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bringing the war home

Chapter Text

March 5, 2019

Welcome home.

What happens when war kills your honey and leaves you with the body?

That’s the question that spins like a tilt-a-whirl in Steve’s mind while he watches Bucky trudge through the airport terminal.

Bucky. The same Bucky who Steve sent off over a year ago. The one who Steve had been longing for, yearning for, counting down the days for. The Bucky who used to laugh with his whole body and kiss Steve’s cheek throughout the day just to remind him that he loved him.

Bucky, whose eyes are now mechanical and his shoulders are curved forward because he carries a weight heavier than just his pack.

It’s a cold day with spring just approaching. Damp. The kind of cold that’s thick and sharp but has no breeze.

Bucky sports a fresh haircut and a pressed military uniform. A Purple Heart is pinned to his lapel. His left sleeve is folded thrice and held together with a sanitized safety pin.

For now, it’s not real. For now, Steve can’t see that his boyfriend's arm was blown off while most of Bucky’s troop was killed.

Of course, Steve knows it happened. They called him when it did.

Landmine. No one saw it. Some guy named Wilson — a man who Bucky mentioned in letters and rare Skype calls — sure as hell didn’t. He was the one who smashed it with his boot and burst into a thousand pieces.

Bucky was the lucky one. It was only his arm that was taken away after it was ripped up by shrapnel. They wouldn’t let Steve see him, not until he got patched up and shipped back home. It’s not like Steve could gain access to a US military base in Syria or the hospital in Germany they shipped Bucky off to.

Even now when it’s Steve’s first time seeing Bucky in over a year, he can’t bring himself to smile. Steve watches Bucky approach with a rock in his chest. It hits his sternum with a sharp thump thump. He’d walk over to him but his feet feel like lead bricks.

The second Bucky makes it to Steve, he drops his bag and collapses in Steve’s arms. His body is dead weight.

Steve presses his palms against Bucky’s cold face. It seemed impossible that one could age so much in one year. But here he is, all that careless joy scrubbed from his eyes and ripped from his lips. His eyes are empty. His lips are chapped. Where there was once stubble that went down his chin, over his lips, and across his cheeks is now smooth and frigid flesh. The only thing separating his skin from marble is its softness, how it gives under Steve’s fingers.

Steve wants to ask Bucky how he’s been. Did he miss him? When was the last he’d eaten? What’s it like to walk through life like you hadn’t just ripped it away from countless civilians on another land for a country that doesn’t love you?

Every word is locked in Steve’s throat. It feels raw like he’s been screaming but he hasn’t spoken a word all day. He smiles; a small, pathetic thing, and mouths, “Hey.”

Bucky tightens his arm, his one arm, around Steve’s torso and ducks his head to Steve’s neck.

“Hey yourself,” he whispers back.

Together they breathe. Together they feel the first wave of peace since Steve sent Bucky off to war all those months ago.

It’s bound to be short-lived. The quiet is always sweetest in moments like these; the moments where something bitter is just around the corner.

“I can’t play the drums anymore,” Bucky mutters wetly into the skin of Steve’s neck. His voice cracks like he’s starting puberty all over again, but it’s resigned, “Can’t play the drums with one arm.”

Steve gives a shaky exhale and laces his boney fingers over the nape of Bucky’s neck where his dark and dry hair used to lay. He wants to say that it’s alright, but he can’t.

It isn’t alright. It won’t be alright. Bucky’s missing an arm.

They breathe for a beat longer. Then gently, like holding a broken bird wing, Steve nudges Bucky back and grasps his hand to lead him to the taxi.

***

July 18, 2016

They meet.

The air was musty, stale, and too fucking hot. It made sweat bead and slip down Bucky’s top lip, the undersides of his arms, and the back of his neck. His thick black Greta Van Fleet shirt he got for free at their concert last May was completely soaked.

It was the concert where his band was supposed to decide whether or not they wanted to tour with them. Natasha insisted that this was their last option, that if they didn’t go with this band, they’d never leave New York.

It was also the one where Bucky got a little too hammered because he made out with maybe the drummer, maybe the bassist? That was before Clint dragged him out of their dressing room. Natasha bitched him out in the car because he blew it yet again.

“I blew something,” Bucky giggled through a whiskey-filled haze before Natasha smacked him upside the head.

They didn’t get asked to tour with Greta Van Fleet. Something about conflicting schedules or not having the right sound. Clint was about ready to quit. Natasha shrugged it off but her expression hardened. Bucky just laughed and picked up more shifts at the car shop.

In the sweltering recruitment center, Bucky blew a steady breath through pursed lips and placed his pencil on his enlistment forms so he could put up his hair. It didn’t cool him much, but at least his hair wasn’t damp from the sweat all over his neck.

There wasn’t much of a crowd that day, not that there was ever much of one. There were only guys like Bucky; broke, proud men who itched to get out of the country.

Bucky had been there for an hour and barely made a dent in his forms, which was fine. There were only two recruiters and both were talking to other prospects, so it wasn’t like Bucky needed to rush.

Besides, it wasn’t exactly easy giving people information about himself that he didn’t know. His mom was probably the only one who knew it, but she was in Indiana and it would take a hell of a lot more than a phone call to get it from her.

It would probably take some groveling. A lot of groveling. Maybe even a promise of conversion therapy.

No. No, Ma wasn’t cruel. She just wished her son the best and the best was only possible if he was different.

Bucky sighed again and picked up the pencil, chewing the eraser until rubbery pink bits littered his tongue. It was a bad habit, but he gnawed his nails to the nub that morning.

He filled out the first part already because it was the easiest. He didn’t need his mom for his name, birthdate and home address. But he didn’t know a bit about his blood type, possible allergies to medicine or what the hell it meant by “home of record”. Jesus, who the hell was he supposed to put as his emergency contact?

A stream of sweat dripped into his eye, which felt as bad as getting a piece of dirt or an eyelash caught in it.

Bucky groaned and rubbed at it with the heel of his hand.

Would it kill them to put on the damn AC? Or was the US government too stingy to make even its potential military personnel comfortable?

But then, as if God heard his internal cries and decreed it, a burst of cool air flooded the stuffy room. Bucky dropped his hand and opened his eyes towards the door, expecting to see an angel.

No angel came into the recruitment center that day. Instead, a scrawny, wisp of a thing rushed inside like a tidal wave. He had to be half a foot shorter and sixty pounds lighter than the smallest man there, but his nose was tilted up and his eyebrows were set as if he belonged.

Bucky whistled lowly as the guy stormed past. He tipped back in his chair and let his eyes roam down the scrawny guy’s Guns N’ Roses tank-top to his paint-stained jeans.

He carried a red backpack with more pins than fabric. Bucky’s favorites were a fluorescent green one that told everyone to “mind their business” and a decent sized pride pin.

He marched right up to the front desk. There sat a grouchy man who simply raised an eyebrow.

“Rogers,” the old man droned, fiddling with the side of his glasses’ frames, “back so soon?”

The guy, Rogers, nodded stiffly, “Passed the ASVAB, sir. And I got the updated physical from my doctor.”

Bucky’s eyebrows quirked up at the sound of Rogers’ husky voice. It was deeper than he’d imagined. Rounder, like it belonged in the mouth of someone much larger.

The old man sighed and raised his hand, grumbling, “Let’s see it then.”

Rogers dug through his stained jeans’ pocket and fished out a crinkled, obviously forged doctor’s note. It was written on a large index card with a small coffee stain on the top corner. It was transcribed in poor cursive and the signature was too neat. Still, his expression was smug when he passed it to the old grouch.

The Grouch rolled his eyes but took the note regardless. He opened a metal drawer attached to his desk and pulled out a stuffed file folder with previously rejected forms. He grabbed a thin stack of papers that rested at the top of the folder and passed them to Rogers.

“You wanna look over your forms? Make any changes?” the Grouch grumbled, voice laced with sarcasm.

Rogers took them with pride and departed from the front desk with a, “Thank you, sir.”

The Grouch grunted and waved his hand to shoo Rogers away as if he were a fly.

Rogers’ chest was still puffed out and his head high as he turned to search for a vacant seat.

There was plenty available, but he walked right up to Bucky.

“This taken?” he asked, waving to the seat beside Bucky.

Bucky’s eyes went wide. He glanced at the seat that held his torn beyond repair backpack and tangled black headphones. He quickly pushed them on the floor in front of him and waved back to the now-empty seat.

“All yours,” Bucky claimed.

Rogers plopped down, dropping his backpack in front of him. He rested the papers on his knees while he dug through the front pouch of his backpack to pull out a pen.

Instead of going back to his own paperwork, like he should have been doing this whole time, Bucky peered over Rogers’ shoulder to watch as he filled out the top of his form. Bucky’s mom would have smacked him for snooping. He wasn’t exactly proud of this behavior, but he needed to have a name to call the guy beside Rogers and it didn’t feel like the time to ask yet or anything and —

Oh. His name was Steve.

Even though Bucky got Steve’s name, he couldn’t bring himself to look away when Steve moved down to the checkboxes for different ailments.

Arthritis? Yes.

Heart trouble? Yes.

Scoliosis? Yes.

Steve started furiously scribbling out the boxes checked yes and confidently checking no instead.

Bucky’s eyes grew so wide that the whites were brighter than the rest. It was no wonder the kid got turned away before. The United States would rather take a healthy boy, freshly eighteen with his whole life ahead of him, to die on the battlefield than someone half-dead already.

Steve’s pencil stopped suddenly and at first Bucky thought Steve was deciding whether or not he had a family history of heart disease, until an exaggerated cough grabbed Bucky’s attention.

Bucky looked over at Steve’s face, which was glaring right back at Bucky. When Steve noticed he had Bucky’s attention, he pointedly looked down at Bucky’s forms.

“James Buchanan?” Steve scoffed, “Do your parents hate you?”

“Yeah,” Bucky chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck only to grimace when he got sweat all over his palm, “something like that.”

Steve hummed like he was suddenly uninterested and went back to scribbling out boxes on his papers.

“I go by Bucky, though.” Bucky cut in before Steve could fully turn his attention away.

It worked. Steve turned fully towards Bucky with an incredulous look on his face.

“Bucky?” Steve spat like he didn’t believe him.

Bucky shrugged and wiped his slick palms on his jeans, “Yeah, you know, like Buchanan...Buck...Bucky?”

Steve slowly blinked. Only once. And Bucky kept wiping his hands.

Could it get anymore goddamn hot in this place?

But then Steve smiled. “Alright,” he replied, “I get it. It’s cute.”

Bucky swallowed nothing down his now dry throat, but he tilted back in his chair like he was the confident asshole everyone seemed to think he was.

Steve turned back to his papers and mumbled loud enough for Bucky to hear, “Your shirt could use some work.”

Bucky jolted slightly, taken aback before he glanced down at his shirt and asked, “What’s wrong with it?”

Steve scoffed, checking off another box and moving to the next section, “Greta Van Fleet is a Led Zeppelin rip off and everyone knows it.”

“I think they’re okay,” Bucky defended lightly because he didn’t care much about them and sure, they did sound a bit like Zeppelin, “we — I’m in this band, a small one — we were gonna open for them but the timing didn’t work. But I got to see them last May and they’re all pretty hot if that’s any consolation. Made out with at least one of them.”

Steve startled and twisted towards Bucky with eyes so wide they looked they might pop.

Bucky laughed too loud. The Grouch made a point to shush them, pressing his finger to his pursed lips.

Bucky quieted down and mumbled to Steve, “Yeah, I know. It shocked me too when I first figured it out. I like your pride pin.”

“With a name like James Buchanan, I should’ve known,” Steve whispered back with a smirk.

He went back to his papers and finished filling them out before Bucky got the joke.

Steve paused before he stood up to take his papers to the front. He turned to Bucky to say, “You know, the lead singer isn’t much to look at, but the others ain’t bad. I’ve always had a thing for guys with long hair.”

He gave a pointed look to Bucky’s bun knotted above his neck.

Bucky had no time to respond before Steve marched right up to the front with the same confidence he had while walking in.

He dropped the papers right in front of the Grouch and crossed his arms. He waited with his chin held high as the old man glanced at the first page.

The exchange lasted ten seconds. When those seconds were up, the Grouch shook his head and pushed Steve’s papers into the wire bin beside the desk.

“What the hell?” Steve snapped, looking from the waste bin to the Grouch in furious disbelief, “Why’d you do that?”

“We’ve been over this a thousand times, Rogers. You aren’t eligible,” The old man explained like the words left his mouth so often they were getting dry, “you’re ineligible on arthritis alone. Just because you scribbled out your ailments and got a fake doctor’s note, doesn’t mean you don’t have them.”

Steve’s shoulders hunched like a wet cat as he argued, “It wasn’t fake — ”

The Grouch cut him off with a glare. Steve deflated like a whining balloon, slowly and not all the way.

“Fine,” He said harshly as he turned on his heel and marched back to his seat.

There was a tiny crinkle between his eyebrows that would’ve been cute if he wasn’t so pissed. His fists were bunched by his sides and his eyes were on fire.

He plopped down and stuffed his pen back into his backpack. He zipped it up so harshly that the zipper caught on the fabric of the bag a few times before he roughly tugged it free.

Bucky exhaled and rolled his papers into his right hand. Not like they couldn’t be filled out at home. That way he could call his doctor or something to get all the information he didn’t know. He put his hands on his knees and pushed himself up.

Then, he offered a hand out to Steve and asked, “You wanna get out of here?”

At first, Steve looked at the outstretched hand like a challenge. His lip almost curled and his shoulders rounded, but he settled down as soon as he glanced up and saw the grin on Bucky’s face.

Then, Steve forced a nonchalant shrug and took Bucky’s hand.

“It stinks in here anyway,” Steve grumbled, casting a glare towards the Grouch.

Bucky gave a toothy grin even though Steve’s palm was clammy. He pulled Steve up to his feet and led him to the entrance. He held open the door for Steve before they walked out into the bright, steamy New York City, where heat rose from the asphalt until it burnt your face.

There was a cute little diner across the street. Bucky frequented it enough with Clint and Nat to know that their food was cheap, quick and decent. That, and they had AC.

The door chimed when it opened. The tables were all vacant except two; one sat a man in a wrinkled business suit with a coffee stain on the collar and another held two summer college students with an array of textbooks, highlighters, and broken pencil lead.

Steve and Bucky slid into a booth near the front, their backs sticking to the plastic-covered seats. They picked up their menus and read them in silence.

Bucky glanced up once, twice, three times, ignoring the midday specials in favor of watching Steve.

He was still a little red, whether from the two seconds they were outside or leftover anger from the recruitment office. His eyebrows were pushed down and between them were three deep lines.

Bucky cleared his throat. Steve looked up sharply, eyes still dangerously dark.

“So, uh,” Bucky started and then swallowed, “that happened before?”

Steve huffed and said, “Yeah, that’s happened before. A lot, actually, if you didn’t notice.”

Before Bucky could think of a response, Steve continued with, “Why are you enlisting anyway? Garageband groupie doesn’t exactly scream military material.”

Bucky sputtered, nearly dropping his menu when he shot back with, “What and you do?”

Steve shrugged. “My dad was in the army. Figured the look might be genetic.” He said it with a flat inflection, but when he glanced up there was a glint in his eyes.

“That’s why you wanna join?” Bucky asked, “Or do you just have nothing better to do?”

“I have stuff to do,” Steve muttered, nose wrinkling in offense, “I mean, I have a job. I teach art at Brier Creek; the elementary school on Sitwell? So it’s not like I don’t get benefits or anything. Just wanna fight for our country is all.”

Bucky’s face twisted dubiously.

Steve’s eyes narrowed as he spat, “Is that a crime?”

Bucky relaxed his face before he shook his head, “It isn’t. You just seem more like someone with a point to prove.”

Steve’s eyes slanted more, becoming no bigger than paper cuts. He quirked his chin when he asked, “Then why do you wanna join?”

Bucky didn’t have a good answer. He wished he could say he loved their country. He wanted to believe that fighting for it was the right thing to do. In all honesty, there just wasn’t much left for him to do.

Bucky exhaled through his nose and shrugged, “Don’t really have much of a choice. Not a lot of options for guys with no degree.”

He didn’t feel like elaborating. Not on why he couldn’t afford college or how he was blowing through every paycheck the garage paid him on food and electricity or how he always dreamt of seeing the world anyway so it didn’t make much of a difference if there would be a gun strapped to his back. A story like that was too drab for a meeting like this. That and Bucky had that sharp twinge at the bottom of his belly that told him how he wanted it to end.

Bucky was anything but against loveless hookups with guys that he barely exchanged names with. And if Steve said no, then he said no and that’s that. Bucky could find someone else.

“You know,” Bucky hummed, closing his menu and sliding it to the back of the table, “if you’re still pissed, I can help you get your anger out somewhere else.”

Steve lifted an eyebrow, calmly setting his menu down and folding his hands on top of it. He cleared his throat thrice.

“Would that somewhere be your apartment?” he asked.

Bucky grinned coyly. His eyebrows lifted suggestively until Steve laughed, a raspy thing, and pushed his way out of the booth.

He blocked Bucky’s way for a moment, pressing one palm flat on the table and the other on the back of Bucky’s seat; trapping him like some kind of prey. Steve leaned down, mouth close enough that his hot breath tickled the stray hairs above Bucky’s ear.

“You gonna make it worth my while?” Steve purred.

Bucky tilted back and eyed Steve up and down very, very slowly. His lips pulled back into a Cheshire grin as he promised, “Hon, I’ll make you forget the whole goddamn day.”

Steve grinned and pushed himself away, letting Bucky slip out so the two of them could rush out of the diner down the six blocks to Bucky’s place.

And by God, Bucky was a man of his word.

***

Some time ago…

in Shelbyville, Indiana

It’s important to note that Bucky didn’t have a bad childhood. It just wasn’t very good, either.

His pops, George Barnes, wasn’t mean or a drunk. He rarely got sour and only yelled when he was pissed, but he never wanted kids. He often forgot things like birthdays and graduations.

Bucky’s ma Winnifred was sweeter. She had a smile that she saved for her kids. She rubbed their backs when they couldn’t sleep and sang to them as she made stew. She spent a lot more time with Bucky’s baby sister Becca, but Bucky never felt neglected because she made sure to say that she loved him at least once a day. She traced a little cross on his forehead with her thumb every night to bless his dreams.

The Barnes owned a shitty corn plantation in a little farming town in the middle of Indiana. They had dirt, one run-down shack of a house, two kids, and about eighty rows of corn stalks to their name.

Shelbyville was a small town. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone and their entire family tree. Everyone knew where everyone lived, where everyone worked. They knew what type of crops your family planted and how much money you made after the last harvest.

In that town, everyone’s minds were so closed that you couldn’t wedge a nickel through. They preached a fabricated word of God and damned anyone who they deemed unholy.

So when Bucky found himself at twelve years old with a strong and unnatural fascination with Heath Ledger after watching Ten Things I Hate About You, he knew he was gonna have to keep a terrible secret. He felt it in the bottom of his stomach, a gnawing feeling that was tight with either fear or guilt or maybe something else.

He knew that there was something wrong with him. Something that he couldn’t shake no matter how hard he tried. So he locked it away and pushed it down, down, down so he wouldn’t think about it anymore.

But that never lasts very long.

By middle school, he had a collection of stolen Playgirls under his bed. By his junior year, he shared fleeting grabs and loveless kisses behind an abandoned house in a dirt lot deep into town. It was that scrawny boy from his Spanish class or the chess club softie from algebra. They wouldn’t speak of it come Monday and when they caught eyes, their faces would turn red and they’d turn away quicker than a spooked cat.

If anyone were to find out the truth, anyone at all, the whole town would know soon after and Bucky would be chased to the hills before nightfall.

So he became a little desperate to find a way out.

**

Bucky’s best friend for as long as he could remember was his neighbor Clint; a spazz who ran around the playground screaming lines from Terminator. His hair was unkempt and he always had a bandaid taped across his nose. Most people in town knew him as the deaf kid who came from a bad family, but to Bucky, he was just Clint.

Mr. Barton, a lanky ex-marine with a beer gut and no hair, drank between their dried-up crops and dirt patches. Sometimes Mrs. Barton, a woman too frail for her age, would sit on their porch and cry. They were loud; lots of yelling and screaming and glass breaking and doors slamming came from that house.

Bucky wasn’t envious of Clint’s family, but Clint had a guitar. He said he could feel the vibrations of the strings better than he could hear them. Bucky always thought it was the most mesmerizing sound in the world, so he begged his dad to get him a guitar, too.

Pops did him one better. He got him a second-hand drum kit for his eleventh birthday.

“I’m making up for last year,” he explained when Bucky pulled the old sheet off the drum kit, “still feel bad we couldn’t get you anything.”

Pops cackled when Bucky snatched the drumsticks from his hand and started banging on those poor drums. Ma huffed in the kitchen and pressed her hands over her ears.

But Pops and Ma both got tired of it quickly because Bucky soon found dish towels stuck under the batter heads.

Upon this discovery, Bucky ran through their cornfield maze, between the high stalks and right up to where his dad was weeding.

Bucky crossed his arms and tried to catch his breath as he whined, “You guys did something to my drums and now they’re not working.”

Pops just laughed and said, “You know, your ma might be a little nicer if you found a place to play that wouldn’t shake the walls.”

The next day, Bucky dragged that drum kit onto the little slab of concrete in their backyard, right beside Pops’ smaller tools and under a metal awning. He made sure all the windows and doors were closed before he started playing.

This is when Clint, perched on top of the fence that separated their properties, suggested that they start a band.

“We’ll be like the next Led Zeppelin!” Clint claimed, grinning so wide the sun reflected off his teeth.

“Who knows?” Bucky grinned back, “Maybe we’ll get so famous we’ll tour the world together.”

One day, Bucky would see the world. Not all of it, not with Clint, and not for playing the drums, but this was where Bucky made his first plan for leaving Shelbyville.

***

A week into their freshman year, Clint pounded on Bucky’s front door. He was panting something awful and leaning on the door hinge when Bucky opened it. Blood pooled from his top lip to his chin and a forming purple bruise laid beneath it. Mrs. Barton was crying next door.

Bucky looked at him with eyes the size of ceramic coasters.

Clint responded with a bloody grin and asked, “You wanna come up with a name?”

They set up in Bucky’s room after he gave Clint a handful of ice wrapped in a dish towel to hold over his lip until the bleeding stopped.

They sat cross-legged on the floor beside Bucky’s twin bed. Clothes were pushed to the corners of the room and old carpet scratched their legs. Between them was Bucky’s school binder with a single sheet of paper where countless band names had been scratched out.

“You ever gonna let me call the cops?” Bucky asked, twirling a pencil between two fingers.

“Nope,” Clint responded, “what do you think about Hawkeye?”

“It fucking sucks,” Bucky snorted, “White Wolf sounds better.”

“Like shit it does!” Clint retorted, throwing his hands up so fast his pen flew out of his grasp and rolled under Bucky’s bed. He rolled his eyes and went on his stomach to dig for it.

Only that’s where Bucky kept—

“Wait—!” Bucky started, reaching to grab Clint’s shirt to pull him back, but it was too late. Clint’s back tensed up and Bucky froze.

His heart and lungs and time all stopped.

His throat was closing up. His heart was a bomb. His friend was gonna out him.

Clint slowly pushed himself out from under the bed and sat up on his knees with two copies of Playgirl Bucky stole from the corner store in his hands.

Clint stared at them for a while, mouth opened and eyes glassy and wide like he was living through a weird dream.

Bucky’s face looked the same. His arm was still outstretched. He wished he could grab time and push it back.

Why the fuck did he store those under his bed anyway? What the hell was he thinking?

It was a while where they couldn’t even hear their breathing. A click from Bucky’s Mickey Mouse alarm clock sounded like a gunshot through the humid fall air clogging his room. Through the silence. Through the day he wished he could start over so he could clean his room and throw that stuff out before Clint came and—

“You can hate me,” Bucky whispered when the words finally made it off his tongue, “You can hate me just...just don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“I’m not gonna tell anyone,” Clint muttered, words hollow. He was still looking at the magazine. Eventually, he took a deep breath and tossed them back under Bucky’s bed. He looked into Bucky’s eyes.

“I’m not gonna tell anyone,” He repeated, voice firmer, “And I can’t hate you. You’re the only one who doesn’t hate me,” He cleared his throat, scooched back to the paper and said, “We can’t be White Wolf, man. That name fucking sucks.”

And just like that, it was their secret.

**

The first time Bucky thought of war was a week after Clint ran away.

It was nearly time to harvest. Three months before graduation. Becca was playing Barbies on the porch while Bucky raked and plucked and tended to the corn. He wiped his forehead on his shirt to sop up his sweat and kept raking.

“Hey Barnes, guess what!” Clint called from his perch on the fence, “I’m going to New York!”

Bucky laughed, sticking his rake in the dirt for a moment to call back, “Oh yeah? How you gonna manage that?”

Clint just grinned coyly and said, “Natasha. She’s in a band.”

He told Bucky for nearly a year about this girl he met online; some chick from Russia who moved to the states as a kid. He met her around the same time Bucky started going with boys to the shack at the far edge of town to fool around.

Clint talked about how he and Natasha were made for each other; how they were the same age, how they both hated their parents and how her voice was as soothing as warm honey on a sore throat. He even showed Bucky a picture, but Bucky had to bite his tongue to keep himself from making any comment about catfishing.

Bucky just cackled and snarked, “Oh sure. She’s from Canada too, right?”

Clint guffawed like an old man.

“Just you wait, Barnes,” he grinned, “You’re gonna miss the shit out of me when you realize I’m gone.”

The next week when Bucky was walking Becca back home, Mr. Barton was drinking on his front porch. Some of Clint’s clothes were in the garbage bin at the edge of their property.

“You got any idea where he went, boy?” Mr. Barton asked, voice sharp and bitter.

And though Bucky’s stomach froze over and his tongue turned to cotton because holy shit Clint actually did it, he managed to shake his head and lie, “No, sir. I haven’t seen him since Tuesday.”

“I thought he said he was—” Becca started before Bucky nudged her with his elbow. When she started to cry, looking up at him with big, wet eyes, he cursed.

“Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. I’ll get you candy if you stop. You just can’t say anything,” he hissed as he pulled her to their house where Mr. Barton couldn’t hear them anymore.

The next morning after Bucky spent the night coming to terms that Clint just up and left without a goodbye, his mom had him check the mail.

There wasn’t anything but expired coupons and their water bill, except a tiny scrap of paper, ripped out of a textbook covered in Clint’s chicken scratch.

You’re a fucking moron if you think about staying there. You’re gonna get yourself killed one of these days. People in New York don’t care. If you change your mind about leaving, you’ll know where to find me.

Beneath it was a phone number with an area code Bucky didn’t recognize. He folded the paper up and shoved it in his pocket. He carried it with him every day just in case.

This was an out. He could go. He could get up and kiss this goddamn town and their corn goodbye. He’d never have to know a hungry night again. Or pick blisters formed from shovels and drumsticks off of the palm of his hand so they didn’t get in the way of planting. He wouldn’t have to steal one more fruit or wipe one more snotty nose or hide behind that rat-infested, smelly, condemned little shack.

New York had all kinds of people like him. People in bands, too. He could be happy in New York.

The second he thought of picking up the phone and calling Clint, he could only see Becca’s face when she knew that he was gone. He could hear his mother crying. There wasn’t a chance they’d speak to him if he abandoned ship like that.

No. No there had to be another way.

A recruitment booth was always set up beside the school entrance. The army trapped kids in that town like flies for decades. Bucky was going to walk past it like he always had until a new, bright banner draped across the front of their table caught his eye.

“Ask us how we’ll pay for your college!”

He stood there, students bumping his shoulders as he stood in their way and twisted a strap of his backpack.

College. He could do a lot with college. He didn’t need to be anything big like a doctor or a lawyer. Being a teacher would help just fine. Even if he moved somewhere far enough away that he could be himself, he’d see Ma and Becca on the weekends. He’d set a good example for his sister. And what was some time overseas anyway?

He put on a smile, the sweet kind he used on the girls but hurt his stomach, and stepped forward.

“You got any more pamphlets?”

***

Ma was proud. Bucky would be the first of their family to get any sort of degree. He’d be the first one out since their family took root in that town.

Pops didn’t seem to care much. He was reluctant at first, but eventually agreed and said he’d just ask the neighbor boys to help on the farm.

“‘Least you’ll be doing something,” he grumbled when Bucky showed him the pamphlet, “I was starting to worry that you were gonna run off and try that band thing for real.”

Everything was going just fine. He was set to graduate come spring and he had a stack of enlistment forms he was slowly working through.

That was until Becca, the little sneak, followed him after school one day to try and scare him. All she ended up doing was seeing her brother and Jackson Bennett, this wispy thing in the chess club, macking behind the shack. Bucky didn’t notice her staring in slack-jawed horror until she screamed so loud that Bucky nearly bit poor Jack’s lip off.

“What are you doing?!” she shrieked. She and Bucky stared at each other in identical wide-eyed terror. No one spoke.

She ran off before Bucky could say anything.

“She won’t say anything will she?” Jackson wheezed, but Bucky shoved him away and sprinted after her, leaving poor Jackson to panic out there on his own.

Becca was a quick little thing. She made it to their house before him.

Bucky ran and ran until he shoved open the door to get inside. His lips felt like ice picks. His heart was dead weight. He couldn’t remember how to breathe.

“Quit horsing around, you two,” Ma scolded lightly from the kitchen.

“Bucky was kissing a boy!” Becca yelled. Her shrill tattling voice rattled off the walls.

Ma jolted and looked up from her soup. She tilted her head and laughed a little, “He what?”

“That ain’t funny, Rebecca,” Pops grumbled at the kitchen table, newspaper crinkled in his hands, “No son of mine goes around kissing boys.”

“But he did!” Becca insisted and stomped her foot, “I saw him! He kissed Jackson from our church behind the haunted house!”

Bucky didn’t say a word. He couldn’t. His breathing must have changed a little or maybe his eyes widened just so, but there was something he did that gave him away.

Pops lowered his paper and stared down his son. His son refused to stare back.

“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Pops seethed.

The words dried up in Bucky’s mouth and they tasted like vomit. He couldn’t get them out before he twisted and ran back out the door into the twilight where cows mooed and chickens went to sleep.

He ran and ran and ran until his legs started to burn. Until he came across the blue payphone outside of the town’s only gas station. He had his wallet in his back right pocket with the note tucked behind his library card. He put three quarters into the slot.

His fingers shook as he dialed the number and he pressed the phone too hard against his ear. It only rang once.

“Who’s this?” A female’s sharp voice cut through the line without a greeting. There was a vague accent, one that was almost scrubbed completely from her tongue but some remnants were left behind.

“Hey um,” Bucky wiped his eyes on his sleeves and sniffed, “Clint Barton gave me this number. Is this Natasha?”

It was quiet for a while. So quiet Bucky thought Clint maybe left some fake number as a joke.

“Ah, Bucky,” Natasha drawled a beat late, “yes, Clint’s told me plenty about you.”

“Yeah, uh—”

“You decided to come out after all?” she asked. Bucky could almost hear her smiling as his mouth ran dry.

“To New York, of course.” she finished

“Kind of?” Bucky rubbed the back of his neck and looked out the front of the booth, “Look, I don’t really have anywhere else to go and I don’t have any money. But if I could talk to Clint—”

“Don’t worry about money,” she laughed, too light to be real. Bucky could hear clicking across the line, “what email can I send the ticket to? I’ll have Clint pick you up from JFK when you get here.”

It was just that easy. Clint explained later that Natasha came from a privately important family in Russia. She had a lot of money. A new stack would be found in her mailbox twice a month.

It was dark when he started back home. Chickens clucked across the dirt-filled fields and the stars were so bright, Bucky could practically see them all.

He was only home for an hour to pack up all the stuff he needed. Clothes, drum sticks, money, two pictures, and his enlistment forms that laid on his desk.

Ma sat at the table with wet eyes when he left. Her hands fisted their yellowing table cloth. Her knick-knacks that cluttered the counters and shelves seemed to laugh at him. Pops and Becca were nowhere to be found.

In the end, no one said goodbye. His not good, not bad childhood ended in silence.

***

March 5th - March 29, 2019

he came home different

There’s half-made kidney bean soup left cold on the stove.

Steve wanted to make it special. It’s Buck’s favorite out of the cheap meals they’re left to pick through at the end of the month when money is especially tight.

This day has been circled on the calendar for weeks. Steve picked out his best outfit, Bucky’s favorite, with jeans too tight and a floral button-up Bucky bought him at some boutique during their first, and only, pride together. He combed his hair just right, even added gel.

But in his scramble to make it to the airport because he anxiously waited until the last minute to do absolutely everything, his efforts fell flat. His shirt’s wrinkled, his hair is a mess, the soup has most of its ingredients spread across the counter.

Steve is in a dazed state in the middle of the kitchen, staring at the half-made soup. Bucky’s slack-faced on the couch, staring at the wall. He hadn’t said anything during the ride home. He’s still wearing his uniform with the left sleeve folded thrice. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with Steve when he asked if he wanted to change.

“You hungry?” Steve asks the soup.

He can only see a handful of kidney beans. Had he forgotten to put them all in? Were they stuck to the bottom? Or sprinkled around the counter like everything else?

He hasn’t gotten a response from the corpse on the couch.

“Buck?” He calls again. His voice sounds far away in his ear. Hollow, almost.

There was a time when Bucky would saunter into the kitchen, wrap his warm arms around Steve’s stomach, kiss his cheek and say, “Smells good, honey.”

It was constant. Even if Steve was stirring up bland ramen noodles or watered down Campbell's because they were that broke, Bucky would always say it.

But Steve hasn’t felt those warm arms in nearly a year and he’s gotten used to the cold nights where silence reverberated off the walls. And Bucky’s right here, living and breathing, and it’s still cold. One of those arms was blown off anyway so it’s not like it can ever be the same.

God, Steve’s just a piece of shit for thinking that, isn’t he?

“Bucky?” Steve calls again, harsher this time, and turns around.

“Huh?” Bucky answers, but it’s hollow, too. He’s still staring at the wall but its a wall with nothing on it.

“You hungry?” Steve asks and it almost sounds angry.

“Yeah,” Bucky sighs, shifting a little. He’s still not looking at Steve, “sure, honey.”

Steve turns to the counter covered in the mess and starts throwing in ingredients. Hacked up potatoes, pieces of a celery stick, a can of tomatoes he forgot to drain. He decides to skip the onions because he’d have to take out a whole new pan to fry them and they aren’t even chopped yet.

He almost wishes he started something like pasta instead. They have jarred sauce, and dumping pasta in a pot of boiling water doesn’t take this much effort. The soup almost looks inedible with chunks of potatoes and celery and carrots just floating around in the lukewarm broth.

Maybe an hour later, he has the soup dished out in throw-away plastic bowls he’d wash after they finish.

A fuller bowl rests in front of Bucky’s chair, the plastic one closer to the front door, while Steve’s is filled halfway and waits by their good chair, the wooden one with a woven back. Bucky always insisted on Steve sitting there because he deserved the best.

It takes a while to get Bucky’s attention again and Steve can feel a nerve about to pop, but it’s overcome by the chiding voice of his mother always in the back of his head going, “Be nice, Steven Grant. You always catch more flies with honey, but your face is looking a lot like vinegar.”

When they’re both seated, Steve starts with, “Sorry it ain’t as good as it normally is.”

Bucky just grunts. He’s staring at his soup, not eating it, and stirring it around with his spoon.

Steve scowls at his bowl as he spoons another mouthful. Then, it’s quiet for a while.

“Thought we could call Natasha tomorrow. She hasn’t stopped talking about you since you shipped off. Don’t think I ever heard her talk that much,” Steve offers, breaking the silence.

Bucky doesn’t say anything this time. He hasn’t even taken one bite of his goddamn soup that Steve didn’t necessarily slave over, but he made it even though he really didn’t want to.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it,” Steve snaps, finally cracking but he feels like crap the second he does it because Bucky’s head snaps up like he was shot.

Steve ducks his head and closes his eyes, taking one deep breath through his nose. Tonight wasn’t supposed to go like this. He was supposed to be making love and laughing with his best guy who he mourned for months even though he was still alive, but now he feels like shit and his stomach hurts.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Bucky whispers, broken and small and suddenly Steve feels like crying, “I just...I can’t right now.”

Steve wants to shrivel up, become so small and obsolete no one could see him, especially not Bucky. He can’t find it in him to open his eyes.

Bucky went to hell and lost an arm for it and here Steve is feeling bitter because Bucky isn’t eating his goddamn soup.

This isn’t how tonight was supposed to go.

Steve finally fights his eyes open and Bucky’s looking back down at his soup, sniffling and blinking. A sob cracks through his lips before Steve can say anything. Bucky ducks his face into his hand and cries louder.

“Honey, no,” Steve pleads, desperate and guilty as he pushes away from his seat and rushes towards Bucky. He kneels just in time for Bucky to fall into him. He grips the back of Steve’s shirt with his only hand and holds tight.

Steve holds Bucky’s head to his chest and his shirt sops up most of his tears. He presses a kiss into Bucky’s hair and squeezes his eyes shut again.

“We’re gonna be alright,” he whispers like a prayer. He kisses his head again, “we’re gonna be fine.”

**

But dinners keep up like that.

Steve boils whatever they have in the fridge. Bucky won’t eat it. Bucky barely gets out of bed. He makes himself a lump, covering his head with the blanket and curling into the fetal position.

Steve talks to the lump on the mattress a lot. The lump rarely responds.

If he does, he’s short. He’ll snap at Steve that he barely got any sleep and why the hell did he leave the light on and can he just have a bit of silence for five fucking minutes?

It happens and it happens until a bitterness builds up in Steve’s mouth, tasting like the cough syrup he drank as a child.

Bucky gets a little pale, a shade or so lighter, enough that only Steve notices. His arm, what he has left of it, aches a lot. His facial hair has grown in patches. His once well-loved drum kit sits in the living room collecting dust, but it’s not like he can play it anyway. His hair is matted and greasy and Steve can’t think of the last time he saw him wash it.

Bucky only leaves the apartment for a checkup with his doctor so he can take the gauze off his half-stolen left arm and show Steve how to change his bandages. It’s the first time Steve sees the gnarled up and sewn together flesh. He wants to look away for the sake of politeness but he and Bucky have been past polite for some time, so he just keeps staring.

The doctor asks Bucky questions about how he’s adjusting back to civilization. How he’s coping. Bucky stays quiet. Steve answers for him.

Steve’s been taking a lot of time off work; time he really can’t afford even though Bucky’s getting decent checks from the government, almost like an apology for taking his arm along with his smile.

Steve goes back to work eventually, partially because he misses the kids and mostly because he can’t stand to be where he’s reminded of old times; of the future that he dreamed up while Bucky was gone and seeing what it is now.

One night after a tedious day at work where an excited five-year-old smeared red paint down Steve’s good shirt, he treads back into the apartment. He’s so tired that his bones ache.

He thinks back on a time where Bucky would laugh at Steve’s disheveled appearance, pull him into his lap, kiss along his neck and ask him, “Who took the sugar from your face, sugar?”

Before Steve can lock the front door, he hears harsh voices muffled in his bedroom. He nearly goes for the baseball bat they keep next to the fridge until it registers that it’s a voice he knows.

Bucky’s talking. He’s talking more than Steve’s heard him talk in weeks. His speech is muffled and frantic and Steve thinks for one horrifying moment that there’s another man in their room.

He steps carefully towards their closed door, walking on his tiptoes and tenses whenever a loose board squeaks. When he makes it outside the door, he presses his ear against it.

A while ago, back when they first started dating, Steve asked Bucky why he never spoke to his mother. He spoke about her enough for Steve to know she existed and Bucky cared, at least a little.

Bucky just laughed and explained that his parents were homophobic hicks on a farm up north. Why the hell would they speak to their gay son?

He never brought them up much after.

But here, more than two years later, Steve hears Bucky say, “I’m trying, Mama, I just don’t know what to do.”

His voice sounds thick and wet. He’s crying.

Steve holds his breath and presses closer.

“I want to get better, but I can’t,” Bucky hisses out, the words at the end breaking. There’s another pause, longer this time. A buzz that could be a voice comes from the other line. Bucky’s crying harder now when he insists, “I can’t even talk to him! I want to — I want to more than anything but it’s hard, Mama.”

He’s sobbing now. The buzzing voice on the phone is talking faster. Steve can’t breathe.

Steve grips the door handle, cold metal turning warm and slick beneath his palm. He wants to push it open and yell that he’s right here! He’s right fucking here! Why can’t he talk to him if he’s right here?

But he doesn’t. He lets his grip loosen and drops his hand. It hangs limply by his side as he steps away from the door. A numbness worms its way down to his toes.

He turns towards the kitchen. He goes to make dinner.

And he vows to try harder.

***

A little fuzzy. Between late 2017 and March 2019

Pops passed away sometime in late 2017. He had a heart attack in the bright sun while plowing dry dirt.

Bucky didn’t get the invite for the funeral. He read about it in an obituary in a Middle Eastern town that he couldn’t remember the name of. Bullets littered the ground there. Children collected and traded them.

Sam, Bucky’s favorite member of the regime, dropped the paper on Bucky’s lap while he rolled a cigarette and asked, “This your dad? We got it mailed in from your hometown. Said he’s got some kid named James Buchanan.”

A month or so after coming home, Bucky figured it was safe to call his mama. She always smoothed his hair after a nightmare and kissed his wounds. She’d know how to get him out of bed, especially since his sheets were starting to stink from all the days of laying in it.

Sometimes Steve could roll Bucky out and plop him on the couch just so he could put on fresh sheets, but Bucky learned to wrap them around him tighter and tense up until he was as heavy as a bolder and scrawny Steve eventually threw his hands up and went to sleep on the couch.

It took Bucky a while to dial her number because he’s only got one thumb and it was shaking like hell.

Mama was a little reluctant to speak at first. She sounded like talking to him was breaking some unspoken rule. Eventually, with a shaking inhale, she asked how he was doing. She heard through the grapevine, because somehow people from his high school managed to keep tabs on him and Clint, that Bucky had been seeing someone for some time now.

His voice was hollow and robotic when he told her about Steve. It was like reciting a speech he’d given a hundred times. Back then, before all that shit he’d seen, the speech was vivacious and full of quick jokes and fond smiles. Now it just sounded perfunctory.

Steve was perfect. Steve was good. Steve wasn’t someone to be messed with unless you wanted a bony fist to the nose.

And the thing with Steve is that he wants to help. He keeps staring at Bucky with that guilty look that he thinks he can hide with a scowl when he’s caught.

It’s not his fault that Bucky can’t get out of bed.

Bucky still loves him; he’s just tired.

***

Some time ago…

in Brooklyn, New York.

Steve planned to enlist after his mom explained why Dad wasn’t there to push him on the swing or teach him how to ride a bike.

It started when he was five. He marched right up to her while she made him lunch. He was clad in cargo shorts, a marines ball cap and a t-shirt stating that his father was a US Army veteran.

Steve grinned up at her, tongue peeking out of the gap from his missing tooth, and proudly proclaimed that one day he was gonna be just like dad.

She smiled but her eyes had a shine to them that wasn’t happy.

“That’s great, Stevie,” she finally whispered even though it was just them in the house. She ran a gentle hand through his hair.

She didn’t say anything else as she turned to finish his PB&J so he ran to the living room to play. A tear cut down her cheek after he left. She wiped it away with the sleeve of her sweater.

While Steve read books with pictures of military vehicles while he was sick in bed or when he played airplane pilots with the neighbor boys, Ma would hold her breath and turn away. He never understood why.

As he got older, the passion never faltered, but he developed new dreams.

He was sick during high school registration and got left with the classes no one wanted; entry-level English, college-level algebra, physics, econ, and art. At first, he pitched a fit. He didn’t want these classes. He wanted to be in the auto shop, but Ma just tsked and reminded him that the fumes would spark his asthma.

He stomped into that art class with a chip on his shoulder and a scowl on his face, but the second his teacher let him start painting he fell in love. He got caught up in the brush strokes, the colors, the way he could use his fingers to smear and shade. He’d come back after school and start a new piece while his teacher was grading assignments and his ma was held up being a nurse at an urgent care.

Steve got a set of charcoal pencils and a drawing pad that Christmas. They were all used up by March.

When Steve was shading in a figure at the kitchen table, a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of tea resting by his fist, Ma sighed and relaxed against her spot at the kitchen counter.

She caught a bad cold in 2012, right before Steve was set to graduate. It was the kind of where you’re up all night hacking and your muscles ache so bad that you can’t get out of bed. She couldn’t afford time off work. It wasn’t long before it became pneumonia. Like Steve, she was always so frail.

She never shook it.

She was gone come fall, a couple of months after Steve turned eighteen. She had one dying wish and it was for Steve to forget about the army and pursue a career in art.

It wasn’t that easy. All he was left with was an asbestos-filled apartment, a closet full of her stale-smelling clothes, and a mountain of hospital bills.

They never had the best insurance since Dad died so long ago. Late nights when Steve was little and fighting bronchitis, Ma would beg the hospital operator for them to use Dad’s insurance one last time.

The grand old US, the one Dad died for, didn’t help when Steve was dying and they didn’t when Ma did. Steve was left to pay the debt and that meant no college, no art degree, no nothing.

There was only one thing left, but Ma all but forbid him.

He was set to attend classes that August, two weeks after Ma passed. Instead, he found himself working through the hiring section of a recycled newspaper and calling every number listed. Someone had to pay her bills and Steve still needed all his medications and doctor visits.

He worked as a hostess, a fry cook, an elementary school custodian, a barista and a clerk at a secondhand book store.

That’s where he met Peggy Carter, a nice girl who co-owned the bookstore with some guy named Stark who handled all the business from home. She never had lipstick on her teeth even though bright red would end up over anyone else's. She moved from England a couple of years earlier. She had to get away from her family. Her parents never approved of her love of women.

Steve was always thankful Ma never pitched a fit when he came out to her. He could never hide it. Once, she took him to a little boutique in an area of Queens that Steve had only heard of online. It was where Ma bought him his first pride pin.

“Brier Creek Elementary? On Stillwell?” Peggy asked, flicking through Steve’s sketchbook while he put used stickers on a stack of donated books.

“The one and only,” Steve grumbled, “the kids are nasty. You have no idea how many times I mopped shit off the bathroom floor.”

“That’s where my Angie works!” Peggy exclaimed, pushing up on her tiptoes in excitement. Then, she casted another glance at a figure drawing that he did of his mother back in high school.

“You know,” she continued, voice pensive, “I hear they’re looking for someone to help in the after school program. An art teacher?”

“Are they now?” Steve mumbled, too focused on the task at hand to give her much attention.

“I might have a way to get someone a job there. If they were interested, of course.”

Steve’s hand paused on the sticker gun, slowly raising his eyes to meet hers. She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

A week later, he had the job.

A month after that when he was evicted from his apartment, Peggy offered him a place at hers and Angie’s; a little one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights. It was cramped, creaky and damp but he had a roof over his head.

They spent the year going to queer bars, gay clubs, and pride festivals. Steve didn’t think he could smile this much since Ma wasn’t there to smile with him.

But even with a real job and good friends, Steve’s stomach still felt empty. Insatiable. A hunger deep in his gut that he couldn’t shake.

Peggy and Angie both tried to convince him otherwise, but it was a battle lost before it even started. A battle that not even his own mother could win.

“You could be one of those — oh, Pegs what are they called? Oh! The National Guard? I hear they don’t have to fight,” Angie said over a box of chow mein. They were all sitting on the torn up and coffee-stained rug lying in the middle of the living room, eating Chinese take out.

“Or you could stay and keep your job that offers benefits and tenure instead of risking your life,” Peggy offered sarcastically while effortlessly using chopsticks to grab an eggroll.

Steve rolled his eyes and stabbed one with his fork, “I appreciate your guys’ concern and I like my job and everything but,” he twirled his eggroll, tilting his fork up before it could fall and then looked at his two friends, “I just feel like I should be doing more, you know?”

“No, I don’t know,” Peggy snapped, “I think you’re doing plenty.”

Steve smiled and popped the eggroll into his mouth. He had his first appointment with a recruitment officer scheduled for the morning.

**

Bucky spent the first two years in New York sleeping on Clint’s couch. He pressed his pillow over his ears when Clint and Natasha’s bed smacked the wall to a rhythm that wasn’t innocent.

Natasha's voice was smooth and pleasant and she could play bass. She wasn’t in a band, which was fine since she fit into theirs without a hitch. She called them the Widows and painted posters to put all over town.

Natasha also had friends everywhere. These friends got the band new guitars, a grown-up drum set for Bucky, and venues to play in.

One friend owned some tiny bar in Queens. He let them play there every weekend. Another friend owned a small venue in Sunnyside. A third had a place in Harlem.

Even with that help, the band never went anywhere.

The most money they could scrounge up was only enough for Bucky to get his own bed. It was better than the limp couch, but he was still stuck in their living room.

One day a small man in a cheap suit said he was an agent and wanted to sign them. It didn’t work out. Another band came around and asked if the Widows could open for them on tour. There was another band after that. Then another. But something came up. Something always came up. It was never the right time.

It got worse and worse as the years went by. People stopped coming to the venues. Their posters got ripped down. Their phones stopped ringing. Natasha couldn’t get ahold of those friends anymore.

Clint and Bucky ended up working as bartenders and construction workers and mechanics while Natasha made suspicious phone calls and picked up envelopes of money left in their mailbox.

On August 18, 2016, Bucky stumbled down Pitkin Avenue after a bad hookup, itching for a cigarette and a good night's sleep, when he came across a building with smudged windows and a sign that said “Army Career Center” in blocky yellow letters.

The grinning man on the pamphlet crossed his mind. As did his baby sister’s toothless smile. And the farm. And his parents.

The military would pay for college when he was out. His family could use money from a college-educated man. And if he didn’t make it back home, then maybe they’d get a hefty check from the government as an apology.

Bucky was at the end of his rope. He didn’t have anything else to lose. What was the worst that could happen?

He wiped the sweat off his hands onto his jeans and smiled before he opened the door.

***

September 18, 2016

Their first ‘real’ date.

“Coney Island?” Steve scoffed, looking at the two crisp, cardstock tickets lying on Bucky’s bed in front of him, “This is what you call a date?”

After two months of hooking up in the one-bedroom apartment that smelled like stale weed and Lysol or Steve’s roach-infested place he shared with Peggy and Angie, Bucky finally gathered the gall to ask Steve out on a date. A real one. One that didn’t just involve sweaty sheets and unfortunate squealing roommates walking in on them.

Clint threatened to bleach his eyes out and then burn the couch if he caught them on it again. He was the one who gave Bucky the tickets, telling him to take his guy out somewhere before they tainted every inch of the apartment.

Bucky grinned beside Steve, puffing around his cigarette, “Sure is, baby. They got something called the love canal.”

“Gross!” Clint yelled from his and Natasha’s room.

“Then quit eavesdropping!” Steve yelled back, not even looking over his shoulder towards Clint’s room. He kept turning the tickets in his hands, lips pinched in contemplation.

Bucky laughed and swung an arm over Steve’s shoulders. He swayed them side to side, a grin stretching across his face as he sing-songed, “C’mon honey. We’ll go on the Ferris wheel and everything. I’ll even win you a stuffed animal.”

Steve twisted his lips from one side to another. “I threw up on the Cyclone once,” he admitted.

Bucky stopped moving them so he could wrap his other arm around Steve and press a kiss to his hair. “Then we won’t go on the Cyclone. It’ll be fun, sweetheart. I promise,” he assured.

Steve still seemed unsure.

Bucky’s heart began that offbeat pattern when it knew it would be disappointed. It wasn’t that he liked Coney Island that much; it was a sleazy tourist attraction, but he had yet to take Steve out on a real date and he’d just been requested for basic training.

There wasn’t a rush, the letter assured, but he’d need it done within a year.

Steve sighed, dropped the tickets back onto the mattress and twisted around so he was facing Bucky. He pressed his palms against Bucky’s cheeks and pecked his lips. “Fine. But you’re paying for the subway,” he relented

Bucky rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, my mama raised me right. Tried at least. I’ll pay the subway, honey, don’t worry. I got the tickets, didn’t I?”

“I got the tickets!” Clint shouted. A magazine flew out of the open door of his and Natasha’s room, landing with a loud clap three feet away from the bed.

“Shut up!” Bucky and Steve yelled back.

A week later on a night where neither of them had work, they headed to the harbor.

The air around Coney Island managed to be sticky and stale all at once. The stretch of fried food, porta-potties, cotton candy, and saltwater clogged their noses as they weaved through the heavy crowd of tourists and locals.

Steve kept his hand in Bucky’s so they wouldn’t get lost. Bucky kinda hated holding a sweaty palm with his slick hand but it was okay because it was Steve.

And Bucky liked Steve, not just because he was the best lay he had all year. Steve was cute and pensive and cold when he needed to be and he joked with Bucky’s friends and liked the same kind of music he did and he listened, actually listened, when Bucky talked, even if it was about stupid things like Star Wars or the best brand of drum sticks.

And as if he wasn’t already a saint, Steve worked with kids who rubbed their dirty hands on his shirt and pulled on his hair too much and the job didn’t even pay great but Steve always talked about it with a smile. He was the best artist Bucky had ever seen and he had this cute little wrinkle between his eyebrows when he was working on a sketch.

Only two weeks into their meetups, Bucky realized they spent a lot more time talking and cuddling than screwing. The weirdest part was that he didn’t even care. He probably talked fondly about Steve too often because there was some point where Natasha groaned and told him to just take the guy out already.

On the pier, Steve stopped so suddenly that Bucky walked smack into one of Steve’s boney shoulders. Bucky winced while Steve jumped around to look at him.

Steve beamed as he asked, “Were you serious about those stuffed animals?”

Bucky’s brow furrowed, “Yeah?”

Steve grinned as he turned towards the booth in front of them. The sides of it were stacked to the top with oversized stuffed animals. It was a stupid bullseye game where the player had to throw a hacky sack with the right amount of force straight in the middle to knock a board over.

A teenage vendor with a ridiculous blue and yellow striped hat and a matching shirt stood behind it, leaning his elbows on the booth and his head in his palms. He blinked sluggishly like he was struggling to stay awake despite the squeals of children, the whoosh of roller coasters, and America’s top forty blasting through unseen speakers.

Steve’s boney finger, one with a bruised knuckle and a hangnail, pointed to the largest toy; a stuffed octopus, hanging at the top of the booth.

“I want that one,” he stated, turning towards Bucky with his eyebrows quirked up.

This was a challenge, Bucky quickly realized.

Well, fine. Bucky didn’t mind a challenge.

He shook his head and smirked, rolling the sleeves of his frayed sweatshirt that he stole from Clint before he walked up to the booth. He passed the teen a five-dollar bill and in return, he was given two hacky sacks and no further instruction.

He shrugged and took his first shot.

It buzzed right past the target and hit the back of the booth with a dull thud before landing limply on the ground.

Steve started cackling behind him, arms crossed over his belly and head tilted back.

“Oh my god,” he wheezed, “you’re gonna need to work on your aim if you wanna snipe for the army, pal.”

Bucky huffed, smirk wiped clean from his face and instead a look of vague annoyance and embarrassment brushed his face in red.

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled as he wound his arm back once more, “why don’t you win me an octopus next time?”

He sent the hacky sack whizzing through the air. The teen took an emotionless sidestep to miss getting clunked. The sack knocked over some extra stuffed animals in the back, but it didn’t come close to the bullseye.

With a growl, Bucky shoved another five at the teen and grabbed the hacky sacks himself.

He missed.

And he missed it again.

And Steve kept laughing.

“Thought you said you were gonna win me one, Barnes?”

“I will!” Bucky quipped, a little defensive. “I promised, didn’t I?”

Bucky twisted his hair into a bun so it laid at the nape of his neck instead of getting in his face. He shoved another five in the teen’s palm and snatched another set of two hacky sacks.

With a final huff, he cast the ball. It hit the side of the bullseye, but it was strong enough for the whole board to tip over. Zipping lights flashed and loud buzzing alarms started blaring.

The teen pressed a button to make the noise stop and passed Bucky a tiny stuffed turtle. A blue turtle. One so small that Bucky laid it flat in his palm and covered most of it with his fingers.

Bucky gawked down at it, the tiny blue turtle, and then at the teen.

“The octopus?” Bucky asked.

The teen barely lifted his shoulders in a careless shrug, “You have to knock it down five times in a row for the ones at the top.”

“Are you fucking—”

“Buck,” Steve laughed, putting a placating but cold hand on Bucky’s bicep, “it’s fine. I like turtles.”

Then he plucked the little blue turtle from Bucky’s palm and pulled him away before he could throw hands with a sixteen-year-old.

After that, Steve insisted on getting everything since Bucky nearly drained himself of all the cash he brought for one fucking blue turtle. Steve bought them corn dogs, rides tickets, and too much cotton candy.

“I can buy something, Steve. It was only a few bucks. And for a tiny blue, fucking blue turtle.”

Steve shrugged, popping another pinch of blue candy onto his tongue.

“I like blue,” he said.

For the rest of the night, Steve clutched that toy to his chest like it was the most precious thing in the world. When they were away from most people, tucked behind a dark corner of two abandoned booths and beneath a coaster that shook the boards beneath their feet, Steve got up on his tiptoes and kissed Bucky.

They never ended up on the tunnel of love. Buck grinned and gripped Steve’s wrist and pulled him towards the subway station.

Steve cracked up behind him, happily letting himself get dragged.

That night while Bucky held himself above Steve and they exchanged soft but stretched out kisses, Steve broke away and put his hand on Bucky’s chest for a moment. His breathing was deep and heavy but not because his lungs were giving out.

His eyes were hooded but his pupils were wide. His lips settled on a content smile.

“So,” he started and Bucky moved to start kissing down his neck, “we’re official now?”

Bucky’s lips lifted, soft and warm against the pulse in Steve’s neck as he murmured, “Honey, I’m gonna date the hell out of you.”

They slept in the next morning, comfortably snoring beside each other. They awoke as one would come out of soft water.

Light filtered in softly and glowed around Steve like a Renaissance painting. It shined across the white hairs on his arms, his face, and his mussed up hair. One hand curled under his cheek. His breath was steady and his eyes were opened slightly. He looked down at where he played with Bucky’s fingers. A ghost of a smile laid on his lips.

Bucky wished he was the one who could paint. No picture could do this scene or his honey justice.

“Hey, Buck?” Steve spoke quietly to not break the peaceful haze around them, “Why’d you enlist? Really.”

Bucky sighed, tightly weaving his fingers between Steve’s to bring their hands up to his lips to press a kiss against Steve’s blue veins.

Steve was looking at him now. Bucky stared at their fingers.

“You ever heard that phrase ‘playing God?’” Bucky asked.

“Mmhm.”

“Well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it? Playing God. I’m choosing what to do with my future,” he explained, stroking his thumb over Steve’s knuckles.

It’s quiet for a moment. The walls absorbed the words as fast as Steve could process them.

“I don’t think you know what that term means,” Steve mumbled, dropping his eyes back to their hands.

Bucky sighed and lifted Steve’s hand to kiss his knuckles again.

“I don’t mean to scare you, baby,” he assured, “it’s just all about choices. I never got to make them much before, but I’ve got the chance to make some now.”

“So if you kill someone, that’s you making a choice?” Steve whispered, voice tight, “What if they kill you?”

Bucky’s eyes came to meet Steve’s then, wide and blue and scared.

“Guess it’s only fair that they play God, too.”