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Demobilization

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June 20, 1945

Even though it’s only been a couple of hours since sunrise, it feels like an honest-to-God eternity before the ship finally approaches New York Harbor.

Most everyone’s out on the decks now, and there’s no room to fucking breathe in deeply, let alone turn around or stretch or find somewhere more comfortable to stand. Bucky’s managed to get a spot by the railing on an upper deck, and his hip’s all bruised up from being pressed hard into the metal barrier. The atmosphere is nice, though. With fifteen thousand men shoulder-to-shoulder, you’d think it’d be rowdy as hell, but right now it’s pretty subdued. Guys are laughing, chattering, excited, but every pair of eyes is trained on the shoreline creeping closer ahead of them.

He sighs heavily. “Shit. It’d be faster to swim.”

A First Lieutenant named Foley snorts. “Barnes, what the hell kinda crawl you thinking of doing with one arm?”

It’s a good point. “Watch me, I’ll race ya,” Bucky grins anyway. “You’re a good officer and all, Foley, but you ain’t in the best shape. I bet I could drown and still get there faster than you.”

They’re all feeling good-natured, so the laughter isn’t mean. “Faster than the damn boat, at any rate,” Foley grumbles. Bucky claps him on the shoulder.

When the Statue of Liberty slides into view, the whole ship roars. It’s deafening. Bucky throws his fist in the air and yells along with everyone else. His heart is in his throat. The Statue of goddamn Liberty. Bucky wants to climb up her robe and kiss her sour green face.

The cheers rise up again as they go by her, and then die back down; most of the guys are just happy to sit and smile and watch the city float lazily into focus. They know they’ve got days more of barracks and bunks and cheap train seats before they’ll get to see their families in Pittsburgh, or Columbus, or Chicago. But Bucky’s home, he can see Brooklyn, and he laughs and shades his eyes from the sun and feels crazy with happiness, and this has to be the slowest fucking boat in the world, but at least he has a good view while he dies of impatience. Manhattan Island, the Brooklyn docks, growing bigger and more real with every minute. The shimmering, sunlit skyline. Home.

An airplane drones overhead. Everyone looks up and watches it disappear into the sun. The wind had dropped after they entered the harbor, but there’s still a cool breeze and it carries the sound from the shore. They can hear the crowds on the docks now, and a band. Buildings are slung with flags and pennants; one of them has a big red banner shouting WELL DONE in huge white letters.

Everyone’s starting to get to their feet again, and the guys in the middle are climbing on each other’s shoulders to get a better view. The figures on the docks are waving and waving, and all the guys on the boat are hanging off the edges to wave back. Bucky’s getting an ache in his arm from it, and it matches the one in his face from smiling. He can’t make out any details of the people on shore—just the shape of the men’s hats and the colors of the women’s dresses, their white gloves fluttering back and forth in the sun—but it feels like every goddamn one of them is waving just for him. He knows one of them is his ma.

Oh God, his ma–and Bucky climbs up to balance on the bottom railing and leans way out to scan the crowd, as if there was any chance she could see him, as if he’d be able to spot her by getting up a bit higher. He wonders who else will be there to meet him; if his dad could get the day off work, if his brother is waiting too. Maybe Becca's there with her little daughters, the two of them in their Sunday clothes, waving tiny American flags.

He doesn’t know if Steve will come down to meet him. He hasn’t had mail all year, too many transfers from hospital to hospital meaning that the mail drops just couldn’t keep up, but he knows his folks must have had a telegram about the boat coming in. They would have told Steve about it.

Bucky kept on writing, even though he wasn’t getting any letters back. God knows he didn’t have anything else to do besides sit and wait and hope that he might actually get back soon. The waiting drove him nuts, so he wrote. Dear Ma, I hope this finds you well. I am as well as I can be, although I miss home. He’d figured they’d all be upset he was wounded, and reassured them carefully in every letter.

I’m just glad I’m still alive. Could have been a lot worse.

It’s nice to be in a real bed.

I don’t have much pain any more. They’re weaning me off the morphine.

He wrote to Steve too. It’s a mess but it don’t hurt. They took everything from just above the elbow.

Don’t go getting any ideas about beating me in a fight. I always said I could take you with one hand behind my back, I guess now I’ll be able to prove it.

He didn’t write Jesus God I miss you. He didn’t write I’m sorry. Sometimes he whispered it under his breath before he fell asleep.

-⥀-

He doesn’t even get off the stupid boat until almost evening. He’s been hanging around below decks since they docked – they all have – and distracting himself with half-hearted games of poker against a bunch of pilots from the 8th Airborne. They can hear as each unit gets called to the gangplank. They act like they aren’t listening.

The injured guys, the ones that are still recovering, get to disembark first. And Bucky can’t begrudge them that, those poor saps with their casts and stretchers and crutches; he might not be exactly in one piece himself, but he can’t be too mad. It’s June of 1945, and he’s fixing to walk back onto American soil using his own two goddamn feet. If he has to wait a bit longer, at least he can be thankful that he’s not going straight from the ship to another hospital.

When they finally call his unit to line up, he grabs his duffel and shoulders it in one movement. Nobody needs to help him with it anymore; in the last couple of weeks, he’s gotten used to hefting it with just the one arm, and it no longer pulls him off balance to carry it more than a couple of steps. He realizes that after today, he won’t have any use for the bag. Jesus, he barely remembers what a chest of drawers looks like.

At the gangplank, his heart starts hammering. It’s dark and quiet under the canopy of the terminal building. The guy in front of him holds up the show by dropping to his knees as soon as his feet step off the ramp, pressing his lips to the concrete. Bucky wants to kick him out of the way. For fuck’s sake, keep moving, pal.

Most of the men are being herded off to more buses and more waiting around, but Bucky nods his thanks to the overseeing officers and turns in the opposite direction, towards the sunlight spilling from a far doorway. He doesn’t think to say goodbye to any of the other fellas. He just points his feet toward that bright doorway and breathes deep.

When he steps through, it’s not as chaotic as he expected, not after the madness of the ship. The big crowds had drifted away after they docked. There’s a cleared concrete area, outside of which a few hundred people are pushed up against wooden barriers; he sees soldiers surrounded by little groups of civilians, hugging their kids, kissing their girls. He squints and walks out further into the sun.

“Bucky!”

He spins. It’s a little girl running at him with her arms out, and he blinks and stumbles as she barrels into his legs.

“Mary?” He knows it can’t be Mary, but his brain won’t catch up.

“No, Uncle Bucky, I’m Janet.”

Holy shit. “Yeah, of course you are, honey.” Christ, Rebecca was still pregnant when Bucky shipped out. Janet was born in February of ‘43, when Bucky was busy invading Italy, and he got the news of her arrival a month after the fact. She’s going on three now. She looks exactly like her mother. He dumps the duffel on the ground and puts his palm on her dark head. Feels her warmth. Blinks back tears. “Hi, Janet.”

And then Mary is there, and Teddy, both smiling huge and yelling his name, and if Bucky was thrown by seeing Janet, then his kid brother loping up all six feet tall and gangly as hell damn near knocks him on his ass. He huffs and hugs him and says “Wow,” and Teddy picks up the duffel, and Mary leans into Bucky’s belly and he puts his hand on her back. “Shit, Mary, you got so big.”

“I’m five now,” she reminds him, proud. “And watch your language. We saw your boat! Did you see me waving?”

A hand on his arm, then. He turns and it’s his ma, looking a little plumper and a little greyer, wearing a hat and not wearing an apron in acknowledgement of the occasion. She says his name and he says hers, and he scoops her forward into a lopsided embrace. They stand there like that, and she’s crying, so for a second he doesn’t pretend he’s not.

She takes a breath, pulls back and kisses him on the cheek, then holds him out to appraise him. “You look thinner.”

That cracks him up, shouting a real laugh. Of course that’s the first thing she says to him in three years. “Jesus Christ, Ma. They weren’t exactly feeding us turkey and gravy on the regular.” He wipes his face.

“Watch your language. She reaches out and brushes the pinned-up sleeve on his left. Crosses herself. “Look at this. My poor boy. Didn’t I tell you to be careful, James?

Buck rolls his eyes.

“He’s a hero, Ma,” says Teddy, and Buck fights the urge to roll them again. He for sure isn’t that.

“Where’s Dad?” he asks, to change the subject.

Mary jumps in, grabbing Janet’s hand away from Bucky’s pinned sleeve. “He’s still at work. Mr. O'Regan drove us here in his car. Mrs. O'Regan brought strawberries and Lizzie made peach pie.”

He raises his eyebrows and is about to say who’s Lizzie, but then he glances over Ma’s shoulder and his heart jumps.

“No way.” He untangles himself from his mother’s hands.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Holy shit, Rogers.” Bucky doesn’t know what he’s saying. “What are you doing here?”

Steve shrugs with his hands still in his pockets and pretends to frown. “Watch your language, Buck.”

Bucky strides over to him, grinning. “Yeah, fuck you, pal.”

He grasps Steve’s shoulder, shakes him, and then they both dive into a hug, laughing. Steve smells the same. He feels the same. He’s here. Bucky doesn’t let himself press his face to Steve’s neck like he wants to, or pet Steve’s hair, or fall to his knees and sob into Steve’s shirt with joy and relief. The effort, the restraint, feels Herculean. Bucky wants to scream from it. He lets himself cling for a few seconds.

When they move apart, they both laugh again. Steve’s smiling kinda watery and he looks so good, healthy as hell and maybe even a little more filled out. He’s still thin, with big hands and bony shoulders, but not sick. There are no shadows under his eyes.

Holy Christ, those eyes. Bucky never kept a photo of Steve with him while he was overseas, too afraid of giving himself away. He pictured those eyes every day, though. Every night. Every time he was scared or lost or in fucking agony, Steve’s gorgeous eyes would appear in his mind. He was afraid he’d forget, that he was getting them wrong after so long. But they are exactly as Bucky remembers them.

Steve grins properly, and Bucky feels dizzy, hysterical. Then Steve’s smile fades and he touches Bucky’s sleeve in the same way Ma had.

“I’m real sorry, Buck.”

Bucky scrunches his nose, looks at his shoes, nods. “Yeah, well.” He’s getting used to the way people look at him now that he’s a cripple, the frowns and the stares. He hates it, but he can live with it, he guesses, from strangers and even from his ma, but not from Steve; he hadn’t prepared himself for that. Right now that punk is getting all sad-eyed, and Bucky wants to flinch away from the pity. He has a sudden urge to throw a punch.

But then Steve’s lips quirk a little, and he says, “Hey. You took A Farewell to Arms too literally, huh.”

They both snicker. Bucky loves Hemingway. “Sure did. Pretty stupid, right?” He slings his good arm over Steve’s shoulders. He’s unspeakably relieved. “I guess the Germans were real set on taking away my Second Amendment rights.”

It takes a moment, but then Steve groans. “Oh God, you asshole.”

Bucky’s unrepentant. “I had a lot of fuckin’ time in hospital, bud. No way did you think of more arm puns than me.”

-⥀-

They pile in the car, Mr. O'Regan having returned to pick them up. The O'Regans have lived down the hall from the Barnes family for decades; Buck knows neither of the O'Regan boys made it out of the war. He is intensely aware that this kind man has come to the docks to welcome him, somebody else’s son, instead of Len and Ralphie and their sticking-out ears and big, goofy grins. Mr. O'Regan insists on opening the door for Bucky and says, “We’re all proud of you, son.” Buck can barely look him in the eye, but he shakes his hand and says, “Thank you, sir” about fifty times, and gets in the front seat next to him. Nobody mentions Len or Ralph. Bucky tries to forget their names, if he’s honest, and then he feels like a shitbird for it. Ma and Teddy and Steve squeeze into the back seat with Mary on Teddy’s lap, and Janet falls asleep right away, tucked into Bucky’s shoulder.

Brooklyn streets glide past, uncanny. He is struck with the feeling of the past and the future colliding in front of his eyes – everything is the same, but also utterly, indescribably changed. He knows things look different, but he can’t say how. As soon as he catches something new, the original’s gone from his mind and he can’t conjure it back.

He looks back at Steve. “Is Frank’s still open?”

“Uh-huh. Joanie still works there, too.”

“Hallelujah,” he sighs. “I been dreaming about a corned beef sandwich and a Coke for months.”

Steve guffaws. “Thought you were gonna say you been dreaming about Joanie.”

“Thought I’d spare you the details of those dreams, buddy. Let me concentrate on the sandwich first. Joanie can wait until I’m done my damn Coke.”

Steve and Teddy crack up, and Bucky’s Ma yelps, “James!”

“Sorry, Ma.” He tries to look contrite, but winks at Mary, who’s giggling. “Guess the Army wrecked my manners.”

Ma tuts and gives him a Look. “Never mind. Just get to fixing ‘em, now that you’re home.”

Buck nods. He turns to look out the front window again and holds his niece gently. The hum of the car lulls him a little. Then he glances back. “How did Janet know me?” he asks softly.

His ma smiles. “Rebecca has your picture on the wall. Janet kisses it every night at bedtime.”

-⥀-

Inside the Barnes living room, Bucky stares at the big oriental rug and the old photographs on the sideboard. The girls are beside themselves with excitement, jostling each other and bouncing around Bucky like puppies. Teddy announces proudly that he’ll take the duffel into the bedroom, and Mary leads Buck by the hand to sit in one of the chairs by the fireplace.

Here, again, is the sense of the past dissolving everywhere he looks; the red flowered curtains seem brighter, and the chairs are different, or maybe they had just been moved – already he can’t remember. The soft, beloved images of home that he’d carried with him all this time, from the mud at Salerno to the dingy field hospital at Hürtgen Forest, slide blurrily away wherever he looks. Objects he’s known his whole life reconfigure into something unfamiliar, as if he were viewing them backwards in a mirror.

Janet’s run off into the kitchen yelling, “Mommy! Bucky’s home!” and there’s a shriek and Becca comes flying in, wiping her hands on her apron. Buck just has enough time to stand before she reaches him, and he hugs her hard while she sniffles into his chest.

“Jesus, not more of this,” he grumbles, wiping gently at her face. “Everyone quit crying.”

“I’m sorry,” she laughs. “It’s just...You’re home.”

Bucky nods and smiles down at her. “Yeah.”

She’s wearing a long skirt and blouse instead of the shorter dresses she always had before, and at 24 she really looks like a grown woman. Her husband Charlie is still out, fighting in the Pacific, and she’s raising Mary and Janet on her own. It shows on her face—tired, more lines on her forehead and around her mouth. He remembers her wedding, how beautiful she looked, eighteen and in love, and how happy Bucky was that she’d found a guy who would take care of her. How it never occurred to any of them that Charlie would get called up.

It gets chaotic in the house pretty quick. Becca herds Janet and Mary into the kitchen, and then the O'Regans show up with all their daughters, who fidget and stare and giggle when Bucky shakes their hands and kisses their cheeks as if he could remember them at all, or even tell them apart. Teddy tries to flirt with one of the younger ones, and Bucky and Steve hide their smiles and pretend they aren’t watching.

Mrs. O'Regan hugs him and cries, and Bucky thinks of Ralph and Len again, and he feels like a shitbird again. He stands by the fireplace as more people come by – Uncle Albie with some of the cousins, a few of the older neighbors, a bunch of people Bucky doesn’t even think he knows – and they variously wave and hug him and clap him on the good shoulder, and all the women keep trekking through to the kitchen with dishes, and the men sit for a few minutes and make small talk while they wait for their women to come back. Bucky knows it’s a mean thing to think, but even though everyone is smiling, it reminds him of a wake.

Through the commotion, Steve stays in the living room with Bucky, saying hi to the visitors he knows, but not offering any more conversation.

After so long away from him, Bucky feels his presence now almost like a physical touch. He tries not to stare, elated with the sight of him, the fact of him, his particular combination of soft skin and hard angles that makes Bucky weak. His fingers still remember how that skin feels, even after all this time.

He had decided, in a cold tent somewhere in the middle of Italy, that if he ever made it home alive he was going to tell Steve. He'd practiced it in his mind: Never been anyone else for me. Well, here he is, one sweaty palm and his heart pounding, but alive, at least. And after all the shit he's been through, there's no way he’s backing down now.

He knew it would be tough, that he’d have to steel himself to do it. But he definitely didn’t figure he’d have to wait around for hours with half of Brooklyn jammed into his ma’s front room, all calling him a hero till he wants to puke, and everyone trying to avoid looking at his stump, and Steve right there.

It’s starting to feel like torture, the waiting, wanting desperately to be alone with him. He’s forced his eyes away and is staring out the window, considering whether he could just drag Steve into an empty bedroom, when Steve clears his throat behind him and says, “Hey, Buck. There's someone I want you to meet.”

Bucky looks around. Steve’s big blue eyes have a nervous smile in them, and his terrible hopeless hair is flopping over his forehead like always, and his arm is around the waist of the girl standing next to him.

What, shouts Bucky’s brain.

His mouth doesn’t say anything. It kinda hangs open a little.

“Buck, this is Lizzie. Elizabeth Randall. Lizzie, this is Bucky.”

“Hello, Bucky,” the girl says. “It’s real good to meet you, finally.”

She’s short, but then, she’d have to be. A little pale, a little plain, not a looker, but she fits nice in her dress and her hair is some kinda strawberry blonde colour that you don’t see too often, and her smile is wide and friendly. She offers her right hand to Bucky, and puts the other one in Steve’s.

Bucky stands dead still for a second and blinks. He feels like he’s back on the fucking ship, and it gives a big queasy roll beneath his feet. He wonders briefly if he’ll ever be able to move again, and his chest fills with panic when he realizes they’re waiting for him to speak. But he’s used to hiding, he’s the world’s greatest actor, and he smiles. Makes his shoulders relax.

“Sergeant First Class James Barnes. It’s swell to meet you, too.” He steps forward and takes her hand.

“Steve talks about you all the time,” she says. “We’re all thrilled you’re home safe.”

“Thanks,” he grins. “I’m plenty thrilled myself.” He turns to Steve, raises his eyebrows as high as they’ll go, and blows a breath through pursed lips. “Are you kidding me, Rogers? This is your girl? You been holding out on me!”

Steve frowns, flustered. “Lizzie’s a nurse. I met her at the hospital.”

The boat rocks again and he tenses to keep himself upright. “That right? Well, you’re about the prettiest nurse I ever saw, and believe me, I saw plenty.” He’s talking too loud. He turns back to Steve in mock outrage. “I swear to God, Rogers, I’m never gonna forgive you for not telling me you had a sweetheart. Guess you want to make sure you keep her to yourself, huh? Not telling your best pal?”

Steve blushes a little and suppresses a grin, shoves his hands in his pockets and says, “I wrote you about her. Back at Easter.”

“Ain’t had mail since Christmas, buddy.”

“Oh.”

“I was in France kinda recently, though, and they got some nice fancy candies there that Lizzie could have enjoyed this very evening, if I’d known. But I ain’t heard a word about it till now. Isn’t that a shame?”

“Surely you should have been bringing candies back for your own girl?” she teases, and Bucky shakes his head. He forces a smirk onto his face.

“Well, you see, there ain’t room in my luggage for twenty tins of chocolate, and if any of ‘em found out that I brought French candy home for just one girl, well,” he dials up the cocky smile and winks at her, “I’d have nineteen separate rounds of explaining to do.”

She takes his performance good-naturedly, smiling as Steve rolls his eyes, and Bucky keeps going, talking fast so his voice won’t shake.

“Now, for Steve Rogers’ girl, I could spare room for a tin of candy. I ain’t ever seen him court a lady before, so I know you gotta be something special. This here’s the pickiest guy I ever met.” He slaps Steve on the back and laughs again, then leans in to her and drops his voice. “He treating you okay? He take you places? Don’t get too fresh, does he?”

Bucky,” Steve groans.

She laughs. “Thanks for your concern, but Steve is a perfect gentleman.”

Bucky looks at her sideways and snorts. “You sure you know the same Steve Rogers as me? There's nothing perfect about this guy, and nothing gentlemanly either, not once in his whole life. This punk’ll argue the ears off Christ Himself. Listen, sweetheart, the stories I could tell you…”

“All right, all right, I think she gets the idea,” Steve grumbles, but the girl’s delighted.

“I look forward to that.” She laughs again. “I might be able to tell you a few of my own.”

“That right? Sounds like you’re in trouble, pal,” and he’s about to start in on a story, one of the Steve’s Bad Temper stories, anything to keep his mouth running as long as he can, but someone calls her name from the kitchen, and she says, “Oh – the peach pie – excuse me for a minute,” and squeezes Steve’s hand before she goes.

They both look after her, and of course, now they’re the only ones in the room. Suddenly, Bucky needs to get out of there, but Steve is turning to him, bashful, and Bucky can’t tell if his heart is going too fast or stopped altogether.

“Sorry,” Steve’s saying. “I thought you got my letters.”

“Nah. S’okay, I was just kidding. She seems real nice.”

“She is. She used to come to the store and we’d talk.” He smiles. “She likes my drawings.”

Bucky wants to throw up. “That’s swell.” He can’t make himself say any more.

Steve scratches behind his neck. “Figure if she sticks around until the manager job opens up, I’ll ask her to marry me. Might be soon.” He shrugs but looks proud.

Bucky knows he should react, this is news that demands a response, so he twists his face in what he hopes is a smile. “Yeah? Good going, Rogers. She’ll for sure say yes.”

“You think so?”

He nods. “I can tell. She’ll treat you right. That’s real swell.”

Steve’s about to say something else; he opens his mouth and takes a breath, but Bucky speaks over him, says he’ll be right back, knocks Steve gently in the shoulder with his fist as he leaves the room, then he’s staggering breathless down the hall to the bathroom and the boat tips and rolls like crazy, and when he gets the door closed behind him he sags back onto it, leans over and squeezes his eyes shut, gasps and sniffs and pushes his only hand over his mouth as hard as he can to stop the sob from coming.

 

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Steve meets him at Frank’s Diner the next afternoon, and Bucky gets his corned beef sandwich and Coke. Bucky really appreciates the fact that Frank’s still looks exactly the same as it always did. There’s nothing jarring when he walks in, and the floors feel solid beneath his feet. He has to get Frank to cut his sandwich in half so he can eat it one-handed, but that’s the only thing different.

Joanie the waitress, looking exactly the same as Bucky remembers, squeaks and hugs him. He winks and flashes her his dimples, but that’s all he has the energy for. He’d absolutely collapsed into bed the night before, before dessert was even served.

It was hell at dinner. He didn't mind being hugged and petted and cried over one more time when his dad got home, but mostly he was just numb and exhausted. He could barely eat the food that the neighbours had brought, and his ma patted his cheek fondly and told him to go to bed.

Steve put his hand on Lizzie’s back and said, softly, that he’d walk her home.

It’s mostly all right now, though, having slept ten hours, sitting in the booth with Steve across from him, eating the same sandwiches they’d been ordering since they were kids. He slouches low with a toothpick in his mouth and watches Steve shove pastrami in his face, and it almost feels like before.

“I’m just saying, there’s work if you want it.” Steve’s garbling around his sandwich.

Buck rolls his eyes and hands Steve a napkin. “Wipe your chin. C’mon, you think your boss wants to hire a guy with one arm to haul his boxes?”

Steve dabs at his face, missing the mustard completely.

“Yeah, but you don’t have to haul boxes. There are so many other jobs, there’d be plenty to do…”

“Steve. You already got the owner and a manager—“

“But you—“

Bucky raises his voice. “—plus you, plus two different shop girls. And I don’t know shit about art supplies. I appreciate the offer, but you don’t gotta do this for me.”

“Okay, so what are you gonna do?”

“I’ll think of something. Jesus, will you wipe your fucking chin?” He tosses a pile of napkins across the table and grins. “Maybe I’ll do like I always said, set up a booth at Coney Island. Sell cotton candy and peanuts all summer. Scam people with a rigged shooting gallery.”

Steve smiles at that. “Yeah, wise guy, but what about in winter?”

“I’ll go up to Canada. Ice fishing. Get a hut right out in the middle of a lake. Anyway, will you relax? I got my pension to keep me going. My folks’ll let me stay in Teddy’s room. I’ll be okay.”

Steve chews another enormous bite of his pastrami and looks thoughtful. “You staying with your folks for good?”

Bucky sighs and holds out his stump with the pinned-up sleeve. “I can’t butter my own toast, pal,” he says, and Steve frowns like he forgot. “I can’t tie my fucking shoes. Maybe after a while, I’ll head somewhere else, but.” He shakes his head. “I can’t get by on my own.” He tries to say it lightly, but he’s not exactly sure it came out that way.

“I wish you could move in with me. I could help you out.”

“It’s okay, Steve,” Bucky says with another sigh, but Steve keeps prattling on.

“But I can’t ask John to leave, ‘cause he’s on the lease—”

“You don’t gotta kick out your roommate, bud.”

“I know but I—“

Bucky’s feeling very fucking off-balance with this line of discussion. He gets a little pissed off, for some reason. He jabs his toothpick in Steve’s direction.

“Anyway, you’ll need to get a place on your own soon, right? When you get married?”

He didn’t want to bring it up, was, in fact, desperately avoiding the topic, but now he almost relishes it. Bucky wants Steve to feel bad. Bucky’s an asshole.

But if there’s anything accusing in his tone, Steve doesn’t notice. He just nods and says with his mouth full, “I’ve thought about it. I’ve been saving so maybe I could make rent on something small. I don’t know when, though. It depends on the promotion.”

Then Steve’s eyes change and he gives a smile, the one that means he’s had an idea. “We just gotta find you a girl, Buck. Someone to look after you.”

Bucky makes a face, like he’s twelve years old again and girls still have cooties. “Fuck off, you sound like Ma.”

“Well, she’s right. C’mon, surely one of your twenty girls is looking to settle down?” Steve is grinning now, and Bucky is really not in the fucking mood.

“Cut it out.”

“But that’s the answer, though. Just find yourself a nice girl and you’ll be set.”

“Will you shut up, please? I been back one day.”

“Maybe Lizzie’s got a friend, huh?”

Bucky’s stomach drops. He looks at his plate and doesn’t answer. For a while they’re both silent. Steve is silent because he’s concentrating on his sandwich, and probably nobly thinking of which eligible friend would be the best to take care of Bucky. Bucky is silent because he’s trying to calm himself down.

For so, so long—for a lifetime, it feels like—the only future Bucky thought about was getting home, getting the hell out of the hospital and the war and back to Brooklyn, where things made sense. And he knew it was stupid, because nothing could possibly ever be the same again, not with his arm blown off and the kids all grown and half the guys in his neighborhood getting their guts shot out all over Europe. But he clung to it anyway, lying in the hospitals and daydreaming like an idiot: home, the streets and storefronts and cramped apartments, the docks and parks and dancehalls and alleys and always, through every memory, Steve, Steve, Steve.

Bucky thinks back on that Steve, his Steve, the one he kept in his mind and his heart and stupidly thought he could ever have again. Steve at 16, mouthy and brave and innocent, still believing he had a right to his dreams; Steve at 19, numb with grief and anger. At 22, a beat-up kid too sick and scared to expect anything from the world.

Bucky, the Bucky from back then, with two arms and a girl on each one, thought he could protect Steve. He thought that was his job. But the Steve sitting across from Bucky now is a man, come into his own, and Bucky stares at him and realizes with a pang that Steve’ll never need Bucky again, not even once. He’s twenty-seven and working steady, and he might still be skinny and poor as shit, he might still get sick, but he’s doing okay. He wears a fucking hat now, an actual fedora, like Cary Grant, and somehow it doesn’t look stupid.This Steve’s clothes don’t hang off him, like maybe they’re not hand-me-downs, or maybe he went to an honest-to-God tailor—and for some reason the thought of Steve going to a tailor makes Bucky want to laugh and cry at the same time.

This Steve’s got a girl. He’s making a life. And Bucky understands, he does, the reasons that he himself will barely figure in that life. Maybe he could hover around the edges, but it’ll never ever be the way it was. It’s better for everyone, and he doesn’t begrudge Steve that. He’s fucking happy for him, honest. But for this new Steve to look at him with concern and ask Bucky about plans, to offer him a fucking job

He bites his toothpick in half savagely, then snaps himself out of his thoughts. They’ve finished their sandwiches, and Bucky’s about to suggest they get going when Lizzie walks in.

“Fancy meeting you boys here,” she says with a smile. She’s wearing her nurse’s uniform, with the little hat and all. She looks more grown-up in it. She looks, Bucky thinks, like Sarah Rogers in it.

“Hi! Hi,” Steve says, and scoots over to make room for her in the booth, fussing over her purse and clearing the mess from his lunch away to the side.

She smiles at Bucky as she sits down. “Hi, Bucky.”

He clears his throat, sits up a little straighter, and nods at her. “How you doing, Lizzie?”

“Fine, thanks. I have my shift in an hour, but I thought I’d come and say hi before I start. Are you feeling any better today?”

“Oh,” says Bucky, and he’s had this conversation before with a million different nurses. “Yeah, sure. I slept like the dead.”

“That’s good.” She nods. “It can’t be easy to spend that long on a boat.”

He shrugs. “Sure makes you appreciate getting back on solid ground.”

“We were just talking about what Bucky’s gonna do for work,” says Steve. He’s talking to her like he’s describing a miracle from the Bible, staring seriously into her eyes, and Bucky fights a scowl. He remembers that look.

Lizzie turns to him. “Do you have any ideas?” she asks solemnly.

Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, I’ll find something soon. I’ll be okay.”

She reaches her hand across the table towards him, her eyes soft. “The hospital has an amputee ward. They help patients after they’re discharged, too. I could look into it for you.”

Steve fucking beams at her. God damn it.

“Yeah, sure. That’d be swell,” he says, though he doesn’t mean it.

He’s already been given the spiel, at the last hospital, in England. They made him try one of the shitty government-issue artificial limbs, one that pinched and creaked and barely moved, and which he couldn’t make do a damn thing. They gave him an order form to pick up his own, paid-for in full, when he got back to New York. His first day on the boat, he crumpled up the form and tossed it into the Atlantic Ocean. There's no way he's going through all that again.

She's still looking at him, so he gives her an approximation of a smile. “Thanks.”

“Bucky’s staying with his folks for now,” Steve says, and grins, “but I think we need to find him a girl.”

“Oh?” says Lizzie teasingly, “I thought you had a dozen waiting?”

“We gotta help him choose just one. Right, Buck?”

Bucky hangs his head over the table and shakes it as Steve laughs.

“Steve, shut up.” He’s performing, acting embarrassed on cue, but he means the words. Please, please shut up. Steve keeps laughing.

“Oh!” Lizzie says brightly. “Steve’s taking me to Coney Island this weekend! You should come along, Bucky! I could invite some of my girlfriends to join us.”

She and Steve giggle meaningfully, and she puts her hand on Steve’s arm. He grins at her. She sneaks a sip of his Coke, and grins back.

Bucky hates her, and he’s done watching. He excuses himself to the bathroom.

Frank’s men's room is still as bad as ever. It's comforting, a little. He splashes water on his face as best he can, and looks in the mirror.

“Shit,” he whispers, hating Lizzie and himself with equal venom. Her, for getting to have Steve. Himself, for never, ever wanting anyone else.

Well, maybe not never. Bucky had been with half of the eligible women in New York State by the time he shipped out, and he hadn’t exactly been complaining about it. A lot of them were just dates, but he had steady girls, too, off and on. He liked them. It was great to always have someone to fool around with. Damn, they sure were a lot of fun.

And...there was a kid. A guy. At basic training in Wisconsin. Private Douglas—Bucky didn’t even know his first name. He was queer and didn’t bother hiding it, or maybe he couldn’t hide it, maybe he’d decided to stop trying. Whichever it was, everybody knew and everybody gave him a wide berth.

Bucky couldn’t take his eyes off him.

It wasn’t that he looked liked Steve. His hair was fluffy and the wrong kind of blond, and he was tall and lanky where Steve was just skinny. Bucky didn't even think Douglas was that good-looking, really. From a distance, he was just the same as any other guy.

But he didn't hide. Bucky had seen fairies before, back home, but they wore makeup and hung out in creepy dark bars that Buck was careful to never go near. This guy—Bucky couldn't fathom what he was seeing, at first; this ordinary-looking soldier who sat on his own and didn't say much, but walked like a woman and smoked weird long cigarettes and smirked suggestively whenever anyone other than an officer spoke to him.

Bucky watched him furtively. The other men were wary of him—though never openly hostile—but Bucky saw how careful Douglas was to be agreeable, even deferent. He never started any shit, never drew undue attention to himself. He didn't hide, but he was always careful.

A couple of weeks in, Bucky was pretending not to watch Douglas during dinner, when the kid turned in his chair suddenly and looked right at him, meeting his eyes deliberately and just a beat too long. Bucky dropped his gaze and resolutely kept it aimed at his plate for the rest of the meal, panic humming in his ears. Later, when Bucky left the mess hall, Douglas was leaning on the corner of the building, smoking. He looked up at Bucky, pushed himself wordlessly off the wall and started to head to the back of the administrative buildings. Bucky waited until the kid glanced back, nice and casual, and then he put his hands in his pockets and followed.

Douglas sucked him off efficiently behind a shed, and seemed startled and then amused when Bucky returned the favor. They did it again a few days later, risking it quickly in the dim of evening right before curfew.

They never once spoke to each other in the presence of the other men. Bucky knew the stakes, and he might have had something wrong with him, but he wasn't stupid. They kept their meetings quick and infrequent, and even then Bucky didn't kid himself that they were safe.

Once, Douglas stopped Bucky halfway through, pulled him off his knees, kissed him tentatively and said “Why don't we do this for real?”

Bucky barely knew what he meant. “Uh. Okay?”

Douglas was already shoving his pants down. “Come on, you want to get me ready?”

Bucky dropped his hands to his sides and looked at him uselessly, baffled. Douglas laughed right in this face, and took his hand, and showed him what to do.

In the last week of basic, Private Douglas was caught in the showers with a recruit from Tampa named Vic Berman. The two of them were given “administrative discharges,” effective immediately. Bucky stood with the other guys, heart racing, as Douglas and Berman were marched off the base, their faces pale and downcast.

It was never serious, the thing with Douglas. They enjoyed each other, but that was it. They barely even talked, for Christ’s sake.

It was different from going with all those girls, who in his memory now blend together into one smoky, sexy, faceless silhouette. The girls were a distraction, a way to keep himself away from Steve and out of trouble. A nice way of convincing himself that he was just a regular guy, nothing funny going on. That thing with Steve—it was just a one-off. He was just confused, because they were so close. If he kept taking girls out, he’d forget about Steve. No problem.

But going with Douglas forced Bucky to admit that it wasn't just Steve he was funny about. Bucky went back home knowing two things: that he was definitely queer, and that nobody could ever fucking know. He knew what happened to guys that didn’t hide. He was right all along. Steve wasn’t safe around him.

 

And now, Steve’s taking his very own steady girl to Coney Island! Bucky should be thrilled. He tries to make himself feel at least relieved.

But his only memories of Coney Island are with Steve, and hot jealousy grinds inside him. All he can think is, have Steve and Lizzie been there together before? How many times? Have they eaten at Frank’s together? Seen a movie? Hung their legs off a fire escape and looked at the stars?

Does she know how sensitive the skin on his neck is, the soft curve of his waist? Does she map the freckles on his forearms, and try to memorize their patterns, like the stars?

Bucky’s eyes burn. He hopes, bitterly, that she does. He hopes she loves each one. With her whole heart.

He hopes she knows what it feels like to sit and watch over Steve when he’s sweating and delirious and struggling for breath. But—that’s right, they met at the hospital. She must have been his nurse. She’s been caring for him this whole time.

Besides, she’s a girl; she’s won already. Steve will be able to settle down with her, for real. Because even if Bucky wasn’t crippled, even if he had any prospects at all, what could he ever offer Steve? Only something to hide. Lizzie is exactly what Steve needs.

But, Bucky says to himself. But. He closes his eyes.

 

In December of ‘43, Bucky was at an Allied camp at Mignano, outside Rome, where everyone was gearing up to attack the German Line in Monte Cassino. He was on the ground in the Italian campaign for almost a year, and Mignano was the first place that he slept in the same spot for more than a few days at a time.

It was the biggest camp he’d seen so far. There were U.S. and French troops, and some ANZACs. A lot of the American guys were fresh from basic, excited and jumpy and full of swagger. They seemed so young—Bucky had a hard time looking at them. The French units and the New Zealanders had been in it longer; one glance told you. Bucky spent most of his down time with them.

A bunch of them were sitting around outside their tents, shooting the shit with their cigarettes before lights out, and the subject turned to women, as it tended to do. Some of the French guys had been lucky enough to get some recent time off in a village with a functioning pub, and there were girls there, and damn right they were all excited to tell about it now, in great detail.

“This girl, she knows how to do things I never thought of!” one of them yelled.

The other guys snorted and shook their heads at his bragging. But they were all listening, greedy for every word, Bucky included.

He had spent the past year turning himself into something that killed, something that could function through air raids and infantry attacks, at home with the blasted farmland and ruined buildings and the dead lying around. He was himself, alone, he didn’t need anything or anybody else. The thought of anyone touching him, with anything like tenderness—the very notion reached a place in him that he barely remembered existing. He feared the idea as desperately as he wanted it.

He hadn't looked at anyone like that, man or woman, since he left New York. He'd had plenty of opportunity. There were girls, sometimes. And the guys who were known fairies. Everyone in the camp knew who you could go see to get your dick sucked, if you wanted. The fairies were pretty well safe from the officers, out here; the Army needed all the men they could get, and they weren't about to bother themselves over a little fraternization in the showers. Especially not between men who were getting shelled to death every other day.

It was the rest of the men they had to watch out for. A guy might let you suck his dick, but he probably wouldn't let you look at him funny, and Bucky had seen soldiers get beat up for being queer by the same sons of bitches who visited them behind the treeline at night. He never did anything to stop it. He sure as hell never did any visiting of his own. He was here to look after himself, and the only way he knew how to survive was to keep quiet and be good with a rifle.

The Frenchman finished his dirty story. “Goddamn,” muttered one of the young American guys. “Wish there were girls like that here.”

“Good news, Williams,” someone said with a laugh. “ You go and wait up behind the latrines after dark, and you'll find a soldier willing to do that for you, I promise.”

Bucky turned to look at the guy who'd spoken.

Williams glared. “Fuck off, Sherman,” he said. “I ain't a faggot.”

Sherman put his hands behind his head and grinned. “I ain't either, dipshit. You just close your eyes, don’t ya, and picture a lady. It don't have to be like Clarkson and Greene.”

There were laughs, but Bucky blinked in confusion. Lieutenant Clarkson and Lieutenant Greene were two Texan guys Bucky knew by sight from the 56th. They were always together, their names always said as one. Everybody seemed to know them. Bucky wondered what hell this Sherman guy was talking about.

The next day Bucky saw Clarkson and Greene in the mess tent, and he nudged the man next to him.

“What's with those two?” he asked.

The guy followed his line of sight. “Greene and Clarkson?” He said with his mouth full. “They're practically married.”

Bucky froze. “What?”

The guy nodded. “They been going together since basic training, I heard.”

Bucky stared at him, thunderstruck.

The guy noticed his expression, and his eyes narrowed. “Hey,” he snapped. “Those two are good soldiers. Don't you go making trouble for them. You hear me?”

Bucky held up his hands and nodded his head.

He watched the two men at the other table. They were easy with each other, leaning in to casual touches, sharing a laugh. They might have been close friends, or brothers. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Bucky ate his B-ration. The words practically married rang in his head like a bell.

He saw the two of them around the camp in the following days. They were comfortable together, happy. They were often joking around with other guys, obviously their friends. They shared a tent. Nobody batted an eye.

Bucky had never heard of anyone being queer like that, with a steady fella—like settling down. He always thought queer meant two sweaty bodies without names, one night only. He definitely always thought his thing with Steve was an anomaly, some bizarre perversion of their deep brotherhood and friendship—he didn't know other guys could be that way too. But now he saw how the two young lieutenants looked at each other, and yeah, that he recognized for sure. He knew exactly how that felt.

When Clarkson was killed on the second day of the first Battle of Monte Cassino, a silent line of men stood outside the tent he'd shared with Greene, all of them waiting to give their condolences.

Bucky didn't go. He hadn't known either of them. But that night he lay in bed with Steve's eyes floating in his mind, and Bucky prayed his thanks to Jesus Christ Almighty and whoever else was listening—thank God, thank God, oh thank you, God, for keeping him safe.

 

He opens his eyes to his reflection in the dirty bathroom mirror: he looks worn out. He needs a haircut. He wonders if his old barber is still there on 4th Avenue. He imagines returning, walking in through the door with his arm missing, and thinks maybe he'd rather find a new one.

He sighs and wipes his hand on his pants, then heads back out into the hallway of the diner. The clock behind the counter tells him it’s almost 1:30 already. One good thing about losing your arm is, nobody ever asks why you took so long in the bathroom.

When he rounds the corner, he’s treated to a nice, technicolor view of Lizzie, standing up and holding her purse again, leaning over to meet Steve’s lips in a little kiss. Steve smiles dopily into her eyes and waves his hand as she turns to leave.

Bucky watches. After everything, it’s all he can do.

Chapter Text

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1934

The first time Bucky touched him, Steve thought he was imagining things.

It was the summer Steve was sixteen. War was something that had happened a long time ago – a bedtime story, an old movie reel. Bucky had been working at the docks all year, but there wasn't a lot of work to be had lately, and he started helping his dad at the hardware store on days when he didn't have a shift.

Steve’s ma was still around, working herself to the bone with a soft smile on her face. Steve had managed to find a summer job at the greengrocer’s on the corner, but the hours were light and he had plenty of time to laze around, get some drawing done, and occasionally make himself useful in his ma’s kitchen until Buck got home from work.

They were listening to a ball game in the Rogers living room. The radio was in the kitchen, and Steve was slouching on the sofa with his feet propped on a low stool, working on a sketch of his ma and catching Bucky up on the Dodgers game. They were playing the fuckin’ Giants. It was late afternoon, and Buck had just come in after finishing at the store, but he’d missed the first innings.

Bucky flopped down on the couch beside him and leaned over to see his sketchpad. “That your ma?”

Steve raised an eyebrow. He was working from a photograph portrait clipped in the corner of the page. “No, it’s the Chrysler Building.”

Bucky snorted. “I dunno, pal. My memory ain’t perfect, but I definitely remember the Chrysler Building having more windows than that.”

“Ha ha,” Steve said, without looking up.

“Nope,” Bucky kept going, deadpan, “it’s all wrong. I never once saw the Chrysler Building wearing spectacles. You gotta start over.”

Bucky.”

“Well, waddaya want me to say? Your ma has nicer tits than the Chrysler Building?”

Steve gasped loudly and cocked a fist at him. Bucky managed a straight face for about two seconds before collapsing with laughter.

“Don’t talk about my ma,” Steve snapped, and punched him hard on the arm.

“Ow, Jesus, okay, I’m sorry!” He tried to slap Steve’s hand away, and continued cackling. “I was kidding!”

“That’s not even a little funny,” Steve said, even though it was, because Bucky would have died before saying tits in front of Sarah Rogers. “What if she heard you, Buck?”

“Calm down, jeez, she ain’t home.”

“Anyway, I’m only drawing her face, you pervert,” Steve muttered with a glare, and that made Bucky laugh even harder. He laughed every time Steve got mad, at all his dramatic outrage, and did everything he could to get him riled up. Steve knew, and he played along, scowling theatrically and trying not to ruin it with a smile. This was their game, and it was easy. Nobody else could have gotten away with joking about Steve’s ma.

Steve went back to his sketch. He’d been shading Ma’s cheek, but it had started looking wrong, so he tried coming at it from a different angle. None of it was right. Eventually he admitted defeat, leaned back and looked at the ceiling, dropped his pencil on the book. It rolled off and fell beside his leg on the sofa. Bucky mirrored his movement, stretching his long legs way out across the floor, throwing one hand behind his head. On the radio, the Giants got a single and they both groaned and cursed half-heartedly.

The apartment was always hot in July, but the sun was off the windows now, and it had cooled off some from the height of the day. Kids’ voices filtered in from outside, mixing with the tinny radio sounds of the ball game. Steve had moved stock at the greengrocers that morning, but he hadn’t been sick in months, and instead of aching all over his arms just felt pleasantly tired. He let his eyes fall shut and breathed deeply, the sounds of the afternoon drifting in and out of his consciousness. There was a mourning dove calling in the distance. The world was still, still, still.

And then, Bucky’s finger brushed his.

Afterwards, Steve tried to dismiss it in his mind as accidental, like maybe Buck didn’t realize what he was doing. Neither of them had moved, Steve’s hand still resting on the sofa cushion next to the pencil and Bucky still stretched out beside him with his head tipped back. Steve snapped his eyes open when he felt it, but he didn’t say anything, didn’t snatch his hand away, just gazed blankly at the ceiling. He told himself that Bucky was just absently playing with the fabric of the couch, and got a little too close to Steve without knowing it. Because not a chance was Bucky stroking Steve’s hand on purpose.

But there it was again – the side of his pinky rubbing slowly over Steve’s own – and Steve closed his eyes again quick. He couldn’t move, couldn’t, there was no question of it. The dove moaned outside. Steve made himself take a breath, and then another, and shivered as Bucky’s finger ghosted over his once more…

Then Watty Clark struck out Hughie Critz, and the announcers got excited, and Bucky leapt up. “All right!” He clapped his hands a couple of times, nodding, and went over to swipe his pack of cigarettes from where he’d thrown them on the table.

Steve stirred, and said “Nice job, Watty,” absently. Fished his pencil out from between the couch cushions. Turned back to his drawing. Tried to think.

“I need a smoke. That okay?”

Buck was looking at him, and Steve finally met his eyes. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but there was nothing there out of the ordinary, no caution. Just Bucky making sure Steve’s lungs were feeling good today, and a smoke at the kitchen window wouldn’t hurt. He always asked first.

“Yeah.” Steve pointed his pencil at him threateningly. “Don’t burn the curtains.”

Bucky made an exaggerated Who me? face, hoisted himself next to the window, and lit up. He held the cigarette so the smoke would drift outside, his eyes following the grey tendrils out into the street. The ball game droned on.

Steve pretended to work on his sketch. He watched Bucky until the cigarette was finished.

-⥀-

The next time, there was no room for doubt. Steve wandered over to the Barnes place after supper and found Bucky stretched out on his ma’s fire escape in the dark, holding a bottle of warm beer stolen from his dad.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Steve climbed out the window, plopped down beside him and grabbed the bottle when Bucky held it out.

There was music coming from an open window somewhere nearby. The words echoed between the buildings.

Don’t save your kisses, just pass them around

You’ll find my reason is logically sound

Who’s going to know that you passed them around

A hundred years from today

Steve took a slug of beer, made a face at the warmth. When he put the bottle back in the space between them, Bucky’s hand was there. It caught his wrist. Steve barely breathed as Bucky settled their fingers together, swept his thumb softly over knuckles.

The moon is shining, and that’s a good sign

Cling to me closer and say you’ll be mine

Remember, darling, we won’t see it shine

A hundred years from today

Steve stared out at the endless stars and the endless city, seeing none of it, and holding Bucky’s hand. They stayed that way until Mrs. Barnes called Bucky inside for bed.

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-⥀-

They didn’t talk about it. Nobody could know about it – that part didn’t need to be discussed. But Steve began to feel, irrationally, as though they were keeping it a secret from each other, too.

Outwardly, nothing changed. They were together every spare minute, as always. They still played catch, and saved up to split a soda, and tried with variable success to talk up the neighbourhood girls. Nobody who watched them would have thought there was anything different about their banter, their movements together, their long easy silences. But whenever they were alone, really alone, Bucky would eventually drop his book on the floor, and Steve would abandon his sketching, and Steve would sit stock still, nerves blaring, and let Bucky slowly creep his fingers against his skin.

Steve didn’t even know what it was, what it meant, that Bucky’s touch lit him up so bright. Everywhere he touched seemed changed afterwards – just hands, at first, but soon Bucky ventured elsewhere, began to draw his fingers over a wrist or up and down a forearm, and one time when they were sharing opposite ends of the couch he’d traced the contour of Steve’s skinny knee, and Steve had thought he would die. When alone, later, heart still pounding, he put his own fingers in the places that Bucky’s had been, it seemed to him that it was no longer skin but something else, some beautiful metamorphosis had occurred, Bucky’s fingerprints turning those places to gold, opal, mother-of-pearl. He sometimes felt, in public, the crazy fear that other people could see it too.

In the middle of July there was a heat wave. The neighborhood sizzled through the days and sweltered through the nights, and there was no respite, unless you wanted to sneak into Connall’s Butchery and climb into one of the big locker freezers for a while—which Steve actually tried one afternoon when Bucky dared him, and managed to squeeze himself up next to a cow carcass for a few seconds, before getting caught and thrown out the door by his collar as Bucky howled with laughter around the corner. Steve had yelled and tried to chase him, but ended up laughing just as hard as Bucky, and he hadn’t even made it half a block before the humidity caught up with him and he’d had to sit down against a wall and ride out an asthma attack. Bucky had hovered over him, rubbing his back, breathing with him. The heat was hell on Steve’s lungs.

It was so bad that everyone started sleeping out on their fire escapes. Bucky’s ma let him drag his mattress out there one evening, and he and Becca and Teddy lay out in their underwear and breathed in the thick hot night. All the kids in their building were used to sharing beds; the fire escapes got crowded, but at least out there the air moved a little.

Steve’s place didn’t have a fire escape. It also didn’t have an overcrowding problem, being just him and Ma, but it was on the second floor in the back, and Steve’s room was like an oven. Opening the one little window did nothing. He could reach out and touch the wall of the building next door; there was no room for any breeze to get to him. He spent two sleepless nights tossing and turning and trying to breathe before Bucky came over on the second morning, took one look at him, and rolled his eyes.

That night, with Sarah Rogers’ approval, Bucky frog-marched a protesting Steve out of his house and pushed him barefoot and grousing down Ashland Place to the park.

“Here,” he said, flopping down behind some trees and stretching out in the grass. “This will be better.”

Steve was mad about being manhandled, and he wasn’t about to agree with anything. “Bucky,” he said for about the tenth time, “we can’t sleep in the park.

You can’t sleep in that oven you call a bedroom. This will be better. Lie down.”

Steve huffed and lay down, and the grass was cool, and it was better. He scowled anyway.

They weren’t even the only ones with the idea. There were folks dotted around the grass all over the park. It was almost dark. The heat was a physical presence, like a blanket, but there wasn’t the gasping stillness of indoors, and out here Steve could smell the grass and the trees and see the stars. After a while he heaved a big, easy breath, because he could, and Bucky laughed softly and said, “See?” and Steve smiled minutely, just the corner of his mouth, to thank him.

Bucky laughed again, then sat up and lit a cigarette. He blew the smoke carefully away from Steve, tipping his head back and lifting his face to the dwindling sunset. Steve loved him so much his chest hurt.

That little revelation had come to him one morning during breakfast with his ma. They’d been eating their oatmeal in companionable silence, Sarah relaxed and reading the paper on a rare day off, and Steve’s thoughts had drifted, as usual, to Bucky. He’d stared dreamily at a spot on his wrist, where the night before Bucky had spent an hour drawing feathery circles with his index finger while Steve had fought to keep his breathing even. Steve completely forgot about breakfast until Ma cleared her throat to read something aloud from the paper, and Steve had snapped his eyes away guiltily. Stop thinking about it, he told himself firmly, or she’ll know you’re in love with him. The thought hit his brain and he seized up with it, stomach dropping. He hadn’t known it was true until the moment he heard the words in his head.

Since then, he didn’t let himself think it very often. When anyone else was around, he steadfastly pushed the thought away, tried to will it out of existence in case it showed on his face. When he was with Bucky, even, he didn’t acknowledge it. Only alone, once in a while, he let himself sit still and unwrap it and look at it and hold it close; this is my love, this is my love—he named it to himself, and burned with it.

Now, lying on the grass next to Bucky, Steve watched him smoking in the twilight, and let himself feel it. It rippled out from his chest, through his whole body, and Steve was nothing, just scrawny and pale and weak, but he didn’t care, and he looked at Bucky and loved him as hard as he could.

When the cigarette was done Bucky sighed up at the sky, then stretched out again, slowly, to lie next to Steve, and their faces were close.

Before, this would have been the time when they’d talk, about school, movies, girls, their families, their dreams: the shared inner life of their boyhood. But they weren’t boys any more, now, and those conversations had been replaced by the weird, charged silence that descended whenever they were alone. There was a hesitance about it, a waiting; Steve was always terrified of breaking the spell, couldn’t bring himself to touch back, even to look at Bucky, and Bucky didn’t seem inclined to push. But Steve knew it couldn’t go on like this. Every time, the sense of impatience grew around them. Before was over, the silence seemed to say; what happens next?

Tonight, outside, as the darkness deepened, Steve’s fear slipped away. He felt cradled, protected by the heat and the trees and the traffic sounds and the big, benevolent night. And this time, when Bucky rolled to his side and brought his hand to Steve’s arm, Steve didn’t look away. He looked into Bucky’s eyes, and let himself love him.

Bucky saw it. His face changed as Steve let him see, from apprehension to something else, something that looked to Steve like pain, but his face was soft and Steve saw that he was letting himself love back. His hand slid down Steve’s arm to his hand, and this time it was Steve who wrapped his hand around Bucky’s and squeezed. Bucky exhaled, sharply like a laugh or a sob, when Steve rubbed his thumb over Bucky’s, and Bucky closed his eyes long enough to dip his head and press his lips soft against Steve’s shoulder. The touch made Steve suck in a breath and let it out shakily, tingling and overwhelmed.

They were both trembling, balancing on the edge of what happens next, and when Bucky looked back up he picked up Steve’s hand, holding his eyes, and moved it slowly, gently, to rest between his own legs where Steve could feel Bucky’s solid heat. Steve licked his lips and drew his fingers over him, and felt him pulse under his hand. Steve’s whole body flared hot, and then Bucky reached out for him.

It was quick and devastating. Bucky scooted up briefly, encouraged Steve to lie on his side with Bucky’s arm under his head, and then under the dome of absolute darkness they brought their hands back to each other, and when Steve came he clapped his hand over his mouth and panted through his nose, and when Bucky came he squeezed Steve tight to his chest and bit down on his shoulder and made a tiny noise like a whimper.

They lay sated and awed, no longer holding hands but watching each other’s faces, still and sacred in the grass under the vigilant trees, their fear all gone and their breathing as easy as it had ever been. After a long time, Steve closed his eyes to sleep in the grass, and his heart sang, and he knew nothing could touch them.

-⥀-

The rest of the summer passed as golden and languorous as it had begun, only now with a layer of joy that hadn’t been there at the beginning; Steve’s days became hazy, the rhythm of shifts at the grocers and chores at home suddenly irrelevant and barely noticed. He floated through them dreamily, caring only about when Bucky would be finishing his shifts, when they could meet at the corner that was exactly halfway between their buildings, when they could share a soda in the shade and watch the kids play in the spray of a fire hydrant, and take their undershirts off and wrap them over their heads to keep the sun off, and laugh when the girls scoffed and told them they were indecent. When they could wander home together and climb to the darkness of the rooftop or the fire escape, or Steve’s bedroom when they were sure the coast was clear and his ma was out. When Bucky could drag his lips down Steve’s neck and Steve could sigh and they could finally, finally, press their love into each other’s skin.

They were giddy with it. They still didn’t talk about it, but they didn’t need to, knowing each other like they did. They could say it with a look, a nod. Steve didn’t freeze up any more, giving as good as he got, straddling Bucky on the bed and sucking on his earlobe and rubbing slow and filthy against him, making him curse and sweat. Afterwards, they would kiss, and that was almost more exciting than anything else, that Bucky wanted to kiss him, and they would kiss and kiss and Bucky always held Steve so tight, and whenever Steve looked back on it, afterwards, he always thought of those moments, being held tight and kissed, as being the very best part of the Good Time of his life.

-⥀-

September snuck up on them. The weather stayed just as hot as ever, and going back to school seemed like the worst fate a guy could face.

They couldn’t see each other as much, since Bucky had dropped out the year before. But they still saw each other some evenings, loafed around the neighbourhood on weekends and gave their mas a hard time and tried their best to get out of going to church every Sunday. They still stole furtive kisses in locked rooms and brushed their fingers together when they knew nobody could see. Steve still looked Bucky in the face and allowed his love to show.

Then it got colder, and one night Bucky came to Steve’s place looking pale, and told Steve in shaky whispers that a fella he’d worked with at the docks was in hospital, got put there by three other guys after they caught him going into a fairy bar.

“He got fired, too.”

Steve sat up. “What? Why?”

Bucky looked at his hands. “Bosses found out where he was going.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

After that, Bucky started taking girls out on the weekends. Steve watched him go with his eyes brave and his stomach churning.

He got sick three times that winter and missed most of school, so weak he could barely walk. Bucky was there when he could be, keeping Steve’s spirits up like always, only this time Steve almost wished he wasn’t. He didn’t want to notice how Buck avoided his eyes, his touch, how he stayed across the room even after Sarah had left for work.

Steve wasn’t a total idiot. He knew it was over, even though Bucky was too kind to tell him we’re done. Bucky kept coming to visit, and Steve tried to be grateful and tried to get better.

But Bucky wouldn’t touch him. And the pain in his chest wasn’t from asthma, and he felt like he was dying from eight different things at once, and he coughed and winced and asked Bucky about his dates, and wondered over and over what the hell he ever did to deserve feeling this bad for this long.

It was only later, the following winter when his ma got sick, that he stopped wondering about the worst fate a guy could face.

Chapter Text

banner

October 1940

“For Christ’s sake, buddy, will you let me do it?”

Bucky left the table where he was fiddling with the radio, and hurried over to the doorway to catch a corner of the box that Steve was about to drop.

“It’s fine. I got it,” Steve said, even though he didn’t. If Bucky hadn't been there, the box would've slipped for sure. He tried to be grateful for the help.

“I know,” Bucky said, “but these are the only dishes we got, and if they break we’re shit outta luck, so if you don’t mind I’m just going to make extra sure they get in here safely.”

They wrestled the box onto the counter together. Steve pretended his breathing was even, but he felt Bucky's eyes on him.

“Let me get the rest,” Bucky said.

“I'm fine, Buck.”

“You’re starting to wheeze,” Bucky said pointedly, “and it’s getting cold out there.”

Steve scowled at him.

“Come on, I’ll bring up the last of the stuff, and you stay here and unpack. I don't know where you want to put all this stuff anyway.”

Steve deepened his scowl. Bucky crossed his arms and leaned on the counter, waiting him out.

Finally, Steve gave up with a sigh and a nod. “Be careful with my ma’s china,” he said stonily. Bucky gave a little salute and Steve was suddenly so glad he was here. Someone else might have made a joke, ribbed him about his shitty lungs or his ma’s teacups. But he didn't have to worry. Buck knew now was not the time to crack so much as a smile.

Once, Steve himself might have kidded around about this, the absurdity of two bachelors carefully unwrapping delicate gold-edged saucers in their shitty two-room apartment. He wished he could still kid around with Bucky, about anything, but these were the last earthly traces of Sarah Rogers coming up the stairs packed in newspaper, and it had been years now but it never felt any easier.

The china tea set that they would never use had been packed in a box in the Barnes's crawl space for the past three years, gathering dust. Steve had slept down the hall, crammed in a room with Bucky and his little brother for all that time, trying to make himself useful around the house, trying not to take up too much space. He had to sleep on couch cushions at first, until it was clear he had nowhere else to go and Mr. Barnes rustled up a spare mattress from somewhere. They threw it on the floor between Bucky’s and Teddy’s beds. Bucky made Teddy sleep on it, which made Steve feel terrible, but Mrs. Barnes had insisted that guests in her home get the good beds, so that was the end of it.

He’d gotten soft, living with Bucky’s family. It had been such a comfort, in those first weeks after he buried Sarah, to be around people, to remind himself that lives would go on despite everything. Bucky's ma, especially, had become a warm, steady presence all through Steve's grief, feeding him and patting his cheek and giving him chores so he'd feel useful.

Bucky, of course, was always there for him. Steve hated to lean on anyone, but he let himself rely on Bucky, for company and distraction, and sometimes for money. Occasionally as a punching bag. Occasionally a nurse. Bucky took it all without bitching, unless you counted the loud, good-natured bitching that was their shorthand with each other. Buck was never gentle with Steve, and if he wasn't calling him a wiseass every third sentence, Steve would think something was wrong.

So Steve had gotten comfortable, but he knew he couldn't stay. Three years was far too long to be a guest, and eventually Steve had started looking into rooming houses.

He prepared himself to finally, truly be alone, scrounging pennies for real this time, living in shared quarters with all the other hungry lowlifes and maybe seeing Bucky and his family on weekends. He thought he'd have to sell the very dishes he was unpacking now. He needed the cash, and they were just taking up space. He had to be smart, no matter how much it hurt.

But then Bucky said he’d come with him, and everything seemed okay again.

“Can't get rid of me that easy, pal,” he said, slapping Steve on the back. “It’ll be great.  We’ll find somewhere with nice big windows, so you can draw.”

The place they found did not have big windows. It was a truly terrible apartment, just two rooms and a washroom, no heat, no hot water. The only good thing about it was that it wasn't a flophouse. But it was okay; Bucky was working steady shifts at the docks and picking up whatever work he could at the garage on Bridge Street; he could afford rent and still have a little to send home to his folks, as long as Steve chipped in for groceries. Steve was getting paid occasionally for magazine illustrations, and did the odd window-lettering job here and there.

Really, the whole situation had worked out perfectly.

Bucky clattered through the door with the final box. His face was pink from the cold, his lips parted, his hair blown out of its careful side part, and Steve had to look away to quell the jolt of desire that went through him. Bucky's beauty hit him at odd times, a movement or expression catching his attention and just about knocking him out, no warning, no mercy. Those moments always took his thoughts back to that one good summer, stunned and remembering when Bucky let him touch as well as look.

He tried not to let himself stare. Sometimes Bucky caught him anyway. Steve would momentarily get sidetracked by the sight of Bucky’s clavicles, or his thighs or his big hands, and when he realized what he was doing he'd snap his eyes away, only to be met with Bucky’s abruptly nervous expression.

Sometimes, he thought he caught Bucky staring at him. Not often. But once or twice, he’d kind of thought he’d seen something like hunger on Bucky’s face. It couldn’t be—Bucky didn’t want him like that any more, and who would? But, just for a split second, the air had felt electric between them.

But now, as Steve looked away, Bucky didn’t notice a thing. He just smiled triumphantly as he kicked the door shut, and set the box on the table.

“That’s all of it.”

“Thanks, Buck.”

“No problem, bud.”

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Oh,” said Bucky, shrugging off his coat, “You go ahead and eat whatever you want. I'm going out with Hildy MacElroy later.”

“Oh. Okay.” Steve turned back to the teacups.

Bucky pulled up a chair and started futzing with the radio again. “I’ll get this goddamn thing going if it’s the last thing I do, I swear to Christ.”

Steve carefully wiped each teacup and balanced it in the kitchen cupboard. This really was so much better than he could have hoped. He just wished he could stop feeling so damn miserable.

-⥀-

That winter—the first living on their own—was a bad one. It seemed to never stop snowing, and they woke every morning to frozen curtains, ice on the windowsills. Steve was extra careful. He never went outside without the hat and heavy scarf that Bucky’s ma had knitted for him, and he did everything he could to stay home when the weather was really rough. He hated it, feeling like a prisoner in a little cell, drawing until his fingers ached and playing the radio for hours in lieu of actual conversation. There were only so many games of solitaire a person could stomach. Staying warm meant hours of unbroken boredom.

Worse, it meant Bucky had to play errand-boy for him, on top of everything else he did. All winter, he handled Steve’s banking and picked up his prescriptions and returned his library books. If they were running out of bread in the morning, Bucky would count the coins in his pockets and say, “All right, I’ll pick some up on the way home.”

“Thanks, Buck.”

“My pleasure, pal. We need anything else?”

“We’re low on milk. But that’s all.”

“You sure? You don’t want any caviar while I’m at the General?”

Steve always laughed, and then Bucky would pull up his collar and head out into the blizzard, and Steve wouldn’t see him again till well after dark. He’d come in with milk and bread, exhausted from the work and the weather, and Steve would wish that he could spare Bucky any of it. He did his best to keep the place clean, take care of the laundry and the ironing and always have some food ready when Bucky got home. He’d always done the same for Ma when she was working. He hated it, but he couldn’t risk getting sick again.

It mostly worked. He still got sick, of course, but not really bad. He could handle the sniffles and the chilblains, but he’d be damned if he was going back to the hospital.

-⥀-

February 1937

Six months after his ma passed, Steve nearly died from rheumatic fever.

It came on suddenly. Mrs. Barnes tried to keep him comfortable in the house, sponging down his face and spooning broth into his mouth as if he were her own son. She enlisted Bucky and, to Steve’s humiliation, Rebecca to tend to him while she was busy in the kitchen. Teddy was relocated to sleep in with his parents. The whole family walked on tiptoe in the hall so Steve could rest.

But the doctor, on his third visit, shook his head and said Steve needed real care, so they bundled him into a borrowed car and drove him over to the hospital. It’s a journey he barely remembers, but through the delirium he knew Bucky was with him, helping him into the back seat, holding him steady with an arm around his shoulders, easing him onto the stretcher that was waiting when they got there.

He stayed for two weeks, fully lucid again by the third day, but frail and sore and dejected. Steve was a semi-regular at the hospital already, because of his heart and his lungs, his ears—you name it. He was, for the most part, used to the lack of privacy afforded by a hospital stay. He wasn’t shy any more about the nurses washing or feeding him, or helping him dress. This time, though, seemed so much worse than before: not only proof of his perpetual weakness, but another glaring reminder that his mother was gone. How could he ever have thought he’d make it in the world without her? He'd been kidding himself.

And when Bucky visited him during those two weeks, Steve felt exposed all over again. Unable to even speak with how swollen his throat was, he could barely look at Bucky out of shame. Bucky came by after work, or on his way to a date. He would sit by the bed, tall and good-looking and dressed sharp, while Steve lay propped on pillows, his face drawn in pain, his crummy kid’s body like a skeleton under the sheet. His toes weren’t even close to the end of the bed.

Bucky read him the paper, for something to do, but Steve wasn’t listening. It must have shown on his face, because after a while Bucky stopped mid-sentence and put the paper down.

“Hey, come on, buddy,” he said gently, and Steve turned his head to look at him. His face was so concerned. “You’ll be out of here soon. We can see a movie next week, maybe. You want to go see Robin Hood in a matinee, huh? Get some popcorn?”

There was nothing Steve wanted more than to let Bucky talk softly to him like that. To relax his shoulders and let himself be soothed by Bucky’s voice, his eyes, his beautiful smile...but he couldn’t, and he never would again, and so there was nothing Steve hated more than Bucky being kind to him. He bristled and glared.

“Quit trying to cheer me up,” he rasped.

Bucky raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair. He was so fucking handsome.  “Well excuse the shit outta me!”

“I’m not a kid, you asshole.”

Bucky tilted his head. “Is that so?” he said in a different tone. “Seems to me you’re behaving like a damn kid.”

Steve kept up the glare, daring him to say something else.

Bucky did. He always would. “You know what I’d love? A week in fuckin’ bed. You know what I’d give anything for?” He grinned. “A team of lovely ladies waiting on me hand and foot.”

Steve snorted. "Joke’s on you, pal,” he whispered, wincing. “The charge nurse is about eighty.”

“So she’s been around the block a few times, big deal,” Bucky said. “Older ladies know what they're doing.” He pointed at Steve. “You don’t know how lucky you are, buddy.”

Steve rolled his eyes. He was trying to stay mad, but he knew it was a losing battle.

“Come on, quit pouting or I won’t bring you home at all.” Bucky folded the newspaper and set one foot over his knee, leaning back with his hands behind his head and his eyes on Steve. “Christ knows Becca’s been moody as hell. I can’t afford to have two miserable grouches moping around the kitchen all day.”

It was always a relief, Bucky treating him regular when the rest of the world was either knocking him around or patting him on the head. Bucky would help him when he needed it, and give him hell when he pushed himself too far, and he never took any of Steve’s shit. He was the best friend a guy could have.

Steve wished he could be satisfied with that. But he wished even more that Bucky would touch him again, the way he had when they were younger. That he’d want Steve, even just a little. Even though he was a weakling.

Steve stared out the big window, where he could see right out over the street. For a while, they were both quiet.

“Hey, Buck?” he managed eventually. His throat was killing him.

“Yeah, buddy?”

“You think when I get out, you can take me to the gym? Teach me to box?”

Bucky snorted. “Just what we need,” he said. “You fighting more often.”

Steve closed his eyes. “I just want to be strong,” he whispered.

Bucky didn’t answer. When Steve woke up again, he was gone.

-⥀-

December 1941

“Seriously, you’re not gonna tell me what happened?”

Steve was sitting up on the counter, furious. His legs dangled uselessly. He glowered at his knees and balled his hands into fists. “He was being an ass. Tried to cut in line.”

“For God’s sake, Steve.”

‘We’d all been waiting 20 minutes!” Steve yelled. “I can’t let him get away with that!”

Bucky rolled his eyes and shook alcohol onto a rag. “You get a look at the size of him before you started hollering?”

Steve lifted his chin. “Doesn’t matter what size they are, Buck,” he said, and Bucky snorted.

“It matter that your face got permanently rearranged?”

“Just shut up and do it.”

He stared over Bucky’s shoulder as Bucky fussed at his face with the rag. Most of the bleeding had stopped, he thought, but he’d scraped his face hard across a brick wall, so everything felt pretty bad when he touched it.

It was humiliating, sitting here getting patched up like a kid with his mommy. Just as it had been humiliating to be hauled out of the fight when Bucky showed up. He’d yanked Steve behind him, all strong and brave and angry, and Steve couldn’t figure out whether Bucky’s muscles made him mad because he didn’t have any, or because he didn’t have Bucky. Whichever it was, he’d been goddamn livid as he watched Bucky kick the snot out of the guy who’d been kicking the snot out of Steve.

The walk back to their apartment hadn’t done much to dispel his mood. Bucky's hands, gently holding his beat-up face, were also not helping.

“Will you hurry the hell up?”

“Ah shit, this is gonna hurt. Sorry, pal.”

“I can take it.”

“Yeah, I can tell by how much you’re flinching. Stay still, you jerk, I already messed up my hair back there. I can’t go meet Ellen with blood on my shirt.”

And suddenly Steve couldn't take it. “Fuck you. I’ll do it myself then, asshole.”

“Steve—”

“Give me that.” He tried to grab the gauze out of Bucky’s hand and shove his way off the counter.  “You should go. She’ll be waiting.”

Bucky squinted at him and pushed Steve back to sitting. “What the hell is this? What did I do now?” He started trying to stick the gauze on Steve’s face again.

“Just…” Steve sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t have to do this, Buck. We’re not kids. I can patch myself up.”

“But—”

“Just go meet Ellen, since that's what you want to do. And quit pretending that I’m anything to you.”

Bucky pulled back. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“I’m aware that I’m a burden on you, that’s what it means,” Steve snapped. “You only take care of me because you feel like you have to.”

“Oh, bullshit, Steve—”

“Okay, then why? Why’re you helping me, if it’s not out of obligation?”

Bucky cleared his throat. “You’re my best friend,” he started, wavering. “You—you’re like family, you’ve always been—” He stopped. He was nervous. Steve didn’t care anymore.

“Always been what?”

Bucky looked at him. Their faces were so close. It would have been nothing, a matter of inches, for Steve to slip his hands over Bucky’s shoulders, lean forward, meet his lips. And God damn it, he wanted to. After all this time, he was so tired of pushing it away. He held Bucky’s gaze and asked a question with his eyes, and Bucky’s hands stilled on Steve’s brow.

Steve brought his hand up slowly, and brushed his fingertips over Bucky’s wrist. He settled his hand there, lightly. Bucky’s breathing picked up, and he stared and stared and didn’t move.

Steve leaned forward. Bucky’s eyes grew huge.  

Then he pulled his hand back, quick but casual, like nothing had happened. He flicked his eyes away and swabbed at Steve’s face.

“I’m just—I’m just trying to help you. It’s not a big deal.”

Listen to him stutter, Steve thought.

To hell with it—he was done being subtle. He jerked his head out of Bucky’s reach. “Will you shut up, for God’s sake? You know what I want. And if I can't have that, I want to know what the hell you want from me.”

Bucky was silent, clearly taken aback, and Steve raised his eyebrows in challenge. He finally felt satisfied. He wasn’t going to cover this up any more.

Bucky looked at his hands. “I want—I want you to be safe. I want you to stop fighting all the time. Guys like that will kill you, Steve. You gotta let this thing go.”

“Which thing?”

Then Bucky looked at him hard, and Steve suddenly saw how serious he was, how scared. He grabbed Steve’s shoulder and shook him.“There’s only one thing, do you hear me?” he said angrily. “There ain’t two things we’re talking about here. Get it in your head, I mean it!”

They stayed like that for a moment, Bucky grasping Steve's shoulder and leaning right into his face. Steve tried to read him: there was panic in Bucky’s eyes, but his voice had been steady. The finality of his words was like a brick wall, and Steve suddenly felt nothing but shame. Of course, of course the answer was no. He had to fight to keep his composure, the desperate pull to just break down and weep rising painfully in his throat. God damn it, Bucky.

But it only lasted for a second, and he nodded and shrugged Bucky's hand off his shoulder and shoved him backwards.

“Fine. Okay. Have a good night, then.”

“Steve—”

“Just get out of here, Bucky. I got work to do.”

Bucky went. He stuck out his jaw and shook his head, then flung the gauze back on the counter, looking like he wanted to clock someone, and it almost thrilled Steve to see it. Bucky rarely got ruffled, let alone truly upset, and Steve couldn’t beat Bucky in a fight but he sure as hell could make him drop his guard when he wanted to.

“All right, then, for Christ’s sake. Bye, I guess,” Bucky spat, and grabbed his coat.

Steve gave him a bloody, angry grin. “Don’t be late!” he called in a singsong voice.

Bucky slammed the door.

All the gauze and rubbing alcohol and everything was still scattered over the counter beside him. After staring at the door for a couple of seconds, Steve gathered up some rags and started trying to clean up the rest of his face.

His heart was still going fast, an aftereffect of having had Bucky so close. Steve could still smell his cologne, feel his hand on his temple, see the startled look in his eyes. For a few moments, Steve had really thought he had a chance.

God, he was so stupid.

It took forever to take care of his face. His hands still shook a little as he tried to hold the tiny shaving mirror steady. There was blood smeared everywhere and he could barely see where to put the gauze. He managed it, eventually, fumbling and cursing in the lessening light.

Once he was mostly patched up, he turned to that evening’s work: a series of decorative illustrations for a women’s magazine. He spread his supplies on the table and tried to concentrate. But he’d missed the good light, and it was frustrating to have to work by the lamp, and his fucking pencil lead kept crumbling and wrecking the picture; after half an hour Steve threw the stupid thing down and put his head in his hands.

Bucky was right: he did have to let this go. It was driving him crazy, it had been driving him crazy for damn near his whole life, and the upshot of all that crazy was a big fat nothing. Sitting at home alone, where he always was, where he’d always be, watching Bucky and wishing things were different.

For the first time, Steve faced down the stark facts: that Bucky was the love of his life. That he would never have Bucky that way, ever again. He stared at the tabletop between his elbows, allowing the truth to settle in his chest, hollow and cold. The rest of his life, and he’d live it alone. It was almost, he thought with a helpless laugh, it was almost a blessing to know that it wouldn’t be a particularly long life. His eyes burned. He didn’t cry.

And anyway, what else had he expected from this crummy world? Nobody ever got what they wanted. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, there would always be something terrible up around the corner. Bad things happened to everyone: a lost job, a sickness, a guy waiting in the dark to break your nose. Steve had no right to think his life could have turned out any different.

But, oh God, he loved him. What could he do?

Suddenly there were footsteps thudding on the stairs outside, and Bucky burst through the door.

Steve stood up hurriedly and started gathering his stuff off the table. “Jeez, that was quick. What happened, she take one look and you and run?”

But Bucky didn’t say anything, didn’t break his stride, just slammed the door and crossed the room with his eyes on Steve’s, and before Steve could speak Bucky reached out with one hand to cup Steve’s neck and haul him close, kissed him hard and never stopped moving. He wrapped his other arm tight around Steve’s waist and pushed him backwards, almost carrying him into the bedroom with urgent strides until he could drop Steve onto the mattress and slide over him, their lips pressed together and Bucky’s fingers gripping him so, so tight.

“Buck – Bucky –”

Steve couldn’t manage any more, Bucky’s pushing his tongue too insistently into his mouth. Bucky didn’t smell like liquor but he must be drunk, Steve had never seen him like this, his hands frantic and rough on Steve’s face, neck, in his hair. And then he started grabbing at Steve’s collar, thumbing the shirt buttons and whispering, “Let me – can I—”, into Steve’s neck. Steve nodded dumbly, Bucky still kissing him and fumbling the buttons open, and he wrenched the shirt off Steve’s shoulders and lurched downward to wrap his lips hungrily around Steve’s nipple with a moan.

Steve could only drop his head back and gasp shakily. Bucky wasn’t slowing down, running his fingers hard over Steve’s ribs while he lapped at the nipple, tweaking the other one with his thumb, then surging up to kiss Steve again. He grabbed Steve’s banged-up face and pushed it to the side so he could reach his ear, drew his tongue over the earlobe and trailed his lips down to Steve’s jaw, his neck, his shoulder. His breathing was loud and harsh; his hands were trembling. He started to suck on Steve’s throat and Steve couldn’t help the whimper that escaped him.

“Aw, God,” Bucky breathed into his neck. He was still running desperate hands up and down Steve’s sides, over his chest, and then he slid one arm around and under Steve’s back, pulling him tight around the waist so he was up off the bed, held still under Bucky’s body and Bucky’s lips. Steve went like a rag doll, confused and overwhelmed and thrilled. Bucky kept sucking on the same spot that made Steve whimper and then he pulled back, red-mouthed, and Steve fell back on the mattress and watched as Bucky tore his own shirt off, only taking enough time to undo the top button before wrestling it over his head.

His undershirt followed, and then he lay back down over Steve and he was so warm, and their chests were pressed together and they were kissing, and Steve finally slid his hands over Bucky’s back. Bucky rolled his hips, and Steve gasped and said “Ah” and Buck did it again. And then Bucky was opening Steve’s pants and pulling out his dick, and he was so hard, and there was only time for Steve to say “Yeah” before Bucky dropped his head down and put his mouth on it, sucking. Steve grabbed at his shoulders and gasped. Then Bucky’s finger brushed his balls, pressed back behind them and almost inside, and Steve was so shocked that he yelped and jerked up to a sitting position. Bucky rubbed in the same spot again and again, sucking hard, and Steve didn’t know what sounds he was making but he knew they were too loud, and he couldn’t stop, and Bucky was moaning too, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut and grabbed Bucky’s hair and came in his mouth with a yell.

It took him a long time to get his breath back, and by the time he’d mostly calmed down and opened his eyes again, Bucky had finished himself off too, shaking and gasping wetly into Steve’s hipbone with a pained expression on his face. They lay there like that, unmoving. Steve blinked at the ceiling. He couldn’t believe what just happened. Jesus Christ. It had only been a couple of minutes since Bucky had stormed back into the house.

He risked a glance down. Bucky was still panting quietly, eyes closed, open mouth pressed to Steve’s belly. Steve reached down to touch his sweaty hair. The gesture was reverent. He felt so gentle, suddenly, wanted to be so sweet with Bucky. It’s all he’d ever wanted to be with him.

He allowed joy to bud, tentatively, in his chest. This, right now, with Bucky, felt like all he had ever wanted in his life.

Suddenly, Bucky’s head jerked up. “Shit!

“What?”

Bucky pushed himself up to sitting, and his eyes were huge, and he stared at the window.

Steve followed his gaze and whispered, “Oh, fuck.

The curtains were open. The curtains of the bedroom window. Which looked directly into the living room of the apartment in the building next door.

Bucky bolted off the bed and pulled the curtain across so fast he knocked Steve’s notebook off the sill. He stood there, half undressed, staring at the closed curtains. His face had gone white.

Steve reached a hand out to him and said, “Buck, it’s fine, no-one saw. We, we didn’t have the lights on—”

But Bucky was gathering his shirt from across the room and pulling it frantically over his head.

“Bucky!”

“I, I’m late, I gotta go,” he mumbled. He crossed to the door, practically running, and looked at Steve for just a split second before he left.

-⥀-

Bucky didn’t come back until extra late. Steve had already fallen asleep, but he cracked an eye open when Bucky slipped into the room, and watched him shrug his suspenders off and collapse on his bed. He didn't move, and Steve closed his eyes again. They could talk about it in the morning.

But they didn’t. When Steve woke up, Bucky was tearing around the place in his undershirt and his good pants, one shoe in his hand and the kettle screaming on the stove.

“Oh, you’re up. Are you coming? It’s already eight!”

Steve rubbed his face. He’d forgotten it was Sunday. “Yeah, I’ll come. Get dressed, I’ll make the coffee.”

So Bucky ran around and got ready, and gulped down his coffee while Steve dressed, and they hustled out the door in time to make it to Mass.

They didn’t talk on the way. They couldn’t discuss last night, not out on the street, and Steve couldn't think of a single other thing he could say. Silence stretched out between them, unfamiliar and wrong. They stood apart on the streetcar, eyes on everything except each other, and Steve cringed inwardly and wished he could just disappear.

He didn’t listen to the sermon. A few people stared at his busted face, but he ignored them, standing and sitting and kneeling along with the rest of the Barnes family. Bucky was squashed into the pew beside him, the warmth of his arm against Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s stomach lurched every time they touched.

He remembered that feeling. Once again, just like it had in 1934, his body felt almost supernaturally aware of Bucky; Steve thought he’d be able to feel where Bucky was anywhere in the world, what he was doing at any time. God, he was practically shaking, bouncing between elation and dread. He kept remembering Bucky's hands on him. And then the look on Bucky's face when he left.

He was so distracted he almost missed the girl across the aisle who kept sneaking sideways glances at Bucky during the hymns. Steve didn't miss the smile and the wink Bucky shot back at her. He saw that nice and clear. But, Steve thought, maybe Bucky was playing, maybe he was trying to keep up appearances, maybe when they finally got a moment to talk he’d shake his head and say I don't care about that girl at all, buddy. Maybe he'd smile fondly at Steve and put his arm around him, and Steve could smile back and lean against him and everything would be okay.

But even as he held onto that hope, part of Steve knew what was coming. He wasn't surprised when the girl from across the aisle was hanging around outside afterwards, or when Bucky wandered over to talk to her. He watched sullenly as the scene unfolded: Bucky introducing himself and shaking her hand as if butter wouldn't melt; offering her a cigarette and teasing her gently when she declined. The girl giggled and shook her curls, and Steve gathered all his strength and tore his eyes away.

He knew all of Bucky’s lines; he'd heard them used a thousand times on practically every girl in the city. He was used to watching Bucky flirt his face off—this was nothing new. Except it was new, everything had changed now, and Steve felt the hollowness spread out through his chest again, because Bucky knew it too.

All Steve wanted to do was go home, but Sunday lunch after Mass was mandatory. The whole Barnes family barely fit around Bucky’s ma’s huge oak dining table, especially now that Rebecca’s husband was there, and their baby daughter Mary. But they always found room for Steve, even if it meant they all had to eat with their elbows touching.

Steve and Bucky were side-by-side here, too.Steve tried to keep from bumping Bucky as they ate. The silence between them grew and grew, and it had been bad before but it was so much worse now that there were other people around to notice it.

“Are you feeling all right, Steve?” said Mrs. Barnes as she passed him the roast beef. “You look a little pale, dear.”

Ordinarily, this would be a time when Bucky would make a crack. Steve just had too much too drink last night, Ma, or It’s all those jazz cigarettes he’s been smoking, right pal? And Steve would squawk and kick him under the table, and Bucky would sling his arm over Steve’s shoulder and murmur, just kidding, buddy and Steve would let himself relax, and laugh along with everybody else.

Now, Bucky chewed his food and acted as though nobody had spoken.

“Uh, yes Ma’am,” Steve replied. “I’m feeling fine, thank you.”

“Oh. That’s good, dear.” Mrs. Barnes glanced between Bucky and Steve with a hint of surprise on her face.

Then Rebecca cleared her throat meaningfully.

“I saw you talking to Vera Simpson out there, Bucky,” she said in a teasing voice. “You know she’s only seventeen, don’t you?”

Bucky grinned around his mashed potato. “Don't worry. I’m only taking her out for a soda.”

“That better be all it is, young man,” said Mrs. Barnes, and Bucky and Rebecca both snickered.

“Anyway, I thought you were taking out that girl Ellen, from the deli,” Rebecca said.

Bucky leaned over and said, “I am,” in a stage whisper, and she snorted.

Then Bucky’s dad spoke up. “How about you, Steve?” he said. “You seeing any young ladies lately?”

“Um,” said Steve, “not really, Sir. Not lately.” He felt his face go red.

Now Bucky did address him. “Don’t worry, pal,” he said. Like it was an announcement. “You can come out with me. I bet Vera has a friend. We can double.”

Steve turned and really looked at him for the first time all day. “Is that right,” he said flatly. “Sounds swell. Thanks, Buck.”

“No problem, bud.”

Steve kept staring at him. Bucky remained preoccupied with his food.

Both Rebecca and Mrs. Barnes were watching Steve with concerned expressions. Steve cleared his throat and started eating again. God damn his awkwardness, his face that showed every emotion no matter what he did. He tried desperately to think of a way to change the subject.

But there was an urgent knocking on the door, and when Mr. Barnes went to open it, Steve heard a woman’s voice say tearfully, “Oh, George, turn on the radio!”

That night they walked home together much later than expected. They’d sat for hours with Bucky’s family in the living room, speaking in whispers as the radio laid out the news.

War. Japan had attacked, and it was almost certain now that the United States would join the Allies in Europe.

Steve met Bucky’s eyes, their other little problem forgotten in the face of something so huge. Bucky’s face was stricken, which Steve didn’t understand. Hitler was a fascist, a lunatic, and now they’d finally be able to help take him down.

“I hope we get to go to basic training together,” Steve whispered as the radio repeated the details of the attack. He could barely contain his excitement. “I hope I get to join the 107th.”

Bucky stared at him for a long second. His eyes—Steve didn’t know what to make of them. He looked like he was going to cry.

But then it was gone, and he smiled and nodded and squeezed Steve’s shoulder. “Me too, pal.”

Chapter Text

banner

January 12, 1946

Bucky’s been going to the boxing gym with Teddy in the evenings lately, so his uniform fits much better now than when he got off the boat. It’s even getting a little snug across the chest, a fact that makes him stand straighter when he wears it, and also maybe takes attention away from the foreshortened left sleeve. He’s pinned the sleeve up nice and tight today, and has his hat on at a jaunty angle; his face has filled back out with his ma’s aggressive food equals love policy, and he was at the barber yesterday. He smirks determinedly. Right now, he knows he looks swell—distinguished and handsome, with his good arm around the waist of a blonde knockout as they cross over to the subway on Atlantic Ave.

He spots Steve and grins. “There he is.”

Steve’s standing with his hands in his pockets and looking the other way down the street. He’s wearing an enormous thick wool overcoat with a scarf that covers most of his face; it’s not really that cold today, but Steve’s just gotten over a flu and can't afford to risk another. Lizzie’s with him. When he turns, Bucky smiles and raises his hand in a wave. He’s feeling good. They're going to have a great time.

The blonde knockout’s name is Evelyn, and she’s a 19-year-old nurse at Brooklyn City Hospital. Bucky likes her. Besides the knockout factor, she’s fun and she ain’t a pushover. Their first date was to see The Ziegfeld Follies the week before, and she laughed loudly at the movie and made eyes at him while smoking a cigarette outside the theatre, and when he took her home she said goodbye with a saucy grin and went inside without so much as a peck on the cheek. That made him laugh.

He’s taken out a bunch of different girls since he got back. Some he knew from before the war, girls he used to take dancing or to the movies, making time and never calling them again, grinning and winking whenever anyone asked him about it afterward. He knew even then that he was being a shit. He’s ashamed to think back on it now, but those girls don’t seem to mind; it’s Bucky Barnes. He was a bigshot in the neighborhood before he ever went to war, and now he’s back with a Purple Heart and no steady gal—Becca teases him that they’re lining up down the street for him. She’s only half joking.

There are other girls too, the ones who grew up while he was gone; everyone he knows wants to set him up with their sisters. They terrify him, the little sisters—he’s appalled by their youth, by their obvious adoration, appalled that he’s allowed to sit in a dark theatre with a kid 10 years his junior who, he knows, he could talk into anything if he wanted. He’s nice to ‘em, treats them right this time, just a friendly kiss goodnight—maybe a little more if they’re old enough—and doesn’t lead them on any more than he can help it.  

He knows that people had already been starting to look at him sideways before the war, twenty-three and still not hitched, and the only way he can possibly make it fly now is to keep up the ladies’ man routine. A date most weekends, maybe one during the week; different girls, never steady, play it safe. He lets them coo over his fucked-up arm, shrugs and pulls out the puppy-dog eyes. It’s not so bad. Better than moping around at home.

He’s started to think that Steve is right—and his ma, and everyone else. Maybe all he needs is to find a girl. Eventually he’ll meet someone he can really imagine settling down with. Someone who’ll make him happy. He just has to keep trying.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, when they reach him.

“Hey, pal,” he says. “Nice scarf. Hi, Lizzie, ready for a parade?”

“I can’t wait!” she says, holding Steve’s hand.

He tightens his grip around Evelyn’s waist. “Steve, Lizzie, this is—”

“Yes, I know Evelyn from the hospital!” Lizzie says. “This is going to be so much fun!”

“Nice to meet you, Evelyn,” Steve says, and shakes her hand. He gives Bucky a small, private smile and raises his eyebrows—encouraging him. Bucky rolls his eyes.

It’s still surreal, showing up for a double date with them like this. Steve and Lizzie made the plans, and Steve called Bucky to let him know where they’d be. It’s a complete reversal of their old, familiar dynamic. He doesn’t really care where they go, anymore. He definitely hadn’t considered going to the parade until Steve suggested it.

He even tags along without a date sometimes, feeling stupid, like a third wheel. But he thinks back on Steve before the war, gamely showing up to blind dates with Bucky, spending the night miserable while Bucky flirted with everything that moved. Bucky used to insist they go dancing, and Steve went, even though he hated it. The least he can do now is get to know Steve’s sweetheart.

date

It’s the only way he gets to see Steve at all, most weeks. He’s almost gotten used to seeing them together. He doesn’t have much fucking choice, at any rate. They’re almost never apart, now, and Bucky’s gotten good at not noticing their tangled fingers or their little private glances, Steve’s pleased smile when Lizzie kisses his cheek. He’s mostly vanquished his own urge to reach out and touch Steve. He allows himself a playful arm around the shoulder now and then, but nothing more.

They pile into the subway car with a whole gang of other people, and it’s like a fucking sardine can, more six o’clock rush hour than lunchtime on a Saturday. Not every day New York City throws a Victory Parade. There are tons of other GIs and their girls, and everyone’s a little excited and it’s pretty loud in there. Steve, gentlemanly, ushers Lizzie toward an empty spot by a door, and Evelyn and Bucky follow.

In the packed car like this, it’s striking how much smaller Steve is than everybody; at least half a head shorter than all of the men and shorter than a bunch of the ladies, too. He isn’t anywhere near a pole to hang on to; Buck’s managed to catch an empty strap but Steve is standing a bit too far out to reach one. Bucky’s about to suggest they switch places, but as the train lurches to a start and everybody gets jostled, Steve reaches out and grabs onto Bucky’s waist to hold himself up.

It’s an absent-minded gesture; he’s not even looking in Bucky’s direction. Just puts his hand out and curls his fingers round the uniform’s belt like it’s nothing. He probably doesn’t even realize he’s done it, just continues talking to Lizzie and Evelyn, and Bucky can barely stop himself from gaping. The sight of Steve reaching out so easily for Bucky, and so thoroughly expecting to find him—the gesture is so familiar that Bucky stops breathing for a second. It’s achingly close to before, like nothing had changed, Bucky had never left—an honest-to-God lump forms in Bucky’s throat. He swallows it back down, hard, and focuses on what Evelyn is saying.

Steve keeps his hand on Bucky for the whole ride. Bucky keeps him steady.

Union Square is an outdoor version of the sardine-can situation. They help the girls navigate through the crowd and Steve finds a good spot in front of a bank, worming their way close to the front so Steve and the girls can see. The parade has already started down at Washington Square Park, and everyone’s craning their necks to look for it, even though it won’t reach them for another ten minutes or so. The weather isn’t terrible for January; the girls aren’t even wearing hats, and there’s no wind, so it’s fairly pleasant to stand next to Steve and take in the atmosphere for a while.

There are people everywhere, anywhere a human body can fit; they’re jammed in the store doorways and hanging from balconies and lined up along rooftops. Every window he can see has faces pressed up against it, all the way up to the 12th storey. Kids are sitting in trees, little bastards dangling their legs and trying to kick people’s hats off their heads.

There are four or five GIs standing with their girls just a bit down the street from Bucky. They’re noisier than the other folks around them, joking and messing around, drawing attention to themselves, showing off. They’re young guys. One of them’s on crutches. Bucky doesn’t know them, but he nods to them when they look over, and they glance at the medal on his chest and his empty sleeve and nod back.

Steve follows Bucky’s eyes and watches them too, for a few moments. His face is placid, but Bucky can see how he unconsciously presses his lips together, straightens his back and lifts his chin to stand a little taller. Bucky’s struck, abruptly, by the fact of what they’re doing, what they’re there to see. He suddenly wishes that they hadn’t come.

Being turned down by the military was almost the worst thing Steve had ever faced, and it sent him into a black mood that seemed bleaker even than when his ma died. Bucky knew Steve saw the U.S. Army as the greatest institution in the world, and being rejected was just more proof of all his failings. Bucky tried to tell him that was horseshit, but Steve never listened to anything when he got like that.

The letters he sent to Bucky in Europe verged on hero-worship, full of patriotic nonsense and almost no news about himself. He followed the progress of the Italian campaign religiously, and he sent Bucky detailed plans for how their attacks could be more effective, more cunning, how the officers weren’t taking X into account, how they needed to fight smarter to win in the long run. Bucky couldn’t help but shake his head, reading Steve’s strategies for missions that had been completed months earlier. The poor kid. He ended every letter with you’re making us all proud.

Bucky closes his eyes against the memory. Those letters were everything to him while he was freezing and terrified out in the middle of nowhere. He re-read them til they tore at the creases, and prayed like crazy that he’d get home to see him. To tell him: the Army was nothing much, pal. You’re worth more than all those guys put together.

The crowd down the street has started clapping, and the sound of motors floats around and over the applause. The girls lean over the barriers and crane their necks and Lizzie gasps, “Oh, there they are!”, and then Bucky looks to the distance and sees them too.

General Gavin’s first, of course, and they see him out front, followed by a few other officers with flags. Bucky’s seen enough guys marching in time to last fifty lifetimes, and it wasn’t particularly thrilling the first time, but Lizzie and Evelyn are practically jumping in excitement, and even Steve is standing on his tiptoes with his mouth open, so he guesses maybe for regular people it's interesting, and he’s just a tad jaded by now. Nobody’d blame him.

Then there’s some commotion beside them, and Bucky glances back the other way to see the group of GIs stepping forward, between the barriers and in front of their girls, putting their backs to the crowd and standing at attention. He sees a couple of other guys in uniform doing the same thing a bit further down the street, and another group of Navy boys across on the other side. They’re going to salute.

Bucky’s stomach drops. He thinks again about leaving.

But oh, god damn it, now Steve has noticed, and the girls, and they’re all three looking at him.

“Bucky, get in front of us!”

Evelyn shakes her head. “No, go stand with those other fellas, there’s no room here.”

He hesitates.

Steve nudges him. “You have to salute, Buck.”

Bucky knows he does. The big squares of marching soldiers get closer, slowly, and it suddenly seems so odd that they’re at a parade but there’s no music--why is there no music? Everyone is just standing and watching, and it’s so quiet, all he can hear is the boots hitting the ground and the motors in the distance, and some people in the crowd are clapping but it doesn’t feel like a parade at all.

Steve is still watching him, though, so Bucky nods, and then he slips out next to the fellas who are saluting and stands to attention and sticks his hand next to the brim of his hat. Everyone watches the parade approach. Bucky wants to goddamn puke.

He was at the gym when the war ended for good. He was holding the heavy bag for Teddy, arm wrapped around it and legs braced, getting a good sweat up and growling at Teddy to pick up his fucking hands, when someone ran in from the street and started yelling that it was official, that Truman had announced it, that the Japs had surrendered.

Everyone in the gym – which meant maybe five other guys – whooped and cheered; Teddy stopped hitting and grinned, panting, at Bucky, who was also panting but didn’t know what his face was doing. Teddy yelled and laughed and hugged him, giddy, pinning his arm to his side.

Bucky’s only emotion was relief. Teddy was almost 18 and would have been drafted soon, if it had kept going any longer. Dumb fuckin’ kid was probably looking forward to it. The thought made Bucky grind his teeth whenever he let himself dwell on it.

When he heard about the A-bombs, all he thought was, good.

Now that he’s had more time to process it, though, his opinions are a little more complicated. Two entire cities were fucking levelled, they said. He saw a lot of places that were levelled, overseas. Doesn’t seem right to throw a parade for that.

The marchers keep coming, hundreds of them. It’s the 82nd Airborne Division, and they’re doing a great fuckin’ job, Bucky has to give them that, they’re keeping time, keeping their squares like robots, and he heard they drilled for months to get ready for today. Bucky feels sorry for the poor chumps; he can’t think of anything more boring or pointless. Except maybe sitting in a hospital bed for six months.

Steve looks away from the spectacle and over at Bucky, and Bucky sees his face soften; he smiles. He’s proud, Bucky realizes, and it makes a knot start up in his gut. Buck stays at attention but shoots Steve a small grin and crosses his eyes, going for a laugh. He wants to get that goofy look off Steve’s face, and it works; Steve quits looking so sappy, rolls his eyes and gives a little smirk back, and the gut-knot starts to loosen.

A bunch of jeeps roll by next, funereal. Bucky thinks they could probably afford to stop fucking saluting now, but none of the other guys stops, so he keeps his hand up.

Then it’s tanks, and the knot is back, and it’s getting bigger and creeping up into his chest. His heart starts to race.

He hasn’t seen a tank since his last days of combat and suddenly, Bucky remembers: a dream he had the night before. A tank, and the loud repeat of artillery fire, and his rifle in his hands—both hands—and he was running, something was chasing him, but he kept tripping and tripping and then he looked down to see what was wrong with his feet, and he fell to the mud with a thump—

He woke up in the morning without remembering a thing, but it comes back to him now as he holds the salute. He clenches his jaw. The tanks crawl past, pitiless, like massive iron beetles.

-⥀-

They go back to Lizzie’s apartment afterward. She lives with her older sister in a bottom-floor apartment off Tillary Street. She grins when she tells them her sister's at work—also at the hospital—so they don't have to worry about keeping quiet.

It’s still early, but the girls feed them dinner anyway, chicken and potatoes and gravy, and they pour some drinks. Bucky’s head’s begun to ache. Steve insists on the men doing the dishes.

Evelyn’s impressed. “You’re training this one up good, Lizzie!”

Lizzie smiles from the couch. “I didn’t have to train him. He won’t let me clean up any time I cook.”

“It’s the least we can do after a lady gives us a meal,” Steve says seriously. “Right, Buck?”

“Sure thing, pal,” Bucky says, but he doesn’t say anything more. He’s watching Lizzie beaming at Steve, Steve who doesn’t notice because his attention’s on the sink. He’s got his sleeves rolled up and a towel over his shoulder; he’s wearing his glasses and the steam from the hot water is making them fog up and slide down his nose. It’s adorable. Bucky thinks again about Steve’s hand reaching out for him on the subway. He bangs a clean plate loudly into the cupboard, making the girls jump.

Steve looks at him. “Jeez, Buck.”

“Sorry,” he says, and takes a mouthful of whiskey. When the dishes are done, Bucky needs a smoke, and another drink, so he takes both out to the front stoop and scowls into the blank night. It’s properly cold now. He has a bad fucking headache; he can’t tell whether it’s from the liquor or the weather or something else. His crummy dream keeps rolling back into his consciousness, a queasiness welling up in the back of his mind. He can’t even remember the details any more, just the panic, the noise.

Bucky starts as the door opens and Steve pokes his head outside.

“You okay, Buck?”

“Yeah,” he says around an inhale. “Don’t come out. It’s cold.”

Steve comes out anyway, and Bucky rolls his eyes. “Come on, bud, the smoke.”

“I’ll be okay for a second.”

“At least get your jacket—”

“Will you stand up with me?” Steve blurts.

“What?”

“I’m gonna ask her soon. Maybe tonight.” He pushes his hair out of his eyes and smiles a little. “I got Ma’s ring.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s great, pal.”

“Yeah. Will you stand up with me, Buck?”

Bucky stares at a spot in the middle of Steve’s chest and nods, almost absently. “‘Course.”

“Thanks,” Steve exhales. “That means a lot.”

Bucky realizes he was nervous to ask. Fuck.

He straightens up and clears his throat. “It’ll be an honor, pal,” he says, grasping Steve’s shoulder. Steve looks up at him and smiles his half-smile.

And Bucky knows how to make his face look the way people expect, but suddenly this time he can’t smile back. He’s cold and his head hurts and he’s halfway to drunk, and he stands close to Steve with his hand on his shoulder, and he looks into Steve’s eyes hard and he doesn't smile.

Steve’s expression falters, and he makes a little nervous gesture and steps back toward the door. “You coming in?”

“Yeah.” Buck blinks away from Steve’s face and takes a drag on his cigarette. “You go on, I’ll be there in a minute.”

He holds his cigarette at his side until it burns down to his fingertips. By the time he stubs it out on the railing, his hand has stopped shaking.

-⥀-

“To the United States Army,” Steve says, smiling and raising his glass.

Lizzie raises hers and cries, “To the Army!”

Bucky snorts a little, but tips his glass and clinks it against Evelyn’s. She pats his knee, and when he lifts his arm to drape it over the back of the couch behind her, she smiles. She's put on more lipstick. He tries to smile back.

It’s warm and bright in the living room, a little too much of both. The radio’s on, and it's playing an old Jack Teagarden song that reminds Bucky of a hot city night. Warm beer and the dark sky and a fire escape.

Don't save your kisses, just pass them around

You’ll find my reason is logically sound

Steve's in the easy chair with Lizzie on his lap. His hand rests on her waist and they lean into each each other comfortably. The radio keeps playing, and Jesus Christ, why does it have to be this song?

Who’s going to know that you passed them around

A hundred years from today

They’re married already, Bucky thinks, they might as well be fucking married right now. He can see them in six months, a year, five years, sitting together in their own living room and smiling softly just like that, watching their kids run around and play and grow while Bucky shows up once a week for dinner, with a different girl each time.

The song keeps playing, soft and intimate, ramping up his headache. Don't save your kisses...who's going to know...remember, darling...who’s going to know… Bucky takes his arm off Evelyn and passes his hand over his face.

“Well, what a perfectly thrilling afternoon!” Evelyn’s saying. “You’ll have to forgive how starstruck we were by it all, Bucky. I’m sure you’re probably bored with it by now.”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay. I guess tanks are interesting for most people. Don’t see them on Fifth Avenue very often.”

“Thanks to you,” Steve says, “and all the other heroes.”

Bucky sighs. “I keep telling you, buddy. All I did was live in mud for two years and then get blown up. You can quit with the hero bullshit. You’re starting to sound like my dumbass brother.”

Steve frowns at him, and Bucky knows it’s because he swore in front of the women, for fuck’s sake. Fucking dough head. He takes another swig and grimaces.

Lizzie ignores his language, at least, and smiles at him, friendly. “But it’s the least we can do, surely? Have a parade to thank our men?”

Bucky huffs and looks at her sideways. “You think that was a thank you?”

“Well, wasn’t it?” She looks around at them all, imploring. “To give thanks for all that our men sacrificed, to honor those who didn’t come back?”

Bucky looks down at the floor between his feet and shakes his head. “That was a Victory Parade, honey. That was We Won. They wanted to thank us, they’d raise my pension by a buck a week. They wouldn’t make those guys march for an hour in the middle of a New York winter.”

Steve’s shaking his head. “Don’t you think the parade was to honor the dead too, though? Sure, it was for victory, but isn’t that the point? So those men didn’t die in vain?”

“It wasn't only the men that died.” Bucky keeps his eyes on the same patch of floor, and his voice is low but they hear him.

“Buck, I'm not an idiot. War gets innocent people killed, I know that—”

“Yeah,” he nods at his shoes, “and it makes a bunch of kids into killers, and then they throw a parade afterwards.”

“Bucky, come on. It’s not just that we won. You saw what Hitler wanted. We were right. We were better. Why not celebrate that?”

He sits up, and now he looks at Steve and he wants to fucking spit. “Look, it’d be nice if that were true, and I know you believe it, but you read that in the papers, Steve, and I’m here to tell you it’s a filthy goddamn lie.”

“Oh Bucky, come on—” Evelyn’s trying to keep a laugh in her voice, trying to keep the mood light. He ignores her.

“Listen, it’s not that I’m not glad we won the war. Hell, someone had to, and damn straight I’m glad it was our side. But flattening two cities, two entire cities, that ain’t the same thing. That ain’t soldiers fighting for their countries. That’s kids, and women. Girls, just like you.” He nods at Lizzie. “Guys like Steve, who were too sick to fight, minding their own business and getting flattened for it.”

“But Buck, you saw the pictures, the concentration camps—”

“Killing half a million people in Japan didn’t have a damn thing to do with stopping those camps,” he snaps. He’s gripping his glass hard to stop himself from throwing it. “Hitler was a Grade-A asshole and we had to fuckin’ stop him, I know that, and good riddance. But now, here I am like a chump, saluting at a goddamn parade to celebrate the whole goddamn thing, and I’m just sick of it!” He realizes vaguely that he’s yelling. “Why is everybody so goddamn happy about it all?”

There’s a silence.

“Because it was worth it, Bucky,” Lizzie says eventually, her voice uncertain. “That’s our point, it was worth the fight.”

Bucky wrenches himself away from Evelyn and stands up. “How the fuck would you know, huh?” he yells. “You weren’t fucking there! You didn’t have to watch kids get fucking blown in half every day!” He’s pointing his finger practically in her face and Steve is trying to interrupt but Bucky shouts over him. “You got to stick around here, and share a milkshake with your sweetheart and read about it in the goddamn evening papers.” He rips his hat off his head and throws it furiously at the wall.

Lizzie’s face has dropped open in shock and Steve’s in flat anger, but Bucky really does not give a shit. He glares at Lizzie for a moment, then grabs his cigarettes and his jacket off the kitchen table. He doesn’t even look back when he lets himself out.

-⥀-

He walks home past the dark shop windows, hand in his pocket. He left his goddamn hat behind, but hell if he’s turning around now. He has to skirt the corner of Fort Greene Park to get back to his Ma’s place, and finds himself looking across the grass as he walks, picking out the exact stand of trees where they lay that first night, that one summer. The trees are leafless now. He tries not to think about the heatwave, about nineteen-thirty-fucking-four, but he can’t help it. He suppresses an incredulous laugh. Christ, they’d been so stupid. Anyone could have seen them. He turns away from the park and lights another cigarette.

-⥀-

He’s sitting on the stoop after midnight when Steve shows up. It's cold as shit, but Buck got home and realized he didn't want to go inside. Steve appears, in his big coat and gloves, and walks over like it's the middle of the day and he expected to find Bucky here.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hey, pal,” Bucky says. There’s a silence. He sits back and tries to think how to start, but before he can say anything, Steve breaks the ice.

“I brought your hat.” He drops it on the step next to Bucky’s foot.

“Oh. Thanks.” He picks it up and turns it over in his hands, not looking up at Steve. “Evelyn get home okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I walked her home.”

“Sorry.”

“I didn’t mind. She’s a nice girl.”

“Yeah.”

“She likes you,” Steve says pointedly. “You should call her again.”

“Maybe I will,” Bucky says, just to get Steve off the subject. There is no way in hell he’ll call Evelyn again. “Is Lizzie mad?”

“Nah, she’s fine.”

“Tell her I’m sorry. I’ll tell her, I mean. I’ll apologize next time I see her.” Then he remembers: Steve had that fucking ring and everything. “Oh, Christ, you were going to ask her—fuck. I’m sorry, pal. I ruined your big night.”

Steve shrugs, and there’s half a smile on his face. “I wouldn’t have got up the courage anyway,” he says. “Don’t worry. It’s fine”

“No. I was a jackass. I was out for a fight.”

“You got a right to be upset by things, Bucky.”

“Not like that.”

“We gotta remember what you went through—”

“I’m all right, Steve.”

“You just lost your arm—”

“It’s not the fucking arm, for Christ’s sake!”

Steve shuts his mouth and folds his arms. “Okay,” he says. “Then what is it?”

Bucky is knocked sideways, just as he always is, by Steve’s willingness to listen to him. It doesn’t matter what kind of shitty thing Bucky’s done, Steve will always hear him out. Bucky feels so tender all of a sudden, and he can’t think straight, and he sighs.

“I just—I’m tired. And drunk. I got a headache, it makes me mean. And she was pissing me off.”

“Why don’t you like her?”

He raises his eyebrows. “I like her fine, buddy.”

Steve gives him a look. “You’re lying.”

“No, honest. I like her fine. She’s good to you. I’m glad.”

“Buck,” Steve says slowly. “Why are you being polite to me?”

“I’m not,” Bucky says, and he can’t meet Steve’s eyes.

“Bullshit. What is it?”

“I mean, I don’t know,” Bucky mumbles. His head is still so fuzzy, so he takes a deep breath and just says it. “I guess I just don’t understand what you’re doing. With her.”

“What I’m doing?”

“Yeah. I mean, c’mon. You’re not really going to marry her, right?”

“Why not?” It’s a challenge. “If she says yes, why not?”

“But you—you’re—”

“What, I’m short? I’m a fucking weakling? Maybe it’s hard to believe, asshole, but she likes me anyway.”

“Steve, come on, you know that’s not what I mean.”

The penny drops. “You mean because I’m a queer.”

Buck winces. “Yeah.”

“Yeah, well, so’re you! Never stopped you fuckin’ around with every girl who looked at you sideways, did it?”

“That was different—”

“No it wasn’t! I like girls just fine, Bucky. I’m not pretending.”

“But you never—before, I mean, you—.” He stops. “Why didn’t you ever try to go with a girl?”

Steve stares at him with his mouth open, incredulous, like Bucky asked him whether the sky was blue or green. “You—you know why.” His voice drops. “You know that already.”

Oh, fucking hell. “Steve—”

“And I knew your thoughts on that matter. And then you were gone, and I made peace with it, and then I met Lizzie. What do you expect me to—”

“You didn’t.”

He frowns. “Didn’t what?”

“Know my thoughts. On the matter.” Bucky stands up from the stoop and takes a step toward Steve. He forces himself to keep his eyes open as he speaks, to make Steve see in his face that it’s the truth. His whole body is shaking and he can’t get a good breath but he can’t stop now, if he stops he’ll never say it. “It was you,” he manages, quietly. “Only ever. You.”

The look on Steve’s face. Those big, pleading eyes. Bucky thinks of that day in their old apartment, when they’d left the curtains open. He remembers the force of those eyes following him as he scrambled out the door. The anguish in them.

“No,” says Steve. He’s shaking his head slowly. “No, Bucky. You got no right to do this to me now.”

“I know,” he says, because he does know, he’s got no right, he’s a piece of shit, “but I gotta tell you this. I can’t—I can’t watch you.” He falters, tries to control his voice. “It’s tearing me up. I can’t watch you with someone else.”

Steve comes at him then. He thumps Bucky hard in the chest with both hands, and he’s not big but he’s fast enough that Bucky is knocked off balance. Steve’s face is murderous. “Well, now you know how it feels!” he shouts. “Now you know! Not so great, huh?”

And holy shit, Steve is crying, and that stuns Bucky into silence. Steve has never cried, not once in front of anyone, not when he was sick or beat up—fuck, Bucky stood by his side while Sarah Rogers’ coffin was lowered into the ground and Steve didn’t cry, but here he is, almost hysterical, words choking out around the sobs and Bucky doesn’t know what to do.

He grabs Steve by the shoulder of his coat, and drags him into the alley between the buildings.

“Listen—” he tries, but Steve pushes him away again.

“I watched you with someone else every fucking night!” he croaks. “You left me, Bucky! And I—you son of a bitch, how can you—how can you—” He chokes again, pushes his fists into his eyes, and exhales hard.

Bucky holds his hand out to try to calm him. There's the threat of asthma in Steve’s breathing. “I was scared, all right?” He needs to focus. He has to explain this properly. “I was scared of you, and what we—what I was, and how much I felt for you. I didn’t know how to be—that, with you.” He’s shaking again, and the words stutter out of his mouth. “If anyone found out, or—or tried to hurt you—that was part of it. Keeping you safe. But mostly I was just scared. I was fuckin’ terrified.” He almost laughs. He would do anything to go back to that time, now. He hadn’t known what scared was.

Steve takes his hands off his eyes. They look at each other.

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Bucky says.

Steve laughs but doesn’t smile.

“I mean it! Fuck, will you please just listen? I wanted to tell you. When I was away. You know they’d have read the letters, whatever I wrote. I couldn’t say anything, not like I wanted to.” He runs his fingers through his hair and leaves his hand there, clinging. “I didn’t even have your picture.” It’s irrelevant but somehow it feels important to say.

Silence. Steve is looking at the ground, his jaw set.

“I thought I was going to die, over there. There were so many times I thought, okay, this is it, this is how I’m going to die.” He’s whispering. He didn’t plan on saying any of this. “And every time, I just kept thinking that you’d never know that I—how I felt. I told myself if I ever made it home alive I wouldn’t be scared of it any more and I’d tell you.” He steps closer again and reaches out to clasp Steve’s arm. “All I ever want is to make you happy.” He hears the desperation in his voice, knows he’s begging and doesn’t care. “God, baby, let me do that. We can be so happy.”

He tries a smile, tries to touch the side of Steve’s face, but Steve wrenches himself away.

“Don’t! It doesn’t matter now.”

That makes him rear back, as if Steve hit him. “No,” he breathes, “Steve, this is the only thing that matters,” and he can’t believe this is happening, he needs to think of a way to make Steve see

But Steve shakes his head, and there are tears on his face but his eyes are flat and Bucky can’t bear it. “It doesn’t matter, Buck. It’s too late.”

He feels himself break. “But—please—”

Steve looks at Bucky’s face for a moment, watching him cry. He wipes his own face and puts his hands in his coat pockets. “I gotta go.”

Chapter Text

banner

January 13, 1946

Bucky doesn't want to wear his loafers. He’s still hungover, and although his head isn't pounding anymore, he still feels the worse for wear. He slept for most of the day, skipping Mass and even lunch, waving off his ma’s fussing when she knocked on the door to try to feed him. He hasn’t been to Mass since he got off the boat. Nobody bugs him about it.

He wants to go out. There’s nothing to do on a Sunday night, but he can’t stay home. Ma always watches him like a hawk, and today it’s making him jittery. It’s like she knows something happened. He starts to worry that she or Dad heard something last night.

Shit, he really has to get out. But it's cold, and even though there's no snow, there's still slush in the gutters, the sidewalks clear but slippery. His good, new loafers will get ruined, so he needs to wear his heavy boots.

But first, he has to get them on.

Doing the left one isn't so bad. He pretty well figured it out at the last hospital, and he can do it if he has to. He’s sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, and he's dragged another chair opposite him to prop his foot on, his knee out sideways. It's easy enough to tighten the laces once his foot’s in, and doing the first simple knot is something he's practiced enough to get done quickly. He makes a loop. If he leans way forward, he can just get the end of his stump to press where he needs it, holding the loop in place as he wraps the other lace around, shifting his shoulder so it's holding the right spot down and he can pull the bow tight. It's messy, but it'll hold. He drops his left foot to the floor and replaces it with his right.

The right foot is the problem. He gets through the easy parts no problem: pull the laces tight, tie the knot. He makes the first loop and leans forward to hold it in place, but stretching across his body puts more of a strain on his back, and it's a longer way to reach. He can't hold the stump steady long enough to wrap the lace all the way around, and his shoulder slips and the laces fall limp to each side of the boot.

He sighs and picks them up. He goes through the process again, but the same thing happens. He starts again. This time, he twists his back much further than before, so he's able to reach the stump all the way to the right place, and even past it if he wanted. He gets the loop placed right, and the other lace wrapped, but then his shoulder starts shaking from the strain of holding it over so far, and before he can pull anything tight, his stump slips and the laces fall again.

On the fourth try, he fumbles and drops the laces before he even makes a loop, and he bites down on a yell and kicks the chair across the room. It clatters against the cabinets. Bucky leans over with his elbow on his knee and scowls at the floor. He’s got tears in his eyes, like a kid, and he wants to just lie down and howl.

“James?” says his ma’s voice from the doorway. “Can I help, love?”

“No,” he snaps.

“Let me do it, come on,” she says, cajoling  like he’s eight years old, and she moves into the room to pick up the chair.

But the anger is still high in his blood, and he can't see past it yet. He slams his hand on the table, hard.

“I said no, Ma! Will you give me some space, for Christ’s sake!”

She stops, looking stricken. Bucky makes himself take a few breaths, and then he sniffs and looks up at her. “Sorry, Ma. Sorry. I just... I want to do it this time. Okay?”

“Sure, honey,” she says in her regular Ma voice, and leaves the same way she came in. He hears her murmuring something to his dad in the living room.

Bucky collects the turned-over chair and sits down again and narrows his eyes at his boot. All right, you motherfucker, he thinks. Then he leans forward to grab the laces and try again.

-⥀-

Eventually, he does get out, and he goes for a walk, fumbling a cigarette between his lips and blowing the smoke out delicately into the icy air.

He walks so he doesn’t have to think. He concentrates on the streets, the buildings, places he’s known his whole life, looming out of the foggy darkness like ghosts.

Mike’s Naval Uniforms. Swift’s Ice Cream. Star Pool & Billiards.

He keeps his hand in his pocket when he finishes the smoke, because he left the house as soon as he got the goddamn boot tied, and he didn’t think to look for a glove. Christ, it's cold.

He's not tired. It’s not even late. There’s nobody around, and the sun went down hours ago, so it feels like midnight in the deserted streets. But the lights are still on in the windows above the stores, people still awake and living, packed into in their warm little homes.

The signs in the store windows blink at him as he passes. Mobilgas. Coca-Cola. The World’s Best Beer.

He blinks back and lights another smoke. Since he came home he’s been smoking too much, but after years of rationing out his cigarettes, it's damn nice to be able to have one whenever he wants. He always smoked Lucky Strikes, before. Everyone did. But as soon as he got home, he switched to Chesterfields. He likes their advertising posters: Gregory Peck and Dennis Morgan, handsome and well-dressed. The packs cost more, but hell, for once in his life he can afford it. Nothing much else to spend his pension on, anyhow.

When he turns off Flatbush, he pretends to himself that he doesn’t know where he’s going. The storefronts keep him company, keep his attention ahead of him. Buy Gillette Blades. Malted Milk 10c. Lindy’s Bar & Grill.

But when he gets to the right corner, he stops in the middle of the sidewalk across the street, just to look. It’s the staircase at the bottom of their shitty first apartment. The spot where he’d paced, shaking, the night that Steve got beat up and put his hand on Bucky’s arm and told him, finally, what he wanted. Bucky’d slammed out the door, panic turning desire to anger, but he only made it to the end of the street before swearing and turning back. He dithered outside for nearly an hour, chain smoking and hating himself.

It was the last time he’d let himself slip. When he finally swallowed his fear and ran up the stairs, he didn’t have any kind of plan in mind. He never thought about what it would mean, for either of them, to do this once and never again. He knew it would hurt—hurt him—and he made his peace with that. Steve would be safe, and that was the most important thing.

But the misery on Steve's face when Bucky left, and the silence between them afterwards—Bucky never counted on that.  

Back then, the war had seemed like a blessing in disguise. It’s obscene to think so now, Bucky knows, but he guesses he’s not the only guy who was an idiot at 24. At any rate, the fact of the war had solved a few of his immediate problems. There was suddenly a lot of work, for one thing. Guys joining up left, right, and center meant a demand for able bodies, and any time the dock work slowed down, there was bound to be another vacancy somewhere, if he kept his eyes open. He’d get chatting with guys who were shipping out, and then track down their employers to offer his services. He tried his hand at everything. His favorite was working on cars, but he made more at the restaurants, raking in the tips and dividing them up in the evening: half to Ma and Dad, and the rest for him and Steve. They were almost comfortable, for a while.

The war also meant Bucky was off the hook with Steve, whose interest in the whole thing became a full-blown obsession when the USA declared. His excitement filled the weird space between them, until it seemed their last encounter was forgotten. Bucky had been so relieved, free to hold Steve at arm’s length again, free to plunge himself headfirst into work and drink and girls, coming home to Steve at night and happy just to see him, happy just to watch him breathe in his sleep. Trying to be satisfied with that.

It was tough. He wasn’t satisfied. The drink and the girls were fun and all, but they were a temporary evasion. Bucky thought about Steve every time he was with a girl, imagining it was Steve under his hands, making those sounds. He'd wake in the night sometimes, choked by it, almost in tears from wanting him so bad, and he was right there, in the same room, and Bucky couldn't touch him. It all got worse, not better.

And sooner or later Bucky would find himself at a loose end one evening when Steve was home, when he was well, and he could barely stop himself. His eyes would involuntarily drift down Steve’s throat, over his lips, along the soft hair of his forearm, and he’d have to hurry outside for a cigarette to get himself together.

Out on the fire escape, he berated himself into behaving, but he knew he couldn’t stay strong forever. So even being drafted was kind of a solution, in the end.

Ah, shit. He’s thinking too much. He pulls his eyes away from the building across the street and turns to go. Without consciously deciding to do it, he walks to Steve’s place. The lights are on, but when he knocks, the roommate sticks his head out the door and says that Steve’s gone out.

Buck thanks him and leaves. He doesn't know what he would have said to Steve anyway, besides I'm sorry, which he's been trying to say to Steve his whole life and never quite managed. God, the shit that kid's been through, and all Bucky's ever done is make it all worse. He realises that even if he could find him, Steve won't want to see him.

He keeps walking, heading nowhere. He wishes he had a drink, if only to chase away the last of his hangover. He really should just go home.

Shame washes through him, though, when he thinks of how he barked at his ma in the kitchen. She’s been helping him tie his boots for six months, and that’s how he treats her. Her kindness, her care, has been everything for him. But he hates it all the same.

The kids are almost worse. They don't care much about his arm, beyond the thrill of hearing how he lost it, and they don't make him feel like such a fucking cripple all the time, because they simply don't pity him like grown ups do. He appreciates that. But he's forgotten entirely how it feels to be a kid. He wants to shrink away from Teddy’s obvious hero-worship, and Mary and Janet’s excited attention. They’re so young, and so blissfully, beautifully stupid. They float through the world with such terrible innocence, and Bucky doesn’t know how to live in the face of it. He doesn't know whether he wants to smash it to pieces or protect it with his life.

The Army had sure as hell made things simple, he would give it that. Don't think, just do as you're told. Go there, shoot that, don't ask questions.

Nothing here is easy any more. God, had it ever been easy? He can't even remember.

-⥀-

“Bucky?”

Lizzie peeks through the crack in the door and Bucky cringes inwardly. What the hell is he doing here?

“Yeah. Hi. Sorry,” he starts. “Uh, how are you?”

She opens the door wider and looks at him, frowning slightly. “I'm fine. Are you okay?”

He’s not even remotely okay. He doesn’t really remember deciding to come here. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm great, listen, is Steve here?”

She shakes her head. “No. I haven't seen him tonight. I just got home from work a little while ago.”

“Oh.” He casts around for something else to say, and ends up just standing there wordlessly on the stoop.

After a second of visible hesitation, she smiles. “Would you like to come in?”

He realizes that he does. It's cold and dark in the street, and there's nobody out there for him. He nods like a little kid.

The apartment looks the same as last night, jolting Bucky immediately into awareness of what a jackass he’d been, and how little he deserves to be invited back. He stands stiffly in the living room, not knowing what to do with his hand.

She’s rummaging around in a high cupboard, and calls out, “Have a seat, Bucky, I’ll be right there,” but he doesn’t, and when she glances back at him, he’s still standing.

“Well, come on,” she laughs. “You can sit down at least, can’t you?”

“I just wanted to apologize,” he says. “For last night. I don’t need to take up your time.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” she says again with a smile. “You’re always welcome here, Bucky. Would you like a drink?” She’s pouring whiskey into two small glasses before he can answer, and he joins her in the kitchen instead of instead of taking a seat. She pushes one of the glasses into his hand.

“Thanks. Uh,” he leans a hip against the counter and lets out a breath. “I’m real sorry. For last night. I was a jerk. I ruined your party.”

She shakes her head. “Thank you for apologizing. But, Bucky, Steve and I are your friends. We shouldn’t expect you to be pleasant all the time.”

Christ. Bucky shakes his head. “That’s what Steve said.”

“When?”

“Oh.” He takes a big swig of the whiskey. “Last night. He brought my hat, after he dropped off Evelyn.” He barely stops himself from wincing at the memory. “He said I had a right to be mad.”

“That’s right. We were insensitive.”

“Ah, you two are just the same, you know that?” He smiles, but he feels so sad. “Too noble for your own good, the pair of you.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Bucky. Really.”

He pauses mid-sip, and raises an eyebrow. “I ain’t got the right to yell at you like that, honey. I’d rather you were mad at me for it.”

She smiles at him and sips her drink. “It’s hard to be mad at a man who’s been through so much. We all just felt terrible.” Her smile fades away, although there’s still warmth in her eyes. “Have you thought any more about visiting the amputee program at the hospital? They do such wonderful things with prosthetics nowadays, Bucky. You’d be amazed, I swear.”

Bucky has thought about it, the first time she brought it up, and every other time since. He’d come to the conclusion very quickly that he’d rather lose his right arm as well, and maybe both legs, than visit the fucking amputee ward at Brooklyn Hospital on Lizzie Randall’s suggestion. He’d had his fill of wards and bedpans and concerned goddamn nurses long before he ever came back to the States, and hell if he was going to give this girl the satisfaction of helping him get rehabilitated.

He’s tried so hard to hate her. It’s been convenient, really, to have a nice girl-shaped target to focus his anger on, for having what she has, for being everything he’s not. But he knows he’s not being fair. None of this shit is her fault.

She so clearly longed to help. Steve so clearly longed for Bucky to accept it. They didn’t push him, but he could see it in their eyes every time they danced around it, just like his ma whenever she brought up the subject of him getting a new arm. As far as Bucky was concerned, he didn’t need one, he was getting by just fine, and everyone could just shove their frowns and their concerned eyes and leave him alone.

“I’ve thought about it. I promise. I’m just,” he shrugs, “I guess I’m not really in the market for anything like that.”

She laughs. “Well, I guess if I can’t sell a wooden arm to a one-armed man...” she trails off and gulps her drink, uncertain if he’ll take it badly, afraid to offend him, nervous like they always are, like everyone is.

He huffs a laugh to show her that he gets the joke. “Yeah.”

“How did you lose it?”

He freezes, briefly, and she blushes a little.

“I mean, you’ve never talked about it. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”

“It’s okay,” he says. He has talked about it, just not with her; he’s told the abridged version of the story a hundred times, to Teddy and Mary and Becca, to every girl he’s taken out since he got back. They never want to ask, shy and trying to be tactful, but it always comes up.

Bucky shrugs. This, he can do. He knows his lines.

“We were in Germany,” he starts, “and my unit was ambushed. We were walking through a forest, and I was way in back, behind the rest of the guys.”

He’d been taking a piss, but he doesn’t ever mention that part. Not very heroic, to say you survived a firefight because you were off relieving yourself in the forest on the side of a German mountain.

“I heard the commotion, and there were some shots going off. I knew it was bad. I climbed up a tree so I could see better, and there was a whole mess of Nazis coming up over this hill. They’d already killed two of my guys. So I started shooting.”

Usually, on a date, he tells the story like he's recalling an adventure movie. The girls always eat it up, marvelling at his bravery and skill and making Bucky feel like a complete asshole. But this isn't a date and she's not his girl, and something in her eyes is encouraging him. He takes a breath and starts to tell something that resembles the truth.

“I don’t think I hit much. I was too far away, really, and there were trees in the way. Hard to shoot straight. It wasn’t a great plan.” He sighs. “But I got one of them real good, a head shot right when he was coming out into the open.”

She doesn’t say anything, and for some reason he wants a reaction.

“You ever see a man get his brains blown out?” he blurts.

Her eyes widen. “No!”

“It’s messy,” he says. “I killed a lot of people over there, I guess. I don't know how many. But I only ever blew a guy's head clean off that one time.”

The kid had looked barely old enough to hold a pistol. His head had burst open with a quick spray of red, and Bucky had thrilled with pride at the sight. It was the best shot he'd ever made.

Nausea surges in him suddenly, and he blinks and frowns, and pushes the memory away with another mouthful of his drink.

He looks at Lizzie and registers her shocked face. “Uh. Sorry.” He shouldn't be saying any of this.

“It’s okay,” she whispers. She gulps some more whiskey. She's starting to look flushed and Bucky can't tell whether it's from the drink or the conversation. “What happened then?”

“They figured out where I was shooting from and one of ‘em got a grenade off.”

“Oh, no,” she whispers.

“I saw it. It landed right under me. I wasn’t up very high. I tried to jump out of the tree, but.” He shrugs. “Too late.”

Lizzie’s looking at him with the same sorrowful eyes as everyone else who’s heard the story of Bucky’s exploded body. The next question comes right on cue.

“Did it hurt?”

He shakes his head and takes another swig of his drink. It makes him grimace. “Nah. Your body doesn’t feel it when it happens. Shock. You know.” She’s a nurse, after all.

She nods, and now’s the part where Bucky would usually change the subject with a joke or a compliment, but he’s too tired and his head’s too much of a mess to spare her feelings. He stares down into his glass, remembering.

“The funny thing is,” he laughs hollowly, “if I'd stayed in the tree I might've been okay. I panicked, y’know. The grenade probably wasn’t close enough to get me, up that high. It might have shook me off the branch, but I'd probably still have my arm if I hadn't jumped.”

This is almost the worst part. Dumb enough for a guy to live through two years of hell on Earth only to get injured right before the whole war was over. But the fact that it was his own stupid fault makes him want to scream. God, he’d have been home free if he’d just stayed fucking put. He was such an idiot.

“And then I passed out, I guess. I didn't really know what had happened. My hand felt strange and I kept trying to look at it, but there was just blood there, nothing else.” He draws a breath, and it's shaky. “I couldn't figure out why.”

He doesn't know how long he lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness. He thinks it was a long time. He'd cracked his pelvis in the fall from the tree—there'd been no hope of moving, even if he'd been lucid. He’d listened to the sounds of the fighting in the distance, and the closer, quiet noises of the forest around him: trees creaking, the wind in the leaves. He doesn't remember them finding him, but he remembers the waiting. He’d dreamily assumed he would die there, and he lay still and looked at the sky and waited for it to happen. He was sort of glad that if he had to go, it would happen in a place that was almost peaceful.

“I wasn't scared, then,” he tells her truthfully. “There were plenty other times I was scared, but that time I was comfortable, really. I kept thinking of—of home and—and wanting to get back. That was the only hard part. Thinking I wouldn’t see home again.”

He’d said their names—either in his head or whispered to himself, he couldn’t remember—listing his parents and siblings, even some of his cousins, conjuring their faces, saying the only goodbye he would get. Steve’s face had floated through his mind, in all its different moods: laughing and glaring and wide-eyed with wonder, but most of all sad, hurt, scared. And Bucky in his delirium had known that those last were because of him.

He couldn’t say goodbye then. He’d tried to say I’m sorry. But Steve’s eyes stayed in his mind, slicing through the unconsciousness even after he got dragged out, even after they got him in a jeep and then a stretcher, all through the morphine-haze of the field hospital. He woke to the unexpected relief that he wasn’t dead, but the memory haunted him, and he decided in that first hospital that if he ever got home, he would do everything he could to make up for the pain in those eyes.

“Bucky?”

He starts, and realizes he’s been staring into his glass for a little too long. His eyes are burning with tears. Shit. He blinks them away, shakes his head a little and looks up at her. She’s jumped up to sit by him on the counter, and is staring into his face with a worried smile.

“I said, you are home,” she says, and it takes him a minute to even figure out what she means. “You made it back.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like home, anymore.” He tries to smile back at her but ends up having to squeeze his eyes shut instead, against more tears, to stop them from spilling.

“But it will, again,” she whispers, “you’ll get more used to it, I promise.”

He shakes his head. There's no home for him any more, without Steve. But he can't say that, so he lets her go on. His throat’s too tight to speak, anyway.

“You’ll meet someone special,” she’s saying. “Someone who can take care of you.”

“I'm not going to be someone's charity case,” he says, more angrily than he intends.

“But you won't! Evelyn understands about last night, she told me she’d see you again—you’ve still got so much to offer a girl, you mustn’t give up—”

He laughs, but it’s more like a hiccup. “I can’t even work. Not with this.” He nods towards where his arm should be, and his voice breaks. “I can’t be anyone’s husband. Raise a fucking family.” I'm a queer. And he doesn't want me. “I ain't good for anything.”

He’s never said any of this to another soul. He feels like he's exposing himself, like he's showing her something obscene, but when he risks a glance at her face, she doesn’t look horrified like he expected. She looks tender, and deeply sad, and she reaches out to him and touches his shoulder.

It's an act of kindness, there's no way to interpret it as anything more. But it’s the first time in a year that anyone’s touched that side of his body without frowning or flinching away.

He looks at her now, properly, and it feels almost like it’s the first time he’s ever really noticed her. She’s so good; he can’t imagine how it must feel to be so good. No wonder Steve loves her, and not him. She’s pure, and Steve is the purest thing Bucky’s ever known. She’ll be good for him, Bucky thinks for the millionth time.

And then he remembers last night, desperately reaching for Steve and saying Baby, like he’s wanted to do for months, forever. And Steve recoiling, horrified, from his hand.

It hits him that he has to let Steve go now, for good. The thought rips into him like a bullet, and the last strands of his pride dissolve away. He looks down at the place where her hand rests and he sees what it is he’s been wanting since he left the house. So he takes it. Bucky kisses her. He’s still mostly crying, for God’s sake, and his hand shakes. She makes a little noise of surprise and her body stiffens, but Bucky doesn’t stop. He holds her chin, tightly, kissing her without finesse, just wanting to touch somebody, to feel her warmth and her softness and for once to not feel so alone.

She tastes like whiskey when she parts her lips and relaxes under his hand, and Bucky resolutely doesn't think about what he's doing. His body’s on autopilot, his mind utterly quiet as she puts her little arms around his neck, and in that moment he knows nothing except the feeling of being held, of being safe and alive and having someone with him.

He still doesn't think as he takes a step closer to align their bodies, and she's drunker than he thought because she only sighs when he begins to unbutton her blouse. He opens his eyes to watch her face as they kiss, and there's a sour feeling pulsing behind everything else, a niggle faint behind his eyes, but she's holding him like he matters and the skin of her belly is soft when he slides his hand under the fabric. He focuses on his hand, on her lips, and he doesn't think, he won't let himself, not right now, just for a few minutes.

“Lizzie?” says Steve. “Bucky?”

Bucky glances back to see him, standing in the living room wearing a scarf and a hat, keys in one hand and a brown grocery bag in the other, his mouth open, his face shocked.

Time seems to slow down. Bucky feels oddly calm, because of course this had to happen, of course Steve was always going to catch them. And the funny thing is, Bucky thinks as Lizzie jumps away from him, covering her mouth with both hands, her blouse undone and her eyes huge, the funny thing is that this, what he's just done—the worst thing he's ever done—is just about the only time in his adult life that Bucky hasn't been thinking mainly of Steve.

He can't turn around. He knows what's coming and he knows he deserves it, and he hangs his head and closes his eyes for a moment, trying to prepare himself. All he can think is “what are you doing here?” which is ludicrous. He's the one who's unwelcome.

His mind, which had been silent just moments before, fills with a horrible noise. He can't hear above it. Steve is yelling something, and Lizzie is trying to say something back but she's crying, and then Steve is across the room and he grabs Bucky's shoulder, the bad one, and wrenches him around against the counter. Bucky has just a tiny moment to take in the fire of Steve's blazing eyes, eyes that he loves so much, and then Steve pulls back and splits Bucky's lip with his fist, and Lizzie screams like crazy. Buck pushes Steve gently away, ears ringing, and shoves past him toward the door. He stops in the hallway and tries to breathe, blood dripping down his chin, and then he sticks his hand in his pocket and ducks his head and gets the fuck out of there.

 

He doesn’t get far before he has to stop, just to collect his wits, and he starts to pace back and forth in front of the Victory Luncheonette. It used to be called Rita’s, before. He eventually leans his forehead against the brick wall, taking shaky breaths and listening to his heart banging.

Jesus, he fucked up. He fucked up tonight, and he fucked up last night, and last week and five years ago and ten years ago—every moment of his life from the day he was born has been a giant, terrible mistake.

This, though. There's no taking this back. Panic mixed with dread is thrashing around in Bucky’s belly, and he worries for a moment that he'll actually be sick. His mind just keeps chanting “No, no, no, no,” over and over, as if by refusing to accept it he can keep it from being real. He squeezes his eyes shut as hard as he can to try and keep the memory away, Steve yelling, the hurt in his voice, in his eyes.

And then there's a real yell, off in the distance, and Steve comes careening around the corner, his coat flapping behind him and no hat, no scarf. Bucky can hear him wheezing from half a block away as he stops to scan up and down the dark street.

“Bucky!” he shouts when he spots him, and starts running again. Jesus Christ, he's halfway to an asthma attack already, and he shouldn't be out in this cold, but Bucky knows better than to say anything about that right now. As Steve rushes toward him, Buck lights a cigarette and leans back against the cold bricks. His lip is still bleeding and the cigarette hurts like hell.

Steve stops a few feet from where he’s standing. “Bucky,” he pants.

Bucky makes himself look over at him, and they stare at each other without speaking. Steve’s breath is loud and turns to puffs of steam in the cold night. Bucky smokes, slowly.

He’s so used to Steve’s angry face that he almost laughs. Steve’s expression is the same whether he’s mad about a playground bully, or a rejection from the Army, or his best friend betraying him. His furrowed forehead, jaw jutting out the same way it always has. Even now, Bucky remembers how his fingers felt against that stubborn chin, and how Steve’s brow would relax, and he’d sigh so softly, when Bucky kissed his closed eyes.

But then Steve’s face falls into something else, and it jerks Bucky out of his memory. The look that’s on his face now is something Bucky’s never seen before. It’s puzzlement, mostly, mixed with pain, pain that Bucky caused, as per goddamn usual.

FInally, Steve seems to lose patience with the silence. “Stealing my girl?” he says, throwing up his hands. “What the hell, Bucky?”

“Steve, I wasn’t—I didn’t mean to—”

Steve cuts him off. “The only girl, Buck. The only one I ever got, the only chance I have, and you just can’t let me alone. You can have any girl you want and you gotta have mine. I never had anybody before, except you. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Listen, you idiot,” Bucky says urgently. “I don't want to take your girl. Okay? I'm not trying to mess with her, I swear.”

“Then what the hell was that?”

“It was—I mean I—” He stops. It's a good fucking question. He coughs and examines his cigarette. “I don't know what that was. I was looking for you, and she was home, and—”

“Why were you looking for me, huh? So you can spend a little more time ruining my life?”

“No, you fucking moron,” Bucky says. “Because I love you.”

"What?” Steve yells incredulously, and Bucky has to shush him because, fuck, they are right out on the street. He lowers his voice to a hoarse whisper. “What?”

“And you love me, too,” Bucky says. He’s sure.

“Oh, is that so?” Steve hisses sarcastically.

“Yeah, it is,” he says.

“Fuck you!”

“Okay,” says Bucky angrily, because he's sick of Steve's shit. “So maybe you don't. But if that's the case, wiseass, you wanna explain why you're out here running after me instead of back there with her?”

Steve juts his jaw out again and huffs. He looks sideways into the darkness for a few moments. When he glances back, he looks lost.

“I don't know what you want from me, Buck! You know how I felt, all those years. You didn't want me then.”

Bucky’s heart fucking cracks with how untrue that is.

“I was keeping you safe! Christ! Do you know what could’ve happened to you if anyone found out?”

Steve barely seems to hear him. “So now, what? You've just changed your mind?” He scoffs wetly. “Except you haven't, because for some reason you had to go after the one good thing I got in my life and ruin that, too. And I don't understand why!”

“I don't know,” Bucky says. All of a sudden he feels too tired to think. “I don't know, I don't know, I'm so sorry.” He feels himself about to cry again and forces it back. “All I know is, I can’t do this. I tried. I swear I tried. But I can't watch you with anyone else.”

Steve lets out an angry laugh. “Well shit, Buck, now I guess you won’t have to!”

“Nah,” says Bucky, “she’s a good girl. It wasn’t her fault. Go get her, if you want her. She’ll be good to you.”

“Yeah,” Steve says stonily. He doesn't move.

There’s a silence, and then Bucky can’t help himself. “God damn it, Steve,” he bites out. “Why didn’t you just wait for me?”

It’s the cruelest thing he’s ever said. He knows that. But he’s exhausted from keeping it in.

Steve straightens his back and curls his hands in fists. His face is so hard.

“If you’d ever asked me to,” he says slowly, with heavy emphasis, his voice shaking with anger, “I would have waited my whole life for you.”

Bucky just stares at him. He can’t think of a single thing to say.

Then there's movement behind him, and Bucky looks around and sees Lizzie standing there, her coat around her shoulders and her face shocked.

She clearly heard them; she's too close for any doubt. The look on her face says it all, anyway. Bucky’s stomach turns to stone.

Steve doesn't even acknowledge her.

“I told you before it was too late,” he says to Bucky. “And now,” he laughs bitterly, “it’s really too late. I'm calling Uncle, Bucky. I can't take this any more. From now on, you stay the hell away from me.”

“Steve—”

“Just go on. You should get home.” He starts to walk away, away from them both. “I’ll see you round, Buck.”

Chapter Text

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May 15th, 1948

The first thing Bucky did when he finally got a job was to go out and buy a bicycle. It's dark green, with white mud guards and a leather saddlebag, mint condition—no way anyone can tell it's second-hand. He would’ve rather had a car, especially when it rains, but he figures he'll need a few more years on the job before he can spend that kind of money.

Besides, he likes biking. It's helped him get to know the neighborhood, for one, and even though he bought it to ride to work, he's found himself taking it out on his days off, venturing a little further every time, discovering new streets and parks and bridges, coming home each time with a broader horizon.

Today, though, he's just been down to the store a few blocks over. He glides up the footpath and swings his leg off, leaning the bike up against the side of the house and unhooking his prosthetic claw from the left handlebar. He grabs his shopping from the saddlebag: a pack of Chesterfields, the New York Herald Tribune, a bottle of Coke.

He goes around the back of the house to read the paper. He sits on the back doorstep, stretched out in the sun, and pops the top off the Coke in one quick motion. Ten months with the fake arm and it still cracks him up to be walking around with a built-in bottle opener.

It's quieter in Queens than it was in Brooklyn. Bucky didn’t like it at first; he couldn’t get used to the stillness, and it spooked him every night for the first few weeks after he moved out here. There had been quiet spots in his old neighborhood, of course, and there were plenty of busy places in Queens. But most days, out here, he can stand in Rebecca and Charlie’s living room in the middle of the afternoon and, if he closes his eyes, he might as well be standing in a field in Indiana. He feels like his ears are ringing in the silence.

It had taken him a while. But he likes it now.

It's strange having a backyard, too. The Barnes family have lived in the same tenement building for all of Bucky's life, and nobody he knew had ever had a real yard. In Brooklyn, a kid grew up in public, the street and the park and the beach, and the idea of having your own private piece of the outdoors—well, that was never going to happen.

But Charlie had come home from the Pacific missing the lower half of his right leg, and he and Rebecca wanted to live closer to his folks in Jackson Heights. They rented half of a red brick two-story duplex on 88th Street, a good hour on the train from Brooklyn. Buck knew he was a lucky bastard that they had a spare room. He'd needed a change of scene, to put it mildly. He moved into the spare room in March of ‘47.

He finishes the Coke and starts a cigarette, putting aside the paper and tilting his face up to the sky. He thinks he’ll weed the garden before Rebecca gets home with Mary and Janet. Between work and the recent bad weather, he hasn't been out to the garden in almost a week. The tomatoes are in pots, so they don't need anything much, but the rain has brought out the weeds in the main bed, and they're choking up the spaces between the rows of spinach and carrots and runner beans.

The day’s gotten hot, so Bucky takes off his shirt and hangs it over a fencepost. Even with his undershirt on, the straps of the prosthetic are clearly visible, but it's lunchtime on a weekday and he doesn't think anybody’s around to see. He grabs the hoe from where it's leaning against the side of the house, fits the claw of his left arm to the handle, and starts to work.

It's not a bad way to spend his afternoon off. Christ knows he's happy to have something to do around the place, anything he can manage, but this is especially nice: to be out in the yard under the sun, with the breeze and the quiet and the plants growing green and healthy. It's not much of a plot, just a little four-by-six patch that Buck had helped Charlie dig into the lawn last month, but it’ll do for their little household, this year. Maybe he can make it bigger next spring.

He's done getting the weeds up in no time. His shoulder isn't even sore from the motion, thank God. He takes his claw off the hoe and uses it to pick up the tin bucket, scooping the dug-up weeds into the bucket with his good hand.

The tomatoes don't look dry, but since there's not a cloud in the sky, he gives them a drink anyway. Tiny clusters of yellow flowers are already starting to show up among the leaves. It's supposed to be hot all week; maybe summer’s coming early this year. Maybe they'll get a good crop. He wonders if Rebecca will can the extras, the way Ma does when the summer tomatoes are cheap at the market. He wonders if she’ll teach him how. It seems like it would be a good thing to know.

Thinking about Ma leads his thoughts to home. He hasn't been back since Dad’s birthday, just after Easter. Becca and Charlie take the girls every second Sunday, and Bucky goes with them, most times. He even goes to Mass, those days, for his folks, and to set a good example for the kids. He loves to see the family all together. Teddy’s engaged to a girl from the neighbourhood, and he’s working full-time at Benson's garage on Atlantic and 4th. Bucky couldn’t be prouder.

There’s no other reason for him to go back to Brooklyn. Twice a month, to see the family, is plenty.

He tries not to think about Steve, or the black hole his absence has left in Bucky's life. He's been working on patching some of the other holes in his life, to be honest. There sure are plenty of those to take up his time.

But the echo of Steve is always with him—a scarcity, a deficiency he just has to accept. He should be used to it by now; even when he saw Steve every day, he’d never really had him. And spending so long, the way Bucky had, burning on the inside, never letting it show—it got you good at pretending there was nothing there at all. He’s trained himself to push through his days without dwelling on it, at least.

At night, he feels the loneliness. Some nights it’s nothing more than a dull throb in his gut as he falls asleep. But other nights, it grows and swells and presses down on him like a vise, twisting up with the guilt and leaving his head pounding and wrecked in the morning.

He lets it ache. It’s the least he deserves.

“Hi, Uncle Bucky!” Janet calls from inside the house.

He turns and grabs his shirt from the fencepost in case she comes outside, threading the prosthetic through the sleeve in a hurry. Janet and Mary never make him feel like shit about his arm, but he still worries that it might scare them. He does the buttons one-handed, lugging the pail full of weeds with the handle hooked over his wooden wrist. He tips it on the compost heap at the back of the yard and walks back to the house.

The girls are having a glass of milk in the kitchen.

“Hey, Squirt,” he says to Janet, and yanks teasingly on one of her pigtails before grabbing himself a glass. She makes a face at him, so he makes one back.

“Hi, Mary,” he says to her sister. “How was school?”

“It was fine. I have arithmetic homework. Will you help me?”

“You bet. We can do it after dinner.”

“Thanks. You want a cookie? Ma said we could have two each.”

He gets the jar down for them and watches them eat, their dark braids looking so much like Rebecca’s had when they were kids. He's happy here, he thinks, and it's not the first time he’s acknowledged it to himself. He likes this quiet life. He's surrounded by love. He really couldn't ask for more.

The milk is cold, and Bucky feels good, and it's still a couple of hours till dinner. He leans against the sink, watching dust motes swirl in the sun that's streaming in through the open back door, and thinks maybe he'll go take a nap before Charlie gets home.

But then Rebecca's voice floats in from down the hall. “Bucky?”

“In the kitchen!”

“Oh, can you come here, please? The living room.”

She sounds strange, and she's waiting for him inside the doorway. “Sorry,” she says in a low voice. “I didn't want the girls to hear.”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “What is it?”

She looks at him sadly and puts a hand on his good arm. “I'm sorry. I was just talking to Ma.” She pauses, and Bucky knows it's bad, but he never expects her to say what she says next.

“It's Steve. Steve Rogers. He's real sick.”

-⥁-

Scarlet fever, they said. Rebecca didn't know anything more than that, and Bucky tries to make himself hope—he's had it before, he’ll be okay, he's beaten this before. But Ma isn't a gossip, and Bucky knows she wouldn't have called if it wasn't bad. If it could wait.

The train ride is an hour of pure dragging torture, staring out the window and trying not to panic, bouncing his knee and humming and tapping his fingers on the seat. The other passengers glare at him, and he doesn't give a shit.

He takes the steps up to the hospital doors two at a time and rushes through the formalities with the nurses. Thank Christ they don't make him sit in any waiting room, and he follows the orderly down a silent hall to the back of the building.

When Steve had been sick that last really bad time, in ‘37, he'd been roomed in a huge airy ward with one wall all windows, and he could look right out over Dekalb Avenue and watch the street from his bed. The room he’s in today is tiny and closed. No other patients. Big blackout curtains over the small window. Bucky steps in gingerly. He tries not to let the darkness and silence settle too forebodingly in his heart.

“Hey, pal,” he starts. “Uh, it's me. It's Buck.”

There's no response from the bed. He wasn't expecting one. Steve's asleep, or unconscious, covers pulled up under his arms.

His face is gray, his skin waxy. His eyes have dark shadows beneath them. He barely looks like he's alive, but when Bucky moves closer to the bed he can see Steve's thin chest rising and falling. He focuses on the movement, the way he's always done when Steve's been sick. The relief it brings is familiar, something Bucky will always remember from all the other times when Steve's heartbeat was never guaranteed. Sometimes, on really bad days, Steve drawing breath was Bucky’s only scrap of proof that the world hadn’t ended.

Part of him wonders why the hell he's here. He doesn't even think Steve can hear him right now.

“Uh, they told me you were sick, so. I thought I'd come say hi. I should've brought a newspaper, I guess.” He tries to laugh at the recollection: reading aloud while Steve sulked and coughed, and Bucky rejoicing at the bad mood that meant he was on the mend.

He moves a little closer to the bed. There's a chair, but he doesn't want to presume. He doubts he'd be welcome to sit, if Steve were awake. It's almost bad form to show up at all, now, when he knows he can't be turned away.

“I, uh, hope you've been well. I mean,” he shakes his head, “until now. I'm doing okay. I'm living with Becca and Charlie. In Queens, if you can believe it.” He exhales unsteadily. “It's not so bad. I got a job out there. Drafting, for this architect guy. I met him out in Pawling. That's where I, um, where I got this.”

He holds up his fake arm, then realises that even if Steve can hear him, his eyes are closed. “It's a prosthesis. I had to go out upstate for it. Stayed up there three months while they taught me to use it.”

He’d tagged along with Charlie, who was getting his new leg. Bucky agreed to go with him after Rebecca and Charlie opened their home to him. They could have rented to a real tenant; they could have had Charlie's Ma move in to help out with Mary and Janet. But instead they offered the room only to Bucky, no strings attached as long as he helped out with the bills. It was a kindness he never expected, and he wanted to contribute more than just cash. He was damned if he’d add to Rebecca's burdens.

Charlie had been so excited for his state-of-the-art wooden leg, eager to get back to work teaching fifth grade. He talked to Bucky about it when he first got back, laid up in a hospital bed: how a group of amputees had protested Congress in ‘45, demanding better-quality prosthetics for war veterans. Bucky remembered hearing something about it at the time. He had no idea they succeeded. The Veterans’ Administration had set up centers around the country dedicated to amputees and their fancy new limbs.

The first night after Charlie got out of hospital, Bucky watched him as he struggled valiantly around on crutches, smart and funny as hell, the light of his family, 25 years old and beautiful and living. Charlie was booked to go down to the Center in Pawling, New York, later in the spring, and Bucky decided then and there to quit being such a fucking baby. He went and signed the paperwork at the Legion the next day.

“Drafting is what they gave us to do so we could learn to use a pencil again. I guess I got pretty good at it.”  The irony hits him as it has before: Bucky, left-handed and missing a left hand, not an artistic bone in his body, ending up drawing for a living. He sure as hell never expected to be proud of what he can do with a wooden arm and a claw, but he is. He wishes Steve would just open his eyes, even for one second, to see him. “Fella who taught us lost both hands in the First War. He's a real interesting guy. Gave me a job as soon as I got back.”

He falters. He could tell Steve a bunch of other shit. He could talk about how big the girls have gotten, what Teddy’s doing, how Ma is. But he looks at Steve’s face and his vision blurs and he starts talking without thinking.

“Listen, I know you don't want me here, and I'm sorry for just showing up. I won't stay long. But…” He runs his hand through his hair. “They, they told me you never got married and—I don't even know if you have anyone to, to take care of you...”

He pauses. He shouldn’t be here, but he keeps going, because he needs to. It might be the only time he has.

“I know you can get by, I know you don't need my help. But the thing is, Steve, it’s never really been you I was worried about.”

He’s vaguely surprised to feel a tear run down his face.

“You told me to stay away, and I did it because that's what you wanted. I can live my life without you, if I have to. If it helps you be okay. But,” he chokes on the words, “but if you're not okay, if you're sick, I can't—”

He wipes his face and tries to compose himself.

“I couldn't think about you all alone in here. I had to come see you. I'm sorry.”

Steve stirs a little in the bed, and makes a small moaning sound. His eyelids flutter open for half a second.

Bucky’s heart kicks up into his throat. He moves to the bed, kneels right down next to it and takes Steve’s hand where it’s lying on the sheet. “Steve? Can you hear me? You gotta get better, honey. You were always the fighter, more than me. Just promise me you'll fight, and I'll leave you alone forever, I swear.” He pulls in a shuddering breath. “I swear.”

But now the silence returns, except for Bucky’s own hopeful heartbeat. He stares at Steve, watches that skinny chest still rising and falling in tiny movements, and waits for anything, any other sign. But there’s nothing.

After a moment he nods. “I’m gonna go now,” he says. “I’m sorry. For everything. Fuck, I wish you could hear me.” He sits there for another moment, hollow, unwilling to pull his hand back. But Steve’s still breathing, and that’s all that Bucky can ask. “Okay,” he says, finally. He raises Steve’s hand to his lips, just for a moment. Then he replaces it gently on the bed. “Bye, honey. Bye.”

He gets off his knees and wipes his face. Then he heads back out to catch the train.

-⥁-

Every morning since he got his artificial limb, Bucky takes a shower and then sets about the laborious task of getting himself dressed. He has a little ritual where he gets out of the shower, dries himself off and then puts on the arm before he does anything else. He shaves and does his hair in front of the mirror in the bathroom with a towel around his waist, and only when that's all done does he start to get dressed.

It has to be done in that order. He never puts on any clothes at all until his arm is on and his hair is done. It helps him feels like he’s dressing a whole body, the clothes slipping on in a familiar process. If he does it any other way, the arm always ends up feeling like part of his clothes.

It's two weeks since he went to see Steve, and the nights have been bad since then. He's been tense and irritable in the mornings, and today is no different. He curses under his breath as he gets himself ready, fighting to tuck in his shirt and get his belt done up.

The family has breakfast together, always. Bucky loves it. It starts his days off real pleasant, even when he’s had a bad night. He’s especially grateful to have this time with his nieces, to be part of their lives while they're young. It sure keeps him in the moment. With kids around the house, you can't afford to dwell on the past, and God knows both Bucky and Charlie benefit from their presence. Every time one of them starts to feel a little sorry for themselves, Mary and Janet have a way of pulling them back to what's important.

This morning, he barely touches his food, but he sits at the table with everybody anyway. The girls chatter away. It helps.

Charlie teaches at the school where the girls are in first and second grade, so after breakfast he always walks with them to school, while Rebecca takes a well-deserved break. Bucky kisses her goodbye and heads out to the office.

He takes the bike, like always, clipping his pant legs tight around his ankles to stop them getting caught in the chain.

He’s got a decent distance to cover, and it takes him half an hour to get over the train tracks and out to Astoria where Mr. John W. Merrill keeps his offices.

Mr. Merrill is a tallish old guy whose double amputation seemed never to slow him down in any area of his life. He can draw you a cartoon portrait just like the guys in the booths at Coney Island; he can cut up a steak into exact, uniformly-sized pieces; Bucky thinks he could probably even do a mean needlepoint if he ever put his mind to it. He demonstrated his competence and dexterity on Bucky’s first day out at the Center in Pawling, and every poor crippled schmuck in the room rediscovered hope for their own futures just by watching him.

He taught them patiently and exactingly, and made them practice everything from cursive handwriting to shuffling a deck of cards, until Bucky truly felt like he could use his artificial limb to do anything he'd been able to do before. Merrill used drafting lessons to help the men hone their fine motor movements, and Bucky was thrilled and humbled when, at the end of the three months, he told Bucky to go to the Legion Office in Astoria and fill out an application for a job at his firm.

Buck loves the job. He loves the work itself, but he's also acutely aware how lucky he is to be working for such a good man, surrounded by other fine people on a daily basis. They're doing real work, making something for the world. He knows plenty of guys weren't as lucky as him. Even some of the guys who got home in one piece are having a hard time adjusting. He's heard of vets who can't get work, struggling with battle fatigue, unable to move on from the whole thing. And Bucky has his bad days, but he knows he ought to count his lucky stars.

He gets Friday afternoons off, and it's Friday, so he clocks out at noon. The ride home from work is harder than the ride in; the late June sun is hot as hell but it's the wind that really gets him, seeming to blow strong in his face no matter which direction he’s facing. He's sweating and pissy by the time he reaches his block, cursing the wind and his bike and vowing irritably that tomorrow he’ll just take the goddamn bus.

He nears the house, squinting, and frowns a bit deeper. There's a person on the porch, sitting on the step. Clearly waiting. The person stands up as Bucky approaches, and then Bucky inhales sharply and stops his bike right in the middle of the road. Because it's Steve.

-⥁-

Steve still cannot believe that Bucky is living in Queens. The thought of it is so incongruous, he can’t even wrap his head around it; the idiot may as well have moved to the moon. Steve triple-checked the address, though, and he knows that Charlie’s folks live out this way, so it makes sense.

He enjoys the train ride. It's always nice to see the city from a different perspective, and Steve's feeling pretty philosophical lately, what with his recent near-death, so he likes to think that expanding his horizons and taking a trip, even just to the next borough, is a sign of changes to come.

Nerves start to kick in as Brooklyn gives way to unfamiliar streets. He doesn’t know if this is a good idea.

He was sure when he woke up this morning. He’s been planning to do this for days, since before he was well enough to get up, and he was sure. But the further out the train goes, the more he wonders what the hell he'll do if Bucky says no.

It doesn't really matter, he thinks finally. Either way, he has to try.

Once the train stops, he’s got to take a bus the rest of the way, and then it’s still a walk for three blocks to the right street. He finds the house, lets himself in through the gate and goes up on the porch to knock. He’s kinda glad when there's no answer. He needs a few minutes to catch his breath again.

He’s exhausted, though he slept fine and it's not even noon. It's his first time out since he left the hospital a week ago, and it’s gotten really hot since this morning. He maybe should have waited a little more, till his strength is really back, but he’s sick of staring at his bedroom walls all day.  And besides, once he made his mind up to come out here, he didn't want to put it off any longer.

He doesn’t know how long he’s going to have to wait out here. His belly churns at the thought of what could happen when the wait is over. He studies the house to distract himself.

It’s a basic little two-story duplex, brick, with a chain-link fence in the front and what looks to be a little yard in the back. Steve doesn’t let himself look in the windows. The porch is bare except for a small kids’ bike, which Steve assumes is Janet’s. He wonders which window is Bucky’s room. He wonders if he’ll even be invited inside.

It’s nice to think of Buck living here, now that he’s seen it. The street is leafy and quiet, and the house seems great—well kept, even spacious. Rebecca and Bucky were always close, and Charlie is a wonderful guy. Steve’s chest swells a bit, because thinking of the Barnes family always makes him a little emotional. Thank God for them, he thinks. Thank God Bucky had them, when he’d been so lost and Steve wouldn’t help him.

As a rule, Steve tries not to think about the last time he saw Bucky. It hurts too much, although for different reasons now than the way it had hurt at the time. Back then, he was so angry he couldn’t think. The sight of Lizzie getting thoroughly kissed by anyone would have been bad enough. But for it to be Bucky—strong, handsome hotshot who was supposed to be Steve’s friend...well. Steve  took a long time to let go of that anger.

Lizzie let him down very gently.

He couldn’t speak to her that night after Bucky had gone. He shook his head and walked away while she cried and apologized. He truly never thought she’d hurt him, and the disappointment cut him deep. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. What girl wouldn’t rather kiss Bucky than him?

Although it still stung, he forgave her, eventually. He schlepped himself over to the hospital to meet her after a shift, and asked her to get a milkshake and talk. She agreed, and Steve hoped, and they got two straws. Steve pulled the ring from his coat and asked her to marry him.

Her eyes had gone wide and she’d pressed the ring back into his hand.

“You know what I heard, the other night.”

“Lizzie, I’m not—I wasn’t pretending—”

“Steve,” she said, almost a whisper, checking to see that nobody else was around to hear. “Listen to me carefully. I don’t care about—that. What the two of you, I mean, what happened between you. I wouldn’t care, truly. If I knew it was in the past, I’d say yes, Steve, I honestly would. But I think you have to be honest with yourself now. It’s not in the past, is it?”

Steve had wanted to protest. He’d tried, but in the end he couldn’t deny it.

He’d left the diner alone, with his Ma’s ruby ring in his pocket.

She swore she'd never tell anyone what she knew. Steve trusted her. He couldn't even blame her for refusing him. It was easier to be mad at Bucky, anyway.

Steve clung to his anger, needing someone to blame that wasn’t himself. He stayed away from anywhere he thought Bucky might be. He stopped going to Mass on Sundays because he didn’t want to chance it. But he heard things in the neighborhood, little bits of small talk when he bumped into Rebecca or Teddy—Bucky was doing fine; Bucky wasn't himself lately; Bucky was moving away. Steve's anger had diminished in size and intensity, and eventually he felt it slip away even as he desperately tried to hold it.

He stopped thinking much of Lizzie. Instead, he found himself remembering every detail of Bucky’s stricken face, illuminated by the neon light outside the luncheonette. The pain in it. The angry way he’d said I love you, and Steve was a fucking idiot because he hadn’t believed him, not then and not the hundred other ways Bucky had said it before—reading to him in hospital, saving him from getting his head caved in, patching him up. Putting up with him and protecting him, and never letting him give in to temptation.

When Bucky came home from the war, Steve had pushed away all the old feelings that came swirling to the surface. He concentrated on being a good friend to Bucky as he adjusted to life without his arm, and told himself that the way his throat still tightened at the sight of him was just nostalgia. He ignored the familiar drag in his stomach if he looked too long at Bucky’s lips. He figured it was temporary. He had Lizzie, now.

And Steve had been so proud to finally have a girl on his arm. It had been indescribably thrilling to show Bucky how he'd moved on and grown up while he was away. That maybe he couldn't be a soldier, but at the very least he could be a real man.

Steve had thought Bucky was glad for him, but he sees it all now: Bucky's bravado, his casual dismissals, the way he averted his face when Steve held Lizzie’s hand. Before the war, Steve had ached for Bucky to look at him with desire in his eyes, but when it finally happened, he hadn't wanted to believe it.

By the time he pieced it all together, it was far too late. He'd broken Bucky's heart, and his own in the process. And all because he had something to prove.

The realization hurt so much he wondered if he'd ever feel happy again. And he knew Bucky had gone away somewhere. It was over. But it wasn’t fair. He lay awake at night, screaming at himself in his head. How could he let this happen? How could he have gotten things so wrong?

But then Bucky came to him in a darkened room and said just promise me you'll fight.

The queasy feeling comes back into his belly. He’s looking down the street, wondering which direction Bucky’s job is, when a faint noise makes him turn to look the other way, and then Bucky is there.

He glides up steadily and dismounts in front of the steps where Steve is sitting. His mouth is hanging open.

Steve’s sure he must look just as surprised, which is stupid since he’s the one who showed up unannounced. He can’t stop himself from staring, though. Bucky looks so different from the man who Steve last saw bloody and crying on a street corner. The same, but so, so different.

There’s the artificial arm, of course, and Steve takes a good long look at that before remembering himself and snapping his eyes away. But it’s not just that—Bucky looks so young. He’s tan, his face a little flushed from biking, and the bags under his eyes are gone. He’s built, even more than before, lean and muscled, with the same broad shoulders and long legs that Steve always loved and hated him for.

He’s wearing wingtips and pleated slacks, with the cuffs clipped in for cycling. He’s wearing a black pork pie hat. He looks like he just stepped out of a movie screen, and Steve has another brief moment of crisis: holy shit, maybe he really shouldn’t have come. He didn’t expect Bucky to look this good.

He keeps staring.

“Hey, Buck,” he says, after a long moment.

“Hey,” Bucky says, out of breath. “You’re better.”

“Yeah. Mostly. You didn’t know?”

“No. I mean, I’d heard you were maybe out of the woods. More than a week ago. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

“You want to come inside?”

-⥁-

There are Cokes in the fridge, so Bucky opens two and hands one to Steve.

Steve sits down at the table, and Bucky leans on the counter. They drink from their bottles in silence for a few minutes, Steve taking careful sips, Bucky all but downing the whole thing out of panic.

Steve's here. He's real and he's alive and he's in Bucky's kitchen.

“So you’re okay?” Bucky says, finally.

Steve nods. “Yeah. I’ve been out for just about a week.”

“That's good. I mean, I'm glad. That you're better.”

Steve nods, and they lapse into silence again. It’s unbearable. Bucky doesn't know what to do with himself, every nerve ending buzzing from the proximity, from seeing him here, from not knowing what the hell this is.

Steve keeps shooting glances at the fake arm, so for lack of anything better to say, Bucky puts down his Coke and starts rolling up his left sleeve. “It's wood, and it attaches with straps. See?”

Steve seems to startle, and Bucky babbles on.

“Uh, it's got cables that help me move the claw. I can switch out the claw attachments for work, too. It's pretty easy once you get enough practice.” He swallows. Steve is still staring, and Bucky feels the need to apologize. “I know, it’s kinda ugly. But, you know. I can work now. And I don’t have to wear it all the time.”

Steve’s looks back and forth between the arm and Bucky’s face. “You're doing drafting?”

“Uh huh. Almost nine months now.”

“That's really great, Buck,” he says earnestly, and his eyes are soft, and Bucky thinks, maybe, he looks proud underneath the surprise.

Then there's another silence, so Bucky finishes his Coke and says, “How about you? What have you been doing since, uh, since I left?”

Steve smiles a little. “Not much. About the same as I was before. Still at McArthur’s. He had one of the girls stand in for me while I was sick. Given me another two weeks off this month. He's good to me like that.”

Bucky nods. That was a lucky break. It could have been so easy for this to cost Steve another job.

“I teach drawing, twice a week, in the evenings,” Steve goes on. “And I got my own place. That's about all that's new.”

He nods again. “Good. Um, good stuff. I’ve been wondering…” He catches himself, and coughs. “I mean, I’m glad things are going well.”

“Mostly I've just been lying flat on my back for the past month.” Steve shakes his head, his eyes downcast. “This is the first time I've gone outside since the doctors discharged me.”

“And you came...here.”

Steve looks up, and Bucky watches him steel himself. He draws his shoulders straight and lifts his chin. Bucky recognizes that gesture, and he wants to run. He’s never been afraid of much, but this man, this heart, has always scared the shit out of him.

After a moment Steve says, “I wanted to see you.”

“Why?” Bucky whispers.

“To apologize.”

Bucky's startled into a laugh, brief and incredulous. “For what?”

“I should have waited for you.”

It hits Bucky in the chest like a punch. He can't speak.

Then Steve puts his bottle down carefully. He stands up from the chair and walks with deliberate steps over to where Bucky is leaning. Bucky thinks he stopped breathing a long time ago, and as Steve steps into his space he takes a huge gulp of air, and it sounds like a gasp in the quiet room.

“Just,” Bucky stammers. “Just, please. Don't play around with me.”

Steve takes his face in his hands, and Bucky blinks and feels his eyes spill over. Steve’s expression is serious and his hands are gentle, and Bucky can't do this, he can't keep himself together, he's going to collapse from how hard he's shaking. His heart is going to explode.

“I will never play around with you,” Steve murmurs, and leans in.

The kiss is soft. Bucky receives it helplessly, squeezing his eyes shut against the shock, the fear, the joy that's trying to force its way out of him. Steve's lips are warm and sure, and Bucky has spent his entire life trying to forget them, but how could he? How could he ever deny what this is?

Steve moves closer, wrapping his arms around Bucky's neck, and it's abruptly too much. Bucky sobs into his mouth. He drops the empty Coke bottle on the floor and grasps roughly at Steve's back with his good hand, pulling him in, holding as tight as he can, so this moment can't end, so he'll never, ever leave.

“Sorry,” Bucky whispers, choking. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…”

But Steve shakes his head and kisses him again, and again, pulling his head down and holding him there, and Bucky clutches his body and trembles against him.

The front door bangs, and they break apart.

Steve walks backward, still staring at Bucky, until he can drop back into the chair. Bucky sniffs and runs a hand over his face. He’s bending down to pick up the Coke bottle when Rebecca bustles in with a paper grocery bag.

“Hi, Buck. I was just—oh!” She stops just inside the doorway, her mouth open. “Steve!”

“Hey, Becca.”

“Oh, Lord, you’re better!” She drops her things on the table and Steve stands up to receive her hug. “It’s so good to see you!” she says. “Thank God you’re okay.”

She lingers in the hug, and Steve looks over her shoulder and catches Bucky’s eye. After a moment, he smiles. Bucky returns it, a dazed little twitch of his lips.

Rebecca releases him with a grin. “Dad and Ma will be so glad to know you visited!” Then she seems to notice Bucky for the first time, and stops.

Bucky can guess how he looks, what with having just been kissing the love of his life, and then bawling about it. He tries to flatten his face down to neutral. She looks at him for a second, and then back at Steve. Her eyes change a little. “Well. I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do.” She grabs her purse from the table. “I’ll be upstairs. It was great to see you, Steve.”

“Thanks, Becca. Good to see you, too.”

She leaves the room, and they’re back to staring at each other. Bucky can’t quite convince himself that any of the past ten minutes has been real. But he can still feel where Steve’s lips were, where Steve’s hands were, and he wants more, and he has to know if this is going to last…

“Um. I should get going,” Steve says.

“What? Why?”

“I need to get the train.”

“Oh. Sure.”

He walks Steve out the back way, through the little yard. Steve stops for a second and looks around, and Bucky sees him take in the vegetable patch, the tomatoes, the little patch of lawn with Janet’s tire swing hanging from the oak tree.

Steve smiles at him. “This is really nice.”

“Not bad, huh,” Bucky says. He lets himself feel pleased again that Steve can see where he is now, what he is, what he’s doing. It’s not much, he knows. But he thinks this life might be something that Steve could approve of.

They get out to the street, and Steve turns to him, seeming suddenly shy. “Will you come see me?” he asks, his voice low.

Buck nods immediately. “When?”

“Could you come tonight?”

His body flares hot again. “Yes. Whenever you want.” He wants to touch him again, so badly. Right now.

“I thought you might have a, uh. A date.” Steve’s squinting down the street, trying to be casual, but Bucky can feel his wariness.

He shakes his head, and here’s the thing he’s most proud to say about his new life. “Nah,” he says. “I don’t do that any more.”

-⥁-

He doesn't wear the fake arm, because it's been a miserably hot day, and the straps have been chafing something fierce. He does his hair nice and pins up his sleeve and catches the train, and this time it's the goddamn cocksucking slow-moving local, making every stop and dragging between each one until Bucky is a nervy, fidgeting mess.

He’s early despite the train, but his belly is in knots and he doesn't care, heading right to Steve's place as fast as he can. Steve's building is pretty much the same kind of crummy place that they've lived in all their lives, chipped plaster and high ceilings and drafty windows. The stairwell is stifling, but Bucky can barely prevent himself from running anyway, heart in his throat.

He tries not to look too frantic when Steve opens the door. He tries to look cool and nonchalant, but Steve's always been able to see right through him, and as soon as he lets Bucky in, he says, “You look like you could use a drink.” Before Bucky's even answered, he gets him a water from the kitchen.

Bucky drinks it. He hasn’t noticed a thing about his surroundings since he entered Steve’s apartment. He doesn’t know if he’s blinked yet. He cannot take his eyes off Steve.

Bucky can see that he lost some weight while he was sick. His face still holds some of the gauntness, giving him a huge-eyed, haunted expression, and his shoulders and wrists look even bonier than Bucky remembers. But his cheeks have good color in them, and Bucky thinks that even like this, recovering from a fever that almost killed him, Steve is still the most beautiful person he has ever seen. He looks and looks at him, awed.

Steve doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he doesn’t mention it. Bucky fiddles with the empty glass to hide the fact that his hand is shaking.

“I thought we could go for a walk, maybe go grab a bite somewhere?” Steve says.

Bucky tries not to let his face fall too obviously. He bobs his head. “Sure. If you want.”

“Be nice to catch up.”

“Yeah.”

Steve turns around to face the sink, and his voice is light when he says, “Or, we could just...stay here.”

Bucky exhales loudly. “Yeah,” he says. “I'm not really hungry, anyway. Let’s stay.”

Steve turns and grins, which is a rare thing, or it used to be. “Sounds good, Buck,” he says evenly, and then he walks back behind where Bucky's standing and he locks the door. When he turns back around, he's trying to hide a smirk.

It's about as brazen a move as Steve could have pulled, and Bucky lets himself be shocked for a split second before he raises his eyebrows in challenge.

“You got something in mind, Rogers?”

Steve shrugs. “I thought you might want to kiss me again.”

Something throbs low in Bucky's belly. He narrows his eyes and stalks across the floor to slide his arm around Steve's waist. He looks into Steve's eyes for a moment, and then kisses him hard.

It's nothing like earlier in Rebecca's kitchen. All the hesitancy is gone. Steve’s mouth is soft and warm and open and it's immediately the best thing Bucky's ever felt. He needs more, and he grasps at Steve and presses his body close, touching as much of him as he can. Steve stumbles a little, and laughs into the kiss when Buck backs him up against the door and his head thunks against it.

“Ow,” he says.

“Sorry,” Bucky gasps between kisses. “Is this okay? I mean, uh, hi, how are you doing?”

Steve snorts. “I'd tell you if you'd just—” but Bucky swallows the rest of his sentence and Steve doesn't protest.

He tastes exactly the fucking same. Bucky knows this, he knows him, he's kissed him like this a hundred times before, and just because he was 17 years old and out of his mind with lust, doesn't mean he's forgotten a minute of it. He nudges Steve's head to the side with his nose so he can kiss his way over to his ear and down his throat. That always got Steve going before, and it doesn’t look like much has changed; his fingers tighten on Bucky’s bicep and he makes a little breathy, broken sound.

That sound drives Bucky crazy. He’s dizzy with how badly he wants him, and the shock of suddenly getting to have him. As they kiss again, he pets Steve’s hair, his slender neck, slides his hand down Steve's chest and thrills at the strong, pounding heartbeat he feels under his fingers.  Then he grabs Steve's hip, rolls his own body forward, and Steve is hard against him.

Steve hisses softly. “Oh, my God,” he says. “Bucky.”

“Yeah,” he rasps.

He presses harder, the arousal expanding through him, and it’s exponential; every movement against Steve makes him need more and more. He bears Steve against the door with the weight of his body, and then he slips his hand under Steve’s ass and yanks him forward, almost lifting him off the floor, and shoves his thigh between his legs.

Steve makes that same little noise, and Bucky is gone. He adjusts his grip on Steve’s ass, holding him tight so his cock is sliding on Bucky’s thigh, and rocks up and down against him, slow at first, but gaining speed as they huff and groan into each other’s necks.

“Fuck,” Bucky breathes shakily.

This is how they used to do it, before. They never even got all the way naked, too riled up and hot for each other to bother undressing, and even if they’d wanted to they were too fucking young and horny to last long enough. But that was a real long time ago, and though it’s tempting, Bucky doesn’t want this to be how it ends, rubbing off fully clothed against a door.

It’s a monumental effort to make himself stop. They stay pressed close to each other, panting. Then Steve opens his eyes and pulls back to glare at him.

“If you chicken out on me now, Barnes, I swear to God—”

Bucky laughs. “Not a chance, pal.”

They get to the bedroom eventually, Bucky walking backward, hunched over, so he doesn't have to take his tongue out of Steve’s mouth. He sits on the bed and Steve steps between his legs and Bucky starts undoing Steve's shirt buttons, as fast as he can.

Steve tries to help him. “Let me—” he says.

“I can do it,” Bucky says without looking up. “I wanna unwrap you, okay? You're my goddamn birthday present.”

“Your birthday's in March—”

“So you're belated.” He gets the shirt off and tugs at Steve’s undershirt. “Come on, let's get this off, don't make me wait, here.”

Steve peels the undershirt up and off. Bucky starts working on his own buttons, and he’s so preoccupied by the pale, delicious-looking skin over Steve’s midsection that he yanks his shirt off without even thinking.

Steve bursts into tears.

Bucky freezes, frowning, and mentally replays the last 15 seconds to try and figure out what he did wrong. He’s about to say “I’m sorry,” even though he hasn’t figured out what he’s sorry for, when Steve puts his hand over his mouth and whimpers, and he’s staring at Bucky’s left shoulder.

Damn. He forgot Steve’s never seen the stump.

“Shit, um, sorry, I—” He starts trying to tug his shirt back on.

But Steve whimpers again, and then drops gracelessly into his lap and sobs.

“Oh, my God, Bucky,” he cries. “Oh, my God. Your beautiful arm.”

“Shh, it’s okay.”

“No it isn’t. Look what they did to you.”

Steve’s running his fingers tenderly over the scars, touching the rubbery, weird-looking skin of the stump. Bucky can’t speak for a moment. He tenses involuntarily.

“Don’t. It’s ugly,” he grits out.

Steve pulls his hand back immediately, but sniffs and glares at him. “It’s not ugly!”

“It upset you. Sorry.”

“Buck, I’m not upset because it’s ugly. I’m upset because your fucking arm is gone. I mean. God.” He closes his eyes and puts a hand over his mouth for a second. When he takes it away, his lips are still trembling and tears drop down his cheeks. “You don’t know how crazy I went, hearing you were wounded. We were all going crazy, Buck, I thought I’d never sleep again.”

“It's okay,” he says again.

“It's not okay! You were hurt, you might have died, and I was stuck back here where I couldn’t help you. I’m so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago, sweetheart. It’s not your fault.”

“Yes it is!”

Bucky leans away. “Steve, you crazy—” he grabs Steve’s hand away from his shoulder and threads their fingers together. “Honey, a grenade blew me up. A grenade that a Nazi threw at me,” he raises his voice to stop Steve’s protests, “in Germany. Jesus H. Particular Christ. I guarantee, it isn't your fault.”

“I wanted you to join up,” Steve grits out angrily, “I romanticized the war, I was so stupid—”

“I was drafted—

“I wanted to protect you.”

“Oh for fuck’s—“

Steve’s face gets stormy. He looks down like he’s ashamed. “I should’ve been there.”

“You were.” Bucky cups the side of Steve’s face and says it as plainly as he can, finding his gaze and holding it. “You were with me every minute. Every second. You saved my life, honey. More than once.” He moves his hand back around Steve to pull him closer, and when he speaks again, it’s with his lips right against Steve’s. “I promise. You’re still saving it.”

“Bucky…” it’s barely a whisper.

“My hero.”

Steve laughs wetly and shoves him a little. Then he strokes his hand through Bucky’s hair. “Sorry. It just hit me hard to see it, that’s all.”

“I know.”

“Is it okay to touch?”

“Yeah, it’s fine, go ahead. Ah, come on, don’t cry, for Pete’s sake.”

“Shut up.”

“Makes me feel bad, seeing you cry.”

“Good.” Steve sniffs. “You should feel bad.”

“I should?”

“Yes. I loved that arm.”

“Hey, take it up with the Nazis, pal, it’s not like I gave them the go-ahead.”

Steve takes his mouth off Bucky’s jaw and frowns at him. “That’s not funny.”

“I’m not being funny. C’mon,” and he kisses Steve’s shoulder, “there’s no point thinking about that right now. It’s over with. Let’s just forget it for a while.”

Steve shivers under his lips. “Okay.”

“Hallelujah. Now, have we talked enough yet? How about getting those pants off?”

Once they're undressed, it's like a spell has been cast. The frantic lust Bucky had been feeling is still there, simmering under his skin, but now the mood slips into something more. Steve lies back on the bed, pale and beautiful, frankly naked. The streetlamp outside is glowing in through the curtains and spills over him, lighting up the creamy skin of his arms, the fine golden hairs on his thighs. His cock is jutting up toward his belly, hard and flushed red.

And suddenly Bucky can’t breathe, weak at the sight, overwhelmed by the fearlessness of him, the dazzling reality of Steve, here, with him, wanting him. Bucky almost wants to stop and just look at him forever. Now that he can.

But Steve’s eyes are dark, gaze running over Bucky’s body, and he’s biting his lip, so Bucky takes a breath and climbs on the bed to lie over him. He presses Steve into the bed with the weight of his hips and props himself up with his good arm. They kiss again, and their bodies are touching everywhere. Steve digs his fingers into Bucky's back and it's perfect, he's perfect, and Bucky wants to tell him, but all he can manage is to gasp “Steve,” on an exhale. He can't get close enough, there'll never be enough of Steve, his smell, his taste, his silky skin running hot under Bucky's hand, everything about him going straight to Bucky's head and leaving him reeling.

Their cocks are sliding together, and Steve has started to breathe hard.

“You’re wheezing,” Bucky mumbles.

“It’s okay, it’s fine, I’m fine,” Steve says. “It’s just—oh God, you’re so—”

And Bucky can tell that it is okay, he is fine, and the sound of him panting in pleasure is so fucking good that Buck doesn't want to muffle it with more kisses. He moves his lips to Steve's throat, his collarbone, his chest, rewarded all the way with more sounds, Steve's breath hitching and sighing, becoming a moan as Bucky pays attention to his nipple for a moment.

He wants to feel him, now, under his hands; he wants to grab Steve’s hair, stroke his cheeks, roll his nipples between his fingertips and make him yell. He tries to shift his weight to the side, so he can cup Steve’s face as he kisses his mouth. But the angle is wrong, the stump can’t take his body weight, and he shifts again and tries to compensate but he’s off-balance and has to take his good arm away from Steve to catch himself.

He sits back on his knees and shuts his eyes. “Shit.”

“Bucky?” Steve sits up. “What is it?”

Bucky opens his eyes and sees Steve’s, worried and deep blue.

“I can’t…” he laughs a little. “I can’t hold you like I want to.” He feels like an idiot.

“Bucky—”

“Sorry.”

He’s angry, suddenly, that this beautiful night, with the streetlamp and the pale green curtains and the locked door, can’t be perfect because of his shitty broken body. He sits back all the way and plucks at the sheet with his good hand, furious.

“Bucky.”

He looks up. Steve crawls to him, settles in his lap, wraps lean legs around his waist. He cups Bucky's face and kisses the hell out of him, hard and slow, and Bucky holds on, breathless. Finally Steve pulls back and looks him in the eyes.

“I love you,” he says, in a regular voice, like he was telling Bucky the time. “Quit sulking.”

Bucky huffs, and he stares disbelieving at Steve for a second. Then he shakes his head and grins. This little punk.

Steve grins back, and they wrap themselves around each other again. When the kiss breaks, Steve pushes him in the chest to ask him to lie down.

Bucky goes back. Steve leans over him, still straddling his hips, and places a kiss on Bucky’s chin. Then his cheek. Then his earlobe. Then he sits back up and runs delicate hands down both of Bucky's shoulders, one stopping just above the stump and the other continuing down to catch Bucky's hand in his.

He kisses Bucky's fingers and drags his hand up until it's resting above his head on the pillow. Then he holds him there.

“Let me, now,” he says.

And then, slowly, he makes love to every available inch of Bucky's body.

His fingers trail down Bucky's arm, down his sides, and his mouth follows it, kissing his wrist, his inner arm, the inside of his elbow. He buries his face in Bucky's armpit, which takes Bucky's breath like nothing ever has before, and he squirms and cries out when Steve licks him there.

“You taste so good,” Steve whispers into his skin. “I've missed your taste so much.”

Bucky wants to respond. I missed you, too is on the the tip of his tongue, but it feels like such an understatement; he doesn’t have words for what he’s feeling. Tears prick his eyes.  

Fingers, then, running over his chest and up his neck, into his hair, making him shiver as Steve rises up on his knees to kiss his face—slowly, reverently, pressing tender lips to his forehead and each eyelid before returning to his mouth to share another gentle kiss.

Bucky brings his hand up to grip Steve's hair, trying to get closer, deeper, wanting more of him, but when he reaches down to grab his ass, Steve stops him and shakes his head.

“Stay still,” he says with a smile, replacing Bucky's hand where it had been, above him on the comforter. “I’ve been waiting so long to touch you. Let me make you feel good.”

Bucky feels so much more than good. His skin feels shivery and electric wherever Steve touches him. Steve goes slowly, taking his time over Bucky's nipples, skating his lips down his belly, concentrating his attention whenever he finds a spot that makes Bucky breathe harder.

By the time Steve finishes sucking on his hipbones, Bucky is almost whimpering with pleasure and anticipation. He's been hard as a rock almost since he lay down, and he grips the pillow above his head and pushes his hips up at Steve. But Steve just laughs, then ducks down to kiss his ankle, and starts making his way up the inside of his leg.

Bucky whines, but he can’t tell whether he’s protesting or encouraging. Steve’s mouth is hot and he’s sucking hard on Bucky’s skin, probably leaving marks, and when the hell did Steve learn how to do this? Bucky has never felt anything like it. He almost jumps off the bed when Steve licks the back of his knee, for Christ’s sake. Since when did knees get anyone worked up?

But he’s as worked up as he’s ever been, and when Steve reaches his inner thigh, Bucky starts talking, saying “Oh,” a bunch of different ways, getting louder and then breathier and then louder again. Because Steve's mouth keeps going up and up, and finally he draws his tongue over the crease at the top of his thigh, and then he takes Bucky’s dick in his mouth and sucks, just once, and Bucky groans like he’s in pain.

But then Steve’s mouth moves lower, and he licks over Bucky’s balls and then Bucky feels fingers trailing behind them, and Steve whispers, “Bucky. Can I?”

It takes him a moment to register what Steve means. Then a hot spike of adrenaline goes through him and his dick pulses because oh, God, yes, Bucky wants him to. He props himself up on his elbow and nods.

“You know how?”

Steve smiles shyly. “Yeah.” Then he shrugs. “Not really, I guess.”

“You gotta use something. Got any Vaseline?”

Steve goes to get some, and Bucky stays on the bed and jerks off a little while he waits. He can’t quite believe they’re going to do this. He’s so intensely aroused at the thought of it, he feels like he might come the moment Steve touches him again.

When Steve gets back with the jar, he hands it to Bucky and sits on the edge of the bed.

“Come here,” Bucky says. “I gotta get opened up.”

Steve lies down next to him, his eyes huge.

Bucky kisses him. “It’s easy,” he whispers. “I’ll show you, look.”

He slicks up his middle finger and reaches down behind him, bearing down to help it in. It feels strange, makes him tense up and writhe a little, and as he wiggles it further in he starts to breathe harder.

Steve is watching his face intently, and then he sits up suddenly and holds Bucky’s leg at a different angle so he can see better. Bucky slides his finger deeper, and then out and back in, and Steve makes a little sound and grabs the jar.

“Can I do it?” he says.

So Steve slicks up his own fingers and slides them, slowly, one by one into Bucky, and Bucky squirms and pants and tells him how to move them. He’s never had anyone else’s hands there before, he didn’t know it would feel like this, like far too much and then, suddenly, not nearly enough. He’s hot all over, and he covers his eyes with his hand and tries not to whine from the intensity.

Steve kisses him as he moves his fingers, and Bucky moans into his mouth.

“Is this okay?” Steve whispers

Bucky nods frantically, his eyes still shut. “Keep going, it's good.” He brings his hand to Steve's neck and pulls him closer. “Oh—augh, yeah, it's, fuck, it's good.”

Steve keeps kissing him, making him relax by increments, and Bucky slowly sinks back into pleasure as Steve's fingers work him open.

“You’re so beautiful,” Steve whispers. “I want you so bad.”

“Yes. I want you,” Bucky says urgently. “I'm ready.”

Steve stops moving and inhales. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, honey. Come here.”

Steve settles over him, pulls his legs up, kisses him. He keeps his eyes on Bucky and lines his cock up. He's shaking, and Buck realizes he is too. They're both breathing hard as Steve gets himself in position.

Then he pushes in, just a little, and they both moan.

“Oh, God,” Steve moans. “Bucky. Is that okay?”

Bucky is overcome, completely on fire, eyes shut and mouth open. He groans, and nods. “It’s good, it’s so good. Keep going.”

Steve does. When he’s finally in all the way, he grabs Bucky’s hand and threads their fingers together. Bucky clutches back as tight as he can.

Then Steve starts to move. At first it’s quiet, as they figure out a slow rhythm, muscles straining from the effort. Bucky opens his eyes, and Steve is above him, his hair in his face, sweaty, breathing raggedly, a look of intense concentration on his face. He blinks into Bucky's eyes and gives a wobbly smile.

They’ve never done this. Not together. And Bucky’s never imagined it would go this way, he never thought it would be him opening himself up for Steve on their first time, but it feels so good, Steve taking care with him, loving him, moving deep inside him. Bucky’s felt broken for so long, but those big blue eyes reach right into his soul, and he lets Steve take him over and feels himself beginning to heal.

“I love you,” Bucky says. Steve leans forward for a kiss, and pushes deeper into him. “Oh, Christ, honey. That's so good, you’re so good, I can’t believe I get to have you.”

Another kiss, and Steve whispers, “You always had me. I’ve loved you my whole life.” They move together, a slow roll of bodies. “I'll love you forever.”

Then he thrusts, and Bucky cries out, and Steve raises his head to look at him curiously and thrusts again, a little harder, and Bucky can’t stop another yell. Steve knits his brow, then seems to decide something, gets up on his knees and starts fucking in earnest.

They drown in each other.

There’s nothing to worry about, tonight; they’re safe, the rest of the world locked out, the streetlamp's glow circling them like a halo. All that exists in the room are their sounds, their whispered voices, the heat from their bodies that warms them as they wrap themselves in their love. Bucky gives Steve everything, every part of himself that he can, letting himself go entirely, knowing that Steve will take care of him.

It can't last, though he wants it to. Steve’s too much, too beautiful, and Bucky feels it gathering, the intensity coiling up his thighs and down his belly and he gasps, “Oh yes, yes, Steve, ah—”

It crashes over him, and Steve's voice is in his ear, panting “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” getting higher and higher until he's mewling, frantic, and even before Bucky's finished, Steve's body goes tight and he stills, gasping, shaking through it with his face in Bucky's neck.

They lie together after, and kiss, and touch, and sleep a little.

When Bucky wakes to Steve snoring lightly, he pulls on his pants and undershirt and goes out to the dark fire escape to smoke.

He listens to the traffic and thinks of heatwaves and summer and two dumb kids sleeping under the stars. He blows smoke rings out into the hazy glow of the lights and thinks of a brick house in a quiet street with trees, and tomatoes growing in pots out back.

When the cigarette’s done, he creeps back inside, shutting out the world again, just for the night. Steve stirs when Bucky slips into bed, rolling over to drape an arm across his waist.

Bucky lies on his side and brushes Steve's hair off his face, just to touch him. He puts his fingers lightly on Steve’s forearm, touching a freckle there. He remembers when he first touched that freckle, just like this, once upon a time in an old apartment. Stretched out in the sun on an old sofa, trembling and terrified and desperately in love.

Steve groans a little and squints at Bucky through one eye.

“You okay?” he asks, muzzy.

“Yeah. I'm good,” Bucky says.

Steve sighs and lays his head on Bucky's shoulder. Then he laughs.

“What's funny?”

Steve looks up at him. He reaches up and runs his thumb over Bucky's bottom lip. “It was a pretty good punch, wasn't it?”

Bucky nods pensively. “You busted my fucking lip open, if that's what you mean, you asshole.”

“Sorry,” Steve says, but he's stifling a smile.

Bucky shrugs. “Guess I had it coming.”

Steve leans his head back down and closes his eyes. “Can you believe, out of the two of us, it was me who almost got married?”

Bucky snorts. “I always knew you wouldn't go through with it,” he says, and covers Steve's indignant yelp with a kiss.

Embrace