At the East gate of the market, still locked at this hour in the morning, Sam idly watched Steve back his truck in towards the entrance. The bed of the truck and any remaining cab room were, per usual, loaded with boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. They could always count on a Saturday morning for moving stock, so this load might just get Steve through the day.
“You really need a new shirt, man,” said Sam as Steve hopped out of the truck. As far as Sam could tell, Steve owned five shirts. They were all plaid flannel. Red, yellow, blue, green, and blue-green. The red one which he wore now had a hole under the armpit that was no longer innocuous, an increasingly distressed collar, and two buttons that didn’t match the rest and looked to be sewn on rather precariously. Sure, people coming to a farmer’s market might expect the man in the vegetable stall to have dirt ground permanently into his jeans and mud in the tread of his boots, he didn’t need a damn suit and tie, but a look of self-respect wouldn’t be amiss.
“Look at these zucchini,” said Steve (par for the course passing over the subject of fashion in favour of produce), and he reached into a box, pulling out two zucchinis that were wider around than Steve’s biceps. And that was saying something.
“You think they’ll sell?” asked Sam. “Someone’s gotta really love zucchini.”
“No,” said Steve. “But for the sake of display. Draw people in. Make it so they don’t notice the shirt.” So he had heard. Steve raised his arm to look at the hole, through which you could see his white t-shirt underneath. “Guess it might be time. Soon.”
Sam gave it another month at least before Steve bothered. Getting him to acknowledge it was a step, but Steve’s mind would become absorbed with other things and he wouldn’t get rid of this shirt until it actually became inconvenient to wear.
Steve returned the zucchini to the box, still grinning. But it wasn’t a my crops are happy so I’m happy smile. Looked closer to a just got laid smile, if anything. But Sam knew Steve pretty well and didn’t think Steve had anyone in the picture.
“Hey, you meet somebody?” Sam asked.
Steve looked surprised. “Meet somebody?” he echoed.
“Yeah, or do you got some other reason for looking like you just—?” A telling nod of his head filled in the rest.
Steve’s hesitation gave a simple answer (yes), but also foretold that it was a complicated sort of ‘yes’ and he didn’t know how much he should say.
“It’s um. It’s not that. It’s a sort of funny thing,” said Steve. “I— I’ve got a pen pal. Picked up a letter from him just this morning. Read it right there in the post office before I came here. He’s just… got a way with words. It was the right way to start my day, that’s all. It’s not anything like… you know.”
There were a few ways Sam could’ve reacted to this. Ultimately he was too generous to tease. Well, to tease too seriously. “Must be some kind of writer. How’d you get a pen pal anyways? Where’s he from? I had a pen pal once—from Argentina—back in elementary school. Javier. Wonder if he remembers me.”
“He’s from here, actually,” said Steve, looking a little more bashful. “He placed an ad in the paper.”
“An ad in the paper. Steve, you are the only person under sixty who still reads the paper front to back.”
“Not the only one,” said Steve. “Evidently. That was part of the thing. I think he wanted someone who would— Look, listen to this:” Steve reached into the front pocket of his shirt and took out the folded letter. There were four small sheets and he sheaved through them for a moment before he found the spot he was looking for.
“People have called me an old soul before and I guess in some ways I am. How is it that I can feel nostalgia for something I never knew? I don’t hold romantic notions about the ‘Old Days’ (I’ve seen Midnight in Paris, thanks), and yet here I am writing letters to a— I would say stranger, but I can’t any more. I always ask myself: what is it that I think I’m finding? Is it pathological? A desire for distance on my terms, a desire to control how close someone gets and when. Possible, but I don’t think that’s all. Is it physiological? The release of getting all these thoughts out of me on paper, the solace of having them read by someone who understands them, and the impossibly keen exhilaration of checking my post box and finding a letter there with your hand-writing on the envelope. It’s such a high. An email wouldn’t be the same. Too instant. There’s something in the delay, friend. There’s something in the waiting. Maybe it’s Time that I miss. Time they had in the past that we don’t seem to have now. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I’m finding, here, in my letters to you.”
Steve spent another moment looking at the letter, at the words that followed the ones he’d read aloud, then finally he tucked the letter back into his shirt pocket. The words weren’t on his lips any more, but they were obviously still there in his head. And Sam had a feeling that Steve was a goner. There was more intensity in that letter than in some casual friendships Sam had held for years. “If he’s here in this city, why don’t you try meeting up with him?” asked Sam.
“Oh, no,” said Steve. “I couldn’t. He wouldn’t want that. He has his reasons for doing it this way, and it’s good like this. I don’t think he wants to meet in person. Besides.” Steve blushed. “We’ve only written four letters.”
“Well I don’t know how many letters you’re supposed to write before the first date, but aren’t you curious about him?” asked Sam.
“Yeah, of course,” Steve said with a laugh. “Of course I am.”
“You could walk by him any day and never know it,” said Sam. “Hell, what if you already know him. It might not even be hard to figure out. What’s he do for a living?”
“We don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” Steve said. “And even if we did, even if I knew where he worked or where he lived or where he liked to go for coffee, I wouldn’t look for him. I mean, I hope I wouldn’t.”
“You’ve got his name, though. Could look him up on Facebook. Or I could, rather.” Steve didn’t have a Facebook account. Sam had received far too many messages for Steve from mutual friends of theirs because Steve was so difficult to track down online.
Steve shook his head before Sam even finished speaking, however. “Don’t have his name. And he doesn’t have mine. ‘Dear Friend.’ That’s all we write. We agreed that wasn’t important. We agreed—” Steve started to reach for his pocket again, but stopped himself, choosing to paraphrase rather than quote. “That those little details don’t really matter. The ideas we’re sharing are bigger than that day-to-day stuff. He puts it really well. Anyway, he doesn’t want to be found, he just wants these letters, and I fully respect it. And… am surprised by how much I like it, too.” He wasn’t one for subterfuge, but there was something in anonymity. Something about the fact that looks didn’t matter a bit to how well his correspondent liked him.
Sam was already prepared to let go of the conversation when the market manager finally came along to unlock the gates. Sam and Steve got to work loading up carts to wheel in their stock. Sam with his bags of bread, the scent of butter and yeast all about him, and Steve with his produce boxes, still shedding dirt. Under the high ceilings of the covered market they parted ways to reach their separate stands.
Across from Steve, the plywood boards that had covered up a smallish lot undergoing renovations had finally been removed.
The Honey Pot. He’d known the name of it, from which he’d been able to make a fairly certain guess about its product, but nothing else. He’d never met the owner and never gotten a glimpse of the new design, but sometime between yesterday, when Steve left the afternoon shift to Betsy, and his arrival here just now the whole thing had come together and been unveiled. It was nearly opening time and he was finishing with his displays when someone showed up to the stall at last.
For some reason he’d pictured a girl with honey-coloured curls.
He would never have pictured a farmer’s market honey-seller possessing such a brooding expression. Such a pouty mouth. Art school drop-out attitude and high school rugby physique.
And Steve was staring. Wearing worn-out plaid, dirty boots and jeans, a ball-cap with a broken beak and a tractor logo on it, and holding a box of pears and straight-on staring like the kind of hick he really wasn’t. And the guy saw. Steve smiled, but had a feeling it was crooked and not to his best advantage. He would’ve gone to introduce himself, but by the time he’d set down the pears Nick was there, then Nat introducing herself, and then Steve’s first customer. The day had begun.
There was a lull just after ten-thirty. Steve finally crossed the aisle to introduce himself.
“I’m Steve. The Farmer.” His own stand, one of the larger lots, was creatively named The Farmer. It had been around for a good 30 years. Like the Dread Pirate Roberts, the name and title passed along with each new owner. “Nice to have you here, and nice not to be staring across at a wall of plywood any more.”
“Bucky,” was the answer. “Thanks.” It wasn’t much to go off of. “Sorry for the extended eyesore.” It sounded bitter. Steve didn’t know why it would, as he hadn’t meant anything by his comment.
“Are you the owner or one of the staff?” Steve asked, trying to get something that might be more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from Bucky.
“I’m the owner and all of the staff,” Bucky answered, still seeming supremely uninterested in this conversation with Steve. He’d probably gone over it scores of times this morning already. “I do everything but make the honey.”
“Who makes the honey?” Steve asked.
Bucky stared at him for a beat. “The bees.”
Steve didn’t think anyone had ever made him feel quite so small before. Trying to explain his mistake, that he heard ‘makes’ and thought ‘produces’ (as in, who puts it into jars, manages the hives, controls the production of clover honey versus alfalfa honey), seemed like more than he could put into words at the moment. So instead of engaging in repartee he ended up just bowling past the slip-up as if it never happened. “Right,” he said. “So where else have you sold commercially?” Again, attempting to work out an answer that might be more than two words.
“I haven’t.” Bucky didn’t look particularly pleased with Steve when he said it. “Think you have a customer,” he added with a nod.
Steve looked over his shoulder to see that Bucky was right. “Yes. Well. I’m an old hand at this, so let me know if you need anything,” said Steve. He left feeling like he blew it.
Whenever Steve looked over and saw Bucky interacting with his customers—and he saw a lot of traffic whether or not Bucky made many sales on that first day—he saw smiles and easy conversation the likes of which he definitely hadn’t been on the receiving end of before. He’d got off on the wrong foot with Bucky, somehow.
And he never managed to regain his step after that. He kept screwing up.
In his next conversation with Bucky he tried to give him some friendly advice, thinking that he might be able to diffuse any hostility by showing he had Bucky’s best interests in mind. Only Bucky didn’t want advice. Perhaps saw it as condescension. Assured Steve he could figure his own business out. Steve left.
Which meant that Bucky went in blind a couple weeks later when Stern, a pesky regular, started talking his ear off while sampling everything that Bucky had open (and making a few requests for things that weren’t). There were other people hovering by the displays of honey who had the look of being legitimate sales, and so Steve took the blow and called Stern’s attention over, asking him about the same things Stern had rambled on about the last time Steve had been caught. After another twenty minutes Stern left empty-handed, as ever. Steve met Bucky’s gaze, trying to communicate with a look, what a guy, right? But Bucky just looked pissed, or at best confused. Apparently he didn’t know that Steve had done him a favour.
And then a week after that a group of kids, obviously a menace to their parents (who were browsing through Steve’s vegetables and filling up canvas bags now heavy with corn), argued about what sort of snack they would get today. Steve asked them if they’d ever had honey sticks, caught up in the throes of memory and his own fondness for the little tubes of flavoured honey you only found at markets like these. He sent them running over to Bucky.
Only it turned out Bucky didn’t have honey sticks. Bucky actually came over to Steve for that argument.
“What do you mean you don’t have honey sticks? You sell honey.”
“Nobody cared that I didn’t have them until you decided to send people over for them,” said Bucky. “Are you trying to make me look incompetent?”
“No, obviously not, but like. You should have honey sticks.”
“You’re the honey expert now too, is that it?” Bucky asked.
“I thought I was helping,” said Steve.
“Don’t think I much like your help,” said Bucky. He returned to his stand. Steve wanted to take the altercation seriously, and on some level he did, but the whole time he couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Bucky’s black t-shirt said Bee-Keepin’ It Real and that was adorable.
Steve wanted a better relationship with Bucky, given the proximity of their stands and the fact that he couldn't avoid being acutely aware of Bucky at all times, but there were other things to focus on. Getting the last of his crops off before winter. Figuring out how to stretch his stock during the slow season. There were plenty of winter vegetables to sell for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it had to be said that his stall wasn’t one that saw much movement during the cold months.
It looked like Bucky did well in December, though. Even if the bees were into hibernation he had enough back-stock to dress up his honey and beeswax based products for Christmas gifts. While Steve put on fingerless gloves and thermal shirts below his flannel to stay warm while the vegetables in his stall stayed cool, Bucky had two space heaters installed above him. They added to the golden light shining off the wood surfaces in his shop. Like the whole place dripped warm honey. The garlands and lights installed around the market looked cheap when they caught off Steve’s fluorescent lights, but they framed Bucky’s stand differently. Made it all look like a picture. One evening after Bucky had gone Steve stood back in the aisle, comparing his lights and garlands to Bucky’s and trying to decide whether or not the decorating committee had it in for him. He eventually acknowledged that they’d done the best with what they had. He couldn’t fault them for his own shortcomings.
December also meant the annual Christmas party, held this year at Natasha’s place. One of the perks of owning space in a farmer’s market was that it meant being surrounded by a good variety of high quality food. Steve definitely hadn’t been exposed to such gastronomic decadence back when he ran a simple produce co-op on his own. By now he knew to look forward to Sam’s fig and oil sourdough focaccia, which was heaven on its own but done no disservice when paired with any one of Stark’s fine cheeses. Not everyone was game for Thor Odinson’s pickled herring and other evidently Scandinavian winter traditions, but nobody could resist the offerings from Natasha’s chocolaterie. She’d outdone herself again; the main attraction tonight was a heavenly chocolate cake with a coffee-flavoured frosting (made, Steve did not doubt, from Clint’s delicious roasted coffee beans).
The only challenge, as Steve saw it, was the Secret Santa. At the start of December they’d all picked a name. Steve got Natasha. He always hoped he’d get Sam, just because it was easier. But a Secret Santa where all the participants were highly specialized business owners in a shared market space created rather a dilemma. Would a gift from your own shop be tacky (not to mention a giveaway)? What about a gift from someone else’s shop? What if that became a cause of contention? Was it a safer choice to go outside the market to some commercial department store, or would that be ethically offensive?
Deciding there was no way to win that battle, Steve bit the bullet and stopped by Bruce’s stall, Green Mind & Body, sure that he’d find something suitable among the essential oils, incense, and hemp balms that Banner sold. He followed Bruce’s recommendation for an impersonal but luxurious set of fancy soaps and lotions.
The party had a warm atmosphere, though Steve struggled with the season. He wanted to enjoy it more than he did, most years. He didn’t have any surviving family to spend the holiday with, so this get-together was the most significant celebration of the season he’d have. And though he was friendly with everybody here, he stayed closest to Sam through most of the evening, but Sam was well-liked and more sociable in bigger groups like these and Steve didn’t mind sharing his attention. But it left him more time in his head, even as he listened to the conversations near him in which he was only a tacit participant. It left him time to look around and take in the various waves and ebbs of the attendants and the way they interacted with each other.
The atmosphere was warm overall. Soft, like the red cashmere sweater Tony wore, or, next to him, the glow of coloured lights on Pepper’s hair. Nick sat in an armchair by the fire, leaned forward as he talked with Maria, the smile on his face perhaps influenced by the amber-coloured liquid in his tumbler. Firelight refracted through the ice cubes and if Steve had to describe the feeling of the night it would be through these images.
His eyes found Natasha perched on the window-seat, facing Bucky, who was then in conversation with her. He didn’t look so tough to talk to. He didn’t look as if he’d give anything to be out of that conversation. Natasha said something that made him smile, and he looked as if he’d rather be that way. Someone called away her attention after and on his own Bucky’s expression went back to a quiet, reflective thing directed down at his wineglass. Steve felt for a moment that it was a mirror of his own. Then, as if responding to the illusion, Bucky looked up and their eyes met. Caught, Steve turned his attention back to the story Sam was telling, though he was at a loss as to the subject and humour. Steve meant to put the moment from his mind, it was so brief and insignificant, but the thing was that Bucky’s glass of wine, the snowflakes falling outside the dark panes of the bay window, the suede elbow-patches on his navy-coloured knit sweater, well, those images described the night too.
He didn’t know why it bothered him that they didn’t speak at all that night. They were neighbours, essentially. And Steve wasn’t used to not having good relationships with people. Still, he kept feeling it shouldn’t bother him as much as it did.
Everyone was slightly tipsy when it came to gift-opening. Steve’s present was a flat box, fairly lightweight, wrapped in a gift-paper that advertised itself as 100% recycled (which didn’t help in the process of elimination, as far as discovering the Secret Santa’s identity was concerned). Steve got under the paper and opened the box to find three shirts neatly-folded inside. The first two were plaid—one sensible and earthy in varying shades of brown and the other a much bolder array of purple and green with some yellow undertones that Steve would never have bought for himself, but surprisingly liked. The final shirt was a vintage western shirt in light blue with white embroidery. It was probably the nicest shirt Steve had been given.
He found Sam to thank him for the gift, only it hadn’t been from Sam.
“Well then someone must’ve come up and asked you what to get for me,” said Steve. “Come on, tell me who it was. I’m terrible at guessing these things.”
“Nobody asked me, I swear,” said Sam. “Apparently I’m not the only one who notices that your shirts all look like they came out on the wrong side of a zombie apocalypse.”
Though he checked in with a few more people, asking if they drew his name or if they knew who had, Steve never worked out who gave him the shirts. And for the most part they ended up hanging in his closet pretty near all of the time. He liked them and intended to wear them, but whenever it came time to dress in the morning he always thought they were too nice for whatever work he had ahead and left them there.
Throughout the holiday season the letters came with regularity. Neither Steve nor his correspondent had much in the way of seasonal family demands on their time. There was at least one letter every week, sometimes two. He still didn’t know a thing about his correspondent. Except that he knew everything about his correspondent. Sure, he didn’t have a name. He didn’t know about an occupation. No idea of education. But he knew a bit about the man’s family and upbringing. That had come up. And as much as they agreed that personal details weren’t the name of the game, Steve thrived on learning more about his anonymous friend. It wasn’t mere biography, it was psychology. Sibling order explained habits and desires which his ‘dear friend’ had already confessed to. It became easier for Steve to speak back to certain things that the writer brought up in letters new or past when he knew about things like how he’d always been far ahead in school until he stopped trying and fell behind, only to recover later from these bad habits. Steve cared about every single one of these details, and it didn’t take long to feel that he was in incredibly deep with this person.
January and February were deadly slow months for the market, open only on Saturday and Sunday mornings now. Steve and his correspondent wrote more frequently and with increasing familiarity, which suited Steve well. He couldn’t do much for his fields but work on the tractors and plan for the summer. He was more often found stained with motor oil than dirt. The days were still short, so nothing felt better than returning home to write a letter in the evening, pouring out all kinds of thoughts for the one person that would really understand them.
At the beginning of March one letter brought a surprise.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and wonder if I’ll run into you that day. If it will be the day we finally meet. Then I wonder if I’ve met you already. If I’ve passed you a thousand times in the street. Or just once. I’m not sure which is more unlikely. All this to say, what if we met?
Steve’s letter in response relayed his gut reaction. A yes. But in the letters that followed, trying to make the arrangements for when and where to meet, he found himself putting it off. The letters were so perfect. His writer was so perfect. He didn’t want to risk the loss of something so good if they met and somehow didn’t like each other in person.
But they finally set a day in April. Steve knew he was freaking out. He phoned Sam, and Sam told him to wear the new purple-and-green plaid because it was in good shape and anyways it had displaced the old green-and-blue as Steve’s ‘fancy plaid.’ Which Steve already knew. Steve phoned Sam again and asked about the coffee shop, which was in Sam’s neighbourhood, and what he should order. He didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the person who might be his soul mate. Sam told him to order what he liked. Steve phoned Sam once more and asked him to walk to the café with him and be nearby in case Steve needed an out. Sam probably shouldn’t have agreed, but he did. He was a little curious too.
They were making a steady approach, and then they weren’t. Steve came to a sudden stop, scrunched up his face, put a hand to his head. “I can’t take this,” he said. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to know what he looks like.”
“It’s gonna make a difference to you?” Sam said with a flat look.
“No. I mean. Not really. And yet. I’ve got this image in my head of what he looks like. And when I see him, really see him, whether he’s more pretty or less or whatever, when it doesn’t match up with this… this preconceived sort of thing, jeez, Sam, you know I can’t hide anything. I don’t want to lock eyes with him and for him to see me blushing or looking disappointed or too surprised. I just want to know what to expect. Can you just… can you look in and see?”
“No,” said Sam. An imploring look from Steve. “No.” An extended silence that broke Sam down. Because he was still curious. “You owe me, man.”
“I know. Now, he should have a book on the table. Anna Karenina. And a red carnation in the book. It’s how we’ll recognise each other.” Steve had a red carnation to match in the lapel of his jacket.
It was nothing short of impressive, really, that Sam managed to look in through the café window without drawing attention to himself. He even stayed there a long moment. When he stepped back towards Steve he confirmed, “Red carnation, right? And a big old book.”
Steve nodded. “Well? What’s he look like?”
“Brown hair, I’d say blue eyes, about… you know Bucky’s colouring? The honey vendor? A lot like his.”
“Right, okay,” said Steve, nodding along to encourage Sam.
“Pretty similar to Bucky’s build, too,” said Sam.
“And? Is he… pretty? Plain?”
“Well, that depends. If you find Bucky pretty, then yes, very.”
The penny dropped. Steve couldn’t say anything, and Sam filled him in for good measure. “I mean it is Bucky. In there. Waiting for you. Bucky’s been writing you letters for half a year. And now you’re going on a date with him.”
Steve stepped back a little, trying to reconcile acerbic Bucky from across the aisle with the man behind all those beautiful letters. It seemed impossible. And yet something twisted in his gut. Imagining Bucky’s lashes low over his eyes as he leaned over his desk and put pen to paper. Bucky’s mouth shaping to the words he’d written. Bucky’s tongue pressing out to the seal of the envelope before his fingers smoothed it closed. Bucky collecting each and every one of Steve’s letters in turn, as he’d told him he did, fingertips ghosting down the page when he read them. A smile on his face. Put there by Steve. By the things Steve thought and said.
“I can’t go in there,” Steve said, shaking his head. He couldn’t face Bucky now.
Sam looked surprised. And critical. Steve knew he deserved that look. “Really? Your decision, man, but you’re gonna stand up your love-letter boy?”
Steve shook his head, backing away and turning. “I’ll explain it to him in a letter. Sorry for making you come out here, Sam.” He turned off from the street, leaving Sam. Though disappointed in Steve, Sam went home.
Steve only bothered circling once around the block, disposing of his carnation on the way, before he arrived back at the café.
When he went in he didn’t look around, though he kept Bucky in his periphery. Bucky looked up, as he had probably done every time the door opened since he sat down, and he certainly realised it was Steve. And even then, his eyes still dropped to Steve’s lapel, just in case. Then he was furiously pretending he hadn’t noticed Steve’s entrance at all. He’d opened his book to the first chapter but was definitely not reading.
Once he had his coffee in hand, Steve made a show of looking around the place. “Bucky?” Bucky shifted, having probably not wanted to be seen by someone he knew. Not when going on a first date with a too-familiar stranger. But Steve knew what Bucky didn’t. The date would never arrive. Or had arrived. It was hard to say. He wasn’t entirely sure of what he was doing right now. He didn’t have a plan. All he knew was that Bucky hated Steve. But the ‘dear friend’ of the letters? That person felt differently. And Steve wasn’t sure which was real any longer.
“I’ve hardly seen you outside of the market,” said Steve, coming over with his drink and sitting opposite Bucky. The Christmas party was the only exception to this rule.
“You can’t sit there,” said Bucky, tensing up and reaching his hand across the table. “I’m expecting someone.”
Steve looked at his watch. “At… 7:20 exactly? You always so specific?” Steve was supposed to arrive at 7. He would have been on time if he hadn’t freaked out. Involved Sam in it. Talked himself in and out of it a dozen times on the detour around the block.
“No,” said Bucky. He made a frustrated sound, as if mad at himself for saying too much already. “And no, I mean, he was supposed to arrive twenty minutes ago, but I’m sure he has a good reason for being late.”
“You’re surprisingly forgiving,” said Steve. “Keeping your date waiting is a pretty serious offence. Did he send you a text to explain?”
Bucky didn’t even have his phone out. It sat in the pocket of his jacket, hanging off the back of the chair. “He doesn’t have my number,” he said, which Steve knew. And he realised how strange it made them. How different from other burgeoning couples of this generation. “And vice-versa. I don’t have his. But really, he could turn up any moment. I’d rather if you weren’t at my table.”
Steve obeyed. But only in as far as the letter of the law. He moved to the table right behind Bucky’s, their chairs back-to-back. Steve leaned back and said, “Anna Karenina seems like some pretty serious reading for a coffee date.”
“It’s my favourite book,” said Bucky, defensive. “What do you know about serious reading anyway?”
So he was still Steve, the dumb farmer. “Probably not as much as you, I grant,” he said. “Your date a real literary type then?”
“Somewhat.” Steve cast a little glance over his shoulder. He could see Bucky’s thumb stroking against the page in an absent way, as if invoking memories. Memories of Steve’s letters. “He likes nonfiction, mostly. History. He hasn’t read Tolstoy.”
“Bet you think he should read War and Peace though, right?”
“Yeah, I—What do you know about it?”
“I’ve had it recommended to me before.”
Bucky looked over his shoulder at that. He might have aimed for a flat look, but there was something curious in it instead. He turned his face forward again, and Steve couldn’t resist. He slipped out of his seat and into the one across from Bucky. He was met with an exasperated sound, but Bucky was no longer telling him to leave. It was pushing 7:30 and there was still no sign of his date. Surely in such a scenario, talking to Steve was better than talking to nobody at all.
“Is bonding really a thing we have to do right now?” asked Bucky. “You know, it doesn’t surprise me that even in something unrelated to work you can be so patronizing.”
That floored Steve. And, with all the transparency of his expression, a failing in some situations but a virtue in others, his sincerity was clear when he said, “I never meant to be patronizing.”
Bucky was silent for a moment, searching for words, not seeming comfortable with those he found even as he spoke them: “Yeah, well, you manage it pretty good despite that.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asked. “Bucky, honestly, I don’t want you to feel that or think that way. What can I do to change that?”
Bucky still seemed surprised to hear Steve step up so readily to these apparent failings, but he made a rapid recovery. “Not telling me how to do my job would be a great start,” said Bucky. “From the very start you were telling me how to talk to people and what I should stock. Making a big deal of the fact that I’m new to this and acting like I’m not clever enough to figure it out. It’s my business. I can do well running it the way I intended. If I succeed, it’s my success. If I fuck up, well, that’s on me too. But I don’t need anyone else trying to tell me how to do it.”
“I didn’t mean to come off that way, Bucky,” said Steve. “Thought I was being helpful. Just wanted to say things to you that would’ve been helpful to me, starting out. Things I was told when I took over the stand.”
Bucky shook his head. “Bit different though, isn’t it, taking over someone else’s business compared with starting your own from scratch? Same advice might not apply.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” Steve asked. The thing was that he now knew who Bucky was and how he thought. He knew that Bucky didn’t say things lightly and that what Bucky said versus what he was thinking was, well, it was like that old metaphor about icebergs. He could tell there was something else on Bucky’s mind. The sensation of having gone from knowing little about Bucky to knowing nearly everything was sublime and terrifying.
“Just that you didn’t go through the same start-up trials and losses as I did, maybe,” said Bucky. And he closed off, right where the ‘dear friend’ might have opened up in a letter. Whatever Steve knew about Bucky and the depth of conversation they were capable of having, it wasn’t reciprocal. Bucky wouldn’t talk with just anyone. “Anyway, whatever. There was the shirts, too.”
“Even an insincere ‘thank you’ would have been better.”
“You got me those shirts on Christmas?”
Again, that sincerity and obliviousness couldn’t be feigned, and Bucky saw as much. But it only gave him a moment’s pause, really. “So you didn’t know it was me. Whatever. I mean, you never even wore them. Which, okay, you don’t like them, fine. I can’t think of why you wouldn’t, but fine.” They were Steve’s style to a T, after all. It’s not like he was a hard man to figure out, fashion-wise. “But anyone else would’ve worn them at least once out of pity or politeness, whatever you want to call it, and I see you every market day and you’ll still be wearing that ratty yellow one.”
Steve struggled not to look down at his collar right now. Because of course he was wearing one of the new shirts under his jacket. Saving it for a special occasion. But he couldn’t admit that to Bucky now, because it would be imply that tonight was meant to be one for Steve. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the shirts. I’m sorry you thought I didn’t. It seems late now, but thanks for the gift.”
Steve wished that his honesty earned more than that wary look, but they’d spent months misreading each other and to make up that lost ground might take a while.
“Whatever. You’re welcome, I guess. You don’t have to wear them. It’s not a big deal. You wanted to know why I thought you were rude, and that’s one of the reasons, but you don’t have to wear them just because of this.” Bucky might’ve said more, but the door opened again and he looked up. Steve looked over his shoulder too, catching sight of a man coming in alone. The man’s lapel was covered by the ruffled scarf wrapped around his neck. The scarf could conceivably hide a red carnation. The man was in the process of taking off his scarf and somehow, even though Steve knew that he was the date, he couldn’t help but watch this newcomer with same anticipation as Bucky.
The scarf was off and there was nothing in the lapel. Bucky sighed. Steve thought it was with relief, and he went over the man’s features again. Lank hair, a sparse goatee, short build, sloped shoulders, plain face. As far as appearances went, not someone to get excited about. But he knew from the letters that Bucky wouldn’t care. That Bucky confessed to being attracted to the mind and spirit of his correspondent. And that meant Steve. But did it? When they had two relationships to one another simultaneously, what did it mean?
Steve had wondered if he should tell Bucky who he was. That seemed only fair, after all. But he wanted a chance to improve on Bucky. He wanted a chance to become the person of the letters in reality. He wanted to bring those two identities closer together, or he’d risk losing his ‘dear friend’ altogether.
He knew he’d take some hard hits to start. Bucky would be sarcastic with him and doubtful of his motives. That would be okay, because he knew the spirit that stirred underneath.
“Not him, is it,” said Steve, aiming to sound sympathetic. “Maybe he isn’t turning up tonight. But I’m sure you’re right. He’s got to have a good reason. Doesn’t strike me that there’s many men who’d willingly miss out on a date with you.” He reached out a hand to Bucky’s arm. “I’ll see you Saturday morning, Bucky.”
Though Bucky might have been embarrassed by the idea of Steve being witness to his date’s appearance, to have Steve go now and be left alone here to wait—wait just to be stood up—was even more embarrassing. But by the time Steve left Bucky was back in his book, his favourite, and Steve hoped he was really reading it, not just stewing. He hoped Bucky didn’t stay much longer, that he’d forgive his ‘dear friend,’ and that they could start fresh on Saturday morning.
But Saturday morning arrived and Bucky didn’t. Steve felt responsible, like that night at the café had everything to do with Bucky’s absence this morning. An unwillingness to show his face again, especially in front of Steve. Guilt took root in him, lessened only slightly by Nick’s arrival at Steve’s vegetable stand. Harried as usual, he asked if Steve would be able to keep an eye on Bucky’s stall alongside his own. Bucky requested they open it, apparently, whether or not he could be there. Steve agreed and kept his attention divided between the two initially. When he had a moment he made a chalkboard sign, using calligraphy he’d picked up to make it look a little more official and aboveboard, saying: All Honey Pot sales will be taken at The Farmer. It was good that he did. He could see why Bucky wanted to keep the stall open. It made the difference of a couple hundred dollars by the time Bucky actually arrived.
Bucky stopped in front of his stall, saw the sign, then looked across at Steve. He didn’t look great. He was soaking wet, first of all, as if he’d come some distance through the pouring rain outside. Steve knew that Bucky had a bike to ride in when the weather was good and there was nothing serious to transport in his car, but why he’d take it on a day like this was rather more of a mystery. But even if he weren’t soaked to the bone Steve didn’t think he’d have been at his best. He appeared worn a little thin. Perhaps pale and tired. He’d been rumpling a hand through his wet hair and pushed it all out of order. Steve felt again that this had something to do with the date. He knew what the anticipation of meeting his correspondent had felt like, the thrill of wondering and being on the brink of discovering who they were. He could only guess at Bucky’s disappointment. Steve wrote a letter of explanation last night, but Bucky wouldn’t have it for a few days yet.
Bucky approached with wariness, not knowing where they stood. That meeting a few nights ago had changed the nature of their relationship here at the market.
“I didn’t think you’d be taking over the stand for me. Thanks.”
“Didn’t you ask for that?” Steve asked.
“I asked for Nick to do it,” said Bucky, looking away and smiling faintly, realising this was his first mistake. “I should know that he’s a very good delegator. Again, thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” said Steve. “I’m happy to be able to help. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you not arrive before opening. I hope everything’s okay.”
“Well.” Bucky shook his head, suppressed a sigh. “I mean, my car broke down today. Left me stranded. I wanted to see if I could get it fixed but they don’t even know what’s wrong with it. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be expensive. That’ll be all I need. It never rains but it pours, right?”
“Apt, for today,” said Steve, again taking in Bucky’s sopping wet appearance. Bucky gave a considerate nod and the ghost of a smile. “It’ll get fixed,” Steve assured him. “I was happy to help out this morning. If you need me to look after the stand again in the future, it’s no trouble. And I can always make room in my truck if you’ve got stock you need to take in tomorrow.”
“No, it’s okay,” Bucky insisted, shaking his head. “I’ll manage. But thanks for taking over. Were sales okay?”
“They seemed good,” said Steve. “I kept your little price labels. In case you needed to know what moved.” He went to his desk, handing over a clipboard where he had a sheet covered unevenly with stickers that had a name and price written on them in Bucky’s hand. A familiar hand, Steve realised now.
Bucky smiled as if this were adorable. “I think I could tell at a glance what’s gone, but thanks for thinking of this. Seems like things went okay.”
“I think so,” said Steve. He took an envelope from his cash drawer, passing that over too. “I swapped out some of the smaller bills for bigger ones from my cashbox. Hope that’s okay.”
“That’s very helpful. A little overbearingly helpful, but I think I’m coming to expect that from you now.” It was just the type of insight Steve saw in the letters. A little coy, a little sarcastic, rather accurate, but not condemnatory. Bucky made more sense to him now.
Bucky turned to go, and somehow Steve couldn’t resist asking after him, “Hey, did the guy ever show up?”
Bucky stopped but didn’t look back. “No,” he said.
“Has he been in touch to tell you why?”
“He hasn’t. Guess you coulda stayed after all. You couldn’t embarrass me by being there any more than I embarrassed myself by waiting there. Whatever. Lesson learned. Again.”
Steve thought about telling him. That the writer was there. That the writer was right here. That it was Steve. But he couldn’t believe that it wouldn’t make things worse to say it now. “He might still have an explanation. But it had better be good.”
Bucky left, then. At the end of the day Steve crossed to his stand again. He insisted that Bucky take down his phone number in case he changed his mind about wanting a lift for Sunday morning. Steve left space in his truck as he packed, just in case he had a passenger and a few extra boxes. But Bucky didn’t call, and beautiful weather meant a busy day and they didn’t talk at all.
On Thursday (and Steve was trying not to think about the fact that Bucky must have got the letter of apology by now), Steve’s phone rang. It was Bucky. Asking if Steve was busy tomorrow. But in the hesitating way he spoke, it obviously wasn’t a romantic kind of are you busy? Bucky needed help.
“My hives are coming out of hibernation. I just found out one of them has a dead queen and I’ve got to introduce a new one, but the hive is on a farm outside of town. It’s an hour’s drive. I get it if you can’t, but I feel like I’ve run through every other option as far as getting out there’s concerned.”
Steve agreed at once. The next day he picked Bucky up in the later part of the morning. Bucky had a laundry bag over his shoulder and some equipment which all looked mysterious to Steve. He gave Steve some initial directions and explained that he kept hives on a few different farms in the area, collecting honey from each to sell and giving a share to the farmer in return. Some of the farmers were pretty clueless about the intricacies of honey bees, but this one knew enough to indicate the issue of the queen to Bucky. It made him worry about his other hives, too. The strain of not having his vehicle was obvious, and yet Bucky didn’t seem as upset as before. Seemed to be dealing with things better.
Steve worked up to comment on his improved mood at last, and asked, “Has it got something to with the guy you meant to see?” And Bucky smiled. He smiled in a way that was intensely private, a smile of secret pleasure, which Steve knew well because he’d felt it before. The look on Bucky’s face now was the feeling in Steve’s heart whenever he thought of the letters.
“Yeah, he… He explained it all. He was there. He came to the café. Just not into the café. See, he looked in and he saw you at my table and he thought that we were… You should be complimented, he called you handsome.” Steve blushed for a lot of reasons. In part because yes, he’d written that in the letter, and in part because Bucky was saying it now, and because Bucky looked at him in just such a way; amused, but not contradicting the comment.
Steve cleared his throat, but said, “He thought you would flirt with someone while waiting to meet your date?”
“No, it’s not like that,” said Bucky. “He said it was his failing, not mine. He said he got self-conscious when he saw you sitting there with me and that he’d already been nervous about what I’d think of him and that he panicked. And made the wrong decision. I mean, he definitely should have come in, but he knows that.”
“So you can forgive him?” asked Steve.
“Yeah,” said Bucky, though he seemed pensive about it. “In part just because I want to so much. Everything else about him is just… perfect, Steve. Hell, it’s probably good he screwed up this one time. Means he’s human.” But Bucky still seemed to wonder. Perhaps harboured doubts about whether there was another motive for not meeting, even if he couldn’t say why.
“Are you going to try to meet him again?” Steve asked.
“He didn’t suggest it, so I’m not going to push. Maybe that’s best for now. I don’t know.” Steve had asked for his own self-assurance, really. To know Bucky wouldn’t renew the suggestion of meeting bought him some time. He didn’t ask any more about it, not wanting to invade. He knew where Bucky stood, and that was all he’d been searching for.
When they arrived at the farm Bucky got out and took off his denim jacket. He threw it back into the truck, leaving him in a black tank until he reached into the laundry bag for a beekeeper’s jacket of white canvas. Steve had never thought much of beekeeping apparel. Humorous, chiefly. Like anemic astronauts. But apparently he’d never seen one on a specimen like Bucky. Bucky didn’t go for the full suit. Apparently he considered his jeans (tucked into his socks just above his boot) to be sufficient protection for his bottom half. The jacket he donned, once zipped up, had a very wide collar, meant to be paired with a helmet and veil. The way it seemed to just cling to his shoulders was actually a little maddening.
Steve knew Bucky was attractive, objectively. That much anybody could see. But they had a rough start to begin with and Steve was already devoted to his ‘dear friend’ of the letters. Discovering that Bucky was the letter-writer that evening at the café should have made Steve pay a little more attention, but he’d been in shock. More focused on the double-fold identity crisis at hand than the matter of his partner’s looks, regardless of his interest in the subject beforehand. He couldn’t say what it was now that made him really see Bucky. The hot sun of an unseasonably warm day caressed his face and shoulders in a way that Steve envied. It heightened the shadows of his eyes when he turned a certain way, and yet also glinted sharply off the blue when Steve was least ready for it. And his lips. They looked more impossibly red than Steve had ever seen them. He was suddenly aware that this was the man he loved, and that he liked him too. He was developing a crush on the person he’d been devoted to for over six months.
“So what is it you’re going to do?” asked Steve as Bucky took out his equipment.
Bucky looked up at him, looked him over, then said, “Do you want to see? I’ve got more gear.”
Steve hesitated. He respected Bucky’s work and all, but the idea of going near a hive full of bees, bees that they were about to go bother, put him on edge. He wasn’t scared of bees. But he wasn’t thrilled about the high possibility of being stung. The desire to see Bucky at work won the day, so he said, “Yeah, sure, why not.”
Bucky reached into the laundry bag. There was a jumpsuit after all. Lucky Steve.
“You could at least try to hide your amusement,” said Steve. Stepping in had been laughable enough, but it escalated as he uncomfortably fit his arms into the sleeves and pulled the outfit up over his shoulders. It was definitely a tight fit. If there was even an inch less room at the crotch he’d be in trouble. And yet the way Bucky looked at him, it was the first time there’d been absolutely no caution or resentment. Just a curled mouth and eyes glittering with amusement, skimming over all those spots that gave away the bad fit of the suit. The sleeves a bit too short, the shoulders tight, the body of the suit flat against the lines of Steve’s torso as he managed to zip it up. He was used to more space, and it was made worse by the fact that his jeans were forced to tug up to accommodate the suit and further impeded his movement.
“This has made it all worth it,” said Bucky. He passed Steve a pair of gloves and a pith helmet with a veil. He kept his own under his arm as he started towards the edge of the field where Steve could see a few polystyrene hives. When they got closer Bucky put on his hat, veil still up, and stopped to explain to Steve what he was doing. As he spoke he every now and then pressed the bellows of his smoker, letting out smoke that would calm down the bees. He held a small cage in his hand with a queen inside it, telling Steve that he’d introduce her to the colony, how he’d sealed the cage with candy, how he had to give it a day or two for both the queen and workers to adjust to the new pheromones. He didn’t often meet Steve’s eyes. Steve had noticed that about Bucky. But perhaps it was just as well, because if he did Bucky would see the way Steve looked at him. Listening to what he said but fascinated by his eyelashes, by the soft smoke that sometimes rose and cradled Bucky’s form, by Bucky’s expertise and how much he cared about this and how much he knew. Steve had a general curiosity about the subject—it was the same kind of natural science that he loved in his farming—but he listened less for the bees than for Bucky. He just liked hearing what Bucky cared about.
When they were ready to open the hive Bucky drew down his veil and helped Steve attach his own to the suit by way of a zipper, sealing the costume closed. He checked on the gloves, too.
“You’re not allergic to bee stings, are you?” said Bucky.
“Actually, I don’t know,” said Steve.
Bucky paused, then smiled. “Well, we’ll try not to find out today.”
Steve really couldn’t help at all. Bucky knew what he was doing and Steve was just here to watch. It was a simple process that almost didn’t merit the urgent air with which Bucky had called him. Easy enough to slip the little cage between frames and seal over the hive again. But that didn’t account for how time-sensitive the operation was. It didn’t account for the stakes that were at play. It could mean not just the loss of this individual hive, but the instability of the others around it if the queenless bees became aggressive.
Bucky checked on his other hives, while he was here. There were by now bees flying all around them, their buzzing sounding loud, sounding too close to Steve’s ear, and he had to fight the urge to swat them away. He could see them through the veil coming close to his face, landing on his arms and his chest, and the same could be said of Bucky who moved calmly through it all while Steve’s posture remained rigid. Bucky closed the last of his hives and looked at Steve and laughed. Steve didn’t nurse any sense of wounded pride. He got to see Bucky laugh, and that was something.
“You can’t laugh at me like this is something normal,” said Steve, still not able to loosen his posture. “This could be a horror film.”
“Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bees. Sure,” said Bucky. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”
They got back to the truck, leaving the last of the bees behind them on their trek over. Bucky told Steve to pause a moment, which Steve listened to without questioning, assuming it was some kind of bee protocol. Bucky walked forward a few steps, took his phone from his pocket and looked down at it with a focused expression, then turned and raised it. And it actually took Steve a second to realise what he was doing.
“What? No!” he said, even after he knew the photo must have been taken. He was still wearing the hat, veil raised, face clearly visible. Bucky laughed again, but this time it was rich and hysterical, Bucky holding his stomach and body bending with the force of it. And Steve couldn’t help but laugh too, even as he came forward to reach for the phone. “No, let me see it, you didn’t need to do that.”
“Sam would kill me if he knew and I didn’t get a picture,” Bucky said, still laughing helplessly, leaning back against Steve’s truck, even while Steve crowded against him trying to get a look at the phone. Bucky kept it behind his back and out of reach for a good few moments, but eventually gave in and let Steve have it, slipping away and letting the last of his laughter subside. Steve looked at the photo, but it was only for good measure. He groaned but didn’t delete it. He hadn’t been expecting a playful Bucky. That was his mistake, perhaps.
“You’re cruel, Bucky Barnes” he said, taking off the hat now, unzipping the suit and beginning to shed it. “Next time I’ll know you don’t play fair.”
Bucky didn’t put on his denim jacket again when he got back into the truck. It was too hot. It was left crumpled on the middle seat between them, Steve’s flannel haphazardly thrown on top. Steve remembered Bucky’s worries about his other hives and asked if there were any other farms on this side of the city he wanted to check on. Though Bucky insisted Steve didn’t have to, he said he usually stopped by one other place when he came out this way, though it would take them another half-hour out of their way altogether. Steve insisted they go and let Bucky check up on the hives on his own, not about to climb into that jumpsuit a second time.
It was past one o’clock now, and there was a little country restaurant off the side of the road that they stopped in at. They had soup and a sandwich, sitting at a table in the light of the front window, and Steve thought it felt easy and natural. And he thought of how he could get used to looking at the sun on Bucky’s skin, the way he stirred his coffee, and the way his eyes travelled and seemed to itemize every part of the restaurant and commit it to memory. It made Steve want to see the place like Bucky did. Whenever they weren’t speaking, he found himself doing the same thing. And he wondered, would Bucky write about this in a letter? They had an embargo on speaking about their work and the people in their lives. But they’d written so many letters by now that sometimes names had come up, encoded. Steve had done the same thing. Sometimes they’d written to each other: That sounds so much like someone I know.
Since learning who Bucky was Steve had gone through the letters again. He’d pieced together who Bucky was talking about in certain letters, though more often Bucky was writing about people Steve didn’t know. Friends from outside the market life, old friends from school, family members. Bucky had written once about him. Only once, and not well.
I have a dangerous hair-trigger when it comes to being ordered around. I just see red. There’s been a lot of people in my life who’ve tried to tell me what I have to do, and unfortunately a lot of times fighting against their orders wasn’t an option. I’m pretty independent now, but it seems like no matter where I go or what I do I’m getting unsolicited advice from people who don’t know anything and it makes my skin crawl. There’s a guy I work with, this trifecta of meathead meets hipster meets good-ol’-boy, who’s constantly trying to tell me how to do my job when he knows jack-all about it, or me, or anything. The worst is when someone tells me to do something I already planned on doing because then I don’t want to do it at all. It’s stupid and obstinate and counter-intuitive, but you should know that about me. You should know that I can be petty. Probably the problem is more with me than with him (he’s too thick-headed to be malicious). Is it less of a failing if I can acknowledge it so openly? Please advise.
Steve wouldn’t have ever guessed it was him before. He didn’t see himself as meathead or hipster or good ol’ boy and he didn’t see himself as being invasive in offering advice to Bucky in those early days of the market. But the repulsion in Bucky’s tone struck a note now. He’d made Bucky’s skin crawl. That’s what Bucky wrote. And even if Steve had earned a few smiles today, he felt he had a lot of ground to make up for yet before he made any arrangements to come out to Bucky as the ‘dear friend’ of the letters.
Steve hadn’t admitted to himself that he’d been hoping their day together might feature in Bucky’s next letter, but he’d have been pretty downcast if it wasn’t.
In a week where everything seemed to be going against me I had a pleasant surprise. Pleasantly surprised by finding out I was wrong about something. That’s rare enough in itself. See, this co-worker of mine I determinedly did not like has come to demand reassessment. I write people off too quickly. I can be pretty fast and loose in making judgement calls about their personalities. I know that you don’t do this. You think the best of everyone and would give everyone you meet a second, third, and tenth chance. I’m not as good as you in this respect, but I think I should try to be better, and I’ve got the opportunity to do that now. My gut tells me not to expect much and that I’ll later be disappointed—I don’t have your natural optimism—but my heart’s under your influence. Which I almost didn’t write, except it’s true and I tell you the truth (apart from the particulars of our lives that we agreed to omit). My heart’s under your influence in more ways than one. In the case of this person, this potential friendship, it means that I want to do what you might do. I know it is the better course.
Steve checked in on Friday night to ask if Bucky’s car was fixed. It was still down for the count and so Steve offered to drive Bucky—Bucky and whatever stock he need to carry—in to the market on Saturday morning.
It was early when he came around to Bucky’s place, a shabby, rented bungalow. Steve had done his best to leave room for Bucky’s crates in amongst his vegetables, but it required some last minute arranging. Bucky said they could leave some things behind, but Steve refused. Bucky had been unable to bring in stock last week, and had probably already tried to pack his crates carefully and reduce his haul to the bare essentials. It ultimately meant filling up a part of the front seat and making full use of the passenger floor. It left Bucky on the middle of the bench seat, one hip pressed against Steve while on his other side boxes of kale, Swiss chard, and radishes forced in his shoulders.
“Can you, uh, manage the gear shift?” Steve asked. He was looking at it from the corner of his eyes, at its place right between Bucky’s knees. He blushed at the way Bucky smiled.
“Yeah, tell me when.”
“Okay, reverse. And… first gear now.” They went on like this through the town. Early morning meant not much in the way of traffic, but there were stop signs and lights to be dealt with and the truck stalled once right in an intersection. Steve took over by instinct. His hand over Bucky’s on the gearshift, his wrist brushing against the inside of Bucky’s thigh. It was after he’d followed through and had the truck on its way again, both hands back on the steering wheel, that the blush returned to his face at an even deeper shade of pink. This time Bucky acted like nothing had happened.
Sam was there when they arrived, just a moment before Nick came to open the door. He gave Steve a look that he’d rather Sam wouldn’t.
“Guess you find Bucky pretty after all,” said Sam when they were alone. He was behind his bread counter, wearing his white apron, and looking knowingly across at Steve.
“It’s not like that, Sam. His car broke down last week and he hasn’t got it up and running yet. I offered to help him out. We’re neighbours.”
“Does he know? That you’re the one he’s been writing love letters to? Did you go in there after all and tell him?”
“No,” said Steve. Even to the last part of the question, it was true in the strictest sense. He’d gone in there, after. But he didn’t tell Bucky who he was. “He doesn’t like me, Sam. He likes the guy on the other side of those letters, but not me. I need to know that he can like me.”
“You need to know that he can before you tell him he already does? I don’t follow.”
“Sam, I know him pretty well by now. He doesn’t like being told what to think or feel. He wouldn’t react well to the surprise. Not when he’s set on disliking me.”
“Will he react well if you tell him the truth down the line and he realises you hid it from him? Kind of sounds like you’re deciding on his behalf what is or isn’t good for him.”
Steve was silent. Finally said, “I’ve been thinking about that. I think I’ll have to hope he cares enough to forgive me. I’ll deal with it when I get there.” Sam’s face again expressed all, but he gave a promise not to say anything further about it. He had no interest in interfering, beyond handing Steve some brioche and telling him that one was for Bucky.
When Steve reached Bucky, it turned out Bucky had sweet-talked two fresh cups of coffee from Clint. He called it a thank-you for Steve driving him in. Steve thought of the letter, of Bucky’s intent to put forth more effort. To give Steve a chance, because that’s what his ‘dear friend’ would do.
Steve’s instinct was to make a lot out of this gesture. To assume it meant they were now fast friends in real life as well as in letters. He could’ve reacted with too much warmth and familiarity. But he remembered a lot of the things that Bucky had said, too. Bucky liked the letters for their distance and the control it gave him over the pace of things. And so Steve would hold back, so that Bucky could come to him on his own terms. Like a wild creature in the forest. Steve would be there, expectant and open, waiting and hoping. But he’d let Bucky come to him. He thought now that there was something to be said for the old-fashioned idea of long courtships. Getting to know a person thoroughly before going through with anything. Learning them so well that he could suppress his automatic reactions and behaviours in favour of what would make his partner more comfortable. It made him compassionate to the things Bucky needed. The letters were a bit of an accident. Steve had never meant for it to come to this. He’d just been curious. He hadn’t expected to fall in love.
But there were things he couldn’t learn from letters, as it turned out. Because they didn’t give details, there were a lot of things about Bucky that Steve didn’t know, which he slowly and steadily learned driving Bucky to and from the market or between waves of customers during the day. He held a MSc. Studying honeybees, of course, with a thesis on chemical treatments and immune responses. (Steve had laughed. “You have a Masters in Bees?” He refused to call it anything else.) He’d always wanted to sell honey. He’d always wanted to be his own boss. But it was hard, and he had debt from school, and had started the business on a bank loan. Steve worked out of him that Bucky couldn’t afford to get his car fixed yet, not coming out of the slow winter season like he was, and for a few more weeks Steve taxi’d Bucky around. Generally just to and from the market on the weekends, but one day they took another trip out to one of Bucky’s hives.
Bucky said it was his favourite place. A 200-year-old country house with extensive gardens and beautiful old trees. You drove through the property for almost ten minutes before you even reached the house. After checking on the hives, he and Steve wound their way through the gardens and trees, coming in and out of the sunlight at a tranquil pace. Being in this new place, far removed from the every-day and with not another soul knowing he was here, Steve felt he was in a different world and had a different life. From a high vantage point Steve eyed up and assessed the surrounding farmland. But he didn’t think of crop rotation or the arability of the land. He thought of Bucky, wandering nearby and never out of sight, fingers ghosting over the long grass at the edges of the field. Something about the whole day trip felt like a date. The kind of date a long-established couple would go on. The kind of thing they’d decide on over a slow morning coffee and breakfast (“It’s so nice out. Why don’t we go out to the old house & gardens we talked about?”). The kind of date you could return from with a whole evening to yourselves remaining.
It just turned dark when they got back to the city and Steve wondered if he was the only one who didn’t want to say goodbye. He stayed a moment, sitting in the silence of his truck, and watched the front door close after Bucky. It took all his willpower to start the engine again.
Shortly after that day, Bucky got his car back, and while Steve didn’t want to be selfish, he felt disappointed. In May the market hours got drastically better, but they saw less of each other than before. There were always customers, and Steve more often had one or two of his seasonal hires looking after The Farmer while he went about managing his fields and orchards, making sure there was product to sell.
Approaching midsummer he asked Bucky about installing hives at his own place. He’d been thinking about it a long time now, had a spot on his property picked out that he thought would be perfect, and wanted to know what Bucky thought. Bucky was surprised into silence, but then he smiled and said he didn’t see why not.
It was something Steve took seriously. And it gave him a good excuse to talk to Bucky a lot, though it was often on the phone after work. Steve didn’t want the cheap hives made of polystyrene for obvious reasons. Not biodegradable. Bucky gave him a few places to look for wooden hives, but Steve decided he could do it better and more cost-effective if he made them himself. He got the specs from Bucky, whose amusement with Steve’s dedication only grew when Steve started asking what kind of flora he should plant to promote his bees’ health and honey production.
They set a day for Bucky to come over with some seeds and cuttings, to help out in the garden and take a look at Steve’s progress on building his hives. It was a hot day at the end of June the first time Bucky came by Steve’s farm.
Steve focused mostly on crop and rented land all around the county, but on his own property he kept a few animals. Two white geese, four chickens (and one rooster to keep them in line), a few San Clemente Island goats, two Tamworth pigs, and an old horse who spent most of her time with the neighbours’ cattle for company. The river running through his property, which the geese were partial to, also attracted a few ducks. There was, as usual for this time of year, a litter of kittens somewhere around the barn. People had a habit of dropping unwanted cats off at Steve’s. Though all the animals were curious about Bucky’s arrival, it was of course the dog—part golden retriever, part something else, collie maybe—that came up to greet him and wouldn’t leave him alone. Steve empathized with the dog.
“Let me take those off your hands,” said Steve, taking the box of starting planters and seed packets from Bucky so that he could kneel to greet the overenthusiastic dog properly. “She’ll never stop bothering you until you’re introduced. Her name’s Missy.”
Bucky smiled and said hello, talking to her as he scrubbed his hands through her fur, winning her affection at once. It took her some time to calm down, but it also took Steve some time to confer with Bucky about where things should go, explaining where the light hit at different times of day. Steve hadn’t really paid attention to the garden surrounding his house in some time. It had become a kind of overgrown thing and the soil had been neglected. He’d taken a while just prepping for Bucky to come by, cutting things back and turning over the soil, applying his farming knowledge to enriching it.
“If I’d known how much space you had to work with, I’d have brought more,” said Bucky as he looked around. “Should we start?”
They put on some gardening gloves, and Steve followed Bucky’s instructions, sometimes working side-by-side with him and sometimes working in other parts of the garden. Planting lavender and catmint, geraniums and hollyhocks and aster, sweet asylum and heliotrope. Bucky had on a loose pair of shorts, and it didn’t take long before his knees were smudged with dirt and cut grass. And it only migrated from there. Smeared onto his shirt, his arms, the side of his face.
Missy checked in on him now and then. She was good about not digging in the dirt where they were working, which Steve hoped would last once everything was planted, but she wasn’t so good at resisting two humans knelt down to her level. She had to come over and sniff Steve or Bucky, lick Bucky’s neck, or stick her head under Steve’s arm to indicate he should give her attention. Steve called her a menace, but he smiled as he said it.
It was a few hours before they went inside, Bucky looking around the place like he’d done at the restaurant they went to together. Taking account of everything, it seemed. Steve had taken down anything with his handwriting on it, unsuccessfully telling himself it wasn’t subterfuge and that he shouldn’t feel guilty while he did it. But it was a necessary precaution. Bucky was too sharp not to notice if there were anything to be seen.
Steve led him into the kitchen and poured them each some cold lemonade.
“Will you stay for dinner?” Steve asked.
“I don’t have anywhere to be,” said Bucky.
“Do you eat meat?”
“Short answer is yes,” said Bucky.
“I’ll make us up some burgers, then,” said Steve. “What’s the long answer?”
Bucky smiled, sitting up on a bar stool by the counter and drinking from his lemonade. “I eat 90% vegetarian and only buy meat if I know where it came from, but am never fussy about it when I’m someone’s guest.”
“That is exceptionally moderate of you,” said Steve with a smile.
“What can I say?” said Bucky. He wore that faint smile, casual and cocky, now quite familiar to Steve. “I’m not into lecturing people at dinner parties.”
Steve smiled again, but it was as much for the comment as it was for the thoughts turning round in his head. This was so natural. Steve’s diet had more than 10% meat in it, but they shared a mentality as far as sourcing it went. Maybe it wasn’t such a surprising thing to have in common, given the kind of businesses they ran, but Steve couldn’t help but think of it as another reason that this should work. He should tell Bucky, he decided. He should tell him who he was. He just had to work out how.
They had a beer with their supper, as demanded by both the barbeque and the heat of the day, and Bucky swore that they were the best burgers he’d ever had. They had another beer as the evening deepened, though now they were in Steve’s living room. Bucky was less discreet about his investigation than before. While they talked he went to Steve’s bookshelves and looked at the titles, taking them in.
“Soils.” He looked at Steve. “Really?” The book looked like a dry tome. A thick hardcover with no dustjacket, just brown fabric and Soils stamped across the spine in capital letters.
“Hey, it has some useful information in it.”
Bucky had pulled it down and opened it. “Oh my god, you’ve highlighted things in this. You’ve actually read it.”
“It was assigned reading!” Bucky looked at him. “I did a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve got a Master of Bees.”
Bucky closed the book and rolled his eyes. “Study anything else in school?” he asked.
“Had a minor in History,” said Steve, also evidenced by the books on the shelves. Bucky nodded a little, then wandered on from the bookshelf. Yet Steve felt pretty sure he’d made something of that information, even if he didn’t speak to it. Bucky stopped to look at a picture on the wall, one that Steve had drawn and liked enough to frame.
“I like this,” said Bucky.
“Thanks. It’s the view out from a friend’s place, a few years ago.”
“You drew it?” Bucky looked at Steve again, like he was more interesting than the picture now. Steve knew that Bucky was impressed, but he felt an odd twist in his gut. All this time and Bucky still hadn’t expected much of Steve. Assumed that because he was a farmer he hadn’t gotten an education. That he had nothing to contribute. No real soul. Despite seeing Steve make up those calligraphic chalkboard signs—requesting such signs and cards himself at a few points over the past few months—he still didn’t think there was anything to Steve but a few plaid shirts and boots lined with dirt. And Steve didn’t think he liked that Bucky didn’t believe he counted for much till now.
Steve’s arms folded over his stomach. “Yeah,” he said. There was less spirit in his voice, and after all, Steve wasn’t much good at disguising anything. Bucky seemed to sense that he’d misstepped, even if he couldn’t say how. He looked away and took a swig from his beer as if it would be some kind of reset. Obviously, it wasn’t.
“I should go before it gets late,” Bucky said, filling the momentary silence. His beer bottle was still half full, but he set it down on a table by the couches.
Steve wanted to tell him he didn’t have to, but it seemed too late for that. There was a part of him that wanted Bucky to stay, sure. Bucky attracted him like no other, and he wanted to be with him, and he wanted Bucky to want him just the same. He’d been considering telling him, this very night, all about the letters and who he really was. But another part of him felt done, just for tonight. He’d done a lot for Bucky, and he’d done it sincerely, so the fact that it felt like Bucky was just seeing him now stung.
“Yeah, sure,” said Steve, and he already started walking Bucky to the door. They stopped there, Bucky picking up his keys, the only thing he really had to take with him. He would have taken his time if he’d had the excuse of gloves and boots and winter apparel, but the heat of June provided no such excuses. Steve said, “Thanks for your help with the garden.”
“Yeah, anytime. Thanks for supper. And… I’ll bring by some more flowers and cuttings sometime, if you like. You know, we talked about— I still think some peonies would look great, right around those trees, and I’ve got a friend planning to cut hers back anyways, so I could bring you by some stalks…”
Steve hadn’t heard him talk like this before. A bit anxious, rambling like he’d rather just keep talking than have to hear Steve politely decline ever inviting Bucky back. His voice was calm and low as he said, “That’d be good, sometime.” He couldn’t part letting Bucky think he’d screwed up beyond repair. This wasn’t an ending. “I’ll see you on Friday, Bucky.”
“Yeah, see you on Friday.” But Bucky didn’t go. Steve looked to Bucky’s eyes, which were jumping from Steve’s shoulders, to his mouth, to his eyes, to the front door, then back down to his chest. He looked confused. And Steve wondered. Because everything else about this felt like the time for a kiss, and yet Bucky had committed his heart elsewhere, so he thought, to someone he never met. But neither of them moved, and although he didn’t look any more certain of anything now, Bucky managed to repeat, “I’ll see you Friday,” and left.
Have you ever screwed up badly without knowing what it is you’ve done? I think I ruined that friendship I was building, but I don’t know how. Everything was good, great even, and then something happened. I hit a sore spot. But I’m going over it again and again and trying to figure out what it is and I can’t make sense of it. I want to make it better, but I don’t know how. I feel like you would know the answer, but there would be such a lot of particulars to give, and we’re still doing that thing where we don’t talk about the details of our personal lives. That’s getting harder for me. Is it getting harder for you? Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe those details aren’t as boring or vulgar or meaningless as I might’ve once said. And I was ready to meet you—I’m not hiding from you. But I won’t share anything definite about myself yet. Not unless you agree. But you’ve already seen me. You know my face now. Might have passed by my work. Might have spoken to me, knowing we know each other. I’m aware of the advantage you have here, I have been since that night, but I’m not bitter.
I wish I could talk to you. I wish I could hear your voice. I know your words, but I wish I could see the expressions that go with them. You haven’t proposed meeting again. You must have your reasons for that. But at a time like this, when I need your advice and I’m here wanting to give all these specifics, I wish I could sit down and talk to you over coffee.
And I’ve got to know, for reasons I can’t fully explain, will we ever meet?
The letter stirred Steve’s sympathy, knowing how the tense conclusion to their evening bothered Bucky. But the final question made him wonder. What could Bucky’s unspoken reasons be? What immediate difference would it make, whether or not they met? Did Bucky want to bring an end to the correspondence? Was it that he wanted to know if he should hang on? Did he want to know if he should set his heart free again? Was there a reason that he was saying it now? Was there someone specific he wanted to be available for? Had that moment at the door, that feeling that undertook Steve so strongly even through his disappointment, been entirely mutual?
He took the letter from his post box on Friday evening and read it dozens of times that night. He didn’t have an answer yet, but on Saturday he put extra effort into being friendly with Bucky to ease his anxiety and let him know there were no hard feelings. He talked about how the hive-building was coming along and when he’d be ready to introduce a few colonies, made plans for another day of gardening with Bucky, and didn’t leave till he felt assured that Bucky no longer guilted himself about potentially harming a friendship.
He wrote back that they would meet, but that he had a lot of ongoing projects. It would be better when those had come to a close. Probably by the end of the summer. After the mixed feelings resulting from their gardening day, Steve wanted some extra time.
July and August were busy and hot. The crop was good, but required more man-power and tractor-power than Steve had on-hand. He worked from dawn till dusk and then even a little after. Bucky came over for another day of gardening, then over again once the hives were ready. He visited Steve’s place often that summer. Sometimes his excuse was just checking up on the bees, but there were less excuses before long. They spent the dog days of summer lying on burnt-out grass after a day of hard work, and sometimes Steve felt Bucky’s eyes on him, lingering longer than they used to. While the weather got hotter the letters cooled off somewhat, being written with less frequency, but with promises that at the end of the season, they’d meet.
Near the end of August Steve had a party at his place, inviting all the business owners in the market over. There was a barbeque and a campfire and a lot of beer. Things moved inside at some point in the night, and Steve found himself sitting next to Bucky on the couch, both of them at a tunnel-vision level of drunk, ignoring and ignored by everyone else in the room. Steve had his arm along the back of the couch, and after a moment Bucky’s head leaned back against it.
“He wants to meet on the first of September,” said Bucky. He leaned a little more against Steve. “My ‘dear friend.’”
“Are you excited?” Steve asked.
“I don’t know any more,” said Bucky. He closed his eyes, and Steve wondered if he was going to fall asleep. “I think I’m psychologically mixed up.”
“How do you mean?” asked Steve. His heartbeat felt heavy.
“Hm,” Bucky answered. He opened his eyes again. He looked at Steve, smiled a little. His eyes definitely went to Steve’s mouth. “Hm.”
And Steve wanted to kiss him. And if he told him now, who he really was, surely it wouldn’t make any difference than if he waited those few extra days till the first of September. In that respect he could kiss him with a clear conscience. But Bucky was drunk now and, sure, Steve was too, but this really wasn’t the time for the confessions that ought to be made.
“You got a way home?” asked Steve. “You look about ready.” And if Bucky looked crestfallen all Steve could hope was that the sober light of day would soften the blow.
Bucky’s lift home included a few others, who the driver was trying to round up. Steve helped Bucky into his jacket and wanted to do more to chase away that sad look from before.
“So this guy, you know what he looks like?”
“No,” said Bucky. “Never met him, right? Just got these letters.”
“What do you imagine him like?” asked Steve. “Surely you picture him sometimes.” He had definitely tried to picture Bucky, based on handwriting and word choice. He no longer remembered the face of the ‘dear friend’ he’d created all those months ago. It had been subsumed into Bucky alone.
“Oh, I don’t know. Sort of generic, almost. I guess. Tall, dark-haired, thin maybe. Nice hands.” Bucky looked down at Steve’s hands for a moment with a furrowed brow. But then a smile and a faint laugh spread across his face in the most charming way and chased off that look of concentration. “Bit like Jimmy Stewart. I got a crush on Jimmy Stewart. He had just… the most sensitive eyebrows.”
Steve laughed. He absolutely lost it. One moment things had felt so intense and so serious and so personal and then Bucky had magically and unwittingly changed that. “Whatever happens,” he said, struggling out of his laughter. “I hope I never forget you talking about Jimmy Stewart’s eyebrows.”
Whatever happens. He didn’t have the chance to think about what that meant, and Bucky didn’t have the chance to ask. The driver and the remaining three inebriated passengers were gathered, thanking Steve excessively for the party. Bucky didn’t take his eyes off Steve, watching him throughout all the words and rituals of parting. He was the last of them to leave, looking back at Steve until he stepped away and into the darkness outside.
September 1st was the date on the very first letter Steve sent to Bucky’s post box. He brought carnations, the first anniversary flower and the flower he was meant to wear in his lapel the last time. This time around he wore the blue shirt that Bucky gave him for Christmas. He’d tried it on once or twice, but he hadn’t worn it out before. Today, minding his appearance more than usual, he looked in the mirror once he’d buttoned it up and fussed out the creases. He hadn’t realised how well it suited him till seeing it now in the light of the morning. A perfect fit in the sleeves and shoulders and a shade of blue seemingly made to match his eyes. Bucky hadn’t even liked him when he bought him this shirt and it was still perfect.
They agreed to meet in a park this time. No need for books or flowers to signpost who they were, given that Bucky’s face was already known. Nevertheless, Steve had a bouquet in his hand as he walked into the park, and he caught sight of Bucky reading under the shade of a tree. He wasn’t keeping watch like he’d done in the café. Steve didn’t know if it was just to keep his mind busy when minutes of waiting felt like hours or if it was because he doubted that the ‘dear friend’ would show at all.
But Bucky’s focus wasn’t so great that he didn’t hear the tread of Steve’s approach. He looked up and saw Steve and looked like he was about to say something to him, perhaps tell him off or ask how he happened to be in this park at this very time. But his eyes had already dropped to the carnations, and then looked back up at Steve’s face with equal parts confusion and complete understanding.
“It’s you?” He swallowed hard and pushed himself up unsteadily from the ground, one hand on the tree for support. “I wanted it to be you.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that night,” said Steve.
“Why didn’t you?” Bucky asked.
“You hated me then. I was afraid if you knew that it was me writing to you, you wouldn’t give me a chance. Thought I’d lose you altogether.”
Bucky meant to speak, perhaps refute, but then he had it in him to laugh. “Well, I mean, you’re probably right, so…” He looked too overwhelmed with surprise and pleasure to feel anything negative. Both of them were caught up in the wave of that. It likely influenced their ability to make good decisions or appropriate reactions, but neither of them was in control of that any longer and it had to be said that it was working in Steve’s favour. “I can’t really be mad at you. But you should’ve told me sooner.”
“Steve, I could’ve been kissing you this whole time.” So he had been thinking it, all those times. Thinking it and holding himself back. He didn’t hold back now. He stepped forward and caught up his fingers in the front of Steve’s shirt, pressing up to kiss him.
As first kisses went, it broke a few of the rules. Deeper. Intimate. But there’d been a year of building to this, and so many close calls of late, and the words of Bucky’s early letters proved their truth, now. there’s something in the delay, friend. Steve’s hand curled around Bucky’s hip and the fistful of carnations pressed along the line of his back. The thick array of red petals ghosted against the hair at the nape of Bucky’s neck.
Steve wasn’t the kind of guy who could keep a cool head in situations like these and he wouldn’t pretend to. When they’d kissed away Steve smiled from the heart. There was definitely a pink tint to his face, but he had no power to hide that either. But he couldn’t resist the opportunity to say, “So you’re not disappointed I don’t look like Jimmy Stewart? I’ve been worrying ever since, you know.”
“So help me, Steve—”
“Do I have sensitive eyebrows?”
“It just had to be you, didn’t it.” Bucky shut him up with another kiss.