When Peggy leaves, Steve doesn’t follow.
Bucky wonders on it, because this is the first time in his life that he’s ever seen a dame give Steve the time of day, let alone a look like the one she’d been aiming at him—dripping with intent.
But instead of slipping out of the smoky pub, wandering after the red dress and red lips and the promise of a night he’d never forget, Steve stays.
Here, with his knee pressed against Bucky’s and his hands folded around a pint of beer he hasn’t touched. Here, with his eyes resting on Bucky’s profile, concern etched in lines between his brows. Here, with his shoulders sunk under the entire weight of every question he hasn’t asked, and won’t, because whatever else they do, they don’t do that.
Not a whole lot feels like it could ever matter to Bucky after seeing the filthy underbelly of war, the stink of human death and depravity. Not a whole lot feels like it could ever be important, after the torture, the instruments and invasion, the never-ending game to see what his body could endure. (A lot, as it turns out. Too much to ever forget.)
But this, the quiet way Steve’s leg touches his. The familiar scent of pomade and earth, blood and sweat. Each companionable quirk of Steve’s mouth when another rousing round of bawdy song starts up. The fact that, given something he’s wanted and can finally have, Steve chooses instead to sit next to Bucky, a sentry and friend—
It matters. It feels important.
Bucky can catalogue in fine, bitter detail everything that this war has taken from him, and everything he yet stands to lose.
Steve isn’t on that list. Though he’s grown taller and broader and more purposeful, there’s one thing that has not changed: it’s the two of them against the world, come whatever else. Still. Always.
For the first time since he got his orders, Bucky feels like thanking God for small mercies.
“Thing is, I don’t know how to dance.”
Steve looks defiant and sheepish at the same time, and Bucky grins around the lip of his drink.
“I’m sure I remember imparting some general wisdom in that area,” he says. “Didn’t I teach you well enough, pal?”
They’re leaning close, talking in soft voices, because Bucky’s weary of the clamor. He wants quiet, he wants dark, he wants peace. Of course, what he’s got is Steve, and Steve hasn’t ever been any of the above. But Steve is Brooklyn, the Hudson River and the old ladies across the way, the lights and the butcher who gave half-priced meat. All the stuff Bucky never thought he’d see again. So he makes himself stay on the barstool, makes himself talk and laugh like everything is normal.
It’s a small sacrifice, anyway, compared to what he’ll be making himself do in the coming months. Hunting HYDRA just as HYDRA once hunted him. Re-entering the fray, a sniper with his eye on the kill shot every time.
Bucky is tired, but he’s also afraid. He knows the evil that goes on behind enemy lines. And maybe it was easy not to worry about Steve too much when it was back in the city, where his sisters and mother could look after him. But lost in the mountains and the snow of Europe? Tracking an army that would dig through the very bones and blood of a person, turn someone inside out on the name of some twisted ideology?
“I was fourteen then, and half my size, Buck.”
No. Bucky hasn’t ever let Steve fight a battle alone, not if he can help it. He’s not about to start now.
“So you’re a little bigger, fine,” Bucky says, and tries for a smile. “Maybe these days, you gotta add a bit more flair. But the fundamentals don’t change.”
Steve frowns slightly, a searching look in his eyes when he says, “No, they don’t, do they?”
Before Bucky can respond, Steve grins, sharp and bright. He hops off his stool, reaches out an upturned palm.
“Well?” he asks expectantly.
Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Well, what?” he responds. “You wanna take a turn around this bar? Right here, right now?”
Steve simply cocks his head. His hand remains outstretched. And it’s unbelievable, really, how Steve’s smug smile, the challenging tilt of his chin, all of it is the exact same. It’s just the body that’s new. Superhuman. A stranger’s body, built like a tank.
This is a man who doesn’t need anyone to fight his battles. Not any longer.
Bucky doesn’t like the sense of loss that yawns through him at the idea. So to distract himself, he grabs Steve’s hand, and tugs him close with a sharp jerk that pulls a startled chuckle from Steve’s chest.
“Your turn to lead,” he announces.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Astaire,” Steve says.
There’s no music, but plenty of raucous laughter to guide them as they sweep theatrically throughout the bar, bumping into people and tables, spilling drinks, tripping like fools through the throngs of men and women that crowd the room. It’s not the elegant, measured steps that they practiced once upon a time, and they’re not the same heights they were, so there’s no way Bucky can nestle Steve under his chin, or circle Steve’s hips with playful hands. But there’s a thousand reasons those little touches would be out of place here anyway, and all that matters is the wild joy in Steve’s eyes, and the loosening in Bucky’s chest as they whirl and spin, hand in sweaty hand.
The right partner. That’s what Miss Carter was waiting for, Bucky recalls. That’s what she was thinking when she looked at Steve with such meaning in her eyes.
That’s what Bucky had seen when he’d felt the lightning bolt of recognition split him clean through.
Because Steve has been the right partner since they were five years old. Bar fights and back alleys, pranks on their next door neighbors, the cramped width of a church pew filled with their knobby knees and scrubbed elbows. When his mother died, Steve told Bucky that he had no one left, that Bucky was all he had.
Bucky never told Steve that there were times he felt the exact same way.
He’s got family, and friends, and girls back in Brooklyn. He’s got his own path to follow, and his own idea of how it’ll all end. The larger part of him is independent of Steve, and that’s right. That’s how it should be.
But the kid is like a heartbeat, the steady cadence that never falters, the one sure thing that’s been in Bucky’s life the whole way through. Even here, where no one thought Steve could follow—he did. Even this, the last thing Bucky wanted to him to experience, they’ll share.
The right partner, hell.
Steve is the only partner, and always has been.
It’s past midnight when people starts packing it in, bellies full with beer and muscles aching as the last vestiges of adrenaline finally leave their systems.
The rooms above the pub are small, but warmly-lit, amber shadows stretching across the dusty hardwood floors, filling the spaces under a rickety bed and a lone bedside table. Steve stumbles into a room with his arm slung around Bucky’s waist, steering him towards the bed.
Bucky sits heavily on the creaking mattress, eyesight swimming. He’s had a few drinks, and the exhaustion is catching up to him, making everything feel lazy and slow.
“Steve,” he says. “You’re here.”
He says it more to himself than out loud, muttering under his breath as Steve bends to help untie his laces. A distant part of Bucky worries it might turn into a refrain that will never end, two words that took root in his heart, right between his ribs, the moment Steve’s face first came into view on that cold, unforgiving table.
“Yeah,” Steve says, slipping off one of Bucky’s boots. “Here I am.”
His voice is bemused, indulgent, a little mocking. It’s so familiar that a rush of affection swells through Bucky, overwhelming enough that he puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder, steadying himself against it.
“‘m fine,” Bucky says, squeezing. The startling width, the meat where there used to be bone, gives him momentary pause. He doesn’t remove his hand, even when Steve slips off Bucky’s other boot and places it carefully next to its twin.
“Didn’t say you weren’t,” Steve responds, biting his lip against a smile. He looks up at Bucky, like a knight kneeling before his king, and Bucky is forcibly reminded of reading in the school library as kids, old stories of valor and loyalty. The truth of Steve’s transformation is one that lives right under Bucky’s skin, makes something hot and dizzy swim in his head.
“You coulda got yourself killed,” Bucky says. “I hate this war, and you wanted it so bad that you risked everything. Didn’t have the good sense to stay out of it, and I...I can’t even be mad, can I? Because I coulda been dead, too. Might as well have been. Until you came.”
Steve’s mouth firms. “I’m not gonna apologize, Bucky,” he says evenly. “All I ever wanted was to save good men from dying.”
Bucky regards Steve, the flush of his skin, the righteous glitter in his eyes. “Was it worth it?” he asks. His fingers tighten on Steve’s shoulder. “Am I a good man? Did a good man walk out of that factory when everything went to hell?” His voice drops, low enough that Steve sways closer, leans in. “Is that why you carried me across that fire?”
The line of Steve’s mouth softens, becomes lush in its sorrow. “How can you not know?” he asks, and he sounds wretched.
Bucky groans. “I don’t know anything,” he admits. He lets himself slump, lets his hand loosen on Steve’s shoulder, moving instead to cradle the curve of Steve’s skull, fingers carding through the hair at Steve’s nape. He clutches, just shy of tight. “I don’t know anything right now except you.”
Slowly, he brings his forehead close to tip against Steve’s, gazes catching, blue on blue, like looking at the flip side of his own coin.
“You,” he says, “I know.”
Steve gives a nod, the barest of movements. “I know you, too,” he says, voice low. “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t.” It’s easy to read the misplaced shame in Steve’s words, the confessional in the shift of his knees. “I would’ve kept singing and dancing. If I was lucky, maybe I would’ve been useful once or twice. Except when they said your name—” He drags a hand over his face. “I thought you were dead. But I also thought, if there was any chance for rescue—any chance for a body, even. I had to do it. I had to.”
The ensuing silence is strangely expansive, full to the brim with things they won’t talk about, however much they’ve talked already.
“Well,” Bucky says finally, tugging a little on Steve’s hair. “A body is exactly what you got.”
Steve takes a breath, before looking up and rolling his eyes. “I got a lot more than that,” he says dryly, bracing his hands on Bucky’s thighs. The feel of his palms bleed through Bucky’s clothes. He pushes at Bucky’s legs, levers him easily onto the bed so he’s lying down in the middle of the mattress rather than sitting on the edge. “I got a body with a big mouth and a nonstop brain, both of which have yet to shut up.”
Bucky shivers minutely at the imprint of Steve’s fingers, the vapor trail of heat left in their wake.
“Is that a fact?” Bucky drawls lazily. Without thinking, he catches Steve in the hip with his foot, knocks him off balance enough that Steve’s falling onto the bed too, hovering over Bucky, shock on his face.
The shock immediately turns to mischief. Steve’s always been competitive; even when he was small—and Bucky feels a pang in his belly at the thought that he’ll have to relearn Steve’s center of gravity, the shift of his limbs—they loved to wrestle.
“That’s a fact,” he states, and then instead of flipping Bucky over, instead of binding his wrists with one big hand, instead of locking his waist between two thick thighs, Steve leans in and kisses his forehead.
The gesture sets Bucky aflame. There’s no reason for it; any other situation and a kiss to his forehead would feel almost maternal. But this is Steve, who has known Bucky since they were children. This is Steve, who has traded with Bucky a litany of dreams and nightmares, hopes and shame, whispered in the dark and in the cold, laughed about in drugstores or cinema halls, scribbled and drawn in the margins of a shared notebook during long school hours. This is Steve, whose life has, as long as Bucky can remember, been woven inextricably with his own.
This is Steve, who has seen Bucky inside and out in every conceivable, intimate way, yet always seems to find one more.
Bucky’s very cells feel scorched, just by his touch.
“What’re you doing?” Bucky asks, voice strangled. “You nut.” He moves his hand up, ostensibly to nudge Steve away, but somehow, his fingers tangle in Steve’s hair again. Another anchoring hold, but this one feels different. Charged with something—anticipatory.
The muscles in Steve’s forearms tense. He freezes above Bucky, looking down at him. The fond expression in his eyes is fading, morphing, changing into something assessing. Steve’s always been clever, always been quick. His gaze ticks from Bucky’s wide-eyed consternation to the flick of his tongue wetting his lips. A quick, rueful tilt of Steve’s mouth, one that Bucky recognizes as Steve’s here goes nothing smile, and then he’s closing the distance between them.
This time, he gets Bucky square on the lips.
The last person Steve ever kissed was Ruth Baker from down the road. They were ten, and she told the entire block that it was terrible. Bucky remembers, clear as day, the downtrodden look on Steve’s face. The determination to prove himself. How no other girls ever really let him.
Practice makes perfect, Bucky thinks semi-deliriously, and pulls Steve closer.
It’s clumsy until it isn’t. Steve’s mouth is fever-hot and soft, lips chapped but firm. A pure zing of sensation lights up Bucky’s nerves at the simple, tentative first skim, and Steve makes a small noise when Bucky instinctively guides the angle of their kiss, deepening it. At the sound, the shock in Bucky’s chest turns into a flame, burning merrily, flaring high and roaring loud until it overtakes his body, has him flushed and needy all at once.
It should be strange. It should be horrifying. Just one more hidden depravity that’s been unearthed by the damages of this war.
But Bucky’s missed Steve like a limb, like a sailor at sea longing for land. He’s had restless dreams of eyes like the ocean and a bloodied lower lip, big bony hands and shoulders framed against the New York sky. On that table, and later on that bridge, lit up by the inferno below, all that mattered was Steve. Survival meant Steve. If death is Bucky’s burden, then life is Steve’s gift.There’s no room for one without the other.
It’s only at this very second that everything comes together, like a key sliding home, like unlocking a box he never knew he’d shut the lid on.
This is a truth about himself that Bucky’s always known, in his heart of hearts.
And staring up at Steve through slitted eyes, taking in the sleepy pleasure on his face, the strength of his body as it bows over Bucky’s own, there’s no way he can call it depravity. Not truly.
“Steve,” he gasps, like a gospel, like a prayer. “Steve, Steve, Steve.”
Steve presses a kiss to Bucky’s chin, the underside of his jaw, the corded column of his neck. “Bucky,” he answers brokenly. “Bucky.”
“I didn’t think you wanted this,” Bucky says, biting back a moan at the tender ache building under the thin skin of his throat, bruise blossoming. “I thought you and that dame—”
“I thought you were dead,” Steve interrupts. “I don’t know what’ll happen with Peggy. I like her, I do, God, I like her a lot, but Bucky. You’re—”
He cuts himself off, lips shiny and pink, eyes dazed. “How can you not know?” he asks again, an echo, a plea.
Bucky wonders that himself. Because looking at Steve is like looking at his own reflection, the yearning and the wonder and the desperate fear all mingled together in a storm of expression.
He slips a button from Steve’s collar, bold as brass. “So tell me,” he challenges, finger tracing the slope of bone.
Steve’s eyes go unfocused, then. He kisses Bucky hungrily, without restraint, tongue slick and hot. “Better yet,” he says, breathless, when they separate: “I’ll show you.”
Jackets thrown to the ground. Belts undone. Shirts painstakingly unbuttoned and skin revealed.
Years later, decades even, Bucky will remember that night as the closest he ever came to coming home from the war.