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G.I. Joes and 2AM Diners

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It all starts with a G.I. Joe action figure.

It’s 1993 and Bucky’s five years old. He only remembers a few scarce things about the first day. He remembers playing out in the snow with his little sister. It was cold, but their parents had made sure they were bundled up in all the right clothes, and Bucky was actually starting to feel like he was boiling beneath his jacket and snow pants. He remembers there being thick, fat snowflakes dropping lazily from the sky, and whenever he’d stick out his tongue to try and catch them, Rebecca would do it too and Bucky, annoyed, kept calling her a copycat.

He remembers getting the second ball onto the body of the snowman they were building, when he’d started to feel lightheaded. His tummy hadn’t felt the greatest that morning, but it’d seemed to go away into the afternoon, which was why he’d been allowed outside to play. But suddenly, he’d gone from feeling perfectly fine one moment, to stopping dead in his tracks and wavering on his feet in the next. His little sister kept talking to him, but he could barely hear her – and then he crashed to the ground, losing consciousness, and he couldn’t remember anything for a while after that.

He remembers waking up in bed and being covered in sweat. The details are a lot fuzzier between that point and when his parents decided that he needed to be taken to the hospital; just bits and pieces of his bedroom, or flashes of his mother’s face, or a split-second glimpse at the big, plastic bowl before he was emptying the contents of his stomach into it. If he was even fully awake on to the drive over to the Maimonides Center, he can’t remember that.

He’s carried through the doors to the emergency room, and he faintly remembers hearing someone saying something about him running a fever – keeps getting hotter and hotter – and he can’t help it, he gets sick again right there in his dad’s arms. He’s brought to a room and stripped out of his vomit-covered jacket so they can wrap him up in a tiny blue gown. He doesn’t remember getting put into the bed, or the doctor coming in and checking his vital signs, or talking to his parents. Just flashes of lights and ceilings and the overwhelmingly crisp smell of cleanliness that only hospitals have, whenever his eyes incoherently open and roll around deliriously.

He remembers getting sick more, until there’s no more food left in his system and he’s bringing up nothing but bile. Yet it doesn’t stop. They try to give him crackers, but Bucky can’t keep them down for longer than ten minutes. They try to give him water, and even that doesn’t settle well. He can’t stop throwing up, and his fever doesn’t know how to do anything else but continue to rise. He remembers his throat stinging and sharp, shooting pains in his belly, and not even having enough hydration to cry, no matter how badly he wants to.

Bucky doesn’t remember hearing the doctor telling his parents about how they need to hook him up through an IV to some fluids, but he remembers freaking out the moment they try to pin him down. He’s five years old and he’s terrified of needles. His mom is out in the hallway because Rebecca had been scared and started crying, so it’s his dad who tries to soothe Bucky to calmness. Bucky stares up at him and keeps screaming, keeps crying without tears, because he’s far too fevered and he doesn’t want them to hurt him and stick a needle into the top of his hand.

His dad doesn’t seem to get it, though. He just keeps stroking his big palm over Bucky’s forehead and into his sweat-soaked hair, repeating reassurances that Bucky can’t hear but knows are a lie. And he’s so scared, he doesn’t want the needle, doesn’t want pain – but no matter how hard he thrashes, the staff keeps him pinned as gently as they can manage. He’s sobbing, loud and shrill, and the prick in his hand doesn’t hurt that much when they’re finally able to stick him, but in his state, it feels like torture. He cries out a loud “Oww!” and then cries even harder.

Bucky remembers a lady – she’s a nurse, but he doesn’t know that in the moment and he doesn’t care. There are a lot of people standing over him, but aside from his dad, she’s the one offering him a kind smile and telling him in a soft, melodic voice that it’s over, he did it, he was so brave… Her eyes are as blue as the sky, and there’s something about the protective way she’s encouraging Bucky that makes him calm down just a little; reminds him of that feeling his own mom gives him whenever he scrapes his knee, or bumps his elbow, or gets a bug bite.

Sniffling, still crying weakly, he can hear movements and talking, as the IV is started and Bucky starts getting the fluids he so sorely needs, and he keeps hearing you’re gonna be alright, but Bucky’s still just so scared. Still running a high fever. Still tired, and achy, and his head’s pounding and his stomach’s sore, and Bucky just wants to go home. His head lolls over to the right, and it’s at that exact second that he remembers seeing something in the doorway.

It only lasts a second. It’s small, whatever it is. Bucky doesn’t see shapes so much as he sees a mess of colors – just as quick as a blink of the eye, and then whatever it is disappears. It might’ve been a boy. It might’ve been his imagination. But Bucky’s so exhausted from the fight he just put up that he’s finally falling back out of consciousness, and he remembers the color gold – bright and beautiful, just like the sun.


The first night, Bucky spends waking up off and on whenever he feels nauseated. They continue to give him fluids, as well as stuff for his fever. But by the second day – though his temperature is more stabilized, even if too high to be considered ‘all better’ – he actually feels worse than the first. His mom explains to him that the doctors believe he has a real bad case of the flu, but with some time and patience, he’ll get better. 

There’s a lot missing during the second day because Bucky sleeps most of it off. At least one of his parents stays by his bedside as often as possible, and he’s told that Rebecca is going to be staying at their grandparents for a few days. Bucky’s five, and it doesn’t matter how sick he is, he remembers feeling jealous and disappointed that he’s stuck in some stupid hospital while his sister gets to eat chocolate chip cookies and watch cartoons on the TV in the basement.

By evening, the nurse from the night before comes back to check up on how Bucky’s doing. Her name is Sarah, and Bucky likes her. She’s a lot nicer than a lot of the other people who keep coming to see him. When he insists that he feels good enough to have some orange juice and soup, she’s the one to bring it to him. She even stays and talks with him and his mother the entire time he slurps it down.

Bucky does wind up getting sick again not long after, but the amount of time he’s able to keep the food down beforehand is much longer than the day before. Sarah tells Bucky that he’s already starting to show signs of getting better, and it must be because he’s very strong inside. Bucky can’t help but puff out his little chest a bit at that and agree, “I am strong.” Sarah and his mom laugh together, and Bucky smiles for the first time in over twenty-four hours.

It’s when Sarah’s leaving the room that Bucky sees that little hint of gold again. This time, he can make out clear as day that there’s a person attached to it. In the opened doorway, with one little hand on the frame, Bucky spots a small boy around his age peeking one eye into the room. The gold Bucky had seen is actually the boy’s short mop of hair, and even though he’s all the way on the other side of the room and Bucky can only see the one eye, he can already tell that it’s as bright and baby a blue as the nurse’s eyes are.

The second Bucky and the boy lock their gazes, that one eye widens and the kid disappears completely, retreating from around the corner. Bucky straightens up a bit and keeps staring at the door curiously, hoping that one blue eye and that golden hair will pop back out again. However, it doesn’t – not quite. Sarah steps out of the room and Bucky can hear her saying something, and then there’s a little voice replying, but Bucky can’t make out the words. The nurse reaches her hand out and when she brings it back in, the little boy appears and approaches her.

Bucky only just gets the quickest look at his face when he turns his head and stares back into the room at Bucky. But then Sarah keeps walking, and the boy is led away with her. The door is closed behind them, and Bucky finds himself staring at it for just a bit longer, as if by doing so, they’ll come back. When they don’t, he rolls over and asks if his mom can read one of the books she brought for him – getting distracted and thinking little on the incident; pushing it out of sight, out of mind, like children do.


Bucky finds the action figure on the third day. Well, it’s not so much that he found it, so much as he wakes up from a couple hours of sleep in the afternoon to see it lying on his bed next to his leg. Pushing himself into a sitting position, he picks up the G.I. Joe and stares at it in confusion. It’s certainly not one of his toys; he could tell you (in detail) exactly how many he has and what they look like with his eyes closed. 

When he looks to his parents and ask where it came from, they both glance over to the foot of his bed, trying but failing to hide a pair of small, knowing smiles. Bucky’s brows knit as he looks over to where they’re staring – only to see that golden hair again. This time, there are two eyes sneaking a peek at him from the foot of the hospital bed. The rest of him is still hidden. Yet again, the moment the boy sees Bucky staring back, he ducks away and disappears.

Bucky’s mouth opens and stretches into a playful grin. He’s still really sick and feeling dizzy, but he’s also not hooked up to the IV machine anymore – so he’s able to leap forward onto his hands and knees and quickly crawl over to the bed’s edge. Popping his head over the side and looking down, he sees the boy sitting flat on his butt and staring back up at him. Whoever he is, he’s tiny – much smaller than Bucky, and about twice as thin.

He’s got on a blue gown just like Bucky does, with a pair of Tazmanian Devil pajama pants underneath and black slippers on his feet. Looking at the gown, the first thought the brunet has is, Hey, we match! There’s something big and almost bulky-looking on top of his ears, as well as a white, plastic thing hanging from a string around his neck. The boy’s eyes are practically saucers again; cheeks bright pink with a blush.

“Hi!” Bucky says excitedly, happy to finally get a proper look at this kid’s face. “What’s your name?” The kid doesn’t answer. Instead, he just keeps staring up at Bucky like he’s seen a ghost. So Bucky holds the action figure up so the blond can see it. “Is this yours?” he tries next, trying to get small boy to talk. Still, he’s met with only more staring. Bucky frowns and goes to ask him if he’s okay when the boy suddenly breaks eye contact and starts to move. Without saying a word, he scurries onto his feet and then books it from the room. Bucky watches him go with a surprised expression, mouth hanging open.

“Hey – wait!” he calls after him, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed to chase after him. He whines and tries to protest when his dad quickly cuts him off and makes him get back into bed. They’re both chuckling now, and Bucky doesn’t understand what’s so funny. He pouts for a few minutes; arms crossed, and glaring from his parents to lowering his eyes and scowling at the blanket re-draped over his legs.

When he finally loses his steam a few minutes later, he turns the action figure back over in his hands and holds it on his lap. It looks old, like it’s been played with a lot. Still, it’s one of the coolest toys Bucky’s ever seen, and more than anything, he wants to find the boy who gave it to him and have someone to play with. So far, Bucky’s been horrendously bored the entire time he’s been there – which, to a child, might as well be an eternity.

Sarah comes back in that early evening to see if Bucky can stomach some toast with his juice and soup. Bucky gratefully scarfs it down, and to everyone’s delight, he only feels queasy afterwards but doesn’t actually get sick. She checks his temperature and lets them know that Bucky’s fever is still there, but continuing to lower at a nice, steady rate. If his body keeps up the good work, he could be out of there and back home within a couple days.

But now Bucky doesn’t want to go – not before he gets a chance to talk to the boy with the golden hair and give him his toy back.

As the nurse is about to leave the room, she notices the G.I. Joe poking out from under the blanket, next to Bucky. Getting a surprised smile, she says, “Oh!” and then asks if Bucky’s alright with her taking a look at it. “I was wondering what he did with this,” she murmurs to herself.

“Who?” Bucky asks.

“My son, he carries this thing around with him everywhere he goes,” Sarah explains to both Bucky and his parents. “Refuses to so much as leave home without it.” Shooting George and Winifred a conspiratorial smile, she hands it back to Bucky and pretends to think, “I wonder how it got in here.”

“I woke up and it was on my bed!” Bucky eagerly explains, none-the-wiser to the way the adults in the room are fighting to keep from grinning. “There was a boy, and he had yellow hair, and he was right there!” He clambers back over to the foot of the bed and points to the empty spot on the floor. “Right there – he kept lookin’ at me an’ I think he brought me it!”

Sarah pretends to gasp. “He did?” she asks.

“Yeah!” But then Bucky frowns, staring off as his momentary excitement vanishes. “But he wouldn’t talk to me. I asked him his name and he runded away. I think I scared him.”

Everyone’s smiling so warmly at him, and Bucky doesn’t get it. The more he thinks about it, the more he starts to worry that maybe they’ll think he did something wrong. Maybe the boy thought Bucky wanted to take the toy from him, and that’s why he ran. Now Bucky feels bad. Looking to his nurse with worry all over his little face, he wordlessly holds the G.I. Joe out to her with both hands.

“You want give it back to him?” she asks, now genuinely sounding surprised.

Bucky nods. “It’s his toy. It’s not nice to take things that don’t belong to you, that’s what mommy and daddy taught me.”

Sarah blinks a few times before exhaling a beautiful laugh and gingerly taking the action figure from Bucky. Staring down at it fondly, she sets her smile Bucky’s way and tells him, “You’re a very thoughtful boy, James. I’ll make sure Steven knows that you’re the one giving him his toy back.”

“His name’s Steven?” Bucky’s mother asks conversationally. They both seem interested too to know more about the boy who’s so fascinated with their son. Sarah politely says yes, and when asked how old he is, she answers that Steven is four.

“That’s why he’s so little!” Bucky says definitively, like he just solved a puzzle.

Sarah’s smile grows just the tiniest bit smaller, and something briefly flickers in her eyes that Bucky can’t comprehend at such a young age. She seems to hold the toy tighter to her chest as she says, sounding slightly strained, “Yes, well… Anyways, I’ll make sure to get this back to him safe and sound. James, you know which button to press if you need anything, right?”

“Mhm,” Bucky answers, proudly pointing to the proper button. “This one!”

“That’s right, you have such a wonderful memory,” she says. Then she adds to his parents, “Doctor Borson will be in shortly to check in on him.”

His parents thank her, and Sarah leaves. It’s only once he no longer has the action figure in his hands that Bucky realizes he now feels strangely lonely without it. And also bored again. At least that turns out to be quickly remedied when his mom winds up giving him a brand new coloring book and pack of crayons they’d picked up for him that morning.

Bucky wiles away the hours until it’s time to brush his teeth and go to sleep by trying his hardest to color within the lines on the pages. He considers making a drawing for Steven. But then he remembers that Steven might not like him very much. He might be afraid of Bucky. That makes him feel even worse. He didn’t meant to make it seem like he wanted to take Steven’s toy, if that’s how he made the younger boy feel.

And now that he gave the toy back, he doesn’t even know if he’ll ever see Steven again.

That night, while he dreams, Bucky sees himself at the playground near the apartment building where he lives. Steven is on one of the swings and Bucky pushes him so he can go higher, higher, and higher. They climb trees and race to see who can get down the slide the fastest.

When Bucky brings out the action figure and asks if Steven wants to play, the blond pulls out an identical one – and this way, they can both play together. Steven isn’t scared of him – isn’t mad at him – and in this dream, they’re friends. Sighing happily in his sleep, Bucky rolls over and tugs his blanket up tighter beneath his chin, a smile on his lips.

When he wakes up the next morning, he’s surprised and thrilled to find the G.I. Joe back on his bed.


Bucky waits all morning and into the afternoon for Steven to make another surprise appearance. Every time someone so much as passes by the door, Bucky’s instantly pretending to busy himself, so he can fake surprise when the little blond boy decides to pop his eyes over the edge of Bucky’s bed again. 

But the hours pass and Steven doesn’t show, even when his mother does. She always seems to be there; not a day that Bucky’s been there that she hasn’t been working. Her smile doesn’t seem as bright today, and Bucky wonders what’s wrong but he doesn’t ask, not right away. Eventually, after enough time staring out the window from his bed and longing to be able to play outside in the beautiful winter weather, his boredom catches up with him and he winds up asking his nurse if Steven is going to come back at all that day.

Sarah’s in the middle of taking his temperature, and gently scolds him for talking while the thermometer is in his mouth. Then she gives him another small smile – she looks tired – and distractedly explains, “I’m afraid he’s not feeling very good today, James. He’s just like you right now. He needs to stay in bed until he feels better again.”

“So he’s at home?” Bucky asks once she’s pulled the thermometer from between his lips, disappointment making the bottom one jut out into an unintentional pout.

She seems to hesitate for a moment, glancing from the temperature reading to Bucky and then back again. “No,” she tells him, “he’s here. He just has his own room, just like you do. But, I’m happy to say that your temperature is finally at a healthy 97 degrees and seems to be holding steady,” she reports, more to Bucky’s parents than Bucky himself. But then she looks back to him and smiles again, warm and motherly and encouraging (even if still not as bright as usual), and asks, “How’re you feeling today?”

“Good,” Bucky mumbles.

“Are you feeling sick to your tummy at all?”

Bucky shakes his head, still sulking.

“Wonderful. Doctor Borson will come in for a second opinion, but it looks like he’ll be able to go home by the end of the day. Just keep his diet light on his stomach for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, to build him back up, since he lost so much fluids,” she tells his parents. Bucky isn’t even listening until she adds in his direction, “That means no sugary snacks and plenty of water for the next couple days, young man. Promise?”

“Promise,” Bucky says quietly. Sarah holds his gaze challengingly, teasingly, and then Bucky starts giggling, repeating louder, “Promise!” Before Sarah heads out of the room, though, Bucky remembers the toy and shouts, “Wait! He forgot this here again.”

The look she gives it when Bucky holds it up to show it to her is almost sad, like she’s trying to keep something down. But Bucky’s just a child, and he has a one-track mind. Right now, the only thing he’s interested in is being able to see the boy with the golden hair again. He doesn’t like the idea of having to leave the hospital without getting to do that.

“Mommy, can I bring it back to him?” he asks Winifred.

His mother looks a little uncertain, and takes a second to glance to Sarah for confirmation, slowly replying, “I dunno, honey. He sounds like he’s very sick today, and you just got over the flu…”

“He’s not contagious, Mrs. Barnes,” Sarah kindly says, answering the unspoken question lingering in the air. “Unfortunately, my son’s been struggling for most of his life, but he’s a strong little boy. He’s just feeling under the weather today because of his anemia.”

Bucky’s mother makes a sympathetic sound and starts to say something in response, but Bucky interrupts, looking confused, “What’s ‘ameemnia’?”

They laugh quietly. “It’s called anemia, sweetheart,” his nurse says. “It… just means that he’s feeling sick, just like you were. Only for him, it’s because of something inside of his body that can’t go away quite as easily as the flu.”

Bucky’s grey eyes widen into saucers from fear. Terrified, he innocently asks, “Is he going to die?”

Sarah seems to visibly pale a little, and Winified gasps. “James!” she admonishes, before quickly saying to Sarah, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Rogers, he--”

“It’s fine, I understand,” Sarah replies, lifting a hand and nodding with a clipped smile. “No, sweetheart, he’s not going to die,” she reassures him, coming back to his bedside. “He’s just not feeling very good right now, but he’ll get better. He’ll always get better,” she adds, quieter this time, as if to herself. Taking a deep breath and seeing the stricken expression still on Bucky’s small face, she takes a seat on the side of his bed and picks up the G.I. Joe.

“Tell you what,” she proposes, handing it back to him and giving it a small pat. “I’m sure he would love to get this back. If you want, you can come with me in a little bit and bring it to him yourself.”

“Really?” Bucky exclaims excitedly, his frown being replaced by a huge grin and his eyes immediately sparkling.

“Absolutely, as long as it’s alright with your mommy and daddy,” she says. They both say that it’s more than fine, and then Sarah peers over at Bucky’s coloring book sitting on the small table next to the bed. “You know, I’ve seen you color some real nice pictures, James,” she tells him, “and Steven loves to color, too. I’m sure if you drew him a nice picture, he’d be really happy.”

“He would?”

“Well, I know I would be happy if I didn’t feel good and someone made a picture for me – especially someone who can color as nicely as you can,” Sarah says. “If you brought your crayons with you, and if he’s feeling well enough, you might even be able to color with him. He has lots of coloring books in his room.”

“Okay!” Bucky practically shouts, moving so quickly to grab his things that the action figure almost rolls right off the bed. Everyone chuckles amongst themselves, but just like that, Bucky forgets about the other people in the room. Wrapping up a bright blue crayon in his tiny fist – just like the color of Steven’s eyes, he remembers – he starts drawing Steven a picture, putting in more effort than ever before to make sure that it’s the most specialist thing he’s ever done.

Maybe if he does a really good job, Steven will want to be his friend.

 

---

 

A couple hours later, George runs out for the rest of the day so he can pick up Rebecca from her grandparents and spend some time with her back at the house; tidying up and getting Bucky’s room ready for his arrival. Bucky spends virtually every minute from the time Sarah leaves just waiting for her to come back. Every five minutes or so, he’ll look to his mom and ask, “Now?” and she’ll exhale a tired chuckle and always reply, “Not yet, honey.” 

But eventually, Sarah does come for him, so Steven must be awake and feeling well enough to have visitors. Bucky’s so excited that when she invites him to follow her, he leaps out of bed and runs straight out of the room – completely forgetting his things on the bed. They call after him and remind him of what he’s missing, and then Bucky’s spinning on his heel and running back into the room just as quickly. The mothers laugh when Bucky comes jogging back out, partially waddling as he tries to juggle the things he’s hugging to his chest.

Winifred helps him readjust so he has a better grip on his things, and then holds his left hand while Sarah leads them down a series of hallways to her son’s room. In his other hand, he’s tightly holding Steven’s G.I. Joe action figure as if to protect it from everyone else in the hospital. Wedged between his arm and his side are Steven’s picture and his crayons. When they finally get to his room, Sarah looks down to Bucky and carefully instructs, “Now, sweetheart? He’s still waking up and his head is hurting him a little. He has to have his hearing aids turned all the way up right now to catch everything, so try not to speak too loudly, okay?”

“What…?” Bucky asks, looking to his mom for clarification. His nose scrunches up and his brows knit. He has no idea what she’s talking about.

His mom must’ve been chatting with Sarah over the past few days, because the mention of Steven’s hearing aids doesn’t seem new to her. She just assures Sarah that they’ll be quiet, and then softly explains to her son, “Steven can’t hear as well as you and I can, honey. So he has to wear special devices on his ears to help him. But it can make him sensitive to sound sometimes, so if we talk too loudly, it can hurt his ears, and we don’t want to hurt his ears. So we have to try and speak quietly, okay?”

Bucky’s eyes are wide again, and he nods, flying to the other end of the spectrum and answering in complete silence. She’s right – he doesn’t want to hurt Steven’s ears. Sarah thanks them with a smile, and then opens the door so they can head on in. Bucky’s first thought is that Steven’s room looks a lot different than his. For starters, he has a lot more stuff in there; sort of looks like he took his bedroom from home and just moved it into the hospital. He must be there a lot.

There are all sorts of flowers in the room, with cards and stuffed animals and ‘Get Well Soon’ balloons – some looking brand new, and some slightly wrinkly; not floating quite so high, like they’ve been there for a while. The blinds in the room are closed, but the sun is so bright outside that the room itself is still pretty well illuminated. Bucky stays close to his mom’s side as he looks around, and then suddenly loses some of his nerve when his eyes fall to the big hospital bed and he sees the blond boy lying there.

Sarah walks ahead and goes to him, gingerly reaching out and brushing his bangs from his forehead. Leaning down, she kisses it and then whispers soothingly, “Baby? Hi, my love… There are those beautiful eyes. You have someone here who wants to see you…”

Now that the moment’s actually here, Bucky’s picking that moment to become shy. The bed looks really tall from where he’s standing, and there are a lot more machines surrounding it than there had been in his room, even when he was at his sickest. And Steven looks… really tiny, lying there like that. He’s slightly propped up, and he looks exhausted; already pale skin even more sallow, and making the golden hair Bucky remembers seem a bit mousier and duller by comparison.

There’s a thin tube running along the curve of his cheekbones. They wrap over both ears – over top of the hearing aids already sitting there – and then join together below his neck, where the tube rests on his frail little chest. There’s a machine sitting closest to his bedside that the tube looks to connect to, and it keeps making quiet, rhythmic sounds in the background.

Every time Steven had come to him, he’d been skittish and fled like a startled rabbit the second Bucky came too close. Today, he’s so weak and tired that all he does is tip his head to the side so he can see who his mother is referring to. When their eyes lock, Bucky steps closer to his own mom’s side, squeezing her hand tighter. Steven stares at him, and then slowly trails his gaze down to his toy in Bucky’s other hand.

Sarah leans back and gestures welcomingly for Bucky to come over. “It’s okay, James,” she encourages. “You can come say hi.”

Bucky looks up to his mom for confirmation. After she nods and likewise encourages him to go say hello, he lets go of her hand and slowly approaches the bed. Sarah pulls up a chair and helps him get onto it. Steven’s still looking at him curiously. Perhaps if he had more strength, he’d be finding something to hide behind, or at least turn pink by now. Instead, his cheeks stay as pale as the rest of him, and his lips look really dry.

Balancing the folded-up drawing and the crayons on his lap, Bucky stares at the action figure in his hand and quietly mumbles, “Hi…”

There’s a pause, and then Bucky hears a tiny voice answer, “Hi.”

“Steven, this is James. He wanted to come give you your G.I. Joe back and thank you for letting him play with it. Isn’t that nice of him to come do that?” Sarah asks, trying to prompt some conversation between them.

Steven nods, now looking to his mom.

“Can you say, ‘Hi James’?” she gently pushes.

Another moment of silence, and then Steven says, “Hi James.”

“Hi Steven,” Bucky shyly answers, because that’s the polite thing to do. He finally looks back to him, and lifts the toy for Steven to take. “This is yours.”

“I know,” Steven says.

“I didn’t want you to think I taked it.”

The blond eyes it for a few seconds, before reaching out and accepting Bucky’s offering, pulling it from the brunet’s fingers and sliding it over to his own lap. Sarah tells him to say thank you, so he does, and then there’s more silence. Trying to rectify it a bit, Winifred places her hand on Bucky’s back and says, “Don’t you have something for Steven, sweetheart?”

Except now Bucky doesn’t really want to give it to him. What if Steven doesn’t like it? Bucky worked really hard on that picture, and it never occurred to him that maybe this boy wouldn’t want to be his friend after all. Right now, he really can’t tell. Casting down his eyes, he stubbornly and wordlessly shakes his head.

“What?” Sarah and Winifred share a quick, confused look, and then Bucky’s mother gently tries to prompt him, “Didn’t you draw that beautiful picture for him? I’m sure he’ll really like it.”

Again, Bucky keeps his gaze down and shakes his head. But then, to all of their surprise, that little voice from the bed pipes back up, saying, “You drawed me somefin’?”

Bucky shifts uncomfortably in his seat, feeling his face go red to the very tips of his ears. This time, he nods.

“I like to draw too,” Steven tells him. “Can I see?”

For the first time since taking his seat, Bucky slowly peers up at him. This time, when their eyes meet, Steven gets a tiny smile and Bucky’s lips purse while he tries to hide his own. “Okay,” he relents, pulling the drawing out from under his pack of crayons and then putting it on the bed.

It’s a little out of the blond’s reach, so Sarah picks up the paper and helps him by unfolding it and holding it for Steven to see. This is the first glimpse she’s getting of Bucky’s drawing as well, and her entire face lights up at the sight of it, her smile finally getting as bright and pretty as Bucky’s become used to seeing it.

“Aww, James, this is beautiful,” she says.

“Which one’s me?” Steven asks at the same time.

Just like that, any shyness between them is gone. By children’s standards, conversation has been made, a picture’s been given, and that basically means they’re now friends. Bucky stands up on the chair and leans forward, resting his weight on his hands pressing into the flimsy hospital mattress. At first, Winifred goes to get him to sit down again, but Sarah assures her that Bucky’s fine so long as he doesn’t knock into any of the machines.

The two boys are already sucked into their own bubble, paying their mothers no more attention. Bucky points to the stick figure on the right and eagerly explains, “That’s me, and that’s you,” as he points to the stick figure on the left. “See? It’s sunny out and we’re building a snowman, see?”

He keeps pointing at the different things in the picture that he drew, and then Steven asks if Bucky wants to color with him. Bucky’s a little too enthusiastic when he exclaims, “Okay!” and immediately feels bad when Steve drops the picture so he can cover his ears with a grimace. Bucky claps one hand over his mouth as guilt washes over his face, and he whispers, “Sorry!”

Sarah’s about to assure him that it’s okay – he just needs to remember to be quiet – when Steven lowers his hands and answers, “S’ok. It’s jus’ because of my heawing aids.” And then he points to them so Bucky can see them better, proudly showing them off. Now that Bucky can see them, he looks positively enthralled – like they’re the most interesting things he’s ever seen.

“If I don’t wear ‘em, I can bawely hear you!” Steven explains, like he’s a seasoned expert on the matter. “But when I wear them I can hear weally good.”

“Mommy, can I have some too?” Bucky asks, looking to his mom for permission.

Again, their mothers laugh, and Bucky pouts again with disappointment when he’s told that, no, he unfortunately can’t have his own. Steven also explains to Bucky why he has the tube that goes into his nose – ‘It’s so I can breaf real good, ‘cause I don’t breaf so good wiffout it!’ – and then asks Sarah, “Can James sit on my bed wiff me?”

Bucky’s given permission, and sandwiches himself between the blond’s tiny body and the railing on the side of his bed. Their mothers grab Bucky’s crayons and a few of Steven’s coloring books from his rather large collection, and together, they flip open the pages and color. Steven’s still too weak to sit up properly, so whenever he seems to have bouts of fatigue and starts to find it difficult to stay within the lines, Bucky will reach over and help him – even when Steven starts getting annoyed and whining that he doesn’t need any help.

Within the hour, they’re already interacting and playing as if they’d been friends their whole lives. When Steven starts getting too tired to keep coloring, the boys are told that he needs to get some sleep, and then they practically have to be pried from each other. Bucky’s not happy about being told he has to go, and judging by the way Steven has his arms tightly folded across his chest while Sarah bundles him back up under his covers, neither is he.

Before he and Winifred are out of the room, they hear Steven call out after him, and then ask Sarah, “Can James come back to play tomowwow?”

Bucky’s about to answer yes, until he remembers that he gets to go home that night. Sarah looks to his mom and they share a momentarily unsure glance, and then Winifred offers, “Well, we don’t live that far from here. We can always exchange numbers…?”

“We live close by, too,” Sarah answers, smiling. “No reason the boys can’t get together for a play-date sometime soon, once this little guy’s feeling better.”

“I’m feeling better!” Steve insists emphatically, even though it’s very clear that he is in fact not.

“Tell you boys what,” Sarah suggests, addressing them both. “Steven gets some rest now, and James goes back home tonight because he’s feeling all better. If you both listen and are good boys, then we can talk and figure out a time where you two can get together to play. Maybe sometime this weekend?” she asks, looking back to Winifred with a small shrug.

“As long as they both listen,” Bucky’s mom answers with a grin.

Bucky perks right away. “I’ll listen, I’ll listen!” he promises.

Steven’s nodding, too. “We’ll be good, we swear!”

Sarah and Winifred share a triumphant little smile. It takes very little coaxing to get Bucky out of the room after that, and when Sarah looks back to her son, his eyes are already closed – pretending to be fast asleep within seconds, just so he can show her how ‘good’ he can be. Sometimes, a little reverse psychology goes a long way.


They’re inseparable after that, like they never knew what life was before they found each other. Their families grow close – as they do – and if they’re not in school or Steven isn’t in the hospital, one of them is at the other’s house. Steve stops calling Bucky James and instead develops a tendency of calling him Buck. Bucky finds that that makes him smile, for reasons he can’t figure out but dismisses just as easily. 

They swap toys and build pillow forts on the floor; bicker and push each other, but will be damned if any other kids around them try to do the same. Nearly every weekend, they’re having sleepovers – giggling and whispering as quietly as they can, and then getting into trouble time and time again when Sarah or Winifred will catch them, still awake at an hour far too late for boys their age.

Bucky learns his way around the hospital like the back of his hand, that’s how often he’s there to see his friend. The staff grows to know him by name. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for Sarah to make her rounds and then return to her son’s room to check up on him, only to find both boys squished onto the bed together, playing on their Gameboys, or watching TV, or making their action figures battle it out. Sometimes, she’ll walk in to find Steven passed out flat on his back, with Bucky curled up by his side, snoring softly. Those are the times where she smiles the warmest.

The years begin to pass, and they only continue to grow closer. By seven, Steven announces that he wants to go by Steve, not Steven. However, it’s around that same time that Bucky starts to call him Stevie – and he’s just about the only person Steve will let get away with that. He finds that he uncontrollably uses that nickname more when his friend is sick or, in his opinion, is in need of Bucky’s help. According to Bucky, Steve is pretty much always in need of Bucky’s help. If you asked Steve, he’d insist the complete opposite. Yet all the same, he always lets Bucky step in whenever he wants, even if it also makes him roll his eyes and huff until it’s over.

Bucky becomes an expert at all things Steve Rogers. He learns over time that Steve hates when people treat him like he can’t do things just because of his size. If there’s ever a task that Steve struggles with, Bucky will let him try and try, so that he doesn’t feel like Bucky’s babying him – and then sneak in and help the second the blond’s back is turned. Whenever there’s a lid that needs prying open or the like, Bucky knows Steve isn’t stupid…

It can’t be a coincidence that every time, the moment Steve gives up and Bucky gives it a go, the brunet will feign a struggle only to ask Steve to try just one more time. Steve has to know each and every time that when that lid comes off, or he’s able to pull that root from the ground, or finally get that stubborn plastic casing on his new toy open, it was Bucky who just went and did most of the work for him. But even though Bucky’s sure he’s caught on, Steve never comments on it. It’s sort of a silent arrangement they have: so long as Bucky doesn’t draw attention to it, Steve won’t either.

He learns that Steve’s actually a much better drawer than he is. As the years pass, he only proves to get better. After all, Steve gets plenty of practice; he seems to carry his sketchbook with him everywhere he goes. Bucky learns that he has a particular fondness for watching Steve draw. He always gets super serious, which makes it even more fun to try and distract him. Sometimes, it gets Steve laughing after enough rounds of, ‘Buck, stop it!’… ‘Seriously, Buck, quit it!’… “BUCK!’ Other times – say, if they’re outside and Bucky keeps lightly poking him in the cheek with a blade of grass, refusing to stop – Steve will turn on him and start smacking Bucky’s arm with his sketchpad until Bucky’s saying uncle.

Without realizing it, Bucky begins to memorize and associate colors based off of the image he has of Steve in his mind. Blue is only blue with reference to the particular hue of Steve’s eyes. Yellow or gold gets Bucky thinking of Steve’s hair; red reminds Bucky of his mouth. Bucky doesn’t think too deeply into it at such a young age, nor does he give it much thought that he prefers the sound of Steve’s tone-deaf singing to the sound of actual music.

He grows accustomed to Steve’s seemingly never-ending list of ailments, too. Within a year of knowing each other, Bucky becomes a master at administering Steve’s asthma medication and inhaler to him, during the times where the blond will fall into one of his many attacks. The first time Bucky had witnessed it and Sarah wasn’t immediately within arm’s reach, he cried even harder than Steve did. Eventually, though, he grows used to it (a thing in and of itself that he really doesn’t like) and tries his hardest to put on his game face the second Steve starts to show the usual signs and symptoms.

Whether it’s to help Steve through sickness, or jumping in and busting up his knuckles when a bully on the playground targets his friend, the mantra of Bucky’s life quickly becomes: Protect Steve Rogers at all costs.

And with every day that passes between them, it becomes harder and harder for Bucky to remember a time when something mattered nearly as much to him.


The summer before Bucky goes into the fourth grade, Steve and his mom move into a smaller apartment right in Bucky’s neighborhood. No longer needing to rely on rides to get to each other’s places, nearly every second of every day in August is spent in each other’s company. On the first day of school, Bucky doesn’t realize until he actually sees his best friend in the same classroom that – of course! – it means Steve now goes to the same school as him, too. 

Despite it being a third grade/fourth grade split class – the other boys his age believing that hanging out with anyone younger than them makes you a ‘baby’ – Bucky’s hand is the first one to shoot up into the air when their teacher, Mr. Erskine, introduces Steve to everyone and asks if there’s a volunteer who’d be willing to be his desk buddy for the year and welcome him to Marvel Elementary. Bucky doesn’t care if his other friends are staring at him as if Bucky had two heads; Steve grins the second Bucky raises his hand, and Bucky grins right back.

They wind up getting separated within the first week. Something about them talking too much and never paying attention. Steve gets placed next to a kid Bucky’s sort of friends with named Sam Wilson. Bucky is placed next to Clint Barton. Bucky likes Clint, and the two hit it off right away, having only vaguely known each other before. Similarly, Sam seems to really like Steve, and throughout the first half of class, Bucky spends most of it watching the way the other two boys keep smiling at each other. During the next recess, Steve asks Bucky if Sam can join them so they can compare Pogs.

At first, Bucky wants to say no. He doesn’t like the idea of this new kid coming in and potentially monopolizing their time hanging out. Bucky’s been so used to having Steve all to himself that the first place his mind goes is to feel an irrational sense of jealousy – like Sam will swoop in and take his place as Steve’s best friend.

However, he doesn’t want to be a jerk – and he knows Steve better than to boss him around and tell him no. Steve would probably just tell him to shove it anyways if he did (Steve really does not take well to being told what to do, unless it’s by his mother). In the end, Sam turns out to be really nice. Bucky’s wariness gradually lessens when time passes and he sees that Sam’s addition to their group by no means equals Bucky’s replacement.

If anything, it just opens the door to expansion. Within just a couple months, Clint gets invited to hang out with them, too. Then between Clint, Sam, and Bucky, several more people join in until before they all know it, what started as a duo becomes a group of about a dozen boys, all glued to the hip. Despite all of the others, though, it never stops feeling like it’s still Bucky and Steve at the end of the day.

Yeah, there’s a part of him that will still sometimes get defensive, and still has moments where he wants Steve on his kickball team. But it makes him feel a bit better when he sees Steve share those odd moments of possessiveness. After all, there are just as many times where Steve will get into a harmless argument with one of the other boys when, say, he wants Bucky on his team for baseball but someone else picked him first. And really, even though they all start hanging out with each other more and more outside of school, the sleepovers Bucky and Steve have on the weekends are still predominantly their own thing. Bucky quickly learns to love the weekends best.

Honestly, though, Bucky’s selfish when it comes to Steve, but he’s not blinded by it. For as much as he likes reassurance that he’s Steve’s best friend, he likes even more the fact that Steve does have other friends – because that year seems to be the year where things change for him, and the blond turns out to be in need of them more than ever.

Because being in a new school meant starting over, and unfortunately, not everyone is as kind, or willing to overlook Steve’s ailments and recognize that he’s got twice as much nerve and three times as much heart as the boys who tower over him in size. To Bucky’s fury, he watches Steve become the target of bullies. He doesn’t think he’s ever known a worse feeling than watching someone he cares about so much get picked on the way he does, especially since it’s completely unfounded.

One group in particular – some rotten sixth graders, led by Alex Pierce and Joey Schmidt – decides that Steve is now the sole target of their teasing. It starts small; things like, leaning in abruptly as they pass him in the halls so they can shout right next to his ears, or grabbing his sketchbook and holding it above their heads to see how long Steve will try to jump to get it back.

At first, Steve doesn’t come to Bucky about it. In fact, he doesn’t tell anyone – not until Bucky witnesses it escalate into shoving out on the playground. Without thinking twice, he breaks out into a run the moment he sees that it’s Steve, until he’s laying his hands into Alex’s side and shoving will all his momentum, making the older boy crash to the ground and bust up his elbow.

“Pick on someone yer own size!” Bucky shouts, before Joey comes from out of nowhere and pushes him right into Steve, making them both trip over each other and fall to the ground.

Okay, so maybe it sort of escalates into something a lot bigger than it needed to… Clint, having been trailing behind Bucky, sees the commotion and decides he wants to join in, too. Using the slingshot he always hides in his back pocket, he uses his hawkeye-precision to peg Joey on the hip with a small rock, then again with another to the shoulder.

Sam runs in to help Bucky up, and then Steve – only for Alex to shove Bucky back the second he’s on his feet. Steve breaks free of Sam’s grip to take a swing at Alex for doing that, but all that gets him is a right hook across the face. Seeing Steve spin from the hit and drop to the ground like a sack of bricks makes Bucky snap.

Unable to control himself, he runs at Alex with a shout and tackles him to the ground. His fists are only flying for a few seconds before he’s pulled off of him by one of the teachers. Turns out, their friends, Bruce and Timmy, had run off and done their part by actually being responsible and telling one of the teachers on yard duty what was going on. All of the boys get herded into Principal Coulson’s office, and the majority of them face consequences. The only thing Bucky can think while he sits there, jeans torn at the knees and dirt matted into his hair, is that he’s glad that their Principal seems to have developed a fondness for Steve in the months since his friend started there.

Clint winds up getting his slingshot taken away, which may as well be the end of the world as they all know it, according to how devastated it makes him. With multiple witnesses attesting to Alex and Joey having started the whole thing, they get the worst of it, earning a full week’s suspension. Clint and Bucky get a week’s worth of detention, with Sam and Steve able to walk away with only a phone call to their parents.

Steve’s bottom lip is split, and he looks indignant as the small group of them pile out of the office to head back to class. Bucky tries to throw an arm around him while he asks if he’s alright. To his surprise, Steve quickly jerks out of it and scowls at him, holding a mostly bloody Kleenex to his mouth.

“What’s your problem?” Bucky demands, not understanding why Steve’s acting like he did something wrong.

“I had ‘im on the ropes!” Steve insists. They pass by a water fountain and Steve spits a tiny mouthful of blood into it before continuing onward. Bucky’s gaping at him.

“Really?”

“Yes, really! What did I tell ya about not needin’ your help?”

Bucky stops dead in the middle of the hallway and grabs Steve be the arm, forcing him to a halt. “They were beatin’ the snot outta ya – what else did you want me to do? Just let ‘em?”

“Better than you makin’ me look like a baby who can’t take care of myself,” Steve mutters.

Bucky glares at him, feeling his face get hot. “I got detention for you, because I was just tryin’a help! But fine, you wanna be a big fat jerk, then go ahead. Last time I ever try to help you!”

And then he storms past Steve, knocking their shoulders together, and stomps back to class. He’s still fuming once he’s back in his seat, but not enough to miss the way Steve now looks to him a little guiltily when he eventually joins him back in the classroom a few minutes later – lip swollen and bright red, but no longer with the tissue in hand. Bucky stubbornly makes a point not to glance back over at him for the rest of the morning; a little betrayed and wanting his silent treatment to make it clear to Steve that he’s hurt Bucky’s feelings.

Lunch rolls around, which means that the students are allowed to sit wherever they want while they eat. Bucky keeps to himself and munches on his peanut butter sandwich miserably. He’s stubborn. He wants to go sit with Steve like he normally does, but he also doesn’t want to give in when he knows he did nothing wrong.

Turns out, he doesn’t have to wait long at all.

Less than two minutes in and from his peripherals, he sees Steve silently come and take a seat to his left. Bucky sneaks a glance at him, and then quickly looks away when Steve meets it, trying to appear nonchalant. Still chewing on the bite in his mouth, Bucky once again sees movement from the corner of his eye. Slowly, Steve places a small piece of paper on the desk, and then rests one of his mom’s homemade cupcakes on top of it. Bucky loves Sarah’s baking, and Steve knows that the cupcakes are especially his favorite.

A tiny, skinny hand tentatively pushes it over Bucky’s way. Bucky pretends not to notice it at first, and then Steve nudges it closer. Eventually, the smell of the chocolate icing wins him over, overpowering his childlike sense of pride and being replaced by the rumbling in his belly. He drops his walls, giving in and glancing down to it. When he slowly picks it up, he gets a better look at the note Steve had added underneath. In handwriting far neater than his own, it reads: I’m sorry.

Bucky doesn’t know why he feels compelled to keep the note. But the gesture makes his chest warm, like it always gets whenever he and Steve share a special moment together like this. And truthfully, he’s actually relieved that Steve did this, because being upset with him is exhausting. Frankly, it stresses Bucky out more than anything else in the world. So, he gets a small smile and plucks the piece of paper up.

After Steve watches him slip it into his backpack, Bucky very carefully uses his fingers to split the cupcake in two – as evenly as he can, right down the middle. Holding it out for Steve, Bucky turns his smile onto his friend, and after blinking a couple times, the blond smiles back and accepts it. Bucky takes a big bite and instantly his taste buds get hit with the delicious flavors of chocolate, French vanilla, and sprinkles.

All of their previous anger gone, Bucky asks over a mouthful of cupcake, “Wanna play with my new Crazy Bones at recess?”

Just like that – as is always the case between them – their fight is completely forgotten about, like it never even happened. They’ve never been good at staying sore with each other for very long.

Not that that means it’s the last fight they ever have on the matter. The year continues on, and Steve likewise continues to be the object of Alex’s, Joey’s, and their friends’ torment. In fact, it grows substantially worse after the little incident that got them suspended. Then, it’s like they start looking for any and every reason to attack Steve when they think they can get away with it.

And every time, Bucky interjects and tries to stick up for Steve, because there’s no way he lets Steve Rogers get his hands dirty without making sure he’s there to clean it up and take out the trash. And every time, Steve will let it happen only to get mad afterwards all over again. Though Bucky hates the arguments, he never lets that stop him from doing it all over again the next time it happens. And unfortunately, it only happens more and more, because even though Steve’s friends all make a point to protect each other – mostly Steve – as best they can, sometimes they still manage to get Steve when he’s alone and vulnerable.

Sometimes they snatch his things and play games of Keep Away. Others, they shove him around some more. Here and there, they and their group of thug friends will think it’s funny to pin Steve down so they can steal his hearing aids. They only get in more trouble for that stunt… Which seems to be perfectly timed – as in, horribly timed - with the beginning of the New Year, when Steve starts developing serious problems with his vision.

Steve always seemed to have problems with his sight, for as long as Bucky’s known him. But all this time, he was able to get by. However, more and more during class, he’d have to raise his hand and admit that he couldn’t read what was on the board so well, or it’d take him twice as long to read through the exercise activity in his notebook.

After testing positive for mixed astigmatism, he has no choice but to get glasses. They’re huge, look like they take up three-quarters of his face, and Steve positively hates them. Bucky tries to tell him that they don’t actually look half bad (at least, he doesn’t think so), but Steve doesn’t hate them any less. Nothing anyone says changes his mind or seems to help in the least.

Of course, with his bullies’ unjustified hate for him fueled only more by the hearing aid stunt, the glasses then become the next big thing that Steve starts getting teased for. Alex personally appoints Steve’s new nickname to be ‘Four Eyes’, while their buddy Brock begins to chant ‘Cyclops’ whenever passing them by. Some of the other kids – ones who don’t even interact with them and had never expressed a dislike for Steve before – even start adopting that nickname as well.

Within a month, Steve’s new nickname is Cyclops. Conveniently, around the same time, Steve starts to ‘accidentally forget’ his glasses everywhere. If he has to wear them, he has little problem with Alex or Joey stealing them right off his face. He barely puts up a fight to get them back, and seems to get even angrier with Bucky when he stands up for him and retrieves them for him each and every time.

But sometimes, when they’re alone and lying next to each other on the couch cushions littering the floor – way past their bed time, but still awake and whispering to each other nonetheless – things will get silent, only for Steve to quietly say out of nowhere, “Thank you, Buck…”

Bucky will tip his head to the side and look at him. Steve rarely ever meets his eyes when this happens. “For what?” he’ll whisper.

“…For bein’ my friend.”

Bucky knows it’s Steve’s way of saying the things he’s too proud to say otherwise. That’s another thing he’s grown to learn about Steve, and even more quickly grown to love: that he gets to see the real Steve; the person he truly is inside that only comes out when he’s comfortable and feeling safe. When they first met, he remembers the tiny boy by his bedside being so shy. To everyone, that’s how he usually tends to come across by first impression. But Bucky’s figured out by now what’s really going on up there.

Steve isn’t so much shy as he’s careful. He’s spent his whole life so far having to do exactly that in order to stay alive, so there’s a certain level of wariness when it comes to him and the rest of the world. At first. But get him somewhere where he feels comfortable, and suddenly he’s skinning his knees, falling out of trees, and shouting orders from the top of the play structure while he pretends to be the Captain of their ‘ship’.

Once Steve is comfortable, he opens right up and is the furthest thing from shy. Sometimes, he can be a bit too serious and could benefit from smiling more often than he frowns, but… Steve is made of sunshine. When Bucky’s with him, he can simply bask in the rays and feel peaceful and warm. It’s part of the reason why he has such a tough time understanding why Steve gets picked on so much. He doesn’t get how so many people don’t see the amazing person he’s always seen.

Around March, Mr. Erskine takes a chance and gives them a second opportunity to sit next to each other again. This time, it’s two weeks before they’re placed back on opposite ends of the room, and this time, they’re promised that there won’t be any ‘third chances’. (Even though their teacher does admittedly look a little bad about separating them again. He knows how close Steve and Bucky are; he sees it often enough.)

However, boys will be boys – they still find their ways to get into trouble, even from completely different sides of the room. Too far from each other to try whispering behind Mr. Erskine’s back, they’re caught making silly faces in the other’s direction one too many times and wind up having their parents called in when their disruptive behavior doesn’t stop. To say that they literally seem to do everything together wouldn’t be at all inaccurate. They both even face the same punishment: a week-long grounding, during which they aren’t allowed outside and, by extension, can’t see each other except in school.

Steve comes up with a creative way around that. Because if Steve Rogers is full of nothing else, it’s schemes. He’s always got a solution for everything, even if it’s something sneaky. Sometimes, Bucky feels like that’s another one of their own special secrets: that he seems to be the only one who knows that Steve isn’t the innocent little angel everyone else assumes he is at first glance. He knows better; that Steve’s a little punk, getting into just as much trouble as Bucky – sometimes, being the one responsible forgetting them both into trouble.

His idea is that they both read from their copies of The Hobbit every night; same amount of pages, with the rule being that neither is allowed to read ahead by so much as a single word. Then the next day, they can talk about it during recess and tell each other their favorite parts. They wind up having so much fun getting excited over the book that come the next week, they continue to work their way through the book, even after their punishments are over. Only instead of each reading their own separate copies from their own separate homes, they’ll get together so Steve can read everything aloud.

Bucky likes it so much more than when he reads the story in his own head. Even at eight, Steve’s the strongest reader in their class, because he rarely trips over himself when he reads out loud, and he has almost no problem with some of the bigger words. What he likes best is that Steve always throws on different voices for every character. It’s especially entertaining whenever he gets to the villain’s parts. The blond has a tendency to get so into it that he’ll eventually rise to his feet and start acting it all out, keeping the book in one hand and constantly glancing over to the pages while he gives it his all, like there was an Oscar in it for him for doing so.

Bucky finds himself on the edge of his seat when, one night, they finally get to the moment where Bilbo and Smaug meet for the first time. They have all the lights off in the room and are sitting on Steve’s bed, his Harry Potter comforter draped over their heads; the only source of light coming from their twin flashlights. Bucky keeps his on the pages of the book so Steve can read, while Steve angles his up beneath his chin, giving his face an ominous shadow.

“‘Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!’” Steve says, dropping his voice the best he can’t and giving it a dark and raspy edge. “‘But Bilbo was not quite so unlearned in dragon-lore as all that, and if Smaug hoped to get him to come nearer so easily he was disappointed. ‘No thank you, O Smaug the. Tremendous!’ he replied,” Steve now reads, using a more heroic version of his regular voice for the protagonist. “‘I did not come for presents. I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them.’”

Bucky keeps his flashlight aimed towards Tolkien’s words, but his eyes on Steve’s face. As Steve continues to perform through the lines and regale Bilbo’s battle of wits against the mighty dragon, Bucky finds himself weaving in and out of focus. Here and there, he pays attention to the story. Mostly, he just finds himself marveling at the fact that even with his face eerily lit up, and those gigantic glasses casting even harsher shadows, and the silly, over-exaggerated expressions he keeps making whenever he switches between characters…

Steve is beautiful.


Bucky is twelve when he gets his first girlfriend. Well past the year where he and Steve got to share the same classroom, these days, they really only see each other during recess. The whole thing with Connie comes out of nowhere, and it only lasts a couple weeks anyways. He’s not even sure how he gets roped into it. 

Apparently, she has a crush on him. Sometimes, Clint will nudge him in class and mutter, “They’re staring again.” Every time Bucky glances over, there’s always a small group of about five girls trying to sneak glances his way, only to quickly avert their eyes and giggle when he finally notices them back.

At recess one day, Bucky, Steve, and their friends (some members having left and others, included, since elementary school had come and gone and middle school has been like a brand new world for them) are dueling with their stack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and Connie’s friend Bonnie runs up to him, giggling like a loon. Bucky doesn’t really get what’s going on as she points over to a small huddle of girls – Connie in the middle and nervously saying something to her friends while she stares – and blurts out, “Connie likes you. You like her?”

Beside him, he can hear Clint cracking up under his breath, and some of the other boys snickering in kind. Without having to look, he can feel Steve’s eyes on him the entire time. Unlike everyone else, Steve stays quiet. Bucky spares a quick glance Connie’s way and then shrugs. “Um, yeah, she’s cool I guess,” he replies politely.

“Well, would you be her boyfriend?” Bonnie presses.

Bucky isn’t sure what to make of that. Would he have to do anything? He only gives it a couple seconds’ thought, which only really amounts to him considering that Connie is cute, and he hasn’t ever had a girlfriend before. Most of the guys in his grade are joining him into that age where they’re definitely starting to notice the opposite sex a lot more now. But he definitely doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his friends by coming across too eager.

So he shrugs again; nonchalantly replies, “Sure, okay,” and then goes back to playing cards. They can all hear Bonnie squeal as she runs off. Seconds later, and there’s a lot of high-pitched screaming from a dozen feet away or so – and then all the girls scampering away together. Clint and Tony are already shoving at him harmlessly and busting his balls, making kissing noises and improvising several variations of ‘Bucky and Connie sittin’ in a tree…’

Bucky’s just glad that Steve isn’t really joining in on the teasing. Actually, Steve hasn’t really looked at him since Bucky returned to their duel. That’s fine by him. Of all the people there, Bucky was the most uncomfortable with Steve having to see that. Steve’s the last person Bucky wants to go thinking that Bucky Barnes is… That Bucky Barnes is what exactly? He’s not all that sure what he’s worried Steve will think.

When the bell rings and they’re all standing in line to head back into the building, that’s when Steve says under his breath, so none of the others around them will hear, “So… You n’ Connie, huh?”

“Guess so.”

“What does that even mean?”

Bucky chuckles, suddenly feeling a little hysterical at the thought. “I got no idea, bud.”

Steve shuffles back and forth on the balls of his feet silently. Then he asks, “That mean you won’t be hanging’ out with us no more at recess?”

Things click. Bucky tells himself that that’s what he was worried Steve would go and think – that Bucky wouldn’t make time for him anymore. Throwing an arm around Steve’s shoulder, he gives him a quick shake and wills his voice to be cheerier when he promises, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me from spending time with my best pals, okay? You can’t get rid of me that easily, Rogers.”

For a second, Steve peers up at him with a shy smile, clearly pleased with that answer. At the same time, he uses his index finger to habitually push his glasses – now smaller, thinner, and actually flattering on his face – back up the bridge of his nose. Bucky’s stomach twists up into a knot without any warning. He quickly removes his arm from around Steve’s shoulder.

 

---

 

As it turns out, having a girlfriend in the seventh grade really doesn’t amount to much. Mostly, everyone just makes a big deal out of it because of course, everyone knows by the end of the day. Over the two and a half weeks that follow, they hug once and even that feels super awkward, since they only ever see each other at school, so they always have some sort of audience. 

He’ll sit with her sometimes at lunch, and twice he tries to be nice and invite her to join him and his friends at recess. Both times, she wants to hold Bucky’s hand. Bucky isn’t sure where that sense of dread in the pit of his gut suddenly blooms from when that happens… but it only seems to happen when he remembers that Steve’s there. There’s something Bucky can’t make out in the way that Steve’s gaze sometimes travels down to his and Connie’s entwined fingers. Then Steve will always quickly avert his eyes, like he’s been stung. Bucky’s lucky if Steve looks at him when he talks to him even once for the rest of recess. 

Of course, he’s always perfectly fine once they’re back in line again. And he never has anything but nice things to say to Connie, even if Connie doesn’t really acknowledge Steve much. Bucky goes out on a limb and assumes that it’s just because Steve’s still feeling threatened; maybe a little territorial. After all, it’s always really been them at the core of things. Girls were never part of the equation. But now they’re at that age where girlfriends will start to become more and more of a thing, so… this is probably something they’d better get used to.

Steve’s not at that stage yet. If he is, he hasn’t ever mentioned it to Bucky before, and Bucky likes to think that Steve will always tell him everything. He knows he can’t blame Steve, if he is feeling a bit jealous. Bucky would most likely feel the same way whenever the day came that Steve didn’t have as much time for him, because he had himself a girl who made his heart beat faster and his smile brighter… Someone he’d want to spend every second of his day with, and then Bucky wouldn’t be that person no more, and…

Bucky’s never actually really thought about it before. Now that he is, it scares him how much he loathes the very idea. He tries to hold onto the fact that, for now, he’s still got Steve all to himself.


That same year, Sarah starts seeing a guy named Victor. He seems nice enough, and always greets Bucky with a friendly smile whenever the brunet is over at the apartment. At first, Steve doesn’t take to him very well, even though he’s by no means overtly rude in Victor’s presence. But in private, when he and Bucky are playing on the N64 in his bedroom, or lazing on the floor with a couple of comic books in their hands, the truth will come out. 

Steve doesn’t talk about his dad much. There doesn’t seem to be much to miss, since Joseph died when Steve was too young to remember him. But Sarah hasn’t dated anyone else since, so this is a first. Bucky’s had the privilege of never knowing what it’d feel like to live with only one parent around, so he says little and listens a lot. As the months pass, Steve has less and less negative things to say about Victor, and their relationship seems to morph into something positive. Bucky likes that. He also likes the way Sarah smiles even more than usual, like something lacking had finally been filled. Bucky’s been in love with her smile since he was five years old.

Steve has that same smile…

But around the summer of 2001, that’s when things start to change. Despite no longer having school to worry about, Steve begins to make excuses to stop Bucky from coming over. Whenever they hang out, it’s either outside of at his own house. Whatever is happening seems to slowly change Steve, too. He always looks tired and worn out, like he’s been crying – and Bucky hasn’t seen him cry in years, so that possibility feels more like an anomaly. The odd times that Bucky does get to go to Steve’s place, the air in the apartment feels tense.

Victor’s only there about fifty percent of the time, but when he is, Bucky’s body is on edge until the moment he’s back out that door. Sarah’s smile stops looking quite as radiant. When they’re alone, Bucky will try to ask about it, but he never knows the words needed to phrase the proper questions. No matter how it comes out, Steve refuses to talk about it. But Bucky does notice that whatever nice things Steve had grown to say about his mom’s boyfriend stop altogether. Steve doesn’t bring up Victor at all anymore.

Bucky wishes he could do something for his friend to magically make everything better again.


Bucky’s thirteen, and after eight years of friendship, he screws up. 

It’s a Friday night. He’s supposed to crash at Steve’s, since Victor’s away again on one of his many business trips. He never seems to be around as much anymore, and Bucky’s gotten used to the pattern by now: for the two or three weeks at a time where Victor’s gone, Steve’s happier again. The Rogers’ household functions with a lighter air, and Sarah always seems far less stressed. Bucky’s long since figured out what’s going on, but he’s too terrified to ask about it.

He’s been there more than once during the times where he and Steve will hear Victor shouting through the walls of the blond’s bedroom. Sometimes, it makes Steve so distressed that he’ll cover his ears and curl into a ball until it’s over. One night, it was so scary that Bucky covered Steve’s ears for him, and stayed latched to his side until they heard the front door slam and knew that the man in the other room was gone.

He always keeps an eye out to see if Sarah’s got any bruises, and especially to see if Steve does. But he never finds any. Whatever’s going on seems to be purely psychological. The worst part is how bad of a friend it makes Bucky feel like – because for all of his bravado, and every scenario in his head where he either tells his own parents or finds a way to confront Victor himself, he always stays just as quiet. He’s only a kid, after all.

So, by association, he becomes just as relieved when he’s told that it’s just going to be Steve and Sarah for another short while. Then he’s able to go over whenever he wants, however much he wants. Tonight, they sneak out some bottles of beer from Victor’s not-so-secret cabinet – he has too much to even notice a few missing – and stash them into Steve’s backpack, before letting Sarah know where they’ll be and taking off.

They spend most of the evening at one of the parks in the neighborhood. They both have a lot of memories there growing up, but these days it feels like hardly any of the kids on the block actually play outside anymore. When Bucky looks to the vacant swing set, a part of him feels sort of sad; like the swings are lonely or something… wondering why no one wants them anymore…

The park is surrounded by a small perimeter of trees, so they’re left to their own devices and afforded privacy while they laze around the play structure and drink through their beers. Not many – only two each. Not enough to get them drunk, but to get them lightly buzzed, so every joke is funnier and every movement feels like dancing on clouds. They get the drinking part out of the way early so that they won’t smell of it or have the evidence all over them when they head back to Steve’s for curfew.

When the sun’s beginning to set – the sky like some gorgeous Impressionist painting; full of purples and oranges and reds – they lie on their backs in the grass and just… be. They chat, and Steve giggles every time Bucky’s voice cracks uncontrollably. Puberty finally found him, and over the last couple months, his body’s been changing more rapidly than he feels he can keep up with. He’s in that awkward stage, where he’s sprouted what feels like ten inches seemingly overnight, and his voice is deepening, and he’s got acne and hormones and girls like him more and he likes them more, too.

Steve still isn’t completely there yet.

But they don’t tell each other everything anymore. At least, Bucky doesn’t. Because with puberty, and hormones, and figuring out the changes in who he is and how he feels – it’s gone hand-in-hand with some other discoveries that terrify him. There are some things he just can’t tell his best friend.

Steve wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore if he knew that Bucky dreams about him sometimes. Specific types of dreams; dreams that get Bucky waking up with a painful hard-on and the front of his boxers wet. If Steve knew that there’ve been times where Bucky’s let his thoughts wander while his hand roamed… That his guilt-ridden mind had pictured what it’d be like to taste Steve’s mouth – as easily and sometimes even easier than picturing some of the other people in his grade that Bucky fantasizes about, boys and girls alike – while Bucky was curled on his side in bed and jerking off as quietly as he could manage… Steve wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

If Steve knew that Bucky wanted him practically every second that they’re together these days, in ways that Bucky knows neither of them are even ready for yet…

Bucky would lose him. There’s not a doubt in his mind.

And yet, he screws up anyways, because he’s got alcohol bubbling in his veins and lowering his inhibitions. Because Steve’s lying on his back with one skinny arm pillowed behind his head, and Bucky’s propped up on his side, facing him and… Steve makes the mistake of chuckling at the tail end of a joke he just made, and picks that moment to tip his head towards Bucky and look up at him with those big, misleading doe-eyes. Same eyes that’d poked up from the edge of that hospital bed all those years ago, only there’s so much more there now…

Because for one stupid moment, Bucky sees that look, that smile – and it feels like he’s pulsing so strongly between his legs, and his chest is tight, and his eyes have a thinnest glaze to them, and so do Steve’s. They’d been talking about… something… and Bucky’s already forgotten what that was, because the next thing he knows, he’s leaning down and pressing a kiss right against Steve’s slightly opened mouth.

It’s clumsy, since Bucky has no clue what he’s doing. He’s had more girlfriends than just Connie over the last year, but quick pecks (mostly to the cheek) is about the extent of his experience. Even Steve’s had a girlfriend or two, to everyone’s surprise, since he started the seventh grade. This is about the one time Bucky hopes that Steve’s had at least the same – if not more – experience when it comes to kissing, because he doesn’t want this to suck for Steve.

It’s a muggy night; the kind where your shirt sticks to your skin from sweat and makes you feel sticky. Bucky probably smells a little, and Steve smells a little, too – like sweat… and beer… and something sweet that Bucky can’t put his finger on now that he’s finally this close. Bucky’s still growing into his body and feels about a hundred feet taller than Steve these days, but the way his best friend seems even tinier beneath him like this is a headier feeling than any amount of alcohol could give him.

His heart’s pounding a mile a minute. He’s terrified at what will happen when he pulls away. So, to prolong that inevitability for as long as he can, he just… doesn’t. Not yet. He keeps his mouth on Steve’s and keeps kissing him, lacking any real sort of technique. Steve’s rigid and unresponsive at first. But then Bucky feels the amazing sensation of Steve lifting a hand and tangling his fingers into Bucky’s shaggy hair, suddenly holding onto the back of his head as though Bucky were his lifeline.

Steve finally pressing his lips back and returning the kiss is so damn good that Bucky sighs out an embarrassing sound, halfway between a breathy moan and a groan. It feels like forever that Bucky’s wanted to do this to Steve – more than anybody else, god, it’s always been Steve Bucky’s cared about most – and the majority of him just can’t believe that Steve hasn’t stopped him yet… That maybe Steve might actually like him that way, too…

His own hands had nervously stayed to himself, but with Steve holding the back of his head, he tentatively brings his left hand out to rest it on Steve’s belly. The shirt beneath his palm is damp with sweat, making everything feel hotter to the touch. He might be going insane – right now, that wouldn’t surprise him – but Bucky’s pretty sure he can feel Steve’s pulse from right there in his stomach. Each heavy thump makes him want to kiss Steve harder.

He’ll part his lips every few seconds, and Steve does the same; following Bucky's movements, letting him lead the way. But the kisses themselves are chaste, innocent... Bucky wants to slip his tongue into Steve’s mouth, just so he can know what Steve’s own would feel like rubbing back. But he’s never done that before, and the last person he wants to go and mess it up with like that is Steve. So instead, he lifts that hand from Steve’s stomach and cups the side of his face, because people always seem to do that in the movies and the other person always seems to like it.

They’re panting shakily. Every exhale Steve pushes out, Bucky draws back into his own lungs until he’s feeling dizzy. He’s not even sure how long the whole thing lasts, but it’s probably only a minute or so…

Suddenly over, all too soon, when Steve’s hand moves from his head to his chest without warning and pushes him back. It catches Bucky off guard; that sudden emptiness, and the ghost of their last kiss still making his lips tingle. His brain catches up with the rest of him a few seconds later, and he realizes what he just went and did. And Steve may have kissed back, but then again, Steve just went and stopped it.

Fear makes him want to keep his eyes closed forever… Never open them again, because he’s afraid of what he’s going to see. But he knows he has no choice, so he does. Steve’s brows are knit in confusion, and he’s staring up at Bucky with his own eyes wide, mouth looking swollen. Mortified, Bucky pulls his hand away from his best friend’s face and moves in time with Steve pushing himself up from the ground. He’s staring ahead – won’t even look at Bucky now – and Bucky sits up too, slowly… Feeling… Feeling ashamed, and also rejected.

He shouldn’t have sprung that up on Steve out of nowhere, but he hadn’t been thinking. Couldn’t think. It just sort of happened… Bucky’s mind switches into overdrive, and all he’s trying to do at this point is figure out the right thing to say. Sorry? Should that be what he starts with? Would it make better sense if he came out and just told Steve how he’s been feeling lately; how confusing it’s all felt? He isn’t sure if that’d just make it all worse.

Not completely knowing what exactly is going to come out of his mouth, he parts his lips to say something, but Steve beats him to it.

“I want to go home,” is what Steve whispers.

And Bucky’s heart cracks in two.

Keeping his eyes downcast, Bucky presses his lips into a tight line and nods, despite knowing Steve isn’t actually seeing him. He mutters back, “Okay,” so quietly that even his own ears barely catch it, before rising to his feet and following Steve out of the park. They say nothing to each other during the walk home.

Sarah’s watching TV when they get back into the apartment. To avoid any suspicion, Steve goes to the bathroom and subtly brushes his teeth while Bucky sits aimlessly on his bed and stares off, feeling worse than he can remember feeling in a long time. When it’s his turn to use the washroom, Steve quietly mentions as they switch places that he’s going to tell his mom that he doesn’t feel good and just wants to head to bed. Bucky nods and answers again, “Okay.” At this point, he won’t argue. He’ll say and do anything he has to so Steve won’t be upset with him – even if that means going to bed by nine on a Friday.

He always sleeps in Steve’s bed with him whenever he crashes at his place. With his recent growth spurt, it makes the squeeze a bit tighter, and… given what’d happened between them tonight, Bucky stops and questions for the first time whether it’s even appropriate that they do that sort of thing anymore. Regardless, and to his honest surprise, Steve still takes his usual spot and seems to expect Bucky to lie down in his. So he does. He’ll take it.

Steve’s back is to him, and he continues to be silent. Bucky stares at the back of his head, feeling so anxious that he could puke. Every other minute and he’s opening his mouth to say something, only to close it right away and think twice on it. When the nerves gnawing at his insides wind up getting the better of him, he blurts out, “I’m sorry.”

Steve doesn’t react from next to him, but Bucky knows he’s not sleeping yet. So he continues, “I’m sorry, Stevie, I… I don’t know why I did that. I get it if you hate me right now, I – I’d hate me, too. I shouldn’t have done that, I fucked up. Just… please, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I can’t lose you, okay? I don’t want this to change nothin’…” At this point, Bucky will lie. “It was the beer talkin’ – well, actin’, and… I’ve felt so all over the place lately, and… Fuck, I’m just really sorry… okay? I swear, I swear I won’t ever do that again.”

For another minute or so, still, nothing. Bucky’s about ready to cry. Then it’s like a miracle when Steve slowly shuffles next to him and rolls over. His eyes are hard, but not from anger – at least, it doesn’t strike Bucky as anger. They stare at each other, and Bucky hates that he’s practically shaking, but he can’t help it. He wishes he could tell Steve the truth, but now he knows… He just blew his only chance. He can never tell him now.

“It’s okay,” Steve finally replies. With a few breaths, his features soften enough to have relief flooding Bucky’s chest like a tidal wave.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says again. He’ll say it as many times as he has to. “I don’t want us not to be friends.”

“You’re an idiot,” Steve quietly replies, sighing. “I could never hate you, and… I’d never let this change our friendship. You know me better than that. Okay?”

“Okay…”

Steve forces a smile to his face. “Look, let’s just forget this happened, okay? I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

Bucky should feel grateful, but all that does is make his stomach drop with disappointment. Still, it’s the best he could’ve asked for in this situation, given the circumstances. So he nods. “Okay.”

“‘Kay… Well… Did you wanna play Ocarina of Time or somethin’? I’m not feelin’ so tired anymore. If we keep it down, ma won’t know we’re still up.”

“Alright…”

So they do; they crawl back out of bed and sit on the floor. They boot up Zelda and play until almost two in the morning, and as the time passes, they force themselves to make conversation until it doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore. Bucky isn’t sure if Steve is faking it or if he’s just so desperate to believe it, but when they’re finally joking around again and trying to stifle bouts of laughter to keep from getting too loud, Bucky tells himself that they’re fine, everything’s fine, and they’ll be able to get past this.

They are, and they do – and not a day after that passes where Bucky isn’t pretending it doesn’t kill him inside, to know that he and Steve will never talk about it again.


A couple months after Bucky’s fourteenth birthday, his life completely changes. 

He comes home from school to find his parents sitting at the dining room table, waiting for him. Rebecca’s already sitting there, too. They all look to Bucky expectantly. He slowly takes off his shoes and lowers his backpack to ground, slowly saying, “Uh… hi.”

“Hi, sweetheart,” Winifred says, sounding a bit too calculated in her cheeriness. Immediately, Bucky’s suspicious. “Did you have a good day at school?”

“Um… Yeah, it was fine.”

“Would you mind coming and taking a seat? There’s something your mother and I wanted to talk to you two about,” George chimes in, sounding no more trustworthy in this moment than his mother when it comes to his tone.

Feeling nervous, he nods and mumbles, “Okay,” as he goes to sit in his usual spot. He’s not sure what exactly is going on; his sister’s there, too, so it can’t have anything to do with his report card, or something he might’ve done wrong. Whatever it is seems to involve the both of them. But they haven’t even been arguing all that much lately – no more than usual – so that doesn’t seem to be the reason either. His eyes narrow and his brows pinch in the center when he casts his sister an inquisitive glance. Clearly she isn’t sure what their parents want to talk about either, since all she does is shrug.

Then his dad opens his mouth and begins to explain – and Bucky’s entire world crashes down around him.

 

---

 

“You’re moving?” Steve repeats back to him from his end of the phone call, like he just can’t believe it – and for good reason. 

Bucky’s in his room – or, his old room now, he supposes. By the end of the week, it won’t be anymore. He’s furious; feels betrayed by his parents, and plans not to speak to them for the rest of the night. The conversation wasn’t even completely finished and he was rising out of his chair, yelling, “It’s not fair!” before turning and running from the dining room and taking the stairs two at a time. He made sure to slam his door extra hard to get his point across, and when they tried to come talk to him a few minutes later, he’d locked the knob and told them to go away.

“Yep.”

“But the school year’s not even over.”

“I know.”

“Can’t they wait a bit or somethin’?” Steve asks, clearly as unhappy and thrown off by the unexpected news as Bucky is.

“Apparently not,” Bucky fumes. “Dad needs to start by a certain date, and he didn’t get to pick it.” He’s stomping around while he talks; kicking his chair over and throwing his own private tantrum. The first person he’d thought to call was Steve, so Steve’s unfortunately been privy to the worst of it. “They promised me we’d never have to do this again! They promised!

Steve knows about how much Bucky and his family moved around a lot for the first few years of his life. Thanks to George having been in the military since before Bucky’s birth, Bucky had been an army brat until they’d finally settled in Brooklyn when he was five. Luckily, he can’t remember most of it, but from what he can remember, he hated it. He could never get settled or have a sense of normality for very long. New places always meant Bucky could develop zero attachment to them, because one of the first lessons he had to learn in his life was that he’d always be taken away from it the moment he got used to it.

However, when Rebecca was getting close to the age where she’d start going to daycare, and Bucky would be heading into kindergarten, Winifred and George had settled in New York, under the agreement that the children needed more stability. Any traveling George needed to do wouldn’t involve the rest of the family, and Bucky remembers it being the best day of his life at that point, when they’d told him they wouldn’t be moving again for a long time.

He’d been kidding himself when he believed that it could last, though. His parents had tried to explain to them that they could use the increase in George’s pay, trying to pitch the entire thing like it could be seen as some sort of adventure, and that there were positives there, even if Bucky couldn’t see them yet. It hadn’t mattered that his mother looked sympathetic to Bucky especially, since she too would have to say goodbye to Sarah, and Winifred knew better than anyone how important Steve was to her son. Bucky doesn’t give a shit – he’s still mad at her.

Steve’s just as gutted at what he’s hearing. “You can’t stay?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, Stevie,” Bucky replies bitterly. “Can’t exactly stay here; we got no family in Brooklyn. What am I supposed to do – be a street kid? Live in alleys and eat garbage?”

He knows Steve’s just trying to help. Truth be told, if that meant he could stay behind and not have to leave Steve, Bucky would probably do just that. He sighs, deflating as he drops down onto his bed and stares off miserably. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he says, gentler this time. “I ain’t mad at you, I’m just… This really sucks.”

That’s a horrible understatement. To him, to them both, it feels like the end of the world.

“So where are they takin’ you again?”

“Some place in Indiana,” Bucky answers. “They got an army base there and dad’s been relocated. Guess he got a promotion or somethin’ and he ‘couldn’t say no this time’.” He can hear Steve scoff, and he meets it in kind, adding an indignant, “Yeah, tell me about it.”

“But you can’t just leave,” Steve argues. It makes Bucky’s heart hurt.

“Apparently I got no choice,” he replies. “I tried to tell ‘em I couldn’t go, but they just promised me I’d ‘make new friends’ and that didn’t mean I’d ‘have to lose the ones I got here’, and ‘they understand that it’s goin’ to be hard.’ If they knew how hard it would be, they wouldn’t be making me do it!”

“But… like… Indiana’s so far, Buck. It’s really far,” Steve keeps saying, and he sounds like he’s trying not to cry. Bucky can relate. He wishes they were having this conversation in person because he could really use a hug right about now, and his mom and dad aren’t exactly the people he wants that from at the moment. But he’d been unable to wait to tell Steve. This was the sort of news that couldn’t be prolonged until morning.

“You think I don’t know that? It’s gonna take, like, half a day to drive there.”

They’re quiet for a bit. Then Steve asks, “So… when…?”

Bucky closes his eyes, swallowing down a lump so big in his throat that he’d bet it could choke him if he let it. “This weekend.”

“But that’s only a couple days away!”

“I know, Steve, I… I know that.”

“Maybe – I dunno, maybe I can talk to ma, maybe… Maybe you could come live with us,” Steve quickly suggests, sounding as desperate as Bucky feels. “I could move all my things to one half of my room, and you could have the other half. We could get another bed, or… I’ll just sleep on the floor for a while. She might say yes, you never know, Buck. Lemme ask her.”

“Steve--”

“She’s at work right now, but she’ll be home soon, just – don’t say anythin’ to your parents yet, just gimme an hour or so--”

Stevie.”

“What?” Steve snaps, exasperated.

Bucky chews his bottom lip, hot tears making his vision blurry. It kills him, how badly he wishes they could do that. More than anything, Bucky doesn’t want to leave Steve. The thought of being away from him is almost as scary as the idea that he won’t be around anymore to make sure Steve and his mom are still safe, given that Victor actually lives with them now… But he doesn’t let himself cry – he’s got to stay tough, for Steve’s sake if nothing else. Same as it’s always been, even though Steve never wants it.

“My parents wouldn’t let me,” he tells him, voice wobbly.

Steve makes a weak noise. “But…”

“Thank you for tryin’ though, pal,” Bucky continues, trying to chuckle in a weak attempt to lighten the mood. It only winds up coming out strained. “You know I would if I could, but… it just ain’t in the cards.”

“So… you’re really going to move?”

“…Yeah, buddy. I have no choice.”

“But it’s not fair! School ain’t even over yet! You can’t just… you can’t just go, Buck!”

Closing his eyes, two fat tears escape the corners and roll down his cheeks. He nods to himself, aware that no one’s there to see, and forces a smile to his face – even though no one’s there to see that, either.

“Hey, hey, listen,” he replies, “you n’ me? This ain’t gonna change a thing. Doesn’t matter how far I’ll be, we’re still gonna be best friends, got it? If that means we write to each other every day and I have to call any punk who gives ya a hard time so I can give ‘em a piece of my mind, then… that’s how it’ll be. I’m sure I’ll be able to come visit eventually.”

He isn’t sure whether Steve’s finally crying or not, but he hears nothing from the other line at first. Then there’s a really horrible, muffled, pained sound, and Bucky has to cover his eyes and grit his teeth while a few more tears fall down to his jaw and drop off onto his shirt. He cries silently, so Steve won’t have to hear it; so Steve won’t have to feel his pain on top of his own.

“Okay,” Steve whimpers softly.

“Hey, it’s gonna be fine,” Bucky promises, back to forcing his voice to be even and reassuring. “I’ll make sure to see you every day before I go.” Chuckling – it hurts his stomach – he tries to lighten the mood by redirecting the subject a little. Falling back onto the mattress, he stares up at the ceiling and says, “Hey, you remember when we were kids, and we said we were gonna run away together and discover a magical Kingdom – you remember that?”

He hears a shattered-sounding chuckle. “Yeah, I remember,” Steve says.

“What did we call it again?”

“Asgard,” Steve answers, laughing again weakly. “From… um, that story from Norse mythology…”

“Yeah, that was it,” Bucky whispers. Closing his eyes, he asks, “Tell me about that again? About everythin’ we said we’d do.”

“Okay…”

For a while, he just lets Steve talk, and Bucky listens; like back to the good old days when they’d read through The Hobbit and Bucky thought he’d always have Steve by his side. Bucky tries to let himself get lost in the picture Steve paints for him. But really, the only thing he does is the only thing he’s trying not to do: imagine what life will be like without Steve Rogers, and hoping that his best friend doesn’t hear him cry.

 

---

 

One second, his life had been normal. Then, in what feels like the blink of an eye, it’s not his life anymore. The rest of the week passed by in a sort of blur, where Bucky stopped caring about his homework – what’s the point? He’s just starting all over anyways, with only a couple months of the school year left and knowing absolutely no one – and tried to hang out with the gang as much as possible.

Tony’s dad had arranged for all the boys to have a pizza party at the movie theater that Friday, and every single kid there gave him a hug when it was over. Even Clint. Actually, Clint looked like he was struggling not to cry even harder than anyone else – which says a lot, given that he usually likes to act like he’s too cool for that sort of thing.

Saturday, Steve had come over and helped Bucky finish packing up his room. That’d mostly been done in silence. That night, his parents let him stay the night at Steve’s. Bucky didn’t give a crap what they did while they were there; he just kept looking around the apartment and tried to memorize every last detail… Remembering in the back of his head, Steve’s proposal for Bucky to live with them and actually wishing he’d accepted it. Sarah had hugged him for almost ten whole minutes, and unlike the boys, she felt no embarrassment when she shed a few tears. Bucky almost lost it when she told him she’d made an entire batch of cupcakes just for him, to take on his trip.

“Don’t you eat them all in one sitting, young man,” she’d lightly scolded, holding his chin in a gentle grip. “Once you’re all settled in, I told your mother I expect a phone call, and I will ask her if I have to.”

“I won’t,” Bucky promised. He wasn’t even sure he’d touch a single one. A part of him just wanted to keep them forever, long after they’d go bad.

That night, he and Steve tried to stay up for as long as they could manage – like if they never fell asleep, Sunday wouldn’t come for them. But neither of them were strong enough to keep their eyes open that long, and around four in the morning, they both eventually dozed off. This time, Bucky wrapped an arm around Steve, and Steve didn’t stop him. No… Steve lifted a hand and held onto Bucky’s arm, locking them together; Bucky pressed to his back, falling into an uneasy sleep with the faint scent of Steve’s shampoo tinging every breath.

Now, all too soon, he’s standing outside of his house with Steve standing next to him. They watch as his parents, Sarah, and (unfortunately) Victor help the movers finish packing the last of their things into the box truck. It’s not fair, Steve was absolutely right – a week ago and this was the home Bucky assumed he’d be in until the day came when he got a place of his own. That had felt like a million years away. But without any warning, he’s being ripped away from his life. Logically, he knows he’ll probably understand why his parents had to do this… eventually.

Right now, he’s still fourteen, and he’s still leaving his best friend, and Bucky still feels cheated. He hasn’t really spoken to them much since he was first told the news, even though a part of him feels bad whenever his mom looks to him and he can see the guilt clear as day in her eyes.

It’s like he’s barely given a chance to let all of this sink in, and suddenly it’s time to go.

Winifred is the one to come tell him. She pulls Steve into a hug, which the blond accepts and returns, hugging her back tightly. She reminds him that in the summer, he’s more than welcome to come stay with them and visit; that she’s already spoken to Sarah about it, and of course Sarah says again that that’s more than alright. Winifred also tells him that once they’re all moved in and have their new number set up, Bucky will call and make sure Steve has the number and address.

He and Sarah have never been poor, per se, but they’ve also by no means have ever been ‘rich’, either. Because of that, Sarah’s never seen the necessity in owning a computer yet, and Steve hardly cares much for that sort of technology at his age anyways. So, without an email address to contact them for the time being, regular post and phone calls will have to do.

Steve politely says okay, but he really didn’t need to be told. Bucky’s already sworn to do that about ten times that day alone.

George and Rebecca say goodbye to Steve, too, while Bucky gets wrapped up into another hug by Sarah. Victor’s on his best behavior – of course he is – so when he casts that deceivingly charming smile Bucky’s way and wishes him a safe trip and says that he’ll be missed, Bucky hardly believes him. He doesn’t even answer; just stares back at him guardedly and then gives a stiff nod. He’s got his teeth so deeply buried into the side of his tongue that he could draw blood – but it’s the only way to stop himself from opening his mouth and saying something akin to, I find out you laid a single finger on either of them and I’ll kill you.

Everyone gives the boys a moment of privacy.

Steve’s biting his bottom lip and refusing to meet Bucky’s eyes. They’re facing each other, and Bucky wants to reach out and hug him, but he also doesn’t. If he hugs him, then it’s really goodbye, and he needs just a few more minutes – just a few more minutes, please. Steve’s baby blues are round and filled with tears when he finally look up to him, but then he’s sniffling quickly and muttering, “Um… here. I brought this for you.”

Swinging the backpack he’d been carrying from off his shoulder, he rummages inside of it and pulls out his old G.I. Joe. Bucky hasn’t seen that thing in years, and the sight of it almost does him in completely, because… as much as he’s trying to tell himself that this isn’t it, it still really feels like it is. He doesn’t know how to handle it.

“Wow,” he chuckles, swiping as discreetly at his eyes as he can. “Haven’t see him in a while. Hey, Joe.”

“I was thinking… maybe you could take it,” Steve slowly suggests, offering it out to him, “but not keep it forever or anythin’. Y’know? Like… it would give you a reason to come back. ‘Cause I’ll want this back one day. So… you hold onto it and don’t lose it, and when we’re older, then you can give it back to me.”

Bucky takes it from Steve’s hand; fingers curling around it and holding it as protectively as he remembers doing the first day they’d properly met, when he’d first walked the halls of the Maimonides Center. He knows exactly what Steve’s saying, without having to actually say it. He almost hugs the action figure to his chest. Instead, he holds Steve’s gaze and nods.

“You got it,” he answers softly. “I’ll take good care of him.”

“Yeah, well… you’d better.”

Bucky bites his lip, bouncing on the balls of his feet. After glancing over to his family – who’re still waiting for him patiently in the car – he steps towards Steve and mutters, “C’mere, man.”

Bucky’s arms open and he hunches down. Steve steps right against him, throwing one arm around his neck and the other around his back, paralleling Bucky and slotting against him perfectly, like a puzzle piece. It’s tight, and it’s desperate, and neither wants to let go. But they both know they have to. Staring ahead, face going red the longer he fights off the urge to cry again, Bucky chokes out, “Don’t do anything stupid ‘till I get back.”

“How can I?” Steve replies, voice wavering and his chin resting on Bucky’s shoulder; lips right next to his ear. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

Bucky exhales a laugh, feeling hysterical again. They break away and Bucky gives Steve’s shoulder a light shove with his fist. “Seriously, buddy, keep yourself out of trouble.”

“I will.”

“No you won’t.”

“Bucky, just go or I’m never lettin’ ya leave,” Steve jokes. Except he isn’t joking at all; despite the hollow lopsided smile he gets when saying that, his eyes give away how serious he actually is.

Bucky nods; feels like it’s getting hard to breathe again. Lifting Steve’s G.I. Joe up a little, he thanks Steve for it again and then sways, like he wants to say more. He does. He’s wanted to say so much to Steve, especially in the last two years. But in the end, he’s a coward and he doesn’t. He quietly says, “Bye,” and Steve pauses for a few moments before whispering back, “Bye, Buck.”

Bucky’s silent when he gets into the car. His mom asks him if he’s alright, but Bucky doesn’t answer. He won’t let himself cry until he’s by himself, in his new room where Steve will never be, but where he can let himself fall apart. They start up the car and follow behind the moving truck, backing out of the driveway. Bucky clutches onto the G.I. Joe for dear life, white-knuckling it in his lap. The whole time, his eyes are on Steve, who’s still standing on the lawn and likewise watching him go.

Sarah’s come up behind him, wrapping one arm around her son. With the other, she’s waving. As the car continues to back up, Bucky watches Steve step forward and start slowly walking alongside the car, never looking away from him. When they’re finally on the street and Bucky feels the car begin to pick up speed, panic seizes him, and he wants to scream, “STOP!”

He can’t open his mouth. All he can do is watch… Watch as Steve picks up his pace and starts trying to run alongside the car for as long as his lungs and his short little legs will let him. When they pass him, Bucky’s unbuckling his seat belt, and he doesn’t care that his parents are suddenly saying his name and telling him to put it back on – Bucky’s spinning around and clinging to the back of his headrest, staring out the back window and feeling like he’d rather die… Rather die than drive further and further away from Steve, and watch him keep running after the car, like if he could just catch up with them, things could be different somehow.

But then, they turn the corner. Bucky can’t see Steve anymore. The very last glimpse of him he gets is seeing Sarah catching up to him and trying to bring the blond to a stop. If Bucky didn’t know better, he’d think that it looked like Steve was trying to yell something to him.

Bucky’s mouth is open and his eyes are wide. He feels numb; keeps staring out the back window for another minute or so, hoping that somehow he’d see Steve turn the corner, too… Keep following him, not let Bucky leave. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t, and they keep driving further away. When he feels a hand touching his ankle, and his mother sympathetically murmuring, “James, sweetheart… Please sit down,” he finally does.

Moving slowly, never blinking, he twists and lowers himself back into his seat; puts his seat belt back on, and then stares out the window… Is scarred by the image of Steve running after his car. Doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to unsee it.

He squeezes the G.I. Joe in his hands so hard it hurts.

He doesn’t let go the entire trip.


It takes a little over a week for Bucky and his family to finally get all settled in. Bucky hates their new town, and his new bedroom, and his new home. When he starts school, he hates that, too. Within two weeks, they get their phone lines connected, and Bucky tries to give Steve’s house a call. In his hand is a small sheet of paper with their new address scribbled down, ready to relay it to Steve so they can write each other letters. In his room, on top of his dresser, sits Steve’s G.I. Joe. 

But Steve doesn’t answer. Rather, the phone doesn’t even ring. Before anything can happen, an automated voice is speaking into Bucky’s ear: The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and try your call again.

Bucky’s face twists up with a lack of understanding. Certain he’d dialed the wrong number, he hangs up and then does exactly like the faceless voice had instructed: he tries again… Places the phone to his ear, fully expecting it to ring this time…

The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and try your call again.

He stares at the receiver with a scowl, like the phone is somehow personally responsible for getting this all wrong. He knows his best friend’s number; he’s had it memorized for years, and it’s never changed. Still, to be safe, he calls to his mom and asks if he can see her address book. He double and triple checks, but sure enough, that’s Steve’s number alright. He hadn’t gotten it wrong – the number is in fact disconnected.

That doesn’t mean he stops trying.

The number you are trying to reach is currently not in service. Please hang up and--

The number you are trying to reach is currently--

The number you are trying--

The number--

“Damnit!” Bucky shouts, slamming the receiver back down (and then getting scolded for his use of language). Outraged and baffled, Bucky explains the situation to Winifred, who then gets her own perplexed look. She too tries the Rogers’ number, and gets the exact same automated voice message that Bucky kept getting.

“Maybe they recently changed their number,” she tells him.

“They got no reason to change their number; they’ve had the same number for years,” Bucky argues stubbornly.

Winifred sighs. “Honey, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe there’s a problem with the phone company. Why don’t you try again tomorrow? You can always write Steve a letter and put all your information in there. That way, if they did change their number, he has a way to contact you and he can give you their new one.”

“Fine,” Bucky grumbles, getting up from the kitchen table and heading up to his room.

He writes Steve a six-page letter. The first thing he does is write down his new address and phone number, and then tells Steve – as if Steve wouldn’t know himself – that his old number isn’t working. He tells Steve all about Edinburgh – or more so, he complains about it. He says over and over how much he already misses Brooklyn, and even adds in there a few times that he misses Steve, too.

Bucky promises again that he’ll keep Steve’s G.I. Joe safe with him, and that it’s currently sitting on his dresser, in its own special spot. He ends the letter by asking Steve to send him back a picture – then I’ll send you one back and we can do that with EVERY letter, ok? – and tell him all about how he’s doing and how their friends are.

Bucky doesn’t add, and don’t skimp on the details. But he thinks it’s pretty clear in there that that’s what he’s saying.

The next day, Steve’s number still isn’t working. Bucky stubbornly doesn’t lose hope, and instead bugs his mom to bring him down to the post office so he can mail off the letter.

Then he waits.


Every day after that, even when he knows it’s too soon to possibly get a response, Bucky’s checking the mailbox the second he gets home from school. If it’s empty, the first question out of his mouth is, “Anythin’ today?” 

His mother always has to tell him no.

Every day that brings him no reply is paired with another day where Bucky tries Steve’s phone number to no avail. Gradually, he begins to panic, and the first place his fourteen-year-old brain goes to is that Steve’s mad at him; he’s upset with Bucky for leaving and he’s ignoring him. So Bucky writes and mails a second letter a few weeks later.

Only a day later and he opens up the mailbox that afternoon to find his first letter sitting in there, waiting for him.

Stamped across the front, in bright red ink, are the words: RETURN TO SENDER.

Bucky thinks he must’ve gotten the ZIP code wrong or something. But when he double checks it with the address his mom has written down in her book, everything matches up. Two weeks later, and Bucky’s second letter returns to him with the exact same stamp. According to the envelopes, Steve no longer lives at that address.

It doesn’t make sense. Bucky had only been gone a little less than two weeks by the time he was trying to get back into contact with him. But apparently, two weeks was all it had taken for Steve and Sarah to up and move, completely out of nowhere. Just as unexpectedly as Bucky’s move had been.

It hits him – cold and dreadful and hard – that he now has no way of getting a hold of Steve. Winifred, just as worried by the turn of events, tries to contact the Bartons and the Starks and anyone in her address book who might have Sarah’s contact information, but they know just as much as Bucky does – which is to say, nothing. All they know was that there had been an incident, and Sarah was forced to take Steve and move out of State. For the time being, no one seems to know where they went.

Bucky never even had the chance to give Steve a way to get a hold of him… and now he has no way of talking to Steve either. He spends most of that first night sobbing into his pillow while his mom rubs his back; says things to try to make him feel better, but nothing will work. The only thing that’ll help is hearing Steve’s voice. And Bucky can’t seem to have that now.

Weeks pass by, and then months. Bucky continues to write Steve letters, as if by sending them, everyone would somehow be proven wrong. For the first little while, he never stops checking the mailbox, and he refuses to be deterred when each envelope comes back with the same words stamped across it.

But then Bucky starts high school, and he starts making new friends. He still thinks of Steve every day, and hurts just as badly that he hasn’t heard a thing from him since he moved. To cope, his rationality begins to seep away from him and gets replaced by anger. It’s the first emotion Bucky’s felt in months that was complete and utter sorrow, and, well… anger makes it feel easier to move on. He never thought he’d have to move on from Steve Rogers.

But he does; convinces himself that if Steve wanted to get a hold of Bucky, he’d try just as hard as Bucky had. Only Steve would’ve found a way to make it work. Since he still hasn’t heard a damn thing, the only option that makes sense anymore is that Steve wants nothing to do with him now. Bucky moved, and that was that. Any other possibility is too heart-wrenching to bear, and at this point, Bucky can’t bear it. This is the only answer that helps him function, no matter how badly it still hurts.

Eventually, he stops writing letters. Eventually, he gives up on checking the mailbox.

One day, just a couple weeks before Christmas, he finds himself constantly being distracted from his homework by that stupid G.I. Joe action figure staring back at him from his dresser. Bucky does his best to ignore it, but it’s as if it’s searing a hole into the side of his head. Glaring at it, he finally snaps and throws his book off to the side, abruptly finding his footing on the floor. Without thinking twice, he grabs Steve’s toy and finds an empty box from their storage unit to shove it into. Back in his room, he hastily seals it shut with a messy tape job, before dropping it to the floor. Using his foot, he kicks at it with the side of his heel, sending it sliding it beneath his bed, as far back as it can go.

He knows he’ll never have it in him to throw it away… but he doesn’t think he can ever look at it again.

And for almost fourteen years, he doesn’t...


 ...


He’s screaming. He’s screaming and no one’s coming to get him. He’s alone, and they keep repeating his name – ‘Sergeant Barnes’, ‘Sergeant Barnes’, Sergeant Barnes SERGEANT BARNESSERGEANTBARNES—

He’s strapped to a table and he can’t understand a word they’re saying. First blink… Sees the lights overhead. Can still see. Can maybe get out of there. Second blink… Everything goes black. There are so many hands, grabbing him everywhere, and then he feels that free-fall sensation of being tipped back. There’s no table beneath him anymore. He might be floating, but he’ll never grow the wings he needs to actually fly away.

He can’t see, he can’t see, he can’t – there’s something over his face and he keeps trying to plead with them but he doesn’t speak their language. Even if he did, they wouldn’t care. Tipped back, back, back, back, backbackbackbackback – and suddenly he can’t breathe. He can’t see and he can’t breathe because they’re pouring water over his face and oh god, oh sweet god, he’s drowning, Jesus Christ, he’s going to die. His lungs are burning, filling up with water; it’s starting to pour out his nose and ears and tear ducts, filling him up like he’s a balloon – every nook, every crevice, every inch of him. He’s water now. Water and blood, no muscles or bones. Skin keeps him together, but he’s about to explode. And he can’t breathe, he’s dying but they won’t let him die, this will never end…

He’s suddenly in the middle of a field of destruction – his own personal No Man’s Land – as his friends, his fellow soldiers, shoot and run and kill and get killed. His weight distribution feels off; his left side feels lighter. And there’s some up ahead of him, someone he refuses to think about anymore, with golden hair and gangly limbs and a gun in his hand, and he’s not supposed to be there. The barrel is pointed ahead with purpose, and Bucky watches him tread forward.

He can hear explosions and gunfire; grenades and shouting. He would try to run, run to the faceless man with the golden hair, because Bucky sees the machine gun pointed in his direction but the other man does not. This man has no face, but Bucky knows his name anyways.

‘Steve! Steve, run!’ his lips would form and scream, except his lips aren’t moving at all and neither is he. He’s frozen there, trapped within a thick layer of ice – and he’s suddenly aware that he is cold, he’s so cold, but he can see perfectly fine and the image in front of him is so clear that it’s almost disorienting. “STEVE!” he continues to scream, but the sound only seems to echo off the walls of his skull. He screams so loud inside that his vocal chords scratch and rub raw anyways, and Bucky can taste the blood; feel it pool up in his stomach, slowly fill him up like a balloon again. He’s invisible, so the death and carnage continue around him as though he wasn’t even there.

He can see everything anyways. He can hear everything anyways. He can feel everything… and… he’s so fucking cold… The ice crawls up his chest and freeze his lungs, and Bucky can’t breathe. He thinks he might be missing his left arm.

The gun goes off – a quick and terrorizing, continuous piercing sound that fills the air around them all – and Steve’s body falls to the ground. Steve never even sees it coming; never gets a chance to run. Bucky tries to thrash, to break free, to do something – but all he can do is watch. Only now, Steve’s body isn’t up ahead of him, but right at his feet; lifeless eyes staring up at him, and his mouth hanging open; blood the brightest shade of red trailing down the side of his jaw. Bucky stares down at him in horror, and then ‘We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, we’ll miss you—’ and Bucky looks up and it’s Victor standing there, but he doesn’t look the same. He’s holding the gun; aims it right at Bucky’s face. ‘We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, we’ll miss you,’ Victor keeps telling him with a wolfish grin.  

The gun goes off. Bucky’s back on the table, finally able to breathe again. There’s a rusted knife in his hand and a sense of panic in his pulse. He doesn’t have much time. The blade is halfway into his bicep, right above the restraint – he’s got to get out of there. They’ll kill him if he can’t. He knows this now. The knife hits bone and this time, Bucky’s lips part and he’s able to scream, able to shriek, and it’s so loud and gut-wrenching and there’s nothing but fire coursing through his body--

With a strangled cry, Bucky jolts as his eyes fly wide and he bolts up into a sitting position. Wheezing and shaking uncontrollably, he frantically looks around the room like he always does. He searches for the bodies and the guns and the men who’d pinned him down, fully expecting to find them in there with him. But like always, all he ever sees are white walls, clothes, and furniture. This time is no different. His heart thumping wildly in his chest, he exhales shakily and drops his head into his right hand; shoulders bouncing as his upper body dry heaves, crying the silent tears that are long since too dried out to fall.

Whatever momentum he has in his dreams always catches up with him, and he considers himself lucky if he has a night where he doesn’t wake up screaming – let alone getting a decent, full night’s rest. This is his pattern now: sleep, dream, scream, repeat. Has been for a long time; ever since he was given that Honorable Discharge in 2013.

They’d told him – the doctors, the therapists, the fucking physiotherapists even – that it would gradually get better with time. They’d been lying. The nightmares never go away, and neither do the panic attacks. They’d been lying, because it’s not like he’s ever going to get his fucking arm back either. They made it sound so goddamn positive when he’d been given his prosthetic; told ‘he’d get used to it’, and ‘before he knew it, he’d be able to get through his everyday life as easily as he’d known before’.

Fucking liars! Not a day’s gone by since he lost it that he hasn’t ached for it back. The worst nights are the ones where he startles awake still thinking he actually has it. There’s always that split second between coming back into consciousness and having reality catch up to him where his mind tricks him into thinking he can still feel the phantom sensations of an arm probably still rotting in a hole in the ground somewhere in Pakistan.

Bucky hasn’t cried in over eight years. Sometimes, he has to press the only hand he has left to his chest to make sure there’s still a heart beating somewhere in there. It can be hard to believe when he looks into the mirror and sees the reflection staring back at him that there’s still a person hiding in there, behind a pair of lifeless, dull grey eyes.

He wouldn’t be surprised if he’s forgotten how to function.