Steve knew from the moment he saw the Vibranium shield that it was the one that belonged on his arm. It shone clean and bright, somehow unassuming without paint, a blank canvas rather than a finished piece. Howard Stark dismissed it as a prototype, then said there was no more raw material to make it again, and wasn't that a perfect metaphor for Steve Rogers, transformed from a skinny marink into a super-soldier thanks to the wonders of some lost blue serum and a whole boatload of needles?
He liked the neat, unbroken curve of the shield, reminiscent of the sun hanging low in the sky, pale gold in the mornings and sultry red like a girl's best lipstick in the evenings. When he let it spin ahead of him, clearing a path, it seemed like it knew how to fly back to his welcoming hands. It looked epic in a way that the other shields, elaborately shaped and worked, simply didn't, and Steve knew the value of a powerful symbol - even if that was exactly what he didn't want to be, not when boys like Bucky had become men on the fighting fields of Europe and he still had to catch up. Not when he knew there was fight inside him, bursting for him to stand up and do his part.
What he wouldn't give to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Bucky now, both of them strapping on gear with strength and certitude in their eyes. He had no muscle memory of such a moment, of course, because he'd always fit neatly under the arm Bucky'd thrown round his shoulders, tucked up against his best friend's side, smelling the heat of his skin. Steve could remember the first time he'd looked up from his accustomed spot and seen stubble pushing through Bucky's once rosy skin, had accepted that here too he was bound to lag behind. They'd been on their way to Coney Island, an excursion that Bucky had planned since the weekend before, and then, at the last minute, he'd chivvied Steve onto a different subway train and led him into the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum.
"Whatever you wanna see, pal," Bucky had said, eyes already on a statue of a woman with wavy hair and a figure barely covered by diaphanous draperies, and Steve had gaped, unable to comprehend such largesse. He only had a couple of pages left in his notebook, faint wide-ruled lines cutting through the sketches he'd made on the Brighton Beach Line, mostly of Bucky, though Steve couldn't get the shine of his smile down with his pencil. Sticking with statues seemed like his best bet, because color wasn't going to help if he couldn't get the forms right, and now he finally had a chance to see sculpture in the round, to investigate how the angles of marble limbs jutted out into a space that he shared.
He settled in front of one of the statues, a white body against a white wall, and started to draw. He lost track of time and jumped a little when Bucky leaned close to breathe against his temple, "You look like you're gonna pop something in that noggin of yours." Steve couldn't even summon a scowl, though his hand was aching and his shoulders were tight; he beamed up at Bucky, who smiled back and stole his pad.
On the subway home, tucked close to Bucky, he watched as his friend flipped through the pages of the pad so that the figure he'd drawn, a man caught mid-spin, the discus in his hand ready to soar in what would be a prize-winning arc, looked like he was flying himself.
What he needed at that very moment, Steve thought, was a way to keep his mind off everything: what he was nerving himself to do - parachute down into Austria - and what he knew he wasn't quite ready to do - figure out how to talk to Agent Peggy Carter, who'd gotten him the parachute and plane. And behind all of that, there was a dizzying pain that he couldn't quite get a handle on, because Colonel Phillips thought he remembered writing the name James Barnes - Sergeant James Barnes, Bucky - in one of his innumerable condolence letters.
So, yeah, a distraction would have been welcome, if it hadn't come in the form of Howard Stark propositioning Peggy like a practiced ladykiller - as if Steve were invisible, as if he'd shrunk and was just that skinny kid again. Steve thought unkindly that the William Powell mustache did Stark no favors and wondered darkly to himself what kind of deviant practice "fondue" could possibly be.
He saw Peggy school her face into a careful blank at Stark's smooth talk and grinned when his own rank-pulling coaxed honest surprise out of her. He pushed out of the plane, gunfire rattling around him, and dropped until there was a Hydra base beneath his feet.
And Bucky was there, strapped to a dirty table, eyes red-rimmed and delirious, and Steve nearly lost his footing at the sight of him. His fingers turned traitors as he fumbled with the snaps, but his shoulders were now broad enough that he could support Bucky with more than just goodwill and chutzpah. At least his voice hadn't changed any, despite the clean lungs and the strapping chest, and all he had to say was, "It's Steve," for Bucky's eyes to shine and a corner of his mouth to quirk up. God, he'd missed him.
It was when Bucky was safe and marching at his side, Howling Commandos flanking them like a kickline of chorus girls and Colonel Phillips looking like he couldn't decide whether to smile benevolently or shit a brick, that Steve was reminded of that last minute on the plane. Because Peggy stepped in front of him, close enough that one deep breath would have their chests touching, and all he could think about when he looked down at her, soldiers cheering all around him, was whether she'd taken Stark up on his mysterious offer. He might have a brand new body and shiny new skills, but that didn't mean who he was had changed, and going for a girl with a fella would be crossing a line so wide and deep it might as well be the East River.
But Peggy apparently didn't want to make it easy for him. It ended up being Stark who explained the deal to him. "Fondue's just cheese and bread, my friend," Stark said offhandedly, a hundred other arrows in his quiver and a hundred other ladies under his eye, and Steve, after a long conversation with Dernier, couldn't figure how a meal you had to eat in a restaurant but cook yourself was supposed to come off as swooningly romantic.
If he wanted bread and cheese, the only place he was going was his own kitchen, where Bucky made grilled cheese that melted in his mouth and tasted like home. The bread from Mandelbaum's, the cheeses that Bucky charmed from all the neighborhood ladies in turn with his big eyes and baby face. Bucky would make a towering stack, and if there was one left over, he'd insist that Steve eat it: "Get around that one, buddy," he'd say; "you're a growing boy."
The day he and Bucky took out Hydra, he decided, he'd sit down for a proper meal, and it was going to be grilled cheese from Brooklyn's finest chef.
For all his fine words about waiting for the right partner - and for all that he'd meant them - it was still a thrill when that little blonde Private with the snub nose and sleek curls laid a whopper on him, tugging him in with a hand on his tie and words straight from his boyhood dreams on her lips. It was his first kiss, the first time he'd been so close to a virtual stranger, and he was trying to figure out what to do with his hands and how far he should open his mouth, when Peggy - very much Agent Carter, looking at him like something she'd scrape off her shoe - interrupted. He wiped the lipstick from his mouth and followed, this time opening wide enough to fit his own foot in.
He knew he'd wanted it to be Peggy to kiss him, that it would have been more than a statistic with her. But he'd been bucking the odds for as long as he could remember - a sickly baby who'd survived cold winters and blistering summers and grown up to wear the Stars and Stripes and bear the hopes of a nation on his shoulders - and if he could get a do-over on his first kiss, he'd do everything he could to earn it.
It was still a surprise when Peggy drew him close by his strap - it was like women looked for some kind of handle on him and then pulled him near - and parted her lips for his kiss. Her face was tilted up, bright and anxious, but her lips were so soft they'd knocked his brain for a loop and he couldn't find a thing to say.
He still hadn't found it by the time Red Skull was gone and he was piloting that sleek, ugly ship bearing New York's destruction. He tried for lightness and heard Peggy's voice break as she couldn't respond in kind. He pushed the nose forward and down, no longer speaking, just breathing in the flakes of snow that peppered the air around him.
He'd never been able to draw air so cold and clean into his lungs before. His asthma had made shifts in temperature a torment for him, and he'd had to be vigilant when all the other kids heedlessly ran outside without layers.
There had been one morning when Bucky had come to fetch him early for reasons lost to time, and Steve, lulled by the humid warmth of the basement where his mother was elbows-deep in hot soapy suds, had forgotten to take the red-and-blue striped scarf a customer had never claimed. Without the cloth over his nose and mouth, he felt every thrust as the winter wind knifed mercilessly at his lungs, and the familiar, unwelcome tightness seized his chest like armor growing steadily smaller.
"Buck," he wheezed, or tried, and Bucky caught his hand and stood between him and the wind, pulling him along until they were inside the empty school.
"Come on, Steve, slow, breathe slow," Bucky said, chilled fingers tangling in Steve's floppy hair, and Steve tried to push the bad air out, tried to keep himself from clutching Bucky too close. Bucky held him close anyway, fitting their bodies together like jigsaw pieces so that Steve was cradled warm and secure. The bands around his chest and throat loosened ever so slightly, but it was enough to let him get air in and out, slowly, so slowly, and Steve uncurled his fingers from where they'd crumpled Bucky's shirt. The tips were going back to pink from blue.
"Jesus, Steve," Bucky panted out, and Steve crossed himself reflexively. "Mother of God," Bucky continued, so Steve did it again. "Just be okay, will ya?"
"I am," Steve said, tilting his face up so he could look Bucky in the eye and not lie to him. "I'm good, Buck-"
Bucky was bending close, fitting his forehead against Steve's temple, and his mouth caught the corner of Steve's and just held.
That had been his first kiss, Steve remembered as he hurtled toward the ice. He closed his eyes and smiled at the thought that he'd see Bucky again soon.