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Confessions on an Empty Page

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Cover Art for Confessions on an Empty Page. There are two black notebooks lying on top of each other and the top one is open to reveal lined paper on both sides. The left page is covered in a pencil sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge with skyscrapers seen in the distance. The right page has the story title handwritten in pencil. The author's name is in the left bottom corner of the image.

Within hours of arriving in Wakanda, Bucky’s in cryo and Steve is examined by the medical team. Once they’re satisfied that he won’t drop dead as soon as he walks out of the medical unit, he goes back to Bucky’s cryo chamber and demands to know how everything works and how to interpret the readings on the monitors connected to the unit.

Once he’s certain that the cryo chamber is functioning normally, he gives the frosted glass over Bucky’s face a pat and then he’s escorted to his new rooms, where he falls into bed and sleeps for twelve hours straight.

After waking, he demolishes all the food that’s been set up on a table in his new—enormous—kitchen, and then he goes out onto the balcony to stare at the lush green jungle scenery surrounding the palace and thinks about everything that’s happened in the last few days.

He still can’t believe he just spent a few days with Bucky.

Bucky’s alive. Bucky’s free from Hydra’s abuse. Bucky’s safe.

While the conditions of their reunion hadn’t been ideal, Steve still can’t get over how relieved he feels that Bucky’s in such good shape. He’s healthy, taking care of himself and he seemed to be doing well.

Since their fight on the heli-carrier, Steve has had dozens of different nightmares:

Bucky’s programming and confusion making him to return to Hydra voluntarily, or Hydra activating a remote kill-switch programmed deep in Bucky’s brain which would make him drop dead wherever he is.

Bucky wandering around, suffering from brain damage and starving to death in some alleyway because he doesn’t know how to take care of himself.

Bucky doing what he did on the heli-carrier—turning his confusion into violence—and taking it out on innocent people.

None of the scenarios had involved Bucky being able to take care of himself properly and creating a new life for himself, living a quiet existence on the other side of the world and taking steps to fill the gaps in his memory.

That’s when he remembers Bucky’s journals. He remembers how proud he’d felt when he’d realized that Bucky had been working on reclaiming his memories and his old life, and that he was doing it in the same orderly, smart fashion Bucky Barnes has always done everything in his life.

That same pride brings a smile to Steve’s face now…until he realizes that Bucky will never get those journals back.

Steve remembers putting the journal he’d read in Bucky’s apartment on the table. Maybe it had survived the carnage that had taken place five minutes later, but he’s sure police and government forces searched the entire apartment and had probably taken the journal.

Bucky had confided to him during their flight to Siberia that he’d had five journals, and the most important ones had been in his backpack. He kept them there so they’d always be ready for him to grab if he had to get out of the apartment quickly.

And now those journals are in the custody of the US government, and there’s no chance that they’ll ever get them back without taking big risks. Steve would happily tear the entire US government apart to get those journals back, but he knows Bucky wouldn’t like it if Steve risks his life like that, even though the journals had meant a lot to him.

Bucky had told him he’d started writing down his memories soon after he’d rescued Steve from the river and had left the US. The memories had come back in random floods, always flashes of different images and sounds. Sometimes he knew the context, and other times the images were too random to make sense of them.

He’d started writing down the memory flashes, along with research he’d done at the Smithsonian museum and later, looking things up on the internet. Slowly, he’d been able to put things into order and he’d started to organize the journals and add context to memories which had previously made no sense.

Journaling hadn’t only allowed him to understand some of the random memories, but due to lingering after-effects of being in cryo and the electro-shock memory wipes, his long-term memory was still fragile and unreliable. Sometimes he’d remember something and then forget it, or he’d recall an old daydream and he wouldn’t be able to tell if it was reality or not. Writing everything down helped him remember things and kept things clear. After two years of work, Bucky had filled five journals and had been on his way to reconstructing his past.

And now, all that work is gone.

Just from the little that Steve had seen of their contents, he’d known that Bucky had spent a lot of time and effort on the notebooks. The cut-out picture of Steve—which he’d recognized as being from a brochure that’s available for visitors at the Smithsonian at the entrance to the Captain America exhibit—had been carefully cut out and all four sides had been taped down to keep it secure. Each journal page had a page number in the bottom corner, and Steve’s certain Bucky had created a table of contents in each journal to keep things organized. Really important pages that Bucky wanted to refer to quickly had colorful sticky tabs attached to them.

What had caught Steve’s attention was Bucky’s writing. Back in the day, Bucky had had very good penmanship, as had everybody around them. Producing proper cursive writing was literally smacked into them during their school days from the first day they picked up pencils.

When Steve had first come out of the ice, he’d been shocked by the messy, illegible writing that some of his co-workers at SHIELD produced. Nobody took pride in writing neatly and they seemed amused when Steve tried to point out that writing in cursive is much more efficient than printing letters. When he’d noticed that one of his team members preferred to write in block letters, he’d felt like he was staring at an alien from outer space. Why would anybody do something in a way that wastes so much extra effort and time?!

But whenever he’d tried to explain the benefits of cursive writing, it was always met by amused smiles and jokes about him being an old man, so eventually, Steve decided to stop offering his advice in that particular area. Once he’d realized that most things in the 21st century were typed on a computer anyway, he’d started to understand why proper writing was becoming a thing of the past. But typing on a computer felt as wrong to him as writing in cursive felt for his co-workers, so he’d decided that everybody should be allowed to stick with whatever method they were comfortable with. He learned how to do the things which had to be done on the computer, but when it came to his personal notes, he stuck to the writing method he’d used his entire life, despite some people’s complaints that they “couldn’t read it” or “all the loops look the same”. He’d always shoot back that he was risking his eye sight by being forced to read those people’s chicken scratch, so he was just returning the favor.

He knows at least one person who wouldn’t have trouble reading his writing, even if that person had trouble remembering how to produce his own writing.

The writing in the notebooks hadn’t resembled Bucky’s old writing at all. Bucky probably hadn’t written anything in decades, and his hand had most likely forgotten how to hold and move a pencil properly. The writing was entirely in cursive, which means Bucky’s hand had remembered the flowing nature of moving the pencil across the page, but many of the loops and lines didn’t resemble actual letters. Some pages were just covered in different sized loops, as if Bucky was trying to remember how to form specific letters. Some of the pencil marks were pressed deeply into the page, as if Bucky was trying to keep his hand from shaking, or probably he was suffering from hand cramps but was determined to finish the exercise. Bucky had probably remembered the exercises they’d had to do back in school: repeating specific letters page after page after page until the shape of the letter flowed effortlessly from their pencil tips.

When Steve had flipped through the journal, he’d noticed that the later entries had looked more legible. The writing still hadn’t resembled Bucky’s flowing and effortless penmanship from his youth, but it was clear Bucky had put a lot of effort into remembering how to write properly.

It fills Steve with anger when he thinks of those precious notebooks sitting in some government evidence lock-up. Some idiots are probably going to go through the notebooks and pick out anything suspicious that they can use to add to Bucky’s list of supposed crimes.

None of those fools will appreciate the enormous effort and care that Bucky had put into those notebooks.

Then he thinks about how sad Bucky will be when he comes out of cryo and has to accept that his journals are gone.

Unless…

Unless Steve…

…re-creates the journals for him…?

Huh.

He stares at some red and yellow birds swooping through the air and leans against the balcony railing, lost in thought.

That’s…not a stupid thought.

T’Challa had told him Bucky will be in cryo for months until they figure out how to safely remove the trigger words. Since Steve is currently an unemployed fugitive, he’s got a lot of time on his hands and he’ll have to fill those months with something.

And it just so happens that he knows every single thing about Bucky Barnes. He’s either directly witnessed all parts of Bucky’s life, or he’s been told about it from Bucky himself, Bucky’s family members or their friends. He can probably pick out the best-of-the-best memories from his collection and still manage to fill thirty journals.

A small nagging voice in his head points out that maybe Bucky enjoyed the journals because it’s something he was doing by himself. He was remembering things and he was the one putting those pieces back together.

But that’s fine. If Bucky wants to re-create the journals once he’s out of cryo, he can do that. He doesn’t even have to read the journals Steve makes. But if he wants a complete and easy source of Bucky Barnes information at his fingertips, then Steve can provide that for him.

In any case, it’ll give Steve something to do.

*             *             *

He spends a long time at a stationary store, choosing which notebooks to buy. First, he considers getting some colorful notebooks. There are so many with patterns and different colors, but they’re very different from the plain black notebooks they’d used when they were in school. Plus, Bucky had used black notebooks for his own journaling, so Steve decides to stick with tradition and buys a bundle of black covered notebooks, filled with nothing but lined paper.

He also buys sticky tabs and a package of pencils and erasers.

Time to start writing.

*             *             *

One notebook is all about the Barnes family. He lists Bucky’s parents’ names and his sisters’ names, the dates they were born, and then he draws pictures of each of them.

He writes about how excited Bucky had been when his youngest sister, Becca, had been born. Bucky had been twelve years old and nobody had been excited that Mrs. Barnes was pregnant again. But once Becca was born and Bucky realized how much he loved cuddling her, playing with her, and how much she adored him back, he came around quickly.

Toys had been hard to come by and the Barnes family rarely had money or supplies to spare for entertainment, so Bucky had taken it upon himself to make Becca a doll. Bucky had sewn together scrap material, filled it with hay he’d pulled from their mattress and he’d helped old Mrs. O’Grady who lived in his building with her washing for a few weeks, and in exchange, she’d given him two nice black buttons, which he’d sewn onto the doll for eyes.

The doll was the ugliest thing Steve had ever seen, and Bucky was worried that the lack of hair would be off-putting for Becca, but she’d absolutely loved that doll. In typical two year-old fashion, Becca had named her ‘Dolly’. She’d carried Dolly everywhere for years, and once a month, Bucky would take the straw out and carefully wash and dry Dolly, before stuffing the hay back in. Twice a year when they changed the hay in their mattress, Dolly got new hay too.

Steve draws several pictures: Bucky rocking baby Becca when she was a tiny little thing and both of them smiling at each other, Bucky teaching her how to play stickball, and of course: a picture of Becca holding Dolly.

He details important events from each of Bucky’s sisters’ and his ma and pa’s lives: different jobs they’d had, how the girls had done at school, the trouble the girls had gotten into, and the stories Bucky’s pa used to tell about the ‘good old days’ (meaning, before the Great War) when he’d had a bit too much to drink and was in one of his talkative moods.

When they were in their early twenties, Bucky’s oldest sister, Laura, had found out the boy she’d been going steady with had been seeing another girl. It was devastating, since they’d been together for over a year and they’ll all thought they’d end up married. What made it worse was that the jerk had actually proposed to the other girl and they were planning on getting married in a few months. Steve can’t remember how Laura had found out, but she’d come bursting into his and Bucky’s apartment, tears still drying on her face and rage sparking in her eyes. She’d wanted revenge, and by the time Bucky had come home from work, Steve and Laura had already come up with a plan.

Bucky, Steve and a group of boys from Bucky’s work had found the scum and given him a beating he’d remember the rest of his life and then taken his clothes and left him to walk home naked. He’d feel just a little bit of the humiliation that Laura had felt, Bucky had told him. Then, Steve had drawn up posters, informing everybody that the jerk was a no-good lowlife, with his name and a detailed picture below. They’d plastered them all over town, shoving them under doors and sticking them on fences and windows. For a whole week, whenever somebody turned around in their neighborhood, that poster stared them in the face.

The last they’d heard, the scum had moved to Queens and they’d all felt very proud of themselves.

Steve draws a picture of Laura and then he recreates the poster he’d drawn featuring the scum. He’s amused to discover that his hand still remembers how to draw the poster. He’d copied it nearly a hundred times, so he thinks he could probably draw it with his eyes closed.

*             *             *

After a week of sitting in the cryo chamber and keeping a careful eye on the cryo unit and the monitors connected to it, Steve starts getting bored of that. He works on the journals and talks to Bucky about what he’s writing in the notebook, but he’s not accustomed to chatting with Bucky without having him talk back. It feels weird and it starts to remind Steve how lonely his existence is.

Bucky would be upset if he knew that Steve was wasting most of his days sitting and staring at his frozen self, so Steve asks T’Challa for suggestions on how to keep himself busy. He also wants to find a way to contribute to Wakandan society. It doesn’t feel right to be sitting here, day after day and use up resources without giving anything back. The Wakandans have done so much for him and Bucky already, and it’s really time Steve starts to repay that kindness.

T’Challa offers him the chance to join the military as a civilian consultant, but Steve’s had enough of the military for now, so that isn’t appealing. Instead, T’Challa sets him up as an assistant instructor at a self-defence and martial arts academy. It gets him out of the palace, forces him to exercise, nicely fills his days and allows him to interact with Wakandan society a bit more.

Steve spends a month observing and learning how the classes are structured and eventually, he’s allowed to start teaching his own classes. They’re beginner classes, but it’s a start.

*             *             *

Next, Steve covers his and Bucky’s adventures from the time they met and up through their teenage years.

They’d met during their first year at school when some boys had been making fun of Steve for his various physical shortcomings and his Irish heritage. Steve’s ma had always taught him that if people said nasty things about him, they’re wrong, and he shouldn’t be afraid to give them a good thumping to make his point.

That’s how the Irish do things, she’d explained.

Well, getting into a fight was never Steve’s problem. Surviving the fight was the problem.

On this specific day, Bucky stepped in to help Steve, and while they both got the snot beaten out of them, they’d decided they liked each other’s company. While Steve’s ma cleaned them up, Bucky had turned to Steve. “You’re a swell fella, Steve. Do you wanna be friends?”

Steve remembers the question had taken him off guard. He’d never had a friend before. “I don’t know how.”

Bucky had scoffed. “It’s easy. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. So you wanna be friends?”

Steve had shrugged. “I guess so.”

Bucky had grinned happily. “Oh, good! We’re now best friends, okay? Best friends for life.”

Steve had mouthed the words ‘best friends for life’ to himself, and when the meaning had sunken in, he’d grinned so hard that his jaw had ached. He’d felt so happy about it.

For the next several months, Bucky would drag Steve up to anybody who would give him the time of day and introduce Steve as “This is my best friend, Steve”, like that was Steve’s official title in life.

Steve remembers the joy which had filled him each time he heard those words. Bucky was the first friend he’d ever had, and being somebody’s best friend sounded like a very important job. He’d been so proud to carry that label.

That joy and pride had never faded.

He decides not to draw them beaten-up, but he draws young Steve and Bucky, wearing their school uniforms with Bucky’s arm around Steve’s shoulder and both of them with big grins on their faces.

Up until Becca was born—which was when Bucky dropped out of school to work full time—most of their adventures were connected to school. There are way too memories for Steve to write them all down, so he spends a few days making lists of memorable adventures and then choosing his favourite ones.

The ‘hair ribbon incident’ definitely makes his list and it’s one of the first ones to be written into the notebook.

While the whole incident had gone topsy-turvy while they’d been playing kick the can with Ned Tucker and some other boys from their neighborhood, the mess had actually started the day before, with the hair ribbon incident.

Ned never liked Steve because he thought he was a weak little runt who should accept Ned’s superiority purely because Ned was everything Steve wasn’t: tall, strong, healthy and Italian. Steve didn’t like Ned because he was a bully. Since Steve couldn’t do anything to change his physical shortcomings or his heritage, and Ned refused to change his behavior, they never got along.

When Steve was about ten years old, one of the girls in their class was showing everyone the new hair ribbon her mother bought her. Ned yanked it out of her hair and decided he wasn’t going to give it back, despite him having no use for hair ribbons.

Bucky was focusing on doing his math exercises, but Steve didn’t have time for math exercises. Ned was being bully and he was going to put a stop to it right away. He confronted Ned, Ned called Steve a rude name connected to him being small and Irish, Steve swung at him and that led to the usual chaos. The teacher started yelling, the girls started screaming, the boys started cheering and Bucky rushed to get in between them before Ned could throw Steve through the window.

Steve and Ned were both been sent to the principal, received a paddling and then sent back to their lesson. Ned was forced to give the hair ribbon back to the girl and apologize, which made Steve smirk with satisfaction.

On the way home from school, Bucky and Steve were ambushed by Ned and some of his stupid friends, but they managed to run into a nearby shop for safety. Ned and the other boys lingered for a while, until the shop keeper sensed the tension between the two groups and threw Ned’s group out.

But Ned was smart. He figured out that giving Steve a bloody nose wouldn’t really hurt him. He must have spent days thinking over what would really hurt Steve, and he’d finally come up with a plan. He put it into action a few days later when they were all playing kick the can together.

The game was very simple, but it required a lot of running. One person was ‘it’ and had to tag all the other players. If a player was tagged, that player would go sit in ‘jail’, which was the front stoop of the abandoned warehouse they were playing in front of. The person who was ‘it’ had to tag all the players and put them all into jail. But if any other player managed to get to the old paint can sitting in the middle of the road and give it a kick, everybody in jail would be freed.

It wasn’t one of Steve’s favourite games. He wasn’t a good runner and he always got tagged quickly. He’d spend a few minutes sitting in jail until Bucky kicked the can to let him out. Honestly, he didn’t mind sitting in jail for a little while. It let him catch his breath, stop coughing and gave his heart a chance to stop hurting and pounding so hard.

Then Ned decided Steve would be ‘it’.

Bucky stepped forward, shaking his head and saying Steve didn’t like being ‘it’, and Bucky would take his place. Ned got into Bucky’s face and told him that Bucky had already been ‘it’ that day and it was Steve’s turn. Steve had to take his turn, or he’d be out of the game.

“It’s okay, let me do it, Buck. I can do it.”

Steve tried his best. He chased after one boy, then another, but they easily outran him. He tried to run as fast as he could but he didn’t even manage to get close to them before his chest was hurting and he was having trouble breathing.

Bucky let himself be tagged easily, probably to make Steve feel a little more confident, but then all he could do was sit in jail and watch Steve.

It became clear very quickly that Ned had instructed his boys to make Steve as miserable as possible. They ran circles around him, stuck their tongues out, hopped around just out of his reach and called him all sorts of mean names.

Steve kept trying, but it got harder and harder to breathe. His lungs burned and his throat was so tight that he couldn’t draw in a full breath anymore. His chest was aching and his legs felt too weak to keep him upright.

He still kept trying, stumbling towards one boy after another, stretching out his hand and trying to grab them while they danced just out his reach. The weaker he got, the bolder they got, laughing and throwing handfuls of dirt at him.

When Steve’s legs finally collapsed on him and he crumbled into the dirt, desperately trying to pull the dusty air into his tightening lungs and feeling frustrated tears of shame clinging to his eye lids.

“Okay, that’s enough now! We’re done. You—get away from him! We’re done playing.”

“Hey! Bucky, you can’t just—”

“Don’t touch me, Henry! We’re leaving.”

Steve felt Bucky grab his arms and haul him to his feet. He was shaking, both from the lack of oxygen and the embarrassment. Bucky wrapped an arm around his waist and dragged him along until they’d rounded the corner.

As soon as they were out of the other boys’ sight, Bucky pulled Steve up on his back and stumbled home to the Rogers’ apartment where they knew Steve’s ma would help him.

Steve doesn’t draw Ned Tucker or any of the other stupid boys—they don’t deserve to be in the notebook—but he draws Bucky kicking the can and getting Steve out of jail, and then Bucky carrying Steve home.

Those are the only good parts of the memory.

*             *             *

He lists the different jobs that Bucky had worked over the years, drawing pictures of what Bucky had looked like at work.

When seventeen year old Bucky had been promoted from sawdust sweeper to ice-block hauler after he’d been working at the icehouse for three years, it had been a proud moment for everyone, especially Bucky. The promotion came with a little raise and more respect in their neighborhood. Bucky had never liked dropping out of school, so being respected for his work ethic went a long way to making him feel better about the whole situation.

*             *             *

Steve almost decides not to include any of the times when Steve had been sick, and Bucky was left to comfort and care for him—first, splitting the duties with Steve’s ma, and later doing it by himself. But these notebooks are supposed to help Bucky connect the disjointed memories in his head, and Steve knows a large number of those memories will be of Bucky sitting by Steve’s bedside, so they have to be in the notebook.

Again, Steve struggles to pick which memories to write down. There are a lot of memories involving Steve being sick and fighting for his life.

There was the asthma attack when they were young teenagers which had been so severe that none of his ma’s and Bucky’s usual remedies helped, and when Steve had started losing consciousness due to the lack of oxygen, they’d bundled him up in every blanket and available piece of clothing they had and Bucky had run through a blizzard to the hospital, carrying Steve in his arms while Steve’s ma stopped traffic when they had to cross the streets.

Steve doesn’t remember any of this, but the nurses told him later that Bucky had gotten hypothermia because he’d wrapped Steve in his own winter jacket and was only wearing his thin shirt and pants. But Bucky refused to leave Steve’s side, so Steve’s ma treated Bucky while he stayed in the room with Steve to monitor what the doctors and nurses were doing.

When Steve had regained consciousness, he’d discovered an enormous breathing apparatus strapped to his face and chest. They’d restrained his hands and feet so he wouldn’t damage it, so he’d woken up to find himself completely immobile, with something attached to his face and the only thing he could see was metal screws and leather straps above his head. He’d started to panic, until he’d heard Bucky’s voice and then he saw Bucky’s face appear above the metal and leather contraption.

“It’s okay, Stevie, stay calm. It’s all okay. I know you can’t move, but it’s to help you breathe. You gotta stay like that until they say you can move, alright? But I’m gonna stay right here, I promise.”

Steve had tried opening his mouth to talk—Bucky couldn’t miss an entire shift of work just because of Steve’s stupid lungs—but he discovered that there was a mask over his face and his jaw was locked open.

Steve felt Bucky’s hand squeeze his fingers, and this thumb rubbing his knuckles. “Don’t try to talk, okay? It’s fine. Your ma’s just finishing her shift and then she’ll come stay with you while I go to work. I switched with Henry so I’m doing the evening shift. Until then, I’m staying right here, okay?”

And he had. Just like he’d done a thousand times before and a thousand times since, Bucky stayed right by his side. If he had to pee, he used Steve’s bed pan and he flirted with the nurses until they brought him some food and water, but Bucky didn’t leave. Instead of focusing on his fear and his pain, Steve focused on Bucky’s hand touching his and Bucky’s voice as he chattered on and on; telling Steve stories, encouraging him to stay strong and singing Irish songs that his ma had taught them.

*             *             *

Then there was Steve’s stupid pernicious anaemia, which meant he had to choke down half a pound of raw liver a week if he didn’t want to die. Not only did Bucky and his ma resort to all sorts of shady actions to get him the raw liver, but Steve hated eating it, and his body reacted to this hate by fighting his attempts to eat it. Thankfully, when he was nine, an extraction became available which meant he only had to swallow a few drops of gross liquid, but before they invented the extract, raw liver was his only option.

His ma had tried turning the liver into juice, but when Steve gagged and spat it out or threw it back up, it would be wasted, unlike the chunks of liver, which could be caught, cleaned up and forced back into Steve’s mouth. It would take hours for Steve to choke down all of it. It was slimy and tasted disgusting and his body just didn’t want anything to do with it.

His ma would restrain him, sitting behind him and keeping one of her legs pinned across his, and one of her arms across his chest. Her other hand would feed him the liver, rub his chest and belly, and catch the pieces of liver which didn’t make it down. Bucky would sit across from him, holding Steve’s hands and taking turns with his ma encouraging Steve to get through the whole portion of liver.

All Steve remembers from that time is the taste of the slimy liver in his mouth, the tears streaming down his face and the constant murmuring of his ma and Bucky’s encouragement.

“It’ll be okay, pal, I promise. Just a few more piece, okay? And then we’ll go do something fun. You wanna throw rocks off the bridge? Or go down to the docks and see what ships are here? Yeah, that’ll be fun, huh? But first, you gotta eat some more of this, Stevie. Here’s a small piece, let’s try for that, okay? There you go! That’s good. Now chew, chew, chew! Alright, now swallow. Swallow. Come on, Stevie, you can do it. Yay! That was great! Now let’s do another piece, okay? We’re almost there. You’re being so brave right now, I’m so proud of you!”

*             *             *

Steve can’t get himself to draw pictures of any of this. Reliving it while writing it down was bad enough, but he refuses to spend extra time on those memories by drawing them.

He’d been leaving blank pages between entries so that Bucky can make his own notes, and for these specific memories, Steve leaves a few extra blank pages. If Bucky really wants Steve to draw some pictures of it, he will, but until then, he refuses to spend more time on those memories than necessary.

*             *             *

Although most of the Wakandan population living in the urban areas are bilingual, and nobody minds that Steve conducts his classes in English, he starts attending Wakandan language classes. He’s going to be living in Wakanda for the foreseeable future and he’s been given the gift of hospitality and protection by the Wakandans. He wants to do everything he can to repay that kindness and fit in with their culture.

Learning Wakandan is much harder than he thought it would be, so it’s another good activity to do.

He often brings the journals or his language-learning homework into the cryo unit and talks to Bucky while he works. He reads what he’s writing out-loud and debates what memory to record in the journal or what part of his homework he wants to do next. As the months go by, he can switch between speaking English and Wakandan to Bucky.

It’s thrilling when the medical staff stop finding his Wakandan-speaking abilities endearing, and instead, start speaking to him in Wakandan. He’d noticed that the palace staff tend to use English whenever he’s in a room with them—even if they’re not speaking directly to him—but eventually they stop switching completely.

He feels very proud of himself when he’s able to conduct his classes in Wakandan and even handle chit-chat with his students and co-workers without resorting to English. When he’s invited to one of his co-workers homes to celebrate her birthday, Steve impresses everyone when he’s able to speak to her non-English speaking grandmother in fluent Wakandan.

Chapter Text

The period detailing their childhood adventures ends up stretching into three notebooks and he switches to a new one to detail their twenties, up until Bucky left for the war.

Despite how much the memories pain him, Steve forces himself to describe his ma’s battle with tuberculosis and her eventual death. She’d considered Bucky a second son for most of their lives, and Bucky had loved her more than he’d loved his own mother, so her death had been just as hard on Bucky as on Steve.

He describes how Bucky and he had dealt with their grief very differently—Bucky by throwing himself into work, and Steve by giving in to anger—and it had led to some of the biggest fights they’d ever had.

He doesn’t draw any of that either, because just writing those memories down makes the grief wash over him again. He has to stop writing every few minutes to wipe the tears off his cheeks, since he doesn’t want any tears dripping on the notebook and ruining his hard work.

Once he gets through that difficult phase, he focuses on random little stories: Bucky getting a job at the docks, Steve nearly getting caught stealing from a grocery store and Bucky finding a stack of old pulp magazines in a trash can which were still readable. Steve had used some of his good paper to draw the pictures from the missing pages, stuck them into the magazines and gave them to Bucky as a Christmas present. Bucky had loved them.

He enjoys drawing scenes for all of those stories and since his mood has improved, he decides to tackle another hard memory: the time when Bucky got the flu.

It had been really, really bad. Bucky didn’t get sick often, but when he did, the biggest rule was to keep Steve away from him. Bucky had gone to his parents’ as soon as he’d realized he was sick, and within hours, his fever had gotten so high that he was delirious and his pa had to carry him to the hospital.

Steve had been beside himself with worry. He knew he shouldn’t risk his own health to go to the hospital and visit Bucky. He’d always felt guilty when Bucky got sick and he couldn’t be by his side like Bucky always stuck to his. Instead, Steve pushed aside his fear and decided to focus on doing what Bucky would want him to do. He went to the docks and harassed Bucky’s supervisor until he got Bucky’s pay, then he spent days pounding the pavement and looking for any work he could do so he’d scrape together the rent money before it was due. When Bucky got better—because that’s the only option that was acceptable—he’d need to come home to a nice, warm apartment, instead of worrying over them being evicted and having to move back in with his family, where it was always too crowded and Bucky would have to sleep on the floor with his pa, since his ma, sisters and Steve would be taking up all the room in the bed.

By some miracle, Steve managed to pay the rent—a day late, but he’d still manage to pay it—and Bucky’s fever broke that same day. When Bucky had finally come home, Steve had hugged him as hard as he could. He’d felt so relieved that he’d started sobbing, which gave Bucky a fright until he understood why Steve was so emotional.

“I get it pal, I get it. But I’m fine, see?”

“I—Buck—I—what if—”

“Hush now. There’s no use talkin’ about ‘what if’. I learned that looking after you all these years. I’m alright, I’m home and everything’s fine. That’s all that matters. I ain’t ever leaving you, Stevie. Never. Best friends for life, remember?”

Steve had clung to him even harder and buried his face in Bucky’s neck. “Jerk.”

Bucky had squeezed him back as tightly as he dared. “Punk,” he’d said, his voice rough.

*             *             *

That’s the point where Steve realizes he’s at a cross-roads. Bucky getting sick had led to a lot of different events, which all led to the mess with Hugh Cooper and then the start of Bucky and Steve’s intimate relationship.

Steve had just turned twenty-two and he still hadn’t had his first kiss, and he’s always been happy that his first kiss had ended up being with Bucky.

It all fit together so perfectly. Bucky had always been the most important part of Steve’s life—aside from his ma—and he’d loved him since that day when Bucky had declared that they would be best friends for life. Bucky was the only person aside from his ma who Steve had always felt comfortable around. He never had to worry about being anybody else, because Bucky had loved Steve exactly the way he was and that never changed.

Steve hadn’t been in love with Bucky when their relationship turned intimate, but the love he’d already felt for Bucky had slowly changed over time. He’d never been able to pin-point exactly when that love changed from one type to the other. Maybe it never changed: maybe Steve just developed an additional love, a different type?

It had been different for Bucky. He’d been in love with Steve for years at that point—according to Bucky—which is what had led to the whole mess with Coop in the first place.

But Steve is hesitant about writing any of this down.

He knows the sequence of events. He’s thought back to that time period often, especially in those early days of their changed relationship when he’d looked back to see if Bucky had given earlier signs of how he’d felt about Steve, and Steve had questioned his own feelings too, so it’s not a shaky memory that’s keeping Steve’s pencil from moving.

The problem is, up until now, the information in these notebooks are just parts of Bucky’s past. None of it is stuff that could create complications for Bucky in the present or the future.

But introducing their former intimate relationship might create complications.

Steve doesn’t want Bucky feeling pressured about anything, especially his relationship with Steve. He doesn’t want there to be any awkwardness or hesitation. Steve is still in love with Bucky—he probably always will be—but he doubts Bucky remembers that aspect of their relationship and he probably doesn’t feel the same way anymore. Learning about Steve’s feelings and their shared history would probably make Bucky feel pressured and awkward, and that would quickly lead to a strain in their friendship.

That’s the last thing Steve wants. He wants—he needs—Bucky in his life, in any form Bucky will allow.

So the easiest thing to do is to skip over all of that.

He includes other random stories about their twenties but he skips over any mention of Coop, and all intimate details about his and Bucky’s relationship. It’s not like he’s lying. Coop had been Steve’s friend, not Bucky’s, and Bucky had spent very little time with Coop, purely as a personal choice. And Steve isn’t making up fake relationships for either of them: he’s just making it seem like their relationship was always strictly platonic.

He still has lots of material to choose from and he easily fills the notebook with stories and drawings, tracing their shared history all the way until Bucky got his letter from the draft board and left for the front.

*             *             *

A month later, Steve is working on the last notebook, which details his and Bucky’s time during the war. He includes the good times—

“How about you? You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?”

“Hell no. That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight, I’m following him. But you’re keeping the outfit, right?”

“You know what? It’s kind of growing on me.”

—the funny times—

“Rogers, I swear—if you can’t learn to control where you put those new arms of yours, I’m gonna make ‘em take the arms back.”

“Jesus, I already apologized a thousand times!”

“None of those apologies are drying out my clothes any faster! From now on, you ain’t allowed to make any hand gestures when you’re telling stories at meal time, okay? If you really have to tell a story, you either sit on your hands, or you give me a warning and I’ll move our cups outta the way so I don’t end up with wet pants. Got it?”

“Buck—”

“I’ll make ‘em take the legs back too!”

“Jesus Christ, fine! I promise to control my arms better.”

“You better.”

—the scary times—

“There’s gotta be a rope or something!”

“Just go! Get outta here!”

“No! Not without you!”

—and the terrible times—

“Bucky! Hang on! Grab my hand!”

—all the way up until he crashed the plane into the ice, which is where he’s planning on stopping.

At the same time, he’s preparing for his driving test to get his licence and he gets to teach an intermediate class for the first time…

…and T’Challa tells him that they’re ready to wake Bucky.

*             *             *

When Bucky wakes, Steve is careful to keep his expectations low.

That decision turns out to be a good one, since Bucky doesn’t remember who Steve is for several hours after waking, and even when he does recognize Steve, he doesn’t remember why Steve is there and what’s happened since he’d gone to buy plums at the market by his apartment.

It takes several days until Bucky’s body and mind recover from the cryo-freeze. The medical team keep him under constant watch and Bucky sleeps for long periods of time, letting his body recover. Once he’s back on his feet, he needs to undergo the trigger removal process, during which he’s kept sedated. When that’s done, he has to do several rounds of testing to assess whether the triggers have been successfully removed, and he has to undergo psychiatric evaluations and physical testing to make sure there’s no lasting damage from the freezing or the trigger removal process.

Steve tries to be present as much as he can be, but the weird thing is that Bucky doesn’t seem to want Steve around. He greets Steve just as politely as he greets any other member of the medical staff, but then he either ignores him or gives him a bland smile when he notices Steve staring at him, and he responds to all of Steve’s encouraging comments with a “Thank you, Steve”, like Steve is a neighbor who complimented his hat.

Whenever Steve tries to have a conversation with him, Bucky’s responses are polite but short:

“How did you sleep, Buck?”

A bland smile. “Fine, Steve. Thank you for asking. How did you sleep?”

“Fine. Thanks. Uh. How was breakfast?”

“Same as it was yesterday.”

“Uh huh. So…”

More bland smiling.

Steve clears his throat. “So…more testing today?”

“Yes.”

“What kind?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The problem is that Steve is used to Bucky being the talkative one. Bucky was always the one who could start and hold a conversation with anyone for any length of time. He’d tried teaching Steve how to make small talk, but Steve has always been terrible at it. He gets too flustered and worries about picking the wrong topics. Usually, it’s not a problem because Bucky’s always been by his side, and Steve could always trust Bucky to handle those things. He’d always make sure to draw Steve into the conversation and give him good openers he could use to join the discussion. Bucky would always monitor how thing were going, so if Steve got tongue-tied or said something awkward, Bucky would save the day.

So Steve has no idea how to handle a conversation where Bucky’s the one who’s being awkward and not making an effort to keep the conversation flowing.

For the first time in his life, Steve feels awkward and nervous while talking to Bucky, and that’s so overwhelming that Steve has to excuse himself and go back to his room, where he suffers a mild panic attack and nearly ends up in tears.

He just doesn’t understand how to handle this new version of Bucky.

He always knew Bucky wouldn’t be the exact same person who had gotten on that train to go to war, but Steve always thought he’d have something tangible to blame for the difference: brain damage, loss of memory, physical pain etc.

But according to the doctors, Bucky has a clean bill of health. Aside from some gaps in his memory, Bucky is physically and mentally fine.

Which is great…

…but that makes this awkwardness between them even harder to deal with.

There’s nothing physical preventing Bucky from wanting to be friends with Steve—Bucky is just choosing not to be Steve’s friend.

Steve knows he has no right to expect Bucky to want to resume their friendship, but knowing that and actually coming to terms with it are two different things.

“You’re a swell fella, Steve. Do you wanna be friends?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s easy. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. So you wanna be friends?”

“I guess so.”

“Oh, good! We’re now best friends, okay? Best friends for life.”

He has no idea how to deal with a world in which Bucky Barnes doesn’t want to be Steve’s best friend.

“This is my best friend, Steve.”

He’s never lived in such a world and just the idea of such a world existing makes his heart ache.

*             *             *

Once Bucky’s released from the medical wing, he’s assigned his own rooms and Steve rarely sees him.

He’s not chasing after Bucky, since he—thankfully—has built his own little life in Wakanda by now, but it still makes his heart hurt whenever a whole day goes by without him seeing Bucky, even though they live just down the hall from each other.

“We’re best friends now, okay? Best friends for life.”

“I’m alright, I’m home and everything’s fine. That’s all that matters. I ain’t ever leaving you, Stevie. Never. Best friends for life, remember?”

Steve knows it’s entirely his fault: he’d made little effort to create a new life for himself after he’d come out of the ice, and as a result, that Bucky-shaped hole which had sat like a gaping wound in his chest since Bucky’s death hadn’t been filled. Now, he’s put way too much hope into having Bucky fill that hole…and it’s devastating to realize that Bucky doesn’t want to do that.

“This is my best friend, Steve.”

He just…he wishes he knew why Bucky didn’t want to resume their friendship. He wishes Bucky would give him another chance.

“This is my best friend, Steve.”

That pain of that gaping wound comes back full-force and the grief he’d felt when Bucky had died comes flooding back. He feels like he’s lost Bucky all over again, only this time it’s worse, because Bucky’s still physically alive.

*             *             *

Two weeks later, Steve has finally come to a decision.

First: he wants to give the notebooks to Bucky. They’re finished, he made them for Bucky and the information in them will hopefully be helpful for Bucky.

Second: he refuses to let things stay as they are. He wants to ask Bucky if there’s even a slight chance that Bucky would be willing to let them start fresh. Steve would promise to never bring up things from their past if that’s what Bucky wants. But if Bucky truly doesn’t want anything to do with Steve, then Steve is planning to move out of the palace. One of his co-workers at the academy is looking for a roommate, and Steve thinks that’s the kind of change he needs. He knows his heart will never heal living so close to Bucky but having Bucky treat him like a stranger.

He doesn’t know how to handle having Bucky right here, but not having their lives be completely intertwined. Such a life is alien to him.

So he gathers up the notebooks and goes to Bucky’s apartment, mentally preparing himself for whatever Bucky decides.

*             *             *

That bland, polite smile greets Steve when Bucky opens the door. “Hi, Steve.”

He says it as if Steve’s a stranger who Bucky had been introduced to at a social gathering.

“Hey, Buck. How you doing?”

“Good.”

Steve notices he’s got his new arm now. T’Challa had told him it was ready, but it hurts that Bucky didn’t tell Steve himself and didn’t make any attempt to show it to him. “How’s the new arm?”

“Good. Working well.”

Steve finds himself mirroring that weird smile. “That’s…that’s good. I’m glad. Uh. Oh! So I have something for you.” He thrusts the stack of notebooks at Bucky.

Bucky blinks and stares at the pile. Slowly, he reaches out with his right hand and takes them. “What are these?”

“They’re notebooks.” Then Steve wants to smack himself for how dumb that sounds.

Bucky’s polite smile doesn’t waver. He just stands there, holding the stack of journals and stares expectantly at Steve.

Steve opens his mouth to provide a better explanation. “They’re uh…notebooks.”

That…doesn’t make things better. Damn it, Rogers!

Bucky’s looking more unimpressed. “Yeah. You said that already and I can see that they’re notebooks. Why are you giving them to me?”

Steve takes a deep breath. This is so damn hard. He’s never felt uncomfortable or tongue tied in front of Bucky. In fact, aside from his ma, Bucky’s the one person he never had trouble communicating with.

Clearly, this is what hell is like.

“I remember you talked about those notebooks. The ones where you wrote down your memories? They were all confiscated and I know you worked hard on ‘em. I just…I thought it might be helpful if I re-create them for you. You—you don’t gotta read ‘em if you don’t want, but if you’re trying to put your memories in order then they might help.”

A spark of interest lights up in Bucky’s eyes and he pulls the notebooks closer to him. He transfers the books into his new left hand and flips the first journal open to a random page with his right hand.

Steve recognizes the picture of Becca holding Dolly. “Uh. I put things into chronological order for the most part, except that first notebook—that’s all about our family. Your parents and your sisters. I drew pictures for a lot of things too, just in case you didn’t remember some details. I thought it might help.”

Bucky doesn’t respond, he just carefully flips through a few more pages, his eyes skimming over Steve’s writing and drawings and the little page numbers and foot notes.

“I—I added some of those sticky tab things for the different years. I don’t really know how you organized the other ones, but you can use those or the table of contents to jump around.” He knows he’s rambling, but he can’t seem to stop. “You can also move the sticky tabs around. They ain’t glued down permanently. Well, maybe you know that cause you used them in the past.”

Jesus, he needs help. Specifically, he needs Bucky to help him, but Bucky doesn’t look inclined to help him with anything.

Bucky’s silent for a few more minutes, until he flips the journal shut and looks at Steve. “Thank you, Steve. This is a very nice gift and they’ll be helpful.”

“You—you’re welcome. I—it wasn’t a big deal.”

Then they stand there, exchanging polite smiles.

Eventually, Bucky breaks the awkward silence. “Was that all?”

“Yep. I just wanted to—oh, wait, no! I had something else.” He clears his throat and swallows hard, gathering his courage. “I wanted to talk to you about—about us.”

“What about us?”

“About…about us possibly being friends.”

Bucky’s smile gets a little tighter, but there’s no other change in his facial expression. “Like we were before?”

“Yeah! Yeah, like that. But…I get it if that ain’t what you want. We could start new, if you want. Completely new. We could pretend everything in those notebooks didn’t happen. We could—”

“I’m gonna have to think about that.”

That’s…not what Steve thought Bucky would say. He’d prepared himself for a yes or no answer, but a ‘maybe’ leaves him standing there, gaping at Bucky.

Bucky’s smile is still tight. “I’ll get back to you in a few days about that. Was there anything else?”

“Uh…”

He stares at Bucky, and Bucky smiles back politely.

“Uh. No? No. That’s…that’s all. Thanks!” He has no idea what he’s thanking Bucky for, but it’s out of his mouth before he can catch it.

“Have a good day, Steve.”

“You too.”

Then the door is shut in his face, and Steve is left standing there.

He has no idea what to do or what to say.

Eventually, he realizes he’s being an idiot, and if Bucky re-opens the door and finds him still standing there, things will get even more awkward, so Steve forces himself to walk down the hallway to his room.

*             *             *

He’s woken in the middle of the night by loud banging on his door. His heart leaps into his throat and he’s immediately grabbing for the shield that should be under his bed…except there’s nothing there.

Then he remembers where he is. There’s no way intruders could have gotten this far into the palace, and if they would be targeting Steve, they wouldn’t stop to bang on his door.

Trying to calm his racing heart, Steve shoves the covers off himself and pads out of the bedroom towards the front door. He taps the button on the door, and the smooth sheen of metal is replaced by a video screen, showing him who’s on the other side of the door.

It’s Bucky, wearing pajamas, no shoes and holding one of the black notebooks. He looks upset, but also very angry.

For a second, Steve is genuinely afraid that Bucky’s been triggered. Then common sense quickly sets in, and Steve reminds himself that he knows what Bucky’s like when he’s triggered, and it’s not this. He wouldn’t look angry or upset and he wouldn’t be knocking on Steve’s door—he’d be trying to bust it open—and he wouldn’t be carrying one of the journals with him.

Steve types in the security code and hears the locking mechanism disengage. Pulling the door open, he keeps himself shielded behind it and peers around the edge.

Just in case.

“Buck? You okay?”

It’s great that the blank stare and the polite, bland smile are gone, but Steve doesn’t think this is a great improvement. Bucky’s pale, his jaw is clenched tight and he’s glaring at Steve. He lifts up the notebook, clutching it so hard that his knuckles are white.

“Where’s Hughie?” he demands.

Chapter Text

“Buck? You okay?”

It’s great that the blank stare and the polite, bland smile are gone, but Steve doesn’t think this is a great improvement. Bucky’s pale, his jaw is clenched tight and he’s glaring at Steve. He lifts up the notebook, clutching it so hard that his knuckles are white.

“Where’s Hughie?” he demands.

For a second, Steve thinks that maybe Bucky forgot how to speak English. With half his brain still asleep and adrenalin pumping through him, Steve can’t make sense of that question at first.

He blinks and stares at Bucky, who must not appreciate Steve’s lack of a quick response. He uses both hands to shove at the door, pushing Steve back a bit.

“Where the hell is Hughie?!” Bucky yells, brandishing the notebook in Steve’s face.

Steve can count on one hand how often he’s seen Bucky this angry with him and a slight shiver of fear runs down his spine. He takes a few steps back, not wanting Bucky to start hitting him in the face with the journal. Forcing his brain to start catching up, Steve finally understands the question. “You mean Hugh Cooper?”

Bucky’s eyes spark. “So you do know him,” he snarls, his teeth clenched.

Steve blinks. Shit. He has to be careful. Very careful. He has no idea what Bucky is remembering. Maybe he does remember their intimate relationship and he’s upset because he doesn’t like being reminded of it? Or maybe he’s just randomly connecting the memory of something else with Coop?

Steve decides to play it safe. “Of course, I do. But he was my friend, not yours so I didn’t think he was important enough to your history to be in the journals.”

Bucky stares at him. “You didn’t think he was important enough for my history?” Bucky’s still yelling, and Steve cringes, thinking about how inconsiderate they’re being. It’s the middle of the night, and Bucky’s standing in the hallway, yelling.

“Buck, can we talk about this tomorrow? When you’re less upset? We can’t be yell—”

Bucky lets out an annoyed sound, steps into the apartment and shoves the door closed behind him. “We ain’t talking about this tomorrow, we’re talking about this right now.”

“I told you: Hugh Cooper was—”

“I know exactly who Hughie Cooper was, and you lied to me!” He smacks Steve in the chest with the journal. It’s not a hard smack, but it emphasizes how upset Bucky is.

Steve blinks. Is that Bucky’s problem? Good, that’s one he can deal with. “I didn’t lie! Every word in those journals is the truth, but I had to keep some stuff out of it. Buck, you’re almost thirty! I couldn’t write down every single thing you’ve ever done and include every person you’ve ever met. I’d spend the rest of my life filling notebooks!”

“I don’t care about every tiny detail and I don’t care that you left out Mr. and Mrs. Hartley from the bookshop—but I care that you left out that stupid jerk, Hughie!”

Bucky yanks the notebook open and rapidly flips through the pages. He stops at one that he’s marked with five red sticky tabs. He turns the notebook and shoves it at Steve. “Right there! That’s where that fucking twit should be and you left him out!”

Steve’s eyes manage to catch the date of the entry he’d written, along with the word ‘flu’ before Bucky is pulling the notebook back and cradling it against his chest, as if he’s afraid Steve will take it from him.

It’s great that Bucky’s memory is good enough that he knows exactly where Coop fits into their history, but this is all rapidly spinning out of control.

“Okay, fine, you’re right—I left Coop out, but I did that for you.”

Bucky stares at him like he’s grown a second head. “For me? You left out one of the most important parts of my life, and that’s doing me a favor?!”

“I told you: Coop was my friend, not yours. He—”

“I don’t care about stupid Cooper! That’s not the point! It’s what happened because of that idiot that should have been in here!”

Steve blinks. Bucky can’t be talking about what Steve thinks he’s talking about…can he? “What—what do you remember about Coop?”

“What do you want me to remember?” Bucky snarls.

Steve stares at him. “What? What the hell does that mean?”

Suddenly, the anger seems to drain out of Bucky. His face crumbles and he looks close to tears. Steve is left reeling, having no idea what caused the abrupt mood change.

Bucky is staring at him, looking devastated. “You kept Hughie out of the journals, so clearly, you don’t want me to remember anything about him or what came after.”

“That’s—that ain’t true.” Jesus Christ. “That ain’t true at all. I didn’t—I couldn’t—” He’s feeling a bit lightheaded and he stumbles to his couch and sinks down, struggling to keep his breathing even. He can’t believe they’re talking about Coop.

He can’t have this conversation in the middle of the night.

He can’t have this conversation in the middle of the day either.

He can’t ever have this conversation. He’s not strong enough.

“I—Jesus. Buck, that whole thing—what happened with Coop and what came after, that’s—that’s not just ancient history for me. It ain’t just something that happened in the past. My—my heart’s still there. And I guess I’m too much of a coward and I couldn’t handle writing it all down, knowing that’s all in the past.”

“Is it?”

Steve swallows hard and squeezes his eyes shut for a second. His heart is aching and he wants to open his eyes and discover that it’s 1940 again. He wants to open his eyes and see that he’s twenty-two and about to kiss his best friend for the first time and he doesn’t know it, but the next three years will be the best three years of his life, before the stupid war takes everything away from them.

But it’s not 1940. It’s 2017 and his best friend isn’t his best friend anymore, and the love of his life no longer loves him. Instead, his former best friend and former person-who-loved-Steve is upset that cetain things are still too raw for Steve to talk about. Great.

“Is it?!” Bucky snaps.

Bucky’s angry words make Steve’s eyes open. “Is what?”

“Is all that in the past?” Bucky sounds weird when he asks the question. He’s angry again, but still upset.

Steve rubs his hands over his face. He can’t do this. “Buck, please don’t do this to me. Please. I can’t—I can’t handle talking about this. Maybe in a few years, but not now. I can’t—I—I gave you as much as I can with those journals and I’m sorry if I left out some important things, but I can’t spend time thinking about those things because it just hurts too damn—” The words catch in his throat and he knows he’s on the verge of bursting into tears. “—too damn much.”

He’s focusing so hard on not letting himself cry that he doesn’t notice Bucky kneeling before him until he feels Bucky’s right hand pulling his hands away from his face. “Breathe. You ain’t breathing right and you’re gonna give yourself chest pains. It ain’t good for your heart, you know that.”

“Buck, please,” Steve whispers. He doesn’t even know what he’s begging for, he just needs this pain to stop. He can’t be bothered to correct Bucky’s concerns about his heart. Well—he’s definitely have heart pain, but it’s not the type of heart pain he used to get.

“Stevie, look at me,” Bucky whispers, his hand on Steve’s chin, but not forcing him to look up. He just gently strokes his chin, waiting.

Hearing that nickname is like twisting the knife that lives in his chest. But at the same time, Steve’s spent so many nights wishing he could hear Bucky’s voice one more time, especially hearing Bucky call him ‘Stevie’ and saying a bunch of other wonderful things to him. Now that it’s actually happening, Steve can’t decide whether it’s worth the pain.

When Steve finally manages to look up, Bucky is staring at him with wide eyes. The anger is gone.

Bucky’s thumb gently rubs Steve’s chin. “I think we’re being idiots and we both want the same thing, but we’re too scared to say what we want because we think the other doesn’t want it.”

Steve’s so overwhelmed with emotions that he doesn’t really understand what Bucky’s saying.

Bucky keeps talking softly. “We’ve been here before. I remember. Back then, it was just me who was scared, wasn’t it?”

A small glimmer of hope springs to life in Steve’s chest, but he grabs hold of it before it can grow any bigger. He needs to be sure. Jesus—if Bucky’s saying what he thinks he’s saying, he needs to be sure. “What—what do you remember?”

Bucky gives him a half-smile, that’s soft and familiar and it’s so different from the polite, bland smile he’s been giving Steve lately. This is Bucky’s true smile, the one that’s filled with love and affection, which he only ever gave the people he loved. His fingers are still gently stroking Steve’s chin. “Hughie Cooper was one of our neighbors when we moved into that apartment on Montague, right?”

Steve manages to nod.

“I remember he offered to help you carry your bags upstairs when we moved in. That’s when we met him. I hated him from that day.”

Steve can’t help the smile that tugs on his lips. “I know you did. I didn’t know why at the time. I wasn’t even paying attention, I was just cold and worried about what we were gonna eat for dinner. Some random person wants to help carry my things, sure, why not? I remember he told me to call him Coop, and then you called him Hughie. He told you he didn’t like being called Hughie, so when you kept calling him Hughie, I couldn’t figure out what he’d done to annoy you so quick. You’d met the man two minutes ago and you already decided you didn’t like him. That wasn’t like you.”

Bucky lets out a quiet snort. “I saw how he looked at you, that was the problem. I’d gotten so used to being in love with you that it didn’t hurt anymore, it was just part of my life. But when I realized that somebody else might feel the same way about you, it did something to me. It made me feel real ugly inside. I didn’t like it, but there it was.”

“You didn’t tell me any of that, cause you were an idiot,” Steve says, smiling sadly. “You kept being nasty to Coop for no reason until I finally told you to quit it. I got mad cause I thought you were jealous of me being friends with Coop.”

The whole thing had annoyed and angered Steve. Coop was the first friend Steve had made as just ‘Steve’, not as ‘Bucky’s best friend, Steve’.

Coop was very nice to him. He helped Steve carry stuff and he shared food when he had some to spare, he loved looking at Steve’s art and helped him with the washing and sewing. Coop was just a very friendly, helpful person…which is why Steve had never understood why Bucky had such problems with him.

It didn’t help that Bucky could never seem to articulate why he didn’t like Coop, he just kept making rude remarks about him, calling him Hughie when he knew Coop hated it, and refusing his assistance, even when they desperately needed it.

Steve had tried reasoning with Bucky, he’d tried yelling, he’d tried threatening, he’d tried bribing him, but nothing he did made Bucky change his mind about Coop. After having endless fights over it, they finally came to the agreement that Bucky would ignore Coop whenever he was around and wouldn’t make snide remarks whenever Steve brought him up.

That went relatively well, until Coop started spending even more time with Steve. Bucky was busy at his new job at the docks and Coop always seemed to have free time when Steve had free time, and it was nice spending time with somebody different.

Then Bucky had gotten the flu and it had scared Steve so badly that he spent weeks glued to Bucky’s side once he came home from the hospital. Steve accompanied him to and from work and checked up on him during the day, even if he had to sneak out of his own shift at work to go make sure Bucky was still doing okay. Coop invited him to spend time together, but Steve hadn’t felt comfortable leaving Bucky yet. But eventually, things calmed down and when Bucky’s work schedule was back to normal, Steve went back to accepting Coop’s invitations to spend time together.

A few weeks later, there was the evening when Steve was getting ready to go to the pictures with Coop, and that’s when everything changed.

“Buck, can I borrow your work gloves?”

“Sure, pal. They’re in the closet. You can use my scarf too, I ain’t going anywhere. Where are you goin’?”

“To the pictures.”

“Oh! What are you seeing?”

“Don’t know. Coop says something good’s just opened.”

That was greeted by the predictable silence. Steve steeled himself for another fight, but at the same time, he hurried over to the closet and pulled out Bucky’s warm work gloves. The faster he got out of the apartment, the shorter the fight would be.

“You’re going with Hughie?” Disdain dripped from every single one of Bucky’s words.

“Yup.” He found Bucky’s gloves and hurried to the door to grab his hat, scarf, jacket and Bucky’s scarf.

“Hughie invited you?”

“Yup.” He buttoned up his jacket as quickly as possible. Just a few more seconds and he’d be out of the apartment and away from Bucky’s Coop-induced bad mood.

“You got money for the ticket or you sneaking in?”

“Coop’s gonna pay for me. Says he got a raise at work.” He yanked his hat down around his ears and wrapped the two ratty scarves around his neck.

He was so focused on getting out of the apartment quickly, that the sudden thud of Bucky slamming his fists onto the table scared the daylights out of him. He spun around, his heart in this throat and glared at Bucky, who was moodily staring at the sock he was darning at the table.

“Jesus, Buck! What the hell’s gotten into you, huh? You’re gonna break the table, you damn twit.”

“I ain’t gonna break the table!”

Steve stared at him. “You wanna come with us? Is that the problem? I thought you said you were tired and you wanted to finish your socks, but I can help you with ‘em when we—”

Bucky slammed his fists on the table again and glared at Steve, the sock bunched up in his hand. “I ain’t wanna go to the stupid pictures!”

“Then what the hell is wrong with you, Barnes? You’re being an idiot.”

Bucky abruptly torn his gaze off Steve and stared at the far window. He didn’t say anything, so eventually Steve turned back to the door to head out. Coop was waiting for him and he didn’t want to miss the beginning of the picture.

“What the hell is wrong with me?” Bucky suddenly demanded.

Steve paused, his hand on the door knob. He swallowed a sigh. Sometimes Barnes was just too much to deal with. “That’s what I asked you, you idiot! If I knew what was wrong with you, I’d tell you, wouldn’t I? I’m tired of your stupid mood and dumb behavior. I’ve been asking you for weeks to tell me what’s wrong and you never wanna talk about it.”

Bucky made an unhappy sound and pushed himself up from the table. He took two strides across the room and came to a stop a foot away from Steve. He stared down at him imploringly, his eyes desperate. “Why him? Why not me?”

Steve stared at him. “Are you drunk? What the hell are you talking about? I told you a hundred times already: if you wanna come to the pictures with us, you can, but you gotta hurry or we’re gonna miss the beginning.” He feels like he’s talking to Becca when she was little.

Bucky made a pained noise and scrubbed his hands through his hair. “What does Coop have that I don’t?”

“Uh…he’s got the money for the tickets?”

Something sparked in Bucky’s eyes. “Is it money? Is that it? He makes more than me? I didn’t think…but I guess…”

Steve feels like he’s talking to a foreigner who can’t speak English properly. “What? I have no idea how much Coop makes. Who cares? You ain’t making any sense. Hurry up and spit it out or I’m leaving. I’m gonna be late and that’s rude.”

“Are you in love with him?”

That made Steve burst out laughing. “Oh, you’re in a special mood today, huh? What a performance!” He chuckled a bit more, shaking his head at Bucky. “You’re such a goof, Buck. Anyway, you’re gonna make me la—”

Bucky clenches his jaw and his eyes sparked. “Can you take this seriously for two seconds, Rogers?! Answer the damn question! Are. You. In. Love. With. Him?”

The laughter died on Steve’s lips. He stared at Bucky, realizing that he was serious. He’d meant the question seriously. The whole thing bewildered Steve even more than before. “Am I in love with Coop? You’re seriously asking me if I’m in love with Cooper?”

“Yes,” Bucky grit out between clenched teeth, his eyes filled with pain and his jaw clenched tightly.

Steve wanted to laugh at how ridiculous this whole thing was, but now that he understood that this was important for Bucky, he didn’t want to hurt his feelings any more than he had by not taking this seriously. “Buck. Of course I ain’t in love with Cooper. Why would I be? We’re just friends.”

Bucky let out an ugly laugh, drenched in pain. “That ain’t what he thinks and it ain’t what he wants.”

Steve blinked. “What?”

Bucky scrubbed his hands through his hair again and threw a glare at Steve. “You seriously didn’t notice? All the flirting? The way he looks at you? The constant presents he gives you? And now he’s taking you out on dates?! And you think he just wants to be friends?!”

“How does he look at me?! He looks at me normally. Like you do.”

That brought out another ugly laugh and Bucky spun away from him. He went back to the table and clutched the back of his chair.

Steve frowned. Bucky’s behavior was starting to worry him. “Are you feeling okay? You ain’t getting sick again, are you?” Bucky had said some silly things when he’d been delirious, so that could explain this strange conversation. Just the thought of Bucky being that sick again made that fear come back, and Steve hurried across the room and stuck his hand against Bucky’s forehead.

Bucky made a face and shoved his hand away. “I ain’t sick.”

Steve frowned. “Well, you’re something. Why are you acting so weird? What’s wrong?”

Bucky stared at the surface of the table. The earlier annoyance faded from his face and now he looked devastated. “You—” The words caught in Bucky’s throat and he swallowed hard and took a deep breath before trying again. “You really didn’t realize what he was doing?”

“Who, Coop? What was Coop doing?”

Bucky closed his eyes. He looked like he was in pain. “He’s always flirting with you.”

Steve shrugged. “Maybe. You know I’m terrible at reading social cues. But in this neighborhood, that ain’t weird. You flirt with everybody too—dames and fellas.”

“That’s—that’s different. It’s harmless flirting. It ain’t gonna lead to nothing and everybody involved knows it. Are you—would you ever be interested if Coop wanted…something more from you?”

It didn’t escape Steve’s notice that Bucky called him ‘Coop’ instead of Hughie. He must be really upset if he didn’t remember to use his usual insults against him.

Steve considered Bucky’s question for a minute. He’d never spent much time considering such things. Bucky liked both women and men, and he attracted both as well. Steve never had anybody express any romantic interest in him, and he’d honestly never given the matter much thought. He just assumed one day he’d be attracted to somebody who would be attracted by him and then things would fall into place.

He’d never considered whether he’d want that special person to be a man or a woman. He’d always assumed it would be a woman, but the queer fellas around their neighborhood—and even the half-queers like Bucky—seemed to get on well with each other. So it wouldn’t be earth-shattering if the special person ended up being a man instead of a woman.

Maybe that person could be Coop. Steve wasn’t attracted to him, but maybe that would happen over time? Nobody said it had to happen instantly, did they? “I guess—I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing where that went.”

Bucky was gripping the chair so hard that it creaked in protest. Steve opened his mouth to tell him to ease up before he broke the chair, but when Bucky spoke, it wiped those words from his mind.

“Would you ever wanna see where it went with me?” The words were so quiet that Steve barely heard him.

Steve stared at him, feeling like he was coming out of a delirium. The world never made much sense when he came back to himself, and that’s how he felt now. “Buck, what are you saying? You gotta start being clear. You know I ain’t good at this kind of talk.”

Bucky released the chair and slowly turned to Steve. He stared at him, his eyes wide and vulnerable. He seemed to be steeling himself for something. Finally, he took a deep breath and blurted out: “I love you. Not just as a friend. I’m in love with you and I have been for a long, long time.”

Chapter Text

Bucky released the chair and slowly turned to Steve. He stared at him, his eyes wide and vulnerable. He seemed to be steeling himself for something. Finally, he took a deep breath and blurted out: “I love you. Not just as a friend. I’m in love with you and I have been for a long, long time.”

Steve gaped at him. It took him a few seconds to find his voice and remember how to use it. “Are you serious?”

“I’m being more serious than I’ve ever been in my life.”

It left Steve speechless. “I—I have no idea what to say.”

“I don’t wanna make things weird. I just—I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time, and now I did. Coop’s gonna put his cards on the table any day now, so I figured I’d do the same. Now it’s up to you. Nothing’s gotta change between the two of us, I just wanted you to know. But I’m pretty sure Coop has no idea that you don’t understand what’s going on, so if you wanna avoid making things awkward, I’d—”

“You’re in love with me?”

Bucky let out a small, tired laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“When—I mean—how do you know?”

“I just do, Stevie. People just know these things. You feel it deep in your gut every time you think about the person or see the person. It’s hard to explain, but I know what it is.”

Steve had no idea what to do with that information. “I—Buck, I’m sorry.”

“What? For what?”

“I think—I guess I did something to make this happen? I didn’t mean to make a mess of things.”

Bucky frowned at him. “You didn’t do nothing. That’s the point: I fell in love with you because you’re you. You didn’t do nothing special or different or wrong. You’re just you and I fell in love with you at some point. It ain’t your fault. Ain’t really my fault either.”

“So…so where do we go from here?”

“Like I told you: we don’t gotta go anywhere. We can pretend this whole conversation never happened and nothing’s gonna change. I’m good at loving you without you noticing, trust me. I’ve had plenty of practice. I know I’ve been struggling with being jealous when it comes to Coop, but I’ll work on that, I promise. But you really do have to talk to Coop about this because it’ll get awkward quick, and you don’t like awkward situations. Well—if you’re gonna tell him that you’re interested, then it won’t get awkward, I guess.”

“Right.”

Steve stood there, nodding and blinking and feeling like his world had just turned upside down. A few minutes ago, he’d been ready to go to the pictures with a good friend, while his best friend stayed home, darning socks. Nobody was attracted to Steve and certainly nobody was in love with Steve, and things were normal.

Now, apparently, both the good friend and the best friend are in love with him?

What the hell was he supposed to do with this information?

As he stood there, he realized he was starting to sweat from wearing his winter layers and standing so close to the stove. That reminded him that Coop was waiting for him downstairs and he needed to deal with that situation before anything else.

Turning, he headed out of the apartment and shut the door behind him. He didn’t have his keys, but it didn’t matter. He knew he wouldn’t be gone for long.

As he started down the stairs, he caught sight of Coop coming up towards him. “Hey, Steve! I was just coming up to get you. Thought you’d changed your mind.”

“No. Well, sort of. Can we—Coop, do you mind if we talk?”

“We’re gonna miss the beginning of the picture…”

“I know, I’m sorry. After we talk, if you still wanna go to the pictures, we can. Or we can go next week too. But we really gotta talk before we go.”

Coop shrugged. “Alright. You wanna talk up in your place?”

“Oh, no, no. Bucky’s home. Can we talk in yours?”

“Sure.”

They trudged down the stairs and Steve followed Coop to his apartment. Thankfully, both of Cooper’s roommates were out. Steve stepped inside just enough to lean the door shut behind him.

Cooper stuck his hands into his pocket and rocked back on his heels, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “So? What did you wanna talk about?”

Steve struggled to maintain eye contact with Cooper. That was always hard for him, but Bucky had drilled it into him how important it was to maintain eye contact, especially during tough conversations. It would exude confidence, which Steve rarely actually had, but maintaining the appearance of having it was always good—according to Bucky.

“Uh…Bucky said something today that I found a bit…surprising.”

Coop made a face. “You know Barnes don’t like me. You gotta take that into account.”

“Oh, I know that. It ain’t nothing like that. He—he said that…well…geez. I ain’t too good at these kinds of conversations, Coop.”

Coop gave him an encouraging smile. “Well, just spit it out real quick. Get it out in the open and then we’ll deal with it.”

Steve shifted back and forth on his feet. Taking a deep breath, he decided to follow Coop’s advice and just go for it. “Bucky says you’ve been flirting with me. As in—you might be interested in something more than just being friends?”

Steve carefully studied Coop’s facial reactions. He didn’t look surprised or offended. Instead, he smiled.

Shit.

“Well, yeah. I guess I wasn’t doing that great of a job if you didn’t realize what I was doing.”

“Oh, no, no. It’s not you, trust me. It’s me. I ain’t…I ain’t good with that stuff.”

Coop frowned. “But I thought…I see you at the queer dance halls with Bucky all the time.”

“Oh, sorry, I don’t mean I ain’t good with…queer stuff. Well, I ain’t good good with it as in doing those things myself, but I…I don’t really…I haven’t ever given those things much thought. I ain’t too clear on where I personally stand on those things. Uh. No, that ain’t…I mean—” Steve swallowed and tried to get his rambling thoughts into order. This was always when Bucky would gently interject and steer the conversation back on track. But Bucky wasn’t here so Steve was on his own.

“I mean, I know I don’t got nothing against queers or anybody like that. Bucky’s half-queer and that’s who he is, and I know lots of queer people—like you—and anyway, I—that ain’t what I was trying to say. I mean, I’ve never really thought about where I stand in the scheme of things.”

Coop frowned. “You’ve never had…thoughts about somebody else?”

“Well, kind of? I notice if somebody’s attractive, but I’ve never had people interested in me like that so I’ve always avoided thinking about it. It worked out better for everyone that way. Anyway, that’s why I didn’t realize you were flirting with me. I’m real sorry.”

Coop smiled. “Well, you don’t gotta be sorry for not understanding something you’re not familiar with. What’s more important is what you think now that you understand how I feel.”

Steve licked his lips, noticing they were really dry. And despite this apartment not being as warm as theirs—Bucky always kept the fire going so Steve would be warm, even if he had to steal other people’s furniture to use for firewood—he’d started sweating again. “I—Coop, I just—I…”

Jesus Christ.

Coop’s smile got a bit more strained and he took a little step back. “I see. You ain’t interested.”

“I—you’re a great fella and you’re the first friend I’ve ever had, aside from Bucky. But I just—I ain’t ready for something like that.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Coop’s smile disappeared completely and he looked upset. “Was it something Barnes said? Cause if it was, I’d like the chance to set the record straight.”

That offended Steve a little bit. “No! This has nothing to do with Buck. I can make up my own mind about things. It ain’t got nothing to do with you. I just—I ain’t ever done something like this before and I ain’t ready.”

Coop looked a bit ashamed at that. “Of course. Sorry, I’m just…this ain’t how I thought this would go.”

“I know. I’m real sorry, I really am. You’re an amazing person, but I ain’t ready.”

Coop nodded his head and stared at the floor.

An awkward silence descended, during which Steve kept shifting around and tried not to stare at Coop.

When it became clear that Coop wasn’t going to break the silence, Steve decided it was up to him. “So…I don’t…I’ve never had this happen before. Can we still…stay friends? Is that okay?”

Coop made a face, but didn’t look at Steve. “I…I can’t do that, Steve. That’s too hard. Sorry.”

That was the second time that day that Steve felt like the world had turned inside out.

That hurt. That really hurt.

He’d never considered that Coop might want to end their friendship over this. It wasn’t fair! None of this was his fault, and he was going to lose one of his only two friends?

He stood there, gaping at Coop, struggling not to cry and having no idea about what to do next.

Finally, Coop looked up and gave him a tight smile. “Well, I guess that’s it. Have a good night, Steve.”

“Right. You—you too.”

Somehow, Steve’s feet carried him out of the apartment and back up the stairs. He opened the apartment door and took off his winter clothes, his mind still downstairs with Coop.

“Did you talk to him?” Bucky asked from behind him.

Steve hung up his jacket and smoothed down the fabric. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”

“What—How—Wanna tell me about it?”

“Not really.” He felt his throat tightening as tears filled his eyes and he knew he was on the verge of bursting into tears.

Silence. Then: “Okay. I made you dinner and I finished my socks so I started on a pair of yours. I’m doing the grey ones that—”

“He said we’re no longer friends,” Steve burst out, letting the tears stream down his face. It felt so childish and ridiculous to say—but damn it, it hurt. It really, really hurt.

Maybe for other people who had lots of friends, losing one like this wouldn’t hurt, but Steve had never had that luxury.

He felt Bucky’s hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. “I’m sorry, Stevie. I’m so sorry.”

Steve turned around, sobbing. He wanted Bucky to hug him and tell him it would be okay and things would work out—but there was something else that occurred to Steve. There was one other way that this day could get even worse.

Much, much worse.

He hadn’t actually told Bucky what he thinks about Bucky’s feelings for him. He’d told Coop what he thinks, and Coop had yanked their friendship away in the blink of an eye. What if Bucky did the same?

Oh, God, what if Bucky did the same?

“Here, come here.” Bucky tried to pull him into his arms to comfort him, but Steve pushed him back. He was already upset and his world had already turned upside down. If it was going to get worse, he wanted that to happen right now.

He stared at Bucky through his tears. “What if—what if I ain’t ready to be with you the way you wanna be with me? What if I’m never ready? What if that ain’t what I want?”

Bucky frowned at him. “What?”

Steve decided to be as blunt as possible. Tear the bandage off as quickly as he could. “I don’t love you like you love me.”

“I—I know that. It’s fine. I accepted it. I’d rather have your friendship than nothing. Don’t be stupid, you’re the most important person in my life.”

Steve struggled to catch his breath between sobs. “Coop would rather have nothing with me than just friendship.”

Bucky sighed. “Yeah. That’s how some people are. It hurts them too much to be around the person they love without that person feeling the same. I guess it’s different for me. Maybe I can handle the pain better, or I’ve gotten so used to the idea that you don’t feel the same way so I can deal with it better. I guess Coop never even thought about you not feeling the same way and wanting the same thing. Maybe that surprise made things worse for him.”

“He—he was my friend, Buck,” Steve whispered.

“I know. I’m so sorry. Do you want a hug? Or some caramels? We’ve still got two pieces left. Or do you wanna go throw rocks off the bridge?”

Steve stared at him through his tears. Here was Bucky, who had apparently been in love with Steve for years, who would have supported him if he had decided to begin a romantic relationship with somebody else, and who was doing everything possible to make him feel better…even knowing that Steve didn’t feel the same way about him.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost you, Buck. I honestly don’t know.”

Bucky smiled. “You ain’t ever gonna have to find out, so forget about all that.”

*             *             *

Steve smiles down at Bucky, who’s leaning against his legs, listening to Steve recounting that day. “You’ve always been an amazing fella, Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky smiles and rubs Steve’s leg. “So are you.” Then he frowns. “So I remember most of that, but the next thing I remember is us kissing, and I don’t think that happened that day, did it?”

Steve snorts. “No. That happened weeks later. But of course you’d remember the kissing part more than anything else.” He pats the couch next to him while Bucky smirks at him. “Come sit up here, jerk.”

Bucky slides onto the couch next to him and then curls up with his head on Steve’s lap. “So tell me how we got to kissing, and don’t leave anything out.”

Steve smiles, running his fingers through Bucky’s long hair. “Yes, sir.”

*             *             *

Losing Coop hurt. Thankfully, Coop moved out of their apartment building within a week, so at least Steve wasn’t running into him anymore in the hallways, but losing Coop’s friendship had hurt.

Bucky had thrown himself into making Steve feel better and he made sure they did all the activities Steve liked doing. He even gave Steve his Christmas present early—a set of new drawing pencils—and they went to Coney Island and ate way too much cotton candy and whenever Steve wanted to play another game or go for another ride, Bucky always had the necessary money on him. Steve didn’t know where Bucky got the money from, but he didn’t really care.

Every day that passed, Steve was reminded again of how lucky he was to have Bucky in his life.

Bucky didn’t bring up his own feelings for Steve, he never said another mean thing about Coop and he stuck to Steve’s side like glue. If Steve wanted a hug, he got a hug. If Steve wanted to go for a walk in the middle of the night, they went for a walk. If Steve wanted to sit and stare out the window for hours, Bucky would do the cooking, washing, cleaning and sewing, and every few hours check on Steve and give him a hug or read to him or sing for him—and that was all after working a twelve hour shift.

Steve tried apologizing a few times. He’d realized that he was probably being a bit overly dramatic. People lost friendships all the time. He had no right to act like he’d lost a family member.

Except Bucky pointed out that Steve had gotten very attached to Coop and while he hadn’t loved him like family, it had been a near thing, hadn’t it? When Steve cared about somebody, he put his whole heart and soul into caring, so it made sense that his heart and soul were both grieving over the loss.

Two weeks after Coop had ended their friendship, Steve was more or less back on his feet. He’d gone back to looking for work and he was back to doing his share of the chores at home and pulling his weight.

Things would have settled back to being the way they’d been before—except Steve’s eyes had been opened to a whole new reality.

He’d spent most of his life accepting that people weren’t interesting in having a romantic relationship with him, and he’d gotten so accustomed to it that it no longer bothered him and he didn’t spend any time worrying about it. If it happened, it would happen. That’s what he’d always thought.

But now, he’d realized that he didn’t have to play such a passive role in things. He had proof that two handsome, amazing men were attracted to him and saw him as a potential partner.

That meant there had to be others who felt the same. That meant, maybe there were other people out there who could be interested in Steve, and all Steve had to do was make sure they saw he was open to the idea.

But that meant flirting. That meant striking up conversations with people out of the blue. That meant going on dates. That meant…a whole lot other things that Steve had heard of and seen a little of, but didn’t know the details of—not for Bucky’s lack of trying, but Steve always felt so embarrassed when Bucky started talking about such things that he had to plug his ears until Bucky stopped talking.

All of those are things he was either terrible at, or didn’t have any experience with.

He couldn’t handle learning how to do all those things at once. He wasn’t ready for something like that, with Coop or anybody else.

Except…

Except he could hold conversations with Bucky, couldn’t he? He talked to Bucky all the time. He could initiate conversations, change conversations, stop conversations. He was great at doing that with Bucky.

And going on dates couldn’t be so different from when he and Bucky went out, right? They went to all the same places that people took their dates—the pictures, dinners, the fair, dance halls, the beach. He never felt awkward in those situations.

But then he gets confused. He hadn’t been dating Bucky all this time, had he? No, that would be ridiculous. He’d know.

But would he really know?

As soon as his shift at the bookshop was done, he’d hurried home and burst through the door. “Buck, are we dating?”

Bucky didn’t even stop stirring the soup on the stove. “Of course we are. We date here and there and everywhere. We date all the time. In fact, we never stop dating. We date all over the place, it’s terrible. I’m shocked you ain’t noticed.”

Steve stood frozen on the threshold, feeling panic flooding him.

Then Bucky glanced up from the soup and Steve saw the mischievous smirk on his face. For good measure, Bucky wiggled his eyebrows.

“Jesus, Barnes! I was being serious!”

Bucky burst out laughing. “Sure, you were. So was I.”

*             *             *

Bucky bursts out laughing and nearly rolls off Steve’s lap. Steve wraps his arm around his hip to keep him steady.

“I remember that!” Bucky says. “I knew you weren’t kidding with the question, but I heard how panicked you sounded. I wanted to make you feel better and make you laugh.”

Steve smiles and gently smacks Bucky’s hip. “Jerk. Quit interrupting. You wanna hear about the kissing or not?”

Bucky smiles happily and buries his face in Steve’s shirt-covered stomach. “Okay, okay. Keep going.”

*             *             *

“Sure, you were. So was I.”

Steve glared at him. “This ain’t funny! Ever since this thing with Coop, my head’s been all over the place.”

That wiped the smile off Bucky’s face. He stopped stirring and fully turned to face Steve. “What happened?”

“Are we dating?”

“No, Steve. No, we ain’t. Both people gotta know they’re dating for it to be dating. Just cause we do things that people do on dates, don’t mean we’re dating. When you do those with dates, it’s to get to know ‘em better. For friends like us, we just do those things because we like spending time together. There ain’t no rule that some things are only for dates and other things are for friends. Well—certain…intimate things are usually just for dates, but that ain’t what we’re talking about.”

Steve pressed his lips together. He knew what he wanted to say, but he knew he’d never be able to take it back once it was out. But unlike with Coop, Steve knew exactly where he stood with Bucky. If Bucky didn’t like the idea, he’d say so, they’d discuss it and they’d move on.

“Could we—I mean, would you want—would you want us to try—to do dating?”

Bucky frowned at him. “Did Mr. Hartley share his whisky with you again? I told you not to do that on an empty stomach.”

Steve glared. “I ain’t drunk, I’m asking a serious question.”

Bucky snorted and turned back to the stove. “Can you cut some bread, please? The soup’s ready.”

Taking two strides to the stove, Steve stood behind Bucky, but he didn’t reach for the cupboard with the bread. Instead, he reached around, took the spoon out of Bucky’s hands and pulled the pot to the side of the stove. Then he yanked on Bucky’s arm until he turned around.

“Steve—”

“I wanna talk about this.”

Bucky’s jaw clenched. “Well, I don’t.”

“Why not?” Steve demanded, glaring up at him.

Bucky sighed, his jaw still tight. “Because you always do this. You get a thought into your head and you need to run off and do it right away. That’s fine when the thought is about punching Ned Fucker in—”

*             *             *

“Ned Fucker! I knew I had a special name for that idiot! I just couldn’t remember what it was. I can’t believe I forgot about that! Why didn’t you put that in the notebooks?”

“I told you: I couldn’t put everything in there. You can add that yourself, that’s why I left empty pages. Are you gonna hush or do you want me to go to bed?”

“Sorry, keep going, keep going. Kissing time, right?”

“No, not yet. You were being silly first. Then there was kissing.”

“I’m never silly.”

Steve smiles and smacks Bucky on the ass. “Shut up and listen.”

*             *             *

“This ain’t a random thought, Barnes!”

“The hell it ain’t! You’ve never thought about me like that until this whole thing with Coop happened. I can’t—I ain’t gonna be your little experiment, Rogers. I ain’t a pair of shoes that you can try on just cause you think they suddenly look neat and you wanna see how they feel on your feet.”

Steve scoffed at him. “You think I’m gonna kick you off the second I get bored?”

“Maybe. And I can’t handle that.”

Steve gave him an unimpressed look. What an idiot. “How could I ever get bored of you? You’re my other half. That’s like saying I’m gonna get tired of breathing one day and just stop. It’s not possible.”

Bucky stared at him, his jaw shifting. He looked scared. “Stevie, don’t do this, okay? I’m fine keeping things as they are. But don’t make me hand you my heart if you ain’t serious about taking care of it properly.”

Steve reeled back from him, shocked. He couldn’t believe Bucky would even think of such a thing. “You think I’d do that you? Seriously?!”

“I don’t know what you’d do, and neither do you. You’ve never gone steady with somebody before. What if you get nervous and decide it’s too weird and then you decide it’s too awkward to be around me?”

“I wouldn’t. Buck, I wouldn’t. But if we’re talking about this, then why should I trust you when you don’t trust me?”

“What? Why the hell wouldn’t you trust me?”

Steve gave him a pointed look. “You’re in love with me, but you don’t got any more experience at being with somebody than I do.”

“I’ve been with—”

“You making time with some dame or fella in a dance hall or spending the night at their place ain’t what this is. I ain’t going into this to try on a pair of shoes and kick them off the next morning. You don’t know how to do this any better than I do. But I trust you.”

Bucky stared at him, looking very vulnerable. “This is a big deal for me, Rogers. If things don’t go well—”

“If things don’t go well, we’ll fix them. We always do, don’t we? How many problems have we faced? How many things have we lived through? We can do this.”

Bucky pressed his lips together. “Why?”

“Why can we do this? Cause we—”

“No, why now?”

“Because until this whole thing with Coop, I didn’t think I could have this. Not something like this—” he’d gestured between them. “I was so stuck on the idea that I just have to wait and the right person would come along, that I didn’t even think about looking around to see if the right person was standing next to me already.”

They stared at each other. Bucky still looked unsure about the whole thing, and Steve hated seeing him like that.

He stepped up to Bucky and pulled his head down onto his shoulder and wrapped his arms around him. “It’s okay, Buck. I promise. If you don’t wanna do this, we won’t. But I trust you, and if you trust me, then I think this could be something amazing.”

Slowly, Bucky’s arms wrapped around Steve’s back and he buried his face into Steve’s neck.

Steve rubbed Bucky’s back. “Come on, let’s eat dinner.”

*             *             *

“Where’s the kissing?!”

“You were so nervous at that point, I was worried you’d pass out. You couldn’t even hold a conversation throughout dinner. Kissing wasn’t on either of our minds, Barnes. Just wait.”

Chapter Text

Even though Steve had known that things wouldn’t change overnight, a small part of him had worried that things would be a little awkward, a little different.

But nothing changed.

They had dinner, they washed up, they talked about their day and they went to bed.

This had continued for a week. Sometimes Steve thought that maybe he’d dreamt up that whole conversation with Bucky in his head and it hadn’t actually happened. Steve realized that was the downside to dating his best friend who he was currently living with. They already did many things that couples who were dating did.

Except certain things.

When it became clear that Bucky wouldn’t move things forward until Steve pushed him, Steve had decided to take matters into his own hands.

When they’d come home from the dance hall one evening, Steve let Bucky walk into their apartment first. He’d taken off his jacket, hat and scarf and watched Bucky do the same.

Bucky had been humming one of the songs they’d danced to while he’d tossed his scarf over the hook by the door.

It was now or never. Steve felt a knot of nervousness in his gut, but he knew if he didn’t take this step forward, they might stay here forever. There was nothing wrong with that, but Steve wanted to move things forward and he was pretty sure Bucky wanted to as well.

Before Bucky could walk away from the hooks by the door, Steve grabbed his hips and spun him around, pushing him against their hanging jackets.

“I had a real great time tonight, Buck,” he said, trying to muster up a nice smile, despite his nerves.

Bucky’s face had lit up with a smile. “I’m glad! They played good songs tonight, huh? And you only stepped on my feet twice! I’m so proud!”

Steve snorted and then tightened his grip on Bucky’s hips. He couldn’t get distracted. “There’s only one thing that could make this evening end on a better note.”

Bucky smiled. “What? We’re outta caramel. We do got some taffy but you don’t like—”

“How about a kiss instead?”

The smile froze on Bucky’s lips, and he looked slightly panicked. “You—you sure?”

Steve grinned. “Uh huh. I think I earned it, didn’t I? Only stepping on your feet twice!”

Bucky’s eyes darted down to Steve’s lips, and then back up to his eyes. “Stevie, you don’t gotta—”

“I know I don’t gotta. But I wanna. If you don’t wanna, then—”

“I do wanna. I really, really wanna.”

“Then do it.”

Bucky stared down at him, his eyes huge. “I wanna do it right.”

“You’re thinking too much, Barnes. Here, I’ll go first and you can tell me how I did.” Before he could lose his nerve, Steve put his hands on Bucky’s face, leaned up and pressed a kiss against his dry, cold lips.

He pulled back and studied Bucky’s frozen face. “How was that?”

“I…”

For some reason, Bucky’s nervousness was helping Steve relax. This wasn’t scary. This was just Steve and Bucky. He didn’t have to be scared about Bucky’s reaction. Bucky wouldn’t hurt him or make fun of him. Bucky had seen him at his worst, at his most embarrassed, at his most nervous, and he’d never changed the way he treated Steve.

“Well, if you ain’t impressed, then let me try again.” Giving Bucky a grin, Steve leaned up and pressed another kiss to his lips. This time, he pressed his lips more firmly against Bucky’s and lingered a little longer. It was strange seeing Bucky’s face so close, so Steve closed his eyes before he pulled back.

Opening his eyes, he stared at Bucky.

Bucky was staring back at him. “You’re really serious about this?” he whispered. He looked so scared.

Steve immediately felt horrible. “Of course, I’m serious, Buck. I’d never hurt you! You know that! You know that! If you don’t wanna do this, just tell me. It’s fine. I hate—did you really think I wasn’t being serious?”

Bucky shrugged and looked down to study their shoes. “I—I don’t know. I didn’t know what to think. Everything’s been so topsy-turvy since the thing with Coop.”

Steve made a displeased sound and tugged Bucky into his arms, pulling his head into Steve’s neck and rubbing his back. “It’s okay. We don’t gotta do nothing. If this is too hard, we’ll just go back to normal. The only thing that changes is no more kissing. I promise, I’ll keep working hard not to step on your feet when we dance. That’s got nothing to do with this.”

Bucky huffed a laugh into his neck and wrapped his arms tightly around Steve. “I love you,” he mumbled into Steve’s neck.

Steve smiled, joy racing through him at the words.

“This is my best friend, Steve.”

“I love you.”

Then his smile faded when he realized that he didn’t know whether Bucky expected him to say it back. What if—

“You don’t gotta say nothing, Stevie. I just—I like saying it. It’s been in my head for so long, it’s nice to say it out-loud. Is that okay?”

Steve squeezed him tight. “Yeah, it’s alright. I like hearing it.”

It was clear Bucky was still feeling vulnerable, so Steve gently untangled them and encouraged Bucky to get started on his bedtime routine. By the time they were burying themselves under the covers and adjusting their limbs into their usual sleeping positions on the small bed, Steve could tell Bucky felt better.

Steve rolled over and shifted back until he was pressed against Bucky’s warmth. Fire on one side, Bucky on the other—the secret to Steve’s survival for twenty years. He closed his eyes. “Good night, Buck.”

“Good…”

Steve stayed still, waiting for Bucky to finish the sentence. When he didn’t, Steve opened his eyes again. “You gonna—”

“I still owe you a kiss, don’t I?”

Steve rolled over to face Bucky. He was on his side, staring at Steve from the pillow.

Smiling, Steve pulled his foot out from between Bucky’s legs and gently kicked him. “Yeah, but you can put them on your tab. In fact—I gave you two, so technically, you owe me two. But you can put ‘em both on your tab and pay up when you’re ready.”

“What if I’m ready now?”

Steve stared at him, carefully studying Bucky’s face. He didn’t look nervous anymore, his eyes were relaxed and happy, and he had that half-smile on his face.

Excitement raced through Steve and his stomach did a little flip—but it was a happy flip, not a nervous flip. Steve smiled. “I’m ready too. Just don’t think too hard about it. Just do it.”

Bucky stared at him a second longer, then he rolled himself up onto his elbow, put his other hand on Steve’s chin to gently turn it towards him, leaned down and brushed his lips against Steve’s.

His lips barely touched Steve’s, and when Steve felt him pull back, Steve tangled his hand in Bucky’s night shirt and kept him where he was. “That was half a kiss, Barnes. If that’s all you wanna do, fine, but I’m telling you that only gets half a kiss off your tab.”

Bucky stared down at him, his eyes searching his face for something. He must have found what he was looking for, because when he leaned down and pressed his lips against Steve’s again, the kiss was firmer and longer.

When Bucky pulled back, he didn’t go far. “When I’m kissing you, you can kiss me back. If—if you want to.”

Then Bucky went back to gently pressing kisses to his lips, eventually shifting himself so he was leaning over Steve more and tilting his head to change the angle of his lips. That’s when the kisses became firmer and Steve felt Bucky gently grabbing his night shirt.

It felt so nice—a little weird—but nice, and once Steve got accustomed to the feeling, he carefully started kissing Bucky back. He wasn’t sure if he was timing things right, and sometimes their lips made funny sounds, but it felt really nice, and when Bucky let out a happy whimper, Steve relaxed even more. He was happy, Bucky seemed happy, so things were good.

When Bucky finally pulled back with one last, lingering kiss, he stared down at Steve, his eyes glowing and that happy half-smile on his face.

“How was that?” Bucky whispered, still so close that Steve could feel his breath on his lips.

Steve grinned. “I couldn’t have asked for a better first kiss. Or a better second kiss. I’m not even sure how many kisses that was.”

“You want a few more?”

Steve smiled and leaned up to brush his nose against Bucky’s. “You paid your tab, Barnes. If you wanna go to sleep, we can.”

“I don’t wanna go to sleep.”

Steve grinned, his stomach flipping happily again. “I was hoping you’d say that. Now get back down here and let’s get back to the kissing.”

Bucky let out a happy laugh and leaned back down, pressing his lips back against Steve’s.

When they separate again, Steve smiled up at him. “Hey, Buck?”

“Hmm?”

“I promise I’ll take real good care of it.”

Bucky frowned down at him, confused. “Of what?”

“Your heart. Nothing bad’s gonna happen to it while I’m taking care of it, I promise.”

Bucky smiled, his eyes shimmering a bit. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.

Steve decided to help him out. “Get back down here. More kissing.”

*             *             *

“I know what happens after that,” Bucky mutters into Steve’s shirt.

Steve chuckles and keeps rubbing Bucky’s hip, which he’d been doing throughout the story. He’s exhausted, but his heart is glowing.

He doesn’t know or care about what will happen in the morning. Right now, he’s got Bucky back in his arms, they’re safe and warm and comfortable and Steve feels close to happiness for the first time since 1944.

“I know you know. But we didn’t do nothing more than just a little kissing that first night.”

“I know. I remember that. I was so damn scared when you kissed me when we got back from dancing. I thought you’d change your mind about the whole thing.”

“I promise, I wasn’t thinking about changing my mind. And I’m glad I didn’t.”

Bucky shifts a bit and rolls onto his back, staring up at Steve. “I remember when you told me you loved me for the first time.”

Steve smiles down at him. “Good. I didn’t know if you’d remember. I did wake you up in the middle of the night to tell you.”

“Yeah. But that’s the sort of thing a fella remembers, even if he’s half-asleep. I had such a smile on my face the whole day at work, everyone thought I was being ridiculous.”

Steve’s love for Bucky had slowly changed and grown over the months while they carefully navigated their changed relationship. On the outside, nothing much changed, except they slowly became more intimate with each other, but on the inside, Steve felt things changing and shifting as the months went by.

He’d always been so proud to be Bucky’s friend and he always loved Bucky so much that he was afraid he’d reached the limit of how much love he could feel for him, but then he’d started feeling that love change, and just like Bucky said: one night, Steve couldn’t sleep and he was lying in bed, staring at Bucky, and he just knew.

He’d woken Bucky up and told him he’d loved him. Of course, Bucky assumed Steve meant it in a platonic, familial way, so he’d just given him a sleepy smile, told him he loved him too and closed his eyes to go back to sleep.

Steve had shaken him awake again and informed him that Bucky needed to pay better attention, because this was very important and he wanted Bucky to know.

“I love you, Buck. I’m in love with you.”

Bucky had blinked, and Steve had watched his face, waiting for the meaning of the words to sink in. Once they did, Bucky suddenly looked wide awake, his eyes glowed and a thrilled smile had spread over his face. “Really? You sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure, Barnes! People just know these things. You feel it deep in your gut every time you think about the person or see the person. It’s hard to explain, but I know what it is.”

Bucky had laughed and rolled them over, pressing Steve into the pillows with hard kisses.

*             *             *

“That made me so happy,” Bucky mumbles.

“I know,” Steve says, smiling down at him.

They settled into silence, letting the past slowly recede as they settled back into the present.

As the glow of those memories fades, Steve slowly remembers their current circumstances. “Buck.”

“Hmm?”

“What are you thinking?”

“Right now? I’m looking at your ceiling and wondering what color that is. It’s a shimmery white, but it’s got some other colors in it too.”

Steve jostles his legs, shaking Bucky, who’s still lying with his head on his lap. “Quit being silly.”

“I ain’t being silly, I answered your question. You want a better answer, ask a better question.”

“Why did you ignore me when you came out of cryo?”

Bucky sighs softly. “I didn’t really ignore you. I still talked to you.”

“You—you were being weird and distant and you were breaking my heart and I don’t understand why.”

Bucky frowns. “Was I that bad?”

Steve lets out a pained laugh. “Yeah. You acted like I was a distant cousin of yours who you didn’t like being around but felt obligated to be polite to.”

Bucky rubs his right hand over his face and sighs. “Damn it. I’m sorry. I just—I remembered—I remembered being in love with you, and that’s…it’s been a long…I just. It’s a long and sad story.”

“I got time.”

“It’s the middle of the night and I woke you up. I don’t even know what time it is.”

Steve shrugs. “I’m awake now. If you wanna tell me the story, then I wanna hear it. But if you don’t wanna tell me, then we can go to sleep.”

“I wanna tell it. Can I stay in your lap or you want me to sit up? It’s not a nice story.”

“You can stay exactly where you are for the rest of your life and I’d die a happy man, but if you wanna sit up, then sit up.”

Bucky smiles softly, then rolls over to bury his face in Steve’s stomach again. He reaches out his right hand, gropes around until he finds Steve’s hand and puts it back on his hip. Steve immediately goes back to gently rubbing it and Bucky closes his eyes.

“When I realized I’d been captured by Hydra, I wasn’t too fussed cause I knew you’d come rescue me.”

It feels like a punch to the gut. Steve’s hand freezes and he can barely breathe. He hadn’t really stopped to consider what Bucky might be referring to when he’d said it would be a long and sad story.

He hadn’t mentally prepared himself for this conversation—especially a conversation where Bucky reminds him of his failure to rescue him from seventy years of hell. “Buck—”

Bucky opens his eyes and frowns up at him. When he sees how upset Steve looks, he sits up. “Hey, hey, hey. Don’t do that. Steve, come on. I know you didn’t know I was alive.”

“I—I would have come for you, Buck. I would have—”

Bucky makes a hushing sound and grabs Steve’s face with both hands. It’s the first time Bucky’s touching him with both hands.

“I know that. Jesus, of course I know that. You woulda torn the world apart looking for me and you wouldn’t have quit until you were dead or until you found me. But there was no point in tearing the world apart just to look for my body in the middle of nowhere when there was a war to fight and resources were scarce, right? And that’s what you thought you were dealing with.”

Bucky tilted Steve’s head whenever Steve dropped his eyes, so Steve had to maintain eye contact with him. “I really thought—” Steve whispers.

“I know. Of course you did. The problem was that I didn’t remember the train. I still don’t. The last thing I remember is us eating dinner in the mess tent—I don’t even remember how many days that was before the train. The next thing I remember is waking up in a recovery room after Hydra had put me back together. I didn’t know what had happened, how badly I’d been hurt or where I was. I didn’t even realize I was captured until I recognized the uniforms of the guards. Then they had their hands full with keeping me restrained.” Bucky drops his hands from Steve’s face. “I thought I’d been shot or I’d fallen down a hill or something. I was banged up and my arm had to go, but I felt okay in a few days. I had no idea I’d fallen off a God damn mountain. They never bothered telling me the whole story. I didn’t even know about the train until I read about me dying at the Smithsonian and then I looked it up on the internet.”

Steve stares at him. “Do you remember any of that now?”

“No.”

“That’s good. I mean—maybe you don’t like not remembering, but—I can’t get those memories outta my head, and I wish I could. I’m glad you don’t gotta live with those.”

Steve remembers the bitterly cold wind as he clung to the side of the train car, stretching his hand towards Bucky and screaming for him to grab his hand, his words being snatched away by the roar of the train engine and the whistling wind. He’d been so close! So close!

…and then the bar broke and Bucky had fallen.

Steve closes his eyes, pushing those memories away. He wants to focus on Bucky and hearing what he has to say. When he opens his eyes again, he sees Bucky staring at him, looking worried.

Reaching up for Bucky’s hands, Steve gently pulls them off his face—making sure he’s holding the new left hand just as tightly as the right—and holds them in his lap. “I’m okay. I got you now, that’s what matters. You wanna keep telling me the story? I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

“Can I lie back down?”

Steve releases his hands and leans back against the couch—an open invitation. Bucky lies back down, snuggling against Steve and wrapping his right hand in the hem of Steve’s shirt. Steve puts his hand back onto Bucky’s hip.

“Where was I? Oh, right. So I had no idea what had happened, so naturally, I thought you were gonna come rescue me. I knew you’d come for me like I knew my own name. It was just fact. Anyway, then time went by and you didn’t come.”

Steve struggles to keep breathing normally. Knowing that it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t try to rescue Bucky doesn’t help. It doesn’t help at all. But he doesn’t want to make this be about him again, so he keeps rubbing Bucky’s hip and tries to keep breathing evenly.

“They needed to make me weak and pliable before they could start the brainwashing. They starved me, beat me, did all kinds of things—things I ain’t telling you about—and sometimes I could feel that my brain was starting to go blank. It was too exhausting to keep thinking about you rescuing me or the fact that I hated them and I wouldn’t give in. But I always fought back, and even when I barely had anything left, I had you. I would think about you, and I’d feel that love and happiness that I’d lived with for decades. I’d picture you smiling at me and encouraging me and saying wonderful things to me. It always helped give me strength and kept me focused.”

Bucky shifts a bit. He reaches for Steve’s hand on his hip and brings it further up his back so Steve’s arm is curled around him. Steve brings his other hand to Bucky’s head and lays it on his neck, gently stroking.

“Sometimes I’d be so weak and confused that I’d start hallucinating that you were there. I guess that’s when I’d talk to you out-loud, and that’s how they figured out what I was using to resist them. They told me you wouldn’t come for me, that you had no idea where I was, that you thought I was dead, but I didn’t believe them. Then later, they tried convincing me you were dead, but I didn’t believe that either. ‘Show me his body,’ I said, and of course, that’s the one thing they didn’t have. They showed me newspaper clippings of the plane crash, but I thought they’d made it all up.”

Jesus.

“Anyway, they kept trying to pull you outta my head. You were my strength, my courage, my everything. You were with me through all of it and whenever I got scared or sad and I didn’t think I could keep going, you’d be there, telling me you loved me and you needed me to live and fight. It wasn’t big you, by the way. It was small you. There ain’t nothing wrong with big you, but the other one was in my head for longer, you know?”

“I get it, Buck,” Steve whispers.

“They tried to break me down and convince me I was worthless and stupid and nobody cared about me—but they knew they were fighting a losing battle with that, because I knew I wasn’t any of those things. I knew you loved me and I could feel how much I loved you. And those things kept me strong. Anyway, eventually they changed tactics and used the electro-shock to try to get you outta my head. I guess that worked, in a way. My brain would be empty and as long as they didn’t mention your name, I wouldn’t remember you or anything else. But then I saw you on the bridge, and everything changed.”

Steve takes a deep breath. If he hadn’t randomly run into Bucky, Bucky may have never gotten away from Hydra. He might have spent the rest of his life—

“I didn’t remember you, but I was overwhelmed with that feeling of loving you. I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I just felt real strange when I looked at you. Then you said my name, and I started getting these memory flashes, but they didn’t make sense, cause I was remembering the small you, not the big you. I remembered your voice, and every time I thought about you after that, I felt something in my gut and my heart. It was this overwhelming feeling—excitement and happiness and satisfaction. I didn’t know it was love, but it was strong. Real strong. They must have used the machine on me again, but the moment I saw you on the heli-carrier, it came back again.”

Bucky rolls so he’s on his back, looking up at Steve. During his roll, Steve’s hand slides from Bucky’s back to his belly. Steve’s about to move it—he doesn’t know if Buck’s okay with his hand there—but Bucky covers Steve’s hand with both of his, keeping his hand flat against his belly.

“When you were talking to me on the heli-carrier, you said that you’d known me your whole life, and you called me a name I didn’t remember being. When I added in those weird feelings I got whenever I saw you, I was confused and scared. That’s why I ran. I didn’t—I didn’t know if you were a Hydra plant, if those feelings were something they’d programmed into me to fool me into trusting you. I needed time to separate the garbage in my head from the truth, and I couldn’t do that when I was around you. Those feelings were too distracting.”

Steve sighs. “You don’t gotta explain why you ran. You had a right to figure things out by yourself.”

“No, I know. But that’s part of why I kept you at arms-length when I came out of cryo this time too. The more I remembered, the more I realized that those feelings were love. I didn’t just remember loving you—I realized I was still in love with you, just like I was back then. The feelings didn’t fade, they were just as strong as they were back then. And I missed you so much and I wanted to go back to how things were back then. But I knew you’d come out of the ice a few years ago and I figured you’d mourned me and moved on. I thought all that was in the past for you. So when I woke up and you were right there again, it just—it was hard. Everything’s still so fresh and I couldn’t handle having you close to me if you just wanted to be casual friends.”

Steve stares down at him. They’re both idiots. “Buck…”

Bucky smiles. “I know. We’re idiots. Your ma was always nagging us to communicate better, and look at us—two stupid goofs who still ain’t communicating well, even after all these years. When you gave me the journals, I thought I’d find a clue about how you felt. Not just back then, but today. But then I saw that you’d skipped over all that stuff with Coop and everything that happened after, and I just got real upset. I’m fine if you don’t wanna go back to how things were back then, but I wasn’t gonna stand for you trying to erase our history. Not when that had been my light in the darkness for so long.”

Lapsing into silence, Bucky fiddles with Steve’s hand on his belly and stares up at the ceiling.

Steve opens his mouth to ask Bucky what he wants, but he can’t seem to the get the words out. He’s pretty sure that he knows how—

“Hey, punk?”

Torn out of his thoughts, Steve looks down. “Yeah?”

Bucky looks exactly the same as he had when he’d confessed his feeling for Steve, all those years ago. “I wanna put my cards on the table again. I think you do too.”

Steve chokes out a pained laugh. “Buck, my cards have been on the table this entire time. I love you, I’m in love with you and I always will be. But I know a lot’s happened and it wouldn’t be fair to you to just—”

“Do I get to decide what’s fair to me, or are you in charge of that?”

“Barnes…”

“Don’t ‘Barnes’ me.” Bucky pushes himself up and straddles Steve’s lap. “You put your cards on the table, now I get to put mine. I ain’t as put-together as I was back then. I’ve got holes in my memory the size of a building and there’s a lot of garbage living in my head that I still gotta get out. Not dangerous garbage, just painful garbage. If you’re willing to give us another chance, I promise, I’ll do everything I can to make things just as good as they were the first time around.”

Steve smiles. That familiar joy and excitement fills him. Jesus, he loves this man. “So can I have it back?”

Bucky frowns down at him. “What? The notebooks?”

“No, you goof. Those are yours. I’m talking about your heart.”

That familiar half-smile spreads over Bucky’s face. “Well, I don’t know. Are you gonna take good care of it?”

“Nothing bad’s gonna happen to it, I promise.”

Bucky lets out a dramatic sigh. “Well, I suppose you can have it back.” Then he gets an unsure look on his face. “How about yours? Can I have it back?”

Steve smiles and presses their foreheads together. “You already got it, Barnes. Don’t break it or lose it, okay? This one’s more durable than the old one was, but I’ve still only got one.”

Bucky’s smile is radiant. “I ain’t ever gonna let nothing bad happen to it, I promise,” he says, his breath brushing over Steve’s lips.

Steve feels a happy glow in his chest. He reaches up and gently pulls Bucky’s chin closer.

Like he’d done nearly ten years ago—or nearly eighty years ago—he gently presses his lips against Bucky’s. They’re dry, but not as cold as they’d been back then. And they’re curved in a smile.

Steve gets in a few kisses before Bucky kisses back, sighing happily and relaxing against him. Sliding his hands around Bucky’s back, Steve tilts his head and parts his lips to run his tongue along the seam of Bucky’s lips.

Bucky parts his lips and his tongue darts out to greet Steve’s, and it’s like no time has passed since they’d last done this.

Steve feels heat starting to build in his belly and run through him, which makes him pull back. “Buck, you wanna put this on hold until we’ve had some sleep?”

When Steve looks at Bucky, he can see that he’s tired. He keeps forgetting that the time Bucky had spent in cryo hadn’t really been time for Bucky. He’s been going non-stop since Steve had found him at his apartment.

Bucky licks his lips and looks ready to argue, but now that all other emotions are gone from his face, Steve can see the underlying exhaustion. Steve presses another kiss to his lips and gives him a light smack on the butt. “Come on, bed time. When we’ve had some sleep, we’ll pick this back up.”

“You don’t mind?”

Scoffing, Steve gives him a harder smack on the butt. “Idiot. I gotta teach a class at noon tomorrow, but that gives us lots of time.”

When Bucky climbs off him, Steve leads the way into his bedroom. They slide under the covers, automatically settling into the same positions they’d slept in for years.

Bucky’s eyes immediately slide closed when he’s comfortable, but he grabs Steve’s shirt and tugs on it. “I want another kiss.”

Steve chuckles and bends over him, pressing gentle kisses to his lips. Bucky smiles happily, but his hand drops off Steve’s shirt, too tired to hang on. His eyes are closed and he looks like he’s falling asleep.

Brushing Bucky’s hair off his face, Steve rubs his nose against Bucky’s and stares at him. His stomach is doing happy flips and his heart feels ready to burst.

He knows how extraordinarily lucky they are. He can’t even begin to count the number of coincidences and instances of dumb luck that had allowed them to reach this moment.

*             *             *

“You’re a swell fella, Steve. Do you wanna be friends?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s easy. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. So you wanna be friends?”

“I guess so.”

“Oh, good! We’re now best friends, okay? Best friends for life.”

*             *             *

“Okay, that’s enough now! We’re done. You—get away from him! We’re done playing.”

“Hey! Bucky, you can’t just—”

“Don’t touch me, Henry! We’re leaving.”

*             *             *

“It’s okay, Stevie, stay calm. It’s all okay. I know you can’t move, but it’s to help you breathe. You gotta stay like that until they say you can move, alright? But I’m gonna stay right here, I promise.”

*             *             *

“You seriously didn’t notice? All the flirting? The way he looks at you? The constant presents he gives you? And now he’s taking you out on dates?! And you think he just wants to be friends?!”

“How does he look at me?! He looks at me normally. Like you do.”

*             *             *

“I love you. Not just as a friend. I’m in love with you and I have been for a long, long time.”

“When—I mean—how do you know?”

“I just do, Stevie. People just know these things. You feel it deep in your gut every time you think about the person or see the person. It’s hard to explain, but I know what it is.”

*             *             *

“It’s okay, Buck. I promise. If you don’t wanna do this, we won’t. But I trust you, and if you trust me, then I think this could be something amazing.”

*             *             *

“There’s gotta be a rope or something!”

“Just go! Get outta here!”

“No! Not without you!”

*             *             *

“Stevie?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re staring at me,” Bucky mumbles sleepily, his eyes still closed.

“Yup. That bothering you?”

“Nope. Stare all you want. I know I make a pretty picture.”

Steve grins and flicks Bucky’s nose. “In your dreams, Barnes.”

“Uh huh. Also in your dreams.”

“That’s true.”

Bucky grins, but it’s a tired grin. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“I want another kiss.”

“You sure you ain’t gonna fall asleep during it?”

“I ain’t ever gonna fall asleep while you’re kissing me. That ain’t happening.”

Steve leans down and they exchange soft, unhurried kisses, with Bucky making quiet, happy noises. When Steve pulls back, Bucky’s still smiling. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for the journals.”

“You’re welcome, Buck.”

“I read ‘em all, cover to cover as soon as you left. I loved seeing your sketches in ‘em too. They’re amazing—the stuff you wrote and the dates and the pictures. The details are amazing.”

Steve smiles, gently rubbing Bucky’s chest. “I’m glad you liked ‘em.”

“Liked ‘em? I ain’t ever letting anyone take ‘em away from me, that’s for sure. All those wonderful stories and drawings and your nice writing.”

Steve can hear the hint of disappointment in Bucky’s voice when he says the last bit. “If you ever wanna practice writing, I can help you.”

“I’d like that.”

“Okay.”

“You think I can learn to write the way I used to?”

“There ain’t no doubt in my mind, Buck. I’ll help you practice and you’ll be back in old form before you know it.”

Bucky’s lips curl into a happy smile. They lapse into silence for a few minutes, and Steve lies down, keeping his hand on Bucky’s chest. He can’t seem to take his eyes off Bucky.

Bucky who’s here and alive and safe.

Bucky who’s here.

Shifting sleepily, Bucky frowns. “There’s some things in the journal that I don’t remember, but I hope if I keep re-reading those ones, then it’ll come back to me,” he mumbles, sounding half-asleep.

Steve rubs Bucky’s chest. “Even if they don’t, that’s okay. We’ve got a lifetime ahead of us, we’ll make lots of new memories.”

“You gonna put ‘em in the journals too?”

A happy glow lights up in Steve’s chest. “Sure. But you gotta help me.”

Bucky lets out a tired scoff. “Of course, I’ll help you. I wanna make sure my writing’s meeting my standards first, but after that, of course I’ll help. That’s what I’m here for. Best friends for life, remember?”

Steve smiles. “Yeah. Yeah, I remember.”