Steve’s first clue, really, should have been the bright pink collar resting on the counter. Silver tags dangle from a metal loop in the front, splayed across the granite countertop. Beside it rests a retractable leash matching in color, the metal end dangling just over the edge of the surface.
He pauses in the doorway, sparing a moment to glance around the floor, but he doesn’t see anyone else around. Bucky had gone out a few hours earlier to go to shopping- “Stop giving me that look, Steve. I’m a grown man, not four years old”- but Steve wasn’t expecting him back for another hour or two at least.
“Buck?” he calls out, stepping inside the apartment. The door swings shut behind him with a gentle thud. “You home?”
“Yeah, I’m- ugh, one second,” Bucky’s voice carries over from inside of his bedroom.
“What are you-”
Steve’s cut off when Bucky walks out into the hall, a golden ball of fur trailing on his heels. He stares as Bucky stops in the kitchen, picking the bright pink collar out from the pile on the counter before bending down to put it on the animal waiting patiently at his feet.
“That’s…a dog,” Steve says. “You got a dog.”
Bucky raises an eyebrow at him. “Uncanny observation skills, Rogers,” he drawls.
“I thought you were going to the grocery store?”
Unimpressed, Bucky rolls his eyes. He clips the collar around the dog’s neck, the ends coming together with a sharp snap. “Had to pick up food for Spot, didn’t I?”
“You named it Spot?”
“Wait, just-“ Steve holds up a hand. “You went out to the store and just- bought a dog?”
“Of course not,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “Stark did.”
Steve stares at him blankly.
“You’re so dense sometimes,” Bucky mutters. “She’s an emotional support dog, Steve. Got her a nice harness and tags and everything.”
“Oh,” Steve says. There’s a pause. “So was this your idea, or…?”
Bucky sighs a little at that, running a hand over his mouth as he glances down at the dog sitting patiently by his feet. “It was Stark- ah, Tony who suggested it. I wasn’t…you know, I wasn’t so big on the idea, but I looked into it and,” he shrugs, “figured it was worth a shot, maybe.”
“Oh,” Steve repeats. He doesn’t know why, but the information makes him feel a little warm inside.
Bucky glares. “Don’t give me that look.”
“You’re…smiling all weird.”
Shrugging, Steve says, “It’s just nice to hear.” He doesn’t elaborate, and Bucky doesn’t ask him to; he figures the faint flush creeping out from under the collar of Bucky’s shirt says enough for him.
“Well,” Bucky says, a little gruffly. “You want to pet her?”
As if on cue, Spot’s tail starts wagging. She’s gentle though, leaning into Steve’s touch as he scratches behind her ear. Her flaxen fur is soft and smooth, and her paws lift slightly as she leans forward. It’s adorable in every way, and though Steve may not be the biggest dog person in the world, he admits maybe she isn’t too bad.
“So, uh,” he straightens up, watching as Bucky leads Spot over to the living room. “What does this mean, exactly?”
“What? Keeping her around?” Bucky says. “Well, she’s an emotional support dog, not a service dog. She’s basically just a regular pet, except, y’know, she’s comforting, she's actually had some training to be around people like me. So she’s gonna live with us.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “And the landlord is fine with that?”
“Wouldn’t matter if she wasn’t. PTSD perks.” Bucky grins wryly. His blunt confidence seems to waver for a moment, though, and an uncertain look crosses his face. “Is it…are you okay with that?”
Steve glances over at Spot, who’s now curled up and resting comfortably on the couch. “Yeah, Buck. Of course I am.”
Bucky relaxes a little, sinking back into the couch.
There’s a momentary lapse of silence, and then Steve says, “Buck? You do know that Spot doesn’t…actually have any spots. Right?”
Bucky gives him a long suffering look before wordlessly coaxing Spot’s mouth open. She lifts her head, tongue lolling out, and it’s then that Steve notices the dark, birthmark-like spots strewn across her tongue.
“What are those?” There’s a big spot in the shape of a lopsided triangle towards the tip and a few smaller ones in the middle.
“Extra pigmentation or something,” Bucky hums. “You know, like freckles, sort of. They aren’t harmful.”
Spot sloppily licks Steve’s hand. He makes a face, pulling his arm back and wiping his fingers on his pants. Bucky looks delighted.
Steve finds that Spot’s surprisingly not too difficult to take care of, actually.
She’s trained well- eager to please and happy to sit around all day if that’s what Bucky wants. Petting her seems to be Bucky’s thing, and just sitting on the floor with his hands tangled in her soft fur seems to help alleviate some of Bucky’s anxiety.
Steve makes a mental note to thank Tony.
They don’t have a yard; their little, fourth floor apartment isn’t exactly meant to accompany animals, after all. So Steve and Bucky resolve themselves to taking Spot out to walk in Central Park, which is blissfully just a few minutes’ walk away.
Well, it’s just Steve this morning, really, since Bucky took her out last night. Bucky bought her a dinosaur-shaped chew toy the other day (along with even more blinding, bright pink accessories), so Steve grabs that before clipping on Spot’s leash and leading her down the apartment steps and outside.
Nobody stops to try to make conversation with him or even ask for a signature, snap a photo or two. It feels strange, but- in all honesty, Steve’s not really sure what the public thinks about him anymore.
After his…fallout with SHIELD, it felt like he’d been walking on eggshells, always treading lightly when it came to voicing his opinions and speaking up at conferences. He had to be careful, had to be Captain America, not Steve Rogers.
And then they found Bucky.
(That, Steve thinks, was probably the deciding factor in his decision to take a break from missions for the time being. Because Bucky- he needed Steve to be Steve. Not a superhero, or an idol; just a boy from Brooklyn who can’t hold his tongue, who acts reckless and cares, cares with every fiber of his being.)
The first few months had been hard. On both of them. Bucky’s- he’s changed. A lot. For Steve, admitting that to himself was the hardest part. Whatever memories Bucky’s been able to recover are brief, fleeting and hazy, and that really struck a chord in his chest.
(Running in the streets; nights spent in their apartment together; fighting back to back as kids and as soldiers- gone. Steve clings onto those memories with all he has, afraid that if he loses them then they may as well have never happened.)
Spot bounds over to him, dropping the chew toy at his feet and giving his hand a lick.
“Ugh,” Steve says, pulling a face. “Why.”
Spot blinks at him.
He rolls his eyes and picks up the purple dinosaur, giving it a light toss, and Spot goes bounding after it. A smile flits across Steve’s face; Spot’s energetic, but he’s grateful she’s been trained to tone it down when needed, especially when she’s around Bucky.
The diagnosis came within the first week that he’d gotten Bucky back- post-traumatic stress disorder. Steve wasn’t surprised, really; he knew Tony had it, and a good amount of vets deal with it at some point in their lives. And, well, given what Bucky’s endured, it was almost to be expected.
It could be worse. Bucky’s on edge a lot, and sometimes Steve can almost feel the anxiety seeping from his body. And there are nights where he stares into space and Steve has to call his name multiple times to pull him back. Or he can’t sleep, whether it’s because of a nightmare or- something else.
He’s getting better, though. Steve’s able to be there for him, and sometimes he’ll quietly sit on the floor and pet Spot and let his muscles unclench on their own.
(It could be worse, Steve tells himself. It could be better, but it could be worse.)
Eventually, once Spot seems tuckered out, Steve puts the leash back on her and picks up the dinosaur from where she’d dropped it at his feet. He sighs, trying to ease the tension and worries from his chest, and- pushing his concerns aside- he leads her back home.
The apartment is quiet when Steve gets back. He isn’t sure where Bucky is, but his bedroom door is closed, so he figures he’s best off not bothering him.
He unclips the leash from Spot’s bright pink collar and discards it on the granite kitchen counter, the metal end clinking against the hard countertop. Spot’s tail wags gently, and he reaches down to scratch her behind the ears before heading into his own room, closing the door behind him.
His room is relatively bare, untouched save for the crumpled bedsheets and clothing strewn on top of the wooden dresser that’s pressed up against the off-white wall.
(There are a few picture frames resting on the nightstand beside the bed, sample photos of a smiling couple still resting inside of them. Steve hasn’t touched those.)
He reaches into the bottom drawer of the nightstand and rifles through the books and papers littering the inside before he manages to pull out a bound spiral sketchbook. The edge of the cover is wrinkled a little and the top corner is pulled off, and he absentmindedly rubs his thumb against the fraying edge.
He’s not quite sure what he’s looking for as he flips through the book. It’s been a while since he last picked it up- well over a month at this point.
(Whatever inspiration he used to get, whatever affinity he had for painting ink over paper, has almost completely dissipated at this point. Another thing to add to the list of shit he lost when he woke up.)
“Damn,” Bucky whistled, throwing an arm around Steve’s shoulders as he leaned over to look at the pair of hands he’s sketched out on some second-hand novel’s dedication page. “You’ve got some real skill there, Stevie.”
Steve flushed. “Thanks,” he mumbled, self-consciously toying with the corner of the paper.
“Awfully good to be drawn in here, though.” Bucky frowned. “Don’t you have a real book for this stuff?”
Flipping the novel shut, Steve shook his head. “You really expect me to? That stuff’s expensive.”
Bucky’s frown deepened. “Huh,” he said, almost to himself. He clapped Steve on the back before drawing away, a lopsided smile forming on his lips. “Well, it’s good.”
(Three months later, on Steve’s birthday, he handed over a heavy, leather bound sketchbook wrapped loosely in old newspapers. Steve had blinked at it, turning it over in his hands as if unable to believe he was holding it.
He didn’t know what to say; his throat felt like it was closing up, words getting stuck before they could escape. Instead of speaking he just leaned over and hugged Bucky, smiling as a flush crept up the back of Bucky’s neck.)
Steve doesn’t know where the book is now. Lost over the years- thrown in a box and forgotten about, he assumes. He tries not to think of all the drawings of crooked smiles and broad shoulders that were in it.
Instead he flips to a random page, the paper scraping against the metal rings holding the book together. It’s so different from the heavy, rectangular binding he’s used to, and he runs his thumb along the rings absently before sighing and dropping his hand, moving over to the desk tucked in the corner of the room.
It’s quiet for a long time, nothing but the sound of soft breaths and the scratch of his pencil against the paper filling the room. This- he missed this. The familiarity of it all reminds him of better days. Because yeah, he’d been smaller then, prone to sickness, and he’d never been able to avoid fights, constantly donning a split lip and a black eye. But that was- it was his life.
(Now the streets of Brooklyn are so different. Everything’s changed around him, and sometimes Steve forgets that he was asleep for decades rather than just a few months.)
He doesn’t realize how tense his body’s become until he feels the wooden pencil crack between his fingers. Blinking, he unclenches his muscles, watching as color rushes back into his white knuckles.
The tip of the pencil rests on top of the paper, lead smeared across the page in a streak of gray across his mother’s cheek. He sighs, frustrated.
“God,” he mutters under his breath. He scrubs a hand down his face and leans back in the chair, willing the muscles in his back to relax. The drawing- it resembles his mother, yes. It’s in the point of her noise and the curve of her brows, the small smile playing on her lips. But something is. Missing.
The image of her that he has in his mind is fuzzy, unclear. His memories are nothing but feelings, auras that wrap themselves in hazy pictures of run-down apartments and unkempt streets. Gentle but strong hands helping patch him up after a boy from school got a few punches in.
“I almost had him, Ma,” he told her, bouncing on his heels as he inspects the fresh bandage on his arm. “Wow, do you think it’ll scar? That’d be so cool.”
His mother shook her head at him, clicking her tongue. “Honestly, Steven, I don’t know what on earth possesses you to pick fights you just can’t win.”
At that, Steve frowned. “I didn’t do nothing,” he said, voice taking on a defensive tone. “The other boy started it. He said he didn’t like my clothes.”
His mother sighed, briefly closing her eyes. The crease between her eyebrows aged her slightly. Steve watched as she unconsciously rubbed her temple.
“Steve,” she said, “that doesn’t matter. If you don’t like what someone says, take the high road and leave ‘em be. Keep all that energy for when you have real bad guys to fight.”
Steve’s face lit up. “Real bad guys?” he asked.
“Yes.” She patted his cheek, a fond look crossing her features. “Now remember what I said, you have to be-“
“‘-grateful for what you have,’” Steve rattled off, impatient. “I know, Ma, I am.”
Her eyes turned soft, and she smoothed over his bandage one last time before straightening out and standing back up. She ruffled his hair. “I know you are, Stevie.”
Steve absently trails his thumb through the lead smeared across the paper. With a sigh, he flips the book closed and shoves it in the top drawer of the desk. He doesn’t reach for it again for the rest of the night.
He’s in the middle of making lunch when Bucky finally wanders out of his room, eyes swollen from sleep and rolling his shoulders back as if they’ve gone stiff. Steve hasn’t seen him at all today, and he briefly wonders if Bucky had really slept in this late.
(Whatever it is, though, he doesn’t prod or pry. It’s just- not his place.)
“Sleep well?” he asks instead, turning back to the pot and giving it a stir.
“Mm.” Bucky comes up behind him, peering over his shoulder. “Ooh, pasta,” he says, his demeanor immediately brightening. Steve elbows him.
“Don’t stand behind me,” he says. A flush creeps up the back of his neck as Bucky makes a noise of discontentment, a breath of air brushing against his neck, and he pretends to ignore it.
Bucky elbows him back. “Aw, don’t be like that.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve gently pushes him away with the hand not holding the wooden spoon. “Go pet Spot, you’ve been neglecting her.”
“As if she doesn’t get enough attention from you already,” Bucky mumbles under his breath, but he wanders over to the counter and takes a seat on the floor beside his dog all the same. “Oh, you have your dinosaur?” he coos.
Spot’s tail thumps against the floor and Steve snorts.
“Nothing.” Steve turns the burner off. “Just. I’ve never heard you talk like that before.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything, but Steve swears his cheeks are a little pink.
While Steve’s draining the pasta though, Bucky says, “I used to cook for you, sometimes.”
“When you were sick.” Bucky isn’t looking at him, instead staring at the floor with a look of deep concentration on his face. “And…when your mom got sick, too. I remember that.”
Steve’s chest aches. Carefully, he shakes the strainer before tossing the pasta back into the empty pot. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “Me too.”
When Steve glances back over at Bucky, he sees his eyes are closed as he pets Spot.
The sauce only takes a few minutes to heat up, and soon he finishes up and then hands Bucky a bowl and a spoon. Spot perks up a little, nose twitching, but she seems to know not to go for the food.
“Thanks,” Bucky says quietly. Steve gives him a soft smile in return before grabbing his own bowl and sitting down across from him, leaning against the kitchen cabinets.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, nothing but the clink of silverware against plastic filling the space before Steve finally decides to ask. “Does she help?”
At Bucky’s confused look, he clarifies, “With the…anxiety.”
“Oh.” Bucky’s fingers still from where they were scratching behind Spot’s ear. “Uh…yeah? I mean, it’s still there. But. She’s…comforting.”
“Good,” he says, and he means it. “I wasn’t really sure- um. I mean, Tony’s ideas don’t always turn out that great, right. For a genius he can come up with the weirdest ideas.”
Bucky snorts. “Just like his dad, huh?”
“Ha. Yeah, definitely.” He pauses to chew, mulling over his thoughts. “Neither of us were really dog people, though. Not like- we liked ‘em fine enough, sure, just never were around them, I guess.”
“Yeah?” Bucky glances at him. His eyes are bright. “I mean, I was a little hesitant too. It felt like a. A pretty big responsibility, if you ask me. Stark can be pretty persuasive, though.”
Steve quirks a smile.
“Well, anyway. I’m kinda glad you went through with it,” he says.
And then because he has no self control: “Wanna walk her together tomorrow?”
Bucky glances up at him then, finally looking him in the eye, and his expression is closed off, unreadable. But he just shrugs and says, “Sure.”
Steve breaks away from his gaze and ignores the emotions churning in his stomach, the way his heart beats just a little bit faster. He nods, moving a bit closer to run his fingers through Spot’s fur when Bucky drops his own hand. A comfortable silence settles between them as they finish eating, and a few minutes pass by before Steve stands, collecting Bucky’s bowl for him and dropping it in the dishwasher.
He grabs a towel from where it’s hanging on the oven door handle and tosses it at Bucky, who catches it easily between his metal fingers.
“Come on,” Steve says. “I wash, you dry.”
Bucky makes a face, but acquiesces all the same with a “yeah, yeah.” He pats Spot gently on the head before moving over to the kitchen sink, and the two of them easily fall into a rhythm that’s been practiced between them a hundred times before.
(And if the domesticity of it all makes Steve’s heart flutter and his stomach flip, well, he keeps that to himself.)
Two weeks later Steve wakes up in a cold sweat, a sheen of perspiration lining his forehead. His breathing is rough and ragged, his fingers gripping the corners of his covers so hard that his knuckles are turning white, and he gasps for air, heart racing in his chest.
It’s cold- dark, silent, and so, so cold. All he can think about is the pressure on his chest, the feeling of an insurmountable weight pushing against his ribs so hard that he can’t breathe. A feeling of weightless falling but not being able to scream- a vise wrapped around his throat, constricting him, choking him-
“Christ,” he breathes. He leans forward and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees stars. His fingers are trembling, cold against his flushed skin.
It takes a few minutes for his heartbeat to slow down, but he still feels disoriented. Shivering slightly, he wipes the sweat from his forehead and grabs his blanket from where it’d fallen to the ground, wrapping it around his shoulders.
(He’s afraid to shut his eyes again. Afraid because he can’t control this- whatever it is. Afraid it will start to control him.)
Scrubbing a hand down his face, he swings his legs over to the edge of the bed and stands. His feet feel heavy, anchoring him to the floor, and it takes every ounce of strength he has left in him to make his way across the floor and out of the bedroom.
The house is quiet. Bucky’s room is a little down the hall, closer to the kitchen than his. His door is closed and the house is quiet. For some reason, that makes Steve’s heart ache.
He moves past Bucky’s room and into the kitchen, where he numbly fills a glass with water. It’s barely halfway full before he brings it up to his parched lips and downs the whole thing, not caring when some of it drips down the front of his shirt.
When he goes to refill it, though, the cup slips from his shaking fingers and smashes against the ground. Glass skitters across the floor, and he lets out a startled noise as he steps back reflexively, feet twisting to avoid the jagged shards.
“Fuck,” he mutters. His shoulders drop, tension seeping out of them as a feeling of resignation washes over him.
A light overhead flickers on and Steve winces, squinting his eyes against the bright yellow that suddenly floods the room. Bucky’s standing in the hallway, Spot at his heels.
For a moment, Steve’s muscles contract and he stares at Bucky, wondering what the hell he must be thinking. But then he feels the energy drain out of him all at once. He slumps back against the kitchen counter, exhaling softly as he stares down at the glass shards scattered across the linoleum floor.
“Sorry,” he says. He feels a sharp pang behind his temple and rubs at his head unconsciously. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
Bucky looks at him for a long moment, working his jaw, as if hesitating, unsure of what to say. The circles under his eyes look darker under the dim lighting and he looks so- tired. Steve turns away, looking anywhere but at Bucky as guilt courses through his system again.
Finally, Bucky mutters, “Be careful next time, punk,” and gently nudging Spot behind him with his foot before crouching down to carefully pick up the larger pieces of glass. Steve’s face burns, a flush painting the tips of his ears red.
God, he’s so fucked. It hits him like a wave, crashing against him. The backs of his eyes burn and his chest tightens, and he’s feeling so many emotions but- he just-
Bucky looks up at him then, and his face immediately softens. He discards the glass in the trash can before reaching forward and touching Steve’s shoulder lightly.
“Come on,” he says. “Careful, there’s still glass on the ground…”
Bucky’s touch is gentle, and Steve just focuses on that until the next thing he knows they’re sitting at the kitchen table together and Bucky’s hand leaves Steve’s arm. Instinctively, he leans back in toward the touch, but catches himself and pulls back.
It’s quiet for a long time. Spot is sitting next to Steve’s chair, her ears pulled back as if she can sense his distress. He pets her absentmindedly.
Bucky finally breaks the silence. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Steve works his jaw.
“Nightmare,” is all he says. All he’s able to say. Because where is he supposed to start? He’s so...overwhelmed. Can’t even begin to understand his own feelings about waking up, about losing Steve Rogers to the image that is Captain America, about Bucky-
Steve’s eyes burn and he tries to explain himself, to find the words that are evading him, but his throat feels tight and choked. Something cold and wet hits his bottom lip, and when he reaches a hand up to his face he realizes with a start that he’s crying.
He scrubs at his cheeks and suddenly Bucky’s there, pulling him up out of his chair and into a tight embrace. It takes all of Steve’s willpower to keep himself from trembling, and he inhales shakily.
“‘S alright,” Bucky mutters. He pulls away and Steve hates himself for immediately missing the contact. “Come on.”
Licking his lips, Steve looks up at him, but Bucky’s eyes don’t give anything away under the dim lighting on the room. He exhales and then gives Spot one last scratch behind the ears before standing and following Bucky out of the kitchen, down the hallway.
They stop outside of Bucky’s room, and Bucky pushes the door open before walking in. Steve pauses, wavering in the doorway, unsure.
Bucky raises an eyebrow at him. “‘M not gonna bite, you know.”
“Ah,” Steve rubs at the back of his neck. “Do you- should I-”
“Sleep in here.”
Steve blinks. “In your room? I can’t…” He trails off.
Bucky gives him an impassive look. “I offered, didn’t I?”
Bucky’s face softens a little, and it makes him look years younger.
(It reminds Steve of cold nights in Brooklyn, shared covers and hot fevers and wearing socks to bed. It reminds him of home.)
“It’s not like we haven’t done it before,” he says, his voice a little quieter.
“You’re overthinking this,” Bucky mutters. With that, he puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder again, gently pushing him into the room.
Later, Steve will blame it on his sleep-addled brain. But he acquiesces.
It’s not weird, to share a bed with Bucky. Because he’s right, they have done it before- back before the war, before Captain America, when Steve would get too sick or the apartment would get too cold. But Bucky- Steve isn’t sure if Bucky really remembers all of that. And things are so different now- Steve doesn’t know his boundaries, and it’s been so long and they’ve changed so much and-
“I can hear you thinking,” Bucky says.
Bucky sighs, then drops his hand from Steve’s shoulder, letting his arm fall to his side. He doesn’t say anything, but the way he’s giving Steve some room tells him you don’t have to.
(And that’s the worst part- because Steve knows he doesn’t have to, but god does he want to.)
So he breathes, letting some of the tension ease off of his chest, and asks, “Can we?”
It’s hard to tell in the darkness of the room, but Steve thinks he can see a relieved smile flit across Bucky’s face.
The room is still dark, just a hint of yellow light filtering in from the kitchen down the hallway. Together, they climb under the heavy bed covers, Spot opting to lie down at the other end of the bed. And they don’t touch as they lie next to each other, but as Steve slowly starts to drift off to sleep, he feels...good.
Steve wakes up to an empty bed. The sheets beside him are rumpled and cold, the covers pushed back toward the foot of the bed. For a second he’s disoriented, and it takes him a few moments of blinking to realize he’s in Bucky’s room.
He closes his eyes again as memories from last night wash over him and his face starts to heat up, a flush staining his cheeks. He’s in Bucky’s bed. He’d slept in the same bed as his best friend like they were in grade school again.
“Ugh,” he says to the empty room. Why is he like this.
The door opens a sliver then, and Steve looks up, a string of apologies resting on the tip of his tongue. It’s not Bucky who walks in, though, but Spot, looking up at him with her big, brown puppy eyes.
What am I doing, he thinks to himself. Stretching his arms, he sits up in the bed, leaning his back against the wooden headboard. Spot wags her tail and pads over to his side of the bed before sitting back on her hind legs and letting her head rest on top of the sheets. Steve absently reaches out to pet her, smoothing down her fur with his fingertips.
“At least you won’t judge me,” he mumbles. Spot blinks at him.
After a few minutes Steve lets out another long suffering sigh and pushes the sheets off of him, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He pads over to the door and pauses, listening for noises out in the kitchen. It sounds like Bucky’s cooking something, if the banging over pots and pans is anything to go bye, and he steels himself before pulling the door open and stepping out.
Bucky’s still dressed in the sweatpants and loose shirt he slept in, his hair a little mussed up in the back. He glances up when Steve comes into the kitchen, a look of guilt flashing across his face as he scratches the back of his neck.
“Um,” he says. “I kind of...forgot how to do this?”
Steve blinks, turning his gaze onto the broken eggs sitting at the bottom of the pan.
“Oh. Well, uh.” He clears his throat and pads forward, turning down the burner before gently taking the spatula from Bucky’s grip and using the side to mix the broken eggs together. Satisfied, he turns the burner back onto high.
“I prefer them scrambled anyway,” he says quietly.
Bucky smiles, and the tension in the air dissolves.
The rest of the morning is quiet; at some point while Steve’s scraping the eggs onto two plates, Bucky disappears into his bedroom and comes back out with Spot trailing at his heels. They settle down in the living room together, and Steve takes that as his cue to join them. They eat in silence, but, Steve thinks, it’s anything but uncomfortable.
(After that, Steve never sleeps alone.)
Another week passes by before Steve finds himself sitting alone in his room again, fingers tapping against the wooden desk in the corner. He’s not entirely sure why there’s an itch under his skin to pull out his sketchbook; hell, he’s not entirely sure he wants to. But there’s a smile that’s- that’s been popping up more and more lately, one that he hasn’t seen in so long, and he can hardly resist the pull he feels in his bones when he sees it.
He skips over the failed drawings taking up the first few pages and hesitates for only a moment before letting whatever reservations he had go and starting to sketch out the drawing.
He isn’t sure how long he sits there- how long he traces familiar shapes with the drag of his pencil, gently smudging and blending and carving out the smallest of details. The room is quiet, save for the sounds of graphite against paper, and Steve suddenly remembers how easy it is to lose himself in this once he manages to get the hang of it.
(And maybe that’s what he’s been missing, he thinks belatedly- a muse.)
Eventually, he sits back, blinking down at the drawing on the desk; the drooping eyes and wide nose, stubbled cheeks and half smile. It’s not finished, not even close, and he can pinpoint the spots that are a little warped or disproportionate. But, he thinks, it’s clearer than anything else he’s been able to draw since- since he woke up.
A sharp knock on the door pulls him out of his thoughts, and he sighs, turning slightly in his chair. “Steve?” Bucky says from the other side.
“Ah. Nothing, I was just...checking in on you.”
“Oh.” A flush starts painting itself on Steve’s cheeks with no explanation. Scratching at the back of his neck, Steve says a little gruffly, “Well, I’m fine. Thanks.”
He hears the sound of feet padding away from the room and wonders if Bucky heard him. His heart feels like it’s swelling in his chest, beating too fast, growing too big, and- oh.
He glances back down at the half-finished drawing of Bucky sitting on the desk, and it’s like everything just clicks in his mind, all of a sudden. Everything he’s been feeling around Bucky, the longing and the want and the feeling of home when they’re together-
His mouth suddenly feels dry, and his cheeks seem to heat up even more. With a surprisingly steady hand, he carefully closes the sketchbook and tucks it in the corner of the desk before resting his head on the cool wood where it had been sitting, feeling mentally drained.
Well. He’s completely fucked.
The sun has just barely begun to rise when Steve sets off on his run. The sky is painted a dark navy color, fading into an orange glow at the cusp of the horizon. It’s cold, the chill of early morning air biting at his skin, and he inhales sharply as his feet fall against the pavement.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. He counts the steps in his head, a mindless routine to fill the blank space in his brain. Just him and the ground and the thump thump thump of his heart against his ribcage.
He runs for- he isn’t sure how long. Runs until his feet start to ache and his mind is numb and the sun has long past risen in the sky. Runs until the path he’s taken feels monotonous, routine.
Slowing down, he reaches his arms up and stretches, fingers pointed. His wrists crack a little, and he rolls them around before dropping them back to his side. Exhaling, he comes to a stop at the edge of the pathway, dropping down in the grass lining the side.
His heart's still beating quickly in his chest but his eyelids are beginning to feel heavy. Maybe Bucky’s still in bed, he thinks. The thought of heading home and crawling under the covers into waiting arms sounds so, so appealing and-
God, he’s tired.
He stays on the ground for a long time, watching the people walk along the pavement. Two girls pass by, sharing a pair of earbuds and holding hands. Steve smiles.
His phone buzzing in his pocket jolts him out of his thoughts. He sighs, but perks up a little when he sees Sam’s contact photo flash across the screen.
“Hey,” he says.
“Steve!” Sam’s voice is chipper. “How’s it going, man? It’s been a while.”
Steve feels a pang of guilt in his chest and winces. Sam’s right- they haven’t spoken in what, a month? Maybe longer. Ever since he took a break from going on missions he’s all but fallen off the grid.
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve…I’ve been busy.” It’s a poor excuse and he knows it. Sam doesn’t call him out on it though, for which Steve is grateful.
“No worries,” Sam says easily. “How’s the nonworking life treating you?”
Steve shrugs, then remembers Sam can’t see him. “It’s good. Fine. Bucky, uh, got an emotional support dog? He’s been doing better, actually.”
“An emotional support dog?”
“Yeah.” He shifts, stretching his leg out across the ground. “Tony’s idea, not mine. She seems to be helping him though.” He pauses. “What about you? How’s the VA?”
“It’s good,” Sam says. “I met the sweetest old lady the other day- she’s new to the area. A vet from ‘Nam, actually. She talked for a long while about that. It was…something else.”
A hint of a smile plays at Steve’s lips. “That’s pretty cool,” he says honestly, because if there’s one thing he learned from Peggy, it’s that women especially never had it easy in the military.
“Yeah,” Sam agrees.
It’s quiet again for a few moments, but comfortably so. Steve kicks at a rock, sending it skittering across the hard pavement to the other side of the pathway.
“Steve,” Sam starts on the other side of the line. “How are you? And I don’t mean how’s Bucky, or Captain America. I mean how are you.”
There it is. Steve absently licks at his dry lips, his throat suddenly feeling tight. “I’m- I’m okay,” he says, and he doesn’t bother to lie because this is Sam he’s talking to. Even if he did try to lie, Sam’s too perceptive for his own good.
“Mm,” Sam hums on the other side of the line. “Well, just- my door is always open, right? Metaphorically speaking.”
Something in Steve’s chest aches, and he wants to feel embarrassed but instead he’s just grateful. Grateful to have a friend like Sam. He makes a mental note to talk to him more often.
“Thank you, Sam. I mean it.”
“I know you do.” There’s a smile in Sam’s voice, and Steve feels some of the tension ebb out of his chest.
Suddenly, Steve thinks of Bucky at their apartment. He thinks of messy hair and tangled limbs, and warm skin pressed against his at night. He thinks of fluttering heartbeats and goosebumps and his whole body aches in longing.
“I, uh.” Steve hesitates. “I think- I mean. Bucky and I, we-“ He cuts himself off, a flush rising up the back of his neck, tinging his cheeks. “I, uh. You know?” he finishes helpfully, suddenly feeling way out of his depth.
Luckily, Sam seems to understand. “Yeah, Steve, I know. Really, for someone who goes on covert missions for a living, you aren’t too good at keeping secrets.”
“Shut up,” Steve says, but he feels like a weight has been lifted off his chest as a wave of relief washes over him. “Was it really…”
“That obvious?” Sam finishes wryly. “Nah. Not to most people. Though most people weren’t there when you immediately gave the entire government the middle finger for your ex-assassin, brainwashed friend.”
A pause. Then, “Does he know?”
There’s a familiar burning sensation behind Steve’s eyes. He has to stare at the ground to keep it at bay. “No.”
That ache in his chest is back, and it feels like there are fingers curling around his lungs. Sam exhales softly but Steve can still hear it over the crackling line.
“Don’t beat yourself up over this.”
“I’m not,” Steve says. The vise around his chest tightens. “It’s- just- how’s your mom?”
If Sam’s startled by the sudden change in topic he doesn’t tell Steve, only hesitating slightly before telling him about how his mom’s supposed to come visit in a few weeks.
(They make small talk for a few more minutes; the topic of Bucky doesn’t come up again.)
“Ah,” Sam finally sighs on the other side of the line, “I hate to do this, but I really need to go. You’d better call me again this week though. Take care of yourself, alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, you too,” Steve answers, waving him off. They say their goodbyes and hang up, Steve letting out a deep exhale as he lowers his phone. He feels substantially better, he thinks to himself as he gets to his feet. His chest felt lighter, much lighter, Sam’s casual acceptance fresh in his mind as he starts the walk back to the apartment.
He hasn’t been honest about his feelings in a while, he realizes, not even to himself. Bucky was important- is so very, very important- but he’s been so caught up in all of Bucky’s problems that he’d begun to neglect his own.
He shoves his phone back in his pocket and finally lets himself breathe.
(Steve wonders, sometimes. Wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten the serum- if he hadn’t become Captain America. He wonders what would have happened to him and Bucky. Maybe Bucky would have come home, would have been greeted by his mother and his sister and Steve. Maybe they would’ve gone back to their place and settled back into the easy familiarity between them, and maybe things would be okay.
Steve’s thoughts are blurred with endless what ifs and maybes.
The lives he’s saved, though- he knows they easily outweigh what he lost when he put on that uniform. Because if he had the option to, he would still go back and do it all over again. Self sacrifice for the greater good- he doesn’t think he could ever get that mentality out of his head. It’s wired in his system, ingrained in his chest.
Still. Still, there’s that guilt, that perpetual feeling of self-condemnation gnawing away at him. Because it’s his fault Bucky fell, it’s his fault that all this shit’s happened to him. And he hates how badly he wishes it’d been someone else, anyone else, who’d taken on the role of Captain America.
He wishes he could figure out how to balance the lives of Captain America and Steve Rogers in tandem with each other. Because the thing he hates the most about putting on the uniform is how different he feels- like he’s losing a part of himself to this image. Especially considering how much that image has been used and twisted over the past seventy years without his consent.
It’s almost ironic, really, how the uniform he once wore with pride is now the thing tearing him apart, dragging him down. He wonders if that will ever change, even after this- this break he’s on.
Steve’s haunted by what ifs and maybes. But for the life of him, he’s doesn’t think he’d be able to able to stop himself from wondering.)
That night it’s Bucky who has a nightmare. Steve wakes up from where he’s lying beside him in Bucky’s bed, blinking blearily as he tries to register the harsh breathing, the deathly tight grip of fingers clutching the front of his shirt.
He doesn’t react for a moment, brain sleep-addled his body heavy from exhaustion. But when his brain finally catches up to the situation he sits up slightly, propping himself up with his elbow.
“Hey,” he says, though it comes out like a mumble. “Buck, hey, Bucky.”
Bucky swallows, his eyes glinting under the dim moonlight filtering in through the window blinds, and Steve realizes he’s awake. He almost lets out a sigh of relief- just grateful he doesn’t have to worry about trying to wake up him.
Gently, he reaches forward and tugs at Bucky’s wrist, getting him to loosen the vise-like grip on his shirt. Bucky’s breathing is ragged and heavy, and Steve wishes he could press his fingers against his chest and calm his heart down. Wishes with every fiber of his being that he could pull Bucky into his arms and say I’m here, don’t worry, I love you.
He can’t, though. So instead he pulls the blankets up from where they’d been pushed down to their waists until they’re covering Bucky’s hunched in shoulders. Instead he smooths down the creases and fixes Bucky’s pillow.
(Instead he offers Bucky a silent confession. Even if he could give a real one, though, he’s not sure he would.)
It’s quiet for a moment. Bucky’s breaths start to even out, but not to the point where they would be if he was sleeping. So Steve asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Bucky shifts under the covers.
“Not much to talk about,” he mumbles.
“Was it….” Steve trails off, suddenly wishing he could bite his tongue and take the word back because he really doesn’t know how to finish that question. Was it HYDRA? Was it after? Or was it completely unrelated?
God, he’s not cut out for this.
But Bucky just closes his eyes and lets his head sink against the pillow. He lets out a long sigh, scrubbing a hand across his face. He doesn’t look at Steve as he says lowly, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Steve works his jaw, but nods. “Okay.”
A blanket of silence falls over them like a veil, and Steve toys with the edge of the cotton sheets, listening to Bucky’s steady breathing. But the minutes seem to drag on, and the air in the room feels heavy and tense and Steve can’t stand it.
Pushing the covers back slightly- careful to keep them from sliding away from Bucky- Steve stands up, quietly walking out through the already open door.
He finds a sleepy dog curled up on the living room couch, snoring quietly. She seems to wake up when Steve approaches though, lifting her head slightly to look up at him.
“C’mere,” Steve says, voice quiet but not quite a whisper.
She blinks at him before uncurling her limbs and straightening out, and Steve urges her on with his hand as she seems to get the idea and hops off the couch.
He goes back into the room a few moments later with a sleepy dog trailing at his heels. Gently, he helps her climb onto the bed and watches as she settles down next to Bucky. Bucky’s flesh fingers reach out and curl into her fur, almost as if it’s an automatic response, and Steve has to bite back a small smile.
Satisfied, he slips back into the bed. Spot settles down in between them, lying on her stomach with her legs outstretched. Steve internally rolls his eyes- of course the dog’s the one who ends up being the bed hog.
This time it only takes a few minutes for Bucky’s muscles to finally relax, his breaths evening out until his chest is rising and falling gently to the rhythm of his heart. Steve resists the urge to smooth down the errant strands of his hair, instead letting his hand rest in the space between them just above Spot’s head. It stays there even when he falls asleep, too.
The next morning, Steve opens his eyes to find Bucky already sitting up in bed, leaning against the headboard as he fiddles with the wrist of his metal arm. His face is carefully blank, but Steve can feel the tension radiating from his body.
“Hey,” he says.
Steve rolls his eyes before pushing himself up to a sitting position. When he glances back over at Bucky he sees Spot curled up on his other side, resting her head on his lap. Bucky’s right arm reaches over to idly scratch her head, his chest rising and falling as he sighs.
“You know,” Steve says, “when I woke up, they had that Dodgers game playing. The one you and I went to, back in- ‘41?”
Bucky glances up at him.
“Still can’t believe they moved to the west coast,” Steve continues. He’s not really sure why he’s telling Bucky this, but he keeps talking. “Nobody even told me until two months ago.”
That finally gets a snort out of Bucky. “Things are a little different now.”
“Just a little.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Then, almost tentatively, Bucky asks, “Do you miss it?”
Steve’s jaw twitches.
“I...” He trails off, licking his lips. This is new territory for him, for the both of them. Because Steve already has enough trouble comfortably bringing up their past, their childhood spent together- and this is a question he’s tried not to dwell on too much.
(The truth, he’s come to realize, can be so, so ugly.)
Bucky’s still looking at him expectantly, waiting, so Steve takes a moment to gather his thoughts before saying, “Sometimes I...forget how much time has gone by. It’s so- fucking surreal, if I’m honest.”
Bucky barks out a laugh, and Steve relishes in it.
“I know.” His demeanor has shifted somewhat, his body relaxing against the headboard as he lazily pets Spot. “I can’t really…it’s hard to remember what it was like, before the war. There are bits and pieces, sometimes, but…” He trails off.
“Is it terrible of me to wish I couldn’t remember it?” Steve asks before he stops himself. He flushes and glances away, unable to meet Bucky’s eyes. He feels like he’s walking on eggshells all of sudden.
“Pretty sure you don’t have a bad bone in your body,” Bucky says. Then he sighs. “It’s not terrible. Just human, I guess.”
Bucky- he has every right to be mad at him, Steve thinks, his shoulders dropping. Steve’s so selfish, but here Bucky is, too compassionate for his own good and- and- it absolutely kills him.
“Ugh,” he says aloud.
Steve doesn’t really know what to say- what he can say. He doesn’t know how to explain the constant ache in his chest, the flutter of his heart and the dryness of his mouth every time Bucky so much as looks at him.
So without saying anything, Steve leans forward and kisses him.
Bucky’s jaw goes stiff in surprise, his lips barely parting as Steve gently presses their mouths together. He doesn’t move, and Steve’s suddenly hit with the ice cold fear of Bucky pushing him away, hating him-
But Bucky’s fingers curl into his shirt and he’s not pushing him back and oh- oh. Instead he pulls Steve closer, pulling back for half a second and breathing against his lips before moving back in and slotting their mouths together with a firm determination. Steve doesn’t know what to do with his hands, and he fumbles for a moment before resting them on Bucky’s lower back, his mind going fuzzy as he leans into him.
It doesn’t last long, and before Steve knows it Bucky’s pulling away soon, too soon. His hands are still wrapped around the soft fabric of Steve’s shirt, his breathing a little off kilter, and when Steve opens his eyes he can see a faint flush painting itself on Bucky’s cheeks.
“Oh,” Bucky says.
Steve opens his mouth to say- something- anything- but then there’s a ball of fur right up in his face and he cuts himself off, leaning back in surprise as Spot gives him a big wet kiss on the cheek.
“Ew,” he complains but he can’t help that smile that flits across his face. Bucky just laughs.
“Aw, were you feeling left out? Huh?” He unclenches Steve’s shirt to give her fur a ruffle.
Without thinking Steve reaches over and rests his hand on top of Bucky’s where it’s petting Spot.
(And if Bucky fumbles for a moment before regaining his composure, well, Steve pretends not to notice.)
Not much changes after they officially get together, Steve finds. Maybe they’ve just known each other for so long, maybe they’re used to each other’s presence- whatever it is, it’s comfortable. Because really, he thinks, no matter what happens in their relationship, it all comes down to the fact that Bucky is still Steve’s best friend.
Except sometimes now there’s holding hands and kissing and even sharing clothes. Steve’s lost track of how many times he’s found Bucky wandering around the house wearing his t-shirts, and he’ll pretend to be annoyed but in all honestly it doesn’t bother him.
(Don’t tell Bucky, but- maybe he kind of sort of likes it. Maybe.)
They haven’t done anything more than that though, still careful around each other. At least, Steve suspects Bucky’s the one being tentative about boundaries. But Steve knows he just doesn’t want that. Which is fine, it is, really- he’s been over this and hey, he’d even learned there was a word for it from Sam.
It’s not weird, he reminds himself. Maybe not too common (though, Sam told him, it’s probably more common than he thinks), but definitely not wrong. He just…he doesn’t know how Bucky’s going to take it. It’s not a topic they’ve touched on, not really, but Steve knows it’s gonna come up sooner or later and he’d rather just get it out there.
(He’s been through hell and back, over and over again. He and Bucky have made it this far. He can do this. He can.)
So one morning, while they’re sitting quietly at their small table around twin bowls of Cheerios, Steve steels himself and takes a deep breath before saying, “I don’t like sex.”
Bucky’s arm pauses, spoon halfway to his mouth. He lowers his hand slowly, and Steve’s heart is beating fast against his ribcage but he ignores it.
“Uh,” Bucky says.
Nervous, Steve licks his lips. “Not- I mean. It’s not you. I’m asexual? It’s- well, I just don’t want to have sex. Some asexual people do and that’s fine but I don’t- I’m not-“
“I mean, we could if you wanted to, I just-“
“Steve.” Bucky’s metal hand reaches out and covers his own, and Steve forces himself to look up. Bucky doesn’t look…upset. His eyes are soft and he’s tugging his bottom lip between his teeth, and he continues, “Just- calm down for a sec. I wasn’t- I was just surprised.”
Inhaling somewhat shakily, Steve scratches the back of his neck. He can feel his face start to heat up and his chest aches because does Bucky get it? What this all means?
“I won’t want to have sex with you,” he states plainly. Then he blanches and clarifies, “Or anyone. Ever.”
“Okay,” Bucky says, scrubbing a hand down his face. “That’s….”
“Is it- is it a problem?”
Bucky shakes his head slowly. “Just- asexual?”
“Yeah.” Steve pulls his hand back and drums his fingers against the table. “It’s like. A sexual orientation, you know, but the term is still pretty new, I guess.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Then: “Are you sure? I mean, what if it’s- I don’t know, just because of trauma or something. Y’know? Because,” his voice drops slightly, “if it’s because of your mental state or something, that’s okay. You can tell me.”
And that. That’s what throws Steve off. He hadn’t expected Bucky to immediately understand, of course not, but did he have to be so- insensitive about it?
“Am I- what, do you think I’m saying this to cover up for something else? What the hell, Bucky,” he bites out. He curls his hand into a fist and his nails dig into his palms, crescent-moons imprinting themselves onto his skin.
Clearly taken aback, Bucky leans away and blinks at him. “No, wait- fuck, I’m sorry,” he takes a deep breath. “That’s- I didn’t mean that. Sorry. Just...I’m still new to this, you know? It’s not....” He trails off.
Steve’s jaw twitches. “I know,” he says quietly. “At least try to understand, though?”
“Well- I mean, yeah. ‘Course, Stevie.”
A beat of silence, and then Bucky says, “It’s okay, if you don’t want to have sex or whatever. I wouldn’t- I’d never disrespect that, of course I wouldn’t.”
Steve licks his lips. “Ah. Thanks, Buck. That- hearing you say that aloud really helps, you know.”
Bucky rolls his eyes, but there’s a smile playing at the corners of his lips.
A tail gently hits Steve’s leg, and he look down to see Spot staring up at him with her wide eyes, resting her head on his thigh.
He rolls his eyes at her. “Give it up. That look isn’t gonna work on me.”
Spot blinks at him.
Bucky snorts and mutters something under his breath about how she just wants some food, Stevie. Steve throws a banana slice at him. And just like that the tension in the atmosphere dissolves, the two of them lapsing into a comfortable silence.
(And Steve pretends not to notice when Bucky picks it up off of his lap and feeds it to Spot from the palm of his hand.)
Bucky doesn’t change in front of Steve. He’s careful about the clothes he chooses. And at first Steve thinks Bucky’s modest, or maybe he’s trying to keep Steve from feeling uncomfortable. But later- later he realizes it’s insecurity. That hits him like a punch to the gut.
And late one night when Bucky takes his clothes and moves to the bathroom to change, Steve grabs his left arm and holds him back like maybe his touch will be enough to anchor him.
It’s their first fight.
“Stop. Just- I don’t care,” Steve snaps eventually, patience wearing thin and anger at the injustice of it all tearing away at him. “I don’t care if you have a metal arm. I don’t care if you have scars, and I don’t care if you can’t remember our childhood, or living together, or fighting in the war, or any of it.”
“No,” Steve interrupts. “You need to listen. I need you to understand, Buck-”
“I’m not him.” Bucky’s voice breaks, and he turns away from Steve’s glare, flushing. “Christ- I- why don’t you get that? I’m not. Him.”
“Fuck you,” Steve says, and Bucky looks back over at him, eyes wide. Indignation courses through Steve, and his ears are ringing. “Do you think I’m still the same guy from ‘38? Because people change, Bucky. I have, and you have too. But I don’t stay in spite of that, I fucking stay with you because of it.”
Silence. Steve almost laughs at how dumbstruck Bucky looks. Almost.
But instead he leans forward and pulls Bucky into a bone-crushing hug, pretending not to notice how his eyes start to shine and his lips start to quiver.
They don’t pull apart for a long time, and Bucky doesn’t say anything, but- but Steve can feel it in the shake of his shoulders, the sincerity and relief radiating off of Bucky’s body.
(Bucky doesn’t say anything, but Steve knows.)
Central Park is quiet this morning. The sun has just barely risen, wavering just above the horizon and painting the sky a pale orange. A gentle breeze sweeps through the park, and Steve leans back against the metal bench, savoring the taste of September air.
“Come here, girl,” Bucky says, leaning down to scratch behind Spot’s ears. She wags her tail contentedly, dropping the fluorescent green tennis ball from at their feet. Steve picks it up and tosses it, snorting as Spot immediately jumps up and chases after it.
The trees rustle in the wind; faded brown leaves floating to the ground like feathers, scattering around them. There’s a feeling of- of serenity, and calmness, and it pulls at Steve’s heart, tugging on the strings inside his chest, playing him like an instrument that’s finally been tuned.
He watches as Spot ambles back over to the bench and Bucky picks up the ball, tossing it again with the tips of his fingers. The smile on his face is soft, and Steve suddenly wishes he had his sketchbook with him; wishes he could carve out each of Bucky’s features, trace them with just his hands in the most personal way he knows.
He turns away. “I love you,” he says quietly, staring at a space just above the melting horizon.
He can feel Bucky turn to look at him, and the flush on his cheeks deepens.
“Oh,” Bucky says.
A pause, and then, “Love you too, Stevie.”
Steve knows this. Steve’s always known- ever since they were kids. Two kids running around Brooklyn together; best friends, supporting one another in every way and asking for nothing in return. Two kids in the schoolyard, fighting back against bullies, and two men on the battlefield, fighting for what’s right. Steve and Bucky.
Their hands find each other in the space between them on the cold bench, their fingers linking together effortlessly. And as Spot bounds over to them, bouncing ever so slightly on her paws, Steve thinks that this is good.