The cherry tree blossoms of Prospect Park were particularly impressive in the early spring of 1935. Steve’s cheeks flushed a matching pink when Bucky told him, seated under a branch as petals fell around them, that he had always thought Steve was one of the most handsome fellas he'd ever seen. “Errol Flynn? Never heard of him. Dames and fellas alike are all sleeping on the beauty of Steve Rogers.”
“Quit it, Buck,” Steve grumbled, pushing the shaggy parts of his blonde bangs across his forehead, pretending to look at something in the distance.
“I’m serious, Steve!” Bucky playfully shoved Steve’s shoulder. “You’re a good lookin’ guy.”
“Yesterday you were yammerin’ on about my giant schnoz.”
“It gives that face of yours some character,” Bucky grinned, poking Steve gently on the nose. “Everybody needs a distinguishing feature. Something to set you apart from the other guy.”
“I said quit it , Bucky!” Steve huffed and crossed his arms over his narrow chest. “You can have any dame or fella in all five boroughs if you wink at ‘em the right way. Don’t treat me like some charity case.”
Bucky’s expression fell. Tightness gripped his chest. Did he need to clean Steve’s apartment mirror? Should he take a casual poll of the passers-by who glanced in his direction? How is it that Steve never believed him?
Steve picked a few fallen blossom petals from the ground and rubbed them between his fingers. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then sprinkled them to the ground like damp confetti. He was turning pink again, this time creeping up his ears. “You’re the handsome one,” he mumbled, only loud enough for their ears. “Always thought so. I can’t compete with that. Every gal, Buck--every gal who’s ever talked to me in Red Hook, in Bushwick, in Brooklyn Heights--asks how I know you. If I could introduce you sometime.”
“Stevie, I highly doubt you’ve met every single dame in all of the neighborhoods, that’s--”
Steve gritted his teeth. “James Buchanan Barnes.”
Bucky knew when to shut up. Generally speaking, when Steve broke out the voice that sounded too much like both of their mothers, that was the time. Bucky stopped talking and flopped backward into the grass. It was still winter-dry with just a hint of green coming through. He gazed up through the pink-tipped branches overhead. He sighed and rolled his eyes.
Steve, still seated, kicked his heels into the grass and slouched. “Why are you bringing this up now, anyway?”
The mid-day sun dappled Steve’s perfect alabaster skin with light through the branches overhead. His eyes shone bluer than the sky. Love flooded through Bucky’s veins, pure and warm. And he knew Steve would only mock him for being a sap. At sixteen, Steve was too proud and too busy putting up a tough facade to even give a second thought to reciprocating any amorous feelings Bucky might have about his best friend.
As Steve blew out a breath through his lips, it lifted only one strand of gold that had dropped onto his eyebrow. Then a few small petals lighted on top of his head. Bucky still hadn’t answered Steve, but he started to giggle. Steve’s sour face paired with a few pretty blossom bits scattered on top of his hair was a funny sight. “What?” asked Steve as he side-eyed Bucky. “What’s so funny?”
Bucky smiled and reached up to brush the debris off Steve’s head. He thought about Steve in a fancy tuxedo, like in the pictures, with a pink carnation in his lapel. He thought about Steve wearing a crown of flowers in various pinks, dressed in not much else, like one of those paintings in one of those art books Steve kept checking out of the library. Bucky still held his tongue and felt his face getting warm from more than just the sunshine. Steve sighed in what was surely exasperation and laid down in the grass beside him.
“Fine,” Steve said. “Don’t tell me.” Steve stopped to sneeze. Too much spring pollen, hopefully not bringing on an asthma attack anytime soon. “You’re a jerk, you know that? Why do I even bother to spend time with you?”
“Because,” Bucky grinned, “you love me.”
“You’re just lucky I put up with you, Barnes,” Steve said, whipping his arm out to knock against Bucky’s. “If you weren’t already my best friend, I’d say the hell with ya.”
Burning, nonstop burning. He didn’t think it was possible to feel fire inside a body like this. He tried to recall any kind of similar pain but came up blank. The ache of a shiner, the sharp sting of a cracked rib, the broken jaw he’d sustained in the boxing match that took him down: it was nothing like this. This was fire, like the molten fire that forged the one ring inside of Mount Doom. How he wished that ring was nearby, that he could slip something on and disappear. That he could run and never be found again. Maybe he could run home to Brooklyn somehow.
He could run if his legs weren’t strapped down and made of fire inside. He could escape quickly if they had disconnected his tubes, if he could break his bonds. Every part of him yearned to move, but moving would likely bring certain death. If he was still alive at all--there were no indications that this wasn’t Hell. He hadn’t even believed in Hell until he came to the war.
He heard voices nearby. The sound of boots, quick steps, coming closer. The sound of a body thudding to the cement floor?
Don’t give anything up, Barnes. Don’t let them break you. Don’t let them. Remember your training. “James Buchanan Barnes, Sargeant, 3255--”
A flash of bold color beside him, the first since-- when? What fresh hell was this? “James Buchanan Barnes, Sargeant--”
“Bucky, it’s me. It’s Steve.”
Oh G-d, he must be dead, or close to it. Because suddenly, Bucky was seeing things: red, white, and blue, a shield with a goddamn American target on it. A massive body that sounded like Steve, had a flushed-pink face like Steve after running from an alley scrap. Bucky squinted. Maybe he’d been here, strapped to this table forever. Maybe Steve was an angel, finally come to take him somewhere better. Surely not heaven, but an eternity in purgatory with Steve would be bliss enough. “Steve?”
“Oh my god. Buck,” said the archangel Steve, who touched his face for a fraction of a second before undoing all of the restraints. He helped Bucky sit up. The scent of gunpowder mixed with the familiar smell of Steve’s sweat filled his nostrils. The archangel Steve felt warm and alive. He towered over Bucky. His perfect blue eyes met his gaze. “I thought you were dead.”
Bucky couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to believe what he was seeing. “I thought you were smaller.” He was helped to his feet by this new Steve, this Steve who sounded exactly the same but stood taller, felt broad and solid, and effortlessly supported Bucky’s wounded weight for a change.
“Can you walk, pal?” Steve asked, as casual as anything. Hey, pal, want a bite of my pie? You want me to go buy a paper today, pal? Times or Post ? I know I just pulled you out of a goddamn torture chamber, but can you walk, pal?
“What happened to you?” Bucky gaped. He realized he was feeling solid ground beneath his feet. He wasn’t dreaming, likely wasn’t dead. Somehow the person he loved the most, the scrappy little guy he left stateside, miraculously swept in, clad in a fancy new body, to take him away from here. Steve was successfully playing the hero. Steve’s arm was wrapped around his waist, strong but almost reverent.
Steve’s grin flashed brightly. “I joined the Army.”
Two days later, inside the medical tent, Bucky gingerly touched his cheek. The abrasion there, just below his eye, had finally stopped being painful and was transitioning to being itchy. He gritted his teeth as an involuntary spasm--from what? Fever? Shock? Injury? No one gave him an explanation--rocked through his body.
“Bucky?” came Steve’s voice, approaching his bed as he opened his eyes slowly.
“Hi,” Bucky said, upward into the air. Steve’s face was miles away from the cot. Jesus, what did they do to him?
Steve looked around the tent, which was quiet save for some snores and coughing. He motioned for Bucky to scoot over. Bucky did the best he could, and Steve sat down, shifting one edge of the thin mattress toward the ground.
“So are you going to tell me?” Bucky frowned.
“That you’re here, and alive, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my damn life?”
Bucky sighed, put-upon, and pointedly looked Steve up and down. Then he realized what Steve was wearing, and he whistled. His voice was gravelly with disuse, but he put on a performative grin and said, “Okay, lemme guess then. The government,” Bucky reached out and brushed the red-and-white stripes on Steve’s now impressively solid abs, “somehow sponsored you to get big.”
“I took some initiative, Buck. Give me a little credit. Turns out those Charles Atlas programs from the back page of your comics actually work. You shoulda let me try ‘em sooner,” Steve scoffed. “And remember how Ma used to harp on me to take my cod liver oil to get big and strong?”
“Stevie.” Bucky pressed his mouth into a firm line. He winced as the cut at the corner of his lip made itself known with a sting. “You’re bigger than I’ve ever seen you. You got muscles where I don’t even have muscles. And you’re wearing a U-S-of-A union suit and calling yourself Captain. I’ve seen some shit here, Steve.” Bucky dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned closer. “How am I supposed to believe they didn’t just put your pretty little face on some big dumb lunk’s body?” He let his fingers rest against Steve’s thigh, stroking gently.
Steve’s face turned pink and pinker. The color rode high on his cheeks, spread across his nose, and down his neck. He laughed, breathy and uneasy, one hand clenched in the cot’s stiff sheet as the other came up to cover the back of his neck. Steve looked away from Bucky in the bashful way Bucky had seen probably a million times in his life. His handsome guy was in there, all right.
Steve cleared his throat loudly, and when no one in the room stirred, a small smile curved his lips. When no nurses came running, Steve looked both ways, like at a Manhattan crosswalk, then quickly bent down and placed a kiss to Bucky’s forehead. “I promise it’s me, Buck. Swear on Ma and Pa’s graves.” He blinked a few times too many and bit his bottom lip. One of his now-huge paws came up to Bucky’s face in a brief, feathery caress. “They said I was lucky to even find you.”
Bucky, not caring if anyone saw them, grabbed Steve’s hand and pressed his lips gratefully to his graceful, dirt-stained fingers. “Til the end of the line,” he breathed, barely a whisper.
“Til the end of the line,” Steve agreed, equally quiet.
How had Steve even heard him? It didn’t matter now. His insides were no longer burning. The bluest eyes were focused on him one more time.