October, 1941, Brooklyn
“Hold still, will ya?” Bucky knelt on the hardwood floor in front of the well-worn sofa, gripped Steve’s chin and dabbed his lower lip with a tissue. “Your lip is split and you’re gonna have one hell of a shiner, but the good news is that I don’t think your nose is broken.”
Steve started to nod, but remembered that Bucky told him to be still. “Sorry,” he mumbled, trying not to move his lips too much.
“Hold this and let me look at your eye again.” Bucky waited until Steve had the tissue in his hand and then turned Steve’s face toward the lamp light. “It’s already turning purple.”
Steve tried to focus on a spot on the living room wall just beyond Bucky’s shoulder, but his gaze kept drifting to Bucky’s eyes, normally clear and bright, but at the moment, clouded with worry. Bucky leaned closer and squinted. His long eyelashes fluttered and left dark shadows on his cheek. Before Steve could look away, Bucky caught him staring and frowned.
“Geez, Steve,” he said. He let go of Steve’s chin and sat back on his haunches. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? It’s like you go looking for trouble.”
“You’d rather I ignore Fred setting fire to the trash bin? Destruction of public property is a crime.”
Bucky’s frown softened. “If it means you staying safe, then yes. Sometimes you have to walk away.”
“Not gonna happen.” Steve’s eyes flashed with defiance.
“Buddy, one day I won’t be there to bail you out when you snap your cap.”
“I can handle myself just fine.”
“Doesn’t look that way to me. You’re lucky I heard the scuffle over the music.”
Steve looked away. “I’m sorry about your date.”
Bucky shrugged and climbed to his feet. “Marjorie understood. I’ll take her out dancing next Friday.”
“She’s a real looker.”
Bucky sat down next to Steve on the sofa and curled his lips into a lopsided grin. “She’s a doll. Not that I’ll ever get to date her if you keep picking fights.”
“I’m not doing it on purpose,” began Steve, but Bucky’s comment stopped him short. He’d known it would be a miserable evening, watching Bucky spin his best girl around the dance floor, but when Bucky insisted he get out of the house and join them, Steve swallowed his misgivings and tagged along. While Bucky danced the East Coast Swing, Steve leaned against the wall and sipped fruit punch from a paper cup. He couldn’t even buy a dance, not when the eyes of every gal in the joint were focused on Bucky. Maybe he really was picking fights on purpose. At least that way he got Bucky’s undivided attention. Steve sighed.
“That’s a big sigh for such a little guy,” said Bucky. “What’s eating you?”
“I dunno. Dancing isn’t my cup of joe.”
“That’s because you won’t try,” said Bucky. He stood up and held out his hand to Steve. “Do you remember what I taught you? Let’s give it a shot.”
Steve looked incredulous. “Now?”
“Sure! Why not? You got a train to catch?” Bucky grinned. “Practice makes perfect.”
“Alright.” Steve took Bucky’s hand and stepped forward. His mind immediately went blank. Did his right hand go on the girl’s shoulder or her waist? It hovered in mid-air as he pondered that question.
“Hand on the waist, Romeo,” said Bucky, reading Steve’s mind. “Unless you want to get slapped.”
Steve nodded and rested his fingertips lightly on the belt of Bucky’s trousers.
“There you go. Now, forward on your left foot. One, two, three, four. One, two…that’s it.” Bucky kept time as they slowly moved round the living room. “You’re getting it.”
“If the fellas could see us now, they would never let us live this down,” muttered Steve.
“I’m not telling them,” laughed Bucky, his eyes sparkling merrily. “It’ll be our secret.”
For the next half hour, they circled the living room in time to Bucky’s voice. Steve stepped on Bucky’s toes three times, but he never complained. As odd as it was to be dancing with another guy, Steve found himself smiling.
“Want to try it with some music?” asked Bucky.
Steve glanced at his watch and shook his head. “We’d wake the neighbors. It’s already after midnight.”
“I didn’t know it was that late. Can I stay here tonight?”
“Sure thing,” said Steve.
Bucky heeled off his shoes and made his way to Steve’s tiny bedroom. He dropped his shirt and trousers near the foot of the bed and slid his feet under the covers.
Steve stripped down to his boxers and climbed in awkwardly next to him. “Hey, Bucky…thanks.”
“For what?” Bucky asked.
“For sticking up for me, for the dancing lessons, for being my friend.” Steve stared at his hands and hoped Bucky couldn’t see the color he knew was rising in his cheeks.
Bucky gave Steve’s leg an affectionate pat. “That’s what best friends do.” He fluffed his pillow, lay down and rolled over on his side. “You’ve got class tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah. In the morning.”
“Will you be here when I wake up?”
“Of course,” Steve said quietly.
Bucky grinned up at him. “G’night, Steve.”
In a matter of moments, Bucky’s breathing settled into a soft snore that ruffled the pillowcase when he exhaled. A disaster of an evening had turned into a nearly perfect night. For the first time in weeks, he’d had Bucky all to himself, even if it was only for a couple of hours. Steve reached for his sketchbook. The moonlight through the sheer curtains bathed Bucky in a bluish glow, deepening the curves of his muscular shoulders, softening the hard line of his strong jaw. A study in contrasts. Steve’s pencil scraped lightly against the paper. He wished the night could go on forever.
October 1942, Chicago
Steve took a final bow on stage and saluted the cheering crowd. “Thank you for buying war bonds and doing your part to support our boys overseas!” The music hit a soaring crescendo and the curtain fell to thunderous applause. Steve heaved a huge sigh of relief. One more show down, a million more to go.
“Nice work, Cap,” said a passing stage hand. He gave Steve a thumbs up sign as he raced by with an armload of props.
“You, too,” called Steve in reply, but the boy had already disappeared around the corner. Steve’s shoulders slumped. He’d been touring for several months, but he had yet to make any real friends. The cast seemed to like him. Who didn’t like Captain America? He wasn’t sure, however, who actually liked Steve Rogers. Slowly, he weaved his way through the crowded backstage area, stopping to sign an autograph for an eager kid and pose for a photo with a local politician. Everybody wanted something.
A group of girls from the chorus sashayed past, their short red and blue skirts swishing around their long legs. Doris, a buxom brunette with bright red lips and a bright personality to match, turned around and walked back toward him. “Great show tonight, Cap.”
“Thanks, Doris,” he said courteously. “You gals did a bang-up job, too.”
Doris dipped her chin and smiled coyly. “It’s my first time in Chicago. I hear there’s a great dance hall downtown.” She rested her hand lightly on his bicep.
Steve was exhausted. All he really wanted to do was change out of his costume, go back to the motel room and settle in with a good book. Instead, he covered her hand and said, “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do than show you the town.”
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Doris. She looked over her shoulder and gave the girls behind her a wink. They all squealed happily. “Give us half an hour.”
“It’s really hopping,” Steve noted as he held the door for Doris. She and her four friends had dressed to the nines, and the group turned heads when they walked into the club. Steve attracted attention wherever he went, but he still wasn’t quite used to it. Bucky would laugh if he could see him now, wearing tights on stage and escorting five girls out on the town.
Bucky. Steve wondered how he was. When he’d first enlisted and shipped out overseas with the 107th Infantry, Bucky wrote nearly every week. The food was bad, the cots were hard, the cigarettes were scarce. Gradually, though, the letters stopped coming. Steve tried not to worry, but sometimes he still did.
Doris touched Steve’s arm and gazed up at him expectantly. “You like?” she asked with a flip of her hair.
Steve flashed a winning smile. “Very much.” He held out his hand to her and asked, “Would you like to dance?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she breathlessly replied.
The band played an upbeat number, and the crowd bustled to the rhythm of an east coast swing. Steve fell right in step, leading Doris effortlessly and twirling her around. After the serum, everything came easier to him, even dancing, but he still relied on the techniques Bucky had taught him back in his Brooklyn living room.
“You’re a fab dancer,” cried Doris above the music. “Where’d you learn those moves?”
“Thanks, a friend taught me,” he said with a grin.
“Must be some friend!” Doris giggled as Steve pulled her close.
Steve’s grin faded. “He is. A very good friend.”
January 1943, Italy
Bucky emerged from the medic tent looking worn and haggard. Steve stopped his pacing and rushed to his side. “So? What did the doc say?”
“Just a few scrapes and bruises. Nothing a couple days of R&R won’t cure,” said Bucky.
That didn’t ease Steve’s mind. Less than twenty-four hours ago, Steve had rescued Bucky and what was left of the 107th from behind enemy lines. While the rest of his unit had been held captive in jail cells, Bucky had been strapped to a table and forced to endure God-knows-what kind of torture Zola had chosen to inflict.
“Let me help you to the tent,” Steve offered, looping his arm round Bucky’s waist.
Bucky glanced over his shoulder. “The barracks are the other way, over by the mess hall.”
“You’re bunking with me, soldier,” said Steve.
“That’s an order.” Steve gave Bucky’s waist a gentle squeeze.
Bucky turned to stare at him. “I still can’t get over it. My best friend is Captain America. What happened to the little guy I left behind?”
Steve laughed. “He’s right here, still picking fights. Only now he wins them.”
“I’ll say,” said Bucky. “It’s just hard to believe you’re really Steve. My Steve.”
My Steve. Steve’s heart soared like a kite caught in a sudden updraft. He swallowed hard and fought to reel it back in. “I’m still your Steve, just like you’re my Bucky.”
Bucky looked away. “Yeah, I guess.”
When they got to the tent, it had already been set up with two cots, two small tables and all of their belongings. Bucky sank down on the one nearest the door and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “So,” he began, looking up at Steve, “the squirt from Brooklyn turned into a national hero.”
Steve shrugged and propped his foot on the edge of Bucky’s cot. “Seems that way. A dose of serum, a little radiation and you get this,” he said, tapping his chest.
“Maybe they can hook me up.”
“You’re fine like you are,” Steve said. “You always have been.”
“Funny, I don’t feel fine.” Bucky leaned back on his hands. “I feel like a punk who got himself captured and needed saving.”
Just then, Dum Dum Dugan yanked back the flap of the tent and stuck his head in. “Hey, fellas! A bunch of us are going into town tonight to celebrate! Whaddaya say?”
“I say, yes,” said Bucky. “Sounds like the cat’s meow.”
“Eight O’clock sharp. First round is on me,” said Dum Dum. He gave them both a quick salute and ducked back out.
Steve frowned. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Doc said you needed rest.”
“I can rest when I’m dead,” said Bucky, determined. “I’m going.”
Peggy Carter’s sleek silhouette in the daring red dress captured the attention of every man in the room. Steve felt proud that he was the only one who managed to capture hers. They’d chatted briefly that evening about dancing and waiting for the right partner, a conversation that left him wanting more. He hadn’t felt that way about anyone in a long time. One day, when the war was over, he’d take her out for dinner and dancing and maybe even a little fondue.
He sensed the weight of a heavy gaze on his back, and he turned around to see Bucky staring a hole through him, whiskey bottle in one hand, empty glass in the other. “You lied.”
Steve wandered over to where Bucky sat and climbed onto the barstool next to him. “How so?”
“You know how to dance. I know. I’m the one who taught you.” Bucky’s grey eyes were stormy.
“I let her believe what she wanted to believe.”
“You always tell people what they want to hear?”
Steve’s brow furrowed. “No. I try to tell the truth.”
“Then tell me the truth,” Bucky countered. “You’re in love with her.”
Was he? Steve floundered. His mouth dropped open then snapped shut.
“I knew it.” Bucky waved his empty glass in the direction of the doorway. “Go after her. Sweep her off her feet, Cap.”
“She’s different,” Steve said earnestly. “She knew me when I was just Steve Rogers, before the serum.”
“Just Steve Rogers,” Bucky echoed. He gave Steve a sardonic smile. “Nothing’s the same, is it?”
“No,” Steve admitted. “I’ve changed. So have you. War changed both of us.”
Bucky peered down into his empty glass as if it held the mysteries of the universe. “Yeah,” he said after a long pause. “I’m heading back. See you at camp.” He put the glass down on the bar next to the half empty bottle and walked out the door without so much as a backward glance.
The tent was dark inside when Steve arrived. He opened the flap, moonlight illuminating the inside with a pale stripe. Bucky sat on the edge of his cot drinking from a small flask. He cut his eyes toward Steve, then took another sip.
“Haven’t you had enough?” Steve sat down next to him on the cot, concerned.
“Doc said for me to rest. I have all day tomorrow to sleep it off,” said Bucky. He offered Steve the flask, but he shook his head. Bucky shrugged and tipped it back, draining the rest of it in a single gulp.
Steve didn’t know what to say, what to do, so he sat in uncomfortable silence until he couldn’t stand it any longer. “What’s going on with you, Buck?”
“The script changed. I’m the one who is supposed to look out for you, protect you, bail you out of trouble, not the other way around. Now, you’re Captain America and I’m just a guy you used to know.”
Steve looked wounded. “You’re my best friend.”
Bucky snorted. “Am I? I’ve never felt more worthless. I’m invisible.”
“That’s not true.”
“You have the world at your feet,” continued Bucky, his voice raspy with emotion. “You’re handsome, famous, strong enough to finally win the fights that you pick. What do you need me for? What am I to you?”
A thousand emotions flashed in Bucky’s turbulent eyes as he turned toward Steve. Hurt. Anger. Sadness. Rejection. Jealousy. Wistfulness. Longing. Steve knew them all intimately, as they were the same emotions Bucky once stirred in him.
Their eyes locked. Steve gripped Bucky’s shoulder and leaned in close. “You are everything to me.” Impulsively, he ducked his head and brushed the faintest of kisses across Bucky’s lips.
Steve burned with shame and immediately pulled away. “I’m sorry, I-I…”
But his words were abruptly cut off when Bucky quickly slid his hand around the back of Steve’s neck and kissed him back, softly at first, then eagerly.
Steve’s heart thundered in his ears. He never realized how badly he wanted Bucky until this instant, and now he couldn’t get enough of him. Hands fumbled with buttons, yanked at zippers, tugged at shirts and trousers. The cot rocked as Bucky knelt in front of it, eyes dark with desire. He slid his hands up the inside of Steve’s thighs. “Are you still a virgin?”
“Yes,” said Steve. Naked, he shivered in the cool night air.
Bucky grinned and placed a warm kiss in the crook of Steve’s leg. “What? No cute little chorus girl? Nobody with the USO?”
Steve shook his head. “No. They’re all good girls. I respect them too much for that.”
“I don’t care if you respect me or not,” said Bucky as he took Steve in hand. His tongue quickly followed the heated trail left by his fingertips.
“Jerk,” Steve gasped. He gripped Bucky’s chin firmly, tilted his head up and captured his lips in a hungry kiss. Their mouths melted together as the kiss deepened.
“Punk,” breathed Bucky against Steve’s lips before he kissed his way down Steve’s torso to finish what he’d started.
Bucky rolled over on his stomach and rested his head on Steve’s chest. “These cots are tiny,” he said. “I could roll off in my sleep.”
Steve chuckled and gave Bucky’s bare bottom a light slap. “You’d better scoot closer, then.”
“Yeah,” yawned Bucky. He curled against Steve and exhaled deeply. “You have a strategy meeting tomorrow, right?”
“Bright and early.”
“Will you be here when I wake up?”
“Of course,” said Steve quietly.
They dozed until the first rays of sunshine peeking through the canvas flaps roused Steve from his dreams. As carefully as he could, he eased out from under Bucky and got dressed.
Bucky grunted softly in his sleep and spread out to cover the entire cot. Steve chuckled and reached for his sketchbook. He hadn’t felt much like drawing lately, but seeing Bucky sprawled wantonly atop the blankets stirred the desire in Steve to capture the moment. After a few minutes, Bucky’s familiar form began to take shape. It looked different that the other sketches. Darker, somehow, but more intimate. Steve’s eyes flipped back and forth between the cot and the sketchpad until at last he was satisfied with the drawing. His body, however, decided that merely drawing Bucky’s tantalizing form wasn’t nearly enough.
“What are you doing?” Bucky murmured. He stretched long, raising his hands overhead, then rolled over to give Steve a sleepy grin.
“I’m coming back to bed,” replied Steve. He loosened his tie and began to unbutton his shirt.
“Good. I still need some R&R.” Bucky opened his arms in invitation.
Steve couldn’t stop fidgeting. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, ruffled his hand through his hair, picked at his thumbnail, anything to keep from going to look for Bucky’s room himself.
Maria Hill had called half an hour earlier, saying they’d captured the Winter Solider near the Smithsonian and they had him sedated in a private hospital just south of the city. Steve didn’t know what to expect, but he knew he had to be there when Bucky woke up, so he sat impatiently in the drab waiting room just off the main lobby.
A tap on Steve’s shoulder startled him. Maria looked down at him, impeccable as ever. He leapt to his feet. “Tell me everything,” he said.
“There’s not much to tell,” she replied as she gestured for Steve to follow her. “Security cameras captured him at the Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian. We made our move, took him down with a tranquilizer dart and brought him here.”
“What’s his condition?”
“Physically? Stable, but sedated. Mentally? Nobody knows. He’s been restrained for everyone’s safety.”
Maria stopped outside a doorway at the end of a long hallway and opened it ever so slightly. “Are you sure you want to do this, Steve?”
“Yes,” he said with conviction. “He needs me.”
“Then be careful.” Maria gave Steve’s arm a squeeze and left him to face whatever lay beyond that door, alone.
The room was dim, lit only by a small reading lamp on a side table and the blinking lights from the various monitors around the hospital bed. Bucky lay in the center of an oversized hospital bed, pale and worn.
Steve rested his hands on the metal railing that surrounded the bed, the one to which each of Bucky’s arms were securely fastened. Instinctively, he reached for Bucky’s hand and squeezed it gently. Bucky flinched.
“It’s okay, Buck,” said Steve. “You’re safe.”
Bucky’s eyelids flickered and he turned to look at Steve through a drug-induced haze. “It’s you,” he said hoarsely. “S-Steve.”
A lump rose in Steve’s throat. “Yeah, I’m Steve. Your friend.”
“My friend,” Bucky repeated. His eyes fluttered closed momentarily, then he blinked them back open. “Tired.”
“I know. Get some sleep.”
“Will you be here when I wake up?”
A crash of emotion thundered through Steve. “Of course,” said he said, his voice breaking. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Bucky nodded and drifted off to sleep just before Steve’s first teardrop fell.