Steve was now a morning person.
This disgusted Bucky to the very bottom of his soul. It was one thing to have to get up early every day in order to avoid being blown up, but it was another thing to get up early every day because you wanted to. Such an attitude denoted nothing less than severe brain damage.
“I mean how often did you let him get hit over the head?” he demanded of Natalia.
She flicked a peanut at his head. It didn’t hit, because his reflexes were excellent, thank you, but it did fly over the back of the booth and land with a plop in the beer glass of the dude sitting at Bucky’s back, who growled and swore and muttered about those damn kids two tables over.
(Children in public houses. Who the fucking fuck brought children into fucking bars and why was it legal, that was what Bucky wanted to know. Throughout his childhood bars had been places you sought out if you wanted to get your sorry ass arrested, and even in England during the war women didn’t usually just go into pubs unless they were offering something you’d damn well better pay for, let alone children.
He wasn’t too clear on the intervening years. It was curious, but the war and his childhood were the things he remembered best. His therapist suggested this was because they were his most deeply formative experiences, but to be honest it sort of pissed Bucky off. It was like learning to be an adult all over again, starting from age fourteen, but with the addition of an extensive skillset pertaining to causing violent deaths and large explosions.)
“I’m not his keeper,” Natalia said. “I’m his friend.”
“Well no,” said Bucky. “I mean nobody’s ever gonna succeed at being Steve’s keeper, but seriously, every morning, five a-fucking-em. And you know what he does?” He flung his hands up. “He exercises. Because he desperately needs to keep up his muscle tone, and that’s the only way to do it.”
She was laughing now, and that was lovely to see, fond and bright with mirth. The only other times he remembered Natalia having expressions was when they were making love.
“It wakes me up every single fucking morning,” he said.
“Steve’s actually really quiet though, I was impressed. I thought he’d be loud and lumbering.”
“It’s the middle of winter, he takes half the blankets with him, and then it’s all cold air and goosebumps. And even when I’m in my own room, it’s like I’ve gone psychic, if Steve wakes up, I wake up, it drives me insane.”
“More insane than you already are,” Natalia said. “Buy some earplugs and quit sleeping with him.”
“See, if you’d ever let him cuddle you, you would not be handing out such rubbish advice,” said Bucky.
This was a thing to be expected of Mary Barnes’ son, just as it was of Sarah Rogers’, whose mother had been in service for some fifty years and could have cooked a feast fit for the King of England, except that the O’Carrolls had been Republicans time out of mind and fought for Home Rule. But Steve didn’t tend to enjoy it much: it was something he needed to do and knew how to do well, one chore among many.
Bucky loved it. It gave him confidence back to know that he could do something so ordinary, so normal. The fact that he could do it well was an added bonus. Taking a pile of ingredients and turning them into a single meal, something whole and entire that was good and useful, wanted and enjoyed… yeah, Bucky loved to cook. He couldn’t remember if he had loved it Before, but he rather thought not. Probably he had felt about it the same way Steve still did. Fair enough. People changed.
“How is it,” he said to Steve thoughtfully one afternoon, “that I have been living in the future with my mind tolerably intact for nearly six months and you have not yet bothered to tell me that there are bookstores in this city which are exclusively devoted to cookery books?”
“Uh,” said Steve. “Because I didn’t know?”
“I don’t know why I’m not more surprised,” said Bucky. “According to Wilson it’s taken you three years to try Thai food.”
“You don’t even like spicy food,” said Steve indignantly.
“I don’t like sushi either, doesn’t mean I haven’t tried it. No, no, get your clumsy paws away from the pie. In fact, get your ass and everything that goes with it out of my kitchen. Ouuuuuuuuuuut.”
It wasn’t until Steve had fled the kitchen, laughing to himself, that Bucky realised he had been brandishing the wooden spoon in his right hand with the exact same flick of his wrist that his mother had used to use when she had aimed the same denunciations at himself and Steve as boys.
A couple days after that Steve brought him home a tissue-paper-wrapped bundle, notebook-sized.
“I spent six hours arguing with the Smithsonian people about this,” he said ruefully. “They really, really wanted to keep it.”
Bucky sat up straight and put his book to one side. “What is it?”
Steve dropped onto the couch beside him and put it on his knees, unwrapped it slowly. His hands were a little unsteady. It was a notebook, very old, cardboard, terrible paper, the pages flaking out, even more scraps of paper trapped between the covers. Bucky had seen it before. He stared for a long time; then he said quietly, “It was Aunt Sarah’s.”
Steve rubbed a fingertip over an old gravy stain on the cover, in the upper left hand corner. “My Granma wrote it, all her recipes. It’s, you know, it’s mostly extravagant… amazing stuff from when she was in service, you know. But.” He cleared his throat. “You’ve been doing all this cooking, and I thought –“
Bucky lifted it gently. The cover had been worn smooth long ago, and the book itself smelt like old second-hand bookshops the world over, a little mouldy, dusty and acrid. Mrs O’Carroll’s handwriting was copperplate and clear – to Bucky at least; he imagined most people these days would have trouble deciphering it. My dear Sarah, the inscription on the first page said, so that you may take some part of home to America with you, along with all your Mother’s love.
“You don’t have her portrait or anything,” he said quietly.
“I couldn’t stand to look at it,” Steve said baldly. “Had her rings round my neck with my dog tags when I crashed.” A shiver took him. “Wanted to give them to Peggy, one day.”
Bucky was very still and silent for a long time. Then, softly, he said, “I’d love to try and cook some of these, Steve. Thank you.”
Steve couldn’t look at him, but that was all right. “It’s nice,” he said unsteadily, “being cooked for.”
“You’re welcome.” Bucky smiled.
“And – and I’m glad – it’s selfish, I’m sorry, but I’m glad I’m not the only person left in the world who remembers her. You know?”
Bucky did know. It was different for him; all three of his sisters had married and reproduced with happy enthusiasm, and even months later he still sometimes had to stop a small niece or nephew and say, which one do you belong to again? And they would roll their eyes and say, Emmy, Uncle Jim, I’ve told you a thousand times, now come play! Or Sarah Jane, or Becca. But his mother’s nose was on about four of them and his father’s eyes in three, and their parents or grandparents had warm, distant memories of Granma Mary and Granpa George, and all but the youngest of them remembered his sisters. Steve had none of that.
He reached out now and put his hand on the back of Steve’s neck, steadying and comforting. Then, suddenly, he said, “I was always her favourite.”
“The fuck you were,” said Steve, startled into wet, tearful laughter, and when Bucky tugged at him gently he leant sideways and curled himself into Bucky’s lap in a way he would never have done when they were kids, taking all the comfort he was offered.
Steve didn’t draw anymore.
Oh, sometimes Bucky caught him doodling cartoons on shopping lists and print-outs of SHIELD files or whatever, but the hours Steve had used to spend on fire escapes, window sills, park benches, doorsteps, heaps of rubble, flimsy camp chairs, bar stools, the hoods of Jeeps and the table in the corner of Howard’s lab, cheap sketchbook balanced on his knees, had dwindled to exactly zero. Bucky couldn’t quite work out what Steve did with himself instead, to tell the truth. His brain wouldn’t accept it. Steve drew; it was part of who he was. Was Steve still Steve if he didn’t draw? Of course he was. He was still Steve even in that ridiculous body, wasn’t he?
Still, it bugged him. It especially bugged him because the Army had thrown so much fucking back pay at the two of them that it would not exactly be a hardship to buy supplies, not anymore; paper, pencils, charcoal, even a drafting table or a real easel, which was the luxury Steve had dreamed of in secret every Christmas for most of his childhood. One day, he had used to say, one day when I’m big and we’ve got a nicer apartment and Ma ain’t gotta work so often, I’ll buy myself a real big easel and paint pictures and they’ll show them in all the big galleries in Paris and everywhere.
They had both known it was a pipe dream, even as boys. Kids like them didn’t make it big, not even in America. But it had been the kind of pipe dream that kept you warm, kept you hoping, brought you through from one day to the next. Pipe dreams were good that way.
“You want a pipe dream?” Natalia said, puzzled.
“What’s the point if you’ve not got something to aim for?” Bucky said. “Give me a good one, go on.”
She laughed. “A white picket fence, a sweet little wife, three adorable kids, and a Golden Retriever.”
“Baby, you know you’re the only girl for me,” he said solemnly.
“Uh-huh.” She propped her chin on her hand and curled her fingers over her mouth to hide that sugar-sweet smile, the shy, pleased one, like she couldn’t quite believe he’d say that to her and mean it. Precious few people had meant the pretty things they had said to Natalia over the course of her life, he knew that better than anyone, but Bucky Barnes had never been in the business of lying to the people he loved, even when he’d known less about himself than he did about – about Greek agriculture under the reign of Alexander the Great, or something.
Still, this was not the time to point that out. “I mean if Rita Hayworth came knocking I wouldn’t turn her down.”
“Rita Hayworth’s dead.”
“Dammit.” Bucky sighed. “Guess I’m left with you in the pretty redhead stakes.”
“Lauren Bacall was blonde.” She was trying hard not to laugh, her nose wrinkling adorably.
“And wildly in love with Humphrey Bogart, the lucky bastard.”
“Go to college and study that one thing you always wanted to study but knew you’d never have the money to do,” she said suddenly.
“History,” Bucky said without thinking.
“When I was twelve, I was gonna be a cross between Horace Holly and Alan Quartermain.”
“I’m lost,” she said.
He sighed. “Rider Haggard? King Solomon’s Mines? She? No? Good god woman, get some education.”
“You’d better take me book shopping,” she said, smiling.
So he did. On the way back they passed an art store, and Bucky skidded to a halt, rainwater spraying up around his ankles.
“Genius,” he said happily, and plunged inside.
When Steve got back that evening there was a sketchbook and a box of pencils lying on his bed. He stared at them for a long, thoughtful minute; then he picked them up and turned them around in his hands, feeling their weight, the quality of the paper, the way the expensive pencils sat uncomfortable in his hand; he had not held one in so long, did most of his writing with cheap ballpoints.
“It was just if you wanted,” Bucky said from the doorway. “I mean if you’ve given it up…” He shrugged. “But I thought, maybe if you didn’t know how to start again…”
Sometimes Steve needed a kick up the backside when it came to doing something for himself. No one knew that better than Bucky.
He said, “I drew a lot when I first woke up. It was mostly – mostly dead people.” He laughed. “You. Peggy. Bombed-out cities. One of the girls from Statistics saw me drawing once in the cafeteria at the Triskelion, wanted to know if I’d been watching too many dystopia movies. Nah, I said. Last time I was in London, this was what it looked like.”
“The doc makes me draw,” said Bucky. “Well I say makes. She suggested it might help, you know, like kids apparently who’ve been hurt and stuff, fill up their papers with smears of black crayon or whatever. I kept drawing… base plans, street maps.” He cleared his throat. “Building layouts. Eventually I worked out I was drawin’ places I’d killed people, you know, the set-up, the sniper’s nests, the escape routes.”
“Did it help?” Steve asked.
“I burnt ‘em,” said Bucky. “Out in the back yard. Stood there and watched ‘em go up in smoke and convinced myself I’d set all the memories and the guilt on fire with ‘em and now I was free. That lasted about an hour.” He chuckled. “But it was a good feeling.”
“Hey,” Bucky said. “Teach me faces?”
“Don’t make me laugh,” said Steve. “Be surprised if you could manage a recognisable cardboard box.”
“Oh, a challenge,” said Bucky. “If I manage a recognisable cardboard box you gotta clean the bathrooms two weeks running.”
"Done," said Steve. "Who's gonna judge?"
They looked at each other. Then they both said, "Natasha," at once.
("I'm sorry," Natalia said three hours later, "is this a trick question? It's a cardboard box."
Bucky threw a cushion at Steve and crowed in triumph.)
Bucky let people call him Jim.
This freaked Steve right the fuck out, not to put too fine a point on it. As a child, Bucky had submitted to ‘James’ at school with gritted teeth and a darkened countenance that promised bloody vengeance on every unsuspecting teacher who inflicted it on him; but 'Jim' or 'Jimmy' had made him climb the walls with anger. Every dumb limey bastard in Brooklyn had been named Jimmy in those days, and every stuck-up millionaire’s kid you read about in the newspapers had gone by ‘James Something Something’. ‘Bucky’ had been… well, Bucky’s. In addition to this, Bucky had been proud of that ‘Buchanan’ he carried; it was his Mam’s name, and he had worn it with the appropriate dignity and honoured it. Mary Barnes, née Buchanan, had been whip-smart, pretty as a picture, quick-tongued and loving; she volunteered in soup kitchens and gave away groceries to poor kids who needed it and had given more than one lass who’d fallen pregnant when she shouldn’t have a job in the grocery store when no one else would have bothered. And with the Commandos, it had been flat-out self-preservation. Even Peggy’s pest of a younger brother had been Frederick James, though he was known by all who met him as either ‘that Carter boy’ or ‘not you again’. (On special occasions he was known as the Honourable Freddie Threepwood and had his cricket bat remanded into his sister's keeping pending further sentencing.)
And yet here Bucky was, seventy years later, going by ‘Jim’ to every damn idiot they met: the bartenders at the local Irish pub they frequented, the neighbours whose shopping he carried, Mr and Mrs Khan at the corner store, the therapist Natasha had found for him, the friends he’d made at the VA; even his horde of nieces and nephews. Natasha herself called him ‘James’, for reasons Steve would never fathom. Sam called him Barnes and chaffed him like – well, like the Commandos had, or Steve still did. When Louise or Jamie or Angela or Jake or Terry rang up to ask things like “Steve, are you and Uncle Jim coming to Johnny’s game on Friday?” Steve would stutter for a second or two before he remembered that yes, he did know a Jim, and it wasn’t Morita.
Steve was, he thought, the only person in the world who still called him Bucky.
After a moment, he hauled that thought out again and examined it curiously. The only one…
Yeah, OK, fine. He could handle it.
Steve was so quiet.
This was just unnerving. Steve and quiet did not mix and match; he was always laughing, always snapping, always telling a joke or describing a scene; when he was in Bucky’s presence he was never fucking silent, and Bucky liked it that way, liked listening to his voice, his stories, his laughter. Steve had always had shield-walls like a Roman phalanx, impenetrable and interlocking, but never before had they affected Bucky. Now there were days when getting a human response out of Steve – getting him to respond in a way that Bucky recognised as Steve – was like digging a tunnel under a castle wall to sap it.
Sometimes he thought that was his own fault.
“Oh, wallow more,” said Natalia contemptuously. “I dare you. Wah, wah, Mommy, my best friend is different now after spending two years in the future with depression and a string of graves to visit in lieu of friends who loved him, and it’s all my fault cause I came back from the dead a little more broken than when I went in.”
“I just wish he’d drop that fucking Captain America act,” said Bucky, pacing round her kitchen. “I mean OK yeah, so he’s not twenty-two anymore and angry at the universe, I’m glad, you don’t know how glad I am for that, but seriously, this thing he does where he goes whole days with his fucking USO showgirl face on, it makes me want to punch it and not ever stop.”
Natalia had a clock somewhere in here or the hallway; the ticking was very loud in the room as they looked at each other.
“I didn’t really notice,” she admitted.
“Of course not,” said Bucky. “He can’t even tell the difference anymore. No wonder. Look at how every idiot in this century pushes it on him.” He dropped back into a chair next to her.
She was smiling a little. “Your accents change when you’re around each other.”
He shrugged, suddenly awkward, reminded that he was just some grocer's kid from Brooklyn gone for a soldier, sprawled here in her kitchen like he had a right to the company and affection of a girl like her, poised and polished and lovely. “It’s – you didn’t used to get very far, you know, with a thick accent. It wasn’t – helpful. Our mothers made us polish ‘em up.” He smiled. “Steve’s Ma had a brogue thick as anything. My Mam was from Belfast, her accent was a little different, and she was Ulster Scots.” The words meant nothing to Natalia, he knew: the history behind it, the political arguments, the unlikeliness of that friendship between Sarah Rogers and Mary Barnes that had held across any number of lines that might have opened to a schism, passed on early to their sons.
“You’re not the same either,” she said.
“I know. I’m a hypocrite.” He sighed.
“No. Just looking for something familiar. So’s he.”
Bucky rubbed his hands over his face. Then, sighing again, he looked at her and smiled. “What I’d even do without you.”
“Shrivel up and die,” she said, and was, as usual, probably right.
Bucky played the piano.
This drove Steve plain crazy with curiosity. Never in his memory had Bucky had the slightest interest in music, except to take a pretty girl dancing to it, but here he was, bent over music books and humming to himself every time Steve walked into the dining room.
“Look, you draw, I play the piano, it’s allowed,” he said. He had a trick of saying that, it’s allowed, like a reassurance or a reminder to himself. Every time he did it tore holes in Steve’s chest.
Steve said, “I just wondered why, that’s all.”
Bucky drummed his metal fingers on the table-top and sighed. “I wanted to learn something new,” he said. “You know. Something I’d learnt.” He gestured at the music books and shrugged. “Painstakingly. Properly.”
“Well, you’re never gonna be Cole Porter, pal,” said Steve, but it was meant for encouragement, and Bucky knew it.
Steve didn’t curse.
To be fair, he never really had, much, but they had both been in the Army, after all, and some habits you just picked up, didn’t you. This was one change that Bucky thought was actually funny, for reasons he himself couldn’t quite work out; maybe because it was such a small and harmless one, in contrast to the dozens of more obvious ones, like Steve’s height and breadth and health, or the odd modern haircut, all teased-forward spikes, or the colours he wore: blue and white and cream, brown, green and grey, very rarely something red. Bucky remembered him in washed-out greys and beiges that made him narrow and bruised-looking, sepia from his head to his toes, not these clean bright clothes that wanted you to notice their wearer.
But yeah, Steve had quit employing language filthier than your occasional ‘goddammit’, and Bucky thought it was adorable. It was probably also a habit he would do well to imitate, given the sheer number of nieces and nephews he had who were not yet over the age of twelve, but he liked cursing. He liked slang and weird modern insults (what, exactly, was a douchebag, anyway?) and dropping all his ‘g’s and even textspeak, despite otherwise finding cell phones and social media distinctly creepy (social media, if he had understood the files correctly, had played some kind of part in selecting Project Insight’s countless targets, and Bucky had exactly zero intention of getting in on a business that allowed for that to happen).
“No, I’m sorry, it makes you sound like you’re two whiskeys and a Derringer away from holding up a bank,” said Steve.
“It makes me sound like I’m not delivering a fucking mission report,” said Bucky, and put deliberate emphasis on the curse word just to watch Steve roll his eyes. “You’re the wholesome one, remember?”
“It’s not about a moral value,” said Steve. “It’s about the size of your vocabulary.”
Bucky sniffed. “I feel it incumbent upon me, Captain Rogers, to seize this opportunity to remind you of our recent and frankly gratifying discovery that I am fluent in at least ten languages you’ve never even heard of, you uneducated klutz.”
Steve had started laughing long before Bucky had even got his tongue around ‘incumbent’.
Bucky had opinions about interior design.
This was both completely ridiculous and sharply heartbreaking.
“No, well, it’s a hideous colour,” said Steve.
“You have no taste and no discernment and no idea,” said Bucky, bending over the catalogue again. “It’s the perfect size and it’s not too expensive and it really is a hideous colour, isn’t it.”
“Yes,” said Steve.
Bucky made a noise best transliterated as ‘arrgh!’ and flipped another few pages through the catalogue. “How hard can it be to get our hands on one single scummy bathroom cabinet that isn’t painted a colour that makes it look like it was vomited up by some kinda sea monster?”
“I have no idea,” said Steve. He was trying – he was really genuinely trying – not to laugh, but if this conversation carried on much longer… He opened his book again and dropped his eyes to the page, but there was little point reading murder mysteries if you couldn’t keep your mind on the clues. The back of a cereal box might have been better.
It had been the living room that had done it. Steve had moved back to Brooklyn with great and careful deliberation – everyone had known about it – he had practically taken out an ad in all the daily newspapers. Captain America returning to childhood neighbourhood of Brooklyn, NY. He had chosen the house itself with care: it was big, it was well-lit, all the rooms were decently large and it had a neglected back yard and a large basement as well as an attic. Windows, light, size, central heating: those had been the important aspects. He had outfitted his DC apartment with care, consideration and forced optimism. The contents of this place had been flung together on a whim and the fly. He liked it, but its location and layout had been the main things. That the house was situated five minutes from the nearest park was an additional bonus.
Steve would never admit it aloud, but he had felt a bit a like a matador waving a red flag at a bull. Though, on second thoughts, that was misleading; the house wasn’t a red flag, it was… cake. Bait, of a kind. It had worked, too.
It wasn’t a safehouse, but it was the kind of place that Bucky Barnes would have sold his soul to be able to buy for his mother and sisters. Or Steve.
Bucky hadn’t said anything about the interior décor and accoutrements for the first three or four weeks. Then he’d started glaring at the cutlery. After that, the kitchen table. Once Steve had come into the living room and found Bucky standing in the corner by the stairs with his arms crossed, surveying the whole room as if it were a – a gallery piece.
Or a battle plan.
Three days later, Bucky had said, “OK, we’re done, this has all gotta go.”
“The Winter Decorator,” Steve had muttered, being dragged by the ear around yet another fluorescent hell-portal masquerading as a shop. “He’s a ghost, you’ll never find him. Outside a furniture store.”
Bucky had given him a look like he knew what Steve was thinking but couldn’t be bothered to deal with it just yet. And Steve – Steve had followed him round the living room section and held the catalogue and said nothing out loud, because – improbable as it sounded – decorating made Bucky happy.
Well, that was a misleading statement. What made Bucky happy was not living in a cryostasis chamber, and getting to see things like blue sky and books and tree-tops and rainstorms and cars and pedestrians and clouds shaped like tortoises and thick warm blankets and endless supplies of food; waking up in a real bed every morning and cooking food in a real kitchen and having a real living room to put couches in and hang a TV on the wall that was only ever used for watching DVDs and the news; listening to the radio while he cooked, and bitching about politicians, and going on extended shopping sprees with Natasha in order to cement his growing reputation as the best-dressed guy in Brooklyn, and the only one who could wear a fedora without looking like a douchebag, according to Sharon - these were the things that made Bucky happy. Having a house to live in was part of that.
“I’ve lived in a barracks for long enough, Steve,” he’d said dangerously the first and only time Steve had tried to suggest that maybe the living room didn’t need re-painting and also he was sure the wiring was just fine the way it was and did they really need the kitchen to be bigger, really? “S’all fine and dandy if you can’t be bothered, but I do.”
It was all one with the cooking, Steve thought, trying hard to care about the colour of the aforesaid bathroom cabinet instead of laughing at it. It was about living somewhere that made you feel human, and doing things that ordinary human people did, and being able to look at it every day and think, that was me, I did that, and it’s beautiful.
“You know what you should do?” he said suddenly.
Bucky looked up from the catalogue curiously.
“One of those volunteer programmes where you build houses for people. I did some of that after Hurricane Sandy.”
“Did you?” Bucky looked vaguely amused. Steve had never much liked manual labour.
“Yeah.” Steve shrugged. “Nick put me on eval for a few months when I joined SHIELD. Some milk runs here and there, but I mostly had a ton of free time, and I spent most of it volunteering. The Manhattan clean-up; then the hurricane hit. It was a bad year all round, really.”
“Sounds it.” Bucky rolled the catalogue up, tapped it against his knee, let it spring open again in his hands. “Maybe. I’ll – I’ll think about it.” But he had that speculative look, and Steve thought it spelt good things, even if they never did find a bathroom cabinet that was the colour Bucky wanted.
Steve talked to people he was attracted to. (Women and men.)
This made Bucky incredibly and completely smug. It was about damn time. He didn’t doubt for a minute that Steve had grieved for Peggy Carter and the life they should’ve had completely and fiercely and for a long time, but he was absolutely delighted that Steve could open his mouth these days in front of someone he was attracted to without putting his foot in it within the first three words, he really was. You gotta know how to talk to people, you just gotta. For one thing, it had a way of preventing you from ending up a sad, bitter old man displaced in time and all alone in the world.
“Yeah, well, I don’t see you trying to date,” said Steve. “Which, let me tell you, is a shock to my nerves.”
“I’m a mess, Steve, get real,” said Bucky, in lieu of what he really wanted to say, which was I’m spoken for, Steve, can’t you see what’s under your nose, I’ve always been Natalia’s.
“Indubitably,” said Steve, rolling his eyes. “Can’t manage a week without a total nervous breakdown.”
Bucky laughed softly. “When I can go three months we’ll see.” He didn’t actually have a fixed limit – he tended to get triggered by the stupidest and most unlikely things, like the victim whose car seats had smelt so strongly of new leather that Bucky couldn’t go into shoe shops – but there was a limit, and when he passed it he would know and he would tell her. Which made it sound like Natalia didn’t already know what he was waiting for. The touch of her fingers on his face followed him into sleep more nights than not, hope and promise.
“I’ll get you a calendar, you can mark ‘em off,” said Steve, laughing.
“Then will you ask the pretty girl in the bookshop for her number? The one you keep accidentally seeing on a Saturday afternoon? You’ve held three whole conversations, she’s got great taste in books, what more do you want.”
Steve was still laughing, though it was to himself now. “A sea change,” he said. “I don’t know, Buck, you tell me.” His smile was quick and warm. “Anyone would think you didn’t want me around.”
“I want you happy, same as I always have,” said Bucky. Steve deserved to be happy, deserved someone who would put up with his foibles and help soothe his fears and not... not hold him back; someone who would both love him and understand him.
“Goes both ways,” said Steve, and looked goofily like he wasn’t ever going to stop smiling. Then again, why would he? It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and they had the park practically to themselves, and they were alive, after all; it was this simple sort of thing that Bucky, rather to his own surprise, was delighted by, these days, these quiet moments of connection with Steve or Natalia when he stepped out of his own head, and looked around a little, and thought, Bucky Barnes, I do declare, you're actually happy.
Bucky talked about what had happened to him.
The fact of these conversations threw the war years into sharp relief for Steve; had him re-evaluate what he’d thought he’d known about his best and closest friend in the wake of Azzano. Of course the two situations were not directly comparable, but there was enough there that Steve felt guilty. If this was part of what Bucky needed to heal now – to talk it out, to rage sometimes, to yell and cry and shatter the occasional tchotchke or cheap glass against the walls – it stood to reason that he had probably needed it in 1943 as well, instead of a sniper rifle and a righteous crusade.
Worst of all was the fear that Bucky might have tried, during those years, and never got Steve to listen the way he should have. He couldn’t remember. It was callous, but he couldn’t. Bucky had been the strong one for all of Steve’s life, the one who didn’t need to roll with the punches because he had already side-stepped them by the time they came near him; too quick and too clever.
The man who shared the brownstone with him now was not the quicksilver boy who had waded into fights for Steve, or the wary, quiet young soldier who had hunted HYDRA across half of Europe at Steve’s side. He had jagged edges that scarred but didn’t really heal, and nightmares that woke him screaming; he touched more often than that boy had – and Steve and Bucky’s friendship had always bordered on the too tactile, for the times – and he spoke of being put through horrors that would have had Steve in tears if it weren’t for the fact that it wasn’t his right to cry about them. It was Bucky’s.
“You don’t have to listen to this,” he had said one night, very early on, his voice rasping in his dried-out throat. “I gotta get it out, I gotta – I can’t have this inside me.” He’d been shaking. “But you don’t have to listen.”
“I’m not leaving you alone unless you tell me to go,” said Steve.
Bucky had laughed, all torn up and bitter. “Don’t leave me alone,” he’d said, and the moonlight behind the bedroom curtains had glinted on his wet face.
“I won’t,” Steve had promised, and this time, this second chance, he would die before he broke it.
“Yeah, well, maybe the next time Captain America wants to run round Europe being a beacon of righteousness on some hare-brained fucking crusade he could learn to watch his fucking six a little better!”
“What for,” Steve bellowed into his comm, “what the hell do you think I keep your dumb ass around for, anyway?”
“It sure as hell isn’t so you can take my advice, is it,” said Bucky, and shot another HYDRA soldier.
“Because it’s always terrible!”
“Excuse me, Christmas '34, I told you, I told you, just because it's legal now -”
“The one time,” Steve said to Natasha, “the one single time he’s ever had the ghost of a point and he’s gonna belabour it till Judgement Day.”
“That,” said Bucky, “is what friends are for. Will you fucking duck instead of wandering into my line of sight all the fucking time like you're on a picnic stroll round Prospect Park!”
Steve did duck, but he also gave him the finger; Bucky took aim again and shot another attacker, settling into the rhythm of the stupid argument, the fight; what even was his life, he thought irritably; it was all Mam's fault, hers and Aunt Sarah's. This is Steve; play with him for five minutes while Mrs Rogers checks the baby.
Bucky didn't think either of them had meant for those five minutes to turn into something quite as ridiculous as this.