it's hard for me to say
Bucky had planned a double date with a couple of pretty red-haired dames -twins, Bucky had said with a smirk that would make sister Grace blush six ways till Sunday- and had pestered Steve until he had rolled his eyes and socked him on the arm (not that Bucky had even flinched) but agreed anyway.
Steve didn't like dancehalls or dancing, he was shy and awkward and had two left feet, but Bucky had wanted to go as it had been his first night off from work in months and could finally get loose, Bucky had said please and Steve could never say no when Bucky looked at him like that.
The dame, Georgette, had been nice but clearly not interested in Steve's five feet four, and ninety pounds something, no one ever was. Except, maybe, Bucky and that was because -Steve was sure, even if Bucky said he had it all wrong- Bucky felt sorry for him and felt it was his duty to be his friend. Steve had danced one song with his date and after stepping on her twice, resigned to sitting at a table as he watched Bucky dance and dance, and flirt with both their dates, Bucky would take a break every other song to sit down with him and drink cheap bourbon and Steve would smile and reassure him he was fine, really.
They walked the sisters home, Bucky kissing both on the cheek as they giggled and bid their goodbyes and thank you's for a great night; Steve had had to look away and clench his fists tighter inside his pockets. As they walked away, Bucky had smiled at him apologetically and promised, again, that he would find Steve a nice, sensible girl that Steve could marry one day, he smiled back though it didn't quite reach his eyes.
They walked through the dirty, dark streets of Brooklyn to their tiny apartment side by side, bumping against each other drunkenly. Steve wasn't really as tipsy as he acted, and he flushed with shame as he used the awful liquor as an excuse to press his shoulder against Bucky's arm. Bucky laughed at something and Steve laughed with him, even if he wasn't really listening.
"Shit, Stevie," Bucky whined, bright grey eyes widening as it started to rain. The droplets were small but carried promise to become a downpour in a few minutes. "Come 'ere ya punk." Bucky pulled him hard against his side and under his jacket to try and shield him from the oncoming storm.
"I'm fine," Steve grumbled as he made to pull away, even if he didn't want to, even if his heart felt like a humming bird trapped inside his traitorous chest.
"As hell you are," Bucky barked back as he tightened his arm around Steve's narrow shoulders. "I can't have ya gettin' sick on me, ya hear me? Can't lose you."
Steve glared up at the taller boy but said nothing, even if his chest shuddered and tightened with emotion. He sighed when Bucky's body heat stared to crawl inside his bones.
When they got home, they were both shivering, but Bucky was drenched to the bones. Droplets of water slipped from his hair like rivulets down his cheeks and beneath his shirt collar. Steve looked away as they dried themselves with rough towels before changing into their pajamas.
He flushed darkly as he felt jealousy stir deep in his ribcage, hot and awful; he was jealous of the rain that ran down Bucky's neck and collarbone, jealous because they were closer than Steve's hands would ever be.
Steve felt dark, red shame whenever his heart beat faster when Bucky looked at him like nothing else mattered, whenever he felt jealous over not being able to touch him how he wanted to, and he asked God for forgiveness every night when he had Bucky's chest against his back and Bucky's arm wound tight around his waist, body hot as a furnace, to keep Steve from catching a cold that could so easily turn into pneumonia (it had happened before, Steve had almost gone then, and Bucky had cursed at him and made him promise to never scare him like that again, and Steve wasn't in any position to promise such things but he did anyway, because he could never say no to Bucky). He prayed and begged for forgiveness because as they lied in bed, Steve felt want and hunger so deep he could not fall asleep until he felt Bucky's own breathing even out.
Forgive me God for I've had impure thoughts, Steve would start but could never finish the line, because how could love ever be a sin? He would chastise himself and stop that train of thought before it attracted more attention than it should. Steve would go to church every Sunday for mass and would stay kneeling on the hard ground, after it had ended, he knelt until his bones ached and he could breathe a little easier.
Until he felt a little less wrong.
Even if his heart wanted to scream I love him I love him I love him, even if sometimes while he prayed, or when he wasn't thinking, he would get seized with fear because how could no one see it, how his heart wanted to burst with such raw emotion.
Steve wasn't a coward, never had been, not even while facing various bullies twice his size; but he would be lying if he said he wasn't scared and Steve didn't lie.
At least he tried not to.
"You never know how to back down from a fight, do you," it was phrased as a statement rather than a question, and so Steve didn't bother answering. Bucky sighed and pressed the wet cloth against Steve's split lip. "Sometimes I think I should let those damn bullies beat the hell out of ya and see if ya learn your lesson."
"I don't like bullies, and I wasn't going to let 'em manhandle the dame," Steve said and squared his shoulders as if preparing for a fight, even if it hurt his chest to do so, the brutes had kicked him there and he was damn lucky they hadn't broken anything.
"I know," Bucky shook his head as he finished cleaning Steve's wounds, "you're a punk."
"Jerk," Steve bit back in instinct and saw a smile creep into Bucky's face.
"You'll give me a heart attack before I'm thirty," Bucky said fondly, and something flashed through his eyes before it settled in nerves.
Steve waited for Bucky to say something, but the minutes dragged on and there was nothing but silence. "What is it?"
"I enlisted," Bucky's voice was barely over a whisper and Steve had to strain to hear it.
"What?" Steve kept his expression neutral, even if he felt his heartbeats spike up with anxiety.
"I know you tried enlisting and they wouldn't take you," Bucky spoke hurriedly, "I'm sorry, but I had to."
"That's... that's great, Buck," Steve smiled and socked him playfully on the shoulder. "You gonna get more dames once you get your uniform, despite your ugly mug."
"Yeah, ya bet I will, punk," Bucky grinned cheekily.
They went out for a drink just the two of them. Bucky danced with a couple of dames and kissed one in a dark corner of the dancehall. Steve looked even if his eyes stung and his chest hurt and whined. Bucky came back flushed and sweaty, Steve simply rolled his eyes and they laughed.
Back at their place, Bucky wound around Steve trying to keep the cold away. And as they were a little more drunk than they had meant to be, Steve let the hysteria hit him and he cried for the very first time since his mother's death.
"Hey, pal, it's okay," Bucky murmured, voice heavy with sleep, as he turned Steve around in his arms. "I'm here, alright," Steve held Bucky close as much as Bucky held him, "sh, shh, it's okay, can't have an asthma attack right now, buddy, breathe." Bucky kissed him on the forehead absentmindedly, "shh, it's okay. Go to sleep, Stevie. I'm right here."
Steve fell asleep not long after that, exhaustion and the alcohol catching up to him.
The next day, Bucky shipped off to Basic, and two weeks after that, Steve found the letter.
Bucky had been drafted.
Steve allowed himself to cry one more time before steeling himself and taking more work hours than he could probably handle, just to keep himself busy.
Bucky came back a bit over a month later, he had a three day leave before finally shipping off to war. The letter goes unmentioned.
He wasn't just Bucky anymore, but Sergeant James B. Barnes, clean shaven and uniform perfectly pressed, and assigned to the 107th, just like Steve's father had been. For the first time in years, Steve felt jealousy related to all Bucky was that Steve wasn't.
"Sometimes I think you just like getting punched," Bucky said with a frown.
Steve caught his breath and wiped his lip, "I had 'im on the ropes."
"Of course you did," Bucky sighed and pulled him against his side.
Steve went with him to another awful double date, it wasn't the dame's fault, it never was, even when they didn't even glance at him, it was just that Steve wasn't interested either. This date had been worse than other times because this was Bucky's last night before going off to England to do his part, and they had fought.
Everything Steve had told Bucky was true. He felt he had no right to do any less just because he was sickly and small, and he sure as hell didn't like bullies, don't matter where they came from, but Bucky had gotten it wrong, he didn't have anything to prove, Steve simply couldn't let Bucky go alone. Not for this. Bucky had said "to the end of the line" once, and Steve felt the same, Bucky didn't have to be alone.
Steve went back to an empty apartment that night, and lied alone in bed, jealousy keeping him awake, wondering whose bed had Bucky tumbled into.
Steve was jealous of the nights he didn't spend with Bucky.
He didn't pray for forgiveness that night. He prayed to keep Bucky safe, he begged God to keep him alive.
Bucky came back in the early morning, about five, and slid behind Steve in the bed, and whispered "I'm sorry" against the nape of his neck.
Steve shook his head. "There's nothing to forgive."
They didn't sleep or speak, even if Steve's mind was spinning with words he wanted to say but couldn't. Whenever he tried to make his tongue work it would get stuck between his teeth or against the roof of his mouth.
Hours later, they stood facing each other, Bucky back in his uniform, all prim and proper.
"Don't do anything stupid until I get back," Bucky said, no smile.
Steve wanted to say I love you, but settled for "How can I? You're taking all the stupid with you."
Bucky shook his head with pursed lips and sad grey eyes, and said "you're a punk," before pulling Steve into a hug.
"Jerk," Steve shot back, I love you. "Be careful."
They pulled back and Steve added, "Don't win the war 'till I get there."
Bucky saluted him and then, he was gone.
Then Steve met Dr. Erskine and he no longer was five feet four and ninety five pounds.
Bucky doesn't tell Steve what happened to him in the HYDRA base, and Steve doesn't ask. If he is a little more quiet, less prone to smile, no one wonders, after all, they are in a war and killing people, even enemies, has changed everyone.
Even if Bucky wished it didn't.
He hasn't gotten used to looking eight inches in the wrong direction, he no longer looks down but two inches up at Steve. Even if they are almost the same height, Steve is so much wider and thicker now, all broad shoulders, slim hips and strong legs and arms. Steve has an even squarer jaw now. It feels off, even if he will never admit this to Steve.
He can tell his body is confused. He had wanted the skinny kid from Brooklyn, and now, his body didn't know how to feel about the sudden change. Of course Steve was attractive now, and he was the same stubborn kid from Brooklyn Bucky had decided to follow back to war. But his body didn't know this Steve, not like before, when he would press his chest against Steve's back and hold tight, trying to keep the heat inside Steve's fragile bones.
Steve was a furnace now, and no longer needed Bucky to keep him warm. And if Bucky's teeth chattered sometimes with cold from wet feet and stiff joints, no one had to know.
And of course, Bucky could see the way Steve looked at Agent Carter, and the way she looked at him. Bucky had spent years trying to find a girl for Steve that would look at him the way Bucky had done for so many years, and now, Steve had found said dame and Bucky...
Bucky didn't like it.
He had taken Steve to dozens of double dates hoping Steve would finally find the right dame, but secretly in a dark corner of himself, wished he didn't and it was awful and selfish but Bucky wasn't as good a man Steve thought he was; Steve was selfless and Bucky was jealous and mean and would follow Steve Rogers to the end of the line, even if... even if Steve never loved him back.
And so, Bucky asked God every night to let him keep Steve a little longer, before Peggy Carter finally took him away to a future of white picket fences and children and all American goodness. And really, Bucky didn't mind dying if it meant keeping Steve safe.
And then, like it was a great cosmic joke, Bucky Barnes fell from a train and died.
Steve crashes the Red Skull's plane into the Arctic ocean, and thinks, maybe, he will tell Bucky he loves him once they meet again in death.
They were never lucky like that.
Only that he didn't, not really. Not physically.
Bucky remembers cold, pain and so much blood.
And Steve, and praying to God to keep him safe. Just him. Just the little guy from Brooklyn. Please.
Bucky never prays again after that.
He no longer has a name either, and he doesn't remembers anything, not even baby blue eyes and golden hair and five feet four and ninety five pounds of solid courage.
He doesn't know what a chest against a small back means, doesn't know what punk and jerk and to the end of the line means, but he knows two hundred and three different ways to kill a man, and isn't that funny?
Steve wakes up in the twenty first century and it's brighter and a lot more open, but it doesn't seem any happier and it just feels like he traded a war for another.
They, SHIELD and Howard's kid, say he was frozen for seventy years, and that's a punch to the gut like he hasn't felt since he was ninety pounds of skin and bones.
It still feels like two weeks to him.
Even after New York and Loki and aliens, his nightmares stay the same: he still dreams of Bucky falling, slipping through his fingers like rainwater (and wasn't he once jealous of the rain?). In the happier ones, Steve falls too.
They don't get along at first, these Avengers, but they start to love each other, they are all broken and a little bit insane. They all carry baggage the size of the moon. He still refuses to live in Stark -Avengers now- Tower, they think it's because all the technology and the fast pace of such a big city like New York overwhelms him, they forget he fought aliens and grew up in Brooklyn, the times may have changed and the streets may be a little cleaner now, but it was still as busy.
It's because New York hurts too much, it holds too many memories of a man whose death is still fresh in his mind, it's been a little over a year, even if the calendar says it's been seventy one.
Steve is tired, the world has use for Captain America but Steve wants nothing more than to be the kid from Brooklyn. He wants a quiet life. But duty comes first so Steve moves to D.C. and works for SHIELD (Peggy had founded it so it must be good) and goes from mission to mission without a rest because breaks make him uneasy, give him too much time to think and, God, he is so tired of thinking.
Peggy understands, even when she doesn't remember him. Steve loved her, not like he loved Bu- but she was a friend, still is. He was going to marry her, after the war, they know now it wouldn't have worked, no matter how much they wanted to.
His life comes undone a second time.
He's in D.C. when it happens, SHIELD has been compromised, Nick Fury is dead, and an assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (a ghost story, Natasha says) is after him, and- God.
God. It's Bucky.
It can't be, he doesn't look a day past thirty, Steve thinks, but nor does he.
Steve thinks of a HYDRA base and Bucky strapped to a gurney.
He feels sick to his stomach with guilt. He should have looked harder. He should have found him.
Nat and Sam say it's not his fault, but it is, it is, it is.
"Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky," he says and how true those words are. They don't understand, never will, not even if every history text book has his story written down; but they try, even if they don't agree.
And how ironic, really. Steve is the one to fall this time. Bucky can't -won't- catch him.
The water is cold.
The asset sees the man from the bridge, his mission, fall from the helicarrier and into the Potomac.
He doesn't know or understand why, but he dives after him and pulls him out of the water. He leaves him on the riverbank, near the tree line. His eyes sting and he doesn't know why, he breathes a little easier but doesn't understand why.
The asset thinks the man should be smaller but it doesn't make sense, so he disregards the thought and leaves.
The man had called him Bucky and, afterwards, James Buchanan Barnes, said it was his name. The asset doesn't understand.
Things don't have names, those are for people not weapons.
But the asset wishes, and he is sure he is never wanted anything before, he could have that name.
He doesn't go back to his handlers.
Three days later, Steve wakes up in a hospital bed, aching all over. Sam is sitting on a chair nearby and hands him a glass of water, as soon as he can get his vocal chords to cooperate he says: "Bucky pulled me out of the water. He knew me."
"I know, there is no way you could have pulled your dumb ass out of the river," Same says, serious. "That was real stupid, the stunt you pulled."
"But he knew me," Steve repeats stubbornly, defensively. Bucky knows him. Bucky Bucky Bucky.
"Yeah, I know."
They attend Nick Fury's fake funeral, SHIELD is no more, and Natasha makes him one last favor.
"Here," she says and gives him a thick file. "It's all I could find. It's not pretty."
Steve nods and hugs her, hard. She is a good friend, even if Natasha doesn't like to admit it. Steve realizes he loves her, too. Like Bucky must have loved his sisters. "Thank you."
He moves to Brooklyn to a small apartment complex close to where Bucky and him used to live, Sam stayed two weeks in D.C. but says it's time he tries the big city and moves to an apartment a few blocks from his.
He reads the file Natasha gave him in the quiet of his flat, and for the very first time since the letter, Steve allows himself to cry. And, finally, mourns the death of his best friend.
Steve promises he will get him back. Sam says he will follow him and keep Steve from getting killed.
They look for eight months before Sam forces Steve to take a break. "We'll keep looking, man, but you need to rest first."
Steve only fights him halfheartedly, he is so tired. Tired of all the fighting, of no one truly seeing him for who he is. He is tired of Captain America. He is tired.
Steve comes home one night, after having dinner with the Avengers and Sam, who isn't officially part of the team but is getting there, they still don't know why he hasn't moved into the tower. He doesn't either.
But he does.
Natasha looks at him like he is an idiot, and Sam simply puts a hand to his shoulder and squeezes. Tony tries to rile him up with Clint, Bruce smiles kindly and Thor asks him to spar whenever he can. They are good friends, and Steve loves them, but he is aching for another kind of love since he was sixteen and sick and small. He misses Bucky so much sometimes he can't breathe and it's like back then when he had asthma and Bucky had to order him to breathe.
They don't know what Bucky means to him. No one does. Not even Bucky.
Steve was always brave except when it mattered. He regrets not saying anything, except that he did so many times but in different ways, he meant to say I love you but said jerk, he meant to say I want you to stay but said go out and have fun instead. Everyone thinks Captain America doesn't lie, but he does, and mainly to himself.
He sighs as he takes his shoes off, and throws his keys into the kitchen counter.
"I'm not him."
Steve jumps out of his skin, he isn't easily spooked but he hadn't noticed the other body in the room. He turns on the light, even if doesn't need to as the supersoldier serum gave him more than twenty-twenty vision.
He looks wilder around the eyes, hair a little greasy, and the hoodie looks a little too big on him, Steve realizes it's his hoodie, he thought he lost it a few weeks ago.
"That's okay," Steve says softly, gently, as if not to spook him.
"No," Bucky growls. "I'm not him, and you love him."
Steve breathes in sharply.
"I-I can try to be," the other man says quietly, "but I'm not him. Not anymore."
"Hey, you don't have to be anyone but yourself," Steve frowns and takes a step forward, and shifts uneasily when Bucky sneers. He wants to touch him so badly, to put his arms around Bucky and never let go. "I'm not the Steve you knew either. We've both changed. It doesn't mean I don't love you, even if I never told you that."
Bucky chews at his lip, like when they were kids and Steve was sick again and didn't know if he'd make it. "He never told you either, but he did, so much. So much." Bucky's voice wavers with so much emotion, and his fists clench. "I couldn't remember my birthday, you know? But I remember yours."
"March 10th," Steve says fast.
"Your birthday, it's March 10th," Steve explains slower. "I- I can't promise you all the answers but I know my fair bunch, I can give you all that I have, all that I remember."
Bucky falters, and shifts his weight, "okay," he says and Steve closes the space between them and hugs him. He doesn't hug Steve back at first.
"What do you want me to call you?"
Bucky breathes in and holds it for a few seconds, before saying "Bucky."
It takes them painstakingly long months to put themselves back together. They aren't the same kids born and raised in Brooklyn, there are too many wars and deaths between the two of them to remain unchanged and so they learn these new selves together.
It's months later when Bucky first kisses him, and later spends the evening pressing kiss after scalding kiss everywhere he can find, and they murmur I love you until their eyes can't stand being open anymore and they fall asleep.
One thing didn't change, one thing from those old days stayed the same.
Bucky presses his chest against Steve's back, and wounds his left arm tightly around Steve's waist even if it's Summer and it's too hot to sleep this close, and Steve can't fall sick anymore.
He doesn't feel shame or jealousy, but he feels so much love.
Steve lets out a breath he didn't know he had been holding since he was five feet four, and ninety pounds something.