He hadn't meant to get caught.
Steve knew enough to be careful. He knew what the stakes were. After all, he'd gotten the shit kicked outta him for less, for just being small and mouthy and chronically unable to let it go when a bully was going after someone weaker. Someone who couldn't stand up for themselves. Or wouldn't stand up for themselves because they thought it would make things worse.
If experience had taught Steve anything, it was that things could always get worse.
It was August, and the city had been an oven for days. Steve had ended up at the Barnes' apartment, hoping to escape the sweatbox his place had turned into, but Bucky's room wasn't much better. He was sprawled on the bed, while Bucky was half in, half out of the window, blowing cigarette smoke outside in the vain hope that his ma wouldn't figure out he was smoking inside. (Winifred Barnes always figured out when he was smoking. Steve wasn't sure when Bucky would learn that.)
When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, Bucky stubbed out his cigarette and dragged Steve out the window with him, up, up, up, all the way to the roof, chasing a breeze that was more ghost than real. It was no cooler on the roof, but it was quieter. They couldn't hear Bucky's parents talking in the living room, or his sisters squabbling in their bedroom. There wasn't any yelling from Steve's next-door neighbours, their regular conversation as loud as their fights. There was only the two of them, the sounds of the city background noise to their breathing.
There weren't usually careless. They didn't get close, didn't touch unless there was a locked door between them and the world, unless the curtains were pulled and there was no one around. And even then, they were always quiet, the only sounds they made the rustle of clothes, of sheets, the soft exhale of breath.
But this night was dark and hot and there were no windows looking down on them. Once Steve's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see how beautiful Bucky was, with his long dark lashes and the top two buttons of his shirt undone to reveal a patch of chest Steve usually only saw when they were alone. As he watched, Bucky licked across his top lip where the sweat had beaded. Steve could almost taste the salt of him on his own tongue.
Steve couldn't help himself. He moved closer to Bucky, reached out with one hand, brushed his thumb across Bucky's lower lip.
"Steve," Bucky warned, but Steve shushed him, and moved in until his lips touched Bucky's, until the heat of Bucky's breath mingled with his own. "Steve."
"Shut up, Bucky."
"You're an idiot," Bucky said, but he didn't pull away. Instead, he moved in even closer, grabbing the front of Steve's shirt before leaning in to claim his mouth more thoroughly.
Steve knew he should be worried, but it felt too good, kissing Bucky in the open air, under the moon and the stars. Steve moaned into Bucky's mouth (quietly, always quietly), and felt Bucky's fingers run through his hair.
"Jesus, Buck—" Steve started to speak, not even sure what he wanted to say, but then there was a creaking sound behind him.
"James, are you up here? Your father…"
Winifred Barnes' voice trailed off.
Steve pushed Bucky away from him, but he knew it was too late, knew from the way Bucky's mother was frozen there on the threshold, her mouth open in shock, her hands limp at her side.
"Ma, it ain't what you think," Bucky said.
"Be quiet," she snapped out. Steve watched as shock was replaced by anger, then disgust, then he couldn't watch anymore, dropping his gaze to his feet.
"Steven, you should go."
"Mrs. Barnes, it wasn't anything."
"You should go, now."
Steve had heard Winifred Barnes happy and proud and angry and sad, but he'd never heard her voice quite so cold before.
He risked a quick glance up at Bucky. Bucky would only meet his eyes for a second, before he looked back at his mother, looking as scared as Steve had ever seen him. Bucky's fear, not his own, made Steve run. He scrambled past Mrs. Barnes, not wanting to see the way she looked at him, like he was an alien outta one of Bucky's pulp magazines. Like she hadn't known him practically his whole life, like his ma hadn't been one of her best friends before she'd died last year.
He ran down the stairs, his lungs wheezing more and more on every landing. He wasn't sure how he made it down the block to his own building, or back up the four flights to his own dingy room. He had just enough strength to throw the bolt on the door, and throw himself on the sofa, and try to get his breathing under control.
Just breathe in and out. That's what his ma would have told him, if she was still alive. It's what Bucky would have told him, if he'd been here. But Sarah Rogers was dead, and Bucky wasn't here, and the way things were, Steve wasn't sure if he would ever see Bucky again. So he concentrated on breathing, on not shaking, on not throwing up.
An hour later, when he'd managed to stop the shaking and he'd only thrown up once, making it to the toilet just in time, there was a light tap on the door.
"Go away," Steve said, just loud enough to be heard. He didn't want to see anyone right now. Not his landlord, checking to see if he was going to make the rent this month, or Mrs. McGillvray next door, offering him some extra soup, or the Amos brothers from the third floor, trying to drag him out to a bar.
"Aw, Stevie, don't be like that." Bucky's voice was muffled by the door, but even given that, it didn't sound right. "Open up."
Steve fumbled with the lock, threw open the door, and there was Bucky, standing in the hallway, a suitcase in his hand and a bruise on one side of his jaw.
"We gotta go, Stevie," he said. "We gotta go now."
Steve's first reaction was anger. Anger that Bucky had been hurt bad enough that he wanted to run. Anger that Bucky had been hurt because of him.
"Who hit you?"
"Becky. Who do you think, Steve?"
"Tell me," Steve insisted. Because he wanted to hear it from Bucky's mouth.
"My dad." Bucky wouldn't meet Steve's eyes.
Steve clenched his fists and gritted his teeth and felt the anger flush his face. "How dare he. How fucking dare he." He marched to the door, only to have Bucky grab his arm and spin him around.
"Where do you think you're goin', pal?"
"I'm going to your apartment. And I'm going to punch your dad on the nose."
"You can't." Bucky tightened his grip on his arm until it hurt.
"Let go of me."
"He'll kill you." Steve froze in shock and looked hard at Bucky. Bucky was as scared as he'd been on the roof. Worse, even. "He said—" Bucky choked on the words.
"What did he say?"
"He said no son of mine is a fairy. He said I know it's all that Rogers kid's fault." Bucky spoke slowly and carefully. "And then he hit me. I think he'd have killed me if Ma hadn't got in front of him." There were tears falling down Bucky's face, but he didn't seem to realize it. "We gotta go, Steve. 'Cause if we don't, he's going to come looking for you and he's going to kill you. I saw it in his eyes."
Before this night, Steve had never seen fear in Bucky's eyes. Bucky had always been his protector. Steve would get into fights, and Bucky would wade in and back him up, as brave as anyone Steve knew. But none of those fights had been against George Barnes. Bucky's dad was a big man, an ironworker, with muscles used to building the steel skeletons of Manhattan skyscrapers. George Barnes had made Bucky afraid.
George Barnes could go fuck himself.
Steve didn't care what Bucky's dad thought of them. He didn't care what the church or the neighbours would say about them. He knew what he felt for Bucky was love, pure and simple. And because of that, he'd do anything Bucky needed him to.
"Where we gonna go, Buck?" Because it wasn't like he had a place to go. When his ma died, he lost all the family he knew. And apart from Coney Island and the rare trip into Manhattan, he'd barely been out of Brooklyn Heights.
"I got family in Chicago. A cousin on my mom's side. He'll put us up."
"You never said you had a cousin in Chicago."
"He moved out there before I knew you. We don't talk about him."
"But if your dad asks him—"
"He won't tell my dad shit," Bucky said, baring his teeth. And that made Steve wonder about this Chicago cousin Bucky had never talked about. "He'll put us up," Bucky insisted. "But we gotta go now."
"How are we gonna get to Chicago?" Steve asked, planting his feet. He wasn't entirely used to being the sensible one, but if Bucky wasn't going to do it this time, he was.
"I swiped forty bucks from my old man's wallet. I figure he owes me for that sock on the jaw. And I got paid yesterday. Did you get your WPA money?"
"Yeah, but that ain't gonna get us onto the 20th Century Limited, Buck."
"No, but it'll get us tickets on a milk run train. If you can live without a Pullman berth."
"I'd sleep on the streets with you."
"Aw, Stevie, it ain't gonna to come to that." Bucky wrapped an arm around Steve's shoulders and hugged him, then pushed him toward the bedroom. "Now get packed up."
The 20th Century Limited was how millionaires and Hollywood stars got from New York to Chicago. You walked a red carpet to get on the train, and its dining car served champagne and caviar. The 20th Century took 16 hours from Grand Central to LaSalle Street Station in Chicago.
The route Steve and Bucky were on, it took them more than twice that long to get to Chicago. There were no red carpets, and they had to change trains three times. There were dining cars, but they didn't serve champagne and caviar, and anyway, who could afford the prices they charged for a limp sandwich with wilted lettuce and a cup of coffee? Steve and Bucky survived the trip on the apples they'd rescued from the fruit bowl of Steve's now-abandoned apartment, and stale cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax paper they'd made from what was left in his icebox.
It wasn't the lap of luxury, but it didn't matter to Steve. He had everything he cared about—his pencils and sketchbooks, pictures of his ma and his father's medals—packed into the suitcase at his feet, and everyone he cared about, Bucky, at his side.
Bucky might be bigger than him, might be better in a fight, but every time Steve looked over and saw that bruise on his jaw, Steve felt like he needed to be the one doing the protecting. So when Bucky finally fell asleep slouched against him in the middle of the night as the train passed through one tiny Midwest town after another, Steve watched over him, running a soothing hand through his hair when Bucky whimpered at a dream, doing his damnedest not to lean in and kiss his forehead, not here in public, not even on a train moving across a darkened landscape surrounded by other sleeping passengers.
They arrived in Chicago at dusk, and even after they asked directions four times, it took them two hours to find Bucky's cousin's place.
Bucky knocked on the door, hesitantly. And then when there was no answer, he pounded on it.
"C'mon, Sid, open up," Bucky said.
"Keep your hair on," a voice said from inside. A voice that sounded like it belonged to someone who'd been woken up from a comfortable sleep. A voice that sounded like Brooklyn. The door flew open, and there was Bucky's cousin.
"James!" Steve's immediate impression was of red silk and big gestures as Bucky was immediately hugged by this stranger. "You should have told me you were coming." The smile on this cousin's face told Steve that they were welcome, and that relieved the tension he hadn't realized had been building inside him.
"It happened kinda sudden."
"Hmmm." Sid reached out and took Bucky gently by the chin, turning his face slowly until he could see his jaw. The bruise there had turned from purple to sickly green during the train ride, but Steve could still see the outline of George Barnes' knuckles in its shape. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Shit, James." He let go of Bucky's chin, and finally noticed Steve standing in the darkened hallway. "And who is this fine-looking gentleman?"
"This is Steve. Steve, this is my cousin, Sidney Buchanan."
"This is the Steve?" Sidney's eyes widened.
"The one and only."
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Steve." Sidney bowed deeply and waved them into his apartment. "Welcome to my humble abode."
Steve followed Bucky into the small, tidy apartment, wondering what Bucky had told his cousin about him that he called him the Steve. He didn't have long to wait.
"So, you're James' fella," Sidney said as soon as he'd closed the door, got them to put their suitcases down and settled them on the floral print sofa.
Steve thought he was going to have an asthma attack, right there and then, but Sidney patted his knee, and Bucky grabbed his hand.
"You don't gotta worry about Sidney," Bucky said. "He's one of us."
And, yeah, Steve should have realized that from the start. After all, a regular Joe wouldn't answer his door at night wearing a red silk kimono that didn't quite hide knobby knees and scrawny wrists. He probably wouldn't have movie posters with Dick Powell and Greta Garbo on his walls, or Chinese silk runners on every surface going. And it explained why the Barnes family never talked about Sidney, and why Sidney could be trusted not to tell George Barnes a Goddamn fucking thing about where Bucky was.
While Bucky rubbed his thumb along the inside of Steve's wrist—and wasn't that a kick, holding hands in front of another human being—Sidney bustled around the kitchen, making them scrambled eggs, and toast from the heel of bread he pulled out of the bread box. The whole time he kept up a running monologue about the job he had to get up for in the morning ("Those society dames like buying their gloves from a well-mannered queer like me"), the neighbourhood ("The bakery's okay, but don't trust the butcher; rumour is his steaks used to whinny"), and why he'd come to Chicago in the first place ("Someone told me this place was okay for people like us. And it was for a bit, until it wasn't. So don't you two go thinking you can hold hands just anywhere.")
Steve and Bucky wolfed down the eggs and toast—they'd run out of food in Indiana and Steve had spent the last few hours of the trip listening to their stomachs complain—and then Sidney settled them for the night in the living room. He pulled the sofa cushions onto the floor so that could arrange sleeping space for both of them, side by side. It reminded Steve so much of sleeping over at Bucky's place when they were kids that it hurt. But Bucky seemed to know what he was thinking, because he pulled Sidney's spare blanket up over them, wrapped Steve up in his arms, and whispered in his ear: "It's gonna be all right, Steve. You'll see."
Steve wriggled against Bucky, making himself more comfortable, and fell asleep feeling safe for the first time since Winifred Barnes had opened that door to the roof.
Steve woke up to the creak of a floorboard. He opened his eyes to find Sidney standing at the door, his hand on the doorknob.
"I didn't mean to wake you up," Sidney said, his voice a quiet whisper. Steve blinked. Instead of the red silk dressing gown, Sidney was wearing a nicely tailored suit, a richly-coloured blue tie knotted at his throat, and spats on shoes that were so highly polished Steve thought he could probably see himself reflected in their surface.
"Don't worry about it," Steve kept his voice as soft as Sidney's, not wanting to wake up Bucky.
"I'm going to work. I left the key on the kitchen table in case you want to go out. And there's a buck for food, in case…" Sidney left the thought hanging.
"I appreciate it, but we've got a bit of money left." Not much, Steve thought, but hopefully enough until they could get work.
"Okay." Sidney hesitated, then turned his gaze to Bucky. "You look after him. The dumb cluck thinks the world of you."
"Yeah, and I think the world of him, too."
"Hmm," Sidney said, the look on his face unreadable. "You're not what I expected."
"What did you expect?" Steve asked, wondering exactly what Bucky had told this cousin he'd never mentioned.
"In James' letters you always sounded, I don't know, bigger."
Steve gave a quickly stifled laugh, and Sidney looked embarrassed before he closed the door behind him.
Bucky stirred at the click of the door locking. Steve turned and spooned against him, his face pressed against the comforting bulk of Bucky's shoulder.
"Go back to sleep," Steve whispered. "We don't gotta be anywhere."
Bucky whimpered, but then settled, and Steve felt his body relax as he drifted into sleep. He knew he should get up, should figure out how they were going to make a living in a new city, how they were going to avoid taking charity from Bucky's cousin. But he was comfortable and he was safe and he was with Bucky, and he drifted back to sleep.
When he woke up next, the midmorning sun was streaming through the gaps in Sidney's curtains, making stripes of light on the living room floor. He blinked, and realized he wasn't spooned against Bucky anymore. Turned his head, and found Bucky propped up on one elbow, staring at him.
"Hey." Bucky's brows knit together with a crease. Steve knew that look. It was the look that told him Bucky was thinking too much, worrying too much. And Bucky's next words confirmed it. "What did I get you into, Stevie?"
"You didn't get me into nothing, Buck." Steve took hold of Bucky's hand, his palm calloused and warm. "Nothing I didn't want."
"Yeah, you wanted me to drag you halfway across the country to avoid a beating from my dad. You wanted to lose your home."
"That apartment was a shithole, and you know it. And it stopped being a home when Ma died." Steve squeezed Bucky's hand as hard as he could, as if a little pain could knock some sense into him.
"Fuck, Steve. You don't know what you're saying."
"I do know what I'm saying." He wriggled closer to Bucky, until their lips were almost touching. "You're my home, you stupid jerk. Nothing means anything without you."
Before Bucky could say anything else, Steve closed the last inch between them, bringing their mouths together, Bucky's lips impossibly soft and rough at once. Bucky moaned and tried to pull back, but Steve wrapped one hand around the back of his neck and put all his strength into holding him in place. He knew Bucky could have broken free, but instead he stilled in Steve's grip.
They didn't usually touch in the light of day. Not even behind a locked door. They usually only touched at night, when the neighbours were sleeping and there was little chance of being overheard, however quiet they were. But touching Bucky like this, in the daylight, the sun turning his skin the colour of honey…Steve could definitely get used to this.
Bucky, though, was still too tense. Still thinking too much, still trying to be quiet, still trying to be good. And fuck that, Steve thought.
He deepened the kiss, moved even closer until he was plastered against Bucky's chest, until he could feel how hard Bucky's dick was. They'd fallen asleep in t-shirts and boxers, and Steve couldn't stand it, couldn't stand even that much clothing between them. He pulled his own t-shirt over his head, then helped Bucky pull off his. Bucky scrambled to push down their boxers, so they were skin to skin, and both breathing hard into each other's mouths. And it still wasn't enough.
He rolled his hips against Bucky, smiling into the kiss as he felt Bucky's hips stutter against him, felt the gasp in Bucky's throat. He grabbed a fistful of Bucky's hair with one hand, hooked one leg around Bucky's calf, and then they were moving together, stomachs slick and dicks hard and both whining with need. Bucky managed to reach down and get a hand around both their dicks, and then they were moving together, faster and faster. Steve felt himself approaching the peak, knew Bucky must be there as well, and then the pleasure was crashing over him, over them both, until all they could do was cling to each other and gasp.
"That's what you got me into, Buck," Steve whispered furiously into his shoulder. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Aw, Steve," was all Bucky could say before he buried his face in Steve's neck. Steve held him tightly, and pretended he couldn't feel Bucky's tears on his skin.
For once, Steve found work first. When Sidney found out he was an artist, he said he had just the job for him.
"The decorator at the store needs an assistant. The pay's good, and the decorator's a decent guy. It would be perfect for you."
By the end of the week, Steve had a job at Marshall Fields, helping with window and floor displays and painting whatever signs were needed. The main decorator, Richard, was as decent a guy as Sidney had advertised, and the three of them would often take their lunch breaks together in Richard's work in the bowels of the store.
Bucky started pounding the pavement, looking for work, but Chicago was like New York: too many people, too few jobs, and he didn't even have the advantage of knowing anyone who could help him. Sidney knew people, though. Men like them, who'd come to Chicago hoping for a safe haven. Who kept in touch, even if they didn't have clubs where they could be themselves anymore. He put out the word, and a couple of weeks later one of his friends told him about a clerk position in an office on Wabash Street.
"I've never done that kind of work," Bucky protested.
"You're a smart guy," Sidney told him. "You'll pick it up. And it's a damn sight better than working in the slaughterhouses."
Bucky was smart, and he did pick up the job quickly, and there they were, two young men pulling regular paychecks.
Steve added more money into their pot when he signed on with the Chicago office of the WPA, once again getting paid to do sketches of street life.
All they needed was their own apartment, and Sidney found them the perfect one. It was a small place, one big room with scuffed wooden floors, the kitchen at one end and the bathtub at the other, a shared toilet down the hall. It wasn't much, but it had big windows all down one wall. The view was just the blank brick wall of the next building over, but they were high enough up that no one could see in, and the mid-afternoon light was perfect for drawing.
Steve was heartbroken when they didn't have enough saved yet for the deposit on the place, but Sidney did them one more act of kindness and loaned them the difference.
"It's not charity," Sidney said. "It's my way of getting my apartment, and my couch, back. Not that I don't love the two of you, but I'll love you more if you're not sleeping on my floor every night."
He and Bucky had talked about moving in together in Brooklyn, but there it had been nothing more than a fantasy. They'd always worried about how it would look or what people would think. Even when Bucky would stay at Steve's place, or Steve would visit Bucky's, the surrounding apartments occupied by people they'd known since they were kids, they'd always been quiet. Careful. (Except the one time they weren't.)
But being in a new city, where they knew no one, and no one knew them, was freeing. They were still careful in public, but in their own place, they let themselves touch, let themselves live. Steve went to bed every day curled against Bucky's side, and he woke up every morning the same way.
It was a golden time, summer stretching into fall, each day as gloriously golden as the one before.
Sundays were Steve's favourite day. On Sundays there was nowhere for them to be (with no mothers to nag them, they'd both given up on church, Steve because he was fucked if he was going to listen to a priest telling him that men like them were going to hell, and Bucky because he always followed Steve's lead) so they'd sleep in and wake tangled together, warm and content. On Sundays, Steve would kiss Bucky all over, tasting salt and sweat. On Sundays, they could take their time with each other, could bring each other off as slowly as they liked, could swallow each other's gasps with deep, longing kisses.
The last Sunday before the weather turned, before summer lost its hold and winter took them in its grasp, Steve woke before Bucky did. He opened his eyes and found Bucky asleep on his back, covers pushed down to his hips, his bare chest golden in the early morning light. Steve couldn't help it, he moved closer, threw his arm around Bucky's waist and buried his face in the crook of his neck, letting his lips brush his skin.
Bucky snuffled, and curled into Steve. Steve kissed his throat, his shoulder, his touch delicate at first, then more insistent. He felt the moment when Bucky came awake in his arms, when he breathed in deep and moved his arms around Steve's shoulders, holding him tight. What had been playful became more serious.
Steve moved his hands up, gripping Bucky's hair as he kissed Bucky hard on the mouth. Bucky met him with tongue and teeth, pulling in a deep gasp as Steve pulled hard on his hair.
"Jesus, Steve," Bucky whispered. And that only drove Steve on further.
He nipped at Bucky's stubbled chin, at his throat, moving down his body. He held him down firmly, thumbs digging into his hipbone and tongue moving down his chest, his belly. Bucky whined and thrust his hips up, and then Steve was between his legs, grasping his dick in one hand as he licked up its length, swirling his tongue around the head.
He sucked in, hard enough to hollow out his cheeks, hard enough that he heard Bucky's breathing go harsh in his throat. He wanted this, to give Bucky this kind of pleasure, to have him panting and begging under Steve's hands, under his mouth.
"Steve," Bucky warned, but Steve didn't care. He just sucked harder, ran a hand firmly up the inside of Bucky's thigh, and then swallowed the salt and the bitter as Bucky threw back his head and came.
When Bucky's shudders had ceased, Steve gave him a final wicked lick and pushed himself up slowly off Bucky, off the bed. He leaned back against the windowsill, arms crossed, to view his handiwork. Bucky lay stretched out on the bed, hands behind his head, a wicked grin on his face, his lips red and swollen, his chest flushed. They'd never bothered putting curtains on the windows, and the late morning sun haloed Bucky's hair, caught the steel blue of his eyes.
"Jesus, Buck," he whispered. "You don't know how much I fuckin' love you," Bucky's beauty surprising the confession out of him. He'd loved Bucky for a long time, for years, forever, but had never felt brave enough to say it before.
Bucky lay still for a moment, the grin fading from his lips, and Steve thought he'd said too much. Bucky rolled up on his elbows and flowed to his feet with a grace that he usually only showed on the dance floor, his expression grave. He reached out, cupping Steve's face gently in one hand. Steve braced himself, not daring to hope.
"It's mutual, Stevie." Bucky moved in and placed a tender kiss on Steve's mouth. "You mean so damn much to me."
Steve didn't know whether to laugh or cry, there were so many emotions coursing through him, sparking his skin and making his stomach flutter and his ears buzz. He kissed Bucky back, letting himself enjoy the feeling of being wrapped up in Bucky's arms, the feeling of skin on skin.
He leaned into Bucky's arms and toppled them back onto the bed, then crawled up Bucky, straddling him so he could kiss him and stroke him and love him.
That day, they only left the bed long enough to grab food from the kitchen, eating sandwiches and apples cross-legged on the sheets like they were picnicking in Prospect Park, before crawling all over each other again.
For all of that day, Steve let himself hope that the world was more benign than he'd thought, that their fate would be kinder than he'd feared.
Three days later, snow began to fall.
Steve had always half suspected that Brooklyn winters had been created specifically to kill him. The cold would get into his bones, and no matter where he was living, the heat was never enough to chase it away. When he was younger, he'd considered it a good winter if he'd only got sick once. If his ma had been spared calling for a doctor because he was burning up with a fever. If he hadn't had to endure Bucky and his ma arguing about whether it was time to call a priest while he gasped for air.
Turns out that winters in Brooklyn were tropical compared to fucking Chicago. The wind came howling in off Lake Michigan, bringing storms with more snow than Steve had ever seen at one time. And those windows in their apartment that Steve loved so much let in drafts that worked their icy fingers into every corner of the place. Steve was always shivering, no matter how many layers of clothes he wore. A week after the temperatures start dropping, Steve stole every rag he could find from the Marshall Fields workroom he and Richard shared and jammed them into every crack he could find in the window frames, and it still didn't do a damn bit of good.
He used his WPA money and got new topcoats for him and Bucky from a sale rack in the store, and had Sidney find them both gloves that weren't too dear. He even pulled out his ma's knitting needles and knit them both scarves. (Sarah Rogers had taught her son how to knit one of the many times he'd been stuck home from school, quarantined for some damn illness or another.)
Nothing kept him warm, though, and two weeks before Christmas he could feel himself fading, his skin flushed, his throat raw, and every joint in his body aching like a son of a bitch.
He hid it for a day, hiding how he felt in front of Bucky, and dragging himself into work where he and Richard were putting the finishing touches on all the Christmas displays. But the second day he woke up feverish and delirious, and all the acting ability in the world couldn't have kept Bucky from realizing how sick he was.
"Dumb punk," Bucky said as he held a glass for Steve to sip from and then put a cold compress on his head. "You gonna be okay if I leave you? I'd stay, only it's a good job and I don't know how they'd take me not coming in."
"I'll be fine," Steve insisted, trying to focus on Bucky without going cross-eyed. "You go."
So Bucky went, and Steve tried to look after himself, drinking from the jug of water and picking at the soda crackers and apple slices Bucky had left him. Bucky arrived home that night with a container of chicken noodle soup he'd gone five blocks out of his way to get for Steve on the way home.
The next day, Steve was no better, and no more able to hide it, and Bucky left again looking even more worried. He came home halfway through the afternoon, with a doctor in tow.
"What did you do, Buck?" Steve complained, but he wasn't even sure the words come out right.
"Shut up and let Dr. Connelly look at ya."
Steve shut up and let the doctor take his temperature and listen to his chest and poke every swollen gland in his body. When he was done, Bucky paid the doctor with bills he peeled off of their rolls of savings, and Connelly left a bottle of medicine.
The medicine worked, but it still took two more days for Steve to get back to work.
"I'm glad to see you," Richard told him. "But you've got to be careful with your sick time." Richard looked skittish, as if he thought someone might be watching him. "Management don't like it when people take time off."
Steve nodded and smiled, and tried his best to hide his weakness, but he felt the happiness and security he'd thought they'd found here it slipping away from him.
Not knowing anyone in this city, in this building, had freed them to live as they liked. But it also meant they had no one to help them. There was no Mrs. McGillvray down the hall who could look in on Steve when he was sick. There were no Amos brothers upstairs who could be counted on for a trip to a pharmacy for medicine, or to a deli for chicken noodle soup. There was no Dr. Lippert, who was always willing to make a house call, even if they didn't have the money to pay him right this minute.
Apart from Sidney, they were truly alone in Chicago, and Steve was afraid what that would mean for them the next time he got sick. Because if experience had taught him anything, it was that there was always going to be a next time for him getting sick.
In spite of the fear that Steve now carried with him all the time, they had a good Christmas. Bucky roasted a small chicken from the butcher a couple of blocks over. (Not the butcher whose steaks were rumoured to whinny.) Steve made mashed potatoes and canned peas. Sidney came over with a pie from the neigbourhood bakery and a bottle of whisky. They all ate and drank and laughed, and it was one of the best Christmases Steve could remember.
They waited until Sidney left to open their presents to each other, both sitting cross-legged under the tiny Christmas tree Bucky had come home with three nights before Christmas eve. ("It ain't Christmas without a tree," Bucky had said. "And besides, it was cheap.") With the glow from their bare lightbulb glittering on the tree's tinsel, Bucky handed Steven his present, a flat, heavy thing wrapped in last week's funny papers.
Steve unwrapped the gift, to reveal a handsome leather-bound sketchbook, its cover embossed with SGR in gilt letters, its pages thick and smooth. He ran his fingertips over the cover, feeling the fine grain of the leather.
"It's great, Buck," he said, his throat closing up, just a bit. "Too good for me to draw in."
"Nah," Bucky said, wrapping his arm around Steve's shoulders. "If anything, it ain't good enough."
Steve ducked his head down, and leaned into Bucky's warmth. He decided his first sketch in this book would be of Bucky.
Reaching out, he grabbed his gift to Bucky—a small, unwrapped box tied with a silver ribbon he'd lifted from his workroom at Marshall Fields.
"Here ya go, Buck." He placed the box carefully in Bucky's palm, hoping he'd chosen well.
Bucky grinned at him, then pulled at the bow and lifted the lid off the box.
"They're gorgeous, Steve," Bucky said, a sparkle in his eyes.
"Ya think so?"
Steve had found the cufflinks in a pawnshop just outside of the Loop. They were silver, with blue and slate grey squares of enamel that had reminded Steve of Bucky's eyes.
"Almost as gorgeous as you, Stevie." Bucky clutched the cufflinks in one fist and hugged Steve tightly. "I'll wear 'em to work and think of you all day."
"You big dope," Steve said, pushing Bucky away.
Then there was shoving and tickling and before he knew it Steve was sprawled on top of Bucky, Bucky's hands running through his hair. He couldn't help it. He moaned and arched and then Bucky was running his tongue down his throat and he knew they could be so much more comfortable.
"Bed," he gasped out, and never let it be said that Bucky Barnes wasn't a smart cookie, because barely had the word left Steve's lips than Bucky had scooped him up and moved him to the piece of furniture in question.
Just because it was Christmas it didn't mean their apartment wasn't still drafty and cold, so they piled the bed high with every blanket and even their topcoats before crawling in, curled around each other.
It was a challenge, undressing under the covers while keeping maximum contact with Bucky, but it was a challenge Steve was up for. They turned it into a game, each garment shed earning a kiss or a bite that drew out a shudder of pleasure. He untangled his arms from his shirt, and Bucky bit down softly on his ear lobe and dragged on soft flesh with his teeth until Steve thought he was going to scream. Bucky managed to shuck off his trousers, and Steve licked the line of his collarbone and then swallowed Bucky's moans with a kiss. When Bucky tossed his final sock onto the floor, Steve celebrated by sucking a deep bruise into the curve of Bucky's shoulder.
"You're such a little shit," Bucky said with a laugh.
"And you love it," Steve said, because he knew absolutely that Bucky was right. And then he proceeded to pin Bucky down and totally undo him with mouth and hands and body.
After Christmas, the thermometer dropped even more, down to temperatures Brooklyn had never seen, and Steve braced himself to get sick again. But days then weeks went by, and somehow he stayed healthy, (as healthy as he ever was), and the fear that had coiled around him, choked him, in December started to recede.
He and Bucky settled into a comfortable routine. There was work every day and dinner at home every evening, and then they'd spend the time until bed leaning against opposite arms of the couch, their feet twined together in the middle. Bucky would read a library book or a pulp he'd picked up at the newsstand at the corner; Steve would have his new sketchbook in his lap, alternating between sketches for his next WPA piece and portraits of Bucky. Somehow, he always spent more time drawing Bucky than the street scenes he was being paid for.
By mid-March, the streets were still chillingly cold, but Steve could feel spring approaching. He began to hope this was going to be a good winter, a winter when he only got sick once, a winter when Bucky wasn't going to have to find a doctor in the middle of the night to make sure Steve didn't die.
He should have fucking known better. The winter wasn't done with them; it still had a blow to deliver.
The blow, when it came, wasn't in the form of influenza or pneumonia, but in a telegram. And its target wasn't Steve, but Bucky.
Before Christmas, Bucky had sent a card to his oldest sister through his old neighbour, Mrs. Quinn. (They both always got on best with Becky. Izzy was two years younger, and even Becky thought she was a pain.) Mrs. Quinn had been the one who'd passed on letters from Sidney to Bucky after the family had disowned him. ("Sidney is family," she'd told Bucky back then. "You look after family no matter what.") Becky had written back right away. Her first letter started, "I miss you so much, you big idiot. You better be looking after Steve." The two of them had been exchanging letters ever since, and Bucky read every one of them out loud to Steve. His sister never mentioned their father and barely talked about their mother, but her letters were full of enough stories of school and her friends and the neighbourhood to keep their homesickness for Brooklyn at bay.
They weren't expecting a letter from Becky for a few days, had come home from work and eaten dinner and settled on the couch when there was a knock on the door. Steve didn't even look up from his sketchbook—he'd been working on yet another portrait of Bucky for two days and couldn't get his smile right—so Bucky gave his feet a swat and got up to answer the door. Steve didn't think anything of it. There'd been times when a knock at the door would have been cause for worry, but not right now. They weren't behind on rent, had no debt collectors after them, and if they hadn't made any good friends in the building, they hadn't made any enemies either.
As he erased a section of the sketch and started re-working it, Steve heard Bucky talking to someone in tones low enough that he couldn't hear the words, and then the snick of the door closing. He finally thought he'd managed to get just the right look on Bucky's mouth in the sketch, when he realized the man himself hadn't come back to the couch. He looked up and there was Bucky, standing with his back against the door, a piece of paper in his hand. His mouth was clenched so tight that Steve couldn't see the pink of his lips.
"Bucky?" Bucky didn't react, and Steve felt a cold wash of fear trickle down his spine. "What's wrong?" He put down his sketchbook and walked over carefully to the door, as if Bucky was a stray dog who might spook. He was a few steps away when he noticed the paper was a telegram. His dread increased. No one sent a telegram with good news. Not to the likes of them.
He got to Bucky's side without Bucky reacting, without him speaking. He put a hand on Bucky's shoulder, and winced when Bucky flinched under his touch.
Knowing there was nothing else he could do, Steve reached out and took the telegram from Bucky's loose grip.
It wasn't long. Just nine words: Bad accident. Dad's in hospital. Please come home. Becky.
Nine words shouldn't have hurt so much.
Steve's words broke whatever had frozen Bucky. He pushed himself away from the door, away from Steve, and started pacing the apartment.
"Son of a bitch." He got to one end of the room, spun around and headed back toward Steve. "Son of a fucking bitch."
"Bucky." Steve kept his voice gentle. "You gotta go back."
"I don't gotta do shit for that bastard." His voice was angry, but Steve could see the pain in his eyes.
"Not for him." Steve still felt an overwhelming need to punch George Barnes when he thought about him at all. "You gotta go back for your sisters. For your mom."
"Fuck." Bucky stopped in the middle of the room, his arms hanging limply at his side. "Mom must be losing her mind. Becky and Izzy, too."
"You should be there for them." Steve approached Bucky cautiously, one hand stretched out.
"Yeah." Steve didn't think he'd ever heard Bucky sound so lost before. He carefully put a hand on Bucky's shoulder. Bucky pulled him into a hug so tight Steve could barely breath. He didn't complain, though, just hugged Bucky back and made a silent promise to do whatever Bucky needed. That night, it meant holding him until he finally drifted into an uneasy sleep. In the morning, it meant insisting that Bucky take the 20th Century Limited back to New York.
"I can't do that, Steve," Bucky said when Steve brought it up the next morning. "That'll clean out our savings."
"It's just money, Buck," Steve said, hoping he sounded convincing. "You'll make more when you come back. But right now your family needs you in Brooklyn."
"Shit, Steve, what am I going to do without you?"
"You'll do fine." Steve only hoped he'd do fine without Bucky.
Bucky packed his suitcase and took most of their savings. (He insisted on Steve keeping ten dollars of it. "For emergencies.") Then they took the El into downtown, like it was a normal workday. Bucky went to his office to tell them he needed time off for a family emergency, and at noon he showed up in the workroom at Marshall Fields where Steve and Richard were eating their lunch.
Steve had told Richard what had happened, and his boss found an errand he suddenly needed to run, letting them have the room to themselves. Steve locked the door after Richard left, and then he and Bucky were wrapped around each other.
"I'm going to miss you," Steve said, breathing in Bucky's scent, willing himself to keep the memory of this moment clear so he'll have something to hold onto when Bucky's gone.
"I'll be back soon. You won't have time to miss me, punk."
"Whatever you say, jerk."
Steve allowed himself one kiss. He met Bucky's lips and licked at his teeth and tasted him one last time. And then he forced himself to pull back. To run his hand down Bucky's chest with the excuse of straightening his lapels. To move to the door and unlock it.
"Here." He held out a piece of paper to Bucky. "It's the phone number here. I'll make sure I'm here at noon every day. No matter what."
Bucky took it, his fingers brushing against Steve's before he put the scrap in his wallet.
And then, before either of them could change their minds, he was gone.
When Richard returned, Steve was sitting at their work bench, carefully breathing in and out, ignoring the prickling in his eyes and the wheezing in his lungs and the feeling that the life they'd started here was unravelling strand by strand.
Steve got through the rest of the day on instinct alone. Richard was constantly correcting him, until he finally sent him back into the storeroom to sort through damaged mannequins where he could do the least amount of damage. At the end of the day, he couldn't face the empty apartment, so he drifted over to Sidney's place. (He hadn't been able to face Sidney at the store.)
Sidney answered the door still in the suit he wore to work, and frowned when he saw Steve by himself.
"That idiot cousin of mine hasn't kicked you out, has he?" he said, pulling Steve into the place and steering him toward the living room.
Steve shook his head and let Sidney sit him on the couch. There, he gradually choked out the story of what had happened and why Bucky had gone back to Brooklyn.
"Shit," Sidney finally said, after sitting quietly with Steve for a long minute. "Well, I know my company is no substitute for James', but you're staying for dinner."
Sidney kept up a steady stream of chatter as he made up a simple meal of spaghetti and sauce, recruiting Steve to set the table and cut thick slices of bread. Steve had no doubt the food was delicious, but it all tasted like sawdust to him and it took an effort for him to force down a fraction of what Sidney put on his plate.
After dinner, they sat on the couch, and Sidney asked him about work and his WPA assignments and if he'd spent much time at the Art Institute, and Steve found he could barely give him single-word answers.
"I should go," he finally said after he'd failed to respond to Sidney's question about a movie he and Bucky had seen the week before.
"No, you absolutely shouldn't," Sidney insisted. "You're staying here tonight."
"You've done enough, Sidney."
"I've done the bare minimum," Sidney said. "The shape you're in, I don't trust you to get home. And I don't want to face James if I lose his fella on him."
So, Steve ended up on the couch cushions on the floor, with a blanket and a pillow, just like his first night in Chicago. Except that this time Bucky wasn't beside him. It took him a long time to fall asleep.
In the morning, Sidney loaned him a fresh (and only slightly too big) shirt, gave him breakfast, and shepherded into work, all the way into the workroom.
"Look after this one," he told Richard before heading out to his station on the floor.
Richard did more than enough for Steve, finding tasks to keep him in the workroom, and not commenting when Steve hovered near the phone as noon approached.
That first day, the phone didn't ring at noon, or any time after, and Steve was a distracted mess the rest of the day.
In spite of Sidney's protests, that night he went back to his own apartment.
"I don't think you've got enough shirts for both of us," Steve told Sidney. He'd been glad enough for Sidney's company the night before, but he wanted some time to himself. So he grabbed a sandwich to go from the diner down the street, ate it at the table he usually shared with Bucky, and then curled up on the couch, missing the feeling of Bucky's feet tangled with his own.
He opened his sketchbook to the portrait of Bucky he'd been working on when the telegram came, Bucky's smile on the page mocking the misery he felt, and he didn't pick up his pencil the whole damn night.
The next day, after a fitful night's sleep, Steve felt steady enough to work on a new display in the men's department. But at ten minutes to noon he was back in the workroom, waiting again for the phone to ring. And when the phone did ring, Steve snatched up the receiver before the jingling had stopped.
"I'm here, Buck."
Steve could tell right away from Bucky's voice that something was very wrong. And he didn't have to wait to find out what it was.
"He's dead, Steve. My dad's dead." There was sniff at the other end of the line. "Someone lost control of a girder on the building he was working on and it crushed him and he died last night." The words came out in a rush, as if Bucky was afraid he'd never manage them if he took his time.
"I'm not." Even in the face of death, Bucky sounded angry. "He wouldn't see me. Even at the end, he wouldn't see me. Told Ma to keep me away." Steve heard a sob.
"Oh, Bucky…" Steve didn't know what else to say.
"I thought me leaving, that maybe he'd…but…No, he was a son of a bitch 'til the end. But Ma…God, she's so sad. And Becky and Izzy are broken up."
"I wish I was there for you."
"You couldn't do anything, Steve. I don't think they'd let ya." There was a pause, and another sniff. "I gotta go. I'm running out of change and I'm supposed to go to the funeral home. Ma ain't in any shape to handle that, and the girls are too young."
"I love you," Steve said, the words coming without thought.
"Love you, too," Bucky whispered, and Steve wondered what phone booth he was making the call from and if Winnie Barnes was nearby, if anyone knew he was calling Steve. "I'll call again as soon as I can. But it might be next week. The funeral's gonna happen quick."
Steve listened to the buzz of the line long after Bucky hung up.
Steve settled into a new routine. Every day at noon he would wait by the workroom phone, hoping Bucky would call him. And every day for a week, the phone remained resolutely silent.
Steve had begun to give up hope, to think Bucky had forgotten him. He started to dread the phone ringing instead of hoping for it. Then, after a week and right at noon, the phone finally rang. Steve nearly dropped the receiver, he was so rattled.
Much to Steve's relief, Bucky sounded more himself than he had the last time they'd talked.
"Thank Christ you're there. I thought you mighta given up on me."
"I'd never do that, Buck."
Steve had so many questions for Bucky. How was he holding up? How was Becky? What was it like, being back in the neighbourhood? But instead he asked him the thing he wanted to know most.
"When are you coming back?"
"I don't know."
That wasn't the answer he'd hoped for, and all the fears that had begun crowding around him the past week came roaring up.
"Are you coming back?"
"I don't know."
"I really don't…fuck, Steve. It's complicated, okay?"
"Why is it complicated?"
"Because it is. Because my dad is dead and there was barely enough money for the funeral and I want the girls to finish school and I don't want Ma to have to take in laundry or a boarder."
Right then, Steve suddenly knew. He knew what Bucky wasn't saying, and he felt utterly sick.
"You're not coming back, are you?" Steve tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but he failed miserably. He knew he should be noble about this. He knew he should tell Bucky that he should do what he needed to do and not to worry about him. He wanted to, but he couldn't, because he was fucking selfish.
"I want to. God, you don't know how much I want to, Stevie. But it's my family." Bucky's voice broke and cracked. And that only made sense, because Steve felt like he was breaking, too.
"Shit." Steve rubbed at his eyes, hoping that Richard wasn't going to come back to the workroom any time soon because he wasn't sure when he was going to be able to stop crying.
"You should stay there," Bucky said, his voice sounding thick and wet. "You've got a good job there. If you get sick, Sidney will look after you. Maybe you'll find a dame who'll look after you, too. Maybe you can take some classes at the Art Institute. Become a famous artist. You deserve all of that, Stevie. You deserve a good life."
Steve couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand hearing Bucky map out a life for him. A life without Bucky.
"I gotta go, Buck," Steve managed the words without sobbing.
"Tell Becky I'm thinking about her."
He slammed down the receiver before Bucky could say anything else, before he could convince Steve to follow his stupid plan for a stupid life that Steve didn't want.
Steve managed to stick it out for two weeks.
For two weeks he hoped that Bucky would come back to Chicago. Every day, he'd sit in the workroom at noon, hoping Bucky would call him back. Every night, he'd write a letter to Bucky, care of Mrs. Quinn, telling him about his day and how much he missed him, how much he wanted him back here, in the home they'd made together.
But in two weeks there were no more phone calls, no letters addressed to Steve in Bucky's messy scrawl. The weather turned for the better, the sun melting the snow as spring took hold, but Steve couldn't melt the ice of winter in his bones.
Richard and Sidney knew something was wrong—Steve wasn't hiding his feelings very well—but they didn't push him. Richard kept things easy on him at work, letting him choose what he wanted to do each day. If it was a good day, he'd work with Richard sprucing up displays on the floor. If it was a bad day, he'd stay in the workroom, sketching out displays for the spring sales or repairing mannequins.
Sidney would appear at the workroom every evening so they could go home together. He would prattle on about the most ridiculous customers he'd had that day, and ask Steve about work, about Steve's visits to the Art Institute, about his WPA work, about anything but Bucky.
Steve appreciated their tact, but a part of him almost wished they had pushed him. That he could talk about Bucky and his absence with someone, instead of just being alone with the ache of it.
After two weeks, Steve finally accepted Sidney's invitation to dinner one evening. He silently helped Sidney in his tiny kitchen, cutting vegetables and mashing potatoes and arranging the table. It was when they were eating, when Sidney had his mouth full with the chicken cutlet he'd made, that Steve broke the ban on talking about Bucky.
"He's not coming back," he said, his voice quiet, his gaze directed down at the table. "I know he's not coming back. His mom and sisters need him, and there's nothing for him here."
"I ain't enough." Steve dragged a green bean around his plate. "He's got a life there, Sidney. I gotta respect that."
"I think you're wrong," Sidney said. "James always talked about you in his letters. He's crazy about you."
"Not crazy enough to come back here." And Steve knew it wasn't fair, how bitter he felt that Bucky had chosen his family over him. But he couldn't help it.
"So, what are you going to do?" Sidney asked.
"If he's not coming back here, then I've gotta go back there."
"Oh, Steve…" Sidney's voice held both warning and pity. Steve didn't want to be pitied by anyone, so he straightened up and finally looked Sidney in the eye.
"It'll be okay. His dad was the reason we ran, and his dad is dead." Steve thought it was probably a sin to be glad for the death of another human being, but he didn't care. "His mom'll be okay. She always used to like me. And I'll make sure I keep my distance, make sure we don't get caught again." He clenched his hand around his fork, concentrating on the feeling of the metal digging into his palm, telling himself the prickles in his eyes were just from the physical pain and nothing to do with the way he felt like his heart was breaking. "It'll be hard, but not as hard as staying here without him. I can't do that anymore."
"I don't suppose I can talk you out of it. But if you ever need a place, you can come back here."
Steve began to prepare to leave the next day.
He went to the train station on his lunch, to get a schedule and to check the fare back to Manhattan. He wasn't going to show up in Brooklyn completely broke.
Three weeks of saving every penny he could, and he had enough for his train fare and a small stake to start again. He gave his notice at the store, handed in his final assignment at the WPA (portrait studies of sales people at the store), and bought his train ticket for the day after his last day at the store. Then he had just one more thing to do.
That night, he curled up on the couch with his sketchbook balanced on his knees as a desk, and he wrote one final letter from this home he was about to abandon.
I know I've been writing you a lot—too much, probably—but this is the last letter I'm going to send. Don't worry. That isn't what it sounds like.
I've thought a lot about what you said on the phone, about me staying here, making a life. I haven't thought about much else the last few weeks.
But here's the thing. It ain't a life without you. Even if it all worked out here, even if I kept my job and never got sick and didn't get into any fights I couldn't finish (and you know me, how likely is any of that?), it would still feel hollow without you. I ache every morning when I wake up and you're not there, and every night when I close my eyes without you. I ache just knowing we're not in the same city, that you're hundreds of miles away.
I can't live like this, can't live here anymore. So, I'm coming back.
Don't panic. I don't expect us to have what we had here. I know the score. I ain't going to screw things up with your ma. I'll get a room somewhere. I've got some money saved up, and I'll sign back on with the WPA, if they ain't sore that I ran out on them the last time. Maybe I can get a job as a decorator in some fancy Manhattan store. Richard said he'll write me a reference letter. If not, I can go back to painting store signs. Hell, I'll sweep out stores if I have to, just so I can be back in Brooklyn. Back near you.
I hope you'll be willing to see me, once in a while. I'll be careful this time. Your ma won't catch us. We maybe shouldn't do anything anyone could catch us at, but if we do, I'll make damn sure we're careful. But we don't have to do anything, just grab a cup of coffee, go to a picture show. I just want to see you, to know you're okay.
My train is due at Grand Central next Saturday, May 14, at 5 p.m. I won't lie, I'm hoping you can meet me, but I'll understand if you can't. If I don't see you there, I'll let Mrs. Quinn know where I'm staying.
If you're not at the station and you don't come to see me, then I'll keep away. I hope that's not the case, but I'll respect the choice you make.
Whatever you do, you gotta know you're the best thing that ever happened to me.
A week later, he once again packed up everything he owned in his battered suitcase: his clothes, the pictures of his ma, his dad's medals. The leather sketchbook from Bucky he placed carefully on top of everything before he closed the lid and snapped it shut.
He got better connections than when he and Bucky had come out to Chicago, so the trip took a lot less time. But slouched alone in his seat without Bucky to watch over, it felt like it took forever. He could barely make himself eat the sandwiches or apples he'd stuffed in his pockets for the trip.
They were delayed in Albany, and again in Toledo, so the train was three hours late pulling into Grand Central. As he dragged his suitcase down from the luggage rack, he had no hope that Bucky would still be waiting for him, if he'd ever come in the first place. He dragged himself off the train, eyes down as he avoided the crush of the other passengers and their loved ones reuniting around him.
He started down the platform, planning out in his head where in Brooklyn he might get a room in a flophouse this late at night, when someone grabbed his arm. He was tired and miserable but he still wasn't going to let anyone push him around. He pulled back his elbow and whirled on whoever had grabbed him, clenching his free hand ready for a punch.
"Jeez, Steve. It's me. Did ya want me to come meet ya or not?"
And there was Bucky, smiling at him, so Goddamn handsome that Steve forgot all his promises to be careful, to keep his distance, to not get caught.
"Bucky!" He threw himself at Bucky, hugged him tightly, his face buried in Bucky's chest. Bucky squeezed his shoulder, held him just as closely, but only for as long as it took Steve to take one deep breath, and then another. Then he was releasing his hold, pulling back. And Steve let him, had to let him. Because how would it look, him blubbering all over another guy in Grand Central Station?
Bucky let one hand linger on Steve's shoulder, the sort of touch that was perfectly fine between two friends.
"It's good to see you, Steve." Bucky looked down at him, the expression in his eyes fond, and, if you knew how to look, a bit broken.
Steve felt himself break at that moment. Because he knew what he was coming back to. At best, there would be locked doors and pulled curtains. There would be hushed kisses and stifled moans and the need to hide everything he was. Everything they were.
And at worst? At worst he'd be left with nothing but the memories of what they'd had in Chicago. A place to call their own. A few brief months when they could love each other the way they wanted.
He let Bucky take his suitcase, swinging it easily in one hand while he took Steve's elbow with the other to direct him off the crowded platform.
"I found ya a room, Stevie," Bucky kept up a steady stream of chatter as he led Steve through the light evening crowds, heading toward the subway entrance. "In the Olsen's rooming house. It's tiny, but you only have to share the toilet, not the room, and the price is right. I gave Mrs. Olsen the first week's rent. I know what you'll say, but you can pay me back when you get a job. I checked, and the light's nice in the afternoon. Be good for your drawing. And you'll be close. It's only a couple of blocks to Ma's from there."
He didn't realize he'd been slowing down until Bucky came to a stop beside him.
"You okay, Stevie?"
Bucky reached out, tentatively touching Steve's elbow, and that's when Steve looked down and saw it, a glint of silver and blue on Bucky's sleeve. Bucky was wearing the cufflinks he'd given him.
"Yeah, Buck." He smiled, hope breaking through inside of him. "Just glad to be home.
And that was nothing but the truth. He wasn't going to dwell on the worst or the best or anything but the present. In the present, he was with Bucky, and that was all that mattered.
Bucky's been living in the Avengers Tower for three months now, ever since T'Challa's people straightened out his head and Tony straightened out the Accords mess, but it's never felt like home. The floor Tony gave him and Steve is too big, too swank, too much. His memories are still a mess, but he feels like home should be smaller and messier, with scratched wooden floors inside and a brick façade outside. Their place here is all gleaming chrome and glass, and he's constantly afraid he's going to break anything he touches.
He's still afraid he's going to break Steve, for fuck's sake.
Steve tells him it's okay, but he never feels like he can just reach out and touch him. T'Challa's people told him the Winter Soldier triggers are gone from his mind, but he's still fearful that he'll try to complete Hydra's mission to kill Captain America. He and Steve sleep in separate rooms, and he makes Steve promise to lock his door every night. Just in case.
Steve fucking hates it.
"I trust you," he tells Bucky. "I've always trusted you."
"I don't trust myself," Bucky tells him, grimacing. "I don't remember who I was. Not entirely."
"You remember me," Steve insists.
"Who could forget you, ya dumb punk?" Bucky says. But he doesn't tell Steve about the times he wakes up not knowing who he is or where he is or when he is.
Another month of separate rooms and locked doors, and Steve takes matters into his own hands. Bucky shows up in the apartment after an afternoon of Clint teaching him how to shoot a bow to find Steve surrounded by a pile of dusty boxes.
"What the hell is all this, Steve?"
"I talked to the Smithsonian," Steve says as he attacks the tape on one box with a pocket knife. "Turns out they had a bunch of our stuff they didn't use for the exhibit. Things from my apartment, from your mom's place. I thought it might help with your memory, seeing our old things.
Bucky thinks Steve is being an optimistic idiot, (so no change there), but he helps him go through the boxes anyway.
"Who the fuck thought Captain America's towels had historic significance?" he asks as he's pulling a moth-eaten piece of terry cloth out of one box.
"Hey, don't forget I'm a national icon," Steve says with that crooked grin of his and bumps against his shoulder. For a second, Bucky doesn't feel like a fucking cyborg who might still have a time bomb in his head. For a second, he just feels like Bucky. For a second, he feels like a guy who could be Steve's boyfriend again. But then the shadows descend and he pulls away and he sees the disappointment hit Steve for the millionth fucking time since Bucky managed to come back to him.
It's Bucky who finds the sketchbook.
The leather is cracked and the pages are yellow, but the gold-stamped "SGR" in the corner pings something in Bucky's head more than all the old towels and cutlery they've found so far. He flips open the cover and finds a sketch of a young man in shirt sleeves smirking at the artist, and finds he can't breathe.
He's in a tiny flat with big windows that are too drafty in the winter, sitting beside a fucking microscopic Christmas tree and handing a wrapped present to a scrawny blond kid. To Steve.
"I gave you this," Bucky whispers.
Steve looks up. His expression when he sees what Bucky's holding…Bucky doesn't even know what it is. He looks like he might throw up. He looks like he might cry. He looks like he wants to punch something.
"You did." Steve reaches out and carefully touches the page, his gaze riveted to the sketch of the young man. "For Christmas, the year we ended up in Chicago." Steve pulls his hand back, slowly. "I used to sketch you all the time."
"That ain't me," Bucky insists. Because this kid on the page, you can tell he's a charmer. You can tell people like him. Bucky knows he doesn't inspire anything but fear.
"It is so. You were a looker. I could never quite believe you chose a scrawny kid like me." Steve eases the sketchbook from Bucky's hands and starts flipping through it. Every second page is another sketch of that dark-haired kid.
Bucky skips over Steve's obvious delusion, and focuses on the other confusing part of what Steve has said about this sketchbook.
"Why the fuck were we in Chicago?"
Steve's eyes flash with remembered pain.
"We had to…get away for a while." His face shuts down, and Bucky knows he's not going to get another word from him on the subject. Not right now.
He looks at a picture of the dark-haired kid (it ain't me), shirtless, and lying on a rumpled bed, hands behind his head and the smirk he's becoming very familiar with on his face.
"Were we happy there?" Bucky asks. "I feel like we were happy there."
"We were very happy." Steve's hand moves toward him, before carefully pulling back.
Bucky wants to be as happy as that stupid smirking kid was.
Steve finally puts down the sketchbook, treating it like it's the fucking Holy Grail, and starts looking through the box where Bucky found it. He pulls out a few pictures and a chipped teacup, but when his hand emerges holding a small water-stained box, Steve really does have tears in his eyes.
Bucky is about to ask him what the fuck is wrong, but then Steve opens the box and Bucky sees what's inside. It's just a pair of cufflinks, tarnished and scratched, but the effect on him is like seeing the sketchbook, times ten. Times a fucking million.
In his head, Bucky sees the cufflinks shiny and brand new. He remembers Steve giving him the box, raw affection radiating from his slender frame. More importantly, he actually feels how much he'd loved the stupid punk.
He reaches out and takes the box from Steve, letting his fingers brush Steve's as he does.
"This was the best fucking present I ever got," he says, his voice a low whisper. "I used to wear them everywhere. Didn't I?" He looks to Steve for confirmation. Steve's blinking too fast, like he's got something in his eyes, and his mouth is trembling.
"Yeah, you did." Steve's voice sounds funny, more choked than it did a minute ago. That ain't right, Steve sounding sad, when Bucky's remembering how happy he'd been.
He puts down the cuff links and reaches out carefully to touch Steve's cheek, to wipe away the wet on his face.
"Aw, Stevie, don't cry." His own voice sounds different. He wonders if this is how he'd sounded, back when he'd been that smirking kid. The one who'd loved Steve so much.
Something opens up in his chest, something that's been buried for too long. He finally feels like he might be able to touch Steve without hurting him. He lets his hand drift down to Steve's shoulder and moves in closer and closer, until he can rest his chin on Steve's shoulder. The whole time, he keeps his eyes down. He couldn't do this if he had to look Steve in the eye.
He's like that for maybe a minute when he feels a hitch in Steve's chest. Then Steve's arms are moving, surrounding him.
It's the first time they've hugged since the war, the first time Bucky's let Steve get this close to him. He can feel Steve's heart hammering in his chest, can feel the air from Steve's breath on his neck. Bucky's own heart flutters, and his head feels like it's been pumped up full of helium, but none of those feelings are bad. Far from it.
He throws his own arms around Steve, holding him as tightly as he can.
"Stevie?" He has a question he wants to ask while he feels like this, like that smirking kid who can touch Steve without hurting him.
"Run away with me?"
"Sure." Steve doesn't hesitate for an instant. He always was a stupid punk. "Where do ya wanna run to? Bucharest?"
"Nah. I was thinking Chicago." He thinks of that tiny apartment with the scuffed floors and the big windows.
"Sure, Buck." Steve hugs him even tighter.
"Can we take the 20th Century?"
"I don't think that's a thing anymore. But Tony will probably lend us one of his jets."
It probably isn't running away if you do it in a private jet, but Bucky doesn't care. He's already looking forward to Chicago. They'll be able to afford a bigger place this time, one with two bedrooms with locks for times when it ain't safe for him to be with Steve. But in Chicago, he has a good feeling that he can shed the Winter Soldier and become that smirking kid who loves Steve.