s room and found him shutting the last of them up for the night. It was warm inside the house, and bright, and exactly the place that Steve wanted to stay for as long as he possibly could.

Bucky smiled when he turned around, and Steve was hit with the realisation that this was the last of those smiles that he was going to get. Something in that must have shown on his face because – too soon – the smile faltered and vanished.

‘You okay Steve?’

There was no possible way to answer that. Steve felt his mouth go dry as he hesitated, ‘Can I talk to you?’

He led the way back out into the front room without waiting for the ‘Sure?’ from Bucky.

Shit shit shit shit shit.

In some twisted, inverse way, this was so much like coming out it hurt. The same shaky hands, sick feeling in his stomach. Trying to force the words out without having any idea how and just wishing that he could ignore it and spend the evening with everything still being normal.

Then he looked at Bucky, just leaving the cats’ room, and remembered the Winter Soldier ledger, and tried to steady his breathing.

‘What’s wrong?’ Bucky asked. He was biting his lip, digging his teeth in and all Steve wanted to do was kiss him. It was enough to make him forget how to speak for a moment.

‘You gotta tell me,’ Bucky continued, ‘because that’s the same look I see whenever someone’s about to break up with me and that’s not…’

Expressions were hard to control. Bucky seemed to be reading Steve’s all too well.

‘you’re not…’

The jolt of realisation must have hit. Steve didn’t even need to say a word.

‘Steve…’

There was a break in the voice when he said Steve’s name and the happiest seven months in Steve’s whole life came crashing to an end.

‘I love you.’ Steve told him once more. Because now, more than ever, it seemed like an important thing to say, ‘But if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt it’s that that never seems to be enough.’

‘It is this time.’ Bucky insisted. There didn’t even seem to be any sadness in his face yet, just shock and confusion and something that looked a little too much like the feeling of betrayal, ‘It is. You said it is. I thought…’

‘Bucky, I’m-’ please don’t look at me like that ‘-I’m sorry.’

‘No. Stop- you’re not-’

‘Buck-’

Why?

Because I love you. Because I’ll never get a happy ending.

‘Because of Hydra.’

It was the wrong thing to say, and Steve realised it the moment he said it.

‘Because of Hydra.’ Bucky repeated, his voice suddenly cold.

‘We got new info,’ Steve began. He stepped forward but Bucky took a step back, ‘I can’t put you in this much danger.’

‘We’ve been through this-’

‘And now things have changed.’

In a flash he was yelling, all untempered rage, ‘Well I don’t fucking care, Steve! You told me you weren’t going to do this! You promised me!’

Steve had his fist clenched so tightly around the key that he could feel the marks it would leave on his palm. He didn’t cry in front of people; though he didn’t really know why. It was something he’d picked up when his mother was dying and he’d held onto it for a lifetime. It was there still in that second, as he held the tears back and watched as Bucky didn’t even try the same.

He was seething, ‘You can’t do this to me.’ and even as he glared at Steve there were tears caught in his lower lashes, ‘You said you loved me-’

‘I do.’ Steve said quickly, imploring him.

Well what the fuck does that matter now?’ a shaky breath. Gritted teeth, ‘Huh? Is that supposed to make everything better? You asshole, you… you…

There were real tears now. Bucky ignored them as they splashed off his cheeks and, when Steve lowered his gaze from Bucky’s eyes, he could see them form tiny speckles on the carpet.

Steve still didn’t cry in front of people, but it wasn’t always easy.

‘I’m sorry.’ he said, and listened for the response.

‘So?’

So that’s the only thing I have to offer.

He nodded miserably at the carpet, ‘I should go.’

One step towards the door.

‘Wait.’

Bucky had him by his arm and Steve realised that the last thing he’d learn about his love was how quickly he could change from anger to pleading.

‘Steve, don’t. Just…’ tears were still gathering in his wide eyes, ‘Let’s just talk.’

‘No. We can’t anymore. Just- just pretend you don’t know me.’

‘So this is the last time we’ll ever see each other?’

Steve didn’t have an answer for that. Even if he did, he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to speak.

‘You can’t go,’ Bucky continued, ‘it works. Please, Stevie. For once it actually works.’

It would be so easy to pull him in, wrap his arms around him, comfort him in the warmth they’d share and tell him-

Tell him what?

Bucky was still clutching his arm. But Steve slipped his hand out from the grip, watching the fingers loosen as he placed the key in his hand. They both stared at it for a few long seconds, Steve still willing himself not to cry.

Not yet.

Bucky said his name again as he headed for the door. And again. But Steve didn’t answer as he walked away.

‘Fine!’ anger again, ‘Don’t fucking come back here then! Stay out of this whole neighbourhood, I don’t ever wanna see you again! Go back to your tower. I guess it’s where you belong, Cap.’

Even the air in the room felt as though it had stilled. Everything paused as Steve glanced back, Bucky seemed to already regret his words; by his expression he looked as though he couldn’t decide between yelling and begging. Steve didn’t want to find out which would prevail.

There was only one thing left to do.

‘Goodbye, Buck.’ he said, barely above a whisper, and he opened the door and stepped out into the frigid night.

‘No, Steve, wait-’

Bucky was at the door as it closed, and for a moment Steve thought he was going to throw it open again and follow him out.

But nothing happened. Steve was alone again, saying a silent goodbye to the house and the street and all the promises that it had held. And as he crossed the bridge he said the same to Brooklyn itself. He had no business there anymore; he’d leave it to Bucky and to everything else that he’d left in the past.

The party had started by the time he got back to the Tower, but he took the private lift up without seeing anyone. Maybe Bucky really believed that all the failed loves were still worth it; Steve hoped so. He could use some of that optimism himself.

But optimism had never really worked out for him. Without turning the lights on, he sat down in front of his windows as the city celebrated the New Year below him. He didn’t make any resolutions.

Instead, he unlocked his phone, the light creating a ghostly reflection of his tired face on the glass, and tapped Bucky’s name. There would be no more messages, but the last one that Bucky had sent a few days ago still remained.

            Bucky:             I love you too

Steve finally let himself cry as the first snow of winter drifted past his window.

Chapter Text

Okay.

The sound of the motorbike had vanished and Bucky wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing.

Okay.

He probably shouldn’t be standing there at the door, but if he started to move then he’d have to have a destination in mind. He could always breakdown in tears, then he wouldn’t have to do anything or move anywhere for a while. Convenient. And easy, since that was all that his mind wanted to do.

It seemed a little melodramatic, though. Not to mention uncomfortable; the one thing he’d learned from his “no one understands me” phase when he was fifteen and his hormones didn’t lend themselves to emotional stability, was that the floor was not a very satisfying place to cry. It was hard to focus on how awful everything was when he was being distracted by the pins and needles he was getting in his legs.

Okay. Go upstairs.

Good idea. He just had to hold himself together for a few flights of stairs and then he could lie down on his bed and react as melodramatically as he wanted, until tumultuous shock and hurt had faded to a more manageable ache. And then he could deal with it in the morning.

Okay. This is okay. You’re going to be okay.

Crying was exhausting, and so sleep was easy. But in between the two he couldn’t help but think this is stupid. He’d played this level before.

The way his family talked about it, it sounded like he’d had a seamless train of failed loves. But that had never really been true. For a start, everyone he’d dated had been a different person, and Bucky liked them for who they were rather than the role they filled. That might have been his problem. It was hard to stay single when so many people were extraordinary. Rarer were the people who ended up so important to Bucky that their eventual, messy departure left indelible marks on Bucky’s life. One called Elizabeth, and another called Mattie.

And then there was Steve.

This is stupid.

His one successful relationship had still failed on a technicality. What a pointless ending. What a shitty way to usher in the new year.

Bucky fell asleep frustrated and woke up alone.

‘Fuck off.’ he said into his pillow, addressing both the morning and the whole concept of consciousness.

Cats. Now.

But staying in bed seemed far more inviting. Sometimes he understood why Steve-

He shut down that train of thought before it could go too far.

It’s not the cats’ fault that your love life sucks.

He got out of bed. All things considered, that was the point that his day started to go downhill. Still, he mused, if he could manage to distract himself then he could get through the day feeling numb and not have to deal with the fact that everything sucked. It was a good plan. It worked for him pretty well after the Battle of New York, and it could work for him here.

He might have opened and shut all the doors with more force than necessary. It didn’t really matter until he startled Woodrow Wilson into hissing at him.

‘Sorry pal.’

There had never been a kitten who could glare quite like Woodrow Wilson, who’s hellish demon eyes glared into Bucky’s soul from the bundle of angry orange fur.

‘Look, we’re both having a shit day so far, just eat your food and try to look cute for the customers, okay?’

Woodrow responded by licking his paw disdainfully. What an asshole. At least he was cute; he should get adopted soon.

Bucky handed out the rest of the food and was forcefully reminded that all cats were assholes.

‘Happy new year’s.’ he grumbled, as Taft scratched a line down his forearm.

‘Happy new year’s to you too, big brother.’

Bucky jumped at the sound of her voice. Then, realising it was Becca, endeavoured to seem as though he hadn’t jumped so she wouldn’t laugh at him.

‘…Hi.’ he managed, ‘I didn’t think you’d be here so early.’

‘Yeah, I didn’t get to bed last night so I guess I was up pretty early, in a way. God, Buck, you look as bad as I feel.’

‘Yeah, I…’

There was a long pause.

‘You alright?’

He turned back towards the cats, trying to hide the expression he knew must show on his face.

‘Steve, um.’ One breath, you’re okay, ‘Broke up with me last night.’

‘What?’

Becca please don’t make me repeat that.

‘He…?’

‘Yes.’ Bucky continued, ‘He dumped me. I’m single. Again. It’s all very boring and predictable.’

‘But… you two were… was there some big fight I missed, or?’

‘Apparently, but it was between Steve and Hydra so I’m not allowed near that anymore.’

The bitterness was almost a tangible thing. Bucky closed the door to the cats’ room, briefly considering just going back to bed.

‘Oh.’ Becca said, then followed up with, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Do you want to grab some coffee or something? Uh…

She’s only got one strategy for cheering me up.

…I’ll pay…

Wait for it…

…white mocha with raspberry. That’s your favourite, right? Why don’t you drink it often?’

Because you starting buying me that every time something goes wrong and now I associate it with sadness.

‘Sounds good.’

It’s like my version of chocolate ice cream.

‘Okay, let’s go.’

Bucky didn’t move, ‘Um.’

‘Um?’

‘Which Starbucks?’

He’d already installed a personal no-fly zone around the ones he and Steve frequented.

Becca was looking at him with a mix of sympathy and condescension, ‘There isn’t exactly a shortage of Starbucks franchises.’

This was true. And, helpfully for Bucky’s fragile mood, they were all more or less the same.

‘Hope you don’t mind me complaining bitterly about everything.’

His sister rolled her eyes slightly, as if she only remembered partway through that she was trying to be polite.

‘Sounds fun.’

And then she opened the door to the frigid street. What a miserable start to the year.

‘The snow didn’t even settle.’ he grumbled, scuffing his foot against the sodden pavement.

The whole neighbourhood seemed to sag under the weight of water, dripping icy cold off the lampposts and grim houses and sparse, bare trees.

‘Uh huh.’

‘If it’s not going to settle then what’s the point? It might as well just rain. At least rain would be warmer than whatever the hell this is. Look.’ he added, pointing to the gutter across the road, ‘There’s slush. No one likes slush.’

‘You’re really committing to this complaining thing already, aren’t you?’

Bucky frowned at her. She didn’t seem to realise how grumpy he was, but he did make a mental note that she wasn’t wearing a scarf.

‘It’s cold. And early. I can’t be expected to always be a morning person.’

‘Sure.’

‘And, oh great, it’s starting to rain. At least it’s not pretending to be snow this time. It’s open with it intentions to soak everything.’

It was only drizzle at this stage, having no effect on the already waterlogged streets.

‘How grumpy do you really need to be, Buck?’

Should have worn a scarf, Bucky thought, as he placed the freezing metal of his left hand against the back of her neck. So maybe not everything was terrible today; he hadn’t realised that Becca could even squeal like that.

‘Not cool, Jimmy. I’m buying you coffee, be nice.’

Bucky narrowed his eyes, ‘Okay, I’m sorry.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Harriet.’

Being grumpy and dramatic about everything was the easiest way to talk about it. His default setting when he was upset had always been jokes, so it was natural that the only way he’d ever bring himself to “talk about it” was to make it sound like he wasn’t being fully serious about everything.

This strategy had the added bonus of saving the people he was venting to from finding a million awkward variations on “aw that sucks”.

So Becca paid for coffee while Bucky complained like an English tourist. The Starbucks felt far too hot after the cold air, the rain wasn’t even raining properly, that couple with the Midwestern accent were talking too loud, and Steve Rogers was a dick.

(It was even easier if he put the things he was really upset about in between all the petty things that he didn’t really care about.)

He got up to complaining that he wouldn’t be able to train “self-defence” anymore, when Becca decided to shirk her responsibilities of agreeing with him to be helpful.

‘You could always just go somewhere else to train, if it really matters to you. God knows you always find the stupidest distractions after a breakup anyway, this is probably better than getting a tattoo or something.’

God dammit Bec can’t you tell I’m trying to feel sorry for myself here?

Bucky ignored the second half of her comment and asked, ‘Like where?’

‘Hang on, I’ll text my friend. She knows some places.’

Suspicious.

‘No underground fight clubs.’

‘Of course not. My god, Buck, what do you think I do with my free time?’

Honestly, Becca Barnes seemed like the sort of person who could secretly be Daredevil.

‘You mostly seem to just hang out at my house.’

‘I’m a writer. I can do that anywhere. Here,’ she pulled out a pen and grabbed Bucky’s right hand, scribbling something on it without bothering to be gentle, as she read it off her phone, ‘This is the address she sent me. Tell them you’re a friend of Cam’s. Knowing Cam won’t get you anything but at least they might not make fun of your hair cut so much.’

‘My hair looks great.’ he grumbled, before draining the last dregs of his coffee.

Becca replied with an ‘Mmhmm.’ noise that could have been agreement but probably wasn’t.

His hair was almost the way he wanted it. It was brushing his shoulders now, and he was planning on finding a hairdresser that could make it frame his face better and maybe fix the dead ends. Someone he could trust to trim his hair without chopping half of it off. Hairdressers were scary people.

But that could wait. He had never had much of a focus on the long-term or forward planning, so when the rest of the shops opened again – all but his own, it seemed – Bucky’s focus turned away from hair maintainence and towards training.

Was it even training anymore? He didn’t really have a reason to do it.

It was probably sport, then.

Ugh.

‘Hi.’

The man in the office peered at him from eyes that seemed unnaturally deep in his skull. Not that Bucky was judging.

‘Look, son.’ the man said. Which was about as optimistic a sentence as “Alabama has the deciding votes in the presidential race”, ‘I ain’t providing a place for strangers to take out their problems with their fists. You wanna be angsty, go elsewhere.’

‘How can you tell-’

‘I know your type. Always looking so sad about everything. What’s the problem? Girlfriend dump you?’

At this point it struck Bucky that, at a glance, this stranger looked uncannily like Colonel Sanders. He had no idea what use he had for such a distracting thought, but it was difficult not to notice.

‘Cam told me about this place.’ Bucky informed him, self-consciously.

Colonel Sanders leaned in closer, to better observe him, ‘Cam dump you?’

‘No.’

‘So who did?’

‘That’s… none of your business. And also irrelevant.’

Why are you making this difficult? Don’t you have some chicken to cook?

‘Uh huh. So tell me, you here to learn to fight? Or are you just here to punch things?’

It was a testament to the training that Bucky had previously had that he was able to distinguish between the two.

‘I, uh, already know how to fight, sir. I was kinda hoping to practice.’

Why in God’s name am I calling you sir?

Colonel Sanders examined him for so long, staying so still, that Bucky began to worry that he was having some sort of paralytic seizure. Eventually he said, ‘Tell ya what, you prove you know how to fight and I’ll let you join. Deal?’

This, Bucky had to think about. On one hand, this was definitely the goal. On the other, Colonel Sanders was just weird enough that Bucky was in half a mind to leave immediately. The deciding factor was that Bucky wasn’t above showing off just a little.

‘Deal.’

‘Good. Get changed. And don’t try to tell me your name before I’ve decided that you’re not full of shit. I know what you millennials are like, always trying to introduce yourselves.’

It was the single strangest millennial stereotype that Bucky had ever heard, but objecting seemed like a bad idea.

He changed into sports clothes nervously in the unfamiliar locker room, in enough of a rush that he must have returned in record time. Nonetheless, Colonel Sanders had already disappeared, to be replaced by a slim, polite looking man of what Bucky guessed inexpertly to be Pacific Island descent.

‘So you met Maxwell, huh?’

Maxwell seemed like such an outrageous name for the man that Bucky had met that for a moment his mind rejected it in favour of “the Colonel”.

‘I guess?’

‘We try to keep him away from the door. He doesn’t really give the best first impressions.’

That required some polite response, ‘Not at all… he seems nice.’

‘Does he?’

‘Um.’

‘Anyway, I’m Noah. Nice to meet you.’

‘Bucky.’ Bucky replied, as they shook hands.

‘So before we get started, I sort of have to ask-’

‘What is that?’

The both turned around to see the Colonel – Maxwell, rather – striding towards them and pointing at Bucky’s left arm.

‘That’s pretty much what I was going to ask.’ Noah muttered, ‘But I was going to be more polite about it.’

Following their gazes down to his prosthetic, Bucky flexed his metal fingers, ‘It’s my arm.’ he said, a little defensively.

‘It’s made of metal, son.’

It was hard to dispute that statement.

‘Yes.’ Bucky agreed.

‘Don’t you think that that could be a little dangerous when sparring?’

The thought had honestly never occurred to him. There was something about being trained by superheroes that meant things like having a metal arm never really came up.

‘I could take it off?’ he offered.

A brief look of panic crossed Noah’s face. It was a look that Bucky recognised; a look that says “I have been raised to treat people with disabilities the same as everyone else and as a side effect I have absolutely no idea what the fuck I’m supposed to do when I have to acknowledge that a disability exists”. A look of absolute terror when faced with the risk that they might accidently say something offensive.

‘No.’ Noah said, ‘No no no, no, don’t do that. It’s fine. We’ll just make sure there’s enough padding in the gloves, and stuff. It’ll be fine.’

They weren’t boxing gloves, and didn’t seem like they’d do an awful lot to protect a face if Bucky were to punch it, but they seemed to make Noah a little more relaxed.

‘So,’ he began, as they were finally ready and the Colonel was settled into a chair to watch, ‘what kinda fighting do you do?’

Bucky’s mind offered up a ticker tape of question marks. He looked around at the other members of the gym for inspiration – a few scattered around the room absorbed in their own activities – but that didn’t help in the slightest.

‘Self-defence?’ he finally tried.

‘So someone taught you self-defence stuff, and now you’re looking to learn more?’

‘…Yup.’

‘That’s alright. We get a lot like that through here.’

The Colonel was intimidating, and so was being in this strange place with all these people who saw it as a sport to be taken seriously. But the last thought in Bucky’s mind before they began was Fuck it. I don’t need the Avengers, I can do just fine myself.

Noah threw the first punch.

It was habit, a left over honour-code from Bucky’s bar-fighting days. Everyone deserved a chance to back out from a fight and he’d decided that he wasn’t doing anything wrong so long as he never threw the first punch.

He always made sure he threw the second, but that wasn’t necessary anymore. Instead he dodged to the side and caught Noah – one hand at his forearm and the other at his shoulder, pushing downwards and using his momentum to throw him off balance – just like he’d been taught. Noah fell but rolled, ending up on his feet with a surprised expression.

‘Okay…’

He adapted.

Next time he threw a punch he was quicker, less obvious about it, and Bucky was chiding himself for letting it connect. Never mind, he could return with a blow of his own, another dodge, some fluid footwork Natasha had taken it upon herself to teach him, and the next time he got a grip on his arm, Noah ended up pinned to the floor and tapping out.

Well, that didn’t take long.

They both stood up. Noah dusted himself off as Bucky looked over to the Colonel.

‘Son,’ the latter said, ‘if that’s self-defence, what the hell kind of people do you need to defend yourself against?’

Don’t say Hydra.

Bucky shrugged unconvincingly, ‘So can I join?’

‘Well, sure, since you know how to fight like you said. Even though you don’t know shit about fighting.’

Bucky wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. He also wasn’t entirely sure how to phrase his confusion. His method was standing there, frowning slightly, and hoping the Colonel caught on to his “?????????” vibe.

Noah helped him out, ‘He means you’re lacking in technical knowledge. Whoever trained you seemed much more concerned in making sure you could do some damage.’

‘Right.’

‘Not that I’m suspicious of anything, but…’

‘Yeah?’

Who… exactly… trained you?’

Don’t say the Avengers.

‘Just some people.’ he answered, waving his hand vaguely.

Judging by the way his eyes narrowed, Bucky would have thought that Noah was suspicious of something if he hadn’t just been assured otherwise. He put more effort into appearing casual and resisted the urge to say “don’t call the cops”.

‘Did you serve?’ the Colonel asked, glancing pointedly enough at his arm that Bucky was suddenly self-conscious.

‘Erm. No.’ not for the first time, he had to stop himself apologising for his answer to that question, ‘This was because of an, uh, accident.’

Noah wasn’t seeming any less suspicious.

Having spent most of the time persuading Noah and the Colonel that he was neither a criminal nor using the gym as an emotional outlet following a breakup – and not entirely convinced he’d succeeded on either count – Bucky decided to be satisfied that at least he had a new place to train. Because Clint wouldn’t help him anymore. Because they weren’t talking. Because the Avengers were all idiots.

Especially Steve. Who also, as it turned out, was a dick.

Not that Bucky was thinking about that right then.

It was starting to snow again as he walked back towards his home, hands shoved deep into his pockets and eyes on the pavement, mind full of what a good job he was doing not thinking about Steve.

It’d been three days and he’d managed to avoid thinking about him that whole time. He deserved a medal. Break ups are easy, he thought, kicking a small stone moodily into the gutter, I don’t know why I found them so hard before. I’m doing great.

Other things he wasn’t thinking about included how much easier this would have been if he’d been told what was going on. Maybe Steve had been right, and maybe Bucky would have agreed, but the explanation would have helped. And who knows, maybe there would have been better options, like…

Bucky’s mind drew a blank.

It had always been a strange fact of their relationship that it tenuously relied on how much Bucky enjoyed learning to fight. There was only so much a person could ask of their boyfriend, and there was a silent sort of agreement that “we can’t date unless you put time and effort into learning self-defence” only really worked because Bucky didn’t mind. So what other options were there?

A cab driver honked loud and long as he stepped onto the street without looking. Bucky ignored him; partly because he was lost in thought and partly because his deeply New York disregard for pedestrian etiquette had only been magnified by his stormy mood.

Supervision? Protective custody? Bucky tried to take an objective view of it and wondered, if a friend or one of his sisters had told him that their boyfriend requested, for safety reasons, that they leave their job and social life to stay indefinitely within a defensible tower, Bucky would have told them to dump the creep.

Well if I’m going to have to be reasonable about it then I can’t be mad.

It was an unacceptable trade-off. Being bitter about everything was much more fun than just being sad. This way he could grumble internally about the Avengers’ collective guilt-based approach to dealing with civilians and Steve’s poor decision-making skills. What a dick.

But, anyway, he wasn’t thinking about Steve Rogers at all. Which was a good thing, he reflected, finally shutting out the winter chill as he stepped into his house, because if he was thinking about Steve Rogers then he’d have to remember the way he looked when he was called “Cap”.

‘There you are.’

Well shit. I can’t spend three minutes alone? I hate this family.

‘Hi Becca.’

‘I got you coffee.’

It’s still not a cure for sadness, little sis.

‘Thanks.’

Delicious. But not a cure. Also now you’ve given me twice as many coffees as you did when I lost my arm and I’m concerned about your priorities.

‘So have you been following the family debate, or are you ignoring it?’

Bucky glared at her, but not very effectively. It didn’t help that the end of his nose was bright red from the cold.

‘Ignoring. Got it. Well if it helps, Ma and Abby are on your side. I thought Ma would take a more safety-centric approach but it turns out she’s fully team Steve-Rogers-is-a-dick.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘But both Alice and dad are team Steve-Rogers-made-the-right-decision. They keep talking about your safety, it’s annoying.’

‘I’m so glad we have teams.’ Bucky muttered, sarcastically.

‘But don’t worry, I’m on your side.’

‘We should get shirts made up. And hashtags. Are six people enough to make hashtags?’

‘Right. Sorry.’ Becca said, having apparently finally noticed Bucky’s annoyance, ‘You’re doing that thing you do where you pretend you’re not thinking about the thing you’re clearly thinking about non-stop. I’ll stop talking.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I have a thing anyway so I should be off. The cats are looked after so see ya.’

‘Bye.’

She left the house in a hush, Bucky standing around and thinking about how wrong Becca was. He wasn’t thinking about Steve non-stop. That would be stupid. Steve was a dick.

It was weirdly relaxing to think the words “Steve Rogers is a dick”. A real improvement to his bad mood. But did this work for other phrases?

Steve Rogers can shove his guilt-ridden self-sacrificing angst right up his righteous ass, Bucky thought, and was pleasantly surprised to feel a few of the knots in his shoulders loosen.

Steve Rogers is a patriotic idiot with the self-awareness of a first-round American Idol contestant. And he ruined my New Years with his assholery.

Bucky’s New Year’s playlist had been neglected since the year before. And he’d missed the countdown. And he hadn’t been kissed for the second year in a row. He’d managed a straight (ha) decade of New Year’s kisses and now two years of nothing. Unacceptable.

The playlist was still on his laptop. Somewhere along the line he’d collected a whole lot of all is quiet on New Year’s Day and I’ll be coming home next year and a long December and there’s reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

That last one connected to something from a few months ago. A Long December, that was the song that had gotten stuck in his head with the line the smell of hospitals in winter

Like a large proportion of Counting Crows songs, this one was about a breakup. Poetically. And with lots of piano. I guess the winter make you laugh a little slower, makes you talk a little lower, about the things you could not show her. Songs like that made Bucky wish he was straight so he could relate too much to them without ignoring the pronouns.

Oh no.

Oh no.

James Buchanan Barnes you are not going to spend this evening crying to sappy songs like you’re still nineteen years old.

Of course he wasn’t.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, it had been a while since he’d listened to Adele. It was only day three. He was allowed.

By the time he’d traded counting in days for counting in weeks, he was learning the basics of Aikido from Noah. Ostensibly, it was a good introduction to the more technical aspects of fighting-as-sport (as opposed to Bucky’s training in fighting-as-survival). In reality, however, Bucky was convinced that Noah had taken one look at The Arm and thought about how much he would really not like to be punched, if it was all the same. So Bucky was taught a style that involved moving with the opponent’s momentum, rather than the simpler method of putting a fist or elbow in the way of it.

It was a fun distraction, however much he refuted Becca’s claim that he needed a post-breakup distraction. The only issue was that Noah was slightly intimidating. Not that Bucky was intimidated at all.

‘Buck.’

‘Yeah?’

‘What is that?’

‘Well, uh, when I was learning self-defence I sort of learnt how to use pretty much anything in a fight.’ he looked at what he was holding, gripped as if it were a club, and back to Noah, ‘I’m very resourceful.’

Absolutely not intimidated. Or scared. Or worried about what his insurance premiums would look like if he kept being thrown into the floor, because not even his brief foray into parkour had prepared him for rolling perfectly when he was in the middle of trying not to get fucking killed by an overly enthusiastic sparring partner.

‘Buck.’ Noah said again.

‘Yeah?’

‘There are no Gatorade bottles in Aikido.’

Well not with that attitude.

Then came the point when some official form had to be filled out and the Colonel discovered that Bucky wasn’t actually his name.

‘You’re using a fake name, son?’

‘Well, it’s a nickname.’

‘I ain’t interested in your excuses, I just can’t use your fake name for this form.’

‘It’s a nickname.’

‘Don’t worry, your real name won’t leave this here gym.’

And he tapped his nose twice and nodded seriously at Bucky, who wrote his name out on the form a little nervously and handed it back.

The last thing the Colonel said on the subject was, ‘You might wanna change your last name too, when you use a fake name next time.’

So that was his hobby; learning complicated fighting styles and trying not to seem too much like a criminal. It was kinda weird. Not for the first time, Bucky found himself looking at his limited areas of expertise and wondering what the hell he was supposed to do with them.

  1. History (major in college)
  2. Music (second major)
  3. Fighting
  4. Cats???
  5. Having great hair

Those were the things he was good at, and they didn’t exactly lead naturally to a potential career.

Shoulda done post grad, he thought to himself again, as a fifty-something woman of Floridian origin demanded to know the breeding history of all of his cats.

Shouldn’t’ve started a business in this house, he continued, putting up the next sign to replace the latest theft.

Should have let them demolish this house, like they wanted. And gone and become a historian, like I wanted, he mused, as he struggled to communicate to his newest feline guest that the kitty litter was meant to be a toilet and not a bed.

Shoulda leant how to make good long-term choices instead of impulsive short-term ones…

That last thought came to him as he was half undressed, getting ready for bed and pausing to examine his reflection in the bathroom mirror. The scars around his metal arm hadn’t healed as well as he’d hoped, and it was becoming clear that they would resist fading conveniently away.

Impulsive short-term decisions like turning down an acceptance letter for post-grad study and starting a business in the house he’d just inherited, just to piss off the people who wanted to demolish the place. Or dating the people he liked instead of actually making friends. Or buying a bookshelf out of a desire to stop shopping for bookshelves.

He always tried making changes after a breakup. Probably it was the one time he wasn’t complacent, or something. So he examined his reflection under his bathroom’s buzzing lightbulb and thought about New Year’s resolutions. It was a bit late but he’d give it a shot. Fewer romantic relationships and more friends. Good. How about… actually trying to fix his problems instead of incorporating them into a human disaster aesthetic and pretending it was all part of some plan? Shouldn’t be too hard. And maybe he could stop making decisions that would affect the rest of his life by only thinking about one or two months into the future.

It was about time he stopped looking at his reflection. It wasn’t even as if anyone would be seeing the scars any time soon; it being winter and he being single. Besides, scars were cool, or something. Time to finalise his resolutions and go the fuck to bed.

Stop being impulsive, he told himself, immediately before he decided to get a tattoo.

In the spirit of his new-found responsible approach to decision-making, he waited three entire hours the next day before striking out in search of a tattoo store. Shop. Place. Whatever they were called. He wasn’t exactly an expert.

This lack of expertise became more apparent as he realised that he had no idea where to go.

            Bucky:             Where’s a good tattoo store?

            Bucky:             Place

            Bucky:             w/e

The only one he’d seen seemed way too into skulls and black paint. With no experience of what tattoo stores/shops/places actually looked like, he decided to give that one a miss just in case his first instinct was right.

            Becca:              No.

Helpful. Thanks.

            Bucky:             I swear I’m actually being mature about this. It’s not a breakup thing. I have a good reason

            Bucky:             I’ve decided I want a tattoo in a mature and responsible and totally not impulsive way

            Becca:              No, Buck

            Becca:              That’s my official advice

Bucky turned to google next. Google wouldn’t judge. And ten minutes later he was face-to-face with a receptionist with so many piercings that, if she ever took out all the jewellery, she’d probably whistle in the breeze.

‘If you’re here to get your ex-girlfriend’s name tattooed on you,’ she began, sounding exquisitely bored, ‘don’t.’

‘I… wasn’t? Why-’

‘You look like you’ve had a breakup.’ she said.

This was ridiculous. There was no way people could tell. What was it? Did he look too sad? Was there a literal storm cloud following him around?

He thought Steve Rogers survived being frozen for seventy years because that’s how cold his heart normally is, and felt a bit better. Possibly it showed, because the receptionist was then shrugging and introducing him to a tattoo artist – a friendly man with dark skin and long eyelashes – who happened to be free at the time.

Maybe he’s free because this place is so bad that no one comes here.

Well, a little paranoia about the person who was going to inject coloured ink into his skin was probably healthy.

Maybe he kills all his clients, Sweeny Todd style.

Woah there, brain, chill please. You’re turning into Steve.

‘You alright?’ the man asked, as he led Bucky into a small office fitted with the world’s cheapest furniture.

Bucky translated “I just had an unwelcome thought about my ex-boyfriend, who’s existence I’m trying to forget entirely, except when I’m insulting him internally” to the more socially acceptable, ‘Yeah. Fine.’

‘Cool. Do you have a design in mind?’

Shrugging didn’t seem very helpful, so he replied, ‘No skulls.’

‘Alright.’

‘Or dragons. Or tigers. Or, like, anything that involves copious amounts of fire.’

The man had dimples when he smiled. It must be a test. The fates were testing his commitment to his resolutions.

‘Can I assume daggers and semi-naked women are also not high on your list?’

‘Nothing that looks like a fake tattoo that would be worn by someone pretending to be either a biker or a pirate.’

‘Got it. So where do you want it?’

Bucky attempted to explain without taking his shirt off and failed.

The man nodded a lot and said some things that Bucky wasn’t quite following. Like watercolour, which seemed like it wouldn’t work with tattoos but apparently would. And something about dots, which seemed to Bucky like it would do a better job of covering the scars. The man finished with, ‘But that all depends, of course.’

‘On?’

‘Well, um. If you don’t mind me asking…?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Are you a punk or a hipster? I can’t really tell.’

Bucky blinked.

‘What?’

‘Well, uh. That shirt you’re wearing,’ he gestured to the God Save the Queen design that Bucky was sporting, ‘Do you like the band or are you wearing it ironically?’

‘I like the band.’ Bucky assured him, trying not to sound defensive.

‘Okay, so you’re either a really chill punk or a really angry hipster. The hair could probably go either way.’ he rubbed his chin in thought while Bucky waited, bemused, ‘Finish this sentence; Coachella is…?’

‘Racist?’ Bucky guessed.

‘Okay cool. Not a hipster. In that case take a look at these…’

And he passed over a folio of designs for Bucky to glance through.

It was kind of overwhelming, in a not-too-bad way. So many of them were so nice that for a few minutes he was lost in the potential that he was holding. But it wasn’t easy, this was a lot of faith to put in his own taste. And a little part of his mind was telling him that Steve would be able to give him the best advice if he’d just wait for a little bit, until Steve was there, and he should have interrogated that thought but he wasn’t in the mood.

Dotwork it was. Something a little geometric with stylised flowers and meaningless patterns so no one would ask him what the story behind it was.

And then he had to wait, because apparently the tattoo industry had a built in mechanism against impulsivity that, frankly, seemed a little condescending. It left him dissatisfied enough to look at knives on the way home.

Steve had never really been happy that he’d been instrumental in Bucky developing a fondness for knives. But Steve wasn’t there and, anyway, Steve lost any relevance to Bucky’s life when he’d revealed his true form as a piece of shit. The biggest piece of shit. The piece of shit that all the other shit pieces bowed down to. Andrew Jackson, Bill O’Reilly, whoever ran New York public transport, all inferior in their shittiness to the Lord of the Shits, Steve Rogers.

Bucky ended up buying a sword, because no one was there to stop him.

Also swords are cool.

‘Bucky, what-’

Of course Becca was there when he got back.

‘Sword. It’s cool. Swords are cool.’

‘Are they?’

This was a question that Bucky hadn’t actually considered. He weighed up the arguments for each side and came to the conclusion, ‘Yes. Swords are cool.’

‘And did you get the tattoo?’

‘No-’

‘Good.’

‘-t yet.’ Bucky finished.

‘Great.’

‘I don’t like your tone, little sis. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a watermelon upstairs to cut up.’

He half jogged up the stairs and had the watermelon out and on the chopping board before Becca appeared in the doorway with her phone in her hand.

‘Buck, this is why you have so many embarrassing videos in our family album.’

Bucky took his time lining the sword up with its victim, preparing, pulling it back and then swinging. It hit the watermelon with a disappointing sort of “thwack” and lodged in halfway through.

‘Good job.’

Ignoring his sister, he tried to lift the sword out, only to find that the fruit was not relinquishing it without a fight. Weapon and melon both lifted off the chopping board. He shook it a little, but it didn’t help.

‘This is the strangest way you’ve ever reacted to a breakup.’

Fuck off.

‘That’s not what this is about!’ Bucky insisted, punctuating his protest by hitting the sword so hard against the bench again that the watermelon split in half.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Shut up. I like the sword. Pass me a cucumber to cut up.’

Becca rolled her eyes, ‘As much as I admire the creative way you’re trying to convince yourself that you do, in fact, have a use for a sword, I’m gonna go back and watch the shop.’

‘You don’t even work here.’ Bucky grumbled, but only after she was out of earshot. Bucky didn’t have enough money to actually hire someone.

He was just cutting a carrot into long, thin strands when Becca returned with the news that someone was asking to see the manager.

The first words out of the woman’s mouth were, ‘It’s defective.’

‘What?’

She was holding a kitten, Ulysses S. Grant, by the back of his neck as she spoke.

‘It doesn’t work,’ she explained, ‘I want a refund.’

Maybe it’s not too late to do post-grad.

‘Wh- what’s the fault?’ he asked, as Ulysses was put on the desk between them. It didn’t take long for the cat to nudge Bucky’s hand for attention, and it was a little gratifying that he was remembered so fondly.

The woman glowered at him, ‘There are still mice in my house.’

From what he remembered, Ulysses was so lazy that the only way he’d catch a mouse was if one crawled into his mouth while he was having one of his many naps.

‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but we don’t do refunds. However, if you no longer wish to keep this cat we’d be happy to return him to our care.’

‘What an absolute scam.’ she said, raising herself up to her full height (5’ 3”), ‘You sell me a faulty product and then you expect me to give it back for free? I should report you for this.’

Ulysses was asleep again, purring contently against Bucky’s arm.

‘There is no scam, ma’am. This is a cat shelter. Our job is to take in cats and sell them into good homes.’

‘And line your own pockets in the process,’ she scoffed, proving – if nothing else – that she greatly overestimated the average revenue of a cat shelter, ‘But fine, keep the damn cat. He’s useless to me anyway. Just don’t expect repeat business.’

And she stormed off into the snow, leaving Ulysses meowing contently in his sleep.

‘Sorry, pal.’ Bucky muttered, scooping him up, ‘I swear she seemed like a good owner when we met. I’ll make sure you get someone nicer next time.’

The cat was placed back in his own cage where he slept through the welcoming noises of his siblings.

Stupidly, Bucky found himself wondering how FDR and Henry were doing.

Steve Rogers is an utter prick whose cats are far too good for him.

‘You alright?’ Becca asked.

She’d been hanging around his house almost constantly these days, and the reason for it was not exactly the best-kept secret in the Barnes family.

‘Why?’

She shrugged, despite knowing exactly why she was asking.

‘You just seem like you still need a tub of chocolate ice cream.

Ugh.

‘Contrary to popular belief, chocolate ice cream is not great breakup food.’

‘Then what is?’

Please stop being helpful.

Bucky shrugged, ‘Vodka?’

His sister lit up. With grinning and everything. Her demeanour was suddenly so bright that Bucky could practically see the metaphorical lightbulb glowing above her head.

‘That’s a great idea!’

‘That’s a- what?’

‘Yeah. Go. Get drunk. Hang out with friends.’

Bucky’s whole mind when red alert with flashing lights and awooga noises. It’s not that he didn’t have friends, he just usually ended up joining the friend group of whoever he was dating. But he had other friends. Definitely. Maybe not let’s-hang-out-for-drinks-on-short-notice friends. He had, like, Facebook friends.

This is what happens when you date everyone you get along with.

He could go with Becca, but she’d only film him.

‘Surely a tattoo and a sword is enough moving on for one day?’

She rolled her eyes, ‘We call those “poor decisions”. If you make them while your sober it’s just sad.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

‘I’ll just text some friends then.’

He drew his phone out of his pocket and angled the screen away from Becca’s line of sight, for no particular reason.

            Bucky:             Are you free tonight? It is a Friday, and I heard people sometimes hang out on this day of the week.

Bucky had known Laurel since college, which was his only excuse for texting her. True, these days he only saw her when he brought a cat or five in to be checked by the vet, but college friendships had a sort of latent aspect to them. He’d once stayed up in the middle of the night making disgustingly strong coffee while she crammed for finals. There was no going back from that.

            Laurel:            Actually I’ve got some paperwork I really need to catch up on :/

Subtle, Laurel.

            Bucky:             I meant platonically

            Laurel:            Okay good then I’m free

            Laurel:            No offence

Laurel ended up guessing that this was breakup related before they even met up, because ‘I knew you in college and, in case you’ve forgotten, that’s where your whole “cursed love life” reputation came from.’

‘Oh, I recall.’

‘You actually managed to get two guys to fight over you.’

‘That wasn’t intentional.’

‘I thought that was something that only happened in movies.’

She was making fun of him in a purely good-natured way, so he merely responded, ‘It’s the hair. No one can resist it.’

February was just around the corner and it was freezing after dark. Both Bucky and Laurel had wisely decided to go for jeans, and he couldn’t help but shiver in sympathy as he caught sight of some of the short dresses that were tenaciously being worn.

‘So,’ she began, rubbing her hands together as she changed the subject, ‘is the plan for tonight basically “give up all pretences of being cool for the night as you drink away your sorrows”, because I am so down for that.’

Why don’t I hang out with you more often?

‘Perfect.’

‘Good, let’s go somewhere uncool. Hipster bar? Dive bar? Hipster dive bar?’

‘Somewhere with vodka.’

They went to a hipster place first, because it was likely to be cleaner. And also, Laurel insisted, because he would fit right in. And then they began the solemn work of getting completely wasted.

‘So, tell me about him. Her? Them?’

‘Him.’

‘Name?’

‘Uh.’ Maybe don’t tell her that I was dating Captain America, ‘Doesn’t matter. He’s an asshole, let’s just leave it at that.’

‘Fair enough.’

There was a lot of red in that bar. That’s all Bucky really remembered. A lot of things were red. They had more drinks.

‘Okay now I need to know…’ Laurel was saying, ‘How do you know Captain America?’

‘Huh?’

Right at that moment was perhaps not the best time to remember that she and Steve had actually met.

‘That’s uh,’ he waved his arm vaguely to the side and nearly hit a passing patron, ‘hmm.’

‘Secret?’

‘Yes.’

‘When did you become so mysterious, Barnes?’

That was a pretty clear memory. Then there was a long blur. They’d changed bars at some point, once or twice, and then Bucky vividly remembered standing on a table in a nearly empty pub in a basement somewhere.

He was giving a toast. It went something like ‘To being single, because guys are assholes.’

And the other patrons raised their glasses in agreement, because the only people who could be found in a basement dive bar that close to last call were probably going through some similar stuff. Laurel giggled, but then she seemed to giggle non-stop while drunk. Then someone yelled ‘Sing something.’

That was a weird thing to yell. Maybe it was a karaoke bar? Had he been telling people he could sing? Bucky couldn’t entirely remember, except for a vague impression that other people had been singing beforehand.

He distinctly remembered considering throwing his hands out and announcing “I am a golden god”, before launching into Tiny Dancer like he was in Almost Famous. But he didn’t, which was a shame, because even sober Bucky couldn’t help but think that that would have been hilarious.

Instead he spotted a piano, pointed at it dramatically, and announced ‘That is a piano.’

And then he’d stepped off the table.

‘Ow.’ he’d said, belatedly.

Then he’d gotten up and walked unsteadily to the piano.

‘Bucky, you’re bleeding.’

‘Haha yeah.’

Sitting down at the piano, Bucky flexed his metal fingers, and decided that now was a great time to find out if he had the dexterity to play.

He started pressing the keys to make the tune he’d been hearing in his head all month. Stopped. Frowned at the piano. Shuffled down the seat so that he was playing at the lower key, and then played the chords again.

A whisper of ‘What the fuck?’ could distinctly be heard, followed by, ‘I thought this guy was wasted.’ as he began to sing.

‘A long December and there’s reason to believe…’

That was it. The last thing he could remember, and Bucky woke up with a throbbing head and a sickly taste in his mouth. For a moment it brought him back to his time in hospital, but then the familiar sight of his peeling wallpaper returned him to reality.

At least he hadn’t sung Adele.

Carefully, he turned his head to make sure that he was alone in his bed. He was, thank god.

Technically speaking, his shop was supposed to be open on Saturdays.

            Laurel:            Jesus Roosevelt Christ my head

Bucky squinted at the phone. It was gone noon.

            Bucky:             Roosevelt’s middle name was Delano

            Laurel:            Jesus Delano Christ I forgot how annoying you are about history

            Laurel:            Do you feel any better after that because I feel like you made progress emotionally but I don’t remember

Good question.

            Bucky:             I feel like I need one of those Scott Pilgrim moments where he earns the power of self-respect or something and then he pulls a sword out of his sternum, which is a funny place to keep a sword tbh

            Laurel:            You’re gonna have to ask Marianne about that, she seemed pretty smart

Marianne…

Bucky only knew one Marianne, another friend from college. The only time he ever spoke to her these days was when he was at the museum she worked for. But he had a foggy memory of her saying something like “I have never known anyone with a more infinite capacity for falling in love.” and realised that she had shown up sometime the night before, stocked full of almost-helpful advice.

See, Becca, I have at least two friends.

            Laurel:            In case you don’t remember, you two history nerds started talking passionately about secret organisations

Marianne who had graduated top of her class in history. Marianne who was an archivist. Marianne who had helped Bucky find all sorts of documents when his history nerd curiosity had gotten the better of him. Who apparently knew something about secret organisations.

Leave it alone, Barnes.

Hypothetically there were lots of fun documents that he could look into.

LEAVE IT ALONE, BARNES.

If he’d done post-grad he wouldn’t leave it alone. He’d be a historian. It’d be his job not to leave it alone.

But that Saturday was a total write-off. And the next day he changed his mind at the last minute, mostly out of paranoia that he’d done something particularly embarrassing that Marianne would remember. He went to the gym instead, which was a mistake.

(‘What did you do to your forehead, son?’

‘Huh?’ Bucky touched the cut above his eye, ‘I fell of a table.’

‘Sure you did.’

‘I was drunk.’

Both the Colonel and Noah examined him for a few long seconds, before the former said, ‘It’s okay son, you can tell the truth. We’ll keep your secret.’

Bucky performed a series of shrugging motions intended to convey the sentiment “???????”

Noah decided that it was his turn to speak, ‘Well, you were trained in self-defence by a mysterious group of people who you refuse to talk about, who seem to think that you could be attacked by a band of highly trained mercenaries at any moment, based on how you fight.’

‘You have a high tech metal arm.’ The Colonel agreed, prodding it suspiciously.

‘And won’t tell us how you lost your real arm. Not that- not that it’s any of our business, but-’

‘And you use a fake name.’ The Colonel finished.

‘It’s a nickname-’

‘A couple of the other gym staff think you’re Daredevil.’ Noah said, pretending to seem apologetic even though he clearly wasn’t, the little shit.

What? I’m not Daredevil!’

‘That’s exactly what Daredevil would say, son.’)

But maybe he just didn’t want to look into it. It wasn’t part of his life anymore. He was curious, sure, but he knew that what he should be doing was leaving it the hell alone.

He gave it a few weeks, tried to be productive. He bought a porch light, even hired an electrician and everything. And he stayed committed to the tattoo idea for long enough that the ink soon overwhelmed the scars on his left shoulder and he could see his reflection in the mirror and think I’m so glad this turned out to be a good idea.

The first words Marianne said as they met in the museum were ‘I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist looking into it.’

He’d drifted to the art displays while he’d waited, ignoring the rising memory of the last time he’d been in an art gallery. Funny thing, he’d thought then that Steve was going to break up with him.

When he’d wandered in he’d been hoping for some pleasant landscapes or something to look over while he waited, and instead walked into a room full of minimalist modern art. A lot of people loved this sort of work, he knew. The problem was that he wasn’t one of them.

‘So what do you think?’ Marianne asked.

Bucky nodded thoughtfully and gestured to the nearest canvas, ‘That one is…’ he cast around for something nice to say about it, ‘…blue.’

‘I’ve been informed that it’s a masterpiece.’ she replied, looking doubtfully at the stretch of deep oceanic colour. A single stripe of orange intersected it diagonally, ‘Painted by one of the rising stars of the art world.’

‘Who?’

‘I’ve no idea, he paints under a fake name.’

Bucky hadn’t realised that that was a thing that a person could do, but before he could get more information on the subject (and why he needed to know more, he’d never tell) Marianne was leading the way towards her area of the museum.

‘So I’ve made some enquiries,’ she began, ‘not that you gave me a lot to work with.’

Bucky smiled politely and decided not to admit that he had no memory of what, exactly, he’d told her.

She seemed to have realised the issue anyway, because she helpfully added, ‘I have no idea where you got your information, and every time you seemed like you were about to tell me something useful you winked and said “that’s confidential”.’

‘Erm.’ Bucky said, ‘Sorry.’

‘Tienes suerte de que te estoy ayudando.’ she muttered darkly. Whatever she meant was a mystery because Bucky’s high school Spanish education was enough for him to recognise separate words without being able to translate, ‘All I got from you was “Hydra”, “Russia”, and “probably the fifties or sixies”.’

‘And?’

‘Do you have any idea how many organisations in Russia in the fifties and sixties could have been Hydra?’

Yeah, we took the same history classes, pal.

‘Okay, true-’

‘Do you have any other information?’

Bucky was being led through less-than-public rooms to a dark hall of paper files and dimly glowing computer terminals, where sedentary security guards watched him distrustfully and occasionally asked his name. Marianne had a cool job. Marianne had done post-grad.

‘Unfortunately, it’s still classified when I’m sober.’

‘Why do you even want to know?’

The click click of her heels guided the way confidently to a desk pressed up against a wall. There was no reason why this couldn’t take place in her office; she was definitely being intentionally dramatic.

‘It’s personal?’ he tried, and Marianne spun on her heel so fast that Bucky nearly walked into her.

‘Personal.’ she repeated, ‘The reason you want to know about Hydra’s activities in mid-twentieth century USSR is personal.’

‘Uh.’

‘No offence, but if you’re a spy, you are the least subtle spy ever.’

‘I’m not- I’m not a spy.’

She spun around again, finishing the walk and taking a seat on the only chair, muttering, ‘Fine, be mysterious.’ as Bucky was left leaning against the desk in a way he hoped was casual and relaxed.

‘So?’ he asked, ‘Did you find anything suspicious?’

She glared at him, which seemed a little unnecessary, ‘Did I find anything suspicious? While looking into Soviet secret organisations?’

What Bucky really wanted was to ask about the Winter Soldier project, but he was struggling to find a way to do that without using the words “Winter Soldier”. So he just shrugged and hoped that Marianne could work some sort of archivist’s miracle.

He set to work skimming through the items she’d pulled from the shelves and sorting them into two piles, relevant and irrelevant. It turned out to be one pile of useless items and nothing on the topic that Bucky had been hoping to find more about. There were digital files too, lots of typing in key words, making frustrated grunts, typing in different key words, and ignoring Marianne shaking her head and saying ‘Tried that.’ in between more Spanish muttering. It was starting to look like he could lose the whole day on this.

Marianne was there – only pretending to be doing her actual job at this point – to help Bucky find things. Microfilm or folders or old books. There was a reading room connected and it was becoming clear that, if Bucky wasn’t going to find anything before she lost interest, he’d have to set up camp there and do things the hard way. Like all those poor sods who don’t have a friend (acquaintance?) to shamelessly exploit for investigative purposes.

He should give up. But he hadn’t done much of this since college and he was starting to enjoy himself. So they struck out one last time between the high shelves in search of something-

A flurry of movement and Bucky dodged on instinct, pushing Marianne out of the way. A punch had been thrown in his direction from a man dressed entirely in a strange red and black suit.

What the fu-

Another punch. Bucky caught him at the arm and shoulder and threw his weight into it the way he’d been taught. One moment of victory and then the masked man just… disappeared.

This was not something Bucky had been trained to deal with.

‘Uh,’ Marianne began, ‘You wanna tell me-’

Something hit him from behind and he flew forwards, pushing his shoulder down instinctively into a roll. He ended up on his feet again in a momentary flush of pride at finally pulling the move off. The man was behind him again, visible once more, and Bucky drew out the beautiful knife that Nat had given him.

He really, really didn’t want to stab someone. But the masked stranger didn’t need to know that.

This seemed to give the man pause, if only for a moment. Then, quick as a comet, he flicked his wrist and spun something small in Bucky’s direction. Bucky dodged. It whizzed past his ear and hit the shelves behind him, seeming benign for the tiniest possible moment. And then in an instant the bookshelf disappeared.

No, wait. Never mind. The bookshelf was still there, it was just very small now.

‘Those are all of historical significance!’ Marianne yelled over her shoulder, and Bucky grabbed her arm and made a run for it.

Whatthefuchwhatthefuckwhatthefuckwhat-

He was right behind them. Another of those discs flew past and hit a book at the end of the aisle. Rather than shrinking, this one grew so large it pushed the bookshelves on either side and blocked their only escape route.

Cellphone. Place to hide. Bucky threw himself into the shadows beneath one of the shelves, where it had formed an approximation of a triangular child’s fort, having toppled into another shelf. Books littered the ground and Marianne uttered Spanish curses under her breath.

The phone was in his hands. Maybe the light would give them away but it didn’t matter; he only needed a few moments. His thumb hit the “actual emergency” option and he was about to hit “yes” on the second menu when the thought stupidly hit him that Steve didn’t want to hear from him again.

It was a second’s irrational hesitation, but then it was too late. The man knocked the phone from his hand as he found them and it clattered away, screen dark and impossible to find, into a far crevasse of their little shelter.

Bucky you idiot, he scolded himself. No rescue was coming. So Bucky’s solution was to hit the stranger over the head with the nearest heavy tome and hope for the best.

He staggered, hitting the floor. Bucky dropped the book, and Marianne was already clambering to her feet and saying, ‘Bucky come on.’

The man was pulling off his mask. Bucky held the knife in a clenched fist and glanced down the aisle that he knew he couldn’t sprint in time. Every part of his brain was saying fight and then-

‘Wait,’ the man said, squinting up at him, ‘You’re Bucky? I thought you were Hydra.’

There was a pretty painful-looking red mark on his temple where Bucky had hit him with the book. Canterbury Tales, as it turned out, when Bucky glanced down at the weapon.

‘I’m not Hydra.’

‘Oh. My bad. You were searching all these super suspicious terms and I’ve been trying to track down… never mind. Nice to meet you Bucky Barnes,’ and he sat up, holding out his hand, ‘I’m Scott. I’m not Hydra either.’

‘Oh,’ Bucky said, shaking the hand with his metal arm, while his right one kept the knife at the ready, ‘Cool. How… do you know who I am…?’

He grinned as he sat up. Bucky wondered how he kept his teeth that white.

‘I’ve heard about you, man.’ he informed him, cheerfully, ‘There’s, like, this cool superhero rumour mill. I’m new to the job, but I’m learning the ropes.’

Finally, finally, he got around to standing up. That mark on his temple was really going to bruise and Bucky felt a little proud.

But mostly he felt concerned, ‘People have been… talking about me?’

‘Of course! Hey, what’s your superpower? Mine’s shrinking and stuff. It’s cool except my superhero name is Ant-Man, but you win some, you lose some.’

Marianne was watching this all unfold with wide eyes, slowly moving towards the exit with tiny steps backwards.

‘I don’t have a superpower?’

‘Oooh, man, that’s awesome. So you’re one of those bad ass spies or something? I love it.’

‘No…’ Bucky said, which didn’t really seem to cover it, so he shook his head and added, ‘No no no. I’m not… I’m… why do you think I’m a superhero?’

‘Please, Bucky – can I call you Bucky? – you’re not exactly subtle, no offence. I heard about you because you spend so much time with the Avengers-’

‘Great.’

‘-so it’s already obvious. Plus you’ve got a metal arm, and who knows how you lost your real one. Not to mention the red star on it, your superhero logo. You know how to fight like woah. You carry a knife with you everywhere and, look at that thing, it’s beautiful. It’s a knife that makes it clear that you love knives. Plus you’re from New York. That’s where most of them are from.’

‘Please stop.’

‘No I’m nearly done, you’re here researching,’ he dropped his voice to an unnecessary whisper, ‘super-secret Hydra stuff,’ and back at full volume added, ‘and look at you. You’re built. You even have the jawline of a hero, come on. And that’s not even mentioning the whole aura of angst that heroes tend to have. And I know for a fact that you beat up three Hydra goons in a coffee shop last year. Heard you stabbed one of them with biscotti.’

Okay, yeah, that was a lot to explain.

‘Look,’ he began, as much to Marianne as Scott, ‘There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all that.’

‘Sure.’ Scott replied, as the verbal version of waving away Bucky’s objection, ‘Hey, when you’re next fighting crime with Falcon can you, I don’t know, just casually mention how cool I am? I probably didn’t make the best first impression-’

Bucky slipped the knife back into his pocket so he could put a hand on either of Scott’s shoulders and say, ‘No. I’m not a superhero, okay?’ and he shook him slightly to illustrate his point, ‘And I don’t even talk to the Avengers anymore. It was just a… stupid thing… that I regret now and didn’t involve any crime fighting so just… forget it.’

There was a moment of blissful silence.

‘Can I have my shoulders back?’ Scott eventually asked.

‘Yeah, sorry.’ Bucky muttered, dropping his arms.

‘Thanks. I’ll, er, clean this up. Sorry about the misunderstanding.’

‘No problem.’

‘But if you ever want to stop pretending not to be a superhero, we could really use someone like you.’

Scott was practically bouncing. It didn’t make sense for anyone to have that much energy. He handed Bucky a card from a pocket that he apparently had on his ridiculous suit, and when Bucky read it it was just a street address.

When did this become my life?

He could have refused to take it, or given it back, but instead he stared down at the words printed on the pale blue card, thumb absentmindedly running over the slightly frayed corner as he let curiosity take control.

There was a question there, a sort of “what would happen if…?”, and when he looked up he could see that Scott was reading that on his face. Probably the man had had a similar experience to get where he was.

What would happen…

‘I’m not a superhero.’ Bucky said again, thinking that everything else Scott had said about him was true, that maybe he could be one if he wanted to.

‘Are you sure?’ Scott replied, ‘Because I’ve heard Hydra’s name for you. It’s really cool, by the way. Better than “Ant-Man”.’

What would happen if I went to this address?

It wasn’t like he was doing anything particularly interesting with his life, anyway.

‘Oh yeah?’ Bucky asked, ‘And what is Hydra’s name for me?’

Maybe there was a parallel universe where Bucky actually took Scott up on the offer, but that wasn’t to be this one. Steve wasn’t going to be Bucky’s origin story. Because Scott had heard something that Bucky didn’t know.

‘You don’t know what they call you?’ he asked, all surprise and delight, ‘I’d keep it if I were you. I don’t know where it comes from, but the Winter Soldier is a great superhero name.’

And there was reality. Bucky’s heart felt like it stopped beating for a moment. Suddenly he could see how stupid everything he’d done that day had been and for some reason he wanted to apologise. To Steve, who should have told him why but nonetheless had a good reason. Whose shitty decisions were made in shitty circumstances. Who looked like he’d been punched when Bucky had called him Cap, but only for a moment, until he nodded like he thought he deserved it and just left.

‘I’m not the Winter Soldier.’ Bucky said, voice muted.

‘But-’

‘No, I’m not, I’m-’ he shoved the card back into Scott’s hand, ‘I’m staying out of it.’

To Steve, who’d tried to get rid of the target on Bucky’s back, but didn’t know that he’d spent the day putting himself in danger anyway.

Bucky walked out with Marianne hurrying by his side and a sick feeling of shock settling in his gut.

God, he missed Steve.

It was time to do that healthy thing; accept things and move on. After all, he had plenty of experience in getting over a break up. Time to put it all behind him, that sort of thing.

He spent the rest of the day at home, and it was late afternoon when Becca showed her face again. Any more of this and Bucky might actually have to hire her.

‘Hi.’ he said, as she closed the door behind her.

‘Uh, hi.’

‘I found a use for the sword.’

He returned to what he was doing. What he was doing being flourishing the blade dramatically in front of him, feet placed for fencing and his other arm held aloft behind him.

‘Being a prat?’ Becca guessed.

Bucky responded by raising his chin, fixing his gaze to a hapless patch of wallpaper ahead of him, and declaring, ‘Why should I play the Roman fool and die on mine own sword? Whilst I see lives, the gashes do better upon them!’

He personally thought it was very good.

Becca, however, looked as though she was trying very hard not to laugh as she said, ‘Are you sure the fact that you did drama in high school is something you want to remind people of?’

Sisters were the worst.

‘Shut up.’ he said, for want of a better come back.

She actually was laughing now, and saying ‘Is that acting going to help you put a new sign up? The old one’s gone again.’

God dammit.

And to think, not hours ago, he’d had a job offer for being an actual superhero. If Ant-Man could see his business he might have rethought that.

If I can fight off three Hydra goons in a Starbucks then I can deal with the goddamn neighbourhood watch.

‘I’ll handle it.’ he decided, ‘I’m going to talk to them now.’

‘What? Seriously?’

He was already halfway to the door, ‘Of course. It’s time for me to deal with my problems like a mature, responsible adult.’

‘Buck?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Maybe put the sword down first.’

‘Good idea.’ he said, handing it to her, ‘Hold this.’

And then he was on a mission, marching over to Johnathan’s house armed only with resourcefulness and the power of Acting.

He rang the doorbell and waited. Muffled talking. Footsteps. A blur on the other side of the frosted glass, and then the door opened to show Johnathan looking particularly grumpy.

‘Good afternoon.’ Bucky said.

‘This better be important, Barnes.’ Johnathan snapped back.

Bucky smiled. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring smile.

‘Oh it is. This is actually a curtesy call. I’ve been speaking to my lawyer but I was hoping we could sort this out amongst ourselves before this goes any further.’

Johnathan opened the door a little wider and squinted suspiciously.

‘I don’t believe you have a lawyer.’ Was his only response.

‘Well I do. I was planning on asking him to file a statement of claim but I thought that that might not be necessary.’

There was a long pause. Johnathan’s expression hadn’t changed.

Eventually he said, ‘You’re full of shit, Barnes. What are you hoping to sue me for?’

Four years of college and enough late night encounters with stressed law students in the library to last a lifetime had provided Bucky with just enough knowledge to bullshit his way through this.

‘The action is conversion. Of my signs, that is.’

Johnathan scratched his head, ‘Well, they’re not really worth much, being made of plastic.’

Bucky smiled again, ‘The relief sought would be damages for loss of business, since you prevented potential customers from finding the shelter, and an injunction against further activities of the neighbourhood watch.’

Another pause.

‘I see.’

‘And costs, of course.’

‘Costs.’ he repeated, ‘Of course.’

From down the hall, the muffled voice of Johnathan’s wife could be heard calling ‘Just give him back his damned signs, love, I told you this was getting out of hand.’

Bucky hadn’t realised that Johnathan still had the signs somewhere. Nonetheless…

‘That would be acceptable.’ he said, ‘If the signs were returned and you refrained for taking them again, I don’t think litigation would be necessary.’

Victory. Johnathan grumbled and cursed him and informed him that, on no uncertain terms, he was not welcome at any future block parties, but the signs were handed over in a formidable stack of coloured plastic.

‘Thank you.’ Bucky said.

Johnathan slammed the door.

The walk back to his house was short but thrilling, and when he nudged the door open with his foot it was accompanied by the proud pronouncement, ‘I bear a charmed life, that must not yield to one of woman born.’

‘You’re a dweeb, Bucky.’

‘Yeah yeah. Help me hang these up.’

Bucky dumped them on the desk as searched through the draws for duct tape.

‘Uh, Buck?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Are you…’ she paused, looking between Bucky and the signs, ‘Are you going to put… all the signs up… at once…?’

‘Yeah!’ Bucky replied, grinning at her with enthusiasm.

‘Do you remember five minutes ago when you were talking about being a mature, responsible adult?’

Bucky was already halfway out the door with the duct tape.

He was being a responsible adult. He was making sure that people could find his business. That was responsible.

It was also totally mature and responsible when he stacked two kitchen chairs on top of each other in lieu of a ladder. It was worth it though; the finished product was a mosaic of cheap plastic, dazzling under the golden evening sun. Bucky, swelling with pride, snapped a photograph.

‘Happy now?’ Becca asked, examining the wall with something gratifyingly close to amusement.

‘Yeah.’

‘And are you over Steve yet?’

That came out of left field. Bucky deflated slightly and reflected on the events of the day.

‘I have decided that it is time to move on.’ Bucky confirmed.

‘Good.’ she said, then, ‘Because you have the weirdest ways of trying to get over people.’

It was difficult to deny. Becca had made an excellent observation even without knowing about the museum incident. Still, as Bucky would say to anyone that would ask, his was a better method than moping. At least he’d been productive. He’d gotten a porchlight and everything.

‘Yeah, yeah. I know.’

Becca patted him somewhat condescendingly on the shoulder and slung her bag onto her back, preparing to take her leave.

‘Becca?’

‘Yeah?’

It was weird really; moving on meant that there wasn’t any real point in lying anymore. Not to his sister, and not to himself.

‘He’s going to come back, though, isn’t he?’

Bucky hated being looked at with pity.

‘You just said-’

‘I know what I just said, and I meant it. But what he’s doing now, it’s unsustainable. He’s gotta work that out at some point, doesn’t he?’

Becca shrugged, and for all she seemed wise beyond Bucky’s immaturity, she was actually useless at giving advice, ‘You know him better than I do.’

She left before Bucky could call her on her question-dodging.

He went inside, locking the door for the night and heading for the living room to switch on the television. The tiny plastic Bucky toy was still there on the mantelpiece, next to last year’s diary. It was useless now, having been replaced by one for the new year, but he kept it nonetheless; the little black leather book with one page covered in an image of himself with short hair, sketched out in pen. He’d never been one for burning memories.

Steve Rogers is a stubborn asshole, he thought, as he looked away from the book with something that an outside observer might have – unwisely, within earshot of Bucky – called a smile, and if he has any sense at all he’ll get his act together and beg for my forgiveness.

It was a nice thought, though if the stories on the History Channel were anything to go by, the question of whether Steve Rogers had any sense at all was one for the ages.

Chapter Text

Steve awoke slowly, with the thick, cotton feeling of having slept too long filling his head. It was past noon, the last winter snow that had hushed the city the night before was slowly melting, and there was a cat asleep on his chest. The other one was resting like a furry hat on top of his head. There was no reason why he shouldn’t lay there a while longer and daydream.

These days Steve had too much free time.

There were stories he could return to to fill in the long gaps. One where he’d become an artist after all, but in some alternate universe where he was a native of this century and no one really knew his name outside of the signature on his paintings. It was a nice story, full of red dots next to the works and art critics shaking his hand and this guy called Bucky that he’d meet one day at a gallery. And he’d hand Bucky the wine that he didn’t want to drink and they’d chat and Steve would sketch a portrait in a diary.

Or sometimes his mind would attach itself to the concept of the last film he’d seen, and he’d wonder what he’d do in that situation. If he were William Miller, stumbling through nineteen seventy-two, he’d get the interview – he’d spent a lot of time imagining scenarios where he’d force the guitarist to sit down for the questions – and he wouldn’t have fallen for Penny Lane.

(Almost Famous had been on the list of films that he and Bucky were going to see on New Year’s, but Steve would deny that that was the only reason he’d sought it out to watch it.)

For once the gnawing guilt of unproductivity got the better of him and he rose, slowly and regretfully, to have his breakfast before lunchtime passed.

Too much free time, and no matter how much he swore to himself that he wasn’t going to lose art again, his supplies and his works remained tucked away in the bottom of his linen closet.

He’d fucked up. Worse, he’d been blindsided by it. It wasn’t just that he’d lost what he’d had with Bucky (though that remained a painful, gaping wound left all the more open and raw for its invisibility), Steve still liked to think that he was holding himself together enough that romance alone couldn’t define how well his life was doing. But, yeah, he’d withdrawn. He’d cut himself off from everything but his job and whatever heartbreak he’d inflicted on himself now kept the company of the more mundane boredom that settled over his day-to-day existence.

He’d started pacing again. That hadn’t happened for a while. But it was relaxing, maybe, it gave his body movement and his mind the ability to think, unencumbered by restlessness. What his mind came up with was that he’d fucked up. He couldn’t think of a different option he could have taken, but he’d still fucked up.

After a while the carpet would feel rough under his bare feet and he’d get shoes on. Say goodbye to his cats. Try to find something in the city to do for the last cold dregs of the day.

The thing about Hydra was that they never really went away. There was a mundane sort of hopelessness to it that didn’t exactly hurt, but with every passing day fell heavier on his shoulders by the infinitesimal weight of another day’s settling dust. He was never going to be able to defeat them entirely. He’d just spend the rest of his life rolling this metaphorical rock up the hill and watching it roll back down again, like the person in the story he’d forgotten the name of. And with each new day every place he’d ever thought might be home drifted a little further away.

He might not be so great at noticing clues, but Steve personally thought that these were very strong indications that he’d fucked up.

At least Bucky was safe. And so was the rest of the world, more or less. He’d been doing a passable job of foiling Hydra’s myriad evil plans and this was supposed to make it all worth it. That’s what common sense said, anyway. That’s what he’d believed when he’d joined the army. That’s what he’d told himself when he closed Bucky’s door for the last time.

He didn’t know how long it was supposed to take for him to get over Bucky, but he was sure it would help if he actually had things to do throughout the day.

He was just wondering if he should find some food when the phone in his pocket buzzed.

            Clint:               Tower. Hydra stuff. Hope you’re not busy this evening

Well, that technically counted as something to do.

            Steve:               Ugh

            Clint:               Yeah, I know

With his motorbike back at his apartment, Steve hailed a cab and gave the cabbie the address of the Tower.

‘Sure thing, Captain America.’

Great.

Steve glared angrily out of the window at the oblivious pedestrians going about their lives outside.

‘Having a good week, Captain America?’

No.

‘Sure.’

The cabbie nodded to himself in the driver’s seat, ‘That’s good. I enjoyed the bit about you on Last Week Tonight.’

‘The… what?’

‘Oh, it was very entertaining, you should look it up on YouTube.’

‘Right.’

The was a short pause.

‘You do know what YouTube is, right Captain America?’

‘I do.’ Steve confirmed.

‘Good, good.’

Steve made a mental note to never catch a cab to the Tower again. He paid the man when they finally arrived and pretended not to be in as much of a hurry as he was to leave the stranger’s company. He was still distracted by whatever he’d been talking about when the lift doors closed and Jarvis greeted him.

‘Good evening, Steve.’

‘Huh? Oh,’ he’d forgotten that he’d asked Jarvis to call him Steve, and the memory was a few moments of sharp pain, ‘’evening.’

Tony was there when he arrived, grinning like Christmas, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Good, you’re here. This is going to be fun.’

‘Is it?’ Steve said, dubiously, ‘Things that you think are fun usually end up being very not fun.’

‘This one will be, I promise.’ Tony replied, still grinning in a way that made Steve very nervous, ‘Tell him, Clint.’

Clint arrived, holding a mug of coffee in each hand, and nodded fervently, ‘This’ll be fun.’

He gulped down one of the coffees and Steve waited to see who the other one was for, when Clint placed the first mug on a table and started on the second. It was the most Clint Barton thing that Steve had ever seen Clint Barton do.

‘How do you feel about heists?’

‘Anti, usually. Depends who’s doing the-’ his mind threw up “heist-ing”, which probably wasn’t a word, so he finished, ‘stealing.’

‘You.’ Clint informed him.

‘Right.’

Steve thought at least I’ll have a good story to tell the cats tonight, and then followed up with oh god now I’m the crazy cat guy.

Both Tony and Clint were practically vibrating with excitement, which didn’t bode well. One of them being excited, he could handle. But their interests crossed so infrequently that when both of them were grinning in the unnerving way they were now, Steve started to get more than a little nervous.

At stake – as Natasha explained in a marginally more serious tone – was information on the Winter Soldier project itself; details on precisely how it would work so the Avengers could know how to undo it. An endgame sort of mission. Once they knew how to fix it, Hydra lost a chuck of motivation for making it work in the first place.

Tony was excited for the science. Clint was excited because he liked heists. He was the one behind The Plan.

  1. They had to get into the building first.

Quinjets had the advantage of being invisible. Steve, however, had no such advantage. From the moment he stepped out onto the rooftop he had to turn his “totally not Captain America” mode up to eleven.

‘Can I help-’ said the window cleaner, before his eyes went wide, ‘Aren’t you Captain America?’

Second time today. Do I look more American than usual? Is it the haircut?

At least a helpful citizen would make this easier.

‘Uh.’ said Steve, ‘Yeah, I guess I am. Would you mind if I borrowed the, uh, thing that lowers people down windows?’ he pointed at the little cage, ‘That thing?’

The window cleaner drew a gun. Because apparently he wasn’t really a window cleaner and Steve was terrible at not getting caught. The only upside was that the not-window cleaner was equally terrible at fighting, and it wasn’t long before he was lying unconscious on the roof.

‘You’re never gonna hear the end of that.’ Sam informed him, over the comms.

‘Yeah, yeah.’ he grumbled.

‘Does this happen every time you’re in public?’

Steve was busying himself with the contraption as he answered, ‘Not usually.’

‘Really?’

And now he just had to lower it down the side of the building. With him inside, obviously.

‘Well, Starbucks still spells my name wrong. But that doesn’t mean anything, since-’

‘There’s no conspiracy, Steve.’

Finally he got it working and, in an agonising crawl filled with the knowledge of exactly how exposed he was to any number of potential snipers, he descended the glass wall.

‘How do I know you’re not in on it, huh?’

Sam didn’t answer. Which, frankly, seemed like an admission of guilt to Steve.

Eventually Tony’s voice informed him that this was the floor he wanted, and Steve felt obliged to say, ‘You know the movie you almost certainly got this plan from?’

‘…Yeah?’ Tony asked, sounding wary.

‘Do you think it’s possible that the guys who designed the security on the building had also seen it?’

They both knew from the plans that this window wasn’t alarmed, but Steve wanted his doubts out in the open in case there was an “I told you so” opportunity on the horizon.

‘Just break the glass, Steve.’

‘Aren’t I supposed to cut a perfect circle in it with a laser or something? I watch movies too.’

The pause over the comms was the exact length of time it normally took Tony to rub his brow in frustration, ‘Why would I give you a laser when you have perfectly good fists?’

‘Dramatic effect?’

‘Just-’

‘Okay, okay,’ – the shattering noise was very un-dramatically subdued – ‘done. I’m going inside now.’

  1. Find the thing and steal it.

It was a disappointingly bland corridor. The carpet, the wallpaper (and the subtle stripes thereon), the doors, and the ceiling were all infinitesimally different shades of off-white. There were no steel doors. No warning signs. No laser grid. Based on how little resemblance it bore to an evil lair, Steve couldn’t help but wonder if he could have just said he was the cable guy and walked in.

‘So,’ he began in the silence, ‘the cabbie on the way here mentioned something about Last Week Tonight, I was wondering-’

He was interrupted by a snorting laugh that was unmistakably from Tony, ‘I’ll show you when you get back.’

‘Oh good.’

There was a time when Steve had concerned himself with public relations and put in an effort to present a good face. These days he couldn’t care less. He wasn’t even worried about what Bucky would have thought if he saw it, because that would be pathetic and Steve can handle breakups better than that.

‘Alright,’ Sam said, interrupting Steve’s chain of thought, ‘get ready.’

Steve slipped into a nearby room and left the door ajar, peering through the crack at the still corridor beyond. It wasn’t a long wait, and then a besuited man – target, according to Natasha’s terminology – strode passed. Two steps and one blow, and he was unconscious. Simple, if a little crude. After dragging him into the side room, Steve was at least nice enough to ensure that he was lying in a comfortable position. And, out of kindness, he chose not to follow Tony’s advice of drawing a dick on his face.

The access card was on his belt, as expected. Then all Steve had to do was take the lift down and hope that Natasha hadn’t encountered any problems playing her part.

Part of him hoped that she had been caught, just so he wasn’t the only one getting laughed at when this was over.

With the tiniest “ding”, the lift doors slid open at the basement and Natasha was revealed, smiling.

Typical.

‘This way.’ she said, all confidence and cheer. She was showing off.

It wasn’t a heist. At least not in the way Clint had promised. There was nothing cinematic about it in the end; no dramatic laser grids or even security guards. The cameras had been dealt with, they had made it to the basement, and now all there was to deal with was the large steel door in the way.

It was disappointing, really, that there was no clever plan involved. The only reason Steve was there was because the door hadn’t been in designed with superserum in mind.

‘This feels like cheating.’ he muttered over the comms, as the last obstacle was put to one side.

It was a lab, but unlike any lab Steve had stumbled across. Nothing was white, for a start, nor brightly lit. It looked like the sort of lab Mary Shelly would have designed if her life had coincided with the advent of the personal computer. The surfaces were numerous and littered with plants and mysterious instruments and so many jars, resplendent with the subdued yellow lights glinting off the unclean glass. The cables were a tangled mess, the walls were littered with unclear graphs and blueprints, and there were honest-to-goodness blackboards covered in mathematical scrawls. It was two thousand and sixteen and a Hydra scientist was using a blackboard. Steve felt refreshingly modern for once, just by comparison.

‘It’s not here.’ Natasha said, shaking him out of his judgemental reverie.

Of fucking course.

When in his life had there ever not been some complication or another? Steve wasn’t even surprised, just the low-level annoyance he’d recently been harbouring towards everything and nothing stepped up a notch into full-scale irritation.

‘Hold up,’ Tony was saying, ‘I’m getting something on the scans.’

Too irritated to bother thinking of a plan, Steve waited for Tony to work out the scans so someone else would tell him what to do next.

‘It’s weird.’ Tony added, after a few long, silent moments, ‘And… tiny…? It’s to your left, Cap.’

There were a lot of things to Steve’s left, among them being an old microscope and what looked like an overgrown feverfew plant.

‘Gonna have to be more specific there.’

Tony elaborated on his instructions while Steve examined the area. There was a bit of movement just over there. Utterly miniscule, but Steve bent down to examine it and found himself looking at what looked like a tiny man in red and black. Whatever it was, it was waving a little nervously. When Steve picked up a nearby jar and caught the thing, he could have sworn its shoulders dropped in defeat.

Leaving was almost comically easy. Hydra really needed to up their security. And then they were being picked up by Clint in an almost-unsuspicious-looking windowless van. Safely off the street, Steve lifted the jar to his eyeline and shook it, watching as the thing inside stumbled and fell over. Sam, sitting in the back while Clint drove, glanced up.

‘What is… oh.’ he said, finishing his sentence with a somewhat shifty look.

‘Sam?’ Nat asked, ‘Something you wanna share with the class?’

Sam rubbed the back of his neck nervously and then, avoiding all eyes, he took the jar out of Steve’s hands and shook it out onto the table.

There followed a few moments in which nothing at all happened and then-

‘Hi,’ said the newly full-sized man, as he took off his mask, ‘I’m Scott.’

‘He always says that.’ Sam added, still refusing to look any of them in the eyes.

‘Oh! Hey, Sam! Good to see you again. And sorry about last time.’

‘What happened last time?’ Clint asked over his shoulder. Because, as usual, Clint was refusing to look at the goddamned road.

‘Nothing.’ Sam said hastily, at exactly the same moment as Scott said, ‘He lost a fight to me.’

Nat snorted.

Grinning, Scott continued, ‘Anyway, it’s so great to meet you, Captain America! I’ve got that thing you wanted, I guess we were trying to steal it at the same time.’ and he handed over a little red book, ‘We should work together on this one.’

Steve, with the book safely in his grip, said, ‘No.’

‘But I can be useful!’

‘No.’

‘Damn, Last Week Tonight was pretty accurate after all.’

Breate. Count to ten. Don’t punch either this indecently cheerful bug or John Oliver.

‘Why,’ he began, slowly, ‘were you trying to steal this?’

‘Same reason as you, to fight Hydra. I’m not a bad guy, I swear. Just ask Bucky Barnes.’

For a moment Steve was sure he’d misheard. And then the sickening stomach drop and the rush of guilt. Bucky shouldn’t be involved in this. People with anything to do with Hydra shouldn’t know his name.

The van was silent, all eyes on Scott, who was looking around as though trying to work out what he’d done wrong.

‘You guys… do know Bucky, right? He says he’s not a superhero, but-’

‘He’s not a superhero.’ Steve interrupted, firmly, ‘How do you know him?’

‘We got into a bit of a fight? There was a misunderstanding,’ he added in a rush, reacting to the no-doubt murderous expression on Steve’s face, ‘But it’s all sorted and I haven’t seen him since and he… erm… seems nice?’

Steve used the long silence that followed to internally plan Scott’s murder.

‘Let’s go get coffee.’ Clint eventually announced, ‘And discuss it there. Scott, you are wearing clothes under that suit, right?’

‘Um. Yeah.’

‘Great.’

It wouldn’t be easy to hide a body in New York City, there being a lack of conveniently isolated places were one could be buried. He briefly considered Central Park, but a comparison of the amount of soil in the city and the amount of murders that occurred there strongly suggested that, should Steve try to dig a grave there, he’d only end up stumbling across another murder victim who’d gotten there first.

Maybe he could make it look like an accident. Guy runs around claiming to be a superhero, he’s bound to have an accident at some point.

‘What’s your superhero name?’ Steve asked, as casually as he could.

‘Uh… Ant-Man.’

Ant-Man sounded like someone who’d die in a freak accident. No one would suspect a thing.

Opal was working at Sterbugs and Steve realised too late that he’d forgotten to specify a different place. He’d been avoiding this one for a while now. Waiting for drinks was excruciating. But then, so was the small talk.

‘So, how’ve you been, Sam.’

‘Oh. Um. Not bad, yourself?’

‘Alright. I think we got off on the wrong foot…’

Steve’s caramel macchiato had the name “Steve” written on it. The Starbucks Conspiracy was getting sneaky. Lulling him into a false sense of security. But he wasn’t going to fall for it.

They settled at a table; Sam, Steve, Natasha, and Clint squeezed on one side, with Scott sitting alone on the other. The napkin he was holding was been torn slowly to pieces by nervous fingers and he didn’t seem to know where to look.

‘So-’ he began.

Steve cut him off, ‘What do you know about Bucky Barnes?’

It was Opal, cleaning the next table over, who answered, ‘If you’re looking for him, he hasn’t been here in a while.’

Steve looked at her and she blushed slightly.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Uh… you’re both regulars here, and he stopped coming around the same time you did? He used to tip well.’

Well, at least Steve didn’t have to worry about running into his ex.

‘Um, thanks.’ he replied, as she nodded a little and finished her work.

Attention returned to Scott, who was shuffling nervously in his seat, ‘I heard about him, y’know, through the grapevine.’

Maybe I could just shoot him and say he’s Hydra. People would believe me. I’m Captain America.

Steve took a sip of coffee and pretended he was thinking less murderous thoughts. Naturally, it scorched his tongue and he wondered when he was ever going to goddamn learn.

‘I heard Hydra knows him as the Winter Soldier, is all.’ Scott was saying, ‘And that he hangs out with the Avengers, but he says he doesn’t do that anymore.’ he shrugged, ‘I dunno. He said it was a stupid thing that he regrets so I guess that’s done?’

Well. That was an unexpected knife being twisted in his chest.

‘Okay.’ Steve said, hoping secretly that his glare alone would be enough to kill him, ‘Just don’t talk to Bucky again.’

‘You got it.’

‘Or mention his name.’

‘…Alright.’

‘Or otherwise acknowledge his existence.’

Scott’s eyes roved along the row of serious Avengers while the napkin he was worrying, already confetti, was torn again and again until it was approaching dust.

‘Can I,’ he began, shrinking away from their sight, ‘um… ask one question?’

‘No.’ Steve said.

‘Okay.’

Steve's questions having been answered, and with another of those epiphanies about the extent to which he’d managed to royally fuck up rippling through his head, the dilemma of how to handle “Ant-Man” didn’t particularly interest him. So when Sam raised the issue his immediate response was to say, ‘Well, since I’m told you know him so well, I’m making this your problem.’

‘But you’re team leader.’ he objected.

‘I’m delegating.’

Sam narrowed his eyes in faux resentment and Steve resisted the urge to laugh, ‘John Oliver was right about you.’

Great. At least he had something on his to-do list today. He made his way over to the tower on foot and tried not to glare too much at passers-by. According to Tony, he’d acquired a “resting bitch face”. Steve thought the problem was that there were just more annoying things these days.

Tony was also the one to have the privilege of introducing him – gleefully – to the Last Week Tonight clip in question. They were sitting in the communal area, the video, at Tony’s insistence, was playing on the oversized television screen there.

John Oliver, it transpired, wasn’t actually in it much. Just at the very start to say the words ‘And now, this.’

The clip cut away from the studio as a voice with considerably more gravity added, ‘And now; Captain America is sick of his job.’

The rest was a montage of very un-Captain America-esque footage. Steve’s increasing inability not to roll his eyes or look bored in interviews, Steve texting unsubtly in the back of another congressional hearing, Steve’s bored sort of “why?” gesture before punching the latest enemy coming towards him, that one time Steve couldn’t be bothered actually putting on his goddamned uniform when jeans and a T shirt were just as efficient (as long as he didn’t get stabbed)…

Steve buried his head in his hands and groaned. ‘Why can’t I just have no one bother me and spend all day painting?’

Ignore the rising panic when you think about art. You’ve gotten past this once you are not going to deal with this again.

Tony did that smug sort of half laugh thing he did that made Steve want to punch him, ‘You mean in the parallel universe where you’re not Captain America?’

Ugh.

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Sorry pal, you signed up for this.’

Yeah, well we all do stupid things.

He was going to have to do PR for this. He was going to have to smile and be polite. It was a nightmare; he never knew what to say and he could feel the eyes like a physical itch and there was a threat in the lens of every camera that seemed to terrify him more than the barrel of a gun.

At least I’m not wearing tights, he told himself, as he waited to find out what his sentence would be.

At least there are no show tunes, he thought, as he was told of the charity work he was apparently very invested in and would be getting involved in on camera.

At least… he began, but there was nothing his internal monologue could provide to compensate for the fact that he had to deal with Fox News.

Why couldn’t it be CNN? This is exactly CNN’s sort of story. It’s a slow news day and CNN never seems to have anything better to do anyway.

Instead it was Fox, presumably because the PR people involved had an optimistic view of Steve’s personality and thought he’d genuinely use this opportunity to bury the hatchet.

What a strange term “bury the hatchet” was anyway. It didn’t sound like making amends at all. It sounded like disposing of a murder weapon. What circumstance could the phrase possibly have arisen from?

‘Sir?’

‘Huh?’

‘Sorry, you seemed distracted, you were…’ the lady – probably she had some important job to do in the making of news – gestured to the work Steve was supposed to have been focused on. He was, at that moment, supposedly building something with some other volunteers. Something about underprivileged children, Steve didn’t really know. He put a lot of effort into his genuine charity work, but the PR stuff he had to do just seemed too exhausting.

‘We’re on in thirty seconds.’ she informed him, stepping neatly out of frame as the cameras’ crosshairs focussed in on him. A reporter took the woman’s place in one smooth movement. The seconds ticked by.

‘Good afternoon, I’m here with Captain America, who’s bringing attention to some important work that’s being done right here in New York City. Captain Rogers, could you explain what it is?’

Steve offered an artificial smile and the line of dialogue that his PR people had had him memorise.

It’s not a complete disaster so far, he thought. But that thought was a mistake, and now Steve recognised that slow drip of anxiety starting to fill up his mind. Now he was just waiting for what would happen to turn this into a complete disaster. No doubt it was only a matter of time.

The man from Fox News was wearing an equally artificial smile. The only authentic people in the shot were the volunteers who were actually doing any work.

‘So, we’ve all heard a lot about your cats recently.’ he began, and Steve’s impulsivity prompted him to respond.

‘Yeah, some journalists won’t stop talking about them.’

In the tiniest pause that followed, Steve pictured his PR people burying their heads in their hands and groaning.

‘Ha ha.’ said the man from Fox News, ‘I was just wondering if you were aware of something that occurred on this site earlier today?’

This sparked all the same instincts that told him not to take a certain action in the midst of battle. A sort of it’s a trap flashing behind his eyes.

‘No?’

The man was grinning. Steve had never seen a trap so signposted before. And then, horror of horrors, one of the miscellaneous Fox workers handed the man a meowing creature that looked more fur than substance.

Oh no.

‘This little guy was found on the working site and the volunteers thought, because you famously love cats, you’d want to take care of him.’

He was still grinning, relishing the joke and Steve’s long, heavy sigh in response.

‘I’m trying not to turn into a crazy cat guy.’ he replied, aiming for a defeated sort of self-depreciation that would come across well on the television. The cat was handed over, all orange-brown and – suddenly – sharp claws. Steve smiled through the pain.

‘I think he likes you.’

‘Well, I think two cats is enough for one person.’

‘Are you sure?’ the man replied, ‘You seem like a great cat owner. Just maybe don’t name this one after a communist.’

He was still smiling like an idiot. Steve’s patience, already so limited these days, was rapidly fading.

‘Henry Wallace wasn’t a communist.’ he said, a little cooler than he’s intended from the echoes of the politics that had fuelled the fires of early forties USA.

‘I’m just saying that you should consider picking something less political.’ he said, with a shrug that made Steve hate him.

‘Less political?’

‘Yeah.’

‘An uncontroversial name?’

‘Ideally.’

‘So you’re saying that Fox News would like me to pick something that has no relevance to anything political or any connection to anything that could be interpreted as communism? That’s what I should do to make Fox News happy?’

‘I guess, yes.’

Don’t do it don’t do it the PR people are going to kill you don’t

Steve lifted the cat up to eye level and said, ‘I’m gonna name you Karl Marx.’

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve caught one of the volunteers convulsing with silent laughter. Karl Marx bit Steve’s hand in a way that might have been affectionate but might have been attempted murder.

The reporter paused for a moment, probably waiting for Steve to rescind the name with a “just joking”. When none was forthcoming, and with a minute twitch of his left eye, the man said, ‘Do you think this is how you should represent America to the world?’

‘How would you like me to do it?’ Steve asked, having apparently decided that he’d had absolutely enough of pandering to Fox News, ‘You want me to follow your lead? Shall I represent America by accusing anything I don’t like of being communism?’

John Oliver is right, I hate my job.

Before the interview, Steve had been instructed on no uncertain terms not to be hostile to Fox News. Whatever else he’d end up doing, open hostility was off the table. He was to be polite. He was to ignore all the shit they said that made his skin crawl. He was to smile and have little of substance to say and generally be vapidly pleasant.

Steve held the cat in one hand and started the man down.

‘Well,’ the reporter said with caution, ‘a case could be made that you should avoid politics altogether.’

‘It’s not politics, it’s a cat.’

‘Okay but what about your vocal support for the gay rights movement?’

There had been foreshadowing, certainly, but this was it. This was the precise moment that Steve decided that he wasn’t going to do any of this PR stuff anymore. He wasn’t going to try to be the Captain America that had gone on war bond tours so nostalgic assholes could feel patriotic. And he certainly wasn’t going to care whether or not Fox News liked him.

‘I’m not really sure that counts as politics either.’ Steve told him coldly.

The hatchet wasn’t buried at all. The hatchet was out in the open. Steve was holding the hatchet and threatening the Fox News reporter with it, metaphorically.

Maybe he could threaten him with the cat instead. It seemed to be just as sharp and even more painful.

‘Of course it’s politics.’ the man said, in a voice approaching a scoff.

‘Not for the people affected.’

Not for me. Steve’s mind added, but he bit down on the words. It was the racing heart and light-headed adrenaline and the…

It was stupid. It was far from how Steve usually approached the world. More importantly, it was only a secret because it grated against the whole Captain America thing and he didn’t want to be subsumed beneath that identity anymore.

He held his tongue with the indistinct idea that this was more appropriate for press conferences and quaint speeches. Silently, he dared the man to push him further.

‘The people affected have a vested interest, though, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘As opposed to those not affected, who have no reasonable interest to speak of in who other people love.’ Steve said. What he meant was come on you entitled goddamned Ronald Reagan die hard, give me an opportunity.

It wasn’t irrational, it was just overdue. And besides, there were few things that scared Steve more than a press conference and this just seemed like a better way to do it.

‘That’s your opinion.’ the reporter replied, and for a moment it seemed as though Steve wouldn’t get his chance, but then, ‘Most people would expect Captain America to avoid such a divisive topic.’

Almost.

‘That might be difficult.’

Steve could feel the adrenaline sparking in his loud heartbeat and shaking hands. But it wasn’t terrifying this time. It was exhilarating. It was every fight he’d ever picked with someone twice his size. It was the first time he’d disobeyed orders.

It was feeling like himself again. Doctor Erskine had told him not to be a perfect soldier, but a good man. And, hey, if Erskine’s definition of a good man was a stubborn, self-assured Brooklyn kid with a seething ocean of burning anger just under his skin then so be it.

‘Difficult, how?’

There it is.

Steve took the smallest calming breath and said, ‘Well, because I’m bi. I apologise if that counts as taking a stand on a divisive issue.’

There was very likely no one on the planet who would think that Steve was sorry about anything. The same volunteer who’d been laughing before now looked as though he’d won the lottery. The reporter looked as though he’d just been tased.

‘…oh?’ he managed.

‘If it’s any consolation,’ Steve continued, ‘I’m not bi for political reasons. In fact, I was bi before I was Captain America.’

The man’s shocked expression seemed frozen on his face. Eventually, he managed, ‘…I see.’

‘I didn’t think to mention it when I was becoming Captain America, but mostly because it was illegal. But it hasn’t seemed to have any impact on doing my job except, perhaps, that I’m at risk of commenting on a divisive issue.’

‘Well that’s… I mean… that’s not what I meant-’

‘But hey, if it makes you feel any better, there are still a lot of straight people. I personally am constantly surprised by the number of straight people I meet.’

‘…Um.’

‘It wasn’t like this in the army, let me tell you.’

The volunteer was laughing again. The reporter seemed to be panicking. Eventually he managed to shake himself back into action and said, ‘Well, that was… I think that’s all we’ve got time for…’

Steve started the slow process of calming down from the moment the camera turned off. Cold, shaking, trying to breathe slowly. Too jumpy to go back to what he was doing, and gradually becoming more aware that he was still holding the damned cat. He was waiting for what he’d done to sink in and for the realisation that he’d made a mistake.

The latter didn’t come. As it turned out, he could trust his own judgement. This revelation came as something of a relief considering the amount of conviction he normally put into everything.

Now he just needed to decide what to do with the cat.

The only cat shelter he knew wasn’t an option anymore. He’d have to go to a different vet, as well. The whole thing seemed a lot harder now that he didn’t have that same person to go to for advice. So, as he arrived back at the Tower, he realised that he had an easier option.

‘This cat is yours now.’ Steve informed Tony, handing it to him. He didn’t take hold of it but, thankfully, Karl Marx sunk his claws into Tony’s suit and clung on.

‘Uh…’ said Tony, ‘No, I don’t think it is.’

‘Well then give him to someone else.’ Steve replied, with a shrug.

‘Look, I can’t have a cat named Karl Marx.’ Tony protested, ‘I’m an industrialist! He might start a revolt!’

‘Funny.’

‘Why Karl Marx? How do you know it’s even a boy?’

Steve only faltered for a moment, ‘Karl doesn’t have to be a boy’s name. Karl Marx doesn’t care about the gender binary.’

‘Aw,’ Tony said to the cat, scratching it behind its ears, ‘Who’s a good kitty? Who rejects false consciousness? Huh? You do. Yes you do.’

‘You know a lot about Marxism.’

‘I went to college. Congrats on your interview, by the way, it was amazing to watch.’

In the half hour since the interview, Steve had been feeling weirdly elated.  He grinned at Tony’s comment and reached out to pat the cat’s extremely fluffy head.

‘Listen,’ Tony continued, ‘I can’t tell if you’re losing control of your life or taking it back, but either way I am completely on board.’

‘Thanks pal.’

‘Now, Sam wants to see you. Don’t ask me why.’

Steve nodded and headed for the lift, leaving Tony to mutter, ‘Who’s gonna overthrow the bourgeoisie? Who’s gonna seize the means of production?’ in a baby voice to the new cat.

Jarvis took him to Sam’s floor without Steve even having to punch in the number, and he shuffled nervously while he waited for the lift to arrive there. To his utter lack of surprise, Sam was waiting for him when the doors slid open.

‘Hi Sam.’ Steve said, in the same voice he used to use when called into his school principal’s office. It wasn’t that Sam would be mad – or even have any right to be mad – it was that Steve had a built-in reaction to people who seemed to know what they were doing.

‘Steve. Saw your interview.’

‘Did you?’ he asked, weakly.

‘I’m proud of you.’

‘You’re…’ Steve had to pause in the middle of the sentence while his brain rebooted, ‘huh?’

‘What? You did good today. Just because you did it to win an argument and while holding a cat named Karl Marx doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing, it just means…’ Sam looked thoughtful for a moment, ‘that you did it in a way that works for you.’

Steve still had absolutely no idea what was going on. ‘So…’ he tried, ‘I can leave?’

‘Absolutely not. Sit down.’

Steve sat down. Sam, looking unaccountable awkward, took a seat next to him.

‘Look, man,’ he began, and Steve resigned himself to having to listen to whatever would follow, ‘you know I hate talking about psychological stuff with my friends.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘I mean I really hate it. Like you wouldn’t believe how much I hate it. That’s what therapists are for.’

‘Okay.’

‘But sometimes you get a friend – and I don’t wanna name names so let’s just call him “Steve” – who needs a therapist but is too goddamned stubborn and would rather get a cat for some reason.’

‘Sam-’

‘Two cats, in fact. That’s a two-zero cat to therapist ratio. That’s not a good ratio. So anyway, when this happens you try to get… “Steve”… to hire a therapist. But he doesn’t. So then you’ve gotta maybe give him some things to think about, mental health wise.’

‘Come on, Sam-’

Sam cut him off with a glare, ‘So now you have to get “Steve” to consider the possibility that he might not be neurotypical and that now might be a good time to do something about it.’

Childishly, Steve wished Sam would decide he’s had enough soul searching or whatever for a single day and let him off the hook.

Instead, and with considerable reluctance, Steve asked, ‘What do you mean by “not neurotypical”?’

‘No, Steve, come on. Don’t make me get into this.’

‘You brought it up.’

‘But- ugh.’

Having ascertained that they were both equally unhappy with the conversation, Steve was satisfied to just let Sam continue.

‘So, like, um. Maybe “Steve” daydreams a lot. And maybe you read something about maladaptive daydreaming and thought that “Steve” should also read about-’

‘Is it bad?’

‘What?’

‘Maladaptive daydreaming?’

Sam was looking ever more irritable as the conversation progressed, ‘I’m not fucking google just- goddammit. It can be but it’s not usually much of a problem. It’s exactly the sort of thing that “Steve” would want to talk to his actual therapist about, if he ever goes and finally gets an actual therapist.’

One of Sam’s eyes were twitching.

‘So it’s not a problem.’ Steve summarised, rising to his feet, ‘Everything’s fine.’

As he made to leave, Sam protested, ‘What? No, everything is not fine, Steve. You also clearly have some kind of anxiety disorder you’re ignoring and you refuse to address-’

‘Everything’s fine.’ Steve repeated, in a slightly louder voice, waving away Sam’s objections as if he were casting a magic spell.

Steve.’

With the kind of reluctance he normally reserved for press conferences, Steve turned around.

‘Here,’ Sam said, throwing something small and colourful for him to catch, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s the last one. Clint found it this morning.’

Oh no.

It was a tiny purple Clint Barton toy, hidden – presumably expertly – by Bucky months before.

Oh fuck.

‘You alright, Steve?’

When is the answer to that question ever honest?

‘Fine.’

There was a long pause. Sam didn’t appear to have anything else to say, but Steve didn’t make to leave. Eventually, slipping the little toy into his pocket and maybe rocking a little nervously on his feet, Steve added, ‘Actually I want to talk to you.’

‘Pal-’

‘It’s not psychology related, I swear. You don’t have to be my therapist.’

‘Okay, so what is it about?’

Last chance to change your mind.

He didn’t. Of course he didn’t. He may be stubborn but at least he could – eventually – realise that he was a complete and utter moron.

It took until the end of spring to sort it out, Steve itching to just be done with it while at the same time needing it to be done well. With the summer sluggishly drawing nearer and the last frigid showers drying up, Steve found the plan being finalised all at once.

Then, with everything suddenly so certain, Steve withdrew to his room at the tower to stare at his phone in silence.

            Bucky:             I love you too

Just do it just text him.

‘FDR?’ he said idly, looking up to see his oldest cat turning curious eyes his way, ‘You knew Bucky longer than I did, what could I possibly say?’

FDR blinked at him and then began licking a paw.

‘Well fuck you too, pal.’

FDR ignored him, padding over to a patch of sunlight and flopping down to sleep.

            Steve:               Can we talk?

That was stupid. Imagine getting that from your ex after months of silence. Steve deleted the message and tried again.

            Steve:               I’m sorry

Fuck off. It was far too late for that. Everything Steve could think to say was woefully inadequate, and even that tiny admission was deleted.

Just fucking text him goddamn.

            Steve:               I know I’m an idiot and you probably hate me but can we talk?

That more or less summed it up. He forced himself to press send and then immediately regretted it.

            Steve:               I’m only texting because I figured you wouldn’t want me to call or show up in person or anything

            Steve:               This way you can ignore me if you want

He added I miss you before deleting that too, and trying to distract himself while he waited for the response.

He didn’t get one.

He went to bed that night still trying to push it from his mind, and awoke the next morning aching from lack of sleep. Against the window, warm rain was obscuring New York beyond. His two cats migrated over the carpet all day as the watery sunshine inched through the room. Night brought city lights scattering through the drops on the glass.

The wind picked up the day after that, chasing the inconsistent clouds across the sun. If he wanted, Steve could watch the race from light to shadow and back drift over the streets below. He watched television instead.

The day after that, he stopped paying attention to the indecisive weather altogether. The silence persisted. It was, to any reasonable observer, answer enough.

            Steve:               Okay then

Steve – who had willingly let the government experiment on him – was now surer than he’d ever been that he’d never made a bigger mistake than leaving Bucky.

            Steve:               I’m sorry Buck

He threw himself onto the sofa and then, when that didn’t seem resigned enough, let all his weight drop onto one side so he could bury his face into the cushion. One of the cats took the opportunity to jump onto his back.

For the second time in his life, Steve realised that he had no guidance whatsoever about what his future was going to be. There was a cavernous expanse of time stretching ahead of him and he had no idea where to even begin to fill it. Oblivious to his internal crisis, the cat began kneading his back into a more comfortable shape.

His phone lit up.

            Bucky:             Sorry I couldn’t think of a response

            Bucky:             I wasn’t actually ignoring you

            Bucky:             Sorry

Bucky was talking to him. Actually responding. There was contact. True, it wasn’t the same as hearing his voice or seeing him in person, but that suddenly mattered a whole lot less than Steve thought it would. Because what other proof could he need that it really was Bucky than this flustered trio of messages? Somewhere beyond the bulletproof glass of Steve’s living room, Bucky Barnes was almost certainly biting his lip.

Careful not to dislodge the now purring cat from his spine, Steve tapped out a reply.

            Steve:               Do you want to meet somewhere?

The answer was quick and erased the last three days’ agony in one go. All he had to do was swallow the hope that threatened to overwhelm him, gently nudge the cat (Henry) off his back, and pick something to wear.

Blue jacket. The one that brought out his eyes. And then it wasn’t long before he was riding through the cooling twilight as the Brooklyn Bridge passed under his wheels. It had been too long, his restless exile keeping him on the wrong side of the river.

God, he’d been an idiot.

The light was spilling liberally out onto the street as he pulled up next to the diner. It was just as he remembered it, all glass and Americana; Nighthawks come to life.

Bucky was nestled in a booth toward the back. It didn’t look like he’d noticed Steve’s arrival, and his brow was furrowed gently as he gazed out into the darkening city. It was almost a surprise how little he’d changed. His hair was pulled back into a bun and his arm was glinted unashamedly under sodium-orange streetlights, but everything else was the same. All Steve wanted to know in that moment was what hue the lighting would give his eyes.

Bucky looked up as he approached (irises the silver-flash of fish darting just beneath the surface of a river) and offered a smile. A little warm, a little sad, it seemed too much like a concession for Steve to return it.

‘Hi.’ he said instead.

A fraction of a crinkle in Bucky’s eye told Steve that at least there was something amusing in this.

‘Hi.’

God I’m still in love.

‘You look… well?’ Steve tried, even as his whole being rejected small talk with the ferocity of a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

‘Yeah, well, nothing you did left a visible mark.’

Fuck.

He’s not… he’s not planning on letting you off easy.

Time to start searching for ways to make Bucky like him again.

Good fucking luck.

‘Okay, so. You, well, you know this already, but I may have made a bit of a mistake.’

‘A bit of a mistake.’ Bucky repeated coolly, his level gaze and his composure at odds with Steve’s own beating heart, ‘Gerald Ford made a bit of a mistake when he pardoned Nixon. You fucked up.’

Steve shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

‘Yeah,’ he conceded, ‘yeah I fucked up. You were in danger and it seemed- I dunno- I probably shouldn’t have listened to the others so easily. I know I’ve got… issues… but I sort of forget that the others do too. We’re all worried about civilians and- shit- ‘m sorry Bucky. I know I hurt you.’

In the quiet between them, Steve’s voice sounded tired.

‘Yeah no shit you hurt me,’ Bucky snapped back, all venom in a tone barely above a whisper, ‘bit of an understatement, pal. But at least you seem to finally have noticed so…’ he stumbled into silence, and Steve remembered how much he didn’t like arguments.

‘I’m sorry.’ Steve repeated, inadequately.

‘I know.’

In the pause that followed, the waitress poured them both out some coffee. Just glad to have something to do with his hands, Steve thanked her and waited until they were alone again.

‘I, um. I actually wanted to talk to you because-’ he swallowed, forcing himself to push on even though he seemed to already have his answer, ‘I wanted to know if there was any chance at all that…’

Bucky was shaking his head, looking down into his coffee. When he looked up again his composure remained intact but his eyes were wet.

Steve felt something hard and cold wrap around his heart.

‘I can’t.’ Bucky said, and it was no consolation that he didn’t seem happy about it, ‘I’m- how can you know that it’s not going to happen again?’

‘It won’t-’

‘You said that last time. You can’t be sure that you’re not going to need to cut me out again, or I’m not gonna get into a fight in a Starbucks, or… Christ. I love you Steve, but you’re still Captain America and I can’t. I’m- I’m being responsible.’

Before he could help himself, Steve said, ‘I love you too.’ with a slight smile he knew would seem a little smug.

‘You focussed on the wrong bit of what I was saying there, pal.’

‘I know,’ Steve allowed, holding his hands up in surrender, ‘I know I know. But I was just thinking that I have a solution to the problem.’

Bucky arched one eyebrow almost imperceptibly on his otherwise still stony face, ‘This better be good.’

‘What if… I wasn’t Captain America?’

This was met with silence. Bucky narrowed his eyes.

‘But you are Captain America.’

‘But I don’t have to be. I don’t even have to hand in two weeks’ notice. I don’t actually work for anyone.’

More silence.

‘That… seems a little extreme?’

Steve shrugged, forcing a jovial sort of nonchalance even as his heart beat faster, ‘It’s already done. Things took a while to sort out but the press conference is tomorrow morning.’

‘Oh.’ Bucky said, weakly.

‘I waited to tell you because I didn’t want this,’ Steve gestured between them, ‘to be a deciding factor. I’ve got, well, a lot of reasons to finally retire.’

‘Well.’ came the response, ‘Congratulations. That’s a pretty big decision.’

Understatement.

‘I’ve been thinking about things and sort of… dealing with some of my issues. Or trying to. And I guess it’s about time. But anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to, what about you?’

Bucky seemed a little startled by the question. He blinked a few times and then, a little awkwardly, he replied, ‘I… got… a tattoo?’ – here he bit his lip – ‘And… a sword.’

I’m not supposed to laugh, right? I probably shouldn’t laugh.

‘Oh, nice.’ Steve said, with a straight face.

Bucky winced a little, ‘I mean. There was also some soul-searching stuff as well. Mine involved a little more, um, vodka. But it’s the thought that counts?’

Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh.

Steve had never been more in love.

‘This vodka soul searching, did it involve any singing in bars?’

Bucky’s complete denial was somewhat muffled, coming as it did from behind the hands covering his face.

Jesus, he was wonderful. He was the best thing that Steve had ever held, and this was another sappy thought that he’d never say out loud.

‘You didn’t answer my question.’

‘Huh?’

‘Does it- does it change anything?’

Slowly, Bucky lowered his hands and held Steve’s gaze.

‘I try not to give second chances.’ he said, eventually, ‘It’s never worked out for me.’

‘Oh.’ Steve replied, for want of anything else to say.

‘There are a lot of people I regret giving second chances to.’

Steve nodded, trying to keep his expression under control. ‘That’s, um…’ What the hell was he going to say? Fair enough? Entirely your choice? My own goddamn fault? ‘…okay then. I’ll… if you want I can…’

He rose to leave, carefully avoiding Bucky’s eyes. His coffee was rapidly cooling, half drunk, as he drew his hands back from it over the formica table top. And then, suddenly, Bucky was holding him by the wrists. The metal of his hand was still warm from the heat that had radiated from his coffee.

‘Wait.’ he said, looking up with such an earnest expression that Steve was momentarily frozen in place, before slowly settling back into his seat.

He didn’t speak, just waited for Bucky to continue as the grip slipped a little until they were simply holding hands across the table.

‘I always do this.’ he continued, apparently by way of explanation, ‘This always happens. Every time, it’s- I’m ridiculous. I don’t want to give second chances because, once it’s been fucked up, logically I have cause to believe that it’s gonna get fucked up again, right?’

His words didn’t particularly match with the warmth of his hands that Steve could still feel.

‘Sure?’ he tried, hoping that that was the right thing to say.

‘And it inevitably always does. So I figure I’m gonna start being one of those people who learn their lesson. Y’know. Like the ex-wives of ambiguously alcoholic detectives in those boring crime shows? I always sorta decided that next time I’m done I’m gonna actually be done and that’ll be the end of it. Not my problem anymore. And I’ll just move on.’

Steve was starting to wonder if he’d forgotten that they were still holding hands.

Bucky shook his head, leaning back into his chair with a defeated sort of sigh, ‘But it turns out I’m just really bad at leaving people. I’m- my family is gonna hold an intervention. And they’re gonna hate you for a bit, just so you know. Even the ones who think you did the right thing are gonna pretend to hate you in solidarity. It’s a thing they do.’

Wait.

‘Um.’ Steve replied, ‘Okay.’

‘And it doesn’t mean all is immediately forgiven. You were still a giant dick and I reserve the right to be pissed off about it for a bit longer.’

‘Fair enough.’

‘Good.’

‘Alright.’

‘That’s settled then.’

At this point, Steve wanted to drink some more of the coffee, but wasn’t willing to let go of Bucky’s hands to do it.

‘Um.’ he said instead, ‘Did you just… talk yourself into getting back together with me?’

‘I’m a hopeless romantic,’ Bucky replied, glaring at Steve as though daring him to say different, ‘it’s one of the reasons you love me.’

It took all of Steve’s willpower not to laugh, but he tactfully managed, ‘I’ll concede that,’ which was true, and added, ‘I’ll also admit to having been a giant dick. Though hopefully you let me make that up to you with a second first date?’

Okay, it wasn’t as smooth as he’d like to be, but apparently he’d somehow already been successful, so it wasn’t too bad.

‘When?’

‘I’m free right now.’ Steve suggested, before he thought about it.

Bucky didn’t even look surprised, just allowed the first genuine smile of his that Steve had seen since New Years’ Eve to spread across his face and – with an air of giving in with grace that was belied by the crinkles in the corners of his eyes – said, ‘Where are we going then, Stevie?’

Chapter Text

Steve suggested dinner first, and the waitress was soon bringing over the same breakfast food they had had on their second date. The memory settled strangely in Steve’s mind; it wasn’t pain anymore, because Bucky was sitting right there once again, but there was certainly an awareness of how much had changed.

Bucky was drizzling maple syrup over his pancakes in a steady spiral, watching him. It was unnerving, the way his eyes were crinkling at the corners again and the corner of his mouth was pulled in like he was on the edge of a smile. He was thinking of a joke, and Steve wanted to know what it was.

‘Okay,’ he eventually relented, ‘Tell me what’s funny.’

Bucky finished pouring out the syrup, setting the tiny jug down on the table again.

‘I enjoyed that Fox interview.’ he told him.

Steve buried his head in his hands, partly out of genuine embarrassment, and partly to hide the grin he could never help whenever that memory arose.

‘It was brilliant,’ Bucky added, finally smiling properly now, ‘You should’ve seen the texts I got after it. Ma wanted to know if I couldn’t convince you to take me back. Even offered to lend be a boom box to wait outside your window with.’

The image was beautiful.

‘That’s a good idea,’ Steve replied, thoughtfully, ‘I can do that outside your house if you want, as part of my making it up to you.’

Tearing little strips of his pancakes almost absentmindedly, Bucky asked, ‘What happened to the cat? Karl Marx?’

‘She’s the apple of Tony’s eye. He built her a cat tree in the shared area of the tower. It’s huge. Clint won’t stop perching on it.’

Bucky laughed, screwing up his nose as he did so and adding, ‘Clint’s an actual bird.’

There was another jolt of guilt. Steve had cut Bucky off from some of his friends. And with that guilt came the realisation that Steve had only actually met one of Bucky’s other friends.

It was a weird situation to be in. Half that unpleasant mix of shame and regret, half a giddy lightness at being back in Bucky’s company. It left him uncertain about what he was allowed to say or how relaxed he was allowed to be.

‘Okay.’ Bucky said, suddenly serious again, ‘What happened with the Winter Soldier thing, and please don’t say it’s classified. I got into a fight with a guy who calls himself Ant-Man, I’d like a bit more information.’

Steve tried not to laugh and failed miserably, ‘Oh god, he said. I’ve met him, he’s… enthusiastic.’

‘He said Hydra called me the Winter Soldier.’

‘Yeah.’ – a steadying breath – ‘We sort of outmanoeuvred them. That project’s not going to work now. Promise.’

It was unnerving to be stared at by Bucky with such a searching expression. Considering. Evaluating.

‘You don’t seem too happy about it.’

A heavy sigh, and Steve took a moment to remind himself that he was finally done with his war before trying to explain, ‘It’s just… this whole time I was expecting some huge fight, you know? Like, it would all come to a head at some point and I’d just have to get through that and I’ll be done.’

Bucky nodded, once again taking Steve by surprise by how much he genuinely seemed to care.

‘It happened in the forties.’ Steve continued, ‘And then in Washington. But clearly neither of those actually got rid of Hydra and… there’s just been lots of little fights and plots and I’m exhausted. And for all that there doesn’t seem to be any finish line. So I kind of… need to… stop. It’s not the sort of ending you get in stories and I’m not exactly happy about it, but it’s looking like I either step back now or just keep doing this for the rest of my life. So, yeah, you’ll be safe from the Winter Soldier project, I made sure of that. And you’ll become pretty irrelevant to Hydra once I move on to civilian life.’

It was bitterly unsatisfying. The job wasn’t finished and probably never would be, fully. Worse, it was anticlimactic. He’d been expecting some final battle for so long that he’d only grown tenser in the endless anticipation. It was useless; he didn’t live in a movie anymore.

‘Okay. That’s… well at least I know you’ve really thought this through.’ And he laughed, a little breathless, giddy thing as if he just needed to fill in the silence somehow, and his eyes crinkled up in the corners, and Steve found himself smiling automatically, and everything seemed like it was going to be alright.

‘It’s probably the only major decision I didn’t make on a whim.’ Steve admitted, and they both laughed again in something strangely like relief.

Steve took another gulp of coffee and let the conversation lapse into easy quiet as they ate. Outside the night was clear and dark, only cut where coloured lights glittered off smooth planes. A window here, a glossy car there, and in between it all were the last remnants of afternoon rain that shimmered on the sidewalk.

‘So, um.’ Steve began, once the silence became painful again, ‘Other than the sword and the tattoo, how have you been?’

This, Bucky clearly thought about in some depth before stumbling on a story he could tell, ‘I got my signs back.’ He announced, with a tiny, proud smile that Steve abruptly wanted to kiss.

Instead, he responded, ‘What? All of them?’ and settled in to listen to him speak.

‘All of them.’ Bucky confirmed, ‘I didn’t even realise Jonathan still had them, but apparently he’d kept them in storage. Every last one of them is currently still on the front of my house.’

‘How’d you do it? I hope you didn’t break into any houses. I can sympathise but I’m still Captain America for twelve more hours and that comes with a certain responsibility.’

The threat earned a laugh that put Steve in mind of those socialites in his time, still clinging to the world of the twenties that they hadn’t quite been of age for, even as the depression did its damage. It was a laugh that suggested that his primary interest in life was to be entertained, that all the problems of the world could be fixed with a quick wit and a bit of flirting. The image was only increased as he made a show of straightening his back and lifting his chin, proclaiming, ‘I used the power of acting.’ with pride in his posture but nothing more than harmless humour in his eyes.

‘I didn’t realise that was a power you possessed.’ Steve confessed.

Now Bucky was resting his chin delicately on one hand, ‘How dare you? I did drama in high school.’

‘Did you?’

‘I did. And it was more useful in getting my signs back than the power to punch things really hard would have been. I just decided one day that enough was enough, and I told Becca…’

‘You were going to make an honest stand.’ Steve suggested.

‘Exactly. An honest stand. So I wandered over-’

‘Did you wander?’ Steve enquired, ‘Or did you march over there?’

‘You know? It was more of a saunter. I sauntered over there, with absolute confidence-’

‘And great hair.’

‘And fuckin’ amazing hair.’ Bucky agreed, ‘And I knocked on his door until he answered it. And then I looked him dead in the eyes and, do you know what I said?’

‘What did you say?’ Steve asked, matching Bucky’s pose to lean across the table as though he were listening to Homer tell of adventure for the very first time.

‘I said I was going to sue him, like any true American would.’

Steve laughed on cue, before adding a little uncharitably, ‘You couldn’t have done that maybe a year before?’

Bucky shot him a scowl, absent any real venom, and ducked his face back to the coffee almost in time to hide the smile. This was good. This was almost normal. This was… this was going better than Steve had allowed himself to hope.

The last of the coffee was drained and Steve was legitimately weighing up the pros and cons of a refill before noting the fresh pot and decided that it would be best to avoid any more pretending not to have a burnt mouth.

So instead he looked across the table at Bucky, framed as he was against the crisp New York night, and set his mind to the open hours in front of them both.

‘Second first date…’ Steve began, causing Bucky’s eyebrow to quirk up just slightly, ‘I don’t suppose you’re ever had an interest in clichéd young adult hopeless romantic type stuff?’

Bucky raised the other eyebrow, considering it, and it wasn’t long before they were in on Coney Island.

Luna Park.

They were each privately pretending not to be delighted by the movie-set magic of the place.

How American. How glittering. The deeply Midwestern tourists and out-of-state couples with thickly Jersey vernaculars were all transformed into something charming under the cheap glamour of carnival lighting. Steve had a sudden urge to win Bucky a giant teddy bear.

‘So what now?’ Bucky asked. His hand was in Steve’s and the weight of his chin was warm of Steve’s shoulder as he leaned over with the enquiry. It seemed that Bucky was postponing any lingering anger to a move convenient time. It was simpler to let everything be fine for a while. Easier. More enjoyable, too, given that they’ve just closed off a stretch of tense absence that neither of them had particularly wanted.

‘I don’t really know.’ He admitted, ‘I’m sort of just making this up as I go.’

‘Well, we’re not at a Starbucks for once, so you get some points for that.’

But that comment was undermined somewhat by the way Bucky’s eyes were scanning the sights, a little wider, with his irises glimmering in the lights they reflected.

‘We could have a go on the ferris wheel.’ Steve suggested, mostly as a joke.

This earned a surprised laugh from Bucky, as they both took the opportunity to picture that suggestion. The two of them jammed together on the narrow seats, comically out of place, and with one or both of them almost certainly rocking their seat ardently.

‘How do you feel about cotton candy?’ Bucky eventually queried.

‘Positive?’

There was certainly a cotton candy smell to the air, mingled with deep fryer grease and the suggestion of an ocean, drifting as a sweet, heady perfume around them. For Steve, this was a strange place to experience. It seemed to bridge the gap between his two distinct lives simply by seeming to never have changed.

And then Bucky bumped against his arm and he thought about one change, at least, that he was more than a little happy about.

The sugar was spun in front of them, so that it was handed over warm, and dainty, and so light that – were Steve in a more cynical frame of mind – he’d point out that the actual substance was a fraction of what they’d paid for.

Now with something to occupy their hands, they drifted deeper into the park. Steve was putting no small effort into taking bites of the candy in a way that wouldn’t leave his lips sticky. Bucky, meanwhile, was tearing of fine pieces of pink and popping them into his mouth one by one.

‘It’s been ages since I’ve had this stuff.’ Bucky told him, ‘Now I think of it, it’s been ages since I’ve come here. All my life in New York and I spend more time drinking coffee than actually seeing what it has to offer.’

He said it offhandedly, like it was a point of mild interest that he may consider again at a later point. There was nothing resentful about Bucky at all that evening. Nothing in his air but relaxed posture and the suggestion that a joke could materialise at any moment and then dissipate, like the laugher that held it, into the fragrant night. They could afford to let such moments go; there would always be more.

‘You seem to have visited most of the bars,’ Steve pointed out, ‘so that’s a fair portion of the city you’ve experienced.’

‘I wouldn’t say most of them…’ Bucky responded, in a voice that suggested that he was genuinely weighing up the evidence.’

‘Are you sure you’d remember?’

Bucky’s response was to pluck another piece of cotton candy with a forced sort of dignity, and to avoid the question, ‘What’s the most New York thing you’ve ever done?’

‘Probably a back alley fight or something.’ Steve answered, ‘No, wait, back in the thirties I was part of a line blocking the strike-breakers up from Virginia from working. That was pretty New York at the time. What about you? What’s the most New York thing you’ve ever done?’

Bucky took a few moments to think about it, before answering, ‘Captain America.’

In the absence of a response to that, Steve caught the last of the cotton candy in his teeth and hoped he wasn’t noticeably flustered.

Bucky noticed anyway. Of that, Steve had no doubt.

And then someone else said ‘Captain America.’ and for a moment he thought their exchange had been overheard. But no, a quick glance in the direction of the voice told him he’d been recognised by two men. The taller man’s embarrassment was in perfect mathematical proportion to how inebriated the man who’d spoken was. That is to say, it was mild, but evident.

‘Hi.’ said Steve, from underneath the thin layer of Captain America that was still covering him. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Bucky taking an innocuous step backwards and effectively disappearing from the attention Steve was receiving.

‘Sorry.’ said the second man, at the same moment that the first man said, ‘Holy shit, you are Captain America.’

‘I am.’ Steve confirmed, resolving to be as friendly as he could simply to minimise the second man’s embarrassment. He held out his hand and added, ‘Call me Steve.’

‘Steve.’ the first man repeated, in an odd sort of reverence, ‘Wait. Um. I’m Adam, this is Mitch.’ – he shook the proffered hand tentatively – ‘It’s, uh, crazy to meet you. I saw your interview on Fox, it was amazing. Iconic.’

‘It’s nice to meet you.’ Mitch added, quietly, politely, and more than a little apologetically.

‘You too.’

‘It’s so awesome that you’re bi.’ Adam was saying, ‘It’s, like, the best possible way you could have put a stop to all those Republican fuck boys from saying you’d support them.’

Still hovering on the edge of the scene, Bucky made a noise somewhere between a snicker and a giggle. It was as though he had been aiming for snicker, but his giggle instinct took over.

‘I hope so.’ Steve agreed, earnestly. As much as he usually tried to avoid being recognised, even more so by drunk people while he was on a date, this was actually enjoyable. It took a few moments for him to place the reason, but then he realised that what he was enjoying was the first amendment rushing in to fill the vacuum left by his long-held diplomatic omission. After surprising everyone, himself included, by bursting from the closet in the language of sarcasm (and, thrillingly, in the fraught and forbidden language known as politics), there was no point in shutting the stable door of “impartiality”. That horse had well and truly bolted, and now he could say what he really believed for the first time in far too long.

Adam was grinning. At this point, Steve realised that he was only tipsy, and that his personality was doing the rest, ‘Do you happen to be on the market?’

Steve glanced to Mitch in time to see a blush shoot up his face like the rising mercury in a cartoon thermometer.

‘Um.’ said Steve.

‘We should go.’ said Mitch.

Bucky, however, said nothing at all. But his newest attempt at a snicker had slid further to the “giggle” side of the spectrum.

‘I’m aware you’re out of my league.’ Adam assured him, ‘But, just think about the breakdown homophobes all over America would have if they had to deal with an actual Adam and Steve.’

Steve laughed in spite of himself, and Adam took the opportunity to add, ‘I’m great at giving flowers and stuff. Plus, I have a cat.’

Mitch had been stepping on Adam’s foot with increasing pressure for the entirely of that exchange, but only Steve seemed to have noticed.

‘As strong as you Adam and Steve argument is,’ Steve told him, arranging his features into something between apologetic and amused, ‘Unfortunately I’m, uh,’

‘Spoken for.’ Bucky finished, stepping back into the conversation and slipping his arm into Steve’s.

Mitch blushed so hard that Steve began worrying how much blood he had in the rest of his body to keep his vital organs functioning.

‘Oh man,’ Adam responded, in a jovial sort of pseudo-disappointment, ‘look at you. I can’t compete with that jawline, damn.’ – here Mitch buried his scarlet face in his hands – ‘Would it help my cause if I mention that Jupiter is a very cute cat?’

‘I own a cat shelter.’ Bucky told him.

‘Well then I don’t stand a chance. Nice meeting you.’ finished, cheerfully, ‘You two are really cute together.’

Mitch practically jumped at the cue, and together the two of them effected an efficient disappearance into the dwindling crowds.

‘They seemed nice.’ Bucky mentioned.

‘Yeah, I didn’t even have to sign anything.’

They walked on in comfortable silence for a while, fingers intertwined, before Bucky added, ‘You pretty much never get me flowers and stuff. Maybe I should date Adam instead.’

‘Since when do you give me flowers?’

‘I gave you two cats. More or less.’

‘Doesn’t count.’ Steve objected, ‘You own a cat shelter. You giving me cats was practically like regifting them.’

They continued like that for a while, as the earth took them further and further from the sun. But this was not something that their modest planet could maintain for any real length of time, and soon the same motion would bring them back to face it.

By the time the sky was once again blue, and the sun sat low over the warming city, Steve had somewhere else entirely to be.

God, he hated press conferences.

The journalists were already there, because journalists never seemed to have anything better to do. At the lectern a half dozen microphones were affixed, not to help Steve be heard, but to help various news outlets get their logo into the shot. It was like any other press conference, on any other day.

Out in Brooklyn, Bucky was almost certainly where Steve had left him; cocooned in a warm duvet in front of the TV. There was no way he was going to miss the broadcast, and when Steve had taken his reluctant leave, Bucky had looked as though he was far too comfortable to move for a few hours yet.

‘You’re late.’ Pepper had told him.

‘Just remember what we’ve prepared.’ Pepper had told him.

‘I know you get nervous at press conferences but you only have one more to do and then you’re in the clear. So take a deep breath and get through this.’ Pepper had told him.

(‘Leave Cap alone, you’re only gonna stress him out more.’ Tony had told Pepper.)

And now it was Steve’s turn to tell the journalists things. Then those things would be told via the journalists to the entire world. It was a concept that…

Well…

It was difficult to imagine how big the world was, because it was difficult to hold the concept of the entire world in his mind at once. At least, not without running it through some compression algorithms that condensed it down to the image of a globe and a vague concept of simplistic cultures.

So he thought about Belgium.

Belgium was huge. Steve didn’t know the population of the country, but he knew that it could fit a lot of things. There were cities, where frankly terrifying numbers of individual human beings lived. And towns. So many towns that Steve would never even learn of the existence of all of them. Even people from Belgium were unable to name how many towns were in Belgium, that’s how many there were. But, worse, there was farmland. A farm, of course, is a huge tract of land where usually a single family lived. The country was so big that there were whole areas set aside, horizon to horizon, for a few scattered households to tend to.

And yet, Belgium was tiny compared to other countries. Hell, it was small compared to the state of Arkansas. Steve also did not know the population of Arkansas, nor did he (as he suddenly realised) know much else about Arkansas. But he imagined a phonebook for Little Rock – thick and heavy and full of hair-thin paper with a tiny font – and reminded himself that the entire book was nothing more than a list of some of the people who lived in that one city.

There were forty-nine other states in that country alone. One of those states was Texas. The world he would soon be addressing was huge. Steve took a deep breath and tried not to let himself panic any more than he already was.

Because he was unable to have any influence on the passage of time, Steve was soon standing at the lectern. From his vantage point he could see them all waiting with an approximation of patience, a few of them holding notepads that he suspected were more an aesthetic decision than a practical one.

‘Good morning.’ he began, before immediately taking a tiny pause to double check that it was, in fact, morning. He then followed up with the rest of the inane introduction that Pepper had prepared, while trying not to think about the size of Russia.

‘So,’ he said, more to mentally prepare himself than to communicate anything to the gathered journalists, ‘as most of you are aware, I’m a little older than I look.’

He wasn’t expecting a laugh, but a laugh nonetheless occurred. A tiny thing, quickly hushed, and no more invasive than a cough. Steve continued.

‘And when I signed up for this job, the world was at war. That’s why we all were joining. There was an enemy, and they were causing harm, and we all wanted to do our bit to stop it.

‘The same was true when I woke up in the future. The time before being… defrosted… and the Incident was very short, and suddenly I had another battle to fight. There was an enemy, the world was at risk, and we all wanted to stop it.’

So far nothing particularly controversial had been said. There was nothing there that the world didn’t already know. But now he lifted his head up minutely, told himself that neither Russia nor Belgium (nor, as far as he was aware, the state of Arkansas) were really all that interested in him.

‘I never signed up for this to be my life. In the forties it was understood that these were exceptional circumstances; America needed everyone she could get fighting for her, and when it was all over we’d go back to whatever we’d been doing before. The Battle of New York was another exceptional circumstance. There have been a lot of exceptional circumstances over the years.’

By now, it was clear that most of the cluster of reporters had worked out where he was going with this.

‘In between them, this thing I signed up for all those years ago ended up becoming my career. I’m Captain America, not because I ever decided that I wanted to be Captain America, but because that’s just how things worked out. But the war has been over for a while now, and it’s time that I thought about what I actually want to do with my life. Which is why, from today, I’ll be handing over the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson, who – I’m confident – will be more than capable at the job.’

The crescendo of questions began before he’d finished speaking. As a mass of noise they were incoherent, more like agitated buzzing. One by one he fielded the exact number of questions that Pepper had told him to, and then brought the conference to an end the way she had instructed him. And then, stepping out of view and sighing in something like relief, he felt the weight of everything he’d been trying to be simply melt from his shoulders.

For every moment from that moment then, he’d be nothing grander that Steve.

An arm was almost instantly wrapped around his shoulder, and Steve was being led away by Tony as the latter assured him that he did a good job.

‘Gonna have to stop calling me Cap.’ Steve pointed out, trying to hide exactly how happy that made him.

‘Damn. What’s your name again?’

‘Funny, Tony.’

They moved to a side room where Natasha and Clint were waiting, smiling, and Sam was also present, looking vaguely sick.

‘Forget it,’ Tony continued, ‘That’s not the important question here. Natasha, ask him the important question.’

There was something about Natasha’s grin that made Steve want to run.

‘How come you didn’t make it back last night?’

He wasn’t blushing just yet, but there was definitely the threat of a blush soon colouring his face, ‘I don’t think that’s all that important, really.’

Clint took the initiative to translate, ‘What she means to say is… how’d it go with Bucky?’

Still, he wasn’t blushing. But he couldn’t fight a little smile and that was almost as bad.

‘Yeah.’ Tony added, wiggling his eyebrows in a way that was intended to be suggestive but only succeeded in being just a bit disturbing, ‘How’d it go?’

Teenager.

‘Leave him be,’ Sam interrupted, ‘He has a right to do whatever he wants.’

‘Thanks, Sam-’

‘And if that means sleeping with that guy he dumped right after their first conversation since, well, who are we to judge?’

Eight eyes were watching Steve. Most were judging. All were waiting to see what his reaction would be, as if this were the only entertainment available.

‘Your minds are all in the gutter.’ Steve told them, shaking his head for emphasis, ‘Not everything has to do with sex, you know. Me and Bucky actually enjoy each other’s company, so sue me, we just didn’t want to leave too early. We ended up watching movies, that’s all.’

‘Ugh.’ said Tony, voicing the mood of the whole room. Even Sam looked disappointed.

Steve stood by the principle of what he said. Sex most certainly was not the be all and end all of anything; not even reproduction anymore, given what science was able to do. Spending the night at someone’s house to chat and watch movies was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. It was enjoyable. It was relaxing.

In this case it was also, of course, an outright lie.

By the time they’d made it back to Bucky’s house – with no fixed intention yet in mind – it was already late enough that Steve wasn’t sure whether or not it was a new day. Through the glow of the streetlights, he was only able to see a suggestion of the mosaic of plastic signs that Bucky had raised.

Despite the late hour, they were not the only people on the pavement. They were already in the shadow of Bucky’s house when he hissed, ‘That’s Johnathan from neighbourhood watch. Quick, I don’t want him to notice me.’

Steve followed him into his darkened doorway, where they paused in the blackness and where, all at once, Bucky was kissing him. All this had happened in a moment; the dash for cover, the vivid reminder of those months they’d spent together, the cotton candy taste returning to Steve’s tongue.

In the next moment, a bright light caught their movement and turned itself on. The two of them froze, framed in Bucky’s doorway like storefront mannequins.

‘Barnes?’ said Jonathan from neighbourhood watch, ‘Is that you? I still want to talk to you about how long you’ll be keeping those signs up- oh.’

Steve and Bucky had pulled apart, but they’d entirely failed to regain a casual distance.

‘Barnes.’ Jonathan from neighbourhood watch said, ‘And… Captain Rogers.’

‘Hi.’ Steve replied, meekly.

Johnathan was nodding for no particular reason, ‘Well, I’ll just be… I’ll talk to you later then…’

‘Okay.’ Bucky replied.

‘I respect your lifestyle.’ Johnathan from neighbourhood watch added, with an awkward thumbs up, before shuffling rapidly away.

A pause. And then a breathless laugh. Steve muttered, ‘Finally get that porch light, then?’ and Bucky responded, ‘…yep.’ and then they both entered the house.

It already felt familiar, even in the dimly coloured squares that the porchlight set into the carpet through the patchwork of windows. There was the desk. There were the doors. There was Bucky, standing warm and close. It seemed that the only things he’d actually gotten around to improving in his house were the signs and the light. Points for effort, Steve supposed.

And then the light switch flicked on and he found himself inexplicably choked up. Everything was still as he remembered it. The high contrast of electric lighting showed the front room in the same way as it had looked all those months ago when Bucky had lain there, drunk.

Clive the stapler was sitting on the desk, and below it on the floor was the place where Steve had fed FDR those fries, on the same day that had first been called “Stevie”. To the left was where that bookshelf – on its side – had been abandoned. That was the room for the cats, and there, the door to the stairs. Just as familiar were the other doors to the scarcely used parts of the house. And the door behind them, where Steve had held a crying Bucky after taking him back from the hospital.

(And which, the last time he’d visited this street, he’d shut softly against the sound of Bucky asking him to wait.)

It was a lot to remember in a few seconds of silence, and it came less as distinct memories, and more as a rush of something oddly similar to homesickness. He found himself irrationally scared to break the silence.

A cat did it for him. A soft yowling sound from where they had been locked up for the night.

Bucky caught Steve’s expression with no small amount of amusement and said, ‘You look like you want to visit them.’

There was no point lying to the cat expert. Steve capitulated.

‘They’re supposed to be sleeping,’ Bucky told him apologetically, ‘so I don’t want to disturb them. But you can drop by in the- I mean- when they’re… y’know.’

It was by Bucky’s deep blush more than his words that Steve realised what he’d intended to say. Despite everything, there was an assumption that Steve would be staying the night. It made him want to laugh, partly out of mirth, more than a little out of relief.

‘Do I know?’ Steve asked, ‘I’m not sure I do.’

‘Shut up, you.’ – and he hit him lightly on the arm – ‘It was a slip. You don’t get to make fun of me, I’m still mad at you. Technically.’

‘Technically?’

And there was that precious quirk of teeth tugging at his bottom lip. It was a behaviour that Steve had read so many times in books, but rarely saw in real life.

(Bucky became his point of reference whenever he was imagining the action while reading a story. After the breakup, these tiny thorns of reminders seemed to hurt more than any of the bigger changes.)

It slid into a smile. Unexpectedly, Steve was thinking of a needle escaping the grove of a record – just for a moment – before falling back where it belonged. He couldn’t tell if it made Bucky’s usual confidence seem fake, or more genuine, that it sometimes slipped.

‘Full disclosure.’ Bucky was saying, ‘I am still exactly the same hopeless romantic that my parents wish I’m not and, even though you don’t deserve me saying it, I am very glad you’re here. Stop smiling, I’m not done. So there’s lots of important stuff like trust and communication that we are going to have to deal with. It’s just that, at the end of all that, I fully intend to forgive you. And I see no reason why any of that has to ruin a perfectly good reunion.’

‘Am I allowed to smile now?’

‘If you insist.’

Steve smiled, ‘So you figured I’d still be here in the morning?’

Another lip bite. But the blush was slowly starting to recede, ‘If you want. We could have a few drinks, and…’

‘And?’

‘…watch some movies?’

Steve was absolutely willing to spend the night watching movies with Bucky Barnes. And all the evidence suggested that that had been exactly what Bucky had in mind. Up the stairs – god that wallpaper is somehow worse than I remember – to the living room sofa. He soon found himself being handed a tumbler of some liquid the colour of prehistoric amber, which revealed itself to be cognac on his first experimental sip. Whether it was good cognac, or cheap cognac, or any other variation thereon was beyond his knowledge. All he knew was that cognac was traditionally kept in crystal decanters; seemingly always square, etched with coldly geometric interpretations of flowers, and topped with an oversized stopper. Cognac of any description was enough to be vaguely impressive.

He took another sip and let himself acknowledge the fact that he didn’t actually like cognac.

Almost Famous was placed in the DVD player and Bucky settled to his right.

(This was one of the movies they had been planning to watch on their aborted New Year’s date. Probably they were both uncomfortably aware of that fact.)

There being no houseplants within reach to pour it into, Steve took a brave gulp – don’t cough. Pretend this is fine. This is just like drinking too-hot coffee you’ve got plenty of practice – and watched the opening credits be handwritten onto yellow notepads.

A palm tree Christmas and To Kill a Mockingbird. Not willing to admit that he’d watched the damn thing after the break up, Steve contented himself with taking tortured little sips and trying to fall into the 1969 world he’d entirely skipped. By the time he glanced over to notice that Bucky had set his half-empty glass down on the coffee table and forgotten about it, Anita was yelling onscreen, and Steve had nearly finished his own glass out of apparently misplaced etiquette.

He decided to set his own tumbler down, lest he’d finish it and Bucky would think that he wanted any more.

Just once, he scolded himself mildly, can’t you be a little more normal?

The curtains were drawn up here, and the lights turned off. The two of them were lit by the fickle colours of the television as they threw glances at each other’s face. Usually Bucky would be watching the film. Sometimes Steve would catch him looking his way. They tried. They genuinely did try to take this slow. They had every intention of sitting contently in each other’s space and enjoying artefacts from what Bucky had once called “when Cameron Crowe was good at his job”.

Their lips had met before the story had really begun to be told.

From the speakers, Simon and Garfunkel’s America was playing over what was, presumably, an important scene. Neither of them were watching anymore. Steve’s eyes were closed, his hands caught in the few loose strands of Bucky’s soft hair, and it felt unnervingly like lucid dreaming in early mornings. It was something extraordinary to be aware of what was happening, but he felt irrationally that if he tried too hard to focus then he’d wake up.

That foul drink hadn’t been enough to chase the cotton candy taste from Bucky’s tongue. It occurred to Steve then that these were all such minor things that made the experience something new – the music playing that kept it soft and slow, the sweetness that brought its own sensation to the kiss – and he thought about all the different combinations that would create different moments out of the same two human beings.

And the moon rose over an open field.

It was hardly their fault that the next song on the sound track was an instrumental piece from Tommy. The tone of the movie changed, though Steve was not aware of it. And the tone of the kiss changed to the alien music. How long had Bucky been clutching at his shirt like that? How long had their legs been pushed so firmly together?

More than aware that he’d already been given much more than he deserved, Steve let Bucky take the lead. His metal hand was pressed flush against Steve’s chest, almost pushing him away but for the other hand now gripping him around his back. Steve’s hands at his ribcage were doing nothing more than anchoring himself to Bucky’s tangible presence. From there, it was a surprisingly easy motion to let himself be pushed against the sofa cushions.

He must have worked more of Bucky’s hair loose from his bun. Much of it was hanging above him as Bucky pulled back from the kiss.

‘This isn’t how my make ups normally go.’ Bucky was informing him, rushed and breathless.

His hand was still against his sternum, and Steve found himself embarrassed at how fast his heart was beating, ‘Okay, sure.’

‘Good.’ – another deep kiss, another abrupt withdrawal – ‘It’s just that I’m not usually this easy. Not that there’s anything wrong with being easy and, really, the term “easy” treats people as some sort of sexual challenge instead of as people so I maybe phrased this badly and, erm…’

Steve nodded in what he hoped was a reassuring way. Soon Bucky was moving back in with intent, and then-

‘I mean, I wouldn’t judge anyone for being more promiscuous than me. That’s not was I was trying to get at. I was just trying to say that I don’t want you thinking that I’m always gonna let you off the hook so easily.’

‘Understood.’

‘Not that I think you’re the type to take advantage-’

‘Buck?’

A lip bite, ‘Yeah?’

‘We can go back to just watching the movie if you’d prefer.’

The light from the TV shone soft on only one side of their features, and Steve could stare at Bucky’s face like this for centuries. Bucky shook his head, muttered something like “I was just making sure you knew” and moved his metal hand from Steve’s frantic heart to cup his head.

He was kissing Bucky. They were together. Everything was going to be fine after all. The weight and the warmth and the surreality of the intimately familiar after such a long absence all made him feel all the more keenly how true every moment was. This was an event that was happening. These were seconds that he was going to hold in his memory for decades to come.

There was more to be considered on this point, but Steve wasn’t all that keen on philosophising when the love of his life pressed his lips to the hollow between Steve’s collar bones.

‘No marks.’ Steve warned him, ‘I’ve got that… um… thingy. Press c-conference.’

Necks were an impractical body part. Exposed in battle. A spindly little thing holding up the important head. The only explanation was that they had been invented specifically with neck kisses in mind.

‘If you say so.’ Bucky murmured absently. His lips brushed Steve’s collarbone in the lightest possible way. This brought the threat of a shiver; too obvious. Too soon. At least the darkness would be a good excuse for the pupils he knew to be full. If there was one thing that Steve had no intention of allowing, it was giving Bucky the satisfaction of seeming desperate when he, inevitably, took up his usual slow pace.

Except that wasn’t what was happening. Steve ran a finger lightly up the back of Bucky’s neck and was surprised to hear Bucky breathe his name, light as air. The hand went further, to tangle in his now completely loose hair. Steve lost track of everything except the feel of Bucky’s ribcage expanding and contracting against his chest. The infinitesimally shifting weight of his body. The… fumbling… with Steve’s top button…

‘You okay with this?’ Bucky uttered. Steve’s affirmative answer came out more like a squeak that he’d expected.

And there was that grin of Bucky’s. The one he saved for occasions like this. Another button came undone and Steve slipped his hand under T shirt fabric in retaliation.

That may have been a mistake. Steve felt Bucky’s skin under his palm, muscles shifting like tides, and something in his brain came unplugged. Or maybe it was a fuse that blew. He’d never been particularly big on electricity and right then didn’t seem like the best time to get technical about metaphors. Simply, he moved his hand to Bucky’s spine and his lifetime of experiences all gave way to something more hardwired.

He just managed to grasp the uncertain knowledge that he had something to prove. Without any input from higher cognition, this knowledge translated itself into something altogether different. It shot down his nerves with goosebumps in its wake, and took control of Steve’s movements. And now, a little giddy, he had them both turned over until he was staring down into Bucky’s eyes.

Oh, he thought, wow.

He tried to say this out loud, but instead what came out was, ‘How did I ever think I would manage to stay broken up with you?’

After the tiniest show of surprise, Bucky hooked an arm around Steve’s neck and replied, ‘I hope you don’t plan on only saying such sappy things in these situations. I’ll start to think you only like me for my looks.’

There were responses to that, but for the moment all Steve cared about was the fact that Bucky was still perfectly coherent, and how much he really ought to do something about that.

Taking the lips as read, Steve skipped that area entirely and placed a kiss just under the jawbone. A gentle start, but he had every intention of making sure that Bucky would be having a great night.

Down. Shoulder, collarbone. And wouldn’t this have worked so much better if Bucky ever wore shirts with buttons?

It’d have to be hands, then. He was far from satisfied with the little noises that he’d managed to elicit with his mouth, but needs must. Drawing his lips away from tender skin (and was that a hushed moan of disappointment that he caught?) he slid the offending shirt up the smooth abdomen. Bucky’s flesh was dimpled where Steve pressed, fingernails making themselves known.

He lifted the fabric enough to catch ridges of bone. Bucky’s ribcage, and as he ran his fingers up them the absurd memory came to mind of the childhood pastime of running a twig along a picket fence. But this wasn’t like that first time; Steve no longer needed comparisons to make sense of the sensations. His frame of reference now included a host of breathless contact with this same person.

Impatient to return to his solemn work at Bucky’s neck, he refused to let himself linger on the spray of hair that scattered when the shirt was finally lifted up and away. It was beautiful, and so was Bucky, but what mattered now was the gasp that rose when Steve caught an earlobe just lightly between teeth.

Now a fingernail trailing up the centre of Bucky’s abdomen. It earned a little shiver as it moved over the breastbone, and Steve was only dimly aware of fumbling hands returning to his shirt buttons.

And next the hips coalescing into one fluid movement. He realised that through two pairs of jeans he could feel that Bucky was hard. They both were now. The movie continued unwatched as its light spilled over them in ghostly shades, like an artificial moonlight.

They were kissing again. For now there was no strategy, no careful build up to the actions. Just the thought of how much they’d really like to be kissing each other and then the silent accord to act on that thought.

Then Steve felt a hand slip in the back of his jeans. Bucky was mumbling something like ‘I thought you hated going slow’ against his lips and Steve rethought everything he’d been doing.

The jeans wouldn’t be staying in place long. He got to work on Bucky’s, twisting the top button to a delighted laugh at Steve’s response. Zip. Belt loops. All his practice at removing skinny jeans. It still proved a challenge but Bucky was more than happy to help. The little – almost comic – shuffling motions meant that Bucky was half sitting again. Steve managed to pull the jeans down the strong legs at the front of the sofa. They’d pivoted a little in the motion and now, how fortuitous, he found himself on the carpet in front of a very nearly naked Bucky Barnes.

Well, then.

He let himself drop to his knees. They kept eye contact but all that showed in Bucky’s expression and quick breaths was anticipation.

He could afford to take a little more time now. His palms ran gently up the back of Bucky’s calves until they met the smooth skin at the back of the knees. To the side of his hands, Bucky’s were gripping the sofa cushions tightly.

Steve raised his fingers to the top of the knees, so he could move the legs apart. Bucky leaned back against the sofa as it happened. And what a sight that was. Kiss-bruised lips and a rising flush, chest quivering to rapid breathing, and a bulge straining his flimsy briefs. Steve was already becoming uncomfortable in his own jeans, but he was hardly the priority there.

He rocked forward, meeting the soft plane on the inside of one thigh with his teeth before he even had time to think about it. The response was a breath-taking sound between a moan and a whine, that somehow managed to imply a swear without actually taking the shape of one. Bucky’s legs drew tight around his shoulders and he lifted himself up for a better angle. Anything to draw out more of those sounds.

All it took was one hand over the taught cotton for Bucky’s legs to fall back again. They opened as wide as they could while his hips moved it search of friction. Steve gave it to him. The motion of his hand was soon joined by his lips, mouthing at Bucky’s cock through the fabric. Warm moisture soaked through. Bucky was speaking in half-swallowed words, and then speaking in tongues, and then in a voice that seemed to come from before languages burst into existence. For a moment Steve wondered if he could make him scream. But then, there would be plenty of time to find out. Years.

In this position, there was no way to remove the briefs. At the point that neither of them could quite take it anymore, Steve resorted to tugging them down just enough and forgetting the rest.

For a moment he did nothing. The image before him brought all kinds of sensory memories; how most of Bucky would taste of salt from sweat, and the head of his cock of the same from the beads of precome. The feverish contrast of too-hot where their bodies were in contact, and too-cold where they weren’t. The sound that comes from being close enough to hear every stuttered breath and, oh god, Bucky’s scent overwhelming the clean smells of soap and shampoo and washing powder on crisp sheets. There were others too, rushing in all at once, and all these sparks were merely the more tangible evidence of what Steve had learnt from conversation; that this human being had a character that fit almost perfectly into the shape of Steve’s own.

But that was just for a moment, and in the next one he’d wrapped his ever-more-skilled fingers around the shaft. The rhythm was a response to the erratic jerking of Bucky’s hips. Up, thumb over the slit, trace precome over the veins there, and down to the base again. Soon the two of them had their movements in sync.

This time he moved his tongue, warm and wet, over the space his hand vacated. The noise from Bucky could have been a yell or could have been a siren song, for all Steve had the brain power to decode it. Either way, Bucky’s hands were now in his hair, tugging him inwards. But he pulled his mouth away for the next stroke of his hand. It was moving through saliva now, and Bucky let a whine escape.

The tightness in Steve’s trousers wasn’t going anywhere. With every movement he couldn’t help but press himself a little closer to the sofa for the friction. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t enough. But he had other things to be doing.

Once again he moved his head forward. Only now he didn’t release again. He stretched his mouth over Bucky’s dick and, only just managing not to choke, pulled back in the same rhythm. Bucky was doing most of the work now, with the instinctive motion of his hips, and Steve focused on the tiny sensations he could give. With controlled breaths through his nose, he dedicated all influence he had over his tongue to dragging it over sensitive skin, flicking it, making Bucky groan. His lips were slick with spit and more concentration than he’d care to admit was being used on the tricky business of teeth.

He wondered what would happen if he hummed.

And so he did. Not even just the low vibrations of a note, he hummed a bar of the first tune to come to mind. Sultans of Swing, as it turned out. The response was a gasp and a warning. The latter he ignored, instead hollowing his cheeks and pushing Bucky just that little bit further.

He came with a shudder that made Steve want to smile, but for the fact that his mouth was otherwise occupied.

In the time it took Steve to swallow it down, Bucky had passed right over recovery and was scooping Steve up insistently to the sofa. No explanation was given or needed. Bucky’s flesh hand pulled him in by the shoulder, while the metal one unzipped his jeans. Neither of them bothered to get much further than that. There were lips, teeth at his neck again and those metal fingers delving beneath his boxers.

Rough motions and the friction he’d been searching for. Already he was almost embarrassingly close, but that seemed to be understood. Bucky’s hand was more a formality at this point; simply what was needed for Steve to follow him over the edge.

He came, gasping, in shocks of pleasure and relief. Both took their time receding, but eventually it was just him, lying in Bucky’s arms, feeling drained but happy and hoping he could hold still for just a little longer before the inevitable clean up. The movie was still playing, though he didn’t know quite enough about the story to work out where they were up to. His pride registered a hope that it was a reasonable way through by now.

There were only a matter of seconds left in that warm position before Bucky, also not yet moving, muttered, ‘You don’t have a change of clothes hiding somewhere on your motorbike, do you?’

‘Uh, no. Should I?’

A soft sigh, ‘And nothing I own will actually fit you, will it?’

‘Not if all your jeans are that tight, no. But if it’s the press conference you’re worried about, I’m told I’ll have a PR approved outfit waiting for me.’

Laughter. Laughter was good. Bucky queried, ‘And how are you planning on getting to that outfit? Dressing gown? Towel? Conveniently located props?’

‘I was thinking sleeping bag,’ Steve joked, ‘much more comfortable.’

There was a pause. Steve savoured what he knew instinctively to be the last few moments sitting there.

‘You’re going to need me to wash those jeans, aren’t you?’

‘Well.’ said Steve, ‘Now you mention it.’

Bucky merely gave instructions for the washing machine and sat back as Steve, uncomfortably cold now, padded downstairs to silently argue with the single most frustrating washing machine he’d ever met. Maybe Bucky had decided to forgive him, but this machine apparently hadn’t.

When he got back upstairs Bucky had thoughtfully fetched him a sleeping bag to save what was left of his modesty. There were, of course, spare dressing gowns, but Bucky was only offering the sleeping bag.

There were only a few hours until Steve had to be gone, and in that time he had to put his clothes through the dryer, so sleep apparently wouldn’t be happening. Instead he languished on the sofa like a warm, indulgent slug, until Bucky arrived – dressed as a marshmallow or perhaps the cream on top of a winter Starbucks order in his thick, light duvet wrapped around him – and heavily implied that Steve should perhaps consider moving his legs.

(‘Move your legs, goddammit, I wanna sit down.’

‘But I’m comfy.’

‘You can either sit on the sofa or lie on the floor-’

‘Ow, ow, okay. No need to get violent, Buck. Put the pillow down.’)

So instead of sleeping, they watched Grease. Or, more accurately, Bucky watched Grease while Steve watched Bucky sing every line in that voice of his and thought about resting his head on his chest to hear the vibrations as he sang.

Not today. But they had a lifetime to pass.

When Steve finally left the house, it was still dark enough for the porchlight to pass an anaemic glow over their little patch of dawn. Bucky had kissed him again in the living room, softly, and whispered a gentle reminder of his rage in the rare hush of the city.

That night had been a truce, not a peace treaty. There were things like trust to mend, and the awkward new-beginning-uncertainty of trying to fit back into each other’s lives, like those premature spring flowers that Steve could never quite capture in charcoal and paper; at their youngest and most tender when the cold still seeped into the earth, once they’d risen from their cracks in the paving stones there was nothing they could do but strive or die. It was a strange thought to come to mind, but it could have been Brooklyn or the cold of the sullen blue morning that recalled it.

Or it could have been the weight that was about to be lifted off his shoulders when he made his way into Manhattan. Already he was starting to feel like he did back then. Uncertain of his future, but seeing promise instead of threat in that uncertainty. He had no real plans back then. Not even art school counted as a plan so much as an experience, precious to Steve, but not to anyone looking to hire new graduates.

And there, now, turning away from the man he still had to prove himself to and towards the biggest bridge he’d ever burn, the future was again uncertain without being dangerous. This must be what it felt like to come home from war.

The flowers weren’t needed in Brooklyn. They didn’t matter the way they did in the countryside or in window boxes. Nor were they in the most fertile soil. But they grew anyway, and Steve admired them, and eight decades later he painted them.

A little bit more yellow. The youngest ones never began in deep greens. A few strokes and he’d move on to the blue in the concrete. He would, but for the head resting on his shoulder.

‘’S pretty.’ Bucky mumbled, ever the art critic.

‘Working.’ Steve responded.

Warm arms around his waist, ‘No… you’re procrastinating.’

It had taken months to reach this delicate precipice in their relationship. There was nothing broken between them anymore, Steve was once again a member of the Barnes clan, and a few weeks before Abby had even smiled at him. A real smile too, and not about some unfortunate accident in the process of befalling him. Their lives still fit together seamlessly.

Perhaps it had been the second date, when they’d been late to their reservation (‘Extremely difficult to get tables, Cap-um-Steve.’ Tony assured him, ‘You have no idea of the strings I had to pull.’) because Steve had been thoroughly distracted by visiting Bucky’s cats, but made up for it by ordering Bucky second and third servings of the tiramisu he’d apparently fallen for.

Or perhaps it was that inside joke Bucky still sometimes referred to, from their fifth date when they were walking through Central Park and Bucky asked if they should have a ride in one of those carriages so he could experience life in Steve’s time. Steve had responded that, obviously, horses hadn’t been invented back then, and opened himself to a lifetime of ‘It’s called a “door”, Stevie, I don’t know if you had them in your day.’ whenever he pushed a pull door.

It could even have been the way Hydra had entirely failed to launch the grand scheme that Steve was, even then, still expecting. After a while he’d been able to relax into his life.

But more likely it was all of that, and all the bits in between. It was sharing each other’s company and talking and acting in ways that marriage councillors would probably approve of.

‘Hang on.’ Steve told him, ‘This is-’

‘A colour you mixed for this purpose, I know the drill.’ – he still didn’t let go, and Steve was forced to paint with the encumbrance – ‘If you let it dry before you’re done you’ll never get quite the same shade again.’

‘And you’d be the one to suffer.’ Steve pointed out.

They both looked to the sticky note attached to the bottom of the easel. This labelling was one of Steve’s few nods to any sort of organisation, and here his messy hand read:

A Gift to My Love in Case We Have a Messy Break up and He Needs Some Extra Cash Because I Wouldn’t Negotiate About the Relationship Property

Acrylic on Canvas

SGR

That was the title he’d given it, and that was the title it would keep. Part of Steve was very much looking forward to seeing it on a little plaque in a gallery, and that was the part that was the artist.

Once, Bucky had told him that a wise man who, apparently, looked a lot like Colonel Sanders, had told him not to make a fake name so similar to his real one. This was said while Bucky had been pointing to the initials Steve had added to a finished canvas. SGR; probably not the most subtle way to be an anonymous artist.

This new career had been suggested to him by Bucky, and now, when one of his works sold for over a thousand dollars for the first time, he could know that it wasn’t because he’d been Captain America.

Also, there had been some interesting variations of his name. Currently some were referring to him as “Strange Green Ruby”, though he was still partial to the more creative “Supernatural Gnat Repellent”. It had made Steve wonder if the repellent was supernatural, or the gnats were.

‘We.’ Bucky muttered at Steve’s ear.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Are.’ he continued.

Steve painted the last few strokes of yellow.

‘Going.’

Rinsed his brush in the mug.

‘To.’

Set down his pallet. This, with calculated slowness.

‘Be.’

Yeah, yeah.

‘Late.’ Bucky finished, ‘You’re not even wearing your suit.’

‘I’m not really a suit kinda-’

Steve turned around and caught his first sight of Bucky in his three-piece. Dark grey. Blue tie. With the immaculate fit and this long hair brushing the collar, he looked like a rebellious adult son due to inherit his father’s high class tailor shop.

‘-guy.’ Steve finished, lamely.

‘How do I look?’ Bucky asked, ‘I’m going for I-got-America’s-most-eligible-man-and-he’s-lucky-to-have-me, but I’ll settle for we’re-acting-all-polite-but-you-can-tell-we-have-the-craziest-sex-life-you-can-imagine.’

‘Um.’ said Steve. But he was aware of his tell-tale blush, and Bucky’s smile made it clear that he wasn’t the only one.

To save time after pulling the suit on (and that wasn’t easy with the newly-settled in Henry and FDR trying to attack the loose fabric), Steve let Bucky decide exactly how fashionably ruffled his hair should be for the party. And then they were ready.

Not nervous. Just ready.

Anyway, why would they be nervous? Steve had a track record of not caring what the press thought.

It was just a New Year’s party at the Tower. Nothing to be nervous about. Everyone would love Bucky, of course, and then there’d be no secret at all. Since neither of them had any plans about breaking up soon, and since most of Steve’s stuff had already been boxed up and brought into Bucky’s house – their house – it was time. And they were ready. There was absolutely nothing to be nervous about.

Next to him, Bucky had started muttering the names of the presidents under his breath.

They tarried at the door, knowing that the car would already be waiting for them outside, at every moment a hair’s breadth from holding hands. It was always understood that it had to be done before they were living together and, well, tonight was the night. It was time to introduce Bucky Barnes to the world.

For a fraction of a second, Steve let himself acknowledge the jealousy. Soon the world would have Bucky, but in a way he still wanted him all to himself. What he really wanted to hold on to was the security of this house that came with no one knowing enough to care. That would be ending, but it was for the best.

In the next second, Steve nudged Bucky with his elbow and uttered, ‘At least you don’t have to wear tights.’

Bucky stopped at Barak Obama, refusing to say the last name. A resolute nod – if this didn’t go well that it was the world’s problem to deal with, not theirs – and he led the way out into the cold Brooklyn night.