1. Tell her the honest truth
“Well, first thing to remember,” Bucky said one blistering hot summer day when they were thirteen, “is to never lie to her. 'S disrespectful.”
“I never lie,” Steve protested. Bucky gave him a Look. Steve lied like crazy. Never maliciously; only when it was necessary. But it seemed to be necessary an awful lot. “Well, I never lie to you,” Steve pointed out.
“I don't count.” Bucky rolled his eyes.
Bucky was giving Steve advice on how to keep a dame interested. But, Steve reflected glumly, his problem wasn't keeping a girl interested—he'd never gotten a girl interested in the first place to worry about keeping her there. He'd grown a few inches over the past year, but he was still shorter than most of the girls their age; he was still skinny as a rail, bony, knobby. Bucky had been steadily shooting up all summer, but he was shooting up and filling out and going all the directions he was supposed to. He'd already kissed a girl and held two others' hands.
Bucky was convinced Steve just hadn't found the right girl, so he was imparting all his woman-wisdom on Steve for when that girl came along. “Can't have you losing the love of your life just 'cause you don't know what you're doing,” he said. “What kind of best pal would that make me?”
Bucky usually shared this wisdom after he'd learned it the hard way. The rate Bucky was going, Steve figured he'd know every last thing a woman could want by his next birthday.
“You think I'll really need to know any of this?” Steve asked, a little dejected. Bucky frowned at him and threw an arm around his shoulders.
“Stevie, pal, if no dame snatches you up I'll be worried 'bout the intelligence of the whole human race. You're the best guy I know. Someday, they'll be throwing themselves all over you and you'll just stand there blushing.”
2. Be everything she needs
“She broke it off?” Steve asked sympathetically. Bucky was sitting at Steve's kitchen table, slumped forward so he could rest his head against the wood.
“Said I wasn't what she needed. Said I didn't make her a better person.” Bucky lifted his head off the table long enough to make a face.
“Well, that's obviously too big a job for you,” Steve said angrily. No one dumped on Bucky. Bucky shook his head against the table, shaking the whole thing and making Steve's spoon rattle against his bowl.
“Oh, Stevie, I loved her,” Bucky sighed dramatically and Steve rolled his eyes.
“You dated her two weeks, Buck.”
“Best two weeks of my life.”
“You're being very dramatic,” Steve pointed out.
“Add this to the list, Steve.” Bucky sat upright, shaking his head. “You gotta be more than what she wants. You gotta be what she needs, even if she doesn't want it sometimes.”
“That sounds weird,” Steve said. “I don't give people things they don't want.”
“You haul me away from Bobby Simmons every time I see him so I can't kill him,” Bucky reminded him. “And that's something I do not want you to do, but I do need you to do so I don't go to jail.”
“You don't count.” Steve rolled his eyes.
“I'm just saying, Stevie. Sometimes you know what a person needs and they can't see it. So you do that for your girl, huh? Then you won't be sitting here crying over your broken heart.” Bucky sighed dramatically again. That was about the twelfth time in five minutes. So Steve rolled his eyes again, also for the twelfth time, and started pulling on Bucky's arm to get him to stand up.
“No,” Bucky whined. “I wanna sit at this table 'til I die.”
“You ain't dying in my kitchen,” Steve scolded. “That'll give my ma too big a fright. We're going to the roof.” Bucky loved the roof. There was plenty of air out there, he always said, whatever that meant. It was open and they felt like kings surveying their kingdom down below.
“You'll be over her soon, Buck,” Steve promised as they climbed the rickety fire escape. “You were too good for her anyway.”
3. Tell her your secrets
“Hey, Buck?” Steve murmured sleepily. “You awake?”
“Mmph,” Bucky replied. Eloquent.
“What was Ruth whispering to you during the cartoon?” Steve had been stewing on it all night. Ruth's friend who'd been dragged along for Steve's benefit, Liza, was not nearly as giggly as Ruth, and Steve and Liza had shared many long-suffering eye-rolls at their friends' behavior. Liza had threaded her arm through Steve's while they walked home and told him boldly he could kiss her if he wanted, which he did, so he leaned up and got his first kiss at age seventeen. He'd spent the better part of the night giving Bucky the details while he worked out how to ask his question.
They'd been out late, and Steve's ma was working overnight, so Steve was staying over at Bucky's. The couch cushions were on the floor, but Steve was sharing Bucky's bed. Bucky wouldn't let Steve sleep on the floor, not with the dust down there and Steve's lungs and Steve's aching joints, and Steve wouldn't let Bucky give up his own bed, so this was the compromise they'd settled on at age ten.
“It was a secret, pal,” Bucky slurred out, then totally invalidated the statement by adding, “She told me she's never kissed a fella in the theater. Girls're always telling you secrets and you gotta keep 'em.”
“You just told me,” Steve pointed out.
“Nah, you don't count. Oh, and they always want you to tell 'em a secret back.”
“You told her a secret?” Steve asked, surprised and telling himself there was no reason to be jealous. Bucky had been going with Ruth for a few weeks now; this was what couples did.
“Well, it was a secret to her.” Bucky shrugged carelessly.
“What'd you tell her?” Steve pressed.
“Just that thing about stealing my uncle's moonshine last summer.”
“Oh, that's not a secret.” Steve laughed a little.
“Nothing's a secret to you, punk.” Bucky shifted a little closer so he could pinch Steve's hip and make Steve stifle a yelp. “You already know it all.”
Steve pinched the arm around his waist and Bucky grunted in his ear. “Good, you big jerk,” he said, eyelids starting to droop. “Let's keep it that way.”
4. Don't run away when you get tired
“Steve,” Bucky choked out as soon as he opened the door, and then Steve rushed forward to grab Bucky's arms because he was weaving and unsteady. He had a split lip and the side of his face was red like he'd been smacked. He'd probably have a shiner later.
“Buck, what happened?” Steve asked, guiding Bucky to one of their mismatched kitchen chairs.
“My pop left. For good this time.” Bucky tried to muster up a little smile that turned into a wince when it pulled at his lip.
“What do you mean, he left?” Steve demanded. Bucky's dad had a habit of disappearing periodically, but he always came back. Steve went over to the stove to get Bucky a cup of coffee to start sobering up; Bucky would be mortified when he realized he'd walked down the street in this state in broad daylight.
“Said it was too hard to deal with the little ones. Not enough money, too many mouths, same shit he always says.” Bucky whined a little when Steve started dabbing at his lip but sat back and didn't complain too badly.
“So how do you know it's for good? And what happened to your face?” Steve could guess what had happened to Bucky's face, actually; George Barnes had a general problem with his oldest son, a problem born in Bucky's early years that hadn't died even after Bucky had grown up and moved out.
“Told him if he walks out on Ma this time that's it. Won't have him back 'round here anymore. He backhanded me, you know how he is.” Bucky shrugged lazily. “Got him back, though, busted his nose. I'm not some little kid anymore. Can't just knock me around. He said he's not coming back this time.”
Steve searched for something to say while he examined Bucky's face. “Sorry, Buck,” he settled for, woefully inadequate as it was.
“Good riddance,” Bucky muttered, but there were tears gathering in his eyes. “Aw, hell, look at me, Steve. Drunk as a skunk in the middle of the day. I'm just like him.”
“You're not,” Steve said firmly. “You're nothing like him, Buck. He's a bully.”
Bucky smiled a little, though it came out bitter as the coffee he was sipping. “Don't want to leave when things get tough,” he said, eyes out of focus.
“Come on, Buck. You've stuck with me all this time. How many times have you had to go get the priest, huh? And you're still here.” Steve shrugged. “I don't really count, though.”
Bucky stared at him for a minute, then opened his mouth and took a breath, but he didn't say anything. He just shrugged and looked down into his coffee.
“What's your ma and the girls gonna do?” Steve asked worriedly. They had a hard enough time making ends meet with George there; without him it would be almost impossible to feed Bucky's three younger sisters, even with the few cents every week Bucky could spare to give them.
“Going back to Indiana,” Bucky said softly, and Steve gripped his shoulder hard. No one could bring out the happy kid in Bucky like his younger sisters, and Bucky was a mama's boy through and through. It would tear his heart out to be away from them.
“You going with 'em?” Steve asked. He tried to keep the apprehension out of his voice, because if Bucky needed to go with them, he needed to go with them. But Steve's stomach dropped at the thought. Bucky snorted.
“You know I ain't leaving you to fight every idiot in Brooklyn alone.”
5. Tell her she's lovely
“You're sure they don't mind I'm coming?” Steve asked, finger combing through his hair even as the wind whipped it around again.
“Stevie, relax,” Bucky repeated for about the fourth time. “I already told Elsa to bring her cousin along. They knew from the start you'd be there.”
“Think Elsa's cousin looks anything like Elsa?” Steve asks hopefully. “Maybe shorter, though.” Elsa was almost as tall as Bucky, and she didn't shy away from pumps like some tall girls.
“You worried I got you an ogre like Sally Watson?” Bucky teased.
“Buck, that's not nice—”
“Hey, I saw the girl already. She's great. Shorter than Elsa, yeah, great gams, sharp as a whip.” Bucky clapped Steve on the back. “Your eyes'll pop out of your head. Just make sure you tell her how nice she looks. That's real important to dames.”
And Bucky was right; Elsa's cousin, Lindy, was beautiful, all dark curls and long legs and big, long-lashed eyes. Steve was mostly reduced to a babbling, blushing mess, as usual around girls, but Bucky kept steering the conversation toward topics Steve could actually talk about and shot Steve a little wink when he floundered.
“We should get going.” Lindy didn't even try to inject an apology into her tone and she shot an annoyed look at Elsa, who bit her lip and gave Steve an embarrassed, apologetic smile.
“Sorry, we really should,” she said, leaning over to peck Bucky on the cheek. “We had a great time, though.”
Lindy didn't say anything and Steve felt his face heating up for an entirely different reason now, hot shame swooping through his stomach.
“We'll walk you home,” he said, because that was the right thing to do even if he was embarrassed.
Lindy scoffed a little. “Oh, you'll protect me?” She asked, and Steve's face fell.
“Lindy,” Elsa hissed.
“Yeah, we will protect you,” Bucky replied hotly. “Even if you don't deserve it.”
“Buck, come on—”
“And how's he gonna protect me?” Lindy challenged. Steve had to hand it to her; she had fire. “Take out the guy's ankles?”
Bucky stood up fast enough to knock his chair over. “Listen here, Steve's worth a hundred of you. You spent the whole night looking out the window and being a self-righteous troll and he still kept trying to talk to you and offered to walk you home.”
“Buck, don't, come on,” Steve pleaded.
“Lindy's my cousin, James,” Elsa cut in. “And you told us Steve was almost as tall as you.”
Steve managed a little laugh at that, because wasn't that the lie of the century. “Really, let us walk you home,” he said desperately.
“That's fine,” Elsa said coldly. “We'll find our own way.”
Bucky gave them a sarcastic little wave as they walked out, ignoring the mutters of the other diners. He righted his chair and sat back down to dig into his pie. “Eat your cake, Stevie.”
“Buck, you shouldn't have said all that. It was rude,” Steve scolded.
“What do I care?” Bucky shot back, only the fact that they were in public stemming the tide of curses Steve knew he was holding back. “I don't waste my politeness on people like that.”
“They had a point,” Steve murmured, playing with the cake on his plate.
“Sure, at the end of their noses.”
“Steve.” Bucky pointed at Steve with his fork. “They're blind if they don't see what a handsome devil you are. Look at them eyes, huh? Strong chin. Great hair. And look at you, wearing a jacket that doesn't cover your hands and everything. 'S a nice jacket. Looks good.” He went back to his pie and Steve ducked his head at all the compliments. It was rare that Bucky said things like that without joking to deflect.
“Did you really tell them I'm almost as tall as you?” Steve asked, chuckling, and Bucky laughed too.
“Well, it's not that much of a lie,” he said with a shrug. “I never said how much almost is.”
They finished their dessert and the dessert the girls had ordered and left behind, and they laughed and teased each other and flicked food across the table, and Steve forgot about Lindy by the time they went home.
+1. Speak what your heart wants you to
Bucky is sitting in the bathroom in just an undershirt and his shorts, waiting for Steve to cut his hair with a pair of kitchen scissors, the way they used to before the war. Bucky's not ready to cut it all, to lose the long hair, but every so often he asks Steve to trim it so it doesn't get out of control.
Bucky hasn't said anything since asking quietly if Steve would cut his hair. Bucky does everything quietly these days; he talks quietly, he moves quietly, he laughs quietly, he even breathes quietly. It's quite a change from the larger-than-life friend Steve holds dear, but he doesn't care. He's got Bucky back.
“Hey, Stevie?” Bucky says softly.
“Yeah, Buck?” Steve tilts Bucky's head to one side and Bucky goes with the movement easily.
Bucky stays quiet for a long time. In a different life, Steve would have huffed impatiently, would have teased him about the long silence after starting to say something, but not now. Bucky takes his time with words these days, and that's okay with Steve. Hearing his voice at all is good enough.
“You ever tell Agent Carter you love her?”
Steve sucks in a little breath. They haven't talked about Peggy in months, since Bucky asked where Steve went every Friday afternoon. Bucky remembers who Peggy is, Steve knows he does, but the subject makes him melancholy. Sam had noticed, once, and asked if Bucky was sad Steve didn't get his happy ending with Peggy, and Steve hadn't known what to say because he's sure that's part of it, but Peggy made Bucky melancholy when they were lying in a canvas tent in the snow, too.
“No, I didn't.” Steve clears his throat. “I, um...I didn't really get a chance. Never even got to take her out, you know?”
Bucky doesn't nod, because that will mess Steve up, but he looks closely at Steve's face. “But you did love her, didn't you?” No one's ever asked Steve that before; all the history books say they were in love and paint Peggy as his tragic widow-like figure, bravely soldiering on and settling for another man who was calm and steady and even-tempered, three traits so far from Steve she may as well have picked his exact opposite.
“I don't know,” Steve admits honestly. “Maybe I could've, if we'd had more time.”
It's quiet again, just the snip of the scissors in Bucky's hair filling the air between them, quiet sounds from the street wafting in from the open kitchen window, still a cinnamon scent in the air from the cinnamon bread they'd baked together in the morning. Steve finishes one side and as he pauses, Bucky puts a hand up. Steve immediately steps back, worried the scissors are getting Bucky lost in his head, a sharp object close to his face bringing up memories of pain.
“You follow all that advice I gave you 'bout how to keep dames interested?” Bucky asks, a little smile quirking up one side of his mouth. Steve laughs.
“You remember that?”
“Sure. I gave you great advice.” Bucky's smile is smaller than it used to be, more hesitant, but it's still a sight for sore eyes if Steve ever saw one.
“You did,” Steve agrees. “I just haven't had lots of opportunity to use it.”
“You're not dating all these future girls?” Bucky gives him a disappointed look and it's so classic Bucky Steve almost feels dizzy with it, and he feels a little smile tug at his own lips.
“Nah.” Steve shrugs. “Gone on a few dates. Never really found someone really special.”
Bucky examines Steve's face. The height difference is strange; it was weird enough when Steve first saw Bucky after the serum and had to get used to being taller than him, but that was just a few inches. Right now, Bucky's sitting down on a stool and looking up at Steve, eyes so deep and blue Steve could jump right in.
“Still looking?” Bucky asks, a strange look on his face, and Steve feels a little lump in his throat. He still has a strand of Bucky's hair in his fingers, pulled out straight across the distance between them.
“Not really,” he says cryptically, not meeting Bucky's eyes, looking at that dark hair. Bucky reaches out a hand and presses his palm against Steve's stomach. It's warm, all the way through the fabric and clear down to his skin. Steve raises his head slowly.
“I don't plan on looking, either,” Bucky says softly.
Steve's mouth is completely dry and he watches Bucky's eyelashes fan out against his cheek as he dips his head. “Buck?”
“I love you, Stevie.” Bucky's shoulders hunch a little and he focuses on the hem of Steve's shirt that he's rolling between his fingers, one knuckle brushing against Steve's bare skin every so often. “I—all that advice I gave you before? I did all that for you. I mean, I'm pretty sure I did. I remember doing it.” He's barely even audible, talking so softly he sounds more like he's talking to himself than Steve.
“You did.” Steve's voice comes out weak.
“'Cause I've loved you for...” Bucky blows out a slow breath that raises his hair in a ripple. “A long time. Was kinda always waiting for you to realize what I was doing. Smart guy like you, thought you'd put it together.”
“I never did,” Steve says.
“I know. And it's...better. That you didn't. I just, uh.” Bucky licks his lips, a sign of discomfort that's stuck with him into the new century. “Thought I'd tell you. I always said you didn't count, but you did. You were the only one who counted for me.”
Steve stares at the top of Bucky's head for a second, watches the rise and fall of Bucky's chest, thinks about the pit in his stomach that wasn't filled in until Bucky came back, and then he lets go of Bucky's hair and reaches out slowly to wrap a hand around the back of Bucky's bent neck, brushes his thumb against the soft skin just beneath Bucky's shirt collar, tries to will his too-big hands into tenderness. Bucky looks up at him, face pinched with fear and worry and a dash of heartbreak that Steve can't abide.
“I love you, too, Buck,” Steve whispers, and Bucky smiles, soft and slow and so sweet Steve wants to cry at the sight of it.
“Well, ain't that something,” Bucky murmurs, and Steve has to laugh, that's how giddy he feels. They stare at one another for a second, and then Bucky frames Steve's hips with his hands and draws him closer, into the space between his legs that are resting on the rung of the stool, one hand finding its way up Steve's back, neck stretching up to meet Steve coming down for a kiss. It's short and chaste and slow and they pull away smiling. Steve goes back to Bucky's hair, finishing up, and they keep catching each other's eyes in the mirror and smiling.
Steve always thought loving someone would feel new and strange, different from anything else he'd ever felt, but he should have known better. There's nothing new about loving Bucky. It's the same feeling he's felt all along.