It starts as a running conversation that he doesn't even notice. He's never needed to before; Bucky's always been a constant in his life. There practically from sunrise to sunset (longer even, after a while) so when Steve has something to tell him, all he has to do is turn his head and say so. Sometimes, he'll answer, sometimes he won't. Bucky's always been pretty good at knowing when Steve needs an answer and when he's just thinking out loud.
If Bucky's presence is as constant as air, then his absence is a vacuum. It's too quiet, too empty, and everything feels muffled and still. Steve hates it. Maybe that's why he starts, but if it is, he doesn't realize. Doesn't know he's doing it until he's at Camp Lehigh, stretched out on his bunk, and the guy next to him says, "Brad."
Steve looks at him, confused. "What?"
The guy lifts his head. "My name. It's Brad, not Bucky. You said Bucky just now."
"Did I?" Steve feels his cheeks start to heat and manages to smile. "Sorry." He thinks about trying to explain it away, but it's too awkward so he just settles down again.
A second later Brad's rack squeaks as he rolls onto his side, away from Steve, and that's that.
Steve tries not to sigh in relief. He closes his eyes and sees Bucky laughing at him.
"Easy for you," he mutters, hoping nobody hears.
After that, he starts writing things down. He keeps up his letters to Bucky, as regular as clockwork, but these are different. These are scribblings in the margins of his sketchbook, half formed thoughts, wishes, maybe even prayers. Kinds of things he'd never say to Bucky in person, much less in a letter the Army might read.
He can't stop and he doesn't like to think about why. It's stupid, but as long as he's talking, Bucky's going to listen and he has to be here to listen.
Steve's not going to stop talking because he's never going to give Bucky an excuse to go.
He has a lot of time on his hands at the camp. When they're not training, the guys ignore him and Steve's fine with that. He'll find himself a quiet corner where he's out of the way, usually in the mess so he has a stable surface, and he'll draw. He never really has anything in mind when he does, just sits down with the sketchbook and his pencil (sometimes, if he's really lucky, he'll have some good charcoal to work with) and he'll start.
Somehow, it always turns into Bucky.
He starts a uniform and it becomes Bucky, with his hat tipped at a rakish angle, grinning at him with those lips that make Steve squirm and blush even to draw them. He sketches a beach and there's Bucky, stripping off his shirt and dashing into the freezing water.
His bedroom back home and Bucky turns up in the mass of blankets on his bed, the long line of his back making Steve's mouth go dry.
He rips out those pages before anyone can see, folds them up and tucks them into his boot for safe-keeping.
They're still there when he goes down with Schmidt's plane.
Darcy meets him on his way out the door and by meets, Steve means hangs at an alarming angle over the railing with one arm waving as she yells, "Yo, Cap!" loud enough that everyone in the lobby turns their head.
He blushes a little, shrugs at them, and lets the door swing shut on their amused looks. "You know, Ms. Lewis, if you fall--"
"You'll catch me," Darcy shrugs, taking the stairs two at a time. Her shoes squeak a little and Steve imagines the black marks she's leaving in her wake. It's a good thing, he decides, that Darcy works for Coulson. Otherwise, the cleaning staff would have had her killed by now.
"And if I miss?"
"You won't," she says, grinning. "I have a boyfriend who knows how to hold a grudge and can kill you from two miles away. It's like the world's best insurance policy amongst the superhero set. Why do you think nobody's tried to kidnap me yet?"
He can't resist saying, "There's not enough duct tape in the world to keep you quiet and, besides, you carry a taser. You won't wait for Clint to save you."
"Damn straight," Darcy says, then quiets down. "Uh, I was down in the archives yesterday..."
She ducks her head, fiddling with the envelope in her hand, and he hears the sound of paper crackling.
"Something wrong, Darcy?" he asks, trying to catch her eye.
"No, no, just--awkward." She tips a look up at him and smiles. It's a little conspiratorial, but sad just the same. "I, uh, technically stole these so it's probably not a good idea to open this here? I think Mr. Stark--Howard, that is--had them classified so high not even the President can open them, so it's not like anyone will ever miss them, but--"
Steve considers trying to shush her, but she's pushing the envelope into his hands and stretching up to brush a kiss across his cheek. "Don't worry," she says, solemn as the grave, "I only peeked a little."
The missing pages. Steve opens the envelope and they slide out into his hands. Bucky sprawled across Steve's bed in his old apartment, the line of his back a temptation even drawn in smudged and faded pencil.
His cellphone rings with that Imperial March theme Tony'd programmed in there (okay, Tony and Bucky. Steve's beginning to learn those two in cahoots is nothing but trouble and suspects the Commandos are having one hell of a laugh at his expense). Blushing, Steve folds the papers away, wishing for a boot to slip them into, then brings the phone to his ear. "Agent Coulson, something you needed?"
He wishes he could say he doesn't forget, but on his way back into SHIELD, Steve tucks the envelope in his back pocket and absolutely does. To be fair, that's because Darcy and Bucky are teasing each other outside Coulson's office and if there's anything that scares him more than Bucky and Tony in cahoots, it's Bucky and Darcy.
"You know," Steve says, when he leaves SHIELD for the second time that day, this time with Bucky at his side, "It's probably a very good thing she's on our side."
Bucky barks a laugh. "God, Steve, you have no idea."
Steve gives him a wary look (really, good reason. Since that time he and Clint had to bail Darcy and Bucky out? He has a right to be nervous when Bucky laughs like that) and asks, "Do I want to?"
"Probably not," Bucky grins.
It says something about Steve's life that threat of world annihilation doesn't scare him even half as much as that look on Bucky's face.
Bucky's whistling in the kitchen when he comes out of the shower (his heart turning over and his knees going weak when he opens the door to that sound) and sees his old sketchbook on Bucky's bed.
Standing in the doorway, Steve looks at it and shakes his head. "Really, really glad she's on our side."
He picks up the sketchbook and goes to get the envelope in his pants.
Seventy years is a little late for mail call, but Steve figures he can be forgiven. Better late, than never, right?