Bucky knew Steve was sweet on him.
He figured it was natural, kind of—well, not natural, but he and Steve spent a lot of time together, and Steve didn’t get so much attention from girls, which was a crying shame because he was a good guy and a girl could do a lot worse. But it meant maybe Steve got a bit confused, because sometimes he would look at Bucky with this look. This bright, astonished look, like he was seeing something so good he couldn’t quite believe it was real. It made Bucky squirm inside, a little.
He never said anything about it because that would be cruel. It was obvious Steve didn’t mean to get caught looking. Steve was a bit soft about him, and that was okay; one day Steve would meet a girl who treated him right and then he’d forget all about it. Bucky didn’t think Steve was queer that way, not really. He never looked at any other guy the way he looked at Bucky—or, no, he wouldn’t, would he, the point was that he didn’t look at other guys the way he looked at girls sometimes and then blushed about if Bucky teased him after.
So Bucky never said anything about it, and he never did anything about it either. He wasn’t that much of a heel. He did it with guys, sometimes, but he wasn’t queer that way either, not really; he didn’t kiss them or bring them flowers, didn’t go dancing with men dressed up in skirts and stockings, didn’t act like it was real. Sometimes you just wanted something quick and easy and no questions asked, and with these guys you didn’t have to pretend you were gonna take them down the aisle after. That was all.
The kinds of guys Bucky did it with weren’t anything like Steve anyway. If he’d had to say he would’ve guessed he liked them kind of big, brawny, so they could push him around a little; that could be fun. Not that he did it often enough to really have a preference—it wasn’t like with girls, where he could say he liked them yellow-haired and curvy with a good smile. He hadn’t thought about it that much.
Anyway, not like Steve, was the point.
Doing it with Steve would be more like doing it with a girl, probably, just because Steve was so much smaller than him, and fragile, and needed taking care of. And Steve was sweet on him, which the tough guys he did it with now and again never were. Girls got sweet on you. But Bucky didn’t want Steve to be his girl.
They neither of them ever said anything about it except once, one time when Bucky came home drunk as a skunk from a dance and started peeling off his clothes right there in the middle of the room. He wasn’t doing it to be looked at, but when he glanced up and caught Steve’s eye Steve was looking, with that soft bright look. The squirming started up in Bucky’s stomach at once, uncomfortable as hell, and because he was drunk it seemed like a good idea to tug his undershirt off over his head and stretch, give Steve something to look at if he liked it so much.
When he caught Steve’s eye again Steve was red to his hairline, an unhappy twist to his mouth, but he didn’t look away, not right off, because Steve was as brave as a lion. Instead he looked Bucky square in the eye and said, “Teasing’s not nice, Bucky.”
Bucky immediately felt ashamed of himself. He looked away, and by the time he’d worked up the courage to apologize, Steve had got up and gone to bed.
Steve didn’t bring it up in the morning, so neither did he.
There was the war, and there was finding out what war actually meant. There was Zola’s lab in the HYDRA base. And then, insanely, unbelievably, a golden miracle out of the dark, there was Steve.
By the time Bucky got somewhere that would sell him a drink he was mostly sure he wasn’t dead or dreaming, though he still hadn’t quite ruled out ‘crazy’. Steve was here. Steve was in Europe. Steve was in the war, and Steve had saved his life when he’d just about resigned himself to never getting off that table in Zola’s lab ever again, and most importantly Steve was the size of a goddamn ox.
That was the bit he kept getting stuck on. He could believe Steve stubborning himself all the way to the front, he could believe Steve mounting a lunatic solo rescue mission behind enemy lines—both of those things were Steve all over—but Steve being bigger than him was the whole world upside down. If Steve was bigger than him, something black and bitter said in the back of his head, then what was he even for?
He couldn’t remember what he was drinking. He took a big gulp of it anyway.
That was the evening he met Peggy Carter for the first time. Gorgeous Peggy Carter with a bulldog look in her eye, wearing a red dress that caught every eye in the room. She looked at Bucky and dismissed him in a heartbeat. She wasn’t the first girl ever to do that, but no one had ever done it in front of Steve, let alone in favor of Steve. With Steve in the room Bucky might have been invisible as far as Peggy Carter was concerned, and she wasn’t afraid to let him know it.
Steve stammered and stuttered his way through a conversation with her, pink on his cheeks, and Peggy smiled at him like she knew a secret and it was a good one.
Bucky looked between them, looked at Steve slowly lighting up with that bright, astonished look, and felt something twist low in his gut.
It wasn’t like Steve talked about Agent Carter all the time. In fact he hardly talked about her at all, and when he did he was bashful, blushed at Dum-Dum’s dirty jokes and Monty’s sly blue insinuations, told them off if they went over the line, said her name like it was something sacred. They all knew he kept a picture of her in his compass. “Brings a tear to your eye,” said Jim, “don’t it?”
“Ah, l’amour!” said Dernier, pressing his hand over his heart, and you didn’t have to know any French to know what that meant.
Dernier said it like a joke, but not a nasty joke. Steve being in love was something to smile about, especially in the dark days when they found the worst of what they found inside HYDRA facilities. And though they sometimes pushed Steve for details round the campfire, other people didn’t get to say a word that wasn’t respectful as could be. More than one of the Commandos had got into fights defending Agent Carter’s honor that their captain didn’t need to know about.
Bucky sometimes had a hard time sleeping since Zola’s lab. Steve didn’t need much sleep at all—something else the serum had done for him. More than once Bucky woke up in the night and looked over to see Steve sitting up with his compass in his hand, looking at his girl’s picture. A few times, when he knew there was no way he was getting back to sleep, he got up and joined him, not saying anything. Steve always put the compass away at once and turned to him with a nod and a smile.
One of those times, two days away from a raid on a HYDRA base in the Alps, Steve hesitated before he closed the compass. Bucky knew the last time Steve had seen Peggy had been nearly two months ago, the longest they’d gone without laying eyes on each other since—since Steve got to the front, Bucky guessed. He had to be the worst friend in the world.
“You don’t have to put her away, Steve,” he said quietly. “You miss her?”
Steve huffed a laugh. “Like hell.”
He didn’t put the compass away. Bucky leaned their shoulders together. “Want to talk about it, buddy?”
Steve shook his head. Then he said, “She’s just—maybe I’m fooling myself. I still don’t really believe I’ve got a chance with her.”
It was Bucky’s turn to laugh. “I don’t think you need to worry.”
“Yeah?” said Steve. He looked down at the picture, and brushed his thumb over the corner of it, like it was made of something precious. “I’m gonna ask her to marry me,” he said. “After the war. It’s not fair to ask her now, but when it’s all over—I’m gonna ask.”
“Yeah,” Bucky heard himself say. “Good idea, Steve.”
Steve looked up at him. There was that look in his eyes, that bright look. His smile was shy, made him look about sixteen again, even if he was twice the size now. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“Of course she’ll say yes,” said Bucky. “She’d be crazy not to. She’d have to be the dumbest br—the dumbest girl in the world not to know what she’s got. And Agent Carter’s no fool.”
Steve turned that shy smile back down to the compass, Peggy Carter, his true north, and it deepened into a slow grin. He was looking into a future Bucky couldn’t see, and he seemed to like the look of it.
“Yeah,” he said. “Peggy’s the smartest girl I ever met.” He snapped the compass shut, tucked it back in the pocket next to his heart, and clapped Bucky on the shoulder. “You’ll be my best man, won’t you?”
“Sure I will,” Bucky said, sick to his stomach and shame on him. The worst of it was that Steve sounded so damn happy. He stood up. “I need a smoke.”
Steve still didn’t smoke, even though his lungs could probably take anything he threw at them now. Bucky found a spot next to a tree, out of the wind, and cupped his hands around the cigarette to keep the light hidden.
Peggy Carter was no fool, that was for sure. Peggy Carter had the best damn man in this man’s army looking at her like she hung the moon, and she was gonna hang on with both hands and that bulldog look in her eye. Peggy Carter had seen Steve and known what she was looking at, known what it was worth to have a guy like Steve look at you that way, and when Steve popped the question she’d say yes, and Bucky would –
Would hand Steve the ring, probably, if he lived that long, and kiss the bridesmaids after.
The cigarette burned down to his fingers without him noticing. He swore and dropped the dog-end, and then he sighed and slumped against the tree trunk. He’d had his chance and he hadn’t deserved it. Peggy Carter was smarter than he’d ever been.
He found out, much later, that Steve never got to marry Peggy.
He didn’t know afterwards when exactly he found out, or learned it, or remembered it, because a lot of the time immediately after – after – was a sorry blur. It didn’t register the first time he stumbled through the Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian, his own history chopped down to bitesize chunks and stuffed up in glass cases around him, a security guard watching him with concern. Maybe it was the second time through—maybe the third—that he stopped in front of a black and white film of Peggy and flashed on the image of the fearsome woman in the red dress.
From there his mind did one of the juddering cascades of images that he was almost starting to get used to. He’d seen quite a lot of Peggy, he knew now, over those short months, mostly the back of her head as she walked away with Steve. She’d talked to him once while they waited for Steve to finish up in a meeting with the colonel, not looking through him for a change. She’d been smirking just a little as he tried to figure out how to talk to Steve’s girl without flirting, but she’d played nice, made nice, called him Sergeant Barnes and told him she admired his loyalty, just those words too, that English accent. Peggy Carter, tough as nails. Steve looking at Peggy’s picture with a smile on his face that wasn’t meant for anyone else.
A security guard tapped him on the shoulder and asked in a low voice if he was all right, did he need someone to fetch the first aider.
“I’m fine,” Bucky said.
“Please don’t lean on the cases, then, sir,” said the guard, so Bucky had to force himself upright and lurch out of there, more pictures still sparking off in the back of his head, more detail than he’d ever need. The memory of Steve’s smile was the one that he kept coming back round to, a smile he’d never seen in this life. He was getting a feeling, now, for which threads of memory led somewhere, and he thought he could follow that one back, but the sick light feeling in his stomach made him think maybe he didn’t want to.
Bucky was living in Steve’s apartment, more or less. He wound up there one night when the cascades were hitting him too fast and sickening, too much of seven decades of living death coming back at once, and he went to Steve because it was that or find someplace high and throw himself off and hope it took this time. He never meant to stay. Maybe it was for the best, though. A lot of things had changed but living with Steve felt pretty familiar most of the time.
Most of the time.
It took Bucky a few months to really notice that sometime in the last three years—or the last seventy, depending on how you looked at it—Steve had started looking at guys as well as girls. Or, well, it took him a few months to remember that that was a change. It was Wilson who’d catch Steve out and tease him about it nowadays, make cracks that made Steve duck his head and maybe go a little flushed but deny nothing. Bucky felt like he should’ve been the one making the jokes, but he was almost always a beat too slow. He went along with Steve when Steve went running because it was better than sitting indoors all day, but he hardly ever said anything when Steve and Wilson were doing their thing. Sometimes he felt like he’d turned into a shadow and never quite figured out how to turn all the way back. Like he was invisible.
Wilson didn’t seem to see any difference between Steve turning his head to look at a pretty girl crossing to the park with her dress blowing loose around her legs and Steve glancing appreciatively up at a passing jogger as the guy paused to drink water from a plastic bottle and wipe the sweat off his forehead. Steve grinned when Wilson caught him at it, once or twice let himself be goaded into going over and starting a conversation with whoever had caught his eye. It had been Bucky doing that, once upon a time, trying to talk Steve into at least saying hello. He remembered. He remembered a lot of things. Wilson was better at it than he’d ever been, which rankled.
“You never used to look at guys,” he said as they were walking up the stairs after a morning run that had ended in Steve getting a handsome jogger’s number.
“Mmm?” said Steve. He was texting as he walked, probably Wilson still. Or maybe it was the jogger. Steve handled twenty-first century technology way too well for a guy in his nineties. It took him a moment to put the cell phone away and then his ears finally seemed to catch up with what Bucky’d said and he went red. “Oh—oh, right, that.”
“That, yeah,” Bucky mimicked. “No, it’s fine. I guess I was just wondering when it changed. What I missed.”
“I always liked both,” said Steve. He was wearing the sad look now, the one he got when Bucky was missing something and didn’t realize. You had to know Steve to know it was sad, just that slight line between the eyes, because he pasted careless over the top of it, pretending like it didn’t matter. Bucky hated that look. “You knew that. You knew about it.”
“You never used to look at guys, though,” Bucky insisted doggedly. He remembered that much, he was sure.
Steve futzed around digging out his keys and letting them into the apartment and then said, “Yeah, well.”
Steve laughed awkwardly. “Well, I—” He closed the door and hung the keys up on the hook, and then he turned around and met Bucky’s eyes, shoulders squaring off. Steve probably didn’t know he had a whole unconscious pantomime he did when he was about to come clean about something. “Guess I never thought I’d have to talk about it,” he said. “I probably didn’t look at guys all that much when you were around. Back then I had a hard time taking my eyes off you.”
When Bucky just looked at him he winced and added, “You knew about it. You were real nice about it. You never went in for that kind of thing. I didn’t realize you didn’t remember.”
Bucky was frozen to the spot, the images rolling up in his mind like they were on a big screen, one of these modern ones that did more and brighter color than you thought the world had in it in the first place. Steve back then, still scrawny and a whole lot more innocent, getting his bright-eyed gaze caught on Bucky like he thought Bucky wouldn’t notice. He’d noticed. He’d known. Steve’s astonished smile had been aimed at him, once upon a time, and first he’d been a fool and then he’d been a coward, and he’d always looked away.
Steve seemed to think the conversation was over. “Do you think we’ve got enough meat left for a stew?” he said, opening a cupboard and looking at what was in it. “Why do we buy all these turnips?”
“I dunno,” Bucky said after a moment. “I never liked ‘em.”
Out of nowhere a couple of days later he said to Steve, “Now and again I used to go down to the Navy Yard and pick up a guy for a quick fuck in an alleyway somewhere.”
Steve’s eyes went wide. “Uh –”
“Wow,” said Wilson, rejoining them with two black coffees and a fancy drink with a long name for Steve, who was steadily working his way through the menu. “You’re a dark horse, Barnes, anyone ever tell you that?”
Bucky glared at Wilson and took his coffee. Then he glared at the coffee for good measure. “Maybe they did, I wouldn’t know,” he said spitefully. Steve looked worried, and then pained. Wilson’s eyebrows climbed and then went down again and he said nothing, keeping his body language friendly.
“Sorry,” said Bucky after a moment. “I don’t know why I said that. I remembered, I guess.”
“It’s okay,” said Wilson. “I think you gave the tourists on the corner table a heart attack, but they’ll recover.”
Steve laughed and the tension broke. Bucky went back to not talking, drinking his coffee, looking at his hands. He overheard a kid asking why that man over there was only wearing one glove, an older woman telling him to hush. Steve and Wilson were trading wisecracks, Steve’s fancy drink going cold on the table. There was a phone number scribbled on the paper cup. Bucky caught the waiter’s eye and then looked away again.
Late that evening Steve switched off the movie they were watching as the credits began to play and said, “Bucky, is there anything you want to talk to me about?”
Bucky snorted. “Wilson been giving you lessons? No,” he said. “I mean, unless you want to talk about the movie.”
“Okay,” said Steve. “Talk to me about the movie, then.”
Bucky said nothing.
“Main character?” said Steve. “Plot? Maybe a few of the key thematic elements, huh, what did you think?”
“You were always such a jerk,” muttered Bucky.
“Talk to me, Buck,” said Steve, unexpectedly earnest, and that made him glance up. Steve was looking at him. God, Steve was beautiful. He didn’t know how he’d ever forgotten that, Steve turning up in the war and suddenly beautiful, the first shock of it. He looked away.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “that you never married Peggy.”
Steve made a surprised noise.
“I remember you were gonna ask her.”
After a second Steve smiled, a little wryly. “I did ask her,” he said. “I guess my timing could have been better. You know how it is.”
Bucky made a face and nodded.
“She’s had a good life,” Steve went on. “I’m glad.” He said it firmly, and if Bucky knew him well enough to know he didn’t quite sound it, too wistful round the edges for that, he wasn’t gonna say anything.
Steve didn’t ask him again if there was anything he wanted to talk about, thank god.
A couple of weeks later someone hired a pack of budget mercs to go after Captain America. Never a quiet moment. You could tell they were budget because they hadn’t done enough recon, and you could tell they hadn’t done enough recon because when they broke into Steve’s apartment in the middle of the night they tried to take Bucky hostage.
That didn’t work out so well for them, but it didn’t work out great for Bucky either, because he didn’t sleep in body armor. He hadn’t since he peeled off the leather and kevlar in those first lost days and pulled on a stolen sweater instead, taking longer than he should’ve done and nearly getting caught by the owner of the clothesline because he couldn’t quite remember how to dress himself. He’d lain awake sometimes since feeling naked like a snail out of its shell, but he’d left the whole mess of his high-tech HYDRA-issue gear in a dumpster and he didn’t remember where.
If he’d been wearing armor, the knife wouldn’t have been a big deal when it slid under the line of his arm and up towards his ribs.
He woke up in a hospital bed with Steve asleep in a chair beside him. The room was dark, but there was an electric light on in the hallway. Steve’s face looked haggard, hollow, lit only one side. Bucky looked at him for a while. He looked smaller asleep as well, though not small enough to make the illusion convincing. Eventually Bucky reached out and managed to touch the side of his leg with the tips of his metal fingers.
Steve jerked awake. “Bucky,” he said.
Bucky grinned at him weakly.
“I’ll get the nurse—painkillers—” Steve began, starting to get up.
Bucky curled his metal fingers in the fabric of Steve’s pants to keep him where he was. “Don’t work on me,” he said. “Don’t need to. I don’t really feel pain anymore.” He knew there was a long ragged wound in his side—as well as a mass of bruises, some shallow slashes across his arm, and a couple of broken fingers—but it was all of it a distant kind of knowledge. Damage sustained. Steve didn’t like thinking about that, you could tell. “Sorry,” Bucky said, because he hated it when Steve got that look. “Pretend I didn’t say that.” He closed his eyes.
“You came pretty close to getting yourself killed, you know,” said Steve, sounding all wobbly and small.
“Forgot I wasn’t wearing armor,” Bucky said sleepily.
“That is the stupidest thing I ever—” said Steve, and then, low, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d be fine, Stevie,” Bucky said. “You haven’t needed me around in a long time.”
There was a rustling sound, and his hand slipped away from Steve’s leg. The mattress dipped. Bucky opened his eyes and Steve was kneeling on the floor with his head buried in his arms right by Bucky’s injured side, like he was in a church next to his ma again with his head down on his hands on the pew in front. Bucky knew he’d only ever seen that a handful of times, but the picture was there clear and bright in his mind as he looked down at the top of Steve’s head yellow-gold in the electric light from the hallway.
Steve’s shoulders moved as he breathed deep, in and out, and he said without really lifting his head, “I’ve done saying nothing and giving up before I started. I’ve done waiting for the right time, too.”
Bucky blinked at him, and then Steve lifted his head up and shuffled closer and leaned in till his nose was almost touching Bucky’s jaw.
“Just tell me no if it’s no, all right?” he said. He turned his head and brought his mouth up to touch Bucky’s, dry.
Bucky didn’t move. Steve stayed there for a few seconds and then he pulled away and licked his lips, came back for another try. He’d twisted both hands in the sheet to brace himself and the bed frame creaked under his weight. His mouth felt soft. Another moment passed, and another. Bucky, hardly breathing, felt the twist of disappointment appear at the corner of Steve’s lips. Then Steve stopped kissing him. He ducked his head and whispered, “Okay. Sorry.”
Bucky panicked and grabbed him by the back of the neck and hauled him back in so fast their teeth clicked.
Steve made a pained noise first, and then a soft one. His mouth opened. His breath was sour. For a few seconds Bucky didn’t think about anything else. It was his metal hand on the back of Steve’s neck, and he couldn’t feel much with it. He brought the other one up, pressed his fingertips against the skin, and then his whole hand, never mind the splinted fingers. Steve ran hotter than normal people did. He rubbed his thumb over the nape of Steve’s neck and Steve made another one of those soft noises and pressed his whole body in closer like he couldn’t help it.
Then he broke away and said, “Bucky, you’ll rip your stitches.”
Bucky was pretty sure he’d already ripped a few making that grab, but he didn’t say so. “Doesn’t matter, I heal up quick either way,” he said instead. “Get back over here.”
“No,” said Steve. He was red to his hairline; Bucky could just make it out in the light from the hallway. He stared, because he could. He felt a bit dizzy with astonishment. “You’re in the hospital,” Steve reminded him, as if he’d forget. “You need to heal up properly. When you’re done, we’ll talk.”
“We’ll talk,” insisted Steve, but he was still all red, and he moved back in and stole another kiss off Bucky before he got up off his knees and put himself back in the chair by the bed. Bucky kept looking at him, and looking. Steve caught his eye, and got flustered for a moment, but then he grinned and shook his head and said, “Sleep, Buck.”
“I dunno how I’m supposed to after that,” Bucky said, meaning it.
He did, though. He slept like a baby right through till morning, and when he woke up Steve was still there, awake before him, head tipped back for the sunshine that was coming through the high grimy window, smile on his face.
“What are you smirking about?” Bucky said.
Steve looked at him and didn’t say a word, smile getting bigger and bigger as he watched Bucky squirm.
“Yeah, yeah, all right,” Bucky said in the end, and then, honest as he knew how, “Me too.”