The evening was a warm one as the two boys made their way home, autumn just around the corner but still too young and lazy to cool them any as they staggered down the street with their arms slung around each other. The taller boy was bent at the waist to hear a joke his friend made, mouth already poised to smile, whole body turned toward the smaller one like the head of a sunflower turning toward the sun.
Bucky watched the two boys disappear around a street corner and sighed, wrapping his arms a little tighter around his bent knees. The concrete steps he sat on leached the heat out of his body, but he didn’t pay it any mind, just rested his chin on his knee and glanced at his watch. Half past four. Steve was late.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Sometimes it took ages for Steve to get spat back out of the army recruitment center, like they were really thinking over whether or not they should take him this time. Bucky guessed Steve’s asthma always outweighed having a warm body on the battlefield eventually, no matter how tempting, and it wasn’t like Steve could hide the hitch in his breath when they listened to his lungs. He kept trying anyway. Bucky couldn’t blame him. Didn’t matter if it made Steve feel sore all over again every time, shoulders braced for the weight of disappointment; every able-bodied man was meant to go to war now, and Steve didn’t want the government to tell him he was only half of those things. Bucky knew the feeling.
“Sorry, Buck,” Steve said, jogging down the steps to join him. “Took an awfully long time for them to say no thanks.”
“I figured,” Bucky said. He stood up, dusting off his trousers. “Shall we?”
Steve nodded, so they walked back toward home together side by side. Bucky wanted to sling his arm around him, haul him in the way the tall boy he’d seen had done, laughing at whatever Steve told him. But he hardly towered over him at five foot seven, and Steve didn’t like to be made to feel small, anyway. Bucky contented himself with letting their arms brush together every once in a while as they walked, Steve’s knuckles nudging into his own like maybe Steve was thinking about holding his hand. He didn’t try, of course. But it felt like he wanted to.
“Next time you go, I’m going too,” Bucky said.
Steve glanced up, snapping out of deep thought. “What?”
“Next time you try and make ‘em take you,” Bucky said. “I’m gonna give it a go.”
“Bucky,” Steve said slowly. “There’s a medical exam, pal.”
Bucky shot him a glare. “I know .”
“So how’re you planning on getting around…?” Steve trailed off, but he gave Bucky’s chest a pointed look, and Bucky’s shoulders curled in on themselves.
“How are you?” Bucky shot back. Maybe his ailment was a little more visible than Steve’s, but it was hardly something Steve could be holier-than-thou about. At least Bucky could breathe .
Steve ducked his head, conceding that much. “You could get in a lot of trouble.”
“’S rich coming from you,” Bucky muttered.
“You’d get in more trouble than me.” Steve stopped walking, putting a hand on Bucky’s arm to stop him too. “Hey. If you say you gotta do this, I’d be a hypocrite to stop you. But you could get – it could get really bad for you, alright? You really wanna risk it?”
Bucky swallowed. “I’m a man,” he said. “That means they gotta take me.”
The worry on Steve’s face was sickening. Bucky was sure that Steve was about to say something awful, something pitying – but all Steve said was “Okay,” and then, after exhaling through his teeth, “Okay, Buck.”
“Can we go home now?” Bucky asked, jerking head in the direction of their apartment.
“Yeah,” Steve said.
They didn’t talk much the rest of the way, both of them chewing over the reality of being the kind of men they were, whatever that meant for their future, and the war that throbbed ominously on the horizon.
At night, in the dark, Bucky took off his clothes. First his jacket, bought second-hand, cuffs re-sewn so that they wouldn’t be too long on his arms. Then his suspenders and shirt, both castoffs of his Aba's that were ill-fitting at best, followed by shoes, belt, trousers. He hid an unfashionable chest binder from the previous decade under his shirt, a relic of when the flapper-girls would flatten themselves down to fit in their sequined dresses. Bucky yanked it off with a gasp, dizzy from wearing it all day.
He honestly would’ve slept in it if he’d been able to get away with it, but several repeat experiences of waking up with his ribs bruised to hell was enough to warn him off of that. He pulled on his nightshirt instead and clambered into bed, wrapping his sheet around himself tight enough to make the shape of him indistinguishable to the human eye. Under the sheet, he could’ve been anyone.
Bucky rolled over to face the wall, spine a closed parenthesis around the roiling discomfort in his belly.
Steve joined him after a while, flopping onto the other bed with a sigh. Bucky listened to the sound of the covers rustling as Steve got comfortable, the sound of Steve breathing. He imagined the way the streetlight outside their window would lick orange stripes across Steve’s piano key ribs, burnt gold on his flat chest. He fell asleep still imagining it – imagining, but not looking – and in his mind’s eye, Steve opened eyes the color of copper pennies to gaze at him across the distance between their two beds.
Charm, perseverance, and soft boyish muscle had gotten Bucky a job restocking the grocery store, working in the back to lift crates and organize the dry goods, the cans. Mr. Harris looked at him askance sometimes, but he paid Bucky on time and didn’t ask too many questions, so there was no use complaining about it. He could think whatever he wanted to think off the clock, as long as he didn’t make a fuss about Bucky wearing trousers on the job.
Bucky balanced a display of canned tuna with a sigh. The labels looked back at him cheerfully. Did Steve really think it was so risky for Bucky to try his luck, to see if the army would take him? Couldn’t be more risky than running around in men’s clothes calling himself ‘Bucky’, but he’d been doing that for a couple years now, and nothing horrific had happened to him yet.
It wasn’t that he wanted to go to war. Anybody who genuinely wanted to go to war was either blinded by stars and stripes or looking for an excuse to be violent, and Bucky was neither of those things, not even at his angriest. He just knew what it would mean, if he was left behind. If he didn’t even try to go.
So he hauled bags of rice to where they belonged, stacked up cartons of eggs and produce, felt Mr. Harris’s eyes on him from behind the counter, which made him grit his teeth around a number of unsavory things a woman his age shouldn’t say in public. He did these things because he had to, to pay rent; to afford Steve’s medicines; to prove to himself and anyone watching that he could stand as tall as any other man, straight-backed and square-jawed and not at all soft at the chest or hip.
A long time ago, which felt even longer now than it ever had, Bucky had looked at Steve with wild eyes and told him he couldn’t stand to live in his family’s house a second longer. Steve, newly-orphaned, with an apartment he couldn’t possibly afford alone resting on his shoulders in his mother’s name, had only hesitated a second before he nodded firmly.
Bucky moved in and they didn’t talk about the family he was leaving behind, the majority of whom were too busy fretting over the younger Barnes daughters to pay much mind to what Bucky did with himself. Bucky cut off his hair and his Ima just sighed. He stole his Aba's castoffs and nobody batted an eye, except to shoot him small disapproving glances every once in a while. The hustle and bustle of the Barnes household was just too busy to care, and that was almost worse, waiting for someone to say something. Gritting his teeth every night at the dinner table.
“Couldn’t you at least have gotten married first?” Mrs. Barnes asked plaintively, watching Bucky pack up the last of his things to bring to Steve’s place.
Bucky blanched. “To Steve?”
Mrs. Barnes blinked. “To the man you’re going to be living in sin with? Yes.”
“Jeez, Ma,” Bucky said, nose wrinkling. “We’re not – come on.”
He tried to elbow past her with an open box in his arms, but she stopped him. “Think about it,” she said, a hand on his arm. She had tired circles under her eyes, unhappy creases at the corners. It made Bucky feel an acid sort of ache in the pit of his stomach to look at her. “He’s always been good to you.”
“Thought he was a bad influence,” Bucky replied, trying to joke, remembering his Ima and Sarah Rogers yelling at the two of them in harmony every time they got into trouble. “It’s okay, Ma. Least you have some more space now, yeah? Can move Becca in here.”
Becca and the twins would get on each others’ nerves a lot less if they were separated, so Bucky could allow himself to think he was doing them a favor by leaving, if he felt like lying. Mrs. Barnes looked relieved at the idea, though, and that made Bucky smile tightly as he finally managed to escape his childhood home with his things balanced precariously in his grasp.
“Married!” he exclaimed to Steve once he got back, throwing his hands up in the air. “Can you imagine!”
Steve paused where he was arranging Bucky’s books on the shelf and wetted his lips carefully. “I mean,” he started, and didn’t continue.
“Not you too.” Bucky put his favorite saucepan in the cupboard, nestling it into place in the back. Steve’s mother, for all she’d been a saint, had been apathetic at best toward cooking; she’d passed that particular gene onto her son, so Bucky brought his own kitchen utensils with him. “You gonna give me a speech about living in sin now?”
“Well, it’d get the neighbors off our backs,” Steve said lightly. The Count of Monte Cristo was too thick to fit on the shelf, so it got balanced on top of Bucky’s sci fi paperbacks. “Did you see Mrs. McFeely’s fish eye on the way over?”
“Ha ha,” Bucky said flatly. He shoved a fistful of silverware into the drawer. “Funny guy.”
“Would it be so bad?” Steve asked. He wasn’t moving anymore, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz resting on his knee. There was something in his voice that Bucky couldn’t identify, although he made himself sound carefully mild. “It wouldn’t be the craziest thing we’ve done.”
Bucky shot him a look. “Getting married?”
Steve met his gaze evenly. “Yeah.”
What was Bucky even supposed to say to that? He opened his mouth, closed it again, then turned back to the cutlery decisively. The mental image of himself in a white dress made him queasy. “I have no desire,” he said, “to be your wife.”
“Right,” Steve said. There was a moment of silence, then the sound of books being rearranged again. “Right, of course.”
Neither of them ever brought it up again.
“Not that I’m complaining about the break from getting ignored on the dance floor,” Steve said when Bucky came home from work, not bothering to look up from his sketchbook while Bucky washed his face of the day’s sweat, “but it’s been a while since we went out.”
Bucky grunted an agreeing noise as he combed water through his hair, slicking it back. It had been a while, because of work eating up his time and a general autumn malaise that exhausted him. He got a lot of looks out and about, most of them unpleasant, and that sometimes made him less inclined to invite more stares. But in the dim, friendly light of his favorite dance hall, he got fewer sideways glances, and gals would sometimes even let him spin them around a couple times before they ran off giggling. He’d speak with the lowest voice he could manage and allow himself the pleasure of leading – being the strong arm beneath a woman’s hand, if just for a dance.
Steve was usually looking at him when Bucky turned back toward him, nursing a drink, blue eyes glittering over the rim of it with an unreadable expression.
“Let’s go out tonight, then,” Bucky said, patting his face dry with a hand towel. “You’re lookin’ too comfortable on that sofa.”
Steve sighed, sounding long-suffering, but he was also smiling.
By the time they made it to the dance, Bucky was definitely ready to be moving around and showing a charming face. Putting on a show felt good, even if it was playing dress-up. Charming Bucky, pretty Bucky, he only existed when Bucky buttoned up his suit jacket and put him on, radiating the confidant resolve that Bucky had to paint on with bitter practice. Steve was the only one in the world who looked at him the exact same way when Bucky had his coat on as when he took his shirt off.
“Alright, have at it,” Steve sighed. “Don’t break too many hearts. I’m gonna get a drink.”
“Could always try your luck,” Bucky told him. “If a girl will dance with me, one’ll probably dance with you.”
Steve smiled. It was kind of sad, but it wasn’t very resentful. “Whole other ball game, pal.” He put his hands in his pockets with a shrug. “Anyway, who says the gals are the ones saying no?”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “You’re all talk, Rogers,” he said, shoving Steve’s arm. “Couldn’t have a good time if your life depended on it.”
Steve shoved him back. “Show me how it’s done, then, Barnes.”
Well, with a challenge like that.
Bucky circled the room a couple times, making idle chatter, nodding at familiar faces as he saw them. If his bare cheek and narrow shoulders made him stand out, nobody said anything. The music was good and loud, and the laughter was too, conversation a boisterous wave that ebbed and flowed as the song changed.
“Wanna dance?” Bucky asked a girl toward the edge of the room. She was short enough that he could lead her well, and he liked the way she’d piled her dark curls into a careful arrangement on her head. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face and big green eyes that seemed surprised to be talked to, jumping a bit when Bucky addressed her.
“I’m not a very good dancer,” she said hesitantly.
“I won’t letcha look dumb,” Bucky promised, and shot her a grin. “C’mon.” He offered her his hand, smile widening when she took it. He pulled her out to the dance floor and caught her up in his arms, careful to keep his hands in respectful places, squeezing her hand reassuringly when she glanced doubtfully at the other pairs around them. “What’s your name?” he asked. “I’m Bucky.”
She smiled. “Bucky?”
“What’s so funny, huh?”
“Just never saw a grown man run around callin’ himself a kid’s name, is all,” she said, and Bucky grinned because she was teasing him, and also because she’d called him a grown man. “I’m Daisy.”
“Daisy, Daisy,” Bucky sang to the tune that was playing, spinning her around before he caught her again. “See, I ain’t gonna make fun of your name, ‘cause I’m a gentleman.”
“Never claimed I was a gentleman,” Daisy replied breezily, and maybe she wasn’t the best dancer in the world, but as they swept across the dance floor, Bucky couldn’t have imagined a better partner.
He was breathless and laughing by the time he made it back to Steve, having bade Daisy a warm farewell. She looked like she might’ve let him take her for another spin, but – that frightened Bucky for a number of reasons, and none that he cared to dwell on. So he tossed himself down onto the chair next to Steve with a laugh, slinging an arm around the back of Steve’s chair.
“Have a good time?” Steve asked, amused.
Bucky snagged Steve’s glass out of his hand and downed the last swallow. “Don’t I always?”
“Didn’t heed any of my advice, though.” Steve nodded toward Daisy, who was pinning a stray curl back up where it belonged. “Breakin’ hearts left and right again.”
“Oh, come on,” Bucky complained. “I’m hardly bachelor of the year, here, pal.”
“I know you think that,” Steve said, and wouldn’t say anything else, no matter how much Bucky poked him.
Steve glanced at the army recruitment center as they passed it, and sighed, slowing to a stop. This wasn’t a place he’d tried before, so it was possible they wouldn’t recognize him, even with his reputation. This would be his fourth try.
“Well?” he asked, resigned. He looked at Bucky. “Were you serious about giving it a go?”
Bucky’s heart started beating hard enough that he could hear the rush of blood in his ears. “Yeah.”
Steve’s jaw clenched, obviously biting back saying something. Bucky raised his eyebrows, daring him, but Steve just shook his head and walked up the steps. Bucky shoved his hands in his pockets and followed him.
He’d never been inside one of these buildings. He tried not to make it obvious how out of place he felt, but he had no idea how successful he was. He was handed forms on a clipboard, and he filled them out, back tense as he printed ‘James Buchanan Barnes’ with the steadiest hand he could manage.
“What now?” he murmured to Steve out of the corner of his mouth.
“Wait for your name to be called,” Steve murmured back.
Bucky slouched a little in his chair, trying to project enough surly nonchalance that nobody would say anything to him.
Steve was called in before he was, which made Bucky’s heart race, not wanting to be left alone. Steve stood up and squared his shoulders, raking his fingers through his hair to sweep it back, then looked at Bucky. “Good luck,” he said, but it sounded a lot more like be careful.
Well, he was one to talk.
Luckily, Bucky didn’t have to wait much longer before a doctor called his name and he was led to his own examination room. He really hadn’t expected to get this far, and now that he had, all of Steve’s warnings caught up to him at once in a silent exclamation in his head.
“Have a seat, James,” the doctor said, consulting his clipboard with a distracted, preoccupied air about him. Bucky eyed him as he sat gingerly on the edge of the exam bed – the doctor looked harried, a light sheen of sweat on his brow. “Why don’t you take your shirt off so we can get started?”
Bucky’s hands were shaking when he raised them to his shirt collar, undoing one, two buttons –
“Doctor, your wife is on the line,” a nurse said, rapping her knuckles on the doorframe. “You might want to take the call...”
The color drained out of the doctor’s face all at once. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, Mr. Barnes.”
Bucky sat with his shirt partially undone, hands frozen at the collar. The doctor stepped outside to speak with the nurse – from their hushed whispers, Bucky got the impression that his wife was about to give birth. He couldn’t move. Could barely breathe. What was he doing here, really? Steve was right, this was going to go so badly for him, and if he knew what was good for him, he’d get out now – now, with the sign saying it is illegal to lie on your enlistment forms glaring down at him in bold letters –
The doctor came back into the room looking, impossibly, more frazzled. “Apologies, Mr. Barnes,” he said, quickly consulting his clipboard again, searching through Bucky’s forms. “You’re a strong, healthy young man. Any history of family illness?”
“No, sir,” Bucky answered, pitching his voice low. He arranged his hands carefully back in his lap.
“Good luck in basic training,” the doctor said, stamping a form. “The nurse will answer any questions, I unfortunately have to go –” He pressed the papers into Bucky’s hands, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and smiled tightly before he disappeared through the door.
Bucky’s mouth hung open. The papers were heavy in his hands. He looked down at his name, James Barnes, and felt an enormous emotion roar up inside him for which he had no name.
“Well?” Steve asked, sighing as he did up his sleeve cuff buttons and shouldered back into his jacket. He wore his defeat well, he always did, but Bucky felt nauseated to see it now. “You in trouble with the law, Buck?”
“No,” Bucky answered. “No, they’re actually... sending me to basic.”
Steve went pale as a sheet. He was quiet for a long moment, half in and half out of his jacket, looking at Bucky like he couldn’t really believe what he was seeing. That was fair. Bucky couldn’t believe it either.
“Well.” Steve’s jaw moved, working around something, and then he looked away. “Damn. You did it.”
Bucky shrugged. “Guess so.”
They stood there for a while, the two boys, both turned half away from each other. Dull pain throbbed beneath Bucky’s breastbone. “You sore about it?” he asked eventually, nudging a piece of gravel with the toe of his shoe.
Steve waited half a beat before he said, “Nah. You did your duty, same as me. I’m just surprised they were ready to let’cha.”
His duty, huh. Bucky risked a sidelong glance and was relieved to find that whatever jealousy was on Steve’s face had been shuttered again behind his eyes.
“C’mon,” Bucky said, and slung an arm around Steve’s shoulders the way he always wanted to, hauling him to his side so he didn’t have to meet his eyes again all the way home.
Bucky lay in bed, looking at the ceiling, and didn’t know what to think. Steve was pretending to sleep on the other side of the room, back turned to Bucky, the notches of his spine standing out through the thin cotton of his shirt. He was hurting. Bucky knew him well enough to see the hurt coalesce in him like a physical thing, like it was something to reach out and make a fist around.
Bucky felt like he ought to be apologizing, absurdly, even though it wasn’t his mistake that had ended up with his papers getting stamped. But Steve was hurting. The unspoken if they’ll let him go, why not me? lingered between them in a miasma of unease. Of the two of them, Bucky had never once guessed that he’d be the one they let slip through the cracks.
Did Steve think he was less of a man, because Bucky slipped through? Was he upset because of what Bucky was, and what it said about him by comparison? If Steve couldn’t even beat out a dame for a uniform –
But that wasn’t fair, and Bucky knew it. Steve had never once talked to him like that. Steve called him a heartbreaker, he called him a jerk, he called him his best guy when he was a little tipsy and more effusive than usual. The sound of Bucky’s name in Steve’s mouth had always been good and careful, landing on Bucky with an ache that was as gentle and soft as a bruise. Nothing as sharp as the way Bucky’s own mind turned and turned on itself.
Bucky gave up and rolled over, putting his back to Steve’s curled spine.
“Got all your things?” Steve asked, worrying the side of his thumb with his teeth, surveying Bucky’s packed bags. They’d been fretting over them for the better part of two hours, and Bucky was more than exhausted with it by now, hair in disarray from how many times he’d torn a hand through it, suspenders pushed off and hanging around his thighs.
“Think so,” he said. “Guess I’d better – get dressed, then. Gonna miss my train if I don’t get going.”
Steve stepped up in front of him and did up the last few buttons of his shirt for him, lingering on Bucky’s collar as his face contorted into something complicated and strange. There weren’t a whole lot of hands Bucky would’ve accepted on his chest. He put his hands over Steve’s, keeping them pressed to his collar bones, and bowed his head.
“Lemme fix you up,” Steve murmured. He tugged his hands free, pulled Bucky’s suspenders up into place on his shoulders, then licked a thumb so he could push back an errant lock of Bucky’s dark hair. “Can’t have you goin’ off to basic looking like a scrub.”
“Gee, thanks,” Bucky murmured back, but didn’t protest it.
Steve went and fetched his jacket, helping Bucky into it, then hesitated while he was smoothing out the lapels. “Be careful, okay?” he said.
Bucky sighed. “Steve...”
“I mean it.” Steve’s hold tightened minutely. “I ain’t gonna be there to watch your back.”
“Don’t worry,” Bucky said. He reached out, ruffling Steve’s hair. “I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do.”
Steve laughed, but it wasn’t a particularly happy sound. “Pal, you and I both know I don’t exactly set a great example.”
“You said it, not me,” Bucky said. “C’mon. Help me with my bags.”
Steve looked like he’d have rather kept talking, kept reminding Bucky to find opportunities to stop binding every once in a while when he could, ask him again if he was certain he didn’t want to find a way to get out of this. But he didn’t end up saying anything at all, just picked up one of Bucky’s bags and raised his eyebrows at him. Bucky took a second to look, really look, memorizing Steve’s face and the way his hair swept across his brow in a lick of sunshine. The way his jaw and shoulders were squared like he expected the weight of the whole world to be lowered onto his back instead of one knapsack, small hands making sharper fists than anybody ever expected.
“What?” Steve asked, confused and a little defensive. “I got something on my face?”
“Just your face,” Bucky answered, and grabbed his other bag. “Let’s go.”
Steve took the bus with him to the train station, the two of them sitting with their knees pressed together, not saying much. What was there to be said? It was enough to feel Steve near him, the warmth of his leg seeping into Bucky’s, the familiar sound of the bus clattering down the street with its shaky metal skeleton rattling as it went.
Steve looked at him after a while with a small smile. Bucky returned it as best he could, which probably wasn’t all that great, but it was the best he could manage, and Steve was kind enough not to call him on it.
They got off at their stop and walked the rest of the way to the train, just as quiet as they had been. Steve kept inhaling like he was about to speak and then cutting himself off, shaking his head when Bucky raised a questioning eyebrow. Whatever he was going to say, he didn’t say it before they got to the train station, and by then it was too late for any heartfelt speech, surrounded by the loud clash and clamor of all the people rushing through the station. Steve kept Bucky company while he bought his ticket, then waited with him by the platform.
“Are you scared?” he asked eventually, tipping his chin up to meet Bucky’s eyes.
Bucky paused. Swallowed hard. “Yeah.”
Steve looked down again, mouth twisting. “Yeah.”
They were silent for another couple moments, and then Bucky huffed a laugh. “What, no pep talk? That’s all I get?”
“Make it back in one piece, soldier,” Steve said, one corner of his lips raising into a wry, crooked smile. “And write to me. Don’t make me worry about you.”
Bucky’s answering “I will,” got cut off by the sound of the train whistle blowing, and the conductor’s subsequent bellowed all aboard!
He shifted his grip on his bag, then hefted up the one Steve handed to him. Steve’s hands didn’t seem to want to let go of the straps, hanging on a beat too long, but then he was pulling away and letting both hands drop. Bucky immediately missed his touch.
“Go!” Steve yelled over the steam whistle. “You gotta go, Buck!”
How much did it pain him to say that? Bucky didn’t want to guess. He nodded jerkily, opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He leaned down and hugged Steve briefly, so much more briefly than he’d have liked, then turned and got onto the train with the warm press of Steve’s arms around him still bleeding into his body. His heart beat double-time in his chest as he jogged up the steps and fought his way to a seat by the window – he leaned as far out the open window as he could get and hollered, “Don’t do anything stupid 'til I get back, Steve Rogers!”
“How can I?” Steve hollered right back. “You’re taking all the stupid with you!”
Bucky didn’t laugh, didn’t cry, but he could feel the urge to do both bubble up in him as the train began to pull out of the station.