Actions

Work Header

I Believe In Something More

Chapter Text

April 6th, 2014 - Washington, DC

It’s been three days. They woke and prepped him and gave him a mission outline - defend Project Insight and eliminate any threats in the process, then remain on standby. In the ensuing hours an alert came through. His second mission was to remain in the base, do not leave, and await further instructions. Since then, no one has returned. It has been him, alone, in the refitted vault. There’s nothing to do.

He ensures he is running at optimal condition. This, Pierce had said, would be the moment he gives the world the freedom it deserves. He needs to be at his best. He eats the rations, tests the arm, performs maintenance on the guns in the locker. It was left ajar. They must have taken a lot of weapons in their haste - he has access to a SIG-Sauer and a Glock, that’s it.

When both weapons are prepared, he lays them out on the metal table beside the two combat knives he found and waits.

And waits.

After one full day he triggers the emergency beacon. Surely someone will come.

They don’t.

It takes two more days before any humans appear, and when they do, they aren’t the ones he expects. There’s a woman at the front of the group. She looks agitated until she spots him. Then, recognition overtakes her features. Sympathy, too, perhaps. Armed soldiers trail in her wake, three of them.

He picks up the knife.

“At ease, Soldier,” she says, hands in the air, the universal sign for surrender, for I’m not going to hurt you, for please don’t hurt me.

She recognises him, and he recognises her. He can’t put his finger on where or how or why that pout sparks something in his brain, but it does. He’s learned from experience not to force the memories, either: capturing the images from his past is equal parts painful and difficult, not to mention the punishments that come when he manages to pull something out of the empty depth of his brain.

He keeps the knife in his hand, turning it this way and that. It’s not a threat - not quite, not yet.

“We’re not here to harm you,” she carries on, keeping her distance. The three agents behind her shuffle from foot to foot, intimidated. She doesn’t seem overly concerned. “We’re here to give you your freedom.”

That’s - unexpected. He hesitates, metal whirring as he holds the handle of the knife a little tighter. “What?”

“It’s a long story,” she waves a hand, airily. “Pierce is out of the picture. Hydra is - we’re in the process of taking it apart. Seeing that they pay for their crimes.” He doesn’t imagine the tension in her jaw, even as she aims for levity. “Which leaves you - free to go.”

The concept of it is overwhelming. “Free?” He echoes aloud, and the single syllable doesn’t sit right. What would he want to be free for - that wasn’t what he was built to do. “Why?”

“Can I come closer?” The woman asks as she gestures to the people behind her. They dutifully leave, but she waits for his nod to step in.

He’s already spotted where she’s armed, but nothing’s in her hands. She isn’t a huge threat, though his stomach tenses. She’s not to be underestimated, either.

“I’ve been where you are,” her voice is much smaller, now. “They had me for - years. I got out. I was lucky.” She drops her eyes. The guilt is palpable. “I’d like to think I can help others get out, too.”

Similar to the way he recognises her, he feels in his body that she can be trusted. “What would I do?” His training has left him capable of little more than being a weapon: they aim him, and then fire.

She considers him with a small smile. “Whatever you want. I could help you.”

He glances around the room. His eyes drift over the tube and the chair, the sight of both making his stomach turn. He feels the metal of the table under his flesh hand, cold and unyielding. The restraints hang down the sides of it, unused at present. As much as he hates all of it, it’s all he knows. It’s all he has.

He exhales sharply. “Okay,” he says it quickly, so he can’t overthink the words and take them back.

Her smile grows. “Guess we should get out of here, then,” she says, nodding to the door and turning. She presents her back to him, completely, and he could kill her before she took another step. His arm recalibrates in anticipation.

He doesn’t put the knife down, but he also doesn’t pick up the gun and shoot. He keeps a safe distance between the two of them as she leads him out of the vault, and then upstairs into the building.

As an afterthought, she stops and turns around. “I forgot to introduce myself,” she says. “Natasha Romanoff.” She extends her hand for a shake.

He looks at it, concerned. Keeping the knife in his left hand, he shakes hers with his flesh hand. He can’t remember a time anyone willingly touched him. “Okay,” he says, and then hesitates as he tries to return the introduction. “I don’t know who I am.”

“That’s alright,” Natasha says, turning her back on him again, seemingly unconcerned by the multiple ways he could kill her before she could even react. “We can figure that out later.”

She leads him outside, into the sunlight, and he thinks he might feel hope for the first time.

April 6th, 2014 - New York City, NY

“Steve,” Sarah’s voice is gentle, “we need to talk.”

He knows exactly what the talk will entail, which is the exact reason he’s been avoiding it. Steve isn’t an idiot - he’s been spending his days off ferrying his mother to and from appointments at the hospital. There’s a reason she hasn’t spoken to him about it, and Steve’s been thankful for it.

If he doesn’t know, it doesn’t exist.

Besides, his mother’s spent so many years caring for him through his illnesses, taking her to the hospital was the least he could do. Steve’d had hundreds, if not thousands, of appointments there during his life. She’d been to each one. And look at him, he was fine. He was alive.

Sarah, from the couch, sighs. “Steven, sit down.”

It’s nothing. She feels unwell. That’s all - nausea, vomiting. She’s lost some weight, but it’s hard to want to eat when you know it’s more than likely going to come back up again later. Steve knows that from experience.

Despite the agitated energy that demands he keep flitting through the house, Steve reluctantly sits down. He couldn’t ignore his mother. “Talk about what?” he demands, and his voice is already cracking because he fucking knows.

Sarah leans in closer and places both her hands over his, coaxing them out of the fists they’d curled themselves into without his permission.

“Steve.” He hates the way she’s talking, trying to soften the blow. He would rather she get it over and done with, not keep talking to him soothingly. There wouldn’t be any amount of soothing in the world for this. “I got my results from the doctors today.”

Steve turns his hands over under hers so he can grasp them both. They’re thinner than he remembers them being. “And?”

Sarah squeezes his hands back. “I don’t want you to worry. I - we’ve got a few months, still.”

It’s like the floor of their home has disappeared from beneath him, and he’s falling. Steve can’t feel anything - not the threadbare blanket draped over the couch to hide the stains from when he was a kid, nor his mom’s soft, warm hands in his. He thinks she might still be talking to him, but he can’t hear above the ringing in his ears.

A few months.

A few months.

Everything is dark around him, and Steve belatedly realises that’s because he’s sobbing into his mother’s chest. The frame of his glasses dig into his face, and Steve distantly acknowledges that he should take them off, but he can’t move. Her arms are squeezing him as tight as they can, and she’s mumbling the same soothing words she used to when he was sick in bed. You’ll be okay, sweetie.

But it wouldn’t be okay.

Steve chokes around a sob that lodges in his throat, coughing wetly into his mother’s chest.

“Stevie.” Sarah’s rubbing soothing circles on his back. He feels like he’s five again.

“How long have you known?” He breathes raggedly against her chest, and she squeezes him.

“A week,” she mumbles into his hair, and Steve can hear the lie there. She’s been unwell for so long. “I wanted to make sure I had things in order before I told you.”

It feels like a betrayal, knowing he’s been living the past week - concerned, but not at the same time - Schrödinger’s terrible son. “Getting what in order?” he demands, though he sounds like little more than a petulant child.

“Just some things, sweetie. Because I knew you’d worry.”

“Of course I’m worrying,” Steve snaps, trying not to clench his mother’s shirt in his fists. “You’re d-” He can’t say it. He sobs again. “Mom.”

“I know,” Sarah says, and Steve thinks he can feel tears in his hair but he doesn’t want to lift his head to check. If he lets go, he’s not sure what will happen. “I’m scared too, baby.”

They stay like that, wrapped in each other, for long enough that Steve thinks maybe, maybe, they’re too entwined for her to ever leave. Or, better still, that she might take him with her when she goes.

Chapter Text

October, 2018 - Los Angeles, CA

Walking around the UCLA campus will never not be terrifying - not after spending three years at community college in Brooklyn. Kingsborough hadn’t been small by any means, but UCLA had three times the amount of admissions and the campus reflected that.

Every day Steve leaves his dorm, he’s fairly certain he’s going to get lost but he’s been attending classes for three weeks without incident thus far. It’s a Harry Potter inspired fear that the buildings - like enchanted staircases - will spontaneously decide to shift into new places overnight.

He confesses this to Sam over coffee at Kerckhoff, which is roughly equidistant to both of their classes.

Sam raises an eyebrow at him. “It is way too early for this shit,” he states, taking another mouthful of his coffee.

Steve is picking his way through a donut. It doesn’t matter that it’s 8am and this is his breakfast. If he’s learned anything during his transition from part-time Community College student to full-time Actual College student, it’s that no one cares. He regularly walks past people in their pyjamas and one man who likes to bring his blanket to the library.

But that’s beside the point. Steve needs to finish his donut because he needs the sugar to get him through his classes for the day.

“You’re doing alright, though, yeah?” Sam asks, now that he’s had time to drink more coffee and process the conversation. He looks at Steve with clear concern.

Steve doesn’t blame him. He knows he looks on the borderline of becoming one of the people who drags their entire bed with them to class. “It’s different,” Steve says, muffling a yawn in the crook of his elbow and knocking his glasses askew in the process. He doesn’t bother fixing them.

Sam continues to stare at him.

Steve relents. “It’s hard,” he admits with a scowl directed entirely at himself. He hadn’t expected to struggle so much - Community College hadn’t been easy, but it certainly hadn’t been like this. Plus, he no longer had to commute or work the long hours he had beside his study back home. He currently has three shifts a week, four hours apiece, cleaning and stocking shelves at the Trader Joe’s that’s walking distance from campus.

It should be easy.

“Yeah? I get that,” Sam’s coffee has finally kicked in, and now he has full access to his range of concerned friend voices. “It was really hard starting, too. You gotta find the balance. It takes time.”

Steve huffs, picking up crumbs with his finger. Just because his mother had insisted he use her life insurance cheque to pay his way through college, didn’t mean he was going to disrespect her by not damn near licking his plate clean. That donut cost six dollars. A donut.

“It’s not that,” Steve argues, because he doesn’t want the result of this conversation to be that he’s just not good at this yet. “I have to take extra pre-major courses to catch up. It’s more work.”

Sam tilts his head to the side. Steve ignores the look he shoots at his now-spotless plate. “I thought you took all the units you had to back in Brooklyn?”

“They didn’t offer any architecture units,” Steve says, hoping he doesn’t sound as annoyed as he feels. “It’s fine, I’m just struggling with some of the History of Architecture content. It’s nothing.”

Sam sighs and lifts one hand to scratch the back of his neck. Despite the fact that he, too, looked half-asleep when he arrived, Sam now appears ready to go. Steve feels like half his brain is still in his cramped bed.

It’s just - hard in general, reconciling this Sam with the one who’d graduated alongside Steve almost ten years ago.

They’d been closer, back then, best friends. Sam had come out to California to pursue the warmer weather and a change of scenery. Whilst Steve had remained in Brooklyn, working and spending time with his mother when he could, Sam had been - becoming. That was the only way to describe it.

Though Steve had followed his progress on Facebook, it was different seeing his friend in the flesh: Sam was a qualified EMT, spent a few years as a Paramedic, and was now studying a concurrent Masters and running the Students of Colour for Public Health group.

Steve thinks he’d be lucky to make it through a single Bachelor’s without losing his mind.

“Steve,” Sam presses, and Steve realises that he’s lapsed into thought and missed everything his friend has said.

It’s not that he resents Sam his successes, it’s just… he’s jealous.

He shakes those thoughts from his head, because it’s ridiculous - Sam earned this. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Sam kicks him under the table, fondly. The place is starting to grow busier. They’re getting some looks shot their way for hogging a table - Steve’s plate is empty and so is Sam’s mug. “I was saying, you should get a study buddy.”

Steve rolls his eyes at the suggestion. “Nearly everyone has been here for two years already. They’ve got their friends.” Steve’s not a shy person but trying to crack into the fairly established cliques of college is another thing that he didn’t expect to be so hard.

Sam hums thoughtfully, standing up and indicating to Steve that it’s time they left. Probably for the best. As soon as they walk away. there’s a small scuffle over who’s getting their highly coveted seats.

Once they exit the building, they’ve got two different ways to go: Steve, north, for his lecture;  Sam, south, for his lab.

Sam pulls him into a hug, hooking his forehead over Steve’s shoulder. Just because he can be easily enveloped in the other man’s embrace doesn’t mean anything. It’s better for hiding his face for a moment, letting himself outwardly express the stress he feels before reining his expression back in as Sam steps back.

“Leave it with me,” Sam says, tapping his fingers to his head in mock-salute as he leaves.

“Leave what with you?” Steve calls after him.

Sam turns around and winks, and that’s the end of it.

It’s the end of it until Steve is collapsing, unshowered, onto his bed. His classes basically ran until the sun went down, he’s got work in an hour, and - not to be dramatic - but he’s ready to lie down and die.

Steve’s phone buzzes in his pocket, and he groans, attempting to ignore it.

It’s a phone call.

He writhes around on the bed, attempting to maintain his face-down self-smothering position whilst simultaneously removing his phone from his pocket.

Steve swipes up, ignoring the contact name because his glasses are resting on his nightstand and he’s basically blind without them. He’s got all his fingers and toes crossed for this to be a call from his manager telling him to not bother coming in.

With the speaker pressed to his ear, he mumbles, “hello?” into the pillow.

“Steve?” Sam asks, and Steve groans. “Wow, bad time?”

Steve heaves a sigh and rolls far enough over that he can speak unobstructed. “Sorry. I was hoping you were my boss telling me I never had to come into work again.”

“That’s a thing. It’s called getting fired. I’m sure you’d be good at it.”

Steve sighs again and tries very hard not to smile, because Sam will be able to sense it through the phone. He fails, miserably. “Smartass.”

“Know you are, but what am I?” Sam replies smartly, and Steve can remember discussions like this in elementary school.

The memory draws a laugh out of him, no matter how tired it sounds. “Is there a reason you called?” Steve asks, not to be rude, because he likes talking to Sam - it feels like Sam is the only one who actually cares about him here - but he should be changing into his uniform and heading off.

“I was thinking about your problem.”

“Care to be more specific?” Steve draws himself upright with a groan. It’s four hours a shift. He used to work full days. What happened to him? “I’ve got a lot of problems, Sam.”

Sam laughs, but it sounds sad.

“Studying, managing the workload and stuff,” Sam elaborates, and Steve takes off his shirt whilst awkwardly trying to maintain as much ear-to-phone contact as possible. “You met Bucky, yet?”

Steve blinks, trying to associate the name with anything. He comes up empty. “No? Should I have?”

Sam hums, that funny noise he makes when he’s thinking about how to respond to something. He’s got words for every situation. He’s got too many, in fact. “I just thought you might have seen him around. He’s really cool.”

He pulls his uniform shirt on the rest of the way, and Steve holds the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he buttons it up. “Are you trying to set me up, Wilson?”

Sam snorts, static down the line. “With a study buddy? Yes.”

“There’s no one called Bucky in any of my classes.” Steve might not have any (other) friends, but he paid attention during the awkward week they spent doing ice-breaker activities. He thinks he’d remember a name like Bucky.

“Not this year, but he’s probably taken at least one of them before,” Sam explains, as Steve curses at the lopsided result of him doing his shirt up distracted. “You alright?”

“I’m trying to get dressed.”

“You thought this was gonna be a different kind of call?”

“Fuck off, Wilson,” Steve says, giving up and putting the phone on speaker. He throws it to his bed and gets his buttons lined up properly this time. “Anyway, what’s this Bucky thing?”

“He might be able to help you with your studying. He’s taken a stack of classes.”

“Is he in architecture?” Steve asks, still feeling out of the loop. He clearly should know who Bucky is.

“Nah, but your units are pre-major, right?”

Steve hums in response, making it loud enough for the phone to pick up from its unceremonious dumping ground.

“So you can just take those courses; you don’t need to be in the degree,” Sam explains it like it’s obvious, and Steve gets the whole ‘you can do what you want’ thing, but he still doesn’t quite get it.

“So there’s a magic dude on campus who’s just taken a heap of random classes, is what you’re saying? And he’ll just up and study with me?” Steve’s words come out sarcastically as he toes on his work shoes and picks up his glasses.

Sam’s quiet for a moment, then just says, “yeah, basically.”

Steve meets his silence and raises it with a longer, disbelieving one. “Fuck off.”

“I’m serious!” Sam insists. “I am! I don’t know if he’s taken your classes, but it’s worth a shot. He and I took Contemporary Health Issues together. He saved my life.”

Risking a glance at his watch - he has to leave five minutes ago - Steve picks up his phone, takes it off speaker, and makes a run for the door. “Alright, alright. I gotta run, so just - I dunno. Tell me about this when I’ve got time.”

Sam sighs, and makes a point of doing so loud enough for Steve to hear. “You’re welcome, Steven.”

“I’m not - thank you, Sam, I’m just - kinda busy,” he explains, feeling immediately bad for being rude to Sam. He is, as always, just trying to help.

“I get it. I’ll introduce you two sometime,” Sam says, then adds, “if you’re running across campus make sure you take your damn inhaler, Rogers,” in parting.

“Yes, Dad!” He hollers back, and the line goes dead.

Steve’s thankful for the lack of classes he has on a Thursday. He’s not thankful for the fact that this means he should really be using his one day off a week for study.

The Arts Library has a good selection of individual study areas, if Steve gets there early enough. If he’s particularly lucky, they’ll have a couple of spots left in the silent floor, which means he won’t have to listen to people chat the day away under the guise of study.

It’s too early - any time before 10am constitutes too early, as far as Steve is concerned, and even that is pushing it - but he needs to get this done. He’s three weeks into his first quarter and if he falls behind now he’s fucked forever. That’s just the way that it is.

Backpack shouldered and an instant coffee in his reusable cup (he is in the School of Arts, after all), Steve makes his way through the Sculpture Garden to the library.

Time is of the essence, which doesn’t explain why he lingers along the walkway through the garden so long. There are dozens of sculptures he wants to stop and admire; tiny, engraved placards beneath each that he wants to read.

A month and a half on campus, and he picks now to suddenly take the scenic route.

There’s not a lot of people around at the moment, given everyone (as Steve should be) is still living under the illusion that this will be their semester to maintain healthy study schedules and stay ahead of all their deadlines. It’s just Steve, a couple of people en route to somewhere or other, and a man sitting on one of the benches just - looking. Admiring.

Steve envies him.

He is also, perhaps, admiring him a little too. The man looks legitimately happy, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. His hair is bundled up in a messy bun on top of his head, the sort that Steve expects from the assortment of girls on campus in their going out pyjamas to sport. On him, though, it looks ridiculously artistic, like he arranged each strand of hair to create a sculpture like those that surround them. Where the sunlight shines through the flyaway hairs, they light up and glow, gold against the brown of the rest of his hair. Steve wonders if he’s just some random passer-by, because no college student has any right to look so at ease.

Steve gets caught staring and averts his eyes quickly, but not before the man can tilt his head and raise an eyebrow his way. Steve doesn’t know what it is - a question? An invitation? A threat? - but he’s definitely overstayed his welcome.

Steve hightails it out of the Sculpture Garden and into the library. He has work to do.

Hours pass.

Steve’s always loved architecture, has sat for hours sketching the parts of the Brooklyn skyline he can see from different parts of the city. Memorising dates and names and key components of different architectural movements, though? That’s more challenging.

You could tell Steve to sketch a Baroque style building and he could, mapping out the complicated extravagance of it, the opulent gold detailing and all the curved lines. Can he tell you the differences between the Italian Baroque and French Baroque movements? Not so much. That’s why he needs to study. Right now.

It’s not Steve’s fault, though, that it’s a lovely, sunny day outside. It’s almost poetic, how some of the leaves are turning their autumnal shades of red and orange and yellow. It would be a crime not to sketch them out, the way the wind catches and tosses them to the ground.

It’s not Steve’s fault that there are girls sitting at the desks behind him, gossiping about what they got up to at the last sorority party they went to. So maybe, if he’d been quicker, he could’ve secured a seat on the elusive silent floor, but he didn’t, so now he’s stuck here. Steve could’ve done without hearing about the size of Nathan’s dick, but it sounds like it was pretty impressive so he can’t begrudge the giggling girls their moment.

It’s definitely not Steve’s fault that he is also frantically thinking through the multitude of ways he could’ve been less creepy and still stared at the attractive stranger in the Sculpture Garden. His mind plays out the conversation that could have been as he doodles a Gothic cathedral, all towering spires and elaborate stained glass. Steve could’ve spotted him at a distance and walked around, sat down beside him on the empty half of the bench, asked if he came here often. The stranger had such a peaceful smile on his face, would it have turned into something teasing when Steve approached? Embarrassed or flustered? He wasn’t the sort to approach someone out of the blue, but he could make exceptions for handsome strangers admiring sculptures in the sunshine.

It hits 3 p.m., and Steve closes the books he’d opened to give off the illusion of studying. His notebooks and pens get resentfully shoved inside the backpack he’d lugged from his dorm, nothing actually achieved.

As if to rub salt in the wound, Sam Wilson, actual mind reader, picks that moment to text him.

Sam (3:13pm): How did study go???

Steve scowls at his phone, typing out a quick, aggressive message.

Steve (3:13pm): fine

Sam (3:15pm): That bad, huh?

Steve’s barely made it out of the library, which is probably for the best as he curses under his breath. That’s the problem with having people who know you - they start to know you too well, and then you have nowhere to hide.

Steve (3:22pm): :(

It doesn’t take him long to get back to his room, avoiding the Sculpture Garden on the way. Steve pulls the privacy sheet he rigged up across his bed, hiding the fact that he’s sulking from his roommate, Ben.

Of course, a good sulk often turns into a good nap, and Steve awakens at nearly six in the evening with an empty stomach and a few messages lighting up his phone. Steve flaps his hand around to find his glasses, then pulls them on. They’ve got fingerprints all over the lenses. How does that always happen to him?

Sam (3:25pm): I spoke to Bucky and he said he’d be happy to help you.
Sam (3:31pm): If you still want it.
Sam (4:58pm): Or not??

Steve scowls at the bright light of his phone screen. Damn it, why is Sam such a good guy? All Steve wants to do is sulk and find everything painfully difficult in peace and he can’t.

The proud part of Steve wants to tell Sam not to worry about it, that he’ll survive on his own. Struggling is something Steve Rogers is intimately familiar with. He was born into a body that struggled to keep itself alive, and even now it refused to work the way it should - full of random aches and pains, lungs that gave up at any sign of physical exertion, and an ear that chronically got blocked up.

The part of Steve that’s doing this for Sarah, trying to make her proud, tells him to stop being such a fucking idiot. He’s not doing okay. He’s crawling into bed every night and wishing he could sleep forever. It’s not right. He loves the things he’s learning about. It’s just one class making everything else feel unmanageable.

His mother would call him an idiot for not taking the help where it was offered. Steve is not going to disappoint his mother. Not now. Not ever - hopefully.

Steve (5:56pm): Fell asleep. Sorry!!
Steve (5:56pm): But yeah I think I could use the help.

Steve sends the text with lingering apprehension, then drags himself upright, still in his clothes from the day. Just as people have no right to judge you in various on-campus coffee shops, there is even less right to judge somebody in the dining hall. Besides, he left the dorm in these clothes today. They’re not bad. Just a little wrinkled - and he may have drooled on his collar, just a bit.

Sam (6:12am): Coffee? 7am? I’ll introduce you to Bucky before class and you guys can exchange numbers or whatever.

Steve, whose alarm isn’t due to go off until 7:30am, regrets every life choice that led him to leaving his phone on vibrate overnight.

Idiot.

Steve (6:16am): wtf it’s too early

Autocorrect saves him from an embarrassingly drunk-looking text and makes what he says decipherable. As much as Steve longs to fall back asleep, there’s no point: he has to get up and leave if he wants to make his extra early coffee date with Sam.

Steve’s roommate is still sound asleep, so he gets dressed and grabs his bag as quietly as he can manage. He envies Ben, he really does - he sleeps through anything. Steve could knock his entire bookshelf over and curse up a storm and he’d remain sound asleep. He knows, though definitely not from experience.

The brisk walk down to the coffee house warms him up. Steve is pleasantly surprised when he arrives early - early enough that people aren’t fighting over tables just yet. He orders for himself and Sam then settles in one of the highly coveted corner tables, waiting for the other man to arrive.

Which Sam does, at 7am on the dot. Steve hates his punctuality, but he hates a lot about everyone at 7am.

“Thanks, Steve,” Sam says in greeting, pulling the coffee in close to his body.

Steve yawns, “welcome,” though it’s mostly indecipherable.

They only grab coffee together once or twice a week, when their schedules align - Steve suspects Sam has an especially early class today, because he’s downing his coffee quicker than usual. There’s not a lot of conversation from either end. Steve has nothing much to say. He doesn’t have words to put to the guilt he feels at asking for, and accepting, help from a stranger.

He stares, instead, into the muffin he bought.

“Bucky’s a really great guy,” Sam offers up, halfway through his coffee, nudging Steve’s foot with his own. “You’re gonna like him, I think.”

Steve raises a sceptical eyebrow. “You said you weren’t setting me up.”

Sam chuckles. “I’m not,” he repeats, but Steve doesn’t believe him. “I’m trying to make you feel better about needing help.”

Well - that, Steve believes. He’s reverting to the safer option in his proud brain, which is that Sam’s definitely setting him up with some nice nerdy guy. It’s not the worst thing Steve can imagine happening. After his ill-fated high school romance with Peggy, Sam’s been trying to convince him to date again. Steve has mountains of evidence to prove that dating is not for him.

“When are we meeting this guy, then?” Steve asks, in lieu of examining his failure of a love life any further. Best to focus on his failure of an academic life instead.

Sam shrugs. “I told him around eight. He said he’d be there all morning.”

“Right.”

They return to their respective silences, Steve picking apart a muffin and considering all the life choices that lead him to this moment. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for this. Community college had been - not easier, per se, but different. He knew a couple of people, had friends, and studied part time. He did well in his classes.

Steve had thought the change of scenery would’ve helped. Everything back in Brooklyn reminded him of his mother. The grocery store clerk who had served them since Steve was a baby always asked how he was doing, though his voice had taken on a sad tone since finding out about Sarah. The way he walked to school mimicked the walk he used to take to get to his mother’s job. He still lived in the home the two of them had shared his entire life, staring up at the ceiling that had greeted him from infancy up until two months ago.

“Steve,” Sam cuts through the familiar stream of thoughts. Getting away from all the places that reminded him of her didn’t stop the memories the way he hoped it would. “Come on.”

Steve nods and stands, leaving behind the broken remains of a blueberry muffin. He doesn’t have the stomach for it. His day is full of classes, but all he wants to do is return to his bed and hide from the world for a few days. Maybe a month or two.

But he doesn’t have that option.

Instead, he follows Sam up to the Sculpture Garden. Sam’s draped one arm over Steve’s shoulders, holding him close. He doesn’t say anything, he just keeps that familiar, comforting weight there. Steve leans into it more than he should.

“I know I’ve said it a million times already,” Sam begins, and Steve knows exactly where this is going because Sam has said it a million times.

Sam.”

But, I’m here if you ever want to talk,” he ignores Steve’s protest and squeezes his shoulder. “Or I can help you find someone to talk to, Steve. Just - I worry about you.”

“I know you do,” Steve answers, smartly, elbowing Sam in the side to duck out of his hold. “You big sap.”

Sam shakes his head in a way that Steve knows well, the way that means Steve is an idiot and also running his own mental health further into the ground, but, hey, they both know that that’s what he does.

Anyway,” Sam announces as they approach the manicured lawns of their designated meeting place with Bucky. “We’re here.”

Steve, now that he’s back here again, remembers his awful staring yesterday. Hopefully this meeting in the Sculpture Garden would go better than yesterday’s - well, not a meeting. Whatever it was. Embarrassment, maybe.

“Is he here?” Steve asks, casting a look around the empty garden. There’s people walking through, but no one who looks like they’re waiting.

Sam points off into the distance, and Steve just sighs. His vision is not that good, even with his glasses on. He thinks Sam’s isn’t, either, he’s just being a smartass. “He’s usually on one of the benches up there,” he elaborates, and Steve wants to ask why they stopped walking for no good reason.

Then Sam sets off again, long-legged bastard, and Steve hurries to catch up.

Eventually they get close enough to spot someone sitting on a bench, reading a book. And Steve, even at a distance and with his shitty vision, feels a weight drop through his stomach.

That figure is unmistakable. His loose, open posture, welcoming people to join him on the bench. His hair is done up the same way as yesterday, like he was in a rush to get it out of his face despite the fact that he’s just sitting on the bench reading... the textbook from Steve’s class.

The closer they get, the easier it is to spy that small, easy smile, still present on his lips. The man looks like he’s never had a care in the world.

“Sam, please tell me that’s not him,” Steve hisses, and Sam turns to him with a frown.

“Why? What’s wrong with him?” He replies, and now the two of them are holding a whispered conversation not 30 feet away. Steve’s sure Bucky’s noticed them.

So he has a choice: admit to Sam that he may have been a bit of a perv yesterday, or pretend this never happened.

There’s no use lying to Sam, Steve knows this, so he goes with the former. “I saw him yesterday.”

“That’s good?”

“I was staring at him,” Steve clarifies, and Sam snorts. If Bucky wasn’t looking before, he would be now. Sam laughs so loudly. Steve hits his arm. “Stop it! I was staring and he caught me. He’s going to think I’m some weirdo.”

“Aren’t you?” Sam counters, then grabs Steve’s sleeve as he attempts to make a run for it. “Don’t be an idiot. Bucky won’t care. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”

Steve huffs. He wants to fight this more, find a way to back out, but… he needs it. And is he trying to escape to save his (already damaged) ego, or to avoid getting the help he needs? Are they both the exact same thing?

“Fine,” Steve grounds out, cheeks warming.

He should just book a flight back to Brooklyn right now. He should run away. But he doesn’t.

Steve follows Sam up to Bucky, willing himself to look like less of an idiot. As they approach, Bucky stands and holds his hand out to Sam, who shakes it with enthusiasm. Bucky’s smile grows from this serene, private thing into a wide, excited one. He looks like a puppy whose owners have just come home from work. They go through the usual catching up thing - “how have you been?” “good, and you?” “yeah, not too bad” - before they both turn to him.

“This is Steve Rogers, the friend I’ve been telling you all about,” Sam says, adding a little flourish with his hands which makes Steve feel like more of an idiot, not less.

“Uh,” Steve begins smartly, even as Bucky steps towards him and offers out his hand, “hi.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Steve Rogers,” Bucky says, and it’s almost oddly formal, but Steve shakes his hand anyway. He’s got a firm grip, even through the thick glove he’s wearing. “I’m Bucky. Sam said you needed some help with your History of Architecture class?”

Steve clears his throat, because it’s the truth but he’s still indignant about it. “Yeah. Just - getting the hang of it.”

“I’m gonna leave you two to it,” Sam intervenes to quickly say his farewells - shakes hands with Bucky again, claps Steve on the shoulder - then he’s disappearing back towards the School of Public Health.

Bucky turns back to the bench where his things are. “Do you have time to sit with me?”

Steve pulls his phone out of his pocket to check the time. It’s not quite eight yet, and they’re a few minutes’ walk from his nine o’clock class. Despite his earlier concerns about things being exceedingly awkward, Bucky has a welcoming smile that puts Steve at ease. Besides, it would be in his best interests to make a better impression with the person he will, presumably, be spending some time working with.

“Sure, I haven’t got class until nine.”

Bucky sits down on the bench first, one leg pulled up beneath his body so he can face Steve fully. He lays out the books he has with him: one, the class textbook, two, a binder, the class code and title written on its opaque cover.

“So,” Bucky begins, opening the folder. The first sleeve is filled with the unit guide. “I took History of Architecture,” he pauses, as if in thought, “two years ago. I think. Some of it might have changed, but a lot of this should still be relevant.” As he speaks, he flips through, and Steve’s mouth falls open.

Every sleeve is full. There are lecture slides, printed and annotated. All the activities completed in class are slotted in behind them. What looks to be actual drafts of assignments, too, as well as their completed counterparts. If Steve steals the file, he’ll basically have a golden ticket through the course.

Not that he’s going to steal anything. He’s just - admiring.

“Holy shit,” Steve says, with a lack of anything better coming to mind.

Bucky laughs. It’s a low chuckle, but it makes Steve’s insides turn. “Thank you. I like to keep track of everything I’ve done so I can go back to it later.” Bucky closes his file and smiles at it, running a hand over the spine as if in thanks. Then he lays it back on top of the textbook.

“So, you’re in architecture, then?” Steve asks, blinking up at the other man. Beautiful, intelligent, and with a laugh that makes Steve’s heart do awful things.

Steve wishes desperately that Sam had been setting him up, because Bucky is a dream.

“No,” Bucky answers, folding his hands neatly in his lap. “I took a lot of history classes when I first started. I really enjoyed learning all the things I missed.” He pauses, and for the first time his smile disappears. It’s only briefly - it comes right back again a moment later.

Steve tries to pin down the forlorn look in Bucky’s eyes, but it’s there and gone so fast he might have just imagined it. “You’re studying history?”

Bucky shakes his head.

Steve wonders if he’s going to put him out of his misery, or they’ll be playing twenty questions all morning long.

Thankfully, Bucky clarifies: “I don’t have a major. I just like to take different classes. Learn new things.”

“Oh,” Steve answers, intelligently. That must be why Bucky looks so content - he’s not doing any intense study like the rest of them, for a job or to please their parents, but… just because he wants to. “Shit, doesn’t that get expensive?”

Bucky shrugs one shoulder. “That doesn’t bother me. This is about you, anyway. What times are you free?”

Steve knows he could be that nonchalant about college fees - his mother’s life insurance will pay his way, though he doesn’t want to squander it - but it still feels unreal to see someone shrug away their debt like its nothing. Especially when Bucky won’t even have a proper degree at the end of things. “Uh - I normally have Thursdays free. Then weekends, too. Although I work Sunday afternoon.”

Bucky hums, thoughtfully, as he pulls a planner out of the bag at his feet. When he opens it, Steve glimpses a world of colour coordination he could never dream of.

He’s convinced Bucky is merely an illusion. No one human could be this perfect.

Bucky bites on the end of his pen as one finger draws across various, rather booked-looking days.

Steve averts his eyes.

“I’m free on Thursday mornings. Or on Saturday afternoons, but I know a lot of people like to go to parties then.” He looks up at Steve, smiles around the pen between his teeth.

“Saturday sounds good,” Steve hopes his voice doesn’t come out breathless, because Christ, Bucky was going to be the death of him. “Where do you usually - study?” It feels like they’re setting up a date, not planning on when they’re going to study together. Steve wishes that’s what they were doing, at least.

“If the weather’s nice, out here. Otherwise we can go to a study hall. Or the library. I don’t mind.” Bucky’s impartial enough that it frustrates Steve, which is ridiculous.

“Here’s good,” Steve says, because he loves rubbing salt in his own wounds and studying somewhere that reminds him of the way he’d stared like an idiot at Bucky before they even met is a good one. “I can give you my number, and we can figure it out?”

Bucky’s answer is to pull his phone out of his bag, unlock it, and offer it to Steve. “That’s good. Put your full name in, just so I can remember.”

Steve doesn’t think to ask why until he opens Bucky’s contacts app and finds it full to the brim of people. There’s a few other Steves in there, each with either a surname or an adjective in brackets like (football) or (dancing). Some people have both full name and a description. He’s tempted to scroll back and check what Sam’s is listed as, but he refrains.

Instead, Steve types his number in from memory and files it away under Steve Rogers (bad at architecture). He rings through to his own phone and then hangs up, handing Bucky’s phone back to him so he can update his own contact list.

“Should I just put you under Bucky, or…?” Steve asks, hoping to wrangle a little more information out of the other man.

It fails - he wasn’t expecting much else - when Bucky nods. “Just Bucky is fine.”

“Right,” Steve, who doesn’t have a million contacts, simply saves him as Bucky. “I should probably - get going.” He gestures lamely at the building in the distance, where he’s about to spend his entire Friday morning feeling like a moron.

He stands up from the bench, and Bucky follows him. He holds his hand out again, and Steve looks at it. “It was really nice meeting you, Steve,” Bucky says with a certain quality to his voice, his smile, that indicates an overwhelming amount of sincerity.

Steve shakes his hand for the second time in under an hour. “You too, Bucky. I’ll text you about tomorrow.”

“I look forward to it.”

Steve shoulders his bag and offers Bucky an awkward wave in farewell, heading off towards his class. He doesn’t turn to look, but he thinks he can feel Bucky staring at him until he’s out of sight.

Chapter Text

Steve manages to survive his day of classes and his night at work and sleep in until 10am. It’s a miracle of a Saturday.

It’s also, potentially, going to get better, because he’s supposed to study with Bucky today. Now, all kinda-awkward meetings aside, Steve actually finds himself excited for the day. Bucky is definitely cute, strangely sweet, and ridiculously organised. Are they the three things Steve is looking for in a romantic partner? They weren’t before, but now he’s not so sure.

When he rolls over and picks up his phone, he’s greeted by a message from Bucky.

Bucky (7:32am): What time would you like to meet up today? The weather looks like it’ll be nice. Also, you’re not bad at architecture. You shouldn’t say things like that about yourself.

Clearly, he’s a much better person than Steve. For one, he’s up at a decent time. Two, he doesn’t send stream-of-consciousness messages in groups of five to ten, thus driving the recipient crazy. Somehow, Bucky is the most functioning person Steve’s met since arriving at UCLA, and he’s been around the assholes in his architecture classes with their perfect grades.

Unlike his replies to Sam, which Steve knows he can interpret if they’re muddled by sleep, he waits to reply to Bucky. He wants to reply quickly, because it already looks like he’s been ignoring him, but - well, he doesn’t quite make sense until after he’s had a coffee.

Luckily for Steve, Ben is the sort of excellent roommate who brought an electric kettle with him. Steve is also the sort of person who has terrible taste, which Sam reminds him of frequently, so instead of leaving his room he merely fishes out the container of instant coffee he keeps under his bed and one of many KeepCups he now owns from forgetful visits to the coffee shop.

Ben also, bless his soul, has a minifridge. Steve’s able to have a real coffee (Sam would argue this point until he was blue in the face) without having to leave his bed. Or - he can manage without leaving his bed, if he wants to contort his body around a shelving unit and risk dropping both himself and boiling water on the floor.

Safety isn’t his strong suit.

Eventually Steve is in bed, coffee in hand, watching shitty YouTube videos as he awakens. He hits the 10,000 Calories Challenge part of the internet when he finally decides to quit, and then remembers that the whole reason for his coffee was so he’d be awake enough to send Bucky a coherent response.

He stares at Bucky’s original message for a few minutes, mentally constructing a reply. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Steve (11:17am): Sorry! I was asleep. I don’t mind what time we meet up, maybe 3?

It’s the most professional-sounding text he’s sent in his life, and that says a lot about Steve Rogers as a person.

Then, because he can’t have Bucky thinking he’s a decently functioning person with good social skills, he adds:

Steve (11:17am): btw I’m sorry for being creepy the other day and staring at you, that was really rude.

It’s been bothering him since he met Bucky yesterday, which is to say it’s been bothering him for a full twenty-four hours, some of which he spent asleep. But as cute as Bucky is, Steve doesn’t want the other man to feel uncomfortable with him. He’s amazed Bucky even agreed to help him after that, and he’d rather they both have a good time working together - if such a thing is possible where study’s involved.

Bucky (11:23am): Three is good. :) And please, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t offended.

Steve isn’t sure whether he can read that as an invitation to look more, or not.

Instead of figuring out that mystery, he returns to his YouTube Hell Spiral for a little longer.

A little longer ends up being until 2pm, when Steve realises he should really start getting his shit together instead of laying in bed and eating a muesli bar for lunch. He goes and showers, then changes into some clothes that are nicer than he’d usually wear for studying. He gets his textbooks ready and his notebook, which is nowhere near as organised as Bucky’s, and makes it to the Sculpture Garden with fifteen minutes to spare.

Bucky is already there.

Not only is Bucky already there, but he’s moved. He’s not sitting on the bench like normal, but has spread out a blanket and is sitting under the shade of some trees that are still clinging feebly to their leaves. Despite the decent weather he’s covered fully, jeans and a long-sleeve shirt and the same gloves he was wearing when they first met. His hair is tied back in a low ponytail, and he’s admiring some birds as they flutter around one of the sculptures.

Steve’s in love.

He nearly chokes on air at that thought, and his coughing draws Bucky’s attention away from the birds. His Disney Princess moment is ruined, and Steve watches as his expression morphs from peaceful to concerned. Bucky’s stands up and approaches him then, a look of great care on his face.

“Are you alright?” Bucky asks, holding his hands up as if awaiting instruction on how to use them.

Steve nods, because he’s made it worse and is now choking violently on his own spit. Damn his stupid body to hell.

“Fine,” he croaks after a few more moments of hacking. “Sorry. Wrong pipe.” He gestures somewhere in the area of his throat, and Bucky stares blankly at him.

If Steve had the time, he’d dissect that look, but he’s only just getting his breath back. He drops rather heavily down onto the picnic blanket Bucky’s laid out. Bucky sits beside him and holds out his drink bottle.

Steve very gratefully takes it, using the cold water to clear his throat. He definitely doesn’t think about how Bucky’s mouth has also been on the lip of the bottle (this counts as kissing, right?).

It takes five minutes for Steve’s breathing to calm enough, then he musters up a weak smile for Bucky’s sake. “Sorry,” he says clearly, now that his throat is finally complying. With hands that are still a touch shaky, Steve pushes his glasses up to wipe the tears from the corners of his eyes.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Bucky asks, and he hasn’t stopped looking worried since Steve arrived.

“Hundred percent.” It may be a bit of a lie. He’s still taken with how Bucky looks. The concerned expression is so good on him - his features are soft and kind. “Anyway, I - uh. I brought my books along.” He points to his bag, still zipped up on the blanket.

Bucky’s books are already laid out on the blanket. With one final concerned look, Bucky seems to let it go. “Good,” He chimes, picking up his folder and opening it up. “So, it’s week four now, which means - as long as the syllabus hasn’t changed since I was in the class - you should be looking at Classical periods. Right?”

Steve pulls out his own textbook and notebook, inside the latter of which is an abused looking printout of the class syllabus. “Uh, yes. Yeah. We started looking at Greek this week.”

Bucky’s tracing a finger down his carefully filed away copy. A strand of hair that’s escaped his ponytail curls just below his ear, as if mimicking the shape of his earlobe. Steve wants to tuck it back into place - he wants to kiss the spot it’s touched. “And next week will be the Roman Classical period?”

Steve closes his jaw and pulls his mind back into the present. “Yes,” Steve says, then clears his throat. “Yeah.”

“How did you do with the first few weeks of class?” Bucky asks with all the kind sincerity of a guidance counsellor. No wonder Sam likes him. They’re cut from the same, too-caring cloth.

“Uh, yeah. It was good. The first week was easy enough.” The first week of any class was always easy: looking at the syllabus, learning how to log onto the digital components, chatting about textbooks, and filling their calendars with due dates. There were a few architectural terms to learn, but nothing overly taxing. The second week, they’d taken down the years of each movement and the key architectural components. Steve was terrible with numbers - he’d scraped by in high school and had taken the least amount of general credits in Maths and Science as possible. “The timeline - remembering all the movements, I - kinda sucked at that. But Prehistoric and Ancient Egypt were good. I liked those.” Steve had enjoyed that – admiring the basic geometric forms they made and hotly debating what exactly architecture was.

“Okay,” Bucky’s been writing down everything Steve is saying, which feels a little intimidating. “Well, we have two choices today. We can go over the key components of Classical Architecture that you covered this week, or we could work on a timeline, prehistory through contemporary. What would you like?”

Steve likes the idea of anything involving Bucky, but he forces himself to think rationally. Does he catch up on the thing he sucked at two weeks ago, or stop himself falling behind now?

“If we could go over some of the key parts of this week’s content, that’d be - really useful.” Steve tries not to sound horribly awkward, but feels like he fails at that.

Bucky doesn’t stop smiling as he flicks through his file and slides out the printed lecture materials Steve really should have. So that he doesn’t feel like an idiot, he opens his notebook to the page where he took notes during the lecture and class. He is trying.

Bucky picks up his pages and taps them on the ground, all professional-like, and it’s adorable. Then he looks up at Steve with a smile and says, “okay. Tell me what you know.”

Steve knows - more than he thinks he does.

Bucky is an incredible listener. He lets Steve go through his notes, and waves off his apologies when he tries to decipher some of his rushed handwriting. He intervenes when clarifications need to be made but manages to do so in a way that isn’t even remotely offensive. Steve amends his notes as he goes with Bucky’s additions, until he reaches the end of his page.

“What about the three orders?”

Steve knows this. He actually remembers it. “Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.” He recites, straight from the lecture slides.

“And the differences between them?” Bucky prompts, leaning in as if to look at Steve’s notes over his shoulder.

And that’s where - he flounders, a little. Steve lifts the pen he’s been using to add to his notes, pressing it to his bottom lip. “I know what they are, I just,” Steve hesitates, then turns to another, blank page in his book.

He carefully starts to sketch. He can remember from the slides what they looked like: draws the short, baseless column of the Doric order. It’s not a great sketch - he could’ve used a ruler - but it takes Steve a moment before he’s turning it to show Bucky. “Doric,” he states, gesturing to the image.

Bucky looks - awed. “That’s amazing,” he says, reaching out to touch where Steve’s pen has imprinted the paper. “You’re so talented. Are you an artist?”

Under the praise - particularly from Bucky - Steve colours. “I - yeah, I like to draw. I’ve always loved drawing buildings. I find things stick so much better when I can draw them.”

Bucky hums in admiration a moment longer, tracing the fluted shaft of the column. Then he pulls his hand back suddenly, as if pulled from deep thought. “Now you need to label the most important parts. If drawing helps you remember, that’s good, but you still need to know the terms.”

Slowly, with Bucky prompting (and occasionally correcting - “Twenty-four flutes, right?” “Only twenty, Steve.”) he gets there. It’s growing dark by the time they finish, but Steve’s notebook is filled with sketches and annotations. He’s memorised the three orders and their key features, has labelled examples of the balance and symmetry the Greeks used in their columns and arches. Bucky’s gone above and beyond, teaching him different parts of Greek cities: the agora and framing stoa, the bouleuterion, stadium, gymnasium, and palaestra.

“The agora was where they would meet,” Bucky explains later, as he folds his blanket up into a neat square. “That’s where the word allegory comes from, did you know that? It started from Greek and morphed through Latin and Middle English. Of course, the meaning’s changed over time, but - it’s still interesting.”

Steve pauses where he’s packing his own things away to stare at Bucky in the sunset. How is it that one person can be so adorable and so intelligent? Most of the smart people Steve’s met are assholes about their intellect.

“How come you know so much?” Steve asks, before he can help himself.

He wonders if it’s a trick of the light, or if Bucky’s actually blushing a little. Steve hopes it’s the latter.

“I took Intro to Historical Linguistics last year and I - really enjoyed it,” Bucky explains, somewhat sheepish, as he packs the blanket into his full backpack.

“I just mean, in general. You know so much about everything.”

Bucky shrugs his right shoulder. That’s a go-to gesture of his, Steve’s noticing. “I never - had much of a chance to learn much, as a kid. So now that I’m here I just… want to make the most of it.”

Steve laughs, a little airy. “You’re pretty amazing.”

Bucky averts his eyes, instead concentrating on zipping his bag up. “I - wouldn’t call it amazing. I just like to learn.”

There’s a lull in conversation. Soon enough they’re both standing there, bags shouldered, glancing between each other and the direction they need to walk home.

“Thank you - so much for your help,” Steve manages, trying to imbue each word with the overwhelming gratitude he feels. Bucky’s made sense of the lecture that had previously been a swirling mess of disjointed facts in Steve’s head. He’s a miracle worker.

“It was my pleasure,” Bucky says, looking rather pleased with himself. “Would you like me to walk you to your dorm?” He offers, in that oddly formal way he sometimes speaks.

Steve laughs and shakes his head, before realising how that must sound - so dismissive. “Sorry, I - you’re welcome to, but I can take care of myself. Promise.”

Bucky snorts. Snorts. “I bet you can,” he answers, looking Steve over - as if his size means anything. It might be that Bucky’s look is because he thinks he’s scrawny, but Steve’s mind interprets the full-body gaze as something much less appropriate for polite company.

Steve huffs to clear that thought away. “We can’t all be built like Olympic weightlifters,” Steve counters, clearly joking - though he is glad when Bucky smiles and doesn’t take the remark personally.

“If you tried lifting weights, I bet you could,” Bucky returns, and then he’s holding a gloved hand out to Steve. “I’ll see you soon, Steve.”

Steve takes his hand without hesitation now and squeezes it firmly as he shakes. “You too, Bucky. Take care.”

They meet up again the next Saturday afternoon. Steve’s week has been - unsurprisingly - much better than the one before it. When he went into classes on Monday morning, it was with a sense of clarity that he hadn’t had before. He could look at what they’d done last week, building upon his knowledge of Greek Classic architecture with the Roman component. He has, in his book, the sketches of the three orders - beside them he draws the Roman adaptations. On a new page he sketches out, quickly as the slides crop up on screen, the Tuscan and Composite orders. People in class regard him with something like interest - not respect, not yet, but it’s a start. He participates in conversation and actually feels qualified to do so. His usual Thursday study day goes better than expected, though he still winds up sketching a little more than reading. It’s a start. It’s progress.

The next Saturday is windy and rainy, though, so the pair of them exchange messages and agree to meet inside one of the quieter study halls. Bucky is, as usual, waiting when Steve arrives. He has on the desk all of his books, as well as a reusable cup and a thermos beside it. When Steve arrives, Bucky stands and steps forward, shakes his hand with a smile. Some of his hair is wet, clinging to the sides of his face - his jacket is dappled with darker patches. He must have gotten caught in the rain.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have made you come all this way in the weather,” Steve says, once he’s seated opposite Bucky. He has his own instant coffee in his cup, but is intrigued by what Bucky’s drinking. He has the lid off, and it doesn’t smell like coffee at all - neither good nor bad coffee, both of which Steve is well-qualified to identify.

Bucky waves him off, as if the apology is silly. Steve supposes it is. Bucky could’ve cancelled. “I like the rain,” is all Bucky says by way of explanation. He opens up his folder, and smiles politely across at Steve. “How was class this week?” He asks, flipping through sleeves to get to all his notes about the current topic.

Steve almost wants to lie and say he struggled. He doesn’t want to sit there and say it went brilliantly and have Bucky up and leave him, after all. But Sarah Rogers did not raise a liar, the same as she didn’t raise a quitter, and that’s why he’s here right now. “It went really well. Having all the Grecian stuff in order, it helped a lot with the Roman content.” Steve says, and he’s glad he opted for honesty because Bucky lights up brighter than before.

“Good! That’s good.” Bucky looks like a proud parent, and Steve flushes. It’s because of him that Bucky’s so excited. “So now we can go back over some of the older content, just to refresh it, if you’d like?”

Steve hums in consideration. “The timeline would be good. If that’s okay,” Steve answers sheepishly, but he quickly realises he has no reason to be.

Bucky is smiling widely at him, and he pulls out a set of blank flashcards. “Of course it’s okay,” he says, laying out the cards and a pen in front of Steve. “There’s a lot to remember - I didn’t realise until I took the class how many architectural movements there were. What you need to do is figure out how you can remember each one.”

From within his folder, Bucky pulls out some more flashcards - these ones with pictures glued on one side, neatly written dot-points on the other. Bucky offers a few of them, sliding them across the table. “This is what I made. I liked the pictures - I can’t draw, though, not like you.” He points out the images, printed from the internet, some close-ups of key features there. Then Bucky flips one over, sliding a finger down the row of key points. Even Bucky’s handwriting is beautiful. “Then I put the most important parts here. You have to condense it as much as possible - a few key words, and your brain will be able to put them into full sentences.”

Steve studies each one, Bucky leaving them in the open space between them without worry. He’s not like the other people in Steve’s class, so secretive about the notes they’re taking. Bucky leans over and clarifies some points, the notes written in shorthand for his understanding only. He looks embarrassed at that, when he really shouldn’t. Bucky can do whatever he wants with his own flashcards.

It may be that Steve spends a little longer than necessary tracing Bucky’s handwriting with his finger. The cursive is incredibly neat, though a few letters had thrown him at first. The letter Q was oddly reminiscent of the number 2, and Bucky had flushed the prettiest colour as he explained to Steve that his school had been quite particular about handwriting lessons.

Whatever it was, Bucky’s neat handwriting had joined Steve’s ever-growing list of Things About Bucky That Are Ridiculously Endearing. It was a very long list already.

“So, you think you’re ready to get started?” Bucky asks, interrupting Steve’s thoughts.

Steve nods his head, pulls the blank cards closer, and starts to draw.

They work together in companionable silence. Maybe work together isn’t the right word for it, though - Bucky isn’t doing much of his own work. He’s sitting opposite Steve, watching him draw and sipping at what has to be some kind of tea. It smells fruity and warm, and Steve declines Bucky’s offer to share only because it feels like it would be rude. Bucky is clearly enjoying himself: hands around the mug that came with his thermos, watching Steve as he draws with a serene look on his face.

There are moments where Bucky starts to read or write in which Steve can selfishly admire him, too, though they are few and far between. Steve is mostly caught up by Bucky pushing his hair back behind his ears, the strands curling up as they dry. Bucky has obscenely long eyelashes. Steve finds himself itching to draw them, sneakily sketching little flicks on the corner of his flashcards that start dark and fade off into nothing. He wishes one would fall onto Bucky’s cheek and Steve could brush it off, fingers feather-light and gentle.

The entire afternoon passes like that: Steve admiring Bucky as subtly as he can manage, sometimes getting work done. Steve doesn’t realise it’s late until Bucky clears his throat, glancing meaningfully at the windows.

“Shit,” Steve says, drawing himself away from the card he’d been hunched over. Most of them are finished, Steve is just - unable to help himself. Once he gets started, he doesn’t stop. “Sorry. I didn’t realise the time.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky smiles, though he starts to tidy his things away. “You don’t have any plans for tonight?” He adds conversationally, neatly sliding his flashcards together and attaching them with a clip. Everything Bucky does is careful. Steve is mesmerised by his fingers, even though he never actually gets to see them. They’re always hidden away in one pair of gloves or the other.

Steve likes to imagine how they would feel on his, warm skin to warm skin.

Steve clears his throat, answering belatedly, “uh, no. Not really. Do you?”

Bucky looks like he’s either considering Steve’s answer, or his own. There’s perhaps the faintest suggestion of a blush on his cheeks, though Steve notices it more in his pink ears.

Jesus.

“No,” Bucky answers, equally as late, and zips his bag up. “Same time next week?”

“Absolutely,” Steve manages a smile, his own things a scattered mess in front of his person. Without prompting he stands and offers Bucky his hand, as is the traditional greeting and farewell.

They shake, and then Bucky lifts his hand to push back his stubborn curls, before turning and leaving.

Steve stares at his retreating back, pleased Bucky doesn’t turn to look at him in return.

Once Bucky is well and truly gone, Steve pulls out his phone and sends a message to Sam.

Steve (6:46pm): jesus christ I’m in love

He lets himself linger, stewing in his own painfully awkward crush, until Sam answers.

Sam (6:51pm): God, Rogers, you can’t just fall in love with EVERY pretty boy on campus.

Steve (6:52pm): watch me asshole

Wednesday nights are normally not so busy at work, but there’s a plague of some kind going around so they’re woefully understaffed. His job, which typically ends at about 11pm, winds up going until 1am. Steve is, needless to say, exhausted. He was up early for coffee with Sam (who is relentlessly teasing him about his crush, now), had a full day of classes, and got asked to start half an hour early.

He’s dead on his feet, it’s a dark, miserable night, and it’s a twenty-minute walk back to his dorm.

Steve begins the slow slog home, feet dragging with the late hour. He’s not afraid of walking home late at night - supposes that’s a privilege of his, being able to walk unharassed across campus - but he still doesn’t like it. There aren’t many people around, mostly late-night study groups making their way home, or people who decided Wednesday was a good time to get drunk stumbling back to their places (College). He’s able to get fairly easily lost in his mind, ignoring how his feet ache, until someone calls out his name.

It’s entirely possible that Steve is crazy, and that no one is addressing him. It’s late. He’s probably hearing voices. He stops and looks around, but he can’t spot anyone - not that his vision is exactly good, and sure, he should get his prescription lenses updated, but he hasn’t. It’s beside the point. He’s about to put his head down and keep walking when he hears his name called once more, much closer this time.

When he turns to look over his shoulder, Bucky is right there.

“Holy shit!” Steve cries, a hand flying up to his heart. He was calling his name out loud and still managed to sneak up on Steve. What the fuck.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Bucky says, grimacing and stepping back to return some distance between them. “I just - saw you walking. Thought you might like some company.”

Steve takes a moment to catch his breath and rein his heart in, hand dropping back down to his side. “Sorry, I was off in my own world,” Steve explains, and then muffles a yawn in his shoulder.

“Big night?” Bucky asks. He looks - shockingly awake. Especially since Steve knows for a fact that Bucky is up early every day, either to go to class or to study.

Steve nods around another yawn. “Yeah,” he says, shaking his body back into movement. Bucky falls into step beside him. “A heap of people have got that flu going around, so we were understaffed. I’d normally have finished,” he tilts his hand, checks his watch through sleepy eyes, “two hours ago. Yet here we are.”

Bucky looks incredibly sympathetic. He’s very expressive. And a good listener. Steve stares at him a beat too long. “Sorry?” He asks, because Bucky had said something - Steve had definitely seen his lips move, his brain just hadn’t processed the sound.

“That must be really tiring,” Bucky repeats - or says something entirely different, what does Steve know? “Where do you work?”

“Trader Joes,” Steve explains, gesturing vaguely back the way he came. “I just do a couple of hours of nightfill. Stock shelves. Clean the floor. You know.”

Bucky makes a noise that suggests he actually didn’t know, but nods nonetheless. “Do you have class in the morning?”

Steve shakes his head - thank God for that. He’d die if he had to get up for class. He’s lucky that most of his shifts, bar the Sunday night, back onto mornings where he can sleep in a little later. Not that he doesn’t wind up awake at midnight on regular nights anyway. It’s just that it’s a choice on those occasions.

“Why are you awake?” Steve asks, blinking over at Bucky. The other man barely looks tired, and he’s smiling the same as he always does, like everything is at peace in his world. Lucky bastard.

Bucky has the decency to look a little embarrassed, shrugging his right shoulder. It’s such a cute gesture. He’s a big guy - Steve’s looked, okay? - but he manages to make himself smaller with movements like that. “I couldn’t sleep. It’s a nice night for a walk.” Bucky points up at the sky. The campus is always dimly lit, but some of the brighter stars at still visible.

“Bad dreams?” Steve asks, conversationally, because he knows what that’s like. A lot of fever dreams as a kid meant he’s slept through some truly fucked up scenarios. And then the ones that came after his mom… The point is, Steve can relate.

But, for the first time since meeting him, Bucky closes off a little. His usually welcoming face tightens up a little - he’s still smiling, but it looks forced. Steve can tell without Bucky saying that he’s overstepped some boundary, so before Bucky - who’s searching for the right words with a stiff jaw - can respond, he adds, “you don’t have to tell me. Sorry.”

And the tension drifts away again, a slow tide receding. Then Bucky sighs, and – like the air from his lungs – the tension in his body dissipates too.

 “Thank you,” Bucky says in a small voice, looking back up at the sky. Between them the silence stretches out - normally that’s nothing of note, because they’re studying together, but now it feels awkward. Steve’s looking for a way to break it, when Bucky beats him to it. “I’ve been taking some classes in Astronomy. Don’t you think it’s amazing? That the sky is just - there.” He sighs again, only it’s fond now.

Steve is staring not at the sky, but at Bucky’s profile, looking up to the heavens. He wants to run his hand along the slope of his nose; cup a hand to his jaw. He thinks he’d like Bucky to look at him with reverence the way he does the stars.

Instead of voicing that, Steve swallows. “You like to look at the stars?”

A smile curls up the side of Bucky’s lip that Steve can see. “I love them,” he says, then places his right arm across Steve’s shoulders, halting his progress and angling his body. “See that star, right there?” Bucky says, points with his left hand. “That’s Sirius. It’s the brightest star in the sky. It’s eight light years away, so it’d take you - roughly,” he hums in thought, and Steve looks at Bucky’s eyes again instead of the star. It’s a perfectly good star. He’s got nothing against it. There are just better things to look at. “Roughly thirty-thousand years to get there. To that star.”

Steve considers the magnitude of that. Thirty-thousand years. “Fuck,” Steve eloquently says, and Bucky laughs - the entire gesture shakes through his body into Steve’s, then he’s laughing too. Perhaps Steve’s is borne of sleep-deprived hysteria more than amusement at his own answer, but who can say? “That’s - a while.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Bucky says, still with his arm slung over Steve’s shoulders.

Steve, rather than break him out of it, leans into Bucky’s side as he starts to walk again. “Tell me more about the stars?” Steve asks, a second away from just laying his body on Bucky’s and getting carried home. Would Bucky even notice? He was built. He could carry Steve with one arm, probably.

“Sure,” Bucky sounds too enthusiastic for the late hour. “Do you know how stars are born?”

Steve shakes his head in lieu of answering. It’s another ten minutes to his apartment. He can feel his bed calling to him, but he wants to spend forever nestled against Bucky’s side.

“Well, you have atoms of light elements, right?” Bucky begins, and Steve nods, because he has no idea about half of the stuff in his own major, let alone that of Astronomy. But he nods, because he’s listening, and that’s important.

Unfortunately for Steve, his plan to lean on Bucky the whole way home backfires because Bucky pulls his hand back to demonstrate the process of the birth of a star with animated hand gestures.

Even more unfortunate for Steve is how Bucky’s face lights up under the light of the moon and stars he’s so raptly discussing. As if he needed more reasons to be in love with him.

They get partway through how a star dies before Steve reluctantly pulls them to a halt, gesturing towards the building in front of them. “This is me,” Steve says, somewhat pathetically.

“Oh,” Bucky says, hands midway through demonstrating some star something. Steve definitely lost track.

“Thanks for walking me,” Steve smiles, and wonders if he should offer to shake Bucky’s hand goodbye. He’d rather go in for a hug, but he’s sure he’d fall asleep pillowed on that dreamy chest. Best not to risk it.

Bucky just blinks at Steve a few times, smile leftover from his passionate lecture about the world above them. “Sleep well, Steve.” He says, slowly.

“Thanks,” Steve repeats. “You too. Get some rest.” He reaches out to give Bucky what he thinks is a friendly squeeze of the arm.

Bucky flinches away. He takes a full step back to avoid the contact. Which is weird, since not fifteen minutes ago Bucky had wrapped an arm around Steve’s shoulders to show him the stars. Steve watches as fear crosses Bucky’s expression, eyes wide and concerned, and he thinks he’s somehow fucked this up majorly.

“Sorry,” they both say at the same time, Steve’s hand pulled back to his body, Bucky’s body angled away like he’s ready to cut his losses and run.

“Sorry,” Bucky repeats, uninterrupted this time. “Sorry. I… should get some sleep.” The excuse sounds rehearsed to Steve, but he’s not going to call Bucky out on it. Not when he’s exhausted, too.

“Don’t be sorry. It’s fine,” Steve musters up another weak smile, waving instead. “Night.”

“Night,” Bucky says, staring at everything but Steve.

After one extra-awkward moment, Steve breaks first and heads inside. He’s tired enough to collapse into bed but forces himself to shower, hoping the warm water will help distract him from the way Bucky had looked at him. The pain of it had been palpable, and Steve wanted to punch himself for ever doing something that made someone as kind and gentle as Bucky feel awkward.

The shower does not work. Steve spends the whole time thinking about what had happened, trying to make sense of it. His mind is, if possible, more awake now - churning through thoughts and potential repercussions. Would Bucky hate him now? Refuse to help him study?

Steve dries off and gets dressed, slipping back into his room, all on autopilot. He’s known Bucky for a few weeks, and already the thought of losing him - arguably the only friend he’d truly made at UCLA - hurts more than he expected.

Quietly, Steve slides into bed, picking his phone up to check the time. And there, on the screen, is one unread message.

Bucky (2:54am): Sorry I didn’t get to finish explaining the lifecycle of a star to you. Maybe some other time? I hope you have a good night, Steve.

With that, the mystery of Bucky only grows larger. But that’s a problem for future Steve. Present Steve is going to go to sleep, relieved to know he hasn’t fucked up one of the only good things he has going for him.

Chapter Text

Once it becomes clear that Steve’s faux pas (not that he quite knew what he’d done) with Bucky is resolved (or as resolved as it’s going to get), Steve is able to relax once more. Their Saturday afternoon study dates have become Steve’s favourite parts of the week, next to coffee with Sam, so he’s glad not to have lost them. Not only does Steve get to sit with someone who ticks all of his boxes (attractive, intelligent, funny, etc.), but he’s actually getting somewhere with class. Like, he shows up to lectures and tutorials not feeling like a drowning man. He goes and has thoughtful contributions to make and people start to like him.

People start to like him, which means Steve makes friends. They aren’t friends like Sam or Bucky (maybe that one is wishful thinking), but they’re people who smile at Steve in class and ask for his input. They chat to him on the way out of their tutorials, too, and that’s when he gets invited to a Halloween party. Him, Steve Rogers, invited to something. Someone wants him to be there.

So Steve agrees, ticks attending on the Facebook event, and goes on with his day feeling surprisingly pleased. It shouldn’t be a shock: Steve’s never been unpopular, but he’s mostly flown under the radar throughout his entire social life. That, or he’s made too much of an impression of himself – and not in a good way, but a ruining Nathan’s birthday because you punched his best friend in the face kind of impression. Invitations tend to dry up fairly quickly after word of that gets around.

(Steve doesn’t regret a single thing. Nathan’s friend Lachlan was, and likely still is, a racist piece of shit who got exactly what he deserved.)

It’s nice to feel wanted, even if it is that he’s a mere person in a guest list of over a hundred people. Sam is there, too, somehow (Steve’s not being rude, Sam is just a post-grad in a completely different school, that’s all), amongst a dozen names he recognises and about 90 more that he doesn’t.

“You’re actually going?” Sam asks over their weekly, early morning coffee.

Steve musters up a scandalised look. “What’s that supposed to mean? I was invited, Wilson.”

“Well, yeah,” Sam answers, with a tone of voice that screams obviously, “but I thought you and Bucky had a standing study date on Saturdays.”

Steve would prickle at the heavy emphasis on date if the concept of it upset him. Unfortunately for all of them, Steve is not going on dates with Bucky. He wishes. Sam has heard the tale of Bucky walking him home, explaining the wonders of the universe, at least twelve times. And it only happened two weeks ago.

Instead, Steve just sighs. “I didn’t check the date,” he says, sullenly, because Bucky’s study dates rate higher than any party Steve could imagine. He’s just going to be another statistic of Facebook events, fading from a yes to a maybe and just not showing up.

Sam pulls his phone out of his pocket and flicks through to the event page. “It doesn’t start until six,” Sam says, and Steve clears his throat, “which, obviously, you two have totally platonic study dates past then. Got it.”

“It is platonic, Sam,” Steve gripes, but Sam merely ignores him.

“Well, why don’t you start earlier?” Steve makes a noncommittal noise. “Reschedule? Or - hey, why don’t you just invite Bucky?”

Steve pulls his glasses from his face and fusses with them. He could invite Bucky. Would that be presumptuous? Maybe Bucky has his own, super-secret Saturday night plans? “He doesn’t seem like the party type,” Steve explains, folding the arms of his glasses in and out.

“Sure he is,” Sam says, and Steve looks up, expecting a joke. Sam doesn’t offer any further clarification. He sips his coffee and waits for Steve to respond.

“You’re serious?” Steve asks anyway, pushing his glasses back onto his face and bringing the other man’s very serious expression into clarity.

He’s serious.

“I’ve been at parties with him before. If you invite him, I’m sure he’ll go.” Sam explains, nonchalant, finishing off the cookie he bought as a treat that morning.

“Do you think he likes me?” Steve asks - a question Sam has heard at least a hundred times before. “Like, he’d go because he likes me? Or he’d go because he’s a nice guy and he’s been invited somewhere?”

Sam hums, long and drawn out. Steve wants to punch him. Sam knows what he’s doing - there’s a telling smirk on his face. Eventually he shrugs. “Dunno. Could go either way, really.”

“God, you’re an asshole,” Steve bites back, scowling now at his decimated muffin. All he wants from his so-called best friend is for Sam to play into his little fantasy of Bucky liking him back, that’s all.

Sam just laughs. “Invite him. Stop being a wuss about it. Besides, if it all works out you get to stare lovingly at him in some stupid white boy Halloween costume.”

Steve - has to admit, that is a rather tempting concept. Despite Sam’s attempts at maintaining conversation, Steve’s thoroughly distracted by thoughts of what, exactly, Bucky might dress up as. He’s a human with needs, and so anything involving tiny shorts and not much else rates at the top of his list. Naturally.

Steve resents the idea that he’s a wuss about it. Just because he complains to Sam non-stop for the next three days doesn’t mean he’s being a wuss. It’s called being 110% sure that inviting someone to someone else’s Halloween party is a good idea.

Come Saturday morning, Steve still hasn’t made his mind up.

Bucky (11:03am): Are we meeting at the same time today? Library?

Steve (11:04am): Sure!!!

By the time he meets Bucky in the library, avoiding the overcast chill outside, Steve has decided on what he’s going to do.

He’s going to sit down with Bucky and study. He’s going to do that until he’s forced to make a decision, and then in the heat of the moment he’ll say something and that’ll be the right answer. It’s like trusting your intuition, or some shit. Steve isn’t sure.

What he is sure of is another few hours in Bucky’s presence will not go astray. They sit close together and review Steve’s flashcards, Bucky smiling with such joy every time Steve correctly lists the key features of each movement. They get into some revision of his last week: Gothic architecture. Together they look at photos of the Notre Dame, and Steve sketches parts of it out to label: pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaulting. Bucky leans over and draws a tiny gargoyle on the peak of one of the Cathedral’s spires. Steve jabs him with a pencil.

“You know,” Bucky begins, as Steve makes a poor attempt at colour-coding his own notes the way Bucky does. “They used to call it French Style architecture.”

Steve - thinks he does know that actually. They probably mentioned it in one of his lectures. Even though he’s doing better now, he still finds himself often distracted by drawing. Steve can’t help it - he’s an artist at heart. Every one of his school reports, from kindergarten through senior year, said the same thing about him: creative, talented, but if he could just focus for one damn minute he’d be straight-A.

Good thing Steve never cared much for grades. Until now, at least. Well, maybe it wasn’t a good thing - he probably would have benefited from establishing good study habits before college.

“Did they?” Steve asks, giving Bucky the full attention his lecturer probably should have received when she explained the same thing.

Bucky nods solemnly. He never doubts his own facts. Steve wonders what it’s like to be so sure about something, to trust your own brain so implicitly. “They meant to insult the French by implying the style was made by Goths.”

“Huh,” Steve answers, though he doesn’t quite get why that’s a bad thing. “Why’s that?”

“Well,” Bucky begins, and Steve settles in. He loves when Bucky goes off on a tangent. He’ll do it about anything: architecture, modern history, astronomy, botany, linguistics. Steve’s yet to find a subject Bucky isn’t, at the very least, competent in.

He’s cut off a few minutes into his explanation by Steve’s phone ringing. They’re alone in this section of the library, thankfully, or Steve would be falling victim to the glare of someone trying to study in peace. Steve rushes to pick his phone up, the caller ID displaying a beautiful Snapchat-filtered selfie of Sam with cat ears. “Shit, sorry,” Steve says, and contemplates swiping the phone icon downwards to ignore Sam’s call.

But, because Steve is the best friend anyone could ask for, he doesn’t. He answers the call with a loudly whispered, “hello?”

“You forgot, didn’t you?” Sam starts off, and Steve wants to indignantly argue that he hadn’t forgotten anything because he can’t remember having anything to remember. Which means he definitely forgot. Fuck.

“Did I?” Steve ventures, tentative, offering Bucky a smile as he tilts his head in confusion.

“That stupid party you got invited to? That you wanted to go to together?” Sam prompts, and Steve curses again as he looks at his watch.

“It’s not even that late!” Steve protests. Sure, it’s after six. They’ve been studying for a few hours at this point. Steve really did get caught up drawing gargoyles with Bucky, huh. “No one goes to parties until at least nine, right? That’s what you said?”

Sam laughs down the line, crinkly and distorted. “You wanted to get dinner first! We agreed on six!”

Steve… doesn’t remember that conversation. He clears his throat. Bucky looks at him with concern - he’s done that ever since Steve maybe choked on nothing that one time. Whatever. “I’m sorry! I got distracted.”

“I bet you did,” Sam’s smirk translates perfectly in his tone of voice. Steve wishes he was dead. He’s sure he’s bright red now in anticipation of the inevitable teasing. Maybe if he passes out, Bucky will give him mouth-to-mouth. A man can dream. “You hanging out with your-”

“-don’t you dare, Sam Wilson-”

“-friend. A boy who’s a friend.”

“You’re the fucking worst,” Steve hisses. He’s studiously avoiding Bucky’s gaze now. The man makes no attempt to hide his staring. The only thing going in Steve’s favour at the moment is that people have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon, mostly, and his agonising phone call is overheard only by Bucky and not a library room full of other students.

“Did you ask him to come along tonight?” Sam prompts, and Steve wants to melt into the floor and disappear. No, he didn’t, because he was trusting himself. And that’s a bad idea. Steve cannot be trusted in Bucky’s presence to think of anything other than Bucky. How Bucky had smiled in this adorably self-deprecating way as he made to erase parts of his sketch as he perfected it. How animated he’d gotten explaining the origin of Gothic architecture’s name.

Steve’s silence answers for him.

“Jesus, Steve. Ask Bucky if he wants to come get pizza with us then walk over to the stupid party. I bet he’ll say yes.”

“You can’t know that,” Steve sulks.

“Do it. Right now.”

At least this gives Steve an excuse. He covers the mouthpiece of his phone with one hand - though Sam is likely omniscient so what does it matter - and smiles at Bucky. “Sam and I are going to a party tonight. A Halloween thing. Did you want to come? We’re going to order pizza beforehand.”

Bucky’s expression perks up, from minorly concerned to pleased. “I’d love to,” he says, then hesitates. “I need to go home and feed the cat, but after that I can come.”

Steve blinks. “You have a cat?” He’s heard lectures from Bucky on every subject imaginable, but he didn’t know that the man had a pet. What kind of friend was he? Steve knows there’s things about Bucky he doesn’t know - just the vibe he gets - but that feels like a normal thing to know about someone.

Bucky nods his head. He doesn’t elaborate. Sam’s voice vibrates through his hand.

Steve smiles at Bucky and lifts the receiver back to his ear.

Well?

“Bucky said he’d love to come over,” Steve says, and, in anticipation of the forthcoming ‘I told you so,’ says, “see you soon!” and ends the call.

Bucky stares at him in silence for a moment, and then says, with some uncertainty, “do I need to dress up?”

Steve, who already has his outfit planned (an oversized Jack-o-Lantern sweater he got from Goodwill at least five years ago), scrunches his face up. “Do you own - costume stuff?” Steve’s sure Bucky won’t stand out if he doesn’t dress up - there are plenty of people who celebrate Halloween as a good time to get drunk with friends, rather than for the dressing up element.

Bucky looks at Steve as if he’s a moron. Of course a guy like Bucky, who rotates through plain, dark clothes on a schedule, doesn’t own costumes. “You could - uh, put some whiskers on,” Steve mimes drawing on his own face, three diagonal lines, “like a cat.”

The look of confused amusement is adorable. Bucky’s half-smiling, the other half of his face turned almost to a cringe. “A cat?”

“Yeah. You have a cat. You know what cats do,” Steve waves a hand.

“She sleeps and eats,” Bucky offers, and Steve lets him stew in thought a moment before he comes up empty-handed. “That’s it.”

“Guess you get to come to the party, eat some food, and take a nap, then,” Steve states with an air of finality. He starts to pull his supplies back in, smiling fondly at the gargoyle drawn on his page. It sticks out like a sore thumb - the way Bucky holds his pencil is somewhat strange, in an almost-fist instead of nestled between two fingers. It makes his lines thick and dark, blocky. Steve likes it. He likes how it dominates the light, uncertain swoops of pencil he laid down to make the body of the cathedral.

It always goes too fast, their studying, and this one reached a premature end. Bucky’s pulling his bag over his shoulder and shaking Steve’s hand like always. “I can bring money for pizza,” Bucky offers, before turning to leave. “Just let me know Sam’s address.”

“Sure thing,” Steve says, and is halfway to his dorm room before he realises he asked Bucky to a party.

And Bucky said yes.

It is, quite possibly, the best day of Steve’s life.

The guy you have a crush on agreeing to go to a party with you is something to celebrate. Steve likes excuses to celebrate. He’s also not very smart, at least in the common-sense way, because he anxiously sinks two beers on Sam’s couch before Bucky or the pizza arrive. He can’t help that he’s a lightweight who forgets to eat. That’s not Steve’s fault.

And anyway, he’s not drunk. He’s just enjoying himself.

“Did you know Bucky has a cat?” Steve asks, watching Sam’s laptop as the pizza tracker flicks over from preparing to cooking. He’s starving.

“No, I did not,” Sam responds, feet poking Steve in the side as he tries to find a comfortable position to sit. “Is tonight gonna be just you telling me shit about Bucky? Because I feel like introducing you two was a mistake.”

Steve, in response, grabs one of Sam’s ankles and tickles the sole of his foot. Sam kicks him in the face and knocks his glasses askew. They’re even.

“Don’t you dare say that! You can’t unintroduce us, Sam, it doesn’t work like that,” Steve gripes, ignoring his glasses and keeping a firm grip on Sam’s foot, even as there’s a knock at the door.

Sam, with a scowl, presses his foot towards Steve’s face as he yells, “it’s open!”

Bucky appears in the doorway, surprisingly silent for someone his size. Steve often feels like a lumbering giant next to Bucky’s soundless ways.

“Hello,” Bucky says politely from the entrance, looking at their somewhat compromising position with mild interest. “Am I interrupting?”

Steve, as if burned, drops Sam’s foot. It knocks into the laptop, and it’s only Sam’s good, non-drunk reflexes that save it - and the promised pizza delivery time - from winding up on the floor. Steve would have the decency to feel sorry if he weren’t painfully distracted by what Bucky’s wearing.

He looks fucking incredible, though Steve can’t quite pick the Halloween element of it. It’s - well, it’s not all that different from what Bucky normally wears, but there’s just something special about it here. Bucky’s usual style is casual and somewhat toned down. If he wasn’t so damn gorgeous, he could fade easily into the background of any scene. This is a similar look, jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, but Bucky now is wearing tighter black pants, a dark grey top, and a leather jacket.

Leather. Jacket.

It was probably not his best idea to get drunk in the presence of someone he can barely keep his hands off when sober. Especially when that someone owns a leather jacket.

Steve, a master of bad decisions, lifts his beer and takes a drink. He thinks the leather jacket is ill-equipped to contain Bucky’s arms. He could offer his services - would he be able to hold one of Bucky’s biceps? They look close to the size of his torso.

Well, there is only one way to find out.

Sam, who is not socially awkward, harbouring a crush, and is also a good host, stands and greets Bucky. “Hey, man. You look good. Can I get you a beer?”

Bucky smiles and shakes his head, looking at Sam’s costume. Sam is obviously in costume, wearing some grey and red suit with goggles dropped down around his neck. Steve thinks there’s something else to it, but he doesn’t know. He never bothered asking Sam what he was.

“What are you dressed up as?” Bucky asks, after giving Sam a polite once-over and trying to figure it out himself.

“I’m The Falcon,” Sam says, proudly, before noticing the complete lack of recognition in Bucky’s eyes. If he turned to look at Steve, he’d notice Steve, too, has no clue what he’s talking about. “He’s - from a comic book?” Sam prompts. He turns to look at Steve, who shrugs one shoulder at him - the sweater starts to slip down, baring his collarbone to the air, and he can’t be bothered righting it. “Neither of you know it?”

“Sorry,” Bucky says, and at least offers a sympathetic smile.

“Uncultured,” Sam hisses under his breath, managing to look annoyed at them for all of ten seconds before he’s looking Bucky over again. Steve hopes his eyes on Bucky look like Sam’s - politely interested, not ravenous and horny. “What’re you dressed up as?”

Bucky shrugs his right shoulder. “I don’t have any costumes.”

Steve, who has turned on the couch so his body fully faces Bucky, smiles. “I told you, you could be a cat.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow in response, coming to sit down on the couch at Steve’s left. “You did tell me that,” he responds, magnanimously.

There’s a moment of silence where Steve tries to process a response, Sam now taking over pizza watching duty. “But you aren’t,” Steve summarises eventually, much to Bucky’s amusement.

He chuckles, the sound rich and deep and headed straight for parts of Steve that are not fit for discussing in polite company. Sam, sure, Steve’s told him a thousand times about his stupid crush. Bucky doesn’t need to know about it. “I don’t have any,” Bucky hesitates, then draws a line that looks more like war-paint than a jaunty whisker on his face. “Black.”

Steve turns so he’s facing Bucky, back to Sam - who is certainly indignant about it, but fuck Sam, Steve listened to him whinge about cute people all through high school. Give and take. “Like, eyeliner?”

“Sure,” Bucky doesn’t look particularly sure, but he’s happy to go with whatever Steve’s suggesting.

Steve likes that about Bucky. Even when he looks baffled by whatever Steve’s saying - a common occurrence any time Bucky lets him stray off-topic - he tends to just let it play out.

Steve lets his body fall backwards, feet nudging Bucky’s thigh, head misjudging the space between him and Sam and landing half on the other man’s lap, half on his laptop.

“Fucking Christ, Steve,” Sam pulls the laptop out from under his head, a new tab appearing with a string of nonsense letters in the address bar. Steve lifts his beerless hand to hold the back of his head, pathetically. Bucky laughs again. “You’ve had two drinks!”

“Three!” Steve protests, holding up the near-empty glass in his hand to prove his point. “And anyway, I need eyeliner.”

“I’m not letting you draw all over Bucky’s face,” Sam states, as if he gets the final word on it.

Steve sits up enough that he can look at Bucky, toes digging into his thigh a little bit. Bucky looks extremely amused. He should be thanking Steve for helping him with his Halloween costume. “Bucky,” Steve begins in a pleading tone, akin to a child, drawing the second syllable out horribly long.

“I don’t mind, Sam,” Bucky says at last. He never looked like he was going to say no, which means Bucky made Steve beg just for the fun of it. Asshole.

Steve yells triumphantly and Sam just reluctantly gestures towards the bathroom. “I’m not going to be part of this.” He uses the laptop as an excuse - their pizza is about to be delivered. “And if you two take too long, I’m not gonna apologise for eating your share.”

Steve’s already bouncing to his feet, knocked head forgotten. He dismisses his empty bottle to exile on the coffee table, grasping Bucky’s right hand in both of his own. Without any grumbling or feet-dragging, Bucky follows him to the bathroom. His complacency comes almost as a shock - despite agreeing to it, Steve had been fully prepared to drag the other man to his cat-costume fate.

Sam’s bathroom, much like Sam himself, is clean and organised and has its shit together. Steve knows where some things are but is left to rifle through a few drawers before he finds a compartment that could easily be labelled the assorted shit section. That’s where Steve finds, among other things, a palette of colourful eyeshadow, red lipstick, a black eyeliner pencil, and a tube of fake blood. Everything a college guy might need, all in one place.

Steve makes a pleased noise as he retrieves and uncaps the eyeliner pencil, flipping the lid around to sharpen it with lower-than-usual dexterity. It takes him a couple of tries to fit the dull end of the pencil into the sharpener. That’s not his fault.

Bucky watches with keen interest, or that’s how it feels to Steve, what with how the other man’s gaze is making him fluster. When the pencil is sharp enough, Steve draws an experimental line on the side of his hand, pleased with how it comes out.

“You’re not going near my eyes?” Bucky asks, trepidation in his eyes as he looks at the sharp end of the eyeliner pencil.

It’s an odd question, but Steve figures a pointy object and an eyeball are not exactly the best of friends. He shakes his head, and Bucky’s shoulders relax down. “Right, hold still,” Steve says, leaning up on his tiptoes to reach Bucky’s face.

Bucky is very good at holding still. He barely moves as Steve pulls the skin of his chin taut and draws three smooth lines out across his cheek. Apart from a slight flinch when the eyeliner travelled a bit too close to his eye for comfort, there’s little movement from the taller man They’re so close that Steve can feel Bucky’s breath on his cheek, and he tries not to get distracted by it. He also tries hard not to get distracted by how their bodies are nearly pressed together, but it’s a losing battle.

Distantly, Steve hears the doorbell ring and Sam talking to somebody, but he’s absorbed in this singular moment. Bucky’s cheeks are warm, and he looks even more adorable than usual with six whiskers on his face. Steve takes a regretful step back to survey his handiwork.

“How does it look?” Bucky asks, snapping Steve from his reverie.

“Uh,” Steve says, then colours bright red. He always looks pink when he drinks, and this surely isn’t helping. “Good! You look good.”

Bucky smiles beatifically, then makes a move towards the door. Steve remains frozen in place. “Are you - coming?”

“I - should put my contacts in,” Steve says, gesturing to the small overnight bag he’d bought with him. True to his word, there are contacts inside, but he’d been too lazy to put them in earlier. Really, he just wants to spend five minutes alone forcing his body to calm down before he has to sit next to Bucky and pretend not to want to jump his bones.

“Oh,” Bucky sounds intrigued, and Steve would offer to let him watch - Sam, for all he works in health, finds the placement of contacts off-putting - but he needs alone time. “I’ll save you some pizza.” Bucky adds, slipping through a gap in the door that must be far too small for his body and disappearing.

Steve spends four and a half of his five minutes splashing cold water on his face and considering the merits of a very quick hand job, and thirty seconds forgetting what lie he’d told to excuse his extended bathroom stay. Then he got around to the relatively quick and painless task of putting his contacts in, before re-joining the small party outside.

With whiskers on, contacts in, and pizza eaten, they leave the house. And they make it to the party, somehow. Steve doesn’t pay much attention to the journey, content to let Sam and Bucky - who might know the way or might be figuring it out themselves - lead. He’s drunk enough that he just wanders along behind them, enjoying the feeling of being outdoors: the chill of the autumnal air through the knit of his sweater, the bright speckling of stars overhead. Steve tries to recall what Bucky had told him about how stars are made, but he was overtired then and drunk now so it comes in fits and starts. Pressure and atoms and black holes, they were part of it too, at one point.

Steve makes a mental note that drifts away as soon as he thinks of it to ask Bucky to explain the process to him again. He could listen to Bucky talk all night - especially if he laughs like he had earlier.

There’s no time to ask now, as they’re plunged into the warmth and noise of the house. The front yard contained a smattering of people, most of them smoking something or other, chatting quietly. Indoors, it’s loud and tightly packed and Steve doesn’t make any attempt to hide how he places a hand on Sam’s back and lets him lead the way. Bucky, behind him, gently rests a hand on Steve’s hip in a move that short-circuits his entire brain.

He doesn’t return to his body until they’re in the kitchen, and most of his architecture class are there greeting him. Steve does the usual: smile, shake hands, ask how they are. Some of them know Sam - Steve tries to follow the college-family thread from “we took this unit together in our first year and then,” but loses track. Steve introduces Sam, anyway, to the people who don’t know him.

When it comes to Bucky, though, everyone knows him.

More surprisingly, Bucky remembers all of their names.

Steve knows it’s rude to be shocked, because Bucky surely has a lot of friends - Steve saw the contact list on his phone, which was about the length of the Bible (old and new testament) - but it’s weird to see them all interacting at once. Sometimes people in the library say hello, but they don’t hang around. It’s easy to think of Bucky as just his, in a way, because the time they spend is solely dedicated to each other.

God, that sounds fucking lame. And sad.

Whatever it is, Bucky knows more people than Steve and Sam combined. Sam wastes no time ditching both of them, disappearing into the throng of people looking for someone called Riley. That’s the first Steve’s heard of it. He makes another, fleeting mental note to follow up on that in the morning (like his morning will be anything other than miserable and wasted). Instead of pursuing Sam, Steve ends up grabbing the drink offered to him by Leo, one of the other people in his class, and following Bucky around like a lost puppy.

They’ve progressed through the house and into the living room, where the music is coming from, when Sharon appears at his side. Steve’s feeling warm and soft, like the atmosphere around him is a blanket and not thick, sweaty air, so he greets her with a hug. Sharon seems to be on the same wavelength as Steve, because she kisses his cheek and makes a loud, excited noise when they part.

They do the mandatory costume party greeting: compliment each other’s costumes for a good ten minutes. Not that it’s hard, with Sharon in a form-fitting black catsuit that does fantastic things to her body. If Steve were interested in her, it would be perfect. Alas, he only has eyes for -

Someone who has completely disappeared.

“Come and dance with me!” Sharon says - slurs, rather - linking her arm through Steve’s and interrupting his meerkat impersonation as he tries to look for Bucky.

Bucky’s super tall. And built like a house. Surely there’s no way he’s snuck off from Steve so quickly.

But he has.

Steve’s brain jumps from confusion to despair, as though Bucky has intentionally run off to avoid him. Steve tries to quieten that part of his brain by taking a mouthful of the weird drink Leo had offered him, and mustering up a smile for Sharon. Despite not getting the affirmative from him, she’s just started dancing anyway, so Steve joins her.

He’s not a great dancer. Not like Sharon - her body moves like it’s part-liquid, rippling in time with the music. Her blonde hair flies from side to side when she tosses her head, and when she opens her eyes long enough to find Steve awkwardly shuffling from foot to foot, she takes his hands and pulls him into her space.

It’s easy, when you’re drunk, to feel like what you’re doing looks good. Steve knows that. He’s been drunk plenty of times, and has been told the morning after just how fucking stupid he looked - mostly by Sam.

Whatever. Steve’s having fun. He’s letting himself mimic Sharon’s movements, twisting and flowing with the music. He’s distantly aware that contacts were a good choice for the evening, because his lack of spatial awareness has had Steve knocking his own face and bursting into laughter enough times that he would’ve ended up breaking his glasses.

Time ceases to function in a linear way from there. Steve dances with Sharon, then with some other people from his class, then with people he’s never met before. The entire living room, couches pushed to the wall, has become a writhing mess of bodies all enjoying the shared experience.

It’s not until he hears someone say, “hey!” that Steve snaps out of the transcendent space of drunk dancing.

He turns to look at the owner of the voice, a pretty petite girl wearing a white sheet like a poncho, a ghostly expression painted on the front. Steve spots the source of her displeased cry standing behind her.

The guy’s big. Not Bucky-big (no human could be that big), but big anyway. And he’s got one meaty hand on the girl’s thigh. Steve’s eyes focus on his fingers, where the flesh of her leg is being squashed against her will.

Steve stumbles towards him. “The fuck are you doing?” Steve asks - yells, really, to be heard over the thundering bass.

Steve gets a grateful look from the girl but ignored by the guy. “Hey, asshole!” Steve tries again, stepping in and gesturing. He spills half his drink, but this time drunk eyes focus on him.

“Fuck off,” the man yells back, wrapping one hand around the girl’s waist - despite her high-pitched noise of protest.

Steve steps in and shoves the man’s shoulder back. It’s good that he’s as drunk as, if not more than, Steve, because ordinarily a shove from Steve would not put a man of his stature off-balance. But it does. He stumbles back, and his drink falls victim to the floor in a sharp shattering of glass. Several heads turn, then bodies move away to dance somewhere safe. Someone probably yells, “taxi!”. The music doesn’t stop. Steve can’t hear it anymore, though, because his entire being is focused on the man in front of him.

In the moment of reprieve, the girl disappears, dancing out of reach though she remains close enough to watch. A few others do, too, making a loose semi-circle around the action. There’s no chant of “fight!” yet, but Steve is so familiar with this that it wouldn’t surprise him. He’s often been at the heart of these moments, one of the parties in the middle of the circle, spitting mad and hands balled into tight fists.

“What the fuck?” The man yells, and a few more heads turn their way. He lurches in towards Steve, and Steve’s brain slowly thinks it should perhaps do something to avoid imminent contact.

It doesn’t, and he stumbles back, though it’s not as painful as he thought it was going to be. Perhaps that’s because his drunken brain isn’t working the way it should, or perhaps - and this one seems more likely the longer Steve thinks about it - perhaps it’s because Bucky’s somehow occupying the space Steve just was.

Steve blinks, gains his bearings, and steps in close. He places a hand on Bucky’s left shoulder to lever himself upright, to get a look at what’s going on. Bucky drops his shoulder in a quick shrug, dislodging Steve’s hand and he reluctantly shrinks back.

Parts of their conversation make their way to Steve - not Bucky’s side, not as much, because he’s leaning in close and speaking to the man’s ear. The exchange is heated on the side of at least one party, and Steve watches in horror as the man swings and cops Bucky directly in the arm.

Then flinches back, as if burned.

Bucky remains standing, passively watching the whole scene play out. The only sign that Bucky is even slightly inconvenienced by getting hit is the way his body tenses up.

There are a few more yelled insults, then the man - still holding his bruised knuckles to his chest - disappears.

Bucky doesn’t hang around either, quickly ducking out the other way, towards the backyard.

There are three options in Steve’s mind: pursue Bucky, the man, or the drunk girl. His blood is still boiling, over-keen adrenaline pumping through his system, ready for the threat that has already been dispatched. Steve contemplates hunting the asshole down to make sure he doesn’t ruin anyone else’s night, but he is, for once, making the smart decision to not. He’ll have to tell Sam about that in the morning. He’ll be so proud.

Instead, Steve takes a moment to check in with the accosted girl, who lays her hands fondly on his shoulders as she thanks him for stepping in. Then two of her friends, in matching sheet-ghost costumes, appear and whisk her away. They head directly for the kitchen, and Steve has a funny feeling he knows how they’re going to make her feel better.

Which leaves Steve free to pursue Bucky, who - hasn’t gone very far at all.

That silhouette - unmistakable to Steve - is hunched over outside, feet planted on the floor, staring off into nothingness. There’s a fire in the backyard, some people milling around beside it. Steve bypasses a friendly group of smokers, one of whom holds a joint out to him, which he waves away with a confused mumbling of, “no, thanks.”

Bucky turns when Steve stumbles closer, then shuffles back when Steve drops himself onto the floor at Bucky’s left. “Are you okay?” Steve asks, body turned fully to face the other man. Bucky’s features are touched at a distance by the fire, yellow-orange-red flickering across the side of his nose, the dip of his cupid’s  bow. Steve has no inhibitions, not now, but he distantly realises that covering the distance between them to stroke Bucky’s face is A Bad Idea.

He instead knots his hands together in his lap and waits, his focus solely on the play of flame and emotions on Bucky’s face. His jaw is tight, winds tighter as he thinks, then releases with a sharp exhale.

“Sorry,” Bucky begins, tone muted. There’s less to it than ever before. Steve is almost scared at how impassive Bucky sounds, more a robot than a human. It’s certainly not a sincere apology - not that Steve deserves one. He’s the idiot who got Bucky dragged into that mess. “Are you alright?”

“I’m asking about you,” Steve protests, with a small frown.

Bucky turns to look at Steve - his face, then his hands twisting over each other in his lap. Bucky sighs and stands, moves so that he’s on the other side of Steve, then sits down again. Slowly, his right hand reaches out and lays over Steve’s. Steve turns his whole body once again so he’s still facing Bucky. “I’m okay, Steve,” Bucky says, still quiet, but with some humanity to it. “Did he hurt you?”

The mere mention of the man makes Steve’s hackles rise, and he huffs out an indignant breath. “He didn’t. But I would’ve punched his teeth out. Fucking asshole.”

Bucky keeps his hand on Steve’s - not grabbing or holding, just there - as he sighs. “Don’t, Steve,” he says, firmly enough that Steve almost - almost - listens.

“What he was doing wasn’t right!” Steve protests, hands clenching into fists under Bucky’s touch.

“That doesn’t mean you have to fight him,” Bucky argues, though there’s no heat to his words. If Steve stopped to really listen, he’d hear the exhaustion in Bucky’s voice.

Steve knows he doesn’t have an argument for that, because no, he doesn’t have to fight anyone. Does he want to do it, on principle alone? Yes. “I just don’t like people who do shit like that. Think they can pick on other people.”

There’s silence. Steve’s jaw is wound tight, but when he turns to look at Bucky, he just looks - defeated. Steve watches Bucky lift his left hand to rub at his eyes, inadvertently smudging the whiskers Steve had drawn there earlier in the night. The sight of it makes Steve melt, and the thought that he’s being a moron rushes in between the mass of rage in his head.

“I think I’m going to go home,” Bucky says eventually, just as Steve’s opening his mouth to break the silence with an apology.

Steve nods his head, and he thinks he should do that too - go home, go to bed, maybe drink a glass of water. The night isn’t ruined, per se, but it feels over. “Can I come?” Steve asks, and then scrambles to clarify: “Not to your house! But. Leave. With you.”

Bucky, thankfully, laughs. It’s a light, low chuckle, that doesn’t feel too at odds with the unease that had been emanating off of him moments ago. “I’ll walk you home,” Bucky announces with finality, and - because Steve’s had his fill of conflict for that evening - he lets it go.

Bucky stands first, offers Steve his hand, and they silently sneak out the side gate of the party to avoid any potentially awkward goodbyes.

The remainder of the walk is silent, too, at least until they reach the entrance to Steve’s building. Steve wanted to ask Bucky about the stars in the sky, or the flowers planted along their walk, but he can’t quite translate the thoughts into words. He wants Bucky to break the awkward, heavy silence, but he doesn’t know that that’s what he needs.

They stand outside Steve’s dorm for a moment, both of them trying to work out how to break the silence.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, his drunken understanding of volume meaning his words completely trample Bucky’s quiet, “goodnight.”

Bucky blinks at him, then smiles faintly. “What are you sorry about?”

“I - that dick. Punching you. That was because of me.” Steve puts his haphazard thoughts together, the ones that had been tossing around in his head since he’d thought of apologising earlier. He knew he owed it to Bucky, but he couldn’t find the perfect words to explain why he was sorry. Maybe thankful would’ve been better - thank you for stepping in. Thank you for protecting me - but Steve Rogers couldn’t verbalise that. He could barely think it without getting agitated. He doesn’t need protecting, but the concept of someone doing it without him asking - it’s kind of… sweet.

“Steve?” Bucky prods, and Steve realises he hasn’t been listening.

“Huh?” He answers, intelligibly.

Bucky sighs, but it’s with fondness. Or that’s what Steve hopes. “Thank you for apologising.”

Steve, buoyed by Bucky’s acceptance and his own drunkenness, hovers despite the conversation being at an end. “Can I hug you?” He asks, mouth going ahead of his brain. Bucky’s never done anything more than shake Steve’s hand. He hadn’t hugged a single person at the party. Bucky might be a party person, which surprised Steve enough, but he’s certainly not a hugger.

An endless moment stretches out with contemplation on Bucky’s face before he nods stiffly.

Steve isn’t sure if anyone’s ever hugged Bucky before. He steps forward and wraps his arms around Bucky’s middle, gently weaseling between his upper arm and his torso. Bucky slowly, awkwardly, raises his own hands to join around Steve’s back. Bucky could likely grasp his own elbow around Steve. Steve hums and nuzzles into the space beneath Bucky’s chin, surrounded by the man’s bulk and warmth.

They stand there for a while, and Steve can’t tell if Bucky’s just indulging him or he actually likes it. But Bucky eventually relaxes into the embrace, one hand tightening in Steve’s shirt to keep him there.

When they part, a mutual understanding that the time is over, Steve keeps close to Bucky. Then, in an act of brazen drunkenness, leans up and kisses him.

It’s not the sort of kiss he wants to experience with Bucky. God, Steve wants to taste every inch of the other man, wants to drag his lower lip between his teeth and make Bucky hiss. Instead, Steve settles for a chaste peck to the right side of Bucky’s lips. He doesn’t taste like anything, but he smells nice, and Steve gets an up-close view of the smudged cat whiskers there. It’s what he’d felt earlier, Bucky’s breath, only now it’s a quick, surprised exhale against his own lips.

Steve’s eyes are lidded, sleepiness and contentedness all merging into one package that screams at him to curl up on Bucky’s chest and sleep there. It’s for that reason he doesn’t notice until a second later that Bucky doesn’t look particularly pleased. He looks - worried? Scared? Confused?

Steve’s world shrinks down to a single, heart-stopping, stomach-sinking moment.

“Sorry,” Steve repeats, which is a sure sign that he’s fucked up pretty bad, because apologising twice in the space of five minutes isn’t good.

Bucky doesn’t say anything. The look of actual terror on his face is palpable, and though Steve wants to apologise again - wants to get on his knees and fucking grovel - he doesn’t.

He can’t, because Bucky’s already turned and disappeared into the night.

Chapter Text

As if waking hungover isn’t bad enough, Steve Rogers wakes up with the feeling of regret sitting alongside the nausea in his stomach. He is able to swallow one of the feelings down. The other lingers horribly.

After contemplating how easy it would be to smother himself and never have to face the world again, Steve accepts his fate as a giant fuck up. He’s ruined everything. There’s no getting around that. He took advantage of someone like Bucky, so sweet and hesitant in his physical contact. It was stupid and selfish and even if Steve meant for it to be good for both of them, the reality is… it wasn’t.

He finds his phone in his bed, almost out of battery, and blearily puts it on charge. Then he peeks around the little curtain he made to section off his bed from Ben’s. The other man is sound asleep. Steve considers whether or not to make his very embarrassing phone call with Ben present, before remembering the dude sleeps through literally anything. Besides, what does he care what Ben thinks of him? Steve uses his appliances, they say hello when they run into each other, it’s not exactly a flourishing friendship.

Speaking of - Steve might have shot the one friendship he made down before it got a chance to really be anything.

The screen of his phone is too bright, and Steve squints to see the screen despite his glasses, but he navigates to Sam’s number and calls through the pain. It rings out and through to his voicemail. Steve fumbles with the phone long enough that Sam should be expecting a message involving him grunting in hungover confusion, but that’s fine. Sam will deal with it.

Steve calls him again.

This time, after five painfully high-pitched rings, Sam answers.

“What?” His voice croaks down the line.

Steve makes a pitiful sort of noise in response. “Sam,” he whines. “I fucked up.”

There’s the sound of rearranging - and another voice in the background? “Fucked what up?” Sam must not be feeling too hot either, because he hasn’t yet made a joke about Steve always being a fuck up or something. He wouldn’t be wrong either.

“I don’t know,” Steve complains, despite knowing fully what he did. “I - Bucky and I walked home together-”

Sam interrupts Steve’s retelling with a low whistle.

“No, it’s not!” Steve interrupts, the hangover making him even grumpier than he usually would be. It also makes him sound whinier than usual. “No, so we walked home. And I asked if I could hug him and he said yes.”

“Putting on the big moves there hey, Rogers?” Sam asks, and there’s that smartass voice. Steve can see his smirk.

“Fuck off, Sam! I ruined my life. Just listen to me, alright?” Steve is shocked to find his demands met. Sam is mercifully quiet down the line. “Okay. I asked to hug him. He said yes. So we hugged. It was fine! And then I - I dunno, I’m an asshole, I just…” Steve trails off, because he doesn’t want to say it aloud. It’s so fucking stupid. “I kissed him.”

Sam follows Steve’s direction, and doesn’t say anything. Steve almost wants him to.

The silence spans an eternity, and then Sam says, “that it?”

Steve swallows down the lump in his throat. He can’t tell if it’s dread or vomit. Maybe a mixture of both. Fuck his life. “He didn’t do anything. He looked - terrified, Sam. Like I’d killed his dog or something.”

“Doesn’t he have a cat?”

Sam!

“Okay, alright, I got it. You kissed a dude who very much did not want to be kissed. It’s - it’s not a good thing. But I think if you apologise, Bucky’ll understand.”

Steve makes that same high-pitched noise he makes when everything is terrible and he doesn’t know how to fix it. It’s already made an appearance plenty of times in the space of one single phone call. “No, you don’t get it. He looked scared. When I hugged him it took forever for him to just hug me back. And I - fucking kissed him.”

There’s a very long inhale, then a sigh.

“You fucked up.”

“I know that. How do I fix it?” Steve sits up in bed and draws his knees up to his chest.

“Uh,” Sam answers, helpfully. “Have you apologised?”

“Last night I did, but should I - text him? Call? Go over to his place?” Steve’s mind is reeling, and it’s again made worse by the state of his hangover. He’s never drinking again.

“God, no, don’t go to his house, Steve,” Sam immediately answers. “Do you even know where he lives?”

“No.”

“Good. Keep it that way. Showing up randomly is not going to fix this.” Sam is adamant about that. Steve’s glad. He doesn’t trust his body to get much further than the dining hall and the bathroom for the next twenty-four hours. Even that’s a stretch. “Just… send him a message. Apologise that way. And don’t freak out if he doesn’t respond. You text him one time, Steve.”

“But-”

One. Time. Do you understand what I’m saying, Rogers?”

Steve sighs. “Yes, Dad.” Despite being the one to ask for advice, he’s still going to be a petulant child about the whole thing.

Sam huffs, as if he doesn’t believe Steve (and who would? Steve is a self-confessed multi-texter, it’s in his blood). Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “and send it to me first. I want to proof-read it.”

Steve’s mouth is already open to argue, but he forces it shut. Sam will read his message. Sam will edit his message to make it, undoubtedly, a thousand times better. Steve ought to be thankful. “Okay,” he mumbles, running a hand through his hair. “Thank you, Sam.”

“You’re welcome. Don’t do anything stupid today, for the love of God.”

“I’m not making promises I can’t keep,” Steve answers, politely, and Sam hangs up mid-groan.

Which leaves Steve, his annoyed body, and his even more annoyed brain to sit and dwell. A message. An apology. Steve’s brain is stewing in his own idiotic choices and beer, so it’s not much help.

After an eternity of deliberation, of backspacing and overthinking, Steve comes up with something. His head is pounding after staring at the screen for so long, even with the brightness turned down, but he’ll deal with it. Once Steve gets to go-ahead from Sam, he’ll send the message and rest his eyes for the entire day.

Steve (10:24am): Hi Bucky. I’m really sorry about last night. Being drunk isn’t an excuse for doing that to you. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, please let me know.

Sending the message to Sam is stressful enough, but Steve knows he’s going to spontaneously combust when he has to send it to Bucky.

Sam replies over an hour later, during which time Steve has dragged his morose body to the shower and dining hall. He makes a small plate of food and gets through approximately an eighth of it before giving up.

Sam (11:38am): Sorry, I was having brunch with Riley.
Sam (11:39am): That actually sounds really good, Steve. I’m proud of you.

Steve vows to interrogate Sam about the Riley thing later. As for the present moment, he’s copying his text message, sending it to Bucky, and trying not to throw up.

Steve texts Bucky on Sunday morning.

He doesn’t hear back until Saturday.

During that time, Steve is sure he goes through every single stage of grief. He can’t focus during classes. He snaps at Sam during their weekly coffee date despite Sam buying him a croissant for breakfast. It’s like going through a breakup, only Steve never had the satisfaction of knowing Bucky was his to lose.

Saturday is the worst day of them all. Steve’s been dreading it all week - the reminder that he should be with Bucky that afternoon, studying and not-so-subtly admiring the other man when he’s not looking. Instead he wakes up and glares at the ceiling, simply because it had the nerve to exist. Even Ben’s breathing from across the room is pissing Steve off.

He rolls over with a scowl, fumbling for his glasses and phone to check the time. When Steve finally gets his hands around it and lifts it up, there’s a single unread message from Bucky there - timestamped three hours ago. Which would have been… four am. Solid proof that Steve is up way too fucking early, but there’s no chance of him getting back to sleep now.

The preview of the message already has him wide awake, and Steve swipes away his lock screen to read the entire thing.

Bucky (4:06am): Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier, Steve. I had a lot of things to deal with this week. I appreciate the apology. Do you still want to study this afternoon? I was thinking you could come over to my place, since it’s much quieter than the library, but just let me know.
Bucky (4:11am): If I don’t reply I might be asleep. Sorry in advance.

Steve reads the messages twice, then puts the phone down to scrub his eyes. When he recovers the phone, the message is still on the screen, the exact same words there as when Steve first read it. He’d been expecting it to change, somehow, to morph and show Bucky’s true meaning - that Steve’s a terrible friend, the sort of shitty person to make a move on someone else without asking. Bucky wouldn’t be wrong to assume those things, either. That’s the saddest part.

But he hasn’t.

Bucky still wants to get together and study, and he wants to do it at his place.

Steve believes his eyes, now, but he doesn’t quite know how to respond. Instead of his typical rapid-fire, multitext response, Steve deliberates. He deliberates more over this than he did his apology to Bucky, and he spent a damn long time on that. Steve doesn’t want to come across as creepy - as if he hasn’t done that already - but he wants Bucky to know that he’s still interested. In studying. Of course. Nothing else.

It’s almost eight in the morning - Steve’s tried to go back to sleep to come up with a better idea, all to no avail - when he responds.

Steve (7:59am): Don’t worry about it! I’d love to come over :) Shoot me your address and a time that suits and I’ll be there!

Despite agonising over his message until Bucky replies around midday (the fact that he apologises for having a nap is bad news for Steve, because he can’t un-envision Bucky sleep-rumpled in bed after that), and then agonising about seeing Bucky again, Steve makes it to Bucky’s apartment on time. He’s early, in fact, but he does a lap around the block to make it less awkward.

Where Bucky lives is a similar apartment building to Sam’s. They’re not owned by the school but are built just outside of campus grounds, and house mainly post-graduate students and their families. Steve’s been into Sam’s plenty of times to know what they’re like: dorms but bigger, and you have more flexibility with the dumb shit you stick up on the walls.

Steve enters the building and hesitantly makes his way to Bucky’s floor. It’s a nice place in that the walls and floors are clean and tidy, both in fresh, neutral shades. After triple-checking his phone, Steve knocks on the door that Bucky sent him to.

The door opens almost immediately after Steve knocks.

Bucky is standing there, in the doorway, looking slightly off-kilter. Steve can’t put his finger on what it is, that nameless thing in his expression, but it’s drawn him away from his usual appearance of calm happiness. Bucky looks worried, that’s about the best Steve can say.

“Hi,” Steve says awkwardly, at last.

“Hello,” Bucky answers, almost breathlessly, as though he can’t get the air in fast enough. Steve can relate to that feeling. “Come in,” Bucky adds, stepping back so Steve can get around him and into the flat.

Immediately, Steve can see why it is that Bucky always looks so peaceful: his place is out of a goddamn magazine. It’s a studio apartment, the bed on a raised level at the back of the main room. Everything matches the hallways Steve had walked down, the off-white walls and the ash-brown floorboards.

From that blank slate, though, Bucky has made the place a sanctuary. There are plants adorning any available, flat surface: some spring upright, long fronds and leaves searching for the sun, whilst others hang over shelves and run down the side of countertops. Steve spots several candles, lit, all of them housed in jars and glass displays - presumably to keep them from igniting the veritable forest Bucky’s filled his home with, but perhaps also for the aesthetic of it. There are several strings of fairy lights tied around the bed, the warm yellow light they cast turning the white fur of the cat sleeping on Bucky’s comforter almost-gold.

Steve blinks himself back to reality. Bucky’s standing, staring at him with barely concealed anxiety.

“You have a cat,” Steve says, very intelligently.

Bucky smiles, just a little, and it eases something in Steve to see that expression again. “You knew that.”

There’s a gentle exhale. He did know that. Last week, he was dressing Bucky up like a cat, too. “I did,” Steve admits, rooted in place just beyond Bucky’s doorway. He doesn’t know where to go. There’s so much, and yet so little. What clutter there is is in the form of greenery - everything else serves a purpose. The bookshelf is filled with an assortment of what look like textbooks, judging from the size, and then smaller novels up top. There’s a potholder hanging from the ceiling above the island in the kitchen. Just beyond that is a small dining table - barely large enough to accommodate the four, fabric-covered chairs that surround it, and it would burst at the seams trying to feed that amount of people simultaneously. On it, Bucky has laid out his books.

“Can I pet her?” Steve asks, still waiting for permission to enter Bucky’s home properly. It feels wrong, him invading the space that has so clearly been designed around providing peace and comfort. Despite Bucky inviting him to be there, Steve doesn’t feel quite right about it.

“Sure,” Bucky says, lips quirking upwards again. Instead of going to the bed, he returns to the table and sits down in front of the open textbook. “She might not like it, though. Depends on her mood.”

That invitation is enough to uproot Steve from his place in the entry. He carefully places his bag beside the dining table, leaning it against a leg so it doesn’t fall over. Then he very slowly approaches the bed, hand extended. The cat opens one eye to stare at him, judging, but she doesn’t move. Steve creeps closer until he’s on the raised platform where Bucky’s bed sits, until he’s close enough to touch his cat.

When Steve finally makes contact, the small creature makes a surprised noise at the contact, a little chirp. She doesn’t move away, though, and Steve’s able to bury his hand in her thick, white fur. She wriggles under his hand, repositioning herself so his hand is scratching the base of her tail. From beneath her lidded kitty eyes, she regards him carefully. Steve feels an awful lot like this cat can see through into his soul.

Then, as quickly as she’d welcomed his pats, she’s gone. Up and off the bed in one easy, elegant movement. Steve watches her go, a white streak across the room and up one bookshelf. Steve notices her path upwards, and that Bucky’s left strategic spots free from books and clutter so she can make her way up with ease.

With something like annoyance, she begins to groom herself - well out of reach of Steve, though Bucky might be able to nab her if he so desires.

“What’s her name?” Steve asks as he carefully returns to the dining table. The cat’s eyes follow him the entire way, tongue half-out of her mouth, mid-lick.

“Alpine,” Bucky answers, the bouncing of his leg obvious under the table. His body is practically vibrating with an energy Steve still can’t place. He’d be annoyed if it was any of his business, but it’s not. He’s just deathly curious about everything to do with Bucky.

Steve watches Alpine groom herself on the highest place a little longer, than pulls a chair out and sits down.

Bucky clears his throat and flicks his book back to the chapter Steve had just spent that week studying. Or not studying, as the case may have been. His brain had been - a touch preoccupied. They had moved into the late-Gothic period: the Flamboyant style of France and Spain, Perpendicular in England. Steve hadn’t learned a damn thing that week, trapped as it had been in a spiral of thoughts about Bucky hating his guts.

And here he is. In Bucky’s home. Watching him try to parse his notes into coherent thought.

Bucky’s actually really struggling with it, and Steve isn’t about to voice aloud how endearing the sight is. Bucky stops himself mid-sentence multiple times, finger jumping from place to place on his carefully scribed notes. Everything is there - Steve knows it, Bucky’s file is like a bible for the unit. Despite all of that, though, Bucky can’t get a proper sentence out.

As it continues on, Steve considers putting Bucky out of his misery, but the last work he’d done had been their previous study session, so he has nothing to offer.

With a frustrated sigh, Bucky closes the file. He then closes his eyes and sits there.

“Buck?” Steve ventures, cautious. Last week marked the first time Steve had witnessed Bucky looking so scared and angry. Today is the first time he’s seen Bucky looking at a loss, completely unable to take whatever’s going on in his head and give words to it. “What’s going on?” Steve considers, very briefly, offering his hand across the dining table, but doesn’t. Bucky only hugged him because Steve asked. He doesn’t want to pursue contact with Steve, that’s something that Steve understands. It hurts, but he gets it.

Bucky sighs again, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. He’s still wearing gloves, even indoors - Steve wants to know how, considering it’s not even that cold in his flat. Steve has zero body fat to keep him warm, and he’s doing alright in his sweater and jeans. Besides, Californian weather has nothing on the sort of cold Steve grew up with. If he could avoid every New York winter for the rest of his life, he’d be happy. His immune system would be, too.

“Can I ask you something?” Bucky pulls his hand away from his face and sits up, then leans in. His covered arms are folded on the table, the books shoved off to the side.

Steve nods his head, despite the apprehension building in him. Is this where Bucky tells him that it’s not going to work? That he thought he might be able to face Steve, the person who kissed him without permission a week ago, but he can’t? Steve’s stomach is tying itself back into the knots that had only started to ease after Bucky’s message earlier that morning. The experience is like a rushing through his ears, and Steve almost misses Bucky’s question. He’s asked, “what?” to clarify before stopping to think about what Bucky said.

Bucky, with pink cheeks, repeats himself: “Did you like hugging me?” His eyes are pinned firmly on the surface of the dining table, somewhere without anything on it. Bucky barely looks as if he’s breathing.

“Yeah?” Steve asks, hesitantly. Is that the right answer? “Of course I did.”

“But - wasn’t it…,” Bucky’s jaw works through the words, “weird?”

Now, Steve’s memory is painfully good when it comes to that particular moment. He remembers vividly the way it felt to be totally enveloped by Bucky, by his body and his scent. Steve couldn’t see around the arms around him, couldn’t even feel the cold of the night any more. All he remembers is feeling safe, feeling home, feeling so good that his mind’s next response had stupidly been to kiss Bucky.

“Not weird at all,” Steve says with greater certainty. He’s almost sure that what Bucky is looking for is not another apology, but affirmation that he hadn’t done something wrong in all of this. It doesn’t make much sense to Steve, since he’s the asshole in the situation, but if Bucky needs that assurance he’ll gladly give it. “It was - really nice. I really liked hugging you.” It’s easier to admit that when Bucky looks uncertain, too, not his usual composed, happy self.

Bucky draws back in towards himself, fingers fidgeting together, pulling the tips of the gloves off his fingers. “People don’t hug me very often.”

Steve isn’t sure how to answer that one. He swallows and holds himself back from crossing to Bucky’s side of the table and pulling the other man into his arms. He looks like he could use it, someone’s hands to smooth out the tension carried in his entire body. “Do you want to hug? More often?”

Bucky glances up from where he’s straightening his gloves out, cheeks still that beautiful peachy-pink shade. “Would you want to?”

“Yes,” Steve replies, too quickly. As if it will soften his desperation, Steve adds, “yeah.”

Steve’s answer makes Bucky smile, and he’ll gladly look like an idiot if that’s the response he gets. “Can we - could we do that?” Bucky asks, boosted by Steve’s eagerness.

“Sure,” Steve says, and it is, again, far too quick, almost cutting Bucky’s question off before it’s finished.

Bucky remains seated, just looking to Steve. It takes him a second to stand up, assuming that Bucky is waiting for him to take the lead. So Bucky’s uncertainty last week, the way he hesitated before hugging back, was not because of Steve. It was because of himself. His own - lack of experience? That - that was painful. Steve spent his childhood wrapped up in his mother’s arms, being held and hugged even when he pouted and complained and half-heartedly tried to escape. Sarah’s touch was as much his home as the place they lived, if not more. For Bucky to be so - so deprived - Steve can’t imagine the hurt.

Steve offers his hand down to Bucky, who takes it. The gesture is purely symbolic, as Steve would have no hope of helping someone Bucky’s size to their feet, no matter how stubborn he was.

Somewhere between Bucky’s hands twisting together on the table and now, Bucky’s removed one glove. The hand in his is, for the first time, unobstructed flesh. Bucky’s hand is warm and shaking and a little sweaty, from nerves or the glove or a combination of the two. It doesn’t matter to Steve. He grasps Bucky’s hand tight and encourages him to his feet with a tug. Bucky responds with an eagerness reminiscent of Steve’s blurted responses, upright and held at rigid attention before Steve can blink.

Steve is reluctant to remove his hand from Bucky’s, but he needs both free to wrap around his middle. Slowly, Steve untangles their hands, only to join his together again behind Bucky’s back. They barely reach - the size difference is not lost on Steve, not at all - but it’s the thought that counts.

Similar to last week, Bucky doesn’t respond immediately. He stands, statue-still, and waits. Steve can’t tell what he’s waiting for, just that it needs to happen. Like ice in the sunlight, Steve feels the tension melt from Bucky’s body. He sags into Steve, curling around him. Bucky’s head winds up resting atop Steve’s. Both of Bucky’s hands splay across his back, fingers spread wide like he might map the surface of Steve’s body by touch. He can almost cover Steve’s back entirely, just with two of his hands.

Steve carefully worms his way further into Bucky’s embrace so he can press his face against Bucky’s neck. His skin is warm - warmer, Steve thinks, than should be allowed. Bucky’s fingers curl in a little, gripping, holding him there, and that’s fine by Steve. It’s more than fine. He holds Bucky back, just as tight as he can, feeling the tight muscles beneath Bucky’s thick sweater. Parts of him are so well-built they feel solid, his shoulder more likely carved from stone than flesh.

As Steve feels the rigidity of Bucky’s posture relax, so too does he feel his own body soften in kind. The week hadn’t been nice to him, either. True, it was a mess of his own doing, but that didn’t mean the sleepless nights and constant worry hadn’t left its mark. To be wrapped up in someone’s arms without any further expectation or obligation was nice. Steve had truly felt sympathy for Bucky, who seemed to have never been hugged before, but he was starting to appreciate for himself the benefit of a good, solid hug.

Enveloped by Bucky’s body, Steve couldn’t tell how long they’d been standing there together. All he knew was that soon, far too soon, Bucky was loosening his grip and taking a small half-step back. Despite his desire to remain in Bucky’s arms for the rest of his life, Steve forces himself to take a step back, too.

Bucky looks at ease again, that calm smile of his back in place. “Thank you,” Bucky says, and Steve feels his insides warm at the sincerity of the statement.

“It was my pleasure,” Steve answers, and it really, truly was.

“You what?” Sam asks, dividing his glare between his coffee and Steve.

Steve sighs, glancing around as if someone might overhear them. Luckily for him, it’s December, which means finals are starting any minute now. People are more consumed with getting their caffeine fix than they are with hanging around and eavesdropping. It’s also not lucky for Steve that finals are coming up for him in the next two weeks, because… well, finals. But he has Bucky, who still helps him study around the cuddle-buddy status they now share, which he’s trying to describe to Sam. It’s not the easiest explanation simply because the term cuddle-buddy seems way too ridiculous to voice aloud.

Steve sighs, stirring his hot chocolate with a frown. “We,” Steve begins, trying to find a new way to explain the concept that Sam hasn’t been able to grasp yet. “We’ve been doing this thing for a while. Like… I go over to Bucky’s place,” Steve says, pausing to lick his spoon clean so he can gesture with it. “Then we just, sit on his bed and study. It’s kinda - snuggly. It’s nice.” Satisfied, Steve goes to take a sip of his drink.

Sam’s eyes remain narrowed, the frown firmly in place. “Are you two fucking?” Steve splutters and chokes on the end of his mouthful of hot chocolate. Sam, who doesn’t care about his impending death, continues, “because you can just tell me, you know.”

“We’re not fucking, Sam!” Steve protests, in a hoarse whisper-yell. “Christ, no. We’re not.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit!” Steve argues, then huffs very indignantly. “If we were fucking, I’d be telling the world about it. I’d be getting one of those planes to write it in the sky. We are not sleeping together.”

That, if nothing else, seems to satisfy Sam. He rocks back a little in the chair, and then a small smirk crosses his lips. Steve considers that he should have never brought this up with Sam, despite it being somewhat necessary. Bucky’s inviting Steve over more frequently, and whilst they do still study, a lot of it is spent just sitting together: their arms flush, shoulder to elbow, or Steve’s feet in Bucky’s lap. It’s horribly affectionate, and Steve’s at the point - after a mere three weeks - where he simply cannot handle it.

Every time Bucky touches him, Steve thinks he’s losing his mind. He has to shuffle around to ensure he doesn’t offend Bucky by getting inappropriately interested in what they’re doing. But Bucky smells so good, and his arms and legs and body are so big and, despite the muscle, surrounded in most places by a layer of softness. He’s like the perfect mattress. Steve’s fallen asleep on him once already.

Steve needs someone to talk to, and Sam needs to know the context to give advice. Which is why Steve is sitting in Kerckhoff before eight, telling Sam about the thing he’s doing which is, quite possibly, even weirder than casual sex.

“You’re cuddle-buddies.”

“What?” Steve splutters again, and his poor hot chocolate is going everywhere but his stomach. “No, we’re not.”

“Yes, you are.” Sam’s smirk is in full-force, and it’s too smug for this time of day.

Steve glances at the remainder of his hot chocolate and runs through his options. One, he steals it and the mug and leaves. Two, he gives up on the drink and flees the vicinity. Three, he sits there, drinks what he paid for, and gets teased by Sam for the entire duration.

“I could leave right now,” Steve threatens, “just so you know.”

“Yeah, but you won’t.”

Sam, as always, is right. Steve at least has the hot chocolate to indulge in as his unconventional relationship status is brought up at least a hundred times in a very one-sided conversation.

They study - “study” - on Thursday evenings and on Saturday afternoons now.

Bucky always greets Steve with a hug, and with continued exposure he’s grown more confident in initiating physical contact between them. Steve’s still asking before doing anything - he’s working up to asking Bucky if he can braid his hair, because it’s so long and Steve really just wants to get his hands on it. They’re both making progress in their own ways.

When Bucky greets him that Thursday with his usual hug, there’s something else about it: a certain tightness, an extra-strong squeeze that Steve isn’t expecting to push the air from his lungs in a small oof.

Bucky drops him suddenly, and Steve - breathless and with his spine newly readjusted - stumbles to find his footing. “Are you okay?” Bucky’s face is instantly a mess of concern, hands hovering at Steve’s sides - not touching, but ready to grab him as necessary. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Steve laughs once he’s got his breath back. He drifts back towards Bucky, a small celestial body pulled to his orbit. He nudges Bucky’s side with his elbow as he passes. “You’ve got strong arms.” It’s not like Steve has spent many sleepless nights considering Bucky’s arms and the things they are capable of or anything like that. Bucky could strangle him and Steve would die happy, that’s all.

That, somehow, is the wrong answer. With the time they spend together, Steve’s come to learn that not everything about Bucky is those sweet, soft smiles and the surprisingly sharp wit underneath it all. There are things that cause Bucky to freeze up or to lose his words. He stops and fumbles more often than one would expect, given the personality Bucky has curated amongst the students of UCLA who all seem to know him. It’s a with great power comes great responsibility sort of thing, because Steve has to watch what he says and does when something’s not quite right and he can’t tell what it is.

Like right now. He’s done something wrong, and Bucky’s frowning. The tension is back - muscles wound tight, the air suddenly thick with it.

Steve doesn’t bother Bucky when there’s something going on, he just waits. Bucky has proven to Steve on multiple occasions that he can handle himself with ease. He brings himself back and will either talk to Steve about it or not. When he doesn’t, that’s just a sign that it’s none of Steve’s business. Curiosity killed the cat, that’s what he tells himself when he nearly blurts out questions that Bucky is clearly not inviting. It killed the cat. Steve’s not a murderer.

Instead, Steve goes to greet Alpine. She’s asleep on a book on the dining table and permits several ear scratches before darting off to her hiding place.

Bucky hasn’t spoken, and Steve waves a hand temptingly at Alpine but she snubs him completely.

“Buck?” Steve prompts, which sometimes work and sometimes doesn’t.

On this occasion, it does. Bucky turns and nods towards the bed. Steve knows what that means (secretly he wishes it meant something more, but it doesn’t and that’s fine) and he meets Bucky there, the two of them sitting side-by-side. Bucky toys with his gloves before removing the right one, and placing his hand on the comforter between them. Steve looks at it, then back to Bucky. Since the first time they hugged - well, second, really - Steve hasn’t actually touched Bucky’s skin. It’s always been clothed contact, Bucky protected by a layer of sweaters and long-sleeved shirts and gloves.

Steve carefully lays his hand over Bucky’s, and he can feel the way Bucky’s hand is shaking even as its planted on a firm surface. A sideways glance catches Bucky’s face: brow knitted down in determination, teeth pulling at his lower lip, some of his escaped hair falling in front of his face. Steve feels breathless at the sight of him.

Bucky’s hand slowly turns beneath his, and Steve just moves to accommodate. Then Bucky slides his fingers between Steve’s, and a shiver runs up his spine. The skin between his fingers tingle as Bucky fills the space. Steve grips back, hoping his tightest hold will ease some of the shaking.

“This okay?” Steve asks in a whisper, and Bucky gives a tense nod in response.

As with every contact, Steve lets Bucky take his time. They sit, holding hands, for what must be ten minutes. Bucky’s still trembling a little, but it’s eased off. His fingers shift between Steve’s, as if trying to make a groove for themselves there. You’re welcome, Steve wants to say. Make a home, stay as long as you like.

“I,” Bucky begins, soft and slow, a tremor to his voice like the one that still passes through the space where his skin meets Steve. “I need to tell you something.”

“I’m all ears,” Steve answers, his thumb starting to rub grounding circles against the back of Bucky’s hand.

Steve can track Bucky’s thoughts through the movements in his hands. Each time Bucky thinks something difficult, it translates in his touch: a pause, a clench, a sudden twitch, as if his palm craves to protect itself by forming a fist. Each time, Bucky relaxes, eases off, and keeps his hand firmly within Steve’s grip.

“A long time ago, I got hurt,” Bucky begins. Steve’s mind immediately jumps to respond, and he catches himself before doing so. Bucky’s not done - he can tell that. But he wants to know what happened, who did it - who he has to hurt for daring to do something to someone as kind and gentle as Bucky. “I don’t remember much before it. I don’t really remember a time before…”

Steve isn’t sure where this is going. He can’t tell if it’s a confession of something greater between them - can’t stop his heart from lurching in excitement at the possibility it could be. Perhaps this is just a time for Bucky to share, to vent. If Steve has become a safe place for Bucky, a person he can trust to tell anything that plagues his mind… Steve will be happy with that, too. Bucky’s friendship is more important than anything they could do together. Steve, in this moment, can’t think of a single thing more intimate than holding Bucky’s hand as the sun sets in the window behind them.

“I would like to show you, but - you can’t tell anybody.” Bucky finally turns his head to look at Steve, imploring. “Please.”

It’s a no-brainer. “I promise, Buck. Anything you tell me - I’ll keep it secret. It’s not my business to tell.” Not even Sam, Steve vows to himself. He can still bemoan his situation without compromising Bucky’s trust, surely.

Bucky then pulls his hand back, and Steve mourns the sudden loss of heat and warmth. His hand feels clammy in Bucky’s absence.

Steve notices quickly why Bucky’s pulled his hand back - it’s to pull the glove off of his other hand.

What Steve sees, he doesn’t think is entirely real. Instead of a matching flesh hand to go with the one Steve had just been holding, Bucky’s left hand is entirely - metal. Steve stares at the prosthetic hand without even considering how rude that could be. Bucky doesn’t seem to mind - he rolls his sleeve up to mid-elbow, and the metal continues. Steve’s mind feels like there’s something missing, an important snippet of information that would provide vital context to this.

But there’s not.

Only, it provides context for everything else: the way Bucky only makes contact with others using his right hand, or the way he would move so Steve sat at his right not his left. It explains to Steve why there’s one hand always gripping him a little tighter when they hug, and it’s the right. His one-shouldered shrugs. The oddly firm space Steve had rested his head on; the way Bucky tensed when he did. Bucky’s kept this one hidden away. That probably explains why, prior to Steve, he never let anyone hug him. Did he think they’d be afraid? That they’d hate him for it?

Steve exhales, and meets Bucky’s eyes. There’s fear there, and Bucky’s made no effort to hide it.

“I’m sorry,” Steve manages, at last, unable to keep his gaze from the prosthetic arm for too long.

It’s obviously not the response Bucky was anticipating. “Why?” Bucky asks, and he sounds genuinely confused.

Steve, despite how jarring it is to see, wants to hold Bucky’s left hand. “I’m sorry that you got hurt like this,” Steve explains, after a moment of thought. “And I’m sorry if it made it hard for you to - touch people.”

Bucky looks down at the hand, two sets of eyes on its shiny exterior. “It’s useful,” Bucky says, as if in defence of the hand, although he says it with some measure of discomfort, like he doesn’t fully believe his own words.

“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t hurt you.”

Bucky opens his mouth to respond, then stops. He just hums. It sounds like an agreement.

“Can I touch it?” Steve asks. It’s the safest question he has. The rest are about the hand - or arm - and how Bucky got it. He knows if Bucky wanted to share, he would have done so already.

The fear hasn’t left Bucky’s face. He turns his metal hand over and curls it up into a fist. Now that it’s unclothed, Steve can hear it - a very slight whirring noise that is probably only audible in a silent setting with nothing in the way to muffle the noise. “If you want to,” Bucky replies, and his voice sounds small and uncertain.

Steve stands and moves himself, rather than lay across Bucky’s lap. When he sits down he tries not to stare, and just picks Bucky’s hand up. It’s warm from the glove, and though it’s made of hard metal it’s not uncomfortable to touch. Rather, any potential sharp edges have been filed down and the metal is smooth. Steve knows Bucky must be able to control the hand - up until now, Steve hadn’t noticed anything different about it beneath the protection of fabric - but it doesn’t stop his careful manoeuvring to put them in a hand-holding position.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bucky says, gently, as Steve coaxes his fingers to bend to the curve of his own hand.

Steve can’t imagine someone like Bucky hurting anything, metal prosthesis or not, but he smiles. “I’ll tell you if it starts to hurt.”

Bucky seems placated by this, and Steve finally gets their hands joined.

It doesn’t hurt at all, not even when Bucky relaxes and let himself hold Steve back. It does the exact opposite of hurt, and that should be a problem to Steve, but he’s seen it coming for a while. Nothing’s going to change the way he’s falling hopelessly in love with Bucky.

Chapter Text

Steve realises several things rather abruptly.

One, his head is hanging between his knees and his eyes may possibly be shut.

Two, said head is pounding with a ferocity that Steve feels might be familiar but he can’t quite say around the pain.

Three, he has absolutely no idea where he is or how he got there.

Steve tries to take a steadying breath, one of those calming and grounding things because his entire body feels like it’s removed from the earth, but he can’t. Or he can, but it’s less a proper breath, more a shitty attempt. It doesn’t do a damn thing to fill his lungs, and Steve notices after a moment that his current rate of breathing is a medley of short, shallow gasps for air.

He needs his inhaler at least ten minutes ago.

“Steve?” A sharp voice cuts through the panic in his brain as he tries to urge it into action. It’s unmistakably Maria’s voice, which possibly answers Steve’s question of where he is.

“Uh?” He tries to form a single word reply, but all he can manage is a thready, breathless noise.

“Hey,” Maria says, voice softer now. Steve twitches away from the feeling of her hands on his chin, too cold against his overheated skin. “Look at me.”

Steve does so, though his head weighs approximately the same as a small car and takes all of his energy to do so. He blinks his eyes open, and - yeah. He’s at work. Or he’s in the backroom at work, sitting on an overturned milk crate, a bucket between his legs. He’s certainly not working.

Neither, for that matter, is Maria, who is working literally twenty-four hours a day, Steve’s convinced of that. She’s looking at him with a terrifying mix of concern and displeasure (the concern is the terrifying part - Steve’s used to either disinterest or annoyance).

“I don’t know why on Earth you thought you were in any fit state to work tonight.” Maria’s back to her brusque, quick talking, which makes Steve’s head spin a little and explains the bucket. He is still trying to breathe deeply enough to fill his lungs, to ease the rising terror that’s convincing him he is dying. “But you’re here. And you look and sound like you’re about to die. So you either tell me someone’s around who can pick your ass up in the next ten minutes, or I’m calling an ambulance.”

Maria’s words do little to ease Steve’s fear, particularly when she mentions the ambulance. Steve’s not a healthy person, he knows that. It’s not that he aims to be unhealthy, it just happens to him. He’s been in countless ambulances. He’s been to the doctor’s clinic probably upwards of ten thousand times, and the hospital - well, less than that, but not by a huge amount. Maybe the fever and delirium is making him exaggerate a bit, but he’s been in every sort of medical building one could imagine too many times.

Only the last time he had to go was when he went in with his mother, and he left without her. And the times before that, when he went, Sarah Rogers was right at his side for all of it.

Steve notices, in a kind of abstract way, that panicking about going to the hospital isn’t helpful. He already can’t breathe and now his chest is clenching up even tighter and Maria’s saying words but he can’t understand and his inhaler is in his hand and then in his mouth and he’s counting to four. Four puffs, four breaths.

The reliever doesn’t do much to ease the tightness of his chest, but it’s better than nothing. It’s enough, hopefully, to convince Maria not to send his ass to the hospital.

His hands feel huge as he pats his pockets down, and fumbles his phone out. The screen hurts his eyes, and jeez, how did he even get here? Steve’s been known to do stupid shit (Sam never lets him live it down), but he distinctly remembers cancelling his studying session with Bucky the previous day and then - little else. If he was too ill for that, why wouldn’t he take the day off work, too.

(Steve also remembers, now that he’s thinking about it, Bucky’s warnings against spending the entire finals period sustaining his body off of coffee and a bulk pack of muffins he got from work at a discounted price because they were close to going out of date, but that can’t be at all relevant to his current health situation, right?)

Maria’s hands are steady around his, and she navigates his phone for him.

Steve’s adamant about not going to hospital, and Sam is a light sleeper. He’ll wake up, despite whatever late hour it is that Steve’s starting his shift.

He’s almost made it to Sam’s name, too, before Steve remembers.

Sam’s gone home for the winter break. He’s not on campus. He left his keys with Steve and told him to water the plant Riley gave him as a weird dating gift ritual thing.

And there it is, the tide of panic chasing him back up the shore, wetting his feet and sucking him in.

That leaves only one person on Steve’s admittedly short contact list he can call. He gestures upwards, and Maria slides her finger, the contact names moving from S up to B.

Steve forces himself to focus so he presses Bucky’s name amidst the sea of drifting letters.

“Bucky?” Maria asks, purely for clarification, and Steve nods.

Then she’s taking the call and Steve’s free to hang his head back over the bucket on the floor. There’s nothing in it. He elects to take that as a good sign, though his rolling stomach reminds him not to get too far ahead of himself.

It feels like Steve’s underwater, trying to eavesdrop on Maria’s conversation, his ears clogged with water and entirely useless. It’s not a long one, and soon enough she’s back with a soothing hand on his knee. She says something. Steve might reply. He’s concentrating on not freaking out and losing the ability to breathe whilst also keeping whatever might be in his stomach in the correct place.

It is by no means an easy feat.

Steve’s been sitting on that uncomfortable crate for what feels like at least an hour when Maria stands up and leaves.

Then, without any fanfare, Bucky’s in front of him.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, and Steve lets himself very elegantly drop forward against the other man.

Bucky catches him. Steve had no doubt that he would. It’s still nice to have it happen.

The immediate effect of Bucky’s body on his is calm. Steve’s chest loosens, just a fraction, and he can pull in a little more air. His brain feels less like an untethered balloon, floating away into the atmosphere. It’s like Bucky’s arms are holding him on the ground, keeping him where he needs to be.

The back of Bucky’s hand touches Steve’s forehead, checking for temperature, and it feels ice-cold. Steve can’t see - doesn’t even bother looking - but he tries to ask Bucky why he’d have his metal hand out here, in the middle of the Trader Joe’s break room. But the hand that pulls back is distinctly flesh coloured, and all that comes out of his mouth is, “Buck?”, confused and slow.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Bucky answers, his voice close to Steve’s ear. “How do you feel?”

Steve makes a noise that hopefully conveys his reply of, “like absolute shit, how are you?

“Listen,” Bucky says, and Steve’s only got the energy to focus on one thing and that thing is Bucky, so he’s all ears. “I’m going to take you to the hospital.”

Immediately, Steve tries to form the words to protest that decision. He can’t find the air to offer a single-syllable response, so there’s no way he can lend voice to the horror that rears up inside him when he hears that word, but - Steve tries. He tries his damn best, but instead he ends up choking on spit or mucus or something equally as disgusting and has to keep his lungs inside his body instead.

“Stevie, hey, listen to me.” Bucky’s voice has a hint of authority to it, and Steve defers - but only because he’s running out of oxygen. No other reason. Maybe also the fact that Bucky’s hand is on his back, patting it gently. “Your boss said you’d used your inhaler already before getting here. And a couple of times since then. I’m worried about you. I promise, I’ll stay with you the whole time.”

Steve wants to shove Bucky away and take himself home, but he’s been sick like this before. The sort of proper unwell that warrants a good week in bed (in his case, at least). Realistically, the hospital is the best place for him. It doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

“Stay,” Steve manages, and his voice sounds raw and desperate - perhaps because that’s how he feels.

“I’m not going to leave you,” Bucky assures, and Steve lets the promise of Bucky’s words allay his fears.

Slowly, Bucky repositions them so he can lift Steve up. He narrates the whole process - “I’m just putting my arm here, okay?” - in a move that is so sweet and thoughtful that might just be the thing to do Steve in. A whole new chest-crushing feeling starts, but it’s the sort Steve is used to.

As if he weighs nothing, Bucky stands up with Steve in his arms. Steve has the very important job of holding onto the bucket Maria gave him. His own hands are shaking just from that, or perhaps because of whatever’s wreaking havoc on his body. Either way, Bucky’s holding him like he’s a newborn kitten and Steve’s acting like the bucket is the size of a boulder. It should be embarrassing, but there’s a very clear difference in muscle mass and general health between the two of them to account for.

Outside it’s cold - California cold, the sort of cold Steve didn’t think had the right to call itself cold until now. He huddles into Bucky’s chest, his own body torn between seeking out warmth or relishing in the chilly breeze. He thinks of saying something else, like he’s alright and can walk, but Steve knows it’s a lie. It’d do more damage to his dignity to try and protest his well being when he can’t even manage to breathe without issue.

Bucky jostles him a little as he unlocks his car and opens the door, and then Steve is deprived of warmth altogether. A pitiful noise worms its way out of his body, and Bucky’s hand returns to his forehead, warmer now. The temperature doesn’t make much of a difference, as Steve’s turning towards Bucky as a person rather than as a source of warmth.

“I’m going to drive now,” Bucky explains, and Steve can feel the bulk of him cross his body to pull the seatbelt on. The bucket is returned to his hands, though Steve isn’t sure where he lost it. “Do you want anything to drink?”

Steve shakes his head, or tries to. It still feels impossibly heavy.

“Let me know if you start to feel worse.”

It’s a ridiculous statement. Steve already feels the worst. He knows in a distant sort of way that he’s been to hospital so many times, that what is likely some fucked up strain of the flu is not the worst thing that’s happened to him. But right now, it feels that way. His entire body throbs in time with his pulse. His chest aches for a deeper breath but punishes him whenever he tries with coughing fits that shake him apart. His head is simultaneously on fire and frozen and stuffed full of cotton wool. Bucky’s silent as he drives, and Steve tries to watch him but the sight of streetlights through the window make him nauseous so he can’t. He paws his glasses off and lets them fall unceremoniously somewhere in Bucky’s car. If he can’t see, nothing can hurt his eyes, right?

It’s another eternity before they’re stopping. Steve feels Bucky’s hands on him, manhandling him from his seat, and he can’t even muster up a token protest. He feels like a ragdoll. All the energy he has is devoted to staying conscious, not to maintaining any life in his limbs. Besides, Bucky’s doing a suitable job arranging his body and carrying it towards where the bright light stabs at Steve through his eyelids.

The smell of a hospital is as familiar to Steve as that of his childhood home. It was, for many months, his actual childhood home. Thank god the medical field had some generous leaps forward during his lifetime, or else he’d still be cooped up in a bed watching everyone live their lives without him.

Though the smell is reminiscent of childhood, it’s not a welcoming one. Steve wants to leave as soon as they’re in the hospital, the sensation of being inside prickling his skin.

There’s one weak effort at escaping Bucky’s clutches, then Steve gives up. He feels the rumble of Bucky’s words more than he hears them, but they’re nice and low and calm. “I’m right here, Steve. I’ve got you.”

And if Steve has to be in the worst place in the world, at least he’s got Bucky.

They ask a lot of questions neither Bucky nor Steve can answer. They explain to Steve that they’re injecting him with something to reduce the inflammation in his lungs and help bring his asthma back under control. Steve tries to nod, and he must do a good enough job at giving consent because he slowly feels his body loosen up. He can breathe deeper than before, and that chases away the panic that had been gnawing at the edges of his awareness.

Being in the hospital threatens to resurrect that fear, but Bucky’s holding his hand - flesh in flesh - and his heart settles back down.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky asks, his thumb rubbing patterns on Steve’s skin the same way Steve had done to him.

Steve shrugs, and that feels like a monumental achievement. “Tired,” he says, voice rough. “Like shit.”

That earns him a snort, and Steve smiles faintly. He’s propped up on a hospital bed, but not in a room - he can hear people all around them, the thin, mint-green curtain the only thing keeping them contained. There’s a child crying somewhere. Steve wishes he had the energy to be annoyed about it.

“I bet,” Bucky murmurs, sympathetically. He leans over and offers Steve his glasses. Though Steve would rather live under the assumption of if I can’t see it, I’m not there, he would also like to see Bucky, so he takes them. “They took some blood earlier, to test. And they listened to your chest. I’m not sure how much you remember.”

Steve does remember, in a hazy sort of way, them asking about everything. “That it?”

Bucky hums in thought a moment before expanding on his original answer. “They gave you something for the asthma attack and something for your fever and the pain. You complained a lot.”

Steve smiles a little wider. “I’m good at that.” Each word still feels like a labour, but they all get out and are coherent. Steve’ll take that as a win.

Bucky squeezes his hand and tries to smile back, but even Steve can tell it’s forced.

He waits, because Steve knows Bucky will talk when he’s ready to talk. It takes a little longer this time, long enough for the nurse to poke her head in and ask if either of them want anything (they don’t).

Once she goes, Bucky squeezes his hand again. “You asked - for your mom. And I - I don’t know her phone number, so I couldn’t call, but. I can ring her now, if you’d like?”

Steve feels suddenly like all the work the painkillers did is undone. His chest clenches tight, and Steve grips Bucky’s hand equally as hard. He doesn’t know how to form the words - it should be easy, just saying that she’s dead, because it’s been four years, more than that, maybe. Steve can’t remember, he doesn’t even know what day it currently is. Or the time. Or where he is, what hospital.

“Hey, no,” Bucky’s still talking, shuffling in closer and draping his other arm - the metal one, because Steve’s squeezing the life out of his flesh-and-blood one - across Steve’s chest. It’s not a restraining hold, it’s not even oppressive, it’s just a present weight to ground him.

Steve doesn’t know how Bucky knows these things. It’s like he was, at some point, given a guidebook to Steve and told to study up. Because the comforting touch eases him back down against the mattress, and he can feel his lungs relax once again.

“We don’t have to talk about it,” is all Bucky says on the topic, but Steve can see that Bucky knows. He, like Sam, is a mind reader, clearly, but Steve doesn’t care. He’s grateful he doesn’t have to relive the last time he was in a hospital right now, because simply being in the hospital is strenuous enough.

Steve turns his head towards Bucky, who’s holding Steve in a weird sort of half-hug now. He lets his head drop over onto Bucky’s upper arm, and the other man carefully repositions himself so Steve’s on the sturdier surface of his flesh shoulder.

They lay like that for an indeterminate period of time. Though the medicine Steve’s been given holds the fever at bay, he’s still tired enough that he dozes on and off. Thankfully, nothing populates his dreams in that time. It’s just blackness, and every time he wakes, Bucky is there.

Finally, a doctor comes in - or returns, Steve’s not quite been paying attention. He rouses himself as best he can, shuffling a little so he’s sitting upright and not curled along the line of Bucky’s muscular arm.

“I’ve got good news,” the doctor begins, and Steve’s skin crawls. Good news. He’s not sure the hospital’s ever given him much of that. “It’s like I thought - you’ve got a pretty bad case of bacterial pneumonia. Probably started out like the flu and developed. That, with your asthma, has really thrown your body for a loop.”

Steve feels his body shift, and a turn to the left shows him why: Bucky’s giving his full attention to the doctor, nodding along to what he’s being told. Steve thinks stupidly that Bucky would take notes if he could, and that brings a weak smile to his face. Colour-coded notes in that enchanting handwriting of his.

Without being prompted, the doctor continues. “I’ve got a prescription for antibiotics to fight off the infection. I’ve also written down a recommendation for some over the counter medications, just to help with the fever and the aches and pains. What we’ve given you should tide you over until you get home. Are you two…?” The doctor hesitates and gestures between them, and Steve’s too tired to follow his medical advice let alone read into what he means by the waving hand.

“We’re friends?” Bucky answers, with audible confusion. Steve’s immensely grateful he’s here, because otherwise he would’ve probably said something inappropriate. Or not gone to the hospital at all and died on the floor of his break room. One or the other.

“Do you have someone at home who can help you, Steve?” The doctor asks, and Steve twitches his head to the side in what he hopes translates as a shake. Ben’s home for the holidays. So’s Sam, and he’s the only other person Steve could impose upon.

The doctor fusses, and Steve rolls his eyes - or tries to. It’s hard to do a whole lot, especially when his head is on the perfectly comfortable pillow of Bucky’s delt.

“Is he not allowed to be alone?” Bucky pipes up, and Steve feels indignant. He’s right there. And he’s allowed to do whatever he wants. Steve’s ignored medical advice and discharged himself from hospital enough times to know that, while they legally can’t stop him from being an idiot, it’s usually a good idea to do as he’s told.

The doctor does something Steve doesn’t catch as he tries to muster up his energy into some kind of rant. “My only concern is the asthma. With the medication, you should be alright. But it’s always good to have someone else around, in case you need to call an ambulance.”

There goes the indignant prickle across Steve’s skin, but before he can say the words he’s spent far too long organising in his head, Bucky cuts him off.

“Steve can stay with me.”

Bucky offers like it’s nothing, like he’s walking Steve to his car or giving him some of his spare change. Steve’s been to Bucky’s house enough to know that it is one large room with an attached bathroom. It is one large room with one bed and nothing else.

“That would be great,” the doctor carries on, and Steve’s brain is scurrying to catch up. “I’ll bring the discharge papers around now, if you’re ready to go?”

Steve’s brain is a war between wanting to leave the hospital and wanting to argue with Bucky. His attempt to arrange his brain cells into working order for a pros/cons breakdown doesn’t work, and so Steve just goes with what he currently wants. And what he currently wants is to be far away from the hospital, with the horribly familiar sounds of beeping and buzzing and crying. He’ll argue with Bucky later.

Later comes too quickly for Steve to fully process.

Steve is discharged and Bucky manhandles him back into the car. Somewhere in that process, Steve falls fast asleep, and he only wakes up because Bucky jostles him as he tries to get his keys into the door one-handed.

“What?” Steve manages, some other words slurred into each other until their meaning is well and truly lost.

Bucky doesn’t answer until they’re inside. He doesn’t answer until he has laid Steve very carefully out on his bed, and Steve just - lets it happen.

It isn’t the drugs making him speechless in that instant, but he’d swear to his grave it was.

It is, instead, the gentle way Bucky places him on the bed. It’s almost like being lowered onto a cloud, how Bucky’s hands don’t slide out from beneath him until Steve’s practically on the bed anyway. The metal and flesh synchronise, acting in such a way that Steve can’t tell one from the other.

“The doctor said you should have something light to eat,” Bucky says, just a touch above a whisper but it carries through the empty apartment.

Alpine jumps up onto the bed (Steve wonders if his arrival dislodged her, then thinks he should probably apologise. Then he remembers she’s a cat.) to sniff at his outline, as if they haven’t already met multiple times.

“Do you like toast?”

“Yes?” Steve answers slowly, then scowls. “Wait.”

Bucky, in the kitchen, freezes completely. Steve doesn’t think he’s even breathing. He just stares at Steve, doing just as he was instructed - waiting.

“What are you doing?” Steve asks, dragging his torso up onto Bucky’s bundle of pillows so he can at least see what’s happening.

Bucky holds up the piece of bread in his hand. “Making you toast?” He answers, tentatively.

Steve lifts his hands to rub at his eyes, then looks at himself. He’s in Bucky’s bed, eating Bucky’s food, and getting his sick germs everywhere. He’s being a nuisance.

“But-,” Steve can’t think around the swirl of issues he has with this. All he can do is concentrate on what is right in front of him, and that is his work shoes on Bucky’s nice, white comforter. Tears well in Steve’s eyes at the sight of it, and the whole situation reminds him how much he hates being sick and how much he misses his mom.

Steve manages a choked, “fuck,” before he’s leaning down to wrestle his shoes off. It takes more effort than it should, bending down to unlace the ugly black shoes, and Steve’s stubbornly daring his lungs to complain about that treatment when Bucky reappears in his line of sight.

The tears in the corner of his eyes blur the sight of his hands on the laces, and then Bucky’s hands are enveloping Steve’s.

“Steve,” Bucky says in a voice that is so gentle, Steve can’t help but feel annoyed at it. There’s no reason for Bucky to be so kind to him. He doesn’t deserve this. Not with the sort of friend he’s been to Bucky, taking advantage of his kindness and his knowledge.

He makes a weak attempt to break Bucky’s hold, but he’s strong - Steve’s laid his head on those arms, has been wrapped in them multiple times, he knows that to be true. But he tries anyway. Steve Rogers may be many things, but he’s not a quitter.

“Steve, stop.” Bucky speaks with a firmness Steve has never heard from him. In the ensuing pause, Bucky takes advantage of his lack of movement and pries his hands from his shoes. “What’s wrong?”

A lot of things are wrong. He’s sick - feels like a weight has settled on his chest and is in it for the long haul - and he was just at thehospital, which holds memories that range from in minor pain to in enough pain I wish I was dead. Steve gets to hold Bucky on the regular, but his traitorous fucking heart can’t be happy with that, it wants - it wants so badly - to have more than that.

Steve brings up the easiest thing he can give words to, that he’s just sick, but somewhere between his brain and his mouth the wires cross over. What comes out instead is: “I miss my mom.” His voice, like his heart, breaks halfway through.

 Bucky’s holding his hands by his shoes one rattling inhale, then he’s wrapping around Steve by the shaky exhale. It’s more sudden than any of the other times they’ve hugged. It’s tighter. There’s something else to it, an undercurrent of electricity that reminds Steve he’s still - regrettably - alive. Steve doesn’t bother clinging to any modicum of dignity now. He’s already lost whatever he had, so he lets loose: he cries into Bucky’s chest, allows the warm hardness of his body absorb the wracking sobs that escape him. They devolve at several points into coughing fits, and Bucky just stays there and holds Steve’s hands on his inhaler and rubs soothing circles into his back and mumbles calm platitudes.

When, finally, Steve’s cried himself out, Bucky doesn’t move. Steve tries to muster words up again, but he’s too tired for that. Distantly, he wonders what happened to the toast. But that’s unimportant. Steve can eat in the morning, or whenever he wakes up - now could be morning for all he knows. He’s enveloped entirely by Bucky’s larger body, and he burrows into that softness and safety.

Steve doesn’t know when the magic will run out, when Bucky realises he’s not deserving of this and sends him on his way, but that’s okay. Steve has learned how to make the most of a limited time.

Steve’s eyes are crusted shut. It’s kind of disgusting. He reaches a heavy hand up to scrub the gunk away, and when his vision is clear-ish he has to blink a few times to get his bearings.

It’s Bucky’s apartment. Candles burn in warm blurs on the shelves of artfully arranged bookshelves, beside potted plants and textbooks.

Steve flails his hand around until he finds his glasses. They look to have fallen off his chest during the night - or day, whatever he’s just slept through.

They bring clarity to the rest of the room. The fairy lights around the bed have been turned off as the mid-afternoon sun casts soft yellow patches on the comforter. Alpine is curled in the space beside his legs, playing at being sound asleep though probably watching Steve through squinted eyes.

And there is Bucky, sitting at the dining table, pouring over something. He shifts some things about on the table, lifts one up, and Steve realises they’re cards of some kind.

He thinks about saying something (he could make fun of Bucky, playing card games to pass the time like some relic from his Grandpa’s era), but then hesitates. Steve’s the sort of person to shoot first, he knows that, but the hopelessly in love/reasonable part of his brain overrides here. If he speaks, Bucky will stop what he’s doing, and Steve’s -

Well, Steve’s admiring him. That is a new constant in his life that he never expected.

Bucky is concentrating, that much is clear. He shuffles his cards around again, and there’s a wrinkle that appears between his eyebrows - a pinch that Steve wants to smooth with his fingers. When Bucky worries at his bottom lip with his teeth, Steve thinks he might have died and gone to heaven. Bucky, touched by the afternoon sun and with the most delightful displays of deep thought, that’s what Steve’s dream afterlife would be.

Unfortunately, a coughing fit takes Steve by surprise and he shatters the moment. Alpine runs off to indignantly groom herself by the kitchen counter, glaring at Steve. Bucky startles, drops a card, and is at Steve’s side at a truly shocking speed.

Steve holds a hand up to indicate that he’s fine, even as Bucky gathers his inhaler and the medicine from the hospital. Steve didn’t really pay attention to what he was being prescribed. Bucky evidently did.

Thankfully, Bucky remains at bay until Steve’s regained the ability to talk. At which point he makes a hoarse request - “Water?” - and guzzles down the glass greedily before trusting his voice again. “What time is it?”

“Half past four,” Bucky replies, his voice even quieter than normal. “How are you feeling?”

Steve has to really think. He takes stock. His body feels as if it weighs a damn tonne, which is a feeling he recognises as being the aftermath of medications containing sedatives, no matter the quantity. His throat is scratchy and warm, and his chest feels like a bomb on the verge of detonation: a breath too deep, and it’d blow again. There’s a small headache building behind his left eye, which could be from too much sleep or too little sleep or just because fuck Steve and his comfort. His stomach answers before Steve can, rumbling its protest. Instead of the feeling of nausea from the past couple of days, he’s starving.

“Hungry?” Steve offers with a wince, but Bucky’s already retreated to the kitchen.

“That’s good,” he announces as he works, pulling something Steve can’t see out of a cupboard. “I was worried. I was making you something to eat, and you fell asleep. You’ve woken up a couple of times, but not - fully.”

Steve is reminded, painfully, of his breakdown over getting his shoes off. He wiggles his toes experimentally to find that they’ve been freed at some point. He blushes. “Sorry.”

“Steve, don’t,” Bucky replies, and he’s at the toaster again. It’s coming back to Steve. Toast. Something plain. “Please don’t apologise. I should have come to check up on you when you said you were unwell. This is my fault.”

An incredulous burst of laughter escapes Steve’s chest, and somehow avoids triggering another coughing fit. It’s nice, laughing instead of coughing. Instead of crying. He’s done too much of those the past day. “This isn’t your fault, Bucky, Jesus. I got sick. It happens - a lot.”

Now Bucky turns a delightful shade of pink, made all the brighter by the setting sun hitting him just so. “I know. When you fell asleep, I called Sam. I just - wanted to check.”

“Check?” Steve probes, eyebrow raised, and Bucky does his little one-armed shrug that Steve now better understands.

“What to do. If this happened to you much.”

“And?”

“And he said you need to take care of yourself better,” Bucky answers, just as the toast pops out of the toaster. “And that’s his words, not mine. Although I do agree.”

Steve attempts to look indignant, but it’s all for show. “I take fine care of myself.”

“You don’t remember walking to work last night.” Bucky sounds a tad smug, and Steve hates him for it. “You didn’t remember me getting you from work.”

“How do you know that?” Steve watches Bucky work, buttering the toast. Bucky’s arm is beautiful, catching the light now. It practically glows. It looks better in gold.

Bucky glances up, one eyebrow raised almost to his hairline. “You asked where I came from a few hours ago,” Bucky replies, walking around the island counter and offering the plate to Steve. Even his stoneware is cute: beneath his toast, Steve can see the plate is white with watercolour splashes all over it.

Instead of dignifying that with an answer (he vaguely remembers snippets of the night before), Steve takes a large bite of toast. It seems to be the best response - Bucky looks thoroughly pleased as he sits delicately on the edge of the bed. Steve finishes his mouthful, savouring the warm, melted buttery goodness of it. God, toast is excellent. Steve should eat toast more. He takes another bite as he shuffles himself across the bed, closer to the wall that borders one edge of it. Bucky doesn’t take his invitation until Steve pats the space beside him with his crumb-less hand.

Bucky, who isn’t very good at taking a hint, moves up so he’s sitting in line with Steve’s head as opposed to his feet. He’s still gingerly occupying a meagre inch of bed space, which makes Steve wonder how he hasn’t toppled to the ground already, but then he remembers Bucky has legs to rival his arms and that’s a thought process Steve should follow at a later date.

“Come here,” Steve demands around a mouthful of toast, crumbs tumbling to the covers, but he’s sick and grumpy and he wants to be in Bucky’s arms so bad.

Bucky sits on the bed next to Steve, and very carefully lays his right arm over Steve’s shoulders. Steve, who has to do everything around here clearly, slides himself so he’s half seated on Bucky’s lap. He lets his head rest against Bucky’s chest, and feels the prosthetic hand settle on his thigh. Bucky rarely touches with his metal hand, and so Steve places his free, non-toasty hand over the top of it. He doesn’t try to kid himself into thinking he could hold Bucky there, but he hopes it conveys that this is okay, that Steve will take Bucky’s touch regardless of the material of his body.

“What were you doing over there?” Steve asks, quietly, turning his head so he can nod at the dining table. “Solitaire or something?”

“What? No,” Bucky answers, and he sounds almost offended. “No, I - it’s tarot cards. My friend, Wanda - she decorated the apartment. She, uh… gave me a deck of tarot cards and this book about them. Sometimes I do readings. I’m not very good, but it’s relaxing.”

Steve… hadn’t expected that answer. He blinks at the remains of his toast, which he has all but demolished. “You read tarot?”

Bucky shrugs, and it jostles Steve’s body. “Sorry,” he says, sheepishly, “and yeah. I can.”

“Can you read mine?” Steve’s always been curious about stuff like tarot, but in a distant way. He doesn’t believe in it - how could cards ever predict the future? - but it’s cool to look at. Plus, Steve’s seen a heap of artists create their own decks, and he can respect the aesthetics of them no matter how greatly they vary.

Bucky hums. “I can,” Bucky replies, and Steve can already hear the but before Bucky says it, “but your future right now is getting better. I know that for a fact.”

Steve doesn’t bother answering. He grumpily draws a pattern in the plates of Bucky’s left hand, finishing off the remainder of his lunch. Early dinner. Something. Bucky’s hand is motionless, even as Steve traces the metallic joints of each finger.

They lapse into a friendly silence, though Steve can feel the tension sing through Bucky’s body as clearly as anything. He’s rigid now: where before he breathed deep, now each inhalation is carefully restrained.

“Is this okay?” Steve asks, pulling his inquisitive fingers back from the surface of Bucky’s hand.

The tightness prevails in Bucky’s voice. “I just - you don’t have to touch it.”

“I like it,” Steve answers, softly, squeezing the cold, unrelenting metal. Funny how it looks so soft in the sun, yet feels completely different.

Bucky huffs out a tense laugh. Or - a laugh isn’t quite the word. A scoff, maybe. “I don’t.”

The metal whirs, a sound Steve had never really picked up on before. Steve associates it immediately with the stiff way Bucky sits behind him, the hard way his body brackets Steve’s own. “The sun made it look like gold,” Steve notes, idly, tracing a join that goes around Bucky’s wrist.

There’s a noncommittal hum, then nothing more. Steve waits to see if Bucky wants to continue the conversation, but he can already predict the answer: no. Bucky barely wanted to start the conversation in the first place, that much was obvious.

Steve allows the silence to hang as the setting sun darkens the room. He keeps his touch light, still drawing on Bucky’s hand: zigzags and swirls, dots of small stars and made-up words. Some of the rigidity leaves Bucky’s body, until their position together feels more like normal.

And isn’t that the kicker. Being close to Bucky is normal enough for Steve that he feels his body slot into place, as though they were made to be together. But this is it. This is the closest Steve is going to get to Bucky. For him, this feels like a lead-in to something more, the warm-up. For Bucky, it’s the end of the line. This is it.

Steve’s okay with that, he really is. He can still remember the way Bucky’s voice sounded when he asked to hug Steve again, the way his body opened up to Steve over the space of days and weeks of physical contact. If this is all Bucky wants from him, Steve is happy with that. He’s giving Bucky something no one else does, and that exclusivity is special to him.

It doesn’t quieten his traitorous brain, but something about Bucky’s warm body does and Steve lets everything go quiet, lets it fade until the entire universe is Steve’s fingers wrapped gently around a silver wrist.

Steve awakens from one of his many naps that day to find the sun completely set, his glasses askew on his face. There’s a lamp on near the kitchen, and once Steve groggily gets his bearings, he looks around. He hadn’t thought earlier about their sleeping arrangements, but now that it’s well and truly nighttime, it gets Steve wondering: where is Bucky going to sleep? He owns a dining table with four chairs, an armchair, and a bed. No couch, no spare bed. Just this one, the one Steve has sprawled himself in.

The answer to Steve’s question comes very quickly. All he has to do is turn his head to the left and look over into the kitchen. Bucky is there, his head pillowed on folded hands atop the dining table. He’s sound asleep.

Steve’s annoyed. How dare Bucky let Steve kick him out of bed? That’s not right.

He hasn’t tried walking since the previous night (or early morning? Again, memory) but he’s determined now. Steve sits himself upright and takes a few moments to breathe, settling his head and his stomach. Then, even more carefully, he uses the bedhead to pull himself upright and steady his body. Steve feels incredibly weak, which should be terrifying but it’s not. He’s always had something to prove, he’s always had to be ready to defend himself, but… Bucky is here. Bucky will keep him safe.

If only Bucky would think of himself, too.

Steve manages a few delicate steps, and then Bucky’s head snaps upright. The sudden movement makes Steve pause, and he blinks owlishly across the room.

“What are you doing?” Bucky asks, and his voice doesn’t sound like he’s just woken up. He sounds ready to go. Without a single moment of hesitation, no pause to scrub at his eyes or a yawn, Bucky’s standing up and approaching Steve.

“What are you doing?” Steve replies, smartly. “You’re sleeping on a table!”

Bucky places his hands on Steve’s elbows, steadying him, and Steve wants to wrench them free but he - can’t. He’s stuck in place, under Bucky’s keen gaze. “You’re in my bed.”

“That’s the problem,” Steve says, in a voice that is suggesting very clearly that Bucky is an idiot. “It’s your bed.”

“You need it.”

“That doesn’t matter. I have a bed in my dorm.”

“You’re not going back there,” Bucky answers, in a voice that brooks no argument. Steve, at the tone alone, feels himself fire up. “I’m taking care of you.”

And Steve sighs, because he can’t fight Bucky. He can’t. He’s so kind and generous, in every touch and word and action. “That’s the problem. You gotta take care of you, too.”

Bucky looks as though that concept is foreign to him, still holding Steve’s elbows oh-so-gently. His left hand is even less firm than the flesh. “I am taking care of myself.”

Steve gives up on any pretence of standing under his own steam, and steps forward, closing the space between them. He rests his head against Bucky’s chest. “You need to sleep in a bed. Not on a table.”

“I’ve slept in worse places.” Bucky’s voice rumbles through his chest and into Steve’s body.

“So have I. That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?” Bucky, like most times when he asks a question, sounds genuinely curious. Unlike Steve, who would ask a question like that just to be a smartass.

Steve sighs, and nuzzles himself in a little further under Bucky’s chin. “Come to bed with me.”

Bucky’s body tenses around him. “Steve.”

“Bucky,” Steve counters, and he wonders if it’s the suggestion that offends him. Steve remembers how well kissing Bucky went. “I just want to sleep knowing you’re somewhere comfortable.”

Bucky doesn’t answer, he just remains stiff as a board against Steve’s head. Even wound up like this, Steve likes the way his body fits against Bucky’s.

“Come to bed, and I’ll do whatever you say. Take medicine, not walk around, whatever.” Steve knows that these compromises never worked with his mother, no matter how hard he tried. She’d just raised an eyebrow, as if she, first of all, did not believe for a second he’d keep that promise. Second of all, Steven Grant Rogers would damn well do what his mother told him to. It worked out - about as well as one would expect.

Bucky hums, indecisive, and Steve steps back. He takes Bucky’s flesh hand and tugs, turning his head to nod at the bed. “C’mon. It’s late. I’m tired.”

“No one’s keeping you up,” Bucky replies, and there’s a hint of an attitude there.

Steve just sighs. “You are. Come to bed.”

Though Steve Rogers hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of moving someone like Bucky, they eventually make it to the bed. Bucky, clearly, has relented. Steve will take it.

He sits on the bed first, and crawls so he’s in the far corner of the spacious mattress, cosied up with the wall on one side. Bucky lays down next to him, rigidly keeping to the very edge of the bed. Part of his body hangs out over the mattress.

Steve rolls his eyes, even if Bucky isn’t looking. The lamp is still on - he should’ve done something about that, but whatever. It allows him a perfect view of Bucky’s face, caught up in some horribly conflicting emotion. His jaw works silently, and the shadows cast over the furrow of his brow make him look angrier than Steve thinks he is.

Instead of talking - that’s a lot of energy, especially when Steve’s body has now associated being horizontal with being sound asleep - Steve wriggles across the bed to Bucky’s side. With one hand he takes his glasses off and blindly places them on the windowsill, his entire being focused on being tangled up with Bucky’s. Steve wraps himself like a leech around Bucky’s right arm and then slowly starts to shuffle back onto the bed, pulling him along like a tugboat trying to move a cruise ship.

Again, Bucky indulges him. Steve’s maybe taking advantage of Bucky’s clear sympathy for his unwell friend, but whatever. If the end result is Steve tucked away against Bucky’s side, he’ll do anything.

Steve tries to stay awake to ensure Bucky gets some sleep, but he can’t do it. Now that his brain knows he is safe and he is comfortable, it immediately shuts down. The last thought that chases him into sleep is that he can feel Bucky’s head turn, and maybe - just maybe - nuzzle into the top of Steve’s head.

Or maybe it’s all just a dream.

Chapter Text

Steve spends two days drifting in and out of sleep, Bucky always at the ready with medication or food or water or offering to help Steve to the bathroom (although it’s less of a help and more like Bucky’s just carrying him there, but Steve’s too tired to be upset about it). The flu knocks his body around enough that it decides to catch up on all the sleep he missed during the finals period in the space of those few days. Despite Bucky’s help with studying, it was still basically mandatory to pull all-nighters before an exam or paper was due - just to be sure. And let it be known that Steve Rogers’ body was not happy about that.

When Steve wakes up feeling good enough that he could make it a few hours under his own steam without any repercussions, it’s a blessed change. It’s early morning and pitch-black, and Steve only knows that it’s early because when he pulls his glasses on he can see the digital time displayed in green on Bucky’s oven. 5:32am it gleams in the darkness, and Steve - for the first time in his life - isn’t immensely annoyed at being awake before 10am.

There’s no use trying to get out of bed, though, because Bucky’s right there. Steve vaguely remembers telling Bucky to sleep with him in the way that memories made while half-asleep and on some form of medication often do. The few times he’s woken up during the night, Bucky’s been there, breathing steady and deep to counterpoint Steve’s jittery lungs.

In hindsight, Steve’s glad he asked Bucky to join him, effectively trapping him in bed. He’d feel bad getting up and wandering around Bucky’s apartment without him being conscious. He’d also feel bad because Steve hasn’t a quiet bone in his body, and would undoubtedly wake Bucky up prematurely. Bucky being sound asleep at his side gives Steve something to do that isn’t too disruptive, which is to savour the moment.

Bucky’s room is dark, but as Steve’s eyes adjust more of the scene comes into focus. At first, it’s just the hulking outline of him - Bucky’s body’s big enough to crush Steve’s, though it doesn’t. He’s on his side, keeping his metal hand pressed to the bed and his flesh arm gently draped across Steve’s stomach. Each slight breath shifts his fingers just a little, a comforting weight on Steve’s body, keeping him safely moored to the bed. Just a fraction lower and it might be an awfully inconvenient spot for Bucky’s arm to rest, especially given Steve’s body’s tendency to betray him. But it’s not, his elbow resting on one pointy hipbone, arm on a slight upwards angle.

Steve is content to wait until his eyes adjust further, an image of Bucky painting itself before him. What starts out as large shapes becomes defined: the muscles of his arm and chest, the gleam of his metal hand from where it peeks out, pinned between Bucky’s body and the mattress. His hair appears strand by strand, and with it, so does Bucky’s face.

There’s never been a sight Steve’s liked more. Bucky’s eyes are closed, unbothered in sleep. When he’s awake, there’s sometimes a mark in his brow that implies a history of frowning, but now it’s disappeared. His forehead is soft and moon-white. Steve wants to press his lips there, trace his mouth down the slope of his nose. Prior to climbing into bed, Bucky must have tied his hair up into a bun, which is his go-to, but in sleep it’s dislodged itself: strands follow the contours of his face, hugging in against his cheek bones and settling whisper-light on his slightly parted lips. As Bucky breathes, strong and sure and constant, Steve sees it in the tiny dance of the hairs, feels it resonate through his body.

Despite wishing he could spend an eternity there, watching the winter sunrise play out on Bucky’s face, he longs for something else. His fingers itch with the desire to find charcoals or paints or a crumpled up napkin and a pilfered pen to try and capture Bucky’s likeness. It might mean drawing his eyes away - and let it be known that Bucky, sound asleep, is truly a difficult sight to turn away from - but Steve would make that sacrifice. For art. An image like this, Steve thinks, belongs in the MoMA. Or in his bedroom. In a completely (well, mostly) non-sexual way.

Unfortunately for Steve, he has nothing to draw with, nor upon. Steve wonders distantly, then, if today is the day he has to leave. He spends the morning breathing just fine, and even as the minutes pass he doesn’t find himself falling back into the sleep of a man recovering. He doesn’t feel great, but he feels better, and that’s all Bucky signed up for.

It’s almost half past seven when Bucky abruptly awakens. One moment, nothing. The next, Steve’s caught in the intense blue-grey of Bucky’s gaze. There’s no sleepy shuffling, no gentle stirring. Just sound asleep to wide awake. Steve feels like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t be, and he blushes. Hopefully he has enough of a fever still that he can pass it off as that, and not being caught staring lovingly at his friend-slash-cuddle-buddy.

Bucky, after a long moment of almost unnerving staring, softens. Like the snowfall Steve sometimes grew up with, Bucky’s expression melts in the sunlight, and he lets out a little sigh. His lips curl up at the corner, and he softly says, “good morning,” as if anything louder will shatter the moment entirely.

Steve finds himself smiling in kind. “Morning,” he answers, though it comes out as a sleep-parched croak. How dare Bucky sound so lovely, just waking up? Steve’s never possessed that kind of power. In the face of Bucky’s artfully dishevelled appearance he probably looks like something dragged out of a dumpster. Likely smells that way, too, what with how he hasn’t changed clothes or showered in a few days.

Bucky’s hand lifts from his hip, and Steve’s skin prickles where they had been making contact. It isn’t absent from his skin long: it moves from his torso to his head, the back of Bucky’s hand taking his temperature the old-fashioned, inaccurate way. Steve doesn’t flinch away like he recalls doing at the height of his fever, nor does he lean into it. Bucky’s hand feels just like a hand, not freezing cold or burning hot the way his illness had convinced him it was.

“Your fever has gone down,” Bucky notes, still speaking quietly.

It’s not exactly something to be proud of, but Steve takes it as praise and no one can change his mind. Besides, Bucky’s hand is still on his forehead, and Steve can’t be unhappy with Bucky’s skin on his.

Suddenly, as though just realising he’s been doing it, Bucky draws his hand back. As if that touch is significantly worse than the times they spend curled up together on his bed, going over study notes together.

“Are you hungry?” Bucky asks, and Steve can distantly recall Bucky jabbing him into wakefulness and forcing him to get at least some food down. He thinks it was plain toast, or something close to that, and suddenly his mind leaps towards all the foods he would rather be eating: a big, hearty breakfast, full of bacon and eggs or pancakes with fresh fruit. Something loaded with carbs to kick-start his sluggish body and brain into functioning. His mother would always say that as soon as his appetite returned, he was on the mend.

Steve’s stomach almost beats him to the punch. He gives an emphatic, “yes,” in answer to Bucky’s question, which is followed seconds later by a loud rumbling from his belly. Well, at least they’re both in agreement, then.

“I’ll go make us something,” Bucky smiles, and Steve knows that particular smile is indicative of a little laugh held back.

With Bucky gone, Steve stretches indulgently in the bed. He feels out the parts of his body that ache from being bedridden for such a long time, and rolls himself almost fully into the patch of warmth Bucky left in his wake. Much as Steve would like to stay there forever, his body has other ideas - he needs to go to the bathroom, which means traversing the cold, wooden floor.

Steve tries in vain to ignore his bladder because the bed is so warm and so soft, but he can’t. As Bucky starts mixing things in a bowl across the room, Steve reluctantly throws back the covers and embarks on his journey.

And it is a fucking journey.

Despite the days of sleep he’s had, Steve’s body is still tired. The parts of his body that he’d slept funny on in that time immediately protest being upright and moving - his neck, in particular, has an awkward little crick in it that he wishes he could force to go away. Steve might be stubborn as hell, but his body is too, and no matter how hard he tries he’s not looking over his left shoulder any time soon.

Steve makes it to the bathroom and does what he needs to do. He’s been in there before, but each time he’s charmed by Bucky’s cleanliness. Unlike his artfully cluttered living area, the bathroom is borderline minimalistic. On the towel rack are two charcoal-coloured towels, folded neatly, ready to be used. On the sink is a bottle of hand soap that Steve makes use of, a plug, a toothbrush holder, and little else. Steve is nosey, but it would feel like a violation of privacy to go through Bucky’s mirrored medicine cabinet, so he settles for enjoying the strawberry scent of the soap on his hands.

When Steve returns to the living area, his body hones in on the bed like it’s his new residence, but he forces himself away. He takes a seat at the dining table instead, which brings him closer to Bucky who is making - something. Steve can’t see it, but it smells like vanilla. Pancakes? His stomach rumbles again, hopefully.

“I made an appointment for you to see the doctor,” Bucky begins, without any prompting, pouring more batter into a little gadget on the bench. Waffles, then. “They wanted to check up on you after the course of antibiotics finished.”

“When’s that?” Steve asks, voice still sleep-roughened - he should’ve gotten a drink in the bathroom, idiot. Now he’s just going to have to sit there and sound like he’s a pack-a-day smoker.

“Five days,” Bucky says, without thinking. Steve can understand why he knows that information, but it’s still ridiculously sweet anyway. As if going for bonus points, Bucky also appears moments later at Steve’s side with a glass of juice, and two pills. He places them carefully within reach, smiling politely and returning to check on the waffles. “So, two days from now, that’s when I booked the appointment.”

Steve hums in agreement - how could he argue with Bucky, he doesn’t exactly know a whole lot at present - and chases the pills down with a large mouthful of juice. It’s some kind of tropical concoction. Probably full of sugar, but Steve’s body craves everything, so he winds up finishing the whole thing rather quickly. “Where’s the appointment?” Steve’s pleased to sound like his normal self, albeit with a little lingering scratchiness from the pneumonia and not his sleepiness.

“I booked at the clinic across the road from the hospital. I wasn’t sure where your usual place was.” That would be, in large part, because Steve doesn’t have a usual doctor, at least not in California. Well, he kinda does. He gets his script for Ventolin done as needed at the Health and Wellness Centre on campus, but he wouldn’t call that his doctor. Steve gives them just enough of his medical history to get his prescription, and leaves it at that. When his mother was alive, she was always pestering him into frequent check-ups - and Steve couldn’t say no to her, much as he hated being poked and prodded at, because she was always there. Now, though, Steve just lets it go, until - evidently - he nearly dies at work.

It’s fine.

It’s just a reminder that Steve isn’t very good, very much without Sarah Rogers around. He was the reckless one, getting into stupid fights and catching ridiculous diseases. She was the one who kept him together, whose no-nonsense glare would quiet his protests about going to the clinic or hospital. She’d never asked that of him in return. She’d gone to all her appointments on time. She’d taken every medication from the pack on the kitchen bench, the multicoloured tablets sorted into morning, noon, and night compartments.

And yet he’s the one still alive.

Steve isn’t sure whether Bucky was that close to finishing breakfast, or he got lost in his thoughts for longer than expected, because there’s a plate of waffles appearing in front of him. There’s another small plate placed in the middle of the table, with different cut up fruit: bananas and strawberries and a halved passionfruit, spilling pulp. Bucky brings over some maple syrup and honey, finicky the way someone aiming to impress might be.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asks as he settles in opposite Steve, and Steve doesn’t bother lying about it. He just shrugs one shoulder, and - appetite somewhat dampened - starts to carefully top his warm waffles.

Bucky doesn’t pry, and Steve thinks that that’s the best thing about him right now. He lets Steve eat in peace, where someone like Sam would pressure him for details about how he feels and why. Steve is well aware that talking about his feelings is a healthy thing to do but it’s uncomfortable and, despite the quality of the antibiotics, his chest is still too-tight and that’s enough discomfort for one day.

When Steve has polished off most of his plate, and Bucky has eaten the remainder (after checking at least ten times is Steve was really, truly okay with him taking his leftovers), they lapse into a comfortable silence.

Steve’s the one to break it. “I should probably get going,” he announces, pushing a few crumbs into a line with his fork. They’re soft and tacky, sticking to the plate in the leftover syrup.

Bucky doesn’t reply for so long that Steve lifts his head, only to be met with the most confused stare he thinks he’s ever seen in his life. And that’s saying something, because Steve frequently confuses Bucky with the things he says and does. “What?” Bucky asks, when Steve meets his eyes.

“Go… to my dorm?” Steve clarifies, and Bucky still looks confused, so he adds: “Where I live?”

“But,” Bucky protests, before rearranging his face into something less emotive. “You have to stay here until you’re better.”

“I’m fine, Buck,” Steve musters up a smile, hoping that satisfies Bucky.

It does not.

“What do you need from your dorm?” Bucky asks, instead of addressing Steve’s lie, which is very obvious to both of them.

Steve doesn’t actually need anything from his dorm. Well. He needs a change of clothes and his toothbrush at least, because his breath must be rank after days without brushing. Maybe one of his sketchbooks, so he can put to paper the priceless image of Bucky sound asleep. Beyond that, Steve doesn’t really want - or own - much anyway.

“Uh,” Steve says, putting his fork down with an overly-loud clatter. “Some clothes. Toothbrush. I wanna grab one of my sketchbooks, too.” He probably should also add his phone charger to that list. And figure out where his phone is. Keys. Wallet. All the things Steve maybe should be keeping an eye out for. “But it’s fine. It’s easier for me to just go back.”

“I’ll go and get them for you,” Bucky announces with finality, standing up to collect the dishes.

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve says, in feeble protest, because the idea of leaving Bucky’s warm, lived-in space to return to his own is, frankly, devastating. But it’s also the right thing to do. He can’t keep imposing on Bucky like this. It’s not fair on him.

“I want to,” Bucky counters from the sink, glancing up long enough to pin Steve with the sweetest smile on his face. Steve knows what the expression really means. It means there’s no use arguing, so don’t even try. And Steve knows that because he has his own brand of that look, though his is more toothy and threatening than Bucky’s. Funny, since between the two of them Bucky looks like the sort of person who could actually force someone to do what he wants.

Steve finally draws himself off the topic of Bucky’s sheer size and strength (which is hard to do, okay), and tries to glare at the other man, but fails pitifully when he yawns partway through. And then proceeds to cough hard enough that Bucky has to give him his inhaler.

Fuck Steve’s life.

Being the loser of the argument (not that there was much of an argument to begin with) means Steve gets to nap while Bucky - who has his keys - goes and collects his things.

Now, Steve’s plan initially wasn’t to have a nap. His plan was to try and lure Alpine out of her new hiding spot, in the back corner under the bed, and maybe read one of Bucky’s numerous books. The nap happens when he finally gets Alpine onto the bed, and he lays down to pat her. It’s not his fault. It’s cold outside, he’s got a warm cat snuggled up beside him, and Bucky’s bed still smells like him.

There’s nothing that Steve can pinpoint as the thing that wakes him, just that he blinks his eyes open and he’s lost a few hours to his nap. Alpine is gone, weaving in and out of Bucky’s legs as he stashes what appears to be Steve’s entire wardrobe inside his own closet. Bucky turns to look at Steve, entirely unsurprised to find him awake.

“What are you doing?” Steve croaks, aiming for accusatory but sounding rather sleep-wrecked instead.

“You said you needed clothes,” Bucky explains. There doesn’t appear to be much of an issue fitting Steve’s clothes in. He had never owned much anyway, and it seems like Bucky is similar. With Bucky’s clothes pushed to one side of the closet and Steve’s to the other, there’s still a fairly sizable gap in the middle for new purchases.

“I didn’t say to bring all of it,” Steve protests from bed. Bucky, who doesn’t even have the decency to look chastened, begins to put Steve’s shoes away in a neat line along the bottom of the closet, atop a two-tiered metal shelf.

There’s no response from Bucky: he just pats Alpine with one hand and puts Steve’s shoes away with the other. Steve huffs and remains ignored, though he wonders if Bucky heard him judging by the edge of a smirk Steve can catch from where he lays.

Whatever.

He’s going back to sleep.

It’s not too much later when Steve wakes up, and it comes with it a sense of finality. Of being awake now. He yawns and stretches, fist bumping into a lump on the bed that is neither Bucky nor Alpine shaped. He blinks his eyes open, shielding them from the warm slant of late-afternoon sun with one arm, so that he can look at the thing on the bed with him.

It is, as requested, his sketchbooks. All of them, because apparently Bucky doesn’t do things by halves. They’re stacked up neatly - or were, before Steve bumped them, and knocked an avalanche of drawing implements from the peak of the stack to slide all over the bed. There are his favourite lead pencils, the pack of ten he bought so he would never have to live without them. There are coloured pencils and different size fineliners for different tasks; some charcoals and oil pastels, all packaged neatly to avoid dirtying the white comforter, and some wind-up crayons he isn’t sure the origin of, but they’re good for messing around with sometimes.

Steve drags himself upright and props his back up against a stack of Bucky’s extra-fluffy pillows. He adjusts his glasses so they sit properly on his face - and makes a mental note to try and stop falling asleep with them on - then pulls closer his favourite sketchbook to date. It’s the one with the paper that just makes everything come out the way he wants it to. He frees a new pencil from the package. The image that’s been plaguing him since that morning is finally, urgently, begging to be put to paper. Steve doesn’t even stop to check where Bucky is, just starts to sketch.

The image comes so easily to Steve, like nothing has in a long time. He’s been so bogged down with school, even with Bucky’s help, that the inspiration to draw for the enjoyment of it hasn’t been present lately.

But here it is now, the months of nothingness broken by a wave of motivation so strong it might flatten him. Steve doesn’t know where to begin, just that he must. He draws the rough shape of Bucky’s face, the guidelines for the angle of him in sleep - looking down, as if towards Steve’s shoulder. From there, Steve’s able to fill in the details: eyes closed, sleep-easy; fanned eyelashes against cheekbones that positively glow under the trespassing moonlight; hair that floats, ethereal, to stroke the parts of Bucky’s face Steve wants to with his fingertips.

It takes time, but Steve isn’t aware of it. That’s what a burst of inspiration does: leaves you detached completely from reality, consumed by your work, letting it flow from mind to hand to page.

The thing that pulls him from his reverie is the light suddenly brightening. Steve blinks, head snapping upright, to find Bucky standing by the light switch looking startled.

“Sorry,” Bucky says, as Steve hurriedly closes the sketchbook and hugs it to his chest. “I thought it might be getting too hard for you to see.”

The sketch is incomplete. It needs shading, and Steve needs to find an eraser to take out some of the lines he no longer wants, but that’s fine. The urge he gets to draw - the itching in his fingers - is gone, satisfied for now. Bucky is looking at him with quiet interest, but there’s nothing on his face to suggest he knows what Steve was drawing.

“You looked like you were having fun,” Bucky adds, conversationally, as he moves around the room: blowing out some candles, lighting others. Steve can’t tell how he picks which to light and which to extinguish, but the small apartment always smells delightful.

Steve hums in embarrassed agreement. “Just drawing,” Steve notes, as he carefully stacks and puts away his things. There’s a little ledge on a bookshelf close to the bed, and Steve stacks his tools on top of the sketchbook. It wouldn’t stop Bucky going through it, but hopefully it’s a deterrent. Bucky doesn’t seem the sort to pry, but some people think sketchbooks are fair game. Steve’s snapped at a ridiculous number of people who thought him sketching in public was an invitation to stare over his shoulder.

“What were you drawing?” Bucky’s in the kitchen now, getting ready for dinner.

“Just sketching,” Steve deflects as he looks over his tiny pile of possessions with a pleased smile.

“I’d like to see it, one day,” Bucky says, among the sound of bowls being pulled out of the cupboard. “If you don’t mind.”

Instead of addressing that, because sure, showing Bucky pictures of his own face is a great, cool friend thing to do, Steve just smiles. “Maybe one day,” he says, and starts to dig through his side of the wardrobe. His side of the wardrobe. It’s too intimate for his heart to take. “I’m going to have a shower.”

At least there, Steve can think of Bucky’s face in peace.

It’s easy to forget, at times, that they’re even in college.

Part of it - a large part, Steve suspects - is that he’s not stuck in his shitty, cramped dorm room. He’s in an apartment that would very much pass as a real, adult place to live. He is also living with someone, at least temporarily. It’s not living beside, the way he does with Ben, but an actual cohabitation. Although Bucky does nearly everything (at his own insistence, Steve has offered to help), it still feels interconnected. Where Bucky limits Steve’s participation in household chores, like doing the dishes or helping to cook, he does gravitate to Steve for other things. For physical contact, mostly, and Steve is more than happy to oblige. He lets Bucky sit beside him and wrap their legs together, or lay so that all of Steve’s weight is resting on Bucky’s chest.

There are, however, moments that shatter the illusion.

Bucky, being the studious person he is, disappears one morning and returns with a stack of textbooks and new binders. Steve watches the careful way he prepares himself for the upcoming term, while his own brain is still recovering from both finals and pneumonia that he doesn’t even feel remotely guilty for not getting his own shit together.

Then, Bucky spends several hours in bed filling in his planner, Steve curled around him with his head propped up on a pillow. Steve watches his methodical process, mesmerised. Bucky has a packet of coloured fineliner pens, from a brand Steve recognises as being both good quality and (therefore) extremely expensive. He spreads them out on the bed, grouped by colour family, and Steve’s heart skips a beat at that. What can he say? He’s a sucker for anyone who treats art supplies properly. Even if Bucky’s not drawing with them, the way he writes and carefully organises his life is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Slowly, Bucky starts to map out his standard week. He fills in his classes, each a different colour: blue for 112S. Politics of Past; light green for 100. Bioengineering Fundamentals; and red for 103B. Russian for Native and Near-Native Speakers: Literature and Film. (That last one gives Steve pause, because Bucky speaks English fluently without any trace of an accent, but - well, Bucky will do what Bucky does).

With the foundation set, Bucky starts to plan his week out from there. He allocates study time to each unit, again in a matching colour. He assigns each study period a specific place to study - for example, Bioengineering he’s taking in the Science and Engineering Library, which makes sense. Russian he has assigned only his home to study in, which again gives Steve pause, but he’s not asking any questions. He can’t, really - all he can focus on is the way Bucky writes, careful but sure.

Once each class has enough time assigned (and Steve is now starting to feel murmurs of guilt at how little time he allocates to studying), Bucky turns to him. “What time are your classes next term?”

Steve shrugs, though the gesture doesn’t quite come through given he’s lying on his side. Bucky seems to understand it, regardless.

“You haven’t got your classes?”

“I do,” Steve corrects, because he’s not that bad. “But I can’t remember what times I have everything.”

Bucky looks at Steve and rolls his eyes. What an asshole. Steve nudges him in the thigh with one of his knees, which are both curved around his sitting form. Bucky just laughs.

Steve lets out a scandalised huff before retrieving his phone from its place on the bedside table (fumbling it at least ten times on the way), and flicking into his student account. It seems like a standard higher education thing to not have an app that functions, so Steve has to click on multiple redundant links before getting his timetable.

There’s a good reason he’s been avoiding looking at it, and that’s because Steve doesn’t want to think about a whole new round of studying. New units to tackle, when he hasn’t even gotten his results back from his previous lot of finals yet. No doubt they’ll send them out just in time for the new term to begin, putting everyone off-balance for their first week back.

Steve, who has had enough after just one glance, tosses the phone into Bucky’s lap. He barely seems to notice it, until he’s finished something off in his own planner.

Bucky flicks to a blank note-taking page in his book and starts to rule it up freehand, creating lines that are impressively straight without the use of a ruler. Steve stares as the days of the week come into view, Bucky’s lines crisp and certain in black ink. Glancing between the phone and his book, Bucky starts to fill in Steve’s class dates - he uses colours of his own choosing, but all of them are in reds and oranges. Steve doesn’t think to ask what that means. There’s probably an extra layer of colour-coding he simply doesn’t understand. Whatever Bucky’s plan is, Steve will be happy - it looks good, and far more organised than any of his own scheduling attempts have ever been.

“What hours do you work?” Bucky asks, holding a dark purple pen now. As Steve lists them off, Bucky fills them all in - small blocks, down the very bottom of the page - almost at the end of the day.

With that task done, Bucky picks up a pencil and draws a few lines on Steve’s page. Then he does the same on his personal planning page. Steve doesn’t understand the purpose of them, until Bucky picks up a pink pen and carefully rips Steve’s page out to hold them side-by-side. Bucky’s marked his schedule on Steve’s, and Steve’s on his own.

“Okay, we’ve got some good blocks of time that we can fit in studying,” Bucky says, and he does so with complete seriousness - as if their studying hasn’t just evolved into long periods of time where they just cuddle together in bed and maybe revise a chapter from the textbook. “When do you want to put it?”

That all involves too much thinking and planning. It also implies that Steve ever has anything he wants to do more than sit with Bucky. So he does another little sideways shrug.

Bucky glares at him, but it’s soft around the edges with fondness. “Steve.”

“Bucky.”

“Pick some times,” Bucky says, tapping the capped end of his pink pen on his page.

Steve props himself up on one elbow so he can turn and run his finger across Bucky’s page. “All of it.”

Bucky laughs and gently - so gently - shoves Steve back down onto the bed. He lets himself fall with a short oof and then a laugh. Bucky, clearly working out that this is all a futile effort, puts some blocks of time in himself. He takes big spaces and shades them in. They keep their standing Saturday afternoon date, and then - around Bucky’s new timetable - acquire Monday morning and a chunk of time around lunch on Wednesday.

As if he hadn’t realised he’d done it, Bucky lifts the end of the pen to his mouth and chews on it, suddenly awkward. “Is that - too much?”

“Of course it’s not,” Steve says, because there is no such thing. “Why do we have to do this now, anyway? We’ve still got… like, two weeks until classes go back.”

Bucky hums as he transfers the study dates over to Steve’s schedule, making sure the times are clearly labelled because his freehand one isn’t as accurate as the printed one. That, or he knows Steve is an idiot who has shitty timekeeping. Actually, it’s probably that one. “I,” Bucky begins, drawing out the single syllable as he draws a little smiley face in one box, “have a few people messaging me for study times. So I wanted to figure out what I could offer them.”

There’s a sudden, unexpected pang of jealousy that flares up in Steve at Bucky’s words. Other people. He shouldn’t have assumed he was the only one, because Sam had referred him to Bucky knowing that he was good at this sort of thing. Even then, though, Steve’s come to feel like what they have is special. It’s different.

And it likely is. Realistically, Steve knows that Bucky doesn’t have a queue of people outside his door waiting to wrap themselves in his arms and pretend to read lecture notes. Bucky is getting better at touch, but even now he still flinches at their closeness. Despite that, he still searches it out. This whole term prep thing would’ve been much easier for Bucky at his dining table, without Steve trying to squeeze around his body like a hungry snake, but he chose this spot.

Bucky wants to be near Steve.

So Steve clears his throat, and says a very convincing, “oh.”

Then he watches as Bucky selects a darker pink colour, nowhere near as vibrant as the one he’d used for Steve’s marked out time, and starts to fill in boxes. Steve doesn’t say anything, because he’ll probably say something petty and possessive and he doesn’t want to be like that. He just watches as Bucky sends some messages on his phone, and write names into the boxes.

Steve takes comfort in the fact that Bucky put him first, and there are more bright pink boxes than anything else on his page.

Going to visit the doctor is less stressful than going into hospital, but that doesn’t mean Steve’s happy about it. Bucky, true to his words from the night he’d gotten Steve from work, doesn’t leave him. Bucky doesn’t even seem to know that normally friends don’t just walk into other friend’s doctor’s appointments. Not that Steve planned on telling him no. It takes all of Steve’s restraint not to reach out and take Bucky’s hand, or to sit on his lap and let Bucky’s arms bookend his body and hold him together.

The appointment goes as expected. Steve has dutifully been taking his medication (all thanks to Bucky), and is feeling much better. The doctor nonetheless repeats his script - “Just to make sure nothing nasty is hanging about in there.” - and sends Steve on his way with a second follow-up appointment booked. The one downside to having Bucky there for the whole thing is that Steve can’t just get out of taking the medication he’s been prescribed, or avoid the second appointment like his body already itches to. He has to go.

Will Bucky drag him to the appointment, like it or not?

Probably.

Is that what Steve’s counting on?

No comment.

They’re just leaving the adjoining pharmacy when Steve is cut-off by the crowd outside. He stops to look around, wondering why, exactly, there are so many people. He grew up in New York City, so crowds don’t bother Steve, but he’s curious. Since arriving in LA, Steve’s exclusively kept to campus, so he’s not overly familiar with the city itself. There’s not been any huge reason, nor the time, to go adventuring.

Okay, that’s partially a lie - Sam got him from the airport and took him out to dinner the first night he was there. But other than that, there’s been nothing.

Where they are is a small shopping complex not too far from campus, across the road from the hospital Steve had presumably been in. Despite its small size, the place is absolutely packed. Steve’s not sure why, since there’s a small, family-owned grocery store, a Target, the small medical centre, and a smattering of other specialty stores. It shouldn’t be so busy. Not today, Steve thinks, on a cold and rather miserable Sunday. He’s going to say it’s due to the fact that he’s sick and has spent the majority of his previous days sleeping that Steve turns to Bucky and asks, “what’s going on?”

Bucky looks around, as if noticing for the first time the crowded parking lot. He blinks, and then checks his watch. “It’s almost Christmas,” Bucky announces, with all the interest of someone discussing the weather. He is merely relaying an indisputable fact.

Steve, then, has to check his own phone, as if to confirm. Sun, 23 Dec it says, beside a little picture of clouds and 62°F.

Fuck. It’s almost Christmas.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Steve asks, affronted, as though he doesn’t have an entire calendar in his hands at nearly all times.

Bucky blinks back at him, and Steve can tell the thought genuinely hadn’t occurred to him. “I didn’t know you liked Christmas,” Bucky states, carefully.

Steve bites back his initial response, but only just. Steve loves Christmas. But how would Bucky know? It feels like they should know everything about each other, with the easy way they interact. Steve’s gotten too used to living with Bucky, to laying in bed sketching the other man while he reads or writes or messes around with his tarot cards or cooks something that smells (and invariably tastes) amazing.

They should know everything about each other, but they don’t.

Steve doesn’t know Bucky’s full name. Doesn’t know his age. All Steve really knows is that Bucky is good at studying, that he loves the stars and learning, and someone - some time ago - hurt him.

That’s it.

Steve’s practically living with a man he doesn’t even know.

Steve clears his throat and shuffles out of the way of a woman who looks ready to ram him with her shopping cart. “I like Christmas,” he says, rather lamely.

Bucky, too, follows Steve’s lead and moves so they’re both standing pressed up against the wall. No use getting run over by people with trolleys full of food and a Christmas-inspired retail rage in their eyes. “Now I know,” Bucky says and smiles faintly. “Do you want… something? For Christmas?”

“A present?”

“Yeah?” Bucky shifts his weight to the other side in a movement Steve registers as uncertainty. “Or - a tree?”

Steve narrows his eyes at Bucky’s obvious hesitation. “Have you ever celebrated Christmas?”

Bucky blows out a breath and turns to look over his shoulder to where he parked the car. Already there are other people creeping along, following shoppers to their vehicles and waiting for them to free up a parking bay. “Can we go?” Bucky asks instead of answering the question, and Steve nods his head reluctantly in agreement.

It’s so hard to press Bucky for information about himself. Steve can’t hound the man to answer his questions, no matter how much he wants to. It’d be like kicking a puppy.

Walking to the car is an indicator to those around that a bay will soon be freed up, and Bucky has to navigate them out of the space between two separate drivers who look ready to ram the other one out of the way to park. Jesus, Steve can’t even imagine what it must be like at actual malls today. He’s almost glad he’s been too sick to work, because surely his store is getting a flood of customers ready to bring in the holiday season by yelling at minimum wage retail workers.

They drive in silence back to Bucky’s apartment, which is just as much Steve’s at this point, and that’s not even Steve being presumptuous. Bucky’s filled the house with Steve’s possessions: his phone charger sits next to Bucky’s, so both their phones can charge on the single nightstand together. Steve’s toothbrush has been put in the holder beside Bucky’s, and their shampoo and conditioner make a colourful line along the bottom of the shower. Steve’s clothes hang alongside Bucky’s, and when they go to get dressed at the same time they both stand side-by-side to select an outfit.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, when they’ve pulled into Bucky’s designated parking spot at his building.

Steve unbuckles his seatbelt and turns to face Bucky. “I don’t know anything about you,” Steve blurts, before he can think about the words and their potential impact. That’s always been a flaw of his, but he can’t help. If Steve has something to say, he says it.

Bucky doesn’t look offended, exactly, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy, either. “What do you mean?” Bucky asks, each word delivered in a carefully neutral fashion.

“I-,” Steve begins, then falters, trying to figure out how to ask all the questions that are suddenly bubbling to the forefront of his brain. “I don’t know how old you are. Where you’re from. I don’t even know your full name.”

Bucky sighs and looks down at his hands, where they rest wrapped around the steering wheel. The sadness that crosses his expression makes Steve want to apologise and take it all back, but - he can’t. He needs to know. He’s loved Bucky from the moment he met him, the moment he saw him, but he can’t assume that a man who reads tarot cards and owns a cat is just a good guy by default. Steve has seen Bucky’s prosthetic, but doesn’t know whether he’s lived in LA his whole life or not. Bucky could be a serial killer or something. They’re supposed to be charming.

But he’s not. Steve - knows that. He knows, in some innate way, that Bucky is a good person. Maybe that’s why Steve’s asking, to confirm what his mind knows to be true.

“Do you - need to know those things?” Bucky asks some time later, still speaking as though each word is a bomb waiting to go off. His eyes flick momentarily from the steering wheel over to Steve, then back.

Steve wishes he could stop the way Bucky’s uncertain gaze makes him melt. Were it anyone else, Steve would be insisting he know those very basic facts about them. He’d be interrogating them. But not Bucky. Not Bucky, who asked if Steve would hug him in a small, scared voice. “I’m twenty-six years old. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. My full name is Steven Grant Rogers.” Steve lists the facts off as if they’re nothing, and they are, to him, in hopes of inspiring Bucky with his own willingness to share. Bucky probably already knows those things about Steve, anyway. He doesn’t keep much secret, his age or his home or his name. And if Bucky checked Steve into the hospital, they likely asked for all that stuff anyway.

Bucky hums, a sign that he’s locked that information away in his brain, probably in some colour-coded mental folder about Steve. The idea that Bucky might have a little place in his brain for facts about Steve makes him want to smile. “Do you need to know that about me?” Bucky repeats, and Steve might be wrong but he thinks he can hear an edge of fear to Bucky’s words then.

“I - no. But… I’d like to get to know you more,” Steve eventually says, hoping that will get Bucky to concede.

It doesn’t.

“We should go inside,” Bucky announces instead of addressing Steve’s statement. He collects the small bag of medicine they picked up earlier and opens the car door, letting in the chilly air.

Steve follows Bucky quietly upstairs.

Once inside, Bucky moves around the room in a routine Steve has come to recognise. He takes a lighter and selects some candles in what appears to be a random order, lighting them. He considers the cloud-dappled sunlight coming in through the window, and opts to leave the lights off in the room. He stops to check in on a few plants, wiping a hand over their leaves and dipping a finger into the soil to test whether they need watering or not.

Steve watches Bucky, his heart full. If he never knew Bucky’s full name, would it really matter? Everyone calls him Bucky anyway. Would not knowing his age matter? From sight alone, Bucky appears to be close to Steve’s age. A bit older, maybe, but not too old. When he wakes up and needs a shave, it ages him a bit, but not in a bad way. In a good way, like a fine wine. Not that Steve wouldn’t take Bucky any way he could get him, but he wants to feel that stubble scrape him in places he shouldn’t be thinking about.

“I’m going to have a shower,” Steve announces and Bucky nods but doesn’t look up.

Steve grabs the clothes he’s been wearing almost non-stop around the house, just some sweatpants, and takes them into the bathroom. Bucky’s shower is honestly incredible, and Steve’s not just comparing it to the one in the dorms - a bucket with some holes in the bottom would have better pressure than those. Bucky’s shower is simply heavenly. The hot water never runs out, and the pressure is high enough that Steve can feel it work any discomfort from his body.

He washes his hair and cleans his body. Steve lets the process draw his mind from Bucky, a man who Steve could recognise by touch alone, yet whose real name he couldn’t place.

Despite having finished the actually cleaning himself part of the shower fairly quickly, Steve spends way too long just standing and thinking under the spray of water. It’s only when he notices his fingers getting wrinkly that he decides it’s probably time to call it quits and get out of the shower stall.

The cold of the air outside is an uncomfortable sting on his damp skin, and Steve dries off and redresses quickly.

When he goes to leave the bathroom, he feels a prickle of apprehension. Will Bucky be mad at him for asking? He doesn’t want to upset the other man, but he doesn’t feel like what he’s asking is prying. He just… wants to know some basic stuff. That’s all.

Out in the living room, Bucky is sitting in the armchair by one of the bookshelves, writing, tongue poking between his teeth. Steve knows without seeing it that whatever Bucky’s writing will be unbelievably neat, regardless of the speed at which he writes it. It’s unfair that Bucky has such beautiful handwriting - it looks like old-fashioned calligraphy, his letters joined with elegant curls and swoops. It stands at such odds with Bucky’s external appearance, yet matches his interior - or what Steve knows of it - so well. Delicate, but with intention.

Steve retreats to the bed, which has become his home the past few days. One of his sketchbooks is now perched on the nightstand, his favourite pencils on top, and Steve carefully pulls it onto his lap. He sits in the corner where the bedhead and wall meet, feet flat on the mattress and using his thighs as a surface to lean against. Steve doesn’t want Bucky to see a page of his book: it’s almost entirely filled with sketches of Bucky, his face, mostly, but his body too. Steve’s done too many muscle studies to be appropriate. He just appreciates the aesthetics of Bucky’s body. A lot.

On a new page, he starts to draw. It’s not inspired by one vision or the other, just a longing to do something with his hands. Very quickly Steve gets the groundwork done, the outline of Bucky’s hand holding a pen. But instead of it being the glove-covered flesh one, it is the uncovered metal prosthetic. Steve draws it from memory as best he can, placing the panels and joints where he felt them the time Bucky had let him trace them over. It’s meditative, drawing line after line of metal plating, and Steve and Bucky fall into companionable, working silence.

Ordinarily, Steve happily stops when the sketch is done. The idea is fulfilled. Despite owning coloured pencils and crayons and markers, he’s not much of a colouring person, really. But Steve puts the sketchbook down, carefully obscured from Bucky’s view by a pillow (not that he’s looking, as he keeps filling pages of his book), and collects the mishmash of colouring materials he has from the shelf closest to the bed.

Steve spreads them out on Bucky’s somehow still pristine comforter, and touches the different materials. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, not until he finds it, and then it feels right. Steve carefully frees the metallic pencils from their packaging, takes the silver and gold, and starts to colour. Slowly, Bucky’s prosthetic hand fills in: a glimmering silver all over, except for a sprinkling of gold stars, constellations forming on his metal skin.

The finished product draws a reluctant sigh from Steve. He’s not over it, the discomfort that being in the dark brings him, but he can let it go for now. Especially when Bucky’s across the room, frowning with intense thought. Steve wants to smooth his drawn brow with his lips, feel Bucky’s arms around him again.

Slowly, and with great care, Steve packs everything away. Then he crosses the room to stand in front of Bucky, who raises one eyebrow at his approach but remains focused on the sentence spilling forth from his pen. Steve, rather politely, waits for him to finish and look up.

“You writing a novel or something?” Steve asks, smartly, and offers his hand to Bucky - the half-apology he can’t find words for. He’s not sorry for asking; he’s sorry for upsetting Bucky.

Bucky snorts, but smiles. “Or something,” he agrees as he packs his own things away. Then he takes Steve’s hand, and lets himself be tugged upright and pulled over to the bed.

Chapter Text

It’s Christmas Eve.

Steve wakes up to Bucky’s house looking much the same as it always does. Had he not known about the impending holiday, Steve wouldn’t have cared at all, but now there’s something upsettingly wrong about it all. There should be decorations. Steve remembers a childhood filled with decorating the tree and helping his mother prepare food for the day. They were happy together, eating turkey for an entire week after Christmas ended just because Sarah insisted on cooking an entire bird each year.

The house doesn’t smell the way Steve associates with Christmas: rosemary and nutmeg and cinnamon, spices from the turkey or pie or whatever recipe his mother was testing that year.

It isn’t overly cold or snowy, either, which Steve didn’t realise he would miss until it was gone. Christmas, for him, was usually a time of low immunity - people around him caught and spread the cold around as much as they did Christmas cheer, so he spent a lot of it wrapped up in bed. Here, he can’t even do that. It’s not really cold enough to justify bundling himself in blankets.

It all adds up to leave Steve feeling morose, and he rolls over to stare at the wall. It’s stupid to sulk over a holiday that he’d barely celebrated since Sarah Rogers’ passing. It was just him all alone in that big house, anyway. It’s depressing to have a Christmas tree for yourself alone.

The space in the bed next to him is empty, though Steve doesn’t capitalise on the free real estate. He curls up a little tighter, and tries to ignore the memories of his mother that always hit especially hard this time of year.

The bed dips at Steve’s back, and he rolls himself up a little tighter, trying not to let Bucky’s weight drag him into the centre of the bed.

“Good morning,” Bucky says, gently, laying his head on Steve’s pillow.

Steve hates his weak-willed, traitorous heart, the way it wants to lean back against Bucky’s chest. It’s stupid. “Morning,” he grumbles in response, reaching a hand out to brush over a place below the windowsill that’s been filled and painted over. It’s only noticeable now that Steve is staring at the wall as though it’s the thing to solve all of his problems.

“I was wondering,” Bucky begins, and Steve still doesn’t look but he’s all ears, “if you would like to get a tree.”

He rolls over in bed then and looks at Bucky, surprised. A Christmas tree? He’s not sure if it’s something Bucky wants for himself, or because Steve clearly does, but it grabs his attention nonetheless. “All the stores will be busy,” Steve says, brain jumping to the negatives rather than the positives. He doesn’t want to brave Christmas Eve crowds. Nothing could ever make him willingly do that.

Bucky frowns. “There’s a farm about an hour from here. I thought everyone would already have their trees by now, so it might not be too bad.” As Bucky explains, it becomes more evident to Steve that this is new to him, too. It makes Steve wonder about what Bucky said, about the people who hurt him. Was he just a child, then? Had he missed all of those traditional holidays because of an abusive parent?

Steve feels his heart ache, and it’s not just for Bucky’s mysteriously painful past. It’s for the fact that even with whatever hurt him, Bucky’s still trying to be kind. Instead of Steve, who’s ready to indulge in the pain and loss he feels by spending the day in bed sulking, Bucky’s trying to act.

He closes the gap between their bodies with a little wriggle, placing himself with his face in Bucky’s chest. Bucky just accepts this, as he does with most of the things Steve does, and rests his flesh hand on Steve’s side. “Is that alright?” Bucky asks, and Steve hears him but also feels the words vibrate through his chest.

“Mhm,” Steve mumbles against Bucky’s body.

They’d never had a real tree, Steve’s family. They always talked about it, but never got around to buying one. It probably didn’t help that natural trees cost more and had to be bought anew every year. They didn’t have the time or money for that - besides, their artificial tree had never left the house scattered with pine needles. Overall, it was cheaper and cleaner and more convenient to get a plastic tree and doll it up differently every year. They never got bored. Christmas was about the spirit, not about the sort of tree you got, at least not in Steve’s mind.

But an artificial tree, in Bucky’s home? It would be an affront to a place that was already a veritable greenhouse on its own. What belongs in his home is the smell of pine and the needles around the base of it, mingling with whatever candle scents Bucky is feeling at that moment. Steve can already picture it: with tinsel and lights and baubles and a glittering star on top. It would fit right in, between two bookcases. Alpine would love it. Steve would love it.

Would Bucky?

Steve lets himself linger a moment before pulling his head away just far enough to ask the most important question: “Do you want a Christmas tree?”

Bucky hums in agreement, his hand still on Steve’s waist. Steve isn’t expecting a follow-up answer, but a minute later, Bucky speaks: “We had a Christmas tree when I was a kid, I think.” Steve can feel Bucky’s hand slide down from his waist to rest on the small of his back, and his breath catches - both at the touch, and the admission of something from Bucky’s life before college. “I don’t - remember… how we decorated it.”

“That’s okay,” Steve says slowly, reciprocating Bucky’s touch by placing his own hand on the point of Bucky’s hip. Where Bucky can cover most of Steve’s back with one hand, Steve’s hand doesn’t take up nearly as much surface area. He moulds it around the hard nub of Bucky’s hipbone nonetheless. “We can decorate it together.”

Bucky mumbles something that Steve doesn’t hear, then buries his face in the hair atop Steve’s head.

They lay like that until Steve’s stomach rudely breaks the peaceful silence, and then it’s time to start their day.

Steve can’t help himself. Once it sinks in that they’re really, actually going to cut down a proper Christmas tree, he’s about to bounce out of his seat.

Bucky makes breakfast, bacon and eggs today, and serves it up. Steve’s practically vibrating in his chair, and despite the food he’s shovelling into his mouth he still manages to dominate most of their conversation.

“When I was a kid, we used to decorate the tree on the first of December, every year,” Steve explains around a mouthful of toast and eggs. He saves his manners for other things, like saying thank you to people who hold the door and punching people who beat up on stray cats in alleyways. Talking with your mouth full isn’t that bad. “And she kept all the ornaments I made at school. We had one - God, it must be in storage back home, I think - and it was horrific. I swear, everyone who saw it just… cringed.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow and laughs, but at least he covers his mouth when he does so. Once he’s finished his mouthful of bacon, Bucky asks, “what was it, though?”

And Steve laughs, too, giddy on the holiday and on Bucky’s happiness and on the fact that he’s remembering the nice things, the good times. People would always tell him to do that, but it wasn’t like a switch he could turn on and off at will. “We called it Terror Angel. It was - like a foam ball for the head, and it had a paper doily for a body and some wings. I think we used pipe cleaners to make them. But - something about the face, it was just… so creepy.”

Bucky continues to laugh at Steve’s explanation - even more so when Steve pulls a sketchbook to the table and, carefully avoiding revealing the contents to Bucky, sketches a rough approximation of the angel on a blank page. “This is what he looked like.” Steve says, pointing with the pencil in his left hand and his fork in the right, still eating around his Christmas story.

Bucky’s already finished his plate, and he carefully pries the pencil from Steve’s hand, flipping the book around. Steve feels his heart stop, and he reflexively says, “don’t look,” in a tone that disrupts the light mood of breakfast.

Bucky, with the pencil in his hand, blinks at Steve. “I wasn’t going to.”

“Oh,” Steve says, and blushes a horrible shade of red, made even worse by the fact that Bucky was literally seconds away from revealing Steve’s - well, beyond friendly drawings. It’s not like he’s drawn Bucky naked or anything (though he’s certainly entertained the thought), but it’s still a bit unusual to draw your friend, the person you’re staying with, as much as Steve has. “Sorry.”

“I’ll only look if you tell me I can,” Bucky states, and starts to sketch something out in that heavy-handed way of his. “I want to look, though. You’re very talented.”

That really doesn’t help Steve’s blush, although it has stopped his rapid-fire eating and talking which was probably going to end badly for his lungs very soon. “Thank you,” Steve mumbles in answer, pushing some eggs around his plate and trying not to be too obvious in the way he stares at Bucky’s sketch.

It’s a picture of - well, Steve doesn’t really know. It looks like there are some circles overlapping with each other, whilst in parts curved shapes pop out from the body of it. It ends up being a long line, each shape repeating, and Steve gives up on being subtle and just outright stares.

Bucky finishes, or he takes a break, putting the pencil down and clearing the table without a word. Steve spins the notebook around to look again at Bucky’s line of circular shapes next to his horrible angel. Steve looks over his shoulder, but Bucky’s finished at the sink and is going through the cupboards, looking for something.

Steve considers interrupting and asking about the odd drawing, but Bucky seems determined. Steve just picks the pencil back up and shades Terror Angel in a little more. He gives some depth to it, and adds more symmetrical, ornate cut-outs to the doily body. Eventually, Steve gets carried away: the angel gets some equally-terrifying wings and a backdrop, the clouds and pearly gates in soft contrast to its horrible facial features.

Bucky spends about five minutes searching through the cupboard, but returns to the table empty-handed. He points at his picture, arm easily reaching across the table where Steve had to stand and stretch to get his book back. “We made those,” Bucky explains, and sounds frustrated. “I can’t remember - what. But we would make them, for Christmas.”

Steve looks up and puts the pencil down, using both his hands to wrap around Bucky’s one which had been pointed at his drawing. “We can figure it out,” Steve offers, because he has absolutely no idea what Bucky drew, but he wants to be helpful. Besides, most memories come and go when they’re ready. Bucky will likely be in the shower or falling asleep and it’ll come to him. That’s what always happens to Steve.

Bucky huffs but seems placated by Steve’s hand, letting himself sit there and be held for a long time. Longer than usual, especially since Bucky’s hand is bare and he’s still a bit touchy when it comes to skin-to-skin contact.

“We should get ready to go,” Bucky eventually says, but makes no move to dislodge Steve’s hands from where they cover his.

“In a minute,” Steve answers, and takes a minute - and then some - to better appreciate the feeling of Bucky’s skin on his.

Naturally, being Christmas Eve, it’s absolute bedlam driving anywhere. The roads that feed into different shopping complexes are at a standstill, and even the roads out of town are clogged up - presumably by people who couldn’t get off work any earlier to visit family for the holiday. Steve doesn’t have a licence - what use is one, in New York City? - and so is used to ignoring what’s going on on the road around him. Usually, his main form of transport anywhere was the subway or his own two feet. On the odd occasion he splurged on a taxi, times he tries not to remember (the step below an ambulance when his mother couldn’t handle public transport for her appointments), it was easy to ignore the stop-start of the journey because it was all too much of a novelty.

Bucky seems equally as unfazed, if not curious about the whole thing. He glances around out the window when they’re forced to stop, waiting for someone blocking their lane to just hurry up and make the left turn.

“I never noticed how busy it was, around Christmas,” Bucky observes as they start moving again, and the further they drive from the heart of the city, the less congested it becomes. He might even make the speed limit soon, Steve thinks.

“How did you not notice?” Steve asks, somewhat dry, as he glances out the window at the other cars headed their way. Some people look awfully angry. Steve knows what it’s like to be angry - he’s pretty good at it - but he can’t imagine being pissed off at people just for existing on the same road as him.

Bucky shrugs, and Steve smiles a little at him. “Without classes, I spend most of my time at home.” There’s something still so strangely endearing about Bucky. Someone who just resides on his own plane of existence, beyond things that are nearly-universal, like Christmas. He has his own little bubble of life, in which he gets to carefully dust off the leaves of his plants and pick out complementary candles and pat Alpine and read whatever he wants.

Steve can’t tell whether what he feels is envy, love, or a mix of the two.

“Sorry for dragging you around,” Steve says, even though he isn’t sorry at all.

Bucky, evidently, is not looking for an apology. “Don’t be. This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

Steve turns around in his seat so he can pull his legs up and admire Bucky in profile.

It’s the most fun he’s had in a long time, too.

From the main road the only indication that they’re in the right place is a faded wooden sign, multicoloured fairy lights turned off during the day. The small road they turn onto is made of heavily-compacted dirt, almost all bumps gone from the Christmas crowd driving in and out.

“You sure this is it?” Steve asks, because the entire drive Bucky hasn’t once referred to a map or his phone.

Bucky just nods his head, keeping to the right of the road. They don’t pass any traffic on their way in. The Christmas tree farm has already - clearly - been raided by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Trees remain, of course, but the closer to the entry they get, the more sparse they are.

The parking lot, like the road, is just a large space of dirt. There are already several cars parked up close to the entrance. Steve watches one family unloading children from their SUV, and it’s like a clown car - they just keep coming.

Bucky parks away from the other cars, reversing into a position that leaves them facing the road they came in on. A quick escape route, maybe? Steve doesn’t know and doesn’t ask - he’s not the driver, so it’s none of his business where and how Bucky parks.

With that done, Steve steps from the car into the crisp winter air. He pulls the jacket he’s wearing closer around his torso, checking his pockets for his inhaler, though he’s determined not to use it. It’s just embarrassing. Steve wouldn’t have taken it with him if Bucky hadn’t insisted. He also insisted on jamming a beanie on top of Steve’s head, with some nonsense about the importance of keeping your head and feet warm.

“Have you ever cut a tree down before?” Bucky asks, conversationally, as he rolls the tape measure around in his hands. He’s walking close enough to Steve that their shoulders brush with most steps.

“Have you seen me?” Steve asks, sardonically, raising an eyebrow.

Bucky laughs and gently elbows him, which hits Steve in his upper-arm. Tall jerk. “I mean, have you ever been to a farm? Not that you, specifically, had to cut the tree down.”

“Should’ve said that then,” Steve retorts, elbowing Bucky around the hip in response. “No, I haven’t. We always wanted to go, Ma and I.” Even though he wants to answer in a light-hearted way, he can’t help the sadness that clings to his words. She never got the chance.

Bucky’s arm suddenly appears over Steve’s shoulders, and he makes a noise similar to Alpine when she’s surprised by sudden, human contact. The gesture pulls him in against Bucky’s right side, and Steve tries not to dwell on how that space is perfect for him. Despite the arm across his body, it doesn’t hinder Steve’s ability to walk. As an added bonus, it also warms him up. Bucky’s always running at an extremely desirable temperature that Steve would describe as toasty.

“I’ve never done it either,” Bucky says, as they come upon the entrance.

Steve expects Bucky to remove his arm when they get indoors, but he just leaves it there. At his height, Steve’s shoulders are probably just a very convenient armrest and nothing else. Steve shouldn’t read into all the small touches they share as much as he does, because it’s just leading his brain to believe there’s more going on than there actually is.

It’s just that Bucky needs this physical contact, and Steve’s happy to provide. It still doesn’t mean anything.

Inside the entrance, there’s a whole lot of noise happening. Outside is peace and quiet and the scent of pine needles on the cold wind - inside there is gingerbread baking and a whole gaggle of children in a DIY Bauble workshop gabbing about. The SUV from outside must have produced about twenty kids, because Steve cannot correlate the cars in the parking lot with the sheer amount of tiny humans in the building.

They avoid all of the noise and head for the lady who is, luckily for her, not on Christmas Eve Kid Craft duty.

Steve lets Bucky do the talking, because he knows nothing. He overhears parts of it: how much trees cost based on height, how and where to cut them, and the best way to transport them. Given Bucky’s sheer size, Steve knows that none of that will be his job - Bucky could probably uproot an eight foot tree with his bare hands without breaking a sweat. Steve would like to see that.

He’s removed from his thoughts when Bucky tugs him outside again, following the worker through the door to her right. Bucky lifts his arm from around Steve’s shoulders to collect two things: a handsaw, which looks awfully flimsy in his large hand, and a long trolley thing for, presumably, putting the tree into once it’s cut down.

“Ready?” Bucky asks, as Steve finishes looking around. There’s a little archway to guide them out from this area to where they can select and cut down their own tree. From here, it’s easy to see the stumps of trees that have already found their homes with loving families.

Steve nods absently in answer to Bucky’s question, but he’s distracted by what hangs from the arch they’re about to walk through.

Mistletoe.

He’s not the superstitious type - his mother always hated how he’d put his shoes on the table as a kid - but that’s not what this is about. It’s about - well, about an excuse, really. Steve can’t bring himself to ask to kiss Bucky, as much as he wants to - and he wants to. Badly. He’s been waiting and hoping that, perhaps, Bucky will ask. Bucky asked to hug Steve, and now it’s all they do - wherever they sit, there’s usually some form of body contact between the two of them.

This, though, this innocuous green plant with its off-white berries, tied in bunches with red ribbon, maybe that’s his excuse. Steve can bring it up in the most harmless way, and if Bucky says no, then that’s that. He’ll know for certain.

“You know,” Steve begins, and he can feel his heart settle somewhere in his throat as they approach the arch. “You’re meant to kiss somebody under the mistletoe.”

“Mistletoe?” Bucky asks, quirking a brow as he follows Steve’s eyes up to the wooden structure, adorned with fairy lights and generous sprigs of mistletoe.

Steve nods, and tries to will his skin to be a normal shade and not bright red.

Bucky stares at the arch for a long time, frozen in place with the cart and saw in his hands. It’s a long time of him absorbing the facts of this tradition, or being reminded of it at the very least. He doesn’t say much at all, until he looks down at Steve. Steve wonders if it’s wishful thinking, or if Bucky’s cheeks really are a bit redder now. “You would do that?”

“What?”

“Kiss somebody,” Bucky says, then shifts his weight to the right.

It’s a good thing that they’re the only ones starting off into the farm at this point, because they’re blocking the only way in and out.

Steve swallows. “If I liked them, I guess,” he says quickly, on an exhale. He wants to look away from Bucky, but he can’t make himself do it. It’s like he wants to bear witness to all of it - whether he gets what he’s dreamed of for months, or if this is his painful letdown.

Bucky still doesn’t move. Steve imagines he can hear the whirring of his arm, with how he’s shifting just fractionally in thought.

“Would you - kiss me?” He asks, with more trepidation than Steve’s ever heard in his voice before.

Steve feels his breath catch in his throat, and he prays to all the deities that could be listening that he doesn’t ruin this moment with a coughing fit. Well, if Bucky’s asking him, Steve’s going to answer. “Yeah,” Steve breathes, stepping in a fraction closer without thinking, looking up at Bucky. He tilts his head up, an offer, but he’s not going to force himself upon Bucky. Not again.

Bucky still doesn’t move, aside from those little fidgeting tells he has.

Steve feels like he’s been standing on the precipice for hours, waiting for Bucky to say or do something. Even a rejection would be kinder than leaving him in limbo.

With a sudden wail of delight, the door behind them crashes open and out storm half of the children from inside, their fingers covered with paint. Steve jumps at the noise, and Bucky - as if by some weird instinct - moves so that he is between Steve and the children. Steve watches his prosthetic move, the handsaw still clasped between gloved metal fingers, and Bucky huffs out a half-laugh, half-sigh.

“We should get going,” he says, and the words feel forced.

Steve, who is both very flustered and very mad at the children, reluctantly nods his head and sets off at a brisk pace.

Steve gets sick of walking approximately five minutes into their journey. Bucky is refusing to look at any tree near the entrance - “We want a special one,” is all he says on it - and is setting a pace that is more of a light jog for people with regular-sized legs. So, instead of suffering any longer, Steve grabs Bucky’s sleeve and tugs on it.

“What?” Bucky asks, stopping and turning to face Steve.

Without asking, Steve settles himself in the metal trolley. It is by no means comfortable, but that’s fine. Steve doesn’t have to walk, and that’s worth the discomfort.

Bucky looks back at him with an amused smirk, before leaning in to offer Steve the handsaw. “You can be in charge of this then, too,” he says, before picking up the trolley and pulling it along again. Steve’s weight appears to have made no difference, as Bucky is still just using one hand to tug the trolley around. Steve would be offended, but he’s too busy dwelling on what happened - what almost happened - under the mistletoe.

Would Bucky have kissed him, if they were alone? Or would he have found another excuse? Which isn’t a problem - Bucky can do whatever he wants, Steve isn’t going to force him to reciprocate Steve’s feelings - but were the kids a hindrance or a convenient escape?

Steve’s definitely sulking, just a little bit. Or at least, he was, until Bucky stopped so abruptly that Steve nearly toppled out of his uncomfortable metal cage.

Bucky has his hands on his hips, surveying the land. “Do you want to have a look?”

They’ve been walking a good twenty minutes, and the space they occupy now is still largely untouched. A lot of trees still remain, and they look thicker and healthier than the ones by the entrance that have no doubt been pawed by children for the past month.

“Sure,” Steve says, awkwardly levering himself out of his seat and stretching out his back. The handsaw clatters to the floor beneath the trolley, and Steve blinks at it. Helpful, to forget a saw is sitting over your lap.

Bucky bends over to collect the saw and then retrieves the tape measure from his pocket, tossing it to Steve.

Steve misses, and that, too, finds its way to the ground.

“Stop throwing things,” Steve grumbles, bending down to pick up the tape measure. This, at least, is less dangerous and thus the chance of Steve accidentally hurting himself is much lower.

Bucky just laughs at him, which makes Steve even more irritated. First, children ruin his moment, now this? Steve’s not got the best hand-eye coordination going around, that’s not something Bucky should be picking on him for.

As Bucky makes his way between the pine trees, Steve fiddles with the tape measure. He pulls the tape out two feet and then locks it in place, using the rigidity of it to whack Bucky’s arm. He barely notices. Steve hits him again, harder this time, and Bucky turns to glare at him. “What are you doing?”

“Pay back,” Steve states, lifting his chin in a challenge as he wields his measuring tape like a weapon.

Bucky holds up the handsaw at him, and makes a slicing gesture with it. “Pay back for what?”

Steve huffs, because he doesn’t have a good response that doesn’t sound childish. Probably hitting someone with a tape measure is just childish, no matter the reason. “Just because,” Steve answers, as petulantly as the children by the entrance are likely acting by now, sour with time spent not doing exactly what they want.

Bucky comes in closer, and Steve considers - not for the first time - how easily Bucky could hurt him. He could snap Steve’s neck with his bare hands. He’s holding a serrated saw in his hands. And yet, even as Bucky crowds into his space, Steve doesn’t feel his heart speed up with fear. He wants to feel Bucky’s hands on him, and he knows that they would never touch him with intent to harm.

Steve steps back, until he feels the prickles of pine needles poking him through his jacket. Bucky has him pinned there - by the look in his eyes, and by his body. Steve feels his chest go tight, and it’s not due to illness this time.

“I meant it,” Steve breathes, unprompted, and he’s close enough that he can feel Bucky’s chest rise and fall with his own breaths.

“Meant what?” Bucky asks, just as soft and quiet.

Steve swallows, and his hands itch to touch Bucky. It takes all of his energy to restrain himself. “I’d kiss you.” Steve feels himself drawn in, leaning towards Bucky like a moon in his orbit. Or he’s been the moon, but now he’s breaking his trajectory - the lure of Bucky, his gravity, is just too strong to resist. “Not just under the mistletoe.” It feels worth noting. For someone like Bucky, someone who’s confessed to being hurt, someone who still trembles at skin-to-skin contact, he should know that he wouldn’t just be a cliché box to tick. Steve’s serious. He wants Bucky, in every way.

Steve doesn’t notice when Bucky drops the handsaw, only that there’s one gloved hand on his hip, the other cupping his cheek. Steve feels unable to move - he’s frozen in place, a statue. Bucky moves with great care, dipping his head so that his nose brushes beside Steve’s. They’re so close now that Steve is torn - he wants to keep his eyes open, to see everything, but his entire field of vision is a blurry close-up of Bucky.

He can feel Bucky breathe, can feel the hand on his cheek shaking through the glove. Steve closes his eyes and waits. And waits. Bucky just stays there: forehead-to-forehead, noses slotted together, lips a breath from each other.

Steve is light-headed, and that may be because he’s been holding his breath since Bucky’s face touched his, or because Bucky’s face is touching his. It’s too much, but then it’s not enough. Steve doesn’t know what he wants, just that he wants whatever Bucky is willing to give him.

Gently, Bucky shifts enough to press their lips together. His are dry in the cold wind, but they’re still warm - like the rest of him. Steve’s lips are slightly parted, and he leans into the contact but lets Bucky dictate the pace.

It’s slow, but it gives Steve time to savour all of it. Bucky’s hand on his cheek, curling and tightening with certainty - how his lips start to move against Steve’s, in a way that suggests Bucky’s done this before, but not for a long time. Bucky’s body stands in counterpoint to the cold wind that goes right through Steve’s body, and he leans into the contact - places his hands on Bucky’s chest, the tape measure forgotten somewhere on the floor, too. There’s no tongue, no frantic desperation. It’s slow and gentle and perfect.

Then, with the smallest whimper - so small it might be that Steve felt it through his body rather than heard it - Bucky’s lips leave his. His face moves from resting on Steve’s own, to burying in the juncture between his shoulder and neck. Bucky’s spine curls to bend down to that level, and Steve’s hands travel around Bucky’s sides to try and reach his back. He doesn’t make a sound, but Steve feels the warm wetness of tears and the fluttering of eyelashes that try to hold them back.

“You’re okay, Buck,” Steve mumbles, mouth by his ear, hands rubbing soothing circles on his back. “I’ve got you. I’m not leaving you.”

Steve stays there, holding Bucky in his arms, until he’s ready. The guilt curls inside Steve, the same as it had when he’d kissed Bucky for the first time. On this occasion, though, Steve can’t quite work out what happened. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong - he barely responded to Bucky’s gentle, tentative touches. His mind swings around, as it often does, to Bucky’s past trauma - whatever it was. He holds Bucky a little tighter, hoping that he can take some of the pain, some of the burden onto himself.

It seems to help, somewhat. Bucky lets out a shaky sigh against Steve’s chest, and then lifts his head and turns around. When he collects the handsaw from the ground, his eyes are slightly red, but there’s little to indicate he’d just been crying into Steve’s neck. Steve surreptitiously wipes his neck clean, though the collar of his jacket remains damp.

He doesn’t ask if Bucky wants to talk. He knows what it’s like to have problems you would rather keep bottled up inside. Is it healthy? No, but Steve wouldn’t say he’s the sort of person you look to for an example of maintaining pristine mental health. That’s for the Sam Wilsons’ of the world.

Bucky just smiles, watery and thin, and gestures to the measuring tape Steve dropped at some point. “Seven feet is the tallest we can fit in the apartment,” Bucky announces, and that’s that.

Steve dutifully picks up the measuring tape and starts inspecting different trees.

After some debate, they settle on a bushy one hiding towards the back of the lot. Steve can’t tell it apart from most of the others around it, just that when he sees it he decides it is The One. Bucky, without any assistance from Steve, manages to cut the entire thing down, shake it to dislodge any loose pine needles or hiding insects, and load it into the trolley.

“Now I have to walk,” Steve grumbles, falling into step beside Bucky, the full trailer trundling along in their wake.

Bucky turns to look at him, giving him a thorough once-over. “I could carry you?” The offer comes after some amount of deliberation, as if Bucky were really judging Steve’s suitably to walk.

Steve stares back, equally as scrupulous. “Wouldn’t that be a pain?” It’s not that Steve can’t walk - he’s mostly just complaining for the sake of it - but the prospect of Bucky carrying him is a hard one to pass up.

Bucky just shrugs. “You weigh barely anything. I’ve carried you before.”

Steve continues to consider the offer, though his mind is telling him that a piggy-back from his crush is likely going to be both the best and worst thing to happen to him. “Would you want to?”

A nod, this time. “You can ride on my back,” Bucky offers, and crouches down. It’s like he’s done this before - Steve wonders if Bucky had little siblings, or babysat younger kids when he was growing up, what with how easily he assumes the position. Steve has never given anyone a piggy-back in his life, and that’s because the likelihood of that person ending up going face-first into the ground is too damn high. Not to mention the collateral damage of Steve’s spine breaking or something equally as inconvenient.

Steve, who is certainly not taking the words “you can ride on my back,” out of context (not yet, at least), carefully climbs onto Bucky’s back. It’s - definitely not the easiest place to sit. It takes Bucky standing up and readjusting Steve to his liking for it to get more comfortable. Bucky crouches down to pick up the handle of the trolley, his other hand - his right hand - on Steve’s leg, keeping it in place around his ribs. Steve loops his hands around Bucky’s neck and rests his head atop the other man’s, letting his body bounce in time to the rhythm of Bucky’s footsteps.

It’s meditative, almost. Steve zones out of their reality, which is now a million more children in the farm along with their exhausted parents. Who would’ve thought that other people were as unprepared as them?

Bucky navigates the three of them - himself, Steve, and their tree - back into the little corral behind the store. He talks to the man who’s working now - Steve doesn’t acknowledge him, and so nothing is said about his perch on Bucky’s back - and they wind up getting let out of a side-gate to fix the tree to the car.

It’s not until Bucky’s stopped for a good minute, looking at the car, does Steve realise that’s probably his cue to hop down. He moves his hands to Bucky’s shoulder and loosens the death-grip his calves and ankles have on Bucky’s body. Bucky’s hand, nevertheless, follows his movement down, as if to ensure Steve lands safely on the floor and not in a heap on the gravel.

Bucky wouldn’t be too far from the truth, if he thought that would happen. Steve’s legs are wobbly after so long gripping to Bucky that he grabs Bucky’s proffered forearm to get his balance back.

“Alright?” Bucky asks, and Steve nods.

Then he looks between Bucky’s car and the tree, frowning in thought. Before he can voice his question - namely, how the fuck is Bucky getting a seven foot tree atop his car, which has no utility tray or roof rack? - Bucky offers him his wallet. “Can you go in and pay for the tree and the stand? They’ll have the stand waiting for you behind the counter.”

Steve nods his head and takes Bucky’s wallet, dodging the cars and families piling out of them to get back into the noisy mess of craft inside.

When he gets there, a line has formed. Steve sighs, and flicks Bucky’s wallet open. He didn’t think to get a PIN from Bucky earlier, so he’s hoping all of his cards have PayPass (not that Steve can’t, or won’t, forge a signature for the sake of a glorious tree, but going to jail on Christmas Eve isn’t very holiday-appropriate), when Steve notices how empty the wallet is. The only thing in there, in fact, is a stack of bills: almost all of them hundreds, arranged in a neat row. There has to be at least a thousand dollars in the wallet, but nothing else. No licence, no ID, not even a debit card.

Steve feels frustration well up in his chest, and it takes him moving forward in the line a few times to realise why: there is no evidence of Bucky’s identity, even in something that should have it.

Does it mean Steve would have looked at his licence, given the chance? It’s - not a question he can answer. Steve likes to think no, he would’ve let Bucky have that, but another part of him is that curious. He wants to know more about Bucky, the person who cried for five minutes after kissing him. The person who asked with great fear whether Steve would consider hugging him. Steve is deathly curious, and Bucky’s thwarting his attempts to learn at every turn.

“You next, love?” The woman from earlier says, with a thick, unplaceable accent and a smile, and Steve stumbles his way through the transaction.

He carries the tree stand back out to the car, where Bucky has now tied the tree down with a tarp and some ropes. Steve’s eyes narrow. Did Bucky just have a tarp and rope laying about in the trunk of his car? There are so many innocent uses for that - moving a Christmas tree, for example - but Steve’s mind can’t help jumping to what else someone would use them for.

But no.

Bucky’s not some kind of deranged murderer.

He’s smiling, sweet as anything, from the passenger side door - which he’s holding open for Steve.

Ugh.

They stop on the way home so Bucky can brave the last minute Walmart crowds and get groceries. Steve opts to wait in the car. While he’s there, he texts Sam. Despite being back home for the holidays - an invitation he had extended to Steve, but Brooklyn was still too raw in his heart to face just yet - they’ve been texting frequently. They always have, even when Sam had been living in LA for the years between their high school graduation and Steve’s arrival in town. They never go more than a few days without talking.

Steve (3:21pm): do you think there’s anything weird abt Bucky like
Steve (3:21pm): do you know his full name?? or anything??
Steve (3:22pm): because I don’t! :(

Steve fidgets with his phone, already feeling bad for asking. He just… really wants to know, that’s all.

Sam (3:26pm): Dunno his full name, but I don’t think there’s anything weird about him?
Sam (3:27pm): Are you okay? Has something happened? You’ve got the spare keys to my place if you need somewhere to go that’s not a shitty dorm.

Sam, as always, is too good of a human being. For all he’s happy to sit and interrogate Steve about his deepest, darkest secrets, he’s also surprisingly level-headed and chill about some things. Like not knowing a single thing about Bucky.

Steve (3:27pm): he gave me his wallet today and he has no ID!!!! No licence, nothing

Sam (3:29pm): But he drives okay, right?

Steve (3:29pm): but everyone has ID, Sam!!! He doesn’t

It’s frustrating, still not knowing. And Bucky had so much money. Now, Steve has money - not that he wants it, not that he wouldn’t give all of it back to have his mother back in his life, but still. It’s different. His money doesn’t sit in his wallet, in neatly folded bills. He keeps most of it in his bank account, like what Steve thought all regular human beings did.

As if to prove a point to himself, Steve pulls out his wallet. He has money in there, sure, but it’s a couple of crumpled ones and possibly a ten in there somewhere. There’s a small pocket for coins, then his cards all crammed in a limited amount of slots: his student card, two debit cards, a New York ID, and his MetroCard - along with a few different loyalty programs tucked away behind them.

It’s what Steve Rogers would call a normal wallet, if he could term anything about himself as normal.

As Steve closes his wallet, Bucky is returning to the car - somehow getting in and out of a crowded grocery store on Christmas Eve in fifteen minutes - dumping groceries on the backseat and double-checking the ropes tying the tree down.

When they begin the journey home, Steve is intently focused on how Bucky drives, looking for any tell that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Which, actually, is the dumbest thing Steve’s ever done because he doesn’t know how to drive. But Bucky doesn’t appear to be breaking any speed limits, as his car roughly matches pace with the ones in the lanes beside him. He doesn’t do anything that causes another motorist to honk or yell at him, and if LA roads are anything like New York ones that should have already happened regardless of his driving skills.

Eventually, Steve looks away. It’s a pointless endeavour, and besides, he’s missed a text from Sam.

Sam (3:34pm): Steve, if you’re worried, just ask him about it. Judging by what you said about that party, he’s got some issues like everyone does. Don’t drive him away, just because he values his privacy. He’ll tell you when he’s ready.

Steve frowns. Trust Sam to always be level-headed, when Steve just wants someone to confirm the uneasy suspicions in his head.

“Everything okay?” Bucky asks, with that same, genuine quality he lends to everything he says.

Steve lets out a sharp sigh. “Yeah,” he answers, in a way that suggests things are very much not okay at all.

Bucky, thankfully, doesn’t inquire further.

Steve (3:48pm): what if he’s never ready??

Sam (3:50pm): Then that’s his business and not yours.
Sam (3:50pm): He makes you happy, Steve. Please don’t ruin that over some stupid suspicions.

Steve continues to frown at his phone, but doesn’t answer Sam. There’s no point. As always, Sam is - infuriatingly - right.

Bucky takes all the groceries in one trip, pushing his keys into Steve’s hand and letting him lead the way.

Then comes the tree, which is - through some inhuman feat of strength - something Bucky also carries alone. Steve dutifully takes the tree stand and places it in the centre of the room, because they may have measured the height of the tree but they certainly didn’t account for the width of it. It takes up a large chunk of Bucky’s living room, and Alpine looks equal parts intrigued and terrified.

Bucky puts away some items in the fridge to keep them cold, and then comes to stand beside Steve, who’s fluffing up some branches - a habit from getting the same artificial tree out of cramped storage every year.

“I remembered,” Bucky offers, along with a grocery bag. Steve looks into the bag. Inside are a few decorations and, amongst the glittering baubles, one bag of fresh cranberries and another of popcorn kernels. “The - garland. We would thread popcorn and cranberries onto thread to decorate the tree.”

Steve looks up at Bucky, and his confusion must be evident because Bucky just smiles hesitantly back at him. “Really?” Steve asks, skeptical, because he’s never heard of anyone doing anything like that. Most people, his family included, just bought garlands made of tinsel or metallic beads or glittering lights to string around their tree.

Bucky nods, still with some measure of indecisiveness. “I think,” he breathes, at last. Then, because Steve’s still stuck in the space of being mad about what he doesn’t know and being endeared by what he does know, Bucky has enough time to speak again. “Have I done something wrong?”

That melts Steve’s anger right away, and that’s not a feat anyone’s ever been able to achieve before. The thought that he, through his own internal frustrations, might upset Bucky is too much for Steve to bear. “I’m sorry,” Steve says, and he deliberates over what to say next. He doesn’t want to make Bucky feel bad for keeping his own secrets - like Sam said, that’s Bucky’s business and not Steve’s, no matter how much Steve wishes it was. But he has a right to be upset. He knows that. “I just… I still wish I knew you better.” It’s not a lie, either, not really. Steve’s not going to accuse Bucky in his own home of withholding information, much as that’s how he feels.

Bucky looks down at the bag, still in his hands. He tilts it to the side, and watches the contents topple over. It’s another variation on his usual thoughtful fidget, and the popcorn kernels rattle in their bag as they knock against something more solid.

Steve waits, or tries to, except he’s not very good at patience. “I like you a lot,” he blurts, when the silence continues on for too long for Steve to handle.

The words come as a surprise to both of them. Steve knows his own eyes are wide as he looks at Bucky, because he hadn’t meant to divulge that piece of information. Not that it was exactly classified. Steve has been pretty obvious about his crush.

“I like you, too, Steve,” Bucky answers, evenly, still shuffling the bag to and fro in his hands. “I could start the turkey and… maybe we could decorate together?”

Bucky gets right into cooking, following a recipe for turkey on his phone. It’s hard to hold onto any residual annoyance because Steve can’t stop staring at Bucky. He’s adorable, the way he bites the corner of his lip and frowns when he’s trying to work out part of the recipe - and given he’s never made a turkey before (or so he says), he does that a few times.

Steve’s busy considering his sketchbook, and what within it he could offer as a gift. He should have drawn something less obvious, like Alpine or a landscape, but all he has available are drawings of Bucky. The ones of his body in different positions feel too intimate: Bucky sitting and writing, standing and cooking, leaning across the dining table. The only somewhat-appropriate one Steve can think of is that of Bucky’s hand, the realistic silver overlaid with gold stars, pen in his delicate grip. He isn’t sure, given Bucky’s apprehension about the prosthetic, whether the image will be met with positivity or negativity. It is, despite that, the least risky image he has. Bucky probably doesn’t want twelve sketches of his own face to look at - he hasn’t given Steve the narcissist vibe yet. At least the hand can be a piece of art without openly giving away that the hand belongs to Bucky.

The sudden, loud sound of corn popping surprises Steve and he nearly loses his sketchbook in his startled jump. Bucky isn’t looking at Steve - he’s shaking the pot back and forth over the heat, and from the first, hesitant pop comes a sudden storm of it. It goes on for a solid minute, and Steve can smell the popping corn around the herbs and spices used on the turkey which is slowly roasting in the oven.

When the pops die down, Bucky pulls the pan from the heat but keeps the lid on for any lagging kernels.

Steve watches as Bucky settles himself on the floor with all of the necessary materials for the garlands he plans on making (garlands, Steve has Googled, that people made back in the good old days because they couldn’t afford proper decorations). Then he looks up at Steve with eyes that could very easily be classified as puppy dog eyes. “Do you want to help?”

Steve wastes no time closing his sketchbook and putting away, sliding down to sit on the floor next to Bucky. Alpine sniffs at the popcorn in the pot and delicately steals one piece away - which she leaves, soggy and half-chewed on the floor a short distance from them.

Bucky holds up two sewing needles, already threaded, and offers one to Steve. He doesn’t give instructions on how to do it - perhaps because it’s easy, perhaps because Bucky doesn’t fully know himself, with the way he hesitantly picks up and starts to thread the items together. Whatever the reason, Steve watches Bucky and starts to mimic him: one cranberry, then a few pieces of popcorn to balance the colours.

It’s easy work, the two of them together in front of the tree, making their own decorations. It’s nice, actually, to create instead of just buy. He can see why parents back in ye olden times got their children to work on them: it’s quiet, busy work.

Bucky’s about three feet along with no sign of slowing down when he starts to speak, staring at his work. “There are a lot of things I don’t - like to talk about,” he says, quietly, as if saying so any louder will alert strangers to his admission. “There are things I don’t remember,” and Bucky’s voice breaks, and he bites his bottom lip and forces another cranberry onto the needle.

Steve - God, Steve’s been a dick. Sam was right - not that he’ll tell the other man. Not that he needs to. Steve’s pretty sure Sam knows he’s always right.

Blinking back some of his own tears, Steve shuffles closer to Bucky, close enough that their sides brush. “I’m sorry,” Steve says, taking a leaf from Bucky’s book and staring at the garland instead of at the other man. “I just… worry. Sometimes.”

Bucky puts down his garland to free up his arm to place over Steve’s shoulders, and Steve sinks into the feeling of home with frightening immediacy. “I’ll tell you all I can, when I can. I promise,” Bucky says into Steve’s hair.

Steve places his own work on the floor, careful to keep the needle embedded in a piece of popcorn so it doesn’t accidentally poke someone. He turns and climbs into Bucky’s lap, experienced enough to know that his weight and constant moving barely bother Bucky. He sits so he’s facing Bucky, feet planted on the ground behind him. “Thank you,” Steve breathes, feeling overly selfish for even getting Bucky to promise such things.

Bucky smiles, eyes still glassy with unshed tears. “Could I kiss you again?”

Steve’s stomach swoops, and he remembers their kiss earlier that day - the way it was so timid, barely more than a brushing of lips together. It’s still the most intimate moment Steve’s ever experienced with someone. “Only if you want to,” Steve says, because he doesn’t want his response (a resounding yes) to pressure Bucky into more than he’s ready to give.

“I do,” Bucky says, fumbling his hands behind Steve’s back for a moment before positioning them where he wants them. It takes Steve a moment to notice that the hand on his cheek is bare, this time. Steve sighs and tilts his head into the hold, trying to balance the thin line between encouraging and forceful.

Bucky doesn’t wait as long before bridging the gap between them this time, though the kiss starts off just as chaste. Their lips touch, Bucky’s not as wind-chapped as they had been, earlier in the outdoors. Steve lets one of his hands settle on the side of Bucky’s neck, thumb brushing the line of his jaw, feeling the beginning of stubble just starting to prickle through Bucky’s skin. He sighs into their contact, and Bucky’s lips slot to fit between his - they move, fractionally, against Steve’s. It’s the beginning of a kiss, and Steve’s reminded distantly of his first high school kisses - either questioning like this, or too sloppy with misplaced enthusiasm.

A tear rolls down Bucky’s cheek, and catches on Steve’s thumb - startling him into pulling back. Bucky’s crying again, eyes clenched.

“Buck?” Steve asks, holding Bucky’s face between his hands, catching his tears with his fingers. “Is this okay?”

“I’m sorry,” he answers, voice rough. “I can’t -”

Steve can hear the incomplete sentence begin and end, those two words all there is to it. “It’s okay. We can take our time,” Steve says, and he knows he’d spend his whole life doing this with Bucky if it’ll make him happy. Opening him up to a future where people aren’t going to hurt him.

Bucky blinks his eyes open, eyelashes damp with tears, and he nods his head. Steve leans in and kisses the top of one cheekbone, then the other. They’re still damp and salty with tears, but Steve doesn’t mind. He presses a final kiss to the tip of Bucky’s noise, and feels an airy laugh against his chin in response.

“How did I get so lucky?” Bucky asks, wondrously, staring at Steve with a look that screams love so much that Steve can’t handle it.

He laughs, stilted and awkward, faced with too much all at one time. “I’m the lucky one,” Steve answers, pulling Bucky’s head into his chest so he doesn’t have to look at the adoration in his gaze.

They finish decorating the tree. The turkey doesn’t burn. They say goodnight with a brief, tear-free kiss and two gifts waiting under the tree for them the next morning.

Chapter Text

Waking up in Bucky’s arms has to be the best Christmas present Steve’s ever received.

It would be stupid of Steve to expect that one night would suddenly take the anxiety from Bucky’s body, especially given how long its taken him to become okay with skin-to-skin contact, but he is still hopeful. He wants to spend hours in bed with Bucky, lazily kissing every inch of skin he can reach. Unfortunately, things don’t always go to plan.

Sometimes, not going to plan can be better than the plan, because it’s real.

Bucky smiles sleepily, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and he leans down to kiss Steve in the middle of his forehead. Steve scrunches his eyes closed, and when he opens them again, Bucky is standing up.

“Hey,” Steve whines, one hand darting out from under the covers to make grabby motions at Bucky. “Why’d you get up?”

Bucky doesn’t go far. He walks to the base of the tree where the two of them had placed their “gifts” last night. They aren’t much, given the short notice. Or, at least, Steve thinks they aren’t much. He knows his isn’t. His is the drawing, carefully pulled from his sketchbook, the edges trimmed when Bucky had been showering the night before. All that needed adding were his signature and the date to the bottom corner of the page, both in the same gold pencil Steve had used to dot stars across the metal of Bucky’s drawn hand.

Bucky’s gift hadn’t looked like much more than a few sheets of paper and now, as he picks it up and brings it closer, Steve can confirm that that’s exactly what it is. Which isn’t a problem, but Steve’s curious as to what the folded pages contain.

“I know it’s not much,” Bucky’s saying as he sits back down on the bed in the open space where he’d pushed the covers back. He fiddles with the pages momentarily, before holding them out to Steve. “But I wanted to give this to you.”

Steve smiles and takes the pages, treating them as delicately as Bucky had. When he gets hold of them, Steve is able to see exactly what Bucky’s given him. It’s two sheets of lined paper, stapled in the top-left corner and folded in half to keep their contents a secret.

Steve looks back up at Bucky for permission, and Bucky nods - to him, then to the pages.

So, carefully, Steve opens them up, and begins to read.

There are a lot of things I can’t tell you. Some of those things I want to share with you, and maybe someday I can. Others are things that I can’t ever talk about, and I’m sorry. I know it makes it hard to trust me, but I hope that you can, Steve. I wanted to write you a list of some of the things I can share, and maybe they will tide you over until I can answer some of your other questions.

Steve is making a very admirable attempt not to cry at the introduction of Bucky’s note. Each word is written with careful precision in that beautiful, fantastical handwriting of Bucky’s that Steve has always adored. It’s like reading the diary of someone from the past, the way his letters elegantly run together.

  1. My family and I grew up without much money. I had a sister, Rebecca. She learned how to sew from my mother so she could repair our clothes, rather than buying new ones. I remember decorating the Christmas tree with her. I would always prick my thumb with the needles, but she did it effortlessly. I swear, one year she made a garland that was ten feet long. She just didn’t stop.
  2. When I grew up, I always wanted to be a writer. I don’t know what I thought I would write. Perhaps something non-fiction?
  3. My friend Wanda, she decorated the house. I never thought I wanted so many plants. It was just me and a bed for so long. Now that I have them, I really like them. I think my favourite plant is the aglaonema. I love the colourful leaves. But I like all of them. They’re proof that I can keep something alive with my hands.

It keeps going. Some of the facts are longer; in-depth paragraphs lined with Bucky’s history.

  1. I don’t believe that tarot cards can see into the future. I like the art (you should design a deck, you’re very talented), and I find it encourages thought about certain situations. Sometimes making yourself look a little deeper helps you solve a problem. The first time I met you, properly, I was doing a reading. I don’t know why. I was just thinking about you. And the Ace of Cups came up. It heralds a new relationship. It said something about being a teenager, feeling butterflies in your stomach. I don’t much remember feeling that way when I was younger (it was a long time ago), but I know I feel it when I’m with you.

Others are short and to the point (14. My favourite fruit is the plum.), seemingly random tidbits that are united in that they paint a picture of the man sitting, staring at Steve in anticipation.

None of them are overly personal - perhaps the most intimate is the first one Bucky put to paper, the story of a boy with two parents and a sister that Steve has never heard of - but they’re something. An offering. Steve can recognise an olive branch when it's extended to him, and though they haven’t actively argued about the things Steve doesn’t know it’s definitely been a sticking point for him. This is Bucky, giving what he can, and Steve can be happy with that.

With a steadying breath, Steve puts down the sheets of paper and looks up at Bucky.

Bucky’s smiling hopefully at him, and Steve wants to kiss the uncertainty that hovers just out of reach.

“Buck,” Steve says, almost breathlessly, and he sits up on his knees so he can wrap his arms around Bucky. He has to stretch his body up so that he can hold Bucky the way he is often held, tucked away safely under his chin. Bucky curves his back, bending down so he can fit, and Steve can feel each breath against the bare skin of his throat. “Can I kiss you?” Steve says to his hair. “As thanks.”

Bucky nods, and Steve noses his way into his hair further. It’s thick and smells sweet and floral. Steve presses a kiss there, and though Bucky tenses in his arms, he doesn’t back off. He stays there, and Steve can’t believe how he could’ve gotten so lucky.

It takes superhuman strength to pull away from Bucky, but Steve manages - mostly in the spirit of reciprocity. He wants to lean down and peck Bucky again on the forehead (then again on each cheek, each closed eyelid, the tip of his nose - and so on, forever, for eternity), but he restrains himself. If Steve knows anything about Bucky, and he’s learned a lot recently, is that he isn’t to control the speed here. Their close touches started the same way, with Bucky dictating when they touched and Steve just allowing him to explore safely. Steve is adamant that this will be the same sort of thing. He’s not forcing himself on Bucky, not again.

Steve quietly pads over to the tree and picks up his own piece of paper. Now that the time has come, now that there’s no backing out, he feels - nervous.

“I don’t want you to think you have to like it,” Steve offers as a heads-up, keeping the image side of the paper pressed against his chest. “I wanted to give you something, but if you hate it that’s fine.”

“Hate it?” Bucky scoffs. “I could never hate anything you make, Steve.”

“Don’t speak too soon,” Steve says, and then - like pulling the bandaid off - turns it over.

Bucky just looks at the page for a while. Steve waits, heart thundering in his chest - he’s sure Bucky will be able to hear it. Bucky continues to stare, still as a statue, until he finally reaches out. Then he traces his drawn hand, each metal plate, tapping his finger on the stars scattered across his metal skin. Steve draws his bottom lip into his mouth and worries at it with his teeth, just for something to do in that infinite moment.

It takes him a second to realise Bucky’s looking at him and that he’s smiling. There are tears in his eyes. “I wish it looked more like this,” he breathes, so quietly that Steve isn’t sure he’s heard correctly, but he can’t bring himself to ask for Bucky to repeat himself.

“You like it?” Steve asks instead, and Bucky does two things: with one hand, the metal one, he places the drawing safely on the bedside table; with the other, Bucky reels Steve in by the waist. Steve lets himself go, stumbling forward until he stands between Bucky’s legs, large thighs bracketing his smaller body.

“I love it,” Bucky says, and Steve’s a fool but he’s not stupid enough to say what’s on his mind.

(”I love you.”)

Instead, Steve lets Bucky pull him into a careful kiss.

They spend the rest of Christmas Day alternating between cuddling and kissing on the bed, and cuddling and kissing elsewhere around the apartment.

That’s actually the way they spend the following days, too. Steve can’t help himself: he’s helplessly drawn into Bucky’s orbit. Each tender smile, each deep laugh and eye roll and mumbled word, they all make Steve love Bucky more. He hadn’t thought such a thing was possible.

Sam makes it back into town on New Year’s Eve, and Steve thinks he might - for the first time in a long time - want to see somebody who isn’t Bucky.

But it’s a pretty tenuous might.

Sam announces his return via a phone call to Steve, who is - very reluctantly, and very much at Bucky’s behest - studying for the upcoming term. Steve’s only doing the revision because Bucky’s condition for continued snuggling in bed was that they do something productive with the time. Steve had made a valiant argument for cuddling itself being a very productive use of his time, but Bucky hadn’t agreed.

“Sam?” Steve answers, and is greeted with - the sound of Sam involved in a conversation with someone else. Lovely. “Hello?”

It takes another ten seconds before Sam is sighing heavily, static in Steve’s ear, and then, “Steve?”

“I’ve been here since you called me, like five minutes ago.”

Sam snorts. “Five minutes my ass, I was just getting a cab. What’s going on?”

Steve can feel Bucky’s body surrounding his, arms settling in Steve’s lap and head hooked over his shoulder. Bucky’s reading some textbook about Russian something-or-other - Steve’s not even pretending to understand it. Despite not explicitly telling Steve he can speak Russian, the fact that Bucky’s reading something entirely in Russian seemingly gives that one away. That probably explains the Native Russian course, now that Steve thinks about it.

“What’s going on?” Steve echoes, returning to himself - away from the backs of Bucky’s hands on his thighs, the way he hums at something interesting he reads. “Uh, nothing. Just studying.”

“Studying? Steve, it’s New Year’s Eve. Classes haven’t even started yet. Why on Earth are you studying?” Sam, surprisingly, is scolding him. For being studious. Well, Steve can understand that, kinda. He wouldn’t be studying if not for Bucky’s ultimatum.

“Bucky’s studying, and he said I had to,” Steve says, ignoring both sounds that follow his statement - Bucky’s indignant humph, Sam’s sing-song ooh down the line. “What are you doing? Apart from getting a cab, obviously.”

“Coming back to see your pretty face, Rogers, what else?” Steve can see Sam’s smirk. “You two lovebirds got plans for tonight?”

Now, Steve’s sure that Bucky can hear Sam. He’s practically positive. For one, Bucky seems to hear everything. One time Steve dropped something in the shower and swore under his breath and then Bucky was knocking at the door, checking he was okay. Steve had once put it down to his own shitty hearing making other peoples’ seem superhuman in comparison but honestly, Bucky hears everything. It’s also a reason why showering is so damn frustrating, but Steve’s got better things to concentrate on right now.

Like bringing the shade of his face back down from bright red at Sam’s words. Lovebirds. They’re not - Bucky’s not in love with Steve. They aren’t even officially… anything. They’re just. Doing. Being. Existing. All of it, together. “Uh, I’ll check,” Steve says, to avoid more embarrassment, and pulls the phone from his ear. “Are we doing anything tonight?” Steve’s not sure Bucky will have anything planned. He figures that New Year’s, like Christmas, is one of those holidays Bucky just ignores.

Bucky hums, eyes flicking up from his book. “I thought we might go see the fireworks,” Bucky answers tentatively, before turning to look at Steve - which is a hard feat, given their already close proximity. “Do you want to do something else?”

“No,” Steve says, immediately. He’s aware that he’s falling into that trap, wanting to spend every waking hour around Bucky, but… well, just one more night. He wants one more night with Bucky as his alone, before the new year starts. Before it’s back to reality: back to studying, back to work, and back to his weekly coffee dates with Sam, which - admittedly - Steve has been missing. “Fireworks sound good, just lemme,” Steve makes an aborted gesture with his phone, but Bucky seems to catch on pretty quickly and returns to his book.

“Bucky and I were going to go see the fireworks,” Steve answers, and then - because he is still a good friend, hopefully - offers, “do you want to come?”

“Riley got invited to some party on-campus, so I think we’re going to that.”

Ooh, Riley,” Steve teases. He still hasn’t had much of a chance to get the full story out of Sam. He’s seen pictures of Riley on Sam’s Facebook page (and has dutifully heart-reacted them, as every best friend is sworn to do), but Sam’s been tight-lipped on the whole situation. Trust Sam to pick apart Steve’s love life and stay quiet about his own.

Steve can hear Sam’s eye-roll down the line. “Ooh yourself,” he replies sharply. “Well, I won’t see you tonight, but you best believe we’re getting coffee tomorrow. I don’t care how hungover you are.”

“I don’t think I’ll be hungover.” Steve can’t be sure, but Bucky isn’t much of a drinker. Isn’t a drinker at all, actually, not that Steve’s ever seen. He isn’t either, really. Steve’s not the sort to crave it, but if he’s at a party he won’t turn down a drink offered his way. 

“Well, I don’t care how hungover I’ll be. But best make it late, to be sure,” Sam says with an air of finality, and then they’re saying their goodbyes.

Bucky, thankfully, does not force Steve to study all the way until they leave for the fireworks. They stop in the late afternoon, make some dinner, and sit together and talk. Bucky’s letter has been integral in opening up different lines of communication between them - providing Steve with topics he can raise, and he does so with glee.

It’s almost ten thirty before they leave the house. That’s Steve’s suggestion - get in after the first round of fireworks at 9pm end, when all the parents with little kids go home and hopefully free up some space for the rest of them. Bucky, who doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion beyond wanting to see the fireworks, is happy to oblige.

By the time they get there, there isn’t a single free park within reasonable walking distance of Burton Chace Park. Which, of course there isn’t. That’s just Steve’s luck.

He’s not about to admit that they should’ve gotten there earlier, because - well, really, if they wanted to beat the family crowd it would’ve meant arriving in the mid-afternoon, and Steve didn’t want to do that. Not when he was in bed with Bucky. But… maybe they should’ve gotten there a bit sooner.

“We can park somewhere else?” Bucky offers, pulling over onto the side of the road. Right now, the roads are fairly empty - most people have already arrived at their destinations for the evening. Unlike them.

Steve makes a non-committal huff, flicking through his Maps app to see if he can find somewhere better. “I mean, they’re not as good the further away you are,” Steve begins, scrolling through some possibilities. “We can just go sit in the Walmart parking lot and watch.”

Bucky laughs, as if it’s a joke. When Steve just sits, stony-faced and silent, Bucky turns to look at him. “You want to sit outside a Walmart on New Year’s Eve?”

Steve fidgets a little, now that the attention’s on him. What he wanted was to have the night go perfectly to plan. To be able to kiss Bucky at the countdown and watch the fireworks with him. “If the elevation is good,” Steve replies, sourly.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky says, incredibly fond, before picking up Steve’s right hand and holding it in his own. “I didn’t want to be too close to the fireworks and the crowds anyway. I think it’ll be - too loud.”

Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand in return. Though fireworks were Bucky’s decision, Steve hadn’t stopped to think that maybe he wouldn’t like the press of bodies against his. People have been camping out in the park likely all day, if LA fireworks are anything like Steve’s known back home. Steve’s got no problem with big groups, but even he feels uncomfortable when there’s people he doesn’t know right up against him. Bucky seems fine on-campus, but there’s never a massive group of people all forced into close proximity with each other for extended periods of time there. Maybe the distance is better.

“We don’t have to see the fireworks at all,” Steve offers. He loves the fireworks, he does. They lived close enough to Coney Island that they would visit for the evening, watching the fireworks from the beach, all throughout his childhood. He hasn’t been since - since they became just him.

“I want to,” Bucky says, gripping Steve’s hand a little tighter before letting go and pulling back onto the road. “I want to see them. With you.” There’s a certain forcefulness to his voice that suggests Bucky is making himself follow through with this, since Steve sure as hell isn’t pushing the issue. Well, Steve knows what it’s like to battle against yourself for something you want, and he’s not about to tell Bucky not to keep going.

Instead, Steve fiddles with the radio until some music starts playing to lighten the mood. It takes about half an hour for Bucky to find somewhere he’s happy with - a small, local park.

“The elevation is good here,” Bucky answers with a smug look, and Steve rolls his eyes.

“How can you know that?” Honestly, the elevation thing had mostly been a joke. As long as they’re within a few miles of the launch site, it should be easy enough to see the fireworks regardless of position. Not to mention the amount of people who are likely going to be setting off their own, illegal fireworks soon.

“I know a lot of things,” Bucky replies, locking the car and walking into the dark, surprisingly empty park. Aside from a gaggle of teenagers who are most certainly not drinking on a picnic rug, it’s just the two of them.

Steve’s going to take Bucky’s word for it as far as their current elevation is concerned, but he does want to stake out the best viewing spot - which just so happens to be a playground, the second storey promising a better view than the ground. “You want to sit up there?” Steve asks, despite already being halfway up the ladder himself.

Underneath his feet, the metal flooring is wet and slippery. The weather in December is never that good for a proper celebration, which is why it’s so frustrating to have nearly every holiday crammed into that time of year. Steve holds onto the tiny railing, because he likely has less dexterity and gross motor skills than a child, especially given the damp and the darkness. His eyes barely function in good lighting, let alone now.

Bucky climbs up behind him, somehow - somehow - not making a damn sound in the process. Steve turns to glare at him, and he isn’t sure whether Bucky ignores the look or completely misses it.

“It’s wet,” Steve begins, sounding petulant, “so we can’t sit down.”

Bucky, as if with the sole intention of proving Steve wrong, sits down anyway, the backs of his legs resting against a climbing wall. Steve glares at him again, until Bucky pats his lap in invitation and then all is forgiven.

With a pleased sigh, Steve settles in. He makes himself comfortable on Bucky’s lap, trying hard not to wriggle his hips around too much - not that it’s ever seemed to bother Bucky before.

Then, it’s the waiting game.

Steve checks his watch nearly every five minutes, just waiting for the time to tick closer to midnight. Bucky doesn’t say anything, but Steve feels the amused snort ruffle his hair every time he looks. Having time before midnight hits is dangerous, because the new year coming feels like a message to Steve that he should be doing new things with it. He knows that he wants to kiss Bucky at the cusp between years, because that’s just tradition (his last New Year’s Kiss was his Ma), but he also keeps toing and froing on what to say to Bucky when he does.

Steve knows that he loves Bucky, but that feels premature. He knows that he wants to be with Bucky - in a longterm, monogamous sort of way - but he doesn’t know if Bucky wants that. Despite how close they are, Steve still hasn’t figured out whether their intimacy is platonic or otherwise. He doesn’t want to ask in case it ruins the magic of it all. Whether Bucky’s just being friendly, and Steve asking adds a distinctly awkward lilt to their interactions, or Bucky does want to be romantic but talking about it makes it feel unnatural and forced.

“It’s almost time,” Bucky says into Steve’s hair when he checks his watch and finds 11:57pm staring back at him. “What do you do to celebrate? Make a wish?”

Steve thinks about turning around, but doesn’t. Instead he lays his hands over the top of Bucky’s larger ones around his waist. “You always kiss someone at the end of the countdown.”

“Is that so?” Bucky asks, with a tone that suggests he very much doesn’t believe that’s a thing.

“I’m serious! It is,” Steve says, adamant, because this isn’t just a ploy to kiss Bucky some more - although, who could blame him if it was? “Look it up.”

“I don’t have time,” Bucky replies, tightening his grip on Steve a little as they draw closer to the countdown. Even the teens on the picnic blanket stop passing around whatever it is they’re drinking and start bickering over which way to look to see the fireworks. “I’ll just have to trust you on that.”

Steve rolls his eyes, though he’s well aware Bucky can’t see it. He checks his watch again. 11:59pm. “Almost time,” he says, with the same excitement building in him that always does at the promise of the new year - ever since he was old enough to understand what it meant.

Bucky nuzzles in a bit closer to him. “I don’t know if I’m going to like the noise,” he admits, softly, so close to Steve’s ear that it makes him shiver.

Steve reaches one hand awkwardly back to rest in Bucky’s hair, gently tangling in the strands which are - for once - completely loose. “I’ve got you,” Steve says, as if he alone will protect Bucky from all the things in the world that are scary and dangerous.

The countdown starts with the teenagers on the blanket, their voices overlapping and some slurring more than others. Steve joins in at five - Bucky follows his lead - and when they reach one Steve turns his head around to meet Bucky’s. It’s not the most comfortable position for a kiss, but Bucky licks into his mouth for the first time and Steve’s brain short-circuits. He wriggles himself around in Bucky’s lap so he can place both of his own gloved hands on Bucky’s cheeks, can suck on the sensitive skin of his bottom lip.

The first firework goes off with a bang that startles both Steve and Bucky away from each other. The teenagers are whooping, but Steve can’t focus on that. All he can see are Bucky’s eyes, the fireworks illuminating them. At the first few explosions they’re distant and unfocused, his hands completely still on Steve’s sides.

“Buck?” Steve asks, and Bucky abruptly blinks back to himself, letting out a shaky breath.

“Yeah?” Bucky’s voice sounds hoarse, like he’s been doing something particularly strenuous.

Steve figures he’ll ignore that - ignore the way Bucky’s hands fist a little tighter in his jacket at every pop from the fireworks, the way Bucky buries his face in Steve’s shoulder for most of the show. Steve’s secretly glad they aren’t somewhere crowded, because then it wouldn’t be so - special. Private. Theirs.

When the fireworks die off they reluctantly disentangle from each other. Steve’s legs are dead, and so he jokingly demands Bucky carry him down from the playground. Bucky, in a move that shouldn’t surprise Steve but does, obliges him. He offers his back to Steve again, and piggy-backs him all the way to the car.

They drive home in relative silence. Steve’s brain is still ticking over on the things to say and do now that it is, officially, 2019. He wants to ask Bucky what they are, what this between them is, but… he doesn’t. He doesn’t know why. Because he’s a wuss? Because, as with so many other important life decisions, he doesn’t trust himself to make the right choice? Because he’s afraid that whatever answer he’ll get, it’ll ruin what’s so special about them? Steve tables it for tomorrow - he’ll make it something to talk to Sam about, because Sam loves torturing Steve and what could be better for that than a crisis over his maybe-boyfriend?

When they get back to campus, to the parking lot of Bucky’s building, Steve hops out of the car and stretches. Bucky, who has been strangely quiet since the fireworks show started, falls into step beside him - so close that their shoulders brush with every step. Or - not so much shoulders as Steve’s shoulder and Bucky’s arm.

They make it to their floor when Bucky freezes in place. Steve almost runs directly into the back of him, and is about to argue when Bucky turns and clasps a hand over Steve’s mouth. He indignantly makes to lick the palm of his hand, but Bucky hisses out a, “quiet,” so he doesn’t. It’s then that whatever fear Bucky has starts to seep into Steve’s body, and his eyes flit from surface to surface, seeking out the danger.

Bucky says something, but it’s too quiet and Steve just looks at him with one eyebrow raised. It’s not like he can talk.

“Do you have your phone?” Bucky asks, a louder whisper this time.

Steve nods fractionally.

“I’m going to give you my car keys,” Bucky begins, and his hand tightens. He must feel Steve about to argue again. “Don’t. I’m going to give you my car keys. You’re going to go straight home. Got it?”

Steve shakes his head.

Bucky’s jaw tightens, and he keeps his eye trained on his apartment door, about halfway down the hall.

“Please, Steve. Please go,” Bucky whispers, but this time it’s more of a plea than an order, and Steve wonders what could possibly have upset him. There’s absolutely nothing out of order in the hallway. His door is still firmly closed. There’s no way Bucky can tell from here that something’s happened - and if he’d noticed it from the outside, why wait until now to say anything?

Steve,” Bucky says, his prosthetic hand suddenly appearing with the car keys. Steve didn’t hear Bucky’s hand move - didn’t even hear the keys jangle against one another like they should.

Steve takes a small step back, and Bucky’s hand falls free from his face.

“I’m not leaving you,” Steve hisses, though he does pocket the keys with much more noise than when Bucky handed them over.

Bucky looks prepared to argue, but then he simply shakes his head and turns his full attention to his door.

Steve remains a few feet behind Bucky as he creeps forward. The way Bucky moves is impossibly stealthy - Steve has been victim to Bucky’s surprise appearances countless times, but he thought that was because he was oblivious, not because Bucky was, apparently, a fucking ninja. He’s over double Steve’s size and doesn’t make a sound. Steve can hear his own shoes shuffling on the wooden floor of the hallway, and he’s trying his damn best.

Bucky’s back hugs the wall, left arm to the door, right arm to Steve. When he reaches the handle he crosses his own body to open the door with his right hand, left up in a position to defend himself - the metal, Steve thinks, it all makes sense. He’s a few steps behind Bucky, who remains tense but unmoving in the hallway. He creeps up behind Bucky to look into the room, and blinks at the scene before him.

There’s a woman sitting on Bucky’s bed. Patting Alpine. She isn’t even looking at them.

“Nat?” Bucky breathes, and eases out of his fighting stance.

The woman, Nat, glances up with a smile. “James,” she responds, cordial, and Steve feels the ground shift beneath his feet dangerously.

James? Is that - Bucky’s name? James? Who is this woman? And why is she there? How did she get in? Does she have a key?

“Bucky?” Steve asks, in a small voice, but Bucky doesn’t move. His body is, effectively, blocking the doorway - stopping Steve from getting in.

“I didn’t realise you’d have company,” Nat continues, standing up and brushing white cat hair from her black leggings.

She’s beautiful, in an incredibly dangerous kind of way. Steve can’t put his finger on what it is about her that looks threatening, but it’s there. It’s like an aura, something that emanates from within her body. The black leggings and shirt do nothing to invoke fear in him, but she does. Her smile is sharp and pointed. Her eyes on Bucky - Steve doesn’t like that.

“Steve,” Bucky turns and addresses him for the first time since starting down the hallway. He glances momentarily at Nat, who nods, before continuing, “We need - some time.”

“But,” Steve begins to argue, despite having nothing to say. Although his belongings have found their way into Bucky’s home, it’s not his place. He still has a dorm. He has the key somewhere in his wallet, hidden away because it’s useless at this point. “Who is she?”

“I’ll tell you later,” Bucky’s mind is clearly elsewhere, clearly consumed by the enigmatic Nat occupying his home.

“Who is she?” Steve insists, a sudden rage bubbling up in him. Were all those kisses and gentle words for nothing? Was he just - filling the gap until this Nat got back from wherever she’d been?

Bucky turns fully away from her - so she’s not a threat, then, at least to Bucky - to cup Steve’s cheeks with his hands. Steve’s brow narrows further, emphasising his glare. Even though Bucky’s hand make him want to relax, he’s not going to let the other man do this to him. Not betray him like this.

“I’m so sorry, Steve,” Bucky says, and it sounds like he means it. “I’ll tell you later. Please. I just need some time.”

Bucky leans in to join their lips, right in full view of Nat, and Steve shakes himself free. He pushes Bucky’s car keys back at him and then pats down his own pockets: wallet, phone. Everything else he has is inside the room, but he’s not going in there while Nat is there. Not without an explanation.

There’s so much in Steve that wants to fire up, wants to drag Bucky through the mud for what he’s done - whatever that is - but he doesn’t. He turns and storms off, the rage simmering inside him.

When he makes it outside, far away enough that Bucky and Nat can’t see him from the window, he finds the nearest bench, sits down, and starts to cry.

Steve isn’t paying attention to the passage of time. Luckily for him (which is an odd thing to think), it’s New Year’s Eve, and people are content to just stumble by and ignore someone crying on a bench. A few girls show up and try to sit with him, severely misjudging the room on the bench and ending up either half in Steve’s lap or partway to the cold ground.

They offer him some platitudes about men being shit without even asking what his problem is. They offer to take him to wherever they’re going next. One of them pats his hair, and he pushes her hand away.

But apart from the overly friendly girls, no one stops to bother him, and Steve’s grateful for it. He wants to be left alone. He wants to be somewhere safe, but the only place that comes to mind is Bucky’s bed and - he’s not going there.

Imagine what the two of them could be doing, up there where Steve can’t do anything to stop it. It just seems so… so out of character for Bucky. He’s sweet and gentle and kind, and has never once indicated to Steve that he would be anything less than faithful. He hasn’t even spoken to Steve about being poly, or anything like that, and Steve would rather have known before getting into something.

Before letting himself fall in love.

But then again, they aren’t anything. They’re nothing defined. Steve can’t call Bucky a cheater, or a two-timer, or whatever he thinks, because it’s not true. Steve is nothing, in the grand scheme of things. He has nothing to stand on.

Steve lifts the sleeve of his sweater to wipe the snot away from his nose, wishing he had the energy to be disgusted at himself. Here he is, sobbing his heart out over some stupid college relationship, one that isn’t even a real relationship. He should’ve done what he came to do - studied, got his degree, and gone back home. Stayed miserable in the house he once shared with his mother.

Fuck.

He’s an idiot.

Steve fumbles his phone from his pocket, intending on calling Sam and asking where he is - if Steve can bring his sad self along and ruin the mood. He’s got nowhere else to go. He can’t face his old dorm, an empty shell of what it once was, knowing everything that belongs there is sitting in Bucky’s room.

Instead of making it to his contact list, Steve’s left staring at his phone - five missed calls and three text messages from Bucky, all along the top of his screen. He wasn’t ignoring Bucky, not on purpose at least, but it brings Steve some sick satisfaction knowing Bucky’s being trying to get a hold of him.

Bucky (1:56am): Steve. Where are you?
Bucky (2:11am): Please, Steve. I need to talk to you.
Bucky (2:24am): I’m worried, Steve. Please. Let me know where you are.

Steve tries not to cave, but he does. He wipes his nose again, and - still sniffling pitifully - answers.

Steve (2:33am): outside

He never made it much further than just out of sight of Bucky’s building, and he knows the other man will find him quickly enough. It’s why he leaves Bucky’s next text - Outside where, Steve? - unanswered, because he’s feeling petty and vindictive. He wants to make Bucky expend at least a little effort to find him. No use making it too easy.

Bucky finds him too quickly, and Steve contemplates getting up and walking off again. He’s still enraged - just seeing Bucky makes his fists ball up again, and he wants to scream at the other man until he gives Steve answers. Good answers.

Again, it all comes down to energy. Steve’s emotionally drained, and even though a large part of him wants to fire up and fight back, he only feels sad. That’s perhaps the worst part. If anyone else had hurt him like this, Steve would be lashing out. It’s what he does - it’s not a healthy coping mechanism, but it’s what Steve has. It’s what he knows. He knows that he can ignore any internal hurt if there’s something external, something real to focus his attention on. The number of fights he got himself into after his mother passed away - it was too high to count. But here, with Bucky before him, Steve’s too sad even for that.

“Steve,” Bucky says, and he has the nerve to sound flustered. “I’ve been looking everywhere - I went to your dorm, but-”

“But what, Bucky?” Steve snaps, though it doesn’t come out as venomous as he intends. “You going to tell me who she is?”

Bucky swallows, crouching down on the floor in front of Steve. At least he gets the hint that he isn’t welcome to sit up there. Steve would likely shove him off - well, he’d want to. If Bucky wants to do anything, Steve is basically powerless to stop him. That thought makes Steve bunch his shoulders up a little more, as if making himself slightly bigger can offset the drastic imbalance between them.

“I can’t tell you,” Bucky answers, “not yet.”

A bitter laugh jumps out of Steve’s throat, loud in the now-quiet part of campus they’re in. “It’s always that. You can’t tell me. Why can’t you tell me? Is she - is she your girlfriend or something, James?” Steve wishes he could get through a sentence without his voice cracking, but he can’t help it. Bucky - Steve thought Bucky was his.

Maybe Bucky is - was. Maybe James isn’t.

“What?” Bucky asks, scandalised, rocking back on his heels. “Steve, no - Nat’s not - she isn’t my girlfriend.”

Steve sniffles, and Bucky’s hands reach forward to settle on his knees. He briefly considers knocking his knees together and dislodging Bucky’s hands, but he doesn’t have the energy.

Instead he just stares at the place where Bucky’s hands are touching his legs, despite the fabric between them. “So who is she?” Steve asks, and then his brows pull down in a confused frown. “And who are you?”

Bucky sighs, and squeezes Steve’s knees a little. “I told you, Steve - I can’t tell you. Not yet. Just - listen,” Bucky says, and he crouches on the ground for a long time, just staring at Steve’s legs - or through them, into the middle-distance, as he collects his thoughts.

Steve wants to rush Bucky into an answer, but he can’t. Bucky’s not like him. Steve rambles first, thinks later. Bucky’s the opposite - he puts the words into order, double-checks them, and then voices them. He bites his lip to stop himself from interrupting Bucky, from sabotaging the chance he has to get some answers, no matter how shitty.

“We have to go away. I - can’t tell you. I know,” Bucky says, preemptively cutting in over Steve’s groan. Just because he’s expecting this to be yet another top secret occurrence, doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. “I know. I’m sorry. But - we’ll be back as soon as we can. And then I’ll tell you everything I can then. I promise.”

Steve tells himself, in his head, that this is it. He will see Bucky when he gets back. He will learn everything. And if Bucky comes back and there’s more secrets, Steve will -

Well, he’ll figure that out when he gets there.

“You promise?” Steve asks, and he knows it sounds pitiful, the way his voice wavers.

“I promise,” Bucky replies, and he meets Steve’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Steve. I have to go.”

Through his knees, Steve can feel Bucky push himself into standing. He follows, hot on his heels, then positions himself between Bucky and the apartment. Bucky could go around him - could go through him - but he doesn’t. “I know you won’t tell me where you’re going,” Steve says, and he feels like an idiot, but - something about Nat hadn’t sat right with him. Showing up, after however many months to take Bucky away? Breaking into his apartment for whatever this is? Steve doesn’t like it. “But please tell me you’ll be safe.”

Bucky - looks away. He very clearly does not tell Steve he’ll be safe.

Buck,” Steve implores, but Bucky’s eyes are focused on something behind Steve’s head and he knows time is running out.

Whatever it is, whatever has bought this strange woman here in the middle of the night… it’s serious. And Steve doesn’t want to let Bucky go, because if he does, there's no guarantee Bucky is safe. At least here, Steve can keep his eyes and his hands on Bucky, hold onto him tight so nothing bad happens.

“Steve,” Bucky says, and Steve can see the way he tries to smile. He looks, for once, like those odd thoughts that sometimes plague him, sometimes see him zoning out, mind somewhere else, have now taken centre-stage. “Take care of Alpine for me, please?” He presses his keys back into Steve’s hand, and Steve - reluctantly - wraps his fingers around them

Then Bucky’s hands are on his cheeks, covered by gloves - and Steve can’t blame him right now, because it’s pretty damn cold, but he wishes he had Bucky’s bare skin on his.

“I love you,” Bucky says, to Steve’s lips, and then he’s kissing him. Steve doesn’t push him away, but he also doesn’t reciprocate. It takes all the strength in his body not to melt against Bucky, but he refuses. Steve isn’t going to be won over by sweet words and sweeter kisses, no matter how desperately he’s been wanting them.

Then he’s stumbling in Bucky’s wake, being pulled back towards their building - towards Natasha’s car, which is idling in the parking lot as she leans against it. She raises an eyebrow, the gesture so obvious even from far away.

Steve’s head is spinning with how fast everything is moving. One moment he’s seeing this strange woman for the first time, the next Bucky’s packing up and leaving and he can’t tell Steve where, or when he’ll be back, or if he’ll even be safe.

Steve,” Bucky says, firmly, and Steve blinks up at him. “If anyone comes to the house, anyone you didn’t invite, don’t answer the door, okay? Just keep the door locked. Tell them I’m not there.”

“What are you talking about?” Steve asks, and Natasha snorts before hopping into the car, tapping the roof with her nails. “Why would anyone-”

“-Steve, just do what I say. Please. I just want to keep you safe.” Bucky looks so legitimately afraid that Steve feels he should know what’s going on. What it’s all about.

“What if I want to keep you safe, too?” Steve asks, small and scared, and Bucky just smiles sadly at him.

Steve watches Bucky climb into the passenger seat - spies Nat’s mouth moving through the tinted windshield.

And then they’re gone.

Chapter Text

Steve starts to wonder if this is it, the default state his life is always trying to return to: alone.

He stares at the empty parking spot with tired eyes for long enough that the sun’s beginning to rise when he blinks back to himself. He still holds in his hand the keys to Bucky’s home and car. Slowly, stiffly, Steve walks back into the building and up the stairs. He unlocks Bucky’s door. Alpine looks sleepily at him from the bed, napping in the indent left behind by Nat.

In a fit of sudden rage, Steve storms over to the bed - startling Alpine away in the process -, lifts the blanket, and shakes it out repeatedly. He smooths out the sheets beneath that, over and over, until the bed is perfectly flat. There’s no sign that Nat was ever there.

Tears stab at the space behind Steve’s eyes, and he doesn’t bother blinking them away. He lays down - still fully clothed, shoes still on, fuck Bucky’s white linens - and curls up into a tiny ball, facing the window.

Maybe Steve sleeps. Maybe he doesn’t. He goes to bed when the sun is starting to rise and the next he knows it’s high up in the sky. There’s no slowly blinking awake - Steve feels as though his eyes have been open for the past four hours, and he’s just lost time in the process. There’s a small part of him is still hoping that this is some strange dream and he’ll wake up to find Bucky in bed, snuggled up at his back. Awake, as always - Bucky’s always awake before Steve in the mornings, but sometimes he dozes off. Sometimes he just lays there, eyes half-open, smile growing when Steve stirs.

But no.

It’s just Steve in the apartment.

And without Bucky, it suddenly feels so empty. There’s no breakfast cooking, the gentle knocking of bowls and pans and utensils together. There’s no candles burning, there’s no life, not of the quality Steve associates with the place.

His skin crawls with the sensation of being an intruder, of not belonging.

Bucky’s keys, the keys he’d pressed into Steve’s hand, sit on the bedside table where they were unceremoniously dropped the previous night - or earlier that morning, rather. Alpine appears on the bed next to him, and she lets out the most noise Steve has ever heard from her. It’s an indignant meow, accompanied by her stepping all over his body, and Steve can only assume she’s hungry. Bucky must keep on top of her feeding schedule, because Steve’s never been asked for food before. He’s never even heard her do more than chirp or purr.

“Okay,” Steve says, his voice cracking. He reaches up a hand and ruffles the fur on top of her head, which Alpine tolerates for a second before jumping off the bed and leading Steve over to her bowl, as if he is an idiot.

When Steve forces himself into standing upright, the world tips a little. It’s likely exhaustion, he thinks, if the burn of his eyes is anything to go by. He might also be hungry, but Steve can’t feel anything other than mild nausea. Alpine winds in and out of his legs in an impatient figure-eight, and Steve feels even dizzier looking at her.

“I’m coming,” he mumbles, and she yowls at him in response.

Steve makes his way sluggishly over to Alpine’s food bowl, opening the large metal container beside it. It’s filled three-quarters of the way with biscuits, and Steve picks up the scoop. He looks at Alpine, who has her front paws propped up on the rim of the container, trying to sniff inside. He gives her a full scoop of biscuits, the bowl filled to the brim, and she digs in without a backward glance.

“You’re welcome,” Steve answers sarcastically, but he stops to pat her again. She allows it, probably because she’s busy stuffing her face.

Steve then considers his options. He could go back to bed, but he doesn’t want to - not now that he’s woken up without Bucky, feeling unstable and bereft. Steve muffles a yawn in the shoulder of his shirt (the one he fell asleep in, the one with his tears on it, the one Bucky had buried his face in) and then starts to move around the apartment like he’s underwater. What normally takes Bucky minutes - Steve knows, he’s studied the routine through a love-softened gaze - takes him almost an hour. Steve fills a small glass with water and checks all of the plants with his finger dipped in the soil. He tops up the ones that need it, skips the ones that don’t. He runs an appreciative finger over glossy leaves, mostly green, but some are variegated with white or red - there’s even one plant with dark purple webbing across its foliage.

Steve lights the candles in a random assortment, and soon the place starts to smell - but not the way it ever did with Bucky. It’s close, the undertones the same, but not the right combinations. It’s like entering your room after years away: the same place, but something not quite right about it.

Instead of dealing with the dissonance, Steve pulls a packet of plain crackers out of the pantry to force down as breakfast. He doesn’t bother going to the dining table, or even back to bed - he slides down to the floor, back against the cupboard door, and eats them. Crying on the floor of Bucky’s apartment while he slowly makes his way through an entire packet of Saltines is not Steve’s finest moment, but that doesn’t matter.

The only one to witness him at one of his lowest points is Alpine and, now that she’s fed, she doesn’t even care about him either.

Steve doesn’t know how the day passes around him, just that it does. By the time he thinks to check his phone for any word from Bucky, it’s already evening.

And there, on the screen, are a dozen missed calls from Sam - triple that in text messages. Steve considers several approaches to this dilemma. Ignoring the messages would be easiest, and he could go back to moping around the apartment, sitting down and drifting off into troubled thoughts of the future. Or he could read them all and construct a response, convince Sam that it’s all alright, that he’s fine and he forgot to charge his phone or something stupid.

Steve opts for a third approach, where he dials Sam’s number and just waits. He hopes Sam will yell at him for not replying to his increasingly more concerned messages, because then Steve has some familiar ground to stand on. He can snap back - his life doesn’t revolve around Sam, doesn’t revolve around fucking anything. It’s an outlet that Steve prefers more than crying, the lashing out - it’s more familiar, and less vulnerable.

Steve?” Sam asks, breathless down the line. “Jesus, Steve, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you and Bucky all day - you normally don’t ignore my texts so long.”

Steve closes his eyes and leans back against the side of the bed, legs sitting flat in front of him. “Yeah,” he answers softly, already defeated, because he doesn’t even have the energy to pick the fight he craves. He’s a fucking failure.

“Steve, what’s going on?” Sam asks, voice carefully neutral.

Steve sighs. He shrugs, well aware that Sam can’t see the gesture. He doesn’t know what to say. “Nothing,” he lies.

“Where are you?” There it is. Sam coming to try and fix him. Steve can’t tell whether he was hoping for or dreading that outcome.

“Bucky’s house,” Steve says, and takes pride in the fact that his voice doesn’t hitch once over his name.

Sam makes a worried noise. “I’ll come over. Send me the address.”

“Please don’t.” It feels like a token protest, because as much as Steve wants to push Sam away, he wants to let him in so much more. He’d wanted to, back when his mother had been unwell, but the distance had made it too challenging. Now, all Steve wants is to have Sam around with his stupidly wise ways, but he can’t just accept it. He doesn’t deserve Sam’s sympathy.

“Is Bucky there?” Sam asks, and that’s when Steve starts to cry. Again? Again. “Steve,” Sam begins, and Steve sniffles, trying to curb the tide of tears that seem endless. He hasn’t drunk any water that day, so even he is shocked that they manage to keep coming. “Steve. Tell me Bucky’s address. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Steve slowly recites the address from memory, sleepy mind tossing the numbers around - his home address, back in Brooklyn, and his dorm room, and then Bucky’s apartment. They all swirl around together, and Steve has to check himself aloud to make sure it’s right.

Once Sam has the address and is on his way, he asks, “you want me to stay on the line?”

Steve doesn’t know. He shrugs again, another useless gesture, just like everything else he’s doing is.

“I’ll stay on the line,” Sam decides, and Steve couldn’t care less either way.

He doesn’t say anything, and neither does Sam. It is kinda nice, though, just having someone there. And then, what feels like both hours and minutes later, Sam is knocking on the door and telling Steve he’s outside.

Steve unfolds his body from the floor, and it aches so badly, inside and out. Alpine watches him head to the door from her place atop the bookshelf, and Steve fumbles with the deadbolt a moment before he opens the door.

And there’s Sam.

“Oh, Steve.” Steve should be upset that someone would say his name in that way, that tone of sympathy. It reminds him so desperately of home, of the funeral for Sarah Elizabeth Rogers, of the look in the eyes of everyone who knew them as a family when they would see him alone.

Instead he does nothing, says nothing, just allows his body to sway forward into Sam’s. His arms come up to grip Sam’s jacket, tight as he can, and a bone-shaking sob forces its way from his body.

Steve cries for - he doesn’t know how long. He just cries and cries, because every time he thinks he’s done and he lifts his head he sees Bucky everywhere: in the carefully organised textbooks and folders on the bookshelves, in the burning candles and flourishing greenery, in the notebooks left strewn around the apartment. Even without looking, all he can think about is Bucky. Bucky, whose favourite tarot card is The Magician, who talks about the stars like the entire galaxy is within his reach.

When the tears dry up, though the odd hiccuping sob prevails, Sam is the one to pull back.

“What have you eaten today?”

“Some crackers,” Steve mumbles, taking a seat at the dining table because he’s not too sure his body will hold itself upright without assistance.

“And drink?” Sam follows up, sitting opposite Steve, the no-nonsense look on his face seeing right into Steve’s soul, telling him there’s no point lying.

Steve just shakes his head.

Sam softens, a little, as he gets up to find a glass - “second cabinet on the right, next to the range,” Steve guides, without thinking, and there’s another pang of sadness at how this place is so much his home and yet it’s not at all. Sam fills the glass up once, forces Steve to drink the whole thing, then fills it up again and instructs him to sip at it. Steve’s just glad to have someone telling him what to do so that he’s not having to be alone in his own head. Drink. That’s all he needs to think about. Do what Sam says, drink the water.

“Have you had a shower today?”

Again, Steve shakes his head.

“Right. Here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re going to finish that drink while we order dinner, then you’re gonna shower while we wait, got it?”

Steve nods at that. He understands.

“Do I need to be worrying about Bucky here? His number’s offline.” Steve wants to be pleased that this, now, is the first Sam’s thought of Bucky since arriving. That Steve was his priority, not both of them. Without Bucky around, it’s like Steve’s yearning for someone else to find him special, important. It feels sick to indulge that feeling, but he has nothing else to latch onto.

Steve manages a very tense shake of the head. He doesn’t know how to explain to Sam that he should be worried about Bucky, but he doesn’t know why.

“Okay. Well, I feel like Chinese. You alright with that?” Sam asks, and at Steve’s half-hearted shrug, he starts listing off the entire menu.

Steve is freshly showered, though his eyes remain puffy and red, and Sam has rigged Steve’s laptop up to play Netflix. It sits at one end of the dining table, opposite the two of them. In front of Steve is a whole spread of food, because he refused to pick from the menu and Sam couldn’t narrow his choices down.

The urge to talk strikes him out of nowhere, and instead of tamping it down, Steve lets himself go with it. “He just - disappeared,” Steve says morosely, not even making an attempt to pick at the food Sam plated up for him.

The television plays quietly in the background, some stupid sitcom Steve doesn’t follow. Sam’s eyes aren’t on it, either. His chopsticks stir through some noodles, but the food remains otherwise untouched. “Yeah?” Sam prompts, and Steve heaves a sigh.

“Yeah. We were coming back after the fireworks, and he - he got so… weird, in the hallway. And when we opened the door, there was this lady in his place, her name is Nat,” Steve is aware he sounds like a vindictive girlfriend, the way he spits her name out. “Then he says he needs some time. So I went outside and - I dunno, an hour or two later he comes to find me. Says he’s sorry. That he has to go.” Steve tries not to sound so depressed, but it’s hard. He is fucking depressed. Bucky just - left.

Well, he said I love you. Then he left.

I love you.

Steve hasn’t even had the time to think about those three words, the ones that had been bouncing around in his own head for - a long time. Since he met Bucky, really, in the abstract sense. More seriously, though, Steve’s been definitely considering saying I love you since Christmas. Since before Christmas. Since Bucky waited on him hand and foot while he stupidly fell ill, despite having no obligation to do so.

Sam shuffles his chair closer to Steve with a scraping of wood on wood, so they’re pressed side to side. No direct eye contact. Steve couldn’t meet it anyway. “Have you met her before?”

Steve sniffles; shakes his head.

“What’re you thinking?”

“He told me she’s not - he’s not with her,” Steve says, and he believes that. Not once has Steve seen Bucky look at anyone else, or make a remark that could be even distantly related to flirting. Even between them, it’s always been so slow and tentative, their relationship uncurling like a plant to the sun rather than jumping into full bloom. “He said he needed to - I don’t know, go and do something. He couldn’t tell me what.”

Sam lapses into silence, thoughtfully spearing a piece of broccoli and chewing on it. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion. “Do you trust him?” Sam asks, words level.

Steve - doesn’t know. Well, okay, he does. He knows that he trusted Bucky. He trusted Bucky more than he’d ever trusted anybody, except for maybe his Ma and Sam. But now? He’s not so sure. Up until twenty-four hours ago, Bucky had never given him a reason not to trust him. The small things he couldn’t tell Steve were inconvenient, but not a reason to distrust him. But disappearing in the middle of the night? It’s wildly out of character. It’s ridiculous. Steve’s breath hitches. “I want to know where he is,” Steve says, voice cracking.

“He told you he couldn’t tell you, though,” Sam reminds Steve, and it’s frustrating to have his own words said back to him rather than a solution offered. Steve knows Bucky can’t tell him. He doesn’t want Sam to parrot his words back at him, he wants Sam to give him an answer.

“I know. But I can - Google him, or something, I don’t know. Ask his friends, we could-”

“-Steve,” Sam interjects, and Steve is about to toss his plate against the wall. He preemptively pushes it further into the centre of the dining table, then stands up.

“I know, Sam!” Steve snaps, pacing to the other end of the room, a hand pulling through his hair. “I fucking know.”

“Do you?” Sam asks, still frustratingly level-headed.

Steve nearly screams.

“Look, Steve, he’s dealing with some private shit. I think if he could tell you, he would have. I know it’s weird, I know that, but you’ve just gotta trust him.” Sam’s standing up now, too, his own food left on the table. He’s got his arms up, like he’s a ranger and Steve’s a feral fucking cat about to claw his face off.

Steve’s emotions are a mess. He’s livid. He wants to snap at Sam again, to take his frustrations out on him. “But what if he’s hurt?” Steve demands in a furious tone, but the words mean something entirely different. He realises what he’s said after he’s said it, and then his face crumbles. “What if something’s wrong and he’s sick or he’s dying Sam and he’s not telling me?”

Steve remembers the months between home and the hospital. Every appointment Sarah had. She waved it off as nothing. A stomach bug. The flu. In her old age, stuff like that was bound to happen, right Steve? He remembers trying to ignore it, but he’d spent months without a straight answer and then -

Sam’s hands are around his body. Steve’s got two fistfuls of his shirt, and it feels like every emotion he’s ever felt is trying to escape his body in that moment. He sobs loudly - wonders distantly if Bucky’s neighbours hear - and presses his face into the warm skin of Sam’s neck. Steve’s removed from his body, his only thought that this might be what Bucky’s hiding. He might be dying. And Steve’s kept in the dark again. It doesn’t make the pain any easier to handle. Not knowing that his mother was dying didn’t make him cope better with her passing. He was still a fucking mess over it.

What if it’s Bucky’s arm? He’s always been so afraid of people knowing. What if - whatever took his arm is taking his body, too, piece by piece. What if that’s what Nat came for? To bring him into hospital?

“Sam,” Steve manages weakly between a hiccup and a cough, body still out of tears but his chest jerks painfully with the unexpressed emotion.

They’re on the floor. Steve’s braced by Sam’s arms, the corner of the living room to his back. “Yeah, bud,” Sam says in the softest voice Steve’s ever heard outside of Bucky talking to his plants as he tends to them. He sniffles again, ignoring the snotty, tearful mess he’s made of Sam’s shirt. “I know. Maybe that is what Bucky’s doing. I can’t say for sure. But when you love someone, you just gotta trust them sometimes.”

Steve wants to curl up in Sam’s arms forever, build a little home there with Sam’s rumbling voice and too-good opinions. “I love you,” he mumbles, somewhat pathetically, to the wet patch on Sam’s shirt. He eases his hands away from tearing a hole in Sam’s shirt.

“I love you too, Steve,” Sam replies gently, readjusting the mess of them on the floor in a way that must be more comfortable for him. “So trust me when I tell you, Bucky’s doing what he thinks is best for him and best for you. You just gotta have faith in his judgement.”

Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Sam cuts him off.

“Bucky picked you, didn’t he?” Sam asks, and Steve wants to believe that he did. He wants to believe that I love you meant something. “I know he did. That means he has somewhat good judgement. Believe in him.”

That draws a wet laugh from Steve, not as joyful as it could be but better than the hacking sobs he’d been reduced to mere moments ago. “Thanks, Sam,” he says, belatedly, lifting the back of his hand to wipe his nose.

“Any time. Now, let’s get back to this food, yeah?”

Sam doesn’t stay the night. Steve can’t bring himself to have someone else in Bucky’s bed, even though Nat had been there less than twenty-four hours ago. He’s not going to do that to a space that felt sacred with hours of slow, gentle touches.

The one positive to his horrendous sleep the night before is that, as soon as he lays down in bed, he’s straight out until the sun rises the next day. There’s a lingering feeling of tiredness hovering in his forehead, and Steve knows that a headache will be pounding away there before midday, but until then he’s going to ignore it.

After spending however long tossing and turning, trying to snatch a few more minutes of rest, Alpine jumps up onto the bed next to him and announces that she is hungry.

And so begins Steve’s day.

And the days after that, too.

There’s no escaping the passage of time, and it’s fortunate that Bucky has living things that need tending to, or else Steve would be spending all day in bed staring listlessly at the wall.

Slowly, but easily, Steve falls into a routine: get up, feed Alpine; light some candles and check all the plants. Make breakfast - Bucky has enough groceries in the pantry to last him an entire winter hibernation, and Steve isn’t exactly sure why that is but he’s forcing himself to make a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast every morning (mainly because Sam will send him a message and ask if he’s eaten, and Steve feels bad lying to him). Then Steve has a shower, and the day sprawls out ahead of him - a vast expanse of nothingness.

He tries to get more shifts at work to occupy his mind, which turns out about as well as one would expect - that is, not at all. Their store is always chronically understaffed, as so many retail stores are, and they’d rather take their profit instead of ease the load on their staff.

So Steve works his few hours a week, as usual.

In anticipation of the upcoming term, Steve tries to study, but it’s hard without Bucky. He’s learned enough about studying from Bucky that he can do it on his own, but the motivation simply isn’t there. Studying only became appealing to Steve when Bucky was there, able to guide him the right way with a hand around his waist and the other pointing out key terms in the textbook.

After a week, the frustration mounts to the point where Steve feels the anxiety crawling along his bones - he wants to peel his skin off his body to ease the discomfort. Bucky still hasn’t come home. Steve doesn’t know what to do with himself, and though Sam’s offered, he doesn’t want to bombard the poor man with his problems.

Steve pulls on his shoes and a jacket and leaves. His feet long to run, but he knows he can’t - or, rather, Steve knows if he runs he won’t stop, he won’t come back. As much as it appeals to him, running until his legs give out, he has a responsibility. To Alpine, to the plants that lean towards the sunlight, to Bucky - and the last thought brings with it a prickle of sadness Steve’s been working hard to ignore. Instead of the raw, animal burn of grief, he’s been favouring the dull apathy of depression - the screen he can place between himself and the world while he heals, while he builds higher walls to keep further hurt away.

With shoulders hunched and expression a sour frown, Steve walks. The air is brisk, the campus still mostly-empty since the term hasn’t officially started yet. His legs know the way to go, even when his brain doesn’t, and Steve surrenders control to them.

They take him to the Sculpture Garden.

Steve’s frown deepens. He tries not to look at the bench where he’d first seen Bucky - tries, and fails. There’s the place he’d been, beautiful and serene, almost ethereal with the morning light illuminating the loose strands of his hair. Steve knows how his hair feels now. He knows how Bucky looks in every light. Steve’s fingers remember better than anything how soft Bucky’s skin is - his lips know too much.

It’s funny, to be here now. Like a full circle. Alone then. Alone now.

It would be stupid, though, to waste the opportunity. Now he can look at all the sculptures he always told himself he was too busy for. He can follow the walk, read the small plaques, and enjoy the creative expression.

Steve starts the walk down by Bunche Hall, admiring the abstract bronze sculptures clustered together. He longs to touch - knows that even the lightest touch, by thousands of people thinking its alright, can cause irreparable damage. Still, his fingers twitch - he satisfies them (or tries to) by tracing the edge of the plaque, feeling the sharp point of each edge as he reads the words there. The artist, the year, the material. So many of them gifts, donated by wealthy estates, just so people like Steve - people who haven’t a chance of ever owning artwork of such calibre - can admire it nonetheless.

As Steve walks, his pace slows. His feet stop aching. His mind quietens, just a little. He reads each plaque, humming in interest - leans in close, appreciates the work.

Then, one stops him in place.

Steve knows exactly why it makes him hesitate. A nude bronze figure, chin tilted upwards, confident and proud - a baby held in one arm.

Madre con niño en la cadera (Mother with Child at Her Hip)

His mouth goes dry as he looks it over, but not for the artistic ability - at least, not entirely. In the sculpture Steve sees his own mother. Feet planted firmly on the ground, one arm akimbo, looking up into the distance. Her child is there, held close to her side, gripping to the skin of her belly with his hands, but he’s not the focus.

She is.

She is.

Steve feels his body sink to the ground, arms looped around his raised knees, chin sitting in the valley between them. He stares at the figure for a long time - too long - as Sam’s words rise, unbidden, to the front of his brain.

“But when you love someone, you just gotta trust them sometimes.”

He thinks about the months he spent not knowing that beside him, his mother was slowly dying. A week, she had told him. She’d known for a week, officially, but surely it was longer than that. She’d been sick enough for months before that. She had to know.

For so long, that had cut Steve deeper than anything else. Knowing that his own mother would lie to him about her health. That she would do something like that knowing how badly it would hurt him.

But it wasn’t about him.

It was about her.

Like the figure before him, the mother isn’t defined by her child. She is defined as her own thing first, then as the subject of love and care second.

Steve remembers their last New Year’s Eve together. He remembers their traditional trip to Coney Island, how the evening had taken it out of her but she had insisted on making it. She had been adamant about going on the rides - the slower ones, but then she’d never really liked the fast ones. Sarah Rogers had eaten her fill of all the awful food, laughed on the rides, and made Steve her last New Year’s kiss.

Had he known all the way back then, Steve never would have gone out. He would have stayed in. He remembers how ill she’d been the days after New Year, how she’d claimed it was the food and the rides and the late night - “I’m too old for this now, Stevie.”

She avoided telling him not to cause him pain, but to give herself the chance to live.

What Steve had interpreted as a betrayal of trust was really a woman making the last of her life the best way she could. It hadn’t been Steve’s place to hurt over that.

Steve pulls his jacket a little tighter and sits a little longer, letting the weight of that revelation sink in, down to his bones.

Steve finally pulls himself together and goes back to Bucky’s apartment. His epiphany doesn’t bring with it a lightness to his step. If anything, Steve feels just as tired and achy as earlier, but he does have understanding. Or the beginnings of one, at least.

Because whatever it is that’s taken Bucky away, it is for a reason that Bucky deems worthy. It’s not Steve’s choice to make.

The thought doesn’t make the emptiness of the apartment hurt any less, but Steve thinks if he tells himself enough he’ll start to believe it.

The winter quarter begins without fanfare.

Steve is glad for it. The routine returns: classes most days, work some evenings, and weekly coffee meetings with Sam.

Then, the routine evolves. There is cleaning and caring to do. Steve buys groceries, and - on a hunt for plastic wrap in Bucky’s drawers - stumbles upon a handwritten recipe book that he uses to cook for himself. Bucky’s written instructions feel like a connection to the other man, and Steve traces the indent of pen when he waits for the oven to preheat, the water to boil.

Steve learns how to propagate plants, albeit with numerous casualties on the way. He buys new candles, and - through trial and error - figures out which burn well together. He learns how to steep tea and drinks it as he sketches, the aromatic steam rising from the mug reminding him of Bucky on the coldest mornings.

With the help of the internet, Steve teaches himself how to read tarot cards. It’s nothing advanced - a three-card spread is enough for him. Steve pins open Bucky’s book of card meanings with a knee and tries to garner a deeper meaning from the spread.

He works from left to right, past to present to future.

Knight of Pentacles: Unwavering, cautious. Prudent. Inflexible. Death: Major transformation and new beginnings. Four of Wands: Prosperity and partnerships; excitement and celebration.

Like Bucky, Steve doesn’t believe the cards can predict the future, but he really hopes they can.

He buys a frame and mounts the picture he drew of Bucky’s hand on the wall above the bed for him. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Steve buys an off-cut of aluminium sheet and some metallic paint markers. He looks at pictures of the sky and maps out constellations on the metal. He tests them for durability. He wants to make sure that when (if) he’s able to give Bucky this gift, it lasts.

Steve studies with Alpine at his side, cooks with candles burning, creates with fairy lights around him. Steve heals with time and with connection, with coffee with Sam and study dates with Sharon and conversations in class. Bucky’s loss takes a backseat, almost, to that of his mother, to the pain he never really dealt with. That wound has to close and repair before he can begin to unpack Bucky’s abrupt departure, the fact he has yet to return.

It doesn’t mean that Steve’s heart doesn’t sink every morning he wakes up alone, but it’s starting to hurt less, and that’s progress.

Steve tries his level best to stick to the study routine Bucky devised for him. It hurts, to think of the way things could’ve been (arms around him, fingers pointing key words on the page, steam wafting up from Bucky’s cup of tea), but he can’t dwell on that. Steve can’t afford to. He moved cross-country for a reason, and as much as Bucky’s loss hurts he didn’t move for love. He moved for this chance at a new life, or a rejuvenation of what he had.

When the days are nice - which is rare, because it’s winter, but it’s also winter in California which is a different beast to winter in New York - Steve takes to the Sculpture Garden. He sits off near the path, the place they studied at the beginning, and tries not to get distracted by the beauty of the place.

It must be a regular spot of Bucky’s, Steve realises with a pang of jealousy, because one day a girl approaches his blanket and smiles timidly at him. “You’re Bucky’s friend, right?” She shuffles around a little, glancing back over her shoulder, as if already plotting her escape from the conversation she initiated.

Steve blinks up, and tries not to let his voice waver, tries not to cry. He won’t cry. Bucky’s fine. He’ll come back when he’s ready. “Uh, yeah, I am.” He also wants to say that he’s not just Bucky’s friend, he’s more than that, but he can’t. There’s no use proving himself to this girl who knows nothing about him. Steve just wants to give voice to what they had in private, just to make it more real.

The girl shifts her bag over to the other arm and looks incredibly uncomfortable. Steve doesn’t know why that is, or how to make his face or posture look any more welcoming than it already is. He already feels as welcoming as can be. Which, understandably, is probably not a lot. Steve doesn’t exactly want to be there, talking to a stranger. He doesn’t want to be there at all.

“I just - we had a study group lined up with him, and we haven’t heard from him all term. It’s totally fine if he’s busy, but we were just getting… a bit worried, y’know? He normally doesn’t cancel without letting us know,” she finishes with a smile, her hands now twisting nervously in front of her body.

Steve remembers Bucky’s colour-coordinated timetable. He remembers the way Bucky had blocked out those times - like right now, Wednesday at midday - for the two of them to study. He remembers other names filling in the free gaps on his timeslot, and this poor girl was one of them. She and her friends were like Steve, in need of that kind guidance, and now they’ve been left high and dry.

Steve doesn’t want to lie to this poor girl, but what else can he say? Telling her to worry would just cause a panic. Bucky knows so many people on campus that if word got out he was in trouble it’d probably end up with a search party forming. Steve’s not averse to the idea, but he knows Bucky would be. “No, he had a, uh, family emergency. So he had to leave. He didn’t get much of a chance to tell people, sorry.”

Her face falls, and Steve winces. He didn’t want to make more people sad, but you can’t exactly explain away a sudden, longterm absence as no big deal. “He’ll be fine. I’ll get him to message you when he’s back,” Steve adds, hoping to placate her somewhat.

To her credit, she tries to dredge up a small smile for Steve. He wants to tell her not to bother, he doesn’t need it. “Okay, it’s no rush, just - tell him we’re thinking of him.”

Steve thinks if thoughts could communicate straight to Bucky, he’d be back already amid the barrage of loss coming from Steve. But he musters up a returning smile and says, “I will,” and gets back to staring through the page open on his lap.

January turns into February and the only discernible difference is that it rains a little more and every class suddenly has multiple assignments due.

Steve’s perfected the recipe Bucky had written down for his grandma’s beef stew. Some of the quantities are listed with question marks beside them, as if Bucky couldn’t quite confirm their accuracy. Steve, with a lead pencil, has added his own measurements beside them. He wants to cringe at how poor his handwriting looks compared to Bucky’s.

The apartment smells like cooking food, like the candles Steve’s burning (grapefruit, jasmine, and bergamot). His laptop is open on the other side of the table, playing the audio from his morning lecture. Beside that rest his textbooks, multicoloured post-it notes poking out from a dozen pages, and his notebook. His colour-coding is coming along, except it’s more form than function: Bucky had colours for specific reasons, Steve just uses them because it’s pleasing to look at it. Different strokes.

Steve pushes his books into the centre of the table to eat, because - knowing his luck - he’ll spill stew all over the notes he’s revising. It’s the third time he’s listened to the lecture - once in person, then twice this evening - and Steve only just feels like it’s starting to sink in. Without Bucky’s presence, it’s so much harder to remain focused. Even if Bucky had never been there for a lecture, Steve had always wanted to impress him with thorough notes. Now, it’s a matter of forcing himself to write things down. But the colours, they’re helping, just a little.

Steve’s got the spoon halfway to his mouth when the door unlocks with a jarring click. His eyes jump to the sound, and for a horrible moment he remembers Bucky’s warning, of people looking for him.

Then the door opens, and Bucky himself stumbles inside.

Steve drops his spoon - probably makes a mess of his notes, too - and is crossing the room to Bucky before his brain has a chance to catch up.

Bucky turns and locks the door behind him, double-checking the deadbolt, and then looks at Steve. Steve falters a few steps out, looking Bucky over.

Steve remembers the first time he saw Bucky. He remembers the peace on his face, the way he looked so at ease with the world.

This Bucky is so far from that Bucky, Steve’s almost shaken by it. It’s the Bucky Steve got glimpses of in their time together. His eyes are haunted and red and underscored by thick, dark shadows - so dark they look painted on. The dark bags stand out more because Bucky’s skin is an ashy-white colour, like he’s unwell or recovering from a nasty virus. A tension vibrates through his body, different to when he was touching Steve with shaking hands. It’s a defensive rigidity - his shoulders are raised higher than normal, his feet staggered, his hands pulsating around nothing.

“Buck,” Steve soothes, or tries to.

Bucky doesn’t look any calmer. He clears his throat and looks down at the floor. “You - probably have a lot of questions.” Bucky sounds resigned, and Steve wonders if that’s why he’s so uneasy.

Steve does have questions. He has more than a lot. But he’s been telling himself every morning when he wakes up that Bucky’s choices aren’t about him. They’re about Bucky. And whatever choice he made, it’s taken the man Steve loves and put him through something.

“Yeah,” Steve breathes, and he watches the way Bucky braces for a hit. “Are you hurt?”

Bucky blinks at him, taken off-guard. “Nothing that needs attention,” he responds, almost robotically, and it eases some of Steve’s worry.

“That’s all I need to know,” Steve says, and he knows it to be true. What he wants and needs are two different things, and so long as Bucky’s okay, Steve trusts that the rest will fall into place.

Bucky huffs and runs his flesh hand through his hair, stringy and loose from - presumably - days without washing. “You don’t want to know what happened?”

“Of course I want to know,” Steve says, because he’d be a liar if he answered any other way. “But do you want to tell me right now?”

Bucky shakes his head in a short, tight motion, and that’s it.

“Okay. Well, I’ve just made dinner. If you want to have a shower, I can heat you up a bowl,” Steve offers, nodding to the pot on the stovetop. It’ll be good to have Bucky back - all his recipes make so much food that Steve’s getting a bit sick of living on reheated leftovers.

“I,” Bucky begins, then shifts and drops a heavy pack from his back to the floor. Steve hadn’t even noticed it there, yet another unseen thing weighing Bucky down. “I think I’d just like to go to bed.”

Steve nods, but Bucky doesn’t move. His shoulders have rounded forwards, body going slack now that he’s not holding himself to such strict attention, but he’s not going anywhere.

Bucky looks at Steve, imploring.

“Do you want me to come with you?” Steve offers, and Bucky nods jerkily.

His dinner is going to go cold, but that’s fine. Steve can eat later. His heart hasn’t quite caught up with the fact that Bucky’s here.

Bucky’s come back to him.

Steve turns the lights off, blows the candles out, shuts his laptop, and leaves the room illuminated only by the twinkling fairy lights around Bucky’s bed. He leads the way there, and he can feel Bucky shadowing his footsteps around the apartment.

Bucky detours to pat Alpine, who leans so far over the bookcase that she falls into Bucky’s waiting arms with an indignant cry. Steve takes that time to collect the gold pen he bought from the hardware store, shaking it nervously.

Steve goes first, climbing into the bed and taking his usual position by the window. He lays the gold marker on the windowsill beside him, leaving both hands free for Bucky. Bucky tiredly removes his shoes, then the outer layers he’s wearing, until he’s just in pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Steve pats the spot next to him, and Bucky climbs carefully into the bed, keeping his distance.

“Do you want me to touch you?” Steve asks, and Bucky stares at him for a long time before nodding his head.

Steve is the one to move over into the centre of the bed, coaxing Bucky away from the edge with gentle hands on his body. Slowly, Bucky complies. He lets Steve position him so that Bucky’s head is in Steve’s lap.

Bucky’s eyes don’t close, despite how tired he looks. They stare up through the ceiling as Steve starts to finger-brush his hair. It’s easy, methodical work: Steve gently brushes through Bucky’s hair, untangling the knots that have formed at their ends. He traces his fingers down further after that, following the curve of his jaw, pressing lightly over his pulse-point and savouring that sign of life.

“I had something I wanted to show you,” Steve states, as Bucky seems intent on staying awake. “Can I have your hand?”

Bucky offers his flesh one first, and when Steve taps the back of his prosthetic, he freezes up. “You don’t want to touch it,” Bucky says, words edged with fa desperate sort of ear.

“I do,” Steve insists, tugging on Bucky’s upper arm.

Bucky’s eyes flick fearfully up to Steve, then back to the ceiling, as if he can’t quite meet Steve’s eyes.

“Steve,” he begins, and his voice breaks there. “I - I did some horrible things.”

Steve watches as Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, and a few stray tears roll down his cheeks. They catch the light from the window beside them and look horribly beautiful, like beads of pure silver light.

“Did you want to do those horrible things?” Steve asks, hands framing Bucky’s face upside-down, thumbs catching the tears on their way down.

Bucky shakes his head, almost dislodging Steve’s hands with the sudden force of it. It’s the answer Steve expected, though, because Bucky’s a good person. He’s the best person Steve’s ever known, despite everything.

Steve folds his body in half so he can kiss Bucky’s forehead. “It doesn’t matter what you did, Buck. I know you did your best, and I love you for that.”

A sob shudders through Bucky’s body, and Steve just holds him tight through it.

Then, when Bucky’s tears finally wane, Steve picks up his metal hand. It’s limp in his hands, and Steve positions it so both he and Bucky can see it. His right hand twists back to grab the marker, which he uncaps with practised ease.

“I remember the night you taught me all about the stars,” Steve begins, drawing a glittery gold one on the back of Bucky’s hand. “They always make me think of you, the stars, because you’re so bright and beautiful.” From the main star, Steve draws smaller ones fanning outwards, a tiny galaxy. He can see Bucky’s eyes, following the tip of the marker.

Steve hums as he works, drawing a swirl of stars that wrap around Bucky’s wrist. His eyes insist on flicking back to Bucky’s face, and Steve’s pleased to see his eyelids starting to droop - Bucky finally giving in to the sheer exhaustion he must be feeling.

Before he falls asleep, though, Steve wants to make one thing clear. “You know,” Steve announces, to make sure that Bucky is listening. He waits for the sleepy hum of acknowledgement, then continues, “I love you, too.”

Bucky’s eyes flutter closed again, and this time no tears escape. “Thank you, Steve,” he whispers, and Steve feels his body slowly go lax in his arms.

Steve keeps drawing on Bucky’s arm, each star an I love you in its own right, until he’s more gold than silver.

Chapter Text

Steve can’t tell whether it’s his empty stomach or the noises Bucky is making that wake him up. It may well be a combination of both. Whatever it is, he opens his eyes to find that he’s sitting in the same position from last night - propped up, his back against the headboard, his neck with an awful crick in it from falling asleep that way. His stomach growls at him, and Steve remembers his forgotten dinner - probably sitting on the dining table, now long past edible.

But Bucky’s not in bed with him, and that more than the hunger is what concerns Steve.

It doesn’t take him long to spot Bucky. He’s sitting on the floorboards, the Christmas tree - which is very much past its used by date but Steve hasn’t been able to get it out on his own - pushed up to one side of the room.

In front of him, Bucky holds the bag he’d dropped off his shoulder the previous night. That must be what made the noise that jarred Steve into wakefulness, especially since Bucky is typically so quiet. Steve blinks sleepily at him - Bucky returns his look. There’s something distant about his gaze, but beneath that there is a shuttered emotion, something Bucky wants to keep protected. It peeks through the cultivated neutrality, like a strong and vivid red bleeding through a single coat of white paint.

Bucky doesn’t say or do anything. He pulls things out of his bag, one hand pinky flesh, the other a glittering gold galaxy.

The first thing to be removed is a manila file, packed to bursting, without any labels on the front or spine that Steve can see. Not that he can see very much from that distance. Even with his glasses on, he hasn’t got super vision. Bucky places that file by his left, slightly behind his body - safely out of the way.

Next, Bucky pulls out clothes. He dumps them rather unceremoniously in a pile to the right of him. Laundry, Steve assumes. Some shoes follow, laid out in their matching pairs, ready to be returned to the wardrobe. They don’t look like the sort of shoes you wear for day-to-day activities. One is a pair of boots, well-worn - scuffed and stained in places, but functional. Next to them rest a pair of black sneakers, similarly roughened up.

Then Bucky pulls out a gun.

Followed by another.

And then a sheathed hunting knife.

Steve just stares, eyes wide. He’s seen guns before, sure, but never this close. Never like this, being handled as casually as if they are as dangerous as a pile of unwashed clothing. And Steve certainly never expected to see someone like Bucky with not just one, but two of them - and a knife as big as his head. It makes his heart rate stutter up a level, and a sudden stab of cold fear runs through him. Bucky was always capable of killing him, just with his bare hands. Now he’s surrounded by weapons, and Steve’s own helplessness is starting to sink in.

The urge to do something draws Steve upright, but Bucky doesn’t look up from what he’s doing. He’s pulling more things out of his bag - some rags, a bottle of something, a clatter of ammunition.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve begins, and for the first time he wonders if this should be where he draws the line. He’s taken all of Bucky’s other oddities in stride (maybe he hasn’t taken them in the best way, but he’s certainly tried), but this? This is - getting out of hand. Bucky could kill him three or four times over, at least.

Bucky glances up when Steve comes to a stop before him, and he tries to blink away the fog over his eyes but it doesn’t quite dissipate. “Did I wake you?” He asks, in a hoarse voice.

“Uh, kinda,” Steve answers, still using his best calm voice - the sort Steve would use to talk a dangerous, cornered animal out of tearing his organs from his body. He doesn’t want to consider how terrifyingly accurate that mental image is right now. “Are you - what’s all this?”

“Maintenance,” Bucky recites simply, mechanically, and Steve gets the horrible, sinking feeling that Bucky’s done this before.

Having no sense of self-preservation is working in Steve’s favour today, as he sits down carefully on the floor beside Steve. Sam would be proud of the fact that Steve briefly considered running away, if he planned on sharing that information. Bucky’s eyes watch him but his head doesn’t turn. He only moves once, to collect the folder and move it out of Steve’s reach. The guns, he doesn’t bother with. Is that an offering? A suggestion that the scales can be levelled out, at least a little?

Steve sits down cross-legged, picking a position where his knee will brush against Bucky’s side. He hopes that the touch will do something - will ground him, or bring him back from wherever it is he’s gone. But Bucky doesn’t even seem to notice him, besides a fleeting frown.

No, Bucky’s hands go straight back to the objects in front of him. Steve watches as Bucky picks up the first weapon, and starts to disassemble it. Steve is almost horrified at the ease with which Bucky works. He barely makes a sound as he lays the pieces of the gun out in careful order on a flat rag, and checks each part. Bucky isn’t even looking at what he’s doing, his body taut, movements jerky and robotic. He’s staring at a blank spot on the floorboards as the firearm comes apart and then back together in his hands.

When the first one is done, Bucky moves onto the second. The ritual continues in much the same way. Steve’s no gun expert, not by a long shot, but he can see the patterns - Bucky’s putting each piece in a very specific place on the rag, which likely explains how he’s able to perform his maintenance without shifting his focus once.

The knife is different, obviously - not much to take apart there. Bucky pulls it from the sheath and collects another rag, drawing it across the blade. Up where the hilt meets the metal he digs his nail in through the old fabric, and Steve’s sure he’s drawing out dried blood from that nook.

“Is that blood?” Steve asks - and he’s been trying to be quiet and good and perhaps not get murdered by his heavily-armed romantic interest, but he can’t help himself. The words are out before he’s even thought of saying anything.

That startles Bucky back to himself enough that the distanced look disappears entirely. His eyes widen and his hands freeze - he looks at Steve, then lifts the rag, and there it is: several dark reddish-brown smears. Horror processes on his face, and Steve wishes he hadn’t said anything - wishes he didn’t have to watch Bucky’s already drawn face go several shades lighter, a sickly cast beneath all that.

The knife falls to the floor with a surprisingly loud thud, and Bucky disappears into the bathroom - so abrupt and dynamic compared to his practised movements from before.

Steve tries not to listen to the sounds of Bucky vomiting up whatever food he’s had recently, but there’s no other sounds in the small, thin-walled apartment to distract from it.

Even after he finishes, Bucky remains in the bathroom. There isn’t a single sound coming from the room, and - if not for the locked door - Steve would easily assume it was empty. Steve spends most of that time hovering awkwardly by the door, trying to find something - anything - to say to help. When it becomes clear that he’s going to keep coming up empty-handed, Steve settles for doing something useful: cooking.

Steve clears the plates from the previous night, and tosses the stew he didn’t finish. He pulls the oatmeal from the cupboard and triples the recipe he uses for himself - then stops partway through adding the milk and quadruples it, to be sure. Bucky, when he’s feeling it, eats a lot. Steve doesn’t think he’ll be in the mood for much when he emerges, but he knows that Bucky really should eat after whatever he’s been through.

The oatmeal can’t be left on the stove alone, so Steve is unable to move when the bathroom door opens, nearly half an hour after it closed. It might be better that way. He’s not sure he can look at Bucky without wanting to wrap the man up in a blanket and never let him leave again. It doesn’t sound like a bad thing in theory, but Steve can identify that his thought is more for his own peace of mind than Bucky’s.

Without trying to alert Bucky to it, Steve attempts to surreptitiously peek over his shoulder. He’s sure Bucky’s noticed, but because it doesn’t get acknowledged Steve continues to watch. Bucky’s not being quiet and delicate any more: he re-sheaths the knife in a hurry and takes the three weapons over to the wardrobe. Bucky’s large enough that when he crouches, Steve can’t see what he does, but there’s a sound of buttons being pressed, then a door opening and closing. A safe? It must be. Steve’s never seen one in the closet, but he’s also never looked. Steve’s not sure whether he’s glad the weapons are out of reach at most times, or concerned that only Bucky has access to them.

Steve, rather than putting his foot in it again, opts to say nothing.

Bucky then picks up the pile of clothes on the floor and drops them into the laundry hamper. The shoes go back onto the shoe rack. The manila folder is the one thing Steve doesn’t see the destination of - he’s busy pulling the oatmeal from the heat and dividing it between two bowls. Bucky’s nearly overflows, while Steve’s is about a third of the size.

In the space of time it takes him to dig out the brown sugar from the cupboard, Bucky appears behind Steve. Quite literally behind - like, Steve is in motion, turning to walk to the counter, and he runs directly into Bucky’s chest.

“Shit, sorry,” Steve says, just catching the plastic container of sugar before it winds up on the floor.

“Will you hug me?” Bucky asks, and he’s not even trying to hide the desperation, the pure need of it. He sounds on the verge of tears. Steve doesn’t want to look at Bucky’s face, because if he does - if he sees the sadness from his voice projected in his eyes - Steve will start to cry too.

Steve doesn’t even bother answering verbally, he just wraps his arms as best he can around Bucky’s larger frame. Bucky doesn’t cry - Steve knows what it’s like to feel him cry now, the way his shoulders twitch and he snuffles just a little, the sensation of Bucky’s warm tears against the side of his neck. Bucky just clings back to Steve, harder perhaps than he ever has before. Steve knows he’s aware of his prosthetic still, because the metal fingers fist in his shirt while his flesh hand grabs at Steve’s body. It doesn’t matter. Steve would take the bruises, if it’s what Bucky needs.

They stand in front of the open pantry so long that the oatmeal goes thick and gluggy. By the time they get around to it, Bucky seems even less than before. Before there’d been something behind his eyes, some kind of restrained emotion. Now, he’s just a body. When Steve says, “you should eat, Buck,” in his softest, kindest tone, Bucky just nods jerkily and does so. It doesn’t seem to bother him that his oatmeal is completely plain and cold. Bucky doesn’t even really care when Steve offers to reheat it, just lets Steve take it from his hands and put it in the microwave.

The only thing that seems to bring any kind of emotion back to him is when Steve guides him over to their bed, pulls Bucky’s head into his lap, and runs his fingers through his hair. Even then, the emotion isn’t anything positive - tiredness overtakes the nothing, and then Bucky’s sound asleep.

The weeks after Bucky’s return follow that some sort of pattern. Bucky is listless and lost, appearing at Steve’s side to quietly ask for some physical contact on the rare times they separate. Steve makes sure Bucky eats, and he even gets Bucky to take a shower after three days without. Steve tries not to listen in as Bucky cleans himself. He plays music through his laptop speakers as soon as he hears the sound of Bucky throwing up again.

Steve’s sent Sam a message saying Bucky’s back, but not that he’s back - like this. It doesn’t feel like Steve’s place to share Bucky’s trauma. It’s not like Steve knows enough to share.

Steve emails each of his professors to apologise for his absence, but he can’t bear to leave Bucky alone in a house that has two guns and a knife at easy reach. He just can’t.

He uses that time, away from class and study and his friends, to do what he can. Fulfilling Bucky’s basic needs isn’t helping, that’s just maintaining him. There were things that bought him so much joy before, and those are what Bucky needs to return to. Steve asks if Bucky will help him water the plants, and he agrees to do it, but only because Steve’s asked. Bucky doesn’t work with his old passion. He takes a cup of water around and splashes it onto the soil without discrimination, then returns to Steve when he’s done as if he expects a follow-up order.

Then, Steve asks Bucky if he wants to do some studying. Bucky, once again, answers with an apathetic positive. Steve suspects that the only reason he’s getting that kind of response is because Bucky simply can’t be bothered with saying no. And it’s not like they actually study - Bucky sits next to Steve and looks past the pages of the book and just makes indifferent noises when Steve tells him something, or says, “I don’t know,” when asked a question.

Steve’s not the sort of person to admit that he needs help, and is even less likely to take it, but there comes a time when he can set aside his own pride and admit defeat. Whatever he’s doing isn’t working. Bucky is still quietly following him around, eating only when told to, staring into space more often than not. Steve’s offers for physical contact have helped in that Bucky has been drawn into them, but they haven’t given back any of the life that used to steadily glow from within him.

So Steve waits until they’re eating dinner, picking absently at the pasta bake he made, to ask, “what can I do to help?” It doesn’t come out as intended. Even though Steve’s accepting that now is the time to ask for help, he doesn’t expect to sound so - hopeless. He’d aimed for casual, like he was asking about tomorrow’s weather, but clearly failed.

Bucky looks up from where his fork has been moving at a constant, even pace from bowl to mouth. He pauses, and blinks a little - the same way he always does when he’s gotten lost in his own mind, within whatever horrible things hide away in there. “What?”

Steve glares at his dinner, as if it’s the thing making him have to say this. For making him have to have this discussion. Is it so much to ask that some time and love is all Bucky needs to bounce right back? And by some time, Steve means a few days, because he’s terrified that their time will run out sooner than expected. “Help you. I don’t - I don’t know what to do. And I’m worried,” Steve admits, still talking to his food, eyes flickering up only when he’s done to gauge Bucky’s reaction.

The slight frown is the first semi-sincere expression Steve’s seen on Bucky’s face for too long. “Worried?” Bucky asks. Steve nods. “About me?”

“Who else would I be worried about?” Steve asks, defaulting to sarcasm to avoid discomfort, and then immediately regrets it. Instead, he places his foot against Bucky’s and knocks it under the table. “I’m really worried, Buck, and I’m not sure what will help. Do you - should I get a doctor? Or, I can get a psychologist? Someone?”

Bucky finally places his fork back down into his bowl, and lifts his hands to scrub at his eyes. He presses hard - Steve watches as Bucky then has to blink to refocus. “I’m sorry,” Bucky says, at last, and he’s looking a little more present just from that. Whatever he’s feeling is still hidden away somewhere, underneath the layers of detachment, but Steve can get a glimpse of him again. It’s like, for the first time, Bucky’s trying to force himself through whatever’s holding him down.

“You don’t have to be sorry, that’s not what I was asking. I just… I don’t know what happened to you, and I don’t know if I can help make you feel better. That’s all.” Steve knows what it’s like to feel removed from your own body. He knows what it’s like to need help, but refuse to take it. He knows what it’s like to think you’re stronger than you are. It’s almost pathetic to compare his struggles to Bucky, who’s clearly had it a thousand times worse, but Steve can only relate on that level.

Steve can only hope that Bucky isn’t as ridiculously stubborn as he is. That he can see the extended offer and take it, not push Steve away.

“I’m just… thinking,” Bucky answers, still slowly, like there’s a lag between him hearing Steve’s voice and cobbling together a response. “You don’t need to do anything.”

Steve sighs, because Bucky is so placid that there isn’t even a chance to weasel his way in and argue that Bucky do something. Steve both hates and loves that about Bucky - his pacifism. It doesn’t give Steve the chance to express his hopelessness in a familiar way. “What are you thinking about?” Steve asks, and part of him is hoping that Bucky won’t actually tell him because if it’s something to do with the gun - or why there was blood on that knife - Steve’s not sure he can handle it.

Bucky continues to sit perfectly still for so long that Steve wonders if he heard, or if he’s retreated back into his own head again. Steve tries to pick up his fork and keep eating, in hopes that it will distract him from thinking about whatever Bucky’s thinking about.

(It doesn’t work. He ends up thinking about the bloody knife again and then Steve can’t face the red of the tomato sauce any more.)

“Do you think,” Bucky begins, out of nowhere, and he’s looking right at Steve. “Do you think you can - be someone different? If you didn’t like who you were before, or if - if things happened to you. Things you didn’t ask for. Do you think you can change?”

Steve, first of all, doesn’t think he’s even remotely qualified to answer that question. There’s more to it than what Bucky’s asking - it’s not as simple as dying your hair or getting a tattoo or moving from New York to LA because it seems like it might be the one thing to get rid of all those bad feelings. Steve’s seen Bucky cry at skin-to-skin contact. He’s seen him disassemble and reassemble a gun within a minute without even looking. It’s not just someone trying to move away from some shit from their youth. This is a question about redefining your entire existence.

“I don’t know,” Steve says, honestly, and he tries not to wince when Bucky’s face falls a fraction. “I just - I don’t know any other you. And I know that… things have happened. You’ve told me that they have, but not what they are. And I think that even with those things, whatever they were, I think that you’re different. I think you could do a lot of dangerous things, if you wanted to, and you don’t. Or… I think you don’t.” Bucky just stares at Steve, as if waiting for him to continue. He’s not too sure what else there is to say. “I guess, to me, you are a different person than whoever you think you are, because I don’t know all that other stuff. And if you’re the person you want to be, that’s who you are.”

Steve’s not even sure that he’s made sense, but Bucky’s shoulders creep down a fraction. Steve hadn’t noticed how high they’d been, wound up with so many things unsaid - perhaps, also, things undone.

“They’re all dead,” Bucky announces a moment later, and Steve tries not to choke on his own spit. At least Bucky didn’t say I killed them, whoever they are. It doesn’t make the sentence much more palatable. “The people who hurt me.”

“That’s good,” Steve says, and at least he can put 100% faith in that statement. Everything else in the conversation thus far has been unsteady, but Steve knows that the only mercy people like that might earn is a quick death. Even then, he hopes they didn’t get it. He hopes they suffered at least a fraction of the amount Bucky has. “That’s what they deserve.”

Bucky hums in agreement, then picks up his fork again and starts eating.

He doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the night.

Steve stirs in the middle of the night when he feels Bucky navigating out from their connected position on the bed. Steve’s exhausted - being on edge every waking second will do that to you - but he still considers this important enough that he should be fully conscious. Picking up his glasses and dragging them on over his prickling eyes, Steve blinks to focus on the blob moving from the bed and into the room itself. “Buck?” He whispers, even though there’s no need. It’s just the two of them. He doesn’t need to be quiet.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, and his voice sounds reassuringly normal.

Steve doesn’t buy his words at face value, and he draws himself partway up the pillows so he can keep an eye on Bucky. He doesn’t head into the bathroom as Steve expects, but walks over to the bookshelf and moves some things around. Steve watches as Bucky withdraws the manila folder Steve had seen the other day, taking it and placing it on the dining table. There’s not enough light to read by - even with the moon outside, it’s barely light enough for Steve to make out Bucky’s entire body across the room.

“What’re you doing?” Steve asks, words slurring together with sleep.

Bucky just sits down at the table, the folder in front of him. “Still thinking,” Bucky answers, hands folded across the cardboard file.

“You’re okay?”

“Fine,” Bucky replies, and Steve knows it’s a lie but he’s too tired to argue. “I’m not going anywhere. You can sleep.”

Steve’s been burned before. He doesn’t imagine that Bucky wanted to leave the first time, and he certainly doesn’t believe Bucky wants to leave again, but he still can’t help the pang of fear that his words inspire. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

Steve falls asleep, despite his best intentions. He wakes up again with a start, body noticing first Bucky’s absence before his mind catches up.

When Steve’s body jolts upright, his glasses - which were sitting askew on his face - clatter off the bed and onto the floorboards. Alpine indignantly leaps away from where she’d been approaching him, presumably for her breakfast. She still hasn’t gone back to asking Bucky for it, yet. Steve’s always thought pets know things that humans don’t. He can’t tell whether her giving Bucky space is a good or a bad thing.

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice comes from across the room, and Steve makes out his blurry image at the dining table, exactly where it had been last night when Steve fell asleep.

He retrieves his glasses from the floor, secretly amazed that they’re still in one piece (the odd scratches and permanent smudges aside), and pulls them onto his face. Bucky looks back at him, a tired smile on his face. It makes Steve’s heart jump up to see something on his face, some indication that he feels more than he can - or wants to - repress.

“Huh?” Steve answer intelligibly, running a hand through his hair as he tries to wake up properly. He’s not like Bucky, who goes from sound asleep to wide awake in one second. He takes a lot longer, and there’s usually a lot more instant coffee involved in the whole process.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, then stops to yawn, rubbing his face. “Are you - have you been reading all night?”

It wouldn’t surprise Steve if Bucky had. The file is thick. Steve can’t even begin to estimate how many pages are in there - their crinkly, mismatched edges poking out, unable to be contained by the cheap folder. Now that he considers it, Steve can’t imagine anyone could finish such a hefty stack of documents in a few hours. It looks like a two-day endeavour, at the least.

Bucky shakes his head. “I haven’t read any of it,” Bucky says, and before Steve can consider a response to that, continues: “Are you hungry?”

Steve is, but he’s hungrier for the sense of normalcy that Bucky making breakfast brings. He nods his head, because if Bucky’s offering, he’ll take it.

While Bucky sets about making toast - and he apologises for not making something better, which is even more reassurance that Bucky’s starting to feel better - Steve goes to have a shower. He’s put his own needs on hold while he’s been keeping an eye on Bucky, and is coming to the point where he’s probably starting to smell pretty ripe. He knows it’s not the best decision to make, letting your whole life revolve around someone, but Steve owed it to Bucky. Bucky had spent almost a week caring for his stupid, sick self over the Christmas break. Besides, Steve’s not sure he could’ve left Bucky, even if he wanted to. Even if he knew it was what was best, for either or both of them. Whatever Bucky’s gone through, Steve can’t imagine a world where them being separated is for the best. Sam would have a field day unpacking that one.

Steve emerges, feeling like a completely different person. Clean, fresh, and with Bucky over there laying out every single possible topping for toast on the table, Steve feels at home. He smiles as he approaches the table, telegraphing his movement before he does it - brushing against Bucky’s side to take his seat. Bucky just stands still and lets it happen, then returns to unscrewing the lid on the peanut butter so Steve can get to it.

The only sounds for a while are the two of them eating - three if you count the sound of Alpine crunching her way through her dry food.

“Today’s my birthday,” Bucky announces as Steve is partway through a mouthful of toast.

He doesn’t choke on it, but it’s a near thing.

Steve manages to swallow, and then puts all his energy into the half-serious accusatory glare he levels of Bucky across the dining table. “It’s your what?”

Bucky’s eyes widen a little, as if Steve’s surprise is, in turn, surprising him. “My birthday,” he repeats, picking up his own piece of toast and biting off the corner.

Of course Bucky has a birthday. Everyone has a birthday. But since Bucky’s return, he hasn’t shared any further information about his past. To be fair, Bucky hasn’t shared anything since his return, really.

But this. This is a lot. His birthday.

“How old are you?” Steve asks. Bucky offering a tidbit of information is a good sign, and Steve wants to nurture the conversation, regardless of the actual topic. And perhaps, if Bucky’s feeling comfortable and being generous, he’ll divulge that information.

Bucky shrugs his right shoulder.

Steve looks at him, scrutinising. It would be out of character for Bucky to make a joke, especially after so long with barely a smile, but Steve’s hoping that’s the case. “You - don’t know?” Steve asks, trying to keep the shock from his voice. Not knowing his age wouldn’t necessarily be out of character for Bucky - he doesn’t even go by his real first name, that Steve knows, and he can still hear the way James dropped from Nat’s lips like it was their little secret.

Bucky frowns in thought. He opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything, reconsidering his words. Finally, he says, “my licence says I was born in 1985.”

There’s a few questions there. First, Bucky has a licence? Because he sure as hell doesn’t carry it when he’s driving, which Steve kinda thought the point of them was. It’s not in his wallet, which begs the question of where it is, too. Second, his licence says? Steve’s not a master at reading between the lines - he can actually be pretty obtuse at times, he knows that - but Bucky’s clearly phrased his statement in such a way to imply that that’s not his actual birth date.

“You’re not born in 1985?” Steve asks, but he’s not really asking. He’s confirming.

Bucky taps the top of the folder, which Steve hadn’t even noticed. It’s been pushed to the side of the dining table, but it’s still present. “No.”

It feels like a dangerous conversation. Steve’s just gotten Bucky back from wherever he went, that place where he protected himself from anything else that might hurt his tender heart. Steve doesn’t want to chase him away, back down where he can’t reach. If Bucky’s bringing up the folder and its mystery contents, that’s fine, but Steve doesn’t want him to feel pressured into divulging more than he wants to.

“Well, we can just celebrate today. You don’t have to be - however old you are.” If Bucky hadn’t been so explicit about that year being incorrect, Steve would’ve bought 1985 as his legitimate birthdate. His own estimate was a few years younger, but guessing people’s age is always a tough one.

Bucky says, “hm,” as indifferently as possible. Steve returns to his toast, though he watches Bucky through his eyelashes. He’s not eating, and Steve can see his jaw working as he searches for the words. Steve and Alpine both continue to eat noisily, giving Bucky ample time to think.

“This file has all the information about me,” Bucky states, at last. His hand remains over the blank cover of it - though Steve can’t tell whether he’s protecting the information from them, or them from it. “What they did.”

“Oh,” Steve answers, not sure what else to say. He pulls his hand back from where he’d been going to grab a second piece of toast. It’s probably not a wise idea. Toast, Steve knows for a fact, does not taste better the second time around - and if Bucky’s talking about what’s happened to him, Steve can’t see his stomach staying settled for long. “Why do you have it?”

“Nat thought I might like to know,” Bucky says, and flicks one edge up - not enough to reveal any words, just a sliver of an old, sepia-toned photo.

Steve still can’t help his reflexive flinch at her name, at a reminder of the night that both promised him hope and tore him apart. “And do you want to know?”

Bucky shakes his head once, and then again, decisively. “But do you want to?”

There’s a great difference between what Steve wants to know and what the file contains. Steve wants to know Bucky’s full name and his actual, real birthday. He wants to know about Bucky’s family and what dumb shit he did as a kid and what he wanted to be when he grew up, if he’d grown up according to some childishly ambitious plan. What Steve doesn’t want to know is whatever torture Bucky suffered through, let alone details of the torture as written by the people who enacted it.

The thought of opening - of even touching - the file makes bile rise in the back of Steve’s throat, and he has to swallow it down. “When I said I wanted to know about you, I meant - your name, or something. Not - not what’s in that.” His words come out unsteady, wavering, because he still wants to support Bucky but - Steve can’t. He just can’t hear it.

That answer seems to satisfy Bucky, who picks up his toast with one hand and takes another, thoughtful bite from it. Steve can’t tell if the conversation is over - Bucky doesn’t appear to be waiting for something, so Steve just sits and pushes the crumbs around on his plate, making a tiny hill out of them.

When Bucky finishes his breakfast, he stands and collects the plates. Steve knows trying to take them from Bucky is a futile effort, so he instead sets about returning the lids to all the open jars Bucky placed on the table, ferrying them back into the pantry. He wants to say something helpful, but Steve can’t think of anything. The file sits there like a looming presence, and he may have once thought himself to be a curious man, but not any more. Not with what’s inside of it. He takes a wide berth around it, as if the file might grow teeth and bite.

Instead he closes the pantry door and leans against it, watching Bucky clean the plates and stack them on the drying rack. He looks more himself today, moving again with the calm grace Steve’s come to associate with him. The lines of pain still hover there, a few odd wrinkles on skin that’s normally soft and smooth, but that feels more manageable than when he’d completely shut down.

Steve thinks about his mother, and her last months of life. Of her reclamation and enjoyment. Bucky didn’t leave for that. It certainly wasn’t enjoyable, if the hollow, dead-eyed look that still lingers in his eyes is any indication. If the blood on the knife tells a story, and it does, loud and clear. Steve can’t project into Bucky’s life, because he can’t imagine it - the suffering that took an entire limb from him, that reduces him to a shaking mess whenever someone touches him without the protective layer of clothing there. He doesn’t want to imagine Bucky’s words - they’re dead - as what he’s likely not saying - I’m the reason they’re dead - but perhaps there’s a reclamation in that, too. Steve had never thought of Bucky as hunted, and if he was he did a commendable job hiding it, but in hindsight he must have been.

There’s a lot still to ask, but none more important right now than, “what do you want to do for your birthday?” Because if Bucky’s come back from Hell, or somewhere even worse, he shouldn’t have to keep going through it. Steve can ask about the knife and the guns later, about Nat and his age no matter how obscure it is, when they’re both feeling up to it.

For now, Steve wants to make Bucky smile. He wants to help him remember that this, here, is his, that he’s safe.

Bucky turns, drying his hands off on a towel. “Can we go to the beach?”

The drive takes an hour, and by the time they arrive the sun has long since set. The stars glitter in the sky above them, almost a mirror of Bucky’s arm - but somehow, they’re just not as beautiful, not as breathtaking as his.

Bucky carries the blanket down the stairs from the parking lot. Steve follows and concentrates on not tripping on the way down, holding onto the guard rail as the cold wind whips up from the ocean and through the many layers Bucky insisted he wear.

When they finally make it down to the coast, the sand glows white under the moon. The rocks stand up, etched in sharp relief: glowing on one side, darker than black on the other. The water is an inky swirl, its edges undefined, and Steve wishes he had thought to bring something to draw with. They can come again, though - they can come again when it’s not Bucky’s special night, when their trip isn’t his one and only birthday wish.

Bucky lays the blanket out on the sand, up high enough that the tide hasn’t dampened the sand yet. Steve’s glad for the Californian weather - even though it’s still somewhat miserable during the day, spring not quite settled in yet, it’s stopped raining. He knows he’s probably going to freeze soon, but he’s got Bucky whose body doubles nicely as a heater to take advantage of.

Steve sits down, trying to keep the sand from tracking off his shoes onto the blanket, but it’s a rather hopeless endeavour. He sits expectantly in the middle of the blanket, watching Bucky. He’s not sure what Bucky’s doing - he’s crouched down with his hands in the sand, and appears to be digging a hole. Steve wonders if Bucky’s making a sandcastle in the dark of night when it’s freezing cold, but then he notices that Bucky’s placed the manila folder by his side. He must have carried it down to the shore beneath the blanket, hidden from Steve’s view.

Bucky stands up and surveys the hole, as Steve wraps his arm around his body, having severely misestimated the temperature. Even with Bucky’s overprotectiveness, which involved demands of a shirt, sweater, and a jacket, Steve’s still cold. He doesn’t what to imagine the damage if he’d been allowed to dress himself.

Seemingly satisfied with his handiwork, which makes Steve smile because it’s strange but kinda sweet just because it’s Bucky, he grabs the file. Then, without any fanfare, Bucky drops it into the hole and lights it on fire. It doesn’t make much of a flame until Bucky tugs one glove off with his teeth, and then uses his prosthetic to crush the lighter and drop that into the hole too. That certainly moves things along a bit.

Bucky stands and watches it burn for about a minute, and he’s lit up on both sides: gold on one from the fire, silver on the other from the night sky.

Then he turns away from it and comes to sit behind Steve on the blanket. He positions himself with his legs on either side of Steve’s body, and shifts them both so they’re facing the ocean, not the fire burning off to their right.

Steve is hesitant to let himself relax back into Bucky’s hold, wary of putting too much pressure on him so soon, but Bucky wraps his arms around Steve and tugs him back against his chest. Bucky lets his chin settle into its usual spot atop Steve’s head, and he sighs.

“My name’s James Buchanan Barnes,” Bucky begins, his voice a soft rumble as the fire crackles to their side - burning its fuel up and already starting to die down. “My birthday’s March 10th, and I know I always liked the stars.”

As the fire fades into nothing, as the moon moves across the sky and the tide keeps rolling in and out, Steve thinks that something quite monumental is taking place.

Or maybe not. Maybe they’re just two insignificant people in love, staring at the stars like so many others. Maybe that’s the truly monumental part.