The first time he saw it, Steve stopped dead in his tracks and stared. Tony, who was walking and talking and gesticulating wildly all at the same time (the way that Tony does), didn't notice at first. When he did, he frowned, spun on his heel and headed back to where Steve was standing.
“You okay, Cap?” he asked, tugging his sunglasses just far enough down his nose that he could peer at Steve over them.
“Fine,” Steve mumbled, but he couldn't quite tear his eyes away. He was staring at the large glass window of the shop beside him or, rather, he was staring through the window at the brightly coloured t-shirt hanging on the mannequin. It was a vivid shade of blue, with yellow swirls crossing it, and white text proudly displayed across the chest.
I love you like rlb it proclaimed proudly.
“What?” Tony asked, “you never seen that saying before?”
Steve swallowed, but didn't answer. Behind the mannequin was a rack of t-shirts, in various colours and patterns, all proclaiming the same thing – I love you like rlb.
“I -” Steve started, before stopping to clear his throat. “Do you know what it means?” he asked.
“Uh, it's just a saying, Cap,” Tony replied. “You know, like LOL or Got Milk? Roses are red. A prominent part of our popular culture that people use without really thinking about it.” He shrugged. “I don't think anyone knows where it comes from, or what the 'rlb' means – but everyone just takes it to mean, you know, like a declaration of love or something. Lots of love. Lots and lots of love.” He frowned. “I gave Pepper an I love you like rlb bracelet once. Real fancy, solid gold, she wears it occasionally.” He paused his rapid-fire rambling long enough to stare at Steve. “You sure you okay, Cap? 'Cos you look like you seen a ghost or something.” Tony paused. “You haven't seen a ghost, have you?”
“No, no, it's just...” Steve let his voice trail off, hands tilted out to the side as he shrugged helplessly. How could he possibly explain it. “I don't know if it's related,” he said, “but some of the guys used to say that, during the war.”
“Huh,” Tony said. He turned to look in the window at the t-shirts. “I mean, I know the saying's been around for a long time. One of those things that no-one is quite sure where it started or who said it first.”
“Dernier,” Steve muttered.
Shaking his head, Steve took a step away from the display, visibly pulling himself together. “Nothing,” he said. Shoving his hands into his pockets (to stop the shaking he wouldn't admit to), he turned and headed back down the street. “Don't we have somewhere to be?” he asked.
“JARVIS,” Steve said, standing in the middle of his floor of Avengers Tower (because Tony was ridiculous like that about giving them all things), “can you do some research for me, please?”
“Certainly, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS replied smoothly. “What would you like me to research?”
“I... I saw something today,” Steve said, “while I was out with Tony. He said that it was just a common saying, but...” letting his voice trail off he sighed, scrubbing one hand through his hair. “Sorry, I'm not explaining this right.”
“Perhaps you could start with the saying?” JARVIS suggested.
“Right, yes, of course.” Taking a deep breath, Steve forced the words – words he'd thought he'd never hear again, through his lips. “I love you like rlb,” he said. His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. There was a stinging in the backs of his eyes, but he resolutely ignored it.
“That is a common saying,” JARVIS informed him with a thoughtful hum. “What is it that you would like to know about it?”
“Does anyone know where it comes from?” Steve asked. “Tony said no, but, well, I thought maybe it's just not well-known? Or, does anyone know when it started? What it means?”
“One moment, please,” JARVIS requested, before making another humming sound. Steve knew it was the sound JARVIS made to let him know he was thinking – or rather, running searches and collating information.
Stumbling backwards, Steve let himself fall down onto his couch, grabbing the nearest cushion and almost ripping it apart as he held it tightly, hands clenching in the fabric.
“While there does not appear to be any documented origin for the saying,” JARVIS said calmly, his smoothly modulated voice helping to calm Steve, “it is generally attributed as a saying which emerged among American troops during World War II. Returning soldiers brought the saying back to American soil with them. This origin in the War leant a certain romantic slant to the saying, which has persisted to this day.
“Interestingly, french troops also carried the saying home to France after the war, which suggests that it was well-known enough that it transferred between Allied troops. Or was known to the resistance. It is also used fairly extensively in all Allied countries, but most prominently in America.
“In 1951, it made its first appearance on merchandising – as a small engraving on pendants, which were sold by the Goldman Jewelry company. Stark Industries was involved in the design of the pendants.”
Steve sucked a sharp breath in.
“Since then,” JARVIS continued, “the phrase has appeared on various items of merchandise continually through the years; although the merchandise itself has changed, the phrase has never fallen out of use. It has been accepted as part of the current American and French vernacular, and appears in numerous romantic comedies, romance novels, and cards, as well as on items of clothing, jewelry, plaques and also tattoos.
“The meaning of the letters 'rlb' is unknown, but is uniformly considered to be a statement of a great romantic love, commitment and sacrifice.”
Pushing his fist against his mouth, Steve bit at his knuckles, trying to choke down the sob rising in his throat.
“In the 1980s,” JARVIS continued, “the phrase was picked up by a number of gay rights campaigners and has since been used proudly by the community. However, evidence suggests that even before that time, and certainly since, it has been used as a phrase to express love between partners, without reference to their sexual orientation.
“As there has never been a documented point of origin for the phrase, companies have been able to create merchandise freely, and therefore, at this current time, there is a proliferation of merchandising available.
“Despite its unknown origins, and the lack of clarity around its exact meaning, I love you like rlb has become a well-known, accepted and valuable component of American vernacular. I am sorry that I am unable to provide you with the exact meaning of the letters rlb or of a more precise origin.”
Sucking in a deep breath, Steve leant back against the couch, blinking rapidly. “It's okay,” he said, ignoring the way his voice cracked once more. “Thanks, JARVIS.”
“You are welcome, Captain. If I may, you appear to be experiencing some distress. Would you like me to alert Mr Stark? Or perhaps one of the other inhabitants of the Tower? Miss Potts is currently upstairs and has finished work for the day.”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head. “No, I'm fine. I'll be fine. I just -”
Getting up, he stumbled towards his bedroom, shaking lightly and half-tripping over his feet.
JARVIS made a concerned sound before falling silent.
The next day, Steve pulled out some jeans, a baseball cap, hoodie and sunglasses, and braved the craziness of 21st century shopping in order to buy a few things.
The watch with the engraving on the back went on his wrist. The sweatpants and t-shirt were shoved into a bag, to become his sleeping clothes. The fake dog-tags – well, he got them to add one with a simple string of numbers on it (32557) – and then slung them around his neck, letting them fall down beside his own, real, dog-tags.
It wasn't much, wasn't nearly enough, but somehow, it made him feel better.
The fight with the Winter Soldier was nothing like anything Steve had encountered so far in this new century. The Soldier fought hard and fast and with an edge to his movements, despite the precision and grace and obvious training, that made Steve think of back alleys in Brooklyn.
His team were yelling on the comm, Hawkeye hissing because neither Steve nor the Soldier would stand still long enough for him to safely take a shot. Iron Man was circling overhead, the Hulk standing nearby and looking ready to smash given half a chance. Widow was racing towards their position, ready to enter the fray. Thor cheered them both on as brave warriors.
Then the Soldier grabbed at Steve, and somehow, during the fight, his helmet had been knocked off and the top of his uniform torn just enough that the Soldier's fingers closed over the chain around his neck, tugging and twisting.
Steve ducked and rolled to prevent strangulation, even as he snapped his arm out, desperate to grab his dog-tags back.
The Soldier froze, gaze fixated on the tags dangling from his hand, eyes widening and punching the breath from Steve's lungs even as his brain scrabbled to find a reason for his reaction.
“Cap?” Hawkeye called. “I have a shot.”
“Wait,” Steve said. He glanced down at the tags, noticing that the Soldier had grabbed his fake ones, and his eyes were fixed on that phrase. The saying.
I love you like rlb
Slowly, the Soldier raised his eyes to Steve's. “What?” he asked. His voice was muffled beneath his mask, and Steve found himself stepping forward, reaching out to gently remove the mask.
His heart was pounding in his chest and he lost his breath as soon as the mask came away. There were tears in his eyes (he ignored them), and his heart was pounding (faster than he ever remembered it being since the serum).
“Bucky,” he whispered.
Slowly Bucky (because those were Bucky's eyes, even as they struggled against confusion and the blank stare of the Soldier) formed the words. “I love you like rlb,” he said.
“I'm just saying,” Tony said, “it's a little strange. First, Cap freaks out about the saying when he sees it on some t-shirts, and now the Winter Soldier – the Winter Soldier! - uses it to somehow break the insane amounts of brainwashing he was under.”
Clint shrugged. “They say it originated in the war somewhere,” he said. “Maybe Cap was there when it first started.”
“And the Soldier?” Tony asked.
“We were.” The team turned to see Steve step into the room. His hair was still wet from his shower, and his eyes were suspiciously red and bright. There was a cautious hope in his eyes that made them realise just how withdrawn he'd been. Steve nodded towards the observation window they were all arrayed in front of. On the other side, the Winter Soldier sat at a table, staring down at the dog-tags still clutched in his fist. His hair hung over his face, so they couldn't see it clearly, but he'd been suspiciously quiet and compliant since he had been taken into custody.
“We?” Bruce asked, eyes darting over Steve, assessing him.
Steve gave him a tight smile. “We,” he repeated. He nodded towards the Soldier. “His name is James Buchanan Barnes. He's my best friend. He -” Steve cut himself off, taking a breath and swallowing. Then he shrugged. “We were there the first time Dernier said it – I don't think he meant for us to hear, but we did.” His gaze turned un-focused, looking off somewhere they couldn't see.
“Are you insane?” Dum Dum hissed, staring at Dernier through the rain. He scowled. “You know what you're risking.”
Dernier shrugged, glancing over his own shoulder at where Gabe was sitting under the flap of their tent. “I know,” he agreed. “And I wouldn't risk it for just anything, but I love him like rlb.”
“Rlb?” Bucky asked, stepping up beside Steve and frowning through the rain. “What are they talking about?”
Steve shrugged, shaking his head. “I'm not sure,” he said, brow furrowed.
Shoving his meager supplies into a pack, Steve slung it up onto his shoulder, turning to face his men. “I don't expect you to follow me,” he said, “but I do ask that you don't try to stop me.”
“What's going on?” Falsworth asked, stepping into the tent and glancing around at them.
“What do you think?” Morita asked, “we got another rlb situation.”
Steve blinked. “What?” he asked, before shaking his head. “Never mind. The rendezvous is in two hours, north-east from here. Get to the pick-up point and -”
“No offense, Cap,” Falsworth interrupted, “but we're not going to the rendezvous.”
“No chance,” Dum Dum agreed. “You're going after Barnes. So are we.”
Steve shook his head. “I can't ask you to -”
“You're not asking, we're offering,” Gabe said, pushing himself to his feet. Around them, the others nodded.
They trooped into base camp six days later, covered in mud, tired, hungry, but with Barnes by their sides (well, by Steve's side).
Phillips took one look at them, before shaking his head. “Rlb?” he asked.
“Rlb,” Falsworth agreed with a nod.
“You got a girl back home?” Steve paused, glancing over at the small huddle of soldiers, grouped around a fire and sharing stories.
“Yeah,” one of the others replied. He pulled a worn photo out of his pocket, holding it out to show the others. “This here is my gal,” he replied. “Prettiest gal around.”
“Nice sweetheart,” another soldier commented.
He shook his head. “Nah, not just a sweetheart,” he said. “This is the gal I'm gonna marry, I love her like rlb.”
The others nodded, smiling understandingly.
“Hey Steve,” Bucky murmured, shifting so that his face was smushed against Steve's neck, where they lay in their tent.
“Mmm,” Steve agreed.
A wicked smile curved Bucky's lips against Steve's skin. “I love you like rlb,” he said.
Rolling his eyes – and his body – Steve turned so that he could look at Bucky. “Really, Buck?” he asked.
Bucky just grinned back at him. “What?” he asked. “Haven't you figured out what it stands for yet?”
“'Course I have,” Steve replied. “They're not as subtle as they think.” Bucky huffed a laugh. “But you coulda just said 'I love you',” Steve continued.
“Coulda,” Bucky agreed. “But I like this better. You know, I heard some soldiers use it earlier today, like it's something special, something more than just 'I love you'. I like that.”
“You would,” Steve agreed. Reaching out, he traced his hand over Bucky's forehead, his nose, his cheek. Bucky turned his head, pressing a kiss against Steve's palm. “I love you like rlb, Buck,” Steve said.
“And this is the common floor,” Tony proclaimed, spreading his arms wide and spinning around as he indicated the area they had just stepped into. Behind him, Bucky (because he was all Bucky now, no more Winter Soldier), stared around and gave a low whistle.
“Would you look at that,” he said, turning to grin at Steve. “You've been hanging with the rich kids.”
Smiling (he hadn't stopped smiling since Bucky had first hugged him, pulling Steve close in the tiny cell they had him in, pressing his lips to Steve's neck and mouthing those words against his skin I love you like rlb), Steve gave a small shrug. “Just one rich kid,” he said. “But a very rich one.”
“That's right,” Tony agreed. “So, if you need anything, just let me know. If I don't have it already, I'm pretty sure I can get it for you.”
“Got any I love you like rlb t-shirts?” Bucky asked, casting a sly grin at Steve.
Tony gaped at him. “What?” he asked, before stopping and shaking his head. “No, don't tell me, I don't want to know,” he said (even though he did really want to know). “JARVIS, please order Barnes some t-shirts.”
“Certainly, Sir,” JARVIS agreed easily.
Bucky tended to wear his I love you like rlb t-shirts around the Tower – whenever he wasn't in uniform, he could be found lounging around in one of the shirts. Steve would always give him a soft smile when he saw the shirts, and Tony was fairly sure that was at least half the reason they had basically become Barnes' signature wardrobe.
So it wasn't that surprising when he wore one to his first press interview. At least, it wasn't surprising to the Avengers (even if it was driving Tony crazy that Barnes refused to tell him just why he liked the shirts so much), even if it did surprise the press.
“Sergeant Barnes,” a reporter asked. “I notice you're wearing a t-shirt with the popular phrase I love you like rlb emblazoned across it. I was just wondering, was this a particular choice? Does it have any significant meaning for you?”
Bucky blinked, staring back at the reporter, before turning to look at Steve. “They don't know?” he asked, sounding slightly incredulous (but with that underlying hint of humour that suggested he knew exactly what he was doing and that his incredulity was all part of some crazy plan he had – Tony still couldn't quite believe the things that guy could talk Cap into when his voice took on that edge).
“Bucky,” Steve sighed, with a roll of his eyes, but he made no move to stop him.
Turning back to the reporters, Bucky smiled sweetly at them. “Sure it means something to me,” he said. “I mean, I was surprised that anyone even remembered this crazy saying.” He gave a small shrug. “I think it was Gabe as first used it,” he said.
“Dernier,” Steve softly corrected him.
“Right,” Bucky agreed with a laugh, “Dernier.”
“Are you telling us,” the reporter asked, eyes wide, “that you know of the first instance of this iconic phrase being used?”
“Sure,” Bucky said. “At least, I know it was the guys as first started using it. Not sure if I heard the very first time they said it – it wasn't something they used to say in front of Steve or I, at first.”
Bucky laughed again. “Because it was about us,” he replied with a grin. “They didn't want us to know they'd caught on.” Another shrug. “Thought they were being so clever, so subtle.” He shook his head with a fond smile. “Dernier said it about Gabe.”
“Jacques Dernier and Gabe Jones,” a reporter asked, “who, years after the war, confirmed that they had been in a romantic relationship since the war?”
“And during,” Bucky agreed easily. “And yeah, Dernier said he loved Gabe 'like rlb'. They used it all the time – well, not necessarily the whole 'I love you like rlb', but 'rlb'. Like it was some super secret code they'd made up. Steve's about to do something stupid 'cos I got cut off from the guys again, it's an 'rlb situation'. Explaining to Phillips why we were late to a rendezvous, 'sorry General, but rlb, you know?'”
Next to them, Tony was gaping – he was a genius, okay, so he'd figured it out.
“And the rlb,” the first reporter asked, leaning forward, “what does that stand for?”
Bucky laughed. “Rogers loves Barnes, of course,” he said.
There was a violent and prolific reaction to Bucky's statement. Tony claimed they'd broken the Internet (Steve was fairly sure that was impossible, but he let Tony think he'd convinced them of it), and for a while, none of the reporters were interested in anything else.
But, when it came down to it, things were no different.
Bucky wore his t-shirts around the Tower, and would lie next to Steve at night, mouthing the words into his skin. Somehow, the fact that this, of everything they'd done and said, of all the history that had been written about them, that this was the thing that lasted and thrived the most – it made Bucky grin.
“I always said we had a love like one of those epic romances,” he told Steve fondly.
Steve snorted. “You did not,” he replied, “you said I was a punk and that you'd better stick by me 'cos otherwise I'd get myself killed.”
Bucky shrugged. “That, too,” he agreed easily. Then he grinned, bright and brilliant, the kind of grin that chased away the lingering shadows of his pain and guilt for a moment. “Still, we're like, the definition of romantic love in this century,” he said. “That's gotta count for something.”
“I don't know about that,” Steve replied, “but I do know I love you.”
“Like rlb?” Bucky asked.
“Sure,” Steve agreed with a laugh, “I love you like rlb. Now sit still, Jerk, I'm trying to draw you.”