"It's my birthday," Steve is complaining, but he's saying it with a smile so Buck doesn't mind too much.
"Tomorrow," Buck says, even though his hand is rolled tight around the money in his pocket, weeks of squirreling away any extras, hiding dimes from Steve, the anticipation tugging at his stomach. He feels like a little kid. It's hard not to skip ahead.
The heat's better once they're on the train. The windows are down and it's enough of a cross breeze that Steve finally lays off mopping the sweat off his face every five seconds. They don't talk much. With the windows open the clatter of the train across the wooden beams is deafening. Steve pulls his sketchbook out of their duffle and starts doodling. Bucky sits and watches the curve of his own hands appear on the page.
"Do those girls next," he urges, "the ones up at the front." They're up on tiptoes, peering through the front window, shifting with the motion of the train. Then, "that old man over there, with the big hat." Then, "do one'a me winning the Strong Man competition."
Up close Steve smells like the cheap laundry soap he's smelled like since childhood, like the sweat Bucky can still see along his hairline, down the back of his collar. He frowns and shoulders Bucky away when he leans in close. "You're too hot, Buck," he says. "Go bother those girls if you wanna get fresh with someone."
By the time the train gets to Stillwell Avenue he's old friends with the girls, who are 19 and 20 respectively, and live in Manhattan, and have never, ever been to Brooklyn before. Someone's obviously warned them against talking to strange men on a train but the younger one had looked Bucky up and down and decided he was okay. They part on Mermaid Avenue with an address on 53rd scrawled in Steve's notepad and an invitation to come calling.
“Why didn’t you ask them to come with us?” Steve asks. He looks genuinely curious.
At Steeplechase Park, Bucky shoulders Steve out of the way to drop fifty cents for the two of them. The look on Steve's face is the highlight of his morning. "Get used to it, Rogers," he says, "it's your birthday."
"Tomorrow," Steve says, but he lets Bucky pull him into the Blowhole Theater, onto the Fairy Whip. He hangs gamely onto the horse on the steeplechase ride. He balks at the Parachute Jump, newly arrived from Queens. Bucky'd been on it when it was at the World's Fair, had laughed all the way down as his sisters screamed into each ear. They fall together in the Barrel of Love and tumble out still tangled up, giggling like kids.
The boardwalk is stuffed full of people dressed in everything from their skin to their Sunday best. Bucky wishes, envious, for a white straw Panama. They squeeze onto a bench to watch the parade flow by. Bucky buys corn on the cob from a passing cart, hands one over to Steve. He licks stray drops of butter off his fingertips, looks over to find Steve watching him.
"Two months," Steve says. "We ain't killed each other yet."
"It's a marvel," Bucky agrees, although it's come close a few times. Bachelor living has been a rough adjustment for Steve, who hasn't had tidiness drilled into him by Army living, but they've come to a hard earned truce about who does what around the place and why. Pest control is Steve's problem; cooking and washing up is Bucky's. Bucky's only hardship has been the endless, driving guilt from his mother, who is happy to have her couch back but thinks the $20 a month they give to Bucky's mother's uncle would be better spent saved.
"You don't even live there half the time," she says, which is true, but Rebecca, Esther and Frank don't live there at all, which gets him swatted with a dish towel when he says as much.
They get changed and find a little patch of empty sand on the beach to pitch a blanket on. It's getting on afternoon and the crowds on the beach are migrating back to shore, for hot dogs or cold beer or for more kiddie rides. The water's still too thick with people for good swimming, so Buck pushes the duffle up under his head and closes his eyes. Steve pokes him in the stomach and they negotiate the release of the sketchbook and the pencil Steve forgot to pull out of his pocket before he stuffed all his clothing away. Crisis resolved, Bucky lays back down. After a second, Steve settles up against him crossways, head pillowed on the bottom curve of Bucky's ribs.
Bucky breathes shallowly. He unclenches his hands from where they've balled up in the blanket. "You need something?" he asks, and feels Steve's cheek brush against his belly.
"Stay still," he tells Bucky sternly, so Bucky obeys. He can almost hear the waves over the din of the people surrounding them, the ding ding ding of the kiddie rides in Luna Park. Steve's head and shoulders shake a little against Bucky’s stomach as he sketches, erases. Bucky brushes tickly strands of Steve's hair away from his belly and then - pretext established - cards his fingers all the way through.
"You're gonna burn," he murmurs, letting himself drift.
He wakes up a while later in Steve's shadow. Steve's sitting Indian style next to him, still hunched over the sketchbook. He is, in fact, very sunburned. He snaps the book shut when Bucky shifts, and grins down. It's hard to look up at him, the sun square behind his head, picking out each individual strand of his hair.
"You have a good nap?" he asks.
Bucky hums in reply, sun sluggish. "How long was I sleeping?"
"Not too long," Steve says, thoughtful. "But I don't got a watch." He looks happy and relaxed, despite the sunburn. It's a nice change of pace. It's getting quieter around them, the kiddies sunsick and being bundled back home, but there's still too many people for Bucky to do what he wants to, which is to ghost a hand over Steve's shoulders and down the concave line of his chest, tracing the worst of the burn.
"M'hungry," he says instead.
Bucky buys colas and two hot dogs topped with cheese for each of them. Bucky buys cotton candy and peanuts and then a couple beers and then another cotton candy for the hell of it, and they watch the lights come on as they stroll up and down the boardwalk. The lights on the Luna Park tower are beautiful, like something out of a Fred and Ginger picture, like nothing he ever really expects to see in real life.
Steve groans when they turn off the boardwalk. "Bucky, come on."
"Nope," Bucky says, slinging an arm around Steve's shoulders to keep him from escaping. "You weren't tall enough to go on it the last time you came out here with me. We're riding the Cyclone and that's that. Call it your birthday present to me."
"Your birthday's not for ages," Steve argues, and tries to push him off, but he gets on line with Bucky regardless. The line wraps all the way around the corner from Surf Avenue and halfway back to the boardwalk, so it’s a slow shuffle with plenty of time for Steve to rethink the whole thing. Every few minutes, the cars go shrieking over their heads, making Bucky's nerves jump.
"You scared, Rogers?" he asks, but this time Steve is wily and twists away before Bucky gets a proper grip. He's a little flushed - from the sun or the beer or all the sugar, Bucky isn't sure.
Steve doesn’t seem scared, though. Instead he's got a look on his face like he's gearing up to say something big. Years of experience with that face tells Bucky it'll probably be that he'd like to pay more than half the rent since Bucky lives on base for months at a time and has spent the last two weeks in New Jersey learning how to shoot a rifle, or something about gratitude and never being able to repay Bucky and his family for all they've done. Bucky frowns at him, jutting out his chin, daring him to say whatever unbearable thing he's got on his mind, so in the end all Steve does is laugh and push him forward, towards the Cyclone.
"You probably spent two dollars on me already," Steve observes when they get to the front of the line. Bucky rolls his eyes and drops the two quarters into the ticket taker's hand. She winks at Bucky when his fingers brush against her palm, and grins back at him as he throws her a look over his shoulder. The front car is empty, like it's been waiting for him and Steve.
He can feel Steve breathing deep, nervous breaths, squashed up against him in the little car, as they pull around the first curve and start the slow, agonizing climb up to the top. The rails creak underneath them, and behind them a girl lets out an anticipatory scream. “Take a look at that,” Steve says into Bucky’s ear, chin tipped towards the Wonder Wheel, and the glittering lights on the water, and the Parachute Jump lit up from below, but Bucky isn’t seeing any of it. He’d leaned down at the same time Steve had leaned up, and Steve’s mouth had brushed against the shell of his ear, and the damp press of Steve’s lips is like a jolt of electricity going all the way down his spine - and then they crest the top of the hill and he’s flying.
He puts his hands up, and when Steve curls into him and puts his face into Bucky’s chest, he winds one arm around him without thinking about it. The wind is in his face, and Bucky’s laughing his fool head off. He feels big and strong, holding Steve as the car bumps and careens up and down the hills of the coaster. He feels like he could take on the world.
He doesn’t notice anything’s wrong until they’re off the coaster, spilling out with everyone else back onto Surf Avenue. He’s looking up, grinning back at the cars rattling high over their heads, when Steve darts away from the crowd and starts puking, right there in the gutter.
“Shit,” Bucky says, heartfelt, and follows him. Steve’s bent double over the edge of the sidewalk, white as a ghost. “Shit, Steve - what happened? You okay?” he asks, rubbing Steve’s back, pushing his hair back from his face. The giddy joy of the Cyclone is gone.
Steve heaves again, and Bucky takes a quick step back to avoid any splatter. There’s bits of corn studded into the little river of vomit on the street. Bucky feels a slightly hysterical laugh bubble up in his throat. “I’m fine,” Steve says, and spits.
“And after I bought you all that good food,” Bucky mourns, and Steve twists his head up to glare at him.
“You can have it back now,” he says, gesturing, and Bucky sighs. He digs out his handkerchief when Steve straightens, hands it over for Steve to wipe his mouth off.
“Thanks,” Steve mutters, and folds it back up carefully to stow in his own pocket.
“A gentleman’s always prepared,” Bucky says, absently, and Steve chuckles. He looks back to find Steve staring up at him, a wry little smile on his face. That dark, knowing look in his eyes that shakes Bucky to pieces every time.
“Is that what you are, Bucky Barnes?” Steve asks. “A gentleman?”
“I’ve been known to be,” is what’s on his lips, but then he hears laughter. They’re not that far away from the Cylone and the people waiting on line, and there’s a knot of Russian guys at the front, not too much older than them. They’re staring right at Steve and Bucky and laughing, and Bucky jerks his hands to his side.
Steve’s face folds back up like a paper napkin. “The hell are you laughin’ at,” he calls, and Bucky touches his arm.
“Leave it alone,” he says, soft.
They turn their feet west without talking about it, back towards the train and home. Away from the water the air is hot and sticky, and Bucky shifts the duffle on his shoulder restlessly, feeling sweat trickling down into the small of his back. Steve winces as they settle onto the train, and Bucky snakes a hand out - looking for the little divot between Steve’s shoulder blade and the S-bend of his spine that always causes him trouble - but Steve shrugs his shoulders up around his ears and leaves them like that for a minute, until Bucky’s gotten the message.
They ride home in silence. It’s getting late when they’re finally off the train, but the streets are crowded with people trying to escape the heat of indoors. Their apartment’s at the top of a worse for wear row house, a few blocks away from Fort Greene Park. It’s not the best of neighborhoods - they’re not in the colored section but it’s close enough that rent would be pretty cheap even if their landlord wasn’t Bucky’s mother’s uncle. The place itself is small - each floor divided up into four apartments, two in front and two in back - but it’s got its own toilet and two big windows in the bedroom and they keep it cozy and clean.
The hall’s lit with only a single lamp on the ground floor, so they fumble up the stairs in almost perfect darkness, Steve visible only on the fourth floor, their floor, when they’re directly underneath the skylight. The walls are as slick and sweaty as they are.
“Sleep outside tonight?” Bucky asks, and Steve looks up at him for the first time in an hour.
“Yeah, okay,” he says, and turns away to brush his teeth.
Bucky kicks his shoes off, nudges them mindlessly underneath his bed. The bed used to belong to a cousin on his dad’s side, who had died of Spanish influenza the year after Bucky was born, and it had bounced around the family for nearly twenty years before they’d traded Bucky’s childhood bed to another cousin whose baby was outgrowing her crib. Steve’s bed came with the apartment, along with a thin mattress that’s skinny enough to fit on their fire escape when Bucky pulls it off Steve’s bed and shoves it out the window.
He leaves his undershirt and shorts on. He grabs the sheet off his own bed (cleaner than Steve’s, usually) and both their pillows, and brings the whole pile out with him. There’s a few other people on their street with the same idea, more up on the roofs around them. Just flickers of light and movement all around, like fireflies. Nights like this growing up, Bucky’s parents had brought them to sleep in Prospect Park, surrounded by hundreds of other families in the soft darkness. Muted conversation all around like the sound of a wave on the shore.
The mattress dips as Steve stumbles onto it, clipping his knee on the bottom of the window. Bucky reaches up without looking back, offers Steve a hand to steady himself. Steve takes it, uses it to clamber over him, settle on the outside, his knees brushing against the bars keeping them from tumbling off the building.
Bucky had dozed on the train, but finally at home and lying down, he can’t keep his eyes closed. Every nerve in him feels as tense and strained as the curve of Steve’s spine, his narrow shoulders a clear line keeping Bucky out. When Steve shifts, his back brushes against Bucky’s knuckles. He thinks about sliding a hand over and up Steve’s waist, flattening his palm over Steve’s belly, pulling Steve up against him, up against the hard line of Bucky’s dick. Can almost feel the texture of Steve’s undershirt, bunching up under his hand.
“Steve,” he whispers, but Steve doesn’t reply.
His parents and the girls live on the third floor, with the boys’ room down on the first with the kitchen. The rooms upstairs line up like a railroad line so on hot days they can open up all the doors and windows in between them and let air flow through.
It’s a hot day for late September, and all the windows are open. His sisters are in the garden, his brother and father off on a last minute errand, and Bucky is in the kitchen with his mother, rolling out strips of dough for kugel. It’s early enough that the brisket isn’t in the oven yet; the space is occupied by a strawberry pie. The counters are covered in fruit and cabbages and other such things, waiting their turn. Bucky brushes sweaty hair off his face with his left forearm, gets a little more flour on his fingers and starts twisting little ribbons off from the dough.
“You’ve got a better touch than either one of your sisters,” his mother says behind him, sounding regretful. Every year she says this, while Esther and Rebecca get the house ready for guests and stay as far away from the kitchen as they can.
Bucky grins up at her. “I’ll make some lucky man a great wife,” he tells her, and endures a slap on the shoulder for his cheek.
"At least if you're unlucky enough to marry a girl who can't cook, you can teach her how," she tells him. He's focused on the noodles, so he doesn't see the affectionate, worried look that she gives him.
Of all his siblings, Bucky is the most like their mother, although he's the only one who is tall like their father, Peter. He shares her dark hair and round chin, the freckles that spread across their backs and nowhere else. Frank and Esther have their father's blond hair and square jawline. Rebecca is the exact midpoint between mother and father, but all four of them have Naema’s bright blue eyes.
Bucky raps a knuckle against the glass, and Rebecca and Esther turn and look. Esther has a chicken firmly tucked under each arm. Rebecca has dirt all over her knees from pulling up vegetables. They both stick their tongues out at him.
"Don't encourage them," Naema says, sternly. "Sam Taub is coming tonight and I'd like you all not to be complete monsters by the time everyone gets here."
"Doesn't he have his own family to bother?" Bucky grumbles. Sam had been two years below them in school and had picked on Steve mercilessly until Bucky, age 10, knocked out two teeth for him. They've made their peace as adults, but something about him still reminds Bucky vividly of standing over Sam's hunched, crying body, staring at the blood on his own knuckles in astonishment.
But Sam is a nice boy who’s two years older than Rebecca, and he's from a nice Reform family that lives close by, and despite having married out Bucky knows his mother would prefer as many of her grandbabies as possible to be raised Jewish. It's a hope that's lived on even when Esther refused a bat mitzvah, and when Bucky started attending Mass with Steve and his mother. In Bucky's case, his parents had been skeptical but had let it lie, happy enough Bucky hadn’t fallen in with a Protestant or a Methodist. He still goes occasionally, to sit in narrow pews and get an elbow to the ribs and hissed pay attentions from Steve for his troubles. He doesn't get as much out of it as Steve does, but the church is cool inside and it always smells nice and Bucky likes the theatrics of it, which is more or less why he never minds going to temple either.
Tomorrow the neighborhood will be a carnival of kapores centers, crates of chickens stacked on the sidewalk, waiting to be swung around, blessed and handed off to the poor. Bucky’s family doesn’t partake - they celebrate the High Holy Days more or less the same way that they celebrate Christmas and Easter, which is to say with a big, joyful party: as much food and as little religion as is feasible.
But if holidays can be ranked, Rosh Hashanah is the biggest night of the year at the Barnes family home. Christmas is a low key affair; Yom Kippur difficult to manage with four children in an otherwise frei household. Thanksgiving has typically only ever been immediate family, which at times also included the Rogers. Easter has been an uneasy blend with Passover since Bucky's childhood, and sometimes ignored entirely in favor of a better Seder. For Rosh Hashanah, though, Naema pulls out all the stops.
They tease her that it's her sweet tooth that has their home overflowing in apples and honey and relatives, but Bucky is old enough to remember when it was just the three of them. How lonely their celebrations used to be, before their families had started to accept the marriage and love the children it produced, before his father's business had started to prosper, when each month's end was an exercise in agony. He remembers being held by her, falling asleep as his parents missed their families and tried to tell themselves how much better next year would be, God willing. So he stays with her in the kitchen, to make pasta or challah and pluck the chickens, and gets teased for his own sweet tooth in turn.
Esther hands the chickens over to him with their necks already wrung, her grin big and toothy. She's 17 and has stayed in school the longest of any of them so far, with her eyes fixed on college instead of marriage - with one exception. "When will Steve be here?" she demands.
"He's not coming, Bug," Bucky tells her. "He heard you were sniffing around and got scared."
"Don't talk to your sister that way," their mother says to him, but follows it up with, "and don’t be sniffing around poor Steve tonight, Esther.”
Steve, so far, has not been receptive to Esther's advances, which has been a relief to the rest of the family. His parents love Steve but he's a bad investment for anyone except for Bucky to pay into - poor health, no family and dubious career prospects.
“I miss having you home,” Naema says, when the girls have gone upstairs. Bucky sighs. She’s standing at the table next to him and he leans into her, his hands still covered with flour. She smiles and puts both arms around him. It still surprises him sometimes, being so much bigger than her that he can kiss the top of her head, standing up.
“I know, Ma,” he says, and breathes in the smell of her, the smell of everything that makes a child feel safe. “But I’m here as often as I can be, aren’t I?”
Steve’s told him before that Naema's smile is a mirror of Bucky’s own, easy and wide and warm. “You are, my sweet boy,” she says, and kisses his forehead. “Okay, you finish up, I need these chickens cut up quick.”
He's released from service around 6, to clean up and get dressed. He puts on his dress uniform, and finds it neatly pressed - a nice surprise from one of his sisters, he guesses. Upstairs, his father and brother have returned, and brought with them the dreaded Sam Taub, Sam's sister Ruth and five cousins who live out in Brownsville. Bucky shakes hands with the Taubs, embraces the cousins, forces a hug onto his little brother, and fetches drinks and another cushion for his grandmother, who has been napping in the front room more or less since yesterday.
It's a moment before he can properly greet his father, who’s hiding in the dining room with a glass of wine and a look on his face like he’s trying to remember the little Yiddish he has before anybody addresses him in it. He jumps a little when Bucky comes in the room, hands in his pockets, and for a long moment just looks at his oldest son without a word.
Bucky’s kept the jacket on so it can be admired by the cousins and by his siblings and any other assorted guests, and when they go to temple after dinner he'll wear the jacket to that too. It's not much to look at yet but it's got his Corporal chevrons sewn onto the sleeves, and he fidgets a little under Peter’s gaze.
"Hello, sir," he says. His father's eyes are bright, and he's smiling as he draws Bucky into a tight hug.
"The uniform does you proud," he says, and Bucky stifles a laugh.
"I'm hoping for the other way around," he says.
"That too," Peter says, lifting one shoulder.
Steve appears just before sundown, the last guest to arrive. He's brought the wine Bucky 'forgot' back at the apartment, and he offers Bucky's mother an awkwardly pronounced "L'shana tova, Mrs Barnes," when she takes it from him. She beams. She has a soft spot a mile wide for Steve, who as a child was excitable, kind and prone to a wide variety of truly terrible decisions. As an adult he's hardly any better, despite the family's hopes that Bucky would provide a stabilizing influence.
Steve's not the only goy celebrating Rosh Hashanah with them tonight. Bucky's aunt and uncle are there too, representing the more tolerant portion of the Barnes clan. Steve is the star, however, as he usually is - if Bucky's mother has a soft spot for Steve, the rest of them lean more towards morbid fascination.
"Steven!" Uncle Abe booms at him, as soon as Steve's within range. The cousins from Brownsville watch with interest. "How is the apartment treating you, any problems?"
Esther has already fixed herself to Steve's side, ignoring Bucky's glare. "Fine," Steve says, giving her a patient smile. "It's been great."
"It is not great," Bucky's mother mutters into his ear. "It is very far away and full of pests."
The pests part, Bucky can't argue with. In Brooklyn you share the hygiene of your neighbors, which means they have a stubborn cockroach problem that no amount of traps or cleaning has fixed so far. But that's not something that can be admitted to your mother, at any rate. "Ma, you know his school is in the city," he says. They've had this conversation many times. It's 20 minutes from their apartment to Astor Place and Cooper Union, less than half the time it would have taken Steve if they still lived in Eastern Parkway, and half the distance to walk from home to a train or a streetcar. It doesn't matter where Bucky lives.
"So when am I getting some paintings for my house?" she counters, the usual reply.
Steve has been seated next to Bucky's grandmother and a glass of wine pressed into his hand. He's ringing in the new year with a black eye and a chip out of his front tooth, which is earning him not a little bit of fussing over from the female members of Bucky’s family. Bucky came out of the incident with only some bruised ribs, so he's escaped undue attention so far. Grandma’s as hard of hearing as Steve is, so they’re making polite, shouted small talk at each other. Naema and Bucky watch affectionately, arm in arm.
Steve is explaining the black eye. "There was a lady being hassled by some Italians," he shouts. "It's fine, she was all right."
The thing that Bucky likes the best about Steve's stories is that they all end with everyone was all right, no matter what actually happened. The lady in question was a colored girl and there were four Italians backing her into an empty lot a few blocks from their apartment, all the neighboring windows resolutely shut to her screaming. It had been either very late or very early and either way Steve and Bucky had been very, very drunk, and Steve had thrown a chunk of brick with startling accuracy and knocked one of the men out cold.
Bucky had a bottle broken across his ribs but his coat had protected him from getting cut, so he'd been all right. The dame had her only nice dress ripped and had cried hysterically for almost an hour in the back of the corner store they poured themselves into afterwards, getting everyone cleaned up, but they'd seen her safely home, so she'd been all right. Steve had gotten his tooth chipped when he'd gone face first into a brick wall, and the Italians had let up in confusion more than anything else when Steve's asthma had started up, but Steve is always all right even when he's not.
Rebecca and Esther light the candles at sundown. Naema, sitting on the couch between Bucky and Steve, puts an arm around each one and murmurs blessings to them both, may God bless you and keep you, may God look kindly upon you. Steve sits up straight like someone’s poked him in the ass, and smiles weakly when Bucky laughs at him.
Uncle Abe presides over dinner, as the oldest member of the family and the only one who could be described as religious. He recites Kiddush over the wine and blesses the challah, singing the prayers first and then translating loosely to English. Bucky steals glances over at Steve, who is listening attentively even when he can't understand what Abe is saying. The first time he’d brought Steve to Rosh Hashanah had been the year before Sarah Rogers had died, eight years after the first time they’d come to Thanksgiving. Sarah had been so sick, and Steve had worried himself into a mess of ulcers over her, and he'd turned to Bucky and said, "I don't see how it's ever gonna get any better." And when Buck had groped for something that Steve could hold onto, this was what he'd found.
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam,” Uncle Abe intones, and Bucky reaches for the dish of apples. This is his favorite part.
The apple slice is still crisp and cold in his hand. Naema had brought them up last, waiting until everyone was sitting down before placing the bowls on the table. The honey is warm from the candles and good company. A little bit drips on the tablecloth as he lifts the apple up from the honey, before he can catch it with his fingertip. He hooks a foot around Steve's ankle, slowly - so as not to startle him and give them away - pressing their legs together to the knee. The slow, secret curve of the smile on Steve's face is intoxicating. He glances up, into Bucky's eyes, and the smile gets a little bigger.
“Sweetness and happiness,” Bucky says, and offers Steve the apple. Around the table everyone is laughing and happy, and no one seems to notice them.
They move under the stairs, out of sight from the second floor. The rabbit hutch is set under there also, against the fence, and the air smells comfortably grassy. There's a little brick wall set underneath the step, protecting the ground floor from floods, and they settle onto it. The light peeps through in slivers between the steps, picking up the highlights in Rebecca's hair and the little slope of her nose. She makes a motion to pull a pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket but he beats her to it. She accepts one of his graciously and allows him to light it for her.
She sticks the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and uses both hands to tie her hair back, the motions quick and economical. "Y'okay?" he asks, nudging her.
She rolls her eyes, the motion of it almost lost in the dim light. "Fine. It's just a little hot in there." She kicks her feet back and forth, the motion of it odd in the long skirt she's wearing tonight. They don't that spend much time together these days, both of them busy with their own lives He misses her. He's happy to see her.
"You look lovely tonight," he tells her, because it's true. He can see her try and bite down on a smile. "You do. You're lucky I don't come to dances with you, you'd have to put up with me beating away all your boyfriends with a big club."
That wins him a big, startled grin, that lasts only a moment before she can successfully smother it with her cigarette. Bucky's four years older than the rest of them and they used to follow him around like ducklings, Rebecca more than any. "You should teach Steve to be so smart with the ladies," she tells him tartly, and Bucky laughs and winds an arm around her waist. She throws her arm around his shoulders in return and they sit there for a while, smoking their cigarettes.
"You know what Ma said to me, before everyone got here?" Rebecca asks, after a moment. Bucky tilts his face towards her, waiting. "She said to me, you gotta get serious. You're twenty years old now and you're pretty, but that ain't gonna last forever. Time to settle down and be an adult."
Bucky sighs. "She means well, Becca. She's not trying to hurt your feelings. What about Sam? I thought you liked Sam, even if he is a little weasel and definitely not good enough for you."
"Sam's okay," she says, mouth twisting. "He treats me well and his family's pretty nice. But I'm pretty sure he's looking for a good girl who'll stay home, have lots of big fat babies and cook him good meals. I'm not sure I'm cut out like that. I like working for Dad. I feel useful. And I'm a terrible cook."
"I'll teach you," Bucky offers. "If you won't learn from Mom. You come over and be a good womanly influence on Steve and me, I'll teach you to cook. It ain't that hard. Sound okay?"
"Sounds backwards," she retorts. "Be easier if you could just get married and take some of the pressure off me."
“Why don’t you join the Army, get a free pass for a couple years?” he says, and moves his hand up to her ribs for a surprise tickle attack. She screams and nearly takes them both off the wall. There’s a mad scramble until she digs her fingernails right into the big bruise on his right side. “Uncle!” he cries immediately, raising both hands. They both glance quickly at the cigarettes: still lit. He’s still looking up when she hauls off and slugs him hard on the arm.
"Jesus, Becca!" he yelps, caught off guard. "Whadja do that for?"
"Springing it on us like that, that you're reenlisting!" she says. It’s almost a shout, and they spare another glance up towards the windows up above the stairs. The windows are still open and they can hear music, talking. The rabbits scuffle, unseen, and then subside.
It had come out, during dinner, when talk had turned to happy or sad memories from the last year. They’d gone around the table, for each person to say what they hoped for in the new year. Peter’s had been Grandchildren! without hesitation, beaming. Esther had talked excitedly about graduation and college, sneaking shy glances at Steve - who, in turn, had wished for an end to the war in Europe. Then he’d turned and looked at Bucky.
And Bucky had blurted out, “I reenlisted.”
It felt strange to phrase it that way, because he hadn’t enlisted in the first place. He’d been one of the last draft picks of ‘40, almost two years ago now. But he likes the Army, likes the swing in his step and the way people look at him and how he feels a part of something bigger. He doesn’t take home as much money as he might, working for his dad’s business, but he’s been assured that the move from Corporal to Sergeant will be quick. Most of his needs are taken care of by Uncle Sam and he gets to spend his pay as he sees fit. The Army is easy. He doesn’t have to wonder where his life is going: when he’s away, being a soldier is his job. When he’s in Brooklyn, it’s Steve.
Who he hadn't told about reenlisting. He hadn't told anyone, just gone ahead and done it.
He’d raised his head and seen everyone staring at him, speechless, the moment stretching on and on.
“You should join the Army,” he says now, rubbing at the sore spot on his arm. “One look at you and the enemy’d fall all over themselves surrendering.” She’s not smiling, though - her eyes fixed stubbornly on the ground, working the cigarette in her mouth.
“What if we go to war?” she demands. “What if they make you go kill people?"
He takes a drag off his own cigarette, feeling his shoulders drop. He’s asked himself that too. “You don’t get a choice,” he says softly, picking his own spot out in the darkness to stare at. “If that’s how it is, that’s how it is. But if it does happen - I’ll be careful, Becca. You know I will.”
“Yeah, you’ll be careful,” she mutters. “You’re always careful. As long as Steve’s not there to egg you on.”
“Exactly,” he says, beaming when she finally looks up at him, her smile wavering but there. “Now quit worrying, alright? No one’s going to war.”
But it stays with him, when she finishes her cigarette, gives him a kiss on the cheek and goes back inside. The wisdom of having signed away even more years of his life, with so much uncertain in the world. He pulls out another cigarette, lights it. He lets the match burn almost all the way to his fingers, hypnotized. There’s a puddle near his feet where his mother must have thrown water from the kitchen, collected in a little hollow where Peter replaced the brick last year. He lets the match fall from his fingers into the water, listening for the little hiss as it hits.
The stairs creak above him. He looks up and watches worn shoes move down the steps. The light from inside plays across his face. He takes a drag off the cigarette and then stubs it out on the wall, placing it carefully back into the pack.
“There you are,” he says.
Steve steps carefully under the stairs, hands in his pockets. At this distance, his face is shadowed and impossible to read. "They wanna leave for temple pretty soon," he says.
"Okay," Bucky says. Steve takes a step closer, then another. The silence stretches taut between them. The music sounds very loud, through the open windows. Bucky can hear his mother laughing.
"Thought you were gonna feed me that apple, back there," Steve says.
"C'mere," Bucky manages - and bites his lip, waiting for judgement.
He feels more than sees Steve's hands straightening the lapels of his jacket. "I'm so goddamn proud of you," Steve whispers, and Bucky surges forward and kisses him.
It's dangerous, like this. They can't be seen from upstairs but the kitchen windows are right behind them. Anyone could come down - to find more wine or the last of the honey cakes. Steve fits neat into the vee of Bucky's legs. Like this, on the little wall, Steve is taller than him and the difference of it is heady, his throat tilted up and open, his shoulders loose, his whole body cleaving to Steve. Steve's fingers frame his face, controlling, and Buck lets himself be moved, lets Steve take what he wants. He can taste honey on Steve's lips.
They're quiet - they have to be. Bucky's sweating in his uniform, the risk of discovery lighting every nerve on fire. He can't breathe. His hands are tangled in Steve's hair and Steve's skinny chest is pressed up against his own. He can feel Steve's hard dick on his thigh through both their pants, so close to where he wants it. He wants.
"Please," he pants. It's barely audible. "Steve, please."
"Shhhh," Steve says, soothing, and tugs open Bucky's pants. Bucky gives up on kissing Steve and wraps his arms around him, tugging him close enough that Bucky can bite down on the shoulder of Steve's coat, try and muffle himself. Steve's fingers are firm and confident on his dick, pulling it free of Bucky's underwear so he can get a better grip.
All he can do is breathe, and hold on, and try not to give them away.
He wants everything. He wants to take Steve's hand and pull him inside, back to the bedroom that used to belong to Bucky, which still has a beat up couch that they could use. He wants to take all of Steve's clothes off and take his time sucking him. He wants Steve to put his fingers in him, to bring him off that way and send him off to temple still loose and shaking all over.
When he comes it's with nothing more than a long sigh out through his nose, his eyes and jaw clenched tight. Steve's got one of Bucky's handkerchiefs in his pocket and he uses it to clean off his hand. They pause, listening - Bucky's hand stroking Steve's dick through his pants, anxious and overheated. Finally, Steve looks back, meets his eyes, whispers, "okay," and Bucky swallows a groan of relief, fingers shaking as he unbuttons Steve's pants.
After, they put themselves back together. Bucky can't stop himself from touching Steve, frantic to steal as many kisses as possible before they have to go back upstairs and behave, be adults. He helps Steve tuck his shirt back in and would have helped Steve fix his tie too if Steve hadn't slapped his hands away, laughing silently.
He pulls Steve back under the stairs for one last kiss, high up on his neck, behind his ear. Standing up again he has to bend down for it, just the soft press of his mouth against Steve's skin and a quick, shivering breath in, holding it for as long as he can.
He doesn't know that it would feel any more right to have an H instead, or if he could have just left it blank and hoped for the best. It's been strange, to be treated as one thing instead of many, instead of something strange and maybe pitiable; to feel sometimes like he's hiding a secret. Bucky is friendly and generous and considered on the level wherever he goes so he's made a lot of friends in the Army, but when the chance for Christmas furlough came up, he'd jumped at the opportunity to be back in his own skin again for a while.
It had taken him three days to get to Brooklyn from Camp McCoy, a hop skipping sort of journey of two trains, a Greyhound bus and an assortment of rides from nice people he met in towns he and the other soldiers passed through, heading home. On the way out of Wisconsin he'd been given a paper to read on the trip, full of excited talk about the breakdown in treaty talks with the Japanese, and Nazis and Russians freezing to death outside of Moscow. In it had also been a transcript of a speech given the day before, where the President speculated almost casually about seeing American boots on the ground in Europe within the year.
"Within the year" - it had stayed with him through the miles, though he'd tried to shed it. He'd chosen, this time, and if he was called, he'd go willingly, but the idea of it was strange - unreal. It sat heavy in his belly.
He doesn't feel right until New York is in his sights again, cresting through Jersey in the bed of a pickup truck with a group of soldiers coming from Camp Lehigh. His head is splitting from the booze they'd fed him the night before, and one of the guys - a kid so young he makes Bucky's teeth ache, straight off a farm from Texas - whistles low and long under his breath. When Bucky turns around he can see the Empire State Building far off on the horizon, and he feels like he can breathe again.
He feels different, being back in Brooklyn. He's been gone for almost two months, the longest since basic training. He's slower, stepping on and off the trains. People bump into the duffle slung over his shoulder, and he only belatedly remembers to hold it in his hand instead. But it feels good down to his bones to get swept up in the flow of New York, to hear voices that sound like his, to be home.
He'd written to both Steve and his mother, telling them that he'd gotten furlough for December, but he's a day later than expected and the apartment is empty and cold when he lets himself in. There are two rabbits in a wire cage, sitting on their table. Bucky eases himself down to take off his shoes, still feeling last night's whiskey. He and the rabbits contemplate each other in silence until Bucky sighs and goes to build up a fire in the stove, get the place a little more habitable.
He hears Steve coughing all the way up the stairs. There's a little pause in the shuffling creak of Steve's footsteps, as he takes a break on the 3rd floor landing. He looks terrible, even in the dim light of the kitchen: his hunch pronounced, skin raw from the cold, nose red and swollen. He collapses into the other chair and puts his face down on the table, hand curled in the front of his shirt. Bucky can see his back rising and falling okay, so it's not the asthma. Heart trouble, then. Not much to do except wait for it to pass. Bucky gets him a glass of water and scoots his chair close, rubbing Steve's back until his breathing gets a little less labored. The rabbits watch them, anxiously.
"Hey Buck," Steve rasps, after a while. His face is still pressed into the table. "Welcome back. How ya doin."
"Better'n you," Buck answers. He digs his thumb in a little under Steve's shoulder blade, and Steve lets out a long sigh.
"I'm okay," he says, and sits up. "Better than before, I guess. Becca came by with chicken soup and those," he says, gesturing to the rabbits. "Your uncle must'a thought I was sick or something when he picked up the rent."
"Yeah, what a jerk," Bucky says wryly. "I'll make some stew tonight, yeah? Perk you right up." He reaches through the wire, scratches the nose of one of the rabbits. It settles down to be petted, eyes slitting closed.
After lunch he ambles downstairs to deal with the rabbits. Steve follows slowly, trailing nearly half a landing by the time they get to the ground floor. Mrs. David in 1C lets them through her apartment to the little yard in the back. She grows a few vegetables out there in the summer, nothing too complicated - just beets and little yellow tomatoes - but it's bare and gray out there now.
Steve sits heavily on the steps, legs sprawled akimbo. It's unseasonably warm and they only have thin jackets on. The laundry post in the corner of the yard has a big wire hook on it at about eye level, and Bucky sets his cage down and drags the big metal garbage can underneath the hook.
"How was Wisconsin?" Steve asks. His voice sounds a little off; he must be having trouble gauging the pitch of it after whatever the hell was wrong with him when Bucky was away.
"Cold," Bucky answers, pulling the first rabbit out of the cage by the scruff of its neck. It's quickly dispatched with the heavy wooden hoe leaning up against the porch. It kicks a few times and then is still. He strings it up by the back legs, leans back to study it. "Not too cold, though."
Not colder than Brooklyn in February, where the wind turns streets into howling tunnels that can eat right through your clothes and force you tumbling to the ground. But Wisconsin had snow that was white when it fell from the sky and stayed white afterwards, instead of absorbing the garbage and piss and oil from the ground and forming into a gray-black glacier - a novel experience for a Brooklyn boy. All in all, he'd had worse Novembers.
He works quickly to skin and butcher the rabbit. His family has kept them since before he can remember, and it's been his job since he was old enough to be trusted with the knife. The skin is cut in a neat circle around the heels, then a line down each leg, joining at the belly. Pulling down the skin makes the rabbit look like a girl showing you her legs. Loosening everything enough to clip the tail off and shiver the rest of the Brer Rabbit's clothes off, leaving him bare to the elements. The head a flick of the wrist with a big knife. Cracking the pelvis with his hands. Working carefully to open the belly, so as not to puncture anything held inside. Done the right way it all comes out at once, hanging like Christmas tinsel, easy to cut away. Bucky's good with a knife.
"You want the livers?" he calls over his shoulder. He hears Steve sigh.
"Might as well," he answers.
"Your ma would box your ears, sounding so ungrateful," he says, and Steve laughs.
"Gee golly, James!" he says dutifully, his accent flattening out until he sounds like a matinee idol. "I sure would love some tasty livers! They're my very favorite! I could eat liver 'til I puke!"
"That's more like it," Bucky tells him, and reaches for the other rabbit.
It's warm in their apartment when they trudge back upstairs. The cupboard is pretty bare - he sends an evil look Steve's way, who pretends not to see it - so he runs to the market for some potatoes and an onion, picks up bread and eggs and a couple cans of beans while he's at it. When he comes back Steve is on his knees next to the toilet, and Bucky's breath catches - but he's just killing a cockroach that had scurried through the other room. He stays on his hands and knees hunting for more bugs while Bucky cuts up the rabbits and dredges the pieces in flour, dumping them into the pot with a bit of oil and the onion. While he's waiting for the meat to brown, he wrestles Steve into bed to rest, Goddammit, you look like you're about to fall over. Steve's back in the kitchen before Buck's finished cutting up the potatoes, looking mutinous and bored. They glare at each other over Steve's sketchbook. Buck points the knife at him. "If I come lay down with you, will you stay there?" he asks, and Steve smirks.
"You trying to get me into bed, Barnes?"
"Maybe if you didn't look like something I just skinned in the yard," Bucky retorts, but he blushes when he says it. Steve just laughs and settles into his seat at the table, the battle won.
There's not a lot to making stew, just meat and patience, so after a while they do go lie down. The apartment only has two rooms and the bathroom, so the only places to sit are at the table or on a bed. Steve sits propped up at the head of Bucky's bed, and Buck drapes himself over and around, trying to avoid Steve's sharp angles. He dozes off the rest of his hangover with his head on Steve's thigh, listening to the whisper of pages turning.
It’s never quiet, in Brooklyn. They’d spent most of their childhoods within spitting distance of the Navy Yards and all its attendant din, but moving inland you trade one kind of noise for another. Cars backfiring, on the street. Three or four radios competing for dominance. Someone shouting, being shouted at. A kid crying through the walls of the building next door. For three years, Bucky’s home had been on the ground floor of a frame house pretty close to the water. An old Polish lady had lived next door, deaf as a post, and had kept a gramophone going day and night. Bucky stopped hearing it entirely after a while, and after she died he’d spent weeks unable to sleep without the white noise of the music.
Someone is yelling, now - far off and indistinct. The apartment starts to smell like rabbit stew and also of cabbages, probably wafting up from the second floor. Bucky watches sunlight slant across the floorboards, his whole body relaxed and given over to the feel of Steve’s hand cradling the nape of his neck. He hadn’t slept well in Wisconsin, either.
“Missed you, Stevie,” he murmurs. He casts an eye up, curls a hand around Steve’s bony thigh. He scrapes his fingernails idly over the seam of Steve’s pants. “You miss me?”
“Nope,” Steve says, and turns another page. He glances down at Buck after a second and winks. Bucky rubs his cheek against Steve’s thigh, a little laugh huffing out of his mouth.
There’d been a girl in Wisconsin, a WAC from North Carolina named Suzie, the first girl for him in ages and ages. She let Bucky light her cigarettes and take her to the little movie theater they had on base. She had a big smile and wide thighs and little feet, and was smart and funny as hell. She lived in a little apartment with three other girls, and she’d taken him to bed twice. He’d forgotten, a little, how different women are - the way they smell, the feel of their skin, the soft shape of their bodies against his own. She’d blown him too, in her little bedroom, and it had been good but he’d walked home feeling cold and missing the subtle difference of Steve’s mouth around his dick. Had felt even colder finally back in his own barracks, getting teased by the other guys about Suzie. He’d taken it with a smile and didn’t tell them what he was thinking, how different it is with someone who knows exactly what feels good because they’ve felt it themselves.
He'd swallowed the words, feeling like a liar - but he doesn't have the vocabulary to describe himself and what he wants any more than he knows what his dog tags should be stamped with. Steve makes sense, has always made sense no matter what fool thing he was doing, no matter how many girls caught Bucky's eye. They've been this way since they were kids - not all the time, just every once in a while. At least, that's how it was up until the last year or so. He doesn't know what changed - if it was him or Steve who first got hungry for what they did together, if it was Steve's sudden inclusion in every space of Bucky's life, or if this strangeness has always been inside him.
He doesn't feel strange, lying with his head pillowed in Steve's lap, a little turned on thinking about Suzie's mouth or Steve's mouth on his dick, thinking about maybe asking Steve if Bucky could blow him. He feels -
He presses fingertips around the feeling in his heart, probing it like a sore tooth, satisfying when he pushes against it. He feels - comfortable. And quiet. And happy.
Steve has never asked him to pick a side. It's never come up, even though Steve goes to Mass every week and keeps a couple saints' medals around his neck, and has never had a girl he was serious about. The only side that's ever mattered has been the two of them against the world.
They don’t talk much as they settle down to eat. It’s good; the meat is tender and the broth nice and thick, a lot better than what Bucky was eating at Camp McCoy. When Steve’s done with his bowl Bucky gets up and ladles out second helpings for both of them without asking. He likes this - taking care of Steve the way he would the rest of his family - or the way a man takes care of a woman, even though Steve would knock his teeth in for him if he ever said either one of those things.
“You got class tomorrow?” Bucky asks, after a while. Steve nods, not looking up from his bowl.
“Life drawing in the morning,” he says, “typography and another drawing workshop in the afternoon.”
"Maybe I'll come into the city, meet you for lunch," Bucky says.
"Sure," Steve says. "Just don't go picking fights at my school again."
"One time - and you oughta talk," Bucky says mutinously. "Just for that I'm gonna wear my uniform to meet you. We'll see what those socialists at your school think of that."
"You're practically a socialist yourself," Steve tells him, grinning lopsidedly.
"You wash your mouth out with soap," Bucky scolds, but doesn't try to deny it. "Come on, what time are you done with school? We can make a day of it. Go ice skating in the park, or - anything interesting happening in the arty world?"
"You wanna go to an art show?" Steve says, raising an eyebrow.
"Sure," Bucky says. He drops his chin onto his hands and opens his eyes real wide. "Why not? I like art. I liked that, what did we see last time, the color fields. I've been in Wisconsin for two months, Steve, don’t you think I could use a little culture?"
"Always," Steve says. "All right, there's a show I wanna see at the Museum of Living Art. It's free on weekdays. I'll be done around 3, if you wake up tomorrow and you still wanna go."
"It's a date," Bucky says.
Bucky does the washing up. Steve tidies a bit, where he'd been leaving his socks and clothes around the apartment while Bucky was gone. There's a bit of stew left in the pot and Bucky eats it mechanically, standing up at the sink, before he washes out the pot. A gramophone turns on somewhere on the other side of their open bedroom windows, something slow and sweet. Steve sings along, mostly under his breath. He's a truly terrible singer - probably would be even if he wasn't half deaf, his voice flat and toneless. Bucky can remember when Steve's voice broke, how for weeks people had stopped and stared at the oddness of that deep voice coming out of the little guy standing in front of them, like someone was doing a ventriloquist act. Frank, then only six and called Frankie, had laughed to split his pants for about a month.
It had been the only time he can remember Sarah Rogers expressing any hope, for anything at all - she'd been a quiet, practical woman who had loved her child down to the marrow of her bones, who had worked herself to death to keep him alive against all the odds in the world. By the time Bucky had known her as anything more than Steve's ma there wasn't a lot of her left, between the hardscrabble life she'd left in Ireland and the hand to mouth existence she had built with Steve. As the Barnes' fortunes had risen, Sarah Rogers' had fallen - from frame house to tenement to worse tenement to charity hospital, and she'd accepted her changing circumstances without any outward surprise.
But he remembers her saying - her hand propped on her chin at their tiny table, the single room she and Steve lived in close and dark and musty smelling, without windows or any real ventilation - he remembers her saying with a wistful smile, that that strange deep voice meant - "He's meant to be tall," she'd said.
Steve brushes by him on the way to the bathroom and pauses. "Okay, I missed you a little," he says, and presses a kiss to Bucky's bare shoulder. He leaves the bathroom door open and Buck can hear him pissing, whistling off key to someone else's gramophone the whole while.
And he thinks: oh. Relief washes over him like a wave, gratitude that all of the things he feels can be summed up with this: he loves Steve. He loves him.
He rinses the soap off his hands and dries them on his pants, so when Steve comes back he can grab him by the waist and spin him like a girl. Steve, predictably, trips over his own feet and fetches up against Bucky's chest laughing. "Whaddaya doin, Buck?" he says, and Bucky thinks that he could see that smile every day for the rest of his life and be happy about it.
"C'mon, Rogers - they're playing our song," he says, waving his free hand towards the open windows and Brooklyn beyond, where the gramophone is blaring out something indecipherable.
"I don't know how to dance," Steve protests, which is true - he's stiff and uncoordinated in Bucky's arms, and Bucky loves him.
"I'll teach you," he says, and Steve rolls his eyes and places a hand into Bucky's, who quickly moves his own hand on top. "You lead," he says. "That's the part you gotta know."
For a few minutes they're serious about it - "Quick, quick, slow, come on - no, step forward this time, weight on your other foot." - but by the third time Steve steps on his foot they're both giggling like kids, and Steve gives him a twirl, each of them adjusting up or down so his arm can reach all the way over Bucky's head. Buck's only wearing an undershirt but Steve's still got his socks and suspenders on, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbow, and Steve is warm up against him, his face flushed from laughing and Bucky loves him.
Steve grins up at Bucky and slips a hand under his belt to tug their hips together, his eyes dark and knowing, and Bucky sways forward, helplessly following Steve's lead.
Steve's all the way dressed when he comes back in, a little lumpy in his long underwear and three shirts and Frank's old winter coat from two years ago. He sets his school bag down at the foot of the bed and looks down at Bucky, hands on his hips. "The hell are you complaining about now?" he demands.
"Steve," Bucky whispers, heart felt, eyes wide and pleading. "Come closer." Steve gives him a skeptical look but obliges, leaning forward an inch or two - close enough for Bucky to whip his arms out from under the covers and yank Steve down onto the bed. They tussle for a moment but Bucky hasn't won a fight against Steve in probably ten years; he's horrifically ticklish and Steve fights dirty. They end with the blanket on the floor, Steve's knees bracketing his hips, his skinny body an arc over Bucky's, his hands holding Buck's wrists down against the pillow.
"Whaddaya want, Buck?" he says, low. Bucky pulls on his wrists a little, still shuddering from being grabbed high up on his ribs and the chill in the room and the excitement of being fully naked while Steve’s fully clothed. His knees are up and spread open, brushing against the back of Steve's legs. Steve’s tie is dragging over his bare chest, just the faintest hint of cool weight on his skin.
He wants to ask Steve to stay in bed with him all day - to take off all his clothes and roll around in their blankets and never come back out. It's a nice dream. He lets himself indulge in it for a few minutes, pushing up his chin so Steve will take the hint and kiss him - dreaming of a world where Steve's school isn't so important and Bucky's family wouldn't expect them to come calling tonight, where they got no responsibilities and nowhere to be.
Steve kisses sweet, sweet like he hardly ever is when he’s walking and talking, his focus like the sun on Bucky’s skin. He lets Bucky tug one hand free and wind it around his tie, holding him in place for just a moment before letting go. “Nothin’,” Bucky breathes into Steve’s mouth. “You have a nice day at school now.”
“Go to church,” Steve retorts, climbing off him carefully. He picks up the blanket and slings it back over Bucky a little carelessly. Bucky immediately curls back up into it, burying his face into his pillow. He doesn’t see Steve linger for a few moments, his face creased with vague confusion.
“See you at 3?” Steve asks, and Buck nods without looking back, smiling into the pillow. He stays in bed until almost 9, feeling wonderfully lazy and alone. There’s bread and a little smudge of butter in the cupboard, and Bucky eats breakfast and smokes two cigarettes out the window of the bedroom, enjoying the white noise of Brooklyn.
The temperature's dropped low enough that Bucky puts his long underwear on when it’s time to get ready, and then, stubbornly, his uniform. The damn thing's mostly wool and he'd sweated through the summer in it, he might as well get some use out of it. He shaves and does his hair with pomade, sticks his cap on at a jaunty angle. Smirks at himself, stooped low to see his face in the little mirror Steve stuck on the wall when they moved in. There’s still a smile playing around his mouth when he locks the door behind him and heads out, calling hello to old Landau in 1A, who sits by his front window all day long and has never had a smile to spare that Bucky’s seen.
He gets on a Manhattan bound train around 2:30, heading to 8th St. He watches the Lady far off on Liberty Island as they roll over the East River. The train is crowded and people smile at him, pleased to see a handsome young man in uniform. He smiles back, pleased with the world and everything in it. He wonders where Steve might want to go for lunch. What he'd say if Bucky asked him if he’d ever thought about treating this thing between them as real.
He comes out of the subway a little before 3 o'clock, and the world has changed.
He's barely ten steps onto Broadway when someone shouts right in his face. "They've attacked Pearl Harbor!"
"What?" Bucky asks, baffled. "Who the hell is Pearl Harbor?" His first thought is a girl - that a girl's been hurt somewhere nearby. The guy who shouted at him is already staggering away. A drunk, maybe - but the fear he saw on the man's face is reflected in the people all around him. Something's happened. There's a woman crying, a group of people milling on the corner where the newsie usually stands, everyone looking confused and scared. He breaks into a run, his heart pounding in his chest.
He finds Steve on the corner of Astor Place and 4th Avenue. "Bucky!" he shouts when Bucky's still on the other side of 4th Ave, and runs towards him. They meet in the middle of the street, and Steve's pale, shocky face catches the same kind of fear in Bucky as everyone else.
"What the hell is going on?" Bucky asks, catching Steve at the elbows and dragging them both back onto the sidewalk.
"The Japanese are bombing a big Navy base in Hawaii," Steve tells him, breathlessly. "They stopped the radio for an emergency broadcast. They think there's thousands of men killed but no one knows what's going on. They think it'll be war."
He can feel his mouth hanging open. It doesn't feel true. There are envoys from Japan on American soil right now negotiating, the paper said so. Said that the Japs were weak and subservient to Hitler, and they wouldn't say boo with the Nazis busy with Russia. The paper said so, but he can't find the words to tell Steve that.
He realizes abruptly that Steve isn't looking at Bucky, he's looking down at Bucky's chest, at the - oh God, at the uniform. People are looking at him, at the uniform, at both of them hanging onto each other on street, and this time there's no one for Steve to start a fight with.
They get on the train back to Brooklyn. The people in their car look relaxed, normal - no one's heard they're at war yet. They get out at 7th Avenue stop and walk down Park Place, towards his family's home. The neighborhood is quiet. The few people on the streets are hurrying in the same way Steve and Bucky are hurrying, their faces pinched. The news is spreading. Steve starts wheezing before they even hit Bedford and it takes all of Bucky's remaining calm to insist they hunker on a bench and wait it out.
"Come on, we're only couple blocks away, I've got some asthma medicine at your folks' house," Steve tells him, doubled over. "I'm fine, they're gonna be worried."
"You sit down and you shut up," Bucky orders, wearing a hole in the sidewalk a few paces away.
"Why don't you make me, punk," Steve gasps.
It's almost 4 by the time they cross New York Avenue and take the last few yards at a near run. The lights are on. Rebecca yanks the front door open as Bucky's taking the steps two at a time, Steve right behind him, her eyes wide and scared. "Come on, come in," she says.
Everyone is gathered in the front room, around the radio. Esther is on her knees directly in front of the set, as if she'll hear better that way. His parents are curled together on the couch, Peter's arm around Frank. His mother jolts to her feet and they fold her into a tight hug, Bucky's arms around her thin shoulders and Steve's arms around them both. "It's okay, it'll be okay," he whispers into her hair.
The battle at Pearl Harbor has been over for about an hour. NBC airs transmissions from a radio operator in Honolulu, who had climbed up on top of a roof to be able to report what was happening. An Army lumber transport 1300 miles off the coast of California has been torpedoed by Japanese forces. Military forces in the Philippine Islands and in Guam are under attack. The President is meeting with his Cabinet. Details to come.
Bucky doesn't know anyone who's been to Hawaii and he's never even heard of Guam, and he wonders how the rest of the country is feeling, the families who don't already have sons in service. How many men and boys their own age must be wondering if there will be another draft, if this time their number will be called. He looks at his brother, who is 15 and largely a mystery to Bucky, and the gratitude he feels is staggering - that no matter what happens to him at least everyone else will be safe. He's holding Rebecca's hand and his other arm is around his mother, and he's talking to them both quietly whenever the radio goes quiet.
"It'll be over by Christmas," he tells them. He doesn't really believe that; if they declare war on the Japanese they might as well be declaring it against the Germans too, who are strong and subservient to no one. But it makes him feel better to lie, even though he thinks his mother and sister know better too. "The President knows what he's doing, he's not gonna put us through another long war, not like the last one."
At 5:14 they're told that Japan has declared war on the United States, and Bucky's mother starts to cry. He can feel her tears on his neck, hot and ticklish. He's seen his mother cry before, but this is the first time he's been the reason for it.
They leave the radio on for the rest of the night, never straying very far from it even though most of the night's programming goes on as scheduled. Dinner is cobbled together around 7 and eaten quickly. The girls speak only to ask for butter or the water pitcher. Steve talks to Peter for most of it, their heads bowed close together. They've always gotten on well. Peter had gone to fight in Europe too, like Steve's dad, but unlike Steve's dad he'd come back. He never talks about it. Bucky doesn't know any of his father's war stories, and right now he's afraid to ask.
At 8pm they're told Mayor LaGuardia has ordered all Japanese subjects confined to their homes. Naema goes to bed shortly after, looking cried out in a way brings an almost physical pain to his heart.
"You two are staying the night," she tells Steve and Bucky, looking each of them in the eyes. "One of the girls will make up the room for you."
"We'll manage," Steve says, and takes her hand. "Don't worry."
Her smile is very faint. "You're a good boy," she says to Steve, and kisses all of her children good night before going upstairs.
On the radio, music is playing. It's some made up story about nightclubs and dancing in Manhattan. There haven't been any news updates for nearly an hour and Bucky feels wrung dry. His father sighs and goes into the other room, comes back with his best whiskey, the one he keeps in the leaded crystal decanter that Bucky used to look for rainbows in as a child. He’s got a tray in the other hand with six glasses on it, from the set he bought the year after they moved to Eastern Parkway, brought out only on special occasions.
He pours Frank, Esther and Rebecca a finger’s worth apiece, and two for Steve, Bucky and himself, but no one drinks.
“What happens next?” his father asks him, and ain’t that the question of the day.
“I find a phone first thing tomorrow, report in,” Bucky says, focusing on taking deep, even breaths. “After that - I dunno. I guess it’ll depend on what the President says.”
Canada and Costa Rica have declared war on Japan, but not them, not yet. President Roosevelt will be addressing the nation at noon tomorrow. Maybe it won’t be war. The radio’s reporting only 104 casualties from Pearl Harbor, though it doesn’t seem possible, everything that the radio from Honolulu was saying. It sounded like the whole world had been on fire.
His siblings are looking at him. Frank and Esther almost vibrating with tension. Rebecca squeezing Bucky's forearm with her free hand, looking like she doesn’t know she’s doing it. Bucky looks at Steve but doesn’t find any help there. Steve’s staring into his whiskey, far away with his own thoughts.
“The President’ll say it’s war,” Frank blurts out. “And if he doesn’t he’s a coward. They hit us - we should hit ‘em back ten times harder. The Japs are treacherous and everyone knows it. We shoulda stood up to them and the Nazis too, years ago.”
Bucky doesn’t have a response to that, even though Frank is staring straight at him, hands in fists on his knees. Steve’s looking at Frank thoughtfully. His sisters don’t say anything either, but Esther is nodding, the angles of her face sharp in the dim lamplight.
Peter sighs, long and low. Bucky takes a sip of his drink, gingerly. It’s warm in his chest and he rubs his other hand against his thigh, trying to warm that too.
“I’m glad you reenlisted, James,” his father says to him. Bucky glances up.
“Sir?” he asks. His leans back a little, shoulders straightening unconsciously.
Peter nods, and takes a drink from his glass. They don’t look much like each other - not the way Esther and Frank look like their father, not the way Bucky looks like their mother - but he knows his father’s face better than he knows just about anyone’s. From the thin mustache to the square chin, to the small ways that they look alike, sometimes, which is mostly when they smile. His father has deep lines around his eyes, which he always says is from the happy life he lives.
“I’m glad,” Peter says again. He speaks slowly, measuring out his words. “I don’t want my child to go across the ocean and fight. War is hell, son.” Bucky looks away, and so do all of his siblings. Only Steve’s eyes are lifted, his hands steady around his glass, unwavering when Peter continues. “If it wants you it's gonna take you, no matter what any of us think about it. So I’m glad at least you got a say in when."
Peter holds his glass out and Bucky touches his own to it, mindlessly. “May the road rise to meet you,” Peter says to him, and his eyes find Steve, then Frank, then Esther, then Rebecca.
Bucky drains his glass and goes outside to smoke his way through the rest of his cigarettes.
That night he tosses and turns. The nicotine's made him sick to his stomach and achingly, painfully wired. They're set up in Bucky's old room, Frank sawing some logs on the bed, Bucky on the floor with the couch cushions underneath him, Steve on the couch itself. He can't sleep. He lays on his left side for a while, then his right, then on his back with his arms folded like a vampire. Then he starts the circuit over again.
Steve's pale hand comes out of nowhere and slaps him on the forehead. "Cut it out," Steve hisses. Bucky smacks the hand away and rolls up onto his knees, spoiling for a fight. But Steve just looks at him. The sodium light coming in from the street turns the whole room into vague, unfamiliar shapes. Bucky sighs and gets to his feet.
Steve's bare feet make quiet noises on the wooden floor as he follows Bucky into the kitchen, brushing by him to settle down at the little table set up against the windows. The click of the light is loud in the late night stillness of the house. For a minute they just stand there and blink at each other owlishly, waiting for their eyes to adjust.
"You hungry?" Bucky asks, and Steve shrugs. A quick bit of digging in the cupboards gives him eggs and dark bread, which he cuts two slices from. He cracks an egg into his hand, letting the whites slough off into the big sink. The yolk gets broken onto the bread with his fingers, then spread across both slices. A bit of brown sugar on top and Bucky feels like a child again, his father blearily fixing him something sweet to make the nightmares go away.
He gives one piece to Steve and sits down at the table next to him. Outside the window, the garden is pitch black. The only sound is the wind rattling the window glass in its frame, little wisps of cold leaking in from the corners. He has no idea what time it is. The sugar has melted into the egg and the taste is good and comforting.
"You okay, Buck?" Steve asks, quiet.
"Yeah," he says, taking another bite of sweet. "You okay?"
Steve raises his eyebrows. "Me? Why wouldn't I be okay?"
Steve looks okay. He looks sleepy, but he also looks calm and relaxed. It makes Bucky feel better, strangely. Steve's in a long shirt that used to belong to Bucky before it was handed down to Frank, and it's slipped down a little bit on his shoulder. The wing of his collarbone looks fragile and sharp. Steve shivers a little, toes curling under themselves. "Cold in here," he observes.
"Sorry I woke you up," Bucky says. "You can go back to bed if you want, I'm all right."
"I wasn't really sleeping, anyway," Steve says.
"A lot to think about," Bucky says, sighing.
Steve nods. "I'm gonna go to the recruitment center tomorrow morning to enlist," he says. "I'll ask to be assigned to the 107th."
For a second he can picture it, the idea of it, Steve in fatigues and a helmet two sizes too big, getting shot at. His throat closes up and he presses his fingertips against his heart, hoping Steve won't think anything of the motion. "I don't know they're gonna let you in," he says, cautiously.
Steve frowns and takes a bite of bread. "Yeah, maybe not," he says, chewing. He shrugs. "I'll make something up. I'll tell 'em my dad fought in the 107th, maybe."
It's not what Bucky had meant, and it's on the tip of his tongue to say so, but Steve laughs and pushes at him with his shoulder. "You look tired to death, Buck. What are you so scared of? We'll look after each other like always. It'll be all right."
It's funny - this morning, he'd had so many plans. "I love you," he tells Steve, because he does and it's something he wants to have said.
Steve grins. "I love you too, Buck," he says, easy, and takes a bite of bread. "Now quit with the hysterics, you're embarrassing me."
The Army isn't gonna take Steve, any sooner than they'd take Bucky's grandmother and stick her on the front lines. If it's war Steve'll spend it in Brooklyn, safe and sound and probably shouting at the injustice of it. But for just a second it's a nice thought, the two of them against the world, looking out for each other, patching each other up like any other back alley fight Steve has ever gotten him into.
"Okay, Rogers," he says. "I'll come with you tomorrow and give 'em a lie they'll actually believe. But you better get used to taking orders from me."
Steve scoffs. "Like hell I will," he says. "You'll be taking orders from me."
"Okay," Bucky says, and laughs for the first time all day. It loosens something up in his chest and he feels like he can breathe again. Steve's stories always end well. He wants to hear how this one'll turn out. "Yessir, anything you say, sir."
"Salute your commanding officer when you address him," Steve tells him sternly, so Bucky does, still laughing. "Pathetic," Steve says. "We'll have to work on your discipline, soldier."
"You oughta talk," Bucky says. "You're gonna get me in a world of trouble, I already know it. We'll spend the whole war digging ditches cuz you can't keep your damn mouth shut."
Steve shrugs, unrepentant. He settles back in his chair, folding his big, knobbly hands over his stomach. "Nope."
"Nope?" Bucky echoes. "So how's it gonna work, huh? We stick together, come back heroes?"
"Sure," Steve says, his eyes warm and clear and confident. He's looking out into the darkness like he can really see something out there. "You and me, Buck. To the end of the line, remember?"
He doesn't; he's not sure what Steve is talking about, but it sounds nice. It sounds wonderful. "Sure, pal," he says. "Whatever you say."