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By Light of Day

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August, 1923

He is six years old when his mother instructs him to sit on the sofa and places the newest of his three sisters into his arms.

“This is Rebecca, Bucky,” she says softly. She is very tired. There is a new sister every year. His mother is also very proud. Rebecca is small and smells nice, though she looks funny and wrinkled. She makes snuffling noises like a newborn puppy. “Make sure to hold her head up.”

There had once been two other sisters before Bucky—a tiny infant who had been born on the ship from Ireland and lived for an hour, and a redheaded toddler named Anna who had been taken by polio the year before Bucky was born. There is a photo of Anna on the mantel but none of his oldest sister—only an embroidered rose in a brass frame with her name stitched below it: Rose Eileen, 8 May 1913. Sometimes Bucky sees his mother pause by the mantel and hold one of the frames to her chest for a moment while she’s dusting.

“Were you sad I was a boy instead, Mama?” Bucky asks a little anxiously, letting Rebecca curl her fingers around his thumb.

“Oh, no, sweetheart,” his mother says, kissing him on the top of his head. “You mustn’t be jealous of your sisters. I thank God every day that He gave me a son.”

But why did it have to be me, he wonders, but he doesn’t ask, because his mother is happy and he doesn’t want to make her upset.

Then the baby cries, and his mother takes her away. He slides off the sofa and returns to his toy train.

*****

December, 1940

“What the hell, Stevie? It looks like Macy’s tossed its cookies in here.”

“Shut up and help me organize all this,” Steve says.

Bucky sighs and tosses his lunchbox on the sofa. It’s been a longer week than he would have liked—he’s a welder at the Navy Yard, where they’re refitting the destroyers they’re lending to the Brits to use against Germany—and somebody fucked up the schedule, which means they have to get the Edwards out of dry dock a week earlier so they can get the McCook in before she fucking sinks in New York Harbor, and everyone’s been pulling 12-hour shifts since last week to get her patched up enough to get across the Atlantic.

So coming home on Friday night to find Steve sitting on his knees in the middle of a scatter of clothes that covers more of their floor than the rug does isn’t exactly how he wanted to wind down. Dresses, suits, shirts, skirts, blouses—even a nightgown, Bucky realizes as he lifts up a white, lace-edged garment to inspect.

Not new, either, he notices, spying a cluster of moth holes near the hem. The fabric’s starting to yellow a little, too. He picks up a pair of tweed plus fours that remind him of what his father used to golf in 15 years ago and smell so overpoweringly of cedar they could compete with a Christmas tree. “You break into some old lady’s attic or something?”

“These were donated to St. Agnes,” Steve says, folding a pair of what Bucky thinks might be trousers from an Army uniform during the Great War. “Sister Mary Michael let me pick through the discards before she cut them up.”

“Well, all right,” Bucky says, hanging his coat on the rack and joining Steve on the floor. “What are you gonna do with ‘em?”

“Mr. Levinson said I could make up those fashion-illustration classes I missed when I was sick if I could turn in my final drawings by Monday.”

“Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but this ain’t fashion,” Bucky says dryly, holding up a fading pink blouse with a high neck and puffy arms that probably would have been out of date when his grandmother was alive.

Steve laughs. “The clothes don’t matter. I just have to draw them well.”

Bucky eyes the clothing skeptically. “All of this?”

“No,” Steve says, a shit-eating grin crossing his face. “I just wasn’t sure what size my model would be.”

“You want me to call Becca?” Bucky asks, fingering a heavily beaded dark blue flapper dress that still has most of its fringe intact. Something secret flutters inside him, and he swallows hard. “Or see if Dot’s free?”

“I already did. She’s working at the drugstore all weekend,” Steve says. “Dot’s got a date.”

“Tough luck,” Bucky says, as nonchalantly as he can muster, then holds the dress up to his shoulders and bats his eyelashes humorously at Steve. “Think this is my color?” he jokes—but doesn’t—hoping he doesn’t sound as nervous as he feels.

Steve grins. “I was hoping you wouldn’t mind sitting for me,” he says. “You got the figure for it. Tall, skinny, no hips, no tits. You’re perfect.”

Bucky drops the dress and crawls across the clothes to kiss Steve flat on the mouth. “Keep sweet-talking me like that, pal, and I’ll wear anything you want.”

Steve laughs and kisses him back. “Then get dressed, doll,” he says. “We got work to do.”

The fluttering inside him turns into something wild and anxious. He quickly stands, throws the dress over his shoulder, and takes a dramatic swig from the bottle of rye they’d left on the coffee table the night before. It’s a joke but not—he needs the steadying bite to help him keep it together long enough to walk into the bedroom and face this thing.

He shuts the bedroom door and lays the dress across the bed. Outside, Steve is moving furniture and arranging the lamps and organizing his easel and supplies. Benny Goodman is playing softly on the radio on the kitchen counter.

He wishes he’d brought the bottle with him. His hands are fucking shaking and his fingers fumble with his shirt buttons so badly that once he manages to get the first two undone he just pulls the damned thing off over his head.

He shuts his eyes and shucks the rest of his clothing as quickly as he can, down to his shorts, then reaches for the dress.

It’s heavy from the beads, but the fabric is smooth beneath his fingers—silk, maybe, from the slight sheen—and when he unbuttons the back and steps into it, and feels the smooth heavy drape sliding across his skin, he can barely breathe. He pulls the dress higher so he can work his arms through the straps, and the rich heavy weight of it pulling across his hips and belly and chest feels—

There’s a noise outside—a knock, maybe?—and the next thing he knows he’s crouching on the floor between the bed and the wall, biting his knuckle until he realizes it’s just the radiator kicking to life.

“You almost done, Miss Hayworth?” Steve calls through the door. “I gotta do your makeup, too.”

“Fuck,” he whispers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

*****

February, 1929

He is 11 years old when he finds himself home alone.

This never happens: They are a family of six. He can’t remember the last time their apartment was this quiet.

He does a desultory exploration under beds and inside closets for no other reason than curiosity, to see what his sisters have tucked away from him. He opens the pantry and eats some cookies, because he can, then takes a sip of his father’s whiskey, because he can. It burns his mouth and makes him cough, but a little bit makes it down and he thinks he can feel his head swim.

He wanders into his parents’ bedroom and opens the closet. He has tried on his father’s clothes a hundred times—suits and ties and hats, his old Army dress uniform, his golf sweater and cap. But this time his hand lingers on his mother’s fur stole—he remembers what a fuss she’d made about the expense at Christmas when his father gave it to her, but she’d loved it all the same. He picks it up and drapes it around his neck. It tickles, but it’s nice, too. It feels nice.

Her other clothes feel nice too—the black satin dress she has for special occasions, the velvet coat she wears to church at Christmas. They’re not rich but they’re not poor, either, and he knows how lucky they are for that these days. He drags his hand along the line of dresses and feels them swish and ripple beneath his touch, like the angel costume he gets to wear in the Christmas pageant, or the bleached white robe he wears to serve Mass. He likes the way the hem drags around his ankles sometimes, though he doesn’t know why.

He shifts his attention to his mother’s vanity. It’s a pretty piece of carved wood, with an oval mirror and curlicue legs, with a tiny cut-glass bottle of perfume sitting next to a stack of pressed and folded handkerchiefs.

He sits on the little stool with the embroidered cushion and opens the drawer to look at her makeup. The little pots and tubes look like precious jewels in shiny little etched brass and enamel and celluloid.

He picks up a tube of lipstick.

This is wrong, he knows, but curiosity compels him. He swirls up the beveled stick of strawberry-colored wax, and it smells oddly like powder. He only means to touch it to his lips but when he does, he finds himself drawing it all the way across his bottom lip, first and then his top.

He looks pretty when he does this, he thinks. He wraps the stole beneath his chin and tosses one corner over his shoulders like the glamorous women do in the pictures. Then he tilts his chin and looks into the mirror. He could be a pretty girl, if he wanted to. Except that he doesn’t want to be a girl, exactly, or all the time, he just wants to be—

Pretty? Maybe? Sometimes?

A noise on the stair sends ice down his spine. He quickly shoves the lipstick into his pocket and drops the stole on the closet floor, and makes it to the bathroom just as his father’s keys turn in the door.

*****

December, 1940

He pulls himself together and opens the door, doing a little twirl for Steve’s benefit. The beaded fringes click and sway as he does, making the dress shimmy a little across his body. They don’t have a long mirror, but just looking down at himself is enough to make him feel like he’s flying.

Steve laughs and grabs his hand to lead him to the kitchen table. “Let me get you ready for your close-up.”

“Where’d you get makeup anyway?” Bucky asks, grabbing one more swig of rye before Steve sits him down.

“It’s greasepaint left over from the Christmas pageant,” Steve admits, opening the small, paperback-sized box to reveal a dozen half-used colored sticks of wax. “I nicked it when Sister Mary Michael went to find me a bag for the clothes.”

“Why, Steven Grant Rogers,” Bucky says, gasping in mock horror, trying to eject all of his pent-up anxiety with a joke. “Stealing from church?”

It doesn’t work.

“Wait till Jesus figures out what we get up to in bed,” Steve says dryly. “Pucker up, buttercup.”

Bucky watches Steve’s face as he applies the paint and wonders if he can hear the way Bucky’s heart is pounding.

He’s grateful, at least, that Steve doesn’t seem to be making fun of him. He’s got the same studious crinkle in his brow that he gets when he’s working, and Bucky gets the disorienting feeling that this is what his canvases must feel like. Steve’s touch is delicate and sure, dabbing and rubbing and blending with quick, precise movements. 

He’s really good at this, Bucky thinks stupidly—which he knows, of course, because he’s seen Steve’s pictures—but watching him work up close, he can see the minute calculations he makes, the dozens of tiny assessments and decisions before his hand even touches Bucky’s skin, and he knows long before Steve hands him the mirror that the face he sees will be—

“Oh,” Bucky says, lightly touching his lips.

He looks a little like Clara Bow, with dark painted lips and his eyes artfully smudged with black and brown to make them look enormous. His brows are sharp and curved, his cheekbones cleverly etched with shades of pink and tan, and his five o’clock shadow obliterated beneath a field of beige.

While Bucky goggles at himself in the mirror and tries to remember how to breathe, Steve grabs a fingerful of pomade and begins working his hair into something resembling spit curls around his face.

“Wish we had some jewelry for you, but I’ll just paint it in,” Steve murmurs, more to himself than Bucky. “Be good to get your hair close, though…”

“Jesus, Stevie,” Bucky manages to choke out. “I look so different.”

“You think so?” Steve asks, genuinely surprised. “To me you just look like you.”

“You think I look like a girl?” Bucky asks. His stomach has somehow crawled up into his throat now.

“No, you just look like you,” Steve says, returning his attention to Bucky’s hair. “Now turn your head for me, like that.”

 


Image: Steve, drawing, with a smile on his face | Art by: kocuria


 

*****

May, 1934

He is 17 when the senior boys decide he’s the one who has to play Louise in the spring follies. There are no girls at St. Joseph’s—they all attend St. Cecilia’s three blocks away.

“Look, somebody’s gotta be the girl, Buck, and you’re the prettiest one here!” Rufus says, throwing a dusty velvet gown at him. He’s almost 19, which makes him in charge, but that doesn’t mean Bucky’s not gonna go down without a fight.

He feels himself blush bright red in terror—how did Rufus know?—and he knows right then that this absolutely cannot happen, that if he plays the girl—

Steve’s prettier, Bucky almost protests, but Steve’s already playing the part of Cupid, and that’s bad enough, and in any case, Steve gets enough shit from them. Instead he gropes for the first role that comes to him and says, “I should be Count Doom. I could clean anyone here’s clock in a sword fight and you know it.”

He tries not to curl his fingers into the rough, cheap velvet of the costume, tries not to think about painting his face or arranging a wig to curl prettily around his shoulders. It is wrong to want this sometimes, to like this—it is wrong and if he does this, if he puts on this dress, they will know.

Know what, he doesn’t understand—that he’s queer, that he’s a sissy, that he doesn’t want to be a girl but sometimes he feels like one, that it feels like there are two versions of him inside one body, that there are days when putting on his pants and a tie makes him feel like he’s trying to wear his shoes on the wrong feet, fitting but not fitting, backwards, inside-out, wrong.

It always lets up eventually, after a few days or a week, and then he’ll be all right for a while, and think maybe he’s got it licked for good, and then it’ll come back. And it scares the hell out of him, because he’s feeling it now, how wrong his clothes feel and how right the dress would.

But he can’t let them see it, because everyone will see it, the other boys, his teachers, the audience, his family, Steve—

“Ah, c’mon, Buck, be a good spor—” Rufus starts.

“I ain’t playing a goddamned girl!” Bucky shouts, pushing the dress so hard against Rufus’ chest that the bigger boy stumbles backward. The dress drops dustily to the stage floor. “Didn’t you hear me the first time?”

He turns without waiting for a reply and storms out of the theater. The halls are empty and he runs all the way to the end—to the stairs on the other side of the school leading down to the gym, and down them past the gym to the boiler room door, where he crouches into a ball and tries not to cry.

He doesn’t notice Steve until he’s sitting next to him on the bottom step, wheezing slightly from all the stairs. Even though Steve keeps his hands to himself, his presence is tangible, warm, reassuring.

“I told Rufus I didn’t mind playing Louise, if you wanted a different part,” Steve says, then notices Bucky’s tears. “What’s wrong?” he asks, startled.

Bucky wants to tell him everything just then, but he doesn’t know how. It’s impossible enough to talk about liking boys, much less this thing he’s never heard of, and he knows if you’ve never heard of it there are only two reasons why: it is so bad you want to hide it, or it doesn’t exist at all.

But people talk about bad things too sometimes. He knows what homosexuals are, enough to know he’s one himself, but he’s never, ever, ever heard of anyone like him, not a girl, but maybe, maybe—

Maybe not a boy, either.

But he’s got the parts, doesn’t he? They work just fine, don’t they? And what else could he be, if he’s not a girl? So he’s got to be.

Except—

“It’s okay, Buck,” Steve says. He puts his hand down on the stair next to Bucky’s, letting their pinkies touch. He doesn’t do anything else for a long time—they just both sit there, holding their breath, until Bucky closes his eyes and curls his pinkie over Steve’s.

He doesn’t say anything—he’ll never say anything—but he lets Steve thread all of his fingers through his and lean his head against Bucky’s shoulder, clutching his hand tight, until the dismissal bell rings.

*****

December, 1940

Steve draws well into the evening. The time passes strangely as he stands there, trying to drink up the feeling of the dress and the makeup as long as he can, even though he can barely move.

It’s agony to stay still, though, to be so close and not be able to enjoy it, not really, but fuck, maybe this is enough, maybe it can be enough.

But he tries not to move, because if he’s good at this, maybe Steve will want him to pose again sometime. Maybe this could become something they do together, every once in a while—let Steve practice drawing dresses with him so he can get better jobs and make a little more money. It’s a good idea, he thinks, if he could just figure out how to suggest it without—

Without—

“All right,” Steve says thoughtfully, leaning back and tapping his pencil to his mouth. “I think I’ve got enough to ink it. You can relax now.”

Bucky swallows. “You need me to do more tomorrow?” he asks, trying not to sound hopeful. “Maybe to do the coloring?”

“No, I just needed the lines,” Steve says—reassuringly, Bucky realizes, like he’s trying to spare him from doing this again. “I can take it from here.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, despondence congealing sickly beneath his ribcage. “I guess I’ll change, then.”

“Wash your face before you take the dress off. I don’t want to ruin it before I take it back.”

“They’re gonna make rags out of this?” Bucky asks—protests, almost—giving the dress an argumentative shimmy.

Steve laughs. “No, the sisters give the scraps to the girls in the orphanage to teach them how to sew.”

“Oh,” Bucky says. He realizes he’s twisting some of the beaded fringe around his finger so furiously that it’s about to tear loose. “Well, all right then.”

 


Image: Bucky sitting on a bench wearing the dress, unsure | Art by: kocuria


 

*****

October, 1938

“Gee, Buck, you got a hot date tonight or something?” Steve asks, combing a fingerful of pomade into his hair in front of the sink when Bucky comes over with two different ties in his hands. Steve nods toward the blue one and Bucky threads it through his collar.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, leaning in to kiss Steve’s cheek. “Cute little blond. Mean as hell but a firecracker in the sack.”

Steve scoffs and glares fondly at him. “You ought’ve invited Dot, you know. Your folks are gonna start wondering about you.”

“Dot sings at the Crown on Saturdays, and it’s her best paying gig of the week,” Bucky says, shrugging on his jacket. “Anyway, she does me enough favors. I’m not making her sit through my sister’s wedding. I’ll tell Ma she’s visiting her aunt on Long Island and bring her to Sunday dinner next week.”

Steve gives a begrudging sideways grin. “All right, but you’re not dancing with me instead,” he says.

“Who says I ain’t?” Bucky asks, taking his hand and drawing him out of the bathroom, pulling him into a close dance hold. He spins Steve around the kitchen twice and drops him into a ridiculously deep dip. “I’m dancing with you right now.”

Steve laughs and kisses him as Bucky returns him to his feet. He steps back with his hands on his hips and gazes at Bucky with that intent, piercing look he gets when he’s studying something he plans to draw.

“What,” Bucky says, breaking into a bashful style and looking down at himself. It’s a good day today—the suit feels right, feels the way it’s supposed to, and he’s not going to have to spend the whole night squirming inside and pretending nothing’s wrong.

“Just looking at the handsomest fella in the five boroughs,” Steve says, that wry half-smile of his saying something more. “Nobody wears a suit like you, Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky feels his face heat up and he shakes his head. But he shoves back his protest before it can even fully form in his mind. He’s a man, isn’t he? He’s meant to look good in a suit. The fact that he does—that’s a good thing. He should enjoy it.

And he does enjoy it, at least tonight. He likes knowing he looks good—for Steve, for others, maybe even for himself. He looks like a man and he feels like a man. Times like this, it feels like he’s finally solved the equation, and even if it doesn’t last, he knows he can do it, he knows it’s possible. And maybe one day he’ll be able to do it again.

It makes him feel safe. And it gives him hope.

“You don’t clean up so bad yourself,” he says, reaching forward to hook his fingers into Steve’s belt loops and pull him forward. “I’m gonna have a hard time keeping my hands off you at this reception.”

“Oh, yeah?” Steve grins wickedly and falls to his knees at Bucky’s feet. He unbuttons Bucky’s trousers and frees Bucky from his boxer shorts. “Maybe I oughta give you a taste to tide you over, then.”

Steve’s touch is always like Christmas for him—Bucky lets out a pleased little grunt and settles himself back against the kitchen counter as Steve licks a long, slow stripe up the back of his cock.

“You better not mess up my hair,” Steve warns as Bucky moves his hand to touch Steve’s cheek.

Bucky laughs and withdraws his hand and grips the countertop instead.

Sometimes he wonders why he could ever want to be a girl when this feels so good. Maybe it means those feelings aren’t real, that they’re all just part of some delusion, some sickness in him, because he never wants to give this up, never wants to lose the pleasure and the connection to Steve that this part of his body gives him, not even on the worst days, when he wants to stay in bed rather than face the dungarees he has to wear to work, when he doesn’t want to look at the thing between his legs. He still needs to be able to feel this.

Because this is Heaven right here, Steve’s mouth on his cock in the kitchen that they share, and fuck, he will give anything up to keep this—anything, even if it means hiding this secret away forever.

*****

December, 1940

He has no idea how long he stands there in the bathroom, staring at the mirror, holding a melting cake of soap in his hand, forgotten. He has no idea how long Steve has been standing there, either, one hand on the doorframe, his face swirled with pensive concern.

“Buck,” he says gently.

But Bucky can’t speak, because if he speaks he’ll tell Steve everything, tell him what he is, and he can’t, because Steve likes boys, he’s always said so, and if he finds out that Bucky is, well, whatever he is—

“Bucky,” Steve says again. His voice is soft and full of love, and he reaches across the sink to gently pry the soap from Bucky’s hand. “You don’t have to take it off.”

“What?” Bucky asks, his voice distant and stunned.

“I don’t mind if you keep it on,” Steve says, offering him a small, encouraging smile. “It’s all right.”

“I don’t—” Bucky starts, but he can’t finish, and his voice dies between them.

“Yes, you do,” Steve says, and there is no anger or confusion in his voice, and that makes it even worse because—

“I don’t know why I’m like this,” Bucky murmurs, closing his eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Come here,” Steve says, taking Bucky’s hand and tugging it lightly. “Come sit down with me.”

He follows Steve dumbly out to the living room and lets Steve settle him onto the sofa.

“Here,” Steve says, pouring some of the rye into a coffee cup. “Take the edge off so we can talk.”

He slugs back the whiskey, then gasps as the burn hits his throat—a gasp that turns into a sob that he tries to cram back into his mouth with his hands.

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve says, hurrying to his side. He wraps one of his arms around Bucky’s back and presses a kiss to his shoulder. “It’s all right.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says.

“Buck, you ain’t the first guy to have fun wearing a dress sometimes, you know,” Steve says, threading his fingers through Bucky’s. “You remember some of the guys we saw that time we went to Lula’s? It ain’t that strange.”

It had been their one and only excursion to a queer bar—they’d managed to last all of half an hour before all the smoke made Steve cough so much the bouncers kicked them out. Ever since then, they’d kept to themselves. It was a little lonesome, sometimes, but they had each other, and usually that was enough.

“It’s not that,” Bucky says. “Or maybe it is, I don’t know. It’s not about the dress so much as—” he waves his hand vaguely at his own body. “Me.”

Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand tight. “What do you mean?” he asks. “You?”

“I mean I ain’t right, Stevie,” Bucky says. “I look at girls and sometimes I get jealous of ‘em, you know? Like I’m supposed to--” He shakes his head. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

Steve swallows hard, and the grip of his hand in Bucky’s relaxes for a moment, like he can’t decide whether to keep holding it. “Do you want to be a girl, Buck?” he asks, and there’s no hiding his surprise. His voice is thick with some emotion Bucky fears is grief. “Is that—do you want to live like a girl?”

But Bucky shakes his head. “I ain’t a girl, Stevie,” he tries to explain desperately. “I swear to God I’m not, but sometimes I don’t think I’m—” He shakes his head and stifles another sob and he forces himself to say, “I don’t know what I am.”

“Are you trying to say that sometimes you’re not a boy, either?” Steve asks carefully.

Bucky nods. “Sometimes,” he gulps. “Sometimes I feel more like one than the other, and sometimes it’s the other way around, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be all one thing or the other forever. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Stevie, I really don’t.”

A thoughtful, searching look crosses Steve’s face that makes Bucky nervous.

“Do you have a different name for yourself when you feel—?” He gestures toward the dress. “A girl’s name?”

“No,” Bucky says quickly. “No, it’s not—I’m not two different people,” he tries to explain. “I’m still me. That’s what I don’t understand. How can I be me both ways?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “How long have you been like this?”

“All my life, I think,” Bucky whispers.

Steve’s eyes widen. “Oh.”

Bucky stiffens. “What’s that mean?” he asks, panic eating at the edges of his voice. “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad?” Steve blurts. “Oh, God, Bucky, no! I’m not mad at you, sweetheart. I’m just—trying to understand, is all.”

Bucky blinks back tears, fails, and then wipes them away with the back of his hand. The paint smears and he gives a sniffly laugh. “If you figure it out, let me know, huh?” he says.

Steve laughs a little, too, and only then does he realize Steve is crying a little also. “Bucky, I ain’t gonna leave you, if that’s what you’re all worked up about,” he says.

“But you like boys,” Bucky says warily. “Not whatever—” He shrugs helplessly.

“Doesn’t matter how I feel about any other person on this Earth,” Steve says firmly. “I love you.”

“Yeah, but—” Bucky says uncertainly, plucking at the neckline of the dress. “Stevie, this ain’t what you like to see. I know that.”

Steve gives him a serious look. “Do something for me?” he asks.

Bucky swallows miserably. “What,” he says.

“Smile for me.”

Bucky turns away and sighs, though the corners of his mouth twitch up a little. He knuckles away a fresh crop of tears.

“That,” Steve says, guiding Bucky’s face back around with his fingertips, “is what I like to see.” He cups Bucky’s cheek in his hand and Bucky smiles instinctively into his palm. Steve runs his thumb along the curve of his lips, then leans in to kiss him. “This, right here. I want you to be happy.”

“Stevie—”

“Shh,” Steve says, kissing him again. “I love you, Bucky Barnes. If this is what it means to be you—” Steve presses his hand against the bodice of the dress— “then I love this, too. Do you understand?”

The fluttering is back, wilder than ever. “Steve—” he starts, but he can’t finish this time.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Buck,” Steve says, taking Bucky’s hands in his. “I swear to God, you are perfect in every way to me. And yes, this is new, and I have to get used to it, but I don’t care, because I will. Because I love you.”

“But I’m not what you want,” Bucky protests weakly. “You want a man, and I don’t know what I am.”

“You’re you,” Steve says, kissing Bucky’s knuckles. “You’re not a what, you’re a who. You’re just you. And I love you.”

“But how?” Bucky asks miserably. “I’m so mixed up.”

“Sweetheart,” Steve says, with gentle urgency. “Sweetheart, stop trying to push me away. I don’t know what this is any more than you do. If it makes you feel better to know if there’s a name for it, then we’ll find it out, but I promise you now that that it’s not gonna change a goddamned thing for me, okay? You gotta believe me, it’s not.”

Bucky closes his eyes tight, unable to bear Steve’s earnestness straight on. He never realized how much his fear had girded him all his life, how much his anxiety had governed his every choice—and he had not expected how lost he would feel without it. Relieved—of course, more relieved than he would ever be able to express—but also lost.

He feels like a dog who’s lived on a chain his whole life, finding himself suddenly free and terrified to leave his yard.

“So what do we do now?” he asks, opening his eyes.

Steve shrugs and gives him a soft smile. Just then, Bucky’s stomach growls, and they both laugh. Steve gives Bucky one more squeeze before standing up. “Let’s have some dinner, huh?” he says. “Let’s just—start with dinner.”

Bucky swallows and nods. “All right.”

Fifteen minutes later, Steve is humming along to the radio as he puts together sandwiches, the way he always does when it’s his turn to cook, and Bucky is sitting at the table, sipping his whiskey.

He’s washed the tear-smeared greasepaint away but hasn’t reapplied his face—he doesn’t know how, and he’s tired, and maybe it doesn’t really matter. The dress is enough for now.

It’s all enough for now—Steve asking him if he wants mustard, Artie Shaw on the radio, the bite of rye on his tongue, the clanking of the radiator behind him, his muscles aching from the day’s work, Steve’s sketch still clipped to the easel, faintly curling in the humid heat as he sits at the kitchen table of the home they share.

He looks at the picture of himself and marvels at how graceful he looks, how pretty, how—real. He wonders if he wears the dress as naturally as Steve has drawn him, if Steve really sees him like that—or could, maybe, one day.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, either. Maybe what matters most is that Steve sees him as he is now, with puffy eyes, a five o’clock shadow, and shipyard dirt under his nails, wearing a pretty dress that makes him feel whole. Maybe what matters is that Steve sees him—the reality instead of the fantasy, the person instead of the wish—and loves him anyway.

A strange, almost drowning feeling of utter—relief, maybe, or peace settles over him, so much so that the tears almost come again. Christ, he had no idea he could be this weepy.

Steve doesn’t say anything, though, just sets the food down between them with a gentle little smile.

“So, how was your day, dear?” he deadpans, reaching for a sandwich.

Bucky bursts out laughing then, almost hysterical, alternately shaking his head and wiping his eyes with gratitude.

“Fine,” he finally manages. “Yours?”

Steve reaches across the table and clasps Bucky’s hand in his as he takes a thoughtful bite. “I’m eating dinner while the love of my life laughs at my stupid jokes across the table,” he says after he swallows. “All in all, I’d say it was perfect.”

Bucky shakes his head and smiles. “What’d I ever do to deserve you, anyway?” he asks, stroking his thumb along Steve’s.

Steve gives his watch an exaggerated look. “How much time you got?”

“Steve—”

“If you’re going to try to tell me why I shouldn’t love you, you might as well talk to a wall instead,” Steve says, taking a sip of his whiskey. “Because I’m not having that conversation tonight. Or ever. Okay?”

Bucky smiles and nods to concede the point. He may never fully believe it himself—but he trusts Steve not to lie to him, either. “All right, baby. You win.”

They finish eating and leave their dishes in the sink for morning. Steve washes up while Bucky turns off the lights and goes into the bedroom.

He turns on the bedside lamp, but pauses by the bed, fingering a bit of beaded fringe, reluctant to start undoing his buttons even though he wants nothing more than to climb beneath the covers.

He’s still standing there when Steve comes in from the bathroom, already shirtless and working on his belt.

“You okay?” he asks, drawing the door shut. Then, when Bucky doesn’t answer right away, he asks, “Do you want me to get your buttons?”

Bucky nods and turns so Steve can reach them. His delicate fingers deftly work the buttons apart, and when he’s done, he steps close and presses a kiss between Bucky’s shoulder blades and wraps his arms around Bucky’s waist.

“Bet you never thought you’d ever be doing this before bed, huh,” Bucky says.

“No,” Steve says, kissing his back again as he withdraws. “But I like doing it for you.”

Steve turns him around and Bucky closes his eyes as Steve lifts the straps from his shoulders.

“Don’t be ashamed, sweetheart,” Steve murmurs, kissing his collarbone. “Please don’t be ashamed of this. Just let me love you.”

“It’s hard,” Bucky whispers.

“I know,” Steve says, kissing his other collarbone. “You want me to turn off the light?”

Bucky nods and Steve breaks off for a moment. When he hears the click of the switch, he opens his eyes.

The curtains are closed but the light of the moon and the streetlights and the neon sign across the street filter through the cheap fabric, casting a strange soft orange glow across the room.

Steve returns to finish working the dress down Bucky’s body. It falls away easily from the weight of the beads, and Bucky feels a brief spasm of grief when it finally pools around his ankles, leaving him in nothing but his shorts.

But it’s all right, too. Steve helps him step out of it and then reverently lifts the dress from the floor and lays it across the chair next to the closet so it won’t be crushed. While he’s across the room he removes the rest of his clothes and then returns to Bucky, who’s holding onto the post of the bedstead for dear life.

“How are you feeling?” Steve asks, ghosting his hands across Bucky’s shoulders and down his arms. “Tell me what you need.”

“I don’t know,” Bucky breathes.

“When you’re feeling like this, is there anywhere—” Steve is trying to be delicate—“you don’t want me to touch?”

Steve’s hand is on Bucky’s hip now, his thumb tracing small circles in the divot between the bone and the crease of his groin.

“No, it’s okay,” Bucky says quietly. “I don’t—” He shrugs. “Sometimes I don’t like to look at it but I don’t mind you touching it. I don’t know why.”

“But does it feel nice?” Steve asks, with lawyerly precision.

“Yeah, I mean it still feels nice,” Bucky says, kissing Steve’s forehead. “You always feel nice.”

Steve smiles and makes a low, rumbling noise as he hooks his thumbs into the waistband of Bucky’s shorts and steps in close to brush his lips across Bucky’s breastbone.

Then Steve flicks his tongue across Bucky’s skin and Bucky’s breath stutters in his chest. He places his hands on Steve’s shoulders and buries his face into Steve’s hair as he makes his way to Bucky’s nipple, nibbling and sucking on it as he works Bucky’s shorts down and lets them drop to the floor.

He likes having them touched when he feels this way, likes pretending, maybe, even though they’re flat, this part of him deserves love, too.

“Feels so good,” Bucky murmurs, kissing Steve’s hair and running his hands up and down Steve’s back. And it does—it feels so good to touch him, to be touched like this, to feel the hard, bright heat of Steve’s body pressed against his, determined to cut through the fog of self-doubt and shame clouding Bucky’s heart.

“Lie down,” Steve murmurs, more question than suggestion, and Bucky mumbles an assent. He lies back on the pillows and Steve climbs on top of him, kissing him and touching him reverently everywhere he can reach, with that funny serious look he always gets when he’s turned on.

“I love you,” Steve says, dipping down to press a soft, sucking kiss to the hollow where Bucky’s throat meets his ear. It sends shivers all the way down to Bucky’s toes, and he feels his hips jerk hard beneath Steve’s tiny weight.

Steve scoots down a little and begins to play with Bucky’s tits again, sucking and pinching and flicking them lightly with his tongue until Bucky shudders with pleasure. Then he works his way further down, worshiping every inch of him with his hands and his mouth, praising his beauty, his perfection, and maybe Bucky doesn’t believe it yet, not really, but he takes refuge in Steve’s words anyway, wrapping himself up beneath the shelter of Steve’s love.

Then Steve’s lips are sliding down the length of Bucky’s cock, and he gasps, hips rising from the old mattress to meet him. Bucky reaches down and cradles Steve’s head in his hands, stroking his hair and his ears, eliciting rumbling, satisfied little groans from deep within Steve’s chest.

Too soon, Steve lifts himself off and gazes up along the plane of Bucky’s belly and chest to meet his eyes. “How do you want to—”

“Beside me,” Bucky says, almost plaintively, desperate for Steve’s embrace. But Steve only nods.

He rolls Bucky onto his side and snuggles in hard behind him, reaching for the drawer on the nightstand beside him. He kisses Bucky’s neck and shoulders as he strokes the slick on himself and pushes himself in between Bucky’s cheeks.

Bucky whimpers as Steve enters him and finds his fit, the shape and pressure of him as familiar as anything now.

Steve wraps his bottom arm tight around Bucky’s chest, a bandolier from shoulder to rib, and slings his leg across Bucky’s to brace himself as he begins to move. He reaches around with his other hand, the slick one, and wraps it around Bucky’s cock with a swirling, undulating grip that makes Bucky go white from pleasure.

“Steve,” he gasps, his hips stuttering, and he reaches back to pull Steve even closer. He looks back over his shoulder as well, and Steve lifts his head to kiss him and nuzzle him with his nose a little, until they both forget how to kiss and simply gaze at one another with soft cries and little gasps as they carry each other home.

Steve holds him for a long time afterward. Bucky is feeling fluttery and fragile again, as though Steve’s arms are the only thing keeping him from falling apart right there in their bed.

“I love you,” Steve murmurs, kissing Bucky’s shoulder. “I love you so much, you don’t even know.”

“Me too,” Bucky manages. His voice is thick and hoarse in his throat.

“Tell you what,” Steve says, nuzzling the back of Bucky’s neck. “Tomorrow morning we’ll pick out a few more dresses for you to keep, and you wear them anytime you want, okay?”

“Oh,” Bucky says. He turns around to face Steve, and Steve is deadly serious. “Really?”

Steve smiles and nods. “Of course. Or we could buy some. Say we’re shopping for your sister. Nobody’ll think twice.”

Bucky laughs nervously. “I don’t think I’m ready to buy a dress.”

“All right, we’ll start with the ones we have, then,” Steve says decisively. “When you think you want something else, just let me know.”

“Okay,” Bucky says faintly. “Oh.”

Steve smiles again and brushes the hair away from Bucky’s brow. “I’ll burn the world down just to see you smile, Bucky. You should know that about me by now.”

He does know that. He’s always known it, since he was eight years old, when Steve tried to tackle an older boy who’d deliberately jostled Bucky’s lunch tray. Bucky’d had to finish that fight for him, and they’d both gotten detention for a month, but it didn’t matter. That fight had sealed something for them stronger than any friendship, any wedding vow ever could. 

Much later that night, Bucky wakes briefly to a noise on the street—just city noise, a truck or a drunk heading home after the bars closed—and he gets up to take a leak. 

As he’s walking back through the living room, his eye catches on the nightgown, still draped over the arm of the sofa where he’d first thrown it. He picks it up and shrugs it on as he makes his way back to bed. 

It’s old and worn, the cotton almost silky from overuse, and it feels soft as it slides across his skin. He gathers the hem as he climbs into bed, and gingerly curls himself around Steve. 

He wonders what Steve will think, waking up to him dressed like this, whether he will truly understand that this thing is going to be forever. That there will always be days, maybe weeks, when Bucky lives in skirts instead of trousers, that Steve will never again get all of the man he thought Bucky was back. 

Just then Steve shifts in his sleep and his eyes drift open as he pulls Bucky’s arm around him. 

“Hey,” Steve says sleepily, fingering the sleeve of the nightgown. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Just got up for a moment,” Bucky says, tightening his hold a little. “Didn’t mean to wake you.” 

“‘S’okay,” Steve mumbles, already drifting back to sleep, his fingers still curled up in the fabric of Bucky’s sleeve. “Love you, Buck.”

“Love you too, Stevie.” 

Outside, there’s a little bit of light. The sun will be up soon, but they have nowhere to be today. Bucky settles into the pillow, breathing in the scent of Steve’s hair, feeling the soft rasping rhythm of his breath, and goes back to sleep. 

*****

Epilogue: June, 2024

Bucky is 107 years old when they finally return to Brooklyn. Thanos is dead. The stones have been returned to their proper timeline. Bucky and Steve and the other surviving Avengers have spent more than a year living out of trailers parked around the wreckage of the compound, helping to rebuild the world. And now? They're, well, not quite retired, but stepping back. Steve's even given up the shield—he's Commander Rogers these days, on the rare occasions he returns to the new Avengers facility in Midtown. It’s Sam’s turn now. They'll both suit up if Sam needs them, but until then, Steve and Bucky have only one thing on their agendas: Each other. 

They live in a rowhouse nestled comfortably between the V of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, in a neighborhood not far from where they grew up. It hadn’t had a name when they were kids, but it goes by the ridiculous acronym DUMBO now, and neither one of them can hear it without thinking about the plucky baby elephant who learned to fly without his feather. 

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, Steve swears. 

“Do you have the corkscrew?” Bucky asks, rummaging through the picnic hamper. Inside are sandwiches, chocolates, a tub of fruit salad, and a sweating bottle of rosé that will probably be lukewarm by the time they reach the park, but on a day this lovely, it’s hard to care. 

“I will as soon as I can find it,” Steve grumbles, hunching over a drawer in the kitchen island. 

“It’s in the same drawer as the silverware,” Bucky chides. Their hand is wet from the condensation on the bottle and they wipe it dry on their skirt. The skirt is long and flowing, with some kind of delicate white geometric pattern printed on it, the hem brushing the tops of their boots. There is a knife tucked into their right boot—just in case, because Bucky will never stop worrying about “just in case” ever again. On top, they're wearing a simple white t-shirt, knotted at the waist. Their hair is caught up into a soft, messy bun, with tendrils floating free around their face. No makeup today—lately, they've preferred nothing but a close shave—but in their ears are a pair of small black star-shaped titanium studs.

“Found it,” Steve says, nudging the silverware drawer shut with his hip. He is, as he always has been on the weekend since 1935, dressed in khakis and a t-shirt. By the day’s fashion standards, he looks prim and dull, but to Bucky he will always be the handsomest man in the room.

“Told you so,” Bucky teases. 

Steve drops the corkscrew into the hamper and hooks the handle of the basket into the crook of his elbow. Bucky follows him to the front door. 

“Sure about this?” Steve asks, his hand on the knob. 

Bucky grins. “Yeah, it’s time.”

There has been no press release, no media interviews, no statement of any kind. Aside from the surviving Avengers, no one knows what they’ve meant to one another all these years, or what Bucky's true gender is. It’ll complicate things, maybe, to come out like this, so suddenly and casually. But they’re both tired, and they’re ready, and they’ve waited long enough.

Steve kisses them on the cheek and then pushes the front door open. Sunlight floods into the foyer, briefly blinding them before their eyes adjust to the view of the city before them. 

Steve offers his hand and Bucky takes it, and together they step outside.