Steve runs his hand over the worn surface of the bar in front of him. His legs are starting to go numb from idleness, and the prickling deep in his chest that he had woken up to that morning grows. He swirls the last of the amber liquid in his glass and drinks it before turning around in his seat. Ignoring the watchful glare of the bartender, he takes in the other inhabitants of the bar, eyes landing on a man with grease stains on his gray shirt.
Fifteen minutes later, Steve watches the man’s fist coming towards him again and again, making contact each time. Gasping for air, he braces himself. This isn’t even the first alley he has been cornered in today, though the fat-head outside the movie theater had been less provoked, technically. He had also been less set on destroying Steve as this particular assailant. The punches stop for a second. Steve cannot see in the dark who the man has turned around to face, but when he ends up on the ground with a good hit to the jaw, Steve knows.
Bucky, clad in his uniform, looks down at him with disappointed eyes.
“I came to see if you wanted to go out with me and a couple a dames. What are you doing?”
“I don’t care what people say about me,” Steve says to his friend for what seems like the thousandth time.
“Do you care about getting killed?” Bucky demands. Steve brushes himself off and wipes the blood from his lower lip.
“I should be going with you.”
Bucky’s face softens, and he shakes his head.
“Come on,” he says, putting Steve’s arm over his shoulder and walking him away from the dumpsters.
By the time they make it to the stoup of the building Steve has lived in his whole life, his lungs are on fire. His breathing is shallow, but he has always been good at ignoring that.
“You sure you don’t wanna go dancing with us? It’s my last night of freedom.”
Steve shakes his head. He knows Bucky is only asking to ask. He can see the shape Steve is in, can hear the rasp in his voice and see the dirt smeared on his pale face. Bucky offers a small smile as he starts down the front steps.
“Hey, Buck?” Bucky turns to look back up, soft lamplight illuminating the sapphire in his eyes. “Don’t win the war till I get there.”
Steve has never cared much about his reputation around the neighborhood. The rumors of what he does late at night behind closed doors manage to follow him to Camp Leigh, even though he focuses all of his energy on being the recruit Erskine had seen promise in. But once Erskine is gone, Colonel Phillips decides that Steve is more of a liability than an asset, no matter what the serum has done to him. So he is dumped on a propaganda campaign with a sparkly new uniform and a new city every night.
Selling bonds may be important, but Steve feels like a useless spectacle. And the chorus girls may all be sweet, but he misses having Agent Carter or Bucky before her. Steve misses Bucky in more ways than one, but he knows he can’t feel that way.
They had both been fourteen and had already been friends for years when Bucky found Steve crumpled against a tree trunk one night in the park. The neighborhood boys had been taunting the always smaller Steve, who had no issues sticking up for himself. The problem had always been surviving the fight. Bucky wiped the blood off of Steve’s cheekbone and helped him up, like always. They stood there for a moment, neither having anything new to say. Steve couldn’t remember who started the kiss, but it happened. He had to remind himself sometimes that he hadn’t made it all up. But in the time that followed, Bucky made himself clear. He wasn’t queer. He would die in a war, not some back alley.
Steve tried to be fair, to respect what Bucky needed. He shut it down, stayed quiet, stayed his friend. He had gotten good at it over the years, had almost forgotten the truth, but now that war is here and Bucky isn’t, Steve cannot help but revert to the feelings he had buried.
But then there is Italy and a grim reality. And Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips and the 107th. And then he is jumping out of a plane.
There isn’t some magical moment. Just Bucky on a table, then by his side, then marching back into camp. Steve has credibility and a team, but it is still 1941. He doesn’t care. He has his friend back.
Steve is able to resubmerge his feelings, focus on missions, watch the Commandos get drunk together, and find his place in the middle of a war zone. He doesn’t notice the way Peggy watches him from across the room or realize what she sees in his eyes, in how he tells stories about his and Bucky’s adventures in Brooklyn, in the way he smiles.
She corners Steve near the treeline one morning while the others are hungover in their bunks. She has grown comfortable with him, if not with the others. He has grown used to the kindness in her face, the way her hair falls out of place during missions, the way she refuses to pass the buck. He looks down at her genuine expression, which for once holds a bit of hesitation.
“Barnes. He’s...very important to you.” Steve doesn’t need her to say more. He runs a hand over the back of his neck, looks up at the pale blue sky before meeting her eyes.
“We have known each other for a long time. I feel lost without him.”
Peggy seems to appreciate the sentiment, and Steve watches her glance back towards camp, wary of being overheard.
“Does he feel the same way?” she asks.
“The only thing I know for sure is that he will always choose to be safe when it comes to that.” A slight sigh escapes. “And I can’t blame him.”
Peggy holds his gaze in that way of hers, listening like no one else has ever listened to him before. She takes in each word someone says to her and digests it before formulating a response, a stark contrast to Steve’s tendencies. She reminds him of his mother in that way. Always reminding him to think first. He watches her glance down at her feet and smooth the invisible wrinkles from her uniform. She had not seemed surprised by anything Steve had said, but there is something in her face now. It takes a moment for Steve to interpret.
“Peg—” She looked up at him, expressionless once again. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression...about you and me…”
“Please, Captain.” She shakes her head with a smile. The moment strikes Steve as too formal.
“I can’t say I haven’t considered it though. That I haven’t had feelings. Especially back home.” Steve remembers the moments at Camp Leigh that he had considered the impossible dreams he had always forgotten over time. He has not felt this nervous around her since the beginning and feels a warmth spread across his chest. “But right now...Bucky’s it for me. He can’t be what I want him to be, and I’m living with that.”
“It’s okay, Steve.” There is the faintest blush on her cheeks, but Peggy is as composed as ever. “I have felt something, really since that day with the flag. But I’ve also known for a long time that you and I were not on the cards.”
There is still a tension in the cool morning air, but they both seem to relax as the obligation slips away. Everything is as it has always been. Peggy looks about them again and studies Steve for a moment before speaking, more hesitant than before.
“The truth is that I may have someone waiting for me back in New York.”
Steve cannot hold back a small smile.
“I hope you do.” It is hard to imagine Peggy outside of a military setting, no uniform, no one to command. He doubted she would choose a soldier to spend her free time with. “Wait, it’s not Stark, is it?”
“No.” Amused, she shakes her head. The chary look on her face has yet to disappear. “A waitress at a diner near my flat.”
It takes a second. Then Steve breaks out into a full grin.
Bucky cannot believe how lucky he is. They may be in the middle of the worst war the world has ever seen, but he is alive and fighting with friends he would give his life for by his side. He feels different on this battlefield than he has ever felt before. It may not be home, but with Steve and the Commandos and even Agent Carter, it comes pretty close.
It does take him a minute to get used to the new order. The tiny blonde kid with asthma that he’s been taking care of for practically his whole life is suddenly his height and calling all the shots. Some things are still the same, though. Steve is still fiercely defensive and doesn’t know how to turn down a fight. The only difference is that know he can defend himself and has an army standing behind him.
Bucky had known Steve was something special the day they met. They were only nine, and Bucky had just started to realize that he wasn’t like the other boys in the neighborhood. He couldn’t put it into words yet, but he knew it was something he never would. Not with his parents. Not with the kids at school. Not with policemen on the street. He had already figured out how to keep it buried when he met a loud-mouthed blonde kid. It wasn’t difficult to hide, but the truth would come bubbling up inside sometimes. When he found penciled versions of himself in Steve’s sketchbook, when Sarah got sick and Steve withdrew, when they stole sandwiches from the deli on the corner to eat on the roof, that day in the park.
That had been the end for Bucky. How could he protect Steve if he couldn’t protect himself? Boys didn’t get to feel that way, and they both had to accept it. In the years that followed, he was able to pretend. Until he was strapped to a table and wishing for only one person in the world. Until that one person came through. Until he was here: part of a close-knit group, watching Steve realize his full potential, the voice inside growing.
After a straight week in the field, everyone is exhausted and relieved to be back on their side of the continent. Bucky doesn’t have as much to drink as the others. By the time Jim and Dum Dum are both passed out, Bucky has had just enough to consider how easy it would have been for them all to have died behind enemy lines. Filled with electricity, he pushed away from the table, where his absence goes unnoticed, and looks around the warm French pub the group has taken refuge in for the night. They seem to be the only ones around
The cold air is unforgiving as he opens the door and steps outside. Rubbing his hands together, he approaches Steve, who is leaning up against the brick corner of the building with his eyes closed. Had he been out here since Agent Carter had turned in for the night? Bucky makes a mental note to ask how the serum affected his tolerance for temperatures.
Steve opens his eyes at the sound of footsteps and smiles when he sees who it is.
“Hey Buck,” he says easily, eyes turning to the dark and deserted street as he runs a hand through his hair.
Without saying anything, Bucky steps forward and kisses him.
When Bucky steps back a second later, Steve is frozen in the same spot, eyes wide. The horror of what he has done immediately strikes Bucky. Before Steve can say anything, he turns and escapes back into the stifling pub, his face a deep red.
They have made it back to camp by the time Steve catches him semi-alone. Bucky has been avoiding his eyes for days, always managing to have three others around when Steve approaches. Finally, Steve finds him sitting beside a truck writing a letter to Rebecca.
“Can I talk to you?”
He has no choice but to stand up and meet his friend’s gaze. Steve’s brow is furrowed, and Bucky can tell that he’s been biting his lower lip like when they were kids. For the first time in his life, he has no idea what to say to his best friend.
“I just want you to know,” Steve says, “that I understand what that was. I don’t...” he looks at the ground, trying to find what he wants to say before continuing slowly, “expect anything...You just don’t have to worry about what happened. I promise.”
He looks up, and there is something in his eyes. The hurt behind his words, Bucky realizes, is not that of broken trust. Steve watches him, waiting, and Bucky has to search for something to say.
“Thanks. I’m really sorry.”
Steve nods with no hint of a smile and retreats back to where he came from.
Sorry for what, Bucky wonders.
As the hours pass, the relief grows for Bucky, but there is something else there too. The panic in his chest is replaced by something cold. He eats three MREs a day, tries to write letters home, and waits with the others for more orders. But he doesn’t find his way to the fire at night to exchange stories and wonder how long until one side comes out on top.
He is sitting alone in his bunk on one of these nights when he hears a knock at the door. She steps in wearing a complete uniform, as always, hair pulled back out of her face.
“Sergeant Barnes, may I speak to you for a moment?”
Bucky pushes his hair out of his eyes and stands.
“Have we received an assignment?”
“No, not yet,” Agent Carter says as she closes the door behind her and quickly takes in the meager lodging. “I wanted to talk to you about Captain Rogers. You two are very close, aren’t you?”
“We’ve been friends since we were kids.” Bucky shifts where he stands, eyes flicking from the floor to her face and back again.
“I have a friend,” she says in an even tone. “A waitress at my favorite diner in New York.”
“Angie is her name. She was the first person I connected with after leaving England. I think she may be something like what Ca—what Steve is to you.”
Bucky searches her face, trying to figure out why she is saying this to him, worried about what she was hoping to get out of this conversation. Not responding seems like the safest option until he knows more.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” she says in a kind voice, pausing to think for a moment. “But I think we all see things a bit differently here than we did at home. I regret not telling her how important she was to me. I wish she were here, so that I might have the chance.”
The words sit in the room for a moment, then she starts back out the door.
She stops to look back, but he doesn’t know what to say. He stands there, mouth open with no words coming out. She smiles and turns again, leaving Bucky alone.
A week later, all Bucky can hear is cacophonous noise from every direction. They have laid siege to a small abandoned town that Hydra is supposedly using as a weapons depot. Jones and Dum Dum are storming the main area while the others make as big of a distraction as they can so he and Steve can destroy the main stockpile. The plan is working; now he just needs to provide cover while Steve infiltrates the building.
The noise vibrates from the ground, reverberates in his chest. Steve gets ready to run, and Bucky catches the smile on his face.
The star-spangled man turns questioningly, and Bucky pulls him close, lips pressed against his. Then he pulls back and lifts his gun, ready. Steve stares at him for a second before the sound of fresh gunfire brings him back. He runs.
It comes slowly after that. Bucky finds himself combing leaves out of Steve’s hair without thinking, falling to the back of the group and reaching for Steve’s hand, kissing him at the most chaotic times. Steve doesn’t say much about it. He doesn’t say anything, really. Just grows less surprised each time, starts returning each kiss and reaching for Bucky’s hand just as often. It feels too natural, as if it has always been like this and they had just forgotten for a while there.
If the others notice, they don’t say anything. Every time they sit beside each other around the fire, Bucky’s heart jumps into his throat as he scans everyone’s faces. Each time, however, Peggy seems to be the only one whose eyes linger on them.
Morita is in the middle of a story about stolen cigars when he falters and the others turn to see what has caught him up, a few hands reaching for guns. As the eyes turn to face their side of the fire, Bucky realizes that he has spent the last hour slowly leaning closer to Steve, sharing the tree he was sitting against. Finally, his exhaustion had won over, and Bucky had laid his head on Steve’s shoulder without thinking about it.
Bucky sat up as quick as he could, Steve’s arm falling from around him.
Morita returns to his story, trying to remember if he has already told the part about the blackmail. The others agree that he has. As the sweat beads on the back of Bucky’s neck, he watches the atmosphere return to normal. Steve glances at him with a smile, but Bucky is too busy remembering to breathe to notice.
That night, he can’t sleep. They didn’t care, Steve had assured him. As long as they had each other’s backs out there, no one minded what they were. Bucky stares at the pitch black ceiling, vowing to be more careful.
Before long, though, he is almost comfortable when he touches Steve. Almost not worried about sitting next to him. He grows used to both of them falling asleep crammed on one bunk, Steve’s breathing a steady lullaby.
Buck cannot remember the train, but he remembers the snow. Everything after that feels fractured. With each memory that unlocks who he was before comes one that reminds him of what he has done. He can remember the times he saw Steve, when he wasn’t him. But he cannot remember his own thoughts, if he had any. All he remembers is confusion and chaos.
Even after he is free, he doesn’t feel like it. The Avengers compound is foreign and filled with a family he is not a part of. Steve has had years to adjust to waking up in a new century, but Bucky’s culture shock is fresh. Everything about the world is new and simultaneously familiar.
But Steve is there every day, and that’s what he remembers first. Blonde hair and a tattered coat. Deli sandwiches. Indignation at the sight of a cigarette and Steve’s wheezing lungs. A face bloodied, for once not at his hands. The memories trickle then flood. A distinctly not sallow face staring down at him from above a table. A warm shoulder. A deserted French street.
First, it is Steve, then Rebecca and Dum Dum and Gabe and Morita and Agent Carter and himself. Slowly, he remembers who he used to be, and that becomes a part of his rocky new identity. He has a sense of humor but is now the quietest in the room. He was the protector, now he is the shielded. He was the war hero, and now he doesn’t know what he is.
When Bucky wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and unable to remember why, Steve wraps his arms around him and breathes steadily, a metronome for Bucky to set his own pulse by. When he wakes up screaming and remembers why, Steve listens to every detail and forgives. Puts a familiar hand on his knee and balances him.
They sit on the too-firm red couch in the lounge, and Steve introduces him to late night television. In the mornings, they make enough pancakes to feed an army, and Wanda won’t stop smiling at them. After Steve shows him the roof, Bucky finds his way there when he can’t fall asleep. He watches the sky, the concrete beneath him grounding. He wakes with a wool blanket draped over him.
He starts to make other allies besides Steve. First is Natasha. The first time he panics and shuts down in the middle of the lounge, it is her soft Russian that coaxes him out of it. They don’t talk much, mostly offhand comments in Russian. Steve seems nervous about it at first, but Bucky knows he is relieved to see him speaking to anyone in any language. The first time he finds her on the roof, watching the clouds, he sees something familiar in her face. He sits on the concrete ledge beside her and they watch together.
Stark and Thor are overwhelming, especially together, but Bruce emanates a strange peace that Bucky finds calming. Clint treats him exactly like everyone else. Barely looking up from his perch on the kitchen counter when Bucky wanders late at night, he offers him a bowl of cereal. Pepper intimidates him until he finds out that she is the one who has been leaving a blanket and a bottle of water on the roof at night.
They all seem more comfortable around him the less wary he grows. Everyone is shocked when he unthinkingly throws a sarcastic comment at Thor, Bucky included. He turns to Steve, who only breaks out into laughter.
Some things don’t come as easily. The first time Steve reaches for his hand outside of one of their rooms—Bucky had all but abandoned his bedroom months ago—Bucky pulls away swiftly and violently. He sees Steve brace for a panic attack, ready to breathe and convince him that everyone is safe. Then he notices Bucky sweeping the room with horror.
“Buck, it’s okay. Things are different now.”
Bucky turns to the others, who all look fine save little worried about Bucky. Nat offers a reassuring half-smile.
It had been a gut reaction, to put as much distance between him and Steve as possible. Bucky can remember a time when they weren’t as afraid, but his chest still pounds now. Worried, he turns apologetically to Steve. Still, he can’t escape the programming from the old days.
“You told them?” he asks.
“We all sort of assumed given how much Captain queer cares about you,” Clint offers through a mouthful of food.
Before he can question, Steve continues. “Things are better, not perfect. A reporter had some choice things to say, and you know me, I could never let a bully get away with it.”
“Biggest news story of the decade,” Nat interjects. “Cap’s coming out jump started journalistic careers. And some pretty uncreative hate mail.” Steve shrugs, and Bucky wonders how long the world has known that their icon was not heterosexual.
As the others return to their individual matters, Bucky follows Steve off away from the main area.
“I didn’t tell anyone about you. I just thought that here, maybe you might feel...different than back then. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Bucky says. He considers how unapologetic Steve has always been and how little of the world he has seen through his own eyes. Maybe it is time to start venturing off base. He smiles, deciding to bring it up later. “And maybe you’re right. Maybe I do feel different here, little by little.”
Steve smiles back, a brilliant smile filled with relief and love. Breathing deeply, Bucky takes his hand. It was the truth. Little by little, New York was finally starting to feel like home again.