Bucky stumbled through the door, tearing off his shirt and tossing it into the bedroom. He was easy energy on the balls of his feet, and a thin sheen of sweat gleamed yellow in the low evening light.
“Get dressed, pal. We’re going dancing,” he said, wide grin splitting his face in pieces. His nose scrunched up at Steve’s face. Running the tap of the kitchen sink, he stuck his head under and drank. Water droplets flung out in an arc around him as he pulled up. Tapping and shifting, his feet moved where he stood. Steve tried not to watch.
Steve rolled his eyes. “Buck, I’m fine where I am.”
Where he was, sitting on the window seat, was sketching the building across from theirs, the crisscrossed laundry lines creating a stark geometry against the faded, blanched brick. Stealing the book out from under his hands, Bucky held it above his head and peered up. Blue eyes fixed on the paper, Bucky’s lips thinned for a moment in concentration before he tossed the book back to Steve.
“You’ve drawn that a dozen times, at least. Get going—I gotcha a date.” Bucky’s grin was infectious, even as Steve’s stomach dropped at his words. Bucky disappeared into the bedroom, and called out from behind the door, his voice muffled as he changed. Steve sighed, and left his notebook on the seat. “You’re gonna enjoy yourself—just see if you don’t!”
“Whatever you say, Buck.”
Bucky swung his girl in a wide circle, her skirts billowing out from her legs in a wave of scarlet. Their identical smiles lit up their faces, open-mouthed and full of teeth and laughter as they panted through the quick beats. Steve could see sweat drip off both their foreheads, saw the bright flush high on Bucky’s neck and across June’s sharp collarbone. Beside him, Dorothy sat on the ledge, swinging her legs back and forth, more slowly, in time with no music he could hear.
“Bucky said—he said you’re an artist?” She turned her sweet smile on him, open and expectant. Not really an expression he was used to from a girl; the novelty of it made his hands clammy. He wiped them on his pants, hoping to be discrete against the side of his thighs.
“Yeah—yes?” He tried. “I like to draw, I guess.”
“Yeah, Bucky mentioned,” she encouraged him. “Said you were real good. I’d love to see, sometime.” She ducked her head and turned her smile shy.
“Don’t let him get your expectations too high. He’s real convincing, but he can’t tell the difference between Monet and Manet.”
They fell silent and let the brassy noise overcome them. She dropped her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye; he made a motion of smoothing his pant legs over his thighs, wishing to high heaven for a dry night instead of the dark sultry air that clung to his skin. Her dainty ankles crossed and switched; her toes tapped in threes to the music as it infected them both. In vain, he searched for words, looking high above him into the black sky.
She touched his hand, one finger resting on a blue vein that pulsed with the beat pouring outside.
“Don’t think I’m forward, Steve,” she said, her face little but her sweet smile and wicked eyes. “But can we dance?”
Steve sighed toward her. “I’m no good—if you wanna find someone else—”
Her hand wrapped around his and pulled him forward, down, off the ledge before he knew it. Pulling him close, she spoke low into his ear. “Don’t worry, hon—you can let me lead.”
He followed her unrepentant grin into the hall, his fists held tight behind him.
“Come on, you were glad to go, don’t put me on,” Bucky said, peering into their square foot mirror. He pulled his collar away from his neck, this way and that, searching.
“Yeah, Buck, it was real nice,” Steve said, but it came out a sigh. The flush of booze had faded from his cheeks, his skin, leaving him wrung out like a pale sponge. Bucky watched him in the glass, and froze for a moment.
“Here, let me look at you,” he said, catching Steve’s chin with a hand. He turned it to the side.
Steve protested, swatting with his hands, “Let me alone, would you?” His suspenders hung from his waist, and his pants had begun the inevitable slip down his backside. He caught and held them up, reduced to pushing Bucky away with the other. Needless to say, it was ineffective.
“What you got here, Stevie,” Bucky said, inspecting the corner of Steve’s face, just above where his jaw met his neck. His breath stirred the air along the edge of Steve’s ear.
The hairs along Steve’s spine answered, standing on end, and he could feel his pulse in his hand where he pushed against Bucky’s chest, in his jaw so close to Bucky’s mouth, and in the small of his back, an ache yearning for a hand.
“This lipstick? Dorrie treat you real nice?” Bucky’s grin was close, close to Steve’s face, and Steve curled in on himself as he pushed away, twisted away, eager to escape the throb. He rubbed hard at his jaw, and Bucky’s eyes followed.
“It’s nothin, Buck, leave it alone,” he said. A hot flush of embarrassment, or something else, crept up his chest and neck.
“You ain’t gotta tell me nothin. But she liked you, pal. I know she did.” Bucky’s eyes held his, urging camaraderie, and Bucky’s hand followed him away. It was in moments like this that Steve resented the tactile familiarity of each other’s bodies—he needed escape, and by the bounds of their friendship he couldn’t have it. His blood was up, still feeling the wet heat of Dorrie's mouth on his lips, his neck, her soft body pressed in and around his, and this ache made his pull away, pull far away from Bucky’s knowing hands, even as they pulled on his shoulders and clapped him on the back.
“What’s not to like,” he said, but the flatness of his tone undercut the bravado. Bucky’s laugh echoed through their tight apartment as Steve was left to stand alone, unsure of what exactly he’d been unsure of.
“She’s a great dame, Stevie,” he said with a salacious grin, raising his eyebrows. “She likes you.”
Bucky had caught him looking at his compass, where her picture was stored like a talisman against the demons of the night, the mundane horrors of steady, boring war.
“You think?” Steve couldn’t help the hope that bloomed across his face, and Bucky smiled back before turning away. His smile was tight these days, private and small, although everything seemed smaller about Bucky now, small and receding as he drew away. Steve didn’t push—never had—but the beat was off between them, no closeness to be found, always an off-note in the otherwise habitual life during wartime. His every moment of little happiness jangled with a dissonant note around Bucky, whose dark eyes never seemed to brighten. Steve didn’t push. But he wanted to.
“I know she does.” Bucky paused and swallowed and looked around. “Think you’ll see her in London, after this?”
“Hard to say, but I can’t help hoping.” It was the most Steve’d ever confessed to Bucky, this small true thing about Peggy. It seemed the only things he could offer now were small.
Bucky clapped him on the back, gazing into the trees that surrounded them, never meeting Steve’s eye. “I’m sure we will, pal.”
“She’s only here for a half hour, but I got cheap champagne—or what do they call it here, prosecco?—and a view. It’s all you now,” Bucky said, shoving a bottle into his arms and pushing him up the stairs of the hotel that served as their temporary base for the week.
“I don’t—Buck, how’d you do this?” Steve fumbled for his words—he hadn’t seen Peggy in months, not since Bucky had been rescued, not since her red dress and drinks close with Bucky and the promise of something more.
“Sorry I couldn’t get you music—I know how much you love dancing,” Bucky needled, grin wide. If he’d been more together, Steve would have rolled his eyes; instead, the thought of Peggy, of Bucky knowing Peggy would come and bring them together, and Bucky and Peggy and—his mind short-circuited, an outlet with too many appliances plugged in.
“What do I do?” He asked, turning to his oldest friend. Bucky flinched at the eye contact, as he’d done for months now, but recovered without delay.
“Be yourself,” Bucky said. “And pop that champagne.” He made the sentence filthy, tongue darting over his bottom lip, which was hope for something, at least.
“Steve—what a surprise,” she said, and he imagined her face was full of repressed delight. But Peggy had the best poker face of any of them, and the surface of it was only friendly. Her eyes did sparkle, though.
He grinned, sheepish, and gestured with the bottle. “We’re celebrating?”
“Oh?” And her smile turned teasing.
“Our latest—victory,” Steve said, and heard his own stilted speech and cringed inside, thinking of tights and lights so bracing he couldn’t see beyond them.
“How lovely for you,” Peggy said, and her red lips were dark in the night’s moving lights. Steve stared at them, his world narrowed to that smear of red—but collecting himself, he set to opening the bottle.
It popped loud, and bubbled over just a bit—not very cold at all, almost warm. Steve let the tickling liquid run over his hand where it gripped the neck.
“Here, let me,” she said, and Steve had always appreciated this about her, that she took control when necessary. She wiped the bottle down with a handkerchief from her purse, and set it down on the ledge of the balcony. “I doubt you brought glasses, then.”
“No, he—I guess I forgot them,” he said.
“Well, if it doesn’t bother you, it won’t bother me,” she said, and lifted the bottle heavy to her mouth. Her lips wrapped around the opening, and her neck moved smooth as she swallowed a long pull.
He took the bottle from her, and she pressed a hand to her neck. And burped, just a little.
“Pardon me, it’s the fizz,” she laughed.
“Oh no, don’t worry about that at all,” Steve hurried to reassure her, although he suspected she didn’t need his reassurance in the least. He tipped the bottle into his mouth. Graceless, he ended up with sweet bubbles pouring down one side of his face, his mouth unable to swallow in time. But Peggy laughed, good hearted and good natured, and they smiled at one another.
“Peggy,” he began. She turned to him, one eyebrow raised, and in the face of her composure, any semblance of confidence failed. He managed something else. “I wanted to thank you, Peggy, for—everything you did, helping me find Bucky.”
She took the bottle from him.
“Don’t think of it, Steve,” and she drank again. “This really isn’t very good, you know.” Her voice was confiding, and her eyes twinkled. More than anything, he liked her eyes, how much they said in the heart of her still, English face.
“Well, I guess I wouldn’t know,” he said, laying it on thick, “being such a poor kid from Brooklyn.”
“And never exposed to the finer things of civilization,” she said, affecting a posh accent that he’d heard once around the bend in London.
“Well, shucks, Pegs,” he said, putting on his best naive American. “I just like baseball and apple pie. How could I tell the difference in champagne and prosecco?”
She giggled at his performance, a rarity from her. “What a fine dancing monkey you make.” The smile they shared was deep, intimate, and they passed the bottle back and forth without words, bubbles teasing the backs of their throats, glass becoming steadily lighter and lighter, as their smiles grew wider and wider. Their finger brushed repeatedly on the dark glass, and each time Steve felt it in the pit of his spine.
“A shame there’s no music,” she said to the silent air.
Steve, to his surprise, felt the same.
“Agent Carter, we’re about to depart,” a head poked through the balcony door. It delivered its message and vanished, but its message hit its target.
Peggy handed the bottle over with a sigh. Steve covered her hand with his and met her eyes; she smiled, but it was sad, or not exactly sad but regretful, and she pulled away under his hand.
“You have to go,” Steve said.
She peered up at him and nodded. Before turning away, she pressed the palm of her hand into his cheek and held it there.
“It was a lovely respite, Steve.”
“Next time we’ll dance,” he said, and leaned into the touch—but it was gone, and so was she, in a matter of seconds. And he was left with a half-empty bottle and still-aching heart.
“Worth it?” Bucky said, stealing the bottle from Steve’s slack hand.
“It never really—feels like the right time,” he said.
Bucky laughed out the window and nursed on the bottle.
“I said we’d dance next time.”
“Be sure to let her lead,” and Bucky still turned away from him, a solid back covered in thin white cotton. The air had cooled as they approached winter, but Bucky had never minded the cold. “You got two left feet after all.”
Steve sat next to him and looked out into the evening, the night where somewhere Peggy flew off away, away.
“Never did get the hang of this,” he said, and Bucky hummed a noncommittal agreement, finishing the dregs of the wine gone flat.
“Find the right girl, you won’t have to,” Bucky said.
“Wait, let me get this straight. You like men and women, you look like—you do, and you’re still not getting any?” Bucky rubbed at his forehead with two fingers. “Steve, Steve, what have you been doing without me? How’d you even survive?”
“What is that?” Steve looks at the small glass cup in Bucky’s hand. Bucky slides a mug of black coffee over as he sits. The table tilts to one side, coffee precarious, before righting itself.
“Cortado,” Bucky said, downing half the tiny cup in a gulp. He grinned. “It’s good.”
“You sure that’s all you want?”
Bucky shrugged. “Not like it does that much either way.”
The coffee shop—Grounds of Being—had an eclectic sense of decorative furniture: old iron-wrought chairs, steel spools as tables, benches covered in baroque red velvet cushions. Steve looked around at the art on the walls, not an inch of paint between the canvases jammed next to one another. It was more than a little overstimulating to the eye, and the seating left something to be desired for oversized supersoldiers—but Bucky had picked it out, needled him till he came. So there they sat, sipping their drinks. Bucky had a tablet out, eyebrows furrowed as he thumbed through page after page of an app. The New Yorker, it looked like. When in Rome, he supposed.
Steve took a long pull of his coffee, which was admittedly smooth and delicious and far more flavorful than anything he boiled on the stove. He made a pleased sound—the shock of bitterness at the end never arrived, instead flowing easy down his throat in one long swallow. When he raised his eyes from his cup, Bucky’s eyes were caught on his neck.
“Good?” Bucky lowered his gaze back to the tablet held above his face. He sprawled over the undersized, uncomfortable chair, thighs spread wide and denim spread tight over them.
“It’s real good.” At Bucky’s returning silence, Steve pulled out a notebook and glanced around, seeking a subject. He’d drawn too many apples recently—dear Lord, how round could they be—and the coffee mugs on the table weren’t inspiring him. He looked reluctantly at an empty wing chair. Steve supposed it was good practice if nothing else, even if the only interest he had in it was the ugly greyed chartreuse of its crushed velvet fabric. It was a magnificently ugly chair.
“See anything you like?” Bucky didn’t look up from the screen, but Steve could hear the suggestion in his tone without its regular accompanying grin.
Steve sighed. “What am I supposed to be looking at.”
Bucky’s eyes slid over to him; the rest of his body remained motionless in its pose. “How about eight o’clock.”
Steve looked, where a young woman sat typing, earbuds in, eyes hard in front of her. Everything about her posture and activity asked not to be bothered. She was lovely—dark hair, smooth olive skin, bright eyes in a face that drew in the viewer and held them there. Intense, and beautiful. Steve shook his head.
“She’s pretty. And pretty busy, it looks like.”
“Yeah? How about my five o’clock?”
Steve glanced ahead, his eyes flicking to the left (because, jeez, he did not want to get caught looking). A young guy, tight jeans over legs propped up on a coffee table. Glasses, tortoiseshell plastic frames; mousy hair tight on the sides and long on top, flopping into his face. He was smiling at something he read, and chewed on his lip from time to time. His plaid button down was rolled up on his forearms, a hint of ink peeking out.
But Steve got it. This was Bucky, on the look out for his happiness, even when Steve preferred he wouldn’t. This was Bucky, being accepting. This was Bucky, making a gesture.
“He’s cute. You know, Bucky, I’d really like to just spend some time with you.”
Bucky huffed a laugh. “Boring old me? Look at that guy. I’m sure he has a real interesting story for you,” and his teasing grin turned lascivious, that teasing tongue running between his teeth. Between that and his suggestive eyebrow, Steve flushed, heat running up his back, even if it didn’t show.
Steve hid in the empty page before him. “I’m sure he does.” He put pencil to paper and made a confident first stroke, one that he immediately regretted. Well, the chair has to be at a weird angle, he guessed.
“Excuse me, what are you reading?”
“No, please don’t,” Steve heard himself say on instinct, without even knowing what occurred. But Bucky had turned, bracing his arms on the back of the chair and talking with the man behind him. The man who smiled and laughed, lifting the book to show the two of them. Infinite Jest. A blue brick of a book.
“Oh, do you know it,” the man asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Nope,” Bucky smiled wide, his confidence absolute. “Could you tell us about it?”
The man considered the two of them, taking them in—their broad shoulders and tight shirts and hard denim. Their tiny cups and half-eaten croissants. Steve’s sketchpad; Bucky’s brown leather boots, tied with cord. He moved his chair over. “Have you read any David Foster Wallace?”
Bucky’s phone buzzed and chirped, and he stood in response.
“Oh, I gotta run,” he said, his phone disappearing into his pocket. Steve started to stand as well, but Bucky shoved him down with a hard arm. “No, you stay, enjoy the afternoon! I know you wanted to get more sketching in.”
“No, but I—”
“Oh, you sketch,” Seth said.
“So nice to meet you Seth, that book sounds great, I’m gonna look it up, see you later Steve,” Bucky’s sentences ran together as he backed towards the doorway. Behind Seth’s head, Bucky mimed writing something on his hand and mouthed ‘get his number,’ before disappearing out the door with a light chime of a bell.
“Do you do mostly representational art, then,” Seth said, leading him through the conversation. He had a way of turning questions into statements in his flat, affectless voice. It was off-putting but not wholly unattractive—or rather, he was attractive, and interested, and Steve was on edge because of it, but not himself uninterested. Still, Steve’s attention was on the friend who’d just left, retreated faster than a running army. But—he couldn’t be rude.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” and he tried to remember everything he could about modern art from the ’50’s onward, hoping to think of someone between Pollack and Cy Twombly. Nothing was coming. In another life, his palms would be sweating; here, in 2015, only his stomach turned.
“You get his number?”
“You gonna call?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “He was kind of a dick, to be honest.”
Bucky snorted. “No shit. That matter though?”
“Are you kidding? Yeah, it matters. I don’t want to—be with someone who doesn’t, at least, think of someone besides themselves.” What he left unsaid was, with someone who wasn’t also a pretentious asshole with needlessly strong opinions on the ‘dubious’ merits of amateur art. In his hidden heart of hearts, Steve had heard himself say ‘fuck this shit,’ and make his excuses.
“Alright, alright, noted,” Bucky said. The mostly empty mug swirled in his metal hand, circling in time to the waltz on the radio—the internet radio, which Bucky had taken to like a bird to air. A newer song, low female voice smoothing out the wrinkles in the quiet air over heavy piano. His feet danced under the table, and Steve thought of warm air and watching Bucky swirl date after date around, his big hand curved from waist to back, confident in his grip.
“He was nice-lookin though, right?” Twisting in his chair, Bucky peered up at him with an irrepressible look, mouth open in the beginning of a smile; his lips were red from the heat of the tea, and Steve’s eyes traced them without thinking. “Come on, I chose well.”
Palming his face, Steve held back a laugh. “Hats off to you, pal.” He walked away, skin itching, but Bucky raised his mug in a cheers.
“I got you pegged, Rogers, and don’t you forget it.”
“Stevie—I wanna go dancing,” he wheedled. He made his eyes big, and his mouth pout, and Steve, for all of his dignity, could never resist that face.
“Sure, Buck. Choose the place—I can tag along, like old times.” He was being supportive, Steve told himself. Supporting his friend’s decisions.
Bucky smiled, a secret buried in it and a glint in his eye. “I got just the place, pal.”
Steve was surprised, pleasantly so. Gip’s Place was a jazz club, with swing dancing and “craft cocktails” and live bands with trumpets and a piano and a crooning singer whose voice sang warm about the pains of unrequited love. It was far and away better than whatever he’d been imagining, but that was Bucky for you.
“Dance with me,” Bucky said, after their first round.
Steve’s skin buzzed, itched, burned with it, and the anticipation gripped him by the neck. They were up and swinging, Bucky leading, and Steve’s joy in the movement blocked out every thought of how impossible this would have been before, them dancing together. Steve was always more graceful when someone else led—in dancing, at least, and possibly all thing romantic—unlike the vast majority of his life. It was freeing, Bucky’s hands pushing him there and here, pulling gentle and always finding him just as he felt unsure where to step next. It was easy, easy, and he was caught up in the rhythm and the harmony and the feel of strong hands that gave him access to a dance he never understood before now. Easy like nothing else.
But then Bucky spoke.
“Ok, see that girl over there,” he said, breath beginning to catch with effort. “I think she’s been eyeing you up.”
“Come on, Buck, we’re not here for that, are we,” Steve said, and Bucky sent him into a spin. Their hands kept meeting, clasping, and releasing; Steve’s feet didn’t properly know where to move, but the suggestions that Bucky’s body gave him kept him in time, in place. He bounced when he should and moved when he should.
“No reason not to keep looking, right?”
“Yeah, but, look for you, not for me. You don’t need to worry about me,” Steve said.
“Course I do—who else would?” Bucky grinned his infectious grin, the one that let him get away with virtually anything, and he swung Steve around like a pound of flour. Two massive supersoldiers did not make for light dancing partners. “Besides, I don’t need to look for me.”
Steve meant to ask what he meant, but the song ended, and sitting back at their cramped table for two, close in, knees touching and crowded between each other, he let the words warm his skin without thinking too deliberately about their meaning. Instead, he smiled at Bucky, smiled when they talked, smiled when they danced, smiled when Bucky got them another round of drinks. And that smile only broke for a fraction of a second when Bucky brought a man with him—young and slight and plastered with sweat, sweet muddled smile stretching from ear to ear.
“Steve, this is Mason,” Bucky said. “Don’t worry—I warned him you can’t lead.”
Steve nodded, deep and full; he collected himself even as the bright feeling borne in his chest dropped deep in his gut. “Mason, he’s not wrong about that,” he performed.
“He was nice, he was nice,” Steve said, hands thrown up in protest.
“Then what’s the problem?” Bucky’s mouth twisted, exasperation and frustration and just plain annoyance all evident on his face. He was even trying not to show it.
Steve shrugged and searched the ceiling for words. “I don’t know—what did we have in common? He was nice, and I liked him, I just—I don’t know.” The words didn’t come. The images did—what he didn’t want, and what he wanted, by contrast, pressed into his mind’s eyes—images of senses, arms pressing into him, the tap and sigh of a familiar presence swept up in music, the old stir of singing desire, kept in time with breath on his face, hands on his body, a never admitted truth that crept closer to the surface every passing day. The pulse of night and day, the music brought out, and he was carried, swept up with it.
“So you want someone to talk to,” and Bucky’s voice was a little mocking, a little fond, and it broke through Steve’s mind and shattered his visions of something else. “We can find that.”
“Stop, please stop,” Steve whined, breathless from his own burgeoning sense of something else. But his protest fell flat and Bucky shrugged, ignorant of his churning gut, and grinned with full teeth.
“Yeah, pal, whatever you want,” Bucky lied, and they both knew it, and the familiarity was enough, for now.
“At least I didn’t go with AmericanCap. It was available, you know.”
“That does not make this better. And really, how is BrooklynGold better? What does that even mean?”
“Evocative of what?”
Bucky snorted, almost a giggle. “Just evocative.”
“Jesus Christ, Buck, don’t make sense.” The truth of the matter was, Steve whined. No one alive, except maybe Sam, got to hear him act the petulant child that he was on occasion, except for Bucky. Who heard it often, but could never get quite enough of it. Who sought it out, that high pleading note in Steve’s voice. Nothing like it, and no one else got under his skin like Bucky did.
“Come on, Stevie, it’s just one date. Look at the guy, at least. He’s nice.” Bucky drew out that last word, made it long and pleading. He chewed on the pad of his thumb and looked up at Steve, computer screen casting blue low light-shadows on the underside of his face.
“Ok, ok, ok,” Steve assented. “But really, last time, ok?” He caught sight of his profile pic, and cringed at the jammed hat and unkempt beard.
“Ok, ok,” Bucky mimicked. “Now you show nice handsome David a good time, alright?”
An hour into this date, two drinks in and all of Impressionism covered, David, the nice brunet with deep brown eyes and a forgiving smile and a ten-day beard, got around to asking him about work.
Steve, never sure of how to navigate this, split the difference between truth and lies. “I used to work for SHIELD, special ops. Kind of like what I did in the military,” because that David had known.
“Yeah, you mentioned that online. Where were you stationed, again?” David’s finger ran along the edge of his sweating glass, picking up beads of condensation and trailing them across the table top. He was a nice man, and handsome, and honest. He worked of a non-profit organization that advocated for the city’s homeless. He was a vegetarian. He had a good relationship with his mother. And in the pit of Steve’s stomach, he felt an absolute heel for lying.
“You know, David, I have to be honest with you about something.”
“Yeah,” he searched for the words. “I, uh, I didn’t set up that profile.”
David raised an eyebrow. “No?”
“My friend, who I’m sure thought he was doing me a favor—he set it up for me. And contacted you.”
“Oh?” Every statement seemed to raise his eyebrows higher, and Steve didn’t think they went up that far.
Steve swallowed reflexively. “I have to be honest—I didn’t know I was going on this date until an hour before I got here.”
David moved back with surprise, then laughed. “That’s crazy. I guess your friend has you pegged. I never would have known from what he said.”
“Yeah, I guess so?” Steve’s voice rose high in embarrassment. He ran his hand over his face. David laughed.
“It’s ok, man, it happens.”
“Does it? This just seems—well, it’s outside my comfort zone. And I know he meant well, means well, but—I don’t know, impersonating me online seems like a whole other thing.” Steve sighed. “But he’s always doing this, now. Setting me up. Not that I mind—I mean, I’m having a really nice time tonight. I don’t want you to think—“
“Steve, it’s fine.” David considered him for a moment. “So that was all him? All the messages?”
“I mean, I guess so?”
“Your friend, right? He an ex?”
“Bucky? No—we’ve never—and he’s my best friend. Since childhood.” Steve shook his head. Just to clarify—“and straight.”
David hummed at him, noncommittal. He finished his drink in a gulp. “Where did you say you served?”
Anxious to regain the rapport they shared before, Steve spoke without thinking. “Oh, all over—Europe.”
His head falling back, David snorted and looked at the ceiling.
“I mean—I can’t really say—” Steve started, but David interrupted.
“So, Cap.” His face was split by a smile of disbelief.
Steve looked down before answering. He nodded and locked eyes with his date, unwilling to back down. “Yep.”
“Shit. No one’s going to believe me, you know.” He ran a hand through his dark, curling hair.
“Is that a problem?”
“Are you a problem?” David’s expression became a mixture of disbelief and heat and pity, all at once. “Steve, I can’t tell you how much it’s not a problem.”
Steve, not knowing what to do with himself or his hand or his eyes, tossed back the remains of his beer in a long gulp. He could feel David’s eyes on him as he swallowed, and met the hot gaze that watched him when he set his empty glass on the bar.
“You want to get out of here?” And that was the question, wasn’t it. Did he? He thought so—David was kind, and handsome; easy to talk to, forgiving. A pleasant human being. The kind of person he should want to be with.
“Yeah, let’s,” he said, jerking his head toward the door. When David pulled out his wallet, he tried to object, but was quickly shushed.
“No, let me. Least I can do, after all you’ve done for us.” It was the kind of statement that made him cringe inside, humility and insecurity swirling in a vortex of feeling that made him want to run away. Still, after David left money for the bill, he followed him outside into the night, shoving his hands deep in his pockets.
“David—can I just say that I’m sorry about this? That Bucky—pretended to be me.” Steve gave a weak smile, barely apparent in the darkness.
They stood outside the bar, sidewalk stretching endlessly beyond them. David reached forward and caught the inside of Steve’s shirt between buttons, pulling him forward.
“It’s fine, Steve.” He wasn’t much shorter, but just short enough to look up into Steve’s eyes when close. Which they were.
“I just—I feel like I have to explain,” he said into David’s face, suddenly more near than it had been all night. Up close, his eyes were dark and inviting, but patient, waiting for Steve. “He wants me to be happy.”
“Mmmhmm.” David looked at his mouth.
“And I don’t know why—”
“Steve.” David peered up into his eyes. At his silence, David pushed him backwards, moving them both against an empty wall.
He was telegraphing his every move, sending every signal—eye contact, physical contact, giving Steve every chance to stop. But Steve—he let it happen, let himself be led.
And David’s mouth was on his, sweet and soft until Steve’s dropped open. Then he pushed in, their bodies flush together. Steve let his head fall forward, deepening the kiss, and ran his hands up David’s arms. David clutched at his shirt, pulling them as tight as possible. They kissed, hungry and slow, ignoring the night’s pedestrians and advancing hour.
Until David laughed against his mouth and jerked back. “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
Steve, stunned, gaped for a moment. “What is it? What did I do?”
“No, not you.” David shook his head in disbelief. “The Winter Soldier. That’s who you’re talking about.”
Steve breathed out his nose, long and slow, gathering himself. “Yeah, Bucky.”
“That’s who was messaging me.”
David stared at the ground and ran his hands over his face, through his hair, pulling. “Jesus Christ.” He paused with a fist of hair in one hand. He looked at Steve, stuck in this position, hair fluffed like a dark cockatiel. It was sweet, Steve thought, or would have been in another conversation. “Steve—I’m going to regret this.”
“What is it?”
“You should talk to him.”
Steve stared, blank-faced. “Why?”
David sighed, and looked Steve up and down, shaking his head with a rueful grin. “I—now that I’m thinking about it, Steve, I’m pretty sure he’s into you.” He seemed astounded at his own words, at his own stupidity in speaking. But he shrugged anyway.
Steve didn’t move, didn’t speak.
“Oh Jesus Christ, what am I doing,” David breathed out and pinched his nose.
“He’s not—I would know,” but Steve’s attempt to convince himself was lackluster at best. “And he’s straight?”
“You know, I spent a couple weeks messaging with the guy. Weeks.” David suppressed an embarrassed laugh and his expression was incredulous, presumably at the conversation they were having. “Nope, not straight, I would guess.” Choosing his words carefully, precisely, David tugged at his hair as he spoke, grimacing. “And considering how much time he pretended to be you, I’d think he has—an investment in your happiness.”
Steve stared ahead, unable to form words, let alone a whole sentence.
“So, yeah. You should talk to him.” David’s smile was weak as he patted Steve on the arm. “Steve—you’re a great guy. Really. So, you know, call me if it doesn’t work out.” His nose scrunched up as he listened to himself, but he shook his head.
“I don’t even know what there is to work out,” Steve said in a daze. But David was backing away, signaling for a cab that arrived promptly, too prompt for Steve’s muddled thoughts, too quick for him to form a coherent objection.
“Think about it. It was nice to meet you, Steve,” David said, climbing into the car. Steve waved at him through the glass after the door shut. Because what else was there to say.
“You’re home early. How was it?”
“Fine, I guess.” He was stunned, still.
“Yeah? Just fine?” His limbs spread out over the couch, thighs wide open, calf hanging off the edge of the back. Steve swallowed, reflexively, his mouth drier than he’d realized. “What about a second date?”
“You know, I don’t think so.” He tried to brush it off, a casual thing, but Bucky gave him a hard stare.
“What, you didn’t like him? What’s not to like?” Bucky’s voice had gone high, his feathers all ruffled. Steve suppressed a laugh at that—Bucky offended that his taste in men for Steve was not wholly supported by Steve himself. What a night.
“No, no, he’s a nice guy, I don’t—” and Steve wondered what to possibly say here. “We might go out again. Just have to figure some things out first.” That was true, as far as he knew.
Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Alright,” he said. His suspicions were not yet fully formed, and Steve doubted that whatever Bucky suspected would match the suggestions he’d gotten earlier.
“He’s a real great guy, Buck,” Steve said. “It was a nice thought.”
Bucky relaxed. “I thought you’d like him.”
“You’re too nice to me, Buck.”
“Eh, I’m too mean to you too,” Bucky said.
Steve barked a laugh, and the tension in the air dispersed as dust. “Come on, let’s watch a movie.”
“Alright, but none of this action shit. I want a nice screwball with a happy ending, alright?”
“You got it, buddy.”
But the whole movie long, Steve watched Bucky instead, skin itching, pulse aching.
Bucky was on the couch in his underwear. Reading. Steve ignored this.
“We’re going to a Mets game,” he announced. Bucky arched an eyebrow.
“The Mets?” His voice skeptical.
“The Mets,” Steve said, refusing any argument. “It’s what we got.”
Bucky slumped in his seat. “We’re getting beat by the damn Braves.”
“Can’t win em all.”
“Can’t win em none, looks like,” Bucky said. “Have you seen their record this season?”
“Shut up and watch the game. It’s this or the Yankees.”
Bucky gave a mock shudder and downed half a beer, foam lining his upper lip. Steve tried not to watch the tongue that swept out to collected the white bubbles from Bucky’s skin; predictably, he failed.
In the noise of the day Bucky leaned over and spoke under his breath. “See the girl next to me?”
“Nope, not today,” Steve refused. He caught Bucky’s eye. “Just promise me, not today, alright?”
Bucky leaned back in his plastic seat, arms wide in a facade of submission. “Alright, alright.
“We lost to Atlanta, can you believe it?” They walked briskly in the night air, equal strides matching each other, feet mirrored as they stepped quick on the pale pavement.
“It was a close one, though,” Steve said. His fingers tried to tap against his thigh inside his pocket, but the jeans were tighter than he’d realized. ‘Date jeans,’ Natasha had convinced him, dark and fitted, so fitted he didn’t need a belt, even if he wore one to be old-fashioned. He felt underdressed otherwise; he’d adjusted to jeans as everyday wear, as date-appropriate, but hell if he would forgo a belt.
“If you say so,” Bucky said. “What’s this place about?”
“Just Italian,” Steve said.
“And what, you just wanted to try it out?” Bucky had asked where they were headed, and Steve made excuses—though he shouldn’t, if he were honest. It’s not as if pretending would make this easier; as if Bucky not knowing this was a date would somehow magically work out for the best. Not as if he could make it a date without their mutual agreement. But he couldn’t think how to broach the subject.
“Why not?” He said, turning to look at the brownstone beside him. It would come up, ‘organically,’ maybe. Probably. Maybe.
“The veal piccata no good then,” Steve said toward Bucky’s bare plate.
“Not bad—not Ma’s, but not bad.” Bucky rubbed a torn piece of bread across the porcelain, more ritual than effectual.
“You’ll eat anything,” he said, and wondered how to turn the conversation against the tide it had taken.
“Yeah, trash cans, both of us.”
It was a romantic restaurant—white tablecloths and candlelight and deep red walls. Red wine, most of a bottle; squid and fresh bread both drenched in sweet fragrant olive oil that dripped from their fingers. Not that Bucky had noticed the romance of it.
This was a disaster. Granted, one to which only Steve had a front row seat.
“You want dessert?” And even his speech, the cadence of his words, resisted anything like flirtation. Feet moving on the off-beat, twisting where he should turn, pushing where he should pull. He’d never gotten the hang of this.
“Nah, we got ice cream at home.”
The waiter brought their check and Steve picked it up. Even that made no impression, as Bucky replied he’d get the next one.
How did people do this?
When Harry Met Sally was playing; they caught it a half hour in and settled in with ice cream and beer.
How the hell did anyone do this?
On the one hand, he could come out and ask—Bucky, go on a date with me? It made him want to jump off a bridge. Bucky would’ve done it, come out and asked, except he hadn’t, and wouldn’t, for whatever reason. Assuming David was correct, which, maybe.
He was restless on the couch. He left his ice cream melting, abandoned on the coffee table. He chewed at his fingers. Did it even count as a date if only one person knew? The sound of one hand clapping, and all that. He pondered this for a while, frowning; he tried to shrug it off, but it wouldn’t let go.
“Somethin on your mind, Steve,” Bucky said without looking.
“Blood’s up, is all,” he said.
Bucky muted the screen and turned to him. “What do you wanna do?”
“No, don’t worry about—”
“Oh, I’m all yours today,” he grinned, but Steve doubted he meant the way Steve’s pulse took it. “You wanna leave, run, I don’t know, destroy a few punching bags?”
“Dance. Can we dance?” Steve heard himself say, and the blood around his brained pulsed hard as if saying, no, abort mission, no!
Bucky quirked an eyebrow. “You need more lessons?”
Steve squinted his eyes shut and pushed a finger into his forehead. “Yeah, I think—leading? Teach me how to lead? You always lead.” The words arrived from somewhere beyond him.
“You got it, pal.”
They were doing this, apparently.
“No, you gotta—push here, pull there. You have to feel it,” Bucky said.
“I’m pretty sure I feel it.” The flush on his neck deepened, burned.
“Yeah, you feel it, sure, but you have to make them feel it.” Bucky held Steve’s hand to his side, forcing the fingers to curl deeper into the hard flesh there. Steve swallowed and looked nowhere.
“It’s like—where do you want me to go?” Bucky ducked his head to catch Steve’s eye and nodded, helpful as always.
“Yup.” Bucky stood there, encouraging, his body pliant under Steve’s hands. They stood close, too close for Steve’s brain. A terrible idea. “Just move me.”
Steve released him and took a step back. He felt a fraud, a creep—everything Bucky said was tinged with something else, and only in Steve’s thoughts. Or maybe not, looking at Bucky’s suggestive glances that weren’t any different today than eighty years ago, but the possibility, the potential feeling that may or may not exist—the not knowing had his skin tingling and sensitive to every brush of hand over skin.
“That’s the problem, I don’t—“
“Come on, Steve,” Bucky grabbed his hand. He curled it once more around his waist, pushing Steve’s thumb into his skin. “Here, press me here.”
Steve stepped closed. Their other hands found each other without looking. Steve pushed, right food forward, thumb moving Bucky with him.
“Now the side.”
Their eyes met as they stepped together, middle position. Steve said nothing.
And he used his fingers, curling around Bucky’s back, to pull him forward as Steve stepped back. They stood silent, the low beat of the soft music swirling around them, soon fading into nothing as the song ended.
It was his moment—speak or say nothing, the time for Bucky to move away, pull away, leave him alone. It was on him, this moment, and he was letting it slip away. Still, he couldn’t find—he’d never known what to say, in moments like this.
“Buck,” he cleared his throat. Their hands were still together, their hands still grasping at each other in midair, Bucky’s high on his arm and his steady on Bucky’s side. A new song started, and Steve moved, pulling them along with the music. One-two-three, the tow of a waltz.
“Buck, why do you keep setting me up,” he said, and the motion shifted, their box step revolving in a slow circle.
He felt the shrug, rather than saw it.
“Come on, Stevie, I just wanna see you happy,” Bucky said, almost a whine—an old conversation, that Steve tried to make new.
“Why’d you think that’s gonna make me happy?” He was exasperated, a little, that they never saw each other, that they talked past one another, always. “Why’d you think someone else is gonna make me happy?”
Steve thought he’d pushed too far, revealed too much; at his words, Bucky retreated, looking at Steve with something like pity and fondness and distance, all at once. “Steve, I’m sorry. I didn’t think—I know you loved her.”
Steve’s heart sunk and stomach dropped, a one-two punch of misunderstanding and old pain. “That’s not—” but it was worth addressing. He waited before answering, waited until his thoughts stopped swirling around the man before him. “I did think, that maybe, one day—but it didn’t, and that’s fine.”
It was the truth.
Bucky’s kind eyes wouldn’t leave him, and it irked him, since Bucky’s kindness was the last thing he wanted at the moment. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to marry her.”
It hurt, but it was an old ache, the ache of a long-healed scar. “Thanks, Buck.”
Bucky pulled him into a hug, tight embrace that stood still until the song ended.
“I think I’m gonna turn in,” Bucky said. Steve felt the night slipping out from under him, and in that moment, he was a titch angry, frustrated with himself and with the world. It was good for him, this pulsing itch; it made him change the course of the evening, a stone dropped in a stream.
“No, wait—will you stay up a while?” It was a plea, but underneath it was conviction.
Bucky considered him, yawns and tired eyes turning to focused attention in a beat. “Not tired?”
“No. Maybe a little jumpy?” Steve said. “I’d like some company, if you’re not sick of me.”
“Stevie, I’m never sick of you,” Bucky said as he sat. Steve raised an eyebrow, and Bucky’s nose scrunched in a grin. “Alright, it’s a lie, but I can stand you a while longer. What d’you wanna do?”
A relevant question, to his mind. He turned over a record while he wondered how to answer. The player was his; Bucky preferred his infinite resources of digital music, but Steve loved the physicality of it. The black circle, held and flipped about an invisible diameter, gleamed darkly in the evening. He liked soft lighting, especially at night; only lamps, only warm yellow bulbs, only a few, here and there. It was his last gesture of nostalgia, but he held on to it.
A low soft voice began to sing, her warm words settling over them both. The light, the night, the music—it’s a mood. That’s what he wanted—a mood.
You can’t dive in, you can’t just jump; you have to dance. You have to know the steps.
“What’d you think of David,” he heard himself say.
“Hmm?” Bucky cocked his head at the turn of the conversation. Push forward, pull back. “What do you mean?”
“I just wondered—you talked to him for a while, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Bucky said. He guessed. Steve wanted to know exactly the content of those messages, between David’s stammering blush and Bucky’s nonchalance, his evasions. It wasn’t the aim of the moment, however, and he let it slide.
“What did you like about him?” Bucky was puzzled, at a loss. “What did you talk about?”
His back was up, his face twisted. Bucky’s uncomfortable, off-kilter.
“I don’t know, art a little? Social issues? He got upset about the same shit you do,” Bucky said, a little defensive.
“Yeah, he was real nice. Nice to talk with,” Steve encouraged.
“But you liked him?”
“I liked him, sure,” Steve says. “I just wondered how you—what you talked about. Why you set me up with him.”
“I don’t know, Steve,” Bucky said, “every time I think I got you pegged, I get it wrong. I just wanted to find someone to show you a nice time. Give you some conversation.”
It was sweet, and tender, until, “and you know, maybe get you laid. You need it, pal.” Bucky drew a lip into his mouth, sucked on it. He released it with a smile.
Steve laughed. “What made you think he’d be up for that?”
“Oh, I got my ways.” And there it was, that rising flirtation that’s second nature to Bucky, that survived the worst of Hydra and seventy years on ice—that Bucky doesn’t even notice, himself. But Steve does, always had, and now he knew it he couldn’t go back.
“Yeah, sounds like.”
Bucky was embarrassed, biting his lips like it was 1937, and they were talking girls after school. “Why, he say something?”
“Shit. Steve, come on, I just wanted you to have a good time,” but Steve’s laughter, full-body chuckles, interrupted him. And Steve’s hand, that comes up to grip his shoulder and shake.
“You’re one of a kind, Buck.”
“I’m just lookin’ out for you.” Bucky twisted under his hand, but Steve held on, turned them toward each other with soft pressure.
“The thing is, Buck, you don’t have to,” and Steve became serious, soft eyes and soft mouth and steady gaze. “I think I know, now, what I want.”
He tried to convey this telepathically, tried to inform Bucky of what was in his heart and his head and his racing blood, but still, actual words were necessary at this stage. Or at least, actions.
Bucky, though, didn’t recognize any of this, and pulled back, eyes shuttered.
“Happy for you, pal.”
“Are you?” Steve licked his lips, and Bucky must have caught him doing so, since that was where his eyes landed when he looked up.
Steve was holding him still. Steve’s eyes held his gaze. Their bodies hold in position, stuck turned toward each other, diagonal where they sat, yet parallel. There was silence, and under his fingertips, Bucky’s pulse raced.
It was real. This was real. This thing between them, their dance, their push and pull and turning, turning circles—it was as good as confirmed. Steve understood it, finally, and he let Bucky know.
His hand slid up Bucky’s shoulder, slow and soft. Bucky doesn’t move. His fingertips found the skin of his neck, and traveled around to the back of Bucky’s head, cradling it in a wide palm, fingertips pricked by short hairs.
Their eyes didn’t move, didn’t look elsewhere, but Bucky’s jumped back and forth between Steve’s, wide and measuring. They drew closer together. Steve leaned in, and he didn’t think he imagined Bucky doing the same, just a fraction, leaning without moving at all, until their mingled breath ghosted over their lips. Their faces were close, so close, yet the distance seemed impassable, infinite.
It was a dance, but he had been wrong—it was a jump, as well. A leap.
Steve pushed forward and pulled Bucky toward him, and he kissed him, his eyes falling closed as their lips met. Bucky’s mouth opened under his, and the kiss became kisses, several kisses, suddenly uncountable, their only points of contact that hand on Bucky’s neck and the endless skin of their lips that slid over each other, slick with spit, all nerves surging up to those twin points. He was drunk with it, this closeness, this intimacy; it was sweet and gentle and heady and astounding, and it could continue forever, if only he let it.
Except Bucky’s hands pulled at his arms, just above the elbows, and Steve retreated, thoughts frozen in a moment's panic—but Bucky followed, pushing forward, pushing Steve back against the couch and spreading their contact to most of their torsos. Bucky’s hands slid into his hair. Bucky’s mouth teased his own open. Bucky’s thigh pushed against his.
His hand squeezed Bucky’s neck, an involuntary motion as Bucky’s tongue traced his bottom lip, but apparently it was something good, since Bucky moaned into his mouth. Steve couldn’t help it—the sound of that moan set a fire running along his spine, and he pulled Bucky closer.
Bucky, as if he somehow knew, slid his hands down Steve’s back, tracing that same path. His hands settled about his waist and squeezed, fingertips deep in his flesh, and Steve’s answering groan rattled them both as he bucked up off the couch. Their mouths fell apart, and they breathed on each other’s cheeks as their proximity became an embrace. They let the moment spread out around them, faces close but out of sight, and Steve felt enveloped by something larger than he could name.
“Christ Almighty,” Bucky whispered into his skin.
He dropped the hand from Bucky’s neck, smoothing down his back, and Bucky moved with it.
Steve fell back against the couch, swallowed up by cushions. His breath was heavier than if he’d run a marathon; he panted, open-mouthed and giddy, and couldn’t stop smiling. It should have been ridiculous, but Bucky was his mirror-image, down to the open grin and heaving chest, and the look of distilled joy in his bright eyes. That joy gave him what he needed—this was it, he’d managed it, somehow. Now, to make it real.
“So, Buck, go out with me some time?” Steve was shy all of a sudden, though he couldn’t imagine why. There they were, grinning like idiots, spit all over each other’s faces—gross and amazing and real. “I promise it’ll be better than this time.”
“Steve Rogers, was this a date?” Bucky turned excited in a moment, looking for all he was worth like he could break out in laughter any second, like this was the greatest possible thing to ever happen. “Jesus, Steve, it was a date.”
He laughed—cackled, really—until Steve shoved his shoulder.
“Come on, come on.”
“No, Stevie, it was great, really it was,” Bucky said, eyes crinkling with amused joy. “Just let me know next time?”
“I can’t believe you sexted a stranger and pretended to be me.”
“The thing’s he said, though. I swear, Steve, if you dump me, I’m calling him.”
“What? I’m the one he went on a date with.”
“Well, I’m the one he had internet sex with, so.”
“I guess I can never dump you then—we’d start WWIII over this guy.”
Bucky kissed him soft on the lips, and Steve felt the grin. “Yeah. And I’d win.”