Ain’t no one ever called Bucky Barnes a genius, and ain’t no one ever going to. But he isn’t stupid. He hears the new recruits braggin’ about how many Nazis they’re gonna kill, and how America’s going show everyone that they’re the best, and win the whole damn war in 6 weeks. He laughs along and agrees, he’s not the one who’s gotta start fights over every little thing, even if he knows they're stupidly, desperately wrong.
Bucky plays at being dumb if it’ll buy him an advantage, but he can read the papers just fine. The Germans have been taking on all comers for near on four years now. Getting shipped out is a one way trip, a mug’s game. But.
But it’s a well-paid mug’s game, with a pension at the end for whoever you’ve left behind, so Bucky follows all the other dumb jerks to the recruiting office all the same.
He’s used to not having much, so he doesn’t need much. The Army’s good for three square a day, and free shoes. He keeps enough aside to keep himself in beer and cigarettes, and stashes the rest away for rent on their apartment, for medicine and anything else Steve needs. It’s summer, and for a miracle Steve managed to miss the scarlet fever that was going around this time. He’s been healthy enough for a few months to get and hang on to a signwriting job. But Bucky’s seen enough winters with Steve to know that it can’t last, and enough work to pay the rent and all the bills is still hard to come by for a good for nothin’ orphan.
The recruiting guys look at him plenty sharp when he puts Steve down as his next of kin, dependent, anything he can think of to make sure he’ll get the money when Bucky's gone. He just mutters something about brothers and different fathers, and leaves out the bit about different mothers, too.
It’s not so bad at first. He gets bussed out to Basic with a bunch of dumb yahoos, and before he knows what’s what, he’s been bumped up to Sergeant. He takes it, because every extra dollar is that little bit closer to another month’s gas bill for the winter, another month’s rent, another visit to a doctor.
And then he’s back, and life goes on much as it always has, except for knowing that he could get his orders any day. It makes everything that bit brighter, that bit sharper. He takes damn near every girl he meets out, especially if he can talk her into a double date. They can’t all be blind - there must be a girl somewhere in the whole of New York who can see how great Steve is, who’ll stick around and look after him when Bucky can't.
Turns out, if there is, he’s run out of time to find her.
He’s supposed to meet up with Steve and see a film, and he’s managed to score tickets to the Stark Expo, but when he grabs the post to take up to old Mrs Leibowitz on the fourth floor who can’t manage the stairs so good no more, there’s an official looking letter for him. He just makes it inside the door to their apartment before his knees give out. He’s not sure how long he sits there, staring at the sealed envelope before he manages to get his shaking hands to open it, or how long he stares at the letter after. It’s full of instructions and real formal, but what it really says is, ‘Time’s up, kid’.
By the time he gets his act together and gets down to the theatre the film’s started and there’s no sign of Steve. He follows a hunch and, sure enough, there’s Steve getting himself pummelled by some cocky jackass who likes his prey easy.
He pulls the bully off Steve, sends him on his way with a sharp kick in the kiester, and puts on the bravest face he’s got.
They decide to skip the film – it’s most likely half over by now anyhow - and head straight to the expo. They check out some of the exhibits, and Steve thrashes him at every arcade game they try. Finally it’s time to meet the girls Bucky talked into coming out with them. He just about wishes he hadn’t, that his last night was going to be just him and Steve, like always. But Steve needs to get used to meeting people, making new friends. And this way there’s no way Bucky can lose his nerve and end up telling Steve how scared he is, how much he doesn’t want to die.
And then Steve’s distracted anyway. Another recruitment office, another chance. Suddenly Bucky’s saying his goodbyes, and he’s not ready. There’s so much he wants to say, and he don’t know how, and he’s out of time, so instead he says stupid crap like, “Don’t do anything stupid till I get back.” I’m not coming back. “You’re a punk.” I love you, don’t die.
He’s pretty sure Steve understands anyhow. He usually does, he’s always been the smart one.
He makes himself turn away, and heads back to where the girls are waiting.
“Don’t win the war till I get there,” Steve shouts. He thinks he might mean I wish you wouldn’t leave me behind. But it’s the best thing Bucky can do for him. Steve’s never been any good at doing what’s good for him, that’s always been Bucky.
He turns back and throws off one final salute, hopes like hell it looks cocky.
At least there’s no way anyone in their right mind will let Steve anywhere near a battlefield.