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A Memoir in Wood

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May, 1932

“Come on, Buck,” Steve urges, pushing another branch out of the way before it smacks him in the face. They’d spent that Sunday afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum, but lost track of time until the museum staff started clearing everyone out. “We don’t got time to take the long way through the park, ‘specially when we’re not even following the path.”  He jogs a few steps to try and catch up to Bucky’s longer stride. “It’s getting late and Ma’ll tan my hide if I miss dinner.”

Bucky glanced over his shoulder and slowed down enough that Steve could move up to his side.  He tosses his arm over Steve’s narrow shoulders. “It’s fine, Stevie! I just wanna show you someplace I found last week, and it’s nicest just before the sun goes down.”  He pulls Steve up a small slope and between two thick-trunked trees. “It ain’t far, and it’s on the way to the train station anyhow. ‘Sides, your Ma ain’t gonna give you a swat, she ain’t the type.”

“She’ll give me that ‘I’m disappointed in you, Steven’ look, though.  Pretty sure that’s worse,” Steve groans, scuffing his heel against the ground.

Bucky snorts a laugh.  “Yeah, I guess that’s fair.  Well don’t worry, this’ll be quick and you’ll be home in no time.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but keeps following Bucky through the brush and bracken of the depths of Prospect Park. Yeah he might argue, but he’s never able to resist Bucky’s whims for long.  He can see flashes of other people through the trees; couples strolling arm-in-arm and people either on their way home or headed out for the evening’s entertainment. He’s sure none of them would be able to see two boys running through the trees, which sort of makes it feel like a secret adventure.

Turns out Bucky wasn’t exaggerating, and in under a quarter hour they’re deep in the trees somewhere.  Steve’s best guess is somewhere between the Nethermead and the slope down into the Ravine. But then Bucky slips between a boulder and some leafy brush and when Steve follows he sees they’re in a little clearing, hidden from the surrounding pathways by some dense bushes and a cluster of tight-knit trees.

“See?” Bucky exclaims, spreading his arms wide.  “A perfect secret spot right in the middle of the park.”  

And yeah, Steve has to admit that it’s a pretty nice spot, especially with the afternoon sun filtering down through the branches and leaves arching overhead.  “Okay, Bucky, this is pretty neat.”

Bucky gives him a satisfied grin.  “I knew you’d like it.” He walks over to one of the trees and points to a spot a few feet above the ground.  “I even marked it so we can find it again, and we’ll always know we’re in the right place. In case the bushes start to grow in or something.”

When Steve steps closer, he sees that Bucky’s carved their initials into the bark, a little rough and uneven.

JB + SR

He casts a confused look at Bucky.  “Ain’t that what people do with whoever they’re stepping out with?”

Bucky just shakes his head.  “Nah, Stevie, this is ‘cause we’re best friends, see it ain’t got a heart around it, so it’s just marking this as our secret hideout.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Steve says, but he’s not really sure.  Still, Bucky seems real proud of himself, so it’s fine. “Your carving needs some work, though,” he teases.

“Yeah, well, I ain’t the artist here, am I?” Bucky rolls his eyes, but he pulls his little folding knife out of his pocket and hands it to Steve.  “If you’re gonna be a critic, then you can fix it up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve grumbles, though he doesn’t really mind.  He takes a few minutes with the knife, carefully trimming the edges of the letters and even adding little flourishes at the ends of the lines, until the whole thing looks tidy and actually pretty swell. 

Bucky smiles, satisfied, while running his fingers along the letters.  “That looks real good, Steve. Thanks. Now it’s really our spot, since we both had a part of marking it.”

Even though Steve thought this was a bit silly at first, he can’t deny the satisfaction he feels seeing his initials permanently etched into the wood of the tree next to Bucky’s.

The sun glints through the trees, one bright gold moment, before the light has set low enough that twilight falls across their little glade.

“You’re right, Buck.  It looks real nice.” Steve smiles and passes the penknife back.  “But I really do gotta get home.” He reaches out to flick a tiny piece of bark out of the groove of the ‘B’.  

“Sure thing, pal, let’s go,” Bucky smiles back.  He leads the way out of the trees and when they reach the path again, he smirks at Steve. Shouting, “Race ‘ya!” he takes off running.  Steve laughs, and follows behind. He might not beat Bucky in a race, but he knows Bucky won’t leave him behind.

 

***

 

June, 1942

Bucky settles at the base of the tree―their tree, which is how he always thinks of it―and idly whittles away at a stick with his penknife while he waits for Steve to show up. Bucky’s home on furlough for the week, and even though it won’t be the last chance he and Steve have to see each other, it’s unlikely they’ll have another chance to come here. 

He’s already let his Ma and Becca know he’d be out for awhile tonight with Steve, and Steve also doesn’t have to work late stocking shelves at the greengrocers. At least for a little while, tonight’s just for the two of them.

The sun’s low in the sky, casting their little glade into twilight shadows.  He’s quiet aside from the scratch of the knifeblade against wood, enjoying the softness of the nighttime sounds from the park and trees surrounding him, backgrounded by the low hum of the city.  

It’s a nice change after the noise and crowded quarters of the training camp these last few months.  Most of the other guys in his training unit are alright fellas, but the barracks have them packed in like sardines, and the days are long and sweaty and loud.

Soft rustling through the trees catches Bucky’s ear a few minutes later, and when he determines it’s headed his way, he’s figures it’s Steve.  Sure enough, after another minute the brush at the south end of their little clearing rattles and shifts aside as Steve pushes his way into the little clearing.

“It’s a lot harder to get here when it’s getting dark,” Steve complains, brushing off the knee of his trousers where a smudge of dirt says he must have tripped.  Bucky hides a smile as he folds up his penknife and stands. 

“You gotta take it easy there, Stevie.  I ain’t always gonna be around to mend the tears in your pants,” Bucky teases.

Steve snorts as he straightens.  “Bribe Becca to do your mending, you mean?”

“I’m an enterprising man, Steve,” Bucky laughs, spreading his hands in an exaggerated gesture.  “Gotta know how to make a deal.”

“I’ll show you a deal,” Steve mutters, but he’s smiling as he steps closer to Bucky.  Leaning in, he presses a quick kiss to Bucky’s jaw, but not before he glances around to make sure they’re still safely shielded by nature.  Even though they’re safe enough here, hidden by trees around their little clearing, Steve’s still always careful. Always watching that someone isn’t about to stumble across their little shelter in the underbrush.

When Steve pulls back, he gets a glimpse around Bucky’s shoulder at the oak tree―their tree.  He smiles. “I see you’ve been busy.”

Around the initials carved years ago, cuts gone dark with the years, Steve can see the bright pale slashes of a newly-carved heart arcing around the letters.

Bucky smiles back, and to anyone other than Steve it would look carefree, but he knows Steve can see the sadness and worry underneath.

“Wasn’t sure when I’d get another chance,” Bucky says. Turning, he runs his fingers along the heart’s edge and then shaves a little more bark off with the small penknife.  “And I thought our hideaway could use a bit more decoration. Something permanent, so you don’t forget me when I’m away.”

Steve sighs, sounding equally exasperated and fond.  “No chance of me forgetting you, Bucky Barnes. You made your choice when were were seven years old, you’re stuck with me now.”  He leans against Bucky’s shoulder. “But I do like the heart. Looks nice.” Then Steve smirks. “But it needs a little work.”

Sliding his hand over Bucky’s, Steve takes the penknife.  Leaning forward, he starts trimming and tidying the carved heart.  They’re both quiet while Steve works, sharing each other’s space, the soft crunchy scraping sound of the metal blade against bark the only noise.

Finally Steve brushes away the last curls of bark.  The heart Bucky’d carved earlier now has smooth edges cut deep through the bark and down into the pale wood beneath.  “There.”

“Looks great,” Bucky whispers, slipping the penknife out of Steve’s hand and folding it before tucking it back in his own pocket.

Steve turns around to face Bucky, putting his back against the tree.  Reaching out, he slips a hand beneath one of Bucky’s suspenders and tugs him forward until Bucky’s weight presses him against the tree trunk.  Through the thin material of his shirt and coat, Steve can faintly feel the dips and ridges of the carving. JB + SR.   Rising on his toes and pressing their chests together, Steve slips his other hand up the back of Bucky’s neck and pulls him into a kiss.  

They spend long minutes kissing, lips and tongues sliding warm against each other, even as they both know they can’t take this too far. Their little clearing is private enough, but it’s still in the middle of a public park.  They can’t get careless.

Finally Steve pulls away, though only far enough that he can rest his head against the stubbled edge of Bucky’s chin.  Without the distraction of a kiss, he’s left with the melancholy of their coming separation. “I’m gonna miss you, Buck.”

Bucky’s arms tighten where they’re wrapped around Steve, and Bucky heaves a sigh that ruffles Steve’s hair.  “Yeah, I’m gonna miss you too, punk.”

“Any word yet on where you’re going?  Or when?” Steve asks, leaning back so he can see Bucky’s face.  All the years they’ve been friends, the last couple years they’ve been lovers, and Steve still never tires of the familiar lines and angles, these smiling grey-blue eyes.

Bucky shakes his head.  “Not yet. I think after this leave, though.  Most of us are through with Basic and starting to earn our ranks.”  He gives a cocky tilt of his head and smirks at Steve. “I made Sergeant last month, actually.  Started training as a marksman.”

“Well, you always had good aim,” Steve smiles, but he can feel it’s tight with worry.  The sharpshooters might stay further back from the action sometimes when compared to the infantry, but that certainly didn’t mean Bucky was going to be safe from danger.

Bucky hauls Steve close again and into another kiss.  Steve tries to say with his lips what he feels in his heart―that he loves Bucky, worries for him, misses him when he’s not here.  It’s full dark now, though, and Steve reluctantly pulls away. “Guess we oughta get going. Your Ma’ll be expecting you back for dinner with her and the girls.”

Bucky gives him a pouty look, and damn but it shouldn’t look so good on such a masculine face.  Steve strokes his hand down Bucky’s cheek before stepping aside. “Come on, Buck. Can’t stand around being sweet on you all night, unfortunately.”

For a moment Bucky stays where he is, eyes on the heart carved into the tree in front of him.  JB + SR. He reaches out to touch the letters, then taps his knuckles three times against the wood before following Steve through the brush and out of the clearing.  

He wanted this to be a “see you later.”

It feels like a goodbye.