When Bucky says that he doesn’t mind looking after Steve when he’s sick again, it’s nothing but the truth. Mrs. Rogers has to go and work the late shift at the hospital, so after school’s out, Bucky grabs Steve’s homework and usually goes straight to his tiny flat.
He only stops by Mario’s Deli, because Antonia, who’s a couple of years older and already working in her father’s shop, has a soft spot for him, which Bucky is not ashamed to exploit when it means extra milk for Steve, or maybe an apple or even an asthma cigarette. The last costs him a kiss or two, because Antonia has to steal it from her nonna, but he doesn’t mind. Antonia is pretty and nice, and he actually likes that she always tastes a bit like Italian coffee, much stronger than the Eight O’Clock Coffee Bucky’s parents drink.
It’s not like they’re dating. Although he’s at least Catholic, Antonia will never be allowed to go out with an Irish boy, which suits Bucky just fine, truth be told. He tries to avoid complications and never takes out the same girl more than once or twice. He treats them well, twirls them over the dance floor until they’re both breathless and laughing, but then he extricates himself and goes back to Steve, who’s usually sitting in a corner with a sketch pad if he got by the doorman at all. Bucky’s a bit young for the dance halls himself, but Steve looks even younger than his age, which makes Bucky’s efforts to find him dates even more difficult. When Steve’s well enough to go out at all, they end up at Coney Island more often than not, and if pressed Bucky would have to admit that the look of delight on Steve’s face when they ride the ferris wheel makes him feel just as warm as dancing with a pretty girl.
But Bucky knows better than to let anyone suspect this, so he keeps his mouth shut and tries not to think too much about it. He can’t stop himself from looking, though, and it makes him feel guilty, especially when Steve is sick. Bucky really, really shouldn’t get even the slightest thrill of seeing the expanse of white skin, albeit unavoidably marred by blue-green bruises, the slightly twisted, knobbly line of his spine, the way the fever gives his cheeks color and makes his eyes shine over-bright. Yet there it is, an ugly truth that Bucky tries to make up for by being extra-careful when he sponges Steve down, heating the water on the stove so it’s as pleasant as possible.
He figures the only reason Steve even lets him wash him is because it’s less embarrassing than having his mom do it. The same goes for patching up after fights, because Bucky knows Steve can face just about anything except the look in Sarah Rogers’ eyes when he’s injured. She’s proud of him, of the man he’s becoming, but she’s also his mother who wants to keep her baby safely wrapped in a cocoon. And hell, Bucky sure knows exactly how she feels, has to fight to keep his overprotectiveness to a reasonable level every time Steve decides another bully needs taking on.
Actually, as long as Bucky is there, by Steve’s side, it’s mostly alright. Bucky hates bullies almost as much as Steve, always has, although admittedly it became a much more personal issue the moment he met Steve Rogers. Something in the defiant set of Steve’s jaw, the way he kept getting up, undaunted, spoke to Bucky, made him not only want to join in the fight but also do his best to keep that scrappy boy safe. It’s become something like his mission in life, and few things get him more riled up than when Steve seems to think Bucky would be better off somewhere else.
Steve, even at his most sick, coughing so hard that panic rises in Bucky’s throat like bile, is still Bucky’s very favorite person in the world. And when he’s well, at least by Steve’s standards, he shines so brightly Bucky sometimes thinks he’ll go blind, like staring into the sun. He’s so smart, smarter even than Bucky, who’s always found school easy, and so damn talented, with his drawings and the way he manages to inspire people with his passion for, well, everything.
Bucky has already determined to get Steve to art school, even if it means he might not be able to go himself. He naturally hasn’t told Steve about this, preferring instead to listen to Steve’s imaginations of them sharing a flat while both going to college in the City. It’s a lovely dream, especially the bit about being roommates, and in his more optimistic moments Bucky allows himself to hope that it will come true. At some point some girl is bound to wise up and see Steve for the amazing guy he is, but until then Bucky will stick as close to Steve as Steve will let him.
When Bucky joins up, he and Steve get into their biggest row ever, because Bucky makes the mistake of telling Steve he’s glad he got rejected. Steve doesn’t speak to him for three days, and Bucky mopes around his parents’ place until his mom kicks him out with the strict instruction to make things right with Steve. She’s right, of course, there’s so little time left until boot camp, so Bucky swallows his pride and looks for Steve, at first in the room he’s been letting ever since his mom died, and then in all their usual places.
He finds him at the foot of the Bridge, sketching furiously, angry tears glittering in his eyes, and Bucky realizes he’s drawing a couple of soldiers out for an evening stroll with their dames. Bucky approaches carefully, but the moment he sees him, Steve jumps up and pulls him into a hug that leaves Bucky breathless despite the lack of strength in Steve’s spindly arms. He allows himself a moment of sheer relief before slapping Steve on the back jovially and offering to help him train for his next visit to the recruitment office. After all, the army will never take him, and this way Bucky gets to spend his remaining time with Steve being happy, filled with purpose, not sullen and angry.
Still, it doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier. They haven’t been apart for more than a couple of days basically since the day they met in that alley, and Bucky makes Steve promise to write to him. It’s a promise Steve faithfully keeps, his letters always filled with news from the neighborhood. He also sends drawings, of people and places, some of which Bucky shows to his fellow recruits and some which he keeps to himself because they’re filled with memories he doesn’t want to share. He doesn’t write back half as often, but when he does he tells Steve all about the guys in his squad and the grueling training they’re put through.
Turns out he’s actually good at this soldiering thing, the COs commending his good aim and cool head under pressure. They don’t know that it’s easy to stay calm after a lifetime of making sure one Steven Grant Rogers doesn’t go charging in without backup. But sniper training makes time go by quicker, and before he knows it, boot camp is over and Bucky is headed home before shipping out for the first time.
Seeing Steve again feels like a revelation, any idea Bucky might have entertained that his feelings for his best friend had cooled, changed into something more appropriate, less likely to cost him their friendship and land him in jail, go right out of the window. Steve is beaming with pride and has a million questions about life in the army, and Bucky will put up with hours of this if it puts Steve right next to him. However, he does get angry when he finds out that Steve has tried to sign up not once but three times already. Sometimes Bucky wishes Steve wasn’t so damn idealistic, so convinced of doing the right thing, no matter the cost to himself. But it’s not like he expected anything else, with the news coming in from Europe being what it is.
What he didn’t expect is to find himself sitting next to Steve at the river, legs dangling over the edge like a million times before, and for Steve to lace their fingers together. His eyes are fixed on the sight of their hands, and his voice is low, but there’s no fear in it when he asks Bucky to please be careful and come back alive. The sensation of Steve’s slim artist’s fingers sends sparks through Bucky’s body, and he has to swallow, feeling suddenly light-headed, before he can give Steve his promise. He’s not sure what this means, but neither one of them releases their grip for quite a long time.
Unsurprisingly Bucky hated North Africa, there’d been too much sand and too much shooting, but he positively despises the Italian Alps. They’re getting shot at all the time, and Bucky feels in way over his head. No matter how many enemy soldiers he kills, it’s never enough to protect all his men, and he’s genuinely scared that they’ll all be killed. Dum Dum Dugan, a fellow NCO, tells him roughly that he’s still doing his job just fine, but Bucky has never quite understood how he ended up with a battle-field commission in the first place and then became a proper Sergeant. In his mind, he’s still just scrappy Bucky Barnes from Brooklyn, the guy who’d mostly joined up because of the light in the eyes of another scrappy Brooklyn kid.
Steve is still writing to him, but the mail only gets through to them occasionally, so most days Bucky has to be content with re-reading old news and tracing familiar drawings with his fingers. He’d made Steve make him a sketch of the two of them together before his last deployment, and he carries it in his breast pocket at all times. It’s a quick affair, more of a caricature, really, but when he looks at it Bucky can almost imagine himself back home, sprawled on Steve’s narrow cot while Steve scribbled furiously, his tongue poking out in concentration. His guys think he’s got a girl back home, and Bucky doesn’t disabuse them of the notion. He needs this, needs to know Steve is still there, safe from all the dirt and horror.
It’s the first thing HYDRA takes from him after they’re captured. They take everything else, too, of course, but it’s the sketch Bucky mourns most as they’re put into cages. He has no idea what’s going to happen, this outfit appears to be something entirely different from regular Nazis, so he keeps his eyes open. There’s a couple of colored G.I.s in their cell, and for a while Bucky’s afraid they’re going to get picked because of some racial Nazi shit. Of course in the end he’s the one taken by the guards, and for the first time thinking of Steve isn’t enough.
Later he tries his best to forget what they do to him, the men in the white coats with their syringes and their knives and strange rays that have him writhing and screaming in pain until he blacks out. Only when he comes to he’s still strapped to that table, the cycle repeating itself over and over, until his body begins feeling as if it’s not quite his own anymore. And then Steve appears, his face floating into Bucky’s field of vision like an angel from heaven, except grimier. And real.
No matter how unlikely, Steve is real, a fact Bucky keeps repeating to himself. Bigger and stronger, and with no business being here in this hellhole in Austria, but his arms are around Bucky, and his urgent voice in Bucky’s ear is unmistakable. And Bucky pulls together the frayed edges of himself and stumbles through the wreckage of the HYDRA base. They meet Schmidt and that horrible little man, Zola, and Bucky can feel the horror rising in his throat, but then they’re gone, and there’s fire everywhere.
In the back of his mind, Bucky is surprised by his own ability to walk, talk and even run, like he’s a real person and not the broken thing on that table, but Steve’s next to him and the only thing that counts is that they make it out. Which they do, even if it becomes blindingly clear to Bucky how much dumb luck Steve’s had, since he’d apparently charged in all by himself. Some things seemingly haven’t changed at all, and Bucky vows to read Steve the riot act just as soon as there’s time. First, however, Bucky finds Dum Dum, Gabe Jones and the British guy who’d been in the cage with them, and together they organize something like a retreat.
Somehow Bucky manages to remain upright and moving the rest of the day, and he determinedly doesn’t consider how unlikely that is, until Steve calls for a halt and everyone tries to find shelter for the night. There’s not a lot of food to be had, but Falsworth triumphantly appears with a few cans of beans, and Steve sits down so close that Bucky can feel the heat radiating from that strange new body of his, almost hotter than the small fire they’ve built. Of course he has questions, but for now Bucky just scoots a tiny bit closer, until their thighs touch, and for the first time in forever Bucky feels like he can breathe again.
Bucky still hates Europe. He has to admit, however, that Paris is quite nice, now that it’s no longer German. They’ve more than earned their furlough in the French capital, and the Howling Commandos have mostly taken over a small pension right on the Ile St. Louis in the city center. Their hosts, a couple of elderly ladies, looked rather wary at first, but Dernier and Gabe engaged them in polite conversation, and when Steve joined in with his careful French, they were soon thoroughly charmed.
Not that Bucky can blame them. He himself speaks Italian better than French, but he enjoys the way the vowels roll off Steve’s tongue, although he does his best not to let on. He’s hiding a lot of things these days, and it’s clear that Steve knows it but doesn’t want to push him. But how is Bucky supposed to tell him about his nightmares, made worse because they don’t even wait until he’s sleeping to envelop him, or about the strange changes in his body, when his own mind keeps shying away in panic from even thinking of what happened in that lab?
Confessing the way he feels about Steve, the way he’s been feeling for as long as he can remember, should be easy in comparison, and during their separation, shivering in his foxhole with nothing but Steve’s drawings for company, Bucky had more or less decided to just come out and say it when (if) he saw him again. Except now Steve’s looks finally match the way he’s always been on the inside, big and strong and beautiful, and there’s Peggy Carter, who’s everything Steve deserves and who Bucky tries his best not to resent. Because Bucky’s a mess whose world only feels right when he’s out in the field with the Commandos, because at least there his role is clear and simple.
However, Paris isn’t too bad either, the matter-of-fact way Steve tells Bucky that they’re sharing warming Bucky more than it probably should. During the day Steve drags Bucky to fancy-pants art museums, their treasures brought out from hiding. Not that he has to twist Bucky’s arm all that hard - Bucky likes art and he likes spending time with Steve even more. In the evenings they usually meet the guys for dinner somewhere and discuss which part of Paris to hit that night for drinking and dancing. Of course Bucky doesn’t tell anyone that liquor doesn’t really do it for him anymore, but twirling pretty French girls over the floor is still fun, as is watching the way Steve fidgets whenever he’s approached, which is all the time.
Bucky himself is getting enough action, too. They all are, their uniforms doing most of the work, but Bucky finds he has no wish to do anything about it. That is until, on their third night out, he realizes that one pair of eyes watching him with intent belongs to a rather pretty boy. He’s young, probably only 18 or 19, but his pouty lips are stretched into a knowing grin, and Bucky finds himself blushing and drifting closer, almost against his will. He’s done some stuff with other soldiers, but that was all very much in the spirit of helping one another out when there weren’t any dames available. This, however, is different, and before he can stop himself, Bucky follows the boy outside. He knows it’s a mad risk to take, but Marcel’s hips are slim under his hands, and then his mouth, tasting of strong cigarettes, is soft against his lips, and Bucky allows himself to stop thinking for just a bit. Which is of course when Steve interrupts them.
Bucky’s not completely stupid, they’re in an alley a bit away from the club, so Steve must have been actively looking for him. His voice is shaky, but Bucky’s mind is whirling around too much to figure out the meaning behind it. He stumbles backwards, away from Marcel who shrugs and disappears into the night with a half-defiant smile, and for a long moment Bucky is tempted to follow him. Not for any hanky-panky, that mood is well and truly broken, only not to have to face Steve. Except that Bucky Barnes has never backed away from a challenge, so he meets Steve’s eye head-on.
He’s struck dumb by what he sees, but then laughter bubbles up from somewhere he’d feared lost in death and pain, and suddenly everything is easy. His back hits the alley wall, and for a moment the strangest thing is that he has to look up in order to kiss Steve and be kissed by him. Then the world rights itself, and Bucky can finally explore Steve’s new body, feeling greedy for every bit of him. The fact that Steve seems to be just as hungry is intoxicating in a way booze no longer is.
In the morning they talk quietly, curled up together in Steve’s bed, finally sated, and it’s like an itch Bucky wasn’t even aware of is gone, soothed by Steve’s touch and the warmth in his eyes. The fact that the serum has done wonders not just for Steve’s physique but also his stamina certainly doesn’t hurt either. They laugh a lot, and Steve is wonderfully curious, making Bucky curse all the years they wasted, although at the same time he’s just so grateful that they’ve finally found their way to this place.
They should probably get up, but Steve is right there, like Bucky’s own personal dream come true. Bucky seriously considers starting something again, suspecting that Steve probably wouldn’t put up more than a token protest. Unfortunately, right then an army messenger comes knocking, forcing them apart, although the annoyance in Steve’s face is rather gratifying. The message from Col. Phillips tells them that furlough’s been cancelled, because there’s intel on Arnim Zola’s location.
Fury mixed with fear laces through Bucky, but he shrugs it off, aware of Steve’s worried eyes on him. There’s no question that the Howling Commandos will go after the HYDRA scientist, and Bucky will be where he's always been, where he belongs. At Steve’s side, ‘til the end of the line.