Bucky's not sure why he even bothers to show up at the briefing this morning, except it means he gets to ogle Darcy--with her tight sweaters and red lipstick, she's the closest thing he's seen to a pinup girl since he's been back, and it has the extra added attraction of irritating Barton and Coulson in the bargain--and have breakfast for free. After a cup of weak office coffee and a stale muffin, he spends some time with Fury, discussing various situations the Avengers might be called in to deal with, and the continuing evolution of his role on the team, and then he heads down to the shooting range.
On the way, he runs into Darcy coming up from the archives. Her eyes are red rimmed and her mascara is smeared.
"Dusty down there, huh?" he says, more gently than he intends to.
She looks up at him, startled, and gives him a wobbly smile and a soft laugh. "Yeah. I--Yeah." She blinks rapidly and thumbs away a tear from the corner of her left eye.
"Hey," he says, because that is definitely more than a reaction to some dust, "everything all right? If Barton's giving you trouble, you just let me know."
"Everything's fine." She swallows hard, sniffs, and shakes her head. "No, I mean it," she says when he opens his mouth to argue. "Is Steve with you?"
"He's in the Sudan, helping Doctors Without Borders."
"Oh. Well." She holds up an old brown clothbound notebook that looks familiar. "I found this down in the archives, and it belongs to him."
"I can take it," Bucky says.
"I don't know if that's a good idea." She glances down at the book in her hands and then up at him again. "It's kind of personal."
Bucky almost laughs at that, because it's not like he and Steve have any secrets from each other, but he manages to bite it back and sound sincere when he says, "I'm not gonna read it." He puts a hand over his heart. "I swear." He means it, too. Mostly. "But I live with the guy, so I'll probably see him before you do."
"Okay," she says, handing it over with clear reluctance. "Just make sure he gets it, all right?"
"Of course." He shoves it into his knapsack. "You wanna come downstairs and shoot?"
She grins and tosses her hair, tears forgotten. "How is it that everything you say sounds like a come-on?"
He grins back, enjoying the easy flirtation that isn't going anywhere. "All part of my charm."
"Uh huh. I would love to, but I can't." She holds up another file folder. "Gotta get this to Dr. Banner before he gets cranky."
"And we sure don't want that."
"No, we really don't." She nods at his knapsack. "Don't forget to give it to Steve."
Bucky takes the sketchbook out of his knapsack with a pang of nostalgia. The cover is brown and worn with age and use, and he remembers how Steve rarely went anywhere without it, how he'd always have charcoal smudges or paint on his fingers or face, and a pencil tucked behind his ear. Even though Steve still doodles on any piece of paper in range, those days are long gone, and Bucky's not sure he wants them back.
Steve's not home by the time Bucky's ready to turn in, so he puts the book on the night table and forgets about it.
The nightmare is vivid, intense. Familiar. He's not falling; he's waiting in the water, completely broken but somehow still alive. He waits and waits, spends what's left of his life drifting downstream, waiting, but Steve doesn't come. Faceless men fish him out of the river, careless of his broken bones. They're pleased with their discovery, congratulating each other and laughing as he bleeds out at their feet, blood seeping into the snow the way the realization that Steve's not coming to save him seeps into his mind.
He wakes in a cold sweat, choking and shivering at the banality of it. He stumbles out of bed, ankles tangled in the sheets, and reaches out a hand to catch himself before he crashes to the floor. The corner of the night table bites his palm and the force of the impact sends Steve's sketchbook flying.
It hits the floor and flutters open and comes to rest on a page as if it's always been opened to it. Bucky turns the light on so he doesn't step on it and ruin it, or break his neck tripping over it in the dark.
He picks it up, startled to discover he's staring himself in the face--himself from 1943, in his dress uniform. It's dated the day after he left for Europe. Steve would have been on a bus to Camp Lehigh himself at that point.
Bucky puts the book down on the bed and goes to get a glass of water. He washes his clammy face, takes a piss, and tries to settle down. Sleep is a lost cause after that nightmare. It always is. And four a.m. is the worst--too early to start the day but too late to make anything of the night.
The sketchbook beckons, like an itch he can't scratch, like a scab he can't help but peel. He flips through the pages, finding what he expects at first, the pictures of him slowing to a trickle as Peggy Carter started to loom large in Steve's life. Seeing the smiling lines of her face, the full curve of her bosom and hips, brings back her sharp voice, the scent of Chanel no. 5, and the way she glowed when she looked at Steve. There was a time he'd have been jealous, but now he just feels sad that Steve never got to have what he'd wanted so badly.
He can tell where the occasional page has been torn out, and he wonders if Steve wrote to him. If so, he never got the letters.
His rare letters to Steve are tucked in the slim pocket on the back cover, two envelopes from basic, and then one or two from Italy that must have followed Steve around while he was on tour.
Bucky doesn't remember what he wrote but he can't imagine it was anything worth reading, and he's not interested in finding out. He'd always had the gift of gab--talked himself out of most of the trouble he talked himself into in those days--but the words seemed to escape him when it came time to put pen to paper. He hadn't wanted to make it sound too exciting, like Steve was missing out, because it wasn't--it was boring and terrifying and awful and thrilling all at the same time--but he also didn't want to sound like he was unhappy or frightened, because he didn't want Steve to worry. And there really hadn't been anything left to say that he was comfortable putting into a letter that'd be read by his CO. He'd done a more effective job censoring himself than the army ever could have.
What he doesn't expect is to find more half-written letters to him next to the drawings--the ones that are as open and honest as Steve's face, but full of things he'd never actually say.
Drawings of Peggy give way to sketches of the USO chorus girls, and Bucky can't bring himself to begrudge Steve that time, though he knows Steve didn't take advantage of it the way most guys would have.
And still, interspersed with the drawings are small notes addressed to him. They start out relatively innocuous: It's rained for the past three days. The bus got stuck in the mud just outside Port Jervis and we all got out and pushed.
The uniform is kind of itchy and hot under the lights, but at least I'm making a contribution. It's got to be better than collecting scrap back home, right?
I think I'm getting better at saying my lines. Betty--the one who told me to tape the index cards to the shield--said I'm starting to sound more natural. She wants to be the next Claudette Colbert.
Steve wrote about his hopes and his dreams and his fears, how he planned to try and get to the front with the USO, and then hook up with the 107th, where he was sure he could do the most good, and and maybe they'll finally see what I can do and let me fight. Maybe you'll be there, and we'll--
The sentence trails off and Bucky can only imagine what kind of reunion Steve had anticipated. Certainly nothing like the one they'd actually had.
And then there are the notes that make Bucky remember Darcy telling him it was personal. He feels his face get hot as he realizes that not only is he breaking his word, but the fact that she knows that means she probably read it, and saw the note that simply says, I miss you. I miss you so much and I don't know how to tell you. There's so much I need to tell you. I know it's selfish and I know you're doing good work, necessary work, but I miss you. I miss us.
Bucky can hear Steve's voice in his head, can hear the stumbling, not that we were an us or anything that would come after, the two of them always brushing up against it, the unacknowledged thing between them, and then backing away like rank cowards, never sure if the other one felt the same. Knowing he had to, but fearing what it meant if he didn't. What it meant if he did. At the time, it seemed like the smart thing to do, marking those feelings off-limits, like an old map with here be monsters scrawled at the edges. Now Bucky just regrets the opportunities lost and all the things they left unsaid, the territory they didn't explore.
He smiles at the self-portrait of Steve as a dancing monkey, and then, after a rough sketch of Italy and a more detailed map of the Italian-Austrian border, there's another picture of him, still smudged and rough from his time with Dr. Zola. He remembers how Steve had looked at him then, the fear and hope and love on his face as Bucky had stared at him--stared up at him for the first time since they were kids.
Bucky'd known--he'd always known that Steve had completely disobeyed orders to rescue him, that the object hadn't been the four hundred soldiers Steve had freed with that little adventure, but he'd never let himself think too much about it. There hadn't been time, and he'd been so stupid, so awkward and jealous, not of Steve's newfound strength or even his new ability to attract dames so much as that suddenly, everybody wanted to be Steve's friend and where did that leave Bucky Barnes, who'd never been much good at anything except being Steve's friend? He'd pushed that down, locked it away along with all the other feelings he wasn't supposed to have for Steve, and then he was able to be happy when he saw that Peggy looked at Steve the same way he looked at her, the two of them practically glowing with it, even if Steve had been too uncertain to do anything about it. And Bucky was happy, because there was no other way it could have been.
He gets up for another glass of water then, and pages his way through their months with the Howling Commandos, grinning nostalgically at the sketches of each of them. Those were some of the best times of Bucky's life, for all that they were in the middle of a war and he spent most of it terrified that Steve was going to get himself killed before Bucky could save him, because Steve had never lacked courage (though Bucky might have called it reckless pigheadedness if anyone asked, and sometimes even when they didn't), and the serum had simply given him a body to match the greatness of his heart.
Bucky's caught up enough in reminiscing that he almost forgets what comes next. He and Steve have never spoken about it. He knows Steve died soon after he did, that he put a plane down in the water and never even tried to punch out. He hates that he wasn't there to make sure Steve survived, but he's never really thought about what it was like for Steve in those few short weeks he was gone.
Which is why the next page hits him like a punch to the gut.
There's another picture of him, this one in the uniform he'd worn with the Commandos, his rifle slung over his shoulder and his hair perfectly parted and combed like the choirboy he'd never been. He's smiling, the way he only ever smiles at Steve. Underneath, it says, I'm sorry. Because of course the stupid bastard blamed himself--still does, if Bucky knows anything and the one thing he's always known is Steve. He's sure Steve blames himself for what happened to Bucky after--he's occasionally seen the guilt on Steve's face before he can hide it, because Steve's always been a lousy liar and Bucky's known his tells since they were eight.
The last few pages are blank.
Bucky goes through the book again, more slowly this time, tracing his fingers lightly over the drawings, careful not to smudge seventy year old lines and curves, every one of Steve's feelings coming through loud and clear in the angle of Bucky's cheekbone, the jut of his chin, the cocky curve of his grin, and all Bucky can do now is ache with everything they've lost.
He leaves the book on the night table, as if every page hasn't burned itself into his brain, pulls his clothes on and goes for a ride. He lets the cool gray light of dawn and the roar of his bike ease the tightness in his chest.
It's almost noon when he corners Darcy in her cubicle. He sits on the edge of her desk, puts on his most serious, severe face, and says, "No one else can ever see that book."
She rolls her eyes. "So much for you being a man of your word."
The tips of his ears burn, but he's done a lot worse without shame, so he just shrugs. "Also, you can't say anything to him."
"It will be awkward and embarrassing and that can't happen."
She tips her head back to stare up at him, forehead furrowed in surprise. "What?"
"I don't want Steve feeling embarrassed. It was a long time ago and--"
Her mouth purses into a tight frown. "If you're going to say that you don't feel the same way, then I don't think I like you anymore."
His laugh is rough and bitter. "How I feel doesn't matter. It was a long time ago, and I'm sure he's moved on and doesn't need you stirring it all up again."
"He's moved on?" Darcy laughs, too, incredulously. "Oh my god, you poor oblivious fool."
"Hey, there's no reason to be mean." Bucky tries to play it off but he can't help but sound hurt.
"I'm not being mean. You're being stupid."
"You're not the first person to say that."
Both of them jump at the sound of Steve's voice.
"Jesus Christ, Rogers, we're gonna have to put a bell on you," Bucky says, to cover up his own awkwardness. The last thing he needs to do is to embarrass Steve with his feelings from seventy years ago, to make him feel like he owes Bucky anything, and the last thing he wants is Steve's pity when he realizes that Bucky's still carrying that same damn torch.
Steve shoves him affectionately. "You be nice to Darcy, Buck. She's got a taser and she's not afraid to use it."
Bucky leers at her. "I know. It's one of her best qualities."
Darcy preens back at him and then, when Coulson calls Steve into his office, she kicks Bucky in the shin, hard enough to hurt. He's probably going to have a bruise. "You give it to him and then you give it to him," she says with a wink and an obscene gesture that makes him choke on an incredulous laugh.
"You're going out with Barton. What makes you think you're in any way qualified to give me relationship advice?"
"Listen to me, Barnes. You won't be sorry."
"I already am."
"Come on," Steve says, before the conversation can devolve any further. He slings an arm around Bucky's shoulders, the weight of it warm and familiar, and Bucky is not going to go down that road right now. "I want to go home and have a shower and sleep in my own bed."
"That sounds like a great plan," Darcy says brightly. "Bucky's done for the day, so he can go with you."
Bucky knows he gets to see sides of Steve no one else does, but at the moment, he'd be happier if Steve had kept his suddenly sloppy and exhibitionist side under wraps. He's too wound up to appreciate the way Steve, as soon as the apartment door swings shut behind them, starts stripping his clothes off on the way to the bathroom.
Bucky drops his knapsack onto the counter and sinks down into a chair, pressing his forehead to the cool surface of the kitchen table. He only indulges himself for a few seconds, though. Steve'll be out of the shower soon and Bucky would rather not have to answer questions about why he's banging his head against the table.
He pulls out the carton of eggs and the container of milk and starts whipping up some pancake batter. The sizzle of butter on the griddle and the hiss of the batter as it hits is enough to make him feel better. There's some bacon in the fridge he can fry up, and if that's not enough, he can always scramble some eggs. Keeping Steve fed is a challenge Bucky's happy to take on, especially now that he's not allergic to nearly everything and they can afford to stock the pantry.
He's whistling along with Duke Ellington in his head and the sizzle and pop of bacon on the stove, a maestro with a spatula, when Steve comes into the kitchen, still wrapped in his towel, hair dripping onto his bare chest. He holds up the sketchbook and says, "Where did you get this?"
Because it's Steve, it's not an accusation, just a question, but Bucky still responds like he's guilty, startled out of his groove and not prepared to answer. "Uh," he says intelligently, turning back to the frying pan so Steve can't see his face, which would give him away completely. And then his brain and his survival instincts kick in at the same time and he says, "Darcy found it in the archives at SHIELD. Since it's not classified, she asked me to give it to you."
"Oh," Steve says. "I'll have to thank her."
"Yeah." Bucky flips the last of the pancakes onto the platter and thinks about how horribly awkward that conversation is going to be, and then how maybe it doesn't have to be. "Uh, about that--" He turns around to find Steve right there, looming up in his personal space in a way that probably shouldn't be as much of a turn-on as it is, considering there's a lit burner and a pan full of hot grease a few inches away. Steve's looking at him with this mix of curiosity and hope that makes Bucky's heart do a weird little rumba in his chest and his mind go completely blank. "Uh."
"You said that already." Steve's mouth quirks in a small half-grin and then his hands come up and cup Bucky's face. "I should have done this years ago," Steve murmurs, and then his mouth is pressed against Bucky's. His lips are warm and soft and his tongue is slick when he licks at Bucky's lips, and Bucky opens his mouth on a soft gasp, his hands landing naturally on Steve's hips, the towel rough against his palms and Steve's skin warm and damp and supple against his fingertips.
The heat rising in his veins has nothing to do with the stove and everything to do with the slick slide of Steve's tongue against his, the feel of Steve's chest pressed to his, close enough that he can feel the rise and fall of his breath, and the gentle way Steve's hands cradle his jaw, like he's something precious.
Bucky clings to him, mapping Steve's broad back with his hands, learning the knobs of his spine, the jut of his scapulae, new territory he plans to make his own. He shoves at the towel so he can grab the perfect curve of Steve's ass, and Steve makes a strangled noise into his mouth, one Bucky's never heard before and definitely wants to hear again.
And then he smells smoke and pulls away.
"You burned my bacon," Bucky says, mouth and tongue feeling thick and tingly, as he turns off the burner.
Steve gives him that little half-grin again, smug this time. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"
"Jerk." Since Steve isn't wearing any clothes, Bucky grabs him by the ass again and pulls him close. "I made pancakes, too."
Steve noses at Bucky's hair, kisses his temple and the corner of his eye. "I like pancakes."
"Like you more, though."
Bucky laughs into his mouth. "You sure know how to flatter a guy."
Steve pushes him back against the refrigerator and gives him another breathtaking kiss. "I've always had a way with words."
"If by 'always' you mean 'never.'"
Steve nods. "So you did read it."
"It's all pictures," Bucky answers, quick and breathy, ignoring the tight ache in his chest. "A first grader could have read it."
"Right at your level, then." Steve laughs and presses his mouth against Bucky's, breathing into him, fingers tangling in Bucky's hair and pulling just hard enough to remind Bucky that he's awake, that this isn't just a weird mid-day dream. "I should have done this years ago," Steve says again. "Should have been brave enough."
"We were both a little slow on this one," Bucky says, unwilling to let Steve shoulder all the blame.
"Mmm," Steve hums into his mouth, cutting off further backchat.
Bucky can't stop touching him, can't stop kissing him, his hands shaking a little in a way they haven't since he can't honestly remember when.
"The pancakes are getting cold," he says stupidly when Steve lets him up for air.
"The pancakes can wait," Steve answers, his voice low and serious, his clear blue gaze searching Bucky's face, like he still doesn't believe what he's seeing. "I can't anymore."
"You sure?" Bucky asks, meeting Steve's gaze squarely and letting everything he feels show on his face for once, but still giving him an out if he wants one. "Because I plan to take my time and give you a workout. Maybe that crazy metabolism of yours could use the fuel."
"I don't--" Steve starts and then his stomach rumbles. "You're a jerk, you know that?"
"So you've said." Bucky laughs. "There's bacon. Do you like me more than bacon?"
Steve's smile is wide and bright and teasing. "I don't know if I like anyone more than bacon. But if I did, it would be you." He cocks his head as if he's thinking about it. "Probably."
"Fair enough." Bucky pulls him down into another kiss, this one hard and hungry and full of promises he intends to keep.
By the time they finally get around to eating, the pancakes are cold and the bacon is soggy and charred around the edges, but Bucky doesn't care. It's the best meal he's ever had.