Probably this is how it happened. 1935. Steven Rogers, seventeen. His best friend, older. Older by enough to (legally) be seen galloping down a back alley, quarter-empty beer bottle turned trophy by the way he holds it, drawn by the sound of his own echoing whoop running back to him, loyal enough that the whole neighborhood hears, the buildings lean down, shake their heads in an exasperated sort of acceptance. "There goes Bucky Barnes," the windows chatter as they squeak shut.
Here's dusk again as usual, hunting for cob-webs in the corners where fire escape and brick are wed in iron, or maybe darkness is nothing so poetic; maybe darkness is the canyons among Steve's fingers where they're clenched tight enough to feel the moon duplicate itself across his palms, his mouth a line of darkness bitten close, chewed down like a nail.
"Buck," he says. Quietly.
"Steeeeevie," Bucky says. Less quietly. In apartments all around, fingers twitch for lips to hush. “Di’nt I tell ya you’d have a grand ol’ time? And don’t think I didn’t see that pretty blonde giving you those bedroom eyes… What’d I tell ya?”
Steve doesn’t remember what Bucky told him. Probably Bucky told him nothing (that happens more often than he’d like, those uncomfortable secrets Bucky keeps; the line between what he chooses to laugh about and what he chooses to avoid, citing the fact that a year between their birthdays is so long a time). Probably if he did it wasn’t important, probably Steve had let the music teach him how to forget.
He doesn’t remember that pretty blonde either. He’d been too busy stargazing across the dancehall, Bucky giving off too much light as always, calloused hands gingerly on either side of a girl’s waist.
He looks at Bucky. Rolls his eyes. Jerk. You’re not even tipsy. Putting on a show as usual. Who’s around to see?
Bucky smiles, looking back over his shoulder, eyes lucid and knowing. You are, you are.
The rest of the way home they don’t talk. The door to the apartment Steve shares with his mom is unlocked and they don’t talk. The way home is the way to Steve’s unlocked apartment, where Sarah is stirring a pot of something delicious but unnameable and they still don’t talk. Steve has never wondered about when Bucky stopped asking if this is okay, y’know, following you home. He wonders that now but it doesn’t really matter to him or anyone, really, not as long as Bucky follows him home and not as long as home is either Steve’s or Bucky’s apartment. For as long as home isn’t picky.
“Hello, Mom,” Steve says to the rhythm of his shoes scuffing against the welcome mat.
“Hello, Mrs. Rogers,” Bucky says, behind. He hides the bottle and is terrible at it.
“Hello, boys,” says Sarah, seeing but not acknowledging the drink.
“What’s for dinner?” Steve asks.
“Potato stew. Are you staying the night, James?”
“Well if a pretty lady asks, how can I say no?!”
Steve smiles on instinct. He always smiles at Bucky’s flirtations, smiles without his eyes. Not because he finds them particularly amusing, but because he finds them the exact opposite, and he finds himself silly for thinking that.
Sarah smiles too, warm.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she says, like it’ll work this time.
Couch cushions on the floor. They drag ‘em to Steve’s little cardboard box of a bedroom. You know, that’s how it always starts. The two of them on the floor with too much silence and not enough time to spend in it. All the words taking root beneath their tongues too busy keeping themselves unsaid to think about why.
“You shoulda walked that girl home. She was a looker,” Steve says after awhile, not really knowing whether or not she was, in fact, a looker. He hadn’t paid much attention to her, if he was being honest.
“Yeah, and leave your scrawny ass to fend for himself? No, thanks.”
“C’mon, Buck. How many fights could a guy possibly pick within three blocks?”
Steve can sense Bucky smiling. Something about the way the air shifts around his throat to make room for it. Familiar only in the way it feels, like home through a dream, all inverted hallways and rooms in wrong places, home all the same because of the taste of it.
“You don’t want me to answer that. Anyways, what about you? I saw you eyeing that blonde, don’t lie. Half a’ me was thinkin’ about taking bets. Whether or not you’d kiss her. For the record, I woulda bet against.”
“Oh really? Her?” Steve says, unable to keep the color of disdain from staining his voice. “She’s not really… she’s not really my type.”
“Well, I’ll be damned, Steve. If she’s not your type then who is?”
Sarah had warned him about gut reactions, the truth of them. What turns in Steve’s gut knows exactly how weighty it is. Revels in that tender heaviness, way down in his stomach. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t tell Bucky whose face his mind finds first when he thinks about attractive.
Steve shrugs. “I dunno. Maybe I don’t have a type. Ever think about that?”
Bucky rolls onto his stomach, more cherubic by the second. His cheeks are still round like innocence in some ways, sharpened by the world in others. When he’s got his head propped up on his elbows he looks downright Renaissance angelic, which isn’t fair, in the way the sun isn’t fair.
In a very un-Bucky-like whisper, Bucky says, “I think you’re just scared ‘cause you never kissed anyone. That it?”
“You got me,” Steve replies. It’s easier to agree. Bucky’s never wrong about things even when he’s wrong about things, but probably this time he’s at least a little bit right. “It just doesn’t… it hasn’t really crossed my mind. I’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
“Even right now? Don’t tell me you’re already fantasizing about your next tussle. Lemme guess, some back alley, right? What’s the crime this time? Lookin’ at someone funny?”
“Very funny, Buck.”
“I’m right though, aren’t I? C’mon, relax a little, will ya? Nobody’s trying to pick a fight. It’s just us.”
And that’s what scares him most, of course.
Bucky reaches over to trace invisible circles across Steve’s scalp. He’s got that idea look. A playing board checkering the black of his pupils with the promise of a game. Fun for Bucky is usually less fun for Steve.
“I was right about the kissing thing, though, huh? You really haven’t kissed anyone,” Bucky continues. Quieter.
This is not a conversation Steve wants to have. Not when it’s just us. And that’s what scares him most, of course.
“You’re my best pal. Don’t you think I’d’ve told you if I kissed someone?” Steve says. His voice runs like wax, soft over the skin. He doesn’t like the sound of his own defensiveness so he wraps that up, puts it aside. Besides, it’s impossible to get too defensive in front of the only person who knows the way around his defenses.
“I dunno. Probably.” Bucky squirms the way he squirms when he’s about to burst from holding in a secret he probably never planned on keeping anyway. “Kiss me.”
Steve tenses in the seconds before a laugh tumbles out of him like a bird from the nest of his mouth and comes to fall, wingless, on the rug.
“Nah, I’m serious,” Bucky says, seriously. Serious fits him poorly, can’t smooth out the smile-crease with its shell embedded in his sandstone skin. He looks too good to be true, probably defies that saying, probably isn’t.
Steve blinks away the tired that swoops down at his face with bat wings and bat teeth. No creature of the night will suck the wanting out. His wanting won’t be dampened by sleep.
He props his heavy head up on his elbows. Bucky’s eyes trap a light from some unknown source (not even the moon comes tiptoeing in to disturb this — moments too sacred for the moon are the rarest of them all). Steve’s body shivers as it learns to be looked at.
“Right,” he says. “You’re serious. And I’m a six-foot-two, 220-pound soldier with biceps the size of your big head.”
Bucky tastes the air. “Hey, you never know. Stranger things have happened.”
Steve laughs. This one takes flight; he holds it suspended in the air. “Not by much.”
“Not by much,” Bucky agrees, and adds to the flock with a laugh of his own.
It’s just the two of them. Two boys, not quite men, sprawled out together on the floor. Seems so simple. Even Steve’s gotta admit that kissing his best friend might not be the worst thing to ever happen to them both. Might not be the catastrophe his darker mind so desperately expects, almost begs for. Urging for him to get it over with, already, so the cleanup will be faster, the inevitable fallout end sooner.
Steve clutches his stomach, waiting. He asked. What if Steve somehow, somehow coerced him, somehow manipulated. But he asked.
Bucky clutches his stomach, wanting. I asked, Steve. You can say so many things but you can’t say I never asked. You don’t get to tell me I never wanted.
“Alright,” Steve says. Mostly because Bucky’s so cool about it. No depth, no hidden meaning glittering out through his teeth. He’s not me, Steve thinks, almost bitterly, mostly lovingly. He only has eyes for the pretty girls at the dance hall. Friends must do this all the time. He’s seventeen and friends have never done this before but he comes to the conclusion that this is a thing friends probably do, because he can make sense of that better than he can make sense of the hopeful soap-bubble-fragile alternatives entertaining the space between his ears. Yes, it’s fine because it’s practice and that doesn’t count, somehow. It only counts if they both say it counts, and of course neither of them will count it. Probably.
“Alright?” Bucky repeats. It’s more out of teasing than incredulity. “Just like that?”
“Like I said, you’re my best pal. What’s wrong with practicing?”
Bucky knows better than to question opportunity when it comes to Steve.
He leans in.
For this kiss their lips part like small Red Seas letting some great history pass between. In this version Steve keeps his tremors invisible. Inside his chest cavity sits a small pewter key matching no existing lock. He waits for Bucky to pick it out, see its shadow engraved in dust, breathe it away.
This is the kiss where it turns out their hands have never borne the weight of a face, the comfortable weight; Bucky, with his palm pressed to Steve’s cheek, moved by the dull and pleasant pain of Steve’s bone-sharp jaw, and Steve moving with or against (no difference), letting Bucky hold him, letting himself be held by Bucky. In this there’s a difference subtle as frost.
Of course Bucky smiles his way through it, all raw and elegant, looking perfectly like a wax museum figure of himself (he doesn’t know — it’s 1935 and he’s sitting on the floor of Steve’s room and neither of them knows that someday not far off now there will be statues carved after their likenesses, one a hero, wax-smooth face only a suggestion of the man it strives to imitate, and the other…)
Steve tries to find something about this moment to hate the way he’s supposed to. Something in the jackhammering of his own heart. Something in the way Bucky’s smile bleeds into his own, the walls all repainted, the tunes all rearranged. Nothing. Nothing. He struggles for emptiness while that great Biblical flood rises to legend in his chest.
Bucky tastes like the apex of a Ferris wheel, carnival lights and the pleasant noise of a crowd sucking in the same sights. Like winning a game at the midway, like hands slipped into pockets and hips rocked forward, nostrils flaring with challenge. Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be. Watch me, Barnes. You got it, Rogers.
When Bucky pulls away Steve aches how it’s not enough, aches more knowing it never will be.
“Just so we’re clear, you ’n’ me are still pals,” Bucky tells him. One hand comes to drizzle fingertips over Steve’s shoulder. Bucky looks the dictionary meaning of apologetic. Like if he shows off his regret it’ll make it real. It’s because Bucky is one of the only people on Earth who looks at Steve instead of through him that Steve can see straight through Bucky. Knows whatever emotions he’s trying on only shiver out of the dressing room to distract from what he’s hiding. It’s okay.
“Sure. I mean, yeah. Why wouldn’t we be?” Steve asks.
“No, no, I meant… just, don’t go gettin’ any ideas, alright?”
Steve doesn’t ask about ideas.
Couch cushions on the floor. The clock ticks and they don't talk. After awhile they fall asleep and it's okay even though it's not really okay.
Probably this is how it happened.