Steve finds it hard to believe that he ever called his best friend ‘James’. The name doesn’t fit right in his mouth; doesn’t taste right, on his tongue. It’s factually correct in terms of Bucky’s birth certificate, sure, but it’s still wrong.
When Steve first met Bucky, he’d just been beaten up by a bunch of two-bit playground bullies: he’d been pretty busy trying to stop up his bleeding nose with a handkerchief, at the time, but he’d taken the time to watch Bucky deal with the perpetrators, awed that someone would stick up for him like that (even though he didn’t want to admit that he needed help).
Bucky had asked him if he was okay – Steve had replied that he was.
“James, right?” He’d asked. Bucky had paused, smile frozen.
“Call me Bucky,” Bucky had replied, smile becoming easy again. The hesitation was almost non-existent.
“Why not James?” Steve had asked curiously, like the stupid kid that he was. Bucky had shrugged.
“I like to be called Bucky. It’s kind of a nickname,” Bucky explained.
“I’ve never heard you called that,”
“What are you, deaf?”
“. . . Kinda,”
Steve had snorted out a laugh, at Bucky’s cringe: it dispelled the tension immediately. Bucky’s face lit up with a smile again: “Jeez. Who knew you were such a little punk, Rogers,”
“Call me Steve. I’ll call you Bucky,” Steve had replied. Bucky had grinned, thrown an arm around Steve, and told him,
“Sure you will,” Before offering him a second handkerchief to clean himself up.
From then on, Steve began to notice how Bucky cringed every time someone said James. He didn’t know why, but Bucky really didn’t like that name. But, considering the fact that Bucky did so much for him, in terms of pulling bullies off of him, keeping him out of trouble, and – within a few months – helping get him his meds when he was too sick to do so, Steve took it upon himself to make Bucky’s nickname stick. He owed it to Bucky: he’d do anything, to wipe that uncomfortable expression from Bucky’s face.
So he went about loudly saying Bucky for days and weeks and months until, eventually, it stuck: other kids, then teachers, then when they were older, colleagues and dames, were all calling James Bucky. Bucky smiled at Steve every time they did so.
Bucky had asked for Steve to change his language when they were eighteen.
Still living with parents who insisted that their name was James, Bucky would often escape to Steve’s place to find solace: Bucky always said, they don’t mean to – they just don’t get it. Steve doesn’t think he gets it, either, but he nods anyway.
It’s during one of those visits that Bucky brings up the way Steve talks: Steve can remember, even now, the context –
He’d been saying, “Jeez, Buck, would you pick up your damn pants? You don’t even live here – and I’ve seen you trippin’ over them. I guess your gravestone’s gonna say, here lies Bucky Barnes, he couldn’t pick his damn pants up so it’s his own damn fault-”
“Stevie,” Bucky had interrupted, looking at the neck of their bottle of root beer as they said it. Bucky didn’t sound amused – that wasn’t a ‘we’re gonna continue our teasing until it inevitably ends up with rough-and-tumble and tickling that’s a little more charged nowadays than it probably should be’ Stevie. That was a ‘we need to have a serious talk’ Stevie.
“Would you mind, uh-” Bucky pauses, and bites their lip; Steve almost forgets they were talking, with the way they worry it for such a long time, making it redden and almost bleed. He shakes himself, and prompts, “What is it?”
“. . . Would you – you know when you talk about me?” Bucky asks tentatively. Steve rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, like five seconds ago,” He says, amused.
“Hey, shut up, I’m tryin’ to-” Bucky makes an exasperated noise, and Steve suddenly feels worried. It sounds as if Bucky’s about to say something awful.
Steve suddenly regrets talking about Bucky’s pants. Maybe this is the ‘maybe we shouldn’t see so much of each other’ talk. Is he afraid of how Steve talks about him? . . . The obvious affection he has for him? Is he afraid of what people will think?
“. . . Would you mind calling me ‘they’ instead of, uh – instead of . . . ‘He’?”
Steve just blinks. Bucky picks at the label of the bottle.
“. . . Huh?” Steve asks, a little dumbfounded.
“You know, uh – here lies Bucky Barnes, they couldn’t pick their damn pants up so it’s their own damn fault,” Bucky paraphrases.
“. . . Right,” Steve says, gradually understanding what they mean, and nodding to show it. Bucky watches him carefully from the corner of their eye, as he sits down on the couch alongside them.
“I know you’re gonna ask why,” Bucky says.
“. . . Actually, I was gonna say, is this to do with how you don’t . . . How you don’t like bein’ called James?” Steve phrases carefully.
Bucky blinks, but eventually nods, expression still solemn. Maybe Steve understands more than Bucky had previously imagined.
“Yeah. Right – exactly,” Bucky confirms. Steve nods, and smiles supportively, and it’s better than Bucky could have hoped for.
“Can you tell me why?” Steve asks. Bucky shrugs.
“. . . Still haven’t got the explanation you wanted years ago,” Bucky says, sounding apologetic. “I kinda wish I did, just so I could get it straight, in my head,”
“Don’t apologise or anything,” Steve says hurriedly, “It’s not your fault. I mean, why shouldn’t you get to be called whatever you want? – I’m not gonna stop you from doing what makes you happy, Buck,”
Bucky licks their lips, and tries not to let their bottom lip shake – they don’t want to cry at all, they don’t want to show much emotion, because this was supposed to be a casual request, not some twisted version of coming out. They’d never feel as if they had to come out to Steve – like he’s some bigoted relative who had to be managed, or prepared for this being a blow. Steve knows what they’re like: he knows who Bucky is, and Bucky’s pretty sure he’s always known, ever since he helped spread the name Bucky those years ago.
It’s just . . . A big step to say this thing explicitly to him. And nowhere near as casual as Bucky intended – but it’s just going so well that they’re trying not to cry. It’s nearly impossible, though. They don’t have the right words to describe how they feel – no easy phrase, or terminology – but they can try.
“. . . It’s like – I don’t know, it’s like . . . Every time someone called me James-” They set the bottle down on the coffee table in front of the couch, and turn towards Steve, gesticulating as they speak: “-it feels like they’re defining me as just this one thing – as . . . As male,”
“You . . . Don’t wanna be male?” Steve asks, brow furrowing as he tries to understand.
“No, I mean – not all the time,” They sigh with frustration. “I just don’t like being confined to one – one gender. Cause sometimes I feel – I feel more . . . Female, sometimes more male, sometimes both, sometimes neither . . . If that, uh, makes sense,” They add quietly.
Steve makes an expression like he’s working out a difficult math problem. Bucky finds it adorable, but they press on – “That’s why I don’t like being called James – or, uh, he, his. They is like-”
“-in between,” Steve finishes. Bucky nods.
“Works no matter how I’m feeling,” They confirm, letting their hands drop into their lap. Their head bows, as they tell Steve, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this,”
Steve takes up Bucky’s strong hands in his weak ones, holding them tightly, and saying, “Then I trust you. I promise I’ll try, if it makes you happy,”
Bucky had just nodded. So Steve had smiled, and stroked their knuckles.
He’d frowned slightly, before tentatively asking,
“. . . Do you still like dames?”
Bucky had smirked, and told Steve, “Yeah, I still like dames, Stevie,”
Steve had tried not to be too crushed, at the implication that Bucky’s love of chasing women was unchanged – but he wasn’t left despairing for long, though.
“. . . I thought you always knew I liked fellas too, though,”
Steve blinks, and looks up at Bucky’s face, still holding onto their hands.
“Well. One in particular,” Bucky admits.
“Oh yeah?” Steve asks, trying not to let his asthma take hold at this crucial moment, despite his breathing coming a little faster than normal.
“Yeah,” They’d admitted, before bringing Steve’s knuckles up to their lips, and kissing them softly.
“Must be a lucky fella,” Steve had told Bucky, his voice barely a murmur, but thoroughly reverent and awed. Bucky had smirked into the kisses, and breathed out,
Before the war, Bucky had made small concessions, here and there, for the fact they fluctuated between genders. Steve found it hard to keep up, but it wasn’t hard to keep referring to Bucky as they – their belongings being moved into his apartment, their clothes on his radiator, their skin pressed up against his back as he slept. He’s glad he has the word they, to make Bucky feel comfortable. He really cares about them, so he really wants them to be comfortable. Especially when the outside world can’t, and won’t, be so accommodating.
Bucky tells no one outside the apartment about their gender identity – not that they have those words, or many words at all, to describe what they feel like. But inside the apartment, they do whatever they like.
Steve notes how Bucky shaves, sometimes – not just their face. He’s walked in on Bucky shaving their legs: they’d looked up at Steve, and smiled, telling him, c’mon, Stevie, feel that – smooth, ain’t I?
Other times, they don’t shave: not their legs, not their armpits, not their face. It doesn’t bother Steve – beyond the superficial, that is. But honestly, he doesn’t mind the rash from Bucky’s facial hair; he likes the feel of Bucky’s legs against his own, smooth or hairy, under the comforter at night.
Bucky’s got a real thing about their hair: sometimes having it cut as short as possible, other times letting it get over-long, and practising over and over again weaving it into patterns Steve recognises from the pin-ups Bucky sometimes used to show him, to get him to blush. It wasn’t hard.
What do you think, Stevie? You think I’d look good with long hair like a dame? Bucky had asked him with a grin, collecting their over-long hair messily in their hands at the bottom of their scalp, and forming the beginnings of a ponytail. Steve had sighed happily, and replied, I think you’d look good whatever, Buck.
The next day that extra hair had been gone, though: it grows quickly enough, and Bucky decided they wanted it gone, so it went. They were always ready with an excuse, at the barbers – musta not realised how long it was gettin’ – kept meaning to come in, but I couldn’t find the time.
No one suspected a thing.
Bucky never forays into dressing in 'womens' clothes' – clothes designed for dames are expensive, and not their size – but Steve notices how they like to walk around with just a towel slung around their waist for much longer than it takes for their skin to dry. As well as that, Steve catches them several times using his drawing charcoal to draw under their eyes with. The first time was a disaster, but after a couple of times, Bucky actually got pretty good at applying their own version of make-up to their eyes: Steve didn’t mind, in the end. In fact, he ended up blushing, often times, and commenting on how beautiful Bucky looked.
Bucky blushes when Steve calls them beautiful. Sometimes they prefer pretty, sometimes they prefer handsome – but beautiful is the thing that makes their heart speed up, and a smile tug at their lips, no matter what. It’s hard to shrug that kind of compliment off, when it comes from Steve, whose opinion is the only one they find they really give a damn about – even with a carefully-timed, quiet you’re not so bad yourself, Stevie, and a kiss. No: beautiful sticks with them.
Even when the draft takes them away.
Bucky is misgendered a lot in the army. They’re forced to wear their hair a certain way, and subscribe to certain attitudes and beliefs that they’re not comfortable with – they have to deny that they love Steve, and they have to deny themself in some of the worst possible ways.
There are upsides: in amongst the discomfort that comes with being misgendered, and called James, and being referred to with the wrong pronouns, there’s the fact Bucky’s often called soldier or sergeant. They’re gender-neutral terms, and – luckily – they can enforce their desire to be called Sergeant Barnes by their fellow soldiers, if they want to. And they do.
They’re lucky, too, in that they make friends with several of their fellow soldiers, who accept that their name is Bucky and don’t insist on calling them James – honestly, they feel as if entering the army was a whole new fresh start for them, in terms of getting to introduce themself as Bucky.
It’s not as bad as it could be, for them. But it’s still Hell on Earth, without Steve – especially when they’re captured, and the torture and the suffering begins, and they’ve got nothing and no one to fall back on.
Just an echo of a voice in the darkness calling them Sergeant Barnes, and seemingly boundless, endless pain. They lose all concept of self, in those weeks – so for the first time since before puberty, they go for days and days without thinking about their gender coherently.
Even as Captain America, Steve respects Bucky’s choice of pronouns; he still calls them Bucky, and behaves the same way around them (even if the more ‘deviant’ activities the pair of them get up to have to be kept under wraps). Steve’s use of they doesn’t stop – it mostly flies under the radar, to everyone but Bucky.
But then the other Commandos start referring to Bucky as they. Bucky’s not sure if they even know they’re doing it – they might just be following Steve’s lead, as their Captain, without really understanding why. Worse, they could think it’s some kind of joke – an inside joke, between Steve and Bucky. It’s not a joke, so Bucky tries to put the concept that the others could think that out of their mind.
They call Bucky they. That’s all that really matters.
They don’t explain their gender to the others, and Steve doesn’t divulge anything, because he doesn’t have Bucky’s permission, and Bucky trusts him.
Bucky trusts him right up until they fall. Then they carry on until they don’t remember him anymore.
The first they’re consciously aware that they’re a they and not an it or an asset or even a he is when they’re looking into a shop window. They see a menswear side and a women’s wear side and they are stuck in between the two, looking between the two panes like they’re being forced to make a decision. Things from both sides appeal to them, jumping out at them like they might try to bite them at any minute.
For him, for her.
Nothing for them.
They look down at themself, and realise they have been working on autopilot: they do not recall choosing the clothes they are wearing. The cut of the jeans is tight – feminine. The jacket is green, semi-military, as are the boots. Men and women can be in the military now. Men and women died.
The shirt is something neutral. The cap is something neutral too. Perhaps they are something neutral. Perhaps they are the opposite of neutral. Perhaps they are anything and everything at once. Perhaps it changes – yes, that sounds right.
They cannot remember choosing women’s jeans or a man’s jacket but they remember saving Steve Rogers because it was a conscious decision and difficult to enforce. In fact, they remember the horror they caused, and felt, that day – and they remember that the latter was because they loved Steve Rogers.
They love Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers loves them.
Maybe Steve Rogers has some answers for them. They look down at their knuckles, and they wonder.
They recall turning up at Steve Rogers’ door. They vaguely recall eating, and being washed, and given clothes – it’s a little bit of a blur. The first time they’re consciously aware, again, they’re sitting on Steve Rogers’ couch, staring at their hands – what they can see of them.
They can’t see all of them because the sleeves of Steve Rogers’ sweater are too long. The sleeves envelop a lot of their hands; the body of the sweater is long, too, stretching over their thighs, which have become less muscular after months of them being free; of not being instructed to exercise, and fed a healthy, nourishing diet of prescription foods and IV supplements.
The sweater feels a lot like a dress. They smile as they listen to Steve Rogers talk.
Bucky comes back to themself in leaps and bounds, after that: they lose less and less time, as they stray further and further from that last course of ECT. Their memory still sucks, and they still have to work to claw back their recollections: both from the forties, and from a few days prior; the last day, hour, minute. It varies. But it happens less and less that they’ll forget things completely.
With the regaining of their identity, comes the rediscovery of their gender: they fear that they’ll have to tell Steve that they’ve changed; that they’re not the strapping young man he once knew, apparently red-blooded and male and bold as brass, if that exhibit at the Smithsonian is to be believed.
They don’t want to tell Steve that they are different, now. They don’t want to disappoint him: they know they’re not normal or even the same, and it seems like just one more thing they’re laying at Steve’s door; one more issue, one more problem.
But they haven’t heard Steve talking about them yet. And when they do, it comes with a huge sense of relief.
They wake up that morning and they’ve overslept: it doesn’t happen often, that they’ll be able to sleep on, even when Steve climbs out of bed (they share a bed, on Bucky’s insistence – they don’t want to sneak out and hurt someone in the night, and they don’t like waking up alone, and they think, cautiously, so cautiously, that they love Steve). But today, they awaken feeling drowsy, and bleary-headed.
They shrug on one of Steve’s over-large sweatshirts over their boxers (they wonder if Steve notices that it’s similar to a dress, on them), and rub at their over-long stubble as they step out into the kitchen. They overhear Steve’s voice, as they go: Steve is preoccupied, and so doesn’t notice them walking over to the coffee he made earlier, and pouring themself a cup.
“Because they don’t want to see you . . . Let’s see, because you’re abrasive and obnoxious? . . . Seeing the specs isn’t the same as seeing their arm, Tony – and I don’t think they’d appreciate the Stark logo,”
There’s a long pause.
“. . . No, I’m not talking plural. There’s only one Bucky,”
Another long pause.
“. . . Because it’s what they like,”
A shorter pause.
“Since ever. It’s who they are,”
Steve turns around, looking annoyed – and spots Bucky watching him, one eyebrow raised; for a reason Steve doesn’t know, they’re softly grinning into their coffee (it must be cold, by now, but Bucky doesn’t seem to care).
“What is it you’re always saying to me? – Google is your friend . . . It’s their decision. I’ll get back to you. Maybe,” Steve says, and hangs up, sounding annoyed.
He regards Bucky, and notices that they’re smiling: he doesn’t realise it’s relief, on Bucky’s face. They thought they were going to have to explain how their personal identity meant they wanted – needed to not be referred to as he. But Steve already knew, which means that the old Bucky was like this, too.
They haven’t changed that much. Hydra didn’t make them like this. This, whatever it is, survived.
“They,” Bucky says simply. Steve looks flustered, for a moment –
“Is – is that something you want, still? . . . I can change, just say the word – I mean, I know what you used to like, but I don’t know about now – I should have asked, I’m sorry-”
“It’s great. It’s – still who I am,” Bucky explains, their speech a little stilted, but their smile ultimately grateful. They pause, for a moment, and ask, “. . . Google?”
“Yeah, he was – Tony, was asking why you like they,”
“. . . But I don’t know why I like they,” Bucky points out. Steve frowns, so they add, “I don’t know what this is,”
Steve’s face shows his dawning realisation, as he finally understands that, while he’s had time to research concepts about gender, and identity, and (for his own benefit) sexuality, Bucky hasn’t had access to any of that information.
“Do you want to find out?” Steve asks.
Google is very helpful.
At first, all Steve got when he researched Bucky’s gender were articles that were useless to him, about disorders – to him, it seemed like Bucky was pretty comfortable with who they were, and they didn’t seem unstable or self-loathing. So he dug deeper. He’d always wondered about his best friend, and even when they were seemingly long-gone, Steve wanted to understand them.
He found some resources, before, and he shows them to Bucky, now: they pout with concentration, as they read about the whole spectrum of gender identity; they pore over each of the definitions, and nod as they go through them, committing each to memory. Steve tries not to stare, but he loves watching Bucky concentrate: their expression is cute, and watching someone so enraptured by something like that is almost hypnotic, Steve finds.
He nearly jumps out of his skin when Bucky finally speaks:
“This one,” They say, pointing at a definition.
Genderfluid: moves between many genders. Their gender is something they cannot pin down or define, and can change with time and/or situation.
Steve nods, and smiles encouragingly, “Great. Thanks for helping me understand,”
Bucky pauses, and licks their lips.
“How do we get rid of it?”
Steve pauses, watching Bucky carefully; staying absolutely still, as Bucky watches him with wide eyes. They can’t be serious.
“. . . It’s not something you get rid of, Buck,” Steve says.
“But what if I tried? – I’d try hard, I’d fix it,” Bucky persists.
“You’re not broken!” Steve insists.
“. . . You don’t want me to change?” Bucky asks, looking confused.
“No!” Steve affirms, looking perturbed at the idea.
Bucky frowns, struggling to understand:
“. . . I thought I . . .”
They vaguely remember telling someone about their gender in the past: the distant past. It was deemed wrong – a – a psychopathology, just like his sexual deviancy concerning Captain Rogers. They didn’t mean to tell them about either of those things, but the information slipped out under duress, and it had to be dealt with. It had to be suppressed and it had to be erased. It shouldn’t be allowed to interfere. It should be wiped away. It should not be something the asset is aware of.
“. . . You don’t care,” Bucky says.
“No, I – I do care, but not – not because I don’t like it. Because I do. I like – I love you, and I love this about you, Buck,” Steve explains. Bucky watches him, confused – they’re not used to this level of acceptance; this level of freedom to be themself, and who they are.
“Would you help me with it?” Bucky asks. Steve lets out a sigh, and Bucky can see lines of tension leaving his body, as he smiles in relief.
“Of course,” Steve replies, “Always – what do you need?”
Bucky swallows, and takes stock: they look down at themself, and bite their lip.
“Clothes,” They say, finally.
“We can do that,” Steve says, reaching to take Bucky’s hands in his own. Bucky can remember doing that, once before – that was related to their gender, somehow, too. They’re not sure how, though the flesh memory wills them to remember. Perhaps it will come back to them one day.
The next request is harder to word:
“I don’t . . . Want to handle a – a razor,” They stutter slightly. Steve nods, completely understanding –
“For your face?” He asks, eyeing Bucky’s longish stubble, which is fast becoming scruffy.
Bucky shakes their head.
Steve just smiles, as he remembers Bucky smirk, and tell him to feel their super-smooth legs. Bucky sees him smile, and smiles back: it’s pretty close to that smirk from the forties. It’s getting there.
Bucky sits on the edge of the bathtub, and bites their lip, consciously aware of how they’re shaking: having their former mission so close to them with a razor blade, they remind themself, is worth it to have shaved legs. They don’t really recall what it felt like to have smooth skin in that area, before, but they know it was good – and from the way Steve smiled, he must have liked it, too.
Steve hasn’t hurt them, thus far: he’s shaved their shins and calf muscles, Bucky all the while tense and quivering, unnecessarily nervous but unable to help themself. Where their foot presses up against Steve’s thigh for balance, their toes nervously wriggle, tensing and relaxing in a pattern, as they watch the razor glint in the bathroom light.
“It’s okay, Buck,” Steve murmurs, as he washes the razor in the sink, wiping the stray shaving foam from Bucky’s legs, which are now smooth as Steve remembers them being all those years ago. Bucky opens their mouth, but then they shut it again – Steve fixes them with a questioning gaze, knowing that they wanted to ask him for something, from their body language.
“Could . . . Could you go a bit higher?” They ask. Immediately, they flush red – their cheeks go pink, and their chest goes blotchy. “I think – I think I want to wear – to wear-”
“Skirts?” Steve asks. Bucky nods, hanging their head. “There’s nothing wrong with that, Buck – and you woulda done it before – hell, you used to walk around with a towel on, wrapped around you like a skirt, before. They sell skirts in - for your body type, nowadays,” Steve says, conversationally, catching himself before he says men’s sizes.
As he speaks, his thumbs rub across Bucky’s shinbones, absent-mindedly soothing them. Bucky nods, so he takes his hand, and hovers above Bucky’s thighs, asking, “How far?”
Bucky stops him about mid-thigh, taking his hand and pressing it down with a soft, “There,”
Steve leans down, and presses his lips to Bucky’s thighs: one long, wet kiss to each of them, in turn. Bucky bites their lip, and threads their flesh fingers in Steve’s hair. Then, nervously, as Steve’s head comes up to look at them, they pull him in closer and kiss him on the lips.
It’s been a long, long time. Too long. They’ve been sleeping together – falling asleep apart, but waking up entwined – but Bucky’s been too wrapped up in their recovery to act on their feelings, and Steve hadn’t wanted to act on his need to have Bucky fully and truly back without Bucky being the one to initiate it.
Steve pulls away, Bucky’s fingers slipping from his hair: he smiles at Bucky, and it’s different from the cheeky grins or the strained amusement Bucky’s seen today, so far. It’s so genuine, and bright, that Bucky feels a little like they’re looking into the sun.
Steve’s head ducks down, and he grabs the shaving foam, getting ready to start shaving Bucky, again.
As he continues, he tells Bucky about all the stuff they used to do in the forties: the black charcoal, the pronouns, the nickname – and the hair, and shaving. Bucky discusses how they used to get a strange feeling of satisfaction, when the doctors shaved their chest – right before they electrocuted them, or subjected them to tests, that was. They couldn’t say a reason for it, before: they guess they know, now.
They accept Steve’s offer to shave their chest, too.
“You want to keep your hair like this, now?” Steve asks. Bucky can just about see themself in the bathroom mirror, from this angle – a smile pulls at one side of their lips, as they reply,
“. . . Something like it,”
Something like it ends up meaning that Bucky gets part of their head, on the left side, shaved. They never used to be able to do that much with their hair, but now – now, they do all sorts. Steve catches them watching youtube tutorials on how to do certain up-dos, and even helps out a few times (apparently, fiddling with hair is a little difficult, with articulated metal fingers).
Sometimes they will pin it all back, and appear masculine; sometimes, they will have it hanging down, or braided, or in a bun or a ponytail. Steve beams when he sees that: he remembers Bucky wondering what it would be like to have long hair, back in the forties. Now, they finally have it, and they clearly love expressing their gender that day through it.
The clothes are easier to sort out than Steve expects: though it’s a tough day, for both of them, they get it done. First of all, they have to locate shops that carry Bucky’s size: not as hard as they think, in New York, but Bucky still finds it hard to go inside, fearing that they’ll be judged. But Steve – not in any way disguised, or unaware of pointing fingers and whispers of hey, is that Captain America? – takes their hand and leads them inside, adamant that Bucky will get what they want.
It’s still hard, though: Bucky’s confused, a lot of the time, about how to say what they want – they find it hard to communicate with Steve at the best of times, nowadays, and – though Steve has shown no indication that he’ll suddenly recoil from Bucky in disgust, if they say what they truly want – they’re still afraid that they’ll scare him off.
So it takes a little longer than they intend. They still end up back at Steve’s apartment with countless bags, in the end. Steve’s surprised by the huge amount of variation in the clothes – everything from military greens and blacks, to canvas shoes and boots and pumps, to feminine shirts and dresses, sometimes with lacy or frilly parts. He’s not going to question it, though. He’d never even think of denying Bucky something that makes them happy – that helps them feel like who they are.
It feels like old times: Bucky doesn’t leave Steve’s apartment, much, so they’re largely expressing their gender identity in the comfort of their home. All the same, it doesn’t stop them from nervously stepping out of the bedroom, to show Steve an outfit they’ve put together: some kind of button-down pastel shirt, and a super-long sweatshirt that almost goes down to their knees, like a dress. They’re wearing leggings, too – maybe for warmth; maybe because they don’t want to show their legs off. And military-style boots. Steve supposes for comfort.
Bucky looks nervous, standing with their fists clenched at their sides, eyeing Steve like they’re daring him to laugh, or comment – Steve just smiles.
“You look beautiful,”
Bucky blinks. Bucky remembers. Pretty, handsome – no, beautiful.
It’s still their favourite.
Things get harder, for a while, when they move into the Avengers tower.
Bucky’s gender expression becomes more subtle: even on days when Steve can tell, from the way they do their hair, that they’re feeling more feminine, they wear largely gender-neutral clothes. They’re not sure they trust the other Avengers, yet, to know who they really are.
That doesn’t mean they’re oblivious, though: Tony already knew Bucky preferred they/their pronouns, and he spread that like wildfire to the others, finding it interesting, like a curiosity (Steve disabused him of that notion pretty damn fast when the topic came up, during the ‘so Bucky’s moving in along with me’ discussion). Steve apologises to Bucky for outing them to Tony, like that – but Bucky doesn’t mind. As long as no one misgenders them, they’re golden.
Additionally, they’re living with two of the greatest super-spies known to man – though their level of obliviousness to Bucky’s gender varies significantly.
Natasha is the one to ask them, over a cup of coffee, “You ever painted your nails?”
Bucky pauses, looking her up and down, and getting a measure of her, trying to work out if she’s serious, or if she's mocking them in any way – she continues, pointing at their right hand, “You could. They’re pretty nice. Nicer than mine,” She explains, bitterly.
“. . . Thanks,” Bucky says, smiling incredulously. They’ve never quite lost their way with women, so they add, “I guess you’d have to show me how,”
“I’m sure you can work it out for yourself, Sergeant,” She tells them, with a smirk.
They’re not sure how she knew about how much they like being called Sergeant, but they grin, all the same. “Still. I’d take suggestions about the best kinds,”
“No need. You can borrow mine – I only ever paint my nails when I have undercover missions, anyway,” She explains. “My day-to-day work just chips it all off,”
“It’s hard being a bad-ass,” They reply. She smirks again, aware that they're only half-serious.
“It is, actually. Do you want my help, or not?”
When Steve next sees them, his eyes are drawn to the dark purple nail polish on Bucky’s right hand – and the dark purple coating they’ve given the red star on their left deltoid.
“. . . Purple?” Steve asks, with a smile. Bucky smiles back, and shrugs.
“Seemed kinda neutral. And it’s a pretty colour – one of Natasha’s. I owe her like, three pots,”
“Right,” Steve says, before kissing them on the cheek.
The other super-spy doesn’t really understand. Not right away, anyway. He’s not very observant, for a super-spy, Bucky finds.
Natasha’s in a debriefing with him and Agent Coulson, one time, when she has to stop him in the middle of his statement:
“. . . Which is when Barnes comes in, all guns blazing – he saves my ass, I’ll admit – and he kills maybe about five Hydra goons – he just lets rip, and he-”
“Barton,” She intervenes, and Clint looks at her, annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of telling his side of the story, which was pretty damn exciting, as he saw it.
“What? You can’t tell me he didn’t-”
“He didn’t do anything. Bucky prefers they,”
Clint opens his mouth to respond, but nothing comes out – he shuts it again, his expression confused.
“He – wait, what?”
“Bucky’s non-binary,” Natasha says, sighing. “Genderfluid, actually,”
Clint blinks at her – then he turns in his swivel-chair to face Agent Coulson, who’s looking pretty mortified on his behalf.
“Who else knew – did you know about this?”
Coulson shrugs, and nods, his expression apologetic.
“How did I not know this? – he knew this, and he doesn’t even live here,” Clint says, indicating Coulson.
“Actually, I-” Coulson says, but Clint interrupts.
“Right, you’re a superfan – Jesus, Tasha, how long have I been calling him he? What, months? . . . Has it been a year? – Man, no wonder he doesn’t like me – uh, they don’t like me,”
“I thought you knew!” Natasha says, defensively.
“You thought I knew, and just decided not to – not to take notice? What, you think I’m that much of an asshole?” Clint asks incredulously.
“Well . . .” Natasha says with a smirk.
Clint bolts up from his seat in a hurry, muttering, “You’re both useless – I’m gonna go and, uh – do – something,”
Natasha meets eyes with Coulson, as they both wonder what the hell Clint’s going to get up to this time.
“Anyway,” Coulson says, as if nothing happened. “Then what happened?”
Later that night, Bucky answers the door of their and Steve’s floor of the tower, and finds a kind of unorthodox gift basket at their feet. There’s no one around, but there’s a card inside – they can read the scrawl from where they stand. Sorry I’m kind of an asshole.
“Well, that could be from anyone,” They mutter to themself, smirking at their own joke.
“What?” Steve calls from inside.
Bucky picks up the hamper, and carries it inside – it’s heavy. The things in it are pretty random, but great in number. They can see a pack of gummy worms, a jar of peanut butter, some kind of Starbucks . . . Gift card? – Plus, make-up they recognise from the supplies Nat takes with her on missions that involve an undercover element.
“What’s that?” Steve asks. Bucky shrugs.
“I don’t know, but . . . Looks like a basket full of stuff Clint usually gets when he comes to Walmart with us,” Bucky summarises.
Steve smiles, like he knows a secret – he’d noticed Clint misgendering Bucky, before, and though he wasn’t sure it was on purpose, he’d asked Natasha to find out for him. If the note is anything to go by, this must be some form of compensation from Clint. He makes a note to thank Natasha for correcting him, later.
Bucky’s eyes narrow, and they set the hamper down on the side.
“. . . What?” They ask. Steve holds his hands up, and pretends like he doesn’t know.
“Nothing. Could be from anyone, like you said,”
“Stevie,” Bucky says, a hint of warning in their voice as they speak. Steve shakes his head.
“You know the story behind this, don’t you?” Bucky asks.
“Nope,” Steve denies blithely.
“Tell me,” Bucky demands, approaching Steve where he sits on the couch, and standing over him.
“Or what?” Steve asks, a cheeky expression on his face.
Inspiration strikes Bucky, at that moment, and they dive in, tickling Steve’s ribs as quickly as they can. Steve all but shrieks in surprise, jumping and grabbing at Bucky’s hands. He slumps to one side and Bucky goes with him, still tickling away. He laughs uncontrollably, writhing around, until both he and Bucky – who’s rolled on top of him, by this point – slide onto the floor, laughing and breathless.
“Okay, okay! It’s from Clint, you’re right,” Steve admits breathlessly. Bucky smiles, satisfied, as they look down at Steve – he’s rosy-cheeked, and if this had been seventy years ago, he’d be having an asthma attack by now. Tickling was mostly off-limits, before, despite the cute and downright hilarious noises Steve makes when Bucky touches him like that.
Bucky’s skirt rides up, where they straddle Steve’s hips – they’re feeling brave today, and not wearing leggings, or tights (they don’t really like tights, except in a pinch – big feet make them pretty hard to wear, they find). Their smooth legs brush up against Steve’s hairy ones, where he’s wearing shorts from his run, earlier. They lean down to kiss Steve, their stubble scratching lightly at Steve’s neck, as they nuzzle him.
“I should keep more stuff from you,” Steve murmurs, amused.
“Don’t you dare,” Bucky says.
“. . . Okay, maybe I won’t,” Steve says, as Bucky presses a kiss to the area of his neck where they can feel his thundering pulse. “Never could lie to my partner,”
Bucky smiles, against Steve’s skin, so Steve can feel it. They like it when Steve calls them his partner – they don’t want to admit that they feel a little possessive, of him, but they hate the term boyfriend or girlfriend. Partner is – it’s just right. They fight alongside one another, they live together, and they love each other. When Steve calls them his partner, it’s like they’re Steve’s equal.
They’ve always thought of Steve as more than them, somehow – intrinsically more worthy, and good. But being put on equal footing like that – and by Steve himself, no less . . . It feels good.
It feels great. Steve accepts them for who they are, and he loves them for it.
And maybe they love themself for it, too.