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Thou Swell

Chapter Text

He wasn’t sure why his chest felt tight and warm. That was usually Steve’s thing, and Bucky didn’t have asthma. But there he was in the middle of the movie theater, struggling to keep his breath, and wondering what it all meant.

There was a matinee at the theater, and Bucky had found a quarter on the street. Normally, he would save it up, buy some food for Steve and Mrs. Rogers, but he’d been saving all the quarters and pennies he found for days now. The grocer would bring the basket to the Rogers’ little doorstep again this week because of Bucky’s meager payment. No one ever knew about this; not even his own ma knew that he scrounged around the gutters and outside nightclubs looking for loose change. Every little bit helped Steve and his mother, and if that meant just one shabby bundle of carrots and a couple of tomatoes, and maybe a soup bone, that was more than they had before, and less they’d have to pay for food, so maybe Steve could get a vial of Mentholatum for his chest congestion this week.

Everything Bucky did was for Steve.

His ma and Steve’s ma sometimes sewed together late in the evenings if Bucky’s pop was working a double shift. Their mothers would chat and laugh, like the friends they were. They’d darn socks and fix holes in their boys’ trousers. He and Steve would be in Bucky’s living room, building a fort out of sofa pillows and old quilts. They were supposed to be asleep, but he and Steve would be extra quiet so they could hear the Clicquot Club Eskimos radio program or the A&P Gypsies.

The music would play, and Bucky would catch Steve humming softly. He loved music, Steve did, but he had no rhythm. None of the girls wanted to dance with him, and Bucky didn’t know why. Steve was the best guy he knew. Sure, he was a little fella, had all those breathing problems and more patches on his clothes than your average hobo clown, but he was always clean, and he always smelled good, and he was the best drawer that Bucky ever saw.

That little fella would tap his hands against the pillows to the beat, get lost in the ukulele. Bucky wanted to haul him up and dance with him, but he knew it wouldn’t be right, what with their mothers in the room with them.

Still, he wanted to. He always wanted to, and he didn’t know why.

Steve was his best friend in the whole world, had been since he was six and Steve was five, and his family moved into the rowhouse down the street from Steve’s. Bucky would jump in front of a trolley for Steve, he’d take any blow any bully wanted to give. He’d taken plenty of slugs from the creeps down the way, behind diners and delis and everywhere in between. There was something about Steve that rubbed toughs the rough way. Bucky thought maybe it was because he was a good kid, an honest kid, and there was something about a good, honest kid that made creeps angry.

But why anyone would want to beat up an eight year old kid because he was different was beyond Bucky. He was glad that he was there to take the blows sometimes. He hated to see Steve get hurt, or be in pain, which was why he dug around trashcans outside of bars and on street corners, looking for loose change. He knew it was tough for the two of them, since his pop had died a long time before and Sarah did the best she could on a nurse’s salary. They didn’t take charity very often, even though Bucky’s ma would bake a little bit extra bread or have a little extra chicken, and Oh, Sarah, we wouldn’t want it to go to waste, why not just give it to Steven?  Bucky had the bright idea of paying Mr. Vecchio to deliver a few things to Steve and his mother once a week, or every two weeks, for some spare change.

“You know, Mr. Vecchio, the vegetables and bones that you’d just throw out. Anything that you can’t sell too much. Sell it to me, and drop it off at the Rogers’ house. Can ya do that for me?”

That was a few months ago, when Sarah started to get sicker. She kept working, but when she came home, she was so weak that Steve would be the one to cook and clean. Everyone in the neighborhood knew it, but still, Sarah wouldn’t take charity. The reason she took the basket was because she wasn’t sure who it came from and she couldn’t just let it sit there and rot. The grocer once said Bucky was ‘Rogers’ benefactor’ but Bucky had no idea what that meant. He was just looking out for his best pal.

With the knowledge that he had enough for Steve and his mother to get their basket this week, Bucky was tempted to add more to the order, but he thought about Steve. “Buck, you never do anything nice for yourself. Stop buying me pencils. You should get yourself a handful of rock candy or something.”

Part of him wanted to put the extra quarter into the kitty for Steve’s basket next week, but another part of him, the one that sounded like Steve’s wheezy voice, told him to treat himself. He walked the street aimlessly, wondering if he should splurge on a new comic book (he could give it to Steve when he was done), or if he should get himself an egg cream from the drugstore, but then he saw the marquee at the Loew’s.

Held Over! Smash Hit! Garbo! Gilbert! ‘Flesh and the Devil’

Bucky couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a movie, and he had heard the ladies on the stoop talking about this one in hushed tones. Mrs. Rennebohm in particular had twittered away about it – how beautiful Miss Garbo was, how scandalous the picture was, how she wouldn’t kick John Gilbert out of her bed for eating crackers – and the rest of the stoop ladies laughed at that.

It sounded like a good picture. He wished he could take Steve. Sometimes they’d see a Mack Sennett picture, but this one was an adult movie. He’d have to sneak in, maybe. Nine years old was old enough, wasn’t it? He was tall for his age. Maybe he could get in on his own. Steve, though…he’d never make it. They’d think he was younger than he really was, and he’d get laughed out of the theater. But Bucky was good at telling stories, and Steve had such a great imagination that Bucky could tell him everything that happened and it would be like Steve had been there.

Bucky took that quarter and hot footed it to the Loew’s ticket booth.

“One ticket to the matinee, please,” he said, trying to make his voice sound more mature.

Luckily for him, the lady at the counter was bored and could care less. She was just trying to keep warm in the wretched weather they were having. Bucky took his ticket with glee. He felt like he’d just pulled one over on the world.

There was all the good stuff that went along with the theater; all the newsreels and magic acts and the lousy organist who played matinees here. Bucky was getting antsy, though; he wanted to see this grown up movie about love and kissing and stuff. He wanted to know why Mrs. Rennebohm and the rest of the ladies on the block fanned themselves when they talked about the movie.

It started, and he didn’t get the fuss right away. But he did see himself in Leo, and Steve in Ulrich. One dark, the other fair, and both devoted to one another. That’s right, though; wasn’t it the way things were supposed to be? It would be Bucky and Steve, Steve and Bucky, always together, never separate.

Bucky got sucked into the story. He heard the sniffles of women around him, and while he wasn’t crying, he did feel something. When the beautiful woman came between Leo and Ulrich, he found himself wondering why Ulrich didn’t just forget about that dame and just go with Leo. Bucky knew that’s what he’d do, if it were him and Steve. No pretty girl was worth two figs if it meant not having Steve in his life.

One time, he said so to his mother. He told his ma that one day he would have a good job, a real job where he could wear a nice suit, and a swell house, and Steve would live there with him, and he’d take care of him always, the way his dad took care of his ma. And his ma… his ma got a strange look on her face. She hugged him tightly and told him not to think about things like that, it wasn’t right for a boy his age to think about it.

Bucky wondered why.

So, he didn’t talk about it anymore. He only thought about it, because how could he not? Steve was his best friend. Even Leo and Ulrich understood what friendship was about, Bucky thought. The blood oath they took on the Isle of Friendship took the words out of Bucky’s heart.

In riches and in poverty…in love and in sorrow…in life and in death… this was theirs, too. Sure, all they had was being poor and a bunch of sadness, but they were still alive (despite Steve’s ever-present illnesses). One day, Bucky was going to change all of that.

The movie went on, plunging Bucky into its rapt splendor. When Leo came back home, and Ulrich stepped off the train to meet him…why, Bucky understood that feeling. One time he and his folks went to visit his grandma in Indiana, and he was gone for a week. When he returned to New York, Steve was sitting on his stoop, sketchbook in hand, waiting for him. They hugged each other, held onto each other the way that friends do.

And if Leo and Ulrich looked like they wanted to kiss each other instead of hugging, well, that wasn’t Bucky’s problem, was it?

Even though he had a sick feeling in his gut that maybe that was wrong. Maybe that was what his ma was telling him about. Maybe that’s what the bullies were saying to Steve when Steve would get sucker punched, those times when Bucky wasn’t around to take the beating. (Steve never told him what started the fights. Maybe that was why.)

Then there was the scene. The scene he’s heard the stoop ladies talking about. That beautiful, evil dame who was tearing Leo and Ulrich apart was taking communion. So was Leo. Leo took the Blood of Christ from the cup, and then that lady did, too. But she put her lips where Leo’s was, instead of on the side that the priest had given her. It seemed to Bucky that it was a way of kissing Leo without actually kissing him.

How many times had he and Steve shared a bottle of Coca-Cola?

But it wasn’t the same, was it? Bucky thought about it, and figured that he really didn’t care if it was or not. He thought about Rosie down the street, how she kissed him after the Thanksgiving parade. How soft her lips were. That’s when he started to wonder what it would be like, giving Steve a kiss the way Rosie kissed him. Thought about how nice it might be, to kiss Steve the way he saw his ma and pop kiss each other. And that’s when his chest got tight and it hurt to breathe.

He couldn’t tell anyone. He sure couldn’t tell Steve, even though he told Steve everything. He’d have to keep this a secret, because he didn’t want to chase his best friend away with something so stupid like wanting to give him a kiss and a warm home and take care of him always.

Before he knew it, the movie was over, and the lights started to go up in the theater. He had to go back home. He had chores to do, windows to wash, rugs to beat. He wanted to help Mrs. Rogers wash her windows, too, since he knew they were dirty from the soot of the coal stove inside their home. He wanted to help her get the fire roaring, too, since Steve was often too weak to do it.

He wanted to make sure Steve was toasty warm. He wanted to be sure Steve could breathe all right. He just wanted to see Steve, for some reason.

But it was hard to move from that seat. It felt like everyone had seen inside of his head. Bucky wasn’t sure what to do.

Finally, he walked out onto the street, the cold wind threatening to blow his cap off. He walked the four blocks home, kissed his ma on the cheek, and played the dutiful son.

And if he was a little extra helpful to Sarah Rogers that week, no one thought anything different by it, because everything Bucky did was for Steve.

Chapter Text

Sarah died three days before.

She kept getting progressively weaker as the years went on, her lungs, scarred and damaged by the flu she’d contracted when she had been pregnant with Steve, finally gave out, and her last bout of pneumonia was truly the last.

She’d been quietly socking away money in a coffee can, because she knew she wouldn’t live long enough for her only son to be able to afford a proper funeral for her. Her only wish was to be buried in her favorite white dress, a fresh flower in her hand, and to be laid to rest beside her beloved Joe.

Steve did all of those things. He was sixteen years old, and an orphan.

Despite being sick all the time, Steve had gotten good grades and matriculated early. He’d thought about taking classes at college, maybe try to learn a trade, but by the time his mother had her last serious illness, he had given it up for two lousy part time jobs, one at Mr. Vecchio’s store stocking cans, the other at the newsstand, hocking the late edition. In his spare time, he worked on his art. Sometimes when he had an asthma attack and would have to stay home, he sketched things with charcoal on some pilfered butcher’s paper from Mr. Vecchio’s backroom.

Bucky was seventeen. His old man had injured his back at work a few years before and now did deliveries for a lumber company, and his mom was sick all the time, too; they still had the house and the Model TT for the grocery deliveries that his pop did for Mr. Vecchio in his spare time, but things were tight. Bucky was able to get a job at the docks sometimes when he wasn’t in school, but always kept his eye out for something better. Now that he had graduated, he was pounding the pavement for his own job, one that would help him for the future he’s been planning since he was a young boy.

That old dream of his, to get a good, suit wearing job, get a nice walk-up apartment and have Steve live with him, was still valid. It was still all he wanted out of life, even though he now knew what that really meant.

He’d grown into a good looking young man, and the girls loved to try and butter him up. He would oblige, taking them dancing and splitting an ice cream with them. Kissing them in the dark of a movie theater. Never went too much further, though, unless he’d had some liquid courage in him and the urge was too strong. It didn’t help that every other girl he took out had big blue eyes and long eyelashes that fanned their cheekbones, or shiny blonde hair that looked like spun gold. Like Steve. No one found that odd, no one questioned it. Maybe because no one paid attention to Steve. After all those years, Steve had gone from being a magnet for the neighborhood riff raff to being the invisible kid.

Bucky didn’t understand why the whole world wasn’t staring at Steve. It was all he could do to tear his eyes away from him for more than two seconds.

Steve had gone to the gravesite by himself. Bucky, his mom and dad were there, along with a few people from the local parish, some of the ladies from the neighborhood. Mr. Vecchio even showed up. Sarah had been well liked in the neighborhood, even if Steve was an afterthought. There weren’t too many nurses around, Bucky thought. Had there been more, maybe Sarah would still be alive.

After the service, Steve stayed around, staring at the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Bucky stayed by his best friend’s side, saying nothing, but offering support just the same.

“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Steve whispered, but was otherwise quiet.

Bucky clapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder, squeezed it tight, and ran to his mom and dad, who were standing near the delivery truck. When he returned to the graveside, Steve was gone. Bucky looked around the graveyard for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Saddened that his friend had decided to go off on his own, Bucky returned to his parents and they headed for home.

When they got there, Bucky asked if he could wait for Steve at Steve’s apartment. His father began to protest – “there’s plenty of things you can do around here, James, that boy don’t need you right now” – but his mother, gentle soul that she was, overruled his father’s wishes.

“George, Steven only has James now. He needs someone to talk to, to cry with, if he needs to cry. That boy is well and truly alone now. Go on, son, and see if you can’t get him to come back with you.”

Bucky nodded, ran down the stairs of the stoop and made his way to Steve’s place. He waited for a while, and thought about checking around the neighborhood when he saw a lone figure slowly walking down the back alleyway, shuffling his feet, shoulders slumped.

“Steve… my folks would’ve given you a ride home.”

Steve looked into his best friend’s eyes, every last inch of him radiating sadness. Bucky swallowed hard; there was something inside of him that made him want to kiss the pain away, but it wasn’t the right time for that.

There was never a right time for that.

More words exchanged – I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, pal – and Steve turned to let himself into his lonely rented room. He closed the door, and then a minute later opened it again.

“Buck… can you stay for a while? It’s too quiet.”

He stayed until it got dark, sitting on the moth-eaten sofa with his best friend in silence. Finally, Bucky told Steve that he would be back as soon as possible, but he had to go home and tell his folks that he was staying over.

“No, Bucky, you don’t have to do that.”

Bucky looked into Steve’s mournful eyes and felt his own pain and longing. He thought about all the times that he and Steve had bunked together in Steve’s room as boys, thought about the camping trip to the boy’s campground on Long Island that Mrs. Rogers had somehow been able to scrap together ‘for my two favorite men’, sharing a sleeping bag in a too-small tent. Bucky had always gravitated toward Steve, kept him close, wanted to keep him safe.

Suddenly Bucky had a vision of when he was younger, and the movie that he had seen that made him question his feelings about his best friend. The warm, tight feeling in his chest that he felt when he was around Steve never subsided, but it was overwhelming him.

Steve was everything.

Chapter Text

It was a brisk spring day in Brooklyn. Bucky wondered how his best friend was able to meet the rent month after month by himself. His two jobs completely sapped the energy from him, and he knew that it was difficult for him to sell his art. Sometimes he wondered if he ever ate anymore.

He had come by to see him, knowing this sort of weather was always bad for Steve’s asthma. Sure enough, his friend was ill again, breathing steam from over a boiling pot of water on the stove, one that was also boiling a sad, limp head of cabbage and the remnants of a ham bone, which had been obviously boiled before.

“Hey, pal, when was the last time you actually ate anything that Mr. Vecchio didn’t throw out in the trash?” Bucky asked as Steve returned to the sofa, pulled the ratty knitted afghan over him and curled into a ball.

Steve coughed. “Mrs. Rennebohm gave me an apple on Thursday, and Mrs. McClarty gave me half of a corned beef sandwich that Mr. McClarty didn’t want a few days ago. I brought it home, ate the bread and kept the beef for putting into my cabbage soup, but I had the last of that yesterday.”

“You should have said something, you damn punk. You’re in here starving to death and all you had to do was ask.”

Steve took a breath, which rattled in his chest. “I had to choose between medicine and food, Buck. Medicine always wins.”

Bucky sighed, rummaged through Steve’s icebox to see if he had anything to put into the cabbage stewing on the hot plate. There wasn’t anything, not even a rind of cheese or an old carrot. He knew that Steve would never leave his apartment, but he wondered if his friend would accept charity. Sarah never did, and he wondered if Steve would take after his mother in that regard.

“Steve, I’m going to go home and pick up a few things.”

“No, Bucky, you don’t have to. I’ll be fine, I just need to sleep a little bit, and eat the cabbage soup.”

“You need more than cabbage soup, pal. I’m going home, and then I’m coming back, and I’m staying.”

He watched his friend shudder. “You don’t have to.”

“You can’t stop me, Steve.”

Steve took another deep breath. His voice was small and he sounded so frail. “Buck… maybe a piece of bread and some butter?”

He left, hoping to get home and back before it got too dark, so that he could feed Steve and make sure the guy actually got a good night’s sleep.

Bucky came back to his house, trying and failing to stop the creaky board in the kitchen from making noise when he tried to find some food for he and Steve. His mother appeared in the doorway, wearing her old chenille robe and wool socks. It wasn’t really that cold out, Bucky thought, but his ma had lost so much weight. A cold, sinking feeling came over him, and he realized that he and Steve might have much more in common sooner rather than later.

He wrapped his arms around his mother and wept quietly for a few moments. She held onto her son, as he told her how much he loved her, how he was concerned about Steve, how much he missed Sarah Rogers after all this time.

“Where’s Pop?” Bucky asked, his voice rough with emotion.

“Your father is in bed, my boy,” his mother replied. “He was very tired after he got home from the butcher’s, didn’t even eat dinner.”

Bucky frowned. “And left you alone to do the hard work, right?”

“Don’t worry about your old mother. She’s tough. That’s where you got it from,” she smiled at him, walked over to the kitchen counter and loaded a half loaf of bread, one leftover chicken thigh, and a tiny wedge of cheese into a small basket.

“Ma, you’re the greatest.” Bucky kissed his mother on the cheek. “I’m going to stay with Steve tonight. He’s not going to admit it, but he’s scared to be alone.”

“Yes, I know. Now, take care of that boy, since he won’t let me do it. And don’t worry about me, or your father.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Bucky stood in the street and watched as the lights went out in the Barnes house before making his way back to Steve’s place. He was worried about his parents; his pop was always tired, and his ma was starting to remind him of Steve’s.

He thought about running to Steve’s apartment, but the sounds of the city were so alive that evening. Bucky heard the low rumble of Red Hook; the sound of people’s lives echoing down the alleyway from open windows and city streets. He heard phonographs being played, seeping through thin tenement walls; babies crying, people laughing. Everything sounded alive and vibrant and he wanted to feel that deep in his bones, he wanted to ward off the impending feeling of doom that cloaked him.

Steve had locked the door in Bucky’s absence, so he lifted up the rock in front of the doorway and let himself in. Steve had obviously done a few things while Bucky was out; the pot on the stove was on the lowest setting that he could put it on, the percolator was on the other unlit burner, and the lid was up on the travel Victrola.

His friend stirred, groaned a little. “Buck? ‘zat you?”

“It’s me, pal. Ma gave us some food. Let me get everything fixed up, and we’ll feast.”

“You’re so good to me, Buck,” Steve said, coughing slightly.

“Not nearly good enough, Steve. I’m just gonna slice this bread up a little bit, put a char on it so we can put it in our soup, how’s that?” Bucky wasn’t hungry, but he knew Steve wouldn’t want to eat without him, so he toasted up a piece of bread for himself to nibble on while Steve was eating the rest of the food.

Steve came to the table dressed in his undershirt, his suspenders hanging down around his waist. His hair was sticking up in the back. “Can I have some coffee? Just a little sugar,” he said, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

“I know how you take it, Steve. Dark and sweet, like my soul,” Bucky chuckled. “I’m not going to warm up this chicken, is that okay?”

Steve’s eyes grew wide. “Chicken? You brought chicken? I haven’t had chicken since…”

“Since the last time you had Sunday supper at my place,” Bucky replied. “A month ago.”

Steve sat down as Bucky placed a mug of coffee in front of him, along with a bowl of the cabbage soup, a couple of slices of cheese, the toast, and the chicken thigh.

“It’s like a feast. I won’t be able to eat all of this. Can I save some for tomorrow?”

“There’s going to be more tomorrow. I’m taking you home with me so you can have some warm food. Ma asked me to.”

Steve didn’t say anything, his mouth was filled with bread and cheese and cabbage. When he swallowed the huge initial bite, he looked up at Bucky and smiled. “Thanks. You didn’t have to.”

“Sure I did, Steve. It’s what I do.”

Chapter Text

The new apartment was small, but it was affordable on his and Steve’s meager earnings, and most importantly it was away from the old neighborhood. It was too difficult for Bucky to walk down the streets of Red Hook every day after his parents died, and he wondered how Steve was able to do it for so long. Every step in the alleyway was like a knife in his heart. The sounds, the smells, the way the buildings were seared into his heart brought everything back.

It had been two months since Bucky’s father had died of a heart attack, and one month since his mom had died of pneumonia, although Bucky and Steve were convinced that she died of a broken heart. The night after her funeral, Bucky locked the door of his childhood home and moved in with Steve.

The landlord was considerate of Bucky’s situation, and gave him an extra couple of weeks to get his belongings out, but the time had come for him to move the last of his stuff. Steve’s apartment was fine, but the rooms were so small, the kitchen falling apart, the shared bathroom between Steve and his neighbors too cramped.

Bucky found a place that would work for both he and Steve, but he had to ask Steve if he wanted to make a change, a clean break. They had talked about it, before Bucky’s parents died, but Steve had never really said yes or no. He wanted Steve to come with him, leave all the unhappiness and worry and bad memories behind, and start anew by his side.

It wasn’t the apartment that Bucky would have originally chosen, and he still didn’t have the job he always thought he would have, but Vinegar Hill was a nice place and the rent was cheap. It was closer to the trolley than Red Hook was, closer to the shipyard (where Bucky was trying to get hired on) and closer to Steve’s childhood doctor, a kind man who worked in Stuyvesant Town, who still saw him on occasion even though Steve was a grown man.

He just had to get the final okay from Steve first.

Bucky moved the last of his possessions into Steve’s living area – he had sold most everything in the weeks after his ma died – and stacked the few boxes neatly near the back wall. Steve didn’t own much furniture, so the boxes weren’t in the way. There was still room in some of the boxes; getting Steve packed up wouldn’t take very long at all, to Bucky’s way of thinking.

The spring rains cleared the air in the alleyway. Bucky opened the window to let fresh air in and the musty, stale air inside Steve’s apartment out. Steve’s asthma wasn’t acting up too much these days. He had been working out with Bucky at Goldie’s twice a week, toughing himself up. He’d still get into scraps with loudmouths and ne’er-do-wells – Brooklyn was full of them – but now he could properly defend himself, or at least get off lucky with just a busted lip.

Bucky busied himself by making coffee. Steve would be home any second from the newsstand, and Bucky wanted to see to it that Steve had something warm to drink when he walked through the door, on the off chance that the rain had soaked Steve to the bone and he had trouble breathing.

He heard surprisingly heavy steps on the wooden floor outside. Steve had filled out a little, although he was still as skinny as a shadow. The door opened and in walked Bucky’s personal ray of sunshine, damp as he was from walking in the rain.

“Hey! Looks like you got all your stuff in here finally.”

Bucky smiled and handed his best friend a cup of coffee. “Finished it up this afternoon, after I did a few things. Looked for a new place again today.”

“So, Buck, what do you think? Is this the end of the line for us?”

“What? No! What are you talking about?”

Steve unbuttoned the top button on his shirt, slipped his suspenders down off his shoulders, and put his feet up on the coffee table. A thin line of sweat dripped from his hairline. “You can’t stay here. My landlord will kick us both out if you’re here another month. I know you’re going to leave the neighborhood. It feels like things are changing.”

Bucky swallowed hard. It was now or never. “I wanted to talk to you about that, Steve. How…” and here he paused, wondered what the right words were. “I mean, are you attached to this place?”

Steve looked around. “I’ve got a lot of memories here. Some of them are good, but most of them are bad. But it’s cheap, and the landlord is pretty forgiving about things.”

Bucky walked around, casually straightening boxes, before stopping at the window. “I’ve…uh… I’ve got a line on a place out in Vinegar Hill. Rent’s good, it’s real close to the trolley, and it’s got room enough...” he took a deep breath. “There’s room enough for two, if you’d like to bunk up with me.”

Steve was silent for a while; Bucky could hear his slight wheeze as he breathed. It was the longest couple of minutes of Bucky’s life, waiting for Steve’s response. The moment he’d been waiting for since he was nine years old, of he and Steve living together, taking care of each other, was within his grasp, if Steve wanted it.

Steve looked up and smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that. When do we start?”

Chapter Text

He still wasn’t sure how he lucked into these tickets, but he was glad he did. Steve’s actual birthday was a bust; the double date he’d set up went nowhere. They missed the fireworks display that they normally watched on the way to a summer dance. Steve spent most of the night watching Bucky slow dancing with girl after girl, and Bucky felt a twinge of regret each time he looked at the punch bowl to find Steve standing there, attempting to chat to a pretty wallflower and, not surprisingly, failing.

“But we get to see the Dodgers tomorrow,” Steve said cheerfully as they walked back to their apartment from the trolley. “And at the Polo Grounds, too! I’ve never been there for a game before.”

Bucky smiled. His dad had been nuts about baseball, and he taught Steve and him how to keep a score card, the joys of a double play, how to successfully razz the opposing team. The Barnes family would make a point to go to Ebbets Field at least three times a year, and after a while, they would take Steve along. Once Sarah died, and Bucky’s ma had lost her strength, Brooklyn’s very own baseball team was no longer the priority it once was. Steve was more concerned with where his next meal came from.

Bucky missed those carefree afternoons, peanuts and hot dogs, the comradery of the crowd, gathered together to cheer on Dem Bums. Steve, especially, loved those boys in Dodger Blue, and he was more than excited to spend the day at the ballpark for the first time in two years.

Had Steve been involved in the neighborhood games, Bucky thought he would have made an excellent catcher. Steve had quick reflexes and most importantly, he would have made the best in-game manager. Steve could call pitches like no one’s business.

Once Steve sat on the sidelines, and Bucky thought he was keeping score as usual, but when they got back to Bucky’s house, he found that Steve had been sketching him playing shortstop.

Bucky hung that sketch on his wall for years.

“Bucky, I’m pretty sure that God will forgive me for missing Mass today,” Steve almost twittered with excitement. “I’ll be doing my fair share of praying anyway. They’ve gotta play against Mel Ott, Buck. Mel Ott!”

Bucky took off his hat and wiped his brow. They were walking through the turnstiles at the Polo Grounds, crushed on all sides by a phalanx of Giants fans. Steve’s excitement radiated off of him, his smile was blinding. Bucky did some praying of his own the night before – please, God, let the Dodgers win so Steve’s birthday will be perfect.

Steve started to make his way toward the centerfield seats, but Bucky grabbed Steve’s suspenders and pulled him back. “Oh, no, pal. Right over here,” he said, walking his way toward the field.

“Where are we going?” Steve asked, then his eyes lit up with wonder and surprise when they sat near the first base line. “Are you kidding me, Buck?”

“Hey, it’s your birthday! You deserve it and more.”

The game started slow. In the bottom of the fourth, Steve’s worst nightmare came true. His personal Dodger killer, the very man that he had been afraid of, came to the plate.

“No! Nooooooo,” Steve moaned in agony. “Mel Ott!”

Mel Ott was the star of the Giants’ lineup. He was a smaller guy, stocky but powerful. Ott was a home run king, but he didn’t need to hit one this time around, as he smacked a solid base hit to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.

Steve put his head in his hands and groaned again. “Mel Ott!”

“It’ll get better, Steve. Game’s still happening,” Bucky replied. Steve was cheerfully optimistic about everything except baseball, and in the way of the most die-hard fan, he always knew that the team would never recover, they would always find a way to fail, and would never win again. Unless, of course, someone else was talking about the Dodgers, in which case they were winners, better than your team, and able to win the World Series every year.

An inning later, with Brooklyn still down a run, Steve got up. “Hey, I’m going to get some Cracker Jack for later. You want anything?”

“No, but I’ll get it for you. You should watch the game.”

Steve sighed. “I can’t just sit here, Buck, or my nerves’ll get the best of me. I’ll be back before the Dodgers start the inning. Not worried about Mancuso anyway.”

Bucky laughed. Typical Steve, a bundle of energy no matter what. He was so excited, it made him nervous. Steve was like that a lot, and it was one of the many things that both infuriated Bucky and made him smile.

The Dodgers were up. Steve sat on the edge of his seat, literally, as George Watkins stood at the plate. There were two Brooklyn boys on base, Cooney and the new first baseman Hassett, and Steve was so anxious, he left sweaty palm prints on his trousers. Bucky was nervous, too; the Bums were down to the hated Giants, and Steve had begun to despair in the way of the Flatbush faithful.

“Come on… come on…” Steve and Bucky were chanting in unison, almost a mantra against certain doom.

First pitch to Watkins, a high, inside ball.

“Come on… come on…”

Second pitch, a foul tip that whizzed by Bucky’s head. Steve shook his head but kept his eyes glued to the batter, seemingly willing him to make contact.

Third pitch, another foul tip behind the backstop.

“Come on…” Steve continued, his hands clasped as if in prayer.

CRACK! Watkins‘ bat connected for a beautiful line drive up the middle, giving the Dodgers two runs and their first lead of the game.

Steve jumped to his feet, his joyous screams lost in a sea of booing Giants fans.

“Did you see that?” Steve yelled, grabbing Bucky by his shoulders and giving him a shake. “Good old --!”

The rest of the game was uneventful. No more runs from either team, and the Dodgers won 3-1. On their way out of the ballpark, Steve accidentally tripped over a little boy carrying a Giants pennant, the boy’s body language dejected and low.

Bucky watched as Steve picked the boy up off the ground and handed him his unopened box of Cracker Jack. “Hey, kid, good game,” Steve said cheerfully. “I bet you’re real happy to have Ott on your team, huh?”

The kid smiled, two front teeth missing. “Yeah! When I grow up, I want to be an outfielder just like him. Thanks for the Cracker Jacks, mister!”

“That was nice of you, Steve,” Bucky said as they climbed onto the trolley for home.

“I hate seeing kids upset.”

“I know. Maybe we can go to another game soon and get you another box of your candy.”

Steve smiled. “Maybe, but this time, Ebbets.”

When they got to their trolley stop, Bucky and Steve quietly walked down the street to their alleyway, and the little apartment they called home. Every once in a while, Steve would grin and talk about how great the game was, how the Dodgers really had a shot this year.

They finally made it to their apartment. Steve opened the door and bowed. “After you, sir,” he said to Bucky, chuckling.

“Ah, pal, you don’t hafta.”

“Sure I do. You gave me the best present a guy could ever get. An afternoon with all of my favorite things.”

“What? A Dodgers win and a lousy hot dog?”

Steve’s eyes twinkled. “No, you jerk. An afternoon of nothing but spending quality time with my best pal, and seeing him smile.”

With that, Steve turned his full blazing smile onto Bucky, who felt as though the world had melted away in the bright heat of Steve’s happiness. “Thank you, Buck. You really are my best friend.”

He hugged him, and if Bucky held on a little tighter than he normally would, what did it matter?

Chapter Text

Steve still visited the old neighborhood sometimes. It was where he drew inspiration for his art. Sometimes he’d have coffee and cake with Mrs. Rennebohm, and sometimes he’d visit his old friend and sometime boss Mr. Vecchio. Bucky always knew when Steve had been to Red Hook, because he’d carry home fresh fruit from the market. It seemed Mr. Vecchio still had the idea that Steve needed food, after all the years he had been putting those baskets together.

Bucky came home in the sweltering heat, hoping to strip down to his undershirt before taking a quick sponge bath and going out to grab a couple of cold beers. He heard the music through the door before he opened it.

Steve was sitting at the tiny kitchen table, head in his hands, listening to a recording by an old opera singer. Bucky remembered the song well, as Sarah would listen to it on rainy days with the window up, allowing the soprano’s song to echo through the alleyway.

“What’s the matter, Steve? You look sick.”

Steve looked up at Bucky. His eyes were red and puffy. He sniffled a little. “It’s Mr. Vecchio. He had a heart attack last night, died right outside of the market.”

Bucky felt as though the breath had been punched from him. He took a seat at the table next to Steve. “Mr. Vecchio’s dead?”

Steve nodded.

“That can’t be. He wasn’t that old! He just gave you some bananas three days ago!”

“The store’s locked up tight, so I asked Mrs. McClarty and she told me what happened. Then I went to check with Mrs. Rennebohm and she told me that there’s going to be a visitation on Tuesday. I have to go, Buck. Mr. Vecchio did a lot for me and my ma when I was a kid, stuff he didn’t have to do. I have to pay my respects.”

Bucky nodded. “I’ll go, too. Mr. Vecchio and I go way back, too. We should light a candle for him tonight.”

“We should. I’m going to splash some water on my face and comb my hair.”

Bucky felt terrible. He always took for granted that his friends from the old neighborhood would always be around. What he said to Steve was true; Mr. Vecchio really wasn’t that old in the scheme of things. Bucky wondered who would take over the store, which was such an important part of the neighborhood. And he wondered how he could ever make it up to Mr. Vecchio and his family for all of the good things that the grocer had done for him and Steve.

When he was a kid, he gave him what little change he would find, but he knew that Mr. Vecchio gave Steve and his mother much more than the little pittance Bucky paid would allow. He never really thanked him, and it ate him up inside.

Steve came back out. He’d smartened up a little bit – he always did when he went to confession or Mass. Bucky took the needle off of the record and closed the lid to the Victrola, and the two headed to their local church.

Once a month, they made the trip back to their local congregation in Red Hook to visit with friends and see their old priest. Steve in particular didn’t take to the new priest as well. Bucky didn’t feel comfortable in confession. There were a lot of things that he did now, things he wasn’t always too keen to tell a priest about. He would have stopped going altogether if Steve hadn’t insisted they go at once a month to the new church for Mass.

The vestibule was open, and Bucky watched as Steve knelt toward the front of the church and crossed himself. Then he said a few prayers and lit a small votive candle. “For Joseph Vecchio, may God have mercy.”

“Amen,” Bucky said in agreement, and lit his own candle to put beside Steve’s.

Sunday came and went. Bucky came home on Monday night to a meal of creamed beef and toast and the sight of Steve in his shorts, socks and garters, ironing his dress pants.

“Hey, pal, I talked to the foreman and I was able to get the whole day off tomorrow. I told him a family member died and I had to travel for the funeral on the other side of town.”

Steve gave a weak smile. “Buck, you’re headed straight for hell. It only takes an hour to get to the old neighborhood by trolley, even less if we take the delivery truck.”

Bucky smiled back. “When was the last time we took a day just for ourselves? I mean, sure, we have to pay our respects to Mr. Vecchio, but did you give a thought to what we could do afterwards? Coney Island’s not that far away. You know Mr. Vecchio would have wanted us to enjoy the day. He was always after us to have fun.”

Steve took the iron off of the pants and stared at Bucky. “Are you crazy? We’re not going to skip out on Mr. Vecchio’s funeral Mass just to play hooky at an amusement park!”

“We’re not. We’re going to Mr. Vecchio’s service. We’re going to pay our respects. Then we’re going to Coney Island to continue paying our respects. He wanted us to live. Look at all he did for us, Steve. Would he want us to cry about him, or remember him and laugh?”

Tuesday morning, Bucky packed a small knapsack with a pair of shorts and boat shoes. He figured he could wear his undershirt with the shorts, since they were going to the shore as well as to an amusement park. He wasn’t sure if Steve would want to go to Luna Park or Steeplechase. He thought he might be able to do both; Steeplechase had the roller coaster, Luna had the midway games, and he thought it would be fun to try both out.

Steve had taken extra care with his hair and wore a light amount of bay rum aftershave for the funeral Mass. He wore his best suit, one that rarely had any wear. The last time Bucky remembered Steve wearing it was for jury duty, for which he was excused. It seemed funny to see two well put together young men in a mildly dirty delivery truck, but in their old neighborhood, you saw weirder things.

They found a place to park three blocks away from the church. Bucky enjoyed walking the streets of Red Hook now that he had been gone for a few years. He was filled with nostalgic happiness for his childhood, those blissful, golden days when it was just he and Steve without a care in the world, and loving parents to come home to.

They slipped into the pews of the old church. Across the aisle, they saw Mr. and Mrs. McClarty, who gave them a brief nod. No sign of Mrs. Rennebohm, but Steve had mentioned that her hip was bad and she didn’t get out much anymore. Bucky wondered how many of these wakes he and Steve would have to attend. There was too much death in their lives.

The service was solemn, as was expected. Bucky couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t anything like the Mr. Vecchio that he knew, the man who gave poor neighborhood kids apples and did magic tricks and gave them odd jobs to do. The man who allowed a kid to think he was doing something special for his best friend when in reality it was the charity and big hearted nature of a kind old man who felt bad about hungry children living down the street from him.

After Mass, Steve and Bucky spoke to the McClartys, who offered them a slice of pie at their apartment. Bucky knew that Steve sometimes had a craving for Mrs. McClarty’s mock apple pie, and was surprised when Steve turned her down.

“Maybe next time I’m in the neighborhood, ma’am, but Bucky and I have a prior engagement.”

Bucky bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing.

The first stop was Steeplechase Park. Bucky wanted to ride the Cyclone. Steve didn’t.

“Oh, come on, Steve!” Bucky needled him. “Are ya chicken? Bock…. Bock…. Bock?”

Steve frowned. “You will pay, Barnes. I’ll ride that damn thing and then we’re going to Luna Park.”

“Listen, pal, we’re doing some other stuff while we’re here. We’re going into the funhouse. We’re riding the Ferris Wheel. But we’re going to ride the Cyclone first, all right? So get ready, ‘cause we’re doing it.”

They belted into the third car and the ride took off. Bucky raised his hands over his head, screaming in delight. Steve, on the other hand, white knuckled it the whole way around. When they finally stepped off of the ride, Steve took four steps away from the platform and promptly threw up.

“Aw, Steve, I’m so…”

“You and your fucking ride, Bucky,” Steve said miserably. “How am I going to enjoy the food at Luna Park now that I’m all green around the gills?”

Seeing Steve lose his breakfast took the shine off of the roller coaster ride for Bucky, but a glass of cold water and some deep breaths helped Steve recover quickly. Bucky had always admired Steve’s resilience and stamina, which belied his sometimes weak body.

“Look, I’m sorry about the Cyclone. I didn’t think you’d get that sick. Tell you what, I’ll spring for a corn dog if you want one.”

Steve held his stomach. “Not right now. I think maybe the Ferris Wheel for right now? Something fun that won’t make me queasy.”

Bucky nodded. The Ferris Wheel was rather large and took forever to get to the top. He’d been up there once before with a girl named Ellie McKay, and they sparked while looking at the lights of Coney Island. Bucky wished, and not for the first time, that he could do the same with Steve, but it was the middle of the day, and Steve was a man. That sort of thing would likely get him in all sorts of trouble.

He still wished it were so.

“Buck,” Steve said, rousing Bucky from his thoughts, “can we go to Luna Park now?”

Luna Park was a bit shabbier than Steeplechase, but it had been the park that Steve’s mother had taken the boys to the most. Bucky had good memories of them growing up every time he walked through the gates. There were constant carnival games available, and Bucky wanted to try his luck there. Steve had liked the salt water taffy on the midway as a child, so he bought some for himself and Bucky.

“There’s a sharpshooter game! I’m going to win a goldfish for us, pal.”

Bucky was a natural. He took out every target with confidence. Steve whooped and cheered as Bucky calmly and coolly destroyed the game. The carny who manned the booth was openly sweating.

“Don’t worry, man. I just want a goldfish in a bowl,” Bucky said with a smile.

The carny handed Bucky a bowl with a small, weak looking goldfish, glaring at him the entire time. Steve smothered a laugh with his hand.

“He wanted to kill you, Buck,” Steve said, mischief twinkling in his eyes.

“I just wanted a goldfish. Remember when we got that goldfish when we were kids? And we fed it breadcrumbs?”

“And Harold’s cat ate it?”

Bucky laughed. “That was good. Mr. Vecchio hated that cat so much.”

“Remember him screaming at the cat in Italian?” Steve laughed even harder.

“And chasing him down the alleyway with the broom?”

The two friends stopped and leaned against one of the midway shanties, laughing so hard that they both started to cry.

“He was a good man. He did so much for us.”

“I know, Steve. He kept a lot of secrets for us, for all of us.” Bucky wiped tears from his eyes, and once again said a silent prayer in memory of his fallen friend.

“Hey… Bucky? You want to hit up the Ferris Wheel again? The sun’s going to set soon. We can maybe see the sunset from up there.”

Bucky nodded. No, he could never have the kind of moments he wanted with Steve, but he could make the moments he had count.

Chapter Text

Life was good, finally. No one they knew had died recently, they could afford to eat regular meals, including giant deli sandwiches once a week (Bucky loved pastrami on rye); the apartment was always warm enough and, for the last few years, there was a real Christmas tree in the apartment.

Bucky loved Christmas, but he figured he came by it naturally. His pop had always made a big deal about the holiday. To Bucky, it felt like the happiest time of the year. He loved all the decorations, the Santa Clauses on every corner, the bright and colorful baubles on the trees.

This year, Bucky had a plan. Christmas was, after all, a time for family to be together, and Steve was the last bit of family he had left.

Between the two of them, they would be able to make a decent Christmas dinner. Steve was a good cook and Bucky was able to roast a bird without scorching it. It would be a chicken again; turkeys were too big for the two of them and much too expensive. They weren’t going to skimp this year, though; Bucky was going to roast the chicken on Christmas Eve so they would be able to eat at a normal time on Christmas day, and when they got back from Midnight Mass, they would decorate the tree for the morning.

Trees were cheaper on Christmas Eve in Brooklyn. Bucky could get a decent one for less than seventy-five cents. Steve didn’t mind, his ma had used a cheap feather tree on a tabletop for so long that Steve forgot what it was like to decorate an actual evergreen. He loved every little ornament on the tree, most of them they made themselves using clothespins and pipe cleaners. Steve drew an angel for the tree top every year, each one more elaborate then the last.

Steve had taken the small box of Christmas ornaments down from their coat closet. Bucky knew that Steve had thrown out the feather tree when they moved to Vinegar Hill, but there were two small ornaments that he’d held onto. Bucky always treated those precious few items like gold, since there were so few things that Steve still had of his mother’s. He had more ornaments than Steve did, but the tree was still relatively sparse. Every year, Bucky bought one or two new things for their tree. He wanted it to be a joyous time for both of them.

Bucky had a surprise for this year, though; Woolworth’s had been selling some new Bakelite Christmas lights and he bought a strand for the tree. Something new and fun, something that he could use for a while and remember the good days of him and Steve being together, being happy; something to remind Bucky of what it was to love someone with his whole heart.

They were getting older now. Sure, there were still fellows who bunked together to save money, but Bucky was already hearing the whispers. So he dated a lot of girls. He made sure that he and Steve were seen with pretty dames out on the town. If they dated, they couldn’t be suspected, right? It was a thin line that Bucky walked, and he didn’t want to mess anything up for Steve. The guy still believed in happily ever after, the wife and the children and the brownstone in a respectable part of town, the family dog. Bucky couldn’t give that to him, and he didn’t want to take it away from him.

Besides, who knew what kind of girl he’d meet? Maybe he’d find someone, too. Had he believed in Santa, it would have been what he would have asked for.

Bucky roasted the chicken and wrapped it tightly in foil to keep in the icebox. It would be an easy thing to reheat the bird the next day. The drippings, along with the wings, some celery and a carrot, he put into a pot and covered with water to boil into a broth for soup. Waste not, want not, he thought.

While Steve busied himself with unwrapping the ornaments, Bucky checked the pantry to make sure the potatoes were still edible. He put the can of cranberry sauce in the icebox, pulled the egg nog closer to the front and did some last minute maneuvering of the bird in the baking pan to fit everything comfortably on the shelf.

Finally, the clock struck eleven. Bucky washed his hands and ran a comb through his hair. He and Steve wrapped their scarves tight around their necks and ventured off to the church for Mass.

Steve didn’t attend as often as he did when they were younger; Bucky asked him why, but Steve demurred and said that it was personal between him and God. He hated the idea that his best friend was somehow disillusioned by something, but he often felt the same way. Midnight Mass was the first time that Bucky had stepped foot in the church in months.

They knelt down, crossed themselves with holy water, and made their way to a pew near the back of the church. The priest entered the sanctuary, and the service began. The parishioners sang along with the Gloria, and Bucky listened as Steve softly sang. He was slightly tone deaf, but his earnestness was endearing.

The priest spoke the blessings, read the Gospel. Bucky watched as Steve mouthed the Latin along with the priest, phantom reflexes from his days as an altar boy. Bucky didn’t know all the words, but it was strangely comforting. It reminded him of his youth, of his mother.

The Mass ended. Bucky and Steve were quiet and reflective on the way back to their apartment. Bucky glanced to his left. The streetlamps were still glowing softly and glinted beautifully off of Steve’s blond hair. Bucky took a deep breath, the cold settling deep in his lungs. Beside him, Steve was breathing through his woolen muffler. Bucky knew they had to get home, get Steve over a boiling kettle to ward off an asthma attack.

When they finally got back to their apartment, Bucky cranked the heat up on the pot of water he kept on the stove and it soon came to a boil.

“Here, Steve. Loosen up over this kettle and I’ll get us some egg nog started.”

“Then we can trim the tree, right?” Steve asked.

“Sure thing, pal. We’ll do it up right.”

Bucky had scrimped and saved for a small bottle of brandy to put into the egg nog. Steve wasn’t much of a spirits drinker, but it was a celebration. Egg nog was a particular favorite of theirs. Bucky put in a generous splash of brandy into the cups, added the nog.

“Here’s to us, Steve,” Bucky said as he handed the mug to his friend.

Steve began to take the ornaments out of the box and set them on the little table near the tree that Bucky had set up. He drained the mug of egg nog and waggled it softly. “I think I need another one, Buck.”

Bucky smiled, made another brandy laced cup and gave it to Steve, who immediately drank half of it.

“Whoa! Slow down with that, you’ll get drunk.”

“No matter. We’re not doing anything tomorrow, right? Just eating and opening presents. I can sleep it off. I’m not going to get drunk anyway.”

Bucky laughed. “Ok, lightweight.” He took another drink of his own nog before Steve grabbed it and chugged Bucky’s down. “Oh! I’ve got something for the tree before we start putting all the stuff on it.”

He took the Bakelite lights out of the box and plugged them into the wall. They lit up with that bright, cheerful electric glow that Bucky had always been jealous of after seeing lighted trees in the Macy’s window. He draped them over the branches of the tree, putting them just so over the branches that he could reach. Unfortunately, the lights didn’t cover the tree, but Bucky was pleased with them nonetheless. He reached over and unplugged the lights so they could decorate the rest of the tree.

“What do you think, Steve? Do you like them?”

Steve smiled. “Bucky, they’re great! They’ll look so nice with the rest of the ornaments.”

They decorated the rest of the tree, Steve humming Christmas carols softly under his breath. Bucky made Steve more brandy-laced egg nog.

“Hey, bud, you’re going to get sick if you keep drinking this egg nog,” Bucky smiled at Steve, whose face was warm and rosy.

“Not sick, jus’ a lil’ drunk. Feelin’ happy.”

Bucky grinned. “Well, your happiness is going to stink up the joint if you drink much more of this stuff.”

Steve muffled a soft belch. “Plug the lights in. They’re so pretty.”

Bucky plugged the lights in and sat near Steve, who drunkenly put his head on Bucky’s shoulder. “So pretty. They twinkle a lot. Like your eyes, Bucky.”

He stilled. His heart was racing. He hadn’t drunk all that much egg nog, had he, to be hearing things? Steve burped again, giggled a little. “You know, Buck, I’ve decided I’m never going to dance. Never gonna find the right partner. Can’t dance with you when we go out.”

“Why would you want to dance with me, Steve? Don’t you want a pretty brunette to call your own? I know how you like the dark haired ladies.”

“No way,” Steve replied softly. “No way. Jus’ you, James Buchanan Barnes. You’re the pretty one. Like the Christmas lights. I wanna stare at them forever. Wanna stare at you forever.”

Bucky’s mouth went dry. He had always wanted to hear Steve say things like that, deep down in the secret places of his heart, he had always yearned for it. But Steve was drunk, and probably didn’t mean it.

“You don’t mean that, pal.”

“Do so!” He hiccupped. “You’re the bes’ thing’s ever happened to me. I wish I could draw a picture of you and put it on the top of the tree, ‘cause you’re a star.”

Bucky was quiet for a while. He put his arm around a droopy Steve and pulled him closer. “Steve, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Steve began to lightly snore.

“I love you, Steve. I think I always have. Merry Christmas.”

Chapter Text

Saturdays were good for Bucky and Steve. After a hard week’s worth of work on the docks, Bucky could count on two things:  he and Steve were going to hit the town, and he and Steve were going to have fun.

Bucky was the one who set up all of the dates for himself and Steve. Steve…well, Steve didn’t have a lot of luck with the ladies. When he asked a girl out, they generally responded with harsh laughter or just ignored him. Bucky would set up the dates with a girl he’d meet at a dance hall somewhere, or a cute girl he’d see on the trolley or the subway, and then ask if she had a friend who would be willing to double date with his pal Steve.

They hardly ever got a second date, but there were a couple of gals who were nice and liked to go out and have fun sometimes. They didn’t have romantic designs on either Bucky or Steve, but they’d have a swell time together.

The girl who paired off with Steve was named Evelyn, and the one who went with Bucky was Connie. Evelyn was a nurse, just like Steve’s own mother, and Connie worked as a cigarette girl in a nightclub that neither Bucky nor Steve had ever stepped foot in.

They met up once in a while, Evelyn and Steve usually sat at a table talking about art (Evelyn was a big fan of animation and Steve enjoyed talking about things like that with her) while Bucky and Connie would cut a rug. Evelyn feigned exhaustion and sore feet most of the time, and Steve claimed that he couldn’t dance too well, so they always sat the dances out. However, Bucky knew the real reason that Steve never danced.

Ever since that Christmas when Steve got drunk on egg nog, Bucky knew that Steve wanted to dance with him. Maybe they could go to a dance club in Harlem where that kind of thing would be okay, but Bucky wasn’t sure they’d survive the trip back to Brooklyn. The guys on the docks had a word for people like that, and Bucky didn’t think he’d want to hear those kind of names hurled towards Steve.

He felt like the worst sort of coward sometimes.

Bucky loved dancing with Connie. Connie smelled like Arpege and peppermint schnapps. She looked like a neighborhood Loretta Young. She was tall and graceful, with bright red bow lips and long, slender limbs. Her voice was slightly lower in tone and sultry – Brooklyn’s version of Joan Crawford. Connie was a beautiful girl, but Bucky had eyes only for the asthmatic blond in the corner.

Bucky glanced over towards the table and caught Steve’s eye. Steve smiled, and Bucky nodded.

It was nine o’clock in the evening. All over the city, the night was just getting started, but for Evelyn, she’d already been up for most of the day and was tired. Steve was catching the sniffles, too, and after one last dance, Connie gave Bucky a hug and called it a night.

“Take your boy home, Mr. Barnes,” she purred. “I’ll do the same for my girl.”

Bucky smiled. He knew that Connie and Evelyn had the same complicated relationship that he and Steve had. It was really a shame he couldn’t convince the girls to be their full time dates; it would have been perfect.

He and Steve went back to their apartment. The night was bitterly cold, and Steve’s wool coat had a small hole in it. Bucky had reminded Steve to mend the tear but Steve was busy sketching a picture that he wouldn’t show him and forgot about it.

“Hey, punk. You’re going to freeze to death if you don’t mend your coat.”

“I forgot!” Steve’s teeth were chattering. “And I didn’t realize it was going to be this cold out!”

“I’ll make us some coffee when we get in.”

Steve nodded. “That might give me some time to read today’s paper. I didn’t actually look at it when I picked it up at the newsstand this morning.”

Steve was always keeping up with current events. Bucky was always so proud at how informed Steve was. He could be a great man if someone gave him the chance. He already was a great man, in Bucky’s eyes, but he knew that Steve could be a leader if he was ever able to get the opportunity. That quiet reserve of strength that Steve had could power an entire nation, Bucky was convinced of that fact.

He busied himself in making the coffee while Steve read the paper.

“Says here that President Roosevelt is talking to the Japanese again,” Steve said, deep in thought.

“Do you think we have to worry about that? I mean, do you really think the Japanese are going to do anything to us?”

“Maybe. But we should’ve been in Europe already, you know that what’s going on over there isn’t right.”

Bucky loosened his tie. “It’s not our fight.”

“Maybe not, but they are bullies. Some of the stuff that I read… god, Buck, it makes my stomach turn.”

Steve had such a hatred for oppression. Even when they were kids, Steve had stood up against all manner of bullies. Bucky knew that Steve would have gone anywhere, done anything, to stop what he thought was wrong.

“Maybe we don’t have to worry about it, Steve.”

He sighed. “Maybe, but I have a bad feeling, Bucky.”

Steve continued to read the paper while Bucky put the coffee in front of him, black with a spoonful of sugar, just as he had always taken it. It was second nature for Bucky to make the coffee that way now. They sat in silence, the rustling of the paper the only noise in the apartment.

Finally, Bucky cleared his throat. “Hey, Steve? Do you… I mean,” he began, feeling incredibly nervous.

Steve glanced at him from behind the paper. “Yeah?”

“Do you ever think about leaving Brooklyn? Maybe going somewhere that…” and his voice trailed off.

“Going where, Buck? What, are you saying you want to move away?”

Bucky swallowed hard. “Not really, but people are talking, you know? We’re not getting any younger, Steve. We can’t live together forever. Don’t you think sometimes if we left Brooklyn, we might get away with it?”

Steve put the paper down and stared into his coffee mug. “Bucky, do you think I give a flying fuck about what people say? I get my face punched in on a regular basis. Why would that matter to me, what people say?”

“Maybe I don’t want you to get your face punched in anymore.”

Steve looked up from the mug. His hair was in his eyes. Bucky thought he looked beautiful.

“Bucky, I…”

“I’m going to bed.” Bucky stood up, wanting to get away from the situation, trying to escape the tight feeling in his chest of wanting to take Steve into his arms and kiss him senseless. But he couldn’t.

“Wait, Buck….” Steve called out to him, but Bucky kept going into his room. He stripped off his shirt and pants, turned off the light and climbed into bed. He beat his pillow a few times in frustration.

The door opened and Steve came into the room.

“What are you doing in here?”

Steve got into bed with him and tossed his arm around Bucky. “I don’t care where you go. I don’t care if you leave Brooklyn or not, because it doesn’t matter. I’m going with you no matter what. ‘Til the end of the line, remember?”

“Yeah, Steve. The end of the line.”

They hadn’t shared a bedroom in a long time, not since they moved to this new place. Bucky sometimes missed holding Steve close to him during the night, feeling him breathe, hearing the slight wheeze of his lungs.

“Can I stay?” Steve asked, his voice a whisper.

“Sure. Of course you can,” Bucky replied, resting his hand gently on Steve’s side. “Of course you can.”

When they woke up in the morning, they had their arms around each other. Bucky’s nose buried in Steve’s hair. Sundays were made for this, Bucky thought; lazy mornings enjoying one another until the tedium of laundry and other housekeeping duties took over.

“Steve? Hey, are you awake?”

“Hmrph.” Steve yawned and wiggled. “I am now.”

“I had an idea. Let’s you and me go to the zoo after we’ve finished the laundry. Maybe we can get an egg cream?”

Steve yawned again. “Sure, Buck. Sounds like fun. I gotta mend my coat, though.”

“I’ll scramble some eggs, and you can get started with the sewing.”

Bucky was feeling good. The eggs were perfect. Steve mended his coat and a pair of socks, Bucky washed his undershirts and hung them over the drying rack. He started on their boxer shorts, wringing out the water and draping them over the shower curtain rod.

When they were finished with the laundry, the breakfast dishes, and Steve had dusted the bookshelves, Bucky and Steve put on their favorite weekend clothes and headed out to Central Park.

Bucky loved the zoo, and he loved to watch Steve study the animals for drawings that he would generally sketch while they were there. Steve was particularly interested in the tiglion, a half-tiger, half-lion that had been donated to the zoo the year before. The sea lion pool was always a fun visit, too; the funny little animals looked so jolly.

It was a perfect day, even though it was a little on the chilly side. The animals were relatively happy, Steve was smiling, and Kelly’s didn’t have a huge line, which meant they could indulge in a bowl of soup before heading back home to Brooklyn.

It was at Kelly’s that it all fell apart.

Steve had finished buttering his roll and taking the last giant bite of the fresh bread when they heard murmuring coming from the back of the restaurant. A waitress began sobbing. Bucky heard a broad, Bronx accented man yell out, “I’m going to murder every last goddamn one of them!”

“What’s going on?” Steve asked after he swallowed his bite.

“Dunno. Let me see if I can ask a waiter or something.” Bucky got up and made his way towards the front of the restaurant.

“Excuse me. What’s happening?”

The hostess had tears streaming down her face and her hands were shaking. “We’re at war. They… we’ve been attacked.”

Chapter Text

Monday morning, Bucky asked the foreman if he could leave work early to go to the Army Recruitment Office. The foreman nodded and told him that he was going to be taking off early as well, to reenlist in the Navy. The ships could wait a day, but the country couldn’t.

The line was long. There were people from the ship yard, people from the neighborhood. There were obviously older men, kids who looked barely old enough to shave, and a girl who was wearing men’s clothing trying to sneak in, pulled away from the line kicking and screaming. It hit Bucky that Steve had known all along this was going to happen.

He wondered if Steve had been lined up outside a recruitment office already, which one he would have chosen. Bucky thought that Steve might choose the Army, but then he thought that maybe he’d choose the Navy – Steve had such a sense of adventure, and the Navy was the branch of service that fed into wanderlust.

Several hours later, Bucky was an enlisted man.

The man who gave Bucky his 1A told him that he could have until Wednesday to get everything in order before shipping out to Basic. Bucky nodded, shook his hand, and finished buttoning his shirt.

“You’re in the Army now,” a drunk who had stationed himself outside of the recruitment office kept singing. Bucky made his way back home, clear eyes but heavy heart. It was a big step to make, but he knew he had to. His father had served his country during the first World War, and Bucky would do the same. Every healthy American male was expected to do his part.

Every healthy one, which made Bucky wonder if Steve would somehow get in despite his many illnesses.

Bucky walked up the stairs to the apartment and heard the Victrola blaring. “Hey, Steve!” He yelled over the sound of the music. “Hey!”

Steve came out of the bathroom, his eye swollen shut. Bucky rushed over toward him.

“Oh my god. Steve! What happened?”

Steve pressed a cold compress to his eye. “What do you think? Someone mouthed off while I was standing in line to enlist, said ‘They don’t need no shrimps in the Army’, and I told him that as long as I was breathing they couldn’t get me out of the line, and so he decked me.”

Bucky chuckled, then gently ruffled Steve’s hair. “You and your mouth. So, did you get in?”

Steve shook his head. He walked over to the Victrola and took the needle off of the record. “4F. Said I was too sick, said I wouldn’t even make it through boot camp. But I had tried the one over in the East Village, since I was going to that park I like to set up my easel at. Maybe if I go to Red Hook I can get in.”

Bucky frowned. Steve Rogers was the most stubborn, hard headed individual he’d ever known. “I don’t know about that, pal. Don’t you think they’ll keep tabs on you?”

“Thought about that, Buck. I’ll try again in a week, down in Red Hook, and see where that gets me.”

Bucky sat on their little threadbare sofa. Steve sat next to him.

“So, I’m in.”

“When do you leave?”

“They gave me two days before I ship off to Basic Training. I take the train down to New Jersey on Wednesday evening. What do you want to do before I leave?”

Steve looked down at his hands. “All the fun stuff, I guess. Maybe we should go dancing with Connie and Evelyn again. That’s always fun. Maybe we could go to the Wonder Wheel one more time?”

“Steve, you’re going to freeze to death if we do that.”

Steve looked up, his eyes bright with unshed tears. Bucky sighed. Two days was not enough time to pack in as much as he could get with Steve before everything changed.

“I’m scared. I’m really scared.”

“Buck, you’re not going to be alone. There’s going to be plenty of men out there who are just as scared as you are. You’ll make it. We’ll come back home to Brooklyn.”

Bucky noticed that Steve said ‘we’, as if he was convinced that some branch of service would take him. “What do you mean we? I’m the one shipping off.”

“I’ll keep going. I got extra reason to, now. I can’t leave my best” and here Steve hesitated, “pal out there doing all my fighting for me. They might need a cartographer.”

“Steve…” he swallowed hard, feeling the lump in his throat get increasingly larger. “Steve, I just… I… Oh, fuck it.”

He took Steve by the shoulders and kissed him softly on the lips.

When he pulled away, he noticed that Steve was breathing heavily. His initial reaction was an asthma attack. His second reaction was that Steve was going to give him a black eye to match his.

“You dumb jerk,” Steve murmured, then pulled him back for another kiss.

Bucky couldn’t believe it. When he was a young boy, he had thought about giving Steve a kiss. It seemed good, and Steve’s lips on his felt so right. He wondered if he could deepen the kiss, thought about doing so, when Steve stopped and sat back.

Steve’s hair was in his eyes again. He was smiling. “Hold it right there, Bucky.”

He scurried to the record player, took off the record he had been playing, and rooted around in the cabinet before Bucky heard him exclaim with excitement. Steve cranked the player, put a new needle in, and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of one of Steve’s favorite songs.

Always remember that sunshine

Will always follow the rain

So wrap your troubles in dreams

And dream your troubles away…

Bucky held onto that thought as Steve shook his hand on the train platform that Wednesday evening, when Bucky boarded the train to Fort Dix, New Jersey and his new life in the Army.

Chapter Text

Dear Steve,

I’m sorry I didn’t write right away. As soon as we got off the train, we were rushed into the camp. We had our heads shaved and got stripped down to our shorts, then had really awful fitting fatigues thrown at us by a large man who screamed at us the whole way. Turns out it was our drill sergeant. His name is Staff Sergeant Robins and he’s really intense, he’s like Mr. Vecchio with absolutely no sense of humor. But I think he is a fair man.

The guys in my bunk are nice enough. There’s a man from Queens here who is a fan of the Giants. I told him I was a native of Brooklyn and whatever nice feeling he had for me went poof. But not to worry, there’s another guy here from Philadelphia. He’s not really into baseball, but is a good guy nonetheless. His name is Kenny. His dad flew planes during World War I. He’s probably the best pal I’ve got here right now, really easy to get along with.

I miss pot roast. We eat this terrible stuff that some of the guys call SOS. It’s chipped beef and white sauce on burnt toast. Give you two guesses what SOS stands for and the first one doesn’t count.

I’m sorry this is so short, but it’s lights out and I want to get this to you right away. This was the first opportunity to get pen to paper. I hope you had a nice New Year’s. Say hi to Connie and Evelyn for me – remember what we talked about before I shipped out?

Thanks,

Your pal, Bucky

 **

Hey, Steve,

No, SOS stands for ‘shit on a shingle’ and we have it every other day. Cookie in the mess can only cook five basic things, none of them actually edible.

Kenny’s arches fell and so he was discharged from camp right away. It’s a shame, that was a quality guy. Quick with a joke, which is needed around here sometimes. You can’t march with fallen arches, you know?

Yes, I have been going to chapel. The chaplain isn’t a priest, but I guess that’s okay. It’s church, right? But I haven’t been praying. I just keep thinking about what I’m going to have to do over there, and sometimes I might say a prayer to keep my loved ones safe. My family. You know who they are.

Drawn anything great lately? Send me something. I can put it up on my bunk to brighten the place up.

I’m going to start writing more often. There isn’t much for me to do.  Been thinking about writing my sweetheart but you can deliver my message for me.

Been to Red Hook yet?

Your pal,

Bucky

 **

Dear Steve,

Last night we had this awful watery stew and saltines and the worst coffee I’ve ever had. I swear they give us this stuff because the rations we’ll get on the front won’t be much better but maybe we can pretend it’s a fancy meal or something.

But I did get a Hershey bar the other night and passed it around the barracks, which gained me nothing but good will among the fellas.

Time is strange in boot camp. It feels like it’s been a thousand days since I was in Brooklyn but I know it hasn’t, and yet it feels like I've only been here a week.

You got a different job at a different newsstand? That’s good news, I guess. Hope they’re paying you what you’re worth.

Thanks for the sketch of the dog dressed like a doughboy. The guys liked it, too.

Write soon.

Bucky

 **

Dear Steve,

The army and I are not the best of friends. I wish I could hop the train. I could, and be in Brooklyn by the end of the night. I bet you’ve sold my bed or burned it for heat, though, so I might as well stay here. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this, Steve. But I’m going to give it the best I got.

Keep writing to me.

Bucky

 **

Dear Sweetheart,

I miss you. Sometimes I think I’m not going to make it, but I know that you’re cheering me on. Sometimes I think about how proud you are of me for being here. It keeps me going.

James

 **

Dear Steve,

Met a nice guy who is in my company, name of Tim Dugan. Big bruiser of a man, fancies himself a tough guy but he’s swell. Sure can put the booze away, though.

I’ve grown accustomed to SOS every other night, but the other day we had a chocolate cake and it was so delicious, I thought I was going to cry. We ate too much. It made us sick. I wish in a way that we would have had this problem when we were scraping up money to get by because food wouldn’t have been so hard to come by if we ate the disgusting stuff we’re served here.

So you tried Astoria, huh? And they still said no? Listen, punk, you’ve been chased out of three different recruitment offices already. I think they know who you are by now. And you know that lying on your enlistment form is against the law, Steve. Don’t do it. I don’t care if you think you should be out there. Let me fight in your place. I’m good at it. You’re good at what you do. The world’s a better place with you out there…

 **

Dear Sweetheart,

I hope you don’t mind that I write to you like this. I’m sorry that we didn’t really have a lot of time with each other while I was home. I have a reputation to uphold. Sometimes I wish I would have kept my big trap shut. It probably would have been better for you and better for me. I waited too long to tell you how I feel and now it’s too late, isn’t it?

I miss you.

James

 **

Dear Steve,

Last night we went out on a weekend pass. A bunch of the men and I went to some dance hall and got soused on cheap whiskey. Dugan’s a real pal. He can’t dance for shit. Reminds me of you in that way.

I got really drunk. I think I might have written something and sent it to you, but I’m not sure. Just know that I was three sheets to the wind last night, so…

Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.

Your pal,

Bucky

 **

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your letter. I love the picture of the monkey on a bicycle! That’s hilarious. Me and the guys needed something funny to pass around, so that’s great.

I’ve become handy with a shot. They are going to put me into sniper training. Apparently I have some of the quickest reflexes in our unit. I’m actually really excited about this. There’s finally something I’m good at other than being charming and dancing with pretty dames.

Of course, this means they are going to ship me out to a different base. Not sure where or when, but it should be soon.

So how many times have you been kicked out of recruitment offices now?...

 **

Hi, Steve,

I’m writing to you from Fort McCoy somewhere in the middle of godforsaken Wisconsin. I’m in sniper school. There’s a lot of guys from various bases with me. It’s only going to be a couple of months, I think, but I’m not sure. I can’t talk about it all, because the Army doesn’t want me to, but just know that your best pal is getting ahead in life.

The food is just as bad here as it was in New Jersey. What I wouldn’t give for a slice of your mother’s apple pie. They have pie here, but they serve it with a damn slice of cheese next to it. I’m telling you, Steve, these people are strange.

Coney Island seems like a dream now. Who knows when I’ll be able to come on leave? Probably not until I’m about to ship out? I guess we’ll just have to keep writing letters.

 **

Dear sweetheart,

You know what we talked about before I left? I didn’t get a chance to finish my thought, which is this:

I love you. I think about you all the time.

I’ll come home to you.

Your devoted

James

 **

Hi, Steve,

I’ve got good news. I’ve been promoted! Next time you see me, I’m going to be Sgt. James Barnes. Guess who has been assigned to the 107th? I know that your dad was with the 107th, so that’s swell news, don’t you think? I bet your mom would be so proud of me.

Some of the guys are coming along. I think they are trying to get the better guys into the 107th. I heard that’s where the action is.

So, I’m going to be returning to Fort Dix for a final time, getting together with my new division, and then we should be getting our orders fairly soon. I’ll let you know as soon as I do…

 **

Dear Steve,

I take it that you were turned down again. I know you want to join up and that you feel it’s your duty, but it’s hard here, Steve. We need good men like you at home, too. Don’t feel bad that you’re not in uniform.

I know – I might as well talk to a brick wall. But, hey, give a guy credit for trying to cheer up his best pal!...

 **

Dear Steve,

We got our assignment. We’re shipping out next month, to England. It’s finally time. I have to say I’m excited, because Dugan’s going to be with me, and he’s a good guy to have around. He’s looking forward to the beer. That guy can drink like a fish.

I’ll be on my way to Brooklyn soon. They’re going to give us some time to get our shit together and visit friends and family. So of course, I’ll be coming to see your dumb face. Tell my sweetheart I’m coming home.

Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.

See you soon,

Your friend,

Bucky

Chapter Text

Bucky hadn’t heard from Steve in a while. He got the occasional letter in an envelope that had been heavily blacked out with ink, which he thought was bizarre. Sometimes he’d get a postcard from places like Topeka, Kansas or San Antonio, Texas. Why Steve was in these far flung places was beyond him. He’d said something in a previous postcard about a new job that took him on the road, but he never went into detail. The job must’ve been time consuming, though, because it had been a least a month since he’d gotten anything. He would have rather had those few postcards than the lack of communication.

Of course, Steve could have sent him a care package and Bucky wouldn’t have known, because he was rotting in this cage along with Dugan and a couple other guys in the 107th. There were captives from other platoons, other armies as well. So many of them had been taken captive by the Germans, and every day some of the thug Nazis would take a soldier from one of the cells and literally drag him away. The rest of the group would never see that man again.

One of Bucky’s cellmates, a man named Jim, kept a mental tally of the men who had been taken away. He always seemed to remember names really well. Bucky hoped that one day, Jim would be rescued and he could let the families know what happened to their loved ones.

What would happen if they came for Bucky? No one would know to write Steve and let him know. Maybe Dugan might be able to tell them to write Steve, but even he didn’t know exactly why.

It was cold and damp in the cell. One of the guys came down with something and started coughing uncontrollably. He kept sneezing, and as much as the rest of the men tried to stay away from him, it was too late for Bucky.

He came down with the cold, too, which quickly turned into pneumonia. Slowly people started dying off in the cages. Bucky, Dugan, Jim and a few of the other guys would prop up the dead man in order to get his portion of the weak gruel that the HYDRA guards would give them every night. Bucky felt like the lowest piece of shit in the world to use a dead person that way, but if he died in this hellhole, he would want his friends to do the same in order to survive.

It wasn’t long before he was hallucinating about pot roast. Specifically Sarah Rogers’ pot roast, which he had last had almost ten years before. His mouth watered at the thought of the thick, brown gravy, roasted potatoes, turnips, and carrots. And best of all, Steve was there, digging into the delicious meal with him.

Steve was all-consuming now. Steve was the only good and positive thought that Bucky could muster anymore; the dull sunlight reflecting off of the metal bars for an hour a day was suddenly the shine of Steve’s blond hair. The sound of the guys in the cells moaning in pain and agony was the sound of the Red Hook alleyways they used to hide in on weekday evenings, with the drunks and wastrels puking behind fire escapes. Sometimes he’d hear birdsong, and all he could think of was Central Park, and Steve’s smile, and freedom. Sweet, sweet freedom.

Time blurred. Bucky lost track of the days, he wasn’t sure if he had been in the HYDRA camp for two weeks or two months. Without warning, the door of the cell opened. One of the soldiers looked around and then pointed to Bucky.

“Dieser wird's tun,” he said to his colleague, who grabbed Bucky by the shirt and dragged him to his feet.

“The fuck you will!” Dugan yelled hoarsely, trying in vain to stand to his feet.

The HYDRA soldier knocked Dugan’s hat off with his billy club. “Nächstes Mal wird es dein Kopf sein, nicht dein Hut.”

Dugan picked his hat up and muttered, “One day, Gerry, you and me…”

The HYDRA soldier jabbed the butt of his gun into the small of Bucky’s back, forcing him down the corridor away from the cells. Here there were a few more windows and more natural light, but Bucky still had no idea what day or exactly what time it was.

The door opened and he was shoved into a room containing a table outfitted with thick leather straps. Two more soldiers came into view, along with a weird little man wearing a long white coat.

“Fresh clay for the experiment. Good, good. Men, strap him onto the table,” the weird man said, his voice sharply accented.

Bucky struggled against the soldiers, fighting them off as much as he could, but they were stronger, and it was three against one. They tightened the straps against him, leaving him on the table. The soldiers left the room, leaving him and the small, strange man.

“Not that I care, but tell me a little about yourself. I presume you’re American?” the man said, his eyes huge through prescription goggles.

Bucky recited his name, rank, and serial number as he was taught to do in case of capture.

“James Barnes… such a plain name for what could be a great man.”

Bucky wondered what the hell that was supposed to mean, when the small man roughly yanked up his sleeve and rubbed his arm with alcohol. He felt the sharp prick of a needle and then a soul wrenching pain that burned in his veins, a surge of heat and anguish that coursed through his body with every pump of blood.

Hours went by, the torment almost too much for him to bear. Many times he began to convulse, once he vomited and was saved from choking by the strange man, who raised the table enough so that Bucky could spit on the floor. All the while, he responded to every question posed exactly the same: name, rank, serial number.

He lost track of time. It alternated between hot and cold in the room. A fine sheen of sweat coated his body. The horrible burn stopped, but Bucky’s muscles twitched and his skin itched, felt like it was stretching. His body ached. He thought he heard someone call the little man Zola. Bucky tried to remember it, although he wasn’t sure that knowing his tormentor’s name helped.

Zola raised the table again, force fed him broth and water and some sort of disgusting vitamin drink. Bucky once again hallucinated food, this time Steve’s apple pie.

He tried to not think about Steve. The weird man seemed to pay so much attention to him. Bucky was scared that he would find out about Steve and use his memory to continue to play his sick games. There was nothing in the world that Bucky wanted less than for someone to tarnish the only good thing left in his life.

Name. Rank. Serial number.

Not Steven Grant Rogers. Not Brooklyn. Not the memory of the Ferris Wheel, the Cyclone, the kiss on the sofa of their little ramshackle apartment.

Name. Rank. Serial number.

The weird man came into the room again with something that looked like a torture device. Zola attached electrodes to Bucky’s body and shocked him repeatedly, amping up the voltage with every round. Bucky screamed in terror and pain, and his captor took notes on a steno pad.

“Hmmm, good, good,” Bucky heard him say one time after a particularly sharp voltage.

The sun went down. Bucky wasn’t sure how many times the sun had set, but it was pitch black outside. Zola brought another syringe full of the burning poison and injected him. Again, it burned through his veins and caused his skin to feel as though it was going to burst off of his body, but strangely enough, it didn’t hurt as badly as it did the first time.

He was whipped repeatedly. His skin was cut and singed. The electric shocks became more and more prevalent, sometimes being almost electrocuted to the point of losing consciousness. Bucky would scream until he was hoarse, but never gave Zola the satisfaction of begging him to stop. James Barnes was made of stronger stuff than all of that – he would never let that bastard get the best of him.

Bucky felt strange. He was exhausted and starving, and yet he didn’t feel as though he was going to die. He had a feeling that if he had proper nourishment and some sleep, he could survive this, but Bucky wondered how that could be possible. He’d had nothing but gruel for God knows how long and every time he wanted to go to sleep, he was prodded awake by a jack booted thug.

Finally, the horrible little man came into his room again. “Sgt. Barnes, congratulations. You’re the first test subject who hasn’t failed. Herr Schmidt will be happy to hear this. Of course, I have many more tests to run on you, but they would be impossible to do here. We’re going to take you away and improve our handiwork. In the meantime, I will continue to run what few tests I can manage here.”

He concluded his speech with a sharp backhand across Bucky’s face, and a hard baton onto Bucky’s arms and legs.

Bucky finally lost consciousness. He didn’t know how long he was out, or the horrible things that Zola did to him. When he came to, he was tired and hungry and sore. He heard rustling outside the door. There were loud bangs and random screams. Bucky wasn’t sure what was happening, but he thought maybe it would be someone who would help him.

Name. Rank. Serial number.

Then he heard a voice that was as warm as whiskey and sweet as honey. When his eyes focused, he saw the most beautiful sight he could imagine – Steve as guardian angel. He must have finally died, because Steve was there, looking healthy, those ocean blue eyes so full of love that Bucky knew he had to be hallucinating.

Only, in Heaven, he wouldn’t be strapped to a cold table, and what kind of weird get-up was Steve wearing?

Bucky was weak and woozy from lack of sleep and food, but surely Steve couldn’t haul him to his feet? And tower over him? And look like Charles Atlas?

It was only when Steve touched him, felt that warm skin against him, that Bucky knew it was real.

He and Steve made his way down corridors, trying to make their way out of the labyrinth that was the HYDRA fortress. He asked a few questions, Steve letting him know some of the things that had happened to him. Things like being injected with a serum and irradiated with some sort of ray. Howard Stark, the guy who made the flying car that Bucky had been so taken with at the Expo, had assisted in the transformation.

Serum. Weird rays. Bucky was suddenly frightened.

“Did it hurt?” he asked, as much for himself as for Steve.

Did it hurt… because he couldn’t bear the idea of Steve, the only person in this world that he loved, being in as much pain and torture as Bucky had felt because of Zola.

Steve replied, but Bucky was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t register what he said. Here was Steve, looking like every drunken fantasy that Bucky had ever had, saving him. The tables had turned. Bucky was always the one who saved Steve, Bucky was the one who kicked idiots in the seat of their pants, the one who punched loudmouths in the alleyway who dared to look at Steve cross-eyed. Instead, Steve took down Nazis and hauled ass down hallways without losing his breath.

They made it to the main area of the munitions plant. Explosions rocked the building; Bucky could see a massive firefight outside between what was left of the prisoners and the HYDRA forces. Steve was trying to find a way to get them outside and back to a friendly area, when suddenly Zola appeared with a German officer, who must have been the Schmidt that he had talked about.

Before Bucky could even process what was happening, Schmidt tore his own face off and he and Steve fought like madmen. Then more explosions, Zola and Schmidt disappeared into the hellfire, and he and Steve were stranded. Steve, being a resourceful type, found a way to get across to safety. He had Bucky go first, and Bucky complied, even though everything inside of him was screaming for Steve to take his place.

But Bucky walked across that steel girder, because Steve asked. Because everything that Bucky Barnes ever did, in his entire life, was for Steve Rogers.

When the girder collapsed, Bucky’s heart fell with it. Steve was motioning to him to go, to get out, but Bucky could not allow Steve to come all this way only to die in a fire somewhere in East Bumfuck, Germany, or wherever the hell he was.

“No! Not without you!” he screamed, hoping to get it through Steve’s hard, stupid head that wherever he went, Bucky was going to go, too.

That was the way it always had been. It was the way it always would be.

Bucky held his breath as Steve took a flying leap towards him.

Chapter Text

Day One

Sure, they were surrounded by weary men, the threat of violence, and the smell of unwashed socks, but Bucky thought that he couldn’t be happier to be alive.

Steve was at his side, every step of the way. For the first few hours, Bucky didn’t talk. He just looked at his own personal savior, standing tall beside him. Taller than him, his blond hair shining in the sun, his blue eyes the color of the sea near Coney Island.

He seemed healthy, and relatively happy. Bucky was still worried about his friend, though. Steve was always the kind to hide how he felt, physically, emotionally… everything. Bucky marched beside him with a knot in his stomach.

There were probably a hundred men from different Allied forces marching with them. Dugan was there, and the ever helpful Jim. A slightly unhinged Frenchman and an American from the 92nd Infantry serving as translator, as well as a sarcastic as hell Englishman rounded out the ragtag band of brothers who formed the core group of men that lead the others towards safety, with Steve as their guide.

They stopped to bunk for the evening, having liberated some rations from the HYDRA men before leaving the camp, and sharing them amongst themselves. Steve and Bucky didn’t eat too much, but stayed close together, talking, brainstorming about the next day and what sort of progress they thought they could make.

Steve told Bucky about a mysterious lady named Peggy.

“You’d like Peggy, Buck. She’s a swell gal. Real pretty, real smart. The kind of girl we’ve always looked for.”

Bucky wasn’t sure if he would like this Peggy woman as much as Steve did, after he saw how Steve lit up like Christmas lights talking about her. He felt jealous, which was a feeling he’d never really had before when it came to Steve. He wasn’t sure if he liked it, but for Steve’s sake, he’d give it a try.

Day Two

He asked Steve to tell him a little bit more about Peggy. Steve started at the beginning, from the moment they met at boot camp, through his preparation for the serum.

“I’m telling you, Buck, I came out of that thing like this. I felt pretty good, and all the women in the room, and most of the men, too, looked at me like I was Cary Grant or something.”

“You’re better looking than Cary Grant, my friend.”

Steve blushed. “Well, I don’t know about that. But then I was kinda taken away to the USO shows…”

He talked about his bond tour, sharing dressing rooms with the USO girls, feeling like a trained circus animal. As they walked towards camp, Steve kept sharing stories with Bucky. He told him even more about Peggy, and the day that he finally got the shield that he carried.

“…and then she shot at me.”

Bucky couldn’t stop laughing, he clutched his stomach to try and control his breathing. “You’ve finally become a ladies’ man, Steve!”

“I didn’t want to! That girl kissed me first!”

“And you were fighting her off the whole time, I bet. Those muscles are completely worthless, can’t even shoo away a dame,” Bucky chuckled.

“How was I supposed to know that Peggy was going to come around the corner? And then get mad at me?”

Bucky smiled. “I think I’m going to like Peggy. She’s got balls. Well, as much as a dame can have.”

Day Three

He hated Peggy Carter. He hated her living guts.

They marched into camp, more than weary, their feet burning with soreness. He could feel the tension draining from the men, though, as they approached friendly faces and warm meals.

The remaining members of the 107th swarmed out to greet them, along with the Colonel and a smart looking brunette with killer red lips. She looked at Steve like he was a steak and she was half starved. Bucky knew that look. Hell, Bucky perfected that look.

He didn’t catch anything that the woman said, but he knew it was Peggy. For the third time in as many weeks, his blood burned, but this time it was out of pure jealousy.

He was about to horn his way into their little chat when he realized that Steve was looking at Peggy with a sense of wonder, like he had returned home after a cold day and Peggy was the blazing warm fireplace. Something broke inside of him. Steve had only looked at him like that before, and now he was looking at this woman that way.

The Steve that Bucky knew and loved was still there, but he had changed. They had all changed, and Bucky realized that their little flat in Brooklyn wasn’t going to hold Steve Rogers anymore, and neither would he.

Steve wasn’t just his anymore. Steve belonged to the world, and to Peggy.

“Let’s hear it for Captain America!” Bucky exclaimed, because it wasn’t Steve who had rescued him and those men, and it wasn’t Steve who was looking at Peggy like that.

If you asked Bucky Barnes what he thought about Captain America… he wasn’t too sure he liked him at that moment, either.

The men were rushed off to medics, mess halls, debriefings. Bucky stayed close to Steve and Peggy, hoping to get a chance to get to know Peggy on his own time. After the third debriefing and getting some warm food into him, Steve surprised everyone by retiring to his tent.

“Buck, you can come with,” he said, gesturing to the open flap. “I’d be happy to bunk with you.”

“Not tonight,” Bucky replied. “I might snore or something. We’ll talk about things in the morning.”

He watched as Steve went into his tent, then looked up at the night sky. The stars were beautiful. It was relatively quiet outside. He heard light footsteps come up behind him, and he smelled her. How was that possible?

“Sgt. Barnes…”

“James. You might as well call me James,” he said.

She smiled. Bucky glanced back toward Steve’s tent.

The more time he spent with her, the less he hated her. He still hated her, sure, but he also liked her. Steve was right, Peggy was the kind of lady that he’d always looked for. She was classy and beautiful and funny and smart.

In short, she was perfect for Steve. More perfect for him than Bucky would ever be.

Chapter Text

They came upon a hive of HYDRA soldiers out to do their level best to destroy a small outpost of Allied troops. They swarmed them, and the Howling Commandoes (as they were named by the newsreels) were meeting them fist for fist, blow by bloody blow. Their ragtag team had become the most elite group of fighters in the Allied forces. Bucky marveled at how well they worked together. He found that he was able to get along well with everyone. Gabe had guts and brains to spare, Jim was even more resourceful than he had thought, and Dugan was always there, a kind of sergeant-at-arms for the group.

In the middle of it all, at the beginning and end of it, was Steve. Bucky had always thought that Steve could be a great leader, and he was right. Steve was amazing. That street bred toughness came out of him in the middle of the fight, and his tenacity caused the other men to push a little bit more.

Through forests, in firefights, in trenches and ditches, on mountaintops, Bucky stood shoulder to shoulder with Steve, fighting with him every inch of the way. He didn’t want anyone else guarding his back. Bucky didn’t trust anyone else to do the job he was born to do.

Steve had asked Bucky if he was willing to follow Captain America, and Bucky replied that he was going to follow a dumb kid from Brooklyn.

He always had followed Steve. What was different now?

Dernier blew up a small foxhole full of the HYDRA men, but they kept coming in waves, and they had their sights set on Steve. Bucky had climbed onto a modified perch, and stuffed extra ammo into every pocket he could. One of the HYDRA soldiers had the jump on Steve, but Bucky took him out clean. Steve looked up at him, and Bucky could only imagine what Steve saw on his face. He knew what he felt – the uncontrollable fear that he would lose Steve.

The fighting was finally over. The platoon of HYDRA men were defeated, another small patch of land was gained for the Allied Forces. The Commandoes set up camp, and while Falsworth was busy helping to set up the night watch, Bucky rummaged in his rucksack for a small sliver of soap that he had been saving.

Lord, but he felt extra tired. Dernier – and by default, Gabe – told a dirty joke that everyone laughed at but him. He felt like he was dead on his feet. It wasn’t the fight, but all of them. It wasn’t fighting with Steve, but fighting for him. Bucky didn’t want to be in this godforsaken forest with blood on his hands, but he was, and devil take him if he was going to keep Steve, Jim, all of his friends from making it back.

“Barnes!” Dugan bellowed. “We’re all set over here. Wash that frown off of your face and get your ass over here.”

Bucky grinned at him. “Shut up, Dum-Dum. You’re just mad that you can’t wash the ugly off.”

The rest of the guys laughed, and Bucky couldn’t help but feel a little lighter. It was times like this, when the guys were as relaxed as you could be during wartime, that Bucky actually liked being here with their little accidental family.

He walked over to the tent that he and Steve were going to share that night. He began to wash himself with water from a makeshift basin. He had begun scrubbing at his neck and hair when Steve sat beside him on the cot.

“Hey, Buck. You doing okay?”

Bucky stopped splashing the water so he could hear Steve speak. His voice was soft, weary. God, but Steve was beautiful with the little purple and black circles shadowing his eyes. Bucky always had to keep himself from reaching up and sweeping his thumb over them when they were kids, and now that they were grown, he still found himself yearning to touch Steve’s face.

Steve continued. “I mean, when I saw you in the firefight today, I looked up and I saw a machine. You looked so deadly, Bucky.”

“War’s a serious thing, Steve.”

“I know, but it looked so much more personal than just us defeating HYDRA.”

Bucky stared at his own hands, the water dripping into the bowl from his hair the only thing that he could focus on. “You were in trouble.”

“I would’ve gotten him,” Steve replied.

It was quiet in the tent. Bucky could only hear the dripping water, Steve’s breathing, and the beat of his own heart. His mind took him places he didn’t want to think about just then. Brooklyn, a frail Steve sleeping on pillows on his floor, a weary Steve with his head over a boiling kettle of cabbage. He thought about the war, and all the changes that it brought to their lives.  Steve, his Steve, who was there in Brooklyn and inexplicably, with him in Europe. Finally, he spoke.

“I will always protect you, with everything inside of me. I always have.”

Bucky looked up to meet Steve’s eyes. They were so blue, so full of questions that Bucky didn’t know the answers to. He didn’t know if he could say anything else, or if he wanted to. He felt like he had said too much already.

Steve excused himself, saying something about needing to check in with Phillips and needing Morita’s help with the radio, leaving Bucky alone in the tent.

There was a semblance of a life being made among the men. As much as Bucky would have given to go back home, and take Steve with him, he knew that they had a job to do. He had signed up for it willingly and he was determined to see it through. They were going to make a difference. If the war ended one day sooner because of him being there, that was about 250 guys going home to their loved ones who wouldn’t have.

More firefights, more blood under his fingernails, more sleepless nights wondering if his soul was going to rot out from the inside. The Commandoes made it to a small little town that had been liberated and kept safe by a rogue band of French Resistance and English mad dogs. Dernier was thrilled to find some of his countrymen, who immediately recognized him and treated him like royalty. Gabe went along for the ride, since he was the man’s closest friend on the team. Farnsy and the Englishmen made quick work of a bottle of Scotch they’d found in someone’s bar. Morita found a soft place to take a nap and Dum-Dum headed straight for a kitchen to fry up some eggs he had been carrying around with him.

Bucky and Steve were alone together for all of two minutes when Peggy Carter came into the room.

The tips of Steve’s ears turned a shade of red that Bucky had only seen when the kid was drunk or sunburned after a day at Coney Island. “Peggy,” he said, “you look swell.”

And she did, too. She was wearing a blue dress that made her look like a million dollars. As much as Bucky wanted to hate her, he couldn’t. He knew the look in her eyes, the brightness of her smile. Knowing that this brave, beautiful woman would take care of Steve gave him a bit of comfort.

Steve nodded to Peggy, mumbled something about needing to take a sponge bath and hoping that Jim hadn’t used all of the hot water in the place. Steve was never comfortable with women, even when it was him and Evelyn sitting by themselves on the edge of the dancefloor, he fidgeted something fierce.

He beat a quick getaway, leaving Bucky alone with Peggy.

There was something he needed to do.

This war was starting to peck away at him. Bucky had nightmares, clawing his way toward the light from infinite darkness. He felt as if he were buried alive, detached from his body. The nightmares felt so real.

He needed to know that someone would watch Steve’s back. He needed to know that someone would take care of him when this thing was all over, if he didn’t come out of it.

Bucky still didn’t trust anyone to do the job like he could, but there was only one person that could put his mind at ease, and she was standing in front of him.

“Agent Carter,” Bucky said, softly clearing his throat.

“Please, after all we’ve been through, I think you can call me Peggy,” she replied.

“Well, Peggy… there’s something I need to…” he began, looked down at his hands. His hands, dirty and calloused. Her hands were clean and graceful. His hands were murder weapons. Her hands were soothing and beautiful. The jealousy ate at him.

“Yes, James?”

“You can’t say a word to the guys. Or to Steve. Especially to Steve. But I need you to promise me….” And here his voice wavered for a moment, fighting to keep the emotions at bay. “I need you to promise me that you will watch out for Steve. That you’ll take care of him.”

“Of course I will…” she started to say, but Bucky interrupted her.

“You have to mean it, Peggy. I can’t do it alone. I don’t trust anyone else to do it. Promise me. Promise me that if I can’t, you will.”

She had a cool exterior, but Peggy’s eyes were warm. She took a deep breath. The woman was a warrior, as plain as he and Steve were. She knew what he meant. To say the words would give credence to the nightmare they lived.

“You have my solemn promise, James.”

--

They started picking up radio transmissions that spoke of something huge. Dernier would usually mutter something to Gabe and Steve, who had learned a good amount of French while in the trenches, and the two Americans would shake their heads in agreement. Farnsy, Jim and Dum-Dum didn’t know enough French to figure out what they were saying, but Bucky had been paying attention.

What he heard, what he could understand, disgusted and frightened him. The worst part was that his old captor, Zola, was on his way to Switzerland to perform secret experiments in order to perfect the serum that Schmidt had taken. The serum that he feared coursed through his own veins. The blessing and curse that made Steve healthy but put him in harm’s way.

Steve, Colonel Phillips, and Peggy went over the plans that the Howling Commandos had discussed as a team. Farnsy and Dum-Dum began getting the team ready to roll out. Bucky and Jim went over reconnaissance, while Gabe and Dernier went over their equipment and weapons to make sure they could launch a proper attack.

The group began the arduous task of climbing up a steep mountain pass. The plan was simple, but relied on precision. Steve, Bucky, and Gabe would make their way to the train, take out any unfriendlies, and secure Zola for transport to Colonel Phillips. From Farnsy’s calculations, Zola’s train would be coming up the pass about an hour after they had set up all of the rappelling gear and a rudimentary base camp.

The tracks were far below. They would need to run a zip line down to the train, land on top of it, and commandeer it. Gabe knew the most German and could take control of the train. Steve and Bucky would do the rest. It would probably be a piece of cake, but Bucky had this unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach.

He and Steve stood near the edge of the cliff. Bucky asked him if it was payback for the time that Steve had puked on the Cyclone, and Steve laughed it off. The rest of the team might have thought that Bucky was trying to lighten the situation, but he knew – hoped – that Steve would get the underlying message.

Remember when we were kids? Remember how we look out for each other? I’m with you.

The strike team landed on top of the train. It sped towards Switzerland, that supposedly neutral country crawling with secret Nazis and even more secretive HYDRA operatives. Zola had set up an underground bunker there, and the Allied forces wanted nothing more than to destroy it, or at least get his secrets first.

Gabe made his way towards the engine. Steve’s objective was securing Zola. Bucky’s job was the same as it had been since he was seven years old.

They entered the train compartment and started making their way towards the front to rendezvous with Gabe when a huge HYDRA soldier attacked.

The HYDRA soldier’s more machine than man. Steve was being thrown like a rag doll. Bucky suddenly flashed back to their childhood, when the neighborhood toughs would beat the shit out of Steve because they could, because he was smaller and weaker than they were. This HYDRA goon was attempting to make mincemeat of Captain America, and Bucky conceded that he was doing a decent job of it.

Even with Steve’s super strength, he had problems defeating him. The shield went flying and so did Bucky, doing whatever he could to ward off another attack.

He was afraid. For the second time during his war career, Bucky knew true fear of death, but this time his fear wasn’t for himself, but for Steve.

Bucky hid behind ammunitions cases in order to reload, refigure the plan of attack, and catch his breath. Steve caught his eye, gave him an imperceptible nod. He took a deep breath, said a silent prayer to whatever God was listening that Steve would make it out alive.

Leaping out, he was ferocious in his wrath, firing the gun as if it were part of him, holding Steve’s heavy shield for protection. He wasn’t used to the weight of it, and it threw him off balance. One blast from the HYDRA soldier’s plasma ray blew the side of the train off, and the speeding rush of wind tossed him out of the hole. Bucky grabbed onto the railing that was still attached to the now useless door.

“Steve!”

The piece of metal was barely attached to the train. Bucky held on as tightly as he could, screaming for Steve to hurry, to help him. He was so out of reach, though; and even as Steve stretched as much as he humanly could to take his hand, it was not enough. Steve reached for Bucky in a sort of sick parody of Michelangelo’s greatest triumph.

The metal was fatigued, creaked and groaned under Bucky’s weight and the bullet-like speed that the train was approaching. Bucky hoped that Gabe would take control of the engine soon, slow it down, give Steve time to work one more miracle.

I’ve always reached for him, my whole life.

As Steve made another desperate attempt to save him, the bolts gave way. Bucky reached out, blindly, trying to make contact, hoping beyond hope that Steve would make it this time.

I’ve never been able to touch.

The last thing Bucky saw before being devoured by darkness were the tortured blue eyes of the only person that ever meant anything to him.

Oh, God. The nightmare is real.

Chapter Text

The Soldier goes through an elaborate ritual upon waking from stasis.

First, the Soldier enters a decontamination chamber with disinfecting soaps and water heated as hot as the Soldier can physically bear. He washes quickly and with thoroughness. He dries himself with a scratchy towel and then enters the Ready Room.

His gear is laid out for him:  tactical clothing that features a thin, woven material that resists bullets and knife attack. All black. There is an earpiece that he wears. It keeps him connected with Base, gives him important information about his mission. Monitors his biorhythms.

He is only taken from the dark for a mission. It is imperative that he completes the mission and returns to Base.

The Soldier does not want to return to the dark, but has no choice. This is what is expected.

There is a small room located to the left of the Ready Room that he enters. There are usually two men who sit there, waiting for him. They have syringes and various vials of things that they inject into him. His blood burns, he has the sensation as though his head is stuffed with cotton wool. His mouth becomes dry.

They monitor him, take careful notes.

Once they are satisfied, he is ushered into another room. This room is dark and crowded with technology that the Soldier is not familiar with. There are more men here, but these men are his attack team. The Soldier is a leader. The Soldier is important.

The Soldier is an Asset in a shadow war.

There is a bowl of something thrust in front of the Soldier. He eats it mechanically, without tasting or finding any sort of enjoyment. He isn’t sure what enjoyment is, anymore.

The Soldier has been performing missions, in and out of stasis, for decades now. He knows because there is always a dossier that he must read before going out. The first that he can remember was in the late 1940s. A few small jobs in the 50s. The sixties were a busy time for the Soldier; the enemies of the State were scattered about like stars in the sky.

And the Soldier was there to destroy them.

Now it is 1971.

The man who gives direction is Pierce. He is young and powerful. The other men in the room defer to him. The Soldier is no fool; Pierce gives and takes away.

There is another man who generally joins the meeting. The Soldier knows this man, although he does not know why or how. He has a reaction to the man that he does not understand. Unhealthy. Loathing.

One day, The Soldier wishes that his mission would be to eliminate this man, this small, goggle-eyed man who looks on him with a sadism that is palpable. However, in the years that have gone by since last the Soldier saw him, the little man has grown weaker, frailer. Perhaps the little man’s body is now on its own mission, and the Soldier wishes it would find its mark, and find it quickly.

Pierce gives the Soldier his dossier. The Soldier reads it carefully, noting the names, the faces, the acceptable methods of termination.

“Soldier,” Pierce says authoritatively, “Collateral losses are expected and permitted. It must look accidental. Do you understand?”

The Soldier nods.

He is taken to a plane and deposited at a safehouse. Every mission is the same. The Soldier takes two days to learn the area. He runs reconnaisssance, mapping out every possible way to get to the safehouse from various points in the neighborhood. He takes the rest of the week to follow the target, learning their daily routines, their habits, anything that the Solider can use to fulfill his objective.

This is why the Solider has a 100% success rate. This is why he is called an Asset.

The first day, the Soldier leaves the safehouse and walks east. There is something familiar about his surroundings. He is not sure why, but his heart rate has increased by 5%.

It is a warm day. The citizens of this city are laying in the grass, eating something that The Soldier vaguely remembers as being cold and delicious. He has only had a porridge-like food in the years that he has been fulfilling mission objectives. There is a small child holding the food on what looks to be a stick, face black with what looks to be…

Somewhere in the Soldier’s distant memory, the word appears. The taste fills his mouth, and for a moment, he remembers.

The Soldier shakes his head to clear it. No thoughts are allowed. He is a Soldier, the Asset, and he must learn his environment in order to fulfill his duty.

Clear your mind.

Breathe deep. Rid the mind of all unnecessary thought.

Focus on the beating of the heart, the sound of blood whirring in your ears.

I am the Soldier. I am the Asset.

The rest of the day goes according to plan. He returns to the safehouse, but does not speak of his experience with the chocolate.

The second day, the Soldier goes west. There is something about this city which takes him out of his element. He experiences anxiety, which he never has before. His heart rate is increasing rapidly.

There is obviously some form of malfunction. He must find shelter immediately and procure nourishment.

The street takes him to a group of shabby looking buildings mixed with newer development. The people here are working class, friendly. Instinctively, he turns down an alleyway and finds himself in front of another older building. He believes there is a green grocer who used to occupy this building. No. He knows there was one there, but he is not sure how.

The Soldier wants a banana.

He does not know what a banana is.

The Soldier ducks down another alleyway. There is a fire escape with clothing hanging from it. He smells something that causes his stomach to growl.

There is a sharp pain that emanates from behind his eyes, as if he has seen this before. He does not recognize it, and yet the whispering Voice that he sometimes hears tells him he does.

Clear your mind.

The objective comes first.

He finds that he is sweating.

On the third day, the Soldier begins his task of stalking his prey. There is time for this, there is time to watch the target in their natural environment. Pierce’s orders were absolute: this must look casual, this must look accidental.

The Soldier is always steps behind, hiding in the shadows. He blends in. He has learned over the years that no disguise is usually needed; people do not pay attention when you make yourself indistinguishable.

An elderly man walks past him and he smells his aftershave.

Bay rum, the Voice tells him. He wore that.

Who? Who is He?

The Soldier tries to clear his head, but does not fully succeed. The Voice grows louder.

Chocolate. Banana. Bay rum.

That one word screams out, echoes in the Soldier’s mind.

He does not panic; however, he runs to the closest alley. There, he sees a young brown haired boy protecting a smaller boy against teenagers.

“Pick on someone your own size!” the brown haired boy yells.

Bucky, the Voice whispers.

The brown haired boy puts his arms around the smaller boy. The younger of the two smiles up at his hero, who hugs him tight. The sun hits the child’s hair, and it glows, brassy and bright.

The Soldier’s heartrate accelerates rapidly, causing his biorhythm alert to begin transmitting. “Soldier?” he hears Mission Control in his earpiece, a cold, clinical crackle in his head, driving away the Voice. “Soldier, stand down! Return at once to Mission Control.”

The Soldier does not want to return to the safehouse, ignoring the warnings clicking in his ear about elevated pulse rates, erratic respiration.

“Soldier, do you copy?”

He rips the earpiece out, crushes it under the heel of his boot, and runs.

The Soldier runs until his lungs burn. He finds himself in the same neighborhood as before, on the second day. He looks again for the green grocer, but finds none.

Swinging up onto an abandoned fire escape, the Soldier looks into apartments. He finds one that looks suitably empty. He breaks in. The windows are dingy and there is a rusted radiator in the room. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling. There is no furniture.

The Soldier curls around himself, shaking. They will find him, but he does not want to return to the dark.

Breathe deeply.

They will come. He must be ready for them. Eyes wide open, he scans his surroundings, finding every entryway into the apartment.

The Soldier begins to listen to the Voice. He does not want to crowd it out, he wants to know it. He opens his mouth, his own voice hoarse, throat dry.

Banana. Chocolate. Words that mean nothing and everything.

The Soldier must rest, even a man who is a weapon must recharge himself. He tries to sleep, but the Voice calls to him. Numbers float through his mind, numbers that spark a memory of something fog covered and hazy.

“32557.”

It is day four. They have not come. He ventures out into the alleyway, finds food in a garbage can. It is sour, smelly, but he welcomes the taste. He goes back into the apartment, huddles in a dark corner. The Voice is louder in his head. It no longer whispers, but it only says one word now.

“Steve,” he says. He does not know what it means, only that the word scares him and makes him feel safe, all at once.

That night, they come for him. He tries to fight them, but he is weakened from lack of nourishment and rest. There are too many. They shock him with a stun gun and he falls to his knees.

“32557. 32557. Bucky.”

The Soldier and the men return to the safehouse. Pierce and the horrible little man are waiting, and he feels fear. He has disobeyed. He has failed in his objective. He has never failed. He wants chocolate. He wants…

“Steve?”

Pierce and the little man exchange a look.

“32557. Help me,” he says pitifully, pleading with Pierce.

“Soldier…”

“32557. Bucky.”

Pierce’s eyes narrow. He looks at the men holding the Soldier and nods. They shove him, roughly, into a cold padded chair. They strap him down. He tries to resist, but finds that he cannot. He is too confused.

“Steve?”

“How did this happen?” Pierce screams to the little man.

The man says something about neuron pathways regenerating, sense memory, cognitive recognition.

“We will have to rethink where we use the Asset from now on,” Pierce says coldly. “In the meantime, we must evacuate from New York and return to our base.”

“But the Soldier?” the little man asks.

“Wipe him.”

They attach diodes to his scalp, his face. He says one last word before they shove a leather strap into his mouth.

“Steve!”

They inject him with something that makes his skin crawl. His head feels numb. He feels empty. They pulse searing volts of electricity through his veins.

The Soldier does not want to return to the dark, but has no choice. This is what is expected.

He is the Soldier. He is the Asset.

Chapter Text

It had been years since he had heard it, but the Voice was screaming in his ears.

Everything was fuzzy and hazy. Everything was new, and yet somehow very familiar. And the man in front of him, telling him a name, giving him an identity, a form of truth. Giving him hope.

The Soldier somehow understood the concept of hope, but had long discarded it as unattainable.

“You are my friend,” the man said.

“You are my mission!” The Soldier screamed, because that is the only thing that he recognizes as truth.

Yet, even in the midst of their fight, when the Soldier was doing his best to finish the job, he knew that there was another truth.

The man’s name was Steve, and he knew him.

He knew him.

The Voice spoke to him.

Stop, it said. Steve. Steve, it repeated, the emphasis confusing the Soldier.

No, not the Soldier. James Buchanan Barnes?

Then the floor gave way, the man…Steve falling towards his certain death. A flash of light, blinding white, and a vision of that same man falling away from him. And a hand reaching to hold.

His own hand.

--

There was chaos everywhere he turned. His experience in being a human ghost came in handy - being invisible was the most important thing. He ducked down an alleyway, where he found a discarded jacket. He pulled it over his clothing and went back into the street. A thin disguise to be sure, but good enough for his purposes.

The Soldier walked to a city residential area, slept on a park bench near a homeless man for about four hours. The next morning he rummaged in the back of a pickup, where he found a pair of pants that were slightly too big. He had to change out of his fatigues in order to blend in seamlessly. Another alleyway, another side street. This time he found an old baseball cap. Perfect, pull his hair back, tuck it in.

A gas station bathroom had hot running water and soap, and he washed his face. He looked slightly more human than before. The Soldier looked at himself in the streaky mirror. No, not the Soldier. But not what he called him, either. He wasn’t sure who he was. He wanted to find out, but only on his own terms.

He walked back into Washington the next day. The city was still in mild panic. No one noticed a scruffy man in dirty, worn clothing if he didn’t want them to, and he didn’t want them to.

A discarded newspaper gave him important information. Captain Rogers was alive and in stable condition. Someone had found him on the banks of the Potomac and rushed him to a hospital. He was scheduled to be released in less than a week’s time due to the serum that coursed through his body.

The article also mentioned an exhibit at the Smithsonian that was likely to be packed with visitors. The Soldier thought it would be a good place to get important information about…

But he wasn’t sure he wanted to know about the other guy. Not yet.

He started picking up change on the street and had enough to buy a Metrorail ticket. The thought was to get out of D.C. and get somewhere that he could hide out. College Park seemed like a wise choice; college students looked a lot like he did - disheveled, hollow eyed, and young. He would look like a student who had been at a party.

No one would think that the Soldier would have deliberately chosen a heavily populated area to hide in, and his experience with the human element guaranteed that no one would be asking many questions about him if he acted a certain way.

There was a men’s shelter that took in homeless men and runaways. He watched the shelter for a day to see what the place was like. The Soldier decided that this would be a good place to hide for a week or two; he would be able to clean up, get nourishment and the proper amount of sleep.

The volunteer who checked him in was pleasant. She looked very tired; good, this would ensure that he would be able to come in without too many questions asked.

“Name?”

His voice was rusty, his throat dry. “J-James. James Buck,” he said.

“OK, Mr. Buck, do you have ID?”

“Not with me.”

The volunteer smiled. “I understand. Sometimes it’s hard to keep it on you. How long do you think you’ll be staying with us?”

The Soldier took a bottle of water that she offered and drank half of it in one swallow. It felt good to drink something cool. “A week or two. I just need someplace to go before I head out. I have a friend that has offered to take me in but I need to rest up for a little bit,” he lied.

“Well, Mr. Buck. We don’t ask a lot of questions here. We just ask that you do chores and refrain from alcohol and drug use while you’re here. Sign here and we’ll set you up with a bed.”

He kept a low profile for the first few days. By the end of the week, he accompanied some of the other men to the local public library. He knew how to use a computer; HYDRA had taught him how to hack into systems in order to do covert surveillance on his targets.

He got to work right away, knowing that he only had about ten minutes to do this first bit of research. His enhanced capabilities came in handy when reading information. His mind processed things like a computer and he could read faster than the average person, but he still didn’t have a lot of time.

The first thing he did was check on the condition of Captain Rogers. A Washington newspaper wrote that he had been released from the hospital and his current whereabouts were unknown. He found a gossip site that claimed he had been seen in the company of Black Widow and the man tentatively identified as the Falcon at a cemetery the day before, paying respects to the late SHIELD director Nick Fury.

Knowing that Rogers was alive somehow made him feel more comfortable, although it was a strange sensation.

The trip to the library was over almost as quickly as it had happened. The group returned to the shelter. The Soldier had chores to do. He volunteered to clean the bathroom, since washing dishes would require him to take off his gloves in front of people, and he did not want to expose his metal hand. He also relished the silence that the empty bathroom afforded him.

Lights out came quickly. While lying in his bed, he began to experience REM sleep. It had been so long since he actually had thoughts while sleeping that the sensation was new and disconcerting. However, one thing stuck in his mind; a thing that he somehow knew was real yet unfamiliar.

Both of his hands were flesh. He lay huddled near a thin, shivering boy with a crooked spine. He could feel the vertebrae through the boy’s skin, curving into a distinct S shape. The boy was asleep, but he – the Soldier, or whoever he was then – kept holding him close. He could reach down and gently feel his feathery pulse as he slept.

He would wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, a sheen of sweat covering his body. He would find that his flesh hand had gripped the blanket he was sleeping with. The unsettled feeling of something that he felt he should know bothered him.

He would go back to sleep, disturbed. Other dreams would come; sometimes it was the boy, sometimes it was a neighborhood. The smells of cabbage boiling, car exhaust, coal dust. And in the morning, he would hear the Voice again, echoing in his mind.

Sometimes he would lay in bed, listening to the snores of the men around him, and he would think about the raggedy breath of the boy in his dreams. He’d think about his cool, damp skin. A part of him hungered for the sensation of his touch, but he wondered why.

The Voice kept saying a name, but Steve was the strong, sturdy man on the bridge, the man who put down his shield on that helipad. This boy, whoever he was, was part of his past. They couldn’t be the same person. The Soldier pondered it late into the night at times. It was a puzzle piece that didn’t fit anywhere.

In the weeks after the SHIELD battle of the Potomac, there was a new outrage, a new tragedy for the news to focus on. The white hot focus on the mysterious Winter Soldier had disappeared. It was the perfect opportunity for him to move on, go ghost again.

The men at the shelter were given pocket money to buy themselves food during their excursions. The Soldier saved his. With this money, as well as coins that he picked up on the street, he had more than enough to purchase another Metro ticket into DC. This time, he decided to go to the Smithsonian exhibit that he had read about. There was a sign in front of the room stating that due to recent events, some of the exhibits had been removed.

The Soldier walked in. He absorbed as much of the information as he could, lingering on the pre-wartime photos of Steven Rogers. This was the boy in his dreams, the boy with the crooked spine and heart problems. The boy with the wheezing breath and the long, graceful hands.

He knew that part was real, and it frightened him.

He turned a corner and came face to face with a large portrait of a handsome, strong jawed young man with steely determination in his eyes. It was a tribute to James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes.

It was like looking into a mirror.

The Soldier stood there, staring at his seventy-odd year reflection in disbelief. No, not disbelief. A grim sense of dread and empty horror filled him as he realized that his dreams, the things that the Voice had been telling him for decades, were the memories of this man, Bucky Barnes, coming to the surface.

He was Bucky Barnes. He was a war hero, but also a terrorist. He was someone’s friend, and a cold blooded assassin. He was a mechanical nightmare. He was a medical miracle.

One thing was certain – Steven Rogers was not safe around him, not yet. And even though he knew that the Captain was looking for him, he also knew that he would not be found. Not until he wanted to be found.

With a renewed sense of purpose, The Soldier began the journey out of town to a HYDRA safehouse that he was familiar with. He had work to do.

Chapter Text

The nightmares wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes he would have vicious ones, blood red and vivid, the cold biting through his skin like the sharpest teeth. Sometimes they would be soft as velvet, caressing him until the grip tightened on his soul and nearly squeezed him to death in his sleep.

He started writing down what he dreamed about; surely it meant something. There would be something important in these terrible visions. He only had to piece it together.

In the meantime, he would wake up sweating, shaking, reaching out for something – no, someone.

It took a few months for his emotions to start working again, and he still had problems, but he could feel now. Mostly fear, sometimes sadness and regret, but usually fear. The only pleasant emotion he felt was a warm sensation when he thought about Steve Rogers.

Captain Rogers had been in the news again; this time, he was stopping a killer robot from destroying a small European country.  He looked healthy. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought Captain America had been the very picture of health instead of having almost died by his hand.

It still haunted him, the way that Captain Rogers (and it was always Captain Rogers now, except in the dead of night – the thought of casually calling him Steve was too much) let go of everything and dropped… dropped…. Flashes of his other life would cut in, leaving him breathless upon waking.

He had done a lot of reading in the months he was on the run. He was surprised at how many cheap, used paperback books about his and Captain Rogers’ life, he would find at thrift stores. With the money he found on the street, he was able to purchase a new book to gain insight into the world he left behind almost seventy years before. He knew there was something missing, though; something intangible and real, something that was never alluded to or spoken of in any of the books he read, and he suspected it had something to do with the warm feeling in his body when he thought of Captain Rogers.

One change that had occurred: he didn’t always think of himself as The Soldier anymore. He was surprisingly comfortable calling himself “Barnes”. Just Barnes, but he knew it was a major victory.

It had been several months of elusive maneuvering, hiding out under assumed names, narrowly avoiding capture by SHIELD (and, by default, Hydra) goons, but he knew he would have to stop running soon.

He was tired. He was scared.

They were onto him. He would bunk in a forgotten safe house for a week, decide to move on, and then almost immediately would see the Falcon in the area. He knew he was looking for him, but he wasn’t ready then.

He was ready now.

Breaking into the Falcon’s modest home was easy. Surprisingly easy, considering that he was now a known associate of Captain America and the Avengers. Barnes thought he would have a better alarm system. However, he was the same man who routinely broke into Alexander Pierce’s highly secure condo on a monthly basis without being caught, so perhaps he was understating its security system.

Shadows grew long and the neighborhood quiet. The Soldier could wait in silence; it was second nature to him now. He would stay on guard, because he knew that once the Falcon knew he was there, it would be a matter of time before he attempted to contact Rogers, and that was something that Barnes did not want. Not yet.

He heard the scrape of boot on the floor and the jingle of keys being thrown against a table. The breathless sigh of a tired, frustrated human being. Falcon.

The Falcon walked slowly into the kitchen without turning on a light, opened up the refrigerator door and grabbed a carton of orange juice. He stopped, put the juice back onto a shelf, and turned around.

“OK. Whoever you are, you have until I count to five before I kick your ass.”

“I won’t hurt you.”

“Really? Because you tried to kill me last time we hung out.” Falcon closed the fridge door, plunging them into darkness.

The Soldier stood face to face with the Falcon. He knew that a sudden move might spell disaster. “You’ve been looking for me,” he said.

Falcon nodded. “He’ll be happy that I’ve found you.”

“You can’t tell him. Not yet.”

“Why not? Why did you come here, then, if I can’t tell Steve…”

Barnes hissed. “Don’t say his name!”

Falcon made a noise of agreement, then moved closer, as one would approach a wounded animal. “What do you want me to do?”

The Soldier backed away just as slowly as Falcon moved toward him. “I need food and a hot shower.”

“Consider it done. Why me?”

“Because he trusts you.”

Falcon didn’t ask who he was. The room was cloaked in silence for a few minutes, letting the words soak in. Finally, he cleared his throat. “I’m Sam, by the way. Sam Wilson.” The Soldier nodded but didn’t say anything. “OK. So, what do you want first, the food or the shower?”

“Shower first.”

The Soldier went into Sam’s bathroom. He kept the door closed and locked. Sam would have to knock the door down to attack him, and he knew he could stay safe. Regardless, he still kept the paring knife that he stole from Sam’s kitchen by his side as he took care of his personal needs.

A razor and shave cream took care of the shaggy beard that he wore. Dull scissors chopped away at hair that lay lank and lifeless around his face. He still looked more like a vagrant than the charming rogue who was glued to Captain Rogers’ side, but this was a start.

Sam had laid out a soft, clean t-shirt and sweatpants. The Soldier took him up on the offer, knowing that at the very least, he had new clothes to use as a disguise if times got rough. He pocketed the knife and walked into the kitchen.

Soft music played. Sam had begun cooking something. Barnes wasn’t sure if he wanted to eat anything that he didn’t watch Sam cook from the beginning, and told him so.

“If I was going to kill you, I would have done it already.”

The Soldier glared. “You’ll take a bite of anything that I’m eating, just so I’m sure.”

Sam sighed. “Yeah, I can see why Steve wants you around.” Barnes shivered at the name. “You’re just as stubborn as he is. Is that a Brooklyn thing, because it seems to be. Besides, this was for me. I don’t know what you want.”

The Soldier didn’t respond. Sam turned back around and began cracking eggs. “So, you never did tell me what you wanted me to call you.”

Silence. The Soldier could see Sam pivot and turn back, eyes narrowing as he noticed the back door slightly ajar. Barnes had left the room. It was too much. He would try again later.

He broke into Sam’s house again three days later, sat on the sofa for most of the day waiting until the Falcon came home. Sam’s home was comfortable and relatively safe. A bang on the door frame, a muffled curse, keys hitting a countertop. Sam was finally home.

Barnes sat alone in the dark again. Sam turned on a lamp and noticed the light gleaming off of the Soldier’s metal arm.

“Hello again. Are you hungry? ‘Cause I could use some food.”

Barnes shook his head no. “Just want to talk, take another shower.”

“OK. Shower first. That gives me time to eat.”

The Soldier went into the bathroom. This time, he didn’t carry a knife into the shower stall with him. When he came out, Falcon had made himself a sandwich. “Are you sure you don’t want one? It’s ham.”

“No.”

Sam finished his food and went into the living room, and waited for his guest to make his first move.

And waited.

Silence. Finally, the Soldier replied, “You can call me Barnes.”

--

Barnes would show up sporadically. Sometimes he would take a shower, sometimes he would sit on Sam’s sofa and listen as Sam tried to carry a conversation.

Once, Sam came home to find that Barnes had roasted a chicken in the oven. There was a giant tinfoil tent over the bird. Barnes stared at the chicken like it held some sort of special significance.

“What am I going to do with a whole roast chicken?”

Barnes frowned. “It’s something I used to do. I remember... I remember roasting chickens. With Steve.”

Sam’s face softened when Barnes said Steve’s name. “I guess we can’t let it go to waste.”

One evening, The Soldier entered Sam’s house. He had free range over the place now; he and Sam were on a friendly level. Friendly enough, at any rate. Barnes still did not trust anyone fully, but he knew that Steve trusted Sam. It was good enough for him.

Sam had showed him how to use a music player on his computer, a few weeks prior. He had said that a good way to reconnect with the past was to try and do familiar things. Barnes didn’t know what was familiar. Everything was covered in an opaque gauze, a thick, sticky web that trapped his memories and his thoughts in a confusing muddle. The roasted chicken was a memory that came to him suddenly, without rhyme or reason. So, too, were the dreams that Barnes had about Steve (and he could call him Steve all the time now, with no hesitation).

A name came to mind. He wasn’t sure if it was a song title or the name of a singer. He hoped he spelled it correctly, and the music player came up with a black and white photo of a man playing a clarinet.

He looked at the titles of the songs. One kept picking away at his mind, like he should know it.

Barnes pressed play.

The song played on repeat. He found himself sitting on the floor, his eyes closed, tears streaming down his cheeks. This meant something. There was something about this song. He had known it, and he had loved it once.

He let the notes burn into his memory, the soft clarinet sound wash over him. The tears that fell seemed to wash him as well. Barnes still didn’t know what it all meant, but he knew that it was a start. Somewhere inside of him Bucky Barnes still lived. He only had to find the key to get him out.

--

News of another Hydra cell being discovered had made its way to the news. It was under the fold, but still front page news. A small color photo of a dirty, sweaty Captain America and Falcon accompanied the article.

They looked comfortable together, he thought.

Listening to music had been a breakthrough, just as Sam had predicted. It opened the floodgates of memories and thoughts, and along with the bits of knowledge that Barnes had received from Sam during their conversations and the information he had read in books, there were four things he knew for certain.

One was that he had ‘died’ a hero.

Another was that just like Captain America, he had been experimented on and had a sort of healing factor, which explained why his brain synapses were still firing after decades of being held a prisoner of war in a cryogenic chamber.

The third? The man who was Bucky Barnes was struggling to find his way back to life, a real life without being brainwashed or controlled or tortured by Hydra scientists and sympathizers.

Finally, there was one last thing that he knew for sure, a thing that he knew alone. It wasn’t anything that Sam had told him, or that he had read in a history book or an article he found on the computer. He had loved Steve Rogers. Had fallen to his supposed death loving Steve Rogers.

What he wasn’t sure about was if Captain Rogers had loved him back, or if something like that had died when Bucky Barnes did. He wasn’t sure if he still loved Steve, but a tiny flame burned inside of him, a flame that grew hotter and brighter when he remembered more and more about Steve.

It was a warm spring day in Washington, DC. He saw Sam Wilson cleaning the floors of his modest house, music blaring from speakers as he mopped the floor.

“Living in America!” Sam half-screamed into the handle of the mop, twirling it around and dancing.

Barnes tapped on the window with his metal hand. Sam stopped abruptly and opened his back door.

“Shower and food?”

“No. I need to talk to you.” The Soldier’s skin felt itchy. The palm of his flesh hand sweated, and his heart rate was elevated.

They made their way into Sam’s living room. Sam put on a playlist that he and Barnes collaborated on, one made up of songs that Barnes had remembered from when he was a young man. “Is this okay?”

A head nod.

The room was quiet except for the soft music echoing throughout. “Celery Stalks at Midnight” had begun playing when Barnes cleared his throat. “I just want to know…. Is he… is Steve with someone?”

“No. We tried to get him to date some people, but he never got around to it. And then you showed up, and you’re all he can think about. Why?”

“There’s something I remember. A few things, yeah, but one thing I remember. Something I’ve thought of over the years, even when I was…someone else. I remember Steve. The first Steve, I mean,” Barnes said. “You know. I only get little flashes, but he’s always there. He’s always been there, and I didn’t understand it. I used to see his face in the back of my mind. I would think about Steve breathing, and I never understood why.”

Sam looked at Barnes directly. “And you understand now?”

Bucky’s mouth twitched in a broken smile. “I loved him. I thought about him breathing because it meant he was alive. For some reason, Steve being alive meant everything. Somehow, of all the things in this world that I could have held onto, it was having Steve close to me that stayed.”

“Because you loved him.”

Bucky nodded. “Everything I remember… well, it’s not much, what I remember, but sometimes I just have memories, feelings that only make sense if I did. If I still do.”

Sam sat back on the sofa. “So, what do we do now?”

Barnes sighed. We, Sam had said, like he was in on the thing. For some reason, he thought about a scrawny little blond boy saying it, too. The warm feeling grew, and caught fire, and it felt good. It felt right.

It was time.

“Make a call.”

Chapter Text

To the outside world, Steve Rogers was the leaseholder on a studio apartment near Prospect Park. A tiny space in a pre-war building within walking distance to a lush green space in the middle of Brooklyn, and it would make sense to many people that Brooklyn’s favorite son would have a little place to call home within the confines of the borough that he grew up in.

But this was not Steve’s place. This was Bucky’s apartment.

In the months following Sam’s phone call, a lot of things had changed. Steve set Bucky up in his own place, away from prying eyes, but in a safe area. Of course, Steve did call in a few favors to other people in the Avengers Initiative, but didn’t tell them why a small apartment in a residential neighborhood needed so many safeguards. He just let them assume the place was a hideaway for him while he was in New York.

Steve wanted Bucky to stay with him, but Barnes had frowned at the idea. Captain Rogers used the studio apartment as a compromise; Bucky would have his own space, but Steve would take care of it.

“It’s only fair, Buck. You always took care of me. Let me return the favor.”

Every day, Barnes would suit up in a long sleeved zip hood, a t-shirt and some random pants he’d find, put a black leather glove on his metal hand, and venture out into Prospect Park. Fresh air was good, and he looked so much like the young artistic people who already lived in the neighborhood that no one batted an eye at how he was dressed, or how quiet he was. He loved the park, and he would sometimes lie down in the grass and enjoy the way it felt, the smell of flowers, the laughter of children.

He relished all of it, and was happy to experience it.

Barnes stayed up at night, listening to the sounds of the city. When he faced the night, in that moment when he greeted twilight as an old friend, when his mind shut off and only his heart was fully awake, that was when the memories came.

Love bruised his heart. It was a delicate ache, but it stung all the same. This feeling, simple and complex and everything that Bucky never thought that he could feel again, lay heavy in his chest. It burned with every breath. It was as solid as the sunrise, new and fresh as the first cup of coffee in the morning.

Steve. Everything was Steve Rogers. Blue eyes unchanged by time, a smile that could light up the sky. The smell of roast beef and gravy, the flowery perfume of a beautiful nurse who hugged him close and called him her little man. Wet, thick coughs on cold nights. The fragile, fluttering pulse through warm skin; nose bleeds and skinned knees.

It was a grey haired lady in a flour sack dress sitting on a stoop, complaining about her hip. It was a rumbling truck piled high with construction materials, a burly man and a slender woman who had his eyes, laughing. It was an old couple smiling, offering a slice of pie. The crack of the bat at a baseball game.

It was Brooklyn, but seen through a filter. Steve was everywhere, in every smell, every touch, every taste and sound.

It was the only thing that Bucky knew was real.

It was Steve Rogers.

Steve would sometimes stop by. He always called or sent a text message first; he was nothing if not exceedingly polite in asking if Bucky would be interested in spending time with him. Bucky rarely refused him. There was something about spending an evening with Steve that made his world tip back onto its axis, like it was the way it was supposed to be. When Steve would leave for the night, Bucky sometimes had a thought to ask him to stay, to share the bed with him. He wanted to feel him breathing next to him.

He still wasn’t sure what it meant, what Steve’s place in his life was, but he knew that there was a place for him in it. He wanted there to be.

About two months after Barnes had moved into the apartment, he received a text message from Steve. He had a burner phone; easier to stay off the grid that way and basically only received messages from Steve, Sam Wilson, and a young man named Scott Lang (who sometimes ran surveillance on his apartment when Steve was concerned about Hydra or SHIELD). He could also order a deli sandwich to be delivered to his apartment if he wished – this modern world was an interesting one.

Zoo?

OK. Meet you in the park.

It was a cloudy early morning in Brooklyn. The park was not as populated as it would normally be, which was most likely Steve’s intention. He wore a slouchy hooded sweatshirt and a Brooklyn Dodgers ball cap, with a pair of dark glasses. Bucky wore his usual park outfit. To the average person, they looked like two young men on a stroll.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Buck. I wanted to see you.”

Barnes didn’t reply.

“Did… I mean, have you thought of anything?” Steve always asked if he could remember anything.

They walked around the zoo quietly, soaking in each other’s presence more than anything. Bucky cleared his throat. “I did remember something strange.”

“Yeah?” Steve asked, his voice betraying his cool look by cracking at the last.

“The other day, I remembered a man who wore a white apron all the time. He had a thick Italian accent. I think he was chasing a cat with a large broom.”

“You remember that?”

“Should I? I mean, is it real?”

Steve chuckled. “It’s Mr. Vecchio. He was our neighborhood grocer, when we lived in Red Hook. He gave me and my ma extra food sometimes. He used to send me home with bananas when we lived in Vinegar Hill.”

“So, it was real,” Bucky said, gladness in his voice.

“Yeah. It was definitely real.”

They continued around the park, quiet. Bucky would steal glances at Steve, who seemed to be content to be near him. His breath caught once when the sun broke through the clouds and lit Steve’s hair to glowing. He was truly beautiful, Bucky thought, and it scared him how strongly he felt it.

Steve came to the apartment a few weeks later. On the kitchen counter sat a pad of thick, creamy paper and a handful of pencils.

“Those are for you,” Bucky said.

Steve picked up a pencil, twirled it around his graceful fingers. “A 2B. Those were my favorite.” He looked his friend directly in the eyes. “You used to buy one for me every week.”

Bucky smiled. “I just had this feeling. Will you draw something for me?”

Every time they were together, a new memory would surface. Sometimes it was fuzzy, sometimes it was clear as crystal. Slowly Bucky began piecing together who he used to be, and how that related to who he was now. There was only one thing certain – his life and Steve’s life was bound together, woven into the fabric of time. There was no Steve Rogers without Bucky Barnes, and vice versa.

Months passed. Sam, with Steve’s assistance, had made a playlist for him to listen to. Sam had mentioned that music sometimes helps people unlock memories buried deep inside of them. Bucky remembered the night he sat on the floor at Sam’s house, weeping over the flood of disjointed memories that a particular song had unleashed in him. Nothing as dramatic as that occurred when he listened to this playlist, but it added color and texture to the gossamer memories that were half formed in his brain.

Steve had put plenty of things that the old Bucky would have enjoyed; Artie Shaw was apparently his favorite musician. There was an old Dixieland jazz tune from when they were children that rattled around in his brain sometimes during the afternoon, a cheerful song by the Andrews Sisters that made him want to dance.

Bucky spent Saturday afternoon making chicken soup. This simple domestic act seemed to be meditative. He would put the playlist on, prepare the chicken, and clean the kitchen. Through the filter of his mind, he would envision weekends spent exactly the same way, with Steve by his side.

Steve came to visit. He was able to get away from his duties as an Avenger under the guise of having personal obligations to attend to. No one except Sam knew that the obligation was spending time with a wanted man.

The soup was simmering on the stove when Steve entered the apartment, while happy big band music rang out.

“This brings back so many memories,” Steve said, sitting next to Bucky on the futon.

“It feels normal,” Bucky replied.

“We did this a lot. You always made the soup for our dinner.”

They let the music wash over them, then Bucky turned to Steve. “I was wondering. I know you made the music thing based on things I would have listened to, but could you make one for yourself? I mean, one of songs that you would have listened to? Because I think maybe that would help, too. I think you might have had more records than I did.”

Steve laughed. “I did. When I was sick, Ma would let me listen to the Victrola for hours. When she died, I would listen to the ones that she and I bought together a lot. When we lived together, you probably heard them a lot.”

Bucky nodded. “That’s why I think you should put some of them on the list.”

“I’ll work on it, Buck. I’ll log in later on and send you a link.”

Steve Rogers was a man of his word. A few days later, a playlist titled “Boys from Red Hook” appeared in Bucky’s lists. He pressed play and went about cleaning his apartment.

One song in particular began to play. Bucky stilled; there was something about the violin and piano that sounded familiar to him. Suddenly, he heard a bass-baritone voice soaring, filling the room with its rich beauty. He experienced a rush of emotions – fear, intense joy, longing – but there, too, were memories. A flood of memories, so many he felt he might drown, but he welcomed it. It would be a kind of death – the death of the nameless, faceless Winter Soldier, and the rebirth of Bucky Barnes.

Truly, he was three different people. He was Bucky Barnes, childhood friend of Steve Rogers. He was the Winter Soldier, trained assassin and ruthless tool of HYDRA. He was still those things, but he was someone different, too. He could never forget those two men, but he was someone new, and it was this new man, this man living and breathing in this familiar flesh, who needed to be alive at this time.

There was a tightness in his chest, a feeling like a small bird beating its wings. For so long, the only thing he knew was fear, and now this strange feeling inside of him sang to him. It was hope. Hope that maybe things would be better, that he would find his place in the world, that love – for that, too, was a small, growing thing inside of him – would survive, and thrive.

The next week, Bucky ventured out of the neighborhood, finding a barber shop that was populated with octogenarians. He asked for a cut and a shave. When he looked in the mirror, the childhood friend of Steve Rogers looked back at him.

He had texted Steve to visit.

Movie tonight?

Steve liked to watch movies with him. His taste ran towards a Turner Classic Movies marathon, but it was okay with Bucky. There were several decades of life that he needed to catch up on, same as Steve. He thought maybe they could learn together.

OK. You bring food.

An hour later, Steve came to the apartment with two bags laden with Chinese food. “I saw that there was a movie showing on tv tonight that looked interesting,” he said, putting the cartons of food out on the kitchen countertop.

Bucky came out of the bedroom, his hair shorter, his face smooth. “And this movie is…”

Steve blushed. The super soldier serum that ran through his body couldn’t stop him from getting red spots on the apples of his cheeks when he was feeling embarrassed about something. Bucky had a feeling that the old Steve, the first Steve that he sometimes remembered, had the same problem.

“Wow. Buck, you look…” Steve stumbled over his words. “Well, it’s a movie that you saw a long time ago. You used to go to the old Loew’s Palace when we were kids, both of us did if we had enough money. Sometimes we’d watch the matinee and share a bag of popcorn.”

“Did you ever see it?” Bucky asked.

“No. See, I was sick as a dog with a cold or something, and you went to the movie without me. But I remember you came into my room that night and told me everything about it. It sounded great. You were always good at telling stories, used to entertain me when I had to go on bed rest.”

“So we’re going to watch it?”

“If it’s okay with you. I still haven’t seen it and I thought maybe…” his voice trailed off softly.

Bucky knew what Steve’s thoughts were. Maybe Bucky would remember something if he watched the movie. Even if he didn’t, it would mean something to Steve. The warm flame in his heart burned brighter at the thought of making Steve happy.

“It sounds great. Now let’s eat these pork noodles, I’m starving.”

Steve turned the lights in the apartment off with the exception of a small nightlight in the kitchen. The television flickered black and white. The movie began; Bucky would sneak glances at Steve, who watched the film completely captivated.

“I remember you telling me about this part, Buck,” he whispered. “In love and in sorrow, in life and in death.”

A voice inside of Bucky’s head agreed. “Yes,” it nearly screamed. Bucky shook his head, half in an attempt to understand Steve and half to quiet the voice in his head.

More time passed. “Wow, this lady was evil,” Steve muttered. “I can’t believe she’s going to Mass with Lars and Ulrich.”

“Just wait,” Bucky said, and then stilled.

“What is it, Bucky?”

He put his flesh hand on Steve’s arm in an attempt to ground himself. “I remembered… there’s a scene coming up. I don’t know what it is, but I remember…. It was really important to me.”

The Communion scene played. Bucky let out a harsh, ragged breath, and trembled beside Steve. When the movie was over, Steve got up to turn the lights back on. Bucky on his futon, marveling that he had recognition of this movie that was obviously from his childhood.

“Thank you for letting me watch this with you,” Steve began, then Bucky interrupted him.

“That scene. Did that mean anything to you?”

Steve looked surprised, but didn’t pretend not to know what Bucky was talking about. “The one where Felicitas drank the blood of Christ from Leo’s cup? Was it supposed to?”

“I don’t know. I think it used to mean something to me.”

It was quiet in the apartment. Steve smiled, softly, shyly. “I’m glad you’re remembering things. I just want you to be all right.”

 “I remember a lot of things these days.”

They talked deep into the night, sharing whatever memories Bucky would conjure, until Steve yawned so wide his jaw popped. “Gosh, Buck. I didn’t realize it was this late. Didn’t mean to keep you up.”  He rose to his feet, turned to put his jacket on.

“Hey. Steve?” Bucky asked, his voice unsure.

“Yeah, Buck?”

Bucky looked at Steve, the soft lighting in the apartment casting shadows over his beautiful face. The fluttering feeling in his chest returned; the twin tattoo of fear and hope.

“Will you stay for the evening?”

Steve turned back around, beaming. “Sure, if you want me to. I’d like that.”

Bucky smiled. “Do you mind sharing my bed? It’s small, but the sofa’s too lumpy for anyone to sleep on.”

Steve was quiet, then returned Bucky’s warm smile with one of his own. “I don’t mind. We used to share when we were boys. It’ll be like it was when we were first starting out.”

They slipped under Bucky’s sheets. Steve turned away from Bucky and whispered a soft good night. Bucky reached out, hesitantly, turned towards Steve in a spoon-like shape. He gently draped his flesh arm around Steve’s torso.

It was the first peaceful sleep he had in almost seventy years.