When he was young, Steven Rogers used to sit pressed up against his mother's warm side in their usual pew at St. Cecilia's (center aisle, right, twelve back) on Sunday mornings and let the Latin wash over him. His eyes drifted up over the statues and brightly colored paintings without particular understanding. Sometimes it was cold enough that he could see his breath in front of his face. He remembered feeling happy and safe.
Steve was confessed, confirmed and given the Holy Eucharist within a few weeks of each other in 1927, Father MacNamara standing up for him as his sponsor, since he had no one else to do it. Father Mac was really young for a priest, so he didn't have a parish of his own yet; instead, he wandered the wards of St. Mary's visiting whoever happened to be there. Steve figured this was probably some kind of training. Father Mac had happened to chance upon Steve tucked behind a curtain near the nurses' station one of the times he went into the hospital for asthma, and by the time he had the pneumonia they were old friends.
By then, Steve had been diligently studying his catechism, fascinated and made a little shivery by its magnificent certainties: Where is God? God is everywhere. Does God know all things? God knows all things, even our most secret thoughts, words, and actions. Father Mac brought him apples, and better yet, books—and not just religious books, but The Sheik and Wanderer of The Wasteland and The Mine With The Iron Door. Steve lay in his bed by the nurses' station and ploughed through these and more, so gripped by these adventures that he dreamed about them: Adam Laret wandering through the West with the mark of Cain on him, seeking love and atonement among the Indians. In between, the catechism: How many kinds of sin are there? There are two kinds of sin—mortal and venial. Who are they who do not believe all that God has taught? They who do not believe all that God has taught are the heretics and infidels.
Confession was hard, because he had really no idea what to say. He didn't think he'd done too much that was wrong, though he was sure that was just because he hadn't had much in the way of opportunity. He missed church a lot when he was sick but his mother said it didn't count as a sin if you were sick. But then Sister Agatha told them that sin wasn't just about stealing stuff and swearing but also about feelings like anger and envy, and that got Steve really worried, because he was pretty sure he was angry and envious all the time, and he could maybe be sorry for that but he wasn't sure how he was supposed to stop it. And perfect contrition meant that you had to stop it. It gave him something to tell the priest anyway.
He took Joseph as his confirmation name, and on the morning his mother silently pressed into his hands an old copy of the Key of Heaven with Joseph Rogers written on the inside cover in a spidery, unfamiliar hand. His mother took him and Father Mac out for lunch afterwards, and Steve was allowed to order anything he wanted. That was pretty exciting. Then he got sick again right before his first communion, but Father Mac got permission to bring it to him at St. Mary's and so Steve's first communion was taken from the cast iron hospital bed, with his mother in her nurse's uniform and several of her nurse friends standing around with wet eyes and tight mouths.
When they moved to their new, smaller apartment on Grace Street they started going to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help instead of St. Cecilia's because it was closer, and there were a whole bunch of new paintings and statues to look at, including a huge sculpted altar with four angels on top. In the back of the church there were the most fascinating statues, including a blind St. Lucy holding a plate of eyeballs, and a fantastic St. Michael with wings and muscular arms, his sword raised over his head. Their new regular pew (far left aisle, seven back) overlooked the fourth Station of the Cross, the one where Jesus met his mother, and Steve often spent the whole Mass just staring at it: the way Jesus's neck twisted around when he looked at her, her anguished face, the hard diagonal of the cross over his shoulder, cutting the picture in half. He often had a stub of pencil in his pocket, but he hadn't realized what he was doing until he heard his mother's low, scandalized, "Steven!" and then he looked down and saw that he'd drawn all over the empty back flaps of his father's little Key of Heaven. His mother snatched the book from his hand with a glare that nearly sent Steve into tears: of guilt, at spoiling his father's book and making his mother angry at him; of loss, because even so, he wanted his pictures back. His mother frowned down at the little black leather book, then she looked up at the fourth Station, then back down at the book. Her face softened, and that was maybe even worse: Steve knew where he was when his mother was angry, but this felt like he'd jumped into deep waters that his mother hadn't known about and that she couldn't pull him out of. She slowly turned the pages – there were tiny pictures in the margins, too – and Steve felt sick with shame at his own thoughtlessness. Around them the Latin droned on, and Steve prayed silently (I'm sorry, Momma; I'm sorry, God) for forgiveness. His mother was still staring at the pictures, and then she looked at him and there was some expression in her eyes that he hadn't seen before: something happy and hopeful.
She closed the little book and, to his surprise, handed it back to him without a word.
Two days later, he got his first real pencils; it was the first thing he felt he could do well.
Sister Agatha was rather less pleased when she caught him sketching in the margins of his Bible History during Sunday school. She yanked it off his desk and clouted him with it, bang, on the side of the head, and everybody laughed. "Books are to be respected, not defiled," she said, moving past him in a sweep of black. Steve cringed and ducked his head down: angry; guilty about being angry; something else to confess.
It was the start of a difficult time for him, because somehow things had changed. It wasn't only Sister Agatha, though she was the worst. It was his regular teachers too, at P.S. 9. Before, when he'd gotten sick, when he'd missed school, when he'd broken out into ragged coughing fits or leaned against the wall gasping, there had been sympathy and extra attention; help. Now there were cutting glances and disdain. He wasn't little anymore. He was starting to have awkwardly long and bony arms even as his chest and shoulders stayed narrow. They thought he was cursed, and a little disgusting. That was hard enough, but worse, their attitude bled downwards. It gave the other kids permission not to like him; maybe even encouraged them not to. Steve felt the message going out around him on some invisible radio wave - stay away from the leper – which made him confused and angry because he was pretty sure that the Bible stories they were supposed to be learning didn't go that way.
He got into his first real fight that year, with a kid who kicked his schoolbag away from him when he bent to get it; a big kid, all teeth, grinning at him for his weakness. What do I do? Steve thought, as the kid thumped a hand against his chest, sending him careening backwards into the wall. God, please, what do I do? but there was never really a choice, and Steve gritted his teeth, pulled his arm back, and slugged him.
Sarah Rogers insisted they commemorate Armistice Day every November 11th, even if it meant taking Steve out of school – not that he minded. School wasn't a happy place for him, not like the Central Library on Flatbush Avenue or the Brooklyn Museum. There was a ceremony every year at the Prospect Park War Memorial, which was dedicated specifically to the MEN AND WOMEN OF BROOKLYN WHO DIED/ IN THE WORLD WAR / MCMXIV – MCMSVIII. His father's name – JOSEPH ROGERS – was engraved among the others. Steve had apparently been one of the thousands of people who had attended the statue's dedication in 1921, though he'd been three and didn't remember; now he and his mother were two of a much smaller group, though lots of people still turned up to hear the speakers and say the prayers, clutching their red poppies and mementos.
Maybe it was because he'd been drawing so much lately, or maybe because he was getting beat up so much lately, but Steve felt like he was really seeing the statue for the first time: an angel gathering up a wounded soldier, a pair of wings protectively curving around them both. The soldier looked young – had his dad been that young? Steve bit his lip, pulled out his sketchbook, and busied himself doing a sketch with a soft pencil, listening with one ear to the speakers. "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…" Steve was just shading in the bottom of a wing when he was gripped by a woman's voice—he heard the tone of it before he even tuned into what she was saying.
"They weren't heroes!" she was shouting, and her voice was powerful but rough, like the seams underneath were pulling apart at the effort to make herself heard. "They were victims!" and Steve was straining upward, now, scanning the crowd – lots of people were—to see where the voice was coming from. And then he saw her – she was maybe his mom's age, and like most of the other women there she was wearing black and a little black hat over her bob, but unlike the other women who were carrying wreaths or poppies or prayer books, she was carrying a red-lettered placard that said WOMEN FOR PEACE. She was standing with a group of other women who were also holding signs – it was easier to see now, because people were moving away from them (stay away from the lepers) – that said RADICAL WOMEN'S LEAGUE and WORKER'S PARTY and one, terrifyingly: OUR MEN WERE SACRIFICED IN VAIN.
"They were shot and for what? Our brothers, our sons, our husbands and lovers: gassed and for what?—Gassed! Poisoned! Burned up from the inside!" and then beside her, an older woman shouted, "And they were the lucky ones! My boy lived and wishes he hadn't! My boy's nerves are in pieces and for what?" and then there were two policemen there, taking them by the arms and talking to them in soft, firm voices, and from the podium the preacher coughed loudly and tried to get everyone's attention back. "Let us pray!" he called out, and the mumble of the Lord's Prayer drowned out the removal of the women from the park, but Steve was twitchy as a cat, wanting to hear more, and he found himself angry at crowd's numb chanting.
"Ma," Steve whispered, interrupting, heart pounding at his own audacity at talking during prayers, even if this wasn't technically church or anything, "what that lady said—" and he saw then that his mother's mouth was trembling and she had tears in her eyes. Steve was afraid then—really, really afraid.
"Don't dwell on it," she said, not looking at him. She wiped her nose and said, "It's nothing to dwell on."
"But Ma," but Sarah Rogers just lifted her head, and gave her attention very pointedly to the preacher. Steve looked down at the picture of the doughboy and the angel, then ripped it out and crumpled it up.
"You're brooding again," Bucky concluded, when Steve told him about it. "Color me shocked."
Steve groaned in frustration; if Bucky wouldn't listen to him, he was really sunk. "But Bucky," he said, hating the slight whine that came into his voice, "she was telling the truth, that lady. I went to the library and looked it up. It's horrible, it doesn't even kill you for ages. It burns your lungs; you go blind—"
Bucky sat back on the crate and crossed his arms. "What did you think, they were tickled to death? It was a war, Steve—"
"Don't tell me about the war," Steve shot back. "I've spent half my life in the hospital and the other half at the cemetery. I don't think there's a war memorial within fifty miles that me and Ma haven't had a picnic lunch at. And I'm telling you, it was the first time I heard anyone tell the truth about what happened—"
"You were five years old, what did you think they would tell you? Besides, normal people don't talk about that kind of stuff in public, just crazy ladies who carry signs. It ain't what you'd call polite conversation—"
"I don't want to be polite!" Steve said irritably.
Bucky rolled his eyes. "And you wonder why people keep hitting you," and Steve bit his lip but the laugh escaped anyway, and then he was pounding on Bucky's shoulder until Bucky said, "Ow, ow, lay off."
Steve couldn't remember meeting Bucky, which was weird, considering how Bucky turned out to be the most important person in his life. It was more that things were divided into a "Before Bucky" and an "After Bucky" period, but he wasn't sure exactly when the crossover was. He thought maybe he'd met Bucky that time when he'd been beaten up in City Park: there had been a lot of kids around for that one. Or maybe it was when he was fighting Sam Cooper in the alley behind the soda shop: he'd done pretty well until Cooper's friends ganged up on him, and then some bigger boys had broken it all up, but he couldn't remember if one of the bigger boys was Bucky. Bucky didn't remember either; Bucky never bothered to remember things like that. "I don't know," he said, shrugging, when Steve asked him. "You were around, I was around," and that was true: there were a lot of kids in their neighborhood (Steve knew this, because he'd been in fights with most of them) and then most of them had melted away and there was just Bucky.
Bucky was in a lot of ways an odd friend for him to have made, in that Bucky was pretty much everything he wasn't. A year older, already a head taller and still growing, Bucky was a straight-A student and an altar boy and the starting pitcher for the Navy Yard Boys' Club team besides. Plus Bucky had what seemed to Steve like a ridiculously large family: when Steve stayed over, which sometimes he did when his mother pulled the overnight shift, there was no room for him in the bedroom Bucky shared with his brothers, and so they pulled the cushions off the couch and slept on the living room floor. It took Steve, who was used to having just his mother, a long time to map out the Barnes family: both parents, two brothers, Uncles John and Dan, and a baby sister, Alice, who Bucky doted on and who looked at him like he'd hung the moon.
Even Sister Agatha loved Bucky, it turned out. "Oh, hey there, Sister A," Bucky said, peering into Steve's Sunday School classroom one afternoon when Sister Agatha was keeping Steve late for not doing homework he hadn't even known he'd had to do because he'd missed the last two classes on account of whooping cough; hopeless, he'd thought, putting his head on the desk. It was all hopeless. But Sister Agatha's face lit up when Bucky popped his head into the room, like he was a movie star or something.
"James," Sister Agatha said, favoring him with a smile. "Can I help you with something?"
"No, Sister," Bucky replied. "I was just waiting for Steve and then he didn't come out with the other kids, so I just thought I'd check and make sure everything was okay."
Sister Agatha looked from Bucky to Steve with obvious consternation and a great deal of disapproval.
"Really," Sister Agatha said, reprovingly. "I had no idea you knew our Mr. Rogers," and honestly, that tone sent shivers up Steve's spine, but Bucky just smiled and didn't seem the slightest bit thrown.
"Oh, yeah," Bucky said, shrugging. "Course I do. He's my best pal," and Steve ducked his head to hide his smile because, geez, the look on Sister Agatha's face: like she'd smelled rotten eggs or something.
"I see," Sister Agatha said. She looked at Steve as if she were wondering how and for how long she could keep him away from Bucky, and then she gave up and sighed. "All right," she said with a disdainful wave of her hand, "you can go," and Steve grabbed his books and his jacket and bolted out the door.
"You shouldn't have done that," Steve told Bucky, outside. "She won't think any better of me, and now she might think less of you."
Bucky stopped and looked at him, hard. "What do you think I care if a bitter old hag like that likes me or not?" he asked, and something clenched in Steve's stomach; some nervous fluttering thing.
"I don't know." Steve frowned. "Seems to me that you want to be liked. People do like you, anyway."
"That's not the same thing," Bucky said.
Steve lost the first third of the year to a bronchitis that became pneumonia, except somehow this time it was unbearable and threw him down into a well of self-pity. He was never going to get out of school, it was some kind of hell he was trapped in, and he couldn't go to the pictures with Bucky, which was one of the few things he really liked doing, and it hurt every time he coughed, and he was wracked with coughing, which left him gasping shallowly for breath; strangling. He could barely sit up to read some days, let alone draw, let alone do anything else, he was so exhausted, and he was alone all day when his mother had shifts at the hospital, except for when Bucky came by. Steve's Ma had put a key for Bucky under a brick outside their door, and Bucky came to visit almost every day, bringing Steve his homework on school days, or library books, and copies of all the newspapers so that they could go over the sports sections together.
Still, it meant that Bucky found him one day very near the bottom of the well; he had woken up hot and aching and alone, and suddenly anger and envy and despair – all the sinful emotions – spilled over in him and he was curled up and sobbing wetly, out of control, and he didn't really remember Bucky getting there, except suddenly Bucky was there, looming over him with fearful eyes and Steve shouted hoarsely at him: "Go away! Get the hell out of here! Leave me alone!" and then, in a sudden clear and cold terror, he was yelling, "There no meaning in this!" and weeping raggedly on Bucky's shoulder, and coughing up gobs of yellow phlegm, and there was snot coming out of his nose and it was all over his hands and his forearms, trails of snot and tears on Bucky's shirt, and he was disgusting, he'd always been disgusting and people were right to hate him. And then Bucky was wiping his face with a cool wet cloth and settling him back onto the pillowcase and whispering, "Stevie, I'm gonna go get your Ma, okay? Mrs. O'Neil from downstairs, she's gonna sit here with you while I get your Ma. I'm gonna run real fast, so you just close your eyes and rest for a couple of minutes and when you open them, she's going to be here, all right?"
"Yeah," Steve breathed, and he did what Bucky said and closed his eyes, and when he opened them, his mother was there and he could smell the rubbing alcohol and feel the cool cloth moving over him.
"I'm sorry, Ma," Steve said weakly, and then, more tentatively, "Bucky--?"
"He's here," she said. "He's outside. Do you want me to get him?"
"No." Steve couldn't bear to think about what Bucky had already seen. "No, no," and then he was crying again, like a goddamned baby, and his mother was saying, "Shh, shh, honey. It's okay."
"He's tired," Steve heard his mother tell Bucky, and Bucky replied, "Yeah, 'course he is." Steve got better after that, but he still couldn't bear to see Bucky – if he didn't see him, he could pretend that it had never happened, that he still had a friend out there called Bucky who hadn't seen how repulsive he was. He told his Ma to keep Bucky out, to tell him he wasn't well enough; to tell him he was sleeping; tell him anything.
That lasted a couple of days, and then Steve woke up and Bucky already was in his room, just sitting there, scowling. "You look awful, you know that? Dark circles under your eyes: your ugly mug's a complete catastrophe," and Steve was almost dizzy with relief, because that was all right, wasn't it. That was fine.
"What the hell?" Bucky demanded. "Locking yourself in here. Brooding. Being an idiot."
"I don't know," Steve sighed, struggling up. "I really don't. I didn't know how I was gonna look at you."
"Two eyes," Bucky said, raising his index fingers like guns, "pointed in the same direction," and just like that, they were okay again, and Bucky went back to visiting Steve while he recovered, bringing him homework and library books and all the sports pages…except something was different; something in Steve had changed.
"I think I'm screwed," he told Bucky, showing him the report card his teacher brought to his mother: he was just managing to pass the classes that were about reading and writing – Literature, Grammar, History – but he was just squeaking by in Geography and he was flunking math; on the bright side, they told him he had beautiful penmanship. "I don't think they're gonna promote me if I fail math," Steve groaned. "I'm gonna be held back a year, just you watch."
"I thought you were coming back to school any day now," Bucky said, frowning.
"Yeah, but I'm already so lost," Steve said, and stopped to hack for a few seconds; his cough was better, drying up. He shoved his math book at Bucky; he'd been completely defeated by the questions. If 2n +1 represents an odd integer, write an algebraic expression for the next larger odd integer, and The cosine of an angle is .8750. Find the angle to the nearest degree. "What's that even mean?" and Bucky squinted at the page and said, "These aren't hard, just you must have missed those days," and Steve rolled his eyes.
"I missed all the days, that's the whole problem. And then there's this," Steve said, and threw his copy of the Baltimore Catechism at Bucky; Bucky'd tucked a note in the front saying what parts he was supposed to be studying each week, and Bucky caught it and said, "Whoa," because you didn't just fling around a catechism like that. Steve had picked it up the other day, skimming the familiar questions and answers - How shall we know the things we are to believe? We shall know the things we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us. - and all the magic had gone out of it. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting - and now he didn't believe any of it. He didn't believe a word of it.
"I think I'm done with this," Steve told Bucky; his voice shook a little but he felt an insane rush of relief, saying it, actually telling somebody. His whole life he'd been afraid of dying, and what would happen to his immortal soul after, and he was tired of being bullied by it. He wasn't going to be afraid any more. "I'm gonna tell Ma, I don't want to go anymore."
"O-kay," Bucky said slowly. "You're having one of your broody days, so let's take things one thing at a time, all right?" and then he was picking up Steve's sketchbook and a pencil and turning to a clean page.
"Hey," Steve protested, "that's my sketchbook," and Bucky made a face and said, "Not today it ain't; today it's your math book," and Bucky – who was a year older and two grades ahead – began writing out equations and explaining the algebra to him in small words, punctuated by light smacks to the forehead ("Hey! Dreamboat! I ain't got all day!") when he thought Steve wasn't paying attention.
Bucky did this thing sometimes where he played stupid with Steve – Steve thought it was to make him feel better, like it couldn't be possible that Bucky had got the looks and the athletic ability and the girls and the brains too – but it was a pose he couldn't maintain while he was dragging Steve's sorry ass to a passing grade in math, which he did in June of 1932. "You know you're the best friend a guy ever had, right?" Steve told him, falling back into the grass in City Park with his crumpled final exam pressed to his chest.
"Course I know," and something thunked onto Steve's chest. "Here, my glove needs oiling," and when Steve smirked and sat up, Bucky's mitt fell into his lap. "I got a game tomorrow, after Sunday School—"
"I'm not going," Steve said.
"You'll miss seeing me pitch," Bucky said, and put his tongue in his cheek when Steve glared at him.
"You know what I mean," Steve said.
"Oh, I do, I surely do," Bucky said, and dropped into the grass beside him. "How's your Ma taking it?"
"I don't know," Steve sighed, but he did know; Sarah Rogers had bitten her lip, and said that he wasn't a child, and so of course he must do as his conscience dictated, but he could see she was unhappy about it.
"You don't know?" Bucky asked incredulously. "If it were my Ma, I'd know. Down the block, they'd know. South Jersey would know," he said, and Steve grinned. "Look," Bucky said, suddenly serious, propping himself up on one arm, "you've had a crap year, and you've got yourself into a muddle about God—"
"Bucky," Steve said tensely, "I don't think there is a— "
"Shh, okay, fine, just—hear me out, all right? Please? You've got a godfather, yes?" Bucky asked.
"My Uncle Chris," Steve said glumly. "Killed a month before the war ended, in the Battle of the Argonne Forest."
"All right," Bucky said, almost testily, "so you were confirmed, right? You had a sponsor?"
"Yeah. Father MacNamara," Steve said, and then he frowned and said, "He hasn't been to see me in a while."
"Probably he got to know you," Bucky said. "But why don't you look him up, apologize for your nature, and talk the thing over? That's his job, you know; that's what he's supposed to do."
"That's not a bad idea," Steve admitted; he had liked Father Mac, who had always been kind to him.
"Not a bad idea, he says. It's a great idea; I'm a fountain of great ideas. I don't think you appreciate me."
"All right, give me the glove," Steve groaned. "And your cleats – I'll clean 'em for you so you look nice." Pamela Barnes, who had a job as well as three other kids to take care of, often didn't take a lot of time with the niceties; whereas Sarah Rogers wouldn't have had Steve caught dead wearing a dirty shirt collar.
It turned out that nobody at St. Mary's had seen Father Mac for a while, and so Steve went over to the Diocesan office, where the lady at the desk, a severe looking woman with gray hair, told him that Father MacNamara was no longer part of the Diocese of Brooklyn. "Uh, okay," Steve said, clutching his hat in his hands. "Thank you for your time," and he was halfway out the building when a guy a couple of years older than him ran after him and stopped him with a hand to the arm. "Here," the guy said, a little breathlessly, and handed him a slip of paper. "He left this address – you know, for his friends."
The address was on West 50th Street in Manhattan, Hell's Kitchen, and Steve didn't give himself time to talk himself out of going; the next day he took the train into the city and got off at 8th Avenue, and hurried west along the sidewalk keeping his head down, not wanting to attract any negative attention; please, not today. He stopped in front the building, a narrow tenement of red bricks, and instinctively noted that there was a coffeehouse on the corner and a deli across the street: he would probably be safe waiting at either place if Father Mac wasn't home. He climbed to the fifth floor and found the right door, and after a moment the door opened and Father Mac was standing there wearing a regular shirt and suspenders; no black shirt, no clerical collar. Steve stared at him. "Can I help you?" Father MacNamara asked.
Steve wasn't sure what to say. "…Father?" he began hesitantly, and Father Mac's face changed and he said, "Steve, oh gosh, come in, come in," and it was a relief to be recognized. "I'm sorry," Father Mac said, as Steve stepped into the tiny apartment, with its small sofa and table, every surface piled high with books. "I should have come to see you. I got caught up and…will you forgive me?"
"Sure," Steve said awkwardly.
"Can I get you something?" Father Mac asked. "Tea? Glass of water?"
"No thank you," Steve said, and Father Mac waved him to sit down and pulled a chair up across.
"How've you been feeling?" Father Mac asked, and Steve said, "Good!" before realizing that wasn't strictly true, and hastening to add, "I was sick in the spring but I'm good now. Good since it got hot."
"That's good," Father Mac said. "You've just got to hang on till your growth spurt hits you."
"Yeah, I'm…beginning to think that's not going to happen," Steve said unhappily.
"It's already happening, you just can't see it," Father Mac said. "You're so much bigger than when I last saw you. So much…older," and Steve sighed, because older, yeah, he knew what that meant: he was getting lines and hollows on his face that were making him look like an old man at fifteen.
"Okay," said Steve, who didn't want to argue the point. "Father, I hope you don't mind me—" but Father Mac sighed and raised his hand and Steve stopped and waited.
"Steve, I'm really pleased to see you, but before we go on, there's some things I've got to tell you, okay? I'm guessing someone told you I don't work for the parish anymore; did they tell you I'm not a priest anymore?"
"No!" Steve was kind of shocked.
"Well, I'm not, so… " Father Mac scrubbed awkwardly at his light brown hair, leaving it stuck up at all angles, which made him look even less like a priest. "I don't think it's right for you to call me 'Father' anymore. My name is Thomas; you can call me Thomas."
"I can't call you Thomas," Steve retorted; the idea was preposterous, and Father Mac smiled ruefully, and tilted his head, and said, "Okay, fine: how about Mr. MacNamara," and Steve said, honestly, "I don't know. Maybe I could just not call you anything for a while, is that okay?"
Father MacNamara allowed as to how that would be okay.
"…Is it rude for me to ask you what happened?" Steve asked.
Father Mac sighed. "No, it's not rude, but…it's complicated."
"I like complicated," Steve said fervently, "I came here for complicated. I came because I don't think I believe anymore, and I thought you could…"
"Oh, Steve…" Father Mac pressed his hands to his eyes. "I think you came to the wrong place…"
"I came to the right place," Steve insisted. "I need you to tell me. I need someone to talk straight to me…"
"It's complicated," Father Mac repeated, and then he sat back in his chair and said, "Did you ever hear of Ben Salmon?" Steve shook his head no, and Father Mac continued, "Ben Salmon was a conscientious objector during the war, a pacifist. One of us: a Catholic," he added. "He said—well, he said a lot of things—but one of the things he said was that there was no such thing as a just war, that 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' was absolute. He died last year. It wasn't a big story." Father Mac went silent, staring at his hands. "They—we. They. They wouldn't give him the Eucharist. They wouldn't give him any of the sacraments, not even Last Rites, not even when he was sick and in prison." He looked up and Steve and said, "It wasn't because of that. It was a lot of things. But…"
"But that was part of it," Steve said.
"That was part of it, yeah," Father Mac said. "Are you following what's happening in Spain?"
"No," Steve said, and then he frowned and said, "Yes. Kinda," cause something was niggling at the back of his brain, something he'd heard; in Church; a sermon maybe. "They're attacking the Church, the Jesuits—"
"Yeah," Father Mac said dryly. "That's one way of putting it," and then he was groaning, and getting up, and pacing and saying, "Okay, stop, wait; look, it's one thing for me to fail as your spiritual advisor, but it's a whole other thing for me to— We really shouldn't be talking like this."
"But I want to talk!" Steve pleaded, standing up. "Does being my sponsor mean you're supposed to parrot what they say or shut up?"
"Yes!" Father Mac said, wheeling on him. "Yes, it does! And yes, they're attacking the Catholic Church in Spain, but it's also the first time they've had a democratically elected government, and freedom of speech and the freedom to organize, suffrage for women—excuse me, I need a moment," and then he walked into the bedroom and shut the door behind him, leaving Steve there, blinking and realizing for the first time that grown-up people, even grown-up people in positions of authority, didn't know everything.
Steve picked up a book from the pile on the table – John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, and below that was W.E.H. Lecky's History of the Rise and Influence of The Spirit of Rationalism In Europe, and The Collected Writings of H.L. Mencken, and Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian and Skeptical Essays, and Steve's heart was pounding as he gathered them all up. The bedroom door opened, and Steve saw at a glance that Father Mac had gotten a hold of himself and had come out to give Steve some tea and some general advice before sending him packing, so he stood up with the books in his hands and said, firmly, "May I borrow these?" and that flummoxed Father Mac entirely.
"No!" Father Mac said, seeming almost panicked. "I mean, I don't think that's a good—" but Steve, who had just learned that the people in charge weren't as powerful and all-knowing as he had once thought, just said gently, "I'm just going to borrow these, but I'll bring them back, I promise."
"You're driving me crazy with this bullshit!" Bucky shouted, slamming down a box of tinned pears in the alley behind Mr. G's grocery store.
"No, wait, listen, just listen, will you?" Steve was perched on top of a stack of crates clutching his copy of Bertrand Russell in both hands. "He says—listen—'There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in Hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.'" He looked up. "What do you think of that?"
Bucky sighed and leaned against the wall, wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm. "I don't get you, I really don't. The truth is that nobody knows anything, okay? So if nobody knows anything, why not know the best possible thing? That there's a God and we're in?"
"Because it's passive," Steve shot back. "Because everything that's ever been accomplished has been accomplished by people coming together and putting themselves out there, not just standing around waiting for some miracle to—"
"I don't exactly feel like I'm standing around," Bucky objected, and that brought Steve up short, because Bucky worked hard; unbelievably hard.
"Well, I don't mean you," Steve muttered.
"Who do you mean then? Who are these people who are sitting around waiting for miracles? You, maybe—you need a job, if you ask me."
"Nobody'll hire me," Steve sighed. "They take one look at me and—"
"Yeah, we'll see about that," Bucky said, and grabbed Steve by the collar and hauled him off the crate and into the back of the store. "Mr. G!" he yelled. "You got a minute?"
"You're not serious," Steve said.
"I am completely dead-on serious," Bucky said, and when Mr. Genovese came out of the pantry in his stained white apron, Bucky said to him, "You were saying this morning you needed some help with the inventory. This is my friend, Steve – he's meticulous. He cares about stuff no sane person would care about," and then Bucky glared at Steve, shoved him in the direction of Mr. G., and went back out to the alley. Mr. G. looked Steve up and down and shrugged, then handed him a clipboard and a pen. "You're Jimmy's friend, I'll give you a try. After school and all day Saturday, eight dollars a week."
"Um, okay," Steve said, and in fact the job turned out to be great. Steve was pretty meticulous, actually, and he liked keeping track of all the canned goods and the produce and everything, and he got to spend more time with Bucky, and maybe best of all, he started drawing pictures of the food every day on the big chalkboards outside the grocery, and Mr. G. liked them so much he gave Steve another buck a week.
The money helped too; Steve liked being able to buy things for his Ma, and even for Bucky now and then, not to mention that Mr. G. gave them a discount on food and let them take home anything that was on the verge of spoiling. This was, Steve realized, Bucky's chief interest in the job: with eight of them at home, three of them boys who were all heading for six feet, the Barneses needed all the food they could get.
"You gonna eat that?" Bucky asked Steve, and Steve pushed the rest of his lunch over to him.
"You should have that printed on cards, hand them out to people," Steve said, rolling his eyes.
"It's a sin to waste food," Bucky reasoned. "Besides, I'm hungry all the time; I don't know why you're not."
"Because you're like four of me?" Steve said, and then he waited for Bucky's mouth to be full, which didn't take long, to say, "Listen, you remember how I was reading all that Bertrand Russell—" and okay, a full mouth didn't really help because Bucky was gesturing rudely and mugging and making his opinion of Bertrand Russell perfectly clear anyway. "Well," Steve said, lifting his newspaper and hitting Bucky with it, "he's giving a lecture tonight in the city, and I wanna go."
Bucky chewed at him malevolently, lifted the newspaper, and read the advertisement, which Steve knew by heart: "In Defense of Rationality: A Public Lecture By Bertrand Russell, 7 PM, Washington Square Park, Sponsored by The Radical Women's League," and Steve had known immediately that he was supposed to go. He remembered that day at the War Memorial, and it felt like a message to him personally; like a sign.
Bucky finally swallowed and said, sarcastically, "I didn't know you were a Radical Woman," and then before Steve could speak, he said, "No," and then again, "No!" and then seeing Steve wasn't giving up, he said, "You're not going to the Village, it's full of freaks," and then "Not by yourself," and then, groaning in what seemed like actual pain, "Not without me, not until six, all right? All right?"
"All right," Steve said, and so at six he met Bucky outside his house and they took the train over the bridge to Washington Square, and they almost missed the lecture because there were a whole bunch of artists showing their work, one after the other in a row on the south side of the park, and Steve couldn't tear himself away, had to look at all the canvases. "I like your work better," Bucky said, drifting beside him and frowning at each of the paintings in turn. "You could do this. You're already doing better than this," and for the first time, Steve thought that maybe what Bucky was saying was actually true.
The crowd wasn't as big as he would have thought, and they made it in time only because the woman introducing Bertrand Russell was taking her time of it. Then finally he took the podium, and it was thrilling, really, to hear him, even though Steve already knew a lot of the points he was making, having kept up with his work. Still, some of it was new, and standing there, with Bucky beside him – head cocked and listening intently— he was struck by Russell's idea that people believed in God simply because they wanted an older brother who'd stand by them in their troubles and disputes, and Steve stood there and thought he'd been smart to trade in God for Bucky, who'd done a lot more for him than God ever had.
"What did you think?" Steve asked Bucky afterwards, when they were standing with everybody else and clapping, because usually he could read Bucky's face well enough but right now he couldn't. "Did you," but he was interrupted by a girl who was making her way through the crowd, a canvas bag slung over her shoulder filled with paper: pamphlets and leaflets. She smiled at Steve and said, with practiced ease, "Thank you so much for coming. We meet Monday and Thursday nights and have our book club and sometimes guest speakers on Fridays, and here's our schedule of events and some pamphlets you might find interesting, " and Steve took all the paper and then bought a copy of The New Masses for 15 cents.
"What did you think?" Steve asked Bucky, as they made their way back onto the train, because Bucky was still being uncharacteristically quiet, not even cracking wise about anything.
"I don't know yet," Bucky said sharply, "so quit asking."
"All right, sheesh," Steve said, and he sat looking through all the material the lady had given him, courtesy of the Radical Women's League, who apparently rented space from the Socialists on Lafayette Street and had weekly meetings about-- "Hey, Bucky, look at this," Steve said. "There's pamphlets about atheism, vegetarianism, trade unionism, free love," and Bucky's hand shot out and grabbed him, nearly jerking him out of his seat, and Steve was really scared for a moment, because Bucky's expression, Bucky was—
And then Bucky let go of him, and that was fear on his face, except then he let out a long slow breath and shook his head wonderingly, almost laughing—but not quite. "I don't know what I'm going do with you," Bucky murmured, almost to himself, absently smoothing down Steve's shirt front. "I don't, I really don't."
"Are you mad at me?" Steve asked, thunderstruck and a little angry at the idea. "Bucky, are you—"
"No, just please, shut up for ten minutes, please?" and Bucky looked like he had a really bad headache, so Steve shut up for the rest of the ride and followed Bucky off the train at DeKalb. They walked silently together through the dark streets until Bucky suddenly stopped and said, "Look, I'm not mad, all right? You're just—you, and sometimes I forget that you're not like a normal person."
"So you didn't like it?" Steve pressed. "You didn't think it was interesting?"
"I didn't say that. Just. I've got to think about it, all right? That was some tricky stuff. Philosophy—"
Steve gritted his teeth. "I really hate it when you play stupid."
"Christ, give me a break," Bucky nearly groaned. "I ain't got time to be figuring out all the mysteries of time and space. Tell you what, you figure it out, and then you tell me what to believe and I'll believe it."
"I'm gonna go back," Steve told him, a little defiantly. "I'm gonna go back and hear the lecture on vegetarianism or whatever other thing the Radical Women's League are on about this week."
"Fine," Bucky shot back, stepping into the dare, "but tomorrow you're coming with me to the Knights of Columbus dance at St. Andrew's. Wear a tie," and now it was Steve's turn to groan aloud.
"Oh, come on!" Steve whined. "It's pointless! I've got two left feet and no girl's gonna want to—"
"Don't you worry about that," Bucky said. "I'll find you a girl."
"What, are you gonna pay cash money?" Steve asked irritably.
"I don't got that kind of money," Bucky retorted, "but I'll think of something," and he did, actually, turning up the next night with a gorgeous dark-haired girl for himself and a petite redhead for Steve. That went about as well as Steve expected, and after she ditched him for the first available boy who wasn't him, he went out to get some air and heard a girl nervously pleading, "C'mon, Pete; c'mon, stop," and so he had to go see what that was about, and the good news was that he got in a couple of really good licks before Pete broke his nose, and the girl was decent about it, helping him back into the dance hall and filling a purple cloth napkin with ice from the punchbowl, though then he had to deal with Bucky, who just stared at him.
"It was ten minutes," Bucky said helplessly.
"Don't eben," Steve said thickly, and glared knives at him. "I bean it!"
Steve became a semi-regular at the Radical Women's League, and at the revolutionary bookstore on Allen Street, and at the Freethinkers meeting in the basement of the public library. He also spent a lot of time drawing and sketching: he was beginning to think about maybe submitting a portfolio to the Cooper Union: he'd heard that if you got in, all the classes were free, and Roosevelt was talking about having a program for artists be the first project of the new WPA. Steve stared longingly through the windows of the art supply stores on Canal Street; he couldn't imagine ever being about to afford real canvases. He was never going to get to Paris, but he could get to Greenwich Village for a nickel, where he could attend progressive rallies and hear lectures about birth control and see exhibits of “degenerate” art.
Bucky wasn't thrilled by this - "You're looking for trouble, boyo," he told Steve grimly. "I just hope you don't find it" - and Steve had thought that Bucky was just being a know-it-all until he was ambushed leaving a free life-drawing class at the Art Students League by three guys hissing, "Faggot! Artist-faggot!" and Steve had been beat up a lot in his life, but this was something else: these guys wanted to kill him. Steve gritted his teeth and was determined to go down swinging, but he was pretty sure he was a goner – he was on the ground and they were kicking him, hard - when suddenly he was saved by a lady screaming, "You there! Leave him alone! Leave that boy alone!" and the guys sneered at her a little but ran for it.
"It's all right," Steve said woozily, clutching at her arms as she bent over him, trying to stumble to his feet. "I'm all right," and somehow he managed to get onto the train to Brooklyn and to St. Mary's Hospital, where his mother was on shift. She bit her lip and said, "Oh, Steven," and it turned out that he had three broken ribs and a concussion. Still, they let his Ma take him home, and Steve spent the next day sleeping and dreading the hour when school let out, because sure enough, Bucky turned up straightaway after.
Steve braced himself for who knew what taunts and recriminations, but Bucky just came in and sat down, sprawling, looking too big for Steve's chair, and their whole conversation happened without words, in sighs and groans and raised eyebrows until Steve burst out, "Fine! I won't!" and Bucky instantly banged back, "You bet your ass you won't!" except then Steve went on: "—but can I just show you something? Let me just show you something, okay?" and Bucky looked hard at him for a moment and said: "What."
"There," Steve said, pointing. "A book: Italian Masters, something something," and Bucky studied the pile and came up with Italian Masters: Renaissance to Risorgimento, which had five full-color plates in it, including the one he wanted: Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
"Yeah, I've seen this," Bucky said irritably, glancing at it. "It's a scene from Genesis - God creating Adam."
"No," Steve said. "It isn't. Forget what they told you. Look at the picture," and Bucky sighed and dragged the book off the bed and onto his lap: Adam with his outstretched arm, God hovering above him. "The Creation of Adam," Steve murmured, prompting, and then: "What do you see?"
Bucky's eyes moved over the picture. "It's a scene from Genesis," he said again, but at Steve's cluck of irritation, Bucky ventured, "He's lying on a hill. Adam. He's all relaxed. He's—" and then his mouth did something strange. Steve sat up, wincing a little as his ribs ground together. Bucky had it.
"He's daydreaming," Bucky said finally.
"Yeah," Steve said; his heart was pounding.
"The Creation of Adam," Bucky repeated; he'd gotten it.
"Yeah. Yeah. Once you see it, it's like you can't unsee it." Steve grunted in pain as he leaned forward, but he couldn't stop himself. "Look," he said, tapping it, "it's like God's in a thought bubble, like something right out of the funny pages. Adam’s laying there in the grass, looking up and thinking—"
"—‘wouldn't it be nice if...’" Bucky trailed off. “The Creation of Adam. Adam’s creation."
"Right." Steve's throat was suddenly tight, and then he blurted, “Life’s hard enough without lies on top of it,” and Bucky surprised him by laughing as he shut the book and put it back onto the pile. "What?"
"You remember Sister Agatha?" Bucky asked him.
"A dollface like that, how could I forget?" Steve replied.
"She told me to stay away from you. She said you were a bad influence." Bucky slid back in his chair and smirked at him, fingers laced over his belly. "She said you'd be the ruin of me. Told my Ma, too."
Steve couldn't remember the last time he'd been really shocked, but he was shocked—shocked and really, really, really angry; they were still trying to hurt him. He took a breath and said, "What did you say?"
Bucky shrugged. "Eh, I played dumb. And Ma didn't care – she doesn't so much hold with the nuns."
"I—" Steve didn't understand. "What do you mean, played dumb?"
Bucky's eyebrows went up. "What do you mean, what do I mean? That old bag had your number but good. You are a terrible influence. It's why I like you," and he must have seen the astonishment on Steve's face because he said, then, more seriously: "Didn't you know that?" and it had never occurred to Steve to wonder why Bucky liked him: he'd always taken it as some kind of strange miracle: a gift horse he wouldn't look in the mouth. "You're not like normal people. You think about things that nobody else—" He stopped and frowned. "I meant to tell you my news. My parents said I could take a year at Brooklyn College."
"Oh, hey," Steve said. "That's great."
"Yeah," Bucky said expressionlessly. "Well, my dad's working and he feels they could spare me. You know, if I keep my job and all."
"That's great," Steve said again, but he knew Bucky pretty well and: "I thought you were maybe thinking about the police academy."
"Yeah, they don't want me to do that. They're thinking, you know, maybe accounting or bookkeeping: I've got the math for it. And my dad says that people with money always need people to count it." Bucky flashed him a ghost of a smile, and then said: "All right, look: when you want to go to one of your leftie atheist art things, tell me and I'll go with you if I can."
"You will?" Steve asked, surprised.
"Yeah. Just don't go by yourself. It's nine kinds of dangerous," and then Bucky bit his lip and added: "It's like you won't see it, or you can't. This stuff you're talking about--most people, they're not gonna understand it, or if they do, they're not gonna like it. But I do," Bucky said, meeting his eyes, and Steve nodded slowly. "I like that you think about crazy things. I like that you're not normal people. "
"Thanks, Buck," and then Steve groaned and said, "I guess I could try going to another dance or two."
Bucky seemed pleased. "You should," he advised. "You've got to find someone to look after you."
I've got someone to look after me, Steve thought, but he closed his bruised mouth and said nothing.
Bucky went with him to a rally in Union Square which featured a sing-along of protest songs followed by some speeches and then a soapbox reading from E.M. Forster's essay "What I Believe," and Steve had to keep elbowing him to stop making fun of the reader's slight lisp, but Bucky was interested enough by the end to muscle his way to the front to buy a copy of the whole essay, which he started reading on the train back, shushing Steve every time he said something, until Steve rolled his eyes and stayed quiet.
Steve reciprocated by letting Bucky drag him to two different dances in the following week. He danced - or tried to - with two different blondes, one tall and athletic-looking who Steve got on with really well, even though they had no romantic chemistry whatsoever, and a sad-looking girl who seemed constantly on the verge of tears. And then Steve voluntarily showed up at a third dance after noticing that, while Bucky had brought a different girl for Steve each time, he had shown up both times with Margaret Walden, who was in Steve's class at school. And lo, at that third dance, it was Margaret Walden again.
"You're seeing a lot of Margaret Walden, huh?" He thought it odd that Bucky had never mentioned her.
"Yeah, I guess," Bucky said. "She's okay; my folks like her. Her father owns a printing company - they make all the forms for the hospitals. They use a lot of forms, hospitals," Bucky said.
Steve nodded, bit the cuticle off his thumb. "Bet they need a bookkeeper," he said cutting his eyes over.
"Probably do," Bucky said.
"You've got it all figured out," Steve said, and Bucky barked out a laugh and said, "That's me! Mr. I've-Got-It-All-Figured-Out," except Bucky maybe hadn't got it all figured out, because a couple of weeks later a rumor went round that Bucky'd been caught in what you'd call a compromising position with some girl who nobody could identify; everybody'd heard it from someone who'd heard it from someone else.
Bucky denied everything. "It never happened, I'm telling you," he told Steve. "It's just talk; people flapping their gums," but it was enough to make Margaret Walden break up with him, and the fact that Bucky never dated the same girl twice after that meant that a lot of people ended up believing it. Poor Margaret, they said, tsking, getting herself entangled with "that Bucky Barnes." Bucky was always "that Bucky Barnes" after that; oh, you know what "that Bucky Barnes" is like.
Steve, who actually did know what Bucky Barnes was like, wasn't sure what to believe.
"I'm sorry she dumped you," Steve told him; he didn't feel sorry.
"It's okay," Bucky said, and he didn't sound upset, not even when Margaret Walden got engaged to another boy, a college man, within the year. Then again, Bucky seemed to have landed on his feet: if anything, his reputation only increased his allure, and Bucky could have had two, three dates a night if he'd wanted them.
“Why is everyone always hitting me?” Steve asked, wincing.
“Yeah! That’s a good question! You should ask yourself that question more often!” Bucky said.
"Buck, they were scabbing. Walking right past the picket--it was shameless, I tell you. I was just trying to—ow," Steve said, as Bucky roughly cleaned dirt out of a cut on his face. "I was just trying to explain—"
"You were just, you were just," Bucky mocked.
Steve twisted away, irritated. "--the power of collective action."
"Well, you sure got a taste of that," Bucky reasoned. "Right in the kisser," and then they both turned at the knock on the door. "Who's that, your Ma?"
Steve frowned. "She's got a key," he said, and went to answer it. It was Father MacNamara—or, rather, Father MacNamara that was, standing outside with a huge box at his feet. "Steve," he said, looking pleased, "I wasn't sure you'd be home, but I was going to leave this for—what happened to your face?"
"It's nothing. I got into a fight with some scabs outside of the chewing gum factory on—never mind, please, come in," and it was only when Steve stepped back that he realized that Bucky was right behind him.
"Who's this?" Bucky asked, as Father Mac came in, hauling his box.
"This is—" and it took Steve a minute to figure out how to put it. "This is Mr. MacNamara," he said. "Who used to be Father MacNamara."
"He's a priest?" Bucky asked uncertainly.
"Used to be," Father Mac said, smiling as he offered his hand to Bucky, and Steve could understand his confusion: Father Mac didn't look that much older than they were.
"This is my friend, Bucky," Steve told him, as Bucky shook his hand.
"Uh-huh," Father Mac said. "Pleased to meet you," he said, and then, to Steve, "I brought you some books. I'd thought you'd like to have them," but Steve was already rummaging through them, delighted; the box was chock full, it was like Christmas: better than Christmas. "I'm going away for a while," Father Mac said, "so I thought—"
Steve's head jerked up. "Spain," he said, heart pounding, "you're going to Spain, aren't you," and Father Mac shot a glance at Bucky, then admitted it with a quick nod. "Boy, that's something," Steve said, blowing out a breath. "That's really something. Good for you."
"You can't tell anyone," Father Mac said seriously, looking from one to the other of them.
Steve brushed this aside. "You're joining the Lincoln Brigade?"
Father Mac blinked, obviously taken aback. "You know about that?"
"The Communists showed up at the Radical Women's League – you know, on Lafayette Street?"
"Steve's a radical woman," Bucky interjected. "Not that you'd know it to look at him."
Steve ignored this; that joke never got old for Bucky. "They were looking for volunteers--not that they had much luck. They're mostly pacifists there. But I'm with the Brigadiers on this." He raised his head. "The Fascists won't stop with Spain. You have to stand up, push back--"
"Steve likes to stand up and push back," Bucky said. "With his face, mainly."
"There are ways to stand up for a cause besides fighting, " Father Mac said.
"Yeah, I know," Steve sighed. "But what you're doing... I'd stand you a drink if we had any."
"Well, hey. Really nice of you to come by," Bucky said.
Steve frowned at him but Father Mac seemed to appreciate the cue. "Yes," he said, "I'd best be going," and then he put his hands on Steve's shoulders and said, quietly, "You're very special, Steve. I'm so proud of--"
"You don't need any help finding the train, do you, Father?" Bucky asked, even as Father Mac pulled Steve into a hug. Steve hugged back hard, well aware that Father Mac might be killed in Europe: like his father, like his Uncle Chris: like all the men who had ever cared about him.
"I know my way, thanks," Father Mac replied, smiling at Bucky. "Keep Steve out of trouble, all right?" but when the door closed behind him, Steve whirled on Bucky and said, "What the hell was that about?"
"What?" Bucky retorted.
"The man's willing to lay down his life for democracy, you practically give him the bum's rush!"
"Don't be stupid," Bucky replied. "Guy like him, a hero-priest--he's a busy guy, he's got places to be."
"Is that sarcasm?" Steve was pretty angry. "Because I don't see where that's funny."
Bucky smiled thinly. "Well, you're not particularly known for your sense of humor, Steve."
"Lay off, Buck. You're looking for a fat lip!"
"Oh yeah? You and who's--no, wait, stupid me: the International Brigade. It was so obvious I almost missed it," Bucky said, and the whole wall rattled when Bucky slammed the door on his way out.
"Jerk!" Steve shouted after him. "You stupid jerk!" and Bucky never apologized, except for how on Saturday morning, Steve was up early, sketching, taking advantage of the light, when he heard what he thought was the milk and turned out to be Bucky, sitting against the wall outside his apartment door.
"I maybe drank my paycheck," Bucky said thickly. "Which was not a good idea."
"Bucky, geez." Steve dropped into a squat beside him. "What are you doing, come in--"
"I don't want to yuke on your floor. " Bucky'd closed his eyes and was keeping still. "Just let me stay here."
"I'll get you a bucket or something," Steve protested. "You can't sleep in front of my door."
"Why not?" Bucky turned sluggishly to look at him. "Since when do you care about what people think?" and Steve saw that Bucky had a shiner that matched his and dried blood at the side of his swollen mouth.
"Bucky," Steve said, surprised. "You were fighting?" and Bucky blinked slowly and touched two fingers to his lips and said, "Yeah, maybe." He seemed to be having trouble speaking. "I was doing a you-act," he said finally, poking at his bruised lip with his tongue. "Took myself somewhere I had no business being."
Steve was trying to get a decent grip on Bucky's upper arm to see if he could haul him up. "I thought you were going to St. Brendan's. With what's her name: Cathleen, Maureen--"
Bucky frowned. "Was that today?" he asked, as Steve gritted his teeth and heaved. Bucky groaned, but helpfully put out a hand to lever himself up. Steve slid under his armpit and began to tow him into the apartment, shooting a glance at his mother's closed door. "Maybe that's what I told you," Bucky said.
That brought him up short. "Bucky," Steve said hollowly, straightening after sitting Bucky on the edge of the bed, "are you saying you lie to me?"
Bucky's face did something Steve didn't understand. "Sure," he said. "Why should you be special?" and then, shocking as a summer storm, Bucky was sobbing, eyes blurring and hands going to his face. Three wet, wracking gasps and it was over, and Bucky was just sitting there, hands dropping, looking just as usual except for some redness around the eyes. "I'm sorry," he said emptily. "I think I'm coming down with something."
"Yeah, my Ma, too," Steve said, feeling helpless and a little frightened. "It's like upside-down week around here, everybody sick but me," and then he was coaxing Bucky to lie back and murmuring, "Lie down, pal. Sleep it off," and bending to unlace and yank off Bucky's shoes and tug his legs up onto the bed.
Bucky's eyes were glassy and unfocused when Steve bent to wipe the sweat from his face. Bucky loosely knitted his hand in Steve's shirt and, said, feverishly, his eyes drifting over: "You think I don't understand but I do. I understand it all. You're the one that doesn't understand," and Steve smoothed hair away from Bucky's forehead and muttered, "I'm sorry, Buck. I'll try." Bucky's eyes closed and he sank like a stone.
Bucky slept for fourteen hours and woke up groggy and embarrassed and just in time for a late dinner of bread and canned soup, which he sat down to after muttering sorry a lot. "Forget it," Steve said, waving a hand to show it was all in the past and making like he didn't remember any of the particulars. Bucky had given him the gift of selective amnesia enough times; he was owed, Steve thought.
"Hang on, though," Steve told him, "just let me bring some soup in to Ma," because Sarah Rogers had also slept for most of the day but a lot more fitfully, waking herself up with coughing, which at least gave Steve the opportunity to bring her in some hot tea and toast. "I don't know what's got into me," she said, sighing ruefully and shaking her head; she looked nearly as bad as he and Bucky did, and they'd both been punched in the face a couple of times. "I can't get on top of this cold. Forgive me, Steve, if I've ever been cranky with you when you've been sick - you forget, sometimes, how plain rotten you can feel."
Steve smiled. "You've never been cranky with me, Ma," and then, more concerned: "Do you want me to call Dr. Bentley?"
"No, I think I'll just soak up as much rest as I can," Sarah said, "and then get whoever's on duty Monday to take a quick look at me," and Sarah Rogers looked much better on Monday morning, humming as she pinned her hair up at the mirror, bobby pins in her teeth. Steve yanked his sketchbook over and drew her, deliberately using as few lines as possible –the curve of her arms around her head, another curve down from her waist, and he didn't know it then but it was the last sketch he would make of her, from life: the last sketch before the telegram. TB POSITIVE SENT WELFARE ISLAND WRITE SOON DONT WORRY LOVE MOTHER, and Steve sat at their table staring at it for a long time and thinking it was strange, really, that he felt so calm, and it took him a while to realize that he was so angry he was frozen solid with it: he was a block of pure ice. And then all at once he was getting up and grabbing every sacred thing in the house – every Bible and prayerbook, the heavy crucifix hanging over his mother's bed and the little picture of the Sacred Heart on her nightstand, and the little Mass cards tucked into the edge of the mirror, and their baptism candles and her rosary and all of it, stuffing it into a bag, and he was halfway out of the apartment, intending to stuff it into the dented metal trash can downstairs, when it occurred to him that if his mother recovered – she could recover, people did – when his mother got back from the sanatorium, she might want some of this junk, so he shoved it into a bottom drawer and kicked it shut.
That done, he had nothing to do – he had everything to do (what was he going to do?) – and the whole apartment seemed to be dusty shadows and empty nails: the places where things had been.
All right. He was eighteen, a grown man: time to start acting like one. He had to think about money. He had to think about food. He dragged his sketchbook over and, pausing only momentarily over that last, hasty sketch of Sarah Rogers (Why so spare? What the hell had he been trying to prove?) flipped the page and started scribbling sums: rent, food, money to pay for whatever treatments his mother needed: how many hours he'd need to work to make it. Could he get a job that paid better? Then again, Mr. G. was getting old; he probably wouldn't mind handing over more responsibility to Steve if Steve could give him more hours. He'd have to withdraw his application to the Cooper Union – well, of course he would. It had been a crazy pipe dream in the best of times, and these were not those. These had never been those.
Steve's hands trembled, and that was when he became aware of the fear – he was really alone, now. He couldn't think of spending the evening alone in the apartment (his ma wasn't coming come) and he couldn't imagine going out, with no one to come home to (his mother wasn't coming home). He'd spent his whole life trying not to be afraid (his ma wasn’t coming home) and here he was; his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He slammed his hand down on the table, everything jolting and clinking around him, then snatched up the newspaper to look up the times for the pictures: he could spare a nickel for that. The Invisible Ray at 8:30 – he could do that, maybe swing by Bucky's on the way, see if he wanted to come.
He wasn't in the mood to talk to Mrs. Barnes, plus he hadn't yet figured out an answer to the inevitable pleasantries ("How's your mother?") and so he went around back and threw an empty can at Bucky's bedroom window: bang. The sash rattled up and a dark head appeared--not Bucky, Andrew. "Hang on," Andy said, seeing Steve, "I'll get him," and then Steve could hear him yell "Bucky!" and the more distant yell of "What!" A minute or so later, Bucky stuck his head out. "Hey, what's going on?"
"I'm going to the pictures, you want to come?" Steve called up.
Bucky frowned down at him. "It's kind of late, isn't it?"
"It's only 8. I have to get out," Steve said, and Bucky sighed and braced his hands on the sill.
"What movie is it?"
"The Invisible Ray. Boris Karloff," and wasn't that part of why he'd picked The Invisible Ray over something else? Bucky'd always been a sucker for science fiction: anything about the future, anything with machines or mad scientists or outer space.
Bucky groaned: "All right, hang on," and vanished inside. A few minutes later, Bucky reappeared at the window, slid one leg out over the sill, and reached for the drainpipe. Five seconds later he was on the ground; he and his brothers had been shimmying up and down that old pipe for years.
"All right," Bucky said, brushing his hands off. "C'mon, let's go," and Steve saw that the hair around his face was still damp; he'd washed up quick, but there was still a smear of grease at the side of his neck.
"Bucky, I'm sorry," Steve said, realizing: "you're just off work, aren't you." Bucky'd taken a new job with a machine shop under the Manhattan Bridge, and he had to work late because of his classes at the college. "You look beat, I wasn't thinking."
"Nah, it's all right. I ate, and I'm always happy to get out of that madhouse. Where we going, the Beacon?"
"Yeah, just close," Steve said, and they set off to the theater. Steve was trying to keep his mind clear – just think about the movie, how today's just like yesterday, walking down Carroll Street, Bucky beside him—but some part of his brain couldn't stop ticking; there was too much to think about. They were just around the corner from the Beacon when he blurted, "You think Mr. G. would give me more hours at the market?"
Bucky shrugged. "I think he would, though I don't know if he's got 'em to give, times being what they are. It's not a high margin business, grocery," and that was why Bucky had jumped ship for the machine shop; better wages, more opportunity. Plus all those contraptions. "Why, you looking for more work?"
"Yeah, I – Yeah," he said and hesitated, because the theatre was right there, and all he had to do was keep going, walk right up to the window and buy a ticket, and then he could spend the next couple of hours distracting himself with mad scientists and laser rays – except there might not be a better way to tell Bucky than this, and he had to tell Bucky. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled telegram.
Bucky took it, smoothed it out, and then stopped dead, staring down at it. When Bucky finally looked up, Steve had to look away, because Bucky's face--he couldn't deal with all the emotions on Bucky's face.
"Jesus, Steve. Jesus Christ," and Steve felt his heart pounding, because Bucky sounded scared. "I'm so sorry, I --" and then he said, "What the fuck are you doing? A movie? We're going to a fucking movie?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Steve said. "I can't talk about it."
"But..." Bucky's eyes drifted back to the telegram; reading and rereading. "Christ. What does this mean?"
"I don't know. How do I know?" but Steve did know, and Bucky knew, too: fail the sputum test, it was six to nine months in the sanatorium, quarantined, no visitors, and maybe you lived but maybe you didn't.
"But…" Bucky looked lost, and, suddenly, to Steve's eyes, young. I'm older than him, now, Steve thought; I'm moving past him. "Steve, Jesus, what are you going to do?"
"What am I going to do? I'm gonna work," Steve said, "I'm gonna--" pray for her, his mind supplied, and he clamped down on it; no, he thought savagely, I'm not. "-- take care of myself, and I'm gonna hope for the best. What else am I supposed to do?" Bucky just looked at him, staring and dumb, so Steve said again: "I don't want to talk about it. I want to go to the pictures. You gonna come see this picture with me or what?"
"I—yeah," Bucky said faintly. "Sure," and so Steve went up to the window and bought two tickets, and Bucky trailed after as he found their usual seats (two off the aisle, back third of the theatre) and settled himself down, happy to be in the dark. There were trailers and newsreels and a cartoon, and Steve kept his eyes on the screen, but Bucky wasn't watching. His head was at the wrong angle, tilted down instead of up, staring at the seatback in front of him, or maybe at his knees. A few minutes into the movie Bucky startled Steve by taking his hand—his right hand curling around Steve's left – and lacing their fingers together. Steve turned to look at him, but Bucky was still staring down at nothing. He didn't let go, though, just held Steve's hand tight through the whole stupid picture, like they were on a ship that was going down.
"Do you still go to church?"
Bucky hesitated for a moment, staring down at his homework; his mouth tightened. "Yeah."
"Do you pray for my mother?" Steve asked.
"You gonna give me an argument?" Bucky shot back. "Because I'm in no mood for your bullshit."
"No. I just want to know."
"Yes," Bucky said irritably, tapping his pencil against a column of figures. "Yes, I do, all right?"
"I just wondered," and then Steve tossed his mother's latest letter across the table to Bucky as he got up. "Your part's on the bottom of page two. 'Tell Bucky I received…' "
"'Got it," Bucky interrupted, reading.
"She says she feels better but she's too tired to write you a separate letter, so I don't know what that means." Steve began to set up the percolator. "Do you want coffee? I want coffee."
"I always want coffee," Bucky said, and then, glancing up: "You gonna finish that?"
"Have it," Steve said, and Bucky pulled his plate over.
"You should eat it, though. You need more red meat." Bucky returned his attention to the letter and Steve sighed, waiting for it. "Ha," Bucky said, thwacking the paper, "your mother even says: you need more—"
"Iron, I know, I read it," Steve said, and then he picked up the newspaper, folded so that the circled advertisement was on top, and dropped it in front of Bucky. "I want to go to that, will you come with me?"
The title of the lecture, sponsored by the Freethinkers, was "God Is Not Great." It had leapt out to Steve from the paper, had felt like a personal message.
Bucky frowned at it, then looked up at Steve with a surprising amount of anger across his face. "So you think I'm conventional, is that it? Because I go to church with my parents? You think I'm, what, deluded--"
"No!" Steve looked over at Bucky, shocked. "I would never say that."
"You wouldn't say it," Bucky said bitterly. "You don't say a lot of things though."
Steve poured the coffee and gently set it down at Bucky's elbow. "I wouldn't say it because I don't think it, okay? Use your brain," he said, and then: "Will you come with me or what?"
"Sure," Bucky sighed, and then he looked down at his homework again. "If I finish in time. It's so—" He made a face and shoved the ledger and the textbook away. "—boring. I can't tell you how much I hate it."
Steve blinked. "I didn't realize you hated it. It's math—I thought you liked math."
"It's not math, it's accounting, and I hate it all right – I fucking hate it is how much I hate it."
"Well, you should stop!" Steve exclaimed, and Bucky sat back in his chair, took a large slug of coffee, and grinned at Steve like he'd said something funny.
"Never mind me," Bucky said, his bad mood abruptly lifting, "you just let me finish if you want to go to your radical atheist thing. You work on whatever you're doing—what are you doing?"
"Nothing," Steve said. "Drawing," he amended, tilting the pad up. "You."
Bucky rolled his eyes and picked up his pencil. "Aren't you tired of drawing me?"
Steve shrugged and picked up his pencil. The picture wasn't bad: on the page, as before his eyes, Bucky's head was tilted downward, eyebrows drawn together, pencil between his fingers. The proportions were right, and the features, but he'd missed—now that he knew that Bucky hated the accounting he could see it, the slight twist of his mouth, a sneer of—what, disgust? Some artist he was—and Steve shaded in Bucky's expression, thickening his brows, putting in the twist, the downward slant of his mouth, shading darker—and Bucky jumped off the page at him, unhappier than he'd noticed. "I work with what I got," Steve sighed.
"Don't we all," Bucky muttered.
The lecture was in the basement of the library, which wasn't unusual, but there was a guard at the door, which was, and Steve stared at him a moment before lifting his arms and letting the man pat down his pockets. "What the hell?" Bucky muttered to Steve as they stepped inside – the room was set up for a talk, folding chairs around a podium – but Steve thought, as he and Bucky found their seats, that maybe he knew what the hell: already he could spot three interracial couples, and there, near the front, were two women holding hands and just down the row from them were two men who—well, Steve couldn't have said exactly how he knew they were homosexuals, except somehow he did know, or he thought he did; someone might have thought the same, he supposed, about him and Bucky. Steve was both nervous and excited; he wondered if he ought to give Bucky the chance to get out of here before it started; but then it was starting.
"Good evening," the fellow at the lectern said, "and thank you for coming," and it turned out the talk was—well, it was about God not being so great, but the particular way in which God was not great was that he stood as an practical obstacle to Human Love – not just the love of our fellow man, so often disrupted by religious feuding and sectarianism--but romantic love, sexual love, carnal love, which had been unfairly demonized by the religions of the world. Real love – which religion always saw as a pale reflection of an imaginary love – could sustain us in hard times, and sex was the food that nourished our love relationships. Steve's neck was hot, and didn't know where to put his eyes – he turned and saw a white woman down the row lacing her fingers with those of the black man she was sitting with, and looked away again.
"We don't have to stay if you don't want to," Steve muttered to Bucky.
"I'm fine," Bucky said, hardly moving his mouth.
Steve shot him a narrow glance and whispered: "Are you shocked?"
"No," Bucky said.
But Steve couldn't stop poking at him. "I don't want you to be uncomfortable."
Bucky gave him his do-you-want-a-fat-lip look, but he was quiet once the lecture finished, and on the train back, he stood up, hanging on to the straps as the el rattled and swung, and said, "I think I might peel off and go to the Arcadia. I've been sitting around all day; I need to break a sweat," but the Arcadia was—well, a real grown-up dance hall, not like the dances in the school gym or at the Knights of Columbus.
"It's kind of late, isn't it?" Steve asked.
"They're open till 4," Bucky replied, and Steve stared; he hadn't known that Bucky went to places like that.
"But you don't have a girl," Steve protested.
Bucky rolled his eyes. "There'll be girls there to dance with. Or if not—" He hesitated, then said: "You can pay them. To dance with you," he said, and the train let out a piercing screech of brakes as it slowed at Myrtle Avenue, and Steve didn't let himself think; just got up and said, "Wait, I'll come with you."
Bucky shot him a sharp look, then nodded. "All right, come on."
The Arcadia was loud, crowded with people and tables and the whole huge bandstand, musicians in dingy-looking white suits and a jam-packed dance floor. Bucky loosened his tie, surveyed the room and then said, absently, to Steve, "Just stay here a second." Steve stayed, feeling stupid, as Bucky moved easily through the crowd and then stopped to talk to a girl—a pretty one, maybe even the prettiest one in the room, Steve thought: blonde hair and a pale pink dress with a little rosette at the collar. Then Steve broke into a sweat, because Bucky was looking at him, pointing at him, and the pretty blonde was looking at him too and smiling and nodding, and Bucky was reaching into his pocket and – Christ, was he paying her?--and right then Steve didn't care that Bucky had nine inches and ninety pounds on him, he was going to beat the ever-loving crap out of him. The girl gave Bucky a final nod and then began to cross the room toward Steve like something out of a dream, and Bucky gave Steve a satisfied smirk before turning his attention to the dance floor. He surveyed it with an expert eye, then waded out onto the crowd. He stopped near a tall, dark haired woman – clearly a good dancer, though Steve thought she had to be at least twenty-five – and made a face at her, waggling his eyebrows. She looked him up and down and then just walked away from her current dance partner, and Steve was reluctantly impressed at the way Bucky could pull women. Bucky took her hand and, grinning widely, spun her around and back, and then they were dancing energetically, arms and legs flying, and people were making room for them, some even stopping to watch.
"Are you Steve?" and Steve, startled, nodded stupidly. The pretty girl smiled. "I'm Dora," she said, and Dora was nice actually, and they even danced awkwardly for a bit to one of the slower numbers – Steve was lost during the fast ones - and he bought her a drink. He caught sight of Bucky, glowing with sweat, collapsing onto a chair, and then the woman – the sight brought Steve up short, roiled him inside, shocked him—hitched up her skirt and slung her leg over his, straddling him and sitting down in his lap.
Dora followed his eyes and twined her arms around his. "We could go somewhere if you want," she murmured kindly, and when Steve turned to her, dry-mouthed and confused, she kissed him gently on the mouth. Her lips were soft and dry, and she smelled nice, but… "I think you're sweet," Dora told him.
"I… you're sweet, too," Steve replied helplessly, but the thing was, he didn't love her, and he didn't understand how he was supposed to go somewhere with her and let her touch him, how he was gonna put his hands on her, put himself into her, when he didn't love her.
"I should go," Steve told her, and he went home without even telling Bucky that he was leaving, but he couldn't sleep. Instead, he lay awake, thinking about Dora, screwing up his eyes and gripping his cock fiercely, trying to get hard to the image of her. It was useless, his body wasn't interested. It didn't matter how much money Bucky paid anyone, he was never gonna--and Steve's cock jerked in his hand, filling, and Steve made himself keep breathing and chased the moment down: Bucky sprawling in that chair with his head flung back, grinning, that woman straddling his lap, writhing and laughing, touching him--
His mind was full of Bucky, image after image of him, like all the pages of his sketchbook at once. He'd never been so hard, and he was jerking himself roughly, hips coming off the bed, heart slamming in his chest, his whole body convulsing as he came, fingers and toes curling. He lay there, brain flooding with oxygen as his chest expanded and pulled in air: how could he not have known? Why hadn't he let himself think of Bucky this way? Was it his own narrow-mindedness or smallness of spirit? Or was it God again, like the lecturer said, slapping his hand, stopping him from even reaching for what he wanted: making it unthinkable? Artist-faggot, they snarled at him: was it true? Had he been so brainwashed by morality, conventionality, religion, so disassociated from his own desires that his body had shut down rather than deal with them? Images came to him -- St. Michael's muscular arms, upraised, carved in marble; Bucky, drenched, coming out of the ocean at Coney Island; the long curve of Bucky's throat swallowing, his Adam's Apple bobbing as he drank a beer -- and he took himself in hand and came with his eyes open.
"Are you avoiding me?" Bucky asked, appearing at his door one evening after work.
"No," Steve said, "of course not." He was, though. It was hard to be with Bucky, and lately, he couldn't even look at his own pictures of Bucky. They nettled him, angered him - his own choked-down desire was in every stroke and line. One had gotten him so fired up he'd compulsively jerked off to it, to the lust in it.
"Just—I thought I could come and do my homework," Bucky said uncertainly. "Your place is so much quieter than mine. But if you're not in the mood for company…"
"No, no," Steve said, stepping back. "It's fine, come in—I'll make us some dinner," and for a while Steve thought it was going to be okay. Bucky sat at the table doing his homework while Steve made fried eggs and rice and tomato sauce, and over dinner Bucky told him about all the wonderful machines down at the shop and how he was learning to fix them, and how he couldn't wait to be done with his year of college so he could get on with the rest of his goddamned life. Steve told him that Mr. G. was thinking about maybe turning the day-to -day running of the store entirely over to him, which would maybe even mean a raise, and it was only when Bucky got up to do the dishes that Steve realized that the idea had been ticking along quietly inside his brain the whole time, and somewhere in there he'd decided to try it: maybe Bucky would hate him, but maybe he wouldn't, and he had to try it, he had to, or die of it.
He waited until Bucky had finished the dishes and sat back down again, then got up and went over to him. He was terrified, neck and palms sweating, but he didn't intend to be misunderstood. He stood over Bucky's chair, too close, until Bucky's eyebrows went up in confusion, and then Steve straddled Bucky's legs and shrugged off his suspenders, chin lifting defiantly: offering himself to Bucky the only way he knew how. He began to unbutton his shirt; he didn't know if Bucky would want his body, but thought maybe he might.
Bucky looked at him; his thighs were hard and warm. Steve grabbed hold of Bucky's strong shoulders and kissed his mouth. Bucky went very still, and Steve pulled back for just a second, his heart hammering, and then kissed him again. Bucky'd never hit him, though he'd threatened to, but there was a first time for everything and he was way over the line here. He braced himself to hit the floor, to be punched in the jaw. He braced himself to smile through his bloody mouth. He would apologize; he would beg to be forgiven.
But Bucky just looked at him searchingly, his eyes moving over Steve's face.
The scrutiny unnerved him. "Are you disgusted?" Steve asked.
"No," Bucky said.
"Are you going to hit me?" Steve was gasping for air, he couldn't breathe.
"No," Bucky said; he didn't seem to be breathing at all.
"Do you think it's a sin?" Steve challenged. The thought was exciting.
This time, Bucky hesitated. "No. I don't know. It depends."
"On you," Bucky said. "On whether--" and then Bucky's hands were on him, pulling him into a kiss, his tongue sliding into Steve's mouth, and Steve shivered with lust from the shoulders down: Bucky sure knew what he was about when it came to kissing. And then Bucky gently pushed him away, nudging him off his lap and onto his feet, like he was a shirt Bucky was carefully tucking back into its box, planning to return.
"I think you want it to be a sin," Bucky said, mouth twisting unhappily, and Steve was jolted into seeing that Bucky was hurt, really hurt. "I think this is some page in the radical leftie playbook," he said, pushing up from his chair and packing up his books, "and you're trying to prove something, to yourself, or to God--"
"No," Steve said, but his voice sounded uncertain to his own ears.
"--or to fucking Bertrand Russell. You don't do things for normal person reasons; you do them because you're angry at something. So, I guess it's a sin if you want it to be," Bucky said raggedly, and Steve was plummeting, panicked; he'd done something wrong, here, and Bucky was wounded in a way he wasn't sure he could fix. "But, you know, it doesn't have to be," Bucky said, pulling his rucksack onto his shoulder, and now he couldn't even meet Steve's eyes anymore, was just staring down at the floor, mumbling. "I don't think it would be a sin if you--you know, if you actually..." and maybe it was that he'd known Bucky all his life, but Steve could finish that sentence in his head: if you actually loved me.
"But I do," Steve said, grabbing for Bucky and holding on. "Bucky, I do, I swear, how can you even--"
"You don't," Bucky said without hope, and it was devastating to hear him sound so sure of it.
"I do," Steve insisted, and maybe he was small but he was strong, and he was yanking the rucksack off Bucky's shoulder and putting his arms around him, and if Bucky really wanted to get rid of him, he was going to have to hit him this time, and hard. "I do," Steve said again. "I really do," and then he was kissing Bucky clumsily, his lips, his jaw. Bucky fended him off, twisting and grappling to block him, before abruptly giving in with a groan and letting Steve drive him backwards onto the bed, pushing him down flat and crawling on top of him, using his weight to pin him down. Bucky's mouth opened beneath his and they were kissing again, Bucky's fingers sliding into Steve's hair and tugging painfully even as Bucky's tongue slid back, heavily, into Steve's mouth--and none of Steve's experience with girls, real or virtual, no dance, no movie, no date he'd ever been on had prepared him for this. He felt wild, crazed with it, and gripped Bucky's hips with his thighs and began rutting against him, blindly trying to unbutton Bucky's shirt, his pants, wanting to touch him, to be skin to skin with him.
"Oh God," Bucky said in a terrible voice, just as Steve managed to get his cock out and to drag it, leaking, against the warm flesh of Bucky's belly. "Steve. Stop. Jesus--" but Steve wasn't sure he could stop.
"I can't. Don't want to." Steve clutched Bucky's face and tried to get his tongue back, to suck it. "I want--"
"Steve." Strong hands were gripping his wrists and yanking him, panting, upright. "We should stop," and Bucky's shirt was hanging open, his pants shoved down, a line of dark hair narrowing from his chest to his belly, thickening again around his cock. "We'll never come back from this, you and me," Bucky said desperately, pleading with him. "If you don't like it, if you change your mind--"
"I won't change my mind," Steve vowed. "Bucky, please, I want--"
"You don't know what you want!" Bucky shoved him down onto the bed, and then to Steve's astonishment, he rounded on him, looming, and said in sudden, honest, agony: "You're a brutal person, you know that? You're always rummaging through my guts with your bare hands!" and then Bucky turned away, his long, muscled back curving as he sat on the edge of the bed, hunched and struggling for breath. Steve wanted to draw him, and he also wanted to blot the image from his memory: this picture of Bucky in despair.
"My whole life, I've been dealing with this. My whole life, trying to keep this under control," Bucky muttered, and then he added, bitterly, "But now it's Thursday, and you've had an idea."
Steve flinched. "Bucky, I'm sorry."
"You never think of me," and suddenly Bucky was laughing and shaking his head, the tension draining out of his shoulders; laughing at himself, maybe. "Which is all right: I don't need you to think of me. I think plenty of myself. But Steve, I can't risk-- You're fucking with the only stable, the only good thing I got."
"But that's me," Steve said, shaken; he touched Bucky's arm and said, "Bucky, that's not you, it's me."
"It's me, too," Bucky said. "But you won't understand. You're my only way out, don't you see?" and Steve fumbled frantically for his hand and laced their fingers together, and this time, when Bucky kissed him, Steve tasted the desperation in it. He kissed back, trying to put everything into it he'd failed to say: I'm sorry. You're everything. I'll do better. Even so he was no match for Bucky, who pushed him down and whispered, wet mouth mashed against his ear, "You're crazy, you know that? You're thrilling. You're the most thrilling person," and then Bucky was on top of him, hot and huge, hands stroking up his body.
"Don't you sell me out," Bucky said suddenly, and it was half a warning and half terror: panic in his eyes. "Don't you dare sell me out, you bastard," and before Steve could say no, I wouldn't or I would never, Bucky was sliding down his body and taking hold of his cock and—Steve gasped and fell back, breath stolen from him, and some part of him died that day, with Bucky's dark head in his lap, moving, mouth so tight and wet, and so this was sex, this, and Steve could finally see what was such the big deal about it.
They were intensely careful, in the following days, not to do anything different, not to let anyone know that things had changed between them. They kept to their regular routines - work, school for Bucky with homework on Saturdays, the pictures. Steve wrote diligently to his mother, and Bucky went home at the usual time and went to church with his parents. He went out dancing, too, with girls. But in between, they learned each other's bodies: pleasuring each other with hands and mouths. Bucky touched him in ways he'd never imagined, making his nerves sing, making him cry out, so that half the time Steve came with Bucky's sweaty palm against his mouth and Bucky pleading, "Christ, Steve, shut up, you're gonna get us arrested."
Steve also learned that after sex was the best time to find out what was really on Bucky's mind, because Bucky got kind of dopey after, and would press his face into Steve's shoulder and mutter things he'd never say otherwise: "They want to put me in a box," or "When I'm not with you, I feel like I'm strangling."
"I would have sucked you off years ago," Steve said, "if I'd known you would talk to me after," and Bucky laughed and groaned and put the pillow over his head, and when Steve snatched it away and hit him with it, Bucky said, "It's hard to talk to you. You make do with nothing, and it looks like I've got everything, but--"
"But you hate it," Steve said softly, finally understanding, and relief spread across Bucky's face.
"I hate it," Bucky said vehemently. "I don't want my life. I don't want the life I'm supposed to have--"
"We're going to figure things out," Steve told him. "We will. We'll figure it out," but their planning was interrupted by tragedy: the telegram Steve had been dreading with all his heart.
"Steven Grant Rogers?" the telegraph boy said, and Steve nodded dumbly and signed for it, then brought it over to Bucky and handed it to him: he couldn't open it, he couldn't read it; he knew what it was.
"You don't..." Bucky began uncertainly, staring down at it, but Steve, who was in the middle of writing a letter to his mother, swept it up off the table and crumpled it into a tight little ball: he did know.
"Read it," Steve said; he'd know from Bucky's face.
"You're a bastard," Bucky said, swallowing. "It's not fair," but Bucky loved him and opened the telegram anyway, his face contorting as he read, and Steve looked away, tears streaming down his face.
"You gotta come back with me," Bucky said after a while, swiping an arm across his eyes. "Ma'll kill me if I don't bring you back to the house."
"No," Steve said; he couldn't face the Barnes house, all that kind sympathy.
"I'll stay here, then," Bucky offered. "Send a message to--"
"No." Steve wiped his eyes with his fingertips. "It's all right. You go home when it's--" but Bucky flinched, and Steve wasn't going to make this mistake again: hurting Bucky without thinking. "Bucky," he said, trying to make him understand, "I need to be on my own. I need to believe I can make it on my own--"
"Nobody makes it on their own," Bucky told him.
"Maybe not, but I have to believe that I can. My whole life I've had two people standing between me and disaster," Steve said quietly. "Now I've only got one person. Don't you understand what that means?"
Bucky let out a breath, and scrubbed at his hair. "I guess, but--"
"I don't want to be afraid. I can't be afraid," and then Steve looked at Bucky and heard himself saying, "I love you," which he'd never said out loud before, and despite what should have been the overwhelming, colossal obviousness of it, it was still powerful; he saw that it shook Bucky hard. "I love you," Steve said again, curving an arm around Bucky's neck and yanking him down to kiss him, and when they broke apart, he said: "But I can't be afraid of being without you. Don't you see? It would ruin everything."
Bucky looked like he was going to say something, then bit his lip and didn't. "All right," he said finally. "I think I understand, but...I don't know, Steve. I just really wish you weren't so--you--some minutes."
Steve smiled sadly. "Yeah: sorry about that, pal."
"Look, I loved her, too." Bucky looked away, throat working. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Yeah. Come with me tomorrow to church, to make the arrangements for a Mass," and then Steve knotted his hand in Bucky's shirt and said, "But have sex with me first. It'll help me survive the conversation," and that was how Sarah Rogers ended up having her funeral at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help, with Steve as principal mourner and two rows of Barneses behind him. All of Sarah's friends from the neighborhood turned up, as well as half the staff of St. Mary's Hospital, including doctors and nurses who'd been treating Steve since he was a child, and who provoked horrible memories of his years of illness. Between that and the terrible sight of his mother's coffin in the aisle, Steve could hardly breathe, could hardly bear it: it was awful and surreal, Christ's tortured and mutilated body hanging over everything, poisoning everything.
Steve followed the coffin out, then managed to escape the crowd milling around the church doors, happy to walk rather than ride to the cemetery, happy for the air. The gravediggers had already dug a neat square grave for her beside his father, though he couldn't yet afford to add her name to the headstone: the stonecutting was shockingly expensive, and everything had gone on the undertakers. He stared at his father's gravestone and then at the ground beneath, knowing his father was down there and trying to feel a bond with him. His father had given him life: were they alike in some way? He had his mother's blonde hair and slight frame, and people said he had her eyes, but there had to be something of his father in him, too. Something he couldn't see, because he didn't know what to look for. Would his father even have liked him?
He turned at the sound of the hearse, which turned slowly through the iron gates. A priest in full robes came hurrying out of chapel to meet it, and seemed flummoxed at the sight of Steve already standing there. Steve braced himself, but the priest was all right. "I'm sorry, I didn't know your mother," he said, which was at least honest. "But I can still pray for her."
"You don't need to pray for her," Steve heard himself say. "She was a nurse. She spent her whole life taking care of sick people, me included. And then she was in the TB ward and she got it and she died from it."
"An angel on earth," the priest said, and Steve couldn't argue with that. "Should I pray for you instead?"
Don't bother, Steve wanted to say, but that seemed unnecessarily rude, so he said nothing, just stood there numbly as the priest commended his mother's eternal soul to God and they lowered her into the ground.
Bucky was sitting on the steps to his building, waiting for him. "You ran off. I waited, but--"
"Yeah, I—" Steve sighed. "I just needed to be alone."
"You think that's a good idea? You don't have to be. My folks, they—"
"Bucky, I appreciate the thought. I really do. Tell your folks. But I can't be afraid of—"
"What if it's not you who's afraid?" Bucky said quietly, and Steve looked at him, taken aback.
Bucky looked like he was struggling, debating whether to speak. "Look," he said finally, lowering his voice further still, "you got a stubborn streak a mile wide, and a chip on your shoulder like--like a boulder, like a mountain. So now you've got to prove to everyone, to yourself, that you don't need anybody, that you can go it alone. Fine. I'm sure you can. But you're not seeing the big picture. This is the closest thing to a chance we got." Bucky raised his eyebrows meaningfully, but Steve didn't--he couldn't--
"She's gone, Steve. She's not coming back," Bucky said, and Steve tasted metal, fear making everything bitter. "So this is when normal people--normal, sane, people," Bucky said tightly, "need a little help from others. Nobody would say anything if you came to stay with us for a while. Nobody'd think anything of it if we closed this place down, maybe got a place of our own--" Steve's mouth fell open and Bucky made a face at him, then nodded fast. "Even my ma would understand. I'm twenty years old, she can't expect me to live there much longer. They're not gonna like it, because I kick in more than I cost, but I gotta strike out on my own sometime, and she'll understand if it's you--if it's this. Steve. Steve," and then Bucky grimaced and said, "I wasn't going to lay all this on you today, I just want you to come back to the house with me."
"I'll come back to the house with you," Steve repeated.
Bucky face crossed with joy. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Just let me pack a few things and--brace myself. Your family..." Steve said, taking a breath.
"I know. Just eat whatever they give you," Bucky said. "It'll save you talking," and that was good advice: Pamela Barnes just kept putting food in front of him and telling him how sorry she was, how kind Sarah was, how young Sarah was, what a tragedy it was, but Steve just kept his mouth full and nodded --yes, it was; yes, she was; yes, it was--and the sight of Bucky skulking around the periphery of the Barnes kitchen helped him get through the very worst bits of it, the parts where Mrs. Barnes said, "You poor thing," and "How are you ever going to get on?" and "What do you think you'll do now?" because he could meet the flash of Bucky's eyes and think to himself, "I'm going to live with Bucky. I'm going to make a life with Bucky now," and he could stand all the sympathy and orange-date cake in the world for that.
They moved deep into Red Hook where, Bucky said, the rents were cheaper (they were) but really, Steve thought, where they wouldn't run into anybody they knew (they didn't). In particular, Bucky seemed keen to put himself beyond reach of the Barnes family, though it didn't stop Bucky's sister Alice, now eleven, from turning up occasionally, one time catching them off guard in their tiny kitchen. They'd been making supper together, but the space was too small for both of them and Bucky had knocked into Steve three times before Steve threw an elbow, and then it was on, and they were roughhousing, Bucky smirking at Steve's refusal to just give in already and Steve insisting that Bucky make him, if he thought he could. Then Bucky ended the fight as he usually did, by grabbing Steve unexpectedly and landing a sloppy kiss on his mouth, making Steve laugh--except then all the color drained from Bucky's face. "Alice," he said, shakily, and Steve turned and saw Alice's pale face just as it disappeared from the lower right pane of the window.
"Oh my God," Bucky said; he seemed suddenly weak-kneed, and Steve pushed him into a chair.
"Calm down," Steve told him, trying to calm himself.
"Oh my God," Bucky said again, putting his head in his hands, fingers pushing through his hair.
"Put your head between your knees if you feel sick," Steve directed, "otherwise pull it together," though he waited for Bucky's shaky nod before opening the door and saying, "Hi, Alice. Come on in.” Alice seemed normal enough, smiling at him and then rushing over to the table to throw her arms around Bucky, then flinging her schoolbag down and announcing: "Guess who gonna play Mary in the Christmas pageant?"
Bucky pretended to think about it. "James Cagney."
"Bucky!" Alice said, and hit him.
"No, but that would be something to see, wouldn't it? I'd pay cash money."
"Me! Me, me, you beast--and I beat out that nasty Cathleen Donnelly, too," Alice said.
"Course you did," Bucky told her. "Never doubted it for a minute."
"She's horrible," Alice said. "She's the oldest and biggest girl in class, and she's really mean to the littler girls. But I told her I got three brothers and that if she messed with me, I'd see she got pounded but good."
"Can do," Bucky said. "And don't forget Steve--he's small, but he's scrappy."
"I have a very violent personality," Steve agreed.
"Anyway, I had to tell you right away. We're going to do it at school and then during Mass at Perpetual Help, St. Cecilia's, and St. Francis, so you'll be sure to see it. Though maybe I shouldn't have told you," she added, grinning. "You could have been shocked to see me up there: 'Hey, that Mary sure looks familiar...'"
"No, I'm glad you told me," Bucky said, glancing at Steve. "That way we'll be sure to go at the right time."
"Right," Alice said. "Okay, I should go - I didn't tell Ma I was coming, and you know how she is."
"That I do," Bucky said, but he was reaching out for her hand. "Steve," he said, looking over, "wasn't there some picture you wanted to give Alice?"
"Uh, yeah. Right. The picture," Steve said, taking the cue to disappear into their bedroom, and what the hell picture was he supposed to give Alice? None of his latest studies of Bucky were what you'd call appropriate. He grabbed for his sketchbook and a pencil and just let his hand go, sketching Alice herself in quick flowing strokes: she had Bucky's chin and lips, though her mother's eyes.
Without wanting to he could hear Bucky's voice, low and serious. "Alice. You don't have to tell anyone that you saw me kissing Steve, okay?" Steve froze, but Alice answered almost offhandedly, "Sure, Bucky. They wouldn't understand about you and Steve."
"That's right. They wouldn't," Bucky said. "Thanks, dolly," and then Steve heard the scrape of Bucky's chair and Alice's little shriek of pleasure, and figured that Bucky had scooped her up and spun her round.
Steve let out a breath, then hastily finished the sketch and almost absently signed his initials in the corner. "Here we are," he said, coming out. "Found it," and he was taken aback by Alice's gasp when he gave it to her. He saw then that he'd made her beautiful, or rather, he'd shown her how she was beautiful, or rather, he'd found Bucky's beauty in her; his feelings had been contagious. "Holy cow, you're good," Alice breathed, staring at it. "You're really, really good, Steve. Thanks!" and Steve realized that he'd sketched her in the dress that she was currently wearing. He could only hope she didn't notice.
"Christ, I need a drink," Bucky said, when Alice had gone. "Just a small one. You want one?"
"No," Steve said, and then, abruptly changing his mind: "Yes. Sure," and Bucky took a bottle from the cabinet and poured them each a little. "What's this about St. Francis?"
Bucky pushed Steve's glass over to him, and drank his own down before he answered. "I knew you weren't going to let me get away with that. I told them we go to St. Francis now." In fact, Bucky'd stopped going to church since he moved in with Steve; they found they usually had better things to do on Sunday mornings.
"Why'd you do that?" Steve asked, shaking his head. "Lie to your Ma like that."
"What's it her business? Besides, you can't tell me it's better to break your mother's heart than to tell a little white lie like that."
Steve thought about it. "Sin of omission's what they call it."
"I thought you were an atheist," Bucky said, annoyed.
"I am an atheist," Steve said. "But I'm not a liar. I can keep my mouth shut when I have to, Buck, but---"
"You're a crazy person, is what you are. This isn't a game," Bucky said, and they both knew they weren't just talking about going to church at St. Francis. "This could be serious trouble, Steve; this could be prison, so maybe you want to think about that before you go haring off trying to prove—"
"But there is something to prove here," Steve argued, "isn't there? Look, I'm not saying we should be stupid, or go looking for a fight, but things change because people stand up. Those people fighting the color bar, they're risking their lives for it. Same with the Brigadiers in Spain. That's how it happens."
Bucky groaned. "Yeah, Steve, that's how it happens. But this is also why you get punched in the face so damn much," and Steve whuffed out a rueful laugh just as Bucky added: "It's not just that that you're short."
"Oh, you're looking for it," Steve said, rising to the challenge, and Bucky ambushed him then, sliding back provocatively and spreading his thighs in a way that made Steve's heart stop.
"Yeah, maybe," Bucky said. "Will I get it?"
Steve licked his lips and nodded slowly; all the cleverness had drained out of him. "L-let ..." he managed, but Bucky knew he was trying to say let me see, because Steve got turned on with his eyes before anything. But Bucky also knew how to tease him, because even though Steve could see the growing bulge in his pants, his hands didn't move toward his fly; instead he unbuttoned the top buttons of his workshirt, revealing a few sparse curls of chest hair--hair that Steve had touched, licked, and drawn a hundred times.
"Okay?" Bucky asked, a little breathless, but whatever he saw on Steve's face knocked all the tease out of him, and he gave himself a rough, possessive squeeze through his pants.
"Yeah," Steve said thickly, and then he was dropping to his knees and pushing between Bucky's thighs, unbuckling his belt with shaking hands.
"Wait," Bucky gasped, and looked at the window, and Steve stumbled up and went to tug the dingy curtain across to fully cover the glass. When he got back, Bucky hauled him down into a kiss that sent heat flaring through him, working his mouth open like he was trying to get inside of him; Bucky could make him come with a kiss like that. Steve blindly worked his hand into Bucky's shirt, finding and rubbing a nipple until Bucky's breath stuttered, and then Steve broke off the kiss and slid back down between Bucky's legs, bending to rub Bucky's cock against his face before pulling it into his mouth and beginning to suck it.
That winter was one of the coldest on record, and one of the best of Steven Rogers's life, because he spent it under an enormous heap of heavy blankets and also Bucky, who ran hot, a human furnace of a person. It was hell getting up in the morning in the cold and in the dark, but Mr. G. had by then made him responsible for opening the store, and the deliveries came at dawn. Bucky, bitching and grumbling, had nevertheless switched his schedule to coincide, taking the early shift at the machine shop so that they could eat and sleep together, and so that Bucky could take the trolley with him downtown in the early light.
They went to bed early, too, which wasn't a bad thing considering how cold it was, and got dressed and undressed under the covers, clinging till they warmed up. Sometimes Bucky held him close and blew warm breath against his face, his neck, his ears until he stopped shivering. There were other ways to warm up, too, and Steve thought they'd tried most of them until he woke up in the middle of the night one night and felt Bucky's cock hard against the back of his thigh. He knew even without opening his eyes that Bucky was awake: something about the way the darkness sounded, something about the way he was breathing.
"Buck," Steve murmured, sleepily pushing back against him, "you can rub off on me if you want," and Bucky made a sound that brought Steve awake straightaway, opening his eyes in the dark. "Bucky?"
"I." Bucky's voice was low, bruised somehow, and he whispered: "I want to fuck you, can I fuck you?"
Steve forgot to breathe: his heart jumped, shocked, but there were other little jolts too. His body was curious. He was turned on—and also terrified, if he was being honest. He was afraid it would hurt, and more than that, he was afraid that Bucky would see him differently after. Cocksucking was one thing: they both did that, and Bucky had done it to him first, in fact. But this...
He was still thinking it through when Bucky blurted: "Never mind, you don't have to. Forget —just forget I said anything," and Steve rolled over and tried to make out Bucky's face in the dark, because he could tell by his voice that Bucky was even more scared of this than he was.
"But I want to," Steve said slowly, and he realized he did want to; his nervousness was turning to excitement around the edges, and besides, Bucky never asked him for anything. It stirred him to think about giving himself to Bucky, gratifying him like that. He didn't think he could be ashamed of doing anything for Bucky, and if it meant Bucky thought he was the girl in the relationship – hell, maybe he was.
"Never mind, I tell you. You don't have to," Bucky repeated, almost angrily. "It was wrong of me to--"
"Shut up, I want to," and Steve hauled himself on top of Bucky, pinning him to the mattress, and kissed him hot as he could manage, not tender but with straight-up lust, and Bucky resisted only a moment before groaning and kissing him back. Steve sucked on his tongue and drove his cock against him, and then they were working each other up, Steve trying extra special hard to drive him crazy and being rougher than usual, too; he was small, but he wasn't fragile, and he didn't want Bucky thinking he could break him.
After a while Bucky tensed and muttered, hot against Steve's ear, "Are you sure? Steve? Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Steve said, panting, and Bucky's hand, pressed to the small of his back, tentatively slid lower. Steve closed his eyes, face hot, and spread his thighs, opened himself up to Bucky's touch. He was nervous, and a little embarrassed, but then Bucky's mouth touched his and Steve crooked his arm around Bucky's neck, pulling Bucky up toward him, and then he forgot to be embarrassed, and he came to himself with his face buried in Bucky's hair and pushing down helplessly on Bucky's fingers. "Okay. Geez. Come on."
"Not yet," Bucky faltered, but—hell--and Steve gritted his teeth and twisted his hips, chasing sensation.
"Come on. I want—" More was what he wanted, and also more of that touch, that touch where—"That," Steve gasped, sweating and shaking, "there, right there. Oh. Oh…" and geez, he could come right now, he could come from this, he could— Bucky cursed, pulled his fingers out, and threw Steve roughly off him, drawing away to rummage in the battered nightstand. He was back in a second, pushing Steve onto his belly and grabbing him with fingers that were cool and slick with Vaseline. Steve crooked his knee and Bucky's fingers slid in all the way. They both moaned. "Seriously," Steve panted, "do it now, I'm this close to coming," and Bucky was behind him, on top of him, hands tight on Steve's hips and slowly pressing in.
"Christ." Bucky's voice was low and desperate; a step away from tears. "Steve," and Steve breathed out, all in a rush, "I'm fine--it's good--do it!" It hurt a little – Bucky's cock was a lot bigger than his fingers – but it was amazing, too: Bucky sliding into him, Bucky's arms around him, gasping and kissing the back of his neck. His body opened, Bucky slipping in more and more, and he heard Bucky's bitten off moans and—
"Do it," Steve moaned, because Bucky was still holding back. "Come onnnn," and Bucky did, pulling out and sliding in again, moving deliberately, trying to keep control, so slow and gentle and—
"Goddammit!" Steve shouted, lurching back, and then it was like they were falling off a mountain, everything happening at once, Bucky's hips jerking forward just as Steve shoved back so that he could grab his cock - he was suddenly desperate to come - but Bucky sensed what he was doing and knocked his hand away, grabbed Steve's shaft, and began jerking him off with long, firm strokes. Steve came almost immediately, spilling over Bucky's hand and on the bed and on himself and everywhere, but Bucky just groaned and held on, fucking him through it, drowning him in a pleasure so acute it was almost like pain, everything aching and overstimulated, begging to be touched. His balls ached. His nipples hurt.
And then Bucky was coming too, coming inside of him and collapsing on top of him. "Okay, well," Bucky croaked; he sounded wrecked, destroyed. "That was... That wasn't how I thought it was gonna..."
"I know!" Steve was still shaking with it: high on it. "Can you believe it? People are wrong about everything!"
"You don't think I'm a girl, do you?" Steve asked not long after, and he regretted the question instantly, because Bucky put his elbow on the table and propped his chin in his hand and just looked at him.
Steve sighed and braced himself; he'd walked right into it, but he'd really wanted to know.
Bucky tilted his head to one side. "Do you want me to think you're a girl?"
"No," Steve groaned. "Forget it. I--just--you know--"
"I mean, " Bucky mused thoughtfully, "I knew you were a radical woman, but I never thought..."
"Come on, stop. Uncle. I surrender. Cut me a break, here--"
"Do you think I'm a leprechaun?" Bucky asked seriously, and Steve threw a pencil at him.
"Steve. I just have to ask. Do you think I'm Estonian?"
"I think you're a jerk is what I think," Steve said.
"Steve," Bucky said, reaching up to grab him by his suspenders as he passed, "c'mere. I want – there's something I want to talk to you about—"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Seriously, Buck, haven't I've taken enough razzing? Even for you this is--"
Bucky showed him a lopsided grin. "No, I'm serious," he said, and tugged Steve down to the other chair. "It's for real, and it's a sensitive subject."
Steve was skeptical. "What could possibly be sensitive between us? We talk about sex, politics, religion--"
"Oh, this is much worse," Bucky said, teasing and serious at the same time. "Money."
Steve frowned; money was a sensitive subject. "What about it?"
"Don't look so grim," Bucky said. "In fact, it's good news: I think I'm gonna get promoted at the plant."
"That's great," Steve said, surprised and pleased. "Congratulations, pal - I'm happy for you."
"Thanks," Bucky said. "The thing is, I like it - the work, the job, fixing the machines. I feel like I'm learning things, like I'm getting somewhere. I like it a hell of a lot more than keeping books, I can tell you."
"That's great," Steve said again. "Bucky, we should go out and celebrate--"
"Yeah. Yeah," and Steve saw that Bucky wasn't really listening; he was gearing himself up to say something. "The thing is, I know you don't feel the same way about the store--"
"The store's been good to me," Steve said loyally. "Mr. G's been good to me--"
"I know, but that's not the same as..." Bucky exhaled, pushed his fingers through his hair. "Look, the way things worked out, I got to do my year of college, and you had to withdraw from the Cooper Union. But we both know--"
"No," Steve said, standing up; he'd abruptly gotten Bucky's drift. "Bucky, forget it."
"Look, I haven't even said what--" Bucky protested.
He didn't need to say it. "It's a nice thought, Buck, but no. I have my limits."
Bucky was suddenly mad. "You'll let me fuck you but you won't let me help you, is that it?"
"Right. Yeah. You got it," Steve snapped, turning to go-- but Bucky was up in a flash and grabbing his arm.
"Steve, it's no joke," Bucky said, unexpectedly sincere. "Misery's no joke--believe me, I know. I know what it's like to have a life you hate, and I don't want you to hate this life, cause it's our life. I'm not saying quit your job, I'm not saying that, I'm just saying that if you want to pull back on your hours a bit, I can cover the difference. You can't do anything the way you're working now, you're dead on your feet at the end of the day, and you should --you're not supposed to be a grocer, Steve. You're an artist." He bit his lip and then shoved Steve away hard enough that Steve stumbled back, rubbing his arm where Bucky'd held him too tight. "Will you think about it, at least?" Bucky seemed suddenly weary and ashamed of himself.
"Yeah, I--yeah," Steve said, but the idea of it left him all twisted up inside, and barely able to face Bucky, and the next couple of days at the store were hard, too: taking deliveries, restocking the shelves, drawing potatoes and cabbages and living on nearly-spoiled potatoes and cabbages: how many different things had they figured out how to make out of potatoes and cabbages? Steve finished drawing on the board, bitterly signed it SR in the lower right hand corner and then told Mr. G. he was taking a break. He went out to the alley and sat down on a crate, and, sitting out in the cold, let the fear wash over him: he hadn't allowed himself to think about the future, about doing something else or being something else, because he'd been afraid to: it felt like pushing his luck. He hadn't allowed himself to hope for more than this: he was alive and relatively healthy and employed and he had Bucky, which was an embarrassment of riches. Hope was dangerous. Hope could hurt. Bucky always mocked him for all the fights he got into and how he got punched in the face, but getting hit was nothing. Wanting and not getting: that's what could hurt.
But now he had a new fear, a different fear – because it seemed like yesterday that Bucky had been here with him, hauling flats of canned goods and razzing him in between, but Bucky had moved on. Bucky was tall and handsome and charming and men liked him and women liked him even more, and he was absolutely the sort of guy who was going to get promoted first chance, who was going to make management, who was going to get invited home to meet the boss's daughter. And Steve was still here, in the same job – a job that Bucky had gotten for him. Steve was sweating, then, even though it was cold in the alley: Bucky was going to leave him behind.
"Bucky," Steve said offhandedly; he was setting out some glasses while Bucky dished out bowls of hot potato soup. "I did what you said," and Bucky looked at him sharply but didn't say anything; just kept ladling. "Mr. G.'s going to let me go a couple hours early on Mondays," Steve told him. "I signed up for a class, 7 to 10." He'd been crazy tempted by a course in life painting, but had gone with commercial drawing, painting, and design. He was thinking about maybe going out for job as a sign painter, or maybe trying his hand at designing packaging. He'd have to learn a lot more about typography though.
"At the Cooper Union?" Bucky asked, trying and failing to seem disinterested.
"No, at the ASL. The Art Students League," Steve explained. "57th Street. The class is free," he said, trying equally hard to be casual about it, "and you know, I can lose a couple of hours, no big deal."
"Okay," Bucky said, sliding a spoon over to him. "That's good," and that was all that Bucky had to say about it, though later that night, in bed, he slid down over Steve's thighs and blew him long and sweet, and some alarm that had been ringing in him finally went quiet.
Later, Steve was to remember that he was standing outside the ASL on 57th Street when it first occurred to him that they might end up in another war. "Hitler Invades Bohemia!" the boy from the Times shouted, and even though Steve knew that Bucky'd have already bought the Eagle and the Herald, he shelled out three cents and bought a paper and read it right there, the March wind whipping at the collar of his coat.
"There's gonna be another war," Steve told Bucky.
Bucky was frowning over the Times; he'd traded the Eagle to Steve. "Maybe. Doesn't seem like it."
"But this is an actual invasion," Steve protested, thwapping the paper.
"Yeah, but they're letting him do it. Read between the lines: they're gonna let him get away with it."
"He won't stop," Steve warned. "I'm telling you, I know bullies and they never—they never—"
"Don't tell me, tell Neville Chamberlain. Lately, Hitler doesn't answer my letters," Bucky said.
But the news from Europe got worse. They'd always bought a lot of papers, but for the first time in his life, Steve didn't read the sports pages first. He felt like he was watching a movie serial, but an ugly one--not Zorro's Fighting Legion or The Fighting Marines but much worse, Nazism's slow creep across Europe.
"It's not gonna happen," Bucky said. "Nobody wants it. Who could afford it?" and okay, he had a point, but it didn't make Steve feel better, because no war only meant Hitler was going to get everything he wanted.
He tried not to think about it. He tried to think the way Bucky was thinking: positive, future-directed--and Bucky had been right, actually, to make him go out for this course, because Steve saw right away, even in the unfamiliar world of commercial art with its rulers and drafting tools, that he was one of the best in the room. To his surprise, the instructor saw it, too, and sent him out for a job lettering signs (which paid almost double his job at Mr. G.'s grocery) while nonchalantly assuring him it would be only temporary: he could do better once he had a decent portfolio put together.
When he got home that night, Bucky looked up expectantly from the table and Steve roughly grabbed him by the ears and kissed him without even pulling the curtains or anything.
"Come on," Steve said, "let's go out. Night on the town, on me--"
"Sure thing," Bucky replied, grinning, and Steve took him out for the best dinner they'd had in ages: salad and roast beef and broccoli, and even pie and ice cream and coffee after, and then Steve suggested they go to the Arcadia Dance Hall and spent the best 15 cents of his life buying Bucky a glass of decent whiskey. Then he nudged Bucky toward the dance floor. "Go on," Steve said with a smile. "I know you love it."
Bucky hesitated, then reached out and gave Steve's hand a quick squeeze. "I do, yeah," he said, and then he tossed the rest of his drink back and waded out onto the dance floor, where he picked up a cheerful looking blonde in a red dress with a slit so high it left nothing to the imagination. But Steve saw the point of it when she and Bucky started to Lindy: she could really swing her legs around. Steve sat at the bar and watched, thinking about the wild, sweeping lines he would draw later, limbs flung out and full of motion, and (he smiled into his beer) about how Bucky usually came back from dancing sweaty and horny as all hell.
Hitler invaded Poland on the first Friday in September. Steve was on site when he found out - up a ladder, in fact, carefully painting a huge packet of Chesterfields - when there was a commotion on the street below, people gathering around a guy with a paper. "What happened?" Steve called down.
"The Germans invaded Poland!" the guy shouted up. "There's gonna be a war!"
Steve's first, scorching thought was: Good. Good. They'd lost Spain, but somebody was finally going to draw the line, stand up against dictatorship. That was good. He tried to go back to painting, but his hands were shaking and he couldn't concentrate, so he climbed down and went to get his own paper. Later, still roiled over the news, he impulsively stopped by the Radical Women's League on his way home and found the place in an actual, literal riot. He hadn't been the only one to turn up - news of the invasion seemed to have brought out every leftie in the five boroughs - but most of the people were frantically planning a peace rally while the rest had come to celebrate the ongoing fight against Fascism. Things had got ugly, with some people shouting about the attack on worldwide Jewry and others shouting back that there was never an excuse for taking life and it was only going to be a pointless slaughter in Europe all over again, and Steve said his piece about how bullies would never stop and if we had any guts we'd go over there ourselves, and then someone said that he'd better shut his mouth because the U.S. had to stay out of it: it wasn't any of our damn business what the Germans did on the other side of the world. We've got our own damn problems. America First! and then someone threw a punch, and Steve lost his temper and got into it, and actually the whole thing only broke up when someone yelled that the police were coming.
When he finally got home, Bucky was at the table, up to his elbows in newspapers. He glanced up and then started at Steve's black eye and split lip. "Don't tell me," Bucky said. "You got into a fight with a pacifist. Oh my God, you did, didn't you. You really did," and then he heckled Steve all the way to the tap: "Seriously, Rogers - what the hell is the matter with you? You're a damaged person, you know that?"
"I'm damaged?" Steve wheeled on him; face dripping. "They're preaching nonviolence - and they hit me!"
"Okay, but you have to ask yourself..." and Steve threw the wet washcloth at him and reached for a towel.
"There's gonna be a war. I told you there was," Steve said, drying his face, his hands and forearms.
"Yeah, you told me. So there'll be a war," Bucky relented. "I don't think we're gonna get into it, though. It's too far away, other side of the world. The guys at the shop were like: 'Good for them; keep me out of it.'"
"I got a black eye says you're right," Steve sighed. "The League--they're planning a peace march."
"There you go. When the guys at the shop and the radicals are on the same side, that's a done deal." Bucky returned his attention to the Times, headline GERMAN ARMY ATTACKS POLAND and Steve reached for the late edition Tribune, headline HITLER STARTS HOSTILITIES. "Still, you know, this thing might be good for business," Bucky muttered, absently scratching at his neck as he read. "The Germans make good machines; the English might need a little help there. The plant's already speeding up production."
"Well, good for the plant," Steve said bitterly.
"Hey, it's no crime to do good and make good at the same time," Bucky said with a pragmatic shrug. "We'll still be helping, and if we help ourselves at the same time I don't see where it hurts anybody none."
"There's principles at stake, Buck, is all I'm saying," Steve muttered.
"I know," Bucky said; he looked exasperated and fond, both. "You and your principles."
He woke up when Bucky came home, which he often did when Bucky came home late, but there was something about the noise - the crash, the muttered curse - that drove Steve out of bed and into the kitchen in his pajamas to see what was going on. Bucky'd gone to his cousin's wedding - a football wedding, because Mary was going to marry an Italian and there were supposedly going to be two hundred people and all the hero sandwiches you could throw - but Steve would have thought that the shindig would have wrapped up by eleven, midnight in the latest. He glanced at the clock; it was nearly three in the morning.
"Hey," Steve said, and he saw right away what the delay was; Bucky was totally smashed, his shirt tails pulled out, tie askew. He smelled like the tap room at O'Donnell's. Smiling, Steve went over and gently tried to nudge him toward a chair. "Sit down before you fall down," he said. "I hope you had a good time?"
Bucky held on to him, swayed drunkenly and righted himself. "No," Bucky said, and Steve saw misery smeared across Bucky's flushed face. "Dun't matter. C'mere," Bucky slurred, tugging him close. "Kiss me..." and Steve kissed his cool wet mouth, tasting alcohol, arms sliding around him to keep him upright.
"I could get drunk just from kissing you," Steve said.
"You're a good kisser," Bucky murmured, eyes half-lidded. "You didn't used to be but you are now."
"I learned from the best." Steve broke away and turned to slide his shoulder under Bucky's armpit, bracing him up. He began to walk him into the dark bedroom. "Come on, let's go to bed, let's get you--"
"Yeah," Bucky said, crooking his elbow around Steve's neck and kissing the side of his face, hot and sloppy. "Let's go to bed, let's--let's fuck, let's-- Why don't you fuck me? Why don't you ever fuck me?" and something warm pooled low in Steve's belly: desire, hot and insistent and oddly unexpected. He swallowed.
He sat down with Bucky on the side of the bed and then carefully began undoing Bucky's tie, the buttons of his shirt. "You never--" Steve began, and geez, he was hard, his dick rising up against the thin fabric of his pajamas. He breathed and tried to ignore it. "I didn't think you-- I didn't know you wanted me to."
"You never offered," Bucky said petulantly.
Steve twitched with guilt. "You never asked."
"Okay, well I'm asking," Bucky said tensely, throat working, and then he was knotting his fist in Steve's pajama top and leaning for another kiss, deeper and more purposeful. Then his lush mouth slid across Steve's cheek, to his ear, tongue finding his earlobe and--
"No, wait," Steve said and with Bucky wobbly, he was able to grab Bucky's shoulders and tug him back so he could look at him. "First tell me what happened," and Bucky let a long groan and sort of crumpled forward onto Steve's shoulder, and Steve put his arms around him and held him tight.
"I don't think I can see my family anymore," Bucky muttered into Steve's neck. "I can't do it: weddings, birthdays, Thanksgiving. Christmas--we can do Christmas ourselves next year, can't we?"
Steve frowned and slid a hand into Bucky's thick dark hair. "Sure we can, of course we can. But-- I mean, they love you, Buck. They're crazy about you. You're the apple of their eye—"
"Apples get eaten," Bucky said darkly. "I'm not an apple. They keep pushing this girl on me," and oh, now Steve understood. "They want me to marry her," Bucky said. "Her or anybody really, but right now: her," and then he lifted his head off Steve's shoulder and showed him the most breathtaking smile. Steve grinned back at him helplessly. "But I'm not gonna," Bucky declared, raising his eyebrows like maybe Steve'd been worried about this. It seemed to thrill him to say it out loud, anyway; he was exhilarated.
"I know!" Steve replied, equally enthused; he was smiling so hard his face hurt.
"Even if I have to go somewhere, get clear away, I'd. Ohio," Bucky said uncertainly, like it was the only place outside New York he'd ever heard of. Maybe the only place he could remember, drunk as he was.
"You'd die in Ohio," Steve told him. "You'd slit your throat in Ohio."
"Hollywood, then," Bucky said, leaning forward to nuzzle and smile against Steve's cheek.
"You'd do okay in Hollywood. You're the most beautiful person I've ever seen in person."
"I think it's funny you think that," Bucky said.
"It's my professional opinion," Steve said. "I've spent my whole life looking at you."
Bucky cupped his neck. "If I went away, you'd come with me, wouldn't you?"
Steve wasn't drunk but he felt it; the room was spinning, and their conversation had that same sort of passionate intensity. "Yes," he said. "Yes. Anywhere. Even Ohio," and Bucky kissed him for a long time then, until he was trembling, and then said against his mouth: "Are you going to fuck me or what?"
Steve shook his head slowly. "I don't think this is the time to…" but Bucky was slowly licking his kiss-reddened lips and wrestling his shirt off his shoulders, unbuckling and unzipping his pants.
"This is the time, this is the perfect time. I'm very…relaxed," Bucky said and fell back onto the bed, bare arms splayed to either side. "Come on, please. Please…" and Steve was only human when it came to that.
Steve clambered over him and tried to roll them both, feeling nervy, heart jumping, but Bucky gripped his forearms and held his gaze: he wanted them face to face, and suddenly Steve did too. He wanted to see it, see everything: Bucky’s mouth, red and dirty, eyes glazing over with how good he felt. Steve dragged Bucky's hips onto his thighs and gulped air fast into his lungs. Bucky was spread out before him--cock, thighs, belly, nipples, chest— and if he wasn't careful he was going to come before they even started.
He met Bucky's eyes and they both couldn’t help laughing, feeling crazy, on the hysterical edge of ecstasy. "So," Bucky breathed, chewing his lip and drawing one knee up, "you think the Dodgers have a chance this year?" but Steve touched him then and Bucky let out a long, shuddering moan and closed his eyes, no wit left in him. Steve lingered, a little anxious maybe but wanting to be sure it was good.
"Come on, come on–-do it already," Bucky begged. Steve looked down at Bucky’s ribs as he pushed in, felt the heat and the pressure, his whole body sparking on a strange wonderful edge of pleasure and pain. He could only let himself sneak glimpses of Bucky's face, his fluttering eyelashes, his pleasure-twisted mouth.
"Slower. Slower—please, I want–-I want to feel—" and Bucky kept bearing down, tightening around him, and Steve saw white spots in front of his eyes: it hurt it was so good. "Christ," Bucky moaned. "I love this--your dick, I love this," and warmth spread through him and Steve tilted up, clutching Bucky's thighs and changing angle slightly until Bucky eyes flew open and Steve could chase him out of his mind.
For other people, the war started December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Steve, it started just before Christmas, on December 18th, when Bucky met him outside their apartment; he was wearing his coat and blowing on his hands. "Come on," Bucky said, taking him by the arm. "We're going for a drink."
"Oh yeah?" Steve asked, letting Bucky steer him down the block. "Where?"
"O'Donnell's okay?" and even then Steve knew that he was being managed, being taken out in public, but it wasn't until Bucky settled him in a booth and bought them each a pint of beer from the bar that he took off his coat and pulled out the letter. It was only then that the world ended.
"No. No, no, no, no," Steve said; he was falling.
"Okay, look," Bucky said, leaning forward, and he knew Steve well enough that he was already at full tilt, "first of all, it's not Japan, it's not Italy, it's Wisconsin, it's Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, for training, which—I don't know where the fuck Wisconsin even is, but I don't think there's any shooting there, all right?" but Steve could barely hear a word of it over the banging of his heart, the rushing blood in his ears, and why hadn't – why hadn't he ever thought - why had it never occurred to him that the guy who was gonna hold the line against Fascism was going to be Bucky? Of course it was going to be Bucky; of course it was.
"No. No. Please," Steve said.
"Second," Bucky said, a little more desperately now, "I've been told it's a good thing, being called up this early, because of the training—I'm gonna get so much training, specialized training: they're gonna need all kinds of specialists over there, and I'm gonna be good at it, Steve, and get myself all promoted and stuff by the time—you know," and Steve did know; if Bucky could read Steve's mind, that worked both ways.
"By the time they're just shoving bodies in front of the cannons," Steve said.
"Yeah. By then I'm going to be like a general or something," Bucky said, and then he grabbed Steve's arm tight. "Look. I don't want you to worry about anything more than you have to. Okay? I've got some money saved up, I want to keep up my end of the—"
"Oh my God," Steve said, bile rising, and then he was wrenching out of Bucky's grip and getting up and pushing out the door, and Bucky was yelling, "Steve! Wait!" but that only made him run faster, and half of it was desperation and the other half of it was wanting to hide in the last place that Bucky would ever look for him, but Steve pushed through the side door of Saint Francis's and flung himself down at the railing in front of the niche holding the statue of the Blessed Mother, her arms outstretched, candles lit all around.
"Momma, please help. Please. It's Bucky," and then Steve was sobbing stupidly against his forearm and praying his heart out: "Please, God, please, I'm sorry, I take it back, I take everything back, I'll do anything—anything—just please don't let Bucky get killed, or let me go with him, let me get killed, too," and then he was empty of words, empty of everything, and for the first time he understood the importance of rote prayer. The words came flooding back to him: "Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. And I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments…" Steve knelt there, head braced on his arm, repeating them over and over until a priest knelt down beside him and gently touched his shoulder.
"Young man, are you all right?" the priest asked, all kind sympathy. "Have you been called up?"
Steve lifted his head with a wet gasp. "Yes," he said, because this was a sign, wasn't it? "Yes, I have."
"Don't be afraid," the priest said firmly. "He who trusts in God has no need to fear. Our Lord watches out for all his children. Do you want me to pray with you?"
"Yes, Father. Please," and Steve closed his eyes when the priest laid hands on him.
Bucky was half out of his mind by the time Steve got back. "Where the hell did you--" he began, leaping up and grabbing Steve, shaking him hard. "Don't you fucking ever— I'll kick the shit out of you myself."
"I'm sorry, Buck," Steve said. "I just--I needed to be alone."
"Well, you're gonna be alone," Bucky said, hurt and cruel. "So you could spend some time with me, maybe. I've gotta--" and Bucky's mouth quivered before he clamped down. "My train leaves day after tomorrow."
"Okay." Steve absorbed this new blow dully. "Bucky, I'm gonna enlist. I'm gonna come with you."
"Oh, Steve," Bucky sighed. "I don't think they're gonna take you."
"They will. You'll see; have faith," and then Steve was drawing Bucky down, and kissing and kissing him.
Please, God, Steve prayed. Help me get over there. Let me go with the others. Let me serve you and protect him, but he failed to pass the medical at the enlistment office on Atlantic Avenue, and was classified 4F – unfit for military service. He didn't lose faith: he gave himself three months before trying again, meanwhile starting an aggressive health regimen: sit-ups, push-ups, all the protein he could afford to eat. He even tried running, though it was a disaster; he didn't get far before he started wheezing, and another few feet saw him doubled over and gasping against the nearest wall.
He also wrote to Bucky every day, and Bucky wrote him cheerful letters back. "Why didn't you try running when people were actually chasing you?" he asked. "It would have saved you at least two broken noses."
"You must be mistaken," Steve wrote back. "I only ever had the one nose, such as it is."
"I guess I had you mixed up with Picasso," Bucky replied. "Meanwhile Wisconsin is mostly squirrels. Also I remind you to eat as much beef as you can – you need the iron in your pale pink blood."
"For your information, I am as red-blooded as any other American boy. And I'm eating beef," Steve replied. "If I eat any more beef, I'm going to start mooing. Meanwhile, I hope you're not eating the squirrels."
"You know, that would explain so much about the food here," Bucky wrote back. "Alice says she saw you at church – what gives? Is the world ending, or are you that afraid for my immortal soul—or your own?" Bucky'd underlined it twice, to show he was joking, but actually Steve was going to church again every Sunday, and he made a point of going back to Our Lady of Perpetual Help because the Barneses were there. They sat there, pale and shocked: all of their boys were soldiers now, both Andy and Jack having enlisted after Bucky got drafted. Only Alice was left, and she took to slipping out of their pew and sitting across the aisle with Steve, just like Bucky used to years ago, and usually Steve took her out to the luncheonette after.
Steve always stopped to pay his respects to the Barneses. "Oh, Steve," Mrs. Barnes said, one Sunday; she was standing with a pretty red-haired girl in a white hat. "You must have met Eileen," and Eileen smiled sadly and said, "We haven't, but Jimmy talked about you all the time, Steve. All the time."
Steve smiled politely; he hadn't the faintest idea what to say.
"We had such hopes," Mrs. Barnes said, suddenly tearful, twining her arm around Eileen's.
"If there's anything I can do for you, Mrs. Barnes," Steve told her; he told her the same thing every week. "Please ask me. Please," and Mrs. Barnes smiled fondly at him and then at Alice, and then she looked at Eileen and explained, "We've known Steve since he was a boy. He's been like another son to us."
"Anything," Steve said again, as Eileen helped Mrs. Barnes toward the vestibule doors.
Alice rolled her eyes. "Bucky said she was about as much fun as a head cold," and Steve laughed and then coughed loudly into the crook of his arm to disguise it. "He wanted her like a toothache. Meanwhile," she said, as they walked down the aisle toward the door, "Andy and Jack have been sent to the front."
Steve stopped, took her arm. "Andy and Jack?" he repeated. "Already?"
"Yeah. Six weeks of basic training, and now they're going. They're gone," Alice said.
"But not Bucky," Steve said slowly, "even though Bucky was first?"
"Not as far as I know," Alice said, "unless you know something I don't. Last letter was from Wisconsin."
"Well, that's something," Steve said, and he stopped to say a quick prayer of thanks in front of the statue of St. Michael; he realized that he'd been drawing Bucky with St. Michael's arms for years. His mother used to say that God always answered prayers, but he didn't always give you the answer you expected: maybe instead of letting Steve enlist, God was going to keep Bucky in the States. That would be fine, too.
Bucky's next letter had a postmark from Texas. "I think I have played this about as well as a guy could play it," Bucky wrote, "considering they own me from my hair to my toenails. It turns out that dogtags are not a metaphor, Steve: they can kick you, they can beat you if they want to, and it turns out I'm not a good dog. That said, I've managed to get my CO's attention and he kept me and another guy back when they shipped out my cohort. I've been getting some special training that I'm not allowed to talk about, other than to say it's going well – so far I'm pretty good at this soldiering business, though again so far it's mostly squirrels: haven't tested my skills against a Kraut yet. No idea when I'll actually be shipped out, but will do my best to get word to you. Keep sending me letters, they say they'll send them on to me wherever I am. I'm okay so far. I'm learning a lot. The worst part is missing New York, and you."
Steve put the letter in his coat with all Bucky's other letters, and took the subway into the city, where he failed the medical examination at the induction center in Times Square: 4F, unfit for service.
"I can't keep weight on, is the problem," Steve complained to Alice.
"Chocolate milk," Alice said.
Bucky was shipped to the front in May of 1942, which Steve found out from a postcard--with an NYC postmark and a picture of Lady Liberty on the front. "Brief gasp of city air," Bucky scrawled, "as I get off train onto boat for Liverpool. All OK. Will write ASAP." As promised, Bucky wrote a longer letter once he'd got to England. "Everything's fine here," he wrote. "I'm with the 53rd Infantry and I guess we'll be hitting the continent soon. But use this address – they'll send on my letters if I land in a trench. Mail call is the best time of the day. Miss you lots." Steve couldn't sleep that night, kept awake by the thought of Bucky "hitting the continent," and in the morning he lit a candle in front of St. Michael on his way to work.
That weekend, he took the train up to Rockland County, where he was rejected by the medical board: 4F.
Bucky's letters started arriving with large parts of them blotted out with black marker, by October, they'd stopped coming all together. He spent that month and most of November in a fog of terror: why didn't Bucky write? He stopped by the Barnes house every day after work--checking their faces, dreading a telegram--until Alice, bless her, read his mind and said, "If there's news, I'll come straight away. I'll come straight away, Steve." Steve prayed so hard he thought a blood vessel would burst in his head: please, no telegram; please, God, let him be okay; please, God, help me get to him, help me get there."
He took the train up to New Haven – 4F.
He went out to Paramus – 4F.
And then the censor card came, his address in Bucky's handwriting, and the single ticked box: "I am well."
All the blood drained out of him, and he sat down, hands shaking. Okay. Bucky was okay. And then he was up and out of his apartment, running for the trolley, and when he got to the Barnes house some long-suppressed impulse sent him around the back, where he threw a can at Alice's window. She stuck her head out and Steve shouted up, "He's okay! I got a card—he's okay!" and Alice yelled with delight and ducked her head back in, and Steve reached the front door just as it flew open and Alice threw herself out at him, flinging her arms around his neck and then saying, "let me see, let me see." Steve handed her the beige card, wrinkled from being clutched in his sweaty hand, and then fell, panting, against the doorframe.
"I think I'm having a coronary," Steve stammered, but Alice grabbed his hand and dragged him inside, yelling, "Momma! Ma! Bucky's okay! Steve got a postcard!" and Mrs. Barnes ran out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and snatched the card out of Alice's hands. She looked at the front, the back, the front, and Steve knew just how she felt—amazing that that was all the information, but—
"Well, that's very interesting, isn't it?" Mrs. Barnes said in a hard voice, and Steve and Alice froze. "That he sent this to you. Two months without a word, and the first word he sends, he sends to you."
"I—" Steve's heart had stopped; he was choked with guilt. "He-- He and I— We--"
"Oh, Ma," Alice interrupted, interjecting herself and taking Steve's hand. "You know what Bucky is. He's cagey; he probably wants to make sure that Steve stays in touch with the family"– and Mrs. Barnes looked at her and then at Steve and her face changed, and she said, "Oh." Steve looked at Alice, totally lost, and then her eyes flashed and suddenly he got it and Alice smiled fondly and dug her fingernails into his palm hard enough to draw blood to stop him from blurting, "Oh my God! No! You've got it all wrong!"
Mrs. Barnes looked like she didn't know where to put herself. Steve knew just how she felt. "Oh," she said again, but she seemed mollified. "Of course, Steve already practically counts as a member of the family."
"Exactly," Alice said, and then, to Steve, "Come on, buy me an egg cream to celebrate!"
"Uh," Steve said, and she pulled him out the door and down the block toward the luncheonette. "Alice," he began, uncertainly, staring down at their joined hands. He wasn't sure what he was going to say after that, but thankfully he didn't have to say anything.
"Don't be stupid," Alice said, shoving his hand away. "Bucky said you were hopeless but you really are hopeless! Haven't you ever met my mother? Matching us up is all she cares about. We're like prize pigs at the fair – groomed, fattened, and sold for breeding. Thing is, she wanted more children than us four, but she had a hard time of it and I was the last one that lived. So now it's grandchildren she wants—hundreds of them, probably. I think she wants us all to go back and retake Ireland by sheer force of numbers."
Steve nodded, feeling relieved, but also stupid and a little—tainted. It bothered him that anyone could think of him and Alice like that, because she was still Bucky's little sister, even though she was now a pretty girl of fifteen. It bothered him even more because he really liked Alice—he might even have said he loved Alice—and he didn't want to think his attentions to her could be misinterpreted. Plus he needed her.
He tried, haltingly, to explain this to her over grilled cheese and egg creams, and Alice nodded grimly and said, "It's up to you, I guess. If you're worried about how it looks, I understand, but for me?" She smiled ruefully. "I could use the protection. If Ma thinks you're courting me, she might lay off otherwise. I'd be spared her endless matchmaking. And you look like the kind of guy who knows how to leave a girl alone."
"Leaving girls alone is my specialty," Steve told her.
"So all right, then." Alice lifted her egg cream, and Steve picked up his chocolate milk. "To Bucky."
"To Bucky," Steve repeated, and clinked their glasses together. "Thank God he's safe."
Steve vaguely expected that Bucky's next letter, when it finally came, would be full of black-outs and censored parts. But it wasn't; Bucky finally seemed to have learned how to write between the lines. "Dear Steve," the letter read, "I am writing with all my good news," and Steve knew Bucky well enough to hear what he wasn't saying: Bucky was writing with his good news, but all his news wasn't good. "I've been on four missions so far, and I'm still here to talk about it! (Though of course I can't talk about it!) I've also been promoted--please note that this letter comes to you from Sergeant James Barnes of the Fighting 53rd. You maybe thought I was kidding about coming back a general, but--"
"Wow, that's great!" Alice said, when he showed her the letter.
"No, it's terrible," Steve explained. "That's a jump-step promotion, a battlefield promotion—he got that in combat. And also probably…" and then he remembered that he was talking to a 15 year old girl, and clamped down on the rest of it: And also probably it means that a lot of other guys in his unit are dead.
"Well," Alice said practically, and when she tilted her head like that she reminded him so much of Bucky than it hurt, "if he's in combat, at least he's good at it."
"Yeah," Steve sighed. "I guess that's the important thing."
When the telegram came, it wasn't the one he was dreading: it wasn't about Bucky, it was from Bucky. Steve had never in his life gotten good news from a telegram, and this news was so good as to be incomprehensible: ARRIVING BAT THURSDAY 6 PM TRAIN FOR 2 DAY LEAVE BUCKY.
That was such a crazy message that he decided to talk it over with Alice before showing it to the Barneses.
Alice agreed it was nuts. "It can't be," she insisted. "It's a mistake, or…I don't know, could it be a joke?" She frowned. "He wouldn't joke like that. But a two-day leave—from Europe? It doesn't make any sense."
"It might, though," Steve said, "maybe. I've been thinking. He says he's coming by train—that means he's here already, right? He's not coming from Europe by train."
"But if he's here, why wouldn't he have--?"
"Cause he can't, or couldn't," Steve said. "So he's gotta be on a base somewhere, he's doing something on a base he can't talk about."
Alice got it, nodded. "And now he's shipping out again. He's coming to New York to ship out."
"Right—it's got to be a two-day leave waiting for the boat," Steve said. They stared down at the telegram.
"Should I tell Ma?" Alice asked. "She'll want to make a big dinner and everything."
"If it's a mistake, she's going to be really disappointed," Steve said.
"If it's not, she's going kill us with a bread knife," Alice said, and so they went to tell Mr. and Mrs. Barnes that there was, believe it or not, a chance, a possibility anyway, that Bucky might turn up at the Brooklyn Army Terminal on Thursday evening. Mrs. Barnes insisted on seeing the telegram, and shot Steve another narrow look, which meant that Alice spent the rest of the day glued to his side, and of course then they all had to go down to the Brooklyn Army Terminal on Thursday to meet the train.
The place was a madhouse – all the military railroads and ship terminals were madhouses – but they managed to find the right platform and the right train, and then somehow amidst the crowds and the steam and the noise Steve turned around and there was Bucky, standing there in his uniform and hat.
"Steve," Bucky said, and then he blinked and said, "Ma!" and Mrs. Barnes was hugging him tightly and kissing his face.
"You look well," Mrs. Barnes said breathlessly. "George, doesn't he look well? Why didn't you tell us you were coming, we had almost no notice, I was barely able to get a chicken, I wanted a duck, I wanted—"
"Ma, I hate to break it to you, but I got a new boss of my life now," Bucky said with a smile, and then he was shaking his father's hand and then cradling Alice in his arms, because to Steve's surprise she'd broken down crying when she saw him and couldn't seem to stop. "C'mon, c'mon," Bucky murmured gently to her, "you're getting my uniform all wet," and then Alice sniffled and managed to pull herself together a little.
"Steve," Bucky said, reaching out to pull him in for a rough hug, and then he was smiling and whispering, "I'm gonna fucking kill you," and Steve, having his own small nervous breakdown, burst out laughing.
"Welcome back, Buck," Steve said, hiccoughing a little. "I really missed you."
The bad news, which was kind of the good news, considering that Bucky wanted to kill him, was that they could barely get any time alone together. Bucky dragged him into the bathroom at the Barnes house on the pretext of "washing up," locked the door, and whispered, "What the hell is the matter with you? Did I tell you to bring my whole fucking family? I've only got two days, and I've got other obligations besides – tomorrow night I've got a thing with my unit."
Steve was truly flummoxed. "How could I not tell them? You didn't say not to tell them—"
"I didn't think you were living in their pockets! Why the hell are you living in their pockets? Not to mention that my mother seems to think you're gonna marry my sister!" Bucky shoved Steve up against the pink wallpapered wall and glared. "Please understand that you're going to your grave with my teeth in your throat," he said, and he was only half kidding. "Okay? Just so we're clear. That's how this is going down."
Steve groaned and let his head fall forward "Look, I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sorry, but I had to. I needed to know what was going on with you, and they're your next of kin, so—"
"They're not," Bucky said softly.
Steve blinked. "What?" and then Bucky was fishing in his collar, hooking up his dogtags with a finger and holding them out. Steve squinted to read them -- JAMES B. BARNES. 325575. T41 A -- and then his own name - S. Rogers – and their address in Red Hook. He looked up at Bucky, surprised and touched.
"They're not," Bucky repeated, and then he was kissing Steve, hands hot on his face, and Steve fingers were sliding into Bucky's belt loops and tugging him forward, mouth opening for his—"
"Bucky!" Alice called up. "Mamma wants to make a toast!" and Bucky groaned and pulled away.
"I'm sorry," Steve gasped again.
"You're a fucking moron," Bucky said, and opened the bathroom door.
They managed to get away later that night, Bucky insisting he wanted to take Steve out for a drink, though in fact they went straight to Red Hook, and Bucky had Steve's pants down before they were even in the bedroom. Steve had a moment of doubt about whether they should do this – he'd begged God to keep Bucky safe, and God had kept his part of the bargain, and he wasn't sure what God thought of this—but Bucky was like a force of nature, and before Steve could work out what he thought about things, Bucky had him face down on the mattress, pants down around his ankles, and was pushing inside him, and then Steve couldn't think at all, was just gasping and humping the mattress until Bucky finally had mercy.
He couldn't think for a while after, either; just lay there, panting. Bucky had rolled over beside him, and Steve reached out and pressed a hand against his warm skin. Here. Bucky was here.
"I prayed for you," Steve murmured. "I didn't pray for my mother when she was dying but I prayed for you," and Bucky rolled him over and kissed him, long and soft, until they were both breathless.
"Are you—Bucky, are you really all right?" Steve managed finally.
"Yeah. I'm okay."
"Did they--" Steve ventured. "What happened to your unit? Are they-- Did you lose them?"
"Most of them, yeah," Bucky said. "The rest of us have been—reassigned. I'm going to the 107th."
Steve frowned; that seemed like a sign. "That was my father's regiment," he told Bucky; he'd dreamed of being assigned to the 107th himself. "What—what's it really like over there?"
Bucky sighed and stared up at the ceiling. "Well, it's not a party," he said. "It's not like anything else I can compare it to. It's like the shadow world under this one. More honest, in a way." Bucky bit his lip. "I remember once you said that life was hard enough without lies on top of it. I didn't know what you meant then, but now I do. You were always trying to find out what was real. Well, this is real," he told Steve. "Men killing each other: that's real." He flashed a sad smile. "Everything else is lies and pretty stories."
"But—" Steve twitched guiltily, but this didn't seem the time to tell Bucky about his change of heart. "You know, Buck, I – I'm not always right about everything," and he was surprised when Bucky laughed.
"Can I get that in writing?" Bucky asked him.
Bucky had his family to see, but most of the rest of the 107th weren't from Brooklyn, so the guys from the unit had made plans. "Look, I gotta go," Bucky told Steve. "These are the guys who are going to be keeping me alive for the next year. But come with me—I'll get us a couple of girls and come get you. We'll make it a double date and go dancing afterwards, okay?"
The Modern Marvels pavilion was overcrowded and hot. And the clock was ticking the whole time– they were going to take Bucky away from him, all the servicemen and their girls pulling him away in a laughing camaraderie that Steve wasn't, wasn't allowed to be, a part of—and even though Bucky kept looking for him, kept finding his eyes, smiling at him across the crowd, it wasn't enough. Please, God, he thought. There must be a way. I can't do it but You can. You--
Steve looked up and saw a sign for a recruiting office: Uncle Sam, like God in Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," was reaching out for him. "I WANT YOU."
And then the miracle happened. "I can offer you a chance," Dr. Abraham Erskine said. "Only a chance. Congratulations, soldier," he said, and Steve stared down at his 1A classification and trembled before God.
It was one thing to pray – Steve had been praying hard ever since Bucky was drafted – but it was something else to have God answer back. Steve was terrified, ecstatic: his life had become one miracle after another. His every prayer had been answered: he'd been taken into the Army, he'd been given strength, health, purpose; the means to fight evil on earth. Even Agent Carter – he had never even imagined a woman like her, and yet here she was, like God had picked her for him—or more likely, had made him for her.
He felt the hand of God in everything, now, moving him like a chess piece on a board–-all across the United States, and then to Europe--so he was hardly even surprised when his U.S.O. show turned up at the 107th just after their defeat at Bolzano. He knew why he was there: what God had put him there to do.
"Steve," Bucky said, dazed, and he kept saying it, like he couldn't believe it, the whole thirty miles back to the 107th. Bucky did the first five miles limping and hunched over, Steve supporting him; he was green and sweating. "It's giving me vertigo even to look at you," Bucky said, forcing a smile, and Steve knew what he was talking about. He wasn't even sick the way Bucky was, but he was dizzy, too, because every time he heard Bucky's voice, he looked nine inches in the wrong direction and then had to readjust. Eventually, Bucky focused on the ground as they limped along, tuning into Steve with his ears and not with his eyes.
Steve tried to explain what had happened: the project, the machine, the Vita Rays, Erskine, the USO tour. "You're—you're Captain America?" Bucky was confused and incredulous. "Did anybody even meet you?"
"It kind of happened really fast," Steve admitted.
"Yeah, I bet it--" Bucky managed, and then he was clutching Steve's arm and saying, "I, I have to stop. I."
He wasn't the only one. There were many injured men on the march, and so Steve and Dum Dum and Morita scouted ahead and found a sheltered place to make camp, set up a perimeter, set up a watch from among the healthier soldiers. They had limited supplies – a little food, a few canteens of water, a few blankets. Some of the men still had their first aid kits, and there were also some supplies in the tank. When Steve had finished making the rounds of his makeshift camp, he went back to find Bucky—and couldn't find him. "Bucky!" Steve called, head whipping around near the stump where he'd left Bucky sitting. "Bucky!" and some of the men closest by immediately took up the search as well. "Here!"—one of them yelled suddenly. "Cap!—over here!" and Steve ran over and found Bucky collapsed, eyes unfocused.
"Bucky," Steve said, bending down, and Bucky was shivering, burning with fever, his teeth chattering, and Steve gritted his teeth and carefully searched him all over – there were puncture wounds, needlemarks, signs of restraint on his arms, legs, and throat—but no open wounds, nothing that looked infected.
"All right," Steve said, and made Bucky take some aspirin and some water. Then he commandeered one of the blankets and wrapped Bucky in it, and then wrapped himself around Bucky as they lay to sleep on the cold ground. Bucky pressed against him, shivering and burying his face, and that was so wrong—it had always been Bucky who ran warm. Bucky's mouth moved against his neck and pressed a soft kiss below his ear, and, warmth spreading through him, Steve ventured to brush his lips across Bucky's eyebrow.
"Steve," Bucky said quietly. "I'm so glad you're here."
"It's gonna be all right, Buck," Steve whispered back. "God sent me to save you."
"...okay," Bucky said, and in fact, Bucky's fever broke during the night, and he was stronger the next day, able to walk on his own, and by time they reached the 107th, Bucky was right up at the front with him, his automatic rifle clutched in his hands.
They told him that they were airlifting him, Captain Phillips, and Agent Carter to London, and Steve told them he wanted to take along Dugan, Farnsworth, Morita, Jones, and Dernier - and Bucky, of course.
"You're taking Barnes," Captain Phillips said, looking at him all squinty-eyed in that way that he had.
"Yes, sir," Steve said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
"Good man," Captain Phillips said, "though there's no way you could know that."
"I know him," Steve said.
"Do you?" Captain Phillips said, and then he was shoving a battered manila folder over the table toward him. "Ever seen his service record?"
Steve hesitated, then took the folder and paged through it. Bucky had--geez, Bucky had gotten a lot of training: parachute training, weapons training; he'd been picked for fourteen operations against high-value targets and had racked up--well, a really terrifying number of kills. Captain Phillips was watching him closely. "He's an asset," Captain Phillips said. "He's right for this mission, though I'll be sorry to lose him."
Bucky himself played it close to the vest during the debrief in London; he gave short, closed answers to the brass, and didn't tell anyone about the puncture wounds or needle marks, now gone. He seemed to have been tortured for no reason. "They never even asked me any questions," Bucky said, but that was all he said. He didn't want to talk about it, though it had marked him: there were shadows under his eyes, and a deep crease between his brows, that hadn't been there before he was captured. He was different, changed; both more distracted and more focused.
"Do you want to come to Mass with me?" Steve blurted. "They have Catholic Mass on Wednesdays."
Bucky looked at him. "Is this a Captain America thing?"
"No!" Steve said, and then: "Well, I mean, not-- How can you even—Look at what's happened to me!"
"You look…healthy," Bucky said.
"I am, I never knew there was so much air in the world," Steve said honestly. "Bucky, this was a miracle, an actual miracle. I was wrong about everything – about God, the Creation of Adam. I--" But Bucky was raising an eyebrow at him. "Bucky, after you were drafted, I prayed and prayed. I prayed until I was blue, Bucky, and look what happened!" He held out his arms: his body, his new, healthy body. "You have to see this is a miracle."
"I don't know. Looks like science fiction to me," Bucky said, and then, more quietly: "Look, Steve, I don't know what to believe anymore--"
"I don't believe, I know," Steve insisted.
"You don't know," Bucky said sharply. "You just think you do. Like you always think you-- fuck, I can't believe I'm on this merry-go-round again. Didn't Bertrand fucking Russell have anything to say about the religious implications of being turned into a supersoldier?" and then Bucky took a deep breath and let it out again and said, "Look, go to Mass if you want to. Come find me later; I'll be in the pub, all right?"
"All right," Steve said reluctantly; he knew this was his fault, his sin; he'd purposefully driven Bucky away from God. He'd thought he was being so damned clever--well, he'd confess it, do penance for it. Still, it felt wrong to part like this, with Bucky ticked off at him: they'd only just been reunited, and he couldn't stand it.
Steve turned back. "Bucky," he said, needing to say it. "You know what you mean to me, don't you?"
The irritation slipped off Bucky's face, and Steve could see his own longing and desperation reflected back at him. "Yeah. I—Yeah," and then Bucky swallowed and said, "Actually, Steve, I think most of Western Europe knows what I mean to you," and Steve burst out laughing; only Bucky made him laugh like this.
"Also North America," Steve added ruefully. "I think they're doing a story on us for Life magazine."
"Great," Bucky said.
Later, at the pub, Steve bought a round of drinks for Dum Dum, Farnsworth, Jones, Morita, and Dernier: they were the men he wanted for his team. They were brave as all hell, and talented fighters. But even more than that, he remembered Dr. Erskine telling him that a weak man wouldn't take his strength for granted, and Steve thought that former POWs could be counted upon to remember that everyone mattered. The army's priorities sometimes scared him; they were willing to burn down an awful lot of trees to save a forest.
To his relief, they all agreed to join his unit, and so Steve opened a tab for them and went to find Bucky. He was sitting alone, looking a little sweaty and disheveled; already a couple of whiskeys into it, Steve judged.
Bucky glanced up and smiled. "See. I told you," he said, and reached for his glass. "They're all idiots..."
"What about you?" Steve said; this was the important question; the only one, really. "You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?"
Bucky laughed hollowly. "Hell no," he said, and Steve had to consciously loosen his grip on his beer glass before he broke it. "To be honest, I could take or leave Captain America. That mouthy little guy from Brooklyn, though..." Bucky took another long swallow of whiskey. "He's got me for life."
It was one thing to read a file; it was something else to be in the Ardennes in the middle of the night and to have Bucky stop him with a gloved hand to his arm, a finger to his lips. All the others had gone still around them, so Steve nodded and went still, too, and Bucky moved forward silently in the darkness, raising his rifle, and disappeared between the trees. Steve waited, not moving; trusting in the faith of the others; trusting in Bucky; and just when he thought he really ought to do something, gather the others, take command or something, the air was split by a shot, then another, and another. Then silence--and the others were immediately in motion, guns raised and whooping, and Steve, taken aback, quickly lifted his revolver and began moving too. "That bastard could shoot the flame off a candle," Dum Dum said appreciatively as he ran past, and then they were taking the depot, bursting through the gates, the bodies of the dead guards hanging limply out of the turrets of the guard stations.
The Howling Commandos blew up two Hydra bases in Poland, one in Italy, and disrupted supply lines in Turkey before heading into Greece. They took down a compound in Thebes and then trucked out to R&R with a British unit stationed in Cyprus. They were put up in a grand old house converted for the army--each of them given their own room, with a real bed and a basin for washing and everything.
His door had a lock. He saw it straight off--barracks never did--and felt a thrill go through him: excitement and nerves both. Bucky would see it too. Bucky would see it and come after hours, and Steve wasn't sure what he thought about that. He hadn't had to decide about Bucky, because while they'd been close--bunking together, sleeping with their arms around each other to keep out the cold - there hadn't been any real chance for sex: not like this. Steve had been vaguely noodling a speech, because he felt that God was leading him by the nose, telling him what to do next: the army, the super serum, putting him on the spot in Italy to rescue Bucky, and now there was Peggy Carter, the strongest, most amazing, most beautiful woman he had ever--
His door opened, as he knew it would - he'd known to leave it unlocked - and Bucky came in and locked it behind him. "Steve," and Bucky was hastily dressed in a half-buttoned shirt and pants, boots unlaced, and then he was crossing to Steve and tilting his face up for a kiss; Bucky was now two inches shorter than he was, and for the first time, Steve had to bend down, rather than up, which knocked him off-balance in more ways than one. It'd been ages since he'd kissed Bucky--really kissed him, not half-stolen when no one was looking, or the soft brush of lips in the dark--and it nearly crushed his resolve, his resolve to--
"Bucky," Steve managed, breaking the kiss, "I wanted to-- I just, I'm not sure we should--"
Bucky's hands were moving over all him, sliding along his sides, his chest, up the muscles of his back. "What?" he asked, breathing hard.
He'd forgotten his speech. "I'm--not sure we should do this anymore," Steve said.
"Oh," Bucky said blankly, and Steve had seen that look before - on mortally wounded soldiers just before they fell down. Bucky did kind of go down then, turning and sitting dazedly on the side of Steve's bed.
He looked like he was trying to breathe, trying to make sense of it. He looked up at Steve. "You don't want me anymore?" and Steve felt an actual, clutching pain in his chest - he couldn't say that, could never say it. He was choked by panic - this was a mistake, another mistake, anything that put a look like that on Bucky's face had to be a mistake - but he was trapped, frozen: he didn't know how to go forward or walk back.
Bucky's eyebrows lifted. "You do," he said, staring up at him; reading him like a goddamned book. "You just... think you shouldn't," and then Bucky's mouth was opening, lips parting, and he was saying "Wait, wait, wait, wait," and smiling with a kind of vicious delight. "Are you saying... Do you think it's a sin?" and Steve gave him a look of agonized indecision and Bucky laughed at him, then: laughed in his face.
"You crazy fucker," Bucky said, looking at him with something like wonder.
"It's not funny," Steve whispered; nothing that hurt this much could be funny. He knew Bucky well enough to see how badly he'd hurt him. There was pain in every line of Bucky's face, even his smile.
"It's fucking hilarious," and Bucky was transcendently beautiful, in a terrifying way. His smile was hard, brilliant, glorious. "It's Thursday," he said, not quite tenderly, "and you've had an idea, haven't you, Steve?" and then Bucky was standing up, moistening his lips with his tongue and coming closer. "Well," he said. "I'd say you think too much, but I'm out of breath for it, so here's how we're going to play it," and Bucky slid his fingers into Steve's hair and yanked, pulling their mouths together and kissing him like he wanted to eat him. Steve turned on hard, balls immediately tightening, dick straining in his pants, high on oxygen.
Then Bucky nipped at his lip - "Tell me you don't want to" - but Steve gulped air into his new, healthy, lungs - "I want to" - and Bucky shoved him down onto the bed and tugged roughly at his clothes.
"Tell me to stop"- but Bucky knew he wouldn't - knew he couldn't - knew that all Steve's principles were for shit when it came to him, because Steve was so fucking in love with him, was in love with fucking him. Bucky was bent low over him, worshipping his skin, fingering every new muscle of his abdomen, then following his fingers with his tongue. He licked up Steve's chest, moaning as he sucked at Steve's nipples, working them with tongue and teeth. It hurt, it was great, and Steve was breathing raggedly and trying to rub himself against Bucky's belly - but Bucky kept lifting up, out of the way.
"Don't stop," Steve gasped. "Bucky, please--" and then he remembered his strength and lurched up and rolled Bucky over, but Bucky came back at him, stronger than he remembered, though maybe Bucky just wasn't holding himself back anymore. They struggled, more evenly matched than Steve would have thought, and then Bucky rolled him onto his belly, shoved his thighs apart, and got between them. Steve immediately spread his knees and tilted up for him. Bucky worked him open with Vaseline, then pushed in slowly, tugging Steve's hips off the bed and giving him nothing to rub off on, knocking his hand away whenever he tried to take hold of himself. It was excruciating, he ached to be touched, and Steve fisted the pillow, braced himself against the mattress, waiting for Bucky to have mercy on him, to--
Bucky was fucking him slow and deep, not letting him come. Steve tried to push back, to hurry the pace, but then Bucky would go even slower, or stop, or pull out. "Please," Steve moaned. "Please. I need to-- I'm begging you, do you want me to beg?" and Bucky yanked him nearly upright, then - onto his lap, hard onto his dick - and whispered savagely, mouth hot on Steve's ear, "You should suffer like I do," and Steve gasped and shuddered as Bucky's hand cupped his balls but then at least then Bucky was finally fucking him, steady and hard, and stroking him fast, bringing them off more or less together, hand closing around the spitting head of Steve's cock as Bucky jerked deep inside him.
He pulled out too fast, leaving Steve collapsed on the mattress and still desperate somehow. He was breathless, but he was still hard - he didn't know if this was the superserum, or Bucky, or what.
"Could you go again?" Steve asked helplessly, struggling to push himself up. "Because I could go again," and Bucky, who was sitting up in bed, head in his hands, turned to look at him and started to laugh.
"You," Bucky said, shaking his head "You are just..." but it turned out that Bucky could go again, too, and the sex was better this time - they kissed and stroked and fucked, so easy and natural, tumbling each other like it was nothing, just fitting. And Steve thought that maybe he'd been wrong about this, too; that if Doctor Erskine or God or whoever had made him for anyone, they had made him for Bucky Barnes.
That time, after they came, they collapsed, sticky and gasping, on top of each other. And then Bucky heaved himself up and rolled Steve over and straddled him and said, pointing a finger into his face: "Now you listen to me," and Steve swallowed and nodded and listened, because he knew when Bucky was serious. "I'll share you with America," Bucky said, "and I'll even share you with Peggy Carter if that's the way you want to play it, but you hear me now: you confess this, we're through, do you understand? I don't know if there's a God or not, but I'm carrying this on my immortal soul and you better, too. You ever confess this, we're finished, we're done--and I'll know, do you hear me? I'll know."
"Yes." Steve said, "I understand," and that was that, really; if he was going to go to hell for this, so be it.
They were lovers after that, every chance they got - and they took more chances, too, risking it, tugging each other into doorways and kissing, rubbing, sucking, getting off, getting close, anytime they could. They felt urgent, everyone felt like that; in a hurry to live as much life as they could. Bucky wouldn't go to church with him, or even pray with him, but sometimes he'd argue points of theology after sex.
"You know, I went to a lot more Sunday school than you," Bucky said, sprawling back on the pillows in an Albanian safehouse, "and I never heard of God making deals like that: tremble before me and I'll give you a killer diller body and a dame with a mean right hook."
"I'm not going to argue with you." Steve was fucked out and contented. "You can't argue faith, anyway."
"Oh, you can't, can you?" Bucky rolled his eyes. "You did a pretty good job of it all those years ago."
"I was wrong," Steve said, shrugging. "I was being a rationalist. "
Bucky ignored him. "Wasn't there a movie where a guy got radiated by--I don't remember, a rock? From Mars? And he became super strong and then killed everybody?" Bucky asked.
"That was like every third movie we saw," Steve said.
"The whole point of faith," Bucky said, returning to his first topic, "is that there's no proof. If there's proof, then you don't need faith. If there was a God, which there's not, he wouldn't do that, which he didn't."
"I'm not going to argue with you. I was there, I know what God did. Besides," Steve added, "what about the burning bush?" and Bucky burst out laughing and said, "Who are you, Moses? You think you're Abraham, or-- I just, I can't even, the ego on you. You know, now I know there's no God, because if there was, you would burst into flame. God doesn't work like that: he doesn't make deals, and if he did, he wouldn't just make 'em with you. People are losing brothers, lovers, sons - millions are going to die in this goddamned war and you know what, Steve? They all prayed just as hard as you," and later, when Bucky died--
When Bucky died
When Bucky died, Steve remembered how he'd said that God doesn't work like that. And Bucky was right, of course: you couldn't bargain with God, there was no deal to be made. Man proposes, God disposes. God had given him Bucky, and God had taken him back. Steve understood now: if God had given him this body, this mission, it was for God's own unknowable purpose. Steve's only duty was to be humble, and to serve.
Steve went to church, and then he went to the pub and sat in the ruins and drank a bottle of whisky that he couldn't feel until Peggy came and got him. And then there was only the mission: going after Schmidt, fighting until every member of Hydra was dead or captured. And it wasn't until he was on the plane, nose-diving into the Arctic with enough atomic bombs to blow up the entire eastern seaboard, that Steve realized that God had given him a last gift and answered his final prayer: just please, don't let Bucky get killed, or let me go with him, let me get killed, too. He'd only had to survive ten days without Bucky.
God had given Steve everything he'd ever asked for. He died grateful.
But God doesn't work like that.
It was funny, how he'd thought he'd had nothing left to lose. Turned out you could lose the whole world, everything you ever knew. It was fitting, somehow – he was finally learning his true place in things.
No place; nothing. God formed man from the dust on the ground and breathed life into him.
A guy had to laugh, really.
Steve certainly laughed when they showed him his bank account. "Are these numbers real?" Steve asked, as Director Fury and, what was the other one called, Barton, looked uncomfortably at each other. "You didn't put on a bunch of extra zeros? It's not a mistake?" and then he said, "You know, my first job I got eight dollars a week. Bucky got it for me. It was a good job, too – I kept it for five years," and then he sobered, staring down at the passbook. So much money, and for what? He got on the train and went home to Brooklyn.
Stonecutting was still expensive, but he had the money now, so he finally arranged to have his mother's name added beneath his father's, honoring a promise made so long ago. The stone, like all the surrounding stones, was shockingly weathered, and Steve wandered by memory to the giant gray rectangle engraved BARNES. There had been room under there for nine graves, Bucky had told him, and back then, there had been three: his paternal grandparents, George and Elizabeth Barnes, and Bucky's sister Rebecca, who hadn't lived, but now there were more names on the stone, each carved to a slightly different depth. Bucky's parents were there, Pamela Barnes and George Barnes Jr., and Bucky's brothers, Andrew and John Barnes – they'd both died in the war, but Jack seemed to have survived long enough to take a wife: Rose Barnes, who'd outlived him by more than fifty years. Eight names on that well-maintained grave, and feeling kind of shaky, Steve walked out of Trinity Cemetery and down to the Central Library on Flatbush Avenue, which was still there, thank God. He needed a librarian. He didn't how else to find what he was looking for.
Ten minutes later, he walked out, clutching an address. He'd thought the search would take hours; in fact, it took the librarian on duty only a couple of minutes, using a computer and something called Google. Moreover, the address was local - he didn't know the house, but he knew where it was, or thought he did: Brooklyn was so different, now; so modern, so crowded, so. . . rich. He found the right block, then slowed to look for the house. It had a wrought iron railing, and a tiny front garden. An elderly woman in a brown canvas hat and gloves was kneeling in the dirt, transplanting some small plants into the garden bed.
Steve slowed, stopped, hands closing tightly around the glossy wrought iron finials. The woman looked up at him curiously, and even at this distance he knew her well enough to draw her: her chin, her lips - and suddenly he was on the verge of tears. "Alice?" he managed, and sucked for breath.
"Yes?" She was surprised; she didn't know him.
"It's... you're not going to believe this," Steve said, "but it's me, it's Steve. Steve Rogers," and Alice stared uncomprehendingly at him for another few seconds before her face went suddenly tear-streaked and astonished, and then she was grabbing at the railing, trying to haul herself up. "Steve," she said, and Steve pushed the gate open and went to her, carefully pulled her into his arms, and wept into her hair.
"I heard, of course," Alice said, when they'd pulled themselves together enough to go inside for coffee. "It was on the news, that they found you, but I never in a million years imagined..." She shook her head, and Steve was relieved to see that Alice Reynolds at eighty-four was so like the Alice Barnes of fifteen, though weren't we all still fifteen at heart, where nobody saw? "I honestly didn't think you'd remember me."
"Alice," Steve gritted out, "it was all yesterday for me. Don't you see? Bucky--" and then it spilled out of him, the horrible truth that was eating him alive. "For me, Bucky's only been dead a couple of weeks."
He saw the nightmare of it registering on her face: that Bucky's death was an open wound, not yet scarred over. "I'm sorry," Alice said, reaching for his hand. "I'm so sorry, Steve. You know how I loved him."
"I do," Steve said. "I do know. So lucky for me that you're probably the last person on earth who knows me," and he'd meant it to be funny, but it wasn't; there was nothing funny about it. "So tell me about you," Steve gritted out, forcing himself onward. "How was your twentieth century?" and Alice shot him a sympathetic look but answered the question, explaining how horrible it had been to lose one brother after the other - Andy first, it turned out (Andy had died while Steve and Bucky were in Turkey, but the news hadn't reached them), then Bucky, and then last of all Jack, in the push into Germany in 1945. Losing all three of their boys had practically killed her parents, Alice said, but in an odd way it had done her good: freed her to live her own life, freed her from her parents' demands and expectations. She'd gone to work, she'd married late - her husband, an architect, had died five years ago - she'd inherited the Barnes house and everything else.
"I tell people, you know, that Captain America was my first boyfriend," Alice said with a impish smile.
Steve smiled back. "You get any mileage out of that?" he asked.
"Oh, you bet," Alice said. "You're in the history books, you know; you and my brother, both. Lots of people around here claimed to have known you afterwards, but of course I really did know you. I tell them that we used to sit together at church in the old days and then you used to take me out for coffee and cake."
"Egg creams," Steve corrected quietly. "Sometimes grilled cheese sandwiches or soup."
"I still have the picture that you drew me, the one of me," Alice told him. "It's framed in my bedroom--and it's worth a fortune, you wouldn't believe it. Oh, and the things you left - yours and Bucky's things - with my parents, those boxes came to me too, but I'm sorry, I gave them to the Smithsonian," she said apologetically. "In Washington; they have an exhibit about you there. Gosh," she said, blinking, "I guess they'll have to redo that." Steve didn't know what to say, but Alice wasn't finished. "There's also a memorial to you in Arlington Cemetery, though of course your body's not there. Bucky's there, too."
Steve swallowed, nodded. "He's not at Trinity, I was just there."
"No, he's at Arlington. I mean, the memorial is. He's not. He's-- I don't know where he is. They never found him, I guess."
At the bottom of the Alps. Long gone now; for dust you are and to dust you will return. "I was the last person to see him alive, you know," Steve said, and forced a smile. "Three weeks ago, now," and then he sighed and said: "Do you want to come with me when I go to Arlington? I guess I should get a telephone."
"The data plans will make you crazy," Alice warned him.
"I bet," Steve said; he had no idea what she was talking about.
He didn't make it to Arlington as soon as he'd meant to, because the Tesseract went missing and then aliens invaded Earth, and if it were a movie he wouldn't have believed it - would have laughed and elbowed Bucky hard enough to knock the popcorn out of his hand - but it was real and it was happening. He got surprisingly fond of his new team - even Stark's son, Tony, who had clearly been spoiled to the point of unpleasantness, and Thor, a warmhearted fellow who nonetheless made him uncomfortable: if the Norse legends were true,--well, then what? If Zeus and Woden turned up, Steve might really have a breakdown.
He liked the others more: Dr. Banner's essential decency shone through, even when he was angry, and he felt the most akin to Barton and Romanov, crack soldiers both. Romanov, despite being five foot nothing, was to his eye the bravest of them, though she was full of secrets, like a dark thread winding through her.
His new team were called The Avengers, which--
"It's a stupid name," Tony Stark had protested, loudly, like he did everything. "I mean, is it me, or does it make us sound like we've already lost?"
"Sounds about right," Steve had muttered; he'd been in one of his bitterer moods, what Bucky would have called one of his broody moods, in the old days of five minutes ago.
Stark rounded on him, a finger pointing. "You," he said. "I'll work with you, but I'm not inviting you to any of my parties."
"That's all right," Steve said, and got up to leave. "I'm not really in a partying mood," and on his way out, he heard Stark exclaiming, "Jesus, that guy! What is wrong with that guy?" and Romanov's wry answer, "Well, he did lose everyone and everything in the world," and Tony's reply: "Yeah, but what else?"
They were no Howling Commandos, but who were these days? Steve agreed to join the Avengers and also accepted Director Fury's invitation to go to DC and work for S.H.I.E.L.D., partly because Barton and Romanov were there, and at least he sort of understood them, but mostly because it turned out that Peggy was alive and living in a residence in D.C. - he felt like God was leading him by the nose again.
He let them find him an apartment, asking for something on a human scale (he didn't want to live in a giant glass box, if he could help it), preferably a place on the top floor with lots of light. He didn't mind stairs.
The place they found him was fine, and had all sorts of machines in it - a washer-dryer, a dishwasher, a teevee and a teevo and a cable box, a modem and a router and a laptop computer: each of these things had a little light on it that glowed all the time, which seemed to him a terrible waste of electricity but it didn't seem they could be turned off. But Romanov told him not to worry about it, so he stopped worrying about it. He also had a cellphone that was also a messaging system and a radio and a computer and, hell, probably a toaster that he was supposed to keep with him at all times and that he had to remember to keep charged. This, he learned, was the device with the data plan that Alice said would make him crazy, and it probably would have - he was always shocked by the prices they advertised, especially when they were supposed to be good prices : $79 dollars a month! A month?? - except he wasn't paying for it: not any of it.
Everything was issued to him as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., supposedly because he needed it to work, which surely he did, but really, Steve thought, because nobody wanted to deal with the foreseeable day when Captain America, in a fit of outraged frugality, cancelled his phone, cable, and internet contracts. Steve tried to be honorable about it, only using his phone and internet for work and using pay phones and going to the library for personal business, but that didn't work out so well, because there were almost no pay phones any more and then there was a whole thing about him using a public computer and at some point Romanov showed up looking irritable and told him to stop worrying about it, so eventually he did.
Still, it meant that he had very little in the way of expenses other than the gas and insurance for his motorcycle, and his enormous salary just kept piling up. Someone had decided that "Captain America" should be at the top of the pay scale, plus there was back pay and combat pay and hazard pay and ten other kinds of pay that he didn't even understand. It all depressed him a little. A few years ago, he would have given anything for an extra fifty dollars to bury his mother, and now there were millions - literally, millions of dollars- and for what? He began, quietly, giving some of it away, donating to veterans' groups and children's charities, to the United Way and the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders, to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and a dozen hunger charities and Planned Parenthood and to the Art Students League, which he found to his delight was still on 57th Street and still offering art classes for cheap or for free.
The thing he liked most in his new life was his shower, which was huge and had more hot water in it than he'd ever imagined. Steve stood under that thing until he was pruny. He could have stood there until he was small again.
It took him a while to work up his courage to see Peggy, but once he did, he beat himself up for the lost time, because it was Peggy, still beautiful and strong and everything fine in this world. He couldn't help himself - he kissed her dry, cracked lips and her soft, wrinkled cheeks, and said, "I'm sorry - I'm so sorry I'm late," and Peggy looked at him and said, lips curving into a smile, "Well you damn well ought to be. I'm as patient as the next girl, but this is the absolute limit," and maybe she forgot things sometimes or told him the same story more than once, but she was still Peggy, and he still loved her. He was glad, too, that Peggy had had such a great life; it seemed to balance things out, somehow: make his own losses worthwhile.
When things finally calmed down, he sent Alice a train ticket and she came down for the day to go to Arlington with him. He went to meet her at the station, and then they took a taxi to the cemetery, where he was relieved to find out that the memorial to him was focused around the shield - or at least, a huge bronze representation of a shield that had been embedded into the ground like a giant had slammed it down with great force - and around it like a sundial were seven slabs, with seven names, including his own. STEVEN GRANT ROGERS (1918 - 1944) and how many people got to see a thing like that, their own grave?
God bless Alice, she found it funny. "I bet they're all just wracking their brains about what to do," she said, grinning. "Meeting upon meeting. They could cross it out," she said, drawing an X in the air with her finger, and Steve huffed out a laugh, "or just rub it out, I suppose. Maybe a question mark?" and all of those ideas were so ludicrous that it took all the solemnity out of everything for a moment.
But only for a moment: his gravestone maybe wasn't accurate, but Bucky's was - JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES (1917 - 1944). He stood very still. He clasped his hands together hard to stop them reaching out.
Alice touched his arm. "He loved you so much, you--"
"Don't," Steve said. "Please don't, Alice. Please," and he walked away from Bucky's grave, around the circle. The others were actually buried there, beneath the slabs that bore their names, and Steve was happy to see that there was a range of death dates: his friends had mostly lived long lives after the war.
He took Alice to lunch near the station, and it never occurred to him that he was being watched – who would watch him? He had the dullest life imaginable: work, exercise, church, and they already knew all about work – until Romanov appeared at their table and said, "Fancy seeing you here, Steve," and then, to Alice, "I'm Natasha – Steve and I work together. And you are…?"
"This is my friend, Alice," Steve interrupted, annoyed at the intrusion, and even more when Natasha seemed to take that as an invitation to sit down. Alice didn't seem annoyed though; she seemed amused.
"Alice Reynolds," Alice said, extending her hand, and Steve held back a smile: Alice was deliberately withholding information, the Barnes connection which would have made everything make sense. "Steve and I are old friends."
"More than that," Steve said, feeling suddenly playful and malevolent in equal parts; did they think that they owned him? He reached out and took Alice's hand, and she grinned at him. Natasha twitched a little, which was as close to surprised as she ever looked.
"It's true," Alice admitted. "Steve and I were keeping company before the war. We used to sit at church together, then go out for coffee and cake." Egg creams. Grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. Steve nodded.
Natasha smiled pleasantly at them. "Simpler times," she concluded, and they both burst out laughing.
"No," Steve said, because of course he had pretended to be courting Alice so that he could continue to get information about Bucky, who was off doing special ops against the Nazis. God, what a time.
"No, dear," Alice agreed.
"Not even a little bit," Steve said, and honestly, he could have married Alice right then, for spite.
He put Alice back on the train to New York, kissing her and promising to get back up to Brooklyn as soon as he could, then stood on the platform, waving, until the train pulled out of the station. Alice was wonderful. Like Peggy: Peggy was wonderful, too. All the men were gone, and these amazing women were still here. And him, of course--he was here, too. Maybe he'd been right all those years ago, Steve thought, and he was some kind of girl after all—and that struck him funny and he burst out laughing.
Natasha looked at him. "You're funny," she said. "You don't laugh when you're supposed to, and then you laugh for no reason. It freaks me out."
"Well, it freaks me out, too," Steve said.
In a way, though, making cow eyes at Alice in front of Natasha kind of backfired, because Natasha now decided it was her purpose in life to try to find him a date who looked like she'd survive more than five years; she was clearly worried that Steve was going to be cruising old age homes and bingo halls.
"How about Agent Warren?" she would ask Steve. "She teaches kickboxing. You'll really like her," or "Why don't you ask out that woman who worked with Coulson? Lydia something?" and Steve could have just told her to lay off, that when it came to love he'd had more than his share: Bucky, who'd left him half a person, who he still ached for in his bones, and Peggy, who he might have survived the peace with, whose children he still couldn't look at because they left him sick with longing for what would never be. He didn't expect to ever love like that again – but in an odd way it made him feel close to Bucky, who'd always been harangued to date this girl or that, and so instead of telling Natasha flat out to stop, Steve said, "I don't know, I don't think she likes me," or "Yeah, we don't really have a lot in common."
He worked. He exercised, hitting the heavy bag in what became known as his corner of the S.H.I.E.L.D. gymnasium, because everything had been triply and quadrupley reinforced for him. Left. Left. Right, left. Right, left, left. It cleared his brain. He found a church that he liked down on K Street that actually did the Mass in Latin – well, one in Latin, and one in English, and one in Chinese, and if Steve found that if he missed the Latin one the Chinese one was also pretty good: it cleared his brain, too. But the Latin one was better, lulling him into the familiar rhythms of his childhood. He sat there sometimes, in his regular seat (left aisle, third row from the back) and drew in his small sketchbook with a nub of pencil he always kept in his pocket: the art at St. Mary's Mother of God wasn't as good as what was at St. Patrick's or the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but it wasn't bad, and he needed the sound more than the sense of the Mass right now. Sometimes, truth be told, hearing the words made him feel just a little bit crazy.
Other than that, he had his books. Natasha tried to get him to read books on his phone, or this tablet thing she got for him, but he didn't like it – he liked hard backs and they started to stack up in his apartment. Steve read a lot of history, mostly political history: he read about the Korean War and the Cold War and Vietnam. He read biographies of important people, starting with the presidents: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Robert Caro's incredibly vivid biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon and Reagan, less pleasantly. He was surprised to find that there were a couple of biographies of him, as well, often parables of persistence (Sixth Time's The Charm) or courage (An American Soldier). Mostly they were sort of thin histories of Captain America and the Howling Commandos, or Captain America and Bucky Barnes, and after reading through them Steve saw why; they knew almost nothing about him.
What the historians knew came mostly from after the experiment – they'd obviously talked to Peggy about him, and Colonel Phillips and the other Howling Commandos and other people who'd seen him or worked with or near him – but they knew zip about his life from before. They knew he was sickly, but they only got so much drama from that; they found out he'd been a lousy student. They were very excited that he'd taken that art class, though his ambitions had been pumped up: he wasn't really an "art student" - he couldn't have afforded it – but he guessed they thought it sounded good. They knew his mother had died.
But they knew nothing about Father Mac, or Spain (they didn't seem to realize there had been a war in Spain); they didn't know about the Radical Women's League or the Freethinkers (and why would they; nobody really knew about that except Bucky); and they didn't know about Bucky—or well, maybe they did. "Inseparable," was the word they liked to use, or sometimes "devoted." "Closer than brothers," which was certainly true, but no particular compliment; he'd seen Bucky with his brothers. Nobody was apparently willing to say on the record that something was going on, but it sounded to Steve like somebody had gossiped, because the language was just that bit more intense than the average war story, which was pretty intense to begin with. Steve didn't mind it – in fact, it wasn't enough. He wouldn't have minded seeing some record somewhere of his life with Bucky, though there probably weren't the words for it.
Exercise. Church. Books. Barton tried to bring him out of himself, inviting him to the occasional baseball game, knowing that this would obligate Steve to invite him out somewhere, which he did.
"I'm rooting for Cleveland," Barton said, leaning back in the bleachers with his sunglasses, holding a beer.
"Oh yeah?" Steve asked; the game was the Nationals vs. the Indians. "Why?"
"Perversity," Barton said, grinning.
He liked Barton. And so they lobbed something like a social life between them, watching the occasional game, going for the occasional beer, and one time, going out to watch the horses race at Laurel Park, which Steve enjoyed more than he expected to: it was exciting, and they even placed bets. Steve won thirty bucks.
Barton was also the one who'd clearly been made responsible for dragging him up to New York whenever Director Fury wanted them to do some Avengers publicity thing, usually before a congressional budget meeting or because he wanted to use it to cover something unpleasant he wanted to dump in the press, or Stark had to have both superheroes and supermodels at whatever glamour-bash he was throwing. Romanov drove the car, but Barton was clearly the one responsible for getting Steve into it by hook or by crook.
All Barton had to do was get him there--Stark didn't trust Steve to dress himself, so there were always suits and tuxedos and other clothes for him in "his" closet in "his" apartment in the Tower. Even then, whatever they wanted him to wear was usually laid out– shoes, tie, shirts, cuff links: everything. Steve usually just gave in and put it on. He could handle the galas okay – he could just stand there and drink club soda and smile at people –and he'd been doing publicity as Captain America before the other Avengers were born. But he found it hard to be at the Tower when it was just the six of them – him and Barton and Romanov and Stark and Thor and Banner – because he wanted to be easy with them and he wasn't. He liked them, and they were his team now, but he was still two generations older than the oldest of them (except for Thor, who occasionally told stories about when the Christians had come along and ruined everything), and he felt like they were all pretending somehow. They were pretending to like him. He was pretending to still be alive.
The food was usually really good, though.
He came to himself at dinner when Stark said his name. "—of course Rogers probably hasn't seen a comedian since Chaplin."
He looked up, irritated. "Sure I have. I just haven't thought any of them were funny."
Stark was smirking at him, delighted that he'd risen to the bait. "Yeah, you're right. Nothing says funny like a guy in a bowler hat."
"Have you ever actually seen a Chaplin movie?" Steve asked. "Or is it just one of those things you think you know about—the way you think you know everything about everything?" Steve pressed: "No, really, which was your favorite? City Lights? Modern Times? I mean, I know he can't compare to the genius of Will Farrell, but—"
"I always forget you have this bitchy side," Stark said. "It makes my nipples hard."
"Go watch a Chaplin movie," Steve said. "Ten bucks says you think it's funnier than anything you've seen in the last ten years."
"Sucker," Stark said gleefully, "making a bet on something unprovable." He reached for his wine. "You can so tell you were an art major--"
"I wasn't an art major," Steve shot back. "And I stand by my bet."
"Fine. Let's make it a hundred, then," and then Stark said: "Jarvis! Coffee and dessert in the screening room! Does anybody else want brandy? I think I'll need brandy…"
It turned out that none of them had ever seen a Chaplin movie, and Steve's bad mood dissipated five minutes into Modern Times – God, Chaplin was such a genius - and they weren't even a quarter through when Stark handed him a crisp hundred dollar bill.
Alice died unexpectedly of a stroke just before Christmas that year. Steve went back to New York for the funeral and grieved again, for her, for Bucky, for all the Barneses. Alice had had no children, so there were no Barneses left, and that seemed too terrible to Steve, whose first experience of the Barneses had been the overwhelming number of them. But they were all in the ground now.
Sometimes, when he was riding his motorcycle very fast, he thought: what if I swerved just a fraction of an inch to the left and hit that concrete pillar? What would happen?
Sometimes, when he was having a glass of whisky that he couldn't feel, thinking of Bucky and letting the burning flavor of it roll around in his mouth, it occurred to him that if he couldn't get drunk, then probably poisons wouldn't work on him either. Alcohol was a poison after all. That was interesting.
Once, when he was jumping out of a helicopter with Barton and Romanov and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents onto a moving aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, Steve forgot his parachute. It was okay, though. It hurt a little but not much, and he walked away fine, so he learned he could do that.
He started to feel like maybe he ought to confess this, so he went to St. Mary Mother of God and slipped into one of the booths. He crossed himself, and said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," but when it came to actually confessing, he wasn't sure what to say.
"I'm failing to be grateful for the gift of my life," Steve said finally.
"What do you mean?" the priest asked.
"I mean, I don't want it," Steve told him, and suddenly he heard the words in Bucky's voice, remembered Bucky saying: "I don't want my life. I don't want the life I'm supposed to have," and he would have given anything, anything, to have Bucky back. Christ, what a horror this life was.
"Well," the priest said, sounding careful, "the fact that you're here... You seem to understand that all decisions of life and death are properly reserved to God. It's God who decides when we live or die."
"Right," Steve said.
"If you're alive, it's because God wants you to be. Maybe there's something he wants from you that you have yet to do, or have failed to do," the priest told him. "And you must remember that every second of life brings the possibility of surprise." Steve knew all about the possibility of surprise: he'd been frozen for 70 years, aliens had invaded, Thor was real. "There are wonders even in the littlest of things: the blue morning sky, the flight of a sparrow." Steve wanted to hit something really hard, but took a deep breath instead.
"Do you have anything else to confess?" the priest asked, but Steve shook his head: he would never confess Bucky: even if it meant he were damned forever. And maybe he was. Maybe that explained everything.
Once, when he was driving his motorcycle, he lost himself for a while and when he came to himself he was in Delaware, and so he decided just to keep on going till he reached New York: it wasn't like he had any place better to be. He hadn't consciously thought that he was going anywhere in particular, but somewhere in New Jersey he realized that it was Dr. Banner who he was going to see, and it was only when he was crossing the bridge into lower Manhattan that he realized why he wanted to see him, which was good because it gave him seventy blocks to try to pull himself together.
"Captain Rogers," Dr. Banner said, meeting him at the elevator; he was visibly surprised to see him.
"Dr. Banner," Steve said. "I, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and I just…"
"Come in, come in," Banner said, and Steve stepped into his apartment. Banner had actually moved into Stark Tower; the room had his personality all over it. He'd replaced Stark's metal and glass furniture with comfortable armchairs draped with colorful throws from India, and the tables were piled high with books and papers, half-full coffee cups and the remainder of meals.
"Sorry," Banner said, moving a laptop off a chair and gesturing for Steve to sit down: it was one of seven computers visible in the room.
Steve still wasn't sure how to ask what he wanted to ask, though he knew he'd come to the right place: Bruce Banner knew more about dealing with anger than anyone else alive. "I just—you said," Steve began, staring at his hands, fumbling for words. "I remember you said that you were having some, some problems, and then you went to India, and—"
"You mean when I tried to off myself?" Banner said wryly, and Steve tried to keep his face blank, but he was terrible at deception, the worst spy ever, and Banner's brow furrowed, his black humor vanishing.
"I - yes – and you said you went to India," Steve pushed on, like this was a reasonable conversation they were having, "and I just wondered, you know, how you did that. If you just went or, if, you know, you signed up with an organization? Do you need to speak Hindi? I, I've never been to that part of the world," Steve explained. "Europe, but not, India or the Orient - I guess they don't call it that anymore."
"Um, yeah," Banner said. "They don't like that so much. Look," he said gently, "why don't you stay for dinner, we'll talk about it over dinner."
Steve immediately stood up. "No, it's, you don't have to," he said. "I was just, I can't stay."
Banner followed him up with his eyes. "Sure you can," he said. "Stay for dinner, I'll tell you all my stories. They're good stories," he said, smiling warmly at him, and how the hell could Steve say no after that?
The problem, of course, was Stark, who turned up five minutes later to take charge of things like he always did, being that it was his tower and everything.
"Well." Stark looked him up and down skeptically. "What are you in the mood for, Cap? I can have them bring up anything you feel like eating."
"I, it's all right," Steve said. "Anything is fine."
"Sure," Stark said, "but what's your favorite—"
"I don't know," he said. "I, I'm always happy to try new things," he said.
"Okay," Stark said, and wandered off to order dinner.
"I should go," Steve told Banner. "I really, I really should—"
"Meditation helps," Banner mused, as if Steve hadn't said anything. "More than you'd think. Tea, breathing exercises. Biofeedback. But as much as I respect all the inner-directed philosophies, I really just had to get out of my own head. That's what did the trick. I went to Calcutta, I started helping others. It distracts you from the work you're doing, the burden you're carrying. It's hard work being angry. You know."
"Yeah," Steve said, sitting down slowly. "I know."
"Have you been in your own head a lot?" Banner asked, and that was such an understatement that Steve burst out laughing and was afraid he wouldn't be able to stop.
"Yeah," Steve said honestly. "For about eighty-five years, now."
Banner frowned and leaned forward, hands braced on his thighs. "Look, if you want to go to India, I'll help you get there. There or anywhere else away from this freakshow. But let me tell you this: it won't help if you're still trapped in your head when you get there. It's a prison. You have to get out."
"I--yes." Steve felt desperate. "I just. I need, I—" I need a reason to wake up tomorrow, he wanted to say, but didn't, and then the doorbell was ringing - (there was a doorbell? Tony Stark had never used one)- and Banner was getting up and letting in Pepper Potts. Steve got to his feet and went to her.
"Steve," she said, smiling, and gosh, she was lovely: what she saw in Stark he couldn't imagine.
"Ms. Potts." Steve smiled.
"Pepper. Please," Pepper said. "Tony said you were here - I'm so glad. I've come to escort you to dinner," she said, all gentility and charm, "while Tony sees to the last-minute details. He really wants you to enjoy yourself," she said, and Steve realized that she was actually trying to tell him something, despite the lightness of her tone. "I think he wishes you were here more," and Steve didn't know what to say to that.
"This is delicious," Steve said, and it was pretty much all he said during dinner, though that seemed to be okay: Stark and Pepper and Banner were more than able to bounce conversation around among themselves. Banner told him about India, and his practice there, and what had happened the day Natasha came to recruit him for S.H.I.E.L.D. – "She brought a few dozen of her most heavily armed friends," Banner said, rolling his eyes – and Steve got the underlying point: distance was no protection if they wanted you; it wasn't distance that had saved him. Then Stark told them about this new plan that Stark Industries had for educating children worldwide – at which point Pepper gently interrupted, because it turned out that it was actually her project: forget one laptop per child. It was all about the cell phone, the world's primary communication, financial, and informational device. Stark Industries was not only trying to get phones to as many children as possible, but they were developing educational and informational materials targeted to different regions that it could push through the phones on the model of the Little Blue Books, which were--
"I know," Steve said. Little Blue Books had been everywhere when he was a kid. There was literature, but also a lot of how-tos and socialist and atheist pamphlets: Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian" had been published as a Little Blue Book, as was Darrow's "Why I Am An Agnostic."
Pepper was delighted. "You do? So was—I mean, did they work? Did they really, you know, spread knowledge to the working people, all that?"
"Well, sure," Steve said. "I mean, that's where you got real information." There had been Little Blue Books on free love, birth control, and homosexuality: the first positive words he'd ever heard about any of them. He remembered coming back from the Radical Women's League with a pile of them: he remembered that Bucky'd been upset by them. That memory was right there in front of him: sitting with Bucky on the train back from the city, Bucky's shoulder's hunched, his face all tense. God, he'd been so stupid, so blind - he'd had no idea what Bucky was going through. Bucky'd said he was cruel—what was the word he'd used? Brutal. Steve supposed he had been. And now there was no chance to be better. It was all over. It was—
"…Steve?" and Steve looked at Banner and then realized that everyone was looking at him.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, and rubbed at his eyes. "Just—a bit tired."
"I think you should stay here tonight," Banner said, shooting a look at Stark that Steve couldn't read: asking for permission, maybe? "Say what you like about this big ol' building," and Stark shot Banner an outraged look, "it's one of the most secure places on earth. You can really get a good night's sleep here, and you look like you could use a good night's sleep. I sleep like a baby, here, myself," Banner said.
Steve didn't have the strength to argue. "All right," he said, and he let Banner make him a mug of some minty-smelling tea, and then refused Stark's offer of brandy and a movie and retreated to "his" apartment in the tower: there was nothing of him here, but then again, there was nothing of him anywhere. He settled down with his tea and picked up a magazine – there was always an array of recent magazines splayed out on "his" coffee table. It was like reading about another planet.
There were packages of pajamas in his size, and boxes of toothbrushes and toothpaste in the bathroom, and Steve had just gotten into "his" bed when the doorbell rang. He got up quickly and found a bathrobe, expecting it to be Pepper, but it was Stark, holding a glass of brandy, hair standing straight up.
Stark didn't come in, just launched into it from the doorway. "Look, I know you didn't ask me," he said, "and I know we're not really friends or anything, but…look, I was in a bad place after the Chitauri attack, really desperate and low, and I didn't know how to ask for help."
Steve's throat closed; he wanted to shut the door, but he couldn't. Stark held his eyes and pushed on.
"But I got lucky, I got a Pepper, and sucks for you that she isn't replicable, but sometimes when she's not around I put on the suit and go up to the Children's Hospital on 168th Street. I mean," Tony said, maybe reacting to Steve's look of surprise, "a lot of the kids are obnoxious, and some of them drool on you, but they're so excited to see a real life superhero, you can't imagine. You just get your suit cleaned afterward. Anyway, I thought I might go tomorrow if you want to come with. Captain America – you're from Brooklyn, you're local, they've read your comic book, they'll fucking love it," and Steve was really moved by this, and said, "Yeah, Tony. Thank you. I would—I will," and so the next day, he and Tony went up to the hospital. Tony'd sent balloons and toys and stuff in advance, and then he left Steve to take the elevator "like a pussy" while he himself made a grand entrance flying in through the window. But that was okay: it was still a great day, and Steve signed plastic shields and went from bed to bed visiting children who were too sick to get up and then he went to the playroom and sat on the floor and played Candyland for a while.
It was the best day he could remember for ages. He decided he had to do it a lot more often, and said as much to Tony on the way back. Tony had taken off his helmet and broken into the limo's minibar, and he waved a hand at Steve and said, "Yeah, sure. Let's do it once a month," and then, mind jumping the track, "What do you think about drones?" and at Steve's bemused expression, he explained: "I'm thinking about building little telepresence drones for the kids, the ones in isolation."
"Yeah? Could you do that? How hard would that be?"
"Pfft," Tony scoffed. "Not hard – you can buy them now, twenty grand a pop, but they suck. Mine would be awesome. Ten to the power of awesome," and then, without any hesitation, he said: "I'm going to say this, and I'm never going to say it again. You have to let someone get to know you. Or nobody will know you. I know you like Chaplin movies. I know that you draw. What else? Who the hell are you, Cap?"
Steve didn't answer; he didn't know how to answer. He'd been living in a world without mirrors. Because Stark was right, of course: people--people were mirrors, and the only face he'd had reflected back at him was Captain America's. He didn't know who he was now. He had to get someone to see him, to tell him.
So it was Tony, really, who was responsible for him making friends with Sam Wilson, for him breaking out of his solitary run to go over and say hi to the guy he'd been running past every morning. He'd introduced himself as Steve Rogers, and Sam recognized the name but still seemed to see him as he was: as a soldier, come home. And when it turned out that Bucky was alive—
Bucky was alive. Bucky had been alive all this time.
When it turned out that Bucky was alive, Steve was so grateful to have Sam there: in his life, by his side. "There's something you gotta know," Sam told him, when he was strong enough to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time, and the drugs had stopped making him groggy. "He's the one who saved you," and Sam didn't have to say who "he" was. "There's footage," he explained. "He dived in after you and pulled you out. Dragged you to shore and left you there for us to find."
"You know me."
"No, I don't!"
"Bucky. You've known me your whole life."
"Yeah. Of course he did," Steve said quietly; he'd seen the dawn of recognition on the ghost's face, even as he had been sure that he was about to die at his hands. He didn't mind it for himself: it was a better death than he'd imagined. But he'd worried for Bucky: if Bucky finally remembered only to find Steve dead at his feet. "He knew me. He knew me at the end. I have to find him," Steve said. "I have to get him back."
Sam nodded; he understood. Natasha was more skeptical.
"You don't know what he was thinking," Natasha said, and beneath the brazenness he could tell that she was scared for him. "He doesn’t know what he was thinking. Whoever he was, he hasn't been that guy for seventy years. He's more machine than man. A trained killer. He shot you three times. In the gut. He—"
"Don't worry, I'll stay with him," Sam told Natasha.
"You don't have to," Steve told Sam.
"I know," Sam said; what Sam knew and what Natasha didn't know is that every war story is a love story.
It was funny, how he'd thought he'd had nothing left to lose.
Steve read the file Natasha got for him: read about the surgeries, the mechanical arm, the cryo-freeze, the mind-wipes and electroshocks. He read coldly written mission reports about the asset: what the asset had accomplished; what damage the asset had sustained; where the asset should next be deployed. Then Steve went down to the S.H.I.E.L.D. gymnasium to go a few rounds with the heavy bag, and when it split open he just kept going, and when the reinforcements snapped he just kept going, and he kept going until he heard Sam whistle and say, in that calm, lazy way he had: "Man, your arms are too short to box with God."
Steve looked up, hair and clothes drenched with sweat, and saw that he'd destroyed that whole corner of the gymnasium: there was broken glass and wrenched metal everywhere. Through a fragment of broken mirror, he saw a number of S.H.I.E.L.D. and C.I.A. agents huddled nervously together in the hallway; he later learned that one of them had called Natasha, and Natasha had taken one look into the gymnasium and told Sam Wilson to get his ass over here, stat. He looked over at them and they scuttled away, frightened.
"Fuck God," Steve said, ripping the tape off his boxing gloves with his teeth. "They beat him like a dog, Sam. Did you read it? What they did to him? Everything they--they beat him like a dog, Sam." I’m not a good dog, Bucky'd written to him, five minutes ago, a million years ago. But they'd made him one anyway.
"God didn't do it," Sam said.
"God didn't stop it," Steve snarled. "What kind of God wouldn't stop it? Is it a joke? Is this a reward or a punishment – give me what I've prayed for, but it's this? What am I supposed to take away from this?"
"Why the hell is this about you?" Sam asked him. "I thought it happened to him," and Steve lost it then, pressed his shoulder against the cracked mirror and sobbed silently until he could get control of himself.
Sam waited for him until he did. "Let it out," he said. "You just let all this crap out now, because if you're lucky enough to find him, he might need your help, okay? Don't make him take care of you."
Steve wiped his eyes. "He's Bucky, you don't know him. He always takes care of me. It's who he is."
That night, before Steve went to bed, he unlocked his door and all his windows.
They started the search at the bank vault, which S.H.I.E.L.D. – and now the C.I.A.—had taken and preserved, in situ: the cryo-freeze machine was there, and a terrible chair with leather restraints and a bit to shove between Bucky's teeth. The torture chamber made for pretty compelling evidence that Bucky hadn't been acting out of his own volition, if he ever had to make that case. Steve lingered over the bits that were left. He found a leather glove like the ones he'd seen Bucky wearing, and put it into his pocket.
They came out with a list of Hydra safe houses on the eastern seaboard, and a determination to check them out one by one. The first one was in Philadelphia, and he rented a car and went to pick Sam up. Bucky wasn't there and hadn't been there, so they headed up into New Jersey to check out another one.
They stayed in a Holiday Inn on the New York-New Jersey border. Before he went to bed, Steve unlocked his door and his window.
Someone knocked on his motel door outside of Albany, but it wasn't Bucky. It was Natasha. She looked the same as always, but Steve knew her as well as anybody did, and he could see she was shaken.
"He came to me," she said. She nearly said, "the Winter Soldier," but she bit it back. "Your friend." That's when Steve's heart really sank. Beside him, Sam went still.
"He did?" Steve asked. "He—" It wasn't good news, it couldn't be good news. "What did he—?"
"He doesn't look good," Natasha said.
"Natasha," Steve begged. "What happened, what did he--?"
"He gave me this," Natasha said, and pulled a small black pistol out of her pocket. "He offered me a deal." She hesitated, bit her lip. "He said if I told him something he could believe, he'd let me kill him."
Steve stared at her. "What did you tell him?"
"Everything," Natasha replied, quickly adding: "I didn't kill him, Rogers. I told him everything I know. That he was James Barnes: your friend: a war hero. That he'd been captured by Hydra. That you were Steve Rogers, and you crashed your plane, and we found you in the ice. The whole story."
"Did he believe you?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," Natasha said. "He didn't kill me, anyway. And I told him I wouldn't kill him."
"Do you think he remembers who he is?" Steve asked.
If his eyes hadn't been fixed on Natasha's face, he might have missed the twist of sympathy. "Yes," she said. "I think he does. He doesn't look like he did before: like a machine. He looks," she searched for the word, "miserable. Miserable enough that I thought about killing him, because he asked me to. But I told him you'd never forgive me. Then he, uh." She looked at him, considering him, then offered: "He said you were a egotistical prick who was still trying to control his life seventy years later."
Steve burst out laughing. "That's Bucky," he said, grinning so hard his face hurt. "He remembers."
They went on, because Steve wanted to burn all the Hydra bases and safehouses on the list. They went up into New England – Boston, Manchester, Bangor—and then south again, destroying a safehouse in Hartford and blowing up a huge complex on the outskirts of Baltimore. Then they went back to D.C.
Steve had unlocked his door and windows before going to bed, as he'd done everywhere he'd stayed in the Northeast ever since discovering that Bucky was alive. But this time, when he opened his eyes onto the darkness, he wasn't alone – the air was different. He scrambled up in bed and switched on the lamp.
Bucky was sitting there, in a chair beside the bed. He was hard to see, even with the light on: his dark hair fell around his face, and he had a scruff of beard, and a dark gray sweatshirt, and black jeans and boots. He faded into the corner like a human shadow. Steve felt dizzy.
Bucky stared hard at him. "Is it you?" he asked.
"Yes," Steve said. "It's me. You know it's me."
Bucky's shoulders relaxed a fraction of an inch. "I thought it had to be a trick. Some kind of trick. They told me you were dead. They showed me pictures," and Steve slid his legs over the side of the bed, because he could hear it in Bucky's voice, as familiar as anything: the slight rasp of despair. "Newspaper clippings, a whole file of articles describing your death, the crash--" and they were sitting across from each other now, knee to knee. "They used it to break me," Bucky said, and Steve's hands closed on the dirt-stiffened fabric of Bucky's sweatshirt, and he leaned in, tugging him forward, desperate to hug and touch, hands sliding up over the faintly grimy skin of Bucky's neck to the soft beard covering his face.
Bucky's breath was sour but Steve kissed him hungrily, tasting his mouth, his lips, his tongue. It was still so easy to kiss him and Bucky's arm – harder, colder, but still Bucky—moved naturally to where it belonged, curved around Steve's shoulders. Steve moved his lips across Bucky's cheek, to his ear, his neck, breathing in the smell of him; he'd missed it, he had never forgotten it. Bucky moaned softly and came up, off the chair, shoving himself into Steve's arms and they fell back onto the bed, just hugging hard and breathing and pressing their bodies together, touching everywhere they could touch. Steve closed his eyes and held on tight. He felt like he was regrowing his arms and legs.
"I tried to stay away," Bucky mumbled against his skin; Steve could hardly hear him.
"From me?" Steve asked.
"From you, yeah. I was afraid."
"Of me?" Steve asked.
"Of you, yeah. Of everything. I couldn't, anyway," Bucky said. "I can't get any traction without you."
Steve's throat closed up; he was strangling. "Me neither, I've been spinning. I'm so tired of spinning."
"Yeah," Bucky said, and then: "So, how've you been?"
"Oh, you know," Steve replied, and held on tighter.
It was a long time before they could move, before they could bear to be even a couple of inches apart. "You're the same," Bucky muttered, tracing Steve's eyebrows with his thumb. "You're just the same," but Bucky wasn't, and Steve needed to see it all: the metal arm, the terrible scarring down his back and chest where it was fused with his flesh. There were faint scars in other places - pale lines on his dirty, square fingers, a jagged wound on his thigh—but not as many, or as bad as he would have expected if he hadn't read The Winter Soldier's file. The asset was precious, like a racehorse, so of course they treated any damage right away. Then they tied him down and electroshocked him into submission, wiped his memories and froze him, screaming and terrified, until the next mission. The worst scars, Steve saw, were on his right bicep and just above his knees on both legs: where the restraints had been, the same places over and over.
Except Bucky said he had it wrong. "Not when I went in," he told Steve, and Steve could taste panic in the dry film of sweat on Bucky's skin. "When I came out. They wiped my memories as part of mission prep, so even now I—" and Bucky was breathing hard now, chest heaving as he gulped for air. Steve pushed Bucky's greasy hair away from his face. "I don't remember all the missions," Bucky stammered. "I'm full of holes. But they would break through: my memories. So I remember being frozen. I remember—being made to forget. I remember remembering you and forgetting you. They made me forget you so many times." His jaw clenched. He pressed his hands to his throbbing temples. "Sometimes I forgot to remember you."
"It's all right," Steve murmured; Bucky's skin was flushing and patchy white, clammy. "Come on," he said, taking him by the arm and tugging him. "Come with me. I've got the most amazing shower. You're going to love this," and he took Bucky into the giant glass stall with its endless hot water supply.
Now he had to reverse course: Steve locked the door, and all the windows, and pulled all the blinds and then the drapes on top of that, and he still wasn't sure his apartment was secure enough.
It was the middle of the night, but neither of them could sleep, so Steve gave Bucky some clean clothes, and made coffee, and started putting together massive quantities of food: steak and eggs and toast. His phone beeped around 5 AM, and he knew the text was from Sam. He glanced at the phone, sitting in its charger – "U want to run church breakfast?" which was a thing they sometimes did on Sundays: a run around the mall, followed by a quick shower and church, followed by an enormous breakfast somewhere. Sometimes Sam came to St. Mary Mother of God with him, and sometimes he went with Sam to First Baptist on E Street, which had no paintings or sculptures but had an amazing gospel choir. But they hadn't done "run church breakfast" in a while. He hadn't been able to pray; the words died in his mouth.
Bucky glanced at the phone, too. He didn't react - just sat down with his coffee and began shoveling food into his mouth in his old familiar way - but Steve knew Bucky's every expression, his every tic. He'd seen Bucky's moment of hesitation when he'd called to him on the overpass; he'd seen the terrified flash of recognition when Bucky was killing him on the helicarrier. He saw the control he was exerting now.
Steve went to the phone and texted back, "Can't today," then dropped the phone on the table in front of Bucky as he sat down again. Bucky nodded almost imperceptibly. "You'll like him though," Steve said, as if he were just continuing their conversation. "He also lost someone - his wingman - in combat."
Bucky nodded again, silently, still chewing - chewing this over, Steve thought. Finally he took a swig of coffee and said, deliberately casual, but with a hint of anger: "You still go to church?"
"Sometimes. Not lately. Not since--" and he realized that his anger had evaporated, had been replaced by an absence. He wasn't angry at God anymore. He couldn't imagine a God who would do this to Bucky. And then Steve reached across the table and clutched Bucky's hand. "I never—I never, ever confessed you."
"Swear to God?" Bucky asked, lip curling up on the side, and then he was dragging Steve out of his chair with his metal hand and kissing him hot and nasty, the way he used to sometimes when he was drunk, or when he wanted to push Steve beyond the limits of control. Steve pushed back, sliding his hands onto Bucky's hips and dragging their cocks together. He was immediately, achingly hard.
"Kiss me and find out," Steve said. "Touch me and find out," and Bucky wet his lips with a lascivious, purposeful swipe of his tongue and muscled Steve back into the bedroom and sucked his cock for what seemed like forever, with a slow, sensual drag of lips and tongue: a kind of torture. Steve loved it. Bucky pinned him down, and Steve lay there, sobbing, needing to come so bad he was afraid he was gonna break something, and even after Bucky finally let him come, shuddering, cock jerking in Bucky's mouth, he was still hard, and— "Oh, God. Bucky." Bucky looked up, eyes dark and mouth swollen. "Could you go again? Cause I could go again--" but Bucky was already kissing his belly and his hips, pulling his thighs up.
They fucked for a long time, for hours, tumbling against each other without thinking, or needing to. Their bodies remembered the choreography of years ago – how deep in Bucky pushed, how far back Steve's left knee had to go, when to go fast, when to go slow. It had been years, more and more terrible years for Bucky, but Steve still knew by the hitch of his breath when he was near to coming and held him close when he did; held him over and over; the way he liked it. The last time Bucky came, he sighed and tucked his face against Steve's arm and fell heavily asleep, and by then, Steve was dead tired too, but he didn't want to sleep. He didn't want to shut his eyes. He didn't want to miss a moment of this, not ever again.
He fell asleep despite himself, and woke up hours later with a terror of it not being real: but it was. He put his face against Bucky's bare skin. It was warm, and Steve pressed a kiss to his muscled shoulder and closed his eyes again. He knew when Bucky woke up, because he felt Bucky go through the same panic, the same moment of forced calm and settling back. Then Bucky kissed his face and Steve smiled.
They lay together, content and drifting, a loose tangle of limbs. "What happens now?" Bucky asked.
"I don't think I care," Steve said honestly.
"I know, but it's not like we can just go back to Brooklyn."
"No, we can't," Steve sighed. "Our building's gone and all our stuff's in the Smithsonian." Bucky smiled at this and Steve's heart stopped. He was so beautiful; he was still the most beautiful man Steve had ever seen. "I'll do anything you want," Steve told him. "You want to run, I'll go with you. Or I'll fight with you."
Bucky looked at him with a fondness that was almost unbearable. Then he settled back, looked up at the ceiling and said: "I think I know things. I think I know more things than I even remember. Codes, locations, bases. Weapons left in the field. I think I could bring down Hydra. I think I could help S.H.I.E.L.D.—"
"There is no S.H.I.E.L.D.," Steve said firmly.
"Well—whoever. Who are the good guys?" Bucky asked.
"I don't know," Steve said, except he did know. "We are," he said, cupping Bucky's neck. "You and me."
They fell into old rhythms, trying to figure out a plan of action at the kitchen table. Steve made more coffee and showed Bucky the list of Hydra safehouses and bases he and Sam had been checking out.
Bucky scanned it and tossed it aside. "This is nothing, this stuff," he said. "I'm talking about nuclear weapons, torture chambers, experimental technology, half of it alien." Bucky dragged over the map Steve'd opened up, and unfolded it to the entire world. "And the money," he said, suddenly savage. "I was valuable: they stored me in vaults all over." He clicked a ballpoint with his thumb and started drawing Xs on the map: half a dozen places on the eastern seaboard, more in the west and south. And then South America: Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, Colombia. And then Europe. And then Africa…
"Okay, wait," Steve said, and looked at the locked door, the drawn curtains.
"I don't want to wait. I want to get them."
"Me too, I do too. But I've got nosy neighbors. You don't think—I mean, nobody saw you, right?"
Bucky looked at him.
"Well, good," Steve said. "But we can't stay here. We've got to go somewhere safe where we can map all this out and plan coherent operations. Jeez, Bucky, this is like 1944 all over again. We can't do this alone."
"You know," Bucky said, "I have a memory of some jackass always going on about 'collective action'—"
Steve smiled so hard his face hurt; he was embarrassed and pleased both. "God, you're such a…"
"I'm just telling the literal truth, here," Bucky said.
"…jerk, I think is the word I was looking for," Steve said, and then: "Are you admitting I was right?"
"You're right like a broken clock," Bucky said. "Twice a century."
Sam was their test case. Bucky shaved, and then Steve cut his hair and gelled it back and put him in plain jeans and a t-shirt, a denim jacket and a hat. Steve still felt breathless at the sight of him – he was ordinary like a Michelangelo, plain like a Bernini—but then Bucky changed his posture and almost vanished, right there on the sofa, and Steve remembered that Bucky'd spent the century as a spy as well as a soldier.
He texted Sam, "Stop by if you can," and got an answering text a few minutes later: "About an hour. You want pizza?" "Great," Steve replied, and Sam turned up right on schedule, carrying a pizza and a six-pack and announcing genially, "Superhero delivery! Bet it feels like it flew here," and Steve grinned at him.
Sam glanced over at Bucky and nodded genially as he slid the pizza onto the table, then extended his hand to him, casual and loose. "Sam," he said.
"James," Bucky said, shaking it. "I'm an old friend of Steve's."
Sam grinned and flipped open the pizza box. "Well, you must be one of his younger old friends," he said, and Steve saw the exact moment the penny dropped, and Sam turned, whole body tensed and defensive, and Steve was glad there wasn't a weapon handy; Sam was on the verge of snatching up a plastic knife.
"It's all right," Steve said, quickly stepping between them, palms raised. "Sam—this is Bucky."
"Jesus Christ, Rogers," Sam said, struggling to regain control of himself. "Way to spring that on a guy."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "But I needed to know if he could pass among people who'd seen him."
"He passes." Sam looked Bucky up and down, then stared into his face. "Except for the eyes. Jesus. I still have nightmares. I'm sorry to say it," he told Bucky. "But it's the truth."
"I'm sorry, too." Bucky said. "For what it's worth, you're the first person I've said it to."
"It's not your fault, Buck," Steve said tensely.
Bucky looked at him. "Not my fault," he agreed. "But it was my body, my hands—my brains, even."
"We're going to make it right," Steve told Sam. Bucky stiffened, and Steve put a reassuring hand on his back. "We're going after Hydra, Sam. Full out. Can we count on you?"
Sam looked from Steve to Bucky and then back to Steve again. "You know you can," he said, and then he looked hard at Bucky and said, "Let's try this again," and offered his hand. "Sam Wilson."
"James Barnes," Bucky said, shaking it. "I'm an old friend of Steve's."
Natasha wasn't fooled for a moment. "So, it's Bucky," she said to Steve, and he wasn't sure what she meant by that exactly: not that it mattered. There was only one answer anyway.
"Yes," Steve said, and because it was how he had introduced himself to Sam: "James Barnes."
She looked him up and down. "You're better," she said seriously. "I'm glad to see it. How much do you remember?"
Bucky looked troubled. "Some," he said, and that's when Steve realized that she wasn't asking him about his real life, she was asking him about his time as the Winter Soldier: what he remembered of that. Steve looked back and forth between them; they were connecting on some level he didn't quite understand.
She nodded and said, "You should have Stark and Banner check you out. They might be able to help."
"We were on our way to New York, in fact," Steve interjected. "We were hoping you'd come with us."
Bucky nodded. "I will," he said, answering Natasha. "If you think I can trust them."
"Trust them," she said, and then: "Look, the best advice I have for you is to let go of as much as you can."
"I'll let go but…" Bucky bit his lip, and tilted his head, and there was danger in his look. "Maybe not yet."
"We're going after Hydra," Steve told her. "I'm going to ask Tony if I can use Stark Tower as a base of operations to launch a series of missions against Hydra. What do you think he'll say?"
"Finally!" Stark declared. "Fucking finally! What does the hell does a guy have do to--look, I know you thought my dad was the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas and whatever the hell else you guys used to say, but it's time to upgrade. You liked the stuff he made you? You should see what I could make you. You're still using Windows 95, do you understand? You're using Internet Explorer. You're driving me crazy."
"I have no idea what he just said," Steve told Bucky. Bucky shrugged, made a face.
"We've been waiting, do you understand that?" Stark said. "For you to get in the game or fuck off."
Steve jabbed his finger at Stark and-- "Be careful what you wish for," Bucky said, tilting his head. "Once Steve gets into the game, he doesn't get out. He'll run your life for you and no mistake."
"Who the hell is this?" Tony asked Steve.
"This is Sergeant James Barnes," Steve told him. "My second in command." Tony looked at Bucky and whistled, long and low.
"Wow, you're really getting the band back together," Tony said. "Anybody else you're digging up?"
"He was never dead. He was tortured and brainwashed and forced to kill people for Hydra. Codename--"
"--Winter Soldier," Stark muttered, recoiling. "Well, shit."
Bucky smiled thinly and waved his glinting metal fingers: it was a strangely terrifying sight.
"He's got enough intel to destroy Hydra forever," Steve told Tony. "But we're going to need a strike team, weapons, materiel. We've got to bring the whole Avengers Initiative down on them, smash them to bits."
"Well, shit," Tony said again, and then he grinned and said: "We're gonna be bigger than the Beatles."
"Tell me about the day you met Steve," Banner said, studying the monitors.
"I don't remember meeting Steve," Bucky said; parts of his brain were glowing blue.
"An early memory then," Banner pressed.
Bucky gritted his teeth, like remembering hurt him. "Steve got really sick when he was, I don't know--13 or 14. He nearly failed math that year." Steve had nearly forgotten that: the things you think are important.
Stark turned to him gleefully. "You nearly failed math?"
"Shut up," Steve said.
"What about when you enlisted, do you remember enlisting?" Banner asked.
"No," Bucky said. "I was drafted in '41. I remember getting the letter, if that's what you're asking."
"What happened on the helicarrier?" Banner asked, and the colors changed; Stark frowned and went in for a closer look. The monitor went green, and then yellow and purple started breaking through.
"I..." Bucky breathed in. "I was hitting Steve. His face was all bloody. He fell into the water."
"What happened before that?" Banner prompted gently.
"On the bridge. He said my name. He-- No, the vault came after. Pierce had me wiped again."
"Before that?" Banner prompted.
Bucky really had to think about that. "Mission prep," he said slowly. "Coming out of cryo. I remember staring at the ceiling while they worked me over."
"You don't remember going after Director Fury?" Banner asked.
"I…do." The monitors were slowly tinting back from yellow to green. "I stopped his car. He got away. I shot him through a window," and then Bucky was wincing and a vein was throbbing in his forehead.
"You said there's a Hydra base in Ohio?"
"Yes," Bucky gritted out. "Under an abandoned steel mill."
"Do you remember it well enough to draw us a map?"
"Yes," Bucky said. The monitors went greener still.
"Is there a code to—"
"T194177102838I60," Bucky said.
"Did you play sports as a kid?" Banner asked abruptly, and immediately the screen turned blue.
"Sure. Baseball was a religion in Brooklyn," and Banner looked at Stark, who nodded back at him.
"The guys who messed with you were brilliant engineers but shitty neuroscientists," Stark told Bucky. "The mechanical stuff? The mechanical stuff they did is brilliant. Your arm—it's a fantastic piece of work. Honestly. I could make something better but I'd really have to think about it. The implant in your knee—"
Bucky raised his eyebrow. "I've got an implant in my knee?"
"Yeah, same side, left side, it's great. Now these—" Stark gestured at one of the monitors, then grabbed the picture with both hands and tore it off the screen, spread it out in front of them in the air. Steve saw what he was pointing to: three other implants, much smaller: two in Bucky's chest, and one low on his right side, "—these worry me a bit more, because I don't know what they are. Banner, you got a guess?"
"Chemical reservoir," Banner replied. "Mechanical – fairly primitive. The question is: what chemical?"
"You think he's got, like, nitrous?" Stark asked, seeming delighted. "Like my Porsche?"
"Could be," Banner said. "Adrenaline would make sense. Or some kind of enzyme or healing agent. Or even just glucose—give him energy, help him hold muscle mass in cryo or on a long mission."
"What do you say, Barnes – any of that ring a bell?" Stark asked.
Bucky was staring at the image, the three reservoirs; Steve noticed that the monitors had gone back to yellowish green. "Yes... but I don't remember. I know something, but I don't remember what."
"Which leads me to my second point: shitty neuroscience," Stark began, but Banner looked at him and he stopped. "I cede the floor to my colleague Dr. Banner," Stark said, waving his hand irritably.
"Stark's right," Banner said. "The people who worked on you understood the body better than they understood the brain. It looks to me like they just figured out ways to trigger brief periods of psychogenic amnesia, mainly when you were on missions. Your long-term memories seem to be intact. You kept your procedural memory: how to fire a gun, drive a car, a plane: get yourself to the extraction point. You just forgot who you were, and it looks like you forgot some of the mission details due to—well, something that looks more like post-hypnotic suggestion to me than anything else. But there's nothing wrong with your brain," Banner said, and Steve could have kissed him: he really, really could have. "I don't see damage. I think they just stunned you, numbed you with drugs and electricity—and I don't think they could have been doing it the whole time they had you, either. Do you remember a time before the mindwipes started?"
Bucky thought about this, then nodded. "Yeah," he said, idly rubbing his temple. "I remember fighting them. It used to be easier--I think I got away from them a couple of times. I made it to New York once but they found me. I spent a couple of months in Marrakesh in the seventies."
"I think they developed the mindwipe technology to better control you," Banner said.
"Bugfixing," Stark mused. "Things never work right out of beta."
Banner looked at Stark. "Do you ever listen to yourself?"
"Are you kidding? I have myself on speed-dial," Stark said.
Banner turned back to Bucky. "Look, you were there. You were present for everything. So your memory will probably heal itself if you're patient. You'll probably start filling in the blanks, remembering details. Just don't try to force…" Banner trailed off, stopped by the growing horror on Bucky's face; he was ripping the electrodes from his head and wrists. "Oh God, I'm sorry," Banner said. "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."
"What if I don't want to remember?" Bucky was panting now, swallowing hard and turning away. "Christ," he said. "My head's already full of murder. What if I don't want any more?"
"Bucky," Steve pleaded, reaching for him, "things happen for a reason. You've been through so much. Now you have the chance to—"
"Shut up!" Bucky shouted at him, and Steve recoiled, stepped back. "Don't touch me! I was an altar boy. You were--you know what you were," Bucky nearly spat. "Do you ever think about that?"
"All the time," Steve said helplessly. "But—" He watched as Bucky gulped for air, got control of himself.
"You know, sometimes I think you're not very good for me," Bucky said, forcing a thin smile.
Steve winced. "I'm sorry, Buck. I'll try to do better." He'd said this so many times: too many.
Their first mission was deliberately small-scale, just to test out their capacities. They took out a scientific facility in West Virginia, going in hard and fast: Steve and Bucky and Sam and Natasha, all of them black-clad and armed to the teeth. Steve was surprised how naturally they fell into their roles: Bucky and Natasha went in first, silent and deadly, clearing space and staking out positions, and then Steve and Sam followed: soldiers on the attack. For a small mission, it had big consequences: they rescued six prisoners and discovered a plot to plant chemical weapons in the D.C. subway and blame it on Muslim extremists.
Afterward, Natasha took Steve aside and said, "He's good. He's the best I've ever worked with," and Steve was pleased and proud until Natasha shook her head slightly and said, "He's too good. He fights like somebody who isn't thinking about going home," and then she read his face and said, "He's not reckless. It's just not on his radar. He's still the Winter Soldier: he hasn't bought a return ticket yet."
"What—what should I do?" Steve asked her.
"It's hard to say. I don't know him well enough. I thought maybe you did," Natasha said.
He did, but he didn't know what to say, or how to say it. Are you all right? Well, that was a stupid question: no, Bucky wasn't all right: how could he be after what he'd been through? Can I help? That was better, but instead of asking, Steve found himself impulsively grabbing Bucky by the arm and tugging him close and kissing him breathless. Bucky moaned in surprise but let him do it, and—well, that was something anyway.
"You know I love you, right?" and was it him, or was there a moment of hesitation before Bucky's answer.
"—Yeah," Bucky said, after a second. "Sure. Sure I know."
"Do you," Steve began, and then kissed him again, whispering the rest of it against Bucky's mouth. "Do you want me to…" He felt Bucky react – the slight tremble, his sharp intake of breath. He hadn't fucked Bucky since he'd been back, but Bucky hadn't asked for it. So he figured it was maybe time to offer.
"Yes," Bucky muttered, cupping Steve's neck and kissing him, and then something changed, and Bucky stiffened against him and said, "I, no. I changed my mind. Let me—I want to fuck you. Let me--" and Steve drew away so he could look at him, and he saw, even though Bucky turned his face away.
"I—okay, sure," Steve said slowly. "Anything you want," except he had seen it and now he couldn't unsee it. "But Bucky," he said, fumbling towards it. "You look like you. I mean. You trust me, don't you?" and Bucky surprised him by smiling bitterly and saying: "Sure I trust you. Who else am I going to trust?"
Steve stared at him, drew back. "That's no kind of answer," he said. "What aren't you telling me?"
Bucky let out a hard, quick laugh. "Hell. Where do you want me to start?" but then he was shaking his head, shaking it off and smoothing his hand up, over Steve's chest, and muttering, "Never mind, don't listen to me. You should never listen to me. Come here and kiss me – talking's no good," and he drew Steve against him, and kissed him, and Steve closed his eyes and tried to let his body say everything he couldn't.
Their next mission was the base in Ohio, and they made it a six person operation, taking Tony and Clint—Steve saw from Bucky's maps that they'd need a lot of aerial support, and so put Tony, Clint and Sam up high while he and Bucky and Natasha worked the ground. The sheer amount of weaponry they recovered made Steve angry, and Natasha stayed behind to liaise with the Pentagon: she wanted to be the public face of their operations after those damned congressional hearings, which was A-OK with Steve.
They were halfway to the helicopter when Bucky went pale and sweaty and lifted a hand to his head. "Wait. Turn around," he said, and so they went back to the steel mill and Bucky took them to what turned out to be a secret vault that contained three lead-lined boxes containing alien artifacts—and two prisoners: twins.
Stark was pretty excited by the artifacts. "Dibs," Stark said, and then looked at Steve. "Can I take these boxes back to the Tower?"
"Take 'em wherever you like," Steve replied; he was holding Bucky by the arm. Bucky looked sick.
He woke up one night to find Bucky not in bed – he was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, frantically drawing in one of Steve's sketchbooks in the dim light. He glanced up at the clock: four am.
"Bucky? Are you all right?" but Bucky wasn't all right; Steve could see it in the hunch of his back, the wild look in his eyes. "What are you…" and Steve went over to look down over Bucky's shoulder.
It took him a few seconds to make sense of the picture – because it wasn't a picture, it was a diagram: Steve blinked and saw that it was an aerial view of a street, and that there was a car, and—three bodies: one on the sidewalk, two on what he guessed was a series of steps. One of the bodies was smaller than the others.
"What is…" Steve began to ask, but then he stopped. He knew what it was.
Bucky was drawing the X that marked the position he had taken - rooftop, two buildings over - and then he lightly sketched the angles of the shots. Tiny dots - shell casings, Steve thought bleakly. Then Bucky scribbled on the side: Washington DC, 1969. 8:14 PM. Dr. M.C. Wilkinson & family.
"I killed the little boy, too," Bucky said; he was sweating. "They said to leave no witnesses." He sat back and stared down at the diagram. "There's something I'm not…." He tapped the pencil. It made little dots.
Steve sat down, tugged the sketchbook over, and turned the page. One body. One X outside the window. Prague, 1975, 2:34 PM. Hugo Babanic. He turned the page again and saw a different diagram: a road, a truck, eight bodies. Rte 98, Versailles. 1961. 10:35 AM. D.C. Pratcher & 7 members British Secret Service. The page after was Leningrad, then West Berlin, Cairo, Chicago, Algeria. Lots of pages, in pencil and ink.
Steve looked up. Bucky's eyes were fixed on him. "Please don't say anything," Bucky said, low and sincere. "Please. I might have to fucking kill you if you say something," and then he twitched and muttered, "The chauffer," and then he was dragging the book back and flipping back to the diagram he'd been working on, putting the chauffer's body into the car, adding the fourth shot and the fourth shell casing: & chauffer.
"Bucky," Steve said, agonized.
"Shut up," Bucky said. "Please just fucking shut up. Don't tell me we're going to make this right. Or that things happen for a reason. And don't you dare tell me that God made you Captain America to save me, because then I have to believe that you think God threw me down the shitter just to teach you a lesson about—about--"
"Humility," Steve croaked.
"Humility!" Bucky shouted, outraged, furious, and then he was laughing. "The nerve of you—I could beat you to death with your own shield. Humility, he says. You fucking— You think God loves you more than me? Or Dr. Wilkinson, who bled out onto the sidewalk, who I can't fix, who nobody can fix?" His head dropped into his hands. "Fuck, I miss Steve. Goddammit! Goddamn you!—you took him from me and he was all I had!" Bucky's face was twisted in pain. "I want Steve back. What would Steve tell me?"
Steve heard himself answering. "He'd tell you there's no meaning in this. No lesson. It's just what happened to us." He had Bucky's full attention now; Bucky was nodding at him. "And that life's hard enough--"
"-- without lies on top of it," Bucky said distantly. "Yeah. That's it. Hi, Steve."
"Hey, Bucky," Steve said. "How've you been?"
"Oh, you know," Bucky said.
The mission was supposed to be a small one: yet another scientific facility, this one in California, and this time they took Banner, not to smash but just to help them evaluate what was worth taking and what needed to be destroyed. Stark came too, but only because he wanted to have dinner at The French Laundry afterwards. What they hadn't expected was—
Bucky lurched back through the door, his face crossed with panic, and Steve didn't understand what was happening, they'd already taken the place, why the-- Bucky grabbed him and said something he didn't understand, then touched his earpiece and said, "Code Red—Emile Durant, D-U-R-A-N-T—bald, glasses, six feet tall, seventy, gray suit. Durant, Pierce, Strucker, Holtzman!" and then Bucky looked at Steve and said, wild-eyed, "I remember," and fell to his knees and fumbled with the straps on his tactical vest.
Steve followed him down, mouth flooded with the copper taste of adrenaline. "What," he demanded. "Bucky—what?" but Bucky was yanking the black leather away and pulling the thin white shirt up to expose his smooth, pale belly. He bent over, chest heaving. "Get Banner," he said, and only then did Steve see the knife, short and thin and sharp and he just stared as Bucky cut into himself, slicing deep into the flesh and digging, cutting, blood spilling over his hands and the floor and Steve grabbed desperately for it only to have Bucky's metal fist knock him backwards. Bucky's face was a rictus of pain but he was still cutting, his metal fingers reaching into the ragged gash he'd made in himself, pushing past bloodstreaked muscle and shiny pink intestines, and Steve lurched up and grabbed Bucky's arm, tried to drag the fingers out of him – would rip his whole fucking arm off if necessary—but then Bucky's hand came away clutching a tiny red vial, which fell to the floor and—even as he watched—began to fizzle and smoke and leak fluid, dissolving the stone floor beneath. He dropped the knife. Bloodied fingers gripped Steve's wrist. "I don't want to die. Steve. I want to stay with you," and then he collapsed, bleeding out, and Steve was moving in slow motion, everything still and calm, trying to ignore the screaming in his head as he applied a battle dressing; is it moist enough? is it big enough? Then Natasha was shouting: "Stark! Get over here now!" and then Stark was gathering Bucky up and taking him, and they were going, going, gone.
"Steve," Natasha said, low and desperate, and then she said, "Sam, you try," and Sam was saying, "Cap? Steve?" Steve looked at them. He could see them. What did they want from him?
"What happened?" Natasha was asking. "What the hell happened?" and there was blood everywhere, big puddles of it, all over him, all over the floor, everywhere.
"Bucky's going to die," Steve told her, and then he was unsnapping a compartment on his belt and pulling out a little tweezer, poking at the tiny red vial: half of it had burned away, but the rest seemed stable.
"What's that?" Natasha asked.
"He cut it out of himself," Steve told her, and then he was getting to his feet, and getting into a car, and getting out of a car and walking into a building, and Stark was there and saying something about the best doctors and Bucky was in surgery, and Steve said, "Okay," and wandered off to find somewhere to wait.
He found himself in the hospital chapel, a big, bland, low-ceilinged room, all beige cushions and bronze sunrises and stucco. Non-denominational. Californian. But it was empty and cool and quiet.
He was there for a while when he realized Natasha'd slipped in and was sitting two down the row.
"He's still in surgery," she told him.
"Durant's in custody," she told him.
"The chemical reservoirs," she told him. "Banner says the one James dug out of himself was—"
"Poison," Steve said. "Acid or something. A kill switch."
"Yes," Natasha said. "Banner says—"
"Four people had access. Durant, Pierce, Strucker, and Holtzman. He told me. I just didn't understand."
"If he hadn't gotten that thing out, he'd've been dead for sure," Natasha said. "He wanted to live, Steve."
"Yeah," Steve said: of course he had. Steve looked at the blank face of the plasticated wood-effect podium and saw the terrifying sign from years ago: OUR MEN WERE SACRIFICED IN VAIN. The screaming in his head was a hoarse voiced woman howling "—and for what? Our brothers, our sons, our husbands and lovers: gassed and for what?—Gassed! Poisoned! Burned up from the inside!" and then beside her, an older woman shouted, "And they were the lucky ones!"
Natasha said, almost offhandedly, "Your voice changes when you're with him, do you know that?"
Steve looked at her. "What?"
"Your voice," she said. "It changes when you're with Barnes. It makes me wonder, you know. Your regular voice: is that your stage voice?" and Steve looked at her and laughed, because how funny to finally be caught out now, here, after all this time.
He said, in the clear, carrying voice that'd become second nature to him, "Ladies and Gentlemen, only you can defeat Hitler! Do your part to keep us fighting: make every payday a bond day. Buy war bonds now."
Natasha looked at him wonderingly. "You’re not him at all, are you," she said.
“Steve Rogers,” Steve said, suddenly choked up, and gave her his hand. "I'm from Brooklyn."
"Cap! Where the hell are you?" Stark said, banging into the chapel. "He's alive, he wants you, get up there—no, wait," Stark said, grabbing Steve, who had bolted for the door. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Stark said, looking at Steve's blood-drenched suit, and then at Natasha: "You let him sit there like this?" but Steve pushed past him, he didn't care: not if Bucky was alive, not if Bucky was calling for him.
Bucky was gray-faced and sweating from the pain and the drugs. His entire midsection was swathed in bandages. Still, his grip was good: his hand closed around Steve's and held on tight. Steve bent across the hospital bed to kiss him carefully.
"How do you feel?" Steve asked him.
"Like shit," Bucky replied, "but I'll get over it." His mouth curled up wryly. "It was a close thing, I guess. I heard you were in the chapel. You better not have been praying for my immortal soul again."
"Nah," Steve said. "I was just sitting there," and now that Natasha'd said it, he could hear it: the way his voice changed. "Actually, I was thinking about Margaret Walden."
"Who?" Bucky asked.
"Margaret Walden! How could you forget Margaret Walden? Her name haunts me. And the other one: the girl your mother wanted for you." Steve thought for a second and then he had it: "Eileen Dougherty."
"You scare me," Bucky said. "You're like that lady from A Tale of Two Cities. Brooding about girlfriends of mine from the thirties who are dead. What the hell are you thinking about them for?"
"I was just thinking how lucky I was you didn't marry either of them," Steve mused. "Or any of the others."
Bucky laughed, winced, held his belly. "Ow. You bastard. I was never going to marry Margaret Walden."
"You might've! You were under a lot of pressure, if you remember. Alice told me that your ma was trying to breed you like prize pigs: I was never sure how long you were going to hold out. Plus, face it, Buck: you were always kind of conventional," Steve said, managing to ignore Bucky's splutter of outrage. "You and me? That was my brilliant idea. Would you ever have made the pass? I don't think so. So I think it's time to be honest: if it wasn't for me you'd have been an accountant and married to Margaret Walden."
"I am going to write a book about you--" Bucky said savagely.
"You should: they're all terrible," Steve said.
"--and I'm going to call it, Radical Woman: The Story of Steve Rogers."
Steve grinned at him. "That joke never gets old for you, does it?"
"No," Bucky said. "Really. It doesn't."