If it helps at all, I felt bad.
The entire morning, my stomach was in thick knots and I must have drawn blood three times just playing with my bottom lip. Staring for ten minutes at the television I'd neglected to turn on, prompted my housemate Carly to ask if I was alright. I didn't reveal nearly as much as I wanted to.
"I'm breaking up with Bucky."
The protein shake she'd been sipping, nearly slipped from her fingers.
"What? Why? You did nothing but gush about him when he finally worked up the nerve to ask you out. He's best friends with freakin' Captain America!"
Her disbelief tightened the knots.
"I do care for him," came my careful response, "but I think it's a one way train. He's still recovering from his past-"
A past I never specified to Carly. Doing so might have caused her to freak out and bail. Paying rent in the city, on your own, is a nightmare.
As far as she knew, James "Bucky" Barnes had been in the military for six years and returned with severe PTSD. While I valued Carly's friendship, it helped that she wasn't a history buff. I'd never have been able to get away with hiding his identity if she didn't think knowing history was absolutely useless.
"-and I don't think I'm what's best in his life right now."
I was actually telling the truth here. Bucky had been...distant.
Don't get me wrong, I gathered he would be. From the moment I first spotted him on the subway, brows furrowed, features pensive, long hair curtaining around pouty lips and a five o'clock shadow, he practically screamed broody. It nearly caused me to look away. With the fallout from my last relationship still fresh in my mind, I refused to give my attention to someone who was emotionally closed off. Selfish as that desire was, it sprouted from a very genuine frustration. I allowed myself to be an open book time and time again. After having my pages torn out more instances than I can count, I learned not everyone deserved my vulnerability. At the top of that list were the guys who never budged on what they felt.
I'm not someone who demands to know what you're feeling every minute of every day. I enjoy being left alone with my thoughts and giving the same courtesy to whoever I'm dating.
But from time to time, I would like to know where I stand and whether my efforts to do the typical romantic things, are actually helpful and enjoyable. Case and point- back in college, I had been in a relationship with a guy who, after five months, revealed he was gay. He then went on to admit that each time he met my older brother Alec, he secretly hoped Alec would abandon his sexuality and ask him out.
Would have been nice to know earlier on, right?
For reasons I considered valid, I had my reservations about dating handsome men who looked off into distances.
Despite my misgivings, it became something of a routine for me to scan him each night I made the journey back home on the subway from work. He was usually clad in workout gear consisting of black gym shorts and a light gray, cotton hoodie. With the way the hoodie hugged his muscles, I wished, with no shortage of pettiness, to see just how sculpted he actually was beneath the fabric. Pathetic, right?
Well, apparently not as much as I thought. The glances I would shoot him, after a few evenings, were returned. Except, the moment he looked up, I'd whip my head around, fast enough to give myself whiplash. In the hellish few minutes afterward, my cheeks would burn and I'd silently pray for more people to file in. I needed to be physically separated from him lest I acted like an idiot. Bound to happen at some point seeing as that's how most of my relationships started.
By the time two weeks had gone by, I realized I had a problem. A staring problem. A creepy, staring problem. I tried to envision someone else on the subway studying me the same way that I studied the man and instantly got sick to my stomach. So, like a rational adult, I switched up my schedule at work and swiped up the morning shifts. This allowed me to get home by four o'clock each day and though I had to ride in a packed environment that rarely allowed me a seat, it was worth giving the poor man some peace of mind.
Then, to my shock, he showed up at the museum I worked at.
My first tour group of the day was waiting patiently at the beginning of the Ottoman Empire exhibit while I chugged down an energy drink in the break room. There was a reason I didn't do morning shifts. Natural energy wasn't something that came to me easily.
Upon greeting them all, I didn't even realize he was among the group. There's an important moment before you begin a tour where you're supposed to meet everybody's gaze with a welcoming smile. Helps develop a comfortable mood and all that jazz. Once, a co-worker of mine who gave tours of Nordic history on the opposite end of the museum, claimed that our boss disguised himself as a civilian in her group just to ensure he was greeted with a smile.
Ever since then, I'd been ultra conscious of doing the same. And as I glanced from person to person, projecting what must have been a slightly too chipper grin, I spotted him. Hidden beneath a baseball cap and a baggy, tan army jacket.
I was too pumped up to feel nervous and this allowed me to guide and explain the history of the Ottoman Empire in under forty minutes. Definitely a personal record.
He hung around when the rest of the group drifted towards the gift shop. There was an expression of uncertainty on his face. I'd seen it before on my own face, though over the years, I got much better at hiding it.
He seemed lost.
I was sympathetic.
As per usual, I approached first. And, as usual, I struck up the conversation.
For such a gorgeous looking fella, he was astonishingly shy. Then again, that was our first meeting and he'd been insistent on trying to convince me he wasn't a stalker. Since I never changed out of my uniform before going home, he managed to get a glimpse of my name tag and place of employment. From then, it was a matter of tracking me down because apparently, his glances at me were way more frequent than mine were at him.
That revelation relieved a lot of unspoken tension and began a relationship that surpassed every other I'd ever had.
Now, I was going to end it.
The knots were unbearably tight.
"I don't understand," Carly pestered, hands on her hips. "He fucking adores you.'
Sighing, I buried my face in the couch. Maybe Carly's reprimanding was good. I needed to arrange my explanation in a way that wouldn't make me feel like such a terrible person. I wasn't breaking up with Bucky for the hell of it. And there were going to be some very intense feelings, at least on my part, after this break up. Who knew you could become addicted to falling asleep next to someone?
"I don't see it," I finally admitted, looking up at her.
Carly's features softened. She expelled her own sigh before making her way over to sit on the couch beside me.
"It's the little things," she assured. "Like, the fact that he spends the night and makes you breakfast in the morning. Or that he makes an effort to get along with Alec, who even the Pope probably wouldn't be able to befriend. Plus, I've never had anyone hold back my hair all night as I barfed up the beginnings of a stomach flu. Pretty sure you were contagious that whole first week, but he stayed by your side."
"Are you trying to make me feel worse?"
"Not at all. I'm just trying to figure out the why. Give me a good reason and I'll support you a hundred percent."
I paused, unable to get the reasoning out.
"He is kind," I agreed. "Kinder than what I feel I deserve. He's a good man."
"I don't know-."
"Okay, hold up there," Carly interrupted. "When you break it off, you can't say 'I don't know'. You're gonna have to be sure of your feelings."
It took a moment before I nodded. I owed him clarity, not indecisiveness.
"The first month was better than any relationship I'd ever had," I acknowledged. "And I did notice everything you mentioned. But, after that first month and around the time we started to become intimate, he got kind of...removed."
I clenched my hands to prevent myself from gesturing. It's a difficult habit to break when you explain things to people all day.
"He stopped sleeping over as often as he used to. He stopped sleeping with me, period."
Carly's eyes widened.
"Since when?" she demanded.
"About two weeks back. We still kiss and get into the occasional make out sessions, but he pulls back sooner than usual from me and after the last time we had sex, he said he wanted a little break from...being intimate."
"That son of a bitch!"
Her outburst made me feel the tiniest bit relieved. Though, the insecurity about the request, still held fast. If your partner, out of the blue, wants to stop having sex, it's tough not to think you're at fault.
"I don't mind the break from sex," I went on. "I mean, I do because he's damn good at it, but he's more to me than just sex. So, I was okay with the lack of intimacy. But, he started to remove himself form other aspects of the relationship. Not answering my calls, not wanting to go on dates as often, not wanting to come over here, not speaking as much as he normally does. It got so bad that I even called Steve to ask if there was something stressing him out or if I was doing something wrong. Unfortunately, Steve was just as clueless about the sudden distance as I was. He even promised to talk to Bucky about it. Not that it's helped much."
Carly's arms were crossed. She held the expression of someone I found myself glad to be friends with. I wouldn't want that look aimed at me if I was her enemy.
"Have you tried talking to him about it?"
Hesitating, I answered, "No. I'm trying really hard on not doing the whole 'me constantly asking how my boyfriend is doing' thing. That's what screwed up so many of my past relationships. I'm so insistent on wanting to know what's wrong or how they're feeling. I didn't realize how taxing that could be and I'm trying to give him a good amount of distance because of his...past."
A shitload, to be specific. I'm always very careful to never be the first one to bring it up. Bucky has full reign of that conversation topic. Though, there are times where I wish I could speak freely about it. Let him know, even if it gets repetitive, that I don't care who he was and what the circumstances were that led to his survival.
He feels an unenviable amount of guilt for his years as the Winter Soldier. I get that without having to ask. But I never seem to be able to express enough that I love him regardless.
I love him. God, this was not going to go well.
"I think he's getting ready to break up with me," I said. "And if I'm wrong, then that's worse because this relationship...it's starting to feel like before. With other guys. The voice in the back of my head would tell me that they're not as interested in me anymore, they're not as into it. I always ignored that voice because I thought it was just me being pessimistic. But it's back and this time, I think I'm right."
Carly's nod loosened the tightness of the knot.
"Okay," she maintained. "I get that. Sucks that it's happening with Bucky. I really liked the guy. But I get it. Just want to make sure you're alright. You never broke up with anyone before."
A nervous chuckle sprang from my lips. Five past relationships and I'd been the one dumped each time. Could I handle this?
"If I'm right, it'll be a relief for him. That makes it worth it."
Carly saw the visible depression of my words. Before she stood, she offered me a hug, which I gratefully accepted.
"Good luck," she whispered.
As soon as she left the house, I grabbed my cell phone from the table. Although I wasn't going to be breaking up with him over the phone, the call to meet up still wouldn't be a pleasant one. But, at least I was prepared this time around for the heartbreak that was sure to follow.
I entered Stark Towers with an unshakable urge to vomit. Since I neglected breakfast, it would've been more of a painful heave and probably no less than what I deserved. There was a good chance this would be the last time I'd be allowed back into the head quarters of the Avengers.
At Steve's insistence, Bucky managed to secure lodging at the tower and the unofficial protection of Tony Stark, a little more than a year ago. For a while, tension was at an all time high between some of the Avengers and Bucky. They failed to see past his former persona.
But, gradually - namely thanks to Steve - they got used to him. So long as he didn't regress back into a mindless, killing machine, he was permitted a place to live and resources to rebuild decades of a stolen life and identity.
That didn't mean Bucky was always a hundred percent comfortable. In fact, he admitted a few times that if it weren't for Steve, he'd have nothing to keep him there.
The access key in my hand was a present after our second date. Through my mindless blubbering, Bucky understood how grateful I was. That he would allow me into his life, to meet Steve, to make the first step...it was a feeling words couldn't express.
Biting my lip, I hit the button for the elevator, grimacing at the nerves building inside me.
There's still a chance to bail and avoid this, I reminded myself. You could have this all wrong. Maybe Bucky has a legitimate reason for becoming distant.
Almost instantly, these thoughts were combated with the ever-present fear of rejection. Five times, I'd been broken up with. It never got any less painful. To have Bucky look me in the eyes and tell me I couldn't provide him with what he needed...it would break my heart in a way it'd never been broken before. That wasn't something I could experience again. At least this way, breaking up with him would allow me to feel like I was doing him a service by saying what he clearly wasn't comfortable enough to. It would feel like I spared myself at least some pain.
In the middle of my pondering, the elevator doors sprung open. I nearly hit the 'closed' button as soon as I saw who stood inside.
"Shit," I mumbled.
Tony Stark's face lit up. "Well, if it isn't the assassin whisperer."
Sighing, I reluctantly stepped into the elevator. My finger pressed floor 13 as Tony sized me up, a smirk balanced on his lips.
"We - and by we, I mean everyone except your cyber boytoy - were just talking about how sickly inseparable you two are. Please tell me you're here to ask him to move in with you. I don't even want to know what the precious bedsheets have been through."
On normal occasion, I'd have returned Tony's banter with something equally playful. He loved teasing me about the fact that I seemed to have somehow "neutered the killing machine" and there had to have been some creative uses of his metal arm in the bedroom.
But now, all I could feel was dread.
Is Tony going to hate me for this? Is he only friendly because I'm Bucky's girlfriend and by extension, Steve's friend?
The thought depressed me. I'd have liked to think that Tony valued me as more than just a girl who happened to be dating a reformed assassin, but I could never be too sure. Tony had two sides to him. Cocky, sarcastic, good humored party host and focused, aloof scientist who'd kill for his best friends. Somehow, I felt I didn't fit under the 'best friends' category. This most likely meant that I could be someone he disposed of.
That's ridiculous, even for Tony.
"Um, hellllo? Since when do you start ignoring the witty things I say?"
I glanced at him and offered up a smile.
"Sorry, Tony. What were you saying?"
Before he could respond, the elevator dinged. My eyes flew up and immediately, my smile disappeared.
I went to take a step, but Tony's arm lunged in front of me. Too quick for me to see, he punched a few buttons and abruptly, the elevator doors shut. The lift didn't budge from its position on the floor.
"What was that for?" I demanded.
"Well, for one, you're acting weird," came his accusation. "There's no way you can go a minute in my presence without insulting me and defending Benny."
"Bucky," I corrected.
He had his arms crossed expectantly. How he managed to pick up on my nervous vibes, I didn't know.
"I hope that's not how you lie to Benji."
Fighting the urge to scowl, I crossed my arms, mimicking Tony's posture.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Tony arched a brow. "Tough. I want to know why you're acting weird."
"Can't I just ride the elevator in peace?"
"Like you could ever be that lucky with me," he joked. "But in all seriousness, you look like you're here to deliver the news that someone's died. Did you kill your roommate? Do you need help hiding the body? I've got you covered, if that's the case."
Despite the gravity of my situation, I couldn't help but emit a chuckle.
"No, it's not that."
I didn't elaborate, forcing Tony to roll his eyes. "Geez, secretive much? With how antsy you're acting, I'd think you were here to break up with Bolshevik."
When I failed to correct the mispronunciation, Tony stilled.
His eyes got very wide.
I'd have smiled at his expression if my nerves weren't so rattled.
"Oh," he repeated.
I turned away from his gaze and buried my hands in my pockets. A few seconds of silence trailed by, the elevator remaining unmoved. I finally understood how people could feel uncomfortable in such a small environment.
"We got a Code 34."
My head whipped around to find Tony speaking into his cell phone.
An indistinguishable response had him nodding vehemently.
"Yeah, it's happening, Bruce. Remember, keep the doors locked and only open them for myself or Pepper. We'll let everyone else choose their own hiding spots."
Tony finally noticed my staring and quickly hung up.
"Code 34?" was all I could think to ask.
"A little precaution," he elaborated. "Just in case you ever got the idea to break up with the residential assassin. It sort of keeps us alive for the aftermath."
This time, it was my turn to lift my brows.
"Bucky is not going to go crazy."
"Uh, considering the fact that the reason you two are dating is because he stalked you to the place you worked, I wouldn't put it past him. Plus, the whole 'I used to kill people' thing sorta speaks for itself."
I shook my head, unwilling to believe his insinuation. Never in these mental scenarios did I actually think about how Bucky would react. Perhaps to ease my own pain, I'd assumed he'd breathe a sigh of relief and move on.
"I promise you, Tony, that breaking up is what Bucky wants."
"Whatever helps ease the pain, sister."
His disbelief had me split between two emotions- irritation and doubt.
Tony moved towards the buttons once again, fingers flying across the numbers.
Before the doors swung open, I looked at him. In that moment, I allowed my nerves to physically show.
"Are...are you mad at me?"
Cocking his head, Tony studied me for a moment.
"If you think this is what you need to do, who am I to knock you for it? Just, don't let this prevent you from stopping in every now and again, okay? For amusement purposes, of course."
I nodded, more relieved than I could show at his response.
"Sure," he answered.
The doors flew back open.
"Oh," Tony added, "don't mention that you talked to me, kay? You and I are pretty cozy with each other and I don't want Billy-"
I aimed a glare at him.
"-to get the wrong idea after you break things off. He might, you know, break mine off."
"I doubt that would be much of a disservice to the world."
Tony gasped dramatically, before sending me a quick wink. I stepped out of the elevator, feeling exceptionally lighter. That is until the doors slammed shut behind me and the hallway leading to Bucky's room, loomed before me.
Suddenly, the courage Carly and Tony had supplied me with, melted away.
Have my exes ever felt this way before breaking up with me? Is it common to feel as if your heart is going to drop out of your stomach?
I trudged forward with a visible unease. My mind rehearsed what I wanted to say in such a frantic manner that by the time I stopped outside Bucky's room, I'd completely forgotten how I wanted to begin the conversation.
Shit! Did I want to break it easily? Or lay it all out right away?
My mind still hand't made up a choice when I knocked on the door.
I wasn't sure if I was happy or upset when it swung open immediately.
Upon noting the grimace resting on Bucky's face as he took me in, suddenly, I felt a sad sort of confidence sweep through me.
He used to light up when he looked at me. Or at least smile. He used to react.
This really is over.
Swallowing tightly, I offered him a hesitant smile. "Hey. Mind if I come in?"
His metal hand, gripping onto the door handle, tightened. The whine of iron, met my ears. He observed me briefly before looking down to his feet.
"This can't be long," he answered. "I'm-."
He glanced up at me, teeth clamping down on his lower lip. Once more, he severed his gaze. After a forceful inhale, he continued.
"-I'm a little preoccupied."
I didn't believe him, but nodded as if I did.
Stepping to the side, he allowed me entrance, closing the door after I stepped forward. He hovered at my side for a moment and though I didn't meet his gaze, I struggled not to turn and try to embrace him. Before the struggle could advance to an urge, Bucky retreated a safe distance from me. I followed him into the kitchen, careful not to get too close. A quick glance at the living room had me suppressing some shock.
The place looked...unkempt. Bucky was, for as long as I'd known him, impeccable in both his hygiene and living conditions. Cleaning up after himself had been essential when he'd joined the army, then kicked into overdrive as he slipped undetected, from country to country. Leaving a trail behind meant that there was the possibility of being found.
Though the Winter Soldier was long gone, he'd passed the habit of effectively cleaning up after himself on to Bucky.
To see a chair tipped over, the comforter from his bedroom- resting in neglect - across the floor, and the blinds hanging haphazardly in front of some dusty windows, made me wonder just exactly what was going on with him.
I can still ask, offered the optimistic side of me. I can explain my worries to him and maybe they won't be anything to worry about after all.
Unfortunately, a stronger part of me rebelled. It couldn't handle being right if the worries were sound.
I slid a hand into my pocket. When I pulled out the access key and set it on the kitchen counter, I knew, without looking up, that I had Bucky's undivided attention.
He stood as far from me as possible, back digging into the kitchen sink, arms crossed. If I'd opted to analyze the expression on his face as well as his body language, I'd have easily picked up on the anxiety radiating off of him. Once the key was on the counter, however, his anxiety switched to confusion.
"Does it not work anymore? I know Stark had plans to update the security. I'll get a new key from him."
Fiddling with the hem of my sweatshirt, I met Bucky's eyes.
"I got in just fine. I'm, ah, actually giving it back."
Despite Bucky's previous attempts to keep his distance, he actually took a step forward. The confusion was definitely still there, but something darker lurked as well. His tightened jaw and stern eyebrows, hinted at this. I tried to give emotion to what flickered across his face, but it disappeared so quickly I couldn't have been sure I'd actually seen it.
"You sounded quiet on the phone," he spoke. "I know we haven't been talking as much-."
Bucky frowned. "I don't understand."
"You," I repeated, "haven't been talking as much. To me."
When he didn't explain any further, I straightened up.
"Look, I know I'm not the best girlfriend in the world. I'm clingy because I don't know how else to show I care about you. I get that isn't attractive. If anything, it's sad and desperate. I also know it can't be easy dating someone who doesn't have a job that pays six figures. Tougher probably because I love my job and never plan on leaving it. Plus, the whole having a hard-on for history, has probably weirded you out before. You're not alone in that. You're also not alone in hating my brother, either. Everyone hates him. Well, except me. Point is, I know he's tough to handle. Also, you could date women much hotter than me. Women that are experienced and can make you crave intimacy, rather than be repelled by it. You deserve to date someone like that."
Bucky stared at me, wide eyed.
"I'm not an easy person to love or care for," I continued, swallowing past the burning in my throat. "And I'm smart enough to pick up on the signs that the romance is fading. So, I'll save you the trouble of feeling like the bad guy. You've experienced that too much already."
My fists were clenched so tight that I barely felt the bite of nails against skin.
Just get through this. It'll be painful, but at least you won't be forcing a dying relationship.
"I think, given the circumstances, that it's best we break up."
I glanced down at my feet, completely missing the panic enter Bucky's blue eyes.
"I'm sorry I couldn't give you what you wanted. I'm sorry I didn't pick up on what that was in the first place."
The sting I received from my own words, amazed me. It felt like the backstory to every failed relationship I'd ever been in.
Sad, isn't it?
"You are breaking up with me?"
Keeping my head down, I gave a firm nod.
Figures he'll sound emotionless about it. Maybe Carly was right. Self blame isn't the answer. After all, Bucky also had the responsibility of saying he wasn't feeling it anymore.
But I couldn't find the energy to blame Bucky for this. Making him feel guilt for not reciprocating my feelings would turn me into a very shitty person. For now, I'd leave that trait to Alec.
When Bucky stayed silent, I turned around, grateful to know the deed was done. Furthermore, I'd managed to hold back the tears, so that was a plus.
Of course I knew it wouldn't be so easy later tonight. Once alone with my thoughts, the tears wouldn't come. No, something far worse would. That the feeling was so familiar to me, only made the agony of this moment that much more concrete.
I made my way back to Bucky's door, only faintly noting it'd be the last time I'd be in his apartment.
My mouth parted to offer a last minute goodbye, but thought better of it. I bit my tongue instead.
The door clicked shut behind me, and with a violent ache in my chest, I walked away.
Next chapter: Bucky's POV. Is the break up really as simple and clear cut as it seems?