sparsenicjade
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AN: Huge thanks to my beta, thepouncer, for being epically patient with this story, which was a clusterfuck when she first got it. Written for the "prostitution" square on my hc_bingo. For luuv2shop, for supporting my blackout for LLS.

***


It's not like Steve doesn't take the same route home from school every night. He does. Once he gets off the light rail at Brook Branch, he's got to get through the "rougher" area to his studio in Forest Hills. But the studio is a clean, well-maintained place, at a price he can afford while eking out his BFA on the GI Bill and a part-time job at a hardware shop. Steve's not crazy about the hour and a half to two hours it takes to get home, between the trains, waiting, and walking, but he sure as hell prefers all that to starving in order to pay Manhattan rents. He went through enough of that as a kid.

The point is, Steve has probably passed the guy two blocks away from the station before. Hell, the kid might have even tried catching his attention. But Steve is more the curtains-and-china-pattern type than anything, and even if he wasn't, he doesn't think sex for cash would get his motor running. So he never really pays attention to the girls in their too-high heels with too-low tops, or the boys in muscle shirts and jeans that are more fray than jean.

Everyone's gotta make a living, Steve figures. And he knows how lucky he is, how insanely fortunate it was that his childhood asthma and generally piss-poor health had resolved itself in his last years of high school, in time for him to enlist and spend five years in the service. Five years of regular pay, regular meals, a regular place to sleep.

He slept in enough shelters as a kid, and even a teen, to value each of those things. And he was intimately familiar with those who were not as lucky, persons with health issues or no education. Not everyone had a mom who'd loved him until her dying breath. Not everyone had the ability to finish high school. Steve isn't the type to complain, nor is he the type to judge, at least not in the instance of sex-work. That doesn't mean he looks.

He can't say, exactly, why he looks that night. Maybe it's because fall is on its way out, and despite the hour being relatively early, it's pitch dark, at least three streetlights on the block out. Or maybe it's because it's raining. Maybe it's because a cough interrupts the guy's purr of, "Hey, mister." Or maybe it's the way Steve can just barely see the blush that sign of humanity brings to his face.

The point is, he looks. And sees a guy around his own age, shivering, doing his best to smile attractively. He sees the sharp thrust of the guy's cheek bones, the way he keeps moving to wrap one arm around himself and then forcing it to his side, the way he presses his mouth determinedly closed every few moments, as if to swallow his coughs. The way one sleeve of what can only mockingly be called a jacket is tucked into his pocket, empty.

It's laughable, really. Even if Steve wanted to buy a quick fuck, he hasn't got that kind of disposable income. But he does have a place to go with a roof and heating, a shower and dry towels, and more than enough canned tomato soup, white bread, peanut butter, and other bargain basics to share. Before he knows what he's doing, he asks, "How much?"

The guy blinks, as if he hadn't expected Steve to respond. Steve supposes that's fair. The guy lowers his eyelashes, and damn if it doesn't make Steve notice he's beautiful. Steve growls at himself for even looking. Jesus. The guy needs help. And Steve can get laid without cash involved, thank you very much.

The guy says, "Twenty for a hand-job, thirty-five for a blowjob, fifty for penetration with protection, seventy without, and one hundred to leave a mark. Anything else is negotiable."

His voice sounds rough, but he's selling it, his hips cocked just right. Steve tilts his head. "How much for the night?"

The guy hesitates for a bit. Steve's not sure whether it's uncertainty about what he's getting himself into, or just a lack of familiarity with the question. Finally, he says, "Normally five hundred, but I'll give you the rainy day discount for three. That does not include bondage, other participants, or bloodplay. Those are extra."

Steve feels a little sick to his stomach at the matter-of-fact nature of the response. He mentally runs through his bank account and monthly expenses, deciding whether he can do three hundred. He'll definitely be cutting it close on utilities, but he can draw a little out of his savings and be fine. If need be, he can probably pick up some commissions or other freelancing jobs. He holds out his hand. "Three hundred."

They guy shakes his hand, the grip firm even if the fingers burn like ice. He says, "I'm James. Pleasure doing business with you."

Steve doesn't think he looks like a James, but that's really none of his business. He says, "Steve. Pleasure's all mine."

*


Steve opens the door to his place and stands back to let James inside. There's nothing fancy about it. He'd gone with a futon for a bed so he could have a couch during the day. Most everything in the place was either a gift or salvaged from a garage sale or thrift shop. There are several film stills on the wall; his one indulgence with his service pay.

He says, "Um, okay. My bank's a couple of blocks from here, I've gotta run down there. I don't, uh, keep that kind of cash on me. If you want, while I'm gone, the bathroom's small, but the water runs hot. There're towels in the bottom drawer of the dresser. Or whatever. I don't have a TV, but you're welcome to the books."

He's rambling. He can feel himself doing it, he just can't stop. James is looking at Steve like he might be a bit touched in the head. Steve isn't sure he can argue that right now. "Right, then. I'll, uh. I'll be back."

*


Bucky waits for the lock of the door to slide home and takes a moment to stand still in the warmth of the studio. He hasn't turned on the heat at his place yet.

He doesn't know what's going on here, and that's never a good situation. Either Steve's a complete idiot or too trusting of others. Bucky's almost tempted to steal something and get the fuck out of there, to teach him a lesson.

Only, nothing in the apartment appears to be worth three hundred dollars. And that's unsettling, too. Not that he's unused to people spending money they don't have. But he's seen this guy. He's hard to miss. This guy has walked past the offers and catcalls every night as if he doesn't even notice them. He's living in a studio in Jersey with hand-me down furniture. This isn't a guy who blows money for fun.

Which begs the question of why Bucky is here. He's had more than his fair share of johns for whom the missing arm has been a turn on. The ones who just want to fetishize it are bad enough. The ones who want to fuck him up some more— Bucky doesn't like those. He'll take them. They bring in good cash. But he's tired and feeling shitty and if Steve is one of those—

He sighs. If Steve is one of those, he'll roll over and take it, but he's charging an extra hundred. In the meantime, the temptation of hot water on his skin is too much to resist. The shithole he lives in has a tendency to "run out" after one person has so much as used a sink in the building.

First, though, he's going to acclimate himself to the studio while he's got the chance. Bucky hates when his brain knows he's in the U.S., knows he's safe, and even warm in this case, but something causes his body and his senses to be certain he's inside a cave with the cold and the mold his lungs hate, fear and exhaustion causing his adrenaline to spike, his hands to tremble. It's already happened once this fall, the dropping temperatures a problem in and of themselves. Hell, the unwashed body scent of other hookers, the scent of blood when he had to get himself patched up at the clinic a few weeks back, anything can cause the disconnect, and then he's shaking right there in the middle of the day, when everything is fine.

Thankfully for Bucky, when he's gotten into trouble with clients, or even just picked up for solicitation, the woman who runs the local precinct, Hartley, is ex-military, and she goes easy on fellow vets when they get taken in, but he doesn't like making her life any harder than it already is. And being in a cell…being in a cell is bad, no matter if there are other people there or not.

Bucky runs his fingers over surfaces, sniffs at Steve's chosen cleaning solution—lavender, not sterile, thank goodness—turns the lights off and forces himself to stand in the dark until he acclimates. He eyes the bathroom again and mutters, "Fuck," because this is stupid and one of these days being stupid is going to get him killed. On the upside, though, if it gets him killed tonight, he'll go out feeling so fresh and so clean.

*


When Steve gets back, the bathroom door is shut and he can hear the water running. He breathes out, unaware that he was half-expecting James to have bolted, but relieved now that there's a shower running and the sound of movement emanating from the bathroom. Steve resorts to comforting rituals as he waits. He brews a few cups of coffee, toasts some bread, and cuts up an apple.

He hears the water stop and goes to grab a set of drawstring sweats and a clean t-shirt. He puts them by the bathroom door and says, "I got you some dry stuff to change into. It's right outside."

He goes back to grabbing some mugs and pulling the sugar from the shelves he'd put over the sink so as to have somewhere to stash smaller items. He hears the door open and turns around to see James walking out of the bathroom. He's skinnier than Steve, and a tiny bit shorter, so the clothes hang a little, but even so, it’s a challenge not to stare. Between the blue of his eyes, black of his hair, and the shape of his lips, Steve's having a hard time focusing.

But he's also not the kind of guy who steals shiny things just because he likes the way they look. He finds his voice and says, "I made coffee. If you, uh, drink that."

James blinks. Steve fights against the urge to keep spewing words, but he can't seem to manage it. "I don't have cream, but there's sugar. I have milk, but it's skim, not really the same—"

"Black's fine," James says, a smile forming that Steve has no idea how to read.

Steve pours them both a cup, holding James' out to him. "There's toast and—"

James, who has been taking a slow sip, inhaling the coffee scent, brings the cup away from his lips, which are now in a full-out grin. "Are you trying to feed me?"

Steve can feel himself flush. He looks down into his coffee. "I'm always hungry when I get home at night."

James laughs at that, coughing a little at the end, but it's not a mean sound. "Look at you, man. You probably metabolize whole meals while breathing."

Steve smiles a little and doesn't comment on how James seems to be metabolizing his own body. Instead he shrugs. "Your choice, but I feel a little awkward having a snack in front of you and not having you join in."

James' expression is indiscernible for a moment. "Well, all right. Have any butter for that toast?"

Steve turns around to grab it from the refrigerator.

*


Despite the coffee, Steve yawns as they're finishing off the apple together. Bucky isn't sure whether he should slip under the table and get things going or not. It's annoying when the john is too tired. Bucky's jaw always takes the brunt of the customer being too worn to just fucking climax.

Steve smiles a little sheepishly, though, and says, "Guess it's bed time for me."

Bucky can't stop himself from asking, "You do get that the $300 included sex, right?"

For a second, Steve stills. Then he laughs. "The $300 included anything I wanted, barring your add-ons."

Bucky long ago accepted the fact that a combination of his own choices and bad luck has gotten him to where running his own corner business is the only way he knows to survive. He's not proud of it, but he's not ashamed, either. Sex is sex, and sometimes, Bucky knows, he's a human touch to someone who hasn't felt one in a long, long time.

But part of the business is being in control. That doesn't mean Bucky won't negotiate to give certain pieces of it up, but in the end, he has to be the one who rules over the transaction. The last time he let things get out of control he slipped into a dark corner of his memory, broke a client's fingers and ended up giving the client the couple thousand he'd managed to save to keep him quiet, ending up back on the streets for over four months. He does not like the feeling that Steve is the one holding the leash, here, even if Steve's hold is deceptively light. Bucky hasn't survived almost two years on the streets by being naīve.

He looks Steve dead in the eye. "So, your kink is feeding one-armed whores?"

Steve looks away. His muscles tense in a way Bucky thinks should seem intimidating, but he can't find it in himself to feel afraid. Steve runs a hand through his hair and says, "Well. I was hoping you'd be up for some cuddling."

And, okay, that Bucky can work with. The ground isn't completely solid beneath him just yet, but he's starting to have an idea of where the pitfalls are. "You like being the big or little spoon?"

Steve snaps his gaze to Bucky, clearly startled. "Most people just assume the former."

"Kind of my job description not to make assumptions."

Steve's expression is hard to read. He says, "Little. I like being the little spoon. If it won't—I mean, if you'll be comfortable."

Steve rubs his left arm with his right. Bucky doubts he even realizes he's doing it. Normally it would piss him off, but Steve isn't looking at him with pity, just concern, and something that seems frighteningly like empathy. Bucky says, "Yeah, we can work something out."

Steve's smile is broad and so damn real, Bucky wonders if he's made a mistake, agreeing to be part of this creature comfort.

*


Steve wakes up to the sight of sunlight streaming through the window over his sink and blinks. He hasn't slept through a night without nightmares in…well, definitely not since Tikrit. It's been over two years now. He wasn't kidding when he'd asked to cuddle: some basic touch seemed really attractive, but he's not usually this trusting. And to be honest, he'd forgotten how good it could be to be the little spoon. Tikrit stole that as well. There's just something James provides: a sense Steve isn't penned in, that his partner in the cuddling venture is alive and well and they're both safe. It's strange, but Steve's not going to consider it too deeply. He'll take it as the gift it is and move on.

The haze of not-quite-awakeness shatters at the sound of a cough, deeper and more wracking than the ones the night before. The arm that's been holding him moves, presumably to cover the cough, and Steve notices that even through the loaned shirt he's wearing, James is giving an old-fashioned fireplace a run for its money in terms of heat output.

Frowning, Steve turns over. James' eyes are open, but Steve's pretty sure his mind is somewhere else. His breathing is heavy, wet, and when he speaks he says, "No…no. Please, no."

When he doesn't speak, his teeth chatter. Steve takes a deep breath in through his nose, torn between panicked laughing and smacking his forehead. He's got nobody but himself to blame, though. The guy had obviously had at least a cough, very probably combined with malnutrition. And fuck, to Steve, a good night's sleep is definitely worth three hundred bucks and some basic caretaking.

He slips from the bed and sets a kettle to heating. He only keeps Darjeeling tea, so that will have to do. He doesn't have lemon or honey, instead he spoons a little sugar into the cup once it has steeped. He pours a glass of plain water, grabs a couple of Aspirin, and wishes he had a thermometer.

James is whimpering, tossing about in a sort of half-sleep. Steve calls, "James," but there's no response. After a third time, he gently touches James' wrist. Within a second he's in a partial, but effective, chokehold--impressive, given James’ missing limb--James hanging from his back. Steve doesn't want to hurt him, but he also doesn't want to choke out while James is out of his mind. He uses some of the skills he's less proud of to get James off of him and on the floor, where he then hauls him back into bed and says, "We're gonna see if getting some fluid and pain meds in you helps, okay?"

James looks all of maybe thirteen, eyes wide with fear and uncertainty. He starts coughing again, not stopping until his eyes are drooping from exhaustion. Steve presses the point on the liquids, holding the cups to James' lips and having him sip in between attacks.

James is still twitchy, probably hasn't got a clue where he is. Wherever James imagines himself to be, it was not a good place for him. Steve talks in a low steady voice, bullshit about school and his favorite books and whatever comes to mind. As soon as he's gotten the aspirin in James, and managed to get him to drink the tea and about half the water, he lays him back down.

James is back in a restless sleep almost immediately. Steve bites his lip for a moment, then uses his phone to email his professors that he's ill and won't be making it in today. He emails a couple of classmates about helping him catch up. Then he gets back in bed, and attempts to provide the same comfort for James that James evidently gave to Steve all night long.

*


He's hot. No…no, he's cold. Desert, right. Cold at night. Or, wait. His arm. Yeah, that's it, the bullet wound is infected. Fever. It's good, the fever is good. Makes it hard to think, hard to accidentally give in, say something.

There are hands on him. Arms? Doesn't matter, it's not good. He can't do the water again. Or the electricity, or—or anything. He can't. He tries to breathe, but his chest hurts, and he almost can't exhale, it comes out harshly, coughing and tearing.

Someone is talking, but he can't listen. He might—if he hears he might say things, might answer. "James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, United States Army." The words don't want to come out any more than the air inside his lungs. Doesn't matter, doesn't. "James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, United States Army."

He needs to keep saying it, but he's not sure if he opens his mouth again that he can stop himself from begging. He won't beg. He won't.

*


Steve tries not to freak out when James—and evidently that is his real name—starts repeating his name and rank. Steve underwent torture resistance training, all the Berets did, but he'd never had to use that training. He makes it through three or four repetitions—in between the terrible sounding coughs—before he gives in and calls Sam.

Sam picks up with the question, "Aren't you supposed to be in class, man?"

Steve wants to laugh, wants to feel the release of tension just hearing Sam's voice usually allows him. Instead he says, "Are you—do you think you can come over?"

Sam, who got Steve through his first year of rejoining the civilian population and knows Steve better than anyone living, says, "Yeah. I mean, yes, of course, but, um—"

"Mel's in town," Steve says, closing his eyes. He'd forgotten she would have started leave two days earlier. They'd planned to meet up that weekend.

"Can she come? She's only on leave for a couple of weeks, and I only had enough PTO for a few extra days during that time."

Steve knows this, and on the one hand, he's asking a big enough favor of Sam. On the other hand, it feels like a betrayal of James to even have one extra person in this space. The third, metaphorical hand wins: Mel has medic training. Steve's a little more worried than he'd like to admit about how high James's fever has risen. "Yeah. Yeah, Mel."

There's a slight pause, then Sam asks, "You need me to stay on the phone?"

"It's not me," Steve tells him.

"You didn't answer my question," Sam says, voice even.

Steve looks at the man tossing and turning in his bed. He draws in a breath. "No. I'm okay. Just get here, please."

"On our way."

*


Steve has never actually met Mel. They’ve unintentionally managed to miss each other since he settled back into civilian life, Sam first helping him navigate the red tape of the GI Bill and other vet-related government assistance programs. Later, Sam would hook him up with the art therapist at the VFW, take runs with him at three in the morning, and generally just keep Steve's nightmares lurking in the shadows instead of ambushing him.

He's seen pictures, of course, but she's somehow both tinier and much, much larger in real life. She's half his physical size, sure. Steve still wouldn't want to meet up with her in a dark alley. He shakes her hand and says, "So, uh. This was not how I planned to meet you."

She gives a small huff of laughter. "You really thought something with the three of us was going to go according to plan?"

She has a point. Sam is already looking past him. There's a quiet second before Sam says, "Either you've failed to mention a relationship, made a new friend, or have started taking home kids off the street."

Steve winces. "Some combo of the last two. He's—I mean, last night he was just coughing. But he's definitely got a fever and he, if you get close enough, he's mumbling his name and rank. Again and again."

Mel starts toward the bed. Steve says, "He, uh, when I woke him up earlier by touching him, he attacked."

"I would too," is all she says, without pausing. She stands by the bed with her head cocked for a moment before barking, "Sergeant Barnes!"

James gasps, which causes him to cough again. Sam mutters, "Fuck," low and compassionate, at Steve's side. Mel rubs James's back and states calmly, repeatedly, "You're safe, you're in America, you're home."

When the coughing finally subsides, he blinks at her and frowns. "Don' have a home." Then, frowning even deeper, "What are you—why are you helping them?"

"I want to help you," she tells him, no nonsense and not a lot of emotion in her tone. Steve is glad it's her. He's pretty sure he'd be bawling by now. "James, I want to put some medicine on your chest. Can you pull your shirt up for me?"

The request starts a stream of, "No, nononono," that cuts off into more coughing. Mel rubs at his back again while turning to the two of them. "I'm gonna need some help."

Sam mutters, "Fuck," again, and the two of them move to assist her.

*


She has a shot of morphine in her medic's kit, and Steve has never been so happy for the illicit use of narcotics in his life. It takes both him and Sam holding James down for her to inject him, and James howls and cries and fights, but once the medicine hits him, he settles into the first restful sleep Steve has seen since he woke up that morning.

With him out, Steve helps position James' deadweight to allow Mel to take the shirt off. She says, "It'll be better, and since he's unaware for at least a bit, we should do it."

All three of them have been in combat. All three of them wince or blink or make a sound in the back of their throat when James's chest is revealed. The burn scars alone are fearsome along his stomach, near his nipples, scaling his ribs. But there are also the edge of whip marks curling over those ribs, and the scar tissue left at the site of the amputation suggests multiple procedures were needed to repair whatever damage had forced the amputation.

Sam is the first to say anything. "Jesus."

Mel takes a breath. "I'm gonna put some Vick's on his chest. I need to call a friend. He'll be able to get me a prescription for antibiotics. I'm not a doctor, but between the cough, the delirium and the fever, I'm pretty sure he's got pneumonia. Here's hoping it's bacterial. I'll get some cough syrup while I'm at the pharmacy."

Steve nods. He doesn't even notice the silence until Sam breaks it with, "Buddy, was he being literal when he said he didn't have a home?"

Steve runs a hand over his face. "Possibly. I don't know. For now, though, he's staying here. There's no way he's insured and I'm not having the hospital or a clinic give him a few shots and put him back on the streets."

The reason Steve would take a bullet for Sam is because after a second, he nods. "Okay. I'm gonna do a grocery run, since I know you, and your staples are not going to do it for him right now. I'll pick up some t-shirts and sweats while I'm at it. Mel, can you grab painkillers while you're getting the other stuff?"

Mel just rolls her eyes. Sam grins, quick and happy, despite Steve interrupting the scant time he has with his wife, kisses said wife on the lips and says, "Be back in a bit."

When Sam is gone, Mel asks, "You want me to stay so there's someone here with you, or should I run out now?"

Steve eyes where James is sleeping, his breathing jagged and crackly, but at least not panicked. "Sooner we get the stuff in him, the better. I'm fine here. Thanks, really. I—I get that it was kind of a jerk move, calling Sam, I just didn't know what else to do."

After a moment, Mel's mouth screws up into an amused quirk. "Tell me about it. Why do you think I married him?"

*


Steve all-but pushes Sam and Mel out the door later in the day, when the first shot of antibiotics has been injected, another round of Vick's applied, and James is sleeping as peacefully as someone with probable pneumonia and serious trauma is going to manage. He says, "Go get lunch, watch a movie, do things you would have done if I hadn't called. We're fine."

Sam will call later, Steve knows. That's fine, so long as he spends some time with his wife. A couple of hours after they've left, Steve gets a phone call and picks up with, "Hello, Pepper."

"Steve," the greeting is warm, but also relieved and that is probably not a good sign. "Steve," she repeats, "I need you to call Tony. Possibly have lunch with him."

Steve is still not entirely sure how he ended up being friends with Tony Stark. He'd taken an internship with Stark Industries' marketing department for six months, partially because he needed the credits for school, and partially because the stipend paid off his ancillary loans for the first year of school even after living expenses.

He doesn't think it's crazy that when some guy he'd never seen before came in and started giving them shit about one of their campaigns, he'd politely but firmly pointed out the flaws in the guy's logic. Steve has always known his tendency not to pay attention to pop culture was going to bite him in the ass one day, but he hadn't imagined it would happen when he didn't recognize the man who owned the company he was working for. He also wouldn't have called Tony being delighted by Steve’s obstinacy and somehow deciding he wanted Steve for a buddy. Tony is hard to predict, even when you do know him.

This, however, is not really the best time for Pepper to be asking this favor. Pepper's kind and competent and wonderful, and Steve tries to help her out when she needs it. He asks, "What's going on?"

"I really wouldn't bother you with this, I swear, but Phil is in Tokyo, Clint is taking care of a breach at the Malibu facility, Rhodey's on assignment, Bruce is France, working with some colleagues, Jane has started hiding when he comes around, and I'm pretty sure Maria is going to kill Tony the next time he gets in her face just to have someone to get a rise out of."

Steve winces. Poking Maria is only a good idea if defenestration is your version of a swell time. "Right. Um. I can call, but the thing is, I'm kind of helping out a sick, uh, friend, so lunch or anything else is probably going to have to wait."

Only seconds after he says it, Steve suspects that he has made a fatal and irreparable error. The thing about both Tony and Pepper is that they are fixers. They don't like it when there's a problem that cannot be solved without their intervention, let alone not be solved.

Sure enough, Pepper says smoothly. "Are you staying with him, or vice versa? Because I can send Tony with anything you need or that could be vaguely useful. It would be appreciated, Steve. Just keep him for a few hours, see if you can't, you know, get him to be a human being for a bit."

Steve quietly, carefully, bangs his head against the phone. "We're really fine, Pepp. Like I said, I'll call."

"Mm, okay," she says and he can tell she's already planning how to save Steve and his mysterious friend from themselves. "Talk later, thanks so much, Steve."

She hangs up before he can protest again. Steve, who's drafting at his kitchen table, looks over at James, muttering discontentedly in Steve's bed and says, "I'm so, so sorry."

*


Sure enough, Tony shows up at his door at ass o'clock with three quarters of a pharmacy and possibly all the chicken soup in the city. When Steve opens the door, Tony's first words are, "Pepp says you have a sick friend, but I told her that was impossible, because you'd never cheat on us that way."

Steve sighs. At least he wasn't actually sleeping, too concerned about James to do much more than doze on and off. "We've had this conversation."

Tony starts to gesture, but his hands are full, so it's mostly flailing, "Yeah, yeah, you're allowed to have other friends, it's not considered cheating, blah, blah, blah. Are you going to let me in?"

"Not unless you swear on Pepper's life you'll be quiet."

Tony opens his mouth, then closes it. "That's a pretty serious oath, there."

Steve just raises his eyebrow. Tony grumbles under his breath but says, "I swear."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Not a chance, Stark."

Tony gives Steve his most put-upon look ever and says, "I swear on Pepper's life I'll be quiet."

Steve stands back to give Tony entry. Whatever else, Tony's a man of his word.

*


Tony babbles in whispers at him for…Steve's not really sure how long. There's a cup of coffee, and then another. Tony's making it, so it's dense enough to pave roads, but Steve has been up for nearly twenty hours, and most of it has been emotionally exhausting. Tony goes quiet and Steve looks up, startled.

Tony narrows his eyes. "Go climb in bed with your 'friend' and get some sleep. I'll stay. If he wakes up, I will follow the written-out directions to the letter, I promise."

It's easy for Steve to let the reasons he's friends with Tony slip from his mind. Tony is loud and has a surface arrogance that could go up against an entire Super Bowl-winning football team combined. He drops everything for his ideas and he's honest in a way that's not always comfortable. It's so, so easy to overlook the fact that he's loyal and generous to people he considers deserving.

Steve pulls him into a hug, which Tony fights for a brief second before clinging like a sloth. Tony lets go after a few seconds. "Seriously, bed, I've got this."

*


Steve wakes to the sound of Tony and Mel having an intense squabble over what appears to be a not-so-friendly game of Risk. Sam, who is sitting by the bed, catches his eye and mouths, "Wow."

Steve mouths back, "Tony," since Sam has met him before; he'll get it. He turns his attention to the guy still sleeping in his bed and brushes a hand over James's forehead. James murmurs and moves a little, but his fever is definitely down. Steve asks, "Has he eaten anything since the last time I fed him?"

Mel looks over her shoulder. "Yeah, I got him up when we first came. Soup and meds."

"The soup is really good," Sam comments. "Seriously, I don't know where Stark got it, but it's a little crack-like."

Last summer, while working for Stark, Steve had slipped back to Brooklyn now and then. One of his favorite delis is still there. Tony followed him one day and the deli has been among his best sneak-away places ever since. Steve tells Sam, "I'll take you to where he got it some time."

"Awesome."

Mel doesn't look away from the game as she says, "I expect care packages."

"Of soup?" Sam asks.

"Figure out how to make it happen," is all she gives him. Tony is already rambling off ideas.

*


Steve sends Tony home when Mel and he have finally decided to call it a draw. He tells Mel and Sam, "I'm not kicking you out, but I've got this for right now."

Sam tosses off a half-assed salute and says, "Call if you need us."

Steve sets up one of his projects on the kitchen—only—table, and goes to work, getting lost in the flow of the drafting pencil over paper, the soft sounds of it. He thinks James had watched him for a while before he surfaces, and notices the other man sitting up, a thoughtful look on his face. Steve says, "Oh, hey. You shoulda said something."

James's voice is scratchy when he asks, "How long have I been here?" and he has to cough for nearly ten seconds afterward.

Steve glances at his watch. "Forty hours, give or take. You have pneumonia."

James blinks, blinks again, then rubs a hand over his face. Steve can't be sure, but he thinks he hears the words, "Of course I do."

James lowers his hand and says, "Listen, um. How's about you keep your $300 and we call it even?"

Steve frowns. James is trying to get out of bed and Steve's pretty sure that's not going to go well. Sure enough, he manages to stay on his feet for all of about three seconds before falling backward, onto the bed.

Steve says, "I know I'm not your mom or anything, but I think you should probably stay where you are, at least until the antibiotics have cleared up the worst of the infection."

"'m pretty sure I need to argue with you," James informs him. "But I'm too tired to remember why."

"Well, I'm sure it will come to you next time you wake up. Try and stay awake long enough to eat a bowl of soup and drink a glass of water, okay? And you need to take another pill."

The look on James's face is pure puzzlement. "This is a new one."

"New one?" Steve asks, as he grabs a bowl and starts heating the soup.

James just shakes his head. "Usually I see people I know. Knew."

Steve clues in, then. "I'm not a hallucination."

James says, "I'm pretty sure there's no other logical explanation, self."

Steve sighs, waits for the beep of the microwave and brings the soup to James, along with a textbook to rest it atop. "Okay, well, do yourself a favor and hallucinate eating all of that."

James shrugs. "Sure."

*


Bucky wakes up feeling sore and gross but completely lucid. Time is blurry, though, and everything hurts, including the arm that's no longer there and electrical burns that healed over a year ago. The guy, Steve, he's sleeping next to where Bucky is lying, in a pair of real pajamas. It's kind of hipster in a way that surprises Bucky, although he's not sure why.

He tries sitting up without waking the other occupant of the bed, but he's barely upright when Steve blinks his eyes open and, after a brief moment, smiles. "Hey," he says, voice sleep-rough, "you're vertical. And you got there by yourself."

Bucky drags a smile past an infinite space of embarrassment and anxiety. "Yeah, so, uh. I can probably be out of your hair in just a bit."

Steve's expression is impossible to parse. He says, "I'm not trying to be an asshole, here, but unless you're gonna let me call one of my friends who has a car, you're not going anywhere in this weather until you've at least finished another day of antibiotics and have proven to me you have the energy to do activities more strenuous than eating something."

Bucky isn't aware of how off his game he is until what comes out of his mouth in response is, "What are you like when you are trying to be an asshole?"

It takes a split second for Steve to laugh. Had it taken any longer, an apology would have already left Bucky's mouth. There are johns who like him bratty, sure, but that is always very clearly an act. His bones ache right now, his whip scars are throbbing dully, and he can't remember how that kind of play works, not well enough to bring it to the front.

Steve holds up his hands in a placating manner. "You were Army, right?"

The split second of panic this induces starts a coughing jag that leaves Bucky limp and even more sore. "Talked in my sleep?"

Steve, who'd started rubbing Bucky's back with his stupidly large, stupidly warm hand, says, "You didn't say anything, not really."

Bucky wants to close his eyes again, wants to slump back into the dark of sleep, where he doesn't have to answer any questions. "Didn't then, either."

There's a stark moment of silence before he hears what he said. "Shit."

"You're good," Steve tells him, hand never once stopping. "I was Army, too. It means something to me, the whole brothers-in-arms thing. I'm old-fashioned. So, just, let me maybe put you in the shower and make some Jell-o, or something, and you can worry about everything when you're feeling better."

It's not that easy, it's never that easy. But a shower, hot water pounding on the strained muscles of his back and steam forcing its way into his airways, sounds like heaven. Bucky bites his lip. "What flavor Jell-o?"

Steve's grin makes Bucky's stomach flip in a way he barely recognizes and hasn't missed. Steve tells him, "Well, my buddy who did the grocery shopping feels like choice is key, so your options are strawberry, berry blue, watermelon, and piņa colada."

Bucky finds himself laughing. "Uh. Watermelon, I guess."

Steve says, "Sure," and rolls out of the bed. He crosses to the side Bucky's on and holds out his hands. "C'mon, lemme at least help you up."

Bucky doesn't admit it, but he's not going to make it that far without the help.

*


As far as he can tell, Bucky sleeps for another few days. He wakes up now and then from nightmares, sometimes to Steve murmuring reassuring words, sometimes to a note informing him where Steve is, and that there's some kind of light sustenance in the fridge. One memorable time he wakes up to two gorgeous people who are not Steve making out against the wall. He means to just fake sleeping through it, but his cough gives him away, which is how he meets Sam and Mel.

Sam, being the one whose back is against the wall, is the first to see him. "Hey man. We're Steve's friends. He was worried about leaving you alone too long."

Bucky does not mean to ask, "Is there something wrong with him?"

His eyes widen and he hastens to say, "I don't mean, I mean, he's—"

Sam, laughing, comes over to the bed and holds out a hand. "I'm Sam. And there are a million things wrong with Steve, but none of them are harmful."

He pulls Bucky from the bed slowly, giving him a chance to pull away, and gestures with his other hand to the woman behind him. "My wife, Mel."

Bucky shakes his head a little. "Uh. Nice to meet you."

She tilts her head slightly toward him. "Nice to see you lucid."

Bucky eyes the futon, considering whether he could hide under it or not. Sam's already moving him into the "kitchen" to seat him at the table, and his legs are wobbly even with the support. Mel lays some pills out with a glass of water. He takes them without asking what they are. It seems beyond illogical that they would bother to get him healthier just to screw him up again.

On nights where it's not too cold out, or times when johns want to pretend they're not paying, being charming is part of Bucky's job. It's the part he's best at, in his own opinion. Sam plunks a steaming bowl of what looks to be vegetable barley soup in front of Bucky, and Bucky takes a few sips while rebooting that part of his personality.

He starts easy. "How do you two know Steve?"

Sam sits across from him. "Helped him transition back to civilian life."

"I actually met him a day after you did," Mel says. Neither of them sounds like they're judging, but Mel is not an easy read.

He doesn't know why he feels the need to defend Steve, but he finds himself explaining, "Look, he just—I think he felt sorry for me. Which is really good for my ego now that I've said it aloud."

"You're ex-military," Mel says. It's not a question.

Bucky sighs. "Steve mentioned, I guess?"

"We were here while you were sleep-talking," Mel tells him.

"Steve didn't feel sorry for you," Sam says, voice soft. "Not in the pitying way. He just saw someone who wasn't as lucky as he was. That's Steve's thing."

"It's a little amazing he hasn't gotten himself killed yet." And wow, evidently being sick erased every brain-to-mouth filter Bucky has ever managed to build up.

Sam just grins. "He's smarter than he looks."

*


Bucky wakes up—because evidently all he can ever do anymore is sleep—to the sound of Steve coming into the studio. He forces himself through the haze of I-could-just-roll-back-over in order to sit up and say, "Um, hey."

Steve smiles. "Hey. You sound about a million times better. You hungry? I was going to make something, so if you want in, just say."

Bucky could eat, but then, that's kind of the defining truth of Bucky's existence, and he's had way more regular meals the past few days than he normally manages. He curls his knees up to his chest and rests his chin on them. "I've been thinking."

He has, kind of. He's been thinking when he can manage to stay conscious and have brain activity for more than ten seconds. Steve looks up from where he's rummaging through the fridge. "Yeah?"

Bucky wraps his arm around his knee and tries not to tense up. Selling a product requires having confidence in it. "How about you keep your three hundred, I'm good for, oh, five or six freebies, whatever you want, and we call this even?"

Steve shuts the fridge door, a block of cheese and half an onion in his hand. He frowns. "I don't see how that's fair at all."

Bucky makes himself breathe through his nose so he doesn't start coughing. "We can negotiate on the number of freebies."

"What?" Steve asks. Then, his eyes widening a bit, he says, "No, that wasn't what I meant. You performed the service I was paying you for, there's no reason for me not to pay. And as far as the freebies go, you didn't ask me for help. I'd be kind of a shitty person if I offered it with the expectation of payback."

Bucky plays that statement in his head on a loop for about a full minute. He almost asks if he's hallucinating, but he doesn't think his hallucination would tell him. Also, he hasn't had any good hallucinations, not since his capture. He tries, "I'd be kind of a shitty person if I just took your resources without offering anything in return."

"Hm." Steve lays out slices of bread and starts compiling sandwiches, an old-fashioned griddle heating on the stove. "Little bit of an impasse we have ourselves."

"Steve—"

"It's been nice," Steve says, cutting him off. "Having someone else here. Someone I don't think is going to freak out if I'm the one having the nightmare."

Steve shrugs. "Wow, that sounds more pathetic when I say it aloud."

Bucky bites his bottom lip, fighting the urge to laugh. He's worried it might get hysterical. "Are you saying that you paid me three hundred dollars so you could have some actual, literal company?"

Steve, who's now pressing the sandwiches into the griddle, looks up and rolls his eyes. "I have friends, jerk."

"But not the cuddle-buddy kind," Bucky says, understanding coming to him even as the words form.

"They probably would, if I asked."

"I could do that, you know? For the freebies? You wouldn't be the first person I've…helped with skin hunger."

Steve's shoulders and back move a bit, as if he's laughing, but it's too slight for Bucky to be able to tell. "Don't take this the wrong way, or anything, because I'm not trying to de-legitimize your profession or choices or whatever, but my pride can only take so much."

Bucky grimaces. He gets it. There was a time, before the service, before he came home lopsided and full of nightmares and thrown into chaos by the tiniest of smells, sounds, sights. In that time he'd touched a lot of people, men and women, for free, and they'd touched back. The memories are strangely blurry, the way so much from his early life is. The doctors have terms for it that have to do with trauma, but Bucky doesn't have the money to seek therapy or drugs anymore, so the cause is unimportant to him.

He knows he enjoyed it, though. Can feel the rumble of laughter and pleasure if he concentrates hard enough. It will be followed by a headache, but he can do it. Those memories wouldn't be the same if they'd been about cash transactions.

Bucky is sure Steve knows this, but, "I don't have anything else to give you."

Steve plates the sandwiches and brings the plates to the bed. He sets one next to Bucky. "Take it as a gift, then."

The only memories Bucky can call up that have to do with gifts are things like games and books at Christmas, sometimes cake on his birthday. The families have gotten mixed up in his mind; he'd never stayed with most of them long enough for the memories to stick when his brain was all shaken up. Gifts are little things, given because they are supposed to be given. This is neither.

He must be showing some of his unease, because Steve sighs. "Just eat the sandwich. We're smart guys, we'll figure something out that works for both of us."

*


Steve leaves for school one morning, and when he gets back in the evening, James, and all signs of him, are gone. Steve's not surprised, exactly. James was never his to keep, or anything. It’s only that he’s gotten used to having someone else around. But he's adjusted to being on his own more than once, and this is just one more time. At least James had the good sense to take his meds with him, even if he left without any of the food in the place.

He's a grown man and he's not Steve's responsibility. He probably wouldn't even appreciate Steve's interference.

Steve calls Tony, because if there's one person he can depend on to talk a lot and not ask questions, Tony's that guy. And he needs the sound of someone else's voice. Not for the first time, he wishes he had a TV or that talk radio didn't drive him batty. Tony says, "Hey, if it isn't my favorite future employee."

"If it isn't my favorite delusional friend," Steve comes back, his voice mild. "You stopped trying to get Maria to permanently maim you, yet?"

As Steve means it to, it gets Tony talking, grabbing onto tangent after tangent. Steve need only make noises at appropriate moments to perpetuate it. He considers whether he should try and get some work done. The thought makes him restless in a way it doesn't usually.

"Earth to Steve?" Tony asks.

"Um—" Steve realizes he has no idea what Tony was talking about. "Sounds good."

"Huh, you don't usually encourage my plans for world domination," Tony says, his tone dry and knowing.

Steve bites back a sigh. "Sorry, Tony. I just called to check in, I need to—"

"Your friend leave?" There's no sneer to the question.

"Um. Well, yeah, I mean. He has his own life." Or at least Steve presumes he does. Steve really hopes he has shelter.

Tony's quiet for a second longer than Steve deems trustworthy. Then he asks, "You happen to know if your friend ever used a prosthetic on that arm of his?"

Steve blinks. He's not sure how they got to this subject. "Uh. No idea."

"See if you can find out. And possibly talk him into helping my cybernetics lab out. We've got a lot of kids who are in first-time need of prosthetics coming in and consulting in regard to feedback about that project, but adults are harder to find. The ones who are willing to sign up are already prosthetics users, which my people don't want, and people who haven't previously used them have no interest in dealing with us or starting now."

Steve's not entirely sure he's ever going to see James again, but he mutters, "Yeah, I'll uh. If it comes up."

"Good, because if you don't I'm gonna figure out what corner he hangs out on and hire him the old-fashioned way. And Pepp'll find out and scorch the earth with my bones as kerosene torches."

Steve wishes Tony could see his unimpressed expression. "Are you insinuating that I'm responsible for the health of your marriage?"

"And the earth, but yeah, that other one, definitely a priority."

Steve rolls his eyes and hangs up.

*


Bucky can’t muster up the energy to be surprised when he gets back to his “place” and finds the eviction notice. He’s got one day before they actually file, and there’s no way he’s going to make what he needs in one night, so he packs up the duffel bag of stuff that is his in the place, and leaves the keys on the counter. He can spend a few nights on the streets, take some of the more pricey jobs, and get himself another place in a week or so.

Hopefully, the overnight freezing that’s been going on the last couple of nights--he’s noticed the ice on Steve’s window--will mellow for a bit. Or maybe he’ll grab a bed at the Y for a while and get a winter coat. He's hesitant about the Y—last time he was there the smell of the guy in the bunk under him caused him to lose a few hours, lost in the cotton and spider webs of his own mind—but he still puts it on his “think about it” list, right under, “what do you do for a guy who saves your life and pays you $300 for the privilege?”

In the meantime, he needs to see Natasha.

Natasha calls herself a pimp, with a flat, brutal honesty, but Bucky’s never been convinced. For one thing, she still pulls a job now and then. For another, she’s gotten rid of every person who’s tried to set up a pimp arrangement with any of the prostitutes in her “radius.” Bucky doesn’t know how. He knows better than to ask.

Really, she’s more like a business manager. If you need to make a certain amount, she’ll find the kind of clientele you need and feed them to you for twenty percent off the top. There’s no long-term arrangements, though, and she doesn’t consider any of the prostitutes or escorts she works with to be “hers.” Well, maybe Victoria, but Ms. Hand is a legend in the escort world. She costs thousands a night and picks and chooses clients as she sees fit.

When Victoria’s in her off-hours, she wears a wedding ring with Natasha’s initials engraved on the other side. Natasha has a matching one. Bucky supposes it’s only fair if they get territorial now and then.

Natasha’s ‘office’ is the coffee shop six blocks away from the area Bucky usually haunts in his professional life. He goes in and orders tea. He sits, reading the "safe" sections of an abandoned newspaper—sports, the cooking section, fashion—until she’s done with whoever got there before him and slides into the chair across the table. She makes enough noise for him to hear her coming. She's had to clean up after one or two of his messes, has figured out the score.

Bucky says, “Hey there, business lady.”

She rolls her eyes. “How anyone finds you charming, Barnes, is beyond me.”

He gives her a shit-eating grin. Her gaze is a little too intent on him. He says, “Listen, I need you to hook me up with a couple of your less-savory but more-moneyed johns. Or janes. Whatever.”

Natasha’s eyes narrow. “You know that’s not really my style.”

It’s not. If anything, so far as Bucky can tell, Natasha does what she does to try and keep those of them on the street safer than they would otherwise be. But in a pinch, she’ll do it. He says, “Yeah, I--I’m kind of in a bind, okay? Got sick, you know the routine. If it’s not one thing--”

She tilts her head. “That where you’ve been. Sick?”

“Yes,” Bucky says, and no more, because Natasha could make a mute bear sing.

“I don’t like it when people I work with just disappear.” It’s not said with a threatening tone. If anything, she appears...concerned.

Bucky rubs his hand over his face. “Trust me, that wasn’t the plan.”

She frowns a bit. “How much do you need?”

He has the three hundred from Steve, and another couple hundred he’d put away for rent. If he can find another place for seven hundred, he’s almost to first month’s rent. “Optimistically, a couple grand. Preferably within the next few days.”

Especially since, after he takes these clients, he has to take it easy, do small jobs for a while. But a couple grand should get him in somewhere and be enough to get the water and electricity turned on, pick up some cough drops, bandages and topical antiseptics. Food’ll be tight, but food’s always tight.

“If you’re willing to be just a little more patient, you can do that, or more, easy, with people I trust to play by the rules.”

Natasha doesn’t keep on clientele that have flat-out broken her rules: i.e., no serious or permanent harming of the sex workers. She always has some who are questionable, though, who ride that line. And those are the ones willing to pay. Bucky considers it, he does. He doesn’t like the pain. He sure as fuck doesn’t like the look the johns get when they see the scars, the interest. And he goes into every damn one of these jobs, when he has to take them, knowing that it could be another one where he slips into an episode and then fuck only knows what will happen.

He’s spent the last week being warm and well-fed and if he can't have that again, he wants something close. He ignores his niggling suspicion that the company was part of what made it so nice. “It’s cold out there, Natasha. I’m recovering from fucking pneumonia and my arm aches like it’s being torn off again in this weather. Short-term discomfort, long-term benefit. Help me out here.”

She doesn’t look sold, but she says, “I’ll see what I can find.”

*


Bucky knows Natasha’s not going to be able to hook him up that night, a couple of hours isn’t enough for what she does. Instead he goes back around to his normal haunts looking for a few bigger jobs, but mostly anything that comes his way. He’s just finished with a quick suck, which is even less fun with questionably functional lungs, as it turns out, when he sees Steve stroll up.

Bucky’s in the area, but he’s not on the same street where Steve picked him up the other night. He blinks. “Either you’ve picked up trolling, or you’re searching the streets for me.”

Steve stops short. “Is one of those less creepy?”

Bucky will give him that. “Something I can help you with?”

He thinks he should have made it suggestive a moment after he asks it. It’s too late to rewind and redo. Steve runs a hand through his hair. “Um, maybe? I was just...well, I was wondering if maybe you’d come to my place for breakfast. Tomorrow morning. I got cream for the coffee, and I make a mean pancake from Bisquick.”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Is this some kind of feed-the-poor-whore thing?”

Steve frowns. “Okay, um. I don’t like that word, first of all. And secondly, no, I’m asking you on a date, but I’m a poor student and breakfast is cheap. Geez. If you don’t wanna do it, just say no.”

Bucky runs that over in his head. “You’re...you’re asking me on a date.”

Steve fidgets for a second then plants himself and stares at Bucky defiantly. “Yes.”

Bucky’s said, “You are so weird,” before he thought it.

Steve says, “So, no,” and starts to turn, but Bucky reaches out and catches his arm. Bucky shakes his head. “No, no. I mean, uh, yes. Yeah, I’d like to have breakfast with you. But I really actually do take my coffee black.”

Steve grins, unrestrained and--fuck, fuck Bucky’s life--gorgeous. “I guess I can overlook a personality flaw here and there.”

*


James actually shows the next morning, a little after seven. Steve feels bad for being surprised, but, well, he’s surprised. “Hey!”

James chuckles, like he knows what Steve is thinking, and steps inside the apartment. He’s shivering and kind of wet, which is weird, since it didn’t rain the night before. Steve’s brain catches up after a second, realizing it did freeze. He swallows his automatic response to the knowledge that the other man probably spent the night in one of the empty buildings around the area--offering him the chance to crash there--and instead says, “Wanna let your jacket dry over the furnace? I can loan you a hoodie.”

James hesitates for a second, but then says, “Yeah, that’s--thanks, that’s great.”

Steve holds out his hand for the jacket, and when James hands it over, he goes and drapes it over the furnace. He grabs a hoodie from his top drawer and tosses it to James, who catches it. Steve asks, “Coffee and pancakes?”

“Sounds awesome,” James confirms.

Steve pours them each a cup and leaves the pot on the table. He takes the cream from the refrigerator and sets it out, just in case. The Bisquick is mixed, so all he has to do is put it on the griddle. While he’s cooking, he says, “Real maple syrup is kind of out of my price range, but my friend’s wife got me hooked on strawberry jam on pancakes, and then bought me some stuff that probably costs at least half as much as my tuition, so that’s on offer, if you’re game. And I have butter.”

“What would you say if I asked for both,” James challenges, the corner of his mouth curled into a flirtatious smirk.

“That you were a man after my own heart. The stuff’s in the fridge, if you don’t mind grabbing it.”

While James is doing that, Steve plates three pancakes for each of them and pulls a couple of forks out of a drawer. He puts them both on the table. “There’s way more mix if three’s an appetizer for you like it is for me.”

James laughs a little, and his eyes are brighter than Steve remembers, warmer. They both dig in, and James says, “I don’t remember Bisquick being this good.”

Steve grins. “I put a little bit of Dole pineapple juice in, and use brown sugar instead of white.”

“Pineapple juice?”

Steve shrugs. “I used to help out at this soup kitchen and one time they got this huge donation of pineapple juice. There’s only so much of it you can drink straight, so they musta tried putting it in everything.” He laughs. “Some things were better than others.”

“I bet,” James says. “So you were always a little do-gooder?”

Steve hesitates, but then decides showing some skin is only fair, given what he’s seen of James. “I was pretty sick as a kid, in the hospital on-and-off. It was just me and my mom, and she’d always lose her job while she was looking after me, so, uh, we spent time now and then between homes. Soup kitchens kept me fed and it got to the point where it was somewhere to go after school so mom wouldn’t have to worry about me, and the people who were regulars or actual staff were willing to look after me for free. After I’d finish up my homework I liked to help out, since it was better than sitting around doing nothing.”

James takes the last bite off his plate and says, “In that case, more, chef.”

“Magic word,” Steve insists.

James, the little shit, bats his eyelashes and says, “Sweetheart?”

Steve laughs. “Watch it. I’m not above burning these and making you eat them.”

*


Without knowing how, Bucky ends up agreeing to come to breakfast again the next morning. He’s freezing: by the time he finished up the corner jobs, all the best hidey-holes were taken, so he’d curled up in an alley and slept fitfully, awakening to the sense of his ears burning through their numbness. Steve, just like the morning before, acts as though it is nothing. This time, the hoodie’s been sitting near the furnace, so it almost hurts getting in, it’s so warm.

Steve’s made biscuits this time with the Bisquick. He’s put cheddar and a hint of something spicy in them, and there are apple slices to go with it. The coffee is just whatever brand was cheapest at the bodega, Bucky knows, but it’s hot and strong. Steve tells stories about people who come into the hardware store asking for the weirdest crap.

“I mean, I try and get where they’re coming from, really, but snorkeling gear? What was the chain of logic that had them stepping into a store with a hammer in its logo?”

Bucky grins. “There was this one time, I came up to this guy in his car, right? And I was gonna ask if he wanted company, or whatever, and he said, ‘I’m perfectly happy being Catholic, so take your Mormon-boy schtick somewhere else. All I need is directions.’”

He realizes a second after he’s said it that he’s not really up on the etiquette of talking about your job sleeping with other people on a date, but Steve’s doubled over. “Are you--I mean, you weren’t wearing a short-sleeved white button up and a tie, by any chance?”

“It was so hot that night, I don’t even remember if I was wearing a shirt." That’s a lie, Bucky always wears a shirt. Some of the johns might get off on his amputation, but to him it’s still raw, still a sign of how imbalanced he is, inside and out.

Steve says, “People. Wow.”

Then he suckers Bucky into a game of pinochle, which he’s never played. He’s a quick study.

*


“Look,” Steve says, as he’s locking up behind them. “I’m not super-practiced at the whole dating thing, so you have to tell me if it’s creepy if I ask when I can see you again.”

James shrugs. “I saw a lot of dark back porches and making out in high school, but then I went into the service, so it was mostly just finding people at bars while on leave. And, uh, I’m kind of missing about a two year chunk of my life that the doctors thought would come back, but it hasn’t yet, so if I learned anything then, it’s lost.”

James holds his gaze, but Steve can practically feel how much he wants to look away. Steve says, “I lost most of my unit.”

“Steve--”

Steve shakes his head. “It was a green-on-blue. A guy I’d, well.” His smile hurts, but he can’t allow anything else, not when he’s got to get to school, go in for a shift. “I took some pretty bad shrapnel to my left side, but one of my friends, he was standing closer when it detonated and his--his body shielded mine from the worst of it.”

He swallows, breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth. “Sam tried to hug me from behind once, and I almost broke his arm." Another breath. "I hope you get your memories back for your own sake. But it doesn’t change the fact that I still want to know when I can see you again.”

James blinks. “You know you’ve told me about being homeless as a kid and serious adult trauma and I haven’t told you a damn thing except what I gave up in my sleep?”

It’s Steve’s turn to shrug. “Guess it only seems fair to me. I listened in while you were sleeping, which wasn’t really my right.”

The shift in James’s expression is subtle, but it definitely slides into disbelief. “Nobody can do what’s right all the time. You know that, yeah?”

Steve does know. He’s been hungry and desperate and he has been to war. Still, “We can all try.”

James rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling as he does it. “What time do you get off work tomorrow?”

“I just have class tomorrow. I get back here around three.”

“You’re into art, right?”

Steve can feel his cheeks heat slightly. “I haven’t talked your ear off about it yet?”

“I think it’s cool,” James tells him. “It’s not the Met or anything, but the Newark Museum’s free, and it has some pretty good stuff. Wanna meet on the steps at three?”

“I love the Newark.” Sometimes, Steve goes just to clear his head. It doesn’t have the Met’s collections, but it’s got underrated gems and it’s quieter. “Tomorrow afternoon.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a moment, but Steve’s not sure it’s inviting a kiss, and James doesn’t move in, so the moment passes. Steve still feels downright giddy on his trip into the city.

*


Natasha comes through with a guy named Pierce. He’s distinguished looking, a man who can and probably does get laid for free. What he probably doesn’t get for free is someone who puts up with his love of—harsh—face slapping and his gigantic humiliation kink. Bucky’s super relieved when he’s able to use the shower afterward, because he’s not sure he could meet Steve without scrubbing down to a completely new layer of skin. The water turns cold because he's not paying attention, and he loses time, coming to on the floor of the shower. All in all, it's not one of his better jobs.

He takes a little bit of the money and hits up the Goodwill for a decent sweater, because it’s too damn cold out for just his t-shirt and jacket. He changes into his other, clean, pair of jeans, and the sweater. He goes to the coffee shop to check in with Natasha and let her know the client’s all right.

She says, “Can you take him again tonight? He liked you.”

His face is puffy and sore, and the incident in the shower really shouldn't be ignored, but whatever. Another night of pay like last and he probably can find a place, buy a coat, and maybe even treat Steve to dinner. He labels himself an idiot for having that last one on the list, but it’s there and it’s not going anywhere. “Yeah. I’m your boy.”

Natasha still doesn’t look thrilled by the whole thing, but Natasha’s neutral expression is mildly terrifying, so Bucky doesn’t read too much into it. He grabs a nap at the closest library and makes it to the museum with time to spare. Steve, unsurprisingly, is exceedingly punctual.

Bucky asks, “How was class?”

“Long,” Steve says with a grin. “I had something I was looking forward to this afternoon.”

“Wow,” Bucky says, and Steve laughs.

They spend an hour looking at old photographs of the city, trying to see the current structure in the black-and-white lines. A woman whose hair reminds him of the soldier he lost in captivity walks past them and he finds himself focusing a little too hard on one of the pictures, trying to see his city in it, to ground himself. He thinks Steve notices, because he says, "Oh, hey, that church is still around," and stands still until Bucky breathes easily again.

The last hour they traipse through an exhibit on art from 16th-century China, because Steve likes pulling in different influences and Bucky’s up for anything.

Outside the museum, it’s cold and Steve’s nose pinkens at the tip. Bucky wants to kiss it. Steve says, “So, um. When can I see you again?”

Bucky leans in and presses his lips to Steve, sharing the warmth of their breath for the space of a second. “Dinner tomorrow night? On me?”

And oh yeah, Bucky is definitely a complete idiot, but he falls just a little bit in love when Steve doesn’t ask, “Are you sure?” doesn’t act like Bucky can’t hold his own, or like the way Bucky earns the money makes it no good. Instead he says, “You pick the place.”

*


Bucky might be a little reckless and more numb to consequences than he maybe should be, but he’s not stupid, and he’s definitely not unobservant. He knows something has changed the minute he meets Pierce in the room again, he just can’t put his finger on what it is.

Things start the same. The slaps hurt more, his face still tender from the night before, and fuck this guy’s thing for doggy-style, which is painful on the right arm and can’t help but make Bucky dwell on the loss of the left. He has to concentrate not to slip into an episode--the arm itself is enough some days, the exact events blunted by trauma-hazed memories, but Bucky can remember the agony just fine, the way they’d told him they were doing him a favor, saving his life--and it’s while he’s focusing on keeping himself in the present that he feels the prick of a needle in his ass.

Bucky hasn’t kept up his training, but there’s more than enough muscle memory that he can take this guy down simply flipping himself over and twisting his legs. Pierce does go down for a moment, toppling off the bed, but it’s then that Bucky realizes what he’s missed: there’s another guy in the room. He’d probably been hiding in the bathroom.

Whatever was in the needle is starting to catch up to Bucky, making everything a little cottony, a little slow, and he’s not the fighter he was with two arms. The other guy, who looks like some kind of merc in an eighties action flick, has him up against the wall in quick order, his arm twisted behind him far enough to hurt like hell.

Bucky goes limp. He might be fucked up on drugs and in an out-of-control situation, but he knows enough to play along. He can’t have his arm broken, he just can’t.

When he stops resisting, the new guy shifts both their positions and dislocates the shoulder instead. Bucky screams, bile rising up. Vaguely he hears Pierce say, “That’s enough Rumlow. I promised the lady nothing too extreme.”

Rumlow laughs a little. “Sure.”

He yanks Bucky to the bed by the arm and between the pain and the drugs, Bucky starts to wheel away from reality. The carpet underneath his feet becomes dirt floors, littered with sharp stones and the occasional glass or sharp-edged aluminum which would cut into his feet.

He fights. He knows he shouldn’t. His commanding officer would lecture him on patience, on planning, but his CO is dead. They left the body with Bucky for two days after he bled out.

There’s a hand on his mouth. He bites and there’s a soaked towel, no, no--

He snaps back to the present, where Rumlow is forcing his jaw open, Pierce shoving cloth in, but it’s not wet, it’s not wet, it’s not. He’s fine, he just has to stay calm.

He tries to relax, forces himself to slow his breathing, but Rumlow’s cock, even well-lubed, hurts. It’s nothing compared to his shoulder, especially the way Rumlow’s pulling it back, but it’s painful enough.

Then Pierce goes to join Rumlow. Bucky screams behind the makeshift gag, tries to kick but Peirce grabs his ankle, gripping ever more tightly, until bruising is a foregone conclusion. At the same time, Rumlow grabs hold of Bucky’s balls, squeezes, yanks and twists in one motion, while murmuring, “Try it again and I’ll break your fucking hip.”

Breathe, he thinks, swallowing bile desperately. It’s a familiar thought, too familiar, reminiscent of loss and terror and it only makes things worse.

It’s as if someone is burning him from the inside out, tearing him apart and taking out everything with a fire meant to scorch him away, leave only the agony of it. He bites his lip against pleas. He’d begged before and it had only spurred his tormentors on.

You’ve had worse, is what he comes up with, and it’s not helpful, but it reminds him he can survive.

He does.

*


Rumlow chokes him out as they’re slipping from his body--as painful for him as it was going in, maybe more, since the drug is starting to wear off--and Bucky wakens with a bruised larynx, a dislocated shoulder, and a panic attack. He’s huddled on the floor, naked and shuddering and not one-hundred percent aware, but surfacing, when a young woman in a maid’s uniform steps in the room.

He tries to say, “Sorry, I--”

“You--you okay, sir?” Her English is hesitant and accented, but her concern is real and Bucky has to bite his lip not to cry. It’s stupid, he knows human kindness shouldn’t be the thing he’s worst at handling, but evidently his brain can’t process that.

He makes himself nod. “Yeah. I. Um.”

Cautiously, she approaches him, handing him the bundle of his clothing. He takes it from her with a quiet, “Gracias?”

Her smile is the kind that takes over her whole face, almost makes it hard not to smile back. “De nada.”

Bucky lived in several areas throughout his childhood, but he spent a good few years in a neighborhood with a mix of old Italian-descent families, and a huge influx of Brazilian immigrants, so he’s more familiar with Portuguese than Spanish, but he’s glad to have guessed right in this instance. He knows enough to be polite. It seems only fair. She’s handled running into a beaten and naked white guy pretty calmly.

He dresses quickly as she politely goes to clean the bathroom. It’s fucking agony getting his arm in his shirt and he’s dizzy as all get out between the last of the drugs and having been asphyxiated, but he really has had worse. He checks his backpack and, on the upside, they didn’t steal his money. Of course, he wasn’t paid for two people, let alone for the extent of the physical harm he took.

When he can get back to the cafe, he’s siccing Natasha on them. He can’t say for sure, but his gut feeling is that nobody fucks with Natasha twice because she’s too creative in her revenge for them to even consider it.

He keeps everything in his mind in terms of what he was paid for, not in terms of what he agreed to, because he has to hold it together, and he’s not sure he can if he goes down that path.

It’s frigid outside, even in the sweater and his jacket. It takes everything he has to stay in the present, and he slips at one point, huddles behind a building as people in their coats go by, instead seeing the covered faces of his tormentors. He doesn’t remember walking to Steve’s place, which isn’t even terribly close, but he must, because he finds himself outside of it. It’s mid-morning, Steve’s not going to be home, and Bucky thinks he should force himself to go to the Y, or rent a motel room, now that he has the cash. Should go somewhere and shower, clean his clothes, take care of himself.

His whole body aches, new injuries and the old ones acting up too, he wants to vomit, and he can’t make himself leave. He curls up in the alley beside the building, next to the dumpsters, tucking in on himself as best he can, and waits.

*


Steve’s running late for his date. There was a customer from hell that he could not get out of the damn store, and the trains were all running slowly, and basically, everything that could keep him from getting to the restaurant on time has happened. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t matter, because James isn’t there.

Steve sits in the front and sketches, pretending he hasn’t been stood up for nearly an hour. Forty-five minutes after the wait staff has started offering him pity-drinks, he gives up and goes home. There’s a sense of wrongness in his gut and he calls Sam on the way. Sam’s already up to date, so all he has to fill him in on is this latest mishap and Sam says, “Maybe check his usual spots on your way back?”

Steve does, but James is nowhere to be found, and Steve’s chest is starting to hurt a little, almost like when he was a kid and it never worked right. He makes himself go home because, as Sam points out, there’s nothing else he can do for the moment, short of calling hospitals or police stations.

He almost misses the shivering bundle of human in his alley as he’s crossing to the door. Almost.

He backtracks and crouches down in front of James, whose teeth are clattering and whose neck is one large, dark bruise. He says, “Hey. Hey there.”

James blinks a few times, then focuses. “Didn’ know where else to go. Sorry.”

Steve feels like bawling. Instead he says, “Nah, it’s funny, I was looking for you anyway. Wanna come inside?”

Another blink. Then another. “I missed our date.”

Steve forces a smile. “Nope, you’re just a little late. C’mon.”

“I was gonna treat.”

Steve isn’t one hundred percent certain James is tracking all that well. “I’ll cash in a rain check. For two dinners. How does that sound?”

James looks down at his knees. For a moment, Steve thinks he’s just going to have to pick the other man up and carry him. Then he brings his gaze back up. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you call me Bucky?”

Steve’s gently thrown by the change in topics, but he rolls with it. “Sure, I can do that. Will you come up to my place with me, Bucky? It’s cold out here. I wanna go someplace warm.”

Slowly James--Bucky--Bucky nods. “I like your place.”

“Okay,” Steve says quietly, standing. It’s a process getting Bucky to his feet, and he’s probably putting more weight on Steve than on his own legs. He’s got a limp that makes finding a rhythm hard. Steve just holds on, relieved at the weight against him—which would usually cause at least a moment of panic, of flashback—pressing into his side, alive and present and momentarily safe.

*


Steve settles Bucky on the edge of his tub as gently as he can. The tub/shower combo was a big selling point for this particular studio, but he’s never been quite so glad to have that amenity as he is at the moment. Bucky winces as he settles and moves himself back further onto his thighs.

Doing a once-over, Steve’s pretty sure he should be taking Bucky to the hospital for the second time in about as many weeks, and just as sure that’s not going to be happening. First thing’s first: “We’ve got to take care of that shoulder.”

Bucky nods. “Yeah. Can you--”

“Yes,” Steve says. On the list of things he definitely hoped he’d never have to do outside of combat missions, that one ranks pretty high, but he can do it. “Why don’t we get some ibuprofen in you so it’ll kick in a little sooner afterward?”

Steve doesn’t wait for an answer, just goes and gets the bottle, as well as an ice pack and an Ace bandage to wrap it around the shoulder. He puts the frozen tube of OJ he recently picked up in the sink so that he’ll have something to get Bucky’s blood sugar back up. He fills a glass with water and takes everything back to the bathroom, where Bucky is still sitting, staring at his knees.

He looks up at Steve. “Why are you doing this?”

Steve doesn’t answer for a long moment, because he’s not entirely sure what he’s being asked. “Why am I helping?”

Bucky makes a sound. “Jesus, Steve. You know I’m the damn corner hooker. I probably begged for this.”

Steve frowns. He doesn’t think that’s the case, but even if it is, “Maybe, but you’re not enjoying it now.”

Bucky looks at him incredulously, “Steve--”

“No,” Steve says. “Whatever you’re about to say, just. No. I like you, obviously I do. You’re gorgeous, and when I can get you to laugh you do it with your whole body. You know what it means to have nightmares and you don’t let yourself drown in that. You went to an art museum because you knew I’d enjoy it, even though I don’t think it’s your thing. And when we left, you gave a fiver to the busker outside because she looked cold, despite the fact that you’ve got nothing. And even if all that weren’t true, even if I thought you were kind of a jerk, you’d still be a human being, and hurt and here, needing help. So whatever in all that works for you, that’s why.”

The frown doesn’t go away, but Bucky reaches up and takes the pills Steve is offering, then the glass, swallowing them down. He pushes himself up and says, “Okay. Um.”

Steve positions himself to reset the shoulder and says, “On three, okay?”

Bucky nods, and Steve feels the heaviness, the reluctance in the gesture. Steve counts, “one,” then, “two,” setting it before he’s finished the second number. Bucky shouts, cut off and too-controlled, followed by a quieter sob. Steve murmurs apologies while wrapping the ice pack against the shoulder, sitting him back down so that he can start to really look at the rest of the damage.

He says, “I’m gonna run a warm bath, okay?”

“Prolly supposed to just ice,” Bucky says, the words slurring.

“You’ve been in nearly freezing weather all day, I think we can break some of the rules. What do you say?”

“Hate the cold,” Bucky says. “It was so cold at night, so--they took our clothes. And--and then they figured out I didn’t like it. The cold.”

He shivers, whimpering at the motion. Steve kisses the crown of his head. “Gonna warm you right up, Buck. Just hold on a few seconds longer.”

*


Bucky dreams in Russian, wakes thinking in it, which doesn’t happen all that often anymore. Social Services took him away from his grandfather--largely for being a neglectful asswipe of a guardian--at seven on the specific complaint that he hadn’t enrolled Bucky in school. Which landed the state with a seven year old boy raised by a non-English speaking grandfather who hadn’t noticed him much other than to throw bottles in lieu of asking for a refill. Bucky hadn’t been terribly verbal, but when he’d bothered, he'd only known Russian.

The warmth of his surroundings and the heaviness of the blanket, its worn cotton covering, snaps him back into English, at least. It doesn’t immediately help him to remember where he is. Then he opens his eyes and peers over the side of the bed to find Steve Fucking Rogers sleeping on his own damn floor.

After he’d seen to what he could of Bucky’s injuries, Steve had left him alone to bathe, and when Bucky had emerged, a glass of orange juice and a grilled cheese sandwich was waiting for him, cut up the way one of the few foster moms who’d actually given a crap about the kids she took care of used to do for him. Hot cocoa had followed, and then Steve had literally tucked Bucky in bed and talked to him about nothing until Bucky’d fallen asleep to the cadence of Steve’s monologue.

If he weren’t in so much pain, Bucky would be considering the probability that he has finally one-hundred percent lost it, and this, all of this, the last few weeks, have been an elaborate psychotic break. As it is, all he can think about is where the ibuprofen might be, and if Steve has left it open, or if Bucky’s going to have to deal with the fucking child-proofing with one arm missing and another strapped to his chest.

There’s nothing for it but to get up and see. He goes to the edge of the bed where he will not have to step over Steve, since he doesn’t trust himself to be either graceful or light on his feet. His efforts are for naught, since the futon creaks when he moves and Steve snaps awake. Bucky sees the second of disorientation, where the hard ground takes Steve somewhere else.

“Hey, Steve. Hey. I--”

Steve blinks, swallows, and then, after a split-second, smiles. “Ja--Bucky. Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Bucky tells him truthfully.

“Breakfast and pain pills?” Steve asks.

“I was just gonna--”

Steve’s already on his feet, though, getting out bowls. “Just cereal, but I’ve got milk, so that’s something, yeah?”

“Yeah, no, the food is fine, but the service here is terrible,” Bucky tells him, rolling his eyes.

Steve laughs. “More OJ? I’ll get the coffee going in a second.”

“I can help,” Bucky says. “I have to take my arm out to eat anyway, you realize?”

“Pouring cereal is a grueling process. So glad I have you here to help me through it.”

Bucky shakes his head. “Punk.”

When they’re settled at the table with their bowls of cereal and cups of coffee, Steve seems a little fidgety. Bucky asks, “Everything okay?”

Steve makes a face. “I kind of have a favor to ask?”

“Okay, well, I crashed your place looking like I’d been on the losing end of the world’s biggest bar fight, so I think at least asking is probably more than okay.”

Steve’s smile is not entirely at ease, all the same. “You probably don’t remember Tony being around, because you were pretty out of it when he came over, but I know this guy, Tony. And, um, he...owns Stark Industries.”

Bucky nearly chokes to death on an off-brand Cheerio. “You’re friends with Tony Stark?”

Steve sighs. “Trust me when I tell you it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.”

“That’s a lot of trust.”

Steve smacks his hand into his face. From behind it he says, “The point is, Tony’s been bugging me to talk to you about the program he’s got two of his science crushes running. And the docs aren’t half as bad as Tony. Bruce is downright mellow, and Jane gets excited and talks about things nobody understands way too fast, but she’s about the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.”

Bucky frowns. “I started school two and a half years late and aged out of the system my sophomore year. Shit, I falsified my papers to get the Army to take me. What the hell could Stark or anybody who knows him want with me?”

Steve, to his credit, looks him straight in the eye when he says, “Your knowledge of adult trauma-related amputation. They want you to help them test out cybertronic limb models.”

“That’s your big favor?” Bucky asks.

“If you want to say no, say no. I’ll deal with Tony. But he wanted me to ask, and it wasn’t really fair of me to say no for you, also, believe me, you have no idea what Tony’s like once he’s had an Idea, capital I, and--”

“Steve.”

Steve bites down on his spoon, looking sheepish. Bucky laughs, “Tell your friend he’s got his guinea pig.”

*


Steve realizes it’s condescending and possessive in a way he has no right to be, but he says, “Um. Can you stay here today? So I know you’re all right? Or, alternatively, come into the city with me, and we can go over to the labs when I get out of class? I’ve got three hours between class and my shift, I was just gonna sit in the library and do homework.”

Bucky looks like he’s trying to figure out a puzzle. His hand is clenching at his fork repetitively, rhythmically. “I have some stuff I have to do." His knee is bouncing too, despite the fact that it's clearly hurting him. "How about I meet you after class. Your scientist people at the Tower?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He hesitates. “Okay, yeah, noon, right?”

Bucky leans over the table, stabilizing himself with one hip digging into the edge. Everything about him is just a touch off, just a little…frenetic. “Noon. Promise what I’m doing isn’t anything dangerous, dad.”

Steve smiles ruefully. “Sorry, just--”

“I’m giving you a pass, seeing as you’ve earned it,” Bucky tells him. Steve wishes Bucky didn’t feel like “earning” had anything to do with this, but he’s going to take the reprieve.

*


Bucky hasn’t even gotten himself a coffee when Natasha sidles up to him in line and tells him, in a too-calm, too-friendly tone, “Nice to see you, Barnes.”

He's glad he's got his arm tucked in the sling. As it is, he only barely manages not to sucker punch her, feeling startled despite knowing she was approaching.

“I wasn’t avoiding you.” He motions with his head at the arm that’s strapped to his chest. He can pull it from the sling when he needs to, but he’s trying to limit the need. “Just...find a table. Please?”

He splurges on an Americano because, seriously, fuck it, and goes to sit with Natasha. He moves the chair to where there's nobody behind him and he has a clear view of the exit, even if she is between him and the door. He breathes and reminds himself she's not his enemy. She catalogues his appearance before saying, “Nobody has seen you since two nights ago.”

“Pierce decided to invite a friend,” Bucky tells her, hating the way his voice wavers as he says it. He's fine. He's clean and healing and everything is fine. “And unless he mentioned it to you and you forgot to say something, he decided there was a buy-one-get-one-free discount running.”

Her eyes darken. “Evidently they decided certain services didn’t need to be discussed, either.”

Bucky breathes in through his nose, taking in the scent of coffee. He clutches the porcelain of the cup and focuses on the texture of the surface, its heat. When he’s positive he’s warded off a panic attack, he nods sharply. He manages the words, “You weren’t the only one they didn’t ask," but just barely.

Natasha whispers a stream of Russian swear words. Bucky concentrates on the feel of the soft, worn hoodie he’s borrowing from Steve, the calming blue of the shop’s walls. He asks, “Can you maybe stick to English?”

She blinks, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she says, “He’s blacklisted. And I’m sorry, but for now, I’m not looking into the high risk community for you. I can see if--”

Bucky shakes his head. She’s tried getting other types of high-paying jobs for him before, but nobody who’s looking to spend a lot of cash for a night of vanilla is interested in an amputee. He has enough issues with the loss without feeling like it makes him worth less as a street hooker. Also, he doesn't trust himself not to hurt himself, or someone else, or both, right now. “Nah. I’ll just get the rest the old-fashioned way. Thanks for--I mean, it’s a good start, what I got.”

She tilts her head. “None of this explains where you’ve been.”

“I couldn’t come here. Too big a mess. What does it matter?”

“You didn’t go to the hospital or urgent care, either. I have people at both. And at the nearest free clinic.”

It's strangely warming, that she looked for him. “This isn’t any of your business.”

“I thought you were dead,” she says, absolutely no tone. She swallows. “I thought I’d given you to someone who had killed you.”

One look in her eyes tells him he wouldn’t be the first. Bucky’s memories of his early combat are much clearer than those of captivity, of directly afterward. He knows what it is to kill. He knows that even in a sanctioned environment, it is no easy thing. The only kindness he has to give her is, “I asked, Natasha.”

She stares at the table. Quietly, she admits, “I’m not sure it matters. Not to me.”

He knows there’s no good response to that, knows that in the end everything is about personal perspective. He drinks his coffee slowly, staying with her, and when he has to go, she looks up long enough to smile just a little, to say, “Yeah, see you around.”

*


Steve’s more relieved than he wants to admit when Bucky shows at the Tower, even if he looks whiter than a blank piece of paper and is all-but bouncing on his toes. Steve’s already called the lab, and Jane said she’d send someone up so they wouldn’t have to deal with all the visitor red tape. Bucky’s barely walked in the door when Steve notices Rhodey making his way toward them. Steve grins and holds out a hand, “Rhodey. I didn’t know you were back.”

Rhodey smiles in return. “Tony’s been threatening to get me posted here if I didn’t at least take an assignment stateside. I didn’t trust him not to.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He turns to Bucky. “This is--”

But Bucky is blinking and asking, “Colonel Rhodes?”

“Sergeant Barnes,” Rhodey says softly, shaking Bucky’s hand with both of his.

Steve’s confused. “I thought you were Air Force, and he was--”

“Army, yeah,” Bucky says. He's looking at the hand encapsulated in Rhodeys' as though he's not sure where it came from. He pulls it back and runs it shakily through his hair. “You’re right. One of the Colonel’s strike forces stumbled over where I was being held with the three other guys in my unit who were still alive.”

“Barnes here is the only reason those men and mine made it out,” Rhodey tells Steve. Rhodey is not someone with a bent toward the dramatic. If anything, he drains drama from the atmosphere, which is one of the reasons he works so well with Tony.

Steve isn’t surprised to find out Bucky’s even more of a hero than surviving a POW experience makes a guy, but still, he takes a moment to digest the new information. He rubs a hand over his face.

Rhodey’s asking, “You’re the guy our very own Captain Rogers brought in to help with the prosthetics testing?”

And fuck, Steve hasn’t mentioned his rank for a reason. He has about four seconds to hope that maybe Bucky hasn’t read a newspaper or the internet or watched a television or been in contact with any aspect of the outside world for at least three years. Then Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Captain Rogers, huh? Of the Green Berets, by any chance?”

Steve wishes there was a convenient wall to bash his head against. “It was--right time, right place. I wasn’t any braver or better than any of the guys I served with.”

Bucky smirks, and if it's not quite on a level with the expression Steve has gotten to know, it at least seems genuine. “Okay there, Captain America.”

Steve glares at Rhodey. “That was on purpose. I hate you. I’m glad you’ve been relegated to errand boy for the docs.”

Rhodey just laughs. “More like intervention in instances of PTSD. Nobody wants Bruce triggered." Steve watches as Bucky blinks at that. "But since you’re here, you’re more than welcome to go up on your own.”

“Oh no, no, I wouldn’t dream of relieving you of such important and exciting responsibilities.”

Bucky snorts, hugs himself with his arm, and repeats. “Captain Fucking America.”

Steve hates his life.

*


Bucky, as it turns out, gets excited by science and gadgets, so much so that the worst of his nervous energy starts to bleed into actual energy. It takes five seconds for Jane to have him wrapped around her little finger without even trying. Bruce hangs back and lets her do most of the talking. Steve watches the careful movements he makes when approaching Bucky, checking at the place where skin has scabbed and scarred.

Rhodey asks, “How do you know Barnes?”

Steve’s more than a little surprised Tony hasn’t created a four act play about Captain America and His Sickly Streetwalker. Grateful, but it takes him a second, because he kind of expected Rhodey to already know. “We met recently. He lives in my area.” Steve shrugs. “Started talking one day; I bought him breakfast.”

Rhodey’s silence tells Steve clearly that he’s calling Steve on his bullshit. He doesn’t pursue it though, instead saying: “I checked up on him while he was at Walter Reed. They held him for as long as they could. He kinda fell off the map after he was discharged.”

Steve looks over at where Bucky is sitting on the edge of one of the lab tables, the fingers of his hand tapping anxiously over the surface, his legs swinging back and forth. “Where are the other three guys? The ones he got out?”

“Tinlan’s in Minnesota with a wife and two kids. I know they’ve been doing family counseling to handle the PTSD bouts, but otherwise he’s doing pretty well, all things being equal. Ku’s still in the service, teaching at the academy. Vincent went back and lived with his parents for a while, and attended a local tech college. Last I checked he was moving in with his girlfriend and had a job offer.”

Steve glances over at where Bruce has gotten Bucky to smile at something he’s saying, his hand gestures somehow broad and calming at once. “I don’t think he’s got anyone. He said something about aging out of the system.”

“Yeah, well. I think he also got it worse than the others. From what they all said in their reports, their captors killed their CO pretty early into things and left the body with Barnes. He evidently took it upon himself to get in their faces, try and distract them from the others. He managed it, too, with everyone except Donnelly, who was female.”

Rhodey’s jaw muscle tightens. “Vincent, he talked about some of the stuff Barnes did to try and keep them focused on him, but misogyny trumped whatever he could throw their way. Also, according to Barnes and Tinlan, she killed one with her hands while they were busy raping her and after that, even if they hadn’t been planning on her death, they were then.”

Steve swallows. “Shit.”

“Brilliantly understated as always,” Rhodey says, amusement lacing his tone. “He, uh. He doesn’t look like he’s eating much.”

Since Bucky’s story is definitely not Steve’s to tell, he just nods. “Think he’s having a rough time of it.”

Rhodey might not be Tony, but he’s a genius-level engineer, pilot, and officer in his own right. “Guy’s a decorated war vet. Let’s see if there isn’t something we can do to help him out.”

Steve smiles. “I’m in.”

*


Bucky’s willing to admit that when he left New Jersey this morning, he didn’t expect to make two new friends, see one of his personal heroes again, learn the guy he was kind-of-sort-of dating was a damn media icon for bravery and fortitude, and acquire the plans for the bare “bones” of a cybertronic limb. It’s been a busy few hours, and despite being good, also kind of overwhelming. He feels torn between wanting to run a marathon just to shake off the feeling of needing to go, get away, and wanting to sleep for a week or so.

Steve says, “So, um. Wanna hang around the city a bit?”

Bucky’s not going to be working tonight, that’s a certainty, so he’s hardly on a schedule. He's not sure how he feels about being out and around people, but Steve looks so damn hopeful he can't help but play along. “Little cold for Central Park.”

“Yeah, I hate the cold, too,” Steve agrees. “So, no High Line, either. And we’ve already done one art museum.”

Bucky’d offer to do another--he likes the way Steve gets excited over the details--but Steve doesn’t sound wistful, he sounds as if he’s formulating a plan. Steve looks away. “There’s this downloadable tour for Grand Central Station I’ve been wanting to check out.”

Bucky’s still more sore than he’s comfortable admitting aloud. “How much walking, do you think?”

“It’s self-guided.” Steve shrugs. “However much we wanna walk.”

They walk to the station, but it's roughly a block away, and doesn’t take long. Steve’s loaded up the app by the time they arrive. The tour is more interesting than Bucky would have credited, packed with history he’s never heard about. They’re hardly ten minutes in when Steve must notice Bucky slowing down, because he smoothly makes his way to a bench, and the two of them settle there for a while, listening to some of the extras offered with the tour. Bucky only catches about a third, his mind racing ahead and away, but what he hears is pretty cool.

In one of the moments when they’re resting and there’s nothing to listen to, Steve says, “Mom and I, we’d camp here when I was younger, when we needed to. Shelters couldn’t always take both of us, and it’s big enough that if we kept moving, we were unlikely to get booted.” He looks at the ground. “She’d make up stories about the gremlins and fairies that only came out at night, and never where the humans could see.”

“You ever draw them?” Bucky has tried imagining this younger Steve, this too-skinny boy with lungs that were unpredictable at best. Steve has told him so many stories of coughs and colds and even meningitis, once, that he knows the kid Sarah Rogers did her best to keep fed and warm was someone different than the vet he’s been hanging out with. But then Steve will talk about gremlins and fairies like maybe he still believes, and Bucky wonders if the two aren’t as far apart as all that.

Steve’s whole body seems to warm with the memories. “Yeah. For mom, you know? She liked that kind of thing.”

He nods, because he’s learned that everyone is supposed to understand this, intrinsically know how a mother loves her son, is proud of the things he can do, can give her. The only people Bucky’s ever made proud were in the Army, and they haven’t got much use for him anymore.

Softly, Steve asks, “Would you maybe stay at my place tonight?”

Bucky tries to trace the non-sequitur, wondering if he’s missed something. He raises an eyebrow. Steve flushes. “Not like that. It’s just...that first night? When you came home with me? I slept.”

Bucky frowns. “What?”

“I don’t, often. Nightmares, normal stuff, but also, I grew up sleeping close to mom. Either for heat when we didn’t have the money for it, or because we only had one bed, or whatever. And in the Army, the beds were very narrow, which helped, the confinement of it. Plus, I wasn’t used to my size yet, most of it just piled on at seventeen, so all that helped. But now…”

Bucky laughs, but not at Steve. “No, just, I grew up in foster homes. I would have given anything for a bed to myself.”

“Oh.” Steve flushes. “Just forget--”

“I wanna go back to your place,” Bucky speaks over whatever out Steve was going to give him.

“You really--”

Bucky's one hundred percent aware that he's being stupid, but Steve's apartment feels safe in a way very few places have since coming back. Steve feels safe. “I’ll make you dinner. You can make breakfast again.”

Steve sits there with his mouth open for a bit. “I don’t really have anything to make dinner with at my place.”

“That’s what corner stores are for, Captain America.”

Steve sighs. “It’s a good thing you’re so cute.”

“Isn’t that something people say about their pets?”

“Hm?” Steve responds, just a tad too innocently.

*


Steve stares down at the dinner he just took his first bite of and says, “I think you may have undersold your culinary capabilities.”

Bucky had insisted on paying for groceries, which had come to a grand total of fourteen dollars and thirty seven cents. Then, in the space of an hour, had whipped up a potato frittata and cucumber salad. And still baking in the oven is some dessert Bucky managed out of one granny smith apple, a thing of store-brand crescent bakes and stuff Steve had around the house, like his half-full pitcher of reconstituted OJ.

Bucky smiles, and there’s something like a blush playing over his cheeks. “Longest place I ever lived was this house with four other fosters and one biological kid. Was there for almost three years. Ms. Darnell had a rule that everyone in the house made dinner once a week, adults included. With that many mouths, most of ‘em belonging to growing kids, the per-serving cost couldn’t be a lot.”

“And you were just naturally talented?”

Bucky nearly coughs on the bite he’s just taken. “I was terrible. But trying got Ms. Darnell to spend time with me, help. And I was still a stupid kid. Thought if I was good enough it’d make a difference, sombody’d still decide I was worth adopting.”

The words come out lightly, as if they mean nothing. They hit Steve like taking a damn bullet. “Mom used to say the world is made up of blind people. Every once in a while a miracle’s visited on one or two of us, and we actually see something.”

Bucky presses his fork into the frittata and tilts his head until he’s got his gaze focused on Steve. “Yeah? You ever had one of those miracles?”

Steve thinks he’s had a few, if he’s honest about it. “Pretty sure I had one about three and a half weeks ago, walking home from the train. I saw this guy standing out in the rain.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Rogers. Don’t think I haven’t caught on to your quickly-thrown-together plan to keep me for my cooking.”

“Well, that and your ass. It’s pretty spectacular.”

The burst of laughter Steve gets from Bucky is all the payoff he needs for taking that chance. Bucky says, in a shocked tone, “Why, Captain America--”

“No, seriously, I don’t even know where they came up with that shit.”

“Just taking a guess here, but I suspect it has something to do with your shoulder measurements being infinity squared, the blond-haired-blue-eyed thing you’ve got going, and the fact that there’re at least three buildings still standing on a US base and a few hundred people alive because of actions you took while bleeding out from taking about half a grenade to your left side.”

Steve sighs. “That’s kind of fucked up, then, since I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time. I was mostly just trying to find the others in my unit and end the threat to us. It was auto-pilot.”

“Wait, are you--are you even serious with this? You’re saying that it somehow makes it less impressive that you were acting on instinct? That literally your first response to being mortally wounded and in an epic shit-ton of pain was to make sure other people would be okay and that doesn’t count because you didn’t sit and think about it?”

Steve pretends to be chewing for longer than he actually is. “Okay. When you put it like that--”

“Like, how it actually was?” Bucky interrupts.

“You’re being kind of a dick,” Steve tells him.

“Yeah, but you like my cooking and my ass, so I’m probably going to get away with it.”

Steve bites the inside of his cheek so he won’t laugh and manages what he feels to be an admirably cool, “Jury’s out. Haven’t had dessert yet.”

*


Bucky’s almost forgotten the buzz of a meal well-executed, of feeding someone and having them appreciate it in a visible way. Even with his arm being sore as hell from all the work, he’s more than a little high off it. He’s definitely going to have to do it more often. It’s hard to be certain what memories he wants to explore and which ones are best left alone. It’s easier around Steve, which is fucking terrifying, truth be told.

He almost leaves. Almost takes the easy way out, and splits while Steve is changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth. He’s curled his damn fingers around the lip of the futon by the time Steve comes out, keeping himself where he is.

Steve glances at where Bucky’s knuckles are no-doubt bleach complexioned. Softly, he says, “Bathroom’s all yours.”

Bucky takes his time once behind the closed door of the bathroom. He brushes his teeth and his hair. He really should cut it, once he builds up some cash. Sure, the johns love it, but it’s a pain in the ass to put back or keep out of his face at all with one hand.

When he comes back out, in his own sweatpants and a t-shirt, Steve is reading in bed. He looks up over the top of the book and offers, “Want something to read?”

Bucky considers the offer, but the thought brings home how exhausted he is. Steve had given him Tylenol to have with dessert, and it’s kicked in, but he’s still sore as all get out, and emotionally worn. He shakes his head. “Nah, I’m just gonna crash.”

Steve marks his place in the book, and settles on his back. Bucky shakes his head. “You can keep reading.”

“Could,” Steve agrees. “Or I could take advantage of having someone to snuggle.”

Bucky’s sure Steve’s the only guy in the world who could say that without blushing and with no hint of smarminess. He climbs onto the futon, and drapes himself over Steve. They fit better than they have any right to. Bucky mutters, “This is good.”

Steve kisses the top of his head. “Thanks for cooking.”

“Mm,” Bucky says. He feels like laughing, but he’s asleep before he can muster up the energy.

*


Steve wakes to his alarm feeling settled, ready to go. That said, he’s not crazy about the idea of moving away from Bucky, still twisted and twined around him. Bucky murmurs, “School, huh?”

Steve says, “You can go back to sleep.”

He slips out of the bed and goes to take a shower and dress. When he emerges from the bathroom, the leftovers of the frittata have been heated, and Bucky’s poured them orange juice. Steve is positive his grin is making him look like an idiot, but he can’t seem to tone it down. “Spoiling me? Wasn’t me making breakfast part of the deal?”

“Just doing my patriotic duty,” Bucky tells him with the most sincere look Steve has ever seen.

Steve rolls his eyes, and digs into breakfast. “Listen, you really can go back to sleep, if you want. I can leave the key with you if you can meet up with me around seven when I get back. Or, if you haven’t got stuff you need to do, you’re welcome to stick around. I can leave you my library card. It’s walking distance.”

“There’s a couple of things,” Bucky says. “But yeah, I could meet you at seven. Here, or you want me to just--”

“Here,” Steve says. “I mean, if--”

“Yeah,” Bucky says with a grin. “Yeah, here’s good.”

*


Bucky does sleep some more, but without the rhythmic calm of Steve's breathing, his heat, the sleep is more fragmented. After he wakes a third time in fifteen minutes, he takes a shower and goes to the library, mostly because it’s warm and has computer access. It’s been a while since he’s job searched. He gave up a few weeks after the first time he lost his housing trying to pay off hospital bills, and hasn’t returned since. It hasn’t seemed worthwhile.

Bucky can see how, in retrospect, maybe he’s been a little depressed. Either that, or suffering the worst case of inertia in history. But Rhodey had given him a card the day before and told him to get in touch if he needed anything.

So he’s considering it. Nothing big. Maybe asking Steve if Bucky can use his address on applications, or asking Rhodey to provide a reference. The thing is, Steve is almost weirdly cool about the fact that Bucky sleeps with people for money, but when it comes right down to it, Bucky’s too old-fashioned to sleep around, no matter the reason, and come back home to someone at the end of the ‘work day.’

Bucky’s the first to admit that what he knows about family is from outsider observation, American media, and, to some extent, his time in the Army. He can’t help it though if a big part of him has always wanted a "real" one: one he came home to and knew meant to stay. Hell, he’d love to say he signed up out of a sense of patriotism, but it had been a fifty-fifty split between a paycheck with three meals a day, and a built in unit of people who were supposed to have his back.

He should probably get in touch with the other survivors, let them know he’s okay. If he’d been doing fine and one of them had just dropped off the map… Yeah, he should check in.

He sets up a Facebook account, and an email account that’s not the one they gave him in the service. Then he spends the forty-five minutes he has left poking around job sites. The problem is he’s not certain where to start. He had a couple of odd jobs while growing up. He’d mown people’s lawns, bagged groceries for a while, even had some babysitting gigs. But after that had been the service and it’s been over a year and a half since he took honorable discharge.

In the end, he prints out some information on how to get his GED and leaves. He walks to the first fast food restaurant he sees and asks for an application. Bucky’s gotten used to the stares, the “covert” glances at his empty sleeve, but he’s forgotten, a little, how it seems to affect everything. He’s given applications at the six or seven places he stops and asks, but he can see in the eyes of the person who takes the application that he’s not going to get an interview.

A man passes too near to him wearing the same cologne Pierce had worn and Bucky has to press his hand into the nearest brick wall and ground himself in the rough feel of it in order not to be under two men, helpless. When he's certain he's in the present, he drops another twelve dollars at a corner market and goes back to Steve’s place. He shouldn’t be spending money the way he is, like he’s never going to have to find a place, like the way things are looking up can keep happening. Bucky’s never gotten anywhere thinking too hard about the future, though, so he spends the cash and makes a ham and pineapple pizza.

Kneading the dough with one hand is annoying as fuck--honestly, everything about cooking is slower and involves more strategy--but also cathartic in the way where Bucky doesn’t have to hold back. Even if it had just plain sucked, though, the effort is totally worth it when Steve bites into the crust and says, “I’m having a religious experience.”

Bucky snorts. “Do I need to let the two of you have a moment?”

“Yes, please,” Steve shoots back and closes his eyes, savoring the bite.

*


Bucky can't sleep that night. The panic from earlier is still riding through him, and he can't even lie still. He apologizes and gets out of bed, goes to sit at Steve's kitchen table. It doesn't help, though, as he knows it will not.

The doctors at Walter Reed called this symptom "hyperarousal," and in its own way, it is worse than the flashbacks. It certainly lasts longer, is equally as disruptive. It doesn't have the dissociative effects, though, and he supposes that is something to be grateful for.

He tries reading, but it's a lost cause. He's about to leave, aware that Steve can't sleep with him moving around, making noise, generally being annoying, when Steve asks, "Wanna go for a run?"

Bucky blinks, looking over at the bed. "It's almost one a.m."

"Yeah," Steve says, sitting up. "Three used to be my preferred moment for the fidgeties, but one's respectable, I say."

"Fidgeties?"

Steve shrugs. "It's what Sam calls the hyperarousal. I like the sound of it better, doesn't sound like I'm taking Viagra for my PTSD."

"I, uh, I haven't run in a awhile. And I'm still kinda…not at my peak physical condition."

"We could walk," Steve offers. "Or whatever. It's just an offer. It helps me."

The thing is, right now, Bucky could be bleeding from his eyes and he'd probably want to run it off. "I just don't wanna slow you down."

Steve smiles. "It's one in the morning. How do you know I'm not the one who's going to have to struggle to keep up?"

Somehow, Bucky suspects, but he lets Steve pull him out of the chair and grab the keys. The night air, when they hit it, is frigid. He takes a breath, and then another. Steve carefully brushes his fingers over Bucky's knuckles. Bucky takes his hand and holds on, the warmth and texture of his hand something to ground him.

When he's good he says, "Fuck, let's get going before both of us lose important parts."

Steve's evidently just been waiting for him to say something.

*


Vincent responds to Bucky's Facebook friend request with a message: "Sarge! We've all been trying to find you. How are things?"

Bucky isn't certain how to approach the question, for all that it's completely mundane. In the end, he sticks with, "Yeah, sorry, things were rough for a while, but they're better, now."

Ku and Tinlan have also accepted by the next time he checks the account, and Vincent has responded, "Yeah, I hear you. The docs say I'm doing well, but I'm still at meetings twice a week, so I dunno, you know?"

Ku says, "I'm getting married in the spring. Where can I send an invite to?" like they're continuing a conversation from yesterday.

Tinlan talks about the terror of being a father to a nine-year-old girl, and asks, "How's state-side treating you?"

Bucky tells him, "Getting back on my feet." He hesitates a long time before saying, "Some days are better than others."

Tinlan writes back, "I can't go to my kids' schools. They've got these sand-colored concrete walls that just set me off. Had two episodes before we figured it out."

Bucky waits a few days, but Steve keeps suggesting he stay the night, so he ends up giving Steve's address to Ku. He'll tell Steve. He doesn't think Steve'll mind getting mail for him, and if he does, well, Bucky doesn't think there's going to be a whole lot more than this one piece.

Steve, when he tells him, says, "Your friend is getting married? That's great, man. Where's he live?"

"Maryland. I told him I didn't think I'd be able to go, but he got insistent, so I just—"

"Why can't you go?" Steve asks.

Bucky glares at him. "Between you and me, I'm a little short on cash, and I haven't exactly been showing up to work recently."

For all of a second, Steve looks like he's thinking of backing off, but Bucky's starting to know better. Steve's a stubborn asshat seventy-five percent of the time if not more. Steve says, "What I'm hearing you say is that you need a job with day hours, and more reliable pay."

Bucky's got his own share of stubborn. "You need to shut the fuck up right here and now, Steve. You know fuckall about it."

"Sure, maybe." Steve magnanimously gives him that much. "But I know you're honest, brave as hell, loyal, and smart enough to work your way up the chain. You've got an honorable discharge, highly respected Air Force personnel willing to vouch for you—"

"A highly visible disability that freaks people out, PTSD coming out my ears, and not so much as a high school degree to my name."

"People who are in your corner."

Bucky opens his mouth, ready to say something nasty enough to get Steve to back off when the statement hits him. He takes a deep breath, then another. "It's not—"

"Don't," Steve says, shaking his head. "I get it. Hell, sometimes I wanted to punch Sam when we was trying to get me back on my feet, and Sam's the most laid back guy you'll ever meet."

"You really think I could get a job?"

Steve nods. "I really think. And I really think you should consider me and you borrowing a car from Tony and driving down to your friend's wedding. I don't have to be around—"

"Wasn't in the closet in the service, not once I didn't have to be."

"I just meant—"

"If I'm getting dressed up, you are too, asshole."

Steve laughs, deep and so damn bright. "Yeah, okay."

*


There’s a knock at the door the next morning, while Bucky is making eggs over easy, and Steve’s reading interesting news stories from his phone aloud. Bucky glances over his shoulder. “Expecting someone?”

Steve frowns and shakes his head, getting up to peer through the peep-hole. Then he opens the door, still looking perplexed, but very politely saying, “Good morning?”

The guy who was making out with his hot wife when Bucky was more bacteria-than-human, asks, “Hey, sorry it’s so early. I brought bagels by way of apology.” He holds up a paper sack that Bucky can smell the doughy goodness emanating from even being across the room. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” Steve steps aside. “yeah, of course. Uh, Bucky, I don’t know if you remember--”

The guy approaches and holds out his hand. “Sam. You were James last time we met.”

Bucky laughs and shakes his hand. “Yeah, uh, professional precaution. Nice to meet you again.”

Sam goes about getting an extra plate out and opening the bagel bag, which includes cream cheese. Bucky’s not miffed. More breakfast is never something to get upset over. Steve says, “So, uh, what brings you to New Jersey this fine morning?”

“Got a call from Rhodey a couple of days ago,” Sam says while cutting open a bagel.

Bucky raises an eyebrow at Steve. “Does everyone you know know each other?”

Steve makes a rueful face. “This one was my fault. I hooked those two up.”

“And the world has been more awesome for it ever since,” Sam tells Bucky serenely.

Bucky snorts and apportions out the eggs in thirds. Sam says, “Oh, hey, no, I’m intruding,” but Bucky ignores him, taking his own plate to the table and grabbing a bagel.

Sam’s still got the knife. He holds it up. “Want it split?”

Bucky hesitates, the prickliness that’s seemingly been ground into him since the loss of the arm warring with the reality that the assistance would help a lot. After a moment he manages to say, “Yeah, thanks.”

Sam cuts Steve’s without even asking, which strangely goes a long way toward making Bucky feel better. He takes a bite of his own bagel and chews before saying, “Rhodey said you were maybe looking for a job?”

Bucky isn’t sure how he feels about a virtual stranger being told that, but he can't deny that after last night's conversation, this is pretty good timing. “Maybe?”

Sam nods. “Do you have a resume?”

Bucky clenches his jaw and forces himself to relax. He knows the question isn’t meant to be an insult. “I was in the Army for a bit.”

“Okay,” Sam says, like this is something he deals with every day. “Well, I don’t know what Steve told you, but I work with the VA getting vets settled into civilian life, which means finding jobs, and believe me when I say you’re not the first guy out of the service without any other professional experience.”

“I did odd jobs in high school, just nothing--” Bucky shrugs.

“How do you feel about being a restaurant host? It’s minimum wage, but it’s full-time with the possibility of overtime, and there’s medical.”

Bucky can feel Steve purposely not looking at him. He bites back a sigh. “Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but nobody’s gonna hire someone with one arm and a massive case of PTSD to stand at the front of their restaurant. It makes people uncomfortable.”

“Guy who owns the place is a vet and his father was one, too. He’s got at least three differently-abled employees. Just do me a favor and think about going in for an interview, okay?”

Bucky’s still pretty sure he’s setting himself up for disappointment. Differently-abled does not mean visibly missing a part of themselves or prone to dissociative episodes. Not to mention, ever since meeting Steve, the numbness that kept him safe for so long is slowly but surely slipping beyond his grasp. He wants to fucking sob right now just at the thought of maybe having a job. If he didn't know better, he'd say he's never been this sad before in his life, but realistically, he knows he's not even close to some of the worst moments of grief and loss and utter melancholy.

But Rhodey called in a favor, and this guy is Steve’s friend and all things being equal, Bucky’d rather be humiliated for half an hour than make these guys feel bad for trying to help. That being the case, “I don’t have an address to put on my application. People get kinda hung up on that.”

“Use mine,” Steve says, no thought or reluctance to the offer.

Bucky looks over at him. Steve grins, but his leg is jiggling beneath the table in what Bucky is beginning to recognize as a nervous tic. “Asking me to move in, Captain Rogers?”

Steve's jaw tenses. "I—this is what I've got, Buck. Some friends and a studio apartment."

Bucky can almost hear Steve's desire to fix him, and for a moment he wants to lash out, remind Steve that he's more than some smudged art piece. Then he thinks of the panic attack Steve had a few nights earlier, the way he'd had to check Bucky over fourteen times even after he'd come out of the worst of it, to make sure Bucky was fine. The way he hadn't been able to be the little spoon for two nights afterward, too worried something would be able to get to Bucky, not have to go through him. He thinks of the way Steve had clung to him, listened to each word as Bucky talked him down.

Bucky watches the sharp curve of Steve's shoulders for a moment and remembers how frustrating it was, that all he could do for Steve was give him an anchor. Bucky turns to Sam. “Well, okay. I mean, I guess it’s worth a shot.”

*


Bucky ends up taking the train to the city with Sam and Steve, sitting between them, Steve on his left. It’s been a long time since someone’s been able to do that without Bucky’s immediate reflex to be toward violence.

They have the same connecting train, but Steve gets off three stops before Sam and he, and Bucky stands then, not wanting anyone to fill Steve’s place and end up mauled just for taking an available seat on the subway. He follows Sam to a thrift shop where ex-service members get twenty percent off, and the two of them find some slacks, a button-down, and a pair of shoes for him to wear to the interview.

While they’re on their way to the restaurant, Sam says, “We’re all grown-ups here, and Steve can take care of himself just fine, but--”

“If I hurt him, you’ll kill me?” Bucky guesses into the pause of Sam’s sentence.

“More like, he loves hard, and can be overwhelming, and even overbearing, maybe, but he’s probably the best guy I’ve ever met, and partnership means a lot to him, and just don’t take that lightly, all right?”

Bucky laughs a little, scrubbing his hand over his face. “Trust me, buddy, not an issue.”

Sam looks over at him. “Any time you need to talk, you know, you can give me a shout. Doesn’t have to be me. We have other people at the center, or I’ve got contacts.”

Bucky rubs at his chest, feeling short of breath. “Let me--I gotta get a job, yeah?”

“Sure,” Sam says easily. “One thing at a time.”

That, Bucky thinks, even if, realistically, it’s a little too late. That, exactly.

*


Steve walks into his apartment hoping Bucky will be there, that he won’t have to wonder if he’s coming back, if things went all right, if they didn’t, what the hell he’s going to do if Bucky doesn’t come back. So, of course, Bucky isn’t there.

Steve tries to get some work done, but he finds himself at loose ends, all of his sketching crap. He’s outlining a picture of a sleeping Bucky when said devil slips in the apartment and says, “So, hey,” and his smile is sheepish, slightly devil-may-care, “I’m gainfully employed. Starting tomorrow, full-time, with benefits, and I can get overtime whenever available.”

Steve’s brain-to-mouth filter chooses that moment to fail one-hundred percent. “Can I draw you?”

Bucky blinks and Steve only just manages not to smack himself upside the head. And then in the face. “That was creepy, I didn’t mean for that to be creepy. I just--you’re gorgeous and I enjoy drawing and--”

Bucky laughs. “Wow, stop talking.”

“Right,” Steve says, wincing.

“Yes,” Bucky says. “Yeah, you should do that. The drawing.”

“Oh.” Steve’s stomach and cheeks burn in concert, but it’s not unpleasant. “Yeah?”

“It would be hot.”

“Mmm,” Steve agrees, because that is as verbal as he’s going to get at the moment.

“Just--” Bucky swallows.

Steve frowns ever so slightly. “Buck?”

“Not naked. Not-- The scars and the arm, it's all pretty gross.”

Softly, Steve says, “I suspect we might disagree on that issue, but it doesn’t matter. We do whatever you want. If you don’t want me drawing something, I don’t draw it, end of discussion.”

Something Steve can’t read passes over Bucky’s face. All he says is, “You’re a dangerous man, Steve Rogers.”

“I’m a poor kid from Brooklyn,” Steve counters.

Bucky makes a huffing sound, but doesn’t argue. “You gonna come help with dinner, or am I just the house elf around here?”

Steve grins. “I love Harry Potter.”

“You would, you big Gryffindor.”

“That’s not an insult,” Steve points out.

“Whatever, Godric.”

*


The chef at the restaurant—an old-fashioned, Italian-American outfit, with unironic checkered table clothes, chianti as the house red, and with spaghetti and meatballs easily outselling every other dish—is a guy named Jacques "Jack" Dernier who was a munitions expert in Afghanistan and has a prosthetic right leg as a souvenir as his time over there.

It's owned by a guy named Gabe Jones, who went to Yale and speaks three languages, was a fucking Ranger, and evidently took the business over without so much as batting an eye or suggesting he could do something better with his life. Gabe is annoyingly well adjusted for a guy who was in active combat for nearly six years, but Bucky forgives him, partly for giving Bucky a job, and partly for offering to help Bucky get his GED. It's hard to stay mad at Gabe, really.

Monty and Morita are both waiters, and, as promised, they're both ex-military, too. In his first month at the place, Bucky witnesses Monty stay and do an extra inventory all night long just to avoid going home to a quiet house, and Morita feed more stray cats than Bucky would have thought the city had.

Nobody so much as blinks the first time Bucky accidentally gets drenched after the kitchen floods and loses close to an hour, coming to in the apartment upstairs where Gabe runs the business-end of things. In fact, the only thing that happens after Gabe has ascertained that Bucky's really with them, and he's not going to try to hurt himself or anyone else—Bucky apologizes for the shiner Gabe's got, but Gabe just shakes his head, says, "Trust me, we've all had worse," — is that everyone bands together to do their best to make it an easier night for him.

Not that Bucky wouldn't do the same for the others: he does. The four days in a row Morita gets the flu, Bucky takes all of his and Monty's orders so that Monty can run the trays. The whole thing makes Bucky wish even more that he had a workable prosthetic, something to make him physically useful.

The next time Monty finds he can't go home, Bucky stays with him, doing the unnecessary inventories until Jack shows up at four and can take over talking with him for a bit. Gabe takes the opportunity to work some basic shopkeeping into Bucky's GED lessons, and somehow, between supporting himself and making friends, Bucky finds he's learning more about the restaurant business than he'd really planned.

For the first time in a while, he feels like part of a team, part of something that contributes to the world. Even if all they're contributing is a safe place for families, a killer meat sauce, and a to-die-for tiramisu. Bucky thinks that might be more than enough.

*


Gabe insists on giving Bucky a text-and-call capable phone so that work can get hold of him, with an advance on minutes for the month. Steve gets a text from Bucky’s number about three months after Sam's visit and the wheels have begun accelerating in terms of progress saying, “Hey, feel like meeting me at the Tower after work?”

As a rule, Steve feels like meeting Bucky anywhere after work, so he texts back, “See you then.”

When he gets there, he walks in on Jane looking like she has taken up a coke addiction and Bruce explaining, “It’s not really, um, arm looking yet, but we’re working on that. The thing is, we kind of drew from a lot of kinesthetic movement sources but we also didn’t want to make you wait on aesthetics if it wasn’t going to bother you.”

Bucky looks over at Steve and says, “Hey,” but the expression in his eyes is part-amusement, part-do-you-have-any-clue-what-he’s-saying? Steve comes over and stands in Bucky’s space. Bucky leans in and Steve asks, “Maybe if we could see it?”

Jane startles. “Right. Right.”

Steve looks at Bruce. “Have either of you slept since we last left?”

Bruce looks at the ground. “We’ve been kind of excited.”

Bucky leans his face into Steve’s shoulder. Steve can feel him smiling. He wants to kiss him, but at that moment Jane returns with a piece of equipment that looks vaguely like a chrome tree limb, if tree limbs had elbows and hands. She says, “This isn’t going to be final, there are going to be all kinds of kinks that need to be worked out, and we’re going to need you to--”

Bruce puts a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s see if it fits first, yeah?”

“Right, sorry,” Jane’s smile is tired, but it’s wide and warm.

It takes nearly an hour to get the arm fitted correctly, so it won’t chafe. An hour of two people being on Bucky’s vulnerable side. By the time it’s done, he’s got Steve’s hand in a vise grip with his own, and he can barely say, “Thank you,” as they head out. Steve takes the directions from Bruce about what Bucky needs to do, the kind of information they need, everything.

Happy’s waiting for them out front. Steve’s never been so glad Tony’s a billionaire in his life, nor so thankful that Bucky has the night off. Steve introduces Happy to Bucky, and then chats with him about boxing while Happy takes them back to Newark, door-to-door service. The low-key conversation seems to be helping, washing over Bucky in a way that's calming him a little. By the time they get there, Bucky’s perking up.

Just the same, Steve ushers him inside and sits him down at the table, making them both coffee. It’s evening, but they both need the heat and the caffeine, maybe even the sugar.

When Steve sets the coffee down in front of Bucky, he’s still looking at the newest addition to his body. He speaks up for the first time since leaving. “It’s really light. I almost don’t know it’s there, except for how I do. Like...like it was with having an arm, except not.” He rubs his face. “I sound stupid.”

“You sound like a guy who just managed to hold down a PTSD attack and now has advanced tech hanging from his side,” Steve argues.

Bucky concentrates on the arm and it slowly bends at the elbow, coming up to rest on the table. He grins at it. “I think that’s about it for the parlor tricks tonight, but it’s a pretty good trick, yeah?”

Steve bends down in front of Bucky’s chair and steals a kiss right off his lips. “I don’t think it’s a trick. Drink your damn coffee.”

Bucky kisses back. “Sir, yes sir.”

*


Tony grumbles, but he loans them the car. Granted, he only does it after Bucky promises Jane and Bruce that he'll take a turn driving and report back to them. Bucky's fine motor responses are getting better, though. In the month and a half since he got the arm they've tweaked it at least once a week, and last week he held and delivered several trays at work while Morita and Monty were training the new guy, Dugan. Also, Jack has started letting him help out with the chopping and other sous-chef type work, now that he can use the prosthetic to a greater extent. Gabe has dropped hints that maybe it's time to get Bucky into the kitchen and someone new out front.

The car is, admittedly, sweet. An electric SUV, it keeps Bucky and Steve well above most of the other cars on the road, and provides both a smooth and a quiet ride. Bucky manages to nap for a couple of the hours where Steve is driving, and to wake up having actually rested. As of yet, the only place he's managed to do that is in their bed, with Steve there, and even then, it's a toss up.

A car backfires and Steve swerves them off the road, turning off the engine and holding so tightly to the wheel Bucky's worried he's going to warp the thing. He's shaking as if to come apart. Bucky says, "You're okay. It's eleven twenty in the morning. We're in Delaware. This is Tony's car. Breathe in with your nose. There's no sand anyway for miles."

He keeps talking until Steve breaks into a sob, at which point he takes advantage of the strength of the prosthetic and tugs Steve half-way into his lap. Steve cooperates the rest of the way and Bucky rubs at his back while Steve expresses the worst of the panic in a way that's at least present.

He says, "Sorry, I— That hasn't been a thing for a while."

Bucky just keeps rubbing. "You haven't driven in a while. Different kind of focus. You want me to drive for a little while? I promise I'll tell you if it's a problem."

Steve asks, "Do you mind?" but it sounds exactly like, "yes, for the love of all things holy, please."

Bucky's forgotten that he liked driving. He'd been taught in high school, never had a car of his own, but he'd driven in the military, and it gives him a sense of control he rarely has outside the activity. It's tricky, learning with the new arm, but that only makes it better in some ways, the sense of accomplishment. He knows he can do this, which is new, and nice.

And he's taking care of Steve. It shouldn't feel as good as it does. He doesn't want Steve scared and unstable. At the same time, though, he doesn't get that many chances to be the hero in this relationship, as much as Steve assures him that getting Steve to sleep through the night is on par with superpowers.

Bucky speeds up a little, and smiles. He's got this.

*


They drop their stuff off at the house of a friend of Sam's, shower and change, and head to the restaurant where the rehearsal dinner is being held. He picks up the table seating card for "Sergeant Barnes and partner," and they go to search out table seven.

Tinlan is already there when they find it. Filled out quite a bit since the last time Bucky saw him, he has his arm in a death grip around his wife, Christianne, who's taking it with an ease that suggests a lot of practice. When he sees Bucky, though, he lets go and practically flings himself toward the other man. Bucky's pleased at how he can allow himself to be folded into the embrace without panicking, lashing out. He says, "Hey there. Hey, good to see you."

"Master of the understatement, as always. Chris, this is Barnes, uh, James, I guess, actually."

Bucky holds out his hand. "I prefer Bucky. It's nice to meet you. This is Steve. Steve, Tinlan, or, well, Matt, huh?"

Tinlan smiles and shakes Steve's hand. "Nice to meet you, man. Barnes says you're an artist?"

Steve says, "By desire, at least."

Vincent has gotten there by that time, with his girlfriend Leigh, and so there's another round of introductions. Ku stops by the table to greet the three of them and hide from his to-be-in-laws for a short moment. Bucky is more surprised by the ease of all of it than he should be. They've been emailing for months, and these guys have seen him at the worst moments in his life. Still, it's something of a shock that there's a pattern Bucky never even knew was there, but was missing.

The eight of them, Ku and his bride-to-be Ronni, go out for drinks once the formalities are concluded. Vincent, always the most serious of them, manages to get Bucky to the dart board, reviving an old rivalry. Bucky's mostly kicking his ass—his aim has evidently stuck with him—when Vincent asks, "So, really, Barnes, what the hell with disappearing off the face of planet earth?"

Bucky considers lying, but he hasn't yet this evening and it's been invigorating. "I lost my housing. Bills, you know. And things just…I was depressed. Everything was colored by that, I guess."

Vincent throws a dart. "Mm?"

"The arm's pretty new. Charity, really, even though they act like I'm doing them the favor. But without it, things were—employers aren't crazy about amputees, you know? So things were rough for a bit. But they got better."

Vincent looks at him for a long moment before throwing another dart and saying, "Okay."

Bucky gets the feeling he's read at least a little bit between the lines, but there doesn't seem to be anything other than support in the other man's body language. Vincent hands him a dart. "Match point."

*


Steve is a terrible dancer, but he takes to the dance floor with Bucky when Bucky asks. Bucky has forgotten this, too, the feel of the rhythm in his blood, the slide of wood beneath his feet. Steve murmurs, "Thanks for bringing me with."

Bucky thinks of the way Tinlan clapped his hand on Bucky's shoulder through the service and didn't let go. He thinks of Ku thanking him, sincerely and at length, for finding a way to come, and Ronni's kiss to his cheek and her, "no, seriously, thank you, he wouldn't shut up about you." He thinks of Vincent making it clear that if things get rough again, he's to call or email or something. He says, "Thanks for making me come."

Steve presses a soft kiss to his jaw. "Nobody makes you do anything, James Buchanan Barnes."

*


In the car on the way back, Steve's driving when Bucky asks, "Are you turned off by all the people I've been with?"

Steve nearly crashes the damn car. "What?"

Bucky waits until it's clear they're not going to die and then says, "Aside from the crazy, we're both healthy males in our twenties, and you haven't so much as hinted at anything sexual, so I figured, I dunno. Maybe that."

"Okay, first of all, we're not crazy. We have post-combat and POW trauma, which is normal."

He glances over. Bucky is just staring. Steve sighs. "And I get that that's beside the point. But you're so far off base I'm not even sure you're still playing ball."

"Really, a baseball metaphor?"

"We are talking about sex," Steve points out calmly.

"Jesus," Bucky laughs. It's real and kind of dorky and Steve wishes he weren't so in love with this boy it hurt.

"Anyway, the point is, no, fuck, no. I want in your pants, trust me."

"Okay, so if it's not the other people—"

"Look, our relationship kind of started out of you showing up at my place after someone had been pretty rough with you. And maybe you said yes, I dunno, I don't care if you did. But I care a lot if you didn't and sometimes—some of the shit you wake up from makes me think maybe that's the case."

Bucky frowns. "Hookers get raped, Steve. It's a hazard of the job."

Steve tightens his grip on the wheel. "The fact that you're saying that like that makes it okay scares the shit out of me."

Bucky puts his feet on the dash and curls in on himself. Slowly, he answers, "It's not that I don't have issues. I have issues. But those issues don’t get to mean that I never get to have a love life with the guy I'm totally into. That doesn't get to happen."

"Okay," Steve says softly. "I…don't know exactly where that leaves us."

"That leaves us with me and you damn well trying what we want to try, as we want to try it, and seeing where the chips fall. I suspect it's going to be ugly some of the time. Just, straight up. And if that's not something—"

"Don't finish that sentence, because it's going to be really insulting."

Bucky huffs. "Then put your money where your mouth is, Rogers. Except, you know, not with real money."

Steve probably shouldn't laugh, but he does.

*


Steve takes his time doing the dishes that night. He’s easy when it comes to Bucky's cooking, turned on by the sheer fact of it, and that Bucky sort of...takes care of him. Steve has a lot of friends, but since his mom died, he hasn’t had much in the way of a family structure. Even in the berets it hadn’t felt that way. He needs to breathe, or he’s going to be on his knees sucking Bucky off before they can even kiss, and Steve really wants to kiss. Bucky’s lips are stupid hot. Also, he's not sure how much Bucky's going to be up for.

When he turns around, Bucky’s tucked himself into the corner on the bed and is reading the book Steve’s been making his way through. Steve runs a hand through his hair and says, “So, um.”

Bucky looks up and smiles slowly. “Hey.”

“I should maybe mention that it’s been a while.” There hadn’t been a whole lot of interest from anyone prior to seventeen, but he’d had something of a high school romance with a boy his senior year, and there’d been a few...nights of comfort between him and the gorgeous woman who hadn’t exactly been his superior officer, but probably more than the Uniform Code of Military Justice would have been comfortable with. His experience isn’t wide, though, and it’s outdated and he’s not certain Bucky won’t have expectations.

Bucky’s eyes darken for just a split second, but then whatever was behind the change is gone. He sets the book aside. “C’mere.”

Steve hasn’t felt this ungainly in his body since he was eighteen and still figuring out how to fit under low doorways. He crawls over to where his back’s against the wall and he can draw Bucky’s legs over his own. Bucky leans in to whisper, “You’re hotter than you should be when flustered.”

“Jerk,” Steve says, and pulls Bucky around to his lips. There’s that moment of awkwardness, of working to make it fit, and then it’s just good, warm and salty-sweet. Bucky teases with his tongue, and Steve laughs, holding him just a bit tighter, not so much so that he can’t move, can’t pull away.

At some point Bucky twists them so he can lie atop Steve, and Steve pants, “Okay, um, I’m--”

Bucky kisses him again, blocking his words, rocking his thigh into Steve’s cock. “Relax, I’m not judging.”

Steve arches up. “I am, maybe, a little bit.”

Bucky laughs. “Good, that means I can probably prod you into doing this again.”

“Chances are high.” The last word comes out a little squeaky as Bucky bears down again.

Steve holds out for as long as he can with a combination of sheer willpower and an adolescent terror of being laughed at by the boy he likes. When he loses the battle, though, Bucky just says, “Yeah, that’s right. Wow, you’re gorgeous.”

Steve can barely breathe through the pleasure. He’s evidently forgotten what it feels like when there’s another person involved. When he settles enough for words to be a possibility, he blinks up at Bucky and asks, “Is it gonna be a problem if I put you on your back?”

There’s a second where Steve thinks he’s going to get a smartass answer, but then Bucky shakes his head, tightly, once, and sort of slides onto his back. Steve takes a moment to appreciate the view. Even clothed, Bucky’s something to look at. He reaches for the button on Bucky’s jeans and undoes them, lifting Bucky’s hips just far enough to pull the pants down so that he can take Bucky’s cock out.

Bucky pushes him back, just a little. "Steve—Steve. Have you got stuff?"

Steve doesn't understand at first, too interested in what he's doing. Then he gets it, that first night coming back to him, Bucky offering to do things unprotected for the right price. He runs a hand through his hair. "Yeah, uh, yeah. I've been kinda hoping for a while—"

He reaches back into his dresser, for once glad for the small size of the unit, and pulls a sleeve of condoms from it. He rips into one and rolls it over Bucky's cock, not interested in wasting time.

Then he mumbles, “Really has been a while,” leans over and closes his mouth over the tip. Bucky lets out a strangled mewl. Steve’s never had a chance to develop much technique, and he can’t take Bucky even close to all the way, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The combination of his hand solidly curling over the base and his mouth sucking away has Bucky writhing and stuffing his fist into his mouth.

Steve pulls back just far enough to remove the condom and let Bucky come on his face, flushing when Bucky blinks at him in astonishment, but not moving. He’s always liked the idea of being marked, even in ways that aren’t permanent. Chest heaving, Bucky says, “Fuck. Fuck.

They sit in a sort of mellow silence for a while, Steve couldn’t really say how long if asked. Then Bucky stumbles out of bed and returns with a warm, wet washcloth. He cleans Steve’s face carefully, kissing the newly-cleaned patches of skin as he goes. Steve closes his eyes and commits the feeling to memory.

*


Epilogue

Most days, if Steve’s off work before Bucky is, he’ll go over to the restaurant and either order an appetizer, or, if they’re getting slammed, help out a little in the back. Jack and Gabe both have a soft spot for Bucky the size of Texas, and Steve has somehow wiggled right in there, so nobody says a word, either way. It's also less likely that Bucky will slip into the almost manic-ness of hyperarousal or flinch and twitch at customers when Steve's around. None of the staff seems to hold the PTSD occurrences against him, and they are definitely getting better, becoming less and less of an issue, but he hates having them. Every time it happens he feels like he could hide for the rest of the year and not feel less ashamed.

In the space of a month after the wedding there are another six upgrades to the arm. Steve’s seen Bucky grab stacks of menus with it, carry trays, pick up the phone, and once, he got bold enough to “fist” Steve’s shirt and pull him in close. Today, when Steve comes into the restaurant in its lull between lunch and dinner, Bucky hip-checks him and then carefully wraps the prosthetic around his waist, like Steve might not welcome touch from it. Steve uses his hand to wrap the arm more securely around him and tucks himself to Bucky’s side.

Steve asks, “What’s a guy gotta do to get a cup of coffee in this joint?”

“I have it on good authority that blowing the host will get you there every time,” Bucky tells him, innocent as all that.

“Yeah, where is he?” Steve asks.

Bucky laughs. Steve says, “Have fifteen minutes for a break?”

“Gimme ten, and I’m all yours.”

Steve ambles to the kitchen to say hi to Jack and Gabe, who’s back there handling the books. He pours himself his own coffee and a leaves a couple of bucks on the till, then goes to the table right by the kitchen door, the one they rarely seat anyone at if they can help it. True to his word, after ten minutes, Bucky sits down across from him. He steals a sip of Steve’s coffee.

Steve, who has practiced this speech about a million times, starts, “Just say no if you don’t want to, okay?”

Bucky tilts his head and elongates the word, “Okay.”

“My lease is coming up, and I--I talked with my landlord about either adding someone on or possibly giving sixty days notice, if the someone wanted to maybe find a different place together. Or, you know, neither. Neither is fine, too.”

Bucky’s expression softens. “You know, Rogers, for most people it’s the original asking someone to move in that’s the worst. Or so I’m told.”

Steve sighs. “I’ve heard that, and yet.”

“And yet,” Bucky says, nodding. “Well, I mean, unless you really want to move, I think we should stay in the studio for another year while I’m finishing the GED. Gabe and I’ve talked about me maybe doing culinary school, and I think all that’s enough change for now.”

“Okay,” Steve says.

“But yes, I’ll sign my name next to yours,” Bucky says quietly. “I’d--I’d like that.”

Steve grins down at the table, aware of how silly he must look. “I’d like it, too.”

Steve’s hands are curled around the coffee mug, and Bucky curls both of his over Steve’s. The left one takes longer, but it gets there, sure enough.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile