Plant-chair-plant, bowl-candy-pen, poster-poster-chair.
Bucky’s eyes darts to each object as he catalogs it. A few moments closer to leaving.
Glass-coaster-water fountain, door-wall-door.
A few breaths closer to going home. Precious breaths, if the proverbial elephant that’s settled between his lungs is anything to go by.
Bucky heaves his backpack on the reception desk. It’s mostly empty save for the essentials, so it does nothing to produce the loud sound that Bucky hopes will attract the receptionist’s attention. Instead, it makes a feeble swoosh that grates on Bucky’s shot nerves. He sets his phone on the desk – sets, he calls it, rather than slams, because slamming would be inappropriate. It gives out a thud, one that would make a techie lover’s heart skip beats, but no dice. The receptionist is still on the phone; Bucky still goes ignored.
For the most part, he avoids the VA meetings. He knows he shouldn’t. He knows he should find a therapist – a new one, after the previous three failed attempts. He knows that until he does so, he should at the very least come to the meetings. He knows all this, but the VA leaves him drained, filled with bleakness and a vague sense of dread; a reminder of what was, and a hopelessness over what he doesn’t yet have, and might not have any time that’s soon enough for comfort.
Damn his Stark Tech arm maintenance technician, slash doctor, slash whatever the hell else he is, for insisting that, “James, you’re lucky to be in good physical shape now, but if you continue not working out, you have to see a physical therapist. You must see one anyway, but especially if you don’t…”
Well, screw you too. If it weren’t for him, Bucky wouldn’t be standing here, waiting to get a physical therapist referral. If he could make himself work out, he would. If he could stop listing items to curb his anxiety, he would. If he could, he would get out of bed each and every day instead of his current ‘hopefully-on-most-days’ streak, and he would cook healthy food; he’d get a job, he’d make friends, he’d travel the whole world. But it is what it is, so Bucky does what he does.
The receptionist can’t finish her call soon enough. Bucky can’t get the referral soon enough. This day cannot end soon enough.
Bucky drums his fingers on the desk; they feel numb, whether from a chill he doesn’t register or one that’s coming from within. It unsettles him, so he has to stop. He sighs and hums impatiently under his breath.
The soft touch on his shoulder doesn’t startle him. Bucky has heard Clint coming before the latter has spoken – probably intentionally so. Clint has been a VA counselor long enough to know that it’s far safer and more considerate to telegraph his every movement and intention.
“Glad you came, as always,” the man says with a friendly smile that Bucky doesn’t even try to reciprocate. “Glen is leaving. He’s moving to Seattle, is about to give a goodbye speech. Did you see the cupcakes?”
Bucky grunts his “no”.
“Okay, well, come inside. We’d like to have you there. And we have cupcakes.”
Bucky sorely wants to decline, but he does have a soft spot for Clint and his easy-going attitude. He’s half the reason Bucky hasn’t quit the VA altogether, like he did with his therapists, his previous physical therapist, his former friends, his former hobbies, his former… well, life. He idly wonders if Clint would consider quitting his job at the VA to become Bucky’s life coach.
Maybe something softens in his face at that thought, because Clint interprets what he sees as an agreement. He squeezes Bucky’s arm – the metal one, devil-may-care as always – and softly directs him into the meeting room, away from Bucky’s possessions and, more importantly, away from the receptionist.
People cry, laugh and sniffle. Glen talks, thanks and encourages. Bucky counts floor tiles and hopes he doesn’t black out. A good fifteen minutes later, with a “take it for later, eat it at home!” cupcake in hand, Bucky is very close to losing it – the little of that “it” that he had in the first place.
The receptionist is improbably, impossibly still on the phone. A blond man stands before her, waiting with his forearms propped on the desk, but Bucky’s vision swims too much to focus on any of the man’s specifics.
Desk-pen-backpack (still here). Bowl-candy-plant. Phone (still here too)- identical phone-wate –
Ah, fuck it.
Bucky hastily grabs his backpack and his phone with his head ducked to the floor, his eyes trained on the tiles. His mind calculates the steps to the front door and to his freedom. To the outside world, he’s storming off in a huff, barely avoiding the tall guy also still waiting for the receptionist’s attention. In his world, he’s breaking free of the trenches, shaking off sand and that perpetual smell of lead, and breathing in the first fresh breath of air in ages.
The sight of the cupcake Clint made him take makes him nauseous, so he chucks it in the first trash can he sees; he’s not proud. He makes it back home on autopilot, throws his backpack and phone on the couch and hides under his duvet. He graciously allows himself to be a non-person for a while.
A few quiet hours later, Bucky reemerges to seek sustenance.
The oatmeal plate goes on top of the stack of unwashed dishes, a formidable Jenga tower that begs for his attention. Bucky shakes the chore off with a shrug. He cracks his neck and grabs his phone to check for messages from Becca, his very loving sister who’ll very likely turn up trying to knock his door down if he disappears for what she deems too long.
The lock screen doesn’t ask for Bucky’s password as per usual, but the oddity does not register as conscious thought at first. The default Stark Phone 7 home screen comes to life and stares at him in vivid colors. Bucky blinks at it dumbly. This is not his background picture; he’s chosen his background picture with meticulous care, and this is not it. He hasn’t authorized any updates in recent memory. He sweeps to the menu and draws in a sharp breath. These are not his applications. He doesn’t have PhotoEdit or WalkSteps, and definitely not MeetYourMate. This is, most assuredly, not his phone.
He scrolls through the picture folder in an attempt to find some clue about the phone’s rightful owner. There’s quite a few pictures, actually, but they’re mostly there for the aesthetics: food, sights, buildings, leaves. A lot of leaves. In any other case, this would strike Bucky as silly (it’s leaves), but somehow, be it the light, shape or angle of the photograph, these look like works of art, worthy of being captured and preserved in memory. Bucky recognizes spots of New York – a small miracle and mercy; the owner is a local, so that should make the task of Bucky getting them their phone back all the easier.
A redheaded woman and a handsome man feature in the few photographs of people. In one of them, they laugh over humongous cups of coffee; in the others, they’re silhouetted against the light in a play of bodies and shadows.
It’s the selfies of the blond man – a grand total of three – that stir something up in Bucky’s memory: a blond man at the reception desk of the VA.
Candy-plant-phone, identical phone…
The blond guy might need his phone. The blond guy might think someone stole it, that it’s lost forever, when it is in fact safely in the hands of Bucky, who genuinely wants to give it back. He looks like a good guy too, the blond man does. With his leaves, his light/shadow experiments and his goofy grin in his silly selfies, his sparkling eyes and his shiny hair. He looks like a guy who deserves to have his phone back.
The contacts in the phone are sparse, most of them full names and surnames. Bucky isn’t quite sure who he should call without descriptions like, “Mom,” “Dad,” “Best friend,” “Super hot lover” or “Call in case of emergency.” Using the stranger’s phone, Bucky calls his own number, hoping it is an honest-to-God swap and the blond man accordingly mistook Bucky’s phone for his. To Bucky’s disappointment, it goes straight to voicemail. Bucky lets out a guttural groan.
He taps the phone with his thumb, teeth chewing on his lower lip. He can’t text, he has the guy’s phone. He can’t call, he has the guy’s phone. He’s a New Yorker (probably), so maybe lost and found posters? Bucky giggles at the thought of a professional-looking photo-shooting of the lost phone set on a luxurious pillow, surrounded by a bunch of leaves and…
He stands up straight and hums. Photographs. JARVIS.
The Stark Tech online backup service to end all backup services. The service with unlimited free space that automatically uploads all files stored in a Stark Device on remote servers, to be accessed at anytime, anywhere. The service that synchronizes the content of all of a user’s devices, and which delivers an e-mail notification as soon as it’s done so – that is, if the user hasn’t disabled the JARVIS feature.
With any luck, this particular blond user hasn’t. Bucky grabs a stack of papers.
“And then,” Steve says indignantly, pushing his suitcase under the desk in Sam’s spare bedroom, in the lovely but not close enough District of Columbia, “he tells me, ‘Well, your numbers are low.’ Of course my numbers are low, you shitty excuse for a boss – for a person,” Steve amends, “because I don’t want to trick people into buying extravagant insurance that they don’t need.” He looks up at Sam, his nostrils flaring. “I’m not gonna lie to them.”
“That’s kind of the job that you signed up for,” Sam says calmly, leaning against the doorframe with folded arms.
Steve jams his phone in the charger without bothering to turn it on after his flight. The people he cares about calling him are in the near vicinity; the other people that could call him are from work, and he’s away, dammit. In any case, if they’d wanted to call, they had plenty of time to do so. There wasn’t a single vibration in Steve’s pocket from the time he left the VA building and ran to catch his flight until he hastily turned off the phone at the gate without even so much as looking at his screen, frantic not to miss his flight.
“I don’t care,” he says stubbornly. “It pays the rent, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna abandon my morals.”
“Mm hm,” Sam replies noncommittally to a conversation they’ve had before.
“That pathetic asshole sent me to the VA to ‘strike a deal or something’– his words, not mine,” Steve says, his cheeks pink with irritation as he takes his Starkbook laptop out of its bag. “Convince the VA people that the veterans need our insurance, absolutely need our overpriced, ridiculous, completely non-personal insurance, and – I quote,” he says, voice getting hoarse as he gets himself further worked up, “convince them that it’s a matter of ‘life and death, battlefield and peace’. What the hell?!” He drops the Starkbook on the bed and plops down beside it with a huff.
“He’s a dick, you know that,” Sam remarks.
“Well, you know who else is a dick?” Steve says unrepentantly, turning on his laptop. “Me. I am a dick.”
“Erm…” Sam shifts, not sure where Steve’s going with this.
“I went at the VA, told them everything,” Steve says smugly, gesticulating a straight line with his hand for emphasis. “Had a meeting, told them hi, I’m so and so, my boss sent me to mislead you into convincing your veterans to get our insurance, but it’s actually not in your best interest at all for such and such reasons. Let’s call him together and you can tell them you’re not interested, okay?”
Sam laughs softly. “Ever the hero.”
“Ever the decent human being, you mean?” Steve says as his Starkbook pings with new e-mail notifications. Hopefully it’s good news, or just spam. “Jesus, I hate this job,” he says as he navigates his way to his e-mail service.
“I hear you,” Sam says patiently.
Steve gives him a small smile. “Thanks. Sorry. Just arrived and I’m bombarding you with all my bullshit, Jesus.”
“It’s fine, Steve, shut up,” Sam says. “But now you’re here, and we’re gonna have a good time. Or Natasha’s gonna kill us anyway,” he adds, raising his eyebrows. “She’s pulled up a schedule for things to do while you’re here –all the things we mutually can’t be bothered to do on any other day. Museums, galleries, every quirky little shop in town. She wants to be a tourist in her own city.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” Steve says with a grin.
“Yeah, she was all like, ‘Steve’s been here so many times and never have we ever actually gone to places, it’s always the same coffee shop, the same bar.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, because he comes to hang out, not to go sight-seeing,’ but…” He shrugs. “She’s had enough.”
“I’m enjoying it already,” Steve says, and means it.
“Well, at least one of us will have fun,” Sam says resignedly. He straightens up. “I’m making a casserole, gonna check on it real quick.”
“Mm hm, feed me, friend,” Steve says at Sam’s retreating back, just to be rewarded with a snort.
Steve turns to his e-mails, or rather the one, a Stark Tech JARVIS notification: “Your devices have been synchronized.”
What the hell?
Steve stares at the e-mail in confusion. What devices? None of his devices have been active for the last few hours. A good half of them have been turned off, even.
His JARVIS picture folder has new photographs he never took, a series of handwritten notes. A whole bunch of them.
“Huh?” Steve mutters under his breath, thoroughly perplexed.
He clicks on the first picture.
It’s just a piece of paper – as are all the others, at a quick glance – held up by someone’s gloved hand. The little bits of background that Steve can see are dark and blurry, though if pressed, he’d guess it’s the interior of someone’s house. The letters are all capital, drawn in black sharpie in straight lines:
“I DIDN’T STEAL YOUR PHONE.”
Steve scrambles to his phone that’s peacefully charging on the desk, warming up under a beam of sunlight. It looks exactly like the device he owns, so what the…
The lock screen asks him for a password. Steve has never set up passwords; there’s no one to pick up and mess with his things, so there’s no need for such fuss. Steve would also never choose a background picture like this for his home screen. In all honesty, he wouldn’t bother changing the default in the first place.
Yep. Not his phone. Steve sets it gently down on the desk and returns to the laptop. He clicks on the second picture, then on the next, and on all of the next ones.
“DON’T WORRY, IT’S SAFE.”
“I MUST HAVE GOT IT…”
“ACCIDENTALLY. I THINK AT VA?”
“BUT I’VE GOT IT. I’M IN NEW YORK.”
“I CAN LEAVE IT SOMEWHERE…”
“FOR YOU AND YOU CAN GO GET IT…”
“AND LEAVE MINE THERE TOO…”
“IF YOU HAVE IT.”
“IF YOU DON’T HAVE IT…”
“IF YOU DO, PASSWORD IS 1917.”
“SEND ME DETAILS ON…”
“HOW TO PROCEED.”
Shit shit shit.
Bucky reassesses the pictures. Letters on papers held by a disembodied hand – gloved, no less, because his metal arm sent in a close-up to someone not in the know would raise questions – asking a stranger for an address to drop his phone off for him. Noble intentions, but it looks like a ransom note. Coming from a good place, but turning out a little creepy.
Bucky hastily pulls his tangled hair into a messy bun and straightens the creases on his sweater. He turns on the front camera, and tries not to scowl.
Steve clicks on the next few notes.
“REALIZED FACELESS MESSAGES…”
“MIGHT BE TAD CREEPY.”
Steve clicks on the picture of the most magnetic-looking man he’s ever seen.
He’s rocking the lumberjack style, or the hipster one, or maybe he’s somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, Steve is captivated by the deepest, gentlest eyes, and momentarily loses himself in their hues of blue and gray. The guy’s short beard makes him look cuddly. His brown hair must be on the long side, judging from a lock of it that’s escaped a presumed bun or ponytail and is falling on the side of the guy’s face, slightly curling at the end. The deep blue sweater and white t-shirt make him look soft, domestic. The look in his eyes is pained, says, ‘What the hell am I doing with this.’ Steve’s mouth tugs into a slow grin. He can’t take his eyes off the man’s lips.
Steve clicks on the next note.
“YOUR PHONE ISN’T HOSTAGE.”
“I’LL DROP IT OFF WHEREVER.”
“YOU GO PICK IT UP, LEAVE MINE ETC.”
“THANKS AND SORRY.”
“I’LL KEEP IT SAFE.”
Thanks and sorry. I’ll keep it safe.
Steve has been practically holding his breath since he saw the man’s – Bucky’s – picture. Now, he bursts out laughing.
Bucky folds one leg under the other, getting more comfortable in his chair. He glances at the television, his attention caught by strobe lights on some show or other, then turns his eyes to his laptop screen. Television, a couple YouTube videos at the ready, chatting with Becca, a book on standby should he get desperate – he’d add more, if it wasn’t overkill; anything to help him to avoid thinking of his mess of a ransom note.
“Well, order a pizza,” Becca writes as a response to Bucky’s professed lack of food. “With salad on the side,” she advises, making Bucky snort out a chuckle.
The laptop pings with a new e-mail notification. JARVIS informs him that his devices have been synched. Bucky’s heart gives a violent jolt, skips a few beats, then pounds hard against his chest. In his mind, the reaction registers as overly dramatic, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less real.
In his camera stream awaits a video. It’s easy to know it isn’t his; he only has screenshots of addresses and directions, and a select few pictures of shops and places done up for various holidays.
In his camera stream awaits a video.
“Hey, I’m Steve,” the blond ray of sunshine says, his soft-looking lips curled in a relaxed smile. “Thanks so much for reaching out, that’s so generous of you,” he goes on, and as his mouth moves to form words, Bucky leans closer to the screen, intrigued. “I do have your phone, must’ve been a mix-up, and I do live in New York, but I’m currently out of the city,” he continues, and Bucky thinks, Jesus Mary and Joseph, that voice. “I will be back soon though, so I’d appreciate it if you could hold onto my phone for me for a while, and I’ll do the same for yours. I’ll cherish it, I promise. I do love that background of yours, by the way – you sure do pay those Marvel movies tribute.” He smirks cockily. Bucky’s heart skips several beats – and mostly not out of indignation. His mouth is hanging open, he realizes, and he knows he’s gone dopey-eyed. He shakes some sense into himself. “Sorry, um… yeah,” Steve says. “Don’t want to buy a new phone, to be honest, so maybe we could forward each other’s calls for a while? Let me know if that’s okay with you. It’s only for a few days, but if not, I understand. Thank you, again, you’re so great. Thanks. Bye.”
Bucky takes a picture of himself giving Steve the thumbs-up of agreement. It uploads on JARVIS almost instantly.
Bucky stares at the screen, at the thumbnail picture of the man whose phone he currently has in his possession. If he gapes again, just a little, at loss for words or coherent thought, at least no one is around to witness it. He swallows hard, suppressing a wince or whine – he’s not sure which. Either way Bucky is, regrettably and very unexpectedly… well, smitten.
Bucky logs on to his computer to multiple JARVIS e-mails politely informing him that his devices have been synchronized. Bucky raises an eyebrow. He tucks one leg under the other and gulping down his first cup of coffee for the day, he makes his way to his JARVIS camera steam.
Steve has been at the Washington Monument, it seems; and at the Lincoln Memorial; and at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. All of the pictures are artistically pleasing, Bucky will give him that. His own would be uninspiring, bland depictions for a record of his whereabouts, but not Steve’s. Steve’s photographs tell stories. The Lincoln Memorial is used as the background for a portrait of the redhead in a slightly tilted frame. She’s caught mid-action as she turns to look at Steve, a mildly off-guard look in her green eyes. Bucky can easily imagine Steve calling her name and snapping the picture just as she spun. Before Bucky has time to think about potential girlfriends, couples, and other things that make his heart feel heavy, the photograph that follows dispels him of the notion. It’s taken from a distance, a picture of the redhead and the handsome man from Steve’s phone pictures. The two are sitting on the stairs of the Memorial Building. The man kisses the side of the woman’s temple with what can only be described as adoration. The woman smiles demurely as she ducks her head low, almost as though the man startled that smile out of her. It isn’t posed – at least it doesn’t look so. Time just stopped for them in this one moment of candid affection.
Bucky deems them a couple and moves on.
The first picture of the Washington Monument is from possibly as far away as Steve could get. People are everywhere within the shot, but they look small, blurry, as Steve’s lens focuses on the Pool and on the obelisk standing proud in the background. Trees on both sides frame the shot, allowing it a splash of vivid color. The next picture is of Steve himself, or rather of Steve’s back, in faded sepia colors. He crouches on his feet, photographing the obelisk or the Pool. It’s a good picture, if a little nostalgic. Steve must have liked it enough to have it sent to Bucky’s phone for preservation.
He clicks on the next picture. This one’s simpler, although no less pretty – a mirror image of the sky, trees and obelisk reflected in the Pool. Then follows a picture of a leaf. Then another leaf. Of course.
Bucky hums a chuckle and settles more comfortably in his chair. He props his chin on his hand and looks at all the photographs for longer than he would admit. He wonders if Steve forgot it’s not his phone, or if he really wanted to capture what he saw. He wonders if Bucky himself is meant to see, or if that’s just a necessary evil to Steve’s keeping his trip’s memories.
He wonders if Steve will snap more pictures of pretty places, or maybe even of himself.
Bucky clears his throat, feigning nonchalance to thin air, and grabs Steve’s phone. A quick scroll through his apps reveals that Steve doesn’t have Bucky’s e-mail app. Maybe he doesn’t use the same service, or maybe he never bothered, but either way, it suits Bucky just fine. He quickly downloads it and enters his log-in information, ensuring that notifications are turned on. He can’t rely on his computer to inform him of the synching – he isn’t on it all day long, and he’d rather be informed promptly of any future photographic shenanigans.
Bucky bites his lower lip, moving to nervous chewing as he is filled with guilt and curiosity. He shouldn’t, but… who would know? He taps on Steve’s applications, one by one; just because.
Steve walks a lot, apparently. Bucky’s willing to bet he works out. Pretty much the way you should; see: metal arm support, his mind nags at him, but Bucky promptly shoos the thought away before it sends him hiding in his bed. Steve has two picture-editing apps, not really that surprising. A stretch app, a couple of games. Bucky saves the best for last. He hides his metal arm under his thigh and hunches his shoulders in an attempt to make himself small; he taps on MeetYourMate.
Steve’s conversations – all five of them, which isn’t anything to write home about, Bucky humbly thinks – are with men. Bucky exhales a sigh of relief. His heart skips a beat in happy anticipation, but Bucky chastises the sentiment away. It’s just a silly crush, it shouldn’t be encouraged, and yet, Bucky finds himself scrolling through the conversations. For what, he doesn’t know. He’s not reading, not quite – he’s just skimming through the Adam, Georgie, Mike, Jeff and Wilkie of Steve’s MeetYourMate, gauging what Steve is all about. Turns out Steve is all about polite, friendly conversation until Adam and Georgie become crass and Steve doesn’t reply again; until he agrees to meet Mike and Jeff – did they ever meet? They never did talk after that, and that was ages ago; and until Wilkie texts him at a rather inopportune time. Steve admits to being “tipsy or maybe drunk lol lol” (“lol”? Seriously, Steve?) and Wilkie, well… Wilkie exploits that. Bucky raises an eyebrow. Dear ol’ Wilkie coaxes Steve into a booty call which Steve doesn’t accept (not the one-night-stand guy then, not in habit), into phone sex, which Steve outright laughs at, and into dick pics, which –
Holy mother of God and all the angels.
Bucky sucks a breath through his teeth, almost dropping the phone on the floor. He pulls back, eyes wide as he stares at the dick pic on the bright screen.
Granted, Bucky hasn’t seen action in a long while, but he’d had his share of it in another life, before, and…
He has to fight really hard during the rest of the day to not just text “Dick dick dick dick” to Steve. He has to fight so hard that he actually does the dishes, stretches (using Steve’s app, he’s not proud), changes his sheets, cooks a proper meal of chicken and veggies, and even uses conditioner on his hair when he showers, all to keep his hands from taking over and texting Steve.
He has just settled on his couch with a fuzzy blanket and the lights off to watch one of the Avengers movies for yet another time when Steve’s phone notifies him of a new synch. Bucky drags his laptop close. It’s just one photograph of Steve’s evening endeavors, taken by someone else. It’s Steve holding Bucky’s phone beside his cheek, a goofy open-mouthed grin on his (stupid, stupid) face, with the Capitol building in the background, lit under the darkened sky.
Steve looks way too happy.
The picture looks suspiciously aimed at Bucky.
Steve’s phone pings with a new text message. Habit being quicker than his common sense, Bucky checks the sender on a stranger’s phone; the number is his very own. Bucky snorts, amused. Steve is texting him.
“Check your Jarvis to see where your phone is visiting! XD”
XD, Steve? Really?
Bucky concludes that Steve is a dork. Bucky is also enamored and doesn’t want to leave Steve hanging, wants to avoid giving off the impression that Steve is talking to the void, that Bucky isn’t interested, that…
Bucky shakes his head. He has absolutely no intention of meeting the guy, ever. He has a metal arm the history of which still gives him nightmares – both when he’s asleep and awake; he has to psych himself up for hours just to go out his front door; he stays in the house all day, most days. It isn’t really rocket science: he’s trying too hard to make peace with himself to be able to try making peace with other people.
Still. This is intriguing.
Bucky fast-forwards the movie to a scene similar to the one on his home screen background, the one that Steve teasingly commented on. He snaps a picture of his television, anything else barely visible in the semi-darkness. He guesses Steve doesn’t have a laptop at hand to check his own JARVIS, so Bucky texts him the picture directly.
He just doesn’t want to leave him hanging, dammit.
It’s just not polite.
He is promptly rewarded with an “XD.”
Late at night, Bucky receives another JARVIS notification. He drags the phone to his lap and barks out a wry laugh at the uploaded picture, the sound sharp in the nearly muted sound of the television. It’s his phone, tucked in for the night under a small bath towel, its upper half resting on a pillow of cotton pad, lying by a dimly-lit lamp that gives off a soft light. Even Steve’s silly pictures are pleasing to the eye, and Bucky’s fingers move before he can rethink it.
The text back comes within seconds: “We bid you a good night XD.”
Most days are hard; some days are harder. Bucky has no intention of getting out of bed, not even in the unlikely event of an earthquake. Or rather, he has every intention of getting out of bed, but his common sense cannot convince his mind that he has to, and his limbs have stopped obeying altogether, opting to feel liquid enough (metal arm included) to justify just lying still, and then curling in on himself at small intervals.
It’s a joy to behold; much more a joy to experience.
Either way, it’s nothing new.
His phone pings with JARVIS notifications. Bucky drags his laptop from the floor and under his duvet, a glaring light in his safety of the darkness. He squints his eyes at the screen. Steve is doing the rounds, visiting places. He’s in the Smithsonian, and he deems worthy of a photograph pretty much every single thing. Bucky pushes the laptop shut and dives back into blissful darkness. He feebly attempts to move, sits up, then falls back down with a groan. He counts tiles on the ceiling and rough edges on the walls.
Steve bombards Bucky’s JARVIS with artsy photographs of the neighborhoods he passes. They’re a distraction that Bucky welcomes. It jolts him into the present, makes him focus on being instead of getting sucked into the not-being. His brain doesn’t provide him with any interesting or even dry commentary, and a picture of the inside of his covers wouldn’t do, so he keeps silent.
He hopes Steve doesn’t feel rejected. He wishes he could make himself function, but presently, he can’t see the point in anything.
The text arrives before the JARVIS e-mail, a few minutes or hours later.
“Have you tried this?!”
Bucky groggily sits up and pulls the laptop onto his lap to see “this”. It proves completely unnecessary, as Steve texts Bucky the same picture on his phone, not fathoming that Bucky spies on his photo log. Of course.
“This” is a novelty Starbucks drink, a Caramel Cookie Bar Frappuccino as advertised in the poster behind Steve. The picture is, once again, taken by someone else. Steve holds the Starbucks plastic cup in one hand and Bucky’s phone in the other. He looks at the drink with his mouth open in a combination of shock and admiration; Bucky assumes the lit screen of his phone and the fact that it, too, is facing the cup is meant to convey the same feeling.
Outwardly, Bucky rubs a hand over his face in pure exasperation. Inwardly, he’s purring with the intensity of his fondness.
“No,” he texts, both because he can’t evade an outright question, and because something icy is melting inside his chest, warming him from the inside. “Hope you’re not feeding my phone liquids. They’re excluded from its diet.”
“Please, I have its best interests at heart. You have to try it.” A second text comes after the first: “Right now.” Then a third text: “Where are you?”
It’s a question addressing Bucky’s vicinity to a Starbucks, and Bucky feels wry, or maybe weary, or just resigned enough to take a selfie of himself, in the dark, in his bed, with his tangled hair and untrimmed beard and his unamused expression. He texts it.
The reply comes almost immediately: “Is that a bed? Get up. Go taste the delicious flavor.” Then a second text: “You must.”
Bucky stares at the phone, eyebrows lowered in doubt. What the hell is even happening? Not that the thought of coffee hasn’t roused him from bed before, but still. What the hell.
A third text, an affirmation: “You’re not up yet.”
Bucky takes another selfie, his eyes narrowed in a wary question. That’s already too many selfies compared to what he’s taken in his entire smartphone-owning life.
Steve texts, “I’ll get you one.”
Bucky blinks at the screen as though the phone itself will give an explanation. Is it an invitation? Is Steve implying that they should meet when he comes back? Because if so, Bucky cannot handle this right now. Or is Steve already in New York? But he was only in DC this morning, he cannot possibly ambush him like this–
Laptop-duvet-socks, socks-shoes-pants; window-curtains- book, phone –
Bucky grips the phone tighter. Is he supposed to say something?
“Hm?” he grunts to the silent phone.
The phone vibrates with a new message. Bucky squints. This one is a picture.
It’s a close-up of a Starbucks cup sitting on a dark wooden table. It’s identical to Steve’s, only this one has Bucky’s name on it, in loopy handwriting and followed by a smiley face, added either by the barista or Steve himself – Bucky wouldn’t put it past him.
Bucky laughs out his panic. It’s a literal ‘I’ll-get-you-one.’
Of course it is. Steve’s nice that like. Steve now feels like the person farthest away from a threat, and Bucky feels silly for ever having worried. He’s safe; Steve is a safe space.
Steve bought him a real coffee.
Bucky shakes his head.
Steve drops the phone on the table and stares at it in horror. “Oh my God, what have I done?” He looks up at Sam, who calmly sips the coffee with Bucky’s name on it. “That was creepy,” Steve laments. “Oh my God, it was creepy.”
“Yep,” Sam agrees serenely, lips popping at the ‘p’.
“Oh God, I blew it.” Steve falls back against the chair, shifts, then falls forward, elbows thudding on the table. He hides his face in his hands . “Oh God, why did I do that.”
“It’s good coffee, though,” Sam remarks. “What does it even matter?” he asks once Steve starts gently banging his head on the table. “You don’t even know the guy. At all.”
“But what, Rogers?”
Steve looks up at Sam with tortured eyes, feeling exactly as pathetic as he must look. “I feel a pull.”
“In your pants?” Sam deadpans.
Steve clicks his tongue and gives Sam a dirty look. He grabs his phone and refreshes his e-mail page, checking for any synching of his devices. He has little hope of Bucky voluntarily snapping any pictures, considering that in the man’s phone there are next to none. He’s not a camera guy, it would seem, which makes Steve want to preserve those few selfies he’s received all the more. As for apps, it’s like the guy uses his phone next to never. Apart from an e-mail app, there’s nothing much worth noting: a water drinking app that’s been turned off, and a sleeping schedule app, also turned off. Most communication is with a girl named Becca, whose messages tend to start with ‘Dear brother of mine.’ The other numbers in Bucky’s calls are to or from Stark Tech facilities. Steve isn’t quite sure what to make of that, except that it sounds fancy.
Predictably, nothing is uploaded on his JARVIS.
“You’re wallowing,” Sam points out.
“If Natasha were here, she’d kick your ass to next Tuesday,” Sam says, taking a serene sip of coffee. “You’re lucky it’s just me.”
“If Natasha were here, I’d beg her to please convince that dumb boyfriend of hers, that idiot best friend of mine, to move to New York, it’s about damn time.” Steve puffs out a breath, making a grouchy grimace.
Sam gives him a small smile. “You miss us?”
Steve huffs. “Fuck off,” he says, but it’s full of affection.
Sam swirls his coffee in his cup, his expression thoughtful. “We may. Who knows.” He pauses. “It’d be a huge step. Finding two houses, two jobs. But we may.”
“Fingers crossed and all that,” Steve says. He sighs, and with a last look at his silent phone, he sits up straight. “There’s an art show in a few months, showcasing new artists. I’m thinking of submitting a sample. See if anything comes of it.”
“Yeah,” Sam nods supportively. “That’s a great idea, do that.”
“If –”Steve takes in a shaky breath, the thought too hopeful for him to dream it – “if someone’s interested, maybe it’ll open some doors and I can quit that fuckery that’s called my job. Or maybe I’ll be able to make enough out of art that I’ll need only a part-time job, you know. A different one. I can… I don’t know, I don’t qualify for much”– he makes a face. “But I’d find something.”
“I’m right behind you, bud,” Sam says.
It’s about an hour later that Steve’s (well – Bucky’s) phone buzzes in his pocket. Steve almost drops it in his haste to pull it out. Sam looks at him pitifully. Steve has no valid retort.
“Oh, thank God,” Steve breathes when he sees his own phone number as the sender. “He texted, thank God.”
It’s a selfie. Bucky must have not figured out – and why would he? – that Steve regularly checks his JARVIS for updates, which is all the more convenient for Steve. Bucky does not suspect that Steve is obsessing; such an innocent little lamb.
Or a tousled fluffy bear. Steve arches one eyebrow at the selfie, his lips unwittingly cracking in a broad smile. The selfie is a close-up of Bucky’s very disgruntled face, strands of long hair falling all over his eyes from what looks to be a very messy topknot. Bucky’s expression is accusing, his lips pinched; even his beard seems to be emitting hostile vibes. He’s holding up a Starbucks cup in his gloved hand as if to say, ‘Happy now?’
A text from Bucky follows: “Happy now?”
Steve’s grin couldn’t possibly get any wider; his cheeks are beginning to ache.
“It’s delicious,” Bucky writes, “I’ll give you that. Though the barista might’ve been alarmed, I think. I looked bedraggled. You dragged me out of bed, you punk.”
Steve has no thoughts or words or sanity, not now. Right now, he’s only feelings, and that’s what he replies with. He deems hearts are too much, but starry-eyed emoticons, he feels, are fitting.
Bucky takes a sip of – yeah, okay, delicious – coffee, the cool afternoon air refreshing on his skin.
Steve’s reply is expressive and concise: “*_* XD XD XD”.
Bucky shakes his head, his lips twitching in a small smile.
If Bucky isn’t living his best life, at least his phone is. It spends the next day – as Steve showcases – wandering at the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in DC and later browsing the International Spy Museum, with in-between breaks for coffee and snacks. Bucky’s JARVIS is bombarded with pictures of greenery, flowers in stunning vivid colors, coffee cups, cronuts and croissants in quaint cafes, and blurbs and artifacts of espionage. Bucky strongly suspects the pictures are partly aimed at him, not just for documentation’s sake. Suspicion doesn’t make it certain though, and Bucky doesn’t have anything interesting to share anyway. What would he casually take pictures of, what’s worthy enough that he’d commemorate the moment? His most recent arm check-up? (“All’s good there, Sergeant. It’s your haunted eyes I’m worried about.” “Is that a joke?” “…Not entirely.”) The fact that he still considers handling glasses and utensils with his metal arm a small miracle, even though nothing catastrophic or even mildly bad has happened in however many months? The dusty corners of his house, or maybe the moldy fruit that he hasn’t got rid of yet?
It’s not all that exciting, Steve.
He cannot comment on Steve’s pictures either, not as such. He doesn’t want Steve to think that Bucky is spying on his camera stream, even if technically it is Bucky’s stream.
At least not until a fluffball makes its way onto Bucky’s JARVIS.
It’s light orange, a loaf of fluffy bread with eyes, rather than the actual cat it really is. It’s sitting nonchalantly on a plush pillow with its paws tucked under its chest. It speaks of cuteness more than Bucky finds he can bear. His hands itch to get hold of his – Steve’s, whatever – phone and type.
“What the hell is that?”
In retrospect, maybe he should have phrased the text a little better.
At least Steve doesn’t seem bothered. He texts, “XD You like him? He’s my friend’s girlfriend’s cat, Budapest.”
Bucky huffs. “That’s not a cat. It’s bread that’s alive.” Then he double-texts, because he can’t hold that inside either: “Budapest? Seriously? That’s his name?”
The video that Steve texts next is not as artistic as his pictures. It’s spontaneous and silly; it’s cozy and inviting. Bucky swallows down a tender hum. Steve is not actually in the video, it’s just his hand and voice, trying to tempt Budapest the bread-cat into engaging with him even a little. The bread-cat’s eyes follow Steve’s hand in boredom. He wholeheartedly ignores the coaxing, “Come on, hello, come on!” The video ends with Steve’s hand, and Steve’s warm chuckle as he stops recording.
Bucky draws his knees close to his chest and plays the video again. The homemade quality of it makes it feel intimate. He nervously texts, “More, please?”
Steve indulges him. The bread-cat does not indulge Steve. In a second video, he tries to lure Budapest with cat toys and encouragement. The cat looks at him as if he’s scum. It’s a majestic cat and Bucky loves him. In the third video, Steve has switched tactics. His hand is on the cat’s plump back, massaging it with slow motions. The bread-cat closes his eyes in pleasure. Bucky catches himself wonder what Steve’s hand would feel like on his back. He imagines he’d close his eyes just the same; maybe he would actually purr, too. A woman’s voice, muffled in the background, asks something about steak and cheese, and Steve stops his recording.
Bucky texts, “I think I love him.”
“Isn’t he nice?”
Steve sends another video. He is still petting the cat. His hand stops moving for a second and Budapest glares at him with murder in his eyes until Steve resumes the gentle petting. Steve massages the cat’s head and asks, off camera, in his deep voice that makes Bucky’s insides feel like a marshmallow, “Do you have any pets, Bucky?”
Bucky, who never thought his name would sound so at home in a strange man’s mouth, is caught between a whimper at the notion, and an impatient rolling of his eyes at Steve’s question. Unfair reaction, since Steve doesn’t actually know Bucky and his state of mind, but still. This calls for a video. Bucky gets off the couch.
He switches into video mode and hits record. He shoots the dark green shabby couch and the blankets in a messy pile on top of it. He turns the phone to the coffee table, filled with half-empty mugs, an unwashed bowl of chips, half-melted candles (they’re for ambiance, until Bucky can’t bother to throw them away and then they turn to garbage), and the scattered papers that Bucky used to write his notes to Steve. He trots to his small balcony and turns on the outside light, giving Steve a good view of his long-dead wilted plants. He turns the camera to his own snarky face. “No,” he says flatly. “I don’t have any pets. I can barely take care of myself, clearly.”
He sends the video to Steve. He chastises himself for coming off this bitter.
“Look at that, he’s got blankets on the couch!”
Natasha and Sam, currently preparing the kitchen table for dinner, stop in their tracks. Natasha gives Steve a very long, very pointed look that Steve blissfully misses. Sam shakes his head and goes back to grabbing glasses.
“I have blankets on my couch!” Steve exclaims, beaming.
“Oh boy,” Natasha breathes, setting cutlery on the table.
“And you don’t have pets either,” Sam points out.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m texting him,” Steve says.
“Practically a match made in heaven,” Sam mutters flatly.
“My cat’s pretty enticing,” Natasha says with smirk. “Doesn’t necessarily mean your guy likes all pets. Budapest is just that good.”
Sam throws his hand around Natasha’s waist and pulls her close. Just as he kisses her hair, Steve’s borrowed phone buzzes.
“Well, you should,” Steve reads Bucky’s text aloud. “They excite you.” He hums under his breath, his fingers dancing on the screen. “Sure you don’t want me to help out?” he mumbles to Natasha and Sam for a third time as he types; the pair ignores him. He hits send. “There.”
“What?” Natasha asks.
“Well, I told him,” Steve recites, “Well, you should too, looks like you could use the company.” Hearing it out loud, it sounds snarkier than Steve meant. His eyes widen in alarm; Sam’s identical expression doesn’t help any.
“Holy shit, Steve, what the hell?” Sam scolds as Steve moans, “Oh God.”
“Huh,” Natasha remarks, intrigued.
“Steve, what the hell,” Sam insists. “Dude looks a little troubled, a little beaten down by life, and you –” He stops when the phone vibrates onto the table.
Steve taps on the message in a hurry.
“… Savage :D.”
Steve breathes a sigh of relief. “Oh God.” He rakes his hand through his hair, nostrils flaring at what he deems a close call.
“You’re lucky he’s not easily offended.” Sam scowls, setting the salad on the table.
“You said he’s troubled?” Steve asks.
“I’d assume so,” Sam replies. “Barely any use of his phone, doesn’t want to get out of bed, messy house, grouchy, avoids meeting you in person and says he’ll leave the phone somewhere for you instead, actually saying he can barely take care of himself.”
“I’d say especially the last one is a pretty obvious tell,” Natasha observes.
“These things alone wouldn’t mean a thing, maybe, but all of them combined together…” Sam shrugs. “Maybe dude’s going through something. Maybe I’m wrong, of course, but I’ve seen similar signs at the center. Seems more than just your average introversion.”
“Well, aren’t you the little therapist.” Natasha affectionately pinches Sam’s ribs.
“I am an actual therapist,” Sam points out.
“I think he has a scar,” Steve says, running his index finger over the phone as if brushing it against its owner. “He wears a glove all the time in what pictures I’ve seen. It’s not really glove weather, I was thinking maybe he’s covering up a scar.”
“Could be.” Sam nods. “Could be a scar, or a quirk. Could be PTSD from an accident, or a war.”
“Jesus, give the guy a little privacy,” Natasha mutters. At Steve and Sam’s simultaneous stares, she says, “Don’t assume. If you want to know, just ask.”
Steve wants to know but can’t just ask, not this soon. Instead, he texts Bucky a night-time selfie of himself trying to read in bed as he nearly falls asleep. He doesn’t know how this can possibly be interpreted – it’s not the kind of thing strangers do. Bucky responds with a picture of himself cleaning up the dead plants in his balcony.
Steve sets aside his book and sends a video, albeit his sleepy voice and his slightly tousled bed hair. “Sorry for the plants, but yay cleaning. I love cleaning.”
Bucky responds with a selfie of his very offended expression.
Steve giggles and sends another video, trying but failing to contain his doting smile. “What? It creates a kind of order amidst our perpetual never-ending chaos.” He snorts at his reply as he hits send.
Bucky sends a video too, this time. It’s short, sweet and to the point, a close-up of his disbelieving face. He stares at the camera for a long moment, then says in two long syllables, “Je – sus.” His voice is husky, slightly grainy; it quickly becomes Steve’s favorite sound in the world.
Steve smiles at the recording camera. “Goodnight, Buck.” It’s tender, but he’s too taken with Bucky to care.
Bucky’s response is a solo selfie. The grimace on Bucky’s face could give the famous grumpy cat a real run for its money.
Steve hasn’t slept this well in ages.
Steve takes more pictures of the Tidal Basin than any living being ever needs to have. Be it trees, blossoms, squirrels, different compositions of the Basin or the Jefferson Memorial across the water as it basks under the sunlight, Steve memorializes it in a picture, and then one more. He photographs Sam too, mid-trot as he walks toward him with hot cups of coffee in hand. The picture turns out surprisingly suave.
“Oh yeah, I like that one,” Sam says approvingly, taking a seat next to Steve on a nearby bench. “That’s going up on my Instagram. Man,” he adds wistfully as he looks along the path of the Basin, “it’s a shame the cherry trees aren’t in bloom. When they are, it’s a sight to behold.”
“That’s okay, I’ll come again,” Steve says with a smile. “If you’ll have me.”
“Well, that depends. Will you bring along a professional camera next time? Because these Stark Phones, I mean… they’re mighty, but they ain’t all that,” Sam jokes.
Steve sips his coffee and texts Bucky a picture of the Tidal Basin, just because. “Your phone is living it up,” he types.
The response comes after a few minutes: “Someone has to.” The text is quickly followed by a selfie of Bucky on a street that Steve finds vaguely familiar, carrying shopping bags in his gloved hand.
Steve sighs and looks out at the water.
Sam looks over at the phone screen and says, “No.”
It’s a response to a discussion started over breakfast. It was cut short when they left Sam’s house, but wasn’t really conclusively wrapped up, not satisfyingly. Not the way that would satisfy Steve.
“I think it’ll miss me when you get it back,” Steve texts. It’s not entirely friendly. In Steve’s mind, this count as flirty. He’s not sure what it counts as for everyone else.
“Yours won’t miss *me*,” Bucky texts. “I think it feels rather neglected.”
Steve shakes his head morosely.
“Steve,” Sam warns.
“Btw, whereabouts do you live? We could arrange the exchange somewhere close,” Steve sends.
“Brooklyn,” Bucky texts. “But I can drop it anywhere you like and you can go pick it up whenever. Same with mine?”
Steve heaves the mother of all sighs and slumps dejectedly on the back of the bench. Sam looks at him questioningly. With a bit of desperation, Steve passes him the phone to read.
“Brooklyn,” Steve says morosely. “That’s so close. So close to me. I’ve probably walked on that street at one time or another.”
“Now you’re just reaching,” Sam says reasonably. “Steve,” he persists when Steve doesn’t reply.
He knows what Steve’s thinking and he’s trying to do the right thing. Steve gets that, he really does. It’s just that…
“What, you see he clearly avoids wanting to meet me,” he says, annoyed. “You said it yourself. But he doesn’t not like me, or he wouldn’t bother with all this – the texts, the videos, the pictures.” He turns to Sam, his eyes wounded. In the far back of his mind, he knows it’s a comical sight, a complete overreaction, but currently his heart has taken over. “Would he?”
“No,” Sam responds slowly. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s interested in you in the way that you want him to be interested in you. Maybe he’s just lonely. Maybe he likes you, but isn’t ready, for whatever reason that’s not for you to decide. And please,” he says in a lighter, more teasing tone, “could you please send him a video of this discussion so that he can see how pathetic you are?”
Steve makes a dismissive face and types a response to Bucky, short and non-committal: “Yep, I’ll let you know when :)”.
“What!” Steve bursts out, with a vehemence that is way over the top compared to Sam’s level tone. “I want to get to know him.”
“You’re about to lie to him, that doesn’t make for good relationships,” Sam points out.
“It’s not – it’s not lying, not quite,” Steve stumbles over his answer, already knowing how wrong he is. “It’s deceiving by omission.”
“So it’s exactly what you hate about your job? That job that you hate?” Sam’s questions. Ever the voice of reason, he sounds just like the voice of Steve’s conscience.
“That hurts people, it’s a rip-off,” Steve tries to justify the unjustifiable; he doesn’t feel any better for it.
“It’s still deceiving.”
Steve groans petulantly. “If I tell him I go back tomorrow, that means I’ll have to give him his phone back, and that means I don’t get to talk to him, and I’m not ready for that.” He quickly snaps a picture of a basset hound lounging by the water and texts it to Bucky without a second thought. “What would you have me do?”
“Be honest. Obviously,” Sam says easily.
“Just for a few days,” Steve says after a pause, his voice low with defeat. “Just a few more days. And I’ll tell him.”
Sam turns to look at him. “I get it, man. Sort of. It’s been a while since you’ve liked somebody for real. Don’t think I don’t get it. But don’t go telling me that you don’t get what I’m saying too.”
“You know you’re right,” Steve says dejectedly. “Just a few days,” he mumbles, a leeway he takes mostly to prepare himself for the inevitable.
His phone vibrates with two messages, Bucky’s response to the picture of the dog. “Aw, you know the way to my heart,” the first message reads; the second, “You’re a liability.”
Steve grins. He snaps a quick selfie of that spontaneous grin and texts it back. He receives a picture of a flushed and wild-looking Bucky, his feeble top bun not having managed to contain his hair – not that Steve complains. He’s holding a mop in his gloved hand, propped up for Steve to see. In the background, myriad cleaning supplies sit atop Bucky’s kitchen island.
Steve fumbles with the phone in bemused surprise. “What has gotten into you?!” he records in a video. To Sam, who’s looking over with a bewildered expression, he explains, “He’s messy.”
Sam rolls his eyes.
“He also loves Natasha’s cat,” Steve blurts out, as though to show that he and Bucky know each other, aren’t strangers.
“You’re not getting the cat,” Sam deadpans.
Bucky replies with, “My sister’s coming by tonight. Don’t want her to worry that her brother’s sleeping with roaches.”
Steve grins, his world focused entirely on the phone screen as he types, “Bucky, roaches aren’t pets. I hope you didn’t adopt any.”
The reply is instantaneous: “Punk.” It’s followed by a picture of a cockroach repellent, side by side with a bottle of bleach.
Steve lets out a laugh, wiggling on the bench with mirth. He promptly shuts up at Sam’s flat look. “Okay.”
Two store-bought pizza crusts lie on top of Bucky’s counter. As per family night tradition, one is to be topped with ‘things we like’, and one to be experimental. Bucky arranges pepperoni pieces on the traditional pizza with a precision that one uses on a delicate work of art. Becca, her turn to be in charge of the experimental pizza, sprinkles pineapple cubes on it at random.
“You know who I met the other day? Our old neighbor, Mrs Luster,” Becca says, hip comfortably leaning against the counter.
“Mm hm,” Bucky replies, the tip of his tongue between his teeth as he sets a pepperoni piece just so.
“She was like” – Becca mimics the old woman’s heavy accent – “‘Oh darlin’, how’s your mother, darlin’,’ and I said, ‘Still dead’. I wasn’t being mean!” she clarifies at Bucky’s loud snort. “I wasn’t, it was an honest reply, and then she goes, ‘Well, then, an’ how’s your father, darlin’,’ and I was like, ‘Well, he’s off as always, chasing storms with his Mercedes’, and she’s like, ‘Oh, he has a Mercedes, how lovely’, I swear her eyes sparked, and I was like, ‘No, his girlfriend’s named Mercedes’.” Becca shrugs and pops a pineapple cube in her mouth. “I don’t think she enjoyed the talk.”
Bucky arches a sarcastic eyebrow.
“I wasn’t being flippant,” Becca complains, “they were just facts!”
“He’s still with Mercedes then?” Bucky asks, layering thin lines of tomatoes over the crust.
“Yeah, still going strong” – Becca nods, sprinkling her pizza with parmesan and cranberries. “It’s kind of cool, ‘cause she’s an author, you know, she works at her own pace, so she can travel with him whenever and wherever he travels, which is like… always and everywhere.”
“Wait, she’s an author?” Bucky asks. “As in, we can buy her books and read them?”
“I mean, probably, yeah.” Becca shrugs.
“What’s her full name?”
“I don’t remember, Buck, I wasn’t that invested in the woman’s life at the time. It was too early in their relationship,” Becca replies. “When dad calls for the next holiday or birthday or Big Event” – Bucky can hear the capital letters in her voice – “I’ll ask.”
“How do you even know what she does?” Bucky questions.
“Dad told me,” Becca replies. “He doesn’t tell you these things ‘cause you were so mean to his last girlfriend.”
“She looked exactly like mom!” Bucky protests.
“Wasn’t her fault!” Becca retorts. “You could’ve been angry at dad, who chose a woman that so resembled our mother – which, again, would be shitty of you, ‘cause it’s not like he did it on purpose – but no, you had to be mean to that poor woman even though she was nothing but nice to you.”
Bucky doesn’t have a satisfactory reply; he’s very much in the wrong on this one. He sprinkles grated cheese on his pizza instead.
“Anyway, Mercedes looks nothing like mom – or the ex.” Becca smirks. “She’s wholly different, no worries. She has kind eyes. Very bright.”
Bucky looks up, eyebrows lowered in disbelief. “You’ve seen her?”
“I’ve seen a couple of pictures of them posing at landmarks,” Becca says.
“He hasn’t sent me any,” Bucky grumbles.
“Again, mean to previous ex,” Becca says shortly. “He’s kind of scared to.”
Bucky opens his mouth to reply when his phone buzzes behind him. A quick glance at the screen informs him it’s a Steve-message. He tries hard, he really does – he sprinkles more cheese, he tries to be indifferent, but Steve-messages are his weakness. He wipes his hands on a towel.
“I’m just gonna, uh…” He points at the phone. “I’m done, so you…”
He grabs the phone more eagerly than he’d have chosen if he weren’t so eager to do so, and walks the few steps to the living room. It’s mostly out of habit, as there’s no door separating the two rooms to ensure privacy.
It’s a video message, with Steve’s glorious face. He’s out, and tries to stay under the light of a lamppost so that he is sufficiently visible.
“Sorry, sorry, I know you’ve got company,” Steve says, waving an apologetic hand at the camera, “but dude, look at this!” He moves the phone aside to showcase: it’s the exterior of a bar just behind Steve. Propped against the doors is a Marvel Iron Man suit positioned as though it’s about to fly. Green bulging arrows that seem to hint at Hulk and Hawkeye combined point at the entrance, where a host is dressed in the colors of the Grandmaster from Thor’s Tales. Steve turns the camera back to his face. His words excitedly tumble out of his lips, “It’s a theme night with your favorite movies! With cosplayers and competitions and stuff!” He tilts the phone a little to show Sam and Natasha at Steve’s other side, huddled together as they wait. “We’re going in.”
“But we really don’t want to!” Sam yells remorsefully.
Steve turns the phone back to his own face. “We’re going in. I’ll keep you posted so you can see these later. Bye.”
Bucky doesn’t even know that Becca has been standing behind him, or for how long. He doesn’t even realize how hard he’s grinning, until Becca’s finger pokes his dimples.
“So,” she says.
Bucky opens his mouth, takes a deep breath and holds up a finger. “One sec.”
His house might be a mess on most days, but the Avengers merchandise is a treasure. He knows exactly where each thing is, and each one is kept in mint condition. In record time, Bucky gathers his Captain Marvel, Groot and Mjolnir mugs, his Thor hat, his Spider-man sweater, his Marvel blanket and his point of pride Guardians of the Galaxy Monopoly. He sends a quick selfie of himself snuggling them all, his expression protectively gratified.
Steve texts, “Nerd.”
“So!” Becca repeats loudly, arms folded and lips smirking. “Spill.”
Bucky runs his hand through his hair, gets it caught on the low bun and releases it. He bites his lip with a sheepishness that warms up his cheeks. “It’s not…”
Becca quirks her eyebrows. “Spill.”
“Remember that time I got a stranger’s phone? Well…”
Becca emits a delighted high-pitched sound unlike anything Bucky has ever heard come out of her mouth. His eyes widen in bemusement.
“Oh my God, Buck, that is just wonderful!” she screeches.
“It’s not the romcom you’re imagining,” Bucky says quickly, whether for the benefit of himself or his sister, he’s not quite sure.
Becca scoffs. “Says you.”
As if to back her up, Bucky’s phone buzzes with a new picture. It’s the inside of the bar in DC. Even in the low lightning, Bucky can appreciate the decorations and his glimpses of the cosplayers’ costumes.
Becca plops down on the chair next to Bucky and drags his own chair closer. She unceremoniously pries his phone out of his fingers, gets them both in frame and swipes to video mode. Bucky instinctively hides his bare hands between his thighs, even though it’s just his head that’s visible.
“Hi, Steve, I’m Becca, this idiot’s sister,” Becca says with a charming yet somewhat predatory grin. “As delightful as your night out looks, I see your theme-night bar excursion and I raise you a comfy couch, junk food and a bad movie marathon.”
Bucky groans. “Not bad movies!”
Becca turns to him. “What’s wrong with that? You watch movies all the time, some of them are bound to be bad.” She turns to the camera again. “We have chips and dip, pizza in the oven, cheesecake in the fridge.” She shrugs smugly, stops the recording, and nudges Bucky to forward the video to Steve.
Bucky mutters unintelligibly, but does so; of course he does so.
Steve replies in kind with a video of his own, flanked by the faces of Sam and Natasha. He yells to be heard over the noise and music. “I’m so fucking jealous!”
Natasha moves closer and nods, her expression neutral but her eyes intense. “We are so fucking jealous.”
Sam tips his drink.
“Jesus, he’s so cute,” Becca croons.
Bucky flares with a pride he won’t admit, as though he created Steve himself.
Becca grins. “This is fun.”
Bucky and Becca – a similarity of nicknames which they ironically embraced early on and occasionally even emphasize in greeting cards – spend half their night eating pizza and idly watching bad tv, and half in a themed bar in DC, cheering on cosplayers. Likewise, Steve and his friends spend half their night in a themed bar in DC, and half of it living vicariously the cozy, chill life as per Bucky and Becca’s example.
Becca sits at the dining room table, Bucky visible behind her as he moves around in the kitchen, and records herself.
“So now Bucky’s topping the cheesecake. “ She tilts the phone to show Bucky, then brings it back to herself. “It’s dessert time. We didn’t make the cheesecake, of course, just like we didn’t make the pizza. It’s just a thing we do,” she says, looking fondly back at her brother. “We’re too lazy to cook, but too sentimental to get it ready-made, so we buy the crust but top it ourselves, then we buy a plain cheesecake, cut it into pieces and top the pieces with random goodies , so… we get the best of both worlds.” She winks at the camera. “Be jealous.”
Becca snaps a couple pictures of Bucky standing by the counter, fussing over the cheesecake, and then stands up to join him. She takes an artistic picture – or so she says – of Bucky’s hand as he spoons blueberries over a cheesecake piece. She sends it and joins in on the action, with cherry topping, chocolate shavings and caramel sauce.
Bucky smiles as he watches her mix and match ingredients at random, humming a tune under her breath. He joins her in a low hum of his own, which gradually raises in volume as the bare cheesecake pieces are transformed, and reaches a crescendo along with Becca’s intense finale when they both top the final piece together. Bucky snaps a picture of the finished product – a cheesecake separated into eight pieces, a tableau of eight different toppings, and sends it to Steve. He glimpses the video and pictures that Becca sent; his breath hitches in his chest.
“Becca, no,” he breathes faintly.
Becca, licking toppings of her fingers, stops. “What?”
“No, you can…” He clicks on the full-body pictures of himself to show her.
Becca stares, nonplussed. “What? I think you look nice, you’re even out of your hoodies. That sweater looks real nice on you, and not just because I’m the one who bought it.” She raises her eyes to Bucky’s and frowns at his upset grimace. “What?”
“Just, you can…” Bucky swallows tightly. “You can see a little –”
Steve squints at the pictures as if that will make him see better. Then he remembers himself and manually zooms in on his target. “Is that silver? His hand?”
Sam and Natasha look over his shoulder.
“Looks like it,” Natasha says close to his ear. “Wanna do shots? They have the Thor special. I’m afraid to ask what’s in it, but I also really need to know.”
“Yeah, bring it,” Steve says absent-mindedly. “Jesus, he’s beautiful,” he breathes, just loud enough for Sam to hear, Natasha already making her way to the bar and the Riri Williams-clad bartender. “How did I end up in this, he’s so beautiful.”
“How? How?” Sam shouts over the music. “The self-imposed seclusion, maybe. The aversion to dating and social interactions in general?” After a beat, he asks, “Is he into guys? Do you even know yet?”
“He’s into guys,” Natasha says, arriving just in time to hear the question, with three shot glasses in her hands. “No one that interested in Steve is not into guys.” She passes around the shots. “Drink up.”
“Bucky, chill.” Becca drops clean spoons on the table and settles on a chair. “No one cares.” Bucky opens his mouth to retort, but Becca gets there faster: “No one that should matter to you cares.”
She’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make Bucky feel any better. His metal arm is a great arm in and of itself. It just has a history that Bucky hasn’t quite gotten out of his system, or even come close to a point where he comfortably accepts it yet. It also tends to be a conversation topic that brings Bucky more pitiful or distasteful looks than he cares to get.
The phone buzzes. Bucky opens the millionth pic in a row of a cosplayer, this time one dressed as the Hulk.
“No,” Bucky types quickly. “Looks like Flubber.”
A few seconds later comes a pic of a Black Widow.
“I don’t see any Widow Bites,” Bucky types remorselessly.
“Ooh, a vid,” Becca croons when Bucky’s phone buzzes again.
“Don’t be a jerk,” Steve admonishes over the noise and the music of the bar. “And what in the hell are Widow Bites?”
Bucky grunts out a hum and shoves a huge spoonful of cheesecake in his mouth. He records himself as he chews obnoxiously, staring at the lens in a bored glare. “Punk,” he grumbles.
Steve shakes his head with a chuckle. He taps record and yells into the camera, “Becca, smear that cheesecake on his stupid mug for me, will ya?”
“How do you not know what Widow Bites are?” Natasha chides, swaying to the beat of the music.
“How do you?” Steve asks. “It’s like I don’t even know you!”
“I keep myself well-informed, thank you.” Natasha takes a sip of her drink.
“Well-informed and perpetually never drunk,” Sam remarks, tipping his glass toward Natasha and blowing a kiss her way.
“I’m a super-heroine all on my own,” she says with a relaxed grin. “Steve.” She squeezes his arm. “Tell your guy you wanna meet him.”
“I can’t!” Steve yells over the music. “He doesn’t want to meet me.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that.” Natasha waves her hand dismissively. “State your intentions clearly and I’m sure he will.”
“My intentions?” Steve says with a snort.
His phone vibrates and Steve taps on the picture message. He is faced with a very satisfied Becca giving him a thumbs-up, and with Bucky, his face smeared with cheesecake that clings on the front of his hair. He glowers at the camera with wide, threatening eyes as though he’s blaming Steve for this –which technically, he should – and grips a fork so tightly that he might be about to stab the phone.
Steve bursts out laughing.
“Why the hell don’t you want to meet him?” Becca leans her hip against the bathroom wall.
“Rebecca, I’m a mess.” Bucky drags a wet towel over his chin, wiping off the last cheesecake remnants. “I couldn’t even begin to explain to the guy what he’d have to deal with – my charming personality notwithstanding,” he remarks wryly. “Jesus, you got it all in my hair too.”
“You keep selling yourself short,” Becca says, folding her arms. “And you keep underestimating how much people genuinely want to care about you, if only you’d let them. And you keep having double standards,” she adds in her know-it-all snotty tone of voice. “You wouldn’t have trouble hanging around someone that thinks like you, as long as that someone isn’t you.”
Bucky wets the towel and rubs at the cheesecake-covered hair on his forehead until his skin turns pink.
“Does he know you’re into guys?” Becca asks innocently. “He should, I mean…” She shakes her head thoughtfully. “Unless he’s desperate for any kind of company, but he doesn’t look it. His friends look pretty okay.”
“But I do,” Bucky points out, examining his face for spots he missed. “Look desperate for company, I mean.”
Deeming his work done, Bucky wipes his hands dry to check a new message: a video of Steve walking away from the bar, his footsteps heavy and dragging in the quiet of the empty street. “We’re leaving now,” Steve says, voice slightly hoarse from all the shouting. “Sorry for ruining your night” – he smiles crookedly – “but thank you both for the company.”
“Ugh, he’s so fucking graceful,” Becca says with an appreciative huff.
Bucky motions at her to come close so that they both fit in the frame. He taps record.
“It was great hanging out with you guys!” Becca grins brightly into the camera.
“You didn’t ruin anything, you dick,” Bucky says dryly.
“Wow, aren’t you sweet,” Becca remarks after Bucky hits send.
Steve replies with a selfie of himself with Natasha and Sam at either side. Sam gives a small smile, the first of his that Bucky’s seen. Natasha blows a kiss into the camera, and Steve grins, a lopsided, soft grin that makes Bucky think of snuggles.
Bucky replies with a selfie that is so clearly taken by Becca, when compared to his own crappy ones. The angle is perfect from where she holds the phone, and her use of the ambient light makes their faces glow. Becca’s thick hair falls soft against her brother’s face as she stands on tiptoe and squashes her cheek against his, scratchy beard be damned. Her hand comes around his neck in an affectionate half-hug; her grin is radiant. Bucky feels her unconditional affection down to his core and smiles, soft and abashed.
It turns out as the kind of picture that could go into their family album.
It’s late by normal people’s standards. Bucky, huddled in his bed and ready to go to sleep, doesn’t expect the buzzing of his phone. He almost wonders if it’s by mistake, but sure enough, it’s a Steve-message.
“Thanks for today.”
Bucky frowns at the screen. “I didn’t do anything,” he shoots back, confused.
The reply begins with three rolling-eyes emojis. Bucky smiles.
“You shared your family night with me, jerk. Family is important. So I’m saying thanks.”
Bucky snorts, embarrassed, because he sucks at sentimental conversations. “Well, then, thanks to you too,” he types. “Your family?”
“I don’t have anyone that’s around anymore. Sam and Natasha are it for me.”
Bucky snuggles into his pillow as he types an earnest, “That’s as good as any family.”
The reply is instant: “:)”. Then a second text: “Night, Buck.”
Bucky can almost hear the words in Steve’s voice.
Searching for non-descript New York spots to share with Bucky rapidly becomes the bane of Steve’s existence. Does that tree scream Central Park? Is that Starbucks too familiar? Steve hopes to God and all the saints that he doesn’t capture any of Bucky’s New York friends in the background of his pictures. It takes him all of two days to break down with guilt, color himself a liar, label himself despicable. With trembling fingers, he types to Bucky, “Apropos of nothing, I’m back in NY, but I’ll be kinda busy with work and stuff. Can we get a rain check on the phone swap, if you’re not in any terrible hurry? :) ” It’s a messy mix of casual, formal, chill and polite; it makes Steve promptly bang his head on his desk.
For all of Steve’s agitation, desperation and self-flagellation, Bucky’s reply is plain and simple: “Sure thing, champ. Not gonna rush you ;) ”. Steve’s betraying, lusting heart flutters at the winky face. Steve promptly chastises his internal organ for being so profusely enthusiastic.
That elephant in the room aside, life with Bucky in it continues on as per DC standards, if not better. Steve deems it far more precious than his previous life without.
Waking up greeted with a text by Bucky is rather rare, as Steve is usually the first one to go to sleep and the first one to wake. But on a foggy Tuesday, he wakes up to a wee-hours-of-the-night selfie of Bucky dressed up in work-out gear, his expression tough and determined. Then follow a picture of Bucky’s blue and silver running shoes, a picture of an empty, darkened street, and a couple of pictures taken later, of the first pink rays of the day’s morning. Steve is rather bemused.
He types, with eyes still bleary from sleep and a soft smile on his lips, “You keep weird hours.”
Steve goes through the motions of his morning: shower, coffee, breakfast, grumbling about his job; going to his job and hating every second of it, and whispering on the phone that ,“Ma’am, actually you know what, it’s really a bad deal, I must advise you to decline,” while trying to make sure that no one else is listening.
His phone buzzes with a long-awaited, but predictably late text reply: “Sometimes.”
Steve smiles to himself, but it’s short-lived as his work phone rings again.
On his way home, Steve photographs a few leaves artistically fallen on stone steps and forwards the best of them to Bucky.
“What is it with you and leaves though?” Bucky texts.
Steve, blissfully at home, kicks off his shoes and unbuttons his shirt. He plops down on his couch with a grin. “They’re unique. Like snowflakes. All the same, but all very different.”
“There’s a metaphor somewhere in there about humans, isn’t there,” the reply reads, and Steve can hear it in Bucky’s wry voice.
Steve lets out a small chuckle. He stares at the screen, rubbing the back of his neck and wondering if he should breach their lack of personal information-sharing. With a mental ‘fuck it’ and with the intrigue caused by Bucky’s weird hours, he types, “What do you do, Buck?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing about you, pal, with your long vacation and all.”
Steve winces. Said vacation was less long than Bucky realizes, even if only by two days.
The phone alerts him to a second text. “I’m a veteran, the thing is” – Steve smiles; Bucky types the way he speaks, and it’s endearing – “and I’m finding my way back still, so I’m currently unemployed.”
Steve nods; now everything makes more sense. “Which means you go running at four in the morning?”
“Which means, pesky nightmares tend to come uninvited.”
Steve hums, getting more comfortable on the couch. “I work at Insurance Company.” He twists his lips hesitantly. “But I’m trying to be an artist,” he types, even though he doesn’t usually advertise it. Most people he associates with don’t even know that he can hold a pen for anything other than messy notes.
He raises his eyebrows when he receives a video in reply. It’s Bucky’s face, in the dim lightning of possibly a nearby lamp. Judging from the bits of background, he’s in what Steve has come to think of as ‘his bed of sadness’.
Bucky looks at the camera, unimpressed. “And you didn’t think of sending your art,” he starts in a husky voice, and Steve’s spine gives an excited shiver that he can feel right down to his toes, “among the endless artsy poses of cups and buildings and leaves?”
Steve lets out a startled laugh. Then, his brain supplies him a question that sobers him up quickly. He presses his lips, considering. Sam would say, “Don’t.” Natasha would noncommittally say, “Hmm.”
Steve is less tactful than both.
“So your arm, is it an army thing?” he types quickly, and doesn’t let himself reconsider before he hits send.
Pillow-phone-hand, fingers-sheets-floor; book-lamp-window, curtains-socks-pants.
Bucky takes a deep breath, finds he’s still not ready to face this, and goes back to listing.
Glass-lamp-floor; clock –
The phone vibrates in Bucky’s silver hand, the buzzing leaving him with phantom numbness. He swallows dryly and checks the new message with reluctant fingers.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
Bucky exhales a quivering breath, jaw clenching with the tension of his life. He needs to be brave. No; he needs to just be. He props himself up on his hands and sits up straighter on the bed. He turns the camera on and before he can think twice, he taps record.
His own eyes stare back at him, very distinctly pained. He attempts a mirthless chuckle to lighten the mood, but it comes out as a feeble snort. “No, it’s –” he clears his throat, voice coming out hoarse. “It’s not you, it’s me, I’m still not – I’m… I’m –” I’m what? He lets out a small embarrassed laugh. “Anyway. Yeah.”
He stops recording and clears his throat again. It’s a shit video. It’s ineloquent, it isn’t even complete sentences, he’s not even explaining anything. But it’s honest; it’s him; it’s who he is now. He doesn’t know; he’s still… not. He hits send.
He doesn’t expect any particular reply. Anything other than Steve running away from Bucky’s babbling mess would be acceptable. But Steve’s answer simply reads, “What happened?”
Bucky snorts darkly. He bites the inside of his lip, weighing and contemplating. He doesn’t want to say it, but at the same times he does. He wants to know Steve, and wants Steve to know him. He hits record.
“I, um.” Oh, so eloquent again, just… great. He runs his fingers through his wild, tangled hair. “It’s a prosthetic, I was…” He swallows. Looking at himself on the screen is horrible; his eyes look haunted at the recollection. He ploughs on. “Captured, I was captured, we were attacked, my… My arm was blown off, up to the elbow –” he groans, grimacing to himself. “Sorry, too much info. I was captured,” he continues, speaking fast before he can stop, “they experimented on me with a weapon arm, or something, I don’t – I was pretty out of it. It got infected, the, uh, the arm, so they sawed it off?” A laugh escapes his throat, shrill and hysterical; he ignores the redness in his eyes. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Sorry.”
The reply comes in text and Bucky’s grateful. He doesn’t know if it’s calculated or simply coincidental, but right now the letters feel safer than direct eye contact. “Because I’m charming. Go on. Please.”
Bucky hums a sound that he interprets as a laugh. He hits record.
“Looking for an early bedtime story?” he says, noticing the way his voice shakes. “Well.” His eyes flicker around the room as he collects his thoughts. “They found me. Eventually. Obviously. Now I’ve got a Stark Tech permanent, fully-functional prosthetic, and a hell of a lot of issues of my own. The end.”
He takes a few seconds to compose himself as he waits for the buzz of the reply. He squeezes his eyes shut, then blinks away the spots, rolling his neck and tracking the cracks along the way.
The phone screen lights up with a text. “Every end is a beginning?”
Bucky clicks his tongue, rolling his eyes. At least Steve has the decency to finish in a question mark. “Hold the cheese,” he types back.
“Seriously though. Do you want to talk about it?”
Begrudgingly, Bucky admits that he might. It’s probably just temporary, cannot possibly mean much in the larger scheme of things, but sharing his story, the part that’s shaped him into who he is, makes him feel a little less alone with it, the darkness of it cracking just a little and letting in some air. He notices he’s hungry. He notices he hasn’t watched the last two episodes of Stranger Things, he hasn’t started on The Mist or made the perfect cup of cocoa that goes with this weather. He notices the reasons to get himself out of bed.
He notices too, that even if he’d like to talk about it some more, he doesn’t really know what he would say. He holds the camera up to his face and brushes strands of hair out of his eyes.
“I don’t know what I’d say,” he says to the camera, exhaling in a shivering breath. “It’s just images, I don’t remember much.” What the hell; since he’s reached this point anyway, he goes for full disclosure. “I’ve been told I’ve repressed it,” he continues, making a face, “and that’s partly why I can’t quite deal with my issues, ‘cause apparently I don’t even know exactly what to deal with. I, uh…” He lets out a small chuckle and smiles a tight-lipped smile at the camera. “I quit all three therapists who told me so, ‘cause I’m good like that.”
Steve takes a few moments to text back. In retrospect, it’s understandable, since his reply is close to an essay in texting context: “I’m not even implying that it’s the same, but sometimes when I don’t remember the details of times that were hard for me, I see them in pictures, snapshots. It is the same for you?”
Bucky hums under his breath, considering. It’s a pretty near accurate way to put it, the way he misses huge chunks of his life, knows them as facts but not as memories. He doesn’t remember the particulars, even though he knows they happened. He does, however, remember static images, or smells, sounds. He doesn’t remember the exact moment Dum Dum or Dernier fell, but he remembers their blood on his sweaty face. He might not remember being someone’s lab rat afterwards, but he remembers icicles running on the inside of his veins. He might not know why fireworks make him flinch and want to hide, or why he can’t shower in anything but scalding water, but he knows he’s lived through enough explosions and felt a numbing cold that settled in his bones for a long while after. So yes; Steve is not too far off, considering.
He taps record. “Sort of yeah, sometimes,” he says. “I do remember snapshots more than full memories. Jarring lights overhead, say, and –” he scratches his beard thoughtfully – “when I see it in my mind, my eyes actually sting? Like actually sting, it’s insane. The earth shaking… the smell of iron, stuff like that. Thinking that…” He takes a shaky breath at the recollection that’s so close to his heart, the recollection that marks his new life consciously beginning. “When I woke up in the hospital after being rescued, I thought Becca and my dad were an illusion when I first saw them. I remember that. Part of me thought I’d die there, a prisoner,” he adds levelly, because at least that part doesn’t scare him anymore; he’s lived it. “On that damn operating table, tied to it. But it felt so surreal that part of me didn’t really believe it.”
Bucky drags his legs closer and hangs his hands over his knees. He waits for Steve’s reply, curious on how he’ll answer.
“Buck,” Steve starts in his text, “I realize this is ‘hold the cheese’ part two” – Bucky scoffs out a chuckle – “but I’m genuinely wondering.”
Bucky waits for the second text to see what Steve is wondering. Could be many things, How the hell did I end up talking with this nutcase being the most likely possibility. The phone buzzes in his palm with the next message.
“Do you see how resilient you are, or is it lost on you ‘cause you’re the one that’s living it?”
Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up. He stares at the screen in disbelief, almost waiting for a third text saying ‘Psych!’ That would almost make more sense. When it doesn’t come – of course it wouldn’t, because Steve is pure like that – Bucky starts typing.
“I think in terms of Life Before and Life After,” he writes, taking advantage of the merits of capitalization. “I’m literally a different person, I’m different, I’m not who I was before all this. That’s not very resilient.”
“You’re still you, just an updated version,” reads Steve’s reply.
Bucky tilts his head. He’ll give Steve that. Technically, he’s not wrong. “It was a shitty update,” he texts, “it’s a messy version.”
“I like this version,” Steve texts.
Bucky sighs. His eyes sting for a wholly unfamiliar reason. He pretends it’s just the brightness of the screen.
“You see what you’ve lost, granted,” Steve double texts, “but I see just you and what you still have and what you have accomplished.”
“That’s a nice way to look at it,” Bucky texts. He stretches his legs, somewhat cramped by his prolonged stay in bed. He rolls his shoulders and his neck in a loose stretch and sits up with his back straighter, the way the Stark physicians told him. The reply is taking a while yet again; he’s expecting to receive another essay.
“I don’t know if it’s nice, it’s just the truth,” Steve texts eventually. “For me, you’re a quiet force of nature. You’re strong in such an unassuming way, whether you see it or not. You do what has to be done, you get on with it. I mean, I’m sure you’ve been told things like this a million times, but I needed to say it too.”
Not a lot, not really, Bucky thinks; but it’s not as though he talks about this all the time. His cheeks flush at Steve’s words. They make him feel somewhat… calm. Somewhat all right. As though somehow, despite all odds, things are a little bit okay.
“You’re gonna make me blush,” he texts.
“That would be a sight ;).”
Bucky fixates way too long on that winky face. Most people think it’s flirty. Does Steve think it’s flirty? Is Steve fluent in emoji talk? He stares at it for so long, his fingers curled around the cell phone, that Steve apparently has time to record and text him a new video message. Bucky clicks on it, curious.
Steve is wearing an unbuttoned shirt, and that is just unfair given the gravity of their discussion, as it does all sorts of things to Bucky’s heartbeat. Steve seems to be having a case of suavely messy hair and the beginnings of stubble. He looks awfully cuddly in the soft lightning. It’s just all so unfair, because Bucky can’t even concentrate properly on the words that leave the damned man’s lips.
“Seriously though. thank you for sharing this,” Steve says. He looks oh-so-earnest, his bluer than blue eyes oh-so-intense that Bucky would readily drown in them. “And that’s why you were at the VA, that figures!” Steve adds animatedly. “I was there for work. Apparently fate meant for us to meet each other!”
Apparently. Bucky smiles.
“I…” Steve takes a heaving breath, bracing himself.
What’s so difficult to say¸ considering everything else they’ve said? Bucky tilts his head, curious.
“Just, I’ve noticed you wear that glove a lot and that you hide your hand, and I just – I… You don’t have to,” Steve says stumblingly. “Not that what I say on it matters, but… Do it if it makes you feel better, but…” He shakes his head, pink creeping up his cheeks as he averts his eyes– and it is all kinds of adorable. “What I mean to say is,” he says with a resigned sigh, “it’s part of you, and clearly you’re amazing, all of you, and so your arm is too. That’s all.”
Bed-bedside table- book, clock-lamp- carpet, socks –
Oh God, Steve is such an idiot.
Bucky rakes his fingers through his hair. “Haven’t we established that I’m fucked up yet?” he texts.
Steve looks admonishing even in the video reply’s preview. He looks even sterner when Bucky hits play. “Don’t talk like that about my best guy,” he chides.
Bucky snorts, ignoring that his heart skips a beat, or maybe a hundred. He resists the urge to giggle like a teen in love. Resist, dammit! Resis- fuck it. He giggles. It’s momentary, but he giggles.
Maybe it’s the adrenaline or the endorphins that make him bold, maybe he’s too exhausted after his ‘confession’, but he records himself saluting, with his silver left hand in full exposure. “Sir, yes sir,” he says. He brings his hand in the forefront and slowly waves his fingers.
“Holy shit,” Steve types. He sends a video then, eyes wide and sparkling with something close to awe. “Holy shit, that looks amazing. Holy shit. Sorry. But holy shit. That’s a work of art.”
He is babbling, and Bucky coos.
“I can’t take the credit,” Bucky says into the camera, his eyes dancing with amusement. “Stark would, he gobbles up each compliment like it’s candy. But yeah, it’s fine now…” He looks at his silver fingers, not visible in the camera. “There’s nothing that I can’t do with it. The early days were complicated though,” he says in a voice that’s much quieter. “I didn’t have that much control, wasn’t used to its functions yet and, um.” He curls and uncurls his fingers, following the movement with his eyes. “I was in this cemetery once.” He turns to look at the camera, blinking away the uneasiness of sharing this one moment. “Was paying respects to lost comrades, you know. And there were these two assholes, they were coming at a mother and her daughter. Threatening them. The girl was wailing, and they held her back because – the woman, they wanted to, um.” He scratches his neck, his face burning. “They were trying to assault her, like sexually, and just. I just.” He shakes his head. “I stepped in, you know? I had to.”
He clears his throat as he waits for Steve’s reply. Experience deems it an unwritten rule – double texting is okay, but double-videoing is not. One must allow another the courtesy of a reply.
“As one does,” Steve texts. Then immediately adds in a second text, “Not being sarcastic.”
Bucky narrows his eyes at the screen. “Now I’m wondering what the hell *you* have done that merits this response,” he types quickly.
“More things than you’d care to know,” Steve replies. “Certainly more things than my mother cared to disinfect and bandage me over.”
Bucky pulls back, nonplussed. “For real?”
“Never liked bullies,” Steve texts. “Please continue. What happened at the cemetery?”
Bucky combs his hair with his fingers in a futile attempt to tame it into something less wild. He licks his dried lips and settles straighter. “Yeah, I had to step in. Help out,” he says matter-of-factly. Even if it messed him up, he could not have done anything different. “And somehow, somehow, I forgot about the arm. I could’ve dealt with them with my training alone – I was a damn good soldier, never mind the aftermath,” he says, twisting his lips, “but I forgot about the metal, and I forgot that I didn’t have full control over it yet, I…” He bites his lower lip, watching his face in the camera reflect his hesitant remorse. “I broke one guy’s jaw, and the other one’s ribs. His fucking ribs. It was – erhm.” He gives a small shrug. “It didn’t feel good. For a long time after.”
Steve apparently deems this needs a video. “They had it coming,” he says, his expression righteous, his voice steely. For all his goofiness and sweetness, when there’s the right thing at stake, Steve can be quite the fury, Bucky discovers. “You were probably gentler with them than these two assholes have been with any of their own victims.”
It’s a fair point. It doesn’t change what happened, nor does it make Bucky feel better about it, but it sheds a different light on things. It gives Bucky a kind of new perspective, now that the event is long since gone and he can see and reassess it in a cooler state of mind.
“Still felt kind of like Frankenstein,” he types with a small smile. He did too, back then. Surprisingly, he realizes with a jolt as he compares the past and present, he doesn’t feel that way as much now. Arm-wise, glove aside – which is mostly on so that he’ll be spared the stares and the assumptions – he’s doing better now. Most of his bitterness over the prosthetic came from his fear of before. Now, it’s just another part of who he is. Maybe it’s time he let the remnants of that fear go.
VA Clint would be proud. His Stark doctors would be proud. Heck, his past and future therapists would be toasting with champagne right about now.
Steve’s reply is in another video. Steve opens his mouth, closes it and narrows his eyes as though doubting himself. He opens his mouth again, then promptly shuts it and looks elsewhere, seemingly choosing his words. Eventually, he shrugs and turns to the camera. “The thing that’s the most messed up is the way you see yourself. Sorry if that’s overstepping. I wish you’d see you the way I see you. You’d light up the room. You’d light up the whole fucking city.” He gives a stern, curt nod as if to seal his words and ends the video.
Bucky lets the phone fall on his lap and laughs, a hearty sound that comes from deep in his belly and warms his skin in a way he hasn’t felt in a long while.
He flips on the overhead light to brighten the room, just for good measure.
“I turned on the lights just for good measure. Y’know, to help with your light-up delusion and all.”
Bucky’s reply is prompt, and quickly pulls Steve out of his doubts over his possibly overly emotional, quite enthusiastic adoration towards the man in question. He had a good grip on himself up to a point, using acceptable words like ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’. Then he of course had to shove a foot in his mouth and crank it up a notch with metaphors.
Way to creep a guy out.
Fortunately, it seems the guy holding on to Steve’s phone doesn’t get easily creeped out.
The phone lying on Steve’s thigh chimes again. It’s just a simple, “Thanks.” It makes Steve’s face split into a relieved smile.
“You too,” Steve texts quickly. To dissipate the heavy atmosphere and because he’s not done sharing things and experiences just yet, he texts, “Btw. Now that we’ve established I’m a master of delicious flavor” – he smirks to himself at this, imagining Bucky snorting at the proposition – “I say, get yourself a mini pizza mix (or two!) from Estrella’s, it’s in Brooklyn.” He should know; he’s a regular there. Heck, the owner knows him on a first name basis. “And some stracciatella ice cream.”
“Estrella’s?” Bucky texts back. “I think I’ve seen that around.”
“Do. It,” Steve types, grinning. “You can thank me later. And you know what I’m gonna do?” he types as he decides on a whim, swinging his feet off the couch and heading to his bedroom to change into comfortable clothes. He hits send to the text and turns on the camera, recording himself as he goes. “I’m gonna get some leftovers from yesterday’s dinner,” he says, “and I’m gonna watch one of those Marvel movies you like so much. See what your taste is all about.”
Steve hasn’t had the time to so much as grab a clean pair of sweatpants when Bucky texts, “THE FIRST ONE! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, START WITH THE FIRST ONE! Don’t come crying to me if you start midway through and you have no idea what’s happening!”
Steve takes off his shirt, chuckling. At least he knows what he’ll be giving Bucky as a gift, should the need ever arise.
Steve tucks his feet under his blanket and props his elbow on the couch cushions. He makes a small surprised sound as the fictional civilians on his screen narrowly escape a near-death experience with the likes of some hive-minded aliens gone awry. He thought he’d be falling asleep by now, warm and well-fed as he is, but instead he finds himself being appropriately invested in the life and times of heroes like the Black Widow and the Falcon.
In fact, when his phone chimes next to him, he pauses the movie before he takes a minute to check out the message, not wanting to miss a key plot point.
“That stracciatella is addicting and I hate you,” Bucky writes.
“I’m watching the first movie,” Steve types. “And you actually might be onto something here, it’s not the cookie-cutter superhero film that I expected.”
The paused screen shows the Black Widow resolutely offering Nick Fury her precious help. Steve hums in pleased delight.
“A convert?” Bucky texts. “Should I gasp?”
“Let’s not go that far,” Steve types with a laugh.
“Yet ;),” Bucky replies.
“Yet,” Steve echoes out loud, lips tugging in a smile.
Steve runs trembling fingers through his hair as he tries to exhale his fury through his nose instead of punching a wall – or worse, his boss, the mighty Alexander Pierce. He feels Pierce’s eyes burning a hole through the back of his neck. He rubs that spot, still trying to reign in his flaring temper. He knows that all eyes and ears in the office are on him, on this unusual spectacle unfolding right in front of them.
Steve spins around at Pierce’s voice, his veins burning with rage. “What the hell did you expect me to do?”
“Do you really have to ask?” Pierce replies calmly. “Support the company that has supported you for so long. Protect our interests. Get us what we need, so that we can give you what you deserve.”
Steve blinks, probably one too many times as the absurdity of Pierce’s statement rapidly sinks it. “I’d rather not deserve a thing if it’s you that thinks I deserve it,” he states, voice spiked with spite.
Pierce sits back in his chair and regards Steve coolly. “Would you now.” He drags out a pause for longer than seems necessary. “You know, I’ve known it for a while now, the fact that you don’t quite do your job –”
“I do what’s right,” Steve interrupts. “When it is right, I sell –”
“That’s not for you to judge,” Pierce remarks levelly, but there’s a cutting edge under his civil tone. “Today that… widow,” he enunciates the word as if it’s dirty, “yesterday the poor, the weak, the lowly, another day someone else, some other reason… And don’t think that I didn’t find it suspicious that the VA I sent you to so adamantly and vehemently denied cooperating with us in any manner.”
Steve’s jaw clenches. “I might’ve given them a helping hand.”
“Steve,” Pierce says, eyes glinting with hostility that he won’t let seep into his tone or his demeanor, “this kind of low numbers and this kind of insubordination…”
“Greedy, exploitative assholes tend to not have my respect,’ Steve snaps. He’s pretty sure he hears a collective gasp from his co-workers.
Pierce stares at him for one long moment. “You realize that I have to fire you,” he says.
“You realize that I quit?” Steve says back.
Bucky pours a cup of coffee, adds sugar and slowly stirs. It’s the first time he’s spent any considerable amount of time in the VA. It’s the first time he’s stayed through the whole session without digging his fingernails into his palm so hard that it hurts, without gritting his teeth to the point he worries about visiting a dentist. It’s the first time he’s sat through it all, with a pounding heart and maybe a little short of breath, but determined to just stay and listen. Maybe not talk, not yet, but hey; baby steps.
“Hey!” Clint calls as he approaches, his face beaming. He squeezes Bucky’s shoulder in that steadying way of his, and Bucky smiles. “Bucky, what’s up my man?”
“It’s – it’s…” Bucky indicates his coffee cup and shrugs. “It’s something.”
“I’m so glad to see you,” Clint goes on, not taking any notice at Bucky’s awkward response. “Been wondering how you were doing, it’s been a while.”
“Two months,” Bucky responds automatically. It’s the first time he’s come back after he swapped his phone with Steve’s, on that weird and welcome turn of fate. And now he’s grabbing his first cup of VA coffee.
Cue the confetti.
He takes a quick sip of it, to properly wrap up the accomplishment.
“How’ve you been?” Clint asks, grabbing a cookie and sloppily stuffing it in his mouth.
Bucky shrugs. “Bad at first. Then better. Then…” He shrugs again. “You know.”
Clint nods encouragingly. He stuffs another cooking in his mouth, giving Bucky space to think and speak, if he wants to. At least Bucky perceives it as such, unless the man is genuinely this hungry.
Either way, it works, because Bucky needs to fill the silence. “I, uh… I have a goal now. A personal goal. I try to leave the house at least every other day. Even if –” he swallows – “even if it’s just a 5-minute trek to the 7/11 for nachos. Just, anything.”
Clint wipes cookie crumbs off his face… and the front of his shirt. “That’s great, man! Did you meet up with a physical therapist? You’d been looking for one, right?”
“Yeah, no” – Bucky tilts his head diplomatically – “but, I’m doing the exercises, the way I was told. On most days, at least. And I – I knit?” he says hesitantly, a newfound hobby that he’s yet to master anything close to adequate. Still, it’s soothing, it keeps him occupied, and maybe some day soon that multicolored scrawny yarn will turn into a passable scarf.
“Good, man, good, keep it up.” Clint rubs Bucky’s back. “We’d love to see you around more often.”
“Yeah, I’d…” Bucky nods. “I’d like that too. I’ll try.”
Clint grins. “You’ll do your best, I know it.”
In honor of Steve’s obsession with Starbucks, Bucky makes a stop for a cup of Iced Americano. It’s a quiet day, and Bucky makes his way to the nearest park, plopping down on a bench to watch the day go by. He sips his coffee that’s cold enough to numb his tongue and, on a whim, decides to give artsy pictures a try. He takes his hair down and runs his hand through it, fanning it out. He ducks his head low, hair hanging to the side, trying to capture how long it’s grown.
A woman passing by gives him a suspicious glance. A man that walks by does a double take. Bucky’s sure he’s getting a few more stares than that, but right now, he doesn’t care who’s looking.
He texts the picture to Steve and writes, “Better appreciate that, I got a lot of looks.”
The reply is prompt and sweet: “Hair! XD”
Bucky snorts. “Luscious,” he texts, tucking the culprit behind his ears and letting the sun fully warm his cheeks. “Becca is about to come at me with scissors.”
“That would be a tragic loss.”
Bucky’s lips tug into a smile. “I’m working for you, pal. I ain’t gonna let her.” He hums under his breath. Surely this counts as flirting. Surely?
“I lost my job,” Steve texts out of nowhere.
Bucky jerks in surprise. “What happened?” he types quickly.
“My boss caught me advising a widow to cancel her late husband’s policy because, well, he’s dead.”
Bucky frowns. “And that’s inadvisable?”
“Obviously,” Steve texts back, in one of his text-essays. “It brings the company less money. Called me into his office, we had ~words. I might have called him a greedy, exploitative asshole.”
Bucky’s eyebrows arch. “Might have?”
“He fired me.”
Bucky tilts his head at the screen. At least Steve’s getting compensation. Plus, from what Steve has told him, this will make things harder for Steve’s boss, and anything that causes Steve’s boss misery is worth it. He starts typing a response when Steve texts, “But then I told him that I quit and I stormed off.”
Bucky clicks his tongue. “Are you all right?” He takes a big, impatient gulp of coffee, leg jingling with tension on Steve’s behalf.
“Thanks for asking. Yeah,” Steve texts. “I hated it there so it was about time I moved on, right?”
Bucky stares at the phone, tongue and teeth playing with his coffee straw as the screen lights up with a video message. Bucky suppresses a groan and digs through his pockets for his earbuds.
Steve is apparently sitting at a park, and Bucky does a wild double-take of his surroundings, confirming that Steve’s not actually playing a prank on him. He settles back with an awkward cough after he’s reassured himself there are in fact no Steve-shaped people in the vicinity. Steve works in New York City, after all, regardless of where his home actually is, so he’s probably in Central Park. Still. Bucky presses his lips together. Still. It’s somewhat bittersweet how they both choose to hang out at a park at the exact same time. Bucky taps on the video.
“I’m weirdly glum about it though, y’know” Steve says, his face pale under the light of the sun. The top buttons of his shirt are yet again undone, exposing bare skin on his clavicle. He smiles a serenely sorrowful smile. “Like, I have savings, I’ll be fine for a few months I think, but I’ve had this job since my mother died, it’s what got me through it all. I didn’t have anyone back then.”
Bucky gives a small nod, relieved. At least Steve is not about to become destitute. “Sam?” he texts.
“We didn’t meet until much later.”
Bucky bites down on the straw hard enough to leave teeth marks. It doesn’t change anything, the fact that his heart clenches for this younger, lonely Steve who had to go through life all on his own; it also doesn’t help that Bucky sorely knows how that feels. “I would’ve been there for you if I’d known you,” he texts. He earnestly adds, “I wish I had.”
“I wish I had known you too,” reads Steve’s reply. “Not for the funeral. Just ‘cause you’re you.”
Bucky scoffs out a chuckle, wiggling on his seat. “Profound words,” he texts.
Bucky smiles. He deserves that one.
“Vid coming,” Steve double texts.
Bucky sips coffee and waits.
“But yeah,” Steve says in his video, picking up from his previous thought. “It felt like I was making a difference, you know?” He smirks, absent-mindedly scratching his neck, right at the point where his stubble ends. “Protecting good civilians from evil corporations from within. Taking down the flawed system, one rogue phone call at a time.”
Bucky grins at the screen. “Somehow, I think you’ll find some other way to be heroic,” he texts.
“Sure will ;),” Steve texts back.
Bucky sucks his lower lip, smiling guardedly at the implications of that statement. He ducks his head toward the camera and hits record. “Okay,” he says on an exhale, smirking slyly at the lens, “as intrigued as I am by your winky faces, I feel a primal urge to beg you, please don’t stage a universal coup.”
Steve sends a pouting selfie and texts, “You’re no fun.”
Bucky shakes his head, almost choking on a sip of coffee. “Art saves people!” he says into the recording camera. “Right?! Arting is heroic!”
“Actually, I should be painting – sorry, arting,” Steve says at the camera with a smug smirk, holding the phone at a new angle so that the trees and sky are framed in the background. “There’s this show in a few months, I applied and they’ve accepted me. Hopefully I’ll get my foot in the art world somehow. Hopefully – did I say hopefully?” He grins, and it’s radiant. “And now I have the time to do just that.”
“Mm hm,” Bucky mutters under his breath, as he types, “See, it’s fate. See? SEE?! No coups.”
“Say, Stevie,” Bucky adds into a second message, idly chewing on his lower lip, “jokes aside, you just lost a job, so if you need to talk about it, or about anything else, or –” He stops, tapping his thumb against the screen. If he writes what he feels, Steve might easily ask him to meet up. If he doesn’t write what he feels, he might regret it forever. “Or need anything at all,” he writes, “I’d like to be there.”
He lets out a shaky breath and hits send.
Steve blinks at the screen, torn between adoration and annoyance. On the one hand, Bucky’s proposition is attractive. Steve could very well be a dick about it and say he needs to meet him, but he respects Bucky’s boundaries too much to attempt to force him into an uncomfortable situation just because Bucky tried to do a good thing. On the other hand, Steve silently fumes at the insinuation that he might not be able to make it on his own. He’s fine. He’s always fine. He’s just being nostalgic is all.
He knows that Bucky means well, but he’s too mule-headed to hold back his reply. “I didn’t mean for you to pamper me, Buck, I wasn’t trying to get you to do something,” he writes. “I can get by on my own, I promise.”
It takes a while for Bucky to reply, and Steve almost thinks he has insulted him. He understands why the delay when he sees Bucky’s reply is in a video.
The video starts silently, with Bucky rolling his eyes so hard that Steve can bet it actually hurts. “I know you can, pal,” Bucky says, unamused, into the camera, “but the thing is, you don’t have to. You know I know what it’s like,” he continues matter-of-fact. “Isolating. And I fail at not doing it, fail spectacularly at it, but you, I don’t want you to do that, ‘cause it sucks balls, okay? So don’t be an ass about it.”
Steve cracks a small smile. “Does this go both ways?” he texts.
“Maybe you should take your own advice,” Steve writes. “‘Share stuff, don’t be an ass about it’.”
Steve scoffs out an indignant chuckle. “You’re already being an ass about it.”
“It’s a lovely day here in the borough,” Bucky texts.
He stares out the window wall of the coffee shop, content at basking in the sunlight that’s coming in. Becca trots over to their table, black hair swishing as she walks. She sets down the tray of coffee and cakes, takes a seat opposite Bucky, and proceeds to add an obscene amount of sugar to her cup. She looks up at Bucky, motioning at his coffee. Bucky nods, and Becca proceeds to turn his own coffee into dessert as well.
Steve texts a picture of his balcony view: the bright sky and terraces of buildings that could be close, but there’s no way for Bucky to identify them. “It’s a lovely day here too,” Steve writes.
“He could literally be living down the street from me and I wouldn’t know,” Bucky murmurs, setting his phone aside to snatch a piece of cake.
“That would be Steve?” Becca inquires, settling more comfortably in her chair.
Bucky rests his chin on his palm and makes a grunting sound that Becca correctly interprets as a “yes”.
“I’m sorry, why are you still not meeting him?” she asks flatly.
“I told you, he said he was too busy to swap the phones right now,” Bucky starts. “And he lost his job like a week ago, he’s looking for something else, he’s probably –”
“No,” Becca says firmly.
Bucky knows what’s coming. His lips pinch tight in a pout.
“You know what I mean,” Becca says, giving him her most no-nonsense look. “You’re not even talking on the phone. You haven’t even talked on the phone, Bucky.” She lets the words sink in as she takes a sip of coffee.
Bucky glares at her, scowling. “Because it’s nice,” he mumbles through his teeth.
“Sorry, what?” Becca arches an eyebrow.
“Because it’s nice,” Bucky spits out forcefully. “Because I don’t want to take the plunge and then disappoint him,” he says begrudgingly, knowing full well all the arguments to his statement. It’s not exactly common sense, but he’s not driven by common sense when he believes and thinks and feels that worry. “And I’m pretty sure he hasn’t told me to swap because he likes us talking as much as I like us talking,” he adds under his breath, making an even worse case for himself. He drops his eyes to the table to avoid Becca’s stare, fingers picking at the stray cake crumbs on the tray.
“Hmm,” Becca says, predictably unimpressed. “Let me have your phone?”
Bucky pushes the phone toward her wordlessly. “Steve’s phone, not mine,” he mutters, though it’s difficult to think of it as such anymore.
Becca swipes to video mode. “Just letting you know that your pal’s an idiot,” she says to the camera. “It’s not infringing your boundaries,” she tells Bucky after she’s stopped recording. “I’m sending it.”
Bucky shrugs his approval.
Becca sets the phone back on the table and eyes her brother. “You’re sulking. I can’t have you sulking.” She watches Bucky put cake crumbs in his mouth. “This is a good thing that’s happening to you. I swear to God, I’m gonna have dad call you.”
Bucky’s head snaps up, his eyes wide at the proposition. “You wouldn’t. It’s not a holiday, birthday, or a Big Event.”
Becca narrows her eyes and smirks smugly. “Wouldn’t I?” She leans forward. “I’m sure dad and/or Mercedes would love to advise you on your love life. Ooh, a vid!” she exclaims perkily when Bucky’s screen lights up.
Bucky wipes his fingers on a napkin and pushes the phone sideways between him and Becca.
Steve looks out at them with a grin on his face and water dripping from his hair. “Becks, hi!” he says cheerily. “I know, tell me about it!”
“Yes,” Becca whispers under her breath. “Oh God, yes, good response.”
Bucky narrows his eyes at the screen. “Are you wet?” he texts.
Are you wet.
Steve stares at the text, pretty sure that his mind wasn’t actually supposed to dive into the gutter at the wording.
Steve is wet, very much so – in the literal sense. There’s an alarming amount of water pooling around his bare toes, because hard as he tries – and obviously it’s not that hard – he never manages to successfully wipe himself completely dry after he showers.
He holds the phone at an upward angle and captures himself in all his showered glory, properly demonstrating his dripping hair, his damp chest and the white towel still around his waist, pairing it with an expression along the lines of ‘Duh’. He immediately hits send and sets about pulling on a t-shirt when the light bulb of rationality goes on in his brain. He stops mid-movement, t-shirt clutched tight between his fingers as he sucks in a sharp breath.
He just sent a picture of himself nearly naked, naked but for a loose towel around his waist. He just did that, no second thoughts, to Bucky, who’s having coffee with his sister, for God’s sake.
“Shit,” he mutters at the walls.
Sam would say he’s probably overreacting. Natasha would react with her customary noncommittal, “Hmm.” Steve just knows he probably upped the ante of innuendos way up into the stratosphere.
The phone buzzes on his bed. Steve hesitates, anxiety prickling his skin, before he checks it. He hastily puts on his t-shirt, damp patches immediately and predictably forming on it, and reaches out for the phone. It’s a picture, the screen tells him. A picture is better than a text, a picture can’t be too bad of a reaction. Steve taps to open the message.
It’s a selfie; it makes Steve giggle. Bucky is mid-way into shoving a whole piece of cake into his mouth and apparently implies that he just about choked on it, stopping mid-motion with bulging, startled eyes to snap a shot. His silver fingers holding on the cake are ungloved, smooth and visible, and Steve smiles softly.
“Holy shit, you’re ripped,” Bucky texts.
Steve snorts, amusement startled out of him. He feels his cheeks heat up. “I work out?” he texts earnestly, and adds a blushing emoji because it’s too true to pass up.
Bucky texts, “Not complaining,” and Steve falls onto his bed with a resigned sigh. It’s like exchanging love letters with a long-distance lover, except they’re just texts, Bucky and him haven’t actually discussed romance, and in the manner of long-distance love stories, Steve has no earthly idea if he’ll ever get to see the subject of his true desire again –or, in this case, ever.
Steve groans, giving his phone a petulant glare.
It’s only romantic when you already know there’s a happy ending.
Steve props the last canvas against his desk and slides into his chair. Sam waits for him on Skype, slowly sipping tea from a gigantic burgundy-colored mug that Steve secretly covets. In his cozy knit sweater and with the background of his couch and plants, Sam feels like the home that’s too far away. Steve suppresses the nostalgia and hefts one canvas up to the computer camera.
“One,” he says, excitement creeping into his voice; this is art he actually feels proud of. “Working title: Someone’s Messy.” Case in point: the art depicts a scene from a lived-in living room in dim light. Someone has just vacated the cushy couch, leaving on it a haphazard pile of blankets. The couch still sports signs of the occupant’s body imprinted on the cushions.
“Nice,” Sam says, nodding. “I’d buy that. Can I buy that? I can buy stuff of yours in that art show, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Steve says, setting the painting on the floor and grabbing the next one, “but I’ll make you one for free.”
“I don’t want your mercy paintings, Rogers,” Sam teases, his mouth curling into a smirk.
“I’m sure we can settle for an extremely early birthday present,” Steve says, propping up the second painting in the camera frame. He peeks around the side of the canvas. This one is clearly inspired by Steve’s family life. A child is bending forward, his eyes closed and his mouth sad as he brings his bony arms close to his chest. Over him and bent around the boy’s shape towers his mother – and the painted boy’s mother bears a strong resemblance to Steve’s real one. Here she is ethereal, protective as she drapes her arms around her child in a hug, remorseful as her edges start to fade, dispersing out of her body and into the ether of the painting.
Sam shifts, making his chair creak. “It makes me sad, and it makes me sadly happy.”
Steve eagerly nods his approval. “Right, yes! That’s the point. She’s dying, see?”
“Yeah, I got that,” Sam replies.
“See, in my mind,” Steve says, lowering the painting, “the fact that her fading pieces are still in the painting means that parts of her are still here – she is, even if she’s not actually here, you know?”
“Keep that for the press in the event, it’s good,” Sam says. “I’m sure Sarah is proud.”
Steve grins at how Sam uses ‘is’ instead of ‘would be’ for Steve’s late mother, keeping up with the painting’s theme. He holds up the next canvas, another piece stemming from his childhood. The scene is bleak, the colors dreary. A small, thin child is back up against a dead-end wall, next to trash cans and a dead rat. He raises his weak hands into defiant fists, spreads his bare legs the way he’s seen in self-defense shows and pamphlets. He stands against the grotesque figures that are approaching, casting long shadows that threaten to engulf the boy. Behind the boy stands an apparition, a vision of the child himself a little older, taller, broader, with strong shoulders and muscled arms. He wears the same defiant expression as the child, this time with a hint of smugness.
“Drawing yourself again, I see,” Sam observes with a smile.
“You know that,” Steve says, “but it could be a metaphor for so many things to someone not in the know.”
“It’s stunning,” Sam says. “Grim, but with a hint of hope.”
“Yes, perfect,” Steve says, setting this one on the floor as well. “Exactly what I’m going for.” He holds up the next painting. This one he categorizes as romantic. Two androgynous figures kiss each other in broad brush strokes that render them barely defined. It looks like an image on stained glass recreated on a canvas with paint. The figures melt into each other where they touch, but they are comprehensively defined on the parts that aren’t connected. “Great as independent entities that somehow become even greater together,” Steve explains.
“That’s too long of a title,” Sam remarks.
“I hope I can come up with something better than ‘Kiss’,” Steve says with a rueful smile.
“Actually I changed my mind, can I buy that one?” Sam says, his hands curling around his mug.
“You’re too nice,” Steve says. He swaps the painting for his last one.
“That’s Bucky,” Sam says evenly.
It is Bucky. In pretty realistic strokes, it’s Bucky lazily lounging on a couch, grinning a lazy smile to his audience as his tied hair escapes from its bun and frames his face. The sun is coming in from a side window, making him glow in shades of gold and amber.
“On your couch,” Sam points out. “That’s your couch. I know for a fact that that’s your couch.”
“Yeah, see, that’s inside knowledge too, no one knows that.” Steve sets the canvas aside, along with the other pieces.
“A man might wonder,” Sam says lightly, “if he sees himself on a painting and all that.”
“Well, he’ll know, I won’t put it up without permission,” Steve says. “And I don’t know if I’ll put it up anyway, I might keep that one, or give it to him.”
“On that fabled date when you meet him?” Sam says with a lopsided smile.
“On that fabled date when I do,” Steve replies, dragging his chair closer to the desk. “When I get the courage to stop hinting and just ask him.”
“I know at first I said, ‘Don’t push’,” Sam says, tracing the rim of his mug, “but it’s been long enough that in my humble opinion, you can talk the talk now. Respect what he says and what he wants, obviously, but” – he tilts his head approvingly – “it would be alright if you had the talk. Clear things up, see where this is going. If he’s not interested, you should know. Move on.”
“Yes, I absolutely should,” Steve says, clasping his fingers together. “But I kinda don’t want to.”
“Yeah, I know, I’m a coward,” Steve admits. “But if all he needs is time, or space, or whatever, I can give him that, you know? I’m willing to wait.”
“But you should know if he wants you to wait,” Sam points out gently.
“Can I get a rain check on the therapy?” Steve says.
“Because I’m right?”
“Because you’re right,” Steve agrees easily. “Anyway, the rest are just sketches, but hopefully more paintings are coming soon. I kinda want to paint something from the antique shop,” he says. “There’s a lot of soul and history in those pieces, you know?”
“Yeah, sounds interesting,” Sam says.
Steve can’t gush enough about his new job at the Brooklyn antique shop. The shrewd and world-weary old man that owns it has stories that can last for days, and the items carry with them all the lives of their previous owners. He has gushed more than any other person needs to hear though, so he avoids going into it just now. “So. What’s up with you?”
“Ah.” Sam pauses, staring at his mug. When he looks up at Steve, his eyes gleam with mischief. “Someone in your area just handed in their one-month notice. Leaving the VA.”
“Okay,” Steve says, unsure about where this is going.
“I’d expressed interest…” Sam trails off, lips tugging in a smile.
Steve’s eyes widen. “No,” he breathes, excitement lighting up his body. “No,” he repeats dumbly.
“They hired me, so.” Sam grins. “I’ll be coming back to New York in about a month.”
“No!” Steve repeats, grinning like a kid on Christmas as he slams his hands on his desk in unadulterated excitement. “Seriously? You’re coming back?”
“Seriously,” Sam affirms.
“Yes!” Steve fist-pumps the air. “Yes, it’s been two years too long! What about Natasha?”
“Natasha.” Sam smiles to himself. “She’s coming. We’re thinking of trying out living together.”
“Fuck yes,” Steve breathes reverently. “Fuck yes, what is your life.”
“Hey – hey – hey, wait.”
Bucky turns around at Clint’s voice after a brief, but longing look at the VA’s front doors. He’s been coming, like he said he would. It’s still difficult to hang around afterwards, though. The meetings still leave him with a queasy stomach and a heavy, heavy heart. He knows he looks tortured when he turns to Clint, but Clint knows him well enough to skip the comments.
“I won’t keep you,” he assures quickly, “just wanted to ask if you’re still on for the bazaar at the end of the month.”
“Yeah, yes,” Bucky says, running a hand through his hair. “But I can only do hats, hats and more hats. It’s the only thing I can knit quickly. Without messing it up,” he adds. “I’m a beginner, so don’t judge me,” he says with a rueful smile.
“Hey, everyone loves hats, everyone needs hats,” Clint reassures him. “Make a purple one special for me and I’ll buy it,” he says.
Bucky smiles. It’s not the money he’s agreed to do this for; he doesn’t really hope to sell that many of his knitted products, and he doesn’t actually care either way. Participating in this bazaar under Clint’s prompting is an excuse – an opportunity – to put himself out there without any pressure. He doesn’t have to do it, doesn’t have to make a profit, doesn’t have to be good at networking. He just has to do his knitting and show up; anything else is an added bonus. Bucky likes those stakes. They put his mind at ease and let him be productive.
“Actually make that two, my roommate Kate loves purple too, don’t want her stealing mine.” He pats Bucky’s arm with a knowing grin. “Gotta go now, so you’re free. There’s plans to be made,” he adds apropos of nothing, “Robert’s leaving us in like a month or something, so there’s lots to do.”
Bucky stares at Clint blankly. “Who?”
“Oh, you don’t know him,” Clint says casually. “He’s one of our staff. We’ve already got a replacement though, so the transition should be a breeze.”
“Okay. Chop chop, dismissed,” Clint says with a grin.
Purple hats it is. Bucky takes the long way home, making a detour to get the purple yarn. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to choose which yarn to get, figuring out weights and hues. The more he learns about knitting, the more of an opinion he gets to form on things he never thought would matter in his life.
The streets are busy, so Bucky decides to take yet another detour, wandering through less crowded side streets and alleys. They’re unfamiliar, routes he doesn’t choose often or ever, and Bucky feels like an adventurer. He passes by a shop that sells only Alice in Wonderland-related objects, and a shop that sells waffles in the shape of cones. He walks by a shop that claims to serve just cereal, and a quaint, cozy-looking tea parlor that advertises knitting meetings every Tuesday night. He takes hasty pictures of them all, to be kept for future reference and exploration. He passes by an antique shop –
Bucky does a double take at the dressing table in the window. He takes in its delicate legs, the aged wood, the carved patterns around the oval mirror. The oval mirror that only looks that clean, Bucky is pretty certain, because Steve was the one who cleaned it. He is pretty certain that Steve sent him an exact picture of this piece the first day he started working at his new job – six hours in the shop per day and now Steve won’t stop obnoxiously discussing materials, textures and patterns. Bucky looks at the paintings in the window and mutters a curse under his breath for not paying closer attention to the exact details of Steve’s recent pictures. The shop is called Antiquités, but Steve never mentioned any names.
Bucky steps closer to the window, his heart beating nervously even though he knows Steve’s not currently at work. He tries to peer in through the glass, guilt flaming up his cheeks as he does so; he’s filled by the irrational emotion that he is doing something wrong, that he is spying. He narrows his eyes trying to peer in, the sun glare making his task difficult. He holds his breath as he tries to discern the shapes inside.
The phone in his pocket suddenly vibrates, and Bucky damn near jumps out of his skin. He glances around, checking whether anyone heard him yelp. Fortunately no one is looking, so Bucky takes out the phone – still vibrating – and checks the screen.
Steve is calling.
Steve is honest-to-God making a phone call, and Bucky freezes, unsure how to proceed. He ducks into the closest alley and braces himself against the brick wall, gripping the phone tight in his hand.
He takes a panting breath. He raises the phone to his ear.
Steve hangs up.
Bucky looks at the phone screen and blinks. It’s just as well, really – his voice was awfully wobbly at that ‘Hello’ – but he’s confused, both at Steve’s gesture and with himself. The call alarms him, his mind racing with possibilities of what could have gone so wrong that Steve would need to call him. His actually picking up the phone call has him bewildered. If asked, he’d never think he would have done so, but in the end all it took was a quick sweep to the right.
The phone vibrates again. Steve is calling.
Bucky exhales a steadying breath and picks up. “Stevie?” He twists his lips, his nose scrunched in a berating grimace. Steve. He should’ve gone with ‘Steve’.
There’s a loaded beat at the other end of the line. Then, Steve’s familiar voice fills the silence, apologizing and soothing. “Buck, did you just pick up? A second ago?”
“Yes,” Bucky says warily.
“Oh God, I hung up on you, didn’t I,” Steve moans. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to call, I accidentally hit dial, I’m so sorry –”
He sounds it, too. “It’s fine,” Bucky says calmly, his fingers picking at his lower lip. Absurdly, he feels like a teenager, sneaking behind his house to talk with a secret lover.
He hears Steve let out a breath. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Hey,” Bucky starts; if they are doing this, he might as well ask. “The shop you work at, is it called Antiquités?” He presses his lips together, hoping he didn’t butcher the French name.
There’s a beat again. Probably Steve wonders how Bucky knows, if Bucky is indeed correct. “Yeah,” Steve says levelly. “Yeah, it is.”
Bucky nods. “Okay. Thought I recognized that dressing table.”
Steve chuckles warmly, and Bucky’s positive his insides turn into goo. A second of silence is followed by another. Bucky shifts.
“Uh,” he tries, at the same time that Steve says, “I was texting you.”
“Yeah?” Bucky says a little too quickly, glad to have something easy to talk on. “Get back to it, I’ll wait.”
Again with that beat. Steve was probably waiting for a different response, Bucky realizes, something like, Oh well, now you can actually tell me instead of writing. Bucky physically facepalms.
“Okay!” Steve recovers cheerfully. “Okay, I’m gonna go text you.”
“Okay,” Bucky says feebly.
“So, uh. Bye for now.”
“Byeee,” Bucky says, nervously drawing out the word and somewhat hating himself for it. He hangs up and stares at the phone screen, brushing the side of it with his thumb in a caress.
He bites his lower lip. Sure, it was awkward, but truth be told, he wouldn’t mind doing it again.
“SAM IS COMING TO NEW YORK!” Steve texts, all in caps.
“Not for vacation,” Steve clarifies in a second text. “He got a job at a VA, Natasha is coming with him!”
Bucky straightens up, amazed. Could this be the same VA he visits? Could Sam be the replacement for Robert?
“Happy for ya!” he texts Steve. “Don’t know how he’ll put up with you on a regular basis, but – happy for ya!”
“Wait,” Steve texts. “I just realized. I think he got a job at the VA you go to. Is that going to be a problem?”
Is it? It certainly complicates things, but not the way Steve means it.
“That wouldn’t be a problem, my guy’s still employed and well,” Bucky texts.
It does, however, mean that there’s a strong chance Bucky will bump into Sam in real life. Or is there? He doesn’t know the Robert guy, so why would he bump into Sam? Then again, even if he has bumped into Robert – Bucky tilts his head, reasoning – he wouldn’t know it was him, whereas with Sam…
Bucky bites his lip. He’ll cross that bridge when he gets there. For the time being, he just picked up the phone for Steve, and if that isn’t a step forward, he doesn’t know what is. Even if it was an accidental call; even if Sam is apparently going to be somewhat a part of Bucky’s life. The universe seems to be pushing Steve and him together, and Bucky can’t say that he’s unhappy about it. The thought of disillusioning Steve of his modern fairytale stills haunts him, but the phone call makes him think – or rather, hope – that maybe someday, somehow, they’ll manage to get on the same page.
“Oh God, good, That’s good,” Steve texts. Then in a second text: “XD.”
Bucky – begrudgingly, as he has grown to love Steve’s choice of emojis in spite of himself – smiles.
Steve means to spend the whole day painting, but his inspiration runs short. He threads his fingers through his hair, grunting his frustration. He knows he wants to paint trees and grass, possibly as seen through or to the side of a photographic camera, but all the images he has in his mind feel lifeless. He glances out the window. The sun’s still up, albeit somewhat hidden behind gray clouds. It’s still early enough to justify a walk for reference pictures, a quick trip to a park – Prospect Park, maybe – to get a few shots that he can use. Steve shrugs to himself; might as well get some fresh air, even if he doesn’t manage anything more productive.
It’s windy, and Steve feels grateful that he grabbed his warmest scarf on his way out. He shoots thickets and the lake, perspective shots of bridges framed by trees and flowers – mostly out of habit, as the lack of proper sunlight doesn’t help Steve that much. He shoots the bark of trees and close-ups of the foliage in case he needs to recreate it. He shoots until cold and dampness start seeping into his pants and coat.
“Darn it, it’s cold outside,” he texts Bucky as he leans on the bridge he’s on and stares out at the lake. He resists the urge to call him – on purpose this time, not by some weird accidental dial. It’s probably too soon. Still, Bucky had picked up – which surprised Steve by a mile – and he seemed pretty receptive, so maybe, just maybe, he’s ready for that next step of phone calls. Maybe Steve can try again soon.
“I’m sure the end justifies the means,” Bucky replies noncommittally.
“Was out taking pictures,” Steve explains. “But you know what, I think I’m done here. One last walk and then I’ll go grab myself a cup of hot, hot coffee. I think I’ve just about earned it.”
Bucky drops his needles on the table, heaving out a fed-up sigh. Fresh coffee – of the sugary variety – sounds like a great idea after hours of trying to knit a beanie in basket weave stitch. It’s easy enough in theory, but it actually requires him to keep notes to make sure he doesn’t mess it up. The cold air would do him some good too, wake him up after the daze of purling and knitting.
He dismisses the millionth JARVIS notification that his devices have been synched. He’s been receiving them in bulk for the past couple hours, which makes sense now that he knows Steve’s been photographing stuff. He makes a mental note to check them later, pushes his chair away from the table and gets up.
“You know what, Steve, that’s an excellent idea,” he texts. “Coffee. You’re so right. Proverbially see you at our respective coffee places.” Bucky snorts at himself. For someone who’s scared of meeting Steve, he sure does like to play with fire.
“Please, I know you’re going to a Starbucks,” Steve replies.
Bucky grabs his jacket and walks out, locking the door behind him as he goes.
Steve stops on the sidewalk and brings out his phone. The sun has started to set, finally breaking free from the clouds and painting the city in those blues and oranges that always mesmerize him. He captures the moment in a picture.
Bucky shoves his hands into his pockets and crosses the mostly empty street, eyes trained on the sidewalk he steps on to ensure he doesn’t miss the curb. He lifts his eyes from the concrete –
His breath is promptly knocked out of his lungs.
Bucky knows it’s Steve. He’d know him anywhere, he’s memorized every feature of his face. He doesn’t move, doesn’t know what he means or wants to do. His flesh hand, stuffed deep inside his pocket, twitches; he can swear the metal one does too. Time slows down. Bucky can barely remember how to breathe.
Steve checks the picture on his phone and with a small nod he acknowledges that it’s one he approves. He pushes the phone into his coat pocket and looks up, instinctively turning his head when he feels someone staring. His eyes lock on –
Steve sucks in a sharp breath, his limbs promptly turning into jelly. He’d know these gray eyes anywhere. Somehow, he’s looking straight at Bucky’s face, Bucky who is somehow so close that Steve can honest-to-God make out the actual color of his eyes. His mouth hangs open, but he doesn’t know what, if anything, to say.
Steve’s bundled up in a thick burgundy scarf. His cheeks are rosy from the cold, Bucky observes, but that same cold doesn’t register to him. Interestingly, Bucky thinks, feebly amused at some distant part of his brain, Steve really did succeed in trimming that beard. He’d said so, sure, but Bucky always reserves doubts with pictures.
Steve doesn’t know if it’s been seconds, minutes, hours, but he’s willing to stare at Bucky’s face for far longer. He’s aware the circumstances are not ideal. Bucky looks dumbfounded, frozen in place. Steve has to say something, has so much to say, but this is too surreal, and he’s too filled with wonder to make his mind function.
Bucky starts getting nervous. Steve’s not reacting in any manner, except for staring at him with a mix of shock and awe. It’s not much more than what Bucky himself is doing, but it’s not helping the situation any. The silence is getting awkward. Bucky ducks his head, his jaw clenching tight, and starts to walk away. He doesn’t know how to do this.
The gesture pains Steve as though it’s a stab right in the gut. He realizes he’s wasting precious seconds.
“No – Bucky, wait!”
He trots the few steps to the other man, grasping his arm before he can think twice.
Bucky flinches at the contact, the first physical one that they’ve ever had.
Steve drops his hand immediately, his eyes widening in horror. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he apologizes in haste, “I didn’t mean – I’m so sorry if that hurt.”
“No, it’s fine,” Bucky rasps. “It’s the metal one.”
Steve nods, his brow wrinkling in a frown. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Bucky hovers awkwardly. He considers thrusting Steve’s phone into the man’s hands and booking it. He’d probably never forgive himself for it if he did.
Steve doesn’t dare take his eyes off Bucky, not for a second, as if by gazing at him, he’ll somehow make him stay. “Jesus Christ, you’re beautiful. You’re real,” he breathes in quiet reverence.
“I’m…” Bucky falters. He doesn’t know what he is right now.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t tell you to swap phones, I know,” Steve cuts in hurriedly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to stop communicating with you –”
“I know,” Bucky affirms.
“I thought that if we swapped phones, you’d just stop. I know, it’s terrible,” Steve says quickly. “You didn’t want to meet and I didn’t want to – to stop –”
“I know,” Bucky repeats quietly.
Steve reaches out hesitantly, fingers itching to touch, to give a solid presence to what he’s only known in pixels. Bucky catalogues the movement, watches the trajectory of Steve’s hand. Steve looks at him as though for permission, and Bucky allows himself a small nod.
Steve runs his hand down Bucky’s arm, feeling the definition of muscles underneath the rough fabric of his coat. He lets go and exhales shakily, overpowered by his mix of feelings.
“I’m sorry too,” Bucky says hoarsely. “I’m…” He lets out a panting breath, his eyes fleeting to the pavement, the street, anywhere but at Steve. Things are just now getting real. He seriously considers running. He doesn’t even know if he can make his legs run.
Pigeon-woman-pigeon, car-bike …
“Buck?” Steve ducks his head, trying to meet Bucky’s eyes. “You don’t have to – we don’t…” He shakes his head, recognizing Bucky’s signs of panic. “It’s overwhelming, let’s – You were going to grab a coffee, right?”
Bucky gives him a nod.
“Okay, let’s grab that coffee together,” Steve says. He tries but mostly fails to control how hopeful he sounds. “Let’s – we can even sit out there, see, there’s a bench right there” – he motions. “We don’t have to go anywhere enclosed, we’re free to leave at any time, no pressure.”
“Weren’t you cold?” Bucky manages wryly. “Thought that’s what you said.”
“Buck,” Steve implores.
Bucky stares at him for a loaded moment. “Okay.”
“Yeah?” Steve says, barely bothering to hide his relief. “I’ll go grab the coffee, you just wait here, okay?”
Bucky bites the inside of his lip. “Okay.”
Steve stands in line at the coffee shop, jittery as his heart threatens to jump out of his chest. He risks returning to an empty bench, a turned-off phone, to a lost good friend. He risks losing it all by leaving Bucky, but it’s the only chance he has at gaining anything at all. If he wishes to have a chance at Bucky staying, he first needs to give him space to leave. Steve swallows tightly. He shifts from one foot to the other, glancing at the barista as he mentally begs her to hurry up.
Bucky walks slowly to the bench and sits on it gingerly, hands shoved inside his coat pockets. He licks his dry lips, scoping his surroundings as he tries to clear his mind. He can’t help the anxiety that overwhelms his body at any given time, much less in times of unexpected occurrences such as this. What he can help with is giving time for his brain to catch up, to register the actual lack of danger. He wills himself to take in deep breaths. He wills himself to remember that he’s in control.
Do I want to leave?
No; the answer to that question is easy. He is dazed by how intensely everything is happening, weighed down by a barrage of what-ifs – but he doesn’t want to leave. A part of him is thrilled, would rather be nowhere else but here. A part of him feels relief: now that he and Steve have met, there isn’t anything left to hide. He pouts, his chin stubbornly jutting out. He refuses to allow fear to make him flee.
So what’s the way to go?
Honesty, he decides. Honesty is the way to go.
Steve’s relief is palpable when he finds Bucky sitting on the bench. He forces himself to walk – not run – toward him. He tells himself to stay calm, to avoid conveying his agitation.
“Hey,” he says, handing Bucky his coffee. “It’s sugary.” He takes a seat. The space between himself and Bucky is wide enough for a third person to wedge between. “I remember.”
Bucky smiles faintly into his cup.
“I got some cookies,” Steve says, setting the small bag between them on the bench. “A mix. It felt appropriate. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t bring a treat to our first meet-up?” He babbles; he has to stop. He pinches his lips shut and shifts. He gives Bucky space to fill the silence, but Bucky opts for sitting slouched and still, staring at the pavement or at his hands. Steve follows his cue. He settles in and sips his coffee. He idly watches the world go by, and allows Bucky to get familiar with his presence.
“So, Steve,” Bucky starts about twenty minutes later.
Steve glances at him, but Bucky isn’t looking.
“What’s up?” Bucky says.
Steve blinks, then lets out a breathless chuckle. “The usual,” he musters, resting his ankle on his knee. “Coffee, people-watching.”
“Helps with your art, huh,” Bucky observes.
“It’s useful, yeah,” Steve replies. He watches Bucky lightly tap his palm over his own thigh, watches him curl and uncurl his fingers around his knee. “Thanks for staying.”
“The thing is,” Bucky says in a rough voice. “The thing is, you don’t know the half of it.”
“The half of what?” Steve asks.
Bucky licks his lips. “Me. I guess.” He looks up at Steve and gives him a faint crooked smile.
Steve’s heart engages in somersaults. “I know what you’ve allowed me to know. I’d like to get to know you more,” he says carefully, words he thinks sound sane and sensible. “Sometimes, you think you click with someone. You know? It’s why I wanted to meet you.”
Bucky nods, back to not looking at him again.
“I just think we’d get along,” Steve says feebly.
“Yeah,” Bucky answers vaguely. “As I said, you don’t know the half of it.” He turns to Steve and immediately regrets it. It’s hard to be honest when looking into Steve’s kind eyes; it’s hard to be anything at all but completely lost in them. “The thing is,” he says flatly, trying to keep emotions out of it, “full disclosure. I like you.”
Steve nods. “That’s a good starting point.”
Bucky clicks his tongue; he’s not explaining clearly. “Not platonically. I have a thing for you, so to speak.” He lowers his eyes to his cup and scrubs his hand over his face. “Jesus, I suck at this.”
“No, yeah, that’s good,” Steve insists emphatically. It’s getting increasingly difficult to remain calm when all his hopes are being realized in real time. “It’s – it’s – it’s mutual,” he stammers.
Bucky looks at him, lips tugging in a sad smile. “Yeah?” he says, his voice cracking. “I haven’t scared you away yet?”
“You’d never scare me away,” Steve says levelly. It takes all of his willpower to maintain his distance.
“I almost walked away,” Bucky points out.
“You didn’t though,” Steve replies. “Even if you had, I still wouldn’t have been scared away. I’d just be sad to see you go when I just found you, that’s all.”
It’s just a fact, but it catches Bucky’s attention more than Steve would have guessed. He stares at Steve without speaking, his eyes burning with intensity. Steve feels as though Bucky’s reaching deep into his soul, trying to read it. He hopes to God he won’t fall short.
He clears his throat and looks away, abashed under Bucky’s scrutiny. “Listen,” he starts. “I think…I think that our finding each other like this is an unconventional meet-up following up the unconventional start of our… communication,” he says, because relationship sounds too intimate a word to utter. “Life sort of brought us together when we didn’t manage to do it on our own.”
Bucky smiles at that. It’s a soft smile, hesitant, but without any of the hints of sadness that Steve has seen before. Steve feels encouraged to continue.
“Again it was you that opened up first, because you’re much braver than I am,” Steve says self-deprecatingly. “So here I come, second place, but… Buck, I’m enchanted. I’m besotted.”
Bucky snorts out a startled laugh at Steve’s word choice.
“How could I not be?” Steve goes on, undeterred. “Have you met you? Also, how could you not know already? So,” he continues evenly, “that’s a happy coincidence. Mutual feelings and all.”
“Another happy coincidence,” Bucky remarks, shifting to look at Steve better. He’s getting used to the blond man’s presence. His rapid heartbeat isn’t out of fear anymore.
“So I say,” Steve says carefully, “considering all that… Why don’t we give it a chance?” He shrugs, his calm exterior not betraying the turmoil that’s going on within. “Hang out. Date, if you want. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe we’ll cook together and share earbuds as we listen to music –”
“I’m not doing that,” Bucky warns darkly.
“And celebrate holidays together” Steve goes on. “And maybe it won’t. And we’ll go our separate ways,” he adds in a subdued voice. “At least we’ll know we didn’t waste the chance to find out.”
Bucky takes a moment to gaze into Steve’s eyes and draw reassurance. “I want it to work,” he says. “I can’t promise you anything, but –”
“I don’t want you to promise me anything, Buck, I just don’t want to lose you,” Steve says earnestly.
Bucky stares at Steve openly, taking him in. Now that the anxiousness has subsided, he can appreciate the moment and the man for what they are: one hell of a coincidence and, respectively, the brightest part of Bucky’s days.
A troubled city-style lumberjack. Sunshine personified in a man. An accidental phone swap. A serendipitous meet-up. Bucky lets out a small scoff. This isn’t the romcom that one looks for, not usually. It is, however, the one that found Steve and Bucky. He’ll be damned if yet again he gets in his own way.
In a quick breath of bravery, Bucky leans over the empty space and softly captures Steve’s lips with his. Steve inhales sharply, unprepared, Bucky’s gesture sending shivers down his spine. His eyes close and his lips part in unconscious invitation, his back arching with pleasure the more they connect. He threads his free hand through Bucky’s hair and gently pulls him closer. Bucky’s cheeks flush at the intimacy of the moment, heat coursing through his every vein. His body lights up, previously dormant parts of him reawakening and tingling with excitement. He has to stop before it gets too much.
Bucky pulls back slightly, but doesn’t pull away. He opens his eyes slowly, staring at Steve up close. An easy smile curls his lips as he takes in Steve’s slack-jawed, starry-eyed expression.
Bucky’s so close that Steve can smell the scent of his warm skin, the faint whiff of shampoo in his hair. He looks into the depth of Bucky’s eyes and doesn’t dare move. He would hate himself if he disturbed this moment.
Bucky raises his metal hand and traces Steve’s jaw with tender fingers. He can’t feel the specifics, not the scratch of Steve’s stubble or the texture of the skin underneath, but knowing he can caress without hurting makes his heart sing with fervent joy.
Steve has just about begun to gape, he’s aware, but he doesn’t feel inclined to move.
Bucky smiles. “That’s a yes.”
“A yes?” Steve echoes dumbly, pretty sure his brain has clocked out for the day.
“On us,” Bucky replies.
There’s really not much else to say, not now. Steve rests his fingers over Bucky’s silver ones and squeezes gently.
Bucky’s phone buzzes with a new message. A picture of a coffee cup with Bucky’s name on it stares out at him, followed by a text from Steve: “Ordered.”
Bucky grabs his keys and heads for the door, tripping on Steve’s shoes on his way out. Cat the cat, Steve’s on paper but in reality a gift for Bucky, regards him nonchalantly from the mantelpiece, her tail swishing over the framed goofy picture from Steve and Bucky’s one-year anniversary.
“Bye!” Bucky waves at her with a smile.
Cat blatantly ignores him. She idly licks her paw as Bucky shuts the door on his way out.